Infinite in All Directions: Diablo Canyon, Tampon Money and Financial Topology

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Credit: bikracer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: bikracer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Spotlight: California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon (near Avila Beach) will be shut down in 2025 if, at that time, the move is okayed by two government agencies. This is great news because the plant’s operator, Pacific Gas and Electric, has agreed to provide the same amount of power that the plant will be responsible for at that time using renewable resources – a unique, tremendous and crucial victory for anti-nuclear activism. The uniqueness stems from the fact that California as a state is remarkably well-equipped to deal with the transitioning from nuclear power to renewable energy. As an editorial in the New York Times wrote:

As one negotiator put it, the deal is further evidence that “the age of renewables has arrived” — at least in California, which has long led the nation in energy innovation and last year passed a law requiring state-regulated utilities to get half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

From a climate perspective, the smart strategy in such cases would be to hold on to the nuclear plants until a California-like transition to greenhouse-gas-free electricity is feasible. Not every state has California’s natural blessings, or its aggressive renewable energy mandates. But its commitment and imagination are worth emulating.

So, the point is that you shouldn’t run around expecting all other states in the US to follow through with solely the fate of Diablo Canyon as precedent. Not gonna happen.

This is tremendous because, hey, Fukushima, and also because Diablo Canyon almost invites protest: it is located on the coast, and pumps out its wastewater directly into the Pacific. And this is crucial because nuclear power holds a special place in conversations – both scientific and casual – about energy. Nuclear reactors produce enormous amounts of carbon-free power relative to the amount of material going in, so represent an almost-renewable resource, yet neither possess nor present* an assurance of being as safe as the other modes of renewable power production.

This ‘confusion’ over which identity is more relevant at the moment is what has led Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental groups in the US, to reconsider its stand: demanding that all nuclear reactors in the country are shut down even before their federal licenses expire. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 16:

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, says his group is focusing most of its resources on closing coal plants and preventing the construction of new natural gas plants.

“We’re actively debating the timeline in which nuclear plants should be decommissioned as we reduce our reliance on coal and gas in the electric sector,” Mr. Brune said.

The shift is twofold. Some environmental groups that have in the past protested existing reactors are now at times staying on the sidelines. In other cases, such as the one in Illinois, environmentalists are actively working toward keeping reactors open.

*The assurance of being safe that any risk-prone entity should present is influenced largely by the entity’s ‘guardian’. For India, this would be the Department of Atomic Energy. In spite of the problems already assailing improperly built and/or operated nuclear reactors in the country, the DAE gives ISRO a run for its money in the realm of public outreach. There’s little of it, and what there is has acquired a mostly justifiable reputation of being misleading. If you wish to know more, I highly recommend M.V. Ramana’s book The Power of Promise (2013).


Sooner spring

A view of the Milky Way's central band of stars from the ISS, with Earth visible on top. Credit: NASA

A view of the Milky Way’s central band of stars from the ISS, with Earth visible on top. Credit: NASA

There’s a famous Tamil song from 1961 that starts Vandha naal mudhal (Since our coming), from the film Paava Mannippu (Clemency). The song sings about how humankind has mimicked nature in an effort create knowledge and wealth, and so has changed itself even as the world has remained unchanged. With human intelligence, such an outcome was always inevitable, even destined. However, we’re in the post-realisation era: when the consequences of our actions over the last many centuries is manifesting as some kind of pollution, and we are all collectively aware of it. And in this era, development alone can’t take centerstage.

