A revolutionary exoplanet

In 1992, Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail became the first astronomers to publicly announce that they had discovered the first planets outside the Solar System, orbiting the dense core of a dead star about 2,300 lightyears away. This event is considered to be the first definitive detection of exoplanets, a portmanteau of extrasolar planets. However, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were recognised today with one half of the 2019 Nobel Prize for physics for discovering an exoplanet three years after Wolszczan and Frail did. This might be confusing – but it becomes clear once you stop to consider the planet itself.

51 Pegasi b orbits a star named 51 Pegasi about 50 lightyears away from Earth. In 1995, Queloz and Mayor were studying the light and other radiation coming from the star when they noticed that it was wobbling ever so slightly. By measuring the star’s radial velocity and using an analytical technique called Doppler spectroscopy, Queloz and Mayor realised there was a planet orbiting it. Further observations indicated that the planet was a ‘hot Jupiter’, a giant planet with a surface temperature of ~1,000º C orbiting really close to the star.

In 2017, Dutch and American astronomers studied the planet in even greater detail. They found its atmosphere was 0.01% water (a significant amount), it weighed about half as much as Jupiter and orbited 51 Pegasi once every four days.

This was surprising. 51 Pegasi is a Sun-like star, meaning its brightness and colour are similar to the Sun’s. However, this ‘foreign’ system looked nothing like our own Solar System. It contained a giant planet much like Jupiter but which was a lot closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun.

Astronomers were startled because their ideas of what a planetary system should look like was based on what the Solar System looked like: the Sun at the centre, four rocky planets in the inner system, followed by gas- and ice-giants and then a large, ringed debris field in the form of an outer asteroid belt. Many researchers even thought hot Jupiters couldn’t exist. But the 51 Pegasi system changed all that.

It was so different that Queloz and Mayor were first met with some skepticism, including questions about whether they’d misread the data and whether the wobble they’d seen was some quirk of the star itself. However, as time passed, astronomers only became more convinced that they indeed had an oddball system on their hands. David Gray had penned a paper in 1997 arguing that 51 Pegasi’s wobble could be understood without requiring a planet to orbit it. He published another paper in 1998 correcting himself and lending credence to Queloz’s and Mayor’s claim. The duo received bigger support by inspiring other astronomers to take another look at their data and check if they’d missed any telltale signs of a planet. In time, they would discover more hot Jupiters, also called pegasean planets, orbiting conventional stars.

Through the next decade, it would become increasingly clear that the oddball system was in fact the Solar System. To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of over 4,100 exoplanets. None of them belong to planetary systems that look anything like our own. More specifically, the Solar System appears to be unique because it doesn’t have any planets really close to the Sun; doesn’t have any planets heavier than Earth but lighter than Neptune – an unusually large mass gap; and most of whose planets revolve in nearly circular orbits.

Obviously the discovery forced astronomers to rethink how the Solar System could have formed versus how typical exoplanetary systems form. For example, scientists were able to develop two competing models for how hot Jupiters could have come to be: either by forming farther away from the host star and then migrating inwards or by forming much closer to the star and just staying there. But as astronomers undertook more observations of stars in the universe, they realised the region closest to the star often doesn’t have enough material to clump together to form such large planets.

Simulations also suggest than when a Jupiter-sized planet migrates from 5 AU to 0.1 AU, its passage could make way for Earth-mass planets to later form in the star’s habitable zone. The implication is that planetary systems that have hot Jupiters could also harbour potentially life-bearing worlds.

But there might not be many such systems. It’s notable that fewer than 10% of exoplanets are known to be hot Jupiters (only seven of them have an orbital period of less than one Earth-day). They’re just more prominent in the news as well as in the scientific literature because astronomers think they’re more interesting objects of study, further attesting to the significance of 51 Pegasi b. But even in their low numbers, hot Jupiters have been raising questions.

For example, according to data obtained by the NASA Kepler space telescope, which looked for the fleeting shadows that planets passing in front of their stars cast on the starlight, only 0.3-0.5% of the stars it observed had hot Jupiters. But observations using the radial velocity method, which Queloz and Mayor had also used in 1995, indicated a prevalence of 1.2%. Jason Wright, an astronomer at the Pennsylvania State University, wrote in 2012 that this discrepancy signalled a potentially deeper mystery: “It seems that the radial velocity surveys, which probe nearby stars, are finding a ‘hot-Jupiter rich’ environment, while Kepler, probing much more distant stars, sees lots of planets but hardly any hot Jupiters. What is different about those more distant stars? … Just another exoplanet mystery to be solved…”.

