Ads on The Wire Science

Sometime this week, but quite likely tomorrow, advertisements will begin appearing on The Wire Science. The Wire‘s, and by extension The Wire Science‘s, principal source of funds is donations from our readers. We also run ads as a way to supplement this revenue; they’re especially handy to make up small shortfalls in monthly donations. Even so, many of these ads look quite ugly – individually, often with a garish choice of colours, but more so all together, by the very fact that they’re advertisements, representing a business model often rightly blamed for the dilution of good journalism published on the internet.

But I offer all of these opinions as caveats because I’m quite looking forward to having ads on The Wire Science. At least one reason must be obvious: while The Wire‘s success itself, for being an influential and widely read, respected and shared publication that runs almost entirely on readers’ donations, is inspiring, The Wire Science as a niche publication focusing on science, health and the environment (in its specific way) has a long way to go before it can be fully reader funded. This is okay if only because it’s just six months old – and The Wire got to its current pride of place after more than four years, with six major sections and millions of loyal readers.

As things stand, The Wire Science receives its funds as a grant of sorts from The Wire (technically, it’s a section with a subdomain). We don’t yet have a section-wise breakdown of where on the site people donate from, so while The Wire Science also solicits donations from readers (at the bottom of every article), it’s perhaps best to assume it doesn’t funnel much. Against this background, the fact that The Wire Science will run ads from this week is worth celebrating for two reasons: 1. that it’s already a publication where ads are expected to bring in a not insubstantial amount of money, and 2. that a part of this money will be reinvested in The Wire Science.

I’m particularly excited about reason no. 1. Yes, ads suck, but I think that’s truer in the specific context of ads being the principal source of funds – when editors are subordinated to business managers and editorial decisions serve the bottomline. But our editorial standards won’t be diluted by the presence of ads because of ads’ relative contribution to our revenue mix. (I admit that psychologically it’s going to take some adjusting.) The Wire Science is already accommodated in The Wire‘s current outlay, which means ad revenue is opportunistic, and an opportunity in itself to commission an extra story now and then, get more readers to the site and have a fraction of them donate.

I hope you’ll be able to see it the same way, and skip the ad-blocker if you can. 🙂

The sea of metal

Two of the most decisive moments of the Second World War that I can’t get enough of are the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day landings. In the Battle of Stalingrad, Adolf Hitler’s army suffered its first major defeat, signalling to Nazi Germany that it was just as capable of bleeding as any other regime, that its forces – despite the individual formidability of each German soldier – were capable of defeat. The D-Day landings were the proximate beginning of the end, allowing Allied forces to penetrate Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and, in due course, bring the fight to Germany.

These two battles played out differently in one way (among others, of course). The Battle of Stalingrad began on German initiative but turned into a Soviet siege that slowly but continuously drove home the point to German soldiers trapped in the Soviet city that they couldn’t possibly win. Eventually, on January 31, 1943, the Germans surrendered together with their leader, Friedrich Paulus, who also became the first Field Marshal of the Nazi armed forces to be captured by the enemy during the war. Operation Overlord – of which the D-Day landings were part – on the other hand hinged on a single, potentially decisive event: of blowing a hole in the Atlantic Wall at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and securing it for long enough for more Allied troops to land ashore as well as for those already inside France to assemble and establish communications.

The Allies succeeded of course, although slower than planned at first, but in all successfully marching from there to liberate France and then take Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler would commit suicide on April 30 to avoid capture), effectively ending the war.

Operation Overlord is well-documented, particularly so from the Allied point of view, with records as well as video footage describing the great lengths to which American, Australian, Belgian, British, Canadian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Luxembourger, New Zealander, Norwegian and Polish forces went to ensure it was a success. The Allies had to do five things: keep Hitler in the dark, or at least confused, about where the Allies were going to attack the Atlantic Wall; sabotage the Germans’ ability to respond quickly to wherever the Allies attacked; transport an army across the English Channel and land it ashore on a heavily fortified beach; establish and then link five beachheads; and capture the city of Caen. The documentary Greatest Events of WWII in Colour narrates these events to the accompaniment of riveting visual detail – a must-watch for anyone interested in military history, especially the Second World War.

I enjoyed some bits of it more than others, one of them about Operation Overlord itself. The Allied beach-landing at Normandy is perhaps the most important event of the Second World War, and it’s quite easy to find popular historical material about it; the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) come to mind. However, I’ve always wondered how the German soldiers sitting in their bunkers and pill-boxes on the shores of Normandy might have felt. To behold one of the largest armies in modern history rise unexpectedly out of the horizon is no trivial thing. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour documents this.

Narrator: As the dawn breaks, it’s the German soldiers in Normandy, not Calais [where Hitler et al were made to believe the Allies would attack], who witness the enormity of the Allied invasion fleet for the first time.

Peter Lieb, historian: For the Germans sitting in their bunkers in Normandy, the sight of the Allied armada must have been terrifying. A sea full of metal.

