The life and death of ‘Chemical Nova’

You know how people pretend to win an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, right? Many years ago, I used to pretend to be the author of a fictitious but, blissfully unmindful of its fictitiousness, award-winning series of articles entitled Chemical Nova. In this series, I would pretend that each article discussed a particular point of intersection between science and culture.

The earliest idea I had along these lines concerned soap. I would daydream about how I was celebrated for kickstarting a social movement that prized access to soap and ability to wash one’s hands under running water, and with this simple activity beat back the strange practice among many of refusing to wash one’s toilet oneself, instead delegating the apparently execrable task to a housemaid.

The fantastic value of Chemical Nova should be obvious: it represented, at least to me, the triumph of logic and reasoning above class-commitments and superstition. The fantasy took shape out of my longstanding ambition to beat down a stubborn Creature, for many years shapeless, that often caused a good review, essay or news report to inspire only cynicism, derision and eventually dismissal on the part of many readers. It was quickly apparent that the Creature couldn’t be subdued with deductive reasoning alone, but for which one had to take recourse through politics and individual aspirations as well, no matter how disconnected from the pretentious ‘quest for truth’ these matters were.

Chemical Nova dissipated for a few years as I set about becoming a professional journalist – until I had occasion to remember it after Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014. And quickly enough, it seemed laughable to me that I had assumed upper-caste people wouldn’t know how soap worked, or at least of its cleansing properties. An upper-caste individual invested in the continuation of manual scavenging would simply feel less guilty with a bar of soap placed in his dirty bathroom: for scavengers to wash their hands and not be at risk of contracting any diseases.

The belief that ‘the job is theirs to perform’ could then persist unfettered, rooted as it was in some sort of imagined befoulment of the soul – something one couldn’t cleanse, out of reach of every chemical reagent, or even affect in any way except through a lifetime of suffering.

It was a disappointing thought, but in my mind, there was still some hope for Chemical Nova. Its path was no longer straightforward at all insofar as it had to first make the case that the mind, the body and the community are all that matter, that that’s how one’s soul really takes shape, but its message – “ultimately, wash your hands” – still was an easy one to get across. I was tempted and I continued to wait.

However, earlier today, the Creature bared itself fully, exposing not itself as much as the futility of ideas like Chemical Nova. An advertisement appeared in a newspaper displaying a pair of hands kneading some dough, with the following caption: “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected.” The asset encouraged readers of the newspaper to buy Kent’s “atta maker & bread maker” instead, accompanied by a photograph of Hema Malini smiling in approval.

Malini has been the brand ambassador for Kent since 2007 and the incumbent Lok Sabha MP from Mathura since 2014. I’m not sure of the extent to which she knew of the advertisement’s contents before her face (and her daughter’s) appeared on it. Her affiliation since 2004 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its favouritism towards upper-caste Hindus (to put it mildly), doesn’t inspire confidence but at the same time, it’s quite possible that Malini’s contract with Kent allows the company to include her face in promotional materials for a predefined set of products without requiring prior approval in each instance.

But even if Malini had never been associated with the product or the brand, Chemical Nova would have taken a hit because I had never imagined that the Creature could one day be everywhere at once. The chairman of Kent has since apologised for the advertisement, calling it “unintentional” and “wrongly communicated”. But it seems to me that Kent and the ad agency it hired continue to err because they don’t see the real problem: that they wrote those words down and didn’t immediately cringe, that those words were okayed by many pairs of eyes before they were printed.

The triumph of reason and the immutability of chemical reagents are pointless. The normalisation of exclusion, of creating an ‘other’ who embodies everything the in-group finds undesirable, is not new – but it has for the most part been driven by a top-down impulse that often originates in the offices of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah or some senior BJP minister, and often to distract from some governmental failure. But in the coronavirus pandemic, the act of ‘othering’ seems to have reached community transmission just as fast as the virus may have, finding widespread expression without any ostensible prompt.

And while Kent has been caught out evidently because it was the ‘loudest’, I wonder how many others don’t immediately see that what they are writing, saying, hearing or reading is wrong, and let it pass. As Arundhati Roy wrote earlier this week, the attainment of ‘touchlessness’ seems to be the new normal: in the form of a social condition in which physical distance becomes an excuse to revive and re-normalise untouchabilities that have become taboo – in much the same way soap became subsumed by the enterprise it should have toppled.

Examples already abound, with ministers and corporate uncles alike touting the prescient wisdom of our Hindu ancestors to greet others with a namaste instead of shaking hands; to maintain aachaaram, a collection of gendered practices many of which require the (Brahmin) practitioner to cleanse themselves of ‘spiritual dirt’ through habits and rituals easily incorporated into daily life; and now, to use machines that promise to render, in Roy’s words, “the very bodies of one class … as a biohazard to another”.

It started with a bang, but Chemical Nova slips quietly into the drain, and out of sight, for it is no match for its foe – the Creature called wilful ignorance.

Featured image: A snapshot of William Blake’s ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’, c. 1805-1810.

