An elusive detector for an elusive particle

(This article originally appeared in The Hindu on March 31, 2014.)

In the late 1990s, a group of Indian physicists pitched the idea of building a neutrino observatory in the country. The product of that vision is the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) slated to come up near Theni district in Tamil Nadu, by 2020. According to the 12th Five Year Plan report released in October 2011, it will be built at a cost of Rs.1,323.77 crore, borne by the Departments of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Science & Technology (DST).

By 2012, these government agencies, with the help of 26 participating institutions, were able to obtain environmental clearance, and approvals from the Planning Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission. Any substantial flow of capital will happen only with Cabinet approval, which has still not been given after more than a year.

If this delay persists, the Indian scientific community will face greater difficulty in securing future projects involving foreign collaborators because we can’t deliver on time. Worse still, bright Indian minds that have ideas to test will prioritise foreign research labs over local facilities.

‘Big science’ is international

This month, the delay acquired greater urgency. On March 24, the Institute of High Energy Physics, Beijing, announced that it was starting construction on China’s second major neutrino research laboratory — the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO), to be completed at a cost of $350 million (Rs. 2,100 crore) by 2020.

Apart from the dates of completion, what Indian physicists find more troubling is that, once ready, both INO and JUNO will pursue a common goal in fundamental physics. Should China face fewer roadblocks than India does, our neighbour could even beat us to some seminal discovery. This is not a jingoistic concern for a number of reasons.

All “big science” conducted today is international in nature. The world’s largest scientific experiments involve participants from scores of institutions around the world and hundreds of scientists and engineers. In this paradigm, it is important for countries to demonstrate to potential investors that they’re capable of delivering good results on time and sustainably. The same paradigm also allows investing institutions to choose whom to support.

India is a country with prior experience in experimental neutrino physics. Neutrinos are extremely elusive fundamental particles whose many unmeasured properties hold clues about why the universe is the way it is.

In the 1960s, a neutrino observatory located at the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka became one of the world’s first experiments to observe neutrinos in the Earth’s atmosphere, produced as a by-product of cosmic rays colliding with its upper strata. However, the laboratory was shut in the 1990s because the mines were being closed.

However, Japanese physicist Masatoshi Koshiba and collaborators built on this observation with a larger neutrino detector in Japan, and went on to make a discovery that (jointly) won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002. If Indian physicists had been able to keep the Kolar mines open, by now we could have been on par with Japan, which hosts the world-renowned Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory involving more than 900 engineers.

Importance of time, credibility

In 1998, physicists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, were examining a mathematical parameter of neutrinos called theta-13. As far as we know, neutrinos come in three types, and spontaneously switch from one type to another (Koshiba’s discovery).

The frequency with which they engage in this process is influenced by their masses and sources, and theta-13 is an angle that determines the nature of this connection. The IMSc team calculated that it could at most measure 12°. In 2012, the Daya Bay neutrino experiment in China found that it was 8-9°, reaffirming the IMSc results and drawing attention from physicists because the value is particularly high. In fact, INO will leverage this “largeness” to investigate the masses of the three types of neutrinos relative to each other.

So, while the Indian scientific community is ready to work with an indigenously designed detector, the delay of a go-ahead from the Cabinet becomes demoralising because we automatically lose time and access to resources from potential investors.

“This is why we’re calling it an India-based observatory, not an Indian observatory, because we seek foreign collaborators in terms of investment and expertise,” says G. Rajasekaran, former joint director of IMSc, who is involved in the INO project.

On the other hand, China appears to have been both prescient and focussed on its goals. It purchased companies manufacturing the necessary components in the last five years, developed the detector technology in the last 24 months, and was confident enough to announce completion in barely six years. Thanks to its Daya Bay experiment holding it in good stead, JUNO is poised to be an international collaboration, too. Institutions from France, Germany, Italy, the U.S. and Russia have evinced interest in it.

Beyond money, there is also a question of credibility. Once Cabinet approval for INO comes through, it is estimated that digging the vast underground cavern to contain the principal neutrino detector will take five years, and the assembly of components, another year more. We ought to start now to be ready in 2020.

