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.

Uzbek Plov Recipe

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

The Uzbek Plov also known as Pilaf or Osh is an exceptionally delicious style of biryani from Uzbekistan. Widely claimed to be Stalin’s favourite dish, this rice and mutton based recipe from Uzbekistan is easier to prepare compared to other conventional biryanis. It can be prepared as follows:

Materials Required

  • Lamb Meat cut in squares (preferably of a fat lamb) – 0.5 to 1 kg
  • 2 – 3 cup Basmati Rice (or Uzbek Rice)
  • 3 – 4 big carrots cut in very small pieces
  • 2 Onions cut in medium pieces
  • 5 Green chilly cut in small pices
  • Vegetable Oil
  • 4 – 5 garlic with skin
  • Salt – 2.5 teaspoon
  • Black Pepper powder – 1 teaspoon
  • Other spices if necessary (cinnamon, clove etc.) – 1 teaspoon
  • Coriander powder – 2 teaspoon
  • Coriander Leaves

Preparation:

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or Osh

This dish is to be prepared in good flame in the beginning and hence the vessel you use must have a thick bottom. This ensures that the meat doesn’t get charred.

  • Wash the basmati rice and keep it soaked in lukewarm water before you start the preparation.
  • Pour the vegetable oil in the main vessel and wait until it gets heated.
  • Once the oil gets heated up, add the mutton pieces and fry them until they become light brown.
  • Add the onion, carrot and green chilly to this and mix them until the the onion turns golden brown.
  • Add salt, pepper powder and other spices that you have selected and continue to mix. You can reduce the flame at this stage.
  • Spread the mixture evenly. Filter out the water and add the rice to this mixture. Make sure that the rice completely covers the mutton, carrot and onion mixture. You should stop mixing at this stage.
  • Pour water to this without disturbing the rice distribution. The water should completely submerge the rice.
  • Once the water starts boiling, close the the lid. Reduce the flame further.
  • Wait for 10 minutes and check whether the water has been absorbed into the rice.
  • Place the garlic pieces on top of the rice.
  • If the rice hasn’t got cooked at this stage, create a small opening at the center of the mixture and add water there without disturbing the structure.
  • Close the lid and wait for another 10 minutes.
  • Repeat this process until the rice is cooked.
  • Turn off the flame and keep the vessel undisturbed for 30 minutes.

You can add coriander leaves after 30 minutes and mix the dish well. When adding water the second time, be sparing in the quantity used because you should not overcook the rice.

Uzbek Plov or Pilaf or OshYour Uzbek Plov is now ready. You can use Yougurt Kachumber as a side dish. What makes the taste so exquisite is the lamb fat. The mutton gets fried both in the vegetable oil and the fat that comes out of the meat. The first time I prepared this, it didn’t come right. So don’t be disheartened. Try again and you will be fine. The day I saw this recipe in the newspaper, things were a mess but I learned from my mistakes and so should you. This recipe has one extra ingredient, which is green chilly but trust me, it makes the dish amazing. Let me know your feedback!

The Dubai Reasoning!

It is surprising how misunderstood atheists are. Most people really do not know why atheists become atheists. There are popular misconceptions such as atheists do not believe in God because they think that something that cannot be seen cannot be believed. Another misconception is that atheists are messengers of evil or the devil. Yet another misconception is that atheists believe in evolution which states humans came from monkeys. All of these arguments against atheism are ignorant and straw-man to say the least.

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

Mohanlal in Kilichundan Mampazham

There is a popular Malayalam film named Kilichundan Mampazham. In that Mohanlal talks about belief. He says that just because one has not seen Dubai, doesn’t mean Dubai doesn’t exist. So far two close friends of mine have used the same logic to me while talking about atheism. They say that if I haven’t seen God, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Well, first of all I must tell everyone that it is not because we can’t see God that we don’t believe in God’s existence. This argument stems from the lack of understanding of what evidence means. People are yet not clear with the concepts of direct and indirect evidence.

