The great Nobel Prize hypocrisy

Katie Langin’s report for Science on October 12 is an eye-opening account of one reason why the committees that pick every year’s Nobel Prize winners almost never pick women: because they aren’t nominated. Given the Nobel Foundation’s frustrating policy of secrecy, there aren’t many numbers available for us to work with, but Langin’s report adds one more column to the mix. Quoting from her piece:

The selection committees have generally been secretive about nominee statistics, citing a Nobel Foundation statute stipulating nominations be kept secret for 50 years. But committee members shared summaries of the data with Science. The total number of nominations for a physiology or medicine Nobel jumped from about 350 in 2015 to 874 this year. Over those years, the percentage of female nominees more than doubled, from 5% in 2015 to 13% this year. The chemistry committee saw a similar increase: At 7% to 8%, female nominees have doubled their share since 2018. A representative for the physics committee declined to share exact figures, but wrote in an email, “The number of nominated women has increased significantly in the last few years.”

In Langin’s telling (here and in other parts of her piece), the committees and some of their quoted members sound like they’re constrained by the number of women nominated. There is, more broadly, a noticeable vein of objectivitism running through the article, reflecting what sort of arguments the committees themselves will and won’t admit vis-à-vis their decision-making process. Here are some telling lines:

Members of the powerful selection committees that sort through the nominations say they aren’t satisfied with the progress. “The fraction of women among the nominated people is very low and I don’t think it represents the [fraction of] women that were doing science even 20 years ago,” says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a biophysical chemist at Chalmers University of Technology who is one of two women on the eight-person chemistry committee.

“We want to have more women nominated,” agrees Eva Olsson, an experimental physicist at Chalmers who is a member of the physics selection committee.

This year, the physics committee had seven men and one woman, the chemistry committee was composed of six men and two women, and the physiology or medicine committee had the highest proportion of women, with 13 men and five women.

“Thanks to new recruitments over the recent ten years or so, the proportion of women [on the committee] is now similar to the proportion of female full professors at the [institute],” Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the physiology or medicine committee and a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute, in an email to Science. [Paraphrased]

The committees don’t consider gender when they discuss which discovery to award a Nobel Prize, Olsson says. “The focus is on science.”

The reason I’m getting into this is that waiting for the number of women scientists nominated to increase or double or whatever before including them among the laureates seems like a red herring. The ‘availability’ of women in the pool of nominations, which committee members can then pick from, has never been the problem. We all know there are too few women scientists; Göran Hansson, the head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, even said yesterday that “it’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing.” The problem is that the Nobel Prize committees aren’t defying convention to pick and highlight women, that they’re waiting for the real world to fix the problem first before – from their point of view – simply reflecting that in the composition of their laureate lists. But when the laurel is as prominent and as storied as a Nobel Prize, we need affirmative action.

But Hansson put paid to this possibility when he said in the same interview that the prizes will never have gender quotas, obviously mindless of the stunning hypocrisy. The most legitimate protests against the prizes are rooted not in the narrower domain of awarding more men than women but in the wider one of the prizes having never reflected the conditions in which science is practiced in the real world. (The prizes are not awarded posthumously, and only to three laureates at a time, for example.) And Langin’s article doesn’t touch on this possibility at all. In fact, it pushes the next weightiest argument against the Nobel Prizes to the last paragraph:

“How people get on whatever list of possible nominees is a mystery to most people,” [Handelsman] says. “If women are unaware of whatever that political process is, then they can’t place themselves in the appropriate situations or [get] linked to the right people who can help them get nominated.”

That is, the committee that deliberates on the nominations is not happy that so few women are being nominated, while no one (outside the Nobel Foundation) knows the people staffing the nomination committees. Now, it’s unlikely to be the case that the many more men who are nominated for the Nobel Prizes start off knowing what these political processes are; it seems likelier that the bias against women begins not from women not knowing what these processes are but from biases on the part of the ‘low-level’ nominators, so to speak (I don’t care if they don’t have many women to pick from or what their idea of the Nobel Prizes is).

Handelsman may be right that women may not be ‘naturally’ clued in to these processes, but expecting them to assume this work, in addition to science work, seems like the wrong way to solve this problem. It’s also wronger that the nominators’ identities are such a secret, effectively blocking our view of them and their thought-processes behind the same veil that the likes of Anthony Fauci have used to separate science from society.

What’s the right way to solve this problem? Dismantle the Nobel Prizes.

Are major science prizes a form of philanthropy?

