Category Archives: science education

bumbling ball in a box and humbling math…

Let us say that we want to measure the volume of a sphere, fitting snugly  in to (or ‘bounded by’) a cube. It is like – we are putting a tennis ball in a ‘cubical’ box – wherein, the diameter of the ball is almost the same as the length of one edge of the box.  Simple, eh? Very easy to visualize…

But is amazing that, the volume of the ball could only be a very very very verrry small fraction of volume of the cube.

You may ask how,  you silly ol’ man?

But apparently it is so in dimensions higher than 3. Ta Da!

Brian Hayes has written a delightful essay on the subject – called ‘An adventure in the Nth Dimension’ – please savour it, if you can!

The area enclosed by a circle is πr2. The volume inside a sphere is 4/3πr3. These are formulas I learned too early in life. Having committed them to memory as a schoolboy, I ceased to ask questions about their origin or meaning. In particular, it never occurred to me to wonder how the two formulas are related, or whether they could be extended beyond the familiar world of two- and three-dimensional objects to the geometry of higher-dimensional spaces. What’s the volume bounded by a four-dimensional sphere? Is there some master formula that gives the measure of a round object in n dimensions?

Some 50 years after my first exposure to the formulas for area and volume, I have finally had occasion to look into these broader questions. Finding the master formula for n-dimensional volumes was easy; a few minutes with Google and Wikipedia was all it took. But I’ve had many a brow-furrowing moment since then trying to make sense of what the formula is telling me. The relation between volume and dimension is not at all what I expected; indeed, it’s one of the zaniest things I’ve ever come upon in mathematics. I’m appalled to realize that I have passed so much of my life in ignorance of this curious phenomenon. I write about it here in case anyone else also missed school on the day the class learned n-dimensional geometry.

Go to thearticle, and become ecstatic… Really.

This is how any stuff about popularizing sciences should be.

It is amazing that – kindling our imagination and provoking the curious minds  – are still happening in spite of the best efforts of the Discovery  and National Geographic Channels – not to speak of the other unspeakable channels …


star (& navel) gazing

Friday, the 19th of February, 2010 saw the elementary children in, well, their Ag, Au and Pt.

The school closed slightly early on friday – so that the upper elementary children could get back to the school later in the evening, eagerly looking forward to a night of star watching.

Now, many of these upper elementary children have been working on the ideas of the universe for quite a while. Also, the school seems to have acquired a brand new and a very fine (high resolution) astronomical telescope recently – the details of which I would find out later.

Oh well. The school had arranged for a sumptuous dinner of assorted thingies and also some fizzy beverages (or so a little bird told me, oh the horror) to help the children stay awake (I suppose) and contented. It was the first night of all these children staying in the school premises overnight and they seem to have had loads of fun – waking up and watching the skies and getting fascinated and falling asleep and pulling each other’s legs and playing, periodically and practically  the whole night.

There was a Stellarium based presentation of the skies and the constellations / stars / planets that  the children were suppose to see; the children marched up and down the new ErdKinder building drawing in the whole experience, the whole night, taking turns at the Telescope.

Of course, I had a blow by blow account lasting for an hour, about the events and things that happened that night, from my sleepy child. In my opinion, this indeed is the right time to instill that sense of awe, humility and possibilities of contemplation in the elementary children. I am glad and pleased that it happened. Thanks, nammashaale.

I could still recollect with intense pleasure, the night, when I got a chance to look at the Crab Nebula. This was more than 2 decades back, when the cities (at least, Chennai) did not  have a huge number of weepy Na vapour lamps and assorted (and assaulting) light pollutants – there was practically no Internet too, then.

One January night, a pal of mine and I, had taken my good ol’ Rajdoot motorcycle  (‘Jagaddal’ it was affectionately called then by me, in an obvious reference to the nice Ritwik Ghatak film – Ajantrik – ‘non-mechanical’) went well beyond the city of Madras – spread a mat by the side of a hillock and spent the rest of the night, nebula gazing.

It was an intensely silent sight and that whole night we were contiunally gazing at the distant pasts, across millions of light years, may be at the times when on our earth Dinosaurs were happily roaming around… Even now I get ganderbumps, when I think of that night of Naasadiya Sukta dancing in my head…

That night, we did trip the light fantastic! And oh boy, how great that experience was…


Omphaloskepticism doesnt’ even begin to describe this post, of course!

eclipse, brain damage

What would one do, if a beautiful event, that doesn’s happen or comeby often times, because it is such a rare exhilerating thing – just happens to happen near one’s very doorsteps?

