Infinite in All Directions: Nobel's Women, Meghnad's Caste, Tantalum's Decay

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An engraved bust of Alfred Nobel. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

An engraved bust of Alfred Nobel. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The physics Nobel

I got the sense on Tuesday (after the physics prize had been announced earlier that day) that few journalists were taking the trouble to explain the work that had won. My first reaction was to ask if I’d taken the trouble to explain it in my analysis for The Wire for nothing; “perhaps this isn’t the noteworthy or done thing”. Thankfully, it turned out later that it wasn’t non-noteworthy at all but that few writers could really understand what the work was about. My own explanation in my piece may seem reductionist – but I’m going to stick by it because it makes perfect sense from a first-principles point of view. Anyway, the impression that few had understood I got from two physics writers: Chad Orzel (Forbes) and Philip Ball (Prospect). And between the two, Ball’s piece was to me the more insightful one if only because it articulates an idea that had struck me but I’d left out. Here we go:

What Anderson meant was that you can’t deduce how lots of particles will behave simply from understanding how one of them behaves. Never mind recondite bosons—just think of a swallow. Biologists knew a vast amount about the anatomy, physiology and phylogeny of a swallow several decades ago, and they could for good measure have known also its genome down to the last piece of DNA, and still they would have been as perplexed as they were about how on earth flocks of swallows at dusk execute those extraordinary synchronized ballets called murmurations. They didn’t know this not because they were poor scientists, but because murmurations are a property of many swallows—and because they are a question of physics (though not necessarily of the kind that must be conducted within a building tendentiously labeled “Department of Physics.”)

A murmuration is what physicists call a many-body effect, which means it arises from the mutual interactions of many bodies—and doesn’t depend on the fine details of what those bodies are (starlings make murmurations too) but is much more a question of the mere fact of their interaction. The properties we observe in matter are almost entirely and inevitably many-body effects of their atoms and other constituent particles. What makes it tractable to study them mathematically is that the numbers of particles are typically so vast that one can approximate the collective behaviour from statistical averages of the behaviour of the components. That is why the field is known as statistical physics. (The intermediate stage between one and many—that is, few-body systems, where averages are less reliable—is arguably the hardest to handle, and is still something of an uncharted frontier.


Rewards, not incentives

One longstanding argument I’ve had with a scientist-friend is if the Nobel Prize should be administered differently. He’s staunchly been of the opinion that given the amount of attention and material benefits the prizes bring, they should be awarded to younger scientists – people who are just setting out but whose work shows a lot of promise, and who might have more years left to enjoy the rewards. I’ve been of the opinion that the Nobel Prizes aren’t required to function like grants do and that they’ve built up their reputation by being a reward.

An editorial published in the journal Nature quoted an official saying that whatever the prize should be, its administrators aren’t concerned.

“I don’t think the reputation of the Nobel prize was built by people caring about the reputation of the prize.” And, for good measure, he adds: “It is not necessarily a remit to go out and find out what the world thinks of the Nobel prize and try and adjust our behaviour because of that … It is interesting to know what the world thinks of the Nobel prize, but should that change our behaviour?”

I say easy for this official to speak given what the Nobel Prizes have become, the reputation and prestige they’ve accrued.

What do you think?


Where are the female laureates?

But whatever reputation it’s built up has been on some uneven footing. For one, the physics prizes have been awarded to women twice – and to men 202 times. This lopsidedness isn’t even explained by the fact there are more male than female physicists. In fact, nothing explains this at all except for implying that there’s something wrong with the people who pick the winners.

Rachel Feltman wrote in WaPo about Vera Rubin, the one woman whose discovery of dark matter has for some reason been repeatedly overlooked by the Nobel Committee, and whose being overlooked has been exemplarily baffling for physicists:

Don’t weep for the gravitational-wave guys. They’ll be fine. But let’s take a second to talk about Vera Rubin. Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford provided the first real evidence of dark matter — yes, dark matter, the unseeable, unknowable, mysterious stuff that makes up more than a quarter of the universe, which is kind of a big deal — decades ago. Her time in the Nobel spotlight is overdue.

“The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field; the ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point,” Emily Levesque, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Astronomy.com. “Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.” Although Rubin, a D.C. local who earned a PhD in astronomy from Georgetown University, has been a favorite to win for the past several years, she has repeatedly lost out — to blue light-emitting diodes in 2014, neutrinos in 2015 and now to studies of exotic states of matter.

For other writing on women who have been overlooked, I recommend Jane Lee’s piece from 2013 and Scientific American’s in 2008. Additionally, here’s a piece by Helen Briggs in BBC from last week about a woman science itself forgot.

The second disservice the prize does is to have stipulated that, at a time, only three people can win the prize. In June 2015, science writer Matthew Francis set out five reasons why we should stop taking the Nobel Prizes so seriously. One of them was:

The prize is given in honor of a specific discovery in scientific research, but it’s given to a small number of researchers. To use the recent example of the Higgs boson, at least six physicists contributed to the theory, and probably even more deserve credit for working out the details. But by the rules, only three physicists received the prize. To be succint: science is collaborative and cumulative, but the Nobel Prize awards individuals as though they work alone.

