Friday 12 July 2019

The Cricket World Cups Of Our Lives

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23rd March, 2003

We didn't have cable TV at home. It had always been deemed a 'distraction' towards our academic performance. However, as luck would have it, my granddad, a devout cricket fan, had decided to visit us a couple of months earlier and my father had to, grudgingly, get Doordarshan Sports so that my granddad could track India's tour of New Zealand in 2002-03.

That was the first time I watched a game of cricket. I cannot remember the first time I played it, as it was much earlier. I had been playing cricket before I even knew what the game was, who played it and whether I was any good at it. 

I had watched Sachin Tendulkar in advertisements, but not on the field. 

But now, I was watching it. Something about Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan stood out to me in that series, even at that age, and I decided to worship them. 

My granddad left soon after that tour, but DD Sports did not. I had at my disposal a newfound cricket watching interest, two deified heroes in Sehwag and Zaheer and a functional sports channel. Suddenly, I was in with the times - the advertisements with Sachin and Ganguly made sense, the news reports made sense and the adult chatter made sense.

The advent of DD Sports into my house had somehow altered the zeitgeist. I was sold.

So amidst this hullabaloo to a highly impressionable mind, it all began. It began with a Brian Lara and Lance Klusener special. This sport was throwing greatness at me, one match at a time. It began with India vs. Netherlands, and with it the first Sachin straight drive that will remain eternally indelible. 

It began with running home from school to check the scores. It began with protracted, desperate arguments with my parents for the day-night games, as they went well past our bedtime.

Once, I went to bed (disgruntled naturally) hoping that the English batsmen would show mercy to my team. 

I woke up to the ballads of a certain Ashish Nehra, and his miraculous 6 for 23. We mimicked his airplane celebration for years when we played.

I woke up to a Sourav Ganguly heist against Kenya. Thankfully, (since it was a day game) I was wide awake for Mohammed Kaif's heroics against New Zealand.

Then, the hype. India and Australia were bound to meet in the finals - surely, no one expected Kenya and Sri Lanka to defeat these behemoths? The Times Of Oman, in a bid to stand out from the crowd, ran a headline along the lines of 'Forget Australia vs. India, what about Sri Lanka vs. Kenya?'

I guess it was destined to be. Against Kenya once again, Ganguly unleashed a barrage of sixes over midwicket, and there was a new threat to the Indian quest to the finals: rain. The clouds threatened to wash out Ganguly's efforts, and India would have to come back for a fresh start. India switched to spin options pretty quickly into the Kenyan innings, with Harbhajan, Sachin, Sehwag and Yuvraj all rushing through their overs at Ganguly's frenzied gestures. He had one eye on the clouds, one eye on the D/L (now DLS) score, and two hands frantically urging his bowlers to get to their mark quicker.

I went to sleep after India had satisfied the D/L quota of overs.

Sehwag, meanwhile, was having a bad World Cup. His mother was being interviewed on national news. She was describing the meticulousness of her prayers, and her motherly instinct told her that Sehwag would score big in the final.

On 23rd March, during our morning school prayer I decided to include an additional plea for my Indian cricket team. I was too young to calculate the importance of my little hurried wish; too young to be aware of the deluge of prayers that would emanate from India that day. The obliviousness of youth made me believe that, somewhere out there in Oman, one little kid's prayer would change destiny.  

I was restless in school. I was convulsing with excitement during the bus ride back home. I might have leapt out before the door was fully open and hared across to my building. I might have jammed the elevator buttons and paced around, urging it to go up faster. I might have rushed past my mother at the door, flung my schoolbag aside and switched on the TV, remote trembling in my hands.

I switched on to a disaster. 

Ricky Ponting had grabbed my little dreams and crushed them with alarming brutality.

He was a tornado; Australia, a dynasty. Every shot was like a whip crack, every boundary gesture was like a slap and every fist-bump was a puncture to my bubble of optimism. I was just sinking deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

But, we had Sachin. So we waited, clinging to our battered strands of hope. I watched Sachin and Sehwag walk out, and I had goosebumps. It was time to right the wrongs. Pay back the misery and the trauma in style. It would be the ultimate underdog story.

Sachin hit a boundary and then skied a pull. The ball hung in the air longer than normal. 

It came crashing down with our hopes.

So I did the only thing I knew. I switched off the TV and went down to play.

Sachin Tendulkar dismissed by Glenn McGrath, India vs Australia 2003 Cricket World Cup Final

This was the only antidote that came to my mind, the only escape mechanism. At the age of 9, going down to play was a panacea. My mother came down for a walk at some point to inform us that Sehwag had finally come good, but India hadn't. I didn't want this bargain. It was raining, and we were hoping for the match to be called off. The same rain gods I was against a match before were the ones I looked up to that day.

But alas, when I finally trudged back home, Sehwag was trudging back as well, having just been run out.  The match was back on, and so were my miseries. But a young mind is fairly optimistic, and even at 9 down when Ashish Nehra hit two consecutive boundaries I envisioned him scoring a brisk century to engender the upset of the millennium.

The chimera was shattered by Darren Lehmann. For months after that match, I would replay India vs. Australia on EA Sports cricket games on my PC, trying to avenge that match. Trying to wash away those memories. But I never could.

I was scarred.

I just didn't know it then. I was too young to know it.

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23rd March, 2007

By 2007, I was once again alienated from cricket. Sports channels in my house had long disappeared, and this time no relative could bring them back. Indian cricket was in tatters with Greg Chappell blatantly chaperoning us off a cliff. Sehwag was struggling, on the brink of being dropped.

Somehow, I had managed to convince my parents to let me watch the World Cup at a neighbour's house. I shouldn't have. India crumbled to Bangladesh that day. Despite that, I went back the next match to watch a Dwayne Leverock dive and Sehwag special.

Bangladesh upsets India in 2007 Cricket World Cup

That India would crash out was never a conceivable notion. But as they collapsed to a Sri Lankan charge, it was foolish to assume otherwise. I went to bed that night in the middle of the match. Somewhere, on some floor in my building, a Sri Lankan family had organised a watch party. Their deafening cheers and music signalled the fall of every Indian wicket.

