By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, September 25, 2014

After The Exclusive Moon Club And Cryogenix Club, India Now Joins The Elusive and Elite Mars Club Also!

As the sun rose over India yesterday morning, the whole world's media were raving about the success of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (alias MOM), which pushed the tiny spacecraft 'Mangalyaan' smoothly into an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet, after cruising in space for more than 300 days.  The objective is to study prevailing conditions related to the weather, minerals and methane gas.

So India has now joined the Mars Club as its fourth member (after America, Soviet Russia and Europe)  -- though juniormost, the  first one to gain admission on its very first application.  Out of 51 Mars missions undertaken so far in the world, 21 had failed;  but, of course,  ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) has certainly  learnt some lessons from the unsuccessful  attempts of other space agencies, as its Chairman has gladly acknowledged.   

That's all true so far as the solo Marsbound marathon run is concerned.   In terms of scientific objectives and achievements, ISRO's mission is admittedly modest and far less sophisticated than those of America's  NASA.  But of course, as the spectacular results of the Indo-American lunar adventure in 2010 showed, NASA does think of ISRO as a worthy associate.

On this very special and cheerworthy occasion, let me recall my comments on India's impressive space programs in three earlier contexts:


Articulations Online
20 Oct. 2010

Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, NASA!

When I started writing this online column last month with an awesome vision of the Internet's apparently infinite dimensions, I knew I would find it necessary to follow it up with some reflections on the impact of modern science and technology on individuals and society.  And I now realize it will have to be a very long series of essays, because the theme is extremely complex and bristles with so many intricate aspects.   But rather than risking mental fatigue by considering the same issue week after week, let us spread out the core series a little, and take up some other lighter topics in the intervals!   

In the context of the steady scientific progress made by India during the 20th century, I had made the following comment in the preceding essay (Psychology Of Turbulence, October 13):  "....  And in the frenzied field of the ongoing information revolution today, India seems to be running a neck-to-neck race with the most advanced countries of  the world".

Well, India today seems to be among the front-runners in other scientific fields also, like space exploration, for instance!   Its very first moon mission, which seemed to have been on the brink of failure last year, actually turned out to be a great success.

Troubles and....

I am, of course, referring to the unmanned lunar vehicle Chandrayaan-1, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). which carried some instruments developed in India,  and also some others sponsored by NASA in America, ESA (European Space Agency), and BAA (Bulgarian Aerospace Agency).

Chandrayaan was launched into lunar orbit in October 2008, and was expected to remain there for a couple of years.  But within a few months,  there was serious malfunction of some vital systems (including solar panels and star sensors which were essential for power supply and direction-finding);  and there were no radio signals from August 29, 2009 due to failure of electronic components.   Meanwhile, the vessel had gone round the moon more than 3,000 times, undertaken various useful experiments, and transmitted more than 70,000 images to the earth, some of them with very fine resolution upto five metres. 

Back home, in India, there was great disappointment as the mission was declared closed prematurely.  But although there was some resentment that ISRO hadn't fully disclosed the troubles as they arose, by and large there was no hostile criticism of ISRO's efforts, as there was a general awareness of the immensity of the venture and the equal chances of success and failure.

In an editorial rather emotionally titled  Adieu, Chandrayaan-1, India's most responsible newspaper THE HINDU  made a rational assessment on August 31: ".... Yet these problems make what has been achieved all the more remarkble.  It is a tribute to ISRO’s mission management team that they could find ways to keep the spacecraft and its instruments operational for so long....  In the months and years ahead, data from the Indian probe will help scientists better understand the Moon’s origin and evolution, its mineral composition, and whether water might lie trapped in its permanently shadowed polar craters".

.... Triumph!

And sure enough, the prediction came true very soon,  perhaps much sooner than even The Hindu had expected!  For within a few weeks, towards the end of September 2009,  the prestigious international  magazine Science reported that NASA's instrument M3 (moon mineralogy mapper) had discovered the presence of water molecules on the moon.

