The Black Hole Theory – baloney?

An updated version of this article was published in The Wire, March 3, 2016.

A picture of Sataparna Mukherjee from her Facebook page. Source: Facebook
A picture of Sataparna Mukherjee from her Facebook page. Source: Facebook

I smell bullshit. Ref: The Times of India report.

High-school girl from West Bengal. Claims she bumped into NASA scientists on random social media groups – who in turn “hugely appreciated” her ideas on “the Black Hole Theory”. Which she posted on the NASA website, and on the sole basis of which she claims an internship program offered by NASA Goddard will fund her higher education (all the way to a PhD) at Oxford University. Finally, all news reports discussing the claims have no confirmation from NASA – apart from quoting the same sources.

What pinged the bullshit radar?

  • There’s no “the Black Hole Theory”. For their study, blackholes are situated in quantum mechanics, general relativity or both – so saying there’s a B.H.T. is misleading as well as misinformed. Then again, how much would you expect an 18 y.o. to know, eh?
  • When you win a substantial scholarship on the basis of theorising on blackholes, I can expect you to know what quantum mechanics and general relativity each stand for.
  • It’s not enough that NASA is facing drastic budget cuts that are forcing the agency to cancel the development of entire rockets – it still finds it okay to fund the education of students who aren’t American citizens. At Oxford University and all the way to a PhD for added measure.
  • According to reports, the girl’s PhD will happen while she works at NASA’s London Astrobiology Centre. Such a centre doesn’t seem to exist – coming closest is the University of Edinburgh’s Astrobiology Centre.

Most of all, the biggest ping on the radar was the reports’ similarity to one that appeared in May 2014, in The Hindu. Then, a student of Anna University in Tamil Nadu had claimed he had a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, even though he was yet to finish his undergraduate studies. He’d also claimed that his laurels rested on the back of his research into the “inner structure of the electron” – which isn’t possible because the electron is a fundamental particle and doesn’t have an inner structure.

But what made the piece sell overall was also what was broken about it: comments only from people who stood to gain (even emotionally) from the piece being true, and none from the people supposedly conferring those gains.

In fact, among those mainstream publications that reported the NASA Goddard scholarship story, only Hindustan Times presented a sliver of legitimacy: the scholarship, according to its report, isn’t from Goddard but from Barang, a Bengali foundation that provides “free tuition to schoolchildren in economically deprived areas”.