Friday, August 28, 2015

ISRO & Othisaivu Ramasamy: How NOT to write about ISRO

Apparently a storm has been raging on account of my email to Jemo on Bharathi Tamil Sangam. I came to know of it only today. I'll respond later to that. Meantime there was a note by Jemo about Othisaivu Ramasamy's blog on the unsung heroes of ISRO. Naturally I had to check it out.

Ramasamy's blog on ISRO is pure 'he-said, she-said' kind without any specific detail and is plainly breast-beating type. The blog was empty boasting.

Ramasamy only talks of a tour of ISRO that he was able to get thanks to some contacts with insiders. I, for one, do not know Ramasamy's academic or professional qualifications to make the kind of sweeping statements he makes. He asserts, without any detail, that ISRO employees are better than Boeing and GE. I am sure there are brilliant employees in ISRO, possibly Nobel Prize material too. But how does that matter? I am sure in Ethiopia there's an Einstein. No Indian company can be compared with Boeing for the latter's achievements in aviation is in a realm that no comparable Indian corporation, private or public, can dream to touch. Nor should Boeing (or GE as for that matter) be compared with ISRO. Ideally it is NASA that should be compared to ISRO. Sure, ISRO has its share of achievements but the crucial question is how does it measure up against NASA today? What can one say of ISRO vs NASA 20 years ahead of today?

We're told to admire the practical implications that ISRO puts its technologies to use. I understand the yearning for Ramasamy to make Indians appreciate the fact that the hundreds of crores plowed into a research organization is not in vain and that it has a direct impact on the lives of the everyday man but this is a dangerously simplistic approach. I wish he had added nuance to that contention with details on how esoteric theories find practical applications in due course of time. Even Einstein the author of mass-energy equivalence did not believe that an atom bomb was possible though it was predicated on his own theory. The bomb came before reactors became a reality. While assailing the common man's understanding of science Ramasamy himself falls prey to it and attempts to play to the peanut gallery.

In another passage Ramasamy passionately states how ISRO gathers information via it's payloads and how ISRO's audit processes ensure little or no wastage. Again, frustratingly, there is no citation of any example let alone more details. The reader is basically asked to trust the author on his judgment and take assertions at face value. 

Thankfully Ramasamy corroborates one of my chief complaints that "money" is often a misleading factor in excusing the sloppiness of Indian institutions. I'd say that ISRO gets more eager and uncritical support from Indian government than NASA gets from US congress.

Ramasamy nonchalantly says that one of the issues that plagues ISRO is an abysmally low degree of documenting research. That, in my view, is a shameful admission about a space research org and that too a 'glowing one'. This is where I earn the sobriquet of 'India-hater'.

It is fashionable to scold the poor Indian citizen for everything the intellectuals think should be praised sky high. This is nonsense. Ramasamy concedes that ISRO as an org is loath to advertise what it does and then he scolds the citizen for thinking ISRO is flying Deepavali rocket. Compare this with the public educational efforts that NASA funds and undertakes? A digression here on the space race and what a Carl Sagan can do to a society.

Nikita Kruschev lit a fuse under the defense and space exploration related establishments of USA by launching Sputnik. The ensuing space race, that culminated in Neil Armstrong taking a small step that was a leap for mankind, gripped an entire nation in a scientific fervor. Let's also conceded that many Americans probably understood less of the science than the fact that patriotism compelled them to yearn for the yankees to beat the Reds. Now we've NASA beaming images from Hubble telescope, the telescope itself is a staggering scientific achievement, from the Voyager that has gone into the farthest reaches of space and even the repair of malfunctioning equipment on the Hubble was news. Then there was the shuttle era that even when it ended in tragedies it served to raise scientific consciousness. In how many countries would a scientist like Richard Feynman establish, in front of cameras, how a simple O-ring malfunctioning could lead to an explosion of the shuttle?

I cannot overstate the importance to society of having scientific persona like Feynman and Sagan. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". Carl Sagan's legendary TV Series "Cosmos",wikipedia says, has been watched by 500 million so far. That's HALF-A-F**ing-Billion. Sagan and Feynman fired up the nation with their geniuses not just for science but as popularizers and showmen. All that India had was Abdul Kalam. Yikes. And, remember I've not even started talking about Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Ask Tamils who is a science popularizer and the answer will Sujatha, he who was famously obsessed with scatalogical jokes about a Mexico-laundress . To be fair to the Soviets the space race engendered a culture of yearning for scientific achievement in the Kruschev era.