Geoffrey Wawro, professor of military history: Witnesses recall just absolute stunned disbelief. This was the greatest armada assembled in world history, and this thing suddenly appears out of the darkness off the coast of Normandy.

A sea of metal!

There’s a certain masculinity imbibed in the picture, a grand combination of brawn, self-righteousness and exhibition that wartime rhetoric prizes because its adrenaline elides the tragedy of war itself. The Second World War was a particularly brutal affair with crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Allied and Axis powers both, and continuing even after 1945 across multiple continents. However, it is also tempting to believe that the start of Operation Overlord, by striking fear in the Germans and bearing down upon a fascist government that had to be destroyed, is one of those rare acts of war that deserves to be recounted with this rousing rhetoric. Greatest Events of WWII in Colour is only shrewd enough to play along.

Distracting from the peer-review problem

From an article entitled ‘The risks of swiftly spreading coronavirus research‘ published by Reuters:

A Reuters analysis found that at least 153 studies – including epidemiological papers, genetic analyses and clinical reports – examining every aspect of the disease, now called COVID-19 – have been posted or published since the start of the outbreak. These involved 675 researchers from around the globe. …

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet group of science and medical journals, says he’s instituted “surge capacity” staffing to sift through a flood of 30 to 40 submissions of scientific research a day to his group alone.

… much of [this work] is raw. With most fresh science being posted online without being peer-reviewed, some of the material lacks scientific rigour, experts say, and some has already been exposed as flawed, or plain wrong, and has been withdrawn.

“The public will not benefit from early findings if they are flawed or hyped,” said Tom Sheldon, a science communications specialist at Britain’s non-profit Science Media Centre. …

Preprints allow their authors to contribute to the scientific debate and can foster collaboration, but they can also bring researchers almost instant, international media and public attention.

“Some of the material that’s been put out – on pre-print servers for example – clearly has been… unhelpful,” said The Lancet’s Horton.

“Whether it’s fake news or misinformation or rumour-mongering, it’s certainly contributed to fear and panic.” …

Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, said her group of journals, like The Lancet’s, was working hard to “select and filter” submitted manuscripts. “We will never compromise the rigour of our peer review, and papers will only be accepted once … they have been thoroughly assessed,” she said.

When Horton or Sheldon say some of the preprints have been “unhelpful” and that they cause panic among the people – which people do they mean? No non-expert person is hitting up bioRxiv looking for COVID-19 papers. They mean some lazy journalists and some irresponsible scientists are spreading misinformation, and frankly their habits represent a more responsible problem to solve instead of pointing fingers at preprints.

The Reuters analysis also says nothing about how well preprint repositories as well as scientists on social media platforms are conducting open peer-review, instead cherry-picking reasons to compose a lopsided argument against greater transparency in the knowledge economy. Indeed, crisis situations like the COVID-19 outbreak often seem to become ground zero for contemplating the need for preprints but really, no one seems to want to discuss “peer-reviewed” disasters like the one recently publicised by Elisabeth Bik. To quote from The Wire (emphasis added),

[Elisabeth] Bik, @SmutClyde, @mortenoxe and @TigerBB8 (all Twitter handles of unidentified persons), report – as written by Bik in a blog post – that “the Western blot bands in all 400+ papers are all very regularly spaced and have a smooth appearance in the shape of a dumbbell or tadpole, without any of the usual smudges or stains. All bands are placed on similar looking backgrounds, suggesting they were copy-pasted from other sources or computer generated.”

Bik also notes that most of the papers, though not all, were published in only six journals: Artificial Cells Nanomedicine and BiotechnologyJournal of Cellular BiochemistryBiomedicine & PharmacotherapyExperimental and Molecular PathologyJournal of Cellular Physiology, and Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry, all maintained reputed publishers and – importantly – all of them peer-reviewed.

Five reflections on science day

Science Day isn’t a very meaningful occasion in and of itself. It is the day C.V. Raman discovered the light-scattering effect named for him. Raman won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and – by commemorating February 28 as ‘Science Day’ – India has come to celebrate the Nobel Prize itself more than anything else.

Indeed, if we had to save one day each for all the significant contributions to our knowledge of the natural universe that Indian scientists have made, a year would have to be thousands of days long. And every day would be Science Day (as it should).

However, February 28 has been Science Day for over three decades, so even if not for Raman, it has become embellished in our history as a tradition. It ought to be dismantled, of course, but if it is not, it ought to be accorded an identity and purpose more suited to India’s aspirations in the 21st century.

It appears the theme for Science Day 2019 is ‘Science for the people, people for the science’. So let’s repurpose the opportunity to reflect on some things the people are doing vis-à-vis science in India.

1. Since 2014, the Narendra Modi government has ridden on multiple waves of fake news, superstitions and pseudoscientific beliefs. An unexpected number of writers and journalists have countered it – with varying degrees of success – and, in the process, have engaged more with science and research themselves. There are certainly more science writers in 2019 than there were in 2014, as well as more publishers aware of the importance of science journalism.

