Tag: The Conversation

Water, weather, new worlds: Cassini mission revealed Saturn’s secrets

Cassini is the most sophisticated space probe ever built. Launched in 1997 as a joint NASA/European Space Agency mission, it took seven years to journey to Saturn. It’s been orbiting the sixth planet from the sun ever since, sending back data of immense scientific value and images of magnificent beauty. The Conversation

Cassini now begins one last campaign. Dubbed the Grand Finale, it will end on Sept. 15, 2017 with the probe plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. Although Saturn was visited by three spacecraft in the 1970s and 1980s, my fellow scientists and I couldn’t have imagined what the Cassini space probe would discover during its sojourn at the ringed planet when it launched 20 years ago.

A huge storm churning across the face of Saturn. At the time this image was taken, 12 weeks after the storm began, it had completely wrapped around the planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI, CC BY

 

A planet of dynamic change

Massive storms periodically appear in Saturn’s cloud tops, known as Great White Spots, observable by Earthbound telescopes. Cassini has a front-row seat to these events. We have discovered that just like Earth’s thunderstorms, these storms contain lightning and hail.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn long enough to observe seasonal changes that cause variations in its weather patterns, not unlike the seasons on Earth. Periodic storms often appear in late summer in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

In 2010, during northern springtime, an unusually early and intense storm appeared in Saturn’s cloud tops. It was a storm of such immensity that it encircled the entire planet and lasted for almost a year. It was not until the storm ate its own tail that it eventually sputtered and faded. Studying storms such as this and comparing them to similar events on other planets (think Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) help scientists better understand weather patterns throughout the solar system, even here on Earth.

Having made hundreds of orbits around Saturn, Cassini was also able to deeply investigate other features only glimpsed from Earth or earlier probes. Close encounters with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, have allowed navigators to use the moon’s gravity to reorient the probe’s orbit so that it could swing over Saturn’s poles. Because of Saturn’s strong magnetic field, the poles are home to beautiful Aurorae, just like those of Earth and Jupiter.

Saturn’s six-sided vortex at Saturn’s north pole known as ‘the hexagon.’ This is a superposition of images taken with different filters, with different wavelengths of light assigned colors.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University, CC BY

Cassini has also confirmed the existence of a bizarre hexagon-shaped polar vortex originally glimpsed by the Voyager mission in 1981. The vortex, a mass of whirling gas much like a hurricane, is larger than the Earth and has top wind speeds of 220 mph.

Home to dozens of diverse worlds

Cassini discovered that Saturn has 45 more moons than the 17 previously known – placing the total now at 62.

The largest, Titan, is bigger than the planet Mercury. It possesses a dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere with a surface pressure one and a half times that of Earth’s. Cassini was able to probe beneath this moon’s cloud cover, discovering rivers flowing into lakes and seas and being replenished by rain. But in this case, the liquid is not water, but rather liquid methane and ethane.

False-color image of Ligeia Mare, the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s filled with liquid hydrocarbons.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell, CC BY

That’s not to say that water is not abundant there – but it’s so cold on Titan (with a surface temperature of -180℃) that water behaves like rock and sand. Although it has all the ingredients for life, Titan is essentially a “frozen Earth,” trapped at that moment in time before life could form.

The sixth-largest moon of Saturn, Enceladus, is an icy world about 300 miles in diameter. And for me, it’s the site of the Mission’s most spectacular finding.

The discovery started humbly, with a curious blip in magnetic field readings during the first flyby of Enceladus in 2004. As Cassini passed over the moon’s southern hemisphere, it detected strange fluctuations in Saturn’s magnetic field. From this, the Cassini magnetometer team inferred that Enceladus must be a source of ionized gas.

Intrigued, they instructed the Cassini navigators to make an even closer flyby in 2005. To our amazement, the two instruments designed to determine the composition of the gas that the spacecraft flies through, the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) and the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), determined that Cassini was unexpectedly passing through a cloud of ionized water. Emanating from cracks in the ice at Enceladus’ south pole, these water plumes gush into space at speeds up to 800 mph.

I am on the team that made the positive identification of water, and I have to say it was the most thrilling moment in my professional career. As far as Saturn’s moons were concerned, everyone thought all of the action would be at Titan. No one expected small, unassuming Enceladus to harbor any surprises.

