• UAE: Straws in the wind

    At the Ajman Museum (in the UAE), there is on display a traditional architectural design called barjeel, to cool homes and other small places of human occupation. It is essentially a cooling tower, also called a windcatcher, with the room to be cooled at the bottom. At the top, which is open, there is a sail-like suspension of wet cloth that cools and imparts moisture to the descending air. The barjeel at the museum had no wet cloth on top, but even so, the opportunity for air to cool by moving through the column kept the room a few degrees below the ambient temperature, a blistering 39º C.

    I was to visit the much more popular Frame in Dubai – a large rectangular structure in which visitors could walk its topmost portion, with views of old and new Dubai on either side. It’s a superficial premise, that the Frame frames the city in two ways, yet it is oblivious of the fact that it frames itself poorly in the process. Among the achievements of the city of Dubai – which have become emblematic of the aspirations of the country’s other emirates – structures like the Frame, the Burj Al Arab or the Palm Islands are tacked on like ornaments to a landscape replete with historical and natural beauty, but which the local government has done little to popularise or celebrate and much to replace with concrete, metal and glass. Even the surrounding desert faces a constant, latent threat of being changed into an artificial forest or receive rain that it doesn’t need.

    So it made more sense to visit a place I couldn’t read about online and certainly something that could teach me new things about this strange country. After a protracted argument with my local hosts (who struggled to believe why I wouldn’t want to check out the Frame), someone mentioned the Ajman Museum being not 20 minutes away, and that’s how we got there. And even there, half of the objects and stories on display sang paeans to the country’s modern rulers, delving into their magnanimity with as much detail as was missing from older events in the region’s history.

    But the other half was utterly fascinating. Here are just four things I very much liked to know about:

    1. The Umm Al Nar Bronze Age culture in 2600-2000 BC – Wikipedia: “The Umm Al Nar people were important regional trading intermediaries between the ancient civilisations of Sumeria in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Harappan culture. Known to the Sumerians as ‘Magan’, the area was the source of their copper and diorite as well as a trading entrepôt for other goods from the Indus Valley, including carnelian jewellery.” (There is also an important tomb at Umm Al Nar.)
    2. The Umayyad Caliphate – the second caliphate established after the death of Muhammad ibn Abdullah (a.k.a. Prophet Muhammad), lasted from 661 AD to 750 AD and, remarkably, its territory spanned from Toledo in modern-day Spain to Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. In this time, Christians formed the largest denomination in the empire but had to pay a tax for not being Muslims (the Muslims also had to pay a tax but which was used for their welfare). Islam had become the most common religion in the UAE region a little earlier, around 622 AD.
    3. The region in which the UAE lies was settled in recorded history by tribes migrating from Oman in search of freshwater. This was available in the UAE area through groundwater, extracted through tunnels dug into the soil. The Aflaj irrigation system in Oman is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was used to extract and transport groundwater using sloped channels in Oman and the UAE.
    4. The UAE’s emirs had a history of struggling with the British for the authority to rule their people, notably including the General Maritime Treaty of 1820. The region was at various times controlled, or had battles for control, by the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, with the British coming out on top in the late 18th century. The Strait of Hormuz in particular was important to the UK because it was part of trade routes originating from or destined for major Indian ports.

    All this from a visit to a single museum in a not-so-wealthy emirate! It’s a sad joke that modernising exercises far outpace those to preserve what the country already has. There are no advertisements or outreach programmes dedicated to archaeological and palaeontological sites in the country, no tours or ‘travel packages’ to popularise the country’s history among tourists. Visitors should ideally receive a booklet of what they could do in the UAE at the airports’ immigration counters, highlighting what they can do in each of the seven emirates.

    Indeed, it’s strange that the national government isn’t exactly cohesive, consisting of a ‘supreme council’ composed of the rulers of each emirate, but with emirate being left to its designs. The council elects a president and a vice-president from among its members but historically they have been the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively. These two emirates are also at odds over the former’s proximity to the Saudi Arabian government and the latter’s relatively liberal attitude towards social and religious mores. Sharjah also has conservative tendencies and has, according to some anecdotes, been holding back from flying off the developmental handle like Dubai. Ras Al Khaimah is ‘up and coming’ now, spending money that its ruler (as opposed to its people) has been saving up. Umm Al Quwain still depends not inconsiderably on fishing. ¯(ツ)

    The UAE may not have had ‘great civilisations’ like India or China did, yet there is a lot to return to, and I think the country’s insular focus on technological development and utilisation, together with its fractured yet autocratic administration, is gradually erasing this source of identity and pride.

    My photos of the barjeel at Ajman Museum: the column (left) has a cloth wall where the concrete wall is currently, upon which the shadows are being cast; the room to be cooled is at the bottom of the column (centre). The panel on the right shows the relative arrangement of the room’s components.
    A schematic diagram of a windcatcher at work. Credit: Fred the Oyster/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

    Every other room in the Ajman Museum, apart from the one housing the barjeel, was fit with an air-conditioner and most of the rooms lacked a motion sensor, keeping the devices running constantly and the chambers frigid. This is quite akin to the UAE’s pervasive technologism: from a sophisticated transport surveillance system to help enforce traffic laws to breathtaking feats of engineering that transcend the country’s natural limitations, it is everywhere in the UAE, and often imposes itself to the point where the country seems eager to exist solely in the future – in the realm of things to come. The entry fee to the Ajman Museum was AED 5 (Rs 108) and the fee at the Dubai Museum was until recently AED 3 (Rs 65); compare this to the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which charges AED 145 (Rs Rs 3,145) for entry, limits the duration of each visit to 30 minutes and showcases scientific and technological advancements that the emirate country expects in future.

    (By virtue of keeping the cost of entry so low, the museums are more accessible and whose contents ought to be more popular. Yet the ridiculous logics of privatisation and capitalism – both of which the UAE embraces – prevail: that more expensive things are deemed more desirable.)

    It is safe to say that if you take away your awe of engineering accomplishments and of the cumulus of wealth at these places, Dubai in particular and the UAE in general have little variety to offer. And the barjeel is an apt symbol of this state of affairs (with which India must also be familiar): an important piece of the people’s history forgotten and superceded by inefficient, foreign counterparts associated with arbitrary definitions of ‘development’, ultimately reintroduced in highly gentrified fashion – in the ramparts of the bungalows of the rich and in parts of the city inaccessible to those who can already barely afford air-conditioners.

