The Transit of Venus, in the language of your choice!

Venus will come between the Earth and the Sun on June 6, 2012. There are many ways to learn about this, but via Niruj Mohan Ramanujam (text) and Reshma Barwe (illustrations), of NCRA, Pune, comes a graphic novel. It is available for free download and distribution under a Creative Commons licence. And, thanks to several translators, it is available in Marathi, Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada, Bengali, Persian, Spanish, Italian, and French, with more on the way. Have fun.


The NIPER mess drags on

The case of Dr Nilanjan Roy, who was fired some time ago after he made accusations of financial impropriety against the NIPER management, seems to have no end in sight. A board meeting is scheduled on May 28, and one assumes that his case will be discussed. As I wrote earlier, I would like to see a review of the case by an independent committee.

Earlier NIPER fired another scientist, Dr Animesh Roy, who had alleged plagiarism against another NIPER scientist, Uttam C Banerjee. A review committee, appointed by the NIPER board, found in 2009 that there was no case against Animesh Roy and recommended that he be reinstated; it also made critical comments of some senior NIPER faculty, some of which appeared in the media.

After my previous blog post, Dr K K Bhutani, officiating director of NIPER, phoned me to put his side of the story. I reiterated what I said in my open letter, that in view of past events an independent inquiry is essential. I emphasised that I am not trying to judge this case and am not competent to do so. (For this reason, though I was in Mohali for a couple of days this week, I did not try to contact either Bhutani or Nilanjan.) He promised to end me some documents, which I have not yet received; to my surprise he said he has no copy of the review committee report on Dr Animesh Roy. I do not intend to share the rest of my conversation with him.

I did, however, receive a copy of the review committee report on Dr Animesh Roy from another source. It is a PDF generated from a word file in May 2012, so I cannot swear to its accuracy. It does, however agree with the little that has appeared in public. Since I have no way of knowing whether it has been tampered with, I will not share its contents here, beyond saying that it criticises several senior members of NIPER in extremely strong language, and if any minister or other functionary were criticised similarly he or she would have to resign. I can add that four senior scientists at NIPER promised to resign if Animesh Roy is reinstated at NIPER: this threat, in the report that I received, was reproduced in The Telegraph in 2009. I wonder why they did not keep that promise.

All in all, it is a mess that can only be sorted out by an independent look at the situation. No news is not good news in this case.

What does a great scientist do when he is wrong?

In particular, what does a great scientist do when an error of judgement has harmed a community? He apologises — like Dr Robert Spitzer just did. Even if he is 80 years old and struggling with Parkinson’s. And he was a great scientist, who almost single-handedly de-stigmatised the gay community in the 1970s, and a couple of decades later, harmed them.

Open letter to Dr V M Katoch

I sent the following to Dr Katoch on Monday, May 7, 2012. I haven’t received an acknowledgement.
UPDATE May 12, 2012: Please also see the petition from Nilanjan’s wife.

Dear Dr Katoch,

I am writing to you as the chairman of the Board of Governors at NIPER, Mohali. As you are aware, Dr Nilanjan Roy, who has raised concerns about financial dealings at NIPER, was dismissed from the institute recently, by the officiating director.

I know Dr Roy slightly but I do not want to judge the case. I believe that the case should be investigated impartially and thoroughly by an independent committee, and Dr Roy should be kept in his post pending such an investigation. As chairman, I urge you to take immediate steps in this direction, before further damage is caused to NIPER and to Indian science in general.

My reasons for this are the following.

1. As you are aware, NIPER has previously dismissed a scientist, Dr Animesh Roy, who had alleged misconduct on the part of another senior NIPER scientist. Reportedly [1] an inquiry committee set up by NIPER’s board found, back in 2009, that the allegations made by Dr Roy were true and he had been punished for whistle-blowing. Nevertheless, he was not re-appointed until 2011. This is a black mark against NIPER and should under no circumstance be repeated. Dr Nilanjan Roy should therefore be allowed to continue at NIPER until an inquiry by impartial and eminent scientists, unaffiliated with NIPER, is completed.

2. It is particularly a matter of concern that an officiating director should take such a step against a scientist without holding an impartial enquiry. Media reports suggest that Dr Nilanjan Roy has already appealed to you and, pending your decision, he cannot be dismissed. However, he tells me that he has already been asked to vacate the institute and his residence.

3. It appears that the people who made false charges against Dr Animesh Roy were never punished and continue to have power in NIPER. This is an extremely distressing state of affairs.

