Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chapter 3: Campus

“Fuck!” I yelped, as the large dusty cardboard box came crashing down on my knuckles with a censoring thud. The miniature gyroscope inside could be heard clattering against what was surely the polished plate belonging to an Euler’s disk, to my relief, as it could have easily been bar magnets shattering the glass of a plasma ball, which ought to have been accompanied by a distinct pop due to air violently invading the privacy of low pressure argon. It was a box of physics toys that Summers left behind along with an assortment of papers, stationery, books and a wizened old Thinkpad which looked like it could use an armchair and a fireside.

I played along with the other graduate students’ belief that he would walk in some day and casually open up his terminals, plug on his earphones (through which, I was certain, no music was ever playing) and script in different syntaxes that showed in the psychedelic colors of VIM, as though his absence was due to some acknowledged sabbatical or internship. And here we are, after a year, finally getting over Summers’ departure. Why he left these behind is a greater mystery than why he left. That was obvious. You know that feeling- when a party reaches that tedious staleness after the first few two beers, when conversations resemble the voidness of the speakers’ thoughts ever more vividly, when everyone is rushing for refills and veiling their life’s longings in barefaced consumption, when the interesting people exit for a smoke to exhale their disgust without speaking it, when the music, however thumping and tribal, fails at stirring a semblance of celebration, almost like a religion’s dwindling appeal - however much this puts one into a fantod, it would be impolite to just get up and leave with a silly excuse; that would be an overt “fuck you!” to anyone with just the right amount of intelligence to see through the lie, but just the wrong amount to think that this party needed them. Summers got himself fired by the Department instead.

The box also contained a blunted walkalong glider, a faded pair of nontransitive dice, a crumpled paper with drawings of either a flute or a Ruben’s tube, a scientific calculator incapable of matrix operations and a plastic folder thick with pages of various widths labeled “Delightful Tangents”. The afternoon Californian blaze poured through the single hung windows to illuminate the Brownian motion of the dust that I blew off the surface of the folder. It contained printouts of various articles in painfully low dpi: “The soul of a man under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, “Copyleft: Pragmatic Idealism” by Richard Stallman, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” by DFW, a series of chapters from John Hopcroft’s “Formal Language and their relation to automata” and a bunch of others in subjects of sociology, psychology and - what would have been a curiosity a year ago but not anymore - high energy physics abstracts from the parody journal snarXiv. Interspersed in these were his own scribblings, mostly equations in which there were more subscripts than variables, qualitative inequalities like “Orange > Apple” “Cauchy-Schwarz > all other inequalities” “stdout > filename” and doodles of colliding vortices connected by Feynman’s wiggly arrows. I pulled out a stapled set of sheets and read:

Harmony of the Hypotenuse
by Nathaniel Summers

A point by itself is unvivid and boring, like the banter of businessmen and wives,

Impotent it isn’t, upon infinitesimal thought, how else can one construct lines?
Straight as usual, not necessarily you say, but lets dignify postulate five,
Three rightly placed yields a singular hypotenuse, prejudiced to orthogonal sides.

Their relationship is a simple one, so claim the bitter, unloved headmasters,

“Forget it and starve to death,” they pronounce, among other disasters,
“Spare the sturdiest pillars for logic, leave others their gilded pilasters!”
Of philosophical proofs they were teaching, to a classroom of young poetasters.

No experiment compels sufficiency, unnecessary is the cry for application,

Proving here comes from neither of these, to be brave is to be a mathematician,
To call axioms assumptions and postulates hypotheses is a sign of utter conflation,
Math outranks your pedestrian truth, get out if you need verification!

A multitude of proofs this theorem boasts, popularly algebraic and geometric,

Loomis shows three-seventy of these, including dynamic and quaternionic,
He ridicules the exclusions, and rightly so, where’s logic in those trigonometric?
Sine and Cos come from the right angle triangle, not some principle anthropic.

