Working at an institute associated with one of our finest scientists – Homi Jehangir Bhabha – and having acquired some, or let me say a lot of, grey hair has given me a unique distinction accumulated over a long period of time. Every now and then, we get registered letters or letters through couriers or emails from people who claim to have a theory which ‘clearly shows’ that “Einstein was wrong”, or that “electrons are composite particles”, or that “velocity of light is not a constant”, or that a certain text in a certain ancient book gives the exact speed of light and the life of the universe. We get reminders to explain to the writers as to why we have not yet called them to deliver a lecture and to make our nation great again.
Thus, there was this gentleman who felt that since Dirac talked about a sea of electrons and since Earth is surely such a sea, we could run trams and trains, just by connecting their engines with a copper rod touching the ground! He kept insisting that if we did not invite him for discussions and implementation of his glorious idea, he would be forced to assume that we had stolen his concept!
And then we keep getting emails, letters, and compact discs containing theories complete with Feynman diagrams and equations from a surgeon from some obscure town who keeps insisting that quarks are made of yin and yang, which are in turn produced as a result of a prayer. I understand that he has even established a virtual university to popularise his remarkable “theory of everything” and some of us get copies of letters which he has received from famous scientists, while we continue to ignore him!
We get some marvellous suggestions for transportation, the most unique being the use of a helicopter to go straight up and wait for the spinning Earth to bring the destination underneath and dive! Another one suggested making roads of our cities and highways go up and down, like the hills, where while going down people even switch off the engines of their cars. I often console myself saying, “Look, people are trying to think and they are being curious.”
So there was this absolute wonder. He descended upon us with a letter from his representative in Parliament who had requested us to talk to him. The gentleman, who spoke impeccable Hindi (and much else), had found “evidence” that “there was no reason to believe that Newton’s laws of motion were correct”. He also had “evidence” to prove that quantum mechanics was not required. He added that he was very happy to note that several saintly persons agreed with him and it had made him immensely happy to see the “writings on the walls” of Kolkata, which stated that “the Sun goes around the Earth”, exactly as his theory suggested.
After my initial failure to talk him out of his views, I handed him over to a group of my young colleagues. They have not forgiven me, even after a lapse of more than ten years for sending this gentleman to them, even though I have bought several rounds of coffee and tea for them. Apparently, the gentleman told them that he realised while in high school that modern education stunts the growth of a person and stops him from making critical enquiries and discoveries!
He had walked out of formal education and set up a business but had continued to ponder over topics of science. His aim was to make a vice, which he was sure to make, where he could squeeze any material hard and force its atoms to fuse and produce energy. This would be the first device of its kind. Even god had not thought of this! When I had hinted that the Sun produced energy by nuclear fusion, he firmly said, “Sir, this is completely wrong. The Sun produces all its energy by burning coal.”
Time to energy
Over the years, we have learnt to take such incidents in our stride, laughing when we were young and smiling as we grew old, as we encountered generations of such people again and again. We learn to tolerate them and continue to work.
Some years ago, I was amused to get a call from the palace on Raisina Hill. I thought at first that it was a crank call and disconnected it. The phone rang again. I noticed that it was a call from Delhi. The caller asked me not to disconnect as Major General X, adviser to the president, wanted to talk to me. I turned serious. Major General X greeted me kindly enough and said that the president had received a complaint from one Mr. B, that I was not paying enough attention to “his wonderful ideas, which he had discussed with me”. Major General X also said that the president “wanted to request me to examine the theories of Mr. B and send him a report!” It took me a few seconds to collect my wits and to recall Mr. B and his “glorious theory”, and in spite of the august company at the other end of the line, I burst out laughing!
Yes, I remembered Mr. B. He had come to see me with a letter of reference from a friend of mine. He had, sometime earlier, found a “Handbook of Physics” on a footpath in Kolkata. Reading that book, he had noticed that all “fundamental” particles like pions, kaons, omegas, neutrons, etc. decayed and produced energy. But they all yielded a different amount of energy. And here came his wonderful insight: “the particles gave different amounts of energy, as they had different life-times.”
