Pseudoscientific materials and thermoeconomics

The Shycocan Corp. took out a full-page jacket ad in the Times of India on June 22 – the same day The Telegraph (UK) had a story about GBP 2,900 handbags by Gucci that exist only online, in some videogame. The Shycocan product’s science is questionable, at best, though its manufacturers have disagreed vehemently with this assessment. (Anusha Krishnan wrote a fantastic article for The Wire Science on this topic). The Gucci ‘product’ is capitalism redigesting its own bile, I suppose – a way to create value out of thin air. This is neither new nor particularly exotic: I have paid not inconsiderable sums of money in the past for perks inside videogames, often after paying for the games themselves. But thinking about both products led me to a topic called thermoeconomics.

This may be too fine a point but the consumerism implicit in both the pixel-handbags and Shycocan and other medical devices of unproven efficacy has a significant thermodynamic cost. While pixel-handbags may represent a minor offense, so to speak, in the larger scheme of things, their close cousins, the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of the cryptocurrency universe, are egregiously energy-intensive. (More on this here.) NFTs represent an extreme case of converting energy into monetary value, bringing into sharp focus the relationships between economics and thermodynamics that we often ignore because they are too muted.

Free energy, entropy and information are three of the many significant concepts at the intersection of economics and thermodynamics. Free energy is the energy available to perform useful work. Entropy is energy that is disorderly and can’t be used to perform useful work. Information, a form of negative entropy, and the other two concepts taken together are better illustrated by the following excerpt, from this paper:

Consider, as an example, the process of converting a set of raw materials, such as iron ore, coke, limestone and so forth, into a finished product—a piece of machinery of some kind. At each stage the organization (information content) of the materials embodied in the product is increased (the entropy is decreased), while global entropy is increased through the production of waste materials and heat. For example:

Extraction activities start with the mining of ores, followed by concentration or benefication. All of these steps increase local order in the material being processed, but only by using (dissipating) large quantities of available work derived from burning fuel, wearing out machines and discarding gauge and tailings.

Metallurgical reduction processes mostly involve the endothermic chemical reactions to separate minerals into the desired element and unwanted impurities such as slag, CO2 and sulfur oxides. Again, available work in the form of coal, oil or natural gas is used up to a much greater extent than is embodied in metal, and there is a physical wear and tear on machines, furnaces and so forth, which must be discarded eventually.

Petroleum refining involves fractionating the crude oil, cracking heavier fractions, and polymerizing, alkylating or reforming lighter ones. These processes require available work, typically 10% or so of the heating value of the petroleum itself. Petrochemical feedstocks such as olefins or alcohols are obtained by means of further endo- thermic conversion processes. Inorganic chemical processes begin by endothermic reduction of commonplace salts such as chlorides, fluorides or carbonates into their components. Again, available work (from electricity or fuel) is dissipated in each step.

Fabrication involves the forming of materials into parts with desirable forms and shapes. The information content, or orderliness, of the product is increased, but only by further expending available work.

Assembly and construction involves the linking of components into complex subsystems and systems. The orderliness of the product continues to increase, but still more available work is used up in the processes. The simultaneous buildup of local order and global entropy during a materials processing sequence is illustrated in figure 4. Some, but not all of the orderliness of the manufactured product is recoverable as thermodynamically available work: Plastic or paper products, for example, can be burned as fuel in a boiler to recover their residual heating value and con- vert some of that to work again. Using scrap instead of iron ore in the manufacture of steel or recycled aluminum instead of bauxite makes use of some of the work expended in the initial refining of the ore.

Some years ago, I read an article about a debate between a physicist and an economist; I’m unable to find the link now. The physicist says infinite economic growth is impossible because the laws of thermodynamics forbid it. Eventually, we will run out of free energy and entropy will become more abundant, and creating new objects will exact very high, and increasing, resource costs. The economist counters that what a person values doesn’t have to be encoded as objects – that older things can re-acquire new value or become more valuable, or that we will be able to develop virtual objects whose value doesn’t incur the same costs that their physical counterparts do.

This in turn recalls the concept of eco-economic decoupling – the idea that we can continue and/or expand economic activity without increasing environmental stresses and pollution at the same time. Is this possible? Are we en route to achieving it?