The first recorded survey goes back three thousand years, if we give or take a few,

An exemplary product of Babylonian inquiry, as shown on Plimpton three-twenty-two,
When civilization renounced her umbilical connections, in the ancient city of Eridu,
In glyphs of Sumerian, these sexagesimal triples, graced us with our first clue.

The premier formalism is owed to the bright mammals, across the Corinthian isthmus,

At a time when Homer laid claim on their souls, through his mighty Odysseus,
And half a millennium before the miserable and illiterate, following of Christ Jesus,
The foundations of mathematics were first uttered, by the elites of celebrated Pythagoras!

Although his writings aren’t extant, his oral tradition we shall reproduce,

“Within a square of side ‘a’ plus ‘b’, sit four triangles hardly abstruse,
They share those sides with a slope ‘c’, rearrange twice and you shall deduce,
that ‘a’ squared and ‘b’ squared in sum equal ‘c’ squared, without a deuce of an excuse!”

Its these simple profundities that reveal immensely, the beauty of thought to my heart,

What a difference intelligence makes, how it places us human beings apart!
Unraveled was the edifice of geometry, the plans were drawn for Descartes,
“Cogito Ergo Sum!”,  he said, need we ever remind ourselves we’re smart?

Before I sink into romantic quicksand, I wish to complete this shabby presentation,

Of the theorem’s glorious proofs and history, onto Euclid’s colossal assimilation!
Different from Mendeleev’s but as fundamental, these Elements - the building blocks of creation!
Book 1 defines points, lines, congruence, triangles unto the 47th proposition!

This proof is longer than the previous graphical, but lets not mangle beauty,

To read the axioms and common notions, and the definitions is our implicit duty,
Your sincerity’s reward is a cerebral revelation, of mankind’s most valuable booty,
Lo and behold this arresting emergence, an ensemble of propositions in tutti!

For fools who choose to be mathematically homeless, I wouldn’t mollify your despair,

But remember that a triangle between parallels, whose gram its base does share,
Is equal to half the gram in area, with absolutely no change to spare,
Right this triangle and proceed bravely, if ever this proof you dare!

Jefferson and Franklin opened with Euclid, “We hold these truths to be self evident”

Orwell insisted this declaration unmalleable, so did our sixteenth president,
There exists a proof by his fellow Republican, later a White House resident,
A time when our leaders were mentally faceted, and in matters of triangles not reticent.

Garfield the twentieth prez began, by first splitting a trapezoid in three,

The areas of which add up to its whole, to this fact we’re compelled to agree,
Since each of these figures possess a different base - a construction prima facie,
The equality follows with the most minimal effort, no need a doctorate degree.

May your curiosity voyage the Pacific, and reveal the glorious Eastern fecund,

Break yourself from the shackles of hubris, to others too knowledge beckoned,
Zhou Bi (Suan Jing) of one hundred BCE, had with a geometric proof reckoned, 
Thirteen centuries onward Ujjain blessed us, with the Leviathan Bhaskara the second.

Of all the above this is most artistic, it makes for a pleasing rangoli motif,

Lay the shorter base of one upon, the hypotenuse of another for relief,
Do this with four to enclose a square, for effect deliver on your handkerchief,
Impress your friends with the straightforward equality, in beauty restore their belief!

But if you lack friends, I implore you not fear, now is not the time to mope,

For you there is reason, and an intelligent soul, with mathematics you must elope,
With her go forth and erect the fortresses, of civilization’s ultimate hope,
Let illogic be the downfall of your enemies, let them tumble down their slippery slope.

