Why there is little chance the India-based Neutrino Observatory will look like a winner

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory. The mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population. Even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first at the ground-breaking ceremony and now, with construction set to begin.

This is the story of the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. This is also the story of the India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for the Rs.1,500-crore lab. Although neither story has concluded and even now awaits legal arbitration, one project has acquired an air of frustration while the other sports respectful obduracy.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in this Nature article. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. However, in both cases, only the cue and not the raison d’etre is a violation of cultural sensibilities – the latter is an “enough is enough” attitude that wants to end serial abuses of the environment.

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, also in Maui.

Obviously it helps when those who want to supposedly desecrate the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the center that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom been long-lived in India. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including the spokesperson Prof. Naba K. Mondal from TIFR, Mumbai – I’ve been told one question that came and comes up repeatedly is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, the political head of a regional party named Vaiko, a known rabble-rouser, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the IMSc or the central government, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

I have little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner* – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. I’d written to environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who had ridiculed the builder’s efforts to forge ahead with the project in a note on Facebook at the time of Vaiko’s petition, to ask for his thoughts on whether there was any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill.

His reply was equally derisive and apt.

I personally think that there is no space. But I think that such thoughts have to be debated in public fora with opposing or differing viewpoints. There are, as you say, many grey areas and even black-and-white areas that are being relegated to the sidelines. Where is the room for this debate? If there is any debate, it is because of those who oppose. Left to themselves, the whitecoats would like to chug along with deathly silence on all sides, and with debates only among their own kind. What would a debate between a whitecoat and an adivasi elder look like?

I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.

(*Also in terms of losing out on primacy against China’s new neutrino detector, construction on which has already begun.)

Hubble at 25: My picks

For the Hubble space telescope’s 25th anniversary (April 24, 2015), NASA released a picture of the Westerlund 2 star cluster that the telescope shot. The image shows an expanding shell of gas lit up by the radiation from a cluster of 3,000 stars at its center.

On the occasion of a quarter-century of operations, here are my favorite pics shot by Hubble, arranged in no particular order (the number below each title is the object’s distance from Earth). However, the ‘Pillars of Creation’ is difficult to surpass in awesomeness, so let’s start with that.

Pillars of Creation
6,500 lightyears

The Pillars of Creation. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Pillars of Creation. Credit: NASA/ESA

First shot by Hubble in 1995, the Pillars of Creation is arguably the telescope’s most iconic snap, and Hubble has shot more than its share of those. The pillars are four-lightyear long columns of gas and dust blown outward by a cluster of energetic stars in the Eagle Nebula, and they’re also nursing young stars within themselves.

Sombrero Galaxy
28 million light years

The Sombrero Galaxy. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Sombrero Galaxy. Credit: NASA/ESA

Known and named for its resemblance to the Mexican hat, the Sombrero Galaxy is quite the looker for its nearly side-on appearance in this picture and for the beautiful halo enveloping it. It also has a noticeably pronounced dust-lane rimming its circumference. Finally, like the Milky Way, the Sombrero is thought to house a large black hole at its center.

Horsehead Nebula
1,500 lightyears

The Horsehead Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Horsehead Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA

In the stupendous sequence of graphics depicting the origins of life in the universe in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, the Horsehead Nebula makes an appearance presumably because, like the Pillars of Creation, it’s an object made famous by Hubble’s snaps of it. Though its contours bear a distinct resemblance to the head of a horse, they will be eroded in a few million years by the radiation from a nearby massive star, Sigma Orionis.

Butterfly Nebula
2,100 lightyears

The Butterfly Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Butterfly Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA

The Butterfly Nebula is actually a planetary nebula, a misleading name that stuck to identify the violent expulsion of its uppermost layers by a dying star. In between the two ‘wings’ of irradiated gas is a torus of dust 10-times as wide as the orbit of Pluto. At its center is a pair of stars, one of which is doing the dying and heating its surroundings to 250,000 degrees Celsius.

588 million km

Jupiter as seen by the Hubble space telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA
Jupiter as seen by the Hubble space telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA

This picture – shot in April 2014 – is a favorite because it does well to show that despite being the largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter’s also the least fully-formed. The fluidic bands of gases circulating at various latitudes bear testimony to that. For another, Hubble’s snap also shows the Great Red Spot – a violent storm larger than Earth that has been churning for at least 150 years – is shrinking.

Messier 5
25,000 lightyears

The Messier 5 globular cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Messier 5 globular cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA

Messier 5 is a massive cluster of 100,000 stars, packed in a volume of space 165-lightyears in diameter due to their own gravitation. It inhabits Milky Way’s halo; however, it is much older, hosting some stars that are over 13 billion years old. M5 gets its name from being the fifth in a famous catalog of astronomical objects compiled by the French astronomer Charles Messier in 1771.

Orion Nebula
1,500 lightyears

The Orion Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Orion Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA

A personal favorite, the Orion Nebula is a very large star-forming region not too far from Earth, its location best identified by the belt of three stars. The chaotic spread of gases and dust is sculpted by the birth of over 700 stars at the moment, each in different stages of formation. The nebula itself is part of a much bigger gas cloud that includes the Horsehead Nebula. This view was snapped up by Hubble with some help from the ESO’s La Silla telescope. Click on it for a very-high-resolution version.

