Saturday, October 3, 2009

Scientific Method

In my last year in college, I took a course on Scientific Method in the Philosophy department. It was to be the fourth and final of my philosophy courses - all my earlier ones were on basic problems in contemporary Analytic Philosophy like philosophy of mind, nature of reality, free will and determinism, and theory of knowledge. Judging from the title of the course, I imagined that it would have a lot of resonance with my understanding and perspectives on the development of theories in physics and standard methods and procedures of performing experiments and drawing conclusions from them. I expected the field to define and explain, in a more rigorous, detailed and general way the foundational premises of the science - from the importance of reproducibility of experiments to limitations of physical theories. However, the class turned out to be quite different from what I had anticipated. Yes, the question of what constitutes a valid method of investigation in sciences was discussed but the entire course was focused more on the Philosophy of Science and the evolution of scientific theories. I was made aware of the existence of such a branch of inquiry within the domain of philosophy only after I took this course. As the early morning lectures(8 AM) moved from one topic to another, I did recognize that some of the issues dealt with were not only important for understanding the foundations of science properly but also provided some insight into the nature of progress in science and emergence of radically different viewpoints. Nonetheless I was disappointed.

Maybe I was bored because I have limited patience and attention to things that I do not find any immediate excitement in. But in part, it could also be due to the fact that I was not able to relate most of what I gathered from these lectures to whatever I had come to understand as the basic philosophical framework for constructing theories and expressing physical laws within. During this entire period when I learnt about the formal theory of scientific method, I was scarcely ever able to make any connection to a real advancement in the field of physics. The entire language was so general, and in some cases quite simplifying, that it was unable to describe say, the insight that led to a specific approach in attacking some topic (BCS theory of superconductivity), or an ingenious way to design an experiment (Michelson interferometer) , or to create extensions of existing laws to account for unexplained phenomena (maxwell's displacement current). Science, at the stage where there is no clear explanation for some problem, is messy and it can be so in rather unpredictable ways: many candidate theories of varying merits (Extensions of Standard Model) , insufficient experimental data to draw any solid conclusions or support any specific theory(Dark Matter) , some intractable mathematical monster that needs to be cracked (energy conditions in General Relativity) , or a whole bunch of different ad-hod ideas that need to be tied together to form a coherent theory (development of Quantum Mechanics as well as Quantum Electrodynamics). Progress in these cases can come in completely unexpected ways, and I don't think there is any unambiguous way in which we can classify the different possible attempts at resolving open questions. No philosophical school describing the methodology of science can account for all the bizarre and crazy ways in which physics evolves at any given stage. For example, it is not always true that experiments precede theoretical developments. The top quark was predicted based on the observed pattern of arrangement of quark families and this inference was vindicated by experiments later on. Our near certainty about the existence of Higgs particle and its properties comes from the enormous success of the Standard model in explaining most of the interactions of elementary particles. Ideas sometimes pop out of nowhere and can lead to creation of a new branch of science. Chaos was first discovered by Poincare when he was investigating the three body problem and the this opened up the study of a whole of class of similar problems under dynamical systems. Explanations provided can be outlandish and they often appear to be completely contrived. De Broglie's explanation for the relation between energy and wavelength sounds pretty bizarre and vague when one encounters it for the first time. Indeed, the postulate that the speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames, the axiom at the foundation of Special Relativity, is unconvincing when you make a sharp transition from classical Newtonian mechanics to this revolutionary new framework. And how on earth did Faraday strike upon the notion of fields? Does any of the scientific method theories advanced by Popper or Kuhn explain the ridiculous brilliance of this 19th century English experimenter who, despite no formal training in physics, was able to put forth a description of electrodynamics in terms of these invisible oscillating lines of flux? I honestly doubt it. The idea that one can systematically describe development in physics according to some general outline is either impossible or the outline is so broad as to render its useless. The history of science is very complex (at least it is so for physics) and there is reason to doubt if anyone working in the Philosophy of Science is aware of all the subtleties involved. Below I shall consider some of the important problems in scientific methodology tackled by philosophers and the various theories advanced to characterize it.


The problem of induction is something that comes up often while discussing this subject. Without getting into finer details, let me state that the problem addresses the fact that no empirical law in nature can be completely correct because we have not tested, or it is impossible to do so, for all the possible cases in the universe. Newton's second law (ignore relativistic/quantum mechanical effects) is not exact because it has not been verified in every situation and in every location where it is expected to be valid. A lot of discussion has gone into this and it is a question that has preoccupied philosophers from the period of Hume but there is no satisfactory resolution of this. That it is an important philosophical question is beyond any reasonable doubt but whether a working physicist gains anything from it is something worth considering in more detail. Even before I learnt about this formal paradoxical problem, I intuitively understood the relevance of this question in the context of empirical relations in physics. We know in mathematics that a single counterexample was all that is required to disprove a general assertion. Extrapolating, it is reasonable to expect the same must be true with physical laws as well - if one can demonstrate some experiment anywhere in the universe where the principles do not apply, then it ceases to be a real principle. (Of course, all this must be taken with a grain of salt since even Newton's third law is not valid in quantum field theory but few would dispute that it is a valid empirical relation for a wide class of phenomena). In fact, today we are considering far-reaching possibilities that admit precisely such limitations in the applicability of our theories. We know that quantum field descriptions are constructed only up to a certain scale (expressed in energy or length), and these are independent of the structure of the underlying "fundamental" formulations. In the same way, we expect classical general relativity to break down at energies comparable to the Planck scale since effects of quantum mechanical fluctuations in gravitational fields would make significant contributions to the calculations. There is ongoing speculation regarding the mutability of fine structure constant with the evolution of the universe. Ever since Heisenberg firmly disregarded any speculations on basic theory and confined himself to merely describing the observations, physics has moved in a direction where it acknowledges that the main thrust is to explain empirical observations and not be too distracted by our preconceptions and prejudices regarding underlying theories. In fact, such a stance was taken by none less than Newton himself. He vowed never to make abstract speculations and discarded any metaphysical notions of space, time and physical laws. This was a bold decision at the time, and it required an extraordinary genius like Newton to proclaim such a radical outlook towards understanding nature. The one occasion where he did not put this philosophy into practice was in his description of time, being the ephemeral concept to be pinned down accurately, he resorted a metaphysical position that absolute time exists and it flows evenly, as can be corroborated by observers in any reference frame. Therefore careful understanding and formal analysis of the induction problem is something that is unlikely to provide new insights for physicists as far as research in physics is concerned.


