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Do your bit, broaden your science menu

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay

If you think a story was not covered by the media, it’s quite likely that that story didn’t feature in your limited news menu, and that it was actually covered by an outlet you haven’t discovered yet. In the same vein, saying the entirety of India’s science media is crap is in itself crap. I’ve heard this say from two people today (and some others on Twitter). I’ll concede that the bulk of it is useless but there are still quite a few good players. And not reading what they are writing is a travesty on your part if you consider yourself interested in science news. Why I think so is a long story; to cut it short: given what the prevailing distribution mechanisms as well as business models are, newsrooms can only do so much to ensure they’re visible to the right people. You’ve got to do your bit as well. So if you haven’t found the better players, shame on you. You don’t get to judge the best of us after having read only the worst of us.

And I like to think The Wire is among the best of us (but I can’t be the final judge). Here are some of the others:

  1. The Telegraph – Among the best in the country. They seldom undertake longer pieces but what they publish is crisp and authoritative. Watch out for G.S. Mudur.
  2. Scroll – Doesn’t cover a lot of sciencey science but what they do cover, they tend to get right.
  3. The Hindu – The Big Daddy. Has been covering science for a long time. My only issue with it is that many of its pieces, in an effort to come across as being unafraid of the technicalities, are flush with jargon.
  4. Fountain Ink – Only long-form and does a fab job of the science + society stories.
  5. Reuters India – Plain Jane non-partisan reportage all round.

I’m sure there are other publishers of good science journalism in India. The five I’ve listed here are the ones that came quickest to mind and I just wanted illustrate my point and quickly get this post out.

Note: This is the article the reactions to which prompted this post.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

Auditing science stories: Two examples from the bottom rungs

The Green Bank radio telescope, West Virginia. Credit: NRAO/AUI, CC BY 3.0

There are different kinds of science stories. I don’t just mean the usual long-form, short-form stuff. I mean there are qualitatively different kinds of stories. They inhabit a hierarchy, and right at the bottom is getting something wrong.

Like the way Livemint did on April 20, 2017, reporting that ISRO had plans to mine resources from the Moon to help manage India’s energy needs. ISRO has no such plans. The report’s author, Utpal Bhaskar, is likely referring to comments made by the noted space scientist Sivathanu Pillai at the Observer Research Foundation’s Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue 2017, held in March. Pillai had said mining helium-3 from the Moon was possible – but he didn’t say anything about ISRO planning such a thing. India TV then quoted Livemint and published a report of their own, not a detail changed.

Right on top of getting something wrong on the quality hierarchy is the act of reporting something that doesn’t deserve to be – the way The Guardian did, also on April 20. Ian Sample, the newspaper’s science editor, published a piece titled ‘No encounters: most ambitious alien search to date draws a blank’. What he seems to make no big deal of is mentioned – to be fair – in the first paragraph, but without playing up its significance in this context: Breakthrough Listen, the search mission, has been online for only a year.

And in this time, nobody expected its odds of finding anything would be noticeable. I’d say the deeper flaw in the story is to pay heed to the fact that this is humans’ most ambitious project of this kind yet. Well, so what if it is? It’s still not big enough to have better odds of finding anything in its first year of ops (the story itself says how they used one telescope last year and that it scanned 629 stars – both puny numbers). In other words, this is a null result and no one expected anything better. At best, it should’ve been a tweet, a status update for the records – not a news report suggesting disappointment. So in a way Sample’s effort can be construed as a null result reported wrong.

Finally, I will not speculate if Sample, who’s probably attending the Breakthrough Discuss conference (also being live-cast through Breakthrough’s Facebook page) on April 20-21, has been obligated by the organisers to publish a report on the subject – but I will say I’m tempted to. 😉 And I recommend just following Paul Gilster’s blog if you’re interested in updates on the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Featured image: The Green Bank radio telescope, West Virginia. Credit: NRAO/AUI, CC BY 3.0.

The worst poem ever

Thinking ape. Credit: Pixel-mixer/pixabay

How does feel to write a story and then, just like that, have everyone read it as well as be interested in reading it?

How would it feel to not have to hope quasi-desperately that a story does well after having spent hours – if not days – on it?

How would it feel to not slog and slog, telling yourself that you just need to be proud of covering a beat few others have chosen to?

“Good journalism can only emerge from being a good citizen” – but is there a way to tell what kind of citizenship is valuable and what kind not?

