Groundwater extinction

In a report published on June 14, 2018, NITI Aayog, a policy think-tank established by the Government of India, claimed that 21 Indian cities would run out of their supply of groundwater by 2020. The report, especially this statistic, went on to be widely cited as a figure representing the water crisis currently facing the country (including multiple reports on The Wire). However, it appears now that this claim may not in fact be accurate.

Joanna Slater, the India bureau chief of The Washington Post, reported through a series of tweets on June 28 that NITI Aayog’s claim could be the result of a questionable extrapolation of district-level data provided by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), a body under the Union ministry of water resources. The claim in the report itself is attributed to the World Bank, the World Resources Institute (WRI), Hindustan Times and The Hindu.

However, according to Slater’s follow-ups, the WRI wasn’t the source of the claim, whereas other news reports had attributed it to the World Bank. When Slater reached out to the organisation, it denied knowledge the claim’s provenance. After she reached out to Niti Aayog, it pointed its finger at the CGWB, and which in turn denied having claimed that the 21 cities would not have access to groundwater after 2020.

The eventual source turned out to be a CGWB report published in June 2017, a year before Niti Aayog’s report was out, and with data updated until March 2013. It provided data showing that Indian cities (gauged at the district-level) are using their respective supply of groundwater faster than the resource is being replenished; the ongoing crisis in the city of Chennai is proof that this is true. But the report doesn’t account for groundwater replenishment efforts after 2013 as well as contributions from “sources like lakes and reservoirs” (to use Slater’s words).

Slater and others have said that faulty claims are not the way to illustrate this crisis, even if the crisis itself may be real. One unintended side-effect is that such reports might give the impression that we are in more trouble than we really are, which in turn could leave people feeling helpless, despondent and unwilling to act further.

Second, at a time when both the state and central governments are being forced to pay attention to water issues, making a problem seem worse than it actually is could support solutions we don’t need at the expense of addressing problems that we ignored.

For example, the BBC published a report in February last year stating that Bengaluru would soon run out of drinking and bathing water because the lakes surrounding the city weren’t clean enough. However, S. Vishwanath, a noted proponent of the sustainable use of water in the city, rebutted on Citizen Matters focusing on four reasons the BBC’s claim diverted attention from actual problems (quoting verbatim):

  1. “Bengaluru never has depended on its lakes and tanks formally for its water supply since the commissioning of the Hesarghatta project in 1896
  2. Even if we imagine the population of the Bengaluru metropolitan area to be 2.5 crores, rainwater itself [comes up to] 109 litres per head per day
  3. Wastewater treatment and recycling is picking up, thanks to sustained pressure from civil society and courts
  4. Most … doomsday predictions actually don’t take into account that the groundwater table is pretty high in the city centre … due to the availability of Cauvery water and leakages getting recharged in the ground”

In similar vein, the Tamil Nadu state government plans to set up two more desalination plants to quench Chennai’s thirst. Given that the real problem in Chennai is that the city destroyed the rivers it banked on and paved over natural groundwater recharge basins, water-related crises in the future become opportunities for the government to usher in ‘development’ projects without addressing the underlying causes.

The Wire
June 29, 2019

Assuming you speak Hindi…

I can’t use the terms ‘Gaganyaan’ and ‘Vyomanaut’ or ‘Gaganaut’ in place of ‘Indian human spaceflight mission’ and ‘Indian astronauts’ because of the bad taste the use of Hindi leaves on my tongue these days. I speak Hindi when I am in Delhi, and I am there often, but the moment I am expected to speak it in a context where such an expectation shouldn’t really exist, my brain automatically stops parsing Hindi words. So when a cab driver asks me where to go in Hindi in Delhi, that’s okay, but it’s not at all okay when a customer care agent in Mumbai calling someone in Bangalore assumes Hindi is the lingua franca.

It is a somewhat understandable attitude prevalent in North India, where almost everyone speaks Hindi and it’s a safe bet to assume you will be understood if you spoke it, but I don’t buy this as an excuse. Why? Because the underlying assumption has been rendered more and more offensive by the Bharatiya Janata Party – the assumption that everyone speaks it, and if they don’t, then they should. Well, if I should, then I am not going to.

The words ‘Gaganyaan’, ‘Vyomanaut’ and ‘Gaganaut’, as well as ‘Mangalyaan’, are reprehensible for the same reason. It’s not clear whether ISRO named them or the government but somehow they ended up with Hindi/Sanskrit prefixes.

