Why you should care about the New Horizons probe nearing Pluto

The Wire
May 29, 2015

Alex Parker is a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, Texas, and he posted his tweet just as I started writing this piece. And not just for Parker – it’s an exciting time for everyone, an exhilarating period in the history of space exploration. In just under 48 days – on July 14, 2015 – the NASA New Horizons space-probe will make its first fly-by of our favourite dwarf planet Pluto. Until then, it will be relaying less and less grainy pictures to Earth, each of more interest than the last, of a cold and distant world discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. One batch of images taken from May 8 to May 12 has already added to old evidence that Pluto hosts icy polar caps, and variations in surface brightness suggest a more uneven composition. On May 28, New Horizons restarted another phase of imaging – and as each day takes the probe 1.2 million km closer to its target, this is Pluto finally emerging out of the blur.

What more could we stand to find out? Quite a lot, as it turns out, from three points of view:

1. Toward the outer limits

The engineers operating the Voyager 1 space-probe (currently the farthest human-made object from Earth) had exciting news in September 2013: they claimed that about a year earlier, the probe had entered the interstellar medium – the space between stars, where the Sun’s influence was no longer the dominant one but had to contend with particulate emissaries from other stars in the galaxy. At the time, V1 was running on what little remained of its battery, a feeble ingot of blinking lights 19 billion km from Earth, and the occasion was replete with symbolism: humankind (or a representative) had set foot into the universe.

Actually, that moment could’ve transpired earlier. The engineers said that, in February 2012, the readings to indicate if V1 had entered the interstellar medium were spotted by the probe. However, they couldn’t be verified because the instrument that could do that had run out of juice. Luckily for them, a solar flare that erupted in March 2012 set the region of space around the probe thrumming with energy, which V1’s weak were able to pick up on and settle the matter.

Pluto, now, is much closer to the Sun than the threshold of the interstellar medium – in fact, the distance between Pluto and the Sun is 3.7 times smaller than the distance between Pluto and the medium. However, it is still quite far, and any space-probe sent to study it will either have to use up as little of its battery as it can until the rendezvous or be able to make only perfunctory observations of the dwarf planet. New Horizons is of the former kind – its primary mission is the farthest till date, and unlike the Voyager and Pioneer probes, will be able to respond to its environment agilely and be less susceptible to the vagaries of a dying battery.

2. Within the outer limits

Even if Pluto is among the outermost significant, planet-like bodies to orbit the Sun, it’s equally significant as being the largest body in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of asteroids like the one between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The belt starts from around the orbit of Neptune and extends to six AUs beyond the orbit of Pluto (AU is the astronomical unit, the distance between Earth and the Sun: 149.5 million km). It is also 200 times heavier than the Mars-Jupiter belt. Overall, both belts are important for two reasons in the context of New Horizons.

Before the Solar System took the form we now know – with a star at the centre, eight planets orbiting it, and two rings of asteroids – it comprised a young Sun at the centre of a massive disk of gases, dust and other materials called the protoplanetary disk. It is so named because it is out of this disk that the Solar System’s planets condensed, born as clumps of matter whose gravity accrued more matter, growing in size. And even as a planet formed, its gravitational pulls would ‘clean’ out a space in the protoplanetary disk, forming gaps. This phenomenon is visible among Saturn’s rings as well, with the space between rings having been cleaned out by the formation of small moons. The gaps in the disk survived to this day as the space between planets’ orbits. On the other hand, parts of the disk that didn’t get fully cleaned out formed the asteroid belts. So, they’re residues of the matter that the first planets were formed of, and studying them throws a lot of light on the history of the Solar System’s formation.

The second reason is that the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and the Kuiper Belt are separated by 4.2 billion km – even on the cosmological scale, that’s a non-trivial gap. However, many objects in the two belts share chemical and physical properties as if they were once part of a common larger body. One logical explanation is that the belts were ‘mixed’ after they were formed. And to explain such mixing, astronomers have an awe-inspiring yet plausible explanation. According to them, as Jupiter was forming, its orbits moved closer to the Sun and then farther away, before shrinking down to place it between the inner asteroid belt and Saturn. The increase and decrease in the orbit’s size could’ve been due to the formation of other planets in the system, which would’ve disrupted the gravitational equilibrium. And while Jupiter moved, its prodigious gravity could’ve tugged a part of the inner asteroids out and vice versa, resulting in a mixed composition of asteroids in both belts. Since Pluto is the largest among Kuiper Belt objects, New Horizons studying it in detail could provide more clues about if such mixing could’ve happened.

