The government’s enblightenment

The GMO debate is a fascinating object, even though participating in it often amounts to nothing but pain, frustration and lost time – especially if you’re pro-GMO foods. It’s fascinating because it’s one of a kind: one party has science on its side but little else, including good science outreach, and the other has sociology but also lots of overreaching rhetoric. There is also an unseen foe, the agrochemical company Monsanto, whose decades of indulgence in unethical practices and corporate recalcitrance to promote the sales of its fertilisers and genetically modified seeds have blighted the soil – both literally and figuratively – rendering hundreds of thousands of people around the world forever suspicious of genetic engineering vis-à-vis agriculture. One prominent outcome of this ‘enblightenment’ is that scientifically robust data no longer suffices to qualify GM products for regulatory approval, and any such approval, once granted, becomes automatically subsumed by doubts about corruption and subversion. Another outcome is the pall of cynicism that hangs over any public deliberations of GM products, especially regarding business practices – cynicism that effectively holds a gap open for unscientific, even pseudoscientific, arguments to slip into the debate and for untenable rhetorical methods, especially whataboutery, to find more purchase than might be warranted. Taken together, I think these are some reasons why the GMO debate has lasted for so long and why settling it to the effect of everyone being more accepting of GM seeds is going to be very hard.

It would seem some of these features are also visible, or are becoming apparent, on a different front. Baba Ramdev’s (I suspect) pseudo-Ayurvedic company Patanjali Ayurved has come under fire for falsely claiming an antiviral drug it has minted, called Coronil, was approved by the WHO for use against COVID-19. The WHO hasn’t granted any such approval – and the study backing up Coronil’s efficacy doesn’t seem to hold up to deeper scrutiny either. However, Patanjali Ayurved has stood its ground, most recently lashing out against the Indian Medical Association (IMA) for calling Coronil’s public launch on February 19, with Union health minister Harsh Vardhan in attendance as an honoured guest, despite its dubious credentials was “a slap and insult to the people of the country”. A spokesperson for Patanjali, S.K. Tijarawala, tweeted the company’s rebuttal on February 25, asking the IMA to focus on availing the people of India more affordable healthcare first and to abolish the practice of “commissions in the medical profession”. This is plain whataboutery – responding to one argument with another while also changing the topic. However, this counterargument is also likely to stick because access to affordable and good quality healthcare and over-charging in private clinics and hospitals are both big and rampant problems in India, thanks to the oversight of successive governments and the privatising tendencies of the current one. And even though Patanjali is resorting to whataboutery to advance this accusation, the issues’ shared relevance is likely to be able to hold the door open for someone – a minister, a political leader, a prominent doctor, anyone – to legitimise the contention, in much the same way Monsanto mass-poisoned the public impression of GMOs, thus allowing otherwise untenable anti-GMO arguments to survive for longer in conversation. Humming quietly in the background is of course the government’s profitable hypocrisy: of doing nothing to ensure the problems Patanjali is using to hide from the IMA’s complaint go away, dispatching two of its senior ministers to endorse Patanjali’s products despite the near-complete absence of reason in its ‘approval’ by the government, and allowing Patanjali to justify Coronil’s existence by offering it – in vague and therefore irrefutable terms – as a potential solution for India’s ‘access to healthcare’ problems.

Slate Star Codex: No time for malice

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

To the uninitiated: Scott Alexander Siskind is a noted member of the international community of rationalists and wrote the once-celebrated blog Slate Star Codex. I use the past tense because Siskind used to write this blog from the relative obscurity afforded by using only his first and middle names – ‘Scott Alexander’ – and which was threatened after a New York Times reporter got in touch to profile him, and then decided to ‘out’ his identity thanks to some editorial rule the reporter said he was was bound by.

Siskind, fearing for his privacy as well as the wellbeing of his clients (he’s a psychiatrist by profession) threatened to delete his entire blog if the reporter didn’t back off – and then proceeded to do so. At the time of the incident, Siskind also called for support from his readers, who flooded the New York Times with telephone calls, emails and online comments, cancelled their subscriptions in droves, and also doxxed (revealed online without permission and with an intent to harass) the reporter’s personal information. Siskind subsequently restored his blog posts and also moved to Substack, where he currently writes under the title ‘Astral Codex Ten’ using his full name.

The New York Times profile in question was published on February 14 under the authorship of reporter Cade Metz. Many members of the rationalists’ community centred on Slate Star Codex have described the article as a “hit job” and it has since become something of a referendum, at least on one other intellectual’s blog (Shtetl Optimized by Scott Aaronson), on the appropriate way to sanction journalists and/or news publishers that fail to properly represent the views of their subjects to their audience.

(I’m an occasional reader of Slate Star Codex, now Astral Codex Ten, but have never been a full participant of the rationalist movement. I occasionally pop in and out and absorb interesting ideas. I also don’t defend the rationalists, being aware of the tendency of most members of this community to over-rationalise, to debate ideas without paying attention to their social consequences, which often lie outside the realm of reason, and to be cynical of politics.)

Here are a few contiguous paragraphs from the article that I think capture its spirit and purpose:

Part of the appeal of Slate Star Codex, faithful readers said, was Mr. Siskind’s willingness to step outside acceptable topics. But he wrote in a wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.

Mr. Aaronson, the University of Texas professor, was turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs of the Rationalists, but he is one of the blog’s biggest champions and deeply admired that it didn’t avoid live-wire topics.

