Of socks in black-holes and wasted stone tablets

Dennis Overbye, one of the New York Times‘s star science writers (the other being Carl Zimmer), had a curious piece up November 19 about why “we should leave some mysteries alone” and what mysteries he would like to leave alone personally. He wrote,

Jim Peebles, the famed cosmologist at Princeton University, once told me that if someone offered him a tablet of stone that held all the answers to the mysteries of the universe — how old it is, where it’s going — he would throw it away. The fun, he said, is in the attempt to find out. So here are some stone tablets that I would throw away.

The ‘curious’ aspect was made more so because Overbye was the author: he has a reputation as a lucid and articulate science writer. However, this piece is kind of a swamp.

The fundamental basis for Overbye’s provocative suggestion is that we “might be disappointed by the Big Reveal”. I’m not sure I agree with it – although it is in fact Overbye’s opinion and there is nothing I can or want to do about it.

I would choose differently for two reasons.

First: We will always have fantasies about the things around us, about the things we do or do not know of. Overbye says he does not want to know what is inside a black hole because finding out might force him to stop believing that a pair of socks he lost might be there. This is a perfectly harmless belief today. And I think it will be a perfectly harmless belief even after we find out what black-hole guts are made of.

Overbye doesn’t write serious science articles about his socks being inside a black hole faraway even though we don’t know what is inside black holes. This is because “we don’t know” is also a state of knowledge. It is not a void, an empty vessel to be freely populated with our whimsies, but an area carefully fenced-off and with restricted entry. When “we don’t know” isn’t stopping Overbye from assuming his socks are there, there is no reason “we do know” should.

If you are going to say, “It is because we might know how hot it is inside a black hole,” let me stop you right there. A logical breakdown is not helping anyone – and certainly not Overbye. Otherwise, his fantasy would have collapsed the moment he stopped to consider how his socks got inside the black hole in the first place. He is free to believe, as he does, that his socks are just there.

I personally believe the cheela really exist and that there are some kinds of stars out there whose outer surface is simply a curtain hiding a very advanced alien civilisation living on the inside. Because why not?

Second: I also firmly believe there will always be something we don’t know we don’t know – a.k.a. ‘unknown unknowns’ – and/or something we just don’t know – a.k.a. an unanswered question. We might be disappointed by the next “Big Reveal”, and the one after that, and the one after that, but I’m willing to bet it is turtles all the way down. There is never going to be a last “Big Reveal”. Which means we can always hope that the next reveal will be a big one, and we can always nurture this or that fantasy.

Now, the more interesting thing I wanted to discuss about Overbye’s piece was one line towards the end. Like many parts of his piece, it has a problem – and this one’s is elitism:

If we’re not smart enough to figure out [some futuristic tech by ourselves but instead do so by decrypting a note of alien origin], we don’t deserve to survive.

I realise this is a species-wide aspiration that Overbye is articulating and he probably means that we should deserve what we have. But it is too laconic for a line in its situation because it elides over human politics and suggests, at least to me, that every person only deserves to have what they have earned for themselves. If this is what he, or anyone, actually believes, then I do wish some kind of alien intervention proves them wrong with the hope that it levels the ‘playing field’.

We don’t deserve what we earn, we deserve what is right. It is hard to define this “right”; it could stand for different things in different contexts and cultures. The British writer George Monbiot provides a fitting example: ‘private luxury, public sufficiency’ might have been reasonable words to live by in a fully egalitarian society but in the Anthropocene epoch, they need to be ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’. ‘What is right’ is also certainly fair(er) because it addresses our moral responsibility to eradicate inequalities instead of pandering to the pseudo-superiority of biological smartness.

I would certainly enjoy reading a fantasy novel about an alien message being discernible only by adivasis because of some special vestment they acquired thousands of years ago, and for them to suddenly ascend to the top of the political pyramid. Would the adivasis have “figured it out”? We don’t know. But would the adivasis have deserved it? Absolutely. (Is everyone happy about it? Of course not, and for various reasons. Read the book to find out.)

What this means for Overbye’s wish is that we would deserve to survive if we figured out future technologies by reading an alien note instead of figuring it ourselves. This is because our own entirely human world already works this way. The inequalities we have perpetrated ensure that some people may never experience a better quality of life without quick and important interventions that empowers them to leap over systemic barriers. Whether that’s affirmative action or an extraterrestrial doodle doesn’t matter.

