Thursday, October 23, 2008

A richly deserved award

It is extremely gratifying to see a familiar figure, Sriram Shastry, being awarded the 2009 Lars Onsager Prize of the American Physical Society. The list of winners since 1995 on that page is impressive -- most of them have done work that is now standard graduate-textbook material (and in many cases, undergraduate-textbook too). Sriram's present university, UC Santa Cruz, has a webpage up with more details on his biography and work (and that of his colleague Peter Young, who also received an APS prize.)

Though Sriram is now in the US, he studied entirely in India (Nagpur University, IIT Madras and TIFR Bombay) and worked at University of Hyderabad, TIFR, and later, at IISc Bangalore. In the 1980s, while at TIFR, he derived the complete set of conserved quantities for the one-dimensional Hubbard model, the basic model used for correlated electronic systems (such as high-temperature superconductors). He did pioneering work on many other exactly-solvable quantum systems, at least two of which bear his name (the Shastry-Sutherland and Haldane-Shastry models). In addition, he has done important work on other areas of correlated electron systems, transport processes, and other areas. In recent years he has done very interesting work on thermoelectricity.

[edited 24/10/08, removing possibly unproductive discussion of past history. While it is something I feel strongly about, the more important question is how do we stop it from happening again, and how do we improve the science scene. I should also clarify that everything that was written here, like the rest of the post, was my own opinion and was not discussed with Sriram beforehand.]

Finally, on a personal note: Sriram was my PhD advisor. He joined IISc the same year I did, in 1994; I worked with him on a summer project (that eventually became my first international publication) in 1995, and soon after, joined him formally as his doctoral student; I graduated in 2000; and he himself moved to Santa Cruz a couple of years later. I am fortunate that my trajectory intersected his.


gaddeswarup said...

I remember him as a bubbly graduate student in TIFR. We used to tease him about his initials. I think that I met him again in Priceton in 1980 (?). He seemed surprised and pleased that some bigshots were paying attention to his work. It is nice to know that he has done well.

Tabula Rasa said...

reflected congratulations...

Anant said...

Rahul: It is good to see the tribute you have paid your teacher. I do not, however, agree that BSS has not been recognized by the Indian establishment: I believe he is a fellow of several Indian Academies. He has held positions in University of Hyderabad which is one of India's better Universities, TIFR and IISc which are arguably among the best Institutions. What other kind of recognition is there? Anant

Rahul Siddharthan said...

anant - I have removed that text, since it seemed, on reflection, unproductive. I did say that BSS is highly regarded by his Indian peers, which accounts for his early membership of India's academies. When you write, however,

What other kind of recognition is there?

Is that a serious question, a rhetorical question, or a cynical question?

gaddeswarup said...

May be this is out of place but I feel like responding to your question to Anant. I think that generally one (a scientist) works to satisfy one's internal compulsions (however they are formed) rather than for awards and opinions of others. At least, I thought that was what I was doing.
P.S. By the way, I saw some recent pictures of BSS. Pimples and hair are gone. He looks more serious. I wonder whether he still has the constant peels of laughter in conversations,

Anant said...

Rahul: I mean it most seriously. I really believe that these are the only pieces of recognition that are important. That is why I believe they should be done properly. Even if a scientist is not very likable, not sociable, etc., he or she should be recognized by such mechanisms as fellowships. Otherwise what is the purpose of such fellowships? I also believe that appointment policies (and to a lesser extent promotion policies) are really the most important part the work of leadership of Institutes. It is only the kind of appointments that are made that will determine the health of an institution for a long time. Finally, comments on a blog should be taken only as such. It is hard to provide a lengthy explanation as to what one means in a sentence or two. That would lead not to a comment but to an independent tract on a given subject! However, let me turn this around ans ask if you believe there really are any other modes of recognition?
Best regards, Anant

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Well, a serious question deserves a serious answer. Everyone would agree that internal motivation is the most important kind. But every field has awards for its outstanding performers, and science is no different. When Anant asks, with seriousness, "what other kind of recognition is there", I have to conclude that he thinks awards are not a kind of recognition, or not a useful kind. I may think the same -- society will be better off without awards. (I'm not convinced but let's say I think that.) But given that (a) awards exist and (b) not everyone dismisses their importance, we have no right to impose our viewpoint on others -- either those giving awards, or those receiving them.

Also, I don't see why Anant would approve of academy fellowships but not of awards.

Gaddeswarup -- as far as "opinions of others" go, it is extremely important and happens all the time in the form of peer-review. It is easy to delude oneself otherwise. I'd say the most meaningful awards are the ones given by peers, too. Our Indian Government awards -- Padma Shree, etc -- are not chosen by committees of peers. Typically they recognise awards given by others -- so people like Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray receive the Bharat Ratna after they've already received the highest international awards for their work (a Nobel and a lifetime Oscar, respectively).

But at another level, if you're really outstandingly good, awards won't matter. I think the fact that Nambu received the Nobel so late in his life is a reflection, not on him, but on the Nobel committee. Certainly it doesn't change scientists' assessment of his work. But for less elite scientists who compete for less prestigious awards, it can certainly make a difference, both in motivation and in career advancement.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - gaddeswarup, if you want to touch base with BSS again, you could use the email address supplied in the UCSC link in my post.

Anant said...

Rahul: Oops, there seems to be a misunderstanding. My only claim was that BSS was not unrecognized in the sense of fellowships and first rate appointments. I did not have anything to say about awards --- whether I approve of them or not is not germane at all. In fact, I kept away from this subject because of the mishap regarding the Bhatnagar and it was too sensitive a subject for me to add anything reasonable. I had not realized that you were making a distinction between `peers' and `establishment' which I notice now. In any case the `establishment' as in Government and Padma awards normally recognizes people who are nearing 60 (of course there are notable exceptions, e.g., Ashoke Sen as many string theorists would be quick to point out), but is not that recognition less important than that of the `peers'? Let me not say much more except to reiterate that certainly BSS had recognition by the set-up in India (peers). Whether it was sufficient or not, I cannot say. Of course if a person moves away from India he is not going to be in the radar screen of Government agencies, unless someone equally important keeps pushing the candidate. These are matters on which I have nothing to say.

gaddeswarup said...

"as far as "opinions of others" go, it is extremely important and happens all the time in the form of peer-review. It is easy to delude oneself otherwise."
Certainly, peer review in terms of correctness. At given times, there are prevailing fashions like 'Set topology' in Southern USA for a number of years. If that is the dominant trend and if you do not want to wotk in it, you may not get much recognition.
"But at another level, if you're really outstandingly good, awards won't matter."
I am not sure about this either, One works on problems that bug one. It is not clear how important the results will be. I think that at the level of getting jobs, there might be a problem and of course in applied areas where a lot of funding might be needed. I am certainly not outstanding and was told as recently as 94 by big shots in my area that I was wasting my time on uninteresting problems. It took ten years to complete the work and the same experts are refering to it now. For me the satisfaction was completing the problem and also there was a feeling of anticlimax and 'so what' at the end. I do not think that it was outstanding but it was long and difficult ( the final paper was about 170 pages) and I was glad to know the answer.
Not everybody is going to be an outstanding scientist or do some great work. My feel is that one should go by one's own curiosity and not always look for peers' approval. May be it is not practical outside some pure areas which do not need much money.