Category Archives: Society

Golden Trivia

From Who’s Got All The Gold, And Who’s Mining It:

All Gold Ever Mined – The total amount of gold ever mined is estimated to be worth around US$5 trillion.

How Gold is Used – You might have though (like me) that most of the gold in the world stored in bank vaults and lock-boxes? Actually, 78 % of the worlds’ gold is made into jewelery. Other industries, mostly electronics, medical, and dental, require about 12%. The remaining 10% of the yearly gold supply is used in financial transactions.


Intellectual commons

In an interesting piece in Chronicle Review, Mark Oppenheimer urges graduate students (and professors too!) to be interested in (and better yet, contribute to) the broader intellectual discussions and debates (in such magazines as NYRB and NYTimes Book Review, Dissent, etc):

The work of public intellectuals is important to young scholars partly because it helps us speak across disciplines. I, for example, was a student in a religion department, but my particular specialty, American religious history, gave me little common ground with classmates who specialized in Buddhism, New Testament criticism, or Islamic law. I had friends who were getting degrees in American studies, but if they were focusing on, say, material culture in the 19th century, their important professional journals were The Journal of American History and the Journal of American Studies, which I never read. Mine were Religion and American Culture and Church History, which they never read. If, however, we had all read one of the journals mentioned above, or maybe The American Scholar or The Wilson Quarterly — journals that include essays on a wide variety of topics in the humanities and social sciences — we could have had conversations with students who worked outside our immediate areas of interest.

Extracurricular reading would have produced social benefits as well. Graduate students, it’s well known, often feel isolated. On their bad days, they even feel that their lives are pointless, anomic, and worthless. It wears you down to spend years doing research on a topic that few people care about, greater knowledge of which will improve the world in no obvious way. But for graduate students to talk to each other, they need to have something to talk about — an obvious point, but one missed by administrators who try to foster camaraderie by scheduling grad-student movie nights. In unguarded moments, administrators will snicker that the controversial grad-student-union movement is fueled as much by the need for an improved social life as by legitimate gripes about working conditions. They have the ratio wrong — it’s more like 20 percent socializing, 80 percent genuine politics — but that’s a real insight. When I was in grad school, I could talk union politics with chemistry students and entomologists. I couldn’t talk about The New York Review with anybody.

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Link via

Different meanings of the word ‘replicate’

In the rough-and-tumble world of science, disputes are usually settled in time, as a convergence of evidence accumulates in favor of one hypothesis over another. Until now.

On April 10 economist John R. Lott, Jr., formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, filed a defamation lawsuit against economist Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago and HarperCollins, the publisher of Levitt’s 2005 book, Freakonomics. At issue is what Levitt meant when he wrote that scholars could not “replicate” Lott’s results …

That’s from Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column in Scientific American. Shermer is “executive director of the Skeptics Society, bold debunkers of all things supernatural”, according to Salon which has a long interview with him [free, if you are willing to watch an ad]. I don’t know if artificial intelligence would be considered ‘supernatural’, but here is an interesting article in the Skeptic magazine (flagship of the Skeptics Society) debunking the lofty claims made by AI enthusiasts.

The Oscars of Indian Science: 2006 Edition

Yes, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prizes have been announced for the year 2006. As I said in my post last year, the SSB Prizes are the most prestigeous in India because (a) they represent peer recognition, and (b) they are rare (just one or two in each field). They do come with some money, but at Rs. 200,000 or about $5,000, it’s not much (but certainly nice!).

I’m pleased to note that Prof. S. Sampath, a colleague in the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, is among the SSB Prize winners [Congratulations, Sampath!]. He has won one of the two Prizes for Chemical Sciences; Dr. K George Thomas (RRL, Trivandrum) has won the other.

The two SSB Prizes for engineering go to Dr. Ashish Lele (Complex Fluids and Polymer Engineering, National Chemical Laboratory, Pune) and Dr. Sanjay Mittal (Aerospace Engineering, IIT-K).

I have to fault the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the organization that awards these Prizes, for giving just the barest of details about the awardees. Is it so difficult to put together a news story that has details about each awardee’s important contributions? Wouldn’t it be nice — offering a higher profile for the Prize winners, and more information for the others — if full citations are available on the CSIR website? Currently, all that it offers is this press release [pdf] which deserves a prize for minimalism.

Ranking of universities across the world

Let’s face it: global rankings of universities are here to stay, despite their poor methodologies. Among them, the ranking by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University University probably deserves the award for the worst methodology. It gives a huge weight — 30 percent — to Nobel prizes won by the faculty and alumni, and a further 20 % for papers published in the journals Nature and Science.

