That astrology workshop at the IISc

Couple caveats:

  1. I wrote this post on the night of October 28, before the workshop was cancelled on the morning of October 29. I haven’t bothered to change the tense because issuing this caveat at the top seemed simpler.
  2. A highly edited version of this post was published on The Wire on the morning of October 29. It’s about half as long as the post below, so if you’re looking for a TL;DR version, check that out.

A friend of mine forwarded this to me on October 28:

The poster for IIScAA's astrology workshop

I’m sure you can see the story writing itself: “IISc, a bastion of rational thinking and among the last of its kind in India, has capitulated and is set to host a workshop on astrology – a subject Karl Popper considered the prime example of how pseudoscience should be defined – on November 25. The workshop is being organised by the IISc Alumni Association, and will be conducted by M.S. Rameshaiah, who holds a BE in mechanical engineering from IISc and a PG diploma in patents law from NALSAR. He retired as a scientist from the National Aerospace Laboratories.”

But this is an old point. As R. Prasad, the science editor of The Hindu, wrote on his blog, an astrology workshop popping up somewhere in the country was only a matter of time, not possibility. What’s more interesting is why there’s a hullabaloo and who’s raising it. As the friend who forwarded the poster said, “Hope you guys carry this or put some pressure.”

Prasad’s conversation with Rameshaiah moves along the line of why this workshop has been organised – and this is the line many of us (including myself) would assume at first. IISc is one of India’s oldest modern research institutions. It wields considerable clout as a research and academic body among students, researchers and policymakers alike, and it has thus far remained relatively free of political interference. Its own faculty members do good science and are communicative with the media.

So all together, people who regularly preach the scientific temper and who grapple with scientific knowledge as if it existed in a vacuum like to do so on the back of socially important institutions like the IISc. It’s an easy way out to establish dignity – like how part-time writers often use quotable quotes as if they carry some authority.

The problem is, they don’t. And in the same way, it’s not entirely fair to use the IISc as a champion of the idea of success-through-rationalism because it’s an academic and research institution engaged in teaching its students about the sciences, and it doesn’t teach them by exclusion. It doesn’t teach them by describing what is not science but by inculcating what is.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is the primary issue with Rameshaiah’s workshop: calling astrology a “scientific tool” from within an institution that teaches students, and the people at large, about what science is. If it had been called just a “tool”, there wouldn’t have been (much of) a problem. By attaching the prefix of “science”, Rameshaiah is misusing the name of the IISc to bring credibility to his personal beliefs. The secondary issue is whether IISc stands to lose any credibility by association: of course it does.

So there are two distinct issues to be addressed here:

  1. Of an astrology workshop being hosted by the IISc AA, and
  2. Of an astrology workshop in general

The second issue is arguably more interesting because the first issue seems concerned only with chasing an astrology workshop outside the premises of a research institution. And once it is chased out, can we be sure that the same people will be concerned, especially meaningfully, about quelling all astrology workshops everywhere? I’m not so sure.

Of an astrology workshop in general

While the readers of this blog will agree, as I do, that astrology is not a science, can we agree that it is a “tool”? Again, while the readers of this blog will claim that it is a pseudoscience that, in Popper’s (rephrased) words, “destroyed the testability of their theory in order to escape falsification”, it also bears asking why faith in astrology persists in the first place.

Is it because people have not been informed it’s a pseudoscience or is it because there is no record of their religious beliefs – in which one’s faith in astrology is also embedded – having let them down in the last many generations? To put it in Popper’s terms, astrology may not be falsifiable but how many people are concerned with its falsifiability to begin with?

Many people of the community to which I belong believe in astrology. They are Brahmins, quite well to do, ranging in affluence from the upper middle class to the upper class. Many of them have held positions of power and influence, and many of the same people believe that the alignment of the stars in the sky influences their fortunes. Falsifiability is, to them, an intellectual exercise that doesn’t add to their lives. Astrological beliefs and the actions thus inspired, on the other hand, get them through their days and leave them feeling better about themselves.

Where I see Rameshaiah’s workshop inflicting real damage is not among such people, who can afford to lose some of their money and not have to give a damn. Where the problem comes to be is with subaltern communities – from whom astrology has the potential to siphon limited resources and misappropriate their means to ‘status’ mobility (e.g., according to Prasad, Rameshaiah is charging Rs 2,000 per person for the two-day workshop). Additionally, how such beliefs infiltrate these communities is also worth inspecting. For example, astrology is the stranglehold of Brahmins – and to liberate Dalits from the idea that astrology is a valid method of anything is, in a sense, a fight against casteism.

In the Indian socio-economic system, it’s easier to sink to the bottom than to rise to the top. In such a system, rationalism, some principles from the Bhagavad Gita and hope alone won’t cut it if you’re trying to swim upstream simply because of the number of institutional barriers in your way (especially if you’re also of a lower caste). Consider the list of things to which your access is highly limited: education, credit, housing, sanitation, employment, good health, etc. In this scenario, is it any surprise that no one is concerned about falsification as long as it promises a short way out to the upper strata of society?

Ultimately, and in the same vein, what will be more effective in eliminating belief in astrology is not eliminating astrology itself as much as eliminating one’s vulnerability to it. To constantly talk about eradicating beliefs in pseudoscientific ideas from society is to constantly ignore why these ideas take root, to constantly ignore why scientific ideas don’t inspire confidence – or to constantly assume that they do. On the last count, I’m sure many reasons will spring to mind, among them our education, bureaucracy, politics, culture, etc; pseudoscience only exists in their complex overlap.

This is all the more reason to stop fixating on Rameshaiah’s conducting the workshop and divert our attention to who has decided to attend and why. This is not an IISc course; it’s a workshop organised by the institution’s alumni association and as such is not targeted at scientists (in case the question arose as to why would a layperson approach a scientist for astrological advice). In fact, we’re only questioning the presence of an astrology workshop in the midst of a scientific research institution. We’re not questioning why astrology workshops happen in the first place; we must.

