Another exit from MIT Media Lab

J. Nathan Matias, a newly minted faculty member at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, has announced that he will cut all ties with the latter at the end of the academic year over the lab director’s, i.e. Joi Ito’s, association with Jeffrey Epstein. His announcement comes on the heels of one by Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher and director of the lab’s Center for Civic Media, who also said he’d leave at the end of the academic year despite not having any job offers. Matias wrote on Medium on August 21:

During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet. As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Zuckerman had alluded to a similar problem with a different group of people:

I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab.

On the other hand, Ito’s note of apology on August 15, which precipitated these high-profile resignations and put the future of the lab in jeopardy, didn’t at all mention any regret over what Ito’s fraternising with Epstein could mean for its employees, many of whom are working on sensitive projects. Instead, Ito has only said that he would return the money Epstein donated to the lab, a sum of $200,000 (Rs 143.09 crore) according to the Boston Globe, while pleading ignorance to Epstein’s crimes.

Joi Ito’s nerd tunnel vision

On August 15, Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s famed Media Lab, published a post apologising for fraternising with Jeffrey Epstein. His wording mimics a bit of George Church’s as well, in that Ito says he “was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of”.

This ignorance is ridiculous coming from the director of an institution whose research draws from and influences different forms of media. Ito’s account exemplifies the ‘nerd tunnel vision’ that Church spoke about: where scientists are willing to ignore the adverse ethical or moral implications for them and their work if an endeavour will benefit them directly or indirectly. It’s like Epstein was looking for the sort of investments that would shield him from unfavourable attention and found it all among scientists because they don’t ask too many questions.

However, as Church is careful to note, there’s no excuse for not keeping abreast of the news. It seems Ito has known Epstein since 2013 – giving him six years to discover that one of his major funders is a notorious sexual predator. Instead, he chose to step up only after the American media turned a glaring spotlight on the scandal.

Indeed, Church noted that labs usually don’t have to bother about the moral/ethical quality of funding and that that is checked by a different part of the university administration. While this is suboptimal, I find it funny that Ito couldn’t have known when he was surely part of the MIT Media Lab’s efforts to identify and evaluate new funders.

The charade doesn’t end here. Ito’s apology is also rendered ineffectual in part by the fact that he didn’t choose to speak up until eight months after the Miami Herald‘s investigation resuscitated the case against Epstein, and only shortly after Marvin Minsky’s involvement came to light. (Ethan Zuckerman, a philosopher at the Media Lab, calls Minsky the lab’s “co-founder”.) Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Minsky was one of the men that Epstein had forced young women to sleep with.

On August 21, Zuckerman posted on his blog that he was going to leave the Media Lab at the end of the academic year because of Ito’s involvement with Epstein. “I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors,” he wrote.

It sounds a bit ominous; is this going to be the end of the Media Lab itself? Ito hasn’t said anything about resigning as director. Instead, he wrote in his post: “I vow to raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and will direct those funds to non-profits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking. I will also return the money that Epstein has invested in my investment funds.”

The money Epstein poured into the lab itself will stay, of course, presumably because it can’t be removed without significantly affecting the lab’s academic and research commitments. Let’s see what the lab’s other members – about 80 in total – have to say.

The simple tech that can pierce the Kashmir blackout

On August 15, AFP reported that the BBC plans to expand its shortwave radio coverage in Kashmir “to ease the impact of a communications blackout imposed by the Centre”. The report added that “short wave transmissions travel thousands of miles and are able to bounce over mountains that dominate the region.”

Shortwave radio transmission is enabled by a part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere, which contains electrically charged atoms that block the passage of shortwave radio signals. Specifically, when shortwave radio signals are beamed at the ionosphere, the atoms bounce the signals back down.

This way, scientists, engineers and hobbyists have learnt to transmit and receive information encoded in shortwave signals across very large distances, using the sky itself like a relay. This is why this technology is also called skywave propagation.

These signals don’t have a fixed frequency but to benefit from the ionosphere’s assistance, they typically range between 3 MHz and 30 MHz. This corresponds to a wavelength range of ~100-10 metres. The official designation of this is the high-frequency (HF) band.

A wavelength of 10 m itself guarantees long-distance transmission. This has to do with how radiation interacts with matter. For example, X-rays have a frequency between 30 billion MHz and 30 trillion MHz. According to the Planck-Einstein relation, this corresponds to an energy of 124 eV to 124 keV.

If an X-ray photon carrying an energy of 124 eV encounters a particle that can absorb this energy, then the energy transfer will happen and the X-ray signal will go dead. This is why bones show up so clearly in an X-ray but soft tissue doesn’t: the electrons in a calcium atom absorb X-rays quite efficiently, casting a shadow on the detector, whereas soft tissue doesn’t.

Similarly, shortwave radio signals have an energy of 0.000000012 eV to 0.00000012 eV. Electrons that absorb energy jump from an orbital closer to the atom’s nucleus to one farther away, but the energy that shortwave signals carry are too low to prove useful for this exercise. Depending on the atom and the jump, electrons typically need 1-1,000 eV. This is how shortwave signals can travel nearly unimpeded.

But they face a barrier at the ionosphere. This is the region of Earth’s atmosphere from ~80 km to 1,000 km above the surface. Here, the air has a very low density, so when ultraviolet radiation from the Sun strikes atoms, they release electrons that float around for a bit before being recaptured by another atom. This isn’t possible in the lower atmosphere because the density of atoms is relatively much higher, so an electron has almost no chance of staying liberated.

