Water found in Martian soil

During its first 100 Martian days (sols), NASA’s Curiosity rover had studied the atmosphere and soil of the red planet in some detail. The initial results from these studies trickled in on September 26 and 27, 2013, in a special issue of Science. The most significant find appeared to be that finer Martian soil had up to two pints of water per cubic foot, which the author of one of the studies called an “excellent resource for future explorers”. The water molecules appeared to be ‘locked up’ in amorphous minerals of basaltic origins. Another sign of water was the presence of carbonates, picked out when the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument heated a sample and found carbon dioxide among the vapours. Carbonates are usually formed in the presence of water. With the presence of methane having been declared trivial on the planet earlier this week, finding water rekindled hopes of the red planet having once harboured life. However, direct signs of this, such as organic molecules, remained elusive in the studies.

Read my report for The Hindu on this.

The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, shown here at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, analysed the samples of material collected by the rover's arm.
The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, shown here at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, analysed the samples of material collected by the rover’s arm. Image: NASA-GSFC

Unusual third Van Allen belt explained

Remember that third Van Allen radiation belt that appeared in February and lasted for about a month? Scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles, have started to understand what it really was – a belt composed solely of electrons moving at almost light-speed – and why it occurred – because of a massive solar flare in September, 2012. Although these faster electrons aren’t unique, as they appear in the two original Van Allen belts as well, what scientists have to figure out now is what accelerates them to such high energies. My story on this development for The Hindu.

The numbers game

Cricket is a complex game – about as difficult to get a full hang of as a 21-year old trying to learn English from scratch. It takes a while, and a lot of practice. Even then, many people (I know) still have difficulty getting all the rules right. As a result, there are a lot of numbers that emerge after each game – so many runs scored in different directions, so many balls bowled at so-so speeds, at so-so lengths to so many batsmen, so many partnerships each lasting so many balls, so many successful and not-so-successful fielding positions, etc. In short, cricket is a statistics-heavy game, perhaps heavier than baseball itself. So if baseball had sabermetrics, what does cricket have?

Nothing official in place, for starters. Cricketing sabermetrics isn’t new, but it isn’t prevalent either – the reasons are too many to be dealt with here, but not the least of them is that cricket is also more complex than baseball. Building a statistical framework to encompass all of its nuances is difficult. So, a simplified version of cricketing sabermetrics – one making a lot of assumptions – assessing only the batsmen’s performance during Ashes 2013 caught my interest. Satyam Mukherjee, a post-doctoral fellow at the Kellogg School of Management, had used complex network analysis to figure out why Clarke, Trott and Bell were the better players during the tournament, and he establishes it with mathematical proof.

His work also raises a lot of questions on the relevance of such mechanisms in modern sport. Read my piece on this work for The Hindu.

Photo: Ashes2013.net

After-math of the Ashes

In the recently concluded Ashes test series, England retained the urn by beating Australia 3-0 in five games. England always looked the more confident team, reinforced as well as evinced by the confidence each player had on every other. They batted well, they bowled well, they fielded well.

Australian players, on the other hand, looked out of place. Often, great performances by a batsman or a bowler didn’t translate into the rest of the team moving with that spirit, betraying high – if not unreasonable – dependence on some players, who were expected to bear the burden.

Now, a post-doctoral fellow from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, has put these conclusions to the test. Satyam Mukherjee has used complex network analysis to determine how England and Australia differed in their strategies during the Ashes matches, to gauge the “quality” of wins and how much of a role each player played in it.

Satyam thinks that, to the best of his knowledge, “this work is the first of its kind in cricket”, and is hoped to motivate analysts to look at behind-the-scenes statistics of players whose best skills may not always be brought to the fore.

Specifically, Satyam uses concepts like the PageRank algorithm (which Google uses to determine the ‘influentiality’ of websites), betweenness and network centrality, and treats each team as a network of players who have to perform specific roles.

Math & matters of the heart

“Two football players are linked if one player passes the ball to another, a pitcher and batter is connected if they face each other, or Nadal and Federer get connected if they play against each other,” says Satyam, explaining how networks are built. “But in cricket, no such studies exist although there is no dearth of statistics.”

However, a network-analysis of a game of cricket is much less straightforward as the success of the game doesn’t depend solely on the ball being pass around or batsmen like Tendulkar and Lara facing each other off. Instead, they face off different bowlers, which means their performances can’t be compared directly, either.


