The Natural Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Biological Sciences

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Wigner, E. P., The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. Commun. Pure Appl. Math., 1960, 13. 

Some years ago, too many for my reckoning, I was invited to contribute an article for a special issue of the journal Current Science (Bangalore), on the use of mathematics in  different scientific disciplines. I had occasion to read the article again after some 15 years, mainly to cannibalize it for a talk I had to give yesterday, I should confess. Some embarrassment is inevitable on reading something one has written some time ago (I have almost never looked at my Ph D thesis, for example) but I thought that some of it could be shared, so here is an abbreviated essay where I have not removed all the dated bits… The title, of course, acknowledges a great thinker and physicist, Eugene Wigner.

An increasingly quantitative approach within the biological sciences has been accompanied by a greater degree of mathematical sophistication. However, there is a need for new paradigms within which to treat an array of biological phenomena such as life, development, evolution or cognition. Topics such as game theory, chaos theory and complexity studies are now commonly used in biology, if not yet as analytic tools, as frameworks within which some biological processes can be understood. In addition, there have been great advances in unravelling the mechanism of biological processes from the fundamental cellular level upwards that have also required the input of very advanced methods of mathematical analysis. These range from the combinatorics needed in genome sequencing, to the complex transforms needed for image reconstruction in tomography. In this essay, I discuss some of these applications, and also whether there is any framework other than mathematics within which the human mind can comprehend natural phenomena.

It is a commonplace that in recent years the biological sciences have gradually become more quantitative. Far from being the last refuge of the nonmathematical but scientifically inclined, the modern biological sciences require familiarity with a barrage of sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques.

By now the role of statistics in biology is traditional, and has been historically derived from the need to systematize a large body of variable data. The relation has been two- sided: biological systems have provided a wealth of information for statisticians and have driven the development of many measures, particularly for determining significance, as in the χ2 or Student’s-t tests. Indeed, Galton’s biometrical laboratory was instrumental in collecting and tabulating a plethora of biological measurements, and these and similar data formed the testing ground for a number of statistical theories.

The role of mathematics in biology is more recent. The phenomenal developments in experimental techniques that have helped to make biology more quantitative have necessitated the applications of a number of different mathematical tools. There have been unexpected and frequently serendipitous applications of techniques developed earlier and in a different context. The widespread use of dynamic programming techniques in computational biology, of stochastic context-free grammars in RNA folding, hidden Markov models for biological feature recognition in DNA sequence analysis, or the theory of games for evolutionary studies are some instances of existing methods finding new arenas for their application. There have also been the mathematics and the mathematical techniques that derive inspiration from biology. The logistic mapping, the discrete dynamical system that is so central to chaos theory, arose first in a model of population dynamics. Attempts to model the human mind have led to the burgeoning field of artificial neural networks, while the theory of evolution finds a direct application in the genetic algorithm for optimisation.

Mathematics is about identifying patterns and learning from them. Much of biology is still most easily described as phenomena. The underlying patterns that appear are nebulous, so extracting a set of rules or laws from the huge body of observations has not always been easy. Or always possible since some experiments (like evolution) are unrepeatable, and separating the essential from the inessential can be very difficult. Detail is somewhat more important in the life sciences: often it has been said that the only law in biology is that to every ‘law’, there is an exception. This makes generalizations difficult: biological systems are more like unhappy families. With the exception of natural selection, there are no clearly established universal laws in biology.

This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the more quantitative physical sciences where the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics has often been commented upon. It might be held that these observations, coming as they do in the twentieth century, comment on a science that has already had about three centuries of development. The earlier stages of the fields that we now call physics or chemistry were also very poorly described by mathematics—there was no general picture beyond a set of apparently unrelated observations, and it required the genius of a Mendeleev, of a Faraday or Maxwell or Einstein to identify the underlying patterns and expose the mathematical structure that lay under some aspects of these fields. This structure made much of the modern physical sciences possible, and led to some of the most accurate verifications of the laws of physics. As predictive theories, relativity and quantum electrodynamics are unparalleled and have achieved astonishing accuracy. In a more complex setting, the seemingly infinite possibilities of organic chemical reactions have found organizational structure in the Woodward–Hoffman rules that combine an elementary quantum mechanics with notions of graph theory to make precise, semiquantitative predictions of the outcome of a large class of chemical reactions. What will it take to similarly systematize biology? Or to rephrase the question, what will the analogous grand theories in biology be?

The inevitable applications of mathematics are those that are a carry-over from the more quantitative physical sciences. As in the other natural sciences, more refined experiments have spearheaded some of these changes. The ability to probe phenomena at finer and finer scales reduces some aspects of biology to chemistry and physics, which makes it necessary to borrow the mathematics that applies there, often without modification. For instance, tomographic techniques rely on a complicated set of mathematical transforms for image reconstruction. These may be largely unknown to the working biologist who uses NMR imaging, but are a crucial component of the methodology, nonetheless. Similarly, the genome revolution was catalysed by the shotgun sequencing strategy which itself relied on sophisticated mathematics and probability theory to ensure that it would work. Several of the problems in computational biology arose (or at least were made more immediate, and their resolution more pressing) by the very rapid increase in experimental power.

The other sort of application of mathematics is, for want of a better descriptor, a systems approach, namely that which is not predicated by the reductionist approach to biology but instead by a need to describe the behaviour of a biological entity in toto.

Even the simplest living organisms appear to be complex, in way that is currently poorly described and poorly understood, and much as one would like, it is not possible to describe in all totality the behaviour of a living organism in the same way as one can the behaviour of, say, a complex material. The promise that there could be mathematical models that capture the essence of this complexity has been held out in the past few decades by several developments, including that of inexpensive computational power which has made possible the study of more realistic models of biological systems. Theoretical developments—cellular automata, chaos theory, neural networks, self-organization— have provided simple mathematical models that seem to capture one or the other aspect of what we understand as ‘complexity’, which itself is an imprecise term. There is one class of applications of mathematical or physical models to biology which attempt to adapt an existing technique to a problem, while another aims to develop the methods that a given problem needs. Each of these approaches have their own value and appeal. In the next sections of this article, I discuss some of the ways in which they have found application in the study of biological systems.

Richard_Hamming
Hamming, R. W., The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, Am. Math. Monthly, 1980, 87.

The resonance of the title with those of the well-known essays by Wigner and Hamming is deliberate, as is the dissonance. There are applications in the physical sciences where knowledge of the underlying mathematics can provide very accurate predictions. Comparable situations in the biological sciences may not arise, in part because it may be unnecessary, and in part because biological systems are inherently unpredictable since they are so fundamentally complex. The demands, as it were, that are made of mathematics in the life and physical sciences are very distinct, and therefore, it is very reasonable that the mathematics that finds application in the two areas can also be very different.

Is there any framework other than mathematics within which we can systematize any knowledge? Recent advances in cognitive studies, as well as information that is now coming from the analysis of genomes and genes, suggest that several aspects of human behaviour is instinctual (or ‘hardwired’). That mathematical reasoning is an instinct that we are endowed with is a distinct possibility, and therefore, it may not be given to us (as a species) to comprehend our world in any other manner. This point of view, that it is very natural that we should use mathematics to understand any science, is explored below.

In the last few years there has been a veritable explosion in the study of complex systems. The concept of complexity is itself poorly defined (‘the more complex something is, the more you can talk about it’ ), and as has been pointed out by others, ‘If a concept is not well-defined, it can be abused.’ Nevertheless, there is some unity in what studies of complexity aim to uncover.

A common feature of many complex systems is that they are composed of many interconnected and interacting subunits. Many systems, natural as well as constructed, are, in this sense complex. Examples that are frequently cited apart from those involving living organisms such as ecologies or societies, are the human brain, turbulent flows, market economies or the traffic. A second feature of complex systems is that they are capable of adaptation and organization, and these properties are a consequence of the interconnection and interactions of the subunits. The mathematics of complex systems would thus appear a natural candidate for application to biology. The drawback is that there is, at present, no unifying framework for the study of complex systems although there are some promising leads offered by studies of dynamical systems, cellular automata and random networks.

That the description of phenomena at one level may be inadequate or irrelevant at another has been noted for a long time. Thus the electronic structure of atoms can be understood quite adequately without reference to quarks, and is itself irrelevant, for the most part, when dealing with the thermodynamics of the material of which the atoms are constituents. Schrödinger, in a chapter of his very influential book (Schrödinger, E., What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1967) entitled ‘Is Life Based on the Laws of Physics’, observed that with regard to ‘the structure of living matter, that we must be prepared to finding it working in a manner that cannot be reduced to the ordinary laws of physics’. He further contrasted the laws of physics and chemistry, most of which apply in a statistical sense, to biological phenomena, which, even though they involve large numbers of atoms and molecules, nevertheless have nothing of the uncertainty associated with individual properties of the constituent atoms. Indeed, given a radioactive atom, he says, ‘it’s probable lifetime is much less certain than that of a healthy sparrow’.

But even at a given level, it frequently happens that the properties of a system cannot be simply inferred from those of its constituents. The feature of emergence, namely the existence of properties that are characteristic of the entire system but which are not those of the units, is a common feature of systems that are termed complex.

Distinction should be drawn between the complex and the complicated, though this boundary is itself poorly defined. For instance, it is not clear whether or not in order to be deemed complex, a system requires an involved algorithm (or set of instructions). The algorithmic complexity, defined in terms of the length of the (abstract) program that is required is of limited utility in characterizing most systems

starlingAttempts to decode the principles that govern the manner in which new properties emerge—for example the creation of a thought or an idea, from the firing of millions of neurons in the brain, or the cause of a crash in the stock market from the exit poll predictions in distant electoral constituencies—require new approaches. The principles themselves need not necessarily be profound. A simple example of this is provided by a study of flocking behaviour in bird flight. A purely ‘local’ rule: each bird adopts the average direction and speed of all its neighbours within distance R, say, is enough to ensure that an entire group adopts a common velocity and moves in unison. This behaviour depends on the density of birds as well as the size of R relative to the size of a bird in flight. If R is the size of a bird, then each bird flies on its own path, regardless of its neighbours: there is no flock. However, as R increases to a few times that of the bird, depending on the density, there can be a phase transition, an abrupt change from a random state to one of ordered, coherent, flight. And such a system can adapt rapidly: we have all seen flocks navigate effortlessly through cities, avoiding tall buildings, and weaving their way through the urban landscape at high speed.

boulezBut there are other aspects of complexity. A (western) orchestra, for instance, consisting as it does of several musicians, requires an elaborate set of rules so that the output is the music that the composer intended: a set of music sheets with the detailed score, a proper setting wherein the orchestra can perform, a specific placement of the different musical instruments, and above all, strict obedience to the conductor who controls what is played and when. To term this a complex system would not surprise anyone, but there is a sense in which such a system is not: it cannot adapt. Should the audience demand another piece of music, or music of another genre, an orchestra which has not prepared for it would be helpless and could not perform. Although the procedure for creating the orchestra is undoubtedly complicated, the result is tuned to a single output (or limited set of outputs). There is, of course, emergence: a single tuba could hardly carry a tune, but in concert, the entire orchestra creates the symphony.

Models like this illustrate some of the features that complex systems studies aim to capture: adaptability, emergence and self-organization, all from a set of elementary rules. The emphasis on elementary is deliberate. Most phenomena we see as complex have no obvious underlying conductor, no watchmaker, blind or not who has implemented this as part of a grand design (Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker, Norton, New York, 1996). Therefore, in the past few decades, considerable effort has gone into understanding ‘simple’ systems that give rise to complex behaviour.

logistic‘Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics’, a review article published in 1976 (May, R. M., Simple mathematical models with very complicated dynamics. Nature, 1976, 261, 459) was responsible in great measure for the phenomenal growth in the study of chaotic dynamics. In this article—which remains one of the most accessible introductions to chaos theory— May showed that the simplest nonlinear iterative dynamical systems could have orbits that were as unpredictable as a coin-toss experiment. The thrust of much work in the past few decades has been to establish that complex temporal behaviour can result from simple nonlinear dynamical models. Likewise, complex spatial organization can result from relatively simple sets of local rules. Taken together, this would suggest that it might be possible to obtain relatively simple mathematical models that can capture the complex spatiotemporal behaviour of biological systems. 

A number of recent ambitious programs (eCell, A multiple algorithm, multiple timescale simulation software environment, http://www.e-cell.org) intend to study cellular dynamics, metabolism and pathways in totality, entirely in silico. Since the elementary biochemical processes are, by and large, well-understood from a chemical kinetics viewpoint, and in some cases the details of metabolic pathways have also been explored, entire genomes have been sequenced and the genes are known, at least for simple organisms, the attempt is to integrate all this information to have a working computational model of a cell. By including ideas from network theory and chemical kinetics, the global organization of the metabolic pathway in E. coli has been studied computationally. This required the analysis of 739 chemical reactions involving 537 metabolites and was possible for so well-studied an organism, and the model was also able to make predictions that could be experimentally tested. The sheer size of the dynamical system is indicative of the type of complexity that even the simplest biological organisms possess; that it is even possible for us to contemplate and carry out studies of this magnitude is indicative of the analytic tools that we are in a position to deploy to understand this complexity.  

