An Upanishadic lesson for modern science?

Do the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads lack the “baggage of biography” – to borrow Amit Chaudhuri’s words – because we don’t know who the authors, outside of the mythology, are or – as Chaudhuri writes in a new essay – do these texts carry more weight than their authors themselves because Eastern Philosophy privileged the work over its authorship? Selected excerpts:

One might recall that the New Critical turn against biography is related to a privileging, in the twentieth century, of the impersonality, rather than the emotional sincerity or conscious intention, of the creative act. This development is not unrelated … to the impact that certain Indian texts had on modernity after they were translated into European languages and put into circulation from the late eighteenth century onwards. …

By the time the Gita’s Krishna was first heard in Europe, all judgements were deemed, by the Enlightenment, to be either subjective or objective. What kind of judgement escapes this binary by being at once passionate and detached, made in earnest without mindfulness of outcome? Immanuel Kant addresses this in a shift in his own thinking, in his writings on aesthetics in 1790 … Five years separate the Gita’s appearance in English, and three years its translation into French, from Kant’s intervention in aesthetics. It’s unlikely he’d have been unaware of the work, or made his sui generis departure without it. The second time such “disinterestedness” appears as a concept, when Matthew Arnold redefines what criticism is, the link to the Gita is clear, and doesn’t require speculation. …

The Gita’s practice of “impersonality” points to T. S. Eliot’s attack, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, on the idea that poetry is an “expression of the personality” or of “emotion”. It’s no accident that the final line of The Waste Land is the Upanishadic refrain, “shantih shantih shantih”, the Sanskrit word for spiritual peace or even-mindedness …

It’s uncertain in what way these conceptual departures would have existed in modernity if these texts hadn’t been put into circulation when they were. Yet a great part of this history of ideas remains unwritten.

Chaudhuri also sets out the relative position of the Upanishads in modernity, particularly their being in opposition to one of the fundamental tenets of modern philosophy: causality. Per Chaudhuri, the Upanishads “dismantle” the causal relationship between the creator and the creation and “interrogate consciousness” through a series of arguments that attempt to locate the ‘Brahman’ in human and natural logic.

He concludes this portion of his text by speculating that the Upanishads might in fact have been penned by “anomalous Brahmins” because in the Bhagavad Gita, which is contemporaneous with some of the Upanishads and followed the rest after more than a century, Krishna asserts, “Neither Vedas, nor sacrifices, nor studies, nor benefactions, nor rituals, nor fearful austerities can give the vision of my Form Supreme” – whereas just these rituals, and their privation, concern the typical orthodox Brahmin today.

While the essay provides much to think about, the separation of creator and creation – in terms of the Upanishads being disinterested (in the specific sense of Chaudhuri’s definition, to mean an ‘evenness of the mind’ akin to unfixation rather than uninterestedness) with both a godlike figure or rituals and making room for biographical details in their verses – is incredibly interesting, especially in relation to modern science.

As Chaudhuri writes,

… “the field of knowledge called “the history of Western philosophy” could just as easily be called “the history of Western philosophers”, inasmuch as Western philosophers are the sum total of their lives and works, and we often defer to both biography and thought when we interact with the philosophy. Each body of work has a personality, but so does its author; in almost every case, we can, literally, put a “face” to the work, whether that’s a photograph of Bertrand Russell or a fourth-century BC bust of Plato.”

Prof Gita Chadha alluded to the same trait in the context of science pedagogy – in The Life of Science‘s promised postscript to their webinar on July 10 about ‘geniuses’ in science. In response to a question by Mrinal Shah, as to how teachers and educators could disprivilege the idea of a ‘scientific genius’ at the primary school level, Chadha said (excerpt):

There is an interesting problem here … In trying to make science interesting and accessible to children, we have to use relatable language. This relatable language organically comes from our social contexts but also comes with the burden of social meanings. So then, what do we do? It’s a tricky one! Also, in trying to make role models for children, we magnify the individual and replay what goes on in the world of science. We teach relativity as Einstein’s theory, we teach laws of motion as Newtonian laws of motion. The pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea becomes counterproductive.

‘Geniuses’ are necessarily individuals – there are no ‘genius communities’. A genius’s status as such denotes at once a centralisation of power and authority, and thus influence; a maturation of intellect (and intellect alone) presented as a role-model to others; and, in continuation, a pinnacle of achievement that those who profit from the extraction of scientific work, such as universities and research funders, valorise.

This said, I can’t tell if – though I suspect that – the modern history of ‘Western science’ is largely the modern history of ‘Western scientists’, especially of the ‘geniuses’ among them. The creator causes the creation, so by contemplating the science, you contemplate the scientist himself – or, as the ‘genius’ would have it, by contemplating the science you necessarily contemplate the creator and his specific choices. And since the modern scientific enterprise was largely harmonised to the West’s methods in the post-colonial period, this is our contemporary history as well.

Chadha had previously noted, in response to a question from yours truly, that she struggles to argue for the non-separation of science and scientist in the context of the #MeToo movement. That is, our liberty to separate important scientific work from the (extra-scientific) actions of an errant scientist may not be so easily achieved, at least if one intends to the extent possible to not participate in the accumulation of power. Instead, she said, we must consider them together, and call out “unethical or non-inclusive practices” – and by extension “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.”