All of this is the legacy of the discovery of 51 Pegasi b. And given the specific context in which it was discovered and how the knowledge of its existence transformed how we think about our planetary neighbourhoods and neighbourhoods in other parts of the universe, it might be fair to say the Nobel Prize for Queloz and Mayor is in recognition of their willingness to stand by their data, seeing a planet where others didn’t.

The Wire
October 8, 2019

Disentangling entanglement

There has been considerable speculation if the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for physics, due to be announced at 2.30 pm IST on October 8, will include Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger. They’ve both made significant experimental contributions related to quantum information theory and the fundamental nature of quantum mechanics, including entanglement.

Their work, at least the potentially prize-winning part of it, is centred on a class of experiments called Bell tests. If you perform a Bell test, you’re essentially checking the extent to which the rules of quantum mechanics are compatible with the rules of classical physics.

Whether or not Aspect, Zeilinger and/or others win a Nobel Prize this year, what they did achieve is worth putting in words. Of course, many other writers, authors, scientists, etc. have already performed this activity; I’d like to redo it if only because writing helps commit things to memory and because the various performers of Bell tests are likely to win some prominent prize, given how modern technologies like quantum cryptography are inflating the importance of their work, and at that time I’ll have ready reference material.

(There is yet another reason Aspect and Zeilinger could win a Nobel Prize. As with the medicine prizes, many of whose laureates previously won a Lasker Award, many of the physics laureates have previously won the Wolf Prize. And Aspect and Zeilinger jointly won the Wolf Prize for physics in 2010 along with John Clauser.)

The following elucidation is divided into two parts: principles and tests. My principal sources are Wikipedia, some physics magazines, Quantum Physics for Poets by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill (2011), and a textbook of quantum mechanics by John L. Powell and Bernd Crasemann (1998).



From the late 1920s, Albert Einstein began to publicly express his discomfort with the emerging theory of quantum mechanics. He claimed that a quantum mechanical description of reality allowed “spooky” things that the rules of classical mechanics, including his theories of relativity, forbid. He further contended that both classical mechanics and quantum mechanics couldn’t be true at the same time and that there had to be a deeper theory of reality with its own, thus-far hidden variables.

Remember the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment: place a cat in a box with a bowl of poison and close the lid; until you open the box to make an observation, the cat may be considered to be both alive and dead. Erwin Schrödinger came up with this example to ridicule the implications of Niels Bohr’s and Werner Heisenberg’s idea that the quantum state of a subatomic particle, like an electron, was described by a mathematical object called the wave function.

The wave function has many unique properties. One of these is superposition: the ability of an object to exist in multiple states at once. Another is decoherence (although this isn’t a property as much as a phenomenon common to many quantum systems): when you observed the object. it would probabilistically collapse into one fixed state.

Imagine having a box full of billiard balls, each of which is both blue and green at the same time. But the moment you open the box to look, each ball decides to become either blue or green. This (metaphor) is on the face of it a kooky description of reality. Einstein definitely wasn’t happy with it; he believed that quantum mechanics was just a theory of what we thought we knew and that there was a deeper theory of reality that didn’t offer such absurd explanations.

In 1935, Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen advanced a thought experiment based on these ideas that seemed to yield ridiculous results, in a deliberate effort to provoke his ‘opponents’ to reconsider their ideas. Say there’s a heavy particle with zero spin – a property of elementary particles – inside a box in Bangalore. At some point, it decays into two smaller particles. One of these ought to have a spin of 1/2 and other of -1/2 to abide by the conservation of spin. You send one of these particles to your friend in Chennai and the other to a friend in Mumbai. Until these people observe their respective particles, the latter are to be considered to be in a mixed state – a superposition. In the final step, your friend in Chennai observes the particle to measure a spin of -1/2. This immediately implies that the particle sent to Mumbai should have a spin of 1/2.

If you’d performed this experiment with two billiard balls instead, one blue and one green, the person in Bangalore would’ve known which ball went to which friend. But in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) thought experiment, the person in Bangalore couldn’t have known which particle was sent to which city, only that each particle existed in a superposition of two states, spin 1/2 and spin -1/2. This situation was unacceptable to Einstein because it was inimical certain assumptions on which the theories of relativity were founded.

The moment the friend in Chennai observed her particle to have spin -1/2, the one in Mumbai would have known without measuring her particle that it had a spin of 1/2. If it didn’t, the conservation of spin would be violated. If it did, then the wave function of the Mumbai particle would have collapsed to a spin 1/2 state the moment the wave function of the Chennai particle had collapsed to a spin -1/2 state, indicating faster-than-light communication between the particles. Either way, quantum mechanics could not produce a sensible outcome.