Of course, I’m also asking myself questions about why it is that I chose to be a journalist and then a science journalist.

The first one doesn’t have a short answer and it’s probably also too personal to be discussing on my blog. So let’s leave that for another day, or another forum.

Why science journalist? Because it’s like Kip Thorne has said: it was the pleasure of doing “something in which there was less competition and more opportunity to do something unique.”

When I tell people I’m a science journalist, a common response goes like this: “I’ve distanced myself from science and math since school”. And it goes with a smile. I smile, too.

Except I’m not amused. This mental block that many people have I’ve found is the Indian science journalist’s greatest enemy – at least it’s mine.

What makes it so great is that, to most people, it’s a class- and era-specific ‘survival skill’ they’ve adopted that has likely made their lives more enjoyable.

And we all know how hard it is give fucks about the wonders that unknown unknowns can hold. It’s impossible almost by definition.

Then there are also so many fucks demanded of us to be given to the human condition.

But Ed Yong’s tweet I will never forget, though I do wish I’d faved it: there’s so much more to science than what applies to being human.

Of course, there’s the other, much simpler reason I’m thinking all this, and so likelier to be true: I’m just a lousy science journalist, writing the worst poem ever.

Featured image credit: Pixel-mixer/pixabay.

 

Titan’s lakes might be fizzing with nitrogen bubbles

A shot by Cassini of the lakes Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare near Titan’s north pole. Credit: NASA

Featured image: A shot by Cassini of the lakes Kraken Mare and Ligeia Mare near Titan’s north pole. Credit: NASA.

TITAAAAAAAAAAN!

One more study reporting cool things about my favourite moon this week. Researchers from Mexico and France have found that the conditions exist in which the lakes of nitrogen, ethane and methane around Titan’s poles could be fizzy with nitrogen bubbles. In technical terms, that’s nitrogen exsolution: when one component of a solution of multiple substances separates out. In this case, the nitrogen forms bubbles and floats to the surface of the lakes, becoming spottable by the Cassini probe. The results were published in the journal Nature Astronomy on April 18.

The Cassini probe has been studying Saturn and its moons since 2004. In 2013, its RADAR instrument – which makes observations using radio-waves – found small, bright features on some of Titan’s lakes that winked out over time. These features have been whimsically called ‘magic islands’ and there has been speculation that they could be bubbles. The Mexican-French study provides one scientific form for this speculation.

The researchers used a numerical model to determine how and why the nitrogen could be degassing out of the lakes. Specifically, they extracted estimates of the temperature and pressure on the surface and interiors of the Ligeia Mare lake from past studies and then plugged them into simulations used to predict the properties of Earth’s oil and gas fields. They found that the bubbles could form if the solution of methane, ethane and nitrogen was forced to split up at certain temperatures and pressures. So, the researchers had to figure out the simplest way in which this could happen and then the likelihood of finding it happening in a Titanic lake.

When the lake’s innards are not forced to split up, they’re thought to exist in a liquid-liquid-vapour equilibrium (LLVE). In an LLVE, two liquids and a vapour can coexist without shifting phases (i.e. from liquid to vapour, vapour to liquid, etc.). The researchers write in their paper, “In the laboratory, LLVEs have been observed under cryogenic conditions for systems comparable to Titan’s liquid phases: nitrogen + methane + (ethane, propane or n-butane).” While cryogenic conditions may be hard to create on Earth’s surface, they’re the natural state of affairs on Titan because the latter is so far from the Sun. The surfaces of its lakes are thought to be at 80-90 K (-190º to -180º C), with the lower reaches being a few degrees colder.

For an LLVE-like condition to be disrupted, the researchers figured the lake itself couldn’t be homogenous. The reasons: “A sea with a homogeneous composition that matches that required for the occurrence of an LLVE at a specific depth is an improbable scenario. In addition, such a case would imply nitrogen degassing through the whole extent of the system.” So in a simple workaround, they suggested that the lake’s upper layers could be rich in methane and the lower layers, in ethane. This way, there’s more nitrogen available near the surface because the gas dissolves better in methane – and also because it could be dissolving into the top more from the moon’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

Over time, the lake’s top layers could be forced to move downward by weather conditions prevailing above the lake, and push the material at the bottom to the top. But during the downward journey, the rising pressure breaks the LLVE and forces the nitrogen to split off as bubbles. Given the size and depth of Ligeia Mare, the researchers have estimated that nitrogen exsolution can occur at depths of 100-200 m. The bubbles that rise to the top can be a few centimetres wide – not too small for Cassini’s RADAR instrument to spot them, as well as in keeping with what previous studies have recorded.