3. Beyond the outer limits

Pluto is all of 2,300-km across – the distance between Kanyakumari in south Tamil Nadu and New Delhi – and it has five moons all to itself: Nix, Styx, Hydra, Charon and Kerberos. All of them are Kuiper Belt objects, too, and astronomers are curious to know if Pluto has a ring system as well, populated by smaller asteroids. The dwarf planet will also likely have smaller rocks orbiting it, and dust particles kicked up as a result of collisions between them. Such dust will be dangerous for New Horizons because they could impact the probe at some 50,000 km/hr and damage on-board systems. In January 2014, Simon Porter, one of the probe’s mission scientists, had told Wired that to protect against such collisions, his team had a contingency plan in mind: to turn the probe’s 2.1-metre-wide dish antenna into a shield.

If the probe does make it through the danger zone and get to within 12,500 km of the surface of Pluto, its observations of any rings as well as the dwarf planet’s surface, atmosphere and any craters/seismic activity will reveal more about the composition of Kuiper Belt objects, how they interact with each other, whether they sport any signs of violence from the past, and if at all they have atmospheres, what they’re composed of – information important to understand how and where the Solar System’s other planets could’ve formed. Astronomers also already know that Pluto’s surface has frozen methane and carbon monoxide.

This and other data gleaned from Pluto and its surroundings will take until late-2016 to be transmitted to Earth but the probe’s journey will continue – rather, has to continue because a probe that’s gone so far might as well just go farther because of the considerable time taken to travel such distances. Because the primary mission will almost exhaust its battery, the probe will subsequently become less manoeuvrable – like the Voyager and Pioneer probes did, yet still boast of a sophisticated suite of instruments. To take advantage, astronomers from the Southwest Research Institute, including Alex Parker, had spotted three other Kuiper Belt objects in New Horizons‘ path in late 2014 that would be interesting to study. All three objects are about 30-55 km across and located about 44 AU from the Sun, meaning the probe will reach them around 2020. This timeline is very interesting because NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope – successor to the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes – in 2018. The JWST will be better equipped to study the Kuiper Belt objects than Hubble is, and its observations could be complemented by New Horizons‘.

It is probably from all these expectations that the probe draws its promising name. There are parallels to be drawn between its (impending) exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and the space beyond, and how astronomers look into the older universe. The speed of light in vacuum is the highest possible speed in the universe, so when astronomers train their telescopes to look billions of lightyears in one direction, they’re simply looking billions of years into our past. The farther a part of the cosmos is from us, the older the light from it is – and the older the information it is carrying is. A parallel of this ingrained association between space and time can be drawn with the distance New Horizons is travelling and the more than four billions years into our past it will be able to see. Here’s waiting with bated breath…

Twitter isn't impressed with what we're doing about climate change

The Wire
May 26, 2015

English is a happy language. At least the 10,000 most used English words are positively biased, according to a 2012 study conducted by mathematicians from the University of Vermont. To reach their conclusion, they used a tool they’d built called the hedonometer – an evaluator of happiness in natural (English) language.

The hedonometer works by assessing how happy or unhappy a particular corpus of text is based on the words used in the corpus. The happiness score of each word is set before the assessment begins: in the case of the English language, 50 participants drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace rated each word on a scale of 1 (least happy) to 9 (most happy). Then, the hedonometer tracked how much they were used and in the presence of which other words.

Since its building in 2011, the tool has also been used to identify individual happiness expressed in literary corpora as well as which the happiest cities are.

Now, a part of the Vermont group, together with a researcher from the University of Adelaide, has put the hedonometer together with one other – and far more brazen – gauge of human opinions and sentiments, to understand how the Twitterverse might feel about climate change. Specifically, they collated 1.5 million tweets that mentioned “climate” between September 14, 2008, and July 14, 2014, and adjudged their collective happiness against the happiness of some 100 billion general tweets from the same period.

Although the mathematicians found that not all tweets that mentioned “climate” at least once were about climate change (being about the social climate, for example), they also calculated that their exclusion didn’t change the happiness index of the overall set. However that was in hindsight.

Their results, submitted to the arXiv pre-print server on May 14, 2015, are accompanied by three telling charts.

1. Sadder than happier


The average happiness index of the 100 billion tweets logged in the six years was 5.99, its daily variation indicated by a red dotted line in the chart. And the average happiness index of tweets about the climate was almost always below this line (ending up with an average of 5.84).

Though there were occasional outliers – in the form of spikes – there were also more negative outliers than positive ones. So, people on Twitter aren’t happy about the climate.

The mathematicians note that “the week of October 28, 2012 appears as one of the saddest weeks of climate discussion on Twitter” as this was the week “when Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast of the US”.

2. “Science” v. “denial”


Relative to the set of 100 billion unfiltered tweets, which words made tweets mentioning “climate” happier or sadder? The mathematicians built a so-called word-shift graph, which ranks words by their influence over tweets’ sentiments.

The words on the left contributed to sadness and those on the right, to happiness. Moreover, yellow bars indicate happy words, purple bars indicate sad words, and the up/down arrows indicate if they were used more or less frequently.

