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The Interstellar Comet Has Arrived in Time for the Holidays



It came out of the Northern sky, a frozen breath of gas and dust from the genesis of some distant star, launched across the galaxy by the gravitational maelstroms that accompany the birth of worlds.

It wandered in the deep freeze of interstellar space for 100 million years or so, a locked vault of cosmo-chemical history. In Spring 2019 this ice cube began falling into our own solar system. Feeble heat from the sun, still distant, loosened carbon monoxide from its surface into a faint, glowing fog; the orphan ice cube became a new comet.

Six months later, Gennady Borisov, a Crimean astronomer, saw it drifting in front of the constellation Cancer and sounded the alarm.

On Sunday, Dec. 8 the comet that now bears his name — 2I Borisov — will make a wide turn around the sun and began heading back out of the solar system. As it departs, it will steadily brighten and grow in size as sunlight continues to shake off the dust from a long, cold sleep. On Dec. 28 the comet will pass 180 million miles from Earth, its closest approach to our planet.

This procession is being greeted with hungry eyes by a species only just knocking on the door of interstellar exploration and eager for news from out there.

“I think the sense of excitement stems in part from the timing of these discoveries,” Dr. Laughlin said. Oumuamua and Borisov, he added, augur well for a new telescope the National Science Foundation is building in Chile called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will sweep the entire sky every few days, producing in effect a movie of the universe.

That telescope will be superbly positioned to find more interloper comets, perhaps even in time to send probes to greet them with Deep Impact-style missions. “The situation is reminiscent of when the first exoplanets were detected,” Dr. Laughlin said.

That discovery occurred in 1995, shortly before the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was built without exoplanets in mind, was launched.

Astronomers have long suspected that if anything came calling from another star system, it would be comets. New stars and planetary systems are surrounded by vast clouds of icy leftover fragments, so the story goes. These snowballs are easily dislodged by passing stars and knocked hither and fro — many inward toward their mother star and its planets, but others outward across the galaxy.

Until now, astronomers have lacked telescopes big and sensitive enough to detect them. Now, with telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Pan-STARRS in Hawaii, which discovered Oumuamua, they do.

Thus far, the two examples of interstellar comets that humans have observed could not be more different. Oumuamua was mistaken for an asteroid at first because it had no cometary cloud of gas and dust around it, at least that could be seen. But as it was traveling out of sight, small perturbations in its motion suggested that in fact the rock was actually a comet, being pushed around by jets of gas shooting from its surface.

Estimates of the object’s shape — long and cigarlike — spurred speculation that it could be an alien probe or even a solar sail. Recent analysis by Sergey Mashchenko, an astrophysicist at McMaster University in Ontario, has concluded that Oumuamua was less a rod than a thin slab rocking back and forth as sunlight and radiation wore it away.

“It was vanishing as it went away, like a bar of soap in the shower,” Dr. Laughlin said.

Borisov, in contrast, is thriving, sprouting a typically bushy, radiant tail. As a comet, it would be utterly ordinary if not for its origin. “Nothing about Borisov is weird,” Dr. Laughlin said. “With Oumuamua, everything was weird.”

Borisov looked like a comet from the start, enveloped in a cloud of gas, which is what enabled Mr. Borisov to recognize it so quickly. And everything the visitor has done since then has suggested that at least some comets out there are more or less like our neighborhood comets.

Mr. Borisov’s comet underwent an astronomical rite of passage of sorts in October, when the Hubble Space Telescope got a good look at it: a white knuckle at the head of a bluish fan of light.

Subsequent observations by telescopes on Earth have confirmed the presence of alien water and carbon monoxide as well as a growing list of chemicals from another part of the universe. As of Nov. 24, the comet’s tail had grown to 100,000 miles long. The comet’s nucleus is only a mile across.

Early in November, the Gemini observatory spotted the wanderer passing about a billion light-years in front of a spiral galaxy “romantically known” as 2dFgrS TGN363Z174, said Travis Rector, an astronomer from the University of Alaska Anchorage who was involved in taking the photograph. As if to tease us humans with a reminder of places unknown and unvisitable, the backdrop to the portrait is speckled with faint smudges of even more distant galaxies and stars.


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Students Study Science and Soccer “Outside” the Classroom – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth




Teachers in the Frisco Independent School District are taking their lesson plans on the road. Lessons that are part of the curriculum are being taught off-campus by guest teachers from FC Dallas.

The soccer team and the school district joined forces for a STEM learning day, to show middle schools how science and sports work together.

“So many of the kids are into sports and soccer in particular and I love how they can see what they study in school is part of their athletic world,” said teacher Joy Tran.

In one scenario, the FC Dallas team got locked inside their locker room and the students had to use their physics skills to crack the code of the lock and open the locker room.