One such pollution is the inundation of light. On June 10, researchers had reported that light pollution is obscuring the sight of the Milky Way to one-third of the world’s people. More significantly, light pollution was affecting how animals, birds and plants accessed darkness, darkness that was important to their sustenance to various degrees. I’d written then:

Additionally, light interferes with many creatures’ timekeeping senses. Among birds, migration patterns, moulting and egg-laying periods are disrupted. Crows become better at evading hunting owls. Desert rodents are discouraged from foraging. The mating pattern of a species of ant (Atta texana) goes out of whack. The Salt Creek tiger beetle can’t mate in peace because the extra light allows predators to see it. Just-hatched sea turtles, used to thinking the sea is where the darkness is, are disoriented. Tadpoles of the African clawed frog metamorphose in lower numbers under brighter light. Some kinds of moths and spiders that guide themselves around using light become lost. And apart from interfering with photosynthesis, artificial light also affects photoperiodism, responsible for telling trees when it is dark – and so time for sleep or flowering.

Now, another study has found something equally disturbing:

New research led by a team of biologists based at the University’s Penryn campus highlights for the first time and at a national scale the relationship between the amount of artificial night-time light and the date of budburst in woodland trees. The study, the result of a long term collaboration with independent environmental consultants Spalding Associates, in Truro, made use of data collected by citizen scientists from across the UK, after the Woodland Trust asked them to note down when they first saw sycamore, oak, ash and beech trees in leaf as part of the charity’s Nature’s Calendar initiative. The research team analysed this, information, correlated with satellite images of artificial lighting. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that buds were bursting by up to 7.5 days earlier in brighter areas and that the effect was larger in later budding trees.

A pollution of seasons, it seems.



Credit: ad4evr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: ad4evr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Recently, my cousin finished her class 12 board exams (state board). On the evening of the math exam, she was worried that her answer to one of the questions might not have been the exact one listed in the textbook, and that she’d lose the five marks for it. It’s a strange consideration, surely: what kind of examination penalises a correct solution? I suspect one that is inspected by a teacher who can’t recognise the validity of other solutions. Anurag Chaurasia, a biotechnology, made the same argument in an oped for Nature journal:

My eight-year-old son came home from school disappointed last week. When asked the test question “How can we save the environment from pollution?”, he had tried to write the answer in his own way. This did not go down well with his teacher, who cut his mark and asked why he had not repeated the answer as it was printed in the textbook. That’s common practice in India. To get top marks, school children must learn and regurgitate answers presented to them. With such a culture, is it any wonder that plagiarism and unoriginal thinking are so prevalent in Indian science and research?

I’m not sure I’d agree with the leaps of logic made here but only for qualitative reasons. My impression is that it’s not that plagiarism is considered permissible in academic circles but that mediocrity is to be tolerated because, hey, what can one do about it but nothing at all. And that plagiarism is one effect of this outlook. As Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, the vaunted founder of CCMB, Hyderabad, told The Wire when we reported that Appa Rao Podile had plagiarised in some of his papers,

Because of the low standard of our scientists, they are unable to produce research output of any originality. Plagiarism then becomes an easy route to be recognised. The situation is made worse by the absence of proper penalties for plagiarism. As regards the VCs, they are also derived from the same pool of mediocrity.


Tampon money

Credit: katielips/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: katielips/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Arguing that while the use of cosmetics is optional but that of hygiene products mandatory, S.D. Shanti, a professor of public health affiliated with an American university, has posited that ‘tampon-makers could help reduce violence against women’ by donating some of their profits to shore up the perpetually underfunded programs around the world set up to protect the health and wellbeing of women. An excerpt from her article in the British Medical Journal:

Women in every society buy tampons and sanitary towels (pads, napkins). These products generate billions of dollars in sales and are a steady source of revenue for corporations, in good times and bad. It’s only right that tampon manufacturers give something back to their customers—for example, by dedicating a fraction of a percentage of their revenues to support public health programs that prevent violence against women—as long as these costs aren’t simply passed on to consumers. Global annual sales of feminine hygiene products are projected to total $15.2bn by 2017. Even 0.5% of those sales, if donated to the UN fund, could generate huge vital support for programs in desperate need of funding.


Like what you’re reading? Click here to subscribe.


