The BICEP2 telescope (right) in Antarctica. Credit: Amble/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The inside story of the BICEP2 blunder

I was once stupid too (and still am in many ways). One of the instances when I was more stupid than usual was when I wrote an article about the now-infamous BICEP2 ‘discovery’ of evidence of cosmic inflation in 2014. The ‘discovery’ eventually turned out to be a non-discovery because the scientists behind it had acted too soon with their announcement, overlooking a serious gap in their data.

As a science journalist, I’d failed because I hadn’t solicited independent comments for my piece, as a result letting The Hindu (where I worked at the time) publish an eminently wrong article. I will never forget that this happened, if only to remind myself of the importance of soliciting independent comments on all science articles, no matter how mundane the peg.

The BICEP2 instrument studies the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. Some scientists were using BICEP2 to detect the imprint of gravitational waves on the magnetic component of the CMB radiation. Specifically, they were looking for some curling patterns in the magnetic mode associated with a rapid expansion of the universe thought to have happened between 10-36 and 10-33 seconds after the universe was born.

This expansion has been called the cosmic inflation and the period it happened, the inflationary epoch. Cosmic inflation was a hypothesis that sought to explain why parts of today’s universe seem to have similar physical features despite being separated by billions of lightyears. If cosmic inflation did happen, the explanation would be that, once upon a time, the universe was very small and these distant parts were in fact more closely packed together then.

The first announcement, on March 17, 2014, was marked with a lot of fanfare. It was cosmology’s big day, and news publications around the world covered the announcement. Most of them included comments from scientists not involved in the data-taking, scientists who said something about the results was suspicious. That suspicion snowballed over time into a full-blown rebuttal that, within a few months, torpedoed the original study and forced the authors to apologise.

The problem turned out to be that gravitational waves could cause the curling pattern on the magnetic mode of the CMB – and so could radiation emitted by cosmic dust, as seen by BICEP2. And the BICEP2 data was found to have recorded only the effects of cosmic dust.

In the last four years, I’ve realised how I had acted stupidly and learnt an important lesson the hard way. However, I was still curious why the BICEP2 team had acted stupidly. And though it seemed obvious, I had trouble accepting that the team had behaved the way it had simply because it was so excited, because it wanted to become famous.

On April 19 this year, Nautilus published an essay by Brian Keating, adapted from a book he has written about the BICEP2 fiasco. Keating was one of the leaders of the collaboration behind the announcement, working at Harvard University’s Centre for Astronomy (CfA). The essay provides a behind-the-scenes look at how scientists had missed the cosmic dust signal in their data analysis.

By the end of the essay, Keating appears to try to assuage readers that this was how science worked, that “you put out a result, and other scientists work to test the result”. However, the essay in toto highlights this is not how science works, and that this image of scientific endeavours is far too idealistic.

For example, a constant undercurrent throughout the enterprise seems to have been a rush to scoop. Keating et al had their eyes on a Nobel Prize, and wanted to be the first group to make the announcement that they’d seen the remains of the universe’s “birth pangs”.

He says this rush is why his team decided to present their BICEP2 results to the press even before the corresponding paper was peer-reviewed and published in a science journal. He writes:

… we feared that sending the paper to a journal would be unfair, giving a particular group – referees and their friends – a head start on proposal submission. My field is so competitive that the only people who weren’t on BICEP2 who could have reviewed the highly technical aspects of the paper were competitors. Our first priority was to make a scientific presentation to communicate our results to all our peers in the cosmology community.

Next, it seems the CfA team had been aware that dust in the Milky Way could play spoilsport to their apparent discovery, so they tried to get data from the team operating the Planck satellite. This satellite measures electromagnetic radiation across a wide swath of the sky, much larger than the BICEP2 survey area, and in a larger range of frequencies as well.

One of these frequencies was 353 GHz, at which Planck was able to study the effect of cosmic dust exclusively. The CfA team needed this data – but despite multiple requests, the Planck team refused to share the data. This is big news to me because I had no idea the CfA and the Planck teams treated each other as competitors! If only they’d worked together, the BICEP2 fiasco might never have happened.

… such a map [of cosmic dust] did exist, one with the exact high-frequency data we needed. There was only one catch: It belonged to our competitor, the Planck satellite. And in early 2014, the Planck team hadn’t yet released their B-mode polarization data. We were scared Planck might not only hold the key to proving our measurement right, but might have already glimpsed the inflationary B-mode signal before we did. … We desperately tried to work with the Planck team, while being careful not to tip them off as to what we’d found … [but they] wouldn’t cooperate. Either they didn’t have the data we wanted, or they did have it and they were going to scoop us. We had to go it alone.

Soon after, Keating and his team found a picture of a Powerpoint slide posted online that appeared to be from a talk given by one of the Planck team members. They decided to use the information presented in the slide, which suggested that BICEP2 had good and legitimate data, even though they weren’t sure if the slide was meant for quantitave analysis.

Thus, March 17 came and went, then June did too, when the CfA team’s paper was published in the journal Physical Review Letters. Then, around November, the Planck team had their paper published. As Keating writes,

With the Planck 353 GHz paper appearance came the beginning of the end of the BICEP2 team’s inflation elation. Although the Planck team was careful to release no data for the Southern Hole, the field where BICEP2 observed—perhaps out of fear we would digitize it—they made a blunt assessment of the potential amount of dust polarization contamination in the Southern Hole, saying it was of “the same magnitude as reported by BICEP2.” This meant dust was as likely a culprit for our B-modes as were inflationary gravitational waves.

The BICEP2 story well elucidates how science really works.

“Scientists are people too” is one way to put it. Another, and possibly better, way is to remember that institutionalised tendencies like torturing the data to yield more papers, conducting research to attract a Nobel Prize and scooping the competition aren’t one-offs, and that it’s foolish to think they wouldn’t percolate through the scientific community to create flawed ambitions.

