musings on music and life

September 9, 2016

The rise and fall of Theranos

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 11:30 pm

I’ve been meaning to write something about Theranos for a while, and seeing this rather dramatic article in Vanity Fair yesterday spurred me to action.

Theranos is a Silicon Valley company that was started by Elizabeth Holmes as a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Stanford. I don’t have any personal involvement or interest in the company, but the story of Theranos is reflective of the biotech industry as a whole, and as a rather large company with a multibillion-dollar valuation, all eyes are on it as well as the other large startups. Back in 2014, when it was around the time of my graduation, people were telling me to look up Theranos and apply there since “it was hot” and “Liz Holmes was going to change the world”. In hindsight, I’m extremely glad that I dodged that bullet.

I remember reading this New Yorker article shortly afterwards and feeling a great deal of skepticism. One of the things that tipped me off was this passage:

One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in.

[…] That summer, at the Genome Institute, Holmes worked on testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, an often fatal virus that had broken out in China. Testing was done in the traditional manner, by collecting blood samples with syringes and mucus with nasal swabs. These methods could detect who was infected, but a separate system was needed to dispense medication, and still another system to monitor results. Holmes questioned the approach. At Stanford, she had been exploring what has become known as lab-on-a-chip technology, which allows multiple measurements to be taken from tiny amounts of liquid on a single microchip.

Over the years, I have worked with many high-school students and undergraduates in research, and I also did “research” myself in an organic synthesis lab while in high school. The one thing in common that all new researchers have is this: they don’t know anything. I’m not saying this to be mean, but to lay the reality – working in a research lab is a vastly different experience from doing coursework. For instance, all undergraduates will study diazotization of anilines  and learn the variety of transformations they can undergo (Sandmeyer and other reactions). But carrying out one of these reactions yourself is vastly different from simply drawing the structures and reaction arrows on paper; you wouldn’t know just how explosive diazonium salts can be unless you have actually worked with them before. One of the key things you learn in research is humility, which is why getting any kind of research degree is often described as an ego-shattering process; 99.99% of the time, when you think of something, chances are, it has been done before.

Here’s an interesting story that illustrates my skepticism: There was a high-school student who used to work in my lab when I was doing a PhD. We all knew that this student had no interest in science, beyond getting some “research lab experience” to bolster her CV and improve her chances for admission to an Ivy league university. She would come and “work” for only 2-3 hours once a week every Friday. Anyone who has any kind of experience doing research or any kind of lab work knows that you can’t get anything done on that schedule. This student had never set up a single reaction from start to finish (which involves setting up the reaction, monitoring it, quenching it when complete, working it up, purifying the crude, isolating and weighing the product(s), and finally characterizing the product(s)). And yet somehow she managed to win first place in the state science fair, presenting a chemistry project with practically no self-generated data!

That’s why I’m skeptical about “child prodigies” in science, because it takes a long time to develop the foundational knowledge required to make serious contributions, or even to understand the subject matter properly. I’m highly doubtful that after doing basic “research” for a few months, one would have the necessary domain expertise to be able to start a company. I’ve been studying chemistry for 12 years and I feel like I don’t have the necessary expertise! To put things in perspective, one of the criticisms about Theranos is that “finger-stick blood tests aren’t reliable for clinical diagnostic tests; because the blood isn’t drawn from a vein, the sample can be contaminated by lanced capillaries or damaged tissue“. This is true, and anyone with a proper understanding of high-school biology would be able to tell you that. Another issue is statistical – when your sample sizes are smaller, your error bars are going to be correspondingly larger, and this is an important consideration when you’re trying to do measurements on vanishingly small concentrations of analytes (oftentimes ng/L). I guess this would be an instance of people succumbing to groupthink. I mean, the premise of Theranos is awesome, don’t get me wrong. Miniaturizing diagnostics is a huge challenge, and is on the cutting edge of science, engineering, and medical research. George Whitesides (Harvard) is actively working in this area, as are many others. But is it really possible that a 19-year old could solve a problem that the smartest people in the world are struggling with? Color me skeptical.

I remember I was once watching the lectures from Stanford’s Intro to Chemical Engineering class a few months ago, and I stopped watching in disgust once I realized that the instructor, Channing Robertson, was now on the board of Theranos.