Of course, this isn’t the only way nitrogen bubbles could be forming on Ligeia Mare. According to another study published in March, when an ultra-cold slush of ethane settling at the bottom of the lake freezes, its crystals release the nitrogen trapped between their atoms. Michael Malaska, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, California, had said at the time:

In effect, it’s as though the lakes of Titan breathe nitrogen. As they cool, they can absorb more of the gas, ‘inhaling’. And as they warm, the liquid’s capacity is reduced, so they ‘exhale’.

The Mexican-French researchers are careful to note that their analysis can’t say anything about the quantities of nitrogen involved or how exactly it might be moving around Ligeia Mare – but only that it pinpoints the conditions in which the bubbles might be able to form. NASA has been tentative about sending a submarine to plumb the depths of another Titanic lake, Kraken Mare, in the 2040s. If it does undertake the mission, it could speak the final word on the ‘magic islands’. Ironically, however, NASA scientists will have to design the sub keeping in mind the formation of LLVEs and nitrogen exsolution.

But won’t the issue be settled by then? Maybe, maybe not. Come April 22, Cassini will fly by Titan’s surface at a distance of 980 km, at 21,000 km/hr. It will be the probe’s last close encounter with the moon, as mission scientists have planned to take a look at some of the smaller lakes. After this, the probe will fly a path that will take it successively through Saturn’s inner rings. Finally, on September 15, NASA will perform the probe’s ‘Grand Finale’ manoeuvre, sending it plunging into Saturn’s gassy atmosphere and unto its death, bringing the curtains down on a glorious 13-year mission that has changed the way we think about the ringed planet and its neighbourhood.

Published in The Wire on April 20, 2017.

 

Spotting scientists, lazy scientists

C.N.R. Rao. Source: YouTube

Indian scientists are lazy, says CNR Rao:

Bharat Ratna Prof CNR Rao on Wednesday said Indian scientists are “lazy” compared to those in countries like Japan, South Korea and China. “We are generally a lazy lot. If a person is angered by his superiors or something like that happened in Japan, he tends to work for an additional two hours. But in India, we stop working,” he said at a ceremony organized by the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology, and the department of Information Technology, Biotechnology and Science & Technology to honour scientists and engineers.

Aside from my general displeasure about this man being accorded the prefix ‘Bharat Ratna’ at every mention, Rao has been coming across as a superficial commentator of late. Recently, while speaking at some event, he said that given as large a population as India’s, and making the safe assumption that a fixed fraction of it would have be significantly smarter than the rest, it was a tragedy that we still hadn’t spotted the country’s brightest scientists yet. This might make logical sense to many people but it absolutely should not to educators like Rao. He heads JNCASR and served as the prime minister chief scientific advisor in 2004-2014. To make India’s research excellence a matter of spotting is to abdicate the responsibility of nurturing these scientists. Who will you spot if you aren’t thinking about the best ways to create them?

And then this example of Japanese scientists working longer hours because they’re pissed with their bosses. What’s wrong with the Japanese? At least that was my first thought before I realised I couldn’t disparage Japan. It could be possible that they have a system that rewards hard work without bureaucracy getting in the way. We clearly don’t. I can work 10-times as hard as others in some Indian government offices but I sure as hell won’t receive proportionate appreciation for it. Similarly, I can’t expect people to work harder in any other setting if they think they aren’t going to get their dues, and I’d actively discourage them from doing so if it impacted their personal lives. So like in the previous instance, Rao sounds like he’s simply not thinking things through: calling scientists as a community ‘lazy’ is to abdicate the responsibility to make it easier for them to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Also, let’s try to stop importing cross-border solutions for good governance?

SC’s cancer-due-to-cell-tower verdict

From Times of India:

Last year, Harish Chand Tiwari, who works at the residence of Prakash Sharma in the Dal Bazar area of Gwalior, moved the SC through advocate Nivedita Sharma, complaining that a BSNL tower illegally installed on a neighbour’s rooftop in 2002 had exposed him to harmful radiation 24×7 for the last 14 years. Radiation from the BSNL tower, less than 50 metres from the house where he worked, afflicted him with Hodgkin’s lymphoma caused by continuous and prolonged exposure to radiation, Tiwari complained. In a recent order, a bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Navin Sinha said, “We direct that the particular mobile tower shall be deactivated by BSNL within seven days from today.” The tower will be the first to be closed on an individual’s petition alleging harmful radiation.

