God of the Aquarium!

cosmos-a-space-time-odysseyI just finished watching an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey for the nth time. It is a warm evening with no beer. I resisted buying one for reasons unknown to me. I went out and had an Egg Burji from the street food vendor, bought a coke bottle and curd and returned to my room. It has now become a routine for me to stand on the terrace in the evening with a soft drink while staring at the stars and pondering existence. Today’s blog post is an idea that I had conceived a while ago. Many people believe that I am in some type of mission to disprove God’s existence. That is far from the truth. My mission through my blog posts is to elucidate my point of view. Atheists are sadly some of the most misunderstood and mistrusted people on planet earth and if I could make a small but significant contribution in clarifying our position, I would consider that a success.

The scale of our universe is enormous. This is a phrase repeated time and again in various TV shows such as Cosmos, The Universe, Through the Wormhole and the like. But how many of us truly stop for a second and let that idea sink in? Most of us simply watch the awe inspiring visuals of these programmes and forget it. We are Homo sapiens ; the thinking beings. Whether you like it or not, faith is not an excuse to stop thinking. It took just 4 centuries for us to move from the Dark Ages to achieving monumental feats like landing a man on the Moon. All thanks to the precision, tenacity and dedication of several visionaries. Brave men and women who were never afraid to question authority and challenge dogma and forge new ideas in the cauldrons of their minds about our understanding of the universe. They were the pioneers; the giants on whose shoulders we stand today.

Antibiotics - Printed Diagnosis with Blurred Text. On Background of Medicaments Composition - Red Pills, Injections and Syringe.

My question is, why then are there a vast majority of people in the world who comfortably embrace the benefits of modern science and yet want to hold onto medieval/pre-medieval superstitions and bronze age myths? If it wasn’t for the scientific method, we wouldn’t have things like antibiotics and organ transplant that is saving millions of lives every year. Often times I encounter people who ask me the question, “Has science been able to create artificial life?” or make statements like, “Science cannot explain everything“. Somehow according to them what science hasn’t yet achieved gives them room for God. The task I give to such people is to study the history of science and technology and see what they can infer from it. It’s not surprising that no one has taken up that task. If they did take up the task, they will find that throughout the history of science there have been people who made questions and statements like the one I just mentioned. And every time they have been proven wrong.

Once upon a time nobody believed that the sound barrier could be broken. I invite them to have a look at the supersonic jets and rockets of today. Heavier than air flying machine was thought to be impossible. Communication without wires was thought to be impossible. Splitting of atom was thought to be impossible. In fact in 1894 the famous physicist Albert Michelson said, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” Perhaps he meant well when he said this. However when we fast forward 3 years in 1897 the electron was discovered by Sir J. J Thompson thereby opening up a whole new world within our world. This is what happens every time in science. People point out at something that hasn’t been achieved by science as proof of science’s inability to do so. And time and again they are proven wrong.

Science requires a certain perspective to understand. Without such a perspective, it is nothing more than a boring set of laws and equations that are meant only for the nerds. Two years ago I had written a post called The Purpose of Life. It was about a question that was posed to me by a colleague of mine. Unlike the “triggers” of the infamous social justice warriors, this trigger was a good one. It prompted me to write a blog post. I will come to the main premise of today’s post which is the God of the Aquarium. It is actually a thought experiment devised by me a few years ago. If anyone is ready to take up the task, they are welcome to think about the following:

amaterske_akvariumImagine you wanted an aquarium in your living room. You can either build one or buy an already built one from a vendor. Let’s assume that you decided to build one. You bought the glass, the cement, sand, pebbles, aquatic plants and most importantly the fancy fishes. In addition, you need a setup for the lighting and filters for the water. By investing several hours or even days you finally build your aquarium with the sand, pebbles and aquatic plants at the bottom and all your beautiful fishes moving around in the water above. A good lighting and filtering system would make it a sight worth seeing and a crown jewel adorning your living room. All that is very nice but I have a simple question for you – “Have you ever thought about the little bacteria, viruses.algae, fungi and other microbial organisms living on the little specks of sand at the bottom of your aquarium?” They are also part of your aquarium and contribute to the biochemical activities of it. They are instrumental in many ways in maintaining the ecological balance of the system. And yet you are not feeding it like you would feed the fishes. You are not even bothered they exist. What difference would it make to you whether the bacteria on a little speck of sand lives or dies?

Now hold these thoughts for a moment. In the second paragraph I said that the scale of the universe is enormous. The observable universe is almost 93 billion light years in diameter (yes, it is a billion with a b!). That is just the observable part. The light from beyond that cosmic horizon hasn’t reached us yet and therefore we do not know what lies beyond. And even in the observable part of the universe there is so much yet to be discovered. In this humongous universe of ours, where is planet Earth? We live in a planet that revolves around an average star that resides in just one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, which is one of the galaxies in a Local Group of about 54 galaxies including our Milky Way and Andromeda. And our Local Group is part of something called the Virgo Supercluster which contains over 100 such galaxy groups. The Virgo Supercluster is part of an even bigger supercluster called the Laniakea which consists of three other superclusters namely Hydra-Centaurus, Pavo-Indus and the Southern Supercluster. It has an estimated 100,000 galaxies in it. Scientists have calculated that there are roughly 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. These 10 million superclusters give a mesh-like appearance to our universe at very large scales.

exoplanet20151006-16The first exoplanet orbiting a main sequence star was discovered in 1995. It was named 51 Pegasi b. It is a hot Jupiter which takes about 4.2 earth days to orbit its parent star. Since then planetary scientists have discovered thousands of them. As of September 2016, there have been 3,518 confirmed discoveries in 2,635 planetary systems and 595 multiple planetary systems. That’s a huge number of planets within 21 years. It is safe to assume now that most stars do have planets orbiting them thereby making planets outnumber the stars. This means that there must be billions of planets out there in the observable universe. The recent discovery of Proxima Centauri b added another planet in the list of potentially habitable planets which you can see here. There is every likelihood that there are billions of intelligent civilizations in the universe. And our earth is just one speck of sand in the vast cosmic ocean.

