On anticipation and the history of science

brown telescope
Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.com

In mid-2012, shortly after physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe had announced the discovery of a particle that looked a lot like the Higgs boson, there was some clamour in India over news reports not paying enough attention or homage to the work of Satyendra Nath Bose. Bose and Albert Einstein together developed Bose-Einstein statistics, a framework of rules and principles that describe how fundamental particles called bosons behave. (Paul A.M. Dirac named these particles in Bose’s honour.) The director-general of CERN, the institute that hosts the LHC, had visited India shortly after the announcement and said in a speech in Kolkata that in honour of Bose, he and other physicists had decided to capitalise the ‘b’ in ‘boson’.

It was a petty victory of a petty demand, but few realised that it was also misguided. Bose made the first known (or at least published) attempts to understand the particles that would come to be called bosons – but neither he nor Einstein anticipated the existence of the Higgs boson. There have also been some arguments (justified, I think) that Bose wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize for his ideas because he didn’t make testable predictions; Einstein received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1915 for anticipating the photoelectric effect. The point is that it was unreasonable to expect Bose’s work to be highlighted, much less attributed, as some had demanded at the time, every time we find a new boson particle.

What such demands only did was to signal an expectation that the reflection of every important contribution by an Indian scientist ought to be found in every major discovery or invention. Such calls detrimentally affect the public perception of science because they are essentially contextless.

Let’s imagine that discovery of the Higgs boson was the result of series of successes, depicted thus:

O—o—o—o—o—O—O—o—o—O—o—o—o—O

An ‘O’ shows a major success and an ‘o’ shows a minor success, where major/minor could mean the relative significance within particle physics communities, the extent to which physicists anticipated it or simply the amount of journal/media coverage it received. In this sequence, Bose’s paper on a certain class of subatomic particles could be the first ‘O’ and the discovery of the Higgs boson the last ‘O’. And looking at this sequence, one could say Bose’s work led to a lot of the work that came after and ultimately led to the Higgs boson. However, doing that would diminish the amount of study, creativity and persistence that went into each subsequent finding – and would also ignore the fact that we have identified only one branch of endeavour, leading from Bose’s work to the Higgs boson, whereas in reality there are hundreds of branches crisscrossing each other at every o, big or small – and then there are countless epiphanies, ideas and flashes, each one less the product of following the scientific method and more of a mysterious combination of science and intuition.

By reducing the opportunity to celebrate Bose’s work by pointing to just the Higgs boson point on the branch, we lose the opportunities to know and celebrate the importance of Bose’s work for all the points in between, but especially the points that we still haven’t taken the trouble to understand.

Recently, a couple people forwarded to me a video on WhatsApp of an Indian-American electrical engineer named Nisar Ahmed. I learnt when in college (studying engineering) that Nisar Ahmed was the co-inventor, along with K. Ramamohan Rao, of the direct cosine transform, a technique to transmit a given amount of information using fewer bits than those contained in the information itself. The video introduced Ahmed’s work as the basis for our being able to take video-conferencing for granted; direct cosine transform allows audiovisual data to be compressed by two, maybe three orders of magnitude, making its transmission across the internet much less resource-intensive than if it had to be transmitted without compression.

However, the video did little to address the immediate aftermath of Ahmed’s and Rao’s paper, the other work by other scientists that built on it, as well as its use in other settings, and rested on the drawing just one connection between two fairly unrelated events (direct cosine transform and their derivatives, many of them created in the same decade, heralded signal compression, but they didn’t particularly anticipate different forms of communication).

This flattening of the history of science, and technology as the case may be, may be entertaining but it offers no insights into the processes at work behind these inventions, and certainly doesn’t admit any other achivements before each development. In the video, Ahmed reads out tweets by people reacting to his work as depicted on the show This Is Us. One of them says that it’s because of him, and because of This Is Us, that people are now able to exchange photos and videos of each other around the world, without worrying about distance. But… no; Ahmed himself says in the video, “I couldn’t predict how fast the technology would move” (based on his work).

Put it simply, I find such forms of communication – and thereunto the way we are prompted to think about science – objectionable because they are content with ‘what’, and aren’t interested in ‘when’, ‘why’ or ‘how’. And simply enumerating the ‘what’ is practically non-scientific, more so when they’re a few particularly sensational whats over others that encourage us to ignore the inconvenient details. Other similar recent examples were G.N. Ramachandran, whose work on protein structure, especially Ramachandran plots, have been connected to pharmaceutical companies’ quest for new drugs and vaccines, and Har Gobind Khorana, whose work on synthesising RNA has been connected to mRNA vaccines.