The Vivekananda Decomposition – A New Type of Destructive distillation!

Destructive Distillation
Destructive Distillation of Coal

We learned about charcoal and coke during 8th grade but we didn’t learn how they are produced until 10th grade  when  our beloved Prema madam taught us the process of destructive distillation. I kind of liked the idea since the process reminded us of another experiment I conducted with my brother at home. Most ordinary light bulbs have a component inside that  resembles a miniature test tube which we have used to conduct experiments on projectile motion.

Inside of a light bulb

We found at an early age that the inflammable material at the tip of a match stick can be utilized to launch projectiles. My brother and I were introduced to the test tube like thing by our neighbors. We put the inflammable stuff inside it thing and compressed it from outside. When we applied heat at the open end of the tube, it shot forward like a bullet.

I thought that this tube could also be used for destructive distillation. Science freaks like my friend Shyamlal and I used to sit  in the class and mock spiritual concepts. In Hindi we were taught many lessons depicting stories of Buddha and Vivekananda. This is about an incident centered around a biographical lesson on Vivekananda and his contributions in our 10th grade Hindi text book.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

The lesson was nice and at the end of it , there was a couple of paragraphs about his death. It was written that his body which was made of panch bhoot or five elements (earth, ether, fire, water and air) finally got separated from its soul and disintegrated into the earth. I was puzzled and asked Shyamlal who sat next to me “What does that even mean?”. He joked saying, “May be we can do a destructive distillation of his body to find out whether he is composed of panch bhoot!”. I stared at him for a while thinking about what to say.

It was a funny incident but it raised some fundamental questions in our minds. For instance, “Why do we still believe in pseudoscience even though we know that real science says something else?” “Why is it that yoga instructors and Ayurveda practitioners still preach about the vata, pitta and kabha doshas when the actual explanation of the symptoms in the body is different?”

My friend’s joke didn’t decompose Vivekananda. It instead decomposed our views on pseudo-scientific notions about the world around us! And now I like Vivekananda who caused this initiation.

Life giving formula!

Electroplating in Copper Sulphate Solution

Yeah I know. You must be thinking I am crazy! But read on and you will find out what I mean. It is funny that I don’t exactly remember in which standard this story took place. It is probably 9th or 10th. I went to my friend Shyamlal’s house with my brother to work on our electroplating project. (There are actually multiple stories centered  electroplating which I plan to include in a different post.)

Molecular Structure of Sulfuric Acid

After working on the plating stuff for a while, we got bored and wanted to try something different. We took a wide plastic lid of a jar and added copper sulfate solution to it. I don’t remember what the second ingredient was. It was something of green color. To this green solution, we added a little sulfuric acid. Since we didn’t have a stirrer, we used a paint brush to stir the solution. This caused some of the bristles to come out of the brush and fall into the solution.

Brush Bristles – Ours were thinner than this though

We kept the solution for sometime and went to the terrace to play. Later on we came back inside and looked closely at the solution. To our horror, we found that the bristles were moving very slowly even though the solution was static. The motion was random, something that resembled the motion of a worm. We thought, “Oh my, this formula gave life to bristles.

We stirred the solution again and let it settle down to see whether this conclusion was true and it was. Once settled, the bristles started moving like worms again.

Brownian Motion – A visualization

I wrote down the formula and took it home. For many days I was thinking what the hell happened to the bristles that resulted in this random motion that created the illusion of life.

After a while it clicked: “Brownian Motion!” It was the same stuff that led Einstein in 1905 into thinking that Boltzmann’s conclusions on atoms were in fact true. What he observed was the movement of pollen grains in water. We observed the same effect with brush bristles in a denser solution.

The puzzle was finally solved. Even though we didn’t invent a formula that gives life, it was enough to cause me headache for many days trying to figure out the meaning of that experiment!

Calorific Value!

