A woman holder her right index finger over her lips, indicating silence.

Indian scicomm’s upside-down world

Imagine a big, poisonous tree composed of all the things you need to screw up to render a field, discipline or endeavour an elite club of just one demographic group. When it comes to making it more inclusive, whether by gender, race, ethnicity, etc., the lowest of low-hanging fruit on this tree is quantitative correction: increase the number of those people there aren’t enough of. Such a solution should emerge from any straightforward acknowledgment that a problem exists together with a need to be seen to be acting quickly.

Now, the lower the part of the tree, the easier it should be to address. There’s a corresponding suckiness figure here, denoted by the inverse of the relative height of the thing from the ground: not plucking low-hanging fruits and throwing them away is the suckiest thing because doing so would be the easiest thing. For example, the National Centre for Science Communicators (NCSC) recently organised an event composed entirely of men – i.e. a manel – and it was the suckiest thing because manels are the most fixable solutions available to address gender disparities in science and science communication without requiring any cultural remediation.

The lidless eye of @IndScicomm picked up on this travesty and called the NCSC out on Twitter, inadvertently setting off an avalanche of responses, each one more surprised than the last over the various things the NCSC has let slip in this one image. Apart from the sausage fest, for example, all eight men are older (no need to guess numbers, they all look like boomers).

It’s possible:

  1. Each one of these men, apart from the one from the organising body, wasn’t aware he was going to be on a manel,
  2. They don’t recognise that there’s a problem,
  3. They recognise the problem but simply don’t care that there aren’t any women among them – by itself a consideration that limits itself to the smallest modicum of change but in its entirety should include a variety of people of various genders and castes, or
  4. They believe the principles of science communication are agnostic of – rather transcend – the medium used, and the medium is what has changed the most since the boomers until the millennials.

I find the last two options most plausible (the first two are forms of moral abdication), and only the last one worth discussing, because it seems to be applicable to a variety of science communication endeavours being undertaken around India with a distinct whiff of bureaucracy.

In December 2018, one of the few great souls that quietly flag interesting things brought to my attention an event called the ‘Indian Science Communication Congress’ (ISCC), ep. 18, organised by CSIR NISCAIR and commemorating the 200th year of ‘science journalism in India’. What happened in 1818? According to Manoj Patairiya, the current director of NISCAIR, “Science journalism started in India in 1818 with the publication of monthly Digdarshan published in Hindi, Bengali and English, carrying a few articles on science and technology.” This is a fairly troublesome description because of its partly outdated definition of science journalism, at least if NISCAIR considers what Digdarshan did to be science journalism, and because the statement implies a continuous presence of communication efforts in the country from the early 19th century – which I doubt has been the case.

I didn’t attend the event – not because I wasn’t invited or that I didn’t know such an event existed but because I wouldn’t have been the ideal participant given the format:

It seems (including based on one attendee’s notes) the science communication congress was a science of science communication + historical review congress, the former a particularly dubious object of study for its scientistic attitude, and which the ISCC’s format upholds with barely contained irony. Perhaps there’s one more explanation: an ancient filtration system (such as from 1951, when NISCAIR was set up) broke but no one bothered to fix it – i.e. the government body responsible for having scientists speak up about their work is today doing the bare minimum it needs to to meet whatever its targets have been, which includes gathering scholars of science communication in a room and having them present papers about how they think it can be improved, instead of setting new targets for a new era. This is the principal symptom of directive-based change-making.

Then again, I might be misguided on the congress’s purpose. On two fairly recent occasions – in August 2018 and September 2019 – heart-in-the-right-place scientists have suggested they could launch a journal, of all things, to help popularise science. Is it because scientists in general have trouble seeing beyond journals vis-à-vis the ideal/easiest way to present knowledge (if such a thing even exists); because they believe other scientists will take them more seriously if they’re reaching out via a journal; or because writing for a journal allows them to justify how they’re spending their time with their superiors?

The constructive dilemma inherent in the possible inability to imagine a collection of articles beyond journals also hints at a possible inability to see beyond the written article. But with the medium have changed the messages as well, together with ways in which people are seeking new information. Moreover, by fixating on science communication as a self-contained endeavour that doesn’t manifest outside of channels earmarked for it, we risk ignoring science communication when it happens in new, even radical, environments.

For example, we’re all learning about the role archaeological findings play in the construction of historical narratives by questioning the Supreme Court’s controversial verdict on the Ayodhya title case. For another, I once learnt about why computational fluid dynamics struggles to simulate flowing water (because of how messed up the Navier-Stokes equations are) during a Twitch livestream.

