The problems with one-shot Covishield

NDTV quoted unnamed sources in the Indian government saying it will be conducting a study to assess the feasibility of deploying the Covishield vaccine in a single-dose regimen instead of continuing the extant double-dose regimen.

At any other time, such a statement may have been sufficient to believe the government would organise and conduct a well-designed trial, publicise the findings and revise policy (or not) to stay in line with the findings, informed by socio-economic considerations. But the last 15 months have thrown up enough incidents of public-health malpractice on the state’s part to make such hope outright stupid. I’m fairly certain, especially if the vaccine shortage persists and the outbreaks on an upward trajectory in some parts of the country at the moment aren’t tamped down quickly, that the government is going to conduct a trial, not publish its methods and findings and push through a policy to deploy Covishield as a single-dose shot.

Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong – but in the event that I’m not, I’m already filled with a mix of sadness and fury. The government seems set on finding new ways to play with our lives.

News that the government is going to conduct a feasibility study broke to the accompaniment of a suggestion, by NDTV’s same unnamed sources, that Covishield was originally intended as a single-dose vaccine and that it was later found to be better as a two-dose vaccine. This is ridiculous to begin with, considering Covishield’s phase 3 trials around the world, conducted by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, tested the two-dose regimen.

But it is rendered more ridiculous because Public Health England (PHE) reported just a week ago that two doses of Covishield are necessary for a recipient to be sufficiently protected against infections by the B.1.617.2 variant. The PHE study found that one dose of Covishield had an efficacy of 33% against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by the variant, increasing to 60% after both doses. Has the Indian government forgotten that B.1.617.2 is becoming the more common variant circulating in the country? Or is laundering the national party’s image more important than the safety of hundreds of millions? (The latter is entirely plausible: in the last seven years, the country has seldom been larger than the supreme leader’s ego.)

The PHE study isn’t without its shortcomings – but I’d be more inclined to pay attention to them at this moment if:

  1. I didn’t have to contend with the non-trivial possibility that the Indian government will bury, obfuscate and/or twist the data arising from its assessment, and therefore we (the public) need to bank on whatever else is available;
  2. I didn’t have to contend with the fact that data from Covaxin’s phase 3 trial (which apparently went past its final interim-analysis endpoint in April) and Covishield’s bridging trial (which IIRC concluded on March 24) are still missing from the public domain;
  3. If we could access large-scale effectiveness data of the two vaccines (the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, is set to begin collecting such data this week); and
  4. If there was any other reliable data at the moment about the two vaccines vis-à-vis the different variants circulating in India.

There is another problem. If Covishield is administered as a single-dose vaccine, its efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by B.1.617.2 viral particles is 33% – which is below the WHO’s recommended efficacy threshold of 50% for these vaccines. If the Indian government formalises the ‘Covishield will be one dose’ policy and if the B.1.617.2 variant continues its conquest, will the vaccine, as it is used in India, lose its place on the WHO’s vaccine list? And what of the consequences that will follow, including other countries becoming reluctant to admit Indians who received one dose of Covishield and one dose of the BJP’s way of doing things?

I would be wary, too. The longer the particles of the novel coronavirus are able to circulate within a population, the more opportunities they will have to mutate, and the more mutations they will accumulate. So any population that allows the virus to persist for longer automatically increases the chance of engendering potentially deadlier variants within its borders. One-dose Covishield plus B.1.617.2, and other variants, will set just such a stage – compounded by the fact that Serum Institute, which makes Covishield, has a much larger production capacity than Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin.

(The PHE study also found that Covishield and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had an efficacy of “around 50%” against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by an infection of the B.1.1.7 variant.)

In fact, the government could have made more sense today by saying it would prioritise the delivery of the first dose to as many people as possible before helping people get the second one. This way the policy would be in line with the most recent scientific findings, be synonymous with a single-dose campaign and keep the door open to vaccinating people with both doses in a longer span of time (instead of closing that door entirely), while admitting that the vaccine shortage is real and crippling – something most of us know anyway. But no; Vishwaguru first.

The political theatre of Vardhan v. Ramdev

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine and against people desperately looking for oxygen for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

However, it wasn’t clear why the Indian government – so trigger-happy against any small, even nonexistent, slights against “India’s reputation” – didn’t book Ramdev under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 or any other law. Or is this not the right question to ask?

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the Centre-company vaccine orders with the people.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a madman’s diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed to curry favour with his own party, and his Supreme Leader, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists is met with blockheaded whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers, who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”. Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers? This is the right question to ask.

Featured image: Harsh Vardhan and Baba Ramdev. Credits: MST/PIB and Kumari Anu/PIB, Wikimedia Commons.

Pandemic: Science > politics?

By Mukunth and Madhusudhan Raman

Former Union health secretary K. Sujatha Rao had a great piece in The Indian Express on January 14, whose takeaway she summarised in the following line:

Science, evidence and data analytics need to be the bedrock of the roll-out policy, not politics and scoring brownie points for electoral advantages.

However, we can’t help but be reminded of the difference between what should be and what will be. We all (at least those of us who have been on the same side since 2014) know what should be. But as we’ve seen with the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 and most recently the farm laws, our present government doesn’t change its mind.

In the last example, the Supreme Court intervened to stay the laws’ implementation but the mediation committee it put together somehow wound up with most members being known to be sympathetic to the government’s position. So what will be, will be – and this is likely to be true vis-à-vis Covaxin as well.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already guaranteed as much by determining to foot the cost of 5.5 million doses of Covaxin using the PM CARES fund, which lies beyond public oversight. The Central Drug Standards Control Organisation also played its part by pushing through Covaxin’s approval on terms no one has heard of – and which no one can therefore falsify.