Unbelievable. If the radiation received and transmitted by base station towers really causes cancer, where’s the explosion of cancer rates in urban centres around the world? In fact, data from the US suggests that cancer incidence is actually on the decline (or at least not exploding if you account for population growth) – except for cancers of the lung/bronchus (due to smoking)…

… whereas the number of cell sites has been surging.

Even if we are to give Harish Chand Tiwari the benefit of doubt, taking a cell site down because one man in its vicinity had cancer seems quite excessive. Moreover, I don’t think Tiwari has a way to prove it was the cell site alone and not anything else that gave him leukaemia. For that matter, how does any study purport to be able to show cancer being caused by one agent exclusively? We speak only in terms of risk and comorbidity even with smoking, the single-largest risk factor in modern times. Moreover, none of this has forced us to distance the hordes of other factors – including the pesticides in our food and excessive air pollution – in our daily lives. But through all these stochasticities and probabilities, the SC seems to be imposing a measure of certainty that we’ll never find. And its judgment has set a precedent that will only make it harder to beat down the pseudoscience that stalks irrational fears.

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.

A dummy’s attempt to set up WordPress

Featured image credit: heladodementa/pixabay.

There’s something to be said about how good it feels when you set up a blog from scratch. And for a CMS, I’ve always liked WordPress because it was always so easy to set up despite being so feature-rich. I’m no developer but the thing was that even when new cloud-hosting options like Digital Ocean and Vultr (which offered the $5/mo server and weren’t BS like the popular shared-hosting retailers) came up, they had one-click installs from the get-go. There really was/is no incentive to learn how to setup WP. It’s become something you take for granted.

On top of this, my technical grammar is infantile, which makes learning to setup these things more difficult because you’ll need documentation that assumes you really know very little. For example: WP is a PHP app; Ubuntu and Debian are OSs; Apache and nginx are web-servers; Redis and MySQL are databases; and LAMP and LEMP are stacks. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to forget all this in a week.

Until I set up WordPress on Linode*, I wasn’t even know how they all fit together. This is because Linode of all the places has the best documentation on how to set up a WordPress site for dummies. Many other VPS solutions have good documentation but they don’t work for someone who wants to learn along the way. This is odd because Linode is marketed as a cloud-hosting solution for developers and its UI is much more daunting (once you login) than, say, Digital Ocean’s or Vultr’s. This is also the reason I’m not sure why Easy Engine has a really simple WordPress-on-nginx deployment option for Linode.

wget -qO ee rt.cx/ee && sudo bash ee
sudo ee site create domain.com --wp

So if you’re looking to set up your own self-hosted WordPress blog and you also want to learn how it’s done, I highly recommend using Linode’s documentation. The cool thing here is that if, for some reason, you’ve picked Digital Ocean to host your WP site, you can still use the Linode documentation: they work with both hosts. I personally would recommend Linode simply because it’s been around for longer (and also offers eight-core CPUs against Ocean’s single-core). The relevant guide is here (if you find this tough: the ‘Getting started’ guide is here). Some steps may not work perfectly but you can trust someone’s answered all the questions you’ll have somewhere on Stack Exchange.

Once you’re up, consider strengthening your security with some basic measures (a firewall plus a log-parsing app to defend against SSH attacks):

sudo apt-get install ufw
sudo ufw allow ssh
sudo ufw default allow outgoing
sudo ufw default deny incoming
sudo ufw allow 80/tcp
sudo ufw allow 1725/udp
sudo ufw enable
sudo ufw logging on
sudo apt-get install fail2ban
sudo cp /etc/fail2ban/fail2ban.conf /etc/fail2ban/fail2ban.local
sudo cp /etc/fail2ban/jail.conf /etc/fail2ban/jail.local
nano /etc/fail2ban/jail.local
# set bantime, findtime, maxretry
# set logpath = /var/log/auth.log
# save
cd /etc/fail2ban/filter.d
sudo cat > wordpress.conf
sudo nano /etc/fail2ban/filter.d/wordpress.conf
# set failregex =  - - \[(\d{2})/\w{3}/\d{4}:\1:\1:\1 -\d{4}\] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200
# set ignoreregex =
# save
sudo nano /etc/fail2ban/jail.local
# set wordpress jail
# set enabled = true
# set filter = wordpres
# set logpath = /var/www/example.com/logs/access.log
# save
sudo fail2ban-client start

Happy blogging!

