V for vendetta

The Hindu published an article on October 28, 2013, titled “He has arrears in engineering, PhD in physics“. The article spoke of a 19-something year old Rohit Gunturi, a final year student of engineering at Anna University but already a PhD holder in physics from UC Berkeley. Inspiring as this is, the story at first glance throws up many alarms which I’m surprised were missed by the reporter, Ms. V.

A clarifying story was published later the same day by the reporter admitting that Mr. Gunturi’s claims were false.

This episode struck me for the following reasons:

From the audience’s perspective

  • The newspaper is not allowed to slip up – howsoever little, whenever it may be.
  • If and when the audience finds that a mistake has been committed in the newspaper, it turns very self-righteous.
  • Reporters are almost always remembered for their mistakes, not the lot of other things that they get right.
  • It is okay to publicly shame the reporter for one slip-up.
  • If the reporter slips up, he/she is stupid.

From the reporter’s perspective

  • It was admissible to assume that statements could be taken at face-value.
  • It was okay to comment on scientific research without checking with an expert in that field.
  • It was permissible to profile an individual without checking for conflicts of interest.
  • The information came from the Vice Chancellor of a large university, so it was true.*

From the newspaper management’s perspective

  • You’d think these guys would be more careful – but the same, original uncorrected version of the story appears the next day in the Coimbatore edition

All these occurrences came together to blow up the issue in the public sphere. In essence, the whole thing has played out as a second Sokal Affair, this one a rap on the knuckles for Indian newspapers as such – although I doubt incidents such as this are uncommon.

Moreover, the cauterizing reaction from engineering students from around the city was appalling. Any stone Ms. V has to throw now at Anna University or IIT Madras will almost invariably hit a student who’s either made fun of her or has read something that did. Of course, I have no idea of her prior relations with these people.

At the same time, I’m given to understand the students are not happy that she’s written stories about there being a lack of water in hostel toilets or fruits being lacking in their diets, etc., in the past. Do you think it’s silly? I’d like to know what things are like in the two largest government educational institutions in Chennai, my city. And if you disagreed, your tiff should be with The Hindu, not with Ms. V for doing her job.

And last: See the starred statement above (under the points of the reporter’s perspective)? How do you guard against people of that stature making half-true statements to a journalist? You can’t, really, but that doesn’t mean Ms. V is free to go. She claims she was presented with a document by the VC showing Mr. Gunturi had been awarded a PhD by UC Berkeley. She later admitted it was unsigned. This should serve as caution that nobody is above a fact-check.

The literature of metaphysics (or, 'Losing your marbles' )

For a while now, I’ve been intent on explaining stuff from particle physics.

A lot of it is intuitive if you go beyond the mathematics and are ready to look at packets of energy as extremely small marbles. And then, you’ll find out some marbles have some charge, some the opposite charge, and some have no charge at all, and so forth. And then, it’s just a matter of time before you figure out how these properties work with each other (“Like charges repel, unlike charges attract”, etc).

These things are easy to explain. In fact, they’re relatively easy to demonstrate, too, and that’s why not a lot of people are out there who want to read and understand this kind of stuff. They already get it.

Where particle physics gets really messed up is in the math. Why the math, you might ask, and I wouldn’t say that’s a good question. Given how particle physics is studied experimentally – by smashing together those little marbles at almost the speed of light and then furtively looking for exotic fallout from the resulting debris – math is necessary to explain a lot of what happens the way it does.

This is because the marbles, a.k.a. the particles, also differ in ways that cannot be physically perceived in many circumstances but whose consequences are physical enough. These unobservable differences are pretty neatly encapsulated by mathematics.

It’s like a magician’s sleight of hand. He’ll stick a coin into a pocket in his pants and then pull the same coin out from his mouth. If you’re sitting right there, you’re going to wonder “How did he do that?!” Until you figure it out, it’s magic to you.

Theoretical particle physics, which deals with a lot of particulate math, is like that. Weird particles are going to show up in the experiments. The experimental physicists are going to be at a loss to explain why. The theoretician, in the meantime, is going to work out how the “observable” coin that went into the pocket came out of the mouth.

The math just makes this process easy because it helps put down on paper information about something that may or may not exist. And if really doesn’t exist, then the math’s going to come up awry.