Moreover, following extensive analysis of the data collected,  it was reported in an international science congress in March 2010 that NASA's Mini-Sar (miniature synthetic aperture radar) had found extensive masses of ice in several huge polar craters with diameters ranging from two to fifteen kilometres.

What this meant, of course, was that there's a precious natural resource on the moon for the benefit of  manned space missions, in the vital forms of drinking water (H2O), breathing air (oxygen), and rocket fuel (hydrogen).  As a delighted Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, declared:  "Now we can say with a fair degree of confidence that a sustainable human presence on the Moon is possible.... The result.... seen in the last few months are totally revolutionizing our view of the Moon."


Articulations Online
1 Dec. 2013

Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO! Bravo, India!

Around this time three years ago, India, on its very first and highly successful lunar mission, had helped America to find conclusive evidence of the existence of water on the Moon.  And now India has just taken off on its maiden mission to Mars!

I am copying below, for instant reference, a couple of relevant reports from today's exciting news, and also some significant comments I had made in Articulations Online in October 2010.  This steady and spectacular scientific progress takes my mind back 30 years to the time when I was having a very close association with India's elite scientific community, and in particular to the following context:

The Prime Minister of India, as the ex-officio Chairman/Chairperson of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, presides over the annual meeting of the CSIR Society, which has many distinguished Indian scientists as members.  This recurring intellectual get-together serves as a useful forum not only for obtaining a wide-angled perception of important specific issues concerning CSIR's affairs, but also for exchanging views on the direction and overall progress of science and technology in a national perspective.

In the Society meeting held in 1983, where I was present as CSIR's Financial Adviser, Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi said she had received a query from a very young child from a foreign country asking her what was India's most remarkable scientific achievement during the preceding year, and she was having some difficulty in giving an immediate and impressive answer.  And she asked:  would the scientific community please do some soul-searching?
I suppose Ms. Gandhi could have taken a far brighter view of things and shot off a confident reply:  "Look, my child, you can't judge the  scientific progress made by a country in one week or one month or even one year!  India has made a lot of progress in many scientific fields in the last 25 years, including space science.  Who knows, 25 years from now we may even be reaching the Moon!"  

Which is precisely what we did in 2008!  I wish I had been curious enough to have found out the identity of that adorably curious child;  for I would love to trace and tell him or her that India is now a member of  the still-exclusive Moon Club  --  and, if all goes well with the ongoing space slingshot, is very likely to be admitted to the still-more-exclusive Mars Club by this time next year.


THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013    
14-20 Indian Standard Time

India’s spacecraft to Mars has bid adieu to its Earth-bound orbit and is cruising in its sun-centric orbit.  In a remarkably successful execution of a complex manoeuvre, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired the propulsion system on board the spacecraft for a prolonged duration of 23 minutes from 0049 hours on Sunday.


THE HINDU, 1 Dec. 2013
17-30 Indian Standard Time

India’s maiden mission to Mars left Earth’s orbit early on Sunday and successfully entered the second phase of its 10-month-long voyage to the Red Planet after performing a crucial manoeuvre described as “mother of all slingshots”.

Clearing a critical hurdle to achieve a major milestone in the country’s space history, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft or ‘Mangalyaan’ was placed in the designated Mars Transfer Trajectory in a 22-minute manoeuvre almost an hour past midnight without any hitch to tear itself away from Earth’s gravitational pull.

It marked the first step of the Mars mission’s 680 million-km-long voyage to its destination to put on course the India’s first ever inter-planetary space odyssey.


Articulations Online
12 Jan. 2014

India Joins Exclusive And Elusive Cryogenix Club

Just a few weeks ago India had successfully sent an internationally well-equipped  space vehicle on its way to a Mars orbit  which is expected to be achieved in a few months' time.  And now comes the news that its long-term endeavour to develop a powerful entirely-made-in-India cryogenic spacecraft engine has also succeeded at last after overcoming several serious setbacks.   