A caveat for peer-review

Now that more researchers are finding more holes in the study in The Lancet, which claimed hydroxychloroquine – far from being a saviour of people with COVID-19 – actually harms them, I wonder where the people are who’ve been hollering that preprint servers be shut down because they harm people during a pandemic.

The Lancet study, entitled ‘Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis’, was published online on May 22, 2020. Quoting from the section on its findings:

After controlling for multiple confounding factors (age, sex, race or ethnicity, body-mass index, underlying cardiovascular disease and its risk factors, diabetes, underlying lung disease, smoking, immunosuppressed condition, and baseline disease severity), when compared with mortality in the control group, hydroxychloroquine, hydroxychloroquine with a macrolide, chloroquine, and chloroquine with a macrolide were each independently associated with an increased risk of in-hospital mortality. Compared with the control group, hydroxychloroquine, hydroxychloroquine with a macrolide, chloroquine, and chloroquine with a macrolide were independently associated with an increased risk of de-novo ventricular arrhythmia during hospitalisation.

I assume it was peer-reviewed. According to the journal’s website, there is an option for researchers to have their submission fast-tracked if they’re so eligible (emphasis added):

All randomised controlled trials are eligible for Swift+, our fastest route to publication. Our editors will provide a decision within 10 working days; if sent for review this will include full peer review. If accepted, publication online will occur within another 10 working days (10+10). For research papers, which will usually be randomised controlled trials, judged eligible for consideration by the journal’s staff will be peer-reviewed within 72 h and, if accepted, published within 4 weeks of receipt.

The statistician Andrew Gelman featured two critiques on his blog, both by a James Watson, on May 24 and May 25. There are many others, including from other researchers, but these two provide a good indication of the extent to and ways in which the results could be wrong. On May 24:

… seeing such huge effects really suggests that some very big confounders have not been properly adjusted for. What’s interesting is that the New England Journal of Medicine published a very similar study a few weeks ago where they saw no effect on mortality. Guess what, they had much more detailed data on patient severity. One thing that the authors of the Lancet paper didn’t do, which they could have done: If HCQ/CQ is killing people, you would expect a dose (mg/kg) effect. There is very large variation in the doses that the hospitals are giving … . Our group has already shown that in chloroquine self-poisoning, death is highly predictable from dose. No dose effect would suggest it’s mostly confounding. In short, it’s a pretty poor dataset and the results, if interpreted literally, could massively damage ongoing randomised trials of HCQ/CQ.

On May 25:

The study only has four authors, which is weird for a global study in 96,000 patients (and no acknowledgements at the end of the paper). Studies like this in medicine usually would have 50-100 authors (often in some kind of collaborative group). The data come from the “Surgical Outcomes Collaborative”, which is in fact a company. The CEO (Sapan Desai) is the second author. One of the comments on the blog post is “I was surprised to see that the data have not been analysed using a hierarchical model”. But not only do they not use hierarchical modelling and they do not appear to be adjusting by hospital/country, they also give almost no information about the different hospitals: which countries (just continent level), how the treated vs not treated are distributed across hospitals, etc.

(Gelman notes in a postscript that “we know from experience that The Lancet can make mistakes. Peer review is nothing at all compared to open review.” – So I’m confident the study’s paper was peer-reviewed before it was published.)

Perhaps it’s time we attached a caveat to claims drawn from peer-reviewed papers: that “the results have been peer-reviewed but that doesn’t have to mean they’re right”, just as journalists are already expected to note that “preprint papers haven’t been peer-reviewed yet”.

The WHA coronavirus resolution is not great for science

On May 19, member states of the WHO moved a vote in the World Health Assembly (WHA), asking for an independent investigation into the sources of the novel coronavirus.

Their exact demands were spelled out in a draft resolution that asked the WHO to, among other things, “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions”.

The resolution was backed by 62 countries, including India, and the decision to adopt it was passed with 116 votes in favour, out of 194. This fraction essentially indicates that the overwhelming majority of WHO’s member states want to ‘reform’ the organisation towards a better response to the pandemic, especially in terms of obtaining information that they believe China has been reluctant to share.

The resolution follows from Australia’s demand in April 2020 for a public inquiry against China, suggesting that the Asian superpower was responsible for the virus and the global outbreak (not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump expressed his support). Together with the fact that the document doesn’t once mention China, the resolution is likely an expression of concern that seeks to improve international access to biological samples, specific locations and research data necessary to find out how the novel coronavirus came to infect humans, and which animal or avian species were intermediate hosts.

As it happens, this arguably legitimate demand doesn’t preclude the possibility that the resolution is motivated, at least in part, by the need to explore what is in many political leaders’ view the ‘alternative’ that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The WHA vote passed and the independent investigation will happen – but by who or how is unclear. Let’s assume for now that some team or other comes together and conducts the requisite studies.

What if the team does find that the virus is not lab-made? Will those WHO member states, and/or their politicians back home, that were in favour of the resolution to explore the ‘lab hypothesis’ let the matter rest? Or will they point fingers at the WHO and claim it is too favourable to China, as President Trump has already done and to which the resolution’s reformatory language alludes?

