Monday, June 22, 2020

Bedrock of US Democracy: Checks and Balances of Governing Branches

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Aditi Mohta

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Bedrock of US Democracy: Checks and Balances of Governing Branches


Global Views 360

Publication Date

June 22, 2020


The US Capitol, Washington

The US Capitol, Washington | Source: Martin Falbisoner via Wikimedia

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the United States Government was in a state of flux. The founding fathers (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison) did not want to establish another country that was ruled by a king. The discussions were centered on having a strong and fair national government that protected individual freedoms and rights and did not abuse its power. When the new Constitution was adopted in 1787, the structure of the infant government of the United States called for three separate branches of government, each with their powers and systems of checks and balances. This would ensure that no one branch would become too powerful because the other branches would always be able to check the power of the other two. 

The legislative branch is described in Article 1 of the US constitution. It has 100 US senators (two for each state), and 435 members in the House of Representatives, which is better known as the US Congress. Making laws is the primary function of the US Congress, but it is also responsible for approving federal judges, US Supreme Court justices, passing the national budget and declaration of war.

The executive branch is described in Article 2 of the US Constitution. The leaders of this branch of government are the President and the Vice President. They are responsible for enforcing the laws the Congress sets forth. The President works closely with a group of advisors known as the Cabinet. They assist the President in making important decisions within their areas of expertise, like defense, the treasury and homeland security. The executive branch also appoints government officials, commands the armed forces, and meets with leaders of other nations. 

The third branch of the US government is the judiciary and is detailed in Article 3. This branch comprises all the courts in the land, from the federal district courts to the US Supreme Court. These courts interpret the nation's law and punish the ones who break them. The Supreme Court settles disputes amongst states, hears appeals from states and federal courts and determines if federal regulations are constitutional. 

Separation of powers in the United States is the backbone of the Checks and Balances System which provides each branch of the government with special powers to check the other branches and prevent any branch from becoming too powerful. Congress has the power to make laws; the President has the power to veto them, and the Supreme Court may declare the laws as unconstitutional. If both the houses of the Congress have a ⅔ majority, they can override the President's veto. The idea of checks and balances is that it is not enough to separate the powers and guarantee the independence of three branches but also that each branch needs to have the constitutional means to protect the system in case of overreach by any other branch. 

 The Check and Balances system also provides the branches with special powers to appoint or remove members from other branches. Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) can impeach or convict the President of high crimes like bribery or treason. The House of Representatives has the power to bring impeachment charges against the President, and the Senate can convict and remove the President from office. Supreme Court candidates are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Judges can also be removed by impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. 

The legislative branch, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives, passes bills, controls the federal budget, and has the power to borrow money on credit on behalf of the United States. It also has the sole authority to declare war, as well as to raise and regulate the military. It oversees, investigates and makes rules for the government and its officers. The Senate can ratify treaties signed by the President and give advice and consent to presidential appointments to the federal judiciary, federal executive departments and other posts. It also has the sole power of impeachment (House of Representatives) and trials of impeachment (Senate). 

The executive branch consists of the President and the Cabinet. The President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, executes the instructions of the Congress, may veto bills passed by Congress (but the veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses), perform the spending authorized by the Congress, declare emergencies and publish regulations and executive orders. They make executive agreements which do not require ratification and sign treaties, which require approval by the ⅔ of the Senate. They also have the power to make a temporary appointment during the recess of the Senate and can grant "reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

The Judiciary determines which laws Congress intended to apply in any given case, exercise judicial review and review the constitutionality of laws, determines how Congress meant the law to apply to disputes and determines how laws should be interpreted to assure uniform policies in a top-down fashion via the appeals process.

The system of Checks and Balance was designed and implemented by the founding fathers with such diligence that even after more than 225 years, it is still effective in preventing undue outreach by one of the three branches.

Note: Sites that have been referred to: 


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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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