Smartest Soil of Them All

By Yumna Hari Singh

Who will find the best site to grow food for BW labs?

Alby and Arby were all set with their seeds and maps. They had one hour to explore the surroundings of the remote lab and find the perfect site to grow food.

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“Ready, steady, GO!” said Bhoo and both the boys charged off in different directions. They already had their destinations in mind.

Alby first headed down to a rocky area he had spotted the day before. The ground was still wet from the brief rains that morning and the soil felt thick and sticky. “This soil seems to love water. I’m sure the plants will love it,” thought Alby as he quickly buried some seeds one inch into the soil.

He had some time left, so he raced to the second destination he had in mind.

Meanwhile, Arby had taken a longer time to reach his first spot, which was a sandy plain. As he ran his fingers through the loose sand, it struck him that it was pretty dry. “On the other hand, the texture is so loose, the roots will be able to grow deep!” The wind blew the large grains on his face, but Arby prevailed.

He pushed his seeds deep, watered the spot and sped off to his second location. Even as he turned away, the water quickly dried up again under the sun. “Uh oh,” he thought, starting to get nervous but went on with his plan.

Far away, Alby had just about finished with his final spot located on the riverbed. The soil particles here were bigger than at his first site, he noticed. Once his seeds were buried, he watered the spot. The water sank deep into the soil, but the ground remained firmly wet. Alby patted his seeds in farewell and was pleased to notice that unlike with the clay, his hands were not sticky and didn’t need to be washed again.

Arby’s final spot was close to Dr. Dodo’s lab. In fact, it was in the middle of the nearby forest. The soil was dark, sandier than clay, but clayier than sand. He planted his seed and hurried back to the lab.

The boys entered the lab just as Bhoo signalled that time was up. “Wow, you boys look gloriously dirty!” she exclaimed. “You’d better go clean up before Dr. Dodo sees your muddy footprints!”

A week later, it was finally time to declare the winner. Bhoo, Skree! and Dr. Dodo accompanied the boys to their sites.

  • C Clayey: Plant has starved of air as the clay particles are tightly packed.
  • C- Sandy: Plant has died as the sandy soil does not hold onto water..
  • A Silt: Healthy plant as silt is home to many organisms, making soil fertile
  • A+ Loamy: Happy plant as loamy soil is a mixture of all three, a perfect balance!

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Arby’s sandy soil and Alby’s clayey soil had yielded tiny, withered, starving saplings. The real competition was between Alby’s silty soil and Arby’s loamy soil. Both saplings looked strong and healthy. But the one in the forest growing from the loamy soil was definitely taller, broader and stronger.

“So close! But you won, Arby”, admitted Alby. “What’s the prize, Dr Dodo?”

Dr Dodo cleared his throat, “Before we get to that, I’ve been meaning to ask you all about some mysterious muddy footprints in my lab…”

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The Rescue Operation

By Mahak Katyal
Based on an idea by Suyash Raj

The Alienometer falls into the wrong hands.

The year was 2050.

Dr Suyash had been working on his secret project for a long time.

He was in the middle of a rare break when the head robot called for him.

“Is it ready?” asked Dr. Suyash.

“Yes, master!”

“Let’s test it.”

A scientist from Dr Suyash’s team entered and connected himself to the gadget in the lab.

“All the best.” gestured Dr. Suyash.

The scientist signalled that he was good to go. A few clicks later the man in the machine did not look his usual self. His eyes popped out and his face was green.

Dr Suyash’s eyes gleamed with pride. “We have done it.”

The Alienometer that he had been working on since a long time was ready. Now he could become a Martian himself and travel to Mars to study it.

Using the anti-gadget he converted the scientist back to a human. Everyone in the lab cheered.

It was the best yet for Dr. Suyash.

His happiness was short-lived. When he returned to the lab the next morning, the gadgets were missing! He scanned the CCTV footage. And he was not surprised. “My ex-assistant Soni!”

“I have to find him before he misuses it.”

He instructed his GPS to locate the Alienometer and soon enough, they had identified where it had been hidden.

Carrying the anti-gadget with him, he dismantled the security system of Soni’s secret lab and tiptoed inside.

Dr Suyash was shocked to see dozens of captured aliens inside! He understood what Soni was upto.

“I have to save these innocent lives.”

He positioned the anti-gadget, and hit the Red button. The laser beam fell on all the aliens converting them back to humans. Before Soni found out what was going on, Dr Suyash aimed the Alienometer towards Soni. Soni was transformed into an alien, and while he was still dazed Dr Suyash captured him and handed him to the cops.

“Science should rescue us from trouble not put us in more trouble, Inspector,” said Dr. Suyash with a relieved smile.

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Make Soil Pudding

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The Nitro-Avatars

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The Importance of Being Xenon

By Nandita Jayaraj

Xenon is an element we don’t think about very much. Being a noble gas, xenon doesn’t react freely with other elements to form compounds, but that doesn’t mean it’s of no use.

NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, has been sniffing for xenon in Mars’ atmosphere. Since xenon is so non-reactive, studying it can give us a lot of information about what the atmosphere there was like millions of years back. This past atmosphere may clarify if Mars was indeed once a planet thriving with life and what transformed it to the now seemingly barren planet.

Xenon exists in several forms called isotopes. Isotopes of an element are identical except that they have different mass numbers. Remember, mass number = number of protons + number of neutrons. This means that isotopes contain the same number of protons (since they are the same element) and electrons (or else they would become charged ions), but a different number of neutrons in their atoms.

Xenon is element number 54. This means it has 54 protons. Two common isotopes of xenon are:

  • Xe-129 (contains 54 protons, 54 electrons and 75 neutrons)
  • Xe-131 (contains 54 protons, 54 electrons and 77 neutrons)

When Curiosity analyses the xenon in Mars’ atmosphere, what it’s actually doing is measuring the amount of each xenon isotope present. Changes in the atmosphere usually means that the ratio of isotopes also changes. The loss or alteration of the atmosphere of planet could be an important clue to the mystery of whether life once existed there.

For example, a past study claimed that though Earth and Mars have similar amounts of xenon in their atmospheres, Mars has much more of Xe-129 than Earth.

So what? Well, Xe-129 is a product of radioactive decay, so scientists deduced from this data that the original Martian atmosphere underwent a major overhaul within 100 million years after the planet was formed.

Some scientists, though there is no real certainty to this, even suspect that this overhaul may have been a massive natural nuclear blast.

(Here’s a bonus: Did you know? In 1962, chemist Niel Bartlett synthesised the first ever noble gas compound, using xenon: xenon hexafluoroplatinate (Xe+[PtF6] .)

Featured image: A false-colour image of “IBM” spelled out using xenon atoms. This was the first ever time scientists were able to precisely position single atoms on a flat surface, using xenon atoms. Credit: IBM

IBM in Xenon

A very interesting dino fact…

By Aashima Dogra

In the last two months, I’ve gone deep into dino world – all thanks to an online study program called ‘Paleobiology 101’, offered free by paleontologists at the University of Alberta, via coursera.com.

I’ve been learning lots of cool things like what makes T. rex a T. rex and the different tail clubs on ankylosaurs. Three weeks into the course, I got very excited about all this new information and couldn’t stop telling stories of the many new discoveries I was making.

One day, tired of my ramblings and looking for a punchline, one my friends asked me: What is the most interesting thing about dinosaurs?

It wasn’t clear at first. I spent the days to come lurking on forums, looking for the most interesting thing. Finally, I had my answer.

Feathers.

Terrible lizards or fluffy birds?

Most dinosaurs were in fact covered in fluffy small feathers like chickens and sparrows. Some of the dinosaurs that came later even had wings.

The first feathers on a dino fossil were found in China in 1997, on an animal named Sinosauropteryx. Then 10 years later, another team of scientists found feather-attachment joints, or ‘quill knobs’, on the forearm-bones of a velociraptor fossil (a kind of dinosaur).

A sinosauropteryx. Credit: Flickr/Sam Ose/Olai Skjaervoy A sinosauropteryx. Credit: Flickr/Sam Ose/Olai Skjaervoy

Dinos didn’t just have feathers. They had vibrant colorful feathers, with patterns and all. Chemical analysis of rare fossilised feathers revealed structures called melanosomes. We’ve since discovered that melanosomes contain melanin molecules, which are the colour-giving molecules that all animals have.

Experimenting on these dino fossils with X-rays has revealed clues on how colourful dinosaurs really were. The colour was decided by the shape and size of the melanosomes. Many different kinds of melanosomes in one animal fossil gave rise to a riot of colours. Just a few types was an indication of single- or double-coloured patterns.

As it turns out, the T. rex didn’t look as scary as some popular movie would have us believe.

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But make no mistake: the T. rex still holds the record for the most powerful bite by any animal that ever lived.

Dino-chicken

The closest living being to a dinosaur you will find today is the humble farm chicken, which is a genetic descendant of those giant, reptilians creatures. In fact, some research groups have taken the similarity with chickens to the next level.

One group of scientists is trying to activate the genes that chickens got directly from dinosaurs and became dormant in the course of evolution. The result would be dino-chicken!

Another group in Chile wanted to know more about the posture of dinosaurs. So they attached tail-like sticks to baby chickens’ behinds. When the chicken with the fake tails grew up, they walked more like dinosaurs than chickens.

Such findings, and the growing evidence of the presence of small fluffy feathers, are making it harder and harder for dinosaurs to hide behind the fearfully rough reptilian image, a beast covered in oily scales and with hefty claws.

Last year, in Siberia, paleontologists found a feathered dinosaur fossil that belongs to a group that evolved differently from the feathered dinosaurs found before. The scientists in this group concluded that short downy plumage was “widespread” in all dinosaurs.

Reconstruction of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, from the Jurassic of Siberia, in its natural environment. Drawing by Andrey Atuchin. Reconstruction of Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, from the Jurassic of Siberia, in its natural environment. Drawing by Andrey Atuchin.

