Science

Infinite in All Directions: India’s Caves, Quantum Dots, the Mathematicus

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Credit: ritesh_deathrider/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: ritesh_deathrider/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Good science communication
Following a conversation on Twitter between IISc. chemist Gautam Desiraju and a clutch of science writers/communicators, following Desiraju’s oped in The Hindu about how scientists should not just be expected to communicate their work to a lay audience, following a rebuttal in The Wire by neuroscientist Shruti Muralidhar about how they in fact should be, a science-writer friend shared a curious paper with me discussing a so-called “easiness effect”. From the abstract:

… the simplification of information required to achieve [its] accessibility may lead to the risk of audiences relying overly strongly on their own epistemic capabilities when making judgments about scientific claims. Moreover, they may underestimate how the division of cognitive labor makes them dependent on experts.

The paper’s authors go on to write,

Results confirm the occurrence of an easiness effect when laypeople read authentic popularized articles addressed to the general public. In line with our expectations, popularized articles addressed to a lay audience led laypeople to agree more with the knowledge contained in the claims than scientific articles addressed to expert audiences did. However, unexpectedly, popularized articles were not deemed to be more credible than scientific articles.

To me, this conclusion seems to be at odds with how I imagine my audience to be. Multiple studies on this topic have focused on medical studies and health news, which are both quite different from, say, physics studies and physics news. There are fewer people exercising their own judgment when it comes to physics in ways that are consequential than there are people doing the same thing with information that pertains to their health.

But more importantly, this study – as well as the half-dozen others it follows from – make the mistake of assuming what good science communication is. To me, it’s ‘good’ when it also discusses uncertainties with certainties and complexities with simplifications, as well as is cognisant of its own shortcomings, in its practice. Other studies, such as this, have shown that doubt and assumptions are often carried over from primary sources to secondary sources between communicators (i.e. from a university press release to a news report) so there is value in including them.

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Where I stand on the Indian #scicomm debate

I think this whole debate may have muddled some basic assumptions. To me it’s not about scientists being obligated but about scientists being willing to work together with journalists or provide valuable information towards the building of a story instead of firmly staying within the lab and refusing to talk about their work.

Science communication may not always be an art but sometimes – and increasingly often, too – it can be an art more so than anything else. In these cases, I don’t expect every biologist I come across to be a Siddhartha Mukherjee but when I do walk up to one and say I’m a science journalist and that I’d like to talk to you, I expect a conversation to happen. That’s where I stand.

I understand and recognise that scientists are humans too. I’m also cognisant of the fact that in this debate we’ve ended up translocating a lot of the responsibilities that we should actually be negotiating to in fact the scientist herself. Scientists are not obligated to do anything in a system as broken as ours. I’d in fact sided partly with Desiraju and suggested that scientists should be offered apparently advantageous incentives to communicate and not treat the act as a fundamental duty.

In fact my position is better stated from the point of view of public funds. I’m not going to say anytime soon that because scientists spend taxpayers’ money they should be writing books about their work. Instead they should be cognisant of it and not overly shirk from opportunities to communicate their work. After all, science journalists are also to blame. I’m not going to take the trust a scientist wants to repose in me for granted.

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Within India’s caves

K.S. Jayaraman has a short profile of Ramanathan Baskar, a cave geomicrobiologist, that throws light on the wealth of knowledge that scientists have only just begun to reap from India’s more than 1,500 caves.

Microbial life evolved on earth in an environment prior to photosynthesis when there was limited nitrogen and most organisms used minerals for energy. “Cave environments, therefore, offer the potential to study ancient evolutionary relationships, the use of alternative sources of energy, and systems developed by microbes for scavenging scarce nutrients in such environments,” he says.

However, I do wish the piece had concluded at this point instead of going on to list the myriad applications of Baskar’s findings in other realms of human endeavour.

