C. K. Raju
(An extended abstract is available here.)
Unknown to me, on that very day (21 October 2005) that I was attacked by a racist dog in a Sydney park, in another part of the world, another drama was unfolding that would impact me more deeply than the racist dog. Sir Michael Atiyah, former President of the Royal Society, current President of the Royal Society Edinburgh, winner of the Fields medal and the Abel prize (both awards at the level of the Nobel prize), gave the Einstein lecture at a meeting of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.1 During this lecture, Atiyah, regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians alive, proposed a new mathematical paradigm for physics.
In an interview given to a local newspaper2 on that day, Atiyah had compared Newton and Einstein. He stated that Einstein was no mathematician, and that Newton had introduced a new mathematics (the calculus) for his physics. This was what Atiyah now seemed to be doing: introducing a new mathematics for physics that would perhaps revolutionize future physics, and change forever the paradigm followed since Newton. Briefly, Newton's laws concern ordinary differential equations, and Atiyah proclaimed that retarded or delay differential equations could explain quantum mechanics.
It did seem a bit odd that such a momentous claim was advanced by Atiyah in the course of a talk. Ethical practice demands that such major claims should be peer-reviewed and published prior to being publicised. But Atiyah had not done enough work to publish anything on these ideas. Therefore, Atiyah generously asked young people to work on the ideas. All he wanted in return was to be remembered in history for having introduced those revolutionary ideas. He concluded his lecture by saying “If it works, don't forget I suggested it”. After Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Newton (setting aside Einstein), it was Atiyah who seemed all set to be the author of the next scientific revolution—didn't he have all the credentials for it?
The most extraordinary thing was that the revolutionary ideas which Atiyah claimed to have discovered had already appeared 11 years earlier in my book, Time: Towards a Consistent Theory3 published by a reputed international publisher. In fact, these ideas had been published even earlier, from 1990 to 1993, in a series of 10 papers “On Time”, in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Education (India), but they were put together in book form, with some modifications, to enable them to be conveniently distributed throughout the world. What Atiyah said, did not advance an inch beyond what was said in my book.
In my book I had explained in a way accessible to any student of physics, how a more general sort of mathematics (of functional differential equations) could bring about a paradigm shift in physics, using those very words. I had illustrated the qualitative changes brought about by retarded or delay differential equations. Further, instead of speculating about the connection to quantum mechanics, I had devoted a whole chapter to prove how such equations led to key features of quantum mechanics. It seemed as if Atiyah had read my book, and had merely paraphrased my claim that such equations changed the “Newtonian paradigm”. It seemed that Atiyah had not quite understood my proof linking these equations to quantum mechanics, and so had restated this part of my claim as a conjecture.
Since I had lectured on my theory at various international conferences, and some of these conferences involved bitter acrimony over the new ideas I articulated, many experts throughout the world were aware of my theory. These experts included people from Cambridge (where Atiyah was) and Edinburgh (where he is). An account for the lay reader was published in my book The Eleven Pictures of Time (Sage, 2003). In a paper published in the journal Foundations of Physics in 2004,4 I had put the new mathematics to work; I had actually solved retarded (or delay) differential equations in a significant physical context, and had explained how that upset century-old beliefs of physicists about the origin of quantum mechanics. This paper too was noticed and cited. Some aspects of my theory had received prominent newspaper coverage, noticed across the world, and reproduced on the Internet by the math news forum.
Atiyah, however, seemed uninformed about all this. Since it is so easy to lie in this matter, the AMS ethical norms place the responsibility on authors to remain informed about past work.5 Claiming ignorance of past work is, therefore, no more a legitimate excuse than claiming to be ignorant of the law.
However, in 2005, Atiyah claimed just that. He claimed that he was completely unaware of all of my past work. To emphasize his claim of “independent rediscovery”, Atiyah concluded his lecture by saying, “don't forget I suggested it.” Note how this claim of “independent rediscovery” relates to the earlier unethical step of premature publicity: had Atiyah submitted something for peer review prior to publicity, it is quite conceivable that a referee might have pointed out my past work.
On that day, however, I was travelling from Sydney to Singapore, and remained unaware that a Western icon was claiming credit for my previously published ideas.
The truth, however, has a tendency to leak out. Three days later, on 24 October 2005, Atiyah repeated his claims in another lecture at the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, California.6 This time, my son, doing a PhD in physics at Harvard, happened to watch this lecture via webcast. Noticing the similarity with my ideas, my son sent me a frantic email.
