Research funding in India

After Vidya Krishnan of The Hindu broke the news of the ‘Dehradun Declaration‘, which imposed a startling funding restriction on the Centres for Scientific and Industrial Research, multiple perspectives on the issue came to light for me. One was about the tensions between funding curiosity-driven research and funding research conducted in the national interest (assuming for a moment that they’re mutually exclusive). Based on conversations I had with friends, I realised that for five questions – listed in the survey form below – the answers varied a lot (especially for questions 1, 2 and 5). So before I write anything, I’d like to know what other researchers have to say as well.

Please read the brief intro in the form below and fill it – it shouldn’t take more than five minutes of your time. I’ve a feeling we’ll all learn something from it. I’ll share the results once I have enough (>5-10) responses.

Vanilla entertainment

One of the first, and most important in hindsight, bits of advice I got from the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was about how to choose what to write: “Write what you’d like to read” (Dan Fagin would later add the important “why now” dimension). As someone avidly interested in scientific theories – especially in physics and astronomy – I’ve noticed that the best stories around today about theoretical research have narratives centred around some kind of human dilemma. One of the more recent examples of such stories is of Shinichi Mochizuki’s work trying to solve the abc conjecture. The principal ‘plot element’ was that Mochizuki’s proposed solution to the problem required some superhuman efforts of concentration and re-learning – the latter being something humans are not naturally good at.

However, I found my reading was only half-sated by stories like Mochizuki’s. The other half was best found in books that described the development of complex scientific theories through the lives of more than a few researchers. The last such book I read was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which posits string theory as likely being the ultimate and singular framework in physics and mathematics capable of describing this universe we inhabit. Despite my issues with the book, I really liked it because of its introduction to great scientists starting with how they got interested in some topics and how their work jumped thereon from one idea to another. Such stories sometimes don’t involve conflicts, and so science journalists are not motivated to write about them, which is understandable.

Yet, I think such stories need to make an appearance in the pages of the mainstream media because the glimpses they provide into the lives and thought-processes of scientists who’ve succeeded in making one contribution or another are seldom available anywhere else but books. So when I received a 5,400-word interview of the theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar to publish on The Wire, I published the whole thing. Though Ashtekar describes some friction within the field, the interview as such makes for pleasant, informative reading. I hope you enjoy reading it (for whatever reason).

Cybersecurity, a horse with no name

A cybersecurity visualisation tool at the Idaho National Laboratory. Credit: inl/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Credit: inl/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Excerpt:

When asked about the origins of The America‘s hit single ‘A horse with no name’ (1971), lyricist Dewey Bunnell said he wanted to capture the spirit of the hot, all-too familiarly dry desert around Arizona and California, which he’d drive through as a kid. The horse was a vehicle that’d take him through the desert and away from the chaos of life.

Cybersecurity sounds like it could be that horse, in the form of IT infrastructure to effectively defend against the desert of cyber-weaponry, except we’ve probably only just seen a foal. When software is weaponised and used in cyber-attacks, we’re confronted with a threat we’ve not fully understood yet and which we’re in no real position to understand, let alone effectively defend against. At the same time, even in this inchoate form, cyber-weapons are posing threats that we better defend against or risk the shutdown of critical services. The only clear way forward seems to be of survival, on an ad hoc basis. Not surprisingly, the key to understanding cybersecurity’s various challenges for its innumerable stakeholders lies in knowing what a cyber-weapon, a peril of the desert, is.

We don’t know.

Read the full article here.

Geoff Marcy

About a week go, NASA announced the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet, and all I could do was think of the amazing Geoff Marcy. When it comes to exoplanet astronomy and the hunt for these objects, Marcy is THE guy (The Atlantic compared his contributions to Copernicus’s). He’s an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and someone who was until recently someone I’ve wanted to meet and thank for his contributions.

