Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.

The INO story

A longer story about the India-based Neutrino Observatory that I’d been wanting to do since 2012 was finally published today (to be clear, I hit the ‘Publish’ button today) on The Wire. Apart from myself, four people worked on it: two amazing reporters, one crazy copy-editor and one illustrator. I don’t mean to diminish the role of the illustrator, especially in setting the piece’s mood quite well, but only that the reporters and the copy-editor did a stupendous job of getting the story from 0 to 1. After all, all I’d had was an idea.

The INO’s is a great story but stands unfortunately to become a depressing parable at the moment – the biggest bug yet in a spider’s web spun of bureaucracy and misinformation. As told on The Wire, the INO is India’s most badass science experiment yet but its inherent sophistication has become its strength and weakness: a strength for being able yield cutting-edge scientific, a weakness for being the ideal target of stubborn activism, unreason and, consequently and understandably, fatigue on the part of the physicists.

Here on out, it doesn’t look like the INO will get built by 2020, and it doesn’t look like it will be the same thing it started out as when it does get built. Am I disappointed by that? Of course – and bad question. I’m rooting for the experiment, yes? I’m not sure – and much better question. In the last few years, in which the project’s plans gained momentum, some unreasonable activists were able to cash in on the Department of Atomic Energy’s generally cold-blooded way of dealing with disagreement (the DAE is funding the INO). At the same time, the INO collaboration wasn’t as diligent as it ought to have been with the environmental impact assessment report (getting it compiled by a non-accredited agency). Finally, the DAE itself just stood back and watched as the scientists and activists battled it out.

Who lost? Take a guess. I hope the next Big Science experiment fares better (I’m probably not referring to LIGO because it has a far stronger global/American impetus while the INO is completely indigenously motivated).

On the need for the India-based Neutrino Observatory

A prototype of the ICAL detector at TIFR. Credit: TIFR
A prototype of the ICAL detector at TIFR. Credit: TIFR

“I bet @1amnerd disagrees with this” was how Kapil Subramanian’s piece in The Hindu today was pointed out to me on Twitter. Titled ‘India must look beyond neutrinos’, the piece examines if India should be a “global leader in science” and if investing in a neutrino detector is the way to do it. A few days ago, former Indian President Abdul Kalam and his advisor Srijan Pal Singh had penned a piece, also in The Hindu, about how India could do with the neutrino detector planned to be constructed in Theni, Tamil Nadu. While I wrote a piece along the lines of Kalam’s (again, in The Hindu) in March 2014, I must admit I have since become less convinced by an urgent need for the detector entirely due to administrative reasons. There are some parts of Subramanian’s piece that I disagree with nonetheless, and in fact I admit I have doubts about my commitment to whatever factions are involved in this debate. Here’s the break-down.

To raise the first question [Why must India gain leadership in science?] is to risk being accused of Luddite blasphemy.

This tag about “leadership in science” must be dropped from the INO debates. It is corrupting how we are seeing this problem.

How can you even question the importance of science we’ll be asked; if pressed, statistics and rankings of the poor state of Indian science will be quoted. We’ll be told that scientific research will lead to economic growth; comparisons with the West and China will be drawn. The odd spin-off story about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Indian Space Research Organisation will be quoted to demonstrate how Big Science changes lives and impacts the economy. Dr. Kalam and Mr. Singh promise applications in non-proliferation and counter terrorism, mineral and oil exploration, as well as in earthquake detection. But there has been a long history of the impact of spin-offs being exaggerated; an article in the journal of the Federation of American Scientists (a body whose board of sponsors included over 60 Nobel laureates) calculated that NASA produced only $5 million of spin-offs for $65 billion invested over eight years.

This is wrong. The document in question says $55 billion was invested between 1978 and 1986 and the return via spin-offs was $5 billion, not $5 million. Second, the document itself states that as long as it considered only the R&D spending between 1978 and 1986, the ROI was 4x ($10 billion for $2.5 billion), but when it considered the total expenditure, the ROI dropped to 0.1x ($5 billion for $55 billion). Here, government ROI should be calculated differently when compared to ROI on private investments because why would anyone consider overall expenditure that includes capital expenditure, operational expenses, legal fees and HR? Even as it is impossible to have an R&D facility without those expenses, NASA doesn’t have a product to sell either.