These are all essential components of how humanity produces its knowledge. In other words, the scientific enterprise isn’t one that’s free of human foibles.

Featured image: The BICEP2 telescope (right) in Antarctica. Credit: Amble/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

HAL 9000. Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors/pixabay

The tragic hero of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

This is something I wrote for April 10 but forgot to schedule for publication. Publishing it now…

Since news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last month, many of us have expressed apprehension – often on Facebook itself – that the social networking platform has transformed since its juvenile beginnings into an ugly monster.

Such moral panic is flawed and we ought to know that by now. After all, it’s been 50 years since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, and a 100 since Frankenstein – both cultural assets that have withstood the proverbial test of time only because they managed to strike some deep, mostly unknown chord about the human condition, a note that continues to resonate with the passions of a world that likes to believe it has disrupted the course of history itself.

Gary Greenberg, a mental health professional and author, recently wrote that the similarities between Viktor Frankenstein’s monster and Facebook were unmistakable except on one count: the absence of a conscience was a bug in the monster, and remains a feature in Facebook. As a result, he wrote, “an invention whose genius lies in its programmed inability to sort the true from the false, opinion from fact, evil from good … is bound to be a remorseless, lumbering beast, one that does nothing other than … aggregate and distribute, and then to stand back and collect the fees.”

However, it is 2001‘s HAL 9000 that continues to be an allegory of choice in many ways, not least because it’s an artificial intelligence the likes of which we’re yet to confront in 2018 but have learnt to constantly anticipate. In the film, HAL serves as the onboard computer for an interplanetary spaceship carrying a crew of astronauts to a point near Jupiter, where a mysterious black monolith of alien origin has been spotted. Only HAL knows the real nature of the mission, which in Kafkaesque fashion is never revealed.

Within the logic-rules-all-until-it-doesn’t narrative canon that science fiction writers have abused for decades, HAL is not remarkable. But take him out into space, make sure he knows more than the humans he’s guiding and give him the ability to physically interfere in people’s lives – and you have not a villain waylaid by complicated Boolean algebra but a reflection of human hubris.

2001 was the cosmic extrapolation of Kubrick’s previous production, the madcap romp Dr Strangelove. While the two films differ significantly in the levels of moroseness on display as humankind confronts a threat to its existence, they’re both meditations on how humanity often leads itself towards disaster while believing it’s fixing itself and the world. In fact, in both films, the threat was weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Kubrick intended for the Star Child in 2001‘s closing scenes to unleash nuclear holocaust on Earth – but he changed his mind later and chose to keep the ending open.

This is where HAL has been able to step in, in our public consciousness, as a caution against our over-optimism towards artificial intelligence and reminding us that WMDs can take different forms. Using the tools and methods of ‘Big Data’ and machine learning, machines have defeated human players at chess and go, solved problems in computer science and helped diagnose some diseases better. There is a long way to go for HAL-like artificial general intelligence, assuming that is even possible.

But in the meantime, we come across examples every week that these machines are nothing like what popular science fiction has taught us to expect. We have found that their algorithms often inherit the biases of their makers, and that their makers often don’t realise this until the issue is called out – or they do but slip it in anyway.

According to (the modified) Tesler’s theorem, “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet”. When overlaid on optimism of the Silicon Valley variety, AI in our imagination suddenly becomes able to do what we have never been able to ourselves, even as we assume humans will still be in control. We forget that for AI to be truly AI, its intelligence should be indistinguishable from that of a human’s – a.k.a. the Turing test. In this situation, why do we expect AI to behave differently than we do?

We shouldn’t, and this is what HAL teaches us. His iconic descent into madness in 2001 reminds us that AI can go wonderfully right but it’s likelier to go wonderfully wrong if only because of the outcomes that we are not, and have never been, anticipating as a species. In fact, it has been argued that HAL never went mad but only appeared to do so because of the untenability of human expectations. That 2001 was the story of his tragedy.

This is also what makes 2001 all the more memorable: its refusal to abandon the human perspective – noted for its amusing tendency to be tripped up by human will and agency – even as Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke looked towards the stars for humankind’s salvation.

In the film’s opening scenes, a bunch of apes briefly interacts with a monolith just like the one near Jupiter and quickly develops the ability to use commonplace objects as tools and weapons. The rest is history, so the story suddenly jumps four million years ahead and then 18 months more. As the Tool song goes, “Silly monkeys, give them thumbs, they make a club and beat their brother down.”

In much the same way, HAL recalls the origins of mainstream AI research as it happened in the late 1950s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston. At the time, the linguist and not-yet-activist Noam Chomsky had reimagined the inner workings of the human brain as those of a computer (specifically, as a “Language Acquisition Device”). According to anthropologist Chris Knight, this ‘act’ inspired cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky to wonder if the mind, in the form of software, could be separated from the body, the hardware.

Minsky would later say, “The most important thing about each person is the data, and the programs in the data that are in the brain”. This is chillingly evocative of what Facebook has achieved in 2018: to paraphrase Greenberg, it has enabled data-driven politics by digitising and monetising “a trove of intimate detail about billions of people”.

Minsky founded the AI Lab at MIT in 1959. Less than a decade later, he joined the production team of 2001 as a consultant to design and execute the character called HAL. As much as we’re fond of celebrating the prophetic power of 2001, perhaps the film was able to herald the 21st century as well as it has because we inherited it from many of the men who shaped the 20th, and Kubrick and Clarke simply mapped their visions onto the stars.

Featured image: HAL 9000. Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors/pixabay.