Because if you push Rameshaiah down, then someone else like him is going to pop up in a difference place. This is a time when so many of us seem smart enough to ask questions like “What will air filters do when you’re not addressing the source of pollution” or “Why are you blaming women for putting up lists willy-nilly accusing men of sexual harassment when you realise that due process is a myth in many parts of India and reserved for the privileged where it isn’t”. In much the same way, why isn’t it sensible to ask why people believe in astrology instead of going hammer and tongs with falsification?

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

Some empathy for Treebeard’s privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Some empathy for Treebeard's privilege

There’s a line from The Two Towers (2002) that’s really stayed with me:

I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.

It’s spoken by Treebeard, the Ent, to one of Meriadoc/Peregrin when asked whose side he was on: Saruman’s or the Fellowship’s. At first glance, it seems a fair answer because nobody has been bothered about the plight of the Ents since Saruman set up shop at Isengard. On second thought, however, you wonder what good it did to anyone when they didn’t bother to make their voices heard. If you shied away from political participation when it mattered, is it any surprise that you were subsequently excluded from decisions that impact you? And then, on third, it becomes pertinent to ask why the onus is on a community that has been continuously disenfranchised to speak up and make itself count. And so forth.

There are many parallels here to conversations that are had in the news everyday. Neha Sinha’s latest piece for The Wire is founded on almost the same premise: In the film Newton, the forest of Dandakaranya, its being a proxy for ecological democracy practiced by the Gond tribe that inhabits it, and the security forces’ relationship with the flora stands in for Tolkien’s Ents. It is not on the Gond to stand up and be counted.

I digress. As the headline of this post suggests, I’m on Treebeard’s side to the extent that I’m on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side. However, I’m not an Ent in Middle Earth; I’m a privileged upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking male – an acknowledgement that needs to be articulated because, even if I choose to be on nobody’s side and extricate myself from all proceedings, my privilege will get many things done for me. And the ‘proceedings’ I speak of is the news. I don’t have to keep myself abreast of all the political, financial, economic and judicial happenings in the country. As a journalist I might have to but as a citizen, I don’t. My skipping an important political development impacts – rather has impacted – my life as much as my bunking a class in engineering college has: not at all.

I don’t want to follow the news anymore. The bulk of it is faeces-flinging, from one side of the ideological aisle to the other. The bulk of it is mostly posturing unto the fulfilment of myopic goals, aimed at winning skirmishes but losing all sight of the war. And most of it is self-indulgent populism in that most news publishers print/publish what the people want to read; if this is not true, we’d be reading a lot more of non-mainstream writing (in English at least, the only language I read the news in). As I’ve said multiple times before, it’s important to sell. But on the flipside, I don’t see anyone even thinking about trying to sell something new. For example, as a recent dinner conversation with two friends concluded, where do you go to look for Indian literary journalism?

Of course, some news outlets – like The Wire (where I work) – are trying to move away from this featureset by ensuring that only the journalists at The Wire get to decide what to cover and what not to cover; the only other stakeholder in our enterprise is the reader, so axiomatically there are no business or political interests dictating our agenda. However, my specific ire is directed at a subset of what even The Wire has been trying to do, a subset that represents a perception of the news that no single news outlet can attempt to modify by itself. Specifically, I’m on no journalist’s side because no journalist is on my side – the side that believes that political journalism is not the raison d’être of the fourth estate.

This isn’t a call (muted though it is) to eradicate political journalism. I’m saying that political journalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of the practice of journalism. Granted, the national polity is the ultimate seat of all power in the country, the Well of Eternity from which all life on Azeroth flows. But to prioritise the coverage of it over many other topics is, to me, a quiet surrender. Journalists flock to it because it’s easy to score ‘hits’ with; you draw blood by covering politics, and ‘change the world’ therewith, because the blood flows thick and fast there. But when was the last time news organisations attempted to draw blood from suppressed veins? To put it in less sanguine terms: when was the last time news organisations tried to investigate parts of our reality where power festers but not ostentatiously?

To me, in many ways, this is the physical world and the natural laws that govern it, the world where groups of people called scientists undertake expeditions – intellectually and otherwise – to unravel the foundations of civilisation as well as destiny. Science journalism is only another vantage point, just the way politics and business are vantage points, from which to survey our lives. However, to ignore one in favour of the Others simply because the Others are easier to communicate, easier to resonate with, is a copout. In fact, I believe that the blood flows thick and fast in cis-/peri-science matters as well; many simple don’t know where to look nor are interested.

Some also argue that science by itself won’t suffice to effect change, that it has to be coupled with policy, i.e. with an outside-in gaze. However, this is mostly the view of science from politics’ point of view, whereby political considerations influence our engagement with science. What is lacking is the other way round: where, for example, there is a public debate about why people who clean the toilets in a household can’t also cook in the same household, where a confrontation is encouraged between the chemistry of disinfectants and the socio-cultural beliefs rooted in caste traditions – instead of sidelining scientific knowledge to the margins.

This clause I’ve marked in italics is an indictment of the media, not of anyone else, because the media space is where it is the most lacking. Where activists and their allies on the ground might be going from door to door explaining how disinfectants work to the uninitiated, where educationists and young schoolchildren will be teaching each other about the deleterious effects of burning sulphur-laden firecrackers during Deepavali, most journalists have briefly cited this or that bit of research and moved on to discuss the social, cultural, political, etc. implications. In other words, it’s not that scientific knowledge alone must dictate our public life; that would be disastrous. It’s that, at least in my opinion, science gets less space than it truly deserves in the way we compose, and consume, our news.

Instead, our ideas of ‘newness’ within the context of journalism, at least in India, have become boxed in. ‘New media’ has become limited to the use of unfamiliar mediums to communicate the same thing we were communicating before in new ways. From what I’ve seen, there is a vanishing amount of introspection in most newsrooms about why we cover news the way we do, how the invention of different communication technologies influenced that decision, and what parts of the hitherto sidelined topics do new technologies open up.

If we don’t ask this question more often of ourselves as journalists, I fear political news is going to remain the mainstay of mainstream journalism in India, a traffic-hogging bully that shoves other, possibly more meaningful points of view down.

Featured image: Treebeard in ‘The Two Towers’. Source: YouTube.

