Roundup of missed stories – February 14, 2016

Developments I’d have liked to cover but haven’t been able to for lack of time.

Previous editions here.

1. Zika virus and the 2016 Olympics, Umrah and Hajj – “These mass gatherings provide an additional opportunity to undertake research on the transmission and prevention of Zika virus. Preparedness has been the key to success of recent Hajj mass gatherings held amid known risks, such as pandemic influenza A H1N1, MERS, and Ebola outbreaks. Lessons from Saudi Arabia’s success with hosting Hajj during declared pandemics can be helpful to Brazil and the Olympics organisers. The next 4 months will be a crucial period for both Brazilian and Saudi authorities to review emerging research findings on the natural history of Zika virus through expert consultations. International stakeholders can facilitate the needed advocacy and support.”

2. The incredible story of LIGO – “Dicke, a master at cutting through thorny mechanical dilemmas, also instilled in Weiss the value of solid experimental design. Returning to MIT as a professor, Weiss embraced the teachings of his mentors and became one of the world’s leading experts in high-precision measurements of gravity. The capstone of Weiss’s career is LIGO. Weiss developed the notion of using a special technique called laser interferometry to track minute movements of matter due to gravitational waves. Interferometry involves focused beams of light with well-defined frequencies (i.e., laser beams), traveling along separate paths, then coming together again. The pattern created when the beams reunite provides precise information about the difference in path length.”

3. LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves was predicated on already knowing what to look for – even though we’re finding it for the first time

3a. Cornell theorists affirm gravitational wave detection – ““You need big computers because the equations are so complicated,” explained Larry Kidder, senior research associate and a co-leader of the SXS collaboration. One calculation – with varying masses and spin rates – takes a supercomputer a full week to solve, running 24 hours a day. With different parameters, some calculations take months. SXS created a theoretical catalog of what the different possible gravitational waves would look like. Teukolsky said that the new LIGO paper shows the measured waves with an SXS wave superposed on top and in excellent agreement with the measurements. “That’s a very strong confirmation that these are gravitational waves that come from black holes – and that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct,” he said.”

3b. Gravitational waves found, black-hole models led the way – “”Even though the modeling and observations of these gravitational wave sources is difficult, requiring detailed, multi-physics models, the potential to study new realms of physics and understand new astrophysical transients is tremendous. Los Alamos is well-poised to solve these problems,” Fryer said. “Our program studying merger progenitors argued that the most-likely system would be a binary black hole system,” stated Fryer, “and it is gratifying to see that this first detection is exactly such a system. As aLIGO detects more of these mergers we will be able to probe aspects of stellar evolution.””

3c. The scale of the universe is amazing – but more astonishing still is the science that lets us understand it – “That men and women can, in a few short years, take tiny smidges of data from often ill-behaved instruments around the world and judiciously combine them with a wide range of physical theory – including the demanding mathematical subtleties of general relativity – to form an account of something not only unimagined but unimaginable to anyone without the new mental equipment this joint endeavour provided: that seems to me a source of wonder greater than the vastest of astronomical numbers.”

4. ICCR conference to explore ‘Indian origins’ of Romany people such as Elvis Presley, Pablo Picasso – “”These names such as Charlie Chaplin or Elvis Presley are not being arbitrarily thrown up but have come to be associated here with a lot of research. Prima facie, these artists are from the Roma community which have traces in India,” he said. “They migrated from here to Europe 2,500 years ago but till today they have preserved many of social and cultural traditions. We are attempting to bring out that commonality, and express our affinity towards the community.”

5. The case of the sinister buttocks – “One more observation, about definition: This case teaches us that defining plagiarism in terms of lifting someone else’s sequence of words is far too restrictive. If you will forgive me some technical notation, a sentence with words w1 … wk may also be reasonably suspected of being plagiarized if there is an unacknowledged source sentence x1 … xk such that, for most i between 1 and k, either (a) wi = xi or (b) wi is in the set of words presented in some thesaurus or synonym-dictionary as alternatives for xi or (c) wi and xi are both in the set of words presented in the entry for some third word (recall service and liturgy).”

6. High stakes as Japanese space observatory launches – “The major existing X-ray satellites are NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, which both launched in 1999. These can analyse the constituent wavelengths of X-rays — the spectra — emitted by point-like objects such as stars. But ASTRO-H will be the first to provide high-resolution spectra for much more spread-out X-ray sources such as galaxy clusters, says Norbert Schartel, project scientist for XMM-Newton at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre outside Madrid, who is also a member of ASTRO-H’s ESA team.”