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Quantum-dot contaminants

On January 9, a report by a CSIR lab was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology about how materials called quantum dots are damaging to the environment. Quantum dots are semiconductor crystals engineered at the nanometre scale. Using a laboratory set wherein the unicellular organism Paramecium caudatum is able to prey on Escherichia coli, the researcher then introduced a “nonlethal concentration” of cadmium telluride quantum dots. The goal: to see how CdTe QDs affect the predator-prey relationship. And they found that, over 24 hours, P. caudatum had ingested over 65% of cadmium (by itself a powerful contaminant) and couldn’t effectively prey on E. coli.

This isn’t the first time this lab, at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, has been involved in such a study. In August 2016, it had reported that titanium dioxiode, “the most abundantly released engineered nanomaterial in aquatic environments”, had effects comparable to what happened in the presence of CdTe. From the August 2016 paper, published in Nature Scientific Reports,

The surface interaction of nTiO2 with E. coli significantly increased after the addition of Paramecium into the microcosm. This interaction favoured the hetero-agglomeration and co-sedimentation of nTiO2. The extent of nTiO2agglomeration under experimental conditions was as follows: combined E. coli and Paramecium > Paramecium only > E. coli only > without E. coli or Paramecium. An increase in nTiO2 internalisation in Paramecium cells was also observed in the presence or absence of E. coli cells.

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Billy Barr’s notebook

A splendid story in the AtlanticThe Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science, on the life and work of Billy Barr. Barr moved to the foot of the Rocky Mountains from the East Coast in 1973 and set up home in an abandoned mining shack. To keep himself busy, he did many odd, and some even, jobs at the Rocky Mountains Biological Laboratory (RMBL) nearby. But he still had lots of time left. So, to keep from getting depressed amidst all the quietude, he started maintaining a notebook. In it, Barr documented the snow levels, the flows of nearby streams, the starts and ends of various bird and animal seasons, and so forth.

Barr became famous when the famous ecologist David Inouye discovered his notebook during a chat at RMBL, when Inouye also worked. For the ecologist, the notebook was invaluable because it documented over 40 years of local ecological data that was otherwise unavailable, and made for a database of longterm trends against which local and temporary changes could be compared to understand their significance. For example, here’s one insight:

The hummingbird relies on nectar from the glacier lily—so much so that it synced its migration to arrive in Gothic just before it blooms. To adjust to warmer springs, however, the lily now flowers 17 days earlier than it did four decades ago. In two more decades it’s likely the broad-tailed hummingbird will completely miss the glacier lily’s nectar. This widening seasonal imbalance is called phenological mismatch, and has become a major concern as scientists learn more about climate change. In Gothic, this will impact not just broad-tailed hummingbirds, but also butterflies, bees, hibernating mammals, and the animals that depend on all those animals. These same dynamics will play out across the Rocky Mountains, and similar alpine ecosystems across the world.

An upcoming documentary, to be released this year, called End of Snow tells Barr’s story.

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The life of Emily Dix

A curious bit of information from an interesting blog post on the Letters from Gondwana blog: “by the first half of the 20th century, a third of British palaeobotanists working on Carboniferous plants were women”. Wonder why this was the case…

Thought the rest of the blog post is meticulous about the work of Emily Dix, a palaeobotanist, it doesn’t go into any detail about her personal life. Following up on the two references in the blog post also seem to indicate that the post itself may have been plagiarised in part from them. :/ If you know of any biographies of Dix, please let me know.

