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I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate

On July 26, Caitlyn Jenner premiered her new reality show I Am Cait, reigniting the internet debate on the validity of the transgender identity. Which side of the debate one falls on correlates highly with one’s political position.

Liberal politicians like President Barack Obama tend to support Jenner and commend her on her courage.

On the other hand, conservative politicians like Mike Huckabee have mocked Jenner’s transition, some of them referring to her as mentally ill.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some conservatives support transgender individuals – indeed, Jenner herself identifies as a Republican – and some liberals deny that Jenner is a woman. But we think the conservative–liberal divide is prevalent enough to be worthy of attention.

Getting the facts straight

Those on the left and right seem to believe that they are motivated by a desire to get to the fact of the matter about what constitutes being a man or a woman. That is, they think that they are arguing for an unbiased account about what gender is.

One way they do this is by referring to anatomy. Many on the left argue that gender is “deeply rooted in one’s mind.” They cite psychologists like Columbia’s Derald Wing Sue, who argues that “Caitlyn Jenner is not identifying with being a woman because of (her) upbringing and cultural conditioning”; rather, her gender is biologically programmed into her.

Those on the right often argue that being a man or woman is simply being born with male or female sex organs or that people who are transgender are mentally ill. They cite studies showing that individuals who have undergone reassignment surgery are more likely to commit suicide than those who have not. The increased risk of suicide is thought to show that identifying as transgender is a consequence of depression and, therefore, not a genuine identity.

An intense debate

The debate around these issues is intense. Controversial writer (and cofounder of Vice) Gavin McInnes’ article “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural”, for example, has elicited over 5,000 comments.

As empirically oriented philosophers with research interests in what motivates individuals’ reasoning, we suspect that the debate is not motivated by a desire to get to the fact of the matter about gender. After all, when individuals disagree on other facts, such as (say) whether Napoleon won at Waterloo, we cannot predict people’s beliefs based on their political affiliation. Our view is that the intensity of this discussion is best explained by what psychologists call identity protective cognition.

Identity protective cognition is the tendency to selectively accept and dismiss information to support one’s identity.

This theory, developed by Dan M Kahan of Yale Law School, argues that beliefs about how society “ought to be” are central to one’s group identity. People discount information if it suggests their group’s picture of the ideal society is lacking.

For conservatives, the ideal society tends to be hierarchical. They want – perhaps subconsciously – resource distribution to depend on factors such as social class, race and sex. Status flows to men who work at well-paying jobs and women who stay at home and tend to the family.

Transgender individuals are dangerous to the hierarchy conservatives desire. They complicate the binary picture of division of labor within the traditional family. The existence of transgender individuals suggests that the assumption that underpins the legitimacy of the hierarchy – that people designated men and women at birth are naturally suited to particular gender roles – is false. So conservatives are motivated to deny the reality of transgenderism.

On the opposite side of things, research has shown that liberals tend to favor an egalitariansociety. They want resources to be divided more equally, and they do not want the division to depend on gender. Social status should not be determined by conformity to gender stereotypes.

In such a society, transgender identities must be legitimate. Otherwise, there is a risk of propagating the view that one has to fall neatly into one of two genders, a view that forces men and women into unequal social roles.

We believe that if the debate at hand is to make real progress, we need to recognize that it is not merely about whether Jenner is female. It is implicitly a debate about how we ought to structure society and people’s roles in it. It is a debate not just about what certain words mean; it is about what they ought to mean.

The holiness of God

The holiness of God is one of his attributes that carries monumental consequences for every person on earth.

In ancient Hebrew, the word translated as “holy” (qodeish) meant “set apart” or “separate from.” God’s absolute moral and ethical purity set him apart from every other being in the universe.

The Bible says, “There is no one holy like the Lord.” (1 Samuel 2:2, NIV)

The prophet Isaiah saw a vision of God in which seraphim, winged heavenly beings, called to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV) The use of “holy” three times stresses God’s unique holiness, but some Bible scholars also believe there is one “holy” for each member of the Trinity: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Godhead is equal in holiness to the others.

For human beings, holiness generally means obeying God’s law, but for God, the law is not external—it is part of his essence. God is the law. He is incapable of contradicting himself because moral goodness is his very nature.

God’s Holiness Is a Recurring Theme in the Bible

Throughout Scripture, the holiness of God is a recurring theme. The Bible writers draw a sharp contrast between the Lord’s character and that of humankind. God’s sacredness was so high that writers of the Old Testament even avoided using the personal name of God, which God revealed to Moses from the burning bush on Mount Sinai.

The earliest patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had referred to God as “El Shaddai,” meaning The Almighty. When God told Moses his name is “I AM WHO I AM,” translated as YAHWEH in Hebrew, it revealed him as the Uncreated Being, the Self-Existing One. Ancient Jews considered that name so holy they would not pronounce it aloud, substituting “Lord” instead.

When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, he expressly forbid using the name of God disrespectfully. An attack on God’s name was an attack on God’s holiness, a matter of grave contempt.

Ignoring God’s holiness brought deadly consequences. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, acted contrary to God’s commands in their priestly duties and he killed them with fire. Many years later, when King David was having the ark of the covenant moved on a cart—in violation of God’s commands—it tipped when the oxen stumbled, and a man named Uzzah touched it to steady it. God immediately struck Uzzah dead.

The Holiness of God Is the Basis for Salvation

Ironically, the plan of salvation was based on the very thing that separated the Lord from mankind: the holiness of God. For hundreds of years, the Old Testament people of Israel were bound to a system of animal sacrifices to atone for their sins. However, that solution was only temporary. As far back as Adam, God had promised the people a Messiah.

A Savior was necessary for three reasons. First, God knew human beings could never meet his standards of perfect holiness by their own behavior or good works. Second, he required a spotless sacrifice to pay the debt for humanity’s sins. And third, God would use Messiah to transfer holiness to sinful men and women.

To satisfy his need for a faultless sacrifice, God himself had to become that Savior. Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnated as a human being, born of a woman but retaining his holiness because he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. That virgin birth prevented the passing of Adam’s sin on to the Christ child. When Jesus died on the cross, he became the fitting sacrifice, punished for all the sins of the human race, past, present, and future.

God the Father raised Jesus from the dead to show that he accepted Christ’s perfect offering. Then to guarantee humans meet his standards, God imputes, or credits Christ’s holiness to every person who receives Jesus as Savior. This free gift, called grace, justifies or makes holy every Christ follower. Bearing Jesus’ righteousness, they are then qualified to enter heaven.

