Infinite in All Directions: the Killer Lake, Whistling in the Caribbean and Re-flooding Chennai

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Credit: trippchicago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: trippchicago/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Spotlight: Apart from providing a look-in on how science works in various circumstances and at different times, a big part of what science journalists do is to ensure that the science reaching the readers is as representative of reality as possible. Specifically, the aim is to familiarise people with the idea of asking the right questions. In any case, that’s my highest aspiration: to help my readers as well as myself always keep an expanding ‘rationalism toolkit’ close at hand. And to this end, I’d like to point you to some scientists who are good communicators and whose output – papers, articles, posts, tweets, whatever – could help us inculcate the habit of questioning developments (in those fields I keep an eye on) as well as teach us about the different issues we should be on the lookout for.

Katherine J. Mack – Astronomy, dark matter; Twitter
Paul Gilster – Interstellar travel; blog
Scott Aaronson – Computing, quantum computing; blog
Thony Christie – History of science, Renaissance; blog
Chad Orzel – Popular philosophy of science; column
Adam Falkowski – Particle physics; blog
Edzard Ernst – Alternative medicines; blog
V. Vinay – Science in India; Twitter
Andy Lewis – Superstition; blog
Alex Wellerstein – Atomic history; blog

When something fishy breaks in the news, these are the people whose communication channels I hit up. They’re all incredibly helpful. And in the same spirit, I’d love to hear from you, as well as have you share with others, about who it is that you turn to when you want to cut through pseudoscientific BS. There’s enough of that going around these days so it’s only fair that people also know where to turn to guiding lights.


This week, Infinite in All Directions begins with wonder. Why? Because wonderment is beautiful enough. I read an article a couple weeks ago about how “I want to know”, or “I’m curious”, is enough of a justification to be a scientist and investigate whatever it is that you’re investigating (within reason, of course; Josef Mengele is still a monster). However, for all my organisational and googling skills, I’m not able to find the article now. 🙁


Why you should care about astronomy

Credit: tom_hall_nz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: tom_hall_nz/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

So in its place, I offer another note – from my friend Shannon Hall, whose attitude toward writing about astronomy is something I really admire. Why? Because from my PoV here in India, embedded in an industry obsessed with pragmatics, her attitude seems to say “I’m doing this because I want to know, and this is why I want to know”. There’s courage in being able to say that without feeling pressured into qualifying every utterance of joy and awe with, oh, how it’s going to alleviate poverty or cure cancer. On the flipside, I’m only concerned that such a thing is courage at all and not simply about being human. An excerpt from one of Shannon’s articles, titled Why Care About Astronomy?:

Just as astronomy struggles to see increasingly faint objects, medicine struggles to see things obscured within the human body. So astronomy has developed technology used in CAT scanners and MRIs. It has also developed technology now used by FedEx to track packages, GPS satellites to determine your location, apple to develop a camera for your iPhone, to name a few.

But all of these are mere second thoughts, benefits that have occurred without the primary intention of the maker. And that is what makes astronomy beautiful. To study something — not because we’re looking to gain anything in particular, but out of sheer curiosity — is what makes us human.

Doing things for their own sake creates room for mindfulness and joy. Aristotle makes this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. He says: “the work is the maker in actuality; so he loves his work, because he loves his existence too. And this is a fact of nature; for what he is in potentiality, the work shows in actuality.”

I urge you to become more mindful of your interests and appreciation as well.


A not-so-deadly lake

Near Lake Natron, Tanzania. Credit: Guillaume Baviere/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Near Lake Natron, Tanzania. Credit: Guillaume Baviere/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Despite our best efforts, certainty has remained forever out of reach. Even the measurements we make with the most rigorous techniques are uncertain, though only by small amounts. Like Elon Musk says, the point of science and technology most of the time is not to get to the absolute truth but to become less wrong. And it’s only fair that this notion also applies to the search for extraterrestrial life: in that we just might be underestimating the potential for lifeforms to exist on exoplanets with strange environments, environments we write away for their supposed animus.

