Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Higgs at last?

So 2011 runs out, and Europe and North America have shut down for the holiday season. Before CERN, its physicists and staff all left to make merry over Christmas and the new year, they called a press conference to tell us whether Santa had indeed visited CERN this year, and left a Higgs boson in their stocking. The upshot is that although it's too early to break out the champagne, it would not be unwise to place orders for next year.

The press conference announced that both the Atlas and the CMS experiments at CERN have seen signatures of the Higgs at a mass about 125 GeV. While the statistical significance of the data exceeds 2 sigma, it has not reached the 5 sigma level at which a new particle is announced (hence the postponement of the bubbly). However it is noteworthy that the signature of the Higgs is seen in both experiments, in two different decay modes ( Higgs to two photons, and Higgs to four leptons via Z, Zbar) and at essentially the same mass. It is also important that the Higgs boson which is seen is consistent with the standard model, but is seen at a mass which does not rule out supersymmetry. Santa may break out the goodies for our supersymmetric friends, next year, after all. It will be worth the wait.

On the flip side, this will have been the slowest Eureka ever.(The top quark was like this, but every pimple on the distributions wasn't under world-wide discussion instantly, those days). On the other hand, do we really want to see 3000 physicists jump out of their bath tubs in the altogether? The Armani suits (or whatever, we're no experts) of the webcast were better. That was also the slowest webcast ever, but we won't spoil the holiday season by complaining.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Arab winter, breaking dawn in Myanmar, and what of back home?

The Arab spring has given way to the winter of discontent, especially in Egypt. The military which looked like a resonable interim solution after Hosni Mubarak's forced departure, had to be forced into vacating the central space occupied by them. Meanwhile, the elections have given an alarming fraction of the vote to not just middle of the road Islamists, but to ultra-conservative parties. Die-hard optimists are still hopeful that secular elements will win the day, but a period with Egyptian versions of Khomeini might turn out to be inevitable. Well, who said democracy was an easy solution?

On a brighter note, the military junta seems to be loosening its hold on Myanmar. The charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi is contesting the elections with her National League of Democracy party, and, incidentally, exchanging bright smiles with Hillary Clinton. Cynics claim all this is in aid of Myanmar's pursuit of the Asean chair, and will soon be turned off since this objective is now achieved. However, as all despots from Saddam to Mubarak have had to notice, it's not so easy to put the genie back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, back home, the Indian government seems to be trying to do just that. The idea of trying to have guidelines for web-content is not bad in itself, but surely it is better to have this administered by a self-regulatory body? A Web Council of India, like the Press Council of India, seems to be a better idea than the government getting into the act. That might be as self-defeating as the government trying to run an airline. Is anyone listening?

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Song and dance

So what is all the song and dance about? Well, it is about a song and a dance. The song has already gone viral all over You Tube. Yes, absolutely right, it is Kolaveri; how could a Chennai blog not write about the Chennai song that the whole world is writing and blogging about? Just in case you are one of the few who haven't seen it or heard about it, here is the link. Enjoy the simple song of our Chennai "soup boys".

Now for the dance. Did you think flash mobs could only be done in Grand Central station? No, siree, here is Mumbai CST, no less, and Rang de Basanti at that. This video hasn't gone viral yet, at the time of writing, but looks all set to do so. In case you wonder if it was all rehearsed, it was, and filmed at CST with due permission from the police, but that doesn't take the fun away. We wonder if it will set a fashion. If it does, there might be a Kolaveri flash mob in Madras Central station. Now that would be a song and dance indeed!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lest we forget

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

(Lawrence Binyon, "For the fallen").


This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New physics? Not once again!

Trackers of science news will have noted two new events in the physics world. The Opera experiment has carried out its time of flight experiment again with shorter bunches of neutrinos, spaced further apart, and reconfirms its results about the bunches reaching 60 nanoseconds before photons would have. This eliminates one of the objections to the earlier data, viz. the length of the bursts, although others still remain. The experimenters make a cautious statement, viz. `but it is not yet the final confirmation'. Critics retain their scepticism. Let's see if nonOperatics sing the same tune.

There's one more anomalous result under discussion this week.Decays of D mesons at the LHCb experiment in CERN have found evidence of CP (charge conjugation- parity) violation. The CP symmetry consists of replacing each charged particle by its antiparticle, and reversing all directions in space. Processes which obey the CP symmetry are identical under this symmetry, whereas those that do not, notably those mediated by weak interactions, do not give identical results. The D0 mesons decay into kaons and pions and so do their antiparticles. These rates of decay are expected to be identical under the standard model, but have turned out be not. For those who like the standard deviations, this is a 3.5 sigma result. Will it go away like all those we have encountered so far this year? Only time can tell. However, eventually, one of the "new physics" results will stand up to the test of reproducibility, and keep the next generation of physicists, busy, productive and happy.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hush, ladies!

A sign from a temple.

No comment! For readers who don't read the Devanagari script, the sign says exactly the same thing as the title of this post. We don't know which temple this was from, but it could be anywhere! Incidentally, as many of the readers of this blog know, temples are not the only place where the ladies are told to keep quiet. That could be anywhere, too!

Thanks to Bala for the photograph.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Faster than light? Maybe not

While theorists have been sceptical about the faster than light neutrinos for a while, there is now a new experiment which casts further doubt on the results of the OPERA collaboration. The ICARUS experiment offers a rebuttal of the earlier claims of neutrinos travelling faster than light.

