NASA finds more signs of liquid water on Mars

From Nature: Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
From Nature: Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA has announced that it has come one step closer to ascertaining the presence of liquid water on Mars, and released new evidence obtained by one of its orbiters that has renewed hopes for a direct discovery in the future. At a press conference at the NASA HQ in Washington, D.C., a panel comprising the agency’s administrative chiefs, technical experts as well as a PhD student from Georgia Tech released the news, which follows from a discovery made in 2011. Finding if liquid water could exist on the surface of Mars today, and so support alien life, was one of the principal mysteries NASA set out to explore with its fleet of orbiters and rovers.

Recent discoveries, including one in March this year, suggested that some 20% of the red planet’s surface was covered in liquid water some time in its past. However, all that remains today is as ice around Mars’s poles, which makes today’s announcement more significant. The signs of liquid water flows have been found far from the polar ice and near the planet’s equator, where the surface temperature is higher and no ices are thought to be present.

“Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the director of planetary science at NASA HQ, at the conference. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program also at NASA HQ, joined Green in attesting that the agency had orbital evidence for the first time of the conditions that encouraged the flow of liquid water on the Martian surface.

Well before the press conference itself, people were able to guess what the announcement would be about by its sensational headline as well as, and more so by, the inclusion of the youngest member of the panel: Lujendra Ojha, a PhD student in planetary sciences at Georgia Tech. It was Ojha who had, as a grad student at the University of Arizona, discovered the signs of briny water on Mars in 2011, spotting ‘finger-like’ structures across which the substance could’ve flowed in warmer climes. These structures, resembling narrow channels carved as if by flowing water, were called recurring slope lineae (RSL). Ojha had found them in images captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

From Nature: These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
From Nature: These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The interesting RSL resurfaced in 2014, when the orbiter turned in yet more evidence for liquid water-flows on Mars, this time observed with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument. The press statement from the time emphasises that the MRO still hadn’t spotted direct evidence of liquid water – i.e. liquid water itself – but only surface features one of whose causes could be the flow of liquid water. In fact, it also mentions another probable cause. From 2014:

One possible explanation for these changes is a sorting of grain sizes, such as removal of fine dust from the surface, which could result from either a wet process or dry one. Two other possible explanations are an increase in the more-oxidised (ferric) component of the minerals, or an overall darkening due to moisture. Either of these would point to water, even though no water was directly detected. The spectral observations might miss the presence of water, because the [RSL] are much narrower than the area of ground sampled with each CRISM reading. Also, the orbital observations have been made only in afternoons and could miss morning moisture.

Here’s Ojha discussing the results on RTV.

The image shows dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing down the west facing slopes of Coprates Chasma in the equatorial region of Mars. These dark streaks flowing downhill on warm Martian slopes have been inferred to be contemporary flowing liquid water on Mars. Discovery of hydrated salts in these slopes have corroborated the liquid water hypotheses. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
From Nature: The image shows dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing down the west facing slopes of Coprates Chasma in the equatorial region of Mars. These dark streaks flowing downhill on warm Martian slopes have been inferred to be contemporary flowing liquid water on Mars. Discovery of hydrated salts in these slopes have corroborated the liquid water hypotheses. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In today’s announcement, complemented with a paper in Nature Geoscience, NASA has said it has found the presence of hydrated salts at four different locations at the same time when RSL are also widely present there, during warmer seasons. Then, the salts appear in lower concentrations when the RSL fade in colder times – strongly suggesting that the formation of the two is related. According to the HiRISE team, “RSL are located in many places: equatorial and as far north as Acidalia Planitia,” which is a plain situated about 50º N and 340º E.

Analysing data obtained by the CRISM instrument, Ojha & co. found that the salts were magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. On Earth, these compounds typically condense out of water, so their presence acts as a wetness marker.

The salts are also hygroscopic: they absorb water vapour from the atmosphere and then dissolve quickly in the resulting solution. The name ‘perchlorate’ refers to the molecules containing the the ClO4 anion. They form naturally in dry conditions, although on Earth they are present in very low concentrations. However, in 2009, scientists found that the soil surrounding Mars’s northern polar regions, in the plains called Vastitas Borealis, contain perchlorates to the tune of 0.4-0.6%. Such quantities are dangerous to humans should they ever land on Mars as they’re known to interfere with how the human body processes iodine. Perchlorates are also very soluble in water and reduce its freezing point – sodium perchlorate by 40 kelvin and magnesium perchlorate by upto 70 kelvin – a property that could be keeping water liquid on the chill Martian surface.

As Ojha said during the presser, “The source of molecular water in the perchlorates is either due to features of the RSL itself or some other property that created the RSL”, but then adding that “the features are probably due to the presence of liquid water” itself.

Even so, if the RSL is all the water’s doing, where could it be coming from? Ojha and his team have considered three unlikely possibilities. Melting ice is doubtful because the RSL were situated around equatorial regions, where ice is not likely to exist. That the water could be coming from a local aquifer is ruled out because no RSL have been found extending to mountaintops. There’s the off chance that some compounds in the dirt – like the perchlorates – could be absorbing moisture out of the atmosphere and condensing it on the ground. Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California, calls this her “favourite scenario”.

From Nature: These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Horowitz crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
From Nature: These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Horowitz crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This possibility was considered prominently in 2013, when the Curiosity rover found similarities in the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil, with the dirt thought to be acting like a sponge to absorb water vapour and other compounds. Though scientists don’t think the thin Martian atmosphere has enough moisture to contribute to the formation of RSL every year, the rover’s Sample Analysis on Mars instrument also found that Martian soil was 2% water by weight. Nonetheless, the question of the water’s source remains a mystery.

These questions all warrant as much attention because of what they tell us about the red planet’s history, how its near-surface features and atmosphere evolved, its contemporary hydrology as well as if it harbours alien life. As Doug McCuistion, a former director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, told The Guardian before the presser began, “If they are announcing that they have found easily accessible, freely flowing liquid water under the surface, which is one of the theories we have been hearing for years and years, that has massive implications both for the potential for life on that planet and sustainability of humans.”

On Earth, we’ve found life of some kind wherever we’ve been able to ascertain the presence of liquid water – even in the arid Atacama Desert along South America’s Pacific coast. However, scientists are not so sure if Martian microbes could be swimming around in a briny liquid containing perchlorates, and which doesn’t stay wet on the Martian surface for more than a year. In fact, American physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld said, “If I were a microbe, I wouldn’t exist near one of the RSLs. I would  probably exist farther up north near one of the freshwater glaciers.” NASA doesn’t yet have evidence that these glaciers exist but, according to Grunsfeld, suspects that they do.

Talking about future missions that could be better equipped to investigate the presence of alien life, Green, Meyer and Grunsfeld were all careful to emphasise the importance of planetary protection – not contaminating Mars with life from Earth inadvertently carried there by rovers and landers. With that in mind, Meyer said that the agency was taking a “measured approach”, with a mission planned in 2020 to “cache samples” taken from the red planet’s surface as well as from underground and bring them to Earth for analysis. Grunsfeld also chipped in that the next planetary decadal survey, a document prepared by the US National Research Council identifying the biggest challenges in planetary exploration and how they might be handled, “might recommend a Mars mission with life-detection capability”.

In the meantime, there’s no doubt that with the signs of contemporary liquid water piling up, Ojha and others will continue working on obtaining direct proof. The day could be near when Mark Watney has one less thing to worry about.

The Wire
September 28, 2015


PSLV lifts off with ASTROSAT

At 10 am this (Monday) morning, a PSLV-XL rocket lifted off with India’s first space-borne astronomical observatory from ISRO’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota. The observatory, titled ASTROSAT, is set to be placed in a low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 650.17 km by the rocket after its fourth-stage ignition is cut off 21 minutes and 56 seconds after launch. When that happens, India will become the first developing nation to have launched an astronomical satellite.

The launch – the 30th successful one in a row for the PSLV – will also place one Canadian and one Indonesian satellite in orbit, as well as four American nano-satellites, a first. The time of launch coincides with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley and on the same day as a planned visit to President Barack Obama. As The Guardian noted, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission entered orbit around Mars just days before Modi’s visit to the US in September 2014.

The five instruments and one passive monitor on board ASTROSAT will all have switched on by December 13, 2015, 45 days from when ASTROSAT enters orbit. The switch-on sequence goes like:

  • Charged Particle Monitor – September 29
  • Scanning Sky Monitor – October 6
  • Cadmium-Zinc-Telluride Imager – October 6
  • Large Area X-ray Proportional Counter – October 20
  • Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope – December 10
  • Soft X-ray Telescope – December 13

By late September 2016, ISRO has said it will start allowing third parties to buy observation time on the instruments, although that will be available to international applicants only by the third year of operations. The proposals will be processed via the ASTROSAT Proposal Processing System on the Indian Space Science Data Centre website.

ASTROSAT will study sources of high-energy UV and X-radiation in the cosmos, typically objects like supernovae, neutron stars and black holes, with a notable ability to make observations on both wavelengths simultaneously. In general, its instruments will be sensitive to particulate radiation ranging from 0.1 keV to 100 keV.

Regimes where the X-ray instruments on board ASTROSAT are effective. Source: IUCAA
Regimes where the X-ray instruments on board ASTROSAT are effective. Source: IUCAA

The Wire
September 28, 2015

The pitfalls of thinking that ASTROSAT will be 'India's Hubble'

The Hubble Space Telescope needs no introduction. It’s become well known for its stunning images of nebulae and star-fields, and it wouldn’t be amiss to say the telescope has even become synonymous with images of strange beauty often from distant cosmic shores. No doubt saying something is like the Hubble Space Telescope simplifies the task of communicating that object’s potential and significance, especially in astronomy, and also places the object in stellar company and effortlessly elevates its public perception.