It didn’t end there, once inside another STEM exercise was waiting, using soccer balls.

“It’s much more different than reading an article it’s special to see things with your own eyes,” said student Jack Bodwell.

They worked on player stats and team management to study statistics and reached out to students, not into sports.

“A lot of people think a career in sports means I have to be a professional athlete or coach on the field not true,” said Brooke Leverette with FC Dallas.

Teachers said taking the same material and just changing how its presented makes a big difference in not just engaging the students but helping them remember what they’ve learned.


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How Nehru’s Politics Hobbled Modern India’s Use of Technology for Development




Popular histories of technology are usually histories of successful inventors. Often, it involves a lone male maverick at work, far from the machinations of the world. This entrepreneurial streak in our narratives of technology is unsatisfactory because it elides what is most fascinating about such stories: the political life of technologies. Arun Mohan Sukumar‘s book Midnight’s Machines is unequivocal in its intent: it offers a lucid critique of India’s fraught relationship with machines. Significantly, it is a story marked by failures.

After 1947, a fledgling Indian state was grappling with the bloodbath of the partition, the post-war reconstruction of its economy and its newfound political autonomy. Technology, as Sukumar shows, was an integral part of the Nehruvian script for national development. Jawaharlal Nehru has been lionised by scientists and historians as a cultivator of ‘scientific temper’ and as an institution builder for science. Sukumar, while conceding as much, points to Nehru’s vision of modern technology as largely responsible for the lack of technological diffusion in India. He illustrates this through a close reading of Nehru’s own words and the failures of the government’s cherished schemes.

The Nehruvian years were characterised by limited foreign trade, with imports restricted to basic machinery. Nehru, in a bid to democratise modern machines in a predominantly agrarian economy, launched the Community Development Scheme (CDS) in 1952. Sukumar notes that this scheme, with its focus on rural infrastructure and food production, was also an exercise in familiarising people with the “higher techniques” (in Nehru’s words) of modern civilisation. By the government’s own estimation, this scheme of rural mobilisation was a failure. The nature of this scheme occupies historians even today, but Sukumar underscores Nehru’s outlook on technology as culpable in its demise. The Nehruvian state is portrayed as deeply skeptical of modern technology’s ability to liberate society, evidenced in the CDS’s lack of investment in crucial innovations like tractors and synthetic fertilisers.

”Nehru”, notes Sukumar, “wanted Indians to be arbiters of their material progress”, but the reality of a “control and command” economy meant that the state was the true arbiter in this process. The pressure of import substitution industrialisation was also felt by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who were called upon to “nativise technology” aimed at domestic markets. As Sukumar recounts, Nehru was frustrated by the scientists’ inability to aid industry, a fact that sits uncomfortably with the many hagiographies of Indian scientists.

Midnight’s Machines
Arun Mohan Sukumar
Penguin Viking, December 2019

Nehru’s preference for capital goods over imported consumer goods leads Sukumar to conclude that the private sector was “kept at arm’s length”. There is a danger here of too reductive a reading of Nehruvian planning, one that obscures the role of industrialists in independent India’s technological narrative. While the Indian state underwrote the capitalist enterprise, private firms did partake in the technological project. The nature of this participation and the capital-caste nexus that undergirded the Nehruvian state goes unexamined in this book.

Sukumar excels in tracing the effects of geopolitical pressures on the state’s ability to industrialise. The insufficiency of the military infrastructure brought to bare by the 1962 war with China, the impact of the Cold War on non-aligned India and the political fallout of the 1965 war on US-India relations are all handled with exceptional clarity. This is equally true of Sukumar’s study of the Indira Gandhi government’s ‘appropriate technology’ movement, with its investment in low-cost and smaller scale technologies. He effectively brings out the duplicity of Gandhi’s scheme that enforced increased regulations on import technologies, while investing heavily in a nuclear programme that did not produce a single watt of electricity in the first two decades of its existence.

And if the Department of Atomic Energy did less with more, the Indian Space Research Organisation known for doing more with less is also suspect. The frugality of the space organisation, Sukumar notes, is built on its inability to pay its scientists anywhere near its global competitors and in the nature of the projects it pursues. As historians have argued, an accounting of ISRO’s success must consider its impact on proximate industries.

However, for a book about the political history of technology, there is precious little about people’s negotiations with it. People’s perspectives enter this book through surveys conducted by researchers, and in the cavalier claim that people are mired in a fog of disinformation due to the state’s reluctance to educate. As Amita Baviskar’s work shows, political opposition to state projects was often about an inequitable distribution of land and technologies, a skepticism borne out by the experience of marginalised communities. Political contentions over labour rights and trade unionism are likewise sidelined in this book.

