‘World class’ optical telescope – India’s largest – to be activated near Nainital

Update: This article was written before the telescope was activated yesterday. Here’s the PIB announcement.

India’s largest ground-based optical telescope, in Devasthal in Uttarakhand, is set to be switched on on March 30 by the Prime Ministers of India and Belgium from Brussels, during Narendra Modi’s day-long visit to the country. The telescope is the product of an Indo-Belgian collaboration, assisted by the Russian Academy of Sciences, that was kicked off in 2007. It is going to be operated by the Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), an autonomous research body under the Department of Science and Technology.

The instrument is part of a widening foray into observational research in astronomy that India has undertaken since the 1960s, and bolstered with the successful launch of its first multi-wavelength satellite (ASTROSAT) in September 2015. And apart from the merits it will accord Indian astronomy, the Devasthal optical telescope will also be Asia’s largest ground-based optical telescope, succeeding the Vainu Bappu Observatory in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu.

A scan of the sketch of the 3.6-m optical telescope. Credit: ARIES
A scan of the sketch of the 3.6-m optical telescope. Credit: ARIES

Its defining feature will be a 3.6-metre-wide primary mirror, which will collect light from its field of view and focus it onto a 0.9-m secondary mirror, which in turn will divert it into various detectors for analysis. This arrangement, called the Ritchey-Chrétien design, is also what ASTROSAT employs – but with a 30-cm-wide primary mirror. In fact, by contrast, the mirrors and six instruments of ASTROSAT all weigh 1,500 kg while the Devasthal telescope’s primary mirror alone weighs 4,000 kg.

A better comparison would be the Hubble space telescope. It manages to capture the stunning cosmic panoramas it does with a primary mirror that’s 2.4 m wide. However, Hubble’s clarity is much better because it is situated in space, where Earth’s atmosphere can’t interfere with what it sees.

Nonetheless, the Devasthal telescope is located in a relatively advantageous position for itself – atop a peak 2.5 km high, 50 km west of Nainital. A policy review published in June 2007 notes that the location was chosen following “extensive surveys in the central Himalayas” from 1980 to 2001. These surveys check for local temperature and humidity variations, the amount of atmospheric blurring and the availability of dark nights (meeting some rigorous conditions) for observations. As the author of the paper writes, “The site … has a unique advantage of the geographical location conducive for astronomical observations of those optical transient and variable sources which require 24 h continuous observations and can not be observed from [the] east, in Australia, or [the] west, in La Palma, due to day light.”

From this perch, the telescope will be able to log the physical and chemical properties of stars and star clusters; high-energy radiation emanating from sources like blackholes; and the formation and properties of exoplanets. The data will be analysed using three attendant detectors:

  • High-resolution Spectrograph, developed by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru
  • Near Infrared Imaging Camera, developed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai
  • Low-resolution Spectroscopic Camera

“India has collaborated with a Belgian company called AMOS to produce this [telescope], which is the first of its kind in the whole of Asia,” said Vikas Swarup, spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement. AMOS, an acronym for Advanced Mechanical and Optical Systems, was contracted in 2007 to build and install the mirrors.

When Modi and Michel complete the so-called ‘technical activation’ to turn the Devasthal instrument on, it will join a cluster of scopes at the Indian astronomical research community’s disposal to continue surveying the skies. Some of these other scopes are the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope, Pune; Multi Application Solar Telescope, Udaipur; MACE gamma-ray telescope, Hanle; Indian Astronomical Observatory, Leh; Pachmarhi Array of Cherenkov Telescopes, Pachmarhi; and the Ooty Radio Telescope, Udhagamandalam.

In fact, over the last few years, the Indian research community has positioned itself as an active player in international Big Astronomy. In 2009, it pitched to host a third advanced gravitational-waves observatory, following the installation of two in the US, and received governmental approval for it in February 2016. Second: in December 2014, India decided to become a full partner with the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) collaboration, a bid to construct an optical telescope with a primary mirror 30 metres wide. After facing resistance from the people living around the venerated mountain Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, atop which it was set to be built, there are talks of setting it up in Hanle. Third: in January 2015, the central government gave the go-ahead to build a neutrino observatory (INO) in Theni, Tamil Nadu. This project has since stalled for want of various state-level environmental clearances.

All three projects are at the cutting edge of modern astronomy, incorporating techniques that have originated in this decade, techniques that take a marked break from the conventions in use since the days of Galileo. That Modi has okayed the gravitational waves observatory is worth celebrating – but the choices various officials will make concerning the INO and the TMT are still far from clear.

The Wire
March 30, 2016

A small update


I moved to Delhi on March 27 (that’s the view outside my bedroom). I’ll be working out of here for the next year – maybe longer, but I don’t have to decide that until much later. This completes one of my five big tasks for the year:

  • Move to Delhi
  • Access new Planck and LHC data
  • Purchase and devour Fall of Light, book #2 of the Kharkhanas Trilogy
  • Visit a world-renowned particle accelerator lab
  • Continue contributing to The Wire

If you’re in Delhi, let’s get a drink!

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you

Mae govannen! On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee cast the One Ring, Ash Nazg, into the fires of Orodruin and destroyed it. Thus was ended the reign of Thû, one of the last lieutenants of the dark lord Morgoth Bauglir, and his dreadful ambition to rule all of Middle Earth. The War of the Ring would end 223 days later with the defeat and killing of Sauron in the Battle of Bywater.

