Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Math and science skills do not build a society

Who is more important in building a society: a scientist or a politician?

India, a society where adolescence is spent preparing for entrance exams to engineering and medical schools, the answer is likely to be: a scientist. India, a society where if you are “bright” you must pursue careers requiring “hard” math and science, the answer is likely to be: a scientist. India, where preparation to enter IITs, an acronym synonymous to great engineering schools, starts in grade VII, the answer is likely to be: a scientist. India, whose emerging economic power is built on information technology industry, the answer is likely to be: a scientist.

Indeed, I would have given the same answer about 25 years ago.

Today my answer is: a politician.

This change of answer has come about from my experience in living in the US. And I have a very simple explanation for my answer:

A politician builds the social foundation needed for a scientist to flourish.

This essentially means that a scientist can do only as good a work as the foundation provided by the politicians.

I can make my case by using one of the most important scientific achievement of the last century—the development of the atomic bomb or The Manhattan Project.

I am sure this appears to be an oxymoron. The Manhattan project can’t be an example of why a politician is more important than a scientist in building a society. Twenty one scientists working on the project either were already awarded the Noble Prize, or received the prize during working on the project, or after its completion (see here). The Brain of All Brains, Albert Einstein, was the brain behind the project. So it may appear ridiculous to use the Manhattan Project as an example of the significance of a politician.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the bomb could have been made without the scientists. Indeed, the making of the bomb was an incredible scientific achievement. And, yes, all the politicians of the world put-together may have been unable to derive any one of the properties describing the underlying physics of the bomb, let alone have developed the bomb.

But then let us look at the flip side. At its peak, the Manhattan Project employed around 130,000 people. The 21 Noble Laureates on the project amount to less than the rounding error in coming up with this nice rounded number. So it would stand to reason that even if one had boarded all the Nobles together for four years, they sure would have produced a lot of (untested) theories, but they would not have been able to build the bomb.

The making of the bomb required organizing an incredible number of people across the country into one big, giant machine that led to the production of the bomb. Though all the glory of the achievement has been showered on the scientists, they sure cannot be credited for creating the human-machine itself, of which they were just one component.

Scientists are smart people, you will argue. So they must have been responsible for the human-machine as well.

Well we can look at what The Brain of All Brains, Einstein, may have done if he was in-charge of the affair. We get a glimpse of it in the first letter Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this is THE letter that triggered the Manhattan Project. The main purpose of THE letter was for Einstein to inform Roosevelt of recent discoveries that made it possible to “make extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” However, Einstein did not stop at that. Having done his duty as a scientist and a citizen of informing the administration of the new discoveries and their consequences, Einstein went further to make recommendations as to what Roosevelt should do. The gist of what he said is summarized in the following statement taken verbatim from his letter:

In the view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reaction in America.

Here is my one line summary of what Einstein told Roosevelt:

Hey President, we physicists have made some discovery that can blow the planet. I think you should keep an eye on us. And BTW make sure you get hold of some source of Uranium.

I am not making this up, or over simplifying it. Einstein did not say you make an organization to keep an eye on the Physicists either. He explicitly said that “you .. entrust with this task a person [emphasis added] who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an inofficial [sic] capacity.” That’s it, the scope of Einstein’s recommendation on how one might keep an eye on the Physicists was: recruit a person you trust, keep him off the record, and have him be your mole amongst Physicists.

So how did Roosevelt respond? We can see it from his response to Einstein. He “convened a Board consisting of the head of Bureau of Standards and a chosen representative from the Army and Navy to thoroughly investigate” the bomb-making potential of uranium.

There you have it. If you got a new way to make a bomb that’s going to blow the planet, we better get the military in the loop, was Roosevelt’s response. It didn’t make sense to just keep an eye on the Physicists. Coming to think of it, Einstein was already serving the role of the entrusted person, working in an unofficial capacity, keeping the government informed of what the Physicists were up to. So may be Roosevelt figured he did not really need anyone else.

Using the Manhattan Project as a background, I have derived the following analogy between a scientist and a politician.

A scientist is to mass that a politician is to masses.

How? A scientist (really, physicist or chemist) harnesses energy from mass, whereas a politician harnesses energy from the masses. A politician is responsible for converting a mass of people into an organization by creating the rules, the laws, and the traditions—more broadly, the social foundation—that define how “the masses interact.” As in Physics, so in society, interaction between masses produces energy, usually in the form of heat and light. The politician may create a foundation in which the interaction between masses produces more light than heat, as, I believe, is the case in the USA. Or, the politician can create conditions where these interactions are really collisions—producing more heat than light—as, I believe, is the case in India.

Underlying the above analogy is one big difference. Harnessing energy from mass requires understanding the Laws of Nature. What does it take to harness energy the energy from masses? An understanding of the Laws of Human Behavior. As a subject of study, which one do you think is harder: understanding nature or understanding human behavior? I would fathom to say the latter. As we understand nature, it becomes less and less unpredictable. That’s why we can send probes into the deep space without prior testing. However, the same does not appear to hold for human behavior. A politician works with very fuzzy understanding of social behavior. His (or her) social experiments can lead to lifting an entire society, or lead to a complete chaos, as evident from results of Communism, Socialism, and Capitalism.