Are you watching, Indira Gandhi?  (see Articulations Online, 1 Dec. 2013 :  Destination Mars : Bravo, ISRO!  Bravo, India!).


6 Jan. 2014

GSLV-D5 launch places India in elite league

 One of India’s most ambitious dreams became a reality on Sunday when its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-D5), powered by an indigenous cryogenic engine, effortlessly put the 1,982-kg GSAT-14 communication satellite into a perfect orbit after 17 minutes of flight.

The cryogenic engine built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired for 12 of those 17 minutes.

The precision of the cryogenic upper stage was such that it put the GSAT-14 into an orbit with a perigee of 179 km, against the target of 180 km, and the apogee achieved was off by a mere 50 km for a target of 36,000 km.

The grand success caps 20 years of hard work by ISRO’s engineers, after being denied cryogenic technology under pressure from the U.S., suffering a heartbreaking failure with an indigenous cryogenic engine flight in April 2010 and having had to scrub its second attempt with an indigenous cryogenic engine in August 2013. . . .

The mission’s success means India now has the ability to put satellites weighing more than two tonnes in orbit, joining the elite club of the U.S., Russia, France, Japan and China who have mastered this perilous technology of using cryogenic propellants -- liquid oxygen at minus 183 degrees Celsius and liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees’ Celsius.


7 Jan. 2014

Resilience pays off

The Indian Space Research Organisation is adding feather after feather to its cap. Just recently, it sent off the country’s first effort at planetary exploration, the Mars Orbiter Mission. On Sunday, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), equipped with an indigenous cryogenic engine, put the GSAT-14 communication satellite into orbit with effortless ease.

It was an unequivocal demonstration of the space agency’s mastery of cryogenic technology, a key element in building more powerful launch vehicles.  While its older sibling, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), can accommodate communication satellites weighing about 1,200 kg, the GSLV will be able to carry spacecraft that are heavier by around 1,000 kg. . . 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Outsiders And The Local Man : Interest Vs. Instincts

Quite surprisingly, Hollywood superstar and California ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was in my home city Madras (now called Chennai) the other day, in connection with a South Indian cinema event featuring a Tamil movie with a weight-lifting hero.  Before attending that function  in a stadium in the evening, the former Mr. Universe met the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu State, Ms. Jayalalithaa  --  who was a glamorous leading lady in South Indian cinema once upon a time  --  in her office inside the Fort St. George.  

Right now, the local media here are wildly celebrating the 375th anniversary of Madras, which grew around this 17th century British fortress on the East coast of South India.  As a very senior local man in this nostalgic setting, let me recall an essay I had written long ago,  in which I had mentioned the Fort St. George :

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Tamil  --  A living South Indian language, with ancient roots and classical status, as well as a massive cinema industry.

Tamil Nadu  --  A South Indian State, where Tamil is the prime language. 

Ajanta  --  Ancient rock caves containing impressive Buddhist paintings and sculptures, in Maharashtra State in South-West India. . 

Andhra Pradesh  --  Another South Indian State.

Eternal City  --  Rome.

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Sunday Magazine


A recent guest of mine, from the North, was unduly critical when I confessed that I had never been up the High Court building, to visit the lighthouse and enjoy the beautiful view of Madras one is supposed to obtain from there, although I've been living in the city for years.  Being a hospitable man, I refrained from listing out all the well-known structures of his  own city, and asking him how many of them he could claim to know at first hand ;  but had I pressed the point, there's little doubt that I should have silenced him.    

