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Analysis Science

AzaadiSAT is propaganda, not a milestone

At 9.18 am today, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the first developmental flight of its new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV), a three-stage modular launch vehicle designed to carry a payload of up to 500 kg to the low-Earth orbit and to go from assembly to launch readiness in six days. The existence of such a vehicle in the ISRO stable at this time is a milestone in and of itself but it’d be naïve to assume that Prime Minister Narendra would allow that to be the only one so close to Independence Day, that too the country’s 75th. So the SSLV-D1 mission will fly a satellite called AzaadiSAT in addition to the primary payload, an optical remote-sensing satellite.

As many news reports have been touting for a week (News18CNBC TV18Times NowHindustan TimesEconomic TimesWIONShe The People and PTI), AzaadiSAT has been “built” by 750 girls from 75 schools around the country. I put “built” in double-quotes because while the word appears in all these reports, it’s been misused. A company named SpaceKidz India (SKI) and NITI Aayog together conceived of the project. According to News18, SKI developed and tested “the main systems, including the onboard computer, flight software, electrical power system, telemetry and tele-command”. According to the SKI website, the company also “developed basic and simple experiments that students can learn and assemble with the simultaneous support of their science teachers and our SKI team’s online coaching”.

So what the students did was take existing payloads and learn how their software components fit together, using – according to Times of India – the Arduino IDE. Let’s be clear: this is a far, far cry from saying the students built the satellite! They did no such thing. “It’s just language,” you say, but that’s the problem, no? We’re claiming a feat that we haven’t accomplished. And by believing we’ve accomplished it, we have a higher estimation of what our students are capable of, what a national programme like AzaadiSAT is capable of, that is increasingly removed from reality. These 750 students have no idea what it’s like to build a satellite. In fact what they’ve done is much closer to what the likes of White Hat, Jr. purport to do – to teach school students to code different types of apps (and even then it’s hard to say if they learn the philosophy of computer science in the process).

This is Gaganyaan and the Bose hologram all over again: we don’t know what whatever we’ve done now means for whatever comes next. To be clear, the answer to this question is ‘undetermined’ in every case. ISRO is launching Indian astronauts to space on an Indian launch vehicle but the organisation’s officials don’t have a roadmap (at least in the public domain) for what Gaganyaan will gainfully do for the Indian space programme, most likely because there’s no plan for the Indian space programme itself that far ahead. Prime Minister Modi inaugurated a hologram of Subhash Chandra Bose in New Delhi except it is completely stationary, works only at night and for which the projector alone cost Rs 15 lakh (other capital costs and operational expenses separate). As a result, it utilised none of the affordances of hologram technology, was a costlier and flashier but also emptier substitute for a straightforward sculpture or metal cast, and only put Prime Minister Modi in the limelight.

Now, we have AzaadiSAT: a device with a six-month lifespan and not built by girl students but more like introduced to them after most of it was ready. In fact, according to SKI, it was “conceptualised” expressly “to pay our tribute to mark the 75th anniversary of Independence”. And why only 75 schools, 75 payloads and 750 students? The tokenism is bloody well cringe-inducing – more so if you consider the fact that “this is a first of its kind space mission with an ‘all women concept’ to promote Women in STEM as this year’s UN theme is ‘Women in Space’,” per SKI, while the control room and the adjacent viewing gallery were one big sausage fest.

SKI CEO also told News18 “that AzaadiSAT will also carry a recorded version of the national anthem sung by Rabindranath Tagore which they plan to play in space to pay tribute to the country”. If any song is played in space, it will be inaudible – the vacuum of space can’t transmit sound – so how will that pay tribute to the country? And if this song being played in low-Earth orbit is ‘heard’ via data receivers on the ground, it will be only because the song is transmitted to the receivers, and not because it was played on speakers. So is the point here that radio-scanner operators will be able to receive the national anthem transmission as a fun exercise? How would that amount to paying tribute to the country? (Of course, I don’t understand what “paying tribute to the country” itself even means.)

We seem to believe that simply exposing these students to certain concepts and/or environments that they might not encounter in the regular course of their schooling will somehow have a transformative impact on their academic and professional trajectories. This belief has been pervasive in institute-mediated scicomm at least, but there have been very few attempts to actually measure the extent to which this belief is justified. The SKI CEO even told WION that “AzaadiSAT is going to motivate more girls into the space industry or to take up STEM subjects”. We don’t know this.

It’s also often dangerously the case that the institutes, or even entities like the SKI, that make this ‘exposure’ argument also get away with superficial scicomm efforts that lack any continuous engagement or follow-ups. School students are exposed once to, for example, high-brow concepts like particle physics, gene-editing or remote-sensing, none of which has any relevance to what they’re learning in school at that time or what they need to pass their exams.

Many institutes are often eager to have their scientists speak to students enrolled in poorly funded schools often run by the local government in order to maximise the ‘impact’ of their efforts, but unmindful of the facts that a) they’re effectively talking down to these students with a view to “lifting them up” and b) they’re being ignorant of the conditions in which these students are studying and what they actually need over some scientist talking at them about why her work is important.

Why, these outreach efforts don’t even bother to check if all of the students shipped in from a local school are even interested in science or want to become scientists (which SKI sidesteps by picking only 10 students from each school). These efforts may be exercises in broadening one’s horizons but, as I said, that requires sustained engagement, not a one-off flash-bang event. On a related note, it’s curious why none of these students were present in the viewing gallery adjacent to the control room, where they could’ve seen launch operations in action, and were seated in the outdoor viewing area instead.

There is already some awareness that simply getting students to meet Nobel Prize winners is far less useful on multiple levels than having a smart and empathetic teacher. In much the same way, the AzaadiSAT seems like a lot of tokenism bundled into a project that serves nationalistic pride but leaves behind many open questions about whether the girls who all these news articles and press releases proudly claim built the satellite will regularly use the payloads they ideated over, and in a meaningful way – by which I mean both controlling the devices over time using code they wrote on their laptops or phones, receiving and processing the data from these payloads, and using them in a constructive way going into the future.

The question of access to the relevant devices is significant because, according to SKI, “Niti Aayog has partnered for this project to bring this opportunity to the Government school Girl children across India” – the same government schools that, in general, struggled to adopt virtual classrooms during the pandemic. An SKI video description also claims that the company picked students from “economically weak backgrounds”.