The ICARUS(Imaging Cosmic and Rare Underground Signals) experiment also collects neutrinos that travel from CERN to Gran Sasso, but measures the energy spectrum rather than the time of flight, as is done by the OPERA experiment, which is also located at Gran Sasso and reported superluminal (faster than light) speeds. ICARUS has shown that the energy spectrum does not show the signature of the Cohen-Glashow effect which is the analogue of the Cerenkov radiation emitted by charged particles. Charged particles such as electrons that travel in media with velocities greater than the velocity of light in that medium, emit radiation known as Cerenkov radiation, and lose energy in the process. If the neutrinos of the Opera experiment did travel with velocities greater than light, they would emit particles (electron, positron pairs and photons, mediated by a Z0 boson, as per Cohen and Glashow), and lose energy themselves in the process. There is a straightforward relation between the rate at which the neutrinos lose energy and the speed at which they travel. The average energy of the neutrinos that leave CERN is 28.2 GeV. If they actually travelled at superluminal speeds, they would reach Gran Sasso, where both OPERA, and ICARUS are located, with an average energy of 12.1 GeV. Instead, ICARUS reports that the neutrinos detected by them, have an average energy of 26 GeV, about what the neutrinos would have, if they travelled at the boring old speed of light!

By the way, ICARUS only has about 100 reliable neutrino events, whereas OPERA has about 16,000. However, the results of the ICARUS experiment rely on a straightforward measurement of the distribution of energies, and hence do not get mired down by issues like the synchronisation and slowing down of clocks that the time of flight experiments of OPERA do, and are being taken very seriously. As in all the other issues like the Tevatron bump, and the missing Higgs, which have come up recently, only more measurements, and further experiments by independent collaborations, can resolve the question. We look forward to more exciting results.

Tailpiece: Does E still equal mc squared? (The Corrigan brothers). We don't know yet, but that's the way to bet.

Happy Diwali, everyone.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Three ladies (reprise)

So here are three ladies in the news again, and no prizes for guessing which three ladies they are: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmen, two Liberians and a Yemeni, in that order, and joint winners of the Nobel prize for peace this year. Tawakkul Karmen is the first Arab woman to win this prize, and her prize is the Nobel committee's recognition of the Arab spring, as well as of the role of the Islamists and of women in the uprisings. The first, i.e. the recognition of the Arab spring, could have been foreseen, but given the number of people who have contributed to it, and could have been considered contenders for the prize, the choice of the actual winner is truly progressive, and not quite on expected lines. The other two winners, President Sirleaf of Liberia, and Gbowe who organised the Women for Peace movement, an organisation of Muslim and Christian women against the Liberian warlords, are perceived widely as reformers and peacemakers.

The citation of the committee is both explicit and heartening, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society." Since this message of female empowerment will be heard round the world, it will have its desired impact, and perhaps one day reality may rise to the ideal in the song:

"As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race,
No more the drudge and idler---ten that toil while one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

This post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The rise and fall of the Indian liberal tradition: A talk by Ramachandra Guha

An Indian liberal visited Chennai a few weeks ago, and gave a talk on his perception of the state of the liberal tradition in India. In addition to being a liberal, he is a well known historian, a polemical writer in the grand tradition of George Orwell, a cricket enthusiast, and last, but not least, a Stephenian. Those who caught all the cues, (and read the title of this post), would have zeroed in on Ramachandra Guha.

It is not so easy to identify who qualifies as an Indian liberal, so Guha started off with the dictionary definition of a liberal, i.e. favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms, favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform, regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change. Out of these the OED distills an overall definition, viz. willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas. To these, the Indian liberal added some additional qualities, viz. hopefulness about the future, and implicit patriotism as exemplified by Tagore's notion of nationalism. The nationalist movement in the 1900-s threw up liberals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale,who tried to liberalise the backward and ossified indigeneous tradition using ideas brought in by the technologically advanced colonisers. It was pointed out that all of these violated the dictionary definition, as they did not believe in free markets, and liberals such as Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari accepted many aspects of traditional and religious belief. Despite this, the constitutional privileges, secular structure and multilingual polity that Indians take for granted arise directly from this liberal tradition. The second phase of liberalism was from 1940-1950 where the liberal tradition upheld by Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar led to the Hindu Code Bill, equal rights for women, anti-caste legislation and support for the disadvantaged segments of society.

The liberal tradition faced its moments of crisis. The first arose in the period 1947-1950 when Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead and the liberal tradition faced attacks both from the resurgence of right wing religious fundamentalism, and from the Marxist fundamentalism and support for armed insurgency by a leftist party like the CPM. However, the center held, despite these threats, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. The second attack on the liberal tradition came during 1971-1977 due to Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism and attempts to make the Indian National Conference a family firm. This destroyed the decentralised democratic structure of the Congress and created a cadre of committed civil servants and judiciary.

Today's threat to the liberal tradition comes from illiberal tendencies that arise from all directions, the left, the right and the center. The left contributes Maoist extremism, fueled by political economy, tribes displaced by development, and isolated by geographical terrain. The parties of the center contribute to corruption and family feudalism. Right wing fundamentalist ideas have not lost their attraction for certain segments of the polity.

