Thermal gun, sanitiser and volatility

Most of the shops I visit to purchase my supplies dispense an alcohol-based hand-sanitiser at the point of entry and have a person stationed there to check customers’ body temperature with a contactless thermal gun. They used to point the gun at the forehead but of late many of them have started aiming it at the other side of the palm, to be held outstretched. I don’t know if this is okay or not – but I doubt it’s okay to point the thermal gun at the hand just after you’ve doused it in sanitiser.

Alcohol’s two properties of interest in this context are that it’s a disinfectant and that it’s volatile. After you’ve applied it, your hand feels cooler because each droplet of the alcohol absorbs a tiny bit of heat from your body and evaporates. This is also why you and others around you can smell the sanitiser’s fragrance spreading: the alcohol molecules are airborne and floating about, no longer localised to a smaller area.

The difference between a liquid and a gas is that molecules in the liquid are held together by bonds between hydrogen atoms and certain electron-rich atoms – for example, oxygen in the case of water. These bonds can be broken by heat. Volatile liquids have fewer of these bonds, so they need less heat to transition from the liquid to the gaseous phases. These liquids have relatively lower boiling points (than water in the same conditions) for the same reason – 78.3º C and 82.5º C for ethyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol respectively.

If at this point the thermal gun is pointed at the hand, I’m not sure it would still be able to pick up a fever – especially a milder one close to the threshold of 99º F. The cooling effect is transient but the sanitisation and the temperature check happen within seconds of each other. I’m also not sure how effective thermal guns have been in general at screening people with fever at various checkpoints. But if they are, pointing them at the forehead or at the hand but before using the sanitiser could easily preclude one issue.

Pandemic: A world-building exercise

First, there was light news of a vaccine against COVID-19 nearing the end of its phase 3 clinical trials with very promising results, accompanied with breezy speculations (often tied to the stock prices of a certain drug-maker) about how it’s going to end the pandemic in six months.

An Indian disease-transmission modeller – of the sort who often purport to be value-free ‘quants’ interested in solving mathematical puzzles that don’t impinge on the real world – reads about the vaccine and begins to tweak his models accordingly. Soon, he has a projection that shines bright in the dense gloom of bad news.

One day, as the world is surely hurtling towards a functional vaccine, it becomes known that some of the world’s richest countries – representing an eighth of the planet’s human population – have secreted more than half of the world’s supply of the vaccine.

Then, a poll finds that over half of all Americans wouldn’t trust a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. The poll hasn’t been conducted in other countries.

A glut of companies around the world have invested heavily in various COVID-19 vaccine candidates, even as the latter are yet to complete phase 3 clinical trials. Should a candidate not clear its trial, a corresponding company could lose its investment without insurance or some form of underwriting by the corresponding government.

Taken together, these scenarios portend a significant delay between a vaccine successfully completing its clinical trials and becoming available to the population, and another delay between general availability and adoption.

The press glosses over these offsets, developing among its readers a distorted impression of the pandemic’s progression – an awkward blend of two images, really: one in which the richer countries are rapidly approaching herd immunity while, in the other, there is a shortage of vaccines.

Sooner or later, a right-wing commentator notices there is a commensurately increasing risk of these poorer countries ‘re-exporting’ the virus around the world. Politicians hear him and further stigmatise these countries, and build support for xenophobic and/or supremacist policies.

Meanwhile, the modeller notices the delays as well. When he revises his model, he finds that as governments relax lockdowns and reopen airports for international travel, differences in screening procedures in different countries could allow the case load to rise and fall around the world in waves – in effect ensuring the pandemic will take longer to end.

His new paper isn’t taken very seriously. It’s near the end of the pandemic, everyone has been told, and he’s being a buzzkill. (It’s also a preprint, and that, a senior scientist in government nearing his retirement remarks, “is all you need to know”.) Distrust of his results morphs slowly into a distrust towards scientists’ predictions, and becomes ground to dismiss most discomfiting findings.

The vaccine is finally available in middle- and low-income countries. But in India, this bigger picture plays out at smaller scales, like a fractal. Neither the modeller nor the head of state included the social realities of Indian society in their plans – but no one noticed because both had conducted science by press release.

As they scratch their heads, they also swat away at people at the outer limits of the country’s caste and class groups clutching at them in desperation. A migrant worker walks past unnoticed. One of them wonders if he needs to privatise healthcare more. The other is examining his paper for arithmetic mistakes.

