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.

Why is Hurricane Sandy So Damn Big?

Sandy is big! And it’s hitting the east coast of America with a vengeance. The adjectives being thrown around are ‘superstorm’, ‘Frankenstorm’ and ‘The perfect storm’. And the bad news is that all of these adjectives seem apt. Sandy is moving in fast from the east coast, boasting a fiery looking ‘eye’, which is nearly 150 km in diameter. The whole storm is somewhat close to 700 km. Worsening the situation is a cold front that is moving in from the north to the south, independently of Sandy’s activities. The fearful collision is awaited.

Hurricane Sandy as it makes landfall over Cuba.This is taken in infra-red. (Photo Courtesy: NOAA/NASA)

Sandy has forced the evacuation of reportedly 3.5 million people in New York alone. Sandy has been upgraded from a tropical storm to an extra-tropical storm. While this classification can be made just from the location of the storm – tropical storms occur in the tropics and extra-tropical ones out of the tropical regions – the correlation with storm size is direct. Extra-tropical storms always tend to be larger than tropical storms. Sandy has just moved northwards and has become even bigger.


Cyclones are one of Nature’s ways of transferring heat from the tropics to the polar regions. This happens only when the transfer needs to be dramatic – i.e. when the heat difference built up is large. There are other less destructive ways of heat transfer, including air currents like the jet stream, ocean currents like the Gulf Stream current and, of course, the prevalent winds. Cyclones are natural consequences of heat build-up in one region of the ocean. This creates a local low-pressure region. Colder winds from the surroundings rush in, but this chaos makes the wind swirl around the central ‘eye’. If the heat difference is large, the ocean’s heat can fuel the process to massive proportions.

The cyclone will move away from the equator, because that’s what wind systems do – move from hotter regions to colder ones. Plus, the rotation of the Earth makes sure that worldwide cyclones hit just the east coasts of landmasses! (Check this fact out and try to find an exception).


Now that Sandy is moving further north, it will weaken because the ocean waters get colder and thus the heat source is no longer as proactive. But wait! The Gulf Stream – a warm ocean current moving along the east coast of N. America – is actually acting as a substitute for the ocean warmth. Since it carries warm water and flows along the surface of the ocean, it is intensifying Hurricane Sandy! Bad bad news! Sandy is expected to follow the warm water trail along the east coast, before it is driven on land.

A newer surprise is awaited when Sandy meets a cold wave that is coming in from the north. But that’s for another time.
Stay safe everyone and heed the warnings by the authorities.

Giant Stone Statues of Easter Island “Walked” Into Present Position, Experts Opine

After years of speculation during which various people said various things, including that they were rolled into position or even that aliens had something to do with them, it seems that the stone statues on Easter Island walked into their present position! Yes, literally walked!

One of the giant statues that seemingly walked into position

Before you start believing in a divine hand in the process or an extra-terrestrial one, let me tell you that the latest theory merely says that people rocked the statue from side-to-side and it ‘walked’. A group of local and US anthropologists and archeologists champion this theory. Not only that, they have even demonstrated that!


There are as many as 887 statues, most towering at 32 feet and weighing up to 80 tons each, couldn’t have been rolled into position. They are just too heavy. This had been demonstrated earlier. The team, comprising 18 people, formed two groups on each side and started rhythmically tugging at the statue and it moved a surprising 100 meters in under an hour. True, this is still ardous, but this seems to be the only plausible explanation.

The team have even reported finding marks over many of the moai (the statues), which suggested that they might have toppled over and people wanted to return it to their upright position. It does seem that the moai walked right out of their construction sites and into their position.

Preserve history, destroy thyself

The moai are a way to immortalize their ancestors – the Rapa Nui. It is believed that they converted the island, west of Chile, from a flourishing paradise to an almost desert, felling trees recklessly both for their own subsistence and also to move these stone statues. Wood became a precious commodity and the different clans fought over it. It is believed that even cannibalism might have been prevalent.

The ancestors had come back to haunt the people through these statues, it seems.

