What Donald Trump’s presidency means for science

The funny thing about the US elections is that so many people outside the country pay attention to it. There is, on second look, a good reason for this: decisions the United States takes on several issues will not only affect other countries, but will soon be mimicked by other governments as well — especially in infrequently trodden legal areas like technology. But one universal effect the US presidency has on the world is in science. Being as networked as it is, and having come far from the isolated, individual–driven field that it once was, developments in science are bound to be deeply affected by the decisions of whoever is calling shots at the White House.

Donald Trump, may have a lot to say about his business acumen, but his knowledge of science is not flaunted as often. What the reason behind this is, is best left to the imagination. In fact, Mr Trump’s biggest argument for his tryst with science is ludicrous. He has often spoken about how his family has stellar genes that somehow impart genius. “It’s in my blood. I’m smart. Great marks. Like really smart.” The man in question is John G. Trump, a former MIT professor who was undoubtedly smart. Donald Trump is his nephew, but, as the GOP frontrunner says, his own father was “the same level as [his] uncle”. And this intelligence, Mr Trump assumes, simply extends to all members of the Trump family. “Good genes,” he declares, “very good genes.” Science, for what it is worth, is yet to establish any credible relationship between genes and genius. Continue reading

Astronomy lecture-workshop — Day 2

Today I attended the second day of the Science Academies’ lecture-workshop on astrophysics. Continuing from yesterday (you can read the update here), Professors G Srinivasan and Biman Nath gave their last lectures for this event. And two new speakers, Prof Uday Shankar, a radio astronomer at the Raman Research Institute and Dr Sreekumar, an ex-NASA scientist now working at ISRO, joined us with their lectures on Radio and X-ray Astrophysics respectively.

From Chandrashekhar to Hawking

Prof Srinivasan began from Chandrashekhar and his first attempt to understand White Dwarfs—or Quantum Stars as they were then called—and his further attempts when he arrived at what we now called the Chandrashekhar Limit. He explored the problems encountered, the concepts of Inverse Beta-Decay, neutron stars, predictions made by theories that came much later and so on, in trying to explain the various possible ends that stars may meet.

For the curious reader, apparently, a quake on a neutron star (owing to its density) will equal roughly 45 on the Richter scale on Earth. This is perhaps sufficient to shift the entire Earth from its orbital position!

Having then reached Einstein’s work, Schwarzchild’s solution of Einstein’s equations and the idea of Black Holes, Prof Srinivasan—who has worked with Roger Penrose and Hawking—spent some time sharing his experiences of those raging times when physicists all over the world—Beckenstein, Carter, Hawking, Israel, Kerr, Penrose and Zeldovich—were trying to figure out how, why and whether Black Holes would radiate.

With this ended his four lectures for this event and he left us having placed on the stage the current obstacles standing in the way between our understanding of the universe and the Theory of Everything. Continue reading

On why aliens exist

Many circumstances have changed of late. India has entered, today, her 64th year of independence; the Hubble telescope discovered the beautiful Necklace Nebula; Jay Leno came up with a video metaphor for the US economy; a friend of mine returned to his blog after months of exile; and astronomers discovered an alien world blacker than coal, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that radiates less than 1% sunlight incident on it (and I still maintain that TrES-2B can be used as a blackbody for an astronomical-scale experiment if we can find sufficient funding!)

Speaking of exoplanets, it occurs to me that the one debate that has never bothered to cool down has been that of the existence of aliens. This is exactly why I decided to examine where we now stand on this issue. But, before we go ahead, I must warn you that my opinions are rather biased for I take sides with the believers. If one sentence were to sum up my views on Alien life in outer space, I reckon it would be the famous statement from Carl Sagan’s (brilliant) novel, Contact:

“Do you think aliens exist out there in space?”

“I suppose if they don’t, it would be an awful waste of space.”

How alien life sprang

Considering that the requirements for aliens to live are pretty similar to those of humans (or organisms on earth, if you will) it would also necessarily mean that Aliens would not look different from us. As Hawking aptly puts it, they may already be among us. Continue reading