Monday, March 5, 2018

Footprints/Tryst/Pragyan speech transcript

In late February-early March, many Indian universities hold student-organized technical festivals, and in 2018 I was fortunate to be invited to speak at three of them: Footprints at MSU Baroda, Tryst at IIT Delhi, and Pragyan at NIT Trichy. The talks I gave had about 70% commonality and will eventually be uploaded to YouTube. Below, then, is a "final version" with a mix of local material.

(Don't speak too fast.)

Sound check! Could the people in the back row please wave?

Gujarati - Kem cho
Marathi - Sub prabat
Hindi - Namaskaar

Hindi - Namaskaar
Urdu - Assalamu alaikum
Punjabi - Sat sri akaal

Tamil - Vaṇakkam, eppidi irkreenga


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am humbled and privileged to be present among such brilliant people, and to be given the opportunity to share some thoughts. Today I am going to talk about my experiences developing technology including the Hyperloop and how that meshes with a yet grander scheme - the bold, experimental invention of an improved, more just world enabled by innovation.

If I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting you one on one, my name is Casey Handmer. Is anyone here on Quora? Excellent.

I was born and raised in Australia where, like you, I was attracted at an early age to the purity and truth of scientific exploration. I didn't really have access to scientific equipment or technical libraries until early adulthood, so I gravitated towards theoretical and mathematical studies. Later in life, I discovered many other mathematicians, like Ramanujan, who had taken a similar path, albeit much more brilliantly than I. Indeed, the experience of some intellectual isolation and technical frustration is known to have inspired the ancient greek mathematician Archimedes, responsible for very early treatments of calculus and also super weapons. Aren't we lucky to live in a place and time where it is possible to have colleagues! Isn't it great to enjoy the company of like-minded people?

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney. Sydney is an incredible city on the edge of the world, and I've always felt fortunate to be able to call it home. But in 2010, it was necessary to find the toughest PhD I could, so I applied to numerous programs in the US. I was rejected from two thirds of them, including MIT and Stanford, but someone at Caltech admitted me and so, within a year of discovering that Caltech was even a place, I had moved there. Big Bang Theory wasn't a thing back then.

At Caltech, I switched fields again and performed research into gravitational waves as part of the broader LIGO effort that culminated in detection in 2015, the year I graduated, and a Nobel Prize last year. To be clear, my doctoral work had nothing to do with the detection or Nobel Prize. I did meet my wife at a party at Kip Thorne's house, though.

Actually, this seems like a good time to talk about gravitational waves, the subject of the most recent Nobel physics prize. As you know, our sun is a star like the hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of the hundred million galaxies in the observable universe. Our sun burns hydrogen, which mostly formed during the big bang. When stars get old, they exhaust their fuel and puff up into red giants, which will one day consume the Earth. After that, the glowing white hot remnant becomes a white dwarf star. About a century ago the Indian mathematician and physicist Chandrasekhar computed that if a white dwarf weighed more than 1.44 times the mass of our sun, it would collapse to form a neutron star. Neutron stars are so dense that a single teaspoon would weigh as much as the hill upon which the Rockfort temple is built.

It turns out that if a neutron star weighs more than 1.8 or 1.9 times more than our sun, it too will collapse further into a black hole. Who here has seen Interstellar? The black hole in that was called Gargantua, and at one hundred million times the mass of the sun, it is similar in size to the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. We know of black holes that weigh almost a thousand times as much. But the LIGO detection was focused on black holes that weigh about as much as our sun. Imagine a pair of such black holes. Each has an event horizon a few kilometers across, about the size of this campus. Each is separated by a few tens of kilometers, about the distance from here to the airport. They orbit each other at nearly the speed of light, emitting energy and angular momentum in the form of gravitational waves, spiraling inwards. They orbit so fast, they complete hundreds or orbits a second, which means that gravitational waves, if transformed into sound waves, are in the human auditory range. They sound like this.


And you might be surprised that at the end of that long process of inspiral and collision there is no final gigantic crash. In their final moment as separate black holes, each event horizon stretches out like two elephants high fiving with their trunks and then merge, all in about a thousandth of a second. That final gigantic crash occurs but the black hole event horizon grows and swallows almost all of it before it can escape. They swallow even their final scream.

