The pain is gone.

Reading some pages of fiction touched off old memories that I’d forgotten existed, bringing back to life words and, with them, sensations. Words were between words, ideas between ideas, color underneath hue.

Earlier, I wrote not to remember or document, I wrote because I knew of no other way to digest the world; when I wrote, I grew up. Every phrase I pushed back into the inspiration whence it had come, like a bullet pressed back into the wound, I’d bleed, but the blood would be blood, just there, undigested like a colored liquid I could see, feel it crawling, but not speak about. So I wrote relentlessly, good or bad, profound or – as often was the case – meaningless.

And then I’d read myself, I’d grow up just a little, and there’d be a little more to think about life. I’m not much of a traveller, a mover even, so over time, what I wrote about would have become mundane, featureless, like a barren tract of land that lay rasping, unable to breathe air and already alien to water because it had eaten and suckled on itself, if not for books. I grew up on the minutes of lives very different from my own – or whatever lay beneath all the pages of my ink – and soon couldn’t think for myself without even the gentlest consideration of another character’s opinion.

As the years passed, I began to frighten me, I was not comfortable with the decisions I made for myself. It wasn’t that I feared that I’d be the only one to blame; in fact, that thought had never struck. No, it was simply the lack of awareness of the self, a full man beneath the patina of literature, of scientific intellect and philosophical leanings, built upon all the uncertainties and failures that the litterateur above had thwarted. A part of me had gambled me away for knowledge of the desires of other men and women, while another waited, rather cowered, in its weakening shadow.

Finally, one day, the world arrived, and robbed me away: from books, from stories, from oh-so-important The Others. What was left of me emerged, looking upon the world as a continuous litany of disappointment, the pain and the shock of humiliation – much of it in my own eyes – still evident, and took its first few steps. It tottered. It fell. It stood up, and it fell again. When it learned to stand up and straight, it refused to fall ever again.

The child was man, the writer was gone, the learner was robbed, and the world was upon me, smothering me, it smothers me still… and then I found books once more. I long to return to my shell but the emergence seems irreversible. Now, when I look upon the words, I see words: I see that they are red, viscous, flowing only with steep gradient, still and even tending to crenellate. I know that it is blood, but the nerves are deadened. The pain is gone. It is difficult to grow up when the pain is gone.

Where's all the antimatter? New CERN results show the way.

If you look outside your window at the clouds, the stars, the planets, all that you will see is made of matter. However, when the universe was born, there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter. So where has all the antimatter gone?

The answer, if one is found, will be at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle physics experiment, now taking a breather while engineers refit it to make it even more powerful by 2015. Then, it will be able to spot tinier, much more shortlived particles than the Higgs boson, which itself is notoriously shortlived.

While it ran from 2008 to early 2013, the LHC was incredibly prolific. It smashed together billions of protons in each experiment at speeds close to light’s, breaking them open. Physicists hoped the things that’d tumble out might show why the universe has come to prefer matter over antimatter.

In fact, from 2013 to 2015, physicists will be occupied gleaning meaningful results from each of these experiments because they simply didn’t have enough time to sift through all of them while the machine was running.

They will present their results as papers in scientific journals. Each paper will will be the product of analysis conducted on experimental data corresponding to some experiment, each with some energy, some luminosity, and other such experimental parameters central to experimental physics.

One such paper was submitted to a journal on April 23, 2013, titled ‘First observation of CP violation in the decays of B_s mesons‘. According to this paper, its corresponding experiment was conducted in 2011, when the LHC was smashing away at 7 TeV centre-of-mass (c.o.m) collision energy. This is the energy at the point inside the LHC circuit where two bunches of protons collide.

The paper also notes that the LHCb detector was used to track the results of the collision. The LHCb is one of seven detectors situated on the LHC’s ring. It has been engineered to study a particle known as the beauty quark, which is more than 4.2 times heavier than a proton, and lasts for about one-hundred-trillionth of a second before breaking down into lighter particles, a process mediated by some of nature’s four fundamental forces.

