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.

Richard Feynman Was A Suspected Soviet Spy, Say Declassified FBI Documents

So Richard Feynman was a Communist, or at least that’s what the FBI might want us to think. The Feynman files have been released and they reveal information about the FBI’s tabs on the world famous scientist. The recently revealed FBI files, all documented in completeness by MuckRock, show the extent to which the FBI went to in pursuing Feynman.

Why put Feynman on the radar?

So why Richard Feynman? What did one of the most brilliant physicists ever to walk the planet, someone who had been intricately involved in the American atom bomb project – the Manhattan Project – do to have his name tagged by the FBI? The most convincing reason appears to be his “extreme charm” and “unusual personal magnetism which enables him to charm or fascinate individual persons or groups.” Even his personal distrust of religion was a cause for concern of the FBI.

The Nobel winner was close to people like project leader Robert Oppenheimer, who came under the FBI scanner right after the war for his leftist links and views, and Klaus Fuchs, who was outed as a Soviet spy, trying to steal nuclear defense secrets from the Manhattan Project.


The links to the declassified FBI documents as given by MuckRock.

MuckRock Link 1: “The Feynman Files”

MuckRock Link 2: “Feynman: The Master of Deception?”

How it all started

Suspicions were raised by one FBI-sponsored interviewer, who swore on the Bible and reported:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such is a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, and a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust, particularly a position that so vitally affects the safety and welfare of this nation

So that’s nice. Feynman was to be either himself – brash, arrogant, mischevious and blindingly brilliant – or he had to be a Russian spy. His fame as the mischevious lock-picker in the Manhattan project did not help his image. His past came back to haunt him, as an innocent association with the “Young People’s Socialist League” during his high school years figured a number of times in the extensive documents.

His brilliance worked against him. The FBI enlisted a few pointers about Feynman, which included, amongst others, his “technical ability to analyse scientific data”, his “experience in picking locks”, his “experience in devising and deciphering coded messages” and his “unusual ability to influence people”. (See below)

All the ways how Feynman was 'dangerous'. A page from the declassified documents. (Courtesy: MuckRock)

Dislike for all things bureaucratic

Feynman’s intense dislike of all things bureaucratic and his love for all things academic also served against him. Why would a loyal, intelligent American reject all lucrative government positions and then settle for some faculty position, which will involve teaching responsibilities and also offer him much lesser pay? But then, what do bureaucrats understand the beauty of the Universe as a physicist sees it? How do they understand the joy of teaching? What about the ecstasy of knowing something deep about the Universe that no one else in the world knows about at the moment? How can anyone understand the feeling of being Richard Feynman?

Serious Trouble

Trouble really started with an invitation from the Soviets to a physics conference in Moscow in 1955. Feynman hesitated and even informed the State Department of the invitation. He wrote back to the Soviets saying that he was “unable to give a definite answer”. The FBI did not openly get involved, but the State Department did not respond to Feynman’s letter. The first notification from Feynman was followed by two more; none of the three received any reply from the authorities.

Finally Feynman got fed up and decided to take the matter into his own hands. After nearly four months of just sitting waiting for a reply, Feynman replied to the Soviet administration saying that he “shall accept the invitation” and that he was merely waiting for the passport to be renewed. The U.S. State Department again stalled this procedure.

In spite of Feynman’s growing displeasure – and his openness to reveal it in letters – the State Department kept him hanging for two more months. When the reply did come, it was a disappointing “we urge you to decline the invitation”, but there was no non-clearance or directive against him. The government couldn’t act directly against a man, who was, on the other hand, brashly against the government work ethics.

History repeats and it is often ironic

It is indeed ironic that NASA, another American govt. Agency, would, 30 years later, during the Challenger disaster investigation, turn to the Nobel Winner to be a part of the investigation team. The irony deepens since this would be a very man who would crack open the case and expose NASA and its bureaucracy.

Feynman during the press meet after the Challenger disaster enquiry. He was demonstrating the brittle nature of the O-rings.

The ultimate rockstar of physics could never fit the mould.

The All-You-Need-To-Know-And-More Guide To The Venus Transit on June 5/6

It’s really an eclipse, but not quite. When Venus moves across the disc of the Sun on the 5th/6th of June, you’ll be witnessing history – and be able to realize how lucky you really are! In this article, I plan to provide you with everything you need to know in order to watch the transit and also appreciate the significance of this cosmic event!

A time-lapse photo of the 2004 transit

Basic Facts

Here’s the deal: Venus will be making its way around the Sun like normal, but this time, we will be behind it to observe. We will be seeing Venus move across the Solar Disc through nearly 7 hours. The last transit happened in 2004 and this one is occuring faithfully after 8 years. The next one will, however, occur after 105 more years – in 2117!