  • A salvage

    At the start of this month, I began my first vacation in six years. A friend and colleague had done a similar thing recently and said that it takes a week just to switch off from thinking about work. My experience has been a little different, and the time off has also afforded a clearer view of the way I feel about what I do. I’m still to switch off from work, per se, but not because I’m so committed to the job. I think it’s because what I do for a living is a marginal extension of what I do in my default state: think about science, write, and keep learning. The last two are in fact my most favourite things to do. Work requires in addition to these things a scattering of obligations that I’m happy to fulfill and in exchange for a suitable fee. More recently, with India’s social and political climate being what it is, I realise that the things I like doing have acquired yet another layer of identity: that of being salvaged material – stories and ideas protected from the violence of misinterpretation, forgetfulness and irrelevance. I admit I much like the idea that my blog is a safe haven in this sense, but because it is, I also feel compelled to collect the preservation-worthy stories and ideas of others (as words or as permalinks). Most of all, it directly imbues the act of writing, within the framework of the internet and online publishing, with purpose. Purpose is easiest to acknowledge when its temper is evident in the smallest, most nuclear elements of the thing it inhabits. The purpose of war for example finds simple and complete expression in every plan conceived and bullet fired, in the direction of and against the welfare of Others. But it is much harder to answer the question “Why do you write?”. So when an answer presents itself, however briefly, you seize upon it, treasure it. You want more than anything to remember it because the instruments with which you express and understand purpose – words – are, to every writer, whether of postcards or of magnum opi, the same instruments with which to make and wield a million other meanings, and in the churn of which purpose is at constant risk of corruption. Words are semantically ergodic: they are capable of visiting every point in the universe of all possible meanings available to be constructed. This is infinitely beautiful but also diminishes the opportunities for historicity – of a sequence of events that is meaningful because of the sequence itself, instead of no one sequence being able to be privileged over any others. I can’t possibly write to visit every point in this universe, nor do I wish to; I write to construct a history that I find meaningful, and my heuristic of choice is the identity and evolution of purpose. Right now, it seems, the purpose is to salvage, and I’m grateful that it is as strong as to be immutable even in the articles and the commas of this silly post.

  • A trip to Jebel Jais

    None of the images in this post are available to reuse.

    I visited Jebel Jais, or the Mt. Jais, mountain in the UAE yesterday. It is a part of the Al Hajar Mountains, which in Arabic translates roughly to ‘The Stone Mountains’ (جِبَال ٱلْحَجَر). These mountains line the northeastern border of the Arabian peninsula, running the length of and almost parallel to Oman’s eastern coast. In the UAE, it pierces into the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, and that’s where Jebel Jais is located as well.

    A small group of us drove from Sharjah a few hours after a sandstorm had hit, sending the visibility plummeting and rendering the whole desert landscape with a dystopian brush. The way from Sharjah to the Al Hajar is largely empty, dotted now and then by a government building, a petrol station or unused housing colonies. But if you pay attention to the sand, you’ll see it changes colour from a pale orange to dark grey to bright orange, and finally to a dull grey as you reach the mountains themselves. I couldn’t capture this on my phone camera.

    En route.

    The tectonic context of the Al Hajar: the Arabian plate is moving into the Eurasian plate in the north, deforming the crust along the Makran subduction zone in the Gulf of Oman and the Zagros fault in Iran. Beyond this, I found a dispatch in the April 2015 issue of Gazelle, a publication of the Dubai Natural History Group, that matched much of my local experience around the mountains. So let me quote from there at length:

    Twelve DNHG members, led by Sonja Lavrenčič, headed to Ras al Khaimah on April 10 for an exploration of Wadi Bih; an extensive watercourse which once served as a caravan route through Ras al Khaimah and Musandam. [Wadi in Arabic is roughly ‘stream’ or the path of a stream.]

    The wadi lies under Jebel Jais, considered one of the highest points in the UAE, and presents a magnificent though very harsh landscape. At the time of our visit all the channels were completely dry and one branch of the watershed was barricaded by the Jabana landslide.

    A little before my group’s visit, in fact, there had been a heavy downpour due to which the waters had flooded the drains along the sides of the road, breached the high water-mark in the plains and triggered a half-dozen landslides.

    A drain along the side of the road.
    A water outlet.
    The rocky debris collected near the feet of the mountains due to a landslide.

    Between two ridges is a broad alluvial plain with a scattering of acacia trees, and our route took us in a loop around this area, skirting the edges of the slope.

    The valley has a small modern settlement, and we encountered signs of earlier habitations at intervals. A tributary ravine named Wadi Ghabbas shelters a handful of ruined stone houses among Sidr trees [Ziziphus spina-christi], and another collection of homesteads stands across the plain under the opposite slope. …

    Notable monuments to the exertions of earlier residents are the heavy stone walls of terrace fields seen around the wadi. The retaining walls were built over several seasons in locations where they would catch layers of alluvial wash; the accumulation of moist deep earth would then yield a crop of high-grade barley, which was packed off to the coast and used especially for sfai flatbread.

    We examined two cisterns, stone-lined and of rounded rectangular form. In other environments the green opaque water with its drifting skim and fringe of withered grass might not be thought enticing but, in this desiccated terrain, whatever is wet is welcome.

    A view of the valley part-way up the Jebel Jais.

    The ascent to Jebel Jais begins in about 140 km and is picturesque from the start, especially if you can appreciate the features of arid landscapes. I lived for four years in the middle of nowhere in the UAE a while ago. I didn’t enjoy life then but you start to understand the desert and find pleasure when the heat is drier. On the day of our visit, in fact, the relative humidity was 40% and there was prediction of rain. Ras Al Khaimah is often the wettest of the seven emirates of the UAE, partly because of the Al Hajar.

    Note the lone tree.

    The Al Hajar is at the centre of Ras Al Khaimah’s aspiration to become as prosperous as the emirate of Dubai. You might see some of these photos sport unusual linear shadows – they’re of cellphone towers. The UAE’s two cellphone networks have towers across the mountains. Almost all the towers bear the words “Jebel Jais – Ras Al Khaimah”. Perhaps the thinking is that if your phone works all over the place, you might be less averse to spending time here at any time of day. We did see one group of people hosting a barbecue halfway up Jebel Jais and quite a few others on picnics.

    There are also spacious viewing decks with dumpsters, clean public toilets and – near these decks – solar-powered water purifiers and street lamps. We also spotted a (speed-controlled) roller-coaster and what’s purported to be the world’s long zip-line. It was closed for service when we visit because of the sandstorm. Someone said there’s a proposal for a five-star hotel near the Jebel Jais peak, plus other restaurants, cafés, camps and outdoor activities in the area.

    A mobile cellphone tower.

    In early 2021, the UAE’s Hope probe entered into orbit around Mars. Where R&D is concerned, UAE might be considered naïve but also extremely wealthy, allowing it to throw money at problems that would indeed benefit from more money. The Hope probe’s development had involved some scientists in the UAE as well as three American universities, which had also put the probe together. But the probe flew with the UAE flag and its orbital capture was timed to happen in the 50th year of the country’s existence. The UAE is effectively using the achievements of spaceflight available to achieve today to elevate its international standing and advertise its ability to think progressively, even if in a superficial sense.