Math is good… if you get it. There’s definitely going to be a problem learning math the way it’s generally taught in schools: as a subject. We’re brought up to study math, not really to use it to solve problems. There’s not much to study once you go beyond the basic laws, some set theory, geometry, and the fundamentals of calculus. After that, math becomes a tool and a very powerful one at that.

Math becomes a globally recognised way to put down the most abstract of your thoughts, fiddle around with them, see if they make sense logically, and then “learn” them back into your mind whence they came. When you can use math like this, you’ll be ready to tackle complex equations, too, because you’ll know they’re not complex at all. They’re just somebody else’s thoughts in this alpha-numerical language that’s being reinvented continuously.

Consider, for instance, the quantum chromodynamic (QCD) factorisation theorem from theoretical particle physics:

This hulking beast of an equation implies that *deep breath*, at a given scale (µand a value of the Bjorken scaling variable (x), the nucleonic structure function is derived by the area of overlap between the function describing the probability of finding a parton inside a nucleon (f(x, µ)and the summa (Σ) of all functions describing the probabilities of all partons within the nucleon *phew*.

In other words, it only describes how a fast incoming particle collides with a target particle based on how probable certain outcomes are!

The way I see it, math is the literature of metaphysics.

For instance, when we’re tackling particle physics and the many unobservables that come with it, there’s going to be a lot of creativity and imagination, and thinking, involved. There’s no way we’d have had as much as order as we do in the “zoo of particles” today without some ingenious ideas from some great physicists – or, the way I see it, great philosophers.

For instance, the American philosopher Murray Gell-Mann and the Israeli philosopher Yuval Ne’eman independently observed in the 1960s that their peers were overlooking an inherent symmetry among particles. Gell-Mann’s solution, called the Eightfold Way, demonstrated how different kinds of mesons, a type of particles, were related to each other in simple ways if you laid them around in an octagon.

A complex mechanism of interaction was done away with by Gell-Mann and Ne’eman, and substituted with one that brought to light simpler ones, all through a little bit of creativity and some geometry. The meson octet is well-known today because it brought to light a natural symmetry in the universe. Looking at the octagon, we can see it’s symmetrical across three diagonals that connect directly opposite vertices.

The study of these symmetries, and what the physics could be behind it, gave birth to the quark model as well as won Gell-Mann the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics.

What we perceive as philosophy, mathematics and science today were simply all subsumed under natural philosophy earlier. Before the advent of instruments to interact with the world with, it was easier, and much more logical, for humans to observe what was happening around them, and find patterns. This involved the uses of our senses, and this school of philosophy is called empiricism.

At the time, as it is today, the best way to tell if one process was related to another was by finding common patterns. As more natural phenomena were observed and more patterns came to light, classifications became more organised. As they grew in size and variations, too, something had to be done for philosophers to communicate their observations easily.

And so, numbers and shapes were used first – they’re the simplest level of abstraction; let’s call it “0”. Then, where they knew numbers were involved but not what their values were, variables were brought in: “1”. When many variables were involved, and some relationships between variables came to light, equations were used: “2”. When a group of equations was observed to be able to explain many different phenomena, they became classifiable into fields: “3”. When a larger field could be broken down into smaller, simpler ones, derivatives were born: “4”. When a lot of smaller fields could be grouped in such a way that they could work together, we got systems: “5”. And so on…

Today, we know that there are multitudes of systems – an ecosystem of systems! The construction of a building is a system, the working of a telescope is a system, the breaking of a chair is a system, and the constipation of bowels is a system. All of them are governed by a unifying natural philosophy, what we facilely know today as the laws of nature.

Because of the immense diversification born as a result of centuries of study along the same principles, different philosophers like to focus on different systems so that, in one lifetime, they can learn it, then work with it, and then use it to craft contributions. This trend of specialising gave birth to mathematicians, physicists, chemists, engineers, etc.*

But the logical framework we use to think about our chosen field, the set of tools we use to communicate our thoughts to others within and without the field, is one: mathematics. And as the body of all that thought-literature expands, we get different mathematic tools to work with.

Seen this way, which I do, I’m not reluctant to using equations in what I write. There is no surer way than using math to explain what really someone was thinking when they came up with something. Looking at an equation, you can tell which fields it addresses, and by extension “where the author is coming from”.

Unfortunately, the more popular perception of equations is way uglier, leading many a reader to simply shut the browser-tab if it’s thrown up an equation as part of an answer. Didn’t Hawking, after all, famously conclude that each equation in a book halved the book’s sales?

