The real story of ‘The Old Guard’

Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you intend to watch The Old Guard but haven’t done so yet.

The Old Guard, an action film starring Charlize Theron among others, released on Netflix on July 10. In a scene in the film, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivers two undying men to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (Harry Melling) only to watch the CEO, demanding that their proof of immortality be “indisputable”, stab them to death and then watch their wounds heal. After he’s had his fill, the CEO orders the men to be taken away to a lab for ‘tests’. Before he leaves the room, Copley walks up to the CEO and attempts to remind him that “this” – referring to their arrangement, pursuant to the CEO’s stated intention to mine the immortals’ genetic material for life-saving drugs – “is about science, not profits or sadism”.

The Old Guard has received good reviews, as you might know if you’ve already watched it, but perhaps the film’s entire story could have been non-existent were it not for Copley’s naïve beliefs, no?

At another point in the film, Copley talks about entering into his deal with Merrick, the CEO, because Copley’s wife’s death of ALS taught him that genetic gifts that could alleviate “needless suffering” should be shared with humanity, not hoarded by a few. A noble sentiment – and I almost fell for it until being jolted back by another character, who reminds Copley that the gift wasn’t his to give. In The Old Guard, it’s four white people who have been forced to give, but the argument is strengthened by the fact that it’s an apt metaphor for the real world, in which it’s often the people of the developing world, and in that world the most marginalised, doing the ‘giving’.

In effect, the film’s story is about Copley’s mistake and Copley fixing that mistake – except the mistake doesn’t seem defensible to me as much as it must have been born out of a long-standing ignorance of a bunch of issues, from self-determination to science’s need to be guided by politics. When Copley tells Merrick that “this is about science, not profits”, I laughed out loud, and my scalding hot tea poured out through my nose when he added “or sadism”. What kind of person arranges to violently capture four people who really don’t wish to be caught, puts them in chains, and brings them to a pharma company believing it’s neither for “profits” nor “sadism”?

Even more broadly, when has science ever not been for sadism or profits? Vast swathes of modern science as we know it – since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry into consciousness in those moments of the science-military nexus, exemplified by the apoliticism of Enrico Fermi that, in the final analysis, had deeply political ramifications – have been for profits and power, if not directly sadism.

Modern medicine is not at all free of pain either. Even within the limited view of physical violence, drug trial protocols require a set of preclinical trials to be conducted in ‘animal models’, and many researchers who work with animals also grapple with mental health issues, for example in the form of compassion fatigue. Only in this decade or so have we begun to grow organs in the lab or virtual environments in computers to simulate the actions of different drugs, and even these solutions are eons away from entering regular practice. And then there’s the brutal history of medical and psychological experimentation that, at various points in time, overlapped disturbingly neatly with the day’s most significant human rights abuses.

If we considered violence of other forms as well – including but not limited to rationalists who wield ‘science’ to delegitimise non-scientific ways to organise and make sense of the world and to terrorise the followers of other traditions; to the West, which, “rather than improve conditions of work where necessary, or make a provision for proper career structures where they are lacking so as to attract local graduates, … has found it simpler and less expensive to import foreign doctors to work under conditions which locally trained doctors would not accept” (source); to even imperialist trade agreements that suppress local enterprise in favour of foreign imports – neither medicine nor the institutions responsible for its development are at all free of violence.

This said, I’m not railing against Copley here as much as his writers, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. Even considered in toto, The Old Guard affords Copley the resolution of his moral crisis by facilitating the rescue of the ‘caged’ immortals – but in so doing legitimises the separation of scientific practice from cruelty and abuse. But as history has revealed on multiple occasions, science as so many of us would like it to be is so frequently not what it actually is. As a human enterprise, it’s dirty, fraught and contested. Most of all – likely to the chagrin of those who still believe there can be a functional line between science and politics that wouldn’t be to science’s detriment – it is negotiated. And the more we persist in our efforts to install the scientific enterprise on a pedestal, as being even if only in idea to be untainted by social and cultural considerations, the more we diminish its influence on society, the more we overlook its use unto oppressive ends and thus the more we empower those who do so.

Instead, what Copley should really have done after being contacted is deduce preemptively that Merrick is cruel and therefore Merrick’s practice of science is bound to be cruel, sign the contract (to keep the deal from going to someone else) and then stealthily undermine Merrick’s plans while also protecting the immortals. Then, once Merrick has been killed off (in order to make it a good action film), the immortals volunteer to have their genomes sequenced and the corresponding results uploaded onto a preprint server, and then recall all their time on this good Earth to write anecdotally well-supplied books about the real history of science.

The weekly linklist – July 25, 2020

I’ve decided to publish this linklist via Substack. Next weekend onwards, it will only be available on https://linklist.substack.com. And this is why the list exists and what kind of articles you can find in it.