NGC 1672
60 million lightyears

NGC 1672. Credit: NASA/ESA
NGC 1672. Credit: NASA/ESA

A spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, NGC 1672’s claim to fame is a Hubble image in which it throws up many features that have seldom been spotted at once, in exquisite detail. Tentacular lanes of dust are visible to the left; a dense bar of stars cuts through the galaxy’s center; clumps of blue indicate hot star-forming regions; and a bright nucleus betrays the presence of a black hole.

AM 0644-741
300 million lightyears

The ring galaxy AM 0644-741. Credit: NASA/ESA
The ring galaxy AM 0644-741. Credit: NASA/ESA

AM 0644-741 has an odd composition: a wide ring of stars (150,000 lightyears in diameter) surrounding a highly condensed cloud of gas and dust, with a lot of space in between. Astronomers have reason to believe the shape is the result of a cosmic collision between two galaxies. When the smaller galaxy passed into the larger one, the incursion of all that mass provided a focal point at which the interstellar matter in the vicinity gathered.

40 years after Aryabhata, it’s time for ISRO to stray from Sarabhai’s path

On April 19, 1975, India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, was launched by a Kosmos-3M rocket from Kapustin Yar, then in the Soviet Union. Although scientists had planned to conduct experiments in solar physics and X-ray astronomy with it, Aryabhata stopped working after four days in orbit due to an electrical failure. Even so, it was rightly hailed as a success on the ground for the social and political climate in India during which the launch occurred.

The climate bears one similarity to the present as well as one significant difference. The similarity is in the form of widespread skepticism about what a scientific satellite – which at the time cost Rs. 5 crore to build – could do for a so-called “cow-dung economy”. A skepticism of the same flavor exists today, most recently surrounding the Mars Orbiter Mission.

A part of the difference lies with who helmed and who helms India’s space program. In 1970, Vikram Sarabhai – then the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission – wrote,

Several uses of outer space can be of immense benefit to us as we strive to advance economically and socially. Indeed, without them it is difficult to see how we can hold our own in a shrinking world. The greatest cost effectiveness of the uses of outer space occurs through large-scale applications rather than those of limited scope.

It is possible to develop space research through basic, applied and developmental research in islands largely isolated from the rest of the country, but large-scale application for the benefit of the nation cannot be undertaken in isolation. We cannot have 20th century space research with 19th century industry or antiquated systems of management and organization.

The words (along with the “cow-dung economy” reference) appeared in the foreword to a document called Atomic Energy and Space Research: A Profile for the Decade 1970-80.

Sarabhai appears not just optimistic but ambitious – which he had to have been to have had the ear of a government seeking to reverse the effects of two centuries of foreign rule. Together with Homi Bhabha, who did to India’s nuclear energy program what Sarabhai did for the space program, policymakers from the 1950s through the 1970s were persuaded that political and economic vulnerability could be best overcome by technological forwardness.

So, the indigenous space program was able to acquire an overall vision under Sarabhai’s leadership. He set up the Space Science and Technology Center at Veli Hill, near Thumba, in 1965. It drew from a broad range of fields to develop expertise in optics, electromechanics, and hydraulic and pneumatic engineering.

Also thanks to him, by 1970, the maturity of the sounding-rockets program out of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station had made Indian scientists experts on solid-propellants for rocket engines. In turn and with help from the SSTC, they were able to start developing the country’s first satellite launch vehicle, SLV-3, on a confident note.

Though Sarabhai passed away in 1971, his efforts would see fruition in the form of ISRO, a space agency that would perfect the PSLV rockets in the next three decades to posit India as one of the world’s few real space-powers. At the same time, it persisted with as well as enshrined a cultural tunnel-vision over 40 years, ignoring its own potential to contribute to blue-sky research in a way no other enterprise could have.

Between 1969 and 2015, excluding the INSAT, RISAT, GSAT, CartoSat and IRNSS series, ISRO launched five satellites for the purpose of scientific research (Aryabhata, Kalpana-1, Youthsat, Megha-Tropiques, SARAL), with ASTROSAT (2015) and Aditya (2017) yet to come. One could argue that there is not a fine line but a thick blur between using a satellite for scientific research and applied science, but there is more than a fine line when it comes to what the leadership at ISRO feels it can pitch the satellite to the government as being for.

It seems we were more entrepreneurial in our approach in the beginning, but after 60 years of having been at it, we’ve been entrepreneurial only in terms of perfecting missions with well-defined implications, finding we’ve hardly strayed from the beaten path if at all.

In fact, it would even seem fair to say the Chairmen of ISRO after Sarabhai did not profess a vision of the same diversity as Sarabhai, and Bhabha with him, had, though they may all have been of the same acuity. Yet such an assessment could fall short. The question is if, when Sarabhai and Bhabha set their sight for the stars, their ambitions included exploring the universe or if they were concerned only with pressing science into the social service of the nation. Both are great ambitions but they’re also distinct.

