Monday, December 28, 2009

The Golden Bough, Sciencophansy and the * on a Chemist

In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer: … A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he himself was slain by a stronger or craftier. … a priest who bore the title of the King of the Wood, and one of whose titles to office was the plucking of a bough --- the Golden Bough --- from a tree in the sacred grove ...
Sir James George Frazier, “The Golden Bough: A study of magic and religion.” Project Gutenburg Book

In civilized society now the priest king does not carry a knife. He surrounds himself with informers and sycophants who kill in various ways.

In Frazier’s description, The Golden Bough personified the King and had to be plucked before the priest was killed by the next murdering priest. This has been going on through the ages. In situations that we are familiar with in our environment, the slaying priest nervously plucks The Golden Bough and slowly cuts the throat, taking care to see as far as possible that the reigning priest is still smiling.

I must say that my (perhaps excessive) concern with intentionality in science in my earlier blogs is because of my awareness that, in some aspects of so-called scientific contributions, there are subjective aspects which are intrinsically wrong morally. In this blog, we will, in particular, be worried about the nature of intentionality that shape our attitudes towards the way science is done and the way scientific acclaim --- the Golden Bough --- is to be recognized in different environments. I examine in particular the societal impact that generates a scientific sycophancy (which I have termed as sciencophansy) when the priest pays scant attention to murder of the intellectual kind.

The priesthood in such cases comes from the importance of localizing a * on the priest, when he is the author of a scientific publication. The * becomes a mark of a superior “caste”. The ritual of the * is expected to be most dominant in a society with a strong caste system.

The highest Indian acclaim --- their Golden Bough --- that an Indian Scientist realistically hopes to aspire for is a Fellowship of the Royal Society of England, the erstwhile de jure “masters” of the clerical class. Our current value systems in the ruling class of science are derived from the value systems of that country.

The value systems in England must have developed during the times of great turmoil. This was the seventeenth century during the rules of Charles I and II when there was plague, fire, Cromwell’s civil war (which would influence Milton’s Paradise Lost “yet from those flames, no light but rather darkness visible”).

Thomas Browne. It is perhaps instructive to learn about the English scholar and author, Thomas Browne (1605-1682), who lived during those formative times of “modern” England that saw the first English colonization of the Hudson Bay in Canada and shaped its portals of learning, the Royal Society.

Thomas Browne grew up in the same time as Charles I (1600 -1649) with his Divine Right of Kings, mainly to marry a catholic lady in a protestant country. This forced two England civil wars between 1642 and 1649 and resulted in his trial, it would seem. The subsequent execution of Charles I emulated the beheading of his grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots. Browne then survived the stormy times of Oliver Cromwell who led the English Commonwealth (1653-1659) that briefly ended English monarchy. Browne also lived during almost the entire reign of Charles II (1660-1685).

Charles II started of by canonizing his father Charles I as St. Charles Stuart. He married and had twelve illegitimate children (Princess Diana’s would descend from one of his illegitimate sons) and no legitimate one despite four pregnancies. Charles II also survived the Great London Plague and the Great London Fire. Charles II founded the Royal Society for science, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, was the patron of Christopher Wren who rebuilt London after the war and issued licenses to theatres that allowed females to play females roles on stage instead of boys.

It is this period of restoring paradise that shaped the best of English minds (John Milton, Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren) which in future would influence the Indian civil service and thereby set the tone for the way India administered itself and the intellectual standards they were to follow.

These standards, by themselves, were not bad for the purpose of the people of England who, armed with the knowledge of these days, were able to learn and exploit and benefit materially as well as spiritually from the great diversity of the knowledge in their colonies, and thereby verily claim leadership of the world.

Browne wrote authoritatively in several areas including medicine, religion and science.
The most quoted of his works, I suppose, is Religio Medici. Some of his quotations I use here may have reference in some context in this blog. Thomas Browne would write, for example,
It is the method of charity to suffer without reaction: those usual satires and invectives of the pulpit may perchance produce a good effect on the vulgar, whose ears are opener to rhetoric than logic;
Where I cannot satisfy my reason, I love to humour my fancy.
That there was a deluge once, seems not to me so great a miracle, as that there is not one always.
… there is surely a physiognomy, which … experienced and master mendicants observe, whereby they instantly discover a merciful aspect, and single out a face wherein they spy the signatures and marks of mercy. For there are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read A B C may read our natures.

Another of his book titled “Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall” would be on the sepulchral (nearly fifty, probably Roman) urns found in his neighborhood Norfolk (in a field of old Walsingham) and its philosophical implications. I mention this book (see Simon Wilkins, Ed; The Works of Sir Thomas Browne) because it has some of the better and more sensitive English prose of a scholar that I have read. He was a truly global person and discernibly very erudite in his language and excited in his observations and educations.
The departed spirits know things past and to come; yet are ignorant of things present. Agamemnon foretells what should happen unto Ulysses; yet ignorantly enquires what is become of his son.

Thomas Browne would write “If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is a sad composition; we live with death, and die not in a moment.” (Hydriotaphia)

Of immediate interest to us (and as an aside) is this description below.
The Indian Brachmans seemed too great friends unto fire, who burnt themselves alive, and thought it the noblest way to end their days in fire; according to the expression of the Indian, burning himself at Athens, in his last words upon the pyre unto the amazed spectators, thus I make myself immortal.

Was self-immolation some sort of self-euthanasia of the intrinsic Hindu (Indian) kind; euthanasia seems now to be a good option to terminate one’s life in westernized society, whose values systems describe what civilization is now all about? During Browne’s time India was not colonized. If self-euthanasia was allowed for the male Brahmin when they saw no reason to prolong their life would one claim that there is a gender bias when it was not allowed for women? British soldiers had not intervened in satis at the time of Browne.

I mention this part because the early Hindu experience of life and its termination seems to have been the same as that of euthanasia that has evolved later in the western world.

Fashioning of Science.

The doctor, D, in Ph. D., means a teacher, so that a Ph. D., generally means a teacher in philosophy. In the earlier European universities all academic disciplines outside theology, medicine and law were denoted as philosophy. The classical emphasis in obtaining a Ph. D. degree is a “…thesis containing original research” and not a portfolio or folder of published papers even if they are original. In the latter case the degree is sometimes called a D. Phil.or D.Sc..

The submission of a thesis (emphasis on the word “thesis”) had been taken to mean that the candidate has taken a new (emphasis on “new”) position in his intellectual proposition. This takes time and experience and a Ph. D., usually indicates “… a life dedicated to learning, to knowledge, and to the spread of knowledge” (from Wikipedia).

Ph. D., now of the popular kind no longer make new propositions. They usually submit a folder of disconnected research.

One used to require “ … considerable stamina, good health, and good mind to be a doctor of philosophy in its true sense.

This is not true any more.

There used to be something noble in being a doctor. Medical doctors took the Hippocratic Oath swearing to ethically practice medicine. The Hippocratic oath has the sentence “In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of the patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill doing and seduction…” or something close to it. Because of this, perhaps, it is not now required in modern medical schools.

The high moral standards for a medical doctor in the classical Hippocratic Oath are, I thought, also the standards for the teacher of philosophy. Talking of standards in medicine, William Osler had said to his students “You are in this profession as a calling, not as a business; as a calling which exacts from you at every turn self-sacrifice, devotion, love and tenderness to your fellow men. Once you get down to a purely business level, your influence is gone and the true light of your life is dimmed. You must work in the missionary spirit, with a breadth of charity that raised you far above the petty jealousies of life.” (from The Quotable Osler, Silverman, Murray and Bryan Eds., Google Books).

I have always assumed that as far as the vocation of a teacher of philosophy is concerned and the title doctor is to be given, these same principles are applicable to Ph. D.s irrespective of the actual nature of the philosophy.

Their Science as Our Science.

Amar bari, tomar bari, sabar bari Naxalbari. Naxalite slogan of early 70s (my house, your house, all houses Naxal houses).

Gentle people of Bengal were much amused by the rhyme and much annoyed by the implications of the above Bengali slogan of extreme left communists from the place Naxalbari.

The Church of England has currently given rise to the Church of Democracy which would go to any conquest for the defense of true “democrats” and oppress anybody they do not perceive to be free. India is catching on. We (read NRIs) hope US of American value systems now determine ours.

