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.

Particles Travelling Faster Than Light Detected, Claims CERN

CERN Has Just Made A Huge CLAIM!  

Particles travelling faster than the speed of light have been found. This startling claim comes from a source as respectable as CERN. This was supposedly observed in a neutrino experiment carried out by CERN. However, it is too early to confirm this startling result.


UPDATE: The ‘discovery’ was made by the OPERA experiment while the neutrinos were beamed from Geneva to a lab in Gran Sasso in Italy. The pre-print of the report, prepared by CERN and published today (23rd September) can be found here:

A news webcast by CERN will be available live later today. Details and URL of the webcast :
CERN Press Release by CMS:

Faster Than The Speed of Light? Real Life Tachyons?

Albert Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity taught us that nothing having mass can travel at the speed of light or above. Massless particles can travel only at the speed of light. Thus, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

CERN’s scientists have now found that neutrinos, one of the most enigmatic particles, have breached this barrier. Neutrinos have nearly no mass, no charge and interact negligibly with ordinary matter. It is due to these properties that they cannot be easily detected. The scientists claim that a neutrino beam fired near Geneva to a lab 730 kilometers away in Italy reached its destination 60 nanoseconds earlier than expected. The experimental and statistical errors combine to deduct 10 nanoseconds, which still leaves 50 nanoseconds unexplained and makes this result significant. There are obvious checks and re-checks being performed.

What All Of This Really Means – Is Einstein Up For Grabs? A Close Look:

Confirmation Awaits

CERN is now depending on the colliders in America and the T2K neutrino experiment in Japan to reinforce its findings. The findings may need many runs and checks to be confirmed. Once confirmed, it raises many questions, including why such an effect wasn’t noticed before. The big question would be this: What happens to Special Relativity, which is an extremely reliable theory?

John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN, gauges the magnitude of the find, if found true:

This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully.

About the implication for Special Relativity, Ellis says that It has worked perfectly till now”.

Jury Out On Relativity? Not Really!

A knee-jerk reaction would provoke statements about revolutionizing the whole of physics, since stars to elementary particles, all rely on the Special Theory of Relativity. It has been wonderfully accurate, especially when combined with Quantum Mechanics to form Quantum Field Theory. Personally, at this moment, I don’t think this will throw Relativity out, even if the result is correct – Relativity is too beautiful and has been proved too correct in too many situations for that drastic step. I would even stick my neck out and add that this observation is some sort of experimental glitch and that faster-than-light particles have not really been detected. However, only more tests will testify to that.

The grand old man of physics has been challenged by a tiny, nearly massless particle.

What all of this really means:

NASA’s Falling Satellite To Hit Earth Tomorrow: Don’t Panic, You Won’t Be Hit; Enjoy The Light Show Instead [UPDATED]

If you believe in the old superstition and see the bus-sized NASA satellite falling in a day or two, do remember to make a wish. The UARS falling through the atmosphere will look like a nice shooting star. And as for being hit by falling debris, let me say what Douglas Adams had said so very successfully Don’t Panic. NASA assures that your chances of being hit by a piece of debris from the falling space-craft are extremely small.

The satellite may enter the Earth’s atmosphere at any time between Sept 23 at 1023 EST (1432 GMT) and Sept 24 at 0248 EST (0648 GMT). This 19-hour window is NASA’s best bet. The point of re-entry, as predicted by Harro Zimmer in Berlin, will be over the West Pacific near Northwest Japan. The range of co-ordinates is about 19.10N and 128.50E.

The satellite may be seen over South Florida after sunset.

Satellite was falling faster than earlier thought:
The UARS satellite (Courtesy: NASA)

How Unlucky Do You Need To Be?

We intend to do a small qualitative comparative study to quell any fears that you might be having. NASA has come up with a figure of the possibility that anyone any one single person will be hit by a piece of debris from the satellite. The chances are less than 1-in-3200.   The chance of you being hit (the more specific case) is 1-in-hundred-trillion. You’ve got to be REALLY unlucky to get hit.