The Association for the Advancement of AI conferred its ‘Squirrel AI Award’ on Cynthia Rudin, and Duke University – her employer – published a press release celebrating it. Here’s one para from the release:

“Only world-renowned recognitions, such as the Nobel Prize and the A.M. Turing Award from the Association of Computing Machinery, carry monetary rewards at the million-dollar level,” said AAAI awards committee chair and past president Yolanda Gil.

The press release also had a curious headline:

Duke Computer Scientist Wins $1 Million Artificial Intelligence Prize, A ‘New Nobel’

  1. If a prize carries a million-dollar purse, is it like the Nobel Prize? Follow-up: Being compared favourably to the Nobel Prize is one thing, but aren’t the ‘Squirrel AI Award’ folks offended that the virtues of their award aren’t being considered in their own right?
  2. If the prize money is so important, why did the Duke University release’s headline not say “A New Templeton”? (The Templeton Prize is awarded to work that harnesses “the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” Pertinently, the prize money was first set to be greater than the Nobel Prizes’ purse in order to grab the world’s attention. See Q. 6.)
  3. Does a prize have to be ‘like’ the Nobel Prize to be taken seriously?
  4. What is the greater cause célèbre – the prize or the work that wins it? (Ref. 1: Cynthia Rudin in the press release: “I want to thank AAAI and Squirrel AI for creating this award that I know will be a game-changer for the field. To have a ‘Nobel Prize’ for AI to help society makes it finally clear without a doubt that this topic – AI work for the benefit for society – is actually important.” Ref. 2: Piers Forster in The Conversation: “With a Nobel prize in physics under our discipline’s belt, it gives me and climate modelling colleagues the credibility and recognition we have yearned for: climate science is real science.”)
  5. Does a recognition need to have a million-dollar purse to be “world-renowned”? Follow-up: What does that say about what the world’s people in general consider to be ‘renown’?
  6. Does Yolanda Gil, the “awards committee chair”, expect the award to be Nobel-esque and/or renowned simply because her employers have attached a million-dollar purse to it? Follow-up: Does this mean the award has nothing else going for it?
  7. While university press releases are infamous for their hype, Duke University and AAAI appear to be colluding here to hype up the prize. Is this ethical from a public communication point of view?
  8. As I’ve written about the Infosys Prize, what is the point of giving a million dollars to one scientist who is already succeeding at their work? Follow-up: As with the Infosys Prize, is giving already-successful scientists a lot of money the conventional way to make the prize more prominent?

(One simple and entirely non-drastic solution to many of these problems is to decouple the prize-money from the prize itself: give deserving laureates medals and certificates, and split and distribute the money less according to achievement and more according to potential for achievement.)


Awards as philanthropy?

Bill Gates & co. have made a name for themselves through philanthropy, more precisely philanthrocapitalism. On October 9, Julieta Caldas wrote for Tribune magazine that philanthropists’ “brand of social justice … follows only the imperative for ruthless innovation,” that they “refer to the act of philanthropy using the euphemistic term ‘giving’, which both obviates the need to concretely mention money and stresses the generosity of donors,” that “the philanthropic system depends upon [the poor] remaining splintered and isolated as subjects” and “represents, at best, a capitalism generously willing to help alleviate the problems it causes,” and that “their justifications are cloaked in the language of collaboration and listening, but their guiding principles are nakedly technocratic”. She concludes in the headline itself that “philanthropy is a scam”. Now, with regard to the last question in the list above: are big-purse prizes a form of philanthropy?

Unlike billionaires and/or their estates/foundations, it is hard – if not impossible – to accuse the Nobel Prizes, the Infosys Prizes, the Breakthrough Prizes, the Templeton Prize or any others like them of furthering a technocratic agenda by giving away their money to scientists working in this or that field. In fact, they may not have any agenda at all except to abide by the broad terms of the prizes themselves – or so it would seem.

For example, the Nobel Prizes require their laureates’ work to have proved itself, so to speak, in some way in the real world, to have been of benefit of society. Here, society’s composition, needs and aspirations matter because they determine what scientific work is valourised, adopted, allowed to scale and ultimately become profitable (not just in terms of money, although that has often been a necessary condition). The Nobel Prizes are not outside society, much less beyond it, as its prize-giving body seems to believe: contrary to popular belief, they don’t have to be any kind of watermark on scientific achievement.