So what can liberals do, to fight off this attack? Guha's prescription for the liberals is to stand firm against all forms of illiberalism. These include Hindu theocrats who feed paranoia, sycophants of political families, political opportunists, apologists for the Maoists, emotional blackmailers, and supporters of vigilante armies. He deplored the pussillanimity of the liberals, and said liberals should not be timid. He quoted Orwell who said a writer can never be a loyal member of a political party. He said that institution building is hard work, to which no substitutes or short cuts are available. The internet can spread ideas far and wide, but can also contribute to incivility. The media can spotlight a problem, but it can only be solved by debate, dialogue and receptivity. Finally, steady, patient work, away from the glare of the media, alone can provide lasting solutions to the evils that plague society.

This lecture was delivered at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, on September 7, 2011, as a memorial lecture for Rahul Basu.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Faster than light?

An experiment where a beam of neutrinos was fired from Geneva (CERN), to Gran Sasso, Italy, a distance of 730 kilometers, claims that the neutrinos reached their target 60 nanoseconds faster than a light beam would have, thereby violating a fundamental principle of special relativity, viz. nothing can travel faster than light.

Physics would undergo a stupendous change if it were true. The scientists who analysed the data said, "Although our measurements have low systematic uncertainty and high statistical accuracy, and we place great confidence in our results, we're looking forward to comparing them with those from other experiments". However, no one seriously believes this one; earlier claims of neutrinos that travel faster than light have not stood up to scrutiny. Still, this news item will have its moment of fame, so here is its blog post!

For a very clear discussion of the details of the experiment, see this link.

Tailpiece: A battered photon totters into a police station and tells a cop, "A bunch of neutrinos just beat me". The cop says: "Did you get a good look at them?" The photon says: "Heck, no, it all happened so fast!"

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The case of the missing Higgs

As physicists, and those who follow physics, know, the Higgs boson is the most sought after particle in physics. The fanciful have even called it "the God particle". They also know that it is proving to be even more elusive than the snark.

The hunters had turned hopeful last month, when data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN showed a flurry of events that were consistent with the Higgs. Two independent detectors, the ATLAS and the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) saw an excess of W bosons, an event considered to be a precursor of the Higgs, in the neighbourhood of 144 GeV. It was hoped that the signal would strengthen, and that the Lepton Photon meeting held in Mumbai in August would announce the discovery of the Higgs. Unfortunately, the latest results which use about twice the data show that the confidence levels in the data have fallen from 2.8 sigma to 2 sigma, i.e. from 99 percent to 95 percent, as researchers have included the effects of other processes that could give an excess of W bosons. (Followers of this blog will remember that 5 sigma results are required before a particle is declared as being discovered). What has been stated with confidence are the energy ranges where the Higgs is not, viz. between 145 and 400 GeV, and patches between 146 and 466 GeV. The Higgs might actually lurk at the lower ends of the energy spectrum viz. between 120 and 140 GeV. More data is awaited, and maybe a result by 2012.

Tailpiece: Why is the Higgs so eagerly awaited? The following hoary chestnut tells it all (thanks, Ashutosh): A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest says, "We don't allow Higgs bosons in here." The Higgs boson says huffily, "But without me how can you have mass?"

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Democracy and demands: The case against Anna

Anna Hazare's reported call on August 24 for a "gherao" of Parliament deserves condemnation. Adequate consideration has been shown to Anna and his suggestions. He and his supporters ought now to allow Parliament to function. If they continue on their present path, they will be setting dangerous precedents.

Anna Hazare, howsoever well-intentioned, is functioning on the basis of certain fallacious propositions. The first dubious proposition is that elected representatives need to do the bidding of Anna, and the large number of people gathered to support him, on the principle of popular sovereignty. Even leaving aside the questions whether popular sovereignty vests in the venerable Anna alone and whether Anna's approach on the Ombudsman question is the only possible reasonable approach, there is another issue here. This is that there is a difference between being a representative of a constituency and being its "deputee". A chosen representative is entitled to the use of his or her own judgement about what is in the interests of the people. That is what they are chosen for. They are not meant to be attorneys doing a client's bidding.

The second dubious proposition which a large section of the media has swallowed is that Anna's tactics, strategies and activities are party-politically neutral and reflect no tacit political affiliations. They do. This is obvious from his selective political targeting and certifications. It is more than a little strange that He remains silent on the question of there being no ombudsman machinery in many states, including some states governed by the principal opposition party at the Centre.He appears to have got around this by suggesting that even in the states, the ombudsman machinery machinery ought to be created only through a parliamentary Bill, when his advisers are sufficiently well-informed on Constitutional matters to know that there would be questions here about Parliament's legislative competence to legislate on this subject in relation to individual states.

The third dubious proposition that Anna is implicitly playing with is that Indian parliamentary democracy may be challenged without limit even where it has given more than adequate space to Anna and his colleagues. I think Anna is inviting trouble that could put India's democracy and constitutional dispensation, painstakingly built up, back by several decades.

The fourth dubious proposition put forth by Anna is that there is a strong Gandhian element in his activities. This does not seem to be the case. Gandhi's struggles involved respect for his opponent. And whatever one of his religious associates may think, Anna needs to be reminded that Gandhi did not use fasts as a weapon during his civil disobedience campaigns. The fasts were usually on other issues, not in the course of mass activity. Anna's views on the death penalty are not quite Gandhian.