The beauty is one of six kinds of quarks, and together with other equally minuscule particles called bosons and leptons, they all make up everything in the universe: from entire galaxies to individual atoms.

For example, for as long as it lives, the beauty quark can team up with another quark or antiquark, the antimatter counterpart, to form particles called mesons. Generally, mesons are particles composed of one quark and one antiquark.

Why don’t the quark and antiquark meet and annihilate each other in a flash of energy? Because they’re not of the same type. If a quark of one type and an antiquark of another type meet, they don’t annihilate.

The B_s meson that the April 23 paper talks about is a meson composed of one beauty antiquark and one strange quark. Thus the notation ‘B_s’: A B-meson with an s component. This meson violates a law of the universe physicists long though unbreakable, called the charge-conjugation/parity (CP) invariance. It states that if you took a particle, inverted its charge (‘+’ to ‘-‘ or ‘-‘ to ‘+’), and then interchanged its left and right, its behaviour shouldn’t change in a universe that conserved charge and parity.

Physicists, however, found in the 2011 LHCb data that the B_s meson was flouting the CP invariance rule. Because of the beauty antiquark’s and strange quark’s short lifetimes, the B_s meson only lasted for so long before breaking down into lighter particles, in this case called kaons and pions.

When physicists calculated the kaons‘s and pions‘s charges and compared it to the B_s meson’s, they added up. However, when they calculated the kaons‘s and pions‘s left- and right-handednesses, i.e. parities, in terms of which direction they were spinning in, they found an imbalance.

A force, called the weak force, was pushing a particle to spin one way instead of the other about 27 per cent of the time. According to the physicists’ paper, this result has been reached with a confidence-level of more than 5-sigma. This means that some reading in the data would disagree with their conclusion not more than 0.00001 per cent of the time, sufficient to claim direct evidence.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time evidence of CP violation in B-mesons had been spotted. On 17 May, 2010B-mesons composed of a beauty antiquark and a down quark were shown shown to decay at a much slower rate than B-antimesons of the same composition, in the process outlasting them. However, this is the first time evidence of this violation has been found in B_s mesons, a particle that has been called “bizarre”.

While this flies in the face of a natural, intuitive understanding of our universe, it is a happy conclusion because it could explain the aberration that is antimatter’s absence, one that isn’t explained by a theory in physics called the Standard Model.

Here was something in the universe that was showing some sort of a preference, ready to break the symmetry and uniformity of laws that pervade the space-time continuum.

Physicists know that the weak force, one of the fundamental forces of nature like gravity is, is the culprit. It has a preference for acting on left-handed particles and right-handed antiparticles. When such a particle shows itself, the weak force offers to mediate its breakdown into lighter particles, in the process resulting in a preference for one set of products over another.

But in order to fully establish the link between matter’s domination and the weak force’s role in it, physicists have to first figure out why the weak force has such biased preferences.

This post originally appeared in The Copernican science blog at The Hindu on April 25, 2013.

The wayward and cowardly introspector


No water and power at home today, so I wish you a horrible Tamil New Year’s Day, too. With nothing much to do – and the sun beating down upon Chennai at an unwavering 33° C that, in the company of still airs and 80% humidity, feels simply unlivable in – I sat around almost all day and thought about my life. Yes, unlivable-in conditions are always a good time to think about life.

For the last three weeks, the science editor at The Hindu, the man who becomes my boss every Wednesday, has been getting irritated at me and with good reason: I haven’t written anything for the science page. In fact, my only contribution to this page that comes out every Thursday has been the correction of a few spelling mistakes.

I’m not going to go on about not finding stories that suit my style or some shit like that. I haven’t been writing because I haven’t been looking for stories, and I haven’t been writing because, somehow, I haven’t been able to write. Yes, writers’ block (I’ve always doubted the validity of this excuse – sure, writers claim to experience it all the time, but what are the symptoms? I’m actually surprised the condition’s immense subjectivity hasn’t seen itself forced into nonexistence).