A mystery on Venus

Scientists have reported that they have found abnormal amounts of a toxic compound called phosphine in Venus’s atmosphere, at 55-80 km altitude. This story is currently all over my Twitter feed because one way to explain this unexpected abundance is that microbes could be producing this gas – as we know them to do on Earth – in oxygen-starved conditions. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the real proposition here is that there is too much phosphine, not that there is a potential sign of life.

While some scientists have been issuing words of caution along similar lines, others have cut to the other end, writing that making sense of this discovery doesn’t require “alien microbes” at all because chemistry offers possibilities that are much more likely to be the case – and verging on the argument that this possibly can’t be aliens. Between them is the option to keep an open mind, so difficult these days – between an Avi Loeb-esque conception of the universe in which the role of creativity is overemphasised to dream up plausible (but improbable) theories and a hyper-conservative reality that refuses to admit new possibilities because we haven’t plumbed the depths of what we already know to be true enough.

Nonetheless, this is where it is best to stand today – considering we simply don’t know enough about the Venusian atmosphere to refute one argument or support the other. At the same time, I would like to make a finer point. In November 2014, I had published a post explaining the contents of a scientific paper published around then, describing how an exotic form of carbon dioxide could host life. As I wrote:

At about 305 kelvin and 73-times Earth’s atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide becomes supercritical, a form of matter that exhibits the physical properties of both liquids and gases. … As the study’s authors found, some enzymes were more stable in supercritical carbon dioxide because it contains no water. The anhydrous property also enables a “molecular memory” in the enzymes, when they ‘remember’ their acidity from previous reactions to guide the future construction of organic molecules more easily. The easiest way – no matter that it’s still difficult – to check if life could exist in supercritical carbon dioxide naturally is to … investigate shallow depths below the surface of Venus. Carbon dioxide is abundant on Venus and the planet has the hottest surface in the Solar System. Its subsurface pressures could then harbour supercritical carbon dioxide.

When we do muster as much caution as we can when reporting on recently published papers presenting evidence of new mysteries, we evoke the possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’ – things that we don’t know we don’t know, as perfectly illustrated in the case of carbon monoxide on Titan. At the same time, are we aware that ‘unknown unknowns’ also make way for the possibility of alien life-forms with biological foundations we may never conceive of until we encounter a real, live example? I am not saying that there is life on Venus or elsewhere. I am saying that the knowledge-based defences we employ to protect ourselves from hype and reckless speculation in this case could just as easily work against our favour, and close us off to new possibilities. And since such caution is often considered a virtue, it is quite important that we don’t indulge it.

There is a wonderful paragraph in a paper from 2004 that I’m reminded of from time to time, when considering the possibility of aliens for a science article or a game of Dungeons & Dragons:

The universe of chemical possibilities is huge. For example, the number of different proteins 100 amino acids long, built from combinations of the natural 20 amino acids, is larger than the number of atoms in the cosmos. Life on Earth certainly did not have time to sample all possible sequences to find the best. What exists in modern Terran life must therefore reflect some contingencies, chance events in history that led to one choice over another, whether or not the choice was optimal.

A sanitised fuel

I debated myself for ten minutes as to whether I should criticise an article that appeared on the DD News website on this blog. The article is flawed in the way many science articles on the internet are, but at the same time it appeared on DD News – a news outlet that has a longstanding reputation for playing it safe, so to speak, despite being a state-run entity. But what ultimately changed my mind was that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) quote-tweeted the article on Twitter, writing that the findings were the product of a study the department had funded. The article goes:

As the world runs out of fossil fuels and looks out for alternate sources of clean energy, there is good news from the Krishna-Godavari (KG) basin. The methane hydrate deposit in this basin is a rich source that will ensure adequate supplies of methane, a natural gas. Methane is a clean and economical fuel. It is estimated that one cubic meter of methane hydrate contains 160-180 cubic meters of methane. Even the lowest estimate of methane present in the methane hydrates in KG Basin is twice that of all fossil fuel reserves available worldwide.

Methane is known as a clean fuel – but the label is a bit of a misnomer. When it is combusted, it produces carbon dioxide and water, as opposed to a host of other compounds as well. So as a fuel, it is cleaner than fossil fuels like crude oil and coal. However, it still releases carbon dioxide, and even if this is in quantities appreciably lower than the combustion of coal or crude oil emits, we don’t need more of that in the atmosphere. One report has found the planet’s surface could breach the 1.5º C warming mark, if only temporarily, as soon as 2024. We don’t need more methane in the atmosphere, such as through fugitive emissions, more so: a kilogram of methane has the same greenhouse potential as a little over 80 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Ultimately, what we need is to lower consumption.