However, this isn’t a pitch for a nihilist position. When Sujatha Rao writes that the government should prize science, evidence and data more than politics and elections, she is right – but we must also ask why. The government has clear incentives to prioritise politics. By thrusting Bharat Biotech – Covaxin’s maker – to the forefront, Modi can claim his ‘Atma Nirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ schemes have been successful. Also, two important state elections are around the corner: West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

These are issues that people, but especially ‘Middle Indians’, have an eye on and according to which they vote. The government has also said it is approving Covaxin because it is concerned with the ‘UK variant’. While no reason can be good enough to justify the use of a vaccine candidate in the population sans data from phase 3 clinical trials, the government has effectively set up Covaxin to be failure-proof: if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it becomes the fault of the variant.

Taken together, Modi’s biggest mistake here is criminal negligence – for pushing Covaxin in the absence of efficacy data (which leads to a cascade of ethical dilemmas) – especially since there are fewer questions over Covaxin’s safety. And negligence is a difficult case to stick to this party or in fact to many people.

Granted, public-spirited science teachers, communicators and journalists can take it upon themselves (ourselves) to persuade readers as to why Covaxin’s approval is really bad – that though everything may turn out okay, it sets a terrible precedent for what this government is allowed to do, how such unchecked power may wreak deadly havoc in future crises, and ultimately that we become a people okay with settling for less, increasingly blind to the banal incrementalism of evil.

In fact, if the mainstream press manages to forget concerns about vaccine apartheid within the country, the dominant narrative as the vaccine roll-out is a few months in is going to be: “India is doing just fine, thank you very much.”

But while the Modi government’s actions may only be negligent – albeit criminally so – in the domains of public healthcare and ‘scientific temper’, they amount to something more egregious if we include the political dimensions of our present moment as well.

None of this means words like those of Sujatha Rao are unnecessary. We need to never forget what should be, and we need to keep protesting for our own sakes. (“Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.” – Zeynep Tufekci) If we don’t, this government might pretend even less than it currently does that it is following some rules or guidelines from time to time.

However, limiting our exhortations to insist at every turn that “science is more important than politics during a pandemic” risks playing down the importance and influence of political motivations altogether – as well as assuming that the state machinery will automatically give way to scientific ones when lives are at stake.

A politician’s principal responsibility is not to govern but to win elections; good governance is a means to this electoral end. And the way people have voted for many decades attests to the reality of this incentive. While this claim may not be palatable from a theoretical point of view, consider it empirically: the Indian government has seldom responded to national crises to the detriment of potential electoral gains. Examples of such crises include the 1962, 1971 and 1999 conflicts, the nuclear tests and economic liberalisation. During the Emergency, the government itself embodied this crisis.

More recently, numerous ministers and diplomats urged the India and Pakistan governments to find diplomatic solutions after the Pulwama attack and also after the questionable Balakot airstrike, in early 2019. In previous years, they had been preceded by the disagreeable events of Aadhaar implementation, demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. But Modi and his fellows won by a bigger margin in 2019 than they had five years earlier.

This happened partly because his success in elections rests on his impression as the Strongman of India, so his resolutions of choice involve flashy displays of strength and machismo.

Against this background: we need to admit political factors into the conversations we – rather, experts like health policymakers, heads of institutions, epidemiologists, healthcare workers, etc. – have from the beginning, instead of ruing the inevitable influence of politics later, so that we may anticipate it and take advantage of it.

For example, consider the conversation surrounding academic publishing. Academics perform most of the work that goes into publishing an academic paper (research, writing and reviewing). Publishing houses add only marginal value to journals – yet publishers charge exorbitant fees to access the results of publicly funded research once it is published. This is unfair, and many academics have said so.

However, the fact that publishing conglomerates are publicly traded companies whose primary responsibility is to generate profits for their shareholders finds little mention in conversations. In this case, the publishers’ profit-seeking motives are fundamental to the problem at hand – but are often disregarded in the first analysis (what should be) and subsequently bemoaned (what will be). For this to happen once is tragic; for it to repeat itself every few months is wasteful.

Similarly, the nationwide lockdown from March to July 2020 served a political purpose: it was a grand gesture, decisive, appealing to ‘Middle Indians’, in addition to supplying the government a pretext to disband protests against the CAA and the NRC. Just before the lockdown, the public conversation had been centred on what the government should be doing. However, most scientists and economists didn’t engage with the political dimension of this decision.

If we had, we may not have been side-tracked into conversations about weekend curfew versus night curfew, or cash transfers versus vouchers, etc. We would perhaps have recognised that our responsibility is not to operate within the parameters set by the government (“How effective was the lockdown?”) but instead recognise that the government’s decisions are politically motivated – so we can ask “Why lock down in the first place?”

Journalistic entropy

Say you need to store a square image 1,000 pixels wide to a side with the smallest filesize (setting aside compression techniques). The image begins with the colour #009900 on the left side and, as you move towards the right, gradually blends into #1e1e1e on the rightmost edge. Two simple storage methods come to mind: you could either encode the colour-information of every pixel in a file and store that file, or you could determine a mathematical function that, given the inputs #009900 and #1e1e1e, generates the image in question.

The latter method seems more appealing, especially for larger canvases of patterns that are composed by a single underlying function. In such cases, it should obviously be more advantageous to store the image as an output of a function to achieve the smallest filesize.

Now, in information theory (as in thermodynamics), there is an entity called entropy: it describes the amount of information you don’t have about a system. In our example, imagine that the colour #009900 blends to #1e1e1e from left to right save for a strip along the right edge, say, 50 pixels wide. Each pixel in this strip can assume a random colour. To store this image, you’d have to save it as an addition of two functions: ƒ(x, y), where x = #009900 and y = #1e1e1e, plus one function to colour the pixels lying in the 50-px strip on the right side. Obviously this will increase the filesize of the stored function.