Origin of birds

One thing is clear: feathers make birds special. No other living animal has those. But if dinos were around, birds wouldn’t have this exclusivity.

But then would they even need such exclusivity? Aren’t birds simply modern dinosaurs? Most paleontologists think so.

Many dinosaurs, from the ones that couldn’t fly to the ones that could glide and finally to the ones that could fly, definitely had feathers.

Birds descend directly from one of the branches of dinosaurs: the meat-eating theropods (the same family of dinos that T. rex belongs to).

In one of the video lectures in the Paleobiology 101 program, Prof. Philip J. Currie, a famous paleontologist leading the course went as far as saying, “The definition of birds is strictly a human construct. It is something that is important to us, but it wasn’t important in evolution.”

“What we conclude from this, very clearly, is that birds came directly from dinosaurs.”

These days, every time I see or hear a bird in the window, I can’t help but think: they never really left us.

ankylosaur

Winner of the Contests in the March 2015 issue

Here are the winners of the contests in the March 2015 issue. Congratulations! We are sending you some gifts to celebrate.

Sci-Q: Tanmay Gupta

Golden Gizmo: Roshini Kalliath , 12 years , Mumbai

Toon Talk: Ritivik Upadhyay, Bengaluru

Treasure Hunt: Pragun Pudukoli, Class 4, Bengaluru

Puzzle Book: Basavesh, 9 Years, Bidar, Karnataka

Ask Us Why: G. Sumita, 10 years, Hyderabad

Fan Fiction: Soumya K, Class 7, Delhi

Congratulations, all!

Abel Prize in 2015 rewards work on tricky but trusted formulae

By Vasudevan Mukunth

On March 25, two mathematicians were awarded the Abel Prize for 2015. The Abel Prize is considered to be as prestigious as the Nobel Prizes. However, the Nobel Prize is not awarded in mathematics, whereas the Abel Prize is awarded only for mathematics.

ScaleJohn Nash (top) and Louis Nirenberg. Credit: abelprize.no

The mathematicians are John Nash (86), an American, and Louis Nirenberg (90), a Canadian-American. They were conferred the prize for their work in developing a tool in mathematics called partial differential equations, done since the 1950s.

What are partial differential equations?

Imagine you’re standing inside your room. Ask your parent or friend to stand on the other side of one of the walls, and close all your doors and windows. Now, through the wall, shout out something so that the person on the side can hear you. He/she may will not have heard you perfectly well – your sound will have been changed in some way while passing through the wall.

How the sound changes depends on the thickness of the wall, the speed of sound through the wall and the pressure created by your voice as it passes through the wall. Moreover, that pressure also changes as it travels through the wall in different directions.

Calculating all of these values as they continuously change can be a very complex affair – even a normal computer could go mad trying.

To simplify matters, sound-engineers use partial differential equations. These equations are like a formula to bypass the calculations of all the values as they continuously change. Instead, given the thickness of the wall, the directions in which your voice is travelling and the speed of sound through the wall, it will directly give you how your voice will sound on the other side.

You won’t have to calculate any of the values in between.

John Nash and Louis Nirenberg developed these equations not just for sound-engineering but a variety of fields – how objects melt while heating, how electric current flows through a conductor, how computer-generated graphics can perfectly simulate the flow of water in movies like Finding Nemo, how stars heat the universe around then, how a tiny electron moves around inside the atom, etc.

Although they sound very sophisticated, partial differential equations are actually a branch of geometry. You won’t be learning about them until class 11. At first sight, they might look threatening but, as the author Douglas Adams might say, they’re mostly harmless.

They’re also incredible fun because they let you calculate all kinds of things, much more than described in the last paragraph. Mathematicians like them because they are so versatile yet simple.

Incidentally, one of this year’s Abel Prize winners, John Nash, also won the Nobel Prize for economics, in 1994. At the time, he was being rewarded for his work in explaining what kind of choices people tend to make when competing against each other.

The Academy Award-winning film A Beautiful Mind (2001) is based on Nash’s life and work. It’s a wonderful movie and if you can watch it, you should.

The Abel Prize has been awarded every year by the Government of Norway since 2003. It comes with a cash prize of about $800,000. A famous Indian who has won this prize is SR Srinivasa Varadhan (although he is actually Indian-American), in 2007.

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March 2015: Pyramid Power

Dear readers,

Pyramids are mysterious, aren’t they? In this issue, we uncover some of their scientific secrets (p. 26). Great civilisations built these awesome structures to symbolise the knowledge they held dearly. Accompany us to one of the ancient pyramids and watch as we uncover some ancient secrets (p. 11).

Besides explorers (pg. 30), this structure is also interesting to scientists. The pyramid is one of nature’s favourite shapes – many molecules are pyramidal-shaped (pg. 16), so are prisms. Ecologists arrange animals and plants in different kinds of pyramids (p. 40) to make sense of links between them.

Also, join us in wishing Alby a very happy birthday! Did you know that Albert Einstein was born in the month of March in 1879? Find out what happened after that, on page 6.

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Aashima Dogra
aashima@planetbrainwave.com

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