Source: YouTube

Feroze Varun Gandhi’s innovative prescriptions for Indian S&T

Where Feroze Varun Gandhi writes about “forging a culture of innovation” in India:

We need to push beyond metrics, papers and patents to focus on providing solutions to development and economic challenges. A focus on building an innovation culture is necessary, particularly giving the transformative shifts under way in sectors critical to India’s economy — from electric cars in automobiles to insourcing in IT services, the economy is exposed to significant job losses and a fall in exports over the coming decade. Our innovation policy has to shift beyond a focus on increasing R&D spending to inculcating a mindset of “out-of-the-box” thinking in our universities, start-ups and corporates. India’s educational policies need to be redesigned, with a focus on building cognitive abilities, beyond rote learning and focus on quantitative subjects.

Dear minister, did you speak to a scientist before writing this? (Alternatively, did your ghost-writer speak to a scientist before writing this?) K. VijayRaghavan was just appointed PSA; I’m sure he’d have been happy to take your call.

Because I’m getting tired of pieces in this template, where authors drop a bunch of numbers we’re so familiar with that many of us have memorised it, and just keep saying “India needs to do better science and better tech”.

In fact, I doubt Feroze Varun Gandhi even wrote this piece. It’s quite easy to write because it offers no new information, no new perspectives and no new insights. Obviously India needs to be better. We all already know that.

So what is this piece about? It’s FVG putting on display the fact that he too can write about science and tech. It’s FVG putting on display that he can think rationally about science and tech spending, irrespective of his party’s often-stupid claims. It’s essentially FVG saying #notallpoliticians.

But as a Bharatiya Janata Party MP, what’s expected of him if he’s going to write about science is something else. It’s about nitty gritties (tell me something I don’t know!), about what he’s doing to change his party’s mindset about “ancient India”, about his efforts to participate in policymaking in science, translational research, tech and research-funding.

But none of these items feature in his piece. Instead, FVG seems content about drawing comparisons to South Korea and the US, quoting from their budget reports, and drawing B-grade parallels to a country whose uniqueness our leaders often like drawing attention to.

By disregarding this uniqueness – of research culture, traditional knowledge, etc. – when talking about scientific research and technological development, people like FVG betray their failure in understanding that scientists are people, too. By ignoring the cultural and political contexts they negotiate, FVG assumes that Indian scientists are simply not thinking hard enough, out of the box enough, etc.

Most of FVG’s piece focuses on downstream activities; when it does turn upstream, it’s only to talk about R&D spending (itself a nebulaic description) or improving “cognitive abilities”. I predict his next oped is going to be about eradicating tuberculosis by 2025, with the following keywords: MDR TB, XDR TB, masks, vaccines, private healthcare and medical insurance. After that, I suspect it’s going to be nuclear fusion.

There’s not a line in FVG’s piece about

  1. Facilitating collaborations
  2. Addressing a monumental language barrier
  3. Women, transgender people and LGBTQIA+ scientists
  4. School students
  5. Reforming grant-disbursal
  6. University autonomy
  7. Preserving safe spaces for intellectual discourse
  8. Research ethics
  9. Setting up schemes on a consultative basis
  10. Making government bodies transparent

Also, science is not divorced from the social sciences. Assuming (wrongly) for a moment that science is neutral and reflexive on short timescales, technology is inherently political. It’s going to create new jobs but get rid of older ones; it’s going to divert resources, redistribute value and require new regulation. A government has to deal with such changes through affirmative action, protecting the livelihoods of the underprivileged and the rights of all its citizens.

If genetically modified crops – a powerful example of the “new technologies” that FVG mentions – haven’t been adopted in India even though scientists are clear that they’re safe, it’s because the government has disenfranchised farmers in the past, slipped up on crop insurance and fixing sale prices, treated public resource management with kid gloves, kept genetic testing data out of the public domain and dealt with agricultural distress according to what will win them a nearby election.

The effects of such botch-ups will be felt upstream, the place that FVG is looking at as if it were an eclipse. Recently, Devang Mehta, a biologist at ETH Zurich, recently wrote a moving piece for Massive about how he was quitting GMO studies because he – like many of his peers – never agreed to put up with the acerbic activism against the technology. IMO, such acerbity is necessary to deal with the Government of India.

Seriously, let’s get over the “numbers are the problem” routine. As a Member of Parliament, FVG doesn’t get to throw his hands up in the air and say, “Here are the numbers, and this is what we need to fix.” There’s a cultural crisis underway in India’s educational and research institutions. Admittedly, it’s a lot of information to process and opine about. If FVG can’t talk about them, he should just not.

It’s perfectly fine. For every moronic utterance that ancient India invented everything, another minister’s silence is worth volumes. It’s a low bar but I’m sure the more cynical among us will take it. It’s obviously important to keep conversations about science and research going in the public domain, but an overwhelming number of those in power appear to be stuck at simply acknowledging a bird’s eye view of our research and development woes, and never really getting into the thick of it.

What’s worse is opeds like FVG’s are taken to be some kind of expression of commitment when they’re not. “Fixing” science is an arguably riskier, stinkier task than “fixing” most other sectors because of the ubiquitous, but eminently fixable, cluelessness. Every new oped that advertises such cluelessness by sticking to the data that FVG has is a proclamation that the author doesn’t give a damn. If the author had, this wouldn’t be the piece they’d be writing.

If this piece had been pitched to me, I’d have rejected it for the reasons above and because publishing it would’ve given the impression that politicians care. They don’t care – not if this oped is anything to go by. It’s a puff piece. My suggestion is to drop the incessant oped-writing and pay attention to the ‘March for Science’ on April 14.

Featured image: Varun Gandhi. Source: YouTube.

Credit: skeeze/pixabay

Going beyond ‘fake news = wrong facts’

Just as there’s no merit in writing a piece that is confused and incomplete, there’s no merit in digging through a dumpster and complaining that there’s trash. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when The Quint publishes something as ass-backwards as this article, titled ‘SpaceX or ISRO, Who’s Winning the Race to Space?’, in a time when finally, at long fucking last, people are beginning to wake up to the idea that ISRO’s and SpaceX’s responsibilities are just different.