Scientists Create Smart DNA Gel

This brings to mind the only and only Flubber. Robin Williams, the mad scientist, makes a lovable jelly that proves very difficult to control, wreaking havoc on the neighbourhood. The scientists at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) have been kinder! They have developed an artificial dynamic gel which contains DNA and responds to stimuli after it is fed ATPs. Yes, this is exactly how a cell might act. The brains behind this magic gel: Omar Saleh and Deborah Fygenson. Saleh explains:

This is a whole new kind of responsive gel, or what some might call a ‘smart’ material


The Wondrous Gel

The gel is fitted with nano-scale filaments. The team can then regulate the stiffness of the filaments and how much they are tangled up with each other using the DNA design. They used the bacterial motor protein called FtsK50C, which can bind to certain specific surfaces. The nanorods can then shorten and come together, making the contractions required for movements.

What is even more fascinating is that the gel uses Adenosine Tri Phosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency that a living cell uses. The great advantage of this gel is that it can be readily implanted into a living organism. This gel thus shows, as Saleh puts it, “quantitatively shows similar active fluctuations and mechanics to cells.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with biological motors, let me tell you that there are a variety of biological substances which can act as motors. The motors are however very specific in their activity. There is still a large gap in our understanding of biological motors and this can prove to be a major step in plugging that gap.

Idiocy Redefined: Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Not Being Able To Predict Quake Impact

When Einstein said that human stupidity knows no bounds, he wasn’t kidding. Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been found guilty of “multiple manslaughter” and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime? They couldn’t predict the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which was bad enough to kill 310 people in the city.

The L’Aquila devastation

Incorrect warning

In 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake ravaged the city and these seven people had issued warnings which said that there is not much to be worried about. Tremors felt before 6th April, 2009 (the day of the quake) were not properly heeded by this group of scientists and, according to the prosecution, they delivered “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information. Thus, they have committed a crime. In addition to the six-year sentence, they have been barred from holding any public office ever again.

Revisiting the not-so-golden times?

This reminds me of the medieval times, when fortune tellers and soothsayers in court could be beheaded for making the wrong prediction. But haven’t we progressed from those dark days of ignorance? Weather science, and especially seismology, the science of earth movements, is a very unpredictable area of knowledge. We hardly know anything about the exact mechanism of the cause of earthquakes and thus we cannot predict it.

It’s not as if you’re looking into a crystal ball…

One of the damning statements from the prosecution bench came from one of their witnesses. Guido Fioravanti had called his mother on that night, just after the first tremor had struck. He says:

I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.

He lost his father to the quake.

Just not possible

But the issue is bigger. The question is how we view science. Science is very accurate about many things, but climate science is not one of them. Are we going to stop making predictions? What about the numerous times the scientists have got the path of a cyclone correct? Why is it so difficult to understand that the parameters involved are just too many in number and that it’s impossible to track every one of them with the demanded accuracy? It’s difficult to even predict how the parameters influence the system and one another!

And thus, the human race wallows in stupidity.

Moon Formation: Zinc Makes Collision Theory More Plausible

Bash the Earth up and get a moon- that’s the theory that scientists have been looking at for a long time. However, the signs of violence are very subtle and very difficult to detect. It turns out that this cataclysmic event leaves behind a trail of only slight imbalance in the different varieties of zinc. Yes, boring – completely boring – to a layman, but to a scientist, it’s like adrenaline.

The Big Smashup?

Written down in Zinc

Planetary expert Frederic Moynier and his group at Washington University in St. Louis have claimed that they have discovered this tiny imbalance of zinc in the rocks of the Earth and that of the Moon. The theory goes like this: in the catastrophic event, under very hot conditions, heavier zinc atoms sunk in and condensed, while lighter ones escaped before condensation. These two isotopes (different atoms of the same element which differ only by their weights and not by their chemical properties) of zinc on the Moon will, thus, bear a ratio of their abundance different from what it is on Earth. In simpler language, say, the heavier zinc atoms outnumber the lighter atoms by a ratio 5:1 on Earth. On the moon, this ratio will be slightly (and not wildly) different – it can be say 6:1. Given that the other elemental abundances match very well, it is this tell-tale difference between the zinc ratios that should give us hints of its fiery origin.

Volatile situation

The moon rocks are chemically similar to those on Earth, except that the volatile elements are gone! This would be expected if a large body slammed into the Earth releasing a huge chunk of material that eventually formed the moon. Most of the Earth would retain whatever elements it had, but the Moon wouldn’t.

This loss of volatiles will also be accompanied by a process due to which heavy zinc atoms would outnumber the lighter zinc atoms! And this is precisely what the team found by analyzing the moon rocks.

