Not my office. Credit: mcgraths/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Time to fire myself

Letting go turned out to be harder than I thought it would.

Next week, a big project begins at the office – and it will be the first project that won’t be led by me. Instead, it will be led by a person we hired to do just such a thing (among other things).

Since The Wire launched and until now, I was its science editor and product manager. I was also a social media manager and its sole developer but haven’t been since the start of 2017. And now, with this project, I will finally be just the science editor. The project will be led by our product manager who joined in December.

Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the reluctance to let go until earlier this month. As the information necessary to make decisions was moving from one person to another, like signals moving through nodes in a network, I realised then that I had embedded myself in certain places in the chain with no demonstrable effect on the outcomes themselves.

For example, I would’ve asked a colleague on one branch of this network to consult with me before making a decision simply because I’d wanted to feel included. In another situation, I would’ve asked another colleague to keep me posted on the proceedings of some review meetings for the same reason. If I hadn’t been a part of these things, nothing would’ve changed – except perhaps some people would’ve had more time on their hands.

My removing myself from such networks began earlier this week and culminated today with the final move. Now, I’m just that guy in the office who will have occasional doubts – but will not be expected to be responsible for their existence.

It’s particularly stressful to lead projects that involve bigger teams, more coordination and more consequential decisions, so people usually think that when the time comes, they’d let go in a jiffy. That’s what I thought, too, and I was wrong. Things like this become hard to let go people either get used to being in power or because they become addicted to the excitement.

I was never in power, so to speak (our team is small and I encourage everyone to question everything). For me, it was definitely the addiction, especially to solving unique problems that no one else was tasked with, that at times no one even knew existed.

But it’s okay. I think it’s more important now to fire myself. The problem-solving me needs to leave so it can be replaced by someone who solves problems about problems, who strategises about which ones to solve and why. There’s always bigger fish, isn’t there?

Featured image: Not my office. Credit: mcgraths/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Psych of Science

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.


We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.


Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.


Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?


Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.


“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.


This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.


Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!


The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:


Obviously this is going to get the cut.


As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Psych of Science

Annotated: NASA press release on Juno’s mission

The following is an annotated version of a NASA press release published on February 17 (IST). It illustrates how a writer can soften the blow of some bad news that is going to be delivered, though this isn’t what a journalist would – nor should – do. The adverse outcomes of the development are pushed to the release’s bottom while embellishments are played up to give the impression that nothing major has happened and, in fact, everything’s just as awesome as it was before. The text in dark blue is mine. The text in bold is added emphasis.

NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, which has been in orbit around the gas giant since July 4, 2016, will remain in its current 53-day orbit for the remainder of the mission. This will allow Juno to accomplish its science goals, while avoiding the risk of a previously-planned engine firing that would have reduced the spacecraft’s orbital period to 14 days. The press release begins with an assurance that Juno’s science goals will be accomplished while it doesn’t yet say what this ‘risk’ is – a curiosity gap intended to keep the reader reading.

“Juno is healthy, its science instruments are fully operational, and the data and images we’ve received are nothing short of amazing,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The decision to forego the burn is the right thing to do — preserving a valuable asset so that Juno can continue its exciting journey of discovery.” More embellishment while refusing to reveal what the risk mentioned in the lede might be, even as some expert is introduced to defend the decision to avoid it.

Juno has successfully orbited Jupiter four times since arriving at the giant planet, with the most recent orbit completed on Feb. 2. Its next close flyby of Jupiter will be March 27.

The orbital period does not affect the quality of the science collected by Juno on each flyby, since the altitude over Jupiter will be the same at the time of closest approach. This is an interesting line: when Juno was launched and its orbital profile around Jupiter was publicised scientists had been keen to emphasise the importance of a 53-day orbit first and then a 14-day orbit to get “up close and personal” with the planet, when – according to PI Scott Bolton – the primary science phase would begin. In fact, the longer orbit provides new opportunities that allow further exploration of the far reaches of space dominated by Jupiter’s magnetic field Juno’s 53-day orbit does indeed perform some great observations because its flyby distance is really low (~5,000 km) and will hopefully allow it to catch up over time with the objectives of the 14-day orbit thanks to its ‘spinning bangle’ path (image below). However, it isn’t clear if Juno’s no longer being able to orbit Jupiter for more than 10 hours at a time (equal to one day on Jupiter) will imperil some science missions, increasing the value of Juno’s research. And if the last six words are true, surely mission scientists would have thought of this earlier? Why didn’t they stick to the 53-day orbit instead of announcing a 14-day orbit down the line?