Even more, imagine if you were told that 200,000 pixels out of the 1,000,000 pixels in the image would assume random colours. The underlying function becomes even more clumsy: an addition of ƒ(x, y) and a function R that randomly selects 200,000 pixels and then randomly colours them. The outputs of this function R stands for the information about the image that you can’t have beforehand; the more such information you lack, the more entropy the image is said to have.

The example of the image was simple but sufficiently illustrative. In thermodynamics, entropy is similar to randomness vis-à-vis information: it’s the amount of thermal energy a system contains that can’t be used to perform work. From the point of view of work, it’s useless thermal energy (including heat) – something that can’t contribute to moving a turbine blade, powering a motor or motivating a system of pulleys to lift weights. Instead, it is thermal energy motivated by and directed at other impetuses.

As it happens, this picture could help clarify, or at least make more sense of, a contemporary situation in science journalism. Earlier this week, health journalist Priyanka Pulla discovered that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had published a press release last month, about the serological testing kit the government had developed, with the wrong specificity and sensitivity data. Two individuals she spoke to, one from ICMR and another from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, which actually developed the kit, admitted the mistake when she contacted them. Until then, neither organisation had issued a clarification even though it was clear both individuals are likely to have known of the mistake at the time the release was published.

Assuming for a moment that this mistake was an accident (my current epistemic state is ‘don’t know’), it would indicate ICMR has been inefficient in the performance of its duties, forcing journalists to respond to it in some way instead of focusing on other, more important matters.

The reason I’m tending to think of such work as entropy and not work per se is such instances, whereby journalists are forced to respond to an event or action characterised by the existence of trivial resolutions, seem to be becoming more common.

It’s of course easier to argue that what I consider trivial may be nontrivial to someone else, and that these events and actions matter to a greater extent than I’m willing to acknowledge. However, I’m personally unable to see beyond the fact that an organisation with the resources and, currently, the importance of ICMR shouldn’t have had a hard time proof-reading a press release that was going to land in the inboxes of hundreds of journalists. The consequences of the mistake are nontrivial but the solution is quite trivial.

(There is another feature in some cases: of the absence of official backing or endorsement of any kind.)

So as such, it required work on the part of journalists that could easily have been spared, allowing journalists to direct their efforts at more meaningful, more productive endeavours. Here are four more examples of such events/actions, wherein the non-triviality is significantly and characteristically lower than that attached to formal announcements, policies, reports, etc.:

  1. Withholding data in papers – In the most recent example, ICMR researchers published the results of a seroprevalence survey of 26,000 people in 65 districts around India, and concluded that the prevalence of the novel coronavirus was 0.73% in this population. However, in their paper, the researchers include neither a district-wise breakdown of the data nor the confidence intervals for each available data-point even though they had this information (it’s impossible to compute the results the researchers did without these details). As a result, it’s hard for journalists to determine how reliable the results are, and whether they really support the official policies regarding epidemic-control interventions that will soon follow.
  2. Publishing faff – On June 2, two senior members of the Directorate General of Health services, within India’s Union health ministry, published a paper (in a journal they edited) that, by all counts, made nonsensical claims about India’s COVID-19 epidemic becoming “extinguished” sometime in September 2020. Either the pair of authors wasn’t aware of their collective irresponsibility or they intended to refocus (putting it benevolently) the attention of various people towards their work, turning them away from the duo deemed embarrassing or whatever. And either way, the claims in the paper wound their way into two news syndication services, PTI and IANS, and eventually onto the pages of a dozen widely-read news publications in the country. In effect, there were two levels of irresponsibility at play: one as embodied by the paper and the other, by the syndication services’ and final publishers’ lack of due diligence.
  3. Making BS announcements – This one is fairly common: a minister or senior party official will say something silly, such as that ancient Indians invented the internet, and ride the waves of polarising debate, rapidly devolving into acrimonious flamewars on Twitter, that follow. I recently read (in The Washington Post I think, but I can’t find the link now) that it might be worthwhile for journalists to try and spend less time on fact-checking a claim than it took someone to come up with that claim. Obviously there’s no easy way to measure the time some claims took to mature into their present forms, but even so, I’m sure most journalists would agree that fact-checking often takes much longer than bullshitting (and then broadcasting). But what makes this enterprise even more grating is that it is orders of magnitude easier to not spew bullshit in the first place.
  4. Conspiracy theories – This is the most frustrating example of the lot because, today, many of the originators of conspiracy theories are television journalists, especially those backed by government support or vice versa. While fully acknowledging the deep-seated issues underlying both media independence and the politics-business-media nexus, numerous pronouncements by so many news anchors have only been akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. Exhibit A: shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the start of demonetisation, a beaming news anchor told her viewers that the new 2,000-rupee notes would be embedded with chips to transmit the notes’ location real-time, via satellite, to operators in Delhi.

Perhaps this entropy – i.e. the amount of journalistic work not available to deal with more important stories – is not only the result of a mischievous actor attempting to keep journalists, and the people who read those journalists, distracted but is also assisted by the manifestation of a whole industry’s inability to cope with the mechanisms of a new political order.

Science journalism itself has already experienced a symptom of this change when pseudoscientific ideas became more mainstream, even entering the discourse of conservative political groups, including that of the BJP. In a previous era, if a minister said something, a reporter was to drum up a short piece whose entire purpose was to record “this happened”. And such reports were the norm and in fact one of the purported roots of many journalistic establishments’ claims to objectivity, an attribute they found not just desirable but entirely virtuous: those who couldn’t be objective were derided as sub-par.