In their book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO, P Radhakrishnan and PV Manoranjan Rao provide some insight, writing that Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, gave Sarabhai the go-ahead for a relatively costly space program when the country wasn’t yet economically stable.

It’s evident that this was as much a belief in Sarabhai’s and Bhabha’s combined prowess as much as knowing that the duo like Nehru himself had nearer-term developmental targets in mind – only that their route wasn’t political but technological in nature. This isn’t an indictment of the way Nehru or Sarabhai managed their respective portfolios. It is hard not to focus on nearer-term goals, nearer at least than the prolonged periods of hopefulness often required for blue-sky research, at a time when the government is absorbed in capacity-building. Rather, it’s a peek into the relationship between the prime minister and the chief of ISRO.

To quote from the book,

Independent India was lucky to have Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister, for he shared a common ideal with Bhabha and Sarabhai. He believed that modern science and technology were indispensable to the development of the country. He declared: ‘Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, in sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

But in 2015, we have the capacity; our meteorology, communication and navigation technologies are the richer for what ISRO has accomplished since the 1980s, and all the successes over the years could together only be an incredibly solid foundation for whatever’s to come.

It happened with the Chandrayaan mission to the moon in 2008, and to some extent with the Mars Orbiter. The latter’s real significance was arguably undermined by some scientists, politicians and people celebrating it for its low cost rather than for being the proof of ISRO’s ability to develop and execute interplanetary missions. There is a similar episode that occurred between 1972 and 1974, when some critical components of Aryabhata were purchased by an “empowered” group of scientists. One of them was UR Rao, then the Project Director at the Indian Scientific Satellite Project, Bangalore. He writes in his book India’s Rise as a Space Power,

We went to France, UK and a few cities in USA staying a day or two at each place meeting heads of various industries. We had the complete power to make decisions on the spot and issue purchase orders for equipment and components after negotiation with industries, resulting in drastically reduced lead time for [their delivery]. This way we not only got all the equipments and components within 6 months but also at a much cheaper cost, at least 25% less than what we would have incurred following the normal procedure. I also used my personal contacts at MIT, Lincoln Laboratory, NASA HQ and Dallas, etc., to borrow non-space qualified components, to enable us to start building the engineering model of the satellite.

Today, this selfsame empowerment is codified in ISRO’s structure, scale of operations and standing with the Government of India. So it’s about time we revived the Aryabhata spirit, dared to look along the piercing gaze of our predecessors, and shoot for the stars. It may not seem revolutionary in the way Sarabhai and Bhabha turned things around for a young India from the late-1950s, but it’s in the same spirit to want to have India at the forefront of astronomical research as well. In the decade-profile document quoted earlier in this post, Sarabhai pens a line worth remembering at this point:

There is a totality about modernization, and in order to gain confidence, we must experiment with our resources even at the risk of failure.

Featured image credit: AshLin/Wikimedia Commons

Curious Bends – nuclear Himalayas, tiny Indians, renewables victory and more

1. 50 years ago a bomb’s worth of plutonium was lost on India’s second highest mountain. The mystery remains unanswered

“In October 1965, the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) joined hands in a clandestine mission to install a nuclear-powered sensing device on the summit of India’s second highest peak, also one of its most revered: the 25,643ft (around 7815m) Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal Himalayas.” Then they lost the plutonium-filled device. Fifty years later we still didn’t know where it is. (20 min read, livemint.com)

2. India’s preference for sons has created a nation of tiny people

“Indian children are among the shortest in the world, and the country’s preference for sons might be to blame. Globally, one in four children under the age of five is stunted—that is, they grew at a slower rate than a healthy child would. This stunting is manifest in shorter than average height. About half the stunted children live in Asia and another one-third live in Africa. India has the fifth-highest stunting rate in the world—nearly 40% of the children were stunted in 2005. This is a worrying proportion, even if you didn’t know that by 2020 India is projected to have the world’s youngest population.” (3 min read, qz.com)

3. The Ghanian puzzle: “Water, water, every where; not a clean drop to drink”

“Despite an abundance of water sources, most people in Ghana can’t simply turn a knob in the wall to get it. The water infrastructure in the country does not even come close to meeting demand; to call it patchwork would be an insult to quilts. Ghanaians have to balance their time, money and safety to determine where they will get a drink. Millions of them choose to get their water in 500-ml plastic sachets. And some of them get their sachets from Johnnie Water.” (25 min read, mosaicscience.com)

+ The author of this story, Shaun Raviv, is a freelance journalist. He’s “currently American, formerly Ghanaian and Swazi.”

