Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.

Still with WordPress, but from .com to .org

As some of you might know, I’ve been having some issues with in terms of their UX, their service as well as a few outages. I’ve been on the platform for almost a decade now, during which my account has been suspended twice for different reasons and, more recently, my blog was taken down for brief periods owing to disputes over content copyright. I know WordPress is not malicious – but it has certainly been inept, especially given the changes the platform has been undergoing in preparation for their major Gutenberg release. But I’ve reached a point where I’m no longer okay with tolerating such ineptitude.

So on January 5, 2018, I moved my blog out of to a self-hosted WordPress setup with KnownHost, a managed WordPress hosting provider. They had a bulk purchase sale going, so I bought a 12-month subscription for about $100. This is the new blog – with all the archives intact. I’m planning to shut down permanently on February 1, 2018. I’ve also moved most of my subscribers over to the new blog except for those who signed up to read my blog via email. These subscribers have now been moved to MailChimp (and that’s how you’re getting this email). Please make sure the emails don’t end up in your spam folder. There’s also an option to sign up in the sidebar in case you want to get on board with a different ID.

Happy 2018!

‘Mantra sciences’ is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.

Credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay

Happy new year!

2017 was a blast. Lots of things happened. The world became a shittier place in many ways and better in a few. Mostly, Earth just went around the Sun once more, and from what we know, it’s going to be doing that for a while. But here’s to a roaring 2018 anyway!

As of January 2018, this blog is nine years old. Thanks for staying with me on this (often meandering) journey, even when its name changed a billion times in the middle of 2017. The interest many of you have been nice enough to express vocally is what has kept me going. I published 113 blog posts this year, up a 100% from 2016. I also had 70 articles published in The Wire. I’m quite happy with that total of 183.

I think I will continue writing more on my blog than for The Wire through the first half of 2018 because editing freelancers’ submissions will continue to take up most of my time.

This is a consequence of two things I tried to do differently last year: publish more reported stories and get more writers. So given the limited monthly budget, and the fact that opinions are cheaper than reports, the published story count (3901) was lower than that in 2016 – but the stories themselves were great, and we also got almost twice as many science writers to write them.

In 2018, I hope to expand the science journalism team at The Wire. We’ve also been planning a new-look section with a more diverse content offering. I’ll keep you all posted on how that goes. (If you wish to work with us, apply for a suitable position here.)

Personally, 2017 was full of ups and downs but since it ended mostly on the up, that’s how I’m going to remember the year. I did little to quell my anxieties and got back on antidepressants – but then I also moved to Chennai and started playing Dungeons & Dragons. Life’s good.

I’ll see you on the other side soon.

1. This excludes reports syndicated from publications The Wire has a content-sharing agreement with, republished content and agency copies.

Featured image credit: PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.

Politics inside SESAME

I’ve been following the story of the SESAME collaboration in the Middle East since I first heard about it seven years ago, and was really thrilled when its synchrotron achieved first light in November 2017. I wrote about the significance of the occasion for The Wire‘s ‘The Year in Hope’ series of piece about uplifting moments in 2017. Excerpt:

It’s the largest experiment (in terms of investment and participation) to have brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These are states that hardly – if at all – see eye to eye, making this collaboration particularly remarkable. …

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist who has been with SESAME since August this year, told Times Higher Education, “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all.” Such an outlook is inspiring because it ensures scientific knowledge is not forfeited even in a region as constantly overwrought as the Middle East.

That’s an interesting thing for Kamel to say because it suggests SESAME’s scientists are shielded from their respective politics when they’re working together on the synchrotron. Considering the tensions that often prevail on the outside, such working conditions must be blissful – but also affording the collaboration a measure of privilege that runs the risk of turning counterproductive. This is akin to saying scientists must be able to stay in their ivory towers without being forced to think about proletarian concerns.