In this context, awarding a million dollars to the recipients, whose work has by definition matured in terms of its application and appreciation to a great degree, glamourises their particular fields of study as well as lines of work and inquiry. And just as philanthropy of the Bill Gates variety perpetuates wealth inequality and preserves the socio-economic status quo, showering money on work that has already proven itself may widen a respectability inequality in the sciences.

Of course, most – if not all – scientists who go on to win Nobel Prizes didn’t start their careers or their eventually award-winning work thinking they would win the prizes, ergo not pursuing one question over another based on the probability of a future laureateship. But on the flip side, scientific work until the 1980s or 1990s is not what it is now. There is an important truth to memes about how Peter Higgs or Albert Einstein may not have been able to produce their greatest work today because they wouldn’t have had jobs or brought in a large number of grants; both these tasks have become astoundingly more competitive today, accompanied by concomitantly less secure, more fluid terms of employment. As a result, the appetite for more exploratory and potentially riskier lines of inquiry are unlikely to be funded or supported beyond the best-funded research institutes.

There is already some evidence that if the exponent of one topic wins a prominent prize, other scientists working on the same topic tend to become more productive over the subsequent decade.

Our longitudinal analysis of nearly all recognized prizes worldwide and over 11,000 scientific topics from 19 disciplines indicates that topics associated with a scientific prize experience extraordinary growth in productivity, impact, and new entrants. Relative to matched non-prizewinning topics, prizewinning topics produce 40% more papers and 33% more citations, retain 55% more scientists, and gain 37 and 47% more new entrants and star scientists, respectively, in the first five-to-ten years after the prize. Funding do not account for a prizewinning topic’s growth. Rather, growth is positively related to the degree to which the prize is discipline-specific, conferred for recent research, or has prize money.

Brian Uzzi et al., ‘Scientific prizes and the extraordinary growth of scientific topics’, Nature Communications

This is just tremendous. The next time anyone from a Nobel Prize Committee blames society for preventing women from winning its exalted honours, someone tell them that whom they award their prizes to may just be influencing that field’s success, in turn influencing the scientific output and knowledge that is available for any society to make use of. But more importantly (for this post), it doesn’t seem to me to be hard to imagine that Big Prizes have an impact on society that is quite similar to the impact that philanthrocapitalism has on society: to extend the lifetime of what has already sunk deep roots, even if the resources it continues to demand are more in need elsewhere.

The Nobel Prize, its men and climate change

The sciences part of this year’s Nobel Prize announcements have concluded. These are the new laureates:

  • Physics – Syukuro Manabe 🇯🇵 🇺🇸, Klaus Hasselmann 🇩🇪 and Giorgio Parisi 🇮🇹
  • Chemistry – Benjamin List 🇩🇪 and David W.C. MacMillan 🇬🇧
  • Medicine/physiology – David Julius 🇺🇸 and Ardem Patapoutian 🇺🇸

I have yet to come across a more overt vestment of faith in the notions of prestige and genius whose increasingly unjust nature does little to diminish its value than the science Nobel Prizes. I seem to repeat this like clockwork every year but it bears repeating: few seem to care that the Nobel Prizes overlook the achievements of women (and people of other gender and racial identities) too often for them to be legitimate markers of achievement. Yet they continue to be so. This year, I have one more grouse… of sorts. It is at the least a sad irony at the centre of the 2021 physics and chemistry prizes. The citations for four of their recipients, out of five, connect their work to climate change directly or indirectly: Manabe and Hasselmann (“for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”), and List and MacMillan (“for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction [that] has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener”). By awarding its prizes for these citations to no one else, the Nobel Foundation has found one more way to exclude women and others from our narratives of climate change. This may seem like a roundabout concern, if not too tenuous to matter at all, but there is something to be said about justice here – especially what we deem to be steps too inconsequential to achieving it.

