By the time you read this sentence, an atomic clock has ticked more than 10 billion times!
By Vasudevan Mukunth
While a regular clock will slow down in about 20 years, atomic clocks will only lose one second in 30 million years!
This is because the tick tock of an atomic clock is not a swinging pendulum* but a vibrating electron.
Electrons are the negatively-charged particles in at atom. They circle in different orbits around a central nucleus.
The more energetic an electron is, the farther it will be from its nucleus.
In an atom of the element caesium, when an electron moves from a higher orbit (i.e. from farther away from the nucleus) to a lower one (i.e. a little closer), it releases a small amount of microwave* energy.
Like light, this microwave energy can travel through space as a wave.
When the electron in the caesium atom releases the microwave energy, the energy makes 9,192,631,770 full waves in one second. We know this for sure.
By recording how much energy a caesium atom loses as microwaves, we get a very accurate measure of time.
Atomic clocks’ ability to keep time for millions of years without slowing down makes them exceptional for experiments that require great accuracy. However, their most popular application is in the global positioning system (GPS)*, which lets you find out where you are on a map on your smartphone.
The blue dot on your map moves along with you only after the satellites have coordinated with an atomic clock on Earth. A tiny time difference can be enough for you miss that left turn!
The troublemaker Mr X is back with a mind full of wicked plans, ideas and much more… (Scroll down for a bonus!)
By Nandita Jayaraj
Mr X rubbed his hands in glee. Who knew Earth had so many young geniuses!
“Should I go for the Atom Duplicator…,” he thought.
“Or maybe the Nuclear Enhancer. My uranium-powered Vrooler would be even faster with that accessory…”
“Ah yes! This Proton Smasher is what I’m taking with me. It’s exactly what I need to create new forms of matter while building my utopian planet.”
Mr X was a judge at the Annual Genius Science Fair. But if you were there, you probably wouldn’t have known because he was in disguise. And he wasn’t there to judge, but to steal.
“Dr. Oompakala, did you take a look at that gizmo over there?” said a lady to Mr X, who nodded, though his eyes were fixed on the Proton* Smasher.
The real Dr Oompakala was recovering from a nervous breakdown in Hawaii. His skinny frame and bushy beard made him convenient for Mr X to impersonate. Now all that was left to do was to slip away with the Proton Smasher and make his escape.
So you see why Mr X really wasn’t interested in what his fellow judge was saying.
But maybe he should have been, because the gizmo that she was pointing at was built by two rather special little geniuses…
“Arby, something about that Judge Oompakala seems strangely familiar?” Alby asked his fellow Smarty.
“Shhh Alby, and help me set up the Muon* Scanner! I’m a little nervous about playing with exotic atoms*.”
“Exotic atoms!” exclaimed a friendly voice behind them.
“I’m Dr Mina, one of the judges. Why don’t you tell me what your device does.”
Arby took a deep breath.
“This is a Muon Scanner. When we press this button, it releases a beam of negatively charged particles called muons.”
Alby took some iron nails and placed them in the path of the beam. “Watch this.”
The digital display started blinking ‘SAFE MATERIAL’.
“Brilliant” deduced Dr Mina. “So the muons replace an electron in the iron atoms to form exotic atoms… as a result X-rays are released.. .and your gadget scans the X-ray to find out what kind of material the muons are hitting.”
“Yes! We can identify any element this way and the device will tell you if it’s safe or not,” explained Alby.
Dr Mina nodded and walked away smiling. The boys saw her stop to whisper something to Judge Oompakala, who looked kind of distracted. “Pretty sure she’s impressed!” Alby said happily, turning to give his Arby a high five.
But he missed, and thumped the button on the scanner instead!
A beam of muons shot in the direction of the car park. Immediately, the alarm on the Muon Scanner went off. “RADIOACTIVE!” the display blinked furiously.
The crowd at the Science Fair all turned to what the beam was pointing at.
“It’s Mr X’s Vrooler! It runs on uranium, no wonder our scanner caught it. But wait, why is it here?” shouted Alby.
At that precise moment, Dr Oompakala started running towards the exit. Wait a minute, did his beard just fall off?
