Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Looking for gemstones in the gutter

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Credit: fernandozhiminaicela/pixabay

Moon mission pushed to October, so we wait

So, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan 2 mission to the Moon has been pushed to October from April. Delays of this sort are to be expected for missions of this scale, although I’ve also heard that ISRO often does a poor job of setting realistic launch dates for its missions in general.

The actual launch window for Chandrayaan 2 had been April-November, but recent reports in the media quoting ISRO officials had created the impression that people were confident April would be it.

But now, with the announcement of delay, officials’ confidence on display earlier this year that the launch would happen in April is now in serious question. The most recent media report I can find that quotes a senior official saying Chandrayaan 2 will be launched in April is dated February 16, 2018. The primary Google search result still says “April 2018”.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 20.50.47

I also find it curious that the mission’s delay was announced barely 30 or so days before it was slated to launch instead of much earlier. For missions of this size, delays can be anticipated sooner… unless something unexpected has happened. Has it? No clue. Is it because of the probe itself or the launcher, a GSLV Mk II? Again, no clue.

So we do what we always have: wait.

Mission readiness is one thing but setting realistic launch dates, communicating them to the public in a timely manner and keeping all stakeholders – including the people – informed of the reasons for delay are quite another.

Featured image credit: fernandozhiminaicela/pixabay.

Jayant Narlikar’s pseudo-defence of Darwin

Jayant Narlikar, the noted astrophysicist and emeritus professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, recently wrote an op-ed in The Hindu titled ‘Science should have the last word’. There’s probably a tinge of sanctimoniousness there, echoing the belief many scientists I’ve met have that science will answer everything, often blithely oblivious to politics and culture. But I’m sure Narlikar is not one of them.

Nonetheless, the piece IMO was good and not great because what Narlikar has written has been written in the recent past by many others, with different words. It was good because the piece’s author was Narlikar. His position on the subject is now in the public domain where it needs to be if only so others can now bank on his authority to stand up for science themselves.

Speaking of authority: there is a gaffe in the piece that its fans – and The Hindu‘s op-ed desk – appear to have glazed over. If they didn’t, it’s possible that Narlikar asked for his piece to be published without edits, and which could have either been further proof of sanctimoniousness or, of course, distrust of journalists. He writes:

Recently, there was a claim made in India that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incorrect and should not be taught in schools. In the field of science, the sole criterion for the survival of a theory is that it must explain all observed phenomena in its domain. For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. This is because the origin of life on earth is still unexplained by science. However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.

@avinashtn, @thattai and @rsidd120 got the problems with this excerpt, particularly the part in bold, just right in a short Twitter exchange, beginning with this tweet (please click-through to Twitter to see all the replies):

Gist: the origin of life is different from the evolution of life.

But even if they were the same, as Narlikar conveniently assumes in his piece, something else should have stopped him. That something else is also what is specifically interesting for me. Sample what Narlikar said next and then the final line from the excerpt above:

For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. … However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.

Darwin’s theory of evolution got many things right, continues to, so there is a sizeable chunk in the domain of evolutionary biology where it remains both applicable and necessary. However, it is confusing that Narlikar believes that, should some explanations for some phenomena thus far not understood arise, Darwin’s theories as a whole could become obsolete. But why? It is futile to expect a scientific theory to be able to account for “all observed phenomena in its domain”. Such a thing is virtually impossible given the levels of specialisation scientists have been able to achieve in various fields. For example, an evolutionary biologist might know how migratory birds evolved but still not be able to explain how some birds are thought to use quantum entanglement with Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.

The example Mukund Thattai provides is fitting. The Navier-Stokes equations are used to describe fluid dynamics. However, scientists have been studying fluids in a variety of contexts, from two-dimensional vortices in liquid helium to gas outflow around active galactic nuclei. It is only in some of these contexts that the Navier-Stokes equations are applicable; that they are not entirely useful in others doesn’t render the equations themselves useless.

Additionally, this is where Narlikar’s choice of words in his op-ed becomes more curious. He must be aware that his own branch of study, quantum cosmology, has thin but unmistakable roots in a principle conceived in the 1910s by Niels Bohr, with many implications for what he says about Darwin’s theories.

