Politics inside SESAME

I’ve been following the story of the SESAME collaboration in the Middle East since I first heard about it seven years ago, and was really thrilled when its synchrotron achieved first light in November 2017. I wrote about the significance of the occasion for The Wire‘s ‘The Year in Hope’ series of piece about uplifting moments in 2017. Excerpt:

It’s the largest experiment (in terms of investment and participation) to have brought together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. These are states that hardly – if at all – see eye to eye, making this collaboration particularly remarkable. …

Gihan Kamel, an Egyptian scientist who has been with SESAME since August this year, told Times Higher Education, “Basically, we are scientists, we are not politicians. We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all.” Such an outlook is inspiring because it ensures scientific knowledge is not forfeited even in a region as constantly overwrought as the Middle East.

That’s an interesting thing for Kamel to say because it suggests SESAME’s scientists are shielded from their respective politics when they’re working together on the synchrotron. Considering the tensions that often prevail on the outside, such working conditions must be blissful – but also affording the collaboration a measure of privilege that runs the risk of turning counterproductive. This is akin to saying scientists must be able to stay in their ivory towers without being forced to think about proletarian concerns.

For example, in the case of the Middle Eastern collaboration, saying “We don’t care about politics inside SESAME at all” is to forego an impressive opportunity for intellectuals from warring nations to sit down around a table and discuss physics as well as the road to peace. Something may come of it or nothing at all – but it’s obvious that it would be useful to try, and trying entails an acknowledgment that the collaboration’s members must care about the politics when inside SESAME as well.

Featured image: Beam steering, focusing and monitoring equipment at the SESAME research centre in Jordan. Credit: iaea_imagebank/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

A shorter article about short gamma ray bursts lights up little

  • Identify a simple and well-defined question
  • Describe the question and answer it
  • Get the fuck out

Writing with these three rules in mind makes for a good science article. You stick to the point, you know what details to include and what to leave out and, most importantly, you set straightforward expectations and meet them. The overall effect is for the reader to walk away feeling not disappointed. That’s always a happy ending.

Sadly, not everyone writes like this – rather, more broadly, not all news publishers think of science articles this way. For example, The Hindu regularly publishes science articles so packed with information – about the study as much as its authors – that you’re left confused about what you just read. Was it a profile or was it an explainer? It doesn’t matter because it failed either way.

The latest example of this kind of writing is an article about short gamma ray bursts. The binary neutron star merger known by the gravitational-wave event designation GW170817 was expected by astrophysicists to have unleashed a short gamma ray burst at the moment of collision – but data obtained of the event shows no signs of the expected radio signature. A group of scientists led by Kunal Mooley from Oxford University suggested this could be because GW170817 released a new kind of gamma ray burst.

BusinessLine (a business newspaper with the same publisher and top management as The Hindu) carried an article attempting to discuss all this. Sample the opening para, a mulch of facts and inaccuracies:

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 09.18.40

“The one located on the outskirts of Pune”? Sounds like everyone must know about it even if they don’t. “First-ever detection of gravitation waves”? Not really: gravitation waves, a.k.a. gravity waves and unlike gravitational waves, can be observed in Earth’s atmosphere. Also, the first-ever detection of gravitational waves came last year; what came in August was the first-ever detection of a neutron star merger. The three US scientists won the award for building LIGO, not detecting GW170817.

The rest of the article tries to simultaneously explain Mooley and co.’s interpretation of the data and also provide a glimpse of his educational trajectory. Why would I want to know he studied in Pune and Mumbai? Unless this is because the author wanted to drive home the India connection – which is all the more troubling because it plays up an aspect of the researcher’s identity that is irrelevant to their professional accomplishment. I’ve noticed many publications succumbing to this kind of thinking: if researcher is Indian, cover the paper/study/whatever irrespective of the legitimacy, strength and/or novelty of what they’re saying.

The science ought to take precedent, not the researcher’s identity. But when it doesn’t, you typically end up writing something that’s definitely not news and likely trash. You end up wrapping your national pride around a core of stupidity. I recommend the pages of ScoopwhoopThe QuintThe Better IndiaDailyOThe Times of India and The New Indian Express, among others, for examples. It’s also possible that the author was conscious about providing an India connection so readers in India took the article more seriously. I’ve made noise about such behaviour many times before, such as here: science shouldn’t be assessed, or enjoyed, solely according to what it can do for humankind.