*The blog I set up is private.

Featured image credit: heladodementa/pixabay.

Religious sentiments: upsetting them v. getting upset

Prashant Bhushan. Credit: Swaraj Abhiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5

Featured image: Prashant Bhushan. Credit: Swaraj Abhiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5.

Get a load of this: Over the weekend, advocate and social activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted saying CM Yogi Adityanath’s anti-Romeo ‘policy’ would imply that the Hindu god Krishna could be classified as a “legendary eve-teaser” in modern Uttar Pradesh. In quick succession, Bhushan had FIRs filed against him from both BJP and Congress spokespersons, in Delhi and Lucknow respectively. On both counts, the charge was of “upsetting religious sentiments”.

This is funny: Bhushan’s tweet does not upset religious sentiments but recalls a story and questions how it will be interpreted in this day. And if the BJP and the Congress have been offended by this, it could only be because they have interpreted his tweet offensively. If reason had prevailed, Bhushan’s statement should’ve been interpreted to say Adityanath’s policy perspective almost directly raises questions about Krishna’s attitude towards women, and the only way the BJP/Congress can imagine it “upsets religious sentiments” is by suggesting either:

  1. Adityanath is right ⇒ Krishna was an “eve-teaser” ⇒ religious beliefs are wrong, or
  2. Krishna was not an “eve-teaser” ⇒ Adityanath is wrong ⇒ Adityanath is upsetting religious sentiments

Either way, the offence seems to stem from someone other than Prashant Bhushan. As for the offended, one thing is certain: women get the short shrift, as usual. They’re once again stuck making lousy choices: between a political ideology that supports honour killings and thinks its women should stay at home, aspire to get married and run a household – and a religious tradition that extols a god about whom the popular narrative is that he “teased” gopis, i.e. women. And this isn’t just the women in UP: it limits the narratives through which women can participate in national politics.

Moreover, it’s ironic that the anti-harassment squads are being called “anti-Romeo” squads. Romeo from William Shakespeare’s tale did not harass. Similarly, the couples being targeted by Adityanath’s anti-harassment squads – the Romeos and Juliets, supposedly – aren’t harassing each other. They’re spending time together in public spaces, spaces in which intimacy is still somewhat taboo because it is even more difficult for them to do so in private spaces. In the more conservative pockets of urban India (I can’t profess to know much about the rural), these spaces don’t exist. Adityanath should instead be empowering the police force and social support groups to intervene properly and sensitively, so those who feel victimised don’t have to seek arbitrary – and often drastic – courses of action.

He should also be cognisant of the fact that his and his supporters’ purported goal to ‘protect women’ robs women of their agency and right to self-determination.

How infographics can lose the plot

Credit: bykst/pixabay

By this point it should’ve become apparent to most people who engage with infographics on a semi-regular basis that there are some rules about what they should or shouldn’t look like, and that your canvas isn’t actually infinite in terms of what you can create that will a) look good and b) make sense. But just when you think everyone’s going to create sane visualisations of data, there comes along one absolute trash-fire of an infographic to remind you that there are still people out there who can and will ruin your day. And when that someone is a media channel the size of News18, the issue at hand actually transforms from being a molehill to a mountain.

Because it’s News18, it’s no longer just about following good practices when making an infographic but also about moving the hundreds of thousands of people who will have seen the infographic (@CNNnews18 has 3.4 million followers) away from the idea that News18’s effort produced something legitimate. It’s like you and your squad are guiding a group of people quietly through a jungle at night, almost unseen, when an idiot decides he has to smoke a joint, lights his match, gives your position away to the enemy and you all get killed. To the wider world, you were all idiots – but only you will know that things would’ve been rosier if it hadn’t been for that junkie (and spare me your consternation about what a lousy analogy this is). Without further ado, the trash-fire:

Fonts and colours, not bad, but that’s it. Here’s what’s wrong:

  1. The contours of the chicken-leg and the leaf appear to have dictated the positioning of numbers and lines in the graphic, whereas it should’ve been the other way around
  2. The same length represented by 25% for Rajasthan also signifies 31% and 33% for Haryana and Punjab, respectively
  3. The states (in the graphic) from Bihar to Telangana all have less than 10% on the veg side – but the amount of leafy area would suggest these values are much higher than actual
  4. If anything, West Bengal and Telangana are the worst offenders: the breadth of leaf they have for their measly 1% is longer than that of Rajasthan’s 25%
  5. The numbers say that only 4/21 states have more vegetarians than non-vegetarians – but a glance would suggest that fraction’s closer to 13/21
  6. Also: wtf are these irregular shapes? Why not just pick regular rectangles and shade them accordingly?

