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.

[Editorial] NASA’s Ambitious Space Shuttle Program: Was It Worth It?

With just a day left before the last flight in NASA’s ambitious space shuttle program, the question many people are asking, or at least ought to be, is this: Was it all worth it?

The uncomfortable questions…

The space shuttle program began immediately after the 1969 Moon landing, an event often deemed as the escalation of the Space Race between USA and erstwhile USSR.
Yes, the space shuttle program was what won it for the Americans; it was a brilliant follow-up of the giant leap of mankind. Yet, the question lingers. Is merely winning the space race compensation enough for an estimated $209 billion spent till the end of 2010? What about the 14 lives lost on two failed manned missions? More importantly, what happened to the initial promise of 50 launches a year, which petered down to an average of no more than 9 annual launches? Was the expenditure of more than double of the estimated $92 billion justified? Thorny questions face NASA, but NASA would rather focus on the future.

Too few?

Figures: The true and the unrealistic ones

Let’s look at the figures a bit more closely. Space launches were supposed to be made weekly, totalling about 50 launches a year. That figure stands at a mere 9 as the program ends a disappointing failure by all accounts. From 1981 (the first launch) till 2010, 133 missions have been launched, bringing the average cost of each launch to a staggering $1.57 billion. What does NASA really have to show for it? What has really been achieved? The argument that we just don’t know the various achievements of NASA falls flat on its face since NASA is not known to be too discreet. Publicity is one thing NASA is good at.

Just one? Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

The reality facing America and the rest of the world is stark: since the 1969 Moon Landing, we’ve been stuck closer to Earth. Sure, there have been repeated Lunar Missions, but has Man gone anywhere new?

In 1969, NASA had presented President Nixon with various proposals, including a space station, which would be a jumping off point for Mars, eventually paving the way for manned space missions to the Red Planet. Also, in the list of suggestions, was a Lunar Landing Base so that return to Earth was no longer necessary. This would have saved huge expenses in the long run, as re-entry is one of the costliest and most dangerous parts of any space mission. Then, there was the shuttle. Nixon ratified just the shuttle, citing lack of funds to support any of the others. The heating up of the Cold War worsened the fund crunch for NASA, as Nixon slashed funds further in 1972, right at a time when things were just beginning to move off of the drawing board. It would be another decade before the first space flight in the mission took place.

Was NASA being unrealistic and not merely ambitious? Could NASA have ever launched 50 flights in a year, after spending years preparing for the Apollo mission? Embellished with tags of being ambitious, safe and cost-efficient when it started out, the shuttle program seems to have failed on all three counts.

Positives

But let’s take a more positive look. Who could have dreamt of the International Space Station one and a half decades ago? It is the first habitable place outside Earth and, when NASA started building it in 1998, it promised a lot. True, many of those promises were not kept, but then, in active research, not all promises can be kept. It is an orbiting lab and provides an environment for microgravity experiments, which many believe will foster future research in fields like medicine. It’s one of a kind. Much of the shuttle program has been devoted to building up this unique behemoth.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Ends: Atlantis Launch On Friday

The last of the space shuttle mission flights will take place in two days when space shuttle Atlantis roars off into space for a twelve day sojourn with the International Space Station. It will carry a crew of four members.

The last of the Mohicans

After the recent flight of the Endeavour – its last in which it delivered the multi-billion dollar antimatter detector to the International Space Station, NASA wants to wrap up its space shuttle program with this last flight of Atlantis. STS-135, its mission name, is expected to complete a twelve day mission during which it will deliver spare parts and essential supplies on board the ISS. The launch is scheduled on 8th July, 2011, for 11:26AM EST (or 1526 GMT) off Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Atlantis at Pad 39A. Photo Courtesy: NASA

The space shuttle program, sanctioned by President Nixon, is four decades old, originating in 1969, right after America set foot on the Moon. This was the post-Apollo follow-up and a brilliant foray into space.

Viewing

As for viewing the launch, NASA expects people numbering more than 75,000 to turn up. The best view will be from the NASA causeway or the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors’ Center. NASA sells tickets to these spots, but they have been sold out for weeks. If you can shell out $1000 or even $1500 you might be lucky enough to buy a ticket to the Causeway on eBay.

Atlantis

The good news is that the launch will be visible from anywhere nearby provided that your view is not obstructed. Any nearby spot on the Florida space coast will do just fine and it comes for free. Titusville, a mere 12 miles from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), is billed as the premiere spot. It lies just across the Indian River from KSC. Next in line, almost as good, is the port town of Canaveral. The pad is clearly visible from both places.
View Larger Map

For other enthusiasts, who will not be able to make it, NASA TV will offer HD coverage of the entire event just like it did for Endeavour.

NASA is crossing its fingers for this launch, hoping to avoid any sort of embarrassing scrubbing or postponement like the one in Endeavour’s case.

Here’s wishing NASA for a final glorious push. Watch this space for more…

[Editorial] Science Vs Pseudo-Science – The Truth and The Lies

It’s the most comforting feeling in the world to know that you’re the object of the greatest affection, the benefactor of all creation terrestrial and beyond and the focal point of a grand plan, one that spans the entire length and breadth of the entire cosmos. How wonderful it is that mumbling a few thoughts with clasped hands may give us what we want! Is it not great that faraway Saturn influences us through its faint light, or that a particular congregation of stars   – a constellation provides a blueprint of one’s future? It’s secondary that Saturn’s influence might be negative; primary to the source of transcendental joy is the fact that a celestial body, far enough so as to appear as little more than a dot on the sky, can bother itself enough to influence our lives. It’s a wonderful feeling or would be, if it were true.