But none of this would have been possible without God’s tremendous love, another of his perfect attributes. Through love God believed the world was worth saving. That same love led him to sacrifice his beloved Son, then apply Christ’s righteousness to redeemed human beings. Because of love, the very holiness that seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle became God’s way to grant eternal life to everyone who seeks him.

How mathematicians still grapple with the issues Einstein confronted

Albert Einstein released his general theory of relativity at the end of 1915. He should have finished it two years earlier. When scholars look at his notebooks from the period, they see the completed equations, minus just a detail or two. “That really should have been the final theory,” said John Norton, an Einstein expert and a historian of science at the University of Pittsburgh.

But Einstein made a critical last-second error that set him on an odyssey of doubt and discovery — one that nearly cost him his greatest scientific achievement. The consequences of his decision continue to reverberate in math and physics today.

Here’s the error. General relativity was meant to supplant Newtonian gravity. This meant it had to explain all the same physical phenomena Newton’s equations could, plus other phenomena that Newton’s equations couldn’t. Yet in mid-1913, Einstein convinced himself, incorrectly, that his new theory couldn’t account for scenarios where the force of gravity was weak — scenarios that Newtonian gravity handled well. “In retrospect, this is just a bizarre mistake,” said Norton.

To correct this perceived flaw, Einstein thought he had to abandon what had been one of the central features of his emerging theory.

Einstein’s field equations — the equations of general relativity — describe how the shape of space-time evolves in response to the presence of matter and energy. To describe that evolution, you need to impose on space-time a coordinate system — like lines of latitude and longitude — that tells you which points are where.

The most important thing to recognize about coordinate systems is that they’re human contrivances. Maybe in one coordinate system we label a point (0, 0, 0), and in another we label that same point (1, 1, 1). The physical properties haven’t changed — we’ve just tagged the point differently. “Those labels are something about us, not something about the world,” said James Weatherall, a philosopher of science at the University of California, Irvine.

Einstein initially wanted his equations to be coordinate-independent (a property he called “general covariance”), meaning they’d produce correct, consistent descriptions of the universe regardless of which coordinate system you happened to be using. But Einstein convinced himself that in order to fix the error he thought he’d made, he had to abandon general covariance.

Not only did he fail at this, he doubled down on his error: He tried to show that coordinate independence was not a property that his theory could have, even in principle, because it would violate the laws of cause and effect. As one study of Einstein put it, “Nothing is easier for a first-rate mind than to form plausible arguments that what it cannot do cannot be done.”

Einstein pulled out of this dive just in time. By late 1915 he knew that the influential German mathematician David Hilbert was close to finalizing a theory of general relativity himself. In a few feverish weeks in November 1915, Einstein reverted to the equations of general relativity he’d had in hand for more than two years and applied the finishing touches. In November 1915, in the first of four lectures before the Prussian Academy of Sciences, he announced his achievement. Our view of the physical world has not been the same since.

The Einstein field equations we have today are generally covariant. They express the same physical truths about the universe — how space-time curves in the presence of energy and matter — regardless of what coordinates you use to label things.

Yet mathematicians and physicists still grapple with the issues around coordinate systems that slowed Einstein a century ago. For example, the monumental effort to reconcile general relativity with quantum theory flounders in part because of the difficulty of developing a theory of quantum gravity that has the same general covariance Einstein achieved with his field equations. “In some sense you could argue the reason we don’t have an adequate quantum theory of gravity is we don’t know how to express the solutions to Einstein’s equations in a way that completely removes any kind of coordinate dependence,” said Weatherall.

In practice, the challenge is often figuring out how to break the general covariance of Einstein’s equations — that is, how to choose a specific coordinate system that is well suited to solving a specific problem. The issue has proven especially acute for mathematicians who study the so-called black hole stability conjecture, which I wrote about in my recent article “To Test Einstein’s Equations, Poke a Black Hole.” Depending on the particular problem you’re interested in, some coordinate systems work better than others — and figuring out which coordinate system to choose, and how to adjust it as the solution changes, is a high mathematical art.

New proofs would come much easier if there were a single universal coordinate system that worked for every problem and every configuration of space-time. But as Einstein discovered during those fraught, wandering years, the universe doesn’t admit any one privileged choice of coordinates.

“It’s not just that we don’t have such a choice,” said Weatherall. “It’s that one of the things we take Einstein to have taught us is that it would be a mistake to expect there to be such a choice.”

The Third Revolution

“One of the great paradoxes of China today,” writes eminent China scholar Elizabeth C. Economy, “is Xi Jinping’s effort to position himself as a champion of globalization, while at the same time restricting the free flow of capital, information, and goods between China and the rest of the world.” In her new book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, Economy explains that “the ultimate objective of Xi’s revolution is his Chinese Dream—the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation.”

Characterized by “a reassertion of the state in Chinese political and economic life at home, and a more ambitious and expansive role for China abroad,” Xi’s China is exercising “new levers of influence and power that others will have to learn to exploit and counter to protect and advance their own interests,” warns Economy, C. V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at CFR.

Xi has reversed the thirty years of reform and opening initiated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s Second Revolution and replaced it with his own Third Revolution, she writes. “What makes Xi’s revolution distinctive is the strategy he has pursued: the dramatic centralization of authority under his personal leadership; the intensified penetration of society by the state; the creation of a virtual wall of regulations and restrictions that more tightly controls the flow of ideas, culture, and capital into and out of the country; and the significant projection of Chinese power.”

“An illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order,” China poses a set of distinct new challenges for the United States. Xi “seeks to project the current Chinese political and economic development model globally,” and to “become a standard bearer for other countries disenchanted with the American and European models of liberal democracy.” While China “takes advantage of the openness of the United States and other market-based liberal democracies to further its economic interests and advance its political and cultural influence,” it “increasingly constrains opportunities” for other countries to do the same.

“The United States . . . must continue to seek opportunities for cooperation but at the same time be prepared to counter and confront China when Xi’s Third Revolution spills over into the rest of the world, undermining the principles underpinning global security and prosperity it purports to uphold,” she writes.

