Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Looking for gemstones in the gutter

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Some notes on empiricism, etc.

The Wire published a story about the ‘atoms of Acharya Kanad‘ (background here; tl;dr: Folks at a university in Gujarat claimed an ancient Indian sage had put forth the theory of atoms centuries before John Dalton showed up). The story in question was by a professor of philosophy at IISER, Mohali, and he makes a solid case (not unfamiliar to many of us) as to why Kanad, the sage, didn’t talk about atoms specifically because he was making a speculative statement under the Vaisheshika school of Hindu philosophy that he founded. What got me thinking were the last few lines of his piece, where he insists that empiricism is the foundation of modern science, and that something that doesn’t cater to it can’t be scientific. And you probably know what I’m going to say next. “String theory”, right?

No. Well, maybe. While string theory has become something of a fashionable example of non-empirical science, it isn’t the only example. It’s in fact a subset of a larger group of systems that don’t rely on empirical evidence to progress. These systems are called formal systems, or formal sciences, and they include logic, mathematics, information theory and linguistics. (String theory’s reliance on advanced mathematics makes it more formal than natural – as in the natural sciences.) And the dichotomous characterisation of formal and natural sciences (the latter including the social sciences) is superseded by a larger, more authoritative dichotomy*: between rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism prefers knowledge that has been deduced through logic and reasoning; empiricism prioritises knowledge that has been experienced. As a result, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that debates about which side is right (insofar as it’s possible to be absolutely right – which I don’t think everwill happen) play out in the realm of science. And squarely within the realm of science, I’d like to use a recent example to provide some perspective.

Last week, scientists discovered that time crystals exist. I wrote a longish piece here tracing the origins and evolution of this exotic form of matter, and what it is that scientists have really discovered. Again, a tl;dr version: in 2012, Frank Wilczek and Alfred Shapere posited that a certain arrangement of atoms (a so-called ‘time crystal’) in their ground state could be in motion. This could sound pithy to you if you were unfamiliar with what ground state meant: absolute zero, the thermodynamic condition wherein an object has no energy whatsoever to do anything else but simply exist. So how could such a thing be in motion? The interesting thing here is that though Shapere-Wilczek’s original paper did not identify a natural scenario in which this could be made to happen, they were able to prove that it could happen formally. That is, they found that the mathematics of the physics underlying the phenomenon did not disallow the existence of time crystals (as they’d posited it).

It’s pertinent that Shapere and Wilczek turned out to be wrong. By late 2013, rigorous proofs had showed up in the scientific literature demonstrating that ground-state, or equilibrium, time crystals could not exist – but that non-equilibrium time crystals with their own unique properties could. The discovery made last week was of the latter kind. Shapere and Wilczek have both acknowledged that their math was wrong. But what I’m pointing at here is the conviction behind the claim that forms of matter called time crystals could exist, motivated by the fact that mathematics did not prohibit it. Yes, Shapere and Wilczek did have to modify their theory based on empirical evidence (indirectly, as it contributed to the rise of the first counter-arguments), but it’s undeniable that the original idea was born, and persisted with, simply through a process of discovery that did not involve sense-experience.

In the same vein, much of the disappointment experienced by many particle physicists today is because of a grating mismatch between formalism – in the form of theories of physics that predict as-yet undiscovered particles – and empiricism – the inability of the LHC to find these particles despite looking repeatedly and hard in the areas where the math says they should be. The physicists wouldn’t be disappointed if they thought empiricism was the be-all of modern science; they’d in fact have been rebuffed much earlier. For another example, this also applies to the idea of naturalness, an aesthetically (and more formally) enshrined idea that the forces of nature should have certain values, whereas in reality they don’t. As a result, physicists think something about their reality is broken instead of thinking something about their way of reasoning is broken. And so they’re sitting at an impasse, as if at the threshold of a higher-dimensional universe they may never be allowed to enter.