2. Scientists were slow to rise to the mic and express their protest as a community against the government’s bigotry, majoritarianism and alchemies – but rise they did. There is still a long way to go in terms of their collectivisation but now there is precedent. There is also a conversation among scientists, science writers and journalists and some government officials about the responsibilities of science academies and the importance of communication: either speaking truth to power or having a conversation with the people. (AWSAR is a good, if awkward, step in this direction.)

3. The rule of the BJP-RSS combine, together with various satellite organisations, has helped disrupt the idea of authority in India. Consider: some bhakt somewhere forwards a dubious claim; another finds an obscure paper and an obscure expert to back their beliefs up; a third staves off scrutiny by taking jabs at commentators’ lack of expertise. But if we’re to beat back this deleterious tide of make-believe, we must all ask questions of everything. Authority longs for exclusivity and secrecy but it must not be allowed to get there, even if it means the ivory towers of the ‘well-meaning’ are torn down.

4. Many, if not most, scientists still cling to the modernist view of their enterprise: that it is the pursuit of objective truths, and that only science can uncover these truths. But in the last five years, it is the social scientists and humanities scholars who have helped us really understand the times we live in, forging connections between biology, psychology, class, caste, gender, politics, economics and cultures. Reality isn’t science’s sole preserve, so thanks to the non-scientist-experts for helping us situate science in these fraught times as well.

5. Scientific illiteracy can be less ignored now than it ever has been because of the way the BJP, and members of the upper-castes to which it panders, have sought to exploit it. From gau mutra to “braid cutting”, from attempting to rewrite textbooks to formalising Vedic education, from failing to condemn the murders of rationalists to spending Rs 3,000 crore on a statue instead of improving higher education, the government has run roughshod over too many aspirations. So kudos to the teachers in classrooms, and the parents who place a premium on education.

The Wire
February 28, 2019

Research funds gridlock: who wants what

On January 30, the Union ministry of finance announced a 24-25% hike in the junior (JRF) and senior research fellowships (SRF) amounts effective from January 1, 2019.

The decision had been prompted by a longstanding demand of India’s community of young scholars, who availed these fellowships to support themselves at the start of their careers as scientists. In 2018, their discontent snowballed into widespread protests, with scholars demanding an 80% hike in the JRF/SRF amounts.

Their demands reveal a picture of people trying to wriggle out of a system that, through its various inadvertent flaws, has been exploiting them.

After the protests, officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), together with K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific advisor, intervened, deliberated with the scholars and presented their case to the finance ministry.

But because of the large difference between the ask and what has been given, scholars have confirmed that the protests will continue. In fact, on February 2, many of them will gather at AIIMS, New Delhi, for a stock-taking exercise and to plan their next steps.

Different win-win situations

Time is also of the essence, as the scholars are looking for a speedy resolution. However, VijayRaghavan noted, “There are many fellowships, many agencies, and the bottlenecks are there from the laboratory, the institution to the agencies and back.”

According to the DST, the 24-25% hike will benefit 60,000 fellows, and incur an additional expense of Rs 1,500 crore. In this milieu, VijayRaghavan believes that effecting yet another one-time hike and keeping the students waiting for four more years would not solve the problem.

Most people agree that perhaps the worst part issue in all of this is that the scholars don’t receive fellowships that have already been sanctioned on time. VijayRaghavan said that the DST is working on installing a “mechanism” that will ensure the JRF/SRF emoluments are disbursed on time. With this in place, he added, the 24-25% hike “is better seen as the base of a ramp”.

As heartening as this is, scholars are wary because neither this mechanism nor the committee that will oversee it were mentioned in the official memo they received from the DST announcing the hike. And because verbal assurances have yielded subpar – from their point of view – results thus far, they’re less inclined to hope until a formal decision has been made.

A PhD student (who requested anonymity) added that young scientists funded by the Centre should simply be brought under the Pay Commission instead of pursuing anything else: “That would solve most of our problems.”

A poster at a protest depicting the MHRD's promises of a speedy resolution. Credit: IISc Students Council
A poster at a protest depicting the MHRD’s promises of a speedy resolution. Credit: IISc Students Council

And not doing so also detracts from the scholars’ attempts to acquire more respect. As another scholar said, “We need to be treated better. If we’re treated as employees instead of students – equivalent to children – in the professional place, it would improve the professionalism.”

Beyond the one-time transactions of the hikes themselves, VijayRaghavan said he and his colleagues are considering a slew of additional incentives that they are hoping will prove to be a win for the research at large as well as a win for individual researchers.

He said they are mulling incentives for teaching (TA) and research assistance (RA). The TA/RA scheme is expected to be similar to the one in most American universities, where PhD students conduct undergraduate classes and assist senior researchers, both against an offset in their fees.

But another PhD scholar said that TA schemes already exist in some places, and the problem was different. “The institutes try their best to get as much job done as possible by paying less. The TA amount we receive is Rs 100 per hour and for a maximum of 120 hours.”