Also, I remember my father asking me multiple times about how Theranos was able to secure so much funding if the scientific foundation was so shaky. This article explained everything:

“[…] none of the big V.C. outlets invested in Theranos. When the company raised an additional $200 million in early 2014—which gave Theranos a $9 billion valuation and made Holmes “the world’s youngest self-made billionaire,” worth about $4.5 billion (on paper, a point that few stories ever noted)—that money largely came from private equity.

You couldn’t find Michael Moritz, John Doerr, or Peter Thiel on the Theranos board. And while Marc Andreessen has repeatedly come to Holmes’s defense—blocking Twitter followers who have questioned her and even implying that she could be the next Steve Jobs—his firm, Andreessen Horowitz, did not invest in Theranos. (And even those V.C.s who did are now trying to distance themselves. Theranos is no longer listed among Draper Fisher Jurvetson’s “featured investments,” even though its logo was there this time last year.) When I’ve asked V.C.s why they didn’t pour millions of dollars into a company that appeared to be changing the world, I was told that it wasn’t for lack of trying on Holmes’s part. She met with most top venture firms. But when the V.C.s asked how the technology worked, I was told, Holmes replied that it was too secret to share, even to investors. When they asked if it had been peer-reviewed, she insisted once again it was too secret to share—even to other scientists.

But that Vanity Fair article was eye-opening. I didn’t know that Theranos’ chief scientist ended up committing suicide due to the pressure and unreasonable expectations put upon him. Yikes. That scenario can be traced back to Holmes’ lack of scientific training; as I mentioned before, a proper experience in scientific research and a proper scientific education will teach you humility, as well as the fact that the laws of nature bend for no one.


July 31, 2016

Birthday reflections

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 2:12 pm

No, I’m not dead.

I have been on the receiving end of an intellectual beatdown for the last 7 weeks, and that will only end on Sep 2. So until then, communication will be sparse.

Before I get started, I just wanted to share some not-so-noteworthy news: I’ve finally crossed some milestones on Quora. I’ve been reading and contributing to the community there for the past year or so, and in the last few weeks, crossed 100,000 views on my answers and became a “Most Viewed Writer” on the topic of Organic Chemistry. Why am I doing this? Because in this day and age, it’s important to have an “online presence”; not having one can count against you (people might see you as either a luddite or that you have something to hide), and as can be seen from the infographic below, networking online is becoming an increasingly common way to get a job. Contributing to Quora and writing this blog are both attempts to build up my own “online presence”.


In any case, two days ago I just crossed another milestone in my life – I just turned 30. I’ve always known that this day would eventually come, but now it has come and passed, and I’m still coming to terms with it. When I was younger, I would feel an impending sense of doom at the thought of getting older; I did have a bucket list of things I wanted to do before this age (the most prominent one being performing in the Madras Music Academy), but sadly they have all gone unfulfilled. My 20’s have disappeared and I feel like I do not have much to show for it. I’m behind all my friends in accomplishing the usual things by this stage of life: getting a full-time job, getting married (or being in a long-term relationship), getting a house… “settling down”, if you will. I’m 30 and I’ve never had a full-time job. That realization is a bit frightening and I sincerely hope it doesn’t result in being unemployed for the rest of my life.

I have pretty much been in school my whole life, and my feelings about that are similar to what Chembark describes. Thanks to the largesse of my parents and taxpayers, I have been able to receive an education without crippling debt. That being said, even though I got my PhD funded by taxpayer money, I am more than likely not going to be employed in the area that I got my PhD in…. which means all that taxpayer money was, ultimately, wasted. This represents a colossal market failure, and I know that I am not alone in this regard.

Like Chembark, if I were to drop dead today, there is no doubt that my net impact on society is still negative. I have published a few papers which represent a minute drop in the ocean of scientific publications and may be lost in the deluge, to be cited only a handful of times or not at all. This is the culmination of thousands of man-hours of work which may, or more likely, may not be useful to other people in the future. These anxieties of mine could be dismissed as the cost of scientific progress or of growing up in general, but the question is: is it worth it? A lot of scientists will argue that research is “incremental”, where one person adds a little to the progress of those before him/her. My experience has shown that for 99.999999% of people that is true, but real progress is accomplished by geniuses who come only a handful of times every generation and make startling breakthroughs, drastically pushing the frontiers outward. And no, I am not in the 0.000001%.

Even if I factor in music, I still haven’t accomplished quite as much as some of my peers in India or in the Bay Area. If you don’t do music full time, it is incredibly difficult to practice as much as you would like to or work on improving your teaching methodologies.