  • Want to buy a parrot? Please login via Facebook. – “F-commerce emerged in Bangladesh largely because there was no major e-commerce platform to absorb all the business. But although it’s biggest there, this form of selling isn’t exclusive to the country, or even the region: globally, 160 million small stores operate on Facebook, and in countries like Thailand, almost half of all online sales happen through social media.”
  • The history of climate science – “The fact that carbon dioxide is a ‘greenhouse gas’ – a gas that prevents a certain amount of heat radiation escaping back to space and thus maintains a generally warm climate on Earth, goes back to an idea that was first conceived, though not specifically with respect to CO2, nearly 200 years ago. The story of how this important physical property was discovered, how its role in the geological past was evaluated and how we came to understand that its increased concentration, via fossil fuel burning, would adversely affect our future, covers about two centuries of enquiry, discovery, innovation and problem-solving.”
  • The story of cryptomining in Europe’s most disputed state – “In early 2018, millions of digital clocks across Europe began falling behind time. Few took notice at first as slight disruptions in the power supply caused bedside alarms and oven timers running on the frequency of electric current to begin lagging. … European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”
  • Electromagnetic pulses are the last thing you need to worry about in a nuclear explosion – “The electromagnetic pulse that comes from the sundering of an atom, potentially destroying electronics within the blast radius with some impact miles away from ground zero, is just one of many effects of every nuclear blast. What is peculiar about these pulses, often referred to as EMPs, is the way the side effect of a nuclear blast is treated as a special threat in its own right by bodies such as the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, which, despite the official-sounding name, is a privately funded group. These groups continue a decadelong tradition of obsession over EMPs, one President Donald Trump and others have picked up on.”
  • India’s daunting challenge: There’s water everywhere, and nowhere – “I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey—not in any other nation or continent—have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.”
  • Here be black holes – “During the 15th and 16th centuries, when oceans were the spaces between worlds, marine animals, often so prodigious that they were termed sea monsters, were difficult to see and even harder to analyse, their very existence uncertain. Broadly construed, the history of space science is also a story of looking across and into the ocean – that first great expanse of space rendered almost unknowable by an alien environment. Deep space, like the deep sea, is almost inaccessible, with the metaphorical depth of space echoing the literal depth of oceans. These cognitive and psychic parallels also have an analogue in the practicalities of survival, and training for space missions routinely includes stints under water.”
  • Birds bear the warnings but humans are responsible for the global threat – “Bird omens of a sort are the subject of two recent anthropological studies of avian flu preparedness in Asia. Both Natalie Porter, in Viral Economies, and Frédéric Keck, in Avian Reservoirs, convey the ominousness suffusing poultry farming, using birds as predictors. As both demonstrate, studying how birds interact with human agriculture can provide early warnings of a grim future. Indeed, Keck in Avian Reservoirs explicitly compares public-health surveillance (which he studies in the book) to augury, tracing ‘the idea that birds carry signs of the future that humans should learn to read … back to Roman divination.'”
  • Fiction as a window into the ethics of testing the Bomb – “The stuff that surprised me was on the American side. For example, the assessment by Curtis LeMay [the commander who led US air attacks on Japan] where he basically says, “We’ve bombed the shit out of Japan. Hurry up with your atomic bomb, because there’s going to be nothing left if you don’t.” That shocked me, and also that they deliberately left those cities pristine because they wanted to show the devastation. They wanted, I believe, to kill innocent people, because they were already moving on to the Cold War.”
  • The idea of entropy has led us astray – “Perhaps physics, in all its rigors, is deemed less susceptible to social involvement. In truth, though, Darwinian and thermodynamic theories served jointly to furnish a propitious worldview—a suitable ur-myth about the universe—for a society committed to laissez-faire competition, entrepreneurialism, and expanding industry. Essentially, under this view, the world slouches naturally toward a deathly cold state of disorder, but it can be salvaged—illuminated and organized—by the competitive scrabble of creatures fighting to survive and get ahead.”
  • How massive neutrinos broke the Standard Model – “Niels Bohr … had the radical suggestion that maybe energy and momentum weren’t really conserved; maybe they could somehow be lost. But Wolfgang Pauli had a different — arguably, even more radical — thought: that perhaps there was a novel type of particle being emitted in these decays, one that we simply didn’t yet have the capacity to see. He named it “neutrino,” which is Italian for “little neutral one,” and upon hypothesizing it, remarked upon the heresy he had committed: ‘I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.'”
  • How a small Arab nation built a Mars mission from scratch in six years – “When the UAE announced in 2014 that it would send a mission to Mars by the country’s 50th birthday in December 2021, it looked like a bet with astronomically tough odds. At the time, the nation had no space agency and no planetary scientists, and had only recently launched its first satellite. The rapidly assembled team of engineers, with an average age of 27, frequently heard the same jibe. ‘You guys are a bunch of kids. How are you going to reach Mars?’ says Sarah Al Amiri, originally a computer engineer and the science lead for the project.”
  • The pandemic has made concentrated reading difficult. How are book reviewers dealing with this? – “To read good and proper, I needed to disconnect from the terrible reality of the present – wishful thinking with the always-on-alert mode that the pandemic thrust upon us. A few pages in, my mind would wander, snapping out of the brief, quiet moment and I’d find myself reaching for my phone. … But as neuroscientists world over have told us, it’s been hard for most people to focus, with our brain in fight-or-flight mode to the threat of the virus. An activity like deep reading is especially difficult because it requires a high level of engagement and quiet. So it wasn’t just me.”
  • Facebook’s employees reckon with the social network they’ve built – “Why was Zuckerberg only talking about whether Trump’s comments fit the company’s rules, and not about fixing policies that allowed for threats that could hurt people in the first place, he asked. ‘Watching this just felt like someone was sort of slowly swapping out the rug from under my feet,’ Wang said. ‘They were swapping concerns about morals or justice or norms with this concern about consistency and logic, as if it were obviously the case that ‘consistency’ is what mattered most.'”