However, if a reporter were to simply report today that a minister said something, she places herself at risk of amplifying bullshit to a large audience if what the minister said was “bullshit bullshit bullshit”. So just as politicians’ willingness to indulge in populism and majoritarianism to the detriment of society and its people has changed, so also must science journalism change – as it already has with many publications, especially in the west – to ensure each news report fact-checks a claim it contains, especially if it is pseudoscientific.

In the same vein, it’s not hard to imagine that journalists are often forced to scatter by the compulsions of an older way of doing journalism, and that they should regroup on the foundations of a new agreement that lets them ignore some events so that they can better dedicate themselves to the coverage of others.

Featured image credit: Татьяна Чернышова/Pexels.

Nitin Gadkari, tomato chutney and blood

There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”

It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.

Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.

Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.

This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.

Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally[1], NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.

Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.

[1] I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.

Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.

The Resistance of the Time

Let us visit the future – a suitable point of time located in one of the many tomorrows ahead of us, a tomorrow far enough to have left The Time behind. What do we see? We see, among other things, that many people spoke up. Many people did not. Many people who spoke up did not say what we wanted them to say. They said what others wanted them to say. A few even spoke words of their own.

What happens after a fascist regime ends? Will we want to remember who spoke up and who did not? Will we want to remember and punish those who did not say what we wanted them to say? Some of those who spoke up said all the wrong things, we say, and that was wrong because they were in power. They could have done something by doing the right thing.

Hmm.

One man comes to mind. K was a member of the government. He was a reasonable man and a smart man. He did not speak up at The Time. I imagine he did not want to upset his vengeful masters. I remember K as a good man because even though he did not speak up, he did a lot of good work when he was in the government. He advanced a variety of causes that people of my political persuasion would have appreciated if it weren’t for The Time being what it was.

Looking back from now, his name clearly belongs on the list of people who did not speak up.

But I know that if he had spoken up, he would have been removed from office and wouldn’t have been able to do all the other things that he did – things that continue to reap rewards to this day. These things probably did not make The Time end but then should they be discarded for this reason? To play the devil’s advocate: if K had spoken up against the government (assuming those were his views), the anti-fascist movement – such as it is – would have gained a prominent supporter, but his absence within government would have affected the prospects of those his department laboured for.

In fact, consider whether the policies he and his colleagues drew out to help whom they were paid to help in turn empowered those people to speak out with less risk to their jobs and lives.

We presume to know what caused The Time to end. There is no question that the widespread protests made up the bulk of the reason. It was a necessary condition – but was it sufficient also?

Would it be unreasonable to expect resistance to work like we expect fundamental science to work: like trees, like the movement of continents, slowly but surely leading up to something great, which does not signal its value in flashing green lights as much as invites us take as much as we possibly can from it, in as many forms as we can imagine, in as much time as we need?

Another man comes to mind. H was not a politician but he did have a seat at one of the highest tables in the land. He was not a very outspoken person at all; when he did speak, especially to the press, he stuck to the sport he had always been associated with. One day, as protests raged around the country against the CAA, H tweeted a banal comment about the way he liked to eat a snack, almost as if he was utterly oblivious of the fires burning elsewhere.

To the people caught in those blazes, H‘s tweet – fuelled by his privileged indifference, they said, when in fact he appeared to be responding to a friend’s comment – might have hurt just as much. No one knew what he was doing by way of resistance, if he was resisting at all, but the moment he published his words, the enemies of The Time tossed him in the figurative trash. The wavefunction had been forced to collapse irrespective of its own secret plans.

§

In Hannah Arendt’s telling, Adolf Eichmann personified the banality of evil – a label that in one moment captured the microscopic structure of human cruelty, and in the next, launched itself into the public imagination through the pokerfaced visage of Eichmann at the Jerusalem trial, as portrayed in countless films and documentaries. Her words were both accurate and sensational, so much so that uttering them as if they were one’s own was to plagiarise Arendt as much as to acknowledge her observation anew. There was no other way to put it.

But where the smallest pieces of evil are banal, the smallest bits of good are presumptuous. Goodness is often a self-contained and narcissistic moral force that refuses to make sense of anything but itself, and even itself it does not make sense of very well.

For example, we think we knew the ways in which people were and were not protesting. Of course, fascism was a hydra-like threat and dropping whatever you were doing to shout against the CAA on the street would not have been excessive. But what if you were not? What if, instead of expressing solidarity with my compatriots – whether they supported the CAA or opposed it – I had chosen to direct my vector of defiance against other foes?

Say, instead of marching from Valluvar Kottam or Jantar Mantar or August Kranti Maidan, that I had spent my time admonishing people for feeding stray dogs outside my house, soliloquising on my blog against the notion that science communicators are experts at nothing, and leaving the waiter a large tip when my father isn’t looking. What would you have said to me, or of me?

What is protest? What does it mean to resist? If in the post-fascist society we expect to rediscover the roots of a functional democracy, we must also expect to find here peaceable people – people able to trust one-another, who aren’t just keen to rationalise how X or Y resisted without joining a protest – arguably a basal instinct – but who can recognise demons they themselves may not have faced, and tip their hats to the silent fight to resist their temptations. If fascism is such a chimerical threat, would it not incubate more than one kind of monster as well?

Here, a third man comes to mind. L was a journalist with an organisation that was uninhibitedly angered by The Time and its attendant perversions. For this reason, L was automatically accorded a measure of respect and admiration in certain circles, especially those populated by people equally angered by The Time. L had heard some even say they would have liked to work with him in his organisation. Very flattering.