Geologic activity happening in real time is quite rare in the solar system. Before Enceladus, the only known active world beyond Earth was Jupiter’s moon Io, which possesses erupting volcanoes. To find something akin to Old Faithful on a moon of Saturn was practically unimaginable. The fact that it all started with someone noticing an odd reading in the magnetic field data is a wonderful example of the serendipitous nature of discovery.

The geyser basin at the south pole of Enceladus, with its water plumes illuminated by scattered sunlight.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, CC BY

The story of Enceladus only becomes more extraordinary. In 2009, the plumes were directly imaged for the first time. We now know that water from Enceladus comprises the largest component of Saturn’s magnetosphere (the area of space controlled by Saturn’s magnetic field), and the plumes are responsible for the very existence of Saturn’s vast E-ring, the second outermost ring of the planet.

More amazingly, we now know that beneath the crust of Enceladus is a global ocean of liquid saltwater and organic molecules, all being heated by hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Detailed analysis of the plumes show they contain hydrocarbons. All this points to the possibility that Enceladus is an ocean world harboring life, right here in our solar system.

NASA at Saturn: Cassini’s Grand Finale.

When Cassini plunges into the cloud tops of Saturn later this year, it will mark the end of one of the most successful missions of discovery ever launched by humanity.

Scientists are now considering targeted missions to Titan, Enceladus or possibly both. One of the most valuable lessons one can take from Cassini is the need to continue exploring. As much as we learned from the first spacecraft to reach Saturn, nothing prepared us for what we would find with Cassini. Who knows what we will find next?

Dan Reisenfeld, Professor of Physics & Astronomy, The University of Montana

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can March for Science participants advocate without losing the public’s trust?

As the March for Science nears, questions about whether scientists can and should advocate for public policy become more important. On one hand, scientists have relevant expertise to contribute to conversations about public policy. And in the abstract, the American public supports the idea that scientists should be involved in political debate. On the other hand, scientists who advocate may risk losing the trust of the public. Maintaining that trust is imperative for scientists, both to be able to communicate public risks appropriately and to preserve public funding for research. The Conversation

Little existing research had tested how audiences react when confronted with concrete examples of scientific advocacy. Led by my colleague John Kotcher, my colleagues and I at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication devised an experiment to test these questions in the summer of 2014. Our results suggest there is at least some tolerance for advocacy by scientists among the American public.

Testing a scientist’s perceived credibility

We asked over 1,200 American adults to read the biography and a single Facebook post of a (fictional) climate scientist named Dr. Dave Wilson. In this post, Dr. Wilson promotes his recent interview regarding his work on climate change. We varied the message of this statement to include a range of advocacy messages – from no advocacy (discussing recent evidence about climate change) to clear advocacy for specific policies to address climate change.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/8c24n

We found that perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility – and of the scientific community more broadly – did not noticeably decline when he engaged in most types of advocacy.

When Dr. Wilson championed taking action on climate change, without specifying what action, he was considered equally credible as when he described new evidence on climate change or discussed the risks and benefits of a range of policies. In fact, perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility were maintained even when he argued in favor of reducing carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants.

Only when Dr. Wilson advocated for building more nuclear power plants did his credibility suffer.

Advocacy received differently than partisanship

A nonpartisan message may be well-received.
AnubisAbyss, CC BY-NC-ND

Our study suggests that the American public may not see scientists who advocate for general action on scientific issues as lacking in credibility, nor will they punish the scientific community for one scientist’s advocacy. Yet this study represented only one case of scientific advocacy; other forms of advocacy may not be as accepted by the public. For example, more caution is required when scientists promote specific (unpopular) policies.

Most notably, our study did not test overtly partisan statements from Dr. Wilson. Our research participants saw it that way too; they rated all of Dr. Wilson’s statements as more scientific than political.

The March for Science, however, risks being seen as motivated by partisan beliefs. In that case, scientists may not escape being criticized for their actions. This is especially true if the march is seen as a protest against President Trump or Republicans. In our study, conservatives saw Dr. Wilson as less credible whether he engaged in advocacy or not. If conservatives see the march as a protest against their values, they may dismiss the message of the march – and the messengers – without considering its merits.