Let’s compare some numbers. One-in-hundred-trillion is really the same chance you have of dying while shaving with your electric razor. The chance of you being struck by lightning is 1-in-60,000. The chance of you meeting a car accident is much higher. If you can live with these possibilities, you shouldn’t be worried about falling space debris. As I said before, you’ve got to be REALLY unlucky.

Still Worried? Enjoy the Light Show

NASA admits that they don’t know the location of the spacecraft and they’ll only know that once the UARS spacecraft re-enters the ionosphere of the atmosphere. They predict that the latitude will be something between 600N and 600S (roughly), but that of no use. It is quite obvious that the satellite will not plunge into the Polar Regions. This leaves a large swath of ocean free for the satellite to plunge into.

If you’re still worried, maybe you can at least get lucky enough to see the satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking up and then burning up. This will create a nice light show mimicking a meteor shower. However, unlike a meteor shower, this will last for a very short time.

If you’re still paranoid, we advise you some bed rest. At least, that way you’ll be indoors.

New Theory Explains The WTC Twin Tower Collapse, Blows A Hole Into The Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theorists can eat their hats. A materials expert from Norway, investigating the collapse of the WTC twin towers, has come up with a new theory explaining why they collapsed in the spectacular fashion seen on 11th September (9/11), 2001. Christian Simensen, a material scientist in SINTEF, the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia, has claimed that it all has to do with alumina coming in contact with sprinkling water.

Our Tribute to 9/11:
A photo clearly showing an explosion below the area where the plane hit. This has led conspiracy theorists to conclude that the entire building was booby-trapped.

Simensen pointed out that molten aluminium running down to meet some hundred liters of water would create an explosion strong enough to disintegrate the tube-in-tube structure of the towers. These could easily punch away at solid steel columns. He quoted several instances of known explosions, which resulted when hot aluminium came in contact with mildly warm water, to support his theory. He says:

From other disasters and experiments carried out by the aluminium industry, we know that reactions of this sort can lead to violent explosions.

The Powerful Alumina and Water Bomb

There was no dearth of molten aluminum, as the planes could supply as much as 30 tons of the substance at a temperature close to 15000F for an optimal oxygen-jet fuel mixture. Aluminium even at half that temperature would have done the trick.

This aluminum-water explosion scenario would explain the explosions seen in the building just before they collapsed. The explosions, unexplained till date, have provoked many conspiracy theories, which have constantly claimed that 9/11 was an internal job and that the towers were booby-trapped. This might shut them up, or maybe not.

How Powerful? Very Powerful!

Just to give you an idea of the intensity of the explosion, let me quote a controlled experiment. It was conducted by Alcoa Aluminum. They mixed 20 kilos of molten aluminium with 20 liters of water and used a small quantity of rust as catalyst. Simensen reports the catastrophic observations:

The resulting explosion blew away the entire laboratory and left a crater 30 meters in diameter.

Simensen presented his findings at an international materials meet in San Diego, California and will publish the results in the trade journal Aluminium International Today.

Yet another conspiracy theory bites the dust!

Typhoon Roke Hits Japan, Moving Towards Fukushima And Tokyo

Typhoon Roke has just hit Japan! The first few news reports and photos are just coming out.  Typhoon Roke made landfall at Hamamatsu, just south east of the industrial city of Aichi, and this is its current location. It is on course for Fukushima, the city housing the troubled Daichi nuclear power plant. Tokyo might be hit too. Roke is expected to reach Fukushima in another two days time. The wind speed is 100 mph.  

We had warned about the approach of this storm in a previous post here.

Landfall and destruction

Unlike Irene, which fizzled out as it made landfall, Roke did not die. It has caused heavy rains on the coastal region. High speed winds have caused enough destruction on their own. All operations at sea have been discontinued for the coming days.