This said, the cleanliness of a fuel is to my mind context-specific. The advantages methane offers relative to other fuels in common use today would almost entirely be offset in India by the government’s persistent weakening of environmental protections, pollution-control regulations and indigenous peoples’ rights. (The Krishna-Godavari basin has already been reeling under the impact of the ONGC’s hydrocarbon extraction activities since the 1970s.) Even if we possessed technologies that allowed us to obtain and use methane with 100% efficiency, the Centre will still only resort to the non-democratic methods it has adopted in the last half-decade or so, bulldozing ecosystems and rural livelihoods alike to get what it wants – which is ultimately the same thing: economic growth. This is at least the path it has been carving out for itself. Methane extracted from a large river-basin is not worth this.

The DST’s involvement is important for these two reasons, considering the questionable claims they advance, as well as a third.

At the broadest level, no energy source is completely clean. Even solar and wind power generation and consumption require access to land and to infrastructure whose design and production is by no stretch of the imagination ‘green’. Similarly, and setting aside methane’s substantial greenhouse potential for a moment, extracting methane from the Krishna-Godavari river basin is bound to exact a steep price – directly as well as indirectly in the form of a damaged river basin that will no longer be able to provide the ecosystem services it currently does. In addition, storing and transporting methane is painful because it is a low-density gas, so engineers prefer converting it into liquefied natural gas or methanol first, and doing so is at present an energy-intensive process.

The DST’s endorsement of the prospect of using this methane as fuel is worrying because it suggests the department is content to believe a study it funded led to a supposedly positive finding – and is not concerned with its wider, deadlier implications. At any other time, this anarchy of aspirations, whereby one department doesn’t have to be concerned with the goals of another, would be siloisation of the worst sort – as if mining for hydrocarbons in a river-basin is cleanly separable from water pollution, shortage and the cascade of ecological imbalances brought on by the local endangerment of various plant, animal and bird species.

However, it would be delusional to accuse the current Government of India of being anarchic. This government has displayed a breathtaking fetish for centralising authority and power. Instead, the DST’s seemingly harmless tweet and DD News’s insular article are symptoms of a problem that rests at the other extreme: where all departments are pressed to the common cause of plundering India’s natural resources and destroying its ecological security, even at risk of undermining their own respective mandates.

The singularity of purpose here may or may not have rendered methane an absolutely ‘clean’ fuel – but it may be a glimpse of a DST simply reflecting what the government would like to reduce the country’s scientific enterprise to: a deeply clinical affair, in which scientists should submit to the national interest and not be concerned about other things.

Spray and pray – the COVID-19 version

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the head of Biocon, a company headquartered in Bengaluru and which has repurposed a drug called itolizumab – already approved to help manage severe chronic psoriasis in different markets – to manage cytokine release syndrome (CRS) in COVID-19 patients. Setting aside CRS’s relevance in the COVID-19 pathology (considering it is currently in dispute), Mazumdar-Shaw and a specific coterie of Biocon employees have been aggressively marketing itolizumab despite the fact that its phase II clinical trial seems by all accounts to have been a joke. (I recommend this account.)

Funnily enough, The Print published an article by Mazumdar-Shaw on September 1, in which she describes her experience of the infection (she’s one of The Print‘s funders). Two portions of the article are striking. One is the following paragraph about her treatment, which tacitly implicates a host of drugs and devices in her recovery without providing any additional information of their respective usefulness:

Dr Murli Mohan from Narayana Health, Bengaluru and Dr Shashank Joshi from Lilavati hospital, Mumbai, were my key medical supervisors. I was put on a course of Favipiravir, azithromycin and paracetamol. Apart from this, I continued with my daily dose of Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Zinc, baby aspirin and chyavanprash. Not to mention my twice a week 200mg dose of HCQ. Day two and three were uneventful. I was measuring my oxygen saturation levels six times a day, which were all between 96-98 per cent even after a brisk six-minute walk. My temperature was normal but late evening on Day three, I felt fluish and it extended to Day four and five. No measurable temperature but frequent bouts of sweating, which suggested that my body was fighting the virus. I was also tracking my Cytokine levels.

Reading this brought to mind a terrible period in early 2010, when I had malaria and jaundice together with an unusually strong spate of migraines. I can’t remember the exact drugs and diet that got me feeling better. But after reading what Mazumdar-Shaw went through, I’m inclined to attribute my recovery also to the mug of Bournvita I had every night before bed.