Even on the question of how long Anna would fast or remain at Ramlila Grounds there have been conflicting statements by Anna and his supporters. First it was to be 15 days. Then he said he would remain at Ramlila Grounds until the Bill was passed. Finally he said he would FAST until the Bill was passed. Now one of his associates has said that there must be written assurances before the fast would be broken. Anna needs to realise that he is now holding the country and its Parliament to ransom and that too for a cause on which his demands have been substantially conceded. I think this is most unfair and most un-Gandhi-like on his part. Now is the time to stop this tantrum before it goes any further. He may, if he prefers, think of suspending it indefinitely and re-examine the matter once the Parliamentary deliberations are over.

This blog post is by Anil Nauriya.

The issue of bringing the states under the Lok Pal bill seems to have been addressed today. There does seem to be a tendency to add on demands every day. However, this has not diminished the level of popular support that the movement has attracted. Do write in with your views. -Neelima.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Civil society again

The Lok Pal bill and Anna Hazare are much in the news and our minds again. Even those who support the objectives of the agitation (i.e. as against corruption) are not quite in support of some of the ensuing rhetoric.

It seems not irrelevant to point to an earlier post.

As I Please: Civil society and its concerns

There is also a very current comment by Anil Nauriya on this post. We look forward to further discussion on this issue.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, August 19, 2011

`Uncle Eric'

For a very sweet reminiscence of the writer of the original `As I Please', see this link.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The arXiv is 20

Twenty years ago, a particle physicist named Paul Ginsparg got tired of the way in which pre-publication research was circulated. After a paper was written, the author, or a secretary, in the case of fortunate authors, made many copies of the paper, a circulation list was typed, and copies were sent to those on the list. In the process, some copies went to those who had not that much interest in the subject, and many more, who would have been interested in the subject, but not on the list, would only find out when the paper got published. This obviously meant several months, which was a serious handicap to those who worked in fast developing fields. The particle physicists, always the quickest on their feet, had a partial solution to this, they sent the first copy to the SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) list, which was widely circulated, and hoped the paper would catch interest, resulting in many preprint request cards in their mailbox (not the electronic version, the little pigeonhole in their department office!). Physicists in all other fields yawned, and didn't bother. Heaven knows what people in other disciplines did!

Then 20 years ago, in August 1991, things changed. Ginsparg, who worked then at the Los Alamos National Lab, decided to harness the technology of the internet, which was of course, itself the major revolution of the last decade of the 20th century, for this purpose. What could be neater and more efficient than uploading your paper at a central archive, neatly catalogued, and searchable by area, title, author names, and keywords, from where anyone with internet access could download the paper? An idea this good, had to be a thumping success. Usage of the archive snowballed from the initial 400 submissions in the first six months, to 75,000 a year in 2011. Over the same period, the number of distinct users who access the archive increased to 400,000 a week and an astounding download of 1 million articles per week. The areas multiplied from a cosy community of particle physicists to all areas of theoretical physics, and across all disciplines to include mathematicians, biologists and computer scientists, admittedly those with a physics bias. Fields like medicine started their own archive with the help of publishers, and called it PubMed. The surprise does not lie in the number of people who use the archive, the surprise lies in the fact that a fraction of the scientific population appears to manage without it, even now.

However, the most important thing about the archive was the way it levelled the playing field, at least for those interested in theoretical areas. One internet connection, and no place was a backwater any more. The dependence on exorbitantly priced journals was, if not gone, greatly reduced. Though archive submissions are unrefereed, their status and versions are updated post publication in regular journals, for ease of reference. Papers can be submitted to journals directly via uploads from the archive. Mirror sites of the archive increase efficiency and download speeds. Just as the archive was the result of Paul Ginsparg's individual initiative, much of the effort in setting up this amazing framework has come from the tireless work of individual scientists. This is a good place to acknowledge the unstinting efforts of Kapil Paranjape in setting up the Indian mirror site of the archive at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Finally, which way will the archive evolve further? It is really difficult to say. Ginsparg has said that better quality control may enable the archive to evolve from being merely a repository of information to a powerful and self-maintained knowledge structure. To see if this works, stay tuned in till the archive celebrates its silver jubilee in five years.

Tailpiece: Two tales from the late eighties.

A physicist named Joanne Cohn, an early pioneer in the field of matrix models,initially had a personal list of friends to whom she would mail all the preprints that she received. Soon, her reputation grew and even people who did not know her would send her their preprints hoping that she would circulate them to her friends. By the time Ginsparg took over, she had more than a hundred email addresses to which she would forward the preprints. This was not a small number then, so this was true public service!

There was also the time someone from industry came to talk to the physicists at Santa Barbara and suggested that scientists should charge something for their papers (intellectual property rights!) to be put up for public consumption. This provoked much merriment. Some one joked that most scientists would pay to have their papers read!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

For an earlier post on the same subject by Rahul Basu see here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

But what use is it anyway?

Basic researchers of every stripe have to answer this question to every one from funding agencies to the neighbours' school-going kids. While all these enquiring minds have every right to ask this question, every right thinking researcher has to suppress, for reasons of politeness and practicality, the primitive urge to snap and say `does everything have to be useful?'. The Nature issue of 14th July has carried out an admirable job of answering this question. Peter Rowlett has produced seven tales, both little known, and well known, which provide the answer, viz. `theoretical work may lead to practical applications, but it can't be forced and it can take centuries.' The original link is here, but needs a subscription to Nature.