    Closer to ground, en route to Jebel Jais, you might spot a labourers’ camp or two, where conditions have only recently improved to include minimum wages for Indians. This contrast is inescapable throughout the UAE but especially in its rapidly urbanising parts. Ras Al Khaimah itself is a wealthy emirate whose highways feature sophisticated traffic cameras and radar imagers even as they’re flanked by petrol stations operated by overworked, underpaid Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants.

    Near the feet of the Al Hajar, in fact, the emirate has been doling out land (and water and power) to Emiratis for them to build large houses on, anticipating the area’s impending, inevitable prosperity. There’s nothing similar for the immigrant workers who laid those supply lines.

    A panoramic shot of the Jebel Jais landscape. Ignore the smear.

    An important thing that the emirates, their companies and their contractors are doing is exercising a latent resentment of the aridity. The workers’ work to ‘develop’ Jebel Jais is hardly distinguishable from an exercise in transforming the desiccation into a tenuous urban paradise, in much the same way Dubai has been expanding by gradually swallowing sea and sky and Abu Dhabi has been by exploiting hydrocarbon extraction and export.

    I’m not sure what Ras Al Khaimah’s long-term plans are, to be honest, but if they’re anything like those of Dubai, one has to think they also include proposals to ‘reclaim’ the sea, afforest large areas of the desert, roll out cloud-seeding programmes, create and expand a ‘financial district’, attract tourists and spread the gospel of consumerism.

    We had started our ascent at around 4 pm and reached an altitude of some 1.5 km by 5.40 pm. We couldn’t go much further because the road work hadn’t been completed beyond that point. The peak of Jebel Jais itself was another 0.5 km upward. There was no wind and for the first time there was some blue in the sky, which meant we were above the sandstorm. It was also 6º C or so cooler than it was on the ground.

    The end of the road.

    On the way down, we stopped for some cotton candy (at a small restaurant a local had set up in one of the viewing decks) and continued on. Two new sights we were able to catch were of the mountains we couldn’t see properly during the ascent, because of the sand in the air, and some cirrus clouds in the sky.

    Beholding something colossal is a distinctly unsettling feeling. Something so large that you realise the smallness of your own body, and the bodies of other people, and simultaneously the largeness of the world around you. Especially the ability of little things – pebbles, motes of sand, splinters of rock – to crenellate on and on, not stopping when they’re as big as you, as your house, as your airplanes. They keep going like a deliberate reminder by the forces of nature of the scale at which they’ve been labouring for millennia. Thus, you’re forced to countenance the simple and immutable weight of perspective. Like tens of thousands of people join a protest until parliaments and palaces tremble, the mountainous accretion of diminutive objects can loom large enough to render human intelligence and ingenuity itself of doubtful value. This, they seem to say, is the world. Welcome.

    Just as we reached the highway and began on the road home, a second, more intense sandstorm had hit the region and the hillscape became martian. The wind and the sand whipped so incessantly around that they scattered sunlight meaningless. You could easily defy its brightness and look directly at it. Thanks to millions of motes of sand, your star is no longer blinding.

    Sunset at Jebel Jais.

    Now for home.

  • The importance of sensible politics to good science

    Stuart Ritchie writes a newsletter-blog that I quite like, called Science Fictions. On May 30, he published a post on this blog entitled ‘Science is political – and that’s a bad thing’. I thought the post missed some important points, which I want to set out here. First, the gist of his argument:

    [About the “argument from inevitability”] After a decade of discussion about the replication crisis, open science, and all the ways we could reform the way we do research, we’re more aware than ever of how biases can distort things – but also how we can improve the system. So throwing up our hands and saying “science is always political! There’s nothing we can do!” is the very last thing we want to be telling aspiring scientists, who should be using and developing all these new techniques to improve their objectivity. … [About the “activist’s argument”] If you think it’s bad that politics are being injected into science, it’s jarringly nonsensical to argue that “leaving politics out of science” is a bad thing. Isn’t the more obvious conclusion that we should endeavour to lessen the influence of politics and ideology on science across the board? If you think it’s bad when other people do it, you should think it’s bad when you do it yourself. … If we encourage scientists to bring their political ideology to the lab, do we think groupthink—a very common human problem which in at least some scientific fields seems to have stifled debate and held back progress—will get better, or worse?

    There’s also a useful list of what people mean when they say “science is political”:

    Ritchie writes below the list: “There’s no argument from me about any of those points. These are all absolutely true. … But these are just factual statements – and I don’t think the people who always tell you that ‘science is political’ are just idly chatting sociology-of-science for the fun of it. They want to make one of two points” – referring to the inevitability and activism argument-types.

    I agree with some of his positions here, not all, but I also think it might be useful to specify an important set of differences with the way the terms “politics” and “science” are used, and in the contexts in which they’re used. The latter are particularly important.

    The statement “science is political” is undeniably legitimate in India – a country defined by its inequalities. Science and technology have historically enjoyed the patronage of the Indian state (in the post-war period) and the many effects of this relationship are visible to this day. State-sanctioned S&T-related projects are often opaque (e.g. ISRODAE and DRDO), top-down (e.g. Challakere and INO) and presume importance (e.g. Kudankulam and most other power-generation projects).

    India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru baked science into the Indian nation-project with his stress on the “scientific temper”; his setting up of institutes of higher science education and research; and the greater liberty – and protection from having to justify their priorities – he accorded the nuclear and space programmes (yoking them to the nation’s prosperity but whose work and machinations today are not publicly accessible).

    But counterproductively, the Nehru government’s policies also stunted the diffusion of ‘higher’ technologies into society. Currently, this access is stratified by class, caste, location and gender: wealthy upper-caste men in cities and poor lower-caste women in villages lie at the two extremes of a spectrum that defines access to literacy and numeracy, healthcare, public transport, electricity and water, financial services, etc.

    Second, asking the question “is science political?” in some country in which English is the first language is different from asking it in a Commonwealth country. Pre-Independence and for many years after, English-speakers in government were typically Brahmins hired to help run the colonial government; outside of government, access to the English language was limited, though not uncommon. Today, access to English – the language of science’s practice – is controlled through the institutions that teach and/or regularly use the language to conduct trade and research. Yet English is also the language that millions aspire to learn because it’s the gateway to better wages and working conditions, and the means by which one might navigate the bureaucracy and laws more effectively.