In fact, across the board (of mistakes), it seems the designer may have forgotten or ignored just one guiding principle of all infographics: that they should give a clear and accurate impression of the truth as represented by the numbers. This often requires the designer to ensure that the axes are clearly visible, that representations of values through parameters like distance, area, volume, etc. are consistent and predictable throughout the graphic, that the representation of relative values is proportionate, that colours and/or stylisations don’t mislead the reader, etc.

These are the reasons why the ‘3D’ pie-chart offered by MS Powerpoint hasn’t found wider use. It offers nothing at all in addition to the normal ‘flat’ pie-chart but actually make things worse by distorting how the values are displayed. Similarly, you take one look at this chicken-leaf thing and you take away… nothing. You need to look at it again, closer each time, toss the numbers around a bit if they make sense, etc. It’s really just an attention-whore of an infographic, to be used as bait with which to trawl Twitter for a flamewar around the Indian government’s recent attitude towards the consumption of meat, especially beef.

Also: “So what if it’s a little off the mark to get some attention? It’s done its job, right?” → if this is your question, then the answer is that if you don’t force designers – especially those working with journalists – to follow best practices when making an infographic, you’ll be setting a lower bar that will soon turn around and assault you with all kinds of charts and plots conceived to hide what the numbers are really saying and instead massage your preconceived biases while playing up ‘almost-right’ propaganda. Yes, infographics can quickly and effectively misguide, especially when you don’t have much time to spend scrutinising it. Hell, isn’t that why infographics were invented in the first place: to let you take one look at a visualisation and get a good idea of what’s going on? This is exactly why there’s a lot of damage done when you’re screwing with infographics.

So DON’T DO IT.

A gear-train for particle physics

It has come under scrutiny at various times by multiple prominent physicists and thinkers, but it’s not hard to see why, when the idea of ‘grand unification’ first set out, it seemed plausible to so many. The first time it was seriously considered was about four decades ago, shortly after physicists had realised that two of the four fundamental forces of nature were in fact a single unified force if you ramped up the energy at which it acted. (electromagnetic + weak = electroweak). The thought that followed was simply logical: what if, at some extremely high energy (like what was in the Big Bang), all four forces unified into one? This was 1974.

There has been no direct evidence of such grand unification yet. Physicists don’t know how the electroweak force will unify with the strong nuclear force – let alone gravity, a problem that actually birthed one of the most powerful mathematical tools in an attempt to solve it. Nonetheless, they think they know the energy at which such grand unification should occur if it does: the Planck scale, around 1019 GeV. This is about as much energy as is contained in a few litres of petrol, but it’s stupefyingly large when you have to accommodate all of it in a particle that’s 10-15 metres wide.

This is where particle accelerators come in. The most powerful of them, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), uses powerful magnetic fields to accelerate protons to close to light-speed, when their energy approaches about 7,000 GeV. But the Planck energy is still 10 million billion orders of magnitude higher, which means it’s not something we might ever be able to attain on Earth. Nonetheless, physicists’ theories show that that’s where all of our physical laws should be created, where the commandments by which all that exists does should be written.

… Or is it?

There are many outstanding problems in particle physics, and physicists are desperate for a solution. They have to find something wrong with what they’ve already done, something new or a way to reinterpret what they already know. The clockwork theory is of the third kind – and its reinterpretation begins by asking physicists to dump the idea that new physics is born only at the Planck scale. So, for example, it suggests that the effects of quantum gravity (a quantum-mechanical description of gravity) needn’t necessarily become apparent only at the Planck scale but at a lower energy itself. But even if it then goes on to solve some problems, the theory threatens to present a new one. Consider: If it’s true that new physics isn’t born at the highest energy possible, then wouldn’t the choice of any energy lower than that just be arbitrary? And if nothing else, nature is not arbitrary.

To its credit, clockwork sidesteps this issue by simply not trying to find ‘special’ energies at which ‘important’ things happen. Its basic premise is that the forces of nature are like a set of interlocking gears moving against each other, transmitting energy – rather potential – from one wheel to the next, magnifying or diminishing the way fundamental particles behave in different contexts. Its supporters at CERN and elsewhere think it can be used to explain some annoying gaps between theory and experiment in particle physics, particularly the naturalness problem.