In fact, the author of this article seems (temporarily) aware of this distinction, writing, “You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals”, even as he makes the comparison anyway. This is immature, irresponsible journalism (if that), worse than the Sisyphean he-said-she-said variety if only because the ‘he’ in this case is the author himself.

But more importantly, against the backdrop of the I&B ministry’s guidelines on combating fake news that were released, and then retracted, earlier today, I briefly wondered whether this Quint piece could be considered fake news. A friend quickly disabused me of the idea by pointing out that this isn’t exactly news, doesn’t contain factual mistakes and doesn’t seem to have malicious intent – all valid points. However, I’m still not sure I agree… My reasons:

1. News is information that is new, contemporary and in the public interest. While the last two parameters can be defined somewhat objectively, novelty can and is frequently subjective. Often, it also extends to certain demographic groups within a population, such as readers of the 18-24 age group, for whom a bit of information that’s old for others is new.

2. The article doesn’t contain factual mistakes but the relationships the author defines between various facts are wrong and untrue. There are also assumptions made in the article (dissected below) that make the author sound stupid more than anything else. One does have the freedom of expression but journalists and publishers also have a responsibility to be… well, responsible.

3. You can make rational decisions only when you know everything there is to know apropos said decisions. So when you deliberately ignore certain details that would render an argument meaningless just so you can make the argument yourself, that’s malice. Especially when you then click the ‘publish’ button and watch as a clump of irrational clutch of sememes reaches 19,000 people in 18 hours.

So to me, this article is fake news.

Here’s another locus: according to Dictionary.com, fake news is

false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.

The Quint article is sensational. It claims ISRO and SpaceX can’t be compared but goes on to make the comparison anyway. Why? Traffic, visibility and revenue (through ads on The Quint‘s pages). It’s textual faff that wastes the reader’s time, forces others to spend time correcting the irrational beliefs that will take root in people’s minds as a result of reading the article, and it’s just asinine of The Quint to lend itself as a platform for such endeavours. It’s the sort of thing we frequently blame the male protagonists in Indian films for: spending 150 minutes realising his mistakes.

But again, I do apologise for whining that there’s trash in the dumpster. (Aside: A recent headline in Esquire had just the term for journalism-done-bad – ‘trash avalanche’.)

§

I must dissect the article. It’s an addiction!

India’s premier space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has built a reputation for launching rockets into space at very convenient prices. The consequent effect?

A lot of customers from around the world have come flocking to avail India’s economical rocket-launching services and this has helped the country make some extra bucks from its space exploration program.

Extra bucks, eh?

However, it’s a pretty competitive space.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has had a decent run in the past couple of days and the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket has paved the way for launching heavy satellites into space.

You don’t say…

SpaceX and ISRO are competitors of sorts in the business of commercial satellite launches. The question is, how big of a threat is SpaceX to India’s space agency?

Wrong + 🚩

Okay, first some facts.

That’s kind of you.

ISRO is an experienced campaigner in the field of space exploration as it’s been launching rockets into space since as early as 1975. From sending India’s first satellite into space (Aryabhata), to successfully launching some of the most historic missions like Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and Mangalyaan (2013), ISRO has done it all.

You should check out some of the stuff NASA, JAXA and ESA have done. ISRO really hasn’t done it all – and neither have NASA, JAXA and ESA.

ISRO has carried out a total of 96 spacecraft missions, which involve 66 launch missions.

Apart from the above, it has various other goals, ranging from maintaining the communication satellite constellation around the Earth to sending manned missions into space. Not easy by any means.

Not easy to have goals? Have you seen the todo lists of most people?

Meanwhile, SpaceX is the new kid on the block and really isn’t a big space exploration agency (at least not as big as ISRO).

That’s a comparison 🚩

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by maverick entrepreneur Elon Musk with an aim to provide economically efficient ways to launch satellites and also colonise Mars!
Overall, since SpaceX’s first mission in June, 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 51 times, out of which 49 have been successful. That’s a 96 percent success rate!

So, in terms of experience, SpaceX still has some catching up to do. But in terms of success rate, it’s tough to beat at 96 percent.

Do you know that if I launch one rocket successfully, I’ll have a success rate of 100%?

SpaceX is a privately-owned enterprise and is funded by big companies like Google and Fidelity. According to a Forbes, SpaceX is valued at more than $20 billion (Rs 13.035 crore) as of December 2017.

That’s Rs 1.3 lakh crore, not Rs 13.035 crore.

ISRO on the other hand is a state-owned entity and is run and controlled by the Government of India. Each year, the agency is allocated a certain part of the nation’s budget. For the year 2018-19, the Centre has allocated Rs 8,936 crore to the space organisation.

There is also a big difference in terms of cost per mission. For example, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s cost per launch comes up to $62 million, while ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) costs roughly $15 million per launch.

You’re comparing the mission costs of one rocket that can carry 10,000+ kg to the LEO to a rocket that can carry 3,800 kg to the LEO. Obviously the former is going to be costlier!

The size of the payloads are different as the Falcon 9 carries much heavier bulk than India’s rockets.

Dear author: please mention that this fact renders the comparison in your previous line meaningless. At least refrain from using terms like “big difference”.

Currently, India makes very less on commercial missions as most of them carry small or nano-satellites. Between 2013 and 2015, ISRO charged an average of $3 million per satellite. That’s peanuts compared to a SpaceX launch, which costs $60 million.

First: Antrix, not ISRO, charges $3 million per satellite. Second: By not discussing payload mass and orbital injection specifications, the author’s withholding information that will make this “peanuts” juxtaposition illogical. Third: ISRO and SpaceX operate out of different economies – a point that incumbent ISRO chairman K. Sivan has emphasised – leading to different costing (e.g. have you considered labour cost?). Finally, source of data?

According to a 2016 report, India’s premier space agency earned a revenue of around Rs 230 crore through commercial launch services, which is about 0.6 percent of the global launch services market.

