Saturday, February 28, 2009

What would a missile defense system for India achieve?

Manasi alerts me to this Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article on a possible Indian missile defense system developed with help from the US. As always, the questions to be asked are; Would it work? and What would it achieve?

I have often talked about the recurring problems with conceived US global missile defense systems as pointed out by various experts over the years and the fact that missile defense in one form or the other has been an unrealized dream for US presidents for 40 years. In India missile defense acquires a very different character from the proposed US missile defense systems against supposed ICBMs from Iran or North Korea. Pakistan is a stone's throw away from the Indian border, and as Gopalaswamy in this essay and Mian and others in a more detailed 2003 Science and Global Security article explain, flight time for a missile to reach New Delhi from Pakistan would be about 4-7 mins. What would the Indian authorities do in such a short time? Detecting any such signal and confirming it as a true one would consume all the time needed for authorities to determine it as a hostile missile launch from Pakistan. The detection would be done by the Arrow system that India acquired from Israel that's located about 200 kms from Delhi. But because of this very short flight time, there would be no time for further deliberation and any response would have to be a predetermined one.

As Mian and his colleagues state in their article, there are two forms which predetermined response could take; civil defense and/or retaliation. Retaliation if at all possible in such a short time would have to be very quick. Retaliation against nuclear-tipped missiles would be very difficult in the boost phase (right after the missile lifts off, which gives the defense about 90 seconds to destroy the missile) and extremely dangerous in the terminal phase (the phase before the missile hits the target during which its destruction could nonetheless cause great damage to the home territory). As both articles state, with such predetermined responses the threat of false alarms and nuclear conflict increases, an assertion borne out by several close calls during the Cold War even when the response time was much longer.

As the articles state, the prospect of talks on missile defense between the US and India is definitely a welcome sign of relations between the two countries, but we should think twice before spending taxpayers' money and scientific and human capital on a system that may not really work, but which may encourage the adversary to build more offensive weapons; after all a single one getting through would be enough to cause havoc. As Gopalaswamy says, ultimately technology will decide the operational capability of such a system. Perhaps more attention should be paid to civil defense, a gesture both prudent and practical, and perhaps less threatening.

Mian, Z., Rajaraman, R., Ramana, M.V., "Early Warning in South Asia-Constraints and Implications". Science and Global Security, 11: 109-150, 2003

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

No country for irrational men

Ok, at some point we have to take a decision. Do we want to root for someone simply because his parents once arrived to the US from India to pursue the American Dream and succeeded? Or do we want to put things in a much bigger perspective and judge someone by his character, intellect and opinions and not just because he happens to originate from that part of the world where we are from?

Many of us have (hopefully) used the second set of criteria for judging Bobby Jindal. But our media as usual has persistently used the first set to heap praise on this son of our soil who has made it big in this far off land. They need to understand that we don't care if someone is from India or China or Mars if he wants to teach intelligent design in science classes and has a 100% record against abortion where he won't even allow abortion in case of incest. And now recently he is being hailed as one of the future leaders of the Republican party, and- woe be unto the world if it happens- of this country. All this after making a pitch two days back that held forth on some matters which he knew nothing about. According to Mr. Jindal, "something called" volcano research is supposed to be wasteful spending. As Sarah Palin did with fruit flies and John McCain did with bear DNA, so Jindal does with volcano research. Has Mr. Jindal made any inquiries about why scientists might be engaged in such research? Could it just be because they want to predict the occurrence of a volcano in an active site, a prediction that may save thousands of lives? Of course Mr Jindal is certainly not unique in holding these opinions in this land of the free, but it is undoubtedly scary that after 8 years of Bush, he is seen as belonging to the chosen few who promise to resurrect the Republican party on the national stage.

