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.

All said an done, Mr Trump’s grasp on issues like global warming — which he calls a “very expensive form of tax” — leave much to be desired. He once even labelled the Environmental Protection Agency as the “laughing stock of the world”. It would not be far–fetched to expect him to undo everything done towards climate change, during his term as president. And education is not far off: his uncle, John G. Trump’s, alma mater, MIT, which receives1 considerable federal government funding, will see severe cuts if Mr Trump becomes president. As will all other educational institutions who have been advised by the billionaire to “be local and locally managed”. So much for global learning.

If one expects it to stop at that, they would be disappointed: on national television last year, Mr Trump went on to claim that vaccines are related to autism. (Also, “autism has become epidemic… it has gotten totally out of control”, he says and goes on to compare vaccines meant for babies to those meant for horses.) He once also had to be taught, by fellow republican, Marco Rubio, (once again on national television) the meaning of a nuclear triad, because, to Mr Trump, “nuclear, is just the power, the devastation is very important”. If the quotable, billionaire presidential candidate has a poor handle on biology, genealogy and the life sciences, his grasp of physics is infinitely more slippery. He has been known to use it as little more than a synonym for “clever thing beyond my comprehension”. Consider, for instance, his fuzzy speech involving the word fifty-three and four republican candidates while there were, in fact, only three: “when I don’t get over fifty, we have four people. Right? We have four people. Do you understand that? So when I get fifty-three. As an example, I get fifty-three, and that’s an amazing achievement when you can get over fifty percent”.

Said the good Mr Trump, “I have to explain to these people… They don’t understand basic physics, basic mathematics, basic — whatever you want to call it.”

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Earlier this year a group of coders released libraries on Github for a new scripting language they called TrumpScript, which even comes with a toupeé adorning its logo. In short, the language is designed to behave like Donald Trump. It is a nerdy and satirical take at the Republican frontrunner, with such things as no floating point numbers being allowed and only integers, because “America never does anything halfway”, and the entire language being case insensitive, and disallowing numbers lesser than a million because “the small stuff is inconsequential to us”. If this seems entirely like a joke, it is not: back in 2009, Mr Trump spent a while suing journalist Timothy L. O’Brien for $5bn for calling him a millionaire instead of a billionaire. (The judge dismissed the case.) At other times, Mr Trump is busy labelling people either as a “loser” or a “winner” on his Twitter stream. But this is not the only brush the presidential hopeful has had with technology, and his campaign has not been on the good side of technology companies, magazines and enthusiasts alike. For example, even as he was calling a boycott of Apple products and some time later got caught tweeting from his iPhone, the hacktivist collective, Anonymous, was busy releasing his social security number to the public and then setting the stage for a larger attack on 1st April when they promised to “dismantle his campaign” for all its inconsistencies and intolerances.

If Donald Trump is good at one thing, it is the science of selling, of convincing people to buy something (or buy into it) and he is convincing America to make him president. This is not unlike the BJP’s victory in the last national election in India. Mr Trump uses simple language that everyone can grasp, something that was recently picked apart with great care by the founder of Nerd Writer, Evan Paschal. However, the importance of having a president who can understand science cannot be underestimated: if social science attempts to keep societies in order, science is what ensures their advancement and helps them survive. So here is a man who has said, done and intends to do numerous things other politicians would not even dream of, including, but not limited to, elaborate plans to expel Muslims from the US, build walls to put out Mexicans (the Chinese did that around 200BC, remember?)2, spurt flippant racist outbursts, oversell his own alleged attractiveness, and display a remarkable lack of scientific knowledge. In that light, I doubt Mr Trump is a candidate even his late uncle, John, would consider supporting.

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.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy

In his final lecture of the workshop, Prof Nath explored the missing mass problem in the universe, the methods we adopt to detect Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and the formation of the first stars.

The problem he approached very systematically was how a dust grain is important to initiate the formation of a star, and—a dust grain necessarily being a heavy element—the early universe had non of it. This posed a problem as to how the very first stars formed. He explained the Hydrogen and electron addition to create a hydrogen molecule which, being the heaviest thing present then, acted as a sufficiently large ‘dust grain.’