Venus Transit (Courtesy: GSFC/NASA)

So this is your last chance to see a Venus transit! Yes, there are many questions that you suddenly have in your mind right now, and I will try and answer all of them as we go along in this article.

Location Location!

The event will not be visible all over the world. There will be parts of the world, like Western part of Africa and Eastern part of South America, which will just miss the event completely. Sorry Brazil and Argentina. That said, the good news is that large parts of the world will definitely see the event.

Visible or not? Check for your location


Date: 6th June

The whole event
East Asia will be lucky to witness the whole nearly-7 hour event! By the time Venus enters the disc of the Sun, it will already be sunrise in these regions. Venus will exit the solar disc before sunset.
From sunrise till end
India and countries to the west of India, like Pakistan, Afghanistan and the entire Gulf region, will miss the start of the transit. Almost the entire Indian subcontinent will see the transit 3 hours after it starts. That’s no reason to fret, however; the transit will still be pretty long!


Date: 6th June

From event start till sunset
Most of Europe will be seeing the last part of the event. Venus will already have entered the solar disc by the time the sun rises and then it will exit before sunset. The unfortunate countries will be Spain and Portugal. While Spain will be getting a small last bit of the transit pie, Portugal will miss out on the event completely, as Venus will be just touching the solar disc at sunset.

North America

Date: 5th June

From Event start till Sunset
The event actually occurs when the date is 5th June, owing to its position on the other side of the International Date Line. So Venus will just touch the Sun’s disc at some point in the day. The transit will be visible till the Sun sets. Venus will still be within the Solar disc at sunset.
If you’re in Alaska for some reason, you might not be able to see Russia, but will definitely get to witness the whole transit.

South America

Date: 5th June
If you’re anywhere on this continent, you have really bad luck! Only the north-western parts of the continent will get to see any transit. That too, it won’t be for too long!

LHCb Detects Decays of B-Mesons Which Hints At New Physics

The most promising signatures of something beyond what we know have been coming consistently from an experiment in LHC, CERN that has received the least public attention. While the CMS and ATLAS detectors (and collaborations) at the LHC are running their proton beams day and night in search of several things, primary among them being the Higgs Boson, the other big experiment, the LHCb, has been quietly chugging along with its own set of measurements.

Part of the LHCb detector

The latest from the LHCb detector, housed in the same compound as the CMS and ATLAS, is a result that just might signal physics from Beyond the Standard Model (BSM), fashionably titled New Physics. BSM has been a devoutly investigated area of interest for both CMS and ATLAS, but the LHCb focusses on very specific types of particles and observes their modes of decay.

‘Exotic’ Physics

The types of particles LHCb is interested in contains a very exotic type of quark – the bottom quark. Protons and neutrons don’t contain that quark; they are entirely made up of ‘up’ and ‘down’ quarks. The Standard Model accurately predicts the decay rates and lifetimes of particles and, so far, experiments and theory have always matched. The recent LHCb result, adding to a few other ‘anomalous’ results of the past, show deviation from the theoretical values. Of course, no one is jumping into the BSM bandwagon just yet, but there is clearly excitement.

The Result

The LHCb collaboration found that a specific decay – a B-meson (i.e. a particle containing the bottom quark) becoming a kaon (another short-lived ‘exotic’ particle) along with a muon-antimuon pair. Muons are like heavy electrons. The LHCb collaboration observed that there is a difference in the decay rates between a neutral B-meson going to a neutral Kaon-muon-anti-muon and a positive B-meson going to a positive Kaon-muon-antimuon. This difference – called ‘isospin asymmetry’ – is not predicted by the Standard Model and this is what is interesting.

More data is required to confirm whether this is really a BSM signal.

The CERN bulletin:
The LHCb detector website:


Annular Solar Eclipse On May 20th To Miss Most of the Globe

There is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that there will be an annular solar eclipse on the 20th of May. The bad news is that more than 80% of the world’s population is going to miss it. The Solar Eclipse, dubbed the ‘Ring of Fire Eclipse’ for reasons which will be clear in a bit, will be visible in its true spectacular glory on the western coast of the United States.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Greatest Eclipse

The eclipse will only be visible from a small stretch of the earth’s surface, and even that is covered mostly by oceans. The place of Greatest Eclipse (GE) occurs bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with no visible atolls nearby.


There is good news for US residents on the Western half of the country. The solar eclipse will track through the middle of California, south of Oregon, through most of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Only partial eclipse will be seen on the eastern part of New Mexico. Texas will have to be satisfied with a short partial eclipse. The path traces out the Northern part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and thus the name.


Across the Pacific, on the Asian shores, Japan will be lucky to be able to witness the spectacle and so will be the western shores of China.

Making all of this much easier to track is NASA’s awesome interactive Google Earth Map. Here is a screenshot of the Map.