It’s just good business

Credit: shankaronline/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: shankaronline/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

According to a Times of India report, Shyam Sundar Sharma sells herbal medicines to treat skin conditions out of a small shop in Aligarh and, in his free time, fulfils his role as the vice-chancellor of a university he set up in 1990 to honour the name of Subhash Chandra Bose. The institution was declared fake by the University Grants Commission on June 30. It seems the ease of doing business in India was pretty high even before economic liberalisation kicked in.

In matters of higher education, The Wire has two great contributors: P Pushkar from BITS-Goa and Thomas Manuel, an independent researcher from Chennai. Thomas in particular is doing an ongoing series for us, and which I’ve spoken of in this newsletter’s pages before, about what the terrain of higher education in India looks like. Till date, he’s put together richly detailed pieces on institutions of national importance, medical education, engineering colleges, capitation and the number of colleges in the country (all of them are listed here).

The reason I choose to highlight his work is this: (to borrow the first line from H.P. Lovecraft’s masterpiece The Call of Cthulhu) the most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. Despite the illusion of there being some kind of quality control, higher education in India is a tremendous and tremendously unregulated mess. And to wrap one’s head around it in a way that encompasses all aspects of it in one go is impossible (kinda like the hole in the bucket).



Drums of toxic waste. Credit: mobilestreetlife/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Drums of toxic waste. Credit: mobilestreetlife/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Ian Birrell had an eerie and disturbing story over on Mosaic (where The Wire frequently republishes from) about the Triangle of Death, an area in southern Italy where the mafia is dumping, and burning, industrial waste such that it has caused a spike in cancer cases in the neighbouring towns of Acerra, Marigliano, Nola and Campania. What is fascinating about the story is the sheer dastardliness of what’s happening:

For this was far from an isolated incident. There are thousands of similar dumps all over this once-paradisiacal slice of Italy: in canals and caves, in quarries and wells, under fields and hills, beneath roads and properties. According to one mafia supergrass, for many years businesses in the prosperous north of the country paid organised crime to dispose of toxic waste illegally rather than pay far higher rates to have it dealt with safely. So the Camorra, the crime syndicate that operates across Campania, contaminated great chunks of their own backyard, littering the landscape with heavy metals, solvents and chlorinated compounds. There is evidence that barrels were buried, containers driven into rivers, hazardous materials mixed in with household rubbish, chemical sludge spread on fields as ‘fertiliser’, asbestos burned in open air. And only now is the tragic legacy of the mafia’s idiocy finally becoming clear.

Though it hadn’t yet formally taken shape in the late 1800s, the Sicilian mafia’s proto-clans had come to be by then, as well as were faced with a government intent on wiping them out. How they continued to survive is also the story of how the Camorra has poisoned the lands around Campania, a ‘tale’ unearthed with the tools of economics:

With weak law-enforcement institutions, a positive shock to the value of natural resources may increase demand for private protection and opportunities for rent appropriation through extortion, favouring the emergence of mafia-type organisations. We test this hypothesis by investigating the emergence of the mafia in twentieth century Sicily, where a severe lack of state property-rights enforcement coincided with a steep rise in international demand for sulphur, Sicily’s most valuable export commodity.

This is from the abstract of a paper published in August 2015 in the Economic Journal. Its authors discuss the so-called ‘research curse’, also called the paradox of plenty, a concept that took firmer hold in post-war 1940s. As Donald Marron wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 (in turn borrowing a simile that originally appeared in FT):

Poor countries dream of finding oil like poor people fantasise about winning the lottery. But the dream often turns into a nightmare as new oil exporters realise that their treasure brings more trouble than help. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, one time Venezuelan oil minister, likened oil to “the devil’s excrement”. Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, his Saudi Arabian counterpart, reportedly said: “I wish we had found water.”