‘Offensive’, yet effective

The lure of the glitter of ego-centric importance is too much to resist too much, it seems, even in the face of multiple and repeated failures of the pseudo-scientific methods. Science is unnerving. Central to it is the pursuit of truth, no matter what that turns out to be. Right now, it seems that the truth doesn’t favor the centrality of humans in the grand scheme of things. There seems to exist no grand scheme of things. In this relentless search, science has rid itself of cherished notions, primary amongst these being the supremacy of man. Yes, science hits people where it hurts the most their ingrained belief of being a part of a grand plan. What more, it snatches away the right to be offended at this if you’re wrong, you’re wrong’ is just too rude!

Yet, science is the only thing known to deliver. If you have cholera, you can pray your heart out or get administered 250 mg of tetracycline three times a day. (Historically, this is the claim to fame of tetracycline a magic drug against cholera mortality). If you wanted to know the occurrence of the next solar eclipse accurate to within a minute, you might request an astrologer to consult his charts or ask a scientist. If you wanted to know how we developed and why there are dinosaur fossils, you may read the Genesis literally, or study Darwinism. It’s proven time and time again that only the latter methods work.

It’s been far too long…

We have seen too much evidence to the contrary to deny this; too many tragedies have unfolded before the eyes of History. Many sick children have died, because their parents chose to pray instead of administering them anti-biotics. (There is still a religion Christian Science which prefers prayers to drugs!) Too long has the social stigma of witchcraft claimed the lives of innocent old women. Far too long have actions been dominated by myths of holy books and morals of the long by-gone stone-age for humans to call themselves civilised. And it has been a really long time for which science has suffered the branding of being heartless and immoral, while a far more corrupt and demented sense of morality –   the one that allows the stoning of disobedient children and cheating wives and hacking to death of apostates has dominated. By increasing longevity, the sure shot index of happiness (afterall, happiness is the monopolistic pleasure of the living), and improving the quality of life, science has done more for morality than anything else. Without better farming methods or HYV seeds, I would like to see how moral people would be, given the Ten Commandments or any holy book of their choice.

Take your pick: Voodoo doll and HYV seeds. (Hint: Correct answer doesn't have needles jabbed all over it!)

Still, science is tough. It often speaks of abstract objects and then connects them to reality. There really is no royal road’ (as Euclid, once, famously told his king) to understanding how a complex (not complicated; complex’ is used in the mathematical sense of complex numbers) quantum-mechanical wave-function reveals truths about our world, which seems too real to ignore. It seems utterly unimaginable that a disease, which is externally manifest in all-too-visible symptoms, may require treatment involving tiny shreds of DNA hidden away in the heart of cells. How rude that science challenges age-old myths and proclaims them wrong!

Even practitioners of pseudo-science know this. They often garb their speech with elaborate scientific terms (you want an example? Hear Deepak Chopra speak, but not for long for your own good!). It’s a sure-shot method. The public knows that science works and now an apparent stamp of science is proof’. It allows one to be merrily deluded in, what they believe to be, science’, unfettered by the rigors of the game of scientific evidence. Wondrous notions like alien abduction, the City of Atlantis, telepathy, ESP all sound so scientific. Can they be wrong? Aren’t they too good to be wrong? Well, no! Nothing’s too good to be wrong.

Cygnus X-1 Is Indeed a Black Hole; Stephen Hawking Was Wrong

Stephen Hawking has been proved wrong, but he knew this was coming. The irony is that a team from Harvard Smithsonian for Astrophysics from Cambridge proved him wrong; Stephen Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

The famous wager

The story harks back four decades. In 1971, cosmologists from across the world said that Cygnus X-1, a strong X-rays source, was in fact a black hole. (You know what a black hole is, right?) The intensity of the X-ray emissions was off the charts, given its estimated distance of 6050 light years. Cygnus was soon realized to be a double star system a dark star and a blue star orbiting one another. Cygnus X-1, since then, has been an object of intensive studies for astrophysicists all around the globe. Everyone believed that it was a black hole and all evidence pointed to that. Stephen Hawking disagreed.

Both smiling: Stephen Hawking (left) And Kip Thorne (right)

In 1974, Hawking and Caltech astrophysicist Kip Thorne made a friendly wager. Hawking claimed that the compact object emitting the X-rays was a neutron star, in spite of evidence that the intensity was too high to account for that. What was the bet? Hawking described it in his record shattering best seller, A Brief History of Time':

This was a form of insurance policy for me. I have done a lot of work on black holes, and it would all be wasted if it turned out that black holes do not exist. But in that case, I would have the consolation of winning my bet, which would win me four years of the magazine Private Eye. If black holes do exist, Kip will get one year of Penthouse. When we made the bet in 1975, we were 80% certain that Cygnus was a black hole. By now [1988], I would say that we are about 95% certain, but the bet has yet to be settled.

Hawking enjoying weightlessness

Hawking conceded defeat in 1998.

Getting a bit more serious: The modern perspective

Astrophysicists from Harvard-Smithsonian Institute measured the distance and the mass of the stars using direct methods. The reason is simple. If we know the radiation intensity we receive from a star in a certain small band of the electromagnetic spectrum, then, by measuring its distance and mass, we can figure out how powerful a source the star is. However, X-rays are much harder to study than radio waves and, fortunately, Cygnus X-1 is also a strong radio wave emitter. This is a common feature in many compact objects. They are generally bright in both the X-ray and radio frequencies.

Cygnus X-1

The Smithsonian team, led by Mark Reid, took to the Very Large Array (VLA) Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA)  radio telescope, which is scattered from Hawaii to New England, and focused it on Cygnus X-1. The resolution was a hundred times better than Hubble and was crucial in measuring the distance using the parallax method.

The distance was pegged at 6050 light years, give or take 400 light years. (If you’re not into astronomy, you’ll probably not be able to appreciate the fact that this is really a small margin of error.)