I have not seen my brain yet. In fact most humans have not seen their own brain. However, we know that it exists. We are aware of its existence from various indirect evidences that we can verify. For instance, we can perform an EEG or a PET scan and verify that we have a brain. Other indirect evidences would be the cognitive processes that goes on inside our head all the time. We think therefore, we do have a brain. We really don’t need to cut open the head to verify its existence but if we do, we can be sure that will see our brain. When a crime happens, the detective doesn’t see the crime directly in most cases. He collects evidences such as fingerprints, footprints, blood samples, video and audio recordings, letters and emails, chat scripts, witness testimonies and many other things before drawing his conclusions as to who might be the culprit.

Similarly, we know that Dubai exists from a variety of indirect evidences such as personal descriptions of people who visited that place, photographs and documentaries and news related to that place among others. All these convince us that Dubai exists even though we haven’t visited it. Hence the argument that atheists reject God because they haven’t seen God is meaningless. It is not just the direct evidence that we verify but also indirect evidence. There hasn’t been any testable way to prove that God exists both directly or indirectly. Which is one of the main reasons why we don’t believe in a God.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence“. However, we must use that statement carefully in any context. Or rather, we shouldn’t misuse that statement. When I speak about aliens, some people ask me how am I so sure about their existence. Of course I am not fully sure about their existence. However, the indirect evidence is so overwhelming. At the time I am writing this, scientists have discovered over 700 planets and over two dozen of them are in the habitable zone around their parent stars, which means they can harbor life as we know it.

Now, life as we know it alludes to the carbon based life form. Carbon as you might have studied in high school, has a property called catenation. It can form long chains of molecules that form “backbone” for other molecules and atoms to attach. Our DNA is one such molecule which can self replicate and therefore form the base for life to evolve. DNA may not be the base for life in other planets but still it is highly likely that it will be a carbon based self replicating molecule. When scientists search for life in other planets, they look for signatures of life such as oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, presence of organic molecules, presence of moisture in the atmosphere etc. And intelligent or industrialized life form would have further signatures such industrial waste gases, radiation, presence of radio waves artificial light sources etc. These are prominent indirect evidences that scientists are looking for all the time in the planets that are being discovered.

exoplanet artists impression

Exoplanet (Artist’s Impression)

We haven’t found direct evidence for aliens because we have barely started looking. It’s been just over 110 years since we invented radio. Which means, the farthest those early signals have gone is 110 light years. Our galaxy is over 100,000 light years across and have an estimated 400 billion stars. And there are roughly a hundred billion such galaxies in the observable universe (give or take a few billion). In the last 20 years since the first discovery of an exoplanet, we have found over 700 confirmed planets. Hence, the discovery rate is quite high and in the coming years, the number of planets we find will be truly mind blowing. Thus, the day is not far before we find the first clues for a life form that is truly alien. And when that happens, our civilization will be changed forever.

Coming back to the main topic of discussion, evidence can be direct or indirect. In science, a theory can be verified through experiment, through observation or through mathematics. In addition, there is a rigorous process of peer-review. It is only when such a verification occurs that a theory gets accepted in the scientific community. Scientific community is hence very rigid because there is no room for error there. Therefore, any Tom, Dick and Harry cannot come up with a theory and say, “Hey, this is my new theory, accept it.”

God, is a concept invented at a time when there wasn’t an understanding about what was going on in the world. To be more specific, the God in our culture(s) is basically the “God of the gaps”. People tried to plug in the various holes in their knowledge about the world using God(s). Religion was a political and cultural construct invented in order to keep people in control by exploiting this ignorance. However, today we know so much about the world around us that we can start pulling out the plugs from many such holes and put our scientific understanding in place. For example, we didn’t know how things fall in the past, but we do today. So, we pulled out the corresponding plug and put theory of gravity in. We didn’t know why there was a retrograde motion for Mars and other planets, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put Heliocentric theory in. We didn’t know why diseases occur, but we do today. So, we pulled out the plug and put germ theory in. So as and when we learn a new thing about this world, one God disappears or as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.

This was a simple article about the atheistic viewpoint. If this doesn’t provoke thought in a religious person and helps him understand why atheist reject God, then I am not sure what will. Any questions on the content of this post is welcome. Thanks for your time.