Not anymore. It turns out Marcy is a serial sexual harasser and an insidious one at that. Reports published over Friday and Saturday paint a picture of a man given to the sadistic pleasure of hitting on, massaging, kissing and groping his students while perfectly aware that his standing in the academic community would protect him. BuzzFeed broke the story Friday by leaking details of Berkeley’s investigation into Marcy’s conduct in 2001-2010, as well as noting that the university hadn’t taken any serious action against him. To quote from BuzzFeed,

She didn’t register an official complaint until eight years later, by which time she’d left astronomy — in part, she said, because of the sexual harassment she and other female astronomers experienced. “When you’re a student and you see every complaint being ignored, and every male professor who has violated that have zero consequences, it really makes you not want to step forward,” she said.

Proof enough that the wider community at Berkeley was complicit in Marcy’s actions, refusing to act on complaints and hoping perhaps that the problem would go away. It doesn’t.

In the documents, the investigator wrote: “Based on the preponderance of evidence, I find it more likely than not that [Marcy] acted as reported by Complainant 3.”

Here’s an equally bad part:

As a result of the findings, the women were informed, Marcy has been given “clear expectations concerning his future interactions with students,” which he must follow or risk “sanctions that could include suspension or dismissal.”

He spent a decade sexually harassing students, and the university, when it finds out, sends him a note. Seems legit.

“After all of this effort and trying to go through the proper channels, Berkeley has ultimately come up with no response,” said Joan Schmelz, who until recently led the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.

What made the revelation more fucked-up was Marcy’s strange letter that, thought it was supposed to be apologetic by any standards, was simply the harasser trying to come off as the unfortunate fall-guy. He posted the letter after Berkeley’s worthless response left many of his peers and students angry and calls arose for him to not be allowed to attend the annual AAAS meeting, a major event for astronomers.

As some of you may be aware, concerns were raised with UC Berkeley regarding my conduct some years ago involving some women in our field. These complaints, which were raised last year, led to an official investigation by the University, which concluded three months ago. While I do not agree with each complaint that was made, it is clear that my behavior was unwelcomed by some women. I take full responsibility and hold myself completely accountable for my actions and the impact they had. For that and to the women affected, I sincerely apologize.

It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional. Through deep and lengthy consultations, I have reflected carefully on my actions as well as issues of gender inequality, power, and privilege in our society. I was unaware of how these factors created unforeseen contexts and how my actions and position have affected others in ways that were far from what I intended. Through hard work, I have changed in major ways for the better.

Quoting from P.Z. Myers from his blog,

Note the tells. He doesn’t agree with each complaint; so there are some instance of harassment he thinks are justifiable? His behavior was unwelcome; yeah, that’s an understatement. But hey, it was unintentional! You have to forgive him, he didn’t really mean to stroke that student’s thigh. He was “unaware”. It’s all a lie. I don’t believe he was unaware; he knew every step of the way that his desire for sexual gratification was being expressed inappropriately, to students.

If he were honest, he would have said he didn’t care. He was preying on students, without concern for their careers, and conscious that his status in his field would protect him from any repercussions. He knew this. I wouldn’t accept an apology that didn’t fully acknowledge the depth of Marcy’s willful violation of his students’ working lives.

* * *

I’d blame Berkeley for its screwed vision of science – at least the way it seems from where I’m standing. Ask yourself: When Berkeley looks at Marcy, what does it see? It definitely sees the ability to support as well as benefit from the work of a leading astronomer (touted for the Nobel), but is it also so keenly invested in reaping only his research that it’d eclipse him from anything that jeopardised their association? And isn’t this attitude the origin of a harasser belief’s that his standing will protect him?

I’m sure there are numerous such “sexist jerks” around but it’s extra-painful when leaders fall, taking with them the not-easily-replaced leadership and influence that made it easier to chart a course in those fields. Then again, with three ‘leaders’ already having crashed in recent memory (Bora Zivkovic, Tim Hunt, now Marcy), it’s worth questioning how male scientists with questionable attitudes toward women (to put it mildly) are allowed to climb the officialdom ladder. Maybe we don’t place the right checks in their paths.

