musings on music and life

March 8, 2017

Rest in Peace, Prof. Olah

Filed under: Chemistry — sankirnam @ 11:54 pm

I just heard the news today that Prof. George A. Olah had passed away.

This affects me personally, as I did my PhD in his laboratories, and was the last student to actually do research in superacid chemistry and carbocations, which is what Prof. Olah received the Nobel Prize for.

Prof. Olah was truly a giant not just in Physical Organic Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry, but Chemistry in general. I don’t need to rehash what has already been inscribed in the annals of scientific history – Prof. Olah has written several autobiographical accounts of his life and his research career, and these do a much better job at explaining things than I ever could.

What I can say is that Prof. Olah’s approach to science was extremely rigorous, thanks to the education he received in Hungary prior to the Communist revolution. This rigor was carried into everything he studied in Organic Chemistry. Prof. Olah was also extremely fearless when it came to exploring new ideas in chemistry, and this quality stuck with him the rest of his life. He started his career off in a makeshift laboratory (which was pieced together in a balcony) in the Technical Institute in Budapest, where, much to the disapproval of his PhD advisor, he did work in fluorine chemistry, Friedel-Crafts chemistry, and superacid chemistry, the subjects that would be a recurring theme in his life.

Lately, there’s been a trend in popular media, whether it’s books, blogs, or news media, to pit foxes and hedgehogs against each other. Foxes are people who have a very shallow understanding of lots of topics, whereas hedgehogs are said to be people who have a deep understanding of one topic. All of these sources tout the superiority of foxes, claiming that they make better predictions due to the fact that they don’t get caught up on one idea. Ever since I first read about this in Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I was unconvinced, because I knew scientists who worked on one (or a few) big ideas for their entire careers. Prof. Olah was one such individual, and he truly made the case for the superiority of hedgehogs!

Prof. Olah’s modus operandi was to throw all his effort in one area until he was satisfied that he had learned as much as he could there. He would then collect all his manuscripts and write a large review either as an independent review article or as a book, and then move on to the next topic. In this fashion, he covered a large swath of chemistry, from synthetic methodologies, to carbocation chemistry, Friedel-Crafts chemistry, onium ions, nitration, and methanol. If you want to learn more about these topics, I wrote about them briefly here.

Prof. Olah was extremely organized and methodical in his approach to science, and this is revealed in his publications, the majority of which are in various series. He has a series of 300+ papers on “Stable carbocations”, 60+ papers on “Friedel-Crafts chemistry”, 200+ papers on “Synthetic methods and reactions”, and so on. Each of these papers is a gem. Prof. Olah’s command over English is impeccable, and the papers are all carefully written to make the science not just understandable but accessible. Prof. Olah also had the good fortune to get married to a fellow chemist, Judith Olah, and they published several papers in Friedel-Crafts chemistry together.

Prof. Olah was one of the few chemists to get a reagent named after himself – Olah’s reagent is a mixture of HF and pyridine that is much easier to handle than pure HF itself, since it is a liquid at room temperature. Prof. Olah also came up with the use of SO2ClF as a cosolvent for superacids, as well as discovering that the mixture of HSO3F and SbF5 could form an extremely powerful liquid superacid system convenient for studying carbocations. The oft-repeated story of how that mixture came to be called “Magic Acid” is something that doesn’t need to be told again here.

There are a few things that set Prof. Olah apart from other chemists, not just from his generation, but also the current generation. The first is that he was able to do Nobel-Prize winning work while not being at a top university (e.g. Harvard/Stanford/Caltech/MIT/Berkeley etc.)! This was always a matter of pride for him, and really does go to show the quality of his ideas and his thinking. The second was his concern to do research that was truly practical and addressed the problems facing humanity today, such as climate change and energy storage. It was due to this concern that he spent the last 2 decades focused solely on a pet idea – The “Methanol Economy”. He also developed the process of methanol “bi-reforming”, which is based on existing Fischer-Tropsch chemistry, in order to make it practical.