The mass of Cygnus X-1’s dark star is 14.8 solar masses and the orbiting blue star, slowly getting its mass torn apart by the compact dark star, weighs in at a heavier 19 solar masses. This is way above the mass required for a compact object to become a black hole it is much too heavy to remain a neutron star. It must be a black hole.

The team further measured the orbital speed (the spin) of the gas falling into the star. Measuring the temperature of the gas, using radiation emission data, the team found that it is so hot the innermost gas must be spinning really fast. They even put a number on it – 670 revolutions per second, or at 50 % the speed of light!!

The final words

The findings of the team are not reported in any paper as yet, but the Astrophysical Journal has acknowledged receiving three papers on this work. I’d imagine that both Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking are happy – Thorne for being proved right and Hawking for being proved wrong.

Research Shows How Evolution May Be Used to Counter HIV, Find Cure for AIDS

With the AIDS-causing HIV, you have to play it on its own turf and beat it at its own game.

The problem

HIV is a very successful virus in evolutionary terms; it is a wonderful survivor and has evolved faster than anything else known in the biological world. This rapid evolution has been the secret of its success. It can churn out 100 billion (!!) of its own kind within 24 hours! At this staggering rate of multiplication, it is no wonder that it can outpace any other creature in the evolutionary arms race. That’s not all! HIV has another trick up its sleeve it copies its genetic material with huge amounts of errors. True, the process is wasteful, but given the sheer number of individuals, HIV is sure to produce several healthy individuals, ensuring its own survival and changing too rapidly for the hosts’ immune system or medical R&D to catch up to it. This is, in brief, the problem that researchers currently face.

Chink in the armor

However, there’s some good news. There are some sites in the HIV proteins that tend to stay the same. Researchers hope to target these conserved sites’. This will lead to the virus losing some important part of its genetic material and, hopefully, losing out on the ability to reproduce. The bad news is that HIV can evolve so as to demote these sites in importance and thus escape annihilation.

The HIV

A stunning insight following a crucial discovery resolves this impasse. Professors Arup Chakraborty and Bruce Walker (MIT professors) identified a large number of conserved sites and found that they were grouped together. This means that these sites are not isolated ones that are conserved; they are conserved en masse. Karthik Shekar and Vincent Dahirel, both geneticists at MIT, suggest that the immune system can be modified to attack these specific sites all at once. The idea is simple: HIV would have to undergo tremendous evolutionary mutations in order to mutate out of dependence on all these sites. This would definitely affect its reproduction abilities adversely.
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Exploiting the chink

Dahirel and Shekhar found that these patches of proteins evolve together. A protein that makes up the outer wall of the virus, called Gag, was their subject of interest. Gag carries five of these conserved sectors and they evolve independently. They further identified a sector amongst these named Sector 3 that was particularly conserved; it hardly evolved.

A simulated model of a HIV Protein

This conservation is essential for the virus as Sector 3 is crucial for the formation of the outer wall of the virus. Without it, it would be a naked collection of RNA strands.

Shekhar and Dahirel suggest that several sites in Sector 3 be targeted simultaneously. HIV would find it extremely difficult impossible, researchers hope to crawl its way through this evolutionary crisis. To do so, the virus would have to figure out some way to co-evolve all of these sites in exactly the same way so as to make each of the sites independent of each other and also unimportant in making the viral sheath. This amounts to finding a way around billions of years of evolution. Researchers hope that this will be an evolutionary blind alley.

A Virus Attacks WBC. The photo is 150,000 times magnified.

Apparently, one in every three hundred people infected with HIV develop resistance and do so when their immune system adapts and attacks these Sector 3 sites. These HIV-positive people can live healthily for long without any medication. The trade-off is masterful: If the virus is to survive, it must do so in a weaker form, unable to cause the dreaded disease or reproduce as it normally does.

Walker, an expert in HIV immunology, says:

We need now to make immunogen with this new technique and see if this gets over the major hurdle we face in an HIV vaccine that of viral diversity and viral evolution to escape immune responses.

(Immunogens are clinical drugs that fire off extremely specific immune responses).

Predicting the next step

Taking this a step further is Joshua Plotkin and his group from University of Pennsylvania. They plan to map the evolutionary reactions of the virus when certain pressures are applied to them and predict the evolutionary future of the virus, in effect, deciphering the rules that govern evolution.

The game is on: It’s a cat and mouse game on the genetic scale with huge impacts on the human race. A new way to attack and cure (not just prevent) AIDS maybe around the corner.

Marvel at the wonder of evolution at work here!

CERN ALICE Collaboration Sets Up First Center In India at VECC, Kolkata

The very first ALICE center in India was setup in the Variable Energy Cyclotron Center, Kolkata and was inaugurated on 16th June, 2011. CERN hopes that this will be a small step in improving the capability of their Tier-II and Tier-III grid computing facilities and will go a long way in analysis of the huge amounts of data generated by LHC and, in particular, the ALICE detector. The 16th of June happens to be VECC’s foundation day.

Hopes and aspirations for the ALICE Indian Center

VECC for its part hopes to be a more integral part of the global collaboration at the LHC, CERN. It further hopes that this will give students valuable exposure in handling data and in communicating with physics groups around the world. VECC was already equipped with a 80 TB data storage facility receiving data from CERN, which is a part of the grid computing facility.

The Alice Control Room (ACR), part of the whole facility at VECC, will have good conferencing facilities, making it easier for research scholars and faculties alike to have more involved interactions with other groups around the globe and also directly with people working at CERN.

The ACR will be managed by staff, all of whom will be compelled to serve shift duties. CERN and VECC both hope that the establishment of the ACR will help in making plans in the coming future. The ACR currently monitors two workstations for Detector Control System and Data Acquisition.

The who's who showed up. Bikash Sinha at the center (pointing). On his left is Srikumar Banerjee (green shirt). R.K. Bhandari is on the right most, front row.

