Monday, December 28, 2009

A new international science centre

I am attending the inaugural conference of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, (ICTS) [update 29/12: fixed expansion], a new centre of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Though the centre has been in virtual existence since 2007 and has already organised several meetings, its foundation stone was unveiled today by C N R Rao. Prior to that, the centre's director, Spenta Wadia, described the history of the centre and its goals. The evening concluded with a public lecture by David Gross on the nature of theory, the second of three public lectures in the conference.

What is the ICTS? It aims to be, primarily, a facilitator of collaboration and interaction among scientists -- theoretical and experimental, from India and from abroad -- and people from other walks of life, too. To that end, it will assist in organising conferences and meetings (and, eventually, be a venue for those meetings); host visiting scientists, and their students and postdocs, for extended stays; and also have a small core faculty of its own, as well as adjunct faculty from elsewhere. Three existing institutes were specifically named as role models: the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the Newton Institute in Cambridge, UK; and the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, CA, USA. The goal is to rival those centres in international impact, and Spenta Wadia and the others behind ICTS can certainly do it, with help from the Indian academic community and the government. The Karnataka government has donated 17 acres of land to the institute, near the picturesque village of Hesareghatta (which is also known for Protima Gauri's Nrityagram dance centre). It will be exciting in future years to have an international centre of the calibre of ICTP, KITP or the Newton Institute in our own backyard (if Bangaloreans will excuse this Chennai-ite for that phrase).

Key to this, I think, is implementing what Prof Wadia and others talked about: the importance of diversity in interactions. From that perspective, I find the inaugural conference disappointing already. The conference is titled "Science without boundaries", but out of 20 scheduled talks (not counting the public lectures), 11 are physics, 6 are mathematics, one is computer science, one is physics-dominated chemistry, and one is synthetic biology. [Update 29/11: One physics talk today was replaced by a computational biology talk, because of the snowstorms in the US.] Only 5 of these talks are over, and a few of them were excellent and I am sure some of the remainder will be excellent too, but I find it an extraordinary distribution of topics for a conference that claims to be on "science without boundaries". What makes it worse is that the three non-physics non-math talks, and the sole experimental physics talk, were all crammed into today's session, so that the remaining 3 days will be devoted entirely to theoretical physics and mathematics. Other than a nod to computer science, there is no theoretical talk in the entire schedule that is not physics or mathematics! Meanwhile, of the 11 physics talks, no fewer than four are on string theory -- an interesting theory no doubt, but an entirely unverified one to date -- and only three are on condensed-matter, surely the most exciting (and interdisciplinary) area of physics in recent years. Statistical mechanics, non-linear dynamics, and other areas of physics are entirely unrepresented. If the goal was to demonstrate the diversity and interdisciplinarity of "theoretical sciences", a better attempt could have been made.

(On a related note: of the 11 India-based invited speakers, 6 are from TIFR and affiliated institutes. India has more diversity than that in the "theoretical sciences".)

Be that as it may, the talks so far have largely been good, as have the two public lectures that have taken place (the third is scheduled for Wednesday, December 30). Yesterday Avi Wigderson gave an interesting talk on computational complexity theory, and though I think he was guilty of needless oversimplification as well as needless controversial statements in places, it was a good introduction to the question of whether P=NP. In his defence, also, it should be noted that he was a last-minute replacement for Sir Michael Atiyah, who could not make it because of illness; and he abandoned his holiday in Hampi to deliver this talk.

Today David Gross talked on the nature of theory, and it was an entertaining history of theoretical science, as well as a well-argued presentation of the importance and relevance of theoretical work. He made the point, emphatically, that revolutions in science don't sweep aside previous knowledge, but build on it. (So Newton's theory of gravitation is still useful, even though not quite correct.) Among other interesting points, he raised the possibility that even if a "theory of everything" (a unified theory of the fundamental forces, including gravitation) exists, it may be too sophisticated for human minds to grasp (just as quantum mechanics is too sophisticated for dogs to grasp). But he made it clear that he does not believe that.

I cannot resist quoting a mild dig Prof Gross made at the S in the name ICTS. He related the story of a press conference at Princeton after John Nash won the Nobel. Supposedly, a journalist asked Nash: "You have won the Memorial Nobel Prize in Economic Science. Is economics a science?" He replied: "No, any discipline that requires the word "science" to be added to its name is not one." Social scientists, political scientists and creation scientists, take note.

Wednesday's talk is by Albert Libchaber, on the origin of life. If you're in Bangalore, do attend. Details here.


Anonymous said...

"Social scientists, political scientists and creation scientists, take note."

How about natural scientists?

One must not forget this famous quote:

"There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are sciences and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it." - Louis Pasteur

wildflower seed said...

"(just as quantum mechanics is too sophisticated for dogs to grasp)"

Is it?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anonymous: I think Gross brought up that quote too. He certainly observed that the specialisation of science into different streams is a recent phenomenon (late 19th and 20th century).

ws - actually, Gross illustrated that remark with this cartoon.

wildflower seed said...

Heh. Thanks.