Now think about your aquarium. Just as you don’t care much about the bacteria living on a speck of sand at the bottom of your aquarium, do you really think that a God or Supreme Being or Intelligent Designer who created a universe the scale of which blows our imagination would have any special preference to a particular species of creatures on planet earth? Why would he/she/it have kind of “soft corner” for our species at all? We are just living in a planet that is totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Is there any logical reason God could care about us more than any other intelligent alien civilization which is most likely out there? So what conclusion can you draw from this thought experiment?

Think about it!

Image Courtesy:

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey – https://fanart.tv/fanart/tv/260586/tvposter/cosmos-a-space-time-odyssey-531e9d1f246dd.jpg
Antibiotics – http://www.iran-daily.com/content/imgcache/file/147167/0/image_650_365.jpg
Aquarium – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Amaterske_akvarium.jpg
51 Pegasi b – http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/exoplanet/20151006/exoplanet20151006-16.jpg

Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.

Conclusion

Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.

References

Mars Orbiter Mission – The Journey Ahead

Mars Orbiter Mission - "Mangalyaan"

Mars Orbiter Mission – “Mangalyaan” (Artist’s Impression)

It makes me proud to write the sequel to the article I had written on 5th November 2013, the day India launched her first mission to Mars. The remarkable level of precision achieved by ISRO scientists while inserting the Mars Orbiter spacecraft also known as Mangalyaan into orbit this morning shows the technological prowess that the country has achieved ever since it started its space programme.

Today as ISRO is celebrating its most critical success, I can’t help but remember the scene from the film Contact where Eleanor Arroway played by Jodie Foster talks about what it means to be a visionary. Seeing far into the future is the mark of all visionaries especially those working on space programmes. It takes a lot of thinking to stop oneself from asking the question, “Will this help common people?” I was asked the same question back on 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was started. Whether scientific endeavors help people immediately is not the right question to ask in my opinion.

As I have mentioned in one of my previous writings, it is hard to predict what would come out of a new scientific project. For example, nobody knew that nonstick frying pans, PET Scans, WiFi and other things that make our lives more meaningful would come out of research in space sciences and technology. These are things that came as spinoffs while scientists worked on various space related projects. Thus there is no way we can disregard endeavors into space just because they are too expensive.

MOM Mission Summary (Image by ISRO)

MOM Mission Summary (Image by ISRO)

Since I mentioned expense, the MOM is actually less expensive compared to the Mars missions of other countries such as the USA and the former Soviet Union. Even our neighbor who recently had the audacity to declare hostility to us after a bilateral meeting failed to achieve what we have. Even though the mission is less expensive with a small payload, I think we should look at it as a stepping stone to greater missions.

MOM has made India the only country that succeeded in a Mars mission in the first attempt. It won’t be enough to just admire our scientists on a blog post like this but I have to do it nevertheless. Now that we know how to put a satellite around Mars, the next logical step obviously would be to make a landing. But before going that far we must launch more satellite-like missions. Also I think we should try missions that are similar to the Phobos-Grunt of Russia. The ability to bring back samples from such a far away place should be the next stage in our space programme. Returning to Earth is also important for human missions to Mars. Settlement is one thing but the ability to return to Earth equally important

Since we are developing our indigenous lunar rover, we will also be able to develop a Mars rover like the ones used by NASA. So, looking into the future, I can say that we will soon be able to achieve whatever USA and USSR did during the Cold War era. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the level of success of future missions by ISRO would be even greater than what was achieved by the cold warring nations considering the advancements in technology.

PSLV - The workhorse of Indian Space Programme

PSLV – The workhorse of Indian Space Programme

What more can we think about? Will there be a human spaceflight to Mars by ISRO? Will we overtake NASA before 2030? A quick look at the ISRO website and Wikipedia will reveal that India is indeed taking deep space missions seriously. Next year the solar mission called Aditya – 1 and a mission to Venus is planned by ISRO. And there are preparations already underway for a human spaceflight of a crew of two. And of course there is the Chandrayaan – 2, which as I mentioned before will use a rover.

Thus the time is not far before Indian astronauts walk the surface of Moon and Mars and also venture into the far reaches of deep space. To quote Star Trek, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” will be and should be the motto of our future endeavors into space. As we advance into a high-tech future social issues such as poverty and war would cease to exist as we become a technologically advanced super civilization!

Why Study Astrophysics?

The study of our universe

Cosmology – The study of our universe

I am often asked why I am so obsessed with studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology etc. which serves no practical purpose to anyone. The people who ask such questions entertain the notion that anything that does not give immediate monetary benefit is not worth pursuing. In this article I will try as much as possible to highlight the benefits of pursuing pure science such as astrophysics. I will be using the words astronomy and astrophysics interchangeably as differentiating the two is not the main aim here.

Astrophysics to me is an eternal subject. The study of our universe will continue as long as the universe exists and therefore the subject of astronomy will stay on for trillions of years into the future (or at least till any intelligent species can make the study.)  We exist because the universe exists and that makes the study of our universe the most important of all subjects in my opinion.

A person who does not have any training in astrophysics or for someone who thinks he or she is too “practical” may not be convinced with this answer. For such people, any subject should have the potential of generating immediate revenue. In their point of view, the trendiest subjects that have a career potential in the market are the ones people should be pursuing. That point of view is not essentially wrong. However, these so called trendy subjects are like soap bubbles. They form and then get destroyed after a period of time. People pursuing them always run a risk because if the subject of their choice goes down in popularity, they are forced to learn the next trending subject in the job market.

Space science as a subject does not suffer from this problem. It has lived on ever since the dawn of human civilization and is bound to continue into the foreseeable future. Besides, making money in my opinion should not be our pursuit as a race of intelligent beings. Our world is slowly moving towards a non-monetary one and thus our real pursuit should be the attainment of knowledge and its applications.

Astrophysics - A pure science

Astrophysics – A pure science

As I said, astrophysics is a pure science. If you ask any astrophysicist as to whether a particular theory found by him or her has an immediate application in daily life, he or she may say that there aren’t any. However, the same thing can be told about many other subjects. I have added some references that will tell you about many subjects that fall into the category of being “useless” to the “practical” folks but are still pursued by thousands. Hence, it is not something that one must criticize astronomy with. No subject is useless. In the hand of the right person, the scope of any subject is limitless.