I think this is important in the study of the philosophy of science because if we’re able to keep in mind that humans are emotional and that our emotions have significant real-world consequences, we’d not only be better at understanding where knowledge comes from. We’d also become more sensitive to the various sources of knowledge (whether scientific, social, cultural or religious) and their unique domains of applicability, even if we’re pretty picky, and often silly, at the moment about how each of them ought to be treated (Related/recommended: Hilary Putnam’s way of thinking).

*I don’t like dichotomies. They’re too cut-and-dried a conceptualisation.


The Anthropocene is not simply an epoch. It comes with an attendant awareness of our environment, of the environment we are for other creatures, that pervades through our activities and thoughts. Humans of the Anthropocene have left an indelible mark on the natural world around them (mostly of carbon) even as they – as we – have embedded within ourselves the product of decades of technological innovation, even as we upload our memories into the cloud. Simultaneously, we’re also becoming more aware of the ‘things’ we’re made of: of gut bacteria that supposedly affect our moods and of what our genes tell us about ourselves. It’s an epoch whose centre of attention de facto is the human even as the attention makes us more conscious of the other multitudes with which we share this universe.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you

Mae govannen! On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee cast the One Ring, Ash Nazg, into the fires of Orodruin and destroyed it. Thus was ended the reign of Thû, one of the last lieutenants of the dark lord Morgoth Bauglir, and his dreadful ambition to rule all of Middle Earth. The War of the Ring would end 223 days later with the defeat and killing of Sauron in the Battle of Bywater.

Of all the worlds I’d like to escape to (when reality as it is becomes too much or makes for too little), there are three: Middle Earth, Lether and Azeroth. The tales in which they are situated all exhibit an affinity for ecological inclusivity, where human agency is evaluated in its total environment, including the natural elements and forces. The choices also make me realise I have a thing for paganistic fantasy.

(Spoilers? Not really.)

Middle Earth is the cultural third space that inhabits J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the World (Arda) as it should be, the continent on which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are set. Tolkien’s literature, beginning from The Silmarillion and ending with Return of the King, has  journeys and exoduses as prominent features. As the books move through time, so do its peoples move through space. The result is for their evolution to be shaped by as well as mirror the lands they occupy, for geology to be as much a driver of plot as their actions themselves.

Exemplary subplots: the persistence of Rivendell and the events from Frodo’s capture by Faramir to Gollum’s actions in Cirith Ungol.

This connection between living things and the land is also a common feature of Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is set on multiple fictional continents. One of them is Lether, which was trapped and preserved for thousands of years within a magical cage of ice created by Gothos. And when finally the ice cracked as the world warmed, Lether was recolonised by its native tribes. However, none of them realised that the form of magic that they practised was now considered ancient because the rest of the world had moved on; that while Letherii magic still clung to the oracular mode of Tiles, everyone else used the Deck of Dragons. This discrepancy is a major plot-driver in book #7 of the series, Reaper’s Gale. It serves to exemplify how, when foreigners conquer a native land, they can only hope to replace bodies – and that the land, the culture and the government will simply have new staffers, nothing more.

At the beginning of the book, I remember thinking that Gothos’s enforced stasis of Lether was quite the contrivance, drawn up by Erikson to prevent the repetition of a plot device that runs throughout the series. However, Reaper’s Gale quickly turns out to be one of the best books in the series (of ten) because of the detail that Erikson fills it up with. These aren’t details of irrelevant things but of an allegorical post-colonialism, where the coloniser was simply a great stillness of time.

Exemplary subplot: the battle at Bast Fulmar (The Valley of Drums).

A very good example of a proper contrivance occurs in the World of Warcraft mythos: the event known as the Cataclysm. WoW is set in the fictional realm of Azeroth, comprising Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms separate by the Great Sea. Like in the last two examples, geology plays an important role in the shaping of events. In fact, like in The Silmarillion, there is a great sundering of the world brought about by greed and betrayal. However, there is then a second sundering called the Cataclysm, where the black dragon Neltharion (a.k.a. Deathwing) breaks out of his prison deep within the land of Azeroth to lay waste to the world even as its features are rapidly reshaped by violent seismic forces. What makes this a contrivance is that, following Cataclysm, life goes on as it might’ve without it, except for things just looking different – clearly, it’s creators were simply looking for a change of scenery. Nonetheless, I do like Azeroth for the events that played out until then.

