Monday, January 14, 2013

First visit to the European Space Agency

ACES (a precise atomic clock) will be taken to the Columbus Space lab in 2014.
At the end of November, Mihai and I visited the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands to present a seminar. It was my first invited talk in Europe!  I talked about the applicability of atomic clocks on Earth and in space and Mihai lead the discussion that followed. Both the discussion and the seminar went really well! We then attended a conference on optical networks, which I will discuss in a separate post.

First Impressions of ESA
Once you pass the front gates of ESTEC, you see numerous flags that move as the wind blows. Each represents a country that is part of ESA. Our host picked us up from the ID check-point. The hallway was paved with stars and every now and then there was a stand with a little mock-up of an ESA satellite flying around the Earth. The most impressive models were that of Envisat, the largest civilian Earth-observing satellite ever put into space.  It monitored the Earth between 2002 to 2012. In addition  to the little model inside, just outside ESA there was a light life-size model of Envisat.  The original satellite weights about 8 tons. Unfortunately, it became inoperative and ESA lost contact with it in April 2012.

I had forgotten space in the proximity of Earth is pretty crowded: there are many thousands of satellites orbiting our planet. It is unclear how to decommission Envisat. Two objects pass within 200 meters of Envisat every year. So, the probability of collision with other objects is quite small, but if it does happen the cloud of debris would be much more dangerous than the big satellite because it contains lots of small objects traveling at high speed in unpredictable trajectories. Even screws lost in orbit can damage the International Space Station (ISS), which is the biggest satellite that goes around the Earth. A Russian and a US communication satellite did collide in 2009 without much damage to other flying devices.

My seminar and the discussion that followed provided us with ideas and enthusiasm for future work. We are following up with emails and phone meetings, and I hope some cool science and collaborations will result from this trip.

The Space Mobile!
After we came back to Switzerland, my brother, Mihai, bought a toy for the children with the Earth and 8 satellites/vehicles that go around it.  It's hanging from the ceiling as I write. We have (1) the ISS, (2) the Space Shuttle, which was a partially reusable spacecraft that was used for 135 missions from 1981 to 2011 (it fixed the Hubble telescope, took people to and from the ISS, and much more), (3) Sputnik (the world's first artificial satellite launched in 1957; it was 58 cm in diameter - the size of a beach ball), (4) Apollo 11 (went to the Moon), (5) Mir (first modular space station; used between 1986 and 2001), (6) Soyuz (still used by the ISS; a Soyuz rocket will be used by the LISA Pathfinder), (7) Skylab (America's first experimental space station from the 1970s) and (8) Mercury (first international manned spacecraft).

Overall, the Space Mobile is a nice toy that encourages children to love space, space history and space missions! ... and, of course, it is not sold or designed by ESA. No toys were provided there. I would have liked to see some outreach with books for children and young adults and even some toys.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

First Time in India

The bride and groom & me.
In December 2012 I visited India to attend the wedding of a very dear friend of mine from graduate school. It was my first time in India and my first time at a Hindu wedding.  I was there for a week and had a wonderful time. On the left you can see the picture of me with the lovely bride and groom, who were very happy and so suited for each other.

Mumbai and Juhu Beach
In the Arabian Sea.
Sunset on Juhu beach.
 I first went to Mumbai.  I stayed at the Novotel on Juhu beach where part of the wedding was conducted and shared the room with Sara, another friend from Cornell. We took many walks on the beach and saw several sunsets. I even swam once in the Arabian sea. The water was very nice and cool, but not cold. The beach was clean. There was no algae in the water and we even found a few tiny crabs. However, from one of the windows of our hotel we could see the sunset on the beach and from the other a fairly wide river full of trash. I wondered if all that trash (and how much more) went into the ocean and why they did not clean the part that could be seen from the side window, too. Another characteristic of big cities in India is that pollution mist is everywhere and you really cannot see far away. It is much worse than LA. Big cities there have very little vegetation and lots of people. The metropolitan area of Mumbai has more than 20 million people, which is 3 times the population of Switzerland in a much smaller area.

The Wedding
The Mehndi of the bride. It took 7 hours!
Me getting the Mehndi done.
Kiran's wedding was a Hindu ceremony with the Sanskrit vows said in both Sanskrit and English. Everything went perfectly smoothly and was on time.

First Day: the Mehndi
We were tattooed by professional artists with henna mud. This was my first temporary tattoo. It lasted a little more than a week. The bride had lovely, very elaborate Mehndi that the artists took seven hours to complete.

Separated Rooms.
The veil
Second Day: the ceremony
The wedding was the morning after the Mehndi in Worli, Mumbai - one of the original seven islands that constituted the city of Mumbai. First the bride and then the groom enter. They are initially placed in separate chambers. Later they come down each with their own family. At this point they are still separated by a veil. Eventually, the veil is removed and they literally tie the knot and place garlands of flowers on each other. It is difficult to imagine that some couples first saw each other at their marriage ceremony once the veil was removed.

Praying together.
My friends and I.
At the end they take seven steps together and pray for the success of the marriage together with the audience. Then in the evening there was a party where everyone stayed in line to congratulate the bride and groom. One of the best things about the Indian culture is that family and friends are united and help each other much more than in most western cultures, and you see some of the support in the many attendees of the wedding.

