Scientific research and study have deep roots in natural curiosity and a big impact on human development and our interpretation of the universe we live in. Our blogs discuss, debate and opine on what it takes to spread the culture of science and propagate all important research.

December 2, 2015

The GPS in your smart phone and the General Theory of Relativity


Everyone knows that Albert Einstein was one of the greatest physicists of the early twentieth century. 2015 marks 100 years since he published his theory of gravitation, which keeps us on the floor and keeps the earth in its orbit around the Sun. He called this the general theory of relativity and we call it GR for short.


In 1915, Newton's laws of gravity had stood unchallenged for 250 years, and had explained the motion of the planets with great accuracy. Einstein's reason for wanting to replace it was his own discovery in 1905 that nothing could travel faster than light. In Newton's theory the effect of gravitation was instantaneous. Einstein replaced the force of gravity with a geometrical idea of curvature of space and time. The geometric  explained something that Newton had to postulate - particles of different masses move in the same way in the gravitational field of the earth, or the Sun.  In spite of being completely different from Newton's view of gravity, Einstein's theory was able to take over all its triumphs


But this was no mere rewriting of an old idea. GR explained the discrepancy in the motion of the planet Mercury and predicted that light rays passing near the Sun would be bent by a small angle. This experiment was carried out in 1919 by English astronomers, and proved Einstein right.  Friedmann, in Russia, showed that the theory could describe an expanding universe. This was confirmed a few years later by astronomical observations which showed distant galaxies moving away at speeds proportional to their distance from us.  


Fifty years after Einstein, Hawking and Penrose, were able to put the existence of black holes on a firm mathematical basis. A black hole is a sphere whose boundary is a one way membrane - anything entering it can never come out - not even light.  It results as the final stage of an object collapsing under its own gravity. Soon after this, astronomers found rapid motions and high energy radiation near the centres of galaxies.   The properties of these objects are best explained by the presence of black holes. Today, thousands of black holes are known and studied in great detail. GR is routinely used to understand the light, X-rays, and radio waves which astronomers receive from the centres of galaxies - these do not come from within the black hole, of course, but from material heated up while falling in. Currently, astronomers are poised to measure one more prediction of GR- waves in the gravitational field, traveling at the speed of light.


The effects of GR near the earth are very small - a few parts per billion, but very important practically. The GPS receiver in every smartphone has to use formulae based on GR, to locate you to within a few metres accuracy, with respect to satellites tens of thousands of kilometres away moving at tens of thousands of kilometres per hour.


GR is in your pocket today. What we celebrate is a milestone in human thought which has changed forever our view of space, time, gravity, and the universe.

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May 12, 2015

Lexicological Innovation: Outnovation?

Innovation is one of the most bandied about words in town these days. Indeed on a trip from India to Geneva sometime ago, I counted the number of times I encountered this trite term. And I counted all of 36 times! On big billboards in Delhi (on the way to the airport), inside the airport, in the inflight magazine, and again on billboards once I disembarked in Geneva.

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March 31, 2015

Mapping the politics of cartography

Increasingly, we use the Internet to find immediately useful - local, time-sensitive - information: not just "Who invented Pasta?" but also "What's a good Italian place nearby, how do I get there, how long is it open, and will it deliver?". 

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March 6, 2015

Scientist and Mommy

The piece below was written in 2009 as a "feature" for what was at the time a new information portal for bioscience research in India, .  This website has since grown to be an active forum of blogs, job postings, information on meetings and much more.  My essay below describes my journey during the critical first 10 years of setting up my lab in TIFR, Mumbai after my PhD and postdoctoral training in the USA.  I often get asked what the process was like, and another frequent question "is it hard to manage a career and children in India?"  or "how do you juggle all the demands of being a scientist and a mommy?"  Here is my story. 

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February 11, 2015

One size can't fit all

The diversity of India's states has seldom escaped the notice of commentators, from differences in geography to language and food. But one aspect of this diversity that is seldom remarked on is the widely differing political systems across them.