In effect, the ionosphere is a layer of charged atoms and electrons that envelopes Earth’s surface. It consists of four sub-layers called D, E and F (from bottom to top). Of these, the F layer is often the most ionised as well as the most used to reflect shortwave signals because electrons and ions in this layer can persist in their charged state for longer.

Since solar radiation creates and maintains these layers, the ionosphere reflects shortwave signals better in the day than at night. During the day, when the amount of solar irradiation is higher, the F layer is even richer at the top than at the bottom; these distinct sub-layers are designated F2 and F1, resp. At night, the D layer effectively dissipates whereas the E and F2 layers remain.

When a signal of frequency lower than in the HF band strikes the D layer, it imparts some of its energy to free electrons and sets them moving. When these electrons collide with other electrons, ions or molecules, they lose some of their energy. This in turn subtracts from the signal’s strength and it becomes weaker. Indeed, the D layer attenuates medium-frequency (MF) band signals, especially during the day, so much so that many radio stations operating in the 500-1,500 kHz range have much shorter range in daytime.

Thankfully, this effect abides by an inverse-square law: if the signal frequency is increased twice, the attenuation drops off by 4x; if the frequency is increased thrice, the attenuation drops off by 9x. So signals in the HF band are attenuated to a much lesser extent in the ionosphere.

So when an HF band signal strikes the D, E or F layers, it is reflected or refracted towards the ground. This is just like when a ray of light passing towards the surface of a water body from under is reflected back down, making the surface look like a mirror. The higher the signal’s frequency is, the higher the signal will penetrate through D and E, so the two sub-layers are effectively frequency filters.

This is how shortwave signals will be able to evade the mountains of Kashmir. The mountains themselves won’t have a part to play; instead, BBC will set up a transmission station at a suitable distance from the mountain and beam its broadcast into the ionosphere. The signal will then skip over the mountain and be received on the other side.

Obviously, BBC – or anyone else – will have to transmit their signals at a sufficient distance away from Kashmir itself. This is because shortwave radio comes with a blindspot: the part of the ground underlying the signal’s journey up and down, called the skip zone. If the signal is transmitted too close from the border of Kashmir, the skip zone could extend well into, or even beyond, the union territory and not be accessible.

According to Electronics Notes, a trade magazine, the skip zone can be as high as 2,500 km for the E region and 5,000 km for the F2 region. So to get shortwave signals into the Kashmir Valley, a transmitting station can be set up in, say, northeast Kenya, northwest Poland or south Sumatra. When the BBC World Service began shortwave transmissions into North Korea in September 2017, the transmitting stations were reportedly situated in Taiwan and Uzbekistan.

Of course, the act of sending a signal isn’t so straightforward. There are a number of complicating factors, including frequency, radiation angle, time of day, annual season, sunspot activity, ground conditions, atmospheric polarisation and the effects of Earth’s magnetic field. Communications specialists also factor in the bandwidth requirement and the kind of information (speech, music, status, etc.) to be relayed.

This said, the underlying idea is fairly simple, attested by the fact that amateur radio operators – instead of trained engineers or the military – discovered skywave propagation in the early 20th century. Amateur radio operators are active to this day, and help maintain communications in the event of a disaster or, as in Kashmir, a blackout.

There are similar stories from India’s freedom struggle. In January 1942, Subhash Chandra Bose began broadcasting shortwave messages into India from Berlin, with the support of his new ally, Adolf Hitler. In September that year, two amateur operators named Bob Tanna and Nariman Printer used shortwave broadcasts (7.12 MHz) from Bombay to gather support for the ‘Quit India’ movement that M.K. Gandhi had launched only a month before.

More recently, Ambarish Nag Biswas, founder of the West Bengal Radio Club, told The Telegraph in July this year that he and his team “provide emergency communications and assist the administration during Gangasagar Mela” (in Kolkata), and have thus far “reunited 2,500 people with their families”.

In the Cold War period, shortwave bands were flush with broadcasts from both parties of the war; stations included Voice of America against Radio Moscow, and Deutsche Welle against Radio Berlin International. However, audiences have shrunk since the rise of satellite broadcasting and the internet. Andy Sennitt, former editor of the World Radio Television Handbook, told Radioworld in 2016, “In parts of Africa and South Asia there are still significant shortwave audiences, but even those are gradually declining.”

However, Radioworld noted that as American and European broadcasters downsized operations, their then-empty HF bands were taken over by Asian, Mediterranean, African and South American stations looking for cheap ways to communicate with listeners around the world. The advent of Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), a modern broadcasting technology that makes use of digital audio broadcasting – as opposed to analog counterparts – to achieve higher information transfer rates for fixed bandwidth, also revitalised shortwave’s prospects.

In fact, the DRM consortium’s website lauds All India Radio’s “impressive implementation of the DRM digital radio standard in the country, which represents probably the biggest digital radio roll-out project in the world”.

In India, the Ministry of Communications issues the amateur radio operator license following an examination. In 2008, The Tribunereported that there were 16,000 licensed operators in the country. Some prominent operators include Rajiv Gandhi (callsign: VU2RG) and Amitabh Bachchan (VU2AMY), and the first shortwave public broadcasting station was set up by E.P. Metcalfe, the vice-chancellor of Mysore University, in 1935.

The Wire
August 19, 2019

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).