Even a very charitable interpretation of Overbye’s line above doesn’t come off properly. Will someone somewhere ever solve some of humanity’s problems to its overall benefit and availability? Definitely not. The prevailing world order does not admit it. In fact, as things stand, one of the wishes expressed in his article might just come true but not in a way Overbye might like. He writes:

And if we ever do stumble upon a message from some extraterrestrial civilisation, I don’t know want to know what it says. Knowing that aliens exist and imagining what they were up to would be enough to keep us busy for centuries.

We might not know that aliens exist if they do. The Atlantic recently had a wonderful feature about how the Chinese are likelier than any other to make first contact. If this does come to be – assuming it hasn’t already – what’s to say they won’t just keep the message to themselves? They have no obligation to share it with all of humanity, and their national government has cultivated the kind of authority necessary to keep such information a secret for however long it deems necessary.

In all, it seems Overbye’s reality is already populated with things that would be fantasies for most of the rest of the world, and the line he draws between what is already true (“what we do know”) and what he has a choice to believe (“what we don’t know”) is blurred by socio-political brushstrokes that he seems blind to. As a result, the choices he makes about which “stone tablets” he would throw away to preserve the mysteries surrounding them quickly becomes pernicious to those of us for whom many of these tablets are what we need to enjoy the kind of life that Overbye already has.

In this world – of not just the Chinese but more generally of those doing an atrocious job of balancing economic development with social justice – some stone tablets just should not be thrown away, sir.

The trouble with activism as expertise

There are two broad problems I’ve seen so far with writers/journalists quoting activists in science, health and environment stories as experts. (This post deals entirely with the Indian context.)

First: Who has time for activism? The answer almost always is someone on the mainland, far away from the place to which their activism actually applies, typically in a city. As a result, the activist is often unaware of ground realities, tends to be more idealistic than pragmatic and (often) has greater access to the media than people of other demographics.

Second: Who are activists? This is a prompt about what makes the activists ‘experts’. The answer is ‘nothing’ because activism is not on the same plane as expertise. However, reporters often conflate the two mantles because activists are more vocal, as well as louder, about what they believe should be the outcome whereas experts are typically quieter and harder to access.


These attributes spotlight the overarching responsibility of science journalism to interrogate and understand expertise, its forms and its function. IMO, the simplest way to conduct these exercises is to apply the editorial edict of “show, don’t tell” to all aspects of all science stories – including the quotes. Following this guideline could be good practice for everyone from rookies to pros, but it’s aimed mostly at rookies.

An important outcome of this is that it clarifies why expertise is better used to provide opinion, not fact, because the former is a variety of “show” and the latter, of “tell”. For example, you don’t use an expert’s quotes in a story to lay out how CRISPR works. That’s your responsibility as a science writer/journalist anyway. Instead, you ask them what they think about gene-edited human embryos, and probe further down that line.

In fact, assuming there’s a clear distinction between facts and opinions at all times, it’s important to separate experts from their facts and marshal them towards expressing their opinions as informed by those facts. Two reasons why. 1) Facts are immutable by definition, can be assimilated from more than one source (assuming availability) and don’t need expertise to be invoked. 2) Discussing opinions allows us to better scrutinise what this person believes instead of knows while silencing the prestige this person may have accrued for knowing. (That’s the popular conception of the scientific enterprise anyway.)

Generally, the edict works well to unravel expertise because it helps the writer know where the line is beyond which expertise transforms into authoritarianism (or behind which it devolves into naïvety). In pithier terms, it forces the writer to work harder to unpack a story by treading the fine line between respecting the authority of experts and not relying on it too much at the same time. It has the added advantages of allowing the writer to keep from editorialising and making it easier for the reader to assimilate their own (reasonable) takeaways.

So by all means quote a physicist who is also an activist with Greenpeace or whatever in a story about trophy-hunting. “Show, don’t tell” will help you cover your base as well as keep the expert from taking up anymore space in your story than is permissible. But this is for the rookie – and maybe the pro working in uncharted territory. The pro who is also in their comfort zone shouldn’t be quoting a physicist in the first place. One reason they are pros is because they know which problems should be solved using a given method.

Understanding the proton’s mass – and then the universe’s

You are taught in school that protons and neutrons are particles. However, unless you get into physics research later in life, the likeliest way you are going to find out that they are technically quasiparticles is through the science media. So here it is. 😄

Setting aside their electric charge, protons and neutrons are very similar particles. They have almost the same mass and they’re made up of exactly the same kinds of smaller particles. These smaller particles are called quarks and gluons. Three quarks and three gluons come together to form each proton or neutron. That is, protons and neutrons are technically quasiparticles because they are clumps of smaller particles that are grouped together and behave in a collective and predictable way.

