Planetary Radio on Asteroid Bennu descent

Asteroid Bennu is slated for a close encounter with Earth in 2175. It is expected to be the asteroid that has the most chance for a possible Earth impact over the next 200 years. Hence, it was selected for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

Mat Kaplan at Planetary Radio sat down to discuss the mission with it’s Principal Investigator, Dante Lauretta. The mission is of interest because it will descent on Bennu’s surface in August 2020, collect a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. These are my podcast notes from that episode.

Lauretta talks about the mission updates till now. The spacecraft reached the asteroid and has been doing a series of mapping the surface of the asteroid. In December 2019, they selected the landing site, code-named Nightingale. All surface features on Bennu named so far are named after Egyptian birds. Bennu itself is named after an Egyptian mythological bird, that probably inspired the Greek bird, the phoenix.

The final four candidate OSIRIS-REx sample sites. Image Credit: Wikipedia

He then talked about the surprise of finding the surface of the asteroid so rocky. Apparently, radio and infrared studies of the asteroid’s surface had predicted the surface to be smooth. They had designed the instruments using the experience gained on the Hayabusa spacecraft which had a 25-meters radius for operations. They had given themselves a 50-meters radius for operations. But, the current landing site gives them just 5-meters. This means that they had to drop the LIDAR based landing navigation system and use a more optical based hazard avoidance system to land on the surface.

He then talked about cross-pollination between the Hayabusa and the OSIRIS mission with people working in each other’s projects. This is part of the on-going collaboration between NASA and JAXA.

They then spoke about some of the public outreach efforts of the mission. This is usually an integral part of all NASA missions. However, OSIRIS’ education and public outreach budget was cut in 2018. Lauretta then took it upon himself to continue the work. He designed board games and also supports Target Asteroids!, a program that takes help from amateur astronomers to observe certain asteroids. The board games include X-tronaut and Constellations.

Unrelated, but the episode ends with a session of Space Poetry.

Peak Planet podcast

Peak Planet podcast hosted by Karthik Ganesan. Image: IVM Podcasts

I listened to the Filter Koffee Podcast episode with Karthik Ganesan on my morning commute to work. I found the Peak Planet podcast on the IVM podcast network as a result. Contrary to Karthik Nagarajan’s usual episode, this felt all over the place. Rich in data but played out in starts and stops.

The notes here are from the Episode 2 of the Peak Planet podcast on data and a few notes from Episode 3. I binge-listened to all the episodes of the podcast after listening to the morning episode on The Filter Koffee Podcast. The podcast seems to have hit pause after 4 episodes that were out in November, 2019.

The first episode of the podcast introduced me to the Hinjewadi IT Park Residents Welfare Association (HIRWA). I loved their Twitter handle – HIRWA Hinjewadi. HIRWA in Marathi is Green and is usually associated with pollution-free advertisements along the lines of “Clean Mumbai, Green Mumbai” etc. So, this reads as “Green Hinjewadi” if you partly translate it.

The second episode is about data. Karthik G quotes Michael Bloomberg in the beginning, “In God we trust, everyone else please bring data.” The global standard in Air Quality Index measurements is to have 1 AQI reference monitor for every 1 million people. India has 1 per 7 million. And, most of these are concentrated in Delhi.

It is believed that air pollution is an urban phenomenon and this is not true. Sagnik Dey working out of IIT-Delhi says that we have no data on the background pollution level in India. Background pollution level is the pollution that exists because of natural causes like dust, etc. India makes up for some of the lack of ground-level pollution monitoring by watching things from space. Satellite based data monitoring has been around for the past twenty years. Dey believes that this data must be used to deploy ground-based costlier reference monitor stations across India.

They further talk to Rohit Bansal of Purelogic Labs. They have a website called AQI.in which tries to provide low cost sensors. Sensors have become really good and really cheap in the last three years. So much so, that their quality is slowly moving towards the levels of reference monitors. Where, reference monitors cost in the range of $15,000-$20,000, low cost sensors are available for $20-$40 range. There are efforts to make these sensors as good as the reference monitors. Bansal says that the quality of reference monitors also needs improvement.