Two particles whose wave functions are linked the way they were in the EPR paradox are said to be entangled. Einstein memorably described entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”. He used the EPR paradox to suggest quantum mechanics couldn’t possibly be legit, certainly not without messing with the rules that made classical mechanics legit.

So the question of whether quantum mechanics was a fundamental description of reality or whether there were any hidden variables representing a deeper theory stood for nearly thirty years.

Then, in 1964, an Irish physicist at CERN named John Stewart Bell figured out a way to answer this question using what has since been called Bell’s theorem. He defined a set of inequalities – statements of the form “P is greater than Q” – that were definitely true for classical mechanics. If an experiment conducted with electrons, for example, also concluded that “P is greater than Q“, it would support the idea that quantum mechanics (vis-à-vis electrons) has ‘hidden’ parts that would explain things like entanglement more along the lines of classical mechanics.

But if an experiment couldn’t conclude that “P is greater than Q“, it would support the idea that there are no hidden variables, that quantum mechanics is a complete theory and, finally, that it implicitly supports spooky actions at a distance.

The theorem here was a statement. To quote myself from a 2013 post (emphasis added):

for quantum mechanics to be a complete theory – applicable everywhere and always – either locality or realism must be untrue. Locality is the idea that instantaneous or [faster-than-light] communication is impossible. Realism is the idea that even if an object cannot be detected at some times, its existence cannot be disputed [like electrons or protons].

Zeilinger and Aspect, among others, are recognised for having performed these experiments, called Bell tests.

Technological advancements through the late 20th and early 21st centuries have produced more and more nuanced editions of different kinds of Bell tests. However, one thing has been clear from the first tests, in 1981, to the last: they have all consistently violated Bell’s inequalities, indicating that quantum mechanics does not have hidden variables and our reality does allow bizarre things like superposition and entanglement to happen.

To quote from Quantum Physics for Poets (p. 214-215):

Bell’s theorem addresses the EPR paradox by establishing that measurements on object a actually do have some kind of instant effect on the measurement at b, even though the two are very far apart. It distinguishes this shocking interpretation from a more commonplace one in which only our knowledge of the state of b changes. This has a direct bearing on the meaning of the wave function and, from the consequences of Bell’s theorem, experimentally establishes that the wave function completely defines the system in that a ‘collapse’ is a real physical happening.


Though Bell defined his inequalities in such a way that they would lend themselves to study in a single test, experimenters often stumbled upon loopholes in the result as a consequence of the experiment’s design not being robust enough to evade quantum mechanics’s propensity to confound observers. Think of a loophole as a caveat; an experimenter runs a test and comes to you and says, “P is greater than Q but…”, followed by an excuse that makes the result less reliable. For a long time, physicists couldn’t figure out how to get rid of all these excuses and just be able to say – or not say – “P is greater than Q“.

If millions of photons are entangled in an experiment, the detectors used to detect, and observe, the photons may not be good enough to detect all of them or the photons may not survive their journey to the detectors properly. This fair-sampling loophole could give rise to doubts about whether a photon collapsed into a particular state because of entanglement or if it was simply coincidence.

To prevent this, physicists could bring the detectors closer together but this would create the communication loophole. If two entangled photons are separated by 100 km and the second observation is made more than 0.0003 seconds after the first, it’s still possible that optical information could’ve been exchanged between the two particles. To sidestep this possibility, the two observations have to be separated by a distance greater than what light could travel in the time it takes to make the measurements. (Alain Aspect and his team also pointed their two detectors in random directions in one of their tests.)

Third, physicists can tell if two photons received in separate locations were in fact entangled with each other, and not other photons, based on the precise time at which they’re detected. So unless physicists precisely calibrate the detection window for each pair, hidden variables could have time to interfere and induce effects the test isn’t designed to check for, creating a coincidence loophole.

If physicists perform a test such that detectors repeatedly measure the particles involved in, say, two labs in Chennai and Mumbai, it’s not impossible for statistical dependencies to arise between measurements. To work around this memory loophole, the experiment simply has to use different measurement settings for each pair.

Apart from these, experimenters also have to minimise any potential error within the instruments involved in the test. If they can’t eliminate the errors entirely, they will then have to modify the experimental design to compensate for any confounding influence due to the errors.

So the ideal Bell test – the one with no caveats – would be one where the experimenters are able to close all loopholes at the same time. In fact, physicists soon realised that the fair-sampling and communication loopholes were the more important ones.

In 1972, John Clauser and Stuart Freedman performed the first Bell test by entangling photons and measuring their polarisation at two separate detectors. Aspect led the first group that closed the communication loophole, in 1982; he subsequently conducted more tests that improved his first results. Anton Zeilinger and his team made advancements on the fair-sampling loophole.