Within the boundaries of physics, the principle of correspondence states that at larger scales, the predictions of quantum mechanics must agree with those of classical mechanics. It is an elegant idea because it acknowledges the validity of classical, a.k.a. Newtonian, mechanics when applied at a scale where the effects of gravity begin to dominate the effects of subatomic forces. In its statement, the principle does not say that classical mechanics is useless because it can’t explain quantum phenomena. Instead, it says that (1) the two mechanics each have their respective domain of applicability and (2) the newer one must be resemble the older one when applied to the scale at which the older one is relevant.

Of course, while scientists have been able to satisfy the principle of correspondence in some areas of physics, an overarching understanding of gravity as a quantum phenomenon has remained elusive. If such a theory of ‘quantum gravity’ were to exist, its complicated equations would have to be able to resemble Newton’s equations and the laws of motion at larger scales.

But exploring the quantum nature of spacetime is extraordinarily difficult. It requires scientists to probe really small distances and really high energies. While lab equipment has been setup to meet this goal partway, it has been clear for some time that it might be easier to learn from powerful cosmic objects like blackholes.

And Narlikar has done just that, among other things, in his career as a theoretical astrophysicist.

I don’t imagine he would say that classical mechanics is useless because it can’t explain the quantum, or that quantum mechanics is useless because it can’t be used to make sense of the classical. More importantly, should a theory of quantum gravity come to be, should we discard the use of classical mechanics all-together? No.

In the same vein: should we continue to teach Darwin’s theories for lack of a better option or because it is scientific, useful and, through the fossil record, demonstrable? And if, in the future, an overarching theory of evolution comes along with the capacity to subsume Darwin’s, his ideas will still be valid in their respective jurisdictions.

As Thattai says, “Expertise in one part of science does not automatically confer authority in other areas.” Doesn’t this sound familiar?

Featured image credit: sipa/pixabay.

The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO

For space, frugality is a harmful aspiration


‘ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to cost lesser than Hollywood movie Interstellar – here’s how they make it cost-effective’, staff, Moneycontrol, February 20, 2018. 

‘Chandrayaan-2 mission cheaper than Hollywood film Interstellar’, Surendra Singh, Times of India, February 20, 2018. 

The following statements from the Moneycontrol and Times of India articles have no meaning:

  1. The cost of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was less than the production cost of the film Gravity.
  2. The cost of ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 mission is expected to be less than the production cost of the film Interstellar.

It’s like saying the angular momentum of a frog is lower than the speed of light. “But of course,” you’re going to say, “we’re comparing angular momentum to speed – they have different dimensions”. Well, the production cost of a film and mission costs also have different dimensions if you cared to look beyond the ‘$’ prefix. That’s because you can’t just pick up two dollar figures, decide which one’s lower and feel good about that without any social and economic context.

For example, what explains the choice of films to compare mission costs to? Is it because Gravity and Interstellar were both set in space? Is it because both films are fairly famous? Is it also because both films were released recently? Or is it because they offered convenient numbers? It’s probably the last one because there’s no reason otherwise to have picked these two films over, say, After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant – all of which were set in space AND cost less to make than Interstellar.

So I suspect it would be equally fair to say that the cost of C’yaan 2 is more than the budget of After Earth, Elysium, The Martian, Independence Day: Resurgence or Alien: Covenant. But few are going to spin it like this because of two reasons:

  1. The cost of anything has to be a rational, positive number, so saying cost(Y) is less than cost(X) would imply that cost(X) > cost(Y) ≥ 0; however, saying cost(Y) is greater than cost(X) doesn’t give us any real sense of what cost(Y) could be because it could approach ∞ or…
  2. Make cost (Y) feel like it’s gigantic, often because your reader assumes cost(Y) should be compared to cost(X) simply because you’ve done so

Now, what comparing C’yaan 2’s cost to that of making Interstellar achieves very well is a sense of the magnitude of the number involved. It’s an excellent associative mnemonic that will likely ensure you don’t forget how much C’yaan 2 cost – except you’d also have to know how much Interstellar cost. Without this bit of the statement, you have one equation and two variables, a.k.a. an unsolvable problem.

Additionally, journalists don’t use such comparisons in other beats. For example, when the Union budget was announced on February 1 this year, nobody was comparing anything to the production costs of assets that had a high cultural cachet. Rs 12.5 crore was Rs 12.5 crore; it was not framed as “India spends less on annual scholarships for students with disabilities than it cost to make Kabali“.