Fortunately, I haven’t had the urge (yet) to do anything crazy at this point in my life, as this paper would suggest, so…..there’s that.

June 21, 2016

Statistics? Statistics?

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 12:20 pm

Statistics? Statistics? Statistics mean nothing, newbie. As doctors, we know that people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have an 85% death rate within five years, whereas people having an appendectomy have a 95% survival rating, but we both know pancreatic cancer sufferers who are still alive and appendicitis patients who didn’t make it. Statistics mean nothing to the individual. Not a damn thing.” -Dr. Cox, Scrubs

April 8, 2016

The tech mindset, and why it fails in science

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 2:05 pm

One of my very close friends (an ex-Google[X] employee), sent me this article last week; it seems that the dysfunctional management style in Verily (a subcompany of Alphabet) has come to light. My friend was astute enough to see the writing on the wall and flee before the s**t really hit the fan, and is now better for it. Derek Lowe also discusses this article, and my sentiments reflect his. An ongoing theme I’m seeing today is that executives who were successful in the tech field try to apply the same approaches or mindset to scientific research, which is quite different in nature. One example I can recall immediately is the former CEO of Intel criticizing the slow, largely unsuccessful method of pharmaceutical research, for which he was publicly lambasted. This all comes down to two things: epistemic arrogance, and a failure to realize the “domain-specificity” of one’s knowledge or expertise.

For example: those working in tech will be used to continually optimizing code to work faster. There is always some way you can look through a enormous process find something to tweak that will make the program run a couple of seconds or minutes faster. However, this same mindset cannot be bought to bear on science (I’ll give some examples from organic chemistry, since that is what I know best). I’m still baffled by the concept of the “10x” or “100x” engineer in tech, because such a situation is impossible in fundamental science. You can be the smartest guy in the institute, but you can’t make a distillation go any faster – it is bound by hard physical constants (i.e. the boiling point). Yes, you can do it under reduced pressure, but even then, if it is not that volatile, you can’t really speed it up further if you have it under high vacuum already. If the liquid boils between 30-60 °C at atmospheric pressure, then you will have to do it slowly and carefully – being 100x more intelligent than others in the room becomes irrelevant. Similarly, if you’re taking an NMR, 13C or other heteronuclear NMRs will take a long time to acquire because those nuclei relax very slowly – again, these are hard physical constants and there is no way around it. I’ve done more than my fair share of time-consuming, tedious, “grunt work” for which there was no better substitute (for example, I once had to purify and isolate a compound by vacuum distillation, but the crude isolate was obtained by extraction with about 500 mL of organic solvent, which had to be slowly and carefully transferred from a 500 mL RBF to a 25 mL RBF so that it could be distilled. Oh and did I mention that the crude was only soluble in dichloromethane, which has a notorious tendency to bump upon rotary evaporation?). There’s no real way to “optimize” what I did, which is something that experienced chemists will agree with, but those in tech will not be able to wrap their heads around. Similarly, reaction kinetics are bound by physical constants; you can’t have a rate faster than 10-9 M/s (which is basically the rate of diffusion in liquid). Most reactions with common electrophiles and nucleophiles will not be nearly that fast, but the rates can be quantified, and the limits calculated thanks to the extremely nice work done by Prof. Herbert Mayr (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität) over the decades. His work gives ranges for reaction rates, which again are bound by hard physical parameters, which can be semi-empirically approximated (to greater and greater levels of precision as time passes) using theoretical methods.

So what’s my point in all this? Adapting the tech mindset to science is bad, because: 1. You can’t optimize everything indefinitely; 2. While the “10x” or “100x” engineer may be a real thing, there is no such thing as a “10x” or “100x” scientist; 3. “Science” is just inherently more time-consuming and expensive than just sitting at a computer and busting out code; 4. Even in “science” the fields are very different, and expertise and knowledge are domain specific (a chemist may be an expert in organic chemistry but know nothing about quantum dots, for example) 5. You need humility to realize how much we don’t know, and this is reinforced by the failures that scientists face in the lab on a daily basis. Continued success in technology has made the executives there complacent and arrogant, in my opinion.

March 23, 2016

Vegetarianism and sustainable food solutions

Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 7:54 pm

Before I start, I’m linking these two videos here (warning: they are rather graphic and not for the faint of heart).