Personalities

The inauguration was attended by the who’s who of the Indian physics community and by members from CERN. Among the prominent personalities present were Prof. Srikumar Banerjee, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Govt. Of India, Prof. Rakesh Bhandari, current Director of VECC and Dr. Bikash Sinha, the former director of Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) and the current Homi Bhabha Professor, DAE. Paolo Giubellino and Jurgen Schukraft represented CERN from Geneva with their virtual presence via Skype. They briefly reiterated the need for the center in India and outlined the plans for the ALICE collaboration.

Gone are the days when geniuses would come up with theories working in isolation behind closed doors. This is the age of information and knowing the ultimate answer in Physics will take the whole world working together. This is another small step in the long journey.

Big Names And Big Planes At The International Air Show in Paris, 2011

It’s an extravaganza and Paris is the place to be if you’re an aircraft enthusiast. The International Air Show, being held in Paris at the Le Bourget Airport, was thrown open to the public yesterday, four days after it started on the 20th of June. You might want to hurry, as it closes on the 26th of June. Here we give you the scoop on the gala event the big news, the big names and some stunning photos.

The Le Bourget on Day 1

An introduction: A brief one

The International Air show has been occurring since 1908 once every two years, twice interrupted by the two world wars. Since 1949, it has been held in odd years. Paris’s Le Bourget has been its location. It’s the most prestigious event in the aviation industry and certainly the largest. Paris Air shows have been known to be the place where big deals have been made in the past. It has been the focal point where huge number of exhibitors showcase their products, innovation gets noticed and big companies announce big planes and massive deals.

While the first Air Show saw 380 exhibitors, the present one boasts exhibitors numbering well over 2000. The show has been visited by 138,000 as per the official count till today. That can only increase exponentially during the open days from 24th to 26th.

The show pieces

If you’re planning to go to the show, there are two flight simulators to help you realize a real flight experience. (Entry fee:   €5 per person).

The premier this year is the Solar Impulse. It has been built by engineers at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique Institute and it aims to circle the world, powered by only solar power. One of the builders, Bertrand Piccard, co-piloted the first balloon across the world. He wants to do it again and in style. The plane is a small and light aircraft, designed for solo flight. It delivers the power of a scooter using batteries that will be charged during the day, while in flight, and will be enough for night flight. It is a Special Guestat the Air Show.

The Solar Impulse
The "Special Guest" at the Air Show

There will be other pieces of genuine inspiration on display. One of them being the biofuel powered aircraft design made by EADES – ZEHST – that can fly at supersonic speeds. (We told you the amazing story here). Further, there is an Austrian innovation of a wingless aircraft. (We told you about this too.)

The Big Players

Both Airbus and Boeing, rivals, have unveiled new aircrafts and have done big business signing bills worth big bucks. However, Airbus has completely outdone Boeing in this respect. However, that’s another story for some other time.

Airbus showcased its A380, the grand old warhorse in the civil aviation sector since 2005. It has seen a huge number of orders, the largest from Emirates (90 orders). The smash hit from Airbus has been the A320 neo.

The A380 takes flight
The A380 majestic in flight
The A320 Neo

Boeing showed off its Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the 21st of June.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Several military aircrafts were also put on display. The US Air Force performed a test flight of the Boeing C-17 GlobeMaster III on the 23rd of June. Rafale, made by Dassault, a fighter jet, was test flown and what a spectacle that was!

 

The Rafale
The Rafale test flight at the Air Show
The Boeing C-17: From the cockpit
The F-16 fighter jet showcased
The Amphibious aircraft Beriev Be-200 sprays water as a demonstration at the Air Show

Actor and star John Travolta added some celluloid glitter as he climbed in the cockpit of a Lockheed Super Constellation.

Actor John Travolta at the cockpit

Remember that the extravaganza ends on the 26th.

 

Wingless Aircraft Takes To The Sky; Unveiled At Paris Air Show

Who needs wings when you can fly without them? The Austrian aeronautical firm, Austrian Innovative Aeronautical Technology (IAT21) revealed the design of an aircraft that can fly without any wings or rotors. Unstable, you say? Not in the least bit. The wonder was unveiled at the Paris Air Show a day ago. Seems wingless is the new ‘in’.

The D-Dalus

The name is Dalus, D-Dalus! It’s named after the tragic Greek character Daedalus, who flew too close to the Sun so that his wings melted away and, consequently, he lost his son. Well, being wingless here is no tragedy for this innovative design, as it can not only fly, but also hover.

The D-Dalus

The D-Dalus is powered by rotating discs, equipped with blades whose angle can be altered mid-flight, through 360 degrees. The turbines rotate at 2200 rpm. It is, thus, able to launch vertically and hover around. It can fly at the speed of a jet and also push itself against the deck of a ship sailing in rough weather. It produces surprisingly low noise, and is as quiet as a whisper’ according to the aeronautical firm. If put into espionage, it will be a wonder-craft.

Capabilities and further plans

Right now, D-Dalus is just a prototype. It has been flown under laboratory conditions and has not been ruggedly tested in the great outdoors. It can carry a modest 70 kg as cargo. IAT21 is looking forward to using this technology for passenger planes or planes for heavier cargo. IAT21 is improving the prototype to build something suitable for rescue operations, especially in places where it is difficult to reach by any means other than air. It is also looking into surveillance technologies.

IAT21 plans to unveil the D-Dalus at other places soon, as well as put it into service!

Yeast Shows Evolutionary Jump And Develops Multi-cellular Character in Record Time

It seems that a key evolutionary step the step from unicellular organisms to multicellular ones is not as difficult as scientists thought. Researcher William Ratcliff and his team at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul now have concrete evidence that suggests that the key step to multicellularity takes about 60 days for a yeast species called brewer’s yeast. They ought to know; they saw it in their own labs.