In order to make sure that this depletion of the lighter zinc species is not a local aberration, i.e. located around only one point on the Moon’s surface, the team analysed rocks from different moon missions. These missions had picked up rocks from all over the moon and all the samples recorded the same heavy to light zinc ratio. This observation cannot be explained by any other theory and gives credence to the collision theory.

Sometimes, the smallest clues are the way to solve a great mystery. The jury is still undecided on this, however.

The technical study appears here:

Discovered: A Planet With As Many As Four Suns!

Forget the world, the Sun is not enough. Astronomers have found a planet outside our own Solar System, which has as many as four suns! Yes, this planet, thought to be a gas giant, orbits four different suns.

And add a few more suns…


The planet was discovered by volunteers who were using the website, which allows enthusiastic astronomy amateurs access to a lot of data from NASA’s Kepler’s Space telescope. Kepler is built specifically for detecting exoplanets. The planet, named PH1, after the website, is just 5000 light years away, a stone’s throw away on the cosmological distance scales.

The technical ArXiv report is here:

The planet is believed to be about the size of Neptune, just a bit larger. The interesting thing about this planet is the number of suns – there are four of them. Now, maintaining a stable orbit around four different suns is a very difficult and delicate problem. While it is moderately difficult to calculate the stable orbit configurations around one star, it is a huge pain to do it around two stars and impossible for four suns! There are virtually no stable points in the gravitational field in the region, where the planet can reside for an indefinite period of time.

Gravitational Confusion

We all know a single star – our Sun is an example. Now, imagine another star around it. This forms a binary system of stars. These are very abundant in the Universe – two stars circling around each other – and these reveal a lot of information about star formation and their subsequent evolution. Now, add two more stars orbiting this central binary system of stars! This is a highly improbable configuration. These outer stars will have a very hard time following a stable orbit around the core binary.

Now, throw in a gas giant planet in the mix! And what you get is utter confusion, if you could somehow see the pattern in the gravitational field. No one knows for how long this planet has existed or for how long it will exist.

One can only imagine the spectacular sunrise and sunset on the planet, but then all four suns won’t be rising or setting at the same time.

List of Nobel Prize Winners 2012 [Live Webcast Link Included]

The Nobel Prize announcement week is upon us!

The Nobel Prize for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry are out. The list of winners follows.

The Nobel Prize celebrates the pinnacle of human thought and intellect. The prize money is approximately $1.2 million and there is also a medal and a certificate following that. The first prize is given for Medicine, followed by that for Physics, Chemistry, Economics and Peace. The Literature Prize will be announced later.



The winners of the Medicine Nobel Prize are Sir John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, and their citation says that they got it for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. Each shares half the prize.

The Medicine Nobel Explained for the Layman:


The winners of the Physics Nobel Prize are Sergie Haroch and David J. Wineland and their citation says that they got it for demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them.
They share the prize equally.


The winners of the Chemistry Nobel Prize are Robert J. Lefkowitz from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA and Brian K. Kobilka from Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA and their citation says that they got it for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.
They share the prize equally.


Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. His citation reads that it was he “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”

You can see the live webcast here:

or at the main site.

We will update this post with the daily winners. So stay tuned

Get the Webcast Link for the Nobel Prize Announcements!

The winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize will be announced starting from today. The first Nobel winner to be announced will be in the field of medicine. We will be bringing you the winners as they are announced. The Nobel Prize winner for Physics will be announced tomorrow and there is considerable interest about that.


You can watch the live webcast here:

The Nobel prize site is:

The Swedish Nobel Committee will be awarding exceptional work done in the fields of medicine/physiology, physics, chemistry and literature. Two other Nobel Prizes include economics and peace. Medicine, physics and chemistry will be followed by peace and economics, while the prize for literature will be announced later as usual.

Stay with us for the real time coverage. We will also try and have follow-up posts on the different fields for which the Nobel Prize was given out.
Let the celebration of human intellect begin…

Google Celebrates Niels Bohr’s Birthday with a Doodle

The Great Dane would leave a legacy that few would even dream of rivaling. Niels Bohr was a quiet and shy man, whose contribution to 20th century physics is so fundamental that, without it, the whole edifice would only be half built. His brilliant insights into physical problems not only gave solutions, but also taught the world a new way of thinking of a physical problem – think of only what can be explained and what can be observed, leaving all your philosophical baggage behind. Bohr, the great, celebrates his birthday today and Google honours him with a doodle.