And on a personal level, Emily Lakdawalla said it best:

Awards week

I went into this year’s Nobel Prize Announcements Week a little confused about why I was excited. For me the prizes have always highlighted the recipients’ work, and that’s likelier than not a field of study I’ve probably never heard of (with the exceptions being physics – though I don’t presume I’m familiar with all of it – and, occasionally, literature), but then I’m also forced to think about whether the institution of the prizes isn’t becoming outmoded. It probably is; in fact, with physics I can say more forcefully that many of its rules already are out of another era.

But before I could write the obligatory criticism, an amazing article by Roberta Sinatra et al appeared in Nature Physics, titled A century of physics. Using Web of Science data, it discusses not just how and why the breadth of physics literature has increased over the years but also the motivations of the various sub-fields that have emerged under physics – especially concerning the growing need for multidisciplinarity, a topic that the Nobel Prizes for physics aren’t equipped to acknowledge. Check the piece out if you’ve the time, it’s deliciously detailed.

Anyway, as the announcements started to roll in, it was simply fortunate that the first two (for medicine/physiology and physics) afforded critical perspectives on India – allowing me to substitute the “Are the Nobels important” question with the “Is this how we screwed up” question. You could argue that this is in fact a subtle acknowledgement of the Nobel Prizes’ importance – it is but only insofar as I can say “Here’s what not winning a Nobel tells us about how we’re screwing up in xyz situations”. To wit: With the medicine prize, I used the example of Youyou Tu’s finding artemisinin with the guidance of an ancient Chinese text to look at how India’s popularising its ancient knowledge the wrong way. An excerpt:

And here emerges an instructive lesson about what Tu did differently – to not just extract artemisinin but also to preserve the dignity as well as intellectual context of Ge Hong’s work in which she found her answer. After she extracted an effective form of artemisinin in 1972, Tu arranged for its structure to be studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1975, performed clinical trials in accordance with the best practices of the field by 1977, published her research (though not in English until the 1980s due to the prevailing political environment), and finally participated in the study of large-scale production mechanisms.

What was demonstrated at the ISC in January, on the other hand, belies a lazier attempt at translating old knowledge into newer contexts. The current government’s support for phylotherapy allows researchers to forward non-peer-reviewed results in obscure, self-published journals that do nothing to advance its contents’ credibility when a better alternative would have been to organise and digitise the literature, make it more accessible, and support credible institutions in exploring the knowledge – blend the ancient with the modern, so to speak.

The physics prize was easier to connect to India: it went for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, to study which India is supposed to be building a neutrino observatory but isn’t thanks to political impediments (though not entirely environmental impediments). Again, an excerpt:

Building on similarly advanced principles of detection, India and China are also constructing neutrino detectors.

At least, India is supposed to be. China on the other hand has been labouring away for about a year now in building the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO). India’s efforts with the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in Theni, Tamil Nadu have, on the other hand, ground to a halt. The working principles behind both INO and JUNO are targeted at answering the mass-ordering questions. And if answered, it would almost definitely warrant a Nobel Prize in the future.

INO’s construction has been delayed because of a combination of festering reasons with no end in sight. The observatory’s detector is a 50,000-ton instrument called the iron calorimeter that is to be buried underneath a kilometre of rock so as to filter all particles but neutrinos out. To acquire such a natural shield, the principal institutions involved in its construction – the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (Matscience) – have planned to hollow out a hill and situate the INO in the resulting ‘cave’. But despite clearances acquired from various pollution control boards as well as from the people living in the area, the collaboration has faced repeated resistance from environmental activists as well as politicians who, members of the collaboration allege, are only involved for securing political mileage.

I like to imagine that such analytical comparisons are a curious, twisted reflection of a larger trend playing out in my glorious country. While the way we’re doing some of our science and pseudoscience is actively repelling international recognition, many winners of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, conferred for literary excellence, are returning their trophies decrying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence over the Dadri lynching incident as well as the religiously motivated persecution and murder of rationalists that Nayantara Sahgal, who kicked off the returnings, called a “reign of terror”.