Update: The Hindu has since corrected the figure from $5 million to $5 billion.

If such is the low return from projects which involve high levels of engineering design, can spin-offs form a plausible rationale for what is largely a pure science project? The patchy record of Indian Big Science in delivering on core promises (let alone spin-offs) make it difficult to accept that INO will deliver any significant real-world utility despite claims. It was not for nothing that the highly regarded Science magazine termed the project “India’s costly neutrino gamble”.

That sentence there in bold – that’s probably going to keep us from doing anything at all, leaving us to stick perpetually with only the things we’re good at. In fact, we’re concerned about deliverables, let’s spend a little more and build a strongly accountable system instead of calling for less spending and more efficiency. And while it wasn’t for nothing that Science magazine called it a costly gamble, it also stated, “As India’s most expensive basic science facility ever, INO will have a profound impact on the nation’s science. Its opening in 2020 would mark a homecoming for India’s particle physicists, who over the last quarter-century dispersed overseas as they waited for India to build a premier laboratory. And the INO team is laying plans to propel the facility beyond neutrinos into other areas, such as the hunt for dark matter, in which a subterranean setting is critical.”

Even if it delivers useful technology, the argument that research spurs economic growth is highly suspect. As David Edgerton has shown, contrary to popular perception, there is actually a negative correlation between national spending on R&D and national GDP growth rates with few exceptions. This correlation does not, of course, suggest that research is a drag on the economy; merely that rich countries (which tend to grow slowly) spend more on science and technology.

Rich countries spend more – but India is spending too little. Second, the book addressed UK’s research and productive capacity – India’s capacities are different. Third, David Edgerton wrote that in a book titled Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, addressing research and manufacturing capacities during the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. These were periods of building and then rebuilding, and were obviously skewed against heavy investments in research (apart from in disciplines relevant to defense and security). Second, Edgerton’s contention is centered on R&D spending beyond a point and its impact on economic growth because, at the time, Britain had one of the highest state expenditures on R&D in the European region yet one of the lowest growth rates. His call was to strike a balance between research and manufacturing – theory and prototyping – instead of over-researching. As he writes of Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chairman of the Central Advisory Council for Science and Technology (in 1967), in the same book,

[He] argued, implicitly but clearly enough, that the British government, and British industry, were spending too much on R&D in absolute and relative terms. It noted that ‘a high level of R&D is far from being the main key to successful innovation’, and that ‘Capital investment in new productive capacity has not … been matching our outlays in R&D’.

In India, the problem is on both ends of this pipe: insufficient and inefficient research on the one hand due to a lack of funds among various complaints and insufficient productive capacity, as well as incentive, on the other for realizing research. Finally, if anyone expects one big science experiment to contribute tremendously to India’s economic growth, then they can also expect Chennai to have snowfall in May. What must happen is that initiatives like the INO must be (conditionally) encouraged and funded before we concern ourselves with over-researching.

Thus, national investment in science and technology is more a result of growing richer as an economy than a cause of it. Investment in research is an inefficient means of economic growth in middle income countries such as India where cheaper options for economic development are plentiful. Every country gets most of its technology from R&D done by others. The East Asian Tigers, for example, benefitted from reverse engineering Western technologies before building their own research capabilities. Technologies have always been mobile in their economic impact; this is more so today when Apple’s research in California creates more jobs in China than in the United States. Most jobs in our own booming IT sector arose from technological developments in the U.S. rather than Indian invention.

Subramanian makes a good point: that poor countries can benefit from rich countries. Apple gets almost all – if not all – of its manufacturing done in China – that’s thousands of jobs created in China and, implicitly, lost in the USA. But this argument overlooks what Apple has done to California, where the technology giant pays taxes, where it creates massive investment opportunities, where it bedecks an entire valley renowned for its creative and remunerative potential. In fact, it wouldn’t be remiss to say the digital revolution that the companies of Silicon Valley were at the forefront of were largely responsible for catapulting the United States as a global superpower after the Cold War.