A fab example is here on Earth, at the base of a mountain in Tanzania, in the name of Lake Natron:

The lake’s landscape is surreal and deadly—and made even more bizarre by the fact that it’s the place where nearly 75 percent of the world’s lesser flamingos are born.

The water is oversaturated with salt, can reach temperatures of 140 degrees and has a pH between 9 and 10.5—so corrosive that it can calcify those remains, strip ink off printed materials and burn the skin and eyes of unadapted animals. The unique color comes from cyanobacteria that photosynthesize into bright red and orange hues as the water evaporates and salinity rises; before that process occurs during the dry season, the lake is blue.


Thin ice on Saturn’s moon

Enceladus. Credit: Justin Cowart/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Enceladus. Credit: Justin Cowart/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

With uncertainty comes hope – that between the cliffs of knowing and possibility, there could yet be a new source of wonder, an unexplored mystery. Consider Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is thought to be a huge ball of water encased in an ice-shell 60 km thick. Where there has been water on Earth, there has been life – and there’s no reason this shouldn’t be the case on Enceladus as well. However, should we send a probe to find out, what methods would it be able to employ to access the ocean?

A new study suggests that might be the wrong question to ask; that at its south pole, Enceladus’s shell might be only 5 km thick. Great news, and all the more so because the thinness at the pole is tied to the possible presence of a heat source within the moon, which in turn increases the chances of life. Here’s CNFR:

All this implies a new energy budget for Enceladus. Since a thinner ice shell retains less heat, the tidal effects caused by Saturn on the large fractures in the ice at the south pole are no longer enough to explain the strong heat flow affecting this region. The model therefore reinforces the idea that there is strong heat production in Enceladus’s deep interior that may power the hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. Since complex organic molecules, whose precise composition remains unknown, have been detected in Enceladus’s jets, these conditions appear to be favorable to the emergence of life. The relative thinness of the ice shell at the south pole could also allow a future space exploration mission to gather data, in particular using radar, which would be far more reliable and easy to obtain than with the 40 km thick ice shell initially calculated. It looks as if Enceladus still has many secrets in store!


A whistling Earth

Credit: photon_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: photon_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A hat-tip to Shreya Ila Anasuya for sharing this – it seems an eerie noise is rising up from the Caribbean Sea. Seeing as it was a Gizmodo link, I figured it’d be something truly mysterious (I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing) – but no. It’s something truly cool.

A unique swirl of currents in the region is causing waves to repeatedly beat upon the basin’s western edge. The pace and intensity with which they’re doing it is causing the sounds emanating from the crashes to resonate, each release building upon their predecessors’ energy to produce a steady hum – as Maddie Stone writes – “yielding an A-flat tone that’s roughly 30 octaves below the bottom of a piano”.

Invoke (the scifi author) China Miéville and imagine Mother Earth whistling.


Secrets of the corals

Credit: usfwspacific/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: usfwspacific/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

William Broad had a fantastic piece in the New York Times on June 20 about studying corals and their enduring mysteries, as well as how scientists were revisiting its reproductive mechanism to – hopefully – glean some clues about their preservation in the era of climate change. The writing is beautiful and the piece as such as a dreamy, starry aura about it. An excerpt from the original:

At night, just after the full moon, teams of scientists dive beneath the waves to study one of the planet’s most prolific and mysterious rites of reproduction. It’s coral behaving badly — or very nicely, depending on your point of view. Warm ocean waters suddenly teem with trillions of eggs and sperm that swirl in the currents and merge to form new life, a profligate frenzy that can leave the ocean’s surface awash in pink flotsam. Globally, hundreds of species of coral engage in primordial rites of mass spawning tied to seasonally warming waters and the lunar cycle.

Corals are giant colonies of tiny creatures. Each small animal has a central mouth and feeding tentacles, and secretes a stony substance around its base that binds the colony together. The reefs nurture a riot of marine species and fish stocks that feed millions of people.