I suspect the government was involved for three reasons. First, the Hindi/Sanskrit names have been foisted only on the most prestigious missions of the Indian space programme, and not on the likes of Cartosat, Risat, Astrosat, Scatsat (which certainly deserves a better name), etc. Second, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been known to rechristen missions, as he did with the IRNSS (by changing its name to NAVIC), as if he’s branding them with the stamp of his rule. Third, it was Modi who used the term ‘Gaganyaan’ when he announced the spaceflight mission in his Independence Day speech last year.

ISRO could simply have called these supposedly flagship missions by their English names, but in Hindi, it sounds as if the organisation is sucking up. CMB Bharat roused the same suspicion. It’s a proposal for a space science mission led by scientists from the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. If it is approved, built and launched, CMB Bharat (blech) will study an extremely old volume of radiation still lingering in the universe from the time of the Big Bang. My question is about why the scientists behind the proposal saw fit to call it ‘CMB Bharat’ over ‘CMB India’. Is a file with this name on it likelier to catch the attention of the higher-ups?

Hindi is India’s official language but so is English. And if English has been taboo because of its colonialist associations, then Hindi is taboo now because of its Hindutva associations.

Frankly, I don’t know what the alternative could have been, but I would personally have preferred that they had gone with English over Hindi (more reasons enumerated here). India still has a colonial hangover problem in many ways but that stopped being a good-enough reason to reject the language long ago. After globalisation, especially, being able to speak English has meant access to better education and better jobs. What rewards does being able to speak in Hindi bring, other than letting you wander around in North India?

The government’s bias towards Hindi might have made better sense if English hadn’t been in the picture or if this was 1948. But here we are in 2019, and English is very much in the picture. If it is a bridge language that India’s administrators-in-chief seek, then it must be not implemented as such without the approval of all state governments (since states have been linguistically demarcated in India) and not in a way that edges out any of the other languages from their rightful place in the public consciousness.

Most of all, that obnoxious assumption should be shot and buried.

To be a depressed person reading about research on depression

It’s a strangely unsettling experience to read about research on an affliction that one has, to understand how scientists are obtaining insights into it using a variety of techniques that allow them to look past the walls of the human and into their mind, so to speak, with the intention of developing new therapeutic techniques or improving old ones. This is principally because it suggests, to me, that we – humankind – don’t scientifically know about X in toto whereas I – the individual sufferer – claims to understand what it is like to live with X.

Of course, I concede that the experiment in question is an exercise in quantification and doesn’t seek (at least if its authors so intend) to displace my own experience of the condition. Nonetheless, the tension exists, especially when scientists claim to be able to model X with a set of equations.

Do they suggest I’m a set of equations, that they claim to understand how I have been living my life for eight years using a bunch of symbols on paper through which they think they could divine my entire being?

I have been learning, writing and reading about physics for the last decade and have been a science journalist and editor since 2012. Experiences in this time have allowed me a privileged view (mostly for the short span in which it could be assimilated) of what the scientific enterprise is, how it works, how scientific knowledge is organised, etc. As a result, I believe I am better placed to understand, for example, the particular mode of reductionism employed when scientists simulate a predetermined part of this or that condition in order to understand it better.

This isn’t a blanket empathy, however; it’s more an admission of open-mindedness, such as it is. While not speaking about a specific experiment, I have come to understand that such de facto reductive experiments are necessary – especially when the evolution of certain significant parameters can be carefully controlled – because the corresponding results are otherwise impossible to deduce through other means, at least with the same quality. In fact, in my view, this is less reductionism and invisibilisation and more ansatz and heuristics.

This is why I also see a flip side: the way scientists approach the problem, so to speak, has potential to redefine some aspects of my relationship with the affliction for the better. (It was a central part of my CBT programme.) To be clear, this isn’t about the prescriptive nature of what the scientists have been able to conclude through their studies and experiments but about the questions they chose to ask and the ways in which they decided to answer, and evaluate, them.

For example, on June 17, the journal Nature Human Behaviour published a paper that concluded, based on reinforcement learning techniques, that “anxious or depressed humans change their behaviour much faster after something bad happens”, to quote from an explanatory post written by one of the authors. They were able to do so because, “for each real person – those with mood and anxiety symptoms and those without – we [could] generate an artificial computerised agent that mimics their behaviour.”

Without commenting at all on the study’s robustness or the legitimacy of the paper, I’d say this sounds about right from personal experience: I display “mood and anxiety symptoms” and tend to play things very safe, which often means I’m very slow to have new experiences. Now, I have the opportunity to conduct a few experiments of my own to better ascertain that this is the case and then devise solutions, assisted by the study’s methods, that will help me eliminate this part of the problem. As the same note states, “Developing a deeper understanding of [how] symptoms emerge may eventually allow us to close [the] treatment gap” (with reference to the success rate of CBT  medication, apparently about 66-75%).