Of course, success always breeds contempt, and unfortunately Prof. Olah did have enemies in his lifetime. Plenty of older chemists will remember the scientific rivalry (bordering on animosity) between Prof. H. C. Brown and Prof. Saul Winstein, and after Prof. Winstein suddenly passed away in 1969, Prof. Olah took his place. Another injustice is that Prof. Olah was never invited to give a lecture at Caltech or Harvard University. This is unconscionable, given his scientific accomplishments in chemistry!

I am proud to belong to the scientific family of Prof. Olah (which extends back to Emil Fischer), and grateful to have had the opportunity to learn and practice organic chemistry in his laboratories at the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, USC.

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My copy of Superacid Chemistry…

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…signed by all the authors, including Prof. Olah!

EDIT (3/9/2017): USC has issued a press release in memory of Prof. Olah, which is well-written and very detailed.

2nd EDIT (3/14/2017): C&EN has written an article in memory of Prof. Olah, and some of his former students and colleagues have commented online.

February 27, 2017

Classics in Organic Chemistry, Part IX

Filed under: Classics in Organic Chemistry — sankirnam @ 10:05 pm

Apologies for the hiatus, I’ve just been busy with getting settled into the routine of work while also juggling everything else going on in my life.

This next paper is one that I feel has not received the attention it deserves – it is incredibly groundbreaking and really should get the author, A. J. Arduengo, a Nobel Prize. Every October, I wait eagerly for the Nobel Committee’s decision in hope that Arduengo’s name comes up, but so far have been disappointed. Oh well… there’s still time for them to redeem themselves.

As students of organic chemistry know, carbon is unique among the elements in terms of the number and variety of stable bonds it can form with itself and other elements. This ability of carbon is central to life and biochemistry; no other element has these properties to the same degree that carbon does. While silicon is also tetravalent like carbon (and has provided inspiration to countless sci-fi writers), it polymerizes through Si-O linkages, forming polysiloxanes. Si forms bonds with itself with great difficulty, in contrast to carbon.

When undergraduate students learn organic chemistry, they are introduced to the concept of “arrow pushing”, which is a formalism that allows one to keep track of electrons – after all, reaction mechanisms are simply the rearrangement of electron pairs (e.g. σ bonds, lone pairs, and π bonds) relative to the nuclei. Most organic mechanisms proceed through carbon intermediates in a variety of oxidation states that students quickly become familiar with. The major ones are carbocations, carbanions, and carbenes.

Prof. G. A. Olah received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994 for the work he had done studying carbocations over the course of his (now 70-year) career. Prof. Olah’s big breakthrough was the isolation of carbocations – particularly the t-butyl cation, as stable, isolable species that were amenable to spectroscopic characterization (e.g. NMR and IR spectroscopy). This was a big deal at the time of discovery, because prior to that, chemists had proposed the intermediacy of carbocations as intermediates in acid-catalyzed organic reactions and rearrangements, but had not been able to conclusively prove their existence. Regular readers of this blog will know that I had the privilege of working under Prof. Olah and Prof. Surya Prakash, continuing research on new classes of carbocations – but that is not relevant to this discussion.

While carbocations have been isolated, free carbanions still have not been (at least to my knowledge). This also leads into a discussion on solvent effects and solvation. When carbocations are generated in the condensed phase in superacid media, one has to also consider the counterion, which is the conjugate base of the acid (e.g. SbF6). Is the anion also associated with the carbocation, and if so, what is the nature of the ion pair? These questions were studied by Prof. Saul Winstein at UCLA in the early 20th century, and he came up with the concept of the “intimate ion pair” based on solvolytic studies he had carried out in order to probe the the SN1-SN2 continuum.