Circling back: The chemistry prize, however, I couldn’t make much sense of. My friend Akshat Rathi was quicker: for example, he told me how the prize, for “mechanistic studies of DNA repairs”, had overlooked this year’s Lasker Award winners (traditionally, these awardees are likelier to be Nobel Laureates). And finally, the literature prize – announced today – was a brilliant stroke of luck simply because it was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, two of whose books I’ve actually read (one of which I highly recommend: Voices from Chernobyl). I wrote about her here.

Incidentally, The Wire also had a couple pieces concerning the Nobel Prize before the announcements rolled in: one to talk about the CRISPR/Cas9 tool for gene editing by Nandita Jayaraj and another, by me, that discussed plausible reasons why three particular Indians were passed up for the prize (M.K. Gandhi, Meghnad Saha and Satyen Bose).

Physics Nobel rewards neutrino work, but has sting in the tail for India

As neutrino astronomy comes of age, the Nobel Foundation has decided to award Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald with the physics prize for 2015 for their discovery of neutrino oscillations – a property which indicates that the fundamental particle has mass.

Takaaki Kajita is affiliated with the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan. He and Yoji Totsuka used the detector to report in 1998 that neutrinos produced when cosmic rays struck Earth’s atmosphere were ‘disappearing’ as they travelled to the detector. Then, in 2002, McDonald of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada reported that incoming electron neutrinos from the Sun were metamorphosing into muon- or tau-neutrinos. Electron-neutrino, muon-neutrino and tau-neutrino are three kinds of neutrinos (named for particles they are associated with: electrons, muons and taus).

What McDonald, Kajita and Totsuka had together found was that neutrinos were changing from one kind to another as they travelled – a property called neutrino oscillations – which is definite proof that the particles have mass. Sadly, Totsuka died in 2009, and may not have been considered for the Nobel Prize for that reason.

This was an important discovery for astroparticle physics. For one, the Standard Model group of equations that defines the behaviour of fundamental particles hadn’t anticipated it. For another, the discovery also made neutrinos a viable candidate for dark matter, which we’re yet to discover, and for what their having mass implies about the explosive deaths of stars – a process that spews copious amounts of neutrinos.

Neutrino oscillations were first predicted by the Italian nuclear physicist Bruno Pontecorvo in 1957. In fact, Pontecorvo has laid the foundation of a lot of concepts in neutrino physics whose development has won other physicists the Nobel Prize (in 1988, 1995 and 2002), though he’s never won the prize himself.

An infographic showing how the Super-Kamiokande neutrino experiment works. Source: nobelprize.org
An infographic showing how the Super-Kamiokande neutrino experiment works. Source: nobelprize.org

Although it was a tremendous discovery that neutrinos have mass, a discovery that forced an entrenched theory of physics to change itself, the questions that Pontecorvo, Kajita, McDonald and others asked have yet to be fully answered: one of the biggest unsolved problems in physics today is what the neutrino-mass hierarchy is. In other words, physicists haven’t yet been able to find out – via theory or experiment – which of the three kinds neutrinos is the heaviest and which the lightest. The implications of the mass-ordering are important for physicists to understand certain fundamental predictions of the Standard Model. As it turns out, the model has many unanswered questions, and some physicists hope that a part of the answer may lie in the unexpected properties of neutrinos.

An infographic showing how the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory works. Source: nobelprize.org
An infographic showing how the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory works. Source: nobelprize.org

Exacerbating the scientific frustration is the fact that neutrinos are notoriously hard to detect because they rarely interact with matter. For example, the IceCUBE neutrino observatory operated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison near the South Pole in Antarctica employs thousands of sensors buried under the ice. When a neutrino strikes a water molecule in the ice, the reaction produces a charged lepton – electron, muon or tau, depending on the neutrino. That lepton moves faster through the surrounding ice than the speed of light in ice, releasing energy called Cherenkov radiation that’s then detected by the sensors. Building on similarly advanced principles of detection, India and China are also constructing neutrino detectors.

At least, India is supposed to be. China on the other hand has been labouring away for about a year now in building the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO). India’s efforts with the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in Theni, Tamil Nadu have, on the other hand, ground to a halt. The working principles behind both INO and JUNO are targeted at answering the mass-ordering questions. And if answered, it would almost definitely warrant a Nobel Prize in the future.

