Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Anything for science.

One of the biggest hazards of deep sea diving is something called the ‘bends’. The air was breath is 80% nitrogen. Put the human body under pressure, and the nitrogen is transformed into tiny bubbles that migrate into the blood and tissues. If the pressure is changed too rapidly, as with a too quick ascent by a diver; the bubbles trapped within the body begin to fizz like a freshly opened soda bottle, clogging tiny blood vessels and depriving cells of oxygen and causing so excruciating pain that sufferers are prone to bend in agony. A great deal of what we know about surviving at extremes is owed to extraordinary father and son team of John Scott and J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane’s gift to diving was to work the rest intervals necessary to manage an ascent from the depths without getting the bends. With Admiralty funding, JBS acquired a decompression chamber that he called the ‘pressure pot.’ This was a metal cylinder in which three people could sit at a time and could be sealed and subjected to tests of various types. Volunteers were required to sit in ice water while breathing ‘aberrant atmosphere’ or subjected to rapid changes or pressure. In one experiment, Haldane simulated a dangerously hasty ascent and the dental fillings in his teeth exploded. It is said that every experiment ended with someone having seizures, vomiting or bleeding. The chamber was virtually soundproof, so the only way for occupants to signal distress was to tap insistently on the chamber wall or to hold up notes on the small window. Once while poisoning himself with elevated levels of oxygen, Haldane had a fit so severe that he crushed several vertebrae. Collapsed lungs were a routine hazard. Perforated eardrums were quite common. Haldane in one of his essays writes “ the drum generally heals up; and if the hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, on can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.” It was not just Haldane, but even his colleagues and family were subjects of his experiments. Sent on a simulated descent, his wife had a fit that lasted 13 minutes. When at last she stopped bouncing across the floor, she was helped on her feet and sent home to cook dinner. Haldane happily employed anyone who happened to be around and on one occasion a former prime minister of Spain, Juan Negrin. Dr Negrin complained afterward of minor tingling and ‘curious velvety sensation on the lips’ Dr Negrin was lucky, a similar experiment with oxygen deprivation left Haldane without feeling his buttocks and lower spine for six years.

Adapted from Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Who has more hair: you or a chimpanzee?

Both chimps and humans have the same number of hair follicles about 5 million. However, the human hair is thinner and more transparent than the hair of other primates.Hence, although we have equal number of hair, the chimps look hairier. We have lost our fur and no one knows why for sure, there are many theories
floating around (and you can cough out your own theory too, no one will mind). But I would like to agree to the one proposed by Darwin, 'Sexual Selection' . Darwin believed that as we humans evolved, our ancestors
chose partners with lesser and lesser hair and the hairy ones finally lost out. We see this even today, where our fascination for that smooth, hairless female skin makes the women spend painful hours waxing in a parlour. Similarly, we men have to spend time everyday in front of the mirror, to satisfy the women's need for clean shaven men. Now again no one knows why men retained facial hair, but for this I have my own theory
(all brickbats for me, not Darwin) I believe, our ancestral women were much more tolerant towards men with facial hair than men were towards women. May be after a day of hunting the woolly mammoth, men wanted to feel something much smoother! The present day women though have lost that tolerance and I am sent right back to the shaving mirror, even if a stub of hair protrudes from my face!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Elementary elements.

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Two of the rarest natural elements on earth are Astatine and Francium. Astatine is so rare, that it is practically unstudied. It has a name and a place on the periodic table, but nothing else. Francium is so rare that it is thought that at any given moment there may be fewer than twenty francium atoms on earth.
Astatine is the only element whose discovery was confirmed by a non-primate. Emilio Segre had identified Astatine in 1939 and injected it into a guinea pig to study it. Because, astatine is below iodine in the periodic table, the body thinks it to be iodine and handles it as such. So in the guinea pig, it was selectively filtered and concentrated by the rodents thyroid gland. Pretty neat trick!

I know the above elements like many other in the periodic table are quite obscure, but that does not mean obscure elements come in trace quantity. Take for example cerium, there is more of it on earth than copper. There is more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Not surprised yet. Praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium and dysprosium are more abundant than tin. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Does wearing sunglasses cause anaemia?