Since Ronald Reagan’s time (as far as I am aware) the emphasis has been that all funding in science should be aimed at national interests or making profits. This led eventually to funding of macro science projects (Hadron collider, genome projects, Hubble telescope, and so on) while micro-science projects depended more on bureaucratic lobbying than on encouraging science derived from intrinsic intentionality. The intentionality of the scientists supported by a national or industrial policy becomes a derived intentionality so that scientific objectives have to be within the orthodox domain letting unorthodox science wither.

It is difficult to understand what one means by a scientist if one wants some starting point for intentionality. Gerard Piel, who made a great contribution to world science by reviving Scientific American, and who should know, made the comment (so it is said) “The most remarkable discovery made by scientist is science itself.” (in J. Bronowski, Magic, Science and Civilization, 1978?).

Piel probably implied that there is a career opportunity in science “…which when taken at the flood leads to fortune” of the kind that is driven by the intentionality. In this kind of science, it is rare that there will be a great originality, since the flood has been started elsewhere. When a floodgate of scientific opportunities is opened in the west, it trickles down to us after much churning around when the force has subsided and we can only wallow in shallow waters.

Tree Under-standing Syndrome.
The question “why are you standing under a tree?” in Tamil vernacular would transliterate to “why you tree under standing?”

Once when I was neatly dressed (that is very rare) because of some official reasons, I had to take shelter under a tree during the first monsoon rains. This first rain, after the summer has made you dry, is perhaps the best period of the year. Scenes of children in the monsoon rain were most adorably and unforgettably expressed in Satyajit Ray’s film, Pather Panchali.

The welcome drops of rain after summer that fall on your head during the monsoon is different from those that falls, for example, in the song “rain drops keep falling on my head”; in Butch Cassidy and Sundance kid’s country it is cold when the rain drops fall.

Tagore would write “I find in none of them (foreign verses) traces of the shade of this monsoon rain --- no sound of this dark pattering. No deep, indolent yearning, No self-immersing pain!

Without exception, almost every Indian would love to soak themselves in this monsoon rain --- except those who, like I was at that time, are in their western dresses for some formal function. Standing under the tree during this first rain, I envied some freer children of all ages romping in the rain. When the rain had stopped and I had to go to my “science” appointment, I was happy to tug at a branch of the tree and let some of the rain fall on me. I missed the flood.

Most Indian science is now like standing under-standing the tree during the first monsoon rain. One deliberately and nervously missed the excitement of the first downpour and then settled for the left-over.

This realization of “Tree Under-standing” Syndrome did not require the rain. As a young Ph. D. student I would attend science conferences (in English, of course) where scientists who gave the most impressive classroom lectures on developments in modern science were to speak. IIT, Kanpur, speakers were the most impressive with their non-English accents, western suits all “tied up” (literally and figuratively), and descriptions of results based on the “latest”, at that time (for that level) equipments they were using and the global expenditure/income on the work they were doing.

The scientists (I can only talk about chemists) would speak very impressively for 90% of their talk on the work done by others. In the last five to ten minutes of their talk they will go hurriedly through the material prepared for the full time ---displaying more than a transparency per minute to show the volume of work they had done --- and rarely had anything exciting of their own to say. At best most of them, especially the top of them all, will lament about not having electricity and power, and how just the previous day or week, somebody else had beaten them to something fabulous that was about to be published.

The key point that requires to be made in the “Tree Understanding Syndrome” is that Indian scientists, in general, would be the first to speak in India about some other scientist’s original work. They usually don’t look for science in their own backyard or in the concepts derived from their upbringing. Their intentionality is derived mainly from the Western world (wherever the west is).

“I have traveled around the world to see the rivers and the mountains… I have seen everything … but I forgot to see just outside my house a dewdrop, which reflects … the whole world around you.” Tagore’s inscription for Ray’s book.

When we take their science as our science, when we yearn for their recognition, when all our energies are reserved for an entry into their society, we may be committing ourselves to their rules and their prejudices which could rob us of our spontaneity, our intrinsic intentionality or our intrinsic genius.

