Archive for June 29th, 2008

The neutrinos and the tiger

June 29, 2008

No, this is not a post about the The Quark and the Jaguar type adventures in the simple and complex.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes about an ambitious scientific project to be housed in the middle of the tiger sanctuary at Mudumalai which threatens the sanctuary and the wild life:

Few environmentalists even are aware of the fact that a top level scientific project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory, is scheduled to be built in Singara, in the Mudumalai Sanctuary in the heart of tiger and leopard territory. Scientists who presented the news to a shocked local audience in Ooty argued that this was a dream project which was the pride and joy of the Indian scientific world. Questions regarding genuine environmental concerns about the impact on the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve were met with defensive reactions. The atmosphere at the Ooty Collectorate, where the presentation was made, turned into practically a pitched battle between the scientists versus the conservationists. Raised voices and unnecessarily rude comments are futile and counterproductive. However, many of the questions asked by the Nilgiris activists needed valid answers from the INO team and the Chennai-based Care Earth group, an NGO presenting the pros and cons of the project.

While few people would oppose a science project described as Abdul Kalam’s dream, the question being asked by serious local residents and environmental scientists is whether one can really force the country to choose between Science or The Tiger? It’s a ludicrous proposition.

Explaining the Neutrino Project to lay people is a difficult and complicated task. Those interested can go to the INO website for the technical details. For the lay reader it is sufficient to know that an enormous underground observatory is planned in Singara, within the core Tiger Reserve of the Mudumalai sanctuary.

Though Thekaekara, unfortunately, does not give the URL for the INO site, here it is, for those of you who are so inclined; I also would have liked the information on the scientists who made the presentation, which, again, unfortunately, is missing in the piece.

The damage that Thekaekara describes that would be inflicted on the sanctuary read horrifying:

The INO project needs 52,000 tons of iron in the first stage and another 50,000 tons in the second stage only for the detector. Additionally, approximately another 35,000 tons of cement, steel, PVC, copper, aluminium, sand and other building materials will be needed. This huge volume of iron and other material will come from Mysore (nearest railway station) normally moved in 20 ton trucks. New roads through the forests will be essential. Normally the Forest department prohibits such disturbance of core areas.

Equally problematic is the debris and muck that will be generated. The official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not yet been released but rough calculations based on the dimensions and scale of the project can be taken from the latest INO report.

The tunnel will be “D” shaped, 6.5 m wide and 6.5 m tall and 2.38 km long. So, nearly 90,000 cubic metres of rock will be taken out. The cavern complex will consist of an Experiment hall (about 22 m wide, 30 m tall and 120 m long) — about 75,000 cubic metres, a smaller cavern for the control facilities of about half the size, and a loading and storage area of about another 60,000 cubic metres. So that’s 2,25,000 cubic metres totally.

Given the density of granite in the area (2.8g/cm) this translates to 6,25,000 tons of debris or about 78,000 truck loads. That means almost 95,000 trucks, and double that in terms of trips through the forest since the trucks have to go back and forth.

As the construction is scheduled to take about four years, this involves 130 truck trips going through everyday!

Although the INO scientists assured the group that they would contain the damage, local environmentalists have had a bitter experience. Masinagudi has grown from a village of a few hundred people to a town of 10,000 because of the PUSHEP (Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project).

And, there also seems to be some PR mishap:

Ms. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, when asked how such a project could possibly be located in the heart of the Tiger Reserve, replied that it was on patta land, a remark that enraged serious environmentalists who have watched the slow erosion of animal turf by the tourist and PUSHEP projects. “Does the elephant or tiger read maps to know when a patch of land in the middle of the forest is declared patta?” local conservationists ask.

Finally, Thekaekara also makes references to the muscle and power of INO project in high places:

The INO project has muscle and power in high places. Only the State government and Forest Department permission stands between the Tiger Reserve and destruction.

A very disturbing and saddening piece!

Update: A bit of poking around at the INO site took me to their FAQ page, which does answer the question about the location selection (there are also photographs of the site, elsewhere on the page, by the way):

6. What were the factors in deciding the location at Singara?

The main reasons for locating the laboratory at Singara are safety, accessibility, minimal disturbance to environment and ecology and outreach possibilities.

The Nilgiri massif is known to be highly compacted granite which is suitable for tunnelling. The existing underground power station PUSHEP, at Singara, has provided a wealth of data about the existing conditions for tunnelling. In addition the steep northern slopes provide shortest access to the laboratory which is located 1300 meters below the top surface. No other site has this major advantage. When a laboratory is expected to run for decades underground, the safety and long-term stability of the location is a primary requirement.