Exemplary subplots: War of the Ancients and the events from the Culling of Stratholme to the discovery of Frostmourne.

Every year on March 25, I’m prompted to look back on why I continue to admire Tolkien’s creations even though I’ve publicly acknowledged that they’re far surpassed by Erikson’s creations. An important reason is primacy: the LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success. Another reason is that, through the books, Tolkein managed to edify all of epic fantasy by bringing together the perfect minima of characters, devices and plots – and of course language – that could make for a lasting classic.

Discussing some motivations behind a particle physics FAQ

First, there is information. From information, people distill knowledge, and from knowledge, wisdom. Information is available on a lot of topics and in varying levels of detail. Knowledge on topics is harder to find – and even more hard is wisdom. This is because knowledge and wisdom require work (to fact-check and interpret) on information and knowledge, respectively. And people can be selective on what they choose to work on. One popular consequence of such choices is that most people are more aware of business information, business knowledge and business wisdom than they are of scientific information, scientific knowledge and scientific wisdom. This graduated topical awareness reflects in how we produce and consume the news.


News articles written on business issues rarely see fit to delve into historical motivations or explainer-style elucidations because the audience is understood to be better aware of what business is about. Business information and knowledge are widespread and so is, to some extent, business wisdom, and articles can take advantage of conclusions made in each sphere, jumping between them to tease out more information, knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, articles written on some topics of science – such as particle physics – have to start from the informational level before wisdom can be presented. This places strong limits on how the article can be structured or even styled.

There are numerous reasons for why this is so, especially for topics like particle physics, which I regularly (try to) write on. I’m drawn toward three of them in particular: legacy, complexity and pacing. Legacy is the size of the body of work that is directly related to the latest developments in that work. So, the legacy of the LHC stretches back to include the invention of the cyclotron in 1932 – and the legacy of the Higgs boson stretches back to 1961. Complexity is just that but becomes more meaningful in the context of pacing.

A consequence of business developments being reported on fervently is that there is at least some (understandable) information in the public domain about all stages of the epistemological evolution. In other words, the news reports are apace of new information, new knowledge, new wisdom. With particle physics, they aren’t – they can’t be. The reports are separated by some time, according to when the bigger developments occurred, and in the intervening span of time, new information/knowledge/wisdom would’ve arisen that the reports will have to accommodate. And how much has to be accommodated can be exacerbated by the complexity of what has come before.


But there is a catch here – at least as far as particle physics is concerned because it is in a quandary these days. The field is wide open because physicists have realised two things: first, that their theoretical understanding of physics is far, far ahead of what their experiments are capable of (since the 1970s and 1980s); second, that there are inconsistencies within the theories themselves (since the late 1990s). Resolving these issues is going to take a bit of time – a decade or so at least (although we’re likely in the middle of such a decade) – and presents a fortunate upside to communicators: it’s a break. Let’s use it to catch up on all that we’ve missed.

The break (or a rupture?) can also be utilised for what it signifies: a gap in information/knowledge. All the information/knowledge/wisdom that has come before is abruptly discontinued at this point, allowing communicators to collect them in one place, compose them and disseminate them in preparation for whatever particle physics will unearth next. And this is exactly what motivated me to write a ‘particle physics FAQ’, published on The Wire, as something anyone who’s graduated from high-school can understand. I can’t say if it will equip them to read scientific papers – but it will definitely (and hopefully) set them on the road to asking more questions on the topic.

Money for science

Spending money on science has been tied to evaluating the value of spin-offs, assessing the link between technological advancement and GDP, and dissecting the metrics of productivity, but the debate won’t ever settle no matter how convincingly each time it is resolved.