Sea surge caused due to Typhoon Roke (Courtesy: The Telegraph, Associated Press)

Initial reports indicate that at least 4 people have died in this initial spell of rain. This number, no doubt, will rise as more is known of the storm’s devastation. Aichi has been largely evacuated. The overflowing of the river that flows over Aichi has caused widespread flooding in the city.

Photos from the first few hours:
The current position of the eye of Typhoon Roke, just south of the main island of Honshu. (Courtesy: The Weather Channel)

Fukushima and the Nuclear Worry

The biggest worry is Fukushima and the damaged nuclear power plant. Radioactive material will over flow into the sea and the surrounding areas due to the heavy downpour. Officials had begun preparations for the approach of the storm a few days back and are continuing to reinforce the defences of the nuclear power plant. Cables have been tied down and maximum effort is being put to ensure that no radioactive water leaks onto the habitable areas.

Dai’chi Plant Was Dumping Radioactive Waste Into Sea:
Measuring Radiation: How Much Radiation is Too Much? :

The Japanese Meteorological Department has advised the highest level of caution to be used due to heavy rains, strong winds and high waves. Very heavy rains are expected in the coming days with as much as 5 cm in one hour!

These are just initial reports. We’ll continue tracking the storm, as it makes its way towards Fukushima with no expected loss in intensity.

We wish our beloved Japan the very best. It has been through worse in history, and it could fight back every single time. We know that this will be no exception.

Link to a previous post:

Typhoon Roke To Hit Japan; Millions To Be Evacuated, Fukushima To Be Hit

Panic grips already-ravaged Japan as Typhoon Roke nears. The city of Aichi, one of the largest cities of Japan, has ordered an immediate evacuation of 1.1 million. The city of Nagoya was also issued notices to evacuate the city as soon as possible. Heavy rains have already started in the city. The eye of Typhoon Roke is at about 200 km (or 125 miles) southeast of southern Japan, on Tuesday, 20th September. It is moving northwards, on a collision course with the island nation. Fukushima is also on its path.

UPDATE: Typhoon Roke Strikes Japan:
The location of Roke. (Screenshot courtesy: The Weather Channel)

Typhoon Roke

Roke is moving northwards at a speed of 20 kilometers per hour and the wind speed is 200 kilometers per hour.

For Japan, which is still reeling from the devastating tsunami earlier this year, this is more bad news. A few days back, tropical storm Talas left about 100 people dead or missing. Roke is much bigger.

The worst fear is that of Fukushima. The typhoon is almost certain to hit Fukushima in another 48 hours. Restoration work is being carried out at the Dai-chi plant and, at the very least, this will delay and hinder that process. The more realistic fear is that the radioactive water will overflow into the surrounding areas and into the sea.

The storm will make landfall on September 23rd.

We will bring more updates on this tragedy and will be closely tracking the fate of Fukushima.

Children’s Book On Evolution, Not Published In The US, Gets An Award in Canada

History seems to repeat itself once in a while; it’s just that during the intervening time the weaker side might have gotten stronger. A children’s book on Evolution which could not be published in the United States, has just won an award in Canada for best science book for children. Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To Beby Daniel Loxton has won the 2010 Lane Anderson Award  in the young reader category in the field of science. It was also a finalist for the Silver Birch Award for non-fiction, one of the most prestigious book awards. Loxton is Canadian.

Kids Can Press Webpage for the book:
The Cover of the Book

Teaching a Scientific Fact

Loxton’s book speaks of evolution and intends to explain it to children between the ages of 8 and 13. This follows a string of wonderfully accessible books for the public written by eminent evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth’ and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True’. The decision to not publish this book in the US is due to the powerful Christian creationist lobby sitting in the various corridors of power. They are well-funded, politically powerful and extremely motivated, ready at a moment’s notice to take steps against anything deemed remotely anti-Christian.

No Rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian

Evolution has sparked many debates since the time of Darwin, who explained the mechanism using Natural Selection as the primary (but not only) driving force in his ‘Origin of Species’, published in 1859. It was immediately slammed by religious apologists, who believed that the Genesis Creation story was literally true. Despite Darwin not responding in kind to the insults hurled at him, evolutionary theory has continued to grow, just as scientific truth does. Darwin’s 30 years of evidence collection supporting his own hypothesis was followed by 150 more years and counting. Not one piece of evidence has disproved evolutionary theory, despite there being extremely easy ways to do so (Just find a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian, as J.B.S Haldane put it). Evolutionary theory is as grounded a theory as Newton’s gravitational theory. Creationists are worried that a book aimed for the young minds will be indoctrination rather than science training. Seriously? Indoctrination?

“We Have Fossils, We Win” Wait, we have the Genes, too

Loxton discusses the concept of fossils in his book, giving importance to the geological time scale. The fact that fossils of increasingly complicated creatures are found in increasingly new rock strata provides compelling evidence for evolution. But, evolutionary theory would still be complete were the entire fossil evidence to disappear off the face of the Earth suddenly. Loxton explains DNA, mutations and genetic structure, which tell us more about the relationship between species than fossils have ever did. Using these, he explains the meaning of ‘drug resistant’ microbes (superbugs) and why the influenza vaccine needs to be renewed every couple of years. Even the genetic family tree constructed would be impossible had evolution been false.

Being Plain Wrong

This is not new. Creationism, along with its rechristened avatar Intelligent Design’, has tried to tacitly enter school classrooms and curricula numerous times. Well funded and politically backed, creationists have been rooting for public debates’ on the science for evolution. Their motto is simple and effective – “Teach the Controversy”. A quick look at these debates reveals the fact that these are merely attempts to malign the scientists who participate in them. As Dawkins said, the very format of a debate means that two sides have some equally respectable point of view. That’s not true in this case one side can be plain wrong.

Loxton has reported receiving hate mails asking as to why his book doesn’t give equal timeto Intelligent Design. Loxton, an editor of the Skeptic magazine, has the answer ready the book is about science and not religion.

No, the Jesuit priest saying Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man’ is indoctrination. This is opening children’s minds and teaching them science.

News From CERN: Israel Become First Non-European Associate Member Of CERN

Israel became the first non-European nation to join CERN. The decision was made at a meeting in Geneva on the 16th of September, 2011. Israel will be an Associate Member’ of the CERN collaboration and will keep that status for a minimum of 24 months.

Israel has been an Observer’ State for the CERN Council since 1991. It was promoted to special Observer’ in 2009. This move was inevitable.

Rolf Heuer (left) and Israel Ambassador, Leshno-Yaar, (right) shake hands at the landmark meeting (Courtesy: CERN)

Road Forward for CERN

Recently, at the Lepton Photon Conference, 2011, held at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India, Rolf Heuer, the Director General of CERN, outlined the road ahead for CERN. He said that there were plans to include non-European nations into CERN in his speech. The E’ in CERN would no longer stand for European’, but would come to mean Everyone’, he said.

Rolf Heuer, DG, CERN and the Israeli Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, H.E. Mr. Leshno-Yaar signed the agreement , which admitted Israel to the CERN Associate Membership. The document still needs to be ratified by the Knesset. This officially makes Israel a member for a minimum of 24 months.

Rolf Heuer said of this development:

It is a vital part of our mission to build bridges between nations. This agreement enriches us scientifically, and is an important step in that direction.

Israel had played a major role in the 1990’s, during the historic Large Electron Positron (LEP) Collider Experiment. This was an important milestone in the legacy of CERN.

More than just science

This move will gain Israel more monetary support from CERN to further its own research interests. Israel has supported Palestinian students in research by providing them funding and equipment on the same footing as Israeli students. It has sent mixed Israeli-Palestinian students at the various summer science camps organised by CERN.

