Lingua franca

Featured image credit: allypark/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Guilt can be just as disabling as arrogance, however. The political good which Spivak has done far outweighs the fact that she leads a well-heeled life in the States. If complicity means living in capitalist society, then just about everyone but Fidel Castro stands accused of it; if it means ‘buying in’ (as the Americans revealingly phrase it) to something called Western Reason, then only those racist or non-dialectical thinkers for whom such reason is uniformly oppressive need worry about it. … In any case, Spivak is logically mistaken to suppose that imagining some overall alternative to the current system means claiming to be unblemished by it. To imagine that it would be nice to be in Siena is not necessarily to disavow the fact that I am in Scunthorpe.

These lines are from Terry Eagleton’s review of a book by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, called A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. I’ve heard of Spivak but the other two names in the previous sentence I admit ring no bells. And more than that the contents of the book (i.e. the lines quoted by Eagleton in his review) bounce off my head like raindrops off a Teflon boulder. To be sure, Eagleton’s review is about how Spivak is good at what she does but somehow her admiration of political writers past overlooks the lucidity of their writing, having written the book in “overstuffed, excessively elliptical prose”. (However, the word ‘unreadable’ doesn’t show up anywhere in the review.)

Anyway, the acknowledgment in the first half of the third line from the quote above was interesting to read. It’s something I’ve had trouble reconciling with, with Arundhati Roy as a popular example: how do you rile against the sort of passive injustice exemplified by oppressing the so-called ‘lower classes’ from the balcony of a palatial home? The second half of the same line is worse – I still don’t get it (although I am embarrassed by my ignorance as well as by my inability to surmount it). My problem is that the sentence overall seems to suggest that enjoying the fruits of a capitalist society is not complicity if only because it implicates a majority of the elite.

I’m wrong… right?

With love from Jahnavi Sen

ToI successfully launches story using image from China

It may not seem like a big deal, and the sort of thing that happens often at Times of India. After ISRO “successfully” tested its scramjet engine in what seem like the early hours of August 28, Times of India published a story announcing the development. And for the story, the lead image was that of a Chinese rocket. No biggie, right? I mean, copy-editors AFAIK are given instructions to not reuse images, and in this case all the reader needed to be shown was a representative image of a rocket taking off.

The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.
The ToI story showing a picture of a Chinese rocket adjacent to the announcement that ISRO has tested its scramjet engine.

But if you looked intently, it is a biggie. I’m guessing Times of India used that image because it had run out of ISRO images to use, or even reuse. In the four days preceding the scramjet engine test, ISRO’s Twitter timeline was empty and no press releases had been issued. All that was known was that a test was going to happen. In fact, even the details of the test turned out to be different: ISRO had originally suggested that the scramjet engine would be fired at an altitude of around 70 km; sometime after, it seems this parameter had been changed to 20 km. The test also happened at 6 am, which nobody knew was going to be the case (and which is hardly the sort of thing ISRO could decide at the last minute).

Even ahead of – and during – the previous RLV-related test conducted on May 23, ISRO was silent on all of the details. What was known emerged from two sources: K. Sivan from the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and news agencies like PTI and IANS. The organisation itself did nothing in its official capacity to publicly qualify the test. Some people I spoke to today mentioned that this may not have been something ISRO considered worth highlighting to the media. I mean, no one is expecting this test to be sensational; it’s already been established that the four major RLV tests are all about making measurements, and the scram test isn’t even one of them. If this is really why ISRO chooses to be quiet, then it is simply misunderstanding the media’s role and responsibility.

From my PoV, there are two issues at work here. First, ISRO has no incentive to speak to the media. Second, strategic interests are involved in ISRO’s developing a reusable launch vehicle. Both together keep the organisation immune to the consequences of zero public outreach. Unlike NASA, whose media machine is one of the best on the planet but which also banks on public support to secure federal funding, ISRO does not have to campaign for its money nor does it have to be publicly accountable. Effectively, it is non-consultative in many ways and not compelled to engage in conversations. This is still okay. My problem is that ISRO is also caged as a result, the prime-mover of our space programme taken hostage by a system that lets ISRO work in the environment that it does instead of – as I get often get the impression from speaking to people who have worked with it – being much more.

In the case of the first RLV test (the one on May 23), photos emerged a couple days after the test had concluded while there was no announcement, tweet or release issued before; it even took a while to ascertain its success. In fact, after the test, Sivan had told Zee News that there may have been a flaw in one of ISRO’s calculations but the statement was not followed up. I’m also told now that today’s scram test was something ISRO was happy with and that the official announcement will happen soon. These efforts, and this communication, even if made privately, are appreciated but it’s not all that could have been done. One of the many consequences of this silence is that a copy-editor at Times of India has to work with very little to publish something worth printing. And then get ridiculed for it.