“It must have taken incredible guts for Scott to express his thoughts, misgivings and questions about some major ideological pillars of the modern world so openly, even if protected by a quasi-pseudonym,” he said.

It was the protection of that “quasi-pseudonym” that rankled Mr. Siskind when I first got in touch with him. He declined to comment for this article.

As he explored science, philosophy and A.I., he also argued that the media ignored that men were often harassed by women. He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books. He said that affirmative action was difficult to distinguish from “discriminating against white men.”

In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”

He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” – the blogs he endorsed – included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.

In 2017, Mr. Siskind published an essay titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes.” The main reason computer scientists, mathematicians and other groups were predominantly male was not that the industries were sexist, he argued, but that women were simply less interested in joining.

That week, a Google employee named James Damore wrote a memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions at the company was a result of biological differences, not anything else – a memo he was later fired over. One Slate Star Codex reader on Reddit noted the similarities to the writing on the blog.

Mr. Siskind, posting as Scott Alexander, urged this reader to tone it down. “Huge respect for what you’re trying, but it’s pretty doomed,” he wrote. “If you actually go riding in on a white horse waving a paper marked ‘ANTI-DIVERSITY MANIFESTO,’ you’re just providing justification for the next round of purges.”

There are some obvious problems with the article. The foremost is that Metz makes some questionable assumptions about the foundations of Siskind’s arguments to the effect that Siskind sounds like a conservative, dogmatic person who draws on questionable scholarship to frame his thoughts. This is quite off-target. The article also oversimplifies some of the rationalist community’s positions, although this may be unavoidable in anything less than a book-length treatment of such an involved subject.

On the other hand, a not inconsiderable amount of the Slate Star Codex community’s derision towards the New York Times seems to be rooted in the idea that the newspaper is pursuing a smear campaign – ostensibly in retaliation for Siskind asking his (sizeable) audience to call on New York Times editors to not have his name outed, but who also went on to doxx Metz. Siskind wrote on his Substack after the article was published:

The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.

The “in the know” bit sounds funny to me because, based on my experience at The Hindu at least, it’s extremely unlikely for a legacy newspaper to identify one person that’s giving one reporter a tough time as a threat to the extent that the institution, as such, considers intentionally doxxing him – not to mention an accusation like this also insults the intelligence of the people it. I agree with journalist and Gawker cofounder Elizabeth Spiers’s take on this view:

SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject.

I also agree with Will Wilkinson, a politics writer and author, on the limited point of the Slate Star Codex community’s conviction that Metz’s actions were malicious, that Metz or the New York Times were “out to get them”. Instead, Wilkinson argues, the community need only examine the sequence of events from Metz’s point of view to find that common sense offers a simpler and more rational explanation.

Somebody tells Metz about SSC, he finds it really interesting, wants to write some kind of article about Siskind, his popular and influential blog, and the fascinating community around it. He starts to do some preliminary research. … Metz contacts Siskind and at some point he tells Scott that he already knows his real name and at some point Scott tells Metz it’s very important that he doesn’t use his real name. Metz says, sorry, house rules say I have to use your real name. To Metz, things are already getting pretty interesting. He’s a reporter. He’s not going to take what people tell him at face value. He’s probably wondering why Scott’s really sweating so hard about his real name. Then, at some point Siskind flips the fuck out and tells the Times that he’s going to burn SSC to the ground if they don’t promise not to use his real name. At this juncture basically any competent reporter is going to think, “Whoa! Yeah, there’s something deeper here for sure.”

Well, the Times won’t promise, so Siskind actually does it. This seems super-crazy and the natural journalistic response to it is “What the hell is this man hiding? What’s he so afraid I’ll find on his blog?”

Let’s pause to acknowledge that Siskind eventually acknowledged that he had been behaving in a way that seemed incredibly suspicious to outside observers and that it does make a great deal of completely non-malicious sense for a journalist to tune into this. It’s interesting, though, that this apparently hadn’t occurred to him. “Contacts in the news industry” had to tell him.

But as it happens, Siskind had assumed similarly well before the New York Times article was published: that Metz or the newspaper may not be thinking as much about Slate Star Codex’s true identity as much as Siskind and the community was:

I think they just didn’t expect me to care about anonymity as much as I did. In fact, most of my supporters, and most of the savvy people giving me advice, didn’t expect me to care as much as I did. … Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn’t literally necessary to keep me alive. I feel bad admitting this, like I conscripted you all into a crusade on false pretenses. Am I an entitled jerk for causing such a stir just so I can feel safe and comfortable? I’m sure the New York Times customer service representatives who had to deal with all your phone calls thought so. …

In the New York Times‘ worldview, they start with the right to dox me, and I had to earn the right to remain anonymous by proving I’m the perfect sympathetic victim who satisfies all their criteria of victimhood. But in my worldview, I start with the right to anonymity, and they need to make an affirmative case for doxxing me. I admit I am not the perfect victim. The death threats against me are all by losers who probably don’t know which side of a gun you shoot someone with. If anything happened at work, it would probably inconvenience me and my patients, but probably wouldn’t literally kill either of us. …

I don’t think anyone at the Times bore me ill will, at least not originally. But somehow that just made it even more infuriating. In Street Fighter, the hero confronts the Big Bad about the time he destroyed her village. The Big Bad has destroyed so much stuff he doesn’t even remember: “For you, the day [I burned] your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.” That was the impression I got from the Times. They weren’t hostile. I wasn’t a target they were desperate to take out. The main emotion I was able to pick up from them was annoyance that I was making their lives harder by making a big deal out of this. For them, it was Tuesday.