Economy urges the United States to adopt a strategic framework for its relationship with China that establishes U.S. priorities and the diplomatic, economic, and military approaches necessary to realize them, “[retaining] what has worked well for its policy toward China while adapting to a new political reality.” She offers several recommendations to U.S. policymakers:

  • Leverage Xi’s ambition for leadership and “[encourage] China to do more on the global stage,” such as addressing the global refugee crisis and ensuring that its global development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, adopts better governance practices.
  • Advance technical cooperation between China and the United States around the big issues of global governance “to build an institutional infrastructure for cooperation.”
  • Work with U.S. allies and partners in Asia and Europe to support the underlying principles of a “free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in a rules-based order” by revisiting “U.S. participation in the [Trans-Pacific Partnership],” deterring “further efforts by China to realize its sovereignty claims through unilateral actions” in the South China Sea and Taiwan, and developing “programs that build good governance capacity” such as the rule of law, in countries such as Ethiopia and Pakistan, where Chinese political influence is expanding.
  • When U.S. political, economic, or security interests are “directly and meaningfully undermined,” adopt firmer policies such as economic retaliation and reciprocal action, “making clear to China the costs of noncompliance with agreements or established norms.”
  • Prioritize U.S. government support for the “development and adoption of new technologies” to compete effectively with Made in China 2025 and other innovation-driven industrial policies.
  • Support through “both word and deed,” fundamental values including “democracy and respect for human rights, a market economy, and free trade.”

“China cannot be a leader in a globalized world while at the same time closing its borders to ideas, capital, and influences from the outside world,” Economy concludes.

Questions about exploring outer space

Questions about exploring outer space

Metallic shrapnel flying faster than bullets; the Space Shuttle smashed to pieces; astronauts killed or ejected into space. The culprit? Space debris – remnants of a Russian satellite blown up by a Russian missile. The one survivor, Ryan Stone, has to find her way back to Earth with oxygen supplies failing and the nearest viable spacecraft hundreds of miles away.

Over on Mars, 20 years in the future, an exploration mission from Earth is going wrong. An epic dust storm forces the crew to abandon the planet, leaving behind an astronaut, Mark Watney, who is presumed dead. He has to figure out how to grow food while awaiting rescue.

Hollywood knows how to terrify and inspire us about outer space. Movies like Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), present space as hostile and unpredictable – spelling danger for any intrepid human who dares to venture outside Earth’s hospitable confines.

This is only part of the story, however – the bit with people centre stage. Sure, no one wants to see astronauts killed or stranded in space. And we all want to enjoy the fruits of successful planetary science, like determining which planets could host human life or simply whether we’re alone in the universe.

Valuing space

But should we care about the universe beyond how it affects us as humans? That is the big question – call it question #1 of extraterrestrial environmental ethics, a field too many people have ignored for too long. I’m one of a group of researchers at the University of St Andrews trying to change that. How we ought to value the universe depends on two other intriguing philosophical questions:

Question #2: the kind of life we are most likely to discover elsewhere is microbial – so how should we view this lifeform? Most people would accept that all humans have intrinsic value, and matter not only in relation to their usefulness to someone else. Accept this and it follows that ethics places limits on how we may treat them and their living spaces.

People are starting to accept that the same is true of mammals, birds and other animals. So what about microbial beings? Some philosophers like Albert Schweitzer and Paul Taylor have previously argued that all living things have a value in themselves, which would obviously include microbes. Philosophy as a whole has not reached a consensus, however, on whether it agrees with this so-called biocentrism.

Question #3: for planets and other places not hospitable to life, what value should we place on their environment? Arguably we care about our environment on Earth primarily because it supports the species that live here. If so, we might extend the same thinking to other planets and moons that can support life.

But this doesn’t work for “dead” planets. Some have proposed an idea called aesthetic value, that certain things should be treasured not because they are useful but because they are aesthetically wonderful. They have applied this not only to great artistic works like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Fifth, but also to parts of the Earth’s environment, such as the Grand Canyon. Could that apply to other planets?

Alien environments

Supposing we could answer these theoretical questions, we could proceed to four important practical questions about space exploration:

Question #4: is there a duty to protect the environment on other planets? When it comes to sending astronauts, instruments or robots to other worlds, there are clearly important scientific reasons for making sure they don’t take terrestrial organisms with them and wind up depositing them there.

Otherwise, if we discovered life, we wouldn’t know whether it was indigenous – not to mention the risk of wiping it out entirely. But is scientific clarity all that matters, or do we need to start thinking about galactic environmental protection?

Question #5: what, besides biological contamination, would count as violating such an obligation to treat that planet’s environment with respect? Drilling for core samples, perhaps, or leaving instruments behind, or putting tyre tracks in the dirt?

Question #6: what about asteroids? The race is well underway to develop technology to harvest the untold trillions of pounds of mineral wealth presumed to exist on asteroids, as already reported in The Conversation. It helps that no one seems to think of asteroids as environments we need to protect.

The same goes for empty space. The movie Gravity gave us some human-centred reasons to be worried about the buildup of debris in space, but might there be other reasons to object? If so, would our obligation be to merely create less debris, or something stronger – like not producing any new debris or even cleaning up what we’ve left already?

Question #7: what considerations might offset arguments in favour of behaving ethically in space? Of the various reasons for going there – intellectual/scientific, utilitarian, profit-driven – are any strong enough to override our obligations?

We also need to factor in the inevitable risks and uncertainties here. We can’t know what benefits space missions will have. We can’t be certain of not biologically contaminating the planets we visit. What risk/reward trade-offs should we be willing to undertake?


Discussions about outer space have the advantage that we have very little attachment to anything out there. These ethical questions might therefore be some of the only ones humans can address with a large measure of emotional distance. For this reason, answering them might help us to make progress with Earth-bound issues like global warming, mass extinction and nuclear waste disposal.

Space exploration also directly raises questions about our relationship to Earth – once we overcome the technological puzzles preventing the terraforming of a planet like Mars, or find ways of reaching habitable exoplanets. I’ll leave you with one extremely important one for the future:

Question #8: given that the Earth is not the only potential home for human beings, what reasons for protecting its environment would remain once we can realistically go somewhere else?

Some Eastern European youngsters living in the UK say they feel less welcome since Brexit​

It is hard for me to identify as both British and Romanian because people make me feel as if you can’t be both – as if being foreign is a permanent thing and can’t be changed no matter how long you’ve spent in a country or what you consider to be “home”. I consider the UK to be my home.

Like Romanian teenager Ioana, whose words above articulate her painful reality, 15-year-old Alicja moved to Britain from Bulgaria when she was a young child. On the night of the EU referendum, her family gathered around the TV to watch the result. Her mother said she saw it coming; having listened to comments at work about Eastern Europeans taking local jobs in their small fishing town, she realised that anti-immigration feelings were running deep. For Alicja, who had grown up in Scotland, “Brexit had me in tears – it has changed everything”.