To read or not a bad man’s book

The Life of Science team uploaded the video of their webinar on July 10, about the construct of the genius in science, on YouTube on July 14. Please watch it if you haven’t already. I had also blogged about it. During the webinar, Gita Chadha – a sociologist of science and one of the two guests – answered a question I had posed, which in turn had arisen from contemplating whether I should read a soon to be published book authored by Lawrence M. Krauss.

Specifically, Krauss has been accused of being a predator and is also tainted by his association with and defence of Jeffrey Epstein. He will soon have a book published about the physics of climate change. I was and am inclined to boycott the book but this is an emotional response. More objectively speaking I didn’t/don’t know if my decision was/is as a matter of principle the right one. (More detailed deliberation, taking recourse through the stories of Geoffrey Marcy, Georges Lemaître, Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman as well, here.)

So at the time of registering for the webinar, I had recorded this question: “How can we separate scholarship from the scholar when the latter are ‘geniuses’ who have been removed from pedestals for abusing power?” Chadha’s reply follows (from 36:45):

I got the question as – how can you separate scholarship from the scholar? This is an extremely complex question.

I find it extremely difficult to argue for the non-separation. For example, after the #MeToo movement, a lot of us faced the following situation. Suppose I know that some scientist or social scientist has been named a predator. What do I do with their work? Do I stop using or teaching the work, or something else? These are dilemmas. I would argue saying that it is impossible to keep the work away. But when we know they are capable of unethical or non-inclusive practices, it becomes inevitable to call them out. Because in calling them out, you will also call out the culture to which they belong, which will help you to restore the balance of justice, if I may say so.

But I would push the question further and say that we need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do. It’s very important, the kind of things Shalini Mahadev [the other panellist] has been talking about. Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract work? Why do we privilege a certain kind of abstract testing of intellect? Why do we [pursue] work in [some areas over others]? Why is ‘glorified work’ in mathematics in number theory? How is knowledge constructed by the social location of caste in India, for example?

This question about the knowledge and the knowledge-maker is a deeper question. I would think it’s important to keep the connection between the two alive. Them being on pedestals is a different question. This is exactly what I was trying to say: There is no talent, there is only the struggle for eminence, awards… [these are] ways of wielding power. And that power you wield, because you are an eminent scientist, will always give you the clean chit: “He’s a genius, so it’s okay if he’s a wife-beater”, “it’s okay if he’s a predator,” etc. His genius and his work needs to be preserved. That is where the problem arises.

This is all insightful, and partly helpful. For example, a lot of people have called out Krauss and he also ‘retired’ shortly after. The effects of the #MeToo movement have prompted some reforms – or at least reformatory tendencies – in a variety of fields, as a result of which more than a few scientists have been ‘outed’ thus. More importantly, abusing the power imbalance between teachers and students is today widely understood to be an implicit bad, at least in quarters from which other scientists have been already removed. We have not restored the balance of justice but we have surely, even if imperfectly, started on this path.

However, Krauss continues to stand his ground, and soon he will have a book. If in this context I’m intent on keeping the connection between knowledge and the knowledge-maker alive, I can read his book. At the same time the act of purchasing his book will make this predator-in-denial richer, financially more powerful, and as a scholar more relevant and therefore more employable. Considering Chadha only said we must call out the culture to which such scientists belong, and nothing about whether the scientist in question should repent, I’m still confused.

If I’m wrong or have lost my train of thought in some obvious way even as I mull Chadha’s words, just as well. But if you know the way out of these woods, please don’t keep it to yourself!

Super-spreads exist, but do super-spreaders?

What does the term ‘super-spreader’ mean? According to an article in the MIT Tech Review on June 15, “The word is a generic term for an unusually contagious individual who’s been infected with disease. In the context of the coronavirus, scientists haven’t narrowed down how many infections someone needs to cause to qualify as a superspreader, but generally speaking it far exceeds the two to three individuals researchers initially estimated the average infected patient could infect.”

The label of ‘super-spreader’ seems to foist the responsibility of not infecting others on an individual, whereas a ‘super-spreader’ can arise only by dint of an individual and her environment together. Consider the recent example of two hair-stylists in Springfield, Missouri, who both had COVID-19 (but didn’t know it) even as they attended to 139 clients over more than a week. Later, researchers found that none of the 139 had contracted COVID-19 because they all wore masks, washed hands, etc.

Hair-styling is obviously a high-contact profession but just this fact doesn’t suffice to render a hair-stylist a ‘super-spreader’. In this happy-making example, the two hair-stylists didn’t become super-spreaders because a) they maintained personal hygiene and wore masks, and b) so did the people in their immediate environment.

While I couldn’t find a fixed definition of the term ‘super-spreader’ on the WHO website, a quick search revealed a description from 2003, when the SARS epidemic was underway. Here, the organisation acknowledges that ‘super-spreading’ in itself is “not a recognised medical condition” (although the definition may have been updated since, but I doubt it), and that it arises as a result of safety protocols breaking down.

