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jolly good

As a retired engineer, I decided to get back to my passion of understanding ethics. Most of the works were clearly woolly and very soon I realized that I needed to enhance my skills in logic to make any headway in this direction. Most of the recent books in logic were loaded in formal mathematics and appeared way beyond my reach. It was then that Prof Roy’s book on the Internet came as a pleasant surprise. Two years later, I managed to complete most of the exercises in his book and understand the principles. It is to Prof Roy’s credit that someone like me with little training in formal mathematics can learn such a difficult subject and all along keep my interest in it without being daunted by the complexity of the subject. During this journey, Prof Roy gave his time unstintingly to respond to my queries. Nuggets of Russelian wit, veiled challenges to the daredevils, and his love for his family are sprinkled in every chapter in this book. What attracted me most were the problems at the end of each chapter; in every chapter you invariably find one which asks the student to draft a short note explaining the main ideas in the chapter in a language his teenage daughter can understand. It is well known that, if you understand something well, you ought to be able to communicate that to the non-initiated. And, equally if you teach someone what you learnt, your concepts become even clearer. As the Tamil poet says, knowledge is rare commodity that grows by giving. To recognize this and challenge the reader to try his hands at this, Prof Roy shows great intuition in the art of teaching.

As an old man living in the UK, I cannot say his book is cool, but perhaps I could say it is jolly good.  R.V.

1 Comment

  1. Addendum to my post: It came as a rude shock to me when Prof Roy sent a message that he has taken voluntary retirement from his position at the California State University at San Bernardino where he was a professor of mathematical logic. He has explained that the decision was his response to the lack of support for the University.

    In the past few decades most societies have reduced their financial support to academic institutions partly due to the downturn in their economies. This is a sad reflection of the lack of foresight on the part of those who are in power.

    This attitude comes from a wrong impression that academic centers are ivory towers producing work of no value to the common man. Nothing can be farther from truth. Anyone who has doubts would do well to read the essay ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’ by the founder of The Institute of Advanced Study, Abraham Flexner (https://library.ias.edu/files/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf). It shows in very clear terms how applied research that improves our day-to-day lives is impossible without fundamental research. It is for this very good reason that great civilizations considered teaching as a noble profession. In Indian philosophy, the mantra “Matru Devo Bhava, Pitru Devo Bhava, Acharya Devo Bhava” defines the pecking order of Gods: one’s mother, father and teacher in that order. The gods of mythology don’t even get a mention. The ceremony, which inducts a young lad to education, is called upanayanam – getting a new eye to look at the world. The Tamil poet captures this even more bluntly when he sings ‘I have never seen a better medicine than knowledge to eradicate prejudices’.

    Yes, the fruits of the knowledge gained by fundamental research are not made available to the common man overnight. It took almost a century before time dilation found its application in satnavs and decades before the work on radiation equilibrium found its way to the microwaves in our kitchens. But that is the nature of progress. It took centuries before the horrors of slavery were realized by societies and made amends for it. So why expect a theorem in number theory to be useful to us the very next day? Like knowledge in ethics, knowledge in natural sciences is a long-term project. Ideas gained in fundamental sciences often find their utility long after the discoverers had left the planet.

    Hundreds of years ago, it would have been possible for a young boy working as an aide to a book binder in Richmond, London or a clerk working for the East India Company in Chennai to make great discoveries in their spare time. But things have changed. Notwithstanding what some might believe, you cannot discover the general theory of relativity by sitting in the lotus position on top of the snow peaks of the Himalayas. To advance the frontiers of knowledge, you need to understand what has already been achieved. And the amount of knowledge already achieved is so vast that we need to spend years learning before venturing into the unknown. This is the main business of Universities, to nurture thinking minds so they can venture on their own to unravel the mysteries of nature.

    Notwithstanding all the controversial ideas on Nature-vs-Nurture, almost everyone agrees that nurture is essential to enable intelligent brains to mature and be ready for the tryst with nature. And it is common sense that the larger the number of people who go to universities the greater is the chance that new Aristotles and Einsteins would come out shouting “eureka.” Any society which makes it difficult for the young minds in the lower rungs of the society to take part in this adventure, is shooting itself in its foot. And it becomes even more imperative since in every society, the lower rungs of the society are a majority. The huge cost that is incurred by students to receive higher education is thus a very clear regressive step. Societies compose their own elegies by their extremely shortsighted attitude to University Education.

    Universities all over the world are also to some extent responsible for the negative and prejudiced attitudes of societies towards higher learning. The mantra of publish or perish has threatened the very survival of professors who take interest in teaching. A good teacher needs to learn how to communicate complex ideas to aspiring young minds and inspire them to venture into the unknown. It requires considerable amount of work to hone one’s skills to become a good teacher. Universities need to nurture professors who are good in research work and those who teach in equal measure if they are to perform their duties to the society as the guardians of knowledge.

    And what a better way to acquire knowledge, than to understand how human logic works. Even though logic was one of the earliest subjects where great developments took place at the dawn of civilizations, it is only in the past hundred years ago that epoch-making discoveries have been made to put it into firm footing. The knowledge gained from this subject is already finding application in natural sciences as well as philosophy, the two pillars of human knowledge. It is thus shocking that Professor Roy who has been teaching this subject had to leave due to lack of support.

    I am sure the loss of CSUSB is the gain of another institution. I do hope this will provide Prof Roy more free time to concentrate on his book and publish it. That will be his lasting contribution to students all over the world. Wishing him all the best.

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