For those who don't have access to the journal, here is a quick summary: Mathematics displays the astonishing quality of being able to provide an effective toolbox for researchers trying to solve practical problems.The surprising thing about this, is that the mathematicians who invented the toolbox, sometimes centuries earlier, neither knew nor cared about the applicability of the results. The strength of the mathematical result lies in the fact that it is proven for all time, once a rigorous proof is provided, within its range of assumptions, unlike the physical sciences, which constantly need to be re-evaluated, in the light of new experimental evidence. Not only do mathematicians not worry about applicability, they push ideas to the limit of abstraction, with no particular regard for the constraints of the `real' world. The applicability of mathematics arises when suddenly, an abstraction provides an amazing fit to a practical situation.

Rowlett provides some interesting examples. These include the use of quarternions in applications to robotics, computer vision and graphics programming (Lara Croft, no less!); Riemannian geometries for cosmological models, the mathematics of sphere packing for modern communications, such as channel coding and error codes; the applicability of the Parrondo paradox to the Brownian ratchet which models directed molecular motion; the use of probability theory and the law of large numbers in actuarial mathematics; applications of topology, like knot theory for understanding DNA structure, braids for quantum computing, Mobius strips for conveyor belts; Hilbert spaces for quantum mechanics, and Fourier series everywhere. Practicing scientists and engineers will obviously find numerous others. The British Society for the History of Mathematics has asked readers to contribute examples known to them (see It would also be really nice if readers of this blog would share their examples here. We look forward to your response.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, July 8, 2011

One last time

The space shuttle Atlantis is off on its last trip. It will carry 8000 pounds of supplies to the international space station, and will be back after two weeks. This will be the 135th, and the last, flight of the shuttle program, which was once both vibrant and useful, and managed to repair the Hubble space telescope. Budget cuts have forced NASA to cut down the shuttle program, to a point where NASA staff got demoralised and left in droves, making it difficult to find crews and support for the space shuttle.

Debates on the scientific utility of manned versus unmanned space programs, are heavily tilted towards unmanned programs, which are supposed to be more cost effective, and carry out better thought out science programs. Still, no one who has seen the speck on the TV screen expand out into a full fledged space craft will forget the shuttle, any more than they will forget that they once watched a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon.

Did anyone catch the classical allusion?

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Civil society and its concerns

Civil society has been much in the news recently, thanks to the Lok Pal bill, Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and the rest. Members of the civil society have been, perhaps justifiably, taking pride in the fact that they have been successful in making their voices heard. Therefore, this seems to be a good point to discuss who actually constitutes civil society, and more importantly, who does it in effect, exclude, and how does the composition of civil society affect its concerns.

To argue this out, it is necessary to identify who is excluded from this collection. To take a few examples, the urban working class, the rural population, the middle and lower ends of the caste hierarchy, and for that matter, the political class, all clearly do not belong to the conglomerate defined above, and have an entirely different agenda. As a simple example of this, it is hard to imagine that the excluded collection would have the kind of interest in the joint entrance exam of the IIT-s that the included fraction does. After all, only about four lakh students take the entrance examination every year, out of our population of one billion plus (it's pointless even to discuss the statistical significance of the 16,000 who actually get in), however, discussions of the entrance exam, however well argued or otherwise, occupy an entirely disproportionate amount of newspaper space, as compared to the concerns of the dispossessed.

So what should civil society do? Maybe it could broaden its outlook. Its current agenda may be all right, but it is narrow, and might even turn out to be self-serving (any bets on which class of society the Lok Pal will come from, if ever we get one?). It is a pity that the agenda of the elite leaders of society is so limited. There was a time when this was not so, and the leaders of civil society looked outwards to the requirements and aspirations of the entire country, and not just to those of people like themselves. This time was before independence, when the elite spearheaded both social reforms, and political movements, and managed to carry the country with themselves. Is it a pipe dream to hope that such a time will come again?

Confession: This blog post was inspired by a recent article by P. Sainath in the Hindu. Do see the article. The Reds do occasionally get something right, especially on issues which are not of any interest to Beijing, and hence do not come with any predefined policy!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Things that go bump in the data, and live computing

It is time to report again on the bump in the Tevatron data at Fermilab. In April, Fermilab had reported that there was an unexpected bump in the total number of events that produce a W boson and two jets. This bump could not be explained by the standard model. The data was greeted with enthusiasm by some model builders, who rushed to build theories, and scepticism by others, who pointed out that it could be explained by a simple miscalibration of jet energies. However, it was universally agreed that the effect, which was a 3-sigma effect, needed further data before it could be supported or dismissed. Well, further data is now in from the CDF experiment at Fermilab, and the effect hasn't gone away. Instead, it is now a 5-sigma effect (well, 4.8-sigma, if you want to be picky). While the hard headed await further data from other sources like the LHC, phenomenologists have not found it too hard to come up with models that account for the bump. Some of the attempts include the proposal of a new vector boson Z', that needs to be leptophobic (i.e. not decay into leptons, but only into quarks). Aficionados of supersymmetry have come up with a sbottom decaying into a stop, but there are numerous other contenders. Here are the references for the technically inclined.

Theorists versus the CDF bump;

CDF: Wjj bump almost 5 sigma!!!

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, researchers at Caltech have managed to manipulate strands of DNA into computing a square root. There's a really cute video at

DNA takes square roots

It looks like there are exciting times ahead for scientists of varied interests. It makes for a pleasant change from the days of the doldrums.

Update (11/06/11): Whoops! This is a real roller-coaster ride. The D0 data at the Tevatron, now finds no bump at the earlier reported energies. More info on this when it comes out.