4. The Indian government heavily subsidises private healthcare at the cost of public amenities

“Since medical insurance payments are tax-deductible, up to a quarter or more of the insurance premia that support the private corporate hospitals is probably claimed as a tax waiver. In other words, the government is paying Rs 6,000 crore for the sustenance of these corporate hospitals; those insured pay the rest. On top of this, state and local governments have provided land at subsidised rates to these hospitals, in return for free or subsidised treatment to poor patients, who were to account typically for a quarter of the total patients. There is no corporate hospital that has met its obligations on this score; in one infamous case, the hospital said it had promised free treatment but not a free bed or bed linen.” (3 min read, businessstandard.com)

5. Suicide will soon become India’s #1 killer

“On being asked whether he thought the government of India was doing enough for mental health problems in India, Patel told TOI “Nowhere near the need, witness the complete absence of public health approach to suicide for example”. An earlier research by professor Patel on suicides in India had thrown up shocking findings. Four of India’s southern states — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnakata and Kerala — that together constitute 22% of the country’s population were found to have recorded 42% of suicide deaths in men and 40% of self-inflicted fatalities in women in 2010.” (4 min read, timesofindia.com)

Chart of the Week

“The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.” (bloomberg.com)

Capacity addition by energy sources, divided as fossil fuels and 'clean' energy.
Capacity addition by energy sources, divided as fossil fuels and ‘clean’ energy.

10 things MESSENGER will be remembered for

Later in April, one of the most successful NASA missions will come to an explosive close. Scientists and engineers at the NASA Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University will accelerate the robotic Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging spacecraft – shortened as MESSENGER – downward, like a bullet at Mercury.

MESSENGER was launched in 2004 to study the Solar System’s innermost member. After its primary mission ended in 2012, NASA extended it twice, each fetching more and more discoveries. In 2015, the adventure ends – which is not as tragic as it sounds. Here are 10 feats/discoveries the spacecraft will be remembered for.

Like Frodo’s journey to Mordor

At their closest, Earth and Mercury are separated by 92 million km. If MESSENGER had sped from Earth to Mercury in a straight line, the Sun’s gravity would’ve made it impossible for it slow down to get into orbit around Mercury. Instead, the mission’s engineers at the APL first got MESSENGER into a large orbit around the Sun, then swung it into orbit around Earth, then twice around Venus, and then finally around Mercury. The journey spanned 7.9 billion km and took more than 6 years.

MESSENGER's loopy path from Earth to Mercury. Credit: JHU APL
MESSENGER’s loopy path from Earth to Mercury. Credit: JHU APL

Brimming with brimstone

MESSENGER found Mercury had almost 10-times the amount of sulfur as on Earth or Mars, as well as high levels of the metals magnesium and calcium, and thorium. These elements are usually dredged up from the planet’s insides through volcanoes, so scientists inferred Mercury was a hotbed of volcanic activity. The molten lava from these eruptions has also solidified on the surface to form smooth plains surrounded by rugged terrain, giving it a look much like our moon’s.

Colored maps showing the surface composition of Mercury. Credit: JHU APL
Colored maps showing the surface composition of Mercury. Credit: JHU APL

The surprisingly molten core

Before the MESSENGER mission, astronomers weren’t easily convinced that Mercury’s core could be molten – the planet was too small for its core to have remained liquid for billions of years. However, the probe was able to confirm a partly liquid core based on how the planet’s gravitational field varied. MESSENGER also found the magnetic field due to the flow of the core inside the planet was lopsided. On Earth, the center of the magnetic field is at the center of the core, but on Mercury, it was offset to the north by 484 km.

The nature of Mercury's magnetic field, illustrated. Credit: NASA
The nature of Mercury’s magnetic field, illustrated. Credit: NASA

It probably won’t rain on Mercury, but…

The Sun-facing side of Mercury is scorched to 427 degrees Celsius, and its wheeze of an atmosphere does nothing to cool the surface. In this hell, MESSENGER found the uppermost reaches of its air to contain water vapor. Scientists think powerful bursts of hydrogen from the nearby Sun carved out oxygen from Mercury’s rocks, and then combined to form water. Thanks to the heat, the water vaporized and floated to the top of the atmosphere.

Cold enough for ice

Who’d have thunk it? While boasting of the second-hottest surface of a planet in the Solar System, Mercury also has ice. MESSENGER found 20 billion Olympic skating rinks’ worth of it lurking in the shadowed bottoms of craters near the planet’s north pole. They could’ve got there because, unlike Earth, Mercury’s rotation is not tilted along an axis. As a result, the bottoms of these craters remain shielded from the Sun for long periods of time. MESSENGER also spotted dark patches around the ice that scientists think could be hydrocarbons expelled from comet and asteroid impacts.

Locations of ice around Mercury's north pole, imaged with radar. The brighter it is, the more water there is. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Locations of ice around Mercury’s north pole, imaged with radar. The brighter it is, the more water there is.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

The other family portrait

On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe paused just beyond the orbit of Pluto, turned around and took a selfie that was photobombed by Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. This became the iconic Voyager Family Portrait. In November 2010, MESSENGER snapped a similar portrait, this time from near Mercury. The photobombers this time were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Between the two selfies is a picture of our solar neighborhood.

MESSENGER's family portrait, labeled, as taken in 2010. Credit: NASA
MESSENGER’s family portrait, labeled, as taken in 2010. Click for larger image. Credit: NASA

A particle only MESSENGER could study

A lot of what we know about the Sun comes from studying the particles it ejects – protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, gamma rays, etc. However, scientists appreciate uncharged particles because only those are undeterred by magnetic fields, which alter their paths and can also fiddle with their properties. So, we’ve studied solar photons in detail. The problem with the solar neutron, also called the fast neutron, is that within 15 minutes of being thrown into space, it decays into other particles. Near Mercury, the story is different: MESSENGER was able to study them in detail in 2014, using its Neutron Spectrometer instrument.