So, it’s reassuring to see the increased use of “science” contributed to making climate-related tweets happier. At the same time, the words whose increased use made tweets sadder were “threat”, “pollution”, “denial” and, toward the bottom, “poverty”.

The nature of denial of climate change has focused not on refuting the warming of Earth itself but on the aspect of humans having caused it. Thus, if climate-deniers are persisting on Twitter, it’s not clear how they could’ve contributed to the sadness. On the other hand, “denial” and “denying” featuring on the sad side of things signals that the persistence of denialism is a cause of distress (which you could say is a kind of reassurance).

Aside: the more frequent use of “hell” saddened tweets more than the more frequent use of “heaven” made them happier.

3. Three happiest days


On April 30, 2012, April 9, 2009, and December 28, 2008, the happiness indices were the highest for tweets mentioning “climate”, clocking 6.36, 6.27 and 6.27 respectively. What happened on these dates? From the paper…

  1. April 30, 2012 – “On this date, Twitter users were reaching out to Brazilian Dilma [Rousseff] to save the Amazon rainforest”
  2. April 9, 2009 – “Twitter users were discussing the release of a new book called Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay. Also on this date, users were posting about a Climate Prize given to a solar-powered cooker in a contest for green ideas”
  3. December 28, 2008 – “This is due in part to a decrease in the word “no”, and an increase in the words “united”, “play”, and “hopes”. On this day, there were “high hopes” for the US response to climate change”

Similarly, the three saddest days were…


  1. October 9, 2008 (5.29) – “Topics of conversation in tweets containing “climate” include the threat posed by climate change to a tropical species, a British climate bill, and the US economic crisis”
  2. April 4, 2010 (5.37) – “Popular topics of conversation on this date included a California climate law and President Obama’s oil-drilling plan”
  3. August 6, 2011 (5.38) – “A topic of conversation on this date was the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed extension to the current Keystone Pipeline”

Blurry reflections

Even if the averaged outlook seems gloomy, there exists a demonstrable appreciation of positive action – even if the action is small. This is evident especially when Twitter users caused a spike in happiness on April 9, 2009, tweeting about the solar-powered cooker (the Kyoto Box, made from cardboard and able to boil or bake food).

Another example is the Forward on Climate Rally, which brought together nearly 50,000 people in Washington DC on February 17, 2013, to call on President Barack Obama to veto the Keystone pipeline bill. According to the authors, on the day, “the happiness of climate tweets increased slightly above the unfiltered tweets during this event, which only occurs on 8% of days.” The bill was eventually vetoed.

However, the paper isn’t perfect. There are two factors skewing results – both having to do with locations. First: In the six years during which the mathematicians parsed the tweets, the volume ballooned from 1 million tweets/day to 500 million tweets/day. The underlying expansion in the user base will have been accompanied by a shift in the demographics as well, including more people who are less likely to have tweeted about the climate than others. In the absence of user demographics, thus, the more accurate weighted average of the happiness index remains out of reach.

Similarly, the second factor is that results largely concern American sentiments. The mathematicians don’t mention that they’ve drawn tweets put out by users located in the United States, yet the outcomes and the saddest and happiest dates are dependent on American opinions. This makes a weighted average of the happiness index that accounts for country-wise differences all the more meaningful.

Despite these pitfalls, the paper provides a blurry reflection of the popular perceptions of climate change. Given the affinity for positive action, in fact, the conclusions provide ample reason to believe people on Twitter don’t think enough is being done to tackle climate change. The period of 2008 to 2014, when the tweets were tracked, was also the time in which faith in the Kyoto Protocol and its subsequent amendments declined, and the disappointing Copenhagen summit happened in 2009.

Remembering John Nash, mathematician who unlocked game theory for economics

The Wire
May 25, 2015

The economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow once said, “It wasn’t until Nash that game theory came alive for economists.” He was speaking of the work of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician whose 27-page PhD thesis from 1949 transformed a chapter in mathematics from a novel idea to a powerful tool in economics, business and political science.

At the time, Nash was only 21, his age a telltale mark of genius that had accompanied and would accompany him for the rest of his life.

That life was brought to a tragic close on May 23 when his wife Alicia Nash and he were killed in a car-accident at the New Jersey Turnpike. He was 86 and she was 82; they are survived by two children.

Alicia (née Larde) met Nash when she took an advanced calculus class from him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1950s. He had received his PhD in 1950 from Princeton University, spent some time as an instructor there and as a consultant at the Rand Corporation, and had moved to MIT in 1951 determined to take on the biggest problems in mathematics.

Between then and 1959, Nash made a name for himself as possibly one of the greatest mathematicians since Carl Friedrich Gauss. He solved what was until then believed to be an unsolvable problem in geometry dating from the 19th century. He worked on a cryptography machine he’d invented while at Rand and tried to get the NSA to use it. He worked with the Canadian-American mathematician Louis Nirenberg to develop non-linear partial differential equations (in recognition, the duo was awarded the coveted Abel Prize in 2015).