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The evolution of the mathematicus

If you don’t already follow Thony Christie’s blog The Renaissance Mathematicus, you should. Christie’s writing focuses on the science and the scientists active around the time of the Renaissance. He’s my go-to for all things Kepler, Galileo and Copernicus (although he probably won’t be delighted to hear this as much as ticked about the bunch of other names that I ought to remember from what he considers, and often proves, to be a wonderful period). His latest post (at the time of writing this) is titled ‘Why Mathematicus?’. It explores the etymology of the term ‘mathematicus’ by taking us through the evolution of mathematics itself. An excerpt:

The Renaissance was a period of strong revival for Greek astrology and the two hundred and fifty years that I have bracketed have been called the golden age of astrology and the principle occupation of our mathematicus is still very much the casting and interpretation of horoscopes. Mathematics had played a very minor role at the medieval universities but the Renaissance humanist universities of Northern Italy and Krakow in Poland introduced dedicated chairs for mathematics in the early fifteenth century, which were in fact chairs for astrology, whose occupants were expected to teach astrology to the medical students for their astro-medicine or as it was know iatro-mathematics. All Renaissance professors of mathematics down to and including Galileo were expected to and did teach astrology.

Of course, to teach astrology they also had to practice and teach astronomy, which in turn required the basics of mathematics – arithmetic, geometry and trigonometry – which is what our mathematicus has in common with the modern mathematician. Throughout this period the terms Astrologus, astronomus and mathematicus – astrologer, astronomer and mathematician ­– were synonymous. A Renaissance mathematicus was not just required to be an astronomer but to quantify and describe the entire cosmos making him a cosmographer i.e. a geographer and cartographer as well as astronomer. A Renaissance geographer/cartographer also covered much that we would now consider to be history, rather than geography.

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Waghoba tales

A special mention: Janaki Lenin, who writes the Amazing Animals series for The Wire, has edited a lovely collection of personal essays by ecologists studying leopards in India. The 62-page PDF, of which only a few copies were officially printed, is punctuated by beautiful illustrations as well as true stories from the wild. I highly recommend reading this; they’re great stories even if ecology isn’t your thing.

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Quantum lives

The answer by Mark Eichenlaub, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, to the question ‘What are some of the effects of quantum physics we can observe in day to day life?’ on Quora is a must-read to understand how an advanced set of rules that dictate how fundamental particles behave actually dominates our daily lives. If someone had asked me to answer the question, my first answer would’ve been a Bose-Einstein condensate and superconductors. And then, after a few seconds, ferromagnetism. However, these are some of the more complex examples of macroscopic phenomena guided overwhelmingly by quantum mechanical rules. You think about it for a minute more and you realise… almost everything that involves electrons has got some QM going on, its weirdness lost on us by a thermodynamic scramble called quantum decoherence.

More than anything, Eichenlaub’s answer makes it evident that classical physics – which we used to understand everything since Newton’s Principia until the early 20th century – even with all its surprises, barely scratched the surface of a wonderful, wonderful reality. Eichenlaub lists the following groups of examples:

  • Calculating the stress-strain relationship when you’re building a bridge
  • Magnetisation – When you apply an external magnetic field to, say, a bar of iron, the electrons in the bar align their spins along the direction of the magnetic field. Each electron, however, is revolving around its nucleus, so the applied magnetic field exerts a torque – a turning force – on the electron. The amount of this force is called the magnetic dipole moment, and the amount of magnetic dipole moment experienced by the bar per unit volume is called its magnetisation. Quantum mechanics gets involved because, without it, there’s no estimating the magnetic field’s effect on electronic spin, an essentially quantum mechanical property.
  • Resistivity – Like with magnetisation, the resistivity of a substance is also computed using quantum mechanical rules before it can be used in classical examples, like in Ohm’s law to measure the resistance, voltage or current in a given part of an electrical circuit.

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Other bits of interestingness

  1. The giant PREDICTS database, which documents ecological diversity on land, is now publicly accessible
  2. A simple proof of the square-root of 2 being irrational using very simple geometry
  3. Why cosmologists and physicists often take solace in Indian philosophical traditions (the author’s words are very important or it’s easy to misconstrue them as meaning that one contributes directly to the other – there’s no such relationship except, if at all, through inspiration)

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Curate IiAD

If you would like to curate Infinite in All Directions, get in touch with me at mukunth@thewire.in.

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