A solar flare erupted on the far side of the sun on June 4, 2011, and sent solar neutrons out into space. Solar neutrons don't make it to all the way to Earth, but NASA's MESSENGER, orbiting Mercury, found strong evidence for the neutrons, offering a new technique to study these giant explosions. Credit: NASA/STEREO/Helioviewer
A solar flare erupted on the far side of the sun on June 4, 2011, and sent solar neutrons out into space. Solar neutrons don’t make it to all the way to Earth, but NASA’s MESSENGER, orbiting Mercury, found strong evidence for the neutrons, offering a new technique to study these giant explosions. Credit: NASA/STEREO/Helioviewer

Mercury is the densest inner planet

Subtract the compression due to its own gravity, and Mercury’s density is a whopping 5,300 kg/m3 – higher than the three other rocky planets in the Solar System (Venus, Earth and Mars). This implied then that 60% of the planet’s mass was actually its core’s. And a core that heavy would have to take up 75% of the planet’s volume. MESSENGER supplemented this information with the discovery of abundant sulfur, magnesium and calcium on the surface and a paucity of silicates. Piecing all this together has prompted the hypothesis among scientists that Mercury formed with different starting ingredients from the three other rocky planets.

An artist's impression of how much space Mercury's core takes up inside the planet. Credit: NASA
An artist’s impression of how much space Mercury’s core takes up inside the planet. Credit: NASA

Smell something burning?

In 2011, MESSENGER spotted a strange feature: small, rimless depressions on Mercury’s surface that looked nothing like craters but pocked the planet all over. Since called hollows, they have resulted in a terrain that looks distinctly like Swiss cheese. Astronomers think they form when pockets of volatile substances like sulfur are boiled off by the Sun’s heat, leaving behind the fresh wounds. Given the environment in which these hollows form, they’re also likely to be found nowhere else in the Solar System.

The 'hollows'. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Carnegie Institution Of Washington
The ‘hollows’. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Carnegie Institution Of Washington

Plunge to death – for science!

MESSENGER’s running out of fuel. As its orbit shrinks and it slowly spirals downward, the solders holding the spacecraft together face more of the heat being reflected off the surface and start to melt. But before it disintegrates, the scientists operating it have another idea. On April 30, they plan to crash the spacecraft on Mercury’s surface at 14,000 km/hr. The fatal plunge will blow it to smithereens – and in the process give scientists insights into how crash-landing objects like comets and asteroids form craters. Then, the BepiColombo mission to Mercury, destined to launch in 2017, could study the impact in detail.

When you crack your knuckles, you’re creating bubbles

The next time you crack your knuckle, know that you’re actually creating little gas-filled bubbles in the fluid that lubricates your knuckle’s joints. The cavities appear because the bones at the joints separate rapidly, creating a low-pressure volume that’s filled by gas ‘pumped’ out of the higher-pressure fluid.

This is what Greg Kawchuk, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, and his colleagues discovered, by observing a participant crack knuckles under the gaze of an MRI scanner. Their findings are reported in a paper in PLOS ONE, published April 15. He attributed the noise specifically to the sudden formation of the cavity in the synovial fluid, “a little bit like forming a vacuum”.

For its apparent simplicity, the study actually seeks to lay to rest the question of what causes the sound when knuckles are cracked. Since the early 1900s, multiple explanations have been advanced. All of them agreed that a cavity was involved in the cracking, but the primary contention was if the cracking sound was caused by a cavity forming or a cavity collapsing.

Kawchuk’s use of the MRI rules in favor of cavity-formation. In fact, it also shows that the cavity persists well after the cracking is done, or as the paper puts it, “past the point of sound production”. So the cracking couldn’t have arisen from a collapsing cavity. Here’s a film – the first one of knuckle-cracking – showing what the MRI revealed.

By way of an application in diagnosis, the PLOS ONE paper also notes,

… cine MRI revealed a new phenomenon preceding joint cracking; a transient bright signal in the intra-articular space. While not likely visualized gas given the imaging parameters employed, we do not have direct evidence to explain this observation. We speculate this phenomenon may be related to changes in fluid organization between cartilaginous joint surfaces and specifically may result from evacuation of fluid out of the joint cartilage with increasing tension. If so, this sign may be indicative of cartilage health and therefore provide a non-invasive means of characterizing joint status.

The bit about “non-invasive means” is enticing, although these are still early days and Kawchuk & co.’s words are purely speculative. Another diagnostic avenue pursued in the past has sought to understand the link between knuckle-cracking and osteoarthritis. On this, the last-word remains elusive.

A 1989 study had found that the energy released during knuckle-cracking was more than enough to damage cartilage, while a 2011 study found that the habit didn’t actually affect the risk of acquiring osteoarthritis.