This resolves to some extent my issue with Lawrence M. Krauss (although not fully because while Krauss’s culture has been dismantled at his previous university, however temporarily, he continues to maintain an innocence grounded in distasteful convictions). However, I’m still adrift vis-à-vis the late Richard Feynman and others. As a physics journalist first, I can’t help but encounter Feynman in one form or another – but how do you call out a dead man? Or does calling out the dead man’s culture, as perpetuated by the likes of Krauss today, suffice?

Chaudhuri has a similar question: “What do we do with a philosophy when there’s no philosopher in sight?” This matters because the philosopher’s “absence constitutes a problem in giving, and claiming, value. Meaning and significance in Western culture are not just features of the work, but pertain to, and arise from, the owner of the work – the author is the work’s first owner; the author’s nation or culture (“Greece” or “Germany”, say; or “the West”) its overarching one.”

So as with the Upanishads, would we be better served if we concerned ourselves less with deities and their habits and more with the “impersonal” instruction and interrogation of what is true? This seems like a straightforward way out of the problem Mrinal Shah poses, but it doesn’t address, as Chadha put it, the “pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea” – while “impersonal” interrogations of what is true will wrongly ignore the influence of sociological forces in science.

However, all said, I suspect that the answer is here somewhere. The ‘scientific genius’ is a construct and a shared one at that. When we contemplate a body of groundbreaking scientific work, we don’t contemplate the work alone or the scientist alone; we contemplate the work as arising from the scientist but even then only in a limited, constructive sense. But there is more at play; for example, as Chadha said, “We need to critically start engaging with how the social location of a scholar impacts the kind of work that they do”. If I write an article calling X a ‘genius’, X wouldn’t immediately occupy that position unless he is held there by social and capitalist forces as well.

The Upanishads in this context encourage us to erase the binary of ‘creator’ and ‘creation’ and with it the causal perspective’s temptation to think the scientist and the science are separable. In their stead, there is I think room to compose a communitarian story of science – where good arises not from the one but the whole, where power becomes, in keeping with the Upanishads, impersonal.

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!

Redeeming art v. redeeming science

Recently, someone shared the cover of a soon to be released book, entitled The Physics of Climate Change, authored by Lawrence M. Krauss and expressed excitement about the book’s impending publication and the prospect of their reading it. I instinctively responded that I would be actively boycotting the book after the sexual harassment allegations against Krauss plus his ties with Jeffrey Epstein. I didn’t, and don’t, wish to consume his scholarship.

Now, I don’t think that facts alone can be redemptive – that if a book’s contents are right, as ascertained through dispassionate tests of verification, we get to ignore questions about whether the contents are good. There are many examples littering the history of science that tell a story about how a fixation on the facts (and more recently data), and their allegedly virtuous apoliticality, has led us astray.

Consider the story of Geoffrey Marcy. It does not matter, or matters less, that humankind as a whole has made great astronomical discoveries. Instead, it should matter – or matter more – how we go about making them. And Marcy was contemptible because his discoveries were fuelled not just by his appreciation of the facts, so to speak, but also because he pushed women out of astronomy and astrophysics and traumatised them. As a result, consuming the scholarship of Marcy, and Krauss and so many others, feels to me like I am fuelling their transgressions.

Many of these scholars assumed prominence because they drew in grants worth millions to their universities. Their scholarship dealt in facts, sure, but in the capitalist university system, a scholarship also translates to grants and an arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’ that allow universities to excuse the scholars’ behaviour and to sideline victims’ accusations. Some universities even participate in a system derisively called ‘passing the trash’; as BuzzFeed reported in the case of Erik Shapiro in 2017, “the ‘trash’ … refers to high-profile professors who bring status and money to universities that either ignore or are unaware of past scandals.”

So supporting scholars for the virtues of their scholarship alone seems quite disingenuous to me. This is sort of like supporting the use of electric vehicles while ignoring the fact that most of the electricity that powers them is produced in coal-fired power plants. In both cases, the official policy is ultimately geared in favour of maximising profits (more here and here). As such, the enemy here is the capitalist system and our universities’ collective decision to function on its principles, ergo singling scholarship out of for praise seems misguided.

This is also why, though I’ve heard multiple arguments to the contrary, I really don’t know how to separate art from artist, or scholarship from scholar. An acquaintance offered the example of Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest and cosmologist who – in the acquaintance’s telling – attempted to understand the world as it was without letting his background as a priest get in the way. I was not convinced, saying the case of Lemaître sounded like a privileged example for its clean distinction between one’s beliefs as a person and one’s beliefs as a scientist. I even expressed suspicion that there might be a reason Lemaître turned to a more mechanistic subject like cosmology and not a more negotiated one like social anthropology.

In fact, Krauss also discovered the world as is in many ways, and those findings do not become wrong for the person he was, or was later found to be. But we must not restrict ourselves to the rightwrong axis, and navigate the goodbad axis as well.

In this time, I also became curious about non-white-male (but including trans-male) scientists who may have written on the same topic – the physics of climate change. So I went googling, finding quite a few results. My go-to response in such situations, concerning the fruits of a poisoned tree, has been to diversify sources – to look for other fruits – because then we also discover new scholarship and art, and empower conventionally disprivileged scholars and artists.

In this regard, the publishers of Krauss’s book also share blame (with Krauss’s universities, which empowered him by failing to create a safe space for students). If publishers are sticking with Krauss instead of, say, commissioning a professor from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, they are only embellishing preexisting prejudices. They reinforce the notion that they’d much rather redeem an unrepentant white man who has sinned than discover a new writer who deserves the opportunity more. So the publishers are only worsening the problem: they are effectively signalling to all guiltless perpetrators that publishers will help salvage what universities let sink.