If you are willing to delve deep enough, you will know that astronomy is actually a field with a lot of practical applications. Of course the applications come indirectly and eventually but the impact is profound. Astronomy is a frontier research field. In order to do any kind of research in it, you need cutting edge technology. The study of astronomy thus pushes the limits of our current technology thereby contributing to the development of new and innovative methods in terms of instruments, processes and software to get things done. Therefore, pushing research in astronomy will push research in other fields when these technologies are used in the broader sense.

The benefits of astronomy comes from technology transfer i.e. by transferring the technology that was originally invented for astronomy into various applications in the industry. Some areas where we can see the fruits of research in astronomy are optics, electronics, advanced computing, communication satellites, solar panels and MRI Scanners.  Even though it takes time before an application of a research in astrophysics finds its way into our daily life, the impact it eventually makes is worth the wait. Astronomy also has revolutionized our way of thinking by constantly giving us new ideas throughout history.

Let’s now look at a few examples where the research in space sciences and technology is helping humans around the world:

Medicine

MRI Scanner

MRI Scanner

Perhaps the most important application of astronomy for us would be its technology transfer to medicine. Both astronomy and medicine requires us to see objects with ever more precision and resolution in order be accurate and detailed in our analysis. The most notable among the applications is the method of aperture synthesis. It was developed by the radio astronomer Martin Ryle of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His technology is now used in Computerized Tomography which is commonly called CT scan. It is also used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI and Positron Emission Tomography or PET in addition to other imaging methods.

The Cambridge Automatic Plate Measuring Facility has collaborated with a drug company whereby blood samples from leukemia patients can be analyzed much faster. This helps in better accuracy in medication.  The method that is now used for non-invasive way to detect tumors was originally developed by radio astronomers. It helped increase the true-positive detection rate of breast cancer to 96%.

The heating control systems of neonatology units, i.e. units for newborn babies were initially developed as small thermal sensors to control telescope instrument. The low energy X-ray scanner used for outpatient surgery, sports injuries etc. was developed by NASA. It is also used by the Food and Drug Administration of USA to study the contamination in pills. The software that is used for processing satellite pictures is also helping medical researches to do wide scale screening of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Earth System

Asteroid 2011 MD

Asteroid 2011 MD

Our planet is under the constant influence of the Sun and our climate depends on it greatly. Studying the dynamics of the sun and other stars thus help us have a better understanding of Earth’s climate and its effects. Studying the solar system, especially asteroids tell us about the potential threats that they pose to the Earth. We do not want to be wiped out like the dinosaurs and studying potentially hazardous objects give us insights into how we can protect ourselves in time of a catastrophe. Even the recent passage of the asteroid 2011 MD dangerously close to Earth is a reminder that we should accelerate development of technologies to prevent an impact. Missions to asteroids also give us opportunities to test our technologies in future space exploration and also give insights into subjects such as geology.  It is also important to do space exploration as part of our long term exploitation of space based resources.

Industry

Charge Coupled Device

Charge Coupled Device

In industry, there are many technology transfers that can be cited. For instance, the Kodak Technical Pan was a film originally developed to use in solar astronomy to record the changes on the surface structure of the Sun. It is now used by industrial photographers, medical and industrial spectroscopy specialists and industrial artists. Until recently, the Technical Pan was also used to detect diseased crops and forests, in dentistry and medical diagnosis. It was also used for probing layers of paintings to check for forgery.

The Charge Coupled Devices or CCDs were first used in astronomy in 1976 as sensors for astronomical image capture. This Nobel Prize winning discovery not only replaced film in telescopes but also in personal cameras and mobile phones.

IDL or Interactive Data Language is used for data analysis in astronomy. It is now also used by companies such as General Motors to analyze data from car crashes. This means that astronomy is contributing to research in vehicle safety.

IRAF or Image Reduction and Analysis Facility is a collection of software written by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. It is used by AT&T to analyze computer systems and to do graphics in solid-state physics.

Communication

GPS - Global Positioning System

GPS – Global Positioning System

Radio astronomy has given birth to excellent communication tools, devices and data processing methods. For example, the computer language FORTH was first developed in order to be used at the Kitt Peak Telescope. The founders of the language also created the company named Forth Inc. and the language is now being used widely by FedEx for their tracking services.

The satellites of Global Positioning System rely on distant astronomical objects such as quasars and other distant galaxies to determine accurate positions. So, next time you use GPS, remember the stars.

The most common everyday communication application of astronomy would be Wireless Local Area Network or WLAN. Astronomer John O’Sullivan in 1977 came up with a method to sharpen images from a radio telescope. It was later found to be useful in strengthening radio signals in computer networks thereby giving birth to WLAN.

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Aerospace and Defense

Astronomy and the aerospace industry share many technologies that include telescope instrumentation, imaging and processing techniques for images. A defense satellite is basically a telescope that is pointed towards earth and thus use very identical technology and hardware to that of astronomy. The methods used to differentiate between rocket plumes and cosmic objects in stellar atmosphere models are similar as well. They are studied for use in early warning systems.

A device called solar-blind photon counter was once invented by astronomers to measure particles of light from a source without being overwhelmed by the particles from the Sun during the day. It is now used to detect the ultraviolet photons coming from the exhaust of a missile thereby aiding in UV missile warning system. It can also be used to detect toxic gases.

Energy Sector

Solar Panels - A source of clean energy

Solar Panels – A source of clean energy

The techniques developed to detect gravitational radiation produced by massive bodies in acceleration is used to determine the gravitational stability of underground oil reserves. That is a fantastic application in the energy industry.

The methods in astronomy can also be used for finding new fossil fuels in addition to evaluating the possibility of new renewable sources. Companies such as Texco and BP use IDL to do analysis of core samples around the oil fields. The graphic composite material that was initially developed for an orbiting telescope array is now being used by Ingenero in their solar radiation collectors.

The technology used in X-Ray telescopes to image X-Rays is now being researched for plasma fusion. If successful, it would lead to a boom in clean energy in future.

