Thursday, November 13, 2014

“Whence I am” The joy of multiple identities

An answer of sorts to Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

The taxi picks me up at the blue hours. Blowing swirls of gray vapor in the air I shuffle in. “Airport?” He asks.

With a slight air of discomfort that exists between any two grown men who’d likely never see each other again, he eyes me with a respectful silence. The morning is crisp and fresh, but who knows how long has he been up in this shift.

“Where are you from?” I ask, trying to break the ice. He beams broadly and says, “Make a guess!” “Seattle, obviously,” I said with a smile. “Oh no my friend, you are avoiding the real question! Where am I really from?”

Where is anyone really from? As a fourteen year old, though born in a small city in India whose parents were both considered refugees from the freshly partitioned East Pakistan, though both had spent their formative youths in India, I did not fit in well with the local boys. I was always an outsider in a city where the insiders had lived for at least four or five generations. I looked at the national boundaries on a painted tin globe bought at the railway station, and thought of the invisible curvy planes that people imagine going up from the soil into the thin skin of air surrounding our planet, which then diffuse into confusion far below the troposphere. These imaginary planes had always seemed to me as arbitrary, as meaningless, as religion or nationalistic pride.

When I look into the mirror I don’t seen an Indian or an American; only brown eyes, slightly asymmetric, a wrinkled skin in need of a shave. I doubt if my daughter sees an Indian, an Australian, or an American either

Guessing where one is from is a game—trivial because of its superficiality and important at the same time because the answer might provide a clue to the person one might be. Sentient beings that we are, we instinctively go beyond the species identification by sight or smell as we encounter another individual. We try to make a mental image of the mind of the other—we try to guess, perhaps second guess, the persona, the biases, common interests, what might offend, perhaps even some idea of the stranger’s experiences. This is pure human curiosity—the one characteristic that has ensured our evolutionary survival despite the nakedness of our skin and our relative frailty in relation to those of other apes. Whether we ask, permitted by our arbitrary norms of politeness, or not—we cannot prevent ourselves thinking about it. We are curious apes.

Each one of us is a vector of identities: birth place, where we lived as a child, where we live now, ethnicity albeit its plastic boundaries, color of skin, how we speak, what we eat, how we dress, our belief systems, political persuasion, what books we like, whom we like, and so on. Each of us ranks the elements of the vector in a unique hierarchical order. Therefore, no two persons can probably match their respective identities, and yet we instinctively attempt to find the distance between our two vectors—because the result might crucially influence the outcome of our interaction. Possible friendship; a successful collaboration; a business deal; falling in love perhaps; avoid a cheat or a stab in the back; even finding something to talk about so as to rub out the boredom of an early morning taxi stint.

The question “where are you from” is one that is at once blatantly superficial as well as purely human; important for our survival and for functioning as humans.

To deny the existence of the question in our mind is to not look at the mirror to see ourselves as we really are.

In the mean time, having spent nearly half of my life in America, having grown up in West Bengal, having spent significant time in Northern India and in Australia, I still imagine myself from a little village in Bangladesh, by the side of a pond, where the evening light falls slowly, a fog might rise above the dark water, a bell might ring in the temple of the family deity, muffled puffs on the conch shell might float across the water and hordes of spiraling mosquitoes might rise from the amorphophalous bush near my grandparents' gravestones and swarm over my head.

I had been to that spot only twice in my life, separated by a span of forty years.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

If I wrote that yesterday was an interesting day with the Grand Finalists at the Intel Science Fair, it would be an understatement.

A veritable collection of near geniuses in their mid-to-late teens.

I also got to test a little question that has been bothering me for a while...the impact of society on science.

Here's how I tested it. I took the division of mathematics as the subject population because mathematicians on average reach their heights starting around 21 or 22 years, and these kids are within five or six years of reaching this age. So they are a good choice for assessing their future potentials. I classified some 64 Grand Finalists in mathematics into two groups: Pure Math and Applied Math.

In no other discipline the difference between pure and applied is as clear-cut. A pure math is nearly always recognizable from applied math as a different beast from a mile away--a distinction not usually possible in any other discipline of science.

There were 30 pure math, 29 applied math and 5 that I couldn't classify unambiguously, so I had to eliminate these 5.

Among the 30 pure math kids, 20 were from foreign countries (Russia, Bulgaria, Iraq, India, China, Sweden, Germany etc) and 10 from the USA.

Among the 29 applied math kids, only six were from foreign countries and the rest 23 all from the USA.

By Fisher's two-tailed exact test, the difference in the distribution between the two groups (Foreigners over-represented among Pure Math and USA being over-represented among Applied Math) is statistically highly significant (P =  0.0006).

So we in the US influence genius kids to become applied mathematicians and elsewhere they are influenced to become pure mathematicians.

I am not making any value judgement here, but the effect might be lamentable in some respects: at this rate US might run out of novel directions in mathematics for application to practice were it to be that the rest of the nations conspire to secretly hide the output of their pure mathematicians! In this connection, it is worth reading a brilliant editorial by Uncle Syd written 16 years ago: