September 25, 2010

Cosmos Episode 5: Blues for a Red Planet

For Sagan, talking about Mars must be as familiar territory as one's 'back of the hand' to use an old saying. Sagan coveres the history and evolution of our understanding of the Red Planet. All the expected stuff such 'The War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells to famous Martian canals 'discovered' by Perceval Lowell.

Sagan talks about Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. And then the modern age of Martian exploration with the Mariner landings. And what an awesome achievement that is! Audacious and impossible-sounding dreams of a century ago are a banal reality today.

Sagan describes the topography and geology and ecology of Mars — about how it came to be a cold and barren planet in spite of having conditions that are seemingly clement for life to arise. The search for life on Mars continues of course.

I am sure like Sagan that one day we'll be the Martians — and all that that implies. I look forward to unmanned aerial vehicles flying in the thin Martian atmosphere and sending the videos back to planet Earth. Oh, what a fantastic thing that would be!

The ideas of terraforming Mars to make it habitable for humans is also an engineering dream that will surely come to fruition in the due course of time. Again, what awesome ideas! Release the CO2 from underground reservoirs and plant vegetation on the planet and let the atmosphere thicken and an ozone layer envelop.

Then one day, Mars will/might have an atmosphere quite Earth-like and we will be able to roam its surface just as we roam the surface of Earth nonchalantly. I can't say 'I look forward to that day' unfortunately as I will have been safely dead by then.

One Day on Planet Earth

Well, roughly.

Yesterday or so was sort of a busy day with many developments. I thought to do a round-up of the news as it were as the Earth rotated around itself.
  • Seven elephants got mowed down by a goods train in Bengal or somewhere. Not an everyday occurrence clearly. Who is to blame? Animal lovers must be furious. I wonder if these gentle giants are loved as passionately by anyone as dogs/cats are by many millions ... Perhaps the undoing of the pachyderms was their tendency to sort of mourn the death of their kin. I think I read in one news item that a kid elephant died first on the tracks and so a herd of elephants had gathered ... perhaps ruminating on the sad event and then they all perished too. I wonder what must go through the giant brains that these giants possess. What thoughts might they possibly have??? Of course, much of their brain might be devoted to housekeeping for the enormous physical sizes they possess and the 'thinking' part or the cerebral cortex part (as it's called in us humans) may be small. I do not know if their cerebral cortex is larger or smaller than that in the human brain.
  • And then Squadron Leader Mahapatra crashed a Mig-27! He survived by ejecting but I guess our poor country lost a fighter aircraft! And they don't come cheap ... how many Nanos can one buy for a single Mig-29? Well, I guess this was nothing out of the ordinary in the sense that sometimes fighter aircraft DO crash ... I guess what is unusual is the name of the fighter pilot ... he has to be from my neck of the woods for sure and therefore the 'event' holds some significance for me ... Alas, I am never going to be a fighter pilot ... sighhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
  • Oh, a test of the Prithvi II missile failed as it refused to get off the launchpad!!! Ho ho ho ... it was a user trial to be precise. Well, I think a failure once in a while is ok. It's a government program after all. And even software applications crash sometimes ...
  • The usual saga related to the Commonwealth Games continues but perhaps that's a different story.
  • Well, a bit of an older news is that Mahesh Bhupati and Lara Dutta are now 'officially' a couple. Good for them, I say. Not because of the fact that it's 'official' of course ... I don't care whether it's official or unofficial. I mean, it's good that folks are enjoying each other. And India has luckily moved on to accepting people divorcing and changing partners. Life is a ... well, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity ... one could say. Therefore, if folks feel like moving on from one relation to the next, they should be free to do so.
  • And oh, an even 'older' news — the 'young' Putin getting hitched to a 24-year-old gymnast! Oh dear!!! Nothing more to say ...

The Spy Who Came in From The Cold?

A Good Life: Eddie Fisher

September 20, 2010

Human Genome Sequencing for $1,000

A team led by Boston University biomedical engineering researchers is continuing to refine its nanoscale, low-cost, ultra-fast DNA sequencing method that could lead to individual genome sequencing for less than $1,000.

This is all being funded with NIH grants:

Early Female Puberty Linked to Absent Biological Father

Research at the University of California, Berkeley has thrown up some unexpected results.

Julianna Deardorff, UC Berkeley assistant professor of maternal and child health, and lead study author, said:

"The age at which girls are reaching puberty has been trending downward in recent decades, but much of the attention has focused on increased body weight as the primary culprit. While overweight and obesity alter the timing of girls' puberty, those factors don't explain all of the variance in pubertal timing. The results from our study suggest that familial and contextual factors - independent of body mass index - have an important effect on girls' pubertal timing."