Like a spinning bangle: During the course of each flyby, Juno will turn sideways to study one face of Jupiter while moving from one pole to another, before flying back to a distance beyond the reach of Jupiter's radiation belts. Credit: NASA/JPL

Like a spinning bangle: During the course of each flyby, Juno will turn sideways to study one face of Jupiter while moving from one pole to another, before flying back to a distance beyond the reach of Jupiter’s radiation belts. Credit: NASA/JPL

During each orbit, Juno soars low over Jupiter’s cloud tops — as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno probes beneath the obscuring cloud cover and studies Jupiter’s auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The original Juno flight plan envisioned the spacecraft looping around Jupiter twice in 53-day orbits, then reducing its orbital period to 14 days for the remainder of the mission. However, two helium check valves that are part of the plumbing for the spacecraft’s main engine did not operate as expected when the propulsion system was pressurized in October. And there we have it! The real reason the orbital profile has been changed is something has broken onboard Juno. Therefore, the risk mentioned in the first paragraph is in exacerbating this problem – not in jeopardising “the value of Juno’s research”. The difference lies in what motivated the decision: Telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that it took several minutes for the valves to open, while it took only a few seconds during past main engine firings.

“During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The risk is finally fully fleshed out at this point: “The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

Juno’s larger 53-day orbit allows for “bonus science” that wasn’t part of the original mission design. This, of course, is making-do. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; to the contrary, in fact. But do bear in mind that this wasn’t the original mission design, and the saving grace of  “bonus science” has come to be only because the helium check valves have gone awry. Juno will further explore the far reaches of the Jovian magnetosphere — the region of space dominated by Jupiter’s magnetic field — including the far magnetotail, the southern magnetosphere, and the magnetospheric boundary region called the magnetopause. All awesome objectives, but what about Juno no longer being able to do the science it could have only had it entered the 14-day orbit? In effect, NASA seems to have failed to mention that a glitch onboard Juno has forced it to change its primary mission itself. Understanding magnetospheres and how they interact with the solar wind are key science goals of NASA’s Heliophysics Science Division.

“Another key advantage of the longer orbit is that Juno will spend less time within the strong radiation belts on each orbit,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “This is significant because radiation has been the main life-limiting factor for Juno.” Again, I have to ask, it seems quite unlikely that mission scientists didn’t think to leave Juno in its 53-day orbit forever. The radiation problem was definitely known at the time Juno was made: Nybakken has referred to it as a “solar-powered armoured tank”.

Four paragraphs after this discuss the scientific results that have resulted thus far from Juno’s observations.

Featured image: NASA’s Juno spacecraft soared directly over Jupiter’s south pole when JunoCam acquired this image on February 2, 2017, at 6:06 a.m. PT, from an altitude of about 101,000 kilometres above the cloud tops. Caption and credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino

A data centre in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: scobleizer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Internet & Digital Media

About AWS/Azure/GCP coming to India, etc.

Featured image: A data centre in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: scobleizer/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Interesting story by The Ken (paywall) on the effects AWS, Azure and GCP will have in India once Amazon, Microsoft and Google turn their gaze this way.

Data centre companies at least have 30-35% margins.The bigger companies like Netmagic, CtrlS, Tata Comm and Reliance have data centres in India. They provide colocation services—they let other cloud providers run their servers in their data centres. They lease it to everyone—be it Amazon Web Services (AWS), Azure, Google,  E2E or even smaller companies. That is their cash cow.  Of course, this is in addition to private cloud (dedicated resources for end users) and public cloud (shared resources) they offer.

Business has been stellar for the last 10 years or so. Well, up until recently.