Finally, it’s possible that the newspaper itself wanted to establish all details on record for posterity – but AFAIK, the BusinessLine is not a newspaper of record. This of course is a minor point.

By ditching the extraneous details, the author and the editor could’ve had the space to focus on the science more, using better language and without the painful economy of words it’s currently striving to. They could even have devoted some words to discussing whether other astronomers have disputed Mooley’s interpretation (they have), an exercise that would’ve made the article more reliable than it is. And to those who’re saying the article was probably kept short because there might not have been space in the newspaper, I’ve a bigger complaint: why wasn’t a short version published in print and a longer version online?

In all, I don’t think BusinessLine is taking its science journalism seriously. The time is past when they could’ve gotten ahead simply by being one of the few publications in the country to write articles about short gamma ray bursts. But given the complacency with which the article seems to have been composed and edited, maybe that time shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It surely doesn’t now.

Featured image: An artist’s illustration of a bright gamma-ray burst. Caption and credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Eroding the dignity of Jayalalithaa's memories

On December 20, P. Vetrivel, a former MLA and member of the AIADMK party, convened a press meet and released a 20-second video clip purportedly showing former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa lying on a hospital bed shortly before she died on December 5, 2016. Since that day, the affairs of the AIADMK have been in tatters – an inconvenience they’ve been forced to confront twice over, both when Jayalalithaa’s constituency, R.K. Nagar, had by-polls to elect their next representative.

A major rift within the party itself meant that there were those within and without who suspected Jayalalithaa may not have died a natural death, as the currently dominant AIADMK faction – to which Vetrivel belongs – has insisted. The same faction is led by T.T.V. Dinakaran, who is former Jayalalithaa aide V.K. Sasikala’s nephew. Vetrivel’s new video, which he said was made by Sasikala with Jayalalithaa’s consent, tries to allay these fears by showing that the former leader was really at a hospital being treated for diabetes and kidney problems. This happened even as voting began in R.K. Nagar in the morning on December 21.

No Tamil news channel seems to have heeded the Election Commission’s directive to not air the video clip, which itself arrived only four+ hours after Vetrivel’s press meet concluded. While some people have tried to poke holes in the video, especially focusing on how palm trees are visible outside Jayalalithaa’s room in the hospital when her treatment was widely publicised to have happened on the seventh floor, news channels aired it all day yesterday.

The clip shows Jayalalithaa on a large bed, unmoving, in a gown. Her facial features aren’t apparent. Her left leg is visible outstretched but her right leg isn’t. In her left hand, there’s a cup of some liquid that she brings to her mouth once and drinks through a straw. It’s quite a sad sight to behold.

When Jayalalithaa died, the pall of sorrow that hung over Chennai was palpable. Even functionaries of the DMK, which has been the AIADMK’s principal opponent for decades, were shaken and paid heartfelt tributes to a woman they called a ‘worthy opponent’. Although she’d run an opaque, pro-business government and centralised a majority of its decision-making, her rule was marked by many popular social development schemes. There’s no bigger testimony to her leadership than the blind, self-serving hutch the AIADMK has devolved to become without her.

To see a woman considered to have been tactful, shrewd and graceful when she lived depicted after her death in a way that minimised her agency and highlighted an implicit sense of distress and decay is nauseating1. Jayalalithaa was known to have actively constructed and maintained her appearances in public and on TV as characterising a certain persona. With Sasikala’s and Vetrivel’s choices, this personality has been broken – which makes Vetrivel’s claim that Jayalalithaa consented to being filmed, and for that video to be released to TV channels, triply suspect.

Jayalalithaa, when alive, took great care to make herself appear a certain way – including going all the way to issuing statements only to select members of the press, those whose words she could control. What would she have said now with the image of a weakened, unsustaining Jayalalithaa being flashed everywhere?

There’s little doubt that Dinakaran and Vetrivel wanted to manipulate R.K. Nagar’s voters by releasing the clip barely a day before voting was to begin. Most people recognise that their faction within the AIADMK shouldn’t have released the video now but much earlier and with proof of the footage’s legitimacy to the Commission of Inquiry, which has been investigating her death.

Then again, considering what has been caught on camera, consuming it has been nothing short of engaging in voyeurism. So the video shouldn’t have been shot in the first place, especially since there’s no proof of Jayalalithaa’s having consented to being filmed as well as to being shown thus on TV beyond what Vetrivel told the press about what Sasikala had told him.

For this alone, I hope the people of R.K. Nagar reject Dinakaran’s faction and its exploitative politics. But more importantly, I hope journalists recognise how seriously they’ve erred in showing Jayalalithaa the way they did – and helped Dinakaran achieve what he’d wanted to in the first place.

1. This also happened with Eman Ahmed.

Featured image credit: Nandhinikandhasamy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Friends no more

Growing up, watching Friends was a source of much amusement and happiness. Now, as a grownup, I can’t watch a single episode without deeply resenting how the show caricatures all science as avoidable and all scientists as boring. The way Monica, Rachael, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey respond to Ross’s attempts to tell them something interesting from his work or passions always provokes strong consternation and an impulse to move away from him. In one episode, Monica condemns comet-watching to be a “stupid” exercise. When Ross starts to talk about its (fictitious) discoverer, Joey muffles his ears, screams “No, no, no!” and begins banging on a door pleading to be let out. Pathetic.

This sort of reaction is at the heart of my (im)mortal enemy: the Invisible Barrier that has erupted between many people and science/mathematics. These people, all adults, passively – and sometimes actively – keep away from numbers and equations of any kind. The moment any symbols are invoked in an article or introduced in a conversation, they want to put as much distance as possible between them and what they perceive to be a monster that will make them think. This is why I doubly resent that Friends continues to be popular, that it continues to celebrate the deliberate mediocrity of its characters and the profound lack of inspiration that comes with it.

David Hopkins wrote a nice piece on Medium a year ago about this:

I want to discuss a popular TV show my wife and I have been binge-watching on Netflix. It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who fell in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, lead by his own egotism. With one mishap after another, he becomes a monster. I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller. …

Eventually, the Friends audience — roughly 52.5 million people — turned on Ross. But the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience. This gag went on, pretty much every episode, for 10 seasons. Can you blame Ross for going crazy?

He goes on to say that Friends in fact portended a bad time for America in general and that the show may have even precipitated it – a period of remarkable anti-intellectualism and consumerism. But towards the end, Hopkins says we must not bully the nerds, we must protect them, because “they make the world a better place” – a curious call given that nerds are also building things like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Uber, etc., services that, by and large, have negatively disrupted the quality of life for those not in the top 1%. These are nerds that first come to mind when we say they’re shaping the world, doing great things for it – but they’re not. Instead, these are really smart people either bereft of social consciousness or trapped in corporate assemblages that have little commitment to social responsibilities outside of their token CSR programmes. And together, they have only made the world a worse place.

But I don’t blame the nerd, if only because I can’t blame anyone for being smart. I blame the Invisible Barrier, which is slowly but surely making it harder for people embrace technical knowledge before it has been processed, refined, flavoured and served on a platter. The Barrier takes many shapes, too, making it harder to hunt down. Sometimes, it’s a scientist who refuses to engage with an audience that’s interested in listening to what she has to say. Sometimes, it’s a member of the audience who doesn’t believe science can do anything to improve one’s quality of life. But mostly, rather most problematically, the Barrier is a scientist who thinks she’s engaging with an enthusiast but is really not, and a self-proclaimed enthusiast who thinks she’s doing her bit to promote science but is really not.

This is why we have people who will undertake a ‘March for Science’ once a year but not otherwise pressure the government to make scientific outreach activities count more towards their career advancement or demand an astrology workshop at a research centre be cancelled and withdraw into their bubbles unmindful of such workshops being held everywhere all the time. This is why we have people who will mindlessly mortgage invaluable opportunities to build research stations against a chance to score political points or refuse to fund fundamental research programmes because they won’t yield any short-term benefits.

Unfortunately, these are all the people who matter – the people with the power and ability to effect change on a scale that is meaningful to the rest of us but won’t in order to protect their interests. The Monicas, Rachaels, Phoebes, Chandlers and Joeys of the world, all entertainers who thought they were doing good and being good, enjoying life as it should be, without stopping to think about the foundations of their lives and the worms that were eating into them. The fantasy that their combined performance had constructed asked, and still asks, its followers to give up, go home and watch TV.

Fucking clowns.

Featured image: A poster of the TV show ‘Friends’: (L-R) Chandler, Rachael, Ross, Monica, Joey and Phoebe. Source: Warner Bros.