Because neutrinos are such elusive particles, any experiments on them will yield correspondingly “unsure” results that will necessitate corroboration by other experiments. In this context, JUNO and INO could complement each other. Similarly, if INO is delayed, JUNO is going to look for confirmation from experiments in Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

It is notable that the INO laboratory’s design permits it to also host a dark-matter decay experiment, in essence accommodating areas of research that are demanding great attention today. But if what can only be called an undue delay on the government’s part continues, we will again miss the bus.

Forget me. I'm there.

You don’t have to walk up to stand next to me, you don’t have to hug me. You don’t have to want to kiss me. You just have to look at me in the eye, Stranger, when you walk past. You needn’t smile either. You just have to acknowledge that I exist. That’s all I need.

You just have to drive your car in front of mine and switch on your indicator when you’re taking a turn. Even if there’s no other car on the road except ours and it’s dusk. Turn on your indicator all for me and I’m yours. Tell me you’re closing up for the day just when I’m about to step in your store. Don’t bring the shutters down on my face without a warning. Tell me you’re sorry without meaning it but just because I’m there about to enter your store. Tell me and I’m all yours.

Share an umbrella with your friend when it rains and whisper into her ear about how I’m getting wet, standing in the middle of the road like that. Giggle behind my back about the fool I look and I will thank you. Be annoyed when I set my glass of orange juice on your glass table without a coaster and I’ll know you know I’m here.

Fix the automated doors at the mall to open when I’m approaching them and I will kiss one goodbye. Flash a marquee on the TV asking me to stay indoors because a storm’s coming and I’ll die happy that night. Give me a dial tone when I pick up the phone because I don’t want you to assume nobody’s listening. Somebody’s listening, somebody’s listening all the time. I think that’s me.

So… don’t walk up to me to shake my hand. Don’t bump into me and then act like you’ve forgotten me. Forget me, but when you see me, smile.

Lord of the Rings Day

Today is Lord of the Rings Day. On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee reach the Sammath Naur and cast the One Ring into Orodruin, in whose fires the ring was first forged. Thus, the ring is destroyed and leads to the downfall of Sauron, the Dark Lord. However, this doesn’t mark the end of the War of the Ring (although it does in the movies) – that happens when Saruman is defeated in the Battle of Bywater by the hobbits on November 3 of the same year.

Why do I still remember the date? I don’t know. Tolkien’s books were good, three of the best, in fact, and much better than the trope to come after. There were a few notable exceptions, but nothing has came to being just as original until, I’d say, GRRM and Erikson. I was briefly excited by Robert Jordan but his more classical narrative combined with a droning style bored me. It was never the length because one of my enduring favourites is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which has seen 10 books and one part of a trilogy already out (all kickass – you should check them out).

Nevertheless, reading Lord of the Rings in 2003 was an important part of my life. In the years since, I have taken away different morals from the book – which, thankfully, aren’t as mundane as Jordan’s nor as multi-hued as Erikson’s (or as gruesome as Martin’s or as juvenile as Feist’s). Beyond the immediate take-away that is good-versus-evil, there are tales of friendships, sacrifices, trust, humility and leadership. And what a great epic all of it made! As it happens, Lord of the Rings Day is actually Tolkien Reading Day. So if you haven’t already read the trilogy, or its adorable prequel The Hobbit (or Silmarillion, for that matter), grab a copy and start. It’s never too late.

Our universe, the poor man's accelerator

The Hindu
March 25, 2014

On March 17, radio astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Massachusetts, announced a remarkable discovery. They found evidence of primordial gravitational waves imprinted on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a field of energy pervading the universe.

A confirmation that these waves exist is the validation of a theory called cosmic inflation. It describes the universe’s behaviour less than one-billionth of a second after it was born in the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago, when it witnessed a brief but tremendous growth spurt. The residual energy of the Bang is the CMB, and the effect of gravitational waves on it is like the sonorous clang of a bell (the CMB) that was struck powerfully by an effect of cosmic inflation. Thanks to the announcement, now we know the bell was struck.

Detecting these waves is difficult. In fact, astrophysicists used to think this day was many more years into the future. If it has come now, we must be thankful to human ingenuity. There is more work to be done, of course, because the results hold only for a small patch of the sky surveyed, and there is also data due from studies done until 2012 on the CMB. Should any disagreement with the recent findings arise, scientists will have to rework their theories.

