Life of a scientist

One of the best books I've read this year was How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, a book by Caltech astronmer Mike Brown.  He discovered Eris, the Pluto-sized object in the Kuiper belt, that caused Pluto to get demoted.

If you liked Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, you will also like "How I Killed Pluto".  In both these books, you have a hugely successful scientist talking with a great degree of self-awareness and wit.  These are people you would love to spend an afternoon listening to.

Here is Mike Brown at his wittiest. He is talking about why he was science-minded when he was growing up:
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, a thoroughly dedicated rocket town. The father of everyone I knew—mine included—was some sort of engineer working to build the Apollo rockets to send men to the moon. For a while as a child, I thought that when you grew up you became a rocket engineer if you were a boy and you married a rocket engineer if you were a girl; few other options in the world appeared to exist.
But something happened.  He happened to start observing and noting the positions of the planets.  As it so happened, there was something interesting going on at just that time:
Jupiter, closer to the sun, is comparatively fast; it takes only twelve years to go completely around the sky. When it gets to where it started, though, Saturn has moved on. It takes another eight years—twenty years in total—for Jupiter to finally catch up to Saturn once again so they come close together in a conjunction just like the one I noticed when I was fifteen. I’ve often wondered about the timing of this conjunction. If I had been born a few years earlier, I would have looked up at age fifteen, but Jupiter would not yet have caught up to Saturn’s position in the sky. I would have noticed only one bright planet moving a little below Orion instead of two. Would I have noticed their dance? Would I have become the person I am today, someone whose first instinct when walking outside at night is to always look up, check the stars, look for planets, locate the moon? It’s impossible to know, but it’s always hard not to feel that in some ways, for me at least, perhaps the early astrologers were right: Perhaps my fate actually was determined by the positions of the planets at the moment of my birth.
Something that would strike you, as it struck me, was that someone like that would have something else in the skies that caught his interest no matter when he was growing up.  Still, this theme of happenstance also plays into how he got interested in finding new planets:
What I didn’t immediately grasp when Jane Luu joined me on the roof overlooking the San Francisco Bay at the Berkeley astronomy department in 1992 was that the discovery of the Kuiper belt gave Pluto a context. It took me and most other astronomers a few more years to realize that Pluto is neither lonely nor an oddball, but rather part of this vast new population called the Kuiper belt. Just as the explosion of asteroid discoveries 150 years earlier had forced astronomers to reconsider the status of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta and change them from full-fledged planets to simply the largest of the collection of asteroids, the new discovery of the Kuiper belt would certainly force astronomers to reconsider the status of Pluto.
And finally, something that all meteorologist friends can sympathize with:
For someone looking for planets, I spent an awful lot of my time looking at computer code and numeric outputs instead. My nights were spent not outside staring at the sky but inside staring at numbers and computer programs and doing every test conceivable. I needed to make sure the software wasn’t going to make any mistakes. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t do anything stupid that made me miss planets that were right in front of me.
And all of us hard-science folks who have dealt with the seemingly unscientific medical profession can definitely see ourselves here:
She had a July 11 due date, and though there was not much I could do to influence anything, I could nonetheless obsess about what, precisely, a due date means. I asked anyone who I thought might have some insight. I know, for example, that due dates are simply calculated by adding forty weeks to the start of the mother’s last menstrual cycle. But how effective is that? How many babies are born on their due dates? Our child-birthing class teacher: “Oh, only five percent of babies are actually born on their due dates.” Me: “So are half born before, half after?” Teacher: “Oh, you can’t know when the baby is going to come.” Me: “I get it. I just want to know the statistics.” Teacher: “The baby will come when it is ready.” I asked an obstetrician. Doctor: “The due date is just an estimate. There is no way of knowing when the baby will come.” Me: “But of your patients, what fraction delivers before, and what fraction delivers after the due date?” Doctor: “I try not to think of it that way.” I propose a simple experiment for anyone who works in the field of childbirth. Here’s all you have to do. Spend a month in a hospital. Every time a child is born, ask the mother what the original due date was. Determine how many days early or late each child is. Plot these dates on a piece of graph paper. Draw a straight line for the bottom horizontal axis. Label the middle of the axis zero. Each grid point to the left is then the number of days early. Each grid point to the right is the number of days late. Count how many children were born on their precise due dates. Count up that number of points on the vertical axis of your graph and mark the spot at zero. Do the same with the number of children born one day late. Two days late. Three. Four. Keep going. Now do the early kids. When you have finished plotting all of the due dates, label the top of the plot “The distribution of baby delivery dates compared to their due date.” Make a copy. Send it to me in the mail. My guess is that you will have something that looks like a standard bell curve. I would hope that the bell would be more or less centered at zero. It would either be tall and skinny (if most kids are born within a few days of their due dates) or short and fat (if there is quite a wide range around the due dates). One thing I know, though, is that the bell would have a dent on the right side. At least around here, no kids are born more than a week or two after their due dates. Everyone is induced by then. I am usually capable of allowing myself to give up on trying to get the world to see things in my scientific, statistical, mathematical way. But this mattered to me. If I was at a dinner party with Diane and the subject of due dates was broached, Diane would turn to me with a slightly mortified look in her eyes and whisper, “Please?” I would rant about doctors. About teachers. About lack of curiosity and dearth of scientific insight and fear of math. I would speculate on the bell curve and about how fat or skinny it would be and how much it might be modified by inductions and C-sections, and whether different hospitals had different distributions. Inevitably the people at the dinner party would be friends from Caltech. Most had kids. Most of the fathers were scientists. Most of the mothers were not. (Even today things remain frighteningly skewed, though interestingly, most of my graduate students in recent years have been female. Times have no choice but to change.) As soon as I started my rant, the fathers would all join in: “Yeah! I could never get that question answered, either,” and they would bring up obscure statistical points of their own. The mothers would all roll their eyes, lean in toward Diane, and whisper, “I am so sorry. I know just how you feel,” and inquire as to how she was feeling and sleeping.
Of course just because he plays down his successes doesn't mean that he isn't an obsessive, gifted genius.  It's just that his wit and self-deprecation make this a highly readable book.

