Sunday, January 11, 2015

What Indian Mathematicians Knew in Calculus

Biman Nath, a professor of astrophysics at Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, has a great article in Frontline about the development of proto-calculus ideas by ancient Indian mathematicians -- specifically, Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara II (all in Sanskrit over 1000 years ago), and Madhava (in Malaalam, some 600 years ago).

Along the way, he makes a good point about the state of the 'debate' in the public sphere on history of Indian scientific ideas:

... [M]ost of us are not historians, and such discussions become pointless after a while. One has come across the names Aryabhata or Varahamihira in school textbooks, but one would be hard pressed to name any specific achievement of these ancient Indian scientists. School students are taught about the discovery of the zero but they never learn what it means to have “discovered” it.

How does one suddenly invoke a number and bring it down to the realm of reality? We teach our children that our ancestors must have had a remarkable knowledge of metallurgy and give the example of the iron pillar in Delhi, but we never spell out what exactly they knew.

This superficiality in our collective knowledge often leads to meaningless, rhetorical debates on the achievements of ancient Indian scientists. [...]

Nath peppers his article with snippets that give us a richer picture of how these mathematicians presented their results. For example, here's Aryabhatta:

... Aryabhata’s sine table was considered the most accurate ... He had tabulated the sines of 24 angles, equally spaced between zero and 90 degrees (with a difference of 3.75° between them). The table was in the form of a verse, and he had come up with an ingenious way of coding the table in the words of the poem. The introduction to his book Aryabhatia explained the code. [...]

And, Brahmagupta and Madhava:

It is not clear how Brahmagupta derived the formula—he never explained it anywhere—but historians think he used geometry.


Like his predecessor Brahmagupta, Madhava never explained how he came up with the formula. Historians of mathematics again suspect that he obtained it through geometrical methods.

Finally, all this leads to question of what happened after Madhava's work, and why it did not blossom into calculus as we know it today? I look forward to a follow-up article by Nath.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Jayant Haritsa: Why Indian students should be goats, and not sheep

  1. This year's Infosys Prize winner from our Institute, Prof. Jayant Haritsa, has a blog post at the Infosys Science Foundation website: Why Indian students should be goats, and not sheep.

  2. The Infosys Prize ceremony happened a few days ago, and the videos have been posted on a YouTube channel devoted to the Prize. Jayant's acceptance speech is here, and the other highlight of the event, Prof. Amartya Sen's speech, is here.

    Here's a video profile of Jayant (you can find profiles of the other winners at the Infosys Prize channel). Knowing Jayant's sharp wit, I'm not surprised that he identifies "a very good sense of humour" as the first item when asked about "attributes of a researcher."

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Links: Vedic Aviation Edition


See also:

Jayant Narlikar: Going Back in Time -- Science and Technology in Epics (The Times of India 1995).

Mayank Vahia (TIFR) in DNA: Cry my beloved science, cry my beloved country.

* * *

  1. Hartosh Singh Bal in The Caravan: Why the Indian Scientific Community is to Blame for the Lack of Science at the 102nd Indian Science Congress.

    A copy of the proceedings that would include Bodas’ draft will only serve to confirm what the Islamic scholar Abu'l Raihan al-Biruni, writing almost a thousand years ago, had said about the state of Indian scientific knowledge: “I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical literature, as far as I know it, to a mixture of pearl shells and sour dates, or of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles. Both kinds of things are equal in their eyes, since they cannot raise themselves to the methods of a strictly scientific deduction.”

    But even these harsh words would constitute a charitable view. The reason the proceedings may still end up carrying Yonath and Ashtekar’s pearls along with Hindutva’s dung is not because our scientists cannot distinguish between them, but because they choose to look away in the face of a new political dispensation.

  2. At one point, Bal refers to the Indian Science Congress as "India's premier scientific gathering." It looks like he hasn't got the memo that the ISC turned into some kind of a sad joke quite a while ago -- most Indian scientists avoid going to it if they can. In case they do go there, it's more likely because of an invitation from some hapless friend who got saddled with the responsibility of organizing a session on something or the other.