And even when the hours worked increase, “the amounts don’t,” and there is no way to complain when this happens.

What’s a paper worth?

Officials are also considering a ‘rewards for publication’ scheme, the contours of which are less clear. VijayRaghavan said, “The goal is to gently nudge a turn towards quality, not quantity, driven by the student also taking the initiative.”

A parallel scheme is already at work in China, where, according to many observers, it has reaped great rewards for the country’s institutions and for their international ranking. But it has also raised grave doubts about how it could be damaging the country’s research ethos.

In the early 1990s, Nanjing University began rewarding its researchers for publishing papers in certain journals. By the late 1990s, it was the top Chinese university by number of papers published in journals indexed in the Web of Science database. This in turn increased the university’s ranking and encouraged other universities to follow suit. At the time, a higher ranking meant more funds from the government.

Exactly how much a scientist received for each paper wasn’t clear until 2017. Then, a group of Chinese and American researchers revealed that scientists publishing in prestigious titles like Nature and Science earned over $43,000 – or Rs 30.7 lakh – per paper.

This raises many questions about how a similar scheme in India could work without damaging the publishing culture. It would also require guarding against a variety of threats that India’s academic setup will need to be ‘upgraded’ to handle.

For example, an already prevalent obsession with publishing in ‘prestigious’ journals often prompts evaluators to devalue studies published in other journals – even if they have equal or greater merit.

Part of the reason this happens is that a journal’s prestige is used as a proxy for the quality of research published in it. Such proxies are necessary because evaluators either don’t have the time to judge each paper on its own or don’t want to. So a new reward system that asks for more of their time might not work.

Gautam Menon, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, said that if the Chinese model is anything to go by, “it’s a bad idea”.

The scheme “introduces an incentive that favours certain types of work over others, especially in ‘flavour-of-the-moment’ areas where publishing is easier since journals always want to increase their impact factors; it increases the incentive to cheat, especially if the monetary rewards are substantial,” he added.

And “it reduces the value of ‘intellectual scholarship’, if the only way one assumes such scholarship is whether the scientist has been appropriately rewarded in this manner.”

Its ultimate effect would be to “downgrade long, scholarly publications in society journals in favour of the more magazine-type articles in Science, Nature, etc.”

VijayRaghavan acknowledged the idea is “double-edged” for all these reasons. “So steps have to be taken to maximise the positive and minimise the negatives. If this is not possible, it may be wiser not to do this at all.”

“Rewards should be part of the grant system,” said Rahul Siddharthan, Menon’s colleague at IMSc, “and not a reward after the fact. For scientists, good research
is its own reward. Recognise it by more generous and flexible funding.”

Generous, flexible funding – that’s where all conversations on these topics stop, almost as if a lot of what’s ailing India’s research community is because too many people have been crammed into a small fiscal space. And in turn this has localised prestige, resources and attention in awkward places.

As an alternative, Menon suggests increasing the “number of high-risk, high-reward proposals, ensuring they are funded fast, and ensuring they are publicised.” Together with fewer constraints on how that money is spent and advertising them as ‘prestigious’, such a scheme could be a more workable “alternative” to ‘rewards for publication’.

This could also help tackle the anti-basic-science bias many scholars are starting to see in the government’s actions and ministers’ speeches, and also beat back divisive schemes like the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship.

In all of this, one goal has been achieved. The conversations that have to happen if the scholars are to be treated better are finally happening now, thanks to greater – but still insufficient – government participation. It is only regrettable that the trigger had to be distress.

The Wire
February 2, 2019

The history, culture and science of ‘cardiac coherence breathing’

A recent article in Scientific American on the benefits of “proper breathing” for overall health has ignited anger across social media, with many in India accusing the magazine of rebranding or even appropriating the ancient Indian breathing technique of ‘pranayama’.

The outrage on display seems prompted by Scientific American‘s tweet, rather than the article itself, which makes multiple flattering references to pranayama, yoga and the knowledge of the East.

Of course, given the track record of the West, the outrage is perfectly understandable. Western scientists have frequently been guilty of (re)discovering something that’s been around for many centuries, attempting to package it as something new, and in the process depriving it of its cultural heritage in the name of sanitising it for scientific examination. There was a similar incident with banana leaves last year and with turmeric latte before that.

However, Scientific American‘s article and the reaction it has prompted offer more than an opportunity to just outrage; they offer a chance to reflect on and unpack a lot of things going on here. One example that comes immediately to mind is the role of science in society, as opposed to science’s relation to society, as if it were a separate entity somehow.

‘Cardiac coherence breathing’, as the article characterises pranayama, is the language of a specialist within science. That doesn’t make it wrong, even though claiming it is something novel would be misguided, but that does remove the technique from the commons and away from the people, using language that isn’t very accessible, and making it sound more alien than it actually is. On the other hand, calling it ‘pranayama’ – by way of its storied relationship with yoga – keeps it within the commons.