It’s for the latter reason that the comparison shouldn’t be made lightly. Not all telescopes are or can be like the Hubble Space Telescope, which sports some of the more cutting-edge engineering at play in modern telescopy, undoubtedly necessary to produce some of the images it produces (here’s a list of stunners). The telescope also highlighted the role of aestheticism in science: humans may be how the universe realises itself but the scope of that realisation has been expanded by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the same time, it has become so famous for its discoveries that we often pay no heed to the sophisticated physics at play in its photographic capabilities, in return for images so improbable that the photography has become irrelevant to our realisation of their truth.

ASTROSAT, on the other hand, is an orbiting telescope whose launch on September 28 will place India in the small cohort of countries that have a space-borne observatory. That’s insufficient to claim ASTROSAT will be akin to the Hubble as much as it will be India’s debut on the road toward developing “Hubble-class” telescopes. ASTROSAT’s primary science objectives are:

  • Understand high-energy processes in binary systems
  • Search for black hole sources in the galaxy
  • Measure magnetic fields of neutron stars
  • Study high-energy processes in extra-galactic systems
  • Detect new transient X-ray sources
  • Perform limited high angular-resolution deep field survey in UV

The repeated mentions of high-energy are synonymous with the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum ASTROSAT will study – X-ray and ultraviolet emissions have higher frequencies and thus higher energies. In fact, its LAXPC (Large Area X-ray Proportional Counter) instrument will be superior to the NASA NuSTAR X-ray telescope: both will be logging X-ray emissions corresponding to the 6-79 keV* energy range but LAXPC’s collecting area will be almost 10x the collecting area of NuSTAR’s. Similarly, ASTROSAT’s UV instrument, the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope, studies wavelengths of radiation from 130 nm to 320 nm, like the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on board the Hubble spans 115-320 nm. COS has a better angular and spectral resolution but UVIT, as well as the Scanning Sky Monitor that looks for transient X-ray sources, tops with a higher field of view. The UVIT and LAXPC double up as visible-wavelength detectors as well.

In contrast, the Hubble makes observations in the infrared, visible and UV parts of the spectrum. Its defining feature is a 2.4-m wide hyperbolic mirror that serves to ‘collect’ photons from a wide field of view onto a secondary hyperbolic mirror, which in turn focuses into the various instruments (the Ritchey-Chrétien design). ASTROSAT also has a primary collecting mirror; it is 30 cm wide.

Design of a Ritchey–Chrétien telescope. Credit: HHahn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Design of a Ritchey–Chrétien telescope. Credit: HHahn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

But it’s quite wrong to think ASTROSAT could be like Hubble when you consider two kinds of gaps between the instruments. The first is the technical-maturity gap. Calling ASTROSAT “India’s Hubble” will imply that ISRO has reached that level of engineering capability when it has not. And making that reference repeatedly (here, here, here and here) will only foster complacency about defining the scale and scope of future missions. One of ISRO’s principal limitations is payload mass: the PSLV rocket has been the more reliable launch vehicle at our disposal and it can lift 3,250 kg to the low-Earth orbit. The GSLV rocket can lift 5,000 kg to the low-Earth orbit (10,000 kg if an upper cryogenic stage is used) but is less reliable, although promising. So, the ASTROSAT weighs 1,500 kg while the Hubble weighs 11,110 kg – the heaviest scientific satellite launched till date.

A major consequence of having such a limitation is that the technology gets to define what satellite is launched when instead of astronomers laying out what they want to find out and technology setting out to achieve it, which could be a useful impetus for innovation. These are still early days for ISRO but it’s useful to keep in mind even this component of the Hubble’s Hubbleness. In 1974, NASA and ESA began collaborating to build the Hubble. But before it was launched in 1990, planning for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – conceived from the beginning to be Hubble’s successor – began in the 1980s. In 1986, an engineer named Pierre Bely published a paper outlining how the successor will have to have a 10-m primary mirror (more than 4x the width of the Hubble’s primary mirror) and be placed in the geostationary orbit so Earth doesn’t occlude its view of space, like it does for the Hubble. But even four years later, NASA didn’t have a launch vehicle that could heft 6,500 kg (JWST’s weight) to the geostationary transfer orbit. In 2018, Europe’s Ariane 5 (ECA) will be doing the honours.

The other is the public-outreach gap. As historian Patrick McCray has repeatedly noted, telescopes are astronomers’ central research tools and the quality of astronomy research is a reflection of how good the telescopes are. This doesn’t just mean large reflecting mirrors, powerful lenses and – as it happens – heavy-lift launch vehicles but also the publication of raw data in an accessible and searchable format, regular public engagement and, most importantly, effective communication of discoveries and their significance. There was a hint of ISRO pulling off good public outreach before the Mars Orbiter Mission launched in November 2013 but that evaporated soon after. Such communication is important to secure public support, political consensus and priority funding for future missions that can expand an existing telescope’s work. For the perfect example of what a lack of public support can do, look no further than the India-based Neutrino Observatory. NASA, on the other hand, has been celebrated for its social media efforts.

