Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Symbols of the racist past still prevalent in the United States

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Syed Ahmed Uzair

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Symbols of the racist past still prevalent in the United States


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 12, 2020


A person wearing Blackface

A person wearing Blackface | Source:  foundin_a_attic via Flickr | Source: Wikimedia

George Floyd’s recent death while in Police custody has sparked protests across the entire United States. While it did expose the way Black Americans are policed, it also initiated a much deeper conversation about the prevalent racism faced by Black Americans in almost all aspects of modern life.

Many symbols of the racist past still exist across the US, more so in the Southern states. The recent trigger of protests and the BLM movement has initiated a discussion about these symbols once again. While some argue that it is important to preserve these symbols owing to the American culture, the majority of the people seem to be agreeing that these are symbols of oppression and injustice.

Thomas D. Rice is pictured while performing his blackface role — Jim Crow | Source: Edward Williams Clay via Wikimedia

In the mid to late 19th century, white actors quite commonly employed the use of black grease paint to depict slaves and free blacks on stage. The technique commonly known as blackface was more than just facial makeup. Rather, it was used as a symbol for mocking the African-Americans as inferiors in every aspect of life.

Blackface seemed to have disappeared in the 1960s thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. It however reappeared in the 1980s on college campuses in the wake of steps taken to bring more African Americans to campus. An old yearbook picture from Langley School resurfaced recently revealing the then-principal and vice-principal dressed as whiteface and blackface for Halloween. The current leadership of the school have issued apologies stating that the incident should not have happened.

Despite a racist history surrounding blackface, a recent survey by Pew Research Centre revealed that nearly one-third of Americans surveyed did not find anything offensive in blackface being used at Halloween.

Newspaper ad for Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancake mix, 1923 | Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

Aunt Jemima, a 130-year-old syrup and pancake mix brand owned by Quaker Oats depicts a black woman named Aunt Jemima who was originally dressed as a minstrel character. The company has earlier made tweaks to the picture of the black woman in response to the criticism it received for propagating a racial stereotype. In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the brand would be rejuvenated to feature a new name and image.

Image of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States | Source: Wikimedia

Andrew Jackson, the seventh US president and his family employed hundreds of enslaved people in building their wealth. However, to date, Jackson still haunts Black Americans with his presence on the twenty-dollar bills in the wallets of these Americans. The Trump administration’s decision to not replace the bill featuring Jackson with one that would feature abolitionist Harriet Tubman as proposed earlier does not help the nation’s troubled history with Racism.

Similar symbols of the US racist past exist across the entire country, starting from streets named after Confederate officers to congested highways specifically designed to ensure isolation of Black neighborhoods. Football and baseball games in the country still feature the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key, a person who used his power as district attorney to prosecute Black men.

George Floyd’s death was the perfect trigger for all the anger and frustration against the systematic injustice that has been meted out to Black people. However, it also served well to initiate debates over the omnipresence of these racial symbols across the country that serve as memorials to slavery and white supremacy.

As many as 800 Confederate statues and monuments have been removed ever since the BLM protests erupted in the country. A few of these racial symbols in the US suffered the brunt of BLM protesters who defaced homages and toppled statues of founding fathers who had profited from slavery.

Those against the removal of these symbols argue that these men merely failed in morality due to the socio-political environment they inhabited. Alvita Akiboh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan, however, disagrees with the notion. “Just because slavery was accepted among white elites or even the broader white population at the time does not mean it was accepted by everybody, because everybody includes Black people who were enslaved, indigenous people who were pushed off their lands in order to expand plantation slavery,” said Akiboh.

Others, including US President Donald Trump, have employed the notion of removing these symbols as the equivalent of “ripping American history and culture apart”. To this Akiboh voices her opinion saying that the majority of these symbols were erected decades after the civil-war conflict ended. She argues that they are merely “a reminder for Black and brown people to remember their place”.

As the BLM protests gain momentum and support globally the scrutiny of the racist symbols in the US shall increase manifold. With the government not willing to push for major reforms and removal of these racist symbols and an adamant public demanding an end to the systematic discrimination based on race, the road ahead for the recial relation in the US is a difficult and complicated one.

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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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