Why haven’t I been looking for stories? Two reasons. 1) I’m not able to ‘care about the world’ in that ‘direction’, and 2) Some other stuff came my way that seemed quite exciting. This isn’t to say writing stories for The Hindu isn’t exciting: I get such a kick out of seeing my name in one of the most respected newspapers in India.

You see, my responsibilities at The Hindu include (but are not limited to) writing for the science page once a week, writing a fortnightly column for Education Plus, concocting a weekly science quiz for the In School edition, handling The Hindu Blogs – that means ensuring our bloggers are happy and motivated, the content always meets the high standards we’ve come to set, the blogs section of the site is doing well in terms of hits and user engagement, and bringing in more bloggers into the fray – working with visualizations, writing that occasional OpEd, and helping out with the tech. side of things – editorially or managerially.

So not writing for the science page doesn’t really leave me in the lurch. I can’t just sit idle.

The writers’ block, I must admit, is just me losing interest, probably because I cycle my attention to focus on different things periodically over time.

Through this introspection, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in being a journalist. I’ve just been wayward in life, not paying much attention to what I’ve been or not been interested in, while following these simple rules which The Hindu has found a way to use:

  1. Don’t give up… easily.
  2. Always contribute.
  3. Take initiative.

The pro is that, even while working with a national daily, I’ve worked in a variety of environments that any other pukka journalist might not have had the opportunity to. The con is that I can’t think of anything I’m specialized to do.

Well, there’s blogging. I can’t really put my finger on why but I love blogging. I love writing – good writing, especially (I only recently found a mentor who could really help me improve my narratives) – and I love creating such writing about different things in my life, and I love enabling other people to do the same thing.

But the buck stops there.

There’s another route I’ve often considered – academics, research, philosophy, the like – but I’ve been repeatedly convinced by a friend that if I really want to make a difference, I should consider journalism to be a better option than sitting at a desk and writing about metaphysical stuff. Right now, I’m considering academics all over again. Maybe an hour from now that friend will turn up and tell me why I’m thinking wrong.

But by then, all this wonderment will have festered into one giant carbuncle of self-doubt and, eventually, that ultimate question: What if my interests and strengths don’t coincide with the activities that are capable of making a difference in this world? Or is the pursuit of individual interests the biggest difference anyone can make?

OK, I know what I need. I need the guts to be able to answer these questions myself.

The creative process must not be transcendental.

During a conversation with an emotionally intense and literarily prolific friend earlier this evening, the friend said many of the greatest poets had led doomed lives; doomed in the sense that they’d all suffered great misfortune – emotionally at least – and sorrow and loss. There were enough examples, too: Plath, Woolf, Hughes, Hemingway, Sexton, Haggard, going so far back as Lucanus himself. On second thought, that’s not really surprising because the greatest writers, in my opinion, are simply the greatest articulators of the human condition, however jaded or otherwise.

However, this friend also said that those poets had been recklessly extravagant with their emotional investments on purpose. That they’d deliberately led lives of misery, and that that’s where they drew their literary inspiration from. This seems an awfully distressing proposition: That you’d have to give up the right to live happily in order to be a great poet. The other problem I have with it is if a poet’s living tragic times and then writing great poetry, then the poet is simply a creative chronicler, not a poet at all.

It was a difference of opinion that the friend and I couldn’t reconcile over. While poetry may be one of the greatest forms of human expression, its pinnacle cannot be founded on human misery. Its production cannot be honed at the price of happiness… can it? I understand that these are hollow questions to ask because I’m not going to get an answer to them anytime soon (More importantly, I don’t know any poets to ask what I think must be these intimate questions).

However, to think one has expressed oneself well not by displaying commendable prowess with the tool of expression (i.e., language), not by displaying tremendous insight into the human condition and its trappings, but simply by forcing oneself to live through what I can only describe as emotional trauma is experiential writing at best, historiography at worst. It’s a convenient route through which one accumulates pain to the point of forcing it to transcend one’s existence. I would imagine poetry – or any other art form for that matter – requires effort toward its creation, not simply suffering and then release. There must be room for the aesthete, too.