This risk is exacerbated when media coverage of the March for Science is considered. In our study, people saw Dr. Wilson promoting his interview in his Facebook post, but were not exposed to the actual interview in which Dr. Wilson made his case for a given policy. Nor were his actions disruptive; a single post on social media is relatively easy to skip or ignore, and Dr. Wilson could frame his interview in the way he liked.

The March for Science will be the opposite. If successful, the march will garner attention from news outlets, who may reframe the purpose of the march.

Balancing the advocacy message

So what can be done to limit accusations of partisan bias surrounding the march?

Researchers can aim for an inclusive message, avoiding the appearance of being just another interest group.
Adam Salsman, CC BY-NC-ND

One way marchers can minimize this possibility is by crafting an inclusive message that resonates with many people, stressing the ways science improves our society and protects future generations. However, the march’s similarity to other explicitly anti-Trump marches may make it hard to avoid a partisan connotation.

Moreover, in our research Dr. Wilson was portrayed as an older white male, matching cultural stereotypes about scientists; he may have had more freedom to engage in advocacy than would female or nonwhite scientists. An inclusive and diverse March for Science may challenge these traditional portrayals of scientists. While many (the authors included) would see that as a desirable objective in itself, it may complicate successful advocacy.

A goal of the March for Science is to demonstrate that science is a nonpartisan issue. It represents a unique opportunity for scientists to highlight the ways in which science improves our society. Scientists participating in the march should emphasize shared values with those who might otherwise disagree – such as the desire to create a better world for our children and grandchildren.

If the event remains a March for Science, rather than a march against a party or group, the chances increase that it will effectively focus attention on the importance of scientific research.

Emily Vraga, Assistant Professor in Political Communication, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo Credit: Balloon Juice

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Will Turkey’s referendum mark the end of democracy and the birth of ‘Erdoğanistan’?

Turkey is approaching a critical juncture in its long-term political development. Irrespective of the outcome, the country’s April 16 referendum, which proposes changing the constitution to concentrate power in the hands of the president, heralds a new political era.

Many signs seem to point to a narrow victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his attempt to establish an executive presidency a la Turca, but the result is not a foregone conclusion.

Should Erdoğan’s suggested reforms be rejected, Turkey’s near future would be defined by its president’s next move. Without a formal shift in constitutional structure, Erdoğan could resort to nefarious means to consolidate his grip on power. Alternatively, given his long-standing ambition to establish what we call a “constitutional Erdoğanistan”, he might simply pause briefly before attempting a second bite at the cherry.

Turkey on the brink

Turkey has a strong parliamentary system with a prime minister as its head. The referendum proposes to abolish the role of prime minister and replace it with an executive presidency. A major shift like this is something that has only happened a handful of times since the republic was founded in 1923 according to a renowned historian of Turkey, Erik J. Zürcher.

The country’s political system has already undergone significant economic, social, and political changes since the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) came to power in 2002. The AKP was an eager champion of legal reforms relating to Turkey’s EU candidacy and accession starting in 2004. And in September 2010, it successfully shepherded changes aimed at bringing the constitution into compliance with EU standards.

Still, were the Turkish people to vote “yes” on April 16, the changes would be fundamental and irreversible. The referendum proposes 18 amendments that will abolish nearly 70 years of multiparty parliamentary government, moving Turkey away from the core norms of a pluralist, parliamentary state of law by reducing the separation of powers and the checks and balances system, among other changes.

Erdoğan’s aim is to transform the country into a majoritarian authoritarian system centered on one man. What Turks are risking is nothing less than “democide” – the scholarly term for voting to abolish democracy itself.

A critical juncture

Since the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, has been the place where national sovereignty resides.

In the early republican period, it was dominated by the party of modern Turkey’s revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Since the transition from single-party rule to a multiparty democracy in 1946, the parliament has been the crucial institution in the political life of the country.

President Atatürk leaving the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1930.
Dsmurat./Wikimedia

Elected lawmakers have long shared power with strong guardians of institutions such as the military, the judiciary, and Turkey’s government bureaucracy – all Kemalist-dominated – in a kind of hybrid political system not unlike that of contemporary Iran, Thailand, Pakistan and Myanmar.

The parliament has also served as the site where governments have been formed, thrown out of office and restricted.