This grainier picture of protons – and neutrons, but we’ll stick to protons because they’re both so similar – is necessary to understand their mass. In classical mechanics, the weight of a bag of oranges is equal to the weight of the bag plus the weight of all the oranges. But in quantum mechanics, and particle physics in particular, the mass of a proton need is not equal to the mass of the quarks that make it up (gluons are massless). This is because there are other energetic phenomena that ‘supply’ mass through the mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2).

My amazing illustration of the 'bag of oranges' problem.
My amazing illustration of the ‘bag of oranges’ problem.

Each proton weighs 938.2 MeV/c2 (a unit of mass unique to particle physics). It is made up of two up quarks – 2.4 MeV/c2 ×2 – and one down quark – 5 MeV/c2. That is just 9.8 MeV/c2 together. Where does the remaining 928.4 MeV/c2, or 98.95%, come from?

It comes mostly from the effects of one of the four fundamental forces, the strong nuclear force. A new paper authored by physicists from the US and China claims to show for the first time the precise contributions each of these effects towards the proton’s overall mass.

Since the 20th century, physicists have determined how much protons and neutrons weigh, and how much the quarks weigh, to a large degree of precision using experiments. But this hasn’t helped understand why protons weigh as much as they do because of the ‘bag of oranges’ problem. Additionally, quarks acquire their masses through the Higgs mechanism (involving the Higgs boson) whereas protons don’t because they are not fundamental particles. So there is something else that kicks in between the quarks and protons layers.

An amazing schematic illustrating the need for theoretical calculations.
An amazing schematic illustrating the need for theoretical calculations.

To understand what this is, physicists need to perform pen and paper computer calculations using the theory of these particles. There are two theories, as in ways of studying the interactions of particles, they could use here. One is called the Standard Model of particle physics, which strives to predict the properties of all known elementary particles (including the Higgs boson) in a single framework. The other is the framework of quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. It strives specifically to explain the behaviour of the strong nuclear force and the quarks it acts on (the force is mediated by gluons).

While previous studies to determine the proton’s mass using theoretical methods have been attempted, they have focused on using the Standard Model route, which is less difficult (but not significantly so) and involves more assumptions. The US/Chinese study takes the QCD route. This is useful because it will help physicists understand how contributions to the proton’s mass are rooted in concepts specific to QCD.

QCD is a very strange and difficult theory, and its effects show up as weird properties. For example, one effect is called colour confinement: it is impossible to tear apart clumps of quarks and gluons below the Hagedorn temperature (2,000,000,000,000 K, one of two known ‘absolute hot’ temperatures). It arises because of the properties of the energy field – a.k.a. the gluonic field – between two nearby quarks.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that you can’t know the momentum and position of a particle with the same precision at the same time. But colour confinement actually confines the position of quarks – so the uncertainty principle suggests that its momentum can be quite large. Physicists have previous calculated that this momentum could contribute a mass (through Einstein’s mass-energy-momentum equivalence) of a few hundred MeV/c2. Now we’re getting somewhere, although we still have aways to go.

The US/Chinese scientists used a technique called lattice QCD to take these calculations to the next level. Lattice QCD was developed because QCD is so difficult, and it is so difficult because the strong nuclear force is so strong. In fact, it is the strongest of the four forces, and prevents neutron stars from collapsing into black holes. The studies of other particles, such as quantum electrodynamics of electrons, don’t require specialised techniques because the force between electrons is not so strong.

More importantly, like most areas of modern physics, the real innovation in the present study comes from advancements in computing techniques (see here and here for examples from astronomy and materials science, resp.). The US/Chinese scientists developed new algorithms to solve lattice QCD problems better and also reduce errors. (According to their paper: “We present a simulation strategy to calculate the proton mass decomposition”.) As a result, they have elucidated four distinct contributions to the proton’s mass, from the following sources:

  • Quark condensate
  • Quark energy
  • Gluonic field strength energy
  • Anomalous gluonic contribution

The interesting thing here is that the quark condensate is different from the other three sources because it is the only one made up entirely of just quarks. It contributes only ~9% to the proton’s mass. Also, earlier in this post, we saw that just adding up the masses of the constituent quarks yielded 1.05% of the proton’s mass. The new calculation says it is about 9%. The remaining 7.95% appears to come from virtual strange quarks – i.e. strange quarks popping in and out of existence in the vacuum of space – the up and down quarks’ interactions with them.