(12/6/11) Here is the way it pans out, as of today. The CDF data shows a clear bump in the distribution of events in the neighbourhood of 150 GeV. The D0 data, carrying out similar analysis shows no bump in this range. The clearest discussion that I found of this is here. The rest awaits further data and analysis.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Three ladies

The first two require no guesswork: Jayalalitha and Mamatadidi. Everyone is writing/blogging/tweeting about them. Here's a link or two to some recent posts about them.

The women who rule India;

`Amma,' `Didi' to double the number of women CMs.

The third one may come as a bit of a surprise. This is Jane Goodall, the celebrated primatologist, in the news this week for having two children's books written about her. Her pathbreaking studies in primatology started with a childhood gift from her father, a toy chimpanzee called Jubilee. Goodall is best known for her studies of the social behaviour of chimpanzees. She lived among the chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Kenya, and is credited with the first observations of tool making in non-human primates, and for exploding the belief that chimpanzees were vegetarians. She also observed evidence of mental traits like reasoning, abstraction, symbolic representation and a sense of self among chimpanzees, which had been thought to be unique to humans upto that point. Jane's studies were criticised for not following the strict, impersonal norms of primate studies which were followed at that point, like giving names to the chimpanzees she observed, instead of numbers, as was thought to be more `objective'. This lack of `objectivity' was supposed to contribute to the `anthropomorphic' conclusions of her study. However, many of her conclusions have been validated by other studies.

In a recent interview, Dr. Goodall was asked a question on what she thought were the reasons for which women, by and large, stayed away from scientific careers. To paraphrase loosely, she said that this might be because science was thought to be a career where empathy and intuition, two traits which she said were pronounced in girls, were squashed out in favour of coldness which was equated with objectivity. She also said that scientists should be human beings first, and scientists next, and empathy and intuition should be taken advantage of, and the conclusions drawn using these traits should be tested out in the light of rationality. This is a truly unique message and surely worth thinking about.

Quote of the week: `If you have a dream as a child, follow it even if people laugh at you for it, as they laughed at me.'- Jane Goodall.

This post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An ode to the west wind

Today marks the birth anniversary of one of India's most illustrious sons. Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7th, 1861, a hundred and fifty years ago. The newspapers have written reams about his poetry, his novels, his world view, and his impact on the world. This post is about a very tiny aspect of his personality and genius, namely, the impact of western music on Tagore and how it influenced some of his work.

Most Bengalis are aware that Tagore was inspired by old English, Scottish and Irish tunes in his youth - the poet admitted as much himself. Such songs are termed bilāti-bhāngā gān. Tagore went to England at the impressionable age of seventeen, and heard the tunes of Irish melodies and Scottish reels. He returned full of high spirits and began composing songs for the evening entertainments that were a regular feature of his ancestral home; and many of these songs were inspired by his musical experiences abroad.

Tagore first used bilati airs immediately after his return from England in 1881 in the musical Vālmīki Pratibhā which narrates the metamorphosis of Ratnākar, a formidable bandit king, to Vālmīki, legendary poet-sage who wrote the Rāmāyaņa. Of this work, Tagore himself said `the tunes in this musical drama are mostly Indian, but they have been dragged out of their classic dignity; that which soared in the sky was taught to run on the earth. Those who have seen and heard it performed will, I trust, bear witness that the harnessing of Indian melodic modes to the service of the drama has proved neither derogatory nor futile.' Many of the tunes of this play were composed by Rabindranath's brother Jyotirindra. Two of the songs in the play were set to `English' tunes, viz. `Nancy Lee' by Michael Maybrick (who composed as Stephen Adams) and `John Peel'. `Nancy Lee', a rousing sea shanty in the original, metamorphosed to an invocation to the Goddess Kālī that the bandits sing in the forest in Tagore’s version.`D'you ken John Peel', a popular hunting song, has been surmised to inspire the song ‘tobé āy shobé āy’, of Valmiki Pratibha, which is similar in both melody and spirit.

Soon after this, Tagore stopped using bilāti tunes in his songs. Instead, the stream of ideas trickled underground, to emerge in his mature years in his great song offerings in the Gitanjali. Tagore's poems and music managed to break free of the rigidities of the classical Indian forms and achieved a brilliant fusion of both Indian and western sensibilities, and made him the Gurudev that we commemorate today.

This post is by Srovonti Basu Bandopadhyay. Srobonti is an accomplished Rabindra Sangeet singer. We hope to see her, her husband Arindam, and their friends, perform these songs one of these days. Incidentally, Srovonti is Rahul's cousin. -Neelima.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tere bin laden (and millinery too)

Just so as not to be the only blog that hasn't mentioned the topic of the week, here is a slightly skewed take on Osama bin Laden and his death. There will be arguments ad infinitum on whether bin Laden's death really changes anything, and whether Pakistan first concealed his whereabouts and then threw him to the wolves when the U.S. made things too hot; to say nothing of whether U.S. policy towards states which sponsor terrorism will change after this. This post is only to admire the classic intelligence legwork and tailing of small fry which led to the discovery of Osama's hiding place. It is to be hoped that no part of this success will get tainted by identification with the inhuman interrogation techniques of Guantanamo Bay (although one can't be sure at this point). If not, George Smiley would surely rejoice!

On the topic of last week, namely, the Will-Kate wedding, what hats!