Remarkable in other ways

The astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian used a telescope called BICEP2, situated at the South Pole, to make their observations of the CMB. In turn, BICEP2’s readings of the CMB imply that when cosmic inflation occurred about 14 billion years ago, it happened at a tremendous amount of energy of 1016 GeV (GeV is a unit of energy used in particle physics). Astrophysicists didn’t think it would be so high.

Even the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, manages a puny 104 GeV. The words of the physicist Yakov Zel’dovich, “The universe is the poor man’s accelerator”— written in the 1970s — prove timeless.

This energy at which inflation has occurred has drawn the attention of physicists studying various issues because here, finally, is a window that allows humankind to naturally study high-energy physics by observing the cosmos. Such a view holds many possibilities, too, from the trivial to the grand.

For example, consider the four naturally occurring fundamental forces: gravitation, strong and weak-nuclear force, and electromagnetic force. Normally, the strong-nuclear, weak-nuclear and electromagnetic forces act at very different energies and distances.

However, as we traverse higher and higher energies, these forces start to behave differently, as they might have in the early universe. This gives physicists probing the fundamental texture of nature an opportunity to explore the forces’ behaviours by studying astronomical data — such as from BICEP2 — instead of relying solely on particle accelerators like the LHC.

In fact, at energies around 1019 GeV, some physicists think gravity might become unified with the non-gravitational forces. However, this isn’t a well-defined goal of science, and doesn’t command as much consensus as it submits to rich veins of speculation. Theories like quantum gravity operate at this level, finding support from frameworks like string theory and loop quantum gravity.

Another perspective on cosmic inflation opens another window. Even though we now know that gravitational waves were sent rippling through the universe by cosmic inflation, we don’t know what caused them. An answer to this question has to come from high-energy physics — a journey that has taken diverse paths over the years.

Consider this: cosmic inflation is an effect associated with quantum field theory, which accommodates the three non-gravitational forces. Gravitational waves are an effect of the theories of relativity, which explain gravity. Because we may now have proof that the two effects are related, we know that quantum mechanics and relativity are also capable of being combined at a fundamental level. This means a theory unifying all the four forces could exist, although that doesn’t mean we’re on the right track.

At present, the Standard Model of particle physics, a paradigm of quantum field theory, is proving to be a mostly valid theory of particle physics, explaining interactions between various fundamental particles. The questions it does not have answers for could be answered by even more comprehensive theories that can use the Standard Model as a springboard to reach for solutions.

Physicists refer to such springboarders as “new physics”— a set of laws and principles capable of answering questions for which “old physics” has no answers; a set of ideas that can make seamless our understanding of nature at different energies.

Supersymmetry

One leading candidate of new physics is a theory called supersymmetry. It is an extension of the Standard Model, especially at higher energies. Finding symptoms of supersymmetry is one of the goals of the LHC, but in over three years of experimentation it has failed. This isn’t the end of the road, however, because supersymmetry holds much promise to solve certain pressing issues in physics which the Standard Model can’t, such as what dark matter is.

Thus, by finding evidence of cosmic inflation at very high energy, radio-astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center have twanged at one strand of a complex web connecting multiple theories. The help physicists have received from such astronomers is significant and will only mount as we look deeper into our skies.

The Big Bang did bang

The Hindu
March 19, 2014

On March 17, the most important day for cosmology in over a decade, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics made an announcement that swept even physicists off their feet. Scientists published the first pieces of evidence that a popular but untested theory called cosmic inflation is right. This has significant implications for the field of cosmology.

The results also highlight a deep connection between the force of gravitation and quantum mechanics. This has been the subject of one of the most enduring quests in physics.

Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, said the results were a “smoking gun for inflation,” at a news conference. Avi Loeb, a theoretical physicist from Harvard University, added that “the results also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was.” Neither was involved in the project.

Rapid expansion

Cosmic inflation was first hypothesized by American physicist Alan Guth. He was trying to answer the question why distant parts of the universe were similar even though they couldn’t have shared a common history. In 1980, he proposed a radical solution. He theorized that 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang happened, all matter and radiation was uniformly packed into a volume the size of a proton.