I’m not securing a case for ‘ars gratia artis‘ either because I’m not discussing the utilitarian or moral function of art, which is the product. I’m simply hoping to establish that the creative process must not be transcendental, while even the product may be. In other words, art has to be humanist – constituted by human agency – in order to be art (Also, my friend, I think Plath would be really disappointed if you’re suggesting she intended to kill herself to be a good poet).

On the shoulders of the Higgs

On July 4, 2012, when CERN announced that a particle that looked a lot like the Higgs boson had been spotted, the excitement was palpable. A multibillion-dollar search for an immensely tiny particle had paid off, and results were starting to come in.

On March 6, 2013, when CERN announced through a conference in Italy that the particle was indeed the Higgs boson and that there were only trivial indications as to otherwise, there was closure. Textbook-writers and philosophers alike could take the existence of the Higgs boson for granted. People could move on.

The story should’ve ended there.

It would’ve, too, but for a theory in particle physics that many physicists aren’t quite fond of, called the Standard Model.

For particle physicists, everything in the universe is made up of extremely tiny particles. Even the protons, neutrons and electrons that make up atoms are made up of tinier particles even though we don’t encounter them or their effects in our daily lives.

And those tiny particles, of tinier particles, until particle physicists are satisfied they’ve hit upon the “stuff” of the universe, as it were.

This “stuff”, physicists have found, comes in three types: Leptons, bosons and quarks. They are the ingredients of the universe and everything within it.

Leptons are the lightest of the lot. One example of the lepton is a neutrino, whose mass is so low that it has no problems travelling at very near to the speed of light.

Bosons are the force-carriers. When two particles exert a force on each other, particle physicists imagine that they’re simple exchanging bosons. What kind of boson is being exchanged throws light on the nature of the acting force. Examples include the massless photon, the W and Z bosons, and gluons.

Quarks are the proverbial building blocks of matter. They come in six types, each called a flavour. Unlike leptons and bosons, quarks can be stuck together using gluons to form heavier composite particles. For example, two up-flavoured quarks and one down-flavoured quark together make up the proton.

In the universe as a cauldron, these ingredients come together to make up different phenomena we perceive around us. While each particle sticks to its properties while mixing with others, its behavior is continuously modified by other particles around it. If there are too many particles in the fray, which is natural, matters can get complex for physicists studying them. But after studying them over long periods of time, they found that there are patterns and a few rules that aren’t ever broken.

The set of all these patterns and rules is called the Standard Model. In fact, the Higgs boson was the last remaining piece of this framework, and now that it’s been found, the Model is good as true.

So far, so good.

Where the Model really flounders is when physicists asked why it was the way it was. Why are there six quarks and not five or seven, why are there three kinds of leptons – electron, muon, tau – and now two or four, why can one quark only always be found in the company of another quark and never alone… such questions were just the beginning.

These are the real questions that physicists want the answers to – the ultimate “why” is the goal of all scientific studies.

Many pinned their hopes on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which led the search for the Higgs boson by smashing protons together and open at high energies to see if a Higgs boson popped out. Based on preliminary calculations and simulations, they speculated that something more significant would pop out with the Higgs boson.

There has been nothing so far, i.e. the frustratingly familiar Standard Model is all we have.

But physicists took heart. “The Model is all we have… for now,” they said. Every time a new ingredient of the universe was hoped for and there was none, physicists only believed the hypothetical particle didn’t exist at the energy they were combing through.

Like this, with only negative results to show over hundreds of trials across a swath of energies, physicists have put together a stack of upper and lower limits between which new particles, crucial to the future of particle physics, can be spotted.

A good place to start was that the conditions for these “new” ingredients all were tied in with the conditions in which the Higgs boson could show itself. So, the converse must also be true: the conditions in which the Higgs boson showed itself could contain traces of the conditions for “new physics” to show itself. All physicists would have to do is ask the right questions.