INO’s construction has been delayed because of a combination of festering reasons with no end in sight. The observatory’s detector is a 50,000-ton instrument called the iron calorimeter that is to be buried underneath a kilometre of rock so as to filter all particles but neutrinos out. To acquire such a natural shield, the principal institutions involved in its construction – the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (Matscience) – have planned to hollow out a hill and situate the INO in the resulting ‘cave’. But despite clearances acquired from various pollution control boards as well as from the people living in the area, the collaboration has faced repeated resistance from environmental activists as well as politicians who, members of the collaboration allege, are only involved for securing political mileage.

Schematic view of the Underground neutrino lab under a mountain. Credit: ino.tifr.res.in
Schematic view of the Underground neutrino lab under a mountain. Credit: ino.tifr.res.in

The DAE, which obtained approval for the project from the Cabinet and the funds to build the observatory, has also been taking a hands-off approach and has until now not participated in resolving the face-off between the scientists and the activists.

At the moment, the construction has been halted by a stay issued by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court following a petition filed with the support of Vaiko, founder of the Marugmalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But irrespective of which way the court’s decision goes, members of the collaboration at Matscience say that arguments with certain activists have degenerated of late, eroding their collective spirit to persevere with the observatory – even as environmentalists continue to remain suspicious of the DAE. This is quite an unfortunate situation for a country whose association with neutrinos dates back to the 1960s.

At that time, a neutrino observatory located at a mine in the Kolar Gold Fields was among the first in the world to detect muon neutrinos in Earth’s atmosphere – the same particles whose disappearance Takaaki Kajita was able to record to secure his Nobel Prize for. Incidentally, a Japanese physicist named Masatoshi Koshiba was spurred by the KGF discovery to build a larger neutrino detector in his country, called Kamioka-NDE, later colloquialised to Kamiokande (Koshiba won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for discovering the opportunities of neutrino astronomy). Kamiokande was later succeeded by Super-Kamiokande, which in the late-1990s became the site of Kajita’s discovery. The KGF observatory, on the other hand, was shut in the 1992 as the mines were closed.

For the broader physics community, brakes applied on the INO’s progress count for little because there are other neutrino detectors around the world – like JUNO – as well as research labs that can continue to look for answers to the mass-ordering question. In fact, the Nobel Prize awarded to Kajita and McDonald stands testimony to the growing realisation that, like the particles of light, neutrinos can also be used to reveal the secrets of the cosmos. However, for the Indian community, which has its share of talented theoretical physicists, the slowdown signifies a slipping opportunity to get back in the game.

The Wire
October 6, 2015

How an ancient Chinese text fought malaria and won a Nobel, while India lags behind

On October 5, Youyou Tu became only the 12th woman in history to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. She shared one half of the prize with William Campbell and Satoshi Omura, the discoverers of the drug called ivermectin used to fight against filarial diseases and river blindness.

Tu’s claim to fame was her discovery of artemisinin in the early 1970s, a compound that has since evolved to spawn a group used as rapid-action drugs against malaria. While the disease continues to be one of the deadliest in the world’s tropics today, Tu’s find has helped shape humankind’s best defences against it. She found the drug under the aegis of Project 523, a programme set up by the Chinese army in 1967 to find a plant whose properties could help fight malaria, which was running rampant through the Chinese and North Vietnamese armies. The drug is named for the plant it was found in, Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood).

Tu found the drug by examining more than 2,000 Chinese herbal preparations and filtering out a shortlist of 40 that showed promising resistance against the malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. She was also referring to ancient Chinese text that spoke about different plants’ medicinal properties and how they could be leveraged. In fact, when she finally spotted artemisinin, extracted it and injected it into mice with malaria, she found that the results weren’t consistent with what was described to the literature. But she stuck with it.

