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Infinite in All Directions: Ramanujan’s Genius, Kali’s Oracle, and the Sociology of Astronomy

Infinite in All Directions is our new science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Credit: jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Spotlight: Theranos, the American medical diagnostics company run by 32-year-old Elizabeth Holmes and that was once valued at $9 billion, continued its nosedive since early this year after Walgreens, the pharmacy chain, cut off its partnership. Theranos’s USPs in its heyday were that it would be able to diagnose over 200 conditions based on testing a few drops of blood, and that it would accomplish this using its proprietary Edison devices. However, since a Wall Street Journal investigation began in 2015, a series of deficiencies at the organisation have come to light – including that Theranos is basing its tests on science it refuses to out in peer-reviewed journals or otherwise; that the Edison reports are erratic at best; and that its California lab may be posing a serious threat of some kind to Theranos’s patients.

Industry leaders believe Walgreens’s move now has been motivated by a lawsuit filed by consumers against Theranos in which the pharmacy chain has been named as a co-defendant, and by a review organisation appointed by the US government that’s mulling banning Holmes for two years from the industry. This is definitively the end of Theranos because, without Walgreens, Holmes makes no money. Read more

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Credit: techcrunch/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: techcrunch/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A great biography of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of the Ethereum cryptocurrency, is up on Medium by @morgenpeck. Buterin isn’t exactly a recluse proper like Satoshi Nakamoto is or Howard Hughes was but is quite hard to catch, so that makes the piece worthwhile reading, but the other thing is to not expect surprises at this stage. Buterin is just all of 22 right now and fits the profile of a young techno-optimist who was “one of a small group of people who began to look past the dizzying promise of financial gain to be had from bitcoin’s volatile market price and swelling user base to consider the more futuristic applications made possible by the technology itself.” His accomplishment was to add a Turing-complete programming language on the blockchain, thus allowing programmers to press the blockchain’s sensibilities into the service of all kinds of applications – from banking to social networks to whatever else.

One thing that stands out from the piece is its description of what happened when Buterin released the whitepaper of the language he had just created, called Ethereum. In his words: “When I came up with Ethereum, my first first thought was, okay this thing is too good to be true and I’m going to have five professional cryptographers raining down on me and telling me how stupid I am for not seeing a bunch of very obvious flaws. Two weeks later I was extremely surprised that none of that happened.” The subsequently smooth rollout stands in stark contrast to what’s happening now. A collective investment organisation called the DAO, and based on Ethereum, was ‘hacked’ and $53 million worth of cryptocurrencies were ‘stolen’ from it. However, ‘hack’ and ‘steal’ here may have no meaning because the perpetrator of this act simply exploited a loophole in the DAO’s setup that allowed it to have ‘children’ DAOs, and that’s just what this unknown actor has set up. However, Buterin’s refusal to consider this as legitimate has cast the Ethereum community in unfavourable light.

Update: News has just come in of a second attack using the same technique, though at a far smaller scale.

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Ramanujan, centre, with his colleagues in Trinity College. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ramanujan, centre, with his colleagues in Trinity College. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The uncanny genius of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan so easily fascinates many of us because of its mysterious origins. Because he couldn’t afford paper, Ramanujan only wrote down the last few steps of his amazing discoveries in number theory; the proofs themselves – if any – were committed to sand or slate and rubbed off for reuse. Some accounts even claim that he was inspired by a goddess he worshipped, Namagiri Thayar, to come up with his formulae in dreams. To cut through this fog, the mathematician James Propp did what we should’ve done all along: get into the math itself. In this blog post, Propp takes us through Ramanujan’s more famous as well as counterintuitive discoveries and the sort of algebraic insight that would’ve been necessary to come to the conclusions that he did. The language is as lucid as it gets and please don’t be daunted by the equations. And though there’s no final verdict yet, you do notice patterns in his unique way of thinking, and you do pick up on the guiding rails of his insights. Hint: it lends itself to the name of a book by Robert Kanigel.

+ … which reminds me: quite a lot of science-wise interestingness originates from science blogs. On this note, you should definitely follow Paige Brown Jarreau over at SciLogs for her unique insights into science blogging itself.