This suggests that such comparisons are reserved by some journalists for matters of space, which in turn raises the possibility that those journalists, and their bosses, organisations and readers, are prompted to think of costs in the space sector as something that must always be brought down. This is where this belief becomes pernicious: it assumes a life of its own. It shouldn’t. Lowering costs becomes a priority only after scientists and engineers have checked tens, possibly hundreds, of other boxes. Using only dollar figures to represent this effort mischaracterises it as simply being an exercise in cost reduction.

So, (risking repetition:) comparing a mission cost to a movie budget tells us absolutely nothing of meaning or value. Thanks to how Moneycontrol’s phrased it, all I know now is that C’yaan 2 is going to cost less than $165 million to make. Why not just say that and walk away? (While one could compare $165 million to mission costs at other space agencies, ISRO chief K. Sivan has advised against it; if one wants to compare it to other PSUs in India, I would advise against it.) The need to bring Interstellar into this, of course, is because we’ve got to show up the West.

And once we’re done showing up the West, we still have to keep. Showing up. The West. Because we’re obsessed with what white people do in first-world countries. If we didn’t have them to show up, who knows, we’d have framed ISRO news differently already because we’d have been able to see $165 million for what it is: a dimensionless number beyond the ‘$’ prefix. Without any other details about C’yaan 2 itself, it’s pretty fucking meaningless.

Please don’t celebrate frugality. It’s an unbecoming tag for any space programme. ISRO may have been successful in keeping costs down but, in the long run, the numbers will definitely go up. Frugality is a harmful aspiration vis-à-vis a sector banking on reliability and redundancy. And for fuck’s sake, never compare: the act of it creates just the wrong ideas about what space agencies are doing, what they’re supposed to be doing and how they’re doing it. For example, consider Sivan’s answer when asked by a Times of India reporter as to how ISRO kept its costs down:

Simplifying the system, miniaturising the complex big system, strict quality control and maximising output from a product, make the missions of Indian space agency cost-effective. We keep strict vigil on each and every stage of development of a spacecraft or a rocket and, therefore, we are able to avoid wastage of products, which helps us minimise the mission cost.

If I didn’t know Sivan was saying this, I’d have thought it was techno-managerial babble from Dilbert (maybe with the exception of QC). More importantly, Sivan doesn’t say here what ISRO is doing differently from other space agencies (such as, say, accessing cheaper labour), which is what would matter when you’re rearing to go “neener neener” at NASA/ESA, but sticks to talking about what everyone already does. Do you think NASA and ESA waste products? Do they not remain vigilant during each and every stage of development? Do they not have robust QC standards and enforcement regimes?

Notice here that Sivan isn’t saying “we’re doing it cheaper than others”, only that doing these things keeps the space agency “cost-effective”. Cost-effective is not the same as frugal.

Featured image: The Moon impact probe that went up on the PSLV C11 mission along with Chandrayaan 1. Credit: ISRO.

Credit: StockSnap/pixabay

On that Poynter debate about stock images and ethical visual journalism

Response to Mark Johnson, Article about free images ‘contradicts everything I hold true about journalism’, Poynter, February 9, 2018. 

Let’s get the caveats out of the way:

  • The article to which Johnson is responding did get some of its messaging wrong. As Johnson wrote, it suggested the following: “We don’t think about visuals BUT visuals are critically important. The solutions offered amount to scouring the web for royalty-free and (hopefully) copyright-released stock images.”
  • In doing so, the original article may have further diminished prospects for visual journalists in newsrooms around the country (whether the US or India), especially since Poynter is such a well-regarded publisher among editors and since there already aren’t enough jobs available on the visual journalism front.
  • I think visual journalists are important in any newsroom that includes a visual presentation component because they’re particularly qualified to interrogate how journalism can be adapted to multimedia forms and in what circumstances such adaptations can strain or liberate its participants’ moral and ethical positions.

That said, IMO Johnson himself may have missed a bit of the nuances of this issue. Before we go ahead: I’m going to shorten “royalty-free and/or copyright-released” to CC0, which is short for the Creative Commons ‘No Rights Reserved’ license. It allows “scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law.” However, what I’m going to say should be true for most other CC licenses (including BY, BY-SA, BY-SA-NC, BY-SA-ND and BY-SA-NC-ND).

By providing an option for publishers to look for CC0 images, the authors of the original piece may have missed an important nuance: publishers come in varying sizes; the bigger the publisher is, the less excusable it is for it to not have a visual journalism department in-house. For smaller (and the smallest) publishers, however, having access to CC0 images is important because (a) producing original images and videos can invoke prohibitive costs and (b) distribution channels of choice such as Facebook and Twitter penalise the absence of images on links shared on these platforms.