7. Hail, Clooney! – “… everyone was resigned to the fact that this was more or less a Clooney show. The actor was asked if he’d make a sequel to Syriana, the Oscar-winning film on petroleum politics that he produced. He said, “There is a lot wrong with the world, as we all know. But we are in a political period in our country today, and we’re not talking enough about the world. As filmmakers, we react to events. We don’t lead the way. The film happens years after the news story breaks. And you need a good story, good characters.” He spoke of his humanitarian work in Darfur (“it’s very close to me”) and how he’d like to make a film around the conflict. “But we haven’t found the proper script yet.” He said he was meeting Angela Merkel the next day.”

8. Measurements of the gravitational constant continue to fail to converge – “Who needs a more accurate numerical value of G (the current recommended value6 is 6.67408 ± 0.00031 × 10−11 kg−1 m3 s−2)? The short answer is, nobody, for the moment, but being apparently unable to converge on a value for G undermines our confidence in the metrology of small forces. Although it is true that the orbits of the planets depend on the product of G and the mass of the Sun — the structures of all astrophysical objects are determined by the balance of gravity and other forces produced by, for example, gas, photon or degeneracy pressure — ab initio models of the Sun are still an order of magnitude away from predicting a value of G at a level comparable with laboratory determinations. We do not need a value of G to test for departures from the inverse square law or the equivalence principle. There is as yet no prospect of a theory of quantum gravity that would predict a value for G that could be tested by experiment. Could these unresolved discrepancies in G hide some new physics?”

9. Retraction Watch interviews Jeffrey Drazen, coauthor of controversial NEJM editorial – “We knew this is a sensitive area, and the editorial brought into the open what had been simmering under the surface. What we now have is an opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about data sharing. This is all about the patients. This is all about disease. We can’t let it be about anything else.”

10. Extending an alternative to Feynman diagrams – “The problem with effective field theories that the authors address is that higher-dimension terms give rise to contributions that cannot be determined by factorization. In some effective field theories, however, these higher-dimension terms are connected to lower-dimension ones by symmetries. This is the case, for example, for nonlinear sigma models, which describe pion interactions at low energies. In this case, and in others, the symmetries are reflected in the behavior of the scattering amplitudes: they approach zero more rapidly as we take some of the external momenta to zero. Cheung et al. take advantage of this behavior to extend the applicability of Cauchy’s theorem to cases where the infinite-momentum condition fails to hold. Their work allows us to extend the idea of defining quantum field theories via physical principles, instead of via a Lagrangian, to an important class of effective field theories.”

11. Cosmologist Janna Levin on the vitalising power of obsessiveness, from Newton to Einstein – “The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.”

12. Stephen Hawking v. Paul Rudd for the fate of humanity

13. India needs home-grown GM food to stop starvation – “India should stop trying to build the Taj Mahal with borrowed bricks. We need a concerted effort at home to discover and manipulate relevant genes in indigenous organisms and crops (such as chickpea and rice). Indian microbial institutes should take up projects in this direction, because most of the currently used genes for transgenic generation are of microbial origin. That requires a change in direction from an Indian GM-food strategy that has traditionally aimed at quick product development instead of careful assessment of the underlying science. Such home-grown GM crops would also reduce reliance on transgenic technology produced by multinational companies, which is expensive and rarely optimized for the conditions of specific regions. Some GM crops designed abroad need more water than is usually available in some parts of India, for example, putting great stress on farmers. Indian scientists need better training in IP issues, especially when our researchers join foreign collaborations to examine and exploit the molecular biology of our natural resources. Otherwise, Indian researchers may get the scientific credit for discoveries but fail to claim the right to commercialize the products developed.”

14. Watch the destruction of Pompeii by Mt. Vesuvius, recreated with computer animation – “The ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii, more than any other source, have provided historians with a window into just what life in that time and place was like. A Day in Pompeii, an exhibition held at the Melbourne Museum in 2009, gave its more than 330,000 visitors a chance to experience Pompeii’s life even more vividly. The exhibition included a 3D theater installation that featured the animation above. Watch it, and you can see Pompeii brought back to life with computer-generated imagery — and then, in snapshots over the course of 48 hours, entombed by Vesuvius again.”

15. ‘I’ll take the radiant, radioactive half-life of love over half-love’ – “The span of a woman’s twenties—not just in urban India, but elsewhere too—is a period in which she can go from being an ingénue playing at power with older men to becoming, herself, a station of strength. “It is astonishing how strong you become, when you’ve spent a lot of time being other people’s weaknesses,” I write in one story, ‘Corvus’. A weakness—a flaw, a temptation, a mistake. Strength takes shape, invariably, through failure, including the failures of others. It happens, ultimately, through unrequited love, love at the wrong time, love afraid of the sound of its own name. And so, left to yourself in the absence of other scaffolding, you teach yourself how to build an Ark that you fill one by one by one by one with memory that petrifies into treasure, risk that alchemises into beauty, rupture that raptures into meaning. And then, by yourself, you pull its door closed.”

