A cultured evolution?

Can perceptions arising out of cultural needs override evolutionary goals in the long-run? For example, in India, the average marriage-age is in the late 20s now. Here, the (popular) tradition is to frown down upon, and even ostracize, those who would engage in premarital sex. So, after 10,000 years, say, are Indians more likely to have the development of their sexual desires postponed to occur in their late 20s (if they are not exposed to any avenues of sexual expression)? This question arose as a consequence of a short discussion with some friends on an article that appeared in SciAm: about if (heterosexual) men and women could stay “just friends”. To paraphrase the principal question in the context of the SciAm-featured “study”:

  1. Would you agree that the statistical implications of gender-sensitive studies will vary from region to region simply because the reasons on the basis of which such relationships can be established vary from one socio-political context to another?
  2. Assuming you have agreed to the first question: Would you contend that the underlying biological imperatives can, someday, be overridden altogether in favor of holding up cultural paradigms (or vice versa)?

Is such a thing even possible? (To be clear: I’m not looking for hypotheses and conjectures; if you can link me to papers that support your point of view, that’d be great.)

Plotting a technological history of journalism

Electric telegraph

  • July 27, 1866 – SS Great Eastern completes laying of Transatlantic telegraphic cables
  • By 1852, miles of American telegraphic wires had grown from 40 in 1846 to 23,000
  • In 1849-1869, telegraphic mileage had increased by 108,000 miles

Cost of information transmission fell with its increasing ubiquity as well as instantization of global communication.

  • Usefulness of information was preserved through transmission-time, increasing its shelf-life, making production of information a significant task
  • Led to a boost in trade as well

Advent of war – especially political turmoil in Europe and the American Civil War – pushed rapid developments in its technology.

These last mentioned events led to establishment of journalism as a recognized profession

  • Because it focused finally on locating and defining local information,
  • Because transmission of information could now be secured through other means,
  • And prompted newspaper establishments to install information-transmission services of their own –
  • Leading to proliferation of competition and an emphasis on increase of the quality of reportage

The advent of the electric telegraph, a harbinger of the “small world” phenomenon, did not contribute to the refinement of journalistic genres as much as it helped establish them.

In the same period, rather from 1830 to 1870, significant political events that transpired alongside the evolution of communication, and were revolutionized by it, too, included the rapid urbanization in the USA and Great Britain (as a result of industrialization), the Belgian revolution, the first Opium War, the July revolution, the Don Pacifico affair, and the November uprising.

Other notable events include the laying of the Raleigh-Gaston railroad in North Carolina and advent of the first steam locomotives in England. Essentially, the world was ready to receive its first specialized story-tellers.


Picture on the web from mousebilenadam

Photography developed from the mid-19th century onward. While it did not have as drastic an impact as did the electric telegraph, it has instead been undergoing a slew of changes the impetus of which comes from technological advancement. While black-and-white photography was prevalent for quite a while, it was color photography that refocused interested in using the technology to augment story-telling.

  • Using photography to tell a story involves a trade-off between neutrality and subjective opinions
  • A photographer, in capturing his subject, first identifies the subject such that it encapsulates emotions that he is looking for

Photography establishes a relationship between some knowledge of some reality and prevents interpretations from taking any other shape:

  • As such a mode of story-telling, it is a powerful tool only when the right to do so is well-exercised, and there is no given way of determining that absolutely
  • Through a lens is a powerful way to capture socio-history, and this preserve it in a columbarium of other such events, creating, in a manner of speaking, something akin to Asimov’s psycho-history
  • What is true in the case of photo-journalism is only partly true in the case of print-based story-telling

Photography led to the establishment of perspectives, of the ability of mankind to preserve events as well as their connotations, imbuing new power into large-scale movements and revolutions. Without the ability to visualize connotations, adversarial journalism, and the establishment of the Fourth Estate as it were, may not be as powerful as it currently is because of its ability to provide often unambiguous evidence toward or against arguments.

  • A good birthplace of the discussion on photography’s impact on journalism is Susan Sontag’s 1977 book, On Photography.
  • Photography also furthered interest in the arts, starting with the contributions of William Talbot.


Although television sets were introduced in the USA in the 1930s, a good definition of its impact came in the famous Wasteland Speech in 1961 by Newton Minow, speaking at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

It is this space, the “vast wasteland”, upon the occupation of which came journalism and television together to redefine news-delivery.

It is a powerful tool for the promotion of socio-political agendas: this was most effectively demonstrated during the Vietnam War during which, as Michael Mandelbaum wrote in 1982,

… regular exposure to the early realities of battle is thought to have turned the public against the war, forcing the withdrawal of American troops and leaving the way clear for the eventual Communist victory.

This opinion, as expressed by then-president Lyndon Johnson, was also defended by Mandelbaum as a truism in the same work (Print Culture and Video Culture, vol. 111, no. 4, Daedalus, pp. 157-158).

In the entertainment versus informative programming debate, an important contribution was made by Neil Postman in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein he warned of the decline in humankind’s ability to communicate and share serious ideas and the role television played in this decline because of its ability to only transfer information, not interaction.

Watch here…

And continued here…


Arguing along similar veins in his landmark speech in 1990 at a computer science meeting in Germany, Postman said,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

In his conclusion, he blamed television for severing the tie between information and action.

The advent of the television also played a significant role in American feminism.

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part IV

Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011. This led to an explosion of interest on the subject of QCs and Shechtman’s travails in getting the theory validated.

Numerous publications, from Reuters to The Hindu, published articles and reports. In fact, The Guardian ran an online article giving a blow-by-blow account of how the author, Ian Sample, attempted to contact Shechtman while the events succeeding the announcement of the prize unfolded.

