Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Part 1. The journey begins.

The Genius and the Faker

Part 1. The journey begins. 

Here it is. The story of my summer. Also the story, kind-of sort-of, of the biggest science scandal of the year. (In my opinion.) I was given all the juicy background, but on the condition that I kept it far in the background. To get it I travelled all the way around the world, literally. I can't honestly say it was fun. There's a good chance I've lost my job for this. That's why I've turned on the ads on the blog: soon I'm going to need all the cash I can get.

It started with those blog posts in July (One, two and three.) I told a story about a friend of mine who became a professor based on scientific results that turned out to be wrong. Then some other big shot professor decided that I must have been telling a slanderous story about him, and threatened to destroy my career.

From anyone else, that would be a hollow threat. But Professor Prick (not his real name) ruins lives for sport, and for far less than I had done. Worse: I found that he has old friends scattered throughout the senior administration of my own university. He won't just get me fired -- I'll be reduced to a bloody pulp and abandoned in a gutter out at the edge of the university hospital.

While my academic fate has been hanging in the balance, I have at least been able to tidy up my notes from the summer, and rattle off the occasional review of Doctor Who.

To begin, we go back to July.

July 21, 2014. Bangalore. 

I have run away. I've taken up an invitation to visit a colleague in Bangalore, India. Somehow he arranged an emergency visa. Within two days I was on my way.

"What about immunisations?" I asked.

"Malaria isn't a problem in Bangalore," he explained. "All you're missing is tetanus and hepatitis."


"Just don't stand on a rusty rake."

Before my flight took off from Heathrow, I got an email from my Head of Department, asking to see me as soon as I returned. I guess then it will all be over.

Fine. If my academic career is finished the moment I return home, then I'm staying on the road as long as I can. I have three years of travel money left on my Fellowship, and I may as well burn it all now. I have a visa to be in India for three months. I have an ESTA visa waiver to enter the US. There are many places I can go.

For now I am in India.

India can be difficult to adjust to, especially if you are stunned from only four hours of alcohol-debilitated sleep on the flight from Dubai. Getting from the airport to my guest house was nerve-wracking.

At Arrivals there was a man with a sign with my name on it. He held out his hand to take my bag, but I mistakenly shook his hand instead. He extricated himself and took my bag and didn't say a word.

A wave of vertiginous shock passed over me. I had arrived in a vast alien land that I knew nothing about.

Had I just committed a serious faux pas? Had I seriously offended his dignity by daring to touch his sacred hand? Or offended everyone else in the crowded terminal by acting respectfully to this low-grade servant-fella who I should have greeted with a contemptuous spit in the face? Or was it all a figment of my exhausted imagination?

I tried to explain myself by interspersing a series of broken sentences with a complex pattern of "um"s, "ah"s, and "sorry"s, the awkward duffer's equivalent of Morse code. I was finally forced to conclude that he had refused to speak to me, or was deaf, or, my final inspired guess, he did not speak English.

We proceeded to his car. I sat in the back, which was probably also offensive. How many of these clumsy cultural blunders would it take, I wondered, before it became mere child's play for Prof. Prick to whip up this entire nation into a raging mob one-billion strong, who would collectively drive me into some snake- and tiger-infested jungle, never to be seen again?

Then he started to drive, and my fragile sanity almost shattered.

We were on a long one-way road out of the airport. The road was, for the one and only instance during my time in India, empty. The road had two lanes, divided, as usual, by a white dashed line. The driver, however, seemed unable to see this line. The car weaved across it.

I had to suppress the urge to cry out. He was breaking a fundamental law of modern civilisation: stay in your lane! I would follow that line like my life depended on it. Even if the Earth's entire remaining human population had been wiped out. Even if it wasn't there. I would see a line that wasn't there in the same way that he apparently would not see it, even if it consisted of thick fluorescent paint.

I wasn't sure what was the more unusual, that he drove like this, or that it disturbed me so much. I twitched every time that line disappeared under the front of the car, like it was a row of gurgling babies.

By the time we reached the end of the road, my first step of cultural acclimatisation was complete. I decided that it was me who was strange. After all, why not take a pleasant and casual attitude to this otherwise entirely empty swath of drivable asphalt?

Needless to say, the next step was to adjust to the fact that, when we entered a busy highway, he continued to drive in exactly the same way -- and so did everyone else. It was multi-particle fluid dynamics in action. Other cars must surely contain applied physicists who had come from all over the world to observe up close complex fluid properties that had proved impossible to simulate in the laboratory.

The vehicle size ranged from articulated trucks, down through buses, vans, cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, all the way to actual people, who were casually crossing this teeming highway, and whose only vehicular protection was the clothes they wore.

There was also the occasional cow.

It was the very definition of surreal. No matter how fast we drove at the car in front, or how suddenly they braked, or how randomly we veered to the left or right, there was never a collision. Were the cars all magnetically repelling each other? Did they have their own senses, like people in a crowd -- a frighteningly fast-moving crowd? Or were we living in an especially forgiving driver-training simulator? It was like watching a terrible action film, and longing to protest, "This could never happen in reality!" My head was full of what should have been happening: cars mangled at the side of the road, pedestrians bouncing broken over windscreens, everywhere wrenching metal and shattered glass and blood and splintered bones. When was reality going to catch up with us?

It never did.

We finally reached the guest house.

At the reception desk I had to fill out some forms before I received my key. Just as I had finished, a loud voice called my name from across the room. I turned, and was amazed to see an old friend from graduate school. He now works in an entirely different field to mine, and I'd lost track of him, but I heard that he had recently risen rapidly within the US funding system. He sits on major grant panels, holds advisory roles within the NSF and Department of Energy, and there is even a rumour that he will testify before Congress later this year. But I hadn't spoken to him since we were graduate students.

The first thing he said to me was, "I heard you've had a run-in with Professor Prick."

"How did you know?"

"I hear everything. This meeting is a lucky coincidence. I have information that might help you."

I was stunned. "Really?"

"I have to go now, but we will talk later."

For the first time in weeks, there was some hope.

I spent the rest of the day trying to work out how to operate the shower in my room.

Next: Part 2: Bangalore Briefing.

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