But if manel-ridden conferences and poster presentations are what qualify as science communication, and not just support for it, the hyperobject of our consternation as represented in the replies to @IndScicomm’s tweet is as distinct a world as Earth is relative to Jupiter, and we might all just be banging our heads over the failures of a different species of poisonous tree. Maybe NCSC and NISCAIR, the latter more so, mean something else when they say ‘science communication’.

Maybe the ‘science communication’ that The Wire or The Print, etc. practice is a tradition imported from a different part of the world, with its own legacy, semantics and purpose, such as to be addressed to English-speaking, upper-class urbanites. At a talk in Chennai last year, for example, a prominent science communicator mentioned that there were only a handful of science journalists in India, which could’ve been true if he was reading only English-language newspapers. Maybe these labels are in passive conflict with the state-sponsored variety of ‘science journalism’ that the government nurtured shortly after Independence to cater to lower-class, Indian-languages-speaking citizens of rural India, which didn’t become profitable until the advent of economic liberalisation and the internet, but which today – and perhaps as seen from the PoV of a different audience – seems bureaucratic and insipid.

Then again, the rise of the ‘people’s science movement’ in the 1970s, led by organisations like Eklavya, Kalpavriksh, Vidushak Karkhana, Vigyan Shiksha Kendra and Medico Friend Circle would suggest that ‘science communication’ of the latter variety wasn’t entirely successful. Thanks also to Gauhar Raza, the scientist and social activist who spent years studying the impact of government-backed science communication initiatives and came away unable to tell if they had succeeded at all, and given what we’re seeing of NCSC’s, NISCAIR’s and the science congress’s activities, it may not be unreasonable to ask if the two ‘science communications’ are simply two different worlds or a new one still finding its footing and an older one whose use-case is rapidly diminishing.

Ultimately, let’s please stop inviting discussion on science communication through abstracts and research papers, organising “scientific sessions” for a science communication congress (which seems to be in the offing at a ‘science communicator’s meet’ at the 2020 Indian Science Congress as well) and having old men deliberate on “recent trends in science communication” – and turn an ear to practising communicators and journalists instead.

Cassini's last shot of Titan, taken by the probe's narrow-angle camera on September 13, 2017. Credit: NASA

A new map of Titan

It’s been a long time since I’ve obsessed over Titan, primarily because after the Cassini mission ended, the pace of updates about Titan died down, and because other moons of the Solar System (Europa, Io, Enceladus, Ganymede and our own) became more important. There have been three or four notable updates since my last post about Titan but this post that you’re reading has been warranted by the fact that scientists recently released the first global map of the Saturnian moon.

(This Nature article offers a better view but it’s copyrighted. The image above is a preview offered by Nature Astronomythe paper itself is behind a paywall and I couldn’t find a corresponding copy on Sci-Hub or arXiv nor have I written to the corresponding author – yet.)

It’s fitting that Titan be accorded this privilege – of a map of all locations on the planetary body – because it is by far the most interesting of the Solar System’s natural satellites (although Europa and Triton come very close) and were it not orbiting the ringed giant, it could well be a planet of its own accord. I can think of a lot of people who’d agree with this assessment but most of them tend to focus on Titan’s potential for harbouring life, especially since NASA’s going to launch the Dragonfly mission to the moon in 2026. I think they’ve got it backwards: there are a lot of factors that need to come together just right for any astronomical body to host life, and fixating on habitability combines these factors and flattens them to a single consideration. But Titan is amazing because it’s got all these things going on, together with many other features that habitability may not be directly concerned with.

While this is the first such map of Titan, and has received substantial coverage in the popular press, it isn’t the first global assessment of its kind. Most recently, in December 2017, scientists (including many authors of the new paper) published two papers of the moon’s topographical outlay (this and this), based on which they were able to note – among other things – that Titan’s three seas have a common sea level; many lakes have surfaces hundreds of meters above this level (suggesting they’re elevated and land-locked); many lakes are connected under the surface and drain into each other; polar lakes (the majority) are bordered by “sharp-edged depressions”; and Titan’s crust has uneven thickness as evidenced by its oblateness.