The journey of a crow and the story of a black hole

The Washington Post has a review, and introduction therewith, of a curious new book called Ka, authored by John Crowley (acclaimed author of Great Work of Time). It is narrated from the POV of a crow named Dar Oakley, who journeys repeatedly into the realm of the dead with a human companion. A para from the WaPo piece caught my attention for its allusion to an unsolved problem in physics:

In many cultures, crows have long been regarded as “death-birds.” Eaters of carrion and corpses, they are sometimes even said to convey the soul into the afterlife. Crowley’s title itself alludes to this notion: Dar Oakley croaks out “ka,” which isn’t just a variant spelling of “caw,” but also the ancient Egyptian word for the spiritual self that survives the decay of the body. Yet what actually remains of us after our bones have been picked clean? Might our spirits then dwell in some Happy Valley or will we suffer in eternal torment? Could death itself be simply an adventure-rich dream from which we never awake? Who knows? The narrator, who might be a writer, says of his dead and much-missed wife Debra that “the ultimate continuation of her is me.” What, however, becomes of Debra when he too is dead?

What indeed. The question is left unanswered so the reader can confront the unanswerability supposedly implicit in this riddle. But while this scheme may be acceptable in a book-length “exploration of the bond between the living and the dead”, physicists don’t have much of a choice. They really want to know, would love to know, how a very similar situation plays out in the quantum realm.

It’s called the black hole information paradox. A black hole is a single point in space around which spacetime is folded into a sphere. This means that if you get trapped in this region of spacetime, you’re locked in. You can’t leave the sphere. The surface of this sphere is called the event horizon: it’s the shortest distance from the black hole from which you can pull away.

Now, there’s no way to tell two black holes apart if their mass, angular momentum and electric charge are the same. This is called the no-hair conjecture. This means that whatever a black hole swallows – whether it be physical matter or information as a sequence of 0s and 1s encoded as an electromagnetic signal – doesn’t retain its original shape or patterns. They become lost, observable only in changes to the black hole’s mass, angular momentum and/or electric charge.

In 1974, Stephen Hawking, Alexei Starobinsky and Yakov Zel’dovich found that, thanks to quantum mechanical effects near an event horizon, the black hole within could be emitting radiation out into space. So assuming a black hole contains a finite amount of energy and has stopped eating material/info from the outside, it will evaporate slowly over time and vanish. This is where the information paradox kicks in.

You’re obviously thinking the info the black hole once swallowed was all converted into energy and emitted as Hawking radiation. This is actually where the problem begins. Quantum mechanics may be whimsically counterintuitive about what it allows nature to do at its smallest scale. But it does have some rules of its own that it always follows. One of them is that information is always conserved, that when information passes into a black hole, it can’t be converted into the same energy mulch that everything else is converted to.

We don’t know what happens to the ‘spirit’ of Debra when Dar Oakley passes away. And we don’t know what happens to the information inside a black hole when the latter evaporates.

Black holes are unique objects of study for classical and non-classical physicists alike because they combine the consequences of both general relativity and quantum mechanics. Those pursuing a unified theory, broadly called quantum gravity, hope that data about black holes will help them find a way to reconcile the laws of nature at the biggest and smallest scales. Resolving the black hole information paradox is one such path.

For example, string theory, which is a technical framework that gives physicists and mathematicians the tools to solve problems in quantum gravity, proposes a way out in the name of the holographic principle. It states (in highly simplified terms) that the information trapped by a black hole is actually trapped along the event horizon and doesn’t fall inside it. Over time, fluctuations on the horizon release the information out. However, neither the complete shape and consequences of this theory nor some contradictory predictions are fully understood.

Even whether humans will be able to resolve this paradox in their lifetime at all remains to be seen – but it’s important to hope that such a thing is possible and that the story of a black hole’s life can be told from start to finish someday. Crowley also tries to answer Dar Oakley’s question about Debra’s fate thus (according to the WaPo review):

“Maybe not, said the Skeleton. But look at it this way. When you return home, you’ll tell the story of how you sought it and failed, and that story will be told and told again. And when you’re dead yourself, the story will go on being told, and in that telling you’ll speak and act and be alive again.”


Featured image credit: Free-Photos/pixabay.

In solidarity with Nautilus's writers

In April this year, Undark published a piece that caught me by surprise: Nautilus magazine was going broke. Actually, it wasn’t a surprise that lasted long. Nautilus, to me, had been doing a commendable job of being ‘the New Yorker version of the Scientific American‘, an aspiration of its own phrasing, by publishing thought-provoking science writing. At the same time, it was an extravagant production: its award-winning website, the award-winning illustrations that accompanied every article, and the award-winning writing itself I knew must have cost a lot to produce.