In recent years, there has been considerable debate, and an emerging viewpoint, that the human species has an instinct for language. Champions of this school of thought are Chomsky, and most notably, Steven Pinker who has written extensively and accessibly on the issue

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Pinker, S., The Language Instinct, Morrow, New York, 1994

The argument is elaborate but compelling. It is difficult to summarize the entire line of reasoning that was presented in The Language Instinct, but one of the key features is that language is not a cultural invention of our species (like democracy, say), but is hard-wired into our genome. Like the elephant’s trunk or the giraffe’s neck, language is a biological adaptation to communicate information and is unique to our species.

Humans are born endowed with the ability for language, and this ability enables us to learn any specific language, or indeed to create one if needed. Starting with the work of Chomsky in the 1950s, linguists and cognitive scientists have done much to understand the universal mental grammar that we all possess. (The use of stochastic context-free grammars in addressing the problem of RNA folding is one instance of the remarkable applicability of mathematics in biology.) At the same time, however, our thought processes are not language dependent: we do not think in English or Tamil or Hindi, but in some separate and distinct language of thought termed ‘mentalese’.

Language facilitates (and greatly enriches) communication between humans. Many other species do have sophisticated communication abilities—dolphins use sonar, bees dance to guide their hive mates to nectar sources, all birds and animals call to alarm and to attract, ants use pheromones to keep their nestmates in line, etc.—and all species need to have some communication between individuals, at least for propagation. However, none of these alternate instances matches anything like the communication provided by human language.

It is not easy to separate nature from nurture, as endless debates have confirmed, but one method for determining whether or not some aspect of human behaviour is innate is to study cultures that are widely spaced geographically, and at different stages of social development. Such cross-cultural studies can help to identify those aspects of our behaviour that are a consequence of environment, and those that are a consequence of heredity. The anthropologist Donald Brown (Brown, D., Human Universals, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1991) has attempted to identify human ‘universals’, a set of behavioural traits that are common to all tribes on the planet.

All of us share several traits beyond possessing language. As a species we have innumerable taboos relating to sex. Some of these, like incest avoidance, appear as innate genetic wisdom, but there are other common traits that are more surprising. Every culture, from the Inuit to the Jarawa, indulges in baby talk. And everybody dreams. Every tribe however ‘primitive’, has a sense of metaphor, a sense of time, and a world view. Language is only one (although perhaps the most striking) of human universals. Other universals that appear on the extensive list in his book, and which are more germane to the argument I make below, are conjectural reasoning, ordering as cognitive pattern (continua), logical notions, numerals (counting; at least ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’) and interpolation.

The last few mentioned human universals all relate to a set of essentially mathematical abilities. The basic nature of enumeration, of counting, of having a sense of numbers is central to a sense of mathematics and brings to mind Kronecker’s assertion, ‘God made the integers, all else is the work of man’. The ability to interpolate, to have a sense of a continuum (more on this below), also contribute to a sense of mathematics, and lead to the question: Analogous to language, do humans possess a mathematics instinct?

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Poincaré, H., Mathematics and Science: Last Essays,
Dover, New York, 1963.

Writing a century ago, Poincaré had an inkling that this might be the case. ‘… we possess the capacity to construct a physical and mathematical continuum; and this capacity exists in us before any experience because, without it, experience properly speaking would be impossible and would be reduced to brute sensations, unsuitable for any organization;…’ The added emphasis is mine; the observations are from the concluding paragraph of his essay, ‘Why space has three dimensions’.

If mathematics is an instinct, then it could have evolved like any other trait. Indeed, it could have co-evolved with language, and that is an argument that Keith Devlin has made recently (Devlin, K., The Maths Gene, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, London, 2000).

At some level, mathematics is about finding patterns and generalizing them and about perceiving structures and extending them. Devlin suggests that the ability for mathematics resides in our ability for language. Similar abstractions are necessary in both contexts. The concept of the number three, for example, is unrelated either to the written or spoken word three, or the symbol 3 or even the more suggestive alternate, III. Mathematical thought proceeds in its version of mentalese.

An innate mathematical sense need not translate into universal mathematical sophistication, just as an innate language sense does not translate into universal poetic ability. But the thesis that we have it in the genes begs the question of whether mathematical ability confers evolutionary advantage, namely, is the human race selected by a sense for mathematics?

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Wilson, E. O., Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, A. A. Knopf,
New York, 1998.

To know the answer to this requires more information and knowledge than we have at present. Our understanding of what constitutes human nature in all its complexity is at the most basic level. The sociobiologist E. O. Wilson has been at the vanguard of a multidisciplinary effort toward consilience, gathering a coherent and holistic view of current knowledge which is not subdivided in subdisciplinary approaches. This may eventually be one of the grand theories in biology, but its resolution is well in the future. We need to learn more about ourselves.

Traditionally, any sense of understanding physical phenomena has been based on having the requisite mathematical substructure, and this tradition traces backward from the present, via Einstein, Maxwell and Newton, to Archimedes and surely beyond.

Such practice has not, in large measure, been the case in biology. The view that I have put forth above ascribes this in part to the stage of development that the discipline finds itself in at this point in time, and in part, to the manner in which biological knowledge integrates mathematical analysis. The complexity of most biological systems, the competing effects that give rise to organization, and the dynamical instabilities that underlie essentially all processes make the system fundamentally unpredictable, all require that the role played by mathematics in the biological sciences is of necessity very different from that in the physical sciences.

Serendipity can only occasionally provide a ready-made solution to an existing problem whereby one or the other already developed mathematical method can find application in biology. Just as, for example, the research of Poincaré in the area of dynamical systems gave birth to topology, the study of complex biological systems may require the creation of new mathematical tools, techniques, and possibly new disciplines.

F1.largeOur instincts for language and mathematics, consequences of our particular evolutionary history, are unique endowments. While they have greatly facilitated human development, it is also worth considering that there are modes of thought that may be denied to us, as Hamming has observed , similar to our inability to perceive some wavelengths of light or to taste certain flavours. ‘Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts.’ In this sense, it is impossible for us to think non-mathematically, and therefore there is no framework other than mathematics that can confer us with a sense of understanding of any area of inquiry.

In biology, as Dobzhansky’s famous statement goes, nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution. To adapt this aphorism, even in biology nothing can really make sense to us except in the light of mathematics. The required mathematics, though, may not all be uncovered yet.