Working of Rocket Engine using Liquid Propellants – Courtesy NASA

My 8th and 9th standard science texts were replete with concepts like calorific value, ideal fuel, molarity etc etc. Fortunately I was one of the few who could understand those conundrums. I was thinking about rocket propellants in those days. I knew that it burned rapidly and completely without leaving residue and that it generated huge volume of gases that drove the rockets forward based on Newton’s 3rd law.

A typical Home Laboratory

In 1998, we moved from our house at Pottakuzhy, were I setup my first actual lab to a house at P.S Road in Azad Road. I was wondering where I could set up my new lab. At Pottakuzhy, the windowpane had some designs made of metallic wires which enabled me to build a platform using the cardboard plate that the bakers kept beneath my birthday cake.

In this new house, I was disappointed because the windowpane didn’t have wired designs. They were just trite metal bars laid horizontally across the window. Anyway, I was able to get a hold of the small table that was previously used to keep the idols of Gods since we moved our Gods to the top of our bookshelf next to our television. By then I had collected so many things that it almost filled my table.


Let me get on with the actual incident now. I wanted to develop a propellant that worked like an ideal fuel with great calorific value and all the other attributes I mentioned above. I didn’t have liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, methyl hydrazine, dinitrogen tetroxide or neoprene solution. But I didn’t really mind all that because I was confident about my capabilities and the chemicals I already had.


So there I went with the quest for the ideal fuel. I took the experiment to my study table adjoining the lab table since there was no space on it and mom had hung some clothes on a rope above that. I took my usual vessel(brandy bottle cap) and added a little brandy to it. I had actually created a handle using thick copper and aluminum wires so that I could hold the vessel in my hand.

Step #1: I lighted the candle. I added a piece of solid NaOH into the brandy in the vessel. I held it to the candle flame. Nothing happened!

Step #2: I added a little candle wax and heated again. Nothing!

A Kerosene Stove – I extracted the Kerosene out of this

I was thinking why nothing was happening. May be another ingredient was missing. I thought about the other possible chemicals that I could add. Copper sulfate was a good choice but thinking about the chemical equations, I didn’t think it was a good idea since I thought it wouldn’t bring forth any favorable outcome. Sodium bicarbonate? Well, I already had Sodium hydroxide which didn’t do anything so far. Then I knew what I could add. I went to the kitchen and brought some kerosene and added a little into the solution.

Step #3: I started heating the new solution on the candle flame. Just 30 seconds and BANG!!! The whole damn thing burned up. The fire in fact spread outside and the whole vessel burned. I got scared and dropped it and extinguished it!

Candle Wax

I was exhilarated. This was really cool. When I checked the vessel, I found that except for the little candle wax I added in Step #2, the whole thing had burned. I thought that probably NaOH catalyzed the mixture of ethyl alcohol and kerosene giving rise to this spectacular combustion!

But was this really a propellant? Did it pass the tests required for it to be called a propellant? The young mind in me was disappointed because a part of me said that I had successfully completed stage one of my quest and that I need to move on to the next stage. But another part of me told that this is just a stupid experiment I did using the stuff in my house and that it is of no use and even if I wanted to pursue this experiment, I needed advanced equipment which I couldn’t afford.

Geotechnical Engineering

Anyway, I wrote down the results in a collection of papers which I maintained in my lab(a lot of which I lost in the ravages of time.) Years passed and I was in my 12th standard. One day at my native, I met my cousin who was then doing his masters in Geo-technical engineering. He asked me which field I wanted to take up after 12th. I told him that I needed to contribute to the field of aerospace science and technology. He was impressed and asked me to pursue it. We then discussed about the various aspects of the field.

The International Space Station – A masterpiece of Aerospace Engineering

During the discussion, the concept of ideal fuel came in. I told him about my experiments to find the ideal fuel. He smiled and told that this is not the right time to speak about ideal fuel. He asked me to do at least a doctorate in aerospace sciences before I even speak about this to anyone. I was partly discouraged but a lot motivated because I knew that someone did know that I had stuff in  me and was ready to guide me in the right direction!

