Drama at the Science Fair!

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.”

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“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?

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“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!

 

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What Caused the Nepal Earthquake?

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!

Releasing tensions

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)

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Lessons from a failed science experiment

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 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?

Sudan – The Last Man Standing

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.

Credit: Javed Imthiaz Credit: Javed Imthiaz
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What It’s Like to Work With Brainwave

By Swetha Prathapan

This is the story of how Brainwave entered my life so stealthily, that by the end of three weeks there, I’d settled in fully.

The technical part of the interview had gone way better than I had hoped for and I was anxiously waiting for my interview with Sasikanth, the CEO. We had conversed through email earlier but the idea of meeting him in person was making me quite nervous. But I realized all that worry had been uncalled for when I came out of there with a huge grin on my face. Of the 45 minutes I had been inside with Sasi, he’d spent almost 20 minutes laying out his idea of Brainwave and the plans he had for it. It is hard to ignore the fact that he is quite the businessman. I was besotted with Brainwave.

I joined one bright and hot summer morning. Each passing day since, it has been unravelling in my head that Sasi’s words about Brainwave were just the truth. The little office is such a healthy combination of dedication to what you do and how you do it in the best way possible. In a bigger company, you get to see people with absolute dread for their job and their mortal enemy is Monday morning. But here all I can see around me are happy faces who love to come in everyday and work away. The major difference I could figure out is that this “job” is something they love to do and are passionate about and NOT merely a source of income to them. And personally that itself seals the deal for me.

Their passion is definitely contagious and I’m happy about it being that way. Though my parents were apprehensive about me joining a company with less than 20 people in it, my struggles with them are never going to be wasted. I was given a warm welcome by everyone and I’ve come to know and like each of them and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. The people here have such different perspectives on life and are so much different from each other. But the elegance in which they blend together in work reminds me of all the different colours in the sky blending in to form the rainbow.

What do I do? Well… testing has always been my passion and within the few days that I’ve been here, I knew I could take my experience to another level here. I finally felt like my work was actually helping people here do their jobs better and that literally made my day! I test every piece of software build at Brainwave and make sure it works the way it should. Apart from that, getting involved in everything that goes into the making of our Virtual Lab games (Coming soon!) has been really refreshing.

It has been like that every single day and I haven’t taken more pride in what I do as much as I do at Brainwave. I wish this fairytale never ends and the clock never strikes midnight for Cinderella (OK, that’s me).You know, if you can, you should definitely drop by. We’d love to have you over. :)

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In what language do computers talk to each other?

By Aruna Sankaranarayanan

What is language? Would you say it was something that let you talk to people, animals or birds? When you meow around a kitten, you confuse it because you look and smell nothing like a cat but you sound like one!

I think language is something that helps any two people or objects tell each other certain things. You and I speak the language of a huge variety of inanimate objects to everyday. When you turn on a switch, you ask a bulb to glow. When you switch it off, you ask it to stop glowing. Besides machines that understand such simple directions, human beings have also successfully learned to build objects and teach them to do wonderfully complex things.

One of these useful objects is the computer. While language of this sort sometimes needs a physical connection between the two talking objects, like a switch that is connected to a wire and then to the bulb, many times signals and waves can also convey commands and sentences – just like sound waves convey speech.

If you could make a machine and teach it to behave in a certain way – maybe according to your whims and fancies – you would have to first share a common language with the machine to share your ideas with it. What would a computer understand? How can you or I talk to it?

The first makers of the modern computers wondered about similar things, and decided that the only thing that a computer could understand and they could control was electricity. One reason was obviously because electricity was the only thing that brought the computer to life, and an absence of electricity was a direction to go back to sleep – already two simple words in the language they shared. They further went on to use this on-off mechanism to teach the computer to understand letters, numbers and all the other things we have created in the many thousands of years of our existence.

The language born out of this was called binary, meaning something that consists of two things together – on and off, or 1 and 0. Just two simple letters – not 26 like in the English alphabet – and a way to communicate everything we want to, with the machine and using the machine.

When I think of binary, I almost always imagine it to be something like a rein on a horse, a device to have control over the machine. If you tug at the rein, the horse stops, and if you let the rein loose, the horse moves. You could have two tugs to make the horse run faster; tug and let loose, maybe three times, to ask it to slow down. That’s how you create your very own language with the horse.

So, how does the computer render numbers and alphabets on a screen when it can only understand 1 and 0, or on and off? You could come up with a sequence of 0s and 1s to mean something. For example, in the standard binary language 1 expressed in 8-bits is 00000001, 2 is 00000010.

Similarly, you could have binary sequences for symbols like +,- or / and for anything else you need the computer to understand. Whenever the computer encounters a sequence of 0s or 1s, it uses something like a dictionary to compare the sequence against and then accordingly performs the action it is asked to. If you have worked on a computer, you can try to imagine the speed at which it must be understanding these sequences. Computers talk to other computers using binary, too!

Can you create your own binary language? You could use sounds, light, leaves, objects or alphabets, and then create different sequences to mean different alphabets and numbers to make a secret binary code.

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Foolish Science for Fools’ Day

By Vasudevan Mukunth

Did you make a fool out of someone on April Fools’ Day? Or did someone else’s clever prank get the best of you? If you did either, you weren’t alone. On April 1, some famous science magazines and websites published hoax articles to fool their readers – providing proof that you don’t need to be young to be silly but just have a good sense of humour.