I sort of also see Siskind’s point here: it’s unreasonable to destabilise a community because it failed to explain the terms of its existence to an interloper. Instead, his anonymity and the reasons for it could have been part of the story, irrespective of Metz’s and others’ assertion that Scott Alexander’s last name wasn’t hard to find.

Some others, but also Wilkinson, have read this ‘privacy v. public interest’ contention a bit differently, by invoking Siskind’s presumed absolute right to free speech. I’m personally uncomfortable with the Slate Star Codex community’s view that the interference of Siskind’s right to free speech with his profession as a psychiatrist (and the wellbeing of his patients) shouldn’t be seen as a confounding factor in his decision to react with arguably disproportionate alarm when Metz expressed his intent to use Siskind’s full name – and that the newspaper isn’t very much to blame here. But I can’t be sure if this matters to how Metz constructed the Slate Star Codex profile.

Very broadly, Wilkinson questions the cons of free-speech absolutism not just vis-à-vis the topics that benefit from such a license (like white supremacy or “women have smaller brains”) but vis-à-vis the concept itself. He argues that the absolute right to free speech and a right to anonymity can’t go together, and it’s possible from a journalistic standpoint that Metz may have been encouraged by this incompatibility and by the fact of Siskind’s name showing up after a few searches on Google to ‘reveal’ his last name.

But I think this argument is neither here nor there – plus the profile doesn’t contain any evidence that this is how Metz approached the decision (some anecdotal reports I came across suggested Metz was simply following some newsroom rule). This alternative also doesn’t sit well with Spiers’s and Siskind’s shared belief that the New York Times may never care about the consequences of its gaze on a particular subject more than the subject will.

But the profile being what it is, Scott Aaronson – and I’m sure many others – have decided to boycott Cade Metz, meaning they won’t speak to him on future stories, in an effort to register their disapproval.

Is this fair? I think it’s hard to be sure, although I also suspect this question may be moot. Right now, I’ve yet to find a self-consistent explanation for either party to stand its ground. The verbosity of all the arguments in this debate, save for the New York Times profile itself, is also quite suspicious. I’m implicitly wary of arguments that overuse words because it’s a sign, to me, that the author is either attempting to massage the reader’s intelligence into accepting an otherwise unintelligent, and often deleterious, proposition or that the author is trying to make a point that they themselves don’t fully understand yet. (I may be guilty of either given the length of this post.)

For now, I can see why, without agreeing with it, Aaronson et al have decided to boycott Metz. The relationship between a reporter and their source has only one degree of freedom – trust – and that’s what Aaronson et al have resolved to strike at. But based on what I have read, I don’t see water in the community’s argument that Metz’s efforts have resulted in a “hit job” that violated their trust, of being represented ‘fairly’, by focusing on the rationalist community’s negative attributes. This seems like the rationalists are conflating journalism and reputation management – even considering the New York Times has one of the world’s largest newspaper audiences and a single misinformed article can deal significant reputational damage.

In Aaronson’s and Siskind’s telling, Metz did the rationalists a disservice by focusing on the “wrong” parts of what made Slate Star Codex awesome. But as Wilkinson, Spiers and others have argued, their very ability and freedom to collect as rationalists and openly discuss potentially dangerous or even antisocial ideas is hard to separate from the fact that the rationalists are also “overwhelmingly white and male and clustered in a very narrow of range of heavily white, male analytical symbol manipulation occupations” – a fact that the rationalists tend to dismiss as a distraction.

On the other hand, Metz’s article – while definitely not a “hit job” – is flawed where it seems to imply Siskind’s guilt by association with writers he’s quoted, topped off by the decision to reveal Siskind’s identity. At the same time, Metz is also justified in framing the article the way he did, or worked with his editor to do so.

This isn’t just in terms of, as Spiers put it, going where the story took him but also of revealing a relatively small and cloistered community to the larger world that mostly didn’t know the community existed. And I sense that the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms of this act of revelation.

This speaks to the larger question of yearning for objectivity where there is none. To one group, Slate Star Codex appeared to be yet another portal to fascism-curious thinking that is sustained not-inexplicably by yet another group of white men, and had some notable connections to Silicon Valley. To the other, Slate Star Codex was a salon at which certain people could gather to discuss topics that other members of society had decided they couldn’t debate without also contravening the limitations imposed on free speech.

The values underlying these positions are largely incommensurable, and I suspect the rationalists came away smarting not because they didn’t see the incommensurability but because they expected Metz or anyone else to be objective to the extent that the topics of conversation in the Slate Star Codex community and the demographic characteristics of the people who tended to have them wouldn’t matter.

I realise that this is an older, more-well-hashed debate, and I’m questioning myself whether this whole ‘scandal’ – on which many smarter people have expended tens of thousands of words – can be distilled to such a simple premise. But I’m more certain that disillusionment with the ‘view from somewhere’ is part of the story, even if ironically so considering the New York Times was synonymous with the futile pursuit of objectivity during the Trump presidency.

The commentariot

The following post is an orange flag – a quieter alarm raised in anticipation of something worse that hasn’t transpired yet but is likely in the offing. Earlier today, at the end of a call with a scientist for a story, the scientist implied that my job – as science journalist – required nothing of me but to be a commentator, whereas his required him to be a ‘maker’ and that that was superior. At the outset, this is offensive because if you don’t think journalism requires both creative and non-creative work to conduct ethically, you either don’t know what journalism is or you’re taking its moving parts for granted.