The quark structure of a proton. The wiggly lines represent gluons. Caption: Jacek rybak/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
The quark structure of a proton. The wiggly lines represent gluons. Caption: Jacek rybak/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The other three sources involve the dynamics of quark-gluon interactions and the strong nuclear force that keeps them confined inside a proton. Quark energy relates to the kinetic energies of the confined quarks and gluonic field strength, to the kinetic energies of the confined gluons. They contribute 32% and 37% respectively. The anomalous gluonic contribution has to do with complex interactions between the constituent quarks and all virtual quarks (i.e. all charm, strange, bottom and top quarks popping in and out of existence in the vacuum). It pitches in with about 23%.

In sum: 1 proton’s mass = 9% quark condensate + 32% quark energy + 37% gluonic field + 23% anomalous gluonic contribution. (That’s actually 101% but becomes 100% if we use less approximate, more accurate values.)

We could also slice this thus: 1 proton’s mass = 9% quark condensate + 91% quark-gluon dynamics. Imagine there is an alternate universe where all the quarks have zero mass. The quark condensate contributes only ~9% to the proton’s mass, so in this alternate universe, protons and neutrons would still weigh 91% as much as protons and neutrons in our universe. This is possible thanks once again to the effects and strength of the strong nuclear force.

Let us take this just one step further. 1) Each proton and neutron weighs almost 1,900-times as much as an electron. 2) Protons, neutrons and electrons make up all the matter in the universe. 3) Electrons aren’t made up of quarks and gluons (i.e. they are not quasiparticles). All together, the non-quark contribution effectively makes up ~89% of all the mass of all the matter in the universe.

Engineering a way out of global warming

After its licentious article about Earth having a second moon, I thought National Geographic had published another subpar piece when I saw this headline:

Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming for Years

The headline is click-bait. The article itself is about how regional nuclear war, such as between two countries like India and Pakistan, can have global consequences, especially on the climate and agriculture. That it wouldn’t take World War III + nuclear winter for the entire world to suffer the consequences of a few – not hundreds of – nuclear explosions. And that we shouldn’t labour with the presumption that detonating a few nuclear bombs would be better than having to set all of them off. So I wouldn’t have used that headline – which seems to suggest we should maybe implanting the atmosphere with thousands of tonnes of some material to cool the planet down.

I don’t think it’s silly to come to that conclusion. Scientists at the oh-so-exalted Harvard and Yale Universities are suggesting something similar: injecting the stratosphere with an aerosol to absorb heat and cool Earth’s surface. Suddenly, global warming isn’t our biggest problem, these guys are. Through a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, they say that it would be both feasible and affordable to “cut the rate of global warming in half” (source: CNN) using this method. From their paper:

Total pre-start costs to launch a hypothetical SAI effort 15 years from now are ~$3.5 billion in 2018 US $. A program that would deploy 0.2 Mt of SO2 in year 1 and ramp up linearly thereafter at 0.2 Mt SO2/yr would require average annual operating costs of ~$2.25 billion/yr over 15 years. While these figures include all development and direct operating costs, they do not include any indirect costs such as for monitoring and measuring the impacts of SAI deployment, leading Reynolds et al (2016) to call SAI’s low costs a solar geoengineering ‘trope’ that has ‘overstayed its welcome’. Estimating such numbers is highly speculative. Keith et al (2017), among others, simply takes the entire US Global Change Research Program budget of $3 billion/yr as a rough proxy (Our Changing Planet 2016), more than doubling our average annual deployment estimates.


Whether the annual number is $2.25 or $5.25 billion to cut average projected increases in radiative forcing in half from a particular date onward, these numbers confirm prior low estimates that invoke the ‘incredible economics’ of solar geoengineering (Barrett 2008) and descriptions of its ‘free driver’ properties (Wagner and Weitzman 2012, 2015, Weitzman 2015).

My problem isn’t that these guys undertook their study. Scientifically devised methods to engineering the soil and air to slow or disrupt global warming have been around for many decades (including using a “space-based solar shield”). The present study simply evaluated one idea to find that it is eminently possible and that it could deliver a more than acceptable return per dollar spent (notwithstanding the comment on unreliable speculation and its consequences). Heck, the scientists even add:

Dozens of countries would have both the expertise and the money to launch such a program. Around 50 countries have military budgets greater than $3 billion, with 30 greater than $6 billion.

I’m all for blue-sky research – even if this particular analysis may not qualify in that category – and that knowing something is an end in and of itself. I.e., knowledge cannot be useless because knowing has value. Second: I don’t think any government or organisation is going to be able to implement a regional, leave alone global, SAI programme just because this paper has found that it is a workable idea. Then again, ability is not the same as consideration and consideration has its consequences as well.