I heard them all, lying in the dark in bed, exactly four years from the day Ricky Ponting was relentless in his mauling. Tossing and turning, trying to sleep it all away. I wondered what life would be like in 2011. I would be in Grade 11, a shuddering prospect. 

At some point in that darkness, the loudest cheer broke out followed by unending music and I knew the deed was done. I don't know at what point I dozed off, drifting away from my misery as the Sri Lankans celebrated the night away.

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2nd April, 2011

By 2011, cricket was a defining personality trait. 

My bedroom walls were peppered with posters of cricketers, wrestlers and rappers. Sports channels were still non-existent in my house, but these were the rebellious teenage years of torrents and illegal streams. 

By now, I was already a pseudo-cricket analyst. On Facebook groups, online forums, Cricinfo comments and school bus discussions. The social media age was truly upon us, and it accentuated the scrutiny, hype and criticism. I was starting to comprehend the true magnitude of humanity.

Despite my cricket fanaticism, I was, like any other teenager, extremely busy. A 17-year old often deems it offensive to sit a full day at home, and so did I. I caught snippets of matches whenever I could. I caught the ending of the India-Australia quarter-final outside a restaurant in Karama, gazing through the window display at the TV screens. As Yuvraj Singh roared into the skies, so did all the visitors at the restaurant. 

I caught the ending of India vs. Pakistan at another restaurant in Karama, this time inside it (thankfully). We ran outside at the dismissal of Misbah-ul-Haq and danced away to the music of our phones. 

The stage was set for a moment in history. Sachin Tendulkar, one knock away from a hundred international 100s, due to play his last World Cup final at his home ground in Bombay to win the coveted trophy that had eluded him his entire career. 

You couldn't have written a better script. Someone out there had planned it all out, detail upon detail, to create a story that would last the ages. 

Lasith Malinga tore it into pieces. 

Life isn't a movie, or maybe we were watching Sri Lanka's movie, I mused as Sachin dragged himself back to the pavilion in deafening silence at the Wankhede. Thankfully, Gambhir, Kohli and Dhoni decided to interrupt the Sri Lankan cinema reel and create their own, and we inched closer to a dream.

As Mahendra Singh Dhoni launched Nuwan Kulasekara into the sky, time once again stood still. It had been eight years since I watched a ball just hang in the air, defying gravity and bending time. The room erupted around me with shrieks, laughter and sobs. The scene at the corners of my eyes was a blur, as friends jumped, hugged and celebrated. 

But I just stood there, transfixed to the screen. For a rare moment, thoughtless, speechless and motionless.

MS Dhoni Hits A Six and India wins the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final Against Sri Lanka

What is it about sport? 

It is, after all, an imagined reality. Every form of sport can be fragmented into mindless running, pointless chasing of something worthless and conforming to rules that represent no tangible barriers. What is cricket if not a silly 'hit-ball-with-stick', football just a 'kick-ball' or basketball a 'throw-ball' game that holds no tangible value?

What is it then? What about sport drives us?

If it is just another silly little game, then it cannot explain why we ran - ran with no purpose and destination on the streets of Bur Dubai on a sultry night in April. It didn't matter who we were, where we came from or what we were doing. We just ran, and ran, until we couldn't run anymore. Some of us screaming our hearts out, others laughing and others weeping.

It cannot explain why all around us, people swarmed out of the concrete jungle, draped in flags, tooting horns and smeared with face paint. Why did cars block all the streets, with absolutely no intention of going anywhere, honking to the beats of the dhol being played in every corner?

No one had scheduled a mass congregation after the World Cup final. No invitations, no event pages, no flyers or announcements for a street after-party. Yet, here we were, denizens of the same soil, swarming in revelry. We were hugging strangers, dancing, singing and chanting. We were climbing on cars, hanging off Jeeps driven by unknowns. We escaped for a night, and it seemed the night wouldn't end ever. Schools, universities, offices and daily routines be damned. Alarm clocks and early mornings be damned.

This was our night, and we would decide when, and if, it would end.

What is it about sport? What is it that got us all together that night - living, breathing, singing, dancing as one? 

If it is just another silly little game, then how did it, for one night, unify a nation?

* * *

26th March, 2015

The Sydney Cricket Ground was ready for a spectacle. I was hunched over my laptop screen, in the middle of the night. It was a cold, typically rainy British night and I was pulling an all-nighter to watch the match scheduled in broad daylight in Australia.

But another skied shot to an Australian pacer, and it seemed 2003 was back to haunt me. Another ball that hung in the air, this time from the blade of Virat Kohli, not Sachin. Delivered by Mitchell Johnson, not Glenn McGrath.

Virat Kohli ambled back to a silenced crowd, and I had another scar. 

By now cricket was a peripheral part of me. I was playing club cricket in picturesque college grounds that populated the meadows of Cambridgeshire. I was a part-time glorified pseudo-cricket analyst at SportsKeeda

Yet, I was lost.

For the first time, I couldn't foresee my life by the next World Cup. It was easier while I was in educational institutions. Easy to predict my 4-year increments in school or university years. But in 2019, I would (hopefully) be a young professional, aged a daunting 25 years old. I had no idea where I would be, what I would be doing and even who I would turn out to be.

My reliable metric of measuring life by World Cups was starting to crumble, and my future was in darkness.

Mitchell Johnson Dismisses Virat Kohli in 2015 Cricket World Cup Semi-Final

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July 2019

Amidst this darkness, I now reach out to you, my reader.

I've always casually measured my life with cricket World Cups. I've always tried to imagine my life, age, status and circumstance by the next event.

In 2003, the first one I remember watching at the age of nine, I tried to imagine myself in 2007. I would then be 13 years old, a big number to my 9-year-old mind. Probably in 7th grade ('probably' as I wasn't optimistic about my middle school grades) - what would life be like at the age of 13? Would I have too much homework? Would I be more serious, more studious and less playful?

In 2007, I laughed at the thought of my nine-year-old worries. At the same time, I shuddered to think of 2011. While my questions and their answers changed with every World Cup, one fact that was apparent, in fact inevitable, was that my childhood was disappearing.