It may have suited Subramanian to instead have quoted the example of France trying to recreate a Silicon Valley of its own in Grenoble, and failing, illustrating how countries need to stick to doing what they’re best at at least for the moment. (First) Then again, this presupposes India will not be good at managing a Big Science experiment – and I wouldn’t dispute the skepticism much because we’re all aware how much of a bully the DAE can be. (Second) At the same time, we must also remember that we have very few institutions that do world-class work and are at the same time free from bureaucratic interventions. The first, and only, institution that comes to mind is ISRO, and it is today poised to reach for blue sky research only after having appeased the central government for over five decades. One reason for its enviable status is that it comes under the Department of Space. These two departments – Space and Atomic Energy – are more autonomous because of the histories of their establishment, and I believe that in the near future, no large-scale scientific program can come up and hope to be well-managed that’s not under the purview of these two departments.

(Third) There is also the question of initiative. My knowledge at this point is fuzzy; nonetheless: I believe the government is not going to come up with research laboratories and R&D opportunities of its own (unless the outcomes are tied to defense purposes). I would have sided with Subramanian had it been the government’s plan to come up with a $224 million neutrino detector at the end of a typically non-consultative process. But that’s not what happened – the initiative arose at the TIFR, Mumbai, and MatScience, Chennai. Even though they’re both government-funded, the idea of the INO didn’t stem from some hypothetical need to host a large experiment in India but by physicists to complement a strong theoretical research community in the country.

Is the INO the best way forward for Indian science?

One may cite better uses (sanitation, roads, schools and hospitals) for the $224 million that is to be spent on the most expensive research facility in Indian history; but that argument is unfashionable (and some may say unfair). However, even if one concedes the importance of India pursuing global leadership in scientific research, one may question if investing in the INO is the best way to do so.

Allocation of resources

Like many other countries, India has long had a skewed approach to allocating its research budget to disciplines, institutions and individual researchers; given limited resources, this has a larger negative impact in India than in the rich countries. Of the Central government’s total research spend in 2009-10, almost a third went to the Defence Research and Development Organisation, 15 per cent to the Department of Space, 14 per cent to the Department of Atomic Energy (which is now in-charge of the INO project) and 11 per cent to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The Department of Science, which covers most other scientific disciplines, accounted for barely 8 per cent of the Central government’s total R&D spending. Barely 4 per cent of India’s total R&D spending took place in the higher education sector which accounts for a large share of science and technology personnel in the country. Much of this meagre spending took place in elite institutes such as the IITs and IISc., leaving little for our universities where vast numbers of S&T professors and research scholars work.

Spending on Big Science has thus been at the cost of a vibrant culture of research at our universities. Given its not so insubstantial investment in research, India punches well below its weight in research output. This raises serious questions as to whether our hierarchical model of allocating resource to research has paid off.

Subramanian’s right, but argues from the angle that government spending on science will remain the same and that what’s spent should be split among all disciplines. I’m saying that spending should increase for all fields, and developments in one field should not be held back by the slow rate of development in others, that we should ensure ambitious science experiments should go forward alongside increased funding for other research. In fact, my overall dispute with Subramanian’s opinions are centered on the concession that there are two broad models of economic development involved in this debate – whether a country should only do what it can be truly competitive in, or whether it should do all it can to be self-sufficient and protect itself. I believe Kapil Subramanian’s rooting for the former idea and I, for the latter.

It may be argued that to gain leadership in science, money is best spent in supporting a wide range of research at many institutions, rather than investing an amount equivalent to nearly 16 per cent of the 2015-16 Science Ministry budget in a very expensive facility like INO designed to benefit a relatively small number of scientists working in a highly specialised and esoteric field.

We need to invest in nurturing research at the still-struggling new IITs (and IISERs) as well as increase support to the old IITs (and IISc). More generally, we need to allocate public resources for research more fairly (though perhaps not entirely equitably) to the specialised bodies and educational institutions, including the universities. Besides raising the overall quality and quantity of our research output, this will allow students to experience being taught by leaders in their discipline who would not only inspire the young to pursue a career in research, but also encourage the small but growing trend of the best and the brightest staying back in India for their doctorate rather than migrating overseas.