In fact, the investigation is unlikely to zero in on the virus’s origins if they were natural because too much time has passed since the first zoonotic spillover event. The bread crumbs could have long faded by the time the investigation team sets out on its task. It won’t be impossible, mind, but it will be very difficult and likely require many months to conclude.

But what if the investigation somehow finds that the virus was engineered in a lab and then leaked, either deliberately or accidentally? Will the scientists and those who believed them (including myself) stand corrected?

They will not. There’s a simple reason why: they – we – have thus far not been given enough evidence to reach this conclusion.

Indeed, there is already sufficient explanation these days to claim that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin and insufficient explanation that it was engineered. A study published on March 17, 2020, collected evidence for the former (and many others continue to do so). An excerpt from the conclusion:

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimised RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

If there is any animosity at all directed at China for supposedly engineering the virus, the countries that backed the resolution could only have done so by actively ignoring the evidence that already exists to the contrary.

In this particular case, it becomes extremely important for the representatives of these countries to explain why they think the evidence that scientists have not been able to find actually exists, and that they are simply yet to discover it. That is, why do they think some pieces are missing from the puzzle?

There is of course room for a deeper counter-argument here, but it isn’t entirely tenable either. One could still argue that there might be a larger ‘super-theory’ that encompasses the present one even as it elucidates a non-natural origin for the virus. This is akin to the principle of correspondence in the philosophy of science. The advent of the theories of relativity did not invalidate the Newtonian theory of gravity. Instead, the former resemble the latter in the specific domain in which the latter is applicable. Similarly, a ‘super-theory’ of the virus’s origins could point to evidence of bioengineering even as its conclusions resemble the evidence I’m pointing to to ascertain that the virus is natural.

But even then, the question remains: Why do you think such a theory exists?

Without this information, we are at risk of wasting our time in each pandemic looking for alternate causes that may or may not exist, many of which are quite politically convenient as well.

Perhaps we can assimilate a sign of things to come based on Harsh Vardhan’s performance as the chairman of the WHA’s executive board. Vardhan was elected into this position at the same WHA that adopted the draft resolution, and his highest priority is likely to be the independent investigation that the resolution calls for. As it happens, according to OP8 of the resolution, the resolution:

… calls on international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to … address, and where relevant in coordination with Member States, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation particularly in the digital sphere, as well as the proliferation of malicious cyber-activities that undermine the public health response, and support the timely provision of clear, objective and science-based data and information to the public.

India as a member state is certainly a stakeholder, and Nitin Gadkari, one of the country’s senior ministers, recently said in an interview that the novel coronavirus was made in a lab. This is misinformation plain and simple, and goes against the call for the “timely provision of clear, objective and science-based information to the public”. Will the chair address this, please – or even future instances of such imprudence?

Ultimately, unless the investigation ends with the conspiracists changing their minds, the only outcome that seems to be guaranteed is that scientists will know their leaders no longer trust their work.

Featured image: The assembly hall of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, where the World Health Assembly usually meets. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Wolfram singularity

I got to this article about Stephen Wolfram’s most recent attempt to “revolutionise” fundamental physics quite late, and sorry for it because I had no idea Wolfram was the kind of guy who could be a windbag. I haven’t ever had cause to interact with his work or his software company (which produced Wolfram Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha), so I didn’t know really know much about him to begin with. But I expected him, for reasons I can’t explain, to be more modest than he comes across as in the article.

The article was prompted in the first place by a preprint paper Wolfram and a colleague published earlier this year in which they claimed they had plotted a route to a fundamental theory of everything. Physics currently explains the universe with a combination of multiple theories that don’t really fit together. A ‘theory of everything’ is the colloquial name of a universal theory that many physicists argue exist and which could explain everything about the universe in a self-consistent manner.

Wolfram’s preprint paper was startling as things go not because of its substance but because a) he made no attempts to engage with the wider community of physicists that has been working on the same problem for decades, and b) for Wolfram’s insistence that those dismissing its conclusions are simply out to dismiss him. Consider the following portions:

“I do fault myself for not having done this 20 years ago,” the physicist turned software entrepreneur says. “To be fair, I also fault some people in the physics community for trying to prevent it happening 20 years ago. They were successful” [emphasis added].

“The experimental predictions of [quantum physics and general relativity] have been confirmed to many decimal places—in some cases, to a precision of one part in [10 billion],” says Daniel Harlow, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So far I see no indication that this could be done using the simple kinds of [computational rules] advocated by Wolfram. The successes he claims are, at best, qualitative.” …

“Certainly there’s no reason that Wolfram and his colleagues should be able to bypass formal peer review,” Katie Mack says. “And they definitely have a much better chance of getting useful feedback from the physics community if they publish their results in a format we actually have the tools to deal with.”

Reading of this attitude brought to mind an episode from six or seven weeks ago, after a pair of physicists had published a preprint paper modelling the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic in India and predicting that multiple lockdowns instead of just one would work better. The paper was one of many that began to show up around that time, each set of authors fiddling with different parameters according to their sense of the world to reach markedly different conclusions (a bit of ambulance-chasing if you ask me).

The one by the two physicists was singled out for bristling criticism by other physicists because – quite like the complaints against Wolfram – their paper allegedly described a model that seemed to be able to reach any conclusion if you tweaked its parameters enough, and because the duo hadn’t clarified this and other important caveats in their interviews to journalists.

