Monday, March 24, 2014

Inflation flexes its biceps

Last week saw the announcement of a major discovery in Physics. Researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the discovery of the signature of gravitational waves in studies of the polarisation of the cosmic wave background data registered at the  Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (Bicep2) experiment at the South Pole. The observations are also consist with scenarios called `inflation', which postulate that the universe underwent rapid expansion shortly after its creation in the big bang. The scenario goes as follows: gravitational waves are created due to quantum fluctuations in the structure of space time, right after the big bang. These were magnified to observable levels due to the rapid expansion that occurred during the inflationary epoch and imposed their signature on the cosmic microwave background in the form of a characteristic polarisation pattern. The BICEP2 experiment observed a distinctive twisting pattern called a curl or B-mode in the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background. Such a pattern had been observed before due to the effect of gravitational lensing (a warping of light due to the presence of nearby massive objects) but  this effect has been ruled out here. Measurements also indicate that the contribution of the gravitational waves to the signal is quite large compared to the contributions of the density fluctuations, increasing confidence in the reliability of the discovery. However, the cautious look forward to support of this discovery from other experiments, such as those carried out by the Planck satellite.

The excitement generated by the discovery is comparable to the excitement generated by the discovery of the cosmic microwave background by Penzias and Wilson, even though indirect evidence of gravitational waves has been obtained before in measurements from pulsars, and even resulted in the 1993 Nobel prize. This discovery supports the inflationary models of cosmology first proposed in the 1980-s by Alan Guth, Linde and others, and further analysis of the data may be able to support some inflationary models, and rule out others, and will keep astronomers and cosmologists busy and happy for several years!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rahul Basu (04/03/1956-05/03/2011)

Each day since we first lost you
Life is not the same,
Each day we search for reasons
Each day we call your name.

But each day we're reminded
Of the joy that you would bring,
Each day we still remember
How you brightened everything.

So each day we live on
We will never be apart,
For in each day that passes
You're forever in our hearts.

Graham Allaway

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

No hanging, this time!

The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement yesterday, commuted the death sentences of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins, Murugan, Santhan and Periavelan to life imprisonment. The reason cited was the inordinate delay of 11 years, in giving a decision on their mercy petitions.  The Chief Justice said "...delay violates the requirement of a fair, just and reasonable procedure. Regardless and independent of the suffering it causes, delay makes the process of execution of death sentence unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious and thereby, violates procedural due process guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and the dehumanizing effect is presumed in such cases." This decision was expected after the earlier Supreme Court decision on, January 21st, commuting the death penalty of 15 prisoners, citing the same reason, viz., the inordinate delay in a decision on their mercy petitions. Both these decisions have been hailed as a victory by the opponents of the death penalty. However,unlike the beneficiaries of the January 21st decision, the nature of the crime, i.e. the political assassination of a popular leader, and a former prime minister, as well as the fact that the assasination was a plot by the LTTE,  have led to polarised and highly charged opinions on both sides in the present case. In Tamil Nadu, longstanding sympathy for Srilankan Tamils, as well as the age of the assassins at the time of the crime, (two were 19 and one 24),  and their model conduct in prison, have led to jubilation at the verdict. Others find this a little mystifying.

A further layer has been added by  today's decision by the Tamil Nadu government of Jayalalitha, a known foe of the LTTE, to let the death row convicts as well as others who have been awarded life imprisonment  in the same case, walk free. A plus point in this, could be the reunion of families, some of whom have never accepted that their kin were involved in the conspiracy, and others who argued that they were bit players, the principal culprits being already dead. (The actual assassin, Dhanu, died in the suicide attack,  and her handler, the  One eyed Jack, Sivarasan, committed suicide by consuming the famed LTTE cyanide tablets when the police closed in on the conspirators in a rented house in Bangalore 22 years ago.) A particularly sad case is that of Harithra, the daughter of Nalini and Murugan, who has never seen her parents outside jail. However, even if the central government accepts the freeing of the convicts, life outside jail may still turn out to be rough for the releasees. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, it will be good if the right lessons are extended to other cases, like that of Afzhal Guru, where political considerations justified a hanging, that was  not warranted by the facts of the case.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Breakthrough Prizes 2014