The gravitational waves propagate outward through the universe at the speed of light forever, eventually passing through the Earth. When they do so, they stretch and squeeze the Earth by about the width of a hydrogen atom, which is significantly less that the deformation induced by stepping here to my left. But the LIGO detectors, one of which I think will soon be built in India, are able to filter out the noise and detect these incredible events. So, that's gravitational waves. I hope you were paying attention. There will be a short quiz next period.

I went to Caltech to learn about physics, as in the rules of the universe. What I was not expecting was to learn about physics, as in the way humans go about discovering, the rules of the universe. At 23 I was pretty sure that academia was a unique and privileged calling, and exempt from the mundane issues that plague any other attempt to get large numbers of people moving in the same direction! Well I have been wrong about many things, and I was wrong about that too! Management is non trivial and a skill that must be learned. The "academy" is not just a building that contains ideas. It also contains people.

By the time I finished the PhD, I had seen enough of the way that research works in the US to decide that I would rather spend my time contributing to the wellbeing of humanity in a more direct way. In 2013, Elon Musk and his team put together the "Hyperloop Alpha White Paper" technical document discussing his idea for a high speed surface transportation system that combines the speed of airlines and the convenience of cars, while outcompeting high speed rail.

As you know, the idea behind hyperloop is to adapt the concept of high speed maglevs and reduce air resistance by operating inside a vacuum tube. The advantage of the scheme is that the vehicle does not have to carry all its fuel, like a jet, it only has to carry the cargo, and can operate more efficiently on a given route.

I thought the document was pretty interesting, though even in 2013 I knew it was a long way from being technically complete. In particular, I was worried about how to route the tube over mountains. This geographic constraint was dramatically illustrated by the success of the Burma airlift, or "The Hump," over the Himalaya mountains in 1942. While obviously some parts of the world, like the Ganges plain, are relatively smooth, other parts, like the Tibetan plateau, are incredibly rough. How fast can vehicles travel while being close enough to the surface to avoid miraculous feats of civil engineering?

2013 was about the time that gradually made an important transition in academic life. If you haven't already encountered this, you will soon. Up until this point, my preoccupation had been with getting 100% on every exam, and thus demonstrating total mastery of the sum total of human knowledge in my discipline. But at some point, you reach the edge of the known and emerge into an area where there are no known solutions, and sometimes even the problems are very poorly defined. In such a case, 0% is the default grade, so if you spend a month or a year or 10 years on a problem and raise the state of knowledge to 1%, that is a huge improvement.

Likewise, I was tiring of the perception, probably developed while being raised in Australia, that technology and engineering is done by other people, and that if I wait long enough, cool stuff will eventually come to me. This is surprisingly common - how many otherwise competent and well-resourced people are waiting around for Elon Musk to take some time out of his busy schedule and solve their problem for them?

So I didn't need anyone's permission to run the calculations myself. Many cities are built near or between mountains, and my home town of Los Angeles is no exception. I wrote some basic code to try to optimize a route over the mountains. Today, four years later, I still use a descendent of that code to find terrain-optimal routes.

And, in the meantime, all kinds of adventures occurred! On the back of that analysis I was hired, initially as an intern, at Hyperloop One in September 2015. If you've followed the news, you know that we've had a lot of excitement since then. It's certainly helped me learn a lot more about how large scale organizations with a diverse range of personalities, experiences, and skills can still work together to accomplish a common goal. I suppose the act of government is preoccupied with similar concerns though on a yet much larger scale.

My primary responsibility at Hyperloop One was development of the devloop tech demonstrator levitation system. Most of the devloop systems were more conventional and had large teams of experts already hard at work. But we were trialing a few new kinds of levitation system and needed someone who could do the difficult quantitative analysis. And, by some crazy chance, I happened to walk through the door that very same day.

