musings on music and life

March 30, 2012

Shameless plug…

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 8:41 am



March 29, 2012

thoughts about ACS

Filed under: Chemistry — sankirnam @ 3:34 pm

I just returned from the national ACS meeting in San Diego, and wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot.

The American Chemical Society has national meetings twice a year, and from what I can see, it gives chemists a chance to drop whatever they’re doing, head to a random city in the country, and relax/chill by listening to lectures during the day, and attending poster sessions at night.

It’s a decent experience; it allows graduate students an opportunity to escape the cocoons of their own department/labs, see fresh viewpoints on chemistry (hopefully the bigger picture), see what is hot in science right now, and get different perspectives on research. The main goal, however, and the major reason why your boss or company is usually willing to sponsor your trip, is that you should get new, (hopefully original) ideas by being in such an atmosphere.

In my case, however, I didn’t gain much. This is probably because I put a lot more effort into learning chemistry and reading the literature compared to my peers (I’m not trying to show off here). The result was that I was already familiar with the work of all the speakers I planned on hearing. The benefit I got from the experience was that I got to see these people live, and hear how they talked about chemistry and presented their work.

Talking about science and making presentations is very different from actually doing science. Chemistry presentations are increasingly becoming like sales pitches, with each person trying to sell their methodologies or syntheses as “new”, “efficient”, “novel”, “atom-economical”, “step-economical”, or “green”. In the case of new reaction methodologies, the scientists often try to sell the utility of the reaction by applying it toward the synthesis of existing natural products or pharmaceutical compounds. Safety is often highlighted, with the overall ease of carrying out the process being emphasized. Since “green”, or environmentally friendly chemistry is a major concern now, another selling point of new reactions is often how efficient they are (determined by the use of solvent, ease of isolation and purification of product, waste generated, etc.).

There were a few talks that did get under my skin though. I won’t mention the names of the professors, for obvious reasons. One of them is a hotshot in the field of organic chemistry, and almost every paper of his is publised in a very high impact factor journal (JACS, Science, Nature, etc.). This professor mentioned how he had developed a reaction that had low selectivity. He then mentioned that apparently such a process is fine in pharma research, because it generates several compounds which can then be separated and isolated. This goes against the whole grain of reaction methodology development; the whole idea of developing a new reaction is to come up with a process or transformation for making one product selectively! The latest trend is to now make one enantiomer (mirror image) of a molecule selectively, since molecules found in nature (such as carbohydrates and proteins) are inherently chiral. His statements go against such established notions. Now, I am usually supportive of people who buck established trends and question establish ideas, but this is just ridiculous. From now on, whenever I get a messy reaction, I can just report it as a good thing and claim that I am making a “library”! Hooray! Instead of trying to make a reaction stereospecific, I can just let it be racemic, and say that I have generated multiple isomers of the molecule. Such statements are dangerous, because, as a “hotshot professor” he has a responsibility to be a good role model to the thousands of graduate students and postdocs aspiring to be like him, and this is doing exactly the opposite.

The professor then continued onto his next topic, “accelerated serendipity”. This had been previously published in Science late last year. The gist was that in order to come up with new ideas serendipitously, one must carry out a lot of reactions or read lots of papers. In other words, serendipity is a function of events, not time. The professor then implemented this strategy by having an automated machine carry out over 3500 reactions. When the data was analyzed by the students, they were able to find a few positive results, optimize them, and thereby come up with a new reaction methodology. Now, allow me to tear this apart (grins maniacally).

The fact that the professor had to resort to this approach to come up with a new reaction means he is running out of ideas. This is an extraordinarily brute-force approach to discovery, and is not what is associated with intelligence or genius. This is also extremely poor training for the students involved in the project. They are not learning how to think about chemistry and come up with new ideas. This will stunt their intellectual growth in the long term. The students could be replaced with monkeys, robots, undergrads (or whatever suits your fancy), and the same results could still be achieved. If this is the future of the chemical research enterprise, then I am at a loss for words.

March 22, 2012

Organo Main Group Chemistry

Filed under: Books, Chemistry — Tags: — sankirnam @ 5:30 pm

I recently discovered a good textbook for those interested in organic chemistry:

This is geared towards intermediate undergraduate chemistry majors (preferably after they have finished a year-long course in Organic Chemistry), or can be used by the instructor to supplement the regular sophomore Organic course. The book gives a very broad-based coverage of the organic chemistry of the elements; thus the topic of this book can more correctly be described as “elemento-organic chemistry”. Since the emphasis is on the main-group elements, transition-metal organometallic chemistry is glossed over. Very detailed attention is given to the chemistry of the hypervalent main group elements (such as boron, carbon, silicon, sulfur, phosphorous, germanium, bismuth, iodine, and bromine), since that is the author’s area of expertise. Carbene chemistry (especially that of the stable, NHC (Arduengo) carbenes) has a chapter of its own. Brief mention of stereoelectronic effects as applied to conformation and reactivity of organic substrates is done in the overall context of bonding.