With the overall push to digitisation, from banking to government, global cloud firms have doubled-down on their investments. Microsoft set up three data centres in September 2015; AWS settled for two data centres in July 2016, and Google plans to debut this year. For an everyday business, the focus has shifted to a concept called Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)—where you pay for what you use—something that was being used only by core tech companies and IT services providers so far.

A few points on it:

1. I feel this awareness, the intensifying of competition, may not be as sudden or as recent as we think. I’m not sure about AWS and Azure but I remember using GCP in 2013 and they already had a credits system going, especially for small-scale developers. And even without that, it was still very cost-effective but more importantly it was the security it offered that cut it. But when I think of Indian cloud providers, security is the last thing that comes to mind (and uptime the second-last and UX the third).

2. Questions of data sovereignty and privacy are moot to me – the former because the bulk of data that moves around India that can’t be serviced by foreign IaaS providers is simply going to be self-hosted; the latter because there’s no reason to believe AWS/Azure/GCP will let my data be compromised. (Obviously I’m not factoring in NSA-level snooping because, even though it happened, the problem wasn’t the infrastructure.) Moreover, I’m also encouraged by Microsoft’s data trustee model it implemented in Germany cognisant of data sovereignty issues.

3. If I’m using AWS to run a small blog – like a static site – then it’s going to cost me about $10 a month and almost no technical work to keep it going (after setting it up). But the moment I scale up and start using more than one EC2 instance, and also start looking at things like ELB, WAF and VPCs to make my site more efficient, I will either have to be a developer myself or hire one. And if I’m hiring a developer, I’m likelier to find better talent that works with AWS or Azure than with any other service. So if an Indian company has to beat them, then it has to be PaaS-like with its offering to grow.

4. Because of the security issues outlined by The Ken, it’s curious to think small-scale cloud providers, such as those offering ‘packaged apps’ like WordPress, etc. to run individual blogs, etc., are only threatened by the likes of AWS/Azure/GCP. To me, they’re already under threat – if they already haven’t lost – if they’re not factoring in Digital Ocean, Vultr, Linode and even Bitnami (which provides a soup-to-nuts tour to deploy popular stacks like, say, LAMP using AWS). The Wire was launched on Digital Ocean for $10 a month.

An image from a shipborne NASA investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Psych of Science

Establishing trust across the aisle on issues of climate change

Featured image: An image from a shipborne NASA investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I met someone over the weekend who wasn’t sure:

  1. That there is scientific consensus on the magnitude of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and
  2. What the level of human contribution is to rising temperatures (or, how much natural variations could/couldn’t account for)

I believe that AGW is valid and that, if we don’t do something about the way we’re using Earth’s natural resources, AGW will be extremely damaging to the environment as soon as a century from now (to be even more proper about it: that AGW will force nature to adapt in ways that will no longer preserve characteristics that we have been able to attribute to it for thousands of years). This said: I’m not here to describe how the conversation with my friend went but to highlight two specific sources of information that were in play last night and which I think are worth discussing because of their attempts at coming off as trustworthy.

An ivory tower from the inside

In May 2013, John Cook et al published a paper titled ‘Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature’. It was a literature review of 11,944 papers published in 1,980 journals, all papers dealing with climate change. Using a large team of volunteers, the authors then classified each paper into one of five groups depending on what its abstract said about the paper’s position on climate change. These were the results:


(Obviously the links within the image aren’t clickable, so if you’re looking for the data: the paper’s open access.) At the time of publication, the paper received a lot of play in the media – largely because of the numbers in the first row, columns two and four. According to it, 97.1% of all papers that have a position on AGW endorse AGW and 98.% of all authors that have a position on AGW endorse AGW. However, both the giant numbers don’t correspond to the 11,944 abstracts surveyed but the 3,893 (32.6%) that the authors qualified as having a position on AGW.