Step one was to get a handle on the underlying physics - electromagnetism, bulk currents, induction, and other stuff only just beyond a second year level. Step two, and for me the more unfamiliar step, was to interface with other teams, understand requirements, and get channels of communication up and running. This was followed by preliminary and more detailed design. After design, it was time to go back to analysis and thoroughly characterize theoretical performance. This is a good start, but since we couldn't test the levitation system before the first flight, we needed multiple lines of reasoning to prove it would work before we finally pushed the big shiny red button.

So I started again from scratch, this time using finite element analysis methods. On the first try, the simulation disagreed with the analytic result by more than a factor of two. This would be great in astronomy, but not great for a flight system. We had about six weeks to sort it out, so over the next six weeks, we identified about half a dozen errors, mostly sneaky ones hiding in the simulation system, and harmonized the results. Then we moved on to new projects while the downstream processes of fabrication and assembly turned our dreams to reality.

Within a year of starting out, the finished vehicle was sitting in the loading dock, its assembly getting one last quality check, before putting it on a truck and moving it to the test site in the desert about four hours drive away. The test technicians loaded it into the tube and, like everyone else on the team, I held my breath and hoped that, if something horrible went wrong, it would at least be someone else's part. But it worked. The test pod flew down the test track, and over the coming weeks, the team pushed the speed up to 107m/s, which is about 380km/h. This is the fastest hyperloop demo yet performed. We could have gone much faster, but we were running out of track!

Despite some setbacks, a few misunderstandings, and the constant stream of pessimism in the press, our team had taken a vision from imagination into the real world, and in only a couple of years. It is easier to criticise than to compliment. It is easier to destroy than build. So, it is always a struggle to innovate, to fail, and to try again, and again, and again, and eventually either succeed or die of old age. But it is worth it.


Enough about me. This is my first visit to your city, and I already can't wait to come back. I'm always happy to visit India, I'm not sure why. People told me the traffic would be bad, but honestly it's more scary in Los Angeles.

(MSU Baroda)

I arrived in Vadodara the day before yesterday and the student organizers have just been terrific. I used to participate in student organizations but I've never seen anything like this! At the inauguration yesterday it was great to hear about the beginnings of the Footprints festival, now in its 18th year and going strong. Footprints are such a powerful metaphor for deliberate progress.

And Laxmi's Vilas Palace! To be honest, I had no idea what to expect here in Vadodara, but isn't it amazing to have such heritage and world-famous architecture in your backyard? I walked there.

There is one other thing I saw that I would like to comment on. Yesterday I visited the Mechanical Engineering department. Who here is studying MechE? When noone was looking I peeked into the Heat Engines Laboratory because I saw the aeroplane engine and I like planes. And then, tucked against the wall, I saw the machine shop tools, lathes, mills, saws, and so on. They were remarkable for me in two ways - and I've seen a lot of workshops. They are the oldest looking tools I've ever seen. Older than stuff I've seen in a museum! But, more importantly, they are the best-cared for looking tools I've ever seen. As you know, a half hour of carelessness on any tool can destroy it, and I think it's a great testament to the respect I've seen here for technology that these tools have trained maybe five generations of expert machinists and engineers, and could easily train another five. Sorry, I'm getting a bit emotional here. Technology is the gift we produce for the future, and love for technology is, along with aerodynamics, the thing that keeps planes in the air, factories working, and the rest of us clothed and fed.

(IIT Delhi)

I arrived in Delhi late last night and stayed here on campus. Isn't it a beautiful place you have here to work. I walked through the gardens in the east part of the campus and encountered *herds* of peacocks who were friends with the local cats. I didn't even know peacocks could fly.

Walking through IIT Delhi, it seems clear to me that this is a very prestigious, very well resourced, very honorable, and very rigorous school. We are lucky to be the beneficiaries of such heritage, it will help us and our careers for the rest of our lives. I like to think about ways that I can take my good luck and pay it forward, to help to enrich this generous and powerful tradition.

(NIT Trichy)

I arrived in Trichy the day before yesterday and I've had a great time exploring this ancient city. At MSU Baroda, they assigned one student to accompany me and help out, at IIT Delhi they left me to my own devices, but here it seems all the organizing students take it in turns to hang out with us guest lecturers, presumably so you still get a chance to enjoy this great festival!