According to the paper’s abstract, the new map brings two new kinds of information to the table. First, the December 2017 papers were based on hi- and low-res images of about 40% of Titan’s surface whereas, for the new map, the authors write: “Correlations between datasets enabled us to produce a global map even where datasets were incomplete.” More specifically, areas for which authors didn’t have data from Cassini’s Synthetic Aperture Radar instrument for were mapped at 1:2,000,000 scale whereas areas with data enabled a map at 1:8,000,000 scale. Second is the following inferences of the moon’s geomorphology (from the abstract the authors presented to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in October 2018):

We have used all available datasets to extend the mapping initially done by Lopes et al. We now have a global map of Titan at 1:800,000 scale in all areas covered by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). We have defined six broad classes of terrains following Malaska et al., largely based on prior mapping. These broad classes are: craters, hummocky/mountainous, labyrinth, plains, lakes, and dunes [see image below]. We have found that the hummocky/mountainous terrains are the oldest units on the surface and appear radiometrically cold, indicating icy materials. Dunes are the youngest units and appear radiometrically warm, indicating organic sediments.

SAR images of the six morphological classes (in the order specified in the abstract)

More notes once I’ve gone through the paper more thoroughly. And if you’d like to read more about Titan, here’s a good place to begin.

The trouble with laser-cooling anions

For scientists to use lasers to cool an atom, the atom needs to have two energy states. When laser light is shined on an atom moving towards the source of light, one of its electrons absorbs a photon, climbs to a higher energy state and the atom as a whole loses some momentum. A short span of time later, the electron loses the photon in a random direction and drops back to its lower energy state, and the atom’s momentum changes only marginally.

By repeating this series of steps over and over, scientists can use lasers to considerably slow atoms and decrease their temperature as well. For a more detailed description + historical notes (including a short profile of a relatively forgotten Indian scientist who contributed to the development of laser-cooling technologies), read this post.

However, it’s hard to use this technique with most anions – negatively charged ions – because they don’t have a higher energy state per se. Instead, when laser light is shined on the atom, the electron responsible for the excess negative charge absorbs the photon and the atom simply ejects the energised electron.

If the technique is to work, scientists need to find an anion that is bound to its one excess electron (keeping it from being electrically neutral) strongly enough that as the electron acquires more energy, the atom ascends to a higher energy state with it instead of just losing it. Scientists discovered the first such anion in the previous decade – osmium – and have since added only three more candidates to the list: lanthanum, cerium and diatomic carbon (C2). Lanthanum is and remains the most effective anion coolable with lasers. However, if the results of a study published on November 12 are to be believed, the thorium anion could be the new champion.

Laser-cooling is relatively simpler than most atomic cooling techniques, such as laser-assisted evaporative cooling, and is known to be very effective. Applying it to anions would expand its gamut of applications. There are also techniques like sympathetic cooling, in which one type of laser-cooled anions can cool other types of anions trapped in the same container. This way, for example, physicists think they can produce ultra-cold anti-hydrogen atoms required to study the similarities between matter and antimatter.

The problem with finding a suitable anion is centred on the atom’s electron affinity. It’s the amount of energy an electrically neutral atom gains or loses when it takes on one more electron and becomes an anion. If the atom’s electron affinity is too low, the energy imparted or taken away by the photons could free the electron.

Until recently, theoretical calculations suggested the thorium anion had an electron affinity of around 0.3 eV – too low. However, the new study found based on experiments and calculations that the actual figure could be twice as high, around 0.6 eV, advancing the thorium anion as a new candidate for laser-cooling.

The study’s authors also report other properties that make thorium even more suitable than lanthanum. For example, the atomic nucleus of the sole stable lanthanum isotope has a spin, so as it interacts with the magnetic field produced by the electrons around it, it subtly interferes with the electrons’ energy levels and makes laser-cooling more complicated than it needs to be. Thorium’s only stable isotope has zero nuclear spin, so these complications don’t arise.

There doesn’t seem to be a working proof of the study’s results but it’s only a matter of time before other scientists devise a test because the study itself makes a few concrete predictions. The researchers expect that thorium anions can be cooled with laser light of frequency 2.6 micrometers to a frosty 0.04 microkelvin. They suggest doing this in two steps: first cooling the anions to around 10 kelvin and then cooling a collection of them further by enabling the absorption and emission of about 27,000 photons, tuned to the specified frequency, in a little under three seconds.

Quitting the Thing

A year ago today, I quit the Thing. The Thing didn’t quit me until three months later, and spending those months not getting back to the Thing was the most difficult thing I ever did.

Earlier on the day I’d quit, I’d watched a GSLV Mk III rocket soar into the evening sky from the balcony. After that, I ordered a glass of lemonade and some snacks, watched a movie, then lied down for the day. As I waited for sleep to take over, I decided – for no reason at all – that I wouldn’t touch the Thing ever again.