Unquestionably true. We need to increase funding for the IITs, IISERs, and the wealth of other centrally funded institutions in our midst, as well as pay our researchers and technicians more. However, what Subramanian’s piece overlooks is that particle physics research, definitely one esoteric discipline of scientific research in that its contribution to our daily lives is nowhere as immediate as that of genetics or chemical engineering, in the country has managed to become somewhat more efficient, more organized and more collaborative than many other disciplines sharing its complexity. If managed well, the INO project can lead by example. The Science Ministry may have been screwing with its funding priorities since 1991 but that doesn’t mean all that’s come of it has been misguided.

Finally, like I wrote in the beginning: my support for the INO was once at its peak, then declined, and now stagnates at a plateau. If you’re interested: I’m meeting some physicists who are working on the INO on Monday (June 29), and will try to get them to open up – on the demands made in Subramanian’s piece, on the legal issues surrounding the project, and they themselves have to say about government support.

(Many thanks to Anuj Srivas for helping bounce around ideas.)

Why Indian science projects must plan for cultural conversations, too

The Wire
May 18, 2015

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory; the mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population; and even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the centre that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

There is little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.”

Construction has started on two of the world's grandest neutrino observatories

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory happened on January 10. This means construction on Asia’s two biggest neutrino experiments will have started in the span of a week, after the India-based Neutrino Observatory was given the go-ahead by the government on January 5.

Where the INO uses a device called the iron calorimeter to ‘trap’ and study neutrinos, the JUNO will use a liquid scintillator neutrino detector: a large container filled with a pristine liquid and lined with sensors. LSNDs are used to count the number of a neutrinos emerging from particular sources, which in JUNO’s case will be two nuclear power plants (comprising 10 reactors with an output of 35.8 GW) situated 53 km from the observatory.

JUNO will also be China’s second big neutrino experiment. The first is the Daya Bay Reactor experiment, which – also using an LSND – studies neutrinos produced by cosmic muons. In 2012, it announced an important result concerning the mass hierarchy of the three types of neutrinos, placing the JUNO in good stead on two fronts, so to speak: with designing and operating an LSND and with using such an installation to get results. Thus, the Institute of High Energy Physics responsible for JUNO already has over 300 scientists from 45 institutions in nine countries working with it.

India, on the other hand, has little to count on on that front, which is why the INO is still soliciting collaborators despite showing no signs of any flaws in its design or effective implementation. The lack of experience also shows in a more subtle, but no less telling, way: in the press releases crafted by the respective organisations. While the TIFR/IMSc statement issued for the INO stuck to the point, the IHEP statement for JUNO expressed confidence about getting results, too.

Both INO and JUNO, once simultaneously operational in 2020, will be extending the study of the neutrino mass hierarchy problem on a grand scale. At the INO calorimeter’s heart will sit the world’s most massive electromagnet while the JUNO’s LSND will comprise the world’s most voluminous LSND tank. At the same time, the two observatories don’t signify the dawn of experimental neutrino physics in Asia; the Kolar Gold Fields neutrino experiment in India took care of that in 1964.

Construction has started on two of the world’s grandest neutrino observatories

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory happened on January 10. This means construction on Asia’s two biggest neutrino experiments will have started in the span of a week, after the India-based Neutrino Observatory was given the go-ahead by the government on January 5.

Where the INO uses a device called the iron calorimeter to ‘trap’ and study neutrinos, the JUNO will use a liquid scintillator neutrino detector: a large container filled with a pristine liquid and lined with sensors. LSNDs are used to count the number of a neutrinos emerging from particular sources, which in JUNO’s case will be two nuclear power plants (comprising 10 reactors with an output of 35.8 GW) situated 53 km from the observatory.

JUNO will also be China’s second big neutrino experiment. The first is the Daya Bay Reactor experiment, which – also using an LSND – studies neutrinos produced by cosmic muons. In 2012, it announced an important result concerning the mass hierarchy of the three types of neutrinos, placing the JUNO in good stead on two fronts, so to speak: with designing and operating an LSND and with using such an installation to get results. Thus, the Institute of High Energy Physics responsible for JUNO already has over 300 scientists from 45 institutions in nine countries working with it.