The Einstein Argument!

There are people who believe in God because their parents or community does so. There are some who follow the “because there is something, someone must have created it” logic. Yet some others believe because they are not sure but do not want to take “risk“. However, recently I heard an interesting preposition. It basically preys on my keen interests in astronomy and astrophysics and states that as I learn more about the universe, some day I would realize that there is a God and leave my atheistic point of view.

The source of this partially ignorant preposition is even more interesting. It uses Albert Einstein as a yardstick to measure the highest level of intellectual achievement and then uses that as an argument against atheism saying, “Even Albert Einstein believed in God. And you are talking about atheism.” The words “even” and “you” are the problem sin this sentence, which you will understand as you read on. The preposition also takes its position from a very popular urban legend where Einstein as a student seemingly “proved” God to his atheist professor.

There is no doubt that Einstein is one of the greatest scientists of all times. However, using him as a yardstick of intellectual achievement in my opinion grossly demeans other great scientists who lived during his time, before him and after him. The fact is Einstein actually never believed in a God. Of course he was not an atheist. He preferred to be an agnostic, which is good as a scientist since agnosticism is in many ways like atheism except for the part where it accepts the lack of surety as to whether a supernatural creator created this universe and then interferes with the events happening in it.

Hence, touting up his name  in order to sell one’s religious point of view doesn’t make sense. There are other issues in using Einstein’s name in this case of a supreme God who has influence over how events unfold in the fabric of reality. First of all when we talk about an intelligent creator being, it is a scientific hypothesis. We are talking about an intelligent being that has the capability of various feats. Then the question that would naturally follow would be “Where did this being come from?

Secondly, Einstein had big problems with quantum mechanics. The world as we know can be divided according to two models. The one for which Einstein is famous for which is general relativity and the other is quantum mechanics. Now, in order to describe reality completely, we need both the theories.

General relativity goes about explaining the universe at a macroscopic scale. It is very beautiful and elegant and describes a predictable universe. It appears that Einstein’s obsession with predictability of the universe is one of the reasons why he is an agnostic. Unfortunately, at the most fundamental levels, the universe is totally unpredictable. The works of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli and a whole bunch of other scientists during Einstein’s time and afterwards conclusively prove that the quantum mechanical nature of our universe at the fundamental level is unpredictable.

It is obvious that Einstein had a problem with it because he wanted his predictable view of the universe to work at all levels, which it didn’t. If quantum mechanics was just a theory that couldn’t be verified experimentally, then he would have easily brushed it aside and moved on. But that was not the case. Experiments after experiments kept proving the quantum mechanical nature of reality at the fundamental level. This is where Einstein had a problem and he went on making the famous statement, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

To his death, Einstein didn’t accept quantum mechanics even though he knew that it was a true way of understanding nature at the microscopic scale. In fact, towards his later years, he became a recluse and refused to read the papers of new scientists who were making excellent progress in the field. It is said that he wasn’t even aware that two new forces viz. the strong force and the weak force were discovered. He spent his remaining few years of life working on one particular problem, which is combining electromagnetism and gravity, which were the only two forces known to him.

So, as a scientist, his achievements in relativistic mechanics, gravity, photoelectric effect etc. are excellent. However, he had this exceptionally biased point of view towards quantum mechanics, which was the other half of reality. It is funny to know that it was his own earlier works in physics that lead to the creation of quantum mechanics. That probably might have disturbed him further.

To summarize, touting up Einstein’s name in religious arguments is futile because of two reasons. First, he never believed in a God and was an agnostic. Second, he was biased enough to discard one half of reality that describes the universe in order to favor the other half. Further, he was never the only intellectual of his time or anytime for that matter. Thomas Edison, Paul Dirac, James Chadwick, Paul Ehrenfest, Sigmund Freud, Niels Bohr, Pierre Curie, George Gamow, Julian Huxley, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing, William Shockley, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Schrodinger etc. are some of the scientists and inventors during Einstein’s time who were confirmed atheists. Other famous historic and contemporary atheist scientists and inventors include Jim Al-Khalili, Svante Arrhenius, Subrahmanyan Chandrashekhar, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Sandra Faber, Richard Feynman, Alan Guth, Wilhelm Ostwald, Edmund Halley, Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Lawrence Krauss, Joseph Louis Lagrange, Alfred Kinsey, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Alfred Nobel, Sir Roger Penrose, Carl Sagan, Leonard Susskind, Steven Weinberg, Richard Stallman etc.

