Science and Storytelling

Vasudevan Mukunth (VM) has two pieces on his blog titled The Rationalist’s Eclipse and another one titled Social Media and Science Communication that talks largely about Science Communication on the ground and on social media. When we wonder about how to communicate Science. The answer lies in the Arts. It lies in the creative ways that the current protests around the CAA/NRC have used on the ground and social media to spread the message like wild fire in posters, speeches, poetry and kolams. I want to point VM to where the answer may lie to the questions he raises in his two blog posts.

I was reading Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings newsletter dated December 26, 2019 and it brought to light some of the modern efforts and failures of Science communication in India that VM highlights in the article above. The large part of the country is still superstitious and I see the role of science communication in India as being making aware people of the applications available to the people of that which has been illuminated by modern Science. Johannes Kepler also lived in a similar milieu. He seems to be grappling with some of the issues that we face in Science communication today. This is not a definitive answer by any stretch, just a possibility.

Now, we come back to Maria Popova’s Braing Pickings dated December 26, 2019. I suggest to you to read, “How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe” in full.

Some of the quotes from that article are what I am reproducing below:

In his first book, The Cosmographic Mystery, Kepler picked up the metaphor and stripped it of its divine dimensions, removing God as the clockmaster and instead pointing to a single force operating the heavens: “The celestial machine,” he wrote, “is not something like a divine organism, but rather something like a clockwork in which a single weight drives all the gears.” Within it, “the totality of the complex motions is guided by a single magnetic force.” It was not, as Dante wrote, “love that moves the sun and other stars” — it was gravity, as Newton would later formalize this “single magnetic force.” But it was Kepler who thus formulated for the first time the very notion of a force — something that didn’t exist for Copernicus, who, despite his groundbreaking insight that the sun moves the planets, still conceived of that motion in poetic rather than scientific terms. For him, the planets were horses whose reins the sun held; for Kepler, they were gears the sun wound by a physical force.

Maria Popova, Braing Pickings, 26/12/2019

Kepler knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort. Centuries later, in a 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration, science fiction patron saint Ray Bradbury would capture this transmutation process perfectly: “It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.” Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits of previously unimagined truth. Which way the coin flips depends on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The scientific proof was too complex, too cumbersome, too abstract to persuade even his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public; it wasn’t data that would dismantle their celestial parochialism, but storytelling.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The newsletter has writing which is taken from Figuring, a book Maria Popova wrote in February 2019, stretching from the work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to Rachel Carson (1907-1964). A book that I hope will be part of my reading journey in 2020.

How to write a good (enough) New Year resolution?

Philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life has a chapter on making New Year resolutions. They say it is important to make these resolution to improve ourselves as human beings but we need to be empathetic with ourselves. Hence, we should not be aiming to write good New Year resolutions but just good enough New Year resolutions.

You can read about good enough New Year resolutions on the School of Life website here.

Their newsletter had a three step process on writing on these resolutions which I did not find on their website. Hence, putting it here for reference:

First, write your list of resolutions in the usual way.

1. I will quit drinking
2. I will learn the guitar
3. I will get a 5k pay rise at work

Next, rather than thinking about the end result, try to distil the motivating value that lies behind them.

1. Prioritising my health
2. Making time for creative pursuits
3. Gaining recognition for my efforts at work

Finally, working solely from this value, applying a little strategic pessimism, set yourself a less lofty, more achievable goal to strive for.

1. I will aim not to drink 1 night each week 
2. I will set aside 15 minutes every other day to do something creative
3. I will try to demonstrate added value in my work

Hope that helps you make good (enough) resolutions this New Year.

Article in Firstpost on India in Space in 2019

Way back in 2009, I had written an article for CNN-IBN Blog, about ISRO @ 40.