That belief has to change, and I’m going to do my bit one equation at a time… It could take a while.

(*Here, an instigatory statement by philosopher Paul Feyerabend comes to mind:

The withdrawal of philosophy into a “professional” shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth — and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.“)

(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on December 27, 2013.)

A bounteous final frontier?

On January 22, 2013, an American company named Deep Space Industries (DSi) announced plans to launch two spacecrafts, in 2015 as a piggybacking payload named FireFly to prospect for near-Earth asteroids, and in 2016, to mine one and return a small sample to Earth.

This is just the first phase; in the second phase starting 2020, the ‘Harvestor’ class of vehicles are planned to mine, process, and then bring back samples weighing hundreds of tons as well as produce fuel to consume for itself.

(Clockwise from top) The Harvestor fuel-processor, the DragonFly miner, and the FireFly prospector (Images copyright: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries)

DSi’s plans parallel well with the mood at the WEF summit at Davos that took place last week: A bountiful final frontier! With access to technology increasing on many fronts, it’s becoming easier, rather smarter, to think and do bigger. It’s into this market that DSi, and SpaceX in a less grandiose way before it, and another organisation Planetary Resources (backed by Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among others) have stepped. They plan to redefine the “natural” in natural resources.

I mailed Mr. David Gump, the CEO of DSi, to ask a few questions when the news first broke. Here are his answers.

You’ve said that NASA has been forthcoming [in terms of investing in DSi]. Could you give us some details? Are there any other interested parties?

The top leadership of NASA has been briefed on our plans, so we are optimistic that we will get several contracts from the space agency for technology demonstrations (we carry NASA new tech on a mission so that NASA can evaluate how it works before including it in their own much more expensive missions) and for data about asteroids. We have submitted two proposals already and expect the winners to be announced in mid-March.

DSi plans to launch the DragonFly by 2016, and have it return a 25-65 kg sample from a small asteroid by 2020. In comparison, NASA’s Stardust and JAEA’s Hayabusa took about a decade to return with dust. What’s the difference?

The pace of asteroid detection is picking up. Now more than 900 new targets are identified every year and we’ll pass 10,000 identified near Earth asteroids by the end of 2013. There are many more possibilities to select from than before, so that Deep Space will have an easier time than earlier missions in selecting asteroids that pass closer to Earth at slow speeds.

Since you haven’t demonstrated your robotic 3D printer yet, don’t you think it’s likely to keep away prospective investors? Do you have any plans in the near future to demo it?

We will demo the 3D printer by the end of the year. Some investors like to come in early; others wait until there is less risk. The $3 million that we are raising in 2013 and the $10 million we will raise in 2014 are relatively small amounts, and we will connect with those investors who like the early entry.

Let’s say you find the platinum you’re looking for, and return it to Earth. Won’t the new supply channel drive down prices and remove from the economic purpose of your program?

There is a lot of confusion between what we’re actually saying, and what people are writing about us. As we worked very hard to make clear in our news conference, the primary market for asteroid resources is in space [emphasis mine], not terrestrially. Anything useful in high orbit costs $20,000 per kg to put there. What’s useful from asteroids includes propellant to refuel some of the 300 communications satellites in high orbit, and metals to fabricate expanded capabilities for them, from more power through more solar arrays, to more bandwidth per satellite through more spot beam antennas.

Our competitor, Planetary Resources, does emphasize mining PGMs [Platinum Group Metals] for export to Earth, but Deep Space does not. PGMs, gold, and silver will be profitable only as by-products of a robust asteroid processing industry creating fuel and building materials for the in space market[emphasis mine].

Including DSi, there have been two major entrants into the fledgling “asteroid-mining” sector in 2013. Have you long foreseen this? What do you think about the future of space exploration on the one hand and the expansion of natural resources to include the universe itself on the other?

Yes, I’ve foreseen that the resources of the solar system eventually will be opened to private-sector development. The reason is that every year, the cost of any high-technology project is getting less expensive. Each year brings lighter materials, electronics that are smaller, cheaper and more powerful, and rocket launchers that cost less. Each year, therefore, the amount of money required to start an ambitious space campaign is smaller and affordable by more and more companies.


(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on February 1, 2013.)

'No need to defend me.'

