Field of Science

In the matter of Walter Lewin, MIT goes medieval

By now most people must have heard the unpleasant news that Walter Lewin, the beloved and world-renowned physics teacher at MIT whose legendary video lectures drew comparison with the Feynman Lectures on Physics has been barred from campus and stripped of his emeritus professor title in response to charges of sexual harassment of a student in one of his MITx courses. Unfortunately, considering the very public fame that Lewin achieved, MIT has been frustratingly silent on divulging the details of the events, but we can only assume that the charges were quite serious and supported by strong evidence.

It's a very painful and precipitous fall from grace for someone who had achieved the kind of stardom reserved for a handful of science personalities - images of Lewin swinging from a pendulum to demonstrate how its period is independent of its mass, or risking being struck in the face and badly hurt by having the pendulum approach his face within a hairsbreadth are now part of science folklore. As someone who has savored many of his lectures as well as his book, I am not the only one to feel pained, confused and stunned.

What I find bizarre is that MIT has chosen to take down all the lectures that made him famous. I simply don't understand this, especially since they have quoted reasons of "safety" in doing this - how could Lewin possibly entice or harass students simply through explaining the motion of a simple pendulum through an old, archived lecture? Apply whatever punishment you see fit to him but why deprive millions of students around the world of the joy of physics? As an institution that pioneered online courses through the Open Courseware modules, it is particularly damning to have MIT engage in this action.

Sadly, the purging of Lewin's lectures from the online universe cannot help but bear comparison to the book burning and blacklisting of speech and writing that was so endemic in the Dark and Middle ages. MIT's actions are akin to banning, say, Wagner's operas because he was anti-Semitic, or Peter Debye's equations because there are hints that he was silently permissive at the very least during the rise of the Nazis. Their actions remind me of the movie "The Ten Commandments" in which, after learning that his beloved son is actually the son of a Hebrew slave, the Pharaoh issues an edict to have Moses's name stricken from every monument and parchment in the land so that his very existence can be erased from history. It really shouldn't be so hard to separate men from their actions, and I cannot understand what motive MIT could have had in taking down the lectures. I am assuming that content in the Internet age is not as lost to the chasm of ignorance as content existing in a few select printed volumes four hundreds years ago, but the issue is really about the medium, not about the message.

Whatever their motive, the message MIT is sending to the world is not too complimentary - we will put the objectivity of knowledge on the same pedestal as the fallibility of human beings, and if we find evidence for one we will banish the other one too. It's a very troubling precedent in my opinion. I do hope that especially an institution as committed to the spread of knowledge as MIT reconsiders the decision.

Update: I am glad to see that prominent MIT computer science professor Scott Aaronson has the same thoughts and in fact believes even more strongly than I that taking down the lectures is a huge mistake. I also agree with him that MIT needs to be much more forthcoming and transparent in revealing the details of the case to a perplexed public.

"I’m someone who feels that sexual harassment must never be tolerated, neither here nor anywhere else.  But I also feel that, if a public figure is going to be publicly brought down like this (yes, even by a private university), then the detailed findings of the investigation should likewise be made public, regardless of how embarrassing they are.  I know others differ, but I think the need of the world to see that justice was done overrides MIT’s internal administrative needs, and even Prof. Lewin’s privacy (the names of any victims could, of course, be kept secret). 
More importantly, I wish to register that I disagree in the strongest possible terms with MIT’s decision to remove Prof. Lewin’s lectures from OpenCourseWare—thereby forcing the tens of thousands of students around the world who were watching these legendary lectures to hunt for ripped copies on BitTorrent.  (Imagine that: physics lectures as prized contraband!)  By all means, punish Prof. Lewin as harshly as he deserves, but—as students have been pleading on Reddit, in the MIT Tech comments section, and elsewhere—don’t also punish the countless students of both sexes who continue to benefit from his work.  (For godsakes, I’d regard taking down the lectures as a tough call if Prof. Lewin had gone on a murder spree.)  Doing this sends the wrong message about MIT’s values, and is a gift to those who like to compare modern American college campuses to the Soviet Union."

