Saturday, November 22, 2014

Investing in soft matter

I really enjoyed my visit to the TIFR Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (TCIS) of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Hyderabad. This is an ambitious and exciting new venture. Higher education and basic research is expanding rapidly in India, with many new IITs, IISERs, and Central Universities. These are all hiring and so it is wonderful time to be looking for a science faculty job in India.

The initial focus of hiring of the new campus of TIFR (India's premier research institution in Mumbai) has been on soft condensed matter (broadly defined) with connections in biology and chemistry. There are many good reasons for this focus. Foremost, is that there excellent Indian's working in this area. However, I see many other reasons why choosing this area is a much better idea than quantum condensed matter, ultra cold atoms, quantum information, cosmology, elementary particle physics, string theory (yuk!), ...

Other reasons why I think investing in soft matter is wise and strategic include:
  • this is exciting and important inter-disciplinary research
  • there are real world applications ranging from to foams to medicine to polymer turbulence drag reduction [used in oil pipelines and in fire fighter hoses]
  • these types of applications are particularly important in Majority World countries
  • in public outreach one can talk about flocking and do simple and impressive demonstrations such the Briggs-Rauscher oscillating chemical reaction or sand flowing through channels.
  • the experimental infrastructure and start up costs are relatively small. most experiments are "table top" and at room temperature. this allows a new institution to get some momentum and "runs on the board" as quickly as possible.
Having said that I think there are significant obstacles and challenges with such interdisciplinary initiatives. These challenges are scientific, intellectual, and cultural (in the disciplinary sense).
Excellent inter-disciplinary teaching and research is a just plain hard work and slow. Getting people to put in the time and keep sticking at is difficult. It requires special individuals (both faculty and students) to build bridges, learn each others languages, respect, and persevere.

The TCIS Director, Sriram Ramaswamy is co-author of a nice RMP article, Hydrodynamics of soft active matter.

I am looking forward to seeing how this exciting new adventure develops over the years. India is leading the way.

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