What a self-organised social network looks like (nodes of the same colour are of the same group). Image: Wikimedia Commons

So he used publically available data from Cricinfo to compute the network performance of players and how well they’d performed different roles. “The network based approach gives us the hidden properties of the performance of players,” Satyam explains, adding that the advantage is that “it doesn’t suffer from any biases which exist in traditional schemes.”

In his network analysis, each player is thought of as a node (as shown above) in a network, with the lines connecting them being the runs scored by them together. This way, as the game progresses through different partnerships, nodes are added and connected, with the distance between nodes denoting the number of runs.

Then, Satyam brings his tools to reveal, when studied as a network of people trying to accomplish a common goal with different skills between them, how the team strategised and how it fell short.

According to his calculations, for example, Gautam Gambhir was the most successful player in terms of centrality scores during the 2011 ICC World Cup final for India. This means that he was involved in the most number of batting partnerships during the game (betweenness centrality). However, the man-of-the-match award went to skipper M.S. Dhoni.

“So there is a human bias coming into play,” exclaims Satyam. However, this doesn’t come across as a call to replace the more “spiritual” aspects of the game with a mathematical framework. Instead, Satyam is vouching for using such analytical methods to decrease the chances of missing out on important statistics that come into play during drafting, team-selection, etc.

Teams as competing networks

These and other network analysis concepts have been around for quite a while. They have been applied to sports for the last decade or so, quite famously to football using the Girvan-Newman algorithm and others. The parameters they use to “evaluate” teams are simple.

PageRank, a relatively newer measure developed by and named for Google co-founder Larry Page, measures the “quality” of outcomes (i.e. wins or losses).

In the context of a match, PageRank scores give a measure of the quality of wins. If a weak team wins against a relatively stronger team, it gains points. However, if the weak team loses to a strong team, it isn’t penalized that much. Each outcome’s PageRank is dependent on the performance of every player.

In the context of players’ performance, “it gives the importance of the player in the batting line up,” explains Satyam. In other words, it provides us with an idea of the importance of runs scored — such as Graeme Swann’s 34 in England’s first innings of the final test.

It is calculated as:

… where,

p_i = PageRank score

w_ij = weight of a link

s_j-out = out-strength of a link

i = whichever team it is

q = control parameter = 0.15 (default)

N = total number of players in the network

δ = a correcting term

In-strength is the sum of the fractions of runs a player has scored in partnership with others players.

Closeness measures the connectedness of a player in the team. The ‘closer’ he is, the more open he will be to his place in the playing order being changed. For example, the ‘closest’ batsmen will be comfortable opening the batting, playing in the middle order, or holding up the lower order. This can be decided based on the match situation, pitch conditions, availability of other players, etc. Thus, having ‘close’ players increases the adaptability of the team.

The results

Satyam put together a network of players in each of the five matches, and computed these scores for all of them in terms of their batting performances.

He found that, in the first and second games both of which England won, Ian Bell and Joe Root emerged as the best batsmen, respectively. Bell, especially, had the highest PageRank, in-strength, betweenness and closeness among all batsmen. In the second match, Root had the highest in-strength, betweenness and closeness, but Usman Khawaja and Michael Clarke beat him to the top on PageRank.

In the third test, Australia dominated the game. However, the domination arose through Clarke, the man of the match, while the rest of the players put up a less-than-dominating performance. In fact, this pattern was visible in Australia throughout the tournament. As opposed to it, England’s batsmen’s betweennesses were more evenly distributed. Everyone seems to have contributed, not just the top order.

For example, one batsman who regularly features in the top five players in terms of PageRank is Tim Bresnan, an all-rounder. Thus, his ability to build partnerships even when most specialist batsmen had departed was crucial for England to have stayed on top –such as in the fourth test at Riverside Ground. Looking at the overall scores: Bell – most betweenness centrality; Matt Prior – most closeness; Jonathan Trott – highest in-strength; Graeme Swann – highest PageRank.


A batsmen’s performance network as it transpired during the Ashes 2013. Notice how almost every player on the English side was capable of holding up partnerships while, for Australia, noticeable ‘hubs’ exist in the guise of Haddin, Hughes and Rogers. Image: Satyam Mukherjee

For Australia, on the other hand, Haddin, Hughes and Rogers have high betweenness centrality, which quickly drops off when other pairs are considered.