While studying the theories of Karl Popper, one encounters the concept of verisimilitude. This is a term that is used to index the "turthlikness" of a specific scientific theory and to compare it with other competing theories. Popper assigned verisimilitude in a quantitative manner based on the number of truth and false propositions of a theory. A theory X is considered better than Y, if the true propositions of Y are included in X and the false propositions of X are included in Y. This is a prime example of how simplistic much of the studies in the philosophy of science is. Anyone with some background in undergraduate physics would immediately realize that this is not how theories are compared and we don't count the truth propositions (or the false ones). In fact, we don't think of it and judge it using such a formal system and doing so would lead to all kinds of odd conclusions. And how does it accommodate for the fact that much of what we consider as theories today, are in fact, approximations that are valid only in a specific regime. By this criterion, all statements in Newtonian physics are false, and the same goes for thermodynamics and even classical statistical physics.

Another criterion for judging scientific theories that was put forward by Popper was falsifiability. A theory was to be considered as scientific only if it provided a hypothetical event or phenomena that would prove the theory as false. For example, the SU(5)theory of grand unification predicted proton decay but since none has been observed in nature this model was quickly abandoned. The absence of a certain event provided a method of inferring the falsity of the hypothesis. That was a nice example which works well to explain Popperian notion of falsifiability but that is definitely not how all physical theories are rejected. In fact, I doubt if a single experimental result has ever been used to immediately decide that a theory is useless and must be discarded thoroughly. It always happens that physicists would try modifying the assumptions in the theory or alter the basic laws in such a way that it accommodates the new observations. The fact that the ether hypothesis was around for such a long time despite several paradoxes would illuminate this point quite well. The ether hypothesis could not explain the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment which attempted to measure the speed of earth relative to the stationary ether, but since the concept of a medium through which light moved had been used to understand electromagnetic propagation for so long, there was a strong tendency to retain such a picture. To account for the unexpected results, various new models were proposed for interaction of ether with objects in the universe, most specifically with Earth. One way of approaching this was to assume that the ether was dragged along by massive objects like our planet and this could account for a null result. This was the first patch applied to a hypothesis that was, from Popperian classification, falsified. This method of rescuing the ether hypothesis opened a new set of complications. In a different attempt, Fresnel proposed that ether is partially dragged by a medium which resulted in a lower velocity for light traveling through this medium. The Michelson-Morley experiment in fact could not rule out this possibility. Meanwhile, Lorentz had considered contraction of all objects traveling through the ether and this included the arms of the interferometer used in the experiment. With a specific contraction law (which not surprisingly is the same as the one that can be derived from special relativity) one can still successfully defend ether's omnipresence. Note that in all these cases explanations and laws were worked out such that it would fit the experimental results. It was not until Einstein's formulation of special relativity and his unambiguous rejection of the ether concept that the idea was dropped. There were plenty of reasons to do so before but history shows that such a cherished belief would not be thrown away by a single, or for that matter a few experiments. A slightly different example would be the role of renormalization in modern quantum field theories. When cross-section calculations in QED using standard correlation functions that involved contributions from loop diagrams were carried out, it appeared as if the number obtained from theory was approaching infinity. Since that is an absurd result, going by strict Popperian criterion, the theory should have been dumped right away for its unfeasible implications. Indeed, many physicists believed that this conclusion sounded the death knell for the framework. Yet there were others who sought to modify it in a manner such that the divergences can be eliminated by some new ad-hoc rules, rules that was certainly unconvincing to many physicists and almost all mathematicians interested. While skeptics of this approach ( renormalization) were critical of the way quick-fix method that was devised by "sweeping the real problem under the rug", it eventually turned out that the formalism of quantum field theory required such a treatment of the quantities that appear in it. As time progressed and many of the predictions arising from working with such renormalization techniques gave correct results, the approach won over many skeptics and ultimately it became universally accepted as a legitimate theory. Such a unique development depended so crucially on the details of the specific theory to be interpreted accurately by the general criterion laid out by Popper.


A person of towering influence in this area of study is the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn's work in the 1950's and 60's can be rightly considered as representing a departure from the basic modes by which the subject had been analyzed by all his predecessors. His view of the history of science immediately strikes one as being altogether independent of the traditional and orthodox ways of understanding progress in scientific endeavor. Particularly, he strongly disagreed with the notion that scientific progress was a cumulative process, something that had been assumed in all the standard picture of the history of science. However, Kuhn argued that scientific activity can be broadly divided between two distinct phases, one "normal science" and the other characterized as scientific revolution. Normal science is the period when there is an existing framework within which all the discoveries and solutions to conventional problems were carried out. In his conception, this was a puzzle-solving time-frame where the scientist applies the rules, techniques and the underlying theoretical axioms to determine a solution to these relatively minor puzzles. This sort of activity is even compared to 'mopping the floor' and 'clearing the mess '-referring to the unresolved issues of the particular framework. In contrast, a scientific revolution basically involved a complete overthrow of the existing framework and replacing it with a paradigm that may be completely different from the earlier one. The revolution is a dramatic shift in the development of science because it involves a drastically different understanding of the basic concepts and ideas along with new tools and techniques for investigation, a different outlook of natural phenomena, and a shift in priorities between different aspects of the theory and the experimentation. As one would imagine immediately, the most striking examples of this comes from the revolution that took place in the early part of the last century, namely the development of quantum mechanics and relativity. There is absolutely no question that there is hardly a single field in modern physics that has remained untouched by these new frameworks, and in many areas, both these theories are incorporated compatibly. In addition to this, Kuhn also uses as examples the paradigms set and shifts that occurred around the works of Aristotle (on analyzing motion), Ptolemy (planetary positions),Maxwell ( expressing the electromagnetic equations in their mathematical form).