The Undark report confirmed it: Nautilus had burned through $10 million in five years.

But what had gone unsaid was that, in this time, Nautilus had also commissioned many pieces that it knew it wouldn’t be able to pay for. This is according to a bunch of science writers who have come together under a ‘National Writers Union’ and asked that Nautilus settle their collective dues – a total of $50,000 – or face legal action. Before you think they’re being rash, remember that many of them haven’t been paid for over a year, that they’re on average each owed $2,500, and one among them is owed a staggering $11,000.

I laud these writers, 19 in all, for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t have been easy to have to force a publication that’s struggling financially to settle its bills, a publication that, while functional, was likely a unique platform to present those ideas that wouldn’t have found a home elsewhere. And – though I’m not sure what it’s worth – I stand with the writers in solidarity #paynautiluswriters. As The Wire‘s science editor, I’ve often had to turn down interesting pitches and submissions because I’d spent all my commissioning money for that month. It was painful to not be able to publish these pieces but it would have been indefensible to take them on anyway – but that’s what Nautilus seems to have done.

When Undark‘s report was published, I’d blogged about Nautilus‘s plight and speculated about where they could’ve gone wrong, assisted by my experience helping build The Wire. I’d like to reiterate what I’d written then. First: Nautilus may have taken on too much too soon. For example, the magazine may have put together awesome visuals to go with its stories but, from what we at The Wire have observed firsthand, readers are evaluating the writing above all else. So going easy on the presentation until achieving financial stability may not have been a bad idea. Second: In commissioning content it knew it couldn’t afford, Nautilus squandered any opportunity to build long-term relationships with the people whose words and ideas made it what it is.

The open letter penned by the science writers to Nautilus also brings another development to the fore. When John Steele, Nautilus‘s publisher, had been under pressure to pay his writers earlier this year, he had cleared some partial payments while simultaneously them promising that the remainder would come through when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had finished ‘absorbing’ Nautilus into itself. This didn’t bode well then because it left the consequences of this acquisition on the magazine’s editorial independence unclear. Since then, the letter says, the acquisition has fallen through.

While I’m not unhappy that Nautilus isn’t merging with the AAAS, I’m concerned about where this leaves Steele’s promise to pay the writers. I’m also concernfully curious about where the money is going to come from. Think about it: a magazine that used up $10 million in five years is now struggling to put together $50,000. This is a sign of gross mismanagement and is not something that could’ve caught the leadership at Nautilus by surprise. Someone there had to know their ship was sinking fast and, going by Steele’s promise, put all their eggs in the AAAS basket. One way or another, this was never going to end well.

Featured image credit: NWU.

'Lots of people don't know lots of things'

You might have seen news channels on the television (if you do at all, in fact) flash a piece of information repeatedly on their screens. News presenters also tend to repeat things they’ve said 10 or 15 minutes before and on-screen visuals join in this marquee exercise. I remember being told in journalism school that this is done so people who have tuned in shortly after a piece of news has been ‘announced’ to catch up quickly. So say some news item is broken at 8 pm; I can tune in at 8.10 pm and be all caught up by 8.15 pm.

Of course, this has become a vestigial practice in the age of internet archiving technologies and platforms like Facebook and Google ‘remembering’ information forever, but would’ve been quite useful in a time when TV played a dominant role in information dissemination (and when news channels weren’t going bonkers with their visuals).

I wonder if this ’15 minutes’ guideline – rather a time-based offset in general – applies to reporting on science news. Now, while news is that which is novel, period, it’s not clear whom it’s novel for. For example, I can report on a study that says X is true. X might’ve been true for a large number of scientists, and perhaps people in a different country or region, for a long time but it may not be for the audience that I’m writing for. Would this mean X is not news?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

First: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. However, how much does it cost to make sure what you’ve written reaches that particular reader? Because if the cost is high, it’s not worth it. Put another way, you should regularly be covering news that has the lowest cost of distribution for your publication.

Second: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. And if the bulk of your audience is a subset of the group of people described above, then what you’re reporting will always likely be new, and thus news. As things stand, most Indians still needs to catch up on basic science. Scientists aren’t off the hook either: many of them may know the divergence of a magnetic field is always zero but attribute this statement’s numerous implications to a higher power.

