Looking beyond the Black hole.

We are celebrating the release of a breakthrough image. One of the most shared images on internet already, the ‘unseeable’ black hole is a real sensation. But contrary to popular perception, it is not an instance of path breaking science. Rather, it is the outcome of a concerted scientific campaign, brilliantly supported by a management team that brought about cooperation.

For starters, “Event Horizon Telescope” that captured the image is not a real entity. It is a virtual telescope that has receptors in an array, distributed across different countries. Data collected by the receptors are combined in a (super) computer to arrive at the final image. These receptors, along with the funds and human talent required to manage it, came from different countries. That this many countries and people could come together to deliver something remarkable - something that will be treasured by humanity - is the key take away.

The technological advancements of the recent past in terms of data storage and computation definitely helped us. It reminds us of how progress in these areas are not linear and how small increments adds up to deliver the end result. It also brings to spotlight the kind of coordination that is necessary to drive science forward.

Sure, this coordination was happening in the background for decades. But with the current resurgence of ultra-nationalism and a tendency to close borders and hearts, I am sceptical about the future. I am not worried about the long-term prospects of Humanity. As John Maynard Keynes stated long ago - “in the long term, we all are dead.” But when it comes to actively thinking about humanity, nihilism doesn’t help much. One has to be optimistic and see the brighter side. Even in this image, human eye registers the brighter side first. We can now afford to take a peek over the event horizon where the known laws of physics breakdown. This was made possible through human coordination at unprecedented levels. This teaches us the importance of cooperation and the things we can do, as we all stay waiting for the occasional breakthroughs like those brought about by Dr. Albert Einstein.

I will like to end this with a note on our overworked, underpaid research scholars (a euphemism of underpaid scientific labour). As India is reluctant to increase spending on research, more and more institutions are coming under financial crunch. This, coupled with ambitious targets set by the faculty and societal pressures, are eating away a lot of promising brains in India. It is already really hard to attract prime talent to research. If we are to neglect the sociological aspects of the research question, we are sure to lose this race. Of course this is compounded by the forfeiture of scientific temper in the altar of cultural nationalism, but I will reserve that topic for another day.

We should ditch the romantic notions of crazy geniuses doing science in silos. Just like all the good things about humanity, science is better done in collaboration. It is done by ordinary, perhaps a bit more intelligent, people who are just like us. We will have to safeguard their interests. As a nation, we should do better. We will have to breakdown the artificial borders and barriers that are being erected between people of different nations. No country can afford to let itself stray away from the stellar community of nations. This should be the prime focus of policy makers when it comes to science.

Science, just like sex, is better if you choose not to do it alone. For a country of 1.36 billion people, this shouldn’t be a hard lesson.

Written on April 12, 2019