“… [in] the early days of the outbreak …, when SARS was just becoming known as a severe new disease, many patients were thought to be suffering from atypical pneumonia having another cause, and were therefore not treated as cases requiring special precautions of isolation and infection control. As a result, stringent infection control measures were not in place. In the absence of protective measures, many health care workers, relatives, and hospital visitors were exposed to the SARS virus and subsequently developed SARS. Since infection control measures have been put in place, the number of new cases of SARS arising from a single SARS source case has been significantly reduced. When investigating current chains of continuing transmission, it is important to look for points in the history of case detection and patient management when procedures for infection control may have broken down.”

This view reaffirms the importance of addressing ‘super-spreads’ not as a consequence of individual action or offence but as the product of a set of circumstances that facilitate the rapid transmission of an infectious disease.

In another example, on July 21, the Indian Express reported that the city of Ahmedabad had tested 17,000 ‘super-spreaders’, of which 122 tested positive. The article was also headlined ‘Phase 2 of surveillance: 122 super-spreaders test positive in Ahmedabad’.

According to the article’s author, those tested included “staff of hair cutting-salons as well as vendors of vegetables, fruits, grocery, milk and medicines”. The people employed in all these professions in India are typically middle-class (economically) at best, and as such enjoy far fewer social, educational and healthcare protections than the economic upper class, and live in markedly more crowded areas with uneven access to transportation and clean water.

Given these hard-to-escape circumstances, identifying the people who were tested as ‘super-spreaders’ seems not only unjust but also an attempt by the press in this case as well as city officials to force them to take responsibility for their city’s epidemic status and preparedness – which is just ridiculous because it criminalises their profession (assuming, reasonably I’d think, that wilfully endangering the health of others around you during a pandemic is a crime).

The Indian Express also reported that the city was testing people and then issuing them health cards – which presumably note that the card-holder has been tested together with the test result. Although I’m inclined to believe the wrong use of the term ‘super-spreader’ here originated not with the newspaper reporter but with the city administration, it’s also frustratingly ridiculous that the people were designated ‘super-spreaders’ at the time of testing, before the results were known – i.e. super-spreader until proven innocent? Or is this a case of officials and journalists unknowingly using two non-interchangeable terms interchangeably?

Or did this dangerous mix-up arise because most places and governments in India don’t have reason to believe ‘high-contact’ is different from ‘super-spreader’?

But be personal and interpersonal hygiene as they may, officials’ use of one term instead of the other also allows them to continue to believe there needn’t or shouldn’t be a difference either. And that’s a big problem because even as the economically middle- and lower-classes may not be able to access better living conditions and amenities, thinking there’s no difference between ‘high-contact’ and ‘super-spreader’ allows those in charge to excuse themselves from their responsibilities to effect that difference.

The occasional linklist – July 19, 2020

I have been pondering creating a column on my blog where I share links to articles I read and liked. I perform this function on Twitter at the moment, but the attention some links attract are rubbish, and I reflexively share only relatively bland things there these days as a result. I’m also starting to relish the privilege of not having a shitstorm erupt in my notifications just because I shared something – a link or a viewpoint – that someone disagreed with, and is now giving me headaches because I no longer have the option of ignoring them.

So here goes, the first instalment of articles I recently read and liked. 🙂

An introduction to physics that contains no equations is like an introduction to French that contains no French words, but tries instead to capture the essence of the language by discussing it in English. Of course, popular writers on physics must abide by that constraint because they are writing for mathematical illiterates, like me, who wouldn’t be able to understand the equations. … Such books don’t teach physical truths; what they teach is that physical truth is knowable in principle, because physicists know it. Ironically, this means that a layperson in science is in basically the same position as a layperson in religion.

Questions we should be asking more often

1. Okay, but where’s the money coming from?

In a lecture at the Asian College of Journalism, where I was in the audience as a student, P. Sainath told us that if we needed one rule following which we’d be able to produce good stories, it’s “follow the money”. It’s remarkable how often this suggestion has been borne out (in the right contexts, of course) – and it’s even more remarkable how many people don’t follow it. Asking where the money is coming from also serves to enlighten people about why journalism works the way it does. I’m often asked by aspiring science journalists why a journalistic magazine devoted to, say, astronomy, physics or genomics doesn’t exist in India. I’ve always had the same answer: tell me how you’re going to make money (as in profits, not just revenues).

2. Okay, but what’s the power source?

The next time you receive a WhatsApp forward about a newfangled device that can do remarkable things, ask yourself where it could be getting its power – especially the requisite amount of electric power. Very few claims of amazing feats survive this check, especially as they pertain to very small objects like chips or transmitters being embedded in things and beaming signals to satellites. Depending on the medium through which they’re transmitting – air, soil, water, stone, etc. – and the distance to which they need to transmit, you can get a fair idea of the device’s power needs, and then set about figuring where the power is coming from. This question is analogous to ‘follow the money’; the currency here is energy.

