Thursday, August 13, 2020

US Hegemony in World Affairs- In for a Change?

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Nikhita Gautam

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US Hegemony in World Affairs- In for a Change?


Global Views 360

Publication Date

August 13, 2020


The US Passport

The US Passport | Source: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

The collapse of Soviet Union in the late 1980s brought an end to the cold war being fought through proxies by the USA and USSR. This heralded an era in which the USA emerged as the sole superpower which started to dominate the globe in a way that no country has done in recorded history.

This domination was based on brute strength the US enjoyed in the field of military power, economic power, scientific research, democratic institutions, and above all the American ideology which frames it as an exceptional country. Off late there are signs which indicate that a process of decline in this domination has started.

The US domination was evident in the adoption of liberal economic and governance models by the former Soviet bloc and non-aligned countries during the 1980s and 1990s. This neo-liberal model relied on international cooperation and globalisation was its rallying cry. This allowed international organisations like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO to force smaller countries to make their fiscal policies as per their models. It also nudged countries to join various multinational Free Trade Agreements (FTA).

The other aspect of global cooperation was different agreements on climate control, arms control, missile technology control, nuclear non-proliferation, terror funding, anti piracy, and international criminal justice system. In all the economic, security or governance related international mechanisms, it was the US soft and hard power which stood as a guarantor.

Over time, the unrivalled hegemony of the US started showing some cracks. Russian economy recovered from the ashes of the collapsed USSR and the country underwent a massive overhaul of its military. It once again started challenging the USA in eastern Europe and the Middle East. From Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo, or Iceland in Europe to Iran, Syria, Yemen, or  Libya in MENA to Venezuela in South America, Russia and the USA are backing opposing forces.

Photo of Chinese city Shanghai from the rooftop of Jin Mao Tower, 23rd tallest building in the world | Source: Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash

China has also quietly gained a lot of influence in the developing and underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa at the time when the USA is seen retreating. This process has hastened in the last decade when China, buoyed by a rising economy, started investing in the infrastructure of Asian and African countries without any baggage of human right concerns which normally comes with the USA or European countries.

China and Russia anchored many new international institutions like BRICS, New Development Bank, AIIB, EAEU, SCO, which tackle regional security, military cooperation, economic infrastructure and internet governance. All of these exclude America. Apart from these countries, India, Brazil and other emerging regional powers also started challenging the USA narratives on geopolitical and economic affairs.

Donald Trump holding a press conference | Source: The White House via Flickr    

That, and how the current president Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized allies, sympathized with dictators, issued travel bans, undermined international organizations like WHO and NATO, and pulled back from treaties. These actions leave a leadership role that America played in the past to be fulfilled, which further advances the China-Russia agenda.

The unhinged rhetoric of the US President Donald Trump has also played a role in emboldened the adversary as well as friends of the USA to increasingly chart an independent course which may be diametrically opposite to the US stand. His focus on America First has dented the post WW-II US moral leadership which based on  the divine responsibility of helping the world.

The US has always had an interventionist approach where they “help” and “lead” the rest of the world, giving them more power, which comes with both rights and responsibilities. Trump has rejected that and instead made an “America first” which focuses on material, fiscal gains rather than ideological ones. This can be seen in how President Trump tries to broker deals with money rather than cultural and ideological nuances in conflicts such as the widely criticized Israel-Palestine peace plan.

A person holding US Dollars | Source: Viacheslav Bublyk via Unsplash

There is also how the usage of the dollar for global trade, while providing the country global dominance, cheap goods and borrowing costs, also makes it run a trade deficit, which Trump endeavours to reduce. That, however, might prove impossible without changing the global currency in itself. The fact that America extorts political leverage using economic methods like sanctions also made many countries look for the replacement of the US dollar as preferred currency for global trade.

Another casualty of America first is the withdrawal of the USA from many international treaties and agreements under President Trump watch. The US withdrew from Arms control treaties with Russia, Free Trade agreements with Canada and Mexico, International climate treaty, Iran nuclear deal, UNESCO, UNHRC, UNRWA, WTO, TPP and many other significant international and bilateral agreements under President Trump.

The US withdrawal has inflamed the allies and emboldened the adversaries of the USA. Its allies in Europe are increasingly taking an independent stand on foriegn policy and looking for raising a Europe centric security setup, independent of NATO. They are also strengthening intra-EU trade and standing up to the US pressure on trade policies.

Similarly Russia and China have increased their influence in multinational bodies as they have now become the militarily and economically strongest countries after the withdrawal of the US.

The era of US dominance in world affairs since the end of WW-II in general and after the collapse of the USSR in particular is now resting on very fragile legs. No amount of policy change by the new administration in the USA, to be headed by Trump or Joe Biden, is going to reverse the emergence of a multipolar world in which the US, with all its might, will be one of the poles.

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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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