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 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.

We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Dealing with plagiarism? Look at thy neighbour

Four doctors affiliated with Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal are going to be fired because they plagiarised data in two papers. The papers were retracted last year from the Bali Medical Journal, where they had been published. A dean at the university, Dipak Shrestha, told a media outlet that the matter will be settled within two weeks. A total of six doctors, including the two above, are also going to be blacklisted by the journal. This is remarkably swift and decisive action against a problem that refuses to go away in India for many reasons. But I’m not an apologist; one of those reasons is that many teachers at colleges and universities seem to think “plagiarism is okay”. And for as long as that attitude persists, academicians are going to be able to plagiarise and flourish in the country.

One of the other reasons plagiarism is rampant in India is the language problem. As Praveen Chaddah, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, has written, there is a form of plagiarism that can be forgiven – the form at play when a paper’s authors find it difficult to articulate themselves in English but have original ideas all the same. The unforgivable form is when the ideas are plagiarised as well. According to a retraction notice supplied by the Bali Medical Journal, the KU doctors indulged in plagiarism of the unforgivable kind, and were duly punished. In India, however, I’m yet to hear of an instance where researchers found to have been engaging in such acts were pulled up as swiftly as their Nepali counterparts were, or had sanctions imposed on their work within a finite period and in a transparent manner.

The production and dissemination of scientific knowledge should not have to suffer because some scientists aren’t fluent with a language. Who knows, India might already be the ‘science superpower’ everyone wants it to be if we’re able to account for information and knowledge produced in all its languages. But this does not mean India’s diversity affords it the license to challenge the use of English as the de facto language of science; that would be stupid. English is prevalent, dominant, even hegemonic (as K. VijayRaghavan has written). So if India is to make it to the Big League, then officials must consider doing these things:

  1. Inculcate the importance of communicating science. Writing a paper is also a form of communication. Teach how to do it along with technical skills.
  2. Set aside money – as some Australian and European institutions do1 – to help those for whom English isn’t their first, or even second, language write papers that will be appreciated for their science instead of rejected for their language (unfair though this may be).
  3. DO WHAT NEPAL IS DOING – Define reasonable consequences for plagiarising (especially of the unforgivable kind), enumerate them in clear and cogent language, ensure these sanctions are easily accessible by scientists as well as the public, and enforce them regularly.

Researchers ought to know better – especially the more prominent, more influential ones. The more well-known a researcher is, the less forgivable their offence should be, at least because they set important precedents that others will follow. And to be able to remind them effectively when they act carelessly, an independent body should be set up at the national level, particularly for institutions funded by the central government, instead of expecting the offender’s host institution to be able to effectively punish someone well-embedded in the hierarchy of the institution itself.

1. Hat-tip to Chitralekha Manohar.

Featured image credit: xmex/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Credit: DieElchin/pixabay

To watch ‘The Post’

I read a few reviews of The Post. Based on what the critics are saying, it seems the film has at least the potential to raise the spirits of many journalists today who could use a leg up. That said, I do resent that some of my friends and peers think I should be more excited about the film. This is how my conversations with them have generally gone.


Have you watched The Post?


OMG, why not?!

You mean you’d like me to be excited about watching a film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out but about which you don’t give a damn unless it’s brought to life by a pair of pompous (not to mention white) Hollywood actors while also blissfully ignorant of the fact that dangerous and consequential choices of the kind the journalists probably make in the film are made on a daily basis by journalists in many parts of the world?

… yeah.

Or do you mean have I watched the film about a story based in the industry I work day in, day out and I’m quite likely to know about but you wouldn’t acknowledge that until I joined the rest of you, went to the movies and finally walked away feeling its makers had mangled both the spirit of what had actually happened and reduced it down to the valour of a few people, when in fact a lot more hearts and minds went into achieving what they had, just so a small group of well-established actors could draw all the attention – while you walk away feeling the film was how things had actually happened and that I’m the cynic whose cynicism won’t switch off?

I’m going to walk away from you now.

Featured image credit: DieElchin/pixabay.

Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.

Still with WordPress, but from .com to .org

As some of you might know, I’ve been having some issues with in terms of their UX, their service as well as a few outages. I’ve been on the platform for almost a decade now, during which my account has been suspended twice for different reasons and, more recently, my blog was taken down for brief periods owing to disputes over content copyright. I know WordPress is not malicious – but it has certainly been inept, especially given the changes the platform has been undergoing in preparation for their major Gutenberg release. But I’ve reached a point where I’m no longer okay with tolerating such ineptitude.

