Science Diet: What Drives Scientists?


Take a break from all the election mayhem and enjoy these articles we bring you, as we do every week, on interesting, albeit disparate, topics from the world of science and technology.

ScienceDiet 1. They make it happen

In this week’s Science Diet, we’d like to start off with a few articles not about science, but about scientists and what drives these men and women in their search for the truth about, to use that oft-quoted, oft-misused phrase, “Life, the Universe and Everything”.

For some, like the great physicist John Wheeler, it is a personal battle. Haunted by his brother’s death in World War II, at a time when he was working on the Manhattan project and felt they could have saved “15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them” had they started a year earlier, he struggled all his life to understand time. Is its march really as inexorable as it seems or are we looking at it all wrong? As someone who delighted in the power of words and “lugged a thesaurus” while travelling, he came up with some of the words that define modern cosmology in the common imagination: “wormholes” and “black holes”. Amanda Gefter’s vivid account of Wheeler’s attempt to reconcile the idea of time in quantum mechanics and general relativity brings to life a scientist’s struggle with his own mortality.

On a quest to understand how the mind works, Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, wages a largely solitary battle against current trends in Artificial Intelligence (AI) thinking. James Somers paints an arresting portrait of a man whose ideas about intelligence and attempt to understand the brain by writing software that behaves like it were left by the wayside as the rest of the field looked for ways to solve human problems intelligently. A man who is in some ways stuck in the past, and yet whose approach to cognition — trying to understand “What is thinking?” — could be the future.

800px-Kolm_lect_prep-2Andrei Kolmogorov. Credit: Terrence L. Fine/Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, quite by chance, Andrei Kolmogorov laid the foundations for the future of probability theory. A history student who changed his major to mathematics, he formalised probability using ideas from measure theory and took it from being an unfashionable and maligned discipline to a rigorous, modern one. That he managed to do all this while negotiating the treacherous political and academic terrain of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century speaks to the great ability and resilience of this remarkable man, says Slava Gerovitch, a man whose belief that chance underlay everything and nature was driven by the laws of probability led him to analyse even music and literature with the methods he had invented.

2. Jumping the gun?

In March this year, a group of scientists headed by John Kovac of Harvard announced that they had seen evidence of primordial gravitational waves in microwaves coming from the early universe, observed by BICEP2 (a ground-based telescope). These waves exhibited a type of polarization known as B-mode polarization and if it were truly due to primordial gravitational waves, it would be strong evidence for the inflationary theory of the Universe, which says that the universe underwent a period of extremely rapid expansion in the first instant after its formation. The theory was propounded by Alan Guth of MIT to explain why, at large scales, the universe exhibits such uniformity.

800px-South_pole_spt_dslAt right is the BICEP2 telescope. Credit: Amble/Wikimedia Commons.

However, hardly a week after the announcement, doubts were raised as to whether the polarization was really due to the inflationary period right after the Big Bang and if it could not have arisen out of some other mechanism post inflation. Theorists wondered if all other possible explanations had been ruled out and just this week, further criticism of the, in retrospect, rather hasty declaration in March has emerged. The bone of contention is a rather strange one, stemming from the fact that some of the analysis by Kovac’s team was done using data from PLANCK (a space based telescope) which was obtained by digitizing a slide! The claim is that the data on the slide was misinterpreted and that the noise that crept in while digitizing wasn’t taken into account. The physics community waits with bated breath for results from PLANCK in October, which may help clear up the issue.

3. The hidden side of development

The Indian economy has been growing at a breakneck speed for the past 30 years and we have emerged as a global player of note. However, there is another side to the coin as Sean Gallagher of the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting amply demonstrates. The lack of clear guidelines on how to handle e-waste has led to the formation of an informal and dangerous industry centered about e-waste recycling. The amount of indigenous e-waste is rising daily as is the propensity for developed nations to ship theirs to countries such as India as they are running out of space and are unwilling to bear the expense of treating the waste.

Cities such as Kolkata and Kanpur are suffering as the amount of pollution in the land, water and air of these cities increases to unsustainable levels. The leather industry in Kanpur is booming as it has become the country’s largest exporter of leather, with over 90% of its products going abroad. However, the water from the tanneries is contaminating local water bodies with studies finding dangerous proportions of chromium in them. Water pollution is not Kolkata’s only issue, as it grapples with untenable levels of particulates in the air due to a rapid increase in the number of vehicles on the road, a problem it shares with many other Indian cities, especially Delhi, which may have the worst air quality in the world.

Waste water is dumped into the Ganga at every point along its course as it winds its way down into the Bay of Bengal and Kolkata bears the brunt of this pollution. A massive landfill about 10 hectares in size and 10 stories tall on the edge of the Kolkata has been the the destination for much of the city’s solid waste over the last 30 years and in the absence of concerted recycling efforts, it would seem it will remain that way.  As we hurtle blindly down the path of development, aping the West, perhaps now is a good time to pause and reflect, as we usher in a new era of governance, with all the hope, founded or unfounded, that it brings.

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