Accordingly, batsmen who received man-of-the-match awards during the series were Joe Root, Michael Clarke, and Shane Watson. This is an instance of simple mathematical concepts having encapsulated our practical considerations well enough to have reached almost the same conclusions (even though a lot of assumptions were made in the process). However, cricket is only new to this arena.

An informer

In 2003, Michael Lewis published a book titled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It brought to a wider audience the field of study called sabermetrics, which uses in-game statistics in baseball to separate objective judgments – “Who contributed the most…” – from subjective ones – “Was that a great…” – so that teams are aware of what their strongest and weakest resources are.

In 2011, this book was adapted into a successful movie, starring Brad Pitt. Although I’d heard of the book at the time, I hadn’t read it, and the movie helped me confront for the first time how managers unfamiliar with sabermetrics’ pros might react to the idea. In the movie, many of them quit (However, most of them were old, too, and just couldn’t cope with the power to pick or drop players leaving their hands and falling into those of some “new fangled, cold-and-calculated” sabermetrician).

For this, what network analysis in sports can bring to the fore has to be understood well before it is dismissed. In its simplest form, it makes correcting for regional biases in selections easy and helps spot ‘hidden’ talent in the domestic circuit. At its very nuanced, it could factor in bowlers and fielders, not just batsmen, and also include an “athletic index” for each batsman to denote how agile he is between the wickets, to see who has been the best performer (a suggestion included in Satyam Mukherjee’s paper).

Of course, for the game to stay competitive and entertaining, both subjective and objective methods are important. Even with cricket, I can’t imagine the BCCI resorting completely to sabermetrics’ version of cricket to choose the national cricket team – how would they be able to account for the reassuring presence of Captain Cool? Instead, they could use such tools to better inform their decision-making.

(For those interested, a more detailed presentation of Satyam’s methods is available in this paper.)

(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on September 8, 2013.)

Clio's passion

Dear Q,

This mail is not intended to be an apology as much as my own acknowledgment of my existence. Of late, I have become cognizant of what a significant role writing, and having my writing read, plays in the construction of my self-awareness – whether profound or mundane. Even as I live moments, I do not experience them with the same clarity and richness as I do when I write about those moments. Why, I don’t pause to think about something – anything – as much as when I do when I place commas and periods. I don’t recognize possession unless it comes with an apostrophe.

To some extent, this has slowed down the speed with which I can take on life in all its forms and guises; the exhilaration is more prodigious, and the conclusions and judgments more deliberated. To someone standing next to me, in a moment I would later discover to have been the host of an epiphany, I come across as detached and indifferent, as someone lacking empathy. But I have empathy, sometimes too much, at others even suffocating. However, I haven’t bothered explaining this to anyone… until now. And why do I choose to tell you? Because you will read me. You are reading me.

So much has kindled an awareness also of what each word brings with itself: a logbook of how memories have been created, recorded and recollected over centuries of the language’s existence. You read sentences from left to right, or right to left or top to bottom depending on the language, and you are attributing the purpose of the words you’re parsing to your interpretation of the text. Now, break the flow: go orthogonal and move your eyes in a direction perpendicular to the one that unlocks meaning. Suddenly, you are confronted with words – individual, nuclear words – silently staring at you. Isn’t it a scary sight to look at symbols that suddenly seem devoid of meaning or purpose?

Inky scratches on paper. Like what a prisoner in a high-security prison does with his nails on the walls after years of crippling solitude.

Count how many times each such word appears on the page, in the book, in all the books you own, in all the books that have ever existed. Each such word, whatever it is, has been invoked to evoke multiplets of emotions. Each such word has participated in all from the proclamation that burnt down Nero’s Rome to the one that ended slavery in Western civilization, from Anthony’s selfless lament to Nietzsche’s self-liberating one. Words have not been used but repeated to simply put together a finite number of intentions in seemingly infinite ways. Each such word gallantly harbors a legacy of the need for that word.

As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, look at a portrait photograph of Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. Imagine looking into the brother’s eyes – and tell yourself that you are now looking into the eyes that once looked into Napoleon’s. Don’t you feel a weight from the sensation that what you’re looking at may contain a scar from where a powerful man’s stare etched into? I feel a similar weight when I use words; I feel a constant reminder ringing in my head about using them in such a way that preserves their dignity, their heritage. I feel that there is wisdom in their shapes and strokes. It calms me deeply, just like a ritual and its processes might.