Of all the worlds I’d like to escape to (when reality as it is becomes too much or makes for too little), there are three: Middle Earth, Lether and Azeroth. The tales in which they are situated all exhibit an affinity for ecological inclusivity, where human agency is evaluated in its total environment, including the natural elements and forces. The choices also make me realise I have a thing for paganistic fantasy.

(Spoilers? Not really.)

Middle Earth is the cultural third space that inhabits J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the World (Arda) as it should be, the continent on which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are set. Tolkien’s literature, beginning from The Silmarillion and ending with Return of the King, has  journeys and exoduses as prominent features. As the books move through time, so do its peoples move through space. The result is for their evolution to be shaped by as well as mirror the lands they occupy, for geology to be as much a driver of plot as their actions themselves.

Exemplary subplots: the persistence of Rivendell and the events from Frodo’s capture by Faramir to Gollum’s actions in Cirith Ungol.

This connection between living things and the land is also a common feature of Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is set on multiple fictional continents. One of them is Lether, which was trapped and preserved for thousands of years within a magical cage of ice created by Gothos. And when finally the ice cracked as the world warmed, Lether was recolonised by its native tribes. However, none of them realised that the form of magic that they practised was now considered ancient because the rest of the world had moved on; that while Letherii magic still clung to the oracular mode of Tiles, everyone else used the Deck of Dragons. This discrepancy is a major plot-driver in book #7 of the series, Reaper’s Gale. It serves to exemplify how, when foreigners conquer a native land, they can only hope to replace bodies – and that the land, the culture and the government will simply have new staffers, nothing more.

At the beginning of the book, I remember thinking that Gothos’s enforced stasis of Lether was quite the contrivance, drawn up by Erikson to prevent the repetition of a plot device that runs throughout the series. However, Reaper’s Gale quickly turns out to be one of the best books in the series (of ten) because of the detail that Erikson fills it up with. These aren’t details of irrelevant things but of an allegorical post-colonialism, where the coloniser was simply a great stillness of time.

Exemplary subplot: the battle at Bast Fulmar (The Valley of Drums).

A very good example of a proper contrivance occurs in the World of Warcraft mythos: the event known as the Cataclysm. WoW is set in the fictional realm of Azeroth, comprising Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms separate by the Great Sea. Like in the last two examples, geology plays an important role in the shaping of events. In fact, like in The Silmarillion, there is a great sundering of the world brought about by greed and betrayal. However, there is then a second sundering called the Cataclysm, where the black dragon Neltharion (a.k.a. Deathwing) breaks out of his prison deep within the land of Azeroth to lay waste to the world even as its features are rapidly reshaped by violent seismic forces. What makes this a contrivance is that, following Cataclysm, life goes on as it might’ve without it, except for things just looking different – clearly, it’s creators were simply looking for a change of scenery. Nonetheless, I do like Azeroth for the events that played out until then.

Exemplary subplots: War of the Ancients and the events from the Culling of Stratholme to the discovery of Frostmourne.

Every year on March 25, I’m prompted to look back on why I continue to admire Tolkien’s creations even though I’ve publicly acknowledged that they’re far surpassed by Erikson’s creations. An important reason is primacy: the LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success. Another reason is that, through the books, Tolkein managed to edify all of epic fantasy by bringing together the perfect minima of characters, devices and plots – and of course language – that could make for a lasting classic.

Discussing some motivations behind a particle physics FAQ

First, there is information. From information, people distill knowledge, and from knowledge, wisdom. Information is available on a lot of topics and in varying levels of detail. Knowledge on topics is harder to find – and even more hard is wisdom. This is because knowledge and wisdom require work (to fact-check and interpret) on information and knowledge, respectively. And people can be selective on what they choose to work on. One popular consequence of such choices is that most people are more aware of business information, business knowledge and business wisdom than they are of scientific information, scientific knowledge and scientific wisdom. This graduated topical awareness reflects in how we produce and consume the news.


News articles written on business issues rarely see fit to delve into historical motivations or explainer-style elucidations because the audience is understood to be better aware of what business is about. Business information and knowledge are widespread and so is, to some extent, business wisdom, and articles can take advantage of conclusions made in each sphere, jumping between them to tease out more information, knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, articles written on some topics of science – such as particle physics – have to start from the informational level before wisdom can be presented. This places strong limits on how the article can be structured or even styled.

There are numerous reasons for why this is so, especially for topics like particle physics, which I regularly (try to) write on. I’m drawn toward three of them in particular: legacy, complexity and pacing. Legacy is the size of the body of work that is directly related to the latest developments in that work. So, the legacy of the LHC stretches back to include the invention of the cyclotron in 1932 – and the legacy of the Higgs boson stretches back to 1961. Complexity is just that but becomes more meaningful in the context of pacing.

A consequence of business developments being reported on fervently is that there is at least some (understandable) information in the public domain about all stages of the epistemological evolution. In other words, the news reports are apace of new information, new knowledge, new wisdom. With particle physics, they aren’t – they can’t be. The reports are separated by some time, according to when the bigger developments occurred, and in the intervening span of time, new information/knowledge/wisdom would’ve arisen that the reports will have to accommodate. And how much has to be accommodated can be exacerbated by the complexity of what has come before.