The other striking portion is a list of suggestions that subtly make the case to pay more attention to CRS and treat it with the drugs available in the market for it: “Doctors should not just treat clinical symptoms but rather the cause of the symptoms. If SpO2 (oxygen saturation) reduces, just increasing oxygen flow is not the answer. Treating inflammation caused by cytokines is the answer.” Wonder why researchers don’t yet have consensus… But the Drug Controller General of India has approved two drugs to treat CRS due to COVID-19 in India (through a highly criticised approval process) – and Kiran Mazudar-Shaw’s Biocon’s itolizumab is one of them.

The list is also prefaced by the following statement, among others: “… avoid TV and social media as negative news is bad for fighting Covid-19.” I wonder if this refers to criticism against hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), favipiravir, azithromycin and purported Ayurvedic remedies as well.

Ads on The Wire Science

Sometime this week, but quite likely tomorrow, advertisements will begin appearing on The Wire Science. The Wire‘s, and by extension The Wire Science‘s, principal source of funds is donations from our readers. We also run ads as a way to supplement this revenue; they’re especially handy to make up small shortfalls in monthly donations. Even so, many of these ads look quite ugly – individually, often with a garish choice of colours, but more so all together, by the very fact that they’re advertisements, representing a business model often rightly blamed for the dilution of good journalism published on the internet.

But I offer all of these opinions as caveats because I’m quite looking forward to having ads on The Wire Science. At least one reason must be obvious: while The Wire‘s success itself, for being an influential and widely read, respected and shared publication that runs almost entirely on readers’ donations, is inspiring, The Wire Science as a niche publication focusing on science, health and the environment (in its specific way) has a long way to go before it can be fully reader funded. This is okay if only because it’s just six months old – and The Wire got to its current pride of place after more than four years, with six major sections and millions of loyal readers.

As things stand, The Wire Science receives its funds as a grant of sorts from The Wire (technically, it’s a section with a subdomain). We don’t yet have a section-wise breakdown of where on the site people donate from, so while The Wire Science also solicits donations from readers (at the bottom of every article), it’s perhaps best to assume it doesn’t funnel much. Against this background, the fact that The Wire Science will run ads from this week is worth celebrating for two reasons: 1. that it’s already a publication where ads are expected to bring in a not insubstantial amount of money, and 2. that a part of this money will be reinvested in The Wire Science.

I’m particularly excited about reason no. 1. Yes, ads suck, but I think that’s truer in the specific context of ads being the principal source of funds – when editors are subordinated to business managers and editorial decisions serve the bottomline. But our editorial standards won’t be diluted by the presence of ads because of ads’ relative contribution to our revenue mix. (I admit that psychologically it’s going to take some adjusting.) The Wire Science is already accommodated in The Wire‘s current outlay, which means ad revenue is opportunistic, and an opportunity in itself to commission an extra story now and then, get more readers to the site and have a fraction of them donate.

I hope you’ll be able to see it the same way, and skip the ad-blocker if you can. 🙂

New footage of ‘Tsar Bomba’, history’s most powerful nuke

This post was originally published on October 31, 2018. I’m republishing it today after Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy corporation, released 40 minutes of previously classified footage of RDS-220’s explosion on August 28, 2020 (embedded below). This is a minute-long excerpt by Reuters showing the explosion.

Fifty-seven years ago on October 30, the Soviets detonated the most powerful nuclear weapon in the history of nukes. The device was called the RDS-220 by the Soviet Union and nicknamed Tsar Bomba – ‘King of Bombs’ – by the US. It had a blast yield of 50 megatonnes (MT) of TNT, making it 1,500-times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs together.

The detonation was conducted off the island of Novaya Zemlya, four km above ground. The Soviets had built the bomb to one-up the US and followed Nikita Khrushchev’s challenge on the floor of the UN General Assembly a year earlier, promising to teach the US a lesson (the B41 nuke used by the US in the early 1960s had a yield of half as much).

But despite its intimidating features and political context, the RDS-220 yielded one of the cleanest nuclear explosions ever and was never tested again. The Soviets had originally intended for the RDS-220 to have a yield equivalent to 100 MT of TNT, but decided against it because of two reasons.