In the months since, her family’s economic security and plans to stay in the UK are up in the air. They don’t have the money to apply for citizenship (currently £1,330 per person) and they don’t even know if they would qualify, with Alicja’s mother in part-time work. But what is clear is the impact that Brexit has had on young people’s sense of belonging in Britain.

No future?

Young Europeans living in the UK have been considerably affected by the decision to leave the European Union, underscored by the rise in applications for British citizenship from EU citizens and the recorded increase in migration of EU citizens from the UK since the referendum.

Our research project is the largest study of Eastern European young people aged 12 to 18 living in the UK, since the EU referendum. Like Alicja, the majority of the survey participants said they felt “uncertain” (56%), and “worried” (54%), while just over a quarter (27%) said they were “scared” about their future.

Although most had lived in the UK for more than five years, only 8% had British or dual nationality. While the UK government has promised to make applications for settled statusstraightforward for EU nationals, there is evidence that many groups – including children in vulnerable families, children in care or those with parents in insecure work, are at risk of becoming undocumented. Young people in our study had an acute sense of insecurity about their future. As Polish-born Renata, 15, said:

I will need to get citizenship in the UK to stay. I’m still not sure what my parents will do, we definitely can’t afford for all of us to get citizenship, so they might have to move back, while I’ll need to live by myself here.

Like the children of the Windrush generation, young Eastern Europeans arrived in the UK mainly because of their parents’ desire for a more secure future. But for many, growing up in “austerity Britain” has meant an increasing sense of feeling unwelcome, given the growing hostile attitude to immigration.

Prejudice and pride

Such an environment affects the everyday lives of young Eastern Europeans living in the UK and does not help integration. More than three quarters (77%) of our participants said they have experienced racism and xenophobia, and for one in five, these experiences happened “often” in school. A third also thought that their neighbours had some level of prejudice against Eastern Europeans, which made some feel unsafe and worried they might be attacked. Many said they adopted “blending in” tactics, like not speaking their own language in public or putting on a local accent.

So how do you develop a sense of belonging in a place where you generally feel unwanted? And what effect does it have on your sense of identity, especially in these formative years?

As many had strong links to Europe through birthplace and regular visits, it is unsurprising that 92% said they felt European. They had a strong sense of connection and belonging to Europe, with many saying that a European identity would always be part of who they were and how they saw their place in the world.

Anchoring themselves in a European identity seemed to offer security during insecure times in Britain. However, the majority (83%) felt they belonged in the UK, and this feeling became stronger the longer young people had lived here. Less than half (41%) said they felt British. Navigating these identities – in addition to other dimensions such as gender, class and religion – is clearly a complex and emotionally charged process for many. As Polish-born Emilia, 16, put it:

I may live in the UK, but I’ve been brought up in a Polish house. There’s still a part of me that doesn’t feel fully connected. I also feel like a fake Pole – like I’m not really part of that culture either. I’m stuck in the middle, just doing my best to fit in with whoever will let me.

Three quarters said they are likely to stay, many with plans to continue their education, volunteering or work, while others consider leaving and planning a future elsewhere. Many of them are clear there is no “going back” to the country of their birth, but rather envisage their future elsewhere. Latvia-born Michael, 18, said:

I feel very connected to Europe and European culture. There has been some concern whether I want to stay here due to the political changes. I might move to the EU after finishing university, despite the fact that I enjoy living in this country.

Many EU-born young people who arrived in Britain when their parents migrated are clearly emotionally bruised by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, which for many was like “a kick in the teeth”. Educated in Britain, they are now at the point of making decisions about their own futures – but here or elsewhere? For most, Britain is their home, with connections to family, friends, places and memories.

Migrating elsewhere will not be easy and while some will stay, others are increasingly looking beyond Britain for their future. For employers, educators and policy makers, one of the key questions now is what this country needs to do to encourage young Europeans to stay.

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Humans have always entertained two basic theories about the origin of the universe. “In one of them, the universe emerges in a single instant of creation (as in the Jewish-Christian and the Brazilian Carajás cosmogonies),” the cosmologists Mario Novello and Santiago Perez-Bergliaffa noted in 2008. In the other, “the universe is eternal, consisting of an infinite series of cycles (as in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians and Egyptians).” The division in modern cosmology “somehow parallels that of the cosmogonic myths,” Novello and Perez-Bergliaffa wrote.

In recent decades, it hasn’t seemed like much of a contest. The Big Bang theory, standard stuff of textbooks and television shows, enjoys strong support among today’s cosmologists. The rival eternal-universe picture had the edge a century ago, but it lost ground as astronomers observed that the cosmos is expanding and that it was small and simple about 14 billion years ago. In the most popular modern version of the theory, the Big Bang began with an episode called “cosmic inflation” — a burst of exponential expansion during which an infinitesimal speck of space-time ballooned into a smooth, flat, macroscopic cosmos, which expanded more gently thereafter.

With a single initial ingredient (the “inflaton field”), inflationary models reproduce many broad-brush features of the cosmos today. But as an origin story, inflation is lacking; it raises questions about what preceded it and where that initial, inflaton-laden speck came from. Undeterred, many theorists think the inflaton field must fit naturally into a more complete, though still unknown, theory of time’s origin.

But in the past few years, a growing number of cosmologists have cautiously revisited the alternative. They say the Big Bang might instead have been a Big Bounce. Some cosmologists favor a picture in which the universe expands and contracts cyclically like a lung, bouncing each time it shrinks to a certain size, while others propose that the cosmos only bounced once — that it had been contracting, before the bounce, since the infinite past, and that it will expand forever after. In either model, time continues into the past and future without end.

With modern science, there’s hope of settling this ancient debate. In the years ahead, telescopes could find definitive evidence for cosmic inflation. During the primordial growth spurt — if it happened — quantum ripples in the fabric of space-time would have become stretched and later imprinted as subtle swirls in the polarization of ancient light called the cosmic microwave background. Current and future telescope experiments are hunting for these swirls. If they aren’t seen in the next couple of decades, this won’t entirely disprove inflation (the telltale swirls could simply be too faint to make out), but it will strengthen the case for bounce cosmology, which doesn’t predict the swirl pattern.

Already, several groups are making progress at once. Most significantly, in the last year, physicists have come up with two new ways that bounces could conceivably occur. One of the models, described in a paper that will appear in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, comes from Anna Ijjas of Columbia University, extending earlier work with her former adviser, the Princeton professor and high-profile bounce cosmologist Paul Steinhardt. More surprisingly, the other new bounce solution, accepted for publication in Physical Review D, was proposed by Peter Graham, David Kaplan and Surjeet Rajendran, a well-known trio of collaborators who mainly focus on particle physics questions and have no previous connection to the bounce cosmology community. It’s a noteworthy development in a field that’s highly polarized on the bang vs. bounce question.

