Infinite in All Directions: Apolitical Scientists, Bose v. Newton, Science That Matters

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Credit: seanpanderson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: seanpanderson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Homegrown apathy

… what undermines [J.C.] Bose’s claims is the lack of a respected institution in India to vouch for his achievements, that has made any systematic attempts to preserve his notes and reports, and, most importantly, which has professionally engaged in dispelling claims that would disabuse Bose of his claims to primacy. While his books and papers are easily available – on the web or in print – there is a conspicuous lack of efforts in situating them in historical contexts and in communicating such assessments to the people. The absence of such institutions is becoming obvious by the day, as is the ignorance with which their authority is being undermined. In the almost 290 years since Newton’s death in 1727, institutions like the Cambridge University Library have been responsible for preserving his legacy in the public consciousness, so much so that he’s still able to take a smidgen of credit for thinking of capillary action in plants in the 1660s or 1670s. J.C. Bose, on the other hand, continues to [languish in contested territory].

This is an excerpt from a post I wrote two years ago about how there are no institutions, nor institutional efforts, in India to “situate [the work of our scientists] in historical contexts and to communicate such assessments to the people”. It’s not difficult to realise that a closely related problem is we don’t take our homegrown repositories of scientific information and literature as seriously as they should be. I’ve seen evidence of this every year for the last decade. The most recent was on February 3, when The Hindu published an interesting story: that the work of a researcher formerly affiliated with CMC Vellore had been ignored by scientists who grabbed eyeballs last week for claiming to have solved the mystery of the 1995 encephalopathy deaths in Muzaffarpur, Bihar.

I’m sorry for myself that The Wire missed this story.

As The Hindu reported, T. Jacob John had published papers in 2014 and 2015 in the journal Current Science establishing a strong biological link between malnourished children eating a fruit from the litchi family and subsequently becoming epileptic or comatose, often leading to death. However, the scientists who finally got all the attention published in The Lancet Global Health, had a press release crafted for their efforts by the US Embassy in Delhi and received coverage all the way from India Today to the New York Times. I wouldn’t go so far as to say John’s plight is due entirely to the apathy of science journalists (scientists are to blame, too, but that’s a different discussion) – but we played a role.

A similar issue I wrote about in 2015 concerned the scientist Meghnad Saha, and why his contributions to stellar astrophysics (specifically, the theory of selective radiation pressure) may have been ignored while two white men who built incrementally upon it have been celebrated for their work on the same theory. Long story short: Saha couldn’t afford to publish in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal, which wanted him to bear some of the printing costs, so he published in the Journal of the Department of Science at Calcutta University, “which had no circulation worth mentioning”.


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Physics and liberty

I reviewed a biography of Enrico Fermi called The Pope of Physics for The Wire. I must say I was particularly motivated by a new magazine called Inference Review and the review they published of the same book. While the magazine is one of the better ones out there – much better sometimes – its review wasn’t exactly a review as much as a summation of what was going on in the book, and it had sidelined the issue of Fermi’s apolitical agnosticism and focused instead on his science. This is perfectly fine, except when I was reading The Pope of Physics, I somehow found it quite difficult to move past the fact that Fermi could be as apolitical as he was in the times he did live through.

In fact, in one paragraph, Inference Review does speculate that Fermi wouldn’t even have bothered to emigrate from Italy had his wife not been Jewish (while Hitler and Mussolini went insane with their racial persecution laws). I somehow don’t believe this because it wasn’t just his wife, many of his colleagues were Jewish, as were his collaborators in the broader field of quantum mechanics from around Europe. But I’ll be cautious about this claim; the author of the magazine review, Jeremy Bernstein, seemed to have known many of them personally.

Anyway, I may be completely wrong (which I’m open to being, so if you do tell me if I am and why, do be nice about it) but I’m not sure what the takeaway here is; I’m leaning towards the former: to be apolitical in the face of a threat to individual liberties is to side with injustice altogether or to always have a choice between being a fighter and not because that is a liberty being fought for, too. Which way would you lean?