One particularly important experimental result showed up in August 2015: Robert Hanson and his team at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, had found a way to close the fair-sampling and communication loopholes at the same time. To quote Zeeya Merali’s report in Nature News at the time (lightly edited for brevity):

The researchers started with two unentangled electrons sitting in diamond crystals held in different labs on the Delft campus, 1.3 km apart. Each electron was individually entangled with a photon, and both of those photons were then zipped to a third location. There, the two photons were entangled with each other – and this caused both their partner electrons to become entangled, too. … the team managed to generate 245 entangled pairs of electrons over … nine days. The team’s measurements exceeded Bell’s bound, once again supporting the standard quantum view. Moreover, the experiment closed both loopholes at once: because the electrons were easy to monitor, the detection loophole was not an issue, and they were separated far enough apart to close the communication loophole, too.

By December 2015, Anton Zeilinger and co. were able to close the communication and fair-sampling loopholes in a single test with a 1-in-2-octillion chance of error, using a different experimental setup from Hanson’s. In fact, Zeilinger’s team actually closed three loopholes including the freedom-of-choice loophole. According to Merali, this is “the possibility that hidden variables could somehow manipulate the experimenters’ choices of what properties to measure, tricking them into thinking quantum theory is correct”.

But at the time Hanson et al announced their result, Matthew Leifer, a physicist the Perimeter Institute in Canada, told Nature News (in the same report) that because “we can never prove that [the converse of freedom of choice] is not the case, … it’s fair to say that most physicists don’t worry too much about this.”

We haven’t gone into much detail about Bell’s inequalities themselves but if our goal is to understand why Aspect and Zeilinger, and Clauser too, deserve to win a Nobel Prize, it’s because of the ingenious tests they devised to test Bell’s, and Einstein’s, ideas and the implications of what they’ve found in the process.

For example, Bell crafted his test of the EPR paradox in the form of a ‘no-go theorem’: if it satisfied certain conditions, a theory was designated non-local, like quantum mechanics; if it didn’t satisfy all those conditions, the theory be classified as local, like Einstein’s special relativity. So Bell tests are effectively gatekeepers that can attest whether or not a theory – or a system – is behaving in a quantum way and each loophole is like an attempt to hack the attestation process.

In 1991, Artur Ekert, who would later be acknowledged as one of the inventors of quantum cryptography, realised this perspective could have applications in securing communications. Engineers could encode information in entangled particles, send them to remote locations, and allow detectors there to communicate with each other securely by observing these particles and decoding the information. The engineers can then perform Bell tests to determine if anyone might be eavesdropping on these communications using one or some of the loopholes.

Review: ‘Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate’ (2018)

Awards are elevated by their winners. For all of the Nobel Prizes’ flaws and shortcomings, they are redeemed by what its laureates choose to do with them. To this end, the Pakistani physicist and activist Abdus Salam (1926-1996) elevates the prize a great deal.

Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate is a documentary on Netflix about Salam’s life and work. The stars in the title stand for ‘Muslim’. The label has been censored because Salam belonged to the Ahmadiya sect, whose members are forbidden by law in Pakistan to call themselves Muslims.

After riots against this sect broke out in Lahore in 1953, Salam was forced to leave Pakistan, and he settled in the UK. His departure weighed heavily on him even though he could do very little to prevent it. He would return only in the early 1970s to assist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with building Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb. However, Bhutto would soon let the Pakistani government legislate against the Ahmadiya sect to appease his supporters. It’s not clear what surprised Salam more: the timing of India’s underground nuclear test or the loss of Bhutto’s support, both within months of each other, that had demoted him to a second-class citizen in his home country.

In response, Salam became more radical and reasserted his Muslim identity with more vehemence than he had before. He resigned from his position as scientific advisor to the president of Pakistan, took a break from physics and focused his efforts on protesting the construction of nuclear weapons everywhere.

It makes sense to think that he was involved. Someone will know. Whether we will ever get convincing evidence… who knows? If the Ahmadiyyas had not been declared a heretical sect, we might have found out by now. Now it is in no one’s interest to say he was involved – either his side or the government’s side. “We did it on our own, you know. We didn’t need him.”

Tariq Ali

Whether or not it makes sense, Salam himself believed he wouldn’t have solved the problems he did that won him the Nobel Prize if he hadn’t identified as Muslim.

If you’re a particle physicist, you would like to have just one fundamental force and not four. … If you’re a Muslim particle physicist, of course you’ll believe in this very, very strongly, because unity is an idea which is very attractive to you, culturally. I would never have started to work on the subject if I was not a Muslim.