16. A gradual decline of nuclear power is in the offing – “… energy demand is growing rapidly, leading to construction of just about every form of electricity generation known. The two most populous of these economies — China and India — have great ambitions for nuclear power, and everything else. During 2014, China brought online 5.3 GW of nuclear power, 20.3 GW of wind turbine power, 21.8 GW of hydropower and 53.3 GW of power from thermal plants (mostly coal). Between September 2014 and September 2015, India commissioned a 1 GW nuclear reactor, coal plants generating 16 GW and wind and solar plants generating nearly 5 GW. In recent years, these two, and several other countries, have generated more energy from non-hydro renewables than nuclear energy25. In short, China, India and other developing countries are following an all-of-the-above strategy. As a result, although the overall capacity of nuclear energy might grow, globally the share of nuclear power in electricity generation will continue to drop (Fig. 4). Although costs may currently take a back seat to meeting demand, in the long run the same economic forces shaping the nuclear future in the developed world will limit nuclear growth in the developing world too.”

Curious Bends – expanding nuclear power, the Bombay Blood Group, doubting the tobacco-cancer link & more

1. India’s new forest laws are criminalising tribes’ once-normal livelihoods

“India has forest coverage of 23% and more than 200 million live in and around these forests and depend on them for their life, livelihood and cultural identity. But under the banner (some call it “guise”) of scientific management of forests, the intended objectives of our forest policies has been to “maximise profits” by sale of forest products and discouraging forest dwellers from “exploiting” forest resources. To do so, some trees like red sanders have been ‘nationalised’. This legal appropriation of forests has led to the ‘criminalisation’ of normal livelihood activities of forest-dependent people, making them ‘encroachers’.” (4 min read, hindustantimes.com)

2. A large-scale expansion of nuclear power in India should include fuel-reprocessing, if only to minimise the amount of radioactive waste lying around

“Putting aside additional uranium resources that may be identified in the future, and also putting aside nuclear energy’s future growth rate, one must conclude that uranium-based fission energy cannot in any event last for more than a few centuries. This is not much time—when measured against the length of time that humankind is likely to exist. We, the authors, believe that the current generation bears a responsibility toward future generations not to deplete the world’s uranium resources. This means that uranium cannot be discarded as waste after only 1 percent of its energy is utilized—as happens today. Rather, reprocessing and recycling must be pursued so that 75 percent of uranium (if not more) is used to produce fission energy. Reprocessing and recycling have the potential, compared to the once-through use of uranium, to increase by a factor of at least 50 the amount of time during which humankind can derive fission energy from uranium resources.” (6 min read, thebulletin.org)

3. Why is a rare blood group more common in India than in Europe or the US?

“What took Swapna by surprise actually takes a lot of people by surprise. It’s because 1-in-17,000 people report something called the Bombay Blood Group. That’s one person in 17,000. Now imagine the Eden Gardens stadium filled with capacity with cricket fans. Five people in that stadium would have this blood group. And that’s how rare it is in India. In the United States and Europe, it’s even rarer. It’s one in a million, even if that. And that’s what we’re putting under the microscope today. The only difficult thing about living life with a Bombay Blood Group is getting a transfusion, if you need it. You cant just stroll into a bloodbank and ask for Bombay-type. It’s too rare.” (14 min listen, audiomatic.in)

+ This new podcast, The Intersection, is produced by the journalists Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian.

4. The Indian government is suspicious of the link between tobacco and cancer

“In a move denounced by India’s health activists, the Central government on Tuesday deferred its decision mandating that pictorial health warnings cover 85% of all tobacco packaging. The postponement comes a day before the rule was to come into effect and a day after puzzling remarks by Dilip Gandhi, the head of the parliamentary panel examining provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act. “All agree on the harmful effects of tobacco,” PTI reported Gandhi as saying. “But there is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All the studies are done abroad. Cancer does not happen only because of tobacco.”” (4 min read, scroll.in)

5. “You come to such a big hospital and expect it to be free?”