My grouse is with a few lines in the paper’s ‘Conclusion’, where the scientists state that they “make no judgment about the desirability of [stratospheric aerosol injection].” They go on to state that their work is solely from an “engineering perspective” – as if to suggest that should anyone seriously consider implementing SAI, their paper is happy to provide the requisite support.

However, the scientists should have passed judgment about the desirability of SAI instead of copping out. I can’t understand why they chose to do so; it is the easiest conclusion in the whole enterprise. No policymaker or lawmaker who thinks anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real is going to consider this method to deal with the problem (or maybe they will, who knows; the Delhi government thinks it’s responding right by installing giant air filters in public spaces). As David Archer, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, told CNN:

It will be tempting to continue to procrastinate on cleaning up our energy system, but we’d be leaving the planet on a form of life-support. If a future generation failed to pay their climate bill they would get all of our warming all at once.

By not judging the “desirability of SAI”, the scientists have effectively abdicated their responsibility to properly qualify the nature and value of their work, and situate it in its wider political context. They have left the door open to harmful use of their work as well. Consider the difference between a lawmaker brandishing a journal article that simply lays out the “engineering perspective” and another having to deal with an article that discusses the engineering as well as the desirability vis-à-vis the nature and scope of AGW.

A fair trial

BBC News Africa undertook an excellent investigation to reveal that a group of men who killed four unarmed civilians – two women and two children – in 2015 belonged to the Cameroonian military. Fourteen journalists worked on the story, together with Amnesty International, using Google Earth imagery, satellite images, social media, prior news reports and one anonymous source.

The journalists described their process in a tweet thread in September 2018, which has been retweeted over 57K times since. But oddly, towards the end of the thread, the BBC News Africa account makes a troubling suggestion that departs in spirit from the rest of the enterprise, which appears to have been level-headed and measured.

We all understand – and the BBC also establishes – that the killings were abhorrent. But the two tweets above, which appeared in that order, seem to suggest that the soldiers should not be given a fair trial because they did not give the women and children they killed a fair trial.

All trials must be fair irrespective of the heinousness of the crime or the moral vacuum of their perpetrators. This is an unpopular opinion these days but an unfair trial will only jeopardise the authority of humanitarian justice, not to mention delegitimise the judiciary and make it difficult for Cameroon to get the support of other governments.

A court is highly unlikely to find the soldiers innocent, thanks to the efforts of BBC News Africa, and if that happens, it will likely be due to an unfair trial. But if the soldiers are found guilty, the legitimacy of the process should cement it, not detract from it. The fourteen journalists + Amnesty followed that process. They should ask that Cameroon’s institutions do so as well.

On the New Yorker’s ‘EDS doctor’ story

A fascinating tale in the New Yorker: Michael Holick, a medical researcher and doctor at the Boston University, Massachusetts, has been finding that many American families that have had their babies taken away from them because State Services suspected abuse are in fact up against a little-known disease, called hypermobile Ehler-Danlos syndrome (EDS). The story typically goes like: family finds bruises on baby, rushes to doctor, doctor finds other bruises all together consistent with abuse, notifies state, State Services separates family and baby with emergency order, baby given to custody of guardian, case goes to trial.

Enter Holick, who, with his hypermobile EDS diagnosis, gives stranded families a new way to deal with an already difficult problem. But it’s not so straightforward. For one, Holick’s ideas are not supported by the scientific literature (nor by people known to have EDS, although this is not directly written in the story). For another, he diagnoses the babies at a rate inconsistent with the affliction’s known prevalence. For a third, he diagnoses babies of hypermobile EDS without seeing them first. In fact, as with most New Yorker stories, a summary is only going to diminish the journey of discovery necessary to understand the story in its fullness, so please go ahead and read it.

In the meantime – some of my notes after reading:

1. The New Yorker story seems to be missing details of whether the babies continued to bruise after they are returned to their parents’ custody. The story begins and ends with fractures that occur before Holick enters the families’ lives. It would be interesting to know if physical injuries, although not necessarily at the level of fracture, continued after as well.

2. It sounds to me like Holick’s research into hypermobile EDS is funded by families he has freed from the blame of child abuse using the explanation of hypermobile EDS. This is a severe conflict of interest. If this cycle was broken, and the donations from families redirected to a fund administered by scientists acting on the basis of empirical evidence, it would be interesting to see if Holick can convert some of his insights into usable data. He could also be disabused of his belief that the burden of proof is on others, not on him, when he has little proof himself (“He said that those who find fault with his views should … do studies of their own”).