All this attention served as a consummation of the events that started to avalanche in 1982. Today, QCs are synonymous with the interesting possibilities of materials science as much as with perseverance, dedication, humility, and an open mind.

Since the acceptance of the fact of QCs, the Israeli chemist has gone on to win Physics Award of the Friedenberg Fund (1986), the Rothschild Prize in engineering (1990), the Weizmann Science Award (1993), the 1998 Israel Prize for Physics, the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics (1998), and the EMET Prize in chemistry (2002).

As Pauling’s influence on the scientific community faded with Shechtman’s growing recognition, his death in 1994 did still mark the complete lack of opposition to an idea that had long since gained mainstream acceptance. The swing in Shechtman’s favour, unsurprisingly, began with the observation of QCs and the icosahedral phase in other laboratories around the world.

Interestingly, Indian scientists were among the forerunners in confirming the existence of QCs. As early as in 1985, when the paper published by Shechtman and others in the Physical Review Letters was just a year old, S Ranganathan and Kamanio Chattopadhyay (amongst others), two of India’s preeminent crystallographers, published a paper in Current Science announcing the discovery of materials that exhibited decagonal symmetry. Such materials are two-dimensional QCs with periodicity exhibited in one of those dimensions.

The story of QCs is most important as a post-Second-World-War incidence of a paradigm shift occurring in a field of science easily a few centuries old.

No other discovery has rattled scientists as much in these years, and since the Shechtman-Pauling episode, academic peers have been more receptive of dissonant findings. At the same time, credit must be given to the rapid advancements in technology and human knowledge of statistical techniques: without them, the startling quickness with which each hypothesis can be tested today wouldn’t have been possible.

The analysis of the media representation of the discovery of quasicrystals with respect to Thomas Kuhn’s epistemological contentions in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was an attempt to understand his standpoints by exploring more of what went on in the physical chemistry circles of the 1980s.

While there remains the unresolved discrepancy – whether knowledge is non-accumulative simply because the information founding it has not been available before – Kuhn’s propositions hold in terms of the identification of the anomaly, the mounting of the crisis period, the communication breakdown within scientific circles, the shift from normal science to cutting-edge science, and the eventual acceptance of a new paradigm and the discarding of the old one.

Consequently, it appears that science journalists have indeed taken note of these developments in terms of The Structure. Thus, the book’s influence on science journalism can be held to be persistent, and is definitely evident.

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part III

The doctrine of incommensurability arises out of the conflict between two paradigms and the faltering of communications between the two adherent factions.

According to Kuhn, scientists are seldom inclined to abandon the paradigm at the first hint of crisis – as elucidated in the previous section – and instead denounce the necessity for a new paradigm. However, these considerations aside, the implications for a scientist who proposes the introduction of a new paradigm, as Shechtman did, are troublesome.

Such a scientist will find himself ostracized by the community of academicians he belongs to because of the anomalous nature of his discovery and, thus, his suddenly questionable credentials. At the same time, because of such ostracism, the large audience required to develop the discovery and attempt to inculcate its nature into the extant paradigm becomes inaccessible.

As a result, there is a communication breakdown between the old faction and the new faction, whereby the former rejects the finding and continues to further the extant paradigm while the latter rejects the paradigm and tries to bring in a new one.

Incommensurability exists only during the time of crisis, when a paradigm shift is foretold. A paradigm shift is called so because there is no continuous evolution from the old paradigm to the new one. As Kuhn puts it (p. 103),

… the reception of a new paradigm often necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding science.

For this reason, what is incommensurable is not only the views of warring scientists but also the new knowledge and the old one. In terms of a finding, the old knowledge could be said to be either incomplete or misguided, whereas the new one could be remedial or revolutionary.

In Shechtman’s case, because icosahedral symmetries were altogether forbidden by the old theory, the new finding was not remedial but revolutionary. Therefore, the new terms that the finding introduced were not translatable in terms of the old one, leading to a more technical form of communication breakdown and the loss of the ability of scientists to predict what could happen next.

A final corollary of the doctrine is that because of the irreconcilable nature of the new and old knowledge, its evolution cannot be held to be continuous, only contiguous. In this sense, knowledge becomes a non-cumulative entity, one that cannot have been accumulated continuously over the centuries, but one that underwent constant redefinition to become what it is today.

As for Dan Shechtman, the question is this: Does the media’s portrayal of the crisis period reflect any incommensurability (be it in terms of knowledge or communication)?

How strong was the paradigm shift?

In describing the difference between “seeing” and “seeing as”, Kuhn speaks about two kinds of incommensurability as far as scientific knowledge is concerned. Elegantly put as “A pendulum is not a falling stone, nor is oxygen dephlogisticated air,” the argument is that when a paradigm shift occurs, the empirical data will remain unchanged even as the relationship between the data changes. In Shechtman’s and Levine’s cases, the discovery of “forbidden” 3D icosahedral point symmetry does not mean that the previous structures are faulty but simply that the new structure is now one of the possibilities.

However, there is some discrepancy regarding how much the two paradigms are really incommensurable. For one, Kuhn’s argument that an old paradigm and a new paradigm will be strongly incommensurable can be disputed: he says that during a paradigm shift, there can be no reinterpretation of the old theory that can transform to being commensurable with the new one.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the case: five-fold axes of symmetry were forbidden by the old theory because they had been shown mathematically to lack translational symmetry, and because the thermodynamics of such a structure did not fall in line with the empirical data corresponding to crystals that were perfectly crystalline or perfectly amorphous.

