Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Indian attitudes to Science Education

My early exposure to science was not very good. We had a bad science teacher from 6th std to 8th std. No practicals, but lots of chanting in the class room. He taught Newton's third law by singing. "Action and Reaction are Equal and Opposite", he sang and asked all of us to join in. We had no idea what action or reaction was. But we joined in the chant because he beat you if you did not shout loud enough. Now, that has left me with a lifelong scar - I still hear the singsong in my mind when I read about Newton or watch rockets taking off - "Action and Reaction are Equal and Opposite".
Later in my life I took Physics at college and attended an interview in IIT Madras for Master's in Physics. They asked me how a bottle rested on a table. And I answered that the force of gravity on the bottle was balanced by the opposite reaction on the table. It was a wrong answer, because although action and reaction are equal and opposite they act on different bodies. They made fun of me for some time for that. It was sad that the teacher who taught me Newton's laws was more interested in singing than on the actual meaning of the laws.
The way science was taught was the way Thirukkural (Tamil poem) was taught. We all dreaded Thirukkural at school, particularly in the 10th std because they had fifty of them as "manappaada paattu" meaning we had to know them by heart for the examinations. In the examination, we were asked inane questions like this - "Write the Kural that ends with 'Arivu'". And we would all be looking at each other and mouthing the kurals at the examination.
This, of course, ruined all interest in Thirukkural for all of us - it was seen as one of the peculiar torture mechanisms preferred by adults.
Newton's laws were taught almost in the same fashion. If there were lots of laws by Newton, they would have asked us "Reproduce the Newton's law that ends in 'Opposite'" and we would all be staring at each other. As it is, in exams they asked us to write the laws verbatim.
What saved me, from a lifelong hatred of the exact sciences, was the books at my home that my father bought. One of these books was called "In the Name of Science". I don't remember the author.
That book talked about a peculiar problem that farmers faced in the 17th century. They could pump water using suction pumps but each pump could only push water to a height of 34 feet. So for a deep well, they needed multiple stages. This was a problem posed to Torricelli (I don't remember all the details). At that time there was this saying "Nature abhors a vacuum". If nature abhors a vacuum then a suction pump should be able to pump water to whatever height. Torricelli thought about this issue and had a key insight. What if air had weight? If air had weight and we are living under a ocean of air, then, Torricelli reasoned, probably the weight of 34 feet of water was all the entire atmospheric weight could sustain. (This is called now as atmospheric pressure). To prove that this is true, Torricelli chose a test tube full of mercury. Mercury was 13.6 times denser than water. So, in a meter long test tube, atmospheric pressure can only sustain around 2.5 feet of mercury. Torricelli tried to see if this was true and well, he found it was true and thereby created the first artificial vacuum. In the process he also invented the barometer.
This story was narrated in the book with beautiful illustrations. The book continued on into other experiments such as the one where 8 horses could not pull apart a vacuum sealed sphere.
This book caused my first interest in science and I looked for more such. My father bought a few Russian books; even a Tamil translated book on the Special theory of Relativity. I had no idea what they were talking about but read them anyway.
One of the Russian books talked about a experiment by Galileo. If you had a heavy object tied with a long string suspended from an axis, you have a pendulum. A pendulum swings back and forth and it has a time period and an amplitude. It is natural to suspect that if you pull a pendulum far enough and let it go, it will swing faster. Well, Galileo found that this assumption was wrong. The time period of a pendulum's swing ONLY depends on the length of the rope.

This was an experiment I could do - I got a rope, a iron ball and then tied to a nail and tried swinging at different points. I did not have a stop watch so I counted manually. It sure seemed Galileo was right, and I did not make any dramatic discovery that overruled Galileo.
Now, you would think that I went on to become a scientific whiz kid. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. This post is about why I did NOT become such a whiz kid.

The Examination System
While I kept trying to read about Astronomy, and tried to build my own telescope by stealing lenses from the school science lab, I still had no clue why I was doing all this. I wanted to observe the moon up close (I still have not done that). I took some chemicals from the school lab and tried to burn the house down. But I did all of these without knowledge of the scientific method and what it means. School should have taught me that, but instead they were giving lots of details about the chemical equation of Hydrogen Sulphide.

In 9th std, we got an excellent science teacher, finally. His first class (I still remember it) was a lecture on Pavlov and his dog. For those of you interested in this experiment, here is the wikipedia link.