Such resignation reflects bitter experience of the way that dependency on natural resources can poison a country’s economic and political system. Inflows of hard currency push up prices, squeezing the competitiveness of non-oil businesses and starving them of capital. As a result, productivity growth withers (a phenomenon known as “Dutch disease” after the negative effects of North Sea gas production on the Netherlands). Meanwhile, the state institutions in charge of oil often become corrupt and evade democratic control. And oil-rich states almost invariably waste the income it brings, many ending their oil booms deeper in debt than when they started.

In the tale of the Triangle of Death, the lucrative resource appears to have been the availability of empty lands, and the pliability of the local constabulary. Oh, and as Birrell writes:

But it is too easy to blame just gangsters for the probable deaths of thousands of people. The story of this illegal waste disposition stains Italy. It reveals the dark side of capitalism; there are allegations of state complicity, of cover-ups by police, politicians and prosecutors. One mafia kingpin even claimed trucks drove from Germany carrying nuclear waste to dumps in Campania. Yet even if such things have been halted now, this region also offers wider lessons for the world as the rich West ignores similar activities in low-income countries.


Froggy style

A Bombay night-frog. Credit: Rohini/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

A Bombay night-frog. Credit: Rohini/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s the kind of information that has a propensity to quickly descend into trivia, and hold its dignity solely among fanatical quizzers waiting for the right question to be asked, but it really is more important than it seems: researchers have discovered a seventh mating position among the Bombay night-frogs. The new one, called the dorsal straddle, joins “the male clasping the female around the waist; grabbing her armpits; holding her head, attaching himself to her back with a gluey substance; sitting back-to-back; and sitting on her head”.

The history of froggy style may not be your thing but here are two reasons to pay attention: the difficulty of making this discovery, and what the mating positions of frogs tell us about their long-term prospects. To quote from Binit Priyaranjan’s piece for The Wire,

To collect data on the night-frog, which Biju first observed in 2002, the team had to carry sophisticated audio- and video-recording equipment up a high-altitude plateau, two kilometres above Humbarly, every night during the monsoon’s height. They would start at 5 pm and wind up at 3 am. “It becomes very difficult to protect the equipment and the data in such circumstances. Sometimes, we had to shoot videos while simultaneously holding an umbrella and climbing a hill in the rain,” Panjikar explained – a far cry from the ‘controlled conditions’ most scientific research mandates.


Even so, Ashish Thomas, a herpetologist, believes the discovery has set a great precedent for further research because it has created great intrigue within as well as without the scientific community, even though he described most of the media coverage of the study as having been “off-focus and overly exaggerated”. “Excitement in the community will bring impetus, and more funding to the research of these elusive animals,” he said.

The relationship between ecology, behaviour and evolutionary mechanisms is key to understanding the anurans, especially the night-frogs. They’ve been known to prefer very specific mating environments, differing only, say, in the location of a leaf, a rock or a branch in the same area. Therefore, studying the behaviour of these frogs provides invaluable information about how frog species evolved to adapt to surroundings in the past, and where they might be headed to in the future.


Topology in finance

Credit: eflon/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: eflon/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Unless you’re an aficionado of finance, I’ll bet that you haven’t heard the words “topology” and “2008 financial crisis” in the same sentence.

You bet. In a very useful piece in Nautilus, Bob Henderson lays out the role network topology has played in modern finance, and how the solutions it offers to problems formulated within its framework of rules can be applied to untangle real problems in the world of banking and derivatives.

Hubs-and-spokes’ simple shape—their small numbers of connections and routes, their easily intelligible flows—also promotes transparency, which itself reduces risk. A big reason credit markets froze-up in 2008 was simply confusion about who was exposed to whom. As Stanford professor of finance and derivative expert Darrell Duffie said to me, mimicking the mindset of bankers in the run-up to Lehman’s demise, “Gosh, if Lehman failed, who else connected to Lehman might fail? And who am I connected to that might be connected to Lehman that might fail? Gosh, this is really complicated. I think I’m just going to stop providing credit.”

Subscribe to Infinite in All Directions