First, to explain the problem

All hail Scott Aaronson! It seems he – a famous and particularly gifted theoretical computer scientist, if you didn’t know – was recently asked by John Nash (before he died) and Michail Rassias to put together a chapter for a book they were editing about the greatest open problems in mathematics. So after much procrastinating (how pleasing to hear Aaronson did this, too, though he probably spent the rest of his time doing other awesome things and not playing Raptor: Call of the Shadows), he did – and also uploaded it as a PDF on his blog. He has tackled the P/NP problem, first hit upon by Nash himself in 1955 and which has since become one of the hardest problems in mathematics, even to this day. And Aaronson has done a splendid job of breaking it down to tell you why. As a first step to judging his efforts, and at the risk of seeming naïve, I suggest googling for the P/NP problem first, looking at the problem definitions from around the web, and then looking at how Aaronson tackles it:

In 1900, David Hilbert challenged mathematicians to design a “purely mechanical procedure” to determine the truth or falsehood of any mathematical statement. That goal turned out to be impossible. But the question—does such a procedure exist, and why or why not?—helped launch two related revolutions that shaped the twentieth century: one in science and philosophy, as the results of Gödel, Church, Turing, and Post made the limits of reasoning itself a subject of mathematical analysis; and the other in technology, as the electronic computer achieved, not all of Hilbert’s dream, but enough of it to change the daily experience of most people on earth.

Although there’s no “purely mechanical procedure” to determine if a mathematical statement S is true or false, there is a mechanical procedure to determine if S has a proof of some bounded length n: simply enumerate over all proofs of length at most n, and check if any of them prove S. This method, however, takes exponential time. The P ?= NP problem asks whether there’s a fast algorithm to find such a proof (or to report that no proof of length at most n exists), for a suitable meaning of the word “fast.”

That in itself should tell you that he knows what he’s talking about.


It Matters Because

A lot of very cool science has happened since I last sent this newsletter and I think it’s important that you hear about all of them. I’ve wanted to write about each one of the developments but I could barely keep up. To compensate, the following is a rapid recap with a single sentence telling you why it matters. I’m calling this section It Matters Because.

Astronomers have found that 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet to be found orbiting a Sun-like star, in 1995, contains water in its atmosphere and very low levels, if at all, of carbon dioxide and methane. It matters because the technique the astronomers used in 1995 and 2016 was the same, just more sensitive in the latter case.

The polarising effect of vacuum birefringence on electromagnetic radiation was measured for the first time, confirming a prediction that Hans Euler and Werner Heisenberg made in 1936. It matters because it shows that magnetic fields can affect how light propagates through vacuum.

In 2016, the IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole ‘looked’ through Earth, using the planet as a filter to block out atmospheric neutrinos, to detect and observe neutrinos coming from space. It matters because it confirmed the existence of extragalactic neutrinos and because it’s cool.

Astrophysicists have found that estimates of the rate at which the universe is expanding don’t match with the number arrived at by the ESA Planck satellite. It matters because this rate, called the Hubble constant, is closely linked to the nature of dark matter and dark energy, and variations in its value inform us about the composition and future of this universe.

+ In June 2016, the universe was found to have been expanding 5-9% faster than we figured it was.

Anthropologists from the University of Cambridge and Banaras Hindu University have attempted to reconstruct how citizens of the Indus valley civilisation used water and adapted to its availability. It matters because their findings help determine “the resilience of subsistence practices” that many Indian researchers and farmers are exploring in an effort towards instituting sustainable agricultural practices.

By September 2017, Brian Nosek wants to “establish a single prototype of a highly credible, high prestige psychology journal that meets the present culture demands for outlets that signal high achievement”. It matters because it’s a radical confrontation of the trustworthiness problem the psychology research community is currently facing, and its success could have implications for how journals in other much-contested areas of science are run.

Around 100 million years ago, the Indian plate began to break off from the Gondwana supercontinent and start a lonely journey towards Eurasia, getting there between 55 and 50 million years ago. However, German researchers recently found that certain species of midges, preserved in amber from the time in Europe and India, have remarkably similar features. It matters because the finding suggests the Indian, Asian and European biospheres weren’t entirely isolated 50 million years ago, and that a chain of islands may have connected the Indian and Eurasian plates.

Aparajith Ramnath, a historian of science and technology (and someone who helped me understand the work of Thomas Kuhn very well six years ago), has started a wonderful new column on interpreting ancient science, for The Wire. It matters because Ramnath is doing it by reviewing one book every month.

Solid-state physicists (as in scientists who study solid-state physics) have found that when graphene is placed on a superconducting substance called praseodymium cerium copper oxide, it becomes superconducting – but in a different way. This particular press release matters because look how confusing.

The Indian Academy of Science, one of the country’s three national science academies, recently published a document called ‘Scientific Values: Ethical Guidelines and Procedures’. It matters because it’s a seminal document – given its contents as well as origins – that seeks to establish a template upon which research ethics in the country can be founded and measured.

Researchers from Madurai have found that microbes in the human gut break down organophosphates into glucose, contributing to diabetes. It matters because OPs constitute a common form of insecticide and their prevalence could imply a higher burden of diabetes in rural India than thought.

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