Many people have criticized our slavish admiration for Mr. Jindal on the grounds that he has long since converted to Christianity. We can bet that it's still a long time before a Hindu becomes Governor of Louisiana. But I don't really care about his religion as much as I care about the objective substance of his views. And the complete lack of that substance makes me shudder. It's not that we should be embarrassed that this man is Indian. Again, I don't really care about that. What is shameful is that he panders to some of the most fundamentalist religious strains and irrational ideas in the most 'advanced' nation in the world.

So let's stop touting Bobby Jindal as a great immigrant success story. Sure, it's not easy for a second generation immigrant to become Governor of a US state and I am sure Jindal must have worked hard at it. But the difficulty of a task has nothing to do with the character or wisdom of the individual who participates in it. For me, it's not a question at all about rooting for an Indian or American. It's about rooting for rationality, and in this country irrationality certainly has no nationality. It is the great equalizer.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A breath of fresh air

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When was the last time a US President stood before Congress and talked with such captivating eloquence, reason and idealism grounded in reality for 52 minutes? How effortlessly, elegantly and modestly the words flowed. This could well have been a State of the Union address.

It truly felt like tinkling music to my ears. It was like listening to a perfectly rendered version of Mozart's "Linz" after 8 years of constantly listening to a badly mangled Marilyn Manson album while being incarcerated in a dark box. It was like going to the world's most luxurious and pristine spa and cleansing your system with nectar after 8 years of living in the gutter and eating lard. The English language was finally resurrected yesterday in Congress.

Now let's just hope he can walk the talk.


George Will and Mainstream Media, Please Shut Up

The story is all over the internet now. George Will, who is considered one of the leading and veteran lights of conservatism, has penned a column on global warming in the Washington Post which, in Wolfgang Pauli's words, is "not even wrong". Really, the piece is a model of unadulterated garbage, rife with flat-out false statements and highly misleading claptrap. Chris Mooney takes Will down here, as have several others. Will doesn't seem to understand even the basics of climate change, or science for that matter.

What is appalling yet again is that the Washington Post which is supposed to be a prime mainstream media source has provided a platform to a hack. This is not new these days. The mainstream media is rapidly becoming irrelevant when it comes to writing about science. It eminently gives the stage to people who know nothing about science and for whom science is nothing but political polemic. No wonder they asked George Will to write this piece. Will is a polemicist who at some point might have been a "true" conservative, but not any more. Sadly, Will is also becoming emblematic of conservatives who want to shoot themselves in their foot and seriously tarnish their image by denying accepted and validated facts.

I wish I could say that I look forward to seeing the death of science in the mainstream media, but I unfortunately cannot say it since the public still relies on the MSM for whatever vanishingly small dose of science it craves. But these days the MSM is in total chaos when it comes to science writing, and many blogs are doing a much better job. Their resident experts on science-related topics are people like Will and Deepak Chopra. However, if they really can't call upon good science writers to pen their science section, they should get rid of it; inviting embarrassingly ignorant hacks like George Will is not going to do anyone good. Nobody has made it mandatory for the MSM to keep on publishing science articles that constitute misleading lies.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009


For the last few weeks I have been reading "The Nuclear Express" by Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman. Both Reed and Stillman are veteran nuclear weapons and security experts who worked in the government and at Los Alamos. The book is densely packed with previously unknown information. Perhaps the most important- and most concerning -part of the book is about China's nuclear weapons program and Chinese nuclear aid to Pakistan, but the book also has excellent discussions on the development of Israel's nuclear program, including the French-Israeli alliance that blossomed after the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, and the Russian-Chinese alliance that was broken off by the Russians in 1959.

The book gives an impression that in some way all nuclear nations are proliferators. Naturally some are less responsible than others, but even India which is generally considered to be a model non-proliferator has two scientists on the US State Department list who are supposed to have provided enrichment know-how to Iran. However, by that token, hundreds of scientists and officials including those in the US should be on the same list; after all when the Shah was in power, Dick Cheney among others was instrumental in selling reactor technology to the Iranians. It seems that we always proliferate to a nation when we consider it to be our friend.