And when such legacies are brought to bear on every experience of mine – howsoever trivial – I can’t help but become addicted to their reassuring wisdom, their reassuring granular clarity. When writing with such words, I am more pushed to re-evaluate whatever it is that I am saying, more encouraged to plumb the murkier depths of my conscience that are closed to simpler wordless introspection. When I write, I feel like I finally have the tools I have long yearned for to build strong character, and find inner peace when I seek for it the most.

(Special thanks to The Hesitant Scribe for telling me it’s OK to live just to love words.)

Let's unMonsanto the debate.

On August 28, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on the BRAI Bill, currently in Lok Sabha. It was held at The Hindu, and attended by some of my colleagues and some representatives from the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE). The point of the discussion according to ABLE, which had arranged it, was to create awareness of the bill and dispel some popular misconceptions.

The bill, if passed, will set up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), whose purpose will be to oversee and administer all biotechnology-related activities in India. These powers are wide-ranging, going from fixing prices for genetically engineered seeds to having a hold on export and import of transgenic foodstuff to dictating safety standards for the research, cultivation, production and consumption of genetically modified (GM) crops.

As things stand, the bill is being opposed on many fronts. A Technical Experts Committee constituted by the Supreme Court last year recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of Bt transgenic foodstuff. This was accompanied by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests suspending all field trials on GM crops, licenses for which were granted by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Both were centered around India supposedly lacking the infrastructure, skill and manpower to handle transgenic consumables.

Our discussion with ABLE snaked this way and that. It touched upon the GEAC, pesticides use, the possibility of ‘superbugs’, data availability, the Right to Information, and India’s agricultural needs and water-politics. At times, the participants seemed adversarial; at others, convivial. Unfortunately, there was one issue that constantly underpinned the conversation, this one very little to do with what India was or wasn’t capable of: Monsanto, Inc.

Guilt by association

One among the ABLE delegation, Dr. J.S. Rehman, an entemologist and a former member of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (constituted by the Department of Biotechnology), seemed very concerned about this. Monsanto’s unenviable environmental legacy worldwide had riled up activists to protest its coming with such vehemence that, he lamented, Indian biotech. was also being suppressed in the process.

Here are two questions that were addressed to Dr. Rehman during the discussion:

Do you think the entire atmosphere over the biotechnology bill and its understanding or misunderstanding – however you look at it – is largely because of one big MNC called Monsanto?

JSR: “Our using Monsanto as a synonym with GM technology is one of the worst things we’re doing – not only for farmers but also for our people who are trying to develop genes, and who are trying to compete with Monsanto. Every time, everywhere we go, we see people asking very general questions, and we’re wasting out time in educating those people rather than putting our efforts into the development of technology and other things.”

How much have Monsanto’s businesses hijacked the debate over biotech.?

JSR: “We’re in a very bad situation, I think: Monsanto is only the gene developer. It’s not a seed developer. It has the gene which it has given to Mahyco. In Andhra Pradesh, earlier, once Bt cotton was given, for example, and Rs. 1,700 was fixed as cost-per-packet. This was because artificial competition was created in the market by introducing the Bt gene, after which all competitors had to adopt it or face losses. Then, Monsanto demanded a royalty of Rs. 1,200 per packet. So, if I have been selling a packet at Rs. 400, then my new minimum cost is Rs. 1,600. So, the competition was exploited by Monsanto.

These prices are very high for farmers, and allows people to comment that the Bt technology has spiked the cost of packeted seeds. Then, the State intervened, and after a case was filed, Monsanto was forced temporarily to reduce royalty from Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 100. This brought down the price of Bt packets to around Rs. 750-950 per packet. So, both seed companies and the farmers are benefited by the Bt technology. Farmer will also get the benefit of reducing it from Rs. 1,600 to Rs. 750. The only person losing here is Monsanto.

Then, some time after this, the seed-rate was increased. New norms recommended that instead of one packet per acre, farmers use two packets per acre. However, another way to look at this is to see that in a net area, one can go for more productivity.”

So, Indians are succumbing to the fallacy of guilt-by-association – just like with our nuclear program: “Just because the Department of Atomic Energy is doing a bad job of administering India’s nuclear program, the idea of nuclear power is bad.” As Dr. Rehman said, Monsanto may have superior technology. However, it is exploiting the latency of its Indian competitors, and the preferential access it received in the 90s from the Indian government to promote free trade, to come out on top. And when activists assume that all of GM is bad because Monsanto – its leading researcher – is bad, they are suffocating the Indian competition and empowering Monsanto.