Therefore, the discovery of QCs established a new set of relationships between the parameters that influenced the formation of one crystal structure over another. At the same time, they did permit a reinterpretation of the old theory because the finding did not refute the old laws – it just introduced an addition.

For Kuhn to be correct a paradigm shift should have occurred that introduced a new relationship between different bits of data; in Shechtman’s case, the data was not available in the first place!

Here, Shechtman can be attributed with making a fantastic discovery and no more. There is no documented evidence to establish that someone observed QC before Shechtman did but interpreted it according to the older paradigm.

In this regard, what is thought to be a paradigm shift can actually be argued to be an enhancement of the old paradigm: no shift need have occurred. However, this was entirely disregarded by science journalists and commentators such as Browne and Eugene Garfield, who regarded the discovery of QCs as simply being anomalous and therefore crisis-prompting, indicating a tendency to be historicist – in keeping with the antirealism argument against scientific realism as put forth by Richard Boyd.

Thus, the comparison to The Structure that held up all this time fails.

There are many reasons why this could have been so, not the least of which is the involvement of Pauling and his influence in postponing the announcement of the discovery (Pauling’s credentials were, at the time, far less questionable than Shechtman’s were).

Linus Carl Pauling (1901-1994) (Image from Wikipedia)

As likely as oobleck

Alan I. Goldman, a professor of physics at the Iowa State University, wrote in the 84th volume of the American Scientist,

Quasicrystals … are rather like oobleck, a form of precipitation invented by Dr. Seuss. Both the quasicrystals and the oobleck are new and unexpected. Since the discovery of a new class of materials is about as likely as the occurrence of a new form of precipitation, quasicrystals, like oobleck, suffered at first from a credibility problem.

There were many accomplished chemists who thought that QCs were nothing more than as-yet not fully understood crystal structures, and some among them even believed that QCs were an anomalous form of glass.

The most celebrated among those accomplished was Linus Pauling, who died in 1994 after belatedly acknowledging the existence of QCs. It was his infamous remark in 1982 that bought a lot of trouble for Shechtman, who was subsequently asked to leave the research group because he was “bringing disgrace” on its members and the paper he sought to publish was declined by journals.

Perhaps this was because he took immense pride in his works and in his contributions to the field of physical chemistry; otherwise, his “abandonment” of the old paradigm would have come easier – and here, the paradigm that did include an observation of QCs is referred to as old.

In fact, Pauling was so adamant that he proposed a slew of alternate crystal structures that would explain the structure of QCs as well as remain conformant with the old paradigm, with a paper appearing in 1988, long after QCs had become staple knowledge.

Order and periodicity

Insofar as the breakdown in communication is concerned, it seems to have stemmed from the tying-in of order and periodicity: crystallography’s handing of crystalline and amorphous substances had ingrained into the chemist’s psyche the coexistence of structures and repeatability.

Because the crystal structures of QCs were ordered but not periodical, even those who could acknowledge their existence had difficulty believing that QCs “were just as ordered as” crystals were, in the process isolating Shechtman further.

John Cahn, a senior crystallographer at NBS at the time of the fortuitous discovery, was one such person. Like Pauling, Cahn also considered possible alternate explanations before he could agree with Shechtman and ultimately co-author the seminal PRL paper with him.

His contention was that forbidden diffraction patterns – like the one Shechtman had observed – could be recreated by the superposition of multiple allowed but rotated patterns (because of the presence of five-fold symmetry, the angle of rotation could have been 72°).

A crystal-twinning pattern in a leucite crystal

This was explained through a process called twinning, whereby the growth vector of a crystal, during its growth phase, could suddenly change direction without any explanation or prior indication. In fact, Cahn’s exact response was,

Go away, Danny. These are twins and that’s not terribly interesting.

This explanation involving twinning was soon adopted by many of Shechtman’s peers, and he was repeatedly forced to return with results from the diffraction experiment to attempt to convince those who disagreed with the finding. His attempts were all in vain, and he was eventually dismissed from the project group at NBS.


All these events are a reflection of the communication breakdown within the academic community and, for a time, the two sides were essentially Shechtman and all the others.

The media portrayal of this time, however, seems to be completely factual and devoid of deduction or opining because of the involvement of the likes of Pauling and Cahn, who, in a manner of speaking, popularized the incident among media circles: that there was a communication breakdown became ubiquitous fact.

Shechtman himself, after winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011 for the discovery of QCs, admitted that he was isolated for a time before acceptance came his way – after the development of a crisis became known.

At the same time, there is the persisting issue of knowledge as being non-accumulative: as stated earlier, journalists have disregarded the possibility, not unlike many scientists, unfortunately, that the old paradigm did not make way for a new one as much as it became the new one.

That this was not the focus of their interest is not surprising because it is a pedantic viewpoint, one that serves to draw attention to the “paradigm shift” not being “Kuhnian” in nature, after all. Just because journalists and other writers constantly referred to the discovery of QCs as being paradigm-shifting need not mean that a paradigm-shift did occur there.

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part II

Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Did they report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? Whether they did or did not will be indicative of Kuhn’s influence on science journalism as well as a reflection of The Structure’s influence on the scientific community.

In the early days of crystallography, when the arrangements of molecules was thought to be simpler, each one was thought to occupy a point in two-dimensional (2D) space, which were then stacked one on top of another to give rise to the crystal. However, as time passed and imaginative chemists and mathematicians began to participate in the attempts to deduce perfectly the crystal lattice, the idea of a three-dimensional (3D) lattice began to catch on.

At the same time, scientists also found that there were many materials, like some powders, which did not restrict their molecules to any arrangement and instead left them to disperse themselves chaotically. The former were called crystalline, the latter amorphous (“without form”).