However, such flattery only complicated matters for L because he was almost constantly depressed. Where one might have taken a break from the news by diving into their work, L paid his bills by keeping his faced pressed tightly against the grindstone. He found it nearly impossible to disengage even as the sparks of cynicism and pessimism flying forth singed his psyche.

But he resisted. Every morning, he woke up, walked to the mirror and spent ten minutes muttering words of encouragement. Every time the Delhi police thrashed university students without provocation, he fought back tears and found ways to help his colleagues with their reports. Every time the voice in his head screamed at him for being so utterly incapable of moving the needle, L willed himself to step away from the darkness and go for a walk. Every time he wanted to leave, he found ways to stay.

The impetus for the resistance of L was to remain a productive and thinking citizen, to do what one could (the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘little’ rendered completely meaningless), to push the paddle against the current and journey upstream at whatever pace one could muster, until one day, he reached the shore to walk among his compatriots, to join them in pleasant conversation.

§

This does mean giving someone the benefit of your doubts, and yes, doing so is a precarious thing in a fascist regime, when even the slightest inclination towards granting an offender a second chance could spell doom. But fascism is a great corrupter as well, rivalling Morgoth Bauglir himself, and if the simple tokens and rituals with which we once forged trustful relationships between ourselves no longer work, whose fault is it: those about whom we know little or those whom we know for sure to be fascists, their faces the faces of The Time itself?

In the words of Joseph Brodsky, 1984 (source):

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

A prudent thing to do, therefore, would be to subject your notions of good to the closest possible scrutiny, to go, so to speak, through your entire wardrobe checking which of your clothes may fit a stranger. That, of course, may turn into a full-time occupation, and well it should. You’ll be surprised how many things you considered your own and good can easily fit, without much adjustment, your enemy. You may even start to wonder whether he is not your mirror image, for the most interesting thing about Evil is that it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’s notion of social justice, public conscience, a better future, etc. One of the surest signs of danger here is the number of those who share your views, not so much because unanimity has a knack of degenerating into uniformity as because of the probability—implicit in great numbers—that noble sentiment is being faked.

By the same token, the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin—not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do presumably with its innate insecurity, but this realization, again, is of small comfort when Evil triumphs.

Why are the Nobel Prizes still relevant?

Note: A condensed version of this post has been published in The Wire.

Around this time last week, the world had nine new Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (physics, chemistry and medicine), all but one of whom were white and none were women. Before the announcements began, Göran Hansson, the Swede-in-chief of these prizes, had said the selection committee has been taking steps to make the group of laureates more racially and gender-wise inclusive, but it would seem they’re incremental measures, as one editorial in the journal Nature pointed out.

Hansson and co. seems to find the argument that the Nobel Prizes award achievements at a time where there weren’t many women in science tenable when in fact it distracts from the selection committee’s bizarre oversight of such worthy names as Lise Meitner, Vera Rubin, Chien-Shiung Wu, etc. But Hansson needs to understand that the only meaningful change is change that happens right away because, even for this significant flaw that should by all means have diminished the prizes to a contest of, for and by men, the Nobel Prizes have only marginally declined in reputation.

Why do they matter when they clearly shouldn’t?

For example, according to the most common comments received in response to articles by The Wire shared on Twitter and Facebook, and always from men, the prizes reward excellence, and excellence should brook no reservation, whether by caste or gender. As is likely obvious to many readers, this view of scholastic achievement resembles a blade of grass: long, sprouting from the ground (the product of strong roots but out of sight, out of mind), rising straight up and culminating in a sharp tip.

However, achievement is more like a jungle: the scientific enterprise – encompassing research institutions, laboratories, the scientific publishing industry, administration and research funding, social security, availability of social capital, PR, discoverability and visibility, etc. – incorporates many vectors of bias, discrimination and even harassment towards its more marginalised constituents. Your success is not your success alone; and if you’re an upper-caste, upper-class, English-speaking man, you should ask yourself, as many such men have been prompted to in various walks of life, who you might have displaced.

This isn’t a witch-hunt as much as an opportunity to acknowledge how privilege works and what we can do to make scientific work more equal, equitable and just in future. But the idea that research is a jungle and research excellence is a product of the complex interactions happening among its thickets hasn’t found meaningful purchase, and many people still labour with a comically straightforward impression that science is immune to social forces. Hansson might be one of them if his interview to Nature is anything to go by, where he says:

… we have to identify the most important discoveries and award the individuals who have made them. If we go away from that, then we’ve devalued the Nobel prize, and I think that would harm everyone in the end.

In other words, the Nobel Prizes are just going to look at the world from the top, and probably from a great distance too, so the jungle has been condensed to a cluster of pin-pricks.

Another reason why the Nobel Prizes haven’t been easy to sideline is that the sciences’ ‘blade of grass’ impression is strongly historically grounded, with help from notions like scientific knowledge spreads from the Occident to the Orient.

Who’s the first person that comes to mind when I say “Nobel Prize for physics”? I bet it’s Albert Einstein. He was so great that his stature as a physicist has over the decades transcended his human identity and stamped the Nobel Prize he won in 1921 with an indelible mark of credibility. Now, to win a Nobel Prize in physics is to stand alongside Einstein himself.

This union between a prize and its laureate isn’t unique to the Nobel Prize or to Einstein. As I’ve said before, prizes are elevated by their winners. When Margaret Atwood wins the Booker Prize, it’s better for the prize than it is for her; when Isaac Asimov won a Hugo Award in 1963, near the start of his career, it was good for him, but it was good for the prize when he won it for the sixth time in 1992 (the year he died). The Nobel Prizes also accrued a substantial amount of prestige this way at a time when it wasn’t much of a problem, apart from the occasional flareup over ignoring deserving female candidates.