 The breakthrough prizes for fundamental physics and life sciences for 2014  were announced at a ceremony at the NASA, Hangar One building, at the NASA Ames Research Centre  in Mountain View, California, on December 12, 2013. This was the second function for the Milner fundamental physics prize -the first one was held on March 20th at the   Geneva International conference Centre, where the first nine 2012 awardees, Stephen Hawking, 6 CERN scientists ( for their role in the discovery of the Higgs particle)  and Polyakov were honored.  For the life sciences, this was the first function and hence, besides the 6  2014 breakthrough prizes in life sciences, and the 2014 breakthrough prize in fundamental physics (Michael Green and John Schwarz), the 11 initial  winners of the 2013 life sciences prizes were also honored.

The function was hosted by Kevin Spacey and had several other celebrities  from the American movie and TV industry including Conan O Brien, Glenn Close, Michael Hall, Anna Kendrick, Rob Lowe and Lana Del Rey. More of interest than the U.S. centric performances, (as compared to the Geneva show hosted by Morgan Freeman), were the Internet innovators and entrepreneurs - the charming and baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg  (of the Facebook  fame) and his wife Priscilla Chan,  Sergey Brin ( the Google co-founder) and his wife Anne Wojcicki, Larry Page (Google co-founder) and Jimmy Wales ( co-founder of Wikipedia), and of course, Yuri Milner, the founder of the Fundamental prize.

The format of the function this time, included  a fancy sit-down dinner, catered by Chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, for about 5000 invitees. Re the food, as a vegetarian and not a great connoisseur, I will not attempt to describe the food other than saying that it was fancy, but the  menu   should give an idea!

This was different from last time, when the guests had to go round Geneva in a state of semistarvation (refer Sunil Mukhi's blog). The composition of the invitees was also quite different. Last time, there were many scientists from CERN and from other places in Europe,
whereas this time, the invitees were mainly  Silicon valley entrepreneurs, besides the laureates and their families. The aim seems to be fund-raising for fundamental science and who better than silicon valley entrepreneurs to know the value of fundamental research?

This time, the new horizons prize in physics, awarded to promising junior researchers went to Shiraz Minwalla from TIFR, along with two others. These prizes were awarded at a lunch hosted by Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. With no prior notice, the three awardees were given 2 minutes each to describe their work to a mixed audience including biologists, physicists and their family members.  The sartorial splendor of the scientists had to be seen to be believed, and shocked those used to their normal attire. Here you see Ashoke Sen and Shiraz Minwalla, in their full plumage.
The function ended with the announcement by Milner and Zuckerberg of a new three million dollar breakthrough prize in mathematics, whose details will be announced later.

A personal highlight for me was meeting Lucy Hawking. I am a fan of her children's science books co-authored with her father and came to know that she is finishing a new one on quantum computers very soon.

This blog post is by Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Lest we forget
What they were dying for
Lest we forget
What they were killing for
Lest we forget
What  the hell it was for

What do we forget when we remember…

Owen Griffiths

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and  Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Mars Orbiter Mission: The Mangalyaan

Right after the Diwali rockets, a real rocket did take off, with a crackerjack payload. The PSLV took off on November 5th  with the Mangalyaan on board. The Mangalyaan, or the Mars craft weighs a compact 500 kilos and reached the last but one stage of its orbit raising manouevures today. There were six orbit raising operations, (including a back up manouevure to compensate for the fact that the fourth orbit raising manoevure did not raise the trajectory sufficiently), with today's operation raising the  orbit to one with an apogee of 192,000 kms and a perigee of 252 km, where it will stay till December 1st, when a final firing will send MOM (as ISRO fondly calls it) into an interplanetary trajectory. The Mangalyaan hopes to enter into a Mars orbit on September 2014, almost at the same time as NASA's MAVEN orbiter, after travelling for nearly 11 months, with a cruise phase of 300 days.