But the scientist’s comment merited an orange flag, I thought, because it’s the fourth time I’ve heard something like that in the last three months – and is a point of view I can’t help but think is attached in some way to our present national government and the political climate it has engendered. (All four scientists worked for government-funded institutes but I say this only because of the slant of their own views.)

The Modi government is, among many other things, a cult of personality centred on the prime minister and his fabled habit of getting things done, even if they’re undemocratic or just unconstitutional. Many of the government’s reforms today are often cast as being in stark contrast to the Congress’s rule of the country – that “Modi did what no other prime minister had dared.” The illegitimacy of these boasts aside, the government and its supporters are obviously proud of their ability to act swiftly and have rendered inaction in any form a sin (to the point where this government has also been notorious for repackaging previous governments’ schemes as its own).

They have also consigned many activities as being sinful for the same reason because their practice is much too tempered, or whose outcomes they believe “don’t go far enough”, for their taste. Journalism is one of them. A conversation a few months ago with a person who was both scientist and government official alerted me as to how real this sentiment might be in government circles when they said, “I have real work unlike you and I will get back to you with a concrete answer in two or three days.” The other scientists also said something similar. The right-wing has often cast the mainstream Indian journalism establishment as elite, classist, corrupt and apologist, and the accusation that it doesn’t do any real work – “certainly not to the nation’s benefit” – simply extends this view.

But for scientists to denigrate the work of science journalists, especially since their training should have alerted them to different ways in which science is both good and hard, is more than dispiriting. It’s a sign that “journalists don’t do good work” is more than just an ideological spearpoint used to undermine adversarial journalism, that it is something at least parts of the establishment believe to be true. And it also suggests that the stories we publish are being read as nothing more than the babble of a lazy commentariot.

The clocks that used atoms and black holes to stay in sync

You’re familiar with clocks. There’s probably one if you look up just a little, at the upper corner of your laptop or smartphone screen, showing you what time of day it is, allowing you to quickly grasp the number of daytime or nighttime hours, depending on your needs.

There some other clocks that are less concerned about displaying ‘clock time’ and more about measuring the passage of. These devices are useful for applications designed to understand this dimension in a deeper sense. The usefulness of these clocks also depends more strongly on the timekeeping techniques they employ.

For example, consider the caesium atomic clock. Like all clocks, it is a combination of three things: an oscillator, a resonator and a detector. The oscillator is a finely tuned laser that shines on an ultra-cold gas of caesium atoms in a series of pulses. If the laser has the right frequency, an electron in a caesium atom will absorb a corresponding photon, jump to a higher energy level before then jumping back to its original place by emitting radiation of exactly 9,192,631,770 Hz. This radiation is the resonator.

The detector will be looking for radiation of this frequency – and the moment it has detected 9,192,631,770 waves (from crest to trough), it will signal that one second has passed. This is also why, technically, a caesium clock can be used to measure out a nine-billionth of a second.

Scientists have need for even more precise clocks, clocks that use extremely stable resonators and, increasingly of late, clocks that combine both advantages. This is why scientists developed optical atomic clocks. The caesium atomic clock has a resonant frequency of 9,192,631,770 Hz, which lies in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Optical atomic clocks use resonators that have a frequency in the optical part. This is much higher.

For example, physicists at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, both Pune, are building clocks that use ytterbium and strontium ions, respectively, with resonator frequencies of 642,121,496,772,645 Hz and 429,228,066,418,009 Hz. So technically, these clocks can measure out 600-trillionths and 400-trillionths of a second, allowing scientists ultra-precise insights into how long very short-lived events really last or how closely theoretical predictions and experimental observations match up.

In fact, because we have not managed to measure 400-trillionths of a kilogram, of a metre or in fact of any other SI unit, time is currently the most precisely measured physical quantity ever.

Sometimes, scientists need to use multiple atomic clocks in the course of an experiment or to ascertain how synchronised they are. This is not a trivial exercise.

For example, say you have two clocks whose performance you need to compare. If they are simple digital clocks, you could check how precisely each one of them records the amount of time between, say, astronomical dawn and astronomical dusk (the moments when the Sun is 18º below the horizon before sunrise and after sunset, respectively). Here, you take the act of looking at each clock face for granted. If the clocks are right in front of you, light travels nearly instantaneously between your eye and the display. And because the clocks tick one second at a time, you can repeat the task of checking their synchronisation as often as you need to just by looking.

What do you do if you need to know how well two optical atomic clocks are matched up continuously and if they are separated by, say, a thousand kilometres? Scientists in Europe demonstrated one solution to this problem in 2015.

They had optical clocks in Paris and Braunschweig connected with fibre optic cables to a processing station in Strasbourg. The resonant frequency of each clock was encoded in a ‘transfer laser’ that was then beamed through the cables to Strasbourg, where a detector measured the two laser pulses to decode the relative beat of each clock in real-time. The total length of the fibre optic cables in this case was 1,415 km. With this “all-optical” setup plus signal processing techniques, the research team reported a precision of three parts in 10-19 after an averaging time of just 1,000 seconds – a cutting-edge feat.

But scientists are likely to need one step better, if only because they also anticipate that the advent of optical atomic clocks at facilities around the world is likely to lead to a redefinition of the SI unit of time. The second’s current definition – “the time duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation” emitted by electrons transitioning between two particular energy levels of a caesium-133 atom – originated in 1967, when microwave atomic clocks were the state of the art.