    In these ways, a question arises of who can access the fruits of the scientific enterprise – as well as, perhaps more importantly, whether one or a few caste-class groups are cornering the skills and benefits relevant to scientific work for ends that their members deem to be worthier. When a member of an outgroup thus breaks into a so-called “top” research institute with the characteristics described above, their practice of science – including the identifies of existing scientists, and their languages, aspirations, beliefs and rituals – is inevitably going to be a political experience as well. Put another way, as access to science (knowledge, tools, skills, findings, rewards) expands, there are also going to be political tensions, questions and ultimately reorganisations, if we take ‘politics’ to mean the methods by which we govern ourselves.

    In this regard, the political experience of science in India is inevitable – but that doesn’t mean it will always be: the current historical era will eventually make way for a new one (how political the practice of science will be, and its desirability, in that period is a separate question). Nor does it mean we should lower the thresholds that define the quality of science (relevant to points 2, 6 and 8 in Ritchie’s list) in our country. But it does mean that the things about science that concern a country like ours (post-colonial/imperial, agricultural, economically developing, patriarchal, majoritarian, diverse) can be very different from those that concern the UK or the US, and which in turn also highlights the sort of political questions that concern a country the most.

    With this in mind, I’d also contend against junking the “argument from inevitability” simply because, in India, it risks prioritising the needs of science over those of society. A very simple (and probably relatable) example: if a lab that has been producing good research in field X one day admits an ESL student belonging of a so-called “lower” caste, it has to be able to tolerate changes in its research output and quality until this individual has settled in, both administratively and in terms of their mental health. If the lab instead expects them to work at the same pace and with the same quality as existing members, the research output will suffer. The student will of course produce “sub-par” work, relative to what has been expected of the lab, and might be ejected while the institutional causes of her reasons to “fail” will be overlooked.

    By undertaking such socially minded affirmative action, research labs can surmount the concerns Ritchie flags vis-à-vis the “argument from inevitability” (i.e. by recalibrating v. compromising their expected outcomes). They can also ensure the practice of science produces benefits to society at large, beyond scientific knowledge per se – by depoliticising science itself by admitting the political overtones mediating its practice and improving access to the methods by which good science is produced. It bears repeating, thus, that where science is a reason of state and daily life in all its spheres is governed by inequalities, science needs to be political.

  • On referring to female officers as ‘madam sir’

    ET Lifestyle published a Twitter thread this morning about police officers referring to female superior officers as “sir” or as “madam sir”.

    I do find the practice offensive, because it signals an inability to imagine anyone but a (cis)man in the position currently occupied by a woman. That calcification – of the masculine identity of occupants of certain roles – is often the root of sexism. It being inadvertent, as some have said, is to my mind all the more reason to get rid of it, because that means we are passively allowing sexisms to cement themselves in our collective psyche.

    All this said, some of the officers’ comments highlighted on Twitter also refer to an aspect of the English language that I find endlessly fascinating: a combination of Whorfianism and Indians’ modification of the language according to their more immediate needs. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the way people think is shaped by elements of their spoken language. This idea is also known as linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Indians’ modification refers to the way people in India use and relate to English. This is obviously a highly heterogenous group, divided along caste, wealth, religion and geographic lines. A simple and familliar (to me) example is one I described in a 2020 interview:

    … in India, English is – among other things – the language you learn to be employable, especially with MNCs or such. And because of its historical relationships, English is taught only in certain schools, schools that typically have mostly students from upper-caste/upper-class families. English is also spoken only by certain groups of people who may wish to secret it as a class symbol, etc. I’m speaking very broadly here. My point is that English is reserved typically for people who can afford it, both financially and socio-culturally. Not everyone speaks ‘good’ English (as defined by one particular lexicon or whatever) nor can they be expected to. So what you may see as mistakes in [an article] may just be a product of people not being fluent in English, and composing sentences in ways other than you might as a result.

    If a poorly edited article is impossible to read or uses words and ideas carelessly, or twists facts, that is just bad. But if a poorly composed article is able to get its points across without misrepresenting anyone, whom does that affect? No one, in my opinion, so that is okay. (It could also be the case that the person whose work you’re editing sees the way they write as a political act of sorts, and if you think such an issue might be in play, it becomes important to discuss it with them.) … My job as the editor is to ensure that people are understood, but in order to help them be understood better and better, I must be aware of my own privileges and keep subtracting them from the editorial equation (in my personal case: my proficiency with the English language, which includes many Americanisms and Britishisms). I can’t impose my voice on my writers in the name of helping them.

    The use of English in India is implicitly political. Its appearance on government forms, such as to avail compensation for the death of a loved one due to COVID-19 or to provide informed consent for the forest department to cut down a forest, has often served to exclude people from the rights to which they are entitled. At the same time English is very necessary and important to secure good jobs and to effectively navigate the bureaucracy. In this tension, my role as an editor requires me to strike a fine balance – between letting people express themselves the way they will, ensuring what they’re thinking matches perfectly with what they’re saying, and not – in the process of making clarifying edits – making their text sound like me instead. The second point here, of words matching one’s thoughts, is particularly important in the context of junior male officers referring to their female superiors as “sir” or “madam sir”. As she is quoted as saying in the following tweet…

    Durga Shakti Nagpal, and presumably others as well, countenance “madam sir” or “sir” as another manifestation of a gender-neutral term along the likes of ‘janab‘ in Punjab, ‘hukum‘ in Rajasthan, etc. Here, “madam sir” is taken to be another gender-neutral term, and this to my mind is an Indian modification of an originally English term that is decidedly masculine. This is the sort of issue I was referring to in the context of the ways in which we – the people of a post-colonial state – have adapted our former hegemon’s language. It is quite possible, as it already seems to Durga Shakti Nagpal, that “madam sir” means something else in India, especially in one, some or all of the demographic groups that regularly use this term, than it might in the UK or elsewhere. Here, it may be possible that its users employ it as an extension of more gender-neutral terms that already exist in Punjabi, Rajasthani, etc.

    To be clear, this is not an attempted justification but an exploration of possibilities, albeit an admittedly superficial one.

    At the same time, “madam sir” is not gender-neutral, as Durga Shakti Nagpal vaguely suggests it might be, because officers don’t use the same term to address their male superiors. With the latter, it is but “sir”. In India, and to someone fluent in English (like me), it may often seem like other, non-fluent speakers translate into the language in careless fashion. I encountered many examples of this when covering clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines in India, where trial investigators were obviously more fluent in Hindi, were forced in some contexts to use English (such in official reports and in interviews to the press), and subsequently turned technical terms into vagueries, respectful terms into casual ones and appeared to admit inaccuracies where things were much more accurate. In such situations, there isn’t only a potential mismatch between thoughts and words but also actions and words. So it is possible in theory that when people for whom English isn’t the first language translate into the language, something is being lost in translation – and which could include a non-sexist sentiment. In theory.