Yes, all these may be some good examples but how seriously do we take the claim that there is a reasonably clear division between a revolution and normal phase in progress of science. Let us focus on the period since those groundbreaking ideas of quantum mechanics and relativity came to be accepted as valid scientific theories by the physics community. It would be very hard to argue that there has been any other development(s) that can be considered as revolutionary since then. The most fundamental theoretical milestones during these periods would certainly include establishment of Quantum Electrodynamics, the Salam-Weinberg electroweak unification and the eventual setting up and success of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics.
Of course, none of this can be regarded as a paradigm shift in any way because they still retain the same underlying structure of quantum field theory -indeed that structure was just extended to all the basic interactions. However,let us consider all the important developments that have taken place during this period within this framework and ask ourselves whether these are something to just be casually treated in the somewhat demeaning manner of "puzzle-solving". Looking at the wikipedia page on physics time-line, one notices a whole of exciting new discoveries that took place in the last 90 years or so. The ascendancy of the Big Bang Cosmology, BCS theory of superconductivity, development of transistor, solution of 2D Ising Model, Fractional Quantum Hall Effect and Bose Einstein Condensation are some of the most striking examples . None of this and the associated research it spawned can be looked upon as a revolution because neither did it undermine the validity of relativity and quantum mechanics nor did it completely alter the progress of all fields in physics. Yet, taken together one can say that our view of the entirety of physics has been highly influenced by most of these "puzzle-solutions" and "floor-mopping". In fact, no one in the 1930's could have conceived the current status of physics, its achievements over the years, the formulation of ingenious principles and all the various new areas of research it has opened up. In other words, one can consider all the developments in physics together cumulatively as a 'revolution' without having any of the characteristics of scientific revolution as postulated by Kuhn.

If this argument is not convincing, let us look into the future and ponder how some of the unsolved problems of our era are going to be tackled. Certainly, one of the greatest unresolved questions in physics is that of unification of the fundamental interactions and all the associated problems and loopholes in the Standard Model -ranging from the lightness of Higgs mass, to origin of neutrino mass, to QCD vacuua. If ultimately we find a way to unify these interactions together successfully it would truly be one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern science. It may even represent the pinnacle of our achievements in understanding the most fundamental aspects of natural phenomena. However, would that be a scientific revolution in the sense described by Kuhn? How many areas of physics would such a development have any perceptible impact on, let alone completely turning it upside down. The answer is a few, if any at all. The unification is expected to occur at the Planck Scale and that energy is almost unattainable even in any accelerator that may be constructed in the foreseeable future. That being the case, there is no reason to expect that it will have any consequence for almost all of physics except in cosmology. At least until the time that we can explore such energy scales inside the condensed matter laboratory! Hence studies in atomic and molecular physics, theoretical nuclear physics, surface and material sciences, high Tc superconductivity and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics will continue as if nothing ever happened. And when it comes to understanding the origin of the universe and addressing some of the unresolved questions in that field such as the constituents of dark matter or the cosmological constant problem, although we may find solutions to these with the construction of 'theory of everything' it would not invalidate the progress we have made so far. Thus, cosmologists will not have disputes amongst themselves and will universally adapt their work to this paradigm once it is established. So, there is no room for such things as incommensurability(methodological or epistemological) or Kuhn-loss or new vocabulary as was laid down by this very influential philosopher. Hence, it is safe to conclude that however great an accomplishment the unification may be, it certainly will not be a scientific revolution.


Although I have been disappointed with most of philosophy of science, there is one special exception amongst the various doctrines of the discipline that I find very pertinent and useful: Logical Positivism. The exact positions and principles of this school have been debated upon extensively and some of the more radical positions have now been abandoned. I shall however not concern myself with these issues in this discussion(such as the analytic/synthetic distinction , the controversial rejection of synthetic a priori statements or regarding mathematics as a tautology). Instead, I am going to focus on that one important aspect of the doctrine that is key to distinguishing science from metaphysics and this revolves around the principle of verifiability. It is held that a statement has "meaningful content" only if it makes a claim that can be supported by empirical justification. Or more broadly, the only statements that express factual knowledge are those that have the potential to being empirically verified sometime in the future. Hence, a statement like "God exists in ways unknown to man" is devoid of any meaningful content because there can be no observations or events that can establish its truth or falsity. Extending this principle the founders and adherents of the Vienna Circle in the 1930's made devastating critiques of areas in philosophy, metaphysics and theology. They argued that many of the propositions contained in these disciplines do not express any cognitively sensible fact about the world. I find myself agreement with this viewpoint and think there really is no meaning in asking questions like "Are there parallel universes out that is outside our space-time continuum?"*

It would be improper for me to conclude this discussion without putting philosophy of science in some fair perspective. I have raised several objections to the basic postulates put forward by some of the most important practitioners of this school of inquiry. I will always have a skeptical outlook towards how successful any theory describing the evolution of science can be and will suspect the accuracy of any characterization of the history of science based on certain simplistic rules. Applying Kuhn's own standard, I would say that philosophy of science is still in a pre-paradigm state! Yet, I strongly believe that every field of scholarship is of value and contributes to human knowledge. While the ultimate scope of philosophy of science may be too ambitious for its own good, there is no denying that the various theories shed some light on certain essential elements that characterize the practice of science. It may be incorrect to declare universal rules that govern all innovations in science but more modest statements about the development and progress of sciences would certainly prove to be useful to anyone-expert or not - curious about the evolution of what is unarguably the greatest collective human accomplishment.