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The Public Face of Science

440px-E._M._S._Namboodiripad I was recently invited to Thrissur to speak at EMS-Smrithi,  the annual meeting that commemorates EMS Namboodiripad. The CPM leader Prakash Karat has said of EMS that he “straddled the history of twentieth century Kerala and the Indian Communist movement in a manner which invokes awe. The word ‘history’ is what recurs in the Malayalam media while paying tributes to him. History maker, history’s man, epochal figure: these are some of the terms which underline the recognition that EMS was something bigger than a political leader.”

It was an unusual invitation, but one that I gladly accepted, in part because of the unusual setting, and the chance to rub shoulders with a very different group of people. Not all unfamiliar, but still. I had been asked to speak on “Critical thinking, scientific temper, and the role of the scientific community“, and while the essay will appear in print elsewhere, I thought I would share some of it in this blogpost, although given that these are ongoing concerns of mine,  bits and pieces of what follows  have appeared in other posts.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it.

Scientists therefore have the responsibility – even the moral obligation or duty – of accurately communicating their ideas and results. Of necessity, some of this will be restricted to an audience of peers, but increasingly, it is necessary to communicate the results of publicly funded research to a wider audience. In addition, there are fallacious and misleading statements on issues pertaining to science that are made by persons holding public office (mainly politicians, but also others that play a prominent role in society). Scientists and communicators of science share the additional responsibility of responding to such statements, regardless of how uncomfortable this might be.

India’s share in the world’s scientific enterprise has been steadily increasing over the years. It is well known that the scientific output of a country correlates strongly with the nominal GDP, but recent data suggests also that India’s contribution to the scientific literature (ranked sixth today) has been increasing at an even sharper rate, in contrast to the US, Japan or the EU. At the same time, India’s share of citations – a proxy for the quality of the research in terms of how useful it is considered by peers – is only ranked twelfth. Our role as consumers overtakes our role as contributors to the global knowledge pool.

There are numerous reasons for this, ranging from inadequate and subcritical funding of scientific research to a lack of a sufficiently large or competent body of scientists, namely the lack of a critical mass in most disciplines. It has even been suggested that Indians, either innately or due to our educational system, lack a truly innovative spirit, and thus our research tends to be derivative and incremental rather than being innovative and path-breaking.

One reason why this assumes particular significance is that the practice of scientific research has evolved radically in the past few decades, largely due to the effects of globalization. The combined effects of a vastly improved communication network and enhanced computational power have contributed greatly to making scientific research a global enterprise. Many more scientific papers in many more areas of science today tend to involve large numbers of authors, and as the problems addressed become more complex, these different authors tend to be from different disciplines, often from different institutions, and also often from different countries.

These changes have been brought about not just by globalization and enhanced communication and mobility, but also by the realization of shared scientific goals and the advantages of collaborative research. Looking at the patterns of scientific publication over the past fifteen or more years, one can conservatively estimate that between 10 and 15% of the papers that are published by Indians is in collaboration with researchers based outside India. If one were to restrict the count to the last decade, to high-impact journals, or to authors from the better-known institutes in the country, the proportion of papers which result from international collaborations is even higher.

Trust is a crucial component in carrying out such collaborative research. One has to believe in the reliability of results communicated by one’s collaborators, some of who one may not have even met. And as is becoming painfully evident there are numerous ways in which the trust can be broken. Deliberately, as in the cases of fraud, but also inadvertently, when cultural cues are misread and the work (or other) ethics of different cultures clash. In this context, having a properly articulated code of conduct that is generally accepted is very valuable. The difficulty of finding a universally acceptable code of conduct that can be encapsulated in something like a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath is a very real one. But there are many other ways in which this trust can be broken, and that is through public voices that speak of or for science.

The Science Academies of India, namely the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences of India are bodies that have some national responsibility for the maintenance of standards. From the mid 1930’s when they were all formed, they have tried to represent the best of Indian science, both in the practice of science as well as in its presentation, through publications, through engagement with the public, and by creating an independent and autonomous forum for the promotion of science. But in addition, there is also the Indian Science Congress, a body that has been in existence prior to Independence. The Prime Minister has traditionally attended at least the inaugural session of the Annual meeting of the Congress, and many national policies have been announced at these meetings.

F1.largeOver the years, though, the participation of politicians in what should be mainly a meeting of scientists has been unfortunate. On the one hand, the quality of the science at these meetings has been quite poor – JBS Haldane wrote a desperate essay, “Scandal of the Science Congress” describing his participation in the 1957 Congress, where he says, “I was privileged to hear the Prime Minister’s speech to the Association of Scientific Workers at the Science Congress recently held in Bombay. I did not hear his address to the Congress as a whole, since my ticket for this event had been thoughtfully removed from the booklet issued to me on arrival in Bombay.  The Prime Minister made some rather bitter remarks about Indian Scientists who worked abroad because pay and facilities were better. […]  It is time that responsible persons in India realised that the invitation of foreigners to such Congresses lowers the prestige of Indian science considerably.  […] But the object of the Science Congress should be to advance science in India, and this, in my opinion, it failed to do.  There would be little difficulty in making it useful. This would involve discourtesy to some influential people. But in science efficiency is more important than courtesy.”

 Haldane’s advice has not been heeded, and in recent years we have seen that the prestige of Indian science has been lowered considerably with very public and very irresponsible statements being made by responsible people on ancient Indian contributions to aerospace technology or reconstructive surgery or whatever. Especially when they are widely reported, such statements give a very negative image of the state of Indian science.

It is not just the lack of critical thinking that such statements betray, but they also indicate an intellectual laziness: there is no appeal to new evidence, no original or new research that uncovers any new data, and indeed the attempt is very much to create a fiction that suits a political narrative. In addition to a lack of data, there is also a deliberate attempt to ignore evidence – as for example regarding the migration of humans into the subcontinent, or more recently, the bizarre statements by the Minister of State for Human Resource Development who was  quoted as saying that “Nobody, including our ancestors, in writing or orally, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. Darwin’s theory (of evolution of humans) is scientifically wrong. It needs to change in school and college curricula.”

In reaction, the three Science Academies of India issued a joint statement, “to state that there is no scientific basis for the Minister’s statements. Evolutionary theory, to which Darwin made seminal contributions, is well established. There is no scientific dispute about the basic facts of evolution. This is a scientific theory, and one that has made many predictions that have been repeatedly confirmed by experiments and observation. An important insight from evolutionary theory is that all life forms on this planet, including humans and the other apes have evolved from one or a few common ancestral progenitors.

It would be a retrograde step to remove the teaching of the theory of evolution from school and college curricula or to dilute this by offering non-scientific explanations or myths.

The theory of evolution by natural selection as propounded by Charles Darwin and developed and extended subsequently has had a major influence on modern biology and medicine, and indeed all of modern science. It is widely supported across the world.”