“That’s not Dr Oompakala! Security, catch him!”
Back at BW Labs, Alby and Arby were relaxing their muscles with a bubble bath, admiring their trophy. “Dr Oompakala should be thankful to our Muon Scanner. We saved his reputation!” said Alby. “Oh, didn’t you hear? He returned from Hawaii to hear what happened and had another nervous breakdown!”
Are you curious about what else was there at the Science Fair? Check it out!
Is skateboarding just not fast enough for you? Sye bye-bye to friction with Kamala’s Vacboard. It operates by creating a vacuum path to you destination. Vacuum is emptiness – no matter, no atoms. That means there’s literally nothing slowing down the Vacboard!
Syed’s Autoformulizer is every chemistry geek’s dream come true. It has a nano-lab chip embedded inside, which performs quick tests on any item you place before it. It then gives you its exact chemical composition. For example, Syed just found out that his hand is H13750N330C2250Ca63P48K15S15Na10Cl6Mg3Fe.
Did you know that the element that makes up the lead in your pencils – carbon – also makes up diamonds? The difference is the way the carbon atoms are connected. Sara’s Bond Jumbler can convert graphite to diamond by fiddling with inter-atomic forces. How cool is that!
By Vasudevan Mukunth
On April 25, a powerful earthquake struck near Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. It measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and brought down hundreds of buildings and homes in the Nepali countryside. At last count (on May 2), the death toll had crossed 6,200, with the country’s officials saying those who hadn’t been rescued will likely have died by now.
This isn’t the first earthquake to have struck the Himalayan region in recent history. Since 1905, dozens of quakes of varying strengths have occurred. They usually followed a pattern, too. First, one quake would strike the region, followed by another earthquake, equally strong if not stronger, that would wreak havoc. Some geologists – scientists who study Earth and its structure – believe that the April 25 earthquake was one such quake in a series, and that a similarly big one could strike the region again.
Why is the land in this region of the planet so unstable?
The aggressive collision
The answer lies millions of years in the past. The world’s continents hadn’t yet fully formed. They were actually giant landmasses – like islands – that were floating on seas of lava like rubber ducks in a bathtub. Over hundreds of millions of years, they collided into each other to form the continents we see today. About 70 million years ago, the mass of land we call India today was not yet a part of Asia. It was actually floating toward Asia at a speed of 140 mm/year. About 40-50 million years ago, the Indian plate collided with the Asian landmass.
Geologists have found evidence that the collision happened harder than they thought it would be. In fact, it was so hard and brutal that the Indian plate and the Asian landmass folded upward, like when you push a piece of paper against a wall so fast that it bends up. The upward fold is what we call the Himalayan mountain range today. It is 2,400 km long and has nine out of ten of the world’s tallest mountains – you can only imagine the strength of the collision!
The scientists studying the history of the Himalayas are not sure why the Indian plate came in so hard. But it did come in hard. As a result, the part of Earth under the Himalayan mountains are heavily compressed and deformed. Imagine you’ve suddenly been pushed into a small box and locked up. Won’t you want to break out and stretch your limbs? The rocks feel the same way. Whenever they can’t handle the compression, they slip and slide over each, or they fold and bend, or they form cracks and break, or they jag upwards and fracture, etc.
When any of these actions happen, the land above experiences an earthquakes.
And because the Himalayan region was formed so violently, the rock underneath it is still very tensed and unstable. It will be thousands of years before all the tensions are fully released and the rock settles down. Until then, north-east India Nepal, Bhutan, the Kashmir Valley and Tibet will be earthquake-prone.
Featured image: A cracked road in Kathmandu, as a result of the 7.8M earthquake on April 25. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (license)
By Nandita Jayaraj
Genes are the parts of our DNA that make sure everything is working properly. If the chain of compounds that make up genes are jumbled or not the way they should be, it could result in problems that are sometimes deadly for the body. Since we inherit our DNA from our parents, some people are born with these disorders.
When a disease is caused by a bacteria or virus, it can be cured by simply destroying those microbes. But the villains in hereditary diseases are the cells of our body themselves, so these kinds of diseases are usually considered incurable.