In organic synthesis, when you want to generate a carbon nucleophile, you don’t actually use a “free” carbanion – instead, you use a pseudo-carbanion, and most common organometallics are exactly that (e.g. Grignard reagents and organolithiums). Grignard reagents and organolithiums are commonly employed as souces of nucleophilic carbon, but the C-Mg or C-Li bond is actually rather covalent. The ionic character increases as you go down the periodic table, and so C-Cs bonds would be expected to be very ionic. I haven’t looked much into organocesium chemistry, but since I have not heard much about it, I can safely assume that it is pretty esoteric – cesium is not the easiest metal to handle, since it ignites spontaneously in air.

Anyway, the main thing is that “free” carbanions have not really been isolated or studied the same way that Prof. Olah was able to study carbocations – perhaps there’s another Nobel Prize up for grabs there?

After carbocations and carbanions, the final carbon intermediate is carbenes. Carbenes are unusual in that they are formally neutral, and have properties of both carbocations and carbanions. They have an empty orbital like a carbocation, and also have a lone pair of electrons. The other complication is that what I just mentioned holds true for one particular spin state of carbenes; the empty orbital allows carbenes to have 2 potential spin states, namely the singlet and triplet states. When the lone electrons are paired, then it is said to be in the singlet state, and when the electrons are unpaired, then it is said to be a triplet species.carbenes

Carbenes are important species because of their utility in a variety of areas – most significantly, the Grubbs 2nd generation catalyst has an NHC (N-heterocyclic carbene) ligand, which confers extra stability compared to phosphines due to its ability to strongly donate electrons as well as engage in π-backbonding.grubbs_catalyst_2nd_generation

With that context, today’s paper is on the isolation of the first stable, crystalline carbene. This was carried out by A. J. Arduengo and coworkers at the DuPont Central Research and Development laboratories in Delaware in 1990. The DuPont laboratories were the place to be in the 20th century for cutting-edge chemistry research – they basically single-handedly revolutionized not just the field of chemistry, but the lives of everyone on the planet. It’s difficult to overstate the impact that DuPont’s research had; here’s a brief list:

  • Wallace Carothers in the 1930’s single-handedly developed the field of polymer chemistry while at DuPont, creating Nylon, Neoprene, and the concept of step-growth polymerization.
  • Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon by accident when he saw that the pressure in a cylinder of tetrafluoroethylene had dropped to zero. Upon sawing the cylinder open, he obtained a white powdery solid that was very chemically inert, had a low surface friction, and had a very high heat resistance. Plunkett became infamous for later developing Freons (fluorochlorocarbons which were extensively used as refrigerants due to their heat capacity, until Prof. Rowland (UCI) discovered that they were responsible for ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere) and tetraethyllead (which was used as an anti-knock additive for gasoline until it was realized how undesirable lead pollution is).
  • Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar while at DuPont, and showed that when woven, the strands of aramids were incredibly strong, thus leading to their use in bulletproof vests.
  • Charles J. Pedersen synthesized crown ethers while at DuPont, and showed that 12-C-4 had a high affinity for Li+, 15-C-5 for Na+, and 18-C-6 for K+. Pedersen later received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work, and was one of the few recipients not to have a PhD!
  • Richard Shrock started his research career at DuPont investigating tantalum alkylidenes, which are metallic carbene intermediates in olefin metathesis. Shrock continued these investigations as a professor at MIT, and eventually received the Nobel Prize along with Prof. Robert Grubbs (Caltech) for his work in developing well-defined olefin metathesis catalysts.
  • F. N. Tebbe developed the eponymous Tebbe’s reagent for methylenation of carbonyl compounds. This led to the later development of the Petasis reagent, which I might cover later.
  • Norman Borlaug also worked at DuPont CR&D for 2 years, but did his major Nobel-Prize (and humanitarian) work afterwards. Norman Borlaug’s impact on humanity cannot be overstated; it’s mindboggling to think that just due to three people (himself, Fritz Haber, and Carl Bosch), we have been able to support an estimated extra 3 billion people on the planet!
  • T. V. Rajanbabu (now at OSU) and coworkers did some very elegant work in the 80’s developing a new polymerization method called group-transfer polymerization, and also demonstrated some very nice radical-mediated ring closures using Ti(III) reagents.