As the scholar of Turkish constitutional development Ergün Özbudun notes, “even at the height of Atatürk’s prestige, the Assembly rejected a proposal to give the President of the Republic the power to dissolve the Assembly”.

Under Erdoğan, the AKP has worked through the parliament to legitimize its rule. By 2010, it had vanquished the last Kemalist bastions within the state thanks to successive landslide electoral victories and a now-defunct strategic alliance with the Gülenists (members of a Muslim-organised educational community who follow the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen).

Since then, Turkey has been a weak electoral democracy, with the power of the National Assembly slowly eroding. A “yes” victory in the April 16 referendum could permanently diminish the authority of this venerable institution.

An unbalanced campaign

The authoritarian style Erdoğan has in mind for the future was already on display during the referendum campaign itself.

Erdoğan’s tone has been aggressively nationalistic and populist. He compared European countries’ criticism of the campaign with the attempts of the Allies to dismember Turkey at the end of the first world war, for instance. And he promised to reinstate the death penalty after the referendum.

In the first ten days of March, the government allocated television airtime to various parties to promote their positions on the referendum. The president saw 53.5 hours in newscasts, and the governing AKP was granted 83.

Meanwhile, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), the main opposition, which draws its support primarily from Turkey’s secular and Alevi minorities, was allocated 17 hours, while the less influential Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) enjoyed just 14.5 hours. The Peoples’ Democratic Party, (Halkların Demokratik Partisi), a pro-minority party that is advocating a “no” vote, saw only 33 minutes of news coverage.

A March 2017 report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirms that state officials have leaned heavily on the scales to support the “yes” campaign. By occupying the bully pulpit of the presidency, with all the resources of the government along with privileged access to media at its disposal, the “yes” group has had an overwhelming campaign advantage.

A ‘yes’ vote means more Erdoğan

If Erdoğan prevails in the April 16 referendum, the plan is to hold presidential and general elections together in 2019. Were he to win these, Erdoğan would be eligible to serve two additional five-year terms, allowing him to stay in office until 2029. His previous terms in office (2003-2014) would not count toward the two-term limit.

As president, by current law, Erdoğan had to resign from his party and officially assume a politically neutral stance.

But under the new rules, he could rejoin the AKP, which, according to opposition parties, will abolish any chance of impartiality. The proposed amendments also make it harder to remove the president from office.

The proposed changes will grant the president wide-ranging powers to issue binding decrees with the force of law. And even though these will be subject to judicial review, the president himself will appoint most of the judiciary.

With his new presidential powers, Erdoğan would also be enabled to indefinitely extend the current state of emergency that was put into effect following the failed July 2016 coup against him.

A ‘no’ vote

Despite the uneven playing field, surveys show that the referendum race is tight, and Erdoğan could be defeated.

Currently, both the opposition Republican People’s Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party are advocating a “no” vote in the referendum. DİSK, a left-wing trade union body, and numerous other NGOs and civil society groups have also come out against the proposed changes.

A narrow loss on April 16 would be a blow to Erdoğan, but it is unlikely to kill his ambition. He is expected to simply regroup and try again, including by renewing the state of emergency that gives him wide-ranging authority to continue bypassing parliament. Such a move would allow for continued purges of those deemed in opposition to the government, including Kurdish groups and Gülenists.

This is Erdoğan’s modus operandi: to foment and instrumentalise social crises to centralize power. After the 2013 Gezi park protests against urban development in Istanbul developed into a wider movement against the regime, for example, the government severely clamped down on individual rights, including media freedom. Erdoğan claimed that Gezi protesters and their supporters were a threat to the national will.

The president used a similar argument to banish the Gülen movement, deemed a terrorist organisation since May 2016.

Thus, rather than stabilize the situation, a “no” vote is likely to induce further volatility in Turkey. Erdoğan can be expected to quickly introduce a new package of “constitutional reforms” – a move that would require either a national crisis or a new “enemy of the Turkish people” as a pretext.

Rhetorical attacks on Europe are likely to intensify. Earlier this year, charges of Nazism leveled against Germany, and criticism of interference in campaign rallies by Austria and the Netherlands, were widely cheered in Turkey, giving Erdoğan every incentive to double down on the EU animosity if he loses his referendum.

In a sense, no matter who prevails on April 16, Erdoğan may remain undefeated.