We can’t in anyway say that Einstein was somehow more intelligent than them or his contributions are greater than all these people or that his religious point of view is somehow better than them. Einstein himself is known for his seemingly ambiguous statements about God and religion. Hence, to conclude, it is a futile attempt to use Einstein’s religious point of view as an argument against atheism.

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

The $9.8 Billion Debacle

You are a middle class schoolteacher from a small town in the eastern part of India. Your monthly income is a mediocre Rs. 35,000 ($700). As part of your weekly routine, you log in to your bank account on a sedate Sunday evening expecting to find a balance of not more than Rs. 10000 ($200). Imagine your bafflement then upon seeing an additional sum of $9.8 billion (Rs. 496 billion) credited into your account, an astronomical amount even by the standards of the rich.

This is exactly the predicament that Mr. Parijat Saha, a resident of the town of Balurghat in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal, found himself in on the evening of 15th January, 2012. Stupefied and flabbergasted, he immediately reported the anomaly to the guilty party – the State Bank of India (SBI). Officials at the bank were initially prevented from commenting on or discussing the issue with the media, but well placed sources said the funds were “uncleared” and couldn’t have been used by Mr. Saha.

However, Mr. Tapan Mitra, the bank’s assistant general manager was quoted on hindustantimes.com as saying, “The amount was merely a transaction that was shown to have been made from his (Saha) account. The amount was never credited to his account. Such an occurrence is normal and usually happens because of fault of the internet service provider.” In addition, he said, “The bank internet system has various layers of firewall security to prevent such mistakes.

That is why the amount was not credited to his account, it merely appeared as a transaction and the account balance was not affected.” The bank – motto “Safe Banking with SBI” – had alerted both its regional headquarters in Calcutta and the national headquarters in Mumbai and an official probe has now been instituted in order to identify what actually went wrong and take necessary action. In the meantime, Mr. Saha withdrew the Rs. 10000 belonging to him leaving the uncleared billions for the bank to take back.

Through it all, it’s not the bank’s ineptness that’s shocking here, it’s the teacher’s honesty that’s the true news for me. While others would undertake the sorts of scams most of us can’t even begin to imagine, here’s a man who made an honest effort to return the money and take only what truly belonged to him. How many such people can you come across in India? In light of all the corruption scandals of recent times, this piece of news is like a breath of fresh air and reinforces our belief in the basic goodness of people and humanity. Hell, the guy deserves the entire $9.8 billion as a reward for his honesty. Let him keep it, I say.

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).

Preparing for GRE and TOEFL

My previous post described briefly the general procedure involved in applying for MS in US. Today I will elaborate on one the most important aspect of your application – your GRE and TOEFL scores. You should understand that to get into a reputed institution, it is a must to take these tests. There are institutions that do not require them but I would rather suggest you don’t waste your time on those since in the long run you might face difficulties.

Both GRE and TOEFL are required to be taken because of the type of abilities they test. People have often asked me why it is required to take TOEFL also even though GRE has a verbal part in addition to the quantitative. Well, my answer is simple. They test two different kinds of English. TOEFL is taken to prove that despite your mother tongue, you can still handle English fairly well. GRE Verbal on the other hand tests whether you can utilize complicated sentence structures and recognize them if seen. It also tests whether you can decipher a fairly technical document, analyze it and derive conclusions. It is a quality expected in every master’s degree aspirant in USA.

From personal experience, I feel that taking TOEFL before GRE is better. I think this will maintain the flow of your preparation. Besides taking TOEFL (which is easy) will give you a firm understanding of how to take an online computer adaptive test in a controlled environment so that you can be mentally prepared while taking GRE (which is harder.)