UntitledThis incident points to an appalling lack of scientific temper in the public sphere. Scientific temper is a much abused term, and although it has been inserted in our Constitution, there is little real public understanding of what Nehru had in mind when he defined scientific temper in his Discovery of India as “a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men“, namely that this was a characteristic general quality that we should absorb.

In January 2012, the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources publicised the Palampur Statement, a resolution adopted at the International Conference on Science Communication for Scientific Temper. The Palampur Statement is a fairly long and comprehensive document that delves into, among other things, the changing world order, the current state of science and technology, the spread of fundamentalism, and so on. It has to be read- even cursorily would be enough- to get a true sense of its potential impact in our lives. One fragment that summarizes the main gist of it goes: the thought structure of a common citizen is constituted by scientific as well as extra-scientific spaces. These two mutually exclusive spaces co-exist peacefully. Act of invocation of one or the other is a function of social, political or cultural calling. Those who consider spreading Scientific Temper as their fundamental duty must aim at enlarging the scientific spaces. And it concludes: We call upon the people of India to be the vanguard of the scientific temper.

In vain. There is no noticeable increase in an appreciation of science in the public sphere. The suppression, or assassination, of rationalists – Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar, Lankesh – point also to a persistence in public intolerance that education has done little to dispel. Many of the peoples’ science movements have noticeably decelerated, and paradoxically, the growth of the internet and social media have also seen an increase in fake news and misinformation, to the extent that another minister can assert, also at this year’s Science Congress, as it happens, that the late Stephen Hawking  “said on record that our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc2.”

So what role should the scientific community play in such matters? It is exhausting to counter every bullet of misinformation or false propaganda with public statements, but the fact that reactions are otherwise so slow in coming indicate that there is a lack of effective science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. The West has had a long tradition of scientists themselves communicating their theories or discoveries with the public, be it Faraday and the Royal Society Lectures, or Eddington, Darwin, Huxley, Humboldt, and more recently, Sagan, Dawkins, Crick and Watson, and the like.  The importance of communicating one’s ideas to whatever audience that shows an interest cannot be overstated. I’m not sure I want to get into whether it is a scientist’s moral obligation or duty to do so, but it does seem to me that the value of most things we do is enhanced when the communal nature of our activities is explicitly recognized. And the effectiveness of the work is directly related to the size and width of the community that is aware of or is made aware of it.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a  community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it. [The argument has been made very forcefully in the West, where research is funded both publicly and privately. When private companies fund research, the results are guarded zealously for possible patents, but many have argued for full public access to publicly funded research – and this has formed the vanguard of the Open Access movement.] One can take the point of view that the public in question do not have the required sophistication to appreciate the nuances, the finer details of most areas of research, and there is some truth in that. But the same argument would hold for, say, music, or cuisine, or poetry or any number of things that we enjoy as a community and appreciate as individuals. Each of us may hear the notes we wish to hear – or can hear, for that matter – and make of it what we will. There will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

Hearing about a subject from someone who has contributed greatly to it can be much more than just inspirational: the authenticity of experience transmits itself in a very unique manner. It is quite another thing to have someone else talk about it, though there are exceptions, of course- some science journalists are very effective communicators of the big picture, in a way that a practitioner who is focused on some small portion of the puzzle may not be. And of course, this is their forte, putting together a narrative that can grip a reader in a way in which an individual’s very personal story might not. But authenticity has a separate value and cannot be substituted. Which is why it might be good to occasionally worry about communicating just what it is that one does – science, poetry, or philosophy – to a wider and larger audience. The process might well be beneficial to the quality of what one does in the first place!

There is a sense in which the privilege of being invested in to pursue publicly funded research is very much an expression of the trust of a society. By acknowledging this as part of a social contract, almost the very least one can do is to pay back to society by talking openly (and clearly) about what one does and the results one has obtained.

Almost all the research that is typically done at the University is publicly funded, through the Government of India via various ministries, or by other public funds. Should the results of such research not be made available to as many as possible? Willinsky’s Access Principle states that ‘a commitment to scholarly work carries with it the responsibility to circulate that work as widely as possible’. This is in part so that knowledge that is created can be disseminated in a manner that the largest numbers of people have unfettered access to it. Who ‘owns’ knowledge? The scholar who creates it through research, or the funding agency that funded it directly or indirectly, or the commercial publishing house who owns the journal where the research was reported?    Should scholarly publications be absolutely freely available, or should they only reach those who have the funds to pay for subscriptions to the journals where these articles are published? There are as many nuanced opinions on this question as there are scholars, but with the ubiquity of the internet and the rising costs of journals, the issue is one that merits some thought and discussion.

The digital revolution is upon us all in a way that demands that such issues be thought about afresh since the modes of preservation of information and the modes of dissemination of knowledge have changed radically in our lifetime. For one thing, most journals of any quality are now online. Furthermore, many of them are ‘open access’, namely the articles they carry can be viewed without a subscription. However, the majority of academic journals have been in existence for a long time now and date back to the pre- digital era. The digitization of this legacy is a related issue, and the manner of the digitization and its consequent costs is relevant.

Openness is ‘better’ in an abstract way – at the end of the day it is not clear from which quarter the fundamental advances are going to come, and so it is best not to deny anyone the requisite opportunities. The more people who have access to knowledge, the more one can maximize the probability of any one of them using some part of it in a fundamental and future altering manner.

Willinsky proposes that access to knowledge is a fundamental human right, one that is closely related to the ability to defend other rights. The argument is tenuous but offers an interesting perspective on the ability of increased access to knowledge to have an impact beyond the areas envisioned by the creators of that knowledge. To some extent, the Right to Information Act in India has had a very similar effect – information on one aspect of public life can have consequences on other aspects.

kosambiScholars should see that their work reaches the largest number of people and should make all efforts to ensure this. This is their dharma. Academic administrators should see that scholarly work is supported in a manner so as to have this wide reach. And this is their karma. In the long run, inclusivity is clearly more in the public interest than exclusion in any form, especially in a globalized world, and the Open Access movement can help us along this path.

bernalIn closing, I would like to recall DD Kosambi’s essay, Science and Freedom, wherein he says “There is an intimate connection between science and freedom, the individual freedom of the scientist being only a small corollary. Freedom is the recognition of necessity; science is the cognition of necessity. The first is the classical Marxist definition of freedom, to which I have added my own definition of science.” Science, in Kosambi’s felicitous turn of phrase, is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding – through thought and experience – of what is required, what is needed.

