Assorted comments: MOM, IIT Mandi, scientists’ wishes

These are some remarks that have been fermenting in my mind and for which I don’t have the time or the inclination to supply a beginning-middle-end structure to publish as individual posts. I’m just packing them into this one post so I can say what I’d like to say, clear some headspace and move on.

1. MOM end of mission

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) reached end of life on October 3, 2022, a healthy seven years beyond its design lifespan of six months. While the confirmation from ISRO was muted, to the accompaniment of a characteristically verbose PTI copy, the occasion was nothing short of the end of an era. MOM was ISRO’s last fully successful major mission and the last time ISRO undertook an outreach campaign of any sort that was as candid and as effective as many of us ISRO enthusiasts have wished all of their campaigns to be. ISRO’s last partly successful major mission was Chandrayaan 2; the way it responded to the lander’s failure was regrettable. And there hasn’t been a publicity campaign since that wasn’t also closely orchestrated by the office of the Supreme Leader et al. So the end of MOM was symbolically the end of a time in which things other than total narrative control were possible.

2. An IIT Mandi press release

IIT Mandi recently emailed me a press release about a newly published paper (which I couldn’t find) describing a study led by a researcher and his team at the institute – in which they recovered polymer composites from used wind-turbine blades in what the release claimed was a “green” procedure. The two chemical compounds required in this procedure are hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid. Dear readers, hydrogen peroxide is not “green”. Nothing, really, is green unless it’s green throughout its lifecycle. Hydrogen peroxide manufacturing is currently not a green process. You can’t just say “hydrogen peroxide is the water molecule plus one more oxygen atom, so it’s green”. That’s like saying “ozone is dioxygen with one more oxygen atom, so it’s okay to inhale.” Diluted hydrogen peroxide is okay but at higher concentrations (typically >40%), it is highly toxic to living things. It’s also very reactive chemically and is hard to store, transport and use. So without knowing where the hydrogen peroxide in their experiment came from, without knowing the volume of hydrogen peroxide required to make the research team’s solution commercially feasible, and without knowing the concentration at which it must be used, let’s not make any claims about greenness.

Addendum: Also according to the press release (emphasis added), “The recovered fibres retained nearly 99% of the strength and greater than 90% of other mechanical properties as compared to the virgin fibres.” Do we really need to use terms like “virgin” to describe pre-utilisation objects? I doubt anyone’s going to tell the IIT Mandi press office this but both universe press offices and scientists need to put some thought into their language instead of playing it safe from within their lanes. Other English words rooted in objectionable sexual notions include ‘seminal’ (from semen) and ‘hysterical’ (from the Latin for ‘suffering in the womb’). The lingua franca is what we consider okay to say, okay to think, eventually okay to believe, so it’s important we tend to it.

3. “Top 3 wishes”

The The Science Talk blog published a post discussing the results of a call it’d put out earlier, to materials scientists, asking them to list their top three wishes. The question received a hundred responses and, according to the post, the most common three wishes were: More funding and longer contracts; “resources – unlimited microscopes, open access and less bureaucracy”; and “informal networking, comfortable lab shoes and outreach”. Let’s set a part of our common sense aside for a moment and assume that these hundred materials scientists are speaking for the millions of scientists working on thousands of topics worldwide in a variety of contexts. Doing this allows us to consider their wishes as a monolithic set of requests so that they can do science better – and leaves us to think about which wishes we can and can’t allow, and to what extents, so that science can fulfill its purpose in our lives, in our countries, in our politics without at the same time exacting too high a cost. Take “longer contracts”, for example: obviously that will allow scientists to work with larger questions, build towards bigger ideas and so forth – but the gains for those funding that scientific work, the government and by extension the people, will also manifest over longer time-periods and come with a greater risk of sunk costs. That in turn should make us think about what sort of nation, with the attendant economic and sociopolitical features, can afford longer contracts for scientists. (In my view, richer, more economically developed and more powerful countries, where there is little social or political expectation for science to contribute to the betterment of society.)

I didn’t have a point to make here as much as express the hope that more people who read the The Science Talk post will be interested in asking such questions, and thereon become interested in the government of science, the place of science in your country and, ultimately, the politics of rooting for science.