Which brings me to the other thing about research on an affliction that one has: it exposes you. This may not seem like a significant problem but from the individual’s perspective, it can be. When a discovery that is specific to my condition is broadcast, I often feel, if only at first, that I am no longer in control of what people do and don’t know about me. Maybe “it’s textbook”, as they say, but I will never acknowledge that about myself even if it is, at whichever level, true, nor would I like others to believe that I am as predictable as a set of equations would have it – but at the same time I don’t want anyone to believe the method of interrogation employed in the study is illegitimate.

Thankfully, this feeling often dissipates quickly because the public narrative, at least among scientists, who are also likely to be discussing the findings for longer, is often depersonalised. However, there is that brief period of heightened apprehension – a sense of social nudity, as it were – and I have wondered if it tempts people into conforming with preset templates of public conduct vis-à-vis their affliction: either be completely open about it or completely closed off. I chose to be open about it; fortunately, I am also very comfortable with being this way.

Can gravitational waves be waylaid by gravity?

Yesterday, I learnt the answer is ‘yes’. Gravitational waves can be gravitationally lensed. It seems obvious once you think about it, but not something that strikes you (assuming you’re not a physicist) right away.

When physicists solve problems relating to the spacetime continuum, they imagine it as a four-dimensional manifold: three of space and one of time. Objects exist in the bulk of this manifold and visualisations like the one below are what two-dimensional slices of the continuum look like. This unified picture of space and time was a significant advancement in the history of physics.

While Hendrik Lorentz and Hermann Minkowski first noticed this feature in the early 20th century, they did so only to rationalise empirical data. Albert Einstein was the first physicist to fully figure out the why of it, through his theories of relativity.

A common way to visualise the curvature of spacetime around a massive object, in this case Earth. Credit: NASA

Specifically, according to the general theory, massive objects bend the spacetime continuum around themselves. Because light passes through the continuum, its path bends along the continuum when passing near massive bodies. Seen head-on, a massive object – like a black hole – appears to encircle a light-source in its background in a ring of light. This is because the black hole’s mass has caused spacetime to curve around the black hole, creating a cosmic mirage of the light emitted by the object in its background (see video below) as seen by the observer. By focusing light flowing in different directions around it towards one point, the black hole has effectively behaved like a lens.

So much is true of light, which is a form of electromagnetic radiation. And just the way electrically charged particles emit such radiation when they accelerate, massive particles emit gravitational waves when they accelerate. These gravitational waves are said to carry gravitational energy.

Gravitational energy is effectively the potential energy of a body due to its mass. Put another way, a more massive object would pull a smaller body in its vicinity towards itself faster than a less massive object would. The difference between these abilities is quantified as a difference between the objects’ gravitational energies.

Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/Luis Calçada (ESO)

Such energy is released through the spacetime continuum when the mass of a massive object changes. For example, when two binary black holes combine to form a larger one, the larger one usually has less mass than the masses of the two lighter ones together. The difference arises because some of the mass has been converted into gravitational energy. In another example, when a massive object accelerates, it distorts its gravitational field; these distortions propagate outwards through the continuum as gravitational energy.

Scientists and engineers have constructed instruments on Earth to detect gravitational energy in the form of gravitational waves. When an object releases gravitational energy into the spacetime continuum, the energy ripples through the continuum the way a stone dropped in water instigates ripples on the surface. And just the way the ripples alternatively stretch and compress the water, gravitational waves alternatively stretch and compress the continuum as they move through it (at the speed of light).

Instruments like the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO) are designed to pick up on these passing distortions while blocking out all others. That is, when LIGO records a distortion passing through the parts of the continuum where its detectors are located, scientists will know it has just detected a gravitational wave. Because the frequency of a wave is directly proportional to its energy, scientists can use the properties of the gravitational wave as measured by LIGO to deduce the properties of its original source.

(As you might have guessed, even a cat running across the room emits gravitational waves. However, the frequency of these waves is so very low that it is almost impossible to build instruments to measure them, nor are we likely to find such an exercise useful.)

I learnt today that it is also possible for instruments like LIGO to be able to detect the gravitational lensing of gravitational waves. When an object like a black hole warps the spacetime continuum around it, it lenses light – and it is easy to see how it would lens gravitational waves as well. The lensing effect is the result not of the black hole’s ‘direct’ interaction with light as much as its distortion of the continuum. Ergo, anything that traverses the continuum, including gravitational waves, is bound to be lensed by the black hole.

The human body evolved eyes to receive information encoded in visible light, so we can directly see lensed visible-light. However, we don’t possess any organs that would allow us to do the same thing with gravitational waves. Instead, we will need to use existing instruments, like LIGO, to detect these particular distortions. How do we do that?