The reason Summers was fired is a secret only the Department higher-ups and I were privy to. Simply put, he had automated his entire research. Not just the Data Acquisition or the Direct Numerical Simulations. From framing the problem statement to arriving at the conclusions, everything was coded in python wrapped c++. Our lab specializes in turbulent flows over bluff bodies, so much that we’ve been conferred the vulgar slogan “You give us a bluff body, and we’ll give you a turbulent flow.” This “Industrial Empiricism on Steroids”- quoting Summers - prompted his rapid disillusionment in the pursuit of his PhD within the first six months of his recruitment. To preserve the idea of using his brain, he began his own private programming exercise. The consecrated Scientific method of breaking a complex physical phenomenon down to study the relationship between its relevant variables had now been perverted into figuring out how plausible relationships yielded sentences like “If X is greater/less than the threshold frequency Y, then Z increases/decreases by an/ALPHA order/s of magnitude.” Depending on the results of the experiments and simulations, more sentences like “Turbulence model K predicts within-reasonable-accuracy/wrongly the observed power spectrum  L” were tailored. Such examples constitute a well known branch in formal language theory called context-free grammar wherein sentences can be constructed from simple mathematical statements like equalities, inequalities,implications, etc. One can get away with Summers’ “academic murder” particularly in fields that lack rigorous standards for apparatuses (low tolerance “controlled” environments such as in our “Facility”), which make for a discourse mired in conflicts independent of any meaningful furtherment of fundamental knowledge, where the contest between claims gains self-fulfilled legitimacy because not one single group possesses the mature balance between technology and scholarship. Once the relevant data sets were acquired and non-arbitrarily deemed sufficient, Summers’ code would simply brute-force compare various permutations, utilizing the University’s High Performance Computing Center’s Terabytes of storage and TeraFLOPS of speed, iterating through multi-dimensioned arrays of TeraCRAP, until the elusive set of patterns emerged as a palpable fabric of binary brocade. These were then translated to mathematical formalisms and passed through a series of linguistic checks to be further translated to context-free English.The resulting set of unambiguous but semantically incoherent statements, written in familiar academic argot, were iteratively refined to weed out recognizable traits of postmodernisms by comparing the generated sentences to those parsed from contemporary literature through a script wordplayfully titled “” after Orwell’s throttlingly unambiguous Newspeak and the symbol for dynamic viscosity in fluid mechanics. And since today’s attention deficit peer-reviewing standards allow research groups to publish data with just about any sloppy hand-waving explanation chaperoned by a citation to another group’s marginally better reasoning, Summers - or rather his code - had to once again simply parse relevant papers, pooled from a trivial keyword web-crawl (that Google hands on a platter viz. Scholar), for sentences that either supported or rejected his findings. These ingredients, iced with pretty contour plots and an inscrutably conclusive summary, were sufficient for publishing a paper in the Journal of Advanced Fluid Mechanics, in Summers’ case titled “The effects of percussive perturbations on the shedding frequencies of isotropic vortices.” The paper was accepted and even lauded for its “precise delineation of the relevant phenomena” by eminent scholars at Princeton and Stanford! Summers went on to publish two more; “High Weber number shearing at critical Pressure and Temperature” and “Criteria for Transonic boundary layer tripping on the NACA 0012 airfoil” in the following months,  passing the Turing test with flying colors. It was only after the third that he revealed to me, one alcohol-fueled night, what the solitary desktop icons “” and “” on his computer were all about, leaving me face-palming with a “2+2= what else could it be?” level of force. He could have wrapped up his defense in similar fashion but instead, as if a savage dining on barbecued-academic-institutions wasn’t enough, for his postprandial moral intercourse a.k.a. kicks for dicks, he sent JAFM a letter of mockery stating that their standards were “deleterious to Science” and “couldn’t possibly warrant $31 a paper”. This damning rebuke whirlwinded him straight into the Dean’s office where he was asked to quit the PhD program with immediacy, but was offered a position in IT that paid him double to keep his mouth shut. He took it. I still work here.

I rearranged the papers and slid them back into the folder feeling an absurd sense of restoration- does he not care about this crap anymore?