*I have to admit that part of my inclination towards this philosophical position is my annoyance at the invariable propensity of individuals to make statements that have no empirical content whatsoever while imagining them to be something really profound! I have had the misfortune of having to sit with such loud-mouthed, gibberish-spewing "revolutionary thinkers" in the philosophy classes I have taken.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Book Review : Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell

George Orwell went to Spain as a journalist to cover the ongoing revolution in 1936. Once he was in the midst of dramatic events, he decided it made more sense to join the fight against the Fascist forces which had been under the command of Franco, and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. This book, written in 1937 after he returned to England following a bullet injury in his neck that prevented further participation, deals with his personal experiences fighting alongside anti-Fascist groups. It also provides a description of significant political developments that he was aware of. Today, it represents a very important document on the war, and although it is one man's account of his involvement in a large-scale war, it manages to paint a pretty clear picture of the different positions taken by various groups and the constant internal strife, the severe betrayal, the egregious lies and false propaganda and the insidious international engagement. Even though several years have passed since the tumultuous events, the details and description are very interesting but more importantly, it brings out aspects of war and the machinery surrounding it that are usually not to be found in more standard treatments.

Reading this book after Nineteen Eighty Four, I was constantly trying to make connections with that great novel and not surprisingly, a lot of what Orwell witnessed in Spain provided the basis for the creation of the harrowing world of Airstrip One. Nonetheless, his experiences in this battleground were far more diverse than just the use of misinformation and pure fabrication to control the course of war. There are as many examples of generosity, loyalty, sacrifice,forthright honesty and goodness of spirit as there are of tragic betrayal and lies that makes this a much more pleasing narrative when compared to the bleak and hopeless environment in which Winston Smith is trapped. The book succeeds amazingly well in being able to describe how the war was perceived by the ordinary conscripts and volunteers and their valiant efforts, their ideals and their hope of a better and just future. The nature of the confrontation is itself such that in many of the instances, it is not the bullets and the explosions that everyone is most scared of, but the terrible winter and the crippling shortage of essential supplies. There are situations where people, even enemies behave in ways contrary to general expectation, and most often it is a turn to the more positive of human tendencies. Thus the book is made a lot bearable even though in the end the gaols of the idealistic revolutionary groups are sabotaged by the more cunning and powerful Communist forces.

Orwell is initially unaware of the various political factions that exist in the country and their different agendas. Not interested in political divisions or understanding their subtle variations in principles, he decides to join the P.O.U.M, a leftist revolutionary party that is one of the many organizations that have come together to fight Fascist takeover of Spain. The events leading up to the start of the war can summarized as follows: the Spanish Republican government is being besieged by the military that is led by General Franco who attempts a coup d' etat with the help of Fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. The Government is weak and unable to defend itself. In an effort to resist the spread of the Fascism in Spain, political parties of varying shades, militia groups, workers and peasants decide to launch a concerted effort to defend the government. The Communists (UGT) receive support from Communist Parties all over Europe especially USSR, under its leader Josef Stalin. The co-operation and alignment of foreign players in this struggle to fend off Fascist takeover is not decided based on any grand principles but more by constitution of military alliances and particularly the strength of relationship with Soviet Union. The agenda of the Communists here, unlike what one would imagine, can only be described as the right-wing with focus on retaining control in the hands of a few and allowing the country to kowtow the Soviet leadership. Hence, Communists are in favor of a centralized government and are not opposed to adoption of a capitalistic system. That may seem very surprising at first but as it would be become clear in just a while, the primary intention of the Communists was for the country to be a useful military and political alliance of the USSR, irrespective of what the nature of the economic or political structure that exists. In particular they are strongly opposed to the Anarchists -who represent the radical anti-Stalinist Left - and other revolutionary organizations like P.O.U.M that aim to make Spain a completely decentralized country where land, property and production is controlled by local councils and peasants and farmers exert direct control over decisions concerning their lives. The reason the Communists bitterly oppose this setup can be understood by studying the alliances, say, for example,between France and USSR. This relationship would benefit the Russians, only if France, a capitalist-imperialist country, is strong and stable, and hence the Communist Party in France would tow the line of the Russian Communists, which is essentially anti-revolutionary. We are told about how French Communists initially voiced their unwillingness to fight their German comrades, but later on made a volte-face and marched behind the tri-color , sang the national anthem and bid goodbye to their earlier protests for decolonization. The Spanish UGT was influenced by their French counterparts, and hence opposed any form of revolution by the militias. Since Britain was still quite isolated from Russian influence, the English Communist party remained somewhat ambiguous in its policies towards the Spanish situation or European Imperialism. But as it becomes amply clear later on, the Communists in England fell behind the UGT and demonized the revolutionary groups. It should also be mentioned here that Mexico supported the Republicans (i.e the united anti-fascist groups) and provided arms and ammunition to fight the Spanish Army. In fact, Mexican cartridges were regarded as a premium in comparison to their local counterparts and were reserved for use with machine guns.

At any rate, as Orwell clarifies, the Communists would still be better than the Fascists. They would undertake some development and construction - build roads, provide education, erect hospitals and reduce the exploitation by the land-lords. On the other hand, Franco, being supported by the landlords, the rich bourgeois and the Church clergy, would return power to the same groups that impoverished the nation and marginalized the poor and caused the disillusionment with capitalism.
But, as noted above, Orwell is unfamiliar with the political intricacy that existed when he joined the fight and even when he does learn about the main groups, he seems to treat the matter with little importance. He repeatedly insists that he finds these divisions and associations quite perplexing and is quite cynical about the necessity to know anything more than the bare essentials on the topic. And yes, politics cannot be ignored in such a novel and it figures quite prominently in many places, especially towards the end of the book.