Education and International Collaboration

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy in Schools

Astronomy is a great tool to stimulate young minds. If you want children to pursue careers in science and technology, astronomy can help a lot. It engages the minds of kids and helps them keep up to date with the happenings in the scientific world. This therefore affects not just astronomy but other subjects as well. Modern science is a more collaborative effort. And astronomy has been instrumental in bringing together many countries to collaborate on projects that require telescopes and other instruments located at multiple points in the world. Researchers travel around the world to work on these facilities. This brings in many other advantages such as cultural transfer as well.

From the examples I mentioned and countless other examples that you can find online, it is pretty clear that the study of the universe is very beneficial to humanity. There are many people around the world who are interested in the study of the universe but are thwarted by the pseudo-pragmatic folks who think the subject is useless. My suggestion to anyone who wishes to study the subject would be to not let others tell you how practical or impractical that subject is. If they do not like what you are doing, it is their problem, not yours. Half the people who advice you against the subject do not really know anything about its breadth and depth.

The Sextant - An ancient celestial navigation tool

The Sextant – An ancient celestial navigation tool

As mentioned before, astronomy changes the way we think and look at this world. Even before writing was invented, humans have looked up at the sky to make decisions regarding when to plan the crops, how to keep track of the days and months or how to navigate the seas. Some of the greatest quests of human kind would not have been possible if methods to study the skies weren’t invented. Where we came from and where we are going are deep philosophical questions that are yet to be answered. In my opinion, studying the cosmos using rigorous science is the only way to finally know the answer.

Before I end, I must thank astronomers Marissa Rosenberg and Pedro Russo and all the other eminent people whose insightful articles I have referred to create this write-up. I have added them as reference for anyone who wishes to read more about the advantages of investing their time and effort in studying astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology and related areas, which are considered pure science without any immediate practical value by many.

My father often quotes the old saying, “People will come and go, but the institution remains.” I would like to rephrase that and say, “People who oppose the study of our universe will come and go. But the universe will remain.

Bibliography

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  • Hall, S. (2013, Nov 11). How Astronomy Benefits Society and Humankind. Retrieved from Universe Today: http://www.universetoday.com/106302/how-astronomy-benefits-society-and-humankind/
  • Loose, T. (2012, Jan 12). College Majors That Are Useless. Retrieved from Yahoo Education: http://education.yahoo.net/articles/most_useless_degrees.htm
  • Odenwald, S. (2001, Feb 1). Why is astronomy important in our lives? Retrieved from Astronomy Cafe: http://www.astronomycafe.net/qadir/q1138.html
  • Rosenberg, M., Russo, P., Bladen, G., & Christensen, L. L. (2013). Astronomy in Everyday Life. Retrieved from International Astronomical Union: https://www.iau.org/public/themes/why_is_astronomy_important/
  • Rosenberg, M., Russo, P., Bladen, G., & Christensen, L. L. (2013, Nov 3). Why is Astronomy Important? Retrieved from Cornell University Library: http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.0508
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The Illusion of Consciousness!

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley

Recently I have come to discover that there are so many great movies that I have been missing all these years. I am particularly referring to the Alien film franchise starring Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, an officer who is in an endless battle with an alien species in all the four installations of the movie. I can’t help wonder why I didn’t bother to watch this great movie so far. Today I finished watching the fourth installation and I must admit that I feel inspired by her character. I would certainly like being an officer like her in a spacecraft on a deep space mission. Anyway, the one thing especially in the fourth movie that caught me thinking is the resurrection part. Ripley was resurrected through cloning using the blood sample collected before she kills herself in Alien 3.

I am perfectly okay with cloning Ripley to resurrect her using her blood samples. But what puzzles me is that she possesses the memories of her past life once the process is complete. That simply doesn’t make sense. There was no way the memory could have gotten stored in her DNA. Obviously the memories weren’t stored in any retrieval unit either because there was no mention of that in the film. My problem is not whether she had her old memories or not. My problem is with the concept of consciousness. Let’s take cloning itself for example. If I clone myself completely and then transfer all my memories into this new person, he will lead his life thinking that he is me unless of course the final memories which contains information about the cloning is transferred as well. Even then there will be a confusion as to who is the “real me“.

Quantum Teleportation in Star Trek

Quantum Teleportation in Star Trek

So, unlike the villain’s point of view in the movie The 6th Day, we don’t get to live forever as our clones are the ones who look and feel exactly the same way as we do and also can possess our memories through transfer. But they are still not us.  A similar problem exists with Quantum Teleportation. The information of me is first transferred to the destination. For that the quantum states of all the particles that in my body must first be retrieved and stored into the teleportation system. Then I should be destroyed at the source. The information transferred will then be used to recreate “me” at the destination just like in Star Trek. Again it is a problem because the person at the destination will be my copy and not me. If the process fails to destroy me then I will be here at the source and to make matters worse, there will be another person who looks exactly like me and having my memories created at a destination thousands or even millions of miles away.

Atoms and Consciousness

Atoms and Consciousness

I don’t know how can the people who say this is not a problem justify it. However, when I think about it, the person sitting and typing this blog post right now is really not “me” either. Since my birth, the atoms in my body has been replaced through life’s processes such as consuming food, expelling waste, taking bath and so on. It is entirely possible that none of the atoms that originally made up my body in 1984 exists in my body today. But I still have the feeling of self or the feeling of consciousness about myself. That is quite hard to explain. Why do I feel this “uniqueness” about myself? So much that creating a clone of myself will not assure me immortality. It only assures the existence of another person like me.

Most of us are afraid of death as it brings to an end all the beautiful experiences that life offers us. Being truly immortal thus would mean keeping alive all the cherished memories and experiences forever. With more advanced technologies, the time is not far before we can backup our own memories. But will there be a way to store and retrieve the feeling of “self“? If I transfer my awareness of self to a computer, will the “self” leave me to enter the computer or will I still have it? If I still have the feeling of self then what is it that got transferred to the computer? These are not easy questions to answer and I am not sure whether theology can answer them any better because of the problems I just described.

Future Spacecraft to The Stars

Future Spacecraft to The Stars

I have a lot of faith in science. I feel that some day science will understand what exactly it means to be self-aware and also find a way to transfer this consciousness of self into a machine or a clone without creating the paradoxical situation mentioned above. I wish such a breakthrough happens during my lifetime. When the human race leaves Earth and starts to colonize other planets and reach distant stars in the future, I would certainly like to have a piece of that action. I seriously don’t wish to be in a situation where my consciousness dies with me and I miss all the great things the future human race will achieve. I would want my consciousness of self with all its memories to live forever either in a being like me or as a sentient being if the technology of the future allows.