For example, in the case of the Middle Eastern collaboration, saying “We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all” is to forego an impressive opportunity for intellectuals from warring nations to sit down around a table and discuss physics as well as the road to peace. Something may come of it or nothing at all – but it’s obvious that it would be useful to try, and trying entails an acknowledgment that the collaboration’s members must care about the politics when inside SESAME as well.

Featured image: Beam steering, focusing and monitoring equipment at the SESAME research centre in Jordan. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

A shorter article about short gamma ray bursts lights up little

  • Identify a simple and well-defined question
  • Describe the question and answer it
  • Get the fuck out

Writing with these three rules in mind makes for a good science article. You stick to the point, you know what details to include and what to leave out and, most importantly, you set straightforward expectations and meet them. The overall effect is for the reader to walk away feeling not disappointed. That’s always a happy ending.

Sadly, not everyone writes like this – rather, more broadly, not all news publishers think of science articles this way. For example, The Hindu regularly publishes science articles so packed with information – about the study as much as its authors – that you’re left confused about what you just read. Was it a profile or was it an explainer? It doesn’t matter because it failed either way.

The latest example of this kind of writing is an article about short gamma ray bursts. The binary neutron star merger known by the gravitational-wave event designation GW170817 was expected by astrophysicists to have unleashed a short gamma ray burst at the moment of collision – but data obtained of the event shows no signs of the expected radio signature. A group of scientists led by Kunal Mooley from Oxford University suggested this could be because GW170817 released a new kind of gamma ray burst.

BusinessLine (a business newspaper with the same publisher and top management as The Hindu) carried an article attempting to discuss all this. Sample the opening para, a mulch of facts and inaccuracies:

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 09.18.40

“The one located on the outskirts of Pune”? Sounds like everyone must know about it even if they don’t. “First-ever detection of gravitation waves”? Not really: gravitation waves, a.k.a. gravity waves and unlike gravitational waves, can be observed in Earth’s atmosphere. Also, the first-ever detection of gravitational waves came last year; what came in August was the first-ever detection of a neutron star merger. The three US scientists won the award for building LIGO, not detecting GW170817.

The rest of the article tries to simultaneously explain Mooley and co.’s interpretation of the data and also provide a glimpse of his educational trajectory. Why would I want to know he studied in Pune and Mumbai? Unless this is because the author wanted to drive home the India connection – which is all the more troubling because it plays up an aspect of the researcher’s identity that is irrelevant to their professional accomplishment. I’ve noticed many publications succumbing to this kind of thinking: if researcher is Indian, cover the paper/study/whatever irrespective of the legitimacy, strength and/or novelty of what they’re saying.

The science ought to take precedent, not the researcher’s identity. But when it doesn’t, you typically end up writing something that’s definitely not news and likely trash. You end up wrapping your national pride around a core of stupidity. I recommend the pages of ScoopwhoopThe QuintThe Better IndiaDailyOThe Times of India and The New Indian Express, among others, for examples. It’s also possible that the author was conscious about providing an India connection so readers in India took the article more seriously. I’ve made noise about such behaviour many times before, such as here: science shouldn’t be assessed, or enjoyed, solely according to what it can do for humankind.

Finally, it’s possible that the newspaper itself wanted to establish all details on record for posterity – but AFAIK, the BusinessLine is not a newspaper of record. This of course is a minor point.

By ditching the extraneous details, the author and the editor could’ve had the space to focus on the science more, using better language and without the painful economy of words it’s currently striving to. They could even have devoted some words to discussing whether other astronomers have disputed Mooley’s interpretation (they have), an exercise that would’ve made the article more reliable than it is. And to those who’re saying the article was probably kept short because there might not have been space in the newspaper, I’ve a bigger complaint: why wasn’t a short version published in print and a longer version online?

In all, I don’t think BusinessLine is taking its science journalism seriously. The time is past when they could’ve gotten ahead simply by being one of the few publications in the country to write articles about short gamma ray bursts. But given the complacency with which the article seems to have been composed and edited, maybe that time shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It surely doesn’t now.