Appa Rao Podile made fellow of science academy that published his problem paper – some questions

Appa Rao Podile, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, has been elected a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in spite of one of his three papers – which The Wire had identified in April 2016 as containing evidence of plagiarism – having been published by the academy. According to the citation, he “has made important contributions in the field of plant-microbe interactions. His work on chitinases has enabled the development of alternatives to toxic antifungal compounds for plant protection.”

INSA is one of India’s three science academies. The other two are the National Academy of Sciences and the Indian Academy of Sciences. Between them, they’ve formally divvied up an agenda of three portfolios. The National Academy of Sciences handles women in science; the Indian Academy of Sciences handles science education. And INSA, ironically, handles ethics.

The paper Appa Rao had coauthored (and for which he also the lead author) and published by the journal Proceedings of the INSA in 2014 was titled ‘Root Colonisation and Quorum Sensing are the Driving Forces of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) for Growth Promotion’. It contained six instances of plagiarism – the most among the three papers. After The Wire had reported on the offence, Appa Rao assumed complete responsibility and apologised for his mistakes. Proceedings of the INSA also issued a clarification accompanying the paper.

Two scientists I spoke to said on condition of anonymity that Appa Rao Podile’s election only damaged the credibility of the academy. Om Prasad, a history student at JNU, added, “He cannot be a role model for any aspiring researcher in the sciences or in academia in general” for having handled the Rohith Vemula suicide and protests the way he did (almost completely devoid of dignity) and for his plagiarism in various papers.

This is an issue I’d explored in January this year, when Appa Rao had been awarded the ‘Millennium Plaque of Honour’ by the Indian Science Congress (ISC). The plaque is awarded every year by the congress’s organisers to ’eminent’ scientists. In a time when the ISC’s credibility has been flagging, and considered by many scientists to be a waste of time, it is odd that the award would be given to someone whose administrative and academic credentials are in question. I expected the INSA also would’ve had similar considerations – but no.

I’d asked A.K. Sood (INSA president), Subhash Lakhotia (senior scientist at the academy) and Lahiri Majumdar (plant sciences editor of the Proceedings of the INSA) about these issues. In response, I got a carefully worded statement from Alok K. Moitra, the secretary of fellowships at the academy. I’ve pasted the bulk of it below; only one paragraph has been left out because it discussed a set of emails exchanged between INSA members and me last year.

The question of plagiarism in an article published by him and his colleagues in one of the issues of the Proceedings of the INSA was thoroughly examined by the editorial office of the journal immediately following the allegation made by you in April 2016. The examination revealed that although there were instance of similarities in five-six isolated sentences with some earlier publications, none of them would qualify for typical plagiarism since these did not pertain to someone else’s data. These were general statements, some of which may not need any specific citation as such. Being general in nature, they are also likely to share variable strings of words. Nevertheless, the authors did publish a note of apology in a later issue of our journal for inadvertent identity/similarity of a few isolated sentences in the published paper with those in some other papers.

The INSA Council while discussing the election of Professor Appa Rao Podile to fellow of INSA considered this allegation and decided that the allegation of plagiarism was without merit. His election to the Fellowship of INSA is based on his scholastic research contributions.

§

Based on these facts, I have a few questions. But before that, a short note (just in case for some idiotic readers who comment on a story without reading it first): I’m not saying at all that we forgive Appa Rao Podile for the way he dealt with the students and faculty at the University of Hyderabad campus (under political pressure to boot) as well as for the way he conducted himself when a police inquiry was initiated against him.

1. Appa Rao admitted to his mistake and issued a correction and an apology (subsequently publicised by the journal). His misconduct wasn’t in the experiment but in the descriptive part of the paper. Prasad argued that none of this exculpates him – but this is quite in opposition to what former UGC chairman Praveen Chaddah had written in 2014: that entire papers shouldn’t be retracted or dumped when misconduct like plagiarism is confined to the paper’s descriptive parts and doesn’t spillover into the data or experiment itself. I don’t know where I myself stand, but I think there’s some introspection to be done here about whether we’re being too strict apropos Appa Rao’s plagiarism infraction because of his role in the University of Hyderabad protests, violence, etc.

2. An obvious follow-up question arises: when we’re felicitating a scientist for his scientific accomplishments and electing him as a fellow of a reputed science academy, are we allowed to pull up the academy for not having considered his non-scientific work as well? (I realise this is a loaded question because it suggests that I’m not going to be happy with the academy until it recants its fellowship offer, but no – I’m actually curious.)

3. Are we paying attention to the academy itself only because it has elected a controversial fellow? I know my answer is ‘yes’. India has three science academies and they rarely ever feature in public conversations about science in India, so it feels somewhat embarrassing to suddenly consider the INSA to be important. And part two: do we expect all the fellows at India’s science academies to be role models? If we’re going after Appa Rao now because he’s not been a model citizen, shouldn’t we be asking such questions of all the fellows of the three academies?

4. Should our consternation at Appa Rao’s election be directed towards Appa Rao or towards INSA? Common sense would dictate that we divert our scrutiny towards INSA. And we immediately realise that as much as Appa Rao had erred in plagiarising in his paper, INSA had also erred in publishing the document without checking it for plagiarism first. We find further that the INSA guidelines for the election of new fellows is insipid, making no room to consider the possibility that some scientists may be great with the science but jerks at other things. There are also no guidelines for what actions it would take against a fellow should he be implicated for some offence in the future (and gradations therein). What happens when the fellow of a science academy commits murder? (Can you imagine anyone rushing to find out what INSA/IAS/NAS is saying?)

Update: I’d had a follow up question for Moitra, to which I received a reply late yesterday.

Q: Apart from Appa Rao’s academic credentials, did INSA consider his administrative track record at the University of Hyderabad? Did it consider the fact that a fact-finding team (of three well-regarded academics) concluded that Appa Rao had acted unethically and in a way damaging to the reputation of the University during his term as VC? Wouldn’t Appa Rao’s election to the academy thus seem as if – as long as a scientist does good science, his other transgressions can be ignored?