The third episode is about governance. They talk about the umbrella Environmental Protection Act, 1986. These provide standards, emission standards and working of the Pollution Control Boards. They talk about India moving from BS IV directly to BS VI, about how PCBs can issue notices but can’t collect the charges levied on them. I didn’t grok this episode because it slipped on the side of law and governance.

Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem

Gautam Bhatia had this book in his list of books in 2016. That is how I first heard of the existence of Chinese sci-fi. This article on Bookriot reminded me of it and made me pick up the book for listening on Audible. I haven’t taken a science fiction book for a really long time.

It’s such a different version of science fiction to what I read of Asimov. It seems that things have changed so much.

The narrative goes back and forth in time and space. I loved the difference in the China-centric narrative. This is so difficult to do from an Indian perspective. It sounds so doable from the Chinese perspective.

Reporting ISRO

The 15th episode of NewSpace India podcast came out this Friday (January 17). It had Narayan Prasad in conversation with Vasudevan Mukunth. VM is the Science Editor for The Wire. If you do follow their Science stories, it is in quite a league of it’s own (better than most Indian coverage and almost at international standards). He also blogs extensively at Root Privileges and tweets at @1amnerd. Full disclosure that he has been my editor of the two pieces that I have contributed to The Wire.

Here are my notes from listening to the podcast episode for my own future reference:

The coverage of ISRO as a journalist depends on the quality of information and access to sources available to a journalist. It requires more information made available in the public domain and access to sources who can explain the information to a journalist. There is no clear demarcation on when the information is publicly available. In many cases, ISRO uses policy to clamp up when asked tough questions.

NP suggests this might be a top level policy level decision. VM suggests that the policy is that scientists are allowed to speak to journalists as long as their comments are not adversarial. Scientists often err on the side of caution and hence do not speak at all. There is no clear information policy. This ambiguity in information policy means that when a failure occurs, information flow just dries up.

NP describes The Wire’s science journalism with respect to ISRO as being that of piecing together information, for placing things in context and critiquing various aspects of the space program. He suggests that the lack of information has forced The Wire to take to this form of “citizen journalism”. VM replies saying that ISRO clamps up information and they seem to fail to acknowledge other sources of information for the stories. As an example, they fail to acknowledge that NASA could find the Vikram lander and put this news out. Similarly, international experts challenged the DRDO claim of the impact of the ASAT test. ISRO scientist don’t put out such news because they don’t know whether they can say it. Information comes out in the form of tweets, in form of access to ISRO Chairman’s office, some of the press notes or updates on the ISRO website etc.

NP then asked VM to share the toolkit that he uses to cover ISRO given this lack of information. VM replies that he uses Google, CelesTrak (where he’s playing with orbital visualisations), he uses crawlers that frequently crawl on the ISRO website where information is put out but not easily available/visible like PDFs etc, Twitter, WhatsApp and the ISRO sub-reddit. VM shares The Wire story that he did on the ISRO sub-redditors and other sources of ISRO news.

VM and NP think that clamping up when failure strikes is a cultural issue that ISRO needs to tackle. VM sympathises with ISRO with regards to the loss of signal issue during the Vikram landing as they may not be comfortable doing this. He feels that they would have done much better to keep quiet rather than to make absurd claims like 95% mission success etc. This is because of the lack of training of journalists they would report anything that ISRO says without questioning.

At another earlier point in the conversation, VM and NP had discussed that lack of good questions came from lack of well-trained journalists who follow space. VM had then argued that there was no point having good journalists when there was not enough people to answer said good questions. Existing journalists have also been made to bureaucratic hoops to cover ISRO events.

ISRO has also lost many opportunities for public science participation. Finding Vikram and Moon Impact Probe were good use cases. Images could easily have been released of the landing site and help taken from the public to find the lander. Also, NP points out that ISRO had a lot of support from the public in many fora, despite a failure and this makes ISRO statements like the 95% success rate unnecessary.

