Tag Archives: science

Science observations with Venus Express during an eclipse

At certain orbital inclinations, Venus Express goes through the shadow of the planet and experiences an eclipse. The Sun-Venus-spacecraft orbit geometry is such that these eclipses occur approximately every three months, and the duration of each of these ‘seasons’ is about one month. Eclipses present a unique science opportunity. As the spacecraft enters and leaves the eclipse, its instruments can observe sunlight passing through the venusian atmosphere, making it possible to indirectly study the composition and structure of the atmosphere itself.

Full article published on the ESA Science and Technology website on 6 November 2012.


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Living with uncertainty

It may seem obvious, but it cannot be said often enough: science is not merely a list of Things We Know.

Science includes all our knowledge about the physical world, and our understanding of its processes and mechanisms, but perhaps most important of all is the scientific method. It is the method of finding things out.

It involves rigorously questioning what one sees, watching it unfold while carefully observing and measuring it, describing the how and why without bias. Then letting others challenge our perception, and put our ideas to the test.

The scientific method also involves being aware of the errors that can creep into this process, and constantly testing our laws, theories, observations, and their accuracy. It involves being aware of the limits of this knowledge for a realistic grip on the Things (we think) We Know.

The history of the application of the scientific method also shows that the context in which we understand things changes regularly. One obvious example is the long-held belief of the Earth as the centre of the Universe which was later turned on its head.

Grappling with knowledge

So what are the unknowns and errors that we must be aware of in the scientific process?

There several types of unknowns. At TWDK, we will deal only with scientific uncertainty in an experimental result:

– The facts that we haven’t come across yet and whose existence we cannot predict or are unaware of – the Things (we don’t know that) We Don’t Know

– The gaps in our knowledge that we are seeking the answers to – the Things (we know that) We Don’t Know

– The inaccuracies in our existing knowledge – the Things We Don’t (quite) Know (even if we thought we did)

Delve deeper into types of unknowns.

Here at TWDK, we seek to deal with the second and third type.

Let us try and tackle the third type of unknown: the uncertainty implicit in what we do know, or rather, Things (we think) We Know.

How do we come to know?

We use experimental observation to measure what we see objectively and precisely. There are limits to the precision of our instruments, the techniques that we use, and even to our own objectivity. These shortcomings bring ‘uncertainty’ into scientific experiments.

To narrow in on reality, we must continuously improve our theories and models, instruments and experiments. To do this we must understand where these uncertainties creep in, and devise ways to overcome them.

Knowing what we don’t know

Uncertainty must be dealt with in each field, at each level, in its own way. There are several stages where it may creep in.

Assumptions may be have been made before experimentation. Delve deeper into Occam’s Razor.

Sampling errors may be encountered when dealing with a small sample (piece or amount) of something too large to measure all at once, such as a cup of water from a river. How can we be sure this sample is representative of the bigger picture? If this cup had a lot of pollutants in it, how can we be certain are we that the whole river does? Taking a bigger sample, or many little samples, can improve confidence in our results.

Any experimental observation will have an error associated with it. These errors may originate from fundamental physical limits that limit the accuracy of the measurement, instrument inaccuracy, deficiencies in the measurement technique, or inadequacies in analysis, among other factors. These may be represented as an error bar on a graph or a plot, or within disclaimers. The relative error, or the magnitude of the error (difference between the exact value and the appoximation) as compared to the magnitude of the exact value, is important too. Delve deeper into error.

The failure to replicate can raise its head, even for strong results. In such cases, replication of the experiment does not provide the same result (within the expected margin of error).

Readers are invite to tell leave comments and tell me if I’ve missed anything in the list above.

Dealing with uncertainty

It is very hard to maintain the awareness of these shortcomings routinely as some of this information is unavailable at times. To complicate matters further, popular science writing may not include any mention of uncertainties in findings at all. There are also examples of cases where statistics are deliberately manipulated to favour a certain result, or obfuscated to communicate a different inference.

Ultimately, all known scientific facts rest upon uncertainties. This doesn’t automatically mean they’re wrong, but it may be possible for us to improve upon them. This awareness is extremely important for scientific literacy. This is why there is a need for skepticism, and to make space in our minds for Things We Don’t Know.

There are things that we can do to minimise error in our observations or measurements. We’ll deal with this in another blog post.

This is a post for Things We Don’t Know, a new project that’s also on blogger and Twitter.

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Dhanvantri school: one true face of development

Those among us who do not have all their senses intact, exist in a parallel universe. A fortunate person like me can only imagine what this universe is like. No matter how deep our empathy, our cognitive abilities prevent us from experiencing their reality.

I come from a family that has been involved in education at different stages. My grandfather was a Head Teacher for a period of 26 years at two different schools in our native village of Sidhpur in North Gujarat. His pedagogical style reflected in his interactions with his grandchildren, the letters he wrote to us, his style of speaking and sharing, and manifested especially strongly when his grown-up students visited him in his old age.