All substances, it was agreed, had to be either crystalline – with structure – or amorphous – without it. A more physical definition was adopted from Euclid’s Stoicheia (Elements, c. 300 BC): that the crystal lattice of all crystalline substances had to exhibit translational symmetry and rotational symmetry, and that all amorphous substances couldn’t exhibit either.

An arrangement exhibits translational symmetry if it looks the same after being moved in any direction through a specific distance. Similarly, rotational symmetry is when the arrangement looks the same after being rotated through some angle.)

In an article titled ‘Puzzling Crystals Plunge Scientists Into Uncertainty’ published in The New York Times on July 30, 1985, Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist Malcolm W Browne wrote that “the discovery of a new type of crystal that violates some of the accepted rules has touched off an explosion of conjecture and research…” referring to QCs.

Malcolm W. Browne

Paper a day on the subject

In the article, Browne writes that Shechtman’s finding (though not explicitly credited) has “galvanized microstructure analysts, mathematicians, metallurgists and physicists in at least eight countries.”

This observation points at the discovery’s anomalous nature since, from an empirical point of view, Browne suggests that such a large number of scientists from fields as diverse have not come together to understand anything in recent times. In fact, he goes on to remark that according to one estimate, a paper a day was being published on the subject.

Getting one’s paper published by an academic journal worldwide is important to any scientist because it formally establishes primacy. That is, once a paper has been published by a journal, then the contents of the paper are attributed to the paper’s authors and none else.

Since no two journals will accept the same paper for publication (a kind of double jeopardy), a paper a day implies that distinct solutions were presented each day. Therefore, Browne seems to claim in his article, in the framework of Kuhn’s positions, that scientists were quite excited about the discovery of a phenomenon that violated a longstanding paradigm.

Shechtman’s paper had been published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters, which is in turn published by the American Physical Society from Maryland, USA, in the 20th issue of its 53rd volume, 1984 – but not without its share of problems.

Istvan Hargittai, a reputed crystallographer with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, described a first-hand account of the years 1982 to 1984 in Shechtman’s life in the April 2011 issue of Structural Chemistry. In these accounts, he says that,

Once Shechtman had completed his experiment, he became very lonely as every scientific discoverer does: the discoverer knows something nobody else does.

In Shechtman’s case, however, this loneliness was compounded by two aspects of his discovery that made it difficult for him to communicate with his peers about it. First: To him, it was such an important discovery that he wanted desperately to inquire about its possibilities to those established in the field – and the latter dismissed his claims as specious.

Second: the fact that he couldn’t conclusively explain what he himself had found troubled him, kept him from publishing his results.

At the time, Hargittai was a friend of a British crystallographer named Alan Mackay, from the Birkbeck College in London. Mackay had, a few years earlier, noted the work of mathematician Roger Penrose, who had created a pattern in which pentagons of different sizes were used to tile a 2D space completely (Penrose had derived inspiration from the work of the 16th century astronomer Johannes Kepler).

In other words, Penrose had produced theoretically a planar version of what Shechtman was looking for, what would help him resolve his personal crisis. Mackay, in turn, had attempted to produce a diffraction pattern simulated on the Penrose tiles, assuming that what was true for 2D-space could be true for 3D-space as well.

An example of a Penrose tiling

By the time Mackay had communicated this development to Hargittai, Shechtman had – unaware of them – already discovered QCs.

There was another investigation ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania’s physics department: Dov Levine, pursuing his PhD under the guidance of Paul Steinhardt, had developed a 3D model of the Penrose tiles – again, unaware of Shechtman’s and Mackay’s works.

Thus, it is conspicuous how the anomalous nature of discoveries – which are unprecedented by definition because, otherwise, they would be expected – facilitates a communication-breakdown within the scientific community. In the case of Levine, who was eager to publish his findings, Steinhardt advised caution to avoid the ignominy that might arise out of publishing findings that are not fully explicable.

In the meantime, Shechtman had found an interested listener in Ilan Blech, another crystallographer at NBS. They prepared a paper together to send to the Journal of Applied Physics in 1984 after deciding that it was imperative to get across to as many scientists as possible in the search for an explanation for the structure of QCs.

However, since they had no explanation of their own, the paper had to be buried “under a mountain of information about alloys,” which prompted the Journal to write back saying the paper “would not interest physicists.”

Shechtman and Blech realized that, as a consequence of reporting such a result, they would have to spruce up its presentation. Shechtman invited veteran NBS crystallographer John Cahn, and Cahn in turn invited Denis Gratias, a French crystallographer, to join the team.

Even though Cahn had been sceptical of the possibility of QCs, he had since changed his mind in the last two years, and his presence awarded some credibility to the contents of the paper. After Gratias restructured the mathematics in the paper, it was finally accepted for publication in the Physical Review Letters on November 12, 1984.

(Clockwise from top-left corner) Danny Shechtman, Istvan Hargittai, Roger Penrose, Paul Steinhardt, and Dov Levine with Steinhardt

And by the time Browne’s article appeared a year later, it is safe to assume that at least 50-70 papers on the subject were published in the period. Whether this was a rush to accumulate anomalies or to discredit the finding is immaterial: the threat to the existing paradigm was perceptible and scientists felt the need to do something about it; and Browne’s noting of the same is proof that science journalists noted the need, too.

In fact, how much of an anomaly is a finding that has been accepted for publication? Because after it has been carefully vetted and published, it becomes as good as fact: other scientists can now found their work upon on it, and at the time of publication of their papers, cite the parent paper as authority.