For a piece titled The Telescope of the 2030s, Dennis Overbye writes in The New York Times,

I used to think $10 billion was a lot of money before TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion bailout that saved the banks in 2008 and apparently has brought happy days back to Wall Street. Compared with this, the science budget is chump change, lunch money at a place like Goldman Sachs. But if you think this is not a bargain, you need look only as far as your pocket. Companies like Google and Apple have leveraged modest investments in computer science in the 1960s into trillions of dollars of economic activity. Not even Arthur C. Clarke, the vaunted author and space-age prophet, saw that coming.

Which is to say that all that NASA money — whether for planetary probes or space station trips — is spent on Earth, on things that we like to say we want more of: high technology, education, a more skilled work force, jobs, pride in American and human innovation, not to mention greater cosmic awareness, a dose of perspective on our situation here among the stars.

And this is a letter from Todd Huffman, a particle physicist at Oxford, to The Guardian:

Simon Jenkins parrots a cry that I have heard a few times during my career as a research scientist in high-energy physics (Pluto trumps prisons when we spend public money, 17 July). He is unimaginatively concerned that the £34m a year spent by the UK at Cern (and a similar amount per year would have been spent on the New Horizons probe to Pluto) is not actually money well spent.

Yet I read his article online using the world wide web, which was developed initially by and for particle physicists. I did this using devices with integrated circuits partly perfected for the aerospace industry. The web caused the longest non-wartime economic boom in recorded history, during the 90s. The industries spawned by integrated circuits are simply too numerous to count and would have been impossible to predict when that first transistor was made in the 50s. It is a failure of society that funnels such economic largesse towards hedge-fund managers and not towards solving the social ills Mr Jenkins rightly exposes.

Conflict of interest? Not really. Science is being cornered from all sides and if anyone’s going to defend its practice, it’s going to be scientists. But we’re often so ready to confuse participation for investment, and at the first hint of any allegation of conflict, don’t wait to verify matters for ourselves.

I’m sure Yuri Milner’s investment of $100 million today to help the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence will be questioned, too, despite Stephen Hawking’s moving endorsement of it:

Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

Pursuits like exploring the natural world around us are, I think, what we’re meant to do as humans, what we must do when we can, and what we must ultimately aspire to.

Of small steps and giant leaps of collective imagination

The Wire
July 16, 2015

Is the M5 star cluster really out there? Credit: HST/ESA/NASA
Is the M5 star cluster really out there? Credit: HST/ESA/NASA

We may all harbour a gene that moves us to explore and find new realms of experience but the physical act of discovery has become far removed from the first principles of physics.

At 6.23 am on Wednesday, when a signal from the New Horizons probe near Pluto reached a giant antenna in Madrid, cheers went up around the world – with their epicentre focused on the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, USA.

And the moment it received the signal, the antenna’s computer also relayed a message through the Internet that updated a webpage showing the world that New Horizons had phoned home. NASA TV was broadcasting a scene of celebration at the APL and Twitter was going berserk as usual. Subtract these instruments of communication and the memory of humankind’s rendezvous with Pluto on the morning of July 15 (IST) is delivered not by the bridge of logic but a leap of faith.

In a memorable article in Nature in 2012, the physicist Daniel Sarewitz made an argument that highlighted the strength and importance of good science communication in building scientific knowledge. Sarewitz contended that it was impossible for anyone but trained theoretical physicists to understand what the Higgs boson really was, how the Higgs mechanism that underpins it worked, or how any of them had been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider earlier that year. The reason, he said, was that a large part of high-energy physics is entirely mathematical, devoid of any physical counterparts, and explores nature in states the human condition could never physically encounter.

As a result, without the full knowledge of the mathematics involved, any lay person’s conviction in the existence of the Higgs boson would be punctured here and there with gaps in knowledge – gaps the person will be continuously ignoring in favour of the faith placed in the integrity of thousands of scientists and engineers working at the LHC, and in the comprehensibility of science writing. In other words, most people on the planet won’t know the Higgs boson exists but they’ll believe it does.