In the next few instants, its volume increased by 1078 times – a period called the inflationary epoch. After this event, the universe was almost as big as a grapefruit, expanding to this day but at a slower pace. While this theory was poised to resolve many cosmological issues, it was difficult to prove. To get this far, scientists from the Centre used the BICEP2 telescope stationed at the South Pole.

BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) 2 studies some residual energy of the Big Bang called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This is a field of microwave radiation that permeates the universe. Its temperature is about 3 Kelvin. The CMB consists of electric (E) and magnetic (B) fields, called modes.

Polarized radiation

Before proceeding further, consider this analogy. When sunlight strikes a smooth, non-metallic surface, like a lake, the particles of light start vibrating parallel to the lake’s surface, becoming polarized. This is what we see as glare. Similarly, the E-mode and B-mode of the CMB are also polarized in certain ways.

The E-mode is polarized because of interactions with scattered photons and electrons in the universe. It is the easier to detect than the B-mode, and was studied in great detail until 2012 by the Planck space telescope. The B-mode, on the other hand, can be polarized only under the effect of gravitational waves. These are waves of purely gravitational energy capable of stretching or squeezing the space-time continuum.

The inflationary epoch is thought to have set off gravitational waves rippling through the continuum, in the process polarizing the B-mode.

To find this, a team of scientists led by John Kovac from Harvard University used the BICEP2 telescope from 2010 to 2012. It was equipped with a lens of aperture 26 cm, and devices called bolometers to detect the power of the CMB section being studied.

The telescope’s camera is actually a jumble of electronics. “The circuit board included an antenna to focus and filter polarized light, a micro-machined detector that turns the radiation into heat, and a superconducting thermometer to measure this heat,” explained Jamie Bock, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology and project co-leader.

It scanned an effective area of two to 10 times the width of the Moon. The signal denoting effects of gravitational waves on the B-mode was confirmed with a statistical significance of over 5σ, sufficient to claim evidence.

Prof. Kovac said in a statement, “Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today.”

Unified theory

Despite many physicists calling the BICEP2 results as the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli advised caution. “The first direct detection is not here yet,” he tweeted, alluding to the scientists only having found the waves’ signatures.

Scientists are also looking for the value of a parameter called r, which describes the level of impact that gravitational waves could have had on galaxy formation. That value has been found to be particularly high: 0.20 (+0.07 –0.05). This helps explain why galaxies formed so rapidly, how powerful inflation was and why the universe is so large.

Now, astrophysicists from other observatories around the world will try to replicate BICEP2’s results. Also, data from the Planck telescope on the B-mode is due in 2015.

It is notable that gravitational waves are a feature of theories of gravitation, and cosmic inflation is a feature of quantum mechanics. Thus, the BICEP2 results show that the two previously exclusive theories can be combined at a fundamental level. This throws open the door for theoretical physicists and string theorists to explore a unified theory of nature in new light.

Liam McAllister, a physicist from Cornell University, proclaimed, “In terms of impact on fundamental physics, particularly as a tool for testing ideas about quantum gravity, the detection of primordial gravitational waves is completely unprecedented.”

Go slow on the social media

In a matter of months, India will overtake the US as Facebook’s largest user-base. According to various sources, the social media site is currently adding about 40 million users from the country per year while the US adds some 5 million at the same rate. Such growth is not likely to leave Facebook much enthused as the Indian horde is worth only about $400 million in ads, but for the impending Lok Sabha polls, the Californian giant spells many possibilities of varying efficacy for propaganda.

Almost all our political parties, including the Congress, BJP and AAP, are active on Facebook and Twitter. Among them, the BJP and AAP are the most active, if only because their anti-incumbent and evangelical content, respectively, is highly viral, reaching millions within minutes and, unlike with TV, with a shelf life of forever. Although 5.5-11.2% of all Facebook accounts, and 32-64% of Twitter profiles of the followers of Indian political leaders (according to a rudimentary analysis by The Hindu), are fake, that still leaves space for tens of millions of users to be swayed by opinions disseminated on the web.

