What Works In Theory

What comes to mind when someone says research? Pretty girls dressed in lab coats, dorky glasses, silky hair held back in a bun, holding a test tube in one hand, a boiling tube in another. All hail stereotypes!!

‘Research’ is a very general term that simply means an effort to investigate something systematically. It’s amazing a lot of people aren’t even aware of this. Yes, we form part of an engineering institute – and a very acclaimed one at that. But what must set us apart from the others is the encouragement of the pursual of the science behind engineering solutions as much as finding the solutions themselves.

That sounds fascinating on paper, but are we there yet? Is the research environment on campus competent enough to yield thoroughbred theoreticians? Or are we, as students slacking off all so much to put us out of the picture? These are serious, troubling questions indeed.

So we at The Daily Bitsian, strolled through the passages of the Acad Block, crossing into the Physics Department to have a chat with Prof. Souri Banerjee about the research scene on campus, and the feasibility of theory work for engineers. Read up to see what he has to convey:

How is research different from teaching work?

I have always felt that there is a link between teaching and the teacher’s research. By exploiting this link, he/she can add appeal that increases the participation of the students in class.

A professor’s research is very rarely of the ‘conservative’ category i.e. sincere and serious with strict deadlines and a firm goal.

How does research work in an academic field differ from the rigmarole of academics that we are exposed to?

I believe they differ on one very key point – there exists a succinct link between working in a field and practicing teaching in the field. The academics you are exposed to, is more one-sided and there is not much practice, per se from your end, besides your taking up exams. I am of the opinion that research work in a theory field has to be supplemented with research in pedagogical methods too, which widen one’s horizons – take Walter Lewin, for instance. (*side-wink*)

What are your views on theoretical work pursued by students of BPHC?

The popularity of a subject depends on the number of people who find it fascinating. Astrophysics is popular, Mechanics, not so much. Have you ever wondered why we use pulleys and ropes in those force problems? Why are they considered to be mass-less? These assumptions are revolutionary, since they simplify the problem to a great extent without compromising on accuracy. They were derived solely out of creative thinking, making networks in the brain, and reams in the field.

That, unfortunately is where crux of the problem lies. Coaching centers prevent you people from thinking on your own, instead spoon-feeding students and making them expect such treatment in higher education too. Only the textbook solutions are given importance. The science and logic behind a problem are thrown into the bin. This is not just the case for Physics, but for any subject, for that matter.

Somehow, I believe that Bitsians in general, are at a disadvantaged position, in contrast to IITians. The IITs have an unfair advantage in terms of resources. They have more faculty, more structure in their research and consequently higher output in terms of papers published. Their alumni network is vast and full of potential and so they have access to a wider array of contacts. Bitsians are not exposed to the same kind of diversity and span of coursework that exists in other institutes with strong Master’s programs. There is scope for improvement, as students who genuinely have an aptitude for research work are not quite brought to the research frontier.

But that does not imply students of BPHC aren’t smart – I have personally worked with several of your seniors who have now passed out, and found them bubbling with enthusiasm. To sum up, a bit more sincerity and a whole lot more exploration from the students’ side can dispel common misconceptions about true scientific work, which is not quite so much the ‘Pop-Science’ that undergrads here have grown to love.”

How can a student approach a professor if he wishes to know about or do research work with him/her?

Ideally, a student has to come up with an idea, or even better – a problem statement. Then he/she can find out which professor works on a related topic by browsing through the webpage of the department. Approach the Prof without fanfare, and tell him/her clearly what you are thinking.

How should a person decide if research is the right career choice?

A PhD is to be pursued only if the student has a willingness to sacrifice a lot of things. There is no shortcut to establishing a career like this. But passion and perseverance lead to success – that is certain. Failure can sometimes lead to important discoveries. Dr. Rutherford’s model of the atom was derived out of a test that attempted to establish a previous model. Only upon acceptance of the mistake was the new model engineered. So step into the stream provided you have the grit to get past the tersest moments – there could be times, say when nothing works, and the problem at your desk seems to never make its way to a publishable paper. But keep at it – if you are ever disheartened, look up the life story of Professor Raychaudhuri, of the Landau–Raychaudhuri equation fame.

What is your area of work right now, sir?

My fields of interest are Device physics, the study of nano materials in biological systems and non-volatile membranes as a means of storing information. These may sound extremely technical, but they are not, once you are thorough with some concepts. Pop by my chamber for more on this.

– Arvind Ganesh and Arvind Rameshwar


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