This is nothing new as far as human experience goes. As Samuel Johnson had said in the beginning of his essay on a trivial subject “The Folly of Annual Retreats into the Country” “It is impossible to take a view on any side, or observe any of the various classes that form the great community of the world, without discovering the influence of example; and admitting with new conviction the observation of Aristotle that “… man is an imitative being…

But we do make ourselves objects of ridicule in most cases. It may be sufficient to some to have and justify the style of science and add to the economic advantage of a few or even a many (usually the middle class in mind or purse). But when an alien style uproots the very roots of an indigenous people it is claiming to nourish, one must pause and weigh the financial benefits by manipulation of images and speeches in virtual television realities versus the loss of bone of the back of the non-belonging people of the land, the real adivasis.

It may be difficult for a scientist to be approved for this stance. As a daughter just said to me: “Raj Thackeray will applaud and throw you out at the same time”.

Twilight Gravity
Dennett (“The Intentional Stance”, MIT Press, 1989, preface ix) has written about the attractive powers of people in the limelight which he calls Limelight Gravity: “… as one’s ideas become a Center of attention, one is invited to contribute to more and more conferences, which proceeds to suck one’s entire corpus into delayed publication in conference proceedings and spcial-interest anthologies. Nothing is left over to submit to refereed journals, for ready reading.

When your expertise, or your ambitions, or your day-dreaming takes you further away from the ultimate Prize (say, the Nobel Prize) the harder you try, then you resort to what may be called “Twilight Gravity”. This is the same as “limelight gravity” except that you become the center of attention in another way.

When you become almost sure that you will not get the limelight from a spontaneous acknowledgment of your work you resort to “twilight gravity”. You start say, by becoming a member of a Powerful Governmental committee, or become the head of a powerful academic institute; be a member of the Editorial Board of a powerful Journal; inviting important scientists of important foreign academies; be the first in your country to repeat somebody else’s original work after it has been pointed out to be important by the editor of an important journal; make special bathtubs for specially tall Nobel Laureates, say Francis Crick.

It helps tremendously for “twilight gravity” people, if one can impress honest VIPs (you can find them) who have no idea about physical sciences but will vouchsafe for the quality your science.

Usually, these scientists start their work in an area which is heralded as a new flood at conferences they visit and after protocols for the research has been established. After that they climb every mountain that has been climbed earlier since ladders are there; once they have climbed their own turret (that they call a pinnacle) they do not leave a ladder behind.

The twilight gravity scientists are those who build an empire for their security; they are very good to their “students” especially when the quality and productivity of their work depend on these students; they discourage the promotion of any talent other than their own especially when the talented person is threatening to become an independent thinker.

One suffering from “twilight gravity” does not try “… to overcome the bad side effects of that otherwise gratifying diffusion.

“Bad side effects” there are plenty and have been much discussed and dissected. All of it has been well documented; in, for example, “The Ethics of Science”, David S. Resnik, Taylor-Francis e-Library 2005. “… How can people know what to believe?” asks M. Clarke, Ethics Sci Environ Poli “… infighting about processes and ‘hyping their work to attract public attention and investment can only allow a non- or anti-scientific environment to flourish…

In Bertrand Russell’s “Religion and Science” (1961), he says “…science has nothing to say about “values. … what (great mystics of all religion) is a state of mind out of which … right conduct must ensue… .” Resnik in his “Ethics of Science” has written “If a person is already ethical when she enters the scientific profession, she will continue to be ethical; if she is not ethical when she enters science, then no amount of instruction can make her become ethical.

Is the ethical stance in one’s genes? In one’s intrinsic intentionality? As an opposing view, if scientific work is driven by derived intentionality, then is there no place for ethics? Is it the greater glory, the “twilight gravity” that finally dominates? In my reading of the lives of scientists who have contributed to concepts, the ethical stance is intrinsic and spontaneous in them (they have no time to spend on the devious).

Noting what science had done to restore paradise in 17th century England, Thomas Browne is quoted (by William Osler) to have said “No one should approach the temple of science with the soul of a money changer”.

The unethical stance is encouraged when there is considerable influence of the “stancer”.
Proximity to members of an editorial board or referees can many a time help in getting some papers published; or rejecting papers with a rival viewpoint; or even in giving priority for authorship. This would be misconduct.