Simon P. Watmough, Postdoctoral research associate, European University Institute and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, Research Assistant, Université de Strasbourg

Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Six questions about the French elections

As France goes to the polls to elect a new president, observers are wondering if the vote will follow a populist trend that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The Conversation

Here are a few important things to know about the upcoming vote, as explained by Joshua Cole, an American scholar of European history.

1. How does the French presidential electoral process work?
Prospective candidates must gather 500 signatures of support from French elected officials and have their candidacy approved by the Constitutional Court. A presidential term is five years, and all citizens 18 years and older can vote. This year the first round of voting is on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.

2. Is president an important job in France?
The prime minister is the head of the French government, but the president outranks the prime minister and has important powers in national defense and foreign relations.

The president also chooses the prime minister from the majority party in parliament. Occasionally, the president is forced to choose a prime minister from a different party than his or her own. This is called “cohabitation.” This year, the legislative elections will be in two rounds on June 11 and 18.

3. Who are the most popular candidates for president?
Eleven candidates are running, with five seen as the main contenders. Two candidates are leading the polls: Marine Le Pen of the extreme right-wing National Front and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist and former economics minister, who is not associated with a traditional party.

Surprisingly, the candidates from the parties who have dominated presidential politics for almost 40 years – the Republicans and the Socialists – are seen as unlikely to make the second round. Republican François Fillon has been hobbled by scandal. Socialist Bénoit Hamon has found little traction among voters tired of the current socialist president, François Hollande.

A candidate from the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has seen his chances of making the second round improve in recent days.

4. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since November of 2015. Is security a big issue?
Multiple terrorist attacks in 2015-2016 have made security more important than ever. Article 16 of the French Constitution gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency and then exercise executive and legislative powers simultaneously, ruling directly by decree. Given the likelihood of more terrorist attacks, this possibility has received a great deal of attention of late. A group of lawyers and jurists recently published a letter arguing that the Constitution gives too much power to the presidency and that electing Le Pen was a danger to French democracy.

5. During the 2012 election, some said then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was afraid to visit immigrant neighborhoods. How are these so-called “banlieues” playing into the election this time?

The banlieues are zones of economic and cultural exclusion, where problems of chronic unemployment are concentrated. Not all French Muslims (about 8 percent of the population) live in the banlieues, but some banlieues have large Muslim populations. Le Pen’s campaign painted the banlieues as zones of failed assimilation and a danger to France, blaming the residents for their own isolation.

6. What are the chances Le Pen will win?
Le Pen is popular among many young people, who seem not to be bothered by the National Front’s long association with racism and anti-Semitism. She is also supported by those who are opposed to European integration. Most polls say a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron is likely, and that Macron will win this match-up. With more than a third of the electorate saying they’re undecided on whom to vote for in the second round, the result may end up being much closer than predicted.

Joshua Cole, Professor of History, University of Michigan

Photo Credit: all3dp.com

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For Rex Tillerson in Russia, stakes are high and outlook is dim

Donald Trump entered office in January vowing to improve US relations with Russia. Less than three months into his presidency, however, the prospects for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be as remote as they were under any of his predecessors.

The extent of tensions and disagreements between the United States and Russia will be on display on Wednesday when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a much anticipated encounter.

Where’s the love now?

Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Russia is the first by a top Trump administration official. A former oilman who made many trips to Russia while CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson is still learning the ropes as America’s top diplomat.

Just a few weeks ago, Tillerson’s trip was seen as a test of Trump’s commitment to developing a better relationship with Moscow. But after a week of diplomatic fallout following US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the summit’s main goal now is to avoid a dangerous escalation of the situation in Syria and in US-Russia bilateral relations.

The US bombing came in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack on rebel-held territory in Idlib Province on April 4 that killed at least 80 civilians, including women and children, and sickened hundreds more. The United States and other Western governments claim the Assad regime was responsible. American warships in the eastern Mediterranean fired 59 cruise missiles against the military air base in western Syria believed to be where the attack originated.

Secretary Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in Bonn, Germany in February 2017.
US Department of State

Russia called the missile strikes an act of aggression and a violation of international law. Assad remains Moscow’s main ally in the Middle East and one of its only allies outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Tillerson’s ties to Russia aroused scrutiny from both Democrats and Republicans during his confirmation hearings in January, and almost derailed his nomination. But since then he has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s strongest Russia critics.