Yeast

Building generations

Their experimental methodology mimicked that followed by Lenski and his team in their famous experiment on bacteria. Ratcliff et al grew yeast in a liquid and gently centrifuged out each culture daily. They then injected the next batch with the yeast collected at the bottom of each tube. Imagine a long line of test tubes, each subsequent test-tube having a culture one day more recent. Now imagine ten such lines. That’s basically how the experiment was done.

After only 60 days or 350 generations, each of the ten lines of test-tubes (technically called culture lines’) showed multicellularity. They evolved to form a so-called snow-flake’ form. Ratcliff and his team noticed that this was different from mere clumping together of cells. The cells were actually co-operating with each other and there was a basic division of labor. Further, these snowflake clumps break off after a certain size, giving rise to progenies, very much like many other asexually reproducing multicellular organisms like sponges.
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Hints of Multi-cellular behavior

The researchers were really dumbfounded to find an elementary notion of division of labour at work. Further, certain adult cells would die off via a programmed cell death process called apoptosis. Apoptosis happens only in multi-cellular organisms. Dying is not an evolutionarily correct strategy for a unicellular organism, but is a good one for a multi-cellular organism. Programmed cell death of old cells helps other cells survive better, thus helping the individual. Further, for asexually reproducing species, dying cells can provide fissure lines, along with part of the organism can break off and give rise to progenies, increasing the chances of survival. This is a clear sign that the clumps are evolving as one.

No, we are not there at the origin of life yet, but we’re getting close.

Neil Blackstone, an evolutionary biologist at Northern Illinois University raises an important objection to the experiment. He argues that

yeast, having once been multicellular, never lost it completely,

He argues that something which has never achieved multi-cellularity would never have evolved it so fast.

Ratcliff and team hope to answer that question by repeating the experiment with Chlamydomonas, a single celled alga with no history of multi-cellularity. In the meantime, they will continue to monitor the yeast looking for signs of further division of labor.

Beauty with Brains : New Miss USA Is A Science Geek; Emphatically Affirms Evolution

It’s the most attractive you can get beauty along with brains. When Alyssa Campanella won the Miss USA crown last night, Californians were not the only ones cheering her. She had gained many admirers among the world’s science community, especially amongst evolutionists.

Alyssa Camponella reacts on winning the Miss USA crown

Her Answer…

Campanella is a confessed science geek. She had already got that reputation before the contest began and she did no harm to it when she responded to the question Should Evolution Be Taught In Schools?’ with an unapologetic, emphatic and spontaneous yes’. Whether it was this one answer that sealed the deal for her is a matter of debate, take a look at her answer below.

I was taught evolution in my high school growing up and I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek

Yes, she did get her facts right! The answer was even more emphatic given that the other contestants were mostly hesitant or answered in the negative. The common answers were along the lines of teaching both sides’, there are people of different opinions’ and teach both evolution and creation so that students can make up their minds’. Can’t stand up for your convictions, heh? Watch the answers below.

Those (horrid) answers

Let’s look at some of the most laughable answers.

Madeline Mitchell of Alabama says directly, No, I do not believe in evolution. I do not believe it should be taught in schools. Nice going. Jessica Chukran from Alaska doesn’t personally believe in evolution, but recommends it for schools because she believes that evolution is a part of US history and west belief system. What? This is so wrong. Most thought that evolution should be taught in schools, because people should know both sides of the story. Students are entitled to their opinions was an oft-repeated argument, and both opinions should be taught. Interestingly, many said that religion should also be taught in schools alongside evolution. Just one problem though: Isn’t that against the US constitution?

Here’s my reply to all the lovely ladies saying that evolution should be taught in schools only because students have to know both sides of the story: There is no story. Evolution is reality; it’s hardcore scientific fact. This is what really happened, not what is written in the holy books. That is why it should be taught.

And the funniest of the lot: (this one’s good!)

I’ll get to the best answers, but before that allow me my funniest pick. It was Kia Hampton from Kentucky. She rambled along the following lines:

Evolution should not be taught in schools because there are so many different views on it, so many different definitions, it’s like, how do you teach a child (pronounced ‘chow’) the true meaning of evolution when so many different cultures have their different beliefs?

Aah, this is wrong on so many counts, but for now, let’s just have a laugh. Her state’s Creation Museum owners would be so proud.

Just Saying

The best answer came from the winner Alyssa Campanella, quoted above. Very nice answers came from Alida D’Angona (Massachusetts) and Brittany Thelemann (Mississippi).

Men may never find out what women want, but I think there is a consensus that men find smarter women more attractive. Richard Dawkins explained this saying that since the brain was our primary tool for survival, it was used to attract mates as well. A good intellect is a huge attraction. Well, Richard, you just got vindicated.

Alarming: Study Finds Highest Sea Level Rise In Last 2000 Years; Linked to Increasing Global Temperature

A conclusive study on climate and its impact on the rise of sea level is out and the results are quite grim. An international team of researchers, including many from the University of Pennsylvania, has put forward incriminating data acquired through decades that unambiguously points to a direct correlation between increase of ocean surface temperature and the rise of global sea-levels.

The Team

The study is led by Benjamin Horton, associate professor and director of Sea Level Research Lab, in collaboration with Andrew Kemp and Michael Mann, the man who first came up with the famous hockey-stick graph (see below). It is funded by the National Science Foundation among other institutes and boasts of many scientists from institutes like University of Pennsylvania, United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The famous Hockey Stick Graph by Michael Mann. The black line represents

This is the first complete continuous sea-level reconstruction for the past 2000 years. The trends have been compared with signs of global temperature increase and the positive correlation is too overwhelming to ignore.