The local man is always on the point of 'doing' his parent city.  Living so close to its landmarks, he takes them more or less for granted, and it seldom occurs to him to go out and explore them.  Unlike the tourist and the casual visitor, he's in no great hurry ;  he can always afford to wait till tomorrow, till next week, till next month.  Naturally, he's somewhat complacent about the city's sights, if not really indifferent to their charms or fame.  "One of these days. . . "  is the recurring burden of his song.  Has the average New Yorker stepped up to the crown of the Liberty Statue yet?  I seriously doubt it.  Has the ordinary Florentine thoroughly explored the Palazzo Vecchio?  Or the Parisian the Pantheon?  Or the Calcuttian the Victoria Memorial?  Has the denizen of the Eternal City ever stepped down to the weird catacombs?  More likely than not, all you will get from these worthies will be an evasive grin, or a disarming shrug of the shoulders.

Intriguing ignorance 

Needless to say, the local man's education about his environment leaves much to be desired ;  he is decidedly, if understandably, an incompetent guide in his own locality. But his guests, somehow, never seem to be capable of realizing it;  and they do not lightly forgive him when they are told the truth.  They consider it  his rightful obligation to know everything, and lead them everywhere.  They are scandalized when it comes to light that he isn't aware of the exact location of all those ramparts and relics they have discovered in their guide-book ;  that, in fact, the poor fellow hasn't even heard of many of them. The birds of passage, it must be said with regret, seldom pause to ask themselves how much (or how little) they do know about their own municipal nests.

I have never been abroad, but it requires no great experience or imagination to observe that what is true of the city and the local man is equally true of the nation and the native.  I must confess that many a foreign friend of mine has been intrigued by the extent of my ignorance.  I seem to know so little about our country's history and literature ;  so little, too, about our ancient monuments and noble architecture.  If someone asked me where the Blue Grotto is, I could answer like a gunshot : "in Capri, Italy" ;  but I have to think twice before I can assert that Ajanta is not in Andhra Pradesh.  I do know who built the Louvre, where, when and what for ;  yet I couldn't tell you  a thing about the origin of the Fort St. George.

Alien interest, native instincts

It's quite useless, I suppose, to feel concerned about it ;  for this malady is universal, and perhaps quite inevitable.  Yet I also wonder if the superiority of the stranger's knowledge isn't merely superficial, after all.  He might have amassed a great wealth of information about the alien city or state, but can he still presume to possess a true understanding of it?  Distance adds excitement to every place, and involves the stranger in an endless, academic enquiry ;  but doesn't proximity  --  though it kills curiosity and impairs one's conscious interest  --  produce that subconscious indigenous spirit which the visitor can never penetrate, but which is part and parcel of the resident's life?  True, the outsider's impressions may be more exhaustive, and often more accurate ;  but aren't the local man's instincts far deeper, and invariably more sensitive?

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Librarian's Word Is Law In The Library!

So here's another vintage essay from my earliest published efforts as an articulate layman:  
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Sunday Magazine


BOOKS are his business, but I wonder if the librarian can ever enjoy reading them.  We all have a peculiar allergy to certain things connected with our profession, no matter how interesting or intriguing they might seem to others.  The glamorous actress is fed up with seeing films ;  the toast-weary diplomat sometimes can't stand the sight of a champagne bottle.  The librarian can be no exception.  It's difficult to imagine that he would want to read books just for the fun of it.

In fact, I should think that this tendency would be more pronounced in the librarian than in most others, for few things can be more disconcerting than the sight of a roomful of bookshelves.  Even the casual borrower, who's hardly aware of the true capacity of the shelves, often stands unnerved before them, quite unable to decide which books to take home with him.  He staggers into the reading room under the weight of a dozen volumes, fondly hoping to make his choice there ;  but even these may prove too many, and soon he's trying to drown his confusion in drowsiness.  


