Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

Monday, July 16, 2018

Georges Lemaître , a scientist priest.

Georges Lemaître was an astronomer and professor of physics who is thought to be the first to have theorised that the universe is expanding.

His theory was observationally confirmed soon afterwards by Edwin Hubble in what is now known as Hubble’s Law.

Lemaître is also credited with proposing what has now become known as the Big Bang theory – which says that the observable universe began with an explosion of a single particle.

Born on 17 July 1894 in Belgium, he initially began studying civil engineering. His academic pursuits were however put on hold while he served in the Belgian army for the duration of the First World War.

After the war, he studied physics and mathematics and was also ordained as a priest.

In 1923 he became a graduate student at the University of Cambridge before going on to study at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1925 he returned to Belgium, where he became a part-time lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven. Two years later, he published his groundbreaking idea of an expanding universe.

His initial idea was not related specifically to the Big Bang, but his later research focused on the concept of the universe starting from a single atom.

In 1933 at the California Institute of Technology, some of the greatest scientists of the time from around the world gathered to hear a series of lectures.

After Lemaître delivered his lecture and theory, Albert Einstein stood up and said: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I ever listened."

He was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Belgium and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

In 1951, Pope Pius XII claimed that Lemaître's theory provided a scientific validation for Catholicism – a claim that Lemaître resented, as he stated his theory was neutral.

He died in 1966, shortly after he discovered the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation, which added weight to his theory on the birth of the universe.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reading the Martian, and book experiments


I’ve been travelling in Sydney trains for a few months now. I spend about 40 mins travelling one way, so its more than an hour of commute each day. Though the distances covered is larger than those I covered in Bangalore in the same time, or any Indian city, I would venture. And good thing about my commute, there are always seats ! Even during the rush hour, you could find seats to slid into. So I figured the best way to spend time on these commutes would be to listen to podcasts, or just read a plain old book when the batteries die down.

I’ve been also running a crazy experiment of sorts. After I finish reading a book, I leave it on the seat. There. Abandoned. For the next commuter on that seat. You see, the building I live in has a library of abandoned books. Books which their owners throw out when its too much cargo when they move out. So its a free library ! I’ve read and left about four books on the trains so far. Just finished reading Andy Weir’s The Martian. This novel was turned into the hit 2015 movie by Ridley Scott. The movie was Ridley’s best work in this decade, in between all those Alien duds.

I could see why the book was a hit, its a story of survival in the harshest conditions. Its a fight against nature, and the cosmos itself. Its a story of the whole earth uniting to save one man stranded on a distant planet. But I also could not see why the book was such a hit. Its nerdy. Its full of long jargon, longer, meticulus calculations, and technological exposition. Engineers and scientists would love this kind of thing, but anybody else would find it..hmm…boring. Repititive.

I didn’t !

I loved it. Most of it. But then even I got bored of all those calculations, error variance, and best estimates. There is a lot more of the story happening in the book, which got cut out of the movie. And that was good, because there is no way a 2 hour movie could capture this much techno-babble.

We all know what happened to the stranded fictional astronaut Mark Watney. He is eventually rescured after 500 days alone on planet Mars. But the book goes into great detail to explain all the problems he and the NASA team faced along the way. There is a journal entry for most of the 561 sols he spend on the planet. There are other subplots not discussed in the movie.

Like the incident during the drilling of the second rover’s rood. Mark accidently shorts out the electronics on the pathfinder, and loses his ability to communicate with earth.  This is not shown in the movie. But in the book, Mark has no choice but communicate one way using stones arranged in morse code on the route he follows across Mars.

Or when the rover tumbles into the crater.

But I still had questions, which I hoped would be answere in the books, but was left disspointed.

For starters, Mark is extermely optimistic. Like, he is the most optimistic literary character I have read till date. He beats Robinson Crusoe hands down. Its unnatural , the guy simply does not give up. He does talk to himself a lot, but he voices his optimism clearly. I wanted to know the why he was so. Wanted to know about his childhood, his college days. Was he in the forces ? Does he belive in a god ? What pulls him to earth ? Was it his family ? Speaking of family, neither the book nor the movie tries to shed light, what kind of family did he grow up in ? Does he have siblings ? A girlfriend ? His best friend ?