India is still to make big ‘moolah’ from their launches as small satellites don’t pull in a lot of money as compared to bigger ones.

That last bit – does the Department of Space know you’re feeling this way? Because if they did, they might not go ahead with building the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV). So that’s another 🚩

Despite the fact that ISRO is considered competition for Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the business of commercial satellite launches,

Although this claim is bandied about in the press, I doubt it’s true given the differences in payload capacities, costs to space and launch frequencies of the PSLV/GSLV and the Falcon 9.

he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how he is “impressed” by India’s frugal methods of conducting successful launch missions.

Is this a big deal? Or are you awed that India’s efforts are being lauded by a white man of the west?

Last year in February, India launched 104 satellites into space using a single rocket, which really caught Musk’s attention. This is a world record that India holds till date.

If that’s not impressive enough, India also launched it’s Mars probe (Mangalyaan) in 2014 which cost less than what it cost to make the Hollywood movie “The Martian”. Ironical?

It’s not “impressive enough”. It’s not ironic.

You have to understand, both ISRO and SpaceX are different entities with different resources at their disposal and ultimately different goals. But again, if Musk is impressed, it means ISRO has hit it out of the park.

But if Musk hadn’t been impressed, then ISRO would’ve continued to be a failure in your eyes, of course.

I am not going to pick a winner because of a lot of reasons. One of them is that I like both of them.

ISRO and SpaceX must both be so relieved.

SpaceX is a 15-year-old company, which has made heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle, while ISRO is a 40-year-old organisation making inroads into the medium-lift category; Not to mention it also has a billion other things to take care of (including working on reusable rockets).

Since the objective of both these organisations is to make frugal space missions possible, it’s no doubt that ISRO has the lead in this race.

How exactly? 🤔 Also, if we shouldn’t be comparing ISRO and SpaceX, how’re they in the same race?

Yes, there is a lot that SpaceX can learn from what India has achieved till now, but that can work both ways, considering the technology SpaceX is using is much more advanced. But in the end one cannot deny the fact that SpaceX is all about launching rockets and getting them back to Earth in one piece, not making satellites.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Credit: SaraRichterArt/pixabay

Exploring what it means to be big

Reading a Nature report titled ‘Step aside CERN: There’s a cheaper way to break open physics‘ (January 10, 2018) brought to mind something G. Rajasekaran, former head of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, told me once: that the future – as the Nature report also touts – belongs to tabletop particle accelerators.

Rajaji (as he is known) said he believed so because of the simple realisation that particle accelerators could only get so big before they’d have to get much, much bigger to tell us anything more. On the other hand, tabletop setups based on laser wakefield acceleration, which could accelerate electrons to higher energies across just a few centimetres, would allow us to perform slightly different experiments such that their outcomes will guide future research.

The question of size is an interesting one (and almost personal: I’m 6’4” tall and somewhat heavy, which means I’ve to start by moving away from seeming intimidating in almost all new relationships). For most of history, humans’ ideas of better included something becoming bigger. From what I can see – which isn’t really much – the impetus for this is founded in five things:

1. The laws of classical physics: They are, and were, multiplicative. To do more or to do better (which for a long time meant doing more), the laws had to be summoned in larger magnitudes and in more locations. This has been true from the machines of industrialisation to scientific instruments to various modes of construction and transportation. Some laws also foster inverse relationships that straightforwardly encourage devices to be bigger to be better.

2. Capitalism, rather commerce in general: Notwithstanding social necessities, bigger often implied better the same way a sphere of volume 4 units has a smaller surface area than four spheres of volume 1 unit each. So if your expenditure is pegged to the surface area – and it often is – then it’s better to pack 400 people on one airplane instead of flying four airplanes with 100 people in each.

3. Sense of self: A sense of our own size and place in the universe, as seemingly diminutive creatures living their lives out under the perennial gaze of the vast heavens. From such a point of view, a show of power and authority would obviously have meant transcending the limitations of our dimensions and demonstrating to others that we’re capable of devising ‘ultrastructures’ that magnify our will, to take us places we only thought the gods could go and achieve simultaneity of effect only the gods could achieve. (And, of course, for heads of state to swing longer dicks at each other.)

4. Politics: Engineers building a tabletop detector and engineers building a detector weighing 50,000 tonnes will obviously run into different kinds of obstacles. Moreover, big things are easier to stake claims over, to discuss, dispute or dislodge. It affects more people even before it has produced its first results.

5. Natural advantages: An example that comes immediately to mind is social networks – not Facebook or Twitter but the offline ones that define cultures and civilisations. Such networks afford people an extra degree of adaptability and improve chances of survival by allowing people to access resources (including information/knowledge) that originated elsewhere. This can be as simple as a barter system where people exchange food for gold, or as complex as a bashful Tamilian staving off alienation in California by relying on the support of the Tamil community there.

(The inevitable sixth impetus is tradition. For example, its equation with growth has given bigness pride of place in business culture, so much so that many managers I’ve met wanted to set up bigger media houses even when it might have been more appropriate to go smaller.)

Against this backdrop of impetuses working together, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes – a book about how our biological experience of reality is mediated by microbes – becomes a saga of reconciliation with a world much smaller, not bigger, yet more consequential. To me, that’s an idea as unintuitive as, say, being able to engineer materials with fantastical properties by sporadically introducing contaminants into their atomic lattice. It’s the sort of smallness whose individual parts amount to very close to nothing, whose sum amounts to something, but the human experience of which is simply monumental.

And when we find that such smallness is able to move mountains, so to speak, it disrupts our conception of what it means to be big. This is as true of microbes as it is of quantum mechanics, as true of elementary particles as it is of nano-electromechanical systems. This is one of the more understated revolutions that happened in the 20th century: the decoupling of bigger and better, a sort of virtualisation of betterment that separated it from additive scale and led to the proliferation of ‘trons’.

