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The Robin Hood of Science: The Missing Chapter
The tale of a young man driven to his death for fighting for what is right, and the young woman picking up where he left off.
Content Warning: Contains references to violence, injustice, suicide and material you may find upsetting, you might not want to read this on the bus.
Last week I wrote what has quickly become the most read piece of writing I have ever written. It told the tale of how one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free online to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is part two, but it’s OK; this is a story that, just like Star Wars, you can read backward.
The moment I started working on this story last October I knew it was a huge story. I knew it deserved to be read not just by the hundreds of thousands of people who are now reading and sharing it. I knew it deserved to be in newspapers around the world.
So I did what any science journalist would do. I pitched it to The New York Times; I pitched it to The Guardian; I pitched it to all the big guns. The response? Crickets. Bizarrely, until the day that I broke the story last week not one publication had ever covered the story of Sci-Hub. Since last week, dozens have.
The only publication that gave any indication of interest happened to be the largest publisher in tech news. For a time things sounded very promising; but discussions eventually broke down when I made it clear that it was impossible for me to convince Alexandra to travel to Europe for a photoshoot. She feared arrest, quite understandably. Discussions reached a deadlock as I was placed under immense pressure to cut the story down, ultimately to less than 250 words, barely a couple of paragraphs.
Apparently the story was not worth being printed on paper without glossy photos of Alexandra herself posing for the camera, as if they were remotely relevant to the story. A story of this complexity simply couldn’t be covered in any meaningful way in 250 words, I argued. That has since proven to be true as vast numbers of people who read the story thought researchers or universities received a portion of the fees paid by the public to read the journals, which contain academic research funded by taxpayers.
This is simply not true. Most of the billions of dollars that are paid every year for access to academic publications are creamed off, directly into the pockets of publishing fat cats and their shareholders. Not a penny of this is paid to a scientist or academic institution. In fact if anything, scientists must pay for their work to be published. Editing, reviewing, production, every stage of the process is carried out by researchers who act as volunteers, independently of journals for the good of science. Every single stage of work paid for by the public purse is farmed out, except the profits, which are sucked up by billion-dollar-per-year corporations.
This is routine; it’s just the way things work today, a sad hangover from a time when print was a finite resource, even though now it is obsolete in the academic world, replaced by digital documents effortlessly transmitted down the telephone line. It is a hangover that benefits and enriches a handful of for-profit corporations that create nothing, at the expense of all of humanity’s access to the wealth of scientific knowledge.
The costs are real. Just yesterday I met a social worker who — now that she’s qualified, now that she’s a “professional” — can no longer access the social work journals she needs to do her job because she is no longer at a university, so now she no longer has an access code. The same is true for doctors, psychologists, neurologists, engineers, botanists, geneticists, chemists, and philosophers around the developing world.
Ultimately, the first publisher I approached with the story, who after a brief discussion I sent the complete 2,000-word report, published a cut down and cobbled together version of the story behind my back. I panicked and decided as a last-ditch resort to publish my working copy on my blog.
I wanted an accurate and complete version of events not just to be the story of record, but also to be the breaking story, the story that people actually read. Thankfully it was. The story was accurate, but to my shame the story was incomplete. Since last week I have received countless messages asking me why one name was missing from the report. That name was Aaron Swartz. What follows is the missing chapter.
At the very same time that Alexandra was building Sci-Hub, on the other side of the world, a young man named Aaron Swartz was fighting the same fight, in a very different way. Unlike Alexandra who has explained her reasoning for breaking the law to the judge acting in her case in the frankest possible terms, Aaron always followed the law meticulously.
Aaron was a boy genius; at the age of 12, he built Info Network, an early ancestor of Wikipedia. At the age of 13 he built Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the technology that is now near universally used to track virtually any publisher on the Internet, right from a blog such as mine, to the New York Times. If Aaron had not invented RSS, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to start out independently building my own audience, get noticed, and become a writer. Without Aaron you almost certainly would not be reading this now.
Later, he co-founded Creative Commons, the framework now used by millions of artists, writers, and publishers to free their work of the shackles of copyright with simple, clear open-access licences. Billions of pieces of work are now shared using this method. He also co-founded Reddit, a democratic social network that has become “the front page of the Internet,” delivering millions of people in any given moment to the most upvoted piece of information in their chosen networks.
He went on to build Deaddrop, now called SecureDrop, a method now broadly used by news agencies to collect information from anonymous sources. He also built Open Library, a website with the goal of having a page dedicated to every book in existence. In 26 short years Aaron helped found countless organisations dedicated to freedom of information and democratic social progress. One of those organisations, Demand Progress, has been responsible for some of the largest successful grassroots political campaigns in U.S. history. Despite earning millions at a very young age from his creations, he was a passionate fighter against wealth disparity:
“It seems ridiculous that miners should have to hammer away until their whole bodies are dripping with sweat, faced with the knowledge that if they dare to stop, they won’t be able to put food on the table that night, while I get to make larger and larger amounts of money each day just by sitting watching TV, but apparently the world is ridiculous." — Aaron Swartz
Aaron soon realised a grand injustice existed in the U.S. Access to vast swathes of the core documents that make up the law are not freely available to the public. To access the law, you had to pay a complex bureaucratic website 10 cents per page. In fact, you still do, and it’s a $10 billion-per-year business.
Of course, the law itself is not copyrighted. So when in 2008 Aaron wrote a piece of code to download 2.7 million documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database through a library terminal, and then made them freely available, Aaron was not technically breaking the law, as the FBI eventually conceded.