At this point, another acquaintance offered a reconciliatory message: that while it’s unwise to dismiss misconduct, it’s also unwise to erase it. So it might be better to let it be but to take from it only the good stuff. Sage words, but therein lay another rub because of a vital difference between the power of fiction versus (what I perceive to be) the innate amorality of scientific scholarship.

Fiction inspires better aspirations and is significantly more redeemable as a result, but I don’t suppose we can take the same position on, say, the second law of thermodynamics or Newton’s third law of motion. Or can we? If you know, please tell me. But until I’m disabused of the notion, I expect it will continue to be hard for me to find a way to rescue the scholarship of a ‘tainted’ scholar from the taint itself, especially when the scholarship has little potential – beyond the implicit fact of its existence, and therefore the ‘freedom of research’ it stands for – to improve the human condition as directly as fiction can.

[Six hours later] I realise I’ve written earlier about remembering Richard Feynman a certain way, as well as Enrico Fermi – the former for misogyny and the latter for a troublingly apolitical engagement with America’s nuclear programme – and that those prescriptions, to remember the bad with the good and to remember the good with the bad, are now at odds with my response to Krauss. This is where it struck me the issue lay: I believe what works for Feynman should work for Krauss as well except in the case of Krauss’s new book.

Feynman was relatively more prolific, since he was also more of a communicator and teacher, than Fermi or Krauss. But while it’s impossible for me to escape the use of Feynman diagrams or Fermi-Dirac statistics if I were a theoretical particle physicist, I still have a choice to buy or boycott the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! (1985) with zero consequences for my professional career. If at this point you rebut that “every book teaches us something” so we can still read books without endorsing the authors themselves, I would disagree on the simple point that if you wish to learn, you could seek out other authors, especially those who deserve the opportunity of your readership more.

I expect for the reasons and uncertainty described earlier that the same can go for Krauss and The Physics of Climate Change as well: remember that Krauss was a good physicist and a bad man, and that he was a bad man who produced good physics, but even as other scientists stand on the shoulders of his contributions to quantum physics, I can and will skip The Physics of Climate Change.

Axiomatically, the more we insist that good science communication, an instance of which I believe the book is, is important to inculcate better public appreciation of scientific research, and in the long run improve funding prospects, increase public interest in science-backed solutions to societal problems, draw more students into STEM fields and hold the scientific enterprise accountable in more meaningful as well as efficacious ways, the more science communication itself becomes a stakeholder in the mechanisms that produce scientific work that universities capitalise on, that is currency of this whole enterprise.

Why we need *some* borders between us

Borders are often a bad thing because they create separation that is unconducive for what are generally considered to be socially desirable outcomes. And they’re often instituted to maximise political outcomes, especially of the electoral variety. However, as electoral politics – and the decisions politicians make leading up to elections – become increasingly divisive, the people’s perception of politics, especially among those belonging to the middle classes, simultaneously becomes more cynical. At one point, those engaged in less political activities could even begin to see politics as a meaningless enterprise engaged solely in furthering the interests of the powerful.

This is a wholly justified conclusion given the circumstances but it’s also saddening since this cynicism is almost always paid for by writing off all political endeavours, and all the borders they maintain – and it is even more saddening now, in this time of protests, riots, apathy and deaths among the poor of hunger, of all things. This particular point is worth highlighting more now because space, especially human spaceflight, is in the news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in history’s first crewed mission by a non-governmental company (that still subsists mostly on government funds).

For many decades, creators, engineers and officials alike have billed space as an escape, particularly in two ways. First, as a material volume of the universe that humanity is yet to occupy in any meaningful way, space is a frontier – a place other than Earth where there are some opportunities to survive but more importantly which could present a fresh start, a new way to do things that apparently benefits from millennia of civilisation on Earth that has only left us with great inequality and prejudice. Second, as a vast emptiness composed of literally nothing for billions of kilometres at a time, space imposes a ‘loneliness tax’ on Earth that – as many spaceflight entrepreneurs are fond of saying – should prompt us to remember that “we’re all in this together”.

However, the problem with both perspectives is that they gloss over borders, and when some borders disappear, our awareness of inequality disappears while inequality itself doesn’t. A common refrain aspiring spacefarers like to pitch is of the view of Earth from the Moon, accompanied by a gruff but nonetheless well-intentioned reminder that borders are of our own making, and that if we got rid of them and worked in humanity’s best-interests as a whole, we’d be able to achieve great things.

I call bullshit because without borders to constantly remind ourselves that invisible lines exist in the ground as well as in our minds that a Dalit or a black person can’t cross, no Dalit or black person – or even many women for that matter – can enter the spaceflight programme, leave alone get to the Moon.

More broadly, what many of those engaged in less-political work see as “unnecessary borders” are really discomfiting borders, a fact that became immutably apparent during India’s #MeToo uprising on Twitter in October-November 2018. Then, the mass of allegations and complaints pouring in every day indicated, among other things, that when inequality and discrimination have become ubiquitous, affording men and women equal opportunities by way of redressal can’t make the inequality and discrimination go away. Instead, women, and indeed all underprivileged groups, need affirmative action: to give more women, more Dalits, more black people, more transgender people, etc. access to more opportunities for a time until both the previously privileged groups and the newly privileged groups are on equal footing. It’s only then that they can really become equals.