In that lecture he explained the reflex actions that guided most animals and humans and the principle of classical conditioning. He quote from the dreaded Thirukkural - the poet says that men should share their food as even crows call each other when they see food. The teacher said that crows called out on seeing food out of reflex and not out of nobility. Otherwise they would not be fighting with each other when a couple of more crows reach the scene. This was the first time we actually had a science teacher lecturing anything. He just talked for 45 minutes, without referring to a book or dictating notes.
He taught us for 9th and 10th, and my liking of science grew a lot in those years. Yet, we were faced with a dilemma - his lectures were essentially useless to us, when you went to the examination and the questions went like "Define reflex action". You lose marks if you even swap words in the definition.
This is why, in spite of good teachers (and they are few) our examination system is royally messing with our heads.
Slowly, the examination system squeezes out any interest in the actual subject you may have. People blame religion for a lack of interest in science, but it is our own examinations that makes us lose interest.
When we got into high school and then later college, there were practical classes, in which you go into the lab and perform experiments. These sessions were made as dry and devoid of fun as possible. You needed to have an observation notebook. Then you had a practical notebook. The practical notebook was awarded points for neatness - it needed a brown paper cover and a label on top. Then each experiment had an objective and other sections. We all copied from each other and from seniors making the whole system worthless.
Again and again and again, we measure the refractive index of glass - we knew it was 1.5 by 9th std, but we had to perform experiments whose sole objective was to find out the refractive index of glass. We did not know why so many experiments were devised for finding something that everyone knew. This resulted in some "backhand work". In Physics lab there was an experiment called the Newton's Rings. It was complicated and hurt the eye and its purpose was - you got it - to find the refractive index of stupid glass. In my class, we devised a method by which we would sit at home and work out the 32 readings using a calculator which would result in the answer, 1.5. Someone took it too far and showed the answer to the professor without coming to class. Unfortunately, there was no electricity on that day and it is not possible to perform Newton's Rings without a powerful mercury lamp. He got caught.
We had a micro processor lab in engineering college. I always got into trouble with the professors because my "observation notebook" was not neat. It was a programming lab and I actually wrote the programs in the notebook. Why would my notebook be neat if I am trying out different assembly programs? Incredibly, in one of the electronic labs, the professor wanted to "discipline" us. The labs were more about discipline than having fun with electronics.

I blame the system utterly for making science education so meaningless. Even after three years of Physics I had no idea what the scientific method was. If someone had asked me the difference between the Renaissance or the Age of Reason, and the period preceding that I would have been unable to answer, even though I had a science education all my life. In fact, I bet most people reading this blog would have the same problem.

Indian Society and Science
Our society treats science the same way we treat all knowledge - it should be "received" and accepted without questioning. In the case of science, many educated Indians reject that it is a fundamental shift in looking at the world.
I had an argument about astrology with a couple of colleagues. One of them said that a long time back Indians had identified the planets as nine (nava graha) and that this was getting confirmed by modern science. I pointed out that the nava graha of Indian astrology included the Sun, the Moon, Raghu and Kedhu (eclipses). These are not planets. Raghu and Kedhu don't even exist. Thus Indians knew only the five visible planets that most of the ancient world knew.
I am not going to rant about astrology more here, but the key problem in Indian understanding of modern science is two-fold:
1. A belief that modern science is no different than ancient knowledge - that the means of acquiring it and the means of making new findings are similar to, say, alchemy.
2. A belief that modern science is somehow "western" and thus a patriotic rejection of its ideas.
This is why you see people insisting that the ancients knew about everything or an attempt to explain "scientifically" homams, yagams and so on.
There are also two other reasons for our rejection of scientific values:
1. An inferiority complex about being colonised causes us to be suspicious of giving "credit" to white people.
2. Our own "rational" movements have not helped the cause. They have called for a wholesale rejection of religion and examining every action through a rational prism. I think this is not practical - it is possible to acquire scientific knowledge and also accept religion. Our rational movements have started out on a crusade against any aspects of religion (meanwhile inventing their own religions, holy people and rituals). Most sociologists and psychologists accept a role of rituals, myths and legends in human life - rationalists are thus going against the spirit of science itself, in some ways.
My point is not in finding a middle ground between science and religion. I don't accept portraying them as opposing poles. They are in different dimensions and cater to different roles in human life.