So, through science journalism, there are many opportunities to teach as well as inform, particularly in that order. And a commitment to these opportunities implies that I will also be writing and publishing reports that are newsy to my readers but not to people in other parts of the world, of a different demographic, etc.

Featured image credit: mojzagrebinfo/pixabay.

Why a pump to move molten metal is awesome

The conversion of one form of energy into another is more efficient at higher temperatures.1 For example, one of the most widely used components of any system that involves the transfer of heat from one part of the system to another is a device called a heat exchanger. When it’s transferring heat from one fluid to another, for example, the heat exchanger must facilitate the efficient movement of heat between the two media without allowing them to mix.

There are many designs of heat exchangers for a variety of applications but the basic principle is the same. However, they’re all limited by the explicit condition that entropy – “the measure of disorder” – is higher at lower temperatures. In other words, the lower the temperature difference within the exchanger, the less efficiently the transfer will happen. This is why it’s desirable to have a medium that can carry a lot of heat per unit volume.

But this is not always possible for two reasons. First: there must exist a pump that can move such a hot medium from one point to another in the system. This pump must be made of materials that can withstand high temperatures during operation as well as not react with the medium at those temperatures. Second: one of the more efficient media that can carry a lot of heat is liquid metals. But they’re difficult to pump because of their corrosive nature and high density. Both reasons together, this is why medium temperatures have been limited to around 1,000º C.

Now, an invention by engineers from the US has proposed a solution. They’ve constructed a pump using ceramics. This is really interesting because ceramics have a good reputation for being able to withstand extreme heat (they were part of the US Space Shuttle’s heat shield exposed during atmospheric reentry) but an equally bad reputation for being very brittle.2 So this means that a ceramic composition of the pump material accords it a natural ability to withstand heat.

In other words, the bigger problem the engineers would’ve solved for would be to keep it from breaking during operation.

DOI: 10.1038/nature24054
DOI: 10.1038/nature24054

Their system consists of a motor (not visible in the image above but positioned to the right of the shaft, made of an insulating material), the gearbox, a piping network and a reservoir of liquid tin. When the motor is turned on, the pump receives liquid tin from the bottom of the reservoir. Two interlocking gears inside the pump (shown left bottom) rotate. As the tin flows between the blades, it is compressed into the space between them, creating a pressure difference that sucks in more tin from the reservoir. After the tin moves through the blades, it is let out into another pipe that takes it back to the reservoir.

The gearbox. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_6K-Xo4nH8
The gearbox. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_6K-Xo4nH8

The blades are made of Shapal, an aluminium nitride ceramic made by the Tokuyama Corporation in Japan with the unique property of being machinable. The pump seals and piping network are made of graphite. High-temperature pumps usually have pipes made of polymers. Graphite and such polymers are similar in that they’re both very difficult to corrode. But graphite has an upper hand in this context because it can also withstand higher temperatures before it loses its consistency.

Using this setup, the engineers were able to operate the pump continuously for 72 hours at an average temperature of 1,200º C. For the first 60 hours of operation, the flow rate varied between 28 and 108 grams per second (at an rpm in the lower hundreds). According to the engineers’ paper, this corresponds to an energy transfer of 5-20 kW for a vat of liquid tin heated from 300º C to 1,200º C. They extrapolate these numbers to suggest that if the gear diameter and thickness were enlarged from 3.8 cm to 17.1 cm and 1.3 cm to 5.85 cm (resp.) and operated at 1,800 rpm, the resulting heat transfer rate would be 100 MW – a jump of 5,000x from 20 kW and close to the requirements of a utility-scale power plant.

And all of this would be on a tabletop setup. This is the kind of difference having a medium with a high energy density makes.

The engineers say that their choice of temperature at which to run the pump – about 1,200ºC – was limited by whatever heaters they had available in their lab. So future versions of this pump could run for cheaper and at higher temperatures by using, say, molten silicon and higher grade ceramics than Shapal. Such improvements could have an outsize effect in our world because of the energy capacity and transfer improvements they stand to bring to renewable energy storage.

1. I can attest from personal experience that learning the principles of thermodynamics is easier through application than theory – an idea that my college professors utterly failed to grasp.

2. The ceramics used to pave the floor of your house and the ceramics used to pad the underbelly of the Space Shuttle are very different. For one, the latter had a foamy internal structure and wasn’t brittle. They were designed and manufactured this way because the ceramics of the Space Shuttle wouldn’t just have to withstand high heat – they would also have to be able to withstand the sudden temperature change as the shuttle dived from the -270º C of space into the 1,500º C of hypersonic shock.

