All posts by Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Google Honors Madame Marie Curie With A Doodle On Her Birthday

She is the epitome of true grit, all packaged in a gentle feminine form. A scientist par excellence, a double Nobel Prize winner, a pioneer on many fronts and an exemplary human being, Madame Marie Curie showed how much a human can endure and still succeed! Today is her birthday and Google duly honours her with a doodle.

Madame Curie

The doodle is a simple image of Curie holding up a flask with a fixed chemical apparatus on the table in front of her. Her work, involving the extraction of minute quantities of radium and polonium from uranium ores, must have involved more complicated apparatus setups. Click on the doodle and you’ll be redirected to a page returning the search results to her name. The doodle is a simple one, a humble offering of respect, just like Marie Curie might have wanted to be.

Her Life

Born in Poland on this day in 1867, she was the fifth and youngest child. Tragedies in her life started early, when she lost her mother at an early age, followed by her elder sister. Jolted twice, she renounced her faith (Catholicism) and became agnostic. Her academic pursuits would take her to Sorbonne; there she would obtain a degree in math. She would also start working with magnetism, which would eventually prove a great source of attraction between her (then Marie Sklodowska) and her future husband Pierre Curie.

The Physics and Chemistry that she did

The physics world was rocked by the discovery of unknown rays given off by certain substances in the late 1890’s. It was Becquerel’s seminal discovery of radioactivity that set Marie and Pierre on a hunt for a new element radium! Nothing was known about radioactivity not even the harm that it does.

Madame Marie Curie and Pierre Curie together in the lab

From a ton of pitch blende (Uranium dioxide – ore from which Uranium is extracted), less than one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was extracted. This was 1898. Polonium, discovered by the Curies in the previous year, was easier to extract. Both were much more radioactive than Uranium. Madame Curie wrote a characteristically tepid sentence, which was immensely insightful:

The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium.

Becquerel was her doctoral advisor; she obtained her DSc from the University of Paris in 1903. In the same year, she received her first Nobel Prize – in Physics and with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel.


Her struggle restarted in 1906 with the death of her husband. She continued her work, but failed to get a position at the University of Paris, just because women were disallowed from such a position. She was, however, received with honour at Sorbonne, the first woman to hold the post of a professor.

She was attacked by her detractors and there were many when news about her alleged affair with Paul Langevin surfaced in 1910-11. In 1911, she received her second Nobel Prize this time in Chemistry and alone!

The 1911 Solvay conference, one of the most prestigious meetings of scientists in history. Seated, second from right is Madame Curie. Note the young Einstein standing on the right.


She would die in 1936 due to the very radiation that made her a celebrity. She campaigned widely for more funding for radium research. She founded the Curie Institute, which produced more Nobel Laureates, including her daughter Irene Joliet-Curie and son-in law Frederic Joliot-Curie.

Madame Marie Curie is a symbol today, a reminder that science is not merely a great idea occurring inside the head of a genius. It’s a body of knowledge, requiring immense dedication, sometimes even courage, to acquire.

Madame Marie Curie, on your birthday, we salute you!

Weighty Matter: The Kilo Is No Longer A Kilo!

The issue is weighty enough, no matter how you choose to define it. For the first time, it seems that the unit of mass is losing its proper definition. According to the SI system of units accepted around the world by scientists and the public alike, mass should be measured in the units of a kilogram. The definition of a kilogram is kept (yes, literally kept) at the Institute of Weights and Measures at Sevres, near Paris, France. It is a platinum-iridium rod, in the 90-10 (Pt-Ir) ratio, having a mass, which is defined as a kilo. The problem? It is losing weight.

Changing mass: The kilogram bar, kept at Sevres, near Paris.

Losing or Gaining? And How?

The metal cylinder is kept in a strongbox, which has enough security to make a politician jealous. The news of the mass loss came in 1992 and since then scientists have been scratching their heads trying to gauge the source of the mass loss. The situation is even worse, as Alain Picard describes:

Actually, we are not sure whether it has lost mass or gained it. The change may be due to surface effects, loss of gas from the metal or a buildup of contamination.

