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.)
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
Lack of apt expressions can be though of as a great source of frustration among people. I recently saw a movie in which a psychiatrist explains expressiveness. He says, if we are angry, we have to express it. If we are sad, we have to express it. Same thing applies to happiness, determination and all sorts of other emotions we have. But, it can be fatal to a relationship if we don’t contain those expressions within socially acceptable limits. Hence the term “apt expression”.
Coming back to the topic, we are remarkably intolerant of others now a days. We fail to express ourselves properly and we get irritated when someone else expresses. I recall incidents were people have displayed silly attitude which are are carcinogenic to the mind. It becomes a cancer and eats the whole psyche. In fact I know a friend of mine who has been the victim of her own psychic cancer.
Are we biologically evolved to be selfish? I think we are. That is a survival instinct. But as Dr. Dawkins mentioned in his remarkable book “The Selfish Gene”, there is something called meme which is a unit of social awareness that also evolves overtime. And that meme has brought more insight into our minds than ever before. We are now able to surpass our own biological predispositions in order to have total control over our lives and our future.
But does this ability that evolved for the survival of society will eventually cut at the roots of humanity? May be if we let the meme evolve in anyway it likes. Am I prejudiced? I think yes and everyone I know are prejudiced one way or the other. The difference is that I admit it and others don’t. And that brings us back to the beginning of the discussion. Are we really expressing ourselves?
I must let the readers know that it is perfectly okay to be prejudiced. What is not okay is to express the prejudice in manners that are not acceptable. You can express your prejudice in subtle languages that others can accept. Thinking that another person will be offended and not expressing ourselves is unhealthy. It does not mean that we should blurt out at others in public. May be we can have a private conversation on the phone so that no one else has to know.
Expressions can have negative effects and are highly volatile if not handled properly. We were taught about adult ego during our personality development training program. It speaks about maintaining proper composure while talking to people. Whether this is practical or not is something I leave to the readers. But mind you, there are civilizations on Earth where people do follow etiquettes of respecting one another and obviously that civilization is not part of the Indian subcontinent.
The future of humanity looks bleak and bright at the same time depending on how we perceive it. If we look around, we may feel that we are moving forward towards a brighter tomorrow. However, if you look up, the thoughts change. The sky on a clear night is one of the most beautiful sights you can get on Earth but this awe inspiring sight brings questions into our minds regarding the bleak future of human race. Whether we are alone in the universe is a question that might give us clues about our own fate in the distant future. We can hope to grow so advanced that we wouldn’t have to look back or we can expect ourselves to fall back and perish. SETI scientists spend their entire lives with radio telescopes pointed at the sky listening to the “cosmic buzz” hoping to find evidence that there is intelligent life outside Earth. The Drake Equation gives different estimates regarding the number of intelligent civilizations outside depending on whether it is an optimist or a pessimist who substitutes the values. However to this day, there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence that there is life outside out planet.
This paradox first postulated by Enrico Fermi and later examined by Michael H. Hart, analyzes various reasons why there haven’t been any intelligent exobiology detected so far.
The statement made by the Fermi-Hart Paradox is as follows:
“The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.“
So why is it that despite the size of the universe, we haven’t seen intelligent life outside earth yet? Two corollaries of the Fermi-Hart paradox may give us some clues. They are the Doomsday argument and Von Neumann Probe.
According to the Doomsday Argument, we ask ourselves, “Is it the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself?“
This theme has been extensively explored in science as well as science fiction alike and deals with an argument that precludes the possibility of a technological civilization with an invariable proclivity to destroy themselves shortly after developing radio or space technology. The various postulated means of annihilation include biological and nuclear warfare, nano-technological catastrophe, accidental contamination, a badly programmed super-intelligence, ill-advised physics experiments or a Malthusian Catastrophe that deteriorates the planet’s ecosphere.
Probabilistic argumetns have bene put forward suggesting human extinction as an inevitable event happening sooner than later. Sagan and Shklovsky suggested in 1966 that either a technological civilization will destroy itself within a century after developing interstellar communicative capability or will master their self destructive tendencies and survive for billions of years.
Thermodynamics and chaos theory may also suggest clues regarding the tendency to self annihilate. As far as life can evolve as an ordered system, it may not create a problem but when it starts with its interstellar communicative phase, the system would probably get unstable and eventually self destruct.
Self destruction is a paradoxical outcome of evolutionary process in a Darwinian point of view. Evolutionary psychology suggests that at a time when humans competed for scarce resources, they were subjected to aggressive instinctual drives like tendency to consume resources, extend longevity and to reproduce which eventually led to a more technological society which may drive us to extinction. Self destruction of a technological civilization, according to Fermi, might be a universal occurrence. Self destruction may not be the only outcome though. There is a remote possibility of the civilization getting back to being non-technological as we saw happening to the Ba’ku people in the movie Star Trek: Insurrection.