He has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to maintain a stockpile of chemical weapons following a 2013 agreement to disarm Assad of banned weapons, and suggested that the Russians may have been “outmaneuvered” by the Assad regime. The White House on Tuesday April 11 went further, accusing Russia of trying to cover up the attack.

Over the past week, Tillerson and other US officials have accused Russia of playing an increasingly disruptive role not just in Syria but also across Europe, just as it interfered in last year’s US presidential election.

Most difficult relations since the Cold War

In response to a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, Tillerson is likely to remind Russian officials of their commitments under the 2015 Minsk agreement, namely the importance of enforcing the ceasefire. Pentagon officials have also accused Russia of violating an important arms-control agreement signed in the 1980s.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, “It is obvious that Russian-American relations are going through the most difficult period since the end of the Cold War.”

At Tuesday’s G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, Tillerson said the reign of the Assad regime was “coming to an end,” and called on Russia to end its support for it. Continued support for Assad will only serve to embarrass Russia, he said, and make it irrelevant in the Middle East.

Still, Washington is sending mixed signals on how it plans to deal with Syria. The Trump administration does not yet have a clear policy regarding the conflict, or what the level of US involvement will be going forward. It is not yet clear whether last week’s strike will be a one off – a warning to Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people again – or whether it signals a broader strategic shift in the US approach to the civil war there, which is now in its sixth year.

Russia, on the other hand, is concerned that the US strike might signal the emergence of a more assertive foreign policy under the Trump administration. It could signal Trump’s willingness to use military force, and perhaps even a readiness to pursue military interventions and regime change. They see their interests clashing with the United States not just in Syria but possibly over North Korea and Iran as well.

What’s possible

So what can Tillerson achieve in Moscow? Neither government expects any breakthroughs on the issues that currently divide them. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Assad’s other main backer, and it is unlikely that the Kremlin will be willing to distance itself from the Assad regime.

A thaw in relations between the United States and Russia seems unlikely, and even common ground will be hard to find. Both countries increasingly see the other as an adversary, convinced that each is out to undermine the other.

The civil war in Syria has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Half the population has been displaced, and it has led to one of the worst refugee crises since the second world war. The latest ceasefire, reached in December 2016, is faltering, and UN-backed peace talks have accomplished little.

An end to the slaughter will require the active coordination of the United States and Russia. But, given current tensions between Moscow and Washington, this possibility seems more unlikely than ever.

Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

US airstrike on Syria: What next?

Make no mistake. The April 6 U.S. airstrike on Syria following Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack is a remarkable shift in President Donald Trump’s – and Washington’s – past policy.

As president-elect, Trump’s Middle Eastern concerns centered on defeating the Islamic State and depicted Syria’s millions of refugees as potential extremists and a threat to U.S. borders. The president now justifies American attacks on Syrian airfields as a “vital national security interest of the U.S.

Trump himself said that Tuesday’s ghastly chemical attacks changed his mind on the Assad regime. Just as suddenly, U.S.-based Middle Eastern experts and key foreign leaders have approved this U.S. policy move. Some Syrians, too, are showing appreciation for “Abu Ivanka,” or the “Father of Ivanka.”

Moreover, the U.S. airstrikes may have involved some strategic thought and multilateral diplomacy, two central aspects of foreign policymaking not previously associated with the Trump administration. The choice of the airfield for attack was a limited, comparatively low-stakes target. Both Russia and Syria had advance knowledge from the U.S. of the attack.

Syrian and Russian outrage at the U.S. involvement is an expected response to this first open major American military action against Assad since the 2011 civil war began. But that doesn’t mean the conflict will necessarily entangle the U.S. more deeply. Indeed, Russian frustration with the particular nastiness of its ally’s chemical attack may make the US strike a relief to President Vladimir Putin because it signals to Assad that he had better be careful about how he tries to reassert control over Syria. That signal, however, need not undermine Assad himself.

A one-time thing?

So what comes next for U.S. policy?

Was this a one-off U.S. intervention reflective of Trump’s interest in doing “something” in response to a particularly shocking event?

Or did Trump wish to look strong after critiques of his foreign policy during a visit by China’s President Xi Jinping or distract attention from his overall low approval ratings?