Incidentally, it was a NPR interview by him soon after the vote that triggered a set of concepts that led to my paper on a new way to find storms in images ("enhanced watershed").  So, I owe him more than just a good book review!

Two approaches to space

There are few popular media articles that can explain why a poor country like India would invest in a space program, and why that space program could maintain bipartisan support through the decades.  This article is worth reading:

I don't agree with the conclusion in the article, though.  There is room for both NASA's wide-ranging program centered around exploration and ISRO's pragmatic, technology-driven one.

Invention of wings

When a book starts out saying:
My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy
I normally would simply discard the book.  Writing that tries to capture the ungrammatical speech and slightly-off pronunciations of poor people is just plain obfuscating.  Any writer who does this page after page doesn't deserve to be read.  Even that phrase -- "scarce side of mercy" -- seems so powerful.  But what exactly does it mean?

I would moved on to another book if it hadn't been our book club's selection of the month. Muttering a bit, I continued to read Invention of Wings. I'm glad I did.  Fortunately, Sue Monk Kidd doesn't overdo the dialect bit, beyond insisting of giving the slaves cutesy pet names.  The book turned out to be tightly written, with a gripping story and very sympathetic characters.

The book captures the interweaving stories of women and African Americans trying to attain their freedoms in a world that is arranged to give them nothing easily.  Throughout, it is a very moving book, but it was the afterword that brought me up short. Turns out the story of one of the two main characters in the book is true.  And thinking back on it, no one can make this stuff up.

On Hinduism and Xenophobia

I remember reading something set in ancient Persia and noting that the name of the chief god, Azura Mazda, was quite similar to the names of the demons ("asura") in Hindu myths.  Reading Wendy Doniger's latest book, On Hinduism, brought the aha moment:
The great god in the Avesta ... is called Ahura Mazda, the great asura, a benevolent spirit. Even in the Rig Veda, several gods are still called asuras (Varuna in particular). And just as benevolent asuras became malevolent demons in later India, so too, benevolent Greek daemons (another sort of god) became malevolent demons in Christianity, and the devas of ancient India and Persia (gods, cognate with deus in Latin) became the devils of Christianity.
The change had, in other words, something to do with xenophobia.  This habit of identifying other peoples' gods with devils has been happening a long, long time.

On Hinduism is a collection of the essays that Doniger wrote over her lifetime.  The essays are great -- the one on the representation of Shiva ("lingam") alone is worth the price of admission, but she tops even it in her essay on Saranyu (the Hindu equivalent of Eve). Even her throwaway asides are gems of insight.  The essay on Saranyu, for example, ties the obscure tale of the the Ur-mother of Hindu myth that dates to the Rig Veda to the well-known story of Kunti and Karna. Once she points it out, it is amazing how many of the remnants of the Saranyu story -- an abandoning mother, a brilliant father, mortals and immortals, mutilation -- all make their way in slightly modified ways into the Karna myth. The essays are wonderful and I have been savoring the read, going back and rereading some of them (I can't think of a book that's ever made me do that).