I like to imagine what gave us tabletop accelerators also gave us containerised software and a pan-industrial trend towards personalisation – although this would be philosophy, not history, because it’s a trend we compose in hindsight. But in the same vein, both hardware (to run software) and accelerators first became big, riding on the back of the classical and additive laws of physics, then hit some sort of technological upper limit (imposed by finite funds and logistical limitations) and then bounced back down when humankind developed tools to manipulate nature at the mesoscopic scale.

Of course, some would also argue that tabletop particle accelerators wouldn’t be possible, or deemed necessary, if the city-sized ones didn’t exist first, that it was the failure of the big ones that drove the development of the small ones. And they would argue right. But as I said, that’d be history; it’s the philosophy that seems more interesting here.

Credit: Pexels/pixabay

Lightning storm

A lightning storm rages outside. The large window panes going from floor to ceiling in the living room rattle as the wind whips around, gathering dust off the ground right outside my building, spinning it up into little, but no less terrifying, tornadoes (maybe it’s the tornado-like action of the wind that’s terrifying; you never know what’s going to happen next) that reach up five or six stories high, lit up by dispassionate sodium-vapour lamps. I can see the eagle that usually leisurely stalks the skies at this hour struggling to find a current it can cruise in, instead being forced to glide along what guiderails of wind it can find.

The muffled sound of rain like white noise floats in from all sides, percolating through the walls, rising one minute and falling the next. The incessant flashes of lightning portend the next rumbling roll of thunder, lighting up the sky in ultra-bright flares of white before the heavens return to their dark pink-red, a horizon-spanning wound preparing to be cauterised once more.

It’s so wonderfully easy to sit inside during these moments and marvel at the casual but preconceived display of power all around. What must it have been like four billion years ago, when the first microbes were taking shape and suddenly the world around them was ablaze with electric discharges, the air itself on fire? What must it have been like when the first creatures with ears were assailed by thunder, when the first creatures with eyes were blinded by the light? When the first humans felt as if the sky was exploding and crashing down around them?

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that we figured out lightning was electricity – but the moment we did, we cast our now-knowing eye back into the recesses of time, looked at the first sensing lifeforms of Earth and wondered what fantasies they conjured in their laughable ignorance. Just the way after some lightning storm of the future, some slouch will look back to this night and wonder what fantasies we were mulling in the middle of a lightning storm.

Will we be going around in circles?

Featured image credit: Pexels/pixabay.

Credit: geralt/pixabay

How science is presented and consumed on Facebook

This post is a breakdown of the Pew study titled The Science People See on Social Media, published March 21, 2018. Without further ado…

In an effort to better understand the science information that social media users encounter on these platforms, Pew Research Center systematically analyzed six months’ worth of posts from 30 of the most followed science-related pages on Facebook. These science-related pages included 15 popular Facebook accounts from established “multiplatform” organizations … along with 15 popular “Facebook-primary” accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet.

Is popularity the best way to judge if a Facebook page counts as a page about science? Popularity is an easy measure but it often almost exclusively represents a section of the ‘market’ skewed towards popular science. Some such pages from the Pew dataset include facebook.com/healthdigest, /mindbodygreen, /DailyHealthTips, /DavidAvocadoWolfe and /droz – all “wellness” brands that may not represent the publication of scientific content as much as, more broadly, content that panders to a sense of societal insecurity that is not restricted to science. This doesn’t limit the Pew study insofar as the study aims to elucidate what passes off as ‘science’ on Facebook but it does limit Pew’s audience-specific insights.

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… just 29% of the [6,528] Facebook posts from these pages [published in the first half of 2017] had a focus or “frame” around information about new scientific discoveries.

Not sure why the authors, Paul Hitlin and Kenneth Olmstead, think this is “just” 29% – that’s quite high! Science is not just about new research and research results, and if these pages are consciously acknowledging that on average limiting their posts about such news to three of every 10 posts, that’s fantastic. (Of course, if the reason for not sharing research results is that they’re not very marketable, that’s too bad.)

I’m also curious about what counts as research on the “wellness” pages. If their posts share research to a) dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the page authors’ worldview or b) popularise studies that are, say, pursuing a causative link between coffee consumption and cancer, then such data is useless.

From 'The science people see on social media'. Credit: Pew Research Center

From ‘The science people see on social media’. Credit: Pew Research Center

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The volume of posts from these science-related pages has increased over the past few years, especially among multiplatform pages. On average, the 15 popular multiplatform Facebook pages have increased their production of posts by 115% since 2014, compared with a 66% increase among Facebook-primary pages over the same time period. (emphasis in the original)

The first line in italics is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not a discovery. This is because the “multiplatform organisations” chosen by Pew for analysis all need to make money, and all organisations that need to continue making money need to grow. Growth is not an option, it’s a necessity, and it often implies growth on all platforms of publication in quantity and (hopefully) quality. In fact, the “Facebook-primary” pages, by which Hitlin and Olmstead mean “accounts from individuals or organizations that have a large social media presence on the platform but are not connected to any offline, legacy outlet”, are also driven to grow for the same reason: commerce, both on Facebook and off. As the authors write,

Across the set of 30 pages, 16% of posts were promotional in nature. Several accounts aimed a majority of their posts at promoting other media and public appearances. The four prominent scientists among the Facebook-primary pages posted fewer than 200 times over the course of 2017, but when they did, a majority of their posts were promotions (79% of posts from Dr. Michio Kaku, 78% of posts from Neil deGrasse Tyson, 64% of posts from Bill Nye and 58% of posts from Stephen Hawking). Most of these were self-promotional posts related to television appearances, book signings or speeches.

A page with a few million followers is likelier than not to be a revenue-generating exercise. While this is by no means an indictment of the material shared by these pages, at least not automatically, IFL Science is my favourite example: its owner Elise Andrews was offered $30 million for the page in 2015. I suspect that might’ve been a really strong draw to continue growing, and unfortunately, many of the “Facebook-primary” pages like IFLS find this quite easy to do by sharing well-dressed click-bait.