A popular argument against this course of action has been that it will only create a new asymmetry instead of eradicating the old one. No; it’s important to recognise that we don’t need to eradicate privileges by eradicating opportunities, but to render privileges meaningless by ensuring all people have equal access to every new opportunity that we develop.

Another contention, though it doesn’t dress like a contention, is that we should also discuss why it’s important to have people of diverse identities around the table. But to me, this view is awfully close to the expectation of people from underprivileged groups to justify themselves, often more than those from privileged groups ever have for the same or equal positions. Instead, to quote Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru: “Deliberative democracy” – “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making” (source) – “is key to any well-ordered democratic society, both because it helps ensure that a variety of concerns are taken into account in democratic decision-making, and because it grants legitimacy to decision-making by making it participatory.”

This is why borders are important – to define groups that need to be elevated, so to speak; without them, our economic and political structures will continue to benefit who they always have. And this is also why borders not used to achieve socially desirable outcomes are nothing but divides.

More importantly from the spaceflight bros’ point of view, when the borders we do need are erased, space will mostly be filled with white men, and a proportionately fewer number of people of other racial, ethnic, gender and caste identities – if at all.

Featured image: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

Partial review: ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’ (2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil is a documentary series on Netflix that narrates the lives and actions of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, leading up to and during the Second World War. This is a partial review because it is based on watching eight episodes, of a total of ten, though I’m confident about publishing because I’m not sure the two remaining episodes will change my impression much.

What worked

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, it has been open season around the world to ridicule, denigrate and deride the group of men who tried to set up a pan-European fascist empire on the skulls and bones of millions of people they murdered to realise their grisly ambitions. They were Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Röhm and Martin Bormann, among others. Hitler’s Circle of Evil rests comfortably in this notion, that no one is ever going to think highly of these men (except neo-Nazis), and takes a shot at exploring the people, the humans, behind each monstrous visage.

At a time when newspaper editors in the US are pilloried when they attempt to humanise the madmen who pen supremacist creeds and then go on shooting sprees, humanising fascists is a dangerous proposition. But since the credentials of the first Nazis are such that they are quite unlikely to be mistaken for having been good people who did bad things owing to a conspiracy of circumstances, and because right-wing nationalists are finding increasing favour in the most powerful countries of the 21st century, Hitler’s Circle of Evil ends up being well-made (at least in spirit) and well-timed, serving an elaborate reminder that the champions of hate are people too, and by extension that people can be nasty.

Indeed, this is a remarkable series for those who haven’t pored through history books attempting to make sense of Hitler’s henchmen but have, like me, focused instead on the mechanics of the war itself. These men for the most part were sucking up to Hitler, to receive a pat on the back and a sliver of the Führer’s power, and less plotting against Jews and expanding lebensraum. This is what Hitler set up, this was the heart of the Third Reich: if you didn’t jostle, conspire and backstab for power, you would be pushed down the pecking order.

This paradigm often led to ridiculous outcomes – of the lol variety in Martin Bormann’s case and the wtf variety in Rudolf Hess’s. But in the final analysis it is clear that these were all small-minded, weak-spirited, weak-willed men, typified by Heinrich Himmler, who took advantage of the pitiable social circumstances of early 20th century Germany, with a bit of subversion of their own, to animate their innermost insecurities with political, industrial and finally military power.

The show’s vantage point is also interesting because it doesn’t take its eyes away from the inner circle and focuses from start to finish on the interpersonal dynamics of the Nazi leadership. Contrast this with the Second World War in the popular imagination – where it very easily, and therefore very commonly, becomes a grand vision: the dramatis personae are strewn across dozens of countries, mobilising their forces with ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks and troop-carriers, discussing strategies encompassing hundreds of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars and thousands of kilometres.

But according to Hitler’s Circle of Evil, the whole enterprise could alternatively emerge from the lives and relationships among a small coterie of people often to be found in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in south Germany, that antisemitism was really the populist cloak to hide their venal tendencies and desperate attempts to grab power. As a result some of the war’s more historic moments become flattened, notably the start of Operation Barbarossa, to a few simple considerations on Hitler’s part. On the other hand a lot of what was thought according to the popular narrative to be periods of boring politics or even quietude are brought roaring to life with intimate details of behind-the-scenes action.

What didn’t work

All this said, my principal concern about the show is that even as it holds a mirror to contemporary authoritarian nationalist regimes, and informs us that fascism then and now is the same wine in different bottles, whether the show’s makers traded off the relative importance of each henchman in the pre-war and war years for dramatic effect. Obviously a show that retells events that actually happened to piece together well-documented historical knowledge has little, if any, leeway to take liberties with the truth, but it is entirely possible to distort the picture by muting some portions.

The first sign of this in Hitler’s Circle of Evil comes through with the depiction of Rudolph Hess. Hess goes from being described mainly as Hitler’s groupie, and a smart one at that, who helped the Führer become the Führer and even helped him write Mein Kampf and introduced to him the idea of lebensraum, to being seen as a hypochondriac dolt. Both descriptions can obviously be applied to the same person but it is odd to make only a particular set of traits explicit at different points in the series, almost rendering Hess’s actions unexpected, even contrived.

I concede that expecting to learn everything about the people who shaped 1930s Germany on a single day is ridiculous, but Hitler’s Circle of Evil would have started off knowing this, and it is worth considering what the show could have done better.

Another notable issue is that we learn a lot about Hitler’s henchmen but not enough. The Nazis are commonly associated with antisemitism and a rarely matched propensity for violence, but the origins of these tendencies are barely discussed, certainly not beyond mentioning them as the reason the Nazi Party did X or Y. Hitler’s ambition of European domination, for instance, shows up out of the blue somewhere in episode 5. We know from historical texts why Hitler invaded Europe but the show itself does not do a good job of setting it out.