Bigger publishers have an option and should, to the extent possible, exercise that option to hire illustrators, designers, video producers and reporters, podcasters, etc. To not do so would be to abdicate professional responsibilities. However, in the interest of leveraging the possibilities afforded by the internet as well as of keeping our news professional but also democratic, it’s not fair to assume that it’s okay to penalise smaller publishers simply because they’re resorting to using CC0 images. A penalty it will be if they don’t: Facebook, for example, will deprioritise their content on people’s feeds. So the message that needs to be broadcast is that it’s okay for smaller publishers to use CC0 images but also that it’s important for them to break away from the practice as they grow.

Second: Johnson writes,

Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice — you don’t know the provenance of the image, you don’t know the conditions under which it was created and you don’t know where else it has been used. It degrades the journalistic integrity of the site. Flip it around — what if there were generic quotes inserted into a story? They wouldn’t advance the narrative at all, they would just act as filler.

He’s absolutely right to equate text and images: they both help tell a story and they should both be treated with equal respect and consequence. (Later in his article, Johnson goes on to suggest visuals may in fact be more consequential because people tend to remember them better.) However, characterising stock images as the journalistic equivalent of blood diamonds is unfair.

For example, it’s not clear what Johnson means by “generic quotes”. Sometimes, some quotes are statements that need to be printed to reflect its author’s official position (or lack thereof). For another, stock images may not be completely specific to a story but they could fit its broader theme, for example, in a quasi-specific way (after all, there are millions of CC0 images to pick from).

But most importantly, the allegations drub the possibilities of the Open Access (OA) movement in the realms of digital knowledge-production and publishing. By saying, “Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice”, Johnson risks offending those who create visual assets and share it with a CC0 license expressly to inject it into the public domain – a process by which those who are starved of resources in one part of the world are not also starved of information produced in another. Journalism shouldn’t – can’t – be free because it includes some well-defined value-adds that need to be paid for. But information (and sometimes knowledge) can be free, especially if those generating them are willing to waive being paid for them.

My go-to example has been The Conversation. Its articles are written by experts with PhDs in the subjects they’re writing about (and are affiliated with reputable institutions). The website is funded by contributions from universities and labs. The affiliations of its contributors and their conflicts of interest, if any, are acknowledged with every article. Best of all, its articles are all available to republish for free under at least a CC BY license. Their content is not of the ‘stock’ variety; their sentences and ideas are not generic. Reusing their articles may not advance the narrative inherent in them but would I say it hurts journalists? No.

Royalty-free and copyright-released images and videos free visual journalists from being involved every step of the way. This is sadly but definitely necessary in circumstances where they might not get paid, where there might not be the room, inclination or expertise necessary to manage and/or work with them, where an audience might not exist that values their work and time.

This is where having, using and contributing to a digital commons can help. Engaging with it is a choice, not a burden. Ignoring those who make this choice to argue that every editor must carefully consider the visual elements of a story together with experts and technicians hired just for this purpose is akin to suggesting that proponents of OA/CC0 content are jeopardising opportunities for visual journalists to leave their mark. This is silly, mostly because it leaves the central agent out of the picture: the publisher.

It’s a publisher’s call to tell a story through just text, just visuals or both. Not stopping to chide those who can hire visual journalists but don’t while insisting “it’s a big part of what we do” doesn’t make sense. Not stopping to help those who opt for text-only because that’s what they can afford doesn’t make sense either.

Featured image credit: StockSnap/pixabay.

A radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn's moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA

Why Titan is awesome #11


Here we go again. 😄 As has been reported, NASA has been interested in sending a robotic submarine to Saturn’s moon Titan to explore the hydrocarbon lakes near its north pole. Various dates have been mentioned and in all it seems likely the mission will be able to take off around 2040. In the 22 years we have left, we’ve got to build the submarine and make sure it can run autonomously on Titan, where the sea-surface temperature is about 95 K, whose waterbodies liquid-hydrocarbon-bodies are made of methane, ethane and nitrogen, and with density variations of up to 30%.

So researchers at Washington State University (WSU) tried to recreate the conditions of benthic Titan – specifically as they would be inside Kraken and Ligeia Mare – by working with the values of four variables: pressure, temperature, density and composition. Their apparatus consisted of a small, cylindrical cartridge heater submerged inside a cell containing methane, ethane and nitrogen, with controls to measure the values of the variables as well as modify conditions if needed. The scientists took a dozen readings as they varied the concentration of methane, ethane and nitrogen, the pressure, sea temperature, the heater surface temperature and the heat flux at bubble incipience.

