Friday, February 26, 2010

On mastery and singlemindedness

Of late I find myself getting into several discussions on "mastery". One example was here, where the topic under discussion was poetry, and my opinion was this: "To break the rules you need to know the rules. I'd say you need to do more than know the rules: you need to master the rules." (I also promised a longer write-up on my views on the subject, but this is not that write-up: it's more of a trial run.)

I don't claim to be an expert in poetry, but I think this principle applies widely. I heard it from a classical guitarist in Bangalore who had a most unorthodox posture, and would say "I'm sitting like this because, first, I have a physical problem with the standard posture, and second, I know what I am doing. If you are learning the instrument, you had better hold it the standard way. In science, there are many examples of scientists with mastery of the subject breaking rules -- the Dirac delta function being perhaps the best known -- but an average scientist who breaks rules is likely to produce crackpot research.

Here, however, I want to talk about a different question: does mastery of a field imply exclusion of ability, or interest, in other fields? The specific motivation is Sunil Mukhi's post today on mastery. He expresses his skepticism on the current scientific/academic trend favouring "interdisciplinarity" and "being a well-rounded individual" and "all that", and adds that "serious achievement requires concentration, knowledge, technique and depth."

Now, there is absolutely no doubt about that. Achievement in any field requires all of the above. But he cites as his example Sachin Tendulkar, saying that Sachin "single-mindedly focuses on what he does best" and suggesting that he has no interest in any other form of expertise.

But in Sachin's case this is not true. He is a fine bowler. To date he has 154 ODI wickets, 44 Test wickets, but those figures don't reveal his value: he is not called to bowl long spells as specialist bowlers do, but as a change bowler to break up a well-set partnership, and his success rate there is extraordinary. He seems to extract as much turn, sometimes, as Shane Warne or Mutthiah Muralitharan. I am convinced that if he had applied a part of his batting focus to bowling, though he wouldn't have been the greatest batsman in history, he would have been by far the greatest allrounder -- greater than Gary Sobers. Ne is also an outstanding fielder. As for other sports: very few sportsmen -- in Tendulkar's class or not -- attempt more than one sport professionally, but I am sure Tendulkar has an amateur interest in several other sports. In particular, he has been photographed playing table-tennis (with concentration writ large on his face).

I have a big problem with the view, widespread in India, that mastery in one field requires exclusion of interest in other fields. Many Indian parents discourage their children from pursuing any other activity during the dreaded Board exams: anything other than study is viewed as a distraction. I read the complete Sherlock Holmes, cover to cover, and I don't think my results suffered. Nearly all great scientists that I can think of have had strong interests in other fields, and not just in other sciences. Far from distracting them, I think it has strengthened their primary work -- even if they never went fully "interdisciplinary".

Which brings me to Sunil's other example: Srinivasa Ramanujan. Says Sunil:

Recently a colleague, talking about his institution's undergrad admissions process, observed that "with the kind of breadth requirements we have, one wonders if Ramanujan, who only knew mathematics, would even get admission". That's basically my point, and I think Sachin's achievement validates it.

But Ramanujans are very rare and not replicable. I'd like to think that if a Ramanujan showed up at my institute, or Sunil's, his ability would be immediately recognised by the scientists there and we would make every effort to help him bypass the usual educational requirements. But it is terrible advice to a young mind to try and become a Ramanujan. Such a creature comes along once a century, or
even more rarely.

Most of the great Indian scientists I can think of were multidisciplinary. Visveswarayya had an extraordinary range of civil engineering achievements, from irrigation to flood protection to roadways. Jagdish Chandra Bose made significant contributions to plant physiology, membrane biophysics, and other fields, and is now recognised as Marconi's predecessor in wireless communication. C V Raman made contributions in light scattering, acoustics of musical instruments, crystal dynamics and properties. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was famous for switching fields every ten years and achieving mastery of the new field: he wrote classic books on stellar structure, stellar dynamics, radiative transfer, plasma physics, and hydrodynamics. Yet Ramanujan seems to capture the popular imagination much more than these figures. His is a unique and romantic story, but should not be held up as an example to follow. He is not someone who broke the rules after first having mastered the rules: he seems to have never learned the rules, but achieved mastery all the same.

To me, "mastery" does not imply "singlemindedness". Nor does it imply remaining in the same field all one's life. And, in fact, I think Sachin Tendulkar is an excellent example of the former point, and I suspect he will continue to be an important figure in whatever he chooses to do after he retires from cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar is no Ramanujan. He has natural talent, yes, but is the product of a fine coach (Ramakant Achrekar), a school system that has produced many other fine cricketers, and, of course, his own hard work and study. Ramanujan barely knew how he produced his own results (which he largely supplied without proof, keeping mathematicians busy for the following century), and often attributed his insights to the Goddess Namagiri. Tendulkar's achievements are the results of extremely conscious hard work, and he is eminently worthy of emulation.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bombing the innocent

A year and a half ago, when bomb blasts occurred in Ahmedabad and Bangalore, I wrote here: "Protecting public, open places is impossible.... unless one puts up entry barriers for the entire city and vets each one of the several million residents of the city. The cost of that -- and I don't mean monetary -- would be unacceptable. This is true not just in India... Terrorism is always a cowardly thing, but I suspect the reason this sort of thing isn't more common is that, even to the terrorists, targetting civilians in public places is too easy, too cowardly."

The news of today's restaurant bombing in Pune makes me stand by that statement. If -- as it appears -- it was a terrorist attack and not an accident, it was a craven and cowardly thing to do. My condolences to the victims. But, paradoxically, this only shows the desperation of the terrorists. If they are reduced to this sort of action, which requires no sort of bravery and earns them only opprobrium from all quarters, it shows how little their support -- whether local or foreign is; and how effective India's anti-terrorism strategy has been, that in this enormous and crowded country this has been the first terrorist attack since the Mumbai attacks over 14 months ago.

In other welcome news, Maharashtra's moviegoers gave an overwhelming thumbs-down to their own home-grown terrorists.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


(For those who don't know the Monty Python sketch on woody and tinny words, go here.)

Blues is woody. Country/western is tinny.