  3. In any event, we now have some info on how the session on "Ancient Science through Sanskrit" got into the program, and how the organizers vetted the "contributions":

    Organisers defend session Organisers said the idea to conduct a session on ancient sciences emerged following a meeting of various university vice-chancellors with the Governor of Maharashtra. It was the vice-chancellor of Kavikulaguru Kalidas Sanskrit University in Nagpur, Uma Vaidya, who proposed the idea for such a session, said S B Nimse, chairman of the 102nd Indian Science Congress. Nimse said the sessions had been decided by a committee he headed and which had seven members, including TIFR Director Mustansir Barma, IIT Bombay Director Devang Khakhar, scientist Anil Kakodkar, Professor Kothari and two local secretaries. He too agreed that the controversy had “impacted other sessions”.

    Associate prof and head of Sanskrit department at Mumbai University, Gauri Mahulikar, who gave an overview on ancient Indian sciences through Sanskrit at the Science Congress, said that between August to December this year, there were several meetings between Vaidya and Sanskrit department of Mumbai University. “In one of the meetings, which included Vaidya, myself and teachers from Mumbai University’s Sanskrit department, it was decided to have such a topic at the Indian Science Congress. Thereafter, we called for papers and received five abstracts or presentations, which were jointly reviewed by Vaidya, myself and our teachers,” said Mahulikar.

  4. It also turns out that neither the author of the Vedic aeronautics paper nor the organizer of that session is keen to part with the paper:

    When asked the reasons for not sharing a public presentation, Gauri Mahulikar, co-host of the event, associate professor and Head of Sanskrit Department, Mumbai University, said, "There are copyright issues. We fear that others who have nothing to do with this research, will claim it as their finding," she said. She said that a few students of Sanskrit had already taken some papers from them, and claimed to be their own works.

Sunday, January 04, 2015


  1. Relevant to the goings on at Science Congress: H.S. Mukunda et al (1974): A critical study of the work “Vymanika Shastra”. [Hat tip to V. Vinay on Twitter]

    A study of the work “Vymanika Shastra” is presented. First, the historical aspects and authenticity of the work are discussed. Subsequently, the work is critically reviewed in respect of its technical content. It appears that his work cannot be dated earlier than 1904 and contains details which, on the basis of our present knowledge, force us to conclude the non feasibility of heavier‐than craft of earlier times. Some peripheral questions concerning dimensions have also been touched upon. [Bold emphasis added]

  2. Also relevant: an engaging BBC Radio 4 podcast on Indian mathematics (45 minutes, mp3, via Sidin Vadukut). See also this review of Mathermatics in India and Square Roots in the Sulbasutra by Cornell mathematician David Henderson. [Hat tip to Siddharth Varadarajan]

  3. Dalmeet Singh Chawla in Science Insider: India’s major science funders join open-access push

  4. My colleage Prof. E. Arunan has started blogging. Here are the first three posts:

On the Indian Science Congress Agenda Today ...

... is a session on Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit -- see page 20 of the program. Some of the talks in the session have attracted media commentary (justifiably) filled with ridicule and scorn.

For many, this is like a bad dream that just won't go away -- Vedic astrology, Vedic nanotech, and now this. All trying to gain public legitimacy by being seen in the company of real science.

Here's just a sample of news reports on this session:

  1. Stop Scientific Distortion (Mumbai Mirror). "NASA scientist Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, who started an online petition against an ISC lecture on ancient aviation, on why we must fight pseudo-science. [...] He has launched an online petition demanding that Capt Bodas's lecture scheduled for January 4 be cancelled as it brings into question the 'integrity of the scientific process'."

  2. Hindu scientific temper: Elephant and cow urine to fuel aeroplanes? (Dinesh Sharma, Daily O). "Hindu organisations are on a mission to portray mythological and Sanskrit texts as the origins of modern science."