Clearly, the way to interpret John Cook et al would’ve been to say it like Der Spiegel did: ‘Von knapp 4000 Studien, die die Ursachen der Klimaerwärmung thematisierten, stützen 97 Prozent die Annahme vom menschgemachten Klimawandel’ (“Of nearly 4,000 studies dealing with the causes of climate warming, 97 percent support the assumption of human-driven climate change”). However, my friend – during the course of his arguments – often lingered on the 66.7% (7,966) of all papers that were uncertain about or refused to take a position on AGW. Specifically, he took the exclusion of these papers from the calculation that arrived at a number like “97.1%” to be misguided. After all, he reasoned, ~8,000 papers out of ~12,000 had seen it fit to not explicitly endorse AGW.

Dana Nuccitelli and John Cook, two of the paper’s authors, tried to explain these numbers thus on the Skeptical Science blog:

We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings. This result isn’t surprising for two reasons: 1) most journals have strict word limits for their abstracts, and 2) frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming. There’s no longer a need to state something so obvious. For example, would you expect every geological paper to note in its abstract that the Earth is a spherical body that orbits the sun?

I don’t buy it. The first sentence – “We found that about two-thirds of papers didn’t express a position on the subject in the abstract, which confirms that we were conservative in our initial abstract ratings” – is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else. The first part of the second sentence requires even more analysis to verify, considering the 11,944 papers they parsed appeared in 1,980 journals, and the fraction of journals that set a word-limit for the abstract might just be non-trivial. The second part is, to me, the display of off-putting arrogance. Doesn’t saying “frankly, every scientist doing climate research knows humans are causing global warming” imply the authors are being dismissive of their own conclusions? And finally, that Earth orbits the Sun is far more obvious than a thesis the defence of which rests on the presumption that the thesis is right – a circularity that renders all facts moot.

While none of this makes me question the validity of AGW, which I still endorse for various reasons, Nuccitelli-Cook’s pseudo-defence doesn’t help me trust them in particular. In fact, their position makes me more suspicious of why they arrived at a number like 32.6% when they were assuming at the outset that it would really be 100%.

An attempt to escape the tower

As it happens, Nuccitelli-Cook don’t appear to be in the minority. To assume that all climate researchers know AGW is valid is also to presume that those who dispute its existence or extent are not really climate researchers (if they’re in the same field) – and this appears to be the case with Judith Curry’s detractors. Until a week ago, Curry was the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta (she quit on January 1). She shot into the limelight in 2005 after coauthoring a paper that linked a rising incidence of hurricanes with AGW. However, it wasn’t the conclusion of the paper itself but what it led to that put Curry on the climatological map: she began to engage actively with climate skeptics on blogs and other fora in an effort to defend the methods of her paper. And this, for some reason, infuriated her colleagues. A profile of Curry in Nature in 2010 said:

Climate skeptics have seized on Curry’s statements to cast doubt on the basic science of climate change. So it is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

But Curry’s position has diverged further since: On April 15, 2015, Curry testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Space, Science and Technology that she didn’t think scientists knew how much humans influenced the climate, especially since the 1950s. This was discomfiting to discover because now I’m suspecting what qualms Curry had with climate science itself instead of only with the attitudes subsection of it. Ken Rice, a computational astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh, commented at the time:

Again with all the we don’t knows. Yes, we might not know but we have a pretty good idea of what caused the Little Ice Age (reduced solar insolation and increased volcanic activity) and it was obviously not attributed to humans. Why is that even worth mentioning? Again, we might not know what will happen in the 21st century, but we have a fairly good idea of what will happen if we continue to increase our emissions.

So, if we’re going to move forward by acknowledging that what we’ve been trying so far has failed and that others should have a stronger voice, why would we do so if some of those others don’t appear to know anything? Given this, I’ll expand a little on my thoughts with regards to [Steven] Mosher’s point that with regards to policy, science doesn’t much matter. Yes, in some sense I agree with this; let’s stop arguing about science and just get on with deciding on the optimal policies. However, science does inform policy and I fail to see how we can develop sensible policy if we start with the view that we don’t know anything.