However, this is also why whether the social media will inspire direct mobilization is hard to say. Even though most of India’s 18-24 year-olds could be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we know little about how articulation online translates to action offline quantitatively. This is why surveys showing how certain constituencies harbor more Facebook users than the margins of victory in previous Assembly elections are only engaging in empirical speculation. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls could be our first opportunity to understand this influential mechanism.

(These inputs were provided for a piece that appeared in The Hindu on March 17, 2014.)

The stuff we learn after a plane goes missing

(A version of this post, as written by me, first appeared in The Hindu science blog, The Copernican, on March 16, 2014.)

It’s likely any of you knew many of or all the following, but these are things I became aware of from reading news items and analyses of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370, currently one of hijacked, crashed into a large water-body or next-plausible-occurrence. While some of them may not directly apply to the search for any survivors or the carrier, all of them shine important and interesting light on how things work.

Ringing phones aren’t actually ringing. Yet. – After the relative of a passenger on board flight 370 called up the person’s phone, it started to ring. This was flashed on TV channels as proof of the plane still being intact, whether or not it was in the air. A couple hours later, some telecom experts wrote in that the first few rings you hear aren’t rings that the call’s receiver is hearing, too. Instead, those are the rings the network relays to you so you don’t cut the call while it looks for the receiver’s device.

Air-traffic controllers don’t always know where the plane is* – Because planes are flying at 35,000 feet, controllers don’t anticipate much to happen to them, and they’re almost always right. This is why, while cruising at that altitude, pilots don’t constantly buzz home to controllers about where their flight is, its altitude, its speed, etc. To be on the safe side, they buzz home over specific intervals, a process that’s automated on some modern models. Between these intervals, of course, the flight might just as well be blinking in and out of extra dimensions but no one is going to have an eye on it.

Radar that controllers have access to don’t work so well beyond a range of 150-350 km** – If civilian aircraft are farther than this, they no longer show up as pings on the scanning screen. In fact, in another system, called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), a plane determines its location based on GPS and transmits it down to a controller.  Here again, there’s a distance limit of up to 300 or so km. Beyond this, they communicate over high-frequency radio. Of course, this depends on the quality of equipment, but it’s useful to know such limitations exist.

If a plane’s communication systems have been disabled, there’s no Plan B – There’s radar, then radio, then GPS, then a fourth system where the aircraft’s computers communicate via satellite with the airline’s offices. The effectiveness of radar and radio is contingent on weather conditions. Beyond a particular altitude and, again, depending on the weather, GPS is capable of blinking out. The fourth system can be be manually disabled. If a renegade technician on the flight knows these things and how to work them, he/she can take the flight off the grid.

For pilots, it’s aviate, navigate, and then communicate – If the flight is in some kind of danger, the pilot’s primary responsibility is to do those things necessary to tackle the threat, and try and get the carrier away from the danger area. Only then is he/she obligated to get in touch with the controllers.

The ocean is a LARGE place – Sure, we studied in school that the oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface and contain 1.3 billion cubic km of water, but those were just numbers – big numbers, but numbers nonetheless. I think our sense of bigness isn’t reliant any bit on numbers but only on physical experiences. I’m 6’4″ tall, but you’ll have to come stand next to me to understand how tall I really am. That said, I now quote former US Navy sailor Jim Wright (from his Facebook post):

… even when you know exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, where to look, it’s still extremely difficult to find scattered bits of airplane or, to be blunt, scattered bits of people in the water. As a navy sailor, I’ve spent days searching for lost aircraft and airmen, and even if you think you know where the bird went down, the winds and the currents can spread the debris across hundreds or even thousands of miles of ocean in fairly short order. No machine, no computer, can search this volume, you have to put human eyeballs on every inch of the search area. You have to inspect every item you come across – and the oceans of the world are FULL of flotsam, jetsam, debris, junk, trash, crap, bits, and pieces. Often neither the sea nor the weather cooperates, it is INCREDIBLY difficult to spot [an] item the size of a human being in the water, among the swells and the spray, even if you know exactly where to look – and the sea conditions in this part of the world are some of the worst, especially this time of year.