TOEFL

TOEFL as you know stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. It is taken to prove your abilities to handle the language in reading, writing, listening and speaking. My advice is not to spend too much time preparing for TOEFL if you had English as a functional component of your employment or in your daily life. In my case, I had a call center experience and it was really not a big deal for me to take TOEFL.

The maximum time I spent in preparing for TOEFL was 3-4 hours. I borrowed the Kaplan TOEFL preparation guide from my friend. It had a CD inside. And I ran the CD to simulate the test in my computer. It gave me sufficient drill work and that was more than enough.

The Test

As I said, if you run the software from Kaplan or Barrons or any other syllabus, you will do just fine in the test. That’s all the training you need. Do not panic even if you get a long prose to analyze in the reading section. Just concentrate and you will find the answers to the questions given on the right side. While taking the speaking section, do not try to put an accent. Try neutralizing your accent and that’s more than enough. While speaking English, keep the jaw relaxed and speak slowly and clearly. You will get 15 seconds to prepare and 45 seconds to deliver your speech. Keep your cool and note down your points of speech in the 15 seconds you get and start speaking freely based on the points you noted.

If your functional usage is not English or you do not have sufficient fluency in the language, then you will need extra training. In those cases, workout the questions in the books and then practice using the software and you will get good results.

GRE

The Graduate Record Examination is actually quite simple when compared to other exams like GATE, JEST, JAM etc. But it is tougher than TOEFL and requires rigorous preparation. Spend sufficient time reading the theoretical part of each section. Most of the things have been covered in your high school. This is just an application of those concepts but they need to be revised nonetheless.

Verbal

This is an analytic version of English as I explained before. You have to build your vocabulary in order to survive this test. Use both Barrons and Kaplan for your preparation. I suggest you join some coaching center since they give you additional materials to improve vocabulary such as flashcards. My favorite method is using software known as Anki. It is an amazing software that helps in improving your vocabulary using a virtual flash card system. Install Anki today and download its flashcard decks and start working out. A person with sufficient level of intelligence can get through the analogies and antonyms section. You also should practice writing the essay and arguments. If you are used to writing in simple English like me, you ought to change that. They are looking for people who can make shorter, crisper sentences with sufficiently superior vocabulary. Instead of saying, “I strongly dislike crime”, if you say, “I abhor crime”, it would have a different impact on the reader. The first paragraph of any essay is called the thesis. That is where you briefly describe what the remaining essay is all about. It must contain roughly five sentences. It is a good idea to write the thesis paragraph and summary paragraph after you write your main body. That way you will have better control on the flow of your prose and will present clarity of thought to the reader.

Quantitative

Many students spend too much time on verbal thinking that it is going to be tough and neglect quantitative. That should not happen. Allocate equal amount of time for both. You should work with two separate syllabi if you want to get through GRE quantitative. You MUST do all the problems given in all the sections of both the books. Do not leave even a single problem unsolved. Get help from your instructor if you are in a coaching center or try online to find solutions. Quantitative follows arithmetic, algebra, Euclidean geometry, coordinate geometry, probability and statistics. You don’t need to know trigonometry or calculus but if you can use them in simplifying the problems, it would be great.

Joining discussion groups is something I didn’t do myself. I did join a group but never discussed anything. You don’t actually need it. You can find solutions otherwise. You have practice software with the GRE book that gives you sufficient drill on the test scenario. Also you can try websites such as www.majortests.com and practice the questions there. Remember, this is a computer adaptive test. If you get one question right, the next question will be tougher. And if you get a question wrong, the next question will be easier. The problem is that tougher questions carry higher marks than easier ones.

It is true that you don’t have to answer all the questions to have a good score. You have to answer the questions that appear earlier better. That will ensure that you get tougher and tougher questions to answer which will get you good marks.

Drawing a diagram is a good way to tackle your quantitative problems. Unless you can visualize what exactly they are asking, there is no point in answering. You might end up calculating it wrong. In addition to Barrons and Kaplan, you can try quantitative aptitude books of other authors as well.