Building a satellite is no small feat but as I said before, these girls didn’t build the satellite. Our students should build satellites – it’s just that efforts like AzaadiSAT don’t represent this milestone. I remember when I was in college that an American professional organisation (can’t recall the name now) would provide some funds and raw materials to two groups of students – picked from the engineering streams – who’d then have to built rudimentary cars out of them with their professors’ help in two years and race them to win. A similarly long-term engagement with school students, involving all satellite components instead of just the data acquisition system, will surely be better than what SpaceKidz and NITI Aayog are currently doing.

And because ISRO actually launches satellites built by students for free into low-Earth orbit, we must ask what these satellites do. It’s been a decade of India launching student-built satellites and it’s been the same decade of our student-built satellites doing very little, if anything (surrounded often by deliberately misleading narratives) – other than making for press releases with a shelf-life overlapping with some nationalist occasion.

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Scicomm

How do you trap an electron?

I’ve always found the concept of two forces on an object cancelling themselves out strange. We say they cancel if the changes they exert completely offset each other, leaving the object unaffected. But is the object really unaffected? If the two forces act in absolute opposition and at the exact same time, the object may be unaffected. But practically speaking, this is seldom the case and the object experiences some net force, to which in may not respond in a meaningful timeframe or respond in an imperceptible or negligible way.

For example, imagine you are standing exactly still and two people standing on either side of you punch you hard on your upper arm, in an attempt to move you in the other direction. The two impulses may cancel each other out but you will still feel the pain in your arms. You might counterargue that this is true only because the human body has a considerable bulk, which means a force applied on one side of the body is transmitted through a series of media before it manifests on the other side, and that en route it loses some of its energy as the stress and strain through your muscles. This is true – but the concept of cancellation is actually imperfect even with microscopic objects.

Consider the case of the quadrupole trap – a device used to hold charged particles like electrons and ions in place, i.e. at a fixed point in three dimensions. This device was invented because it’s impossible to confine a charged particle in a static electric field. Imagine eight electrons are placed at the vertices of an imaginary cube, and a ninth electron is placed at the centre. You might reason that since like charges repel, the repulsive force exerted by the eight electrons should hold the ninth, central electron in place – but no. They won’t. The central electron will drift away if another force acts on it, instead of getting displaced by a little and then returning to its original position.

This is because of Earnshaw’s theorem. Thanks to Twitter user @catwbutter for explaining it to me thus:

You can understand the theorem as saying the following: In a configuration of n charges, you ask if one is in equilibrium. [Imagine the cubic prison of n = 8 electrons at the vertices and one at the centre – this one needs to be at equilibrium.] You displace it from its point a little bit. For there to be equilibrium, the force on it needs to point radially inward at the original point you displaced it from, regardless of where you displaced the charge to. This is only possible if there is a charge at the original point – but there isn’t in the setup.

Formally, Earnshaw’s theorem states that a collection of charged particles (of the same kind, i.e. only electrons or only protons or only ions, etc.) can’t maintain a stable and stationary equilibrium if the only thing maintaining that equilibrium is the electrostatic forces between them. In this case, the concept of ‘cancelling out’ becomes irrelevant because of the way the electric fields around the charged particles behave. One way to make it relevant is to use an exception to Earnshaw’s theorem: by using moving charges or time-varying forces.

Imagine you’re walking along a path when a cat appears in front of you and blocks the way. You step to the cat’s right but it moves and still blocks you. You step to the left and it moves again. You’re stepping right and left respectively because you see a gap there for you to go through, but every time you try, the cat moves quickly to block you. Scientists applied a similar kind of thinking with the quadrupole ion trap. They surround a clump of electrons, or any charged particles, with three objects. One is a hyperbolic cylinder (visualised below) called a ring electrode; it is capped at each end by two hyperbolic electrodes. The ring electrode needs to be exactly halfway between the capping electrodes. The electrons are injected into the centre.

Note that in the first image above, the ring electrode and the sides of the capping electrodes should ideally be inclined at an angle of a little over 53º relative to the z axis. But whatever the angle is, when an electric current is applied to the electrodes, the resulting electric field inside the trap will have four poles – thus the name ‘quadrupole’ – and the field along the poles (the hazy area in the image below) will be asymptotic to the electrodes.

This electric field has two important properties. The first is that it is inhomogenous: it is not uniform in different directions. Instead, it is weakest at the centre and becomes stronger as the field becomes squeezed between the electrodes. Second, the electric field is periodic, meaning that it constantly changes between two directions – thanks to the alternating current (AC) supplied to the electrodes. (Recall that AC periodically reverse its direction while DC doesn’t.)

The resulting periodic inhomogenous electric field exerts a unique influence on the electrons at the centre of the trap. If the field had been periodic homogenous instead and if something had knocked an electron away from the centre, the electron would have oscillated about its new point, moving back and forth. But because the field is inhomogenous, one half of the electron’s oscillation will be in an area where the field is stronger and the other half will be through an area where the field is weaker. And the stronger-field area will exert a stronger force on the electron than the force exerted by the weaker-field area. The result will be that the electron will experience a net force towards the weaker field area. This is called the ponderomotive force. And because the weakest field lies at the centre – where the electrons are originally confined – the apparatus will move any displaced electrons back there. Thus, it’s a trap.

When Wolfgang Paul, Helmut Steinwedel and others first developed the quadrupole ion trap in the latter half of the 20th century, they found that the motion of the charged particles within the trap could be modelled according to Mathieu’s equation. This is a differential equation that the French mathematician Émile Léonard Mathieu had uncovered in the 19th century itself, when he was studying the vibrating membranes of elliptical drums.

During the operation of the quadrupole ion trap, the charged particles experience ponderomotive forces in two directions in alternating fashion: a radial force exerted by the capping electrodes and an axial force exerted by the ring electrode (roughly, from the sides and from the top-bottom). The frequency of the AC applied to the electrodes has to be such that the forces switch sides faster than the electrons can escape. This is the cat analogy from earlier: the cat is the electric field configuration and you are the trapped particle.