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January 2, 2015

Why Indian students should be goats, and not sheep

My somewhat allegorical message is based on the life story of Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who in my view epitomizes the noblest values in the pursuit of science. I trust you would need no introduction to Venki, as he is popularly known, but in case you were too busy with the IPL, let me present his credentials - he is one of the few Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin. Venki won the prize for Chemistry in 2009, and this was in recognition of his pioneering work on ribosomes, the part of the human cell that converts genetic information into proteins, the building blocks of our bodies.

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November 12, 2013

In praise of scientific excellence

This is a big month for science in India. On November 5, 2013, India's Mars Orbiter blasted off on its journey from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, carrying it with it many hopes and also serving as a validation triumph of our scientific endeavor.

This week in November we've also announced the names of the winners of the Infosys Prize 2013. These individuals as winners are symbols of curiosity, of ingenuity, invention and experimentation.

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August 29, 2013

Internship with the Infosys Science Foundation

One of the best elements of InStep is that interns are all given a specific project they have responsibility for with clearly defined deliverables. For social science students, these projects can range from improving the CSR work of the company, to research into cross cultural working or business strategy. My project aims to measure the effectiveness of the Infosys Prize, the largest award for contemporary research in India which is awarded by the Infosys Science Foundation every year.

Read the entire blog here:


January 27, 2012

Enabling India to Shine in the World of Science

Any discussion of the state of science in India must begin with an introspective look at how it is handled in our schools. We need to train students to translate what they imbibe in the classroom into an understanding of the natural and physical phenomena of science, as well as of human behavior. Independent thinking and a healthy skepticism of widely accepted theories should be placed above a student's mastery over scientific literature.   If we can do this, we will have succeeded in helping the next generation to think critically and to analyze deeply.

This may seem far removed from the system that is in place today but rather than dismiss this as an unattainable ideal, we should study and attempt to change the underlying economics of the issue.

In a developing country like India, it is natural that our youth will focus on cracking examinations and building a set of skills with which they can better compete in the job market. However, real progress comes from a holistic approach that juxtaposes the specifics of science with the imponderables of philosophy or the other humanities.

Currently, our research output - as measured by indicators such as published papers and patent filings - lags behind China, the US and several developed countries. The best way to improve our performance in this area is to work on developing a research-oriented mindset among students; to encourage them to spend an undergraduate semester engaged in pure research in an area of interest. As more students do this and collaborative projects take shape and grow within the scientific community, the quality and quantity of research produced will automatically go up.

How can we cultivate this research focus? I believe that success will depend on our being able to assure our youth of good career prospects and a decent quality of life even if they pursue pure or basic research.

We do have another advantage here in India: our socio-economic and developmental challenges. Paradoxical as this may seem, these barriers to our growth actually represent a significant opportunity and source of inspiration for researchers in the country. In a country where millions of people live in conditions of poverty and lack access to healthcare, safe drinking water and basic sanitation, science and technology has a deeply seminal role to play in improving overall quality of life.

This could be through applications in bio-informatics, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, nano-technology, computer science, civil, electrical or mechanical engineering. Whatever the field, there is probably something it can offer to improve living conditions and ultimately lower the costs of vital amenities and services such as food, housing, transportation and drugs. If we are able to successfully implement such transformative solutions within our borders, then it won't be long before we can export these to the world outside to solve pressing global crises in these areas.

We will know we have arrived when we have ten Indian institutions in the Global top 50, or when these institutions rank with the likes of MIT, Harvard, CalTech, Cornell, Cambridge, or Tokyo University in terms of their research output, citation index or patent development.

We can do it as long as we supplement our desire to get there with a single-minded focus on action and execution. We have an abundance of scientific talent; that has never been in doubt. It is now up to us to unleash its full potential.

December 15, 2011

Is India Making the Most of its Human Potential in Engineering?

Indian institutions churn out more than 500,000 science and engineering graduates every year. These and related statistics have been touted as signs of strength for the Indian educational system. However, we should pause here to make a distinction between those who are degree holders and others who actually have a complete education and ready for the workforce.   In the course of my travels I have talked to executives of several leading companies (both Indian and MNC) and a common denominator in these conversations is their need for well qualified new graduates because a significant of the fresh graduates have to be (re)trained to make them functional after they are hired.  This leads me to conclude that a large number of the fresh graduates produced every year are just degree holders.

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