First: it was a three-stage nuke and weighed 27 tonnes and was only a little smaller than an American school bus. As a result, it couldn’t be delivered using an intercontinental ballistic missile. Maj. Andrei Durnovtsev, a decorated soldier in the Soviet Air Force, modified a Tu-95V bomber to carry the bomb and also flew it on the day of the test. The bomb had been fit with a parachute (whose manufacture disrupted the domestic nylon hosiery industry) so that between releasing the bomb and its detonation, the Tu-95V would have enough time to fly 45 km away from the test site. But even then, the bomb’s 100 MT yield would’ve meant Durnovtsev and his crew would’ve nearly certainly been killed.

To improve this to 50%, engineers reduced the yield from 100 MT to 50 MT, and which they did by replacing a uranium-238 tamper around the bomb with a lead tamper. In a thermonuclear weapon – which the RDS-220 was – a nuclear fusion reaction is set off inside a container that is explosively compressed by a nuclear fission reaction going off on the outside.

However, the Soviets took it a step further with Tsar Bomba: the first stage nuclear fission reaction set off a second stage nuclear fusion reaction, which then set off a bigger fusion reaction in the third stage. The original design also included a uranium-238 tamper on the second and third stages, such that fast neutrons emitted by the fusion reaction would’ve kicked off a series of fission reactions accompanying the two stages. Utter madness. The engineers switched the uranium-238 tamper and put in a lead-208 tamper. Lead-208 can’t be fissioned in a chain reaction and as such has a remarkably low efficiency as a nuclear fuel.

The second reason the RDS-220’s yield was reduced pre-test was because of the radioactive fallout. Nuclear fusion is much cleaner than nuclear fission as a process (although there are important caveats for fusion-based power generation). If the RDS-220 had gone ahead with the uranium-238 tamper on the second and third stages, then its total radioactive fallout would’ve accounted for fully one quarter of all the radioactive fallout from all nuclear tests in history, gently raining down over Soviet Union territory. The modification resulting in 97% of the bomb’s yield being in the form of emissions from the fusion reactions alone.

One of the more important people who worked on the bomb was Andrei Sakharov, a noted nuclear physicist and later dissident from the Soviet Union. Sakharov is given credit for developing a practicable design for the thermonuclear weapon, an explosive that could leverage the fusion of hydrogen atoms. In 1955, the Soviets, thanks to Sakharov’s work, won the race to detonate a hydrogen bomb that’d been dropped from an airplane, whereas until then the Americans had detonated hydrogen charges placed on the ground.

It was after the RDS-220 test in 1961 that Sakharov began speaking out against nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race. He would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. One of his important contributions to the peaceful use of nuclear power was the tokamak, a reactor design he developed with Igor Tamm to undertake controlled nuclear fusion and so generate power. The ITER experiment uses this design.

Source for many details (+ being an interesting firsthand account you should read anyway): here. Featured image: The RDS-220 hydrogen bomb goes off. Source: YouTube.

Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.

Ayurveda is not a science – but what does that mean?

This post has benefited immensely with inputs from Om Prasad.

Calling something ‘not a science’ has become a pejorative, an insult. You say Ayurveda is not a science and suddenly, its loudest supporters demand to know what the problem is, what your problem is, and that you can go fuck yourself.

But Ayurveda is not a science.

First, science itself didn’t exist when Ayurveda was first born (whenever that was but I’m assuming it was at least a millennium ago), and they were both outcomes of different perceived needs. So claiming ‘Ayurveda is a science’ makes little sense. You could counter that 5 didn’t stop being a number just because the number line came much later – but that wouldn’t make sense either because the relationship between 5 and the number line is nothing like the relationship between science and Ayurveda.

It’s more like claiming Carl Linnaeus’s choice of topics to study was normal: it wouldn’t at all be normal today but in his time and his particular circumstances, they were considered acceptable. Similarly, Ayurveda was the product of a different time, technologies and social needs. Transplanting it without ‘updating’ it in any way is obviously going to make it seem inchoate, stunted. At the same time, ‘updating’ it may not be so productive either.

Claiming ‘Ayurveda is a science’ is to assert two things: that science is a qualifier of systems, and that Ayurveda once qualified by science’s methods becomes a science. But neither is true for the same reason: if you want one of them to be like the other, it becomes the other. They are two distinct ways of organising knowledge and making predictions about natural processes, and which grew to assume their most mature forms along different historical trajectories. Part of science’s vaunted stature in society today is that it is an important qualifier of knowledge, but it isn’t of knowledge systems. This is ultimately why Ayurveda and science are simply incompatible.