Such maneuvering came out most strongly during the recent conference on Climate Change which was a global exercise on doing nothing by promising many things. The conference had as its prelude a story on leaking of hacked e-mails from the East-Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) which was presented in such a way as to give a first-impression of fraud and scientific misconducts on the part of CRU to exaggerate the extent of global warming. In an analysis of these emails the Pew Center of Global climate change made a few revealing statements in the process of rebutting these claims. Two of these statements are:-
a) “Scientific misconduct by the authors of the papers and/or by editors who circumvented the peer review process so as to publish inferior papers that support their own political agendas.
b) “Publisher refused to allow the chief editor to revise the peer review process to make the individual board members more accountable.

I have coined the term (for this blog) sciencophansy to imply sycophancy in science that results from the insecurity of those who are in the “twilight gravity” state. Sciencophants are those who depend on the twilight scientists for their progress (salary, dinner invitations, conference participation, international visits with “TA and DA”, committee memberships …). Sciencophants, in turn, provide fodder for run-of-the-mill publications on topical subjects for those in the “twilight gravity” state and report on those who show signs of being independent.

The innocent independent stance has sometimes grievous consequences and is well known ever since homo hierarchicus (title of Louis Dumont’s book) was established. J.C. Bose (see earlier blog) experienced such behaviour quite in his prime when he was demonstrating electric response in plants in a lecture before the Royal Society on 5th June 1901. “He was strongly assailed by Sir John Burden Sanderson, the leding physiologist, and some of his follwers. They objected to a physicist straying into the preserve specially reserved for them. … In consequence of this opposition, Dr. Bose’s paper, which was already in print, was not published but was placed in the archives of the Royal Society. … eight months after the reading of his paper, another communication found publication in the journal of a different society which was practically the same as Dr. Bose’s but without any acknowledgment. The author of this communication was a gentleman who had previously opposed him at the Royal Society. … the determined hostility and misrepresentation of one man succeeded for more than 10 years to bar all avenues of publications of his (Bose’s) discoveries.

Usually, sciencophansy is most visible in the perpetually developing nations where there is an artificial paucity of relevant things to do. Because of the derived intentionality, relevance of a scientist’s work is measured in terms of the social/economic power it yields to the individual scientist. It is not measured in terms on the contradictions he faces in his day-to-day life in terms of his science.

Hierarchy is established as purely a matter of sciencophansy. The sciencophant is a parasite of the “twilight gravity” state.

Citation Index and the * on the Chemist

In a multi-author paper, the first author used to be and still is the main contributor. In academic circles, the first author was usually a student who did the work and had to write the bulk of the paper while the last author used to be the guide who corrected the English and improved the readability besides keeping tab on the scientific aspects that are involved. In many cases when the last author was the head of the institute and/or provided the facilities for research, the last but one author was effectively the guide of the first author, who did the main guiding and writing and was deemed happy doing that. The last-but-one author rarely got any credit for the work.

One of the characteristic caste symbol in recent papers authored by chemists in particular, is the * on an author in a multi-author paper. The * indicates the author to whom the correspondence should be addressed. It should be taken as a harmless symbol signifying nothing but bureaucratic facility. It is usually taken to identify the person in charge and to whom any credit is usually given by people who decide scientific hierarchy. It then becomes a matter of caste.

Usually the *ed person is the one who lobbied and got the funding or got the paper published through his contacts. The three Nobel Laureates in Chemistry of this year (2009) made it a point to see that the * (or an indicator for the corresponding author) was against their name in papers on crystallography when they had reached an important stage in their career (usually after they headed a laboratory). Ada Yonath, whose career graph has been most admirable, had the corresponding-author-tag even in her single-author papers!

For many of us brought up on our science heroes, it seemed of poor taste to have a * to indicate your status. The important publications of our youth did not have this * to indicate a corresponding author; it usually indicated a change of address than that given in the paper.

More than fifty years earlier, in the Nature issue of 1953 there were three seminal papers on another biologically important substance, DNA. These were :-
Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids. A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid
J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick, p737
Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids
M. H. F. Wilkins, A. R. Stokes, H. R. Wilson p 738
Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate
Rosalind E Franklin* and R. G. Gosling (* now at Birbeck college) p 740
None of them had a * against their name to indicate corresponding address.

