Science Diet is a weekly selection of five science/technology stories that are timely and relevant, fascinating and inspiring, and certain to stimulate your mind.
1. Minutes to Midnight
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has carried a Doomsday Clock, symbolically showing how close we are to destroying our planet. If the greatest threat during the Cold War, that of nuclear holocaust, has receded, we now face a more unpredictable threat – and the situation may already be slipping out of our hands.
The big news this week was the release of the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bottomline: We’re not curbing emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe. Moreover, the amount of carbon dioxide-releasing fuels the world can burn without heading for dangerous levels of warming is far less than the amount of fossil fuels left in the ground. Worse, the technological advancements required are not happening fast enough. We’re 5 minutes from midnight now.
2. Into the Cloud
It has been the buzzword in the tech industry for quite some time. All your e-mails, and Facebook/Twitter posts, all the data and apps on your smartphone – they live in the “cloud”. It’s where your googling happens. Torrents of data stream down from the cloud to your devices each time you’re online. You can even buy computing power in the cloud. But behind the clever wording – and despite the green image they like to cultivate – the tech companies that built their business on products that access your personal data, have a dirty secret. And they play dirty. When you’re online, it is easy to forget that information is physical, and that its storage, processing, and transfer costs space and energy. The cloud belongs firmly on the earth – thousands of servers in each of the over three million data centers around the world which need to be fed enormous amounts of electricity, most of which is wasted.
Why? “The end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere. We’re what’s causing the problem.” This series of investigative reports from The New York Times reveals what’s behind the cloud. Related discussion is here.
3. Why Indian tech companies haven’t made it big
A former professor of computer science at IISc, Swami Manohar was among the people behind the Simputer. Don’t remember it? Well, here he is, talking about why Indian tech companies haven’t made much of an impression worldwide: “Success is not about innovation, it’s about the user experience…there is a shortage of engineers with competence in engineering and design.” He advocates the restructuring of existing courses to include aspects of design.
4. Indian society’s fault lines
Veteran science writer R. Ramachandran writes in the Frontline how the flames of a new anti-science culture, far removed from Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of cultivating “scientific temper” which was adopted as a constitutional obligation of every citizen, is being fanned by an irresponsible media and our educational system. Meera Nanda writes about opportunistic godmen and their political and celebrity patronage – India’s “superstition industry”.
5. “Government and industry have betrayed the internet”
You’d have read all about the Snowden–NSA saga by now: how the protocols, encryption, and even the hardware that constitute the internet have been subverted. Here’s security guru Bruce Schneier’s call to engineers to re-build the Web to stop rogue spy agencies and governments from creating a surveillance state. Here he suggests ways to evade the NSA, but he readily admits they “suck.” India is among the top targets. And it’s not just the U.S.: our own government wants to spy on us.
As you prepare for Quiz II, here’s a tip: sleep well.
Science Diet is a new column on T5E. View previous editions here and here.