The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The experimental setup used by WSU researchers to recreate the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan's liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: WSU/NASA
The data logged by WSU researchers pertaining to the conditions inside one of Titan’s liquid-hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

Based on them, they were able to conclude:

  • The moon’s lakes don’t freeze over even though their surface temperature is proximate to the freezing temperature of methane and ethane because of the dissolved nitrogen. The gas lowers the mixture’s freezing point (by about 16 K below the triple point), thus preventing the formation of icebergs that the robotic submarine would then have had to be designed to avoid (there’s a Titanic joke in here somewhere).
  • However, more nitrogen isn’t necessarily a good thing. It dissolves better in its liquid-hydrocarbon surroundings as the pressure increases and the temperature decreases – both of which will happen at lower depths. And the more nitrogen there is, the more the liquids surrounding the submarine are going to effervesce (i.e. release gas).

What issues would this pose to the vehicle? According to a conference paper authored among others by Jason Hartwig, a member of the WSU team, and presented earlier this year,

Effervescence of nitrogen gas may cause issues in two operational scenarios for any submersible on Titan. In the quiescent case, bubbles that form may interfere with sensitive science measurements, such as composition measurements, in acoustic transmission for depth sounding, and sidescan sonar imaging. In the moving case, bubbles that form along the submarine may coalesce at the aft end of the craft and cause cavitation in the propellers, impacting propulsive performance.

  • The quantity of effervescence and the number of sites on the submarine’s surface along which bubbles formed was observed to increase the warmer the machine’s outer surface got.
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan's cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU
The planned design of the submarine NASA plans to use to explore Titan’s cold hydrocarbon lakes. Source: Hartwig and Leachman, 2017/WSU

If NASA engineers get all these details right, then their submarine will work. But making sure the instruments onboard will be able to make the observations they’ll need to make and the log the data they’ll need to log presents its own challenges. When one of the members of the WSU team decided to look into the experimental cell using a borescope (which is what an endoscope is called outside a hospital) and a video recorder, this is what he got:


Oh, Titan.

(Obligatory crib: the university press release‘s headline goes ‘WSU researchers build -300ºF alien ocean to test NASA outer space submarine’. But in the diagram of the apparatus above, note that the cartridge heater standing in for the submarine is 5 cm long. So the researchers haven’t built an alien ocean; they’ve simply reconstructed a few thimblefuls.)

  1. Why Titan is awesome #1
  2. Why Titan is awesome #2
  3. Why Titan is awesome #3
  4. Why Titan is awesome #4
  5. Why Titan is awesome #5
  6. Why Titan is awesome #6
  7. Why Titan is awesome #7
  8. Why Titan is awesome #8
  9. Why Titan is awesome #9
  10. Why Titan is awesome #10

Featured image: A radar image obtained by Cassini during a near-polar flyby on February 22, 2007, showing a big island in the middle of Kraken Mare on Saturn’s moon Titan. Caption and credit: NASA.

Note: This post was republished from late February 15 to the morning of February 16 because it was published too late in the night and received little traffic.

A Falcon 9 lifting off in 2014. Credit: SpaceX

ISRO v. SpaceX doesn’t make sense

Though I’ve never met the guy, I don’t hold Pallava Bagla in very high regard because his stories – particularly of the Indian space programme – for NDTV have often reeked of simplistic concerns, pettiness and, increasingly of late, a nationalistic pride. The most recent instance all these characteristics were put on display was February 12, when NDTV published a 20-minute video of Bagla interviewing K. Sivan, ISRO’s new chairman.

The video is headlined ‘New ISRO Chief Rocket Man Sivan K, A Farmer’s Son, Takes On SpaceX’. What a great story, innit? A farmer’s son taking on SpaceX chief Elon Musk! But if you’re able to stop there and ask a few questions, you’re going to realise that the headline is a load of tosh. First off, the statement that Sivan is a “farmer’s son” is a glancing reference, if not more, to that New York Times cartoon – the implicit jingoism of which we really must get past soon. The national government has been building false narratives around supporting farmers but here we are, valorising the son of one.

Also, referring to Sivan as a “farmer’s son” IMO reduces the man to that one factoid (particularly to serve a narrative Sivan himself may not wish to pursue), as if that’s all we’re going to choose to see about his origins, neglecting what else could have enabled him to succeed the way he has.