“Take the example of Selphili Kumar, a 25-year-old mother. In a government hospital in Ambikapur, she shivered alone on a dirty cot, waiting for the doctor to treat her two-day-old son, who had been sick and weak since birth. There was intense pressure in her abdomen and sudden chills racking her body, but all she could think about was money. Her husband, a labourer with a monthly income of about Rs3,500, had paid Rs1,000 to get to the hospital from her village of Kailashpur, Rs600 to order her post-cesarian medicine from the pharmacy (that the hospital claimed they didn’t have on hand), and Rs1,500 for her baby’s treatment. Wrapping her purple sweater tightly around her, her breaths short and shallow, Kumar worried that staying in the hospital longer would only rack up the bill further—a bill that, legally, shouldn’t have existed.” (14 min read, qz.com)

Chart of the Week

“Archeological studies show that societies in the past were very violent indeed. The share of people killed by other people was often more 10%. Ethnographic evidence confirms that violence is very common in nonstate societies and drastically higher than in modern state societies. The historical record of homicide rates in Europe shows that modern levels of violence were only arrived at after a long decline. In these barcharts we compare rates of violence – rather than shares of violent deaths. Again, ethnographic studies show that violence in nonstate societies was much higher than in modern state societies.” (ourworldindata.org)

Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org
Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org

Curious Bends – expanding nuclear power, the Bombay Blood Group, doubting the tobacco-cancer link & more

1. India’s new forest laws are criminalising tribes’ once-normal livelihoods

“India has forest coverage of 23% and more than 200 million live in and around these forests and depend on them for their life, livelihood and cultural identity. But under the banner (some call it “guise”) of scientific management of forests, the intended objectives of our forest policies has been to “maximise profits” by sale of forest products and discouraging forest dwellers from “exploiting” forest resources. To do so, some trees like red sanders have been ‘nationalised’. This legal appropriation of forests has led to the ‘criminalisation’ of normal livelihood activities of forest-dependent people, making them ‘encroachers’.” (4 min read, hindustantimes.com)

2. A large-scale expansion of nuclear power in India should include fuel-reprocessing, if only to minimise the amount of radioactive waste lying around

“Putting aside additional uranium resources that may be identified in the future, and also putting aside nuclear energy’s future growth rate, one must conclude that uranium-based fission energy cannot in any event last for more than a few centuries. This is not much time—when measured against the length of time that humankind is likely to exist. We, the authors, believe that the current generation bears a responsibility toward future generations not to deplete the world’s uranium resources. This means that uranium cannot be discarded as waste after only 1 percent of its energy is utilized—as happens today. Rather, reprocessing and recycling must be pursued so that 75 percent of uranium (if not more) is used to produce fission energy. Reprocessing and recycling have the potential, compared to the once-through use of uranium, to increase by a factor of at least 50 the amount of time during which humankind can derive fission energy from uranium resources.” (6 min read, thebulletin.org)

3. Why is a rare blood group more common in India than in Europe or the US?

“What took Swapna by surprise actually takes a lot of people by surprise. It’s because 1-in-17,000 people report something called the Bombay Blood Group. That’s one person in 17,000. Now imagine the Eden Gardens stadium filled with capacity with cricket fans. Five people in that stadium would have this blood group. And that’s how rare it is in India. In the United States and Europe, it’s even rarer. It’s one in a million, even if that. And that’s what we’re putting under the microscope today. The only difficult thing about living life with a Bombay Blood Group is getting a transfusion, if you need it. You cant just stroll into a bloodbank and ask for Bombay-type. It’s too rare.” (14 min listen, audiomatic.in)

+ This new podcast, The Intersection, is produced by the journalists Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian.

4. The Indian government is suspicious of the link between tobacco and cancer

“In a move denounced by India’s health activists, the Central government on Tuesday deferred its decision mandating that pictorial health warnings cover 85% of all tobacco packaging. The postponement comes a day before the rule was to come into effect and a day after puzzling remarks by Dilip Gandhi, the head of the parliamentary panel examining provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act. “All agree on the harmful effects of tobacco,” PTI reported Gandhi as saying. “But there is no Indian survey report to prove that tobacco consumption leads to cancer. All the studies are done abroad. Cancer does not happen only because of tobacco.”” (4 min read, scroll.in)

5. “You come to such a big hospital and expect it to be free?”

“Take the example of Selphili Kumar, a 25-year-old mother. In a government hospital in Ambikapur, she shivered alone on a dirty cot, waiting for the doctor to treat her two-day-old son, who had been sick and weak since birth. There was intense pressure in her abdomen and sudden chills racking her body, but all she could think about was money. Her husband, a labourer with a monthly income of about Rs3,500, had paid Rs1,000 to get to the hospital from her village of Kailashpur, Rs600 to order her post-cesarian medicine from the pharmacy (that the hospital claimed they didn’t have on hand), and Rs1,500 for her baby’s treatment. Wrapping her purple sweater tightly around her, her breaths short and shallow, Kumar worried that staying in the hospital longer would only rack up the bill further—a bill that, legally, shouldn’t have existed.” (14 min read, qz.com)

Chart of the Week

“Archeological studies show that societies in the past were very violent indeed. The share of people killed by other people was often more 10%. Ethnographic evidence confirms that violence is very common in nonstate societies and drastically higher than in modern state societies. The historical record of homicide rates in Europe shows that modern levels of violence were only arrived at after a long decline. In these barcharts we compare rates of violence – rather than shares of violent deaths. Again, ethnographic studies show that violence in nonstate societies was much higher than in modern state societies.” (ourworldindata.org)

Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org
Rate of violent deaths in nonstate and state societies; Max Roser. Credit: ourworldindata.org

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

There is very little, if any, concrete stuff about promoting science in the country, and a lot of it seems poised to supplant the goals of other ministries.