The first part of the book is devoted to the experience of fighting in the cold, wintry P.O.U.M camps at the frontline. While one would imagine the mood to be very intense considering how bloody the conflict had been in retrospect, the nature of the war and the different aspects surrounding it paints a slightly different picture. At times, it can get as removed from such intensity that some incidents begin to actually sound quite funny. To start with, the various rebel groups, and even most of the pro-Fascist troops, have a remarkably poor supply of arms and ammunition. To worsen the combat potential, much of the weapons -the rifles and machine guns for the most part- are of lamentable quality and perform unreliably. The minor accessories were also in short supply - telescopes, periscopes, wire-cutters, field glasses or even cleaning materials. Next, the preparedness level of the army was ludicrous. Most of these fighters -both volunteers and conscripts- were rooted in left-libertarian ideology who took the concept of equality and abolishment of hierarchy to extremity and insisted in treating everyone in the same manner. However, it does not take much expertise to know and understand that an army functions effectively and successfully executes complex operations only if there is some sort of structural hierarchy in the system which demands rigid discipline and obedience to authority. When this central tenet is missing, the combat force simply descends into a disorganized, amateurish, blundering mass that bungles up every plot. But naive idealism would make the P.O.U.M fighters -and to a greater extent the Anarchists - blind to such reality as it would, later on, to the cunning and devious betrayal by the Communists.

Many of the people fighting were kids - several under 15. Few received any training and at any rate, even those that did were given one that lacked the basic standards of professionalism that in the end, it possibly made no difference to their capacity to participate in a war. Practically no one was taught how to use an automatic and the familiarity and skill with the gun was so pathetic that it led to repeated incidents where people came close - and in some cases, actually did- to accidentally shooting their own men. Ironically, an equal number of deaths were averted because of the spectacularly poor Spanish marksmanship. Orwell himself would have been wounded earlier on, were it not for the woefully inaccurate firing skill of the Spanish militiamen. This must be seen in the broader context of Orwell's experience with the Spanish people in general, irrespective of their political affiliations. While not complete strangers to brutality, the fighting spirit displayed by the Spanish was comparably less aggressive, their hostility mitigated by an element of sympathy and consideration, their determination to achieve victory naturally undermined by the absence of killer instinct, and their ideology rarely overwhelmed their collective humanity. Orwell greatly admires the decency of the ordinary Spanish people. To Orwell, their easy friendliness, loyalty and ingenuity comes as a great surprise and we often encounter stark comparisons drawn between this and the attitude of the English people.
It may be cliche but there is something authentic when Orwell remarks, while observing the Spanish graciously acknowledge the French for their superior war tactics, that the English would rather have their hands chopped off rather than making such an admission. In addition, the Spanish warmly greet foreigners and strive to make their visitors feel comfortable; class-divisions are less visible and rigid in Spain as compared to their deeply entrenched presence in English society. Another curious feature is the apparent lack of religious feelings amongst the Spanish working-class and peasants. No religious customs seem to be observed and people do not invoke religious ideas and beliefs in the face of unpleasant events. There is little sanctity for the dead people as can be inferred from a graveyard that is littered with bones. The gravestones hardly ever bear religious inscriptions on them, something that strongly suggests a complete absence of faith in people. The Church was widely acknowledged a swindle by the elite and no one believed it representing anything useful. And this feature also explains why the revolutionary groups wanted to completely destroy the institutions associated with the Church as soon as they had an opportunity. (I have read elsewhere that they raped and tortured the nuns and the clergy but all of that could very well be remnants of Communist propaganda.)
Sadly though, as Orwell notes, it is this same magnanimity that made infantile groups like P.O.U.M and Anarchists hapless idealists waiting to be cruelly betrayed even before anyone of them saw it coming. In a foreboding sense, he writes,

There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life - snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc -had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tinted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves,and no one owed anyone else as his master.Of course such a state of affairs could not last.

Orwell lists five essential items while he was at the front - which was basically a hilltop "position" in Zaragosa, amongst other such positions in the mountain ranges. Those are, in the following order, firewood, food, candle, tobacco and enemy. This should give a quick idea that the enemy was not the main concern amongst the militiamen at the front. During most of the day, the Fascists did not matter at all and during the night, except for the possible fear of a random bullet striking someone, the primary preoccupation was to keep warm in the extremely cold weather. The same was true about the Fascist troops across the valley at their position. The typical situation at the frontlines was radically different from the standard imagination of a fierce battle between troops during the war. There were no airplanes dropping bombs and the rifles were so obsolete and poorly designed that in most cases the shots fired from them would fail to make their way across to the enemy trenches and instead drop in the valley between them. That being the case, it would not be hard to understand that the risk posed by occasional shots fired by those who received little or no professional training is minimal and less of a bother than the freezing weather that everyone had to struggle against on all nights. The weather became almost intolerable when there was rain and many men did not have the necessary clothing to protect themselves from the biting cold. Firewood was of utmost importance and a considerable part of the time and effort was spent on gathering and storing it. The soldiers ventured into the valley and pull out the shrubs and bring it back escaping being accidentally hit by the bullets buzzing overhead. The living conditions at the frontline was abominable -there was not enough water to clean up, the men defecated in the trenches itself, there was dirt and grime everywhere around, and people slept with their clothes on lest an attack caught them floundering. Yet, Orwell was happy to receive his quota of one pack of cigarettes everyday. The matches and candles were plenty initially but their supply was severely reduced later on and they had to overcome the shortage of this all-important commodity.