Curious Bends – expanding nuclear power, the Bombay Blood Group, doubting the tobacco-cancer link & more

1. India’s new forest laws are criminalising tribes’ once-normal livelihoods

“India has forest coverage of 23% and more than 200 million live in and around these forests and depend on them for their life, livelihood and cultural identity. But under the banner (some call it “guise”) of scientific management of forests, the intended objectives of our forest policies has been to “maximise profits” by sale of forest products and discouraging forest dwellers from “exploiting” forest resources. To do so, some trees like red sanders have been ‘nationalised’. This legal appropriation of forests has led to the ‘criminalisation’ of normal livelihood activities of forest-dependent people, making them ‘encroachers’.” (4 min read, hindustantimes.com)

2. A large-scale expansion of nuclear power in India should include fuel-reprocessing, if only to minimise the amount of radioactive waste lying around

“Putting aside additional uranium resources that may be identified in the future, and also putting aside nuclear energy’s future growth rate, one must conclude that uranium-based fission energy cannot in any event last for more than a few centuries. This is not much time—when measured against the length of time that humankind is likely to exist. We, the authors, believe that the current generation bears a responsibility toward future generations not to deplete the world’s uranium resources. This means that uranium cannot be discarded as waste after only 1 percent of its energy is utilized—as happens today. Rather, reprocessing and recycling must be pursued so that 75 percent of uranium (if not more) is used to produce fission energy. Reprocessing and recycling have the potential, compared to the once-through use of uranium, to increase by a factor of at least 50 the amount of time during which humankind can derive fission energy from uranium resources.” (6 min read, thebulletin.org)

3. Why is a rare blood group more common in India than in Europe or the US?

“What took Swapna by surprise actually takes a lot of people by surprise. It’s because 1-in-17,000 people report something called the Bombay Blood Group. That’s one person in 17,000. Now imagine the Eden Gardens stadium filled with capacity with cricket fans. Five people in that stadium would have this blood group. And that’s how rare it is in India. In the United States and Europe, it’s even rarer. It’s one in a million, even if that. And that’s what we’re putting under the microscope today. The only difficult thing about living life with a Bombay Blood Group is getting a transfusion, if you need it. You cant just stroll into a bloodbank and ask for Bombay-type. It’s too rare.” (14 min listen, audiomatic.in)

+ This new podcast, The Intersection, is produced by the journalists Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian.

4. The Indian government is suspicious of the link between tobacco and cancer

“In a move denounced by India’s health activists, the Central government on Tuesday deferred its decision mandating that pictorial health warnings cover 85% of all tobacco packaging. The postponement comes a day before the rule was to come into effect and a day after puzzling remarks by Dilip Gandhi, the head of the parliamentary panel examining provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act. “All agree on the harmful effects of tobacco,” PTI reported Gandhi as saying. “But there is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All the studies are done abroad. Cancer does not happen only because of tobacco.”” (4 min read, scroll.in)

5. “You come to such a big hospital and expect it to be free?”

“Take the example of Selphili Kumar, a 25-year-old mother. In a government hospital in Ambikapur, she shivered alone on a dirty cot, waiting for the doctor to treat her two-day-old son, who had been sick and weak since birth. There was intense pressure in her abdomen and sudden chills racking her body, but all she could think about was money. Her husband, a labourer with a monthly income of about Rs3,500, had paid Rs1,000 to get to the hospital from her village of Kailashpur, Rs600 to order her post-cesarian medicine from the pharmacy (that the hospital claimed they didn’t have on hand), and Rs1,500 for her baby’s treatment. Wrapping her purple sweater tightly around her, her breaths short and shallow, Kumar worried that staying in the hospital longer would only rack up the bill further—a bill that, legally, shouldn’t have existed.” (14 min read, qz.com)

Chart of the Week

“Archeological studies show that societies in the past were very violent indeed. The share of people killed by other people was often more 10%. Ethnographic evidence confirms that violence is very common in nonstate societies and drastically higher than in modern state societies. The historical record of homicide rates in Europe shows that modern levels of violence were only arrived at after a long decline. In these barcharts we compare rates of violence – rather than shares of violent deaths. Again, ethnographic studies show that violence in nonstate societies was much higher than in modern state societies.” (ourworldindata.org)

Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org
Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org

Orbital ATK and engine-maker GenCorp disagree over cause of Antares crash

Under threat of significant financial losses, conflicting reports of what caused the October 28 (2014) Antares rocket crash have emerged – one from its manufacturer, Orbital ATK, and the other from its engine’s maker, Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Reuters reports,

Ronald Grabe, Orbital’s executive vice president and president of its flight systems group, told the annual Space Symposium conference that an investigation led by his company had concluded the explosion was caused by excessive wear in the bearings of the GenCorp engine.

In reply, GenCorp – which owns Aerojet – spokesperson Glenn Mahone says,

GenCorp’s investigation had also identified excessive wear of the bearings as the direct cause of the explosion that destroyed the rocket, but further research revealed that the bearings likely wore out due to “foreign object debris” in the engine.

According to Mahone, GenCrop’s investigation will be completed in three weeks but “the bulk of the work had been done”. The engine in question is actually a pair of AJ26-62 first-stage liquid-fuel engines – and it’s not clear yet if both engines were found to be damaged. Their designs are derived from the Soviet-era NK-33 engines, last used in the 1970s.

