Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Tea Pot PhD in Arts vs Engineering

On one of my many trips to MONA, I was introduced to the term "Tea Pot PhD" by several pedagogy researchers travelling to the museum. They hold PhD's in humanities and the tea pot PhD is defined as one in which someone makes something apparently trivial (from a modern day mass-manufacturing perspective), say a tea pot and expounds in detail regarding the artistic and technical processes involved in making it in the body of their thesis. The term is used in a derogatory sense implying lack of originality and critical thinking. Such an approach is considered a short-cut to being awarded a doctorate.

As an engineering PhD student, the tea-pot PhD sounded like one of the most difficult sort of PhD's to undertake. As I have seen numerous PhD candiadates take the long arduous road towards a practical application oriented PhD as opposed to a complex numerical/analytical modelling based solution where they churn out bits of Matlab or Python code - which ever is the flavour du jour. The arrival of rare components such as materials for a Terahertz oscillator, dielectric for a special patch antenna or a bunch of antennas and digitiser cards for a Noise MIMO radar can hold up progress for years. In my particular case I had significantly alter my research path since the Single pass Quad-pol airborne L-band interferometric radar I proposed to work with did not materialise, and eventually the small company I was working for had a sad demise.

Performing field work, coordinating satellite data takes and finally closing the loop using theory and experimental validation takes a quite a bit of effort. This can be compared to preparing and pouring tea. As opposed to designing the teapot/radar instrument itself. I am surprised that fine arts which are supposed to encourage creativity and aesthetics is biased against the creative process itself and focuses on the critical aspects instead. Engineering is all about creating working systems and transitioning pure science to more applied aspects, creating products which are of real use to the society. Admitted a lot of the engineering I indulge in is like playing with early days of X-ray, we get a different view of the planet, but we haven't quite worked out how to diagonise the fractures using the imagery. This does not automatically imply that the building such systems is pointless.

After all I am only doing a PhD in - "watching grass grow from space using flash photography with microwave ovens".

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.”
Brendan Behan

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Five favourite things - Mate selection criteria

Being a citizen of the world is nothing new in my generation. I was born in Kolkata, India, grew up and went to high school in Juja, Kenya and I have spent a great deal of my later life in Adelaide, Australia. It however does make it difficult to have a cultural identity and the answer to "Where are you from ?" takes about 5minutes. Lately my parent has been on my case to get a traditional girl from my community. Being rather untraditional and free-wheeling, while appreciating the depth of knowledge  in the rather ancient culture(this culture is rife with philosphers and mathematicians - students of the zero) I was born into is hard work. It is so much like another old culture, the Egyptians, where the Pharaohs only marry within the family. So I have resorted to setting little tests for prospective partners. Here is one a girl had set in the Hobart Art school (it could have just been a griefer).

A while ago a friend showed it to me. So I have listed 5 of my favourite things (Modern States of Matter - Classical Elements):
  1. Plasma - Fire
  2. Gas - Air
  3. Liquid - Water
  4. Solid - Earth
  5. Bose-Einstein Condensate - Quintessence
If your 5 favourite things match with my 5 favourite let me know. I so do not want to get into the Pharaonic tradition of having to marry only within your family.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Big Bang Theory - The Trouble with Physics

"Big-Bang Theory" - the TV Series stereotypes physicists (theoretical and experimental), jews and engineers, indians and astrophysicists, artists and comic book fans. In spite of all the hilarity, it continues to provide valuable education to the masses concerning the nature of science and the pursuit of loftier goals than scoring digits in a system of value put in place by previous generations, also called the financial system. Bits of science exposed in the series tend to focus attention and promote question from the masses who are addicted to technology (and passive entertainment).

In the current age, technology is understood by very few of the users. We behave like priests or wizards and wave a wand saying it is too hard for you, sometimes the ignorant population has no choice to simply believe you on "faith", or burn you at the stakes as a "witch/wizard". It has come to a point where we might need to start creating technology courts for all the frivolous law-suits brought by patent trolls, where the jury is selected from those in the know, rather than the general population. We techies are becoming something like the Morlocks. A sub-culture on its way to becoming a sub-species. But again according to "Big-Bang Theory", there is hope. Once in a while a Morlock can kidnap an Eloi, and the current Morlocks are still building the machines that make life simpler for the Eloi. Dystopian projections from authors travelling into possible futures in their mind based on current social scenarios may act to change the sequence of events and human evolution, even more than actual time machines. Some diversity is always going to arise, we are Darwin's Finches.

Above all though there is the lingering discontent among physicists, The Trouble with Physics brought this to public attention for a while. The trouble is still brewing, we have not had experimental validation of the mathematical house of cards a lot of theoretical physics rests on. May be the LHC will lead to the construction of a time machine and put everything to rest by sending a message to the Mayans in Mexico.

“Because time travel is limited to these special particles, it is not possible for a man to travel back in time and murder one of his parents before he himself is born, for example. However, if scientists could control the production of Higgs singlets, they might be able to send messages to the past or future.” - Thomas Weiler

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Charity begins at home - Compassionate Fatigue

An NGO worker used the words "compassionate fatigue" the other day. I am still coming to grips with the term. Last few days in Kolkata is giving me a real understanding of it. There is so much imbalance in the world that looking at it gives as vertigo, so we would rather look away. We slowly step away from the cliff and look up towards those who seem better off (left side), so that we don't have to look down the cliff into the abyss (right side).
Kolkata is the city of my birth, visiting it after living in Australia for the last 10 years is giving me real perspective on the systems of the world. So much is determined by causality or what I call the "Luck of birth". No wonder many Asian cultures obsess over astrology and the alignment of the planets at the moment of birth. In reality a new mother needs to do no more than look around the place they have given birth and the epoch of history to get an appreciation for what her child's life is likely to be like. The bastis (slums) are next door to new apartment blocks made of steel and concrete, commodities for which the modern Indian gods (Cricket players and Movie stars) act as posterboys. A child born in Kolkata today can choose to be a base jumper or a climber, of real building or of the social pyramid scheme.
Yesterday was Valentine's day, St. Valentine has finally made his way to Kolkata from Rome. Couples were sitting in the garden outside Dakshineswar (God of South) Temple. Exchanging sweet nothings, plotting the continued exponential growth of the Indian population, perpetuating the pyramid scheme of the world by building more bricks at the base of the pyramid. May be one of those bricks will grow a few wheels or sprout wings and hop off to the top tiers of the pyramid, if only to act as a sentry to block any other bricks trying to work their way up.

Friday, February 10, 2012

M.C. Escher and E.A. Abbott - Projection, Vision and Flatland

No one has played with our mind and sense of sight and explored how we see lines, curves, light and shadows like M.C. Escher. Even today Escher's infinite staircases seep into everything in modern culture, like maze designs in Inception. The drawings only make sense if you regard them just as projections rather than reality in 3 dimensions. This is a patent failing our senses have, we often mistake the perceived reality in 3 dimensions to be the actual reality which requires at least 4 dimensions according to Einstein, and even more according to the cabal of theoretical physicists seeking a unified theory of everything.

"The elimination of the logical inconsistencies [requires] rejection of our ordinary concepts of space and time, modifying them by some much deeper and nonevident concepts." - Matvei Petrovich Bronstein. Even a grand mind like Bronstein's cannot escape the vagaries of his time and escape from a firing squad. The ideas of conditional backgrounds and background independence are quite old. Including the mathematical and social treatment of dimensions by E.A. Abbott in "Flatland".

Let's hope "A Square" physicist in our 4-dimensional space-time land gets a revelation from a hyper-sphere and lays to rest the ghosts Einstein has conjured up from the manifolds of the universe.