One of them has become less effective and less popular over time – which should be expected because human technologies and geopolitical and social boundaries have changed dramatically – while the other is relatively more adolescent, more multidisciplinary (with the right opportunities) and more resource-intensive – which should be expected because science, engineering, capitalism and industrialism rapidly co-evolved in the last 150 years.

Second, ‘Ayurveda is a science’ is a curious statement because those who utter it typically wish to elevate it to the status science enjoys and at the same time wish to supplant answers that modern science has provided to some questions with answers by Ayurveda. Of course, I’m speaking about the average bhakt here – more specifically a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter seemingly sick of non-Indian, especially Western, influences on Indian industry, politics, culture (loosely defined) and the Indian identity itself, and who may be actively seeking homegrown substitutes. However, their desire to validate Ayurveda according to the practices of modern science is really an admission that modern science is superior to Ayurveda despite all their objections to it.

The bhakt‘s indignation when confronted with the line that ‘Ayurveda is not a science’ is possibly rooted in the impression that ‘science’ is a status signal – a label attached to a collection of precepts capable of together solving particular problems, irrespective of more fundamental philosophical requirements. However, the only science we know of is the modern one, and to the bhakt the ‘Western’ one – both in provenance and its ongoing administration – and the label and the thing to which it applies, i.e. the thing as well as the name of the thing, are convergent.

There is no other way of doing science; there is no science with a different set of methods that claims to arrive at the same or ‘better’ scientific truths. (I’m curious at this point if, assuming a Kuhnian view, science itself is unfalsifiable as it attributes inconsistencies in its constituent claims to extra-scientific causes than to flaws in its methods themselves – so as a result science as a system can reach wrong conclusions from time to time but still be valid at all times.)

It wouldn’t be remiss to say modern science, thus science itself, is to the nationalistic bhakt as Ayurveda is to the nationalistic far-right American: a foreign way of doing things that must be resisted, and substituted with the ‘native’ way, however that nativity is defined. It’s just that science, specifically allopathy, is more in favour today because, aside from its own efficacy (a necessary but not sufficient condition), all the things it needs to work – drug discovery processes, manufacturing, logistics and distribution, well-trained health workers, medical research, a profitable publishing industry, etc. – are modelled on institutions and political economies exported by the West and embedded around the world through colonial and imperial conquests.

Third: I suspect a part of why saying ‘Ayurveda is not a science’ is hurtful is that Indian society at large has come to privilege science over other disciplines, especially the social sciences. I know too many people who associate the work of many of India’s scientists with objectivity, a moral or political nowhereness*, intellectual prominence, pride and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to play along with the state’s plans for economic growth. To be denied the ‘science’ tag is to be denied these attributes, desirable for their implicit value as much as for the opportunities they are seen to present in the state’s nationalist (and even authoritarian) project.

On the other hand, social scientists are regularly cast in opposition to these attributes – and more broadly by the BJP in opposition to normative – i.e. pro-Hindu, pro-rich – views of economic and cultural development, and dismissed as such. This ‘science v. fairness’ dichotomy is only a proxy battle in the contest between respecting and denying human rights – which in turn is also represented in the differences between allopathy and Ayurveda, especially when they are addressed as scientific as well as social systems.

Compared to allopathy and allopathy’s intended outcomes, Ayurveda is considerably flawed and very minimally desirable as an alternative. But on the flip side, uptake of alternative traditions is motivated not just by their desirability but also by the undesirable characteristics of allopathy itself. Modern allopathic methods are isolating (requiring care at a designated facility and time away from other tasks, irrespective of the extent to which that is epidemiologically warranted), care is disempowering and fraught with difficult contradictions (“We expect family members to make decisions about their loved ones after a ten-minute briefing that we’re agonising over even with years of medical experience”**), quality of care is cost-stratified, and treatments are condition-specific and so require repeated hospital visits in the course of a lifetime.

Many of those who seek alternatives in the first place do so for these reasons – and these reasons are not problems with the underlying science itself. They’re problems with how medical care is delivered, how medical knowledge is shared, how medical research is funded, how medical workers are trained – all subjects that social scientists deal with, not scientists. As such, any alternative to allopathy will become automatically preferred if it can solve these economic, political, social, welfare, etc. problems while delivering the same standard of care.

Such a system won’t be an entirely scientific enterprise, considering it would combine the suggestions of the sciences as well as the social sciences into a unified whole such that it treated individual ailments without incurring societal ones. Now, say you’ve developed such an alternative system, called PXQY. The care model at its heart isn’t allopathy but something else – and its efficacy is highest when it is practised and administered as part of the PXQY setup, instead of through standalone procedures. Would you still call this paradigm of medical care a science?