Unfortunately, there is little mention of carbocation chemistry (which is one of my areas of interest). I also feel the author could have been a little bit more attentive in citing the literature appropriately. While I do not doubt his knowledge of the chemistry presented, one of the major uses of a textbook is a primary tool for finding literature citations. To take a random example: If I wanted to find papers on the chemistry of low-valent iron, the first thing I would do would be to find a book or textbook on iron chemistry, flip to the chapter on low-valent iron, and look up the references for that chapter. Also, since this book was translated from Japanese, minor errors in translation and various other typos are scattered throughout. However, they do not impede understanding.

I would recommend this book to interested undergraduate and graduate students in organic chemistry. For instructors, this book can be used as a supplement for sophomore undergraduate chemistry and would make a perfect textbook for undergraduate advanced organic chemistry. At the graduate level, this can serve as an introduction to advanced topics, such as hypervalency, which are not usually taught at the undergraduate level.

It’s not that expensive on amazon:, only $73. This is cheap compared to the astronomical prices I have paid for books in years past.

March 21, 2012

First post on music…Palghat Mani Iyer

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: — sankirnam @ 11:58 am

As mentioned in the title, one of the themes of this blog is music. I thought I might as well start the musical posts now…

Carnatic (classical south Indian) music is very close to my heart, having studied it for the past 17 years or so. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest systems of music in the world, due to the exquisitely structured and scientific formulation of rhythm and rhythm cycles, as well as melodic scales. An even higher premium is placed on the ability to improvise in this style of music than in any other style in the world; this leads to the expression that “no two Carnatic concerts are ever the same”, even if they have the same artists performing, and even if they sing the same songs!

On this note, the topic for today is the legendary mrudangam vidwan Shri. Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer.


I start with Shri Mani Iyer because I am reminded of an incident several years ago. During the December music season in Madras some time ago, Karaikudi Mani had arranged a talavadya (percussion only) concert with Palghat T. R. Rajamani (Mani Iyer’s son) and Bangalore N. Amrit (kanjira). Before the concert began, Karaikudi Mani gave a speech in Tamil, in which he said, “Just like how we pray to Ganapathi before any undertaking to remove all obstacles, whenever we take out the mrudangam, before we start playing, we should always take a moment to think of Palghat Mani Iyer. He was the man who brought mrudangam artistry to the forefront of Carnatic Music. He brought gauravam (dignity) to the profession. He demonstrated the dazzling possibilities of music possible on the mrudangam and brought it to the status it has today”. It is in this spirit that I start this series of musical posts with Palghat Mani Iyer.

(For those interested, Part 1 of the aforementioned concert is here: All 5 parts are online).

Some details about Shri. Palghat Mani Iyer can be found at the wiki: His entrance to the Carnatic music scene in the early 20th century was dramatic, to say the least. He was blessed with hands and fingers that could do his bidding, and his style of accompaniment was a sea change from the existing norms at the time. He introduced the concept of actually actively playing along with the main artist, rather than just supporting like a human metronome. This became so popular that it is still the approach used by mrudangam artists today. It is with enormous pride that I can trace my gurus (teachers) back to Palghat Mani Iyer, and say that I belong to his parampara (school). My own guru has taught me several of Mani Iyer’s phrases, moharas, and korvais, and I treasure all of these very deeply.

He was the prime disciple of the legendary guru Shri Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer (other disciples include Shri. T. K. Murthy, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, V. Nagarajan, and Thanjavur Krishnamurthy Rao), and brought fame to the Thanjavur school of percussion back in the day. Back in those days, people used to say there were two main schools of percussion in the Carnatic system – the Thanjavur and Pudukottai banis. Artists belonging to either school had very different traditions, and the styles were very distinct. Since then, there has been a lot of blending and overlap between the styles. In fact, Mani Iyer’s prime disciple, Shri. Palghat Raghu, was an ardent fan of Shri. Palani Subramania Pillai (who belonged to the Pudukottai bani). Raghu sir even adapted a lot of the Pudukottai techniques into his own playing style! In fact, there is a story (recounted by Palghat Raghu himself), where some rasikas, after hearing Palghat Raghu play in a concert, went to Mani Iyer’s residence and complained, “Sir, your student is not playing like you at all! He is playing different things!”. To which Mani Iyer replied, “Ok, so what? Is he doing anything wrong? Is there anything unmusical in his playing? No? Then let it be!”. This speaks volumes about his character and confidence in both his performing and teaching skills.