So on January 5, 2018, I moved my blog out of to a self-hosted WordPress setup with KnownHost, a managed WordPress hosting provider. They had a bulk purchase sale going, so I bought a 12-month subscription for about $100. This is the new blog – with all the archives intact. I’m planning to shut down permanently on February 1, 2018. I’ve also moved most of my subscribers over to the new blog except for those who signed up to read my blog via email. These subscribers have now been moved to MailChimp (and that’s how you’re getting this email). Please make sure the emails don’t end up in your spam folder. There’s also an option to sign up in the sidebar in case you want to get on board with a different ID.

Happy 2018!

A shorter article about short gamma ray bursts lights up little

  • Identify a simple and well-defined question
  • Describe the question and answer it
  • Get the fuck out

Writing with these three rules in mind makes for a good science article. You stick to the point, you know what details to include and what to leave out and, most importantly, you set straightforward expectations and meet them. The overall effect is for the reader to walk away feeling not disappointed. That’s always a happy ending.

Sadly, not everyone writes like this – rather, more broadly, not all news publishers think of science articles this way. For example, The Hindu regularly publishes science articles so packed with information – about the study as much as its authors – that you’re left confused about what you just read. Was it a profile or was it an explainer? It doesn’t matter because it failed either way.

The latest example of this kind of writing is an article about short gamma ray bursts. The binary neutron star merger known by the gravitational-wave event designation GW170817 was expected by astrophysicists to have unleashed a short gamma ray burst at the moment of collision – but data obtained of the event shows no signs of the expected radio signature. A group of scientists led by Kunal Mooley from Oxford University suggested this could be because GW170817 released a new kind of gamma ray burst.

BusinessLine (a business newspaper with the same publisher and top management as The Hindu) carried an article attempting to discuss all this. Sample the opening para, a mulch of facts and inaccuracies:

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 09.18.40

“The one located on the outskirts of Pune”? Sounds like everyone must know about it even if they don’t. “First-ever detection of gravitation waves”? Not really: gravitation waves, a.k.a. gravity waves and unlike gravitational waves, can be observed in Earth’s atmosphere. Also, the first-ever detection of gravitational waves came last year; what came in August was the first-ever detection of a neutron star merger. The three US scientists won the award for building LIGO, not detecting GW170817.

The rest of the article tries to simultaneously explain Mooley and co.’s interpretation of the data and also provide a glimpse of his educational trajectory. Why would I want to know he studied in Pune and Mumbai? Unless this is because the author wanted to drive home the India connection – which is all the more troubling because it plays up an aspect of the researcher’s identity that is irrelevant to their professional accomplishment. I’ve noticed many publications succumbing to this kind of thinking: if researcher is Indian, cover the paper/study/whatever irrespective of the legitimacy, strength and/or novelty of what they’re saying.

The science ought to take precedent, not the researcher’s identity. But when it doesn’t, you typically end up writing something that’s definitely not news and likely trash. You end up wrapping your national pride around a core of stupidity. I recommend the pages of ScoopwhoopThe QuintThe Better IndiaDailyOThe Times of India and The New Indian Express, among others, for examples. It’s also possible that the author was conscious about providing an India connection so readers in India took the article more seriously. I’ve made noise about such behaviour many times before, such as here: science shouldn’t be assessed, or enjoyed, solely according to what it can do for humankind.

Finally, it’s possible that the newspaper itself wanted to establish all details on record for posterity – but AFAIK, the BusinessLine is not a newspaper of record. This of course is a minor point.

By ditching the extraneous details, the author and the editor could’ve had the space to focus on the science more, using better language and without the painful economy of words it’s currently striving to. They could even have devoted some words to discussing whether other astronomers have disputed Mooley’s interpretation (they have), an exercise that would’ve made the article more reliable than it is. And to those who’re saying the article was probably kept short because there might not have been space in the newspaper, I’ve a bigger complaint: why wasn’t a short version published in print and a longer version online?

In all, I don’t think BusinessLine is taking its science journalism seriously. The time is past when they could’ve gotten ahead simply by being one of the few publications in the country to write articles about short gamma ray bursts. But given the complacency with which the article seems to have been composed and edited, maybe that time shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It surely doesn’t now.