The Solar System – taken to be the limit of Earth’s extended neighbourhood – is very large but still finite, and the laws of thermodynamics stipulate that it can thus contain a finite amount of energy. What is the maximum number of dollars we can extract through economic activities using this energy? A pro-consumerist brigade believes absolute eco-economic decoupling is possible; at least one of its subscribers, a Michael Liebreich, has written that in fact infinite growth is possible. But NFTs suggest we are not at all moving in the right direction – nor does any product that extracts a significant thermodynamic cost with incommensurate returns (and not just economic ones). Pseudoscientific hardware – by which I mean machines and devices that claim to do something but have no evidence to show for it – belongs in the same category.

This may not be a productive way to think of problematic entities right now, but it is still interesting to consider that, given we have a finite amount of free energy, and that increasing the efficiency with which we use it is closely tied to humankind’s climate crisis, pseudoscientific hardware can be said to have a climate cost. In fact, the extant severity of the climate crisis already means that even if we had an infinite amount of free energy, thermodynamic efficiency is more important right now. I already think of flygskam in this way, for example: airplane travel is not pseudoscientific, but it can be irrational given its significant carbon footprint, and the privileged among us need to undertake it only with good reason. (I don’t agree with the idea the way Greta Thunberg does, but that’s a different article.)

To quote physicist Tom Murphy:

Let me restate that important point. No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years. A word of warning: that power plant is going to run a little warm. Thermodynamics require that if we generated sun-comparable power on Earth, the surface of the Earth—being smaller than that of the sun—would have to be hotter than the surface of the sun! …

The purpose of this exploration is to point out the absurdity that results from the assumption that we can continue growing our use of energy—even if doing so more modestly than the last 350 years have seen. This analysis is an easy target for criticism, given the tunnel-vision of its premise. I would enjoy shredding it myself. Chiefly, continued energy growth will likely be unnecessary if the human population stabilizes. At least the 2.9% energy growth rate we have experienced should ease off as the world saturates with people. But let’s not overlook the key point: continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes. The foregoing analysis offers a cute way to demonstrate this point. I have found it to be a compelling argument that snaps people into appreciating the genuine limits to indefinite growth.

And … And Then There’s Physics:

As I understand it, we can’t have economic activity that simply doesn’t have any impact on the environment, but we can choose to commit resources to minimising this impact (i.e., use some of the available energy to avoid increasing entropy, as Liebreich suggests). However, this would seem to have a cost and it seems to me that we mostly spend our time convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t yet pay this cost, or shouldn’t pay too much now because people in the future will be richer. So, my issue isn’t that I think we can’t continue to grow our economies while decoupling economic activity from environmental impact, I just think that we won’t.

A final point: information is considered negative entropy because it describes certainty – something we know that allows us to organise materials in such a way as to minimise disorder. However, what we consider to be useful information, thanks to capitalism, nationalism (it is not for nothing that Shycocan’s front-page ad ends with a “Jai Hind”), etc., has become all wonky, and all forms of commercialised pseudoscience are good examples of this.

The commentariot

The following post is an orange flag – a quieter alarm raised in anticipation of something worse that hasn’t transpired yet but is likely in the offing. Earlier today, at the end of a call with a scientist for a story, the scientist implied that my job – as science journalist – required nothing of me but to be a commentator, whereas his required him to be a ‘maker’ and that that was superior. At the outset, this is offensive because if you don’t think journalism requires both creative and non-creative work to conduct ethically, you either don’t know what journalism is or you’re taking its moving parts for granted.

But the scientist’s comment merited an orange flag, I thought, because it’s the fourth time I’ve heard something like that in the last three months – and is a point of view I can’t help but think is attached in some way to our present national government and the political climate it has engendered. (All four scientists worked for government-funded institutes but I say this only because of the slant of their own views.)

The Modi government is, among many other things, a cult of personality centred on the prime minister and his fabled habit of getting things done, even if they’re undemocratic or just unconstitutional. Many of the government’s reforms today are often cast as being in stark contrast to the Congress’s rule of the country – that “Modi did what no other prime minister had dared.” The illegitimacy of these boasts aside, the government and its supporters are obviously proud of their ability to act swiftly and have rendered inaction in any form a sin (to the point where this government has also been notorious for repackaging previous governments’ schemes as its own).