There is, as JD Bernal said so many years ago, hardly any country in the world that needs the application of science more than India. What is called for, therefore, is increased public investment, both intellectual and economic, in this necessary science and the cognition of this necessity.

Shameless Self-Promotion

DDKCover.pngAfter what seems an agonizingly long time since the first ideas of the book took root, I got the following letter from my publishers (how sweet that sounds!) last week,

“We are very pleased to inform you that your book has been published and it is available on http://tinyurl.com/jgn2djj. Customers can order it […] etc.”

D D Kosambi: Selected Works in Mathematics and Statistics is finally done, and is now available in both e and paper formats. The cover on the right shows DDK at three stages of his life, at Harvard, in Aligarh, and finally, in his TIFR years.

To quote from the blurb: This book fills an important gap in studies on D. D. Kosambi. For the first time, the mathematical work of Kosambi is described, collected and presented in a manner that is accessible to non-mathematicians as well. A number of his papers that are difficult to obtain in these areas are made available here. In addition, there are essays by Kosambi that have not been published earlier as well as some of his lesser known works. Each of the twenty four papers is prefaced by a commentary on the significance of the work, and where possible, extracts from technical reviews by other mathematicians.

My personal contribution to the book, other than to edit is, is fairly minimal. Apart from a preface, I have basically tried to describe the academic milieu in which Kosambi found himself at different points in his life, and have also tried to infer what others thought of him in another prefatory essay, “A Scholar in His Time”.

Kosambi gave his academic manifesto in the essay, “Adventure into the Unknown” which also is one of the places where he wrote that Science is the cognition of necessity. (It is quite another matter that the phrase is not one that can be understood in a straightforward manner. Anyhow, as a quote its famous enough.) Reprinting that essay in its entirety seemed appropriate, as also another note “On Statistics” that gives a flavour of DDK’s interdisciplinarity, mixing statistics, erudition, Marxism, etc. The last of the non-mathematical writings is a project completion report submitted by DDK to the Tata Trust in 1945 and it permits, among other things, an inner view of a vastly gifted and somewhat frugal scholar who, in parallel, and for Rs 1800, carried out  6 research projects on issues as diverse as writing a mathematical monograph on Path Spaces, editing a concordance of Bratrihari’s epigrams, and constructing an electromechanical computational device (the Kosmagraph),  among others.

The remainder of the book is a set of reprints. Of his 67 or so papers in mathematics and statistics, about a third are presented, starting with some of his first papers, Precessions of an Elliptical Orbit and  On a Generalization of the Second Theorem of Bourbaki, and ending with one of the papers he wrote under the peculiar alias of S. Ducray,  Probability and Prime Numbers.

An attempt was made to include all the important papers, in particular the ones that made his reputation such as Parallelism and Path-Spaces that along with two other notes by Cartan and Chern are the basic of the Kosambi-Cartan-Chern theory,  the various papers that laid the foundations of scientific numismatics, as well as the papers that he should have followed up but didn’t, such as Statistics in Function Space that foreshadowed the K-L decomposition. The Kosambi distance in genetics was elaborated in  The Estimation of Map Distances from Recombination Values, and this is also reprinted.

Kosambi’s obsession with a statistical approach to the proof of the Riemann hypothesis resulted in several papers of which An Application of Stochastic Convergence, Statistical Methods in Number Theory, and The Sampling Distribution of Primes are reprinted here.  These, as is well-known, effectively ruined his reputation as a serious mathematician.

Chinese. Japanese. French. German. English. DDK published papers in all these languages, sometimes exclusively, and twice the same article in translation. Also reprinted in this volume are three of the foreign language papers, the ones in German, French, and Chinese. The last is of particular interest since it was written during an exchange visit to China in the late 1950’s and only later published in English.

A number of people have helped me along the way and it is my pleasure to thank them all here. For the initial suggestion that the book be done, and for sustained and general encouragement, I am very grateful to Romila Thapar. I’ve written about this before.  Meera Kosambi was keen to see her father’s mathematical legacy appreciated and was very enthusiastic about bringing out this collection and helped greatly in more ways than I can describe. She passed away in January 2015, when she knew the project was afoot, but not in any way certain as to how it would all come out. Michael Berry, S. G. Dani, and Andrew Odlyzko discussed and advised on various  points of the mathematics.  Indira Chowdhury and  Oindrila Raychaudhuri helped vis-à-vis archival matters.  Rajaram Nityananda had had many of DDK’s papers digitized, a great boon, and one that made the reproduction of some material much easier! Kapilanjan Krishan,  Rahim Rajan, and Mudit Trivedi  helped me locate some of the more obscure of DDK’s papers. K. Srinivas retyped almost all the papers, and Cicilia Edwin painstakingly proofread most of them.  Toshio Yamazaki and Divyabhanusinh Chavda  told me of their interactions with DDK, helping to flesh out the personality. Finally, Aban Mukherji was gracious with permissions, as were all the journal editors who kindly permitted the several articles to be reprinted.

DDK maintained a charmingly frank notebook diary during his Harvard years. On the 19th of January 1927 he notes: A most restless day. I have forgotten to mention Monday the 17th and an important conference with Birkhoff thereon […] Problems: Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Four color map, the functional equation […] Today was unusually restless with a great deal of time spent, possibly wasted in the Widener. Looked up old issues of Outing, Shakespear’s Hindi Readers, most of Burton’s works [of him more later], Roosevelt on African and Brazilian ‘sporting’ – worthless – Stefansson’s excellent and much remembered Friendly Arctic

All this variety in a single day! To recall WordsworthBliss indeed it was in that dawn to be alive! Kosambi, just out of his teens, was just bursting with energy, both intellectual and physical (for which one must read the diaries in some detail). The earnestness that only comes at that age shines through on the pages quite unselfconsciously:

jan19

Exuberance indeed, but also some simplicity: Deep interest, well sustained, is essential in the acquisition of knowledge upon any subject. And the third realization of the day: Life is good.  Yes indeed, to be young was very heaven.

Sinning by Silence?

Weltenangst. German somehow seems the right language to use in the present context and if this word is not already a part of the general vocabulary its high time it joined weltschmerz  in describing the present global collective and perpetual sense of disquiet that does not seem to let up no matter where or when one looks, home or abroad.  There is, in a way that has not earlier been quite as sharp, a distinct sense of the binary: us/them, right/left, right/wrong, in/out… One yearns for a  world where the distinctions are recognizably blurred, where the blacks and whites give way to more  shades of gray, where one can be more definitely unsure… when one is more willing to learn, and to change.

But since that is not to be, this post is about the need to speak out, inspired by a friend in New York from whom I learned of Ella Wheeler Wilcox‘ poem Protest, written over a century ago. In words that are truly timeless, and as pertinent today as when they were written, she says:

poems-of-problems-sdl331359054-1-ae76b

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many.

