Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comment moderation

For all those avid readers and commenters of this blog -- you might have noticed that there has been a sudden explosion of 'Japanese' comments which are thinly veiled (or rather not veiled at all!) links to pornographic sites. It is therefore with much regret that I am turning on comment moderation. No genuine comment, no matter how critical, will be turned away from these doors, but spammers like the above will henceforth be denied entry.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bhopal, 26 years later -- just a traffic accident

And so it's come to this. Unlike Jarndyce and Jarndyce, judgment has been passed in what was the world's worst industrial disaster. But what a judgment. The Chief Judicial Magistrate awarded a two year jail sentence, immediately bailable and the case promises to meander its way up to the higher courts of the land. 26 years, an incompetent prosecution agency, tens of thousands dead (about 3000 immediately), many many more maimed for life, and this is what we have to show for justice. But the CJM is hardly to blame. The august Supreme Court of India, the final arbiter of the laws of the land, reduced the charges in 1996 to 'death due to negligence', the same that is used in traffic accidents.

The Bhopal activists have always been left to plough a lonely furrow. The mainstream political parties, the Congress and the BJP are too beholden to corporate interests to be really interested in seeing justice done, no doubt fearing the flight of foreign capital from India Shining. What is sad is that the Communist parties, who never tire of thundering from the pulpit about neo-liberal policies, about the Indo-US nuclear deal, about US retail giants like Walmart coming to India, never seriously took up the cause of the Bhopal victims. The Karats (both B and P) and Yechurys would rather protest about their right to call a bandh or a hartal. The various groups representing the victims have had little access to the political bosses in Delhi who could in turn pressurise the Government in power.

And so, yet again, a 'resurgent India' fails its most deprived, its most dispossessed and impoverished citizens.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

End of the Shuttle Era

So Atlantis has flown for the last time and very soon the shuttle program will be wound up after some 30 years. I recall the first flight of the shuttle Columbia and its return when I was a graduate student in the US -- it marked the beginning of an era of deploying re-usable spacecraft for various purposes. And while it lacked the excitement of the moon landing, it was the newest endeavour in space.

Did the shuttle program achieve any spectacular? As far as the International Space Station (ISS) goes, I am afraid very little. Right from the start it was never quite clear what the ISS was supposed to achieve except to keep a few humans in a weightless environment as a test for future space travel. The so-called experiments carried out in the ISS were mostly juvenile, and in fact a large number of them were designed by high school students -- for example germinating seeds in a gravity free environment and stuff of that sort.

To my mind, presumably because I am a physicist, the greatest achievement of the shuttle was the launch of the Hubble space telescope and the subsequent trips it made, first to replace a defective mirror and thereafter to fix various parts and extend Hubble's life beyond the expected span. Hubble has allowed astronomers to see deeper into space (and thereby further back in time) than would be possible by even the largest terrestrial telescope, and has been of immeasurable value to the physics/astrophysics community. Hubble is an optical telescope and it was followed by gamma ray and X ray space telescopes which have also very valuable, though these were not launched by the shuttle.

The space shuttle had another minor achievement, (minor in the larger arena of achievement) though it was of immense value to India. The first of the Indian communication satellites, INSAT 1B was launched in the early eighties by one of the earlier shuttle missions (Challenger) and was the first step in the revolution that finally swept TV broadcast and telecommunication in India. (INSAT 1A launched earlier barely lasted a year and had to be abandoned).

Which brings me to a related topic -- the manned exploration of space. The sight of Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing along on the moon surface has a certain indefinable charm and excitement that is impossible to associate with a moon rover trundling over the moon surface. However, I think in the long run, the Russians had the right idea. Human beings are delicate and fragile creatures. They require an enormous amount of fail-safe technology to keep them alive and in good health during the long times that would be involved even to travel to Mars, let alone further along the solar system and beyond. A robot would do it at a tiny fraction of the cost, and not be any less effective, other than the romanticism of human space travel.

Which is why it is particularly troubling to see both China and India entering into a race for a manned mission into space as well as a mission to the moon, when most of the moon's surface has already been mapped. It is the somewhat infantile 'me too' factor which drives both these countries towards this absurd quest, wasting resources that could well be funnelled into more fruitful ventures, even within the space program. The indigenous launch vehicle program of ISRO has been very successful and it would be more useful to develop that than to launch technologically more advanced and cheaper satellites or even exploratory robots. But a manned space program is hardly the kind of venture that countries like China and India should be getting into.