He had thus concluded, “Sitting on a bench in the garden near Chowringhee, that time could be converted into energy!” This was a “revolutionary idea” he had had, and was convinced that India would become a superpower by using “his theory”. He had wanted me to forward his “discovery” to the heads of all major institutes and organisations. “His theory was superior to that of Einstein.” After all, Einstein had only talked of converting mass into energy.
I explained the above to Major General X and asked him gently, “Sir, here we keep working day and night and no one notices, but a person who … has no education, complains that ‘his ideas were being stolen by people at research institutes’, and the president is concerned!” The wise Major General tried to console me saying, “Oh, we have to deal with all kinds of people.”
Was I being contemptuous? Was I being arrogant? Was I being unsympathetic? Did I have a closed mind? After all, Mr. B had told me that he had several science graduates like me working in his company and he had a turnover of tens of crores. “You are not listening to me,” he had retorted when I had tried to ask him about his level of education.
I had assumed then that the matter was over, but no. Just after three days, I received a call from Mr. B. He asked whether I had received a call from the president and whether I had decided to work on “his theory with him”. I extricated myself with a complete lie, that I had to go to my village and that I was to be away for an indefinite period of time.
I wonder, rather I am sure, that in one of the rooms in a palace on a little hill in Lutyens’ Delhi, there still lies a file with a complaint against me for ignoring Mr. B. I hope and pray that no one notices it and decides to act upon it – or perhaps I am lucky and there is a sympathetic entry in it from the wise Major General.
However, these are relatively harmless people, constantly in search of some praise, some recognition and craving some attention. One can deal with them and, as one grows old, one learns to have a certain degree of sympathy for them. After all, they do no harm. In fact, they add some harmless spice and not-so-unseemly mirth to our daily grind.
Who can forget the hilarious claims of the “reproduction of cold fusion” by laboratories from across the world, with claims and counter-claims that took even some seasoned scientists for a ride, for the same reason we are conned by godmen and conjurers: greed. But the greatness of science lies in its ability to recognise a mistake and execute a course correction. After all, it is well known that a good experimental physicist is quite cynical and accepts a fact only after repeated reproduction and the elimination of doubts.
What distinguishes good science from bad logic is our tendency to sanctify quantitative observations and reproducibility under controlled conditions. Relaxing this requirement can lead to absolute mayhem. The brouhaha created across the world about the impending vaporisation of Planet Earth because of the experiments to be conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a case in point. Even if black holes were to be created at the LHC, they would have had the mass of at most 28,000 protons, and would have evaporated in less than 10-27 seconds. They could never do any harm to anyone. Yet a panic was created by a court-case. This was multiplied by television channels running 24 hours a day. It led to anxiety and perhaps provided a wonderful example of the now famous coinage, post-truth.
It even claimed some lives, including those of a large number of chicken and goats in some districts of eastern India where people decided to have a hearty meal before the end. The only beneficiaries were the poultry farmers as they raised the price by a factor of three to four.
A little spice
Several years ago, my neighbours had told me in no uncertain terms that I was stepping beyond the limits of decency because I had tried to suggest that Lord Ganesha was “drinking milk” by osmosis and had the further indecency to point to a Bhairava Temple in central India, where the idol soaks up a reasonably good amount of scotch and country liquor on any given day.
I do not know what kind of insanity takes over our people when even otherwise rational minds behave irrationally, when they quote William Shakespeare to insist that “There are more mysteries between heaven and earth than our vain philosophy supposes.”
Yes, we all agree that there are more mysteries. But these mysteries definitely do not include propeller-driven planes transporting people from one planet to the other, the use of nuclear weapons a few thousand years ago and very unorthodox surgeries.