    In practice, of course, this is tremendously unlikely to be manifesting in the context of the male members of a male-dominated workforce in which women’s enrollment is perceived to be an exception, rather than as a herald of change, and in which the identity of the chair – no matter its occupant – is vouchsafed to cis-het men. As director-general of police Renuka Mishra said, police training should reflect the fact that words matter very much and – taking a cue from Whorfianism – force trainees to think closely about how their perceptions of certain roles in the police force are coloured by their perceptions of gender.

  • How much of a milestone is AzaadiSAT?

    At 9.18 am today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the first developmental flight of its new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), a three-stage modular launch vehicle designed to carry a payload of up to 500 kg to the low-Earth orbit and to go from assembly to launch readiness in six days. The existence of such a vehicle in the ISRO stable at this time is a milestone in and of itself but it’d be naïve to assume that Prime Minister Narendra would allow that to be the only one so close to Independence Day, that too the country’s 75th. So the SSLV-D1 mission will fly a satellite called AzaadiSAT in addition to the primary payload, an optical remote-sensing satellite.

    As many news reports have been touting for a week (News18CNBC TV18Times NowHindustan TimesEconomic TimesWIONShe The People and PTI), AzaadiSAT has been “built” by 750 girls from 75 schools around the country. I put “built” in double-quotes because while the word appears in all these reports, it’s been misused. A company named SpaceKidz India (SKI) and NITI Aayog together conceived of the project. According to News18, SKI developed and tested “the main systems, including the onboard computer, flight software, electrical power system, telemetry and tele-command”. According to the SKI website, the company also “developed basic and simple experiments that students can learn and assemble with the simultaneous support of their science teachers and our SKI team’s online coaching”.

    So what the students did was take existing payloads and learn how their software components fit together, using – according to Times of India – the Arduino IDE. Let’s be clear: this is a far, far cry from saying the students built the satellite! They did no such thing. “It’s just language,” you say, but that’s the problem, no? We’re claiming a feat that we haven’t accomplished. And by believing we’ve accomplished it, we have a higher estimation of what our students are capable of, what a national programme like AzaadiSAT is capable of, that is increasingly removed from reality. These 750 students have no idea what it’s like to build a satellite. In fact what they’ve done is much closer to what the likes of White Hat, Jr. purport to do – to teach school students to code different types of apps (and even then it’s hard to say if they learn the philosophy of computer science in the process).

    This is Gaganyaan and the Bose hologram all over again: we don’t know what whatever we’ve done now means for whatever comes next. To be clear, the answer to this question is ‘undetermined’ in every case. ISRO is launching Indian astronauts to space on an Indian launch vehicle but the organisation’s officials don’t have a roadmap (at least in the public domain) for what Gaganyaan will gainfully do for the Indian space programme, most likely because there’s no plan for the Indian space programme itself that far ahead. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a hologram of Subhash Chandra Bose in New Delhi except it is completely stationary, works only at night and for which the projector alone cost Rs 15 lakh (other capital costs and operational expenses separate). As a result, it utilised none of the affordances of hologram technology, was a costlier and flashier but also emptier substitute for a straightforward sculpture or metal cast, and only put Prime Minister Modi in the limelight.

    Now, we have AzaadiSAT: a device with a six-month lifespan and not built by girl students but more like introduced to them after most of it was ready. In fact, according to SKI, it was “conceptualised” expressly “to pay our tribute to mark the 75th anniversary of Independence”. And why only 75 schools, 75 payloads and 750 students? The tokenism is bloody well cringe-inducing – more so if you consider the fact that “this is a first of its kind space mission with an ‘all women concept’ to promote Women in STEM as this year’s UN theme is ‘Women in Space’,” per SKI, while the control room and the adjacent viewing gallery were one big sausage fest.

    SKI CEO also told News18 “that AzaadiSAT will also carry a recorded version of the national anthem sung by Rabindranath Tagore which they plan to play in space to pay tribute to the country”. If any song is played in space, it will be inaudible – the vacuum of space can’t transmit sound – so how will that pay tribute to the country? And if this song being played in low-Earth orbit is ‘heard’ via data receivers on the ground, it will be only because the song is transmitted to the receivers, and not because it was played on speakers. So is the point here that radio-scanner operators will be able to receive the national anthem transmission as a fun exercise? How would that amount to paying tribute to the country? (Of course, I don’t understand what “paying tribute to the country” itself even means.)

    We seem to believe that simply exposing these students to certain concepts and/or environments that they might not encounter in the regular course of their schooling will somehow have a transformative impact on their academic and professional trajectories. This belief has been pervasive in institute-mediated scicomm at least, but there have been very few attempts to actually measure the extent to which this belief is justified. The SKI CEO even told WION that “AzaadiSAT is going to motivate more girls into the space industry or to take up STEM subjects”. We don’t know this.

    It’s also often dangerously the case that the institutes, or even entities like the SKI, that make this ‘exposure’ argument also get away with superficial scicomm efforts that lack any continuous engagement or follow-ups. School students are exposed once to, for example, high-brow concepts like particle physics, gene-editing or remote-sensing, none of which has any relevance to what they’re learning in school at that time or what they need to pass their exams.

    Many institutes are often eager to have their scientists speak to students enrolled in poorly funded schools often run by the local government in order to maximise the ‘impact’ of their efforts, but unmindful of the facts that a) they’re effectively talking down to these students with a view to “lifting them up” and b) they’re being ignorant of the conditions in which these students are studying and what they actually need over some scientist talking at them about why her work is important.

    Why, these outreach efforts don’t even bother to check if all of the students shipped in from a local school are even interested in science or want to become scientists (which SKI sidesteps by picking only 10 students from each school). These efforts may be exercises in broadening one’s horizons but, as I said, that requires sustained engagement, not a one-off flash-bang event. On a related note, it’s curious why none of these students were present in the viewing gallery adjacent to the control room, where they could’ve seen launch operations in action, and were seated in the outdoor viewing area instead.

    There is already some awareness that simply getting students to meet Nobel Prize winners is far less useful on multiple levels than having a smart and empathetic teacher. In much the same way, the AzaadiSAT seems like a lot of tokenism bundled into a project that serves nationalistic pride but leaves behind many open questions about whether the girls who all these news articles and press releases proudly claim built the satellite will regularly use the payloads they ideated over, and in a meaningful way – by which I mean both controlling the devices over time using code they wrote on their laptops or phones, receiving and processing the data from these payloads, and using them in a constructive way going into the future.

    The question of access to the relevant devices is significant because, according to SKI, “Niti Aayog has partnered for this project to bring this opportunity to the Government school Girl children across India” – the same government schools that, in general, struggled to adopt virtual classrooms during the pandemic. An SKI video description also claims that the company picked students from “economically weak backgrounds”.

