Hong Kong Science

By Elizabeth Hay

Periodic Table by Jonathan Barnbook, photograph by Rowena Blair.

Science has laws that are undisputable. We are all subject to them, without creating them, and evidence serves only to prove that the laws exist, not if we are guilty. Science gives some of us clear and logical explanations for phenomena that superficially appear to be chaotic. We calmly list the molecules and products, and balance equations; “energy” is not scary if we can predict and measure it. We have neat categories and classifications: the periodic table, organic chemistry functional groups, the prefaces of units that take us from the subatomic to the intergalactic. With this toolkit, I should be fine. I should be able to cope with anything. And yet, of all my scientific heroes, I anxiously keep thinking: Primo Levi, Primo Levi, Primo Levi.

Walden Inversion

Levi struggled as a Jewish student in fascist Italy to find a supervisor for his undergraduate chemistry thesis. He wanted to write on the Walden inversion. This is linked to our idea of “left-handed” and “right-handed” molecules. Some molecules can have the same chemical contents but can’t be superimposed on a mirror image of themselves. Say, you were able to hold one of those plastic ball-and-stick chemistry models from school in your open hand, they might have a little hydrogen atom that would poke out either to your little finger or your thumb. If someone else made a molecule to the same recipe, that hydrogen could stick out the other way. Identical in content, opposite in form. And this can have powerful outcomes: take sertraline, used pharmacologically as an antidepressant you might know as Zoloft. The right-handed version of the two isomers is a selective inhibitor of a protein responsible for reuptake of serotonin into cell membranes. It is all of the action behind SSRIs; upping serotonin levels in the brain and causing a cascade of effects on the nervous system, bones, bowels, and notably, mood. The left-handed isomer is not.

A tetrahedral carbon atom makes an umbrella-shaped molecule. Or at least, it’s always an umbrella skeleton to me. I see umbrellas everywhere, hiding people, protecting them. Sometimes, in a strong wind or in a typhoon, they turn inside out. That’s our Walden inversion. In the molecule, one bond is broken and one is formed simultaneously, and the product is the opposite configuration. Right-handed can become left-handed, in technical terms, the other enantiomer. In science, there is so much space for transformation. We can happily recognize things as the same and different at the same time, or shortly after. Primo Levi got full marks on his thesis in 1941 and was interned in Auschwitz in 1944.

That’s what I thought about when I saw those lines of umbrellas at protests. Primo Levi.

Newton’s Law of Viscosity

“The stress on fluid layers is directly proportional to the rate of shear strain.”

I tend to start with fundamentals when thinking about Hong Kong science, but I can’t avoid fluid mechanics. Perhaps it is because of the phrase inextricably linked to Hong Kong, be like water.

That water is Newtonian; it will flow predictably independently of the forces acting on it. We can rely on it. But the reality is that most fluids don’t adhere to the law. They are non-Newtonian and their states are mutable under force. Imagine being water that is mixed with cornstarch to give it shear thickening state-blurring possibilities; when squeezed together, it’s so thick you think you could throw it like a ball, until you try to hold it in the palm of your hand and it drips down your arm. The shear thinning fluids have their place here too: decorating Hong Kong with daubs of cerebrospinal fluid, blood, liquid paint. Like them, like ketchup, we can be stuck until we run when squeezed and stressed.

Galilean Invariance

“The laws of motion are the same in all inertial frames.”

Galileo described this as if you were below-deck on a ship travelling on a calm sea, at a constant velocity, with no rocking, you would not be able to discern whether the ship was moving or stationary. I translate this as: you have to rock the boat to know if and where it is moving. We might be accelerating now, rather than constantly heading towards our destination. But even boats are too painful for us now. Boats of us can be stopped and the people dragged off. Those people can be held, not allowed to see the lawyers their families hire for them. They can be arrested, with none of us knowing when they will ever come back. Turns out we didn’t need an extradition law at all, just motion and boats.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

“An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.”

When you see a child, who isn’t in a protest, but is just shopping, tackled in the street by the police. Or it could be the same scenario in a video you watch over and over. The repetition means the progression becomes even more simplified: there is a the motion (the child runs), there is the outside force (multiple police tackle her to the ground). The motion is over (she lies pinned down on the pavement).

Universal Law of Gravitation

“Two objects, no matter their mass, exert gravitational force toward one another.”

You said you were going shopping. You couldn’t explain why you stayed on the subway for extra stops and ended up in the business district. Then you said you were just following the flow of people. But it wasn’t just following.

First Law of Thermodynamics

“Energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.”