The AJ26-62 engine. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne
The AJ26-62 engine. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

The kerosene they use can be seen burning up in a distinctly visible first explosion, which occurred moments after Antares lifted off from the launchpad in October last year. When it fell back down 15 seconds later, the second explosion incinerated over 2,200 kg of cargo Orbital ATK was ferrying to the ISS under a service contract with NASA.

Since it wasn’t a NASA mission per se, the space agency is not leading the investigation but only conducting one of its own. With a disagreement erupting over Orbital ATK and GenCorp, NASA could be the arbiter. However, also according to Reuters, it has no plans of making its report public.

Read: Orbital, GenCorp spar over cause of October rocket crash, Reuters

Crowdsourcing earthquakes is not a big deal – keeping it reliable is

"Symbols show the few regions of the world where public citizens and organizations currently receive earthquake warnings and the types of data used to generate those warnings (7). Background color is peak ground acceleration with 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years from the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program." DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036
“Symbols show the few regions of the world where public citizens and organizations currently receive earthquake warnings and the types of data used to generate those warnings (7). Background color is peak ground acceleration with 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years from the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program.” DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036

This map stakes well the need for a decentralized earthquake warning system. The dark and light blue rings show where early earthquake warnings are available, while the reddish and yellow patches describe areas prone to earthquakes. There’s a readily visible disparity, which a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, leverages to outline how early earthquake warnings can be crowdsourced. In a paper in Scientific Advances on April 10, the team proposes using the accelerometer in our smartphones to log and transmit tiny movements in the ground beneath us to a server that analyzes them for signs of a quake and returns the results (insert cute quote about crowdsourced information being used by the crowd).

This idea isn’t entirely new. In 2013, two seismologists from the Instituto Nazionale di Geosifica e Vulcanologia in Italy used cheap MEMS (micro-electromechanical system) accelerometers to determine that they’re good for anticipating quakes that are rated higher than five on the Richter scale if located close to the epicenter. Otherwise, the accelerometers weren’t reliable when logging seismic signals that weren’t sharp or unique enough – such as is the case with weaker earthquakes or the strong ground-motion associated with moving faults – because the instruments produced sufficient noise to drown their own readings out.

In fact, this issue might’ve been evident in 2010 itself. Then, a team out of Stanford University proposed using “all the computers” on the Internet to “catch” quakes. To be part of this so-called Quake Catcher Network, users would have to install a piece of QCN software along with a ‘low-maintenance’ motion sensor on their desktops/laptops to empower them with the same capabilities as a smartphone-borne accelerometer, but more sensitive. The software would log motion data due to mild tremors or stronger and strong ground-motion and relay it over the web in near-real-time. The QCN has been live for over a year now, although most of its users are situated in Europe and North America.

Perhaps the earliest instance of crowdsourcing in the Age of the Smartphone was with Twitter. In 2008, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China killed over 10,000 in a rain-hit region of the country. The CNN wrote, “Rainy weather and poor logistics thwarted efforts by relief troops who walked for hours over rock, debris and mud on Tuesday in hopes of reaching the worst-hit area”. Twitter, however, was swarming with updates from the region, often revealing gaps in the global media’s coverage of the disaster. The Online Journalism Blog summed it up:

Robert Scoble was following proceedings on his much-followed Twitter, and feeding back information from his followers, including, for instance (after he tweeted the fact that Tweetscan was struggling) that people were saying Summize was the best tool to use.

If you followed the conversation through Scoble using Quotably, you could then find Gregg Scott, who in turn was talking to RedChina, Karoli, mmsullivan, and inwalkedbud who was in Chengdu, China (also there was Casperodj and Lyrrael).

If you wanted to check out inwalkedbud you could do so using Tweetstats and find he has been twittering since December. Sadly the Internet Archive doesn’t bring any results, though.

The mainstream media had differing reports: RTE (Ireland) said “No major damage after China earthquake” – but UK’s Sky News reported four children killed and over 100 injured; Chinaview (China) said no buildings had collapsed – but an Australian newspaper said they had.

Filtering the noise

In all these cases – the Italian MEMS experiment, the QCN desktop/laptop-based tracker and with updates on Twitter – the problem has not been to leverage the crowd effectively. In 2015, we’re already there. The real problem has been reliability. Quakes stronger than five on the Richter scale signal danger everywhere, and there are enough smartphone-bearing users around the world to be on alert for them. But quakes less strong are bad news particularly in developing economies, where bad infrastructure and crowding are often to blame for collapsing buildings that claim hundreds of lives.

Let’s take another look at the disparity map:

"Symbols show the few regions of the world where public citizens and organizations currently receive earthquake warnings and the types of data used to generate those warnings (7). Background color is peak ground acceleration with 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years from the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program." DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036
“Symbols show the few regions of the world where public citizens and organizations currently receive earthquake warnings and the types of data used to generate those warnings (7). Background color is peak ground acceleration with 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years from the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program.” DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036

The redder belts are more prevalent in South America, Central and East Asia and in a patch running between Central Europe and the Middle East. Not being able to detect weaker quakes if not for centralized detection agencies in these regions keeps hundreds of millions of people under threat. So, the real achievement when scientists confidently crowdsource early earthquake warnings is the use of specialized filtering techniques and algorithms to increase the sensitivity of smartphones to subtle movements in the ground and so the reliability of their measurements. Where concepts like phase smoothing, Kalman filters and GNSS receivers thrumming in a smartphone’s chassis spell the difference between news and help.