Prof Nath explored the inhomogeneity in the cosmos and how it was increasing and causing matter to clump, providing such wonderful examples and simulations as the Millenium Simulation created by the Max Planck Institute. He ended his lecture brushing the concept of how one would detect intergalactic trace elements and how the planned Murchinson Widefield Array of telescopes in the West Australian desert is expected to ‘keep astrophysicists busy for the next decade or so.’

Radio Astronomy

Prof Uday Shankar’s first of two talks dealt with a broad introduction to Radio Astronomy, its usefulness and history and some technical aspects associated with it. In an hour sprinkled with informal communication and anecdotes of his own life as a student, Prof Shankar went on to explore how specific intensity of radio signals is dependent of spatial distribution of radio emission, its frequency, its wavelength, its polarisation studies and time period.

He related the times of Karl Jansky and Grote Reber and their discovery of radio astronomy as a science and building of the first radio telescope, respectively. He ended his introductory lecture listing the three major achievements of radio astronomy: the observations of the 21cm radiations of hydrogen; the detection of pulsars, quasars &c. and how it helped look back up to about 0.8 times the age of the universe; and, lastly, its discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiations.

Bremsstrahlung, Black Holes and Binary systems in X-ray astronomy

The emission of X-rays of various types, by various phenomenon, the expulsion of X-rays owing to accretion discs in binary systems and the role of the distance of the Innermost Stable Circular Orbit [ISCO] in black holes of the prograde, non-spinning and anterograde types formed the basis of Dr Sreekumar’s first lecture.

An ex-NASA physicist with a doctorate from the University of New Hampshire and presently working for ISRO, Dr Sreekumar had tonnes of experience and knowledge to share. His lucid explanation of how one ought to read a mapped version of the universe, understand Active Galactic Nuclei and the Unification Model made the splendid one hour seem to pass with unimaginable pleasure.

Promising to speak of ISRO’s forthcoming missions tomorrow—the last day of the workshop—Dr Sreekumar spoke of Bera Rubin, SOHO’s discoveries and the mysteries of the Sun’s corona, which we are yet to answer.

Thus ended the second day of the Astrophysics workshop. I decided to keep my explanation handy and brief so as not to bore my readers who are not particularly fond of physics jargon. The details of the day was as I have said and I would be more than happy to share my experiences in more detail if anybody would fancy learning how two days with great minds is. It does sound like fun, does it not?

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.

I see an implication in this. For one, they definitely look like us. Also, they have to be scientifically advanced or they would not have been able to travel down here without our noticing it. Biologically, their skeletal structures can tell us how advanced they are based on how different/advanced their skulls (for instance) are. But then we would have to point them out with certainty first!

While we are on the topic of biological views, it is interesting to note that as recently as three decades ago, the scales had tipped in favour of the non-believers. In 1970, French biologist and Nobel laureate Jacques Monod declared, rather outrageously, that “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance,” because the reigning belief was that life resulted from—as an article I recall, first published in Scientific American, put it—‘a chemical fluke so imporbable that it is unlikely to ever happen again.’

Christian de Duve, the Belgian biologist, countered this view in 1995 stating that life was a cosmic imperative almost bound to arise on any earth-like planet. This was good news for astrobiologists as it finally proves they were not a waste of tax-payers’ money. Recently, NYU’s Robert Shapiro dubbed this as biological determinism and said that the existence of life was well written into the laws of nature.

The Fermi Paradox

In a casual discussion regarding aliens with his colleagues, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi is said to have suddenly exclaimed, out of the blue, the words ‘Where are they?’ This seemingly unimportant sentence went to become one of the most famous paradoxes in all of physics. We are trying to answer these to this day and Fermi’s speedy estimation based upon the then-known latest statistical data of the universe and its objects continues to elude us. It is perhaps the one largest obstacle to believers.

I will not dwell upon the maths involved, but, in a nutshell, the idea is that a fairly accurate estimation of the number of planets in existence and other similar factors within the known universe clearly point out to the fact that aliens—if they did exist—should have visited us a long time ago and repeatedly ever since. And if they are indeed doing so, where are they?