It was 2 pm and I’d developed a craving for coffee. “Anyone for a cuppa coffee?”, I asked with no actual intention of hanging out with the same people I would eventually return to work with. “Just had one at Lunch” said Cory, excitedly minimizing a dense excel sheet and opening up his browser to render facebook, tacitly and/or subconsciously justifying the cue for break time. “Naaaaah,” brayed Alessandro who was hiding a Neapolitan smirk behind a copy of “People”-it was hard to tell if Jennifer Aniston’s nose was a result of another septoplasty or a photoshop airbrush. Alessandro once shared an interesting theory on how Italian laziness shows up even in their coffee brewing tradition: “You see the Frainche use-a the forced steam to-a brew thee coffee. We use-a thee gravity.” Ping paused his Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Lacanian-Unconscious-Sex & Violence-Satiating-Game to turn around on his black-sweat-soaked-fart-adsorbing-bacterially-decomposing-leather chair and raise his right middle finger high over his rectangular head with an expression which would have looked menacing if he were in control of the narrowness of his eyes. Poor Ping was always made fun of because of his low alcohol tolerance, evangelism for state capitalism, loyalty to Panda Express and unbelievable lack of talent at table-tennis. And he didn’t drink coffee.

“Well fuck you guys. I’m getting a coffee!”

The vestibule to the elevator was flanked by doors on either side, with the leading pairs belonging to the richer groups that fired lasers from one to the other either for velocimetry or for chemical diagnostics or as a security system to alert the others of an incoming advisor. Not out of the fear of being fired on grounds of fucking around - PhD students are known for their stoicism- they were compensating for the shenanigans they missed out in school. Although that is visibly changing. Now the incoming candidates enter with full fledged lives - they snowboard, ride fast cars, go on dates (with an emphasis on the plural), have more than three friends in real life, pay attention to College sports, organize poker nights, swear by smart phones, work strictly from nine to five, spend hours in the gym fine tuning the appearances of their biceps and triceps and quadriceps and glutes, watch late night TV, take month long vacations, treat their pay as hard earned and go to office hours. Or maybe its just the West Coast.

The elevator doors opened to reveal a group of overconfident good looking undergraduates who’d formed a study group after their Thermodynamics instructor insisted that teamwork and brainstorming were excellent ways to grasp the subject matter. They were here to bribe Ping into giving them the answers to this week’s assignment on ‘Rubberband engines and Carnot bicycles’ by inviting him to the weekend’s fraternity parties where they would promise him more than just free drinks. It goes without saying that Alessandro would be invited too, at least by the girls. Cory didn’t like parties, but would go anyway. I got onto the platform and pressed “1” which should have rightly been zero. I checked to see if the ironic notice plate had been replaced. It hadn’t: “If this elevator for some reason stops, don’t panic. Press the Panic button below.”

It was a bright Summer’s day with no cover except for a single contrail that had grown Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities diffusing outwards like a growing series of tsunamis. You could tell it was a working day by the number and kind of bikes parked outside the Central Library: white kids’ chopper aspiring beach cruisers were mostly absent on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and the rest were utility bikes that were typically fewer in number only in the wee hours of Monday morning when assignment deadlines expired and gave birth to new ones. The Central Library served as a symbolic representation of the social hierarchy. The basement housed a very large scale integration of Indian and Chinese electrical engineers who professedly work well under pressure, which is ipso facto the promise of bountiful pleasure. The top floor was for rich seniors who sat on sofas with feet outstretched on ottomans, macbooks on their laps, gazing out their windows momentarily distracted by the incomprehensible futility of their existence, the glowing pale white monochrome half-bitten apples on the backsides of their LCDs unflinching and unforgiving in this or any other philosophical investigation. Undergraduate girls who wore sunglasses that weighed more than the rest of their clothing, lay sunbathing on the lawn, their shock absorbing breasts pressed against the drying grass, deprived of their photosynthesis, and their boyfriends rubbing sunscreen about their lumbars tracing cardioids with the heels of their palms while sporting a look of pathetically blatant concupiscence. An all girl acapella group found itself surrounded by onlookers while rehearsing for the upcoming All American Intercollegiate Acapella World Championships. Two obese twenty year olds clapped their elephantine hands, slapping thick layers of accumulated jiggling fat to a rhythm they were beatboxing in a low register. The other two girls were the foci of everyone’s ogling. One showed off a generous surface area of cleavage fanned out by a decollete neckline, the sunlight adjusting the shine of her flowing red hair as she swayed her head in a kind of two-dimensional normal mode while singing in an angelic voice, her lips thin and taut with arousing wildness. The other, equally pulchritudinous and endowed, her bright brown eyes catching the sight of my Adam’s apple rematerializing upon soaking up her callipygian contours, accentuated by a tantalizingly thin translucent skirt which was in a shade of gray that I can best describe as F0F0F0 in rgb hexcode. Their beauty played in concert with their masterful superposition of octaves,delivering a breathless vocal cadenza foreign to the autotune exploits of every other schmuck with a hairstyle and a record label.