In 2015, I was left stranded in my prognosis. Life became impossible to predict from thereon. Of course, if you are reading this piece today, then it means I have made it in living colour to 2019. But this pattern of unknown, of darkness, has now clung to World Cups.

Where would I be in 2023? What would I be doing? Would I be married? Kids? All shuddering prospects, but they are unavoidable. 

Yet, as I have done every single time, four years later I would look back and smile at the worries of my younger self. But would I smile at the memories itself? What would I remember July 2019 by?

I cannot help but create a lifelong memory this World Cup - it is an unavoidable circumstance at this point. Such is my love for the game, my history with it and its attachment to my life story.

I cannot choose to not have this eternal memory. It is now up to the players, luck and maybe destiny to decide whether this memory would be a good one, or whether I would etch another scar into this life story.

Whether I would go to bed that night reliving the horrors of my childhood, or dancing, singing, hugging and chanting with my people, for one night only, lost in oblivion and unified once again. 


10th July 2019

Naturally, I wrote that ending before the events of Tuesday and Wednesday. I guess I must leave it to 2023, when I would indeed be 29, and lost in this impenetrably dark abyss that is my future. 

For now, however, I add another scar.

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If you liked what you have just read, please do consider spreading the love and sharing this on social media platforms of your choice. Additionally, also consider liking this blog on Facebook, following it on Twitter, following me personally on Twitter or upvoting this post on Reddit. We're all artists in our own way, and this is my art that would truly find expression if more people got a chance to read it.

If reading isn't your thing (and assuming you stuck around to skim to the end), then you can listen to me dissect cricket with Anurag Ram Chandran at the latest episode of the Millennial Musings Podcast here.

Similar articles:

Why I Feel Virat Kohli, And Not Sachin Tendulkar, Is Indian Cricket's Biggest Inspiration: Read More

Why I Stopped Loving Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Read More

India At Rio Olympics 2016: No Country For Non-Cricketers: Read More

Tuesday 4 June 2019

India vs. South Africa, ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: Preview, Predictions, Key Players, Strategies, Match-Ups & Everything Else

Virat Kohli and Faf Du Pless Ahead of India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019

Once more into the breach, dear friends?

At the onset of yet another Indian World Cup campaign (for anyone doubting where my loyalties lie), there is hope like never before. Sure, there was hope in 2011 as well but this time there is a formidable bowling line-up that doesn't include Sreesanth.

In the other corner is South Africa, a team that is bruised by the conspicuous void left by AB de Villiers, injuries to Dale Steyn, Hashim Amla and Lungi Ngidi and their perennial failures at major tournaments.

On paper, predictions seem easy. But it wouldn't hurt to inject some analysis to spice it up?

Match-Ups & Possible Strategies

Lungi Ngidi vs. Shikhar Dhawan*
Lungi Ngidi vs Shikhar Dhawan in India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
Ngidi vs. Dhawan: Target Zone (from a right-handed batsman's perspective)

Delivery type: cross-seam
Target dismissal: caught by keeper, slip or at gully

  • Expect Ngidi to target the good-length area on the fifth stump line to Dhawan. 
  • This would play into Dhawan's natural instinct to dominate all deliveries on the off, but leave him cramped for room. 
  • Ngidi generates extra bounce which has often troubled Dhawan. (refer similar dismissals with Oshane Thomas)
*This analysis was written before Lungi Ngidi got injured in the match against Bangladesh. I have left it intact as there is a slight chance that it might be implemented by Chris Morris instead, but slightly shorter (back of length & short, instead of length & back of length). 

My gut instinct, however, is that in the absence of Ngidi it is Shikhar Dhawan's day to shine. 

*cue in thigh slap*

Kagiso Rabada vs. Rohit Sharma 
  • Rabada to bowl full in-swingers to Rohit to capitalise on his chronic weakness (refer similar dismissals with Mohammad Amir).
  • Rohit extremely susceptible if India bats first under a cloud cover, slightly less but still at risk if chasing during the first five overs of the new ball. 
Kagiso Rabada vs Rohit Sharma in India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
Rabada vs. Rohit: Target Zone

Delivery Type: In-swingers
Target Dismissal: LBW or bowled

Kagiso Rabada vs. Virat Kohli
  • Rabada to consistently bowl short to Kohli, with surprise yorkers in between (refer all matches on India's tour of South Africa in 2018).
  • Kohli would attempt to dominate. The execution of this plan would be an important moment (as with all things Kohli) in this match
  • The execution of this plan would also depend on the timing of Kohli's entry - if India's skipper walks out within the first 5 overs then the initial plan might be to bowl good length at the fourth & fifth stump.

Kagiso Rabada vs Virat Kohli in India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
Rabada vs. Kohli: Target Zone

Delivery Type: Short
Target Dismissal: Caught (Deep Fine Leg, Long Leg, Square Leg)

South African batsmen vs. Kuldeep & Chahal 

  • Unless the batsmen have worked out a clear plan on picking the variations, expect SA to either go very hard or very cautious against the Indian leggies. 
  • Higher chance of the cautious approach due to the weakness of the SA batting order. In this scenario, Bhuvneshwar Kumar/Mohammed Shami, Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav/Ravindra Jadeja will be the bowlers they will target
  • If Chahal is targeted, expect him to bowl extremely wide on a fuller length.
  • Should the batsmen be successful in combating the wide tactic, Chahal to continue bowling wide but pull his length back slightly with some pace off for a bigger dip
Kagiso Rabada vs Virat Kohli in India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
Chahal's Defensive Mechanism

Delivery Type: Off-spin, full, wide, slow dippers
Target Dismissal: Stumped, Caught at Long Off or Deep Extra Cover, Cover

Note: All of these match-ups have stronger potency if India bats first, as this would pit India's batting against South Africa's bowling under slightly more favourable conditions for bowling. It would also play into SA's history of choking messing up chases, which would be keenly exploited by the Indian spinners under the hawk-like supervision of MS Dhoni. 

Key Players

1. Kedar Jadhav

Kedar Jadhav in India vs South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019

The South African batsmen would mainly look to target the fifth bowler, the role of which should primarily be filled by Jadhav for this match as I do not expect Hardik Pandya to pose a threat. Expect Jadhav's unique action, delivery trajectory and MSD's advice to play a pivotal role. His threat would be magnified against the left-handed batsmen (QDK, Miller, JP Duminy).