Featured image: An artist’s illustration of a bright gamma-ray burst. Caption and credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Eroding the dignity of Jayalalithaa's memories

On December 20, P. Vetrivel, a former MLA and member of the AIADMK party, convened a press meet and released a 20-second video clip purportedly showing former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa lying on a hospital bed shortly before she died on December 5, 2016. Since that day, the affairs of the AIADMK have been in tatters – an inconvenience they’ve been forced to confront twice over, both when Jayalalithaa’s constituency, R.K. Nagar, had by-polls to elect their next representative.

A major rift within the party itself meant that there were those within and without who suspected Jayalalithaa may not have died a natural death, as the currently dominant AIADMK faction – to which Vetrivel belongs – has insisted. The same faction is led by T.T.V. Dinakaran, who is former Jayalalithaa aide V.K. Sasikala’s nephew. Vetrivel’s new video, which he said was made by Sasikala with Jayalalithaa’s consent, tries to allay these fears by showing that the former leader was really at a hospital being treated for diabetes and kidney problems. This happened even as voting began in R.K. Nagar in the morning on December 21.

No Tamil news channel seems to have heeded the Election Commission’s directive to not air the video clip, which itself arrived only four+ hours after Vetrivel’s press meet concluded. While some people have tried to poke holes in the video, especially focusing on how palm trees are visible outside Jayalalithaa’s room in the hospital when her treatment was widely publicised to have happened on the seventh floor, news channels aired it all day yesterday.

The clip shows Jayalalithaa on a large bed, unmoving, in a gown. Her facial features aren’t apparent. Her left leg is visible outstretched but her right leg isn’t. In her left hand, there’s a cup of some liquid that she brings to her mouth once and drinks through a straw. It’s quite a sad sight to behold.

When Jayalalithaa died, the pall of sorrow that hung over Chennai was palpable. Even functionaries of the DMK, which has been the AIADMK’s principal opponent for decades, were shaken and paid heartfelt tributes to a woman they called a ‘worthy opponent’. Although she’d run an opaque, pro-business government and centralised a majority of its decision-making, her rule was marked by many popular social development schemes. There’s no bigger testimony to her leadership than the blind, self-serving hutch the AIADMK has devolved to become without her.

To see a woman considered to have been tactful, shrewd and graceful when she lived depicted after her death in a way that minimised her agency and highlighted an implicit sense of distress and decay is nauseating1. Jayalalithaa was known to have actively constructed and maintained her appearances in public and on TV as characterising a certain persona. With Sasikala’s and Vetrivel’s choices, this personality has been broken – which makes Vetrivel’s claim that Jayalalithaa consented to being filmed, and for that video to be released to TV channels, triply suspect.

Jayalalithaa, when alive, took great care to make herself appear a certain way – including going all the way to issuing statements only to select members of the press, those whose words she could control. What would she have said now with the image of a weakened, unsustaining Jayalalithaa being flashed everywhere?

There’s little doubt that Dinakaran and Vetrivel wanted to manipulate R.K. Nagar’s voters by releasing the clip barely a day before voting was to begin. Most people recognise that their faction within the AIADMK shouldn’t have released the video now but much earlier and with proof of the footage’s legitimacy to the Commission of Inquiry, which has been investigating her death.

Then again, considering what has been caught on camera, consuming it has been nothing short of engaging in voyeurism. So the video shouldn’t have been shot in the first place, especially since there’s no proof of Jayalalithaa’s having consented to being filmed as well as to being shown thus on TV beyond what Vetrivel told the press about what Sasikala had told him.

For this alone, I hope the people of R.K. Nagar reject Dinakaran’s faction and its exploitative politics. But more importantly, I hope journalists recognise how seriously they’ve erred in showing Jayalalithaa the way they did – and helped Dinakaran achieve what he’d wanted to in the first place.