Another question, this is more of a tease. The story mentions that Mark travels more than 3oo days travelling across Mars in rovers. He was carrying all the equipment to keep him alive, but he was not carryin a porta-toilet or something. So, where did he poop ? How ? And how did he cook the food he brought along ?

But what I find most astonishing is the passage of time. 500 days is almost 2 years. He spends a lof of that time travelling, and completing all sorts of tasks. Its easy to say 100 days of travel. But Mars has a barren crust, its the same shade of red everywhere. 100 days of travelling through it is not at all easy, with no one to talk to, and having to be alert all the time. At some point, one will at least think of giving it all up. But not Mark.

Anyway, despite all of this, the book is still a good read. The epilogue in the movie is missing in the book. It ends with Mark’s rescue from the planet. Science, technology, humany ingenuity and persistence, this is what the story is about.

Now that I finished reading it, I am going to leave it on the train tomorrow. For someone else to enjoy.











Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Professor Hawking continues to radiate


Yesterday was Pi day, and also the birthday of Einstein. So I was expecting to read all those nerdy articles they usually come up with. But later in the day, the devastating news of the demise of Prof Stephen Hawking upset us all. Very few scientists have attained the kind of cult status with Professor Hawking had attained. His persistent scientific approach, his zest for life was a inspiration to many.


But thinking of him now, I am reminded of my own childhood friend, who passed away years ago. His name was Krishnadev, and it was him who had introduced me to Hawking and his Hawking radiation. Way back in school days, physics was my favourite subject. Our school textbooks did not have the time to dedicate entire chapters to subjects like stars and universes, which honestly cannot be covered in a million chapters. The school course at that time, and I think even till this day, was backward in comparison to contemporary scientific knowledge. The 10th grade physice text book did mention black holes, but made no mention of Hawking radiation. It was ‘out of syllabus’. But there was a genius in our class who was always ten steps ahead of the class teacher. C Krishnadev, who would later end up in IIT Chennai, was the brightest mind I personally knew, and a kind hearted and good friend. He told me about this fantastic book called ‘A Brief History of Time’, which was available in our school library. And how that one book had more knowledge than all of the world’s religious books combined. I expected it to be a comic or science fiction of some sort, it was not. But it turned out to be so much more entertaining and fun than anything I had read at that time. I was surprised that none of that was in our ‘prescribed’ course syllabus at that time.

Anyway, thats when I started hero worshipping Prof Hawking. I have also downloaded and tried to read his doctoral Thesis , ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’, but frankly, I have now forgotten the little high school physics I had. The 1966 doctoral thesis by the world’s most recognisable scientist is the most requested item in Apollo with the catalogue record alone attracting hundreds of views per month. In just the past few months, the University has received hundreds of requests from readers wishing to download Professor Hawking’s thesis in full.  Not everyone can truly understand this work, his best selling book is a much more concise and simplfied read.

Up until that point, I had expected Hawking to be just that, a highly capable scientist, whos genius cannot be gauged by the common man. But later I was surprised when I saw this popularity continuing to rise, and the pop culture emerging around him. He showed no signs of resting. He gave more talks and appearances, he appeared on TV in the news as well as in TV shows. He was featured in cartoons and sketches. He even sang for Monty Python !

Along with Prof Tyson,  and Prof Brian Cox, he became one of our generation’s rockstar astrophysicist. Suddenly, science was cool !

Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask, why are we here ? Where did we come from ? Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion because it gives comfort. And they do not trust or understand science.  - Prof Stephen Hawking

And that is the truth about science, it has always been cool. As the generation of religous, superstitious and doomsday obsessed pessimists wither away, a new generation of young scientists will come in, to carry on the good work done by generations of past scientists. We may not understand the mysteries of our universe today, but mankind as a whole, will be able to do that at some point in future.  And scientists like Prof Hawking will continue to inspire them. A different kind of Hawking radiation, so to speak.



He did his part. It is upto us now.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Happy Birthday, Sir Charles Darwin


Today is Charles Darwin's 209th birthday. Next year, 2010. Amazing ! The man was clearly ahead of his time. He is actually head of our time. Because two centuries later, there are still people who are not convinced by his ideas. They want to teach and learn evolution as simply a theory. Its a case of reverse Darwinism, survival of the dumbest.