While all these brave young men -many of them volunteers from various countries -were fighting for a revolution that would lead to the establishment of a classless Socialist/Anarchist society,treacherous plots were devised by the Communists, primarily the U.G.T and P.S.U.C, who in fact were assumed to be on their side and provide necessary military and political support. The Communists bitterly opposed the revolution and claimed that it was important to first have a democratic setup in the country. They argued that the revolutionary groups were hurting the cause of creating a democratic Spain by not uniting together and forming a strong alliance. However, in reality, their motives were quite different. As briefly explained earlier, the Communists followed the Russian line and wanted Spain to remain a stable capitalistic country that could be useful as a military ally to USSR. Indeed, the military aid provided by Soviet Union was contingent on such an arrangement. Britain and France indirectly backed this movement too in the hope of protecting their significant financial investments in the country. If the revolution were to take place the way the Socialists envisaged, it would result in the collectivization of production and complete dominance by trade-unions without any guarantee of repayment to foreign investors. Furthermore, the Communist Parties in both these countries adopted a stand that merely reflected the interests and ideology of the Russians. Orwell however does make it quite clear that the ordinary soldier working for the Communists was just as well-meaning as anyone in C.N.T or P.O.U.M, and was primarily involved in the war effort to defeat Franco. It was the Communist leaders and their powerful associates in Europe that were masterminding these counter-revolutionary tactics. The foreign Communist press was particularly deceitful. In the early days, they simply portrayed the revolution as misguided ideology that would lead to fracturing of the anti-Fascist forces and create unnecessary chaos. However, later on the Communist propaganda becomes a lot more insidious. They contend that the P.O.U.M's revolutionary philosophy weakening the combined battle against Fascism was not simply a result of some misguided idealism, but rather, a deliberate design. They portrayed P.O.U.M army as consisting of traitors who were secretly working with the Fascists to sabotage the Government forces. The P.O.U.M militia and everyone who worked with organizations with similar ideology were labeled as cowards, murderers, spies and Trotskyists.

It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of all the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise. One of the horrible features of a war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people not fighting.

A lot of this negative and divisive Communist propaganda was being disseminated when the P.O.U.M militia was in the frontline naively assuming full ideological support from their Communist "allies", whatever the differences might be amongst them in terms of initiating a revolution. Supply of arms and ammunition to the Anarchists was curtailed lest they use them later for revolutionary goals. In a civil war such as this and at the time when the Fascist powers in Europe were gaining strength by the day and expanding their sphere of influence in the continent, one would have been expected that the great democracies of the world, namely Britain, United States and France would have had the foresight to come to the rescue of the Spanish Government and suppress Franco's Army. That can only be considered bad judgment even if self-interest was the primary motivation for extending military aid to foreign wars. But more unfortunately,as Orwell observes no country, aside from Mexico had the decency to back the Government in what was clearly a just cause against tyranny. All these powerhouses were eager to declare neutrality in the conflict and it was upto some of their brave citizens to join the war effort and lay their lives to contain the reach of Fascism. The external role in this civil war was largely provided by Communists all over Europe who were devotedly playing to the Soviet tune.

Back at the front in Aragon, the troops occupying the P.O.U.M position alongside Orwell launch a surprise attack on the Fascist redoubt. Crawling through the sodden ground, striving to remain noiseless, and maintaining proper communication with their fellow fighters, the group manages to take control of the Fascist parapet and kill or drive away the fascist conscripts occupying the dug-outs there. A powerful telescope is discovered at the enemy camp that would be of crucial importance in the battle but the fighters settle on a ammunition box to bring back with them alongside Fascist rifles. Despite leaving behind the telescope the ambush is considered a success in the sense that Fascists were forced to divert their troops for counter-attack from another position where they were fighting the Anarchists. Following this event, the batch of troops are substituted by a different set and they make their way back to Barcelona.

The Barcelona that Orwell returns to after being at the front for about three and a half months has had a makeover in appearance. The revolutionary spirit that once dominated the atmosphere of Spain and the surrounding philosophical principles of an equal, classless society without hierarchy or one-upmanship that had attracted so many ordinary working class people, was now gone, and in its place was the quiet, unremarkable world of established class-structure, one that separated the rich from the poor, with the privileged flaunting its wealth while the shopkeepers and workers were cringing. There was a brief period when everyone treated others as equals, irrespective of their social position or profession. Thus, waiters and flower-women refused to take tips and looked at people in the eye, revolutionary language was commonly adopted, workers addressed each other as "comrade" and there was almost no begging. But that atmosphere was to be temporary, something created by idealistic people who briefly flirted with the idea that such a thing as perfect equality is a viable scenario in society. It was at best an illusion - a suspension of disbelief - but a tempting possibility to entertain and hope for in the face of long and damning injustice and inequity.

A fat man eating quails while the children are begging for food is a disgusting sight, but you are less likely to see it when you are within sound of guns

The Popular Army had been formed by the government and all the militia factions were officially a part of it. The revolutionary sentiment was almost non-existent and it was replaced by an unspoken resignation to the reality that there was never going to be a revolution that would lead to workers' control of production, land and revenue. With little fighting going on, pessimism returned to the populace as the town slid back to normalcy. The Anarchist-Communist split was very much alive and this division seemed to predominate the thoughts and fears of the people more than threat of a battle with fascists.

On 3rd MAy 1937, the Civil Guards launched a surprised assault on the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona that had been controlled by the CNT. The Civil Guards were nothing more than a peacetime police force that acted as a strongarm bodyguard protecting the ruling elite. Taking over the Telephone Exchange was part of the strategic manoeuvre to weaken the militia forces and arrogate power by winning control of all industries and organizations that were under the supervision of Anarchists. As the news of this event broke throughout the town, it caused panic and confusion as both sides - Government/Civil Guards on one side and Anarchists/POUM on the other- were entering into an armed confrontation on the streets and buildings in the town. Shots rang out, bullets flew in all directions, troops ran to occupy positions on rooftops, wielding guns and guarding buildings, each of which were predominantly occupied by members of a single political party.

