Monday, July 13, 2009

Who trains our graduate students?

Over the weekend, a comparison of our (it seems only eastern India) construction workers and those at other (better places) came up in a social conversation. The observation is really common place- the slope of the flooring is messed up, so that water is flowing in the 'wrong' direction and leaving the place muddy. I call it a common experience because I had some construction work done in our place over the winter and had to literally tell, what I had assumed would be the 'experts' how to go about fixing things.

It was a very uneasy experience. I used to start every morning, unable to tell them anything because I was assuming that they knew the tools of the trade much better than me but by mid day, I would end up an active participant of the work. In Calcutta people will often describe this as that these people are in a constant lookout to cheat you and unless you are attentive at what they are doing they'll do a sloppy job and cheat you. But what if they are incapable of doing a better job? What if they are actually doing the best they can and our input is actually necessary.
The construction workers, or for that matter any worker, here, are not trained/skilled personnel. Farmers, come and do building construction in he city and similarly in other trades. Now do we get, why labor is cheap out here?

A trained construction worker, will not only be able to read engineering drawings but will also be able to identify the best possible solution to a problem and so will be conversant with the tool set and also the market, whats available and whats not. And, inevitably, they will come up with a better solution to your problem than you can; so that you get used to the habit of just stating your problem and a solution delivered and eventually you'll be ashamed even to start speaking about a probable solution. This last aspect will arise only when you stop keeping up with the market and therefore the people you are hiring for help is actually driving you towards staying on top of things-progress.

To get to a slightly more technical perspective, some of our scanning probe microscopy instruments that allow us to look at atoms, need to be vibrationally isolated for obvious reasons. They need other environmental noise control too, but how do you feel about constructing a room, specifically to provide this vibrational isolation, without ever being able to measure the actual vibration spectrum? While lecturing (while the instrument is still in its crates) about the scanning probe method you remember to point out that environmental vibration is a source of noise in your data. Then you show them the instrument and let them handle it and they become curious as to how such a large instrument is vibrationally isolated and then you tell them that it wasn't really done very scientifically. The engineer was able to estimate the ground vibration for that site, from the size of the building. And, the engineer was also the person who provided a solution and executed it.

Then, who are the graduate students of eastern India learning from?

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