I was expecting a few science articles , and a Google doodle in his honor today. But the current winter Olympics currently underway in South Korea has hijacked the media attention. More for political reasons than sporting. History’s most famous biologist will have to wait, maybe one more year.  He is celebrated as one the greatest British scientists who ever lived, but in his time his radical theories brought him into conflict with members of the Church of England. But right now, he is facing criticism from Indian politicians, of all places. 

But scientists, true scientists, are not giving up. The February 12 to 18 'Darwin Week' is being organised by The India March for Science Organising Committee and the Breakthrough Science Society. To this day the theory of evolution by natural selection is accepted by the scientific community as the best evidence-based explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on Earth. The human race has, by and large, embraced Darwin’s postulate and we have had no reason to question its soundness. No rebel has come forward with an equivalent of the laughable Flat Earth Society to refute Darwin’s views. Even at the most basic level of thinking, monkeys look like us (more or less), and pretty much behave like us, and are only handicapped by not being biped like us, and not gifted with the power of speech — thank goodness !

Something else I came across recently. Darwin documented his findings on the HMS Beagle journey in his notebooks. He was astounded by the colors of these forms of life in the Galapagos islands. But two hundred years ago, he did not have the simple smartphone or even a portable camera to capture a form. All he could do was write, and so he described the colors of the creatures and plants meticulously in his books. During the voyage he drew many of his words from a slim volume called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat,” Charles Darwin wrote, in late March, 1832, as H.M.S. Beagle threaded its way through the Abrolhos Shoals, off the Brazilian coast. The water, he wrote, was “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” while the sky above was “Berlin with [a] little Ultra marine.”


Read about how a little known book served as the basis of color description in Darwin’s notes.

Other trivia: There is a place here in Australia, named after Charles Darwin. I plan on visiting it some day. The city was named Darwin by an explorer who had travelled with Darwin on the HMS Beagle. And heres another. Abraham Lincoln was born on this exact same day and year, in 1809. Two different pioneers in such vastly different fields, born on the same day in history.

The reason we can’t see evolution at work is because our human lives take up only the tiniest fraction on the scale of cosmic time We are but one iteration in billions of years of evolution.

That gives us a point to contemplate: wether we believe in god or science we are fortunate to be alive and self aware.

Our comfort is ruining the planet


We keep reading about how humans are slowly destroying the planet. We also keep reading about how a few try to do some good and negate the effect. Turns out, the amount of bad greatly outnumbers the good being done. The more we try to live comfortably on earth, the more we ruin the planet. There are now so many of us on Earth that the planet just doesn't have enough resources for us all to live comfortably, which means we require a radical rethink of how we could start living within our means.

A new study by researchers at University of Leeds looked at 151 nations and found not a single one was running itself in a sustainable way – ensuring a decent life for its inhabitants without taking more than it gives back in terms of natural resources. Even the most developed countries are using up natural resources at rates unheard of before, to maintain their high standard of living. While the other countries score far worse on both scales. As can be seen in this graph, the sweet spot quadrant, the top left, is wide empty.


The researchers used 11 different indicators to measure the quality of life in a country: life satisfaction, healthy life expectancy, nutrition, sanitation, income, access to energy, education, social support, democratic quality, equality, and employment.

That was then measured against 7 biophysical indicators, including the ones we've already mentioned, along with material footprint, nitrogen use, and blue water use. Each country's allotted share of these resources was based on its global population.

No country performed well on both scales. In general, the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more planetary boundaries it exceeds, and vice versa.

Although wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people.

Among the countries doing the best job are Vietnam, with 6 social thresholds achieved and only 1 biophysical boundary transgressed, and Germany, which hits all 11 social thresholds but has exceeded 5 of the 7 biophysical boundaries.

So thats the future for us, we are slowly eating into the planet. Developing nations, like India, languishing in the bottom, follow the blueprint set forth already by developed nations, with neither the funds or the inclination for alternatives. Almost everything we do, from having dinner to surfing the internet, uses resources in some way, but the connections between resource use and human well-being are not always visible to us.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The universe moves on , like clockwork


The much hyped celestial event, the super blue blood moon, occurred precisely at the time astronomers predicted. The moon was cutoff a little, then glowed an eerie orangish-red. It was weird watching it personally, this is only the first time in my life I have seen this kind of a lunar eclipse. And perhaps the last time too.