Yes it can, and to tell you how it does I need to introduce to you two nutrients. 
1. Folic Acid; it is one of the vitamin in the B complex group. Among it's many functions one very important is the role it plays in manufacture of red blood cells (RBC's are small cell's in your blood that transport oxygen, Anaemia is a fancy name for their deficiency)
2. Vitamin D; Body produces its own vitamin D from cholesterol in the presence of ultraviolet light (UV).
Like you can see, our body needs the UV light for Vitamin D production, but the same UV light is quite deadly for Folic acid and can destroy it. So the body has to hit a balance between the UV light it receives, not too much not too less. To maintain this balance it pulls a pretty neat trick. 
Introducing Melanin; Melanin is a pigment that gives our skin its colour, most importantly it is body's natural sunscreen, blocking the UV rays. The amount of Melanin is controlled by the boss of all glands,the Pituitary. Whenever you are exposed to sunlight, the Pituitary gland goes into an overdrive, cranking up melanin production to protect the body's Folic Acid reserves. When you come into a shady area, it reduces melanin production to keep Vitamin D manufacture unaffected (which needs UV). So how does the pituitary, which is located in a dark corner of the brain, know whether there is sunshine or not? It has its own spy-cam,
your eyes. When sunlight falls on the optic nerve, it triggers the pituitary to produce melanin or reduce it when there is no sunlight. So when you wear those fancy sunglasses and walk in sunlight, your pituitary thinks
that you are still in the shade. Melanin production is still at the shade levels. However, the UV light is now destroying your Folic acid en masse. Over a period, your Folic acid reserves deplete, which leads to a fall
in RBC production leading to anaemia. Phew! So next time you think you have anaemia, and pop in that iron supplement, try popping out those Ray-Ban's. Your doctor never told you this did he/she?

Friday, October 18, 2013

What's wrong with my cotton shirt ?

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For all its virtues, cotton is the preferred choice of material for most of our clothing. I even purchased a few shirts, which had a label proudly displaying “100% Organic Cotton.” Similarly, it feels good when I know; that the paper I use has “XX% recycled fibre in it.” Despite all these feel good labels, it’s a marketing gimmick after all. By trumpeting the narrow virtues of the product, we easily miss the big picture and miss the numerous negative impacts of our purchase. My Cotton shirt was indeed organic, the farmer who grew the cotton, did not use pesticide on his crop. Cotton crop alone accounts for 10% of the worlds pesticide. The organophosphates (which cause central nervous system damage in humans) that they spray, to control bugs and weeds, ends up in streams and rivers. Given this damage, the benefits of Organic cotton are indeed laudable. Then there is the downside. Cotton is a very thirsty crop; it took about 2.5 tonnes of water to make the cotton for my shirt. The shirts I purchased had various hues. Cotton yarn is bleached, dyed and finished with industrial chemicals that include chromium, chlorine and formaldehyde, each a toxin in its own sense. Cotton, resists absorbing dye, so when a dyed yarn is rinsed, a large amount rinses into the factory wastewater, which is pumped into our local rivers. These dyes harbour carcinogens- hence workers in dye plants have unusually high rates of leukaemia. Similarly, various products make claims on being healthy or environmentally friendly based on a single attribute (fried snacks do not become healthy just because they have zero transfat or no cholesterol). Indeed nothing made industrially can be utterly green or healthy only relatively so. When my wife explained to me on how a drug discovery is made, I realised the immense amount of research that goes into such a find. The care taken to learn about the impact of the molecule on humans, its metabolism in the body and the time taken for it to be eliminated from our system is truly commendable. However, how much research actually goes into studying what happens to the eliminated molecule. These chemicals once eliminated do not just disappear. Take for example all those tiny doses of synthetic estrogens, found in birth control pills. Even though the human body excretes these estrogen compounds in the form of a metabolite, bacteria in sewage cleave the molecule and recreate the original compound. This estrogen, is known to “feminise” male fish (male fish stop making sperm and instead produce eggs). Similarly any of us who take antibiotics or use antibiotic soap add, it to the 11,000 tons of antibiotics used annually by animal farms.