The rival groups were randomly firing at every other suspected individual on the street leading to complete chaos as people were holed up in buildings for protection. Orwell finds himself running between different hotels and cafes in this tumultuous setting, sometimes being dragged along by fellow militiamen and at other times to find out if his wife was safe (she was staying in a different place). The chaotic street fighting is a real tragedy and renders so much of the effort, the spirit and the sacrifices of people futile. It is truly disillusioning and depressing ;instead of facing a battle with the real enemies (Fascists), here there were troops firing - and killing some and wounding others -at each other barely aware of the reasons for targeting the "opponents". These events seem to quieten down the next day as Civil Guards are asked by the government to be more cautionary in using weapons and firing at Anarchists but nonetheless the fear and mutual suspicion was still quite strong and the troops were still camped on rooftops prepared for any offensive fire.

Throughout the fighting I never made the "correct" analysis of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists sitting thousands of miles away.What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable roof, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse- for none of us had a proper meal since Monday (this was Thursday)

Things were returning to normal even when the CNT members were completely overpowered as the Telephone Exchange was wrested out of their control by Civil Guards. Even at other important strategic Anarchist holdings, the government forces had moved in and had taken charge. Simply put, the city came under the mercy of the government and its armed guards and troops. In addition to such assaults, many of the remaining Anarchists retreated from their barricades because of food shortage. Adding insult to the injury, the government passed a law requiring all organizations to surrender their arms as the civil guards go around ensuring that the law is duly enforced. Debilitating the militia even further, the Anarchist press was censored while the Communist publications continued to run wildly fabricated stories of CNT/POUM treachery. The Anarchists desire to hold on to their arms was "interpreted" by the Communists and the foreign press as a disloyal and selfish action. They claimed that the weapons were badly needed at the Aragon front although it was clear that both Communists and revolutionaries had stashed weapons that they would use for reasons other than fighting the main fascist enemies.

At this point, the feeling and mood in Barcelona was one of deep distrust- distrust for everyone around be that friends, fellow soldiers, associates, comrades, it made no difference. Nobody could foresee who would turn out to be a spy - there can be people working for any of the groups including fascists, communists, foreign governments - and denounce them to their ideological enemy. Meanwhile the CNT feared that there would be a foreign intervention if the internal strife went too far -indeed there were two British warships that had moved into the harbor as the fighting intensified with the proclaimed aim of "protecting British interests" but there was little doubt that it was to crush any massive uprising by the working class.

The POUM was decried as "Franco's fifth column" and as Trotskyists who were loyal to the Fascists. The outbreak of the conflict at the Telephone Exchange was described as an insurrection by the Anarchists. The gross misrepresentations of the events by the Communist press was systematic, ubiquitous and invariable - spinning facts to the degree that the roles of the various parties involved were reversed : the Telephone Exchange, the Daily Worker stated for example, was being held by the Government workers until being seized by the CNT forces in a surprise uprising. Never mind the fact that the same story was turned around a couple of days later without any mention of retraction or correction of the previous account. Also forget about the blatant contradictions in the descriptions and statements: inflammatory leaflets were the cause of the Anarchist uprising according to one release, but in another report, it was argued that these same leaflets were issued following the attack - it was a consequence. The newspapers did not care to maintain basic consistency in even stating the day the actual attack took place. In fact, the propaganda program was so obsessive that the Communists, either out of poor judgment or indifference, were giving away vital military secrets that could compromise their war effort while benefiting the Fascists. These included details about the strategy, the preparedness and the number of troops at the front and other tactical information that could be crucial to outcome of the war. (Orwell mentions in a footnote about the relative accuracy and neutrality of coverage in the Manchester Guardian,a newspaper known today simply as The Guardian. Incidentally, amongst all the regular newspapers I have come across in the English language, I find The Guardian most balanced and objective in coverage and detail.)

The betrayal reached its zenith in June 1937 when the POUM was declared as a full-fledged illegal organization by the government and all suspected members of the party were rounded up and flung into jail without the slightest concern for any due process. The Communists concocted a dramatic tale of how the entire group as a Fascist Plot designed to undermine and subvert the government forces.The charges leveled against POUM were ludicrous, such as claims that militiamen were in radio contact with Franco or in communication with the Nazi regime. Anyone rejecting the Communist policy from a left-wing perspective was conveniently condemned as Trotskyist -the implied meaning being treachery and a possible link with Fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. That this was full blown lies is apparent from the mere observation that these troops were still in jail for long after they were arrested, something that was impossible had they found any evidence of such subversive collaboration with the Fascists. In fact when an independent international delegation was went to Spain later on to investigate the role of the POUM in the conflict, the diplomats did not uncover any evidence to support any of these outlandish allegations. This admission of the innocence of POUM was in fact was made by the some of Spanish Government leaders, including the Minister of National Defence and Minister of Justice.

As appalling as the Communist backstabbing may sound, it is nothing particularly unexpected for this uniquely disgusting political ideology to denounce its detractors as traitors. Orwell point out for example that while today opponents are attacked as "trotskyist-fascist", a few years ago "Social-fascists" would have been the derogatory term of choice. But these critics and skeptics are not permanent nor does the official Communist line have any qualms about consistency (much like it does not have any principles). So such treacherous "social-fascists" like members of the British Labour Party were claimed to be behind a planned military invasion of USSR but this same Labour Party has now automatically morphed into a natural ally that English Communist Party members are trying to get into.