However, it must be noted that there are important exceptions, such as the infamous Fleischmann-Pons experiment in cold fusion in 1989-1990. For these reasons, let it be that a paradigm is considered to have entered a crisis period only after it is established that it cannot be “tweaked” after each discovery and allowed to continue.

Three years of falsifications

Browne, too, seems to conclude that despite a definite discovery having been made three years earlier,

… only recently has experimental evidence overwhelmed the initial skepticism of the scientific community that such a form of matter could exist.

For three years, the community could not allow a discovery to pass, and subjected it repeatedly to tests of falsifications. A similar remark comes from science writer and crystallographer Paul Steinhardt, Levine’s PhD mentor, who, in a paper titled ‘New perspectives on forbidden symmetries, quasicrystals and Penrose tilings’, remarked upon the need for “a new appreciation for the subtleties of crystallographically forbidden symmetries.”

Shechtman’s QCs exhibited rotational symmetry but not a translational one. In other words, they demanded to be placed squarely between crystalline and amorphous substances, sending researchers scurrying for an explanation.

In a period of such turmoil, Browne’s article states that some researchers were willing to consider the arrangement as existing in six-dimensional (6D) hyperspace rather than in 3D space-time.

A hexeract (or, a geopeton)

Now, someone within the community had considered physical hyperspace to be an explanation way back in 1985. Even though mathematical hyperspace as a theory had been around since the days of Bernhard Riemann (Habilitationsschrift, 1854) and Ludwig Schläfli (Theorie der vielfachen Kontinuität, 1852), the notion of physical hyperspatial theory with a correspondence to physical chemistry is still nascent at best.

Therefore, Browne’s suggestion only seems to supplant his narrative of intellectual turbulence, that scientists had stumbled upon a phenomenon so anomalous that it alone was prompting crisis.


Did science journalists find QCs anomalous? Yes, they did. Browne, Hargittai and Steinhardt, amongst others, were quick to identify the anomalous nature of the newly discovered material and point it out through newspaper reports and articles published within the scientific community.

Thomas Kuhn’s position that scientists will attempt to denounce a paradigm-shift-inducing theory before they themselves are forced to shift is reflected in the writers’ accounts of Dan Shechtman in the days leading up to and just after his discovery.

Did they, the journalists, report the crisis period as it happened or as an isolated incident? That they could identify the onset of a crisis as it happened indicates that they did recognize it for what it was. However, it remains to be seen whether these confirmations validate Kuhn’s hypothesis in their entirety.

A case of Kuhn, quasicrystals & communication – Part I

Dan Shechtman’s discovery of quasi-crystals, henceforth abbreviated as QCs, in 1982 was a landmark achievement that invoked a paradigm-shift in the field of physical chemistry.

However, at the time, the discovery faced stiff resistance from the broader scientific community and an eminent chemist of the time. Such things made it harder for Shechtman to prove his findings as being credible, but he persisted and succeeded in doing so.

We know his story today because of its fairly limited coverage in the media, and especially from the comments of his peers, students and friends; its revolutionary characteristic was well reflected in many reports and essays.

Because such publications indicated the onset of a new kind of knowledge, what merits consideration is if the media internalized Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science in the way it approached the incident.

Broadly, the question is: Did the media reports reflect Kuhn’s paradigm-shifting hypothesis? Specifically, in the 1980s,

  1. Did science journalists find QCs anomalous?
  2. Did science journalists identify the crisis period when it happened or was it reported as an isolated incident?
  3. Does the media’s portrayal of the crisis period reflect any incommensurability (be it in terms of knowledge or communication)?

Finally: How did science journalism behave when reporting stories from the cutting edge?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Thomas S. Kuhn’s (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was significantly influential in academic circles as well as the scientific community. It introduced the notion of a paradigm-shift, which has since become a principal when describing the evolution of scientific knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn, Harvard University, 1949

Kuhn defined a paradigm based on two properties:

  1. The paradigm must be sufficiently unprecedented to attract researchers to study it, and
  2. It must be sufficiently open-ended to allow for growth and debate

By this definition, most of the seminal findings of the greatest thinkers and scientists of the past are paradigmatic. Nicholas Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543) and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) are both prime examples that illustrate what paradigms can be and how they shift perceptions and interests in the subject.

Such paradigms, Kuhn said (p. 25), work with three attributes that are inherent to their conception. The first of the three attributes is the determination of significant fact, whereby facts accrued through observation and experimentation are measured and recorded more accurately.

Even though they are the “pegs” of any literature concerning the paradigm, activities such as their measurement and records are independent of the dictates of the paradigm. Instead, they are, in a colloquial sense, conducted anyway.

Why this is so becomes evident in the second of the three foci: matches of fact with theory. Kuhn claims (p. 26) that this class of activity is rarer in reality, where predictions of the reigning theory are compared to the (significant) facts measured in nature.

Consequently, good agreement between the two would establish the paradigm’s robustness, whereas disagreement would indicate the need for further refinement. In fact, on the same page, Kuhn illustrates the rarity of such agreement by stating

… no more than three such areas are even yet accessible to Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The third and last focus is on the articulation of theory. In this section, Kuhn posits that the academician conducts experiments to

  1. Determine physical constants associated with the paradigm
  2. Determine quantitative laws (so as to provide a physical quantification of the paradigm)
  3. Determine the applications of the paradigm in various fields

In The Structure, one paradigm replaces another through a process of contention. At first, a reigning paradigm exists that, to an acceptable degree of reasonableness, explains empirical observations. However, in time, as technology improves and researchers find results that don’t quite agree with the reigning paradigm, the results are listed as anomalies.

This refusal to immediately induct the findings and modify the paradigm is illustrated by Kuhn as proof toward our expectations clouding our perception of the world.