The Drake Equation

Drake substituted the data as follows, from his 1961 estimates:

N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10 civilizations in our galaxy

However, based on the present lower estimates: 

N = 6 × 0.5 × 2 × 0.33 × 1×10-7 × 0.01 × 420 = 8.316×10^-7 = 0.0000008 civilizations in our galaxy

The basic ideas therefore are simply this: back in 1961, our probability estimate was 0.08 and now (with more accurate estimates) it comes down dramatically to 0.0000008. And yet, why do we believe in alien existence?

The Anthropic Principle

In support of Fermi’s idea, it is important to note how, in spite of our above observations, in our galaxy there has to exist (by definition) at least one civilisation of intelligent life.

Fermi worked on the assumption that there exists only one civilisation in the galaxy capable of intersidereal travel at speeds incomparable to that of light. That said, if this civilisation was interested in galactic conquest (for that is how the human mind works—or at least that is how Fermi pictured it) then, given that the geometrically progressing number of ships to travel in, made up for the low speed of travelling, it would take no more than 10 million years for them to colonise the entire galaxy—a small number considering that our universe is 13 billion years old!

My argument

Some of you might still be wondering why I still support the believers. While there appears to be a mountain of an observation opposing the idea, there is one fatal flaw.

If everything the non-believers say is still true, then it would necessarily mean that the civilisation of extraterrestrials in question is far more technologically advanced than us.

As some scientists point out, at the present rate of wireless information transport system we are developing on Earth, it would be a matter of a few years before the Earth went silent. To expand on this prophesy, our present satellite communication systems have the habit of adding to the cosmic background radiations (in a way, creating a lot of noise,) while they are in the process of transferring data.

This means that the Earth and in turn the civilisation on it would be detectable by extraterrestrials when they map the almost uncanny expulsion of such electromagnetic radiation/waves. Given that, in a few years, new technology would replace the present ones to create an almost noiseless system for said purpose, it would make Earth stand out less. If our planet would be discovered, it would be through the same means that we employ in our Kepler satellite. That is to say, there would be absolutely no way to determine the existence of a civilisation on earth unless we sent out a beam of EM waves on purpose; or they actually took the trouble of coming down here to observe us with their own two (or more) eyes.

Having previously seen that the galactic-conquering civilisation is, by natural requirement, technologically more advanced, it would mean that they have passed this stage and therefore cannot be detected by any means we have now. In other words, to detect a civilisation, we ought to have technology advanced enough to gather their spatial footprints. And, since we are not more advanced, there would be no way of determining if anybody is out there. This leaves open the possibility that there could, indeed, be somebody there else (as I said previously) it would be an awful waste of space!

An absurdity to conclude with

A strange-looking website recently quizzed and categorised me as a mid-level nerd (whatever that means) but, having the term nerd in the equation would easily explain my fascination for everything from outerspace and fantasy: Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The Big Bang Theory, LOTR, superheroes, comics, action figures and the list can go on! It would perhaps not surprise you when I say I have yet another seemingly absurd belief to which I have found no worthy counter-argument (yet!) And, parenthetically, it is an amusing situation to picture.

What if we, on earth, are the galactic-conquering civilisation we spoke of earlier? What is we, perhaps, are the ones who were brought to earth to settle in place of its original, scientifically-backward inhabitants (like the neanderthals?) What if the reason we haven’t been visited by anybody is because everybody else has already been conquered? (As I said, there is sufficient time to conquer a few galactic clusters—and 13 billion is only the age of the visible universe, and not the absolute value!) What if—and I may be trespassing onto Sci-Fi lands here—we are the guinea pigs of our own civilisation, let to start from scratch, allowed to see a fictionalised human history and evolution, and eventually bound to be captured only to be replaced by more game? After all, we see what we want to see.

Silly as it may seem, you will find no logical, scientifically approving opposition for any of the questions I posed in the previous paragraph. And, while we will get an answer in the future, it would serve as a compelling plot to a Sci-Fi book if I ever decide to write one.

In the meanwhile, you might want to take up sides with the believers or non-believers. One question I would humbly request you to ask yourself in the process is, are you arrogant enough to believe that the entire universe was created for just one civilisation, living on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

Or you can just watch Discovery’s latest take on this topic, Curiosity, read the currently trending Twitter topic, which, for reasons beyond me, happens to be #AlienInvasion; and then comment below on what you think. Do Aliens exist?