So, how much has the standardrod’s mass changed by? It has been measured to be 50 micrograms! (A microgram is one millionth of a gram!) Too small you say? Gigantic, say the various experimental labs, carrying out extremely precise tests.

How To Define The Units

Presently, kilogram is the only unit that is defined by a physical object. Earlier, the meter was also defined like this by a platinum rod, kept at Sevres. However, this was replaced by a more accurate (and more scientific) definition depending on the velocity of light it is the length travelled by light in vaccum in 1/299,792,458 th of a second. Then, what is a second you ask? As per NIST (National Standard of Standards and Technology), the second is the duration of  9 192 631 770  periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom. Similarly, there are standard definitions for all the base units ampere (current), temperature (Kelvin), amount of substance (mole) and luminous intensity (candela). Check them out here.

Remedy? Just chuck it out!

The solution to this weighty problem is simple: just phase out the kilo cylinder. There is a proposal to replace it with a definition involving the ubiquitous and universal Planck’s constant or h’. It’s only fair that this get its place on the chart of definitions.

No official definition has been made as yet, but we expect the unit of mass to be defined in some multiple of definite energy(which is where the Planck’s constant will occur) over speed of light squared (in the standard way to define mass according to m=E/c2). The change will, however, not take effect any time before 2014.

For all daily matters, a kilo will be a kilo and you’ll never notice the difference when you go grocery shopping. However, the big high-precision labs should be looking forward to a fairly large revision of their numbers.

Japanese Supercomputer Demolishes Own Speed Record

A Japanese supercomputer has just smashed its own processing speed record, becoming (and remaining) the world’s fastest supercomputer. Japan’s K-computer’ held the record of 8 quadrillion (a quadrillion is a thousand trillion, a petaflop, if you prefer) calculations per second. It has a brain consisting of 88,000 processor microchips and now clocks in at a mind-boggling 10 quadrillion calculations a second, over its 8 quadrillion record at a stunning 93% accuracy. An ordinary desktop, having two or four microchips units, clocks in at about a gigaflop (one thousandth of a trillion), which is a million times lesser than a quadrillion.

The K-computer. The image was released by Riken on Wednesday. (Courtesy: Riken)

The K-Computer

The supercomputer was designed at Fujitsu, in collaboration with the supercomputers R&D wing of Riken, specifically to achieve this landmark. The name derives from the Japanese word kei’, which means 10 quadrillion. The name appears extremely successful now that the computer has achieved the 10 petaflop mark.

The Benchmark

The previous record of 8 petaflops was also held by K-computer, as mentioned. The score and rating is given by the LINPACK benchmark. It aims to calculate the speed by giving the computing machine an NxN system of linear equations of the general form Ax = B to solve. The standard procedure implemented is the Gaussian elimination method with partial pivoting. The system’s floating point computing power can then be judged and measured in megaflops.

Great Achievement

This is a momentous achievement of the island country, especially given what it has been through over the last year. Ryoji Noyori, the president of Riken, said:

The K Computer is a key national technology that will help lay the foundation for Japan’s further progress

Ten petaflops is mindblowing! It will be interesting to see the giant solving real problems in the sciences in the near future.

Discovered: The Youngest And Brightest Fast-Spinning Pulsar Ever Known; Contradicts Known Theory

A new batch of unusual stellar remnants (neutron stars) has been discovered and one of these challenges the currently held view of astronomy about pulsars. NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope has discovered nine pulsars at one go, taking its discovery count past 100. Eight are simply the garden variety pulsar, but dimmer than the ones discovered so far, while one is an interesting millisecond pulsar a superfast spinning pulsar. The fact that this is the brightest and youngest millisecond pulsar ever discovered adds to the excitement.

The discovered pulsars. The millisecond one is green. (Courtesy: NASA/Fermi/Lat Collaboration)

What is a Pulsar?