He made significant advances in the field of number theory and analysis that – in the eyes of other mathematicians – easily overshadowed his work from the previous decade. After Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994 for transforming the field of game theory, the joke was that he’d won the prize for his most trivial work.

In 1957, Nash took a break from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, during which he married Alicia. In 1958, she became pregnant with John Charles Martin Nash. Then, in 1959, misfortune struck when Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The illness would transform him, his work and the community of his peers in the next 20 years far beyond putting a dent in his professional career – even as it exposed the superhuman commitments of those who stood by him.

This group included his family, his friends at Princeton and MIT, and the Princeton community at large, even as Nash was as good as dead for the world outside.

His colleagues were no longer able to understand his work. He stopped publishing papers after 1958. He was committed to psychiatric hospitals many times but treatment didn’t help. Psychoanalysis was still in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s – while it’s been discredited now, its unsurprising inability to get through to Nash ground at people’s hopes. In these trying times, Alicia Nash became a great source of support.

Although the couple had divorced in 1963, he continued to write her strange letters – while roaming around Europe, while absconding from Princeton to Roanoke (West Virginia), while convinced that the American government was spying on him.

She later let him live in her house along with their son, paying the bills by working as a computer programmer. Many believe that his eventual remission – in the 1980s – had been the work of Alicia. She had firmly believed that he would feel better if he could live in a quiet, friendly environment, occasionally bumping into old friends, walking familiar walkways in peace. Princeton afforded him just these things.

The remission was considered miraculous because it was wholly unexpected. The intensity of Nash’s affliction was exacerbated by the genius tag, by how much of Nash’s brilliance the world was being deprived of. And the deprivation in turn served to intensify the sensation of loss, drawing out each day that he was unable to make sense when he spoke, when he worked. John Moore, a mathematician and friend of the Nashes, thought they could have been his most productive years.

After journalist Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, and then an Academy-Award-winning movie based on it, his story became a part of popular culture – but the man himself withdrew from society. Ron Howard, who directed the movie, mentions in a 2002 interview that Nash couldn’t remember large chunks of his life from the 1970s.

While mood disorders like depression strike far more people – and are these days almost commonplace – schizophrenia is more ruthless and debilitating. Even as scientists think it has a firm neurological basis, a perfect cure is yet to be invented because schizophrenia damages a victim’s mind as much as her/his ability to process social stimuli.

In Nash’s case, his family and friends among the professors of Princeton and MIT protected him from succumbing to his own demons – the voices in his head, the ebb of reason, the tendency to isolate himself, that are altogether often the first step toward suicide in people less cared for. Moreover, Nash’s own work played a role in his illness. He was convinced for a time that a new global government was on the horizon, a probable outcome in game theory that his work had made possible, and tried to give up his American citizenship. As a result, his re-emergence from the two decades of mental torture were as much about escaping the vile grip of irrationality and paranoia as much as regaining a sense of certainty in the face of his mathematics’ enchanting possibilities.

A Beautiful Mind closes with Nash’s peers at Princeton learning of his being awarded the Nobel in 1994, and walking up to his table to congratulate him. On screen, Russell Crowe smiles the smile of a simple man, a certain man, revealing nothing of the once-brazen virtuosity that had him dashing into classrooms at Princeton just to scribble equations on the boards, dismissing his colleagues’ work, rearing to have a go at the next big thing in science. By then, that brilliance lay firmly trapped within John Nash’s beautiful but unsettled mind. With his death, and that of Alicia, that mind will now always be known and remembered by the brilliant body of work it produced.

ISRO keeps up steady trickle of photos from Mars Orbiter

The Wire
May 23, 2015

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO
Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO

On May 22, the Indian Space Research Organization released two new pictures snapped by the Mars Orbiter Mission, currently in orbit around the red planet. They were taken by the Mars Colour Camera on-board the orbiter in February and April, and follow a heftier batch of photos released in the third week of March. On the same day, ISRO was given thePioneer Award by the International Space Development Conference, organized by the American National Space Society.

One picture shows Tyrrhenus Mons (above), a major volcanic elevation located in the southern hemisphere of Mars. While it isn’t major in the same sense Mount Olympus Mons is – as the tallest mountain in the Solar System, located almost on the opposite side of the planet – Tyrrhenus is significant for its age and formative history. It is one of the oldest volcanoes on Mars, being 3.7-3.9 billion years old, and formed by hot clouds of ash being blown through the surface by molten rock that suddenly encountered steam or a cloud of gas.

The second picture shows the oddly shaped Pital Crater (below), located near the Valles Marineris canyons below the equator. The picture appears to have been taken in April, from a height of 808 km.

Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO
Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO

The Mars Colour Camera that took the picture is among five scientific payloads. It has an instantaneous field of view ranging from 19.5 m to 4 km and a 2048 x 2048 squared-pixel detector. Its imaging capabilities are also complemented by MOM’s highly elliptical orbit around Mars, which takes it 77,000 km from the planet at one point (its closest orbital approach is at 421 km). The great separation allows the Colour Camera and others to take pictures with large fields of view.

This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO
This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

The camera has multiple objectives: to image features on the planet’s surface, to map the geological features surrounding probable sources of methane (which are determined by a companion payload called the Methane Sensor for Mars), to image dust-storms over six months and to map the polar ice caps. As an aside, the camera will also provide important context to the data logged by the four other instruments.

Those instruments are a Methane Sensor for Mars, Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (to determine composition of particles), Lyman-Alpha photometer (to measure the relative abundance of hydrogen and deuterium in the upper atmosphere), and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (to measure thermal radiation).

On March 24 this year, the orbiter completed its original six months around Mars, and the mission was promptly extended by six months (it is now on the verge of completing its eighth month). On the same day, ISRO released a batch of pictures from the Colour Camera, including stunning snaps of the blue-tinged Valles Marineris.

Curious Bends – outraged warriors, bizarre obsessions, dubious drugs and more

It’s been one year since we launched Curious Bends – a newsletter where we bring you science, technology, data and India stories from around the web, once a week (subscribe).

We’ve enjoyed serving you important and interesting stories. Thank you for being loyal subscribers!

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect. Help us do that and improve what we do by taking this two-minute survey. We respect your privacy, so the option to tell us who you are is up to you (but we’d LOVE to know).

Starting this week, the newsletter has a new home at The Wire.

1. India’s bizarre, fascinating and occasionally horrifying obsession with urine

“Urine is one of those perennially surfacing topics in Indian media and it is difficult for a year to go by without multiple references to urine, whether of humans, cows, rhinos, tigers or elephants, of the diseased or undiseased kind, medical therapies, recipes for consumption and more. As a nation, we are obsessed.” (6 min read, scroll.in)

2. India has more illiterates than anywhere in the world—partly because of a preference for sons

“An extra child—which is likely had to have a trophy son—in the family reduces schooling, on average, by 0.1 years. Furthermore, that extra child reduces the probability of ever attending or being enrolled in school by up to 2%. Both numbers may seem small, but for the size of India’s young population, the upshot is that millions don’t go to school enough or at all.” (3 min read, qz.com)

3. Why Indians aren’t outraged about climate change

“Astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.” (6 min read, thewire.in)

+ The author, Amitav Ghosh, is a celebrated Indian writer whose work in English fiction has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

4. World Health Statistics 2015: some achievements, many concerns

“The World Health Organization (WHO), on Wednesday, released this year’s World Health Statistics (WHS) which evaluate achievements in health with respect to targets set as part of the MDGs. While WHS lists some landmark accomplishments reported in the 15 years since the beginning of the global programme, the overall results have been a mixed bag with great variations between regions and countries.” (7 min read, downtoearth.org.in)

5. Most antidepressant drug combos in India are unapproved

“The health of 120 million patients in India is in jeopardy because of the proliferation in the past decade of unapproved and unregulated combination drugs commonly used as anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and anti-psychotic medication, a new study has found. The research findings are especially troubling for people who are depressed because 8-in-10 antidepressant and 7-in-10 anti-psychotic combination drugs in India don’t have the proper approval. Worldwide, depression has already taken over as the leading cause of disability but its treatment in India is largely unregulated.” (4 min read, thewire.in)

Chart of the Week

In the past year, Curious Bends has shared a total of 212 stories with you from 69 different sources. Of course, our selection is biased because of the places we read most. However, our effort to spread the net broad has showed us that the state of science journalism for India-related stories is not nearly as poor as we had thought going in. The problem is that, while there are a lot of sources that publish good stories that fit our criteria, they don’t do it consistently enough. That’s why we find curating these good stories worth our effort, and it is reinforced by the fact that so many people have subscribed to this newsletter.


Roundup of missed stories – May 23, 2015

I’ve missed writing/commenting on so many science papers/articles in the two weeks following the launch of The Wire. The concepts in many of them would’ve made fun explainers, some required a takedown or two, and one had surprising ethical and philosophical implications. I think it might be a bit late to write about them myself (read: too tired), so I’m going to lay those I think are the best among them out here for you to take on in ways you see fit.