As the AC current flows through the electrodes, the arrangement of charges around the confined electrons (dark circle) changes position, like a game of musical chairs, exerting an alternating pattern of forces. Credit: Arian Kriesch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

With this device in mind, ask yourself: have the electrons been kept in place because counteracting forces have cancelled themselves out? No – that is a static picture that doesn’t allow for any deviations from the normal. If an electron does get displaced from the cubic prison described earlier, Earnshaw’s theorem ensures that it can just escape altogether.

The quadrupole ion trap represents a more dynamic picture. Here, electrons are either held in place or coaxed back into place by a series of forces interacting in a sophisticated way, sometimes in opposite directions but never quite simultaneously, such that particles can get displaced, but when they are, they are gently but surely restored to the desired state. In this picture, counteracting forces still leave behind a net force. In this picture, erring is not the end of the world.

Featured image credit: Martin Adams/Unsplash.

Categories
Analysis Scicomm

The physics of Spain’s controversial air-con decree

The Government of Spain published a decree earlier this week that prevents air-conditioners from being set at a temperature lower than 27º C in the summer in an effort to lower energy consumption and wean the country off of natural gas pumped from Russia.

Twitter thread by Euronews compared the measure to one by France, to keep the doors and windows of air-conditioned spaces closed. However, the two measures are not really comparable because the France’s measure is in a manner of speaking shallower, because it doesn’t go as far as thermodynamics allows us. Instead, Spain’s move is comparable to one that Japan instituted a couple years ago. Some basic thermodynamics here should be enlightening.

Let us consider two scenarios. In the first: Air-conditioners operate at different efficiencies at different temperatures. From about five years ago, I remember the thermodynamic efficiency variation to be around 10% across the range of operating temperatures. Also note that most air-conditioners are designed and tested to operate at or near 23º to 25º C – an ambient temperature range that falls within the ideal ranges across most countries and cultures, although it may not account for differences in wind speed, relative humidity and, of course, living conditions.

So let’s say an air-conditioner operates at 55% efficiency when the temperature setting is at 27º C. It will incur a thermodynamic penalty if it operates at a lower temperature. Let’s say the penalty is 10% at 20º C. (I’ve spelt out the math of this later in this post.) This will be 10% of 55%, which means the thermodynamic efficiency at 20º C will be 55% – 5.5% = 49.5%. Similarly, there could be a thermodynamic efficiency gain when the air-conditioner temperature is set at a higher 32º C instead of 27º C. This gain translates to energy saved. Let’s call this figure ES (for ‘energy saved’).

In the second scenario: the air-conditioner works by pumping heat out of a closed system – a room, for example – into the ambient environment. The cooler the room needs to be, the more work the air-conditioner has to undertake to pump more heat out of the room. This greater work translates to a greater energy consumption. Let’s call this amount EC.

Now, the question for policymakers is whether ES is greater than EC in the following conditions:

  1. The relative humidity is below a certain value;
  2. When the room’s minimum temperature is restricted to 27º C;
  3. The chances of thermal shock; and
  4. The given strength of the urban heat-island effect.

Let’s cycle through these conditions.

1. Relative humidity – The local temperature and the relative humidity together determine the wet-bulb temperature. As I have explained before, exposure to a wet-bulb temperature greater than 32º C can quickly debilitate humans, and after a few hours could even lead to death. But as it happens, if the indoor temperature is 27º C, the wet-bulb temperature can never reach 32º C; even at 99% relative humidity, it reaches a value of 26.92º C.

2. 27º C limit – The operating range of the sole air-conditioner in my house is 18º to 32º C when the ambient temperature is 18º to 48º C. In thermodynamic speak, an air-conditioner operates on the reverse Carnot cycle, and for such cycles, there is a simple, fixed formula to calculate the maximum coefficient of performance (CoP). The higher the CoP, the higher the machine’s thermodynamic efficiency. (Note that while the proportionality holds, the CoP doesn’t directly translate to efficiency.) Let’s fix the ambient temperature to 35º C. If the indoor temperature is 20º C, the max. CoP is 1.33, and if the indoor temperature is 27º C, the max. CoP is 3.37. So there is an appreciable thermodynamic efficiency gain if we set the air-conditioner’s temperature to a higher value (within the operating range and assuming the ambient temperature is greater than the indoor temperature).

3. Thermal shock – The thermal shock is an underappreciated consequence of navigating two spaces at markedly different temperatures. It arises particularly in the form of the cold-shock response, when the body is suddenly exposed to a low temperature temperature after having habituated itself to a higher one – such as 20º C versus 40º C. The effect is especially pronounced on the heart, which has to work harder to pump blood than it did when the body was in warmer surroundings. In extreme cases, the cardiac effects include vasoconstriction and heart failure. Cold-shock response is most relevant in areas where the ambient conditions are hot and arid, such as in Rajasthan, where the outdoors routinely simmer at 40-45º C in the summer while people intuitively respond by setting their air-conditioners to 18º C or even lower.

4. Urban heat islands – When a single air-conditioner is required to extract enough heat from a room to lower the room’s temperature by 15º C instead of by 8º C, it will consume more energy. If its thermal efficiency is (an extremely liberal) 70%, 30% of the heat it consumes will be discarded as waste heat back into the environment. Imagine a medium-sized office building fit with 25 such air-conditioners, a reasonable estimate. During the day, then, it will be similarly reasonable to conclude that the temperature in the immediate vicinity of the building will increase by 0.5º or so. If there are a cluster of buildings, the temperature increase is bound to be on the order of 2º to 3º C, if not more. This can only exacerbate the urban heat-island effect, which adds to our heat stress as well as degrades the local greenery and faunal diversity.

Take all four factors together now and revisit the Spanish government’s decree to limit air-conditioners’ minimum operating temperature to 27º C during summer – and it seems entirely reasonable. However, a similar rule shouldn’t be instituted in India because Spain is much smaller and has lower meteorological and climatological variations, and also has less income inequality, which translates to lower exposure to life-threatening living conditions and better access to healthcare on average.

Categories
Analysis Science

The question of Abdus Salam ‘deserving’ his Nobel

Peter Woit has blogged about an oral history interview with theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow published in 2020 by the American Institute of Physics. (They have a great oral history of physics series you should check out if you’re interested.) Woit zeroed in on a portion in which Glashow talks about his faltering friendship with Steven Weinberg and his issues with Abdus Salam’s nomination for the physics Nobel Prize.