Anything but our Vedic heritage

The Union culture ministry had announced in November last year that it would develop a ‘Vedic Heritage’ portal to promote the Vedas, and hoped to inaugurate it by March 2019. It would seem the portal is finally online (with the last update posted on July 29, 2019). Though Arun Goel, the then (and present) secretary to the ministry, had hailed it as a “new paradigm” to disseminate “pure scientific information” last year, a sampling of its contents suggests it is only more of the same.

Consider the following, drawn from one document that claims ancient Hindu texts far surpass the abilities of modern particle physics to describe the fundamental nature of reality.

In word science, by dropping last letter ‘e’, pronounciation of the leftover word ‘scienc’ would be nothing else than Saankhya, but may be with slightly different dialect. It means that Sankhya Darshana was regarded as the book of science and word science was accepted as the synonym of Saankhya, centuries before Christ.

In fact, there is little on the portal’s pages to suggest good scholarship – or any scholarship – and is the usual Hindutva revanchism in yet another bottle. Almost all the documents have been published under the banner of ‘Vijnana Bharati’, a nonprofit organisation with a focus on “swadeshi science”. Some excerpts + comments from the particle physics document follow (or you could skip to the next section):

The beauty of Sanskrit language is in its evocative and meaningful vocabulary. As every word is created with some root, following some grammatical laws, one word may have many meanings. Therefore, while seeking the right meaning of a Vaidic Richa, it is required to select the right meaning of the word. Some times the same Richa or the Mantra may provide the explanations related to the God, the Jeevatmaa, or the Prakriti. It depends on the selection of right series of related meanings, and the procedure adopted in finding its explanations.

Sounds like cherry-picking…

The Vedas, as well as the Vaidic Particle Physics (VPP), starts knowing a thing, right from the sub-base of the foundation and then to the rest of the structure. The VPP starts its studies of the universe right from the study of the building blocks of this huge creation, while the modern science is awfully confused on the question of building blocks.

It’s probably “awfully confused” because it has allowed itself to be guided by evidence instead of presupposing what the building blocks could be.

They are producing confusing and illusive theories like the Quark Theory, which has consumed more than three decades of thousands of scientists. They still keep the destination far away. The other prevailing theory, the S-matrix Theory and its Bootstrap Approach is much in line with the VPP, except a slight but significant difference.

This suggests an inability or reluctance (probably the former) to admit complexity, as well as an unwillingness to accept that a prevailing theory of particles can explain some things perfectly well but fail to make sense of something else, and still be considered a legitimate description of reality.

(There’s an interesting bit of history here: Max Planck – whose research sparked the 20th century revolution of quantum mechanics – struggled to make sense of energy quantisation because it forced him to “sacrifice” his “previous convictions about physics” (source). Niels Bohr would help resolve this dilemma with his philosophy of correspondence: that a new theory that extends the application of an older theory in a new domain must replicate the predictions of the old theory in the older domain. In effect, different theories could apply to different domains of study and simply correspond with one another instead of having to be fundamentally unified and apply in all domains at once to be true.)

Second, the author’s preference for “S-matrix Theory” is fascinating. S-matrix theory was developed in the 1960s as an alternative to quantum field theory but lost out. However, it was later refurbished and reinterpreted as string theory, which today has progressed so far from its seeds that the author’s sympathy for S-matrix theory seems to be just that. Then again, we could be splitting hair here.

In the VPP, after studying the state of affairs and before beginning the creation of universe, as mentioned in the Vedas, we find certain amazing properties of the Prakriti. One of the properties is its dual behaviour. Individually it behaves like a particle, while collectively, its behaviour is like energy.

Why? Who cares.

This property is described in the Rigveda 10/129. … In the Mantra 2 and 3, three imperative words appear: Aaneed awaatam, Swadhyaa, and Salilam. The first word, aaneed awaatam means the energy, which was inert, which was not active, not flowing, which was in the stagnant form like water confined in a jar. … On arrival of creation period, everything became active and creative energy. This substance of the stagnant energy on being active becomes raw material for the creation of the universe. It means the material cause of the creation of everything is energy.

Evidence? Who cares.

Mr. Geoffrey Chew, one of the principal architects of S-matrix theory and its Bootstrap Approach and Fritjof Capra, considers energy to be the material cause of the creation. In S-matrix theory, there are no distinct entities and no basic building blocks; there is only a flow of energy showing certain well-defined patterns. The second part of the above statement shows that the above theory is in line with the VPP. It is the first part of the statement, which has ‘the slight but significant difference’ as we mentioned…

Let’s ignore comma discipline for a moment. This is cherry-picking plain and simple: to associate with a theory of physics after the fact in an attempt to inherit its now-dead credibility. Second, such cameo invocation of Fritjof Capra is possible likely because former Union home minister Rajnath Singh did something similar in November 2014. Capra and his The Tao of Physics are beloved of the Hindutvawadis because of the book’s quest for parallels between quantum mechanics and eastern philosophy.

The second very important word is Swadhayaa. It means self-consistent, self-supporting or self-generated. The mist-like substance filled in everywhere was not created by some body, nor was it supported by some thing.

S-matrix theory proposed to describe the properties of particles without the notions of space-time and within an abstract mathematical object called the scattering matrix (hence the name). So when the “mist-like substance filled in everywhere”, where or what is ‘everywhere’?

The third important word appeared in the third Mantra of the Sookta and that is Salilam. The word salila is usually taken as the synonym of water. No doubt, the water is an example of salila, but it does not mean salila. Unadisootra defines salila to be the fluid. The Oxford dictionary says ‘fluids consists of particles that move freely among themselves and yield to the slightest pressure’. It means that the Salilam is the group of particles with the least or no cohesion in between.