Aside 1 – In physics at least, it’s important for theories to be provable in some domains and falsifiable in others; if a theory of the world is non-falsifiable, it’s not considered legitimate. In Wolfgang Pauli’s famous words, it becomes ‘not even wrong’.

Aside 2 – Incidentally, Harlow – quoted above from the article – was one of the physicists defending physicists’ freedom to model what they will but agreed with the objection that they also need to be honest with journalists about their assumptions and caveats.

In a lengthy Facebook discussion that followed this brouhaha, someone referred to a Reddit post created three days earlier in which a physicist appealed to his peers to stop trying to model the pandemic – in his words, to “cut that shit out” – because a) no physicist could hope to do a better job than any other trained epidemiologist, and b) every model a physicist attempted could actually harm lives if it wasn’t done right (and there was a good chance it was at least incomplete).

Wolfram is guilty of the same thing: his preprint paper won’t harm lives, but the mortal threat is the only thing missing from his story; it’s otherwise rife with the same problems. His hubristic remark in the article’s denouement – that he deserves “better” questions than the ones other physicists were asking him in response to his “revolutionary” paper – indicates Wolfram thinks he’s done a great job but it’s impossible to see people like him as anything more than windbags convinced of their intellectual superiority and ability to singlehandedly wrestle hideously intractable problems to the ground. I, and likely other editors as well, have glimpsed this attitude on the part of some authors who dismiss criticism of their pieces as criticism of anything but their unclear writing, and some others who refuse to be disabused of a conviction that their conclusion is particularly fascinating.

I’d like to ask Wolfram what I’d like to ask these people as well: What have you hit on that you think others haven’t in all this time, and why do you think all of them missed it? Granted, everyone is allowed their ‘eureka’ moment, but anyone who claims it on the condition that he not be criticised is not likely to be taken seriously. More importantly, he may not even deserve to be taken seriously if only because, to adapt Mack’s line of reasoning, he undermines the very thing on which modern science is founded, the science he claims to be improving: processes, not outcomes; involving communities, not individuals.

Featured image credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels.

Good journalism is still around

This morning, a trusted scientist called my attention to a tweet thread by Jordan Fischer listing the many good stories journalists in the US had done that had improved the lives of people. The scientist then tagged me, presumably to respond to his request for someone to compose a similar thread of stories that journalists in India had produced to similar effect – but which he also suggested could push back against the low credibility Indian journalists had among the people who had abhorrent names (you know which ones) for our ilk.

The two of us had a short exchange during which I wrote an extended reply on my Notes app and shared a screenshot of it, to save me the trouble of threading it out. I’m pasting this reply below.

I’m glad Jordan did that thread but … I’m yet to see a reasoned rebuttal to the activities of journalists that makes moral as well as logical sense, and that’s why I’m reluctant to have to explain myself in response to such requests (to publish a thread of things journalism has done right, etc.).

For example, I’ve had an uncle watch the news on TV every night for a month and not once ask why channel X was freely showing a man being murdered or beaten unconscious or why channel Y was making ludicrous (to me) claims about a vaccine’s safety based on studies of mice – but he would take umbrage at every single report by The Wire, if only to ask, “Is this really true? Are you guys sure you’re not making this up?” This is not reasoned opposition to how different journalists are doing their jobs, leave alone journalism as an enterprise.

Beyond the level of taking exception to individual pieces, I’m yet to meet a person who, for example, has questions about why it’s not good for journalists to submit to external regulation or how different business models affect editorial decisions. It’s always been about how “irresponsible” we are to criticise the government at every turn, with a clear and widening divide between groups of people who are often pro-Hindutva and people who are not that the law of large numbers simply doesn’t explain. This is clearly, if only to me, not about journalism. It’s a contest of views, missing the point though it does, about the role and responsibility of every enterprise that claims to serve the people in a nationalist country.

And those who think journalists ought not to speak truth to power, but help expand the scope of such power – that’s when we become “press******s”. (I’m as averse as any journalist to use this term; I invoke it here to be clear about the sort of thinking I associate with it.) We don’t seem to become “press******s” when we pillory the Gandhi family for their dynastic politics, but we seem to do when we investigate corruption in the BJP. We don’t seem to become “press******s” when we pull up the West Bengal government for its incompetent response to the COVID-19 crisis, but we seem to do when we turn our attention to the ‘Gujarat model’ and its effects on public healthcare.

This doesn’t seem like it’s about what journalists are or aren’t doing but about what journalism stands in the way of. It’s about people undermining journalism for personal gains. And power is personal. It’s a personal choice to call journalists foul names because it’s a personal choice to decide which lines are okay to cross en route to whatever goals the utterer has in mind.

Partial review: ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’ (2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil is a documentary series on Netflix that narrates the lives and actions of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, leading up to and during the Second World War. This is a partial review because it is based on watching eight episodes, of a total of ten, though I’m confident about publishing because I’m not sure the two remaining episodes will change my impression much.

