I’ve been two weeks at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. This is as part of a month long Visiting Students’ Research Programme. The programme has been frustrating in a number of ways… but then, I think the good parts are yet to come.
Before coming to TIFR, I wondered why people supposed to be doing research end up doing nothing most of the days. Well, now, I know that even I am susceptible to that, thoguh I think my nothings are more worthwhile than theirs (compare contributing articles to Wikipedia, writing pages on Olympiads, blogging out my experiences, and other noble changes to the world, as opposed to spending time playing computer games). But then, that’s just opinion. The fact of the matter is that when confronted with the ocean, you prefer not to drink. And the same holds (or shall we say held?) for me.
So that’s enough of philosophizing, now for a detailed description of what happened to me. I’ll just document the beginning in this post. Stay tuned for more!
About a week before going for the VSRP, I got the sudden feeling that I need to get prepared for this thing. I mean, TIFR is the best research institute in India for mathematics, and it is one of the places I am considering for doing my Integrated Ph.D. after finishing my B.Sc. So I naturally wanted to squeeze the maximum I could from the camp.
At the time of my selection, I had sent in a list of topics I was interested in. But I hadn’t got to hear anything from VSRP about what work I would be assigned. So I decided to send this list again, this time directly to the person mentioned to the academic coordinator, Professor Dipendra Prasad.
My primary interest area within mathematics is group theory (more on that later). But I knew that in most places, pure group theory as a subject in itself doesn’t get all that attention, so I played safe by putting in many other topics I was also interested in. The top two points were:
(i) Group Theory and Representation Theory
(ii) Commutative algebra and algebraic geometry
Professor Dipendra Prasad (whom I’ll just call DP for brevity, without intending any lack of respect) replied promptly suggesting the paper on “Lie Group Representations of Polynomial Rings”. Talk of shoving in group theory, representation theory, commutative algebra and algebraic geometry all in one! The topic didn’t exactly set me on fire, but I decided that I might as well go for it.
On 15th June, I arrived at TIFR, all ready to begin my Visiting Students’ Research Programme. The official intro was at 2:30 p.m. but I wanted to get started as early as possible. So, along with a couple of other VSRP students, I dropped in to meet DP.
DP made all three of us sit in chairs (in TIFR, all offices have one cozy chair for the person and 2-3 hard chairs for others).
He began with the question, “Do you want to do something easy or something difficult?” After trying to play it safe, we concluded, along with him, that we might as well do something difficult and something different.
He then took a miniature interview of each of us.
He began by asking me my name, college etc. and wrote it on a piece of paper. Then his brow furrowed and he asked me if I was the person who had mailed him some time ago. I told him I had tried to locate the paper online but wasn’t allowed access. He said he’ll locate the paper and give it to me today, and I should get started on reading it.
“It is a bit long paper… but it will be good to read”. He fixed me with a penetrating stare and asked me if it was okay. I wasn’t sure but wanted to go ahead and try, so I said yes.
Interesting and exciting… well, somehow, I wasn’t too enthusiastic. But I thought I’ll give it my best shot.
Actually, there are plenty of interesting questions that I’d like to explore:
How are research topics chosen? Who decides what a student, fresh into “research”, studies? The student or the guide? Does the guide also need to take into account his or her own limitations?
What happens to students whose areas of interest are not catered to by the guide or by the institute? Should they pursue their interest or do something where they can get maximum help?
DP is a fairly versatile all rounder with at least a basic knowledge of all subjects, and he was willing to take practically all the students. But what if it had been somebody else who had only a small compass of knowledge?
In Hamming’s talk on research he says that we should work on the small problems in the important areas. Two mistakes he tells us to guard against are: (i) Working in unimportant areas and (ii) Working on massive problems
His advice seems targeted as the student studying for or after his doctorate. What about undergraduate students who are yet to garner experience in all areas?
Keep reading as I unfold my opinions on these issues. And do respond with your own comments and posts.