    Building a satellite is no small feat but as I said before, these girls didn’t build the satellite. Our students should build satellites – it’s just that efforts like AzaadiSAT don’t represent this milestone. I remember when I was in college that an American professional organisation (can’t recall the name now) would provide some funds and raw materials to two groups of students – picked from the engineering streams – who’d then have to built rudimentary cars out of them with their professors’ help in two years and race them to win. A similarly long-term engagement with school students, involving all satellite components instead of just the data acquisition system, will surely be better than what SpaceKidz and NITI Aayog are currently doing.

    And because ISRO actually launches satellites built by students for free into low-Earth orbit, we must ask what these satellites do. It’s been a decade of India launching student-built satellites and it’s been the same decade of our student-built satellites doing very little, if anything (surrounded often by deliberately misleading narratives) – other than making for press releases with a shelf-life overlapping with some nationalist occasion.

  • How do you trap an electron?

    I’ve always found the concept of two forces on an object cancelling themselves out strange. We say they cancel if the changes they exert completely offset each other, leaving the object unaffected. But is the object really unaffected? If the two forces act in absolute opposition and at the exact same time, the object may be unaffected. But practically speaking, this is seldom the case and the object experiences some net force, to which in may not respond in a meaningful timeframe or respond in an imperceptible or negligible way.

    For example, imagine you are standing exactly still and two people standing on either side of you punch you hard on your upper arm, in an attempt to move you in the other direction. The two impulses may cancel each other out but you will still feel the pain in your arms. You might counterargue that this is true only because the human body has a considerable bulk, which means a force applied on one side of the body is transmitted through a series of media before it manifests on the other side, and that en route it loses some of its energy as the stress and strain through your muscles. This is true – but the concept of cancellation is actually imperfect even with microscopic objects.

    Consider the case of the quadrupole trap – a device used to hold charged particles like electrons and ions in place, i.e. at a fixed point in three dimensions. This device was invented because it’s impossible to confine a charged particle in a static electric field. Imagine eight electrons are placed at the vertices of an imaginary cube, and a ninth electron is placed at the centre. You might reason that since like charges repel, the repulsive force exerted by the eight electrons should hold the ninth, central electron in place – but no. They won’t. The central electron will drift away if another force acts on it, instead of getting displaced by a little and then returning to its original position.

    This is because of Earnshaw’s theorem. Thanks to Twitter user @catwbutter for explaining it to me thus:

    You can understand the theorem as saying the following: In a configuration of n charges, you ask if one is in equilibrium. [Imagine the cubic prison of n = 8 electrons at the vertices and one at the centre – this one needs to be at equilibrium.] You displace it from its point a little bit. For there to be equilibrium, the force on it needs to point radially inward at the original point you displaced it from, regardless of where you displaced the charge to. This is only possible if there is a charge at the original point – but there isn’t in the setup.

    Formally, Earnshaw’s theorem states that a collection of charged particles (of the same kind, i.e. only electrons or only protons or only ions, etc.) can’t maintain a stable and stationary equilibrium if the only thing maintaining that equilibrium is the electrostatic forces between them. In this case, the concept of ‘cancelling out’ becomes irrelevant because of the way the electric fields around the charged particles behave. One way to make it relevant is to use an exception to Earnshaw’s theorem: by using moving charges or time-varying forces.

    Imagine you’re walking along a path when a cat appears in front of you and blocks the way. You step to the cat’s right but it moves and still blocks you. You step to the left and it moves again. You’re stepping right and left respectively because you see a gap there for you to go through, but every time you try, the cat moves quickly to block you. Scientists applied a similar kind of thinking with the quadrupole ion trap. They surround a clump of electrons, or any charged particles, with three objects. One is a hyperbolic cylinder (visualised below) called a ring electrode; it is capped at each end by two hyperbolic electrodes. The ring electrode needs to be exactly halfway between the capping electrodes. The electrons are injected into the centre.

    Source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Hyperbolic-electrode-geometry-of-Paul-trap-a-and-Penning-trap-b-Trapping-of_fig15_329412866
    Source: https://analyticalsciencejournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/%28SICI%291096-9888%28199704%2932%3A4%3C351%3A%3AAID-JMS512%3E3.0.CO%3B2-Y

    Note that in the first image above, the ring electrode and the sides of the capping electrodes should ideally be inclined at an angle of a little over 53º relative to the z axis. But whatever the angle is, when an electric current is applied to the electrodes, the resulting electric field inside the trap will have four poles – thus the name ‘quadrupole’ – and the field along the poles (the hazy area in the image below) will be asymptotic to the electrodes.

    Source: http://www.physics.drexel.edu/~tim/open/mat/node1.html

    This electric field has two important properties. The first is that it is inhomogenous: it is not uniform in different directions. Instead, it is weakest at the centre and becomes stronger as the field becomes squeezed between the electrodes. Second, the electric field is periodic, meaning that it constantly changes between two directions – thanks to the alternating current (AC) supplied to the electrodes. (Recall that AC periodically reverse its direction while DC doesn’t.)

    The resulting periodic inhomogenous electric field exerts a unique influence on the electrons at the centre of the trap. If the field had been periodic homogenous instead and if something had knocked an electron away from the centre, the electron would have oscillated about its new point, moving back and forth. But because the field is inhomogenous, one half of the electron’s oscillation will be in an area where the field is stronger and the other half will be through an area where the field is weaker. And the stronger-field area will exert a stronger force on the electron than the force exerted by the weaker-field area. The result will be that the electron will experience a net force towards the weaker field area. This is called the ponderomotive force. And because the weakest field lies at the centre – where the electrons are originally confined – the apparatus will move any displaced electrons back there. Thus, it’s a trap.

    When Wolfgang Paul, Helmut Steinwedel and others first developed the quadrupole ion trap in the latter half of the 20th century, they found that the motion of the charged particles within the trap could be modelled according to Mathieu’s equation. This is a differential equation that the French mathematician Émile Léonard Mathieu had uncovered in the 19th century itself, when he was studying the vibrating membranes of elliptical drums.

    During the operation of the quadrupole ion trap, the charged particles experience ponderomotive forces in two directions in alternating fashion: a radial force exerted by the capping electrodes and an axial force exerted by the ring electrode (roughly, from the sides and from the top-bottom). The frequency of the AC applied to the electrodes has to be such that the forces switch sides faster than the electrons can escape. This is the cat analogy from earlier: the cat is the electric field configuration and you are the trapped particle.

    As the AC current flows through the electrodes, the arrangement of charges around the confined electrons (dark circle) changes position, like a game of musical chairs, exerting an alternating pattern of forces. Credit: Arian Kriesch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

    With this device in mind, ask yourself: have the electrons been kept in place because counteracting forces have cancelled themselves out? No – that is a static picture that doesn’t allow for any deviations from the normal. If an electron does get displaced from the cubic prison described earlier, Earnshaw’s theorem ensures that it can just escape altogether.