Today, optical atomic clocks have this honour – and because they are more stable and use a higher resonator frequency than their microwave counterparts, it only makes sense to update the definition of a second. When this happens, optical clocks around the world will have to speak to each other constantly to make sure what each of them is measuring to be one second is the same everywhere.

Some of these clocks will be a few hundred kilometres apart, and others a lot more. In fact, scientists have figured it would be useful to have a way for two optical atomic clocks located on different continents to be able to work with each other. This represents the current version of the coordination problem, and scientists in Europe and Japan recently demonstrated a solution. It involves astronomy, because astronomy has a similar problem.

Everything in the universe is constantly in motion, which means telling the position of one moving object from another – like that of Venus from Earth – is bound to be more complicated from the start than knowing where your friend lives in a different city.

But astronomers have still figured out a way to establish a fixed reference frame that provides useful information about the location of different cosmic objects through space and time. They call it the International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF). Its centre is located at the barycentre of the Solar System – the point around which all the planets in the Solar System orbit. Each of its three axes points in the direction of groups of objects called defining sources.

Many of these objects are quasars. ‘Quasar’ is a portmanteau of ‘quasi-stellar’, and is the name of the region at the centre of a galaxy where there is a supermassive black hole surrounded by a highly energised disk of gas and dust. Quasars are as such extremely bright. Astronomers spotted the first of them because they showed up in radio-telescope data as previously unknown star-like sources of radio waves. Because each galaxy can technically have only one quasar each, the number of quasars in the sky is not very high (relatively speaking) and most quasars are also located at such great distances that the radio waves they emit become very weak by the time they reach Earth’s radio telescopes.

Different views of the antennae of the Giant Metre-wave Radio Telescope at Khodad, Maharashtra. Credit: NCRA-TIFR

So on Earth, physicists either use very powerful telescopes to detect them or a collection of telescopes that work together using a technique called very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI). The idea is elegant but the execution is complicated.

Say some process in the accretion disk around the black hole at the Milky Way’s centre emits radio waves into space. These waves propagate through the universe. At some point, after many thousands of years, they reach radio telescopes on Earth. Because the telescopes are located at vastly different locations, in Maharashtra, Canary Islands and Hawaii, say, they will each detect and measure the radio wave signals at slightly different points of time. There may also be slight differences in the waves’ characteristics because they are likely to have moved through different forms and densities of matter in their journey through space.

Computers combine the exact times at which the signals arrive at each telescope and the signals’ physical properties (like frequency, phase, etc.) with a sophisticated technique called cross-correlation to produce a better-resolved picture of the source that emitted them than if they had used data from only one telescope.

In fact, the resolving power of a radio telescope is proportional to the telescope’s baseline. If scientists are using only one telescope to make an observation, the baseline is equal to the dish’s diameter. But with VLBI radio astronomy, the baseline is equal to the longest distance between two telescopes in the array. This is why this technique is so powerful.

For example, to capture the first direct image of the black hole at the Milky Way’s centre, some 52,000 lightyears away, astronomers combined an array of eight telescopes located in North America, South America, Hawaii, Europe and the South Pole to form the Event Horizon Telescope. At any given time, the baseline would be determined by two telescopes that can observe the black hole simultaneously. And as Earth rotated, different pairs of telescopes would work together to keep observing the black hole even as their own view of the black hole would change.

Each telescope would record a signal together with a very precise timestamp, provided by an atomic clock installed at the same facility or nearby, in a hard-drive. Once an observing run ended, all the hard-drives would be shipped to a processing facility, where computers would combine the signal and time data from them to create an image of the source.

A diagram showing the location of the Event Horizon Telescope's participating telescopes on four continents.
Credit: EHT/Harvard University

As it happens, the image of the black hole the Event Horizon collaboration released in 2019 could have been available sooner if not for the fact that there are no flights from April to October from the South Pole. So astrophysics also has some coordination problems, but astrophysicists have been able to figure them out thanks to tools like VLBI. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that scientists have thought to use VLBI to solve optical atomic clocks’ coordination problem as well.

According to a paper published in July 2020, the current version of ICRF is the third iteration, was adopted on January 1, 2019, and uses 4,588 sources. Of these, the positions of exactly 500 sources – including some quasars – are known with “extreme accuracy”. Using this information, the European-Japanese team reversed the purpose of VLBI to serve atomic clocks.

Using VLBI to measure the positions and features of distant astronomical objects is called VLBI astrometry. Doing the same to measure distances on Earth, like the European-Japanese team has done, is called VLBI geodesy. In the former, astronomers use VLBI to reduce uncertainties about distant sources of radio waves by being as certain as possible about the distance between the telescopes (and other mitigating factors like atmospheric distortion). Flip this: if you are as certain as possible about the distance from Earth to a particular quasar, you can use VLBI to reduce uncertainties about the distance between two atomic clocks instead.

And the science and technologies we have available today have allowed astronomers to resolve details down to a few billionths of a degree in astrometry – and to a few millimetres in geodesy.

The European-Japanese team implemented the same idea. The team members used three radio telescopes. Two of them, located in Medicina (Italy) and Koganei (Japan), were small, with dishes of diameter 2.4 m, but with a total baseline of 8,700 km. The Medicina telescope was connected to a ytterbium optical atomic clock in Torino and the Koganei telescope to a strontium optical atomic clock in the same facility.