Second, if Facebook is the primary content distribution channel, then the number of video posts will also have shown an increase in the Pew data – as it did – because publishers both small and large that’ve made this deal with the devil have to give the devil whatever it wants. If Facebook says videos are the future and that it’s going to tweak its newsfeed algorithms accordingly, publishers are going to follow suit.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

So when Hitlin and Olmstead say, “Video was a common feature of these highly engaging posts whether they were aimed at explaining a scientific concept, highlighting new discoveries, or showcasing ways people can put science information to use in their lives”, they’re glossing over an important confounding factor: the platform itself. There’s a chance Facebook is soon going to say VR is the next big thing, and then there’s going to be a burst of posts with VR-mediated content. But that doesn’t mean the publishing houses themselves believe VR is good or bad for sharing science news.

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The average number of user interactions per post – a common indicator of audience engagement based on the total number of shares, comments, and likes or other reactions – tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts. From January 2014 to June 2017, Facebook-primary pages averaged 14,730 interactions per post, compared with 4,265 for posts on multiplatform pages. This relationship held up even when controlling for the frame of the post. (emphasis in the original)

Again, Hitlin and Olmstead refuse to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ posts and trash. This would involve a lot more work on their part, sure, but it would also make their insights into science consumption on the social media that much more useful. But until then, for all I know, “the average number of user interactions per post … tends to be higher for posts from Facebook-primary accounts than posts from multiplatform accounts” simply because it’s Gwyneth Paltrow wondering about what stones to shove up which orifices.

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… posts on Facebook-primary pages related to federal funding for agencies with a significant scientific research mission were particularly engaging, averaging more than 122,000 interactions per post in the first half of 2017.

Now that’s interesting and useful. Possible explanation: Trump must’ve been going nuts about something science-related. [Later in the report] Here it is: “Many of these highly engaging posts linked to stories suggesting Trump was considering a decrease in science-agency funding. For example, a Jan. 25, 2017, IFLScience post called Trump’s Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means was shared more than 22,000 times on Facebook and had 62,000 likes and other reactions.”

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Highly engaging posts among these pages did not always feature science-related information. Four of the top 15 most-engaging posts from Facebook-primary pages featured inspirational sayings or advice such as “look after your friends” or “believe in yourself.”

Does mental-health-related messaging on the back of new findings or realisations about the need for, say, speaking out on depression and anxiety count as science communication? It does to me; by all means, it’s “news I can use”.

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Three of the Facebook-primary pages belong to prominent astrophysicists. Not surprisingly, about half or more of the posts on these pages were related to astronomy or physics: Dr. Michio Kaku (58%), Stephen Hawking (58%) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (48%).

Ha! It would be interesting to find out why science’s most prominent public authority figures in the last few decades have all been physicists of some kind. I already have some ideas but that’ll be a different post.

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Useful takeaways for me as science editor, The Wire:

  1. Pages that stick to a narrower range of topics do better than those that cover all areas of science
  2. Controversial topics such as GMOs “didn’t appear often” on the 30 pages surveyed – this is surprising because you’d think divisive issues would attract more audience engagement. However, I also imagine the pages’ owners might not want to post on those issues to avoid flame wars (😐), stay away from inconclusive evidence (😄), not have to take a stand that might hurt them (🤔) or because issue-specific nuances make an issue a hard-sell (🙄).
  3. Most posts that shared discoveries were focused on “energy and environment, geology, and archeology”; half of all posts about physics and astronomy were about discoveries

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

Credit: aitoff/pixabay

Happy Lord of the Rings Day!

The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series exhibited a rabid yet desirable iconoclasm, through which its author Steven Erikson elucidated every trope of epic fantasy and then shit on it. I came out of reading the series feeling like nothing could surprise me anymore except some other Erikson fare. The man himself might not be appreciative of this outcome; the 10-book series was, and is, more like a drug to me than anything else.

At the start of any book you implicitly enter into a covenant with the author that you’ll the read the book in return for being allowed to expect that it will entertain you. This is because books are not allowed to disappoint you – an expectation that’s actually true of every form of art that’s produced for public consumption. The experience of disappointment, even though it’s a common emotion, is not an aspiration. There’s no market nor the (mainstream) aesthetic for it.

At some level, what Erikson ruined for me was the ability to expect to be surprised or entertained by whatever was coming. This is a remarkable thing for the consumption of fantasy to achieve because fantasy is an evacuation from our reality unto a different one more suited to making the author’s point while also not being too contrived (although that’s a hyper-reductive definition). And for millions of people around the world, including myself, the doorway to realising how good fantasy could be was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lord of the Rings didn’t succeed by being too whimsical – a trait many simpleminded folk conflate with the fantasy genre – but in fact the opposite. It was tightly knit, gorgeously situated, described and narrated, in a world somewhat different from our own. Its success lay in its storytelling as much as in its seminal nature: Lord of the Rings, for many of us, was the first. It has had and will continue to have a certain quality of primacy associated with readers’ memories of it.

It set many readers’ expectations in terms of what they could expect from the fantasy genre: not frolicking cartoons for children but goddamned epics. The Malazan series took this premise and bled it to death in a beautiful, beautiful way. If Lord of the Rings was the gateway drug for realising, and acknowledging, the potential of fantasy to be assessed in the same league as mainstream literature, the Malazan series is the Manitoba shlimbo.

I’m sure you recognise this post has been a roundabout way of saying Malazan ruined me for other books, and you’re probably wondering, “What a hubristic schmuck.” What a hubristic schmuck indeed. One of the more amazing components of the reading experience that regular book-readers take for granted is the ability to clench your teeth and grind through the more boring parts of a book – a sort of restrained deferment to the idea that though the book may not be entertaining now, entertainment remains in the offing. That’s what I miss being able to do, and that’s the whole difference between plodding slowly through a book and giving up at p. 15 and throwing it away.