Here is the interactive map in all its glory:


Historic SpaceX Launch Hits Snag; Cause And Duration Of Delay Unknown

The much anticipated SpaceX launch was stalled suddenly in the closing parts of the countdown sequence. The LIFT-OFF DID NOT OCCUR, on time. Space Flight Control, Houston, reported that there has been a “cutoff in the Launch Sequence” and that the launch was aborted. The exact nature of the problem is still unknown.

Latest Update: The SpaceX Launch Delayed Till Tuesday!

Not quite yet!

One of the computers apparently saw a parameter value that ‘it didn’t like’ and thus the engine had to shut down. The launch vehicle is stable and can be recycled for the next attempt.

Follow the live webcast here:

The launch has been postponed, but at the time of writing this, the exact duration of the delay has not been specified.

The details are coming in. The International Space Station team, waiting eagerly for the first private docking at the ISS, has been informed of the problem.

Below are some of the pre-launch pictures


... And the snag! The 'cutoff'.

The historic launch is still in the future. We wish both NASA and SpaceX the very best of luck

SpaceX: First Private Launch To Space Station Scheduled For Tomorrow!

Though not as big as the one in 1969, this is still a jump big enough to cause NASA to spend sleepless nights. SpaceX, short for Space eXploration Technologies, is due to make its maiden launch tomorrow, i.e. on the 19th of May, 2012. Going sub-orbital will be SpaceX’s baby steps towards actually going for a fully manned space mission.

The launch time on 19th May is  1:15 AM Pacific / 4:15 AM Eastern / 08:15 UTC as taken from the SpaceX site.

The live webcast link is:

Proud: SpaceX CEO Elon Muck with the Falcon-9 rockets.

SpaceX and…

SpaceX will launch their Dragon space capsule atop the powerful Falcon-9 rockets. The capsule will contain important supplies for astronauts at the ISS, like food, other essential supplies and certain science equipment.

This is a part of the NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program and is designed to act as a replacement for the Space Shuttle, which carried man, machine and supplies. For now, man is excluded from the scenario and the first few missions will all be unmanned.

The Dragon space capsule doesn’t require much alteration to house a human being. That is definitely on the charts, but it is not clear how soon that’s going to happen.

The historic launch!

…Beyond SpaceX

NASA for the first time is stepping out of its own shell and allowing other companies to participate in space. SpaceX, having a $1.6 billion contract for 12 cargo flights with NASA, is one player. The other player is Orbital Sciences Corps. and they have been contracted to actually carry out manned flights. The contract is a lucrative $1.9 billion for 8 flights.

Orbital Corps also promises private spaceflight experience for those who can shell out the money. The exact amount is not known right now, though.

Go SpaceX Go! That’s the new motto. NASA is keeping its fingers crossed. This is one experiment that they definitely want to get right.

Chinese Researchers Teleport Entangled States Through Nearly 100 Km!

The spooky action-at-a-distance just got a lot longer – over six times longer. Though, the phenomenon is not yet ‘Beam me up, Scotty’, the improvement is heartening. A team of Chinese researchers have teleported qubits across a distance of 97 kilometers, using the phenomenon of entanglement.

The spooky entangled world

Entanglement is a purely quantum-mechanical phenomenon, which started on its road to stardom and fame within the physics community and outside it due to a thought experiment by Einstein.

Here it is in simple terms and closely in the same spirit as Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen had first put it. Take two electron. Now, if they are in the same quantum state, one has to be in an ‘up’ spin state and the other in a ‘down’ spin state. The two spins cannot be the same, because another fundamental principle of quantum mechanics – the Pauli exclusion principle – forbids that. Now, take one electron and separate it from the other by a very large distance – say half the universe – but without ever ‘looking’ at it to see what spin state it is in. Now, take the electron near you and look at it to determine what the spin is. But if you know that, you immediately know what spin state the other electron is in! In other words, you get the information about the farther electron instantaneously, violating the fundamental postulate of relativity which forbids the transfer of information faster than light speed.

To EPR or not to EPR

There has been plenty of debates on this so-called EPR paradox. It remained a thought experiment until Alain Aspect and his group actually performed the experiment and found that entanglement is a very real phenomenon. That hasn’t doused the debates though, with people trying to determine what information actually means and whether information is actually transferred.

Photons entangled

Now, the Chinese team uses photons, just like Alain Aspect’s team did in their pioneering experiment. They created two entangled photons, using a 1.3 watt laser, and made them appear at two distinct places separated by as much as 97 kilometers!

Now, a photon can represent a quantum state – or a number of quantum states, really – and can thus be thought of as a ‘qubit’ or quantum bit. It carries a ‘bit’ of information, just like a ‘bit’ on the hard disk of a computer. So far, the researchers have been able to transmit the ‘key’ to a encrypted message, but the message itself needs to be sent via classical channels. It’s like mailing a locked treasure-chest and sending the key to the lock via a quantum mechanically entangled channel.