Instead, researchers hold the position of the paradigm as fixed and immovable, and attempt to check for errors with the experimental/observed data. An example of this is the superluminal neutrinos that were “discovered”, rather stumbled upon, at the OPERA experiment in Italy that works with the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

When the experiment logs from that fateful day, September 23, 2011, were examined, nothing suspicious was found with the experimental setup. However, despite this assurance of the instruments’ stability, the theory (of relativity) that prohibits this result was held superior.

On October 18, then, experimental confirmation was received that the neutrinos could not have traveled faster than light because the theoretically predicted energy signature of a superluminal neutrino did not match with the observed signatures.

As Kuhn says (p. 77):

Though they [scientists] may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counterinstances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are.

However, this state of disagreement is not perpetual because, as Kuhn concedes above, an accumulation of anomalies forces a crisis in the scientific community. During a period of crisis, the paradigm reigns, yes, but is also now and then challenged by alternately conceived paradigms that

  1. Are sufficiently unprecedented
  2. Are open-ended to provide opportunities for growth
  3. Are able to explain those anomalies that threatens the reign of the extant paradigm

The new paradigm imposes a new framework of ideals to contain the same knowledge that dethroned the old paradigm, and because of a new framework, new relations between different bits of information become possible. Therefore, paradigm shifts are periods encompassing rejection and re-adoption as well as restructuring and discovery.

Kuhn ties together here three postulates: incommensurability, scientific communication, and knowledge being non-accumulative. When a new paradigm takes over, there is often a reshuffling of subjects – some are relegated to a different department, some departments are broadened to include more subjects than were there previously, while other subjects are confined to illogicality.

During this phase, some areas of knowledge may no longer be measured with the same standards that have gone before them.

Because of this incommensurability, scientific communication within their community breaks down, but only for the period of the crisis. For one, because of the new framework, some scientific terms change their meaning, and because multiple revolutions have happened in the past, Kuhn assumes the liberty here to conclude that scientific knowledge is non-accumulative. This facet of evolution was first considered by Herbert Butterfield in his The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800. Kuhn, in his work, then drew a comparison to visual gestalt (p. 85).

The Gestalt principles of visual perception seek to explain why the human mind sees two faces before it can identify the vase in the picture.

Just as in politics, when during a time of instability the people turn to conservative ideals to recreate a state of calm, scientists get back to a debate over the fundamentals of science to choose a successor paradigm. This is a gradual process, Kuhn says, that may or may not yield a new paradigm that is completely successful in explaining all the anomalies.

The discovery of QCs

On April 8, 1982, Dan Shechtman, a crystallographer working at the U. S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS), made a discovery that would nothing less than shatter the centuries-old assumptions of physical chemistry. Studying the molecular structure of an alloy of aluminium and manganese using electron diffraction, Shechtman noted an impossible arrangement of the molecules.

In electron diffraction, electrons are used to study extremely small objects, such as atoms and molecules, because the wavelength of electrons – which determines the resolution of the image produced – can be controlled by their electric charge. Photons lack this charge and are therefore unsuitable for high-precision observation at the atomic level.

When accelerated electrons strike the object under study, their wave nature takes over and they form an interference pattern on the observer lens when they are scattered. The device then works backward to reproduce the surface that may have generated the recorded pattern, in the process yielding an image of the surface. On that day in April, this is what Shechtman saw (note: the brightness of each node is only an indication of how far it is from the observer lens).

The electron-diffraction pattern exposing a quasicrystal’s lattice structure (Image from Ars Technica)

The diffraction pattern shows the molecules arranged in repeating pentagonal rings. That meant that the crystal exhibited 5-fold symmetry, i.e. an arrangement that was symmetrical about five axes. At the time, molecular arrangements were restricted by the then-36-year old crystallographic restriction theorem, which held that arrangements with only 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-fold symmetries were allowed. In fact, Shechtman had passed his university exams proving that 5-fold symmetries couldn’t exist!

At the time of discovery, Shechtman couldn’t believe his eyes because it was an anomaly. In keeping with tradition, in fact, he proceeded to look for experimental errors. Only after he could find none did he begin to consider reporting the discovery.

A photograph showing the pages from Shechtman’s logbook from the day he made the seemingly anomalous observation. Observe the words “10 Fold???”

In the second half of the 20th century, the field of crystallography was beginning to see some remarkable discoveries, but none of them as unprecedented as that of QCs would turn out to be. This was because of the development of spectroscopy, a subject that studied the interaction of matter and radiation.

Using devices such as X-ray spectrometers and tunneling electron microscopes (TEM), scientists could literally look at a molecule instead of having to determine its form via chemical reactions. In such a period, there was tremendous growth in physical chemistry because of the imaginative mind of one man who would later be called one of the greatest chemists of all time as well as make life difficult for Shechtman: Linus Carl Pauling.

Pauling epitomized the aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy that refused to let an old paradigm die, and therefore posed a significant hindrance to Shechtman’s radical new idea. While Shechtman attempted to present his discovery of QCs as an anomaly that he thought prompted crisis, Pauling infamously declared, “There is no such thing as quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists.

Media reportage

The clash between Pauling and Shechtman, rather the “old school” and the “new kid”, created some attrition within universities in the United States and Israel, who with Shechtman was affiliated. While a select group of individuals who were convinced of the veracity of the radical claims set about studying it further, others – perhaps under the weight of Pauling’s credibility – dismissed the work as erroneous and desperate. The most important entity classifiable under the latter was the Journal of Applied Physics, which refused to publish Shechtman’s finding.