What worked

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, it has been open season around the world to ridicule, denigrate and deride the group of men who tried to set up a pan-European fascist empire on the skulls and bones of millions of people they murdered to realise their grisly ambitions. They were Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Röhm and Martin Bormann, among others. Hitler’s Circle of Evil rests comfortably in this notion, that no one is ever going to think highly of these men (except neo-Nazis), and takes a shot at exploring the people, the humans, behind each monstrous visage.

At a time when newspaper editors in the US are pilloried when they attempt to humanise the madmen who pen supremacist creeds and then go on shooting sprees, humanising fascists is a dangerous proposition. But since the credentials of the first Nazis are such that they are quite unlikely to be mistaken for having been good people who did bad things owing to a conspiracy of circumstances, and because right-wing nationalists are finding increasing favour in the most powerful countries of the 21st century, Hitler’s Circle of Evil ends up being well-made (at least in spirit) and well-timed, serving an elaborate reminder that the champions of hate are people too, and by extension that people can be nasty.

Indeed, this is a remarkable series for those who haven’t pored through history books attempting to make sense of Hitler’s henchmen but have, like me, focused instead on the mechanics of the war itself. These men for the most part were sucking up to Hitler, to receive a pat on the back and a sliver of the Führer’s power, and less plotting against Jews and expanding lebensraum. This is what Hitler set up, this was the heart of the Third Reich: if you didn’t jostle, conspire and backstab for power, you would be pushed down the pecking order.

This paradigm often led to ridiculous outcomes – of the lol variety in Martin Bormann’s case and the wtf variety in Rudolf Hess’s. But in the final analysis it is clear that these were all small-minded, weak-spirited, weak-willed men, typified by Heinrich Himmler, who took advantage of the pitiable social circumstances of early 20th century Germany, with a bit of subversion of their own, to animate their innermost insecurities with political, industrial and finally military power.

The show’s vantage point is also interesting because it doesn’t take its eyes away from the inner circle and focuses from start to finish on the interpersonal dynamics of the Nazi leadership. Contrast this with the Second World War in the popular imagination – where it very easily, and therefore very commonly, becomes a grand vision: the dramatis personae are strewn across dozens of countries, mobilising their forces with ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks and troop-carriers, discussing strategies encompassing hundreds of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars and thousands of kilometres.

But according to Hitler’s Circle of Evil, the whole enterprise could alternatively emerge from the lives and relationships among a small coterie of people often to be found in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in south Germany, that antisemitism was really the populist cloak to hide their venal tendencies and desperate attempts to grab power. As a result some of the war’s more historic moments become flattened, notably the start of Operation Barbarossa, to a few simple considerations on Hitler’s part. On the other hand a lot of what was thought according to the popular narrative to be periods of boring politics or even quietude are brought roaring to life with intimate details of behind-the-scenes action.

What didn’t work

All this said, my principal concern about the show is that even as it holds a mirror to contemporary authoritarian nationalist regimes, and informs us that fascism then and now is the same wine in different bottles, whether the show’s makers traded off the relative importance of each henchman in the pre-war and war years for dramatic effect. Obviously a show that retells events that actually happened to piece together well-documented historical knowledge has little, if any, leeway to take liberties with the truth, but it is entirely possible to distort the picture by muting some portions.

The first sign of this in Hitler’s Circle of Evil comes through with the depiction of Rudolph Hess. Hess goes from being described mainly as Hitler’s groupie, and a smart one at that, who helped the Führer become the Führer and even helped him write Mein Kampf and introduced to him the idea of lebensraum, to being seen as a hypochondriac dolt. Both descriptions can obviously be applied to the same person but it is odd to make only a particular set of traits explicit at different points in the series, almost rendering Hess’s actions unexpected, even contrived.

I concede that expecting to learn everything about the people who shaped 1930s Germany on a single day is ridiculous, but Hitler’s Circle of Evil would have started off knowing this, and it is worth considering what the show could have done better.

Another notable issue is that we learn a lot about Hitler’s henchmen but not enough. The Nazis are commonly associated with antisemitism and a rarely matched propensity for violence, but the origins of these tendencies are barely discussed, certainly not beyond mentioning them as the reason the Nazi Party did X or Y. Hitler’s ambition of European domination, for instance, shows up out of the blue somewhere in episode 5. We know from historical texts why Hitler invaded Europe but the show itself does not do a good job of setting it out.

More broadly, we learn very little about Hitler himself, so there is often haziness about why exactly some decisions were taken or some events transpired, considering Hitler was the ultimate arbiter. By focusing on the ‘circle of evil’, the show bets too much on the henchmen and too little on the tyrant they orbit, and when many of the tyrant’s impetuses are absent from some scenes, they look insipid, even contrived.

Oh, and the kitschy acting. The kitschy acting does not work.

An unrelated note: the Berghof was Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, constructed under Martin Bormann’s supervision in 1935. In episode 5, Hitler’s Circle of Evil tours through its halls while the narrator talks about the Nazi Party beginning to devote its efforts towards drafting the plan that would come to be called the ‘Final Solution’.