I wanted to say something about combustion, because we have all seen Hong Kong burn. For a while, anger, Molotov cocktails and laam chau scorched earth singed us. But it is the theory and not the explosive reaction that is important. I interpret that theory here as: efforts to destroy energy only have the effect of transforming it. Whatever the energy we had here is not gone, it’s just changing.

Archimedes’ Buoyancy Principle

“The upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces.”

We read about a young girl, and others. Their naked bodies are recovered from the water. We hear about snippets of their lives: she had a difficult childhood, she was on the swimming team. The inquest jury returns an open verdict. As we see it: they can’t be kept down forever, the bodies in the water can float.

Einstein’s Principle of Constancy of the Speed of Light

“Light always propagates through a vacuum at a definite velocity, which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body.”

I can feel very alone in Hong Kong. I am, by nature, someone who avoids people. But I am surrounded by them. Often, I see them in lights. I think about the lives stacked on top of each other in lit-up apartments. And it is Hong Kong; we go to bed late, and the lights stay on. I also think of the chain of lights on the Lion Rock, accompanied by people shouting now unsayable words. Scientists like light so much because it behaves as a particle and a wave. We like unusual properties, we like to measure things in “light years.” In that way, we see light long after its source has been extinguished. It can be comforting.

Beer-Lambert Law

“The absorbance of light is directly proportional to the thickness of the media through which the light is being transmitted.”

And yet, I can’t help thinking about “the thickness of the media” through which the Hong Kong light has to penetrate. Particularly now that we feel muted.

Pascal’s Law

“A pressure change at any point in a confined incompressible fluid is transmitted throughout the fluid such that the same change occurs everywhere.”

We see “high-profile” individuals arrested over and over, offices searched, or only learn others have gone overseas when they post on social media. We are not all high-profile. But targeting individuals is targeting everyone. That is, we are all changed here by the recent events, even if you can’t see it.

Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series

“Allied species, because of great similarity in genotype possess similar potential hereditary variability.”

Very simply, what is similar and related is made of similar components and is alike in its potential to pass it on. Or, if you were concerned about what is happening here looking disturbingly like what has happened elsewhere, you are probably right.

If pushed to go beyond Levi, I think of Nikolai Vavilov, who was persecuted at the same time under another tyrannical regime. What he really showed me is that science depends fundamentally on the relationship between the random, such as the separating of allele pairs at gamete formation and uniting by chance at fertilization, and the structured, such as the fixed position of alleles on chromosomes. Understanding that gives us a capacity to intervene in a systematic way. For his area of interest, genetics and its application to crop plants, that capacity for intervention meant the potential to feed millions of people.

Unlike Levi, Vavilov had time to carve out a renowned international scientific career before the screws of authoritarian rule turned too tight. He posited that the domestication of rye might not have been intentional and proposed a new theory, now known as Vavilovian mimicry. It proposes that rye had been considered a weed rather than a crop by farmers in Neolithic Turkey. They had plucked and removed ears of rye that they could tell apart from the wheat that they were growing, thereby over generations, they selected for rye that was indistinguishable from wheat. Vavilov explained it elegantly with artificial selection, but it also has a wider resonance: the idea that the more you try to weed out what you dislike, the more it mimics what you desire.

Vavilov was committed to his concept of Mendelian genetics and a program that would increase food production over decades. This was not fast enough for Stalin. And Vavilov’s theoretical framework, international reputation, and bourgeois background was at odds with Trofim Lysenko, a young researcher born to a peasant family, who was a dogged proponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This included the belief that within a single generation, environmental stress could cause wheat to turn into rye.

Vavilov had at first attempted to mentor Lysenko, but the dynamics shifted and Lysenko had the ear of Stalin. After Lysenko was made director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, in Orwellian fashion, all Soviet scientists were forced to renounce genetics itself. Amid the paranoia and terror of the times, Vavilov refused. He was sentenced to death in 1941, which was in 1942 reduced to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1943 under unclear circumstances. Some neatly refer to the cause as starvation, but the official documents of his hospitalization are both more vague and more specific—lung inflammation, oedema, weakness. His death certificate states, obliquely, decline of cardiac activity. Over the next decades, policies driven by Lysenko’s environmentally acquired inheritance and the associated enforced collectivization of farms killed tens of millions in famines in the USSR and beyond. By beyond, I mean in China.

Under Khrushchev, Vavilov was posthumously pardoned and his reputation rehabilitated, stamps were made with his image, a monument stands and a street bears his name in Saratov, the town where he taught and died. But few of us really have monuments as a legacy. Although time and water wash away the blood and dull the violence, his law of homologous series is what he really left us with. Relatives and parallels.


Elizabeth Hay lives and works in Hong Kong. Her writing has appeared in Hong Kong Protesting (Cha) and Stories of the Nature of Cities.

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