The Imperfect Design – Evidence for Evolution!

Image of a beatufiul eyeOf all the species in the world, the evolution of human beings is the most controversial. People, especially religious ones cannot stand the idea that humans don’t have a divine origin and existence and that we are related to the other animals. For fans of creationism or intelligent design, it is hard to accept that humans underwent the process of evolution to reach the current state. They often site the human body especially the eye as a perfect example of design as our body is too complicated to have evolved naturally according to them. Well, I am okay with it provided when a trained person looks at this so called “design”, he should not be puzzled as to why certain parts are in a particular way because when we look carefully at the human body, that is precisely what we feel.

Therefore I would like to call on the scientific and engineering outlook of the reader in this article because I am going to site a few examples where it is required for you to think as to whether we are actually designed or not. Let me first talk about design as we understand from our lives. Any good designer would design a machine or a drawing with the minimal amount of defects. Further he or she would make sure that the design is simple and optimized enough so that troubleshooting is easy later on. Furthermore, he or she would make sure that there is a logic behind putting a component in a particular place. Therefore a good designer can easily make out whether a machine’s design is defective or illogical in some way by looking at it.

I request you to look at the following few examples to have an insight into what I mean:

  1. The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve – It is a nerve that supplies motor function to the larynx and travels from the brain to the larynx. However, it does not take a direct route. Instead it goes all the way to the heart, wraps around a major artery and then goes up to the larynx. It is puzzling as to why the nerve takes such a detour for no reason. In fact, in giraffes, the nerve travels 15 feet to the heart and then goes up to the larynx which doesn’t make sense. If we were designed, then the designer would simply put the nerve in a direct route from the brain to the larynx. It’s as simple as that. What really happened is that  the fish like ancestors of modern tetrapods had the nerve direct as the heart was above the gills, as it is in modern fishes. But over the course of evolution, as the neck extended, the heart became lower in the body and unfortunately the laryngeal nerve got caught on the wrong side of the heart. A designer’s eye would easily dismiss this as a bad design. In the following video, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins will demonstrate the detour of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in a giraffe.
  2. The Human Eye – This is cited as the most perfect example of intelligent design.  But from an engineering perspective, it is not perfect at all. A person who make a camera will make sure that all the wiring is at the back of the film and not in front of it. Similarly if a eye is designed, then obviously all the nerves should be behind the retina. Unfortunately in human eyes, the nerves are in front of the retina. And where the optic nerve leaves the eye, there is a hole that creates a blind spot, which is the reason why our eyes jiggle. We don’t have a functional reason for our eyes to be this way except that historically the common ancestor of all vertebrates did not have a better retina available to work with. Now, those of you who want to bring in God’s “divine purpose” behind this should know that an octopus’s eye doesn’t have this problem. All the wiring is behind the retina for the octopus. In fact, the octopus eye is a much better “design” compared to humans. This link will tell you exactly what I mean by blind spot. The famous German psychologist Hermann von Helmholtz once said that if an engineer had given him the human eye, he would send it back. The video here would show you how the eye can actually evolve naturally without any divine intervention.
  3. Vestigial Structures – An engineer or designer would want his design clean. He wouldn’t want an unwanted component in the machine without serving a purpose. As in the human body and in other species, there are plenty of structures that do not serve any particular purpose. Right from the DNA to visible organs, one wonders why a designer would put them there. The answer as to why these vestigial structures such as the pelvis in snakes, human appendix, the male nipples, the tail bone etc. exist comes from evolution. These are relics from a common ancestry where these structures once had a function. As humans evolved, some of these functions either stopped or changed thereby creating these vestiges. Not only in the organs but also in the DNA we find vestiges. There are several genes that form part of what is called genetic junk. The only reason they are there is because evolution didn’t clean it up properly.
  4. Fatal Errors  – Image of Ectopic Pregnancy - Courtesy Mayo FoundationThere are some really fatal mistakes in the human body. Only because of modern medical care that we can counter death caused by these flaws. For instance,  in women, the fertilized egg can mistakenly implant into the fallopian tube, cervix or ovary instead of the uterus  causing ectopic pregnancy because of a cavity between the ovary and the fallopian tube. Before modern surgery, this used to kill both the woman and her baby. In men, the testes develop first in the abdomen and then migrate to the scrotum. This creates weak points in the abdominal wall where hernias can form in future and without modern surgery, it is a sure way to die. The human pharynx is yet another design flaw. It is the passage used for both ingestion and respiration, which increases the risk of choking. And as mentioned above the appendix is a vestigial organ that serves no known purpose. However, if you get appendicitis, it is a sure shot way to die. 

These are just a few examples of imperfections in the seemingly perfect human body. There are hundreds of such examples and in some cases the design flaw is so much that it can be fatal as described above. A designer with any level of logic or common sense would never create a body like this. Therefore the only conclusion that can be made is that either there is no designer or the designer is a very bad designer. Everything from top to the bottom in our body is trade-offs that came about through millions of years of evolution. It’s an undeniable fact.

Mars Orbiter Mission – A step in the right direction for India

mangalyaan

Mangalyaan in orbit (Artist’s Impression)

People often criticize scientific endeavors especially the ones pertaining to space travel as a waste of time and money. The Mars Orbiter Mission of India also known as Mangalyaan had its share of criticism throughout its development. In the midst of all this, the craft lifted off to space today, 5th November 2013 at 2:38 PM IST and was inserted into an orbit around the Earth with remarkable precision a few minutes later. This first step is a remarkable milestone in the history of Indian Space Program. Of course it is only the first of the three stages of the entire mission but it is something worth to be proud.

When the Indian Space Program was started in 1969, little did anyone know that India would become part of an emerging Asian Space Race. Our technologically superior neighbor has made excellent strides in the field of space travel. They had their first man and first woman in space using indigenous technology and now they are building their first space station. However, India’s achievements should not be seen in a lesser light because the focus of ISRO is more on unmanned missions. And having been able to start off successfully in a Mars mission is something that should invite our neighbor’s envy.