But there is a catch here – at least as far as particle physics is concerned because it is in a quandary these days. The field is wide open because physicists have realised two things: first, that their theoretical understanding of physics is far, far ahead of what their experiments are capable of (since the 1970s and 1980s); second, that there are inconsistencies within the theories themselves (since the late 1990s). Resolving these issues is going to take a bit of time – a decade or so at least (although we’re likely in the middle of such a decade) – and presents a fortunate upside to communicators: it’s a break. Let’s use it to catch up on all that we’ve missed.

The break (or a rupture?) can also be utilised for what it signifies: a gap in information/knowledge. All the information/knowledge/wisdom that has come before is abruptly discontinued at this point, allowing communicators to collect them in one place, compose them and disseminate them in preparation for whatever particle physics will unearth next. And this is exactly what motivated me to write a ‘particle physics FAQ’, published on The Wire, as something anyone who’s graduated from high-school can understand. I can’t say if it will equip them to read scientific papers – but it will definitely (and hopefully) set them on the road to asking more questions on the topic.

Prospects for suspected new fundamental particle improve marginally

This image shows a collision event with a photon pair observed by the CMS detector in proton-collision data collected in 2015 with no magnetic field present. The energy deposits of the two photons are represented by the two large green towers. The mass of the di-photon system is between 700 and 800 GeV. The candidates are consistent with what is expected for prompt isolated photons. Caption & credit © 2016 CERN
This image shows a collision event with a photon pair observed by the CMS detector in proton-collision data collected in 2015 with no magnetic field present. The energy deposits of the two photons are represented by the two large green towers. The mass of the di-photon system is between 700 and 800 GeV. The candidates are consistent with what is expected for prompt isolated photons. Caption & credit © 2016 CERN

On December 15 last year, scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider experiment announced that they had found slight whispers of a possible new fundamental particle, and got the entire particle physics community excited. There was good reason: should such a particle’s existence become verified, it would provide physicists some crucial headway in answering questions about the universe that our current knowledge of physics has been remarkably unable to cope with. And on March 17, members of the teams that made the detection presented more details as well as some preliminary analyses at a conference, held every year, in La Thuile, Italy.

The verdict: the case for the hypothesised particle’s existence has got a tad bit stronger. Physicists still don’t know what it could be or if it won’t reveal itself to have been a fluke measurement once more data trickles in by summer this year. At the same time, the bump in the data persists in two sets of measurements logged by two detectors and at different times. In December, the ATLAS detector had presented a stronger case – i.e., a more reliable measurement – than the CMS detector; at La Thuile on March 17, the CMS team also came through with promising numbers.

Because of the stochastic nature of particle physics, the reliability of results is encapsulated by their statistical significance, denoted by σ (sigma). So 3σ would mean the measurements possess a 1-in-350 chance of being a fluke and marks the threshold for considering the readings as evidence. And 5σ would mean the measurements possess a 1-in-3.5 million chance of being a fluke and marks the threshold for claiming a discovery. Additionally, tags called ‘local’ and ‘global’ refer to whether the significance is for a bump exactly at 750 GeV or anywhere in the plot at all.

And right now, particle physicists have this scoreboard, as compiled by Alessandro Strumia, an associate professor of physics at Pisa University, who presented it at the conference:


Pauline Gagnon, a senior research scientist at CERN, explained on her blog, “Two hypotheses were tested, assuming different characteristics for the hypothetical new particle: the ‘spin 0’ case corresponds to a new type of Higgs boson, while ‘spin 2’ denotes a graviton.” A graviton is a speculative particle carrying the force of gravity. The – rather, a – Higgs boson was discovered at the LHC in July 2012 and verified in January 2013. This was during the collider’s first run, when it accelerated two beams of protons to 4 TeV (1,000 GeV = 1 TeV) each and then smashed them together. The second run kicked off, following upgrades to the collider and detectors during 2014, with a beam energy of 6.5 TeV.

Although none of the significances are as good as they’d have to be for there to be a new ‘champagne bottle boson’moment (alternatively: another summertime hit), it’s encouraging that the data behind them has shown up over multiple data-taking periods and isn’t failing repeated scrutiny. More presentations by physicists from ATLAS and CMS at the conference, which concludes on March 19, are expected to provide clues about other anomalous bumps in the data that could be related to the one at 750 GeV. If theoretical physicists have such connections to make, their ability to zero in on what could be producing the excess photons becomes much better.

But even more than new analyses gleaned from old data, physicists will be looking forward to the LHC waking up from its siesta in the first week of May, and producing results that could become available as early as June. Should the data still continue to hold up – and the 5σ local significance barrier be breached – then physicists will have just what they need to start a new chapter in the study of fundamental physics just as the previous one was closed by the Higgs boson’s discovery in 2012.

For reasons both technical and otherwise, such a chapter has its work already cut out. The Standard Model of particle physics, a theory unifying the behaviours of different species of particles and which requires the Higgs boson’s existence, is flawed despite its many successes. Therefore, physicists have been, and are, looking for ways to ‘break’ the model by finding something it doesn’t have room for. Both the graviton and another Higgs boson are such things although there are other contenders as well.

The Wire
March 19, 2016


Special theory of relativity disproved?