Abdus Salam

This conviction unified at least in his mind the effects of the scientific, cultural and political forces acting on him: to use science as a means to inspire the Pakistani youth, and Muslim youth in general, to shed their inferiority complex, and his own longstanding desire to do something for Pakistan. His idea of success included the creation of more Muslim scientists and their presence in the ranks of the world’s best.

[Weinberg] How proud he was, he said, to be the first Muslim Nobel laureate. … [Isham] He was very aware of himself as coming from Pakistan, a Muslim. Salam was very ambitious. That’s why I think he worked so hard. You couldn’t really work for 15 hours a day unless you had something driving you, really. His work always hadn’t been appreciated, shall we say, by the Western world. He was different, he looked different. And maybe that also was the reason why he was so keen to get the Nobel Prize, to show them that … to be a Pakistani or a Muslim didn’t mean that you were inferior, that you were as good as anybody else.

The documentary isn’t much concerned with Salam’s work as a physicist, and for that I’m grateful because the film instead offers a view of his life that his identity as a figure of science often sidelines. By examining Pakistan’s choices through Salam’s eyes, we get a glimpse of a prominent scientist’s political and religious views as well – something that so many of us have become more reluctant to acknowledge.

Like with Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of whose theorems was incidentally the subject of Salam’s first paper, physicists saw a genius in Salam but couldn’t tell where he was getting his ideas from. Salam himself – like Ramanujan – attributed his prowess as a physicist to the almighty.

It’s possible the production was conceived to focus on the political and religious sides of a science Nobel laureate, but it puts itself at some risk of whitewashing his personality by consigning the opinions of most of the women and subordinates in his life to the very end of its 75-minute runtime. Perhaps it bears noting that Salam was known to be impatient and dismissive, sometimes even manipulative. He would get angry if he wasn’t being understood. His singular focus on his work forced his first wife to bear the burden of all household responsibilities, and he had difficulty apologising for his mistakes.

The physicist Chris Isham says in the documentary that Salam was always brimming with ideas, most of them bizarre, and that Salam could never tell the good ideas apart from the sillier ones. Michael Duff continues that being Salam’s student was a mixed blessing because 90% of his ideas were nonsensical and 10% were Nobel-Prize-class. Then, the producers show Salam onscreen talking about how physicists intend to understand the rules that all inanimate matter abides by:

To do this, what we shall most certainly need [is] a complete break from the past and a sort of new and audacious idea of the type which Einstein has had in the beginning of this century.

Abdus Salam
A screenshot from ‘Salam’ showing Abdus Salam’s gravestone. Source: Netflix

This echoes interesting but not uncommon themes in the reality of India since 2014: the insistence on certainty, the attacks on doubt and the declining freedom to be wrong. There are of course financial requirements that must be fulfilled (and Salam taught at Cambridge) but ultimately there must also be a political maturity to accommodate not just ‘unapplied’ research but also research that is unsure of itself.

With the exception of maybe North Korea, it would be safe to say no country has thus far stopped theoretical physicists from working on what they wished. (Benito Mussolini in fact setup a centre that supported such research in the late-1920s and Enrico Fermi worked there for a time.) However, notwithstanding an assurance I once received from a student at JNCASR that theoretical physicists need only a pen and paper to work, explicit prohibition may not be the way to go. Some scientists have expressed anxiety that the day will come if the Hindutvawadis have their way when even the fruits of honest, well-directed efforts are ridden with guilt, and non-applied research becomes implicitly disfavoured and discouraged.

Salam got his first shot at winning a Nobel Prize when he thought to question an idea that many physicists until then took for granted. He would eventually be vindicated but only after he had been rebuffed by Wolfgang Pauli, forcing him to drop his line of inquiry. It was then taken up and to its logical conclusion by two Chinese physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1957 for their efforts.

Whenever you have a good idea, don’t send it for approval to a big man. He may have more power to keep it back. If it’s a good idea, let it be published.

Abdus Salam

Salam would eventually win a Nobel Prize in 1979, together with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow – the same year in which Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had Bhutto hung to death after a controversial trial and set Pakistan on the road to Islamisation, hardening its stance against the Ahmadiya sect. Since the general was soon set to court the US against its conflict with the Russians in Afghanistan, he attempt to cast himself as a liberal figure by decorating Salam with the government’s Nishan-e-Imtiaz award.

Such political opportunism contrived until the end to keep Salam out of Pakistan even if, according to one of his sons, it “never stopped communicating with him”. This seems like an odd place to be in for a scientist of Salam’s stature, who – if not for the turmoil – could have been Pakistan’s Abdul Kalam, helping direct national efforts towards technological progress while also striving to be close to the needs of the people. Instead, as Pervez Hoodbhoy remarks in the documentary:

Salam is nowhere to be found in children’s books. There is no building named after him. There is no institution except for a small one in Lahore. Only a few have heard of his name.