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

Mars has never been an easy target for space faring nations. The first ever mission to Mars was by the erstwhile Soviet Union as early as 10 October 1960. The heat of Cold War would have been probably the driving force to attempt a Mars mission just 3 years after Sputnik. The high failure rate see throughout the historic timeline of Mars exploration had made many a person including me quite apprehensive of the Mangalyaan mission. Even the recent failure of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 mission of Russia and China in 2011 made people raise their eyebrows when it was announced that India is eyeing the red planet. It is exhilarating to finally see the probe lift off the ground in the PSLV-C25 rocket. ISRO’s faith in PSLV has paid off once again and we are on our way to become the fourth nation to reach Mars if everything goes according to plan.

India is a country with great economic and cultural divide. It may be justified to ask whether the mission was worth the 4.5 billion rupees spent on it when other national priorities such as women’s education and healthcare in rural India could be easily met with the amount. After all it is just a satellite that will orbit around Mars and send back signals of what it studies. People can ask what difference is this mission going to make. It is a difficult question to answer and would require vast amount of research. However, one thing can be said about it. Comparing India’s Mars mission to that of United States or Russia may be utterly unfair in my opinion. United States and Soviet Union had too much funding during the cold war to perform mission after mission despite the number of failures they encountered. And still they can afford to send rovers and other advanced instruments to deep space and afford to fail in it. This is India’s first interplanetary mission and should be compared to Mariner – 9 of United States which was launched back in 1971. Mariner – 9 was an orbiter mission and that is exactly what Mangalyaan is all about and must be seen as such. It is true that USA and USSR were having landers and rovers back in the ’70s but that fact should not be used to demean India’s mission.

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Mission of India is a step in the right direction. We may have poverty and prejudice within Indian society but one must see the bigger picture. As part of the human race, it is our duty to explore and colonize other planets. Saying that it will ensure the continuity of our species might be too much of a cliche but that is most certainly a part of interplanetary mission. Interplanetary missions in its true sense has not yet taken place since that would mean going to a distant planet and coming back. For that reason I am not very fond of the Mars One program that is currently seeking volunteers. A true interplanetary mission must ensure that participants are capable of going back and forth between the planets. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did not maroon themselves in the places they explored. They did go back to their homes to tell the stories about their journey. It is important thus for any manned or unmanned Mars mission to go there and return in order to be fully interplanetary. Anyway, I feel very proud of my country’s capability to perform a feat that many have failed in. Our two hostile neighbors in my opinion should learn from us instead of taunting us unnecessarily over petty border issues.

The Common Ancestry Problem!

Evolution is a crucial process in the realm of biology, geology, cosmology etc. However, it has been the subject of debates because of misunderstanding that stems out of misinformation. This misunderstanding is often misused against the Theory of Evolution and people who do this get away because they know that common man does not really understand what exactly is going on in evolution. In this article, I will explain Biological Evolution and the concept of Common Ancestry in simple terms so that even common man can get a framework of knowledge on the subject from where he can build up further.

image of beautiful sandy island

To understand evolution and common ancestry, we must first understand what is “genetic mutation” and “natural selection“. Hence, before we begin, let us make a few assumptions that could simplify the explanation. Imagine an island in the Pacific Ocean. Let’s say it is a sandy island with trees, bushes and plenty of insects and other small creatures etc. Also let’s assume that there is a population of a particular species of lizards living there. Let us call them “Species – A“. Now, these lizards have particular characteristics based on the environment they live in. These characteristics include skin color, body strength, agility, heat resistance and so on.

image of sandy island lizard

The genes of our lizard species never stay the same during their lifetime. Genetic mutation happens due to several factors which include exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, industrial wastes, extreme climates, radiation from outer space etc. Once mutated, the new gene might carry a positive, negative or neutral trait. New positive traits may form such as improved skin color, stronger limbs, better digestive system and the like. Negative traits may include impaired vision, unwanted skin spots, weaker limbs and so on.

Image of genetic mutation example

In order to survive, the lizards must consume food, avoid predators and reproduce successfully. Positive traits are the ones that help these lizards survive better in this particular island and negative traits are the ones that make survival difficult. Hence, lizards with positive traits such as stronger limbs have better chance to run after preys and also to avoid being eaten by predators. Further, lizards with skin color more adapted to the surrounding sandy environment also helps camouflaging while it is hunting and also while it is being hunted. Since, the lizards with positive characteristics have better chance of survival, they are more likely to mate and reproduce. When male and female lizards mate, half of the chromosomes from the female combines with half the chromosomes from the male through chance recombination. Therefore, some of the positive traits from both the father and the mother are passed on to the offspring thereby making it fit to survive in the given environment.

However, though difficult, even lizards with negative characteristics may survive by either sheer luck or by other factors such as hunting of predators by other predators etc. In such a scenario even some of the lizards with negative characteristics might also mate and pass on their negative characteristics to the next generation. If the population survives for many generations, we can find that in every generation, the number of individuals with positive traits is more than the number of individuals with negative characteristics. We also find that certain type of traits such as a particular eye color or skin color or longer limbs etc. become marked trait of this species overtime with more individuals possessing them. In short, successful variations survive and others perish and as a population of species, it is important to have more number of individuals with positive traits reproduce. Thus, individuals would choose to mate more number of times with individuals possessing positive characteristics. This sort of “arms race” for dominance which ensures “survival of the fittest” and thereby survival of the species is called natural selection.

image of pacific rocky island

Now, let us say this process of genetic mutation and natural selection goes on for a thousand generations. We now have a species that is extremely adaptive to our sandy Pacific island and different from the parent species. We will call them “Species – A1“. Let us now assume that a few individuals such as a pregnant female or group of pregnant females manage to swim across the sea and arrive at an island that is miles away from our original sandy island. They could also arrive in other ways such as when predators that carry one or more of our lizards or lizard eggs accidentally drops or leaves them on this new island.