The tour finally ends with views of the alps from the Berghof’s balconies and full-length windows. And here, the historian Roger Moorhouse takes over from the narrator: “There’s a curious paradox and it’s only really made sense of by the fact that there is a new morality, if you like, in inverted commas, within Nazism which allows people to be cultured, intelligent, educated, and at the same time espouse those most radical, hideous, racist ideas.”

This moment in the show is a disturbing one as it implies in an inescapable way that a beautiful sweeping view of verdant mountainsides in the passing embrace of a white cloud might dull one’s suffering, then memories of pain, then the pain of others and ultimately empathy itself. There between the limestone peaks of southern Germany, evil becomes banal.

Review: ‘Paatal Lok’ (2020)

I binge-watched Paatal Lok today, a show on Amazon Prime India about a cynical cop who is all too familiar with how the The System works and who gets a high profile case by chance – to investigate a conspiracy to assassinate a hotshot journalist. I highly recommend it. It is a gritty, neo-noir slow-burner that starts with the flame on high.

This said, you should avoid it if you are averse to violence. In fact, Paatal Lok‘s principal failing is that it is peppered with scenes filled with gratuitous violence – physical, verbal and systemic – especially against women, trans-women and young adults. There is considerable violence by and against adult men as well but I’m not sure that is nearly as disturbing. Most of it could have been avoided, or simply alluded to instead of being enacted in painstaking detail. (If you watch Tamil films: recall the sexual violence scenes in Super Deluxe, 2019.)

A second failing, if only to my eyes, is that Paatal Lok for most of it seems to offer a slice-of-life take on events except in its conclusion, where it wraps up many narrative arcs more optimistically than they might actually have panned out. (Again, if you watch Tamil films: recall the conclusion of Jigarthanda, 2014.) But if you can ignore this criticism or find a way to disagree with it, please do.

Paatal Lok showcases the politics-caste-crime nexus in India’s Hindi heartland, especially in and around Bundelkhand, and its intersection with mainstream journalism. It’s raw, no other way to put it, as it puts on display the primal nature of local politics, life and love where mafia money, caste violence and familial honour intermix freely. Ceaseless heat and dust, loud expletives, the bloated egos of politicians’ and businessmen’s sons, brandished guns set the tone. Mongrel dogs play an important part in shaping the fates of many characters but it’s really a dog-eat-dog world only for the humans, whether in the desolate gullies of rural Punjab or in the glitzy studios of TV news channels.


Funny thing is the journalist starts off accused of being a left-liberal but in the course of the show sells out and ends in the final scene and analysis as a government shill peddling the “Muslim terrorists are out to get India’s leaders” shit.

I don’t know who this portrayal, by Neeraj Kabi, does or doesn’t caricature but it seems both unlikely and unsurprising. I only hope it never becomes about me.


There are many things to write about Paatal Lok – and will be. It hit me specifically in two ways: first by taking the viewer closer to the Hindustan in Bundelkhand, and then with the trouble it takes to spotlight, lest it seem too subtle, the emptiness at the heart of Hindutva politics.

Every week you read news reports in the mainstream English press mentioning saffron politics directly or indirectly, based on which you develop an impression of how things are run in the Hindi heartland. (I assume here that you live far away, like I do in South India.) But these reports are too refined. They are either about the big picture or they summarise a few important events, and they almost always leave out the sweat- and blood-stained nitty-gritty stuff. This stuff is a constant presence in Paatal Lok.

The other presence is the other standout feature: political Hindutva’s heart of nothingness. In fact, the show is even a journalistic product: the characters and events may be fictitious but the social forces that shape them are quite real. Which political leader is abusing their power – the non-existent ‘Jiji’ Bajpayee or the very real Anurag Thakur – is as much in the public interest as how they abused their power. And as Paatal Lok peels away these impetuses from the actions of right-wing communalists and saffron-clad, flag-waving thugs, it finds an awkward, tasteless silence. This brand of politics is animated by nothing but opportunism, of Brahmin overlords’ ambitions and short-term ‘arrangements’.

Nitin Gadkari, tomato chutney and blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor journalism is making it harder for preprints

There have been quite a few statements by various scientists on Twitter who, in pointing to some preprint paper’s untenable claims, point to the manuscript’s identity as a preprint paper as well. This is not fair, as I’ve argued many times before. A big part of the problem here is bad journalism. Bad preprint papers are a problem not because their substance is bad but because people who are not qualified to understand why it is bad read it and internalise its conclusions at face value.

There are dozens of new preprint papers uploaded onto arXiv, medRxiv and bioRxiv every week making controversial arguments and/or arriving at far-fetched conclusions, often patronising to the efforts of the subject’s better exponents. Most of them (at least according to what I know of preprints on arXiv) are debated and laid to rest by scientists familiar with the topics at hand. No non-expert is hitting up arXiv or bioRxiv every morning looking for preprints to go crazy on. The ones that become controversial enough to catch the attention of non-experts have, nine times out of then, been amplified to that effect by a journalist who didn’t suitably qualify the preprint’s claims and simply published it. Suddenly, scores (or more) of non-experts have acquired what they think is refined knowledge, and public opinion thereafter goes against the scientific grain.

Acknowledging that this collection of events is a problem on many levels, which particular event would you say is the deeper one?