They have also consigned many activities as being sinful for the same reason because their practice is much too tempered, or whose outcomes they believe “don’t go far enough”, for their taste. Journalism is one of them. A conversation a few months ago with a person who was both scientist and government official alerted me as to how real this sentiment might be in government circles when they said, “I have real work unlike you and I will get back to you with a concrete answer in two or three days.” The other scientists also said something similar. The right-wing has often cast the mainstream Indian journalism establishment as elite, classist, corrupt and apologist, and the accusation that it doesn’t do any real work – “certainly not to the nation’s benefit” – simply extends this view.

But for scientists to denigrate the work of science journalists, especially since their training should have alerted them to different ways in which science is both good and hard, is more than dispiriting. It’s a sign that “journalists don’t do good work” is more than just an ideological spearpoint used to undermine adversarial journalism, that it is something at least parts of the establishment believe to be true. And it also suggests that the stories we publish are being read as nothing more than the babble of a lazy commentariot.

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.

Nitin Gadkari, tomato chutney and blood

There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”

It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.

Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.

Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.

This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.

Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally[1], NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.

Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.

[1] I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.

Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.

Injustice ex machina

There are some things I think about but struggle to articulate, especially in the heat of an argument with a friend. Cory Doctorow succinctly captures one such idea here:

Empiricism-washing is the top ideological dirty trick of technocrats everywhere: they assert that the data “doesn’t lie,” and thus all policy prescriptions based on data can be divorced from “politics” and relegated to the realm of “evidence.” This sleight of hand pretends that data can tell you what a society wants or needs — when really, data (and its analysis or manipulation) helps you to get what you want.

If you live in a country ruled by a nationalist government tending towards the ultra-nationalist, you’ve probably already encountered the first half of what Doctorow describes: the championship of data, and quantitative metrics in general, the conflation of objectivity with quantification, the overbearing focus on logic and mathematics to the point of eliding cultural and sociological influences.

Material evidence of the latter is somewhat more esoteric, yet more common in developing countries where the capitalist West’s influence vis-à-vis consumption and the (non-journalistic) media are distinctly more apparent, and which is impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Notwithstanding the practically unavoidable consequences of consumerism and globalisation, the aspirations of the Indian middle and upper classes are propped up chiefly by American and European lifestyles. As a result, it becomes harder to tell the “what society needs” and the “get what you want” tendencies apart. Those developing new technologies to (among other things) enhance their profits arising from this conflation are obviously going to have a harder time seeing it and an even harder time solving for it.

Put differently, AI/ML systems – at least those in Doctorow’s conception, in the form of machines adept at “finding things that are similar to things the ML system can already model” – born in Silicon Valley have no reason to assume a history of imperialism and oppression, so the problems they are solving for are off-target by default.

But there is indeed a difference, and not infrequently the simplest way to uncover it is to check what the lower classes want. More broadly, what do the actors with the fewest degrees of freedom in your organisational system want, assuming all actors already want more freedom?

They – as much as others, and at the risk of treating them as a monolithic group – may not agree that roads need to be designed for public transportation (instead of cars), that the death penalty should be abolished or that fragmenting a forest is wrong but they are likely to determine how a public distribution system, a social security system or a neighbourhood policing system can work better.

What they want is often what society needs – and although this might predict the rise of populism, and even anti-intellectualism, it is nonetheless a sort of pragmatic final check when it has become entirely impossible to distinguish between the just and the desirable courses of action. I wish I didn’t have to hedge my position with the “often” but I remain unable with my limited imagination to design a suitable workaround.

Then again, I am also (self-myopically) alert to the temptation of technological solutionism, and acknowledge that discussions and negotiations are likely easier, even if messier, to govern with than ‘one principle to rule them all’.

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

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The Wire
December 26, 2019

Why are the Nobel Prizes still relevant?

Note: A condensed version of this post has been published in The Wire.

Around this time last week, the world had nine new Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine), all but one of whom were white and none were women. Before the announcements began, Göran Hansson, the Swede-in-chief of these prizes, had said the selection committee has been taking steps to make the group of laureates more racially and gender-wise inclusive, but it would seem they’re incremental measures, as one editorial in the journal Nature pointed out.

Hansson and co. seems to find the argument that the Nobel Prizes award achievements at a time where there weren’t many women in science tenable when in fact it distracts from the selection committee’s bizarre oversight of such worthy names as Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin, Chien-Shiung Wu, etc. But Hansson needs to understand that the only meaningful change is change that happens right away because, even for this significant flaw that should by all means have diminished the prizes to a contest of, for and by men, the Nobel Prizes have only marginally declined in reputation.