Second: ISRO “takes on SpaceX” is a dumb statement. ISRO is a public sector organisation; SpaceX is a private corporation. Their goals are so markedly different that I’m not entirely sure why whoever crafted the headline (not necessarily Bagla) feels ISRO might be threatened by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch (on February 4); I’m less sure why Bagla himself went on to spin his story thus. Case in point: SpaceX is going bigger to be able to take humans to Mars within 10 years; ISRO’s going smaller to help Antrix capitalise on the demand for launching micro and nanosats as well as bigger to launch heavier telecom satellites. Additionally, I know for a fact that ISRO has been cognisant of modularised launch vehicles for at least three years, and this isn’t something Sivan or anyone else has suddenly stopped to consider following the Falcon Heavy launch. The idea’s been around for a bit longer.

All of this is put on show in an exchange about five minutes into the video, as Bagla goes hard at the idea of ISRO possibly lagging behind SpaceX whereas Sivan says (twice) that the PSLV and the Falcon 9 can’t be compared. Transcript:

KS: We can’t compare how much the launch vehicles cost. It depends on the environment in which the manufacturing is realised. I can assure you that our costs are very low because of the way we are manufacturing, the materials we’ve chosen to work with – this way, our costs are always low. But I don’t want to compare because this is always subjective.

PB: But at the same time, we are known for our very low cost missions. For a Falcon 9, they charge about $70 million per launch (ballpark figures) while India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price. This included the rocket and the satellite, going all the way to Mars. Does that make us feel like we’re very, very competitive in pricing, which is why so many foreign customers are also coming to India?

(ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission was a technology demonstrator. The endeavour’s primary mission was to provide a proof of concept of an Indian orbiter at Mars. Second, the satellite’s size and capabilities were both limited by the PSLV’s payload capacity; to wit, MOM’s scientific payload weighed a measly 15 kg whereas the NASA MAVEN, which launched in the same window as MOM, had instruments weighing 65 kg. Third, not many scientific papers have been published on the back of MOM-specific findings. When Bagla says “India did a mission to Mars for roughly the same price” as a single Falcon 9 launch, I also invite him to consider that ISRO has access to cheaper labour than is available in the West and that the MOM launch was noncommercial whereas the Falcon 9 is a rocket developed – and priced – for commerce and profit.)

KS: Foreign customers are coming to India for two reasons. One is, as you said, we’re cost effective – mainly by way of manufacturing and selection of materials. We also make simple rockets. The second reason customers prefer us is the robustness. The reliability of our PSLV is large. When a customer comes to us, they want to make sure there’s a 100% chance their satellite reaches its orbital slot.

PB: So are we cheaper than SpaceX or not?


KS: Again, I don’t want to compare because it is not correct to compare. If the two rockets were made in the same timeframe, in the same place with equivalent amounts of effort, we can compare. But the rockets have been made in different parts of the world, according to different needs. What I can say is that we have a low-cost vehicle.

Almost exactly a year ago, I’d argued the same thing for The Wire, in an article that didn’t go down well with most readers (across the political spectrum). The thrust of it was that the PSLV had been designed from 1977 onwards to launch Indian remote-sensing satellites and that ISRO receives all its funding from the Department of Space. OTOH, SpaceX designed the Falcon 9 to fit prevailing market needs and, though the company receives a lot of money through NASA contracts, its raison d’être as a private entity is to make money by commercialising launch services. Excerpt:

Casting the GSLV, presumably the Mk-III, as a super-soldier in the space-war arena could be misguided. Unlike SpaceX or Arianespace, but much like Roscosmos, ISRO is a state-backed space agency. It has a mandate from the Department of Space to be India’s primary launch-services provider and fulfil the needs of both private entities as well as the government, but government first, at least since that is how policies are currently oriented. This means the GSLV Mk-III has been developed keeping in mind the satellites India currently needs, or at least needs to launch without ISRO having to depend on foreign rockets. …

On the other hand, Arianespace and SpaceX are both almost exclusively market-driven, SpaceX less so because it was set up with the ostensible goal of colonising Mars. Nonetheless, en route to building the Falcon Heavy, the company has built a workhorse of its own in the Falcon 9. And either way, together with Arianespace, it has carved out a sizeable chunk of the satellite-launching market. …

Thus, though Antrix is tasked with maximising profits, ISRO shouldn’t bank on the commercial satellites market because its mix of priorities is more diverse than those of SpaceX or Arianespace. In other words, the point isn’t to belittle ISRO’s launchers but to state that such comparisons might just be pointless because it is a case of apples and oranges.