Some say it’s the preprint mode of publishing, and when asked for an alternative, demand that the use of preprint servers be discouraged. But this wouldn’t solve the problem. Preprint papers are a relatively new development while ‘bad science’ has been published for a long time. More importantly, preprint papers improve public access to science, and preprints that contain good science do this even better.

To making sweeping statements against the preprint publishing enterprise because some preprints are bad is not fair, especially to non-expert enthusiasts (like journalists, bloggers, students) in developing countries, who typically can’t afford the subscription fees to access paywalled, peer-reviewed papers. (Open-access publishing is a solution too but it doesn’t seem to feature in the present pseudo-debate nor does it address important issues that beset itself as well as paywalled papers.)

Even more, if we admitted that bad journalism is the problem, as it really is, we achieve two things: prevent ‘bad science’ from reaching the larger population and retain access to ‘good science’.

Now, to the finer issue of health- and medicine-related preprints: Yes, acting based on the conclusions of a preprint paper – such as ingesting an untested drug or paying too much attention to an irrelevant symptom – during a health crisis in a country with insufficient hospitals and doctors can prove deadlier than usual. But how on Earth could a person have found that preprint paper, read it well enough to understand what it was saying, and act on its conclusions? (Put this way, a bad journalist could be even more to blame for enabling access to a bad study by translating its claims to simpler language.)

Next, a study published in The Lancet claimed – and thus allowed others to claim by reference – that most conversations about the novel coronavirus have been driven by preprint papers. (An article in Ars Technica on May 6 carried this provocative headline, for example: ‘Unvetted science is fuelling COVID-19 misinformation’.) However, the study was based on only 11 papers. In addition, those who invoke this study in support of arguments directed against preprints often fail to mention the following paragraph, drawn from the same paper:

… despite the advantages of speedy information delivery, the lack of peer review can also translate into issues of credibility and misinformation, both intentional and unintentional. This particular drawback has been highlighted during the ongoing outbreak, especially after the high-profile withdrawal of a virology study from the preprint server bioRxiv, which erroneously claimed that COVID-19 contained HIV “insertions”. The very fact that this study was withdrawn showcases the power of open peer-review during emergencies; the withdrawal itself appears to have been prompted by outcry from dozens of scientists from around the globe who had access to the study because it was placed on a public server. Much of this outcry was documented on Twitter and on longer-form popular science blogs, signalling that such fora would serve as rich additional data sources for future work on the impact of preprints on public discourse. However, instances such as this one described showcase the need for caution when acting upon the science put forth by any one preprint.”

The authors, Maimuna Majumder and Kenneth Mandl, have captured the real problem. Lots of preprints are being uploaded every week and quite a few are rotten. Irrespective of how many do or don’t drive public conversations (especially on the social media), it’s disingenuous to assume this risk by itself suffices to cut access.

Instead, as the scientists write, exercise caution. Instead of spoiling a good thing, figure out a way to improve the reporting habits of errant journalists. Otherwise, remember that nothing stops an irresponsible journalist from sensationalising the level-headed conclusions of a peer-reviewed paper either. All it takes is to quote from a grossly exaggerated university press-release and to not consult with an independent expert. Even opposing preprints with peer-reviewed papers only advances a false balance, comparing preprints’ access advantage to peer-review’s gatekeeping advantage (and even that is on shaky ground).

When cooling down really means slowing down

Consider this post the latest in a loosely defined series about atomic cooling techniques that I’ve been writing since June 2018.

Atoms can’t run a temperature, but things made up of atoms, like a chair or table, can become hotter or colder. This is because what we observe as the temperature of macroscopic objects is at the smallest level the kinetic energy of the atoms it is made up of. If you were to cool such an object, you’d have to reduce the average kinetic energy of its atoms. Indeed, if you had to cool a small group of atoms trapped in a container as well, you’d simply have to make sure they – all told – slow down.

Over the years, physicists have figured out more and more ingenious ways to cool atoms and molecules this way to ultra-cold temperatures. Such states are of immense practical importance because at very low energy, these particles (an umbrella term) start displaying quantum mechanical effects, which are too subtle to show up at higher temperatures. And different quantum mechanical effects are useful to create exotic things like superconductors, topological insulators and superfluids.

One of the oldest modern cooling techniques is laser-cooling. Here, a laser beam of a certain frequency is fired at an atom moving towards the beam. Electrons in the atom absorb photons in the beam, acquire energy and jump to a higher energy level. A short amount of time later, the electrons lose the energy by emitting a photon and jump back to the lower energy level. But since the photons are absorbed in only one direction but are emitted in arbitrarily different directions, the atom constantly loses momentum in one direction but gains momentum in a variety of directions (by Newton’s third law). The latter largely cancel themselves out, leaving the atom with considerably lower kinetic energy, and therefore cooler than before.