She told the Lasker Foundation after receiving their prestigious award in 2011 about how she was able to find the answer in a book written in 340 BC by Ge Hong, titled A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. The solution was to extract artemisinin without heating the source material, preserving the drug’s antimalarial properties. She writes in a commentary, “Indeed, we obtained much better activity after switching to a lower-temperature procedure.”

Tu’s discovery and recognition 43 years later are bound to recast the origins of the global resistance against malaria back to phytotherapy (herbal medicine) – at least in India, where the topic is often coopted controversially by the ruling political party and its ideologues.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party won overwhelmingly, the party manifesto minced no words about providing support to Ayurveda, phytotherapy studies and ‘ayurgenomics’, and has since also lived up to it. Like Chinese texts, ancient Indian literature also dates back some two millennia, if not more, and to its credit has advanced many of the greatest ideas that have shaped Oriental traditions. One of the world’s earliest treatises on surgery and natural medicine is believed to be the Sushruta Samhita. A Sanskrit text penned by Sushruta in the 6th century BCE, it contains references to 700 medicinal plants.

Unfortunately, RSS-inspired ideologues have  reinterpreted many sections of this great literature into pseudoscientific contexts, often with no basis in reason. The Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai in January 2015 became one of the more infamous displays of such reinterpretation: scholars spoke about ancient vehicles flying to Mars, heads being transplanted between animals of different species, and using bovine bacteria to make gold. And now, Youyou Tu’s co-winning the Nobel Price for physiology or medicines in 2015 is bound to be a shot in the arm for ancient Indian phytotherapy’s controversial political supporters – even though the odds of finding an effective drug by modern standards from ancient texts is 1 in 2,000.

And here emerges an instructive lesson about what Tu did differently – to not just extract artemisinin but also to preserve the dignity as well as intellectual context of Ge Hong’s work in which she found her answer. After she extracted an effective form of artemisinin in 1972, Tu arranged for its structure to be studied at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1975, performed clinical trials in accordance with the best practices of the field by 1977, published her research (though not in English until the 1980s due to the prevailing political environment), and finally participated in the study of large-scale production mechanisms.

What was demonstrated at the ISC in January, on the other hand, belies a lazier attempt at translating old knowledge into newer contexts. The current government’s support for phytotherapy allows researchers to forward non-peer-reviewed results in obscure, self-published journals that do nothing to advance its contents’ credibility when a better alternative would have been to organise and digitise the literature, make it more accessible, and support credible institutions in exploring the knowledge – blend the ancient with the modern, so to speak.

The blame doesn’t lie with just one government: the ignorance is steeped, perpetuated at first by previous establishments that turned a blind eye. The effect has been to lead to a blatant subversion of the due processes of scientific research to achieve outdated goals, and a steady erosion of invaluable wisdom. There have been some exceptions – like in the often-cited work of Mitali Mukerji, a recipient of the S.S. Bhatnagar Award (though it drew criticism), the occasional interdisciplinary collaboration, and the rare exhortation. But such work is few and far between, considering almost 70% of modern drugs are thought to originate from herbal environments, and is often undeservingly lumped together with quackery.

And the difference in the investigative traditions employed by Tu and Indian phytotherapists shows in many ways. For one, a Chinese herbal preparation named Dansheng has entered phase 3 clinical trials to verify its curative effects in people with diabetic retinopathy – no Ayurvedic recipe has come as far. Second, the Chinese government’s more-meaningful support was reflected in a greater visibility of the country’s traditional medicines in databases of scientific literature, even in 2013, but not so much of Indian medicines. Third, as Youyou Tu’s example illustrates, the success of the Chinese has been in recognising the limits of ancient knowledge: Tu and her team had discovered a more effective form of artemisinin called dihydroartemisinin, which eventually joined an arsenal of artemisinin-based drugs in the WHO’s malarial defence kit of choice.

The Wire
October 5, 2015

Mobile network shutdowns could be human-rights violations

Excerpt:

Who uses mobile phones and for what? The biggest use case is with friends and family using cell phones to communicate good news – especially helpful during times of distress – and bad. They’re also used to access banking services, emergency services and the social media, and in information-poor environments like in the rural hinterland, to stay updated with essential government services and weather updates. Mobile-network shutdowns are also harmful for small businesses and impact TSP revenues. However, in the event of a shutdown, those who effect it are either not concerned about the consequences for legitimate activities or there isn’t a mechanism that allows them to reflect that concern.