  1. Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access – An OA whitepaper from a big proponent of OA, the Max Planck Digital Library. Has data to support argument that money locked in the currently dominant publishing paradigm needs to be repurposed for OA, which the whitepaper reasons is very viable. Finally, suggests that for OA to become the dominant paradigm, it must happen en masse instead of in piecemeal fashion.
  2. Self-assembling Sierpinski triangles – Sierpinski triangles are a prominent kind of fractal. So, “Defect-free Sierpiński triangles can be self-assembled on a silver surface through a combination of molecular design and thermal annealing” suggests some interesting chemical and physical reactions at play.
  3. The moral challenge of invisibility – A new optical technique allows people to look at their bodies and see nothing, thanks to an apparatus developed by a team of researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Cool as it is, physicist Philip Ball writes that users of the technique felt their social anxieties reduce. This appears to be a curious axiom of VS Ramachandran’s mirror-box technique to reduce phantom-limb pain in amputees.
  4. Open Science decoded – “Granting access to publications and data may be a step towards open science, but it’s not enough to ensure reproducibility. Making computer code available is also necessary — but the emphasis must be on the quality of the programming.” Given the role computing and statistics are playing in validating or invalidating scientific results, I wholeheartedly agree.
  5. EPR Paradox: Nonlocal legacy – I haven’t read this article yet but it already sounds interesting.
  6. In the beginning – A long piece in Aeon discusses if cosmology is suffering a drought of creativity these days. The piece’s peg is on the BICEP2 fiasco so maybe there are some juicy inside-stories there. It also ends on a well-crafted note of hopelessness (that’s one thing I’ve noticed about longform – the graf is often the last para).

We might be trapped in this snow globe of photons forever. The expansion of the Universe is pulling light away from us at a furious pace. And even if it weren’t, not everything that exists can be observed. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. There always will be. Science has limits. One day, we might feel ourselves pressing up against those limits, and at that point, it might be necessary to retreat into the realm of ideas. It might be necessary to ‘dispense with the starry heavens’, as Plato suggested. It might be necessary to settle for untestable theories. But not yet. Not when we have just begun to build telescopes. Not when we have just awakened into this cosmos, as from a dream.

Last: I foresee I’ll continue to miss writing on these pieces in the future, so maybe these roundups could become a regular feature.

Why Indian science projects must plan for cultural conversations, too

The Wire
May 18, 2015

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory; the mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population; and even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the centre that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

There is little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.”

As seas exchange heat, the Indian Ocean is becoming a marine hothouse

The Wire
May 21, 2015

Since about 1998, the rate at which the Earth’s surface temperature has been becoming hotter due to anthropogenic global warming has slowed. It slipped from about 0.12 kelvin per decade since the late 1800s to about 0.05 kelvin per decade. For a time, climate deniers jumped on this statistic to refute that the burning of fossil fuels was warming the planet. However, scientists found out that such variations were due to the internal variability of the world’s climate, and that such hiatuses would occur again.

In fact, during the hiatus period the subsurface Pacific Ocean was found to have absorbed a significant amount of heat. But recent measurements of the sea’s depths have actually signalled that the temperature there is dropping, not increasing. If the Pacific Ocean had absorbed the heat from Earth’s atmosphere yet its subsurface waters were cooling, where is the heat?

As it turns out, the Pacific has been leaking it into the Indian Ocean for the last decade, via currents running along the Indonesian archipelago. A team of researchers from France and the US found that the upper 700 m of the Indian Ocean accounted for more than 70% of the global heat gain in 2003-2012.

“The model simulation and hydrographic data both showed that Indian Ocean heat content did not increase much prior to 2000,” said Sang-Ki Lee, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and lead author of the study. “We believe that the massive heat transport from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean occurred during the past decade is a fairly unusual phenomenon.” They published their findings in Nature Geoscience on May 19.

To support the measurements they made, Lee and his team simulated the warm water’s flow from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean in a computer program. “It is not clear how good the model is in simulating the features of the Indian Ocean, specially at subsurface levels,” P.N. Vinayachandran, associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, told The Wire. “The reliability of results would depend on this factor.”

Nonetheless, the hydrographic data mustered by Lee and co. and their model’s ability fit in seamlessly with the onset of the hiatus in 1998 lends a platform from which to explore the consequences of their find. According to their model, the warm water was transported into the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian Throughflow. It is a series of deep straits in the archipelago through which, due to a pressure gradient between the two oceans, 15 million cubic metres of warm water flowed per year.

The resultant cooling of the Pacific is likely to influence the El Nino southern oscillation, an anomalous heating and cooling of the Pacific’s waters off the tropical South American coast. Normally, they are about eight degrees Celsius cooler than the waters along eastern Indonesia. However, during years in which the trade winds blowing from South America to Australia and Indonesia fall off, the water along the coast of Peru becomes warmer. The result is floods in Peru and droughts in Australia and Indonesia.

The study’s authors state that the heat being pumped into the Indian from the Pacific Ocean was driven by a converse event – of the waters having becoming warmer off the coast of eastern Indonesia. Warm waters are typically nutrient-deficient and don’t support fisheries. They are also detrimental to marine ecosystems in general, greatly endangering creatures that can’t relocate to cooler waters quickly (such as coral reefs) and in turn other creatures dependent on them (like the orange-spotted filefish).