 Third Day: New Delhi
In New Delhi, where the family of the bride lives, they had another evening celebration with really good modern music sang by a band and good food, and more amazingly nice people.  It was as cold as in Switzerland - about 5 degrees Celsius and every woman was freezing in her Sari,  which are lovely garments for the summer. Most people value appearances much more than I do. I was wearing Indian bought outfits, though. I went shopping at W - a very nice store that I highly recommend. I stayed with its owners for my two days in Delhi and they were kind and open minded. I spent time with Jasmine and her very beautiful, sweet and really smart one year old daughter, and with her parents, and her brother. India is a democracy after all - where many people who are high up mostly deserve to be there.

The groom's family were of Brahman caste, but that did not matter at all for my friend and her husband. They met on their own - no arranged marriage, and Kiran's family is very well seen in India and in the rest world without any caste. However, when I traveled back to Switzerland I stayed next to a gentlemen of Indian origin who saw my Mehndi and asked about the caste of the newly weds. So, it still seems to be something that people define as important. He did not ask me about their profession, for example, which seems more relevant to me or about their level of education.

What do I think of arranged marriages after coming back from India?
My friends met on their own. However, one of the young women at the wedding, who is getting a US education at a really good college and is planning to go to medical school after college, said that she will have an arranged marriage because it is the custom in her caste and this is fine with her. If she had said this to me a few years ago, I would have thought that it is crazy for an educated woman to not try to date and find someone to share her life with on her own. Now that I have a child, I understand the arranged marriage point of view better.

I see marriage more as a partnership with many necessary compromises on both sides than as something driven mostly by passion. In this sense, the arranged marriage is a partnership that has been evaluated by more eyes, and I think it's OK as long as the couple does meet and date for at least 6 months before the wedding and both partners have the right of veto. It can be seen as a dating service run by families and the stronger the family is, the more connections it has and the more likely it is to make a good match. However, it still feels better when a person finds their pair on their own because that relies on their strength and their social & networking abilities and not on those of their families. Arranged marriages may also be seen as a stress reliever in some cases- i.e., if the person cannot find someone on their own, they have a plan to fall back on and a shot at not being alone forever, which ends up being the case for many educated people who work too much.

Note that I am only writing about marriages where both parties are older than 18. Child marriages are something else entirely, and I totally disagree with those.

A Glimpse of Old Delhi
This short video  gives a glimpse of the busy streets in Old Delhi with all the bikes, people and other contraptions on the road. Mumbai is similar - only it's much warmer there, but New Delhi is much more modern. In Mumbai, the warm weather caused dogs to sleep seemingly all the time. Cats and crows were busier, but the stray dogs seemed to just sleep. I was a little disappointed that I did not see more exotic animals: parrots, monkeys, etc.

Are the different classes/castes noticeable?
The caste is, of course, not written on anyone's forehead. However, India has a huge gap between the rich and the poor. There was a little malnourished baby who was perhaps 7 or 8 months old. He was just sleeping naked in the middle of the sidewalk curled up with another older child. As a mother, that was the hardest for me to see.  Those who are poor do not have much access to education and so they stay poor. Fruit sellers, cloth sellers and drivers can not hold a conversation in English and some cannot add or subtract well (especially those working to help the main person who sells). They do understand words strictly related to their trade. However, the people working at the hotel reception were "higher class" and spoke fluent English.

English is taught well in schools in India and if a person is educated, they will speak fairly good English. Many books in bookstores are in English. So I bought some math, science and reading textbooks for my nephew, David, who is starting school next year, and some books with poems and a story book with 101 stories for boys. The story book advices children to work hard, be polite, and so on, which is how I want my children to be, but you can easily see that it comes from a male dominated culture. Obedient women who blindly trust their spouse are featured and rewarded. A husband sells the family cow for two apples. His wife is not angry with him when he gets home, but states that he always takes the best decisions, and they get rewarded with lots of money by a friend who sees the amount of trust between the wife and husband. I agree that trust is valuable in marriage, BUT TO NOT bring up a generation of misguided boys, it should be emphasized from an early age that the actions of an individual matter the most and not whether they are female or male. They should introduce more books not just with women and girls as protagonists, but with men who think highly of their wifes and respect women and are rewarded for that.

Overall Impression
David and Edward under our Xmas trees.
I loved India! In addition to seeing my friend through one of the happiest events of her life, I met a number of other amazing people who have created successful businesses & schools/institutes that each changed the world in their own way. I have seen a part of Asia for the first time. I was thankful to be there, but I am also thankful to be back home to watch the fireworks for 2013 from the street next to my (rented) house and to be under the Christmas trees with my family.

Happy new year everyone!

I conclude with two pictures of the Taj Mahal, a beautiful tomb built for an empress.
Pollution mist around the Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal - a closer view.
 It's one of the most amazing sights of India. The mist is as shocking as the beauty of the building. These are pictures taken by Sara. In New Delhi, I saw the Lotus temple, which is impressive as a building and through the perfect silence for meditation that people can maintain inside the temple. However,  my camera was out of battery by then. 

These perhaps are obvious statements, but I will write them anyway:  more needs to be done to (1) curb pollution & add vegetation to big cities and (2) keep children (and older people) fed, educated and off the streets. Concrete actions take courage, and we need more courage to solve these two issues - not just in India, but in many other places around the world. We also need to stop cutting trees from poorer countries and instead plant more trees. We have this issue in Romania as well, where so many forests are being cut because they are simply not worth keeping as an investment.