    The quadrupole ion trap represents a more dynamic picture. Here, electrons are either held in place or coaxed back into place by a series of forces interacting in a sophisticated way, sometimes in opposite directions but never quite simultaneously, such that particles can get displaced, but when they are, they are gently but surely restored to the desired state. In this picture, counteracting forces still leave behind a net force. In this picture, erring is not the end of the world.

    Featured image credit: Martin Adams/Unsplash.

  • The physics of Spain’s controversial air-con decree

    The Government of Spain published a decree earlier this week that prevents air-conditioners from being set at a temperature lower than 27º C in the summer in an effort to lower energy consumption and wean the country off of natural gas pumped from Russia.

    Twitter thread by Euronews compared the measure to one by France, to keep the doors and windows of air-conditioned spaces closed. However, the two measures are not really comparable because the France’s measure is in a manner of speaking shallower, because it doesn’t go as far as thermodynamics allows us. Instead, Spain’s move is comparable to one that Japan instituted a couple years ago. Some basic thermodynamics here should be enlightening.

    Let us consider two scenarios. In the first: Air-conditioners operate at different efficiencies at different temperatures. From about five years ago, I remember the thermodynamic efficiency variation to be around 10% across the range of operating temperatures. Also note that most air-conditioners are designed and tested to operate at or near 23º to 25º C – an ambient temperature range that falls within the ideal ranges across most countries and cultures, although it may not account for differences in wind speed, relative humidity and, of course, living conditions.

    So let’s say an air-conditioner operates at 55% efficiency when the temperature setting is at 27º C. It will incur a thermodynamic penalty if it operates at a lower temperature. Let’s say the penalty is 10% at 20º C. (I’ve spelt out the math of this later in this post.) This will be 10% of 55%, which means the thermodynamic efficiency at 20º C will be 55% – 5.5% = 49.5%. Similarly, there could be a thermodynamic efficiency gain when the air-conditioner temperature is set at a higher 32º C instead of 27º C. This gain translates to energy saved. Let’s call this figure ES (for ‘energy saved’).

    In the second scenario: the air-conditioner works by pumping heat out of a closed system – a room, for example – into the ambient environment. The cooler the room needs to be, the more work the air-conditioner has to undertake to pump more heat out of the room. This greater work translates to a greater energy consumption. Let’s call this amount EC.

    Now, the question for policymakers is whether ES is greater than EC in the following conditions:

    1. The relative humidity is below a certain value;
    2. When the room’s minimum temperature is restricted to 27º C;
    3. The chances of thermal shock; and
    4. The given strength of the urban heat-island effect.

    Let’s cycle through these conditions.

    1. Relative humidity – The local temperature and the relative humidity together determine the wet-bulb temperature. As I have explained before, exposure to a wet-bulb temperature greater than 32º C can quickly debilitate humans, and after a few hours could even lead to death. But as it happens, if the indoor temperature is 27º C, the wet-bulb temperature can never reach 32º C; even at 99% relative humidity, it reaches a value of 26.92º C.

    2. 27º C limit – The operating range of the sole air-conditioner in my house is 18º to 32º C when the ambient temperature is 18º to 48º C. In thermodynamic speak, an air-conditioner operates on the reverse Carnot cycle, and for such cycles, there is a simple, fixed formula to calculate the maximum coefficient of performance (CoP). The higher the CoP, the higher the machine’s thermodynamic efficiency. (Note that while the proportionality holds, the CoP doesn’t directly translate to efficiency.) Let’s fix the ambient temperature to 35º C. If the indoor temperature is 20º C, the max. CoP is 1.33, and if the indoor temperature is 27º C, the max. CoP is 3.37. So there is an appreciable thermodynamic efficiency gain if we set the air-conditioner’s temperature to a higher value (within the operating range and assuming the ambient temperature is greater than the indoor temperature).

    3. Thermal shock – The thermal shock is an underappreciated consequence of navigating two spaces at markedly different temperatures. It arises particularly in the form of the cold-shock response, when the body is suddenly exposed to a low temperature temperature after having habituated itself to a higher one – such as 20º C versus 40º C. The effect is especially pronounced on the heart, which has to work harder to pump blood than it did when the body was in warmer surroundings. In extreme cases, the cardiac effects include vasoconstriction and heart failure. Cold-shock response is most relevant in areas where the ambient conditions are hot and arid, such as in Rajasthan, where the outdoors routinely simmer at 40-45º C in the summer while people intuitively respond by setting their air-conditioners to 18º C or even lower.

    4. Urban heat islands – When a single air-conditioner is required to extract enough heat from a room to lower the room’s temperature by 15º C instead of by 8º C, it will consume more energy. If its thermal efficiency is (an extremely liberal) 70%, 30% of the heat it consumes will be discarded as waste heat back into the environment. Imagine a medium-sized office building fit with 25 such air-conditioners, a reasonable estimate. During the day, then, it will be similarly reasonable to conclude that the temperature in the immediate vicinity of the building will increase by 0.5º or so. If there are a cluster of buildings, the temperature increase is bound to be on the order of 2º to 3º C, if not more. This can only exacerbate the urban heat-island effect, which adds to our heat stress as well as degrades the local greenery and faunal diversity.

    Take all four factors together now and revisit the Spanish government’s decree to limit air-conditioners’ minimum operating temperature to 27º C during summer – and it seems entirely reasonable. However, a similar rule shouldn’t be instituted in India because Spain is much smaller and has lower meteorological and climatological variations, and also has less income inequality, which translates to lower exposure to life-threatening living conditions and better access to healthcare on average.

  • The question of Abdus Salam ‘deserving’ his Nobel

    Peter Woit has blogged about an oral history interview with theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow published in 2020 by the American Institute of Physics. (They have a great oral history of physics series you should check out if you’re interested.) Woit zeroed in on a portion in which Glashow talks about his faltering friendship with Steven Weinberg and his issues with Abdus Salam’s nomination for the physics Nobel Prize.

    Glashow, Weinberg and Salam together won this prize in 1979, for their work on the work on electroweak theory, which describes the behaviour of two fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak force. Glashow recalls that his and Weinberg’s friendship – having studied and worked together for many years – deteriorated in the 1970s, a time in which both scientists were aware that they were due a Nobel Prize. According to Glashow, however, Weinberg wanted the prize to be awarded only to himself and Salam.

    This is presumably because of how the prize-winning work came to be: with Glashow’s mathematical-physical model published in 1960, Weinberg building on it seven years later, with Salam’s two relevant papers appeared a couple years after Glashow’s paper and a year after Weinberg’s. Glashow recalls that Salam’s work was not original, that each of his two papers respectively echoed findings already published in Glashow’s and Weinberg’s papers. Instead, Glashow continues, Salam received the Nobel Prize probably because he had encouraged his peers and his colleagues to nominate him a very large number of times and because he set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste.