Arduengo’s work therefore follows a long line of high-impact research that was conducted by some of the best minds in the world at one of the most productive laboratories in the world! Shrock and Tebbe had done some carbene research at DuPont earlier, so there was a precedent for that. Arduengo generated the first stable persistent carbene by deprotonating the imidazolium species below. arduengo_1Catalytic DMSO is needed, and the actual base is the dimsyl anion, as NaH is basically insoluble in THF. In fact, NaH and THF reminds me of a spectacular gaffe by a research group in China that found its way into JACS in 2009 claiming the discovery of a NaH-mediated oxidation of secondary alcohols to ketones (which turned out to actually be mediated by peroxides in the THF or atmospheric oxygen).

The incredible thing is that the carbene so generated is stable and can be isolated in pure form. It can be recrystallized, and Arduengo was able to get X-ray diffraction data, as well as NMR data. The 13C NMR shows that C2 still has some electrophilic character even though it formally also has a lone pair. Part of the stability enjoyed by the carbene is due to the blocking provided by the very bulky adamantyl groups – in fact, the carbene can be melted and remelted without depression of the melting point!

As Arduengo concludes in the paper:

Carbenes have long been recognized as important reaction intermediates. The aggressive study of carbenes as reactive intermediates has provided much fundamental knowledge for chemical science. Until now there have not been any “bottle-able” carbenes, and we hope that the production of these stable nucleophilic carbenes will allow for convenient study of this class of compounds. We are currently investigating both the electronic structure and chemical reactivity of 1 and related isolable carbenes.

If NHC’s and related compounds are being used as versatile ligands in organometallic chemistry, organic synthesis, and as organocatalysts in their own right, it is all thanks to the seminal work of Prof. A. J. Arduengo. I sincerely hope that one day, he and his work get the recognition that is due.

Addendum: After all this, I hope you will share my disbelief that DuPont gutted the CR&D in 2015-2016.

February 22, 2017

View from the office

Filed under: Photography — sankirnam @ 10:48 pm

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Taken with my cellphone (Nexus 5) camera. Effects and filter done automatically by Google Photos.

January 28, 2017

Good news

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 9:29 am

Regular readers of this blog will know of my struggles to find a job for the last two years. I finally have some good news on this front – I started a new job on Monday for a small consulting firm in Orange County. The work is challenging, but at the same time, interesting and rewarding. I also have the privilege of working alongside some extremely successful, accomplished, and intelligent people, so I am actually excited to go in to work each day!

I’m very happy that the position is local – one of my priorities was to stay in CA, not just for mrudangam but also given recent developments (the election and the US economy in general). For better or for worse, everything is getting concentrated on the coasts, and most tech/biotech jobs are either in the Bay Area or Boston – not being proximate to those areas can set you back in terms of job growth potential. In addition, I learned the hard way that networking is everything when it comes to getting a job – applying online is like playing roulette hoping that your resume gets chosen out of the pile out of 100’s/1000’s of others.

#chemjobs #thestruggleisreal

January 20, 2017

Farewell, Obama

Filed under: Life — sankirnam @ 11:16 am

Thanks, President Obama, for a remarkable 8 years. Your administration accomplished a lot, and even though it may seem that we do not appreciate your struggles (especially with a gridlocked partisan Congress), I hope history will be a lot kinder and that you do get the recognition you deserve. You were more than we, the American people, deserved as last November’s election showed. You can now take a well-earned break from public scrutiny – but please don’t disappear for too long, as we need your help in making sure all your hard work doesn’t get undone by the next President!

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Some links:

  1. An excellent article by President Obama for The Economist (Oct 2016) on the state of the US economy, and what challenges still lie ahead.
  2. Obama’s farewell address (I missed seeing this live on TV, so I have to watch it today in order to console myself over current developments):

  3. I did happen to see this one live – Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Vice-President Joe Biden!

     

  4. Obama’s State of the Union address from 2015! I particularly remember this speech as he was slightly snarkier than usual, and deservedly so. He also chastised Congress towards the end for being so partisan, and implored Republicans and Democrats to come together to generate solutions for the good of the nation.