The question gained renewed significance in 2001, when Steinhardt and three other cosmologists argued that a period of slow contraction in the history of the universe could explain its exceptional smoothness and flatness, as witnessed today, even after a bounce — with no need for a period of inflation.

The universe’s impeccable plainness, the fact that no region of sky contains significantly more matter than any other and that space is breathtakingly flat as far as telescopes can see, is a mystery. To match its present uniformity, experts infer that the cosmos, when it was one centimeter across, must have had the same density everywhere to within one part in 100,000. But as it grew from an even smaller size, matter and energy ought to have immediately clumped together and contorted space-time. Why don’t our telescopes see a universe wrecked by gravity?

“Inflation was motivated by the idea that that was crazy to have to assume the universe came out so smooth and not curved,” said the cosmologist Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and co-author of the 2001 paper on cosmic contractionwith Steinhardt, Justin Khouryand Burt Ovrut. In the inflation scenario, the centimeter-size region results from the exponential expansion of a much smaller region — an initial speck measuring no more than a trillionth of a trillionth of a centimeter across. As long as that speck was infused with an inflaton field that was smooth and flat, meaning its energy concentration didn’t fluctuate across time or space, the speck would have inflated into a huge, smooth universe like ours. Raman Sundrum, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, said the thing he appreciates about inflation is that “it has a kind of fault tolerance built in.” If, during this explosive growth phase, there was a buildup of energy that bent space-time in a certain place, the concentration would have quickly inflated away. “You make small changes against what you see in the data and you see the return to the behavior that the data suggests,” Sundrum said.

However, where exactly that infinitesimal speck came from, and why it came out so smooth and flat itself to begin with, no one knows. Theorists have found many possible ways to embed the inflaton field into string theory, a candidate for the underlying quantum theory of gravity. So far, there’s no evidence for or against these ideas.

Cosmic inflation also has a controversial consequence. The theory — which was pioneered in the 1980s by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, Aleksei Starobinsky and (of all people) Steinhardt, almost automatically leads to the hypothesis that our universe is a random bubble in an infinite, frothing multiverse sea. Once inflation starts, calculations suggest that it keeps going forever, only stopping in local pockets that then blossom into bubble universes like ours. The possibility of an eternally inflating multiverse suggests that our particular bubble might never be fully understandable on its own terms, since everything that can possibly happen in a multiverse happens infinitely many times. The subject evokes gut-level disagreement among experts. Many have reconciled themselves to the idea that our universe could be just one of many; Steinhardt calls the multiverse “hogwash.”

This sentiment partly motivated his and other researchers’ about-face on bounces. “The bouncing models don’t have a period of inflation,” Turok said. Instead, they add a period of contraction before a Big Bounce to explain our uniform universe. “Just as the gas in the room you’re sitting in is completely uniform because the air molecules are banging around and equilibrating,” he said, “if the universe was quite big and contracting slowly, that gives plenty of time for the universe to smooth itself out.”

Although the first contracting-universe models were convoluted and flawed, many researchers became convinced of the basic idea that slow contraction can explain many features of our expanding universe. “Then the bottleneck became literally the bottleneck — the bounce itself,” Steinhardt said. As Ijjas put it, “The bounce has been the showstopper for these scenarios. People would agree that it’s very interesting if you can do a contraction phase, but not if you can’t get to an expansion phase.”

Bouncing isn’t easy. In the 1960s, the British physicists Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking proved a set of so-called “singularity theorems” showing that, under very general conditions, contracting matter and energy will unavoidably crunch into an immeasurably dense point called a singularity. These theorems make it hard to imagine how a contracting universe in which space-time, matter and energy are all rushing inward could possibly avoid collapsing all the way down to a singularity — a point where Albert Einstein’s classical theory of gravity and space-time breaks down and the unknown quantum gravity theory rules. Why shouldn’t a contracting universe share the same fate as a massive star, which dies by shrinking to the singular center of a black hole?

Both of the newly proposed bounce models exploit loopholes in the singularity theorems — ones that, for many years, seemed like dead ends. Bounce cosmologists have long recognized that bounces might be possible if the universe contained a substance with negative energy (or other sources of negative pressure), which would counteract gravity and essentially push everything apart. They’ve been trying to exploit this loophole since the early 2000s, but they always found that adding negative-energy ingredients made their models of the universe unstable, because positive- and negative-energy quantum fluctuations could spontaneously arise together, unchecked, out of the zero-energy vacuum of space. In 2016, the Russian cosmologist Valery Rubakov and colleagues even proved a “no-go” theorem that seemed to rule out a huge class of bounce mechanisms on the grounds that they caused these so-called “ghost” instabilities.

Then Ijjas found a bounce mechanism that evades the no-go theorem. The key ingredient in her model is a simple entity called a “scalar field,” which, according to the idea, would have kicked into gear as the universe contracted and energy became highly concentrated. The scalar field would have braided itself into the gravitational field in a way that exerted negative pressure on the universe, reversing the contraction and driving space-time apart —without destabilizing everything. Ijjas’ paper “is essentially the best attempt at getting rid of all possible instabilities and making a really stable model with this special type of matter,” said Jean-Luc Lehners, a theoretical cosmologist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany who has also worked on bounce proposals.

What’s especially interesting about the two new bounce models is that they are “non-singular,” meaning the contracting universe bounces and starts expanding again before ever shrinking to a point. These bounces can therefore be fully described by the classical laws of gravity, requiring no speculations about gravity’s quantum nature.

Graham, Kaplan and Rajendran, of Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, reported their non-singular bounce idea on the scientific preprint site in September 2017. They found their way to it after wondering whether a previous contraction phase in the history of the universe could be used to explain the value of the cosmological constant — a mystifyingly tiny number that defines the amount of dark energy infused in the space-time fabric, energy that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

In working out the hardest part — the bounce — the trio exploited a second, largely forgotten loophole in the singularity theorems. They took inspiration from a characteristically strange model of the universe proposed by the logician Kurt Gödel in 1949, when he and Einstein were walking companions and colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Gödel used the laws of general relativity to construct the theory of a rotating universe, whose spinning keeps it from gravitationally collapsing in much the same way that Earth’s orbit prevents it from falling into the sun. Gödel especially liked the fact that his rotating universe permitted “closed timelike curves,” essentially loops in time, which raised all sorts of Gödelian riddles. To his dying day, he eagerly awaited evidence that the universe really is rotating in the manner of his model. Researchers now know it isn’t; otherwise, the cosmos would exhibit alignments and preferred directions. But Graham and company wondered about small, curled-up spatial dimensions that might exist in space, such as the six extra dimensions postulated by string theory. Could a contracting universe spin in those directions?