A.K.M.: In our earlier response, we did state that the election was based on scholastic achievement. Administrative failures/successes can be subjective impressions depending upon from which angle one looks at it. Election to fellowship is essentially on the basis of scientific contributions. However, only if there are established cases of wrong-doing as judged by the judiciary system of the country, the election would not be made in spite of scholastic achievements.

Featured image: Appa Rao Podile. Credit: YouTube.

Gigernama / ‘A man dressed in black with a tube under his arm’

On May 12, 2014, about half a week before the Lok Sabha election votes were to be counted, ahead of the result that would catapult the BJP to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament, H.R. Giger passed away. I didn’t hear about it until two days later, on May 14. I remember dropping whatever I was doing – which was quite a bit because Counting Day was almost upon us – rushing over to the Sunday Magazine desk and pitching an obituary for Giger to Baradwaj Rangan. I was commissioned 20 seconds later, and I was done two hours later.

As far as I was concerned, it was very, very bad news. With his death, Giger’s repertoire was finished, complete, finito; there wasn’t going to be any more new material. I could complete his obituary in such a short span of time not because I was familiar with his creative output – familiarity would imply I understood what was going on; I didn’t. If anything, I was just a kindred soul – with many fears and terrors, and little faith in solace or hope. It was a world, and worldview, that Giger the artist had helped validate.

Yesterday, I’d met a friend for coffee and – as our conversation about the future of science journalism meandered on – we happened to be talking about sci-fi Netflix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and, soon, Giger. I don’t remember how we got there except that one of us had mentioned Dune and the other had been very excited to meet a fellow Dune fan. We hugged. After exchanging a few notes about having had a childhood equal parts traumatised and enlivened by the Necronomicon, my friend mentioned that there was a documentary about Giger released sometime in 2014. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.

So yesterday, I completed all the tasks on my to-do list, grabbed some early dinner, and shut myself off in my room. I’d decided that for old times’ sake I was going to gift myself some masochistic mindfuck: I was going to watch the documentary, called Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

[One hundred minutes later] I’m incredibly glad I did.

[Early next morning] No excuse is weak enough for me to revisit, rediscuss, reanalyse and reconsume the brilliance of Giger – as if being able to enjoy an old and favourite track for the first time. And Dark Star was a fecund, almost extortionate, excuse.

For example, fifteen minutes into it, a few lines – spoken by Hanz Kunz, a poster-maker, and Leslie Barany, Giger’s agent – confirmed what I’d suspected about him for long: despite the intricate methods and symmetries depicted in his images, Giger didn’t have an artistic process; he intuited his symbols and their placement on his canvas. Barany: “I thought he was channeling something and I don’t believe in those things.” Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist: “Giger was the medium through which Another World was introducing itself to us.”

That intuition was akin to a mysterious agent speaking guy through him, call it your subconscious or your true self or whatever. Giger really tapped into that, terrified himself with it, remained terrified with it as he worked; as he says, “When I put it on canvas, I have some sense of command over it. It’s healing for me.” Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, his wife, says, “Giger’s art has the same effect as nigredo, the blackness, an alchemical ritual that begins by looking at the dark night of the soul.”

Li Tobler, Giger’s first partner and who committed suicide in 1975, embodied the struggle that he had won as a little boy of six – the struggle to recognise and acknowledge what it is that we’re truly afraid of, the struggle to not self deny, the struggle to honestly explore reprehensions. She had had a Catholic and puritanical upbringing but her lover was an artist so gleeful when, on the sets of Alien, he explains to someone that though he had to change the opening of the xenomorph’s egg from a vaginal slit because the producers hoped to be able to air the film to Catholic audiences as well, he was pleased that he could give the opening four flaps to “doubly offend the church”. But when he says in Dark Star that his art could not do much to help her deal with her depression, it’s as if his art was all he had to give her. That is a silencing moment.

H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from 'Dark Star'
H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from ‘Dark Star’

In fact, Giger had a rare set of privileges: to have been able to explore the darkest recesses of the human condition, to have confronted those demons through his art, and to have ultimately reconciled with the shape of those horrors. His paintings and sculptures extend us – the viewers – that privilege. Sometimes that makes me wonder if there is something to be said for the creative process Giger uses, if that takes away some of the edge since Giger has visualised his demons from scratch. Is he as terrified as one of his fans when he beholds one of his finished products? Or, to Giger, is the process of creating his demons more therapeutic than is the moment of beholding his demons frightening?

Nonetheless, his privileges prevail. As I wrote in his obituary, Giger’s extensive journeys through the wombs of horror revealed that rotting corpses and camisado surprises are not the stuff of fear. We are. Our terrors are of our own making – fevers about the peri-normal, about what we’ll find when we open new doors, break taboos, burst into life from tabula rasa unto the innate. Kunz/Barany: “His art has this quality, an element of reality combined with his own fantasies, and what makes it stronger is the reality, not the fantasy.”

The metal in his paintings and sculptures twisted and bent in ways that no metalsmith would attempt to achieve. Semblances of humans, human forms, caught up in the workings of otherworldly engines, monochrome lips and spring-loaded breasts grafted around solenoids, crania tubula labia shot through with tentacular electric cables, Tesla coils and Jacob’s ladders of homuncular bullets. It was easy to get lost in this frightening order of symbols, for each one of us to behold this visage and to take away a seedling of serial nightmares. Giger’s visualisations were all together pareidolia as public good – where except faces you saw something you didn’t want to see, something you’ve known all your life but hidden away…

And in Dark Star, Giger himself looks terrified, as if he knows something is coming. There is a remarkable scene where his assistant says Giger’s house is big enough for the ageing artist to disappear into, to become one with the house itself, that he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Right after that, the cinematographer goes looking for Giger in the house, slowly exploring passages, corridors, crawling with building apprehension through tubes crisscrossing the house in much the same way Giger contemplated perinatal misgivings.

It can be difficult to communicate the brand of horror that Giger stood for, a deep existential visceral soulful tension, an unassailable yet unspeakable awareness of a darkness, a knot of shame festering in our hearts and minds. But explore Giger’s house with the impending frightful sight of a terrified old man who’s seen the faces of hell and it will unseat you somehow. Whence that fear, that anxiety? What do we fill in the blanks of our reality with?