January 17, 2017

Poromboke Paadal

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 12:39 pm

This video has been trending on Youtube for the last couple of days:

One cannot fault TMK’s music – the music is beautiful, and his rendition is excellent, as always.

I just find it interesting that he is using Carnatic music as a medium for environmental activism, given that Carnatic music is an extremely niche art form. This may not be the optimal way to reach out to a lot of people with this message.

December 16, 2016

My experiences with learning “Data Science” in 2016

Filed under: Coding, Data Science — sankirnam @ 11:21 pm

Well, 2016 is drawing to a close…

This has been a weird year globally, with the death of a lot of influential people in history (including, among others, Muhammad Ali and lately J. Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, India), and some other strange political occurrences (Brexit and Trump getting elected). I haven’t posted here much because I have a million thoughts swirling around my mind all the time now, and finding a couple of hours of focused time in order to distill them down into an article on a single topic is a bit challenging. Nonetheless, there is something that I want to discuss today.

Firstly, I had the sobering realization a few days ago that it has been 2 years since I finished my PhD and I have nothing concrete to show for it; I’ve been unemployed for the past two years. Well, I’ve learned some valuable things about life and other topics which I wouldn’t have been able to learn otherwise, but it has been at a rather expensive cost: progress in my career.

In any case, one of the major themes of this year (for me) was that I made major progress in learning programming! I want to share what I learned so that others who are thinking of venturing down this path can learn from my experiences.

Firstly, my motivation in learning to code resulted in me being a little unfocused; I was unemployed and seeing a lot of people around me getting hired for cushy tech jobs with great salaries. Desperation shouldn’t be your only motivation for trying something. I was also unaware of the vast variety of “coding” jobs out there, and they can be quite different; CSS is considered “coding”, but it is vastly different from doing software development in C++, for instance.

I’m all for teaching computer science principles in the grade school level; the basics of control flow are not terribly complicated – it’s just logic, after all. Understanding looping, recursion, iterations, and conditionals does not require a very advanced background in any other subject, and knowing these will take you very far later on in life. I’m a strong believer that everyone should learn to code, given the increasing automation that is threatening all industries today. Those who can code will be the last people to have their jobs automated out of existence, pure and simple.

All this being said, I started my journey down this rabbit hole with Codecademy. I highly recommend this for others who also have no formal background in programming/CS, as it eases you into the relevant concepts of the language of your choice. It’s a great place to learn the higher-level languages (such as JavaScript, Python, and Ruby), but keep in mind that the courses are introductory, and very short (they can be completed in a few hours). They’re designed to give you just enough knowledge so that you can go out and keep learning on your own or from other sources.

After Codecademy, my next stop was FreeCodeCamp. FreeCodeCamp is amazing, and I hope it grows from strength to strength over time. It is the brainchild of Quincy Larson, and it attempts to create a fairly rigorous curriculum in Full-Stack Web Development starting from scratch; no prior knowledge is required, like Codecademy. The first lesson is literally “Hello World!”. It starts off with a comprehensive coverage of the front-end (website building with HTML and CSS), and also covers responsive design using Twitter’s Bootstrap API. It then progresses into JQuery and vanilla JavaScript, and it has you also do some pretty challenging algorithm challenges, which reinforce your understanding of all the methods and properties in JavaScript. The bonus with FreeCodeCamp is that it also has you working on projects, which can be incorporated into a portfolio so that you have something to show to prospective employers.

Web Development has the lowest barrier to entry among all the different types of programming, and that’s why places like FreeCodeCamp thrive. It was after doing it for a while that I realized webdev wasn’t for me, however; I don’t have the patience to mess around with DOM elements and get that alignment juuuuust right; if I really had to choose, I would be more comfortable doing back-end stuff.