Glashow, Weinberg and Salam together won this prize in 1979, for their work on the work on electroweak theory, which describes the behaviour of two fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force and the weak force. Glashow recalls that his and Weinberg’s friendship – having studied and worked together for many years – deteriorated in the 1970s, a time in which both scientists were aware that they were due a Nobel Prize. According to Glashow, however, Weinberg wanted the prize to be awarded only to himself and Salam.

This is presumably because of how the prize-winning work came to be: with Glashow’s mathematical-physical model published in 1960, Weinberg building on it seven years later, with Salam’s two relevant papers appeared a couple years after Glashow’s paper and a year after Weinberg’s. Glashow recalls that Salam’s work was not original, that each of his two papers respectively echoed findings already published in Glashow’s and Weinberg’s papers. Instead, Glashow continues, Salam received the Nobel Prize probably because he had encouraged his peers and his colleagues to nominate him a very large number of times and because he set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste.

Sheldon Glashow in January 2020. Credit: Lumidek, public domain

Let me tell you that this impression, of Salam being undeserving from a contribution-to-physics point of view in Glashow’s telling, is very at odds with the impression of Salam based on reading letters and comments by Weinberg and Pervez Hoodbhoy and by the documentary Salam – The First ****** Nobel Laureate.

The topic of Salam being a Nobel laureate was never uncomplicated, to begin with: he was an Ahmadi Muslim who enjoyed the Pakistan government’s support until he didn’t, when he was forced to flee the country; his intentions with the ICTP – to give scholars from developing countries a way to study physics without having to contend with often-crippling resource constrains – were also nothing less than noble. Hoodbhoy has also written about the significance of Salam’s work as a physicist and the tragedy of his name and the memories of his contributions having been erased from all the prominent research centres in Pakistan.

Finally, one of Salam’s nominees for a Nobel Prize was the notable British physicist and Nobel laureate Paul A.M. Dirac, and it seems strange that Dirac would endorse Salam if he didn’t believe Salam’s work deserved it.

Bearing these facts in mind, Glashow’s contention appears to be limited to the originality of Salam’s work. But to my mind, even if Salam’s work was really derivative, it was at par with that of Glashow and Weinberg. More importantly, while I believe the Nobel Prizes deserve to be abrogated, the prize-giving committee did more good than it might have realised by including Salam among its winners: in the words of Weinberg, “Salam sacrificed a lot of possible scientific productivity by taking on that responsibility [to set up ICTP]. It’s a sacrifice I would not make.”

Steven Weinberg (1933-2021) in December 2014. Credit: Betsythedevine/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Glashow may not feel very well about Salam’s inclusion for the 1979 prize and the Nobel Prizes as we know are only happy to overlook anything other than the scientific work itself, but if the committee really screwed up, then they screwed up to do a good thing.

Then again, even though Glashow wasn’t alone (he was joined by Martinus J.G. Veltman on his opinions against Salam), the physicists’ community at large doesn’t share his views. Glashow also cites an infamous 2014 paper by Norman Dombey, in which Dombey concluded that Salam didn’t deserve his share of the prize, but the paper’s reputation itself is iffy at best. Ultimately, in fact, this is all just a pointless debate: there are just too many people who deserve a Nobel Prize but don’t win it while a deeper dive into the modern history of physics should reveal a near-constant stream of complaints against Nobel laureates and their work by their peers. It should be clear today that both winning a prize and not winning a prize ought to mean nothing to the practice of science.

The other remarkable thing about Glashow’s comments in the interview (as cited by Woit) is what I like to think of as the seemingly eternal relevance of Brian Keating’s change of mind. Brian Keating is an astrophysicist who was at the forefront of the infamous announcement that his team had discovered evidence of cosmic inflation, an epoch of the early universe in which it is believed to have expanded suddenly and greatly, in March 2014. There were many problems leading up to the announcement but there was little doubt at the time, and Keating also admitted later, that its rapidity was motivated by the temptation to secure a Nobel Prize.

Many journalists, scientists and others observers of the practice of science routinely and significantly underestimate the effect the Nobel Prizes exert on scientific research. The prospect of winning the prize for supposedly discovering evidence of cosmic inflation caused Keating et al. to not wait for additional, confirmatory data before making their announcement. When such data did arrive, from the Planck telescope collaboration, Keating et al. suffered for it with their reputation and prospects.

Similarly, Weinberg and Glashow fell out because, according to Glashow, Weinberg didn’t wish Glashow to give a talk in 1979 discussing possible alternatives to the work of Weinberg and Salam because Weinberg thought doing such a thing would undermine his and Salam’s chances of being awarded a Nobel Prize. Eventually it didn’t, but that’s beside the point: this little episode in history is as good an illustration as any of how the Nobel Prizes and their implied promises of laurels and prestige render otherwise smart scientists insecure, petty and elbows-out competitive – in exchange for sustaining an absurd and unjust picture of the scientific enterprise.

All of this goes obviously against the spirit of science, at least in an ideal sense.

Categories
Analysis Science

Immunity for scientists? Err…

On the sidelines of a screening of the semi-fictional biopic of beleaguered ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, the Madhavan-starrer Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, Narayanan told journalists on August 1 that “scientists should” receive immunity against “arbitrary police action” (source).

“It is not just ISRO… scientists working in the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Atomic Energy and others too. As part of their job, they travel a lot. … They have to be protected from random police action, else you can go on booking people and put them behind the bars”.

This is a strange statement to make, with quite a bit to unpack.

No one – not just scientists – deserves to be at the receiving end of arbitrary police action. Singling scientists out here transforms a right into a privilege and scientists into an arbitrarily exceptional class of citizens. Narayanan suffered considerably after the Kerala police falsely accused him of espionage and derailed his career and life, and the response to this should include among other things the elimination of all arbitrary action, instead of vouchsafing the cruelty of it for some non-elite group.

Narayanan’s statement is also vague about what he considers to be “arbitrary” and whom he considers to be “scientists”. If he is using “arbitrary” as a synonym for ‘baseless’, his statement is immediately a statement about the arrests and harassment of journalists, activists and political leaders around the country. The police and state governments also arrested and harassed social scientists. To want scientists alone to be protected in this regard is disingenuous – and in the process raises the question of “protection from what?”.