Such modularisation of knowledge – into blocks of information we know exist and other blocks we believe exist – becomes more apparent the greater the interaction with sophisticated technology. And paradoxically, the more we are insulated from it, the easier it is to enjoy its findings.

Consider the example of the Hubble space telescope, rightly called one of the greatest astronomical implements to have ever been devised by humankind.

Its impressive suite of five instruments, highly polished mirrors and advanced housing all enable it to see the universe in visible-to-ultraviolet light in exquisite detail. Its opaque engineering is inaccessible to most but this gap in public knowledge has been compensated many times over by the richness of its observations. In a sense, we no longer concern ourselves with how the telescope works because we have drunk our fill with what it has seen of the universe for us – a vast, multihued space filled with the light of a trillion stars. What Hubble has seen makes us comfortable conflating belief and knowledge.

The farther our gaze strays from home, the more we will become reliant on technology that is beyond the average person’s intellect to comprehend, on rules of physics that are increasingly removed from first principles, on science communication that is able to devise cleverer abstractions. Whether we like it or not, our experience, and memory, of exploration is becoming more belief-ridden.

Like the Hubble, then, has New Horizons entered a phase of transience, too? Not yet. Its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager has captured spectacular images of Pluto, but none yet quite so spectacular as to mask our reliance on non-human actors to obtain them. We know the probe exists because the method of broadcasting an electromagnetic signal is somewhat easily understood, but then again most of us only believe that the probe is functioning normally. And this will increasingly be the case with the smaller scales we want to explore and the larger distances we want to travel.

Space probes have always been sophisticated bits of equipment but with the Internet – especially when NASA TV, DSN Now and  Twitter are the prioritised channels of worldwide information dissemination – there is a perpetual yet dissonant reminder of our reliance on technology, a reminder of the Voyager Moment of our times being a celebration of technological prowess rather than exploratory zeal.

Our moment was in fact a radio signal reaching Madrid, a barely romantic event. None of this is a lament but only a recognition of the growing discernibility of the gaps in our knowledge, of our isolation by chasms of entangled 1s and 0s from the greatest achievements of our times. To be sure, the ultimate benefactor is science but one that is increasingly built upon a body of evidence that is far too specialised to become something that can be treasured equally by all of us.

"Maybe the Higgs boson is fictitious!"

That’s an intriguing and, as he remarks, plausible speculation by the noted condensed-matter physicist Philip Warren Anderson. It appears in a short article penned by him in Nature Physics on January 26, in which he discusses how the Higgs mechanism as in particle physics was inspired by a similar phenomenon observed in superconductors.

According to the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory, certain materials lose their resistance to the flow of electric current completely and become superconductors below a critical temperature. Specifically, below this temperature, electrons don’t have the energy to sustain their mutual Coulomb repulsion. Instead, they experience a very weak yet persistent attractive force between them, which encourages them to team up in pairs called Cooper pairs (named for Leon Cooper).

If even one Cooper pair is disrupted, all Cooper pairs in the superconductor will break, and it will cease to be a superconductor as well. As a result, the energy to break one pair is equivalent to the energy necessary to break all pairs – a coercive state of affairs that keeps the pairs paired up despite energetic vibrations from the atoms in the material’s lattice. In this energetic environment, the Cooper pairs all behave as if they were part of a collective (described as a Bose-Einstein condensate).

This transformation can be understood as the spontaneous breaking of a symmetry: the gauge symmetry of electromagnetism, which dictates that no experiment can distinguish between the laws governing electricity and magnetism. With a superconductor, however, the laws governing electricity in the material become different below the critical temperature. And when a gauge symmetry breaks, a massive1 boson is formed. In the case of BCS superconductivity, however, it is not an actual particle as much as the collective mode of the condensate.