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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the first issue of this newsletter, I featured an interesting take on the Indian and Chinese medicinal traditions that appeared in The Lancet. Specifically, it spoke about how both countries have had access to millennia-old philosophies shaped around the availability of certain resources yet have developed a divergent modern approach – in India’s case, to its own detriment. The take in question belonged in a review of a wonderful new book, In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine. The author, Aarathi Prasad, since acquiesced to an excerpt. The Wire‘s Nandini Majumdar summed it up: “The ‘possession’ of a woman by a Goddess or a ghost is widely used in India to account for – and sadly eclipse – symptoms of depression, anxiety, epilepsy, malaise, rebelliousness or any number of psychiatric conditions.”

An excerpt: “No one could say exactly when this had happened, but Rayvan believed it was in the fourteenth century because the goddess came to him in a dream one night and told him so. When Chota Sion was being constructed, the builders unwisely destroyed the ancient shrine. The goddess’s revenge was no slower in the 1980s than it had been in the 1300s: soon labourers started falling unconscious and unexplained calamities befell both patients and staff. The worker who had demolished it was found with an iron rod through him, vomiting blood. The shrine was swiftly reinstated and a courtyard created where there had been a hospital wing on the blueprint.

Through her oracle Sabawa, this powerful and avenging goddess continues to draw Dharavi’s women to her: women who are in abusive marriages, women who, for whatever reason, are considered by their families to be mad. ‘The devi normally enters people when they are having many problems,’ Rayvan said. Possession and a distressed state of mind are inevitably linked. Sadly, as I would later learn, many Mumbai psychiatrists are unwilling to link the same distress to a more prosaic cause: the domestic abuse suffered by Dharavi’s women.”

Continue reading.

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Superstar economist Tim Harford points us to a useful tip when judging replication studies:

“Wharton psychologist Uri Simonsohn suggests a replication attempt should use a substantially larger sample than the original, so it is likely to estimate effects more precisely. If the replication fails to find an effect, that’s not proof there’s no effect; it does suggest, however, that the original study was a fluke. Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman suggests a simple rule of thumb … : mentally reverse the order of the studies. Imagine the “replication” came first, and the “original” study came later. Being published first should not be a privileged position from which our conclusions can only be budged with extraordinary evidence. Gelman’s rule of thumb helps us avoid doggedly sticking to the status quo.”

(Emphasis added.) This is especially useful when a replication study isn’t able to match the original study in cohort size or when the difference in sizes between the two studies is very large.

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A scene from the game 'Second Life'. Credit: YouTube

A scene from the game ‘Second Life’. Credit: YouTube

The moment I read that Elon Musk thought we were living in a videogame simulation (drawing from Nick Bostrom’s intriguing paper), I thought of two things: the arrow of evolution, and Hilary Putnam. The Parisian philosopher Justin E.H. Smith articulates the former PoV as bluntly as it should be. As he writes, Musk’s belief

“… relies on a crucial but unexamined premise, that the simulated characters of video games, if they keep developing in the way they have been developing since the 1970s, will eventually become conscious. But there is just one small problem: we don’t know what consciousness is yet. We don’t know how it is grounded in brain activity, nor whether it is an emergent capacity of the evolution of organisms at all, so we can’t possibly know whether it is bound to emerge from the evolution of other physical systems.

Some people are strongly committed to the view that consciousness is just the result of the way brains are structured, and there is nothing categorically special in the physical world about how brains are structured. But they cannot give an account, at least not yet, of how this works, how we get thoughts and feelings and memories from the firing of neurons, let alone positively establish that it works in the same way as our computers work. And if we do not know that brains are computers, then we definitely don’t know that computer programs, or indeed the special parts of programs responsible for the production of simulations of characters that seem to bear some analogy to us (Ms. PacMan, the Sims, etc.), are on their way to becoming conscious.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that our brains are computers, and that our consciousness is the result of the fact that we are ‘running a program’. It does not follow from this that wherever in the universe there is natural computational activity, given enough time this activity will in turn result in the production of artificial systems that simulate what had already emerged naturally. In other words, there is no reason to think that wherever there are naturally evolving brains there are likely to be, given enough time, artificial ones too.