In any case, there is a vast amount of information in the book that is worth reading. Stillman and Reed have some interesting facts about India's 1998 nuclear tests. In spite of many assertions to the contrary, we don't seem to have successfully tested a thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) in our first test called Shakti 1. The official stated Indian estimate for the test was 45 kilotons. However, Stillman and Reed look at three rather authoritative sources and find that the total yield was only 16 kilotons, which would make the claim impossible. According to the authors' sources, the second test Shakti 2 was a close replica of the 1974 Smiling Buddha device and yielded 12 kilotons. The third test Shakti 3 was for diagnostics purposes and was only 0.2 kilotons. That puts Shakti 1 at only 4 kilotons, far less than the 45 kilotons that the Vajapayee government claimed. The thermonuclear weapon tested was supposed to be a boosted fission design in which a primary fission weapon ignites a secondary fusion weapon by radiation implosion. The primary is "spiked" by the addition of tritium or deuterium which in turn is supposed to ignite the secondary. It seems that the primary's yield was very low, which meant that the secondary did not ignite at all. Thus the low 4 kiloton yield. This indicates that India is not truly in the "nuclear club" since all strategic weapons with yields of several hundred kilotons are thermonuclear.

Pakistan's test results were even more dubious according to Reed and Stillman. At first the Pakistanis could not even agree in public about how many tests they conducted. Then, simply to indicate parity with India, they announced that they had conducted five. In Pakistan's case only one weapon fired as expected.

But given that Pakistan conducted its tests only eighteen days after India conducted its must mean than Pakistan already had a device ready for testing. This is one of the most important and startling sections in Reed and Stillman. The device was ready for testing because eight years earlier, another nuclear device had been tested by China on Pakistan's behalf in May, 1990 at their Lop Nur test site. Author Stillman was among the first Americans to set foot inside China's nuclear weapons complex, and there is plenty of evidence that China tested Pakistan's nuclear bomb and that it provided unprecedented support to Pakistan's nuclear complex. There are many pieces of evidence cited in the book which make this an almost inescapable conclusion; for instance, a neutron initiator scheme used for initiating the nuclear weapons was found in a book published by none other than A Q Khan. Plus, Stillman saw several Pakistani scientists within the Chinese weapons complex in the 90s. Chinese support for Pakistan's bomb had clearly been long-standing and extensive. What China expects to gain from this is ominous and will be a topic for another post.

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Monday, February 23, 2009


Yesterday was probably the first time I watched the entire Academy Award ceremony. It was also the first year in which I had watched virtually all the nominated movies, so some mandatory comments follow.

It was largely what I had expected. Hugh Jackman was charming, and his notes were dulcet. Kate Winslet won the award as expected; she wasn't bad, but she also did not really have tough competition.

But now about the big event. Much ink will be spilt over Slumdog in the following days. As I have mentioned before, it's a pretty good movie. But given the competition, I did not think it was Oscar-worthy. It is more of an experience than a movie. There's nothing wrong in giving an Oscar to an experience; it's just that I thought that Milk and Frost/Nixon were movies that were better-constructed. In any case, maybe I cannot take in the experience as well as Western audiences; for them it must be a much more exotic and fascinating experience than it was for me. Every one of my American friends said that he or she was mentally exhausted by the panorama of colors, sounds and smells. We usually call this panorama "Bollywood".

But what's all this hullabaloo about the movie back home? All the reactions to me seem to be misguided. Those who are criticizing the movie for being "poverty porn" (which is a neat phrase by the way) and for depicting the ugly undebelly of India are really missing the point. The movie is a story. It's fiction. And it's about a boy from the slums. There is no reason why it needs to portray India accurately. It's not some social commentary on the state of the country or a depiction of what India is. Those who are disgruntled with the movie for depicting India in a "bad light" are really barking up the wrong tree and wasting their time in my opinion.