The Copernican
April 7, 2014

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”

Ambivalent promises for S&T in the BJP manifesto

There is very little, if any, concrete stuff about promoting science in the country, and a lot of it seems poised to supplant the goals of other ministries.

The Copernican
April 7, 2014

Even though they haven’t been in power for the last decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concedes no concrete assurances for science & technology in the country in its manifesto ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. However, these subjects are geared to be utilised for the benefit of other sectors in which specific promises feature aplenty. Indeed, the party’s S&T section of the manifesto reads like a bulleted list of the most popular problems for scientific research in India and the world, although that the party has taken cognizance of this-and-that is heartening.

The BJP makes no mention of increasing India’s spending on S&T while the Indian National Congress promises to do that to 2% of GDP, a long-standing demand. On the upside, however, both parties mention that they would like to promote private sector involvement in certain areas like agriculture, education, transportation and public infrastructure, but only the BJP mentions it in the context of scientific research.

As things stand, private sector involvement in scientific research in India is very low. A DST report from May 2013 claims that it would like to achieve 50-50 investment from public and private participants by 2017, while the global norm stands at 66-34 in favour of private. It is well-documented that higher private sector involvement, together with more interdisciplinary research, reduces the time for commercialization of technologies – which the BJP aspires to in its manifesto. However, the party doesn’t mention the sort of fiscal and policy benefits it will be willing to use to stimulate the private sector.

Apart from this, there are other vague aspirations, too. Sample the following.

  • Promotion of innovation by creating a comprehensive national system of innovation
  • Set [up] an institute of Big data and Analytics for studying the impact of big data across sectors for predictive science
  • Establish an Intellectual Property Rights Regime

Climate change

There is also mention of tackling climate change, with a bias toward the Himalayan region. Under the S&T section, there’s a point about establishing a “Central University dedicated to Himalayan technology”. With respect to conservation efforts, BJP proposes to “launch ‘National Mission on Himalayas’ as a unique programme of inter-governmental partnership, in coordinated policy making and capacity building across states and sectors”, not to mention promote tourism as well.

The BJP also says it would like to make the point of tackling climate change a part of its foreign policy. However, its proposed power generation strategy does also include coal, natural gas and oil, apart from wanting to maximise the potential of renewable energy sources. Moreover, it also promotes the use of carbon credits, which is an iffy idea as this is a very malleable system susceptible to abuse, especially by richer agents operating across borders.

“Take steps to increase the domestic coal exploration and production, to bridge the demand and supply gap. Oil and gas explorations would also be expedited in the country. This will also help to reduce the import bill.”

Until here, not much is different from what the Congress is already promising, albeit with different names.

The BJP appears to be very pro-nuclear. Under its ‘Cultural Heritage’ section, the manifesto mentions Ram Setu in the context of its vast thorium deposits. How this is part of our cultural heritage, I’m not sure. The party also proposes to build “world class, regional centres of excellence of scientific research” for nanotechnology, material sciences, “thorium technology” and brain research. Sure, India has thorium reserves, but the design for a thorium-based nuclear power plant came out only in February 2014, and an operational system is only likely to be ready by the end of this decade.

Troubling stuff

If spending doesn’t increase, these promises are meaningless. Moreover, there are also some pending Bills in the Lok Sabha concerning the setting up of new universities, as well as a materials science initiative named ISMER pending from 2011. With no concrete promises, will those initiatives set forth by the INC but not really followed through see the light of day?

In fact, two things trouble me.

  1. A no-mention of scientific research that is not aimed at improving the quality of life in a direct way, i.e. our space program, supercomputing capabilities, fundamental research, etc.
  2. How the private sector is likely to be motivated to invest in government-propelled R&D, to what extent, and if it will be allowed to enter sensitive areas like power generation.

Clearly, the manifesto is a crowd-pleaser, and to that end it has endeavoured to bend science to its will. In fact, there is nothing more troubling in the entire document than the BJP’s intention to “set up institutions and launch a vigorous program to standardize and validate the Ayurvedic medicine”. I get that they’re trying to preserve our historical traditions, etc., but this sounds like an agenda of the Minitrue to me.

And before this line comes the punchline: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.”

For once, a case against the DAE.

I met with physicist M.V. Ramana on February 18, 2013, for an interview after his talk on nuclear energy in India at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He is currently appointed jointly with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, both at Princeton University.

