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Archive for August 24th, 2008

I stumbled upon an old email today. It was written by me in December 2001. That’s very long ago, isn’t it?

***

Suppose you ask me today … (no, this is not part of the email)

So, what’s worth pursuing?

Well, scientific knowledge is worth pursuing.

What about happiness, money, comfort, security?

Sure, all those too.

But what’s most worth pursuing?

Dude, it’s a matter of choice. Ever heard of freedom?

***

Well, on the other hand you could ask me…

In what way is your worldview substantially different from the person you were seven years ago?

Hmm, that’s hard.  How about greater relativism in my assignment of worth to other people’s goals?

But that’s coming back to choice again.

That’s right.

***

But I am getting ahead of myself.

There’s an institution in India called the Indian Institute of Technology. It’s usually shortened to IIT. When I was in school, it was commonly regarded as something of a holy grail by my peers. As the entrance exam for this place is absurdly competitive, only the best students have a decent chance of getting through. And most of them indeed make this exam their sole focus during their last two years of high school. This whole IIT thing bugged me to no end. To me, the only reasonable target for someone gifted was the pursuit of knowledge. In other words, research.

Now, these smart kids who were single-mindedly preparing for the IIT entrance test had no great love for engineering. Most of them were pursuing the IIT dream either because their parents forced them to or because they believed (correctly) that it would assure them a plush job. An IIT degree was proof to the employer that you were highly intelligent and hard-working — ergo, suitable for any job. It is not uncommon for an IIT graduate in chemical engineering to be wooed by the advertising industry, or a mechanical engineer to take up a job in the financial sector. IIT was your passport to a good life. And in my eyes, it was an abomination.

You see, I was a research fanatic. I simply could not fathom why a gifted young mathematician or someone deeply interested in the physical sciences would choose to go to this place. Everytime I visioned a smart person taking up a managerial position in some firm, something died in me. To me, it was the equivalent of selling your soul.

(True, a minority of students go to IIT and still pursue a research career. This is especially true in fields like CS. However, as far as I was concerned then, it didn’t happen at all.)

***

So, when I discovered that a very good friend — who was also very talented in mathematics — was preparing for the IIT entrance examination, I wrote her a long email attempting to dissuade her. The magic of technology meant that a copy was preserved and I stumbled upon it earlier today. It is an interesting document, not because it has any new ideas or is particularly well-written but because it showcases the passion and reverence I had for the idea that everyone with enough talent should do scientific research.

With age I have mellowed. Some of the prejudices that the email displays have little in common with the person I am today. Yet in some ways, that email is also very me, and it mildly saddens me that I would never write such a thing today.

For the purpose of anonymity, let’s call my friend M. It’s the first letter of the name (not her real one) I used to call her by. I also loved her, but that is a different story.

***

Dec 27, 2001

Well, about IIT, its a very good engineering institute. An excellent place for meeting intelligent people and studying really hard and learning methods to solve horrendous differential equations. And after you pass out, unless you are very unlucky you will get a much-coveted white-collar job in a slick office where you will spend ten hrs a day signing documents and contracts and tenders, attending meetings and handling lots of business files. And at the end of each month, you will get a nice fat paycheck…

M, I am advising you to study maths not because IIT is bad. But because you are good.

I believe that if a person is really good at a particular subject and has a deep interest in it, then he or she should pursue higher studies in that subject.The best should do research. Engineering (or perhaps, in view of the kind of job people actually do after passing out of an engineering institute, I should say ‘pseudo engineering’) can be left for the others.

After all if a student loves a particular subject and has a real talent in it, it is only logical that he should aim to contribute to it!

Of course I am all too aware that the vast majority of talented students join IIT. For two years thousands of bright students prepare crazily for the IIT-Jee, join coaching classes to get into coaching classes which coach them for the iit-jee, the holy-grail of all examinations. IIT for them is the ultimate destination. Indeed this unbelievable IIT-madness is an amazing sociological phenomenon-probably unprecedented in the history of any country.

Its also a vicious circle of the most heinous kind. Somehow, everyone seems to think that you have to aim for IIT– to even think of anything else is either a joke or an outrage. Its like the rats of Hamlin, all of them swarming into the ocean at the tune of the piper without knowing why.

Brain-drain is a term commonly used to refer to the migration of the best Indian brains to foreign countries. But here we witness the drain of virtually all the best brains of the country from mathematics,  physics (and other subjects) to air-conditioned offices where they do semi-clerical work. Like the rats of Hamlin, it is a phenomenon so absurd as to be almost laughable. Except that its not possible to laugh at something so serious.

And that’s a shame. Of all the shames plaguing the Indian education system, it is the worst.

M, I know that you love maths. And I know that you are good in it. Would you really like the kind of job that you will be probably be doing after passing out from IIT?

Of course an IIT-pass out is paid more than a mathematician. But trust me, as a mathematician you will be paid enough to lead a comfortable life. And above all, you will be doing something you love. You will be doing mathematics — making contributions of your own to the subject and teaching the subject to others. You will get plenty of leisure time. And if you make a truly significant contribution to mathematics, the kind of recognition you will get will be beyond anything you can expect to get from doing the kind of work an IIT pass-out does.

Immortality may be a silly idea, but a mathematician has the best chance of achieving it.

***

M ended up going to MIT for her undergrad. She is currently a pursuing a PhD in theoretical computer science.

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