And for it, NASA’s missions are more readily recognisable than ISRO’s missions, at least among people who’ve not been following ISRO’s launches closely since the 1960s. Not only that, while it was easier for NASA’s scientists to keep the JWST project from being cancelled, due to multiple cost overruns, thanks to how much its ‘predecessor’ the Hubble had redefined the images of modern astronomy since the late 1990s, the Hubble’s infamous spherical aberration fault in its first years actually delayed the approval of the JWST. McCray writes in a 2009 essay titled ‘Early Development of the Next Generation Space Telescope‘ (the name of JWST before it was changed in 2002),

Years before the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990 a number of astronomers and engineers in the US and Europe were thinking hard about a possible successor to the HST as well as working to engage a broad community of researchers in the design of such a new observatory. That the launch of any such successor was likely to be many years away was also widely accepted. However, the fiasco of Hubble’s spherical aberration had a serious effect on the pace at which plans were advancing for the Next Generation Space Telescope. Thus crucially for the dynamics of building the “Next Big Machine,” the fate of the offspring was intimately tied to that of the parent. In fact, … it was only when in the mid-1990s that the NGST planning was remade by the incorporation of a series of technology developments in infrared astronomy that NASA threw its institutional weight and money behind the development of a Next Generation Space Telescope.

But even for all the aestheticism at play, ISRO can’t be said to have launched instruments capable of transcending their technical specifications, either: most of them have been weather- and resource-monitoring probes and not crafted for the purpose of uncovering elegance as much as keeping an eye out. But that doesn’t mean, say, the technical specifications of the ASTROSAT payload shouldn’t be readily available, that there shouldn’t be one single page on which one can find all info. on ISRO missions (segregated by type: telecom, weather-monitoring, meteorology, resource-monitoring, astronomy, commercial), that there shouldn’t be a channel through which to access the raw data from its science missions**, or that ISRO continue to languish in its misguided conflation of autonomy and opacity. It enjoys a relative abundance of the former, and does not have to fight for resources in order to actualise missions it designs based on internal priorities. On the other hand, it’s also on the cusp of making a habit of celebrating frugality***, which could in principle provide the political administration with an excuse to deny increased funding in the future, and surely make for a bad idea in such an industry that mandates thoroughness to the point of redundancy as space. So, the day ought to come when the bright minds of ISRO are forced to fight and missions are chosen based on a contentious process.

There are multiple ways to claim to be the Hubble – but ASTROSAT is definitely not “India’s Hubble”. ISRO could in fact banish this impression by advertising ASTROSAT’s raw specs instead of letting people abide by inadequate metaphors: an amazing UV imager, a top-notch X-rays detector, a first class optical observer. A comparison with the Hubble also diminishes the ASTROSAT by exposing itself to be not like the Hubble at all and, next, by excluding from conversation the dozens of other space-borne observatories that it has already bested. It is more exciting to think that with ASTROSAT, ISRO is just getting started, not finished.

*LAXPC will actually be logging in the range 3-79 keV.

**There appears to be one under construction.

***How long before someone compares ASTROSAT’s Rs.178 crore to the Hubble’s $2.5 billion?

New National Encryption Policy doesn't seem to like encryption

A new draft National Encryption Policy put out by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology seeks to define the various encryption standards allowable on data originating from the country, and does so in its traditional ham-handed way. In an abridged version of the document, put out by DEITY, the department proposes some practices that effectively run counter to the philosophy of encryption – of data as well as devices.

For example, it specifies that the government will suggest which encryption algorithms can be used from time to time, and what key lengths should be used to go with them. Keys are bits of data used that work to legitimately seal and unseal an encryption algorithm, and it’s unclear why the government insists on being able to decide how long or short the keys will be. In another example, the government also wants to be able to demand that you, say, be able to preserve each WhatsApp message for at least 90 days and present it in plain-text (i.e. without encryption) to law-enforcement authorities when necessary. The document might as well have said the messages shouldn’t be encrypted at all. It’s akin to what the government demanded BlackBerry do last year, when it wanted to snoop on the encrypted messages passing through its native Messenger app.

Another particularly disturbing line in the document goes: “All vendors of encryption products shall register their products with the designated agency of the Government. While seeking registration, the vendors shall submit working copies of the encryption software / hardware to the Government along with 4 professional quality documentation, test suites and execution platform environments”.

Vendors of encryption products could also include vendors of products in which encryption is built-in – ranging from messaging apps to Internet browsers to full-blown operating systems. In effect, they will be required to register themselves with the government before they can access the market. The implication is that the government could also revoke registrations as a way to exert influence over the vendors. Further, saying “Government may review this policy from time to time and also during times of special situations and concerns” suggests products and services will have to be retooled to fit the government’s changing standards.