After the POUM is outlawed, Orwell again volunteers to go to the front in Huesca although his affiliation is not very clear. He mentions that he has been moved into a more structured pay commission that the militiamen were forced to accept abandoning their earlier stance of complete equality for all soldiers.
It is here though in the trenches of the battlefield that Orwell gets shot by a sniper that puts an end to his volunteering effort to fight Fascism in Spain. His recollection of the experience of getting shot straight through the neck is quite unusual in that he explains everything in a clear and objective manner. More amazingly, true to his style, even a dramatic personal incident like this one does not alter his perspective on his role in the war as merely a soldier fighting for a greater cause and coming close to death not unlike so many other brave individuals. In life, it so often happens that we are preoccupied with our self-importance. We like to think that our world view is unique and accurate, that our feelings deserve respect,that our concerns are serious and genuine and our opinions and ideas, important and insightful. In all of our thoughts and involvements, we feel the need to project our intellectual abilities. We obsess over what we like and what we don't and we make a big deal about the little ups and downs in life. What a stirring contrast it is when someone who is now considered as one of the most important authors in the 20th century, describes a bullet making a clean pass through his throat in the most ordinary way one can imagine -without ever drawing unnecessary attention to himself. I have never regarded myself as a fan of modesty of any kind -not at the conscious level at least- but his experiences in Spain- particularly this incident- evokes immense admiration. In his engaging introduction to the copy I hold, Lionel Trilling writes:

Orwell takes his place with these men as a figure. In one degree or another they are geniuses, and he is not - if we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is a figure of, the answer is: the virtue if not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one's simple, direct, undeceived intelligence and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.

Returning to the actual incident, Orwell explains that being shot felt like an explosion around him, something akin to a lightning strike with no awareness of pain but a sense of numbness and a dazed feeling. It had to pointed out to him that he was actually shot and it was only a brief while later that the horrible sense of pain came to overwhelm him and oddly enough, it was felt first in his arms. Despite this ghastly injury, he notes, almost glibly, that he has no resentment for the sniper who got him and would in fact congratulate the soldier on his shot while recognizing that he[Orwell] would have done the same thing had he been in the sniper's place.

He is carried in a stretcher to an ambulance that takes him to a temporary medical facility from where he is transported to Barbasto in an incredibly bumpy journey. About another half dozen trips to various hospitals and medical centers, where he silently witnessed all varieties of dreadful wounds on fellow inmates like smashed rib cages and collar bones, and followed by an additional 2 months of rest, Orwell recovers to reasonable health and miraculously he has his voice back -something that most doctors had ruled impossible. Unfit to continue fighting, he returns to Barcelona in the hope of finally leaving the country and going home.

The situation in Barcelona is a depressing one, with armed men roaming the streets, ubiquitous occurrence of arbitrary arrests, and a perpetual sound of machine gun fires heard all around. A this stage, the Communists have full control over the city and CNT/POUM militiamen - even those who had former ties with these groups -were being jailed without any charges or consideration of a fair trial. In order to leave the POUM without being considered a deserter, Orwell needs to be declared unfit first and then obtain the discharge papers from POUM headquarters. While this may sound like a straightforward affair, Orwell had to stop by a dozen hospitals to get his documents in order to be free to leave. No sooner does he return to Barcelona than his wife hurriedly warns him that he was now in real danger of being arrested - since he had served in the POUM militia before. The news of this inexplicable situation in Barcelona was something that Orwell cannot bring himself to accept - he had done nothing to hurt the cause of the anti-fascist resistance. Now, it was necessary to remain on close alert and protect himself from being discovered. Lying low was not an easy choice- any hotel or inn in Barcelona required its staff to report about new visitors to the place ; several waiters in restaurants were also familiar with militiamen faces and they could easily give away the identity inadvertently in the presence of Civil Guards or other Government troops.

Elsewhere POUM leader Andreas Nin was arrested and thrown to jail where he was believed to have been later killed by the secret police - this incident was concealed from the public by the Communists who provided vague and sometimes conflicting information on Nin's condition.[He was actually tortured and murdered by the Soviet Secret police] In another event Bob Smilie, one of the young men that Orwell knew from fighting in the front, was now known to have died in prison from medical complication. Orwell recalls Smilie as being a "tough lad" who was able to withstand the rigors of winter better than most of the other militiamen and his prison death is suggestive of the terrible conditions in which the Spanish jails were maintained. A student who left Glasgow University to join the revolutionary forces, Smilie's death was truly symbolic of the genuine tragedy of the conflict - the Communist betrayal.

But what angers one about a death like this is its utter pointlessness. To be killed in the battle- yes, that is what one expects; but to be flung into jail. not even for any imaginary offence, but simply owing to dull blind spite, and then left to die in solitude- that is a different matter.

Despite the horrible events which has left Orwell with evil memories of Spain, he belabors to point out that he has few bad memories of Spaniards. It would appear, according to him, that even if Franco were to ascend to power, the military dictatorship would not be the as brutal and repressive as in other countries[something that was partly borne out to be true]. Spaniards hardly possessed the efficiency or the ruthlessness to impose the kind of totalitarian nightmare that was possible in Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR. The Communist secret police, while displaying some of the spirit of the Gestapo had little of the same competency or aggression.

In his last few days in Spain, Orwell tries unsuccessfully to free George Kopp, the Belgian volunteer who was Orwell's superior officer while fighting on the Aragon front. Kopp was arrested while carrying a letter to a government official and as usual, no charges were filed for the incarceration. Orwell explains the situation to the assistant of the colonel (the government official in question) and manages to get the letter back - which should have served as a proof that Kopp was serving the government- but it turns out that this new evidence was insufficient to secure his release[Kopp survives somehow despite interrogation and torture by Soviet Secret Police after which he settles in England].

On that defeated note, Orwell, along with his wife and two other British militiamen, leave Spain and after a short stop in France return to London.

(Fascists had full control of the country by 1939 when General Franco came to power).