First, the Torino clock’s resonator frequency was converted from the optical part of the spectrum to the microwave part using a device called a frequency comb, like in the schematic shown below.

Credit: NIST

(To quote myself from an older article: “A frequency comb is an advanced laser whose output radiation lies in multiple, evenly-spaced frequencies. This output can be used to convert high-frequency optical signals into more easily countable lower-frequency microwave signals.”)

This microwave frequency is transferred to a laser that is beamed through a fibre optic cable to the Medicina telescope. Similarly, at Koganei, the strontium clock’s resonator frequency is converted using a frequency comb to a corresponding microwave counterpart. At this point, both telescopes have time readings from optical atomic clocks in the form of more easily counted microwave radiation.

In the second step, the scientists used VLBI to determine as accurately as possible the time difference between the two telescopes. For this, the telescopes observed a quasar whose position was known to a high degree of accuracy in the ICRF system.

Since quasars are inherently far away and the two telescopes are quite small (as radio telescopes go), they were able to detect the quasar signal only weakly. To adjust for this, the team connected both telescopes via high-speed internet links to a large 34-m radio telescope in Kashima, also in Japan. This way, the team writes in its paper published in October 2020,

“the delay observable between the transportable stations can be calculated as the difference of the two delays with the large antenna after applying a small correction factor”.

Once the scientists had a delay figure, they worked backwards to estimate when exactly the two telescopes ought to have recorded their respective signals, based on which they could calculate the ratio of the microwave frequencies, and finally based on which they could calculate the ratio of the two clocks’ optical frequencies – autonomously, in real-time. To quote once again from the team’s paper:

“One node was installed at NICT headquarters in Koganei (Japan) while the other was transported to the Radio Astronomical Observatory operated by INAF in Medicina (Italy), forming an intercontinental baseline of 8,700 km. Observational data at Medicina and Koganei were stored on hard-disk drives at each station and transferred over high-speed internet networks to the correlation centre in Kashima for analysis. Ten frequency measurements were performed via VLBI between October 2018 and February 2019, and from these we calculated the frequency difference between the reference clocks at the two stations: the local hydrogen masers in Medicina and Koganei. Each session lasted from 28 h to 36 h and included at least 400 scans observing between 16 and 25 radio sources in the ICRF list.”

This way, they reported the ability to determine the frequency ratio with an uncertainty of 10-16 after ten-thousand seconds, and perhaps as low as 10-17 after a longer averaging time of ten days.

This is very good, but more importantly it’s better than the uncertainty arising from directly comparing the frequencies of two optical atomic clocks by relaying data through satellites. An uncertainty of 10-17 also means physicists can use multiple optical atomic clocks to study extremely slow changes, and potentially be confident about the results down to 0.00000000000000001 seconds.

The architecture of the solution also presents some unique advantages, as well as food for thought.

The setup effectively requires optical atomic clocks to be connected to small, even portable, radio telescopes as long as these telescopes are then connected to a larger one located somewhere else through a high-speed internet connection. These small instruments “can be operated without the need for a radio transmission licence,” the team writes in the paper, and “where laboratories lack the facilities or sky coverage to house a VLBI station, they can be connected by local optical-fibre links” like the one between Medicina and Torino.

The scientists have effectively used existing methods to solve a new problem instead of finding an altogether new solution. This isn’t to say new solutions are disfavoured but only that the achievement, apart from being relatively low cost and well-understood, is ingenious, and keeps the use of optical atomic clocks for all the applications they portend from becoming too resource-intensive.

It’s also fascinating that the clocks participating in this exercise are effectively a group of machines translating between processes playing out at two vastly different scales – one of minuscule electrons emitting tiny amounts of radiation over short distances and the other of radiation of similar provenance emerging from the exceedingly unique neighbourhoods of colossal black holes, travelling for many millennia at the speed of light through the cosmos.

Perhaps this was to be expected, considering the idea of using a clock is fundamentally a quest for a foothold, a way to translate the order lying at the intersection of seemingly chaotic physical processes, all directed by the laws of nature, to a metronome that the human mind can tick to.

Featured image: A simulation of a black hole from the 2014 film ‘Interstellar’. Source: YouTube.

UAE’s spaceflight shortcut to making history

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

In an hour or so, the UAE’s Hope probe, currently en route to Mars, will beam a signal to Earth about whether it managed to get into orbit around the red planet. Thanks to the Indian experience of the same feat, achieved in 2014, we all know what this moment must be like to the people of the UAE… I think.

I’m also seeing a lot of quotes doing the rounds on Twitter and also in the news including messages of Arab pride, that this moment is a success for the Arab world irrespective of whether the Hope probe successfully completes orbital capture. While I’m sure a lot of writers will unpack the meaning of this moment in the days to come – including the fact that the UAE’s riches in particular are erected on a desperate workforce that migrated to the Gulf in search of better fortunes, and still labours in the shadows with none of the labour rights that the country’s full-time citizens enjoy – I hope some of them will be able to focus on two things: the connection between making history and spaceflight itself, and between UAE’s age and ambitions.

On the first count, the complexity of spaceflight seems to offer a shortcut, of sorts, to history-making today: perfecting a rocket launch, building a functional satellite capable of lasting many months in space, deploying a suite of instruments that can semi-autonomously investigate the properties of another world seems to be able to guarantee a significant amount of notability.