It will be far easier for the government as well as consumers if the former sticks to defining standards and not insist on participating in their specific implementation by the latter. For example, the widely used OpenPGP protocol is not recognised by Indian law. For another, DEITY could do better to distinguish between products and protocols themselves: at one point, the document says the product called SSL is exempt from its requirements; SSL however is an encryption. Another way the policy itself could be benefited is by having a standalone privacy law that provide the safeguards that protects user rights downstream, instead of defining them from one application to another.

Comments on the document can be emailed to by October 16, 2015.

ISRO to launch India's first astronomy satellite on September 28

India’s first astronomy satellite will be launched on September 28. ISRO has noted that while it has launched payloads capable of making astronomical observations before, this is the first time one dedicated to astronomy will be launched. Called ASTROSAT, it was first scheduled for launch in 2005, then in 2010, and finally in 2015 with delays largely due to putting the scientific payload together. ASTROSAT will be a multi-wavelength mission, observing the cosmos in X-ray, visible and UV light.

ASTROSAT is one of two scientific missions that have long been overdue – the other being the Aditya-1 mission to study the Sun. ASTROSAT comprises five scientific instruments, all of which had been delivered to the ISRO Satellite Centre by 2014. They are the UV Imaging Telescope, the Scanning Sky Monitor, the Cadmium-Zinc-Telluride Imager, the Soft X-ray Telescope and three identical Large Area Xenon Proportional Counters. The Soft X-ray Telescope reportedly took 11 years to be built.

X-ray and UV radiation fall in the short-wavelength part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and their emissions in the universe can’t be detected at ground level because the high-energy photons that constitute the radiation can’t easily penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. The opposite is true for long-wavelength radiation like radio waves. As a result, the most powerful and effective X-ray and gamma-ray satellites are in Earth-orbit whereas radio-telescopes – with their giant telltale antenna dishes – are on ground.

Transmission properties of radiation of different wavelengths. Source: Caltech
Transmission properties of radiation of different wavelengths. Source: Caltech

One of the better known examples of multi-wavelength space-borne observatories is the Hubble Space Telescope, which makes observations in the UV, visible and infrared parts of the spectrum. However, comparisons between the telescopes are unfounded because Hubble’s optical mirror is eight-times as wide as ASTROSAT’s, allowing for a deeper field of view and much better imaging. Nonetheless, ASTROSAT will be able to contribute in the study of time-variable sources of radiation by being able to observe the sources in UV and X-ray wavelengths simultaneously.

Eleven years after the project was first okayed, the satellite is slated to be launched on board a PSLV rocket on its 30th flight from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on September 28. Four smaller American, one Indonesian and one Canadian satellites will also be launched as part of the same mission. ISRO has stated that open observing time will be available on the satellite’s instruments from September 2016, from their perch in the near-Earth orbit at an altitude of 650 km. ASTROSAT cost Rs.178 crore.

From unboiling eggs to the effects of intense kissing, IgNobel Prizes reward good ol' curiosity

The year’s IgNobel Awards were held on September 17, and rewarded research that defines a kind of excellence that still impacts society without managing the sobriety of character that often bags the more vaunted Nobel Prizes. The 25th edition, held as usual at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, and as usual presided over by the magazine Improbable Research‘s editor Marc Abrahams, recognised work done in describing pain, diagnosing appendicitis, the effects of intense kissing and more.

Instituted and first awarded in 1991, the prizes were originally designed to identify work that shouldn’t be reproduced, although that snark has diminished in time. On the flipside, they’re known for juxtaposing meticulously conducted research with the banality of their subjects. For example, the citation for the management prize this year read, “… for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters that – for them – had no dire personal consequences.” The awarders’ take has been that “The Ig Nobel Prizes honour achievements that make people laugh, and then think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative – and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

The 2015 literature prize went to Dutch linguists for discovering that a translation of “huh?” existed in almost every language and for unknown reasons. The biology prize got picked up by a Chilean diad that found “that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.”. The physics prize was claimed by scientists who found using the principles of fluid dynamics early last year that many mammals – across species – often took a uniform 21 seconds to take a leak (give or take 13 seconds). The diagnostic medicine prize awardees could actually have hit upon something more useful than you think: diagnosing appendicitis by having patients drive at a fixed speed over a speed-bump. If they experience a sharp pain in certain areas, it’s surgery time. The physiology and entomology prize was co-bagged by Justin Schmidt for developing a relative pain index and Michael Smith for letting himself be stung in 25 parts of his body to find the places most (nostril, upper lip, penis shaft) and least sensitive (skull, middle toe tip, upper arm) to stinging pain. Brave souls all.