Why do they matter when they clearly shouldn’t?

For example, according to the most common comments received in response to articles by The Wire shared on Twitter and Facebook, and always from men, the prizes reward excellence, and excellence should brook no reservation, whether by caste or gender. As is likely obvious to many readers, this view of scholastic achievement resembles a blade of grass: long, sprouting from the ground (the product of strong roots but out of sight, out of mind), rising straight up and culminating in a sharp tip.

However, achievement is more like a jungle: the scientific enterprise – encompassing research institutions, laboratories, the scientific publishing industry, administration and research funding, social security, availability of social capital, PR, discoverability and visibility, etc. – incorporates many vectors of bias, discrimination and even harassment towards its more marginalised constituents. Your success is not your success alone; and if you’re an upper-caste, upper-class, English-speaking man, you should ask yourself, as many such men have been prompted to in various walks of life, who you might have displaced.

This isn’t a witch-hunt as much as an opportunity to acknowledge how privilege works and what we can do to make scientific work more equal, equitable and just in future. But the idea that research is a jungle and research excellence is a product of the complex interactions happening among its thickets hasn’t found meaningful purchase, and many people still labour with a comically straightforward impression that science is immune to social forces. Hansson might be one of them if his interview to Nature is anything to go by, where he says:

… we have to identify the most important discoveries and award the individuals who have made them. If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end.

In other words, the Nobel Prizes are just going to look at the world from the top, and probably from a great distance too, so the jungle has been condensed to a cluster of pin-pricks.

Another reason why the Nobel Prizes haven’t been easy to sideline is that the sciences’ ‘blade of grass’ impression is strongly historically grounded, with help from notions like scientific knowledge spreads from the Occident to the Orient.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind when I say “Nobel Prize for physics”? I bet it’s Albert Einstein. He was so great that his stature as a physicist has over the decades transcended his human identity and stamped the Nobel Prize he won in 1921 with an indelible mark of credibility. Now, to win a Nobel Prize in physics is to stand alongside Einstein himself.

This union between a prize and its laureate isn’t unique to the Nobel Prize or to Einstein. As I’ve said before, prizes are elevated by their winners. When Margaret Atwood wins the Booker Prize, it’s better for the prize than it is for her; when Isaac Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1963, near the start of his career, it was good for him, but it was good for the prize when he won it for the sixth time in 1992 (the year he died). The Nobel Prizes also accrued a substantial amount of prestige this way at a time when it wasn’t much of a problem, apart from the occasional flareup over ignoring deserving female candidates.

That their laureates have almost always been from Europe and North America further cemented the prizes’ impression that they’re the ultimate signifier of ‘having made it’, paralleling the popular undercurrent among postcolonial peoples that science is a product of the West and that they’re simply its receivers.

That said, the prize-as-proxy issue has contributed considerably as well to preserving systemic bias at the national and international levels. Winning a prize (especially a legitimate one) accords the winner’s work with a modicum of credibility and the winner, of prestige. Depending on how the winners of a prize to be awarded suitably in the future are to be selected, such credibility and prestige could be potentiated to skew the prize in favour of people who have already won other prizes.

For example, a scientist-friend ranted to me about how, at a conference he had recently attended, another scientist on stage had introduced himself to his audience by mentioning the impact factors of the journals he’d had his papers published in. The impact factor deserves to die because, among other reasons, it attempts to condense multi-dimensional research efforts and the vagaries of scientific publishing into a single number that stands for some kind of prestige. But its users should be honest about its actual purpose: it was designed so evaluators could take one look at it and decide what to do about a candidate to whom it corresponded. This isn’t fair – but expeditiousness isn’t cheap.

And when evaluators at different rungs of the career advancement privilege the impact factor, scientists with more papers published earlier in their careers in journals with higher impact factors become exponentially likelier to be recognised for their efforts (probably even irrespective of their quality given the unique failings of high-IF journals, discussed here and here) over time than others.

Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University, recently presented a mathematical model of this ‘prestige bias’ and whose amplification depended in a unique way, according him, on a factor he called the ‘examination precision’. He found that the more ambiguously defined the barrier to advancement is, the more pronounced the prestige bias could get. Put another way, people who have the opportunity to maintain systemic discrimination simultaneously have an incentive to make the points of entry into their club as vague as possible. Sound familiar?