3. Okay, but who’s behind the camera?

We seldom stop to think about the person behind the camera, especially if the picture is striking in some way. This goes for photos and videos about terrifying events like natural disasters, objects deep underwater and strange things in space. Pictures purporting to show something amazing but are actually fake are often taken from impossible vantage points, with a resolution that should be impossible to achieve with the device in use, with an impossible spatial scale, at locations that should have been impossible to reach at that time or by a cameraperson whose presence at the scene defies explanation. At other times, the photos appear as if they could only have been captured by specific people, and that in turn may impose some limitations on their public availability. For example, images captured by fighter-jet pilots shouldn’t be easily available – while those captured by policemen during riots could have been planted.

4. Okay, but who said so?

Ad hominem makes for bad arguments – but it’s very useful in fact-checking. It’s important who makes a certain claim so you can check their expertise and if they’re qualified to make the statement they did. If you’re looking for problems with Darwin’s theory of evolution, listen to an evolutionary biologist, not a geologist – not even if they’re a Nobel-Prize-winner. Asking for the source also helps push back on ‘data supremacy’, the tendency to defer to data just because it’s data and without checking for its provenance or quality, and on a general laziness to ascertain that a claim has been traced to its first-hand source, instead of feeding off of second-hand, third-hand, etc. sources.

5. Okay, but how many things had to fall in place?

The idea of the Occam’s razor has captured the imagination of many a rookie analyst, so much so that some of them over-apply its prescriptions to draw reductive conclusions. In their view, only the likeliest event happens all the time; when something unlikely happens, they smell something rotten – like conspiracy theorists do with the novel coronavirus. However, the mathematics of probability allows unlikely events to happen more often than you think, often because they were only seemingly unlikely to begin with. For example, the novel coronavirus was quietly evolving through other ‘forms’ in the wild before it became the strain adapted to infecting humans – the most widespread animal species on the planet. Even now, there may be other strains circulating in the wild, but we remain fixated on the one infecting us.

Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.

A non-self-correcting science

While I’m all for a bit of triumphalism when some component of conventional publication vis-à-vis scientific research – like pre-publication anonymous peer review – fails, and fails publicly, I spotted an article in The Conversation earlier today that I thought crossed a line (and not in the way you think). In this article, headlined ‘Retractions and controversies over coronavirus research show that the process of science is working as it should’, the author writes:

Some people are viewing the retractions [by The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine] as an indictment of the scientific process. Certainly, the overturning of these papers is bad news, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But despite these short-term setbacks, the scrutiny and subsequent correction of the papers actually show that science is working. Reporting of the pandemic is allowing people to see, many for the first time, the messy business of scientific progress.

The retraction of the hydroxychloroquine paper … drew immediate attention not only because it placed science in a bad light, but also because President Trump had touted the drug as an effective treatment for COVID-19 despite the lack of strong evidence. Responses in the media were harsh. … [Their] headlines may have [had] merit, but perspective is also needed. Retractions are rare – only about 0.04% of published papers are withdrawn – but scrutiny, update and correction are common. It is how science is supposed to work, and it is happening in all areas of research relating to SARS-CoV-2.

If you ask me, this is not science working as it should. This is the journals that published the papers discovering that the mechanisms they’d adopted that they’d said would filter fraudulent papers letting fraudulent papers slip through.

But by the author’s logic, “this is science working as it should” would encompass any mistake that’s later discovered, followed by suitable corrective action. This is neither here nor there – and more importantly it allows broken processes to be subsumed under the logic’s all-encompassing benevolence. If this is scientific publishing as it should be, we wouldn’t have to think deeply about how we can fix anonymous pre-publication peer-review because it wouldn’t be broken. However, we know in reality that it is.

If anything, by advancing his argument, the author has cleverly pressed an argumentative tack that supporters of more progressive scientific publishing models in the service of preserving the status quo. Instead, we need to acknowledge that an important part of science, called science publishing, has evolved into a flawed creature – so that we can set about bending the moral arc towards fixing it. (We already know that if we don’t acknowledge it, we won’t fix it.)

Citations and media coverage

According to a press release accompanying a just-published study in PLOS ONE:

Highly cited papers also tend to receive more media attention, although the cause of the association is unclear.

One reason I can think of is a confounding factor that serves as the hidden cause of both phenomena. Discoverability matters just as much as the quality of a paper, and conventional journals implicated in the sustenance of notions like ‘prestige’ (Nature, Science, Cell, The Lancet, etc.) have been known to prefer more sensational positive results. And among researchers that still value publishing in these journals, these papers are more noticed, which leads to a ‘buzz’ that a reporter can pick up on.

Second, sensational results also easily lend themselves to sensational stories in the press, which has often been addicted to the same ‘positivity bias’ that the scientific literature harboured for many decades. In effect, highly cited papers are simply highly visible, and highly visibilised, papers – both to other scientists and journalists.

The press release continues:

The authors add: “Results from this study confirm the idea that media attention given to scientific research is strongly related to scientific citations for that same research. These results can inform scientists who are considering using popular media to increase awareness concerning their work, both within and outside the scientific community.”