Imagine there’s just one of these curled-up extra dimensions, a tiny circle found at every point in space. As Graham put it, “At each point in space there’s an extra direction you can go in, a fourth spatial direction, but you can only go a tiny little distance and then you come back to where you started.” If there are at least three extra compact dimensions, then, as the universe contracts, matter and energy can start spinning inside them, and the dimensions themselves will spin with the matter and energy. The vorticity in the extra dimensions can suddenly initiate a bounce. “All that stuff that would have been crunching into a singularity, because it’s spinning in the extra dimensions, it misses — sort of like a gravitational slingshot,” Graham said. “All the stuff should have been coming to a single point, but instead it misses and flies back out again.”

The paper has attracted attention beyond the usual circle of bounce cosmologists. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, is skeptical but called the idea “very clever.” He said it’s important to develop alternatives to the conventional inflation story, if only to see how much better inflation appears by comparison — especially when next-generation telescopes come online in the early 2020s looking for the telltale swirl pattern in the sky caused by inflation. “Even though I think inflation has a good chance of being right, I wish there were more competitors,” Carroll said. Sundrum, the Maryland physicist, felt similarly. “There are some questions I consider so important that even if you have only a 5 percent chance of succeeding, you should throw everything you have at it and work on them,” he said. “And that’s how I feel about this paper.”

As Graham, Kaplan and Rajendran explore their bounce and its possible experimental signatures, the next step for Ijjas and Steinhardt, working with Frans Pretorius of Princeton, is to develop computer simulations. (Their collaboration is supported by the Simons Foundation, which also funds Quanta Magazine.) Both bounce mechanisms also need to be integrated into more complete, stable cosmological models that would describe the entire evolutionary history of the universe.

Beyond these non-singular bounce solutions, other researchers are speculating about what kind of bounce might occur when a universe contracts all the way to a singularity — a bounce orchestrated by the unknown quantum laws of gravity, which replace the usual understanding of space and time at extremely high energies. In forthcoming work, Turok and collaborators plan to propose a model in which the universe expands symmetrically into the past and future away from a central, singular bounce. Turok contends that the existence of this two-lobed universe is equivalent to the spontaneous creation of electron-positron pairs, which constantly pop in and out of the vacuum. “Richard Feynman pointed out that you can look at the positron as an electron going backwards in time,” he said. “They’re two particles, but they’re really the same; at a certain moment in time they merge and annihilate.” He added, “The idea is a very, very deep one, and most likely the Big Bang will turn out to be similar, where a universe and its anti-universe were drawn out of nothing, if you like, by the presence of matter.”

It remains to be seen whether this universe/anti-universe bounce model can accommodate all observations of the cosmos, but Turok likes how simple it is. Most cosmological models are far too complicated in his view. The universe “looks extremely ordered and symmetrical and simple,” he said. “That’s very exciting for theorists, because it tells us there may be a simple — even if hard-to-discover — theory waiting to be discovered, which might explain the most paradoxical features of the universe.”

America’s declining relevance and China’s gains in the South China Sea

America’s declining relevance and China’s gains in the South China Sea

At a top regional security forum on Saturday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s recent militarisation efforts in the disputed South China Sea were intended to intimidate and coerce regional countries.

Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions stood in “stark contrast with the openness of [the US] strategy,” and warned of “much larger consequences” if China continued its current approach.

As an “initial response”, China’s navy has been disinvited by the US from the upcoming 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise.

It is important to understand the context of the current tensions, and the strategic stakes for both China and the US.

In recent years, China has sought to bolster its control over the South China Sea, where a number of claimants have overlapping territorial claims with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

China’s efforts have continued unabated, despite rising tensions and international protests. Just recently, China landed a long-range heavy bomber for the first time on an island in the disputed Paracels, and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missile systems  to its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

China’s air force has also stepped up its drills and patrols in the skies over the South China Sea.

While China is not the only claimant militarising the disputed region, no one else comes remotely close to the ambition, scale and speed of China’s efforts.

China’s strategy

The South China Sea has long been coveted by China (and others) due to its strategic importance for trade and military power, as well as its abundant resources. According to one estimate, US$3.4 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, representing 21% of the global total.

China’s goal in the South China Sea can be summarised with one word: control.

In order to achieve this, China is undertaking a coordinated, long-term effort to assert its dominance in the region, including the building of artificial islands, civil and military infrastructure, and the deployment of military ships and aircraft to the region.

While politicians of other countries such as the US, Philippines and Australia espouse fiery rhetoric to protest China’s actions, Beijing is focusing on actively transforming the physical and power geography of the South China Sea.

In fact, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, China’s efforts have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”.

America’s declining relevance

China’s efforts are hard to counter because it has employed an incremental approach to cementing its control in the South China Sea. None of its actions would individually justify a US military response that could escalate to war. In any case, the human and economic cost of such a conflict would be immense.

The inability of the US to respond effectively to China’s moves has eroded its credibility in the region. It has also fed a narrative that the US is not “here to stay” in Asia. If the US is serious about countering China, then Mattis’ rhetoric must be followed by action.

First, the US should clearly articulate its red lines to China and others on the kinds of activities that are unacceptable in the South China Sea. Then it must be willing to enforce such red lines, while being mindful of the risks.

Second, the US needs to renew its efforts to cooperate with allies in the region to build capacity and demonstrate a coordinated commitment to stand in the face of China’s challenge.

Third, the US needs to deploy military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, such as advanced missile systems, which would reduce the military advantages gained by China through the militarisation of the South China Sea features.

Long-term consequences

China’s tightening control over the South China Sea is worrying for a number of regional countries. For many, the shipping routes that run through the South China Sea are the bloodlines of their economies.

Moreover, the shifting balance of power will enable Beijing to settle its territorial disputes in the region for good. Without a doubt, China is willing to use its new-found power to change the status quo in its favour, even at the expense of its weaker neighbours.

Control of the South China Sea also allows Beijing to better project its military power across South-East Asia, the western Pacific and parts of Oceania. This would make it more costly for the US and its allies to take action against China, for example, in scenarios involving Taiwan.

