Are we alone in this universe?

The answer to the question can never be “yes”, for not every nook and cranny of the universe can ever be searched. Instead, the day we can say “no” for sure is nearing.

The chief scientist of the US space agency NASA, Ellen Stofan, recently said, “I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade, and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years.”

This new optimism among astronomers is buoyed by many factors. Mainly made possible because of the increasing capabilities of astronomers to peer into the sky and collect lots of useful information.

Take for instance the explosion in the discovery of exoplanets—that is, planets found around stars other than our sun. We have nearly 2,000 confirmed possible alien worlds and another 2,000 waiting to be approved. These exoplanets, detected by the faint decrease in starlight as a planet crosses it, come in many shapes and sizes. But a recent estimate suggests that as many as one in five sun-like stars have planets that can host life.

The famous Drake equation—a thought experiment that estimates the number of detectable civilisation in our galaxy—has “average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets” as one among its seven determining factors. The higher the average, the greater the number of detectable civilisations in the Milky Way. And the data is saying that the favourable conditions required to create life are more common than we previously thought.

Fiction no more

But there is a counter argument, too. Almost all the exoplanets discovered are in the Milky Way, and at least some of the habitable ones have existed for as long as 10 billion years. That is twice the length of time the Earth has had to create us.

Thus, if there are indeed some alien civilisations on any of these planets, at least one ought to have developed the capability of space travel. And, even if their spacecrafts travelled at a fraction of the speed of light, they should have colonised the entire galaxy in a few million years. But that hasn’t happened. So perhaps life is not all that common as it may seem.

So, if the Milky Way is barren, what is it that we can do to look farther to find life? Looking for life outside the Milky Way is much more difficult. So far, we have confirmed the existence of only two exoplanets outside our galaxy. But there are good reasons to believe that the average number of habitable exoplanets in other galaxies would be similar to that in the Milky Way.

A recent study, published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggests that if we are to believe in the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced civilisation, once evolved, will take over an entire galaxy, then we may have a plausible way of looking for life at the intergalactic scale. To come to this conclusion, the study marries science fiction and cutting edge research.

In a 1937 novel, Olaf Stapledon proposed that an advanced civilisation will try to capture as much energy as is produced by its star so as to continue to grow. This it could do by building a sphere enclosing the home star, so as to capture every photon emitted. Thus, if such a civilisation spreads through the galaxy, we may have entire habited galaxies become dull to our eyes on Earth because they emit less light.

But, in a twist Stapledon would be pleased to hear, in his study Roger Griffith at Pennsylvania State University suggests that such “dark galaxies” would emit a peculiar infrared signal and could perhaps be found. He scoured the data of 100,000 galaxies collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer and found about 50 galaxies that fit the criteria.

So, even if the Milky Way is barren, the answer to the age-old question of whether we are alone in the universe may not be negative. And, yet, it is quite possible that Griffith’s findings may also have a mundane explanation, such as large swathes of interstellar dust blocking the galaxy from Earth. We need to work harder to find out.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image by bflv. under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

How do you define what is “Indian”?

In his wonderful new book, The Sceptical Patriot, Sidin Vadukut, a journalist with LiveMint, tries to assess the haughty claims Indians make. Was the zero really invented in India? What about plastic surgery? Did India never invade another nation? And was it the richest country in the world at some point?

As a trained scientist, I’ve learned to be sceptical about everything. So it is no wonder I enjoyed the book. But, for me, the best part of the book was the last few pages. In them, Vadukut tries to explain the value of knowing history. One of his epiphanies from the exercise of writing the book is that “there is no such thing, ethnically speaking, as an Indian.”

There is a genetic basis to this argument, because for thousands of years the native south Asian population has mixed with Mongols, Greeks, Persians, British, Mughals, French, Portuguese and Arabs, and those populations have previously mingled with others around the world. Indeed, centuries of casteism has left its mark on Indians today, but it would be near impossible to find a citizen today who is “purely Indian”.

But some people will easily dismiss this biological mixing, and point out to our distinct Indian cultural heritage. Surely that is different and unique from the rest of the world?

Columbus, Columbus

Well, not really. Vadukut argues that “an entire planet’s worth of history courses through our veins”, and there is no better way to look at that than to look at our everyday meals. Consider the ingredients of just two such quintessentially Indian dishes: rajma and aloo gobi.