When two black holes are rapidly revolving around each other, getting closer and closer, they shed more and more of their potential energy as gravitational waves. In effect, the frequency of these waves is quickly increasing together with their amplitude, and LIGO registers this as a chirp (see video below). Once the two black holes have merged, both frequency and amplitude drop to zero (because a solitary spinning black hole does not emit gravitational waves).

In the event of a lensing, however, LIGO will effectively detect two sets of gravitational waves. One set will arrive at LIGO straight from the source. The second set – originally sent off in a different direction – will become lensed towards LIGO. And because the lensed wave will effectively have travelled a longer distance, it will arrive a short while after the direct wave.

The distance scale here is grossly exaggerated for effect

However, LIGO will not register two chirps; in fact, it will register no chirps at all. Instead, the direct wave and the lensed wave will interfere with each other inside the instrument to produce a characteristically mixed signal. By the laws of wave mechanics, this signal will have increasing frequency, as in the chirp, but uneven amplitude. If it were sonified, the signal’s sound would climb in pitch but have irregular volume.

A statistical analysis published in early 2018 (in a preprint paper) claimed that LIGO should be able to detect gravitationally lensed gravitational waves at the rate of about once per year (and the proposed Einstein Telescope, at about 80 per year!). A peer-reviewed paper published in January 2019 suggested that LIGO’s design specs allow it to detect lensing effects due to a black hole weighing 10-100,000-times as much as the Sun.

Just like ‘direct’ gravitational waves give away some information about their sources, lensed gravitational waves should also give something away about the objects that deflected them. So if we become able to use LIGO, and/or other gravitational wave detectors of the future, to detect gravitationally lensed gravitational waves, we will have the potential to learn even more about the universe’s inhabitants than gravitational-wave astronomy currently allows us to.

Thanks to inputs from Madhusudhan Raman, @ntavish, @alsogoesbyV and @vaa3.

Solutions looking for problems

There’s been a glut of ‘science projects’ that seem to be divorced from their non-technical aspects even when the latter are equally, if not more, important – or maybe it is just a case of these problems always having been around but this author not being able to unsee it these days.

An example that readily springs to mind is the Bharati intermediary script, developed by a team at IIT Madras to ease digitisation of Indian language texts. There is just one problem: why invent a whole new script when Latin already exists and is widely understood, by humans as well as machines? Perhaps the team would have been spared its efforts if it had consulted with an anthropologist.

Another example, also from IIT Madras: it just issued a press release announcing that a team from the institute that is the sole Asian finalist in a competition to build a ‘pod’ for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation concept has unveiled its design. On the flip side, Hyperloop is a high-tech, high-cost solution to a problem that trains and buses were designed to address decades ago, and they remain more efficient and more feasible. Elon Musk has admitted he conceived Hyperloop because he doesn’t like mass transit; perhaps more reliably, his simultaneous bashing of high-speed rail hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Here is a third example, this one worth many crores: the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wants to build a space station and staff it with its astronauts. The problem is nobody is sure what the need is, maybe not even ISRO, although it has been characteristically tight-lipped. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a rationale beyond “we want to see if we can do it”. If indeed Indian scientists want to conduct microgravity experiments of their own, like what are being undertaken on the International Space Station (ISS) today and will be on the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in the near future, that is okay. But where are the details and where is the justification for not simply investing in the ISS or the CSS?

It is very difficult to negotiate a fog without feeling like something is wrong. We built and launched AstroSat because Indian astronomers needed a space telescope they could access for their studies. We will be launching Aditya in 2020 because Indian astrophysicists have questions about the Sun they would like answered. But even then, let us remember that a (relatively) small space telescope is too lightweight an exercise compared to a full-fledged space station that could cost ISRO more money than it is currently allocated every year.

Sivan’s announcements are also of a piece with those of his predecessors. In fact, the organisation as such has announced many science missions without finalising the instruments they are going to carry. In early 2017, it publicised an ‘announcement of opportunity’ for a mission to Venus next decade and invited scientists to submit pitches for instruments – instead of doing it the other way around. While this is entirely understandable with a space programme that is limited in its choice of launchers, this pattern has also prompted doubts that ISRO is simply inventing reasons to fly certain missions.