While studying at the Asian College of Journalism, I and some 11 other students were told about the awesome man named Bora Zivkovic and his work as a blogger with Scientific American. To learn about a man with such talents with writing and articulation as he possesses – talents that I have envied and aspired for for years – conduct himself so horribly is a shock, and the fall of a hero.

I understand that there is a greater problem at play here – about predators being everywhere and predation being ubiquitous – but I think I need to be able to personally confess that, while wincing against the stab of sexual harassment being prevalent, I also winced because it had to be Bora Zivkovic who had conducted himself thus.

What happened? Read this. And then this.

In the Valley of Drums…

For lack of a more sensational beginning: Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy fiction series is the best piece of writing I have ever encountered. Erikson’s experience as a archaeologist and an anthropologist is brought to bear in every line of the 10-book epic, producing a tale that is vigorously gripping yet mercilessly sophisticated. But once you are those requisite 30 to 40 pages in, you will come to understand why such sophistication is important, rather can be, because you will suddenly be aware of how much other works of fantasy fiction have chosen to leave out. Many readers of the series have criticized him for making his narrative so complex, so “unreasonably” intricate, but I find it tremendously gratifying that when I read his work, I feel as if I am drawn closer to the helplessness that Erikson himself feels… a kinship founded on knowing how much can go left unsaid for every plot concluded.

Right now, I’m re-reading the Malazan series for, I think, the third time. During each iteration, there has been room for profound discovery. In the seventh book, Reaper’s Gale, consider the example of a valley described by Erikson where two armies are due to meet. One army, that of the Letherii, employs sorcerers of considerable power, while the other, the tribal Awl, are reliant solely on the edges of iron. The valley, called Bast Fulmar – “Valley of Drums” – was chosen by the Awl warleader for the clash because it has been sapped of its ability to support magic. And how did it lose its magic? Here is how the Awl warleader, the enigmatic Redmask, describes it.

When the world was young, these plains surrounding us were higher, closer to the sky. The earth was a thin hide, covering thick flesh that was nothing but frozen wood and leaves.The rotted corpse of ancient forests. Beneath summer sun, unseen rivers flowed through that forest, between every twig, every crushed-down branch. And with each summer, the sun’s heat was greater, the season longer, and the rivers flowed, draining the vast buried forest. And so the plans descended, settled as the dried out forest crumbled to dust, and with the rains more water would sink down, sweeping away that dust, southward, northward, eastward, westward, following valleys rising to join streams. All directions, ever flowing away.

The land left the sky. The land settled onto stone, the very bone of the world. In this manner, the land changed to echo the cursed sorceries of the Shamans of the Antlers, the ones who kneel among boulders.

Such a piquant evocation of the living world we occupy I have not read elsewhere. Redmask, then, goes on to describe what went wrong with the world, with a valley in particular, to leave it so ghastly and raw (in context).

Bast Fulmar, the Valley of Drums. The Letherii believe we hold it in great awe. They believe this valley was the site of an ancient war between the Awl and the K’Chain Che’Malle – although the Letherii know not the true name of our ancient enemy. Perhaps indeed there were skirmishes, such that memory survives, only to twist and bind anew in false shapes. Many of you hold to those new shapes, believing them true. An ancient battle. One we won. One we lost – there are elders who are bold with the latter secret, as if defeat was a knife hidden in their heart-hand.

Bast Fulmar. Valley of Drums. Here, then, is its secret truth. The Shamans of the Antlers drummed the hide of this valley before us. Until all life was stolen, all waters fled. They drank deep, until nothing was left. For at this time, the shamans were not alone, not for that fell ritual. No, others of their kind had joined them – on distant continents, hundreds, thousands of leagues away, each and all on that one night. To sever their life from the earth, to sever this earth from its own life.

Bast Fulmar. We rise now to make war. In the Valley of Drums, my warriors, Letherii sorcery will fail. Edur sorcery will fail. In Bast Fulmar, there is no water of magic from which to steal. All used up, all taken to quench the fire that is life. Our enemy is not aware. They will find the truth this day. Too late. Today, my warriors, shall be iron against iron. That and nothing more.

Bast Fulmar sings this day. It sings: there is no magic. There is no magic!

There is of course an obvious reality mirroring this scene, an allusion to how we are draining this world, severing it from its own life.