This post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A starchild and the stuff of stars

This week has been notable for two reasons, one for what it reminds us of that's past, the other for what it might bring in the future. It's fifty years since Yuri Gagarin blasted off into space in Vostok 1, on April 12, 1961, opening up a new era in exploration and human endeavour. He spent an hour and forty-eight minutes in flight and completed one orbit round the world before re-entry, ejected from his capsule and landed by parachute. The world goggled at this smiling, handsome superman (only five foot two, by the way, an inspiration to shorties) who stole the thunder from Alan Shepard who blasted off into space just about three weeks later. This is also a good place to remember the brave dog Laika, who was sent up in space four years earlier, with no expectation of her ever coming back. There are those who will argue that the thing to remember is the Sputnik programme, which launched the space era, the Cold war, and on the plus side, a whole generation of Sputnik kids into science.

This ushers in the second half of today's post. A recent analysis of the data collected at the Tevatron, the accelerator at Fermilab, shows what might be signature of a new particle, not predicted by the Standard Model (the established and accepted model for all elementary particles observed so far). The physicists are cautious, as the data is still not of the confidence level that declares a new particle and new physics. However, the buzz is around, and phenomenologists (the model builders) are licking their lips. More on this, if the bump in the distribution survives further data.

Tailpiece: A new song on Yuri Gagarin, tentatively called starchild, is being recorded by someone who is more than qualified to record a song like this. This is Brian May, who left incomplete a Ph.D. in astrophysics to become a guitarist for the rock group Queen. Incidentally, he finished his Ph.D., with a bona-fide thesis, on, as it happens, stardust, thirty years later.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ud gaya hans akela

With deep regret, we announce the sad and untimely demise of Rahul Basu, the writer of this blog, on 5th March 2011. He came down with a serious respiratory infection in December, but was recovering well. However, a sudden relapse took him away from us, his sorrowing friends and family.
His non-blogging persona was that of a particle physicist. Many aspects of his professional and public persona have been described by his friends and colleagues on the beautiful memorial page put up by his institute, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. He was quite different with his close friends and family. He was playful and affectionate, and enfolded those he loved in his tender care. Now he is gone, and we are bereft. However, we plan to continue this blog in his loving memory, with help from all his friends, and members of his family.
We hope you will read your blog, Rahul.

Ud jaayega hans akela
 jag darshan ka mela
 jaise paat gire taruvar se
milna bahut duhela
na jaane kidhar girega
lageya pawan ka rela
jab howe umar puurii
 jab chhuutegi hukum hujuurii
Yama ke doot bade mazboot
 Yama se pada jhamela
 Daas Kabir Hari ke guna gaawe
woh Hari ko paaran pawe
 Guru ki karni guru jayega
 chele ki karni chela
Ud jaayega hans akela
jag darshan ka mela...

(Kabir Bani-Sant Kabir.)

The swan will fly away all alone
the world will merely be a spectacle like a fair
As the leaf that falls from the tree
is difficult to find
 who knows where it will fall
 once it is struck with a gust of wind
 when the span of life is complete
then obeying orders, following others, will be over
The messengers of Yama are very strong
the tangling had to be with Yama
the servant Kabir praises the attributes of the Lord
he finds the Lord soon
the Guru will go according to his doings
the disciple according to his
 The swan will fly away all alone ........

(Thanks, Jogesh, for the Kabir bhajan and the Kumar Gandharva reference.)

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On listening again to Pachelbel's Canon

Being condemned to forced leisure has meant listening to a lot of little heard music on my ipod. This brought be recently to Pachelbel's Canon of which I seem to have a number of versions.

It is not an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most beautiful short baroque pieces ever written. It's a piece that I find I can listen to over and over again, the beauty and joy that pervades this piece washes over you in soothing waves. It's such a pity therefore that the Canon (and the accompanying Gigue) has been relegated to what is derisively referred to as 'elevator music' and indeed one hears it mostly in malls, elevators and as background scores to documentaries.

A piece of music that has stayed with us for 300 years must have something going for it. (How much of our present day music will last that long?). In his time Pachelbel was a major baroque composer and its a pity most of his work has vanished. This work is in traditional contrapunctal style with three violins, with a bass continuo providing the background and is believed to have been composed on the occasion of the marriage of Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach's elder brother.

Mozart and Bach will last for ever, but so will a little known Pachelbel's little gem, despite its fate at the hands of present day remixers.

Tailpiece: I realise many people will not share my opinion. Here is a very funny video about why a cellist could come to hate Pachelbel's canon.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gandhi and Civilization

I am always impressed at the reach of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement. More than 60 years after Indian independence, the Egyptian people used it to uproot a despotic ruler. Of course the army is still in charge and that is always a bad sign, but let us be optimistic.

Gandhi (along with Nehru) have been my heroes for long, as people who read this blog will know. However, before we get all misty eyed about Gandhi's methods, it's important to realise that they have serious limitations. Gandhi's suggestion that the Jews commit mass suicide to make Hitler see reason was received with derision then and would be received with derision now. The opposition needs to play by the rules (that is, the norms of civilised behaviour, hence the title of this post) for non violent movements to succeed. In that sense, British rule in India, despite its exploitative nature and the General Dyers, was overall marked by a certain respect for the rule of law. If the opponent has no principles, it's not possible for Gandhi's ideas of satyagraha to succeed.