I have many Indian friends in the states, and when I mentioned I was going to Trichy, they said that it was famous for its temples. Well I had no idea what to expect, and then you took me to see Sri Rangam and Thanjavur. I have to admit they both kind of blew my mind. What I really liked was the juxtaposition of the eternal and the ephemeral. I walked through a gallery of ancient granite pillars, essentially unchanged since its building more than a thousand years ago. And then a cute toddler stared at me and offered me a bite of their snack - a singular moment, swamped immediately by the ongoing hustle and bustle.

I've enjoyed the sunny weather, which reminds me of home in California, and the cooling breezes, which we could do with more of! And finally, I got a chance to walk around the campus yesterday evening before the inauguration and check out all the new buildings and my favorite, the robot development lab. I've never seen so many robots being built so close to each other, it was practically a robot nursery!


Who remembers the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket two weeks ago? How good was that? StarMan is going to Mars! Let's talk about space for a bit, then move onto technology more generally. If you were at the inauguration last night, I have to warn you that Dr BN Suresh (former director of ISRO launch site) stole all my best lines, but I'll do what I can.

71 countries have space programs. Only six of them have the ability to build, launch, and operate robotic satellites and deep space probes. Those countries are China, Europe, which isn't even a country, Japan, Russia, USA, and of course India. Australia has more kangaroos than any other country, but we do not have a space program. Arguably, North Korea has better space technology than Australia. I may live long enough to see Australia get a space program, but I would have to be very lucky indeed to see one anywhere near as good at India's!

I think it's a big deal that India has such an excellent space program. In 2014 I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Koppollil Radhakrishnan when he visited Caltech, during his tenure as the director of ISRO, the Indian space agency. He was as aware as we all are that of the six countries that do space robots, India is arguably the poorest. From time to time, we hear criticism of space exploration on the grounds that it's expensive and there is no shortage of worthy uses for money here on Earth. Dr Radhakrishnan explained that India's space program is largely focused on Earth observation, and that the unique insights produced by the "eyes in the sky" help India predict, understand, and cope with natural disasters, unpredictable harvests and, more pressingly, climate change. In other words, the question is not "How can India afford space?" The question is "How can India not afford space?" How can we all not afford space?

To this I want to add that the expense of a space program is small compared to other government programs of similar technical complexity, which are usually oriented toward secret weapons development. Furthermore, money spent on space technology isn't just put in a gigantic pile and burned - it employs us. Ten or hundreds of thousands of highly trained technical experts whose knowledge and abilities build wealth - the fundamental mechanism for alleviating poverty through technology.

With that out of the way, let's talk about why the Falcon Heavy launch, and space more generally, is so exciting. ISRO has a deep space robot, the Mars Orbiter Mission, or Mangalyaan, which I just discovered is on the new 2000 rupee note. India is the fourth nation to send a probe to Mars. It is also the first to succeed on the first try! This is a big deal. Mars' hobby is eating robots for breakfast.

While rather tiny compared to NASA's rovers, I think Mangalyaan is also very cute! Yes, robots can be cute. In fact, my favourite photo of Mars was taken by the Mars Orbiter Mission last year. It shows the planet about ¾ full, with clouds, ice, dust storms, mountains, craters, and canyons all visible. This volcano, Elysium Mons, is so tiny noone ever talks about it. It's twice as tall as Everest. This is Olympus Mons, which is three times as tall as Everest, and about as wide as India. This is Gale Crater, where NASA's latest rover lives. Even better, there is a tiny black speck to one side - the silhouette of a moon in front of this world!

(Credit: ISRO)

Today, there are 7.6 billion humans on Earth, of which 1.3 billion are in India, almost a whole world in itself! Perhaps 100 billion humans have ever existed. Let me be perfectly clear, there is no physical way that any but the tiniest fraction of today's 7.6 billion will ever fly to space. To this day, 315 rocket launches have flown humans to space. In total, 536 people have been launched into space, some of them up to eight times, which seems excessive. And only twelve of those have walked on another world, the moon. Of those twelve, only five are still alive - it happened a long time ago.