Featured image credit: Erdenebayar/pixabay.

A problem worth its weight in salt

Pictures of Jupiter’s moon Europa taken by the Galileo space probe between 1995 and 2003 support the possibility that Europa’s surface has plate tectonics. In fact, scientists think it could be one of only two bodies in the Solar System – the other being Earth – to display this feature. But it must be noted that Europa’s tectonics is nothing like Earth’s if only because the materials undergoing this process are very different – compare the composition of Earth’s crust and Europa’s ice shell. There are also no arc volcanoes or continents on Europa.1 But this doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities either. For example, scientists have acknowledged that shifting ice plates on the moon’s surface, with some diving over others and pushing them down, could be a way for minerals on the top to plunge further interior. Because Europa has been suspected of harbouring a subsurface ocean of liquid water, a mineral cycle could be boosting the chances of finding life there. Plate tectonics played a similar role in making Earth habitable.

The biggest giveaway is that the moon’s surface is not littered with craters the way other Jupiter moons are. This meant that cratered patches of the ice shell were disappearing into somewhere and replaced with ‘cleaner’ patches. There are also kilometre-long ridges on the shell suggesting that something had moved along that distance, and they ended abruptly in some places. In 2014, a pair of geologists from Johns Hopkins and the University of Idaho used software like Photoshop to cut up Galileo’s maps of Europa and stitch them back together such that the ridges lined up. They found that there were some areas with a “big gap”. One way to explain it was that the patch there had dived beneath a neighbouring one – a simple version of plate tectonics. But tantalising as the possibility is, more evidence is needed before we can be sure.

If we’re hoping to find the first alien life inside a Jovian moon, we’ll need good models that can help us predict how life might’ve evolved there. A new paper from researchers at Brown University tries to help by trying to figure out why the plates might be shifting (To say something could be happening, it helps to have a simple way it could be happening and with the available resources). On Earth, interactions between the crust and the mantle are motivated among other factors by differences in temperature. The crust is cooler than the magma it ‘slides’ over, which means it’s denser, which assists its subduction when it happens. Such differences aren’t mirrored on Europa, where scientists think there’s a thin, cold ice shell on top and a relatively warmer one below. When a patch of ice from the top slides down, it becomes warmer because the upper layer provides insulation, which prevents the sliding layer from sliding further down because the density has been evened out.

Instead, the Brown University fellows think the density differences could arise thanks to salt content (which, by the way, could also be useful when reading their press release. It says, “A Brown University study provides new evidence that the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa may have plate tectonics similar to those on Earth.” You know it’s not similar, especially if left unqualified like that.) Salt is denser than water, so ice that has more salt is more dense. A 2003 study also suggested that warmer ice will have lesser salt because eutectic mixtures could be dissolving and draining it out. So using a computer model and making supposedly reasonable assumptions about the shell’s temperature, porosity and salinity ranges, the Brown team calculated that ice slabs made up of 5% salt and saltier than their surroundings by 2.5% would be able to subduct. However, if the distribution of salt was uniform on Europa’s surface (varying by less than 1% from slab to slab, e.g.), then a subducting slab would have to have at least 22% salt → very high.

I said “supposedly reasonable assumptions” because we don’t exactly know how salinity and porosity vary around and through Europa. In their simulations, the researchers assumed that the ice has a porosity of 10% (i.e. 10% of the material is filled with pores), which is considered to be on the higher side of things. But the study remains interesting because it’s able to establish the big role salts can play in how the ice moves around. This is also significant because Galileo found the Europan magnetic field to be stronger than it ought to, suggesting the subsurface ocean had a lot of salt. So it’s plausible that the cryomagma2 on which Europa’s upper shell moves could be derived from the waters below.

The researchers also claim that if the subducting slab doesn’t lose all its salt in about one million years, it will remain dense enough to go all the way down to the ocean, where it could be received as a courier carrying materials from the surface that help life take root.3 But of you think this might be too out there, look at it in terms of the planned ESA Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and NASA Clipper missions for the mid-2020s. Both Cassini and Galileo data have shown that there’s a lot going on with the icy moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, with observations of phenomena like vapour plumes pointing to heightened chances for the formation and sustenance of alien life. If JUICE and Clipper have to teach us something useful about these moons, then they’ll have to go in prepared to study the right things, the things that matter. The Brown University paper has shown that salt is definitely one of them. It was accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on December 4, 2017. Full text here.