I continued working on JavaScript and FreeCodeCamp while applying to programming bootcamps in April-May 2016, and eventually ended up taking a “Data Science” bootcamp by Logit in Hollywood. I wrote about it earlier,  so there’s no need to reiterate what’s already been said. I felt like “Data Science” would be the best fit, given what I had experienced with programming thus far, and also (naively) thought it would give me the best ability to leverage my PhD.

I used the word “naively” in the previous paragraph; here’s what I learned:

  1. Getting a job after a bootcamp is all about how strong your resume is prior to the bootcamp. Now, that may not seem fair, as people want to go to bootcamps to “reset” their careers and get a fresh start, but the reality is that you really can’t learn much in just 12 weeks. And now that bootcamps are getting more popular, employers are looking for other ways to distinguish you from the hundreds or thousands of other people who are also taking bootcamps. Sure, you took a JavaScript bootcamp, but what else stands out? Do you have an advanced degree (MS/PhD) or did you go to a top university (Harvard/Stanford/MIT/Caltech/CMU etc.)? Do you have relevant prior work experience?
  2. In “Data Science”, degrees in CS, math, statistics, computational fields (e.g. computational biology), biostatistics, or physics are extremely sexy. If you have one, flaunt it as much as you can! Any other degree (including my PhD in Organic Chemistry, as I discovered) is worthless in this context. That’s because “Data Science” is a poorly defined field and a lot of employers still don’t know what they want. If you look at job descriptions, most will require knowledge of a scripting language (R or Python), Java, a lower-level language (C or C++), thorough understanding of SQL, and Bash scripting (on Linux). These are not things you can pick up in a few weeks at a bootcamp.
  3. The “Data Science” market is cooling off right now. A few years ago, there was a massive hype surrounding “Data Science”, and there were numerous articles talking about how there was a critical shortage of “Data Scientists” in the country. My experiences have shown the opposite, however – it took one of my friends in my cohort (who has a PhD in physics, one of the “sexy” subjects I mentioned above), about 4 months to land a job after the bootcamp.

So – what useful, actionable advice can I give after all this? What I can say is that if you want to learn “Data Science”, all the material is available online for free. The advantage with a bootcamp is that it gives you a roadmap of what to study, as well as connections – to your classmates, instructors, and other people who the organization is affiliated with. Out of all the courses I’ve seen and taken online regarding “Data Science”, this progression is probably the best, and most logical (feel free to leave comments if you have other suggestions):

  1. Start with Codecademy if you have 0 programming experience. If you want to get into Web Development, complete the JavaScript, HTML, CSS and related tracks, and then dive right into FreeCodeCamp. Otherwise, if you think you may want to do Data Science or want to have a broader understanding of CS fundamentals, stick with Python.
    N. B. Something to keep in mind: if you have no prior experience with programming, don’t worry about R. R is a specialized language for statistics; it is written by statisticians for statisticians, and the syntax is very challenging even for experienced programmers.
  2. Once you’ve completed Codecademy, the next course I would take is MIT’s 6.00.1x Intro CS course on EdX. I have taken this course myself and I have written about it. This course gives you a fantastic intro to the fundamentals of computer science at a fairly rigorous academic level, and it uses Python as well, so that should give you more practice with programming in vanilla Python. The follow-up course 6.00.2x is also good and covers more advanced topics including algorithms, random walks, and other topics, which should put you in a good position to learn more about “Data Science”.
  3. HarvardX’s PH526x course on EdX is a good follow up to this sequence, since it introduces a lot of the popular Python packages for “Data Science” including numpymatplotlib, Pandas, and others. I also just finished the course earlier this week and will put my thoughts on it in a separate post here.
  4. Microsoft DAT210x on EdX is also highly recommended, and I also wrote about it after completing the course. This course gives plenty of practice with machine learning, and will put you in a good position to learn more about any of the algorithms in the course (K-Means, KNN, SVM, Random Forest, and others).