I’m not sure what this comment means (I haven’t gone through the paper and it’s possible the paper’s authors discuss this in more detail), but there is already evidence that studies for which preprints are available receive more citations than those published behind a paywall. So perhaps scientists expecting more media coverage of their work should simply make their research more accessible. (It’s also a testament to the extent to which the methods of ‘conventional’ publishers – including concepts like ‘reader pays’ and the journal impact factor, accentuated by notions like ‘prestige’ – have become entrenched that this common-sensical solution is not so common sense.)

On the flip side, journalists also need to be weaned away from ‘top’ journals – I receive a significantly higher number of pitches offering to cover papers published in Nature journals – and retrained to spot interesting results published in less well-known journals as well as, on a slightly separate note, to situate the results of one study in a larger context instead of hyper-focusing on one context-limited set of results.

The work seems interesting, perhaps one of you will like to give it a comb.

The awesome limits of superconductors

On June 24, a press release from CERN said that scientists and engineers working on upgrading the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had “built and operated … the most powerful electrical transmission line … to date”. The transmission line consisted of four cables – two capable of transporting 20 kA of current and two, 7 kA.

The ‘A’ here stands for ‘ampere’, the SI unit of electric current. Twenty kilo-amperes is an extraordinary amount of current, nearly equal to the amount in a single lightning strike.

In the particulate sense: one ampere is the flow of one coulomb per second. One coulomb is equal to around 6.24 quintillion elementary charges, where each elementary charge is the charge of a single proton or electron (with opposite signs). So a cable capable of carrying a current of 20 kA can essentially transport 124.8 sextillion electrons per second.

According to the CERN press release (emphasis added):

The line is composed of cables made of magnesium diboride (MgB2), which is a superconductor and therefore presents no resistance to the flow of the current and can transmit much higher intensities than traditional non-superconducting cables. On this occasion, the line transmitted an intensity 25 times greater than could have been achieved with copper cables of a similar diameter. Magnesium diboride has the added benefit that it can be used at 25 kelvins (-248 °C), a higher temperature than is needed for conventional superconductors. This superconductor is more stable and requires less cryogenic power. The superconducting cables that make up the innovative line are inserted into a flexible cryostat, in which helium gas circulates.

The part in bold could have been more explicit and noted that superconductors, including magnesium diboride, can’t carry an arbitrarily higher amount of current than non-superconducting conductors. There is actually a limit for the same reason why there is a limit to the current-carrying capacity of a normal conductor.

This explanation wouldn’t change the impressiveness of this feat and could even interfere with readers’ impression of the most important details, so I can see why the person who drafted the statement left it out. Instead, I’ll take this matter up here.

An electric current is generated between two points when electrons move from one point to the other. The direction of current is opposite to the direction of the electrons’ movement. A metal that conducts electricity does so because its constituent atoms have one or more valence electrons that can flow throughout the metal. So if a voltage arises between two ends of the metal, the electrons can respond by flowing around, birthing an electric current.

This flow isn’t perfect, however. Sometimes, a valence electron can bump into atomic nuclei, impurities – atoms of other elements in the metallic lattice – or be thrown off course by vibrations in the lattice of atoms, produced by heat. Such disruptions across the metal collectively give rise to the metal’s resistance. And the more resistance there is, the less current the metal can carry.

These disruptions often heat the metal as well. This happens because electrons don’t just flow between the two points across which a voltage is applied. They’re accelerated. So as they’re speeding along and suddenly bump into an impurity, they’re scattered into random directions. Their kinetic energy then no longer contributes to the electric energy of the metal and instead manifests as thermal energy – or heat.

If the electrons bump into nuclei, they could impart some of their kinetic energy to the nuclei, causing the latter to vibrate more, which in turn means they heat up as well.

Copper and silver have high conductance because they have more valence electrons available to conduct electricity and these electrons are scattered to a lesser extent than in other metals. Therefore, these two also don’t heat up as quickly as other metals might, allowing them to transport a higher current for longer. Copper in particular has a higher mean free path: the average distance an electron travels before being scattered.

In superconductors, the picture is quite different because quantum physics assumes a more prominent role. There are different types of superconductors according to the theories used to understand how they conduct electricity with zero resistance and how they behave in different external conditions. The electrical behaviour of magnesium diboride, the material used to transport the 20 kA current, is described by Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory.

According to this theory, when certain materials are cooled below a certain temperature, the residual vibrations of their atomic lattice encourages their valence electrons to overcome their mutual repulsion and become correlated, especially in terms of their movement. That is, the electrons pair up.

While individual electrons belong to a class of particles called fermions, these electron pairs – a.k.a. Cooper pairs – belong to another class called bosons. One difference between these two classes is that bosons don’t obey Pauli’s exclusion principle: that no two fermions in the same quantum system (like an atom) can have the same set of quantum numbers at the same time.

As a result, all the electron pairs in the material are now free to occupy the same quantum state – which they will when the material is supercooled. When they do, the pairs collectively make up an exotic state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate: the electron pairs now flow through the material as if they were one cohesive liquid.

In this state, even if one pair gets scattered by an impurity, the current doesn’t experience resistance because the condensate’s overall flow isn’t affected. In fact, given that breaking up one pair will cause all other pairs to break up as well, the energy required to break up one pair is roughly equal to the energy required to break up all pairs. This feature affords the condensate a measure of robustness.