NP then asks on the possibility of using tools like the RTI. VM says RTI provisions are getting diluted and it is getting more difficult to get information through RTI in other areas. However, an RTI request could easily be blocked citing National Security reasons. So, VM wonders if it is worth the investment of time to apply a RTI query. He also says that information regarding a program under taken by ISRO should be put out voluntarily. VM says that commercial use of ISRO images and spacecrafts like the PSLV launch of Mars Orbiter Mission for the movie, Mangalyaan should have been made available easily for commercial use.

NP suggests that given ISRO’s lack of response, one of the ways in which good questions can be put to ISRO may be through the Parliamentary Standing Committee. He suggests it as one of the ways for getting information from ISRO. VM reiterates his stand that information should be forthcoming voluntarily from ISRO.

They both agree that the issue with answering questioning and putting out information is a cultural issue with ISRO.

NP then asks if there must be independent thinking and tracking of the space program, similar to efforts of T S Kelso and Jonathan McDowell. VM thinks that the lack of information availability makes this sort of analysis difficult in the Indian context.

NP then asks VM about what we can look forward to in the future from The Wire Science. VM says they are looking to add more videos and educational material. He believes that having a more informed audience improves the type of journalism that they can do.

They discuss how more senior and retired ISRO journalists could contribute more in the education and discourse if they wrote after their times at ISRO. VM thinks this is also not part of their culture. The books coming out currently are anecdotal or technical. U R Rao’s book is quoted as an exemption and an example to follow. ISRO scientists like Tapan Misra take to Facebook to write about current events at ISRO.

VM ends by saying that he is happy that more diverse newsrooms are now covering space. He gives Firspost as an example for this, whereas earlier the Hindu science pages was the go-to for this sort of information.

VM has posted an addendum to this conversation on his blog and Ohsin also shares his feedback on the ISRO sub-reddit along with his lament about how ISRO image policy leads to loss of images used for coverage of ISRO on Wikipedia. The about community for ISRO’s sub-reddit page perhaps encapsulates the whole episode: For anything related to Indian Space Agency we love but hardly know.

American Pragmatism

Last week, I read news that Center for John Dewey Studies was being inaugurated at the Savithribai Phule Pune University in collaboration with University of Texas, Austin. Yesterday, on the Art of Manliness podcast, I heard about two American philosophies – American Transcendentalism and American Pragmatism, with philosopher John Kaag.

Of importance to me and the link between these two events is that these are philosophies which John Dewey believed in. He passed on this influence further to the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. It is believed that this influenced him while working on the Indian constitution. Below are my notes from the podcast:

Kaag believes that American Transcendentalism is situated around three philosophers – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. The Transcendentalists believed in freedom from societal constraints and the idea of self-reliance and breaking away from traditions set by European philosophy. However, Emerson believed that this needs to be tempered with compassion. He wrote about this in an essay called Compensation in which he says that the freedom is always in tension with or operates within a cosmos of give and take. It is believed that this idea was inspired from his study of the Bhagavad Gita and broadly with his reading of Indian metaphysics and with the idea of karma.

This is broadly expressed in Transcendentalism as an individual existing within a cosmic whole, that an individual does not lead a solitary existence and that an individual continuously negotiates his freedom within the Society or cosmos he exists in.

The challenge to American Transcendentalism came from Charles Darwin and his work, On the Origin of Species. This posited that humans are just evolved animals. The question then arose that if we were just animals, then will we not be dictated by natural laws and hence, does free will exist?

The American Pragmatists provide the answer to this by trying to reconcile free will and morals with Science. They also appear after the American Civil War (1861-1865), where they see how a strict adherence to ideology and dogma leads to violence and conflict. American Pragmatism is built by philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Pragmatism believed in securing human freedom and human dignity in response to changes seen in Industrial Revolution. They believed Philosophy should be world ready and that philosophical truth should be based on practical consequences.