You would expect that people would get out of their couches and rush out, yeah? They would see and soak in the whole environment, taking in everything that the event has to offer, drink of its delicate probablities and be overcome with the immense humility that a grand celestial event would naturally warrant…


Actually, many folks would instead, prefer to rot in front of their idiotic TV sets blankly watching the TV coverage of the event by various ‘breaking noose’ channels, pouting statistics and breaking air through anus… Sorry.

This is what happened on 15th January, for the poor partial solar eclipse – at least in Bangalore!

Obviously, the self appointed eclipse-experts and protectors of people had managed to pursuade millions of folks who possibly were on the path of totality (and many more that were not exactly on the path, such as Bangaloreans) into relinquishing perhaps the only chance of their life to experience the beauty and awe of this stellar event! Sad.

That day was a holiday, at least in Bangalore, for Makara Sankaranthi. I had planned to visit a few folks on that day, but I was very wary of images of the impending traffic, that were forever floating up. But, lo and behold, the roads were all deserted. We were armed with a couple of x-ray sheets and every few minutes we parked our vehicle and saw the grand scene. Very peaceful and vaguely melancholic. Earlier we had watched the dramatic pin-hole camera images of the crescent sun, by merely looking at the play of light of the sun under the shadow giving trees. Fantastic.

However, the relatives who we wanted to visit, were all huddled up in front of their TV sets, while hermetically sealing their homes off from the ill and evil effects and harmful rays and what not of the poor and much misunderstood eclipsed sun. They would not answer the doorbell immediately because they were watching the eclipse so intently on TV or because they thought the evil effects of the sun will waft in through the crack in the door, if they open it carelessly, whatever! Some other relatives were busy watching films of their favourite stars or were doing rituals to ward off the evil effects (of course, without understanding even an iota of what they were mumbling and doing) – some of them were even actively twiddling their thumbs and were pacifying their growling stomachs, since they had not eaten anything from the morning!

In their bathrooms, the water heaters / geysers were switched on so that right after the eclipse, they could quickly go and take a ritual bath and eat some freshly prepared food. And, may be later they would ‘see’ some random expert talking about the eclipse, on their favourite TV channel…

Intermediated experiences are so surreal, but sometimes, they are also belly-laughteringly  hilarious!

Leave alone science and scientific temper and religious practices and rituals and what not – many of these folks don’t even understand what they are afraid of and what they should be afraid of (such as TV). Nor do they even seek to understand the principles behind the rituals – and the meditative & affirmative aspects of them. What Automatons!

But, the world is NOT ending, as the following mesmerizing photographs shot by Thekambattu folks, tell us. All is really well.

"A sequence taken in our Front Verandah during the Eclipse of 15th January 2010, where you can see that the dappled light moves from being close-to-circular to "eclipsed" back to close-to-circular"

a stunningly shot image!

All photos, some 9 of them, here: picasa web album.

Photos shared with the permission of folks from Thekambattu. Thanks!  Their blog post about the eclipse is here.

PS: Probably Pink Floyd realized it long back that eclipse is always followed (or accompanied) by brain damage. These two are incidentally, songs from their album ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon.” Now I know why many folks react they way they do, during eclipse! LOL!!

PPS: How can I let go of the opportunity! Of course erdkinder and I, had fun learning a whole lot of things about the solar eclipse, such is their lot.

uranium paranoiaum

India’s generation of children crippled by uranium wastescreams the ‘World news’ section of the British tabloid The Observer.

The byline reads: ‘Observer investigation uncovers link between dramatic rise in birth defects in Punjab and pollution [sic] from coal-fired power stations’

Ahem! Let us go through this article first and then treat it with the contempt & disdain that it deserves.

Let me say, I admire this excellent effort at factifuging. However, never mind the facts, if you do a google search, you get copious amounts of random rumours and fearmongering… No real analysis, no understanding at all – all are characterized by a mere store-and-forward procedure!

“…he was systematical, and, like all systematic reasoners, he would move both heaven and earth, and twist and torture everything in nature to support his hypothesis.”

— Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy.

