United in death?

First Christopher Hitchens, now Alexander Cockburn. A few months ago, Cockburn wrote a snide obituary of Hitch, which was partly deserved.(*) (And largely not. For example, he hilariously accuses Hitch’s prose of being “limited in range”. He sneers at Hitch’s long-running association with Vanity Fair.)

But Hitch at his worst never came up with anything like this gem from Cockburn in 1980, which reminds us just how low some members of the left could stoop in defence of the Soviets:


“We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakably cruel too.”

In his last years Cockburn earned some popularity with the loony right by becoming a climate change denier.

When Cockburn wrote that Hitch obituary, he himself had been battling cancer for over a year, but kept it secret except from his closest circle. Even in this matter, it seems, he wanted to be the anti-Hitch: “He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done.”

Both Hitchens and Cockburn wrote some rather controversial things. Ultimately, I think, only one of them had the ability to resonate even with people who disagreed with him: publicly and sincerely mourned by people who should, in theory, have found some of his writings highly offensive and even blasphemous. And that is important. A writer, to be relevant, should be able to have a dialogue with the unconverted. A column in Vanity Fair is a consequence, not a cause, of that ability.



(*)After writing that, I got reminded of George Galloway calling Hitchens a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay”. Hitch’s response: “Only some of which is true”.

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The Higgs boson physicist ignored by his own country…

Not S N Bose, but Abdus Salam.  Worth reading, especially in context of my previous post.  I knew Ahmadis were and are persecuted in Pakistan, but didn’t know that, even after his Nobel, Salam was personally threatened to the point of cancelling his visit to.Quaid-i-Azam University.

Higgs and the subcontinent

Leon Lederman, physicist and author of the book “The God Particle” whose title has become the popular media name for the Higgs boson, tried to explain the title away by saying his original title was “The goddamn particle” and the editor, well, edited it. Be that as it may, the likely discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN has set off a media frenzy around the world.

The Indian media, of course, is seeking Indian connections — of which there are many: several of my colleagues have been associated with LHC, including the late Rahul Basu whose name is familiar to readers of this blog. There are literally thousands of scientists working on this, and the massive amounts of data generated are farmed out and analysed around the world, including at several centres in India.

However, the name “Higgs boson” has naturally led the Indian media to focus on the second part, named after Satyendra Nath Bose. (Here is the Times of India, for example.) Now, Bose was a remarkable figure — a self-taught physicist from a poor British colony, he had a fundamental insight into the statistics of photons (which are massless), which Einstein then generalised to massive particles. The resulting “Bose-Einstein statistics” describe an entire category of fundamental particles, and (approximately) atoms — those with integer spin. Particles with half-integer spin are described by “Fermi-Dirac” statistics. Bose never got the Nobel; Einstein, Fermi, and Dirac all did, but not for their work on quantum statistics. Bose’s work is fundamental to modern physics and the TOI is correct that he is not given his due — I have heard comments, even from Bengalis, to the effect that “oh, he cannot be compared to J. C. Bose.”

When Einstein generalised Bose’s statistics to particles with mass, he discovered a peculiar phenomenon that gases of bosons exhibit at low temperatures, which is generally called “Bose-Einstein condensation” (BEC). (So in this case, Bose is given credit for a phenomenon that he did not actually predict.) Liquid helium exhibits a form of frictionless flow called “superconductivity” “superfluidity”, which is a manifestation of BEC, but a more complicated phenomenon than what Einstein predicted, because it is not a gas. BEC was eventually demonstrated in rubidium atoms in 1995, leading to a Nobel for the team in 2001, and leading also to some belated appreciation in India of Bose’s work.

However, to credit Bose with the Higgs discovery makes as much sense as crediting Democritus with the discovery of uranium, on the ground that Democritus had an atomic theory. To say, in the context of the Higgs boson discovery, that Bose “towers over” Higgs, is a complete non-sequitur. Einstein, Fermi and Dirac tower over Higgs too, but nobody feels compelled to say that. Why not appreciate the Higgs discovery for what it is, the result of hard work by an enormous team of scientists, including many Indians?

Finally, I take pleasure in pointing out that there is a significant subcontinental connection to the Higgs boson. While Higgs (and, independently, Brout and Englert; and Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble) described the mechanism in 1964, it was incorporated into the “elecroweak theory” (which later became part of the “Standard Model” of particle physics) in 1967 by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Salam was a Pakistani physicist and certainly the most significant subcontinental physicist since independence. In addition to his science, he set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (which was renamed in his honour after his death in 1996). The ICTP was (and is) intended to promote science in developing countries, and has provided, for many Indian students and young scientists, their first exposure to international science. We should all be proud of this particular connection.