Category: Science

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

How to Take Memorable Photos During a Solar Eclipse

I have mixed feelings about the eclipse. It’s a spectacular phenomenon to witness, more so because it happens so infrequently. From a physics point of view however, it’s not much different then when you are watching a movie in a theater and an incredible Hulk comes in and sits in the seat right in front of you blocking your view. In contrast, when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet collided with Jupiter, it was spectacular not just in the visual sense but also very rich in its scientific content.

Don’t get me wrong. Total solar eclipse is a spectacular event and had I not been geographically disadvantaged, I would not have missed it for anything. However, there is one thing I would not have done. I would not have taken pictures of the eclipse.

Let me rephrase that. Maybe I would have taken a few pictures just for the memory of the experience. But I would be well aware that these images are just like millions of others. They lack originality.

Every day NASA is presenting us with such exquisite images that we have lost the ability to really get surprised or enthralled. Few years back, one image of the surface of Mars would make us swoon. Today, it’s just routine. Ditto for the Monkey Head Nebula, M83 and NGC 4258 galaxies, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s satellites, the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula, the supernova explosion SN 2014J in the galaxy M82 – you know what, I could just go on listing the spectacular images for the rest of the article and there would still be tons left. And all these have just become routine.

This is a solid proof of the groundbreaking work in science communication that NASA has done over the decades. And it’s what Elon Musk is doing for the space flight. The regular launches of the SpaceX and returning of the Falcon 9 rockets is slowly becoming a normal thing, so much so that one often forgets the tremendous amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. I go and watch Apollo 13 from time to time just to remind myself of the incredible complexity of a space flight.

Coming back to the solar eclipse, what chance does your image of a solar eclipse have against this spectacular onslaught? Moreover, there is not much difference between images of eclipse taken from different parts of the world. Sure, there will be some change in colour depending on the conditions but essentially, it will just be a bright blob getting eaten by a dark one. Spectacular, but not original.

So, can you take an image during an eclipse, one that is different from all the other images? The answer is yes.

You see, if you want to take a memorable image during the eclipse, don’t focus on the Sun. That’s where everyone else is looking.

Focus on the surroundings.

I had a chance to witness a total solar eclipse once. I saw it through the protected shades but my brain did not store the image of the blocked Sun for this memory. Or maybe it did and later on it was overwritten by the 8790998657 images that I saw on the Internets. No, the memory of the eclipse that has stayed with me is far more unique and much more beautiful.

It was very bright in the beginning – imagine the scorching Indian Sun with no clouds. And gradually, the quality of the light began to change. It grew dim, as if it’s evening or dusk and then the darkness fell, all just in matter of seconds or maybe a minute. This transition from absolute bright to absolute dark has stayed with me all along.

Maybe it’s because I am naturally drawn towards images that show interplay of light. For instance, one of my favourite moments in a Spielberg movie is when he shoots the setting sun in a long shot, with dark shadows of men against the background of the bright star. You see it when the men are digging – in Raiders of the Lost Ark for treasure or in Saving Private Ryan to bury their fellow soldier. Unfortunately, these type of scenes have become rarer in today’s CGI world. Isn’t it ironic that Spielberg, one of the forefathers of CGI along with James Cameron, never really went back to it in a big way after Jurassic Park? He made Lincoln instead, which again has fantastic interplay of light and shadows.

You will see that the images of eclipse that stand out are those taken against some background. A mountain range or a plane crossing the Sun. That’s what I want to see. How does the light change in different landscapes – mountains, rivers, monuments? How do the animals behave? What do birds do when it suddenly becomes dark?

There is so much to record if you are not focused on the Sun.

One of my favourite videos of the solar eclipse 2017 was taken at the Nashville zoo. The flamingos were going about their business as usual when the darkness fell. They huddled together, thinking it was night. As it grew bright again, they slowly came out of the huddle to start the day anew.

We need many more videos like this.

Why We Need To Celebrate ISRO’s Every Success

Why We Need To Celebrate ISRO’s Every Success

The article Calling ISRO’s Fluff : Only Higher Achievements Should Merit Widespread Celebration by Pavan Srinath was published in The Wire on 17/02/2017. I would like to argue the exact opposite. We need to celebrate every ISRO success as widely as possible.

The launch was celebrated not just by Indian media but well known international news-outlets as well. The New York Times stated that the launch established India as a “key player in a growing commercial market for space-based surveillance and communication.” Equally praising were other major newspapers including The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC and CNN. Surely, these reports do not count as chest-thumping?

The article suggests setting a high bar for ISRO. Seriously? We have already been to the Moon and Mars. The future plans include a second mission to Mars and a mission to Venus, something the article conveniently neglects to mention. How higher can the bar be than this? Instead, how about raising bar of other Indian research institutes as high as ISRO?