I have already made a blog posting on this affair [2]. I very much hope that, if I make a new post on this subject, it will be with some good news.

I am copying Dr Nilanjan Roy and Dr Animesh Roy on this mail.

Looking forward to your urgent reply,

With best regards

Rahul Siddharthan
(The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; opinions above are my own.)

[1] G S Mudur, The Telegraph, 2009

UPDATE 10/5/2012: Reading the comments, it is fascinating to me how those who know Nilanjan and are defending him are doing so with their real names, while those who are attacking him are hiding behind pseudonyms.

Crickets, temperature and sound

Here’s some insight into what controls the chirping sounds that crickets make. I’ve been intending to talk about this paper, which is interesting to me since I’ve been interested in bioacoustics for a while (though, in my case, more in perception than in production of sound). But Natasha Mhatre, the first (and corresponding) author, has saved me the time by summarising it very nicely herself, here. Go and read to learn about how size correlates with frequency of sound, in a variety of creatures, and how it breaks down in tree crickets (whose frequency changes with temperature). The original paper is here. Additional coverage is here.

Blogging, social networking, and me

I started a blog some years ago, on blogspot, mainly to talk about non-academic things.

As time went by, my blog started to talk more and more about academic/scientific matters, and I grew more and more frustrated with some shortcomings of blogspot. So I moved to wordpress and refocussed the blog.

Meanwhile, I also joined facebook, which was a useful way to share amusing links, and also to reconnect with old friends.

But, recently, I have found Google+ to be a particularly nice combination of all these features: you can share stuff, from trivial to profound; you can participate in discussions with people you don’t know; and you can follow lots of interesting conversations. The mainstream media has tended to dismiss G+ as a “ghost town”, but it has also attracted many high-profile evangelists like Guy Kawasaki and Tim O’Reilly. And as for friends, though it’s momentarily nice to say “hi” to people on FB whom I haven’t encountered for years, in the end it’s the connections in real life who matter more to me.

I never joined Twitter, and now never plan to.

Today I decided to drop off Facebook. I will post mainly academic stuff on this blog (but sometimes cross-link on Google+), and mainly non-academic original content on G+ (and sometimes cross-link it here). My G+ posts will be public. Feel free to follow and comment.

To kick it off, here’s one on Android devices.

Getting fired for whistle-blowing

Some time ago, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Chandigarh, fired one of its scientists, Dr Animesh Roy, who had made allegations of unethical practices against another senior scientist at that institute. G S Mudur’s article from 2009 goes into details. Quote:

An inquiry panel set up by Niper’s board of governors has now said the institute punished Roy for blowing the whistle on unethical research practices by the head of its pharmaceutical technology department, Uttam Chand Banerjee.

Two independent scientists asked by the panel to evaluate Roy’s performance have given him high grades. The panel has called on the institute to reappoint Roy and initiate action against Banerjee….

The institute’s dean, Saranjit Singh, told the panel that Roy had “hurt our egos” and it did not matter whether he was a good scientist or not, according to the panel’s report. Singh told the panel Roy could be accommodated at any other Niper, but if he were reinstated at Chandigarh, Singh and three others would “resign under protest”.

Privately, I have heard from various sources, in agreement with the report above, that there was substance to Roy’s allegations and no substance to the charges against him. But he was never reinstated he was reinstated only in September, 2011.

More recently, I heard from another NIPER scientist, Dr Nilanjan Roy, who was also fired, this time for alleging financial irregularities — specifically, that huge amounts of funds were either unused or diverted for other purposes. This case too has hit the media. The Deccan Herald covers it here; a TV report from Times Now is here.

Earlier, the allegations of corruption were covered in The Mail Online, which reported that the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers has asked the NIPER board for an explanation. The Mail Today reports that the government is facing criticism in Parliament and has asked the Planning Commission to undertake a “comprehensive evaluation of the performance of NIPER”.

A blog dedicated to this case has been up here for a while.

I have met Nilanjan once and corresponded with him a bit now and then. I believe he is an honest man who acted out of concern for his institution. I hope that the chairman of NIPER’s board, Dr V M Katoch, takes a personal interest in ascertaining the facts of this case, and does not wait for a court order directing him to respond. If cases like this are left to the politicians to worry about, it does not speak well for Indian science.

UPDATE 5/5/2012: I corrected the claim that Dr Animesh Roy was never reinstated: he was, but over two years after the Telegraph report above appeared.