One example is an instance of the fermiophobic Higgs. Because it’s so heavy and energetic, the Higgs boson quickly breaks down into lighter particles like photons, W and Z bosons, leptons and quarks. Of them, leptons and quarks are collectively titled fermions. True to its name, a fermiophobic Higgs doesn’t decay into fermions.

As a result, it will have to decay into the other kinds of particles more often. While they had the resources, physicists were able to determine that a fermiophobic Higgs didn’t exist in the energy range 110-124.5 GeV, 127-147.5 GeV, and 155-180 GeV with 99 per cent confidence.

Another example, this one more favoured in the scientific community, is called suppersymmetry, SUSY for short. Its adherents posit that for every fermion, there is a heavier partnering boson that we haven’t found yet, and vice versa, too. Thus, the Higgs boson has a hypothetical partnering fermion, tentatively called the Higgsino.

When physicists tried to incorporate the rules of SUSY into the Standard Model, they saw that five Higgs bosons would be necessary to explain away some problems. Of these, three would be neutral, and collectively denoted as Φ, and two would be charged, denoted H+ and H-. Moreover, the Φ Higgs would have to decay into two particular kinds of quarks a whopping 90 per cent of the time.

While running experiments to verify this decay rate, tragedy struck: the Standard Model stood in the way. It predicts that the Higgs will decay into the two quarks only 56.1 per cent of the time… And the results swore by it.

The never-say-die faith persisted: Now, physicists wait for 2015, when the LHC will reawaken with doubled energy, possibly bringing them closer to the very high energies at which SUSY might be thriving.

There are other models like these, such as one that suggests there are hidden fermions we haven’t found yet and one that suggests that the Higgs boson decays to lighter, undetected versions of itself before coming into a form we can study. But until 2015, they will be the stuff of science fiction, the Standard Model will rule as a tolerable tyrant, and we will be no closer to understanding the stuff of the universe.

Tragedy, over and over.

This book review, as written by me, appeared in The Hindu Literary Review on April 6, 2013.

Chernobyl is in the past. Well, it’s definitely easy to look at it that way when you think of what you’ve been told happened. On April 26, 1986, an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, then in the Soviet Union, now in northern Ukraine, went awry and caused an explosion and a fire that lasted several days.

Radioactive plumes billowed a kilometre into the sky, and the lands and water in the vicinity were poisoned with toxins that wouldn’t just kill you and then call it a day. They could last for generations, maiming your children and your grandchildren in horrible ways. All you would have to do was inhale the dust, ingest the poisoned food. Even so, it was more than a day later that the 67,000 residents of the nearby settlement of Pripjat were evacuated.

But within the folds of each minute that Pripjat wondered what was going on, why the streams were turning yellow, why the clouds were turning grey, why there were so many trucks moving in and out of Chernobyl, the atoms had connived to work their way into the town’s eyes and ears and noses, bringing on a silence worn well by Ingrid Storholmen’s Voices From Chernobyl.

The radioactivity didn’t just shut down a power plant or blank out an area on the map for habitation. As Storholmen describes it, it killed the fishes, accumulated in their bodies, and then killed the bigger fish that would soon eat them. It stoked to life not the pain of disfigurement, which can be forgotten, but the realisation that it could be perpetrated so easily. It seeped into the soil and blighted the harvest; it infected the trees and wilted the forest.

The breadth of experiences that the voices in the book draw from is remarkable. There are children, and men and women. Then, there are the animals and the trees. Each one is dying or caring for someone or something about to. Autobiographic stories strike the stronger note. On the downside, there are only a few of them, bundled up and preserved as they are for the longer journey after death.

Storholmen’s writing, as such, is commendable. She employs a simple style. She must. What she has been actually wise to do, however, is to let her retelling participate in the confusion that followed the disaster, when mutation-induced paranoia was no different from the harsh calls of a burning reality. The result is a quick alternation between indifference and visceralness that leaves you feeling like you were a helpless witness.