Results

The study finds that from 100 BC to 950 AD, the oceanic temperature was stable and so was the sea-level. For the next 400 years, the sea level rose by half a millimetre every year on average. This period in human history, called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, saw a steady rise in annual temperatures globally. Temperatures stayed cool and stable till the 19th century after that medieval period. However, since the late 19th century and, especially in the 20th century, sea-levels have risen on average by an alarming 2mm per year, surely one of the highest rates in the entire of Earth’s history. Again, a direct correlation with temperature rise was noted.

Methodology

The team did a thorough job with the research. They used micro-fossils called foraminifera as markers. Found in sedimentary rocks, they respond in quantitatively measurable ways to change in the salinity of the water they live in. By drilling into the sedimentary rock, fossils from different ages can be studied. Bear in mind that, since, sedimentary rocks stack up in layers, drilling deeper means that we are effectively looking at older rocks a sort of geological time capsule. The samples, taken mainly from the marshes in North Carolina, can be dated by using radiocarbon dating techniques on the rocks in which it is found. A check on the dates was provided by a complimentary technique the Potassium-Argon dating method. Core samples equivalent to 2000 years were dug up.

Two typical foraminifera fossils; these are used extensively for radiocarbon dating
A typical core sample taken from sedimentary rock layers

This is much less than the core samples dug up from the Arctic, but the markers in the Arctic snow are much less useful. However, both tell essentially the same story, pointing to the same direct correlation.

The team accounted for effects of hurricanes that generally rearrange sedimentary layers by taking samples from places that face away from the sea. Hurricane imprints are easy to read, as the sedimentary rocks show unusually high amounts of sand blown in from the sea. The team also accounted for vertical land movements that will show a parallax in the sea-level rise data.

Horton says:

It’s evidence to support the obvious. The basic laws of physics say if you increase temperature, ice will melt. But what we show is how sensitive sea level is to changes in temperature

The study is co-authored by Horton, Kemp and Mann appeared in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences yesterday, i.e. on the 20th of June.

This study disappoints in only one respect it doesn’t predict any trend for the near future. However, climatologists are already mulling the option of extrapolating the data to see if it fits.

Kemp points out:

Scenarios of future rise are dependent upon understanding the response of sea level to climate changes. Accurate estimates of past sea-level variability provide a context for such projections

 

A cleavage seen in the Antarctic ice-shelf with fresh water running down into it. The people provide the scale
Is this paranoia or the future?

The Last Word

The trend is disturbing. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, undoubtedly due to human activities. Now with this study confirming the worst, nations must take the imperative to bring their individual carbon footprints out. Skeptics may object, but it will take more than mere objections and fault-finding to get around this report. Silent numbers and dumb graphs speak louder than verbose microphones.

We should better pay attention. We’ve only one planet for ourselves.

Miniature Particle Accelerator Can Solve World’s Energy Crisis (And Cure Cancer)

It’s a pocket-sized power plant, just 10 m across. A miniature particle accelerator, small enough to be stashed away in your basement, can be used to produce nearly unlimited amounts of nuclear energy, in a controlled manner, using the radioactive element thorium.

One Wonder…

The accelerator, cheekily named Electron Machine with Many Applications or EMMA, is a ring particle accelerator, capable of accelerating electrons to about 10 or 20 MeV. That means that it can drive an electron through a voltage difference of 10 to 20 million volts, which, though large by everyday standards, is modest in terms of the particle accelerators of today. However, this is all that’s needed and the portability allows for diverse usage.

The beautiful EMMA. Cryogenics engineer Racheal Buckley looks quite pretty herself as she provides an estimate of size. (Credits: Neale Haynes/Reuters)

… And Another…

Scientists have long looked at a radioactive element other than Uranium as a potential candidate for producing nuclear power Thorium. Thorium research is, however, at its infancy, given that the focus of all nuclear research has focussed on Uranium. Thorium is found widely, easily refined, extremely safe to handle and leaves no residue after fission. Thorium produces about 200 times the energy produced by Uranium and produces no carbon dioxide. The only catch is that, for fission, it needs to be initiated by bombardment with charged particles, such as electrons. This is a happy handicap, since a Thorium reactor would be incapable of a meltdown. After Fukushima, this maybe the new global fool-proof safety standard.

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… Get Married

Enter EMMA. EMMA can deliver the required accelerated electrons onto a Thorium core, producing energy in a process that is much more controlled than Uranium fission. It’s a free lunch, as a nation powered by only Thorium based nuclear energy would leave no carbon footprint or nuclear waste and would not run out of energy in the next 10,000 years.

Getting Slightly Technical

The miniature machine is lined with quadrupole magnets (magnets with four parts) in order to keep the particles in the beam focussed in a narrow region. It’s also a Fixed Field Alternating Gradient Accelerator (FFAG), meaning it has an alternating gradient quadrupolar magnetic field to constraint the beam to a ring. As the particles are accelerated, they tend to move in orbits of slightly larger radius, but they encounter higher magnetic fields further out. This keeps the particles confined in a narrow beam in the orbital ring. EMMA is in conjunction with a particle injector named ALICE. ALICE (no relation with the detector at LHC, CERN) produces copious amounts of electrons and then injects them into EMMA using an injector or ‘septum’ tube at an angle of 65 degrees to the ring, which accelerates them to prescribed energies and allows it to impinge on a Thorium target.

The blueprint for EMMA. Note the particle injector ALICE, which is kept under ultra-vacuum and at a constant -271 degree Celsius.

Further, EMMA could be used for medical purposes, as envisioned in the Particle Accelerator for Medical Application (or Pamela, don’t you love these abbreviations?) project. It will focus on Cancer research.

Future?

EMMA could usher in new-generation, clean and danger-free nuclear power plants, something that is considered an oxymoron today. EMMA, developed (and currently housed) by researchers at Daresbury science park in Manchester, Britain, is also a research prototype, paving the way for more such miniature, but powerful, accelerators for heavier particles such as protons and helium nuclei.