In the same vein: what reason is there to get out of the ivory tower at all if, from within, climate scientists have been able to accomplish so much? The simplest answer would be that Donald Trump is set become the 45th president of the US about eleven days from now, and the millions who voted him to power don’t care that he’s a climate skeptic. Even if outgoing president Barack Obama believes that the American adoption of clean energy is irreversible, what Trump could do is destabilise American leadership of international climate negotiations. AGW-endorsers sitting within their comfort zones of Numbers Don’t Lie could find this a particularly difficult battle to win because the IPCC and its brand of questionable integrity is doing no one any favours either. Even if the body’s on the “right” side of things, its attitude has been damaging to say the least (sort of like GMO and Monsanto).

Keith Kloor, former editor of Audubon, recently wrote on Issues of Science and Technology,

Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House shocked many, but the tactics that made it possible undoubtedly looked familiar to those of us who have navigated the topsy-turvy landscape of contested science. For Trump’s success was predicated on techniques that are used by advocates across the ideological spectrum to dispute or at least muddy established truths in science. … With the ascension of Trump in 2016, have we graduated from truthiness to what some political observers are now calling the post-truth era? Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a state in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” But this doesn’t do justice to the bending of reality by Trump en route to the White House. You can’t do that simply with appeals to emotion; you need, as his triumph suggests, a made-for-media narrative, with villains, accomplices, and heroes. You need to do what has already been proven to work in warping public perceptions and discussion of certain fields of science.

Those who believe Curry shouldn’t engage with skeptics because her decision could be interpreted as a prominent academic exiting the pro-AGW camp is difficult to buy into – even if Curry did switch camps. It’s hard to arbitrate because there are two variables: the uncertainties inherent in climate modelling (even if the bigger picture still endorses AGW) and how that proselytised someone of the calibre of Judith Curry. Surely the (former) head of a reputed department at Georgia Tech is not the same as any other skeptic?

I thought it was common sense to engage with people from across the aisle instead of letting them persist with information they think is credible but which you think is incredible – to the point that, over time, you become habituated to disregard them irrespective of the legitimacy of their demands. Moreover, giving room for people to disagree with you, to engage with them by making your methods and data available, and working with them to conduct replication studies that test the robustness of your own methods are all features of research and publishing that are being increasingly adopted to everyone’s benefit, most of all science’s.

It’s not hard from here-now to see that moving the other way – by making people anxious even to ask honest questions, by robbing them of the opportunity to respectfully disagree – isn’t going to do much good. Being nice also helps maintain a non-fragmented community that doesn’t further legitimise the impression that “science doesn’t matter when it comes to policy”.

A scene from the film 'Spectral' (2016). Source: Netflix
Creative Stuff & Hobbies, Science & Technology

The science in Netflix’s ‘Spectral’

I watched Spectral, the movie that released on Netflix on December 9, 2016, after Universal Studios got cold feet about releasing it on the big screen – the same place where a previous offering, Warcraft, had been gutted. Spectral is sci-fi and has a few great moments but mostly it’s bland and begging for some tabasco. The premise: an elite group of American soldiers deployed in Moldova come upon some belligerent ghost-like creatures in a city they’re fighting in. They’ve no clue how to stop them, so they fly in an engineer to consult from DARPA, the same guy who built the goggles that detected the creatures in the first place. Together, they do things. Now, I’d like to talk about the science in the film and not the plot itself, though the former feeds the latter.


A scene from the film 'Spectral' (2016). Source: Netflix

A scene from the film ‘Spectral’ (2016). Source: Netflix

Towards the middle of the movie, the engineer realises that the ghost-like creatures have the same limitations as – wait for it – a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). They can pass through walls but not ceramic or heavy metal (not the music), they rapidly freeze objects in their path, and conventional weapons, typically projectiles of some kind, can’t stop them. Frankly, it’s fabulous that Ian Fried, the film’s writer, thought to use creatures made of BECs as villains.

A BEC is an exotic state of matter in which a group of ultra-cold particles condense into a superfluid (i.e., it flows without viscosity). Once a BEC forms, a subsection of a BEC can’t be removed from it without breaking the whole BEC state down. You’d think this makes the BEC especially fragile – because it’s susceptible to so many ‘liabilities’ – but it’s the exact opposite. In a BEC, the energy required to ‘kick’ a single particle out of its special state is equal to the energy that’s required to ‘kick’ all the particles out, making BECs as a whole that much more durable.