Corrected: 'Life's Greatest Secret' by Matthew Cobb

An earlier version of this post was published by mistake. This is the corrected version. Featured image credit: amazon.in

When you write a book like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, the chance of a half-success is high. You will likely only partly please your readers instead of succeeding or even failing completely. Why? Because the scope of your work will be your biggest enemy, and in besting this enemy, you will at various points be forced to find a fine balance between breadth and depth. I think the author was not just aware of this problem but embraced it: The Gene is a success for having been written. Over 490 pages, Mukherjee weaves together a social, political and technical history of the genome, and unravels how developments from each strain have fed into the others. The effect is for it to have become a popular choice among biology beginners but a persistent point of contention among geneticists and other researchers. However, that it has been impactful has been incontestable.

At the same time, the flipside of such a book on anything is its shadow, where anything less ambitious or even less charming can find itself languishing. This I think is what has become of Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb. Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester, traces the efforts of scientists through the twentieth century to uncover the secrets of DNA. To be sure, this is a journey many authors have retraced, but what Cobb does differently are broadly two things. First: he sticks to the participants and the progress of science, and doesn’t deviate from this narrative, which can be hard to keep interesting. Second: he combines his profession as a scientist and his education as an historian to stay aware, and keep the reader aware, of the anthropology of science.

On both counts – of making the science interesting while tasked with exploring an history that can become confusing – Cobb is assisted by the same force that acted in The Gene‘s favour. Mukherjee banked on the intrigues inherent in a field of study that has evolved to become extremely influential as well as controversial to get the reader in on the book’s premise; he didn’t have to spend too much effort convincing a reader why books like his are important. Similarly, Life’s Greatest Secret focuses on those efforts to explore the DNA that played second fiddle to the medicinal applications of genetics in The Gene but possess intrigues of their own. And because Cobb is a well-qualified scientist, he is familiar with the various disguises of hype and easily cuts through them – as well as teases out and highlights less well-known .

For example, my favourite story is of the Matthaei-Nirenberg experiment in 1961 (chapter 10, Enter The Outsiders). Marshall Nirenberg was the prime mover in this story, which was pegged on the race to map the nucleotide triplets to the amino acids they coded for. The experiment was significant because it ignored one of Francis Crick’s theories, popular at the time, that a particular kind of triplet couldn’t code for an amino acid. The experiment roundly drubbed this theory, and in the process delivered a much-needed dent to the circle of self-assured biologists who took Crick’s words as gospel. Another way the experiment triumphed was by showing that ‘outsiders’ (i.e. non-geneticists like the biochemists that Nirenberg and Heinrich) could also contribute to DNA research, and how an acceptance of this fact was commonly preceded by resentment from the wider community. Cobb writes:

Matthew Meselson later explained the widespread surprise that was felt about Nirenberg’s success, in terms of the social dynamics of science: “… there is a terrible snobbery that either a person who’s speaking is someone who’s in the club and you know him, or else his results are unlikely to be correct. And here was some guy named Marshall Nirenberg; his results were unlikely to be correct, because he wasn’t in the club. And nobody bothered to be there to hear him.”

This explanation is reinforced by a private letter to Crick, written in November 1961 by the Nobel laureate Fritz Lipmann, which celebrated the impact of Nirenberg’s discovery but nevertheless referred to him as ‘this fellow Nirenberg’. In October 1961, Alex Rich wrote to Crick praising Nirenberg’s contribution but wondering, quite legitimately, ‘why it took the last year or two for anyone to try the experiment, since it was reasonably obvious’. Jacob later claimed that the Paris group had thought about it but only as a joke – ‘we were absolutely convinced that nothing would have come from that’, he said – presumably because Crick’s theory of a commaless code showed that a monotonous polynucleotide signal was meaningless. Brenner was frank: ‘It didn’t occur to us to use synthetic polymers.’ Nirenberg and Matthaei had seen something that the main participants in the race to crack the genetic code had been unable to imagine. Some later responses were less generous: Gunther Stent of the phage group implied to generations of students who read his textbook that the whole thing had happened more or less by accident, while others confounded the various phases of Matthaei and Nirenberg’s work and suggested that the poly(U) had been added as a negative control, which was not expected to work.

A number of such episodes studded throughout the book make it an invaluable addition to a science-enthusiast’s bookshelf. In fact, if something has to be wrong at all, it’s the book’s finishing. In a move that is becoming custom, the last hundred or so pages are devoted to discussing genetic modification and CRISPR/Cas9, a technique and a tool that will surely shape the future of modern genetics but in a way nobody is quite sure of yet. This uncertainty is pretty well-established in the sense that it’s okay to be confused about where the use of these entities is taking us. However, this also means that every detailed discussion about these entities has become repetitive. Neither Cobb nor Mukherjee are able to add anything new on this front that, in some sense, hasn’t already been touched upon. (Silver lining: the books do teach us to better articulate our confusion.)

Verdict: 4/5

Anthropocene

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.