Daylight robbery

One other example specific to Monsanto that emerged during the discussion was brought up by Dr. T.M. Manjunath, of ABLE. Dr. Manjunath was a former director at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore.

He felt the need to correct Dr. Rehman on one count: that of the habit of comparing the prices of traditional cotton seeds with Bt cotton seeds. He said, “We shouldn’t compare the two without taking into account the associated benefits from each. For example, if farmers bought traditional seeds at Rs. 400 a packet, then they would also have to spend an additional Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 to insecticides. So, these [numbers] should be added to that cost. On the other hand, if you buy a packet of Bt cotton seeds at, say, Rs. 1,700, that is all farmers will have to expend there. You wouldn’t have to spray insecticides. Thereby, the farmers are immensely benefited.”

The problem here is that Monsanto is attempting to justify its exorbitant profit margins by citing a higher cost-benefit ratio, forgetting that it does not have a license to rip farmers off. Instead, if the technology has improved enough to keep the cost-benefit ratio high, then the farmer must be the full and final beneficiary. As one of the participants put it: “Monsanto can’t say ‘I’m still giving him a 4,000-rupee window!'”

At the same time, it’d be beneficial for Indian decision-makers to remember that Bt cotton did see some kind of success in India, seeing adoption by over 70 lakh farmers, and lasting well beyond its initially perceived lifetime – 6 to 7 years – before worms developed resistance to it. “One of our recommendations to minimise resistance-development was asking for 20 per cent refugee area. However, we also knew that asking farmers to sacrifice 20 per cent of their land in the name of the yield wasn’t always going to work. But to our surprise, the resistance developed [by pests and worms] has been minimal,” said Dr. Rehman.

There were Bt cotton crop failures, too, but the moral is that Monsanto sucks, yes, but the technology is promising and could be useful for India. For instance, even though Monsanto’s Bt has defied resistance for more than a decade, scientists think the threat is always imminent and that we need to be prepared. If the pall of Monsanto could be cleared (and its monstrous royalties on seeds sales avoided), perhaps an indigenous developer of transgenic seeds (about 20 varieties of which are thought to be in the pipeline) has the answer.

Failure of the stakeholders

The appropriate place from which to address this “hijacking” would be to look at how much of and how well the public sector has been activated – not to compete with Monsanto, which is already spending $1.3 billion a year on GM tech., but to make India become a self-sustaining developer of indigenous biotech. capabilities that can address its immediate needs (such as water sufficiency, which has been worsened by Bt cotton varieties).

In this regard, there has been a failure among stakeholders to explain to the people that it’s not about MNCs v. India, that the BRAI Bill is not only for Monsanto but also for Indian players. The details of how it will take from and give back to them are out of focus.

For example:

  1. Proposed: A single-window clearance system.

    Actually: Seen from the pro-GM (“ergo pro-Monsanto”) side, it could be argued that the government wants to facilitate Indian applications. Seen from the anti-Monsanto (“ergo anti-GM”) side, it looks as if the government wants to fast-track dubious applications. Which one is it?

  2. Proposed: BRAI “will not disclose confidential information made available in an application to the Authority.”

    Actually: The representatives from ABLE clarified that while some information would be hidden from the public domain, research on and results from field trials would be on display on a website for all to see, and the rest could be obtained using the RTI.

  3. Proposed: BRAI will be a centrally implemented body; State governments will have no say in its functioning and decision-making.

    Actually: A proposal for a State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee has been included in the BRAI Bill. The committee is to act as an intermediary agency between the State government and BRAI. It is not as if States have no say; however, to what extent will such a body empower the State?

  4. Proposed: Committees constituted by the BRAI Bill will approve and ratify applications from companies for the production and transportation of transgenic foodstuff.

    Actually: While committees will approve applications, a third-party (non-governmental) agency will be required to validate the results first. At the same time, the bill also okays all DSIR-approved labs for validation, which means a company with its own DSIR-approved lab can validate its own results (DSIR is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research).

As it is, the bill is currently being examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, which would do well to ask for increased clarity on these issues. Dr. Rehman noted that even though the last deadline for public feedback, August 25, had passed, the Committee was considering extending the period for a second time (having earlier pushed it by 45 days from June 10). If and when a new date is announced, let’s unMonsanto.

I originally wrote this post for The Copernican, the science blog over The Hindu, on September 2, 2013.