This property is apparently beneficial for the creatures of Spectral, and that’s where the similarity ends because BECs have other properties that are inimical to the portrayal of the creatures. Two immediately came to mind: first, BECs are attainable only at ultra-cold temperatures; and second, the creatures can’t be seen by the naked eye but are revealed by UV light. There’s a third and relevant property but which we’ll come to later: that BECs have to be composed of bosons or bosonic particles.

It’s not clear why Spectral‘s creatures are visible only when exposed to light of a certain kind. Clyne, the DARPA engineer, says in a scene, “If I can turn it inside out, by reversing the polarity of some of the components, I might be able to turn it from a camera [that, he earlier says, is one that “projects the right wavelength of UV light”] into a searchlight. We’ll [then] be able to see them with our own eyes.” However, the documented ability of BECs to slow down light to a great extent (5.7-million times more than lead can, in certain conditions) should make them appear extremely opaque. More specifically, while a BEC can be created that is transparent to a very narrow range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, it will stonewall all frequencies outside of this range on the flipside. That the BECs in Spectral are opaque to a single frequency and transparent to all others is weird.

Obviating the need for special filters or torches to be able to see the creatures simplifies Spectral by removing one entire layer of complexity. However, it would remove the need for the DARPA engineer also, who comes up with the hyperspectral camera and, its inside-out version, the “right wavelength of UV” searchlight. Additionally, the complexity serves another purpose. Ahead of the climax, Clyne builds an energy-discharging gun whose plasma-bullets of heat can rip through the BECs (fair enough). This tech is also slightly futuristic. If the sci-fi/futurism of the rest of Spectral leading up to that moment (when he invents the gun) was absent, then the second-half of the movie would’ve become way more sci-fi than the first-half, effectively leaving Spectral split between two genres: sci-fi and wtf. Thus the need for the “right wavelength of UV” condition?

Now, to the third property. Not all particles can be used to make BECs. Its two predictors, Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein, were working (on paper) with kinds of particles since called bosons. In nature, bosons are force-carriers, acting against matter-maker particles called fermions. A more technical distinction between them is that the behaviour of bosons is explained using Bose-Einstein statistics while the behaviour of fermions is explained using Fermi-Dirac statistics. And only Bose-Einstein statistics predicts the existence of states of matter called condensates, not Femi-Dirac statistics.

(Aside: Clyne, when explaining what BECs are in Spectral, says its predictors are “Nath Bose and Albert Einstein”. Both ‘Nath’ and ‘Bose’ are surnames in India, so “Nath Bose” is both anyone and no one at all. Ugh. Another thing is I’ve never heard anyone refer to S.N. Bose as “Nath Bose”, only ‘Satyendranath Bose’ or, simply, ‘Satyen Bose’. Why do Clyne/Fried stick to “Nath Bose”? Was “Satyendra” too hard to pronounce?)

All particles constitute a certain amount of energy, which under some circumstances can increase or decrease. However, the increments of energy in which this happens are well-defined and fixed (hence the ‘quantum’ of quantum mechanics). So, for an oversimplified example, a particle can be said to occupy energy levels constituting 2, 4 or 6 units but never of 1, 2.5 or 3 units. Now, when a very-low-density collection of bosons is cooled to an ultra-cold temperature (a few hundredths of kelvins or cooler), the bosons increasingly prefer occupying fewer and fewer energy levels. At one point, they will all occupy a single and common level – flouting a fundamental rule that there’s a maximum limit for the number of particles that can be in the same level at once. (In technical parlance, the wavefunctions of all the bosons will merge.)

When this condition is achieved, a BEC will have been formed. And in this condition, even if a new boson is added to the condensate, it will be forced into occupying the same level as every other boson in the condensate. This condition is also out of limits for all fermions – except in very special circumstances, and circumstances whose exceptionalism perhaps makes way for Spectral‘s more fantastic condensate-creatures. We known one such as superconductivity.