More broadly, we learn very little about Hitler himself, so there is often haziness about why exactly some decisions were taken or some events transpired, considering Hitler was the ultimate arbiter. By focusing on the ‘circle of evil’, the show bets too much on the henchmen and too little on the tyrant they orbit, and when many of the tyrant’s impetuses are absent from some scenes, they look insipid, even contrived.

Oh, and the kitschy acting. The kitschy acting does not work.


An unrelated note: the Berghof was Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, constructed under Martin Bormann’s supervision in 1935. In episode 5, Hitler’s Circle of Evil tours through its halls while the narrator talks about the Nazi Party beginning to devote its efforts towards drafting the plan that would come to be called the ‘Final Solution’.

The tour finally ends with views of the alps from the Berghof’s balconies and full-length windows. And here, the historian Roger Moorhouse takes over from the narrator: “There’s a curious paradox and it’s only really made sense of by the fact that there is a new morality, if you like, in inverted commas, within Nazism which allows people to be cultured, intelligent, educated, and at the same time espouse those most radical, hideous, racist ideas.”

This moment in the show is a disturbing one as it implies in an inescapable way that a beautiful sweeping view of verdant mountainsides in the passing embrace of a white cloud might dull one’s suffering, then memories of pain, then the pain of others and ultimately empathy itself. There between the limestone peaks of southern Germany, evil becomes banal.

Review: ‘Paatal Lok’ (2020)

I binge-watched Paatal Lok today, a show on Amazon Prime India about a cynical cop who is all too familiar with how the The System works and who gets a high profile case by chance – to investigate a conspiracy to assassinate a hotshot journalist. I highly recommend it. It is a gritty, neo-noir slow-burner that starts with the flame on high.

This said, you should avoid it if you are averse to violence. In fact, Paatal Lok‘s principal failing is that it is peppered with scenes filled with gratuitous violence – physical, verbal and systemic – especially against women, trans-women and young adults. There is considerable violence by and against adult men as well but I’m not sure that is nearly as disturbing. Most of it could have been avoided, or simply alluded to instead of being enacted in painstaking detail. (If you watch Tamil films: recall the sexual violence scenes in Super Deluxe, 2019.)

A second failing, if only to my eyes, is that Paatal Lok for most of it seems to offer a slice-of-life take on events except in its conclusion, where it wraps up many narrative arcs more optimistically than they might actually have panned out. (Again, if you watch Tamil films: recall the conclusion of Jigarthanda, 2014.) But if you can ignore this criticism or find a way to disagree with it, please do.

Paatal Lok showcases the politics-caste-crime nexus in India’s Hindi heartland, especially in and around Bundelkhand, and its intersection with mainstream journalism. It’s raw, no other way to put it, as it puts on display the primal nature of local politics, life and love where mafia money, caste violence and familial honour intermix freely. Ceaseless heat and dust, loud expletives, the bloated egos of politicians’ and businessmen’s sons, brandished guns set the tone. Mongrel dogs play an important part in shaping the fates of many characters but it’s really a dog-eat-dog world only for the humans, whether in the desolate gullies of rural Punjab or in the glitzy studios of TV news channels.

SPOILER STARTS

Funny thing is the journalist starts off accused of being a left-liberal but in the course of the show sells out and ends in the final scene and analysis as a government shill peddling the “Muslim terrorists are out to get India’s leaders” shit.

I don’t know who this portrayal, by Neeraj Kabi, does or doesn’t caricature but it seems both unlikely and unsurprising. I only hope it never becomes about me.

SPOILER ENDS

There are many things to write about Paatal Lok – and will be. It hit me specifically in two ways: first by taking the viewer closer to the Hindustan in Bundelkhand, and then with the trouble it takes to spotlight, lest it seem too subtle, the emptiness at the heart of Hindutva politics.

Every week you read news reports in the mainstream English press mentioning saffron politics directly or indirectly, based on which you develop an impression of how things are run in the Hindi heartland. (I assume here that you live far away, like I do in South India.) But these reports are too refined. They are either about the big picture or they summarise a few important events, and they almost always leave out the sweat- and blood-stained nitty-gritty stuff. This stuff is a constant presence in Paatal Lok.

The other presence is the other standout feature: political Hindutva’s heart of nothingness. In fact, the show is even a journalistic product: the characters and events may be fictitious but the social forces that shape them are quite real. Which political leader is abusing their power – the non-existent ‘Jiji’ Bajpayee or the very real Anurag Thakur – is as much in the public interest as how they abused their power. And as Paatal Lok peels away these impetuses from the actions of right-wing communalists and saffron-clad, flag-waving thugs, it finds an awkward, tasteless silence. This brand of politics is animated by nothing but opportunism, of Brahmin overlords’ ambitions and short-term ‘arrangements’.

In defence of ignorance

Wish I may, wish I might
Have this wish, I wish tonight
I want that star, I want it now
I want it all and I don’t care how

Metallica, King Nothing

I’m a news editor who frequently uses Twitter to find new stories to work on or follow up. Since the lockdown began, however, I’ve been harbouring a fair amount of FOMO born, ironically, from the fact that the small pool of in-house reporters and the larger pool of freelancers I have access to are all confined to their homes, and there’s much less opportunity than usual to step out, track down leads and assimilate ground reports. And Twitter – the steady stream of new information from different sources – has simply accentuated this feeling, instead of ameliorating it by indicating that other publications are covering what I’m not. No, Twitter makes me feel like I want it all.