Having said that, Ravindra Jadeja will most likely take Jadhav's spot due to a strong showing in the warm-ups, which I personally feel might be a mistake for this match.

2. Shikhar Dhawan

Shikhar Dhawan in India vs South Africa, ICC Cricket World Cup 2019

Should Dhawan manage to curb his instincts initially against Rabada and avoid inside edges into his stumps, the stars are aligned for a Shikhar special in yet another ICC tournament. In the absence of the real stylistic threat in Lungi Ngidi, the only person standing in Dhawan's way tomorrow is his own ego.

3. Quinton de Kock

Quinton de Kock in India vs. South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019

QDK is the biggest threat to India, as he remains the only player in the line-up who can truly take the game away. If India open with Bhuvaneshwar or Shami to QDK, expect carnage up front. Kuldeep will be the key bowler as he would turn it away from de Kock. Since Kuldeep does not bowl in the power-plays this battle would be delayed - by which point QDK might be off to a good start.

4. Rassie van der Dussen

Rassie van der Dussen in India vs. South Africa ICC Cricket World Cup 2019

Prodigious talent that is relatively unheard of has been India's bane for the longest time. (refer: ABD, QDK, Sam Curran, Michael Clarke, Ajantha Mendis, Ashton Turner, Lendl Simmons, Heinrich Klaasen). I would expect the same from the bowling think tank, who would extensively plan for Faf du Plessis, David Miller, the mighty Hash and Quinton de Kock but underestimate the batsmen to follow.

Bonus Mention: MS Dhoni's strategic consultancy during the middle overs while the Indian spinners are in action might be his most important contribution in this match, above his batting or keeping.


Possible Indian XI: 1. Rohit Sharma, 2. Shikhar Dhawan, 3. Virat Kohli (c), 4. KL Rahul 5. MS Dhoni (wk), 6. Hardik Pandya, 7. Ravindra Jadeja (hope it's Jadhav though), 8. Kuldeep Yada,. 9. Mohammed Shami, 10. Yuzvendra Chahal, 11. Jasprit Bumrah

Possible South Africa XI: 1. Quinton de Kock, 2. Hashim Amla, 3. Aiden Markram, 4. Faf du Plessis, 5. David Miller/Rassie van der Dussen, 6. JP Duminy, 7. Chris Morris/Andile Phehlukwayo, 8. Dwaine Pretorius, 9. Kagiso Rabada 10. Imran Tahir, 11. Tabraiz Shamsi

With a forecasted cloud cover, the toss will be crucial. Both teams would be looking to bowl first to exploit the conditions, however, South Africa has already messed up two chases which would definitely play on their minds.

Should India bowl first, I would predict a comfortable victory for the team in blue. However, if the roles are reversed the match would get much tighter. The key players and strategies discussed above might come into play in determining the victor.

If you found this analysis a bit too comprehensive, never forget this signboard I found outside the dressing room in an old college cricket ground in Cambridgeshire:

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If you liked what you have just read, please do consider spreading the love and sharing this on social media platforms of your choice. Additionally, also consider liking this blog on Facebook, following it on Twitter or following me personally on Twitter. We're all artists in our own way, and this is my art that would truly find expression if more people got a chance to read it.

Similar articles:

Why I Feel Virat Kohli, And Not Sachin Tendulkar, Is Indian Cricket's Biggest Inspiration: Read More

Why I Stopped Loving Mahendra Singh Dhoni: Read More

India At Rio Olympics 2016: No Country For Non-Cricketers: Read More

Tuesday 14 May 2019

An Overview Of The Wonders Of Space & Our Universe In A Single Blog Post, By A Rookie

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

First Ever Black Hole Picture Katie Bouman

Once again, in this increasingly infrequent series of overviews, I aim to provide a one-stop-shop for all your cosmological queries. As always, this should be treated as another zealot's opportunity to promote discussion about the miraculous wonders of our Universe (of which there are many), and not a scientific paper by an astrophysicist with a litany of qualifications (of which there are none).

So, without further ado, I present to you: a blogger's guide to the galaxy.

Earth & The Solar System

Jumping away from the obvious facts that even 5th graders could tell you (actually I'm no longer sure what 5th graders could tell you these days): what makes the Earth unique? Why does life exist on Earth and not anywhere else to our knowledge? These are some reasons:
  • All stars have a habitable zone or Goldilocks zone, which is the ideal distance a planet should be located from it. It was named after the eponymous fairy tale character that found one soup too cold, one soup too hot and one soup 'just right'. Similarly, planets in the Goldilocks zones are neither too hot or cold, but just right. 
  • This zone is conducive to life due to moderate levels of radiant energy and atmospheric pressure, which consequently support the presence of liquid water. 
  • Earth is in the Goldilocks zone of our Sun. Before we feel special, we should note that so is Mars.
  • Our solar system is conveniently positioned at a considerable distance from other apocalyptic hazards like rogue stars, black holes or supernovas.
  • Earth's dynamic core creates a strong magnetic field that protects us from solar flares.
  • Jupiter's immense size and proximity to Earth attracts most asteroids away from colliding with us. Remember, it took just one asteroid to wipe out dinosaurs.
  • We have been very lucky with climate changes, the current huge gap between ice ages and geological hazards like supervolcanoes to allow a civilisation to thrive for a couple of hundred thousand years.
Habitable Zones Of Stars Goldilocks Zones

Additional Reading: 
  • Warm Welcome: Finding Habitable Planets: Read Here
The Great Filter

Clearly, multiple miracles worked in our favour to sustain life. Let's say we find a new planet tomorrow, then these factors would help determine whether we might find life on it:
  • The probability of that planet being placed in the habitable zone of its solar system
  • The probability of that planet developing a strong magnetic field
  • The probability of the birth of microbes under favourable weather conditions
  • The probability of the birth of oxygen-producing bacteria
  • The probability of the evolution of multi-cellular organisms into animals, and then into intelligent ones
  • The probability of those animals enduring common cyclic hazards of mass extinction like Ice Ages or asteroids
  • The probability of that civilisation not wiping itself out upon reaching super-intelligence.
  • The probability of the star in that solar system lasting long enough for life to sustain on that planet
  • The probability that planet is close to a giant body that can seduce asteroids away
Of course, there are a lot more probabilities that come into play but let us stick with these. It would be easier to imagine this barrier of conjunctive probabilities as a Great Filter. A filter that determines where life would exist on a given planet.