This is simply a reflection of the scientist’s isolation from society’s broader goals, in the West as much as in the modern East. It’s also a reflection of the kind of language scientists have been trained to, and are encouraged to, use. For example, you no longer read scientific papers today that are easy to understand. The writing is predominantly in the passive voice, very dense and is typified by the overuse of ‘science-ese’ like “‘moreover,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘distinct’ and ‘underlying’”. The following is what some scientists have said about the scientific literature:

Typically, it is bloated, dense and so dry that no amount of chewing can make it tasty. (source)

That science has become more difficult for nonspecialists to understand is a truth universally acknowledged. (source)

Modern scientific texts are more impenetrable than they were over a century ago, suggests a team of researchers in Sweden. It’s easy to believe that. (source)

Fans of the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory will have seen this tendency mocked in the title of each episode: ‘The Allowance Evaporation’, ‘The Romance Recalibration’, ‘The Collaboration Contamination’, etc. So ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ sounds about right for pranayama.

Another issue at play here is the seeming incompatibility of knowledge and the tests used to verify knowledge. India has had the former for a very, very long time, as have numerous other non-modern civilisations around the world.

On the other hand, the tests used to verify knowledge have evolved continuously, and the set of tests used today are of Western origin. Further, because of the West’s colonial mindset, knowledge that isn’t verifiable by their methods is treated as non-knowledge or pseudoscience.

Where we have come up short is in breaching this past/present divide – as Youyou Tu did – instead of dismissing one in favour of the other. But even here, it’s still only the regrettable global struggle for primacy at play, motivated by the incentives capitalism offers for it. As the philosopher Samir Chopra wrote:

Legal protections appropriate for tangible objects … are a disaster in the realm of culture, which relies on a richly populated, open-for-borrowing-and-reuse public domain. It is here, where our culture is born and grows and is reproduced, that the term ‘intellectual property’ holds sway and does considerable mischief.

Then again, one can’t just wish this complication away, and the (re)discovery of ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ might just be a good thing. It’s useful that scientists – anywhere, not just in India – are examining pranayama through the scientific method, with the potential to unlock some detail that an Indian, by virtue of her traditional knowledge alone, doesn’t already have.

As the Scientific American article goes on to note:

The method was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.

This is certainly good to know. Where the ‘discovery’ errs is in passing it off as something new, where it runs the risk of being translocated from the commons to the specialists. Terms like ‘vagus nerve’, ‘parasympathetic’ and ‘neurobiological mechanisms’ aren’t exactly part of casual conversation.

An attendant issue is that of cultural misappropriation. Many readers will remember the hoopla over Coldplay’s music video for ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ in 2016. In 2018, we discovered how the British author J.K. Rowling had shoehorned an Indonesian character, played by a Korean actress, into the script for the second Fantastic Beasts film in a bid to have diversity where none existed in her books. The only problem: the mythology she chose to draw from was of Indian origin.

The result, in the writer Achala Upendran’s words:

[Rowling] refuses to accept that her position as creator does not entitle her to rewrite cultural histories and rebrand different mythologies according to her own convenience, especially when this rebranding is so fraught with political implications.

In much the same way, many Western commentators and thinkers – if not scientists and policymakers – refuse to acknowledge that their cultural hegemony doesn’t give them the license to recast existing knowledge according to their convenience. Instead of slicing off one portion for scientific study and another to promote pseudoscience, we need scientists to work together with pranayama and yoga practitioners to marry technical inputs with cultural and spiritual rituals, and enhance their benefits for everyone’s sake.

The Wire
January 31, 2019

Which supercollider will be built?

After CERN announced the plans for its new supercollider, I was surprised no one wanted to address the elephant in the room: the supercollider’s similarity to one announced by China a few months ago.

The Chinese machine is called CEPC (Circular Electron Proton Collider) and the CERN machine, FCC (Future Circular Collider). Both CEPC and FCC have a tunnel length – i.e. ring circumference – of 100 km, four phases of operation, with plans to study the same set of particles in the same time period.

Both Yifang Wang and Michael Benedikt, the respective heads of projects, told me that the similarities validate their respective decisions to go with this particular design, and both of them also evaded the question of which machine will ultimately be built.

To be clear, it’s not likely that both machines will be built. Even if they are, they won’t receive equal support – both in the press and among the world governments – during the initial phase. Physicists working on the projects are free to believe that having two supercolliders can only be a good thing because one will be able to validate the findings of the other. However, the world doesn’t have enough money for both.

The CEPC is expected to cost over $5 billion and the FCC, $15 billion. Both China and CERN have said that their machines will be built with international collaboration, with multiple participating countries supplying the people, the technology and, crucially, the money. And no country in the world is going to want to cough up the moolah for two identical machines to be built at the same time. The counter-argument is simple: the Large Hadron Collider is doing just fine as the only one of its kind.

Now, which machine are you willing to bet will get built? It’s not easy to decide.

