Tuesday, August 9, 2011

'I would call it luck if nothing else'

Lujendra Ojha, the Nepali undergraduate at University of Arizona who was the first to spot signs of flowing water on Mars, was interviewed by email by Republica´s Prem Dhakal.What do you remember of your early life in Nepal and how did that shape your academic ambitions?
I remember being a normal kid in my early life. I remember buying goats with my dad for Dashain, playing cricket and soccer in the streets of Kathmandu, blocking the roads during Shivaratri, doing stupid acts during holi. All the normal stuff a normal kid normally would do at that age. I remember reading some science fiction and science books when I was growing up and I credit those for the initial spark that led me to a career in science.
I have never been to my ancestral home in Doti but I have been to far west Nepal and experienced the simple lifestyle of people in rural Nepal. In my opinion, that sort of lifestyle is the best.
Your sister told us you were just an average student here. So, what helped you reach the next level in your studies over there?

I was and am still an average student. I did not achieve any milestone in terms of my studies. I wouldn´t say that I reached the next level of my studies here. I am still the same student but in the University I attended I could explore my interest in science with a lot of opportunities. These opportunities made me who I am today.

What attracted you to geophysics and planetary research?I was most interested in physics when I was growing up. I wanted to pursue research in theoretical physics and astrophysics but owing to some choices that I had to make I chose geophysics in the end. One of the reasons is that geophysics is more applicable for solving problems directly related to our life. Planetary science was my dream major, but my university does not offer a bachelor´s degree in planetary science, so I decided to learn planetary science by actually working in the field.

How did you all reach the conclusion that there may be briny water in Mars?The research process initially began with the discovery of the so called RSL, "Recurring Slope Linea" (name given to the streaks of gullies and deltas on the Martian surface). After the initial discovery, we started looking for more of these features on Mars visually. I found several more examples of confirmed and probable RSL around Mars. What I also found was that these features were forming only during the Southern Summer when the temperature is around the range of 250-300 K (-23 to 27 C).

The fact that these features only form and grow in summer implies that these are temperature-related processes. Carbon dioxide and methane are too volatile around this temperature range. Dry mass flow can explain these features also. But if these features were dry mass flow, they would be found at all latitudes and not just in southern latitudes. RSL are only found in southern mid latitudes.

Also there is a distinct relationship between these features and the slope aspect. Slope aspect is generally a term used to define which direction these features face. So far a majority of these features have a slope aspect of north. North facing slopes at the southern mid latitudes of Mars get more heat than the polar facing slopes. Also, these features are only found in steep slopes (slopes greater than 30 degrees).

All these observations point to one thing, that these things are highly dependent on temperature and that they are geographically constrained. For these reasons and many others, we believe that the most compelling hypothesis is a briny flow.

How does it feel to be the toast of world media and be recognised by as big an institution as NASA?I feel lucky. It could have been anyone instead of me. It is definitely a proud moment for me. But I know that if I hadn´t been lucky enough to spot these features first, I wouldn´t be here. Although as a rational scientist I do not believe in luck, I would at least call my stumbling upon these features luck, if nothing else.

What do you plan to do in future?I hope to pursue a Master´s or PhD program in planetary science. I also play for a local death metal band. I wouldn´t mind doing a little touring with them before pursuing further studies.

Do you have anything to say to guys of your age here in Nepal?Political chaos back in Nepal seems to be never ending and I think the biggest reason for that is we lack unity. How did India win over the British? They had a unified goal to gain freedom. How did the French revolution succeed? They had a unified goal to end persecution by the monarchy. My question to Nepali politicians is: What is our goal? What unites us? And what have we done so far? What will we do to achieve our goal? Never forget: United we stand, divided we fall.

To guys and girls of Nepal: The old generation has failed us. Let us not give our future generation a chance to call our generation a failure. Jai Nepal.

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