The presumption of the high probability of such an outcome is perhaps what is most new about the new repackaged version of the argument. It appears to be borrowed from some recent speculations in xenobiology, triggered by the recent recalculation, by several orders of magnitude, of the likely number of habitable planets in the universe. But this speculation is based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary biology, and pumped up on a fairly large dose of smuggled teleology. There is no reason why biological evolution should move from lower to higher, from dumb fish and worms to ingenious toolmaking and abstract-thought-using beings. This is for the simple reason that there can be no lower or higher at all in evolution. I am worse than a fish if we’re having a contest in underwater breathing, but better if it is typing that interests us. And this is all evolution does: it yields up organisms that are fitted to their environments; it does not yield up absolutely ever-better organisms, nor is tool-making and abstract thinking any better, absolutely, than breathing through gills.”

And I thought of Hilary Putnam because of the broader pointlessness of the consideration altogether, in connection with his advocacy of scientific realism. From our obituary for Putnam (he passed away in March this year):

“In the philosophy of science, Putnam subscribed to scientific realism, the belief that theoretical claims of science are to be taken as describing reality – that science aims to produce true descriptions of things in the universe. This realist position is buttressed by his ‘no-miracle argument’, the claim that (in his words) ‘realism is the only philosophy that does not make the success of science a miracle’. What explains the extraordinarily successful scientific theories in empirical prediction and intricate causal control of nature would be a miracle if not for their approximation to the truth about reality.”

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Engineers inspecting the optics at the LIGO Livingston detector. Credit: LIGO Scientific Collaboration

Engineers inspecting the optics at the LIGO Livingston detector. Credit: LIGO Scientific Collaboration

Steven Wheeler presents a brief and technical history of the search for gravitational waves, and in large parts it doesn’t present any novel information. However, one section is interesting to consider: the sociology of astronomical observatories. Though LIGO has said to be heralding a new form of astronomy – one that uses gravitational instead of electromagnetic effects to infer the behaviour of distant objects – it seems many astronomers were against the use of the term ‘observatory’ to describe it in the project’s earlier years.

“Two points of contention emerge from these accounts. The first is the choice of name. In hindsight, astronomers might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow. LIGO does not precisely observe anything, certainly not in a manner that might be considered even vaguely akin to current methods of astronomical observation, which use optical or radio telescopes. For an experiment without precedent, the inclusion of the O was perhaps a bit of a stretch.

The second objection, that LIGO was a physics project rather than an astronomical one, proved difficult to answer. As recently as 1991, the National Academy of Science (NAS) was quoted in a Science article as affirming that, “the secure scientific goals of LIGO for the 1990s are not astronomical.” The distinction made here between LIGO and astronomical projects was probably sharpened by the fact that, throughout LIGO’s history, none of its key figures have been astronomers. A sense that physicists were encroaching on another field was perhaps inevitable.”

These arguments are fascinating for what they reveal about how astronomers perceive their own fields of work – something you bump up against often if you’ve followed the history of the Hubble Space Telescope, a personal favourite for various reasons and relevant in this context with its engineering. As I’vewritten before, the HST brought to humankind images that were so appealing, so revealing of the universe’s creations, that a popular account of the telescope can easily ignore the way it works. In effect, this becomes the hallmark of gainful astronomy: great images to see. And without things to see, astronomy is perceived to be weakened in some way.

+ If you’re interested in more of this stuff, I unequivocally endorse the writing of W. Patrick McCray.

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Jack Parsons standing above a JATO canister, 1943. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jack Parsons standing above a JATO canister, 1943. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jack Parsons was the man the Hungarian-American physicist Theodore Von Kármán liked to call a “delightful screwball”. Why? Presumably, “delightful” was for Parsons’s seminal achievements in rocket propulsion and rocketry and for the significant part he played in establishing NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And “screwball” because of his wild parties and – a little something I’ve never known – his occultist connections and beliefs. Quoting from the Space Safety Magazine,

“Part of the Thelemic belief system involved goddess worship, and one goddess in particular, named Babalon, also known as ‘The Scarlet Woman’. [Aleister] Crowley and Parsons believed that it was possible to summon the elemental spirit of Babalon into a human form via use of sex magick. Crowley referred to this elemental offspring as a ‘Moonchild’.