We don’t know, because the U.S. leader has shown limited consistent attention to foreign policy.

The easiest guess? Trump’s lack of prior expertise in the Syrian crisis, his moves back toward the U.S.‘ more typical globalized outlook and apparent genuine shock at Assad’s brutality may signal a real shift. Yet, even if so, it is unlikely founded on a broader policy vision. The problem of what Trump does when faced with a complex global challenge, without the background and fully staffed bureaucracy to respond rapidly, has been raised appropriately by journalists and pundits. We have seen no sign so far that the White House has a strategy on Assad larger than the air strike.

Of course, Assad, Putin and Iran’s leadership do have such strategies. They involve continued strengthening of the Syrian strongman’s power.

The long-term, entrenched nature of these countries’ commitments casts doubt that the U.S. for now will take bigger steps to undermine Assad’s recently improved position in Syria. The Trump administration has expressed indifference toward complex diplomacy. Indeed, greater U.S. determination to adopt a multipronged, multilateral effort to weaken Assad or crush Syrian opposition might make defeating the Islamic State harder. It would embroil Trump in a problem that proved too vexing for the extensive brainpower and experience of the Obama administration. And it might risk long-term, unpopular military engagement, with greater responsibility for state-building, like what bedeviled Washington a decade ago in Iraq.

Moreover, in terms of broader U.S. military involvement, Syria today is not a clear analogy with Iraq in 2003. The absence of a prior attack on U.S. soil, the longer-term plan of U.S. policy advisers to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government and that government’s lack of powerful international allies are all key factors that facilitated American military escalation in Iraq that are not present in Syria.

Syrians, and people who care about Syria, might hope that a U.S. airstrike leads to new, international, creative efforts to try to alleviate Syrians’ suffering. We all know that President Trump is quite capable of actions that surprise. Could a sustained American commitment to stop Assad’s killing be such a surprise? Such a commitment would require not quick attacks but subtle diplomacy, with the credible threat of force as one policy lever among many. It’s unlikely, but with Donald Trump, it is hard to know for sure.

David Mednicoff, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Director, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Photo Credit: Ah Tribune

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With new technology, mathematicians turn numbers into art

Once upon a time, mathematicians imagined their job was to discover new mathematics and then let others explain it.

Today, digital tools like 3-D printing, animation, and virtual reality are more affordable than ever, allowing mathematicians to investigate and illustrate their work at the same time. Instead of drawing a complicated surface on a chalkboard, we can now hand students a physical model to feel or invite them to fly over it in virtual reality.

Last year, a workshop called “Illustrating Mathematics” at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) brought together an eclectic group of mathematicians and digital art practitioners to celebrate what seems to be a golden age of mathematical visualization. Of course, visualization has been central to mathematics since Pythagoras, but this seems to be the first time it had a workshop of its own.

The atmosphere was electric. Talks ran the gamut, from wildly creative thinkers who apply mathematics in the world of design to examples of pure mathematical results discovered through computer experimentation and visualization. It shed light on how powerful visualization has become for studying and sharing mathematics.

Reimagining math

Visualization plays a growing role in mathematical research. According to John Sullivan at the Technical University of Berlin, mathematical thinking styles can be roughly categorized into three groups: “the philosopher,” who thinks purely in abstract concepts; “the analyst,” who thinks in formulas; and “the geometer,” who thinks in pictures.

Mathematical research is stimulated by collaboration between all three types of thinkers. Many practitioners believe teaching should be calibrated to connect with different thinking styles.


Borromean Rings, the logo of the International Mathematical Union.
John Sullivan

Sullivan’s own work has benefited from images. He studies geometric knot theory, which involves finding “best” configurations. For example, consider his Borromean rings, which won the logo contest of the International Mathematical Union several years ago. The rings are linked together, but if one of them is cut, the others fall apart, which makes it a nice symbol of unity.

The “bubble” version of the configuration, shown below, is minimal, in the sense that it is the shortest possible shape where the tubes around the rings do not overlap. It’s as if you were to blow a soap bubble around each of the rings in the configuration. Techniques for proving that configurations like this are optimal often involve concepts of flow: If a given configuration is not the best, there are often ways to tell it to move in a direction that will make it better. This topic has great potential for visualization.