The Testing Center

Your choice of testing center is very important. My suggestion is to choose a center that is away from your city. May be an adjoining city would do. The reason is to have a more silent environment. Most testing centers are flooded with candidates and seeing “tensed” faces itself would wash your confidence away. In my case, I was lucky to have just two other cheerful guys for my TOEFL test.

The same thing applies to GRE testing centers as well but the number of Prometric centers that conduct GRE tests are less in number compared to TOEFL centers. So, you might not get as many choices as you would in the case of TOEFL. Nevertheless, try to get a center that doesn’t usually get much rush as much as possible.

You will be subjected to a thorough security check. You MUST carry your passport. They do not accept any other type of identification. Also carry your test confirmation receipt. You don’t basically have to carry anything else. If you do, you will be asked to lock them up in the locker outside. You have to pull out your pockets and show them that there is nothing inside. Also you will be asked to undergo a biometric scan. Keep this in mind to avoid surprises on the test day.

Do not chew chewing gum. They will be monitoring you during the test and if they have the slightest hint of you doing it, you will be asked to go out and throw it away. Also if you are a fast typist, you will be asked to slow down since the typing sound is considered a disturbance to other people.

Breaks

When you take the tests, you will be given a 10 minutes break after the first two sections. You MUST take that break. Go outside, get some fresh air. Have coffee or tea and snacks. I had an egg puff and tea. Make sure that you don’t exceed the 10 minutes time. Refreshment will help you handle the second half of the test with the same amount of confidence that you had in the first half.

Miscellaneous

A score above 1250 in GRE and 100 in TOEFL would be enough for you to get in to fairly reputed institutes. But if you can make above 1350 and 110, it would be excellent! Your test results for TOEFL will take about 15 days to reach you. GRE scores are immediately calculated after the test except for the essay type questions. You will be asked to choose the universities that you need to send the scores to. If you haven’t decided yet, just put some dummy university name for the time being and get out of the testing center. You can login to the ETS website and send the scores to your favorite universities from the convenience of your home. Mind you, it will cost you money to send scores to universities. So, if you are sure about the universities, then try mentioning them at the test center itself to avoid extra charges.

Be sure to get the details of the department before sending the scores. Sometimes the department you want might not be listed in the ETS website. In those cases, it is better to check with the department to see where you need to send the scores. Sometimes they will ask you to send it to the Graduate School without any specific department mentioned. Send the scores and inform the department of the same so that they can have a lookout.

I think I have covered all the necessary details regarding both GRE and TOEFL. If there is anything I have left out, do let me know and I will add those. Thanks for your time and all the best with your GRE and TOEFL!

MS in US – A Crude and Interesting Process!

Image of US Education

This is a very interesting topic of which the information is often garbled by misinformed people. Doing an MS in US is not child’s play. The effort involved is huge and if you do not follow the procedures well, you might end up messing the whole thing. My personal advice to anyone aspiring to do an MS or Ph.D in US would be to create a backup plan. Please understand that US is not the end of the world. There are other countries that give you the same type of education and standards. For instance you can opt for Great Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia in addition to applying  to US. I am telling you this because getting a visa to go to US for your education is a horrendous procedure and there is absolutely no guarantee that you would be successful.

I also suggest that you approach a proper overseas consultancy that offers training and guidance in all the procedures involved. A word of caution that I would like to give at this moment is that the overseas consultancy that you choose would help you with all the processes up until your admission in the university. They are totally useless in your visa interview at the American Consulate. Hence, make sure that you do you homework and make your own informed choices based on the information available online and from your friends.

The process of going to US for MS can be divided in the following steps:

  1. Program of study
  2. Institute and department
  3. GRE and TOEFL
  4. The Paperwork
  5. Visa

Let me explain each one in detail:

Image of Phd Doctorate

1. Choosing the program of study – This is very tricky for most students. They do not know as to what they really need as a branch of study. In America, it is possible to become an engineer even if your undergraduate is in medical science. I personally know someone who did his undergraduate in Agricultural Engineering and is currently doing his Ph.D in Neurobiology. So, it is definitely possible. There are many reasons why you chose a particular branch of study in your undergraduate. You might have chosen to become an engineer just because your parents wanted you to do it. Or you might have done the same because your friends chose it and you were under peer pressure. Let it be any reason, American education will fix all that and you have opportunities to change the silly mistakes that you did as an undergraduate student. Mind you, your life is not to be wasted doing things that you do not like. It is for you to realize your own goals and aspirations.