One might argue that the Nobel Prizes are awarded to people at the end of their careers – the average age of a physics laureate is in the late 50s; John Goodenough won the chemistry prize this year at 97 – so the prizes couldn’t possibly increase the likelihood of a future recognition. But the sword cuts both ways: the Nobel Prizes are likelier than not to be the products a prestige bias amplification themselves, and are therefore not the morally neutral symbols of excellence Hansson and his peers seem to think they are.

Fourth, the Nobel Prizes are an occasion to speak of science. This implies that those who would deride the prizes but at the same time hold them up are equally to blame, but I would agree only in part. This exhortation to try harder is voiced more often than not by those working in the West, with publications with better resources and typically higher purchasing power. On principle I can’t deride the decisions reporters and editors make in the process of building an audience for science journalism, with the hope that it will be profitable someday, all in a resource-constrained environment, even if some of those choices might seem irrational.

(The story of Brian Keating, an astrophysicist, could be illuminating at this juncture.)

More than anything else, what science journalism needs to succeed is a commonplace acknowledgement that science news is important – whether it’s for the better or the worse is secondary – and the Nobel Prizes do a fantastic job of getting the people’s attention towards scientific ideas and endeavours. If anything, journalists should seize the opportunity in October every year to also speak about how the prizes are flawed and present their readers with a fuller picture.

Finally, and of course, we have capitalism itself – implicated in the quantum of prize money accompanying each Nobel Prize (9 million Swedish kronor, Rs 6.56 crore or $0.9 million).

Then again, this figure pales in comparison to the amounts that academic institutions know they can rake in by instrumentalising the prestige in the form of donations from billionaires, grants and fellowships from the government, fees from students presented with the tantalising proximity to a Nobel laureate, and in the form of press coverage. L’affaire Epstein even demonstrated how it’s possible to launder a soiled reputation by investing in scientific research because institutions won’t ask too many questions about who’s funding them.

The Nobel Prizes are money magnets, and this is also why winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Academy Award: you don’t get on stage without some lobbying. Each blade of grass has to mobilise its own PR machine, supported in all likelihood by the same institute that submitted their candidature to the laureates selection committee. The Nature editorial called this out thus:

As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.

I believe those arguments that serve to uphold the Nobel Prizes’ relevance must take recourse through at least one of these reasons, if not all of them. It’s also abundantly clear that the Nobel Prizes are important not because they present a fair or useful picture of scientific excellence but in spite of it.

The alleged politicisation of science

“Don’t politicise X” has become the defence of choice for a class of scientists and public intellectuals in India whose class and caste privilege utterly blinds them to various inequities in the practice of science – as privilege is wont to do – and who labour with the presumption that these inequities, should they miraculously become aware of a few, don’t affect what new knowledge is produced and how it affects relationships predicated on a power imbalance in the wider society.

Consider a simple example: men and women are equally capable of being good scientists, but there aren’t many women the further down the academic pipeline you go because they have been driven out by their male colleagues’ and supervisors’ sexism and misogyny. As a result, a lot of modern scientific research simply collects the results of questions that men asked and questions that the same or other men answered. This problem impoverishes the scientific undertaking by depriving it of the insights and sensibilities of a significant section of society.

The way ahead from here should not be to ‘normalise’ things because the normal has come to mean the preservation of the status quo, in terms of protecting men and safeguarding their domains as temples of patriarchy; there can be progress only with near-constant struggle and pushback, and among non-male scientists as well as non-male workers, together with their male colleagues and peers, in all endeavours of modernity. It would in turn be impossible for such a historic movement to be non-political or apolitical.

A part of the problem is rooted in the demonisation of politics, at least the label itself. ‘To politicise’ has come to mean to infuse an endeavour with partisanship where there has thus far been harmony, with incentives that suppress intelligent decision-making with the simpler algorithms of populism. However, when such harmony and intelligence are products of oppression, they must go.

A male PI’s contention that women in the lab will “distract” men – as the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said – or that they are unlikely to be available to run experiments owing to menstruation or pregnancy should prompt us to reexamine how labs are organised, the rights and freedoms of female lab-workers, and how the university frames the relationship between labour and research, and not have us considering if women should be allowed to work in labs at all. In a different context, many Indians on discussion forums and social media platforms have recently become fond of demanding that I, or anyone else, “shouldn’t politicise space”. But space has become interesting and lucrative only because it has been politicised.