I woke up the next morning feeling like a dose of the Thing but before I could get myself some, I got tired doing something else I had to do and just put it off. From that day until three months later, that’s all I did. I put it off.

Sometimes it was excruciating. Sometimes it made enough sense for me to stay away. Sometimes it floated into my day-dreams and whispered strange voices in my ear, nudging me to take another step closer. I did succumb twice but I couldn’t go all the way on either of those occasions; I felt so guilty that I’d squandered so many days of abstinence.

Maybe today isn’t the anniversary of the Quitting. Then again, I honestly think that’s harsh because the succumbing didn’t matter to me, rather it mattered just enough to deliver pain. It seemed like the pleasure was gone forever. In that moment, it was an important message to receive.

It’s about beating the law of diminishing returns by finding a suitable corner where you can turn around, instead of going on and on, and spit in the demon’s face. It’s about developing the courage to do that, and the courage to believe – even in moments of abject distress – that you don’t need the Thing to feel better, or good.

It’s ultimately a process of remaking yourself. I, for example, had to begin to believe – among other changes I underwent – that I could make good things happen for myself by exercising my own agency instead of having good or bad things done to me. When it worked, as it eventually did, I felt uninhibitedly triumphant.

In this moment, when you’ve consummated your self-faith, the Thing will quit you. Its shadow will shrink, its voice will dwindle, its presence will crumble. This is the best thing about quitting. It’s why I’m writing all this down: to remember that even when you think there’s no reason to believe something will happen, it will happen if it can, if you let it.

You’ve probably read this in well-wishing emails and heard it said in Chuck Lorre sitcoms but it’s one of those things where there’s a big difference between knowing about it and experiencing it.

And once you’ve experienced it, the difference becomes accentuated by the fact that you now have this deep pool of hard-earned confidence to draw from in future, a conviction about the inherent virtue of hardship that feels truer than before. Theory is almost never this gratifying.

A Starlink satellite prepares for deployment from the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket launched on November 11. Credit: SpaceX

Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.

The invitations

First, I was invited to speak at a science communication meeting in X in November. Next, I was invited to host an event at Y around the same date. Then I was invited to speak at Z on the same date. Since I’d already been to a few science communication meetings similar to the one in X, I figured Y was more important, so I declined to come. But when the Z invitation arrived, I found it was more important since it was a national event, so I declined Y. Finally, the Z event’s organisers put me on a manel; when I refused to participate, they rescinded their invitation. Now I was available again but I couldn’t go to X or Y because when I turned them down, I had nominated others in my stead and they had confirmed their participation.

The cycle

Is it just me or does everyone see a self-fulfilling prophecy here?

For a long time, and assisted ably by the ‘publish or perish’ paradigm, researchers sought to have their papers published in high-impact-factor journals – a.k.a. prestige journals – like Nature.

Such journals in turn, assisted ably by parasitic strategies, made these papers highly visible to other researchers around the world and, by virtue of being high-IF journals, tainted the results in the papers with a measure of prestige, ergo importance.

Evaluations and awards committees in turn were highly aware of these papers over others and picked their authors for rewards over others, further amplifying their work, increasing the opportunity cost incurred by the researchers who lose out, and increasing the prestige attached to the high-IF journals.

Run this cycle a few million times and you end up with the impression that there’s something journals like Nature get right – when in fact it’s just mostly a bunch of business practices to ensure they remain profitable.

New management at Nautilus

When an email landed in my inbox declaring that the beleaguered science communication magazine Nautilus would be “acquired by ownership group of super-fans”, I thought it was going to become a cooperative. It was only when I read the extended statement that I realised the magazine was undergoing a transformation that wasn’t at all new to the global media landscape.

A super-group of investors has come to Nautilus‘s rescue, bearing assurances that publisher John Steele repeats in the statement without any penitence for having stiffed its contributors for months on end, in some cases for over a year, for pieces already published: “Together we will work even harder to expand the public’s knowledge and understanding of fundamental questions of scientific inquiry, as well as their connection to human culture.” Steele also appears to be blind to the irony of his optimism when the “craven shit-eating” of private equity just sunk the amazing Deadspin (to quote from a suitably biting obituary by Alex Shephard).