India, on the other hand, has little to count on on that front, which is why the INO is still soliciting collaborators despite showing no signs of any flaws in its design or effective implementation. The lack of experience also shows in a more subtle, but no less telling, way: in the press releases crafted by the respective organisations. While the TIFR/IMSc statement issued for the INO stuck to the point, the IHEP statement for JUNO expressed confidence about getting results, too.

Both INO and JUNO, once simultaneously operational in 2020, will be extending the study of the neutrino mass hierarchy problem on a grand scale. At the INO calorimeter’s heart will sit the world’s most massive electromagnet while the JUNO’s LSND will comprise the world’s most voluminous LSND tank. At the same time, the two observatories don’t signify the dawn of experimental neutrino physics in Asia; the Kolar Gold Fields neutrino experiment in India took care of that in 1964.

Vaiko has a problem with the unmanned, fully automated neutrino observatory

Imagine a vast research facility situated below a hill – fully underground – hosting a massive particle detector made up of the world’s largest electromagnet and some 30,000 metal plates. Embracing this device is a magnetic field 35,000 times as strong as Earth’s, not to mention more than three million electronic channels carrying signals to and from computers monitoring the device. The facility will also house multiple other systems to process and analyze the measurements the detector will take (of neutrinos), and to support other particles physics experiments, including one to find signs of dark matter in the universe. The entire thing will cost Rs 1,500 crore and take six years to build.

Its most distinctive attribute? The entire thing is one big robot, completely unmanned with everything automated. The machine’s surfaces are all self-cleaning; the computers will power themselves on and off – as well as manage the particle detector – according to programs that have already been fed to them; the electromagnet will maintain itself. When important observations are made, the computers will process the data; write out the papers (with a little humor to taste); submit them to whatever journals (and upload a copy in the national OA repository); share the data with collaborating institutions; have the results corroborated by independent research teams; move on to the next experiment. All this guzzling power from the grid and promising nothing in return forever.

At least, this is Tamil Nadu politician Vaiko’s vision of the India-based Neutrino Observatory. After the INO received approval from the Prime Minister’s Office on January 5, Vaiko told the press on January 6:

… the neutrino project is not an industry, which would generate employment to the people in that area, but an institution to carry out research only.


His bigger point was that the INO should be scrapped because it would affect the environment in the area it’s coming up in: the West Bodi Hills, Theni district. The observatory requires a substantial shield to keep out all particles but neutrinos from the detector, and achieving this is easier under more than a mile’s worth of rock.

That said, Vaiko should acquaint himself with what happened in the months leading up to the approval. The scientists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, spent time among the people living around the hill, addressing their questions – from where debris from the construction of the underground cavern would be dumped to where the scientists’ facilities would get their water from to what kind of experiments would be conducted at the INO.

In fact, in 2009, the national UPA government had refused to allow the INO to set up shop in Nilgiris district – the first finalized location – over environmental concerns, and suggested the present location near the Suruliyar Falls. In 2012, members of the collaboration from IMSc told me that the roads leading to and from the two entrances to the cavern would not be laid in straight lines through the surrounding forests en route to Madurai (110 km away) but only through the least densely populated areas – both by people and animals. They also told me that the land acquired for the project was not agricultural land (and it had been acquired before the land acquisition laws were diluted).

Beyond this point, I have only one suggestion for Vaiko: How about calling for scrapping the INO before its Cabinet clearance comes through? But on the upside, I am glad he’s not on the same page as VS Achuthanandan. Or as VT Padmanabhan.

Cabinet approves India-based Neutrino Observatory

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office gave the go ahead for the India-based Neutrino Observatory, an underground physics experiment that will study particles called atmospheric neutrinos. The project is based out of Theni in Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil Nadu State Government is providing the infrastructural support. The observatory is expected to cost Rs 1,500 crore and to be completed by 2020. With the PMO’s green signal, the consortium of institutions will now receive the bulk of funds with which to start excavating the underground cavern.

The INO is jointly supported by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Science and Technology. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, is the host institution. Additionally, an Inter-Institutional Center for High Energy Physics has also been set up in Madurai to lead the R&D for the observatory. The approval confirmation came from Prof. Naba K Mondal of the TIFR and spokesperson for the project.