Interestingly Ramasamy chides the employees, the same glowing employees, for mostly indulging in gossip based on drab weeklies. One of my friends, a patriotic Indian who returned to India with an American PhD, observed the same at another premier scientific established. He was appalled at the gossip quality of conversations at lunch break and other interactions outside of strictly official environments.

Badri Seshadri's blog, which inspired Ramasamy to write a lengthy feedback and later turn it into a blog, itself has interesting ironies.  On the one hand Seshadri says, correctly, that NASA's funding by US government has been cut and as a result NASA is relying of Russia and private companies like Space X for launching satellites and on the other hand he wants Indian government to double it's current budgetary allocation to ISRO in order to make it able to compete with the likes of SpaceX. A very disappointing sleight of hand from a free-marketer. Seshadri's blog unlike Ramasamy's blog is more judicious in appreciating ISRO. Seshadri concedes that India lags behind China and SpaceX's Elon Musk does not even think of India's space establishment when he thinks of his competitors. So much for Ramasamy's glowing ISRO.

Seshadri, too, falls prey to obsessing over practical use of space explorations. He says he, too, is not very enamored of sending probes to Mars. While this attitude is understandable this is a very simplistic view of science and the implications of a Mars probe. I'd invite readers to ponder on Abraham Flexner's, the guiding spirit for 'The Institute for Advanced Study', a uniquely American institution,  amazing article "The usefulness of useless knowledge".

Of course I've given enough ammunition to the legions who blame me of being anti-Indian. I care two hoots for such criticisms. If anything I've said is not true or unfair comparisons then come at me. In fact I'd argue that India cannot find a better patriot than me for I, unlike its jingoistic crowd, at least keep pointing out what the shortfalls are. If people are really interested in making India better they'd spend less time wondering about my attitudes towards India or my motivations for criticism and spend more time redressing the shortcomings. As for my obsession over glorious America I fully stand by my assertions of American uniqueness unless anybody can disprove me on why a Research University or an institute like IAS or a scientist like Feynman is possible only in America.

In conclusion Ramasamy's blog can be characterized with the very words that Jeyamohan uses to ridicule the science illiterate journalists of India. Maybe Ramasamy can do better and maybe he will write a better but for now this is not a blog to be held up as an example of how to write about a space research organization it is rather, sadly, an example of how not to write on ISRO.


1. Ramasamy's blog
2. Badri Seshadri's blog
3. Abraham Flexner's article


Anonymous said...

Abraham Flexner's article is amazing indeed.

N.Ramadurai said...

Dear Sir,
I am a science journalist. I write in Tamil. I totally agree with you. ISRO is no match to NASA. True ISRO is trying to make a mark. Particularly in developing rockets ISRO is occupying sixth place after US, Russia, China, European Union, Japan. The PSLV rocket, in spite of its 30 consecutive successes is a very small one.Even if GSLV Mark 3 proves to be a successful one it would not be equal to Japan's H 11B in its payload capacity. We in India do not have a critical approach in these things. It may be due to ignorance or good public relations by ISRO. As of now ISRO is a holy cow of India

Badri Seshadri said...

1) I didn't say I was against sending probes to Mars; I only said I am not as much in favour of sending people to Mars. I am sure you can figure out the difference. We must send probes to every part of the Universe that we can humanly achieve. Sending people is a different issue. Even the US Gov & NASA have stopped thinking in this direction. Musk, on the other hand, is looking to colonise Mars because he thinks Earth is all set to be destroyed by those who inhabit this planet. I think that is a rather crazy notion. Good luck to him. That said, I am in awe of his achievements.

2) I have asked for funding increase to ISRO because today in India, space exploration and launch of satellites us the preserve of Govt and only Govt. Private players are not allowed. I do not like this. I would like to have SpaceX like players in India. Until that happens, for the good of *my* country, it is important that budget for ISRO be increased.

3) I am sure the US is great. I want India to be great too. Comparisons of Boeing, SpaceX, NASA, ISRO, Lockheed Martin etc. vary on the yardsticks deployed. What ISRO has done singlehandedly at the levels of investment it has put is nothing short of miracle. Note that despite all its successes, SpaceX's last launch to International Space Station in July 2015 went up in flames. NASA's all manned flight missions are down in the dumps. The US did its level best to stop Russia from supplying cryogenic engines to India, forcing India to develop the same itself. ISRO's achievements are great precisely because it has been done, not just without any cooperation from other countries, but active hostility from the US. Despite all this, I hope good sense prevails with the US, and they decide to work with India closely. Rocket technology will help missile technology as well. But it is Chinese missiles that are trained towards the US, not the Indian missiles.

