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When is a knot not the unknot? Presi to find out

With the hint of an early morning fog, and a nip in the year, comes a series of year-end festivals in colleges and universities. Bands tune their drums and guitars, debaters clear their vocal cords, and thespians rehearse scripts behind shuttered classroom doors. The idea is to get away from their e-books and notes for something completely different.

This winter, students at Presidency University have come up with a different idea of going beyond the textbook and class tests. For many months now, they have been preparing for a three-day academic festival of lectures, given by some of the top scientists of the world.

The lectures will be accessible to anybody visiting College Street from Friday to Sunday. For some lectures, they don’t even have to leave their warm cushions at home, for these will be broadcast live on the web.

The first “Presidency University Science Lecture Series” has been put together by students, with a strong backing by the university management, and external sponsorship.

A distinguished ex-student of Presidency and now a stalwart at the University of Maryland, Sankar Das Sarma, will explain how the reality we perceive is very different from that of the quantum world of the fundamental particles of which we are made. Another alumnus, Sumit Ranjan Das, will look at the quantum nature of gravity, by exploring the connection between black holes and holograms.

Chemistry alumnus Gautam Basu, now a Senior Professor at Bose Institute, will relate how motions of molecules in biological systems can be explained by Newton’s Physics. Surely, this is what Jagadis Chandra Bose had in mind when he brought physics and biological research together at Presidency College. This talk will take place in the very lecture theatre built by Bose in the Baker Laboratories a hundred years ago.

Sudipta Sengupta, the first Indian woman to reach Antarctica and a geologist at Jadavpur University, will talk about how the southern continent has become an intense laboratory for all kinds of scientific research. Swagata Dasgupta, from IIT Kharagpur, will take us into the biochemical world of proteins. D.D. Sarma, a top materials scientist from Bangalore, will help unravel the world of light-emitting nano-crystals, showing the possibilities of innovation in making new materials, to be used in everyday life.

Four of the 13 speakers are not able to be present in person, for various reasons. However, Presidency University has a brand new videoconferencing unit in an E-Classroom, designed to be used by academics elsewhere to give lectures to students at the university, and for online research meetings. This will be inaugurated on Friday by an interactive lecture from one of the top mathematicians of the world, Yuri Ivanovitch Manin, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany. This veteran, versatile and much-feted mathematician will talk about “Numbers as functions”.

Vladimir Voevodsky, another Russian mathematician who is the winner of a Fields medal, widely regarded as the Nobel for mathematics, will speak via the videoconferencing unit from the Institute of Advanced Studies (Einstein’s workplace) in Princeton, US.

A top Indian mathematician from the IMSc in Chennai, V.S. Sunder, will appear in person with an intriguing alliterative title for his talk: “When is a knot not the unknot”. The science of topology and geometry can be very obscure — one needs top experts to make them accessible to the general public.

I am very excited that my students have chosen to pay tribute to the two centuries of learning and scholarship that is associated with the unique institution to which they belong. The media seem to be full of stories of crumbling halls and stifling economies when talking about the resurgent Presidency University, but it is very reassuring to see that the students can see beyond the immediate despair and take pride in showing a glimpse of the world-class institution undergoing revival.

The flame is still on. I am happy.

The author is the head of the physics department at Presidency University