2. Holick says that, before him, the conviction rate in child abuse cases used to be 100%, and after him, the rate dropped to about 90%. So in 10% of those cases, did the prosecution win the case despite Holick’s expert testimony? It would be interesting to find out more about these cases – especially if Holick was convinced that the babies had hypermobile EDS while the prosecution was able to prove that they didn’t, and that the babies had actually been abused. It could also highlight whether Holick holds an EDS conclusion before he has proof.

3. At one point in the story, a judge seems really impressed by Holick’s “172-page résumé”. I don’t know if the “résumé” here refers to Holick’s alternative explanation, in document form, of how a baby in question could have been injured or to his professional record. If it’s the latter, then it’s weird that it is 172 pages long: a résumé by definition is brief. The longer version is the curriculum vitae; although most people regularly use the two labels interchangeably, the New Yorker is also famous for its pedantry. So it’s reasonable to assume the judge was impressed by his alternative explanation – but I think the magazine should still clarify. Otherwise, it sounds like the judge is impressed by his CV and that’s never a good thing.

4. The aftermath of the 2014 interaction between Holick and Robert Sege is remarkable. To me, Holick’s reaction (that the hospital he works at expects him to “cease and desist”) gives away his insecurity about his position and his beliefs. I don’t think he’d have reacted this way if he’d had empirical evidence to back him up. The interaction also exemplifies the basis of his opponents’ vehemence: by not submitting to the traditional methods of medical enquiry, Holick is keeping the door open for potential medical malpractice, though it may not be deliberate. More importantly, if he gets just one diagnosis wrong in a trial that ends up compromised for it, things can get really bad really fastfor the baby.

A culture of communication

Srinavasa Chakravarthy, presumably a mathematician going by a reference in his post, penned an open letter for TH Read about how Indian scientists

… rarely follow the scientific work of [our] Indian colleagues, perhaps because such attention has no practical and material consequence. Thus, we constantly face what is popularly called a double whammy. As it is, the Western academics care two hoots about our work and, what’s more, we are also written off by our beloved compatriots.

In all, Chakravarthy’s is an impassioned plea to his peers to fumble in the dark the way they were told scientists generally do, and forge their own paths instead of kowtowing after their Western counterparts. There are many dimensions to this entreaty. For example, @polybiotique, @Vasishtasetty and @leslee_lazar – all students of science – engaged in a discussion on Twitterabout whether Chakravarthy was disingenuous in not citing the many examples of scientists and science journalists who are, in fact, being Indianand original in their work.

As a science writer and editor myself, I found this part of his plea to be a bit annoying:

The somewhat dogmatic mindset has crept beyond the walls of our academic campuses also. How often do we see the local media covering the scientific work of an Indian colleague? I once saw a piece of work on computational neuroscience from a United States university reported in a local Chennai paper. It is a standard piece of work. Many of us in India have more interesting things to say. Why isn’t it talked about as much? I asked. I was told that the media doesn’t like to cover Indian science, as much as it does science from abroad, simply because the readers don’t like to read about it.

It is odd that Chakravarthy chose to lead with the example of a “local Chennai paper” when he could have chosen the national Chennai paper, The Hindu, and its famous science section. Indeed, analogous to the Twitter discussion, science journalists I have spoken to often feel a twinge of pain when their work isn’t being read or acknowledged. Part of the problem is that consumers of science journalism – just as with the scientists in Chakravarthy’s piece – stick to their usual sources and passively, though not inexcusably, miss instances of it that are goodIndian and original. So on this count, I would say Chakravarthy comes off as disingenuous for not expanding his science-writing menu.

At the same time, his choice of a “local Chennai paper” is instructive. While change must begin somewhere, it is at the level of the local paper that it will be most impactful. (Let’s think in terms of voltage: the potential difference between those writing about science and those reading about it is higher the more local you take it.) However, to expect local papers to change first would be silly. In the realm of incremental changes, a large problem is solved first where it is easiest to solve, so national newsrooms are leading the way.

At this point, in order for me to not seem disingenuous to my peers, I should mention that half the reason any Indian newsroom with a science section struggles to cover science is the Indian scientist. Just as much as you need an earnest science journalist to reach out to a scientist, you need an earnest scientist to respond meaningfully and in time. Many of my writers regularly receive the following response from scientists they’ve reached out to: “All the information is there in the paper” – betraying a severe lack of understanding of what science communication is for and/or about. My personal favourite is a researcher who responded (on a story about amorphous superconductors) after two months and then complained that his quote wasn’t used.