Bay Area BCERC's principal investigator Dr. Robert Hiatt, UCSF professor and co-chair of epidemiology and biostatistics, and director of population science at the campus's Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, said:

"The hunt for an explanation to this trend is significant since girls who enter puberty earlier than their peers are not only at greater risk for reproductive cancers, they are also more likely to develop asthma and engage in higher risk sexual behaviors and substance abuse, so these studies have broader relevance to women's health."

Deardorff said:

"In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers. It's definitely harder for people to wrap their minds around this than around the influence of body weight. But these findings get us away from assuming that there is a simple, clear path to the earlier onset of puberty."

September 19, 2010

Cosmos Episode 4: Heaven and Hell

Sagan the exobiologist is in his element talking about the atmospheres of other planets.

He covers too much stuff in one episode as usual.

Sagan starts off with the famous Tunguska event in Siberia. He explains how it might have been the result of a meteor crashing there.

Sagan talks about the hellish atmosphere of the planet Venus and how it got to be so. He elegantly extrapolates the lessons of that cosmic reality to the fate of our own planet Earth.

Great to see the prescient Sagan express concern about the man-made greenhouse effect on Earth at a time in the '70s when clearly environmental consciousness would not have been so commonplace as it is today.

A generation after the series was made of course, the unfortunate reality is that humans are still firmly set on their suicidal course.

Cosmos Episode 3: The Harmony of the Worlds

Here comes Professor Sagan, the Great Astronomy Teacher!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was great to see Sagan launch into astrology with the elegance that only he is capable of. He pretty much demolished astrology in about five eloquent minutes. He pointed out the many incongruities and inconsistencies in the logic of astrology. Of course, the apologists for astrology will find counter-arguments to his arguments but that's a futile exercise.

Sagan enriched my knowledge of history as usual as he talked about how the size of the Earth was first calculated by the director of the Library of Alexandria ... or, perhaps he did that in another episode of Cosmos.

Sagan talked about the Anasazi people of Southwest America who had built a place where the Sun shone at a particular place on only the Solar Solstice.

Sagan went into European history and how Johannes Kepler's orbit intersected with that of Tycho Brahe. Seeing Sagan explain Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, I was reminded of my own days of undergraduate Physics. Clearly, Sagan's way of explaining it was far more interesting than the usual humdrum teacher's way of explaining it.

Oh, how one wishes one had a teacher like Sagan. But then, perhaps even that would not necessarily inspire all the students in class as students at that age tend to have different inspirations and focuses.

Cosmos Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

Hail Professor Sagan the Biologist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was extraordinary to see Sagan turn into the world's best teacher of biology as he talked about the origin and evolution of life on planet Earth.

The ease with which complex organic molecules can form in the atmosphere of the early planet Earth is sobering. One inevitably wonders about how can the same process not have been repeated elsewhere on other planets.

The complexity of the DNA molecule is rather perplexing to understand of course but one then it's difficult to grasp the expanse of millions of years and billions.

The self-replicating nature of biological molecules is fundamentally astonishing and the complexity of a single cell is truly mind boggling.

It will definitely help to find life elsewhere on other planets ... even the simplest sort of life forms as that will deprovincialize biology as Sagan put it. Hence, the continued search for life on Mars.

We have to develop the technologies in the future to go explore planets around other stars too in the nearby regions of our galaxy and look for life there. One wonders which will happen first.

Whether we will go to other planets around other stars and discover microbial life forms or whether some of our radio detection equipment will detect evidence of advanced extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the cosmos. Either of which will be plenty exciting but alas perhaps neither of these is destined to occur in my lifetime.

Cosmos Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

A spectacular opening to the series by Sagan as he provides a historical perspective about ourselves. Clearly, he is doing a conscious job of not presenting a Western-centric worldview or looking at the world as merely comprising of Westerners.

Sagan's knowledge of history would seem to suggest that he is a historian and not a scientist as he tours the Library of Alexandria and mourns the loss suffered as the result of the destruction of that temple of knowledge.

There's a message there for those who wish to understand it. The Library was the glory of the ancient world for seven long centuries. Yes!

How many monuments of the modern world can claim to have lived for that long. All that we would be able to think of as great have been built perhaps in the last one hundred years.

I can think of everything from the great skyscrapers to the great bridges to the space vehicles and the great cities.

But which of these will remain great seven centuries hence ... and therein lies the strange dichotomy. Humans, as Sagan so beautifully illustrates with his cosmic calendar, have made an appearance on the cosmic stage very recently indeed ... all of recorded human history has happened in the last few centuries which is like the last day of the cosmic calendar comprising the entire 15 billion years of our cosmos.