Palghat Mani Iyer introduced several refinements to the mrudangam that are still in use today. He preferred to use the kappi type of mrudangam, rather than the kutchi type that others used. The kappi mrudangam has a flatter tone, but strokes on the meetu (outer skin) on the valanthalai (right side) become more prominent. This results in additional responsibilities when it comes to tuning the instrument to keep at the proper sruthi (pitch). When the instrument goes abasruthi (off-pitch), it becomes much more noticeable. Both the meetu and the karanai (inner black patch) have to be tuned perfectly to achieve the best sound, in contrast to the kutchi mrudangam, which is a bit more forgiving. He was a stickler for perfection of the naadam (musical sound) of the instrument. His efforts resulted in the standardization of the sizes of mrudangams that are used today; shorter length, smaller diameter instruments are used for higher sruthis (such as youngsters and female vocalists), while longer length, larger diameter instruments are used for lower pitches (instruments and male vocalists).

Towards the end of his life (from the 1960’s till 1981), he encouraged and promoted several younger artists, including Lalgudi Jayaraman, Palghat K. V. Narayanaswamy, the violin trio (L. Shankar, L. Vaidyanathan, and L. Subramaniam), M. D. Ramanathan, Ramnad Krishnan, and others. He also started accompanying female artists, including D. K. Pattamal and M. L. Vasanthakumari. Image

(A young Sudha Ragunathan can be seen sitting behind MLV, and A. Kanyakumari is the violinist)

Mani Iyer’s thaniavarthanams (solos) were a thing of beauty. His reputation and skill were so famous that the common exodus of the audience that usually occurs during the thani would not occur; in fact, people would often come with the sole intent of hearing only him! Because of his prodigious skill, he was also able to incorporate aspects of the Kerala percussive traditions into his playing, in particular the sounds of the Chenda and Edakka. Initially, he used to be very flamboyant, showing off the extent of his skills with abandon. Later on, he was quoted as saying “the thani should only be 7-10 minutes maximum. If you cannot play it during that time, don’t bother”. This was because he began to notice the phenomenon of decreasing laya (rhythm) awareness among the median Carnatic rasika (which, unfortunately, has continued to this day).

It should also be mentioned that Palghat Mani Iyer’s fetish for purity of sound carried into his professional engagements as well. He was against the use of microphones for amplification in concerts, as he believed that it detracted from vocal tonal production resulting from full-throated singing. He believed that too much dependence on the microphone would result in wimpy, weak sound production from vocalists (which is something I agree with). Uneven amplification of the artists on stage would also lead to an unpleasant listening experience for rasikas. He would only accept concerts if the organizers would not use microphones.

Unfortunately, I was never able to see Palghat Mani Iyer live, since he passed away before I was born. A lot of what I am recounting here is anecdotal, gleaned from various sources, including biographical sketches, personal websites, my own experiences listening to his concerts, and conversations with various people who had met him. There are lots of audio recordings of his playing, in varying sound quality depending on the age of the recording. Fortuitously, some video recordings of his have also been recovered and are available on Youtube, as shown by a simple search:

March 19, 2012

He shortage

Filed under: Chemistry — sankirnam @ 9:57 am

I came across this article ( earlier while browsing reddit. This is a topic I’ve discussed for several years at length with dozens of people, and I am glad to see it finally getting attention.

Helium, as most people know, is the 2nd element in the periodic table. For more information, see the wikipedia page:

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but not on Earth, interestingly enough. It’s rarity on our planet is a direct result of its low molecular mass. With a mass of only 4 amu per atom (4g/mol), the average molecular velocity of helium atoms at STP is greater than the escape velocity of Earth (this can be calculated by using the ideal gas law, for those interested), meaning that any time helium is released into the atmosphere, it shoots off into space. Helium is also only produced on earth by alpha decay of heavy elements, and gets trapped underground with natural gas. Natural gas is often also found alongside crude petroleum deposits. Few places bother to separate natural gas from more valuable petroleum when discovered, often choosing to “flare off” the natural gas. Fewer places still separate the small amounts of helium from natural gas.

The article does a good job of bringing awareness of the looming helium shortage. This shortage is significant because there are certain applications of helium for which we have no adequate substitutes. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR or MRI) depends on the use of superconducting magnets . These magnets are kept superconducting by being continuously cooled with liquid helium. Liquid helium is one of the coldest substances commercially available, with a temperature of 4 K. Although there is a lot of research being conducted on making higher-temperature superconductors, at present, all practical superconductors need to be cooled with liquid He.