“Politics,” according to Wikipedia, “is a set of activities associated with the governance of a country or an area.” In this regard, it should seem impossible for any endeavour, no matter how small or fleeting, to remain untouched by the influence of the politics of the people undertaking the endeavour. Caste-based and gender-based discrimination are obvious manifestations of this truism in Indian society; for another, consider the following snippet from an article I (first) published in July. It summarises the extent to which public policy influences the possible trajectories of scientific careers in India:

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-malenon-Hindu/non-upper-castenon-heterosexualIndian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion. The picture has already been oversimplified. This scientist has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills. If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is the climate crisis and its discomfiting history.

For a less obvious example: Chandrayaan 2 has been widely touted as a technological as well as scientific mission. However, in the lead up to the mission’s launch on July 22 as well as after the unfortunate events of September 7, ISRO’s focus as well as that of the people and most journalists has remained on the mission’s technological aspects. In fact, ISRO chairman K. Sivan declared on September 22 that the mission had been a 98% success when its scientific phase had barely begun – that is, that Chandrayaan 2’s scientific mission constitutes only 2% of the whole thing.

As bizarre as this sounds, these proclamations are in line with ISRO’s relatively poor track record of executing sophisticated scientific missions. This should force us to confront the political economics of science administration in India – whereby those in power have become increasingly unwilling to fund non-applied research thanks to the rising influence of populist politics and its predilection for short-term gains. This is in addition to the relationships central and state-level funding agencies have with the receivers of their money, how such money is distributed between elite and non-elite institutes, and how nationalism shields ISRO from backlash as it centralises authority and further limits public outreach.

There are many other examples to illustrate that there is no such thing as the politicisation of X inasmuch as there is either the acknowledgment of this truth or its denial. But if you are still grasping for an out, there is one. There are two broad ways to divide the public perception of what politics is: the kind concerned with the principles by which we govern ourselves as a peaceful and productive society, and the kind concerned with maximising media exposure and perpetuating the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

The influence of the former is inescapable by design and must be guided by reason and debate; the influence of the latter is regrettable and must be rejected for its small-mindedness at every opportunity. If one takes a charitable view of those fond of saying “don’t politicise X”, one would hope that they are speaking of politics of the second variety: the dirty realpolitik and its Machiavellian ambitions. But a less charitable, and an arguably more justified, view suggests that many scientists – in India at least – lack an appreciation of the politics of principles, a politics of social justice if you will.

Indeed, it is curious that many of them, together with many non-scientists as well, often prefer a more scientistic outlook, whereby the traditionally imagined ‘scientific’ disciplines and the knowledge these endeavours supply are considered to be incontestably superior to alternatives derived from, say, sociological studies or even paralogical systems like religion and traditional beliefs. To quote the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding.” (Source: Against Method, fourth ed., p. 223.)

But modern society considers politicisation to be a greater threat than scientism whereas historians of science brim with anecdotes about how the scientific endeavour remains constantly on the cusp of being weaponised in the absence of political safeguards that regulate its practice. The ongoing nationalist project to debase non-scientific research typifies this; to quote from an older post on this blog:

… the left has been painted as anti-fact and the right [as being guided] by righteous logic when in fact this is the result of the deeper dismissal of the validity of the social sciences and humanities, which have served throughout history to make facts right and workable in their various contexts. The right has appropriated the importance of quantitative measures – and that alone – and brandishes it like a torch. … And by attacking the validity of the social sciences and humanities, the left has effectively had the rug pulled out from under its feet, and the intellectual purpose of its existence delegitimised.

Not all of us may fully appreciate how we got here, but there is no question that we are indeed here – and that the way forward must be cognisant of, if not entirely critical of, the alleged politicisation of science and the political agendas of the perpetrators of this idea.

The fight over ISRO

My report about ISRO’s ’90-95%’ success claim vis-à-vis Chandrayaan 2 had precisely three kinds of response, split 49%, 49% and 2%.

One 49% group went like this:

The other 49% went like this:

The remainder, which constituted meaningful engagement, was virtually residual.