From the perspective of a single human life, centuries appear like eons ... many generation are born and die in the span of centuries and in recent times, our civilization is making progress in such an accelerated fashion that it is more impossible than ever before to predict where we'll be in the next 500 years from now.

And yet, the true history of the world comprises not centuries or millennia but millions of years. That's how long time is needed for the great forces of evolution to work their wonders.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed since the time of the great dinosaurs roaming this Earth. It is a fantastic fact, isn't it, to imagine this Earth during the time of the dinosaurs.

Life took even longer to reach the stage of those complicated reptiles ... the Cambrian explosion of 500 million years ago can be pinpointed as the epoch since when evolution has happened in an 'accelerated' fashion. And yet, clearly, 500 million years for humans to evolve is not a cakewalk on the scale of a human lifetime.

And, oh, evolution is not a certain affair. There are unpredictabilities and randomness built into the evolutionary process. The appearance of humans hinges on many chance occurrences not the least of which was the 'lucky' extinction of the dinosaurs.

Naturally, one wonders as one ponders these great time spans ... what lies in our future? We live in an universe where a thousand years is merely two seconds on the cosmic calendar.

We indeed have thousands of years ahead of us. Even a hundred thousand years. And a million years. And 10 million years. And 100 million. And 500 million. And a billion. And five billion years.

Then of course the Sun will die and we will have to find a new home as the Earth will die along with the Sun.

It amazes me as to why these scientific reflections don't seem to hold so much attraction for much of humanity as it does for Sagan and for me and a few others like me. Perhaps that is all right. Perhaps the contemplation of the cosmos is a scary business somehow and people might get scared if they contemplate it too much.

It's perhaps good that humans are happy to live their humdrum lives without worrying too much about the origin and evolution of humans or of the cosmos.

But it gives me a sense of calm ... some perspectives to counteract the pulls and pressures of the rat race of life.

Cosmos Episode 9: The Lives of the Stars

What a rousing climax to this episode as Sagan imagines being on a planet somewhere about the central disk of the galaxy and how each morning on that planet, the inhabitants would witness not a sunrise but a galaxyrise.

What a soaring imagination to cover in one episode everything starting with Chemical Elements 101 from the Cavendish Laboratory to talk about white dwarfs, neutron stars, super novae, red giants, pulsars, and black holes.

Not much needs to be revised in this generation old series from his descriptions of the interior of the atoms to his descriptions about the lives of the stars.

And oh, he talks about how black holes might be worm holes through which we might be able to journey to different parts of the universe. The usual science fiction stuff of course but I can hardly wait to fall into a black hole.

It occurred to me that in the time since Sagan made this series, no one else has dared to venture onto this territory and try and improve on Sagan. Seems like an impossible task in spite of the advancements in so many aspects of making TV programs.

That proves that this series was essentially possible due to the singular talent of one man.

Time will tell if there will ever be another one quite as talented.

September 18, 2010

Old? Who Me?

Being a judge at 103 must be a pretty unique experience indeed.

And America must be the only country in the world that lets that be.

Well, I do admire the system that allows it and the men who persevere so.

Delhi Earthquake

Earthquake in Delhi.

I think a mild tremor shook Gurgaon about 10/15 minutes back.

I am not even sure if it was a figment of my imagination ... we'll see tomorrow I guess.

Sure, nobody came rushing out of their homes in the middle of the night. I guess everyone is fast asleep on a Friday night after a tiring week.

It's only weird me who is still not quite dead and so felt the very slight tremors in my chair in my fourth floor apartment.

Am I hallucinating? Or, a canary in the mine.

September 13, 2010

Oh! Hi! Oh ...

So, the usual reactions and anger and disappointment.

The State of Ohio in its wisdom decided not to let any company outsource any IT projects to India. Fair enough. And then the howling starts out of India. Quite predictably.

I don't understand all this hullabaloo of course.

I think lawmakers of the State of Ohio are perfectly justified in trying to preserve and protect jobs of that state for the citizens of that state.

Contrast this with the hullabaloo that has happened in the recent past in India itself where politicians of a state want to protect jobs in that for people of that state only.

But of course, one need not worry too much at this development.

Private businesses and corporations exist for one purpose only — to maximize their own profits. These entities will push outsourcing for the simple reason of enhancing their own profits. And in this game of monetary oneupmanship, India has got some advantages because of the low cost of its IT manpower.

So, so need to lose one's sleep! At least, not so soon ...