Featured image: H.R. Giger in a scene from Dark Star.

Gigernama / 'A man dressed in black with a tube under his arm'

On May 12, 2014, about half a week before the Lok Sabha election votes were to be counted, ahead of the result that would catapult the BJP to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament, H.R. Giger passed away. I didn’t hear about it until two days later, on May 14. I remember dropping whatever I was doing – which was quite a bit because Counting Day was almost upon us – rushing over to the Sunday Magazine desk and pitching an obituary for Giger to Baradwaj Rangan. I was commissioned 20 seconds later, and I was done two hours later.

As far as I was concerned, it was very, very bad news. With his death, Giger’s repertoire was finished, complete, finito; there wasn’t going to be any more new material. I could complete his obituary in such a short span of time not because I was familiar with his creative output – familiarity would imply I understood what was going on; I didn’t. If anything, I was just a kindred soul – with many fears and terrors, and little faith in solace or hope. It was a world, and worldview, that Giger the artist had helped validate.

Yesterday, I’d met a friend for coffee and – as our conversation about the future of science journalism meandered on – we happened to be talking about sci-fi Netflix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and, soon, Giger. I don’t remember how we got there except that one of us had mentioned Dune and the other had been very excited to meet a fellow Dune fan. We hugged. After exchanging a few notes about having had a childhood equal parts traumatised and enlivened by the Necronomicon, my friend mentioned that there was a documentary about Giger released sometime in 2014. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.

So yesterday, I completed all the tasks on my to-do list, grabbed some early dinner, and shut myself off in my room. I’d decided that for old times’ sake I was going to gift myself some masochistic mindfuck: I was going to watch the documentary, called Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

[One hundred minutes later] I’m incredibly glad I did.

[Early next morning] No excuse is weak enough for me to revisit, rediscuss, reanalyse and reconsume the brilliance of Giger – as if being able to enjoy an old and favourite track for the first time. And Dark Star was a fecund, almost extortionate, excuse.

For example, fifteen minutes into it, a few lines – spoken by Hanz Kunz, a poster-maker, and Leslie Barany, Giger’s agent – confirmed what I’d suspected about him for long: despite the intricate methods and symmetries depicted in his images, Giger didn’t have an artistic process; he intuited his symbols and their placement on his canvas. Barany: “I thought he was channeling something and I don’t believe in those things.” Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist: “Giger was the medium through which Another World was introducing itself to us.”

That intuition was akin to a mysterious agent speaking guy through him, call it your subconscious or your true self or whatever. Giger really tapped into that, terrified himself with it, remained terrified with it as he worked; as he says, “When I put it on canvas, I have some sense of command over it. It’s healing for me.” Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, his wife, says, “Giger’s art has the same effect as nigredo, the blackness, an alchemical ritual that begins by looking at the dark night of the soul.”

Li Tobler, Giger’s first partner and who committed suicide in 1975, embodied the struggle that he had won as a little boy of six – the struggle to recognise and acknowledge what it is that we’re truly afraid of, the struggle to not self deny, the struggle to honestly explore reprehensions. She had had a Catholic and puritanical upbringing but her lover was an artist so gleeful when, on the sets of Alien, he explains to someone that though he had to change the opening of the xenomorph’s egg from a vaginal slit because the producers hoped to be able to air the film to Catholic audiences as well, he was pleased that he could give the opening four flaps to “doubly offend the church”. But when he says in Dark Star that his art could not do much to help her deal with her depression, it’s as if his art was all he had to give her. That is a silencing moment.

H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from 'Dark Star'
H.R. Giger speaks in a scene from ‘Dark Star’

In fact, Giger had a rare set of privileges: to have been able to explore the darkest recesses of the human condition, to have confronted those demons through his art, and to have ultimately reconciled with the shape of those horrors. His paintings and sculptures extend us – the viewers – that privilege. Sometimes that makes me wonder if there is something to be said for the creative process Giger uses, if that takes away some of the edge since Giger has visualised his demons from scratch. Is he as terrified as one of his fans when he beholds one of his finished products? Or, to Giger, is the process of creating his demons more therapeutic than is the moment of beholding his demons frightening?

Nonetheless, his privileges prevail. As I wrote in his obituary, Giger’s extensive journeys through the wombs of horror revealed that rotting corpses and camisado surprises are not the stuff of fear. We are. Our terrors are of our own making – fevers about the peri-normal, about what we’ll find when we open new doors, break taboos, burst into life from tabula rasa unto the innate. Kunz/Barany: “His art has this quality, an element of reality combined with his own fantasies, and what makes it stronger is the reality, not the fantasy.”

The metal in his paintings and sculptures twisted and bent in ways that no metalsmith would attempt to achieve. Semblances of humans, human forms, caught up in the workings of otherworldly engines, monochrome lips and spring-loaded breasts grafted around solenoids, crania tubula labia shot through with tentacular electric cables, Tesla coils and Jacob’s ladders of homuncular bullets. It was easy to get lost in this frightening order of symbols, for each one of us to behold this visage and to take away a seedling of serial nightmares. Giger’s visualisations were all together pareidolia as public good – where except faces you saw something you didn’t want to see, something you’ve known all your life but hidden away…

And in Dark Star, Giger himself looks terrified, as if he knows something is coming. There is a remarkable scene where his assistant says Giger’s house is big enough for the ageing artist to disappear into, to become one with the house itself, that he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Right after that, the cinematographer goes looking for Giger in the house, slowly exploring passages, corridors, crawling with building apprehension through tubes crisscrossing the house in much the same way Giger contemplated perinatal misgivings.

It can be difficult to communicate the brand of horror that Giger stood for, a deep existential visceral soulful tension, an unassailable yet unspeakable awareness of a darkness, a knot of shame festering in our hearts and minds. But explore Giger’s house with the impending frightful sight of a terrified old man who’s seen the faces of hell and it will unseat you somehow. Whence that fear, that anxiety? What do we fill in the blanks of our reality with?