This is not tautological: there are many enterprises today that demand a considerable amount of resources, focus and skill to execute – a vaccination drive that doesn’t abuse its healthcare workers, for example, or even building a big bridge over the sea without injuring any of the workers involved in its construction, but neither compares to spaceflight in the latter’s ability to capture the public imagination. I suspect strongly that the crises currently facing humankind are becoming an increasingly larger part of this perception – both in terms of spaceflight being a sort of epitome of the human ability to innovate humankind’s way out of sophisticated problems as well as by stoking fantasies of escape – as might be the fact that spacefaring is a preoccupation of the billionaire class, and the capitalism world-system seems to be predicating the solutions to many of the world’s more wicked problems on the collective benevolence of these people.

In this sense, small but rich countries might as well be primed to buy their way into history – in this moment, today – using the spaceflight route, after doing the same thing in years past by benefitting from the exploitation of their natural resources, of outsourced labour and by offering anti-accountable financial services that help keep the global capitalist machine running.

Second, many Emiratis seem intent to make known the UAE’s relative youth – “some of our parents were born before the UAE became a country,” one social media post said – vis-à-vis the Hope probe’s impending orbital capture. It’s worth noting here that three prominent American universities were involved in putting the probe together. The Emirati monarchy may see reason to be proud here, considering the sort of internationalism they’ve been fond of promoting in Dubai, but the celebrations rooted in the UAE’s age (50 years) would be misplaced in turn. If anything, the UAE may demonstrate that in some particular enterprises of the 21st century, achieving great things needn’t have anything to do with national longevity – and in fact may benefit more from a political leadership able to do what it pleases.

Featured image credit: NASA.

End of a tab-hoarding era

Google Chrome just pulled the plug on the Great Suspender browser extension. The Great Suspender allowed its users to keep lots of tabs open at any time on Chrome without guzzling RAM, which Chrome is notorious for – simply by keeping the tab open but not displaying any of the page’s contents. When a user does need to view the page’s contents, they could just click the ‘frozen’ page and the tab’s contents would load then. So by getting the RAM consideration out of the way (mostly), the Great Suspender engendered certain questionable browsing habits, like believing that I could read everything I discovered on the internet or had been shared with me (and which was worth reading, of course) if only I could keep track of them. At last check, my Great Suspender extension was handling 48 tabs.

Now that Google has eliminated the extension without nary a warning, I – like many thousands of users – find ourselves suddenly bereaved, with a giant tab-shaped hole in our lives. I’m not even sure, even though a few hours have passed, if I’m feeling good or bad about this. The reason appears to be that the extension’s original developer sold it to another, unknown person in June 2020, this person snuck in some malicious code in a subsequent version, and it’s been downhill from there (more info and some technical workarounds here).

There are of course other extensions like this one, especially now that this particular one is no more, but the Great Suspender also came recommended from many of those tech-news sites like Mashable. I also don’t have the competence to independently judge how good and safe each one is. Perhaps more importantly, for tech-semi-illiterate or -illiterate people like me, to discover that extensions like the Great Suspender can include and run malware also imposes another layer of wariness towards add-ons, plug-ins, etc. It’s another issue to evade, yet another point to look out for in articles recommending these things, and until I get a recommendation that’s that robust, I’m going to give extensions of this sort a skip.

This also means I need to pay more attention to how I spend my time online. Without being able to hoard tabs, I need to focus on pages I’m likelier to consume soon instead of mindlessly trawling through everything that strikes my fancy. A laptop with more RAM is also out of the question considering how costly they have become. A couple small mercies: I don’t have to give up the luxury of being able to reading an article long after I’ve discovered it, when I’m in just the mood for it, thanks to Pocket.

Update (8:42 am, February 7, 2021): As one reader pointed out, there’s also One Tab – an extension that allows users to collect links to multiple tabs in a single page with the click of a button, and restores them with similar ease. But while it seems like a different way to execute the same paradigm, of working around Chrome’s RAM needs, it may also impose an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mindset that allows users to ‘collect’ tabs en masse but may not help them remember that they’re there. So using One Tab to dispense the same duties that the Great Suspender did will also require behaviour change, which is costly. So let’s see.

What the DNA Bill needs

The following article has been published in The Wire, but since it began as a blog post and because I haven’t published anything else in a while, I’m using it here as well.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on S&T, Forests and Climate Change has submitted its review on the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2019 to parliament. On page 9, the report considers the lack of “academic work” on the use of “scientific evidence” in Indian courts and writes:

The Committee, therefore, underlines with utmost importance that it is essential the Bill enables the creation of an ecosystem that benefits from scientific evidence like DNA, therefore allowing the legal system to become experienced in the use and appreciation of DNA evidence. This will enable the legal system to understand the technology’s limitations, identify when it is appropriate to use DNA technology to solve crimes appropriate and over time, substantially minimise all possible errors. Widespread and extensive training is of paramount importance.

These are sage words – but the “creation of an ecosystem that benefits from scientific evidence” requires one more thing that the committee’s report doesn’t mention: humility, of sorts.

At the outset, any ecosystem that upholds the dignity of both science and the law must also accommodate conditions in which scientists can develop a deeper understanding, free of any interference, of the instruments and methods underlying evidence. They must be free to speak up as often as they’re required to do so in the public domain, and, finally, be heard instead of silenced. In addition, given the revolutionary nature of DNA profiling vis-à-vis forensic science, and its vaunted feature of being accurate 99.x% of the time, it takes a certain humility to be able to identify the exceptional instances before it is too late.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, including the fact that even when the government is confronted with good science, it will not tolerate disagreement, and dissent even less. In the past 10 months, a small clutch of scientists and other experts have repeatedly spoken up against government mistakes and deceptions while the wider community of experts has stayed noticeably quiet. In turn, the government has pushed back against comments from senior, well-regarded scientists by attacking their credentials instead of their arguments, orchestrating signature campaigns against them and, in one case, going so far as to dismiss legitimate questions because the scientist in question had disagreed with the government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019.