Don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not one of those militant PETA-type activist “in-your-face” vegan people who goes around guilt-tripping others into conformity. I know vegans and vegetarians often get a bad rap for that, as can be seen by the numerous jokes on Reddit, such as “Q: How do you know if someone is vegetarian/vegan? A: Don’t worry, he/she will tell you rather loudly and obnoxiously”. But this is a topic that does deserve serious attention.

As I have said earlier, thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals, Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaugwe are able to support 7+ billion people on this planet. We currently have the resources to feed a rapidly increasing population, but the issue as to whether these issues are being allocated efficiently is a purely economic one.

I know a lot of the stuff I’m about to say is sure to be controversial; after all, diet is a fundamental aspect of who we are, and because we eat on an extremely regular basis, how and what we eat becomes a part of our individual identities. That being said, there really is no argument or reason to eat meat – that is, kill animals for their food any more. There are a few angles to look at this. One is that nutritionally speaking, we now know that it is possible to be perfectly healthy on a purely vegetarian or vegan diet; these are growing in popularity, and there are a number of successful vegan athletes today. The other is the utilitarian argument, and the chief proponent of this is the philosopher Prof. Peter Singer. His arguments are laid out in this paper, and in his famous book, Animal LiberationIn brief, Prof. Singer states that the notion that it is our right to have dominion over other animals is immoral and “speciesist”, in much the same way that the idea that one cultural group can enslave another is now thought to be racist. The utilitarian branch of philosophy is extremely interesting, because the postulates and arguments it uses are very simple, and when taken to extremes, can cause a lot of people to become very uncomfortable because it tests their notions of morality and right and wrong.

Another angle is that the meat industry (or the animal and livestock industry) is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in all forms – atmospheric, aquatic, and in the production of solid waste. Yet another angle is antibiotic resistance. About 80% of antibiotics produced today are used in the livestock industry, and the overuse of antibiotics is the reason for the recent development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On the other hand, as Derek Lowe points out, there haven’t been any recorded instances to date of humans getting infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animal sources. I think the key phrase here is “to date”, and that it is just a matter of time.

There are a couple of start-up companies getting in on the “sustainable food” trend, which is great! Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, and Beyond Meat are some of the better-known of these companies, and have already released products on the market. Hampton Creek’s claim to fame is their product Just Mayo, a vegan, eggless mayonnaise. I don’t know anything about regular mayonnaise, but Hampton Creek’s product is smooth and delicious. The key breakthrough is their use of pea proteins to simulate the texture and consistency that egg proteins gives to regular mayonnaise. Interestingly, Hampton Creek was involved in a lawsuit with Unilever a few years over the use of the “mayonnaise” descriptor of their product. The aforementioned companies are the most well-known; there are others in this market space, and I really do hope that the demand for these products increases, enabling these companies to grow. If you can’t tell, I am very passionate about this! I really would like to work in this area, as it is something exciting that contributes to humanity in a very real, tangible way. Like I said earlier, the relationship we have with food is very close, and as a chemist, being able to develop products which I or others put in our mouths would feel more fulfilling than maybe developing some lead medicinal compound that might be developed into a medication that I or others may use (I apologize for the overuse of conditional statements here!). I have applied to these companies multiple times in the past but received no response – if anyone knows anyone working at these companies, please do let me know!

Another solution for sustainable food is hydroponics. Traditional methods of farming require a lot of water, and this was recently exemplified in California politics. Agriculture is a minor contributor to the GDP of California, and yet was the biggest consumer of water in the state. On the other hand, having farms and food growth is necessary for life, which is why the situation is not so cut and dry. That being said, indoor hydroponic farms are becoming a thing. Indoor hydroponic farms use much, much, less water than ordinary outdoor farms, but obviously use a lot more electricity, since they are missing sunlight. I do think that this will be a solution for sustainable food in the future – thanks to advances in technology, power generation, distribution, and storage is no longer a major issue*. Providing clean, potable water for the population will become a bigger issue, and techniques that conserve water (such as hydroponics), and desalination of sea water will have to be embraced in a big way. Farming may have to become decentralized, in the sense that every suburb or city will have 5-10 hydroponic farms in the neighborhood to supply locally-sourced food to the residents. Indoor hydroponic farms can be located anywhere, even in business districts – a multi-storey office building can be a hydroponic farm!