Windmill, windmill for the land.
Turn forever hand in hand
Take it all in on your stride
It is stinking, falling down
Love forever love is free
Let's turn forever you and me
Windmill, windmill for the land
Is everybody in?”

It was an unfamiliar acoustic-like rendition of Gorillaz’ electronic hip-hop single “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone clapped and joined in the chorus, but how many, I wondered, could place the reference to Orwell’s windmill? This song is as subversive a take on today’s aspirations for a socialistic utopia as Animal Farm was when it first came out in 1945. There’s a book I dare Disney to plagiarize. They couldn’t even if they wanted to anymore. Too busy rewriting Spiderman’s love triangle or curbing Luke Skywalker’s incestual proclivities in an attempt at parenting their audience - an audience that can’t read or has ever perceived of a need that precedes their creed and causes them to cede the high steeds on which they speak of greed like a child who pleads for more and more until it succeeds and settles for thoughtless speed that breeds stupor in a mind unfreed and unsheathed to the bullshit that misleads ephebes, stampedes the buried values underneath souls which bleed in a silence that exceeds the torture of Hades so they proceed to scrawl a melancholy screed in the parentheses of our deeds which alas, no one will ever read.
Varun calm the fuck down. Have some Chyawanprash. Take it easy.

I pulled out from the crowd and headed towards the StarBucks which was attached to the side of the library like some sort of symbiotic tumor. I had scheduled to meet Summers there to give him my latest batch of Chyawanprash. Chyawanprash is the brand name of a popular Indian laxative which was also now the codename for a form of esculent marijuana prepared for students on campus (exclusively by me) who suffered from pleurisy but still wished to get high, basically made of sugar, cocoa, milk, vanilla and varying grades and molalities of marijuana depending on the customers, who I’m told know best. The name is accidental; when I first got into the racket, I found myself running out of containers so I emptied one of the many of my roommate’s dabbas and repacked it with what looked indistinguishable from the original contents. (Many pranks were played indeed with little sympathy for my roommate’s dyspepsia) The name stuck because of various reasons, the most significant among which was its instant appeal to hipsters.

Summers’ Aqualung figure was immediately discernible among a sea of Starbucks Loyalists, sipping coffee and playing with a cigarette between his fingers. “Varun! Over here!” he called, overemphasizing the alveolar trill in my name. “Hey!” I replied and sat opposite his shabby person.

“Did you bring the stuff?”
“Yeah.” I pulled it out of my jacket’s underside and handed it over to him without a fuss.
“All point zero zero zero one kilograms?”
I took a couple of seconds. “Yeah. Thats three on your tab so far.”
“Sure. So, tell me something mind-blowing” he demanded, pocketing the dabba.
“I’m fresh out of mind TNT.”
“Not even a little dyna-mind?”
“Did you know that the sleeve of your Cappuccino could save a hundred thousand trees?”
“This single sleeve?”
“Well, not by itself. But you endorse the idea.”
“Would they let me endorse some other ideas?”
“These self-righteous capitalist....raptors!”