Synthetic chemistry blossomed in the 20th century due to the application of physical methods such as microwave spectroscopy, IR, NMR, X-ray, and others. These (especially NMR) have become indispensable to the practicing chemist since they are non-destructive characterization methods. The loss of easily available helium would be an enormous blow to the synthetic enterprise; I can’t even begin to fathom what the consequences would be. Almost all chemists in the past 30 years or so have routinely used NMR methods for characterization and even kinetic studies; losing access to NMR would be akin to losing a key vision, i.e. sight.

The only problem with the article is that it (in my opinion) incorrectly blames the shortage of helium on frivolous uses, like party balloons. This is actually a very minor part of overall helium consumption. The cause is simply that global helium consumption has exploded in the last decade or so. With more NMR spectrometers operating worldwide, and more and more labs being operated for particle physics experiments (like the LHC), it is more likely that we have increased our use of helium without being aware of it.

Suddenly, as I have being saying for years, mining the moon doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, eh?

March 7, 2012

success = luck, not effort

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: — sankirnam @ 7:13 pm

It recently occurred to me how success in research is largely dictated by luck. I know, people always say that hard work eventually pays off, but more often than not (at least in my experience), it does not. My father always used to quote Edison saying ” Genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration”. This led me to think that given enough effort, something would bear fruit, even if it was not necessarily the thing I was trying to get in the first place. What one has to keep in mind is that when working on the frontiers of human knowledge, even when trying to extrapolate known ideas into the unknown, it is impossible to predict whether your project will work or if your efforts will pay off or not.

I have known my fair share of graduate students (myself included) who listened to their professors, worked hard (around 12-15 hours a day, approx 80-90 hrs a week) for 5 years, and still had zero publications to show for all their efforts. On the other hand, I have seen others skating through, getting a PhD, seemingly getting excellent publications while not having a solid knowledge of the subject (!), and barely working at all. While one might argue that people always slip through the cracks at every level, to have witnessed this multiple times over my graduate career has really shaken my faith in the system.

“Being in the right place at the right time” is also dictated by luck. For example, my own graduate advisor happened to work in a hot area of research during his own graduate studies – because that area was popular when he was working in it, he got a lot of recognition for his work. 30 years later, I am continuing the same type of chemistry. I won’t reveal exactly what I am doing (for privacy concerns), but suffice to say, I was disappointed at the lack of interest shown in my work at the last national exposition (where I presented my work as a poster).

Research has now become a highly competitive endeavor. In any academic area, it is basically guaranteed that someone else in the world is working on the same project as you are. Thus, it is always a race to be the first to publish. Unfortunately, as a scientist, you have no way of knowing the progress of other labs, as PI’s, companies, and individual scientists are always extremely secretive about their work for fear of losing the race and being “scooped”. Therefore, getting scooped or not is dependent on luck. I have witnessed my coworkers’ hard work going up in flames simply because someone else was able to beat them to the punch and publish their results first.

Of course, I could just be bitter and cynical (for my own sake, I desperately hope so). I would love to live in a world where hard work and efforts are justly rewarded. Unfortunately, in my limited experience, this is not the case.

March 6, 2012

Google music

Filed under: Uncategorized — sankirnam @ 1:14 pm

I recently discovered that I had google music on my cellphone (HTC sensation). Now, since I own an iPod (4-5 years old), I didn’t get that much utility out of it. But, I can see how it can come in handy. Since you can store up to 20,000 songs online, Google music can serve as an online backup for your mp3’s lest your hard drive fail (you also have the ability to download any uploaded music at anytime). Any music that you have uploaded can be streamed to your cellphone anywhere you have a data (4G/3G) connection. I’m just curious to see if anyone has gotten any additional mileage from this that I may be missing out on.

Note: I am in no way affiliated with Google.

Los Angeles Bandwagon

Filed under: Uncategorized — sankirnam @ 4:50 am

A friend and I were at a Clippers game a month ago and saw some members in the audience sporting this really clever t-shirt. After an agonizing month’s wait, it is finally available!


Filed under: Uncategorized — sankirnam @ 4:16 am

Since various people were telling me to start a blog, I caved into peer pressure and here it is. The focus is primarily on Carnatic (classical south Indian) music, since I was told there would be an audience for this sort of thing. However, other topics may be discussed as they come up, including, but not limited to: chemistry and science in general, the economy and employment situations, sports (especially the Lakers!), and other things as they come up.

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