Being a fluid does not mean having no cohesion between particles. Water is strongly cohesive. ‘Salilam’ – whatever it is – may be fluid but that identity doesn’t preclude adhesive or cohesive behaviour, and raises suspicions that the author could be interpreting the text wrong.

This confirms that according to the Vedas the substance filled in before creation was in the form of energy as well as in the form of particles. … There is nothing to get upset on this statement; there is nothing new in it. … The filled in substance, which has dual characteristics, is termed as Prakriti by the Saankhya Darshan, the Vaidic book in particle physics. The Vedas call this as ‘Aditi’.

This is upsetting.

Now, when we accept the particle form of the Prakriti particle, we accept all the mathematics related to the particle. After all, it must have some geometry, some mass, and some volume. We know they would be very small. They could have been 10-50 gm (mass) or 10-50 cc (volume). This figure may have been smaller or greater. What so ever, it must bear some mass and some volume.

The assumption of implicit and explicit properties is not mathematics. More importantly, this is an attempt at a qualitative description of physical reality, and, due to its presumed inviolability, a pretty bad one at that.

The author goes on to define three gunas, or natures, that make up all Prakriti particles. Their organisation is such that no Prakriti particle can be composed of only one or two of the gunas but must by definition encompass all three. The author equates the feature to the persistence of magnetic dipoles but it seems to me to be more like asymptotic freedom. Then:

When the time to commence the creation is arrived, the balanced state of the three gunas in the particle is smashed and the direction of the acting gunas is reversed from inwards to outwards. At the moment, the particle ceases to be recognised as Prakriti, and then it becomes Mahat. This sudden change in the direction of application comes with a great impact and results in the big bang as the mantra suggests.

The passive voice is a menace. Apart from keeping sentences long and clunky, it also glosses over active agency. “She threw the ball” becomes “the ball was thrown”, and “X smashed the particle” becomes “the particle is smashed”. There is no discussion of where or what X is because X has been removed from the equation.

The rest of the document descends into more nonsensical descriptions of the electromagnetic force and electric and magnetic fields, among other things. This is nonsensical not because its conclusions are at odds with what we have uncovered using the methods of science and mathematics but because it does not tolerate argument, leave alone doubt, and is nonplussed with contradictions. There is no room to disagree, so agreement itself is rendered meaningless.

In the last half-decade or so, pseudoscience has become a grave threat to India’s democracy. This document – together with the 41 others like it listed on the ‘Vedic Heritage’ website – contribute to it, together with the silence of those who know the texts are spurious but won’t speak up, by spreading false knowledge from a position of authority.

For example, one of the documents, entitled ‘A Glimpse of Science in Ancient India – Retrospection from IISc’, claims “astrology has a basis in science” and that “much of the criticism [of] astrology can be traced to a complete ignorance or misunderstanding of the … law of karma.” One of its authors, K.I. Vasu, founded Vijnana Bharati. Will IISc’s top scientists speak up?

However, there is even more at stake here. The culture ministry’s effort to promote the study of the Vedas is pernicious to serious and legitimate Vedic scholarship above all else.

The Government of India’s excuse to support and promote pseudo-scholarship has been that doing so will uplift the Hindu politico-religious identity. However, it has only come at the expense of efforts to properly preserve Vedic texts and their interpretations over the centuries, to institute centres of study free of bureaucratic interference, to support scholars with grants and scholarships and to ensure India – the home of the Vedas – is also the place where modern Vedic scholarship is at its best. But this is the exact opposite of what has been done.

The same can be said of Sanskrit, the language of ancient India’s Brahmins and to which ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are so quick to attribute linguistic supremacy. But apart from championing its virtues in public addresses, the ministry of culture has done nothing in the last half decade to preserve it as a language. Did you know, for example, that “the first people to leave behind evidence of having spoken Sanskrit aren’t Hindus or Indians [but] Syrians”? (Source)

The BJP’s fascistic outlook and majoritarian politics doesn’t have room for such possibilities, and whose attitude is generally opposed to the conditions necessary for honest, rigorous study. Look no further than the treatment meted out to the likes of Audrey Truschke, Sheldon Pollock and Patricia Sauthoff. The ‘Vedic Heritage’ website is what the BJP would have in their stead, and in the process ruin the cultural heritage that belongs equally to all Indians.

Of awards and women

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was founded in 2012 by Yuri Milner to recognise those individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge. It is open to all physicists – theoretical, mathematical, experimental – working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe. (Source)

When these prizes were first awarded seven years ago, a bit of the jubilation focused on whether this prize, and others like it, would supersede the Nobel Prizes by virtue of placing ‘less stringent’ limits on who could win them. Although Milner, an Israeli-Russian billionaire, has denied the Breakthrough Prizes were designed to overshadow the Nobel Prizes, the comparisons are inescapable. Notwithstanding the ‘no posthumous’ winners constraint, the Nobel Prizes can’t be awarded to more than three people/entities at a time nor to experimentally unverified theoretical advancements.

In fact, many winners of the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics have been theoreticians whose contributions have been principally mathematical. The latest winners, announced on August 6, have been recognised for their contributions to a theory that melds general relativity and particle physics, although the decision has come under fire because the theory hasn’t been verified to be true. This is excluding the Special Breakthrough Prize, which has been awarded as a more immediate recognition of significant achievements, such as to the collaboration that discovered the Higgs boson. In all, it has been awarded thrice since 2013.