The citations also demonstrated how being persistently curious could someday enable you to do things you wouldn’t have thought scientifically (or mathematically) possible. For example, the chemistry prize went to a team from the USA and Australia that figured out how to partially unboil an egg (kudos to Abrahams & co. for being able to go past the paper’s title: “Shear-stress-mediated refolding of proteins from aggregates and inclusion bodies”). The medicine prize may have actually put too fine a point on what everyone probably already knew: kissing does people a world of good, and intense kissing does good intensely. And there’s no point trying to paraphrase the mathematics-prize-winning work: “for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.”

However, it’s the work winning the 2015 economics prize that doesn’t deserve to be reproduced at all – and it’s probably telling that it didn’t involve scientists but policemen. Specifically, the prize went to Bangkok Metropolitan Police, which offered to bribe its policemen if they didn’t take bribes from others. The BMP needs to be able to take pride in its work’s illustrious company, which includes the 2008 recession, the invention of virtual animal husbandry as well as the find that people would postpone their deaths, indeed, “if that would qualify them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax”.

Impoverishing science by its association with divisive social issues

Instead of insuring them against the vagaries of the seasons, the latest offering from the Ministry of Agriculture is a suggestion that farmers think their seeds into producing more. Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh said on September 15 that the government was going to put its weight behind ‘Yogic farming’. “The idea behind Yogic farming is to empower the seeds with the help of positive thinking. We should enhance the potency of seeds by rays of parmatma shakti,Indian Express quoted Singh as saying.

With that, the minister gives himself – as well as his cohort of administrators – a powerful excuse to hide behind when things go wrong: unfalsifiability (which defies testability). If Singh had said farmers ought to acquaint themselves with Yogic farming in order to make themselves feel better, it would’ve been different, and quite in line with the invasive ways in which the government wants to participate in personal self-help. However, in choosing to intervene with an instrument of human welfare, Singh and his ministry have crossed a line, and that in itself is an oddity.

Consider GMO regulation in the country and how it’s at odds with environmental regulations: there is not enough of the socio-political in the processes of the former and too much administrative interference in the latter, especially thanks torepeated subversions of technical expertise of late. Matters on which there is a semblance of scientific consensus are challenged with redundant consultative processes to deplete the science and replace it with public confusion. On the other hand, pseudoscience is used to distract from matters in which public participation is heaving but on which no administrative consensus exists. As a result science, and pseudoscience for its sake, is increasingly becoming associated with divisive social issues (either by its presence out of context or enforced absence).

And on a separate note, Singh’s uttering such a comment isn’t entirely surprising, either. Didn’t he say in July 2015 that 1,400 farmers had died not because of debt or crop failures but because of impotency and love failures?

The Nobel intent

A depiction of Alfred Nobel in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
A depiction of Alfred Nobel in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

About three weeks from now, the Nobel Foundation will announce the winners of the 2015 Nobel Prizes. Every year, commentators, opinionators and enthusiasts try to guess who will win the awards – some of them have become famous because they’ve been able to guess the winners with uncanny accuracy. However, as it happens, the prizewinners’ profiles have sometimes exposed patterns which tell us how they might have been selected over others. For example, winners of the physics prize have also typically been awarded the Wolf Prize. For another, like a recent study showed, winners of the medicine and physiology prizes seem to have had similar qualitative preferences for their inter-institutional collaborations.

More light is likely to be shed on its opaque selection process by the Nobel Foundation’s decision to open up its archives and reveal the name of not just all nominees but also the nominators who got those names on the rosters each year.  The complete list for all prizes – except economics – awarded between 1901 and 1964 is now available for the first time. The lists for awards given after 1965 are not visible because they’re sealed for 50 years. With the information, the question of “Who nominated whom?” is worth asking not just for trivia’s sake but also because it throws up clues about the politics behind decisions, the kinds of names that were ignored for the prizes, why they were ignored, and how the underpinning rationale has changed through various social periods.

There are three famous examples with which to illustrate these issues.

Mohandas Gandhi

The first is of M.K. Gandhi. The Nobel Committee admitted in 2001 that overlooking Gandhi had been one of its most infamous mistakes. In 1937, in a total of 63 nominations by prominent people, Gandhi received his first: from Ole Colbjørnsen, a Norwegian politician. Colbjørnsen would nominate Gandhi in 1938 and 1939 as well. After that, the name of Gandhi among the nominees reappears in 1947, put there by G.B. Pant, B.G. Kher and Mavalankar, and in 1948, this time with the endorsement of Frede Castberg (a Norwegian jurist), six professors of the University of Bordeaux, five from Columbia University, the American Friends Service Committee, Christian Oftedal (a Norwegian politician) and the American economist Emily Greene Balch. Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948, and since the Foundation doesn’t allow posthumous awards, his ‘case’ ended that year.