So – after taking all of these courses, THEN you can think about joining a bootcamp to further your knowledge. I wish I had done all the above courses before I did the “Data Science” bootcamp this summer; I would have been in a better position to learn, absorb, and better assimilate the material. But what’s done is done, and I’m continuing to learn Python, Machine Learning, and “Data Science” concepts at my own pace. I’m continuing to practice vanilla Python on Hackerrank, and you can follow my progress on my github – I’m trying to make github commits on a regular basis so that it makes a favorable impression on whoever happens to stumble across it! Interestingly, some of my repositories are getting a fair bit of traffic….so, you never know!

I sincerely hope that this rather “stream-of-consciousness” post helps you, if you do decide to venture down this path!

 

December 9, 2016

More recordings!

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 8:15 pm

Shameless plug for a thani I played in a concert a few months ago here, on Diwali:

In retrospect, the sound quality is not bad, considering that I was playing without mikes – this audio is directly spliced from the video recording of the concert.

November 23, 2016

Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 12:54 am

I just heard the news today that the renowned musician Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna passed away. I’m not referring to him as a “Carnatic vocalist” or “Carnatic musician” here, because his music transcends such classifications. My Facebook news feed today was full of people writing posts on this theme, and I figured I could write something a little longer here.

Dr. Balamuralikrishna (I’ll refer to him from here on as “BMK”) was probably the first Carnatic musician (!) to achieve celebrity status, and I’ve heard stories about the kinds of crowds he was able to pull not just at concerts, but just by being in a certain area; one of my friends told me about how he once traveled with BMK in a train in India, and at every stop, there would be hordes of people at the station waiting with garlands for an opportunity to see their favorite musician!fphotograph12

BMK with M. Chandrashekaran (violin) and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam) – one can see that the year is 1959, and the writing looks like Kannada, so this was probably in Bangalore? EDIT: Thanks to KV Ramprasad and others on Facebook, the sign is actually in Telugu, and reads “Sri Tyagaraja Sangeetha Sabha Anantapuram, established 1959”.

There’s not much I can add to all that has been written about this legendary musician – fortunately his legacy will live on in the numerous recordings that exist of his concerts, as well as the countless commercial albums that he has released, and his movies. Like most of the top musicians of his generation, BMK was a child prodigy, and was adept not just in vocal music, but also in viola and mrudangam.

This is a particularly interesting clip of BMK accompanying the doyen Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on the viola – not the usual violin. You can tell it is noticeably bigger than a violin would be. In audience shots, you can see several of today’s top musicians in attendance, including Sanjay Subrahmanyam, T. M. Krishna, and R. K. Sriram Kumar, among others.

Dr. BMK was gifted with a golden voice, which is partly what made his music so great. It is not only resonant, but very fluid – he was able to span 3 complete octaves with ease, and the middle to lower octaves have a very bassy quality that nobody else has. Of course, having a great voice is one thing, and being able to harness it’s full potential is quite another; great musicians with both qualities literally only come once or twice a generation. I do consider myself fortunate that I was able to hear him live just once, in a concert in Sydney organized by Pallavi.

This Kalyani from a concert in Bombay in 1963 demonstrates not just the potential of BMK’s voice, but also his creativity – he employs sruthi bedham (modal shift of tonic) several times not just in the raga alapana, but also in the kalpana swaram, which is much more rare (in fact, I have not heard anyone do it since). Of course, Lalgudi Jayaraman is able to follow effortlessly, and his replies also garner applause several times! I mentioned this particular thani by Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir in a previous post, and it is worth rementioning; the UKS stamp is clearly present from the araichapu phrases to the signature mohara and final korvai in tisra nadai.

Dr. Balamurali’s legacy also lives on in the numerous compositions he authored – he has created numerous thillanas and varnams, in addition to composing krithis in all the 72 melakartha ragams. He also created new ragams such as Mahathi, Lavangi, and others, which did land him into some controversy with vidwan Dr. S. Balachander, who disputed whether those scales could be considered complete ragams at all, since they only had 3 or 4 notes.