A slightly different question is posed by the Von Neumann probe which asks,“Is it the nature of intelligent life to destroy others?“
This postulate investigates the possibility of a technological civilization, once it reaches a certain level of technological capability, destroys other intelligence when they appear. This concept has also been explored in science fiction for decades. The causes of such extermination might be expansionism, paranoia or plain aggression. Cosmologist Robert Harrison added a corrolary to Sagan and Shklovsky’s suggestion in 1981 by arguing that given a technological species that has overcome its own tendency to self destruct, it will view other species in the universe as a virus and try to exterminate them. A direct consequence of this argument is the picture of an intelligent being as a super-predator, just as humans are today.
Just like exploration, extermination of other civilizations can be carried out using self-replicating artificial probes. It is a more dangerous case since even after the civilization that created such probes have died out, these probes will continue to do the job their creators assigned to them. If take this possibility into consideration, then that might answer the scarcity of observational evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, because either these probes will destroy them, force them to be quiet or force them to live in hiding to prevent detection.
Leaving all these arguments aside, there is still a very high probability that we are indeed alone in this universe. To conclude, what is going to be our future? Are we heading towards self destruction? Is our life and society as ephemeral as that of a mayfly? Are the advancements we make every day in technology actually the nails we are driving into our own coffins? Or are we going to be like the Borgs? I leave this up to you to answer.
A few weeks back, one of my close friends asked me to comment on a blog he wrote in Blogger regarding the subject called “brain drain”. I don’t know how much the western world is familiar with it and its effects but what he was concerned about was that a lot of Indians are moving to developed countries in search of better education or job opportunities. Most of them never return and eventually gain citizenship of the respective countries where they migrate to. The ill effects of this is that the countries from where these people move out will be deprived of their intellectual faculties which will adversely affect the development of their nation.
I commented something in favor of what he told and he was very happy about it. But later on I just had a feeling whether I made a mistake by writing in his favor. Whether he was actually right. What made me think is the existence of an interesting concept called globalization. Why I call it interesting is that there is an underlying state, the state of being a human being.
Someone asked me once about my nationality. I replied : “I am a human being of planet Earth”. Isn’t that the best way of describing oneself? I think yes. And that is the subject of this post.
The place we live on Earth is subject to what we do there. And in order to be at a place to do something, there has to be a driving force. Something like a desire and in most cases it is either education or career or family backgrounds. And yes, there are other instances too which can be categorized as miscellaneous. Either way, the place we live depends on many different reasons.
When we expand this, the city becomes part of a state which again is the part of a country. Very few people expand it to the extant of continents or the entire planet especially when describing themselves. Now the question is why should we say that we are human beings of Earth. There are no aliens in touch with us to ask where we come from. But I must say that we need to have that in mind all the time. Whenever we proudly say that “I am an Indian” or “I am an American”, we should realize that we are part of a bigger world that that.
Having said that, does it make sense to complain that a person is migrating to another country? Certainly not. As atheists, we should not differentiate or categorize people based on religion, race, color, nationality, language etc. And when atheism becomes more widely accepted, when more people leave their religious faith, the concept of nationality in my guess will lose its meaning. When someone migrates to another place, he/she will have migrated to another part of Earth which is inhabitable. And the notion of selling someone’s brain to another country is meaningless because through globalization, every invention/discovery made for the benefit of humanity will obviously spread across the globe.
So it is totally unfair if someone says that there is brain drain and that wise people are moving out to different places. I must say that they have to move out. Every human being will have an intrinsic feeling or a dream about the kind of place he/she will be comfortable living and working. And I think each one of us should be allowed to be in places where we want to be. Just like Indians move to other countries, people from there can come and settle in India if they like it here and I see no harm in it.
I am glad that English has become the global language even though there are people who don’t use it primarily. And I believe that in another 100 years or so it will be the spoken language throughout the world. The reason is that the word nation will lose its meaning with true globalization and when that happens, there will be a requirement for a common language of communication and that I assume will be English. There will be a common currency everywhere. There will be a governing body ruling the entire planet something similar to what we see in Star Wars. There will be no more Indians or Americans or Russians. There will be Earthlings all around.
I imagine a world where there are no boundaries. Where people have the same tongue. Have the same meaning for brotherhood. A world without religion where scientific reasoning dominates. Where there is law and order and proper hierarchical government to implement it in order to secure all the benefits for humanity.
Now I think I can tell my friend based on what I just posted that even though he got his facts right, he is so terribly wrong. What he told makes sense only in the context of nation and when that disappears, brain drain will disappear too!