Mr. Wright goes on to write that should flight 370 have crashed into the Bay of Bengal, the South China Sea or wherever, its leaked fuel wouldn’t exactly be visible as an oil slick because of two reasons: first, high-grade aircraft fuel evaporates really fast (if it hasn’t already been vaporized on its way down from the sky); second, given the size of the fuel-tank, such a slick might cover a few square kilometers: on an ocean, that’s a blip. The current extended search area spans 30,000 sq. km.

Military threats in militarized zones are discerned by ballistic trajectories of bodies – One of the simplest ways armored units know what they’re seeing in the sky is not a missile but a civilian aircraft is by their trajectory – the shape of their path. Most missiles are ballistic, which means their trajectories are like upturned Us. Aircraft, on the other hand, fly in a straight line. I suppose this really is common sense but it is good to know just what’s keeping me from getting bombed out of the air should I fly over, say, the East China Sea…

The global positioning system doesn’t continuously relay the aircraft’s location to controllers – See * and **.

Smaller nations advance pilots with fewer flying hours than is the norm in bigger nations – According to a piece on CNN, one of flight 370’s two pilots had clocked only 2,763 flying hours as a pilot, and was “transitioning from flight simulator training to the Boeing 777-200ER”. The other pilot had a little over 18,000 hours under his belt. As CNN goes on to explain, smaller nations tend to advance pilots they think are very talented, farther than they could go in the same time in other countries, through intensive training programs. I couldn’t find anything substantive on the nature of these supposedly advanced programs, so I can’t comment further.

Pilot suicide – Okay, what the hell. Nobody wants a person at the controls who’s expressed suicidal tendencies, and it’s the airline’s responsibility to treat or accordingly deal with such people. However, the moment you’ve said that, you realize how difficult such situations could be to predict, not to mention how much more difficult to prevent. A report by the US Federal Aviation Administration titled ‘Aircraft-Assisted Pilot Suicides in the United States‘, from February 2014, describes eight case-studies of flights whose pilots have killed themselves by crashing the aircraft. Each study describes the pilot’s behavior during the flight’s duration and is careful to note no other electric/mechanical failures were present. In the case of flight 370, of course, pilot suicide is just a theory.

The Boeing 777 is one safe carrier – Since its first flight in 1994, the Boeing 777-200ER (for ‘Extended Range’) had an estimated full loss equivalent (FLE) of 0.01 as of December 31, 2012, over 6.9 million flights. According to AirSafe.com, the FLE…

… is the sum of the proportions of passengers killed for each fatal event. For example, 50 out of 100 passengers killed on a flight is an FLE of 0.50, 1 of 100 would be a FLE of 0.01. The fatal event rate for a set of fatal events is found by dividing the total FLE by the number of flights in millions.

The same site also lists the 777-200ER as having the second lowest crash rate – 0.001 per million flights – of all time, among all models with 2 million flights or more, as of September, 2013. Only the Airbus A340 is better with a crash rate of 0, although it has clocked 4 million fewer flights (just saying).

Southeast Asia is a busy area for aviation – Between April-2012 and October-2013, the number of seats per week per Southeast Asian country grew by an average of 19.4%. In the same 18 months, the entire region’s population grew by 6% (both numbers courtesy the Center for Asia-Pacific Aviation). Then, of course, there’s Singapore’s Changi Airport. It’s one of Asia’s busiest, if not the world’s, handling 6,100 flights a week. And it was in this jam-packed area that people were trying to look for one flight.

For more on how we can manage to lose a plane in 2014, check out my previous post Airplanes Can Still Go Missing.

Airplanes can still go missing

Airplanes are one of our largest modes of transportation in terms of physical size. With the exception of ships, airplanes have the highest carrying capacity, are quite environmentally disruptive while in operation, and are equipped with some of the most sophisticated positional tracking technologies.

Yet, one still went missing last week. Fourteen years into the 21st century, while the NSA threatens the privacy of global telecommunications, one airplane goes missing. I don’t mean to trivialize the issue of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 turning untraceable, but just that even though some of us are smart enough to build invisibility cloaks, we also still have our problems.

I went around the web trying to understand why this was the case and found some interesting stuff. Even though #370 was only the third flight to go missing in the 21st century (and almost the 1,900th to have crashed), it is the 111th flight to do so since radio-sets were first installed on airplanes in 1917. On average, that’s a little more than one disappearance per year.