Yes, we’re allowed to stop reading books that are boring, but we, especially I, get bored very easily – and I’m almost proud of it because it’s a skill I’ve honed to allow me to quickly spot, and correct, dull news reports. I also need to relearn what it means to make a small cluster of points over 250 pages or more. Reacquiring a habit like reading isn’t easy, particularly if you lost it for the reasons specified above. So to make it easier for me to get back on that wagon, I’m going to start with obviously popular books – often written by white men; first on the list is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

So far so good.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day! Quoting verbatim from last year’s post on the same date:

March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring.

Watch the films, read the books, talk about it, read about it, write about it. Do whatever it takes you to remember the potential of fantasy fiction to be a legitimate way to survive and cherish our realities.

Featured image credit: aitoff/pixabay.

K. Sivan in Tirumala. Source: YouTube

First temple, then launchpad?

ISRO chairman K. Sivan is free to worship and worship any deity he bloody well wants ; that’s his right. But it’s not entirely comforting when you think back about all the chairpersons ISRO has had – all men, all Hindus – who have made offerings at temples to “take ISRO to new heights” or similar.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the people’s right to any religion but Article 51AH, which asks people to cultivate a scientific temper, calls into question why those who are leaders of a national space industry have reason to leave anything about the missions they are responsible for in the hands of an “almighty” being.

Another thing that bothers me about ISRO’s supplicants-in-chief is also something that bothers me about the day-to-day practice of theism: attributing successes to the work of a deity instead of to the hard work and convictions of regular, whether or not particularly skilled, people (and elements of the natural universe). In the same vein, every time Sivan, K. Radhakrishnan, G. Madhavan Nair or K. Kasturirangan visited a temple – and all of them have – one felt as if ‘their ISRO’ itself was subject to the benevolence of a deity.

… and what has thus far only been upper-caste Hindu deities, an indictment of the lack of diversity at ISRO, in turn an echo of the lack of diversity within the space sector. Call me a cynic but I’m sure the RSS and its ilk would have given a more outrageous fuck had the chairperson been Muslim/Christian or of a lower caste. And I’m sure sections of the media would’ve lapped this up with extortionate delight.

But what irks me most of all is that these men are leaders. Millions of people look up to them, whether for guidance or for inspiration. Many of them are children – and a part of what they’re hearing is that some things at ISRO work out only if a god deigns it.

Irrespective of their being public figures, ISRO’s chairpersons are, “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part” … “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion” . But because they are also public figures, which allows me to be concerned about what they’re up to, ISRO’s leaders who pay temple visits to “pray for ISRO” also have a duty to openly clarify the following:

  1. Why they are praying “for ISRO”
  2. If smart, hard and/or ethical work is a component of ISRO’s success
  3. Whether they or their beliefs have been the source of any discomfort within the organisation…

… every time they make a temple visit and then speak to the press.

Public displays of Hinduism, signalling ISRO as an organisation benefiting from Hindu benevolence, and shifting the focus away from hard scientific labour to the blessing of gods – all of these are messages with potential for malevolence, and public figures like ISRO chiefs have been legitimising them by communicating them.

Like I said before, Sivan can follow any religion he bloody well wants, but in a politico-religious climate like ours, people – whether public figures or not – must interrogate the meaning of various forms of public participation more before engaging with them. They need to be smarter about what they say and how they act in public. It’s not rocket science.

Featured image source: YouTube.

Credit: hschmider/pixabay

The Meerut mahayagya

Did some back-of-the-envelope calculations about the Meerut mahayagya, where a bunch of Hindu priests are burning 50 tonnes of mango wood and approx. 10 million tablespoons of ghee in a mega-ritual to “purify the air”, over nine days. Can’t make this stuff up.

So 50 tonnes of hardwood releases 8.25 x 1011 joules and 10 million tablespoons of ghee releases 4.6 x 1012 joules of heat.

The slow and fast pyrolysis of hard wood also releases carbon monoxide/dioxide, methane, aldehydes, ketenes, epoxides and other fatty acids and hydrocarbons.

The priests believe that “holy ghee” produces large quantities of oxygen when it burns. Not sure where this claim originated by we all know this isn’t possible: as a triglyceride, ghee can’t do that when it burns, let alone “10 grams producing one tonne”.

There’s another “yagya” of greater magnitude happening in Delhi, where priests are coming together for seven days for the ritual to enhance “national security”.

There’s been a bit of literature – scientific and journalistic – in the recent past about whether or not climate change may be driving, rather encouraging, human conflicts by endangering quantities of and access to shared resources (chiefly water).

Now, without getting into silly lines of thought like “which religion has the cleanest rituals” (unanswerable for numerous reasons), it might be wise for believers to acknowledge that whatever their religion is, their rituals need to become more conscious of climatic needs.

The wise men and women who instituted rituals eons ago may not have seen the end of the world creep upon us in the form of a warming Earth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

As someone brought up in an orthodox Hindu household, and someone living in a country whose ruling party wants to transform the whole place into one orthodox Hindu household, I can safely say that the way we acknowledge the pride of place we accord to fire in our worldview needs an overhaul.

I’m sure various other rituals outside of Hinduism will need to be questioned as well.

Burning 50 tonnes of mango wood to “purify the air” is moronic. The wood was cut down and transported to Delhi from some other place. The carbon footprint of such deforestation and transportation takes the damage far beyond the 825 GJ mentioned above, and makes it more multifarious, too.

Public assertions of religious privilege and caste hegemony already sow dark seeds of conflict. But uprooting trees from one place is a form of violence perpetrated against that place; as the world warms further, the brutality of it will only be perceived more strongly.

To take the wood to another place to be burnt… that’s some very distended sense of entitlement.

Featured image credit: hschmider/pixabay.