To know our shopping impact, I recommend the site Though mostly focused on US and European products, we will find many products we used in India reviewed. Use it in making an informed purchase, make a difference to your health and environment. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ridges on the edges

Take a coin and look at the edge; can you see the ridges. Those ridges are the invention or innovation of Sir Isaac Newton. After all the laws and discoveries had made Newton famous, he was appointed as Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. Counterfeiting of currency was rampant during those days. Newton implemented a harsh regime to deter counterfeiting, which included hanging and quartering of convicts.

Many coins were made of precious metal, and people used to shave the edge of coins to collect the metal. To prevent this Newton introduced the milled edges on coins and is still followed today. In recognition of Newton’s contribution, the British £ 2 coin issued in 1997 had the phrase “Standing on the shoulders of giants” around its milled edge. These words are taken from a letter that Newton sent to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, in which he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” 

Monday, October 14, 2013

He saved millions and he killed millions…

Nitrogen is a very important element for plants and abundant in the atmosphere. But this nitrogen is pretty inert and hardly available for plants. So when someone invented a process to make nitrogen react at an industrial scale and make a vital compound, he pretty much changed the face of agriculture. The process was of manufacturing Ammonia, a precursor for all fertilizers and the person who invented it was a German, Fritz Haber. Our textbooks immortalize him by teaching us the Haber process of manufacturing ammonia, but this is the story of Haber’s dark side. Although Haber’s process saved millions of people from starvation, Haber cared little about fertilizers. He had pursued cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives during the First World War. His murderous inventions were, not appreciated in his family and more so by his wife Clara Immerwahr, who constantly pleaded with Haber to give up his projects. Clara was the first woman to earn a Ph.D from the prestigious university of Breslau. She supported Haber by translating manuscripts into English and providing technical support for his nitrogen projects. But she refused to help on the bromine projects, because she was aware that the project was meant to develop chemical warfare (which was banned by the Hague Pact). In 1915, Germany tried to shell the Russian army with xylyl bromide, but the temperature in Russia was so cold that the compound froze solid. Haber, abandoned bromine and adopted its cousin chlorine. Haber had replaced bromine with three Chlorine compounds. Grunkreuz ( green cross), blukreuz ( blue cross) and the blistering agent gelbkreuz ( yellow cross) today infamous as mustard gas. The first attack at Ypres, had 5000 Frenchmen burned in a muddy trench. Horrified by her husband’s projects, she pleaded him to stop. When Haber, gave a dinner party on the success of the Ypres attack, Clara was so appalled that she shot herself in the chest, with Fritz’s army pistol. The very next day, without making any funeral arrangements for his wife, Haber left for the eastern front to carry out more attacks. Despite Haber’s chemicals, Germany lost the war and was denounced as a scoundrel nation. After the war in 1919 the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Haber for his process, but a year later he was charged as an international war criminal for prosecuting a campaign of chemical warfare. Humiliated at the huge repatriations Germany had to pay to the allies, Haber spent six futile years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans, so that he could pay the repatriations himself.
Haber had also invented an insecticide called Zyklon A. A German company tinkered with his formula after the war, to produce a more efficient second generation gas. Within years the Nazis took over Germany and were gassing millions of Jews with this second Generation gas- Zyklon B. Nazis exiled Haber, for being a Jew and he died in 1934 while travelling to England to seek refuge

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Crash Course on Particle zoo…