Not infrequently, he solves the problem simply by deciding to step out to the canteen first, and steady his reeling head with a cup of coffee.  Occasionally he succeeds in going back to the reading room, to make a manly decision ;  but more likely, he just remembers how late it's getting, and finds his way back home.  If that's the kind of effect the stack room produces on relatively uninformed borrowers, imagine the plight of the librarian, who understands only too perfectly what a job he has on hand when he tries to select something for himself!   Temptation and indecision must gnaw at his vitals till he's numbed into giving up the whole idea of borrowing.  Even if he survives the ordeal for the time being and manages to take a book home, he can't read it peacefully, because his mind keeps hovering around the thousands of other books he has left behind.

It's impossible to think of the librarian without thinking of the bookseller :  they're both in the same kind of fix.  But being a practical man, and probably not so intellectual, the latter is quicker in adjusting himself to the inevitable.  While his customers may gasp at his dazzling display -- and find every decision heart-breaking -- the bookseller seems by and large to be content with his book-keeping.  No doubt he's aided by the fact that his collection changes constantly, and doesn't grow and accumulate like the librarian's.  But sooner or later, knowingly or unknowingly, the librarian also learns to face facts ;  and thereafter the best of the bestsellers can't mean anything more to him than a number on a fly-leaf, a shadow in a dark shelf.

Scholarly statistician

And that's a pity, for the librarian is really a scholar at heart.  Even if he hadn't taken up his job with the idea of mastering the contents of the library, (as is sometimes the case), his education and his prolonged contact with books are bound to have given him  a thirst for exploring the treasure-house of knowledge and thought of which he's the custodian.  But, as I've said, the very vastness and diversity of the treasure leads to his defeat.  

However, if he's an abortive scholar, the librarian is a perfect statistician.   In his scheme of things literature is but a list, the classics just a classification.  Einstein is an index-card, Picasso a type-written ticket.    History and philosophy are cut down to size by him, and squeezed into the narrow space of his catalogue.  The past and the present are hemmed in by the framework of his pigeon-holes.  The librarian's supremacy is never in doubt, for his world is as tidy as it is statistical :  everything in it has to be in order, at least alphabetically.


It is probably this compulsory preoccupation of his with arrangement and tidiness which makes the librarian such a stern disciplinarian.  He likes to see things done according to rules and regulations.  He can never condone the slightest delaying the return of a borrowed book :  and, like Shylock, he will be after his pound of flesh if you lost a volume or seriously delayed returning it.  His discipline makes itself felt in many other ways too :  for instance, he can't tolerate anybody (except himself) smoking within the library walls.  The strictest silence has to obtain in the reading room.  Readers are at liberty to take out as many books as they like from the shelves, but they shall not replace any.  All these things one accepts quite cheerfully ;  but when the librarian starts dictating, as he sometimes does, that nobody can use a pen at the reference desk -- not even a ball-point -- well, one does feel a little aggrieved.  But protest is out of the question :  the librarian's word is law in the library, and no appeal lies against it.

So as to enforce his authority and ensure that proper decorum is maintained at all times, the librarian finds it necessary to keep his distance from the visitors, and not to mix too freely with them.  That's probably why one usually finds him so matter-of-fact and aloof, almost appearing to be sulking.  True, he's always ready to come out of his shell to answer your legitimate enquiries, and to help you find the material you want ;  but it's futile trying to draw him into a  friendly conversation about other things, for he will simply point an accusing finger at the overhead sign demanding silence, and wordlessly tell  you to move on. 

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PostScript, 2014 

Image and environment

Half a century has gone by after I composed the above essay, copying the classical style, mainly on the basis of the impressions I had gained in different schools and the prestigious Madras University in South India.   I knew it must have had worldwide  relevance so far as educational institutions were concerned, and I didn't  look beyond that environment.  To that extent, the essay wasn't comprehensive.  

What's really amazing, however, is that the character and attitude of the average librarian don't seem to have changed basically in academic circles even in the technologically transformed world of  today-- which does perhaps make this essay a classic in its own right!

Of course, I know I have an obligation now to extend my horizon and explore the image of the librarian in the realms of public libraries and children's libraries  --  better 50 years late than never, I suppose!