Wednesday, August 26, 2020

NEET/JEE Examinations during the Pandemic in India: Whose interest will it really serve?

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Syed Ahmed Uzair

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NEET/JEE Examinations during the Pandemic in India: Whose interest will it really serve?

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Global Views 360

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August 26, 2020

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Students at an examination

Students at an examination | Source: Indian Express

India currently is the third worst-hit country globally in terms of the total number of COVID-19 cases which is still on the increasing trend. The country had imposed one of the toughest lockdowns across the world to counter the threat of Corona in the initial phase itself. Apart from the economic activities, the lockdown has impacted the education sector in a big way.

All the education institutions from pre-nursery schools to the professional colleges and universities were closed down in the month of March 2020 itself. These institutions are still closed for the physical presence of students and the classes are happening only through online modes which doesn't require students to venture out from their homes.

The schools and colleges cancelled the pending examinations of last academic year and gave general promotion to the students for the next class. Many examinations for admissions to various college programs in the country were also done away while some are still on.

Two of the biggest national level entrance exams, the NEET and the JEE, which have been postponed multiple times in the light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases are now in the spotlight. This is due to the fact that the Ministry of Education recently stated that both the JEE and the NEET will be held in the upcoming month of September. The NTA has issued public notices citing that the JEE (Main) April 2020 is scheduled from September 1-6, while NEET-UG 2020 exam is scheduled for September 13.

The Supreme Court had responded to a plea filed on 17th August seeking postponement of the exams, while dismissing it, that the precious year of students “cannot be wasted”. The plea that had been filed through advocate Alakh Alok Shrivastava via 11 students from different states sought the quashing of the notices issued on July 3rd by the National Testing Agency (NTA), which set the dates for JEE and NEET in September next month.

The Medical Council of India (MCI) in response to the plea has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court stating that further postponement of the NEET would be a “drastic deviation” from the academic schedule which “may affect the subsequent academic years” of the students. It also ruled out the possibility of conducting NEET online owing to the “paper book format” of the exam. It further stated that conducting the exam at the same time everywhere is imperative and hence it cannot be organized in countries like Qatar and UAE which attract significant applicants.

With the centre looking adamant to organize the exams, student organizations like the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the Indian National Congress, and the All India Student’ Association, student wing of the CPI(ML) have come together to protest against the decision. Both the outfits demanded cancellation of all first and second-year exams and giving promotion to the students, holding final year exams in a way such that students across the country can write them, and most importantly postponement of both the NEET and the JEE.

Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, Minister of Human Resource Development, India | Source: IndiaTVNews

An argument in favour of conducting the exams as given by Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank was that the majority of the aspirants had already downloaded their admit cards for the exams. However, it is quite easy to see that students do not have a choice. One can argue that if we put ourselves in the applicant’s shoes, even we would do the same and download the admit cards. This by no means is an indication that students are willing to appear in the exams.

My personal experience in appearing for the JEE and AMU-EEE back in 2017 and 2018 is more than enough for convincing me in favour of postponing the exams. For JEE alone nearly 15 lakh students appear annually. The examination centres are usually overcrowded both before the beginning and after the culmination of the exam and it is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing. Also, the students are normally accompanied by parents or guardians which further adds up to the crowd. Further due to the large number of applicants it will be impossible to maintain distance in the examination halls unless and until the number of examination centres is increased tremendously. Due to various financial and logistical reasons, this will be an uphill task to accomplish.

Students across the country have reacted strongly to the decision of the Court on social media. Most of them are worried about contacting COVID which will put their own as well as the family members’ at risk. Manish Chaubey, one of the 11 petitioners in SC, said, “My hometown is in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and I am in Mumbai at present. It will be a hassle and immensely risky to travel now. Why should I have to put my parents through this?". While some pointed out the irony of the SC using a virtual mode to conduct hearings for making students appear in the exams, others chose to blame the BJP for being inhuman in forcing students into crowded examination centres.

In an open letter to the HRD ministry and education minister Dr Harshvardhan, MadhuPurnima Kishwar, founder of human rights organization, MANUSHI, sought to address the countless appeals regarding various issues and concerns of applicants nationwide received by her. Most of the appeals revolved around safety concerns and fear of contracting the coronavirus disease and thus jeopardizing the safety of family members.

In the letter, she pointed out how the recently organized KCET and B.Ed exam in UP were a clear indication of how it would be nearly impossible to implement the distancing and safety guidelines in the overcrowded examination centres. The overwhelming shortage of examination centres in the light of distancing norms was also mentioned in the letter. She also stated how many IIT and AIIMS directors were of the opinion that the exams could be conducted in November without significant academic loss.

Another very important fact mentioned in the letter was regarding the applicants from countries like the UAE and Qatar. Due to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone arriving in the country from overseas, it will be very tricky for these applicants and their parents to travel under the current scenario. Parents of nearly 4000 applicants in these countries abroad had filed a plea for either postponing the exams or conducting them abroad. However, the NTA, after consulting with the MCI, ruled that conducting the exams overseas is not a viable option which means that all these candidates will be left stranded. Even if they manage to fly to India for appearing in the exams, they will then be subject to various guidelines issued by their parent countries abroad.

Multiple politicians also voiced similar concerns regarding the decision. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi urged the government to consider the concerns of the students appearing for the entrance examinations. Manish Sisodia, Aam Aadmi Party leader and the deputy CM of Delhi also echoed similar thoughts. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy on Sunday came up with 13 points concerning logistical issues as well as safety concerns in the argument for the need of postponing the exams.

Another very strong argument in favour of postponing the exams was the lack of public transport services due to lockdown in many districts and states of the country. While those who had arrangements for private vehicles would not face any issue, the others would be left stranded in the absence of the various means of public transports. Lastly, many states are still under various degrees of lockdown as the overall situation of the country is still not very great in terms of daily coronavirus cases. This would also make movement for those applicants with examination centres away from their native places very difficult.

The debate surrounding the NEET and JEE exams has become quite a heated issue around the country. With so many applicants and their parents asking for the postponement of the exams due to various safety concerns, it remains to be seen if the government would still go ahead in organizing these exams as planned.

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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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