CERN already has a working international collaboration and doesn’t have to forge one anew. But the flip side of this is that it could be more bureaucratic at the outset, with the organisation having to clear multiple checks before it can begin construction.

On the other hand, if China isn’t able to build a collaboration that could help fund the project, the CEPC will face all the more resistance than it currently does. Building a supercollider by yourself is a colossal undertaking for any country. But that said, if anyone can do it, it has to be China – we all know this. And if the government sets its mind to it, it won’t even have to deal with the same amount of paperwork that CERN already faces.

In fact, further complications could arise depending on who builds a supercollider first. For example, if China gets a suitable head-start and builds the CEPC half a decade before the FCC, say, then funders of the European project may not be so keen to continue investing.

The only way to break this gridlock would be for one machine to offer something that the other can’t. To my mind, CERN seems better placed to make this happen than its Chinese counterpart, the Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing. The European lab already has an array of accelerators and detectors studying different aspects of nuclear physics.

With a little more effort and money, the FCC can be integrated into a larger suite of experiments that can conduct experiments of wider scope. But even then, the possibility of the Chinese going it alone doesn’t seem to go away. We’re already seeing this happen in spaceflight.

I personally believe a CERN machine will be more useful for two reasons: access and diversity. CERN already has mechanisms in place to ensure scientists from developing nations don’t find it harder to access its experiments. It has also undertaken to make papers published based on its findings freely accessible online.

Its workforce is more diverse thanks to its large, functional collaboration, and has demonstrated its commitment to protecting the rights of all those working there. In fact, it looks like CERN has already started advertising this via YouTube.

It will be harder to implement similar, if not the same, policies in China, with its closed-off nature and its problematic human rights record.

Update (1:30 pm, same day): A Vox explainer based on the opinions of a few scientists, including Sean Carroll and Sabine Hossenfelder, presents a few interesting perspectives:

  • As I mentioned before, CERN has to get a lot more greenlights on board before it can proceed than China does – that also means opening itself up to opposition from more quarters
  • The cost is proving to be a significant roadblock for both CERN and IHEP, but if at any time China believes itself ready to go it alone, then it will be able to – unlike CERN, and the CEPC will get built instead of the FCC
  • China could just build the supercollider while CERN uses its money to fund smaller science experiments; but the other way round may not work, if Carroll’s caution is to be believed: that if governments don’t have to give $5/15 billion to one physics experiment, they will “never” give it to other physicists for different experiments
  • CERN, according to Hossenfelder, has been overselling what the FCC will be able to actually achieve (more here)

In light of all this information, I think I would be inclined to bet on the CEPC. However, it still unclear whether it is a good idea to advertise the FCC or the CEPC in terms of potential spinoff technologies:

  1. They are unpredictable
  2. If you’re going to throw $5/15 billion at a large group of scientists working on a bunch of experiments on a common subject over three decades, of course something is going to come of it; the question is whether that would be enough
  3. The idea that governments will not bite if “potential spinoffs” aren’t in the offing should merit a reexamination of why we ‘do’ science, and whether spending more on an abstract physics experiment is likely to drive the wedge between science and society further down

As a human being, I believe that ‘knowing’ is the highest aspiration of all, and that we must fund science projects simply because they help us know things about the world, and the universe. The question is how much and when, and given the constraints described above, it shouldn’t be hard to find a solution that everyone can agree with.

Featured image: LHC undergoing upgrades. Credit: CERN.

Breaking down CMB Bharat

A consortium of Indian scientists has submitted a proposal to the national space agency for a new space science mission called CMB Bharat. Let’s break it down.

What is CMB Bharat?

According to Tarun Souradeep, a senior professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, the proposal is for a “comprehensive next generation cosmic microwave background mission in international collaboration, with a major Indian contribution.”

What is the cosmic microwave background?

Very simply put, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is radiation leftover from the time the first atoms formed in the universe, about 378,000 years after the Big Bang. It is the smoke of the ‘smoking gun’, as it were. It manifests as a temperature of 2.7 K in the emptiest regions of space. Without the CMB, these regions should have exhibited a temperature of 0 K. The ‘microwave’ in its name alludes to the radiation’s frequency: 160.23 GHz which falls in the microwave range.

As radiation that has been around since the dawn of space and time, it carries the signatures of various cosmic events that shaped the universe over the last 13.8 billion years. So scientists hoping to understand more about the universe’s evolution often turn to instruments that study the CMB.

What will CMB Bharat do?

Souradeep: “It proposes near-ultimate survey polarisation that would exhaust the primordial information in this ‘gold-mine’ for cosmology.”

The CMB contains different kinds of information, and each kind can be elicited depending on which instruments scientists use to study it. For example, the European Space Agency’s Planck space probe mapped the CMB’s small temperature variations throughout the universe. Based on this, scientists were able to obtain a clearer picture of how mass is distributed throughout space.