1. This also happened with Eman Ahmed.

Featured image credit: Nandhinikandhasamy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Friends no more

Growing up, watching Friends was a source of much amusement and happiness. Now, as a grownup, I can’t watch a single episode without deeply resenting how the show caricatures all science as avoidable and all scientists as boring. The way Monica, Rachael, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey respond to Ross’s attempts to tell them something interesting from his work or passions always provokes strong consternation and an impulse to move away from him. In one episode, Monica condemns comet-watching to be a “stupid” exercise. When Ross starts to talk about its (fictitious) discoverer, Joey muffles his ears, screams “No, no, no!” and begins banging on a door pleading to be let out. Pathetic.

This sort of reaction is at the heart of my (im)mortal enemy: the Invisible Barrier that has erupted between many people and science/mathematics. These people, all adults, passively – and sometimes actively – keep away from numbers and equations of any kind. The moment any symbols are invoked in an article or introduced in a conversation, they want to put as much distance as possible between them and what they perceive to be a monster that will make them think. This is why I doubly resent that Friends continues to be popular, that it continues to celebrate the deliberate mediocrity of its characters and the profound lack of inspiration that comes with it.

David Hopkins wrote a nice piece on Medium a year ago about this:

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller. …

Eventually, the Friends audience — roughly 52.5 million people — turned on Ross. But the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience. This gag went on, pretty much every episode, for 10 seasons. Can you blame Ross for going crazy?

He goes on to say that Friends in fact portended a bad time for America in general and that the show may have even precipitated it – a period of remarkable anti-intellectualism and consumerism. But towards the end, Hopkins says we must not bully the nerds, we must protect them, because “they make the world a better place” – a curious call given that nerds are also building things like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Uber, etc., services that, by and large, have negatively disrupted the quality of life for those not in the top 1%. These are nerds that first come to mind when we say they’re shaping the world, doing great things for it – but they’re not. Instead, these are really smart people either bereft of social consciousness or trapped in corporate assemblages that have little commitment to social responsibilities outside of their token CSR programmes. And together, they have only made the world a worse place.

But I don’t blame the nerd, if only because I can’t blame anyone for being smart. I blame the Invisible Barrier, which is slowly but surely making it harder for people embrace technical knowledge before it has been processed, refined, flavoured and served on a platter. The Barrier takes many shapes, too, making it harder to hunt down. Sometimes, it’s a scientist who refuses to engage with an audience that’s interested in listening to what she has to say. Sometimes, it’s a member of the audience who doesn’t believe science can do anything to improve one’s quality of life. But mostly, rather most problematically, the Barrier is a scientist who thinks she’s engaging with an enthusiast but is really not, and a self-proclaimed enthusiast who thinks she’s doing her bit to promote science but is really not.

This is why we have people who will undertake a ‘March for Science’ once a year but not otherwise pressure the government to make scientific outreach activities count more towards their career advancement or demand an astrology workshop at a research centre be cancelled and withdraw into their bubbles unmindful of such workshops being held everywhere all the time. This is why we have people who will mindlessly mortgage invaluable opportunities to build research stations against a chance to score political points or refuse to fund fundamental research programmes because they won’t yield any short-term benefits.

Unfortunately, these are all the people who matter – the people with the power and ability to effect change on a scale that is meaningful to the rest of us but won’t in order to protect their interests. The Monicas, Rachaels, Phoebes, Chandlers and Joeys of the world, all entertainers who thought they were doing good and being good, enjoying life as it should be, without stopping to think about the foundations of their lives and the worms that were eating into them. The fantasy that their combined performance had constructed asked, and still asks, its followers to give up, go home and watch TV.

Fucking clowns.

Featured image: A poster of the TV show ‘Friends’: (L-R) Chandler, Rachael, Ross, Monica, Joey and Phoebe. Source: Warner Bros.