Let us assume this is a rocky island with plenty of water, plants and trees but lesser populations of insect and small creatures compared to the original island. The lizards who are used to eating insects, earthworms etc. from the sandy island will soon find that the new island is slightly inhospitable when compared to their “motherland”. They will also find that their softer bodies are not very suitable for the rough terrains of the rocky island. However, they have sufficient water supply, plants etc. The first generation to arrive might either perish totally or return to their homeland or somehow survive eating the little number of insects they have there.

image of pacific island fishes

If they choose to survive there, very soon the same process of genetic mutation and natural selection would ensue. This time our lizards need stronger and faster bodies to chase the insects in the tough terrains. They can continue to develop stronger and faster bodies to catch insects and survive for generations or they can switch to eating alternative food sources such as plants or small fishes in the water bodies inside and around the island. If they find plant eating is a good option to survive since they are there in plenty, the subsequent generations would eventually become totally vegetarians. If they choose to eat fishes, subsequent generations would develop traits such as improved streamlined bodies suitable for swimming, agility and alacrity in catching fishes etc. They might even become amphibious in due time by developing traits that would help them survive in water for longer periods of time.

After a few generations, say a thousand generations of genetic mutations and natural selections in the new island, our original lizard species A1 would have developed into a new species of lizards that have diverted in their physical structure, eating habits etc that helps them flourish in the new island. We can now call them “Species – B”. Now, our original Species A1 did not remain the same either in the sandy island. While A1 transformed to B in the rocky island over a thousand generations, A1 was undergoing the same in the original island. Now, after another thousand generations, we have “Species – A2” in the original island. If we take lizard species A2 and B, we find several similarities as well as differences in their body, color, size, overall fitness and even sounds they make. Sandy lizards would move in zig-zag motion which is better suited for sandy environments and the rocky lizards might move faster in straight line, which is suited for rocky environments.

However, both species A2 and B have a “common ancestor“, which is the species A1. Hence, we can say that A2 and B share “common ancestry“, which is the main topic of this article. Please note that common ancestor need not always be a single person. It can be a population of individuals who share similar traits.

image of beautiful galapagos crabs

When Darwin arrived at the Galapagos Islands in the pacific, he noticed marked differences and similarities in species of iguanas, tortoises, finches and so on in the different islands in the group. It caused him to think as to whether these species are cousins to each other. And that is what led him and Alfred Russel Wallace and many other biologists to study the process in the subsequent years and establish the theory of evolution by natural selection. This theory is currently the only explanation for the complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet. This theory has survived the test of time and is qualified as a scientific theory because it passes the four criteria I described in my previous article. Today we have enormous amounts of evidence to support the theory which include fossils remains, comparative study of homologous structures, molecular evidence such as ERV (Endogenous Retrovirus) infections in the DNA etc.

These are things I wrote directly from my head based on what I have read and studied. I hope I have accomplished the task of explaining evolution in simplified terms. Please let me know your comments and suggestions if any so that I can make this article better.

Evolution – What is in it for me?

image of phylogeny tree

Evolution is the slow process of change that occur in physical, chemical, biological, geological, social, linguistic and cosmological systems and the components within those systems over time. The theory of evolution, which is the subject of this article is obviously biological evolution and its far reaching implications pertaining to human life. How the knowledge of evolution affects a person’s everyday life is something unknown to common man and something that he doesn’t bother to know. It is a fact that the reason why human species exist and flourish in various parts of the world today lies primarily in the process of evolution and the human knowledge of the same.

Before I start with the main content of this article, I would like to describe what exactly is meant by a scientific theory. Any scientific theory must qualify the following four criteria:-

  1. It must explain an observable phenomenon and/or experimental result
  2. It must be substantiated with evidence obtained through experiments and/or observations and/or material evidence
  3. It must make testable predictions that can be verified by new observations and/or experiments and/or material evidence
  4. It must pass a rigorous peer-review process

Evolution is a theory that qualifies all the four criteria described above and provides an accurate explanation of the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. As a side note, I would also like to tell you that every scientific theory that qualifies the above four criteria still has its own realm of application. For instance, you can’t expect a scientist; no matter how gifted to explain why a sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote using the theory of gravity. That wouldn’t make sense since there are theories on sexual reproduction such as meiosis that give clear answers to questions pertaining to zygote formation. Similarly, you can’t expect someone to explain why objects fall using meiosis.

image of charles darwin

Hence, I don’t want to see comments asking, “Why doesn’t evolution explain the origin of life?” because evolution is not meant to explain it. There is another theory called abiogenesis that explains the various possibilities of origins of life on earth and possibly in other planets given the right conditions. Also I wouldn’t tolerate comments that defame Darwin and his contributions using contrived and misinformed information about his “deathbed conversion” and “rebuttal of his own theory because of missing links”. It is beyond doubt that Darwin was never converted in his deathbed and though he did accept that missing links existed, he never said that it is proof against evolution. In fact fossils of many of the missing links he postulated were later discovered and classified. Further, since 1859, the year when “On the Origin of Species” was published, there have been thousands of books written; hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed papers published and millions of pieces of evidence amassed in support of evolution.

So, having established that evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains this fact, let’s move on to the main topic of this article. I will discuss some areas where knowledge of evolution affects everyday life:

Medicine

Evolution’s biggest use for humans and one of my favorites is in the field of medicine. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that we are alive because of evolutionary theory. Evolution helps us predict the outcome of antibiotic overuse in both humans and livestock and mutation of pathogens such as in the cases of avian flu, west Nile virus etc. We could study parasites such as tubercle bacillus, plasmodium etc. and how they evolve and this knowledge helped in treating resurging and resistant diseases using drug cocktails such as the ones used in the treatment of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

image of mosquito evolutionary disease carrier

The recent outbreak of SARS and H1N1 show how vulnerable we are to pandemics created by evolved viruses. This combined with the fact that any infected person can reach anywhere in the world in a matter of hours cause the spread of any mutated virus more easy. Hence we must be aware of evolution of pathogens. HIV, a rapidly evolving retrovirus shares common ancestry with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus). Hence we have new avenues of research into effective treatment of AIDS. Drug cocktails for HIV patients are creating remarkable success around the world. Further, the cocktails need switching so that the virus doesn’t adapt to a particular mix at any time. Only evolution gives insights into the right combinations of antibiotics.