Pervez Hoodbhoy

In fact, the most prominent institute named for him is the one he set up in Trieste, Italy, in 1964 (when he was 38): the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Salam had wished to create such an institution after the first time he had been forced to leave Pakistan because he wanted to support scientists from developing countries.

Salam sacrificed a lot of possible scientific productivity by taking on that responsibility. It’s a sacrifice I would not make.

Steven Weinberg

He also wanted the scientists to have access to such a centre because “USA, USSR, UK, France, Germany – all the rich countries of the world” couldn’t understand why such access was important, so refused to provide it.

When I was teaching in Pakistan, it became quite clear to me that either I must leave my country, or leave physics. And since then I resolved that if I could help it, I would try to make it possible for others in my situation that they are able to work in their own countries while still [having] access to the newest ideas. … What Trieste is trying to provide is the possibility that the man can still remain in his own country, work there the bulk of the year, come to Trieste for three months, attend one of the workshops or research sessions, meet the people in his subject. He had to go back charged with a mission to try to change the image of science and technology in his own country.

In India, almost everyone has heard of Rabindranath Tagore, C.V. Raman, Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi. One reason our memories are so robust is that Jawaharlal Nehru – and “his insistence on scientific temper” – was independent India’s first prime minister. Another is that India has mostly had a stable government for the last seven decades. More pertinently, we keep remembering them because of what we think of the Nobel Prizes themselves. This perception is ill-founded at least as it currently stands: of the prizes as the ultimate purpose of human endeavour and as an institution in and of itself – when in fact it is just one recognition, a signifier of importance sustained by a bunch of Swedish men that has been as susceptible to bias and oversight as any other historically significant award has been.

However, as Salam (the documentary) so effectively reminds us, the Nobel Prize is also why we remember Abdus Salam, and not the many, many other Ahmadi Muslim scientists that Pakistan has disowned over the years, has never communicated with again and has never awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz to. If Salam hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, would we think to recall the work of any of these scientists? Or – to adopt a more cynical view – would we have focused so much of our attention on Salam instead of distributing it evenly between all disenfranchised Ahmadi Muslim scholars?

One way or another, I’m glad Salam won a Nobel Prize. And one way or another, the Nobel Committee should be glad it picked Salam, too, for he elevated it to a higher place than it could have been intended for.

Note: The headline originally indicated the documentary was released in 2019. It was actually released in 2018. I fixed the mistake on October 6, 2019, at 8.45 am.

Fear and delight

Earlier this week, I published my 1,100th blog post on this site. It hasn’t been a long and great journey because it hasn’t been a journey, per se, at least I haven’t seen it as one. After publishing each blog post, I don’t know if there will be another one in future, nor do I plan in advance. All I know is that when I think of something to write about, I write about it. In fact, each blog post has been a journey – from conceptualisation to publishing – and so 1,100 such journeys together is… what? A meta-journey, perhaps.

Many of my readers expressed their best wishes and hoped that I would continue writing. In this post, I would like to express gratitude to myself in acknowledgment of a truth that not many know and even fewer understand. The reason I have never been able to plan any of my blog posts ahead is not because I am careless but because I have never been able to fully control my writing habit.

When an idea strikes, a usually dormant inner self awakens and begins to unpack my bolt from the blue; unlike the conscious self that I (claim to) control and its cluttered internal mind, this inner self draws upon the prowess of an external mind and its own memories, experiences, morals and agency – a mind that manifests almost exclusively when I write, letting me come into a clarity of thought and conviction of purpose that I don’t otherwise possess. Indeed, this ‘super-mind’ vanishes almost as soon as I stop writing (i.e. after clicking ‘Publish’; being in deep thought about how best to articulate an idea between two drafts is also part of the writing process).

And I fear that one day, this inner self – like all good things – will come to an end for no reason other than to further glorify its own lifetime, and its own mortality. Until then, I must get as much writing done as possible if only because the outer self may never be able to glorify itself for anything other than having harboured the inner one. As The Correspondents sang,

You’re an addiction pulling me to a grave end
You’re an enemy who I’m keen to defend
Down the black hole of my lust I descend
It’s wrong but I want you tonight

Two sides of the road and the gutter next to it

I have a mid-October deadline for an essay so obviously when I started reading up on the topic this morning, I ended up on a different part of the web – where I found this: a piece by a journalist talking about the problems with displaying one’s biases. Its headline:

It’s a straightforward statement until you start thinking about what bias is, and according to whom. On 99% of occasions when a speaker uses the word, she means it as a deviation from the view from nowhere. But the view from nowhere seldom exists. It’s almost always a view from somewhere even if many of us don’t care to acknowledge that, especially in stories where people are involved.