* Akin to the ‘view from nowhere’.
** House, S. 2, E 18.

Featured image credit: hue 12 photography/Unsplash.

India’s missing research papers

If you’re looking for a quantification (although you shouldn’t) of the extent to which science is being conducted by press releases in India at the moment, consider the following list of studies. The papers for none of them have been published – as preprints or ‘post-prints’ – even as the people behind them, including many government officials and corporate honchos, have issued press releases about the respective findings, which some sections of the media have publicised without question and which have quite likely gone on to inform government decisions about suitable control and mitigation strategies. The collective danger of this failure is only amplified by a deafening silence from many quarters, especially from the wider community of doctors and medical researchers – almost as if it’s normal to conduct studies and publish press releases in a hurry and take an inordinate amount of time upload a preprint manuscript or conduct peer review, instead of the other way around. By the way, did you know India has three science academies?

  1. ICMR’s first seroprevalence survey (99% sure it isn’t out yet, but if I’m wrong, please let me know and link me to the paper?)
  2. Mumbai’s TIFR-NITI seroprevalence survey (100% sure. I asked TIFR when they plan to upload the paper, they said: “We are bound by BMC rules with respect to sharing data and hence we cannot give the raw data to anyone at least [until] we publish the paper. We will upload the preprint version soon.”)
  3. Biocon’s phase II Itolizumab trial (100% sure. More about irregularities here.)
  4. Delhi’s first seroprevalence survey (95% sure. Vinod Paul of NITI Aayog discussed the results but no paper has pinged my radar.)
  5. Delhi’s second seroprevalence survey (100% sure. Indian Express reported on August 8 that it has just wrapped up and the results will be available in 10 days. It didn’t mention a paper, however.)
  6. Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN preclinical trials (90% sure)
  7. Papers of well-designed, well-powered studies establishing that HCQ, remdesivir, favipiravir and tocilizumab are efficacious against COVID-19 🙂

Aside from this, there have been many disease-transmission models whose results have been played up without discussing the specifics as well as numerous claims about transmission dynamics that have been largely inseparable from the steady stream of pseudoscience, obfuscation and carelessness. In one particularly egregious case, the Indian Council of Medical Research announced in a press release in May that Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadila had manufactured an ELISA test kit for COVID-19 for ICMR’s use that was 100% specific and 98% sensitive. However, the paper describing the kit’s validation, published later, said it was 97.9% specific and 92.37% sensitive. If you know what these numbers mean, you’ll also know what a big difference this is, between the press release and the paper. After an investigation by Priyanka Pulla followed by multiple questions to different government officials, ICMR admitted it had made a booboo in the press release. I think this is a fair representation of how much the methods of science – which bridge first principles with the results – matter in India during the pandemic.

The matter of a journal’s reputation

Apparently (and surprisingly) The Telegraph didn’t allow Dinesh Thakur to respond to an article by Biocon employee Sundar Ramanan, in which Ramanan deems Thakur’s article about the claims to efficacy of the Biocon drug Itolizumab not being backed by enough data to have received the DCGI’s approval to be inaccurate. Even notwithstanding The Telegraph‘s policy on how rebuttals are handled (I have no idea what it is), Ramanan – as a proxy for his employer – has everything to gain by defending Itolizumab’s approval and Thakur, nothing. This fact alone means Thakur should have been allowed to respond. As it stands, the issue has been reduced to a he-said-she-said event and I doubt that in reality it is. Thakur has since published his response at Newslaundry.

I’m no expert but there are many signs of whataboutery in Ramanan’s article. As Thakur writes, there’s also the matter of the DCGI waiving phase III clinical trials for Itolizumab, which can only be done if phase II trials were great – and this they’re unlikely to have been because of the ludicrous cohort size of 30 people. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Seema Ahuja, the former the MD of and the latter a PR person affiliated with Biocon, have also resorted to ad hominem arguments on Twitter against Itolizumab’s critics, on more than one occasion have construed complaints about the drug approval process as expressions of anti-India sentiments, and have more recently begun to advance company-sponsored ‘expert opinions’ as “peer-reviewed” evidence of Itolizumab’s efficacy.

Even without presuming to know who’s ultimately right here, Mazumdar-Shaw and Ahuja don’t sound like the good guys, especially since their fiercest critics I’ve spotted thus far on Twitter are a bunch of highly qualified public health experts and medical researchers. Accusing them of ‘besmirching India’ inspires anything but confidence in Itolizumab’s phase II trial results.