That their laureates have almost always been from Europe and North America further cemented the prizes’ impression that they’re the ultimate signifier of ‘having made it’, paralleling the popular undercurrent among postcolonial peoples that science is a product of the West and that they’re simply its receivers.

That said, the prize-as-proxy issue has contributed considerably as well to preserving systemic bias at the national and international levels. Winning a prize (especially a legitimate one) accords the winner’s work with a modicum of credibility and the winner, of prestige. Depending on how the winners of a prize to be awarded suitably in the future are to be selected, such credibility and prestige could be potentiated to skew the prize in favour of people who have already won other prizes.

For example, a scientist-friend ranted to me about how, at a conference he had recently attended, another scientist on stage had introduced himself to his audience by mentioning the impact factors of the journals he’d had his papers published in. The impact factor deserves to die because, among other reasons, it attempts to condense multi-dimensional research efforts and the vagaries of scientific publishing into a single number that stands for some kind of prestige. But its users should be honest about its actual purpose: it was designed so evaluators could take one look at it and decide what to do about a candidate to whom it corresponded. This isn’t fair – but expeditiousness isn’t cheap.

And when evaluators at different rungs of the career advancement privilege the impact factor, scientists with more papers published earlier in their careers in journals with higher impact factors become exponentially likelier to be recognised for their efforts (probably even irrespective of their quality given the unique failings of high-IF journals, discussed here and here) over time than others.

Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University, recently presented a mathematical model of this ‘prestige bias’ and whose amplification depended in a unique way, according him, on a factor he called the ‘examination precision’. He found that the more ambiguously defined the barrier to advancement is, the more pronounced the prestige bias could get. Put another way, people who have the opportunity to maintain systemic discrimination simultaneously have an incentive to make the points of entry into their club as vague as possible. Sound familiar?

One might argue that the Nobel Prizes are awarded to people at the end of their careers – the average age of a physics laureate is in the late 50s; John Goodenough won the chemistry prize this year at 97 – so the prizes couldn’t possibly increase the likelihood of a future recognition. But the sword cuts both ways: the Nobel Prizes are likelier than not to be the products a prestige bias amplification themselves, and are therefore not the morally neutral symbols of excellence Hansson and his peers seem to think they are.

Fourth, the Nobel Prizes are an occasion to speak of science. This implies that those who would deride the prizes but at the same time hold them up are equally to blame, but I would agree only in part. This exhortation to try harder is voiced more often than not by those working in the West, with publications with better resources and typically higher purchasing power. On principle I can’t deride the decisions reporters and editors make in the process of building an audience for science journalism, with the hope that it will be profitable someday, all in a resource-constrained environment, even if some of those choices might seem irrational.

(The story of Brian Keating, an astrophysicist, could be illuminating at this juncture.)

More than anything else, what science journalism needs to succeed is a commonplace acknowledgement that science news is important – whether it’s for the better or the worse is secondary – and the Nobel Prizes do a fantastic job of getting the people’s attention towards scientific ideas and endeavours. If anything, journalists should seize the opportunity in October every year to also speak about how the prizes are flawed and present their readers with a fuller picture.

Finally, and of course, we have capitalism itself – implicated in the quantum of prize money accompanying each Nobel Prize (9 million Swedish kronor, Rs 6.56 crore or $0.9 million).

Then again, this figure pales in comparison to the amounts that academic institutions know they can rake in by instrumentalising the prestige in the form of donations from billionaires, grants and fellowships from the government, fees from students presented with the tantalising proximity to a Nobel laureate, and in the form of press coverage. L’affaire Epstein even demonstrated how it’s possible to launder a soiled reputation by investing in scientific research because institutions won’t ask too many questions about who’s funding them.

The Nobel Prizes are money magnets, and this is also why winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Academy Award: you don’t get on stage without some lobbying. Each blade of grass has to mobilise its own PR machine, supported in all likelihood by the same institute that submitted their candidature to the laureates selection committee. The Nature editorial called this out thus:

As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.

I believe those arguments that serve to uphold the Nobel Prizes’ relevance must take recourse through at least one of these reasons, if not all of them. It’s also abundantly clear that the Nobel Prizes are important not because they present a fair or useful picture of scientific excellence but in spite of it.

The mission that was 110% successful

Caution: Satire.

On October 2, Kailash S., the chairman of the Indian Wonderful Research Organisation (IWRO), announced that the Moonyaan mission had become a 110% success. At an impromptu press conference organised inside the offices of India Day Before Yesterday, he said that the orbiter was performing exceptionally well and that a focus on its secondary scientific mission could only diminish the technological achievement that it represented.

Shortly after the lander, carrying a rover plus other scientific instruments, crashed on the Moon’s surface two weeks ago, Kailash had called the mission a “90-95% success”. One day after it became clear Moonyaan’s surface mission had ended for good and well after IWRO had added that the orbiter was on track to be operational for over five years, Kailash revised his assessment to 98%.

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Kailash upgraded his score because despite the lander’s failure to touchdown, it had been able to descend from an altitude of 120 km to 2.1 km before a supposed thruster anomaly caused it to plummet instead of brake. “We have been analysing the mission in different ways and we have found that including this partially successful descent in our calculations provides a more accurate picture of Moonyaan’s achievement,” Kailash said to journalists.

When a member of a foreign publication prodded him saying that space doesn’t exactly reward nearness, Kailash replied, “I dedicate this mission to the Swachh Bharat mission, which has successfully ended open defecation in India today.” At this moment, Prime Minister A. Modern Nadir, who was sitting in front of him, turned around and hugged Kailash.

When another journalist, from BopIndia, had a follow-up question about whether the scientific mission of Moonyaan was relevant at all, Kailash responded that given the givens, the payloads onboard the orbiter had a responsibility to “work properly” or “otherwise they could harm the mission’s success and bring its success rate down to the anti-national neighbourhood of 100%”.