Almost ten years later, I had the opportunity to write for Tech2, the Science and Technology supplement to Firstpost of Network 18. I wrote for them about looking back at 2019 through the two RISAT missions, the ups and downs of the ASAT test, the euphoria of the first successful mission flight of the GSLV Mk III with Chandrayaan 2, the sense of loss we felt when we lost communication with the Vikram lander and the 50th launch of the PSLV. I also covered some of the funds that new private space comapanies (called NewSpace) raised during the year.

Link to the article is here.

Pune Coffee Brewers Club meetup

I first heard of coffee brewers when I read Mehul’s Twitter update that he was participating in a brewing competition and came in at no 3. Coffee brewing is basically the process of making coffee from the stage of coffee beans to a concoction that you can consume.

Today, we met at The Fat Labrador, a cafe situated in Bavdhan, Pune.

Coffee devices and brewing paraphernalia that we used today. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas

This is the second meetup of Pune’s Coffee Brewers Club. We started out with discussing coffee recipes that some of the brewers had arrived at ostensibly after a lot of experimentation with a lot of coffee devices. There was a lot of talk of mgs of coffee, minute-second readings of the time they allowed it to brew and broadly methods by which coffee was brewed (immersion and pour over).

After that introduction, Mehul spoke of the factors that affected a good coffee output: temperature, pressure and time. We then got to try both the methods using a pour over method and an Aeropress.

We tried tasting different beans that Mehul had carried with him from Mumbai. After a few rounds of this, we got to try out an espresso from a hand pressed espresso machine.

Mehul ended the session on how us newcomers could begin getting a glimpse into the world of coffee brewing. He suggested getting the coffee that is freshly roasted (3-4 days old roasted coffee). I was assured that Indian roasters do not usually sell stale coffee. This is to be consumed over the period of next 3-4 weeks for best effect.

He suggested beginning with a simple process of coffee brewing. Get fresh ground coffee put it in a cup of boiling water, let it brew for about 3-4 minutes and then consume. The next step would be to have an aeropress to make the coffee. Aeropress is considered a very versatile, cheap and easy to carry device that does most of the functions that a coffee brewer is looking at and hence quite highly recommended. It comes at a price range of about three to four thousand.

The next step up is getting a simple grinder. Mehul had got his off AliExpress for about INR 900. When we reach a place where we can’t turn the grinder anymore, we reach the zero setting. As we turn, the grinder churns out coarser coffee. If you plan to go ahead, you can invest in better grinders as they turn out more consistent and get control over the size of the coarseness of the coffee beans. Prefer manual over electronics.

The next investment is in a measuring pad. The cheapest one is off Amazon that costs INR 200-300. This helps to measure the amount of coffee beans you take. This too gets complicated with higher price where a timer gets added on which helps you measure brewing time.

The next investment suggested for your upward spiral into the world of coffee brewing is a goose-neck kettle. This is useful to control the way in which water is poured on the ground coffee beans. These comes with insertable thermometers that helps you control the temperature of water that is used for your coffee.

I am not sure whether I am going to personally follow through with coffee brewing beyond say South Indian filter coffee. However, I’ll let these notes remain for future reference. I also got hold of ground filter coffee powder from the Fat Labrador that I will try out. I had a good filter coffee and Bombay Masala sandwich after the meetup.

Great to meet Mehul after a long time and nice to meet fellow coffee enthusiasts in a new city. If you find any errors in the notes above, they are most likely mine, and request you to leave them in the comment section to help me fix them.

(added later) Mehul shared links on the Pune CBC WhatsApp group for some of the products he recommended. Sharing here for the sense of completion:

  1. Cheapest scale. 1 gms increment. Max 10 kg.
  2. Scale that Can measure in 0.5 gms increments.
  3. Scale that can measure in 0.1 gms increment.
  4. Simple gooseneck kettle, no thermometer.
  5. Simple gooseneck kettle, with thermometer.

Why journal?

I have been keeping a bullet journal (BuJo) again since I moved to Pune in July. Although, I still have not completely migrated from mind to BuJo, I have been lately trying to figure out how to keep a diary within my BuJo.