On the other hand, it is easy to write about Western science because scientists in the West are so damned prompt. The cost of writing a science story is much lower if, on average, I have to work with Western scientists. And if we’re wondering whether this problem reflects or contributes to a hierarchy, the answer is ‘yes’ both ways.

Let’s call it the cost tree: the lowest branches are populated by Western scientists, and the point is to bring Indians higher up to lower ground. Those Indian scientists already there include those educated in the West, those exposed to – and who endorse – the culture of communication, or both. For example, it is very ease to draw a quote from a scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru but very difficult to get one from a researcher at BITS Pilani. It also matters what the scientist thinks of the journalist. A researcher will sooner speak to someone from The Hindu than to someone writing for The Wire (although this is a strictly personal opinion). More broadly, a scientist is likelier to speak to a more engaged journalist than to a less engaged one, and the former cost more to commission and are typically approached for longer stories. TL;DR: There needs to be empathy on both sides for this to work.

One quick-fix for this problem is to eliminate a simple barrier: that of the unknown-unknowns. For scientists who are unaware of good, Indian and original science writing, a common reference list can be curated by scientists and media-persons alike, and added to with time. For science journalists, a similar list of Indian scientists who are available to speak to, and who have been known to respond meaningfully and in time can be curated.

Recently, an effort was made over Twitter to curate a list of scientists for science journalists. Thanks to my poor record-keeping, I’m not able to find the resulting spreadsheet right now – although here’s a Twitter list compiled by Pranesh Prakash that you can sign up to. Now, establishments like the Times of India, which regularly present bad science, and Hindustan TimesDeccan Chronicle, etc., which do so less frequently, have one less excuse to publish unverified/unqualified reports.

IMO, this is the easier part: English-speaking science journalists can be expected to congregate on Twitter; those who aren’t on the platform still have colleagues or peers who are. If you work for a digital newsroom, you’re expected to have a functional Twitter handle. However, how many scientists – who aren’t required to be on Twitter – are? More importantly, is there one forum where Indian scientists congregate? I’m all ears.

Featured image credit: Pavan Trikutam/Unsplash.

NatGeo clickbait

National Geographic article published on November 6 carried a surprising headline:

Earth has two extra, hidden ‘moons’

The lede followed through:

Earth’s moon may not be alone. After more than half a century of speculation and controversy, Hungarian astronomers and physicists say they have finally confirmed the existence of two Earth-orbiting “moons” entirely made of dust.

This sounds strange because there has been little else in the news about dust-moons in the last few years. No major discoveries are made in one instant, and can often be anticipated many years in advance through discussions among scientists. However, the rest of the article put paid to the doubt.

The ‘dusty moons’ National Geographic alludes to are in fact the Kordylewski dust clouds. Late last month, a group of Hungarian astronomers confirmed the presence of these clouds, located in two different directions at about the same distance Moon is from Earth.

Astronomers have been debating the existence of these clouds since the 1950s. In that decade, an astronomer named Kazimierz Kordylewski climbed a mountain and photographed parts of the night sky where these clouds had been predicted by other astronomers before him to exist. The dust clouds have since been called Kordylewski clouds in his honour.

However, confirming their presence has taken so long even though they’re so close to Earth because of their brightness – or lack of it. They are too faint to spot because the stars in their background far outshine them, even at this distance. But they aren’t completely obscured either: they reflect sunlight in feeble amounts, giving themselves away to the persistent observer.

Although Kazimierz Kordylewski found the dust clouds this way, the Hungarian group was more sophisticated. According to their two published papers (here and here), they took advantage of dust’s ability to polarise light. Waves of light are in fact waves of electric and magnetic fields undulating through space at right angles to each other.

The electric fields of different waves point in different directions. But when they hit a dust particle, they get polarised: the electric fields all line up. This is how sunglasses work: the lenses are filters that don’t let light of certain polarisations pass through, cutting glare.

Like all astronomical discoveries, their finding will have to be validated by independent observers before the community reaches a consensus. But in the meantime, the claimed discovery is a matter of concern because of where the Kordylewski clouds are located: at two Lagrange points.

The Lagrange – or libration – points are places in space where the gravitational fields of the Sun, Moon and Earth tug at each other such that an object at that point will be in an Earth-synchronous orbit around the Sun.

Scientists like stationing satellites at these points because they can stay in orbit with much less fuel spent than if they were stationed elsewhere. However, now we (may) know the Kordylewski clouds are located at the points labelled L4 and L5. This means satellites stationed there will have to carry protective shielding. Otherwise, dust particles could  damage sensitive instruments and end the mission before its time.