In school we were taught about the proton, neutron and electron – which allegedly made up the basic structure of an atom. We were taught that these are the basic structure of all matter. Well, now that we are grown and no more in school, its time we learn some adult stuff. So here is the crash course, to start with.
Lets recap- We know that an atom has a nucleus, which contains protons and neutrons. Electrons go around them. We also know electrons are negatively charged and have negligible mass. Protons are positive and neutrons are neutral and have equal mass.
Our old friends’ electrons are not alone, they have 5 more brothers and physicists call them flavours. Electron, Muon and tau are negatively charged brothers and electron neutrino , muon neutrino and tau neutrino have no charge. Electrons are smaller than muons which are smaller than tauons. All six together are called ‘Leptons.’
Our other old friends, Proton and Neutrons are actually made of smaller particles. These smaller particles are called Quarks. Quarks come in six flavours. Up (u), down (d), charm (c), strange (s), top (t) and bottom (b).
Protons are made of 2 up quarks and one down quark. Neutrons are made of one up and 2 down quarks. Similarly various other particles are made up of a combination of these quarks. When a particle is made up of 2 quarks it is called a ‘Meson’. When it is made of 3 quarks it is a ‘Baryon’. Protons and neutrons are examples of baryons.
In terms of mass u & d are lighter than c & s, which are lighter than t & b.
Just one thing to remember, these 6 quarks, mentioned above also have an anti-quark each.
So the above are the 12 elementary particles that make up our universe, including you and me. Now for the four fundamental forces of nature, without which the zoo is not complete.
1. The strong force: The strongest force in nature, but has a very small range (just within the nucleus). This force holds the quark together and forms the protons and neutrons.
2. Electromagnetic force: Responsible for electromagnetic emission and absorption.
3. The weak force: It has a smaller range than the strong force. It is an important part of nuclear reactions
4. Gravitational force: He needs no introduction. This though is the weakest of all forces, but has an infinite range.
Now these forces are carried by the so called ‘force particles’ Gluons carry the strong force, photons carry the electromagnetic force and W and Z bosons carry the weak force. Though not a part of the standard model, Gravitons are suggested to carry Gravitational force.
Gluons and photons are massless, while rest of the elementary particles have mass. The reason for this was explained by the Higgs- boson particle. The so called ‘God Particle’ that is making news now and then. Scientists at CERN are trying to hunt it down to conclusively prove its existence. Thank you and hope you had a lovely time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What is the difference between regular, quick cooking and instant oats

Oats that we eat as breakfast cereals are generally whole grains, and are also called groats. To make groats, the grain is roasted at a low temperature which inactivates the fat-splitting enzyme (else the grains would quickly turn rancid). This roasting also gives the grain greater integrity when cooking. The whole groats are then processed into various shapes, and all have nearly the same nutritional value. Most of the oats we buy are either steel-cut oats or rolled oats.
Steel cut oats are groats, which are cut into two to four pieces for faster cooking. Rolled oats are whole grains that are steamed to make them soft and then pressed between rollers to make them thin. The thinner the oats are rolled, the faster they rehydrate. Regular oats are about 0.8mm thick, “quick cooking” oats are 0.4mm thick and instant oats lesser than this.
Oats have several nutritional significance, that make them a highly recommended breakfast cereal. Oats contain a number of phenols that have anti-oxidant properties.
They are also rich in indigestible carbohydrates called beta-glucans, which absorb and store water. This beta-glucan property gives oatmeal its smooth, thick consistency. They also help lower our blood cholesterol levels. These, glucans are found mostly in the outer layers of the oat grain.
Oats do not have gluten-producing proteins, but are still avoided by people with gluten intolerance because many machines used to process oats are also used to process wheat and cross contamination cannot be necessarily avoided. 

Trivia: A German immigrant, named Ferdinand Schumacher, in late 19th Century developed rolled oats. Henry Cromwell neatly packed the oats for retail packaging, with cooking instructions. The brand was called “Quaker oats.”

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

When the Noble prizes were wrongly awarded.

In 1934, the well known Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi reported to the world that he had created element no 93. Fermi and his team claimed that by bombarding uranium samples with neutrons, they had not only created element 93 but other transuranic elements too. Fermi was awarded the Noble prize for his discovery. But in 1939, to everyone’s disbelief, two German scientist contradicted Fermi’s results. Fermi had not created transuranic elements, but rather discovered nuclear fission. Element 93, today called Neptunium (after planet Neptune) was finally discovered by Edwin McMillan and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1951. But the Noble prize was already awarded to Fermi for the discovering the transuranic elements. So rather than admit its mistake, the Swedish Academy, stubbornly rewarded McMillan only for investigating “the chemistry of the transuranic elements”