Monday, October 18, 2010

Random stuff

It’s late October already. The air outside is cold and crisp, and fallen leaves, the currency of the season, are everywhere; the woods are aflame with color. The strange thing about fall colors – the irresistibly rich shades of red and yellow – is that you want to experience them in some deep way, capture them forever, yet the awareness that they are transient and foreshadow the approaching gloom of winter tinges the season with melancholy.

The semester is busy as usual – I am writing publications and grants, claiming that I will solve the world’s most pressing healthcare delivery problems; serving on departmental committees, the most difficult part of which is dealing with the profusion of emails about when the committee should meet. In one committee, I have now counted twenty seven emails and there is still no agreement on a meeting time. That doesn't surprise me: professors live in their own autonomous worlds and only rarely do those worlds intersect.

I am teaching, for the third time, a class on linear optimization. Teaching is the most enjoyable part of academia and an intensely social activity (and hence the most tiring). I’ve got students from eleven countries this time. Asia, as usual, is well represented (Turkey, Iran, India, China), but there’s a also student from Chad and one from Nigeria.

I also attend the occasional conference where academics who feel supremely confident about themselves strut around fancy hotels in suits, their name tags weighed down by such pompous titles as “Cluster Chair” or “Section Chair”; conferences where academics talk in a cliquish, incomprehensible language, all the time forgetting (sometimes deliberately, for the sake of tenure and election to special academic societies) that the world outside is vastly more complex than their mathematical models or theories suggest. The biggest benefit of these gatherings, it would seem, is that they temporarily rejuvenate the economy of the downtowns they are held in. The hotels, the taxi-drivers who wait patiently to drop attendees to the airport, the waiters who serve drinks or politely take away dishes after a reception – and whom the conference attendees, so engrossed with their “networking”, are completely unaware of (because networking with regular people doesn’t get you anywhere) – benefit the most. There is a further irony: many plastic bottles of water will be wasted at these conferences and yet academics will present airy-fairy mathematical models on how the scarce resources of the world should be used more efficiently.

Academic talk (and rants) aside, I am aware I haven’t posted quite as regularly. That’s because I want my essays to evolve a little more. And yet, it’s hard to leave the blog blank for long – hence this rambling post. But let me assure you: there are travel pieces in the works. One is about a trip to my family’s ancestral temple in the district of Thanjavur in south India; another is about my travels in Peru and my conversations, while on the train to Machu Picchu, with fellow Latin American travelers.

I also want to mention the two books I am reading. The first is a 7th century work of fiction in Sanskrit, called Dasakumaracharita, by Dandin (translated by Isabelle Onians for the Clay Sanskrit Library; Onians’ interpretive notes at the end of the book are essential for a richer understanding of prose). The story is about the adventures of ten young men, who set out on separate and somewhat interlinked journeys in north India, which at the time consisted of a patchwork of kingdoms. Dasakumaracharita provides a glimpse of the sensibility and religious views of that period. I might write a longer essay on the book when I am done (and considering that I am terribly slow reader, you might have to wait a while).

The second book – in sharp contrast to Dasakumaracharita – is Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, my first real introduction to physics. When I was in the second grade, my father bought me a book called Children’s Knowledge Bank, a collection of easy-to-read articles, each a page long. There was one on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Of course, I was clueless then, and I don’t understand much now either.

But Brian Greene’s summary of general relativity has at least provided the wonder I wish I had experienced long ago. What aesthetic elegance theories of physics can have! I never knew that space and time are inseparable and how we experience them is really a consequence of gravity. I never knew that no matter how fast you travel, light still travels at the same speed; that is, if you chased after light at very, very high speed, it would still escape from you at the same speed. And the bizarre idea that time would actually slow down if you move very fast. In fact, if you traveled at the speed of light, you would not age at all. As Greene writes, “light does not get old: a photon that emerged from the Big Bang is the same age today as it was then. There is no passage of time at light speed.”

This has been an exceptionally good year for science books – from the biologist Edward Wilson’s Nature Revealed, to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, and finally The Elegant Universe.


JK said...


Probably you have seen this.

The entire 3 hr program is online and is very well made.

Hari said...

Thanks, JK -- I saw this only recently. The book, not surprisingly, is far more nuanced and the thrill of understanding concepts is much greater.

Sunil Deepak said...

Dasakumaracharitra sounds nice. I need to search for it (and of course wait for your review)!

About conferences and plastic bottles, recently I was aghast at the mountains of plastic just outside the back door of the banquet room. I decided, I am going with my own reusable bottle and not ask for any water, though it will be a problem since they don't allow water bottle in cabin luggage! :-)

Hari said...

Hi Sunil -- They do allow empty bottles of water; at least that's worked for me, here in the US. But the problem is that I am likely to forget the bottle somewhere, and that means I have only the option of drinking directly from the water fountain, if there is one!