The poem itself is longer, but this post is about the last two lines from the excerpt above, “The few who dare must speak and speak again”. And it is essential that those who do not speak should at the very least, support those who speak for us, for the values that we hold dear.

The heart of one of the crises we are presently facing, the breakdown of communication between the UGC and the rest of the universe on the matter of admissions to the Ph D, is a matter of perceptions. The UGC believes that a system that works in the US or elsewhere should work here. The here knows that the system that would work elsewhere does not work here, and the proof of the pudding is in its eating… To give complete weightage to an interview would tilt the balance in favour of the more articulate. Who also, typically, have had many of the advantages that make them more articulate in the first place… It is simply not true, as Mr Javadekar asserts, that “UGC regulations on MPhil and PhD admissions are as per the best practices of the world. It is being implemented healthily in all universities. The problem is there in one university.” His statements reflect an imperfect understanding of what the best academic practices are, and what that one university has been trying to do all these years.

To start with, the MPhil is a dying degree that should be allowed to become extinct as per the best practices of the world. And as for healthy implementation, the healthiest implementation of admission to the PhD is through the GRE Examination and applications, with no weightage at all for an oral examination… US university admissions committees know full well that their brightest graduate students (typically those from Asia) may not speak English well enough when they enter, so using performance in an oral entrance examination as a yardstick would serve them badly. They do what works well: Administer a good written examination and choose the best from the written scores. Of course they do it intelligently as well, using a combination of measures, but an interview is typically not one of them.

The UGC would best serve the University community  by restricting itself to be a regulatory body as far as curricula are concerned (if at all) and stay away from prescribing admission rules and procedures. There are mechanisms aplenty to identify those who do not follow fair practices, and instead of finding routes of exempting them from fair play (such as declaring them to be INI‘s or Institutions of National Importance), it would serve us all better if the UGC would step in and insist on an even playing field for all.

leaky

To make the point further, the real responsibility is to ensure that all have an equal – or equitable – access to higher education.  And one of the reasons for this is that the workforce, especially for skilled jobs, should have a balanced representation. Gender imbalance, for example,  at the hiring stage reflects to a large extent the gender imbalance at earlier stages, that of admission to the qualifying degree for example. This is what has been termed the leaky pipeline in the context of gender representation in academic careers, but it is clear that the leaky  pipeline idea operates just as well for all other groups, particularly those that have been excluded for one or the other reason.

The human race, Ella Wilcox asserts,  has climbed on protest, and indeed we have. And protest we must, at these ill-argued, poorly considered fiats decreed by a body that has lost its relevance, the UGC which should also heed that students of all persuasions are now are opposing this move …

And not just this. It appears that the idea of a university is lost on the very group that needs it most, the government. In the abstract, the government of the people, by the people and for the people, should use those very people it has invested in to help it think through and devise a better future for the rest of the people. And arguably, that is one of the jobs our universities should undertake – take our country into its future. At least that is what, again in the abstract, each modern nation does. It is 2017 after all, and one of the blindingly obvious truths is that any government needs to use the best minds that it can muster, not just the best brawn. To disregard uncomfortable thought is more than just another mistake… Minds are terrible things to waste.

In the past three years, especially in higher education administration one has seen a relentless and uncompromising policy of choosing complaisant and available mediocrity for purposes of ideological resonance. This is a big mistake, one that we really cannot afford, not least because there is saner counsel available.

In a journal article that is available on the net, David Roy Smith of the Department of Biology, University of Western Ontario (DOI: 10.15252/embr.201643750) points out (passionately, one might add) that by democratically electing a person who openly mocks science and what one has learned from science (in the USA) puts both the basic sciences and our planet in danger. To quote from Smith’s article, “The situation is looking equally dire in other parts of the world, with nationalist, anti-immigration, and big business interests taking precedence over the preservation of our planet, its natural resources, and its ecosystems and species. To be an environmentalist, an academic, or a scientist of any kind in this polarized and pernicious political landscape risks being labeled an elitist, a liar, an ultra-leftist, and someone who is out of touch with the average person.”

That is something that those of us who teach at this one University are quite familiar with. Being at JNU is equated in the public (post-truth coloured!) eye as being ultra-leftist and all of the other things Smith says.  We see this again and again: To be an academic of any kind in a polarized and pernicious landscape is a major risk. To whit, the following:

copy-2-of-southasian-map-by-himalWe are taught – those of us who have learned of the physical world – that there is no special place in space from which one should derive all our coordinates. There really is no preferred sense of direction other than by convention and by legacy.  For many years now, I have had the Himal South Asia magazine’s unusual map hanging in my office and have had innumerable discussions (of a non-political kind) about how it helps to change one’s point of view about our country, whats up south and down north and so on. I must say that learning to see this map every working day (and learning to refer to it in as normal a fashion as possible) has also been instructive in its own way, and it seems more natural now to draw a line from Kanyakumari down to Kashmir rather than the other way around. To have any sense of nationalism hinge on a completely arbitrary definition of up or down is to have a somewhat unhinged sense of nationalism.

cheAnd speaking of ultra-leftist, another thing that hangs in my office is (what I consider) a superb poster, a telescopic image of Ché Guevara on the South American continent… something I picked up forty years ago when it was fresh and new, and another thing I have had to explain to any number of visitors who eventually all come down to “Ah… JNU, what else can one expect?” But this is just one poster, and it is more about the kind of aesthetic I cared about at some point in time rather than some ideology that is indelibly tattooed onto my soul.

By discrediting academic values, one discredits a rational approach to governance that might see dissent and protests as part of a process that is, in the end, enriching because of its argumentative nature. And we must therefore support the few who speak and speak again.

Talking about Science

Several strands of discussion came together in my mind recently, sparked first by an email from the Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre, asking for Science Communicators, and then by two op-ed articles in the Hindu, on whether or not scientists should be responsible for communicating their science to the general public, apart from some ongoing discussions in FB and on Twitter on the same issues.

image7There is no gainsaying that this is an important matter, and a difficult one to address in a wholly satisfactory manner, especially in a multilingual country like ours, one where the general level of education is not as high as one would like. Nevertheless, one must laud efforts that have a non-negligible impact, and the Science Express is a brilliant example of how things can be done right. This is a unique collaboration of the Department of Science and Technology, the Science Museums and the Indian Railways who have come together to make a science exhibition train that travels across the country, and has been doing so since 2007, and by now it has traveled over 142,000 km and welcomed more than 1.56 crore visitors. It has become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition in the world. Now the DST wants people to man this remarkable science museum. They would like

Young science postgraduates/graduates or equivalent. Education or experience in science communication, science education, environmental science, environment education, life sciences or related disciplines will be given preference. Excellent communication skills and knowledge of multiple Indian languages is desirable. Candidates should be self-motivated and medically fit for the long and continuous exhibition tour.