“Normal” Pulsars

A pulsar is a neutron star, which emits radiation from its polar regions. A neutron star is a very compact object, resulting from the collapse of a very massive star (whose core mass is about 1.4 to 2.5 solar masses). These are extremely dense objects made up of only neutrons. Imagine shrinking the entire sun to a the radius of a few blocks in a city (say 8-10 km) and you’ll get the picture of how extreme these objects really are.

How a pulsar radiates

When these dense objects convert a part of their rotational energy into radiation, they become pulsars. The pulsation happens through a small angle opening at the two poles of the spherical object. When one of these point towards Earth, we see a pulse. Since the rotation axis and the radiation axis (which is the magnetic axis) are not aligned perfectly with each other, the pulsar acts like a lighthouse. We thus don’t get a continuous pulse of radiation, but periodic flashes. Pulsars are extremely periodic in the radiation and, thus, they make perfect timekeepers (often being more accurate than atomic clocks).

The pulsar at the Crab Nebula. The Crab Pulsar is the most famous pulsar known, attached to the 1054 supernova event. Note the jets of radiation given out! The radiation is in X-Ray Band.(Courtesy: NASA/Chandra X-Ray Telescope)

Millisecond Pulsars

When a neutron star accretes matter (generally from a companion star), it also gains a lot of angular momentum, making it spin faster. Thus, if the neutron star accretes matter, they tend to spin up. The period of rotation might reduce considerably over millions of years. Neutron stars have variable rates of rotation. The typical ones go from as slow as 5 revolutions per minute to as high as 4000 revolutions per minute.

How a millisecond pulsar forms by accreting matter from a companion star

Sometimes, the spin up of a pulsar can be so high that it can rotate more than 42,000 times a minute (or 700 times a second!!) These have a pulse period of about 1.4 milliseconds (1.4 thousandths of a second!) and are called millisecond pulsars for obvious reasons. It should be quite clear that the pulsar spin up takes a long time over several hundreds of millions of years.

What’s wrong with this new discovery?

Here’s where the problem lies! The newest millisecond pulsar that Fermi has discovered is just 25 million years old, a baby in cosmic terms. If our picture of the pulsar formation is correct, we cannot have such a young pulsar. Further, the pulsar is the brightest one ever observed. Named PSRJ1823-3021A, as per catalogue, the pulsar rotates 183.8 times a second and is 27,000 light years away from Earth. It has incredible luminosity in the gamma ray spectrum! At this moment, no one knows what to do with this one.

Along with this wonderful find, Fermi has also discovered eight other dim pulsars in the vicinity. The study was presented at the Max Planck Institute yesterday i.e. on the 3rd of November ’11.

Stanford Researchers Breach Captcha Security Codes

Captcha is no surety of safety, demonstrated a group from Stanford University, thwarting the best guard we have against automated attacks. Captcha is supposed to be breakable only by humans, but not by bots or any other automated machines. A word or phrase, written in a style that cannot be read by a text editor is the method to achieve this. Users have to enter this code in order to gain access. It was developed at Carnegie Mellon University by a graduate student in 2000. Captcha is actually a fancy acronym for a bland sentence Completely Automated Public Turing Test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.


The Decaptcha

Stanford Security Laboratory post-doctoral researchers Elie Bursztein, Matthieu Martin and John C. Mitchell busted that myth as they created a tool, named DeCaptcha, that breaks codes 13 out of 15times. The sites used for testing were high-profile sites like CNN, Visa, eBay and Wikipedia. Bursztein says:

For example, our automated Decaptcha tool breaks the Wikipedia scheme… approximately 25% of the time. 13 out of 15 of the most widely used current schemes are similarly vulnerable to automated attack by our tool. Therefore, there is a clear need for a comprehensive set of design and testing principles that will lead to more robust captchas

The principle for the working for Decaptcha is simple it just reduces background noise, breaks strings into single characters and recognizes the pattern. It achieved varying degrees of success at various sites. It broke Visa’s 66% of the time and eBay 43% of the time. Wikipedia clocked in at 25% in the rate of being breached.