The same holds true for Sukumar’s handling of institutes of technical education. While Nehru’s lament over the “brain drain” of IIT graduates to greener pastures is addressed, the structural bias towards an upper-caste and masculine rationality in these institutions receives scant attention.

There is a deeper point to be made here about the kind of technologies investigated in this book. Sukumar is concerned foremost with technological innovation, as seen in his choice of technologies: fertilisers, solar cookers, electronics, IT, automobiles, biological research, mass media, PCs and nuclear technology, to name a few. From the sectors left out – coal, iron and steel, mining, oil and gas, textiles, railways, construction, public works, shipping, medical infrastructure, and handicrafts – it is clear that technology has been associated with novelty, and with novel sectors.

The book’s organisation embraces a teleology identified with the gradual opening up of the country’s technological fate to the market (the book begins with the Nehruvian ‘Age of Innocence’, followed by the ‘Age of Doubt’ with Indira Gandhi at the helm, the pangs of partial liberalisation of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the ‘Age of Struggle’, and the post-liberalisation years with the IT industry take-off as an ‘Age of Rediscovery’).

Framed this way, Sukumar can boldly claim that the 1980s was a period when “Indians were waking up to technology after decades of enforced slumber.” This identification of technology with innovation obscures the changing politics of technologies in use. Indeed, it renders invisible the distribution of these techniques due to structural inequalities of caste and class. This is not to suggest that stories of technological innovation are unimportant, but that our histories of innovation must address the tension between the ‘old’ and the new. Thus, Sukumar’s analysis of the Human Genome Project rests on the assumption that it would build Indian scientific capacity “in ancillary domains such as agriculture or animal husbandry”, even though he adduces no evidence to this claim.

An innovation-centric understanding of technology conditions not only our histories but our imagined futures. Sukumar’s characterisation of contemporary India is similarly based on the new. His study of Nandan Nilekani and the Aadhar project lacks the sharpness that characterise earlier chapters. The attention paid to Narendra Modi’s rhetoric on technology over the material outcomes of his government’s policies likewise renders his analysis thin. This is, after all, a government that is failing to straddle the technological chasm between the new and the old. For every Digital India, Smart Cities and bullet train project, we have the equally floundering Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, ‘Make in India’ and the LPG scheme.

Similarly, the apogee of ‘efficient governance’, Aadhaar, is up against an inadequate electricity grid resulting in starvation deaths. The NRC exercise in Assam and the proposed India-wide NRC rest on this same contradiction. To avail the services of an efficient technocratic state, citizens must navigate a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, with their allegiance resting on their ability to produce one of the oldest technologies around: their papers. That this targets the most vulnerable groups amongst us is by design.

Books like Midnight’s Machines are important because they seek to make transparent the workings of an opaque state. Indira Gandhi’s surveillance state and the ‘appropriate technology’ policy that Sukumar illuminates are examples of what Lewis Mumford called authoritarian technics, a system of technological coercion that only furthers the interests of the ruling class. While this book effectively demonstrates that technologies serve powerful political ends, its very appeal is a reminder that the analysis of powerful techniques is never apolitical.

Shankar Sunil Nair is a postgraduate student on a PhD track in the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine at King’s College London.


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China’s Battle With a Deadly Coronavirus, in Photos




The spread of a deadly respiratory virus has prompted the authorities to limit travel in cities in central China, including Wuhan, where the disease was first found last month. It has since spread to at least four other countries.

The outbreak comes just before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on Friday, as hundreds of millions of people travel across China. Epidemiologists fear that could make the virus harder to contain.

Here’s a look at the public health crisis in photos.

A railway station in Beijing. China expanded restrictions on travel that will apply to tens of millions of people.

A supermarket in Wuhan, where masks are now everyday clothing.

A mall in Wuhan. The provincial capital of Hubei is usually busy during the holiday season.

A security guard disinfecting a park in Wuhan.

Paramilitary police officers guarding an entrance to the closed Hankou Railroad Station in Wuhan. Public transit and outbound trains were to stop service at midnight.

A train from Shanghai to Wuhan. Services are usually packed as the Lunar New Year approaches.

Staff members checking the temperature of passengers after a train from Wuhan arrived in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province.

Arriving at the nearly deserted Wuhan station.

A hospital worker washing the entrance to the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, which handled some coronavirus patients.

Officials screening arrivals in Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Travelers arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport from China.

Visitors at the Venetian casino hotel resort in Macau, after the region reported its first case of the coronavirus.

Medical staff members wearing protective suits at the Zhongnan Hospital in Wuhan.

Workers producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China’s northern Hebei Province.

Hankou Train Station in Wuhan.

The Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, above on Jan. 17, has been disinfected and closed after it was linked to the new coronavirus.


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