The very act of systematically scouring for facts, known as science, might be the adhesive for the world that wise men have been looking for.

CERN’s Press Release:

NASA’s Giant Dead Satellite Falling Towards Earth Faster Than Earlier Thought; To Crash on 24th September

A huge defunct satellite is soon to come crashing down to the Earth in a few days time, but NASA assures everyone that no one will get hurt! The satellite in question is the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS). The date for the crash is 24th September. The crash window, earlier announced to be between late September and early October, has now been curtailed to just three days.

What Are Your Odds Of Being Hit? And Something About a Light Show!

UPDATE: Yeah, we were exactly right. Crash happened at midnight of 23rd September. Check it out:  (Updated Article)


The Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Any Danger? Nope, says NASA

Space junk experts ruled that the chance of a piece of debris from the giant satellite hitting someone on the ground is extremely remote – about 1 in 3200. The logic is simple 75% of the Earth is covered by oceans and, thus, a drop into the ocean is the most likely scenario.

NASA expects the 5-ton UARS to break up into at least 26 fragments that will be big enough to survive the re-entry and reach the surface of the Earth. These fragments are mainly scrap metal and there is no need to worry about toxic materials. The fuel was used up in 2005, when the UARS completed its mission.

UARS was launched in 1991 to measure ozone content in the atmosphere along with other gases. It also measured wind speeds and studied how radiation and charged particles from the sun affect the upper part of the atmosphere. This mission was completed in 2005. Since then, it has been orbiting Earth, being nothing more than just a big piece of space junk.

NASA’s official UARS Page:

The Crash

The satellite is losing altitude, even as you read this. Currently it is at about 140 miles above the Earth’s surface. It is in fact falling faster than expected owing to the increased solar activity, which tends to lower the density of the atmosphere by heating it up.

According to NASA,

Re-entry is expected Sept. 23, plus or minus a day. The re-entry of UARS is advancing because of a sharp increase in solar activity since the beginning of this week.

No one knows where the satellite will fall. That will be known only two hours before the re-entry.

The crash is expected to occur between the latitudes of Northern Canada (about 62 degrees North) and south of South America (about 60 degrees South). This leaves a large region of ocean for the spacecraft to splash into. NASA is monitoring the satellite’s every move.

NASA has warned the public not to touch any debris that they might chance across, either on land or in the water. Anyone chancing upon such a piece should contact their local law enforcement agency.

Google Honours ‘Uncle’ Anant Pai With A Doodle On His 82nd Birthday

Reading is more than just an ability it is a source of immense joy and even a melting pot of nostalgia. No one got this message across better than the lovable Uncle Pai. Google pays tribute to everyone’s dear Uncle by dedicating a Google doodle in his honor. Today is his 82nd birthday; today (17th September) is the birthday of a precious part of our childhood.

The Legacy

Anant Pai was more than an educationist he was one the best India has ever seen. He was more than an awesome cartoonist. He was more than a story writer. He is a part of life for thousands who have grown up reading his works and then wished that they remain kids, just so that they can share the innocence of Uncle’s creations. Anant Pai, more lovingly known as Uncle Pai’, created the ultimate storehouse of children’s knowledge Amar Chitra Katha, which literally translates to Immortal Picture Stories’. Figures show that Amar Chitra Katha sells 3 million books on average per year, since its inception in 1967, with over 100 million sold over these years. But these are merely figures the number of lives these books influenced is much higher.

Uncle Pai: A sketch (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Google’s Appreciation

Google’s doodle (first pic, above) depicts Uncle Pai sitting in his office, surrounded by shelves full of his own creations. Two such pictures, one in which Uncle Pai is sitting and the other in which he is standing, form the doodle, with the writing of Google’ connecting the two. A mouse-over reveals that it is meant to celebrate Anant Pai’s 82nd Birthday’. Clicking will lead to a search page searching for the name of Anant Pai’.