Last year’s ranking, for example, included the University of Calcutta among those ranked between 401 and 500; IIT-Kharagpur too figured in this list, while IISc was among those with ranks between 301 and 400. The inclusion of UCalcutta was definitely because of the Nobel Prizes won by its faculty (presumably, C.V. Raman) and its alumni (Amartya Sen?). Thus, depite scoring poorly on every indicator of its current research activity — it actually scores zero for (a) publications in Nature and Science, and (b) highly cited papers — it was grouped with IIT-Kharagpur — and 98 others! — in the range 401 to 500. [1]

[Oh, just in case you are wondering, UCalcutta is out of the top 500 in this year’s ranking, while IISc and IIT-Kharagpur retain their last year’s rankings.]

Just because the Shanghai group has been in this business for the longest duration — four years! — its ranking is often quoted without paying any attention to its methodology. For example, Kaushik Basu used it in his recent BBC column:

A recent evaluation of universities and research institutes all over the world, conducted by a Shanghai university, has not a single Indian university in the world’s top 300 – China has six.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, comes in somewhere in the top 400 and IIT, Kharagpur, makes an appearance after that.

Now, within the US, there’s a number of rankings that (mis)lead to different conclusions about the excellence level of different institutions [2]. In India, too, all the major newsweeklies (India Today, Outlook, The Week) rank our colleges, B-schools, engineering and medical colleges — with poor (and poorly spelt out) methodologies, each pointing to a different conclusion. When the situation is so complex within a country, the ranking exercise should be hopelessly complex at the international level. After all, the higher ed systems in different countries are different; more importantly, their funding patterns are different. How can one compare, for example, a hub-and-spoke and multi-campus university like the University of Delhi and a tech-centric ‘small’ university like CalTech?

Global ranking exercises, of course, don’t want to — and don’t want you to — look at the enormous complexity that arises from regional variations. By claiming to do the hard work on your behalf, they encourage your laziness!

For example, they want you to ignore a key fact about excellence: it’s always the individual research groups that are the repositories of excellence. Thus, even in supposedly moribund Indian universities, there are such islands of excellence in specific subfields. A good example would be the School of Chemistry in the University of Hyderabad, or the Department of Physics in the University of Pune. The rankings also have an inherent bias against small institutions (and India has quite a few of them). For example, places like the Raman Research Institute, the S.N. Bose Natiaonal Centre for Basic Sciences, or the National Center for Biological Sciences are outside the radar screen of most rankings, in spite of their great research groups, simply because they are small and niche players.

Of course, it is certainly a great feat to put together a large university, with a solid academic and research footprint in many fields. Thus, despite their shortcomings, these rankings do do a good job of identifying the top research universities. By the same token, the top 20 (or even the top 50) universities in these lists are not very different. It’s only when you move away from these top universities that you start seeing the effects of the rankings’ individual quirks.

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[1] In the mid-nineties, there was a ‘ranking’ that took India by storm. Coming from someone (whose name eludes me now) in the University of Maryland, it placed IISc at No. 17 and several IITs in the top 100. It got a lot of play in Indian press for sometime; it was, fortunately, a one-off affair.

[2] For what it’s worth, a recent issue of Newsweek put out its own list of top 100 ‘most global universities‘. Washington Monthly has a sort of anti-U.S. News listing of U.S. universities based on a measure of ‘excellence’ using a different set of critieria.

Revenge and retribution: Beware the tricks our minds play

In his NYTimes op-ed, Harvard psychologist and author of the recently published Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert says:

… In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. […]

[Bold emphasis added]

People count differently! Gilbert goes on to describe some interesting experiments that show clearly the asymmetry with which we perceive — and justify — our own ‘second blow’ and that of the other guy. It may not help resolve any of the conflicts (or wars) we (or our societies) get into, but it certainly helps us understand one of the important ways in which our minds trick us into not-quite-rational ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us.

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Here’s the link to Gilbert’s blog post where he provides some additional perspectives behind this op-ed.

Los Alamos

It has been quite a while since I noted the Los Alamos scientists’ revolt (through a blog!) that forced the then director to resign. The Economist updates us on what’s happening at Los Alamos.

… At the beginning of June the University of California, which had run Los Alamos since the days of the Manhattan Project, ceded control to a consortium known as Los Alamos National Security. Though the university remains one of the consortium’s members, it will now share what bouquets and brickbats come Los Alamos’s way with three firms that make a lot of their money as military contractors. These are Bechtel and Washington Group International, two large engineering and construction companies, and BWX technologies, a concern that specialises in managing nuclear facilities.

Unlike the university, the new consortium will be aiming to make a decent profit from its activities. It is also thought likely to change the emphasis of the laboratory from research (in a wide range of subjects, not all of them to do with defence, let alone nuclear weapons), to the more mundane business of making the detonators of nuclear warheads.