No. But I’m annoyed EurekAlert saw fit to carry the press release accompanying the ‘paper’ that made the startling claim. It’s impossible to call out all the bullshit claims being made everyday but quite possible and even more relevant to call out those who popularise it without necessary checks. I just didn’t think EurekAlert – which also disseminates press releases from Science and PNAS – wouldn’t be one of them, but live and learn.

About the paper itself: it was titled ‘Challenge to the special theory of relativity’ and published in a quarterly journal named Physics Essays on March 1, 2016. Its abstract disputes the way the global positioning system currently works, writing:

It is a mistake to use the properties of time in the STR [special theory of relativity] to predict time dilation for physical clocks or any other physical process. Based on the Lorentz invariance of clock time, we can prove that within the framework of the STR, our Earth-based standard physical time is absolute, universal, and independent of the inertial reference frame. The existence of such an absolute and universal clock time is confirmed by the universal synchronization of all ground and satellite clocks of the global positioning system and by the theoretical existence of the absolute and universal Galilean time within the framework of the STR. We can further prove that in the STR, the time dilation and length contraction of a moving inertial reference frame observed from a stationary inertial reference frame are pure illusions.

Here’s what should’ve pinged your bullshit radar:

  • If you’re talking about satellites orbiting Earth, then you’re talking about objects in motion within a gravitational field. In such a case, the implications of the theory of general relativity must be accounted for as well.
  • The global positioning system is not just about a bunch of satellites orbiting Earth receiving signals from the surface and transmitting them back down. An important addition to it is the error correction system. Time moves slower under the influence of a stronger gravitational field – so clocks within GPS satellites actually gain about 45.9 microseconds a day due to the effects of general relativity. At the same time, their velocity slows time down by about 7.3 microseconds a day due to the effects of special relativity. The remaining gain of 38.6 microseconds/day is accounted for by slowing the clocks on board the satellites by 0.45 nanohertz.
  • Physics Essays doesn’t find mention on Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory journals while it isn’t indexed by Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science either. However, search hard enough and you’ll find a Wikipedia talk-page mentioning that the journal is among those commonly cited on the encyclopaedia when an author is making dubious claims.

Finally: It seems the author of the paper, Xinhang Shen, had floated his idea on Quora in December 2014. While the backlash had been solid, Xinhang hadn’t backed down but had continued to insist that an observer from one of the GPS satellites would observe a clock on Earth to be 14 microseconds slower. His claim that the system didn’t account for this is the problematic bit: the difference in clock-times is accounted for using the special and general theories of relativity both instead of using the special theory of relativity alone, a point made over the course of dozens of responses but exemplified on this sub-thread.

Roundup – March 6, 2016

Previous editions here.

1. The irrepressible lightness of Umberto Eco – “The actor and musician Moni Ovadia alluded in turn to Umberto’s ironic transformation from a leader of Italy’s Catholic Action Youth to committed atheist. Umberto, for all that, ebulliently indulged reasonable clerics, even co-publishing a book with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Ovadia offered a benediction “from a believer to a nonbeliever,” announcing, “God blesses you above all because you are not a believer. God supports believers, but he definitely prefers atheists. That Umberto would be cremated later in the day surprised some people. Not me. Umberto exulted in hurtling into the past through texts, in fulfilling Kierkegaard’s admonition to understand backward but to live forward. Umberto once observed, “The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards.” With typical Umberto mischievousness, he probably thought of cremation as his one chance to experience an auto da fé.”

2. Is this the trailer for the upcoming LHC blockbuster? – “An anomaly was observed in the decay of a B meson containing two muons among its products. Describing the final state of this decay requires up to eight parameters that define the angular distribution of decay products—that is, at what angles they will be flying. The traditional method of determining these parameters can produce false results for the small number of such decays observed. Dr. Marcin Chrzaszcz from IFJ PAN, one of the main authors of the analysis, proposed an alternative method in which each parameter was determined independently of the others.”

3. A conversation on the future of civilisation with Stephen Wolfram – “The thing that makes this more poignant for me is that I’ve spent a lot of time studying basic science about computation, and I’ve realized something from that. It’s a little bit of a longer story, but basically, if we think about intelligence and things that might have goals, things that might have purposes, what kinds of things can have intelligence or purpose? Right now, we know one great example of things with intelligence and purpose and that’s us, and our brains, and our own human intelligence. What else is like that? The answer, I had at first assumed, is that there are the systems of nature. They do what they do, but human intelligence is far beyond anything that exists naturally in the world. It’s something that’s the result of all of this elaborate process of evolution. It’s a thing that stands apart from the rest of what exists in the universe. What I realized, as a result of a whole bunch of science that I did, was that is not the case. My children always give me a hard time for this particular quote: “The weather has a mind of its own.””

4. Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich – “Speer’s highly theatrical architectural scenography was yet another instrument [of Hitler’s persuasion of the people]. Moreover, unlike those other dictators, Hitler had once intended to be an architect, and had spent much time studying and drawing the buildings of Vienna; in every respect he was an exceptionally well-informed client. This did not make it a collaboration of equals. Hitler continued to work with other architects, such as Speer’s rival Hermann Giesler, who was assigned the remodeling of Munich and was even promised the commission for Hitler’s sarcophagus—which Hitler offered in the presence of Speer, a humiliating gesture but characteristic of Hitler, who enjoyed keeping his subordinates off balance by playing them off one another. Still, when it came to his most visionary project, the remodeling of Berlin, Speer was his architect of choice.”

5. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 has been adapted for the stage – “[Director Robert Falls] perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession.”

6. The Four Horsemen of the Internet – “The trap publishers can fall into is to think that a legal victory or even a series of such victories is a substitute for planning the next steps of the industry’s future or that the primary focus should be to set up more roadblocks to the Sci-Hubs of this world and lobbying organizations like SPARC that tacitly support them. One way publishers are likely to respond is to make it harder for pirates to get access to published materials. Angela notes, for example, that some publishers may stop producing PDFs. I think this is highly likely. A PDF is a weapons-grade tool for piracy: a fixed document that can be passed around the conversational channels of the Internet without alteration (it is the PortableDocument Format, after all). But here we have to ask whether it is in a publisher’s long-term interest to make its service any less valuable to its authorized users in order to stymie the unauthorized ones. A bulwark strategy alone may not be enough to carry the organization into the future.”

7. Generalising Moore’s law to various technologies (paywall) – “Many people have likened technological advance to an evolutionary process, advancing as older techniques, components or ideas get combined in new ways. Biologists know that some organisms evolve and adapt more rapidly than others due to features that make it relatively easy to alter some elements — cell surface receptors in bacteria, for example — without undermining other underlying functions. Such independent flexibility enables fast, profitable experimentation, and creates the capacity for rapid evolution. In a recent study, Subarna Basnet and Chris Magee at MIT find evidence that something very similar seems to be true with technologies (preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1601.02677; 2016). The faster evolving ones seem to have fewer interactions or complex interdependences between their elementary components.”

8. Don’t trust an image in a scientific paper? Manipulation detective’s company wants to help. – “I have long advocated that journal editors should take on the responsibility of screening images for evidence of manipulation before publishing articles in their journals, and there are now vendors who provide screening as a service. IDI does not offer systematic screening at the journal scale but offers consultation in cases of suspected manipulation. This can include examination of the data in question and/or advice on how to proceed with an investigation, such as when and how to request original data, and when and how to contact a journal, institution, or funding agency. IDI is willing to undertake that communication on behalf of a client if they so choose.”

9. A world where everyone has a robot: why 2040 could blow your mind – “In March 2001, futurist Ray Kurzweil published an essay arguing that humans found it hard to comprehend their own future. It was clear from history, he argued, that technological change is exponential — even though most of us are unable to see it — and that in a few decades, the world would be unrecognizably different. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate),” he wrote, in ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns’. Fifteen years on, Kurzweil is a director of engineering at Google and his essay has acquired a cult following among futurists.”

10. Are gamma rays obscuring our view of where neutrinos come from? – “Neutrinos are not knocked off path by electromagnetic forces as they traverse space. That means neutrinos detected here on Earth can be traced directly back to their remote astrophysical sources. Furthermore, these neutrinos rarely come in contact with other kinds of matter and many pass directly through the Earth without touching other particles. This makes them incredibly challenging to find, but their elusive nature means they can escape the extremely dense environments where they are generated. The robust cosmic neutrinos found by IceCube are thought to come from cosmic-ray interactions with matter, interactions with radiation, or from the break down or destruction of dark matter. Because these operations generate both high-energy neutrinos and high-energy gamma rays, the researchers analyzed the IceCube neutrino information to high-energy gamma rays found by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. If all of the high-energy gamma rays are allowed to escape from the sources of neutrinos, we had expected to find corresponding data from IceCube and Fermi,” said Murase. However, the researchers found the data did not correspond.”

11. Is India equipped for Big Science? – “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) announced during the Union Budget, is seeded with an initial grant of Rs. 150 crores for this fiscal and is expected to generate a massive fund of $300-$500 billion over the next five years. AIM can be an indispensable interface between academic-scientific institutions and the private sector, especially vis-a-vis philanthropy and CSR. Basic science remains a hugely untapped sector in Indian philanthropy and CSR. Academic and scientific institutions and philanthropists must comprehend each other’s needs, reduce incompatibilities, and together acquire regulatory symbioses in the greater interest of the nation.”

12. The first sounds of merging black holes – “Up until a few decades ago, detecting gravitational waves was considered an impossible task. In fact, in the 1950s, physicists were still heatedly debating whether the waves were actual physical entities and whether they could carry energy. The turning point was a 1957 conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina [2, 3]. There, the theorist Felix Pirani pointed out a connection between Newton’s second law and the equation of geodesic deviation, which describes the effect of tidal forces in general relativity. This connection allowed him to show that the relative accelerations of neighboring particles in the presence of a gravitational wave provide a physically meaningful—and measurable—way to observe it. Sadly, Pirani, who laid the groundwork for our modern thinking about gravitational waves and how to detect them, passed away on December 31, 2015, just weeks before the LIGO scientists announced their discovery.”

13. What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion? – “But most pertinent to the discovery of the “shrine trees”, we’ve seen evidence of chimps displaying strange ritual-like behaviour in the last few years. First, a “ritual” dance performed during rainfall. Then a peculiar slow-motion display in the face of a bush fire in Senegal. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, who observed the “fire dance” in 2006, said that the behaviour seems to suggest that chimps have a conceptual understanding of fire. Perhaps they are paying respect to it, in some way. I’ve also heard stories of chimps performing dances in front of waterfalls.”