Technologist Carl Malamud explains: “PACER is an incredible abomination of government services; 10 cents per page; the most brain-dead code you have ever seen; you can’t search it; you can’t bookmark anything; you’ve got to have a credit card. These are public records; U.S. district courts are very important — it’s where a lot of our seminal litigation starts; civil rights cases, patent cases. Journalists, students, citizens, and lawyers all need access to PACER and it fights them every step of the way. People without means can’t see the law ... it’s a poll tax on access to justice.”
At the time Aaron made the documents available to the public there were only 17 libraries capable of freely accessing the law within the entire United States; that’s one access point for every 221,090 square miles (572,620 square km) of U.S soil.
In an unconnected hack, while at Stanford University Aaron downloaded the entire contents of the Westlaw legal database, a database he never publicly released, because that would have been illegal.
Analysis of the data Aaron obtained published in the Stanford Law Review revealed a pattern of massively corrupt practices involving top-level law professors being quietly paid by oil giants and other multi-billion dollar corporations, for the publication of biased legal opinions — “vanity research” purpose-built to be used to argue in court for the minimisation of punitive damages in existing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
I could go on about his many and varied achievements. I could go on about the incalculable good Aaron did for society. I could go on about the steps Aaron always took to act within the law, while he worked on its precipice, always for the betterment of others. I could go on about how while being in prime position to make untold millions more out of his creations, he lived modestly and spent night and day donating his time to fighting within the law for what is right, but it’s not what Aaron created that this story is about; it is what was taken from him, and with him, from all of us.
At the end of 2010, Aaron plugged a laptop directly into the server farm at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’d written a Python script called “Keep Grabbing That Pie” to quietly download the entire contents of the JSTOR database of academic research.
Aaron had complete legal access to the research he downloaded, through his university subscription. His crime, had Aaron ever made it to the dock, would essentially have been taking too many books out of the library.
To their credit, when Aaron was caught, JSTOR chose not to press charges, but in a highly unusual legal decision, Aaron was set upon by the United States government with a string of 13 wire fraud-related felony charges.
On the 6th of January 2011, Aaron was arrested, allegedly assaulted by the police and placed in solitary confinement. In a strongly worded statement intended to send a message to hackers, federal prosecutors announced Aaron was facing felony charges that would result in up to 35 years in jail, restitution, asset forfeiture and up to a million dollar fine. He was released on $100,000 bail.
The government gave Aaron a non-negotiable demand that he accept the felony charges. Determined he had not committed a crime, he refused to plead guilty in return for a reduced sentence, and bans and restrictions on his computer use. This despite the fact that his legal costs had completely exhausted his financial resources and all the money that had been raised to defend him, a sum that ran into the millions of dollars.
On the 11th January 2013, two years of bitter legal proceedings later, and only two days after the prosecution had declined his counteroffer to a plea deal, he was found hanging dead in his apartment.
Aaron’s obituary was the first obituary I ever wrote. It doesn’t do justice to one of the greatest minds of our generation. It was written in a haze of shock, anger, and sadness the day of Aaron’s death. I wasn’t alone. An earthquake of grief reverberated around the Internet. His eulogy was read by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
I never knew Aaron, but I am acutely aware of exactly how much I have benefited from his work, and how much we all stand to gain from the work he was doing. I studied at a university that couldn’t afford most useful journals, so I was dependent on the goodwill of others getting me the research I needed to pass. When I started out writing my first blog, Creative Commons gave me vast and easy access to sources of imagery I could legally and freely use to help illustrate my work; Reddit helped people find my writing even though they were mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. RSS let people that liked my work follow me without spending a penny, enabling me to build a career. For all of that, I will always be grateful to Aaron.
Aaron died before he could finish his work, but unbeknownst to him, Alexandra had already picked up the baton where he and countless others in online communities dedicated to freedom of information left off.
Alexandra has not only matched the 4 million articles Aaron downloaded from JSTOR before he was caught, but also released the articles into the public domain along with 43 million more, and built Sci-Hub, a one-click instant paywall workaround that works not just on JSTOR, but also Elsevier and a whole host of other paywalled academic publishers.
If I were a religious man, I might say that we can only pray that Alexandra won’t face a fate similar to Aaron’s — that she will stay safe from prison and legal intimidation and those who wish she would disappear, that she can continue doing what she does best, making discoveries and creating things.
But to say this would be a lie. We can’t only pray.
We can do everything in our power to make sure the politicians we elect don’t allow corporations to throw the book at researchers who have no other way to conduct science than to share their work freely. We can’t allow politicians to throw away the keys to the libraries. We must convince academics to stop handing the keys to their work to gang masters who would happily see all of our scientific knowledge remain inaccessible to the vast majority of humanity.
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away, but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries, but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.
"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights; they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: We can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?" - Aaron Swartz - July 2008, Eremo, Italy
Below is a gripping, thought-provoking and tear-jerking documentary on the events that led to Aaron’s death. It received a string of offers when it was nominated at Sundance, but in the spirit of Aaron’s beliefs the film’s producers have made it publicly available under a Creative Commons licence, so you can watch it in full below. It’s the most moving film I’ve seen in years.
At the time of Aaron’s arrest, Alexandra’s website was already in operation, but working on opposite sides of the world, the two were unbeknown to each other. “When I read in the news about Aaron for the first time I thought, that's the guy who could be my best friend and collaborator,” Alexandra told me.
While Alexandra later came to find Aaron’s writings inspiring and is working on translating them to Russian, she maintains her greatest inspiration was the countless “inspired people” all around the world who share knowledge in online communities based on their shared belief that knowledge should be free.
Read Part One: How one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Graphics and video courtesy of The Documentary Network (CC-BY-NC-SA). Creative Commons infographic by Shiamm Donnelly (CC-BY-NC-SA).
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.