Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goodbye Arthur C. Clarke

(Apologies for the infrequent posts, and this may continue for the next couple of months. But I’ll post when I can)

Arthur C. Clarke’s death yesterday didn’t really come as a shock or surprise to me. The man was over 90 years old, so it was time. But his death did trigger some fond memories of his books, and the influence they had on me.

I got introduced to science fiction probably in my very early teens. But that was mostly through the “classic” science fiction writers, like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Verne in particular was (and remains) a huge favorite of mine. His stories were all about adventure, and to a teenager with an over imaginative mind, little could be more exciting than going off to the center of the earth or crossing oceans in a sea-monster shaped submarine. But somewhere around then, I decided that I wanted to read some novels where there was more science. At the time “cool” science meant space, so I wanted something to read that had space in it. Science fiction used to be hard to come by in those days, but luckily for me my school had a library well stocked with fiction. While rummaging through the shelves of books there, I came across a hardcover book which had a picture of a meteor and some planets in the background, with the irresistibly intriguing title of The Hammer of God. Pretty soon I was devouring the story, and I vividly remember being rather taken in by the Indian theme that ran in the background. A meteor named Kali bound to destroy earth seemed particularly apt. But I was more struck by the fact that many of the characters seemed to be of Indian origin (the hero of that novel was Robert Singh). That was perhaps the first time I had read a book by a non-Indian author where important characters had Indian names, but more importantly, their nationality didn’t matter. In other books by western authors, if at all there was a character with an Indian name, that character would be particularly Indian and often pander to some stereotype. But here the nationality or ethnic origin didn’t matter. The person just happened to have an Indian name, and it wasn’t the least bit odd. I thought that was just the way it should be.

That said, when I finished reading “The hammer of God” I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed. It was an interesting book, and kept me engaged through its pages, but nothing more. Still, it had been sufficiently exciting for me to want to read another book by Clarke. Rendezvous with Rama followed, and that book left me far more interested in the genre. From there it was but a few steps to exploring the worlds of Clarke, Asimov, Franz Herbert, Philip K. Dick and so many more. Science fiction became a wholly enjoyable part of my reading habits, and sometimes a valuable source of knowledge and information. And yes, I realized there was more to space than warp-speed, Captain Kirk and death-stars.

Of course, writing about Clarke without mentioning “2001: A space odyssey” is futile. Surprisingly, I’ve never read the book. Through high school and college I filled my head with trivia about the book and the movie, and the naming of HAL and whatever else, but some how never got around to reading the book. But I did see the movie in a most atypical way. Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, hosts what he calls “Ebert’s overlooked film festival” in the little college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In the year 2001, I actually went to this gem of a film festival, and was treated to a superb selection of films of Ebert’s choice. One of the highlights of the festival was, yes, a screening followed by a discussion of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. “Odyssey” and Urbana of course had the deepest of connections, as in the book the computer, HAL 9000, becomes operational in the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois (don’t ask me how I know that without reading the book. It is essential Odyssey trivia). I watched the movie, mesmerized, almost hypnotized by the surreal rolling colors and visuals of the movie, and the hypnotic voice of HAL 9000. In between I remembered scenes from “2010” (which I had seen earlier) and wondered about how Chandra, the Indian scientist who creates HAL, became a white dude in the movie. The discussion that followed the movie was unsurprisingly fascinating, since the room was filled with movie buffs and science and SciFi geeks, a dozen computer scientists who felt possessive about the movie (because Chandra and HAL were fictionally from Urbana-Champaign), and a benignly portly Ebert lording over all proceedings.

That was the last time I saw or read something by Clarke. I hadn’t read a book of his since then, and the only other time I thought about him was when I was with some friends and the conversation meandered towards the utility of space flights and then to how satellites (in a geosynchronous orbit) changed our world for ever. My only contribution in that discussion was that the geostationary orbit of satellites are in what is now called the Clarke belt. The man, like all great science fiction writers, was a visionary.

Today Arthur C. Clarke is dead. But thank you for playing a little role in nurturing and directing my fascination for science.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Saying it as it is

I’m trying to figure out which system is better.

Growing up in India, I realized the "educational" system had a wonderful way of killing any semblance of self-esteem and confidence in most kids. A very large fraction of the teachers out there had an uncanny ability to grind a student’s opinion of oneself into dust (tossing in a whack or two on the head as a bonus). Except for a chosen few in a class, most students were reminded in numerous way of how utterly incompetent they were. Every child was certainly not “gifted”, except in the eyes of their extremely adoring parents. Even there, a number of parents would publicly state how worthless their kid was. In college, you’d routinely be reminded that you were no better than an earthworm lost in the sand, ready to be crushed under some heel. Professors would look at you with an expression that read “you are a state topper and this is the best you can do?” (or would sometimes even actually say that). Most of our grades in college weren’t artificially inflated too much. If you sucked, you flunked the course, simple as that. And then you’d be clearly told that you sucked, and you’d have a better future selling peacock feathers at the railway station. A majority of the students’ grades were what the majority should be, average. In the end, you came out of the system typically underestimating your own abilities. You either were resigned to a life of mediocrity, or would strive insanely hard to be that much more successful. I’m not sure how many people have come out of college in India with such low self esteem that it took years to undo. Unless of course you went to an IIT. In that case you really believed you were special even if you flunked half your courses while you were there.

At least, I think it was mostly like that.

Anyway, when I came to America years ago for grad school, I learnt pretty quickly that things were quite different on this side of the pond. Most kids seem to have gone through school and college generally being told that they were wonderful and unique, or “gifted”. Grades in courses seemed hugely inflated, and students seemed particularly prone to what can only be described as whining. A’s seemed to be handed out like free seminar pizzas, and the rare professor who really spread his/her grades out over a median distribution was labeled a hardass. This extended to how you spoke to students as well. A lousy student could never be told that he/she sucked, and had chosen something he/she had no aptitude for. Extreme PC is the rule here. Early in grad school, we had to spend a couple of quarters being teaching assistants. Half my students did poorly in the quizzes I set (strictly from the material at hand). I didn’t give them any freebies. I got lousy ratings as a TA. That taught me a lesson. The next time I was a TA, I handed out soft quizzes, played “pharmacology jeopardy”, brought Halloween candy to class on Halloween, and told my class that they rocked. That won me rave reviews and an insanely high score of 4.6 out of 5 as a TA. While most undergrads would go away to get a real job, some of them would actually come to grad school. There some would discover that they were utterly incompetent, had no lab skills, couldn’t plan an experiment, and even if they did, couldn’t execute it. This would drive their mentor nuts. In my case, while supervising some particularly incompetent rotation students, I’ve learnt to just walk out of the room, take deep breaths, rip a sheet of paper, and come back and smile. And then a few of them might ask you for your “honest opinion of their abilities” at the end of their stint in the lab. “Honest opinion” means anything but that. You’re supposed to be smiley and polite and say how they really have great potential, and their flaws (if any) are so minute that they were practically perfect. If you say they sucked, they’re guaranteed to go about ensuring your reputation as an unreasonable a****le. After all, they came through college with straight A’s and no one had ever told them they sucked ever before.

The good in all of this is the great amount of self-confidence and ambition most students have. But the flip side is a serious confusion of ambition and ability. They aren’t the same. There aren’t any pretty gold stars for doing something, making a mess of it, not trying hard to get it right (or correcting your mistakes) and then whining about how tough it is.

So, having written down these thoughts, I’m still trying to figure it out. Is it better to go through a system without any mollycoddling, to come out of it diffident, overcautious, sometimes insecure, or entering the world full of ambition, but being sometimes incapable of facing reality?