14. The secrets of surveillance capitalism – “The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable technologies. The CEO wants to be like Google. He says, “If it all sounds eerily like those ads that, because of your browsing history, follow you around the Internet, that’s exactly the point – except Under Armour is tracking real behavior and the data is more specific… making people better athletes makes them need more of our gear.” The examples of this new logic are endless, from smart vodka bottles to Internet-enabled rectal thermometers and quite literally everything in between. A Goldman Sachs report calls it a “gold rush,” a race to “vast amounts of data.””

Highly recommended: 15. Atoms in antiquity – “In the world of Greece and Rome, there was a total lack of contact between the useful arts (cookery and brewing, dyeing, metallurgy, tanning, ceramics, even medicine), which were delegated to the laboring classes, and the speculations of gentlemen. When labor is cheap, there is little pressure to improve technology, and when thinkers despise manual activity, they will not develop any experimental technique. Lucretius himself often appeals to observation, but experiment involves more than simply observing what presents itself. It is the deliberate setting up of situations in order to observe them, and no Greek or Roman gentleman would be likely to soil his hands in such a business.

Secondly, there was what Russell calls a failure of nerve. Leucippus and Democritus were great intellectual innovators; Epicurus and Lucretius were not. Leucippus and Democritus wrote as citizens of free city states at their most confident, during and immediately after Greek successes in the Persian Wars. By the time of Epicurus, these city states had been subdued by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander. Lucretius wrote when the Roman Republic was degenerating by way of civil war into a despotic empire. Later centuries saw the decline and fall of Rome, the chaos of Europe’s Dark Ages, and the subsequent medieval reverence for authority and verbal argument rather than experience.

As Lucretius repeatedly reminds us, if everything happens according to natural laws, there is no need to fear the gods. Indeed, he regarded religious belief as a source of evil, and gave as an example how Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter to the gods in order to secure a fair wind for the Greeks on their way to attack Troy. He also regarded the mind as the product of subtle atoms within the body, rather than a separate immaterial entity. As for the murderous political struggles of his time, these were the expressions of misplaced ambition, itself the product of incomplete understanding.”

My Foldscope

It took me twice as long to piece it together as it would’ve taken a 10-year-old, and quite a bit of twisting and tugging before I got just one slide inside it, but the fact that a Foldscope is a pocket-sized microscope made mostly of paper made up for everything.

My sample was a short strand of my own hair surrounded by something I think is either dandruff or dirt (or even possibly air trapped between the two layers of cellophane tape used to hold the strand together). It doesn’t look like much – but the fact that there’s now a magical device in my pocket that lets me look at a universe folded away in millionths of a meter is amazing enough. To express what I’m feeling: I’m sure this quote has been pulled up too many times before but, as it happens, no other combination of words has a patch on the awe they muster. They were penned by the English polymath Robert Hooke, and appear among the last words in his Micrographia (1665):

By the means of Telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding. By this means the Heavens are open’d, and a vast number of new Stars, and new Motions, and new Productions appear in them, to which all the ancient Astronomers were utterly Strangers. By this the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter, we now behold almost as great a variety of creatures as we were able before to reckon up on the whole Universe it self.

The Foldscope is the creation of the Prakash Lab at Stanford University, helmed by a bioengineer named Manu Prakash. It was debuted two years ago in a TED talk Prakash gave. For a brief summary of what motivated its creation and its features, you could watch the talk (below) or read this piece I wrote for The Hindu. For even more details – and wonderful pictures taken by people using Foldscopes the world over – visit the device’s dedicated website. Now, my sister and I are off to explore the microcosms that inhabit our house.

What’s the universe telling us post-LIGO?

Since the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves on February 11, 2016, there have been at least 51 scientific papers written up on the topic discussing a variety of possibilities. The earliest papers parallel the announcement’s two ostensible achievements:

  1. Albert Einstein was right when he postulated the existence of gravitational waves in 1915, in his theory of general relativity.
  2. LIGO’s working principle is valid – in other words, the observatory works.

The third achievement was more of a signal: that the era of gravitational astronomy has begun, an era in which humankind will be able to study objects in the universe based on the gravitational effects they have on their surroundings, on the spacetime continuum. And in keeping with this new possibility, many of the 51 papers explore what else we can figure about the two blackholes that merged and caused the waves that LIGO detected.

Here’s a categorised list of their (informed) hypotheses along with brief descriptions.