Ah, Bast Fulmar…

The non-Nobel for Satyen Bose

Photo: The Hindu
Satyen Bose

Last week, as the Nobel Prizes were announced and Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the highly coveted physics prize, dust was kicked up in India – just as it was in July and then in September 2012 – about how Satyendra Nath Bose had been ‘ignored’. S.N. Bose, in the 1920s, was responsible for formulating the Bose-Einstein statistics with Albert Einstein. These statistics described the physical laws that governed the class of particles that have come to be known, in honour of Bose’s work, as bosons.

The matter of ignoring S.N. Bose, on the other hand, was profoundly baseless, but a sensation realised only by a few in the country. Just because Bose had worked with bosons, many Indians, among them many academicians, felt he ought to have been remembered for his contribution. Only, they conveniently chose to forget, his contribution to the Nobel Prize for physics 2013 was tenuous and, at best, of historical value. I blogged about this for The Copernican science blog on The Hindu, and then wrote an OpEd along the same lines.

From the response I received, however, it seems as if the message is still lost on those who continue to believe Bose is now the poster-scientist for all Indian scientists whose contributions have been ignored by award-committees worldwide. Do we so strongly feel that post-colonial sting of entitlement?

Would you just calm down about the Bose in the boson?

July, 2012 – A Higgs boson-like entity is spotted at the Large Hadron Collider. Indians decry the lack of celebration of S.N. Bose, the Bengali physicist whom bosons are named for.

January, 2013 – The particle found at the LHC is confirmed to be a Higgs boson. Further outcry about S.N. Bose having been forgotten in favor of the “Western” intellects.

October, 2013 – Peter Higgs and Francois Englert win the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the Higgs mechanism. Bose is also in the limelight but for the same wrong reasons.

The word ‘boson’ was named for S.N. Bose not because he discovered bosons. It was named so by Paul Dirac, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, to honour Bose’s contribution to the Bose-Einstein statistics, work he did with Albert Einstein on defining the general properties of all bosons.

There are two kinds of particles in nature. Matter particles are the proverbial building blocks. They are the quarks and leptons, together called fermions. Force particles guide the matter particles around and help them interact with each others. They are the photons, W and Z bosons, gluons and the Higgs bosons.

In 1924, Bose and Einstein developed a theory to explain how a group of identical but non-interacting particles may occupy different energy states. They drew up a set of statistical rules and the particles that followed these rules did not obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. All such particles came to be called bosons.

Similarly, in 1926, Enrico Fermi and Paul Dirac came up with a set of rules for particles that did obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. While they worked on this theory independently, Fermi’s results were published first, leading to Dirac calling these particles fermions in the Italian giant’s honour.

So there. S.N. Bose – good man, great contribution – but he has nothing to do with the Higgs boson in particular except that this particle is a boson. What’s being celebrated about the Higgs is not being done in denial of Bose’s contributions because there is nothing to deny. The physics behind what’s going on now has more to do with how the hunt for one particular boson is shaping modern particle physics. Face it, the world of science has moved on.

If anything, I liked this Outlook article (except the last line) published a day after the momentous CERN announcements on July 4 last year. It brought S.N. Bose back into the limelight at a time when few of us in the country had (or have) the scientific temperament to acknowledge such contributions from history and, simply, recognise and preserve it for what it is: homage.

Indeed, some Indians seem to harbour a maleficient sense of entitlement that extends to calls demanding the ‘B’ in ‘bosons’ be capitalised. Rolf Dieter-Heuer, Director General of CERN, responded to this while at a meeting in Kolkata in September 2012: “I was asked yesterday why the boson was not capped. In Bose’s own city today, we have capped the Boson. I, in fact, always cap the Boson. But today, we changed all our CERN slides to cap Bosons.”

Another example of misguided entitlement was some Indian physicists saying that ‘naming the Higgs particle after Bose is an honour bigger than the Nobel Prize itself’. If you’re looking for honour of Indian origin in the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013, look to Indian scientists who worked on the collider.

Look to contributions from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Look to the superconducting magnets technology that India provided. Look to people like Rohini GodboleKajari Mazumdar (see slide 4), and Ashoke Sen.

But if all you want to do is cling to the vestiges of a legacy you helped fade, then you’re also doomed, benumbed to the sting of being denied the Nobel Prizes only because you’re not producing and retaining Nobel-class thinkers anymore.

(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on October 10, 2013.)