Upon completion, the INO is being envisaged as the return to India of world-class experimental neutrino physics. From the 1960s until the 1990s, a neutrino experiment at the Kolar Gold Field Mines held that bragging right. In the years since the mines were closed, however, it became evident that the experiment they’d housed could have made some important contributions to understanding the masses of the three types of neutrinos, an important question today.

The PMO’s go-ahead also includes the approval to construct a 50,000-ton electromagnet – the world’s largest upon completion – that will be the heart of the stationary Iron Calorimeter detector. It will comprise “alternate layers of particle detectors called Resistive Plate Chambers (RPCs) and iron plates. The iron plates will be magnetized with 1.4 Tesla magnetic field. Over 30,000 RPCs will be used in this detector. A total of over 3.7 million channels of electronics will carry the signals from these RPCs to be finally stored in the computer,” according to the press release accompanying the announcement.

Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left.
Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left. Credit:

Because neutrinos interact so rarely with matter, an experiment to study them must disallow particulate interactions of any other kind in its kind. This is why the INO will be situated beneath 2.2 km of rock acting as a shield.

A similar neutrino experiment is simultaneously coming up in China, called the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory. JUNO has two important similarities with INO: both will attempt to answer questions surrounding the subject of neutrino masses and both expect to start operating by 2020. The supplementarity means the experiments could corroborate each others’ results. The complementarity means it will be a challenge for each experiment to produce unique results, although it is too early to say how important such a consideration is now.

At the same time, JUNO has an important edge: It is already an international collaboration of participating institutions while India is still soliciting partnerships.

Finally, because of its scale and the level of funding it will receive, the INO will eventually house a full-fledged scientific institution of sorts, with research in the other sciences as well. Even as an underground neutrino experiment, the observatory has potential to host others which might require a similar environment to study: a neutrinoless doube beta decay experiment to study the nature of neutrinos and a dark-matter detector, to name two.

As Sekhar Basu, the Director of BARC, noted: “Development of detector technologies for various particle physics experiments and their varied applications including societal applications in areas like medical imaging is an important aspect of the project.” Not to forget the development of highly skilled technical manpower.

The full list of the INO-ICAL collaborators is available on the last page of the press release (which I’ve uploaded to Scribd). Thanks to Prof. Mondal for informing us about the development. Good luck, INO team!


Curious Bends – Indian Luddites, an academic career, the great forgetting and more

Curious Bends is a weekly newsletter about science, tech., data and India. Akshat Rathi and I curate it. You can subscribe to it here. If have feedback, suggestions, or would just generally like to get in touch, just email us.

1. Say with pride that we’re Luddites

Science is often confused with technology in India. The consequences range in flavour from amusing to dire – for example, we celebrate rockets, not rocket scientists. So we fund rockets, not rocket scientists. This piece explores the history of this perception with interesting and insightful episodes from the past. Beware, though: some of them have evolved many grey areas. (8 min read)

2. India’s hopes for development rely on its public health strategies

That India is neither a middling nor a superpower nation comes down to how good access to health, water, sanitation and education in it are. Health, in particular, needs special attention because of two reasons. First: India shares a disproportionate fraction of the world’s disease burden – especially among non-communicable diseases. Second: the skill and capital needed to resolve the problem is controlled by private interests operating only at state-wide levels. (10 min read)

3. Forgoing a fat pay cheque is totally worth it to become an academic

“The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. And newspapers are already talking about crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.” (6 min read)

+ The author, Dheeraj Sanghi, is a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

4. China’s JUNO launches international collaboration while India’s INO looks on

The Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory is expected to be completed by 2020, and will search for answers to unsolved problems in neutrino physics. More importantly, it will be China’s second big neutrino experiment and second also to feature an international collaboration of scientists and institutions. The India-based Neutrino Observatory, also foreseeing completion by 2020, is yet to find similar interest. As has frustratingly been the case, it’s the scientists who lose out. (3 min read)

5. Indian universities ban dissections

A campaign led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has borne its fruits: a central body that sets standards for university education in India has banned dissections in zoology and life sciences courses. This move solves some legitimate problems but exacerbates some silly others. For one, removing endangered animals from the table doesn’t mean non-endangered ones can’t be put there. For another, assuming “most zoology students do not use the knowledge gained from dissections after they graduate” excludes those who do, and education is for everybody. (3 min read)

Featured longread: What happened to each one of us before the age of seven?