Studies of the procreative dance are considered vital for helping save beleaguered coral reefs around the globe, including the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It has suffered repeated bouts of mass bleaching, mainly attributed to declining water quality and rising temperatures because of climate change. The hope is that a better understanding of coral reproduction will aid recovery, and strengthen efforts to limit coastal pollutants and sediments that can interfere with successful coral spawning.

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Observing the observer

Source: rohinidevasher.com

Source: rohinidevasher.com

To close up, I give you the work of Rohini Devasher, a multimedia artist exploring the nexus between “science, nature and culture” together with the interplay of “perception and production”. One of her projects has to do with telescopes, and by now you should know I can’t resist telescopes. This is how she describes it:

Satellite images of a radio telescope array in Ladakh and their surrounding landscape, captured with the aid of the open source software NASA WorldWind, overlaid with drawing, transform these spaces into strangely mythic terrains. The telescope becomes an instrument of both fiction and fact, gazing up and out, transforming our imagination of remote objects as physical places in the imagination. The watcher becomes the watched. The observer is now the observed.


“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
W.B. Yeats

Having poignantly cited that quote, I must warn you now that the rest of this mailer is about unwonders.


The Hitomi story

An artist’s conception of Hitomi in space. Source: JAXA

An artist’s conception of Hitomi in space. Source: JAXA

Remember the Japanese astronomy satellite Hitomi that spun out of control a few weeks ago and disintegrated while in orbit? A new report by the Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), which built and launched it, says that only JAXA personnel were to blame for the $274-million disaster, not any space debris as was speculated earlier.

Despite JAXA’s belief that reading the report in public will make its engineers more accountable, apart from its promise to take disciplinary action against the project’s leaders, the incident has already cast the agency in poor light. Hitomi is its third failure; the first two were the ASTRO-E and Suzaku missions in 2000 and 2005, respectively. And as it happens, all three missions were slated to study the universe in X-rays.



A disappointing rumour

The LHC beam pipe in the CMS cavern. Credit: delaere/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The LHC beam pipe in the CMS cavern. Credit: delaere/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Major disappointment in the offing: according to Columbia University’s Peter Woit as well as ITP’s Adam Falkowski, there have been rumours around CERN that the 750 GeV bump in the data (a.k.a. “suspected new fundamental particle!!!”) could’ve been a statistical fluke, and that it’s been disappearing from analyses as more and more data is gathered by the Large Hadron Collider.

Now, it’s not over until it’s over. Ever since hints of the possible-new-particle were announced in December 2015, physicists have been going gaga over it. This is only to be expected because… imagine the following. You’ve been tasked with building a house. You’ve been given the material to build with as well as the blueprints to building according to. So you start and you build and you build.

When you finish, you realise that you’ve built a room the wrong way, as well as that you can’t rebuild that room alone without rebuilding the whole house. At the same time, it’s not okay that that room stays that way.

In this case, the builder is the physicist, the house with its lopsided room is the Standard Model of particle physics, and the lopsided room itself could be one of many things like dark matter, the mass of the Higgs boson, the hierarchy problem, etc. Id est: the existing theoretical framework (Standard Model) using which physicists have been able to solve some of last century’s most pressing problems in particle physics have also been found to be unable to answer some of the most pressing problems of this century.

Finding a new particle would be like finding a solution to right the room without having to rebuild the whole thing as well as suddenly being able to build many new kinds of houses – i.e. a theory that solves many existing problems, supersedes existing theories, and also allows for the existence of new kinds of particles.

So, as Woit and Falkowski have made known, a 750-GeV particle might not come to be. And so the room threatens to remain as lopsided as ever.


Development v. development

Credit: Partha Sarathi Sahana/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: Partha Sarathi Sahana/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Nityanand Jayaraman is one of the most passionate environmentalists I’ve met. He taught me at ACJ, where I studied journalism. One of his assignments to the class had us sorting through the displacement-versus-development debate. I think that was the last time I was able to defend what I knew of development. Since then, as I’ve found, India’s government has provided few instances – in the last five years at least – of ‘development’ that intend development at all, that are simply indefensible in some cases.