The experiments continued…..

Antaradahanayantram – The Internal Combustion Engine!

Image of Internal Combustion Engine or Antaradahanayantram

Internal Combustion Engine or Antaradahanayantram

Don’t worry about the title. It means “Internal Combustion Engine” in Malayalam. In my taravadu at Kollam, I came across a book named “Kandupidithangalude Katha” or “The Tale of Inventions”. I got this word from that book. Being a fan of technology, I read about it. This was long before I learned about engines in school.

One day, I went to the back yard of my house at Kochi with a few items in hand. The intention was to create an antaradahanayantram! I took two caps of whiskey bottles and checked whether they closed on each other, which they did. Then I put a hole on top of one of them. Then I took another cap and made it a bit perforated on the side. I fixed that at the bottom of the other cap that did not have the hole.

Image of Whiskey Bottle Caps

Whiskey Bottle Caps

So in effect I made a cylinder with several holes here and there. Then I made a small fan and fixed it on top of the single holed cap. I filled that cap with water and the perforated cap with kerosene. Then I put fire into the kerosene. The idea was that the kerosene will burn inside and then boil the water which in turn will make the fan spin through its steam.

I don’t know why I thought this was an internal combustion engine since it looked as if it was both internal and external. Anyway it was burning and boiling the water. Nothing was happening to the fan though. Then my dad came and asked what was I doing. I said proudly that this is my internal combustion engine. He asked me what is that and I said antaradahanayantram! He just warned me not to create an explosion and left.

Image of Steam


I waited for some more time but nothing happened still. I was wondering what was going on. Then I noticed the flaw in my design. The steam has to come out of a narrow tube in order to utilize its power. I had just put a hole on top of the cap. So the steam was coming out just as it would if I am boiling water in an open vessel.

The design failed! I wound up my experiment and went inside. Sigh!

The wonder ink formula!

Image of Chemistry


My 9th std Chemistry was taken by three teachers. Usha madam went on leave and then Bindu madam took charge. But then the unkind KVS transferred her elsewhere. Finally Devaki madam took over towards the end of the term. The reason I mentioned this is because of one project in Chemistry that Devaki madam asked me to submit. It was nothing special. I made a bathing soap. But the interesting story is what I did with it. Here is the whole story:

Image of Sodium Hydroxide

Sodium Hydroxide

I bought sodium hydroxide to prepare the solution for producing soap. I was glad because it was a new chemical to add to my lab. Anyway I dissolved some NaOH into water and then mixed coconut oil and Eau de Cologne into it. After a while the solution solidified into a white substance. I left it for a week and then cut it into pieces. We first tried it as a washing soap and it worked. Then I took bath with it and I was happy because it worked as a bathing soap as well. I took it to school and submitted as my project.

Image of Bad Handwriting

An example of bad handwriting - Mine was worse though

Since time immemorial, my teachers have complained about my handwriting. It hasn’t improved to this day and I am glad that I took writing to my computer so that I don’t have to write on paper anymore. Be that as it may. On the day of submission of my project, I was sitting in maths class and as usual scratching the paper with my shabby “calligraphy”. It was a blunder I committed because one of my friends wanted the exact same pen that I had. I bought him one and then he wanted to exchange the nib since mine was smooth.

Image of a Nib

The nib of a pen

After I exchanged the nib, I realized my blunder but still bore with it. In the middle of the class I had an idea. Will adding soap to the ink tank make the writing smoother? To test it, I took a small piece of soap and put it inside the ink tank of my pen and sure enough, I had the most slippery smooth writing experience in my entire life!

Image of Eureka


But I noticed something strange, the ink was decolorized! Just a faint azure hue remained and it looked as if I was writing with an invisible ink. Nevertheless I continued writing. I went onto the next page and the next page. Then I just returned to the previous pages and EUREKA! The writings were visible again as if it was written by normal ink. Just a little lighter but that was okay! I had discovered something!