There are other examples of well cited papers where the * does not indicate any hierarchy but just an affiliation. Among these are
G. N. Lewis and M. Kasha “Phosphorescence and the triplet state”
Generalized Gradient Approximation Made Simple John P. Perdew, Kieron Burke*, Matthias Ernzerof (PRL) 1996, ~ 3000 refs
Perdew and Wang Yue, ~ 4500 cites Generalized gradient approximation
C. T. Kresge*, M. E. Leonowicz*, W. J. Roth*, J. C. Vartuli*, J. S. Beck† (ordered mesoporous molecular sieves synthesized by a liquid crystal-template mechanism; ~6500 citations.

The emphasis on the innocuous looking * as a caste mark probably gained acceptance after Garfield and Malin’s paper on “Can Nobel Prizes be Predicted?” in which they pointed out a correlation between the number of times a paper has been cited and the citations of Nobel Laureates.

I have not cared to find out how author citations are indexed now. Is it by the * or by the first author or do all authors get cited? I have always found the citation index to be extremely helpful in learning about a paper from the way tough papers have been analyzed by the authors of papers citing these tough papers. It turns out that this was what the citation index was all about.

Garfield and Malin’s paper put a different emphasis on the citation index that made it easier for non-scientific bureaucrats to judge the science in scientific work. All one had to do was to just count the citations. Getting a high citation thus became necessary. “To be a Nobel Prize winner, one must not only be able to think and to perform good science, one must be able to sell one’s ideas”, G&M said. If scientists like (Gregor) Mendel “… are being ignored, it is probably their own fault.” It is implied thereby that it is not the fault of Garfield and Malin’s analysis that outstanding work is not always well cited.

Yet there is a little catch in Garfield and Malin’s model.

G&M’s article itself begins with the key question “What are Nobel Prizes for?”1 The cited reference, 1, is “Lost Reference”. Ideas can be borrowed but reference to the ideas may be lost. Borrowed ideas can decide your impact and possibly Nobel prizes as long as you are cited and the source of the ideas obscured. It would seem that citations are not lost when the * or other caste marks are there.

G&M.s article also pointed out the many cases of authors who have had consistently high citations for their publications without being considered for a Nobel Prize. G&M noted that the number of citations does not always pick out an exceptional scientist. One of the most cited single paper between 1983 and 2002 (49,562 times!!!!) is on “A Single-Step Method of RNA Isolation by Acid Guanidinium Thiocyanate-Phenol-Chloroform Extraction” by P. Chomczynski and N. Sacchi in 1987. This paper has a * on Chomczynski to indicate his address and a superscript and 1 to indicate to whom the correspondence should be addressed. There is some consolation for ordinary mortals like us since the total citation for 34 papers by Chomczynski is 49,794 so that he has only ~ 7 citations per paper of the remaining 33. In the case of Sacchi only 48,685 citations are there for her 99 papers in 2002 although her single paper gave 49,562 citations (suggesting negative citation index for the remaining papers! Or, some error in counting).

Invention and Cunning

One cannot be an innovator or original thinker without having an element of wiliness. It has been said (R. S. Root-Bernstein in “Who Discovers and Invents” Research Technology Management, (32, 43, 1982)) “The greater a scientist’s expertise, the less likely he will be able to think for himself … expertise is not only useless to the innovator; it may be a drawback …”. I really don’t have to quote anybody for this feature of common experience.

One of my sane friends (with a rhyming surname) once recalled for me about the way a Bengali (of the derived intentionality kind) would like to proudly brag about how “chalak” his child is. Being chalak for them is to be clever when actually, in current parlance, it means cunning or wily.

Asole cheleta baro chalak
Bipod ke paas katiye chole

(really the boy is very chalak
uncertain paths he is sure to skirt)
The avoidance of unknown paths is a death knell for an inventive tag; it is usually the hallmark of the “twilight gravity” scientist.

Part of this reason must have emanated from stories in the Panchtantra in which the Fox would give practical solutions (“Scholarship is less than good sense, therefore seek intelligence”) to problems (see for example, “The Crows and the Serpent”. In Bengal these tales were better known by their Buddhist equivalent, the Jatak tales. “…they are not moral stories… they are sensible stories …”, M. Jafa, 2004). In Aesop’s fables the fox is sly or cunning as in the tale of the Fox and the Stork. In current usage the word chalak or its Hindi equivalent chalu usually mean sly or deceitful; e.g. (from the web) “…beware of chalu mallus who will teach u words which will have the opposite meaning.” See for a nice discussion on chalak or “Smart Woman” in Rural Bangladesh by Schuler et al.