As shutdowns become more frequent, the affected stakeholders are beginning to grapple with the fact that there are few legal sanctions holding the authorities back. Though the Telegraph Act (1885) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of Indian Act (2000) specify the circumstances in which the government can submit shutdown requests to TSPs, there is no requirement that an independent body be constituted to approve or reject shutdown requests – in effect, no layer between the government and TSPs (in the USA, the Department of Homeland Security is required to ensure a shutdown request it’s going to sign off on is absolutely necessary). Nor does the law specify the circumstances in which TSPs can discuss requests or claim compensation for loss of revenue – which are especially important because the requests are mired in claims of “national security” – or for citizens to engage with a grievance redressal mechanism. Though these concerns apply to ISPs, the Information Technology Act (2000) is more cognisant of the effects of Internet blockades.

Both Acts are concerned with regulating the provision and availability of network, not their unavailability. In other words there’s no ‘non-natural disaster response’ legislation that explicitly defines the extent to which state actors can interfere with the provision of public services to quell unrest.

Full article here.

Summing up the 'water on Mars' announcement

I wrote an explainer summing up (almost) all we know about the recent NASA announcement of finding water on Mars for the Mumbai Mirror. An excerpt:

Some time in its past, a fifth of the Martian surface was thought to be covered in oceans, kilometres deep, before something happened for all that liquid to disappear. In time, what was also thought to be a thicker atmosphere dissipated, supposedly leaking away into space through a series of chemical reactions, leaving Mars to be the desolate land it is today. These are two of the more important mysteries that scientists want to understand for signs of whether something similar could happen on Earth as well as to make sense of our immediate planetary neighbourhood.

Because with large oceans of liquid water and an atmosphere rich in gases like oxygen, Mars could’ve harboured life — at least life that resembled the life that exists on Earth. Imagine how exciting that would be, to find out that at some point, there was someone next door. For this, many of the world’s space-faring nations have spent billions building, launching and operating orbiters, satellites that get into orbit around Mars and study the atmosphere and surface properties; landers that drop down on the surface; rovers, the little cars loaded with science instruments moving around, drilling into rocks, probing the dust.

On September 28, NASA announced that it had found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. This is a deceptively ambiguous statement for many reasons. Foremost is that NASA has been announcing similar news since the 2000s because there are many ways to infer the signs of liquid water, but the only thing that will tell us for sure if there’s liquid water on Mars is if we spot liquid water itself. This hasn’t happened yet.

Space is necessarily multifarious, ISRO

Here’s a great example of why space-exploration is a multifarious industry where it takes excellence on multiple fronts at the same time to make each mission a success, even on seemingly unrelated fronts. The example also shows the pride of financial frugality can last only for so long.

Despite many firsts, ISRO mum on MOM’s findings – Times of India

Answering a specific question after the launch of Astrosat, India’s first astronomy satellite, on September 28, Isro chairman AS Kiran Kumar told TOI: “I cannot get into the specifics. I can, however, say there are several firsts that MOM has found. But it is only fair that the principal investigators (scientists who made the payloads) claim it first in scientific journals.”

Isro was to make this data public on September 24, MOM’s first anniversary in the Martian orbit. The agency, however, had a low-key event on the day and did not reveal anything.

Equipping instruments to be able to capture and relay 1 TB of data a year is only half the job done, the other being to be able to process and publicise it. And without the need to innovate rapidly nor clamour for public support, I don’t think ISRO will ever reform this slow-moving attitude. This is NASA really cashing in – there’s no reason ISRO should be able to, too. Later in the same piece,

So between September 24, 2014 and September 24, 2015, when MOM completed one year in the Martian orbit, it could have taken 456 pictures, of which Isro has made public 13 pictures, with some repetitions of the same spot on Mars.