Okay, was it a legit detection? Does it fit the theory? And is LIGO awesome yet?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08492 – “We summarise the follow-up observations reported by 25 teams via private Gamma-ray Coordinates Network Circulars, giving an overview of the participating facilities, the gravitational wave sky localisation coverage, the timeline and depth of the observations”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.06833 – “total-variation denoising techniques may thus offer an additional viable approach for waveform reconstruction”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04782 – “The chirp signal from the gravitational-wave event GW150914 is used to place numerous first constraints on gravitational Lorentz violation”
  4. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04779 – “We point out that GW150914 experienced a Shapiro delay due to the gravitational potential of the mass distribution along the line of sight of about 1800 days”
  5. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04666 – “… we can design activities that directly involve the detection of GW150914, the designation of the Gravitation Wave signal detected on September 14, 2015, thereby engage the students in this exciting discovery directly. The activities naturally do not include the construction of a detector or the detection of gravitational waves. Instead, we design it to include analysis of the data from GW150914, which includes some interesting analysis activities for students of the introductory course.”
  6. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04531 – “We find that the existence of GW150914 does not require enhanced double black hole formation in dense stellar clusters or via exotic evolutionary channels. … We predict that BH-BH mergers with total mass of 20-80 Msun are to be detected next.”
  7. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04199 – “Based on our observations, we conclude that it is unlikely that GW150914 was caused by the core collapse of a supergiant in the LMC, consistent with the LIGO Collaboration analyses of the gravitational wave form as best described by a binary black hole merger”
  8. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04198 – “We report initial results of a deep search for an optical counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW150914, the first trigger from the Advanced LIGO gravitational wave detectors”
  9. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03847 – “The stochastic gravitational-wave background from binary black holes, created from the incoherent superposition of all the merging binaries in the Universe, could be higher than previously expected. Using the properties of GW150914, we estimate the energy density of such a background from binary black holes. … We conclude that this background is potentially measurable by the Advanced LIGO/Virgo detectors operating at their projected final sensitivity.”
  10. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03845 – “In Advanced LIGO, detection and astrophysical source parameter estimation of the binary black hole merger GW150914 requires a calibrated estimate of the gravitational-wave strain sensed by the detectors”
  11. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03844 – “This paper describes the transient noise backgrounds used to determine the significance of the event (designated GW150914) and presents the results of investigations into potential correlated or uncorrelated sources of transient noise in the detectors around the time of the event”
  12. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03843 – “We find that the reconstructed waveform is consistent with the signal from a binary black-hole merger with a chirp mass of ∼30M⊙ and a total mass before merger of ∼70M⊙ in the detector frame”
  13. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03841 – “Within our statistical uncertainties, we find no evidence for violations of general relativity in the genuinely strong-field regime of gravity”
  14. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03840 – Discusses the properties of the merger
  15. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03839 – “GW150914 was observed with a matched filter signal-to-noise ratio of 24 and a false alarm rate estimated to be less than 1 event per 203 000 years, equivalent to a significance greater than 5.1 {sigma}”
  16. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03838 – “At full sensitivity, the Advanced LIGO detectors are designed to deliver another factor of three improvement in the signal-to-noise ratio for binary black hole systems similar in masses to GW150914”

What were the particulate or energetic effects of the blackhole merger?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08764 – “The intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF) autonomously responded to and promptly tiled the error region of the first gravitational wave event GW150914 to search for an optical counterpart. We obtained radio data with the Very Large Array and X-ray follow-up with the Swift satellite for this transient. None of our candidates appear to be associated with the gravitational wave trigger, which is unsurprising given that GW150914 came from the merger of two stellar-mass black holes.”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08436 – “We discuss [high-energy neutrinos] emission in connection with the … event GW150914 which could be associated with a short gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) 0.4 s after the GW event and within localisation uncertainty of the GW event”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.07352 – “We argue that the physical constraints required by the association of the Fermi GBM signal contemporaneous with GW150914 are astrophysical highly implausible”
  4. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.06961 – “The recent detection of the gravitational wave source GW150914 by the LIGO collaboration motivates a speculative source for the origin of ultrahigh energy cosmic rays as a possible byproduct of the immense energies achieved in black hole mergers, provided that the black holes have spin … and there are relic magnetic fields and disk debris remaining from the formation of the black holes or from their accretion history”
  5. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05529 – “We model the afterglow of the Fermi GBM event associated with LIGO detection GW150914, under the assumption that the gamma-ray are produced by a short GRB-like relativistic outflow”
  6. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05411 – “We search for coincident neutrino candidates within the data recorded by the IceCube and ANTARES neutrino detectors. A possible joint detection could be used in targeted electromagnetic follow-up observations, given the significantly better angular resolution of neutrino events compared to gravitational waves.”
  7. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05140 – “The presence of at least one neutron star has long been thought to be an essential element of the model: its tidal disruption provides the needed baryonic material whose rapid accretion onto the post-merger black hole powers the burst. The recent tentative detection by the Fermi satellite of a short GRB in association with the gravitational wave signal GW150914 produced by the merger of two black holes has shaken this standard paradigm.”
  8. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05050 – “We find that the 1.4 GHz radio flux peaks at ∼1E5 sec after the burst trigger. The radio afterglow is detectable if the ambient matter is dense enough with density larger than ∼10E−2 cm^−3.”
  9. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04764 – “The observation of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory event GW150914 may be used to constrain the possibility of Lorentz violation in graviton propagation”
  10. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04735 – “Mergers of stellar-mass black holes are not expected to have electromagnetic counterparts. However, the Fermi GBM detector identified a gamma-ray transient 0.4 s after the gravitational wave (GW) signal GW150914 with consistent sky localisation”
  11. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04337 – “We briefly show how the very recent LIGO gravitational wave observation GW150914, emitted by a binary black hole merger distant ∼1.3 [billion] ly from the Earth, tightens the phenomenological bound on a massive graviton or on the screening of gravity”
  12. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04180 – “Our results constrain the ratio of the energy promptly released in gamma-rays in the direction of the observer to the gravitational wave energy”
  13. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03846 – ‘Astrophysical Implications of the Binary Black-Hole Merger GW150914’