We don’t know if being chalak is part of the accessories for being an inventor of the non-devious kind. Max Perutz, wondering why Watson, who had all the time chasing girls and playing tennis, had found the solution of DNA structure, reasoned that he had done so “… all he did in Cambridge was play tennis and chase girls. My own problem took thousands of hours of hard work, measurements, calculations. For Jim’s there was an elegant solution … because he never made the mistake of confusing hard work with hard thinking.

Or is it as the woman in Bangladesh said “Those days are gone. Nobody is “foolish” anymore. There is nothing for the ‘non-smarts.’ ”?

The Golden Bough and the Parasite.

The Golden Bough is believed to be the mistletoe, which are parasitic plants, harmful to the main tree on which it grows. The mistletoes are now found to be environmentally necessary since they are fed upon by several animals thereby encouraging biodiversity. The most powerful mistletoe grew on the most powerful plant or tree. In Europe it is the oak tree.
The idea that the life of the oak was in the mistletoe was probably suggested … by the observation that in winter the mistletoe growing on the oak remains green while the oak itself is leafless. …the oak-spirit had sought to deposit his life in the mistletoe … neither on earth nor in heaven … as the place where they are least likely to be assailed …. …the mistle toe should not be allowed to touch the ground…(or) its healing power will be gone." According to Frazier, Virgil’s interpretation of The Golden Bough is the “… mistletoe …in green with fresh leaves and twines its yellow berries about the boles, such seemed upon the shady holm-oak the leafy gold, so rusteld in the golden breeze the golden leaf ” It is probably this “Golden Bough” that the druids used to make their magic potion and into which Obelix fell to get his magic strength.

Frazier draws a parallel between the Golden Bough and divine kings whose lives were regulated by two rules. First the king’s foot could not touch the ground. He was carried on his shoulders and walked on rich tapestry laid on the ground. The second rule is that the Sun should not shine upon the divine person.

Methinks the scientist of “twilight gravity” is the mistletoe growing on a giant edifice of science as a parasite. He is important for the environment of his sciencophants, who carry him on their shoulders and not letting him touch ground or to see the light. After all, it is the sciencophants who feed off the mistletoe’s growth and distribution of largesse sucked out from the main plant. It is these science mistletoes who sometimes dominate the scientific kingdom through their contribution to the growth of the ancillary scientific equipment industry and their subscription to the tourism and hotel industry for their hierarchy generation.

The Golden Bough is only an illusion of a parasite. It does not generate an oak tree. It only generates another parasite.

The oak tree grows from its own acorn. The parasites can have their Golden Boughs.

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us, A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death.

The Flame Within

I heard he sang a good song, I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him and listened for a while
And there he was this young boy, stranger to my eyes,
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his songs

When we do our science only as a vocation for this life and detach ourselves from our society’s needs and rewards, it may be the best way of doing science without bias. Society may ask about our debt to them.

Several questions then arise:

Do scientists have to educate society about their work?
Should there not be a forum which is aware of your work and will address you should they need you in their without requiring compensation?
Should knowledge be a secret to be patented for profits?

Isn’t an original thought really an accident of space and time because of some privileged circumstances that is created by the whole world?

Is it sufficient to say that so and so went to the same school, studied the same subject, did the same experiments as others, but still came up with an idea which is new and gave direction from which we have profited and for which we give him, say, the Nobel prize?

What if another went to the same school, studied the same subject, did the same experiments as others, and came up with an idea or result, because of his peculiarly different situation in life, without which the said Nobel idea could not have been nucleated?

Can we not decline a Nobel prize and say “No, no, we were just living our peculiar life and one thing led to another and really any one of us could have come up with the idea, It is really not different, say, for a gardener to find accidentally the seed for Jack’s beanstalk”?

Should we learn from ending to Vedic hymns, “idam na mama” (“it is not mine”)?

Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time. …

Oblivion is not to be hired. The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been.” Thomas Browne in Hydriotaphia

Yet the Disney song goes
If your heart is in your dreams,
No request is too extreme,
when you wish upon a star as dreamers do