The consortium is making reassuring noises. According to Jeff Berger, its director of communications, “There is a popular misconception that we’re out to change the lab’s mission.” Nevertheless, many of Los Alamos’s researchers sense a shift of direction. Indeed, quite a few have left. …

Punishment and altruism

An interesting paper in Science (a publicly available summary is here; link via Brain Ethics) shows that human beings’ propensity to punish (unfair acts by others) is correlated with their altruism. This finding is based on a pretty large scale study involving populations in no less than 15 different societies or tribes. The implication is that these two cultural traits co-evolved. Here’s a key quote:

A hallmark of humanity is that people help other people–not just relatives and friends but even complete strangers. Such altruism, which goes beyond the mere exchange of favors and forms the scaffolding of large-scale cooperation in human societies, has long been an evolutionary mystery. On page 1767, anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues take a crack at solving the puzzle, concluding that such helpful behavior may have arisen as a result of punishment.

Reporting on experiments they conducted in 15 different societies on five continents, the researchers argue that altruism evolved hand in hand with a willingness to punish selfish behavior. Their results lend support to models of gene-culture coevolution that propose that cultural norms such as the punishment of unfair actions drive the selection of genes favoring altruism.

What was interesting (to me, at least) was the use of three fairly simple prototype games that allowed the researchers to assess the participants’ inclination towards “costly punishment” and “altruism”. For assessing punishment, they used the Ultimatum Game and Third Party Punishment Game; for assessing altruism, they used the Dictator Game. In case you are not able to access the paper from the Science website, Brain Ethics has a description of the three games (with links).

Over at Reason Online, Ronald Bailey has an article explaining this ‘punishment-and-altruism’ research, and this is his concluding paragraph:

The results are intriguing. It turns out that the societies in which the player ones in the dictator game were willing to give more to the player twos are also the societies in which people were more willing to punish less generous players in the other two games. In other words, societies that punished strongly were also the most likely to have strong altruistic impulses. The moral of the story is that if you want to live in a world of caring generous cooperative people, make sure that you thoroughly thrash all the greedy, chiseling scoundrels you come across. It may cost you, but the world will be a better place. [bold emphasis added]

Death of the industrial research lab

Basic research performed in industrial laboratories is declining — is the focus on profitability to the detriment of furthering scientific knowledge?

Do read this interesting article by A. Michael Noll (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California) in Nature Materials.

In metallurgy and materials science, many great researchers started their career at industrial labs. John W. Cahn (at General Electric) and Hubert Aaronson (at Ford) come to mind immediately. Of course, they both left for academia eventually.

First anniversary …

… of the infamous Larry Summers episode is just a few days away, and it is time for both his supporters and opponents to get ready for another round of arguments.
It is interesting that though Summers himself has moved on, and instituted some key changes that would make Harvard far more women-friendly, some people would still defend his original thesis.

Steven Pinker seems to be the first one to start this round, with his contribution to the question posed by Edge this year: “What’s your dangerous idea?“. Sean Carroll catches him in the act of willfully misrepresenting the ‘dangerous idea’ in the Summers episode.

I am sure we can expect more views, arguments and analyses during the rest of the month. I don’t know about you, I would actually thank Summers for shining an ultra-luminous spotlight on the topic of women in academia.

Caste discrimination

There is indeed much discrimination in our society but there is also a sense of fair play, and that sense is growing. It is a sensitive plant and it should be given fresh air to grow. To insist as a matter of course that there is discrimination against Dalits without even looking at evidence to the contrary does little good to the long-term interests of the Dalits themselves.

So says Andre Beteille in this opinion piece in the Telegraph.

“It may happen, but not now, and not to us”

The first anniversary of the south east Asian tsunami is being commemorated as the Remembrance Week. Dilip D’Souza has an excellent series of posts, with snippets from his coverage of not just the 2004 tsunami, but also the 2001 earthquake in Kutch, Gujarat, and the 1999 floods in Orissa.

On the first anniversary of the tsunami, this excellent article by Richard Fortey, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, appeared in the New York Times. A quick quote:

Human beings are never prepared for natural disasters. There is a kind of optimism built into our species that seems to prefer to live in the comfortable present rather than confront the possibility of destruction. It may happen, we seem to believe, but not now, and not to us. There is nothing new in this attitude.

Fortey covers quite a few things about natural disasters (“acts of God”?), but towards the end, turns his attention to man-made disasters:

But there is another kind of disaster. Many scientists think that the Gulf Coast hurricanes may be a symptom of climate change. Carbon emissions have been accelerating more rapidly within a generation or two: this is not the result of some creeping plate indifferent to the fate of humans; this is our responsibility. However, there is still the same, almost willful blindness to the dangers of climate change; after all, the sun still rises, the crops still ripen – why worry?

Geology tells us that there have been “greenhouse worlds” in the distant past. These have been times when seas flooded over continents. Even modest sea-level rises would spell the end of densely populated areas of the world like Bangladesh. In such a case, invoking the deity to look after us for the best is just pie in the sky. These are not “acts of God” but acts of man. We can grieve for the human consequences of plate tectonics, but we should be ashamed of the consequences of our own willing blindness.