On all three occasions – September 7, September 22 and October 2 – India became the first country in the world as well as in history to achieve the success rates that it did in such a short span of time, in the context of a lunar mission. Thus, mission operators have their fingers crossed that the instruments won’t embarrass what has thus far been a historical technological performance with a corresponding scientific performance with returns of less than 110%.

Finally, while Moonyaan has elevated his profile, Kailash revealed his plan to take it even higher when he said the Heavenyaan mission would be good to go in the next 30 months. Heavenyaan is set to be India’s first human spaceflight programme and will aim to launch three astronauts to low-Earth orbit, have them spend a few days there, conducting small experiments, and return safely to Earth in a crew capsule first tested in 2014.

IWRO has already said it will test semi-cryogenic engines – to increase the payload capacity of its largest rocket so it can launch the crew capsule into space – it purchased from an eastern European nation this year. Considering all other components are nearly ready, including the astronauts who have managed with the nation’s help to become fully functioning adults, Heavenyaan is already 75% successful. Only 35% remains, Kailash said.

In financial terms, Heavenyaan is more than 10-times bigger than Moonyaan. Considering there has been some speculation that the latter’s lander couldn’t complete its descent because mission operators hadn’t undertaken sufficiently elaborate tests on Earth that could have anticipated the problem, observers have raised concerns about whether IWRO will skip tests and cut corners for Heavenyaan as well as for future interplanetary missions.

When alerted to these misgivings, Nadir snatched the mic and said, “What is testing? I will tell you. Testing is ‘T.E.S.T.’. ‘T’ stands for ‘thorough’. ‘E’ for ‘effort’. ‘S’ for ‘sans’. ‘T’ for ‘testing’. So what is ‘test’? It is ‘thorough effort sans testing’. It means that when you are building the satellite, you do it to the best of your ability without thinking about the results. Whatever will happen will happen. This is from the Bhagavad Gita. When you build your satellite to the best of your ability, why should you waste money on testing? We don’t have to spend money like NASA.”

Nadir’s quip was met with cheers in the hall. At this point, the presser concluded and the journalists were sent away to have tea and pakodas*.

*Idea for pakodas courtesy @pradx.

The fight over ISRO

My report about ISRO’s ’90-95%’ success claim vis-à-vis Chandrayaan 2 had precisely three kinds of response, split 49%, 49% and 2%.

One 49% group went like this:

The other 49% went like this:

The remainder, which constituted meaningful engagement, was virtually residual.

To add to this, K. Sivan has brought a new thing about him in his position as ISRO chairman, which is to issue loose statements where his predecessors have been a lot more careful and considered. In 2018, he said ISRO would look for He-3 on the Moon – a claim that has since been thoroughly debunked. Last weekend, he said Chandrayaan 2 was a 95% success, which was eminently debunkable.

Makes one wonder if what one is doing is useful at all – but before this thought process hand-holds one down into a pit of self-deprecation, various temptations take over: confounding factors (that there could be a lot of people out there who appreciate your work but don’t tell you about it), trolls and their tendencies (such as compulsive, knee-jerk responses to tweets from a particular account), even doubts about what people use Twitter for (meaningful engagement v. mobilising political forces to affect outcomes offline).

That said, the popular rhetoric swirling around Chandrayaan 2 indicates that ISRO has finally been subsumed by the jingoists’ circus – where addled onlookers gather either to applaud or deride launches, trans-orbital manoeuvres and interplanetary journeys and, at the crack of imaginary whips, descend into a brawl over who can be a greater moron for love of the country. One can only hope, after being shoved to the back as a metaphorical wuss, that this rot hasn’t taken root within the organisation itself.

The simple tech that can pierce the Kashmir blackout

On August 15, AFP reported that the BBC plans to expand its shortwave radio coverage in Kashmir “to ease the impact of a communications blackout imposed by the Centre”. The report added that “short wave transmissions travel thousands of miles and are able to bounce over mountains that dominate the region.”

Shortwave radio transmission is enabled by a part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere, which contains electrically charged atoms that block the passage of shortwave radio signals. Specifically, when shortwave radio signals are beamed at the ionosphere, the atoms bounce the signals back down.

This way, scientists, engineers and hobbyists have learnt to transmit and receive information encoded in shortwave signals across very large distances, using the sky itself like a relay. This is why this technology is also called skywave propagation.

These signals don’t have a fixed frequency but to benefit from the ionosphere’s assistance, they typically range between 3 MHz and 30 MHz. This corresponds to a wavelength range of ~100-10 metres. The official designation of this is the high-frequency (HF) band.

A wavelength of 10 m itself guarantees long-distance transmission. This has to do with how radiation interacts with matter. For example, X-rays have a frequency between 30 billion MHz and 30 trillion MHz. According to the Planck-Einstein relation, this corresponds to an energy of 124 eV to 124 keV.

If an X-ray photon carrying an energy of 124 eV encounters a particle that can absorb this energy, then the energy transfer will happen and the X-ray signal will go dead. This is why bones show up so clearly in an X-ray but soft tissue doesn’t: the electrons in a calcium atom absorb X-rays quite efficiently, casting a shadow on the detector, whereas soft tissue doesn’t.

Similarly, shortwave radio signals have an energy of 0.000000012 eV to 0.00000012 eV. Electrons that absorb energy jump from an orbital closer to the atom’s nucleus to one farther away, but the energy that shortwave signals carry are too low to prove useful for this exercise. Depending on the atom and the jump, electrons typically need 1-1,000 eV. This is how shortwave signals can travel nearly unimpeded.