It’s very easy to say Richard Feynman and Kary Mullis deserved to win their Nobel Prizes in 1965 and 1993, resp., and stake your claim to being objective, but the natural universe is little like the anthropological one. For example, it’s nearly impossible to separate your opinion of Feynman’s or Mullis’s greatness from your opinions about how they treated women, which leads to the question whether the prizes Feynman and Mullis won might have been awarded to others – perhaps to women who would’ve stayed in science if not for these men and made the discoveries they did.

One way or another, we are all biased. Those of us who are journalists writing articles involving people and their peopleness are required to be aware of these biases and eliminate them according to the requirements of each story. Only those of us who are monks are getting rid of biases entirely (if at all).

It’s important to note here that the Poynter article makes a simpler mistake. It narrates the story of two reporters: one, Omar Kelly, doubted an alleged rape victim’s story because the woman in question had reported the incident many months after it happened; the other, the author herself, didn’t express such biases publicly, allowing her to be approached by another victim (from a different incident) to have her allegations brought to a wider audience.

Do you see the problem here? Doubting the victim or blaming the victim for what happened to her in the event of a sexual crime is not bias. It’s stupid and insensitive. Poynter’s headline should’ve been “Reporters who are stupid and insensitive fail their sources – and their profession”. The author of the piece further writes about Kelly:

He took sides. He acted like a fan, not a journalist. He attacked the victim instead of seeking out the facts as a journalist should do.

Doubting the victim is not a side; if it is, then seeking the facts would be a form of bias. It’s like saying a road has two sides: the road itself and the gutter next to it. Elevating unreason and treating it at par with reasonable positions on a common issue is what has brought large chunks of our entire industry to its current moment – when, for example, the New York Times looks at Trump and sees just another American president or when Swarajya looks at Surjit Bhalla and sees just another economist.

Indeed, many people have demonised the idea of a bias by synonymising it with untenable positions better described (courteously) as ignorant. So when the moment comes for us to admit our biases, we become wary, maybe even feel ashamed, when in fact they are simply preferences that we engender as we go about our lives.

Ultimately, if the expectation is that bias – as in its opposition to objectivity, a.k.a. the view from nowhere – shouldn’t exist, then the optimal course of action is to eliminate our specious preference for objectivity (different from factuality) itself, and replace it with honesty and a commitment to reason. I, for example, don’t blame people for their victimisation; I also subject an article exhorting agricultural workers to switch to organic farming to more scrutiny than I would an article about programmes to sensitise farmers about issues with pesticide overuse.

The virtues and vices of reestablishing contact with Vikram

There was a PTI report yesterday that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is still trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 mission. The lander had crashed onto the lunar surface on September 7 instead of touching down. The incident severed its communications link with ISRO ground control, leaving the org. unsure about the lander’s fate although all signs pointed to it being kaput.

Subsequent attempts to photograph the designated landing site using the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter as well as the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter didn’t provide any meaningful clues about what could’ve happened except that the crash-landing could’ve smashed Vikram to pieces too small to be observable from orbit.

When reporting on ISRO or following the news about developments related to it, the outside-in view is everything. It’s sort of like a mapping between two sets. If the first set represents the relative significance of various projects within ISRO and the second the significance as perceived by the public according to what shows up in the news, then Chandrayaan 2, human spaceflight and maybe the impending launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle are going to look like moderately sized objects in set 1 but really big in set 2.

The popular impression of what ISRO is working on is skewed towards projects that have received greater media coverage. This is a pithy truism but it’s important to acknowledge because ISRO’s own public outreach is practically nonexistent, so there are no ‘normalising’ forces working to correct the skew.

This is why it seems like a problem when ISRO – after spending over a week refusing to admit that the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s surface component had failed and its chairman K. Sivan echoing an internal review’s claim that the mission had in fact succeeded to the extent of 98% – says it’s still trying to reestablish contact without properly describing what that means.

It’s all you hear about vis-à-vis the Indian space programme in the news these days, if not about astronaut training or that the ‘mini-PSLV’ had a customer even before it had a test flight, potentially contribute to the unfortunate impression that these are ISRO’s priorities at the moment when in fact the relative significance of these missions – i.e. their size within set 1 – is arranged differently.