The Scientific Method

Modern scientific method originated in Europe, with the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. It is a specific event in human history. Even though we link it with the exact, "natural" sciences such as Physics or Biology, science includes all quest for knowledge, its synthesis and analysis. This quest, after the 16th century followed specific methods of hypothesis, empirical observations, theory formation, predictions, repeatable tests, and most importantly, peer review. This method is the defining change that has brought us all the progress of the past 4 centuries. Just as economic historians identify the explosion of capitalism as an event that started 3 centuries back, the advent of modern science is traced to the beginning of the 17th century.
This event happened in Western and Southern Europe. Historians trace the Renaissance to specific social conditions around the city of Florence, Italy. It spread to regions closest and then most of Europe, soon after. Simlarly the advent of the Age of Reason was caused by social conditions.
One key thing to note is that the scientists engaged in advancing the method were self-aware that they were part of a new age of human history.
We have to realize that the scientific method represents a clean break from the previous periods of human history and is a unique idea.
We ought to be proud of this "human" legacy - it is not a western legacy (in spite of all efforts by the West itself to take ownership).
One of the best ways to understand what science is, is to learn what science is not. There is a classic book by the mathematician, Martin Gardner called "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science". This book defines pseudo science and covers several examples of it in a very interesting fashion. If our current Chief Minister or the media had read this book, they would not have run around with Ramar Pillai and his "Mooligai Petrol" 10 years back. Anandha Vikatan published an editorial calling "anti-Tamil" and "elitist" the professors in Delhi and Madras who rejected Ramar Pillai's work.
If, our education emphasized the role and the history of scientific method even a little bit, we can place ourselves in some context within scientific knowledge. We can distinguish it from alchemy and pseudo-science. Instead we have people hiding in homes with all curtains closed during a solar eclipse.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Couple of references to bloggers in television

Quick post - I heard a couple of references to bloggers in television recently.
1. A.R.Rahman mentioned the fans in the web who have been fighting a war between Ilayaraja and himself.
2. More curiously, there is a music talent show called Airtel Super Singer in Vijay TV. The voice trainer for the singers, Anant Vaidhyanathan, mentioned that one of the contestants, RaginiSri was upset that the bloggers were abusing her. He said, "What do they call it? Blogs?" and I felt a moment of pride. I have not written about the show, but I hope to hear more refernces to bloggers as opinion makers.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Speaking of English as a Medium

Almost once a week, the principal of the school near my home addresses her students and blames them for all her problems. I will write more about that later, but something caught my attention today about her "pulambal".
She said, "We will not tolerate coming late to school, talking in class, speaking in Tamil or behaving disobediently".
Yes, she clubbed speaking in Tamil along with all the other ills in her students' behavior.
Then I went to the beach in the evening and heard a couple next to me yelling and screaming in English with their 3 year old son. They were literally baby-talking to their kids in English. It was hilarious listening to the dad telling the son to "lick the chocolate, dude".
I would almost have a problem with these two incidents but both of them were illuminating for other reasons. It was not so much that the school principal was advising that talking in Tamil in school was a crime. Most of us are used to this - almost every private school has this rule and it exists for a reason (we will discuss that later).
But the school principal herself was talking really bad English.
She was saying things like this: "I don't know what I will do. I get too angry.."; " The teacher scolded me! How am I feel?" and so on.
I have listened to her closely and it is obvious that she is translating from Tamil to English in her mind. In fact I bet all their teachers do that.
The students whom these luminaries are training are no better: they generally talk street Tamil outside but occasionally lapse into "I like that only" kind of English.
The same holds true for the family in the beach. In spite of all their efforts to talk in English with their kids, I could tell it would not help. The dad had a really clumsy accent and his yelling "dude lick the chocolate" was not going to go far.
Here is the reason why talking in English to kids, and enforcing that even in casual talk, at school may not help - most of our English is bad (as in ungrammatical and clumsy) English. How do we expect that the same teachers at school, who teach bad Physics and bad Biology, and the teachers who are trained by our same useless educational system (we are better off calling it an examination system) - how do we expect them to suddenly teach English alone in an exemplary manner?
I have struggled to find why this English only rule is imposed in schools and why more and more parents talk in English to their kids. I have heard the explanation that it helps the kids' fluency when they grow up. I doubt that it does. The reason why we think that, is because we assume the people who are teaching English are good. We assume that the parents talk good English in the first place. Most of the time, both these parties do not know any better.
If learning a language fluently meant talking to kids exclusively in that language all his or her life, then they will grow up both unable to blend in India AND anywhere else.
What is the focus here? How much of immersion into a language will make a kid an "almost native speaker" of English? My point is that it is a futile quest. Just accept that we are Indians. we speak a different language natively and our educational system can only provide so much.
Instead, let me suggest an alternative.