  3. At Science Congress, Vedic aeroplanes and virus-proof suits - See more at: (Mithika Basu, The Indian Express).

  4. Science meet to discuss ancient Indian aviation (Kalyan Ray, Deccan Herald).

Friday, January 02, 2015

Shevgaonkar's Resignation: Update #3

ToI reports that while MHRD is yet to forward Shevgaonkar's resignation letter to the President, it is still keen on nailing him for the Mauritius initiative:

Meanwhile, the ministry is readying itself by preparing a case against Shevgaonkar on the Mauritius issue. Sources said IIT-Delhi has furnished all the details that the ministry wanted. "An attempt is being made to make Shevgaonkar personally responsible for the memorandum of understanding with the Mauritius institute. "The ministry has prepared a note against Shevgaonkar and is debating how to initiate action against him," one HRD source said. Technically, the ministry will have to seek permission of the President who is the visitor and appointing authority.

It is still unclear what exactly MHRD is talking about here, and no newspaper has managed to unearth the specific illegality it clearly wishes to pin on Shevgaonkar. This is an asymmetric war, since politicians, their followers on Twitter, and their un-named underlings in government can spew allegations (using intemperate, ominous, or even vile language), but the supporters of IIT-D (especially those within IIT-D) have to couch their rebuttal in a calm, dignified tone which does not play well on news media.

In any case, whatever MHRD has thrown at IIT-D and its Director has been rebutted convincingly. The latest example is this wonderful op-ed from Prof. M. Balakrishnan from IIT-D -- Why IIT can't fly. After laying all the facts out in his op-ed, Balakrishnan expresses his deep disappointment at all the meddling that he has seen:

A key aspect of the final MoU was that, contrary to the original proposal, administrative and financial control of IITRA would not rest with IIT Delhi, making it that much harder to bring up a quality institution. At that stage, we were deeply disappointed with the HRD ministry for clipping our wings even before we could attempt to fly. This was around the time that newspapers were full of stories about an amendment to the higher education act, permitting foreign institutions to open campuses in India. In hindsight, I am profoundly thankful that the bureaucrats at the HRD ministry knew the rules — no one is allowed to fly in this country, especially if you are funded by the government.

If that was about the previous government, this is about the present one:

... The only disappointment is that this country believed in the prime minister’s “minimum government, maximum governance” call and thought that he would devote his energies to enable people to fly and not to try to enforce 60 years of “no-fly” regulation. [...]

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Amerikka Desi - My Tamil Novel

Amerikka Desi (அமெரிக்க தேசி) is my first Tamil novel (yes, you read that right; no spelling mistakes from my end either) published by Tamizhini.

The release function is on Jan 4th, 2015, Sunday, 10 AM, at Raga Sudha hall in Luz, Mylapore, Chennai. Drop in.

Further reading: details about the novel in my Tamil blog; an interview related to the novel and literature in general (and here, in Tamil).

Briefly: The novel is about 700 pages. It is about the expectations, experiences, exultations and possible enlightenment of a Tamil graduate venturing as a research student to the USA. It is also a love story in absentia, on music, on philosophies and so on...

If you choose to miss the release function, the novel should be available in Tamizhini stall, in the Chennai Book Fair from Jan 9th, 2015. For international readers, online sales should begin in a month. Shall update.

BTW, a(nother) science book of mine in Tamil - Ulage un Uruvam Enna, a collection of science essays - is also getting released on the same day. Details about the past efforts are here.

Irony alert! In response to a query from MHRD, DoPT says IITs are autonomous and "not bound" by government rules

Basant Kumar Mohanty of The Telegraph makes an excellent catch!

The HRD ministry had sought the DoPT's views after the tech school cited a Government of India rule to ask Swamy to disclose what he had earned while teaching at Harvard University after the IIT had sacked him in December 1972.

The department, the regulating authority for central employees, yesterday wrote to the ministry, saying the tech schools were "autonomous" organisations "not bound" by central government rules.

Shevgaonkar's Resignation: Update #2

  1. Two important constituencies back Shevgaonkar: IIT-D faculty and IIT-D alumni.

  2. In an effort to debunk all kinds of allegations emanating from the government, IIT-D released a statement reiterating that it had all the necessary approvals for the Mauritius initiative. [See also this India Today story]

  3. In the face of all this evidence, three unnamed MHRD officials continue to push the "there's something fishy about the Mauritius initiative" line. [See also the stories from this Telegraph and The Indian Express].

  4. Lots of high level meetings have happened: The Chairman of IIT-D Board of Governors met the President, as well as the HRD Minister, who also met the President.