It was nice reading about the enthusiasm with which people looked forward to viewing this spectacle, inspite of superstitions around the world.Of course there are superstitious idiots in even the most advanced of places. And last year there was a similar hype for the solar eclipse. Today we understand the movement of the stars with precision, imagine what the earliest humans would have thought when they saw the moon turn red. In ancient Amazon , they would have sacrificed a few dudes to the event. Or some 'homam's and 'puja's would be conducted with large amounts of ghee burn for nothing. We need a scientific approach to universal phenomenon. Questions need to be asked, and answered. Even after all the data, nobody could predict who would win the  2016 election accurately. But eclipses can. We seem to understand more about our universe than about our own minds.

And it is events like these which remind me that despite all the chaos on earth, the universe moves on without unchallenged. Its as if nobody up there cares about the stupid things we do down here. And rightly so. Events like these re-reinforce my belief in science, nature; and the truth that ultimately ,we humans are powerless against the forces of nature.

Reminds of that great quote by Carl Sagan.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wow , thats disappointing

The 40-Year Old Mystery of the "Wow!" Signal Was Just Solved. Background: In 1977, the sound of extraterrestrials was heard by human ears for the first time — or so people at the time thought. The Wow! Signal was detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. It is a radio signal detector that, at the time, was pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius.

When scanning the skies around the stars, Ehman captured a 72 second burst of radio waves: He circled the reading and wrote “Wow!: next to it, hence the signal’s name. Over the last 40 years, the signal has been cited as evidence that we are not alone in the galaxy. Experts and laypeople alike believed that, finally, we had evidence of alien life.

For a very long time , this was the strongest candidate we had as proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. It could not be explained any other way. However, Professor Antonio Paris, of St Petersburg College, has now discovered the explanation: A pair of comets. The work was published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

These comets, known as  266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, have clouds of hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter surrounding them. The Wow! Signal was detected at 1420MHz, which is the radio frequency hydrogen naturally emits. Notably, the team has verified that the comets were within the vicinity at the time, and they report that the radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! signal.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Pluto Is Still A Planet….


…in New Mexico !

As far as most of the world is concerned, poor Pluto got downgraded from planet to dwarf planet (or planetoid) back in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union revised their definition of what constitutes a planet. For the curious, Pluto was downgraded because it lacks enough gravitational pull to distinguish itself from other dwarf planets in similar nearby orbits.

Whatever the reason was for the change in Pluto’s classification, New Mexico’s House of Representatives was having none of it. For you see, the man who discovered Pluto back in the 1930s, Clyde Tombaugh, was a long-time resident and a former professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University. Regardless of what the international astronomy community had to say about the matter, the people of New Mexico had a very strong opinion about the matter. Kandilley, karimeen puttaakee ?

In 2007, the House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring that March 13, 2007 would be observed as Pluto Planet Day and that whenever Pluto is in such a position that it can be observed in New Mexico’s night skies it is, in fact, still a full-fledged planet.

Bonus Trivia: Because Clyde Tombaugh was born in Illinois, the Illinois State Senate passed a resolution in 2009 that asserted Pluto was “unfairly downgraded to a dwarf planet” by the IAU.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Primary Function Of Water Towers Is… pump Water !


I didn’t know this. All these years I used to look up at water towers and say “Why did they have to build them that tall ?” Here in India, water towers are used primarily as…landmarks ! The Koramangala water tank is well known, then there is the Sankey water tank. But today I learned that the reason of building the water reservoir on a tower is to let gravity act on it, and the water pressure thus created will let the water rise up into higher floors in buildings. Look at the diagram: jp jw pj js rj rp rw ri cp md.ic.r6R8ub0OBN

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that water towers exist to store water. They are, after all, giant above ground vessels filled with anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of gallons of water.

But whether you’re talking about a modest little water tower perched atop an apartment building in New York City or a giant municipal water tower, water storage is not the primary function of the tower (if water storage was the only goal, it would be significantly cheaper to build a reservoir). The primary function of water towers is to pressurize water for distribution. Elevating the water high above the pipes that distribute it throughout the surrounding building or community ensures that hydrostatic pressure, driven by gravity, forces the water down and through the system.

The design helps keep the cost of water distribution lower for two reasons. First, it allows for centralization of pumping and pressurization, and decreases the number of pumping stations needed in the vicinity of the water tower. Second, it allows the water company to pump water up to the tower during off-peak energy times to decrease the expense of running the pumps.