I’m sure this sensation is the non-straightforward product of human psychology and how social media companies have developed algorithms to take advantage of it, but I’m fairly certain (despite the absence of a personal memory to corroborate this opinion) that individual minds of the pre-social-media era weren’t marked by FOMO, and more certain that they were marked less so. I also believe one of the foremost offshoots of the prevalence of such FOMO is the idea that one can be expected to have an opinion on everything.

FOMO – the ‘fear of missing out’ – is essentially defined by a desire to participate in activities that, sometimes, we really needn’t participate in, but we think we need to simply by dint of knowing about those activities. Almost as if the brains of humans had become habituated to making decisions about social participation based solely on whether or not we knew of them, which if you ask me wouldn’t be such a bad hypothesis to apply to the pre-information era, when you found out about a party only if you were the intended recipient of the message that ‘there is a party’.

However, most of us today are not the intended recipients of lots of information. This seems especially great for news but it also continuously undermines our ability to stay in control of what we know or, more importantly, don’t know. And when you know, you need to participate. As a result, I sometimes devolve into a semi-nervous wreck reading about the many great things other people are doing, and sharing their experiences on Twitter, and almost involuntarily develop a desire to do the same things. Now and then, I even sense the seedling of regret when I look at a story that another news outlet has published, but which I thought I knew about before but simply couldn’t pursue, aided ably by the negative reinforcement of the demands on me as a news editor.

Recently, as an antidote to this tendency – and drawing upon my very successful, and quite popular, resistance to speaking Hindi simply because a misguided interlocutor presumes I know the language – I decided I would actively ignore something I’m expected to have an opinion on but there being otherwise no reason that I should. Such a public attitude exists, though it’s often unspoken, because FOMO has successfully replaced curiosity or even civic duty as the prime impetus to seek new information on the web. (Obviously, this has complicated implications, such as we see in the dichotomy of empowering more people to speak truth to power versus further tightening the definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’; I’m choosing to focus on the downsides here.)

As a result, the world seems to be filled with gas-bags, some so bloated I wonder why they don’t just float up and fuck off. And I’ve learnt that the hardest part of the antidote is to utter the words that FOMO has rendered most difficult to say: “I don’t know”.

A few days ago, I was chatting with The Soufflé when he invited me to participate in a discussion about The German Ideology that he was preparing for. You need to know that The Soufflé is a versatile being, a physicist as well as a pluripotent scholar, but more importantly The Soufflé knows what most pluripotent scholars don’t: that no matter how much one is naturally gifted to learn this or that, knowing something needs not just work but also proof of work. I refused The Soufflé’s invitation, of course; my words were almost reflexive, eager to set some distance between myself and the temptation to dabble in something just because it was there to dabble. The Soufflé replied,

I think it was in a story by Borges, one of the characters says “Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he will be.” 🙂

To which I said,

That was when the world was simpler. Now there’s a perverse expectation that everyone should have opinions on everything. I don’t like it, and sometimes I actively stay away from some things just to be able to say I don’t want to have an opinion on it. Historical materialism may or may not be one of those things, just saying.

Please bear with me, this is leading up to something I’d like to include here. The Soufflé then said,

I’m just in it for the sick burns. 😛 But OK, I get it. Why do you think that expectation exists, though? I mean, I see it too. Just curious.

Here I set out my FOMO hypothesis. Then he said,

I guess this is really a topic for a cultural critic, I’m just thinking out loud… but perhaps it is because ignorance no longer finds its antipode in understanding, but awareness? To be aware is to be engaged, to be ‘caught up’ is to be active. This kind of activity is low-investment, and its performance aided by social media?

If you walked up to people today and asked “What do you think about factory-farmed poultry?” I’m pretty sure they’d find it hard to not mention that it’s cruel and wrong, even if they know squat about it. So they’re aware, they have possibly a progressive view on the issue as well, but there’s no substance underneath it.

Bingo.

We’ve become surrounded by socio-cultural forces that require us to know, know, know, often sans purpose or context. But ignorance today is not such a terrible thing. There are so many people who set out to know, know, know so many of the wrong ideas and lessons that conspiracy theories that once languished on the fringes of society have moved to the centre, and for hundreds of millions of people around the world stupid ideas have become part of political ideology.

Then there are others who know but don’t understand – which is a vital difference, of the sort that The Soufflé pointed out, that noted scientist-philosophers have sensibly caricatured as the difference between the thing and the name of the thing. Knowing what the four laws of thermodynamics or the 100+ cognitive biases are called doesn’t mean you understand them – but it’s an extrapolation that social-media messaging’s mandated brevity often pushes us to make. Heck, I know of quite a few people who are entirely blind to this act of extrapolation, conflating the label with the thing itself and confidently penning articles for public consumption that betrays a deep ignorance (perhaps as a consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect) of the subject matter – strong signals that they don’t know it in their bones but are simply bouncing off of it like light off the innards of a fractured crystal.

I even suspect the importance and value of good reporting is lost on too many people because those people don’t understand what it takes to really know something (pardon the polemic). These are the corners the push to know more, all the time, often even coupled to capitalist drives to produce and consume, has backed us to. And to break free, we really need to embrace that old virtue that has been painted a vice: ignorance. Not the ignorance of conflation nor the ignorance of the lazy but the cultivated ignorance of those who recognise where knowledge ends and faff begins. Ignorance that’s the anti-thing of faff.