As I had informed the dear friends who forwarded this link rather regretfully, about this article from the blinkered Observer – ‘At multiple levels, this reportage is dishonest, scaremongering and a travesty of facts at best – even if there are so many kids that are affected as the report claims. A price for the so-called ‘development’ – what else. Though my heart goes out to those children…’

Normally I would ignore these kinds of pseudo-scientific, sensation/scandal/scare mongering and half-baked articles, but then this was from the famed Observer magazine and it seemed to have truly flummoxed my friends  (who were wondering whether any of their friemds would know anything about this). Hence the diatribe, much like the rant against the swineflu hysteria that I scribed elsewhere!.

Some facts first:

  1. About half of the worlds electricity is generated using these fossil fuel fired thermal power plants (FFFTPP) – obviously these are located all over the world, including the GREAT Britain, sorry, actually small England.
  2. About 70% of the power generation in India is undertaken through FFFTPPs; so chances are that, right now I am using the power that is polluting India at many levels. I admit to that, though I am generally careful about how I use the grid power. Mea culpa, of course – just like many other paperback activists I know. But I can’t with a straight face, complain about the development of the country and say self-righteously – ‘look why are they polluting’ kind of inanities & dishonest statements.
  3. As long as we are sucking at the power grid, using the centralized facilities and strenuously working towards bland uniformity all over the place, we would continue to live (and die) in glass houses; we can’t really afford to throw an activist’s stone anywhere!
  4. Whenever we mine for things – Iron ores, Copper ores, Aluminium ores, Quartz , Coal – you name it – all these minerals/ores have traces / low levels of other elements too. This would include naturally occurring radioactive isotopes of elements such as Thorium and Uranium, But when huge amounts of ores are ‘beneficiated’ – meaning concentrated so that relevant ‘useful’ elements could be economically recovered / extracted – the processes would leave behind concentrated amounts of other elements too. One such fallout of the essential nature of metallurgical / chemical processes is the concentration of radioactive isotopes. The release of these isotopes in to the ‘environment’ will lead to radioactive contamination.
  5. In the case of coal that goes into FFFTPPs, HUGE quantities of coal are consumed. We don’t ‘see’ it normally, but the numbers are terrible and huge. For a 1000 megawatt FFFTPP, thus the amount of Uranium-235 that would be released per year would amount to a whopping 30-40 Kgs and an equal amount of Thorium too, to boot!
  6. If you compare this with a Nuclear Power Plant (which say,  is also of a 1000 megawatt capacity) – the radioactive emission from a FFFTPP is circa 100 times HIGHER! These numbers are unbelievable, but true within a reasonable margin of error. So what is TRUE is that a ‘normal’ thermal power plant (FFFTPP) is 100 times more dangerous than a comparable Nuclear Power Plant. And I am only discussing the ‘radioactivity’ – not any other pollution. But we rarely hear anything about this!
  7. The reasons are two fold: A: Thermal Power Plant processes are more or less ‘simple’ and are allegedly widely known – hence the logic of our media-crazed population is that, since we know something about this deal, then the bad effects of a plant would be some undefined ‘pollution’ – nothing really that would cause an alarm. To put it more succinctly: People DON’T know that they DON’T know much about these FFFTPPs. So, because of the lack of meta-cognition, they think they have a ‘handle’ over the situation! B: But, most people do NOT understand nuclear power – it is actually Unclear Power for them. Besides Atom Bombs conjure up visions of death and destruction – the danse macabre! People KNOW that they DON’T know much about this Unclear Power; hence there is this irrational fear.

Fear and loathing by The Observ err

Here’s where the paranoia mongering art of The Observer comes in! Their methodology that appears to be working comprises the following tactics:

  1. Have screaming headlines about a ‘third world’ nation and the way the rulers of that country are systematically misgoverning and raping their nation.
  2. Generalize based on as few samples as possible.
  3. Extend the ‘third world’ image by selectively giving examples of conspiracies, bureaucratic lethargy.
  4. Use the 7B (as above) concept as above to fan paranoia.
  5. Introduce non-indigenous people (the so-called experts) into the ‘affected’ population – and reaffirm the imagery that these externak experts are the ONLY saviors of the situation. This in the classic ‘white man’s burden – of which, we all tiringly know so much.

Research? What research, eh??

One thing that strikes me is that there is NO need for any research at all to come up with some emotional and pseudo-activist statements. The article quotes a scientific article from Scientific American, and another from one particular Krylov’s article. How come no references are given? Is it because, just like most of the other fellows, the author of the screaming article also didn’t look up the actual references?