In addition, no court’s judgment is pronounced in a vacuum. Even if scientists are called to consult on a case, to advise a judge or weigh in for a report, the context in which the scientist discusses a problem, the information that has been shared with them as well as the information based on which they supply their own wisdom matters – especially if the defendant faces many years of imprisonment or the death penalty.

For example, it used to be that investigators could check for the presence of seminal fluid in a given sample; if it was present, the court could conclude the fluid came from the suspect. Today, investigators can – and thus need to – extract Y chromosomes from the seminal fluid, ascertain a match with the suspect, and submit it in court with the caveat that the fluid could have come from the suspect, his father or his grandfather, etc.

But one forensic scientist in the US told The Wire that investigators often skip the seminal-fluid check and jump to a DNA analysis to cut time. This could be a problem if the suspect has aspermia: a condition in which a person’s semen doesn’t have sperm. In such cases, an investigator running a DNA test on some semen will get no results – i.e. a false negative.

More broadly, she continued, there are two new problems today, among others: of analysts exaggerating their results in court, and of investigators overestimating what DNA analysis can tell us. For example, she said, microscopic analysis of hair used to be the norm but today DNA analysis has taken its place. However, only hair root contains nuclear DNA, which can help identify specific people. The rest of the hair contains mitochondrial DNA, which can only say if it came from the suspect, their mother or her grandmother, etc. (even if the suspect is male).

In addition, studying the DNA can’t tell us if the hair has been damaged in a particular way. That information can come only from microscopic analysis – which investigators have been neglecting.

“It’s not the science that’s flawed. It’s the people that claim to be scientists who are often the problem,” the scientist said. “Many investigators in the US have no more than a high-school diploma – but unless they go through rigorous training at the UG level in science, they may not even understand hypothesis testing” to eliminate biases.

So deliberation and accountability are paramount. Transparency will help but simply sharing information may not help so much when complex technical information is involved. Independent experts will need data, and independence itself. And observers such as politicians and policymakers will need to pay close attention to debates between scientists – and listen to them.

In turn, the people at large must be sufficiently informed to understand a verdict and question it if necessary. A topical example where public mobilisation matters is that of air pollution in North India. The Supreme Court of India has on more than one occasion asked the Delhi government why it isn’t installing more smog towers in the city. But as multiple experts have written, smog towers are useless, a waste of money and only perpetuate a fetish with technological solutions that are not designed to solve what remains a deeply regulatory problem.

Finally, an honest appreciation of scientific evidence requires one to admit that one may not know something in the first place, instead of bristling at presumed accusations of ignorance or even impudence, as more than a few members of the judicial system have done of late. Science in particular requires its exponents to begin by acknowledging that they may not know something, and to graduate from this position to learning about it while constantly eliminating biases along the way.

A direct consequence of this process is a heightened appreciation for what science can’t tell us. Until the Supreme Court banned the practice in 2013, for example, officials in India had deemed the two-finger test to be a ‘scientific’ check of whether a victim of rape had been “habituated to sex”, based on digitally probing the laxity of the victim’s vaginal muscles. But the test has nothing to do with science, of course, let alone the possibility of rape having been committed. Instead, it’s rooted in the cultural idea that only those women who don’t have sexual intercourse until after marriage are of ‘good character’ and can therefore be violated at all.

Humility offers a way to negotiate all of these issues – if it existed. India, especially the Government of India, currently has a ‘jagatguru’ complex, presuming to know everything worth knowing before anyone else, thanks to the mythological feats of Hindus who lived here thousands of years ago. This attitude is deeply antithetical to the humility required in a given moment to consider the evidence, set aside any other claims, and determine – in a necessarily limited amount of time – if one is addressing the 99.8% or the 0.2%.

Many experts have previously written that DNA data alone shouldn’t be used to open or close cases, and that it is at best complementary in nature. If followed, this precept should offer a valuable safeguard against overstating the importance of genetic evidence over, say, physical evidence. Another safeguard comes from the judicial system as it is: the integrity of the various courts and their staff members, including the judges, and their daily interpretation of the law.

But having said all this, the possibility exists in India’s wider political climate for judgments to be misled by half-baked science, half-baked scientists, government interference and either public indifference or public arrogance. This is more so since the room to disagree with the government has practically vanished, and those who still disagree are threatened with disproportionate consequences.

In addition, as the forensic scientist said, the science is comfortable with its limitations; it is its practitioners that are often the problem. Just last month, nearly 50 “eminent scientists and doctors” signed a letter saying they were okay with the national drug regulator’s decision to approve two COVID-19 vaccine candidates: one had no efficacy data and the other was confused about the interdose gap. In addition to such unabashed sycophancy, bad journalism has often contributed to the impression that scientists themselves don’t know what they are doing, frequently confusing debate for rhetoric.

As the committee’s report on the DNA Bill says, “widespread and extensive training is of paramount importance.” These words are well-taken but a lot needs to change – more than whatever the Bill by itself could ever manage – for the system to appreciate and use ‘scientific evidence’ right.