Featured image: An artist’s illustration of a bright gamma-ray burst. Caption and credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

The journey of a crow and the story of a black hole

The Washington Post has a review, and introduction therewith, of a curious new book called Ka, authored by John Crowley (acclaimed author of Great Work of Time). It is narrated from the POV of a crow named Dar Oakley, who journeys repeatedly into the realm of the dead with a human companion. A para from the WaPo piece caught my attention for its allusion to an unsolved problem in physics:

In many cultures, crows have long been regarded as “death-birds.” Eaters of carrion and corpses, they are sometimes even said to convey the soul into the afterlife. Crowley’s title itself alludes to this notion: Dar Oakley croaks out “ka,” which isn’t just a variant spelling of “caw,” but also the ancient Egyptian word for the spiritual self that survives the decay of the body. Yet what actually remains of us after our bones have been picked clean? Might our spirits then dwell in some Happy Valley or will we suffer in eternal torment? Could death itself be simply an adventure-rich dream from which we never awake? Who knows? The narrator, who might be a writer, says of his dead and much-missed wife Debra that “the ultimate continuation of her is me.” What, however, becomes of Debra when he too is dead?

What indeed. The question is left unanswered so the reader can confront the unanswerability supposedly implicit in this riddle. But while this scheme may be acceptable in a book-length “exploration of the bond between the living and the dead”, physicists don’t have much of a choice. They really want to know, would love to know, how a very similar situation plays out in the quantum realm.

It’s called the black hole information paradox. A black hole is a single point in space around which spacetime is folded into a sphere. This means that if you get trapped in this region of spacetime, you’re locked in. You can’t leave the sphere. The surface of this sphere is called the event horizon: it’s the shortest distance from the black hole from which you can pull away.

Now, there’s no way to tell two black holes apart if their mass, angular momentum and electric charge are the same. This is called the no-hair conjecture. This means that whatever a black hole swallows – whether it be physical matter or information as a sequence of 0s and 1s encoded as an electromagnetic signal – doesn’t retain its original shape or patterns. They become lost, observable only in changes to the black hole’s mass, angular momentum and/or electric charge.

In 1974, Stephen Hawking, Alexei Starobinsky and Yakov Zel’dovich found that, thanks to quantum mechanical effects near an event horizon, the black hole within could be emitting radiation out into space. So assuming a black hole contains a finite amount of energy and has stopped eating material/info from the outside, it will evaporate slowly over time and vanish. This is where the information paradox kicks in.

You’re obviously thinking the info the black hole once swallowed was all converted into energy and emitted as Hawking radiation. This is actually where the problem begins. Quantum mechanics may be whimsically counterintuitive about what it allows nature to do at its smallest scale. But it does have some rules of its own that it always follows. One of them is that information is always conserved, that when information passes into a black hole, it can’t be converted into the same energy mulch that everything else is converted to.

We don’t know what happens to the ‘spirit’ of Debra when Dar Oakley passes away. And we don’t know what happens to the information inside a black hole when the latter evaporates.

Black holes are unique objects of study for classical and non-classical physicists alike because they combine the consequences of both general relativity and quantum mechanics. Those pursuing a unified theory, broadly called quantum gravity, hope that data about black holes will help them find a way to reconcile the laws of nature at the biggest and smallest scales. Resolving the black hole information paradox is one such path.

For example, string theory, which is a technical framework that gives physicists and mathematicians the tools to solve problems in quantum gravity, proposes a way out in the name of the holographic principle. It states (in highly simplified terms) that the information trapped by a black hole is actually trapped along the event horizon and doesn’t fall inside it. Over time, fluctuations on the horizon release the information out. However, neither the complete shape and consequences of this theory nor some contradictory predictions are fully understood.

Even whether humans will be able to resolve this paradox in their lifetime at all remains to be seen – but it’s important to hope that such a thing is possible and that the story of a black hole’s life can be told from start to finish someday. Crowley also tries to answer Dar Oakley’s question about Debra’s fate thus (according to the WaPo review):

“Maybe not, said the Skeleton. But look at it this way. When you return home, you’ll tell the story of how you sought it and failed, and that story will be told and told again. And when you’re dead yourself, the story will go on being told, and in that telling you’ll speak and act and be alive again.”


Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

In solidarity with Nautilus's writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.