4) Next month, I will be celebrating the launch of India's Fast Breeder Reactor, something that only India has built (and hopefully will successfully start functioning:-) I hope you will join me in appreciating the efforts of the Indian nuclear scientists.

Athenaeum said...

@Badri Seshadri:

Thanks for your comment. Here are my replies:

1. I did not say that you were 'against' a Mars probe. I only said you were 'not very enamored' of sending a Mars probe. I think it's an accurate translation of "எனக்கும்கூட அதில் பெரிய ஆர்வம் இல்லை". I now re-read your blog I made a mistake of referring the context to probes whereas you were referring to manned space missions. Nevertheless my comment cannot be construed as you being 'against'.

2.About the funding: Your blog stated that you want to increase government funding in order to be able to compete and THEN you ask for the government to allow private players ("கூடவே, அமெரிக்காவைப் போல இந்தியத் தனியார் துறையின் பங்களிப்பையும் அதிகரிக்கச் செய்யவேண்டும்). I agree with you on allowing private sector into space research. If I am not wrong India has opened defense sector to private investment. If you had stated that increase of funding is required 'because' private players are not allowed it'd have lent a different hue to your request. And yes it'll be good for *your* country :-)

3. The above two are trivial compared to the point you make in point 3 which goes to the meat of the blog. The comparison game started with Ramasamy employing it first. I was only pointing out that he was not comparing apples to apples. And, as our favorite author often says, comparisons and rankings are essential to evaluating anything.

When you point out that NASA's manned missions are in the dumps you are factually correct. I wish (add this to my list of wishes) you had added the reasons behind that. Beyond the forbidding cost of a manned flight it is now argued even amongst scientific circles about the 'value' of a manned flight. Manned space flights serve more for propagandist purposes than for scientific value these days. When the shuttle program was shelved I remember Michio Kaku writing a column in Wall STreet Journal supporting the decision. Again, Badri the blog was more about how Ramasamy's blog falls short of being held up as an example of fine writing on science, which is what Jemo did with his comment.

As for US trying to stop Russia from supplying cryogenic technology to India, again, context is missing. It was the sanctions era post-Pokhran-II. I don't want to go into the merits of that now. Yes, at that time the indigenous development of cryogenic technology was hailed as an achievement and it was at that time the aura of Kalam being 'missile man' was born.

Good sense prevailed on the US side and that's why the sanctions regime was dismantled by George Bush leading to the historic accord with India. I was really happy about the deal. Now, I hope good sense prevails in India to take the deal forward. As for Chinese missiles being aimed at US may I point out that China is no friend to India either. They would attack India and India's interests sooner than they would attack the US. It is a tragedy of global history that India and US, two supposedly natural allies, never got along very well. And the blame can be spread equally.

4. When India achieves the launch of FBR I'll be happy to celebrate. Any country that takes science one step forward deserves to be applauded because it'll benefit humanity at large. Yet again, my blog was more a lament that Ramasamy did not provide details that would help contextual appreciation of ISRO's achievement. My blog is a critique of how science writing should be rather than about ISRO.


Lord Labakudoss said...

While I agree with some of your comments (that the level of science writing in India is pathetic), I need to point out the inconsistencies in your writing as well.

What is your stance on evaluation of ISRO? If you do want a comparison with NASA/Boeing, the by all means, do one fairly (instead of copping out with homilies like "Cannot dream to match").

I agree with the original author that any evaluation of ISRO has to take into consideration the means that it has at its disposal; It cannot mandate employment like the communist countries nor enjoy the fruits of being associated with a powerful state's - extensive spying network, coercive market tactics and captive labor of german POWs.

While you are nitpicking on the lack of 'specifics', like mentioning the US sanctions but the reason for them (which is quite irrelevant IMO), you can be accused of doing the same in your coverage of scientific literacy in the US.

You so gloriously tout the broadcasting of certain scientific programs/events by Fenyman, Sagan etc, but are completely silent about the prevailing anti-scientific atmosphere in a very sizeable fraction of the US (Vaccination, Evolution, Climate Change, Age of the earth) etc.