I did not know what to do. To respond appropriately, I needed to know exactly what Atiyah had said. But with my limited access to the Internet in Singapore, I could not view the large video of Atiyah's lecture. However, a story, once established, is very hard to dislodge later. So, if I intended to resist Atiyah's claims, I could not afford the slightest delay. To save time, I asked my son to send Atiyah the references to my work, which he did in an email on 26 October 2005.
Now, what would an honest person do when confronted with such a situation? He would have immediately realized that his honesty is suspect, and would have given a credible explanation of how he arrived at those ideas. He would have realized that he had done something unethical, even if inadvertently, and would have apologised for it. He would have been curious to know what future development had taken place in those ideas.
In his reply,7 Atiyah, however, offered no apology, nor any explanation of how he had arrived at those ideas. Nor did he express any curiosity about how they had developed further. He only admitted that he had now read the book and paper, and admitted the “relevance” of my earlier work to what he still described as “his” ideas. A few days after my return to India, I sent a polite mail to Atiyah, and he responded to my first mail, but not the second one. There the matter seemed to rest.
I had intended to nip in the bud Atiyah's story about “independent rediscovery”. By sending my references to Atiyah I had ensured that Atiyah was now aware of my past work. In future, at least, he would not be able to say that he was somehow unaware of my past work. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I came to know that a report of Atiyah's talk was published in the June-July 2006 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.8 This report still did not acknowledge my past work!
The two mathematics professors, who wrote the report, gave full credit to Atiyah for my ideas. They emphasized the credit to Atiyah by describing as “Atiyah's hypothesis” the potential new mathematical paradigm for physics that I had proposed a decade earlier. To further emphasize this point that credit must go to Atiyah, they cited Atiyah as saying. “don't forget that I suggested this...”. The journal has a wide readership, and soon enough many people got misled. Discussions about “Atiyah's hypothesis” started appearing on the Internet.9 Another revolutionary change in science, yet another claim of “independent rediscovery”. Yet another failure to acknowledge known past work. Is that the best that the best in the West can do in their science? Bring about revolutions solely through legalistic quibbles about having overlooked earlier work?
Clearly, even if suppose that Atiyah honestly did not know of my work earlier, on 21 October 2005 (the date of his Einstein lecture) he certainly knew of it at this time (June 2006), for he had been informed on 26 October 2005. What reason was there now to not acknowledge my past work? One imagines that an honest person would have been embarrassed by the situation. Wouldn't he have seized the first opportunity to escape from this embarrassing situation by acknowledging my past work? Would he have again allowed the same slip to occur? On the other hand, if we suppose that Atiyah intentionally suppressed my work, on 21 October 2005, his actions would appear logical. For, in the absence of any publication, that talk was not enough for Atiyah to be able to snatch credit. And, if my work had been acknowledged, that article in the Notices could not have been published, for it would have had no element of novelty. Therefore, Atiyah would have been motivated to suppress my work a second time if and only if he had knowingly suppressed my work the first time. Of course, Atiyah had a quibble at hand: that article was written by Johnson and Walker, not Atiyah—but a draft of the article was shown to Atiyah, prior to its publication. Formal mathematicians, like lawyers, regard the quibble as a powerful weapon, and it seems that Atiyah, like the historians of Copernicus, is banking on ultrafine legal quibbles, contrary to elementary commonsense.
As we saw earlier, racist history has proceeded by myth-making. The essential aspect of myth-making is to plant a story—howsoever far removed from facts or commonsense. The story then keeps going on its own. Most people can't be bothered to check the facts. As an example, consider the case of the Bermuda Triangle, a bestseller by Charles Berlitz. A librarian, Lawrence Kusche, painstakingly followed up the details on each case of shipwreck mentioned in that book. He found that each and every case was false. He published a book by the title Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved. However, Charles Berlitz's book apparently outsold Kusche's and the myth of the Bermuda triangle continues to linger. People still feel that if Berlitz mentioned so many cases, there must be some truth in at least some cases—but they can't be bothered to check the facts themselves in even a single case.
In the case of science there is an additional problem, most people do not feel competent to assess the facts, so it is even easier to propagate myths.