    Sheldon Glashow in January 2020. Credit: Lumidek, public domain

    Let me tell you that this impression, of Salam being undeserving from a contribution-to-physics point of view in Glashow’s telling, is very at odds with the impression of Salam based on reading letters and comments by Weinberg and Pervez Hoodbhoy and by the documentary Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate.

    The topic of Salam being a Nobel laureate was never uncomplicated, to begin with: he was an Ahmadi Muslim who enjoyed the Pakistan government’s support until he didn’t, when he was forced to flee the country; his intentions with the ICTP – to give scholars from developing countries a way to study physics without having to contend with often-crippling resource constrains – were also nothing less than noble. Hoodbhoy has also written about the significance of Salam’s work as a physicist and the tragedy of his name and the memories of his contributions having been erased from all the prominent research centres in Pakistan.

    Finally, one of Salam’s nominees for a Nobel Prize was the notable British physicist and Nobel laureate Paul A.M. Dirac, and it seems strange that Dirac would endorse Salam if he didn’t believe Salam’s work deserved it.

    Bearing these facts in mind, Glashow’s contention appears to be limited to the originality of Salam’s work. But to my mind, even if Salam’s work was really derivative, it was at par with that of Glashow and Weinberg. More importantly, while I believe the Nobel Prizes deserve to be abrogated, the prize-giving committee did more good than it might have realised by including Salam among its winners: in the words of Weinberg, “Salam sacrificed a lot of possible scientific productivity by taking on that responsibility [to set up ICTP]. It’s a sacrifice I would not make.”

    Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) in December 2014. Credit: Betsythedevine/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

    Glashow may not feel very well about Salam’s inclusion for the 1979 prize and the Nobel Prizes as we know are only happy to overlook anything other than the scientific work itself, but if the committee really screwed up, then they screwed up to do a good thing.

    Then again, even though Glashow wasn’t alone (he was joined by Martinus J.G. Veltman on his opinions against Salam), the physicists’ community at large doesn’t share his views. Glashow also cites an infamous 2014 paper by Norman Dombey, in which Dombey concluded that Salam didn’t deserve his share of the prize, but the paper’s reputation itself is iffy at best. Ultimately, in fact, this is all just a pointless debate: there are just too many people who deserve a Nobel Prize but don’t win it while a deeper dive into the modern history of physics should reveal a near-constant stream of complaints against Nobel laureates and their work by their peers. It should be clear today that both winning a prize and not winning a prize ought to mean nothing to the practice of science.

    The other remarkable thing about Glashow’s comments in the interview (as cited by Woit) is what I like to think of as the seemingly eternal relevance of Brian Keating’s change of mind. Brian Keating is an astrophysicist who was at the forefront of the infamous announcement that his team had discovered evidence of cosmic inflation, an epoch of the early universe in which it is believed to have expanded suddenly and greatly, in March 2014. There were many problems leading up to the announcement but there was little doubt at the time, and Keating also admitted later, that its rapidity was motivated by the temptation to secure a Nobel Prize.

    Many journalists, scientists and others observers of the practice of science routinely and significantly underestimate the effect the Nobel Prizes exert on scientific research. The prospect of winning the prize for supposedly discovering evidence of cosmic inflation caused Keating et al. to not wait for additional, confirmatory data before making their announcement. When such data did arrive, from the Planck telescope collaboration, Keating et al. suffered for it with their reputation and prospects.

    Similarly, Weinberg and Glashow fell out because, according to Glashow, Weinberg didn’t wish Glashow to give a talk in 1979 discussing possible alternatives to the work of Weinberg and Salam because Weinberg thought doing such a thing would undermine his and Salam’s chances of being awarded a Nobel Prize. Eventually it didn’t, but that’s beside the point: this little episode in history is as good an illustration as any of how the Nobel Prizes and their implied promises of laurels and prestige render otherwise smart scientists insecure, petty and elbows-out competitive – in exchange for sustaining an absurd and unjust picture of the scientific enterprise.

    All of this goes obviously against the spirit of science, at least in an ideal sense.

  • Immunity for scientists? Err…

    On the sidelines of a screening of the semi-fictional biopic of beleaguered ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, the Madhavan-starrer Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, Narayanan told journalists on August 1 that “scientists should” receive immunity against “arbitrary police action” (source).

    “It is not just ISRO… scientists working in the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Atomic Energy and others too. As part of their job, they travel a lot. … They have to be protected from random police action, else you can go on booking people and put them behind the bars”.

    This is a strange statement to make, with quite a bit to unpack.

    No one – not just scientists – deserves to be at the receiving end of arbitrary police action. Singling scientists out here transforms a right into a privilege and scientists into an arbitrarily exceptional class of citizens. Narayanan suffered considerably after the Kerala police falsely accused him of espionage and derailed his career and life, and the response to this should include among other things the elimination of all arbitrary action, instead of vouchsafing the cruelty of it for some non-elite group.

    Narayanan’s statement is also vague about what he considers to be “arbitrary” and whom he considers to be “scientists”. If he is using “arbitrary” as a synonym for ‘baseless’, his statement is immediately a statement about the arrests and harassment of journalists, activists and political leaders around the country. The police and state governments also arrested and harassed social scientists. To want scientists alone to be protected in this regard is disingenuous – and in the process raises the question of “protection from what?”.

    Baseless police action against scientists who spoke up is baseless police action against scientists who spoke up against state failure and overreach. These scientists are not simply – to use a cliché – doing their jobs, as Narayanan was, but also exercised their rights as citizens of the country to call out and protest communalism and corruption. Narayanan on the other hand was persecuted for two decades for having done nothing at all. Both actions were wrong but for significantly different reasons. Importantly, cases like his have been rare while those unlike his are the norm today.

    And finally, Narayanan’s statement presumes an implicit distinction between scientists’ work and their political engagement. He seems to invoke, by asking for immunity, that exceptionalism again: that there is nothing worth taking police action over as well as that scientists are above it all. Granting them and only them immunity from police action could consequently render their comments on political matters (even more) irrelevant, coming as they will from a position of incredible privilege, but it is far more likely that senior scientists (an important distinction because younger scientists have on average been better) will interpret the decree to mean they’re obligated to the state to stay in their lane.

    The only part of Narayanan’s statement that makes sense is the one that expects the police to give scientists, and for that matter people of any profession, the benefit of the doubt – to admit, essentially, that a conspiracy isn’t the only explanation for a researcher in a well-funded research facility to travel to or be in touch with their counterparts from other countries.