Charles Lieber case: A high-energy probe of science

There’s a phenomenon in high-energy particle physics that I’ve found instructive as a metaphor to explain some things whose inner character may not be apparent to us but whose true nature is exposed in extreme situations. For example, consider the case of Charles Lieber, an American chemist whom a jury found guilty earlier today of lying to the US government about participating in a Chinese science programme and about having a Chinese bank account.

Through our everyday interactions with protons and neutrons – sitting in the nuclei of their respective atoms – we’d have no reason to believe that they’re made up of smaller particles. But when you probe a proton with another particle at an extremely high energy, such a probe can reveal that the proton is really made of smaller particles called up and down quarks.

Similarly, Lieber’s case is an extreme instance of a national government clashing with the nation’s scientific enterprise for engaging in a science-related activity with immutable political implications. In our everyday interactions, there is no reason to believe that the government, or any other relatively more powerful political entity, could have a problem with what some scientist is working on or has to say. But sparks start to fly the moment the scientist’s work, words or even thoughts begin to have political implications.

It’s not like the protons are not made of up and down quarks when probed at lower energies; it’s that the latter don’t reveal themselves. Similarly, it’s not like science isn’t a political activity even when it lacks political implications; it’s that the relationship between science and politics, in that limited context, is too feeble to matter. But it’s there.

According to a New York Times article explaining Lieber’s case, by Ellen Barry so you know it’s well-written, the Trump-era ‘China Initiative’ to “root out scientists suspected of sharing sensitive information with China” has been accused of “prosecutorial overreach”, but also that Lieber also shot himself in the foot by denying his involvement in the Chinese programme when “he was specifically asked about his participation”.

Barry’s article makes the point that scientists are scared because the US government criminalised otherwise innocuous activities – activities that scientists have spent decades learning to not fear. At the same time, it would be unfair to spare Lieber – an accomplished nanoscience expert employed at Harvard University – the expectation to know what the consequences of his actions might be and the risk of ignoring them.

Perhaps he harboured a sense of exceptionalism vis-à-vis his cause; perhaps he thought the ‘China Initiative’ that had knocked on the doors of other scientists wouldn’t knock on his; perhaps he just assumed it wouldn’t matter. But any which way, more than just being “about scaring the scientific community”, as one of Lieber’s former students says in the article, the initiative’s victory in the Charles Lieber case should also remind scientists that the best way to beat the initiative is for the scientific community to proactively engage in political issues.

Lieber’s excuse, according to tapes of his interrogation by FBI officers, was that he wished to train younger scientists in a technology he had developed and thus increase his chances of winning a Nobel Prize. This is the science-politics link coming back to bite Lieber, and others like him (notably Brian Keating, whose act of ‘coming clean’ on this sentiment I continue to find admirable), who risk ruining their careers just win the prize (see addendum).

One major impediment to acknowledging that politics is suffused in every human enterprise – including science – that happens in any organised society whose people govern themselves is that people often misunderstand politics to be “what their politicians say/do” instead of “the practice of self-governance”. But by understanding it to be the former, there’s a hoopla every time some political leader or other apparently oversteps their remit.


Three comments.

First, somewhere between the early 20th century and the early 21st, the prize’s perception went from being “do good work and you’ll win it” to “do good work and then hack your way to winning it”.

Second, I’ve seen this tendency of going ‘over and beyond’ to ensure one wins a Nobel Prize predominantly among scientists of the US – which in turn is hard to separate from the fact that most winners of the science Nobel Prizes have been from the US. There is perhaps a academic-cultural issue at work, and there’s certainly a competition issue at work. People are first nominated for a prize by eminent individuals and former laureates, and thanks to a historical skew of the laureates’ countries of citizenship (in favour of the US thanks to the rise of Nazism in Europe) and the way industry and the scientific publishing enterprise are organised today, both these groups of people as well as new laureates are skewed US-ward. What happens when a country produces “too much” good work for one prize, and its inexplicable rule to award only three people at a time, to consider? Surely Lieber believed this and wanted to get ahead of others, leading to his bullheaded actions?

Third, dismantle the Nobel Prizes.

Featured image: Charles M. Lieber. Credit: Kris Snibbe/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.