Contrary to many opponents of nuclear power and perpetrators of environmentalist messages around the world, Ramana kept away from polemics and catharsis. He didn’t have to raise his voice to make a good argument; he simply raised the quality of his reasoning. For once, it felt necessary to sit down and listen.

What was striking about Ramana was that he was not against nuclear power – although there’s no way to tell otherwise – but against how it has been handled in the country.

With the energy crisis currently facing many regions, I feel that the support for nuclear power is becoming consolidated at the cost of having to overlook how it’s being mishandled. One look at how the government’s let the Kudankulam NPP installation fester will tell you all that you need to know: The hurry, the insecurity about a delayed plant, etc.

For this reason, Ramana’s stance was and is important. The DAE is screwing things up, and the Center’s holding hands with it on this one. After February 28, when the Union Budget was announced, we found the DAE has been awarded a whopping 55.59% YoY increase from last year for this year: Rs. 8,920 crore (2012-2013 RE) to Rs. 13,879 crore (2013-2014 BE).

That’s a lot of money, so it’d pay to know what they might be doing wrong, and make some ‘Voice’ about it.

Here’s a transcript of my interview of Ramana. I’m sorry, there’s no perceptible order in which we’ve discussed topics. My statements/questions are in bold.

You were speaking about the DAE’s inability to acquire and retain personnel. Is that still a persistent problem?

MVR: This is not something we know a lot about. We’ve heard this. This is been rumoured for a while, and in around 2007, [the DAE] spoke about it publicly for the first time that I knew of. We’d heard these kinds of things since the mid-1990s as we saw a wave of multinationals – the Motorolas and the Texas Instruments – come; they drew people not just from the DAE but also from the DRDO. So, they see these people as technically trained, and so on. The structural elements that cause that migration – I think they are still there.

That is one thing. The second, I think, is a longer trend. If you look at the people who get into the DAE – I’ve heard informally, anecdotally, etc. – you’ve got the best and the brightest, so to say. It was considered to be a great career to have, so people from the metropolises would go there, people who had studied in the more elite colleges would go there, people with PhDs from abroad would go there.

Increasingly, I’m told, that the DAE has to set its sights on mofussil towns, for people who want to come to the DAE out of where they are, so they’ll get people. The questions: what kind of people? What of the caliber of those people? There are some questions about that. We don’t know a great deal, except anecdotally.

You spoke about how building reactors with unproven designs were spelling a lot of problems for the DAE. Could you give us a little primer on that?

MVR: If you look at many different reactors that they have built, a bulk was based on these HWRs, which were imported from Canada. And when the first HWR was imported – into Rajasthan – it was based upon one in Canada in a place called Pickering. The early reactors were at Pickering and Douglas Point and so on.

These had started functioning when the construction of the Rajasthan plant started. You found that many of them had lots of problems with N-shields, etc., and they were being reproduced here as well. So that was one set of things.

The second problem, actually, is more interesting in some ways: These coolant channels were sagging. This was a problem that manifested itself not initially but after roughly about 15-20 years, in the mid-80s. Then, only in the 90s did the DAE get into retubing and trying to use a different material for that. So, that tells you that these problems didn’t manifest on day #1; they happen much later.

These are two examples. Currently, the kind of reactors that are being built – for example, the PFBR, with a precise design that hasn’t been done elsewhere – have borrowed elements from different countries. The exact design hasn’t been done anywhere else. There are no exact precedents for these reactors. The example I would give is that of the French design.

France went from a small design called the Rhapsody to one which is 250-MW called Phoenix and then moved to a 1,200 MW design called the Super Phoenix. The Phoenix has actually operated relatively OK, though it’s a small reactor. In India, Rhapsody’s clone is the FBTR in some sense. The FBTR itself could not be exactly cloned because of the 1974 nuclear test: they had to change the design: they didn’t have enough plutonium, and so on.

That’s a different story. Not even going through the route of France where it went from Rhapsody to Phoenix to Super Phoenix, India went from what is essentially a roughly 10-MW reactor – in fact, less than that in terms of electrical capacity – they went to 500 MW – a big jump, a huge jump.

In the case of going from Phoenix to Super Phoenix, you saw huge numbers of problems which had not been seen in Phoenix. So, I would assume that the PFBR would have a lot of teething troubles again. When you think that BRs are the way to go, what I would expect to see is that the DAE takes some time to see what kinds of problems arise and then build the next set of reactors, preferably trying to clone it or only correcting it for those very features that went wrong.

These criticisms are aimed not at India’s nuclear program but the DAE’s handling of it.

MVR: Well, the both of them are intertwined.

They are intertwined, but if you had an alternative, you’d go for someone else to handle the program…?