Let us go back to The Manhattan Project. When is the last time you tried to get a bunch of brainiacs work together as a team? Go visit any department of any university anywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter whether it is MIT or some small, unknown college in some remote place in the world. See how team oriented its faculty is. Ask the department heads, deans, and provost what it takes to get their faculty members to follow their direction.

Now imagine what it would take to get 21 of the brightest minds to work on a single mission. And not just that, move these minds to a newly created town in the middle of the desert. Put gag orders so these scientists cannot even utter the word “plutonium” in public (I am not kidding). Then bring 129,979 other people who have no clue about what an atom is, let alone what it means to split an atom. Put them all at work, in complete secrecy, where even the workers do not know what they are working on. And in barely four years actually convert those mind-numbing equations that can make your head spin faster than the electrons they describe into an earth-shattering bomb.

I am sure you get my drift. I have come to believe that the strength of a society follows from the quality of its politicians, which in turn influences the quality of its scientists, and for that matter its artists, engineers, doctors, and everyone else.

Let me now get to the major theme of this blog: What can India learn from US on her way to become a superpower?

Since politicians provide the foundation of a society, a good starting point would be to see what is expected of politicians in the US and how they are selected and trained. Though India, like US, is a democracy, and thus her politicians are elected representatives, there are very significant differences in the political structures of the two countries. The structures are sufficiently different that their comparisons would highlight the strengths of the Indian system as well as opportunities for improvement.

Before we jump onto blaming the politicians for all the ills of the society, let me provide a prevue of my next article. The politicians, like anyone else, operate within the parameters of the rules and traditions of the society. In spite of their role, they are not removed from the society. They are an integral part of the society. And like any other member of the society, they too are working towards maximizing the returns to themselves and their families. In the US, the political system has built-in mechanisms of checks and balances that by-and-large ensure that the politicians remain “public servants.” The mechanisms keep a check on the “power” of the politicians. Though the mechanisms are not fool-proof, and do often break down, the break downs are exceptions and not the norm. Insight into the US political system will be the theme of my next article.

Let me leave you with one closing thought that summarizes the gist of my argument. Though the mastery of the “hard” subjects—math and science—may indeed show one’s ability to understand Nature, it is the mastery of the “soft” subjects—social studies, philosophy, business, literature, and law—that trains one for understanding human behavior. For India to jump to the next level in becoming a global superpower, it will be important that she spend as much resources in training her young with the soft skills as she does on the hard skills. Along the same lines, as individuals, it would be strategically prudent that we encourage our young to venture into these soft subjects, for those are the skills that will lead the country to the next high.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What to expect in this blog

I have lived in two countries - India (for first half of my life) and US (for the second). Both democracies, the first one the largest -- over 1.2 billion people--the second one the oldest--but more importantly, in many sense, the strongest.

Over the 60 years since independence, India has come a long way. While a lot of countries born around the same times are floundering, India has a vibrant democracy, a great education system, a free market economy, has become a nuclear power, is active in outer-space exploration, and is projected by many to become a superpower in the not too distant future.

This blog is my venue to share my thoughts on what India can learn from the US with the hope that some of my observations can, in some small way, impact India on its path towards achieving its ambition.

My musings will explore the following theme:

How did US, a nation of just about 300 million people come to dominate the world in all spheres - economic, military, research, and sports?

Of course, there are a variety of historic and social explanations for this. But I want to add one more dimension to this theme, that is most often overlooked. In the over two decades I have lived in the US, I have met a lot and lot of people. And, through my years in India I also know a lot and lot of people there.

Based on these interactions I can safely say that:

The ability of an "average US citizen" is no better or no worse than an "average Indian citizen".

In addition, I can also say the following:

The average citizen of the two countries spends his/her day pretty much the same way -- going to work, catering for the family, and spending time watching TV (or reading blogs). Their day-to-day concerns are essentially the same.

With these two observations, the theme I mentioned earlier can be refined as follows:

How did US, a nation of just about 300 million people with the same average capacity as that of people in India and doing average things on a daily basis, come to dominate the world in all spheres - economic, military, research, and sports?

Imagine just one dimension: the exploration of outer space. The US has a robot on Mars, has an International Space Station, has probes going to Pluto, has a variety of telescopes looking at distant galaxies, and its doing all this with just 300 million people with average capacity doing their daily grind.

It is obvious that US is able to achieve more with its handful of citizens than does India, or for that matter any other country. In other words, US produces above average results with citizens of average capabilties. Which means, in the US the "whole is greater than the sum of the contributions of its individual citizens."

In this blog I will capture my thoughts on how US achieves this, and what I believe India can learn from the US.