UCal Irvine’s ‘fifth force’ farce

A screenshot of the UCI press release in question. Source: UCI
A screenshot of the UCI press release in question. Source: UCI

Michael Moyer just concluded a rant on Twitter (at the time of writing this) about how a press release on a recent theoretical physics result developed at the University of California, Irvine, had muddled up coverage on an important experimental particle physics result. I was going to write about this in detail for The Wire but my piece eventually took a different route, so I’m going to put some of my thoughts down on the UCI fuck-up here.

Let’s begin with some background: In April 2015, a team of nuclear physicists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Atomki) announced that they had found an anomalous decay mode of an unstable beryllium-8 isotope. They contended in their paper, eventually published in Physical Review Letters in January 2016, that the finding had no explanation in nuclear physics. A team of American physicists – from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Kentucky, Lexington – picked up on this paper and tried to draw up a theory that would (a) explain this anomaly even as it (b) would be a derivative of existing theoretical knowledge (as is the work of most theoretical physics operating at the edge). There are many ways to do this: the UCI-UKL conclusion was a theory that suggested the presence of a new kind of boson, hitherto undiscovered, which mediated the beryllium-8 decay to give rise to the anomalous result observed at Atomki.

Now, the foreground: A UCI press release announcing the development of the theory by its scientists had a headline that said the Atomki anomalous result had been “confirmed” at UCI. This kicked off a flurry of pieces in the media about how a ‘fifth force’ of nature had been found (which is what the discovery of a new boson would imply), that all of physics had been overturned, etc. But the press release’s claim was clearly stupid. It was published no more than a week after the particle physics community found out that the December 2015 digamma bump at the LHC was shown to be a glitch in the data, when the community was making peace with the fact that no observation was final until it had been confirmed with the necessary rigour even if physicists had come up with over 500 theoretical explanations for it. The release was also stupid because it blatantly defied (somewhat) common sense: how could a theoretical model built to fit the experimental data “confirm” the experimental data itself?

There’s even a paragraph in there that makes it sound like the particle’s been found! (My comments are in square brackets and all emphasis has been added:)

The UCI work demonstrates [misleading use] that instead of being a dark photon, the particle may be a “protophobic X boson.” While the normal electric force acts on electrons and protons, this newfound [the thing hasn’t been found!] boson [a boson is simply one interpretation of the experimental finding] interacts only with electrons and neutrons – and at an extremely limited range. Analysis co-author Timothy Tait, professor of physics & astronomy, said, “There’s no other boson that we’ve observed that has this same characteristic. [Does this mean UCI has actually observed this particular boson?] Sometimes we also just call it the ‘X boson,’ where ‘X’ means unknown.”

Moyer says in one of his tweets that PR machines will always try to hype results, outcomes, etc. – this is true, and journalists who don’t cut through this hype often end up writing flattering articles devoid of criticism (effectively missing the point about their profession, so to speak). However, as far as I’m concerned, what the UCI PR has done is not build hype as much as grossly mislead journalists, and I blame the machine in this case more than the journalists who wrote the “fifth force found” headlines. Journalism is already facing a credibility crisis in many parts of the world without having to look out for misguided press releases from universities of the calibre of UCI. Yes, such easily disturbed qualities are also often trusted by journalists, or anyone else, because we trust institutional authorities to take such qualities seriously themselves.

(Another such quality is ‘reputation’. Nicholas Dirks just quit because his actions had messed with the reputation of UCal Berkeley.)

This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that journalism also has a hard time producing – and subsequently selling – articles about particle physics. Everyone understands that the high-energy physics (HEP) community is significantly invested in maintaining a positive perception of their field, one that encourages governments to fund the construction of mammoth detectors and colliders. One important way to maintain this perception is to push for favourable coverage in the mainstream media of HEP research and keep the people – the principal proxy for government support – thinking about HEP activities for the right reasons. The media, in turn, can’t always commission pieces on all topics nor can it manufacture the real estate even if it has the perfect stories; every piece has to fight it out. And in crunch times, science stories are the first to get the axe; many mainstream Indian publications don’t even bother with a proper science section.*

If, in this context, a journalist buys into a UCI press release about some kind of ‘confirmation’ of a fifth force, and which is subsequently found to be simply false, an editor wouldn’t be faced with a tough choice whatsoever about which section she has to axe.

What happens next? We wait for experimental physicists try to replicate the Atomki anomaly in experiments around the world. If nothing else, this must happen because the Atomki team has published claims of having discovered a new particle at least twice before – in 2008 and 2012 – both at a significance upwards of 3 sigma (i.e., the chances of the results being a fluke being 1 in 200,000). This is a statistical threshold accepted by the particle physics community and which signifies the point at which a piece of data becomes equivalent to being evidence. However, the problem with the Atomki results is that both papers announcing the discoveries were later retracted by the scientists, casting all their claims of statistical validity in doubt. The April 2015 result was obtained with a claimed significance of 6.8 sigma.

*Even The Hindu’s science page that used to appear every Thursday in the main newspaper was shunted last year to appear every Monday in one of its supplements. It never carried ads.