It’s in this context that I want to draw attention to one particular word in Ramanan’s article in The Telegraph that I believe signals the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ relationship between many scientific journals and the accumulation of knowledge as a means to power – and in my view is a further sign that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. Ramanan writes (underline added):

Itolizumab was first approved by the Drugs Controller General of India for the treatment of patients with active moderate to severe chronic plaque Psoriasis in 2013 based on “double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, Phase III study”. The safety and efficacy of the drug was published in globally reputed, peer-reviewed journals and in proceedings (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, and the 6th annual European Antibody Congress, respectively).

What does a journal’s reputation have to do with anything? The reason I keep repeating this point is not because you don’t get it – I’m sure you do; I do it to remind myself, and everyone else who may need to be reminded, of the different contexts in which the same issue repeatedly manifests. Invoking reputation, in this instance, smells of an argument grounded in authority instead of in evidence. Then again, this is a tautological statement considering Biocon issued a press release before the published results – preprint or post-print – were available (they still aren’t), but let’s bear on in an attempt to make sense of reputation itself.

The matter of a journal’s reputation, whether local or global, is grating because the journals for whom this attribute is germane have acquired it by publishing certain kinds of papers over others – papers that tend to describe positive results, sensational results, and by virtue of their reader-pays business model, results that are of greater interest to those likely to want to pay to access them. These details are important because it’s important to ask what ‘reputation’ means, and based on that we can then understand some of the choices of people for whom this ‘reputation’ matters.

Reputation is the outcome of gatekeeping, of deeming some papers as being worthy of publication according to metrics that have less to do with the contents of the paper* and more with the journal’s desirability and profitability. As Björn Brembs wrote in 2010:

It doesn’t matter where something is published – what matters is what is being published. Given the obscene subscription rates some of these journals charge, if anything, they should be held to a higher standard and their ‘reputation’ (i.e., their justification for charging these outrageous subscription fees!) being constantly questioned, rather than this unquestioning dogma that anything published there must be relevant, because it was published there.

However, by breaking into an élite club by publishing a paper in a particular journal, the reputation starts to matter to the scientist as well, and becomes synonymous with the scientist’s own aspirations of quality, rigour and academic power (look out for proclamations like “I have published 25 papers in journal X, which has an impact factor of 43″). This way, over time, the scientific literature becomes increasingly skewed in favour of some kinds of papers over others – especially of the positive, sensational variety – and leads to a vicious cycle.

The pressure in academia to ‘publish or perish’ also forces scientists to shoehorn themselves tighter into the journals’ definition of what a ‘good’ paper is, more so if publishing in some journals has seemingly become associated with increasing one’s likelihood of winning ‘reputed’ awards. As such, reputation is neither accidental nor innocent. From the point of view of the science that fills scientific journals, reputation is an arbitrary gatekeeper designed to disqualify an observer from calling the journal’s contents into question – which I’m sure you’ll understand is essentially antiscientific.

Ramanan’s appeal to the reputation of the journal that published the results of the tests of Itolizumab’s efficacy against cytokine release syndrome (CRS) in psoriasis patients is, in similar vein, an appeal to an entity that has nothing to do either with the study itself or the matter at hand. As Dr Jammi Nagaraj Rao wrote for The Wire Science, there’s no reason for us to believe knowing how Itolizumab works against CRS will help us understand how it will work against CRS in COVID-19 patients considering we’re not entirely sure how CRS plays out in COVID-19 patients – or if Itolizumab’s molecular mechanism of action can be directly translated to a statement of efficacy against a new disease.

In effect, the invitation to defer to a journal’s reputation is akin to an invitation to hide behind a cloak of superiority that would render scrutiny irrelevant. But that Ramanan used this word in this particular context is secondary**; the primary issue is that journals that pride such arbitrarily defined attributes as ‘reputation’ and ‘prestige’ also offer them as a defence against demands for transparency and access. Instead, why not let the contents of the paper speak up for themselves? Biocon should publish the paper pertaining to its controversial phase II trial of Itolizumab in COVID-19 patients and the DCGI should publicise the inner workings of its approval process asap. As they say: show us (the results), don’t tell us (the statement).

Beyond determining if the paper is legitimate, has sound science and is free of mistakes, malpractice or fraud.

** There are also other words Ramanan uses to subtly delegitimise Thakur’s article – calling it an “opinion article” and presuming to “correct” Thakur’s arguments that constitute a “disservice to the public”.