At the workshop, Sullivan dazzled us with a video of the three bands flowing into their optimal position. This animation allowed the researchers to see their ideas in action. It would never be considered as a substitute for a proof, but if an animation showed the wrong thing happening, people would realize that they must have made an error in their mathematics.


In this version of the Borromean Rings, a virtual ‘soap bubble’ is blown around the wire-frame configuration.
John Sullivan

The digital artists

Visualization tools have helped mathematicians share their work in creative and surprising ways – even to rethink what the job of a mathematician might entail.

Take mathematician Fabienne Serrière, who raised US$124,306 through Kickstarter in 2015 to buy an industrial knitting machine. Her dream was to make custom-knit scarves that demonstrate cellular automata, mathematical models of cells on a grid. To realize her algorithmic design instructions, Serrière hacked the code that controls the machine. She now works full-time on custom textiles from a Seattle studio.

Edmund Harriss of the University of Arkansas hacked an architectural drilling machine, which he now uses to make mathematical sculptures from wood. The control process involves some deep ideas from differential geometry. Since his ideas are basically about controlling a robot arm, they have wide application beyond art. According to his website, Harriss is “driven by a passion to communicate the beauty and utility of mathematical thinking.”

Mathematical algorithms power the products made by Nervous System, a studio in Massachusetts that was founded in 2007 by Jessica Rosenkrantz, a biologist, and architect, and Jess Louis-Rosenberg, a mathematician. Many of their designs, for things like custom jewelry and lampshades, look like naturally occurring structures from biology or geology.

Their first 3-D printed dress consists of thousands of interlocking pieces designed to fit a particular model. In order to print the dress, the designers folded up their virtual version, using protein-folding algorithms. A selective laser sintering process fused together parts of a block of powder to make the dress, then let all the unwanted powder fall away to reveal its shape.

Meanwhile, a delightful collection called Geometry Games can help everyone, from elementary school students to professional mathematicians, explore the concept of space. The project was founded by mathematician Jeff Weeks, one of the rock stars of the mathematical world. The iOS version of his “Torus Games” teaches children about multiply-connected spaces through interactive animation. According to Weeks, the app is verging on one million downloads.

Mathematical wallpaper

My own work, described in my book “Creating Symmetry: The Artful Mathematics of Wallpaper Patterns,” starts with a visualization technique called the domain coloring algorithm.

I developed this algorithm in the 1990s to visualize mathematical ideas that have one dimension too many to see in 3-D space. The algorithm offers a way to use color to visualize something seemingly impossible to visualize in one diagram: a complex-valued function in the plane. This is a formula that takes one complex number (an expression of the form a+_b_i, which has two coordinates) and returns another. Seeing both the 2-D input and the 2-D output is one dimension more than ordinary eyes can see, hence the need for my algorithm. Now, I use it to create patterns and mathematical art.


A curve with pleasing 5-fold symmetry, constructed using Fourier techniques.
Frank A Farris

My main pattern-making strategy relies on a branch of mathematics called Fourier theory, which involves the superposition of waves. Many people are familiar with the idea that the sound of a violin string can be broken down into its fundamental frequencies. My “wallpaper functions” break down plane patterns in just the same way.

My book starts with a lesson in making symmetric curves. Taking the same idea into a new dimension, I figured out how to weave polyhedral solids – think cube, dodecahedron, and so on – from symmetric bands made from these waves. I staged three of these new shapes, using Photoshop’s 3-D ray-tracing capacity, in the “Platonic Regatta” shown below. The three windsails display the symmetries of Platonic solids: the icosahedron/dodecahedron, cube/octahedron and tetrahedron.


A Platonic Regatta. Mathematical art by Frank A. Farris shows off three types of polyhedral symmetry: icosahedral/dodecahedral, cube/octaheral and tetrahedral.
Frank Farris

About an hour after I spoke at the workshop, mathematician Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson had posted a Twitter bot to animate a new set of curves every day!

Mathematics in the 21st century has entered a new phase. Whether you want to crack an unsolved problem, teach known results to students, design unique apparel or just make beautiful art, new tools for visualization can help you do it better.

This article was updated on April 5, 2017 with the full name of Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson.

Frank A. Farris, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Santa Clara University

Photo Credit:  Frank Farris

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.