Let's say a reasonable assumption is that the probability of all these factors clicking together is one in 20 million (1/20,000,000).

Taking the billions and billions of solar systems into account, it is estimated that our Universe contains 40 billion Earth-like planets in Goldilocks zones of their respective stars. (that's 40,000,000,000 Earths). Assuming that one planet in every 20 million planets has the probability of creating life, that still leaves us with 2,000 planets that definitely have life?

Solar Flares Solar Storms
Solar Storms

Cheeky note: We haven't taken into contention forms of life that don't require the same living conditions that we do. So it is entirely possible that there exists a separate permutation, probability and estimation for lifeforms that survive on elements other than water or oxygen within this Universe.

Earth-like Planets

Planets Like Earth Kepler 452b
Earth-like Planets

Listing below some popular Earth-like planets that currently meet most prerequisites for sustaining life:

Kepler-62e: Read More
Kepler 62e
Image Source: Kepler-62e

Kepler-452b: Read More
Kepler 452b
Image Source: Kepler-452b

Kepler-62f: Read More
Kepler 62f

Additional Reading:
  • The Six Most Earth-Like Planets, E. Howell: Click Here
Planet Nine

Beyond Neptune, our last recognised planet (my sincere condolences to Plutonians), lie multiple celestial bodies imaginatively named trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). As more of these celestial bodies started getting discovered, cosmologists were able to perceive a pattern in their orbits. Their orbits approached the Sun from a common angle and were all tilted in a similar pattern.

These observations can be explained if there is a giant mysterious Planet Nine lurking beyond Neptune in our Solar System. The orbit would be opposite to those of the TNOs, hence balancing out the forces.

Estimated to be around 5-10 times the mass of Earth, its immense distance from the sun results in minimal reflection of light. Things are still murky, however, with increasing improvement in our surveillance technology, we should have an answer soon.

So I guess it might be time to rewrite school textbooks, again.

(my sincere condolences to upcoming elementary school students, as well)

Additional Reading:
  • Evidence For A Distant Giant Planet In The Solar System, K. Batygin, M. Brown: Read Here
  • TED Talk: The Search For Planet Nine: Watch Here
Black Holes

Black Hole From Interstellar

This is where the fun truly begins.

When stars way bigger than our Sun die, they leave behind a mass with a gravitational force but no repulsive forces keeping it stable. As a result, the star collapses upon itself, creating a small region of very high density and very high gravitational force.

The gravitational force is so high, that even light cannot escape it. Which means that if you were to point a torch at a black hole, you would not see any light reflect back. If you were to enter a black hole and switch on a torch you would still not see anything in front of you - even if you held the torch right next to your face.

Supermassive Black Hole

Black holes are hard to detect and hard to theorise upon. At the boundary of a black hole (called the event horizon), all our current scientific theories cease to exist and physics does not make sense any more. Once you cross the event horizon, you need to be travelling faster than the speed of light to escape out, which is currently impossible.

The centre of the black hole is generally termed a point of singularity since theoretically, gravity and density are infinite within an infinitesimally tiny space at the centre.

Since physics as we know it ceases to exist beyond the event horizon, people have the liberty to hypothesise anything they wish - including the time tesseract from Interstellar, parallel universes inside black holes and the black hole information paradox.

Time Tesseract From Interstellar
Image Source: Tesseract

Dark Matter

Dark Matter Universe
Image Source: Is Dark Matter Fuzzy

Everything that we can see, around us, is matter. Anyone who has lived a moderately long life can attest to the fact that there is a lot of matter on Earth alone, and we haven't even completely explored our solar system or the universe. Yet, matter only makes up 5% of our universe. The rest is divided into 27% dark matter and 68% dark energy, which effectively means that we don't know, understand, see or interact with 95% of our own universe. 

Dark matter is matter we cannot see, as it does not reflect light or any form of electromagnetic radiation. It is completely undetectable by all measuring instruments we have invented so far. But we know that it exists, or something exists, that exerts a strong gravitational force. That is because visible matter simply does not account for all the gravitational forces we have measured so far. In fact, it falls alarmingly short.

Although far-fetched, one theory suggests that there are parallel solar systems composed entirely of dark matter (like ours is of matter), that we just cannot see yet. 

Dark Energy

Dark Energy Universe

Things get even murkier when we consider dark energy. Dark energy was born out of the discrepancy in common logic: We can all agree that the universe is made up of matter (dark or otherwise). We are also in unanimous agreement that all matter exerts a gravitational force. All a result, we would constantly be pulled towards a bigger mass (the Moon towards the Earth, the Earth towards the Sun, the Sun towards the supermassive black hole at the centre or our galaxy).

This should mean that either

1) The Universe is shrinking, or

2) It is in a state of equilibrium, but a minute quantum fluctuation would send everything spiralling into one another and it would start shrinking like the first scenario

It was then hypothesised that there exists a strong, repulsive force that opposes gravity. We can neither see it, nor measure it at this point but we know it exists simply from the fact that something is pushing galaxies away from each other, in this expanding Universe. That something also happens to constitute 68% of the Universe, and alarmingly, does not weaken the further it pushes objects away from each other.

Some theories claim that dark energy is getting stronger the further it pulls us apart. Aliens are zooming away from us exponentially as we speak.

Einstein's Biggest Blunder

Einstein originally included a 'cosmological constant' in his equations to account for a stable universe. Back then, it was only known that gravity existed as an attractive force. To account for a stable Universe, Einstein assumed a constant negative value for the cosmological constant to oppose gravity. However, when Edwin Hubble discovered that the Universe was expanding, Einstein was forced to discard this constant, as it was clear the Universe was not stable.

He went on record to call it the biggest blunder of his life. His equations still worked - the value of the cosmological constant was just assumed to be zero.