Even if all of our dreams, and all of Elon Musk's dreams come true, maybe one in ten thousand humans will ever go to Mars. Maybe only one in a million. Correspondingly, most of our concern and technological effort must address the reality that humans must keep Earth habitable. But while billions will remain, perhaps some will go to build another city, another branch of humanity on other worlds. Making life multiplanetary is a worthy challenge and, along with preventing our own extinction, probably the most important evolutionary milestone since oxygen breathing life first evolved. I see no reason why India could not contribute its proven expertise and spirit to this enterprise!


I want to tell one more story about the very real dangers of apparently politically neutral technology. This story is a bit of a downer, but I chose it because it has an important point. Many technical people like to think of themselves as politically neutral, or apolitical. Afterall, a plane or a valve or a computer program is an idea that exists independent of ideology, except perhaps the basic philosophy of empiricism. In particular, no-one could describe a tool like a power drill as having a political party affiliation! How preposterous. Yet this attitude is not accidental. It is very unusual to find an academic mentor in the sciences who is even prepared to admit that they have political views, let alone specify what they might be. Why? I can understand why public servants employed by taxpayer money would be careful to avoid accusations of partisanship. Political policy does materially affect the wellbeing of our fellow humans, so there is something here that's worth thinking about.

In about 2010, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, started up a program known as Nexus 7. DARPA, founded in 1958, is a secretive US agency whose mission is, to paraphrase, "no surprises." That is, anticipate and develop secret technology so that, in the event of a future world war, the US could not be blindsided by a secret weapon. Many of DARPA's inventions have subsequently made it into public view, including the internet, street view, graphical operating systems, GPS, voice recognition, holographic displays, TOR, and stealth technology. To be clear, I only know about this project through reading newspaper articles!

At this time DARPA, under the leadership of Regina Dugan, was aggressively pursuing academic partnerships to modernize its outlook in machine learning, and wanted to find ways to help fight and ultimately end the war in Afghanistan. Some of my colleagues at Caltech, motivated by pacifism, signed up to go to Afghanistan and help develop these projects. One of them was intended to try to understand the flows of money. In particular, variations in prices of food seemed to predict local unrest. If you can predict unrest, you can prevent it, and that begins the process of trying to break the cycle of violence that has persisted in some of these places for generations.

Further, perhaps half a dozen bomb makers producing roadside IEDs were obviously being paid somehow. But cash transactions are hard to track in a cash-based economy with electronic espionage. In essence, there are a huge number of unknowns and a few constraints. Traditionally, solving this linear algebra problem would use least-squares, since in engineering this helps to minimize the energy. But in this particular problem, applying least squares doesn't work because it would assign small payments by nearly every citizen to nearly every other citizen - something that doesn't occur in reality.

The insight was the development of compressed, or sparse, sensing, now used for all kinds of things, including image enhancement in every phone camera. Most people never interact financially with most other people. Take the same data and close it with the L1 norm rather than the L2 norm, and a remarkably accurate picture of the missing information emerged. This project was deemed successful, the people I knew rotated off the project and resumed their PhD work in the US.

Ultimately unrelated extrinsic factors led to the loss of Jalalabad and an escalation of violence, despite best efforts to solve it. Sometimes despite perfect moves you still lose the game.

Fast forward a few years. Although my former colleagues have long left, the projects continued to be developed, and related algorithms were applied to mobile network data. Again, most people only routinely call or text a handful of other people, so analysing the network topology can help determine the identity of the users of various mobile phones, even if their names weren't known or confirmed through more traditional James Bond-style spying. For reasons I don't know, this method, which worked quite well for financial data, was pitched as being a terrorist-finding tool with mobile data, despite a lack, to put it mildly, of peer review. The US forces proceeded to drone a bunch of phones, and the people standing near them, in Pakistan and Afghanistan that had "terrorist patterns of use." This is the sad part. It turns out that there are other user profiles who also have sporadic bursts of activity calling dozens of people: Wedding planners.

This story isn't intended to discourage technical innovation, because there's always a chance that something you touch will end up being used to hurt someone, and most people won't get any sort of say in how their widget is deployed after they deliver it. It's merely to illustrate that even the lowest ranked engineer does get a say in the future they are building, as they build it.