Featured image: H.R. Giger in a scene from Dark Star.

Taking the ringdown route to understanding the humans of science

What follows is an attempt to process and understand Cassandra Willyard’s post on Last Word on Nothing, about her preferring the humanised stories of science over the stories of the science itself (“Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion”; my previous post on this is here). He words have been weighing on my mind – as they have been on others’ – because of the specific issues that they explored: humanising the process of science, and to be able to look at all science stories through the humanised lens. By humanising the process of science, it’s not that the science takes a backseat; instead, the centrepiece of the story is the human. Creating such stories is obviously not a problem for/to anyone. The problems come to be when, per the second issue, people start obsessing over such stories.

At this point, I’m not speaking for anyone but myself; nor is my post written in the usual upside-down pyramid style, rather the other way round. Second: I deviate significantly from Willyard’s post’s demesne because I’m just following my thoughts-current on the subject. I’m tempted to use a metaphor: that of the ringdown, the phase when two blackholes that have merged settle down into a stable, unified shape.

I

By virtue of not being about people, or humans in general, science stories without the human component are a hard-sell. Willyard’s right when she says that humans are interested in stories about other humans – but I think what she’s taking for granted here is that humans being interested only in stories about other humans is fair. It’s definitely tenable, but is it fair? The sense of fairness in this context emerges from the idea that it’s not okay for us to consume – while we’re alive the one time we are – only that which immediately affects us. Instead, we must make room for the truly wonderful, and identify and appreciate the kinds of beauty that transcend utility, that would be beautiful from all points of view and not just our own.

If such appreciation had been shared by all consumers of journalism, then producing pure-science stories would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s anything but. This is why advocating for the persistent humanisation of science is almost offensive: humanised science sells very well; it does not need a shot in the arm, nor a platform like Last Word on Nothing, to help its cause. It is an economically privileged form of science journalism that has no right to complain.

To be sure, Willyard is neither calling for the persistent humanisation of science nor is she complaining that humanised stories of science are not the norm. That said, however, I feel that she is downplaying the importance of non-humanised science stories from a very pragmatic perspective: her grounds are that they’re not emotional enough – which suggests she’s saying that emotions are important. Why? Emotions are easy to market; emotions are easy tools of interpersonal communication, especially ones that can transcend language, culture and enterprise.

A part of my indignation towards her post emerges from this endpoint: the axiomatic inference that that which lacks emotions is unimportant, and that such a suggestion disparages an entire branch of science communication that seeks to explore science without simultaneously exploring the human condition. What also contributes to my sentiment being what it is is the fact that Willyard is a science journalist – she’s one of us – and for her to make such distinctions, for her to declare such preferences without also exploring their underlying economics, feels like she’s being either myopic or selfish.

(I must clarify that though I’ve used big words like ‘selfish’, I’m feeling them in a more diluted form.)

II

Humanised science is almost populist as well. In India, many newsrooms publish such stories without having to call it science, and they don’t. They’re disguised as ‘science and society’, ‘science policy’, ‘higher education’, ‘public administration’, etc. You, my reader, consume these kinds of science stories regularly, without having to be lured into the copy or being given extra incentives. You’re definitely interested.

… except for one small genre of the whole thing: pure science, the substrate on which all else that you’re reading about is founded, but which has over time become sidelined, ostracised into the ‘Other’, the freak show reserved for nerds and geeks, the thing which scares you without making you question that fear. (“I’m scared of math! I gave up working with numbers a long time ago.” Why the actual fuck? “No idea. I see an equation and I’m just scared.”)

The reason I’m so riled up (which I didn’t realise until I began writing this sentence – and that’s why I write this blog) was something I recently discussed with my friend O.A. at a party organised by The Wire. That was when I’d first heard about C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ essay, which O.A. mentioned in the context of a spate of news reports discussing hydrological issues in agriculture.

O.A. said, “People don’t understand how water works in agriculture. I read something about someone trying to estimate how much water a crop uses in a season and then, with that information, trying to determine how much water we’re losing across our borders when we export that crop to other countries. The whole method is so stupid.” (This conversation happened a few months ago, so I’m rephrasing/paraphrasing.)

It really is stupid: evaluating agriculture – even when at the level of a single crop sown in one reason in a single acre of land – in terms of just one of the resources it utilises makes no sense. Moreover, the water used to grow a crop does not rest in the produce; it seeps into the soil, runs off, evaporates, it reenters our local ecosystems in so many ways. What made this ‘analysis’ stupider was that (a) it appeared in a leading business daily and (b) the analyst was a senior bureaucrat of some kind.

O.A. went on to describe a fundamental disconnection between the language of India’s policymakers and the language of India’s farmers and labourers, a disconnection he said was only symptomatic of the former’s broad-brushstroke ideas being so far removed from the material substance of the enterprises they were responsible for regulating. He then provided some other examples: fuel subsidies for fishermen, petroleum distribution, solar power grid-feeding, etc.

This kind of disconnection comes to be when you know more about the logistics of a product or service than about how its physical nature defines its abilities and limitations. And more often than not, investigations of this physical nature neither require nor benefit from having their ‘stories’ humanised. There are so many natural wonders that populate the world we engage with, that have quietly but surely revolutionised our lives in many ways, whose potential to enhance–

III

Fuck, there I go, thinking about the universe in terms of humans. I concede that it’s a very fine line to inhabit – exploring our universe without thinking about humans… Maybe I should just get it out of my system: without understanding how the universe works, we as a species cannot hope to forever improve our quality of life; and, disconcertingly, this includes the act of being awed by natural beauty! It’s like Joey’s challenge to Phoebe in Friends: “There are no selfless acts.”

BUT we first do need to understand how the universe works in non-human, non-utilitarian terms. Asking if such a thing is even possible is a legitimate question but I also think that’s a separate conversation. We consume the pure science that we do because it’s what caught someone else’s fancy, it’s what a scientific journal is pushing in our faces, it’s what a scientist is thinking about in a well-funded research lab in the First World. There are many biases to overcome before we can truly claim to be in the presence of unadulterated/unmitigated beauty, before we can have that conversation about whether objective beauty really exists. However, the way to begin would be by acknowledging these biases exist and working to overcome them.