The team shared a report elucidating the strengths and weaknesses of the Captcha method. The link is given below.

Report link:

Google Untouched!

There is, however, some good news for those seeking online security. Google was unbeatable and so was reCAPTCHA. reCAPTCHA is an improved version of Captcha, which makes it more difficult for bots to recognize patterns by warping and twisting words into strange forms readable only by humans. Google now owns reCAPTCHA, which it acquired in 2009. On these two cases, Decaptcha scored no breaches.

Not yet breached!

The bottom line is that Captcha needs to be upgraded. Next time you feel smug about getting in a site by correctly typing in the captcha code, think twice. There are some smart computer programs sharing the same cyberspace!

Report on strengths and weaknesses of Captcha:

World’s First Malaria Vaccine Passes Major Human Trial

This is big big news coming from the medicine research front. For the first time in history, a vaccine has been synthesized that is proven to work successfully against malaria. This is, however, just the first round of trials, but the success rate is extremely exciting. The vaccine, made by the R&D wing of GlaxoSmithKline, has been shown to halve the risk of malaria in African children. We might soon see a commercially available shot that’ll provide immunity to millions against malaria for life.

The Anopheles mosquito

The vaccine, known as RTS-S or Mosquirix, has been clinically tested in five-to-17 month-old babies in Africa. The success rate is around 50% – 47% for severe malaria and 56% for clinical malaria. So, the best we can say at this moment is that the vaccine is not the magic bullet, like the small pox vaccine, which has eradicated the disease. The malaria vaccine is likely to only control the spread of the deadly disease, which is endemic in over 100 countries, many of them being African.

The Support

The research has been financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation will also pour in money to get the drug into Africa and then arrange for the proper administration in regions ravaged by malaria. Before that, however, the clinical trials have to confirm the efficacy of the drug. GSK predicts that the drug could hit the market by 2015.

The cost-efficiency of the drug is a huge factor in the success of the anti-malaria campaign. GSK promises to make no money out of this project. It says that it will charge only the manufacturing cost (which will be low, if mass produced), plus 5% on it, which will then be diverted to focus research on tropical diseases. In a way, Africa can partially pay for its own medical research. The Gates Foundation hailed the success as a huge milestone. The plan is to price the vaccine at a nominal $10 for 3 shots, which is the required number of shots.

The Man Behind the Miracle

The success came after 24 long years of painstaking research by GSK research scientist Joe Cohen, who was heading the research. He speaks his heart:

This is a dream of any scientist — to see your life’s work actually translated into a medicine … that can have this great impact on peoples’ lives. How lucky am I?

Dr. Joe Cohen, the mastermind in the war against malaria (Photo Courtesy: Reuters)

But, this is no magic bullet and will not have the same impact the small pox vaccine had on the disease. This is, however, a crucial step. Dr. Cohen is rightly cautious, when he says:

The work is not over, that is for sure

The Plasmodium vivax microgamete. The others are RBC's. Special dye adheres to the microgamete. This will give rise to many P.vivax microbes.

The vaccine stimulates the immune system to attack the microbe as soon as it enters the body from the parasite. This prevents the microbe from reproducing indiscriminately and settling in the liver of the victim.

We might not have won the war against the deadly disease, but it certainly seems that we will soon possess a potent weapon. For Africa, where health and life are luxuries, this vaccine will be more like an elixir.

Do Laws Of Physics Vary Across The Universe?

The warm smugness that a physicist often feels when he/she says that a phenomenon or a law is universal’ may be an illusion. If a team of researchers from Swinburne University of Technology is to be believed, then their data shows that the laws of physics might actually vary throughout the Universe. They have measured the value of the fine-structure constant, a fundamental dimensionless parameter occurring frequently in Quantum Electrodynamics, and have found that this varies throughout the Universe.