From January to March, 1946, Parsons began a series of magical rituals with the aid of [L. Ron] Hubbard known as the ‘Babalon Working’. As soon as the first set of rituals had been complete, Parsons encountered a woman by the name of Marjorie Cameron. Marjorie was something of a free spirit, and had moved to Pasadena after receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy. Parsons immediately became infatuated with her and her scarlet red hair, and saw her arrival as a sign of a successful ritual. In short, Parsons believed that he had summoned Babalon, the Scarlet Woman.”


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The Presidency College building, Chennai. Credit: kumaravel/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Presidency College building, Chennai. Credit: kumaravel/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Here’s one for the ages: How did India end up with over 36,000 colleges?The numbers – and the corresponding lack of regulation or even any kind of oversight – are startling. Consider this: “Since 2003, India has been adding more than 1,000 colleges a year. The peak was the period between 2007 and 2009, when the country added 7,206 colleges, about one-fifth of the total number.”

Thomas Manuel, a Chennai-based researcher who’s been digging through various databases, has a very helpful set of charts and interactive tools to help you explore this mess. My other favourite bit from his piece is this:

“We already wrote about medical colleges and the Medical Council of India (MCI) previously using data from the MCI’s website which referenced 370 recognised medical colleges versus only 318 that appear in the AISHE database. Some 52 missing colleges has the potential to invalidate any learning on medical education from the AISHE data. Some colleges listed more than one statutory body. Sri Annamalaiyar College Of Paramedical Sciences in Tamil Nadu helpfully claimed to be under the oversight of every single statutory body. Tara Vivek College in Punjab meanwhile settled for only the first nine bodies.”

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One of the many things the Dead Sea is known for. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the many things the Dead Sea is known for. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

No better way to put it: the Dead Sea is drying. Kevin Connolly writes in a long piece for the BBC,

“The question is what the costs and benefits of any attempt to ‘save’ the Dead Sea might be – whether that would be to slow the rate of decline or to do something vastly more ambitious and start to raise the level again. ‘You have to ask, what we are trying to preserve here,’ says Dr Ittai Gavrieli, another scientist from the Geological Survey of Israel. ‘Are we trying to raise the water level? To preserve the unique chemistry of the Dead Sea? And for what purpose – for tourism? If we want to restore the flow of the Jordan river, for example, then Israel would have to desalinate more water and that would cost money and have an environmental impact too.’ If the Jordan were ever restored, of course, it would be impossible to expect that Palestinian and Jordanian farming communities desperate for water on either bank would simply sit back and let the water flow by in the interests of science.”

The only thing I don’t like about the article is the size of each paragraph. Typical BBC articles (as well as PTI articles, to those who are familiar) have single-sentence paragraphs. That’s understandable in a news piece where it gives the impression of a fast flow, but in a longform piece? Really?

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Ullas Karanth writes in the Scientific American that we shouldn’t focus on catching tiger traders at the borders of these cats’ territories but on securing their populations’ ability to survive by not killing off their prey for other purposes – i.e. focus on populations over individuals.

“Results from these long-term studies demonstrate for the first time how healthy tiger populations function in the wild. Well-protected tiger populations, such as the one in Nagarahole, are not static. Their densities naturally fluctuate from a low of seven tigers per 100 square kilometers to a high of 15 tigers per 100 square kilometer over longer periods. Even such a high-density tiger population loses an average of 20 percent of its members annually. Natural violence—killing of cubs by males, injuries sustained while fighting or hunting, followed by starvation—inflicts substantial losses. Killings by farmers who are defending their livestock and poachers who are supplying the black market for tiger parts—activities that occur even around protected reserves—also contribute to mortality rates. But because prey is abundant on these reserves, the number of new tigers born more than compensates for these losses. The surplus animals try to disperse and settle in new areas. These findings mean that instead of fretting over deaths of individual tigers, as conservationists often do, our goal ought to be to focus on populations as a whole. Rather than using our limited resources to try to eliminate all the threats tigers face everywhere across their range, we should target our efforts on sustaining those source populations with the greatest potential to recover and expand.”

Credit: tomhilton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: tomhilton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is a notion I’ve seen discussed in one other place: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile. As he writes: Fragile systems are brittle, precarious and easily broken. Rigid systems withstand shocks and, in the aftermath, remain the same. Antifragile systems are not rigid, but they don’t break in the face of shocks either: they change and adapt.