In a superconducting material, electrons flow without any resistance whatsoever at very low temperatures. The most widely applied theory of superconductivity interprets this flow as being that of a superfluid, and the ‘sea’ of electrons flowing as such to be a BEC. However, electrons are fermions. To overcome this barrier, Leon Cooper proposed in 1956 that the electrons didn’t form a condensate straight away but that there was an intervening state called a Cooper pair. A Cooper pair is a pair of electrons that had become bound, overcoming their like-charges repulsion because of the vibration of atoms of the superconducting metal surrounding them. The electrons in a Cooper pair also can’t easily quit their embrace because, once they become bound, the total energy they constitute as a pair is lower than the energy that would be destabilising in any other circumstances.

Could Spectral‘s creatures have represented such superconducting states of matter? It’s definitely science fiction because it’s not too far beyond the bounds of what we know about BEC today (at least in terms of a concept). And in being science fiction, Spectral assumes the liberty to make certain leaps of reasoning – one being, for example, how a BEC-creature is able to ram against an M1 Abrams and still not dissipate. Or how a BEC-creature is able to sit on an electric transformer without blowing up. I get that these in fact are the sort of liberties a sci-fi script is indeed allowed to take, so there’s little point harping on them. However, that Clyne figured the creatures ought to be BECs prompted way more disbelief than anything else because BECs are in the here and the now – and they haven’t been known to behave anything like the creatures in Spectral do.

For some, this information might even help decide if a movie is sci-fi or fantasy. To me, it’s sci-fi.


On the more imaginative side of things, Spectral also dwells for a bit on how these creatures might have been created in the first place and how they’re conscious. Any answers to these questions, I’m pretty sure, would be closer to fantasy than to sci-fi. For example, I wonder how the computing capabilities of a very large neural network seen at the end of the movie (not a spoiler, trust me) were available to the creatures wirelessly, or where the power source was that the soldiers were actually after. Spectral does try to skip the whys and hows by having Clyne declare, “I guess science doesn’t have the answer to everything” – but you’re just going “No shit, Sherlock.”

His character is, as this Verge review puts it, exemplarily shallow while the movie never suggests before the climax that science might indeed have all the answers. In fact, the movie as such, throughout its 108 minutes, wasn’t that great for me; it doesn’t ever live up to its billing as a “supernatural Black Hawk Down“. You think about BHD and you remember it being so emotional – Spectral has none of that. It was just obviously more fun to think about the implications of its antagonists being modelled after a phenomenon I’ve often read/written about but never thought about that way.

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

What’s common to #yesallwomen, scripta manent, good journalism and poka-yoke?

Featured image credit: renaissancechambara/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’m a big fan of poka-yoke (“po-kuh yo-kay”), a Japanese quality control technique founded on a simple principle: if you don’t want mistakes to happen, don’t allow opportunities for them to happen. It’s evidently dictatorial and not fit for use with most human things, but it is quite useful when performing simple tasks, for setting up routines and, of course, when writing (i.e. “If you don’t want the reader to misinterpret a sentence, don’t give her an opportunity to misinterpret it”). However, I do wish something poka-yoke-ish was done with the concept of good journalism.

The industry of journalism is hinged on handling information and knowledge responsibly. While Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution protects every Indian citizen’s right to free speech (even if multiple amendments since 1951 have affected its conditionality), good journalists can’t – at least ought not to – get away with making dubious or easily falsifiable claims. Journalism, in one sense, is free speech plus a solid dose of poka-yoke that doesn’t allow its practitioners to be stupid or endorse stupidity, at least of the obvious kind. It must not indulge in the dissemination of doltishness irrespective of Article 19(1)(a)’s safeguarding of the expression of it. While John/Jane Doe can say silly things, a journalist must at least qualify them as such while discussing them.

Not doing that would be to fall prey to false balance: to assume that, in the pursuit of objectivity, one is presenting the Other Side of a debate that has, in fact, become outmoded. With that established: On January 5, The Quint published an opinion piece titled ‘Bengaluru Shame: You Can Choose to Be Safe, So Don’t Blame the Mob’. It was with reference to rampant molestation on the streets of Bengaluru of women on the night of December 31 despite the presence of the police. Its author first writes,

Being out on the streets exposes one to anti-social elements, like a mob. A mob is the most insensitive group of people imaginable and breeds unruly behaviour. As responsibilities are distributed within the group, accountability vanishes and inhibitions are shed.