To those asking why should we at all – I’d have said “we should because I think so, and it’s up to you to trust me or not”, but I don’t because a lot of science writers around the world feel the same way, which means we have something in common. I don’t know what this something is but, thanks to the wellspring of responses Willyard’s post received, I know that I must find out.

Finally, I know that Willyard’s post doesn’t preclude all these possibilities. It simply asks that we get those uninterested in physics to give a damn by using the humans of physics as a conduit of interestingness. After all, the human condition may be a vanishingly small part of the cosmic condition that we partake of, that we have used to construct civilisation, and everything else out there may be cold, cold space – but humans are the way the universe examines itself.

My reservations exist in a very specific context: that of science journalism in India, specifically the India of pseudoscience, fake news, caste conflicts and broken education. In this context, I’m constantly anxious about becoming a selloff – a writer who gives up someday and trades his conviction in the power of pure science to help us think more clearly about our fraught communities and governments off in exchange for easy career progression.

fin.

Featured image: A simulation showing a binary blackhole pair (as seen by a nearby observer) spiralling around each other before they merge. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Lensing/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On that ‘Last Word on Nothing’ post

A post published on the Last Word On Nothing blog yesterday has been creating quite the stir on Twitter. Excerpt:

While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. …

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

Cassandra Willyard, the post’s author, was writing about the neutron-star collision announcement from LIGO. Many of those who are dissing the point the post is making are saying that Willyard is vilifying the ‘school’ of science writing that focuses on the science itself over its relationship with the human condition. I think she’s only expressing her personal opinion (as the last line in the excerpt suggests) – so the levels of indignation that has erupted in some pockets of the social media over these opinions suggests Willyard may have touched off some nerves.

I myself belong to the school that prefers to excite science readers over the science itself over its human/humanist/humanitarian aspects. In the words of Tracy, who wrote them as a comment on Willyard’s post,

So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

And I will concede from personal experience that it’s quite difficult as a result to sell such stories to one’s editors as well as readers. I’ve written about this many times before, e.g. here; edited excerpt:

I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. It should be okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. Okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope that QCD will save lives, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to profit from all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions.

For many people in this ‘school’, this fight is almost personal because it’s arduous and requires tremendous conviction, will and resilience on one’s part to see coverage of such kind through. In this scenario, to have a science writer come forward and say “I won’t write about this science because I don’t understand this science” can be quite dispiriting. It’s a science writer’s job to disentangle some invention, discovery or whatever and then communicate it to those who are interested in knowing more about it. So when Willyard writes in her post that “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over” – it’s a public abdication of an important responsibility, and arguably one of the most complicated responsibilities in journalism in the Information Age thanks to its fiercely non-populist nature.

(Such a thing happened recently with Natalie Wolchover as well. Her words – written against topological physics – were more disappointing to come across because Wolchover writes very good physics pieces for Quanta. And while she apologised for the “flippancy” of her tweet shortly after, saying that she’d been in a hurry at 5.45 am, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment that shouldn’t receive wider coverage without the necessary qualifications. So my thanks to Chad Orzel for the thread he published in response.)

However, it must be acknowledged that the suggestion Willyard makes (in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is quite on point. To have to repeatedly pander to the human condition in one way or another when in fact you think the science in and of itself is incredibly cool can become frustrating over time – but this doesn’t mean that a fundamental disconnect between writers like me and the statistically average science reader out there doesn’t exist. If I’m to get her attention, then I’ve found from experience that one must begin with the humans of science and then flow on to the science itself. As Alice Bell recommends here, you start upstream and go downstream. And once you’ve lured them in, you can begin to discuss the science more freely.

(PS: Some areas of Twitter have gone nuts, claiming Willyard shouldn’t be called a science journalist. I’m making no such judgment call. To be clear, I’m only criticising a peer’s words. I still consider Willyard to be a science journalist – though my fingers cry as I type this because it’s so embarrassing to have to spell it out – and possibly a good one at that going by her willingness to introspect.)

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

On that 'Last Word on Nothing' post

A post published on the Last Word On Nothing blog yesterday has been creating quite the stir on Twitter. Excerpt:

While I can appreciate that this is an important scientific discovery, I still have a hard time mustering excitement over gravitational waves. I would not have read these articles had I not embarked on this experiment. And I wanted to stop reading some of these articles as I was conducting the experiment. Space is not my thing. I don’t think it ever will be, at least not without a concerted effort on my part to get a basic handle on physics and astronomy. …

Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion. You can explain gravitational waves using the cleanest, clearest, most eloquent words that exist — and you should! — but I want the story of the scientists in all their messy, human glory.

Cassandra Willyard, the post’s author, was writing about the neutron-star collision announcement from LIGO. Many of those who are dissing the point the post is making are saying that Willyard is vilifying the ‘school’ of science writing that focuses on the science itself over its relationship with the human condition. I think she’s only expressing her personal opinion (as the last line in the excerpt suggests) – so the levels of indignation that has erupted in some pockets of the social media over these opinions suggests Willyard may have touched off some nerves.

I myself belong to the school that prefers to excite science readers over the science itself over its human/humanist/humanitarian aspects. In the words of Tracy, who wrote them as a comment on Willyard’s post,

So many amazing things happen in this universe without a human noticing it, reflecting on it, understanding it, being central to it. So many wondrous mysteries abound despite the ego. The human story is just one of billions.

And I will concede from personal experience that it’s quite difficult as a result to sell such stories to one’s editors as well as readers. I’ve written about this many times before, e.g. here; edited excerpt:

I couldn’t give less of a fuck for longer pieces, especially because they’re all the same: they’re concerned with science that is deemed to be worthy of anyone’s attention because it is affecting us directly. And I posit that they’ve kept us from recognising an important problem with science journalism in the country: it is becoming less and less concerned with the science itself; what has been identified as successful science journalism is simply a discussion – no matter how elaborate and/or nuanced – of how science impacts us. Instead, I’d love to read a piece reported over 5,000 words about molecules, experiments, ideas. It should be okay to want to write only about particle physics because that’s all I’m interested in reading. Okay to want to write only about this even if I don’t have any strength to hope that QCD will save lives, that Feynman diagrams will help repeal AFSPA, that the LHC will accelerate India’s economic growth, that the philosophies of fundamental particles will lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. I haven’t been presented with any evidence whatsoever to purchase my faith in the possibility that the obscurities of particle physics will help humans in any way other than to enlighten them, that there is neither reward nor sanction in anxiously bookending every articulation of wonder with the hope that we will find a way to profit from all of our beliefs, discoveries and perceptions.

