Awards week

I went into this year’s Nobel Prize Announcements Week a little confused about why I was excited. For me the prizes have always highlighted the recipients’ work, and that’s likelier than not a field of study I’ve probably never heard of (with the exceptions being physics – though I don’t presume I’m familiar with all of it – and, occasionally, literature), but then I’m also forced to think about whether the institution of the prizes isn’t becoming outmoded. It probably is; in fact, with physics I can say more forcefully that many of its rules already are out of another era.

But before I could write the obligatory criticism, an amazing article by Roberta Sinatra et al appeared in Nature Physics, titled A century of physics. Using Web of Science data, it discusses not just how and why the breadth of physics literature has increased over the years but also the motivations of the various sub-fields that have emerged under physics – especially concerning the growing need for multidisciplinarity, a topic that the Nobel Prizes for physics aren’t equipped to acknowledge. Check the piece out if you’ve the time, it’s deliciously detailed.

Anyway, as the announcements started to roll in, it was simply fortunate that the first two (for medicine/physiology and physics) afforded critical perspectives on India – allowing me to substitute the “Are the Nobels important” question with the “Is this how we screwed up” question. You could argue that this is in fact a subtle acknowledgement of the Nobel Prizes’ importance – it is but only insofar as I can say “Here’s what not winning a Nobel tells us about how we’re screwing up in xyz situations”. To wit: With the medicine prize, I used the example of Youyou Tu’s finding artemisinin with the guidance of an ancient Chinese text to look at how India’s popularising its ancient knowledge the wrong way. An excerpt:

And here emerges an instructive lesson about what Tu did differently – to not just extract artemisinin but also to preserve the dignity as well as intellectual context of Ge Hong’s work in which she found her answer. After she extracted an effective form of artemisinin in 1972, Tu arranged for its structure to be studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1975, performed clinical trials in accordance with the best practices of the field by 1977, published her research (though not in English until the 1980s due to the prevailing political environment), and finally participated in the study of large-scale production mechanisms.

What was demonstrated at the ISC in January, on the other hand, belies a lazier attempt at translating old knowledge into newer contexts. The current government’s support for phylotherapy allows researchers to forward non-peer-reviewed results in obscure, self-published journals that do nothing to advance its contents’ credibility when a better alternative would have been to organise and digitise the literature, make it more accessible, and support credible institutions in exploring the knowledge – blend the ancient with the modern, so to speak.

The physics prize was easier to connect to India: it went for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, to study which India is supposed to be building a neutrino observatory but isn’t thanks to political impediments (though not entirely environmental impediments). Again, an excerpt:

Building on similarly advanced principles of detection, India and China are also constructing neutrino detectors.

At least, India is supposed to be. China on the other hand has been labouring away for about a year now in building the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO). India’s efforts with the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in Theni, Tamil Nadu have, on the other hand, ground to a halt. The working principles behind both INO and JUNO are targeted at answering the mass-ordering questions. And if answered, it would almost definitely warrant a Nobel Prize in the future.

INO’s construction has been delayed because of a combination of festering reasons with no end in sight. The observatory’s detector is a 50,000-ton instrument called the iron calorimeter that is to be buried underneath a kilometre of rock so as to filter all particles but neutrinos out. To acquire such a natural shield, the principal institutions involved in its construction – the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (Matscience) – have planned to hollow out a hill and situate the INO in the resulting ‘cave’. But despite clearances acquired from various pollution control boards as well as from the people living in the area, the collaboration has faced repeated resistance from environmental activists as well as politicians who, members of the collaboration allege, are only involved for securing political mileage.

I like to imagine that such analytical comparisons are a curious, twisted reflection of a larger trend playing out in my glorious country. While the way we’re doing some of our science and pseudoscience is actively repelling international recognition, many winners of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, conferred for literary excellence, are returning their trophies decrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence over the Dadri lynching incident as well as the religiously motivated persecution and murder of rationalists that Nayantara Sahgal, who kicked off the returnings, called a “reign of terror”.

Circling back: The chemistry prize, however, I couldn’t make much sense of. My friend Akshat Rathi was quicker: for example, he told me how the prize, for “mechanistic studies of DNA repairs”, had overlooked this year’s Lasker Award winners (traditionally, these awardees are likelier to be Nobel Laureates). And finally, the literature prize – announced today – was a brilliant stroke of luck simply because it was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, two of whose books I’ve actually read (one of which I highly recommend: Voices from Chernobyl). I wrote about her here.

Incidentally, The Wire also had a couple pieces concerning the Nobel Prize before the announcements rolled in: one to talk about the CRISPR/Cas9 tool for gene editing by Nandita Jayaraj and another, by me, that discussed plausible reasons why three particular Indians were passed up for the prize (M.K. Gandhi, Meghnad Saha and Satyen Bose).