Additionally, since Sivan has pitched the Indian Space Station as an “extension” of ISRO’s human spaceflight programme, we must not forget that the human spaceflight programme itself lacks vision. As Arup Dasgupta, former dy. director of the ISRO Space Applications Centre, wrote for The Wire in March this year:

… while ISRO has been making and flying science satellites, … our excursions to the Moon, then Mars and now Gaganyaan appear to break from ISRO’s 1969 vision. This is certainly not a problem because, in the last half century, there have been significant advances in space applications for development, and ISRO needs new goals. However, these goals have to be unique and should put ISRO in a lead position – the way its use of space applications for development did. Given the frugal approach that ISRO follows, Chandrayaan I and the Mars Orbiter Mission did put ISRO ahead of its peers on the technology front, but what of their contribution to science? Most space scientists are cagey, and go off the record, when asked about what we learnt that we can now share with others and claim pride of place in planetary exploration.

So is ISRO fond of these ideas only because it seems to want to show the world that it can, without any thought for what the country can accrue beyond the awe of others? And when populism rules the parliamentary roost – whether under the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian National Congress – ISRO isn’t likely to face pushback from the government either.

Ultimately, when you spend something like Rs 10,000-20,000 crore over two decades to make something happen, it is going to be very easy to feel like something was achieved at the end of that time, if only because it is psychologically painful to have to admit that we could get such a big punt wrong. In effect, preparing for ex post facto rationalisation before the fact itself should ring alarm bells.

Supporters of the idea will tell you today that it will help industry grow, that it will expose Indian students to grand technologies, that it will employ many thousands of people. They will need to be reminded that while these are the responsibilities of a national government, they are not why the space programme exists. And that even if the space programme provided all these opportunities, it will have failed without justifying why doing all this required going to space.

The ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’ of R&D

ISRO’s Moon rover, which will move around the lunar surface come September (if all goes well), will live and and die in a span of 14 days because that’s how long the lithium-ion cells it’s equipped with can survive the -160º C-nights at the Moon’s south pole, among other reasons. This here illustrates an easily understood connection between fundamental research and its apparent uselessness on the one hand and applied science and its apparent superiority on the other.

Neither position is entirely and absolutely correct, of course, but this hierarchy of priorities is very real, at least in India, because it closely parallels the practices of the populist politics that privileges short-term gains over benefits in the longer run.

In this scenario, it may not seem worthwhile to fund a solid-state physicist who has, based on detailed physicochemical analyses, fashioned for example a new carbon-based material that can store lithium ions in its atomic lattice and has better thermal characteristics than graphite. It may seem even less worthwhile to fund researchers probing the seemingly obscure electronic properties of materials like graphene and silicene, writing papers steeped in abstract math and unable to propose a single viable application for the near-future.

But give it twenty years and a measure of success in the otherwise-unpredictable translational research part of the R&D pipeline, and suddenly, you’re holding the batteries that’re supposed to be installed on a Moon rover and need to determine how many instruments you can pack on there to ensure the whole ensemble is powered for the whole time they’ll need to conduct each of their tests. Just as suddenly, you’re also thinking about what else you could’ve installed on the little machine so it could’ve lived longer, and what else it could’ve potentially discovered in this bonus time.

Maybe you’re just happy, knowing how things have been for research in the country in the last two decades and based on the spaceflight organisation’s goals (a part of which the government has a say in), that the batteries can even last for two weeks. Maybe you’re just sad because you think it could’ve been better. But one way or another, it’s an inescapably tangible reminder that investments in research determine what you’re going to get to take out of the technology in the future. Put differently: it’s ridiculous to expect to know which water molecules are going to end up in which plant, but unless you water the soil, the plants are going to start wilting.

Chandrayaan 2 itself may be lined up to be a great success but who knows, there could come along a future mission where a groundbreaking instrument developed by an inspired student at a state university has to be left out of an interplanetary satellite because we didn’t have access to the right low-density, high-strength materials. Or where a bunch of Indians are on a decade-long interstellar voyage and the captain realises crew morale is dangerously low because the government couldn’t give two whits about social psychology.


Posters for a new TV show called M.O.M. – The Women Behind Mission Mangal, produced by Ekta Kapoor and distributed by AltBalaji, look strange. One poster shows four women, presumably the show’s protagonists, flanking a large rocket in the centre that appears to be a Russian Soyuz launcher. Another shows their faces lined up over an ascending NASA Space Shuttle. However, ISRO launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in November 2013 with a PSLV XL rocket.

I wrote this up for The Wire, using it as an opportunity to discuss ISRO’s image-sharing policies and the still-ambiguous guidelines that surround it (over and beyond the Indian government’s occasional tendency to change URL structures on official websites without so much as a 302 redirect). Once my piece was published, I promptly received a call from an AltBalaji spokesperson who said they were “contractually obligated” to not use any official symbols or names because the show was a fictional adaptation.