Before the Higgs boson was discovered, physicists predicted based on the properties of other particles and forces that its mass would be very high. But when the boson’s discovery was confirmed at CERN in January 2013, its mass implied that the universe would have to be “the size of a football” – which is clearly not the case. So why is the Higgs boson’s mass so low, so unnaturally low? Scientists have fronted many new theories that try to solve this problem but their solutions often require the existence of other, hitherto undiscovered particles.

Clockwork’s solution is a way in which the Higgs boson’s interaction with gravity – rather gravity’s associated energy – is mediated by a string of effects described in quantum field theory that tamp down the boson’s mass. In technical parlance, the boson’s mass becomes ‘screened’. An explanation for this that’s both physical and accurate is hard to draw up because of various abstractions. So as University of Bruxelles physicist Daniele Teresi suggests, imagine this series: Χ = 0.5 × 0.5 × 0.5 × 0.5 × … × 0.5. Even if each step reduces Χ’s value by only a half, it is already an eighth after three steps; after four, a sixteenth. So the effect can get quickly drastic because it’s exponential.

And the theory provides a mathematical toolbox that allows for all this to be achieved without the addition of new particles. This is advantageous because it makes clockwork relatively more elegant than another theory that seeks to solve the naturalness problem, called supersymmetry, SUSY for short. Physicists like SUSY also because it allows for a large energy hierarchy: a distribution of particles and processes at energies between electroweak unification and grand unification, instead of leaving the region bizarrely devoid of action like the Standard Model does. But then SUSY predicts the existence of 17 new particles, none of which have been detected yet.

Even more, as Matthew McCullough, one of clockwork’s developers, showed at an ongoing conference in Italy, its solutions for a stationary particle in four dimensions exhibit conceptual similarities to Maxwell’s equations for an electromagnetic wave in a conductor. The existence of such analogues is reassuring because it recalls nature’s tendency to be guided by common principles in diverse contexts.

This isn’t to say clockwork theory is it. As physicist Ben Allanach has written, it is a “new toy” and physicists are still playing with it to solve different problems. Just that in the event that it has an answer to the naturalness problem – as well as to the question why dark matter doesn’t decay, e.g. – it is notable. But is this enough: to say that clockwork theory mops up the math cleanly in a bunch of problems? How do we make sure that this is how nature works?

McCullough thinks there’s one way, using the LHC. Very simplistically: clockwork theory induces fluctuations in the probabilities with which pairs of high-energy photons are created at some energies at the LHC. These should be visible as wavy squiggles in a plot with energy on the x-axis and events on the y-axis. If these plots can be obtained and analysed, and the results agree with clockwork’s predictions, then we will have confirmed what McCullough calls an “irreducible prediction of clockwork gravity”, the case of using the theory to solve the naturalness problem.

To recap: No free parameters (i.e. no new particles), conceptual elegance and familiarity, and finally a concrete and unique prediction. No wonder Allanach thinks clockwork theory inhabits fertile ground. On the other hand, SUSY’s prospects have been bleak since at least 2013 (if not earlier) – and it is one of the more favoured theories among physicists to explain physics beyond the Standard Model, physics we haven’t observed yet but generally believe exists. At the same time, and it bears reiterating, clockwork theory will also have to face down a host of challenges before it can be declared a definitive success. Tik tok tik tok tik tok

Titan’s chemical orgies

Saturn in the background of Titan, its largest moon. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Titan probably smells weird. It looks like a ball of dirt. It has ponds and streams of liquid ethane and methane and lakes of the two ethanes, with nitrogen bubbling up in large patches, near its poles. It has clouds of hydrocarbons raining down more methane. And like the water cycle on Earth, Titan has a methane cycle. Its atmosphere is a stifling billow of (mostly) nitrogen. Its surface temperature often dips below -180º C, and the Sun is as bright in its sky as our moon is in ours. In all, Titan is a dank orgy of organic chemistries playing out at the size of a small planet. And it smells weird – like gasoline. All the time.

But it is also beautiful. Titan is the only other object in the Solar System known to have bodies of liquid something flowing on its surface. It has a thick atmosphere and seasons. Its methane cycle signifies a mature and stable resource recycling system, just the way a functional household allows you to have routines. Yes, it’s cold and apparently desolate, but Titan can’t help these things. Water would freeze on its surface but the Saturnian moon has made do with what wouldn’t, and it has a singularly fascinating surface chemistry to show for it. Titan has been one of the more unique moons ever found.