Such as this one: appearing to have learnt few lessons from the recent Chennai floods (November-December 2015), the city’s Metropolitan Development Authority has drawn up new plans for North Chennai that suggest the area will be the scene of the next flooding disaster:

Overlaying the masterplan on the Survey of India toposheet and separately over the state Coastal Zone Management Plan reveals the full extent of the proposed folly. Nearly 1,500 acres of salt pans, 212 acres of fish farms and 317 acres of areas identified either as CRZ IV (tidal waterbody) or CRZ I (intertidal area) fall within the area marked as S&H Industries. Wetlands constitute nearly 90% of the area reserved for S&H Industries zone in this region.

The chronology of developments in the region indicates that the decision to finish off Chennai’s coastal wetlands was made well before the masterplanning process began. The Kamarajar Port, Ltd. (KPL, formerly Ennore Port), which was commissioned on February 1, 2001 by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was premised on the availability of space in the hinterland. KPL’s website proudly announces that it “was endowed with large chunks of land (about 2,000 acres).”

That claim about land is a bit of a stretch. There is no land in the immediate hinterland. Between the port and the agricultural area further west is the vast waterscape of Ennore Creek.

Shruti Ravindran, one of my favouritest science writers, contributes fuel to this growing tide of consternation with a sombre report in Nautilus about India’s lack-of-efforts to preserve those fossils discovered in the folds of its soil.

Sahni agrees, and regrets how far India lags behind other countries in paleontology and preservation. “China has about 40,000 active paleontologists, 17 natural history museums, and laws protecting fossils and fossil sites,” he says. “If we had half the support they did, we would be to mammals what they have been to dinosaurs since 2007.”

Early this year, in Vastan, tractors and excavators kept roving about, churning up mud and carting away lignite. Rose and his colleagues found an as-yet-unsavaged spot where they could look for fossils, one crumbly handful of sediment at a time. They were excited about an upcoming paper describing a miraculously intact skull they found on a previous trip. Its owner, they’re convinced, will soon set the vertebrate paleontology world astir. Unlike its confreres, which vanished in a cloud of brown dust.

Similar thoughts abounded when a fire devoured the fossils collection at Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History on April 26:

Other museums need to learn from the NMNH fire,” according to Kot. Mandatory fire audits will be a first as natural history museums have a lot of inflammable material, such as hairs, dried samples and alcohol (used for preservation). BNHS, for example, has made its alcohol storage room fireproof and is now trying to procure fire-safe cabinets for its specimens. “The specimens are very fragile. Even a small fire can damage them. And this was a raging fire.”

Unlike Europe or the US, which tend to have natural history museums in almost every big city, India has few of these institutions. “And we have lost one of them. We should set a timeline for its reconstruction [and] not just allow it to take another decade again.”

As with my lament apropos the astronomy piece above: these ‘realisations’ – of neglecting due process/diligence – ought to surprise us, shock us, but they don’t. I fear that we may get used to them, hundreds of millions of us. And I fear that when a day comes when the government relents – as it will – and asks of us what it is that we’d like it to concede, we will pick from the top of a list of priorities – as we will. We will pick the demolition of dams in the northeast, we will pick the restoration of tribal rights in our forests, we will pick the existence of a freer society bereft of any communal tensions.

Where on this list would the preservation of our fossils, and the kindly treatment of our animals, be?


Video games and Brexit

Credit: armydre2008/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: armydre2008/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

So… Brexit. Bet you didn’t see this coming:

If you’d like to know more about the implications for British science of Brexit: I was able to distill some of it out from various reports for one for The Wire here. One of the specific points I make in there is something not many others have touched upon, which is the access for British scientists to intellectual property arising out of research conducted with EU money with EU members. As it happens, they don’t get access to it – even if the UK ends up acquiring associate status.

I found this tidbit on page 24 of Prime Minister David Cameron’s testimony in front of a Liaison Committee on May 14, 2016. And once you’ve found it, do keep reading – Nicola Blackwood’s questions provide especial insights into the issues that could affect British researchers in particular. In turn, Cameron’s answers reveal how underprepared the government might be to resolve them.