The work has just been put on ArXiv and here is the link:

Found: World’s Smallest Mammoth Was Barely The Size Of A Baby Elephant!

They were furry and cute; they were also mammoths. A group of animals are believed to have roamed the island of Crete a long time ago. Their remains had been discovered a century ago, but only a recent discovery settles the debate about the size of the animals.\

Much smaller?

It turns out that the adults of the species were the size of a modern elephant calf, making it just a meter of so tall – even less than the average height of humans. The discovery instrumental in making this conclusion is a collection of teeth from the animals that lay scattered all over the island.

The crucial discovery

Dwarfism – the evolutionary basis

Evolutionary scientists call this dwarfism. The animal lineage suddenly undergoes a shrinkage in the size of its individual due to certain environmental factors. Dwarfism is particularly pronounced in island environments. Scarcity of food is the primary cause. Insular location also prevents vast migrations of animal species, as can be often seen in animal herds on landmasses.

Another factor contributing to the reduction in size is the lack of predators. If you don’t need size to fend off predators, you’re probably better off smaller, as it takes much less maintenance.

So, while their cousins on the landmass enlarged in size, the insular individuals became smaller. Just insular dwarfism taken to the extreme.

Not the woolly mammoths

It should be noted that these animals were not woolly mammoths, like the imagination conjures up. These were mammoths suited to warmer climates, and the temperatures in Crete never dipped very low.

More info:

Magnetic Bacteria To Build Computers of the Future

Doctors and aeronauts are old story; the latest involves hardcore microchip manufacturers turning to nature for inspiration. They are looking towards magnetic bacteria for the manufacture of the smallest chips. Magnet making bacteria is the next big thing.

The Magnetic bacteria (Photo Courtesy: University of Leeds)

Microbe with a magnetic personality

A team comprising researchers from the University of Leeds and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have been studying microbes that ingest iron, becoming magnetic in the process.

The attractive personality belongs to Magnetospirillum magneticum, a predominantly anaerobic bacterium living at bottoms of ponds or lakes. There, instead of oxygen, which is scarce, they derive their energy from ingesting iron and then making magnetite, the most magnetic mineral that occurs naturally. Furthermore, the bacteria follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, just like a compass.

The Magnetospirillum magneticum

The idea is this – you can direct the bacteria by changing the local magnetic field lines. Using this, you can grow magnets of very specific shapes by arranging the magnetic bacteria in specific shapes.

All for Moore’s Law

In a bid to keep Moore’s law alive in microchips, scientists are thinking of building upon this simple idea and create hard drives and even wires using these critters. Today’s nanotechnology is still having trouble coping with the pace at which Moore’s law would like it to attain, despite the breakneck speed.

Lead researcher Dr. Sarah Staniland of Leeds University says:

We are quickly reaching the limits of traditional electronic manufacturing as computer components get smaller. The machines we have traditionally used to build them with are clumsy at such small scales.

The pioneering study appears in the Nanotechnology journal Small.

SpaceX Delays Launch To Space Station, Dreams About Going To Mars In Future

The euphoria has to wait for a few more days to set in and the wait just gets longer. SpaceX’s first launch of its unmanned Dragon space capsule was scheduled for 7th May, 2012, but has now been shifted to May 19th at the earliest. There was some news of the launch happening on the 10th of May, but that has also been laid to rest.


SpaceX, short and snazzy for Space eXploration, is a private company which has won a contract from NASA for doing 12 flyby’s to the International Space Station, carrying food supplies and other essentials for the astronauts up there. NASA is closely monitoring SpaceX’s progress, providing logistical support as and where needed, since NASA wants a replacement for the Space Shuttle Program. Right now, only Russia has the capability to ferry astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA wants its piece of the ISS pie back!

And thus SpaceX! The contracts, worth $1.6 billion, with SpaceX for 12 cargo deliveries and another with Orbital Sciences Corps, worth $1.9 billion, for eight cargo deliveries, will help NASA provide a stop gap arrangement for the maintenance of the International Space Station. NASA might want us to see differently. Says NASA astronaut Don Pettit:

Now government-run agencies like NASA can concentrate on the frontier aspect of being in space. They can define what we’re doing and then we can have the commercial entities supply us the goods and services we need in order to do the mission.

Fine, except that NASA has been watching SpaceX very closely, rather than just giving it a sideways glance.

Saving Humanity

Meanwhile, even before getting its feet wet – or in the air, in this case – SpaceX has been dreaming big. Co- founded, owned and managed by Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX wants to go to Mars. Why? Because he believes that the only chance that humans have for survival is becoming a multi-planet species.

There are a lot of positives for SpaceX – a launch in a few days, continued NASA support and a big dream for the future. Join the bandwagon in saying Go SpaceX, Go!