For example, the idea of trying to reestablish contact with the Vikram lander has been featured in at least three news reports in the last week, subsequently amplified through republishing and syndication, whereas the act of reestablishing contact could be as simple as one person pointing an antenna in the general direction of the Vikram lander, blasting a loud ‘what’s up’ message in the radio frequency and listening intently for a ‘not much’ reply. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of R&D, manufacturing practices and space-science discussions ISRO’s currently working on but which receive little to no coverage in the mainstream press.

So when Sivan repeatedly states across many days that they’re still trying to reestablish contact with Vikram, or when he’s repeatedly asked the same question by journalists with no imagination about ISRO’s breadth and scope, it may not necessarily signal a reluctance to admit failure in the face of overwhelming evidence that the mission has in fact failed (e.g., apart from not being able to visually spot the lander, the lander’s batteries aren’t designed to survive the long and freezing lunar night, so it’s extremely unlikely that it has power to respond to the ‘what’s up’). It could just be that either Sivan, the journalists or both – but it’s unlikely to be the journalists unless they’re aware of the resources it takes to attempt to reestablish contact – are happy to keep reminding the people that ISRO’s going to try very, very hard before it can abandon the lander.

Such metronymic messaging is politically favourable as well to maintain the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s place in the nationalist techno-pantheon. But it should also be abundantly clear at this point that Sivan’s decision to position himself as the organisation’s sole point of contact for media professionals at the first hint of trouble, his organisation’s increasing opacity to public view, if not scrutiny, and many journalists’ inexplicable lack of curiosity about things to ask the chairman all feed one another, ultimately sidelining other branches of ISRO and the public interest itself.

Unseating Feynman, and Fermi

Do physicists whitewash the legacy of Enrico Fermi the same way they do Richard Feynman?

Feynman disguised his sexism as pranks and jokes, and writers have spent thousands of pages offering his virtues as a great physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his misogyny. Even his autobiography doesn’t make any attempts to disguise his attitude, but to be fair, the attitude in question became visibly problematic only in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean nobody exalts Feynman anymore but only that such exaltation is expected to be contextualised within his overall persona.

This in turn invites us to turn the spotlight on Fermi, who would at first glance appear to be Italy’s Feynman by reputation but on deeper study seems qualified to be called one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.

Like Feynman, Fermi made important and fundamental contributions to physics and chemistry. Like Feynman, Fermi was part of the Manhattan Project to build the bombs that politicians would eventually drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unlike Feynman, Fermi’s participation in the latter extended to consultations on decisions about where to drop the bomb and when.

For us to acknowledge that we were being grossly unfair to all women when we overlooked Feynman’s transgressions, women needed to become more vocal about their rights in social and political society.

So it’s only fair to assume that at some point in the future, society’s engagement with and demands of scientists and scientific institutes to engage more actively with a country’s people and their leaders will show us how we’ve been whitewashing the legacy of Enrico Fermi – by offering his virtues as a physicist and teacher as a counterweight against his political indifference.

Many people who fled fascist regimes in 20th century Europe and came to the US, together with people who had relatives on the frontlines, supported the use of powerful weapons against the Axis powers because these people had seen firsthand what their enemies were capable of. Fermi was one such émigré – but here’s where it gets interesting.

Fermi was known to be closed-off, to be the sort of man who wouldn’t say much and kept his feelings to himself. This meant that during meetings where military leaders and scientists together assessed a potential threat from the Germans, Fermi would maintain his dispassionate visage and steer clear of embellishments. If the threat was actually severe, Fermi wouldn’t be the person of choice to convey its seriousness, at least not beyond simply laying down the facts.

This also meant that Fermi didn’t have the sort of public, emotional response people commonly associate with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Darrow or Leo Szilard after the bomb was first tested. In fact, according to one very-flattering biography – by Bettina Hoerlin and Gino Segrè published in 2016 – Fermi was only interested in his experiments and was “not eager to deal with the extra complications of political or military involvement”. Gen. Leslie Groves, the leader of the Manhattan Project, reportedly said Fermi “just went along his even way, thinking of science and science only.”

But at the same time, Fermi would also advocate – against the spirit of Szilard’s famous petition – for the bomb to be dropped without prior warning on a non-military target in Japan to force the latter to surrender. How does this square with his oft-expressed belief that scientists weren’t the best people to judge how and when the bomb would have to be used to bring a swift end to the war?

Fermi’s legacy currently basks in the shadow of the persistent conviction that the conducts of science and politics are separate and that they should be kept that way. The first part of the claim is false, an untruth fabricated to keep upper-class/caste science workers from instituting reforms that would make research a more equitable enterprise; the second part is becoming more untenable but it’s taking its time.

Ultimately, the fight for a scientific enterprise founded on a more enlightened view of its place within, not adjacent to, society should also provide us a clearer view of our heroes as well as help us discover others.