*Ok, I know there are a lot of things to be worked out – for example, energy generated from renewable sources such as solar or wind cannot be stored nearly as well as we would like, and the distribution of electricity in the grid can be a lot better. Renewable energy generation is getting more efficient every year, and the amount of solar cells we need to power the planet is not really that much. As this paper states, “Covering 0.16% of the land on Earth with 10% efficient solar conversion systems would provide 20 TW of power, nearly twice the world’s consumption rate of fossil energy and the equivalent 20,000 1-GWe nuclear fission plants”. More details can also be found here.



March 1, 2016


Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 5:12 pm

The topic of longevity and increasing lifespans has been on my mind lately, and as usual, here is the best place to release my massive brain fart!

It’s no surprise that humans today are living longer than ever. This is thanks to things like sanitation, modern medicine, and even improved nutrition. Nutrition deserves a special mention; the varied and nutritionally complete diets we enjoy today are thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaug. It is mindboggling to think that thanks to these three people, we are able to support an additional 2-3 billion people on the planet! 

The lifespans of people in developed countries has increased significantly over the last century, but interestingly enough, economic and social policies seem to be lagging behind. This is similar to what women face in the workforce; unfortunately, the resolution of female employment, motherhood, and fertility issues is something that we need to straighten out immediately as a species. Just like that, an awareness of our increasing lifespans and how that affects macroeconomic issues like employment and education is worth considering.

Note: I am not an economist, just someone with an interest in the subject.

According to Google, the current retirement age in the US is 62:

Traditionally, the full benefit age was 65, and early retirement benefits were first available at age 62, with a permanent reduction to 80 percent of the full benefit amount. Currently, the full benefit age is 66 for people born in 1943-1954, and it will gradually rise to 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

I’m speculating that in a few years (or decades), the retirement age may be pushed even further, to 70 years or so. Of course, that may face heavy opposition, since older people are more likely to vote, and naturally want to protect their benefits. My idea is that as the retirement age gets pushed upward, we should also increase mandatory education for the younger population. In the US, education is mandatory until 12th grade. What would happen if we added 13th and 14th grades as well, delaying the entry to college by 1 or 2 years?

I don’t think this would be too difficult to implement (apart from the usual resistance to the status quo), and it would result in students being better prepared for college or whatever career paths they choose. We live in an age now where the collective knowledge of humanity is available to everyone at his or her fingertips; but of course, not everyone has the ability to parse the information efficiently. Additionally, we need to be well-versed in so many areas in order to succeed in the workforce or even contribute to society as an informed citizen. As Steven B. Sample (former president of USC) mentions: “[…] there are two essential languages each student in America must learn: first, English and, second, calculus“. I would like to add the following skills or knowledge (of course, I may be biased as a scientist):

  • computer literacy (which includes everything from familiarity with a GUI,  word processing, using a spreadsheet for basic data manipulation/analysis, searching for information on Google, to programming),
  • scientific literacy (including a basic understanding of mechanics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, heat, work)
  • Mathematical knowledge up to integral calculus, as well as a sufficient background in statistics that allows awareness of the shortcomings of simple tests of statistical significance
  • Full functional literacy in English. I think this goes without saying, especially in an English-speaking country.
  • A knowledge of macroeconomics that includes not just basic concepts like supply, demand, marginal cost, and marginal benefit, but also allows one to understand issues like how free trade can affect domestic labor markets and currency exchanges.
  • A full understanding of how the political system in the US works, at the city, county, state, and national level.
  • A basic understanding of human biology and medicine. People should learn in school why vaccines work and why getting vaccinated is important, the fact that antibiotics are ineffective against viral diseases, as well as birth control, family planning, and other topics.
  • Biology and geology (sometimes called Earth Systems Science). Evolution needs to be taught in schools; it is not fiction, and is a phenomenon we can recreate in the lab with bacteria populations, for example. Evolution is what drives the recent surge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, after all! Also, high-school graduates should be aware of what “climate change” is and what contributes to it (mainly water vapor, CO2, and other greenhouse gases such as methane).
  • World history and a basic knowledge of geography and other cultures. You don’t necessarily have to know the exact latitude or longitude of Lesotho, but it would be nice if you knew it was a land-locked African country completely encircled by South Africa.

Whoa, I got a bit side-tracked here. But my point remains: we can (and probably should) extend mandatory education by another year or two; there is plenty of stuff that should be taught. Just like how inflation creeps slowly upward over time, extra years of mandatory education may need to be added on over the decades. As lifespans slowly increase, the proportion of our lives spent in school will remain constant.