Lord of the Rings Day

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you! (Previous editions: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014)

Every year I pen a commemorative piece about Lord of the Rings, and share something about the books and films that I think about nearly every day week. This year, I don’t have the strength, thanks to the workload due to the coronavirus pandemic, to say anything more than that you should take advantage of the lockdown – and the commute time it has likely saved you – to read more works of fantasy fiction.

It remains the single most rewarding thing in my life, even more than my blog, because fantasy as I’ve said before in quite clumsy terms is fractal. It recapitulates itself, especially its careful – or deliberately and absurdly careless – inventiveness, demanding more answers of the writer than any other form of fiction ever could simply because fantasy brings together three infinities: both what is and what isn’t that are the general attributes of all fiction plus the preserve of ‘are you frigging kidding me’. Reading good fantasy is sure to give you ideas of your own, to push towards (or away from) new worlds and new world-visions.

Fantasy is to my mind ergodic: riding its coattails, I get to visit all possibilities available to visit in the possibility-space of my mind; if I keep reading, I get to solipsistically encompass the worlds and world-visions of my fellow creators as well. Fantasy to me is newness, an endless font of it, in a world that has only been becoming more and more predictable; it is a secret place where goodness still lives, and on occasion even reaches a hand out and nudges me towards the right thing.

If I had been in Faramir’s shoes and stood before Denethor, bearing the full brunt of my father’s derision and being told he’d rather I had been killed instead of my brother, I would have done to him what he did to himself later: set him on fire. But Faramir rode out into a battle that he knew full well he was going to lose. Nothing about it was fair – just as nothing was fair about Anomander Rake’s tortuous, tortuous penance. Ours is a nasty world, and right and wrong aren’t always clear just as they might not have been to Faramir and Rake in moments of profound distress. In fact, the distinction is sometimes so blurry it might as well not be there.

When I’m lost for ideas, when I really don’t know what to do, when I would really like to just be told what I should do instead of having to think it up myself, I often turn to fantasy’s ideas about right and wrong, about what Faramir or Rake might have done, because fantasy is fundamentally empathetic in its alienness: its creations are often apart from this world – just as I feel sometimes, and you probably do too. It’s a place “infused with bright hope now so scarce in the realm of the real,” as a friend put it – a place to go when you don’t like this one (and from there to other places, picking and choosing what you like), and it’s a place that will let you go when you’d like to return, all in peace. The faith it demands is only the faith you’d like to give. What more could one want?

[Takes a break from the typing frenzy]

At least, good fantasy is all I want. And this Lord of the Rings Day, I invite you to take a short dip into a fantastic realm of your choice. If you’d like recommendations, I highly recommend starting with Lord of the Rings itself; if you’ve read that and want to try something more ambitious, try the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson or Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. If you’d like something that won’t consume the next three to five years of your life, I recommend Exhalation, a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang that I’m currently reading, or all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

If you’d like even more recommendations – or titles more gender-balanced, say – I also recommend recommendations by the following souls (all on Twitter):

  • @srividyatadpole
  • @thebekku
  • @dpanjana
  • @chitralekha_tcc
  • @notrueindian
  • @supriyan

There are many, many others, of course, but these people came immediately to mind.

I really need to get back to work now.

‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

Review: ‘Hunters’ (2020)

Just binge-watched the first season of Hunters, the bizarre Amazon Prime original about a covert group of Jews in 1970s’ New York city tracking down and killing Nazis who were integrated by the US government into American society under Operation Paperclip. It’s obvious how this premise could be presented through 10 hours of grit and moral dilemma but instead we get 10 hours of grit mixed with satire and melodrama – a combination that only brings a certain journalist’s words in 2013, delivered as a comment on a prominent newspaper’s suddenly disagreeable design, to mind: “pastiche and mishmash”.

I’m not sure what Hunters is trying to be, beyond a vessel for Al Pacino as its protagonist and patriarch, because its story is weak and the violence is neither realistic nor displays purpose; the only exception that everyone seems to be able to agree on, with good reason, is Jerrika Hinton as Agent Morris. But worst of all, the show gives more than ample screen-time for neo-Nazi characters to air their newly sharpened anti-Semitic and supremacist points of view.

Hunters seems to believe that such views are instantaneously and automatically disqualified by their implicit absurdity whereas the opposite is true. We live today in a world where conspiracy theories have moved from the fringes of society to the centre. So beyond the first time the Nazis are allowed to spew their bile, the show resembles porn for the sufficiently misguided bigot looking for a new language and new methods to assert his dominance. Makes you want to skip forward in cringe. Even the concentration camp scenes are awfully close to being voyeuristic.

Writing itself is fantasy

The symbols may have been laid down on paper or the screen in whatever order but when we read, we read the words one at a time, one after another – linearly. Writing, especially of fiction, is an act of using the linear construction of meaning to tell a story whose message will be assimilated bit by bit into a larger whole that isn’t necessarily linear at all, and manages to evade cognitive biases (like the recency effect) that could trick the reader into paying more attention to parts of the story instead of the intangible yet very-much-there whole. Stories in fact come in many shapes. One of my favourites, Dune, is so good because it’s entirely spherical in the spacetime of this metaphor, each of its concepts like a three-dimensional ouroboros, connected end to end yet improbably layered over, under and around each other. The first four Harry Potter books are my least favourite pieces of good fantasy for their staunch linearity, even despite the use of time travel.