I also have quite a lot of direct experience with hearing impaired students. My mother works as a special educator for such children, and I’ve grown up in a house that my friends termed a practical school. These experiences have moulded my persona and stayed with me no matter where I went.

In my late teens I travelled to Germany for a basic degree in Astrophysics. My postgraduate education took me to France, and I later travelled to Singapore and the Netherlands for work at private companies, as well as the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.

As a science communications expert specialised in Space and Astronomy topics, I deal daily with the issues of science education and public understanding of science. I have a special interest in science education, especially of girls, and am investigating ways that can help turn basic science education into scientific literacy, for mothers and children, and from them, to the community and wider public.

This is a grave challenge that extends well beyond the classroom. Science education begins with a tailored curriculum that includes information that is very obviously relevant to our daily lives, and also imparts information and methods that will take the students further and teach them the scientific method and mode of thinking. The latter is key to taking science education and helps turn it into scientific literacy.

I am especially unaware of the mechanisms at work in rural areas in a developing country such as India, so I visited Dhanvantri school hoping for a tiny little glimpse into this world. I wanted a peek into how Dr. Shantuben Patel and her teachers deal with parents, how they sensitise and train them to their childrens’ special needs. Science education does not directly relate to this, but I have an inkling feeling that scientific literacy may be of help in opening up families and communities that would otherwise isolate mentally and physically challenged children.

I have known Dr. Patel for over a year now. She has invited me to visit Dhanvantri school several times, but I hesitated, unsure whether I’d actually be able to contribute at all, afraid that I’d end up being a burden instead.

While Dhanvantri School does not focus on science education, I was hoping to get a glimpse of the methods they use to reach out beyond the classroom, into the childrens’ daily lives. For that is where information turns into education, and finally literacy.

I have also had my introduction to Vipassana meditation six years ago, and while I wouldn’t call myself a serious serial practitioner, it is very much a part of my life. The knowledge that these children were practicing basics of meditation also drew me to them. I was keen to witness in person the effect the practice had on them. Sitting with innocent faces in the room for just ten minutes in silence has done more for me than I would ever imagine.

As I observed a normal day unfold at the school, Dr. Patel’s deep insight in dealing with each individual child and their parent, and her understanding of how each case needs to be educated and then treated, came through clearly.

I got to the school without a plan, mostly because I was afraid of being associated with a world that is too far away and remote to be able to say anything relevant to these children whose concerns are far more immediate. Dr. Patel calmed my nerves when she asked me to begin by sharing my story and that of my family with the teachers. She has the foresight to see through my professional facade to a much deeper level. From her own experience, she knows that nothing is possible without a personal struggle. She wanted me to find the words and anecdotes to convey this to her staff, so that they find the strength to continue their own personal and professional exploration.

I entered the room where the teachers were seated for our 20-minute meeting, heavy with the knowledge that these women were doing far more important work for our country’s future than I can begin to imagine. I shared with them about my childhood, my parents, some of their struggles in making sure that their children received a good education, and my own travel and academic as well as professional exploration. Apart from sharing a few beautiful pictures of the Moon, Mars and Saturn, I shared with them my reasons for leaving my dream job and returning to India as a freelancer, and how I was very interested in what they did, as I was trying to study the ways in which they reached out beyond the classroom.

After my talk, which was met by curious and surprised faces, I thought that my work there was practically over, and I was keenly waiting for my friend Danish to arrive and conduct workshops with the students, but I was in for a surprise. I learnt a few hours later that after the teachers returned to the classrooms, the students demanded that I share with them what I had shared with their teachers.

This was far more challenging. I was used to an English-speaking, computer literate audience that had its senses intact. Questions flooded my mind. How do I work these students up to become excited about space? How do I share with them the beauty of a picture of the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the enormity of Jupiter, or the desolation of the Moon? How do I convey to them the thrill of the scientific process, the thrill of enquiry, observation and discovery? I didn’t even know the names of the planets in Gujarati!

I was a little less afraid about being able to reach out to the hearing impaired students, but was at a total loss otherwise.

I was given about 30 minutes to put together a quick pictorial presentation. The response blew me away.

The pictures were enough to hold the gaze of the younger students. As I shared how Jupiter is as massive as a thousand Earths and other such trivia, one of the teachers translated it into sign language for some of the students. The surprise in their eyes bowled me over. I showed them pictures of satellites and moons, and could see them delighted and shocked to hear that Saturn has over 60 moons, to see the red face of Mars, and the glowing beauty of the Cat’s Eye Nebula.

For a science communicator working with astronomy and space – believe it or not – keeping it interesting is a challenge. My audience usually consists of English speakers with a presumed interest in space and astronomy, who are used to hearing astronomical figures and seeing pictures that are out of this world. After a while, they become too jaded to still be surprised by reality, hardened to the wonders of our Universe, and can find the slow process of scientific enquiry to be a drag.

The students at Dhanvantri school were able to grasp big, heavy concepts that seasoned minds find difficult to grasp in their entirety. They intuitively sensed the power of the information and the enormity in the numbers and pictures that I was trying to convey. After describing the pictures on display, I did not need to explain further before they were able to sense what I was saying.