This is now becoming clearer and clearer. The Chinese Government brutally put down the Tiananmen square demonstrations by the simple expedient of firing real live bullets at unarmed protesters. A metal bullet is no match for satyagraha. Today we see a repeat of this phenomenon -- a group of uncivilised countries (I use the adjective in the sense described above) have firmly and ruthlessly put down peaceful protests in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen (and earlier in Iran). The Israeli Army does the same with Palestinians. The US President has wrung his hands and expressed 'deep concern' but it has predictably had little effect.

So what does one do in such cases? Does one meet violence with violence? In the movie 'Gandhi' the Mahatma makes the observation 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' . I have not been able to find this quote in any of Gandhiji's writings, but it's the kind of statement he could well have made. How many human lives must be sacrificed before the faint glimmerings of the conscience of a despot finally take over his actions? (Many many millions in the case of Hitler and Stalin and there is no evidence that they ever regretted anything). So clearly this is not a viable alternative. The only option is intervention by a foreign power which carries grave risks as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and many such places. (The Balkan intervention could presumably be called a success).

To my mind, such an intervention has been successful once in recent history (I am obviously not going as far back as World War II) and that was India's intervention in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Forced by the millions of refugees pouring in, and the genocide happening under its nose, it was the Indian Government's finest moment. We intervened firmly, helped the democratically elected Bangladeshi Government to take over power, and then, most importantly, withdrew completely. So much so, that we even watched helplessly as successive Bangladeshi Governments turned against their saviour and became distinctly anti-Indian and pro Pakistani. (This trend has now been reversed). But it proved that the Indian Government helped the birth of a new country and then allowed it to grow unhindered and uninfluenced by its large presence to the West. This is a rarity.

Moreover, this is not an event that can be replicated elsewhere. No only can it not be done in a large and powerful country like China, no country including the US is going to intervene in Bahrain, Libya or Yemen except through a couple of phone calls. This means the hapless populace will be left to their own devices to settle their problems with their medieval rulers the best way they can or, as seems clear now, put up and shut up. A depressing scenario, that should give us pause to admire our own set up, no matter how imperfect.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bali, Indonesia

Bali is not to be confused with Bali Hi (or Bali Hai) the mythical island in Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific for those of you whose geography ain't too strong!! Or for the numerous exotic South East Asian restaurants that are named Bali Hai. Never quite figured out why.

We went to Bali in early December, one of the best times to go since the weather isn't too hot and humid. It's still somewhat warmer than say Chennai and it does rain a bit though (need I say it) there is no water logging! And I only discovered much later that that it is actually in the Southern Hemisphere (just about -- 8 degrees).

Indonesia, as most people might know, has the largest Muslim population in the world (India is next by most counts). Bali, one of the many small islands of the Indonesian archipelago, is however majority Hindu -- around 93% - in fact the only island to be so. (Indonesia itself, though, is deeply influenced by Hindu culture and mythology in its art, music, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have a very important presence in their mythology, even its national airline is called Garuda.) The locals in Bali often asked us if we were Hindu, since the number of 'Hindu tourists' are minuscule, being limited to a small number of Indians who visit the island.

The influence of our epics is everywhere. There are innumerable dance dramas and puppet shows mostly based on the Ramayana (a few on the Mahabharata). Here, for example, is a picture from the famous Kecak dance based on the Ramayana and revolving around the monkey sena.

Many minor characters of the epics are important here. One traffic island has an enormous statue of Ghatotkac on an chariot, the botanical garden has a huge image of Jatayu in the centre.

We divided our time between two parts of the island. Sanur is the beach area where we stayed at the Puri Santrian a beautiful resort right on the beach.

Ubud is the cultural heart of the island and we stayed at the Tsampuhan resort .

The northern part of the island are the mountainous regions and are truly beautiful -- there are numerous resorts there

as are the botanical gardens

Despite being a very popular vacation spot, nobody tries to cheat in Bali. You could try and bargain in the shops but savings are not going to be very significant. Amazingly, even taxi drivers, notorious all over the world for fleecing tourists will at worst overcharge by say about 10% (which I think I is acceptable!!). The general culture of fleecing the tourists seems remarkably absent. (Compare with say a place like Goa).

We wound up our trip at the Indian High Commissioner's beautiful colonial style bungalow in Singapore (an old college friend) where we were treated like royalty by him and his wife, starting with being picked up literally from the aircraft's doorstep!

Do have a look at my complete collection of pictures of this trip (I will put in some videos later) here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

And...I am back!

A bout with an undetected lung infection festering for some three months meant that instead of reporting on our wonderful Bali vacation (followed by a stay in the beautiful and welcoming house of the Indian High Commissioner in Singapore (an old college friend)) I ended up in hospital for a month (without, as you might say, passing Go and without collecting 200) soon after our return to Chennai. Recuperation apparently will take a month or two more, but at least I can read and type and so on, so I decided to slowly heave myself into the blogosphere.

I thought of starting off writing the much delayed description of our Bali vacation but that will take some time. In the meantime the air waves are full of what's happening in Egypt on which there is hardly anything I can say that would be original. However, there is something quite hilarious in this, and that refers to my usual bug-bear -- the Chinese Government and it's absurd predilection in seeing threats everywhere to its existence. So here we are -- demonstrators half a world away clamouring for democratic rights, and the Chinese Government is losing sleep. It has started censoring the web and blocked keyword searches like 'Egypt'. After all, what if their citizens start getting ideas from all that is happening in Egypt? Read all about it here.

In the meantime I shall marshall my thoughts about our vacation which seems now a distant memory, and give you some snippets along with some pictures.