The same thing goes for A R Rahman's songs and music. He is going to be treated like a Super-God in India now. But while Rahman is one enormously talented man who has created some of the best music ever in Indian cinema, his songs for Slumdog are way below the quality of some of his best songs. The songs are not bad, not bad at all. But they are trivial and wholly of average quality compared to his music for Roja, Bombay or Dil Se. In fact another movie which has similar styled music, Rangeela, is also much superior. The real reason why Rahman won these awards is simply because there was no competition. English movies are not exactly known for their songs. There were only three nominees for Best Song, and two of them were his! What were the chances? Even the background score for the movie is not outstanding and again, the main reason it won the award was because there wasn't much competition. In any case, I hope this does not give us another opportunity to suck up to the Oscars as usual, although it's nice and all that he won.

I was personally disappointed that Mickey Rourke did not win Best Actor. Sean Penn was marvelous, no doubt; it's just that The Wrestler was a performance of a lifetime for Rourke. I was also disappointed that "Waltz with Bashir" did not win. And Penelope Cruz for Best Supporting Actress?

In any case, now I won't have to deal with this for another year, only watch the movies which is a good thing.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Since I seem to have seen all except "Doubt" and "Changeling", I might give it a shot this year.

Best Picture: Either "Slumdog" or "Frost/Nixon" I would think that Slumdog might be chosen for the "experience"; the whole explosion of colours and sounds and words. But Frost/Nixon is a meticulously crafted film with fine technical details. Surely one of the best made movies I have seen in recent times. Milk also stands a good chance.

Best Director: Gus van Sant for "Milk" and Ron Howard for "Frost/Nixon" would be close competitors in my opinion. Either one of them getting it would be perfectly satisfactory. Although he did a fine job, I don't think Danny Boyle deserves it.

Best Actor: Until last week, my bets were on either Frank Langella for playing a weary but still combative Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" or Sean Penn who inhabits a gay character like a spirit in "Milk". And then last week I saw "The Wrestler" and I changed my mind. Mickey Rourke physically occupies the screen every moment, and his riveting portrayal of a gritty, broken-down, aging, fundamentally decent wrestler is absolutely phenomenal, on an entirely different plane. I would personally put all my bets on Rourke, although I won't be surprised if Penn gets it since he is definitely a worthy second. And please, please, don't give it to Brad Pitt. Otherwise the Oscars would have decidedly become a snake-pit of political lobbying and mediocre assessment. (Haven't they already?)

Best Actress: Can't really comment because I haven't seen "Doubt" and "Changeling". Kate Winslet was excellent in "The Reader" although I don't know if she was Oscar-worthy. On the other hand, except for Meryl Streep, Winslet also does not seem to have much competition this year and therefore stands a good chance of getting it.

Best Supporting Actor: Easy for me. The tormented Josh Brolin in "Milk" was outstanding and I think he should get it. But the late Heath Ledger would have definitely trumped him. Robert Downey and Michael Shannon are inspired second choices, but second nonetheless.

Best Supporting Actress: Can't really comment. I hear Viola Davis in "Doubt" was very good.

Best Animated Film: W.A.L.L.E. No more said, although "Bolt" is also a very good flim.

Best Score: Let's finally satisfy that desperate Indian craving to be recognised...

Best Cinematography: "Slumdog" would be a good choice for its juxtaposition of gritty and exotic images.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009


As someone gets ready to savor and exult in the hard-earned fruits of protracted toil, I keep realizing how writing a PhD. thesis is one of the most boring tasks I have set myself up to. It's a document which you write...for whom and what exactly? You have written the papers and manuscripts, you know what you have done, and now you are simply formatting your published work for someone else's pleasure (pain); I never loved Copy + Paste as much as I do right now. Plus, the thesis will be handed over to the PhD. committee one week before the thesis defense and they would be expected to scrutinize the words with a fine comb. Of course they would.

Then, as the previous weary warrior notes, one has to distill the wisdom or lack thereof of almost six years in 45 mins. Plus, I am no Robert Oppenheimer; after my defense no professor is going to plop his head to his side and exclaim, "Phew! I am glad that's over; he was on the verge of questioning me". And once I am done, nobody is going to give a quark for that document five years from then, or probably five days from then. And yet here I am, trudging through the parchment as though it were a sheaf of golden leaves.

