Making A Very Metaphysical Leap Into 2019

Somewhere in between confusion and wonder is not a bad place to be at all.

European Southern Observatory
European Southern Observatory
Vasudevan Mukunth

NEW DELHI — It was recently my birthday. I turned 30. The celebrations were muted – if at all – because there's something of a moment when you exit the tweens, and then the first digit of your age changes from 2 to 3. On that day, it seemed more pertinent than ever to think of the occasion as ‘just another orbit around the Sun." To further blunt the moment, I told myself I was only turning 3.94 galactic seconds old, no biggie.

Time is a strange thing, but let us not belabor the point. Only two statements should suffice to spotlight its strangeness. First, mathematics does not cognize time as an entity in and of itself far beyond thermodynamics: heat flows from a hotter object to a cooler one. The universe was really, really hot 13.8 billion years ago. One day, many billions of years from now, it will go really, really cold and – somewhere in the maze of our equations – time will die. On that day, your birthday will have no meaning. At long last.

Second, there is no absolute time, unless you arbitrarily fix one, because the experience of time is influenced by so many things, such as the speed at which you're moving and your position in a gravitational field. This experience – which scientists have measured using atomic clocks in space – comes straight from Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity.

The last twelve months witnessed a lot of discussion among scientists on time's nature and properties. Like they were at the start of 2018, the arrow of time remains just as mysterious, and time-travel, just as fascinating. It also matters that our experience of time is so essentially subjective, so much so that we would not have to measure time if we weren't also trying to keep track of something important… Of what value is an 8 am on a Monday if it did not portend the opportunities of the next 14 hours?

Of course, when almost every encounter with this dazzling subject ends in poignant moments of wonder, there is a good chance the other encounters are in confusion.

Every object that exists experiences a moment called ‘now." But you're not always going to be able to have all the information about all those experiences simultaneously in your ‘now." This condition owes itself to the speed of light: a fixed constant throughout the whole universe.

If you are looking at a tree 10 meters away, light scattered by the tree is going to reach your eyes in 0.0000000333564095 of a second (assuming the speed of light is the same in the troposphere and in a vacuum). In other words, you can get status updates about the tree once every 0.0000000333564095 of a second. This delay is practically meaningless and can be neglected without consequence.

But when you correspond with a spacecraft billions of kilometers away, the signals are going to take many hours each way. Case in point: the New Horizons space-probe, a NASA mission that flew past Pluto in 2015. It is currently 6.6 billion kilometer from Earth. The one-way signal time – i.e. the time taken by signals sent from Earth to reach the probe, and by the probe to reach Earth – is a little over 6 hours and 6 minutes. In this picture, the probe sends an update and receives instructions on what to do next 12 hours and 12 minutes after transmission.

We are between the profound and the mundane at the same time.

How do you measure time here? You have two frames of reference: Earth and the probe, tracked in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and spacecraft-event time (SCET). These two timezones, in a manner of speaking, can be converted to each other by adding or subtracting the time taken by light to travel between them. For example, if mission control transmits a signal to New Horizons at 12 am UTC, it is going to reach the probe at 6.06 am UTC.

Where it gets a bit trickier is when a probe records an event in SCET, and mission control has to figure out when exactly the event occurred in UTC. On January 24, 1986, the Voyager 2 probe studied Uranus (from a distance 11.5x the planet's radius), and recorded a Bernstein emission at 1315 SCET. Figure out the exact time at which this event occurred from the point of view of an astronomer working in Ooty.

Evidently, we are always somewhere in between confusion and wonder and, to be honest, it is not a bad place to be at all. But on an orthogonal axis, we are between the profound and the mundane at the same time. You can "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!" all you want, it is still going to be 11 pm and time to catch the last train home.

These are two different universes of discourse, though to their credit they are not mutually exclusive. And the only choice you are likely to have is between being condemned to visit all its states or celebrating the inherently unknowable adventure it could be.

Here's hoping your 2019 goes all over this graph.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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