The other major feature of the CMB apart from its temperature is its polarisation. As electromagnetic radiation, the CMB is made up of electric and magnetic fields. When these fields bump into certain forces or objects in their path, the direction they’re pointing in changes. This flip is called a polarisation.

By studying how different parts of the CMB are polarised in different ways, scientists can understand what kind of events might have occurred to have caused those flips. It is essentially detective work to unravel the grandest mysteries ever to have existed.

The CMB Bharat proposal envisages an instrument that will study CMB polarisation to a greater extent than the Planck or NASA WMAP probes did – or, as Souradeep put it, to a “near-ultimate” extent. WMAP stands for Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Planck probed about 10% of the CMB’s polarisation while WMAP probed even less.

What kind of instrument will CMB Bharat be?

Souradeep said that it is an imager with “6,000 to 14,000 power detectors in the focal plane”. The focal plane is simply the plane along which the detectors will make their detections.

They will be maintained at a very low temperature, at much less than 1 K. This is because these instruments will emit heat during operation, which will have to be siphoned away lest it interfere with their observations.

As a result, they will be sensitive in the attowatt range – i.e. to energy changes of the order of 0.000000000000000001 joule per second.

What kind of discoveries will CMB Bharat stand to make?

Its goals are classified broadly as ultra-high energy and high energy.

The ultra-high energy regime refers to a very young universe in which its energy was packed so tightly together that gravitational and quantum mechanical effects didn’t express themselves separately, as they do today. Instead, they were thought to have manifested in the form of a unified ‘quantum gravity’.

Of course, we don’t know this for sure; and even if the universe went through this phase, we don’t really know what reality would have looked like. According to Souradeep, CMB Bharat is expected to be able to “reveal the first clear signature of quantum gravity and ultra-high-energy physics in the very early universe”.

It could also help understand the quantum mechanical counterpart of gravitational waves. These are ripples of energy flowing through the spacetime continuum, and are released when very massive bodies accelerate through the continuum.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories – known famously as LIGO – detected the classical, or gravitational, form of these waves and won its makers the Nobel Prize for physics in 2017. Their quantum mechanical side, should it exist, remains a mystery.

CMB Bharat’s high-energy regime refers to constituents of the particulate realm. Per Souradeep, the mission will explore problems in neutrino physics, including help determine how many kinds of neutrinos there actually are and the order of their masses; map the distribution of dark matter; and track baryons (composite particles like protons and neutrons) in the observable universe.

Additionally, the instrument will also be able to study the Milky Way galaxy’s astrophysical properties in greater detail.

What’s the status of CMB Bharat?

“The Indian Space Research Organisation has a programmatic approach to science projects,” Souradeep said. ISRO’s Space Science Programme made an ‘announcement of opportunity’ for future astronomy programmes in February 2017. Following this, he said, a “consortium of cosmology researchers” drafted a proposal for CMB Bharat in April that year.

“The project is under review and consideration.”

Souradeep told The Hindu, “Typically, ambitious space missions of this magnitude take over a decade [to] launch. We would like to be observing for 4-6 years and the time to final release of all data and release could extend to [about] five years.”

The Wire
January 27, 2019

ISRO’s amazing tender notice

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has provided more details about its Gaganyaan programme, including new stages for its GSLV Mk III launch vehicle, through – of all things – a tender notice. Such surreptitiousness is par for the course for India’s spaceflight organisation, which has often done next to nothing to publicise even its most high-profile space missions.

According to Google’s timestamp, the notice has been available online since at least August 2017; another version was online on January 25. In it, ISRO has invited quotations for a slew of infrastructure upgrades that will prepare its second launchpad (SLP) at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, to support a rocket that can lift humans to space, as well as heavier satellites. The last date to submit proposals is listed as February 20, 2019.

Perhaps the more tantalising details concern two rocket stages, called SC120 and SC200. The Mk III is a three-stage rocket. The first stage comprises two boosters called S200 attached to the sides of the rocket. The second stage is powered by the L110 stage, powered by liquid propellants combusted by a pair of Vikas 2 engines. The ‘S’ and ‘L’ denote solid and liquid, and the numbers denote the total propellant mass they carry.

The third stage is powered by a cryogenic engine, C20. The stages are ignited in the order of their numbering.

The GSLV Mk III. The crew module (as used in the atmospheric reentry experiment in December 2014) is visible in the topmost chamber. Credit: ISRO
The GSLV Mk III. The crew module (as used in the atmospheric reentry experiment in December 2014) is visible in the topmost chamber. Credit: ISRO

The SC in ‘SC120/200’ stands for semi-cryogenic, a type of engine ISRO had already been developing for its reusable launch vehicle programme. Both of them seem to be alternatives for the Mk III rocket’s second stage, the L110.

A discussion on Reddit suggests adapting the GSLV Mk III to be able to use them would require enough changes for the modified version to differ significantly from the original. Such a rocket is then expected to be able to lift over 5,000 kg to the geostationary transfer orbit – a goal that former ISRO chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar spelled out in 2017. With the L110, the Mk III can currently lift up to 4,000 kg.

