Thursday, August 13, 2020

Beirut Port Blast: What lies ahead for Lebanon?

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Charvi Trivedi

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Beirut Port Blast: What lies ahead for Lebanon?


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 13, 2020


The smoke of the Beirut explosion spread over the sky of Lebanon

The smoke of the Beirut explosion spread over the sky of Lebanon | Source: via Wikimedia

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year of disasters in the history of humankind. A devastating tragedy struck Beirut, the capital of Lebanon on August 4, 2020, in the form of a massive explosion which occurred in the port area and ripped a large part of the town .

As per initial estimate the death toll stands at 157 with more than 5000 people severely bruised and thousands displaced from their homes. The incredible force of the blast could be felt as far as Cyprus, which is at a distance of 250 kms from the explosion site.

A giant red cloud of smoke erupted in the clear skies followed by a deafening ‘bang’ and smashing of windows. "First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose and I saw people thrown five or six metres" said Ibrahim Zoobi, who worked near the port. Satellite images show that warehouses and buildings within a radius of 2km from the site of the blast were completely destroyed, ending up in debris.

The intensity of the blast was equivalent to almost ‘2.2 kilotons of TNT’, according to an analyst and weapons expert. The aftermath included scenes of jam-packed hospitals, running without proper electricity connection, increased demand of blood donations and generators and agonized cries of people searching for their loved ones amongst the rubble filled roads.

Michel Aoun, the President of Lebanon | Source: Wikimedia

American President Donald Trump was quick to tweet about calling the blast a ‘terrible attack’. However, according to Michel Aoun, the President of Lebanon, the actual culprit of the blast was the 2,750 tonnes of fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, stored in one of the warehouses in the port area which caught fire. This explosive material was reportedly confiscated from a Russian cargo ship, back in 2014, when it made an uninformed stop at the Lebanese port.

Ammonium nitrate is a white substance used as a fertilizer as well as an explosive. It cannot explode on coming in contact with air but can detonate immediately as it encounters a flammable substance like oil or fire. Being an oxidiser, it will accelerate the severity of the explosion and also lead to release of toxic gases like nitrogen dioxide.

Boaz Hayoun, one of the top bomb experts of Israel, states “Before the big explosion, in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles”, which is a strong indication of fireworks. This might point towards seemingly inadequate warehouse management issues in Beirut, as such substances might have come across the explosive nitrates and instigated the blast. The safety protocols were simply not followed, despite being aware about the presence of a ‘ticking time bomb’ in the warehouse.

As Beirut is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and a financial crisis, it was definitely not ready for another blow. Beirut’s grain storage tower, the largest in Lebanon, was also engulfed in the flames, hampering the entire country’s food security. "It's an economic crisis, a financial crisis, a political crisis, a health crisis, and now this horrible explosion” says Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

France, the US, Italy, Turkey, Iran, EU, and OIC came up with the offer of help and show support for the people of Beirut.  Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, was the first foreign leader to visit the crisis-hit Beirut. While he consoled the citizens, their grief turned into anger as they chanted the word ‘Revolution’.

There is great anger among the citizens against the government, whom they accuse of being corrupt, sectarian, unaccountable, and out of touch with the common people. The intense protest by the people on the street forced the Prime Minister Hassan Diab to resign along with his cabinet on August 10, 2020.

The economic cost of the Beirut blast, where over 300,000 people have become homeless after their homes get destroyed, is estimated to be $15 Billion. Lebanon, which was already on the verge of economic collapse before this disaster struck, may find it impossible to withstand such a blow to the economy. It will need the support from the world over to rebuild Beirut.

A donor conference for rebuilding Beirut received a total pledge of about $300 million. Though it is a minuscule figure as compared to the destruction in Beirut, it will help to tide over the immediate humanitarian crisis. Apart from this Turkey has offered to help rebuild the port of Beirut and many countries are sending relief supplies.

The days ahead for the citizens of Beirut are going to be challenging as the country navigates the sectarian divide during the formation of a new government. It will be keenly watched by the citizens as well as the international community, whether Lebanon will discard its entrenched ruling elite and reject the toxic sectarian divide to elect an inclusive government or continue to perpetuate the misery on the common citizens.

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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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