Beating climate change won’t just require us to lower our greenhouse-gas emissions. More fundamentally, it demands that we abandon modes of social and economic development that privilege wealth accumulation and gender stratification, among other things. However, the Nobel Prizes seem determined to gather white men at the centre of our conception of how science works and/or progresses (and thereon to how we can “develop” or “progress” as a nation), to the exclusion of people who, simply put, haven’t caught the prize-giving body’s attention by publishing in high-profile journals, by collaborating with notable researchers and/or at good universities, or simply by slipping past the surfeit of biases at research centres around the world – from who can win grants to whose work is appreciated, from who’s selected for lucrative jobs to who’s rejected on the basis of ‘fertility discrimination’. And when so many people, including most scientists, kneel at the altar of the Nobel Prizes, they help normalise the marginalisation of non-white (and non-trans) men from the public imagination of ‘important’ science and scientific achievements. This point of view obviously banks on the hope, however misguided, that the Nobel Foundation could become interested in wedding its considerable clout to an agenda to improve the fortunes of those who are held back by society’s prejudices – instead of simply continuing to treat scientific contributions to be wholly independent of the people who make them, and the social circumstances in which they do. This irrational division only entrenches science’s myth of objectivity, and supports fallacious claims that leaving out everyone but (non-trans) men doesn’t deprive science, and its application to human betterment, of novel, valuable and more just perspectives.* In fact, the Nobel Prizes must strive towards this agenda, to echo what I recently wrote about the Bhatnagar Prizes in India: that these prizes “will fall by the wayside if they continue to fail to provide society with a way to recognise its members’ achievements without conforming to a view of science that became dated decades ago.”

But of course, few care. 🙂

* Aside: The Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1938 comes to mind. The prize-giving committee awarded it to Richard Kuhn in spite of his ardent support for Nazism and his shameful conduct towards his Jewish colleagues two years earlier.

Featured image: Gösta Florman’s portrait of Alfred Nobel, late 19th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Science prizes, wealth location and social signals

One count on which I almost always find myself to be an outlier in India is my opinion that the Nobel Prizes and their derivatives belong in the gutter. But while many people in other countries share this opinion of the Nobel Prizes, and often put their weight behind advancing this view, there are very few people who focus on similar issues with Indian prizes.

For example, I just sent my colleagues at The Wire a note suggesting that we desist where and when possible to play up notions like eminence, vis-à-vis scientists, and not associate anything but the quality of one’s work with their success. My concern had been prompted by a PTI copy advertising the fact that scientists, “including from MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University in the US”, had been awarded the 2020 Infosys Prizes.

My congratulations to the laureates for doing good work, irrespective of what they’ve won for it – but let’s consider what we’re celebrating here, really. We’re talking about a jury of well-known scholars coming together to consider a list of 200+ nominations and somehow picking only a half-dozen ‘winners’, and to those winners awarding a pure gold medal, a certificate and $100,000, or around Rs 74 lakh.

Most mediapersons pay attention to the Infosys Prizes because of the substantial purse, and when we do pay attention, what are we looking at? We’re looking at a lot of money going to a group of people who already have a good job and access to funds, especially in the name of a job well done that quite likely happened in the first place by virtue of having a good job and access to funds. The Infosys Prizes are in effect heaping more privilege on already privileged scientists.

Consider this year’s laureates, for example. Three of them – Hari Balakrishnan, Sourav Chatterjee and Raj Chetty – have full-time jobs at three of the world’s most well-endowed universities. Rajan Sankaranarayanan is a chief scientist at CCMB Hyderabad and runs his own lab. The sole female laureate this year, historian Prachi Deshpande, is at CSSS Kolkata and used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. Arindam Ghosh is an associate professor at IISc Bangalore, again with his own lab. I can’t comment on the relative fortunes of Sankaranarayanan, Deshpande and Ghosh (although at least one other person from CCMB and six others from IISc have won Infosys Prizes, speaking to the localisation of resources and opportunities). But these are all scholars who have, as some might say, settled – scholars who have been able to sidestep or surmount, as the case may be, the numerous barriers to finding success and renown as an Indian scientist.

The case of Balakrishnan seems particularly curious (vis-à-vis the prize-giving entity, not Balakrishnan or any of the other laureates): he is a chair professor at MIT and the CTO at a six-person startup with $500 million in funding.

As an offshoot of what I said earlier, it is not unjust to reward people who have done good work – but too often we do so to the exclusion of those who lack the opportunities to begin doing good work in the first place. For example, instead of Balakrishnan, Chatterjee and Chetty, the prizes could have been awarded to three accomplished scientists working in India. And I argue that we need to reapply this criterion and select even other laureates who are yet to settle, so that we may ultimately expand the possibility of there being more successful scientists in future. Ultimately, we do need more successful scientists, not more laureates.

