Sunday, August 9, 2020

How can Science Communication save the day

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Hardi Talwani

Article Title

How can Science Communication save the day


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 9, 2020


Representative image for scientific innovation

Representative image for scientific innovation | Source: Science in HD via Unsplash

Pierre-Simon Laplace, an exemplary French Mathematician, once quoted: “It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit.

I intentionally aimed to start this article with a quote by an excellent western mathematician, because we Indians need validation from westerners. We are quite capable of making high strides in science, technology, and innovation, but there is a lack of vision; lack of confidence.

ISRO Launching a satellite: Source: ISRO

The newly Independent India of 1947 had a vision: a vision to transform into a developed country using scientific interventions. We had some great revolutionaries who worked tirelessly to shape a bright future for our country. Dr. Vikaram Sarabhai founded the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) while Dr. Homi J Bhabha, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). There was a time when Dr Sarabhai convinced a Church to give land for a rocket launch station.

When India became Independent in 1947, people just wanted to earn enough to survive in the rapidly changing, bitter conditions. Today, when we are one of the economies of the world, we are fighting over temples and mosques, trying to rename cities, and dream of resurrecting some thousands of years old notion of India, the quest for scientific temperament is lost somewhere along the way.

Over the years, India’s spending on Research and Development has increased significantly in overall value but its share in GDP has remained stagnant at 0.6-0.9%. The research being done in India is quite good if we compare it to the funding received. However if we compare it with the developed countries, the gap is phenomenal.

India’s space program, atomic energy program, development of supercomputers, or development of light combat aircraft- Tejas shows that Indian scientists have given great results at a fraction of the costs of their western counterparts. Still the allocation of funds for the scientific research is well short of what is required to catapult India into the league of developed nations.

If we deep dive into the probable causes of underfunding of Indian scientific research in spite of giving good return on investment, it boils down to the lack of awareness about the same among the larger public as well as policymakers. As we know that the best way to receive funding is to create awareness about a valuable product. We don’t lack products; we lack dialogue. Science is hardly ever reported in India. It’s rarely a point of discourse. When there is no discourse around something, it leads to a lack of interest. This is also driving away the bright students from pure sciences to the technology and management which is more remunerative.  

Another issue that sprouts up from lack of discourse is the lack of belief in science. We have seen how in India, many public figures started spreading home remedies and terrible unchecked solutions like the benefits of Cow Urine during the COVID outbreak. The news channels, instead of discussing facts, talked about conspiracy theories. These news channels sometimes invited scientists for talks, but eventually, ruined everyone’s time for their TRP by asking them about the conspiracy theories.

Science literacy can reduce these pseudoscience tactics. Indians extensively believe in spirituality which is good for personal motivation and values, however the unscrupulous elements have often used it to spread misinformation and personal gains. It's imperative that we take a stand to promote scientific thought, and this is not at all an arduous task. Instead, the solution is straightforward: We need to communicate.

We need our own Neil DeGrasse Tysons, Carl Zimmers, Carl Sagans who can communicate with the common people about scientific development, in a simple language. This will help us to kick start our journey towards the Golden Era of Science without a baggage of baseless beliefs, pseudoscience, and untested products.

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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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