This is BMK’s pancha gathi bedha thillana (set to 5 nadais) in 5 “-priya” ragams, as announced in the beginning. This rendition is particularly famous among collectors as it is from his Sangita Kalanidhi concert at the Madras Music Academy, December 1978. This concert also deserves further mention, as the main piece in that concert is an RTP in Kalyani set to a new thalam – Panchamukhi Adi thalam. BMK describes it as doing “gathi bedham” (changing the counts per beat) on the “sashabdha kriyas” (the ‘sounded’ beats when putting the thalam). In other words, only modifying the 1st, 5th, and 7th beats in Adi thalam (those beats are ‘sounded’ since they are downward slaps) to have 2.5 aksharams. Panchamukhi Adi thalam therefore has 12.5 beats. The pallavi set to this thalam is really simple and yet charming, and UKS sir plays a brilliant thani to this new thalam, with his usual razor control. I didn’t upload it because my Soundcloud account is getting full, but it is circulating among collectors. On an interesting side note, I also heard that M. G. Ramachandran (the Chief Minister for Tamil Nadu at the time) was in attendance at that concert!

This is the same pallavi from a different concert with B. V. Raghavendra Rao and Bangalore V. Praveen.

BMK has explored this concept, and sung pallavis in the related trimukhi Adi thalam and navamukhi thalam – in fact, he sang an RTP with the latter in Gamanashrama (53rd melakartha) in the Music Academy in 1980. Gamanashrama is an extraordinarily difficult ragam to sing, as it only came about with the invention of the melakartha scheme in the 17th century. The janya ragams associated with it (Hamsanandi and Purvikalyani) predate it by a long time, and so it is difficult to sing the ragam and maintain its identity unique to Purvikalyani.

EDIT: As pointed out to me yesterday, Hamsanandi is probably younger than Gamanashrama, and upon reflection, this makes sense; the trinity (Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastri) did not have any krithis in Hamsanandi. Most of the popular krithis we know in that ragam are actually from more recent composers, such as Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar, Papanasam Sivan, and others.

I had mentioned earlier that BMK had acted in a few movies; his Wikipedia page has the complete list (and the fact that his wiki page is so long and detailed is a testament to his fanbase). This song, Oru Nal Podhuma (“is one day enough?”) is one of his hit Tamil cine songs from the movie Thiruvilayadal. This recording is from a concert on 15/2/1985, in Bahrain, and the mrudangam is by none other than Thanjavur Upendran sir. BMK and Upendran sir were extremely close friends, and they had performed thousands of concerts together, including a tour to the US in the 80s. Upendran sir was also one of the people who convinced Balamurali early on to settle in Chennai in other to further his career in Carnatic music.

I’ll leave it here for now. I realized that I had not written any posts on the broad topic of Carnatic music (excluding me making shameless plugs of my clips/concerts) in a while, and this sad news prompted me to write something.

November 18, 2016

Realtalk

Filed under: Chemistry Jobs — sankirnam @ 10:43 am

Please see this video if you want a realistic perspective on the field of chemistry today. He touches on very important topics that I have discussed here in the past, such as:

  • The fact that it is hard to get realistic, accurate information on chemistry employment. Chemjobber remains the most accurate, up-to-date source available online, even if people may find it depressing. ACS information or BLS data is either inflated or not representative of the general population (due to selection bias).
  • Money, unfortunately, IS EVERYTHING. The people who say otherwise are those who have plenty of money, a decent income, and are well off. Being poor limits your opportunities, and as pointed out, lands you in a vicious rut which is difficult to break out of.
  • The flooding of graduate programs. As correctly pointed out, chemistry graduates usually end up in graduate degree programs, whether it is pharmacy, medicine, or chemistry graduate school. This is a structural issue that needs to be resolved at a more fundamental level; the chemistry B.S. needs to be reworked and maybe become more rigorous so that it is worth more.
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