Albert Einstein Cosmological Constant Biggest Blunder

Decades later, astrophysicists made the discovery that the universe is not just expanding, it's also accelerating. When they applied Einstein's equations, they found that they still worked but now the cosmological constant was back in play. Only this time it was supposed to have a positive non-zero value. Somehow, his equations still worked, just the value assumed for the constant was different.

Einstein's brilliance exceeded his own awareness.

Image Source: Big Bang - Expansion

Additional Reading:
  • Dark Matter & Dark Energy: Read More
  • The Great Mysteries of Dark Matter And Dark Energy, Z. Tomlinson: Read Here
  • Brian Cox on Joe Rogan Experience: Watch Here
Aliens & The Fermi Paradox

"Where are they?"

Named after Enrico Fermi's lunchtime discussion with his colleagues, the Fermi Paradox questions the existence of extra-terrestrial life by the simple fact that we haven't been contacted by anyone yet. Having already noted the existence of habitable zones, Earth-like planets and the possibility of advanced civilizations that merely began a millennia before ours, we should have been contacted or have seen some trace of their existence.

But we haven't, which creates a very chilling paradox.

Some plausible theories are:
  • Aliens have already found us and either oversee our lives in ostensibly unnoticeable ways or are simply too advanced to bother with a civilisation with our (low) level of intelligence. Looking at the indifference with which we treat our closest intelligent animals like chimpanzees or dolphins, to aliens out there this could just be an insignificant planet of chimpanzees.
  • We are already in a simulation created by an advanced civilization, or in a Matrioshka brain
  • They visit us from time to time, during Comic-Cons (a theory by Neil deGrasse Tyson, before you throw shoes at me)
  • They have transcended conventional intelligence so far, that mundane and physical manifestations of life no longer interest them. This was also alluded to in the fantastically terrifying Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • We might actually be the only living creatures in the entire Universe. Casual.
Star Child 2001 A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick
Star Child From 2001: A Space Odyssey

Why We Shouldn't Find Life On Mars

Nick Bostrom has gone on record to state that he sincerely wishes we don't find any form on life on Mars, for the following reasons:
  • If the probability barrier or the Great Filter theory for the factors that sustain life is to be believed, then either it has occurred before Earth or will occur in the future. 
  • If the Great Filter has already occurred, then we should have been contacted by other civilizations similar to ours by now, unless we're the only ones. It throws into light the incredibly low probability of life developing under favourable conditions, undeterred by hazards of all forms.
  • If the Great Filter is yet to come, it basically means that all over the Universe life can easily thrive to the levels we have achieved. At some point, their intelligence causes them to self-destruct with mass extinction - either through a bad invention (nuclear missiles anyone?), bad ideologies (any guesses?) or another unforeseen threat. (fatal epidemic?)
The Great Filter

It follows that if we were to discover life on Mars, it would shoot the statistics on the discovery of life to two planets out of eight in just our Solar System. This would severely change the numbers from 1 in 20,000,000+ planets as currently believed to 1 in 4. It would imply that the Great Filter is yet to come since life is much easier to sustain than previously believed.

This would also mean that humanity might come to a premature end in the foreseeable future, since the Great Filter is ahead of us, and not behind us.

Didn't that escalate quickly?

Additional Reading:
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks Humans Might Be Too Stupid For Aliens To Contact: Read More
  • Why I Hope The Search For Extra-Terrestrial Life Finds Nothing, N. Bolstrom: Read More
  • Supervolcanoes 101: Read Here
Inter-Stellar Probes

The Pioneer Program
was one of our first forays into inter-galactic communication. Multiple probes were sent out into space around the Sun, Moon, other planets, for the purpose of creating a weather network and also for exploring the world beyond our solar system.  Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 are two notable probes that successfully exited our solar system. They are currently hurtling through space towards the nearest galaxies.

We have now lost contact with both probes, so the only hope of getting them back is if aliens find them and decide to come looking.

Pioneer 10 Probe
Image Source: The Pioneer Missions

The Voyager probes were initially designed to explore the planets in our Universe. However, they soon received unforeseen promotions and are also currently on an interstellar journey. In fact, much of what we know about Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune is due to the Voyager twins. Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, was discovered to one an extremely smooth surface which lead to speculations of an ice-water crust. Combine that with an atmosphere comprising of oxygen, and we actually have the possibility of extra-terrestrial life not too far from us.

Voyager 1 is currently the furthest object we have ever sent in space, at around 21.7 billion kilometres away from home. This should throw things into perspective the next time you can't be bothered to walk to the nearest grocery store.

The New Horizons probe set out to explore the only unexplored planet in our Solar System at the time. I'm pretty sure it must've suffered from some form of existential crisis when midway through its mission it was informed that the planet was no longer, well, a planet. Having conducted its original mission, the probe is now headed towards the Kuiper Belt.

Paths & Trajectories of Voyager, Pioneer & New Horizon Probes

Naturally, if we did take the effort to send probes out to the Universe, we would need to account for the fact that someone might find them? So we decided to put some things onboard:

The Pioneer Plaque

Let's do a simple exercise: what messages can you infer from the picture below?

Pioneer Plaque by Carl Sagan
Image Source: Pioneer Plaque

If you are reading this without performing the mental exercise - how dare you, please go back. If you did, keep a mental or written note to compare with later. Now, it's my duty to inform you that you just tried to decipher a message that might discover aliens, save humanity or be lost in spacetime for eons. The Pioneer plaque was put on board the Pioneer probes, as an eternal, literally universal message to the aliens that might eventually find it.

For the ones who did diligently do this task (and for the renegades) the answers are below:

- The circles on the top left represent the atoms of hydrogen
- The pattern below it denotes the distance of neutron stars from our sun
- The orbs at the bottom denote our solar system, and the paths taken by Pioneer 10 & 11*
- The shape behind the man and woman denotes the Pioneer spacecraft, to provide a size reference for the humans
- If you don't identify the man and the woman, then you might be the alien.**

*Pioneer 11 ended up deviating from its original trajectory, so the alien that finds that plaque will learn an additional tidbit about inherent human traits: deceit

**The man has opposing hand gestures and the woman rests her weight on one foot to indicate the flexibility of our limbs. Carl Sagan had initially (and romantically) intended them to hold hands, but the idea was rebuffed over the possibility of aliens considering man and woman one single conjoined entity. I guess we'll just have to send another plaque for all the soulmates.