I heard this for the first time ...

Folks being 'put to sleep' at a distance ...

Well, manpowe is never really a problem in this blessed country called India ... so, I guess the premise of this technique is a tad difficult for me to appreciate.

I am thinking of those lethal injection delivery techniques ... used to punish criminals ... one of the ways of executing a criminal of death row.

Oh well, it's perhaps not right to write about an advance in medical science/anesthesiology and a way to kill criminals.

Giraffe Shuttle and Panda

No kidding!

Pardon me if I seem like I am being a brand ambassador of GE.

These stuff really exist!

All for the benefit of tiny-tots of course!

Well, Godspeed then!

September 11, 2010

Remembrances ...

Thanks to Geetha, I got these wonderful tombstone literature.

Wonderful strong words about the Pope

Geetha sent me this link ... I don't know how and where she comes across all this good stuff!!!

Wonderful and strong-worded criticism of the Pope:

I was thinking that all this religion business has become such an integral part of one's life that it's difficult to get rid of it all without having some alternate structure.

People don't think too much about the evil that religion is and about the pure lunacy and idiocy of religion. So, they don't mind placidly accepting all the untruths being peddled by religion.

The problem is that if you get rid of religious rituals, what do you do when a person dies and what do you when someone is born? How do you observe all those occasions leaving religion aside?

I mean, stupid Indians who consider themselves rich (for example, I have in mind, the so-called hot-shot IT professionals) and intelligent do not mind buying a car and then taking it to some temple to have it blessed by God or whatever it is that they do.

The same stupid folks ... when they take the even bigger step of buying a house, of course they organize a big religious function ... for what, I would be damned if I know.

So, all in all, since religion is so deeply ingrained into people's everyday lives or into the important aspects or occasions of their lives, it seems it is going to be tough to get rid of this menace of religion though it's great to have people like Dawkins and Hitchens and so many others calling a spade a spade finally.

September 07, 2010

Masterful Friedman

As always, Tom Friedman manages to come up with an incisive article with a lot of clarity.

The days are over when America used to be the sole superpower. But now what? Well, so now, we have an Iran with crazy ideas and a crazy leadership doing crazy things and we have an Afghanistan caught in its eternal web of poverty and poppy not to mention religious poppiness too.

Looking back upon the history of the 20th century, the story seems simple enough in retrospect: couple of World Wars which were essentially European wars with competing national or racial or political identities and ideologies.

What will the history of the 21st century look alike a hundred years from now? Perhaps there will be lots of little or regional turmoils and no big ones on the scale of those world wars. The key driver of those conflicts will be differing religious worldviews — truly a tragedy that all these religious ideas which have long outlived their relevance not to mention validity still can arouse so much feelings amidst people. I wish people would yawn at any mention of religion or any religious references whatsoever. But I am afraid that day is nowhere close to us. Being a citizen of India, I get to see how deeply embedded in people's psyches religion is. Of course, people in the so-called advanced countries are hardly much better ... it's easy enough to whip up religious hysteria in those nations as well despite their self-proclaimed advancements.

September 01, 2010

Moore'e Law Revisited

The following NYT article is interesting ...
People of course have been predicting the end of the Moore's Law since almost as long as Moore has predicted it. But it has been happily surviving all those dire predictions.

Today, science is faced with some seemingly fundamental scientific limits as it seeks to miniaturize chips and switching and data storage devices.

But as the article points out, perhaps solutions will yet be found using some quantum principle ... some offshoot of nanotechnology perhaps ... one is happy to hear exotic phrases such as memristers and what not ...

What a journey we have traversed in such a short span of time — from vacuum tubes to quantum computing. I think I indeed had vacuum tubes in the physics lab of my college during the days of my youth. Well, that might give the impression that I must surely be a doddering old 80-year-old gentleman looking 60 years back in time. But that would be a wrong impression.

My undergraduate days were from 1989 to 1991 only. So, the existence of vacuum tubes in the lab in those 'recent' days actually demonstrates how archaic India is.

But of course the communication revolution has meant that we have access now to MIT OpenCourseware stuff! So, in a way, many barriers are gone ...

All the wonderful stuff of science ... from Hubble images to Chandra images to the human genome to other biological projects to SETI@Home and EINSTEIN@Home ...

And now we can perhaps look forward to the day when we will have cellphone sized storage devices ... the sort of external hard disk which I have with a capacity of 500 GB ... soon, the capacity of that hard drive might increase to 500 petabytes ... which is 500,000 terabytes ... which is 500,000,000 gigabytes ... which is 500,000,000,000 megabytes ... which is 500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes ...

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