This was news to me if only because Kapoor had written on Instagram that the show was “partly fictional”, as well as another reason. AltBalaji’s marketing exercise clearly wants to ride the wave of popularity that ISRO’s MOM continues to enjoy. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have tried to shoehorn the show’s name into the same acronym, instead of picking the 17,575 other options it had. According to AltBalaji’s statement, their M.O.M. stands for “Mission Over Mars”, which doesn’t even make sense – but hey.

With some snooping around, I also found that while NASA had a pretty relaxed image-sharing policy, exempting the use of the Space Shuttle image on poster #2, Roscosmos is stricter: reusing its images for commercial purposes requires permission first. Based on my conversation with AltBalaji, it didn’t seem like they’d obtained such permission. As @zingaroo pointed out on Twitter, the producers could simply have used the image of a completely made-up rocket, obviating the need to receive anyone’s permission.

They didn’t, which only makes it seem more and more like there’s an opportunism at work here that AltBalaji won’t admit to but will still cash in on, all the while providing a confused picture of what really is going on.

Making history at the speed of light

Last week, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist and PhD student at University of California, Irvine, tweeted this question:

To which I replied:

Once you start thinking about it, this is a really mind-boggling thing. A part of history – as in the past – has physical character. This is because the fastest anything can travel in the universe is at the speed of light, including information.

In this regard, history is like the blockchain: it’s regarded as history only if multiple people, and not just you, are able to agree on what exactly happened (just like a cryptocurrency transaction is acknowledged only if all members of the blockchain have registered it individually). So if you know something and you’d like to have your friend know it as well, you ping them on WhatsApp, make a call, shout it across the room, etc. None of these messages can travel faster than at the speed of light in vacuum.

As a result, history itself – as information encoded in physical mediums – cannot propagate faster than at the speed of light. Of course, you can nitpick that history doesn’t travel and that it’s communication that’s limited to the speed of light, to which I’d retort with the claim that history is made at the speed of light. And this claim has many, many consequences for our knowledge of the universe.

For example, we know that the universe is expanding because a mysterious form of energy, called dark energy, is pulling it apart, faster and faster. While the effects thus far can only be experienced at the intergalactic scale, it’s plausible that there is a point of time in the future when the universe will be expanding so fast that its pace will outstrip the speed at which we can communicate, leaving us stranded in a volume of spacetime that we can never, ever communicate beyond and past which information from the outside won’t reach us. (I discussed this in greater detail in June 2016.)

For another, astronomers and cosmologists who want to know more about what the early universe could have looked like need simply to build more powerful telescopes that gaze deeper into the cosmos. This is evident by the formulation of the unit of distance called the light-year: it is the distance light travels in one year (in vacuum, about 9.46 trillion km). Therefore, light that is 100 years away from reaching us is likely to carry information from a century ago. Light that is billions of years away from reaching us is likely to carry information encoded billions of years ago.

And to find this light – these photons – we need telescopes that can look billions of kilometres into the depths of space. (Note: By ‘look’, I don’t mean that these telescopes snatch distant photons and transport them to our location; instead, they’re simply instruments that are sensitive enough to register photons considerably weakened in the course of their long voyage.) As of today, the farthest object astronomers have observed, and verified, is a galaxy named GN-z11 at a distance of 32 billion light-years.

If you’re wondering how this is possible when the universe formed only 13.8 billion years ago, it’s because the universe has been expanding since. In fact, the farthest astronomers can observe today (on paper, at least) is a distance of about 46.5 billion light-years in any direction, making up a sphere known as the observable universe. Its outermost edge corresponds to a time 378,000 years after the Big Bang. Thanks to dark energy, the fraction this sphere constitutes of the whole universe is shrinking. Anyway, this means GN-z11 formed less than half a billion years after the Big Bang.

By pushing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, an international team of astronomers has shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. Caption and credit: NASA

In 1941, Isaac Asimov published his short story Nightfall, whose plot centred on just the moment when light from the last star visible in the sky twinkles out, never to be seen again because the universe is expanding faster than at the speed of light. Though the moment comes to be because of the increasing vastness of space, Asimov rightly identifies it as the onset of a perpetual claustrophobia, comparing it to the journey of a group of people through a dark tunnel for 15 minutes.

What was the matter with these people?’ asked Theremon finally.

‘Essentially the same thing that was the matter with you when you thought the walls of the room were crushing in on you in the dark. There is a psychological term for mankind’s instinctive fear of the absence of light. We call it “claustrophobia”, because the lack of light is always tied up with enclosed places, so that fear of one is fear of the other. You see?’

‘And those people of the tunnel?’

‘Those people of the tunnel consisted of those unfortunates whose mentality did not quite possess the resiliency to overcome the claustrophobia that overtook them in the Darkness. Fifteen minutes without light is a long time; you only had two or three minutes, and I believe you were fairly upset.