Featured image: An artist’s impression of water vapour plumes erupting from Europa’s south pole, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA-ESA.

1Venus has two continent-like areas , Ishtar and Aphrodite terra, and also displays tectonic activity in the form of mountains and volcanoes, e.g. But it does not have plate tectonics because its crust heals faster than it is damaged during tectonic activity.

2One of the more well known cryovolcanoes in the Solar System is Doom Mons on where else but Titan.

3 On Earth, tectonic plates that are pushed downward also take a bunch of carbon along, keeping the surface from accumulating the element in amounts that could be deleterious to life.

Ruins of the Sutlej avulsion paper's coverage

Reporting on the new Indus civilisation study out of IIT-K and Imperial College London was an interesting experience because it afforded an opportunity to discover how the technical fields of sedimentology and hydrodynamics can help understand the different ways in which a civilisation can grow. And also how “fluviodeltaic morphodynamics” just rolls off the tongue.

In my report for The Wire, however, I stuck to the science for the most part because that in itself offered a lot to discover (and because you know I’m biased). For example, how the atomic lattices of quartz and feldspar played an important part in identifying that the Sutlej river had formerly occupied the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel.

Audience response to the reports were also along expected lines:

  • a fifth read it quietly, without much fanfare, asking polite questions (without notifying the authors, however) about various claims made in the article;
  • some two-fifths went to town with it, calling the Hindutva brigade’s search for the Saraswati a lost cause; and
  • another two-fifths also went to town with it, calling out The Wire‘s attempt to ‘disparage’ the Saraswati misguided.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

What was not along expected lines, however, was international coverage of the study. The BBC’s and Axios‘s headline on the topic were the following (in order): River departed ‘before Indus civilisation emergence’ and Indus Valley civilization may have arisen without a river. The Axios headline is just wrong. The BBC headline is fine but its article is wrong, stating:

The Indus society came to prominence in what is now northwest India and Pakistan some 5,300 years ago thanks in large part to the sustenance of a long-lost Himalayan river.

Or so it was thought.

New evidence now indicates this great water course had actually changed its path and disappeared before the Indus people had even settled in the region.

That they lacked the resource offered by a big, actively flowing river will come as a surprise to many; the other early urban societies of the time, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, certainly benefitted in this way.

The Daily Mail had an unsurprisingly garbage headlineMysterious Indus Valley Civilisation managed to thrive without a river to provide flowing water 5,300 years ago. Newsweek‘s headline (Long-lost river discovered in the Himalayas may completely change what we know about early civilisations) and article were both sensational. Excerpt:

Scientists have found the ancient remains of the river that prove it did not exist at the same time as the Indus civilization. This means the civilization existed without a major active water source, something archaeologists did not believe was possible.

The common mistake in all these reports is that they either assume or suggest that the Indus valley civilisation was fed by one river – at least in the first half – and that the entire civilisation was centred around that river. On the contrary, the Indus valley civilisation was the largest of its time, over a million sq. km in area, and was fed by the Indus and its dozens of tributaries (only one of which was the Sutlej).

This in turn limits the extent to which claims about civilisations being able to arise without perennial sources of water can be generalised. The prominent Indus valley settlements affected by the Sutlej’s avulsion are two in number (Banawali and Kalibangan) whereas the civilisation overall hosted over 1,000 such sites and, by one estimate, almost five million people. Second: to what extent would the Indus civilisation have been possible (relative to what actually was) if all of its settlements had been fed by gentler monsoonal rivers?

So yes, the study does provide a new perspective – a new possibility, rather – on the question of what resources are necessary to form a conducive natural environment for a proto-urban human settlement. But this is not a “revolutionary” idea, as many reports would have us believe, at least because other researchers have explored it before and at most because there is little data to run with at the moment. What we do know and for sure is that the Sutlej avulsed 8,000 years ago and, about 5,000 years ago, a part of the Indus valley civilisation took root in the abandoned valley.

Further, I’m also concerned the reports might overstate what “ancient Indians” (but for some reason not “ancient Pakistanis”) could have been capable of. This is a topic that the Hindutva brigade has refurbished with alarming levels of success to imply that the world should bow down to India. Archaeological surveys of the Indus valley region could definitely do with staying away from such problems, at least as much as they can afford to, and some of the language in the sites quoted above isn’t helping.

Featured image credit: Usman.pg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.