In particle physics, a similar example exists in the form of electroweak symmetry breaking. While we are aware of four fundamental forces in play around us (strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational), at higher energies the forces are thought to become unified into one ‘common’ force. And on the road to unification, the first to happen is of the electromagnetic and weak forces – into the electroweak force. Axiomatically, the electroweak symmetry was broken to yield the electromagnetic and weak forces, and the massive Higgs boson.

Anderson, who first discussed the ‘Higgs mode’ in superconductors in a paper in 1958, writes in his January 26 article (titled Higgs, Anderson and all that),

… Yoichiro Nambu, who was a particle theorist and had only been drawn into our field by the gauge problem, noticed in 1960 that a BCS-like theory could be used to create mass terms for massless elementary particles out of their interactions. After all, one way to describe the energy gap in BCS is that it represents a mass term for every point on the Fermi surface, mixing the particle with its opposite spin and momentum antiparticle. In 1960 Nambu and Jona-Lasinio developed a theory in which most of the mass of the nucleon comes from interactions — this theory is still considered partially correct.

But the real application of the idea of a superconductivity-like broken symmetry as a source of the particle spectrum came with the electroweak theory — which unified the electromagnetic and weak interactions — of Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg.

What is fascinating is that these two phenomena transpire at outstandingly different energy scales. The unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces into the electroweak force happens beyond 100 GeV. The energy scale at which the electrons in magnesium diboride become superconducting is around 0.002 eV. As Terry Pratchett would have it, the “aching gulf” of energy in between spans 12 orders of magnitude.

At the same time, the parallels between superconductivity and electroweak symmetry breaking are more easily drawn than between other, more disparate fields of study because their occurrence is understood in terms of the behavior of fundamental particles, especially bosons and fermions. It is this equivalence that makes Anderson’s speculative remark more attractive:

If superconductivity does not require an explicit Higgs in the Hamiltonian to observe a Higgs mode, might the same be true for the 126 GeV mode? As far as I can interpret what is being said about the numbers, I think that is entirely plausible. Maybe the Higgs boson is fictitious!

To help us along, all we have at the moment is the latest in an increasingly asymptotic series of confirmations: as reported by CERN, “the results draw a picture of a particle that – for the moment – cannot be distinguished from the Standard Model predictions for the Higgs boson.”

1Massive as in having mass, not as in a giant boson.

Debating the business of beauty in 'Dreams of a Final Theory'

In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg discusses the various aspects of the journey toward a unifying theory in fundamental physics. One crucial aspect is the aesthetic of such a theory, and Weinberg’s principal contention is that a unifying theory must be beautiful because if it weren’t beautiful, it wouldn’t be final in every sense. However, thinking so presupposes all scientific pursuits are motivated by a quest for beauty – this may not be the case. More importantly, beauty in being a human construction can be fickle and arbitrary, and interfere with the pursuit of science.

We are trained to expect nature to be a certain way and we call that beauty. As a result, we strive for solutions that are beautiful, i.e. commensurate with the way we see nature to be. But if the physicist confesses to you that the problems he chooses to solve are so beautiful, then that implies he thinks the problem is beautiful in its own right and independently of its solution’s beauty. Does this mean problem-solving in fundamental physics is dominated by a selection bias: whereby scientists choose to solve some problems over others because of the way they appeal to their aesthetic sense? Weinberg thinks so, and presents an example of scientists going after an ‘ugly’ problem – the thermal demagnetization of iron and critical exponent associated with it (0.37) – in the hope that it will have a beautiful solution. He writes,

Why should leaders of condensed matter theory give the problem of the critical exponents so much greater priority? I think the problem of critical exponents attracted so much attention because physicists judged that it would be likely to have a beautiful solution.