So Many Childhood Memories

It’s difficult for me to be merely professional while writing this, since it evokes so many gorgeous memories of my childhood. Who could forget the lovable Suppandi, the simpleton servant, who would happily get his orders mixed up and produce some innocent humour? Remember Shikari Shambu, whom the world reputes as a brave hunter, but is really meek and gentle? Somehow, in spite of bungling up everything, he would still end up the winner, protecting his own reputation and also delighting young hearts.

A bit of the Tinkle Universe (Shikari Shambu on the left and Suppandi on the right)

Want to sketch a character, who is evil, but is still loved? Take some inspiration from Tantri the Mantri. He is the evil minister to the innocent king Raja Hooja and is constantly planning to usurp the throne. The king trusts him with all his heart and, somehow, Tantri never succeeds in anything that he conspires to do. These are only the most famous characters in the Tinkle series a flagship program of Amar Chitra Katha. Apart from these, Tinkle used to be famous for the Uncle Pai’s own column, where perfectly scientific ideas were explained to children in an easy-to-digest and, most importantly, fun manner.

Apart from these, Amar Chitra Katha published graphic novels of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Panchatantra, all well-known Indian epics or collection of moral stories.

Ask anyone who has read Amar Chitra Katha’s publication what their favourite childhood memories were. Uncle Pai and his creations will definitely be among them. As for me, I wish I could laugh out as loudly as I did as a child, when I read about Suppandi messing up on his job. No, I no longer possess that innocence. I’m just happy that I was lucky enough to have Uncle Pai by my side, when I did possess it.

Google Celebrates Birthday Of The Discoverer of Vitamin-C With A Sweet-and-Sour Doodle

Today’s doodle will not be described using the words normally used to describe other Google doodles. Let’s not use awesome’, graphic’ or artistic’ for this doodle, even though all three are applicable. Let’s just call it sweet, with some vital tinge of sourness.

The Doodle

Google celebrates the 118th birthday of Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi with a doodle that looks like a label for a mixed fruit drink and appropriately so. For health freaks and everyone else, Szent-Gyorgi is the discoverer of Vitamin C and is famous for explaining that it occurs in copious amounts in citric acid. He also did vital work describing the reactions and their mechanism in the citric acid cycle, one of the oldest biological cycles on Earth.

The 'Vitamin C' Doodle

The doodle prominently depicts two oranges with many other citric fruits, like lemons and strawberries, in the background. The font used for writing Google’ has an oriental feel to it. A distinctive feeling of this being a fruit drink label is enhanced by the imperfect arc and a couple of fold marks. (pic above)

Click and you'll get this

Mouse over the doodle and it shows Albert Szent-Gyorgi’s 118th  Birthday. Clicking on the doodle links to the search for the name Albert Szent Gyorgi, which is usual with Google Doodles.

The Man

The Hungarian physiologist was born in 1893, September 16 (of course, that’s why the doodle), survived the two world wars, including an arrest warrant by Hitler, won a Nobel Prize for Medicine, co-founded a cancer research institute and even entered politics. He served as a medic in the First World War, but soon became disgusted. After shooting himself in the arm and claiming that he was critically injured by enemy fire, Szent-Gyorgyi was quickly sent back home on medical leave. He played no further part in the First World War. His pinnacle achievement came in the early 1930’s, while he was a professor at the University of Szegad. He worked on the citric acid cycle, identifying the products, most notably the role of fumaric acid, and explaining reaction mechanisms. This would become famous as the Krebs cycle, but is also known in Soviet circles by the more appropriate name Szent-Gyorgyi-Krebs cycle. Both Szent-Gyorgi and Krebs were awarded the Medicine Nobel Prize in 1937 for their seminal work. Later in his life, he also co-founded the National Foundation for Cancer Research.

No, this is not the best that Google has come up with in recent times, especially given the awesome Freddie Mercury video doodle. However, it is sort of cute, simple and definitely sour.