Confused at a higher level

The view from a liberal arts college physics department (and deanery)

The Quantum Indians

Posted by Arjendu on August 6, 2013

The Quantum Indians

“t the turn of the 20th century, the world was witnessing a renaissance in the area of quantum physics through the work of great scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford or Neils Bohr. Unknown to the world, three Indian scientists were also making significant contributions to the quantum world with revolutionary deductions, interpretations and theories.

Dr. Satyendra Nath Bose devised a statistical theory of counting photons – a revelation even to Albert Einstein — that paved the way for the two great minds to work in tandem in formulating fundamental theories as the Bose-Einstein Statistics and Bose-Einstein Condensate. Boson, the class of particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, was named after Dr. S. N. Bose. Sir C. V. Raman gave the world what is known as the Raman effect, which redefined how we see light and colour. Another contemporary, Dr. Meghnad Saha produced an equation that explained stellar radiation and is regarded as one of the fathers of modern astrophysics. All the three scientists started their careers at the Calcutta University, became Fellows of the Royal Society, and Raman was the first and only Indian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. 

The film is a tribute to the three exemplary minds, the significance of whose contributions was of vital importance during that time, and even today with great strides being made in quantum physics, fibre optics, nuclear science or astrophysics. They were not only great scientists, but were rooted to the social and political realities of the time and dedicated their lives to modern science in India. Along with being institutions by themselves, they built stellar institutions in the country that inspired many great scientists of the following generations.”

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Posted by Arjendu on July 23, 2013

I was lucky enough this weekend to visit the Clementium complex of Jesuit buildings in Prague  (a 2.5 hour train ride from Dresden), and in particular to climb up the observatory tower where Johannes Kepler worked in the early 1600s. Kepler was invited to Prague by Tycho Brahe (who was court Mathematican in the court of Rudolph II) and after Brahe’s death, Kepler used Brahe’s astronomical observation data to figure out Kepler’s Laws.

Kepler’s Laws, in case you didn’t know, were a huge step in the intellectual transformation of the world in multiple ways among which are that: (a) their existence meant the Earth and humans did not occupy the center of the Universe, (b) they indicated that all planetary motion could be understood by three simply expressible mathematical and geometric ideas and (c) when shown by Newton to be derivable from his Universal Law of Gravitation later in the 16th century completed the leap to modern thinking about physical nature as something that can be understood as explainable by models including forces and math.

A few hours later, right off the Old Town Square, and a few hundred yards from where we were staying, I found Tycho Brahe’s grave  in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. The whole place is gorgeous, and was a deeply meaningful day for me.

The first photograph below shows the view from the Klementium (Czech spelling) observatory where Kepler worked; you can see the castle where Brahe presumably spent some time. The second shows the Church of Our Lady before Tyn.


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Posted by Arjendu on July 15, 2013

Those who are not otherwise connected to me through Facebook or by being on campus will not have registered this, but the big event in my life in the last few weeks has been that I’ve stepped down from the Dean’s office (it was a three-year rotation, and the three years were up). And it being long enough since I last went on sabbatical, I have the entire year in which to get some physics done before returning to teach in the Physics Department. And perhaps also to start writing again on this blog.

This first post is me getting used to blogging again, so apologies in advance for the stiffness and or irrelevance of the content.

I am spending the first month or so of that sabbatical at the MPIPKS (Max Plank Institut fur Physik Komplexer Systeme; a name I am sure you can decipher even without clicking on that link to get to the English-language index page) in Dresden, Germany, courtesy of their Visitor’s Program, and even more specifically courtesy of my gracious host Jan-Michael Rost. I visited here during my last sabbatical as well, when I met and had good conversations with Andre Carvalho (who was then a post-doc here and is now across the world in Canberra, and where I had the privilege of visiting him about 2.5 years ago). I also started a collaboration with JM’s post-doc Anatole Kenfack  (who seems to have since landed in Berlin) which resulted in two papers, one each on classical and quantum ratchets.

This time the visit is more of a writing residency (I am not really venturing out there to talk to people) to finish up the project on Lyapunov exponents and the quantum-classical transition which I spoke about at SQuInT 2013. I’ve been nursing this project along for a couple of years, and every time I think I have it understood and ready to write and submit, I find a new wrinkle. In the Dean’s office, a roadblock could slow me down by months before I could address it. I’m hoping that sabbatical time will allow me to wrap it up quickly.

I am also using this visit as a reading residency — catching up on articles stored in my ‘to read’ folder, planning the arc of my research for the next few months/years and in general resetting my brain to think like a physicist again.