However, scientists these days are more like superheroes. Cutting-edge technologies they’ve developed help them tackle problems that were considered impossible until recently. Very often they are successful, too. For example, for years now they have been using a method called CRISPR to cut out parts of our DNA that might cause a problem and then replace it with a healthier version.
Problem solved, right?
Not quite. Remember that an individual is made up of billions of cells and each of them will carry a copy of the defective gene. How do we reach so many cells at once?
Catching them early
The trick is to do the fixing while the individual is still an embryo – that is, in the very first stages of development when our bodies start off as a single cell. The future cells that develop from this “repaired” embryo will also be healthy, resulting in a fully formed healthy individual with healthy cells.
Again, it sounds like we’ve solved the problem, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple when dealing with human beings.
The issue is that genetic engineering is a very delicate science. For every thousand cells that are targeted, only a few actually get repaired. There is a very real risk of damaging the DNA further and killing the cell or accidentally creating more mutations that could be passed on to future generations. Though they may be just a mass of cells, embryos are future human beings. These dangers have made most scientists agree on one fact: no matter how good our intentions, let’s stay away from experimenting on human embryos.
For the greater good?
Despite this unofficial agreement, some pockets of scientists can’t help but be tempted. What if they were ones to provide that one big breakthrough that will make gene editing in humans safe? Millions of people born with genetic disorders every day will be saved thanks to them.Caption: If the problem is fixed at the single-cell stage, then every cell that develops from it will carry the repaired form of the gene. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
There have been rumours that some research teams around the world have been conducting experiments on human embryos but since none of them officially announced it, nobody knew for sure.
But earlier this month, a team of Chinese researchers made history by publishing the world’s first case of gene editing in human embryos. For their experiments they used defective embryos from hospitals that had no chance of living, so they say that they were not dealing with any serious risk.
The results of their experiments confirmed scientists’ fears. CRISPR method did not work as it was supposed to and many embryos died. Some were mutated in ways that were totally unintentional.
The scientific and non-scientific world are both nervous. Does this mean more such experiments could be under way? How can we be sure nobody is using healthy embryos? Is the potential of gene editing worth the potential disasters it could cause?
By Nandita Jayaraj
Sudan is the last remaining male northern white rhinoceros on Earth. If rhinos could talk, then this is probably what Sudan would say to us (featured image: gofundme.com)
Q: Hi, Sudan. Why the long face?
A: Sigh. When they brought me from my previous home, the zoo in the Czech Republic, to this Kenyan forest, I was ecstatic. But look at me now. They say all my friends and family are dead. Only four females remain. They tell me that the future of my species rests on me making more rhino babies.
Q: So why don’t you? Don’t you want to be the hero that saved your species?
A: Maybe you don’t know I’m 42 years old – that’s about 56 human years. My fertile days are past me and let me tell you, I’ve done my bit. In fact, two of the females here in Kenya are my own daughter and granddaughter! I appreciate how well you humans are taking care of the last five of us on Earth today, but I really wish you’d thought of this while you were killing us.
Q: What are you talking about?!
A: Poachers! Believe it or not, in the 1970s there were 500 of us roaming in the wild. By the 1980s, we were only 15. Thanks to silly poachers trying to make a fortune by cutting off our horns and selling them. For some strange reason, humans believe our horns have miraculous medicinal properties. Ha! And they call you intelligent.
Q: You don’t seem to have a horn yourself. Was it poached?
A: It was sawn off, but by the good forest rangers who are protecting us now.
Q: WHAT? They sawed off your horn?
A: Sigh. Yes. That was an extreme measure to ward off poachers.
Q: Hmm… So is this the end of the road, Sudan?
A: Maybe not. If I don’t manage to naturally mate with any of the remaining females, wildlife scientists can collect my sperm and use it to make one of the females pregnant. This is called artificial insemination. Sadly, it’s not easy to do this with rhinos. And if it doesn’t work, then I think it’s best one of the northern white rhino females mate with a different rhino species. That way though the babies will be of a mixed breed – but at least my species’ genetic material will continue to be passed on.