The worst property of the book is that it has no cadence. It simply moves on from one story to the next, like an instruction manual but one careful enough to be doused in tragedy — whether of the body or of the mind. Pripjat must have been horrible, an eidolon of its former self, its beauty reduced to the witness of sunken eyes, but the book does well to paint this picture in the first 40 pages.

The rest simply requires conviction on the reader’s part that the only way to immortalise the horror of a nuclear winter is to read about it again and again. After page 41, Voices From Chernobyl is a litany.

storholmenThe best is that it reminds you that the essence of the disaster lies in nature’s decision to recede from humanity, to yield no more boar or elk meat that sustained human needs. The author starts in media res; there is no introduction because its patience would have mocked at the desperation among the town’s residents to find nature again, and in the meantime to write off their identities as a sacrifice, that they chewed, swallowed and thwarted something that a traitorous human industry had churned up: The pianist who shovelled away uranium bricks from around the reactor, the volunteers who conducted safety inspections as the fire blazed, the championess who dived into heavy water and accidentally swallowed some…

But as the woman’s face dissolved, as the pianist’s fingers started to rot, as the volunteers’ screams punctuated the cacophony of disaster, the dead had moved on. If the book had done the same a little quicker Ingrid Storholmen’s would have been a name to remember.

Check out ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ from


One recommendation from this article on how to attract and retain more women in science is to implement an anonymous job-application process. It’s evidently not an ideal solution – unlike other options on the list – as if it were uncomfortable to demand the effort necessary to sustain it. Moreover, what after it succeeds in being the short-term solution that it is? What will one have to do to keep prospective employers from treating with male and female applicants differently?

Returning to WordPress… fourth time round.

My blog got me my job. After all, it did make a cameo appearance during my interview, drawing an “Impressive!” from the Editor of the newspaper sitting opposite me. Ever since that episode in early June, I decided that I was justified in spending almost three hours on it each day, checking the stats, making small changes to the design, keeping an eye out for new options and themes, weeding out spam comments, etc.

It is also since then that I have been comfortable spending some money on it. First, I bought a domain, set up some space at Hostgator, and set up WordPress. That didn’t last long because I had a bad time with Hostgator. It could’ve just been that once, but I decided to move. Next in line was Posterous, but once I learnt that it was being bought by Twitter, I decided to move again. I didn’t like the idea of my blog’s host being affiliated with a social networking service, you see.

The third option was Blogger. While its immense flexibility was welcoming, I found it too… unclassy, if I may say so. It didn’t proffer any style of its own, nor did it show any inclination for it. While restricts access to themes’ CSS files, Blogger has almost no restrictions nor offerings. This means that if I wanted a particularly styled theme, I’d have to code it up from scratch, instead of being able to choose from over 200 themes like in WordPress. That much of flexibility isn’t always great, I learnt.

The final stop was Squarespace. At the end of the day, Squarespace doesn’t fall short on many counts (if it falls short at all). For $96 p.a., it offers one free domain, 20 GB of hosting space, a wealth of templates all easily customized, and a minimalist text editor that I think I will miss the most. Where I think it doesn’t match up to WordPress is social networking.

Bloggers on WordPress have the option of following other blogs, liking posts, sharing stuff they like on their own blogs, and generally availing the option to interact more strongly than just by sharing posts on Facebook/Twitter or leaving comments. In fact, I think WordPress also has a lot of “bloggers” who don’t have blogs of their own but are logged in to interact with authors they like.

So, for the fourth time, I returned to WordPress… and here I am. Will I continue to be here? I don’t know. I’m sure something else will come along and I’ll put some of my money in it, perhaps only to find out why WordPress is so awesome for the fifth time.

Some more questions concerning Herschel…

The Herschel Space Observatory, a.k.a. Herschel, was the largest space telescope at the time of its launch and still is. With a collecting area twice as large as the Hubble Space Telescope’s, and operating in the far-infrared part of the spectrum, Herschel could look through clouds of gases and dust in the farthest reaches universe and pick up even really faint signals from distant stars and nebulae.