The demise of SciAmBlogs

So I hear that SciAmBlogs is undergoing a radical overhaul and shedding no less than half of its bloggers, many of whom have been with the network since its inception. This includes many whose thought-provoking writings I respect - even though I don't always agree with them - like Janet Stemwedel and Eric Michael Johnson.

It's a shame really, because I think the network had really distinguished itself as one of the few blogging networks in the world whose bloggers had vibrant, independent voices and who were not afraid to write provocative posts. That being said, I don't have a problem seeing the logic of this move at all: after what happened during the last one year, it is clear that the network wants to repair what it sees as a broken image, wants to avoid dealing with even ten clamorous voices on Twitter, wants to stay away even from interesting controversy and - the importance of this aspect of any issue can never be underestimated - wants to please the lawyers. The rigors of maintaining a hundred and fifty year old organization's image are apparently much harder than the rigors of sustaining a diverse set of opinions and the accompanying freedom of speech.

However it is equally clear that by embarking on this new identity the site has picked safe over interesting and independent and has lost its reputation as a vibrant and diverse community of independent voices which you may not always agree with but whose views always provided food for thought. This is abundantly obvious from the new "guidelines" issued by the network - a veritable school headmaster's list of dos and donts combined with a palpable dash of Orwellian doublespeak - which prohibit its bloggers from hosting guest posts or writing "outside" their areas of expertise without consulting with the editors. In doing this SciAmBlogs has reduced its bloggers to - in physicist Sean Carroll's words - underpaid journalists and effectively dissuaded them from exploring new horizons. A blogger who gets paid a paltry sum of money every month for writing "safe" posts that won't get even a handful of people on Twitter riled up and are considered kosher by the editors is indeed no longer a real blogger, and I can definitely see why many of the network's previous writers quit instead of relinquishing their independence. 

Fortunately for the sake of the network some excellent bloggers whose writings I really enjoy, like Jennifer Ouellette, have stayed and I wish these folks good luck, but it's also clear they know what they are in for. There are also other specialists like Darren Naish who writes superbly on paleontology and prehistory. But these people are hedgehogs - acknowledged experts in specific subject areas. A science network truly worth its name needs both hedgehogs and foxes - people who like to muck around and explore other topics rather than mainly drill deep into one. They may not offer definitive answers but you can count on them to ask thought-provoking and even provocative questions. The network has now retained a few hedgehogs but it has lost all its foxes. The loss of foxes has greatly diminished the diversity of the ecosystem. 

In one sense the whole shebang was never the same since Bora Zivkovic left, but it really took recent events to bring it to this precipitous edge. In one sense this is a good decision since the site has now decided where the lines are drawn. The sad thing is that - for all its supposed emphasis on diversity - it has done the opposite and chose to draw the lines on the side of corporate approval instead of diverse opinion (and speaking of diversity, as this post on SciLogs noted, it's also interesting that most of the blogs which were cut - even for reasons other than low frequency of posting - were written by women). When it comes to maintaining diversity, the site has effectively gone the way of "We had to destroy the village in order to save it". I wish the remaining bloggers there good luck, but I doubt the environment will ever be the unique forum for independent voices and vigorous debate that it once was. Scientific American's Blog Network will probably survive in some form or another, but SciAmBlogs as it once stood is now over.

