Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

Previously: Part 2. Bangalore Briefing

Part 3. Scientific Skullduggery

August 2, 2014. Bangalore.

Today I learned some of Prick's dark past.

We left for Shravanabelagola at 6am this morning. The Institute rented a bus, which was full of students, postdocs and a few faculty, all excited at the prospect of four hours of high-speed peril on an Indian highway.

I sat next to Dr. Friend. We immediately embarked on a serious, hushed, urgent conversation. Partly because we were anxious to discuss the scandal of Professor Prick, but mostly we just wanted to avoid the group Bollywood singalong.

He told me all about the scandal. I asked many questions, and revelled in just how much hot water my recently acquired enemy had got himself into. As explained last week, I can't give away any details just yet.

But after we had arrived and got off the bus, I realised that I had not asked Dr. Friend why he personally was so gleeful at the prospect of Prick's downfall. The man may have screwed up, but he was still a brilliant scientist, clearly a genius, a pioneer who had revolutionised his field and turned it into one of the most active and exciting research areas in science today. He had also become a popular public figure, defending science from ignorant attack, and advocating successfully for greater funding. Ok, he has decided to destroy my career, but what did Dr. Friend care about an irrelevant plebeian like me?

The centrepiece of the Shravanabelagola complex was an 18-metre-high statue, which was at the top of a hill. To get to it we had to walk up a path of stone steps barefoot. The steps were polished smooth from the passage of many thousands, or perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, of bare feet. At the top of the hill was the huge statue. A guide gave us a tour, and a commentary so colourful that he might have been making it up. My scientist friends certainly thought so. He only got away with it because they couldn't get a 3G signal on their smartphones.

I paid little attention, because I was getting stories of my own from Dr. Friend.

"Prick may be brilliant, but he's also a monster. He's bullying, vindictive, cruel and unscrupulous, and will do anything to satisfy his ambition."

"Doesn't sound unusual to me."

"He goes too far. Everyone knows that one of his biggest results was stolen."

"As I said, doesn't sound..."

He cut me off. "I want to introduce you to someone."

The tour had finished, and Dr. Friend pulled aside a middle-aged professor. He was not Indian, but did wear a kurta.

"This is the man whose result was stolen."

We made our way back down the stone steps, and this poor fellow (I'll call him Dr. Rival) told me his story.

"At that time Prick's field was unknown. But there was one problem that he knew, if he solved it, would be a truly major discovery. Unfortunately he didn't know how.

"I also knew about the problem, and I did have an idea how to solve it. But I was junior faculty at a small US university, with one weak PhD student, no postdocs, and a heavy teaching load. So I applied for a grant to fund a postdoc to work with me. My proposal went to Prick to referee."

It began to rain, and the steps became slippery. We held tight to the railing.

Rival continued undaunted. "He reported that I had a feeble track record of only minor results -- my case was weak and lacking in details -- my basic idea was a fantasy. The grant was rejected. He was free to try my idea himself, with his own little army of postdocs and students."

Rival told his story calmly, but I was getting angry. "Wasn't there anything you could do?"

He smiled at my naivete. "You are still young. So was I, back then. I knew nothing about Prick, and I was determined to keep working."

He was so relaxed that when we reached the bottom of the stairs, he left off his story to engage with the incessant crowds of souvenir sellers. The persistent pedlars led him off to their dilapidated little shops, and I didn't see him again until we got back on the bus.

Then he fell asleep until we were almost home. That was when I witnessed another property of that miraculous emergent state of matter, the Indian traffic fluid. I had observed how it interacted as it sloshed along roads, but that was nothing compared to how it behaved when someone tried to stop it.

Up ahead was a railway crossing. A train was approaching, and the barriers went down. The traffic -- two lanes one way, two lanes the other -- had to stop. But to be truly stationary was anathema to its nature. Every vehicle edged and jostled forward as far as it could go. Some drove along the currently empty oncoming lane to get closer to the front, and then tried to wedge into the queue. Soon the oncoming lanes were bulging with cars and buses and trucks. Motorbikes weaved around the edges until the space directly in front of the barrier roared with a throbbing swarm of them. By that time the entire road leading to the barrier was blocked in both lanes.

It was the same situation on both sides of the crossing. Two implacable walls of vehicles faced each other across the railway line.

While we waited, Dr. Rival woke up and I urged him to finish his story.

"As I said, I kept working. I was determined. Utterly single-minded. After some months, I made progress. I proved that my idea was workable. I had the key to the solution. It was enough to write a paper, which I hoped would finally get me a grant. No such luck. It was a small field, there weren't many experts, and the journal sent my paper to Prick to referee."

"And he rejected it?"

"Of course. Six months later he had his own paper, and the rest is history."

"He just copied what you did?"

"Oh no, there was a lot of extra solid work in his paper. It was really a brilliant piece of science. But I had found the key."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. I was ruined. I had thrown everything into that paper, and I just had nothing left. The next year I was denied tenure." He stared out of the window at the impatiently shuddering traffic. "My wife is Indian, and a university here was hiring, and now here I am."


The train had passed. I turned to watch the narrow sliver that remained of the oncoming lane. I couldn't believe we would ever see any traffic on it.

But several minutes later the first vehicles came: the motorbikes. Then a small car, somehow squeezing through. Then more cars, and then buses. I felt like I was witnessing a miracle.

Later our own bus began to move. As we inched forward, the multiple jumbled lanes on our side of the road slowly merged together.

When we finally crossed the railway line, I turned back to Dr. Rival and said, "But now all that is changing. Right?"

"Let's see," he said. "Let's see."

Next: Part 4. The Postdoc's Tale.

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