MVR: Would I go for it? I think that, you know, that’s wishful thinking. In India, for better or for worse, if you have nuclear power, you have the DAE, and if you have DAE, you have nuclear power. You’re not going to get rid of one without the other. It’s wishful for me to think that, you know, somehow the DAE is going to go away and its system of governance is going to go away, and a new set of players come in.

So you’d be cynical about private parties entering the sector, too.

MVR: Private parties I think are an interesting case.

What about their feasibility in India?

MVR: I’m not a lawyer, but right now, as far as I can understand the Atomic Energy Act (1962) and all its subsequent editions, the Indian law allows for up to 49 per cent participation by the private sector. So far, no company has been willing to do that.

This is something which could change and one of the things that the private sector wanted to be in place before they do anything of that sort is this whole liability legislation. Now that the liability legislation is taking shape, it’s possible at some point the Reliances and the Tatas might want to enter the scene.

But I think that the structure of legislation is not going to change any time in the near future. Private parties will be able to put some money in and take some money out, but NPCIL will be the controlling body. To the extent that private parties want to enter this business: They want to enter the business to try and make money out of it, and not necessarily to try and master the technology and try new designs, etc. That’s my reading.

Liquid sodium as coolant: Pros and cons?

MVR: The main pro is that, because it’s a molten metal, it can conduct heat more efficiently compared to water. The other pro is that if you have water at the kind of temperatures at which the heat transfer takes place, the water will actually become steam.

So what you do is you increase the pressure. You have pressurized water and, because of that, whenever you have a break or a crack in the pipe, the water can flash into steam. That’s a problem. In sodium, that’s not the case. Those are the only two pros I can think off the top of my head.

The cons? The main con is that sodium has bad interactions with water and with air, and two, it becomes radioactive, and-

It becomes radioactive?

MVR: Yeah. Normal sodium is sodium-23, and when it works its way through a reactor, it can absorb a neutron and become sodium-24, which is a gamma-emitter. When there are leaks, for example, the whole area becomes a very high gamma dose. So you have to actually wait for the sodium to become cool and so on and so forth. That’s another reason why, if there are accidents, it takes a much longer time [to clean up].

Are there any plants around the world that use liquid sodium as a coolant?

MVR: All BRs use liquid sodium as coolant. The only exceptions primarily are in Russia where they’ve used lead, and both Pb and sodium have another problem: Like sodium, lead at room temperature is actually solid, so you have to always keep it heated. Even when you shutdown the reactor, you’ve to keep a little heater going on and stuff like that. In principle, for example, if you have a complete power shutdown – like the station blackout that happened at Fukushima, etc. – you can imagine the sodium getting frozen.

Does lead suffer from the same neutron-absorption problem that sodium does?

MVR: Probably, yes; I don’t know off the top of my head because there’s not that much experience. It should absorb neutrons and become an isotope of lead and so on. But what kind of an emitter it is, I don’t know.

Problems with Na – continued…

MVR: One more important problem is this whole question of sodium void coefficients. Since you’re a science man, let me explain more carefully what happens. Imagine that you have a reactor, using liquid sodium as a coolant, and for whatever reason, there is some local heating that happens.

For example, there may be a blockage of flow inside the pipes, or something like that, so less amount of sodium is coming, and as the sodium is passing through, it’s trying to take away all the heat. What will happen is that the sodium can actually boil off. Let’s imagine that happens.

Then you have a small bubble; in this, sort of, stream of liquid sodium, you have a small bubble of sodium vapor. When the sodium becomes vapor, it’s less effective at scattering neutrons and slowing them down. What exactly happens is that- There are multiple effects which are happening.

Some neutrons go faster and that changes the probability of their interaction, some of them are scattered out, etc. What essentially happens is that the reactivity of the reactor could increase. When that happens, you call it a positive sodium void coefficient. The opposite is a negative.

The ‘positive’ means that the feedback loop is positive. There’s a small amount of increase in reactivity, the feedback loop is positive, the reactivity becomes more, and so on. If the reactor isn’t quickly shut down, this can actually spiral into a major accident.

So, it’s good if at all times a negative void coefficient is maintained.

MVR: Yes. This is what happened in Chernobyl. In the RBMK-type reactor in Chernobyl, the void coefficient at low power levels was positive. In the normal circumstances it was not positive – for whatever reasons (because of the nature of cross-sections, etc. – we don’t need to get into that).

On that fateful day in April, 1986, they were actually conducting an experiment in the low-power range without presumably realizing this problem and that’s what actually led to the accident. Ever since there, the nuclear-reactor-design community has typically emphasized either having a negative void coefficient, or at least trying to reduce it as much as possible.

As far as I know, the PFBR being constructed in Kalpakkam has the highest positive void coefficient amongst all the BRs I know of. It’s +4.3 or something like that.

