Ah, Singapore!

It is clean, green, and orderly.

The Bike Friday is intact.  Suitcase arrived as hoped, and I reassembled the bicycle the same evening I got here.  All is therefore well.

I’m at the campus of Nanyang Technological University (NTU).  It is located at the far western end of the island of Singapore, so much so that if Sarah were on campus, she would be able to see Malaysia from here. NTU originally started life as a Chinese university, but later got converted to a technological university.  They are going gangbusters on science and engineering here, but there is still a campus center devoted to Chinese studies. The Chinese heart of the campus is at the Chinese Heritage Center, pictured here (this is a famous building that has been well photographed, so I need to solemnly swear, upon pain of perjury, that this is my own photograph and not lifted, for example, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanyang_Technological_University  🙂  ):

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I’ve been riding my bike all around the campus.  It has a lot of tiny but steep hills, so a ride around the campus, which is about 6.5 kilometers, can give you a small fifteen to twenty minute workout. The campus, mirroring the rest of Singapore, is naturally green all over, but the Chinese Heritage Center has a particularly nice garden in front of it:

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And this garden has a plaque commemorating the founding of the university:

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It is nice to be back in a university atmosphere.  I’m the prototypical campus animal; I draw energy from the young people all around me.  In fact, this is one of the two main reasons why I like being a professor: you are always surrounded by young people, full of fun and laughter and hopes and dreams, and so devoid of the negatives one can easily pick up along the pathway of life if one is not careful.  I felt the energy of youth around me the moment I walked from my guest house to the mathematics department. And mind you, I felt this even though fewer students than usual are on campus right now, since the Fall session does not start till Monday. (Come Monday, this place will simply be wall-to-wall with fresh-faced folk.)

The other main reason why I like being an academic is of course the intellectual stimulation.  In addition to my primary collaborator (who is hosting my visit), there are present here her post-doc from Illinois, and two other visitors: a computer-science professor from Technion in Israel, and a mathematics professor like me from Grenoble in France.  On the very first day I mentioned to the computer scientist that I was curious about digital beam forming in radar.  This is not my area of specialization at all, and in fact, it is not just far from it, but is actually in a very different field, namely engineering.  But it does use some mathematical tools.  On hearing me mention my interest, this professor from Technion goes up to the board and gives me a concise introduction to the subject.  It was beautiful!   This professor’s excitement as he explained the basic ideas of the field was so infectious, the joy he felt was so catching, that I found myself hooked.  In that short period with him at the board, I saw for the first time what the subject of signal processing in engineering was all about. The insights that I got from talking to him for just an hour: there is no way I could get that from books.

This is a two-way street.  I myself will be lecturing to a few people shortly on a certain theorem. We want to thoroughly understand the proof, to take it apart actually, to see what will happen if a certain natural parameter is expanded beyond the bounds specified in the theorem.

At the end of the day, knowledge is transmitted, at its core, from person to person.  Information can be transferred through other media: books, videos, and that latest fashion: MOOCs (short for massive open online courses). But knowledge is more than just information. It is what results when you combine information with a set of attitudes: unfettered curiosity and excitement, the desire to understand something so well that it you just “see it” as a whole, the desire to study connections with other areas of specialization, and quite importantly, the desire to teach it to others.  Furthermore, each subject has an indescribable culture to it, which would explain why certain problems are focused upon in the subject, why certain approaches are used, or why certain concepts are introduced.  All of this—the attitudes and the culture—is nearly impossible to transmit except by direct person-to-person interaction.

A university is primarily an ecosystem. It is a set of people sharing similar values, cohabiting a physical space, bouncing ideas off of one another, deriving energy from one another, and in the process creating a sum that is significantly greater than the whole.  Books, videos, MOOCs, and whatever other fashion may come (and go), are all tools.  The core is a group of dedicated people talking to one another in front of a chalkboard, or huddling together over a lab bench, understanding, creating.  And later, transmitting what they have understood and have created, and most importantly, transmitting their joy and curiosity and their attitudes to learning and discovering, to young minds.

The university is the crucible of society. I am honored to be a part of this enterprise. (And I am happy to have ridden my bicycle around a few good ones 🙂 🙂  ).

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4 thoughts on “Ah, Singapore!

  1. ‘Clean, green, orderly’…that I did expect, but am pleasantly surprised by the weather…definitely walkable and bikeable. Good to see you Bharath on your faithful steed…off seeking adventure. You are upping the energy levels here.

  2. Hi Geetha, I did put on a gizmo that measures speed and distance traveled during the last trip, but I don’t believe it gives me the total distance travelled since the beginning of time. (I am actually surprised by that—the gizmo on my other bike in LA does give total distance since the gizmo was last reset.) As of now, I don’t expect the BF to have travelled too many miles, but stay tuned!

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