In this turmoil, there was a collapse of communication between scientists of the two factions. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of this incident was limited: a few articles appeared in the mid-1980s in newspapers, magazines and journals; in 1988 when Pauling published his own paper on QCs; in 1999 when Shechtman won the prestigious Wolf Prize in mathematics; and in 2011, when he won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Despite the low coverage, the media managed to make known the existence of such things as QCs to a wider community as well as to a less-sophisticated one. The rift between Pauling and Shechtman was notable because, apart from reflecting Kuhn’s views, it also brought to light the mental block scientists professed when it came to falsification of their work, and how that prevented science as such from progressing rapidly. Anyway, such speculations are all based in the media’s representation of the events.

de Tocqueville & the news

That the switch from newspapers to digital handheld devices – for the purpose of sourcing all my news – is limited only by my comfort-level with technology is telling of some shortcoming of the print industry.

The changing journalistic scene is a reflection of the way people engage publicly and of how public discourse has changed. Quoting Tocqueville,

A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought.

Believe me, I still do seek out the newspaper to be certain on some matters, but I am also a dying breed. News has changed from page-long pieces to 140-character tweets, but the information we are getting has tripled. As Neil Postman argued in 1990,

Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that, for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.

There is too much to read and to process. Today, people are quite likely to be discussing news over coffee, especially in light of the fact that almost all information tends to be “newsified”.

Tocqueville says in the same piece,

The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

My questions are, thus, two-fold. Do we live in a society that is increasingly unequal? Or have we transformed to become so individualistic that a common voice can no longer exist?

Alexis de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville addresses the newspaper, and the responsibilities of the Press by extension, in terms of their capacity to unite. In the same chapter, he also draws upon democracy’s tendency to leave individuals “very insignificant and lost amid the crowd”, the the responsibility to homogenize which lies with the newspaper.

While these notions may have coincided in Tocqueville’s times, the landscape of governance has changed vastly. For one, Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s, at a time when democracy itself was as new as the emerging print industry, when its spread and depth were both limited.

For another, for me to able to infer that the power of the newspaper is waning, I am also inferring that the newspaper must exist only on paper, that news cannot be delivered in other forms, and that all peoples must unite themselves under the light of one beacon, not any other. Are we right in thinking this?

So, while the newspaper – as an entity comprising words in ink and ink on paper – may be on the decline economically, the responsibilities of the paper are now in different hands. As for Tocqueville’s cautioning against the individualists, much is to be said.

In the execution of goals democratically, Tocqueville’s faith in which mires his thoughts, there will be opportunities to “wrong the people” by desiring an action that feels right personally. In other words, the French philosopher has not considered the evils of populism in vouching for the newspaper.

Today, however, technology enables so much that things work the other way round. Instead of firing up common beacons, discrete ones, classifiable in terms of social status, culture, financial needs, and personal desires, are lit, and people flock to them.

I concede, there is a barrage of news, but there is also democracy in news! I can finally get what I know I will use the most. Is that wrong? In fact, does it even suggest a conflict in any sense?

I must also concede that Tocqueville was right in championing the cause and function of democratic rule, but that it mandates representation above all else is something not to be forgotten.

In the ongoing version of the discourse between public policy and responsible journalism, individuals have the responsibility to cure more evils than they cause, individuals must hone their own moral framework, and individuals are tasked with interpreting democracy in a way that perpetuates its essence. Is this so bad?

Even if the newspaper has left us, the notion of news hasn’t, not in this “post-reporter era”.

Notes: News aggregation

Access to multiple sources of news over the internet increases aspirations corresponding to news consumption: readers don’t have to restrict themselves anymore to news that we or they think will be useful to them.

Consequently, news aggregators become more than that: they are now personalized news repositories from which news is consumed. With implementation of tags-based searching and use of metadata in posts, aggregators can be made to fetch information that they can algorithmically evaluate as being useful to us.

Last, aggregators are mostly automated, shrinking delivery time and removing it out of the equation.

Google News

RSS readers are largely meant to “keep up with” news as and when it happens. However, given the volume of information, which RSS readers were designed to handle in the first place, the lifetime of a news story is reduced to a few hours or even just a day. In other words, if articles in the aggregator are not consumed quickly, they will be replaced by more current ones.

Human-powered news aggregation has its most significant advantages with respect to the accumulation of digital property. Where a news aggregator would spit out numerically evaluated news, human curating serves to:

  1. Cut down a lot of the riff-raff that inevitably arises out of mass-aggregation and make news-reading easier, therefore more pleasurable, especially when readers are being exposed to a broad range of writers and other readers
  2. Maintain the value of “social currency” – especially when social media is shaping up to be the single-largest interface through which news is consumed, resulting in a large influx of data – in such an environment, being more accurate makes as much sense as clocking in first

There are some guidelines to keep in mind when working with aggregated news. The most important is that one must ensure citation leads to content, and the source of that content, without ambiguity.

The advent of social media has given rise to a “post-reporter” interface between the producer and the consumer, with “post-reporter” signifying a marked proclivity toward crowd-sourcing by producers. Instead of taking news to the people en masse, a social media interface works as an aggregator with in-built sharing (multi-dimension engagement) and cross-promotional (e.g., incorporate a button to Amazon when books are reviewed online; get a cut of the sale) capacities.

On a macroscopic level, social media renders news as a commodity: it can be engaged with in ways more than simply reading (liking, sharing, recommending, agreeing, dismissing, etc.), and this gives rise to the commoditization of information. Where a story was compressed into letters, the same story can now be conveyed without any such information-degeneracy.

For example, opinion pieces earlier marked a relationship between newspapers and their readers; now, they are springboards for public debate simply because social media platforms have enabled discussion around them. As mentioned, social media not only make crowd-sourcing easier but also more relevant.