The winners in the years he was nominated in were

  • 1937 – Robert Cecil
  • 1938 – Nansen International Office for Refugees
  • 1939 – No winner
  • 1947 – AFSC and Friends Service Council
  • 1948 – No winner

The committee declined to award the prize in 1948 because “there was no suitable living candidate”. This was with reference to Gandhi, who may have received the prize had he not been killed that year. There have also been some discussions on whether the committee could have made an exception for Gandhi and awarded it posthumously, especially since the nominations had arrived a few days before his death and because his death was quite unexpected, too (incidentally, posthumous awards of the Physics Prize were allowed until 1974 if the awardee was alive at the time of nomination). On the other hand, even if these arguments had been taken seriously, they wouldn’t have fetched the Peace Prize for Gandhi – why he wasn’t chosen alludes to a different issue.

The nomination process is essentially one of filtering, and though it differs for each prize, they are all variations of the following: some 3,000 individuals around the world are asked to send in their preliminary nominations, out of which the Nobel Committee filters out and passes on an order of magnitude fewer names to relevant institutions. Finally, the institutions, represented by members on the committee, vote on the day of the prize, with the result being announced immediately after the counting. The person/persons/institutions with the most votes wins the prizes. There is a distinct committee for each of the prizes.

The number of nominators increases every year – to also include the previous year’s winners, for one – so the names of the first winners were essentially sourced from a handful of individuals.

In 1999, Øyvind Tønnesson, then’s Peace Director, wrote that in Gandhi’s time, the members of the committee weren’t in favour of him for two reasons. First, many of them couldn’t help but blame Gandhi for some of the incidents of violence in India during his supposedly peaceful resistance, going as far as to claim he should’ve known that his actions would precipitate violence – for example, and especially, the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. Second, as Tønnesson wrote, the members preferred awardees “who could serve as moral and religious symbols in a world threatened by social and ideological conflicts”, and on that note were opposed to the political implications of Gandhi’s movement – especially his role in effectuating the Partition as well as an inability to quell the widespread violence that followed.

Oddly enough, the Nobel Peace Prize is essentially a political prize, and its credibility often can’t be dissociated from the clout of members of the voting committee. In fact, alongside the Literature Prize, the duo has often been the subject of controversy simply by illustrating the linguistic and cultural differences between the Scandinavian electors and their multitudes of candidates. In 1965, U. Thant, then the Secretary-General of the United Nations, was not given the award because the chair of the Nobel Committee then, Gunnar Jahn, was opposed to him despite a majority having favoured Thant for defusing the Cuban missile crisis. One plausible reason that has been advanced, based on Jahn’s track record when he was the chair, was that Thant was only doing his duty and that none of his initiatives to secure peace in the world stepped beyond that ambit – contrary to the actions of the recipients of the 1947 Peace Prize, in Jahn’s opinion. Another incident betrayed how Jahn’s influence was inordinate, too, despite all assurances toward the selection process being democratic: he threatened to resign if Linus Pauling wasn’t awarded the Peace Prize in 1963 while the majority had voted against the chemist.

Another contention has centred on the measures of worthiness. Why can’t the Nobel Prize be awarded to more than three people at a time? Why is the time-difference between the award-winning work being done and the award being given so huge? And on what grounds will each prospective laureate be judged precisely? In the case of the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were named the recipients for work done 49 years ago, in 1964, even as four others who’d done the same work in that year were ignored. Jorge Luis Borges has been repeatedly overlooked for the Literature Prize with rumours abounding that the committee was not supportive of his conservative political views and because he’d received a prize from Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. On the other hand, some of the greatest writers in history have been politically motivated to produce their best works, so in not specifying the bases on which candidates can be rejected, the Nobel Committee makes the Literature Prize an exercise in winning the approval of a group of Scandinavians who may or may not have a sound knowledge of non-European politics.

Meghnad Saha

Meghnad Saha was an astrophysicist known for an eponymous equation that allowed astronomers to determine how much various elements had been ionised in a star based on its temperature. Saha first published his results in 1920, which were built upon by Irving Langmuir in 1923. Ever since, the equation has also been known as the Saha-Langmuir equation. Presumably for this work, Saha was nominated for the Physics Prize by Dehendra Bose and Sisir Mitra in 1930, by Arthur Compton in 1937, by Mitra again in 1939, by Compton again in 1940, and by Mitra again in 1951* and 1955. On February 16, 1956, Saha passed away.

While his equation has become applicable in different high-energy physics contexts, at the time of its conception it was advertised as being for astrophysics. And in that context, however, a shortcoming was spotted among Saha’s assumptions by Ralph Fowler and Edward Arthur Milne in 1923, who then improved the equation to fix the consequences of that shortcoming. Even so, there appeared to have been some misconceptions in the wider astrophysics community, especially in Europe, about who was the originator – not of the equation but of the more important underlying theory, which Saha called the theory of selective radiation pressure. In 1917, he was financially strained and was faced with a disappointing prospect: that the paper he’d send to the Astrophysical Journal detailing the theory couldn’t be printed unless he bore some of the printing costs, which was out of the question. So he had the paper published in the Journal of the Department of Science at Calcutta University instead, “which had no circulation worth mentioning”.