Of course, the other concern which I mentioned earlier is reconciling education and employment with the ugly truth of female fertility. In humans, a woman’s fertility peaks in the early and mid-20s, after which it starts to decline slowly, with a more dramatic drop at around 35. This is the time when most people are trying to get their careers underway! Comedian Aziz Ansari illustrates this much better than I can:

From a historical perspective, women nowadays are indeed having kids much later than previous generations – but is it late enough? The fact that female fertility and financial stability seems to maximally coincide for most people between the ages of 25-30 means that you will have a new cohort of youngsters joining the workforce at intervals of 25-30 years. The turnover frequency of people in the workforce therefore also has to be in that range, in order to avoid social unrest due to the mass unemployment of young people. Therefore, as the retirement age rises, and people keep working until older and older ages, it also makes sense to keep children in school for longer, to match that rate of turnover.

Feel completely free to tell me I am crazy…

July 22, 2015


Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 10:59 am

Education is the key to mankind’s salvation, but will ultimately lead to it’s destruction.

June 11, 2014

Einstein said it first

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 4:48 pm

“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”

“If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”

If Albert Einstein, the iconic and best-known scientist of the 20th century, says this about science, where does this leave the rest of us slaving away in the trenches?

This last one particularly surprised me:

“It is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”

Source: Wikiquotes

September 23, 2013

on creativity

Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 8:05 pm

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Given my background (a practising musician and scientist), I’ve often thought about ways to bridge these seemingly disparate disciplines. A lot of scientists were amateur musicians (such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynmann, and the late Prof. Lipscomb (Harvard Univ.)). Similarly, a lot of Carnatic musicians also happen to have degrees in Chemistry, such as S. Sowmya, K. Arun Prakash, Delhi Sunder Rajan, and Trichur V. Ramachandran. But what is the common ground?

What research scientists and practising musicians have in common is the strive for innovation. The synthesis of new ideas, new forms of presentation, new methods, and new concepts is central to both areas. In The Synthetic Organic Chemist’s Companion, Michael Pirrung mentions in the foreword that “Synthesis is an intrinsically creative activity, and a chemist who does it well is often also creative in another area, be it music or cooking“. What I have recently come to understand, however, is that there are different types of creativity, as defined by their timescales. I am not making a judgment here that one type is necessarily superior to the other; it is simply my realization that there are two different modes of creativity, each being its own paradigm, operating like I said under different timescales.

The first type is slower, operating under time domain of minutes to years. I will define this as deliberate creativity. This involves careful planning, thought, checking and rechecking, and conscientious execution. Examples of this type of creative impulse are in visual arts (painting, drawing, sculpture), the process of composing a musical piece, the planning of a total synthesis, writing a novel, play or scientific paper, designing a new research proposal, or even an engineer designing a new vehicle, appliance, processor, or tool. All of these require an investment of time. This can be thought of as simply the planning phase when doing something new, but it also covers the entire process, from conception to execution.

The other I define as implusive creativity. The timescale for this is milliseconds to a few seconds. Most people encounter this when making “snap” judgements – Malcom Gladwell discusses this topic extensively in his book Blink. I most encounter this type of creativity when performing Carnatic music. Other musicians who perform highly improvisational types of music will also be familiar with this. Creating new rhythmic patterns or sequences of kalpana swarams on the spot is not easy. This type of creativity is the pinnacle of an improvisational art form like Carnatic music. However, while the timescale of the involved thought process may be very quick, the foundation required to reach the level where this becomes inherently instinctive is enormous. Years to decades of instruction and diligent practice are required.

The impulsive creativity also comes into play in science most commonly when making snap judgements as I mentioned earlier. For example, when working up a reaction one might find that there is very little of the desired organic product in the organic layer – what to do then? There are multiple options open at this point. One can directly evaporate the water from the aqueous extracts or try “salting-out” the compound. Another possibility is the realization that the product is actually water soluble and a water-compatible purification method may be required, such as reverse-phase chromatography. Which one is appropriate depends on the system at hand and the chemist’s ability to improvise and adapt.

March 20, 2013


Filed under: Philosophy — Tags: — sankirnam @ 10:01 pm

It is entirely possible to accumulate savings as a graduate student on a measly stipend… just be prepared for years of boredom, loneliness, and slovenliness.

For the record: I have managed to save $20k over the past 5 years of graduate school. Apparently this is a major accomplishment, who knew? I certainly didn’t. Was it worth it? The answer is unequivocally, NO!

Hedonism is always the superior choice.

Older Posts »

Create a free website or blog at