Baseless police action against scientists who spoke up is baseless police action against scientists who spoke up against state failure and overreach. These scientists are not simply – to use a cliché – doing their jobs, as Narayanan was, but also exercised their rights as citizens of the country to call out and protest communalism and corruption. Narayanan on the other hand was persecuted for two decades for having done nothing at all. Both actions were wrong but for significantly different reasons. Importantly, cases like his have been rare while those unlike his are the norm today.

And finally, Narayanan’s statement presumes an implicit distinction between scientists’ work and their political engagement. He seems to invoke, by asking for immunity, that exceptionalism again: that there is nothing worth taking police action over as well as that scientists are above it all. Granting them and only them immunity from police action could consequently render their comments on political matters (even more) irrelevant, coming as they will from a position of incredible privilege, but it is far more likely that senior scientists (an important distinction because younger scientists have on average been better) will interpret the decree to mean they’re obligated to the state to stay in their lane.

The only part of Narayanan’s statement that makes sense is the one that expects the police to give scientists, and for that matter people of any profession, the benefit of the doubt – to admit, essentially, that a conspiracy isn’t the only explanation for a researcher in a well-funded research facility to travel to or be in touch with their counterparts from other countries.

Categories
Scicomm Science

65 years of the BCS theory

Thanks to an arithmetic mistake, I thought 2022 was the 75th anniversary of the invention (or discovery?) of the BCS theory of superconductivity. It’s really the 65th anniversary, but since I’d worked myself up to write about it, I’m going to. 🤷🏽‍♂️ It also helps that the theory is a remarkable fact of nature that make sense of what is weirdly a macroscopic effect of microscopic causes.

There are several ways to classify superconductors – materials that conduct electricity with zero resistance under certain conditions. One of them is as conventional or unconventional. A superconductor is conventional if BCS theory can explain its superconductivity. ‘BCS’ are the initials of the theory’s three originators: John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer. BCS theory explains (conventional) superconductivity by explaining how the electrons in a material enter a collective superfluidic state.

At room temperature, the valence electrons flow around a material, being occasionally scattered by the grid of atomic nuclei or impurities. We know this scattering as electrical resistance.

An illustration of a lattice of sodium and chlorine atoms in a sodium chloride crystal. Credit: Benjah-bmm27, public domain

The electrons also steer clear of each other because of the repulsion of like charges (Coulomb repulsion).

When the material is cooled below a critical temperature, however, vibrations in the atomic lattice encourage the electrons to become paired. This may defy what we learnt in high school – that like charges repel – but the picture is a little more complicated, and it might make more sense if we adopt the lens of energy instead.

A system will favour a state in which it has lower energy than one in which it has more energy. When two carriers of like charges, like two electrons, approach each other, they repel each other more strongly the closer they get. This repulsion increases the system’s energy (in some form, typically kinetic energy).

In some materials, conditions can arise in which two electrons can pair up – become correlated with each other – across relatively long distances, without coming close to each other, rendering the Coulomb repulsion irrelevant. This correlation happens as a result of the electrons’ effect on their surroundings. As an electron moves through the lattice of positively charged atomic nuclei, it exerts an attractive force on the nuclei, which respond by tending towards the electron. This increases the amount of positive potential near the electron, which attracts another electron nearby to move closer as well. If the two electrons have opposite spins, they become correlated as a Cooper pair, kept that way by the attractive potential imposed by the atomic lattice.

Leon Cooper explained that neither the source of this potential nor its strength matter – as long as it is attractive, and the other conditions hold, the electrons will team up into Cooper pairs. In terms of the system’s energy, the paired state is said to be energetically favourable, meaning that the system as a whole has a lower energy than if the electrons were unpaired below the critical temperature.

Keeping the material cooled to below this critical temperature is important: while the paired state is energetically favourable, the state itself arises only below the critical temperature. Above the critical temperature, the electrons can’t access this state altogether because they have too much kinetic energy. (The temperature of a material is the average kinetic energy of its constituent particles.)

Cooper’s theory of the electron pairs fit into John Bardeen’s theory, which sought to explain changes in the energy states of a material as it goes from being non-superconducting to superconducting. Cooper had also described the formation of electron pairs one at a time, so to speak, and John Robert Schrieffer’s contribution was to work out a mathematical way to explain the formation of millions of Cooper pairs and their behaviour in the material.

The trio consequently published its now-famous paper, ‘Microscopic Theory of Superconductivity’, on April 1, 1957.

(I typo-ed this as 1947 on a calculator, which spit out the number of years since to be 75. 😑 One could have also expected me to remember that this is India’s 75th year of independence and that BCS theory was created a decade after 1947, but the independence hasn’t been registering these days.)

Anyway, electrons by themselves belong to a particle class called fermions. The other known class is that of the bosons. The difference between fermions and bosons is that the former obey Pauli’s exclusion principle while the latter do not. The exclusion principle forbids two fermions in the same system – like a metal – from simultaneously occupying the same quantum state. This means the electrons in a metal have a hierarchy of energies in normal conditions.

However, a Cooper pair, while composed of two electrons, is a boson, and doesn’t obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. The Cooper pairs of the material can all occupy the same state – i.e. the state with the lowest energy, more popularly called the ground state. This condensate of Cooper pairs behaves like a superfluid: practically flowing around the material, over, under and through the atomic lattice. Even when a Cooper pair is scattered off by an atomic nucleus or an impurity in the material, the condensate doesn’t break formation because all the other Cooper pairs continue their flow, and eventually also reintegrate the scattered Cooper pair. This flow is what we understand as electrical superconductivity.

“BCS theory was the first microscopic theory of superconductivity,” per Wikipedia. But since its advent, especially since the late 1970s, researchers have identified several superconducting materials, and behaviours, that neither BCS theory nor its extensions have been able to explain.

When a material transitions into its superconducting state, it exhibits four changes. Observing these changes is how researchers confirm that the material is now superconducting. (In no particular order:) First, the material loses all electric resistance. Second, any magnetic field inside the material’s bulk is pushed to the surface. Third, the electronic specific heat increases as the material is cooled before dropping abruptly at the critical temperature. Fourth, just as the energetically favourable state appears, some other possible states disappear.

