Field of Science

The 2014 Fields and Nevanlinna prizes: Celebrating diversity

"And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity." - John F. Kennedy
An Iranian woman, a first and a second generation Indian, an Englishman and a Brazilian. Most of them working in the United States - The 2014 Fields and Nevanlinna prizes celebrate diversity like no other.
Quanta Magazine has a wonderful set of profiles of this year's top math prize winners that are worth reading. 
Maryam Mirzakhani is especially notable as the first woman to win the prestigious prize. The profiles are accompanied by short videos. The prizewinners are a varied bunch whose interests and origins are spread across geography and mathematics. From topology to number theory, from geometry to chaos theory, they seem to have it all covered.

Diversity and bridge-building across nations and cultures have always been an important part of science - witness Eddington's confirmation of Einstein's general theory of relativity right after Germany and England had been embroiled in a catastrophic war. But in no field is this more apparent than in pure mathematics where people across the world can be connected purely by way of ideas, unencumbered by political or religious affiliations or commercial applications. Hopefully we can look forward to more such celebrations.

How Robin Williams helped me out in graduate school

Spring 2004. I was a callow first year graduate student, with an insouciance and naiveté befitting a first year graduate student. At that point like most of my fellow grads, I was hungry for knowledge and thought that everything that I needed to know would be found in books and lectures. Lab work was simply a question of putting some of this knowledge into practice and producing a passable PhD thesis.

I was a voracious reader and used to check out as many books on chemistry, physics, drug discovery, molecular modeling and the history of science as I could physically carry out of the library. Because I was cocky and stupid, I used to read these ponderous books and think I understood the world. I threw around jargon from quantum mechanics, biochemistry and the philosophy of science and thought that because I understood the jargon I comprehended how to apply it to real life situations. I lived in blissful ignorance of the fact that all my bookish knowledge was almost useless when measured against the fickle complexities of real life problems. 

Surprisingly, I had not seen "Good Will Hunting" until my first year of graduate school. It turned out that my introduction to the movie was also an awakening and I have to thank a fellow graduate student, more experienced and wiser in the ways of the world, for this. Once, as I was strutting around the lab, tossing out concepts from quantum chemistry and pontificating on how a particular protocol could be better for a certain kind of molecular system - all when I had never actually applied such protocols to real life problems - my fellow graduate student interrupted my chatter to suggest something.

He asked me if I had seen the movie "Good Will Hunting". I said I had heard of it but had not seen it yet. He told me to watch the movie, focus on the main protagonists and tell him what I thought. I checked out the movie from Blockbuster (I know) that very same evening and was blown away when I saw it. That's because I could relate immediately to the protagonist, Will Hunting (Matt Damon). I wasn't even remotely close to being a genius like him, but the similarities nonetheless struck home. Just like me Will was cocky and arrogant, and just like me he thought that his bookish knowledge made him an expert on the world's affairs.

But the scene from the movie that really left me feeling like I had been mowed down with a scythe is the scene in the park with Robin Williams and Matt Damon in which Williams's character (Sean Maguire) launches into what I consider to be one of the most beautiful and profound monologues in movie history.

In a previous scene Will had displayed his customary indifference and arrogance by presuming to know everything about Sean's life through the lens of a particular painting that he had painted.

In the scene Sean shows Will how deeply ignorant and naive he is. The monologue's basic message is simple: You may have read everything there is to know about the world, but that does not mean you have seen the world. Here are the lines that I found most poignant and profoundly true:
So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable.
I could almost hear Williams speaking to me, translating his words about Shakespeare, war and love into ones about science and knowledge. 
"If I asked you about synthesis, you'd probably give me the skinny on every total synthesis ever done. Woodward, you know a lot about him. Life's work, academic aspirations, him and the MIT chemistry department, his marathon drinking binges, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it means to spend two years' worth of your life synthesizing even a moderately complex organic molecule and having your efforts fail in the twenty-fifth step. You've never actually stood there and compared the NMR spectrum of your product with its natural counterpart. If I ask you about drug design, you'd probably give me a long synopsis of the challenges in drug development. You may even have talked to an actual pharmaceutical scientist. But you can't tell me what it feels like to be a part of a multidisciplinary team of scientists, work on a project for five years, guide it through false alleys and a litany of frustrations, and then see it fail in Phase 2 clinical trials. And I'd ask you about the philosophy of science, you'd probably throw Kuhn at me, right, "Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments". But you've never been part of a paradigm shift yourself, seen the world shift beneath your feet the way the creators of quantum mechanics did."
At that point I felt more sober than what I would have had I suddenly stopped drinking after a twenty-year binge. It was as if a wall of wisdom had driven itself between me and some cherished destination that I now realized did not exist. I did not even know half the things that a fictional Williams would have admonished me about, and yet here I was, wallowing in the heady, careless naiveté of premature intellectual jubilation.