Kaag believes that William James read a French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, who believed that there is no empirical proof for the existence of free will. However, if one believed that there was such a thing as free will then it would create a world where there was free will. James expands on this concept and says that there are certain concepts in the world like God, Love, Free Will etc. for which there is no empirical evidence possible. Here, the standard method of Science fails because they miss things that happens below a certain level of consciousness, small nuances and an unseen order.

So, the Pragmatists answer the question of whether life is worth living without free will with Maybe. They push the onus on the live-r. They believe that the experience of the important life events are not based on certainty but on maybes. James believes that exercising our freedoms while living life with others and negotiating our freedoms while living our life, is what makes our life worth living. They believed that there is a connection between freedom and love based on this maybe.They believed more in the experience of the real world.

Kaag believes that Pragmatism as an idea went out of vogue in the 1950s when Philosophy became more logical and followed the footsteps of Mathematics rather than staying with the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I have not read any of the original thinkers mentioned on this podcast or the news item, Dewey and Ambedkar. Hearing the podcast, I think it would be worth reading them in the original. Naval Ravikant has tweeted and mentioned in other podcasts that reading “On The Origin of Species” in the original is possible. Hence, it may be worth reading the American philosophers, Emerson, James, Fuller and Thoreau, in the original as well. Of these, I have only tried reading and listening to Thoreau so far. However, I have ended up sleeping during both of my efforts. Perhaps, I should start with someone else?

What could be their contribution to our world today? It could perhaps ween us away from the strict adherence to ideology and dogma that we experience daily in the news and on social media. It could also help us understand that we are all rational beings capable of making decisions. Hence, we must respect others and the decisions they make that they have this rational capacity. There are some things that Science can explain and some that Science is yet to explain. We need to understand thing in the scientific way where evidence exists and be open to the possibility of the role of Spirituality where Science is not able to provide compelling answers yet. We need to spend more time experiencing life offline where experiences are shared and real and not try to argue in abstract terms. I would love to read the book that this podcast is based on, American Philosophy: A Love Story.

Ronnie Screwvala's book

Dream with Your Eyes Open: An Entrepreneurial Journey by Ronnie Screwvala
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to an interview with Ronnie Screwvala on the podcast episode of The Filter Koffee podcast. Screwvala is the founder of UTV which he sold to Walt Disney. Among movies, he’s the producer of Rang De Basanti.
In the book, he shares stories about his entrepreneurial journey. He shares why he believes the next generation of entrepreneurs are the answer to most of the problems that plague India. He shares that dreaming big, not believing in luck and working hard is the key to entrepreneurs to achieve success.

View all my reviews

I would suggest listening to the episode on the Filter Koffee podcast and if you enjoy it to get the book.

Ashok K Banker answers my question

Ashok K Banker is one of my favorite authors. His Ramayana series is one of my favorites and my introduction to the genre of historical re-imagination. I was reading his books when I was interviewed for a job with the State Bank of India. Most of my interview was spent debating why I prefer Banker’s version of Ramayana to the one by Rajagopalachari.

I asked him a question on Goodreads:

Is the Epic India Library done?

Epic India Library is his attempt of retelling all epics, myths and legends from India. His answer:

No. It is not yet complete as per my original plan. At the time I formulated the plan, the category or genre of imaginative retellings of ancient Indian epics, myths and legends was almost non-existent. In the last decade or so, apparently inspired by success (according to well over 50 authors of the genre who have written to me directly or acknowledged me in interviews), a plethora of other Indian authors have risen, mining the same fertile fields. As a result, I felt that it was best left to a more diverse variety of authors to explore the same territory. The purpose I had when I began retelling the epics has been fulfilled. I have since moved on to other genres and barring a few books in continuing series, most of which are with publishers already, I am no longer writing in the genre. My current focus is on my ongoing epic fantasy series (which is inspired by but not a retelling of the Mahabharata) the Burnt Empire Saga, and on new crime thrillers and literary fiction.

It’s a great joy when one of your favorite authors answers your question.