So, I realized I was in for an uphill task in trying to counter the story about Atiyah that had appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. In October 2006, I sent an email to Johnson and Walker, authors of that article. I pointed out my past work, and asked them to retract their unjustified nomenclature of “Atiyah's hypothesis”. There was no response. Had an Indian failed to respond to a Westerner making such a grave charge, that in itself would have been regarded as a manifest admission of guilt. But, of course, racist history assures us that in the reverse situation, the reverse case is quite the norm.
After waiting for 15 days, I sent a fax. I quoted extensively from the ethics of the AMS an extract from which was ironically published in the same June-July 2005 issue of the Notices of the AMS. After some delay, the authors now responded. They sought a quick escape route: they said they were not experts, and I should discuss the matter privately with Atiyah. I pointed out that the authors needed to accept responsibility for what they had published, that it was they who had introduced the term “Atiyah's hypothesis”, and they who should retract it. Further, I pointed out that the story of “Atiyah's hypothesis” was now a public issue that could not be resolved by private conversation. They stated that the accuracy of their account could be checked against the video record of Atiyah's lecture, and that they had shown a draft of the paper to Atiyah, prior to publication. This time, Atiyah too responded. He apologised, but only for my perception that he had used my ideas without acknowledgment—like saying, “I'm sorry you felt bad I called you fat”. (The sorrow is not for my action, but for your reaction. The pope did something similar recently, when he expressed his sorrow about the Muslim reaction to his remarks.) Among other things, Atiyah enquired about my son, which out-of-context enquiry I interpreted as a warning, for everyone in academics knows that a PhD student can be very vulnerable, and Atiyah's certainly has a lot of academic clout.
Accordingly, I petitioned the Chancellor of Johnson and Walker's university, who happened to be an expert on intellectual property rights. He did not bother to respond. Had an Indian Vice-Chancellor failed to respond to such a grave charge, Indian mathematicians from TIFR and IISc, who are very sensitive about their image abroad, would have raised a huge hue and cry. But it is, of course, passe that the Chancellor of a US university does not bother to respond to such a charge from a mere Indian. However, Atiyah now responded that he did not mind if a small letter was published, citing my earlier work. Such a letter was drafted by M. Walker, and published in the April 2007 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.10
There was however no apology or expression of regret—no admission of any wrongdoing. Normally, references ought to have been given earlier, not later. If mathematicians do not have double standards, they should either censure Atiyah, or else make universal such a practice of acknowledging earlier work only after one is caught. The damage done by the article and its phraseology of “Atiyah's hypothesis” has not been undone.
On 9 April 2007, I responded by writing a letter, “Is this Ethical?”11 which I sent for publication to the Notices of the AMS. Walker's letter to the editor of the AMS was acknowledged the very next working day, by the Editor, who also instantly indicated that it would be accepted. However, my mail to the Editor somehow got lost, and it was only after two reminders that its receipt was finally acknowledged a month later. Earlier, the same editor, Andy Magid did not bother to respond to my query about the exact date of submission of the Johnson and Walker paper. Presumably, that mail too had got lost. After another month, the editor informed me that he has decided not to publish the letter. He advanced no reasons for the decision—presumably because he has no valid reasons that can be stated publicly.
In the meanwhile, I explored various avenues for redress in India. The government of India spends vast sums of money on research, but it has no institution to look into such problems, and ensure that credit for research done in India stays in India. The other key outcome of research is lead time for development. However, our top scientific administrators, like petty clerks, prefer the path of mimesis, and wait for novel outcomes to be first recognized and exploited by the West, allowing this investment to be squandered. Their scientific illiteracy was demonstrated, for example, in the petrol-from-water episode, and anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with our top scientific brass knows that such blunders are commonplace. There are other problems. For example, I wrote to R. M. Mashelkar, President of the Indian National Science Academy, but subsequently it was reported in the newspapers that he himself was involved in a case of plagiarism. Mashelkar obviously did not respond. The Indian National Science Academy has kept quiet—and an academy which is unconcerned about a plagiarism case involving its own President is hardly in a moral position to take up cases of this sort elsewhere. I have written to the Society for Scientific Values, which has commenced an investigation, and I am awaiting the outcome. As of now I understand that Dr Pushpa Bhargava, former President of that society and former Vice Chairman of the Knowledge Commission has accepted that I have a case.
In the meanwhile, some friends are circulating a petition to the council of the AMS. If you feel something further needs to be done in this matter, please sign the petition, and inform me by sending a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org..
Walker, Notices of the AMS 54 (4) p. 472, available at