According to a technical document describing the trailer system used to transport rocket stages, the SC120 stage will be 4 m wide, 17.29 m tall and weigh 11,500 kg. A more futuristic variant is likely to see the SC120 replaced by the SC200 system. Using both together would be infeasible because of their combined weight.

The tender notice also describes a new and heavier cryogenic upper stage called C32, a variant of the C20 engine that the Mk III uses at present. In the Indian space programme, a rocket stage powered by a cryogenic engine carries liquefied oxygen and liquefied hydrogen, a combination shortened in industry parlance as hydrolox. The C32-powered upper stage, according to the transport system specs, will be 4 m wide, 14.75 m long and weigh 7,400 kg, which is 400 kg more than the C20.

The stage with the semi-cryogenic configuration will carry liquefied oxygen and a highly refined form of kerosene called RP-1 – a.k.a. kerolox. Kerolox has a lower specific impulse than liquefied hydrogen. Specific impulse is a measure of “how much more push accumulates as you use that fuel” (source).

However, to its significant credit, RP-1 is 10-times denser, which means the same volume of kerolox will generate more thrust than the same volume of hydrolox (same source: thrust is “the amount of push a rocket engine provides to the rocket”). RP-1 is also cheaper, more stable at room temperature and presents much less of an explosion hazard. A well-known launch vehicle that uses kerolox is the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Additionally, kerolox engines are harder to ignite than hydrolox engines, more so when the propellant flow rate increases as the engine fires for longer. As a result, they are sometimes ignited on the ground itself, where the process can be better controlled. This is unlike the L110 engine, which switches on over 110 seconds after liftoff.

Beyond the crewed spaceflight programme itself, ISRO will need to continue its march to a heavier lift launch vehicle. Many commercial satellites and India’s own GSAT communication satellites are starting to weigh near 7,000 kg, especially as the latter is tasked with bringing more transponders online to sate India’s growing bandwidth demand.

India currently relies on launch vehicles operated by the French company Arianespance, such as its Ariane 5 rocket, to launch such heavy missions. These contracts are very expensive (over Rs 400 crore per launch). On the other hand, using a homegrown and home-operated vehicle is likely to provide better control over the expenditure, support local manufacturing and keep vehicles ready as and when necessary.

Moreover, ISRO has a programme-wise approach to science missions, which means it typically announces opportunities based on the availability of launchers in the future, and not the other way round. In this paradigm, having a heavier lift launch vehicle, akin to China’s giant Long March 5, will present correspondingly greater opportunities to India’s scientific workforce.

At the same time, it is also important that ISRO undertake launches more frequently. This isn’t something the Mk III can help with because – unlike the Polar (PSLV) and Small Satellite Launch Vehicles (SSLV) – it is a much more complex machine, and will be even more so in the SC120/200 configuration. It can’t be setup and launched with as much ease.

This in turn requires a launchpad able to support such an intense workload, together with the logistical requirements for transporting and loading different fuels. As the notice states (lightly edited):

For servicing of semi-cryo stage at the SLP, it is necessary that new facilities and/or augmentations are established apart from augmentation of existing cryo and gas systems together with associated instrumentation and control systems.

1. Isrosene system
2. Liquid oxygen storage and filling system (LOFS)
3. Nitrogen storage and filling system (NSS)
4. Gas storage and servicing system (GSSF)
5. Instrumentation and control systems
6. Cable trench and pipe trench
7. Augmentation of [liquid oxygen] storage at SLP,


(Isrosene is a grade of kerosene that ISRO has developed as a ‘greener’ fuel to be used on future missions.)

Proposed layout of the augmented SLP. Credit: ISRO
Proposed layout of the augmented SLP. Credit: ISRO

A launchpad upgraded in this fashion will also be useful for the reusable launch vehicle programme, expected to be ready by 2030. Its current design envisages a launch vehicle powered by four or five kerolox semi-cryogenic engines during its ascent (and a scramjet engine during the descent phase).

The Wire
January 26, 2019

Compare ideas with ideas

Avi Loeb in his interview to the New Yorker:

We don’t have as much data as I would like. Given the data that we have, I am putting this on the table, and it bothers people to even think about that, just like it bothered the Church in the days of Galileo to even think about the possibility that the Earth moves around the sun. Prejudice is based on experience in the past. The problem is that it prevents you from making discoveries. If you put the probability at zero per cent of an object coming into the solar system, you would never find it!

There’s a bit of Paul Feyerabend at work here. Specifically:

A scientist who wishes to maximise the empirical content of the views he holds and who wants to understand them as clearly as he possibly can must therefore introduce other views; that is, he must adopt a pluralistic methodology. He must compare ideas with other ideas rather than with ‘experience’ and he must try to improve rather than discard the views that have failed in the competition. … Knowledge so conceived is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness.

p. 13-14, ch. 2, Against Method, Paul Feyerabend, Verso 2010.