And new observations and studies of the moon only make it more unique. This week, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology reported Titan possibly has dunes of tar that, once formed, stay in formation because their ionised particles cling together. The scientists stuck naphthalene and biphenyl – two organic compounds thought to exist on Titan’s surface – into a tumbler, tumbled it around for about 20 minutes in a nitrogen chamber and then emptied it. According to a Georgia Tech press release, 2-5% of the mixture lumped up.

The idea of tarry sands is not new. The Cassini probe studying the Saturn system found strange, parallel dunes near Titan’s equator in 2006, over a hundred metres tall. Soon after, scientists were thinking about ‘sediment cohesiveness’, the tendency of certain particles to stick together because of weak but persistent static charges, to explain the dunes. These charges are much weaker among sand particles and volcanic ash on Earth. Then again, in a 2009 paper in Nature Geoscience – the same journal the Georgia Tech study was published in – planetary geologists showed that longitudinal dunes, as they were called, were known to form in the Qaidam Basin in China. A note accompanying the paper explained:

More recent models for linear dune formation are centred on two main scenarios for formation and perpetuation. Winds from two alternating directions, separated by a wide angle, result in the formation of dunes whose long axis falls somewhere between the two wind directions. Alternatively, winds blowing from a single direction along a dune surface that has been stabilized in some way, for example by vegetation, an obstacle or sediment cohesiveness, can produce the same dune form.

That the Georgia Tech study affirmed the latter possibility doesn’t mean the former has been ruled out. Scientists have shown that bi-directional winds are possible on Titan, where wind blows in one direction over a desert and then shifts by 120º and blows over the same patch, forming a longitudinal dune. One of the Georgia Tech study’s novelties is in finding a way for the dune’s particles to stick together. Previous studies couldn’t confirm this was possible because the dunes mostly occur near Titan’s equator, where the weather is relatively much drier than at the poles, where mud-like clumps can form and hold their shape.

The other novelty is in using their naphthalene-biphenyl model to explain why the longitudinal dunes are also facing away from the wind. As one of the study’s authors told New Scientist, “The winds are moving one way and the sediments are moving the other way.” This is because the longitudinal dunes accrue on existing dunes and elongate themselves backwards. And once they do form, more naphthalene and biphenyl grains stick on them thanks to the static produced by them rubbing against each other. Only storms can budge them then.

The Georgia Tech group also writes in its paper that infrared and microwave observations suggest the dune’s constituent particles don’t become available through the erosion of nearby features. Instead, the particles become available out of Titan’s atmosphere, in the form of ‘haze particles’. They write: “[Frictional] charging provides an efficient process for the aggregation of simple aromatic hydrocarbons, and may serve as a mechanism for the formation of dune grains with diameters of several hundred micrometers from micrometer-sized haze particles.”

A big-picture implication is that Titan’s surface features are shaped by agents that are almost powerless on Earth. In other words, Titan doesn’t just smell weird; it’s also sticky. Despite the moon’s being similar to Earth in many ways, there are still drastic differences arising from small mismatches, mismatches we’d think wouldn’t make a difference. They remind us of the conditions we take for granted at home that are friendly to life – and of the conditions in which we can still dream of the possibility of life. Again, studies (described here and here) have shown this is possible. One has even warned us that Titanic lifeforms, if they exist, would smell nowhere as good as their name at all.

Understanding the dunes is a way to understand Titan’s winds. This is important because future missions to the moon envisage wind-blown balloons and cruising gliders.

Featured image: Saturn in the background of Titan, its largest moon. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

I’d written this post originally for Gaplogs but it got published in The Wire first.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day

Just been having a bad day today – and from the midst of it all, almost forgot to blog about Lord of the Rings Day. I do this every year on the blog (I think), recalling two things: how great Lord of the Rings was, and how even better something else is. Last year, and I’m making no effort to check, it had to have been one of Steven Erikson’s books, possibly from the Malazan series. I’ve got nothing else to add this year. The Malazan series is still the best in my books, and if you’re into epic fantasy fiction and haven’t read it yet: boo. I would also highly recommend the Warcraft lore.

Customary recap: March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring. On this day, let’s read a chapter or two from the trilogy and remember what an enlightening experience reading the books was.

Featured image credit: kewl/pixabay