It was also very clear from the beginning that any site requiring such a large overburden will come under environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. It was therefore decided that we look for sites where the needed infrastructure already exists so as to cause minimal disturbance.

Accessibility of the site is also crucial. The site at Singara is accessible easily from major cities like Coimbatore, Mysore and Bangalore. Such factors are important to develop a laboratory with participation from scientists from many parts of India and even abroad.

The FAQ goes on to claim that there would neither be new road construction nor forest clearing.  The FAQ also answers questions about storing the muck, vehicular traffic disturbance, disturbance during construction, and so on.

Update: NBRAlliance, in a comment below, alerts me to this blog which has some more information on the issue.

More from Russell’s In praise of idleness

June 29, 2008

I am about to complete Russell’s In praise of idleness. It is a thought provoking read (with lots of slyly humorous sentences).

[1] I was somehow under the impression that Russell is an agnostic if not an atheist; however, from these essays, I see that he was one of those who believed in Christ but opposed Christianity (or, organised religion); there are several places in the book where Russell writes approvingly about the good influence of Christianity on the Western civilization; he even goes to the extent of calling Fascism “a return to the worst in paganism”:

The root objection to Fascism is its selection of a portion of mankind as alone important. The holders of power have, no doubt, made such a selection, in practice, ever since government was first instituted; but Christianity, in theory has always recognised each human soul as an end in itself, and not a mere means to the glory of others. Modern democracy has derived strength from the moral ideals of Christianity, and has done much to divert Governments from exclusive preoccupation with the interests of the rich and powerful. Fascism is, in this respect, a return to what was worst in ancient paganism.

I do not know enough political history to know if it indeed is true that one of the main sources of moral strength behind democracy is Christianity; it would be interesting to follow this thought up.

[2] Russell has some interesting things to say about Anthropology. Specifically, this sentence, namely,

The anthropologist selects and interprets facts according to the prevailing prejudices of his day.

reminded me of this recent blog post at Savage Minds, wherein, Rex indicates that if not according to the prevailing prejudices of the day, the anthropologist and her/his hosts co-construct the fieldsite. In any case, Russell goes on to say,

What do we, who stay at home, know about the savage? Rousseauites say he is noble, imperialists say he is cruel; ecclesiastically minded anthropologists say he is a virtuous family man, while, advocates of divorce law reform say he practices free love; Sir James Fraser says he is always killing his god, while others say he is always engaged in initiation ceremonies. In short, the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s  theory.

The last sentence on theory reminds me of a quote I read in Barsoum’s book on ceramics, which goes something like this:

All sintering models can be made to fit all sintering data.

[3] Russell has very little to say about India, and most of what he has to say is not flattering; here is his views on why the Indian youth are not cynical, for example:

In India the fundamental belief of the earnest young is in the wickedness of England: from this premiss, as from the existence of Descartes, it is possible to deduce the whole philosophy. From the fact that England is Christian, it follows that Hinduism or Mohammedanism, as the case may be, is the only true religion. From the fact that England is capitalistic and industrial, it follows, according to the temperament of the logician concerned, either that everybody ought to spin with a spinning-wheel, or that protective duties ought to be imposed to develop native industrialism and capitalism as the only weapons with which to combat those of  the British. From the fact that the British hold India by physical force, it follows that only moral force is admirable. The persecution of nationalist activities in India is just sufficient to make them heroic, and not sufficient to make them seem futile. In this way the Anglo-Indians save the intelligent youth of India from the blight of cynicism.

I do not know about Russell’s views on India’s independence movement (whether he supported them or not); however, the attribution of  everything (including the belief in one’s own religion) to reactionary feelings does not make a pleasant reading.

[4] Here is Russell on why uniformity is usually achieved by lowering standards:

… good qualities are  easier to destroy than  bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards.

[5] Here is Russell on Christianity and its influence on education:

The educational machine, throughout Western civilization, is dominated by two ethical theories: that of Christianity, and that of nationalism. These two, when taken seriously, are incompatible, as is being evident in Germany. For my part,  hold that, where they differ, Christianity is preferable, but where they agree, both are mistaken.

I believe this distrust of nationalism is something that Tagore would have approved.

As these examples above show, Russell has many interesting things to say, and he says them in a nice style; some of what he says is not acceptable to me; but, that does not diminish the worthiness of the book; it is still a wonderful read and is highly recommended.