Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.

Well!

I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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9 Responses to “Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia”

  1. arvindk@softype.com Says:

    This is a complete rehash of a bankrupt idea. Louis Terman tried EXACTLY this almost a hundred years ago. From his pool of school students he selected a very small percentage who ended up being called “termites” after Terman:

    http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40678/

    While the termites went on to become more than averagely successful, the study missed selecting the two persons in the pool who went on to actually win the Nobel Prize William Shockley and Luis Alvarez. In contrast none of the termites won the Nobel OR for that matter, even the Pulitzer Prize. It is inner drive and opportunity that creates such winners, not the anointment by some committee. Please try again, your goals are nobel your action plans misguided.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arvind: Thanks for an invaluable contribution to the discussion.

      The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman: http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40678

      “The legendary Stanford psychologist helped hundreds of gifted children and showed America that it’s okay to be smart. But behind his crusade was a disturbing social vision.”

      And missing the two eventual Nobelists in the pool was devastating to the premise of the experiment.

      The tests being used in South Asia are so weak and so adapted to what is being taught that it would be a surprise if they identified the really bright ones, even if that were a legitimate goal.

  2. Vikram Says:

    “This talk will analyse the so-called “placement data” (i.e., career choices made by fresh graduates) for 2013 of a large segment of graduates. We classify these by sector, location and salary. We show that the data reveals two serious problems (i) allocation of students to non-engineering, and to companies which have little direct impact on the Indian economy, and (ii) a limited relevance of the course-work to career options.

    Next, we do a formal analysis of how this could have come about. This points to the exceptional selectivity of the JEE and GATE as a possible factor. The so called “meritorious” (i.e., those who succeed in these multiple-choice exams), are literally too “smart” to be useful for the Indian situation, and that the training does not add any utility. We point to a study by Maskin and Kremer which points to exactly such a possibility and also its consequences of higher inequality and poor social outcomes. Following Stiglitz, we propose a reasonable definition of a “meritocracy” and show that we fail it on several counts.”

    http://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sohoni/eliteI.pdf

    • sanpatel90 Says:

      Choosing only IITB may not be a good choice. The researchers must have selected a combination of IITs and NITs and some good state institutes like NSIT, DTU, IIIT Hyderabad also. The reason being that most of the financial, consulting, abroad posting companies visit IITB and to some lesser extent in IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur. These companies entirely leave other major institutes of engineering. So, finding will change to a lot of extent. One will find that in non-prominent IITies like Roorkee, Guwahati & newly opened IITies, it is the IT or software companies are major recruiter and most paying also. If we go down to NIT, most of the recruitment is in engineering and software only. Also Indian companies prefer NITs as they can hire them at lower cost.

      • Vikram Says:

        sanpatel90, the recruitment at the non-metro institutions (whether IITs, NITs or IIMs) are indeed more local, however the broad point of isolation of these institutions from their surroundings and their limited impact on Indian industry (automotive, construction, ISRO) would still stand.

  3. Shahid Says:

    Its a pretty long debate, obviously without a agreement as what ought to be done about producing ‘nobel’ laureates. Question: what’s the fascination with ‘nobel’? Why not just concentrate on producing talent that is top quality? I’ve heard this argument again and again, about having a ‘Nobel’ winner. I say that lets concentrate the discussion on getting the system right, and then think about Nobel’s. My take on the situation, after going through two completely different education systems (at home and abroad) is that more than anything, its the prevalent culture that is a real detriment towards the coming forth of highly qualified and bright people. People always talk about students not working hard or not taking interest in studies, but what about teachers who discourage curiosity, questions and rarely open a book or pursue research after they are done with their ‘studies’. In short, there is emphasis upon quantity but not quality, and its complemented by a system that puts little premium on intellectual curiosity, idea exchange and debate.

    One other thought. We must also appreciate the fact that its always difficult to find the most brilliant minds when there are millions of articles being published in every field every year. Compare that to the time of Einstein, where there were hardly a few journals and it was easy to keep up with developments in a field. Point is, we might be missing out on probable geniuses because there is just too much information floating around, from which its hard to pick an outstanding person. I have seen some of the most brilliant people in my field go unnoticed. They couldn’t publish their articles because they had to wait in a Que; there were just too many articles to be published. Ultimately, exasperated and frustrated, they gave up on the idea of publishing and sticked instead with teaching.

    Crux of my argument: first, establish a culture of curiosity and learning first. Once this happens, w’ll see brilliant minds come without making much of an effort.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Shahid: To be fair, the thrust is not really to find a Nobel prize winner but people who can be in that league and of that caliber. The problem is with the approach and that you have identified accurately. The sensible way would be to improve the system so that there develops a culture that is conducive to high quality work. The post made the point that the universities of Dhaka and Calcutta must have been places like that 50 years ago but no longer are and hence the decline in the quality of their output. The other approach is to somehow find someone so brilliant that he/she would transcend all the systemic shortcomings and attain Nobel laureate qualities. To me, this latter approach makes very little sense. It is just marginally better than praying all night for a miracle.

      Fixing the system requires collective effort. Philanthropy can proceed at level of the individual. The intention is good but the yield is bound to be very low. So it come down to how one evaluates the impact. One can tot up the money spent and feel good or one can observe the output and be concerned. It is true that the philanthropy is private so it is the prerogative of the donor how he/she wished to spend the money. The problem is that philanthropy distracts from the need for systemic change – we end up barking up the wrong tree.

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