What is the Fine-Structure Constant?

The fine-structure constant, commonly called alpha’, is exactly 1/137 in its value. The constant manifests itself in the expansion parameter as one tries to expand in the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, the physics explaining electrons, light and their interaction. The constancy of the value of alpha is crucial in establishing the universal strength of the electromagnetic force. It would mean that the strength of coupling (or interactions) between the photons (particles of light) and electrons varies throughout the Universe.

The circles represent Keck points, Triangles are both Keck and VLT. The size represents the confidence in the data points. Notice that most of the points to the middle - local to us - are black, indicating no deviation from the 1/137 value. The points farther off are not so. (Courtesy: Swinburne University of Techology, John Webb et al.)

The Research Team

A team of researchers comprising Professor John Webb, Professor Victor Flambaum and colleagues, all from University of South Wales (UNSW), Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge, had already got a hint of the supposed deviation from the accepted value of alpha as early as a decade ago. While they had used the Keck telescope in Hawaii to obtain all their data then, they’ve used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile this time. They’ve more than double their number of data points and it seems to support what they had initially thought. The confidence level has grown to a respectable 3 sigma. Professor Webb shares his excitement:

In one direction – from our location in the Universe – alpha gets gradually weaker, yet in the opposite direction it gets gradually stronger.

What Are The Consequences?

It is always the habit of scientists to back up initial observations with enough observations to fully confirm the fact. It is, thus, too early to comment what implication this will have on our understanding of the cosmos, As far as we know, the Universe is spatially homogenous (same from all points in space) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions there is no preferred direction) on a large scale (bigger than the length scale of galaxies). This is one of the basic principles of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity  Cosmology (i.e. application of Einstein’s General Relativity – the modern theory of gravity- on the scale of the Universe). If alpha varies from point to point, then the homogeneity of space is destroyed. We can still have a weaker’ version of the homogeneity condition and General Relativity will still be true, but, having worked so well, we would like the homogeneity principle to be rigidly true. Only further observations, backed up by theory, can tell us more.

A pre-print of the arXiv paper by Webb et al is available here:
Astrophysicist Sean Carroll says that the value of alpha is probably constant. Here’s an article from him written a year ago:


MIT And Harvard Students Go Up Against IBM’s Watson

After trouncing people at Jeopardy!, IBM’s supercomputer Watson is all set to take on the bright students from MIT and Harvard as it faces off against them in a trivia match. The competition will be held at the Harvard Business School’s Burden Auditorium, tomorrow, i.e. on 31st of October, 2011. The competition is called the IBM Watson Challenge.

Watson: The Genius Giant

The competition will be preceded by a symposium about Watson’s creation and future of technology at the MIT Media Labs titled The Race Against the Machine: The Future of Tech. The challenge is aimed at showing how technology can change, and is indeed changing, business perspectives, said Professor Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT. The Symposium will also have a keynote address by David Ferucci, the father of Watson.

The competition and a bit of rivalry

Coming to the actual competition, there will be three teams one from MIT Sloan, one from Harvard Business School and the other being Watson fighting it out in the middle. The MIT Sloan team was chosen via playoffs. The Harvard students were chosen by two Jeopardy alumni. Each team has three students. As for Watson, it won’t be the full-fledged version, but a toned down one. IBM assures that it will be just as competitive.

Watson aside, the rivalry between MIT and Harvard will definitely be there. The palpable tension of the friendly competition is evident from the statement by Brynjolfsson, who wants a large number of MIT peers to attend the event, so as not to be outnumbered by the hosts Harvard. As many as 200 MIT students are expected to attend.

The MIT Center for Digital Business is sponsoring the event. We sign off by saying what Brynjolfsson said:

The technology is changing the world.

How true!