In collisional cooling, an atom is made to lose momentum by colliding not with a laser beam but with other atoms, which are maintained at a very low temperature. This technique works better if the ratio of elastic to inelastic collisions is much greater than 50. In elastic collisions, the total kinetic energy of the system is conserved; in inelastic collisions, the total energy is conserved but not the kinetic energy alone. In effect, collisional cooling works better if almost all collisions – if not all of them – conserve kinetic energy. Since the other atoms are maintained at a low temperature, they have little kinetic energy to begin with. So collisional cooling works by bouncing warmer atoms off of colder ones such that the colder ones take away some of the warmer atoms’ kinetic energy, thus cooling them.

In a new study, a team of scientists from MIT, Harvard University and the University of Waterloo reported that they were able to cool a pool of NaLi diatoms (molecules with only two atoms) this way to a temperature of 220 nK. That’s 220-billionths of a kelvin, about 12-million-times colder than deep space. They achieved this feat by colliding the warmer NaLi diatoms with five-times as many colder Na (sodium) atoms through two cycles of cooling.

Their paper, published online on April 8 (preprint here), indicates that their feat is notable for three reasons.

First, it’s easier to cool particles (atoms, ions, etc.) in which as many electrons as possible are paired to each other. A particle in which all electrons are paired is called a singlet; ones that have one unpaired electron each are called doublets; those with two unpaired electrons – like NaLi diatoms – are called triplets. Doublets and triplets can also absorb and release more of their energy by modifying the spins of individual electrons, which messes with collisional cooling’s need to modify a particle’s kinetic energy alone. The researchers from MIT, Harvard and Waterloo overcame this barrier by applying a ‘bias’ magnetic field across their experiment’s apparatus, forcing all the particles’ spins to align along a common direction.

Second: Usually, when Na and NaLi come in contact, they react and the NaLi molecule breaks down. However, the researchers found that in the so-called spin-polarised state, the Na and NaLi didn’t react with each other, preserving the latter’s integrity.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this is not the coldest temperature to which we have been able to cool quantum particles, but it still matters because collisional cooling offers unique advantages that makes it attractive for certain applications. Perhaps the most well-known of them is quantum computing. Simply speaking, physicists prefer ultra-cold molecules to atoms to use in quantum computers because physicists can control molecules more precisely than they can the behaviour of atoms. But molecules that have doublet or triplet states or are otherwise reactive can’t be cooled to a few billionths of a kelvin with laser-cooling or other techniques. The new study shows they can, however, be cooled to 220 nK using collisional cooling. The researchers predict that in future, they may be able to cool NaLi molecules even further with better equipment.

Note that the researchers didn’t cool the NaLi atoms from room temperature to 220 nK but from 2 µK. Nonetheless, their achievement remains impressive because there are other well-established techniques to cool atoms and molecules from room temperature to a few micro-kelvin. The lower temperatures are harder to reach.

One of the researchers involved in the current study, Wolfgang Ketterle, is celebrated for his contributions to understanding and engineering ultra-cold systems. He led an effort in 2003 to cool sodium atoms to 0.5 nK – a record. He, Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman won the Nobel Prize for physics two years before that: Cornell, Wieman and their team created the first Bose-Einstein condensate in 1995, and Ketterle created ‘better’ condensates that allowed for closer inspection of their unique properties. A Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter in which multiple particles called bosons are ultra-cooled in a container, at which point they occupy the same quantum state – something they don’t do in nature (even as they comply with the laws of nature) – and give rise to strange quantum effects that can be observed without a microscope.

Ketterle’s attempts make for a fascinating tale; I collected some of them plus some anecdotes together for an article in The Wire in 2015, to mark the 90th year since Albert Einstein had predicted their existence, in 1924-1925. A chest-thumper might be cross that I left Satyendra Nath Bose out of this citation. It is deliberate. Bose-Einstein condensates are named for their underlying theory, called Bose-Einstein statistics. But while Bose had the idea for the theory to explain the properties of photons, Einstein generalised it to more particles, and independently predicted the existence of the condensates based on it.

This said, if it is credit we’re hungering for: the history of atomic cooling techniques includes the brilliant but little-known S. Pancharatnam. His work in wave physics laid the foundations of many of the first cooling techniques, and was credited as such by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji in the journal Current Science in 1994. Cohen-Tannoudji would win a piece of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 for inventing a technique called Sisyphus cooling – a way to cool atoms by converting more and more of their kinetic energy to potential energy, and then draining the potential energy.

Indeed, the history of atomic cooling techniques is, broadly speaking, a history of physicists uncovering newer, better ways to remove just a little bit more energy from an atom or molecule that’s already lost a lot of its energy. The ultimate prize is absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible, at which the atom retains only the energy it can in its ground state. However, absolute zero is neither practically attainable nor – more importantly – the goal in and of itself in most cases. Instead, the experiments in which physicists have achieved really low temperatures are often pegged to an application, and getting below a particular temperature is the goal.

For example, niobium nitride becomes a superconductor below 16 K (-257º C), so applications using this material prepare to achieve this temperature during operation. For another, as the MIT-Harvard-Waterloo group of researchers write in their paper, “Ultra-cold molecules in the micro- and nano-kelvin regimes are expected to bring powerful capabilities to quantum emulation and quantum computing, owing to their rich internal degrees of freedom compared to atoms, and to facilitate precision measurement and the study of quantum chemistry.”