For many people in this ‘school’, this fight is almost personal because it’s arduous and requires tremendous conviction, will and resilience on one’s part to see coverage of such kind through. In this scenario, to have a science writer come forward and say “I won’t write about this science because I don’t understand this science” can be quite dispiriting. It’s a science writer’s job to disentangle some invention, discovery or whatever and then communicate it to those who are interested in knowing more about it. So when Willyard writes in her post that “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over” – it’s a public abdication of an important responsibility, and arguably one of the most complicated responsibilities in journalism in the Information Age thanks to its fiercely non-populist nature.

(Such a thing happened recently with Natalie Wolchover as well. Her words – written against topological physics – were more disappointing to come across because Wolchover writes very good physics pieces for Quanta. And while she apologised for the “flippancy” of her tweet shortly after, saying that she’d been in a hurry at 5.45 am, that’s precisely the sort of sentiment that shouldn’t receive wider coverage without the necessary qualifications. So my thanks to Chad Orzel for the thread he published in response.)

However, it must be acknowledged that the suggestion Willyard makes (in the second paragraph of the excerpt) is quite on point. To have to repeatedly pander to the human condition in one way or another when in fact you think the science in and of itself is incredibly cool can become frustrating over time – but this doesn’t mean that a fundamental disconnect between writers like me and the statistically average science reader out there doesn’t exist. If I’m to get her attention, then I’ve found from experience that one must begin with the humans of science and then flow on to the science itself. As Alice Bell recommends here, you start upstream and go downstream. And once you’ve lured them in, you can begin to discuss the science more freely.

(PS: Some areas of Twitter have gone nuts, claiming Willyard shouldn’t be called a science journalist. I’m making no such judgment call. To be clear, I’m only criticising a peer’s words. I still consider Willyard to be a science journalist – though my fingers cry as I type this because it’s so embarrassing to have to spell it out – and possibly a good one at that going by her willingness to introspect.)

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

Hair conditioners and immortality

I’m not a fan of cosmetic products whatsoever. The most I use is a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, a smaller bottle of coconut oil and the occasional earbud. Maybe a bottle of deodorant when I’ve been out in the sun overlong. But recently, when I made a trip to Delhi, more than one person noticed that I don’t moisturise and suggested that I do. I wasn’t embarrassed because my anti-cosmetics line is, or was, one of principle: they’re unnecessary products of the consumerist culture. Look no further than the hair conditioner: there’s no reason shampoos can’t be chemically engineered to condition one’s hair as well – but no. Two products means double the revenue, especially if they can be marketed and sold together.

However, the advice about moisturising struck me. While it is redundant in Chennai (especially for me; I grew up in the city and have skin used to high humidity and naturally oily hair), moisturisers are almost mandatory to have healthy skin in Delhi. The national capital has dry weather all year round except during the monsoon spell, around July. During summers, hot, dry winds blow through the city, transforming it into a Bessemer converter. During winters, cold, dry winds move like sludge through the air, cracking skin everywhere in minutes. So from this perspective, what could be overkill in Chennai is a necessity in Delhi.

This in turn recalls a more important and consequential distinction that has occasionally surfaced in anti-vaccination propaganda, among other contexts. Humans live much longer today than they did, say, 500 years ago because we invented antibiotics in the intervening period – and we as a species accomplish more in a single generation today than we did ever before in history as a result. But are antibiotics cosmetic? The answer would be a ready ‘no’ if humans had some sort of moral obligation to live longer. But do we?

What will simplify this consideration is acknowledging that the obligation we do have is to improve the quality of life. Thanks to antibiotic prescriptions, we spend fewer hours in a lifetime tending to diseases, and we lose fewer years to disabilities. However, not all kinds/forms of medication are dedicated to making us live better lives. For example, a study published in March 2017 by researchers from the University of New South Wales announced the discovery of a cellular mechanism the manipulation of which slowed down, and even eliminated, ageing in mice. The researchers said that human trials are set to begin later this year. Notwithstanding any negative outcomes during the trials, will the introduction of an anti-ageing drug in the market be equivalent to the introduction of a new hair conditioner? In other words, the question is whether increased human lifespan is equivalent to, or even a subset of, a better quality of life.

The UNSW team isn’t alone in its pursuit. While it had found a way to improve cells’ ability to repair their DNA in case of damage, a research group from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Minnesota, claimed in 2016 that they could make mice live longer by causing such problem cells to self-destruct. Peter de Kezier, a scientist at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, the Netherlands, had told The Guardian at the time: “Maybe when you get to 65 you’ll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You’ll go for your rejuvenation shot.”

In the same year, a group from the Salk Institute in California announced that it had slowed ageing in mice by 30% by replacing the problem cells with pluripotent stem cells. The group’s leader Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte had said, “We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality. There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of ageing. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan but most importantly health-span.” I assume by ‘health-span’ he means the number of years lived in good health – and this is interesting.

All these anti-ageing studies have one thing in common: they started out trying to eliminate age-related diseases, and now are pursuing anti-ageing therapies as a way to eliminate those diseases. So should such therapies become commonplace, they will improve the quality of life by making us less susceptible to those diseases. But this is not the same as walking into a clinic once every five years for an anti-senescence shot or a rejuvenation shot just to live longer. The latter feels less principled, probably because it will shape up to be more of an enhancement of the quantity of life than of the quality of life. The ones having lived for longer as a result will also have been those who could afford all those shots.

In other words, it sounds just like hair conditioner.

Featured image credit: tookapic/pixabay.