In order to unleash the thunder in an element named after the Norse God of Thunder, Thor, what is needed is a non-polluting non-energy guzzling, miniature particle accelerator of moderate energy. Sometimes, Nature is simpler than you think.

Biofuel Powered Supersonic Rocket Plane To Go From Paris to Tokyo in 2.5 Hours

The future of commercial air travel is here, or will be in a few years. EADS, the European Aerospace giant, revealed its plans for a biofuel powered supersonic ‘rocket-plane’ that will take passengers from Paris to Tokyo (air distance of more than 12,000 miles or 19,500 km) in a mere 2.5 hours. That means it will fly at a hypersonic speed of  5000 km/hour (Sound travels at 1200 km/hour). The plane is, however, slated to be in operation only in 2050.

The design prototype for the Zehst

The Future: Fast and Not So Furious

The capacity of the Zero Emission Hypersonic Transportation (Zehst) will be about 50 to 100 people. It will use engines fueled by biofuel made from sea-weed to take-off and will switch over to its rocket engines at high altitudes. The rocket fuel will be (nearly) pure hydrogen burning in oxygen, providing more bang for the weighty buck, while contributing no pollution whatsoever. The only exhaust will be water vapour.

The rockets design prototype unveiled by the EADS

 

The design of the aircraft

As EADS’s chief technical officer, Jean Botti, said,

You don’t pollute, you’re in the stratosphere.

Yes, you heard it right stratosphere. While most of today’s planes fly in the troposphere at about a height of 10 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the Zehst will cruise at an altitude of 32 kilometers, or 20 miles.

Whether to whet up nostalgia or not, the Zehst design will mimic that of the Concorde, the iconic supersonic passenger jet plane, which was put out of commission on 26th November, 2003. Japan is in collaboration with EADS on this project, since it has already developed the rocket technology. The project is expected to be worth around $300 million.

The last flight of the Concorde

Unveiling…

The Zehst project was announced at the Le Bourget airport today (19th June), just a day before this year’s Paris International Air Show (from the 20th to 26th of June). The Concorde will be on display at the Bourget for the biannual Air Show. (If you are in Paris, the Air Show will open for the public on Friday, the 24th.)

A prototype of the Zehst should be built by 2020, EADS hopes. The plane will be in operation in 2050.

Clean and fast that’s the future for aerospace technology.

Beyond the Sun’s Reach: Voyager Reaches The Edge of Interstellar Space

Voyager is at the edge of the heliosphere’, going farther than any other craft before it or since. The space probe, of a modest 722 kg, launched in 1977 by NASA to probe nearby planets, had exceeded all expectations long ago, as it crossed the orbit of Neptune at its farthest point on 14th February 1990 (a romantic coincidence?). It is now at the edge of the imaginary sphere of Sun’s influence the edge at which particles from the Sun can resist those coming from interstellar medium.

Voyager 1

Voyager: A Brief History

Voyager 1 was launched on 5th September, 1977. Its sister, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks later on 20th September. Its primary mission was to photograph Jupiter and its moons along with the Saturnian system.

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Voyager carries on itself a golden audio-video record disc, in the event that it is discovered by some form of intelligent life. The disc has photos of the male and the female human forms, of various other lifeforms on Earth, audio records of greetings from US and Russian state-heads and those by children. It also contains recordings of various sounds of Earth that of a whale, a baby crying and of various pieces of music.

Cover for the Golden Disc aboard each of the two Voyagers

Tryst with Jupiter

Voyager 1 reacher Jupiter early January 1979 and made its closest approach on 5th March. The photos revealed tantalizing details about both Jupiter and its moons. Most of the, now legendary, tales about Jupiter and its moons come due to Voyager. It closely observed the storms on Jupiter, especially the Great Red Spot, and measured its magnetic field. The photos of Io revealed volcanic activity not known before, while those of Ganymede revealed a frozen world the largest ice cover in the Solar System.

Jupiter - one of the first photos from Voyager 1
The Great Red Spot on Jupiter
A Plume on Io, the volcanic moon of Jupiter
Time lapse photo of Jupiter by Voyager 1
Jupiter with its moons. A collage formed with Io on the upper left, Europa at the center, Ganymede on the lower center and Callisto on the lower right

Sojourn to Saturn

Saturn was supposed to be the last stop for Voyager. It picked up a close view of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, after Pioneer 11 had detected a thick cloud cover. Voyager picked up brilliant images of Saturn, its rings and of Titan’s thick atmosphere. This was the end of the Grand Tour’, but Voyager, which was over-engineered’, kept on going. The extended mission included sending it to Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and, maybe, beyond.

Saturn: Observed by Voyager through UV and green filters
Saturn
Titan: Note the thick atmosphere that appears blue in reflected sunlight

Uranus and Neptune

Voyager revealed Uranus and Neptune to be frigid gaseous worlds with a blue atmosphere made predominantly of ammonia and methane. It explored the Uranian ring system, photographed the Great Dark Spot’ of Neptune and flew further out.

Uranus from Voyager 2
Neptune: Note the dark spot in the middle of the blue. That's the Great Dark Spot

The Pale Blue Dot: Our Home

On 14th February, 1990, Voyager officially left the Solar System. It turned its camera back onto the planets and photographed the entire planetary family from the distance. One of these photos was that of Earth, which was a blue dot suspended in a sunbeam the famous Pale Blue Dot.

The Family of Planets - from beyond the Solar System
The Pale Blue Dot. Great poets and warriors, saints and sinners, happiness and sadness have originated on that single pixel suspended in sunbeam.

This is the pale blue dot we claim home. The late Carl Sagan was lyrical in his famous lines about the Pale Blue Dot on the wildly popular TV series Cosmos‘ and his inspired book by the same name.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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.