Image of Online Masters Program

2. Choosing the right institute and department – I have heard students ask, “I have 55% in my B.Tech, can I apply in MIT?” This is ridiculous. MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UCLA, Purdue, UTexas etc are beyond the reach of average students. Most people who study in these institutions have been in prestigious institutions in their undergraduate such as IIT’, NIT, BITS etc. Or they might be exceptionally good in their academics. So, do not waste your time in applying to these institutes. Grad Schools and Happy Schools Blog and sites similar to these will give you sufficient information regarding how to choose an institute that matches your taste. Something I know from personal experience is to choose the universities that have a good distance/online learning option. I am telling you this because if you do not get through the US visa process, you still have an option to study from here and then apply for visa at a later time.

Image of GRE and TOEFL

3. GRE and TOEFL – These are two essential components of your graduate admission. You ought to take this no matter what. There might be institutions that do not require GRE or TOEFL scores but you might have a tough time getting through the visa interview since they ask all sorts of questions if you have not taken your GRE or TOEFL score. The GRE Subject Test is not required in 90% of the institutes but if you are wise enough, you can take that also to be on the safer side. But my advice is not to waste your time on that since there are plenty of universities in US that do not require the subject test.

Image of Paperwork

4. The paperwork involved – This part is interesting since no one realizes the amount of paperwork involved in the process. You should put in paper each and every aspect of your application process. Just as you do your online work, so should you do the paperwork. It is very important to have both online and hard copies of all your documents. Let me give a brief account of all the paperwork that you have to go through:

  • GRE and TOEFL scores –  They send you the paper format of your scores. Keep them ready. In addition, they send the paper format of the scores to the universities that you have chosen. Make sure that you send them.
  • Your SOP (Statement of Purpose) –  This is also known as Statement of Objectives. Either way, this is an important aspect of getting your admission in any institute. You should write down in paper as to why exactly you want to choose a particular college and course. You should write down your interests, what you have done so far to that field and what you will be doing after you have finished the program. This needs to be more objective than passionate. However, you can add your emotions here than there to show certain level of passion.
  • Your SOR (Statement of Research Interests) – This is for students applying for Ph.D. You should let them know why exactly are you doing a Ph.D and what exactly is your area of research interest. You don’t want to go to America or any other country without an idea in mind as to which part of which subject you want to research. The professors also look for this because they might have some project in hand an will be looking out for people who can work for them. If you can find a research problem, then even better since you can put that in your research proposal.
  • Academic resume  – This is another tricky part. You might have seen job resumes several times. This is slightly different. You can convert your job resume into an academic resume if you know where to change. Your objective should be to get admission and not to get a job. Further, you have to put your academic profile before your job profile so that the professors and the department heads can see them first.
  • Official Transcripts – I am sure almost all of you have your degree certificate, your provisional certificate and your mark sheets of your  undergraduate performance ready.  But that is not enough. You need to get something called the “official transcript”. It is created by the university you studied and can be either given in your hand or sent to your chosen American university depending on where you studied. Either way, make sure that you keep a photostat copy of your mark sheets since you have to submit them at the time of application of transcripts. If you can get it in your hand, you can send it to the US university through courier. Or you can arrange for the university to sent it. This is important because they need to understand your strong and weak points. This will particularly help you at the time of funding since the professors need to know in which area you can work and which one you cannot. It doesn’t matter if you had backlogs. No one really cares about it if your overall undergraduate score is above First Class.
  • Affidavit of Support – This is a letter from a notary or any other gazetted officer. This will show on a stamp paper that your parents or whoever is sponsoring you for the education is capable enough to support you. It is basically a legal document that can convince the university that you are not going to seek unauthorized employment in USA during or after your studies and that you intend to return to your home country after you are done with your MS program.
  • Bank statement – The universities are not actually looking for a step by step bank statement of your past 6 months’ transactions. If you can get a letter from the chief manager of your bank that you and your parents have sufficient savings in your accounts to support your studies, it is more than enough. But, you are always welcome to take your 6 months’ statement with you for your visa interview.
  • Application Receipt – This is the receipt of the application that you made to the university. I know that you get an online copy of the application receipt in your email and also that the university is well aware of your application. Nevertheless, it is important as a standard office practice. If you don’t understand what I mean, please check with your parents who have been in office and paperwork for decades. We have been brought up in computers and hence we don’t understand the value of paperwork. So, make sure that you print out your application receipt as well as application fee receipt.
  • Recommendation Letters – This is yet another important aspect of your application. Though most universities require only 2 recommendation letters, my advice is to produce 3. You can get one from your principal, one from your HOD and one from your lecturer. That will create a 3-tier effect to your application. While preparing your recommendation letter, try to limit it to just two paragraphs. Also do not use superlatives like, “he has been the best”, “she was one of the most brilliant” etc in the letter. Keep the language moderate and professional. Your faculty will anyway tell you the corrections that you need to make.
  • Photostat copy of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores  –  Despite sending your official transcript, you should also send the photostat copy of your mark sheets and your undergraduate certificates. This is for quick reference since the GRE score, TOEFL score and official transcripts reach the university at different times. They need to match them with your application ID. So having a photostat copy of these documents is worthwhile.
  • Covering letter – This is included in the package that you send to your  university. This letter will summarize all the documents that I have described above. You should mention that though you are sending the photostat copies of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores, you have sent the originals of the same separately. You should also give the list of documents included in the package that you are sending so that they can look for it if something is missing in the package or inform you about the same.
  • The package