Because laureates don’t have to wait until their theoretical ideas are verified, they have received the prize’s sizeable cash component – $3 million (Rs 21.2 crore) – at a time when they can spend it to advance their careers. On the other hand, Nobel laureates have to wait for verification. For example, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the physics prize in 2013 for an idea they had published 49 years before. So the average age of the Nobel laureate, who receives a part or all of $1.1 million (Rs 7.8 crore), is 59.14 years, with 372 people having won it at 60 years or above.

However, there is one aspect in which the Breakthrough Prizes are very much like the Nobel Prizes. The latter are notorious for overlooking women, in some cases to the point of actively sidelining their candidacy in favour of the men that worked with them. One argument is that because the Nobel Prizes are usually awarded decades after the winning discovery/invention was made, and not many women worked in STEM at that time, it is unfair to blame the prizes for including so few women. However, it doesn’t help that the Nobel Prizes committee deliberately ignored opportunities to recognise women who did contribute in major ways, such as Chien-Shiung Wu and Jocelyn Bell.

Similarly, the Breakthrough Prizes in physics also count no female laureates. Specifically, the fundamental physics prize (excluding the Special Breakthrough Prize) has been won by 0 women and 32 men since 2012 (excluding 2020’s winners: three men). The same numbers for the life sciences (2013-2019) are 9 women and 34 men, and for mathematics (2015-2019), 0 women and 10 men. The geographical distribution is also skewed, with most laureates being from the US and Europe.

One must remember that, contrary to popular perception, the Nobel Prizes are not and cannot be the gatekeepers of accomplishment. A lot of other factors drawn from different geographical and cultural contexts decide that. Instead, the Nobel Prizes, and the Breakthrough Prizes for that matter, are gatekeepers of a community of winners that have snagged the attention of a prize-selection committee guided by its own principles and biases. This is important to acknowledge because the absence of women on the roster of laureates could indicate a deeper problem with the nomination/selection procedure instead of giving the impression that “women aren’t good enough”.

It should also be possible for us to acknowledge that the complete absence of women among the physics and mathematics laureates is a problem without diminishing the fact that the men who won these prizes deserved to (with some reservations about the lack of experimental proof that their contributions are valid). It doesn’t help that the winners of subsequent years’ prizes are composed of all the previous laureates, so without any women winning the prizes for physics or mathematics, the group of selectors simply includes more and more men.

This brings us to my final point: the enterprise of award-giving cannot escape the expectation to represent the reality of the scientific enterprise even if its ‘mission statement’ maintains that it simply wishes to recognise good work, especially when the prize money is $3 million. Neither the Nobel Prizes nor the Breakthrough Prizes exist in a vacuum. They want the attention of the world’s people, they want to be equated with prestige, and they wish to set themselves up as aspirations. In effect (and notwithstanding the fact that setting one’s career up just to win an award would be a terrible idea), awards’ claims to merit don’t excuse them from being evaluated except through the lens of the prevailing sociopolitical zeitgeist.

In this regard, the absence of women is certainly a thorn in the crown of the prize’s legitimacy.

Note: This article was originally published in The Wire. This is a modified version.

Discovering Vikram Sarabhai

I just read through a collection of Vikram Sarabhai’s important speeches and papers compiled by members of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, to pick a suitable portion to excerpt on the occasion of Sarabhai’s birth centenary tomorrow. There was one portion I would have loved to publish but it belonged to a larger text that had originally been printed by an American NGO, and another the rights for which now belonged – of all companies – Elsevier. So I went with an eminently safe option: an enlightening convocation address Sarabhai delivered on August 1, 1965, at IIT Madras.

The purpose of this excerpt is twofold: to recall Sarabhai’s sharp mind and to remind India of Sarabhai’s views on certain matters the country is presently occupied with. The collection didn’t have only three instances of both these conditions being met; that was just the shortlist. The longlist contained multiple choices that intrigued me. In fact, taken all together, the collection painted an image of Sarabhai somewhat different from the one I had constructed based on what I had read in the news. For example, no doubt Sarabhai was smart but that smartness was devoted almost exclusively to industrial development. Most of his speeches, even including one on “the role science is currently playing in promoting national goals”, involve attempts to characterise a problem or ambition at hand in terms of utilitarian concepts and definitions, following which he analyses their pros and cons, or performs a comparative analysis, and sifts out a proper course of action.

It could certainly be, among other possibilities, that the PRL collected only those papers and speeches discussing quantitative measures in its collection, but it is still remarkable that in these presentations from 1959 to 1971, Sarabhai was seldom a story-teller and almost always a problem-solver guided by (what he recognised to be) the needs of the country. Without saying anything about whether this may have been a virtue in the India of 1960s, there is little to no evidence (within the collection) that Sarabhai was motivated to pursue any of his grand ambitions – whether spaceflight or nuclear power generation – for anything other than to transform India from being ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’, together with Homi J. Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In fact, the sole exception to Sarabhai’s tendency to appear to be in control in the collection is the IIT Madras convocation address, riddled with rhetorical questions and groping for answers for sociopolitical problems within the principles of nuclear physics. This I hope you will enjoy reading tomorrow.

Would you take Epstein’s money to fund your research?

Note: Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his cell on August 10, 2019. The following post was written before news of his death emerged.