To add to this, K. Sivan has brought a new thing about him in his position as ISRO chairman, which is to issue loose statements where his predecessors have been a lot more careful and considered. In 2018, he said ISRO would look for He-3 on the Moon – a claim that has since been thoroughly debunked. Last weekend, he said Chandrayaan 2 was a 95% success, which was eminently debunkable.

Makes one wonder if what one is doing is useful at all – but before this thought process hand-holds one down into a pit of self-deprecation, various temptations take over: confounding factors (that there could be a lot of people out there who appreciate your work but don’t tell you about it), trolls and their tendencies (such as compulsive, knee-jerk responses to tweets from a particular account), even doubts about what people use Twitter for (meaningful engagement v. mobilising political forces to affect outcomes offline).

That said, the popular rhetoric swirling around Chandrayaan 2 indicates that ISRO has finally been subsumed by the jingoists’ circus – where addled onlookers gather either to applaud or deride launches, trans-orbital manoeuvres and interplanetary journeys and, at the crack of imaginary whips, descend into a brawl over who can be a greater moron for love of the country. One can only hope, after being shoved to the back as a metaphorical wuss, that this rot hasn’t taken root within the organisation itself.

Review: ‘Mission Mangal’ (2019)

This review assumes Tanul Thakur’s review as a preamble.

There’s the argument that ISRO isn’t doing much by way of public outreach and trust in the media is at a low, and for many people – more than the most reliable sections of the media can possibly cover – Bollywood’s Mission Mangal could be the gateway to the Indian space programme. That we shouldn’t dump on the makers of Mission Mangal for setting up an ISRO-based script and Bollywoodifying it because the prerogative is theirs and it is not a mistake to have fictionalised bits of a story that was inspirational in less sensationalist ways.

And then there is the argument that Bollywood doesn’t function in a vacuum – indeed, anything but – and that it should respond responsibly to society’s problems by ensuring its biographical fare, at least, maintains a safe distance from problematic sociopolitical attitudes. That while creative freedom absolves artists of the responsibility to be historians, there’s such a thing as not making things worse, especially through an exercise of the poetic license that is less art and more commerce.

The question is: which position does Mission Mangal justify over the other?

I went into the cinema hall fully expecting the movie to be shite, but truth be told, Mission Mangal hangs in a trishanku swarga between the worlds of ‘not bad’ and ‘good’. The good parts don’t excuse the bad parts and the bad parts don’t drag the good parts down with them. To understand how, let’s start with the line between fact and fiction.

Mission Mangal‘s science communication is pretty good. As a result of the movie’s existence, thousands more people know about the gravitational slingshot (although the puri analogy did get a bit strained), line-of-sight signal transmission, solar-sailing and orbital capture now. Thousands more kind-of know the sort of questions scientists and engineers have to grapple with when designing and executing missions, although it would pay to remain wary of oversimplification. Indeed, thousands more also know – hopefully, at least – why some journalists’ rush to find and pin blame at the first hint of failure seems more rabid than stringent. This much is good.

However, almost everyone I managed to eavesdrop on believed the whole movie to be true whereas the movie’s own disclaimer at the start clarified that the movie was a fictionalised account for entertainment only. This is a problem because Mission Mangal also gets its science wrong in many places, almost always for dramatic effect. For just four examples: the PSLV is shown as a two-stage rocket instead of as a four-stage rocket; the Van Allen belt is depicted as a debris field instead of as a radiation belt; solar radiation pressure didn’t propel the Mars Orbiter Mission probe on its interplanetary journey; and its high-gain antenna isn’t made of a self-healing material.

More importantly, Mission Mangal gets the arguably more important circumstances surrounding the science all wrong. This is potentially more damaging.

There’s a lot of popular interest in space stuff in India these days. One big reason is that ISRO has undertaken a clump of high-profile missions that have made for easy mass communication. For example, it’s easier to sell why Chandrayaan 2 is awesome than to sell the AstroSat or the PSLV’s fourth-stage orbital platform. However, Mission Mangal sells the Mars Orbiter Mission by fictionalising different things about it to the point of being comically nationalistic.

The NASA hangover is unmistakable and unmistakably terrible. Mission Mangal‘s villain, so to speak, is a senior scientist of Indian origin from NASA who doesn’t want the Mars Orbiter Mission to succeed – so much so that the narrative often comes dangerously close to justifying the mission in terms of showing this man up. In fact, there are two instances when the movie brazenly crosses the line: to show up NASA Man, and once where the mission is rejustified in terms of beating China to be the first Asian country to have a probe in orbit around Mars. This takes away from the mission’s actual purpose: to be a technology-demonstrator, period.