“… if the memory was a very emotional one, children were three times more likely to retain it two years later. Dense memories – if they understood the who, what, when, where and why – were five times more likely to be retained than disconnected fragments. Still, oddball and inconsequential memories such as the bounty of cookies will hang on, frustrating the person who wants a more penetrating look at their early past.” (18 min read)

Chart of the week

Gone are the days when Britain built most of the world’s ships and ruled the seas. By the end of the Second World War, the US was producing 90% of all the world’s ships by weight. By the 1990s, though, Japan and South Korea had in turns acquired the title. Now this decisive distinction could belong to China. Today, it produces around 35% of the world’s ships. The Economist has more.

World shipbuilding  of total in gross tonnage

If you know someone who’d appreciate a weekly roundup of science, tech and data stories from around India, all you need to do is forward them this email and this link to susbscribe.

A gamma ray telescope at Hanle: A note

A gamma ray telescope is set to come up at Hanle, Ladakh, in 2015 and start operations in 2016. Hanle was one of the sites proposed to install a part of the Cherenkov Telescope Array, too. A survey conducted in the 1980s and 90s threw up Hanle as a suitable site to host telescopes because “it had very clear and dark skies almost throughout the year, and a large number of photometric and spectroscopic nights,” according to Dr. Pratik Majumdar of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata.

The Cherenkov Telescope Array will comprise networked arrays of telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres to study and locate sources of up to 100-TeV gamma rays. Dr. Subir Sarkar at Oxford University had told me at the time that “the CTA southern observatory will be able to study the center of the galaxy, while the northern observatory [of which the Hanle telescope will be a part] will focus on extra-galactic sources.” Another Cherenkov telescope, called HAGAR, has been in operation at Hanle since 2008, according to Dr. Majumdar.

Artist's conception of the CTA once installed at one of its sites.
Artist’s conception of the CTA once installed at one of its sites. Image: Pratik Majumdar/SINP

Although Hanle was in the running around July 2013, its name was lifted from the list by April 2014. Dr Sarkar had written to me earlier,

“I realize it is interesting to mention to your readers that Hanle, Ladakh is a proposed site. However I should tell you that this is very unlikely – not because the site is unsuitable (in fact it is excellent from the scientific point of view) but because the Indian Govt. does not permit foreign nationals to visit there. I know a French postdoc who was at TIFR for several years and is now working with Pratik Majumdar at SINP … even he has been unable to get clearance to go to Hanle! I do think India needs to be more proactive about opening up to people from abroad, especially in science and technology, in order to benefit from international collaboration. Unfortunately this is not happening!”

This is ‘closedness’ showed up in another place recently: at the INO, Theni.

Dr. Majumdar added,

Almost all the research institutes and installations in India need to pull up their socks particularly in case of dealing with such bureaucratic procedures [of letting foreign scientists move around inside the country]. We do need to change this inhibitive attitude. BARC is another case where bringing in foreigners for work/visits is quite a big hassle and that is not just for foreigners, even any Indian national is not allowed to take laptops/CDs/other electronic items inside BARC without special permissions. This is unthinkable to me in today’s age. So, even though it does not sound very bad always, there are various layers of inhibition where at various levels this has to be fought.

He added that HAGAR operated with similar restrictions. In fact, in 2018, another gamma-ray observatory is set to be installed in Hanle by TIFR and BARC. So we have local scientific institutions asking for more international participation and eager to deliver results, and on the other hand annoying bureaucratic restrictions on those who decide to participate.

An elusive detector for an elusive particle

(This article originally appeared in The Hindu on March 31, 2014.)

In the late 1990s, a group of Indian physicists pitched the idea of building a neutrino observatory in the country. The product of that vision is the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) slated to come up near Theni district in Tamil Nadu, by 2020. According to the 12th Five Year Plan report released in October 2011, it will be built at a cost of Rs.1,323.77 crore, borne by the Departments of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Science & Technology (DST).