In 2016, I attended a talk by a not-unknown environmental activist in Chennai (not Nityanand Jayaraman, before you ask) who had spent many years stitching together community efforts to restore water bodies around Tamil Nadu. His talk covered the various challenges of his work as well as the different ways in which he overcame them. The one that stood out was his being absolutely okay with receiving donations to support his work from any and all sources, irrespective of their rectitude. He encouraged others to not shirk from any opportunity to accrue wealth because, to rephrase him, you never know why you are going to need it or when it is going to dry up.

This particular activist was a man of simple means but one thing he did have, and arguably needed to have, was the conviction that his work was useful and necessary. Notwithstanding his personal character (only because I didn’t know him that way), most people in the audience that day judged his work — or what they had been told of it — to be important and, of course, good. Most of us are not so lucky. We often have to be very careful about the way we view our work — as a public good or, more precariously, the ‘greater good’, for example — and the things we are prepared to do to justify working on.

Recently, scientists have been in the news in connection to this question thanks to an unlikely cause: Jeffrey Epstein. On August 5, STAT News published an interview of George Church, the noted American geneticist, biologist and teacher, where he apologised for having “contacts” with Epstein “even after the financier pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution”. The interview has so many parts about the behaviour of scientists around billionaires worth chewing on; consider the following example:

Universities are supposed to vet potential donors who ask to meet with a faculty member, especially if they want to fund research. Epstein made a donation to Church’s lab for “cutting edge science and education” from 2005 to 2007. “My understanding is this [vetting] is the responsibility of the development office, which is yet another reason why scientists are a little bit more relaxed,” Church said. “They feel they have administrators, who in theory do the difficult job of figuring out who’s legit.” Epstein’s donation went into what Church called “a general account used to get new projects going before we have enough preliminary data to warrant a formal grant application.”

Later, the article continued:

As for whether Epstein’s 2008 conviction gave Church (a father and grandfather) pause, he said, “I did read a couple of news articles” a decade ago, he said, “but they weren’t clear enough for me to know there was a serious problem.” (The full extent of Epstein’s crimes came out in an investigation by the Miami Herald in 2018; in the New York Times, a 2006 story [described] Epstein’s not-guilty plea … and one in 2008 characterized the allegations as “involving massages with teenage girls”). “But that is still no excuse for me not being abreast of the news.”

How much can you blame scientists for receiving money from tainted sources? I am not sure of the answer. Receiving and using money from corrupt individuals, and certainly those as morally and ethically corrupt as Epstein, is a problem because doing so:

a) Allows the corrupted to claim a form of redemption, especially when they can exploit a shortage of funds required for risky projects

b) Encourages the scientist to harbour an exceptionalism: that she gets to define what ‘good’ is through her work, and

c) Creates the demand, so to speak, that sustains the problematic supply, but this is an admittedly weak contention in this particular case.

At the same time, funding for research has been hard to come by. How often would a scientist stop to check if money sourced through a different department in her university came from a convicted sex offender – money that would ensure she and her students would get paid for the next few months, and possibly provide a way for her to produce research to further ingratiate herself with the university? Not very, possibly because she hasn’t been habituated to check.

This said, the scientist doesn’t get off the hook because the larger argument to be made, or problem to be solved, here is that scientists shouldn’t assume their responsibilities are restricted to their labs. They ought to be as aware of whoever is funding them as, say, journalists are expected to be if only because the same standards should apply to everyone, or at least to every community that prizes independence and self-regulation. This is necessary beyond considerations of one’s relationship with the rest of society, and towards eliminating the imbalance of power that is sure to erupt between a donor who knows how consequential their wealth can be and the researcher who stands to be manipulated by it. For example, she could be tempted to design future projects in ways that are likelier to attract funding and, of course, ruffle fewer feathers.

(I am aware of the difficulties of working scientists, so I don’t say that the solution – such as it is – is to berate them until they make better choices as much as large-scale reform over many years.)

Notwithstanding (important) questions of financial independence, the use of tainted money for a self-proclaimed ‘good’ would at the least form a moral shield for the corrupt funder to hide behind. However, the extent to which this should concern the scientist is doubtful, especially if she is able to insulate herself and the products of her intellect from the influence a sizeable donation is likely to carry. Another argument could be that we should frame these narratives around those who do ‘good’ instead of obsessing over how they render those who do ‘bad’.

For a tangential example, India’s National Green Tribunal recently slapped Volkswagen with a hefty fine of Rs 500 crore ($71 million) for cheating on emission tests, up from the Rs 171 crore recommended by a special panel. This was because, to quote the tribunal’s principal bench:

… the measure of damages has to be fixed taking into account not only the actual damage but also the magnitude and the capacity of the enterprise so that compensation has deterrent effect. … [The] worth of the company is stated to be $75 billion. Thus, apart from actual damage by a conservative estimate, deterrent element has to be considered, specially in view of international unethical practice.

Let us ignore for a moment that the Supreme Court has stayed this order and assume that Volkswagen deposited Rs 500 crore with the Central Pollution Control Board. We would have considered this a great victory, since Rs 500 crore would have increased India’s environment budget for 2019 by 15%, and expected the board to put the money to good use. Similarly, if rich people commit crimes and are convicted, their punishment could carry a big fine in addition to a prison sentence and commensurate to their personal wealth, to be deposited with an independent body staffed by experts from different fields who decide how that money is spent.