The journey of a crow and the story of a black hole

The Washington Post has a review, and introduction therewith, of a curious new book called Ka, authored by John Crowley (acclaimed author of Great Work of Time). It is narrated from the POV of a crow named Dar Oakley, who journeys repeatedly into the realm of the dead with a human companion. A para from the WaPo piece caught my attention for its allusion to an unsolved problem in physics:

In many cultures, crows have long been regarded as “death-birds.” Eaters of carrion and corpses, they are sometimes even said to convey the soul into the afterlife. Crowley’s title itself alludes to this notion: Dar Oakley croaks out “ka,” which isn’t just a variant spelling of “caw,” but also the ancient Egyptian word for the spiritual self that survives the decay of the body. Yet what actually remains of us after our bones have been picked clean? Might our spirits then dwell in some Happy Valley or will we suffer in eternal torment? Could death itself be simply an adventure-rich dream from which we never awake? Who knows? The narrator, who might be a writer, says of his dead and much-missed wife Debra that “the ultimate continuation of her is me.” What, however, becomes of Debra when he too is dead?

What indeed. The question is left unanswered so the reader can confront the unanswerability supposedly implicit in this riddle. But while this scheme may be acceptable in a book-length “exploration of the bond between the living and the dead”, physicists don’t have much of a choice. They really want to know, would love to know, how a very similar situation plays out in the quantum realm.

It’s called the black hole information paradox. A black hole is a single point in space around which spacetime is folded into a sphere. This means that if you get trapped in this region of spacetime, you’re locked in. You can’t leave the sphere. The surface of this sphere is called the event horizon: it’s the shortest distance from the black hole from which you can pull away.

Now, there’s no way to tell two black holes apart if their mass, angular momentum and electric charge are the same. This is called the no-hair conjecture. This means that whatever a black hole swallows – whether it be physical matter or information as a sequence of 0s and 1s encoded as an electromagnetic signal – doesn’t retain its original shape or patterns. They become lost, observable only in changes to the black hole’s mass, angular momentum and/or electric charge.

In 1974, Stephen Hawking, Alexei Starobinsky and Yakov Zel’dovich found that, thanks to quantum mechanical effects near an event horizon, the black hole within could be emitting radiation out into space. So assuming a black hole contains a finite amount of energy and has stopped eating material/info from the outside, it will evaporate slowly over time and vanish. This is where the information paradox kicks in.

You’re obviously thinking the info the black hole once swallowed was all converted into energy and emitted as Hawking radiation. This is actually where the problem begins. Quantum mechanics may be whimsically counterintuitive about what it allows nature to do at its smallest scale. But it does have some rules of its own that it always follows. One of them is that information is always conserved, that when information passes into a black hole, it can’t be converted into the same energy mulch that everything else is converted to.

We don’t know what happens to the ‘spirit’ of Debra when Dar Oakley passes away. And we don’t know what happens to the information inside a black hole when the latter evaporates.

Black holes are unique objects of study for classical and non-classical physicists alike because they combine the consequences of both general relativity and quantum mechanics. Those pursuing a unified theory, broadly called quantum gravity, hope that data about black holes will help them find a way to reconcile the laws of nature at the biggest and smallest scales. Resolving the black hole information paradox is one such path.

For example, string theory, which is a technical framework that gives physicists and mathematicians the tools to solve problems in quantum gravity, proposes a way out in the name of the holographic principle. It states (in highly simplified terms) that the information trapped by a black hole is actually trapped along the event horizon and doesn’t fall inside it. Over time, fluctuations on the horizon release the information out. However, neither the complete shape and consequences of this theory nor some contradictory predictions are fully understood.

Even whether humans will be able to resolve this paradox in their lifetime at all remains to be seen – but it’s important to hope that such a thing is possible and that the story of a black hole’s life can be told from start to finish someday. Crowley also tries to answer Dar Oakley’s question about Debra’s fate thus (according to the WaPo review):

“Maybe not, said the Skeleton. But look at it this way. When you return home, you’ll tell the story of how you sought it and failed, and that story will be told and told again. And when you’re dead yourself, the story will go on being told, and in that telling you’ll speak and act and be alive again.”


Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

In solidarity with Nautilus's writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.