‘The people of the tunnel had what is called a “claustrophobic fixation”. Their latent fear of darkness and enclosed places had crystalized and become active, and, as far as we can tell, permanent. That’s what fifteen minutes in the dark will do.’

There was a long silence, and Theremon’s forehead wrinkled slowly into a frown. ‘I don’t believe it’s that bad.’

‘You mean you don’t want to believe,’ snapped Sheerin. ‘You’re afraid to believe. Look out the window!’

Theremon did so, and the psychologist continued without pausing. ‘Imagine darkness – everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky – black! And stars thrown in, for all I know – whatever they are. Can you conceive it?’

‘Yes, I can,’ declared Theremon truculently.

And Sheerin slammed his fist down upon the table in sudden passion. ‘You lie! You can’t conceive that. Your brain wasn’t built for the conception any more than it was built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!’

He added sadly, ‘And another couple of millennia of painful struggle comes to nothing. Tomorrow there won’t be a city standing unharmed…’

A religious environmentalism

June 5 was World Environment Day, which is presumably why an article entitled ‘Hindu roots of modern ‘ecology” was doing the rounds on Twitter, despite having been published in 2016. In the article, its author Viva Kermani writes,

Centuries before the appearance of the likes of Greenpeace, World Environment Day, and what is known as the environmental movement, the shruti (Vedas, Upanishads) and smruti (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, other scriptures) instructed us that the animals and plants found in the land of Bharatavarsha are sacred; that like humans, our fellow creatures, including plants have consciousness; and therefore all aspects of nature are to be revered. This understanding, care and reverence towards the environment is common to all Indic religious and spiritual systems: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, there is ample evidence to show that the earliest messages of the importance of the environment and the need for ecological balance and harmony can be found in ancient Indic texts.

Overall, Kermani argues that Hindus are essentially all environmentalists and that many species of plants and animals thrive in India Bharat because of Hindus’ reverential attitude towards them. The second argument is easier to swat away, especially when it shows itself as the following contention from the same article:

That India today is home to 70% of the world’s tigers – our country has some 2,500 tigers in the wild – is because the tiger is considered divine, a vahana of the Durga and present in any form of Durga iconography. Tigers have been wiped out in Java and Sumatra, the great islands of Indonesia across which, the majestic big cat once roamed freely, for Indonesia was once Hindu.

Kermani has clearly mixed up cause and effect here. Tigers don’t survive because they’re represented in Hindu iconography; they’re represented in our iconography because they were already here before the Hindus got here. More importantly, tiger populations in India are increasingly threatened by linear projects, mining activities, dams and river-interlinks. If the tiger was so important, shouldn’t the streets of Puri and Varanasi be swimming in Hindu protestors right now?

The reason Greenpeace and World Environment Day showed up was because religious importance alone is useless. It’s fine to claim primacy but to claim such primacy is also relevant is the problem. It’s not. What’s the point of repeatedly saying you invented something when clearly the invention doesn’t even work anymore? It’s hard to believe, as a result, that exercises of this nature are anything more than a form of intellectual indulgence. With some editing, they might be better served as messages of hope, inviting Hindus to look beyond the red herrings of Islamophobia and nationalism and towards sustainable living practices.

However, my issue with Kermani’s argument is deeper. While she makes a case for why Hinduism was also a very early first manifestation of environmentalism (albeit by placing the blame for our general ignorance of this factoid at the feet of Christianity), it’s not a useful environmentalism – nor is that of Greenpeace or, for that matter, the likes of PETA, etc.

Hinduism’s authority is scriptural; modern environmentalism’s authority is scientific, at least it should be. We shouldn’t have to pay attention to the needs of the non-human occupants of this world because a higher authority thinks so but because we know why it is important to do so. The centroid of our ecological morals should be located, at least in part, within humanist, social, naturalist and empirical frameworks, instead of taking sole recourse through divine proclamations that we’re not allowed to challenge, let alone overthrow.

Scriptural authority doesn’t allow our responsibilities as the alpha species on Earth to evolve with what we know. For example, it makes sense to destroy some members of an invasive species that have colonised foreign ecosystems (aided, often inadvertently, by human activities) before they displace and endanger their native counterparts. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable for forest-dwellers to cut trees down for firewood and other resources. However, Hinduism would condemn the man who does either of these things, at least according to Kermani.