Sadly for Bagla – and many others like him looking the fools for pushing such a silly idea – our own space programme assumes value only when compared to someone else’s agenda, irrespective of whether the comparison even makes sense. I also wonder if Sivan thinks such are the questions the consumers of NDTV’s journalism want answered – an idea not so farfetched if you consider that not many journalists get access to ISRO’s top brass in the first place – as well as what fraction of the Indian citizenry consumes the success of the Indian space programme simply relative to the successes of others and not as an enterprise established to serve India’s needs first.

A screenshot from the film 'The Cloverfield Paradox' (2018). Source: Netflix

All the science in ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’

I watched The Cloverfield Paradox last night, the horror film that Paramount pictures had dumped with Netflix and which was then released by Netflix on February 4. It’s a dumb production: unlike H.R. Giger’s existential, visceral horrors that I so admire, The Cloverfield Paradox is all about things going bump in the dark. But what sets these things off in the film is quite interesting: a particle accelerator. However, given how bad the film was, the screenwriter seems to have used this device simply as a plot device, nothing else.

The particle accelerator is called Shepard. We don’t know what particles it’s accelerating or up to what centre-of-mass collision energy. However, the film’s premise rests on the possibility that a particle accelerator can open up windows into other dimensions. The Cloverfield Paradox needs this because, according to its story, Earth has run out of energy sources in 2028 and countries are threatening ground invasions for the last of the oil, so scientists assemble a giant particle accelerator in space to tap into energy sources in other dimensions.

Considering 2028 is only a decade from now – when the Sun will still be shining bright as ever in the sky – and renewable sources of energy aren’t even being discussed, the movie segues from sci-fi into fantasy right there.

Anyway, the idea that a particle accelerator can open up ‘portals’ into other dimensions isn’t new nor entirely silly. Broadly, an accelerator’s purpose is founded on three concepts: the special theory of relativity (SR), particle decay and the wavefunction of quantum mechanics.

According to SR, mass and energy can transform into each other as well as that objects moving closer to the speed of light will become more massive, thus more energetic. Particle decay is what happens when a heavier subatomic particle decomposes into groups of lighter particles because it’s unstable. Put these two ideas together and you have a part of the answer: accelerators accelerate particles to extremely high velocities, the particles become more massive, ergo more energetic, and the excess energy condenses out at some point as other particles.

Next, in quantum mechanics, the wavefunction is a mathematical function: when you solve it based on what information you have available, the answer spit out by one kind of the function gives the probability that a particular particle exists at some point in the spacetime continuum. It’s called a wavefunction because the function describes a wave, and like all waves, this one also has a wavelength and an amplitude. However, the wavelength here describes the distance across which the particle will manifest. Because energy is directly proportional to frequency (E = × ν; h is Planck’s constant) and frequency is inversely proportional to the wavelength, energy is inversely proportional to wavelength. So the more the energy a particle accelerator achieves, the smaller the part of spacetime the particles will have a chance of probing.

Spoilers ahead

SR, particle decay and the properties of the wavefunction together imply that if the Shepard is able to achieve a suitably high energy of acceleration, it will be able to touch upon an exceedingly small part of spacetime. But why, as it happens in The Cloverfield Paradox, would this open a window into another universe?

Spoilers end

Instead of directly offering a peek into alternate universes, a very-high-energy particle accelerator could offer a peek into higher dimensions. According to some theories of physics, there are many higher dimensions even though humankind may have access only to four (three of space and one of time). The reason they should even exist is to be able to solve some conundrums that have evaded explanation. For example, according to Kaluza-Klein theory (one of the precursors of string theory), the force of gravity is so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces (strong nuclear, weak nuclear and electromagnetic) because it exists in five dimensions. So when you experience it in just four dimensions, its effects are subdued.

Where are these dimensions? Per string theory, for example, they are extremely compactified, i.e. accessible only over incredibly short distances, because they are thought to be curled up on themselves. According to Oskar Klein (one half of ‘Kaluza-Klein’, the other half being Theodore Kaluza), this region of space could be a circle of radius 10-32 m. That’s 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 m – over five quadrillion times smaller than a proton. According to CERN, which hosts the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerated to 10 TeV can probe a distance of 10-19 m. That’s still one trillion times larger than where the Kaluza-Klein fifth dimension is supposed to be curled up. The LHC has been able to accelerate particles to 8 TeV.