To do this, it depends on three instruments – PACS, SPIRE and HIFI – that are cooled to fractions of degrees above absolute zero, much colder than anything you could find in the solar system. At these temperatures, the instruments are at their most sensitive. The frigidity it achieved using liquid helium, a superfluid coolant that constantly boils off as it removes heat from the instruments. By the end of this month (March, 2013), all the helium will have boiled off, leaving PACS, SPIRE and HIFI effectively blind.

I wrote an article in The Hindu on March 28, a run-of-the-mill news piece that had to leave out some interesting bits of information I’d gathered from the lead scientist, mission manager, and project scientist I’d spoken to. I’ve attached my questions and their answers that contain said bits of information. I think they’re important because

Here are the answers (My questions are in bold).

Herschel was foreseen to run out of helium in early 2013. Considering its unique position in space, why wasn’t a “warm” experiment installed on-board?

MATT GRIFFIN – Lead Scientist, SPIRE Instrument, Herschel Space Observatory

Herschel was designed to operate in the far infrared part of the spectrum – wavelengths typically hundreds of time longer than the wavelengths of visible light.  For the far infrared, extreme cooling is always required. For a telescope operating at shorter wavelengths (about ten times longer in wavelength than visible light) a “warm mission” is feasible.  This could have been done with Herschel, but it would have required that the surface of the telescope be made far more precise and smooth. That would have made it very much more expensive, leaving less money available for the rest of the spacecraft and the instruments.

Any space mission must be built within a certain budget, and it is usually best to design it to be as effective as possible for a certain wavelength range.  Herschel actually covers a very wide range – from 55 to nearly 700 microns in wavelength.  That’s more than a factor of ten, which is very impressive. To make a warm mission possible would have meant making the telescope good enough to work at ten times shorter wavelength, and adding a fourth instrument.

Herschel was and is the only space telescope observing in the submillimeter and far infrared part of the spectrum. After it goes blind, are there any plans to replace it with a more comprehensive telescope? Or how far do you think the loss of data because of its close-of-ops will be offset by upcoming ground-based telescopes such as the ALMA?

GORAN PILBRATT – Project Scientist, European Space Research and Technology Centre, Noordwijk

There are currently no concrete ESA (or anywhere else) plans for a replacement or follow-up mission. What many people hope for is the Japanese SPICA mission, which may fly beyond 2020 with an ESA telescope and a European instrument called SAFARI, both based on Herschel experience. Time will tell. Of course the NASA JWST will be important to almost every astronomer which it finally flies. In the meantime ALMA and also the flying SOFIA observatory are of interest. There is also a lot of follow-up observing to be done with many different ground-based telescopes based on Herschel data. This is already happening.

LEO METCALFE – Mission Manager, ESA Centre, Madrid

After the anticipated exhaustion of the Liquid Helium cryogen which keeps the Herschel instruments cold, scientific observations with Herschel will cease. However, the data gathered during the 4-years of operations, stored in the Herschel Science Archive (HSA) at ESAC, will remain available to the worldwide astronomical community for the foreseeable future. Until the end of 2017 ESA, for much of the time in collaboration with the instrument teams and NASA Herschel Science Centre, will actively support users in the exploitation of the data.

That said, there is no comparable mission in the currently approved ESA programme considering launches into the early 2020s. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission SPICA is of comparable size to Herschel and will operate out to wavelengths a little over 210 microns – in the far-infrared, but only barely reaching what would generally be termed the sub-millimetre region. It may be launched before 2020.

Because of absorption of infrared radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere, ground based telescopes have limited capacity to compete with orbital systems over much of the Herschel wavelength range.

However, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in the Chilean Andes overlaps in its wavelength coverage with the sub-millimeter parts of the Herschel range, but a typical map size for Alma might be on the order of, say, 10 arcseconds (the full Moon spans about 1800 arcesconds, to give some scale), while a typical Herschel map might cover an area 10 arcminutes (600 arcseconds) on a side. Instead of large area coverage, ALMA provides extremely high spatial resolutions (down to small fractions of an arcsecond), far finer than Herschel could achieve.