The statement doesn’t mention whether the new investment covers pending payments and by when. In fact, the whole statement is obsessed with Nautilus‘s commitment to science in a tone that verges on cheerleading – and now and then crosses over too – which is bizarre because Nautilus is a science communication magazine, not a science magazine, so its cause, to use the term loosely, is to place science in the right context and on occasion even interrogate it. But the statement mentions an accompanying public letter entitled ‘Science Matters’. According to Steele,

The letter is a public commitment by the Nautilus team, its staff, advisors, and its contributors; leading thinkers, researchers, teachers, and businesspeople; and the public at large to tirelessly advance the cause of science in America and around the world.

Huh?

By itself such commitments don’t bode well (they’re awfully close to scientism) but they assume a frightening level of plausibility when read together with the list of investors. The latter includes Larry Summers, his wife Elisa New, and Nicholas White. One of the others, Fraser Howie, is listed as an “author” but according to his bio in the Nikkei Asian Review, “He has worked in China’s capital markets since 1992.” His authorship probably refers to his three books but they’re all about the Chinese financial system.

Everyone here is a (white) capitalist, most of them men. Call me cynical but something about this doesn’t sit well. For all the details in the statement of the investors’ institutional affiliations, it’s hard to imagine them sitting around a table and agreeing that Nautilus needs to be critical of, instead of sympathetic to, science – especially since the takeover will also transform the magazine from a non-profit to a for-profit endeavour.

The private festival

I used to think I lived in a wonderful part of Bangalore: in Malleshwaram, and not just in Malleshwaram but in a gated apartment complex with great access to greenery and lots of eateries, safe walking areas, recreational spaces, and a balcony on the fourth floor that offered a lovely view of the city on rainy evenings.

But of late the wealthy residents of this complex – most of them Hindus – have become markedly louder in their celebrations of religious and traditional occasions, installing giant speakers in the common areas to blare Bollywood music, undertaking processions along the perimeter to the accompaniment of drums and other instruments, even going door to door to angrily demand residents attend a flag-hoisting ceremony on Independence Day.

Each occasion only seems to be louder than the last, with more ‘attractions’ thrown in. The complex’s sole notice board is located in the basement and the owners’ association isn’t in the habit of asking for permission before organising loud celebrations. Everyone is simply expected to have a good time (much like the obnoxious presumption among many Hindi-speakers that everyone speaks Hindi).

A few minutes ago, I had to shout to have my father hear me over the din of a procession downstairs marking Karnataka Rajyotsava Day. A small group of decked-up men and women were swaying to the rhythms of a dhol-playing band in the anterior plaza whose inner edge ends right up against houses on the ground floor, with little thought for the people within. Its outer edge, on the other hand, extends to a few score meters before ending behind a 20-ft high metal gate guarded by four or five security personnel.

These aren’t just dutiful assertions of one’s religious identity but altogether a ridiculous display of elitism that – even in its most sensational avatar – would much rather stay indoors and away from the hoi polloi.

A cloud of grey-black smoke erupts over a brown field, likely the result of an explosion of some sort.

Disastrous hype

This is one of the worst press releases accompanying a study I’ve seen:

The headline and the body appear to have nothing to do with the study itself, which explores the creative properties of an explosion with certain attributes. However, the press office of the University of Central Florida has drafted a popular version that claims researchers – who are engineers more than physicists – have “detailed the mechanisms that could cause the [Big Bang] explosion, which is key for the models that scientists use to understand the origin of the universe.” I checked with a physicist, who agreed: “I don’t see how this is relevant to the Big Bang at all. Considering the paper is coming out of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, I highly doubt the authors intended for it to be reported on this way.”

Press releases that hype results are often the product of an overzealous university press office working without inputs from the researchers that obtained those results, and this is probably the case here as well. The paper’s abstract and some quotes by one of the researchers, Kareem Ahmed from the University of Central Florida, indicate the study isn’t about the Big Bang but about similarities between “massive thermonuclear explosions in space and small chemical explosions on Earth”. However, the press release’s author slipped in a reference to the Big Bang because, hey, it was an explosion too.

The Big Bang was like no other stellar explosion; its material constituents were vastly different from anything that goes boom today – whether on Earth or in space – and physicists have various ideas about what could have motivated the bang to happen in the first place. The first supernovas are also thought to have occurred a few billion years after the Big Bang. This said, Ahmed was quoted saying something that could have used more clarification in the press release:

We explore these supersonic reactions for propulsion, and as a result of that, we came across this mechanism that looked very interesting. When we started to dig deeper, we realized that this is relatable to something as profound as the origin of the universe.

Err…