Physicists experimentally observed the fourth change only in January this year – based on the transition of a material called Bi-2212 (bismuth strontium calcium copper oxide, a.k.a. BSCCO, a.k.a. bisko). Bi-2212 is, however, an unconventional superconductor. BCS theory can’t explain its superconducting transition, which, among other things, happens at a higher temperature than is associated with conventional materials.

In the January 2022 study, physicists also reported that Bi-2212 transitions to its superconducting state in two steps: Cooper pairs form at 120 K – related to the fourth sign of superconductivity – while the first sign appears at around 77 K. To compare, elemental rhenium, a conventional superconductor, becomes superconducting in a single step at 2.4 K.

A cogent explanation of the nature of high-temperature superconductivity in cuprate superconductors like Bi-2212 is one of the most important open problems in condensed-matter physics today. It is why we still await further updates on the IISc team’s room-temperature superconductivity claim.

Categories
Science

A ‘bold’ vision

‘Support Europe’s bold vision for responsible research assessment’, Nature editorial, July 27, 2022:

The Agreement on Reforming Research Assessment, announced on 20 July and open for signatures on 28 September, is perhaps the most hopeful sign yet of real change. More than 350 organizations have pooled experience, ideas and evidence to come up with a model agreement to create more-inclusive assessment systems. The initiative, four years in the making, is the work of the European University Association and Science Europe (a network of the continent’s science funders and academies), in concert with predecessor initiatives. It has the blessing of the European Commission, but with an ambition to become global.

Signatories must commit to using metrics responsibly, for example by stopping what the agreement calls “inappropriate” uses of journal and publication-based metrics such as the journal impact factor and the h-index. They also agree to avoid using rankings of universities and research organizations — and where this is unavoidable, to recognize their statistical and methodological limitations.

I’m curious if calling this plan “bold” is a way to caution readers that they must proceed cautiously, with considerable scepticism, instead of embracing such ideas with both arms. The plan itself is not bold but – as the editorial itself acknowledges, ironically – in line with what many accomplished research groups and institutes around the world have already expressed a desire for.

Also relevant here is the fact that the editorial appeared in Nature – a journal that has played up its impact factor and the significance of the various papers it has published (to their respective fields) to play up its prestigious nature. Scientists are seeking to install a new research evaluation process in the first place because of the damage such prestige has wrought to the practice of science, essentially as it has come to substitute rigour and transparency, so overturning the tyranny of prestige will deal a blow to Nature‘s large profit margins.

Categories
Op-eds

WordPress.com rolls back its botched ‘experiment’

So, WordPress.com has restored the family of premium plans that it had until April this year, and has done away with the controversial ‘Starter’ and ‘Pro’ plans. The announcement on the WordPress.com blog yesterday has already garnered a high 65 comments, even as the post itself was brief and didn’t contain indication that WordPress.com had screwed up with the new plans. Excerpt:

Our philosophy has always been one of experimenting, learning, and adjusting. As we began to roll out our new pricing plans a couple of months back, we took note of the feedback you shared. What we heard is that some of you missed the more granular flexibility of our previous plans. Additionally, the features you needed and pricing of the new plans didn’t always align for you. This led us to a decision that we believe is the right call.

You might recall that when the new plans were announced in April, my blog post reacting to them became a big deal on the Hacker News forum on that day, and (probably) first drew the attention of Automattic chief Matt Mullenweg and WordPress.com CEO Dave Martin. Since then, WordPress.com has been working to adapt the ‘Starter’ and ‘Pro’ plans for different markets as well as introduced à la carte upgrades to remove ads, add custom CSS and buy more storage space. However, the company continued to receive negative feedback on the changes from the previous plans.

One vein that I really resonated with was a rebuttal of WordPress.com’s claim that the older plans were messy whereas the newer ones are clearer. That’s absolutely not true. But on July 21, they seemed to have finally really listened and changed their minds for the better. (And even then, there are many expressions of confusion among the 65 comments.)

I also want to point out here that WordPress.com is being disingenuous when it claims its new plans were an “experiment”. That’s bullshit. No experiment rolls out to all users on production, is accompanied by formal announcements of change on the official blog and, in the face of criticism, forces the CEO to apologise for a hamfisted rollout process – all without mentioning the word ‘experiment’ even once. WordPress.com is saying now that its development has followed the path of “experimenting, learning, and adjusting” when all it did was force the change, inform users post facto, then solicited feedback on which it acted (before doing that in advance), and finally reverted to a previous state.

Categories
Analysis Science

Should ‘geniuses’ be paid extra?

A newsletter named Ideas Sleep Furiously had an essay propounding a “genius basic income” on May 28. Here are the first two paragraphs that capture a not-insignificant portion of the essay’s message:

Professor Martin Hairer is one of the world’s most gifted mathematicians. An Austrian-Brit at Imperial College London, he researches stochastic partial differential equations and holds two of maths’ most coveted prizes. In 2014, he became only the second person with a physics PhD to win a Fields Medal, an award granted every four years to mathematicians under 40 and considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Hairer also won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, which comes with a $3 million cheque. When the Guardian covered Hairer’s win, they noted: ‘[his] major work, a 180-page treatise that introduced the world to “reguarity structures”, so stunned his colleagues that one suggested it must have been transmitted to Hairer by a more intelligent alien civilisation.’ The journalist asked Hairer how he’d spend the prize money. His response: “We moved to London somewhat recently, three years ago, and we are still renting. So it might be time to buy a place to live.”

Most readers of the Guardian that day no doubt understood the absurdity of London house prices. Morning coffee in hand, many will have tut-tutted in dismay at Hairer’s comical remark and mentally filed it under somebody really ought to fix this housing crisis. But how many stopped to consider the greater absurdity? After all, here was a man who, not that long ago, would’ve had a team around him devoted to deflecting such petty problems, to getting others out of his way and allowing him to focus on the thing that only he and a handful of people could understand, let alone do. But the real story wasn’t that a maths genius in modern Britain couldn’t afford a comfortable home close to work. The real story was that it passed without comment.