1. Nature – If global warming continues, dragons will come to life

The prominent British science journal Nature wrote a lengthy article saying how dragons could once have existed in the past, and could return to life if the Earth continued to become warmer. In many British legends, dragons are depicted as ferocious beasts that were almost always defeated by knights. The Nature article says that the more knights there are in the world, the more the chances of dragons returning.

Sluggish action on global warming is set to compound the problem, and policies such as the restoration of knighthoods in Australia are likely to exacerbate the predicament yet further by providing a sustained and delicious food supply. It is now only a matter of time before The Third Stir takes place, and this, to borrow a phrase from Godfrey of Exmouth, will be the “bigge one”. Climatic conditions are rapidly reaching an optimum for breeding dragons, and it is only a matter of time before the neurotransfer spell loses its efficacy completely.

It closes by recommending that we continue our research into fireproof clothing.

2. Science – Aliens on Mercury

The American magazine Science reported that NASA’s Messenger satellite, orbiting Mercury, had picked up some strange voices that sounded like they were crying out in agony and some grainy images that appeared to be writhing. Although not as detailed as Nature’s dragon article, Science’s piece is definitely spooky. Even though I knew it was a hoax story, I felt creepy reading it last night.

The report goes on to say that the discovery might mean Mercury is actually Hell.

Messenger had been orbiting Mercury since 2011, but it used up nearly all of its propellant and was drifting closer to the surface of the planet. So last week, NASA officials decided to point the probe nose downward for a controlled crash. “We were hoping it would kick up some soot for spectroscopic analysis,” says Messenger Principal Investigator Angra Mainyu, a planetary scientist at Columbia University. Just what it did find instead is not entirely clear.

3. CERN – The Force is real

Have you watched Star Wars? It’s a science-fiction movie that features a group of philosopher-soldiers who use a fictitious, almost magical, force called… well, the Force. These soldiers, called the Jedi, can use the Force to move objects around with just their will-power.

On April 1, the European nuclear research lab called CERN announced that its scientists had discovered that the Force exists. In a small article, CERN’s scientists said that it was a new natural force in nature, like gravity, that only physicists could access.

“The Force is what gives a particle physicist his powers,” said CERN theorist Ben Kenobi of the University of Mos Eisley, Tatooine. “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us; and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Though researchers are as yet unsure what exactly causes the Force, students and professors at the laboratory have already started to harness its power. Practical applications so far include long-distance communication, influencing minds, and lifting heavy things out of swamps.

Ben Kenobi is a character from Star Wars while Mos Eisley and Tatooine are locations in the series’ fictitious universe.

4. FQTQ – A science experiment bent in half

The world’s largest science experiment is located underground, below the border between France and Switzerland. It’s called the Large Hadron Collider, and it has a 27-km long narrow pipe in the shape of a ring. The popular science site From Quarks to Quasars reported that some scientists were tasked with increasing the diameter of the ring. However, some of those scientists didn’t convert miles to kilometers correctly and ended up building one part of the ring longer than would fit.

As a result,

Unfortunately, the error wasn’t noted until the physicists went to put the new left-sided section in the ground. As they attempted to lower this section into place, they quickly realized their error, as they hadn’t made a large enough hole, and (sadly) the new section was bent in half.

Yeah. They apparently bent the world’s largest science experiment in half.

*

While these are clever and imaginative pranks, they all contain an important lesson for readers. They may have published these obviously fake articles on Fools’ Day, but there are other news outlets that regularly publish articles whose facts are not verified and which contain dubious arguments. The lesson is that we must critically analyse all articles about science on every day, every time – not just on April 1.

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Teleportation: Science Fiction or Reality?

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Spherical Sputnik

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Year 2015 Declared the International Year of Soils

By Mahak Katyal

The year 2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils by the United Nations (UN). The organisation has nominated its Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to make the most of the initiative, with help from different governments and the secretariat of the UN.

Why is this important?

The soil is an essential natural resource. It provides nutrients to plants and is home to many animals and microorganisms. Of all the world’s available soil, only 11 percent is for farming – the rest hasn’t been explored. It is very important to protect this land because it takes more than 500 years to form just two centimetres of topsoil. So you can see imagine how difficult it is to bring back once it is lost.

What does the UN expect out of this?

The UN will expect the FAO to raise awareness about the value of soil during 2015.

In its turn, the FAO will educate people about the crucial role that soil plays in farmers being able to grow enough food to feed the world’s seven billion people. During the year, according to its website, it will support the policies aimed at management and protection of soil resources. It will also promote investment in activities dealing with soil management in order to maintain healthy soil for different land users. The FAO will also organise various conferences so as to advocate enhancement for information collection about soil and monitoring it at all levels.

How are we contributing?

Making a small contribution from our end, our April 2015 issue is all about soil! In it, you can join the Smartys to find out the best soil to grow different crops in, make a yummy soil pudding, meet a soil engineer, imagine the world without soil and much more. So get started and celebrate the International Year of Soil, Brainwave style!

To celebrate the cause and raise awareness, the UN has organised a contest on Instagram where you can post pictures related to soil with an aim to raise awareness about the issue. The winning picture of the contest will not only be featured on the FAO website but will also bag a prize. Apart from this, the FAO has a little something going for everyone on their website as well.

It will have conferences, learning videos and materials, and activities for educators to make sure the star of the year, the world’s soil, gets its due popularity.

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