On a higher level, China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea demonstrates Beijing’s increasing confidence and its willingness to flaunt international norms that it considers inconvenient or contrary to its interests.

There is little doubt China is becoming the new dominant power in Asia. Its rise has benefited millions in the region and should be welcomed. But we should also be wary of Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes and grievances if it employs military and economic intimidation and coercion.

If we want to live in a “world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small”, then there must be consequences for countries, including China, when they flaunt international norms and seek to settle disagreements with force.

It may be too late to turn the tide in the South China Sea and reverse China’s gains. No one would run such a risk. But it is not too late to impose penalties on China for further destabilising the region through its actions in the South China Sea.

The challenge is to figure out how to do that, and what we would be willing to risk to achieve it.

A Short Guide to Hard Problems

How fundamentally difficult is a problem? That’s the basic task of computer scientists who hope to sort problems into what are called complexity classes. These are groups that contain all the computational problems that require less than some fixed amount of a computational resource — something like time or memory. Take a toy example featuring a large number such as 123,456,789,001. One might ask: Is this number prime, divisible only by 1 and itself? Computer scientists can solve this using fast algorithms — algorithms that don’t bog down as the number gets arbitrarily large. In our case, 123,456,789,001 is not a prime number. Then we might ask: What are its prime factors? Here no such fast algorithm exists — not unless you use a quantum computer. Therefore computer scientists believe that the two problems are in different complexity classes.

Many different complexity classes exist, though in most cases researchers haven’t been able to prove one class is categorically distinct from the others. Proving those types of categorical distinctions is among the hardest and most important open problems in the field. That’s why the new result I wrote about last month in Quanta was considered such a big deal: In a paper published at the end of May, two computer scientists proved (with a caveat) that the two complexity classes that represent quantum and classical computers really are different.

The differences between complexity classes can be subtle or stark, and keeping the classes straight is a challenge. For that reason, Quanta has put together this primer on seven of the most fundamental complexity classes. May you never confuse BPP and BQP again.


Stands for: Polynomial time

Short version: All the problems that are easy for a classical (meaning nonquantum) computer to solve.

Precise version: Algorithms in P must stop and give the right answer in at most ntime where is the length of the input and is some constant.

Typical problems:
• Is a number prime?
• What’s the shortest path between two points?

What researchers want to know: Is P the same thing as NP? If so, it would upend computer science and render most cryptography ineffective overnight. (Almost no one thinks this is the case.)


Stands for: Nondeterministic Polynomial time

Short version: All problems that can be quickly verified by a classical computer once a solution is given.

Precise version: A problem is in NP if, given a “yes” answer, there is a short proof that establishes the answer is correct. If the input is a string, X, and you need to decide if the answer is “yes,” then a short proof would be another string, Y, that can be used to verify in polynomial time that the answer is indeed “yes.” (Y is sometimes referred to as a “short witness” — all problems in NP have “short witnesses” that allow them to be verified quickly.)

Typical problems:
• The clique problem. Imagine a graph with edges and nodes — for example, a graph where nodes are individuals on Facebook and two nodes are connected by an edge if they’re “friends.” A clique is a subset of this graph where all the people are friends with all the others. One might ask of such a graph: Is there a clique of 20 people? 50 people? 100? Finding such a clique is an “NP-complete” problem, meaning that it has the highest complexity of any problem in NP. But if given a potential answer — a subset of 50 nodes that may or may not form a clique — it’s easy to check.
• The traveling salesman problem. Given a list of cities with distances between each pair of cities, is there a way to travel through all the cities in less than a certain number of miles? For example, can a traveling salesman pass through every U.S. state capital in less than 11,000 miles?

What researchers want to know: Does P = NP? Computer scientists are nowhere near a solution to this problem.


Stands for: Polynomial Hierarchy

Short version: PH is a generalization of NP — it contains all the problems you get if you start with a problem in NP and add additional layers of complexity.

Precise version: PH contains problems with some number of alternating “quantifiers” that make the problems more complex. Here’s an example of a problem with alternating quantifiers: Given X, does there exist Y such that for every Z there exists W such that Rhappens? The more quantifiers a problem contains, the more complex it is and the higher up it is in the polynomial hierarchy.

Typical problem:
• Determine if there exists a clique of size 50 but no clique of size 51.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists have not been able to prove that PH is different from P. This problem is equivalent to the P versus NP problem because if (unexpectedly) P = NP, then all of PH collapses to P (that is, P = PH).


Stands for: Polynomial Space

Short version: PSPACE contains all the problems that can be solved with a reasonable amount of memory.

Precise version: In PSPACE you don’t care about time, you care only about the amount of memory required to run an algorithm. Computer scientists have proven that PSPACE contains PH, which contains NP, which contains P.

Typical problem:
• Every problem in P, NP and PH is in PSPACE.

What researchers want to know: Is PSPACE different from P?


Stands for: Bounded-error Quantum Polynomial time

Short version: All problems that are easy for a quantum computer to solve.

Precise version: All problems that can be solved in polynomial time by a quantum computer.

Typical problems:
• Identify the prime factors of an integer.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists have proven that BQP is contained in PSPACE and that BQP contains P. They don’t know whether BQP is in NP, but they believe the two classes are incomparable: There are problems that are in NP and not BQP and vice versa.


Stands for: Exponential Time

Short version: All the problems that can be solved in an exponential amount of time by a classical computer.

Precise version: EXP contains all the previous classes — P, NP, PH, PSPACE and BQP. Researchers have proven that it’s different from P — they have found problems in EXP that are not in P.

Typical problem:
• Generalizations of games like chess and checkers are in EXP. If a chess board can be any size, it becomes a problem in EXP to determine which player has the advantage in a given board position.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists would like to be able to prove that PSPACE does not contain EXP. They believe there are problems that are in EXP that are not in PSPACE, because sometimes in EXP you need a lot of memory to solve the problems. Computer scientists know how to separate EXP and P.


Short version: Problems that can be quickly solved by algorithms that include an element of randomness.

Precise version: BPP is exactly the same as P, but with the difference that the algorithm is allowed to include steps where its decision-making is randomized. Algorithms in BPP are required only to give the right answer with a probability close to 1.

Typical problem:
• You’re handed two different formulas that each produce a polynomial that has many variables. Do the formulas compute the exact same polynomial? This is called the polynomial identity testing problem.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists would like to know whether BPP = P. If that is true, it would mean that every randomized algorithm can be de-randomized. They believe this is the case — that there is an efficient deterministic algorithm for every problem for which there exists an efficient randomized algorithm — but they have not been able to prove it.