Voyager Golden Record

Voyager Golden Record Pioneer Plaque

The Voyager probes carry the Voyager Golden Records, two phonographs that convey the essence of our existence in audio form. The contents include greetings in over 50 languages, sounds of animals, locomotives, sounds of nature, music from all over the globe, over 100 images and an hour-long recording of the brainwaves of Ann Druyan.*

The back of the record includes instructions to use them, along with elements from the original Pioneer Plaque sans the man and woman because some people didn't like the nudity. (not sure if it was the Indian film censor board)

*If you wish to dissent the exclusion of Beatles' music in these records, take it up with Carl Sagan.

Additional Reading:
  • A Message From Earth, C. Sagan, L. Sagan, F. Drake: Read Here

Our Universe doesn't necessarily have a physical boundary, just a limit to the distance we can see. The oldest radiation that we can track dates back to our Big Bang. However, there is unanimous agreement that space doesn't just end beyond our visibility. 

There is a possibility that there are multiple Universes out there, each within their own spacetime sphere of visibility that we probably have no chance of visiting. 

There are a lot of fun possibilities to explore, and I hope this introduction is just the beginning. We have already established the factors necessary to sustain life, and also the elements that created matter. It is very probable to assume that given an infinite multiverse, there would be a Universe just like ours (a parallel universe) where you would've opted for the roads not taken in your life.

Big Bangs From Black Holes

One of the running theories on the Big Bang is that it was nothing but a conventional black hole that exploded. The Universe is expanding at an alarming rate, and matter as we know it is gradually spiralling into supermassive black holes at the centre of each universe. There might come a point where the Universe has expanded so much, that there are only black holes and they are all placed trillions of light years away from each other.

Since space would have expanded so far ahead, the black holes would be the warmest objects to be found. As a result, due to their immense density, temperature and inherent instability they would explode with a Big Bang, expunge all the accumulated quarks and bosons and a new Universe would be born.

This cycle would go on, and probably has, for eternity.

Sir Roger Penrose has speculated that it might be possible for super-intelligent civilisations from a previous eon to have sent us a message. Just before they got sucked into our black hole, they might've coded a message in the only particle that would survive the black hole & the corollary Big Bang: photons.

If only we could read photons.

* * *

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Monday 21 January 2019

The Voice Of The Voiceless


The eyes never lie.

When I decided to volunteer for Impact On The Ground, I expected it to be anything but 'eye-opening'. It was a phrase often associated with volunteering in rural communities. But I was sure, to the point of predetermination, that I wouldn't walk the path of cliches. How could it have been eye-opening when illiteracy, poverty, child marriage, discrimination and squalor were evils I was openly expecting in my travels? By tagging along on Project Svara, I was knowingly immersing myself in the vices that exist.

Yet my foreordained awareness was quite asynchronous with the thoughts that arose at that moment, in the middle of a cool November evening amidst the children of Dhargaon. The children, to their credit, didn't do or say much.

They just stared with a wide, unbreakable stare.

Afraid to blink - to miss any move. Their mouths spoke a language we didn't, and their ears heard a language they didn't understand. The eyes were the only sensory channel they had in this discourse, and they were ravenously trying to glean all they could. Trying to satiate their boundless curiosity of the world outside their village with unflinching stares at these outsiders. Often humanity has speculated the existence of life in other galaxies and how they would look and behave. Galaxies that are presently unreachable in a lifetime, across a universe that is impossible to traverse.

Gauging the intensity in their stares, it seemed we too were denizens of another planet, another solar system, a parallel universe. A universe they might never be able to breach in their entire lifetime.

So they stared.

Afraid to blink.

We were the aliens in their presence. The men who dressed differently, talked differently and walked differently. Yet, these differences arose not congenitally. Deep down, if you foraged through the perceived discrepancies, we were undeniably one of them.

Much like them, we were the spawns of India. We spoke regional Indian dialects, ate Indian delicacies, worshipped deities with Indian origins and grew up in, and endorsing, a warped but predominantly Indian culture. We did, naturally, differ in certain traits given India's rich cultural diversity. But if you set our regional discrepancies aside, we were still bound by the omnipresent and unifying Indian spirit.

Yet, we were aliens.

From a parallel universe. There was no denying it, and neither did we try. They knew it and so did we. They felt it and so did we. It wasn't caste, ethnicity, colour, nationality, religion or culture that separated us.

It was privilege.

* * *

Stephen Hawking spent a lifetime trying to decipher a Theory of Everything. To quantify this teeming, varied, mottled and unquantifiable conglomeration of life. A near impossible task given the intricacy of our existence, yet scientific excavations were undeterred. Having not achieved substantial prowess in science, it would inappropriate for me to comment on a grand unified theory (and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't read it as well) (call it a writer's cynicism). I can, however, take the liberty to comment on a universal theory that binds us: not scientifically, but emotionally.

A theory of relativity, but not in a way Albert Einstein intended it to be.

We are all in our bubbles, our own domes of oblivion, coasting through life. Our successes, failures, efforts and struggles are all measured in relation to the benchmarks of our oblivion.

At a time when I was groaning about waking up early for school, there were others crying themselves to sleep wishing they could go to one. 

When I would celebrate above average marks in exams, there are others who internally rejoiced at having passed after studying under street lights. 

I would complain of the slightest of noises distracting my concentration, while there were street children who lived on highways and under bridges, trying to build a future surrounded by the unrelenting cacophony of cars and toxicity of smoke.

It is not in me to disregard struggle, be it of any form. Struggles are relative, and because someone else has different and harsher circumstances does not debilitate the reality of your own struggles. But, if my struggles were to get me a house, a car and a family while someone else struggled to ensure they saw another day... surely we have gone wrong somewhere?

At what point of privilege do we stop trying chug forward and look back? At what point do we stop trying to expand our privilege? When do we look back to help someone else come up to ours?

Where is the tipping point?