One reason finding missing airplanes is so difficult is multiplicity. Airplanes are made up of thousands of components each. When one component malfunctions, it could lead to a form of failure that’s very different from what would happen when a different component malfunctions. Watch an episode of Air Crash Investigation on National Geographic if you don’t believe me—airline investigators trying to figure out what exactly could have wrong often find the blame lies with small deviations from normal practices by the pilots or maintenance crews. I remember an episode titled Disaster on the Potomac that aired in December 2013, which details how the 1982 Air Florida crash that killed 78 people was due to a faulty de-icing procedure that skewed instrument readings in the cockpit.

On top of this, you have environmental factors to deal with. According to a piece by Jordan Golson in Wired on March 11, Col. J. Joseph, an aviation consultant, thinks that when planes break up at higher altitudes, the debris is likely to be moved around by stronger winds. Given that flight #370 was over 11 km up, Col. Joseph thinks windspeed could have been over 180 km/hr, enough to blow pieces out of any geographical context.

Things get worse if the plane crashes into the water. Consider the oft-quoted example of Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 with 228 people on board. Rescue missions took almost two days to find the first signs of its wreckage. Before that, in 2007, an Indonesia Boeing 737 crashed near the Makassar Strait near Sulawesi. Its wreckage took 10 days to find. There are many other sad yet interesting examples.

According to a Wall Street Journal analytical piece by Daniel Michaels and John Ostrower on March 11, the search for #370 could be further hampered by the fact that the region it was traversing is one of the busiest on the planet: Southeast Asia. Moreover, according to Golson, radar isn’t good enough after the plane’s farther than about 200 km from the nearest control tower, while precise GPS locations aren’t relayed continuously by the pilots to air-traffic controllers—this is why we rely on a ‘last known location’, not a definitive ‘last location’. At the same time, controllers don’t panic when pilots don’t ping back frequently because, according to pilot Patrick Smith’s blog:

In an emergency, communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with the problems at hand. As the old adage goes: you aviate, navigate, and communicate — in that order. And so, the fact that no messages or distress signals were sent by the crew is not surprising or an indicator of anything specific.

However, what’s stranger about flight 370 is that it’s a Boeing 777, which comes with an emergency locator that beeps out location signals for many days after a crash. Rescuers are yet to spot one in the area they’re combing. So, as the search for a missing airplane drags on, it’s only our conviction that some trace of the vehicle will surface that lasts, accompanied by stronger and stronger scrutiny of what facts we manage to gather (In the meantime, the Daily Mail has something about an aeronautical black hole you might want to read about).

Riffing off the Rift

At first glance, the Oculus Rift is an ingenious invention – not something you can look at and go “Hey, how come I didn’t think of that?” By letting its users ‘step inside the game’, the Rift holds enormous potential not only to herald the proverbial revolution due a disruptive bit of technology in gaming but to change what gaming itself means. Building on many studies and discussions over the years about what gaming truly represents – a proof-of-work based rewards system that leaves players emotionally fulfilled – with the Rift, they’re for the first time truly equipped to explore more complex gaming constructs involving even more sophisticated rewards systems, including incorporating them into training programs and simulations. That’s just at first glance. At second glance, however, what’s even more remarkable is that the Rift involves nothing new – at least nothing that’s disruptively new – apart from the particular way it’s been assembled.

The device is a melange of components working in sync: motion sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, a processor, a pair of stereoscopic lenses, specially designed set of goggles and, necessarily, a game. Essentially, using the Rift is like playing an FPS in a theater with 3D glasses on. The game, built on the versatile Unity game engine, is rendered by the processor on the display device – a stripped down tablet will do – mounted on the front of the goggles that’re then strapped onto your head. These goggles are fit with the stereoscopic lenses that give the illusion of depth necessary to stepping inside the game. Next, with the gaming controller in your hand, you navigate the game you’re seeing play out in front of your eyes. A camera in front of you tracks your head movements and relays it to the processor, which uses the positional information to move your head inside the game. Suddenly, you’re thinking “Hey, how come I didn’t think of that?” A story by a colleague and me for The Hindu on how different developers have decided to take the Rift forward.