This brings us to the next issue. Mission Mangal swings like a pendulum between characterising the mission as one of science and as one of technology. The film’s scriptwriters possibly conflated the satellite design and rocket launch teams for simplicity’s sake, but that has also meant Mission Mangal often pays an inordinate amount of attention towards the mission’s science goals, which weren’t very serious to begin with.

This is a problem because it’s important to remember that the Mars Orbiter Mission wasn’t a scientific mission. This also shows itself when the narrative quietly, and successfully, glosses over the fact that the mission probe was designed to fit a smaller rocket, and whose launch was undertaken at the behest of political as much as technological interests, instead of engineers building the rocket around the payload, as might have been the case if this had been a scientific mission.

Future scientific missions need to set a higher bar about what they’re prepared to accomplish – something many of us easily forget in the urge to thump our chests over the low cost. Indeed, Mission Mangal celebrates this as well without once mentioning the idea of frugal engineering, and all this accomplishes is to cast us as a people who make do, and our space programme as not hungering for big budgets.

This, in turn, brings us to the third issue. What kind of people are we? What is this compulsion to go it alone, and what is this specious sense of shame about borrowing technologies and mission designs from other countries that have undertaken these missions before us? ‘Make in India’ may make sense with sectors like manufacturing or fabrication but whence the need to vilify asking for a bit of help? Mission Mangal takes this a step further when the idea to use a plastic-aluminium composite for the satellite bus is traced to a moment of inspiration: that ISRO could help save the planet by using up its plastic. It shouldn’t have to be so hard to be a taker, considering ISRO did have NASA’s help in real-life, but the movie precludes such opportunities by erecting NASA as ISRO’s enemy.

But here’s the thing: When the Mars Orbiter Mission probe achieved orbital capture at Mars at the film’s climax, it felt great and not in a jingoistic way, at least not obviously so. I wasn’t following the lyrics of the background track and I have been feeling this way about missions long before the film came along, but it wouldn’t be amiss to say the film succeeded on this count.

It’s hard to judge Mission Mangal by adding points for the things it got right and subtracting points for the things it didn’t because, holistically, I am unable to shake off the feeling that I am glad this movie got made, at least from the PoV of a mediaperson that frequently reports on the Indian space progragge. Mission Mangal is a good romp, thanks in no small part to Vidya Balan (and as Pradeep Mohandas pointed out in his review, no thanks to the scriptwriters’ as well as Akshay Kumar’s mangled portrayal of how a scientist at ISRO behaves.)

I’m sure there’s lots to be said for the depiction of its crew of female scientists as well but I will defer to the judgment of smarter people on this one. For example, Rajvi Desai’s review in The Swaddle notes that the women scientists in the film, with the exception of Balan, are only shown doing superfluous things while Kumar gets to have all the smart ideas. Tanisha Bagchi writes in The Quint that the film has its women fighting ludicrous battles in an effort to portray them as being strong.

Ultimately, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been made if not for the nationalism surrounding it – the nationalism bestowed of late upon the Indian space programme by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the profitability bestowed upon nationalism by the business-politics nexus. It is a mess but – without playing down its problematic portrayal of women and scientists – the film is hardly the worst thing to come of it.

In fact, if you are yet to watch the film but are going to, try imagining you are in the late 1990s and that Mission Mangal is a half-gritty, endearing-in-parts sci-fi flick about a bunch of Hindi-speaking people in Bangalore trying to launch a probe to Mars. However, if you – like me – are unable to leave reality behind, watch it, enjoy it, and then fact-check it.

Miscellaneous remarks

  1. Mission Mangal frequently attempts to assuage the audience that it doesn’t glorify Hinduism but these overtures are feeble compared to the presence of a pundit performing religious rituals within the Mission Control Centre itself. Make no mistake, this is a Hindu film.
  2. Akshay Kumar makes a not-so-eccentric entrance but there is a noticeable quirk about him that draws the following remark from a colleague: “These genius scientists are always a little crazy.” It made me sit up because these exact words have been used to exonerate the actions of scientists who sexually harassed women – all the way from Richard Feynman (by no means the first) to Lawrence Krauss (by no means the last).