However, I will still say that all this is fun and adds spice to our life and keeps young news anchors employed with mushrooming television channels, especially the Hindi and other vernacular channels, with their resident gurus predicting the future. It definitely spreads superstition and increases the sale of some stones that are otherwise fairly useless. One also hopes that the people will get over them with the addition of rationality to their reasoning.
But what I am going to describe now has caused me severe anxiety and left me exasperated. In order to understand it, let me add that there are several websites where one can post one’s research manuscripts even before these are published in peer-reviewed journals for general viewing. This is very helpful as the process of peer-review and publication can take a few months. In order to stop people like Mr. B from flooding these sites with their glorious ideas, the reputed websites have introduced a system of endorsement, whereby you need to be endorsed by a well-established scientist in the relevant field to be able to upload your manuscript.
I received a call from one Mr. A the other day. I did not know him and had not read any research papers from him until then. He wanted me to endorse one of his papers for a website that specialised in nuclear physics. He told me that he had obtained a new formula for describing the force between neutrons and protons. Now, this is a very difficult subject, and after the labour of hundreds of physicists for over 50 years, we know it fairly accurately, though there is still some scope for improvement. He again insisted that I should endorse his “paper” as it was already published in an international journal. I tried to tell him that if the paper was published, there was not much of a need to put it on the website. But I was also curious and asked him to send me a copy.
In less than a minute I got his “paper”. It was published in a journal of which I had never heard: International Journal of Science, Engineering and Research. It was supposed to be published from Europe.
Now, let me tell you about the manuscript or the “paper”. I do not know how this cock and bull story about the interaction among neutrons and protons was accepted for publication. It is as close to neutrons and protons as chimpanzees are to a nuclear reactor. It is full of nuggets like “velocity of light depends on its constituents”, “velocity of light depends on its wave-length”, and “velocity of light depends upon range of nuclear force.” Nobody – not even a deranged, drunk or hallucinating high school student – could have written this “paper”. Every line and every sentence, if you overlooked the errors of spelling, diction and grammar, left one disgusted, sick, weary and outraged.
And yet it had been published in this international journal that claims to follow the policy of peer-review! I am quite sure that one more publication like this and the author will satisfy the criteria of at least two papers in journals for obtaining a PhD. He already has a master’s degree and is teaching science to higher secondary students. The journal where he had published this nonsense, it seems, will publish anything you write.
A rather imaginative name – “predatory journals” – has been invented for such journals, and the University Grants Commission and some other organisations keep giving out a list of these from time to time. But these journals are like the clever terror organisations that, when banned, rechristen themselves and continue to export terror and mayhem.
Threat to education
I do not know what to do to stop this ignominy from further harming our education system, which is already reeling under fake degrees, two-and-half-room engineering, medical, science and management colleges, and a complete betrayal of unsuspecting students by having unqualified teachers thrust upon them. How will it recover from the double whammy of such nonsensical “research papers” published in such predatory “international journals”? After all, Mr. A called me again and asked me once again to endorse his paper. When I refused, he expressed deep anguish and hurt, and added that I was not being fair to him.
The only thing that brings some relief to me from such excruciating pain is that these people have this overwhelming desire to prove Einstein wrong, thus leaving the painstaking work of lesser mortals like us alone. Maybe they will also bring us some comic relief as they will rise and assume positions of power and indulge in chicanery. Recent episodes involve the proclamations about certain bovines exhaling oxygen and denials of climate change due to human activities, all citing “alternate facts”.
Should we let these persons armed with publications in predatory journals damage the fabric of science, woven thread by thread, with extreme care and precision by the labour of thousands of people from across the world over centuries? We would be destroying our future if we are not concerned.
Before closing, I should add a small consolation. I came to know that some days after the above episode, a sister institute of ours had been forwarded a letter that Mr. A had written to the Prime Minister. Mr. A had requested that as his “paper had now been published by an international journal”, he should be given a permanent job as a scientist. The consolation stems from the fact that the forwarding note did not include any “instructions”.
Dinesh Srivastava is a scientist. This article was originally published as a Facebook note, and has been republished here with permission.