Doniger says that she has changed the essays to account for changes in her views over time.  She also changed words, like dharma and Shiva, whose italicization and spelling conventions have changed since the time when she first wrote the essays. Finally, she says, she had an Indian reader read the text to point out areas where she might have inadvertently caused offense.  She needn't have bothered.  The right-wing blowhards who succeeded in getting Penguin to drop the book in India would have taken offense anything more real than a bowdlerized Amar Chitra Katha comic.

Considering that it's precisely her droll, outsider's voice that I find refreshing, it is ironic how many of the criticisms of her work come down to her "otherness": she's a woman, a Jew, a non-Indian; who is she to write this stuff?

Is Delhi really more polluted than Beijing?

The WHO recently released a report where Delhi was fingered as the most polluted city in the world.

Having been to both Delhi and Beijing, this seems odd.  Delhi is polluted, but Beijing seemed to be in a class all by itself. In Beijing, visibility was in the tens of meters. Delhi is bad, but it never seemed that bad -- you can always see what's on the other side of the street.

Contrast these two pictures, both taken in summer in the city centers of the two cities:

Two possibilities that I can think of:
(1) Perhaps the Beijing numbers reported to the WHO are "cooked"?
(2) Perhaps the pollutant mix is different, and the Beijing pollutants are more visible and more likely to remain suspended in the atmosphere?

And just to provide some contrast in terms of the distance one can see on a summer day in the center of the city: Kathmandu, Paris and New York:

Of the three cities above, Kathmandu was the dirtiest.  I found it dirtier than Delhi.  Once you get out of the city, though, the Nepali countryside is gorgeous.  But we are talking only about cities here.

Net Neutrality is a terrible idea

My view on net neutrality changed after reading this article.
You may think that walled-garden access to Facebook or Google is inferior to neutral Internet access—and you’d be right. But if the neutralistas got their way, people in developing countries wouldn’t have better Internet access; many of them would have nothing. Wikimedia notes that in Kenya, mobile service costs can exceed 25 percent of monthly income. “Additionally, nearly 1 in 5 have reported that they will forgo a usual expenditure (such as food) in order to reload phone credit.” Low-quality (free) Internet access, therefore, is part of the optimal stock of Internet access.
As if it weren’t enough to connect the world’s poorest for the first time, non-neutrality can also help to fund necessary network buildouts on an ongoing basis. By giving access to Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia away as a loss-leader, carriers are serving with their basic tier of service those who can’t afford more, and habituating those who can afford to click beyond the walled garden to using the mobile web. This price discrimination not only increases access but also raises more revenue than a neutral strategy would. Developing-world carriers need that revenue if they ever intend to build the kinds of networks that will support widespread Internet use. Net neutrality, in other words, would not only keep the poorest offline, it would keep investment in poor-country telecom infrastructure down for longer.

Read the whole thing. It is not often that a well-honed argument can change minds, but this one probably might.

Turns out that when we argue for net neutrality, we are arguing from a position of privilege.  And we need to check that privilege -- getting rid of net neutrality can be very beneficial to the poor everywhere and to everyone in developing countries.

Why a limited roll out of a credit card security program does not work

American Express has apparently started a program called "SafeKey". It's something like "Verified by Visa", except that instead of rolling it out worldwide, they decided to start out in the UK.

What's the problem with a limited roll-out of something like this?

It means that if you go, armed with your American Amex card, to British Airways's website, you can not pay for a ticket.  This is the only card I have that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees (British Airways, in its infinite wisdom, wants to charge me for the tickets in Indian rupees), so I really wanted to use the Amex.

British Airways says it is an Amex problem -- the card is getting declined by their verification system.  Amex says it is a British Airways problem -- the transaction is declined by the common system that handles "Verified by Visa" and "SafeKey".

The American Express support person got belligerent when I tried to explain the problem to him and asked how I could enroll my card in SafeKey. He had not heard of SafeKey, and kept insisting it was a merchant's custom program, and not anything to do with Amex.  The British Airways rep essentially threw up his hands while maintaining his posh accent and polite voice.  Sigh.