She continues:

Even today, Bharat is blessed with a rich biodiversity, because of the spiritual connectedness that Hindus have with nature. That there exists sthala vriksham shows that trees were intimately associated with spiritual tradition (In Sanskrit, sthala is a place, especially a sacred place, and vriksh is tree). Every temple is associated with a tree and every tree is associated with a deity and a story. The more well-known examples of sthala vriksham include the Kadamba at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai and the vanni tree (khejri in Hindi) at the Magudeshwara Temple at Kodumudi. The famous mango tree at the Ekambereshwara Temple at Kancheepuram is believed to be more than 3,000 years old!

These are as much places of worship as they are lightning rods for discriminating against the lower castes. Non-Brahmins are proscribed from reading the Indic texts that Kermani is so fond of quoting; during most of its existence, especially in the post-Vedic period, the tenets of Hinduism rendered the members of such castes to be socially dead and unfit to use Sanskrit (apart from perpetrating various other brutalities). Hinduism is not an inherently ecological religion; it is inherently discriminatory, and an environmentalism feeding and drawing from its practices will only exhibit the same afflictions.

But even if Hinduism had been a wholly inclusive religion, our sense of why it’s important to save our trees shouldn’t come from there. The practice of environmentalism has many stakeholders and they contest its purpose along different trajectories, according to different needs, their geographical locations, their cultural values, etc. In this muddle, which is necessary by design, it’s important that we are more adaptable than we are prescient, more equitable than munificent, and more progressive than prescriptive. These guidelines are as such antithetical to religion by definition.

Of course, this doesn’t mean one must reject all the environmental aspects of Hinduism, or any other religion for that matter; instead, Hindus’ views on what it means to be environmentalist mustn’t be limited by what Hinduism considers appropriate, although this isn’t likely to be the case.

If you’re wondering why I chose to write about an article that appeared on a website peddling the typical far-right pro-Hindutva viewpoint, it’s that this endorsement of Hinduism as an environment-friendly entity stems as much from among conservatives as liberals, and that as much as either group would like to assert Hinduism’s credentials in this regard, such ‘spiritual environmentalism’ is, at least in part, an oxymoron.

(One last point, on a different note: Kermani writes towards the end,

Today, under the principles of the Chaos Theory, the commonly known as the Butterfly Effect – where a creature as delicate as the butterfly, by flapping its wings, sets up a series of reactions, by first causing some changes in the atmosphere, can end up causing a storm. This is nothing, but the Hindu understanding of karma, that all actions are connected and are part of the universe and that our actions affect not just other humans, but also nature, of which we are a part.

As it happens, chaos theory is not just the butterfly effect, and the butterfly effect is not concerned with the interconnectedness of all things. Instead, it is a metaphorical example of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to their initial conditions. For example, the trajectory of a pendulum changes drastically over time even if its starting position is moved only slightly. In the same way, the tornado in the metaphor could have been precipitated by a distant butterfly flapping its wings as much as, say, an eagle high up in the sky.)

Justifying organic chemistry

Johanna Miller writes in Physics Today about how she was able to enjoy learning organic chemistry in her senior year of undergraduate study: by understanding that science is a collection of concepts, not a collection of facts. She also argues that this is in fact the key to enjoying organic chemistry, which can otherwise get quickly tedious, and that many students don’t because their teachers fail to help them towards this conclusion.

She could be true – far be it from me to dispute the opinions of a scientist-communicator – but it is proving very hard for me to believe it because my own organic chemistry experience was incredibly bad. Unlike Miller, I was first exposed to the subject in high school, in a classroom of 40 students packed inside a room with two fans, in the sweltering afternoon heat of pre-summer Chennai. All I wanted was to go home.

Then, it was impossible to understand why all those reactions were important – but we had no time to discuss that. The board exams were almost upon us, as was this or that quiz at the IIT JEE coaching class. My chemistry teacher, a small lady with a tiny voice but an imposing demeanour, seemed uninterested in justifying why it was crucial for us to know about the Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky reaction. She moved through the syllabus at the rate of five or six reactions per lecture. Even her counterpart at the coaching class had a reputation of being an excellent teacher only because he supplied handy mnemonics to memorise the arrangement of single and double bonds.

The thing is, organic chemistry feels difficult even after acknowledging that it is a collection of more elegant concepts like quantum mechanics, group theory and electromagnetism – as Miller writes – because understanding ‘science is a collection of concepts’ is not the only problem. Students are not expected to learn the principles of organic chemistry. Instead, they are subjected to a collection of multiple reactions to manipulate a variety of substances without any discernible logic as to their selection. The principles of organic chemistry, on the other hand, could have been far more enjoyable because then the students’ grade would be reaction-agnostic.

Right now, that is not the case, at least in India. And it is the only reason I remember the Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky reaction (principally because I remember wondering, in 2005, why anyone would name their child “Hell”).