Of course, it isn’t implicitly wrong for any individual or entity to gift a large sum of money to anyone or any other entity (but perhaps it is bad in some cases). The wrongness arises when the money becomes part of a deleterious idea – such as that excellent scientists are men and/or that they succeeded by working alone. Thanks to their reputation, the Nobel Prizes are the foremost examples of this problem. As I wrote in The Wire recently:

That the prizes’ prestige is a construct, and not an innate attribute, matters because constructs represent intent. The construct of prestige or reputation surrounding the Nobel Prizes exists by reinforcing the beliefs and myths that some experts (in the relevant topics) held in order to maintain their privileges, to secrete away their power and perpetuate the status quo. That is, their intention here was to preserve the idea, and even glamourise it by attaching a purse of SEK 10 million (Rs 8.24 crore) with each Nobel Prize (no strings attached), that individuals make inventions and discoveries, and that men were always better at science than women, and more so than people of other genders.

The Infosys Prizes, as also the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize and the Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, are different only in scale, not in spirit. They seem disinterested in addressing any of the issues, and seem keener on getting media attention. (By making this point, I hope I’m being clear that the media’s attitude towards the constitution of ‘news’ is also part of the problem.)

This year’s Infosys Prize laureates include only one woman; in all, 22% of laureates are women, fewer still if the social sciences are left out. And the prizes have only ever been awarded to individuals. This is disappointing because the prizes can do so much more by virtue, again, of the amount of money in play.

For example, the prize-giving foundation could give ‘senior’ laureates a citation, a certificate, etc., and split the purse into smaller chunks and award each one to promising young scientists, or those who are likely to have a hard time breaching science’s ‘in’ groups without good fortune. This could help separate the prizes’ extant wealth- and virtue-signalling from the distinction-signalling – as well as greatly expand some of the foundation’s other initiatives that directly help students.

I recently wrote with regard to the announcement of this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships, in mid-November, that resource constraints encourage us to think that only a few people can be selected for an award every time that award is given out. This in turn leads to the question about which candidates should be left out from the final pool of winners. And this question is to begin with singly misguided, becoming doubly misguided when it is used as a defence against questions about why so few women are awarded important recognitions, and triply misguided when the resource constraints are made-up, a fiction of funders and administrators to retain power.

Instead, we must demand more material wealth and supply it at the springboards of where young and/or struggling scientists take off. These scientists plus some other groups (incl. those from marginalised sections of society, those who need to learn the English language, even those who promise to stay in India for a decade, etc.) are in my view the only ‘segments’ that have justifiable need for not-insubstantial sums of money. Beyond this point, we can be generous with immaterial rewards for those who do good work and may no longer need the money.

Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tariq Ali

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

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

Abdus Salam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abdus Salam

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

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

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

Pervez Hoodbhoy

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

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

Steven Weinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two sides of the road and the gutter next to it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we cover the Nobel Prize announcements?

The Nobel Prizes are too big to fail. Even if they’ve become beset by a host of problems, such as:

  1. Long gap between invention/discovery and recognition,
  2. A large cash component given to old scientists,
  3. Limiting number of awardees to three,
  4. Not awarding prizes posthumously,
  5. Not awarding prizes to women, especially in the sciences, and
  6. Limiting laureates to those who had published in English or European languages*

… they have been able to carry over the momentum they accrued in the mid-20th century, as an identifier of important contributions, into the 21st century. The winner of a Nobel Prize gets his (it’s usually ‘his’) name added to a distinguished list, and has the attention of the world’s press turn towards him for 12-24 hours. The latter in particular is almost impossible to achieve otherwise. As a result, the Nobel Prizes, for all their shortcomings, still stand for a certain kind of recognition that is not easily attainable through other means.

Any other prize instituted today with the same shortcomings as the Nobel Prizes will struggle to be taken seriously (unless the cash component is overwhelmingly high). It is thanks to these qualities of its legacy that even those who write against the Nobel Prizes and their import can at best hope to fix the prize, and not have it cancelled. And this is also why people continue to lament problems #3 and #5 instead of neglecting the Nobel Prizes altogether.

I personally wish the Nobel Prizes stopped being important – but it’s a conflicted desire because of two reasons:

  1. It’s an opportunity – even only if it’s for one week of the year – to talk about pure science research instead of having to bother with what it’s good for, and still be read. Otherwise, there’s a high cost attached to ‘indulging’ in such articles.
  2. The Nobel Prizes are not going to drop in value among the people if only I abstain from covering them. Either all journalists have to stop giving a damn (they won’t) or the Nobel Committee itself will have to rethink the prizes (so far, they haven’t).

So if only I sit out and not write about who won which Nobel Prize for what, only I – rather, The Wire – loses out. I’d much rather make a bigger deal of homegrown awards like the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize, specialised prizes like the Wolf, the Abel and the Lasker, and the international – and more au courant – Breakthrough Prizes.

*I’m speaking only about the science prizes.