The result of their selection bias is the emergence of a dividing line between what needs to be studied and what doesn’t, between what knowledge is codified in the form of principles and what knowledge remains as individual facts. There is an obvious conflict with objective rationality here, which guides the fundamental investigations of nature and excludes unreasonable judgments like those backed by one’s sense of beauty. It seems, according to Weinberg, we are all motivated only to discover a beautiful universe – one that appeals to our preexisting convictions of what the universe ought to be – as if we are defining the beauty we feel we are bound to abide by. What else are we doing when we reject ‘ugly’ solutions but rejecting a form of the truth that doesn’t appeal to our sense of beauty2? By Weinberg’s own admission, what constitutes beauty1 has been changing with the discovery of more truths: just as beauty was a universality among the dynamics of forces in the early 20th century, beauty in the 21st century seems to be the presence of symmetry principles.

Therefore, by making such decisions, we are actively precluding the ‘existence’ of certain kinds of beauty because we are also forestalling the discovery of certain truths. Weinberg defends this by saying that if aesthetic judgments are working increasingly well, it could be because they are applicable – but the contention he does not address at all is that it is an arbitrary mechanism with which to arrive at the truth. We are simply consigning ourselves to understand beauty in different eras as new deviations from previous definitions of beauty, and removing opportunities to understand other3 (i.e. seemingly unrelated) kinds altogether. For example, the physicist who decides that the ‘ugly’ critical exponent of 0.37 must belong to a more beautiful, overarching theory is immediately pigeonholing other seemingly random exponents to the same fate. What if such exponents are indeed ones of a kind – perhaps even part of a much larger renormalization framework that researchers are desperately seeking to make sense of the many ‘fine-tuned’ constants in high-energy physics, rather than buoys of apparently hidden symmetries themselves that lead nowhere?

There are three additions to this discussion (referenced in the paragraph above):

1. Has beauty always been the pursuit of science? Elegance is definitely a part of the pursuit – if not more – because the elegance of natural phenomena is sure to reflect in the natural sciences, to paraphrase Werner Heisenberg. At the same time, Weinberg goes to some length to mark a distinction between beauty and elegance: “An elegant proof or calculation is one that achieves a powerful result with a minimum of irrelevant complication. It is not important for the beauty of a theory that its equations should have elegant solutions.” That said, the answer to this question is unlikely to be short or general for it questions the motivations of scientists over many centuries. At the same time, some of the greatest scientists – typically Nobel Prize winners – have said the quest for beauty has constituted a significant part of their work simply as an abrogation of randomness. Here is Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar writing about the work of Lord Rayleigh in his book, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science:

… after a scientist has reached maturity, what are the reasons for his continued pursuit of science? To what extent are they personal? To what extent are aesthetic criteria, like the perception of order and pattern, form and substance, relevant? Are such aesthetic and personal criteria exclusive? Has a sense of obligation a role? I do not mean obligation with the common meaning of obligation to one’s students, one’s colleagues, and one’s community. I mean, rather, obligation to science itself. And what, indeed, is the content of obligation in the pursuit of science for science?

2. We started with the assumption that beauty is what we have learnt nature to be. Therefore, by saying a problem or a solution doesn’t appeal to our sense of beauty, it only means it doesn’t appeal to what we already know. This attitude is best characterized by the tendency of well-entrenched paradigms to not give way to new ones, to not surrender in the face of new knowledge that they can’t account for. An example I am particularly fond of in this regard is the story of Dan Shechtman‘s discovery of quasicrystals, which went against the grain of Linus Pauling’s theory of crystals at the time.

Before introducing the third point (which is optional): While it is clear that Weinberg is enamored by the prospect of beauty legitimizing the study of fundamental physics, all of science cannot afford to be guided by as fickle a metric because beauty is what we expect nature to be – according to him – and that signifies a persistence with ‘old knowledge’ while discovering ‘new knowledge’. That deprives the scientific method of its objectivity. Also, the classification of knowledge impedes what scientists choose to study and how they choose to study it as well, and judging the legitimacy of knowledge based on its beauty lends itself to a mode of classification that is not entirely rational. Finally, that scientists also wouldn’t reject new knowledge if it was ugly but that beautiful knowledge would find acceptance faster and scrutiny slower is not… proper.

3. Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead provides an interesting way to understand this ‘otherness’. It describes a so-called hierarchy of foreignness to understand how alien a person or object is relative to another, in four stages (quoted from the book): Utlänning, “the stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country”; framling, “the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another world”; raman, “the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another species”; and varelse, “the true alien … which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.” Similarly, the ‘other’ kinds of beauty we stand to lose, according to Weinberg, are varelse, while we stick to the more fathomable (utlänning, framling and raman) kinds.


The transparency of public transportation

My favorite thing about New York city? The subway.

The New York city subway system is very decentralized. Its stations are the only front-facing components while its technical infrastructure is obscured from view. As a result, public consciousness of the system depends on how easily navigable the subway stations are and how transient the experience of using it is. And the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) has achieved both navigability and transience with splendid iconography.

Use Google Maps or ask someone nearby to get yourself near a subway station in New York. Once you’re closer, look out for the signature black signboards with white lettering, sober typography, all highlighted by a unique color palette of blue, orange, green, red, yellow and purple – one for each line. These installations are so effective at fetching people either in reveries or deliria (or both, depending on the time of day) off the streets of New York and into the tunnels and then back out elsewhere that people take them for granted. I know I do.

The entrance to a subway station in New York. Image:
The entrance to a subway station in New York. Image:

To go from Harlem, where I live, to Cooper Square, where my classes at NYU are, I take the D train from 125 St and get off at Broadway-Lafayette St. On weekdays, the train is immensely overcrowded between 8 am and 9 am, and I can’t ever hope of finding a seat next to a window so I can look out and see if the train’s at Broadway-Lafayette yet. Sure, there’s an announcer who speaks on the train’s intercom but I don’t always understand his/her accent.

The iconography comes to the rescue. The white-on-black boards are mounted on all pillars, evenly spaced, and larger ones are suspended from beams. The contrast between the text and its background is easy to catch. No other similar font stylization, coloration or similarly sized installation is allowed near the signboards or at the same height; advertisement is clearly demarcated. Also, the station number is painted on the white-tiled walls on either side of the tunnel.

The station name/number painted on the tunnel wall. Image: Kevin Dooler/Flickr.
The station name/number painted on the tunnel wall. Image: Kevin Dooley/Flickr (License)

When the D train stops at 59 St (Columbus Circle), where the traffic flux is highest on the route, I need only catch a glimpse of the world outside. Something will catch my eye.

Such extensive use of signs is more apparent in multi-terminal airports. A show produced by National Geographic that aired in September 2013 explains how the engineers who build them address passenger navigability and transience during the planning and construction phases.

Broadly speaking, say a passenger, Alice, has just disembarked from a flight through Gate 1 and now has to make her way to Gate 50 to catch a second flight. As far as the airport is concerned, Alice should only be thinking about making it to her flight on time, not about finding her way there. So, wherever she chooses to look in her hurry, she must find a helpful sign that leads her on her way, and she must not be forced to spend time asking other people for directions.

Therefore, the positioning of signs must be optimized. Each sign must serve everyone who is interested in finding and using that sign, and everyone must be served at the same time, too. This is just what the signs around the New York city subway system accomplish, too, using their design and arrangement.

The Kickstarter

Their introduction in 1970 must have played a big role in organizing one of the world’s largest urban conglomerations around the subway system. I learnt of the icons’ origins through a Kickstarter project centered around the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual, Standards Manual for short, designed by a Massimo Vignelli. The manual set down the specifications that the signs continue to abide by to this day.

The Kickstarter is to raise funds for a reissue of the manual’s first edition by two city-based designers, who found the precious tome in the basement of a design firm, specifically “in a locker beneath old gym clothes”. They’ve since raised almost $744,000 of their $108,000 goal with a week to go. It’s no wonder at least 6,000 people – its backers – think this book should be more popular.