To quote from the Vigyan Prasar archives, which in turn quotes from Saha himself,

“… I might claim to be the originator of the Theory of Selective Radiation Pressure, though on account of discouraging circumstances, I did not pursue the idea to develop it. E.A. Milne apparently read a note of mine in Nature 107, 489 (1921) because in his first paper on the subject ‘Astrophysical Determination of Average of an Excited Calcium Atom’, in Month. Not. R. Ast. Soc., Vol.84, he mentioned my contribution in a footnote, though nobody appears to have noticed. His exact words are: ‘These paragraphs develop ideas originally put forward by Saha’.”

Later in the same article, now quoting one of Saha’s students, Daulat Kothari:

It is pertinent to remark that the ionisation theory was formulated by Saha working by himself in Calcutta, and the paper quoted above was communicated by him from Calcutta to the Philosophical Magazine – incorrect statements to the contrary have sometimes been made. Further papers soon followed. It is not too much to say that the theory of thermal ionisation introduced a new epoch in astrophysics by providing for the first time, on the basis of simple thermodynamic consideration and elementary concepts of the quantum theory, a straight forward interpretation of the different classes of stellar spectra in terms of the physical condition prevailing in the stellar atmospheres.

Had Saha’s work appeared in the Astrophysical Journal in 1917, would his fortunes have been different?

And given that the publishing volume has been growing very fast of late, do the prizes remain representative of the research being conducted? This question may be suppressed by arguing that the prizes are awarded to remarkable research, of the kind that is so momentous that it can’t but see the light of day. At the same time, as in Saha’s case, how much research passes under the radar of the Foundation even if it’s most in need of the kind of visibility the award can bring? And perhaps this is the more important question: of the dozens of nominations the Foundation has received every year for the Nobel Prizes, how many lost out because they published their work in the so-called low impact-factor (i.e. low-visibility) journals?

Satyendra Nath Bose

A third example is of Satyendra Nath Bose. Despite seminal work done in the 1920s, including on a topic that was quickly recognised as being radical and employed by multiple Nobel-Prize-winning scientists later, Bose was never awarded the Physics Prize. Perhaps his greatest honour for performing that work, apart from contributing to the science itself, was the British physicist Paul A.M. Dirac naming a significant class of fundamental particles after him (bosons). When Higgs and Englert were awarded the Physics Prize in 2013 for having conceived the theory behind the Higgs boson in 1964, a cry went up around India calling for Bose to recognised for his work and be awarded a share of the prize that year. The demand was thoroughly misguided because the Bose-Einstein statistics describe all bosons whereas the Higgs Six had focused on one peculiar boson. If anything, Bose could have been awarded the prize separately: he was nominated by Kedareswar Banerji in 1956, by Daulat Kothari in 1959 and by S. Bagchi in 1962.

In contrast, the only other Indian to have won the Physics Prize (before 1964), C.V. Raman, was nominated by no less than 10 people, including Ernest Rutherford, Louis-Victor de Broglie, Johannes Stark and Niels Bohr – all then or future laureates – in the same year. A case of “who nominated whom”, then? Not quite. Another reported flaw of the Physics Prize has been that it has favoured discoveries over inventions, with the 2014 edition being the most recent of a handful of exceptions to that rule. And among those discoveries, the prize’s selectors have consistently preferred experimental proof. That would explain the unseemly gap between Higgs’s and Englert’s papers in 1964 and their awards in 2013 – and it would also explain why Bose never won the prize himself. Bose’s work in statistics helped understand an already observed anomaly but it provided no other new predictions against which his theory could be tested. In 1924, Einstein would make that prediction: of a unique state of matter since called the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The BEC was first experimentally observed in 1995, fetching three physicists the 2001 Physics Prize. That the statistics would also explain the superfluidity of liquid helium-4 was first suggested by Fritz London in 1938 and proved by Lev Landau in 1941 (so winning the 1962 Physics Prize).

However, this is not a defence of Bose not winning the prize as much as a cautionary note: the helpful thing to remember would be that though the Nobel Prizes may rank among the most prestigious distinctions, they have a character of their own, and that human enterprise cannot be divided as Nobel-class and non-Nobel-class, as if it were an aircraft carrier. For in the more than 800 laureates the Nobel Foundation has counted since 1901, the omissions stand out as much as the rest: apart from the few already mentioned, Chinua Achebe, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin, Václav Havel, Lise Meitner, J.R.R. Tolkien and John Updike come to mind. In Bell Burnell’s case, in fact, another man receiving the Physics Prize for a discovery she made only highlights another failure of the Nobel Foundation and has since become an example often invoked to highlight the plight of women in science.

*Also in 1951, Saha nominated Arnold Sommerfeld, a German physicist infamous for being overlooked for a Nobel Prize despite having received more than 80 nominations over many years.

The Wire
September 15, 2015