* * *

"Aap aaj inn baccho ke liye sattar saal peeche aaye hai. Hum aapke liye do kadam aage nahi aaye toh humari bhool hogi."

(You have come back seventy years in time to help these children. It would be a mistake if we didn't try to come two steps forward for you today.)

I am running.

I haven't stopped for a while. I don't think I have stopped for the last ten years. I can't remember when I started. Yet my feats in physical or mental endurance are commonplace - I am running in a mob of similar runners. In this race I am still considered youthful, inexperienced and raw. As I run along, vacuous shouts of encouragement reverberate from from an unseen source above. It is obviously to the benefit of a strata of powerful beings that we keep running.

So I ran.

There was no sky, just vast emptiness stretching endlessly above. If there were any horizontal boundaries to this racetrack I couldn't see them, as runners like me thronged from one end to another, mile to mile, horizon to horizon.

There were incentives, of course. For every mile we traversed, we were compensated. For those who demanded a purpose beyond mileage renumeration, the omnipresent voices from the heavens above droned mellifluously about our contribution to a greater good.

We were the ones creating the power, or so they said.

Our compensation could be used for materialistic or temporary indulgences. Flashy personalised advertisements littered our path, asking us to buy something we didn't want, eat something we didn't need and own something we would never use. But we wanted it all, so we kept running forward. The greater good was pushed to the back, as we ran incessantly towards small superficial, unimportant and permanently unfulfilling indulgences.

This was the only thing I knew and remembered knowing. A planet full of people stuck in the eternal continuity of ploughing forward. Collectively stuck in an abstruse race towards a 'future' with no noticeable finish line.

When do we stop and look around to question our purpose? Why are we doing this? Going where? Powering what?

We are a decade away from smart cities with electric cars, bullet trains, courier drones, humanoid policemen, re-usable space shuttles, a Martian colony and artificial intelligence.

Yet for all our advancement in the unthinkable, unforeseen and unprecedented, why do we have no solutions for the fundamental issues that plague our existence?

How is it that despite our colossal advancements in intellect, technology and ambition, we are still completely nonplussed and, rather morbidly, uninterested in combating the longstanding issues of poverty, starvation, disease, pollution and discrimination?

When human life, or rather its survival, is prioritised. Isn't that privilege?

A race that my ancestors started running, from the very dregs of poverty, towards an unseen finish line. They kept running, keeping passion and their true calling at bay, just so that when they faltered they would've come a distance that their posterity could carry on from. So my lineage moved from a village to a town, and then from a town to a city, and then from lower class to luxury.

A race run across 100 years or more, across generations until it produced me, now at the point of total privilege, where I was born into a stable home, given a comprehensive education and catapulted into a job. I too was urged to keep moving in the throng. In the faceless, nameless mob, I started trying to enhance my privilege even further.

I am mindlessly moving along with no thought or question of purpose. But for a moment I start to falter. I feel like I'm being watched. Someone behind me penetrating with a gaze so deep, so vibrant, so rich, so pure that I could feel it within me. But I try to dismiss wayward thoughts - they would only hold me back after all. I cannot afford to lag behind in this race, to lose out on my next little incentive that would serve me no lasting good.

The throng pushes past me, shoves me in its desperation to inch ahead. Their faces impassive to my growing discomfort, easily dismissive of any possible impedance in their quest. To earn more, to live richer and to feel validated.

I see myself in them and start to come to a halt.

There are neon signboards around me urging me to plod on. Winking encouragements at me to go nowhere and to power nothing. Personalised flashing advertisements that needle me to seek something I don't want, to desire something I don't need. Authoritative warning signs that highlight the penalty of looking back, or god forbid, taking a couple of steps back.

But a trance is starting to lift and I see the futility in the warnings. The feeling of being watched has grown even further, and I succumb.

So I turn around.

I look back to see a young girl staring at me, eyes wide open. Dressed in a tattered rural school uniform, because that was the only piece of clothing she owned; her parents preferring to while away the misery of their existence and their measly savings with alcohol. She hails from a community that still considers a girl child a misfortune. Education is considered a trinket, as it produces no noticeable value in the family's income. The little boys would produce more output in the farms while the girls would at home.

What good would education do? A mindset that harbours skepticism in education if the children don't get a job after passing 8th grade. Girls are then married off and boys are forced to get to the field.

Today while we are chugging along at alarming alacrity, these villages are blatantly left behind. Not just left behind in education, development and well-being. But left behind in time. Time travel today is as easy as going from a city to a town, from urban to primeval lifestyles.

She is from the past. From my past. A past that my ancestors ran a hundred years ahead to avoid ever seeing again.

A meeting of two centuries, as I crouch down in front of the little girl in the midst of this impassive crowd.

She looks at me, pleading with her eyes. Her arms, even at her young age, scarred. Her feet blistered and bruised. Yet despite her blemishes, there is a certain beauty in her existence. Despite her squalor, she seems to radiate a purity that I couldn't fathom, couldn't sustain. A certain purity that would get squashed by the reality of her existence by the time she reached the age of reason and awareness. When she started to fully comprehend the hand that life dealt her.

I would hate to be there the day she would die inside.

The throng is openly ignoring her, shoving right past. She cannot go ahead on her own, and taking her with them would just hinder progress. Her eyes plead while she involuntarily resonates the incoming, crushing disappointment of another rejection.

She holds out a hand beseechingly, hoping I take it.

We had reached the tipping point. A hundred years and multiple generations in the making. The point of singularity.

I look down, staring at the calluses, prominent in her outstretched palm.

I look up to see a tear on her face.

* * *

A special thank you to Anurag Ram Chandran and Impact On The Ground Foundation for giving me the opportunity to tag along on Project Svara, a media awareness initiative that highlights problems in rural development and sustainable education. 

With phase one of Project Svara currently underway, if you wish to donate funds to help tackle the issues highlighted in the videos, you can do so at this link: Project Svara Fundraiser

Project Svara Episode 1: Education In Rural India: Watch Here
Project Svara Episode 2: Teachers In Rural India: Watch Here
Project Svara Episode 3: Street Children of Mumbai: Coming Soon

If you wish to know more IOTG's work, please visit the following links:

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