ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Ed Witten - the Benchmark

Eminent Physicist A. Zee has written a textbook: "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell". In the preface of this book, I read this:

"This book began as a course I taught at Princeton as a beginning Asst. Prof. I was greatly fortunate to have had Ed Witten as my Teaching Assistant. Ed produced brilliant and lucidly written solutions for the problems - so much so that next year, I went and complained to the Chairman: 'Something is seriously wrong with the TA I have this year. He is not half as good as the guy I had last year!' "

I am not well-informed enough to guess the identity of the TA who suffers thus in comparison with Witten. But Zee's remark did remind me of something...

Cut to a time much closer to the present than when Witten was just a promising TA - indeed, to a time when he has already been anointed the Number One Mathematical Physicist in the World; to a time when this blogger was a graduate student of Physics.

While at Grad School, I am passionate about Physics - but this is often insufficient to get me past technicalities pertaining to the way it is practised in Indian Academia. During those days of struggle...

A holiday. I begin my solitary breakfast at our canteen. Hardly anybody about. A much senior (to self) colleague (let me refer to him as Camillo (*) ) makes an entry, looks around awkwardly at the empty tables and finally plants himself opposite to self. Some inanities are exchanged (and we reach the coffee stage of the meal) and he makes his first serious move.

Camillo: "So how is WORK?"
Self (a bit rattled on hearing the dreaded 4-lettered word): "Trying..."
Camillo: "Since when? Don't you think you ought to be getting results by now?"
Self: "Well, I dunno; have been trying..."
Camillo: "But, look at your contemporaries. --- and ---; have they not got papers by now?"
Self: "I guess so. Perhaps a couple each."
Camillo: "You *still* feel confident you too can manage? ... Can I give you some free advice?? (there is an ominous pause) You have some basics seriously wrong. You can't be in Physics if you are uncomfortable with Math and don't want to do calculations! Like,.... If I compare you with ---, "
Self (interrupting): "Look! can you please cut out those comparisons? I have no problems with criticism but personal comparisons...."
Camillo (interrupting back): "Oh, yeah, I am very sorry! You feel belittled by being compared with ...locals. Perhaps I should compare you with, well, WITTEN? That might just about satisfy you, eh??"

---
* - I decided to give latin name to this gent, as a tip of the hat to RK Narayan, who chose 'Marco' for the frigid archeologist in 'Guide'. I considered options ranging from 'Quasimodo' to 'Romeo' but finally settled on Camillo - a name with less interpretative possibilities and literary connotations.

4 Comments:

  • At 9:59 AM, Blogger Vishnu said…

    Comparison. I used to do that until a few months ago, and feel depressed that I do not have any results, except a hundred ideas that do not work. Then, I stopped comparing myself with others, and I have a peaceful mind at the least!

    I sure can identify with the canteen situation that you describe! I have had lunch with friends who say that they have two 'deadlines' coming up in two days. And when they ask me about my stuff, I say that I am still trying. Hum honge kaamiyaab, ek din!

     
  • At 9:29 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks vishnu.

    logically, there is no need to get comparatively judgemental in research - the whole space of the unknown is out there, and there is more than enough of it for every seeker. but then, men will be men!

    your optimism and energy augur well. hope a bit of it rubs off on my (comparatively) ageing grey cells as well!

     
  • At 11:38 PM, Blogger Sunil said…

    sometimes it's easy to start comparing........especially comparing yourself to your peers. If a bunch of them have been successful, and you (in spite of your best efforts) haven't made much progress.....you look around, and feel rather low. But it's essential to recognize the futility of these comparisons...

     
  • At 8:43 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    sunil, one needs an empathetic mentor or guru most when one faces these comparisons. i guess in the west, things are better than in india - here in the cloistered and exclusive 'institutes' and 'centers of excellence', these things quickly (and very often) get amplified into insurmountable crises.

    let me wish you luck in your research!

     

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