But perhaps I need to do it after all for that last cup of coffee. I owe the dust settled on my computer monitors that final act of homage. I need to carry on. Otherwise the terrorists have won.


Thursday, February 12, 2009


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Two hundred years ago this day, Charles Darwin was born. The vision of life that he created and expounded on transformed humanity’s perception of its place in the universe. After Copernicus’s great heliocentric discovery, it was Darwin’s exposition of evolution and natural selection that usurped human beings from their favoured place at the center of the universe. But far from trivializing them, it taught them about the vastness and value of life, underscored the great web of interactions that they are a part of, and reinforced their place as both actor and spectator in the grand ball game of the cosmos. Not only as a guiding scientific principle but as an all-encompassing element of understanding our place in the world, evolution through natural selection has become the dominant idea of our time. As the eminent biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it quite simply, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Evolution is a fact. Natural selection is a theory that is now as good as a fact. Both evolution and natural selection happen. And both of them owe their exalted place in our consciousness to a quiet, gentle and brilliant Englishman...

...Read the rest of the post on my Desipundit blog

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

This sentiment, from John Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn", is one that many physicists would share - which is ironic considering that Keats regarded science (and particularly physics) as a destructive force, unweaving the rainbow of God's creation.

And yet an appreciation of beauty is central to Paul Dirac's understanding of the material world. Often referred to as the British Einstein, Dirac was one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, linking relativity and quantum mechanics for the first time and predicting the existence of antimatter.

Who? That's Paul Dirac: who alongside Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger opened up the field of quantum physics, and in 1933 became the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel prize at the age of 31.
I remember telling an introvert friend that Paul Dirac is the unlikeliest person I have heard of who had a happy family life with children. If Dirac could do this, any one of us could.


Monday, February 09, 2009


You disappoint me

Dear Sir,
I was rather shocked to notice that in your "Notable Deaths of 2008" slide show that included 44 famous people from the arts, medicine, literature, television, politics, cinema, music and journalism, the name of the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler was missing. Dr. Wheeler who worked on the Manhattan Project died on April 13, 2008 and was one of the century's greatest scientists and a national treasure. During his long and remarkably productive life in which he worked with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, Dr. Wheeler played a key role in shaping American science, education and government policy. While it was heartening to see an obituary of him in the New York Times, I was quite disconcerted to see no mention of him in the Notable Deaths of 2008 Multimedia slide show list. While I understand that such an enumeration cannot be all-inclusive, Dr. Wheeler's stature as an American scientific icon should ensure the inclusion of his name in any short list of famous American people who died in 2008. I sincerely and strongly hope that this omission would be corrected.
Thank You
A fan of John Wheeler

Wheeler worked on the atomic and hydrogen bombs, served as an advisor to high-profile Presidential scientific committees, mentored brilliant scientists and leaders like Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne, resurrected and pioneered rather neglected relativity research in the 60s, coined the word "black hole", rendered invaluable teaching service at Princeton and Austin and propelled American physics into the first rank. If a list of notable American deaths of 2008 does not include his name, I don't know whose name it should.

When it comes to public exposition of achievement, it seems that popular media sources always give science short shrift in preference to other areas like art and cinema. The rift between the two cultures keeps growing. Science was undoubtedly one of the core foundations of The American Twentieth Century. Now it threatens to slip away from beneath the twenty-first. The country neglects it to its own perilous detriment. John Wheeler would have been unhappy.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's pioneering books should alert us to the fallacies of model building, an appreciation of the impact of rare events, and our perception of models as reality...

...Read the rest of the post on my Desipundit blog

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Truly, time to get out

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I am finishing up my graduate work and moving on to a postdoc up in the chilly northeast. Blogging will therefore be slow, although I hope to toss out some erudite nonsense about the graduate school experience soon.