The plot of Embassytown struggles with this idea a little bit, with its fraction-like representation of meaning using pairs of words. Even then, China Miéville has a bit of a climb on his hands: his (human) readers consume the paired words one at a time, first the one on the top then the one on the bottom. So a bit of translation becomes necessary, an exercise in projecting a higher dimensional world in which words are semantically bipolar, like bar magnets each with two ends, onto the linguistic surface of one in which the words are less chimerical. Miéville is forced to be didactic (which he musters with some reluctance), expending a few dozen pages constructing rituals of similes the reader can employ to sync with the Ariekei, the story’s strange alien characters, but always only asymptotically so. We can after all never comprehend a reality that exists in six – or six-thousand – dimensions, much the same way the Higgs boson’s existence is a question of faith if you’re unfamiliar with the underlying mathematics and the same way a human mind and an alien mind can never truly, as they say, connect.

Arrival elevates this challenge, presenting us with alien creatures – the ‘heptapods’ – the symbols of whose communication are circular, each small segment of the circumference standing for one human word and the whole assemblage for meaning composed by a non-linear combination of words. I’m yet to read the book by Ted Chiang on which the film is based; notwithstanding the possibility that Chiang has discussed their provenance, I wonder if the heptapods think a complex thought that is translated into a clump of biochemical signals that then encode meaning in a stochastic process: not fully predictably, since we know through the simpler human experience that a complicated idea can be communicated using more than one combination of simpler ideas. One heptapod’s choice could easily differ from that of another.

The one human invention, and experience if you will, that recreates the narrative anxiety encoded in the Ariekei’s and heptapods’ attempts (through their respective authors’ skills, imagination, patience and whatever else) to communicate with humans is writing insofar as the same anxiety manifests in the use of a lower order form – linearity – to construct a higher order image. Thus from the reader’s perspective the writer inhabits an inferior totality, and the latter performs a construction, an assimilation, by synthesising the sphericity and wholeness of a story using fundamentally linear strands, an exercise in building a circle using lines, and using circles to build a sphere, and so forth.

Writing a story is in effect like convincing someone that an object exists but having no way other than storytelling to realise the object’s existence. Our human eyes will always see the Sun as a circle but we know it’s a sphere because there are some indirect ways to ascertain its sphericity, more broadly to ascertain the universe exists in three dimensions at least locally; the ‘simplest’ of these ways would be to entirely assume the Sun is spherical because that seems to simplify problem-solving. However, say one writer’s conceit is that the Sun really exists in eight dimensions and goes on to construct an elaborate story of adventure, discovery and contemplation to convince the reader that they’re right.

In this sense, the writer would draw upon our innate knowledge of the universe in three dimensions, and our knowledge and experience of the ways in which it and isn’t truthful, to build an emergent higher-order Thing. While this may seem like a work of science and/or fantasy fiction, the language humans use to build all of their stories, even the nonfiction, renders every act of story-telling a similarly architecturally constructive endeavour. No writer commences narration with the privilege of words meaning more than they stand for in the cosmos of three dimensions and perpetually forward-moving time nor sentences being parsed in any way other than through the straightforward progression of a single stream of words. Everything more complicated than whatever can be assembled with two-dimensional relationships requires a voyage through the fantastic to communicate.

Peter Higgs, self-promoter

I was randomly rewatching The Big Bang Theory on Netflix today when I spotted this gem:

Okay, maybe less a gem and more a shiny stone, but still. The screenshot, taken from the third episode of the sixth season, shows Sheldon Cooper mansplaining to Penny the work of Peter Higgs, whose name is most famously associated with the scalar boson the Large Hadron Collider collaboration announced the discovery of to great fanfare in 2012.

My fascination pertains to Sheldon’s description of Higgs as an “accomplished self-promoter”. Higgs, in real life, is extremely reclusive and self-effacing and journalists have found him notoriously hard to catch for an interview, or even a quote. His fellow discoverers of the Higgs boson, including François Englert, the Belgian physicist with whom Higgs won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013, have been much less media-shy. Higgs has even been known to suggest that a mechanism in particle physics involving the Higgs boson should really be called the ABEGHHK’tH mechanism, include the names of everyone who hit upon its theoretical idea in the 1960s (Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C.R. Hagen, Higgs, Tom Kibble and Gerardus ‘t Hooft) instead of just as the Higgs mechanism.

No doubt Sheldon thinks Higgs did right by choosing not to appear in interviews for the public or not writing articles in the press himself, considering such extreme self-effacement is also Sheldon’s modus of choice. At the same time, Higgs might have lucked out and be recognised for work he conducted 50 years prior probably because he’s white and from an affluent country, both of which attributes nearly guarantee fewer – if any – systemic barriers to international success. Self-promotion is an important part of the modern scientific endeavour, as it is with most modern endeavours, even if one is an accomplished scientist.

All this said, it is notable that Higgs was also a conscientious person. When he was awarded the Wolf Prize in 2004 – a prestigious award in the field of physics – he refused to receive it in person in Jerusalem because it was a state function and he has protested Israel’s war against Palestine. He was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament until the group extended its opposition to nuclear power as well; then he resigned. He also stopped supporting Greenpeace after they become opposed to genetic modification. If it is for these actions that Sheldon deemed Higgs an “accomplished self-promoter”, then I stand corrected.

Featured image: A portrait of Peter Higgs by Lucinda Mackay hanging at the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Edinburgh. Caption and credit: FF-UK/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.