How fast did the gravitational waves move through spacetime?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05882 – “Connaughton et al. report the discovery of a possible electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave event GW150914 discovered by LIGO. Assuming that the EM and GW are emitted at the same instant, a constraint is placed on the ratio of the speeds of light and gravitational waves at the level of 1E-17.”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04188 – “We point out that the observed time delay between the detection of the signal at the Hanford and Livingston LIGO sites from the gravitational wave event GW150914 places an upper bound on the speed of propagation of gravitational waves, c_gw ≲ 1.7 in the units of speed of light”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04460 – “The difference between the gravitational wave velocity and the speed of the light is found to be smaller than a factor of 1E-17, nicely in agreement with the prediction of general relativity theory”

LIGO can tell us how other observatories could spot gravitational waves (and perform follow-ups checks of the merger LIGO picked up on)

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.06951 – “We show that the black hole binary (BHB) coalescence rates inferred from the advanced LIGO detection of GW150914 imply an unexpectedly loud GW sky at milli-Hz frequencies accessible to the evolving Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), with several outstanding consequences”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04715 – “We discuss the prospects of eLISA for detecting gravitational waves from Galactic binary black holes similar to GW150914”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04488 – “… the LAT observed the entire LIGO localisation region within ~70 minutes of the trigger, and thus enabled a comprehensive search for a gamma-ray counterpart to GW150904. The study of the LAT data presented here did not find any potential counterparts to GW150904”
  4. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04156 – “We have searched for an optical counterpart to the first gravitational wave source discovered by the LIGO experiment, GW150914, using a combination of the Pan-STARRS1 wide-field telescope and the PESSTO spectroscopic follow-up programme”
  5. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03920 – Probing “the connection between compact binary mergers and short Gamma-ray bursts”
  6. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03868 – “We report on observations taken with the Swift satellite two days after the GW trigger. No new X-ray, optical, UV or hard X-ray sources were detected in our observations, which were focussed on nearby galaxies in the gravitational wave error region and covered 4.7 square degrees.”

Any other blackhole mergers out there?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1603.00884 – “… we systematically vary model assumptions within existing uncertainties and study their effects on the evolution of blackholes in globular clusters and the final structural properties of [the clusters]”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08767 – “We consider a system composed of ten black holes with initial mass of 30 M⊙. As a result, we show that mergers of accreting stellar-mass blackholes are classified into four types.”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.05554 – “Here we derived the binary black hole merger rate for isolated binary systems based on the nearby ultra-luminous X-ray source (ULX) luminosity function (LF)”
  4. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.04226 – “We explore the evolution of stellar mass black hole binaries which are formed in self-gravitating active galactic nuclei disks”
  5. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03842 – “Here we report on the constraints these observations place on the rate of binary blackhole coalescences. Considering only GW150914, assuming that all BBHs (BBH) in the universe have the same masses and spins as this event, imposing a false alarm threshold of 1 per 100 years, and assuming that the BBH merger rate is constant in the comoving frame, we infer a 90% credible range of 2−53/Gpc^3/year (comoving frame)”
  6. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.03790 – “The masses inferred for the black holes in the binary progenitor of GW150914 are amongst the most massive expected at anything but the lowest metallicities in our models. We discuss the implications of our analysis for the electromagnetic follow-up of future LIGO event detections.”

We still know nothing about dark matter and dark energy… right?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1603.00699 – Asks what the LIGO find can tell us about the nature and strength of dark energy
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1603.00464 – “We consider the possibility that the black-hole binary detected by LIGO may be a signature of dark matter. Interestingly enough, there remains a window for masses 10M⊙ ≲ M_bh ≲ 100M⊙ where primordial black holes may constitute the dark matter.”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.07670 – “We describe the minimal modification required for self-acceleration and show that its maximum likelihood yields a 2.4-sigma poorer fit to cosmological observations compared to a cosmological constant, which, although marginally still possible, questions the concept of cosmic acceleration”
  4. http://arxiv.org/abs/1509.08458 – “… gravitational-wave cosmology breaks the dark degeneracy in observations of the large-scale structure between two fundamentally different explanations of cosmic acceleration – a cosmological constant and a scalar-tensor modification of gravity”

Could the blackhole merger have done anything strange?

  1. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08759 – “After comparing the real and imaginary parts of the ringdown signal of GW150914 with the corresponding quantities for a variety of gravastars, and notwithstanding the very limited knowledge of the perturbative response of rotating gravastars, we conclude it is unlikely that GW150914 produced a rotating gravastar unless its surface is infinitesimally close to the event horizon”
  2. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.08086 – “The magnetospheric activity just before the merger made the FRB, and subsequently an undetected short GRB. The gravitational wave (GW) event GW150914 would be a sister of FRB 150418 in this second scenario. In both cases, one expects an exciting prospect of a GW/FRB/GRB associations.”
  3. http://arxiv.org/abs/1602.06526 – “We apply the delay in timing of FERMI GMB transient occurred in coincidence with gravitational waves event GW150914 observed by LIGO to constrain the size of the spherical brane-universe expanding in multi-dimensional space-time”

Obviously some papers belong in more than one category; I’ve binned them according to which categories the unanswered questions in them would best belong in. And why did I draw up this list? Boredom had a bit of a role to begin with but as I picked up more papers, it became harder to keep track of the different avenues of research. And as even more papers crop up, I’ll probably return to – and update – this list, but until then I think there’s fodder here enough for dozens of blog posts.