The mission costs Rs 454 crores. Since the earth Mars distance is about 400 million kms, there has been a bit of discussion of how this works out to just over Rs 11 per km, cheaper than auto fares in most Indian cities (especially Chennai). This is actually even less, considering that the Mars Orbiter actually traverses 780 million kms, and also that the satellite costs 153 crores and the rest of the budget has been attributed to ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other ISRO projects. Given that the mission is intended to be a technology demonstrator for the design, planning and implementation of an interplanetary mission, this discussion of cost may not even be a relevant discussion. However, the ISRO scientists have had to answer the usual `must we have a Mars craft before there is drinking water in all Indian villages', `what will this mission do that other Mars missions don't' etc questions. They have done an admirable job with their answers. If the mission works well, ISRO hopes to attract contracts for a variety of space related jobs, including the launching of satellites, where they are already considered a reliable agency. As far as the utility of space technology to day to day life is concerned,  the string of satellites that ISRO has launched played a very crucial role in the early warning before the recent cyclone Phailin, due to which the loss of life was minimal in India, unlike in earlier cyclones. As far as the scientific aspects of the mission are concerned, the mission hopes to identify whether the atmosphere of Mars contains methane, as well as to map the Mars terrain. However, the real gains of a mission like this lie in its intangibles, the fillip to science and technology, the capturing of public imagination, the celebration of interplanetary travel. Is this going to be `the little ship that could'? We hope so, good luck, little ship!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi  Rao.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Pondicherry Reprise

We wandered to the pleasant town of Pondicherry again for a weekend, making the usual excuse, viz. out of town guests. The itinerary followed the good old routine, viz. leave in the morning, shore temple and Arjuna's penance and a good Mahabalipuram lunch, and trickle down to Pondi by evening. The guests got fascinated by all the Mahabs bric a brac, despite reassuarances that Pondi bric a brac was far better (but of course far more expensive!).

Pondicherry delivered as promised. The French quarter was elegant and well maintained. The ashram was serene and beautiful. The samadhi had a peaceful and meditative atmosphere, and a large collection of worshippers, even in the late evening. The ashram had its beautiful champa trees, now supplemented by a spectacular rock garden. The beach was cool at night, but a couple of sights were disturbing, is every kind of tourism a good thing?

 The next morning was a new experience, the Matrimandir at Auroville, with prior permission acquired due to the enterprise of the visitors and the presence of gracious Pondicherry hosts. The Matrimandir is a beautiful place of meditation, where the contemplative vision of the Mother has been encapsulated by the architectural vision of Roger Angier, in a remarkable piece of modern architecture. The Matrimandir is a squashed Cosmic egg, or to the less philosophical, a golden geodesic dome. The interiors are white marble, impeccably maintained, thanks to watchful guardians, all French on the day we visited. A spiral staircase leads to the central dome, with twelve pillars which represent the verities. The pillars are not structurally necessary, the French construction engineer who was our principal guide told us, but were a part of the Mother's vision. Natural light from a skylight falls on a crystal globe, and goes down to a meditation area below, with another receptacle at the centre of a beautiful marble lotus. The meditatively inclined felt the vibrations of the place (guess whose theta waves would not budge?).  The Matrimandir is encircled by twelve small meditation rooms, and is meant to be surrounded by twelve gardens, of which three are presently developed. There's an old banyan tree outside, and green lawns enveloped by a fledgling forest, a far cry from the sea of red mud that we saw when we visited last. Auroville originates in a dream, a dream of world unity, that seems to be developing slowly but surely, an oasis in the chaos and cacophony of the external world. It is a place to see, at least once!

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.