Self-motivation is indeed required, and the ad spares no punches:  The job involves work without off days and continuous travel on the train.This being a mobile exhibition, changing location frequently, the candidates should have ability to quickly adapt to different and challenging local conditions. Consolidated salary in the range of Rs. 20,000 to 24,000/- per month…

As the photo above (taken from the SE website) shows there are people who will bite, though one does wish that the job would be more remunerative- what the train does seems so valuable, and in a country like ours, so severely necessary.

Coincidentally, and somewhat ironically, one of the op-eds in the Hindu pointed out the lack of science communicators or more accurately, the lack of a critical mass of science communicators in the country. That of course is neither here nor there, since there is the glaring lack of a critical mass of persons from almost any discipline (or of persons of discipline for that matter) in the country. But Gautam Desiraju makes other points when he asks “Are scientists responsible for communicating their work to the general public?” Both his write-up as well as the counterpoint by R. Prasad, whose rejoinder simply  points out that  ‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’ are charmingly illustrated with images of scientists communicating with non-specialists!

This morning I had occasion to talk with a younger colleague about these viewpoints, and both of us recalled how influential (in our own lives) some popular books by well-known scientists had been: What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or James  Watson’s Double Helix, not to mention some truly popular books (in their times) by some of the greatest scientists, The Origin of Species by Darwin and Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. I only learned very recently that Wiener was persuaded to write up his ideas in order to communicate them to the public by a French publisher – and given the prolixity of the language used, it is a wonder that the book reached as far and wide as it did. Nevertheless, as we use cyberspace to communicate our ideas today, our debt to him is obvious. And the very readable What is life? resulted from a set of lectures to the general ‘lay’ public in Dublin in the war years.

The importance of communicating one’s ideas to whatever audience that shows an interest cannot be overstated. I’m not sure I want to get into whether it is a scientist’s moral obligation or duty to do so, but it does seem to me that the value of most things we do is enhanced when the communal nature of our activities is explicitly recognized. And the effectiveness of the work is directly related to the size and width of the community that is aware of or is made aware of it.

Investment in research or in scientific activity is ultimately a  community decision –  and given our political system, it is reflected in the way in which the budget for science is decided. Which in turn is determined by the party (or parties) we vote into power. The bulk of research in the country is therefore publicly supported, and one of the issues at hand is whether the results of publicly funded research need to be shared with the public that funded it. [The argument has been made very forcefully in the west, where research is funded both publicly and privately. When private companies fund research, the results are guarded zealously for possible patents, but many have argued for full public access to publicly funded research – and this has formed the vanguard of the Open Access movement. But of that later.] One can take the point of view that the public in question do not have the required sophistication to appreciate the nuances, the finer details of most areas of research, and there is some truth in that. But the same argument would hold for, say, music, or cuisine, or poetry or any number of things that we enjoy as a community and appreciate as individuals. Each of us may hear the notes we wish to hear – or can hear, for that matter – and make of it what we will. We may get a sense of the larger scheme of things, whether the finer points of raga Anandabhairavi or the crucial role played by the p53 gene in each of our cells, or any number of the other wonders that we have created or discovered, and there will be those among us for whom even this vague sense will provide the catalyst for other avenues of exploration and discovery.

71hz53cqn-lThere is a sense in which the privilege of being invested in to pursue publicly funded research is very much an expression of the trust of a society. By acknowledging this as part of a social contract, almost the very least one can do is to pay back to society by talking openly (and clearly) about what one does and the results one has obtained. If one doesn’t, there is always the danger that someone else, less able and less articulate might well do so, and other than writing bitterly about X’s misrepresentations, one will not be able to do much else. Science communicators (as a tribe) play a different role. At their best, their function is to integrate many approaches in an analytical manner, and present this in a format that is sometimes easier on the eye. (In this genre, and from my own area of interest, there are few books that compare with James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, a hugely popular and hugely influential description of chaos theory and nonlinear science. And accurate as well.)

awThe friendship and the intense discussions between Goethe and Humboldt, for instance, as Andrea Wulf discusses in her brilliant The Invention of Nature, were mutually very influential, with Humboldt’s detailed reports being inspirational not just to Goethe, but also to Darwin, Wordsworth and John Muir among others. One can argue that the state of science, and the state of the world, was very different two centuries ago, as it surely was. Card-carrying scientists were fewer and the language that scientists used was not as forbiddingly jargon-filled as it can seem today, but there is good evidence that the lay public flocked to hear Humboldt and his descriptions of South America, much as today’s audience might well be glad to hear from a specialist, of the unexplored vistas of string theory or human behaviour or the brain.

Hearing about a subject from someone who has contributed greatly to it can be much more than just inspirational: the authenticity of experience transmits itself in a very unique manner. It is quite another thing to have someone else talk about it, though there are exceptions, of course- some science journalists are very effective communicators of the big picture, in a way that a practitioner who is focused on some small portion of the puzzle may not be. And of course, this is their forte, putting together a narrative that can grip a reader in a way in which an individual’s very personal story might not. But authenticity has a separate value and cannot be substituted…

Which is why it might be good to occasionally worry about communicating just what it is that one does – science, poetry, or philosophy – to a wider and larger audience. The process might well be beneficial to the quality of what one does in the first place! And today there are many different ways in which this might be done. Through a blog, for instance, or a YouTube channel, through books and articles, or by public lectures, the tradition for which is sadly absent in most of our cities.

Does this, namely taking the time to communicate one’s work to others – even if one doesn’t have to – take away from the presumably more important task at hand, of doing the science in the first place? To which one might well ask why do science at all then. And in any case, it is an unrepeatable exercise. What other work would Gamow have done if he had not written 1, 2, 3… infinity? Or what other vistas might Richard Dawkins have explored, had he not spent his time writing The Selfish Genome or The Extended Phenotype. I prefer to think that this, in itself, was the essential task, to write the books that would go on to influence others.

newsfeynmanOne can go on talking about talking about science… but in the end the basic points are few. There needs to be much more about scientific matters in public discourse, particularly in this day and age, when almost any aspect of our daily life is so influenced by the scientific advances of the past few centuries. It has always needed science communicators (who may or may not be practicing scientists) to do their bit, to bring out the significance of the work, and to see where value can be added. But hearing about any field directly from the ones who have contributed to its advance – in whatever way – has a charm and value all of its own.