Matthew Archer, the essay’s author (and who ends the newsletter edition with a request to readers to share it “to spread the gospel of rationality”), contends that people like Hairer ought to be freed of the tedium of figuring out where to live, how to get around the city, groceries, and other “quotidian constraints that plague mere mortals”. Instead, Archer argues, a “genius” like Hairer ought to be paid a “genius basic income” so that he, and his brain “built for advanced mathematics”, can focus on solving hard problems that contribute to human welfare and civilisation.

Archer’s essay addresses this problem both within and without university settings, but within academic ones. Another important thrust of his essay is the way American ‘child geniuses’ are treated at American schools, and how inefficiencies in the country’s school system have the eventual effect of encouraging these children not to develop their special skills but to fit in, leading to an “epidemic of gifted underachievement”. This is quite likely true of the Indian school system as well, but his overall idea is not a good one – especially in India, and probably in the West as well. Archer’s essay is undergirded by a few assumptions and this is where the problems lie.

The first is that a country (I’m highly uncertain about the world) can and must reap only one sort of benefit from the “geniuses” at its universities. This is an insular view of the problems that are deemed worthy of solving, by privileging the interests of the “genius” over the interests of the higher education and research system. If a “genius” is to be paid more, they must also assume more responsibilities than doing the work that they are already doing because they must also dispense their social responsibilities to their university.

If a mathematician is considered to be the only one who can solve a very difficult problem, encourage them to do so – but not at the expense of them also taking on the usual number of PhD students, teaching hours and other forms of mentorship. We don’t know what we will stand to lose if the mathematical problem goes unsolved but we’re well aware of what we lose when we prevent aspiring students from pursuing a PhD because a suitable mentor isn’t available or capable students from receiving the right amount of attention in the classroom.

The second is that we need “geniuses”. Do we? Instead of a “genius basic income” that translates to a not insubstantial hike for the “geniuses” at a university or a research facility, pay all students and researchers a proportionate fraction of their incomes more so that they all can worry just a little less about “quotidian constraints”.

There is a growing body of research showing that the best way to eliminate poverty appears to be giving poor people money and letting them spend it as they see fit. There are some exceptions to this view but they are centered entirely on identifying who is really deserving – a problem that goes away both in the academic setting, where direct income comparisons with the cost of living are possible, and in India (see the third point). I sincerely believe the same could be true vis-à-vis inequities within our education and research systems, which are part of a wider environment of existence that has foisted more than mere “quotidian constraints” on its members and which will almost certainly benefit from relieving all of them just a little at a time instead of a select few a lot.

(Archer quotes David Graeber in his essay to dismiss a counterpoint against his view: “To raise this point risks a tsunami of ‘whataboutery’—what about the average person who can’t afford a home? What about the homeless?! The same people tend to suggest that a highly paid academic doing a job he loves and living in one of the world’s best cities is enough of a reward. In itself this is a sign of a remarkable shift in values. It is also the inheritance of an older belief system, Puritanism, where, in the words of the late anthropologist David Graeber, ‘one is not paid money to do things, however useful or important, that one actually enjoys.'” When Graeber passed away in September 2020, I remember anthropologist Alpa Shah tweeting this: “I often thought of David Graeber as a genius. But of the many things that David taught me, it was that there is in fact a genius in each of us.”)

In India in particular, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research doesn’t pay students and researchers enough as well as has a terrible reputation of paying them so late that many young researchers are in debt or are leaving for other jobs just to feed their families.

(Aside: While Hairer suggests that he could think about buying a house in London only after he’d won $3 million with a Breakthrough Prize, the prize itself once again concentrates a lot of money into the hands of a few that have already excelled, and most of whom are men.)

The third assumption is that school and education reform is impossible and even undesirable. Archer writes in his essay:

“It was only in October last year that the then Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, announced the city’s gifted programme would be replaced because non-white students were underrepresented. Yet as Professor Ellen Winner noted in her 1996 book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, scrapping gifted programmes in the name of diversity, equality, and inclusion, has rather ironic effects. Namely, gifted children embedded within a culture, which might not value high achievement …, have no other children ‘with whom to identify, and they may not feel encouraged to develop their skills.’ The activists, then, practice discrimination in the name of non-discrimination.”

This argument advances a cynical view of the sort of places we can or should expect our schools to be for our children. Keeping a policy going so that white students can receive help with developing their special skills is an abject form of status-quoism that overlooks the non-white students who are struggling to fit in, and are apparently also not being selected for the ‘gifted children’ programme. Clearly, the latter is broken. I would much rather advocate school-level reforms where the institution accommodates everyone as well as pays more and/or different attention to those children who need it, including arranging for activities designed to help develop their skills as well as improve social cohesion.

The fourth assumption is specific to India and concerns the desirability of the unbalanced improvement of welfare. Providing a few a “genius basic income” will heap privilege on privilege, because those who have already been identified as “geniuses” in India will have had to be privileged in at least two of the following three ways: gender, class and caste.

Put another way, take a look at the upper management of India’s best academic and research centres, government research bodies and private research facilities, and tell me how many of these people aren’t cis-male Brahmins, rich Brahmins or rich cis-males (‘rich’ here is being used to mean access to wealth before an individual entered academia). If they make up more than 10% of the total population of these individuals, I’ll give you a thousand rupees, even if 10% would also still be abysmal.

The Indian academic milieu is already highly skewed in favour of Brahmins in particular, and any exercise here that deals with identifying geniuses will identify only Brahmin “geniuses”. This in turn will attach one more casteist module to a system already sorely in need of affirmative action.

I’m also opposed to the principle outlined by contentions of the type “we don’t have enough money for research, so we should spend what we have wisely”. This is a false problem created by the government’s decision to underspend on research, forcing researchers to fight among themselves about whose work should receive a higher allocation, or any allocation at all. I thought that I would have to make an exception for the “genius basic income”, i.e. that researchers do have only a small amount of money and that they can’t afford such an income for a few people – but then I realised that this is a red herring: even if India invested 1% or even 2% of its GDP in research and development activities (up from the current 0.6%), a “genius basic income” would be a bad idea in principle.

The fourth assumption allows us to circle back to a general, and especially pernicious, problem, specific to one line from Archer’s essay: “A world in which the profoundly gifted are supported might be a world … with a reverence for the value that gifted people bring.”