By 2012, these government agencies, with the help of 26 participating institutions, were able to obtain environmental clearance, and approvals from the Planning Commission and the Atomic Energy Commission. Any substantial flow of capital will happen only with Cabinet approval, which has still not been given after more than a year.

If this delay persists, the Indian scientific community will face greater difficulty in securing future projects involving foreign collaborators because we can’t deliver on time. Worse still, bright Indian minds that have ideas to test will prioritise foreign research labs over local facilities.

‘Big science’ is international

This month, the delay acquired greater urgency. On March 24, the Institute of High Energy Physics, Beijing, announced that it was starting construction on China’s second major neutrino research laboratory — the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO), to be completed at a cost of $350 million (Rs. 2,100 crore) by 2020.

Apart from the dates of completion, what Indian physicists find more troubling is that, once ready, both INO and JUNO will pursue a common goal in fundamental physics. Should China face fewer roadblocks than India does, our neighbour could even beat us to some seminal discovery. This is not a jingoistic concern for a number of reasons.

All “big science” conducted today is international in nature. The world’s largest scientific experiments involve participants from scores of institutions around the world and hundreds of scientists and engineers. In this paradigm, it is important for countries to demonstrate to potential investors that they’re capable of delivering good results on time and sustainably. The same paradigm also allows investing institutions to choose whom to support.

India is a country with prior experience in experimental neutrino physics. Neutrinos are extremely elusive fundamental particles whose many unmeasured properties hold clues about why the universe is the way it is.

In the 1960s, a neutrino observatory located at the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka became one of the world’s first experiments to observe neutrinos in the Earth’s atmosphere, produced as a by-product of cosmic rays colliding with its upper strata. However, the laboratory was shut in the 1990s because the mines were being closed.

However, Japanese physicist Masatoshi Koshiba and collaborators built on this observation with a larger neutrino detector in Japan, and went on to make a discovery that (jointly) won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002. If Indian physicists had been able to keep the Kolar mines open, by now we could have been on par with Japan, which hosts the world-renowned Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory involving more than 900 engineers.

Importance of time, credibility

In 1998, physicists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai, were examining a mathematical parameter of neutrinos called theta-13. As far as we know, neutrinos come in three types, and spontaneously switch from one type to another (Koshiba’s discovery).

The frequency with which they engage in this process is influenced by their masses and sources, and theta-13 is an angle that determines the nature of this connection. The IMSc team calculated that it could at most measure 12°. In 2012, the Daya Bay neutrino experiment in China found that it was 8-9°, reaffirming the IMSc results and drawing attention from physicists because the value is particularly high. In fact, INO will leverage this “largeness” to investigate the masses of the three types of neutrinos relative to each other.

So, while the Indian scientific community is ready to work with an indigenously designed detector, the delay of a go-ahead from the Cabinet becomes demoralising because we automatically lose time and access to resources from potential investors.

“This is why we’re calling it an India-based observatory, not an Indian observatory, because we seek foreign collaborators in terms of investment and expertise,” says G. Rajasekaran, former joint director of IMSc, who is involved in the INO project.

On the other hand, China appears to have been both prescient and focussed on its goals. It purchased companies manufacturing the necessary components in the last five years, developed the detector technology in the last 24 months, and was confident enough to announce completion in barely six years. Thanks to its Daya Bay experiment holding it in good stead, JUNO is poised to be an international collaboration, too. Institutions from France, Germany, Italy, the U.S. and Russia have evinced interest in it.

Beyond money, there is also a question of credibility. Once Cabinet approval for INO comes through, it is estimated that digging the vast underground cavern to contain the principal neutrino detector will take five years, and the assembly of components, another year more. We ought to start now to be ready in 2020.

Because neutrinos are such elusive particles, any experiments on them will yield correspondingly “unsure” results that will necessitate corroboration by other experiments. In this context, JUNO and INO could complement each other. Similarly, if INO is delayed, JUNO is going to look for confirmation from experiments in Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

It is notable that the INO laboratory’s design permits it to also host a dark-matter decay experiment, in essence accommodating areas of research that are demanding great attention today. But if what can only be called an undue delay on the government’s part continues, we will again miss the bus.