Since I first saw that scene it has probably become my favorite scene of all time, and the movie itself is now my all time favorite. I have memorized dozens of lines from it and I find myself watching it at least once every month. But the central message of the movie which has stayed with me is very simple: knowledge, no matter how extensively you acquire it, does not automatically translate to wisdom, let alone real world experience. It's of course important to get as much knowledge as you can and share it, but it's also imperative to be always mindful of what it takes to turn that knowledge into understanding and expertise. That extra something is experience, it's team work, it's character-building. Knowledge is important, necessary in fact, but not sufficient. No amount of reading about classical architecture is a substitute for smelling the air in the Sistine Chapel.

For the last ten years, many times when I was getting ahead of myself, many times when I thought I actually understood how to apply a scientific concept I have watched that scene. And so today, when I feel myself stunned and deeply saddened by Robin Williams's premature passing, I realize the debt I owe to him and that magnificent monologue. He may be no more, but I am hoping his words will keep my head sober and my feet on the ground. Every time I think I know, I will hear Robin's voice saying, as patiently and clearly as he says to Will, "You don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

In small and big ways Robin Williams touched the lives of countless people. Among them was a chemistry graduate student. Thank you for that, Robin.

Celebrating the 1939 Leo Szilard letter to FDR and setting the record straight

Leo Szilard was the principal architect of the famous
letter to FDR. But even today Einstein's name is the one
most associated with the event. This needs to change
(Image: NNSA).
Today marks the 74th anniversary of the famous letter that physicist Leo Szilard wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt. In the letter Szilard alerted the president to the startling recent discovery of nuclear fission and more ominously, warned him that Germany had likely started working on the implications of this discovery for waging war. When FDR saw the letter, he famously called his aide "Pa" Watson and handed the letter to him saying, "Pa, this requires action".

Thus began the momentous road leading down to the Manhattan Project. But Szilard had seen this road six years before, at a traffic light in London when, stepping off the curb he saw the essence of energy from the atom before anyone else.

The above account may sound strange and raise eyebrows since I seem to have omitted the name of the one famous person who is most associated with the FDR letter - Albert Einstein. But the point that I want to make is that a story about the letter focusing exclusively on Szilard will still be more accurate than a story focusing exclusively on Einstein. Both accounts would be inaccurate, but in Isaac Asimov's words the second would be "wronger", and yet it's the one that has stuck in the minds of most people.

Leo Szilard remains one of the most brilliant, wide-ranging and underappreciated scientists in history. Bill Lanouette has performed an invaluable social service in writing a brilliant and definitive biography of the man which is a must read. In case of the so-called "Szilard-Einstein letter", Szilard's role cannot be overemphasized. First of all, he was the one who, based on his unique traffic light insight six years back, instantly grasped the terrifying implications of nuclear fission for war. This was based not just on his scientific insight but on his incredible political insight, a trait that had constantly marked him apart from his fellow scientists. More than almost any of them Szilard saw political events before they overtook the world, and this time was no different.

But Szilard was not just a man of thought, he was also one of determined and preemptive action. He immediately recruited the efforts of his fellow Hungarian scientists Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller in communicating the importance of the momentous discovery to the highest powers. At first Szilard's overriding concern was regarding the existence of uranium ore in the Belgian Congo which Germany could hoard. He wanted to alert the Belgian royal family, and he realized that the one person in his circle who knew them was Einstein. Szilard and Einstein were old friends and colleagues, having filed a patent for a refrigerator during their carefree time in heady Berlin in the 1920s. 

But Szilard also realized that any action on fission would need government support on a massive scale. And he again realized that nobody else in his circle carried the weight that Einstein did. So he recruited Wigner in driving him to Einstein's summer cottage on Long Island. The first meeting was on July 12: When Szilard told Einstein about the discovery of fission and its implications Einstein was completely surprised, saying "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht" ("I had not thought about that"); his surprise indicates Szilard's overarching role in initiating the set of events. Szilard not only approached Einstein but also drafted two letters, one addressed to the Belgian ambassador and another to FDR. The emissary for delivering the second letter was going to be Alexander Sachs, an economist who knew Szilard and who had the ear of the president.

On August 2 Szilard again had himself driven by Teller to Einstein's cottage. This time Einstein modified the letter and dictated the revised version in German. Szilard came back to Columbia University where he was then installed and asked a stenographer - who thought she must be dealing with a nutcase - to transcribe it in English. The letter clearly laid out the possibility of atomic bombs based on Enrico Fermi's work and also warned about Germany's access to both brilliant physicists and the uranium ore in the Congo.

Szilard had the letters signed by his famous friend and gave both of them to Sachs. The rest is history. But the set of events that transpired make Szilard's absolutely essential role in the "Einstein letter" obvious. In fact it's not too much to say that without Szilard the letter would not have been written. Szilard not only instantly grasped the implications of fission but he alerted Einstein, he explained what the problem was and he drafted the letter. Einstein's main role was in listening, approving and signing. These were all important roles, but surely not as important as Szilard's role in willing the letters into existence in the first place.

So let's make no mistake about it every time we talk about the famous letter to FDR. Einstein played an important role in being the messenger, but Szilard was both the medium and the message. Without Szilard there would have been no letter. And without Szilard this chapter from Einstein's life would have been erased. As he did in 1939, it's a pity that even today Szilard remains the genius in the shadows. He deserves to always have his memory kept alive.

P.S. The Wikipedia entry on the topic is actually a pretty good and accurate account.