Moreover, the study reconciles the Pacific and Indian Oceans’ warming trends while also emphasizing how little we know about heat absorption by the world’s oceanic basins despite their significant effects on climate. It also raises important questions about where and how the stored heat will be released and with what socioeconomic consequences.

“It is possible that the upper ocean warmth in the Indian Ocean may be carried to the North Atlantic Ocean to increase the frequency and amplitude of Atlantic hurricanes and to accelerate the melting of Arctic sea-ice,” Lee said, but that would be on a much longer timescale.

On shorter timelines, during the Indian summer monsoon, deeper, colder water rises to the surface along the Somalian, Arabian and western Indian coasts. Lee explained: “Due to the increased upper ocean warmth the upwelling may bring warmer water to the surface releasing more water vapour to the atmosphere and thus increasing the moisture transport to India and the Southeast Asia.” This would bring more rain – and possibly floods.

Another possibility, which Lee says their team will next investigate, is the Indian Ocean transporting its heat into the Atlantic Ocean via the Agulhas current that bends around the coast of South Africa. This presents more devastating consequences because the Atlantic has already been on a warming trend since the 1950s.

Finally, the oceans aren’t bottomless either. Once a threshold is reached, they will release the heat back into the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change from February this year predicted the event would be like a burst, starting from around 2020, a sustained release that would be associated with “warming across South America, Australia, Africa and Southeast Asia.” The event will also accelerate the melting of ice in the Antarctic and lead to rising sea levels.

Recent studies – including Sang-Ki Lee’s – present an important challenge. The global impact of climate change hasn’t yet visited humans the way it visited the golden toad (by wiping it out) and there is still talk by governments to reverse its impact. But with the warming hiatus predicted to end by 2020 and the Indian Ocean shown to be a prominent player in global climate variations, the world could receive a brutal preview of what life might be like at the end of this century in the next 10 years.

Two of Alan Turing’s WW-II papers are now in the public domain

The Wire
May 21, 2015

A scientific paper written by Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist who cracked the Enigma code during the Second World War and bolstered Britain’s war efforts, was recently declassified by the British government and uploaded to the arXiv pre-print server. The paper’s entitled ‘The Applications of Probability to Cryptography’. It has Turing bringing to bear a style of reasoning that is absent in today’s statistics-heavy technical literature. It is both didactic and meticulous, and provides great insight into how Turing explored the cryptographic problems he was confronted with.


When the whole evidence about some event is taken into account it may be extremely difficult to estimate the probability of the event, even very approximately, and it may be better to form an estimate based on a part of the evidence, so that the probability may be more easily calculated. This happens in cryptography in a very obvious way. The whole evidence when we are trying to solve a cipher is the complete traffic, and the events in question are the different possible keys, and functions of the keys. Unless the traffic is very small indeed the theoretical answer to the problem “What are the probabilities of the various keys? ” will be of the form “ The key . . . has a probability differing almost imperceptibly from 1 (certainty) and the other keys are virtually impossible”. But a direct attempt to determine these probabilities would obviously not be a practical method.

Here and there, he also admits he’s making guesses – some quite in the air and others not so much – of the sort that are inadmissible in the modern era of scientific publishing, where demands on researchers to be exact have driven many to fabricate results and fake conclusions. At one point, Turing writes, “This judgement is not entirely a guess; some rather insecure mathematical reasoning has gone into it”, prompting the popular statistician Andrew Gelman to quip on his blog: “He’s so goddamn reasonable. He’s everything I aspire to.”

The paper was uploaded to arXiv on May 18 together with another called ‘The Statistics of Repetitions’, both accompanied by editor’s notes that focused on what it was like to prepare manuscripts “at a time when typographical errors were corrected by hand, and mathematical expression handwritten into spaces left in the text”. The papers can be found hereand here.

Alan Turing’s claims to fame are many, ranging from deciphering the Enigma code used by the Nazis for encrypted communication, to defining the hypothetical Turing machine that’s influential in studies of computing, to predicting oscillating chemical reactions that were observed about a decade later. He was also gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the UK, and was chemically castrated when he refused to be sent to prison for fear he’d have to discontinue his work. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, barely 42 years old. In 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology for the way Turing had been treated in his lifetime. Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him posthumously in 2013.

Most recently, he was brought to life in the blockbuster movie ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014), where he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

It’s time for ISRO to reach for the (blue) sky

The Wire
May 19, 2015

Almost 40 years after the launch of Aryabhata, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully placed another satellite into orbit, this time around Mars – becoming the world’s first space agency to have done so in its debut attempt. There are many similarities between the April-1975 launch of Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, and the September-2014 orbit-insertion of the Mars Orbiter Mission. But if the Mars mission suggests India has come a long way, ISRO’s commitment to blue-sky research – putting financial and scientific resources into projects that do not have immediate or even obvious applications – is still not apparent.