ISRO is a government organisation. Part of its program has to be oriented towards the development of India. It would be a mistake to plan ISRO launches on the footsteps of SpaceX. Elon Musk has his own grand vision, some of which may overlap with ISRO. The “routine” ISRO launches so far have given us immense technological advantages in areas ranging from Earth observation and disaster management to climate and environment. In addition, ISRO is not averse to taking risks. The Mars mission did not have any practical application other than basic science research. So does the trip to Venus. Keep in mind that China failed in its Mars mission, even though it has become kind of routine for us.

Writing proposals to funding agencies is both an art and science. If you really want to find out the reasons for the current state of science in the post-independent India, dig up all the science projects that have been completed and audit their achivements severely. Quite often, you will find that the aim of the project covers a wide area with goals broad enough that can be justified no matter how things go. For instance, instead of claiming that we will make an apple superconducting at room temperature, most proposals would claim something like “Feasibility studies of room temperature superconductivity in apples.” This way, even if the apple does not become superconducting, the goal of testing feasibility is met.

By the very nature of its work, ISRO cannot do this. Its successes and failures are digital in nature. It either lands a rocket on Mars or it fails. And there is no way to hide the failure or give it a positive spin. Simply because they have done it many times before does not ensure the success of any launch. NASA was a pro in shuttle launching when the Challenger disaster struck. There is no fluff in any of ISRO launches. Each one is as complicated as the last one.

NASA dominated the social media last year. They have a team of social-media experts who handle around 500 accounts across multiple platforms. The user is bombarded with great videos and information about all of their activities. Even the manned Moon landing is routine for NASA now. So why are they doing this? They do it because they know the value of communicating science.

Back home, I am dismayed when even senior Indian scientists ask why they should waste their time in science communication. According to IndiaSpend, out of India’s 1.2 billion population, 22% or 264 million are internet users. Add to this the fact that Indian has the largest population of 356 million 10-24 year olds and you quickly come to the conclusion that the young Indians are using the internet more than ever and the number is only going to grow. Imagine an 8 year old kid who has just opened her Facebook or Twitter account. She has not seen previous 50 ISRO launches. The live telecast of the 51st launch will be her first. Can you imagine how excited she would be? We have to make science exciting for people. This includes celebrating not just every ISRO launch, but successes from other research organizations as well.

You never know which video or which article plants a seed in a young kid’s mind and she decides to become a scientist.

The Bizarre World of Quantum Mechanics

The Bizarre World of Quantum Mechanics

`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)  

— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

– Richard Feynman

FUN FACT : How do you embarrass a physicist? Just ask her casually, “What is your opinion about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics?” Then sit back and happily watch her mumble-stumble-mutter-stutter and say something like, “Gosh, is that the time? Have to run!” I am exaggerating of course, but not as much as you would think. Quantum mechanics is weird and physicists are uncomfortable with it. It’s like that one image that won’t resize no matter what.

This has been known in popular culture for some time now and more often than not it has resulted in people reaching all the wrong conclusions. Of course, headlines like “BREAKING : Scientists Don’t Understand How Nature Works!!” don’t help. There are specific problems with quantum mechanics that science has not been able to answer yet. In no way does this mean that science does not work.

The fact that polio has been eradicated from most of the world means vaccines work. That we can land on Moon and Mars with precision means Newtonian mechanics works. And this sentence that you are reading on your screen right now means that quantum mechanics works and works beautifully. Even though we don’t understand how it works, there has not been a single experiment that has proved quantum mechanics wrong.

So what is the problem? It’s to do with interpretation. If you keep your head down and do the calculations – no questions asked – quantum mechanics will give you all the right answers. Alas, scientists rarely do that. They are not satisfied with getting the right answers. They have to know the hows and the whys.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.

To understand this mystery, first we have to get familiarized with how things work in the quantum world. Let us say we have two kinds of apples – red and green. The colour of the apple is analogous to the spin of an electron. Since the concept of spin is a bit complicated, we can bypass that and work with apples with no significant loss of clarity.

Alice and Bob have two apples, packed in two boxes. These apples will always have opposite colours. They cannot both be red or green. This is because the apples have been prepared in a special way. In case of electrons, we say that they are entangled. Alice opens her box and discovers that the apple is green. Instantaneously, the colour of Bob’s apple will turn red, even if Bob is at the other end of the galaxy. It’s as if one apple has somehow communicated its colour to the other apple without us knowing about it.

You might say, what’s the big deal? Since each apple can be either red or green, the apples already had that colour. This is where the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics comes in. It says that before we open the box and see, each apple was both red and green. It did not have one definite colour. The moment you check the colour, it becomes red or green. And even more strange is the fact that it forces the other apple to be of opposite colour, regardless of the distance between them.

This aspect of quantum mechanics has troubled many a great minds, including perhaps the greatest mind of them all, Albert Einstein. In 1926, in a letter to physicist Max Born, Einstein wrote, “I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.” Einstein vehemently opposed the Copenhagen interpretation. Einstein along with Podolsky and Rosen wrote a paper famously known as the EPR paper that discussed the paradoxical nature of the problem.