The likelihood of a particle accelerator tossing us into an alternate universe entirely is a different kind of problem. For one, we have no clue where the connections between alternate universes are nor how they can be accessed. In Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), a wormhole is discovered by the protagonist to exist inside a blackhole – a hypothesis we currently don’t have any way of verifying. Moreover, though the LHC is supposed to be able to create microscopic blackholes, they have a 0% chance of growing to possess the size or potential of Interstellar‘s Gargantua.

In all, The Cloverfield Paradox is a waste of time. In the 2016 film Spectral – also released by Netflix – the science is overwrought, stretched beyond its possibilities, but still stays close to the basic principles. For example, the antagonists in Spectral are creatures made entirely as Bose-Einstein condensates. How this was even achieved boggles the mind, but the creatures have the same physical properties that the condensates do. In The Cloverfield Paradox, however, the accelerator is a convenient insertion into a bland story, an abuse of the opportunities that physics of this complexity offers. The writers might as well have said all the characters blinked and found themselves in a different universe.

My photo of the Lexus LS 500h as depicted in an ad in The Hindu, dated February 2, 2018.

Veblen cars and the risk of harbouring a useless concern for the climate

Lexus has an ad on the jacket of today’s The Hindu for its new premium hybrid electric vehicle, the LS 500h. The product description states that the car “extends relentless innovation to environmentally conscious engineering with a performance-centric Multi Stage Hybrid System. Crafted with luxury in mind and engineered with the environment at heart” (emphasis added).


This is first-class poop.

Obviously, as a Veblen good (priced at Rs 1.77 crore), the LS 500h is pandering to the self-indulgence of India’s upper class. The car allows the highfalutin to be able to claim that they’re riding around in a vehicle that’s environmentally friendly. It’s not. The LS 500h measures, in metres, 5.2 × 1.9 × 1.4 (l, b, h). That’s a lot for a carrying capacity of five persons. So the car’s design is quite effectively symptomatic of a belief that pro-environmental engineering is only about rethinking or retooling the car’s central source of power as opposed to redesigning it to take up less space on the roads as well.

As we all know, the public transport system in urban India is far from ideal. Buses are ill-maintained and don’t ply well-optimised routes. Auto-rickshaw fares are regulated but rarely, if ever, enforced. Trains always run at full capacity, are subject to frequent breakdowns and the associated infrastructure (e.g. stations) are unclean and, in many cases, unsafe. Overall, they are always in high demand and the commute experience they provide is often stressful. So those who can afford private transportation exercise the option (esp. in the form of two-wheelers). Ultimately, given that most parts of India’s tier I and II cities are unplanned formations, roads are often overcrowded, jammed and/or unnavigable (apart from being damaged themselves).

So improving this situation needs policymakers and citizens alike to assume an interdisciplinary approach, particularly since transport emissions also have to be mitigated to meet both climatic and health targets. In this multivariate context, one of the variables to be optimised for, among accessibility, affordability, etc., is space. Specifically, it becomes desirable for more people to occupy less space while commuting so that time spent traveling and fuel use efficiency are reduced and increased, resp.

For five people to occupy a ground area of 10 sq. metres in the LS 500h is bordering on the unconscionable in the specific context of Lexus claiming that the car was “engineered with the environment at heart”. Let’s be honest: this is a fancy car that’s like any other fancy car but with some fancy machines (in the form of two engines – electric and V6 – plus a Li-ion battery). It aspires to mitigate its own emissions but does nothing else that’s environmentally friendly; this is cutting-edge innovation as Lexus might like to claim but limited to the subset of thermodynamic consequences of using a car.

Whether this singular contribution will make a difference is also doubtful. For the upper class to be able to claim they’re being ‘green’ requires them to implement those claims at scale – particularly since possessing the car itself would require capital accumulation to the tune of a few tens of crores. Such wealth can be better redistributed to help those who can’t yet afford to live green but aspire to; in the long-term, sustainable living has the potential to be cheaper, but in the short-term, it is bound to be quite costly. Without redistribution, affirmative pro-climate action through the production and utilisation of Veblen goods will remain an oxymoron.

Featured image: My photo of the Lexus LS 500h as depicted in an ad in The Hindu, dated February 2, 2018.