This said, it might also be worth asking if the research project is so important or so urgent that its stewards can’t look beyond the first available source of funds, towards less controversial options. Think of it as a contest between the kind of example we want to set as a society about the foundations of our knowledge systems and if it matters that the funds are directed towards studies that are unlikely to be undertaken through other means. For example, on July 11, Peter Aldhous reported for BuzzFeed that between 2012 and 2014, Epstein donated to projects on melanoma, Crohn’s disease, consciousness research and one to develop open source software for AI. Is it possible to appreciate these contributions while condemning the enormity of Epstein’s crimes at the same time?

It might be useful to draw a line here between the likes of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the one hand and, say, community colleges on the other. The former already boast of multiple donors and don’t stand to lose much by forgoing $250,000. However, the latter don’t have nearly enough and even $50,000 to a single institution could make a big difference. It would be a tragedy if there are no alternatives to Epstein’s money, but when there are, it becomes harder to justify the need for it. It is also not lost on any of us that ties between professors at these privileged universities and Epstein run even deeper, to the extent that they fly on his private jet to attend TED talks and then defend him in public using “empirical evidence” shorn of all social context.

All of these questions disappear if government sources pay more for R&D; put another way, such are the questions that raise their heads when private sources of funding overshadow public ones. However, the early 21st century has been characterised by, among other things, an increasingly pervasive mistrust of experts, if not expertise. Leaders of large nations like India, Brazil, the US, the UK, the Philippines and Australia have consistently placed business interests above safeguarding their natural resources, flying in the face of scientific consensus and protest. Public investment in higher education, healthcare and R&D has stagnated or has fallen in the last few years, increasing researchers’ reliance on the private sector. (In India, the government has on occasion expressed interest to the point of dictating which questions researchers should and shouldn’t pursue.) At this time, what is the right thing for a scientist to do?

The answer isn’t necessarily a blanket policy that says ‘accept the money’ or ‘don’t accept the money’. Instead, what is okay and what is not has to be negotiated by those who receive it, with knowledge of their specific circumstances, the relative importance of their work, what they think the consequences could be, and inevitably informed by their personal moral compasses. So the first thing scientists ought to do is step out of the neatly organised lab and into the messy real world, and not leave their public image to be mediated by a university press office with potentially divergent priorities. To paraphrase Church, there is no excuse for not being abreast of the news.

Scientists make video of molecule rotating

A research group in Germany has captured images of what a rotating molecule looks like. This is a significant feat because it is very difficult to observe individual atoms and molecules, which are very small as well as very fragile. Scientists often have to employ ingenious techniques that can probe their small scale but without destroying them in the act of doing so.

The researchers studied carbonyl sulphide (OCS) molecules, which has a cylindrical shape. To perform their feat, they went through three steps. First, the researchers precisely calibrated two laser pulses and fired them repeatedly – ~26.3 billion times per second – at the molecules to set them spinning.

Next, they shot a third laser at the molecules. The purpose of this laser was to excite the valence electrons forming the chemical bonds between the O, C and S atoms. These electrons absorb energy from the laser’s photons, become excited and quit the bonds. This leaves the positively charged atoms close to each other. Since like charges repel, the atoms vigorously push themselves apart and break the molecule up. This process is called a Coulomb explosion.

At the moment of disintegration, an instrument called a velocity map imaging (VMI) spectrometer records the orientation and direction of motion of the oxygen atom’s positive charge in space. Scientists can work backwards from this reading to determine how the molecule might have been oriented just before it broke up.

In the third step, the researchers restart the experiment with another set of OCS molecules.

By going through these steps repeatedly, they were able to capture 651 photos of the OCS molecule in different stages of its rotation.

These images cannot be interpreted in a straightforward way – the way we interpret images of, say, a rotating ball.

This is because a ball, even though it is composed of millions of molecules, has enough mass for the force of gravity to dominate proceedings. So scientists can understand why a ball rotates the way it does using just the laws of classical mechanics.

But at the level of individual atoms and molecules, gravity becomes negligibly weak whereas the other three fundamental forces – including the electromagnetic force – become more prominent. To understand the interactions between these forces and the particles, scientists use the rules of quantum mechanics.

This is why the images of the rotating molecules look like this:

Steps of the molecule’s rotation. Credit: DESY, Evangelos Karamatskos

These are images of the OCS molecule as deduced by the VMI spectrometer. Based on them, the researchers were also able to determine how long the molecule took to make one full rotation.

As a spinning ball drifts around on the floor, we can tell exactly where it is and how fast it is spinning. However, when studying particles, quantum mechanics prohibits observers from knowing these two things with the same precision at the same time. You probably know this better as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

So if you have a fix on where the molecule is, that measurement prohibits you from knowing exactly how fast it is spinning. Confronted with this dilemma, scientists used the data obtained by the VMI spectrometer together with the rules of quantum mechanics to calculate the probability that the molecule’s O, C and S atoms were arranged a certain way at a given point of time.

The images above visualise these probabilities as a colour-coded map. With the position of the central atom (presumably C) fixed, the probability of finding the other two atoms at a certain position is represented on a blue-red scale. The redder a pixel is, the higher the probability of finding an atom there.

Rotational clock depicting the molecular movie of the observed quantum dynamics of OCS. Credit:

For example, consider the images at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock: the OCS molecule is clearly oriented horizontally and vertically, resp. Compare this to the measurement corresponding to the image at 9 o’clock: the molecule appears to exist in two configurations at the same time. This is because, approximately speaking, there is a 50% probability that it is oriented from bottom-left to top-right and a 50% probability that it is oriented from bottom-right to top-left. The 10 o’clock figure represents the probabilities split four different ways. The ones at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock are even more messy.