I am hoping to come back with more teaching aids related to space and astronomy so I can take the students a step further from being just a responsive audience.

The next day I also painted a little, but I am hoping to conduct a proper painting workshop the next time, to help them explore creative expression.

If I write that Dr Patel and her team are making a huge difference to the area that they work in, it would be a grave understatement that belies reality.

The truth is that the progress of our nation depends on people such as them. They are the ones who take literacy out of our classrooms and into households, communities, and villages. They educate the parents, give them the tools that they need to deal with the most precious little citizens: our children. They keep the most deprived and challenged of these children from exploitation and from what would otherwise be a substandard life. They are sowing the seeds of progress.

This is the true face of development.

And I can add one more thing safely: we need many more people like Dr. Patel in India’s villages.

I have to thank Dr. Patel and her team for blowing me away with their warmth, compassion, and their ability to work with me to bring out my best effort while I was visiting. And the children, for they only offer true love and warmth in response to your every action.

I will try my best to do what I can to support them, and I hope that you will too.


Dhanvantri school is a special school for the mentally and physically challenged. The students include children that are hearing impaired, hyperactive and cerebral palsy, among other afflictions. The school is managed by Dr. Shantuben Patel, a paediatrician and a neo-natologist, and a team of special educators, who set it up in response to the large numbers of mentally and physically challenged children that turned up at her doorstep as patients while she was still a practising doctor.

Danish Husain’s heartfelt article on Kafila will tell you more about this phenomenal woman and her personal struggle as well as that of her dedicated team, before, through, and after the massive earthquake that hit Bhuj on 26 January 2001.

The school’s operating expenses amount to about 25 lac Indian Rupees, or approximately 60k USD, per year. It relies entirely on funds from generous donors to meet its expenses.

For donations, cheques and drafts can be made payable to “The Child Welfare Trust”. Please mail them to:

Dr. Shantuben Patel
Dhanvantri School
Near Pramukh Swami Char Rasta
Mundhra Relocation Site, Mirzapar Road
Bhuj, Kutch, Gujarat 370 001, India.

Dr. Patel is reachable at +91.2832.291366, or at thechildwelfaretrust@gmail.com or shantubenpatel@gmail.com

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‘Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art’

Poster: Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art

The other day I visited an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. It wouldn’t have been anything special for a student of the sciences, were it not for the story behind how this collection came to be curated.

There were paintings, sculptures and photographs on display – work from a coterie of artists that conveyed the art scence in post-independent India. I’ve never studied the visual arts formally so I’m going to desist from adding any more about the work itself, lest I end up trivialising the matter.

While this is the case, it helps for me to read the accompanying descriptions of the artwork. During this exhibition, this was particularly helpful, possibly also because I can relate to the cultural context without much difficulty.

These paintings are housed at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a Mumbai-based institute that is also one of the most reputed in the country. It was founded just after independence in 1947, by Dr Homi Bhabha, one of India’s best known scientists and a key figure in the country’s atomic energy programme, with support from Indian industrialists and later the government.

The poster aroused my interest because it related a key scientific figure to the arts.

I should explain. I’ve been painting since I was four. I fell sick during a summer vacation and my father noticed me sketch something – I think it was on the side of newspapers, although I’m not sure. He asked if I’d like to paint with water colours, and without a clue as to how, I said yes. I was handed a little palette of watercolour cakes and a little A4 notebook whose pages would crimp at the slightest touch of water. I’m not sure what I painted, I cannot remember, but I’d finished the entire book by the end of the vacation. One painting, I distinctly remember, was a sunset between the mountains.

I’ve always been drawn to the arts and the sciences equally. Not being in touch with either for over about a month makes me feel incomplete. But while studying the sciences, I was often discouraged (not necessarily by teachers) from practising painting. Without going into why, how, and by whom I was discouraged, I will tell you that when I first started painting murals, it was a rebellious act. I’m not sure why, but not fitting into a stereotype can often be threatening to others. I often look for an artistic streak in scientists and vice versa; my search for my own sanity in others.

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata, M F Husain, 1964. Source: http://entrespaces.wordpress.com/

This is why a visit to this exhibition was such a joy. Not only was Dr Homi Bhabha an amateur artist himself, but apart from rallying for the basic sciences, he encouraged artists and maintained a sort of working group of advisors, connoisseurs of art, who would advise him on encouraging a pursuit of the arts and supporting artists in their work.

The one photograph that stayed with me was that of Homi Bhabha, Albert Einstein, John Wheeler and Hideki Yukawa at Princeton. A Husain mural, titled ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ held me for tens of minutes. This painting was the winning entry in a mural competition held by the Institute.

The basic sciences suffer in India as the best minds are drawn to applications in industry, or they leave abroad in pursuit of research interests. The condition of the arts is worse: underfunded and underrespected. The interest of greats like Dr Bhabha in both was a shot of encouragement for me.

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