But while current can keep flowing through a BCS superconductor with zero resistance, the superconducting state itself doesn’t have infinite persistence. It can break if it stops being cooled below a specific temperature, called the critical temperature; if the material is too impure, contributing to a sufficient number of collisions to ‘kick’ all electrons pairs out of their condensate reverie; or if the current density crosses a particular threshold.

At the LHC, the magnesium diboride cables will be wrapped around electromagnets. When a large current flows through the cables, the electromagnets will produce a magnetic field. The LHC uses a circular arrangement of such magnetic fields to bend the beam of protons it will accelerate into a circular path. The more powerful the magnetic field, the more accurate the bending. The current operational field strength is 8.36 tesla, about 128,000-times more powerful than Earth’s magnetic field. The cables will be insulated but they will still be exposed to a large magnetic field.

Type I superconductors completely expel an external magnetic field when they transition to their superconducting state. That is, the magnetic field can’t penetrate the material’s surface and enter the bulk. Type II superconductors are slightly more complicated. Below one critical temperature and one critical magnetic field strength, they behave like type I superconductors. Below the same temperature but a slightly stronger magnetic field, they are superconducting and allow the fields to penetrate their bulk to a certain extent. This is called the mixed state.

A hand-drawn phase diagram showing the conditions in which a mixed-state type II superconductor exists. Credit: Frederic Bouquet/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Say a uniform magnetic field is applied over a mixed-state superconductor. The field will plunge into the material’s bulk in the form of vortices. All these vortices will have the same magnetic flux – the number of magnetic field lines per unit area – and will repel each other, settling down in a triangular pattern equidistant from each other.

An annotated image of vortices in a type II superconductor. The scale is specified at the bottom right. Source: A set of slides entitled ‘Superconductors and Vortices at Radio Frequency Magnetic Fields’ by Ernst Helmut Brandt, Max Planck Institute for Metals Research, October 2010.

When an electric current passes through this material, the vortices are slightly displaced, and also begin to experience a force proportional to how closely they’re packed together and their pattern of displacement. As a result, to quote from this technical (yet lucid) paper by Praveen Chaddah:

This force on each vortex … will cause the vortices to move. The vortex motion produces an electric field1 parallel to [the direction of the existing current], thus causing a resistance, and this is called the flux-flow resistance. The resistance is much smaller than the normal state resistance, but the material no longer [has] infinite conductivity.

1. According to Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, a changing magnetic field produces an electric field.

Since the vortices’ displacement depends on the current density: the greater the number of electrons being transported, the more flux-flow resistance there is. So the magnesium diboride cables can’t simply carry more and more current. At some point, setting aside other sources of resistance, the flux-flow resistance itself will damage the cable.

There are ways to minimise this resistance. For example, the material can be doped with impurities that will ‘pin’ the vortices to fixed locations and prevent them from moving around. However, optimising these solutions for a given magnetic field and other conditions involves complex calculations that we don’t need to get into.

The point is that superconductors have their limits too. And knowing these limits could improve our appreciation for the feats of physics and engineering that underlie achievements like cables being able to transport 124.8 sextillion electrons per second with zero resistance. In fact, according to the CERN press release,

The [line] that is currently being tested is the forerunner of the final version that will be installed in the accelerator. It is composed of 19 cables that supply the various magnet circuits and could transmit intensities of up to 120 kA!

§

While writing this post, I was frequently tempted to quote from Lisa Randall‘s excellent book-length introduction to the LHC, Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2011). Here’s a short excerpt:

One of the most impressive objects I saw when I visited CERN was a prototype of LHC’s gigantic cylindrical dipole magnets. Event with 1,232 such magnets, each of them is an impressive 15 metres long and weighs 30 tonnes. … Each of these magnets cost EUR 700,000, making the ned cost of the LHC magnets alone more than a billion dollars.

The narrow pipes that hold the proton beams extend inside the dipoles, which are strung together end to end so that they wind through the extent of the LHC tunnel’s interior. They produce a magnetic field that can be as strong as 8.3 tesla, about a thousand times the field of the average refrigerator magnet. As the energy of the proton beams increases from 450 GeV to 7 TeV, the magnetic field increases from 0.54 to 8.3 teslas, in order to keep guiding the increasingly energetic protons around.

The field these magnets produce is so enormous that it would displace the magnets themselves if no restraints were in place. This force is alleviated through the geometry of the coils, but the magnets are ultimately kept in place through specially constructed collars made of four-centimetre thick steel.

… Each LHC dipole contains coils of niobium-titanium superconducting cables, each of which contains stranded filaments a mere six microns thick – much smaller than a human hair. The LHC contains 1,200 tonnes of these remarkable filaments. If you unwrapped them, they would be long enough to encircle the orbit of Mars.

When operating, the dipoles need to be extremely cold, since they work only when the temperature is sufficiently low. The superconducting wires are maintained at 1.9 degrees above absolute zero … This temperature is even lower than the 2.7-degree cosmic microwave background radiation in outer space. The LHC tunnel houses the coldest extended region in the universe – at least that we know of. The magnets are known as cryodipoles to take into account their special refrigerated nature.