However, the Kordylewski clouds can’t be classified as moons, although they can be as natural satellites. Judit Slíz-Balogh, a coauthor of the current study and an astronomer at the Eötvös Loránd University, calls them “pseudo-satellites”. The distinction is important because, even when bracketed between single- or double-quotes, the label of moon can’t be applied to a dust cloud.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), which decides the meaning of astronomical terms like planet, star, etc., defines a moon only as a planet’s natural satellite. However, that isn’t license to call every natural satellite a moon. (In fact, one of the definitions of a planet would make our Moon a planet, too.)

But a size-based organisational paradigm would imply that an object much smaller than the moon would have to be called a moonlet. For example: Saturn’s moon Pan, which is 35 km at its widest. Something even smaller will have to make do with the catch-all label ‘particles’. Then again, the paradigm falters with the overall form of the satellite. For another example: the dust, ice and rocks that make up Saturn’s rings are called ‘ring particles’ even though some of them weigh a few quintals.

Carolyn Collins Petersen, a former member of the Hubble Space Telescope instrument team, wrote for ThoughtCo. earlier this year, “There is no official definition of ‘moonlet’ and ‘ring particle’ by the … IAU. Planetary scientists have to use common sense to distinguish between these objects.”

Importantly, it would be counterproductive to argue that anything goes because there is no technical definition. To the contrary, especially with science communication, it is important to use words whose meanings are generally agreed upon. ‘Natural satellites of dust’ would have helped that cause better than ‘”Moons” made of dust’.

The Wire
November 9, 2018

Featured image credit: Lucas Ludwig/Unsplash.

Twitter ≠ reality


Vijaya Gadde is the “Legal, Policy and Trust and Safety Lead at Twitter”. Her replies are to Indian right-wingers on Twitter demanding to know why Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey saw fit to be photographed holding a poster with the words “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” on it.

Her copy-pasted apology, while clarifying that the picture wasn’t “relective” of Twitter’s views, certainly seems to reflect the all-important difference between reality and social media platforms: everyone’s participation is better for business, Mark and Jack believe, including that of the the idiots and the barbarians. Otherwise, there’s no need @vijaya would have to apologise to a bunch of trolls engaging in whataboutery and intent on misunderstanding the phrase on the poster.

From the positions of reason, civility and constitutionality, nobody should have to apologise for standing by the message “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy”. Or even have to clarify that “smash” isn’t a call to violence, that “Brahmanical” is very specific to the Indian context, that “patriarchy” is not a synonym for “man-hater”. Shouldn’t have to respond to idiots.

We saw exactly the same thing happen with Facebook in September, when its sole right-wing fact-checker – The Weekly Standard – objected to a partially wrong story by a liberal outlet – Think Progress – and had it blocked from being viewed on the platform. Think Progress got mad, wrote an angry oped and its supporters slathered the left media space with more. The Weekly Standard held its ground (reasonably so, the Think Progress article’s headline was evidently wrong). But Facebook just sat there, smug in its belief that it was doing good.

Dead animal pics

I think the media needs to adopt a rule about not displaying raw footage of dead animals, especially if they’re in a poor state. It’s gross, undignified and triggering – but most of all, it’s used to convey a very narrow-minded view of a complex problem.

The gross factor ties into the question of dignity: animals need to be shown the way they might be had they been alive. Using their dead, deformed bodies to inspire action on the part of some humans is not fair. The use of such images also triggers guilt, which is not useful when you want the outcome to be positive change.

But the biggest issue is that by using the image of an animal devoid of all agency, apparently at the mercy of human justice, you’re driving home a point more specifically defined than it should actually be: that it’s about saving the animals. It’s not.

Sure, we need to save the animals – but in the process we need to be solving an actual problem as well. Instead, ‘saving the animals’ has been too frequently used as a rallying cry for having done some kind of good when really it’s just been a distraction from doing the more difficult thing.

Recently, when that whale was found dead near a beach in Indonesia with 115 plastic cups in its belly, the gory image was used in the press as if to remind the people that they’re not supposed to be dumping plastic in the sea. I think that’s a problem.

Yes, our world is a consumerist nightmare that’s driving climate change and widespread resource inequalities. However, saving the animals is not the point here. Some whales are dying but if we’re to save all of them, the conversation we need to have is about how we’re going to stop manufacturing plastics and start recycling all of the rest. If we do that, the animals will be automatically saved.

Instead, we’ve got news reports almost entirely fixated on marine plastics and not talking about the way we make, transport, consume and trash plastics at all. This is what fixating on dead or dying animals does: refashions a problem to be far more downstream than and different from what it actually is.