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Ashoka University

Posted by Arjendu on April 3, 2013

I — and Carleton College — have gotten involved in an exciting new venture to help create a liberal arts college (university) in India, named ‘Ashoka University’ and slated to open in the Fall of 2014. I was in Delhi recently, working with the remarkable team racing to make this happen. We got some press coverage; here’s the link. I get quoted saying all sorts of things — and for a change, I don’t think I was misquoted.


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Posted by Arjendu on March 11, 2013

On July 1 I will leave the Dean’s office at Carleton College and ‘revert’ to being a faculty member, at the end of my 3-year rotation as Associate Dean of the College.

It’s a (somewhat) unusual thing we do at Carleton: Our Department chair rotate regularly, and our Associate Deans as well. Since the Dean’s office interacts pretty heavily with people across other divisions at Carleton (Dean of Students, Vice President and Treasurer, etc) the regular change of management tends to catch people off guard and puzzle them. Likewise at institutions across the country with whom we interact, I believe.

Here’s a quick observation about what this rotation means to me (perhaps I’ll blog more about this wearing my faculty hat later):

Yes, it’s true that it can be weird to change jobs, and weird for everyone else when a whole new person with a whole new decision-making style and perspective shows up every three years (not that long, if you think about it, on the scale of an institution that changes rather more slowly otherwise). It also means that I spent an enormous amount of time on a very steep learning curve and neither the College nor I seem to be taking advantage of all the experience I’ve gained.

I could explain at length why and how that I have no regrets about taking this on at all — I enjoyed it — and am equally without regret at returning to being a physicist full-time. But for the moment, let it suffice for me to note that there is no moral hazard in such a situation. That is, every decision I (or my colleagues with the other portfolios here) make in the managing of faculty or curriculum is something I have to live with when I return to the faculty ranks. There is no forgetting what it was like, and what it will be like, to be in the trenches, and there is no ‘pulling up the drawbridge after me’ attitude that might result if I started thinking of faculty as ‘them’. Personally, I wish management in other divisions and other industries worked the same way: Coming from and returning to the ranks.

And if I’d been told I was going to be away for more than 3 years from doing Physics, I wouldn’t have contemplated taking it on, as irreversible a leap into the unknown as it would have been. No Peter Principle applying here, in short.

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Posted by Arjendu on March 1, 2013


The brownish building on the left is Kohn Hall, which hosts the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This week, I’ve been spending hours in a darkened room in there, trying my best to keep up with the talks at the workshop on ‘Quantum Control on Complex Landscapes’ going on there. I have also been trying to keep up with my ‘other/real’ job of Associate Dean, staying up late or waking up obnoxiously early in my hotel room. Lunch has been spent with other workshoppers, including my post-doc adviser and one former undergraduate student, clarifying something we’ve been hearing about, arguing about quantum mechanics in general, or just catching up with each other. Every once in a while I get 1/2 hour for a short walk.

I’ve been to KITP a handful of times before, and was a KITP scholar early in my time at Carleton; it’s also where I helped hatch the Anacapa Society. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to do physics. And not just because it’s in a gorgeous location: I love the feel and flavor of how it’s set up, encouraging conversations, collaborations, community.

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Post-tenure fraying

Posted by Melissa on February 20, 2013

At the beginning of this month, GMP had a post struck a nerve. It began:

Lately I have been feeling… defeated.
For quite a while now, I have been fighting increasingly overwhelming helplessness, an absence of control over my time and my work.This will likely not be a revelation to long-time blog readers. But, this time I feel like I have really lost the game. I am completely torn up by the demands on my time, pulled in every direction, things are constantly needed from me. I thought I could do it: I have stamina, I have determination, I have ambition, I can do it all.

I cannot.

Granted, she’s in a different place than I am (at an R1, with 3 kids), but her post captured elements of what I have been hearing over and over again in conversations with close colleagues across the country who are in the same stage in their career as I am — 2-7 years past getting tenure. We started out on the tenure track enjoying teaching and excited about working with students on research. We thought the post-tenure years would allow us to explore interests more deeply, to take advantage of our experience to be wiser in our classrooms and our research labs, to feel stable enough to take some new risks. We expected to feel in control of our careers and to see our CVs expand as we continued to grow professionally. Instead, we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off. What’s the problem? As one friend noted, “I’m watching 100s of hours time be summarized by a line on the CV that says ‘program coordinator for X’ or ‘chair of strategic initiative Y’, but that counts for nothing professionally.”

This term has featured a lot of unbloggable happenings, and I’ve had some weeks where the ratio of time spent on the administrative/service components of my job to time spent on teaching and research activities combined was 1.5 to 1. Unlike some, I don’t inherently dislike administrative work/service — I am happy to participate in conversations and activities that contribute to the campus community. But I’m a faculty member first, not an administrator, yet the demands on my time are often otherwise. As a faculty member with much more of my career ahead of me than behind me, I am still primarily judged by the individual accomplishments on my CV: the publications, grants, and conference presentations. Administrative tasks don’t “count” in that individual accounting, so it’s no wonder that I, and others at this career stage, begin to feel torn and frayed.