In addition to the impressive filament technology used for the magnets, the refrigeration (cryogenic) system is also an imposing accomplishment meriting its own superlatives. The system is in fact the world’s largest. Flowing helium maintains the extremely low temperature. A casing of approximately 97 metric tonnes of liquid helium surrounds the magnets to cool the cables. It is not ordinary helium gas, but helium with the necessary pressure to keep it in a superfluid phase. Superfluid helium is not subject to the viscosity of ordinary materials, so it can dissipate any heat produced in the dipole system with great efficiency: 10,000 metric tonnes of liquid nitrogen are first cooled, and this in turn cools the 130 metric tonnes of helium that circulate in the dipoles.

Featured image: A view of the experimental MgB2 transmission line at the LHC. Credit: CERN.

My heart of physics

Every July 4, I have occasion to remember two things: the discovery of the Higgs boson, and my first published byline for an article about the discovery of the Higgs boson. I have no trouble believing it’s been eight years since we discovered this particle, using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its ATLAS and CMS detectors, in Geneva. I’ve greatly enjoyed writing about particle physics in this time, principally because closely engaging with new research and the scientists who worked on them allowed me to learn more about a subject that high school and college had let me down on: physics.

In 2020, I haven’t been able to focus much on the physical sciences in my writing, thanks to the pandemic, the lockdown, their combined effects and one other reason. This has been made doubly sad by the fact that the particle physics community at large is at an interesting crossroads.

In 2012, the LHC fulfilled the principal task it had been built for: finding the Higgs boson. After that, physicists imagined the collider would discover other unknown particles, allowing theorists to expand their theories and answer hitherto unanswered questions. However, the LHC has since done the opposite: it has narrowed the possibilities of finding new particles that physicists had argued should exist according to their theories (specifically supersymmetric partners), forcing them to look harder for mistakes they might’ve made in their calculations. But thus far, physicists have neither found mistakes nor made new findings, leaving them stuck in an unsettling knowledge space from which it seems there might be no escape (okay, this is sensationalised, but it’s also kinda true).

Right now, the world’s particle physicists are mulling building a collider larger and more powerful than the LHC, at a cost of billions of dollars, in the hopes that it will find the particles they’re looking for. Not all physicists are agreed, of course. If you’re interested in reading more, I’d recommend articles by Sabine Hossenfelder and Nirmalya Kajuri and spiralling out from there. But notwithstanding the opposition, CERN – which coordinates the LHC’s operations with tens of thousands of personnel from scores of countries – recently updated its strategy vision to recommend the construction of such a machine, with the ability to produce copious amounts of Higgs bosons in collisions between electrons and positrons (a.k.a. ‘Higgs factories’). China has also announced plans of its own build something similar.

Meanwhile, scientists and engineers are busy upgrading the LHC itself to a ‘high luminosity version’, where luminosity represents the number of interesting events the machine can detect during collisions for further study. This version will operate until 2038. That isn’t a long way away because it took more than a decade to build the LHC; it will definitely take longer to plan for, convince lawmakers, secure the funds for and build something bigger and more complicated.

There have been some other developments connected to the current occasion in terms of indicating other ways to discover ‘new physics’, which is the collective name for phenomena that will violate our existing theories’ predictions and show us where we’ve gone wrong in our calculations.

The most recent one I think was the ‘XENON excess’, which refers to a moderately strong signal recorded by the XENON 1T detector in Italy that physicists think could be evidence of a class of particles called axions. I say ‘moderately strong’ because the statistical significance of the signal’s strength is just barely above the threshold used to denote evidence and not anywhere near the threshold that denotes a discovery proper.

It’s evoked a fair bit of excitement because axions count as new physics – but when I asked two physicists (one after the other) to write an article explaining this development, they refused on similar grounds: that the significance makes it seem likely that the signal will be accounted for by some other well-known event. I was disappointed of course but I wasn’t surprised either: in the last eight years, I can count at least four instances in which a seemingly inexplicable particle physics related development turned out to be a dud.

The most prominent one was the ‘750 GeV excess’ at the LHC in December 2015, which seemed to be a sign of a new particle about six-times heavier than a Higgs boson and 800-times heavier than a proton (at rest). But when physicists analysed more data, the signal vanished – a.k.a. it wasn’t there in the first place and what physicists had seen was likely a statistical fluke of some sort. Another popular anomaly that went the same way was the one at Atomki.

But while all of this is so very interesting, today – July 4 – also seems like a good time to admit I don’t feel as invested in the future of particle physics anymore (the ‘other reason’). Some might say, and have said, that I’m abandoning ship just as the field’s central animus is moving away from the physics and more towards sociology and politics, and some might be right. I get enough of the latter subjects when I work on the non-physics topics that interest me, like research misconduct and science policy. My heart of physics itself is currently tending towards quantum mechanics and thermodynamics (although not quantum thermodynamics).

One peer had also recommended in between that I familiarise myself with quantum computing while another had suggested climate-change-related mitigation technologies, which only makes me wonder now if I’m delving into those branches of physics that promise to take me farther away from what I’m supposed to do. And truth be told, I’m perfectly okay with that. 🙂 This does speak to my privileges – modest as they are on this particular count – but when it feels like there’s less stuff to be happy about in the world with every new day, it’s time to adopt a new hedonism and find joy where it lies.