It was very difficult of late to discuss anything with Summers without it degenerating into a diatribe on capitalism. It was his new thing. But maybe that is the nature of our generation’s impediments. I couldn’t let that come in the way of the career advice I was about to ask of him.

“Professor Krauss believes that Science teachers should be paid more.”
“Why on Earth?”
O-Oh. “To incentivize a Scientific upbringing.”
“Professor Krauss, with due respect, is punching way over his weight. He thinks that by paying Science teachers more, more people will wish to teach Science and hence more people will learn Science. Tell me Varun, are you seriously asking me this?”
“Well, yeah. It is a popular economic model.”
“You present yourself a strawman.”
“You see the flaw in the argument. Money can’t buy certain things. No matter how much you offer to pay Science teachers, the thing that inspires one to pursue Science can never be shaken - Curiosity. Krauss thinks he can inspire people to be curious by luring them with money? How does one look at a butterfly and remind themselves to ask questions of the light interference from the wings, or its bizarre metamorphosis upon conjuring up the thought of a luxurious future. Many ideas have gone down in history with the reputation of the excreta of a Rhinoceros. This is I hope is one of them.”
“Somehow, I’ve lost my craving for coffee.”
“Idiot. Him I mean.”
“He did say it was a controversial idea.”
“I think he believes it. It comes from his militant atheism, this idea.”
“Surely you are a militant atheist yourself?”
“For different reasons, not the least of which comes close to the otiose Republican imagination of his.”
“Then how do we improve Science education?”
“What is this vulgar urgency for improving Science education? This distracts from a more entrenched problem in our Society.”
“Class struggle?”
“You complete me.”
“I have to go.”
“Next week same time?”
“Same place. And by the way, you’ve left a bunch of stuff back at the lab.”
“Don’t you want it back?”
“Why not?”
“Let some junior stumble on it and put the pieces together and revelate. I will be needing some self-learned younglings in the future.”

I walked away empty handed and uncaffeinated. Summers had sealed a fate that was incontestable to him while I was here grappling with Life pulling the rug from right underneath me. Research was shit. Teaching was shit. Food was shit. Colleagues were shit. People in general were turning into Non-Newtonian goops of shit. All I had was my Chyawanprash hustling and some incoherent ideas and misplaced affections.

I returned to the lab to find everyone exactly how I’d left them. I opened up my browser and did something I was sure I would regret for a long time, but as Zizek says, “Why be happy when you can be interesting?” I began to type in Gmail mustering all the genteelisms I could recall:

After much deliberation and insomnia, I’ve come to the rather difficult decision of resigning from your establishment. This may come as a surprise, but I assure you that I’ve given this much thought and feel that I have no more time to lose. Where to shed this saved time I have not figured out yet, but.....”

I felt stupid at this point, stopped typing and closed the fucking thing, dejected at the strength of my convictions. Just then an alarm went off.
“Professor incoming!” shouted Ping. Cory deftly restored his desktop and Alessandro flung the magazine in my direction. I grabbed it and sat on it, feigned a casual disposition and whispered under my breath, “Just a little longer.”


Seeker of Truth said...

Signor Alessandro probably hails from the south of his native land.

Vyaas said...

Indeed....Napoli is in the south.

Nikhil Rajagopalan said...

Summers reminds me of a child prodigy in Arthur C. Clarke's The Ghost from the Grand Banks who could visualize complex 3D shapes in her head and was exceptionally brilliant.

Great post. You've managed to blur the lines separating reality from fiction.

Vyaas said...

Thanks Nick!
This line separating reality from fiction, according to Lacan, is non-existent, an idea I'm deeply in love with:

Seeker of Truth said...

Ping's favorite TED talk :

Seeker of Truth said...

A discussion on what the scientific world will look like after

Seeker of Truth said...

The problem of science today isn't as much about the fake papers as about the real ones, this blogger seems to argue.