Kidney beans, tomato, green chilli, potatoes and cauliflower are all foreign imports. Apart from gobi, which came from Turkey, all the ingredients were given to the world by the Spanish and the Portuguese, after Christopher Columbus’s famous 1492 voyage to the Americas (or as he assumed, then, to India). The contribution is known as the Columbian Exchange, and marks the time when a whole bunch of other foods started being used in cuisines around the world. These also include maize, cocoa, vanilla, oranges, bananas and pineapples.

Many of the spices that make up garam masala are not of Indian origin. But, without potatoes and tomatoes, we wouldn’t have delicacies such as pav bhajidum aloo or masala dosa. 

I pick out these two ingredients because their arrival in India is a lot more recent. According to British records, potatoes became a mainstay in Indian diets only in the 1700s. And, according to the great food historian KT Achaya, Indian cooking adopted tomatoes as late as the 1880s.

“In less than a century, an entire country, with about 18% of the world population and impossibly diverse culinary cultures and preferences, went from looking at the tomato with suspicion to consuming it with absolutely everything,” writes Vadukut. How, then, do you define what is “Indian”?

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia.

Glorifying the past is just a way of avoiding today’s grave problems

History beat out Marathi, marginally, as my least favourite subject at school. I would have loved history textbooks if I were allowed to read them like novels. But, no, we were made to mug up facts. Battle of Plassey took place on 23 June, 1757. The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter on June 26, 1214. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June, 1914 … and so on the facts kept coming in thick packets and without time to digest.

And I kept asking, “What’s the point of studying history?” But never got a satisfactory answer till my teenage hormones had been supplanted by adult maturity. When I did get one, I could finally lay to rest all the unjust curses various historical figures had to bear because they committed historically important acts on bizarre dates and under twisted circumstances.

The real value of history is not, as most think, in “teaching” us to avoid mistakes made in the past. For history is never repeated and no two years are ever alike, how much ever writers would love to draw parallels. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker contends that not studying history would commit humanity to the trouble of “presentism”, where we might exaggerate “our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed”. Thus believing that “things are much worse than they have ever been”.

Making history do our bidding

In India, the exact opposite happens. Historical facts are misinterpreted or, worse, made up and turned into jingoistic propaganda. Instead of worrying about the troubles we face today, we proudly boast about our historical achievements and claim that independent India’s potential is no different.

When talking about the country’s achievements, our leaders like to skip the period when conquerors pillaged and the British ruled, and look at the “golden past”. A time when, they believe, India’s wealth in the world was unparalleled and our achievements unprecedented.

Because a lot of Indian kings of that supposed golden era were no benevolent dictators, these leaders choose to talk about our intellectual achievements, especially those in science. You must have heard from respectable people about how we had invented planes that could fly to Mars and back, how plastic surgery was used to stitch an elephant’s head on a human, and how we made medicine to bring the dead back to life.

“This effort of creating a false history of science in India is a spectacularly bad example of the absurd lengths to which attempts at glorification of our past can go,” said leading scientist Roddam Narasimha in an editorial in Current Science.

If Gopnik’s worry for the West about not studying history is suffering from presentism, then Indians need to worry about suffering from pastism. Our perception of our past is blocking us from working on the grave problems we face today.

And we find ourselves in this position because of two reasons. First, we have not invested enough in studying the history of science in India. Second, we ignore the voices of the few scholars who have uncovered at least some of the true history of science in India.

In 2009, the Indian National Science Academy celebrated 50 years since the conception of the history of science programme. In an article that year, AK Bag, editor of the Indian Journal of History of Science, said that despite the programme’s efforts only about 40 source manuscripts have been thoroughly studied, leaving more than 100 such documents untouched in oriental libraries.

To be sure, there have been some remarkable achievements made by ancient Indian science. These include the first recorded use of plastic surgery to heal broken noses, the development and application of many key theorems in algebra, and even correctly predicting the motions of the solar system (centuries ahead of the Greeks). And, as we scour source documents, more are bound to be revealed. But that is no reason to make up fantastical notions of what our ancestors achieved.

This kind of behaviour may come about because, according to Narasimha, we do not have reliable history-of-science books for the masses. Without the right facts, teachers suffer, education is incomplete and it is easy to manipulate public perception. “Somebody needs to write such books,” Narasimha concluded.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia. This post was corrected to attribute the Current Science quote to Narasimha.