The first two words that popped into my ahead upon reading this sentence were “Marcy Pogge”. Both Geoffrey Marcy and Thomas Pogge were considered to be “geniuses” in their respective fields – astronomy and philosophy – before a slew of allegations of sexual harrassment, many of them from students at their own universities, the University of California and Yale University, revealed an important side of reality: people in charge of student safety and administration at these universities turned away even when they knew of the allegations because the men brought in a lot of grant money and prestige.

Chasing women out of science, forcing them to keep their mouth shut if they want to continue being in science (after throwing innumerable barriers in their path to entering science in the first place) – this is the unconscionable price we have paid to revere “genius”. This is because the notion of a “genius” creates a culture of exceptionalism, founded among other things on the view (as in the first assumption) that “geniuses” have something to contribute that others can’t and that this contribution is inherently more valuable than that of others. But “geniuses” are people, and people can be assholes if they’re allowed to operate with impunity.

Archer may contend that this wasn’t the point of his essay; that may be, but ‘reverence’ implies little else. And if this is the position towards which he believes we must all gravitate, forget everything else – it’s reason enough dismiss the idea of a “genius basic income”.

Categories
Tech

The 5ftf blunder

Automattic owner Matt Mullenweg recently made a scene on Twitter when he called out GoDaddy as a “parasitic” organisation for profiting off of WordPress without making a sufficient number of contributions to the WordPress community and for developing a competitor to WooCommerce, which is Automattic’s ‘WordPress but for e-commerce’. (To the uninitiated, Automattic owns WordPress.com and maintains WordPress.org. WordPress.com is where you pay Automattic to host your website for you on its servers; WordPress.org is where you can download the WordPress CMS and use it on your own servers.) At the heart of the issue is Automattic’s ‘Five for the Future’ (5ftf) initiative, in which companies whose profits depend on the WordPress CMS and the community of developers and users pledge to contribute 5% of their resources to developing WordPress.org. There has been a lot of justifiable backlash against Mullenweg’s tweets, which were in poor taste and which have since been deleted. But most of the articles on the topic that I read weren’t clear or not written well about what their authors’ reasons were to disagree with Mullenweg. So after some reading around, I thought I’d summarise my takeaways as I see them, and in case you might benefit from such a summary as well.

1. 5ftf appears to mean different things to different people. This has been a recurrent bone of contention because Mullenweg lashed out against GoDaddy because GoDaddy’s contributions were not legitimate, or not legitimate enough, for him. But this is hardly reasonable. Not every entity or individual can contribute in exactly the way Automattic wishes at a given time nor can Automattic, or Mullenweg, presume to know exactly which contributions can be discarded in favour of others. In fact, I’ve been sticking with WordPress even though WordPress.com has been becoming less friendly to bloggers because a) it presents a diverse set of opportunities for me, vis-à-vis the projects and services I know how to set up because I know how to use WordPress, and b) WordPress has engendered over the decades a view of publishing on the web that is aligned with progressivist views on publishing on the internet. So in my view I contribute when I recommend WordPress to others, help my fellow journalists and writers set up WordPress websites, provide feedback on WordPress services, build (rudimentary) WordPress plugins and, within my newsroom, promote the use of WordPress towards responsible journalism.

2. Mullenweg was wrong to abuse GoDaddy in public, in such harsh terms. This was a disagreement that ought to have been settled out of view of public eyes, and certainly not on Twitter. Mullenweg is influential both as an entrepreneur more broadly as well as, more specifically, as someone whose views and policies on digital publishing can potentially affect hundreds of thousands active websites on the internet. By lashing out in this way, all he’s done is made GoDaddy look bad in a way that it probably didn’t deserve to be, and certainly in a way that it would find hard to pushback against as a company. To continue my first point, GoDaddy has also said that it sponsors WordCamps and other events where WordPress-enthusiasts gather to discuss better or new ways to use Automattic products.

(Aside: In his examples of companies that are doing a better job of giving back to WordPress.org, Mullenweg included Bluehost. Some of you might remember how bad GoDaddy’s customer service was in the previous decade. It was famously, notoriously awful, exacerbated by the fact that for a lot of people, its platform was also the gateway to WordPress. I get the sense that their service has improved now. On the other hand, Bluehost and indeed all hosting companies owned by Newfold Digital have a lousy reputation, among developers and non-developers alike, while Mullenweg is apparently happy with Bluehost’s contributions and it is also listed as one of WordPress.org’s recommended hosts.)

3. Mullenweg blundered in a surprising way when he indicated in his tweets that he was keeping score. While GoDaddy caught Mullenweg’s attention on this occasion, the fundamental problem is relevant to all of us. You want people to support a cause because they want to, not because someone is keeping track and could be angry with you if you default. Put another way, Mullenweg took the easier-to-implement but harder-to-sustain ‘hardware’ route to instituting a change in the ecosystem than the harder-to-implement but easier-to-sustain ‘software’ route. We’ve come across ample examples of this choice through the pandemic. To get people to wear masks in public, many governments introduced mask mandates. A mask mandate is the hardware path: it enforces material changes among people backed by the threat of punishments. The software path on the other hand would have entailed creating a culture in which mask-wearing is considered to be virtuous and desirable, in which no one is afraid of being punished if they don’t wear masks (for reasonable reasons), and in which people trust the government to be looking out for them. The software path is much longer than the hardware one and governments may have justified their actions saying they didn’t have the time for all this. But while that’s debatable, Automattic doesn’t have such constraints.

This is why 5ftf should be made aspirational but shouldn’t be enforced, and certainly shouldn’t become an excuse for public disparagement. I and many, many others love WordPress, and a large part of it is because we love the culture and ideas surrounding it. We also understand the problem with for-profit organisations profiting off the work of non-profit organisations. If GoDaddy is really threatening to sink WordPress.org by offering the people hosting their sites on GoDaddy an alternative ecommerce platform or by not giving back nearly as many programming-hours as it effectively consumes, Automattic should either regard GoDaddy as a legitimate competitor and reconsider its own business model or it should pay less attention to its contribution scorecard and more to why and how others contribute the way they do. Finally, if GoDaddy is really selfish in a way that is not compatible with WordPress.org’s future as Automattic sees it to be, Automattic’s grouch should be divorced cleanly from the 5ftf initiative.