In my case, I did not want to pay for the springer verlag article of Krylov – but I at least read the first page which is available free – unlike probably the author of the Observer article.

It is available here – read for yourself:

Again, the Observer article creates an impression that the radioactive contamination of places around FFFTPP has just been proved or discovered by The Observer in 2009 – that too in India! And that it tries to create an illusion that it is also incidentally corroborated by the research of the Russian scientist Krylov! And that, even Scientific American has recently written about this!

Of course, this is merely a few light years from the truth.

Some 40 years back, US scientists – J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco arrived at the same point in their article “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants” in the December 8, 1978, issue of Science magazine.

The reference for the abstract is here:

This is the earliest reference to the subject that I could trace, though am sure the bibliographic references in the article itself would have many more past references.

So, what’s new – except the sensational scandal that one could create of this sudden and finest discovery by the illustrious Observer?

White man’s burden

Oh these poor third world bastards and heathens, what will they do without us white Europeans slogging to help them, rallying to their support… Poor things! Why, they don’t even have good governance, after we left their shores post WorldWarII.

Look, how THEY are screwing up their own environment! They don’t even have good testing or research facilities! The rulers are all thugs. They always want to hide all sinister things under the carpet. But then India is still under the ‘hindu rate of growth’ – so only WE can help them heathens…

Pssst. How soon can we colonize you again, now that the stage is set with the invasion of our advanced scouts – the Credit Cards and Foreign-Institutional-Investors!

‘nuff said.

Why this issue was taken up by The Observer at all?

Why can’t The Observer write about how we are faring, what are the real issues etc? I think the reason is that, tentative mention of RADIOACTIVITY conjuring up a veritable ‘dance of shiva’ is rather sexy. It immediately turns heads. More so, if it is not from The Observer’s backyard. Much more so, if there could be spidermanish ‘intrepid reporter’ who can go to a heathen country and do an EXPOSE!

In one of the swine flu posts elsewhere, I have handled the question of why talking about lame tobacco deaths or even road accidents is so duh! And why swine flu virus and radioactivity are instant head turners, with a lot of rumour mongering value!

In conclusion:

  • The article selectively gives ‘facts’ while dishing out paranoia.
  • It ignores the SAME effects that any given fossil fuel fired thermal power plant would likely have ANYWHERE & EVERYWHERE in the worlIt takes a particular case (even assuming that the data that The Observer got is not suspect) and generalizes and asks the stupid question of whether all the next generation children from India are going to be malformed.
  • It takes credit for discoveries, that were long back discussed threadbare.
  • The samples were not tested in India, where it is possible for one to easily test them – instead it was taken to Germany – was this done to prove that a country like India is not to be trusted or the facilities for even testing just don’t exist?
  • Are children likely to have been affected in Punjab, India due to the radioactive isotope contamination? Yes. It is true of ANY thermal power plant anywhere in the world, including where ‘The Observer’ is published from – England.
  • Is the WHOLE of India’s next generation children going to be affected? You guess!
  • Is it not SAD that some children are affected? Yes. We need to bother about this. There are ways, but it is not within the scope of this counter-expose. I would however say what Bapuji said and practiced ages back – ‘be the change you wish to see.’
  • On the web, one can find enough information – no need to even test samples, it is all documented – then why this clandestine process of testing, and secretely smuggling out samples and all that? Why create an elaborate image of ‘research’ when there is not even a semblance of it in the first place? Why all the hoopla?
  • There is no shraddha – no due diligence, no perseverance in the article; actually this is what I object to.

My line of argument means that there is a morethan fifty percent chance that I am consuming power generated by FFFTPPs, even as I write this blog post, even as The Observer continues to host the random bits of scaremongering news, masquarding as unbiased news! All of us are adding to the Uranium issue among many others, ofcourse!
I am bored now, there are so many mal and ill formed ideas and subtexts in the Observer article. Let me get back to gardening, to cool my blood vessels.

Finally, granted that The Observer article is NOT at not all science or an informed opinion – is it even a reasonable reportage? You judge.


Coal Combustion: Nuclear Resource or Danger?
— Alex Gabbard
ORNL Review, Summer/Fall 1993, Vol. 26, Nos. 3 and 4.