    Image of Brown Envelope

    This is a brown paper envelope of sufficient size that can hold all your documents without bending. Instead of writing the address of your department, I suggest that you print out the recipient’s address on a paper and paste it on the envelope. This is much better than letting people decipher your handwriting. Your package must also include the photostat copy of your passport and your recent passport size photographs (3 of them). Now, try to courier it rather than using registered or speed post. Courier will help you track the shipment all the way to the university online.

    Getting your visa

    I am not going to talk much about this part. All I can say is that it is a horrendous nightmare. As mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, you should apply in multiple countries other than USA. I am not very positive about you or anyone else getting through the US visa interview process. If you do, you might be one of the lucky people who made through. Make use of information available online regarding the visa interview processes and try to get through. Create a backup plan just in case things don’t come out the way you wished them to be. Be confident and answer questions promptly. Give them a feeling that you are a genuine candidate but do not let them feel that you are desperate in going to US.

    Scholarship

    Image of Scholarship

    Please do not think that scholarship is for the most brilliant students. Even if you are an average student, you have chances of getting funded. It all depends on the availability of projects with the professor and your good luck. Every professor seeks funding from various agencies for projects related to his/her areas of expertise. He/she would certainly need people to work to get the project running. So in most cases, you can get a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) or a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistantship). Again, I would like to repeat what I told in the beginning. Do not choose big shot universities. Try smaller ones since you have better chances of getting scholarships there. Also, once you have made your application, fix an appointment and try calling the professors. Talk to them and let them know your interests. Do not be surprised if you hear 99 nos and 1 yes because that 1 yes is what will get you what you want. Further, do not be picky in your research areas in the beginning. Have a general idea about things. You always can choose  your favorite subjects at later points of time.

    Miscellaneous

    The miscellaneous items that you need to learn are software skills. You ought to know programming in Matlab, Autocad, Astrogator etc in order to survive MS in any country. Especially if you are funded, you will be expected to write programs that simulate various scenarios. Also you should be good in math and data analysis. No matter how dry these subjects sound, you ought to get them in your head. Join social networking pages of the universities and connect to students who are studying or have studied in your chosen university and get to know more.

    I think I have pretty much covered everything that is required. I will devote separate, elaborate posts on each of the aspects I have mentioned in here in due time. If you have any questions or suggestions, do let me know. All the best!