Bohr’s great insight

If you asked me to judge the doodle, I would just give it passing grades; Google could’ve easily been more imaginative. The doodle shows an atom, given by the Bohr’s atomic model (well, not quite, but more on that in a bit) and a photon (particle of light) being emitted having exactly the right frequency. This frequency times the Planck’s constant gives the energy of the photon. It turns out that the transition of an electron from a higher energy level to a lower one would involve the emission of a photon with energy equal to exactly the difference between the levels and this was Bohr’s great insight.

Niels Bohr


So what problem was I referring to about the Bohr’s Atomic Model? Well, Bohr’s Atomic Model doesn’t involve elliptic orbits*. It just involves electrons going around the nucleus in circular orbits. So just a bit mistaken there! (*See corrigendum below)

Bohr happened to be on the Manhattan Project too. His escape out of Nazi occupied Denmark is the stuff of folklore. Apparently, he received a permit letter, allowing him to leave Copenhagen when Denmark was being captured by the Nazi power in the 2nd World War. This special permit came probably from Heisenberg who was holding a high position in the department of science in Nazi establishment. Niels Bohr was then smuggled out of Denmark and given a safe haven in America.

More than just a scientist

So Bohr! More than being a brilliant physicist, he was also a pioneer. He was one of the founding fathers of CERN, 1954. Where we would be without the Great Dane. And of course, the Copenhagen Institute which housed the great minds of the 20th century at a time was co-founded by Niels Bohr.

An atom wouldn’t be the same without you! Happy Birthday Niels Bohr.


Corrigendum from the author: A good friend of mine and a regular reader of the blog, Joe Phillips Ninan, research scholar at TIFR, Mumbai, wrote to me pointing out that my conclusion of the orbits not being circular is incorrect. He says that they are circles oriented in 3D planes and thus just look like ellipses, but are not actually ellipses. This is what he wrote to me in an email:

I carefully checked the pixel position of the nucleus in the Google Doodle image. They lie exactly at the center of line connecting the diameter. Hence they are not elliptical orbits with nucleus at one of the foci. They have drawn only perfect circles, oriented in different planes in 3D.

Good point Joe and it’s gracefully accepted. The hasty error on my part is regretted.

Elon Musk Reveals Electric Car Supercharger for Tesla Motors

Forget about fuel, electric cars are the way to go ahead into the future. At least, if you believe what visionary Elon Musk has to say. Yes, this is the same Elon Musk who founded PayPal, surged ahead with the SpaceX company, the largest private company to aspire to touch the great beyond and is also the CEO of Tesla Motors – the world’s leading makers of electric cars. Now, Tesla introduces a Supercharger – a brilliant imposing monolith structure capable of charging a Model S sedan from nothing to full charge in under an hour!

The Supercharger made by Tesla Motors


Musk’s great plan is to have these Superchargers at regular intervals, first within America and then all across Europe. When electric cars become the norm, rather than the outcasts that they are today, these will allow them to travel virtually unlimited distances all around the globe.

Making power and giving it back too!

The Superchargers will themselves be powered by solar power and purely solar power. Tesla Motors calculates that the solar panels will be able to generate more power than what the cars might use and thus will be able to feed power back into the power grid, answering the questions of a lot of critics that the fuel-powered substitutes will actually be sucking in a lot more power than what meets the eye. Not anymore, says Musk. By giving power back to the power grid, Tesla has ensured that the day of the electric cars is not very far into the future.

Already rolling

Six Superchargers have already been installed across California and two of them are running off of the power grid. More are expected the follow the trend. The Supercharger will charge at 100 kilowatt and this means that the Model S sedan, the highest battery capable car marketed by Tesla Motors, will be fully charged in under an hour, starting from nothing! Elon Musk says it better:

What it means is that you can drive for three hours, stop for less than half an hour, recharge, and be ready to go again

Musk’s next target is to get these Superchargers across the U.S. in the next two years and enter Canada in the next half a decade or so.
Docking in space with the International Space Station or building a giant charger ushering in the future – Elon Musk does it all! Nikola Tesla would’ve been proud!

Here is a video from the unveiling of the Supercharger:

Video streaming by Ustream