Tech 1, Coarseness 0.

These are only some of the techniques in use – and whose use the Berkeley group thinks particularly significant in their early warning system’s designs. Phase smoothing is a technique where errors associated with data transmission between smartphones and satellites – such as measurement noise or reflection by metallic objects in the transmission’s path – are mitigated by keeping track of the rate of change of the distance between the phone and the satellite. A Kalman filter is an algorithm that specializes in picking out data patterns from a chaos of signals and using that pattern to fish for even more signals like it, thus steadily filtering out the noise. Together, they help scientists adjust for drift – which is when an object moves by a greater distance than an earthquake would have it move.

Finally, the scientists further refine the data by comparing it to legacy GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) data, which is the most accurate but also the most costly system with which to anticipate and track earthquakes. In their Science Advances Paper, the Berkeley group writes that the data obtained through thousands of smartphones “can be substantially improved by using differential corrections via satellite-based augmentation systems, tracking the more precise GNSS carrier phase and using it to filter the [crowdsourced] data (“phase smoothing”), or by combination with independent INS data in a Kalman filter.”

A warning system all India’s

But the best part: “Today’s smartphones have some or all of these capabilities”, negating the otherwise typical coarseness and unreliability associated with crowdsourced data. Here’s more evidence of this:

(B) Drift of position obtained from various devices (GNSS, double-integrated accelerometers, and Kalman filtering thereof) compared to observed earthquake displacements. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036
(B) Drift of position obtained from various devices (GNSS, double-integrated accelerometers, and Kalman filtering thereof) compared to observed earthquake displacements. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500036

Chart (B), which is the one of interest to us, shows the amount of drift present in data acquired by various methods over time. The black lines show the observed displacements due to earthquakes of different magnitudes. So, a colored line represents reliable data as long as it is below the corresponding black line. For example, the red line for “C/A code + p-s + SBAS” shows a largely reliable reading of an M6 earthquake until about 50 seconds, after which it starts to drift. Similarly, most colored lines are below the black lines for M8-9 earthquakes, so all those methods can be used to reliably track the stronger earthquakes. The line described by the Berkeley group is the red line – the crowdsourced line.

The ideal thing would be to develop more sophisticated filtering mechanisms that’d bring the red line close to the blue GNSS line at the bottom, which of course exhibits zero drift. Fortunately, self-reliance on this front might be possible soon in the Indian Subcontinent region. Since 2013, the Indian Space Research Organization has launched four of its planned seven Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) that could augment regional efforts to crowdsource earthquake-warnings. The autonomous system is expected to live in 2016.

All goes well on LHC 2.0’s first day back in action

It finally happened! The particle-smasher known as the Large Hadron Collider is back online after more than two years, during which its various components were upgraded to make it even meaner. A team of scientists and engineers gathered at the collider’s control room at CERN over the weekend – giving up Easter celebrations at home – to revive the giant machine so it could resume feeding its four detectors with high-energy collisions of protons.

Before the particles enter the LHC itself, they are pre-accelerated to 450 GeV by the Super Proton Synchrotron. At 11.53 am (CET), the first beam of pre-accelerated protons was injected into the LHC at Point 2 (see image), starting a clockwise journey. By 11.59 am, it’d been reported crossing Point 3, and at 12.01 pm, it was past Point 5. The anxiety in the control room was palpable when an update was posted in the live-blog: “The LHC operators watching the screen now in anticipation for Beam 1 through sector 5-6″.

Beam 1 going from Point 2 to Point 3 during the second run of the Large Hadron Collider's first day in action. Credit: CERN
Beam 1 going from Point 2 to Point 3 during the second run of the Large Hadron Collider’s first day in action. Credit: CERN

Finally, at 12.12 pm, the beam had crossed Point 6. By 12.27, it had gone a full-circle around the LHC’s particles pipeline, signalling that the pathways were defect-free and ready for use. Already, as and when the beam snaked through a detector without glitches, some protons were smashed into static targets producing a so-called splash of particles like sparks, and groups of scientists erupted in cheers.

Both Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the CERN Director-General, and Frederick Bordry, Director for Accelerators and Technology, were present in the control room. Earlier in the day, Heuer had announced that another beam of protons – going anti-clockwise – had passed through the LHC pipe without any problems, providing the preliminary announcement that all was well with the experiment. In fact, CERN’s scientists were originally supposed to have run these beam-checks a week ago, when an electrical glitch spotted at the last minute thwarted them.

In its new avatar, the LHC sports almost double the energy it ran at, before it shut down for upgrades in early-2013, as well as more sensitive collision detectors and fresh safety systems. For the details of the upgrades, read this. For an ‘abridged’ version of the upgrades together with what new physics experiments the new LHC will focus on, read this. Finally, here’s to another great year for high-energy physics!