Aryabhata was launched at a time when the socio-political climate in India was fraught with uncertainty, and technology was barely a blip on the horizon as the promised secret solution. There had been widespread skepticism about what a scientific satellite – which at the time cost Rs.5 crore to build – could do for a “cow-dung economy”. A skepticism of the same flavour most recently surrounded the Mars Orbiter Mission, with many asking how it could help alleviate poverty in the country.

Symbolic victories

Even though astronomers had planned to use Aryabhata conduct experiments in astrophysics, the satellite suffered an electrical failure after four days in orbit. Nonetheless, it was hailed a success because it was one symbolically. The man responsible for its launch, Vikram Sarabhai, had inspired a nation that anything was possible should one apply herself or himself to it. Since 1962, with the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala, Sarabhai had rapidly inculcated a generation of scientists fluent in the engineering and physics of building and launching rockets with that belief. By 1975, India had been brought to the doorstep of full-fledged space research.

Sadly, Sarabhai passed away in 1970, although by then he was able to found ISRO (superseding the Indian National Committee for Space Research set up in 1962) in 1969. But despite being born of the seemingly entrepreneurial seed that was Sarabhai’s vision, ISRO seldom engaged in blue-sky, curiosity-driven research – where practical applications are not apparent while the potential for discovering new applications of science is great. This reticence is all the more glaring given the fact that ISRO is one of the few institutions in the country that remains fairly removed from bureaucratic interference despite being substantially funded by the central government.

Despite its open-ended mandate, ISRO has only pursued goals that have well-defined implications, such as expanding the scope of our meteorology, communication and navigation technologies. Agreed, it would have been hard not to focus on such applications-driven nearer-term goals — nearer at least than the prolonged periods of hopefulness often required for blue-sky research — while the government was absorbed in capacity-building in the 1970s.

However, what’s the point of continuing to do predominantly that until the 2010s? For the government, the agency has become the leading provider of solutions to problems in weather-forecasting and communication. Even as Sarabhai had aspired to free India from the clutches of economic frugality through its space program, ISRO had inculcated a space program bereft of scientific curiosity – a frugality of the imagination.

Questioning Sarabhai

It is also worth asking to what end Sarabhai had himself looked to space. The answer is hard to divine, but important to know for what it can tell us about the history of scientists’ ambitions in India. While he believed that space research and, in time, exploration, could make India prosper, did he really support blue-sky research? Or was that simply us extrapolating his ambitions? Did Sarabhai only ever think of space research in terms of pressing it into the nation’s questions of poverty and economic development, or did he one day want to land an astronaut on Mars? There is a telling paragraph in the book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO by P Radhakrishnan and PV Manoranjan Rao:

Independent India was lucky to have Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister, for he shared a common ideal with [Homi] Bhabha and Sarabhai. He believed that modern science and technology were indispensable to the development of the country. He declared: ‘Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, in sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

This bears many similarities to the relationship ISRO enjoyed with subsequent heads of state. Most recently, Narendra Modi took great pride in the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission in September and the successful launch of the GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle in December, both 2014. He also called for ISRO to launch a SAARC satellite, a communication satellite to service South Asia’s nations, which the agency said in March would be ready in 18 months.

However, from 1975 until now in 2015, neither the government nor the agency has professed much interest in defining and pursuing long-term science programs. In that period, ISRO has launched around 60 non-scientific (indigenous) satellites and fewer than 10 scientific satellites. But over 40 years, the problem has evolved to one of systematicity. The problem is not that we haven’t had more scientific satellites but that we are missing a coherent agenda for scientific research. If such an agenda exists, and one hopes it does, it has remained hidden thanks to ISRO’s baffling lack of public outreach.

The 1975 agenda

If the people doubted the applications of Aryabhata and the Mars Orbiter at the times of their launches, they were also quickly won over by their eventual symbolic victories. No doubt these missions were among the most significant of their times, but going ahead, ISRO will have to translate the symbolism to achievements that are better grounded in research agendas and more meaningful to the country’s scientific research community, instead of scattering them across the landscape of our enterprise. A crucial part of this involves public outreach – putting out constant and frequent updates like it did leading up to, and for a bit after, the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Aryabhata’s designation as a satellite for astrophysics research was quickly forgotten as its four-day stint in space was used to herald a new era of resource-surveying and communications satellites. Similarly, the launch of the GSLV Mk-III was not accompanied by any discussions by ISRO on how it was going to leverage the increased payload capacities the advanced launch rocket brought. Finally, while the Mars Orbiter Mission can be seen as a demonstration of ISRO’s capabilities in executing interplanetary missions, the agency has failed to detail how precisely it will be useful for future missions or, in fact, what those missions might be.