Where a producer worked essentially as an employer/manager of reporters who in turn engaged with the news, we now have the option of producers moving ahead of reporters, getting news from the people, and working harder at the dissemination of localized stories. However, this results in a tendency to democratize news (giving people what they want), which could lead to populism.

Problems associated with studying the brain

Paul Broca announced in 1861 that the region of the brain now named after him was the “seat of speech”. Through a seminal study, researchers Nancy Kanwisher and Evelina Fedorenko from MIT announced on October 11, 2012, that Broca’s area actually consists of two sub-units, and one of them specifically handles cognition when the body performed demanding tasks.

As researchers explore more on the subject, two things become clear.

The first: The more we think we know about the brain and go on to try and study it, the more we discover things we never knew existed. This is significant because, apart from giving researchers more avenues through which to explore the brain, it also details their, rather our, limits in terms of being able to predict how things really might work.

The biology is, after all, intact. Cells are cells, muscles are muscles, but through their complex interactions are born entirely new functionalities.

The second: how the cognitive-processing and the language-processing networks might communicate internally is unknown to us. This means we’ll have to devise new ways of studying the brain, forcing it to flex some muscles over others by subjecting it to performing carefully crafted tasks.

Placing a person’s brain under an fMRI scanner reveals a lot about which parts of the brain are being used at each moment, but now we realize we have no clue about how many parts are actually there! This places an onus on the researcher to devise tests that

  1. Affect only specific areas of the brain;
  2. If they have ended up affecting some other areas as well, allow the researcher to distinguish between the areas in terms of how they handle the test

Once this is done, we will finally understand both the functions and the limits of Broca’s area, and also acquire pointers as to how it communicates with the rest of the brain.

A lot of predictability and antecedent research is held back because of humankind’s inchoate visualization of the brain.

Notes from my interaction with Dr. Kannan Soundararajan, Infosys Prize winner

My article on this interview and Dr. Soundararajan’s opinions appeared in The Hindu’s EducationPlus supplement on October 22, 2012 titled “It’s a mixed bag“.

Dr. Kannan Soundararajan is a professor at Stanford University and the director of its Mathematics Research Center. He is a recipient of the Infosys Prize for the Mathematical Sciences, the Ostrowski Prize (both in 2011), the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize (2005), and the inaugural Morgan Prize (1995). Dr. Soundararajan’s research interests concern L-functions and multiplicative number theory.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with him (My comments appear in square-brackets).

You’ve been awarded the Infosys Prize in the mathematical sciences category in 2011 for your work in number theory. Could you explain the nature of your work?

I work with Riemann zeta-functions, which are used to encode properties of integers and prime numbers together [Bernhard Riemann observed about 150 years ago that the properties of primes could be studied with this function].

As the director of the Mathematics Research Center at Stanford University, may I ask what your responsibilities are?

I am responsible for administering funds received from the university. We also bring in 40 to 50 visitors every year to the department of mathematics for seminars.

Further, we encourage research collaborations by inviting and paying for researchers from outside the university. There are also lecture series, and the conduction of outreach activities for undergraduate and high-school students.

Do you think there’s sufficient encouragement for students to pursue a career in pure research? Have you seen this interest decline in the last five or so years?

There is lots of enthusiasm for students going from school to college these days. We encourage some of those students to take up summertime research with university professors. Moreover, our proximity to Silicon Valley helps because it draws in a lot of people interested in pure-mathematics research. There is also an increasing interest in the subject due to the export of problems from computer science.

Because of these factors and some others, there has been an increase in the number of mathematics majors by nine times in eight yrs! Another important way for us to judge the interest of our students is through their participation in extracurricular activities.

As far as teaching the technical sciences is concerned, do you think there are any shortcomings in the education system – in the West and in India?

Classroom education is in a period of flux. Online education is changing things for the future.

The most successful model has been one that involved one-to-one interactions along with small class-sizes, but that is bound to change as classes grow bigger. Also, with an increasingly interdisciplinary nature of courses in the mix, balancing online courses with interactive sessions in the classroom is necessary.

I believe that this evolution will continue for the next five to ten years before it stabilizes.

With budget cuts by states around the world, big experimental physics has taken a hit. This isn’t to say theoretical research thrives – in fact, the public has always had trouble understanding the latter. So, in the current economic scene, what’re the ways in which the government can be convinced that advanced mathematics also deserves investment?

A good question.

A lot of solutions in various fields have spun out of advanced mathematics research. There is an increase in the number of problems being exported by computer science. Mathematics has for a long time been influenced by problems in physics, and vice-versa, but now, computer science has come to assume that mantle.

Further, advanced mathematics research has grown to become a huge field by itself now, and has come to influence many aspects of life. The give-and-take between fields continues to happen: as one grows, the other does, too. Pure mathematics now shares connections with other sciences, most recently with biology.

Although it might be difficult to see physical results of pure-mathematics research in the short-run, they will become visible with time. In fact, such benefits have always been hard to foretell, but they have been there all the same.

Do you think the Infosys Foundation and others like it are doing enough to offset this imbalance?

Science research in India is still funded in large parts by the government. Around the world, the trend has been toward using private funding for research, especially in light of the economic recession. For example, in the USA, the Simons Foundation has started to contribute for many research initiatives.

So, where public spending has gone down, foundations like Infosys’ are doing good work. The influx of private funding for science research is welcome.

In terms of your research, what’re you looking at next?

I am working on a couple of books, one on the Riemann zeta-function and the other on quantum unique ergodicity. Both are aimed at graduate students.