Here’s a small clipping taken from youtube.com featuring Sagan. Don’t miss it for the world the warm tingling in your spine is a feeling unrivaled. Lose yourself in it.

Onto the Great Beyond

Voyager transmits to the Deep Space Network, each transmission taking 16 hours to reach. It crossed the termination shock’ boundary, the region in which the solar wind’s magnetic influence drops to near zero in 2004. Scientists were waiting for it to cross the edge of the heliosphere the region where the solar wind sharply changes direction. (Heliosphereis thus the sphere’ which the solar winds fill up.)

Now that Voyager has gone there, scientists find the area to be utterly calm. They find the solar wisps mingling with the interstellar particles. What’s the big deal you ask? The sun is wading through a sea of particles produced by nearby supernovae and other energetic phenomenon. The heliosphere keeps out their influence. Precious little is known about this forbidden limit; maybe Voyager will shed some light.

Voyager will continue. Calculations say that it will have enough batteries to last it till 2025, and by then it will be far out of range of radio communication. It is expected to pass the constellation Camelopardalis in another 40,000 years (Remember Newton’s First Law of Motion?).

The Great Beyond Beckons…

(All images credited to JPL/NASA)

Closer To The Mind of God: Neutrinos Help In Answering One of the Greatest Problems In Physics

One of the greatest scientific questions of all times may soon have an answer and the key might be one of the lightest, most elusive particles known to science. Scientists claim to have got a signature a hint of the answer to the question Where did all the matter of the Universe come from?’ from looking at oscillations of a mysterious particle known as the neutrino.

Here’s the deal about neutrinos

Neutrinos are extremely light, neutral particles. They are generally found in nature moving close to the speed of light. They are extremely weakly interacting particles, and you have a million million million neutrinos going right through your body at this moment per minute. You need not care they are not harmful, interacting with other atoms extremely rarely.

Flavor

They come in three types or, as scientists call it, flavors: electron, muon and taon. The electron neutrino is the lightest of the lot, with the muon being a bit heavier and the taon topping the charts. Due to its mass, the tao neutrino is hardly seen in nature and we shall be concerned with the electron and muon neutrino only.

Oscillation

In the long neutrino story, there were many crucial junctions, which we shall not be able to get into here. A debate as to whether neutrinos have mass was resolved when a proposed hypothesis neutrino oscillation was observed. Neutrinos did have mass and they did something akin to magic: an electron neutrino could turn into a muon neutrino.

Showing neutrino oscillation

The Kamiokande and the Super-Kamiokande are two of the experiments designed to measure this oscillation. This is where out story begins.

The Super Kamiokande detector. The walls are lined with optical detectors. The inside is filled with ultra-pure water

The T2K Experiment

A new experimental project on this called the T2K was setup in Japan. One of the aims of this was to see whether muon neutrinos became electron neutrinos. The experiment ran from January 2010 till it was rudely interrupted on 11th March 2011 by the Japanese Earthquake. The facility came to no harm and the data is significant enough to analyze. The results came out on the 15th of June, just a couple of days back.

What scientists found was startling. Not only could electron neutrinos turn into muon neutrinos, they could go the other way too something that was only speculated, not confirmed in an experiment. In a muon beam, they found as many as six events of electron neutrinos, while only about 1.5 was expected on average. This is an event rarer than one-in-a-hundred. However, for a discovery, the doubts have to go below the one-in-a-million level and, thus, we can call this nothing more than a signature’. However this is tantalizing.

What’s so tantalizing?

This possibility opens up new avenues of interaction, especially the possibility of asymmetric interactions between neutrinos and the anti-neutrinos (their anti-particles). If the interaction of neutrinos and anti-neutrinos are different on a fundamental scale, then this gives scientists an example of, what is known as, CP violation.

One of the longest outstanding questions of physics is why matter should outnumber anti-matter particles, while physics gives no hint of such an asymmetry at even the most fundamental levels. (That is to say, if we worked with anti-particles rather than particles, we’d use the same physics. Particles’ and anti-particles’ are just labels as far as laws of physics are concerned, just like matter’ and anti-matter’ and there is no unique way to differentiate between them.) CP violation provides the answer, hypothesizing that Nature preferentially creates one more matter particle for every billion or so pairs of matter-antimatter particles. After annihilation, one matter particle out of a billion is left behind and this can account for all the known matter in the universe. (So now, CP violation gives us a unique way to differentiate between matter and antimatter. Just call those particles matter particles’ that are produced in slight excess.)

Journey of a neutrino through to a T2K detector

Here’s the journey a neutrino would have to undertake in order to make it to the last detector in the massive T2K experiment:

  • Muon neutrinos are produced at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Center in Tokai, Japan.
  • They pass through to a series of near detectors so that their composition can be known before they oscillate.
  • They then fly off and travel for 295 km across Japan to the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector (which is a huge detector filled with more than 50,000 tons of ultra-pure water and lined with extremely sensitive optical detectors to detect the faintest of flashes). Here we can detect the composition of the beam after the neutrinos have oscillated.
The Super Kamiokande again. Neutrinos interact with the protons in the water and produce electrons or muons, which travel faster than light in water and produce Cerenkov radiation which forms a cone of light on the detector arrays.
Each of the dots represents a detector which has been triggered. Notice the arc of light, which is actually a part of a cone projected on a 2-D surface. This is the Cerenkov Radiation. (Credits: University of Tokyo)

Prof. Dave Wark, head of the UK group for the experiment gave a gem of a statement:

People sometimes think that scientific discoveries are like light switches that click from ‘off’ to ‘on’, but in reality it goes from ‘maybe’ to ‘probably’ to ‘almost certainly’ as you get more data. Right now we are somewhere between ‘probably’ and ‘almost certainly’.

The studies and the data obtained are not confirmatory, but they do provide tantalizing hints to what the answer to the big question of where all the matter in the Universe came from.