So ALMA is well suited to the detailed follow-up of Herschel observations of single high-interest sources, rather than providing comparable coverage to Herschel.

There must be a lot of data left to be analysed that was gathered by Herschel. While creating a legacy archive, will you also be following some threads of investigation over others?

MATT GRIFFIN – Lead Scientist, SPIRE Instrument, Herschel Space Observatory

Although Herschel’s life was limited, it was designed to make observations very quickly and efficiently, and it has collected a huge amount of data.  It will be very important during the next few years, in what we call the Post-Operations period, to process all the data in the best and the most uniform way, and to make it available in an easy-to-use archive for future astronomers.

This means that the real scientific power of Herschel is still to be realised, as its results will be used for many years in the future. Only a small fraction of the data from Herschel has so far been fully investigated.

It is clear that when the data are fully explored, and when Herschel’s observations are followed up with other telescopes, a great deal more will be learned.  This is especially true for the large surveys that Herschel has done – surveys of many thousands of distant galaxies, and surveys of clouds of gas and dust in our own galaxy in which stars are forming. In the coming years, although Herschel will no longer operate, its scientific project will continue – to understand the birth processes of stars and galaxies.

When did you start working with the Herschel mission? How has your experience been with it? What does the team that worked on Herschel move on to after this?

LEO METCALFE – Mission Manager, ESA Centre, Madrid

In 1982 the Far Infrared and Sub-millimetre Telescope (FIRST) was proposed to ESA. This mission concept evolved and eventually was named Herschel, in honour of the great German/English astronomer William Herschel.

The build-up of the ESA team for Herschel started in earnest in the early 2000s. I came on board as Herschel Science Operations Manager in 2007, with the main task of integrating and training the ESA Science Operations Team and the wider Science Ground Segment (SGA – which includes the external-to-ESA Instrument Control Centres) to be a smoothly functioning system in time for launch, which took place in May 2009.

So my experience of Herschel began with the recruitment of many of the operational team members and the integration of the Science Ground Segment (SGS) focussed on the pre-launch end-to-end testing of the entire observatory system, with data flowing from the spacecraft then on the ground in the test facility at ESTEC in the Netherlands, and continued through a series of pre-flight simulations which put the SGS through all the procedures they would need to follow during operations.

As a result we “hit the ground running” after launch, and the operations of the SGS have been smooth throughout the mission. Those operations have spanned the Launch and Early Orbit (LEOP) Phase, the in-flight Commissioning Phase, the Performance Verification, Science Demonstration, and Routine Operations Phases of the mission, and have included the recovery from the early failure of the prime chain of the HIFI instrument, and the handling of various lesser contingencies caused by ionising radiation induced corruptions of on-board instrument memory, among others.

It has been a fast paced and exciting mission which in the end has returned data from almost 35000 individual science observations. It’s going to be hard to adjust to not having an active spacecraft up there.

Concerning what happens to the team(s) that have worked on Herschel: The ESA team that supervised the construction of the Spacecraft already moved on to other missions soon after Herschel was launched.

The Science Operations Team at the Herschel Science Centre at HSC/ESAC in Spain, together with the Instrument Control Centres (ICCs) formed by the teams that built the scientific instruments (distributed through the ESA member states) and the Mission Operations Centre at ESOC in Germany, have been responsible for the operation of the Spacecraft and its instruments in flight. Those teams will now run down.

A fraction of the people will continue to work in the Herschel project through its almost 5-year Post-operations Phase mentioned already above, while the remainder have or will seek positions with upcoming missions like Rosetta, Gaia, BepiColombo, Solar Orbiter, Euclid … or in some cases may move on to other phases of their careers outside the space sector.

We are talking about people who are highly experienced software engineers, or PhD physicists or astronomers. Generally they are highly employable.