  5. Shevgaonkar's resignation has not been accepted so far. It is not clear where exactly it is stuck, but the long chain ends at the President's desk.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Shevgaonkar's Resignation: An Update

Three things.

First, via The Telegraph, we get some details on how Prof. Shevgaonkar was being pressured into settling the Subramanian Swamy case:

In 2008, he wrote to Prime Minister Singh but then human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, to whom the matter was forwarded, decided against granting extraordinary leave. The matter is before the high court.

The new NDA government wanted to settle the matter. Irani's ministry has sought the opinions of the department of personnel and training and the finance ministry. No advice has yet come.

Irani called Shevgaonkar and Swamy to a meeting about two months ago and again summoned the director two weeks ago, both times suggesting an out-of-court settlement, ministry and IIT Delhi sources said.

Swamy, on the other hand, has been insinuating that Shevgaonkar resigned because his actions regarding IIT-D's initiative in Mauritius are being inquired into. The government has also unleashed its "top HRD ministry sources" to run with this story [see also this story in The Financial Express].

The possible reason for the resignation of IIT-Delhi director RK Shevgaonkar could be his alleged involvement in illegally setting up an off-shore campus of the institute in Mauritius, top HRD ministry sources claimed on Sunday.

A top HRD official insisted Shevgaonkar was cornered on the Mauritius issue. "We were asking him questions to which no satisfactory reply was forthcoming," he said. According to him, Shevgaonkar had taken the proposal of IIT-D campus in Mauritius to IIT Council which told him that the Institutes of Technology Act that governs IITs do not enable creation of offshore campuses. However, he said, Shevgaonkar went ahead and had Memorandum of Understanding with Tertiary Education Commission of Mauritius. The proposed institute was to be called International Institute of Technology Research Academy.

In an attempt to squelch this twisted story, IIT-D has responded by clarifying that the Mauritius initiative had the full backing of the HRD ministry all along. As Anubhuti Vishnoi reports in India Today:

Hitting back at the Smriti Irani-led Union Human Resource Development ministry which was blaming IIT Director Prof R Shivgaonker's sudden resignation on possible irregularities related to its Mauritius MoU, the IIT on Monday said that all due clearances and approvals were taken and approved by the HRD ministry.

The IIT hit back clarifying that International Institute of Technology Research Academy in Mauritius is not an extension campus of IIT Delhi, that the IIT's role was simple advisory in nature and no financial commitment was incurred on its part. It has also brought home the point that the final MoU was approved by the HRD ministrt and signed in the presence of then HRD minister Pallam Raju.

IIT Delhi on Monday shot off a communication to the Smriti Irani-led HRD ministry with a detailed sequence of events supported with ten annexures on the Mauritius MoU to clarify its stand on the issue. The IIT also released a press statement saying the same.

We now have a PR battle between an HRD minister and an IIT director. Right now, my bets are on Shevgaonkar. That Subramanian Swamy is on the other side is one of my strongest reasons. [Here's yet another example of his unhinged imagination: Who financed the PK film? According to my sources it is traceable to Dubai and ISI. DRI must investigate.]

* * *

Update: Among the political parties, AAP does the right thing [Update (3 Jan 2015): AAP's Press Release] by bringing the debate back to the basic question of autonomy.

AAP said that BJP's "unjustified political interference" is trampling the autonomy of the top institutions for professional and technical education.

"The Aam Aadmi Party challenges the human resources development minister to answer the following two questions. Is it not a fact that she had recently summoned the IIT Delhi director ?

"Is it not a fact that impolite language was used against such a senior professor and is it also not fact that he was humiliated in that meeting?" the party said in a statement.

The party alleged that the BJP was hell bent on imposing its "dangerous agenda" on the nation.

This debate in NDTV is revealing for all the non-arguments from the highly agitated BJP spokesman. Arguing for the other side, Yogendra Yadav is absolutely flawless!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Shocking: Prof. Shevgaonkar has resigned?

Shocking, if true:

IIT Delhi director Raghunath K Shevgaonkar has quit more than two years before the end of his term. A senior IIT official confirmed the news on Saturday though human resource development ministry officials claimed they were unaware of it.