Ryder Carroll posted an online tutorial today on YouTube about how to do this. From the website, where there is a companion blog post, Ryder goes into why he thinks we should journal, that I think is worth sharing here:

It’s often hard to understand what we’re feeling, or why we feel the way we do. Though we can’t  will  ourselves to change the way we feel, we can change the way we think. Journaling provides a powerful way to unpack our mind and our hearts. There, with it all laid out on the page, we’re granted the clarity, context, and distance that we often lack when things get rough. It can shift our perspective enough to change our mind, and with it, the way we feel.

Journaling can also be a great way for you to explore ideas, and deepen your appreciation for the good things that come and go so quickly. By putting pen to paper, you get to relive the good times and preserve them in loving detail so that you may revisit them for years to come. 

Ryder Carroll, Long-form Journalling,

If you do not write a diary or keep a journal, I think this is a good reason to keep one and maybe to begin today.

Larry and Sergey

Nicholas Carr writes on his blog, Rough Type:

They were prophets, Larry and Sergey. When, in their famous 1998 grad-school paper “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine,” they introduced Google to the world, they warned that if the search engine were ever to leave the “academic realm” and become a business, it would be corrupted. It would become “a black art” and “be advertising oriented.” That’s exactly what happened — not just to Google but to the internet as a whole. The white-robed wizards of Silicon Valley now ply the black arts of algorithmic witchcraft for power and money. They wanted most of all to be Gandalf, but they became Saruman.

Nicholas Carr, Larry and Sergey: a valediction, Rough Type

Via Om. Om describes Carr as a Google nemesis. We need more nemesis’. Larry Page and Sergey Brin recently stepped down from Alphabet,the company that owned Google.

Chandrayaan 2 Lander wreckage found

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) payload, Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter Camera (LRO-C) released news early morning on December 3, 2019 that they had located wreckage of Vikram, the lander on India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission. The post credited the find to a Chennai based techie, Shanmuga Subramanian.

Vikram impact point and associated debris field. Green dots indicate spacecraft debris (confirmed or likely). Blue dots are locating disturbed soil, likely where small bits of the spacecraft churned up the regolith. “S” indicates debris identified by Shanmuga Subramanian. Portion of NAC mosaic made from images M1328074531L/R and M1328081572L/R acquired 11 November [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].

Shanmuga located the wreckage by comparing images released by LRO-C on September 26 (but taken on September 17) with the ones released earlier. He alerted NASA and ISRO about his find via Twitter. NASA’s LROC team then imaged the area again in October and November to confirm the debris. He got no response from ISRO as per news reports.

On the next day, ISRO’s Chairman in a statement to the press said that they had already located the lander on the day after the crash. ISRO’s statements from the period said that while the lander was located, efforts were on to establish communication with it. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) continued efforts to hail Vikram after the crash.

As a scientific organisation, ISRO should know that until they publish, they cannot claim a discovery. The Chairman’s reference to the statement published on the ISRO website only says that they have located the lander. LROC’s success here is locating the debris and publishing the same with image data.

Media reports then claimed that the lander was intact. This was based on a statement received from someone within ISRO. I don’t think news organisations would publish something like this without an inside source. This points to the fact that ISRO did not know the condition in which the Lander was in.

The text released with the LROC image states that the lander wreckage is found 750 meters from the landing site. In Parliament, ISRO submitted a report stating that Vikram hard landed within 500 meters from the designated landing site. This is an aberration. Sankaranarayanan Viswanathan analysed NASA’s own orbital data and released it on Reddit that the site maybe 520 meters from the designated landing site. This seems closer to ISRO’s report than the LROC team’s finding.

This is a nice finish for the articles I write on the Chandrayaan 2 lander, the last of which you can find here. This allows scientists to study the debris to understand Vikram’s last few minutes on the Moon that could help scientists better design Chandrayaan 3’s lander.

I do hope ISRO proactively releases information like this and encourage citizen scientists like Shanmuga. We need more not less of this.