Source: MIT’s The Tech

“Potentially Hazardous” Asteroid Coming Really Close To Earth on November 8; Enjoy The Spectacle

While astronomers are busy falling over one another to observe a small rock as it flies by Earth, conspiracy theorists are doing the same prophesying the End of the World. An asteroid, 400-meters across, will pass by Earth on the 8th of November, coming as close as asteroids get. However, it will still clear the Earth by a gaping 320,000 kilometers or 200,000 miles, far enough to be considered absolutely safe for us. It’s called 2005 YU55 and you’ll need a telescope even a moderately powerful one will do to observe it.

The 2005 YU55 asteroid, as photographed by the Arecibo telescope

The rock will be a magnitude 11 object, which means it is very faint. On the magnitude scale of brightness, the brighter the object is, the lesser is its magnitude. For example, the Sun has a magnitude of -26 (minus 26), while the faintest object visible with the naked eye is about 6. This means that you’ll need a telescope to observe it. The minimum size of the aperture recommended is about 12.5 cm; anything bigger will be great.

Don’t Panic!

2005 YU55 has been called a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid’, but there is no cause to panic since this is a standard classification used for asteroids which cross the Earth’s orbit. However, as we said earlier, there is no cause for worry. The rock will miss Earth by a comfortably long distance and is also small enough to not exert any substantial amount of gravitational attraction.

Rock Watching

The Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico

The asteroid has been observed before and is known to contain interesting features, many just a few kilometers across. NASA’s Deep Space Network of radio telescopes will have a watchful eye out for the floating rock, as well as the Arecibo telescope, situated in Puerto Rico.  Of course, other than these high-profile telescopes, there will be a lot of amateur skywatchers out with their gear. The moon will create problems yet again, being too bright against the relatively fainter asteroid.

Our advice: if you have the gear, go and have a great time. Do click images! Forget about doomsday predictions, they are just hot air.

Google To Store DNA Data Online, Make It Free For Researchers

The price to pay for a service getting cheaper is the increased demand, and consequently the larger amounts of data generated due to that. When the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced that it might have to consider dropping funding to Sequence Read Archive (SRA), Google stepped in aiming to protect the huge bank of genetic data amassed from several individuals over the years. Google began talks with DNAnexus, a Mountain View, California firm, aiming to keep funding the genetic database, put it online and then make it free for researchers from across the globe. The problem? The data is huge!

A More Virulent Moore’s Law

Recently NIH backtracked and said that they’ll support SRA in the near future. DNAnexus went ahead and said that they wanted a Plan B, keeping a mirrorof the information available at SRA. DNAnexus CEO Andreas Sundquist said that they intend to build up a better public repository, one that is easy to search and access information from.

If you thought the solid state industry has grown phenomenally, hear Andreas Sandquist on the growth of the genetic industry:

DNA sequencing becomes 10 times cheaper every 18 months, thanks to hardware improvements. It’s sort of like Moore’s law on steroids!

Just to give you as estimated figure, the cost of gene sequencing for an entire person was around $30,000 in the US a year ago. Now, it is down to $4000! Considering that each genome is 3 billion letters (that’s 3,000,000,000 letters) long, it takes 3 terabits of data for every person’s genome. The space crunch is inevitable. Now, with the gene sequencing techniques getting cheaper, we expect sequencing to enter mainstream medical lab testing at reasonable rates. This is going to create an even bigger space crunch. There is another worry about the information being made accessible to people who need it. SRA is a great database, but very disorganized. This is where Google and its data-crunching capabilities come into play something that has made Google a household name.

Everyone’s Online!

In the near future, predicts Sandquist, everyone’s genetic information will be available online. What’s the big deal about that, you ask? With information about mutations present online, it will be easier to figure out how pathogens evolve and work out a way to find a cure for many diseases. It will significantly reduce the time required to test new drugs.

This isn’t Google’s first foray into genomics. Sergey Brin and his wife has constantly funded 23andme, a Mountain View organization, which was co-founded by Brin’s wife and helps people understand the genetic cause of their diseases.

Guess in the future you can even Google up someone’s genetic make-up. Isn’t that cool?