But despite the messiness, the researchers found that the image corresponding to 12 o’clock repeated itself once every 82 picoseconds. Ergo, the molecule completed one rotation every 82 picoseconds.

This is equal to 731.7 billion rpm. If your car’s engine operated this fast, the resulting centrifugal force, together with the force of gravity, would tear its mechanical joints apart and destroy the machine. The OCS molecule doesn’t come apart this way because gravity is 100 million trillion trillion times weaker than the weakest of the three subatomic forces.

The researchers’ study was published in the journal Nature Communications on July 29, 2019.

Preference for OA research by income group

Two researchers from Rwanda performed a “systematic computational analysis of the biomedical literature” and concluded in their paper that:

… papers with authors based in sub-Saharan Africa, papers with authors based in low income countries, and papers resulting from international collaboration are all much more likely to be made openly accessible than papers that don’t have these properties.

They analysed 547,404 papers indexed in PubMed, which is:

… a free resource developed and maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Library of Medicine (NLM). PubMed PubMed provides free access to MEDLINE, NLM’s database of citations and abstracts in the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, health care systems, and preclinical sciences.


The researchers also found that after scientists from low-income countries, those in high-income countries exhibited the next highest preference for publishing in open-access (OA) journals and that scientists from lower and upper middle-income countries – such as India – came last. It is important to acknowledge here that while there exists a marked (inverse) correlation between GDP per capita and number of publications in OA journals, a causation might be harder to pin down because GDP figures are influenced by a large array of factors.

At the same time, given the strength of the correlation, their conclusion – about scientists from middle-income countries being associated with the fewest OA papers in their sample – seems curious. The article processing charge (APC) levied by some journals to make a paper openly accessible immediately after publishing is only marginally more affordable in middle-income countries than it is in low-income countries. However, the effects of technology and initiative seem to allay some of this confusion.

There are two popular ways, or routes, to publish OA papers. In the ‘gold’ route, the authors of a paper pay the APC to the journal, which in turn makes the paper openly accessible once it is published. A common example is PLOS One, whose APC is at the lower end, $1,595 (Rs 1.13 lakh). On the other hand Nature Communications charges a stunning EUR 4,290 (Rs 3.4 lakh) per paper for submissions from India. In the ‘green route’, the authors or publishers upload the paper to a publicly accessible repository apart from formally publishing it; common example: the arXiv preprints server, which is moderated by volunteers.

There is also ‘hybrid’ OA, whereby a part of the journal’s contents are openly available and the rest is behind a paywall. In one review published in February 2018, researchers also pointed out a ‘bronze’ route: “articles made free-to-read on the publisher website” but “without an explicit [OA] license”.

The authors of the current paper reason that researchers from high-income countries might be ranking higher in their preference for OA papers because the “‘green’ route of OA has been encouraged by an enormous growth in the number of OA repositories, particularly in Europe and North America”; they also note that Africa was home to only 4% of such repositories in 2018. In the same vein, they continue, “the vast majority of funding organizations with OA policies as of 2018 were based in Europe and North America, with less than 3% of total OA policies originating from organizations based in Africa”.

Additionally, many journals frequently waive APCs for submissions from authors in low-income countries, whereas those from lower- and upper-middle income countries – again, including India – do not qualify as frequently to have their papers published without a fee. A very conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests India spends at least Rs 600 crore every year as APCs.

It was to reduce this burden that K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, announced earlier this year that India was joining the Plan S coalition of research-funders, which aims to have all research funded by them openly accessible to the public by 2021. As a result, researchers funded by Plan S members will have to submit to journals that offer gold/green routes and/or journals will have to make exceptions for publishing research funded by Plan S members.

This is going to take a bit of hammering out because the Plan S concept has many problems. Perhaps the most frustrating among them is its Eurocentric priorities. Other commentators have acknowledged that this limits Plan S’s ability to serve meaningfully the interests of researchers from South/Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. In July, two Argentinian researchers lambasted just this aspect and accused Plan S of ignoring “the reality of Latin America”. They wrote that Plan S views “scientific publishing and scholarly publications … as a commodity prone to commercialization” whereas in Latin America, they “are conceived as the community sharing of public goods”.

The latter is more in line with the interests of the developing world as well as with the spirit of knowledge-sharing more generally. At present, a little over 50% of research articles are not openly accessible, although this is changing thanks to the increasing recognition of OA’s merits, including the debatable citation advantage. Research-funders devised Plan S to “accelerate this transition”, as Jon Tennant wrote, but its implementation guidelines need tweaking.

Another problem with Plan S is that it keeps the focus on the ‘gold’ OA route and does little to address many researchers’ bias against less prestigious, but no less credible, journals. For example, while Plan S specifies that it will have gold-OA journals cap their APCs, scientists have said that this would be unenforceable. So, as I wrote in February:

… if Plan S has to work, researcher-funders also have to help reform scientists’ and administrators’ attitude towards notions like prestige. A top-down mandate to publish only in certain journals won’t work if the institutions aren’t equipped, for example, to evaluate research based on factors other than ‘prestige’.

To this end, the study by the researchers in Rwanda offers a useful suggestion: that the presence or absence of policies might not be the real problem.

There was no clear relationship between the number of open access policies in a region and the percentage of open access publications in that region. … The finding that open access publication rates are highest in sub-Saharan Africa and low income countries suggests that factors other than open access policy strongly influence authors’ decisions to make their work openly accessible.