Now we are getting to the positive part of this essay: I went to a government school. I got into a government engineering college and 70% of my classmates were from rural areas (I myself am from Tirunelveli, which is neither rural nor urban). Many of the guys and girls were getting an education in English for the first time in their lives. Not just that, some of them were the first people to pass tenth standard in their whole village.
Well, almost all of them are in the United States now. Some of them run companies there. They have been there for more than 10 years and talk and write better English than the school principal above or the retarded English only kids. How did this happen? Is it a miracle?
No - most humans with an IQ above 90 can pick up a language pretty easily if they are in an environment. Now, in my class, there were also kids who exclusively studied in English-only private schools. Looking back, I would not say they were particularly successful or smart. Both these groups did well enough.
Here is the thing we have missed in this craze - what helps a kid most is, I believe, a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary knowledge - what they call a Renaissance education. Some of the most informed and smart students in my batch were actually rural and had a taste for modern Tamil literature. They used to read Jayakanthan, Sundara Ramasamy and so on. But better than that, they had a thirst for literature of any kind. One guy from rural Tanjore had Tagore's Gitanjali along with a translation of Manto's short stories in his hostel room. Well, he was the first guy who cleared GRE and went abroad.
The truth is this: purely from a practical perspective, a kid who grows up with an awareness of his immediate surroundings will adapt better to new cultures and will, in general, be smarter. I am assuming that every middle class and rich family wants their kids to be in the United States - and thus the push for English, rather than any literary merit they see in English. I may be wrong.
But if someone does want their kid or student to grow up to be able to work in an international environment (euphemism for American companies), then they may be better off exposing them to regional Indian literature and the arts, than try to talk to them in bad English all their youth. That is what my experience tells me and that is what I observe from people who grew up with me. It may seem a surprising result, I acknowledge that.
There is no gain made by pushing English down their kid's brain and blocking off access to all local languages - he or she is still either translating in their minds or are completely disconnected from their local environment, that they cannot attune to any other culture.

I could not resist wondering about some of the motivation for the insistence on English by parents and schools. I suspect there is another reason beyond "learning". See, here is what happened when we became independent - suddenly the poor had voting rights; legal rights; and access to an education. I think some of us just could not take that all distinction was lost between the chattering masses and the special "ones". Enter English-only schools. Enter parents talking to their kids only in English. At first, it was cute that a kid spoke words like "irritation". Soon it wore off and more urgency crept into the "classy" people. They now had to make the kids sound American. The quest goes on for that teeny weeny measure of distinctness from the trash surrounding us.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Worst Lyrics in Tamil Romantic songs

Me and Mr.Alla here were discussing movie lyrics and he wrote an excellent blog on Telugu Movie Song "Sahitya" (in Telugu everything sounds literary - I thought he was referring to Thyagaraja when he mentioned Sahitya). This is the Tamil counterpart.
Some of the worst lyrics in Tamil movies have been written in the last 10-15 year period. Earlier, there was Kannadasan and then initially Vairamithu wrote some excellent lyrics. Around the 80s, they started substituting random words in romantic songs, but it still sounded good.
Now, I am referring to romantic songs specifically here - Kuthu song lyrics have become better and better. For example the recently released Nathamukka song has the following lyrics:
பொண்ணுங்கல்லாம் பொறக்க வச்சான்
பொண்ணுக்குள்ள கருவ வச்சான்
கருவ வச்சான் கற்ப வச்சான்
கற்புக்குள்ள தீய வச்சான்
தீய வச்சு எரிய வச்சான்
எரிய வச்சான் எரிய வச்சான்
மதுரை எரியுது அணைங்கடா அணைங்கடா

He created women and he put the womb inside them
He put the womb and he put chastity inside them
Inside chastity he put fire
He put the fire and he caused it to burn
he caused it to burn, he caused it to burn
And Madurai burns, let us put out the fire..
This is a reference to Kannagi burning Madurai, and it is woven in nicely into the breathless style of the song. (Lyricist P.V.Prasath)
Another really nice "Gaana" song was Vaala Meenukkum in the movie Chithiram Pesudhadi. It described a marriage ceremony celebrated by the different kinds of fish in the sea. Lyricist and performer was "Gaana" Ulaganathan.
(Gaana is a special Chennai inner city folk music that has lots of potential)

So, the Kuthu songs are fine and they satisfy their audience. It is the romantic songs that had really bad lyrics. The situation is changing with Thamarai, Naa>Muthikumar and others but check out some choice romantic lyrics from the last 10 years - just the ones that REALLY make you want to tear your hair.