Despite the general gloominess of this post, the one bright spot this term is that I am thoroughly enjoying the class that I am teaching. Hopefully, I will have a chance to write some reflections on the course soon, because it is one of the things that has kept me going.

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The Theory of Everything

Posted by Arjendu on January 17, 2013

Greetings.  I am emerging from a deanly silence to post an link to an interesting video.

Since Newton’s classical apple cart was upset by relativity and quantum theory, physicists have been seeking a theory that would unify the macroscopic and the microscopic and explain “everything” (for sufficiently small values of the word ‘explain’ and large values of the word ‘everything’).

CERN theoretical physicist and coiner of the term “theory of everything”, John Ellis, best-selling Oxford physicist Frank Close, and philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell have a conversation about the limits of knowledge in this video.

The discussion ranges from physics to philosophy,  methodological to metaphysical, with [a Standard Model t-shirt wearing] John Ellis bemoaning physics failure in devising a means of experimentally testing String Theory.

It’s fun. And it’s made/posted by a (new to me) endeavor called the Institute of Art and Ideas.

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Old prep, new prep, I prep, you prep

Posted by Melissa on December 17, 2012

I’m staring down the start of another term with a new class prep. I’m excited about the course I’ll be teaching, a course on materials science, energy, and the environment that counts both for the environmental studies major and the physics major . But I’m less excited about the massive amounts of time that I sink into any course that is a new prep for me. The situation got me thinking about how many times I would want to teach a course before giving it a rest.

For standard courses where I am the instructor of record, I’ve not taught any course more than three times in the 22 trimesters I’ve been at Carleton. Labs are a different story; I’ve repeated those more often. A couple of my colleagues in other departments were talking about repeating a single class six or seven times in five years. To me, that sounds like a blessing (more opportunities to refine the course, possibility for reduced prep time) and perhaps a bit of a curse (getting tired of the course, being concerned about falling into a rut).

So here’s my question — in an ideal world, how many times would you want to repeat teaching a course over a certain period of time? When would you want a break from a course? Does it matter if the course is offered every term, every year, or every other year? I loved my schedule when I taught one of my courses annually for three years in a row, but recently, I haven’t had much consistency in my teaching schedule.

My toddler offered me some course prep advice tonight: “Your students should do more art projects” When I asked if she had suggestions, she said, “Handprints with paint.” If I run out of energy for course prep soon, I may be tempted to take her advice.

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Service and happiness

Posted by Melissa on November 26, 2012

The fall term at Carleton has ended. This evening I sat down with a cup of peppermint tea, one of those brands that comes with inspirational quotes on the tag of the tea bag. Tonight’s message: The art of happiness is to serve all. Clearly this tag is not intended as a career advice for academics. I’m finishing my first term as department chair, and I’m learning that being chair is indeed about serving all — current students who are not majors, current students who are majors, faculty and staff in the department, certain administrative offices, as well as some external constituencies — and I didn’t find it a recipe for happiness. It was five weeks into the term before I had a day where I made it all the way to lunch without an interruption from someone either stopping by my office or phoning me. I suppose if someone had administrative aspirations, being department chair could be valuable, but otherwise, this position is a thankless role. I’ve been trying hard to be positive about being department chair. I tell myself the work I do as chair helps ensure the department stays healthy and focused on continuing to improve the physics education we provide to students at Carleton. And as chair, by taking care of some of the administrivia and headaches, I allow my colleagues to do their jobs well, and hopefully with fewer headaches. However, it takes a lot of effort to maintain this rosy view.

When I was still a junior faculty member, I expected that service/administrative obligations would grow after getting tenure, but becoming department chair just a year after getting tenure has shown me that I underestimated the extent of the change. Pre-tenure, colleagues both at my institution and elsewhere worked to help me protect my time so I could spend it on the things that mattered for achieving tenure. As soon as the tenure decision was made, suddenly it felt as if people had tried to protect my time pre-tenure for the express purpose of being able to ask for my time post-tenure. While I expected the increase in service/administrative roles, I had hoped that I would have more ability to choose to say yes to opportunities that interested me and no to those that didn’t. The reality is that certain service roles (department chair, for example) aren’t optional, and they demand a lot of time. Despite messages such as, “The art of happiness is to serve all,” I worry that, over time, service demands will be a recipe for my becoming unduly cranky at best or seriously burned out at worst. I have become good at turning down requests to serve, and many of the service roles I agree to are ones that are of particular interest to me, but I’ve got a ways to go before I’m happy with how I define the service portion of my job.

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