Erwin Schrödinger, father of quantum mechanics who proposed the fundamental equation called Schrödinger’s equation, read this paper and reframed the problem in a simpler way. This is famous Schrödinger’s cat experiment. You put a poor cat in a box along with a radioactive material that emits radiation. When the radiation is emitted it activates a switch that releases poisonous gas and the cat dies. The amount of matter is so small that in one hour it may emit radiation or it may not. You leave the cat inside for an hour and then ask the question, “Is the cat alive or dead?”

Since radioactive emission is a quantum mechanical phenomenon, we can only give probabilities if the atom has emitted radiation or not. But this means that we also have to carry over these probabilities to the cat’s well being. Simply put, this means that unless you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

In an article this month in The New York Review of Books, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg states that the Copenhagen interpretation is now widely unacceptable. But the alternatives are not satisfactory either. One is the multiverse theory in which the cat is alive in one universe and dead in another. Stephan Hawking is one of the proponents of this theory.

Elon Musk firmly believes that we are living in a simulation – one in a billion chance that we are not! But even so, he does not stop following science. And that’s the way it should be. Simulation or not, the rules work perfectly. Unless we find a better alternative, we have no choice but to follow science.

Unlike Neo, we cannot ignore gravity just because it’s a simulation.

For a fun introduction to relativity, quantum mechanics and other exotic stuff, one of the classic books is George Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Paperback.

Apollo 13 and the Spirit of Science

Apollo 13 and the Spirit of Science

Apollo 13 is one of my ‘watch anytime’ movies. I can watch these movies anytime, anywhere, no convincing needed. Usually, when I like a movie this much I ask myself why. For Apollo 13, I have so many answers to this question.

Consider for a moment what is at stake here. An explosion occurs on a manned space flight to the Moon. There is no rescue possible in a space flight. The list of number of things that could go wrong is endless. This is not just another experiment that may fail. Human lives are at stake. If an experiment in a remote laboratory fails, no one knows about it. In space slight, the whole world is watching and there is no way to hide a failure.

Apollo 13 is the most authentic movie about space flight that I have ever seen. Director Ron Howard went to great lengths to make the movie as accurate as possible. The dialogues between Apollo 13 crew and Houston are almost verbatim reproductions of the actual manuscript. No attempt is made to dumb down the technicalities. We are never told what ‘main bus B undervolt’ means or what happens when the spaceship gets ‘too close to the center’ but it does not matter. In fact, this creates a very realistic picture of enormous complexity of the task.

Truth is much, much stranger than fiction. How many anti-climaxes does this movie have? First, the oxygen in Odyssey is falling so they have to transfer the astronauts to LEM. Then they have to find a way to fit a square peg in a round hole, literally, in order to reduce the carbon dioxide level in the LEM. And finally, one the scariest scene I have ever seen in a movie. The astronauts have to steer the spaceship manually while executing the engine burn. Can you imagine a scarier thing? One mistake and you could be off into the infinity of space, never to return. I hold my breath every time I watch this scene.

Tom Hanks plays astronaut Jim Lovell. The film is based on the book Lost Moon : The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffery Kluger. Tom Hanks lives this character, as he has done throughout his career. The nuances that he brings to this role are too many to list. I also loved Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert. I always feel that Bacon has been underrated.

The character that impressed me was of the flight director Gene Cranz played by Ed Harris. I love leading actors delivering great performances as much as everyone else but sometimes I am more partial to supporting characters who leave their mark. For example, Jason Robards playing a cowboy in Once Upon a Time in the West and editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee in All The Presidents Men. Can you imagine two characters that are more apart?

Gene Cranz is an ideal leader. He listens to all suggestions and takes quick decisions. He is under tremendous pressure but at no point does he waver which is also a characteristic of the whole crew – except for one guy who is always pessimistic. The emphasis is on ‘working the problem’. Gene never gives up. Even when things look bleak, he is confident that ‘this is going to be our finest hour’.

The amazing thing about space flight is that it’s all classical physics as dreamt by Sir Isaac Newton. You know exactly where the spaceship is going to land and at what speed. No esoteric probabilities of Quantum Mechanics or exotic parallel universes. This is one of the finest demonstrations of how well science works.

There was once a Japanese guy who could see Mount Fuji from his house and every day for forty years he drew a sketch of how it looked – clear, clouded or sunny. (I cannot recall if I read about this guy somewhere or if this was the guy that I once met in Seoul). Imagine living next to Mount Fuji and actually being able to see it every day with fresh eyes.

This kind of vision is envious. We get used to things too quickly. Space flights are becoming so common that we don’t think about them twice. While this is but natural, losing sight of the grandeur of science is fatal to the scientific spirit. Richard Feynman was one of those rare people who never lost this sense. Watch how his eyes light up when he talks about physics.

Whenever I catch myself skipping over a report of a successful launch, I go and watch Apollo 13.