But they face a barrier at the ionosphere. This is the region of Earth’s atmosphere from ~80 km to 1,000 km above the surface. Here, the air has a very low density, so when ultraviolet radiation from the Sun strikes atoms, they release electrons that float around for a bit before being recaptured by another atom. This isn’t possible in the lower atmosphere because the density of atoms is relatively much higher, so an electron has almost no chance of staying liberated.

In effect, the ionosphere is a layer of charged atoms and electrons that envelopes Earth’s surface. It consists of four sub-layers called D, E and F (from bottom to top). Of these, the F layer is often the most ionised as well as the most used to reflect shortwave signals because electrons and ions in this layer can persist in their charged state for longer.

Since solar radiation creates and maintains these layers, the ionosphere reflects shortwave signals better in the day than at night. During the day, when the amount of solar irradiation is higher, the F layer is even richer at the top than at the bottom; these distinct sub-layers are designated F2 and F1, resp. At night, the D layer effectively dissipates whereas the E and F2 layers remain.

When a signal of frequency lower than in the HF band strikes the D layer, it imparts some of its energy to free electrons and sets them moving. When these electrons collide with other electrons, ions or molecules, they lose some of their energy. This in turn subtracts from the signal’s strength and it becomes weaker. Indeed, the D layer attenuates medium-frequency (MF) band signals, especially during the day, so much so that many radio stations operating in the 500-1,500 kHz range have much shorter range in daytime.

Thankfully, this effect abides by an inverse-square law: if the signal frequency is increased twice, the attenuation drops off by 4x; if the frequency is increased thrice, the attenuation drops off by 9x. So signals in the HF band are attenuated to a much lesser extent in the ionosphere.

So when an HF band signal strikes the D, E or F layers, it is reflected or refracted towards the ground. This is just like when a ray of light passing towards the surface of a water body from under is reflected back down, making the surface look like a mirror. The higher the signal’s frequency is, the higher the signal will penetrate through D and E, so the two sub-layers are effectively frequency filters.

This is how shortwave signals will be able to evade the mountains of Kashmir. The mountains themselves won’t have a part to play; instead, BBC will set up a transmission station at a suitable distance from the mountain and beam its broadcast into the ionosphere. The signal will then skip over the mountain and be received on the other side.

Obviously, BBC – or anyone else – will have to transmit their signals at a sufficient distance away from Kashmir itself. This is because shortwave radio comes with a blindspot: the part of the ground underlying the signal’s journey up and down, called the skip zone. If the signal is transmitted too close from the border of Kashmir, the skip zone could extend well into, or even beyond, the union territory and not be accessible.

According to Electronics Notes, a trade magazine, the skip zone can be as high as 2,500 km for the E region and 5,000 km for the F2 region. So to get shortwave signals into the Kashmir Valley, a transmitting station can be set up in, say, northeast Kenya, northwest Poland or south Sumatra. When the BBC World Service began shortwave transmissions into North Korea in September 2017, the transmitting stations were reportedly situated in Taiwan and Uzbekistan.

Of course, the act of sending a signal isn’t so straightforward. There are a number of complicating factors, including frequency, radiation angle, time of day, annual season, sunspot activity, ground conditions, atmospheric polarisation and the effects of Earth’s magnetic field. Communications specialists also factor in the bandwidth requirement and the kind of information (speech, music, status, etc.) to be relayed.

This said, the underlying idea is fairly simple, attested by the fact that amateur radio operators – instead of trained engineers or the military – discovered skywave propagation in the early 20th century. Amateur radio operators are active to this day, and help maintain communications in the event of a disaster or, as in Kashmir, a blackout.

There are similar stories from India’s freedom struggle. In January 1942, Subhash Chandra Bose began broadcasting shortwave messages into India from Berlin, with the support of his new ally, Adolf Hitler. In September that year, two amateur operators named Bob Tanna and Nariman Printer used shortwave broadcasts (7.12 MHz) from Bombay to gather support for the ‘Quit India’ movement that M.K. Gandhi had launched only a month before.

More recently, Ambarish Nag Biswas, founder of the West Bengal Radio Club, told The Telegraph in July this year that he and his team “provide emergency communications and assist the administration during Gangasagar Mela” (in Kolkata), and have thus far “reunited 2,500 people with their families”.

In the Cold War period, shortwave bands were flush with broadcasts from both parties of the war; stations included Voice of America against Radio Moscow, and Deutsche Welle against Radio Berlin International. However, audiences have shrunk since the rise of satellite broadcasting and the internet. Andy Sennitt, former editor of the World Radio Television Handbook, told Radioworld in 2016, “In parts of Africa and South Asia there are still significant shortwave audiences, but even those are gradually declining.”

However, Radioworld noted that as American and European broadcasters downsized operations, their then-empty HF bands were taken over by Asian, Mediterranean, African and South American stations looking for cheap ways to communicate with listeners around the world. The advent of Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), a modern broadcasting technology that makes use of digital audio broadcasting – as opposed to analog counterparts – to achieve higher information transfer rates for fixed bandwidth, also revitalised shortwave’s prospects.

In fact, the DRM consortium’s website lauds All India Radio’s “impressive implementation of the DRM digital radio standard in the country, which represents probably the biggest digital radio roll-out project in the world”.

In India, the Ministry of Communications issues the amateur radio operator license following an examination. In 2008, The Tribunereported that there were 16,000 licensed operators in the country. Some prominent operators include Rajiv Gandhi (callsign: VU2RG) and Amitabh Bachchan (VU2AMY), and the first shortwave public broadcasting station was set up by E.P. Metcalfe, the vice-chancellor of Mysore University, in 1935.

The Wire
August 19, 2019