And before the other fields can twirl their moustaches: only four and 11 women have won the chemistry and medicine prizes, in that order.


On The Wire


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Caste and Meghnad Saha

This tweet here is the sort of thing I’d like to on Twitter and add “This.” to. On October 6, Dhrubo Jyoti, a journalist with the Hindustan Times, recalled that it was the 123rd birth anniversary of the Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha. Importantly, Jyoti recalled how Saha’s work had been affected by his caste.

If you’re interested in reading more, this biographical essay by Daulat Kothari might be a good place to start at. An excerpt:

After the completion of his primary education there was no certainty that his education would continue further. Their parents would have preferred to have him work in the family’s grocery shop. In any case they did not see any use of further education in running the shop. Moreover there was no middle school nearer to his village. The nearest middle school was at Simulia, which was 10 kms away from his village. Saha’s parents did not have the means to take care of the expenses of his boarding and lodging. At this stage his elder brother Jainath came in his rescue by locating a sponsor in Ananta Kumar Das, a local doctor. The kind-hearted doctor agreed to provide Saha free boarding and lodging in his house provided Saha washed his own plates (a condition that reflected the prevailing rigid caste system) and attend minor household works including the taking care of the cow. Saha readily accepted all the conditions as he had a strong urge to continue his studies further. Every weekend he used to visit his village. When the village became flooded he would row all the way, otherwise he would simply walk down. Saha completed his middle school by topping the list of successful candidates in the entire district of Dhaka. As a result he secured a scholarship of Rs.4 per month.

Last year, I analysed why Meghnad Saha was passed up for a Nobel Prize in physics even though there had been credible proof that he was the originator of an important astrophysical concept called selective radiation pressure. One reason definitely was that he couldn’t afford to get his paper published in a prestigious journal – perhaps he might’ve been better off had he been from a higher caste, and so more able to devote his time to research and securing a lucrative position.


Tantalic decay

Scientists don’t know how the element tantalum-180 forms. Scientists don’t know how tantalum-180 decays. But if it does decay, then it has a half-life of at least 45,000 trillion years, the results of a new experimental study say.

Tantalum-180m is a bit of an oddball. It is what’s known as an isomer — its nucleus exists in an “excited,” or high-energy, configuration. Normally, an excited nucleus would quickly drop to a lower energy state, emitting a photon — a particle of light — in the process. But tantalum-180m is “metastable” (hence the “m” in its name), meaning that it gets stuck in its high-energy state.

Tantalum-180m is thought to decay by emitting or capturing an electron, morphing into another element — either tungsten or hafnium — in the process. But this decay has never been observed. Other unusual nuclides, such as those that decay by emitting two electrons simultaneously, can have even longer half-lives than tantalum-180m. But tantalum-180m is unique — it is the longest-lived isomer found in nature.

Why even bother with studying something so rare? Clearly because finding the answer could open news vistas in physics. The study’s results also brought to mind a study from last year that found that if the electron was an unstable and in the habit of breaking down into lighter particles, it would do so once every 66,000 trillion trillion years. Physicists are interested in this number because, if an electron is kind enough to decay while humans live, it would also violate a fundamental law of nature on the way and give physicists a way past the Standard Model.


Away from EurekAlert!

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, popularly known as AAAS, runs a press service called EurekAlert!. Last month, someone hacked it, cutting off many science writers’ access to embargoed press releases and journal papers. Its going down also threw many journals’ PR machines also out of whack. Last week, EurekAlert! came back online. One of the more resourceful takeaways from the incident has been that science writers shouldn’t be dependent on EurekAlert! alone for their science news. On October 6, Tara Haelle wrote on healthjournalism.org about how to start – a write-up that can be useful to all journalists and bloggers who are just setting out and would like to build a network. Excerpt:

As you learn which researchers interest you the most (because of their area of expertise, leadership in the field or publishing prolifically or some other reason) go to PubMed and set up author alerts. You can set them to email you each day that author’s next study is added to PubMed, or once a week or month on a day of your choice. This is a great way to keep tabs on the ongoing research in certain areas even if I’m not going to report on it right away. In fact, several feature ideas have arisen from seeing clusters of studies on a similar interesting topic from the same author.


Other bits of interestingness

Why does Elon Musk so desperately want to take humans to Mars when it’s not entirely clear what humans could get from going to Mars?

“Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, YouTube and even Pinterest can create an environment that removes some of the distance separating astronauts and the public, transporting the public’s eyes into orbit and letting them experience a little of the almost-spiritual wonder for themselves. But human astronauts don’t have a monopoly on engaging Twitter accounts.”

Why do the Twitter accounts of Elon Musk, Tim Cook, Larry Page and Satya Nadella follow so few women?

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