Shevgaonkar has been under tremendous pressure from the ministry to accede to two of its demands, IIT sources said. He was reportedly asked to provide the IIT ground for a cricket academy Sachin Tendulkar wanted to open and also pay nearly Rs 70 lakh to former IIT D faculty and now BJP functionary Subramanian Swamy as his "salary dues" between 1972 and 1991.

Shevgaonkar was opposed to both the demands, the sources said. [...]

[Source: Akshaya Mukul's report in the Times of India]

I knew about the Swamy case, and I can see why he might be angling for support from the present government led by his party. But the other issue -- involving Sachin Tendulkar -- appears totally bizarre. Especially since Tendulkar has clarified that he neither has a cricket academy nor has he any designs on IIT-D land!

Other journalists (whose work I respect) have been tweeting that Prof. Shevgaonkar has indeed resigned, and the Swamy case is certainly one of the reasons. [I would rate Mukul's reporting also as solid; so, I expect some clarification from him / ToI on their mistake about Tendulkar's involvement]

* * *

Sure enough, ToI has issued the following clarification [in a rather personal-blog-like language] at the end of the news story. Oops, indeed.

Oops. A clarification:-

IIT sources had told TOI that there was pressure on the director to give land for SachinTendulkar's cricket academy. However, Tendulkar has strongly denied that this is the case. In fact, he has said he has no plans for a cricket academy. We are sorry to have carried the news on the basis of sources which have been reliable in the past and didn't check with Tendulkar. We are sorry for this. We are also removing all mentions of this from the story.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

University Assessments in the US and the UK

This month saw two significant events in higher ed elsewhere.

The first was in the US, where the Department of Education released a "draft framework" outlining a set of parameters which can form the basis for rating colleges and universities. The report is open for public discussion and debate, before the rating policy is finalized. See the NYTimes story on the report, and Kevin Carey's commentary on it. The ratings are meant to help aspiring undergraduate students in choosing the right colleges to apply to.

The second was the much awaited announcement of the results of an extensive assessment exercise called REF (Research Excellence Framework). As the name suggests, this exercise is only about the research conducted at the UK universities, and its results have a strong impact on universities as well as on individual departments. See The Guardian story: REF 2014: why is it such a big deal?.

The Guardian's coverage is a good place to start, but you can get all the data at the REF site.

See also: Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose‬‬‬.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Umpiring Bias

A neat study by Ian Gregory-Smith, David Paton, Abhinav Sacheti -- Not really cricket: Home bias in officiating -- confirms what many fans "know":

... This column investigates this problem using new data from cricket matches. The authors find that neutral umpires decrease the bias against away teams, making neutral officials very important for a fair contest.

* * *

Merry Good Governance Day, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Wonderful Educational Module

Vi Hart and Nicki Case have created a web page with very instructive browser-based and visually attractive simulations: Parable of the Polygons: A Playable Post on the Shape of Society. It's also a practical and playful introduction to the 1971 classic, Dynamic Models of Segregation, by Thomas Schelling; the model itself is an interesting variation of the Ising model.

* * *

Hat tip to: Joshua Gans at Digitopoly.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Japanese First at Hosei University

Miki Tanikawa of NYTimes profiles Prof. Yoko Tanaka, the first woman to lead a "major Japanese University":

The traditional, mild-mannered appearance of Yuko Tanaka, clad in a kimono and geta sandals, belies the unbending determination of the woman who has become the first female president of one of Japan’s oldest and largest universities.

With the curious mixture of quiet Japanese elegance and the gravitas that comes with holding the top seat at Hosei University, a 130-year-old institution with about 30,000 students and 1,500 faculty and staff, Professor Tanaka, 62, makes regular appearances on a Sunday morning talk show aired on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, where she is known for her tirades against the right-leaning government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The appointment a year ago of Professor Tanaka, the first woman to be named president of a major Japanese university, could not have come at a more relevant or ripe moment. A long, sleepy era for Japanese universities ended in the 1990s when a demographic shift occurred: A sharp decline in the number of young people put academic institutions in the position of having to compete for new students. [Bold emphasis added]