For the last part of this talk, I would like to zoom out and take a broader view of technical efforts in general. When we look at the gradual, incremental achievements of the past, the fruitless careers, the backwards steps in progress, it is easy to become discouraged. How can I be sure that what I'm devoting time and effort to will have any lasting effect? Well, the short answer is that on a long enough time scale, everything averages out to zero, even for Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. This can seem a bit depressing.

(Credit: Wikipedia)

But I had a thought yesterday, when I visited the Thanjavur temple. Consider the gopuram, that 80 tonne monolith at the top of the tall tower, and our confusion and uncertainty about how the builders put it there, a thousand years ago. There will, inevitably, come a time when our knowledge, identities, and methods are just as mysterious to people then as the builders of Thanjavur are to us today. But consider the present day. If the builders of Thanjavur could build all that in only seven years, what can we, with our internet, mechanization, computers, and science build in seven years?

Further, as far as we know, humans are the only entities in the universe capable of self contemplation and progress through technology. And we are fortunate to live in an era where we are already beneficiaries of so much painstaking progress. We can live long, peaceful lives relatively free of deprivation and pain. What I am trying to say is that there is an art, a performance art, to practicing science and living a technically contributive life. This is optimism in practice. A belief that our children will inherit a better world, and a belief that it's worthwhile to expend our blood, sweat, and tears to ensure that we leave this world better than we found it.

So why be technical at all? Why not let other people invent cool stuff? I will tell you a secret. Technically literate people have a special advantage. Through the practice of technology, we actually have a magical power, the ability to imagine a better future, and then to bring the rest of humanity forward with us. In fact, you can think of technical ability as a special kind of democratic power, a power that naturally comes with a level of responsibility. In addition to the vote you cast every few years for your own government, every code commit, every drawing release, is another vote for a particular type of future.

In the US, and Australia, and maybe in India, there is an unaccountable and irrational nostalgia for a simpler time back in the distant, and imaginary, past. Back when things were supposedly simpler and life was slower and we all lived healthy agrarian or even hunter-gatherer lives. Well if you've ever had a toothache you know just how shallow this romantic fantasy is.

In 2018, the human species faces all kinds of truly daunting challenges. These include, but are not limited to, resource depletion, climate change, poverty and greed, food security, internet security, energy security. Regressing to an agrarian way of life is not an option. Mass starvation is not an option. Zombie fantasies are not an option. Mass death is not an option.

The only way forward is up, meaning emancipation through technology. We need every brain  working on these problems. Not just US brains, or Australian brains, or Indian brains. Not only white brains, male brains, christian brains, or rich brains. And not just physicist or software brains. We need them all. I challenge each and every one of you to think about how much more we can all do. What we can do to promote the diversity we desperately need to transcend the human challenges of the 21st century. There is no one way to be a scientist, engineer, or technician. In particular, please don't try to duplicate my poor example and numerous career mistakes! There are an infinite number of paths to technical enlightenment.


Finally, what can we look forward to in 2050, now only 32 years away? Here are some things I would personally like to see. This is in some sense a fantasy, but it's not forbidden by the laws of physics. I feel they are very achievable.

  • Zero humans living in poverty. A sufficiency and dignity for all.
  • And yet, all humans treading lightly on this one Earth we share.
  • Ecologically conservative and restorative industry.
  • Renewable, clean energy and recycled resources.
  • Zero humans dying in war.
  • Zero humans suffering oppression or injustice.
  • Security, safety, and freedom on the internet.
  • Access to affordable, efficient mass transportation. Shoutout to hyperloop!
  • Humans living and working in space, on the moon, and on Mars.
  • Things we haven't even dared to dream of yet.

It's not enough to wish for these things. As technical people, it is our responsibility to build this future. We can, and we must, do everything we can to see these better futures brought about. I look forward to seeing you there!


Alright, let's move to some questions. I want to get through as many as possible, so please keep them short.

I am sorry if we didn't get to your question. Ask me on Quora or Twitter? Thank you!

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