I leave the last word to Yana Eglit who wrote for the network for a long time and who sees in this unfortunate but predictable development a larger symptom of our collective woes, on SciAmBlogs as well as on social media in general. The whole thing is eminently worth reading so I quote here at length (the italics are mine):
"Social media has a powerful tendency towards homogenising opinions into a flavourless monolithic blob. While many who use social media are clearly and sincerely interested in promoting diversity, it is a bitter irony that the platform itself suppresses it. Dissenting opinions get transformed to strawmen and people become literal [insert favourite tyrants here]. Instead of trying to understand why someone you consider reasonable wrote something (in the case of twitter, in 140 characters!) so apparently shocking, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, you immediately jump to the conclusion that they are against whatever cause is in question. And the causes in question are usually far too complex to have a single position on. Especially one measured in not even words, but characters. 
But no benefits of the doubt are given — you stray from the path, you’re obviously up to no good. And you get axed. This breeds a form of conservatism — the group as a whole becomes too terrified to say something that will be misunderstood, and what could be a diverse discussion by multiple people of varied backgrounds becomes an echo chamber, a ‘circlejerk’ to use cruder but more to-the-point internet terminology.  
It’s somewhat ironic: in this system, you value minorities, you value women, you value the disadvantaged — but you do not value people. Individuals are worthless, to be cast aside the moment you find something disagreeable in them. People will support you until the first flaw, and then they take off to find someone not-yet-flawed instead. I admit that there’s an element in culture in my finding this strange and disagreeable — in Russian culture (as well as several other Slavic ones I’ve dealt with) we tend to see friendship and personal relationships (but especially friendships) as something rather sacred, something that should ideally transcend ideological differences, political disagreements, and especially character flaws. That can lead to issues in its own right, of course — everything comes at a trade-off, and every cultural description hides within it a massive statistical mess, but that’s something that always bothered me here, just how quickly people discard friendships they find no longer savoury. And this is especially nasty on the internet.
Mature nuanced discussions were never a blatant strong point of the internet, but here we have mature, nuanced individuals — intelligent, experienced individuals with a genuine interest to improve the world around them — having discussions on the level of teenage basement trolls. That, I think, is tragic. 
…and for what was all this? We lost a network. We lost voices who fought for us. We lost each other. We lost direction. We lost our actual main goal — to communicate the wonders of science with the world. And to some extent, I think this has damaged our rapport as bloggers with both journalist as well a scientist communities. Not to mention the curious public looking at all this in bemused confusion.We gained nothing."
I would go a step further and say that we gained something valuable, and then lost it with deliberate, purposeful and misguided conviction. It's something to mull over. However there is as always a silver lining. This story will serve as a cautionary tale for other blogging networks which wish to foster diversity. Meanwhile, both time and the Internet are limitless, so foxes like me will always have a multitude of new fields to play in.

The name's bond - reversible covalent bond.

Fifteen years ago most people would have laughed at you if you told them kinase inhibitors would become such a big deal: the received wisdom at that point was that anything that competed with ATP for one kinase would just indiscriminately hit other kinases. While that is generally true, we have found over the intervening decade that there is a wealth of detail - type II motifs, allosteric binding, relatively straightforward residue selectivity etc. - that can be tweaked to provide selectivity. In one fell swoop Gleevec upended the conventional wisdom.

A similar kind of thinking existed for covalent drugs a few years back, and I think that field too is going down the fortuitous road that kinase inhibitors took and defying the naysayers. This year especially has seen a bonanza of activity related to the discovery and fine-tuning of covalent inhibitors. The most striking and unexpected development in the field however has been the finding that one can find reversible covalent inhibitors that engage a protein target long enough to provide useful efficacy: the pessimistic thinking that had prevailed so far was mainly based on the potent off-target effects potentially arising from irreversible inhibitors. That thinking was justified...just as the thinking that kinase inhibitors would be non-selective was justified in 1998.

Reversible covalent kinase inhibitors in particular have seen a lot of interest and publications this year, and it's especially gratifying for me as a computational chemist to see that that the field is benefiting from both experimental and computational approaches. Jack Taunton at UCSF (who has started a company to exploit such kinds of inhibitors) has been a leader, but there have been others. Just recently there was a joint publication from the Taunton and Shoichet groups which used covalent docking techniques to prospectively discover JAK3 inhibitors. Taunton has also done some interesting work with Matt Jacobson from UCSF to use computational methods to tune covalent warhead reactivity - this work would be especially useful in tailoring reversible inhibitors to suit the target. A group at Pfizer did some similar work. Meanwhile the discovery of irreversible inhibitors for other important targets also isn't dead: earlier this year Nathanael Gray's group at Harvard published a report on covalent reversible inhibitors for CDK7, for instance.

It remains to be seen - it always remains to be seen - how many of these leads can survive the rigors of the clinic and how general the field becomes. But the approach in general certainly seems to be coming of age, and I will be watching its development with great interest. Quite a bit of promise there and also a real chance to defy some naysayers, which is what scientists especially relish.