I started to show off my new found “invisible ink” which I called “wonder ink”. Later I experimented with pure NaOH to see whether that worked the same way but that turned the entire ink into purple color.

Image of Litmus solutions

Litmus solutions

During the beginning of my 10th std, I went to tuition at Paul Manjooran sir’s tuition center. I told him about this discover of mine and showed him this purple ink. He told that this is analogous to litmus paper used in laboratories except that the color code will be in the reverse order. He told that if I put some acid into this solution, the blue color will return. I tried mixing some lemon water into it and sure enough, the blue color came back in. I also found that this experiment works better with Bril brand of ink than Chelpark.

My experiments continued…

Exothermic reaction!

Image of Potassium Permanganate

Potassium Permanganate

I was in my 5th grade. Once I asked my dad to buy me Citric Acid and Potassium Permanganate saying that I needed to do some experiments. He bought me the two chemicals. I think probably that was the beginning of real experimentation in chemistry. I had done other experiments as well, like understanding combustion better. But that is a different story.

I started mixing the two chemicals in various proportions to see what happens. The first experiments had a larger proportion of the acid and less salt. Nothing happened. Except that the solution gets decolorized. I even tried drinking this compound just to find that it increased my hunger. 

Image of Sources of Citric Acid

Sources of Citric Acid

Then one day I had fever and we went to Sanjeevani Hospital at Naval Base. After I returned, I took the cap of a brandy bottle and mixed a larger proportion of the salt and a smaller proportion of the acid and I noticed something strange. The solution was boiling itself. And the cap was very hot. I was wondering what was going on. I told this to my brother. We did it many times but since we weren’t aware of the chemical formulae of these chemicals, we didn’t understand why it reacted this way.But I was exhilarated. I thought that I had found something new.
Image of White Explosion

White Explosion

We tried mixing other substances into this mixture to check how it reacted. I remember the incident in which we mixed kerosene and set the solution on fire. The entire solution burst in an awesome white flame as shown in the image. That was the most spectacular event I had observed so far in our lab. Wow! But the smoke that followed was not very friendly. My brother caught running nose after inhaling that smoke. The experimentations continued in the years that followed……

When it all began!

It was a warm evening in 1989. I asked a question to my mom about the way the Earth-Sun system works. She spoke about Copernicus and Galileo and the Solar System. She told about how much they sacrificed their lives to let the world know that what the church preached was wrong. I was just five years old but the impression stayed in my mind. Her description of how the day and night occurs was fabulous. She took a plastic ball and demonstrated how the Earth moves. She said that the Earth does not move around the Sun like motorcycle but rather it spins on its axis.Then she spoke about bacteria and as per her description, in “my world”, it was the smallest thing I could imagine. Especially when she told that a single dot can have millions of bacteria in it. But I still thought I could see them. I was seven when I learned from her that there is something called atom. I asked her what an atomic bomb is and that’s how she explained what an atom is and how scientists split it in order to cause Hiroshima and Nagasaki.I was impressed by that. I wanted to know more about it. I remember cutting down a grain of boiled rice using a knife to the smallest possible size and taking it to her saying that I found the atom. She smiled and said that it is far smaller than that. Something which I cannot see.

I was disappointed.

But I was determined to know more. I learned when I was 11 years old that the atom had an internal structure. Long before it was taught in school. I was fascinated by the world of the subatomic and I knew I had to know more.

I wandered around in the school library reading books on it. Fortunately I had a two close friends with whom I could discuss the subject. We used to discuss both the microscopic and macroscopic realms.

I then set up my own laboratory at home at the age of 13 and started doing chemical experiments. I think that is where it all began. The scientist within me was born and the curiosity continues till date!

PS: The titles “Emptiness and Form ” and “The Cosmic Dance” are not mine. I copied it from “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra. A book that has inspired me a lot.