Our Time Has Come - Alyssa Ayres

Our Time Has Come – Alyssa Ayres

How India is Making Its Place in the World

Over the last 25 years, India’s explosive economic growth has vaulted it into the ranks of the world’s emerging major powers. Long plagued by endemic poverty, India was hamstrung by a burdensome regulatory regime that limited its ability to compete on a global scale until the 1990s. Since then, however, the Indian government has gradually opened up the economy, and the results have been stunning. India’s middle class has grown by leaps and bounds, and the country’s sheer scale—its huge population and $2 trillion economy—means its actions will have a major global impact. From world trade to climate change to democratization, India now matters.

While it is clearly on the path to becoming a great power, India has not abandoned all of its past policies: its economy remains relatively protectionist, and it still struggles with the legacy of its longstanding foreign policy doctrine of nonalignment. India’s vibrant democracy encompasses a vast array of parties who champion dizzyingly disparate policies. And India is not easily swayed by foreign influence; the country carefully guards its autonomy, in part because of its colonial past. For all of these reasons, India tends to move cautiously and deliberately in the international sphere.

In Our Time Has Come, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia Alyssa Ayres looks at how the tension between India’s inward-focused past and its ongoing integration into the global economy will shape the country’s trajectory. Today, Indian leaders increasingly want to see their country in the ranks of the world’s great powers—in fact, as a “leading power,” to use the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ayres considers the role India is likely to play as its prominence grows, taking stock of the implications and opportunities for the United States and other nations as the world’s largest democracy defines its place in the world. As Ayres shows, India breaks the mold of the typical ally, and its vastness, history, and diversity render it incomparable to any other major democratic power. By focusing on how India’s unique perspective shapes its approach to global affairs, Our Time Has Come will help the world make sense of India’s rise.

Despite the various challenges author Alyssa Ayres has highlighted in her book, India is well on the road to acquiring global power and status.

The title of Alyssa Ayres’ latest book on India, ‘Our Time Has Come’, would apply more appropriately to a resurgent China, supremely confident in its arrival as a great power, rather than to India. One may legitimately argue that India’s time has not come yet although we may be getting there. The sub-title is perhaps more apt—‘How India is making its place in the world’.

Alyssa Ayres is a sympathetic chronicler of India’s rise to global prominence over the past quarter of a century. She covers this trajectory in eight chapters, grouped under three parts, one, titled, ‘Looking Back’; the next covering the ‘Transition’ and the third, ‘Looking Ahead’. The epilogue has some recommendations for US policy towards India, on how the partnership can be strengthened even as India seeks to carve out a place for itself in a new international order. For a balanced and carefully researched analysis of India’s prospects, as seen from Washington, this is a book which will rank pretty high in the years to come.

Alyssa did spend some time with me while gathering material for her book and we had a long conversation about the templates from the past, which continue to influence the way India looks at the world. She has duly reflected this in the first chapter. But her book is mainly about departures from the past and how a new India is defining her place in the world even as its historical experience lends its calculations a degree of caution.

Quite predictably, she considers the end of the Cold War as marking the end of an era when India had to cope with a greatly transformed geopolitical landscape even as it grappled with an economic crisis which threatened to push the country into a humiliating financial default. India’s relations with the US and West in general began to improve. The Cold War prism through which India was seen as being on the other side of the fence dissipated. The economic crisis compelled the adoption of far-reaching market based reforms and economic liberalisation, soon putting India on a high growth trajectory.

This reinforced the turn towards the West which could support India’s economic prospects with infusions of capital and technology. Along with the globalisation of the Indian economy and the opportunities this offered to foreign capital, India began to move from the margins towards the centre of the global economy. Its regional and global profile also began to rise.

Alyssa credits the Modi government with having given a new impetus to the transformation of India’s engagement with the world. India is a country more demanding of its due in the world. It is less hesitant in asserting its interests. This trend, she believes, is likely to grow stronger and both friends and adversaries need to acknowledge the change that is taking place.

In spelling out these changes, Alyssa quotes Foreign Secretary Jaishankar who argues that India today seeks to be a “leading power” rather than a “balancing power”, ready to shape events rather than be shaped by them. This, then, is an India which would be less reactive and defensive and would be ready to play a leading role on the world stage.

To be fair, the author acknowledges that previous political dispensations, both led by the Congress and the BJP, have presided over very real and significant changes that have taken place in the conduct of India’s foreign relations. However, the lingering legacies of the past, the defensiveness inherent in the concept of non-alignment, the deeply ingrained suspicions of foreign capital and the widespread political preference for self-reliance have all held India back from taking on a mantle of leadership on the global stage. However, she does credit Modi for having moved away from these constraining legacies more than any other leader so far.

Alyssa devotes a considerable part of her book to the Indian economic story. After all India’s place in the world is integrally linked to the country’s economic prospects. Here she finds that the country’s historical experience and its complex polity and society have prevented the whole-hearted embrace of economic reforms and this detracts from the expansive role that it aspires to on the world stage.

She has rightly pointed out that Prime Minister Modi is the first Indian leader to declare his support for reforms explicitly and unreservedly. There is no “reform through stealth” for him. He has also been open in his welcome of foreign investment and has been persuasive in his sales pitch during visits across the world. And yet he has not been successful in bringing about the long-pending reforms in land acquisition and labour laws or in overhauling India’s public sector.

India’s negotiating position in multilateral trade negotiations continues to be marked by defensiveness despite Prime Minister Modi’s penchant for deal making. Structural reforms, particularly, in mechanisms of governance, have made little headway and all this means that there is a mismatch between political ambition and capacity.

In the case of the US, there is an imbalance between a very robust security and defence relationship and still modest economic and commercial relationship. The two countries continue to spar with each other in multilateral trade fora and these difference are likely to sharpen under the Trump administration.

Alyssa concludes her book on an optimistic and forward looking note. Despite the various challenges she has drawn attention to, she sees India well on the road to acquiring global power and status. The country will be, by 2040, the third largest economy in the world after the US and China. It would have a formidable military, in particular, naval power and, if it plays its cards well, it could well begin to emerge as a leading manufacturing power, leveraging its demographic dividend into even more substantial national power.

The author has good advice for US policy makers who will need to accept that India will play according to its own template rather than accept a Washington template. There will be an insistence on a relationship as equals but it is a relationship which will be as important for India as it will be for the US.

One cannot quarrel with that.