What’s the typical value?

MVR: The earlier reactors are all of the order of +2, +2.5, something of that sort. You can actually lower it. One way, for example, is to make sure that some of these neutrons, as they escape, don’t cause further fissions, but instead, they go into some of the blanket elements. They’re absorbed. When you do that, that’ll lower the void coefficient.

So, these are control rods?

MVR: These aren’t control rods. In a BR, there’s a core, and then there are blanket elements outside. Imagine that I don’t keep my blanket just outside but also put it inside, in some spots so some of these neutrons, instead of going and causing further fissions and increasing the reactivity, they will go hit one of the blanket elements, be absorbed by those. So, that neutron is out of the equation.

Once you take away a certain number of neutrons, you change the function from an exponentially increasing one to an exponentially decreasing one. To do that, what you’ll have to do is to actually increase the amount of fissile plutonium that you put in at the beginning, to compensate for the fact that most of [the neutrons] are not going and hitting the other things. So, your price as it were, for reducing the void coefficient is more plutonium, which means more cost.

So you’re offsetting the risk with cost.

MVR: Yeah, and also, if you’re thinking about BRs as a strategy for increasing the amount of nuclear power, you’re probably reducing the breeding ratio (the amount of energy the extra Pt will produce, and so on and so forth). So, the time taken to set up each reactor will be more. So, those kinds of issues are tradeoffs. In those tradeoffs, what the DAE has done is to use a design that’s riskier, probably at some cost.

They’re going for a quicker yield.

MVR: Yes. I think what they’re doing in part is that they’ve convinced themselves that this is not going to have any accidents, that it’s perfectly safe – that has to do with a certain ideology. The irony is that, despite that, you’re going to be producing very expensive power.

Could you comment on the long-term global impact of the Fukushima accident? And not just in terms for what it means for the nuclear-research community.

MVR: I would say two things. One is that the impact of Fukushima has been very varied across different countries. Broadly speaking, I characterized it [for a recent piece I wrote] in three folds following an old economist called Albert Hirschman. I called it ‘Exit’, ‘Voice’, and ‘Loyalty’.

This economist looked at how people responded to organizational decline. Let’s say there’s a product you’ve bought, and over time it doesn’t do well. There are three things that you can do. You can choose not to buy it and buy something else; this is ‘Exit’. You can write to the manufacturer or the organization that you belong to, you make noise about it. You try to improve it and so on. This is ‘Voice’.

The third is to keep quiet and continue persisting with it. This is ‘Loyalty’. And if you look at countries, they’ve done roughly similar things. There are countries like Germany and Switzerland which have just exited. This is true with other countries also which didn’t have nuclear power programs but were planning to. Venezuela, for example: Chavez had just signed a deal with Russia. After Fukushima, he said, “Sorry, it’s a bad idea.” Also, Israel: Netanyahu also said that.

Then, there are a number of countries where the government has said “we actually want to go on with nuclear power but because of public protest, we’ve been forced to change direction”. Italy is probably the best example. And before the recent elections, Japan would’ve been a good example. You know, these are fluid categories, and things can change.

Mostly political reasons.

MVR: Yes, for political reasons. For also reasons of what kind of or nature of government you have, etc.

And then finally there are a whole bunch of countries which have been loyal to nuclear power. India, China, United States, and so on. In all these countries, what you find is two things. One is a large number of arguments why Fukushima is inapplicable to their country. Basically, DAE and all of these guys say, “Fukushima is not going to happen here.” And then maybe they will set up a sort of task force, they’ll say, “We’ll have a little extra water always, we’ll have some strong backup diesel generators,” blah-blah-blah.

Essentially, the idea is [Fukushima] is not going to change our loyalty to nuclear power.

The second thing is that there’s been one real effect: The rate at which nuclear power is going to grow has been slowed down. There’s no question about that. Fukushima in many cases consolidated previous trends, and in some cases started new trends. I would not have expected Venezuela to do this volte-face, but in Germany, it’s not really that surprising. Different places have different dynamics.

But I think that, overall, it has slowed down things. The industry’s response to this has been to say, “Newer reactors are going to be safer.” And they talk about passive safety and things like that. I don’t know how to evaluate these things. There are problems with passive safety also.

What’re you skeptical about?

MVR: I’m skeptical about whether new reactors are going to be safer.

Are you cynical?

MVR: I’m not cynical. Well, I think there’s some cynicism involved, but I’d call it observation. The skepticism is about new reactor designs are going to be immune to accidents. Because of incomplete knowledge, and so on, you might be protecting against Fukushima, but you’ll not be protecting against Chernobyl. Chernobyl didn’t have a tsunami triggering it – things of that sort.