… and then,

When you step out onto the street, you are fraught with an incumbent risk. You may meet with an accident. That’s why there are footpaths and zebra crossings. You may slip on the road if it is wet! Will you then blame the road because it is wet? This is the point I’m making: Precautions and rights are different things. I have a right to be on the roads. And I can also take the precaution to walk sensibly and not run in front of the oncoming traffic.

Because traffic and the mob are the same, yes? The author’s point is that the women who were molested should have known that there was going to be an unruly mob on the streets at some point and that the women – and not the mob or the police – should have taken precautions to, you know, avoid a molestation. The article brings to mind the uncomfortable Rowan Atkinson skit ‘Fatal Beatings’, where the voice of authority is so self-righteous that the humour is almost slapstick.

The article’s publication promptly revived the silly #notallmen trend on Twitter, admirably and effectively panned by many (of the people I follow, at least; if you aren’t yet on the #yesallwomen side, this by Annie Zaidi might change your mind). But my bigger problem was with a caveat that appeared atop the article on The Quint some time later. Here it is:

It has been brought to our attention by readers that the following “endorses” opinions that The Quint should not be carrying. While we understand your sentiments, and wish to reiterate that our own editorial stand is at complete variance with the views in this blog, … we also believe that we have a duty of care towards a full body of readers, some among whom may have very different points of view than ours. Since The Quint is an open, liberal platform, which believes in healthy debate among a rainbow of opinions (which saves us from becoming an echo chamber that is the exact opposite of an open, liberal platform), we do allow individual bloggers to publish their pieces. We would be happy to publish your criticism or opposition to any piece that is published on The Quint. Come and create a lively, intelligent, even confrontational, conversation with us. Even if we do not agree with a contributor’s view, we cannot not defend her right to express it.

(Emphasis added.) Does The Quint want us to celebrate its publishing opinions contrary to its own, or to highlight the possibility that The Quint isn’t really paying attention to the opinions it holds, or to notice that it is irresponsibly publishing opinions that don’t deserve an audience of thousands? It’s baffling.

Look at the language: “Lively” is fine, as is “confrontational” – but the editors may have tripped up in their parsing of the meaning of ‘intelligent’. They are indeed right to invite an intelligent conversation but the intent should have been accompanied by an ability to distinguish between intelligence and whatever else; without this, it’s simply a case of a misleading advertisement. Moreover, I’m also irked by their persistence with the misguided caveat, which, upon rereading, reinforces a wrong message. I’m reminded here of the German existentialist Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on the persistence of the written word, excerpted from a biography titled Franz Rosenzweig and Jehuda Halevi: Translating, Translations, and Translators:

Permanence depends more upon whether a word reaches reception or not, and less upon whether it is spoken or written. But the written word, because captured in a visible physicality, does offer a type of permanence that is denied to the spoken word. The written word can be read by those outside the “intimacy” of two speakers, such as letter writers; or of the “one-way intimacy” that arises between one speaker, such as the bookwriter and many readers. The permanence inherent in the written word is framed within boldness and daring on the part of the speaker: translated or not, there is a thereness to the written word, and this thereness is conducive to replay for the hearer through rereading.

TL;DR: Verba volant, scripta manent.

The Quint article was ‘engaged with’ at least 10,300-times at the time this post was written. Every time it was read, there will have been a (darkly) healthy chance of convincing a reader to abdicate from the decidedly anti-patriarchic #yesallwomen camp and move to the dispassionate and insensitive #notallmen camp. A professing of intelligence without continuous practice will every now and then legitimise immature thinking; a good example of one such trip-up is false balance. This post itself was pretty easy to write because it used to happen oh-so-regularly with climate change (and less regularly now): in both cases today, there is an Other Side – but it is not in denying climate change or refuting #yesallwomen but, for example, debating what the best measure could be to mitigate their adverse consequences.