Movie: Kaadhalan (Lover)
Lyricist: Vairamuthu (DiamondPearl)
Song: Yennavale Adi Yennavale
The hero Prabhu Deva is really taken with Nagma (she being the governor's daughter and him being jobless, sigh). He starts singing to her in his dreams. He really loves her and here is how some of the lyrics go:

காதல் என்றால் பெரும் அவஸ்தை என்று
உன்னை கண்டதும் கண்டு கொண்டேன்
எந்தன் கழுத்து வரை உந்தன் காதல் வந்து
(wait for it)
இரு கண் விழி பிதுங்கி நின்றேன்

I saw you and I realized Love is a great pain
Your love has filled me till the neck and
I am standing with my eyeballs squeezed out
Now, right when I heard that I had an uncomfortable feeling in my eyes and it continues everytime because Unnikrishnan, the singer, insists on singing this in every concert.
But hold on, DiamondPearl goes on:

வாய்மொழியும் எந்தன் தாய் மொழியும் இன்று
வசப்பட இல்லையடி
வயிற்றுக்கும் தொண்டைக்கும் உருவமில்லா ஒரு
உருண்டையும் உருளுதடி

Neither speech nor my language are under my control now
In between my stomach and my throat a formless sphere is rolling

Now, I don't know what is this formless sphere, but come on. The words Urundai (sphere) and Pidhungudhadi (squeezed out) in Tamil are really really not meant for romantic songs.
Whoever wants to have an image of eye baslls squeezing out while hearing a song?

Movie: Love Today (that is really the name of the movie; it was before the Tamil Nadu government started paying movie makers to name their movies in Tamil)
Lyricist: Vairamuthu
Song: Yen Pen Endru

Vijay is roaming around in despair because Suvalakshmi has not been reciprocating his love. He starts singing in a classic melody. This song is tuned beautifully and is a pleasure to hear until you reach this:

தூக்கத்தை தொலைத்தேனே துடிக்குது நெஞ்சம்
தலை போன சேவல் போல் தவிக்குது அங்கம்
I lost my sleep and my heart is hurt
My body is twitching like a chicken whose head has been cut off
Seriously, this man...there is that image of a chicken running around with its head cut off.
Have pity on us.

Movie: Kannedhire Thondrinaal (She appeared before my eyes)
Lyricist: I don't know
Song: Kanave Kalayadhe

Great song, Prasanth and Simran are singing a duet. And here is the offending line:

இது வரை இதயத்தில் யாருமில்லை
சந்து கிடைத்தால் நுழைவாயா?

There is no one in my heart till now
If you find a gap would you enter?

?? Enter what? Where? Plus the word Chandhu (gap) in Tamil literally means an alley. I can understand writing:
பாதை கிடைத்தால் வருவாயா?
or something like that..but chandhu? Nuzhaivaaya? Is that an appropriate word in a romantic song.

Movie: Alai Paayudhe (Waves are breaking)
Lyricist: Vairamuthu
Song: Evano Oruvan

Shalini is despairing because of the tugs of love in her heart and family pressure. This song goes on in the background:
எவனோ ஒருவன் வாசிக்கிறான் இருட்டில் இருந்து நான் யாசிக்கிறேன்
தவம் போல் இருந்து யோசிக்கிறேன் அதைத் தவணை முறையில் நேசிக்கிறேன்
Someone is playing a (flute) and in the dark I am begging him
I sit in meditation and think and I love it in installments
I can understand the first line and even the second half. But, installments? That is "Thavanai Murai" in advertisements for buying cars or cots. It is not a term you associate with love, unless you are paying someone for it. And I don't think they accept installments...or credit cards.

I will leave you with one of the old classics, so that you forget about Prabhu Deva's eyeballs:
நாடாளும் வண்ண மயில் காவியத்தில் நான் தலைவன்
நாட்டிலுள்ள அடிமைகளில் ஆயிரத்தில் நான் ஒருவன்
மாளிகையில் அவள் வீடு
மரக்கிளையில் என் கூடு
For this princess who is ruling the nation, in her epic story I am the hero
But among this nation's slaves, I am one in a thousand
Her home is in a palace
while I nest in a tree branch
And it all rhymes and fits the context!!