Scientists are in the process of improving vaccines in the light of rapid evolution and antibiotic resistance of microbes so that people can stay resistant to diseases for longer periods of time. In times of scarcity of antibiotics and chemicals extracted from plants and microbes, it is easy to find related species and look for chemicals in them. Knowledge of evolution helps in finding related species. For example, the Pacific Yew tree used to generate Taxol, the drug used to fight cancer became endangered since 4 to 6 trees must be destroyed to produce one dose of Taxol. However, scientists used the common ancestry theory to find other common trees of the same family that contain Taxol-like compounds thereby helping cancer patients and saving lives.

Environmental Conservation

Understanding evolution of a particular gene pool helps biologists manage different species and their habitats. And if unfavorable conditions are located, endangered species of plants and animals can be relocated to more favorable habitats.

Agriculture and Biotechnology

Evolution helps in knowing the ecological adaptations of various crops and livestock which in turn helps farmers and researchers to introduce these crops and livestock in new environments. In addition it helps in understanding and implementing cross breeding. Further, it helps in artificially selecting the desired characteristics in crops and livestock. In biotechnology, the evolution of genes help in splicing beneficial genes between species which in turn help in producing disease resistant crops and the like.

Human Physiology and Behavior

The theory of evolution also helps us understand disorders such as autoimmune disorder, ADD etc. Understanding genes and their evolution provide new insights into hereditary diseases. Evolution also throws light into the various factors of human behavior such as existence of aggression and compassion.

Economics and Market Dynamics

Evolution also helps in market research where researchers can find out why certain products sell better than certain others. Economics changes in market systems, barter systems, forms of currency etc. are also studied in the light of evolutionary theory these days.

There are other fields that are totally unrelated to biology where evolution finds application. For example cosmology, geology, meteorology, oceanography, linguistics, sociology, politics, economics, theology and anthropology are some of the field where evolution plays an important role. However, this evolution is not biological evolution. In cosmology and astronomy, scientists study the origin and development of celestial bodies such as black holes and the changes in orbits of these bodies. Formation of land forms and plate tectonics and continental drifts form part of geological studies. In meteorology and oceanography, we have climate change, dynamics of ice ages, El Nino, La Nina, oscillation events etc. In linguistics, researchers study origins and development of languages. Sociology and politics also make use of evolution in studying social norms, customs, political systems etc. In anthropology, we use evolution to study the development and diversification of cultures. Finally theology also makes use of evolution in studying religious practices, beliefs and rise and fall of religions.

Teaching Evolution

The advantage that evolution offers students as a practical science to study life sciences as well as other related fields is profound. It is as important as other scientific theories such as quantum mechanics which describe the world around us. Hence, it is important to be taught in schools and colleges in both breadth and depth so that students who move into fields of biotechnology, agriculture, medicine, molecular biology and even geology and paleontology etc. can benefit in their future academics and research. The fact that our contemporary society has more number of scientists and consumers of science than ever before is in itself a good reason why knowledge of evolution and its education is important. Dieting, pharmacology, cloning, global warming, you name it and evolution plays a role there. Censoring evolution from school and college syllabus hence would eventually thwart progress in the fields mentioned. Thus it is imperative that people accept evolution and teach children about the same from a young age. The why part of science such as the flight of a bird, its songs, the resemblance of children to their parents, the similarities between species, the biochemical processes of eukaryotic cells etc. makes sense only in the light of evolutionary theory.

Conclusion

Evolution is the only scientific explanation of the history of life on earth and is also the only explanation that one can give for life elsewhere. There are no alternative theories to evolution! If someone says that there is, then that alternative theory must pass the four criteria I mentioned before. Any alternative theory that does not pass those criteria is not scientific and hence has no place in the academic or research world.

Bibliography

Hydrogen Fuel Cells – The Future of Portables?

Image of Apple plus Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Apple recently submitted two patent applications at the US Patent and Trademark Office that could revolutionize the the already remarkable devices the computer giant is making for its users. The new innovation is using a light weight hydrogen fuel cell to power its portable devices making them usable for days or even weeks before refueling. The hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electrical energy with only water as a byproduct after reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, is one of the most environmental friendly cell ever invented.

The hydrogen fuel cells, in addition to being eco-friendly and efficient are also lighter than other batteries and can run for longer periods of time. In technical terms, the fuel cells can achieve high volumetric and gravimetric energy densities or in simple words, pack considerable amounts of energy into a small space. Apple’s patent currently lists many potential fuel cell models which includes sodium borohydride and water, sodium silicate and water and lithium hydride and water. For Apple, the design and deployment of a hydrogen fuel cell in a portable device such as a laptop or smartphone in cost effective ways is still a distant dream as there are challenges to be met.

Image of Solar Farm

The two patents filed by Apple are “Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device” and “Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device”. These two applications are successors to a previous appliction made by Apple in October. Plans were also revealed then regarding construction of a 171 acre solar farm near Maiden, N.C where they run a $1 billion Project Dolphin data center.

Though many electronics manufacturers had shown their interests in replacing their toxic chemical based batteries to hydrogen cells, it appears Apple might steal the show once again. In addition to environmental issues posed by conventional batteries, there are other political and business related issues facing electronics companies and this new method would prove useful in multifarious ways.

It is true that if the new technology is a hit, others will follow suit just as it happened with the iPhone and iPad. However, hydrogen fuel cells have issues with storage and pose more security risks. Hence, with the current designs, we can’t expect the hydrogen fuel cell powered portables to be any cheaper than the models already sold by Apple. Further, methods to refule must be considered. If a replacement of the bettery is required everytime the fuel is out, it would affect the popularity of the technology. Thus, the technology is years away from realization.

References

  1. “Apple Mulls Over Replacing Plug-In Batteries with Hydrogen Fuel Cells.” Green Packs. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.greenpacks.org/2011/12/27/apple-mulls-over-replacing-plug-in-batteries-with-hydrogen-fuel-cells/ (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  2. “Apple plots smartphones powered by hydrogen.” The Telegraph. Dec 25, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/8975382/Apple-plots-smartphones-powered-by-hydrogen.html#disqus_thread (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  3. “Apple, GoDaddy, Adidas, Joe Cool: Intellectual Property.” Bloomberg Businessweek. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-27/apple-godaddy-adidas-joe-cool-intellectual-property.html (accessed Dec 27, 2011).