Friday, October 27, 2006

Science Trek : Episode I

Since my column in the Technician was abruptly canceled due to various reasons, I have decided to create one here, along the same lines.

This one is called "Science Trek", and I hope to capture a few snippets or a weekly roundup of some interesting science & tech stories...this here is the first edition of the same...

Sunny Side up in 3D

NASA launched two spacecraft that are expected to provide the first mapping of the sun in 3D! The main idea is to study violent eruptions from the sun known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over several hours. These eruptions can create huge clouds of energetic particles that can trigger magnetic storms. These may disrupt communications, satellites and even power grids! The mission has two spacecraft, lofted on a delta-2 rocket. These aircraft will send their data directly to the US National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). This it the agency that makes space weather forecasts, and with the new data they can improve their forecast warning time from a few hours to a few days.

The following image shows the orbits of the stereo observations relative to earth...

Teaching evolution

75 science professors at Case Western Reserve University have signed a letter endorsing a candidate for the Ohio school board of Education. The idea is that they want to oust the Deborah Owens Fink who is a leading advocate of curriculum standards that encourages students to challenge the theory of evolution! The alternate and the preferred candidate - Tom Sawyer, a democrat, former Congressman and onetime mayor of Akron. Apparently over 90% of the professors had signed the petition from as diverse fields as anthropologists, chemists, geologists, physicists and psychologists. But Dr. Owens Frank is not against the theory of evolution, or a proponent of the theory of intelligent design. She finds the idea that there is consensus in the scientific community for evolution as "laughable", and she wanted the students to subject evolution to a critical analysis.

The Mighty Amazon

New research concludes that the world's mightiest river, the Amazon, was forced to reverse direction, not once, or twice but thrice ! Sometime around 65 million years ago, the rise of the Andes blocked the Amazon, which until then used to empty out into the Pacific ocean. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found samples of the mineral Zircon at the center of the Amazon basin - these deposits could only have come from a now-eroded mountain range to the east, called Purus Arch. Of course, this course change was only the latest in a series. Apparently the rise of the Purus Arch in the east, had originally caused the Amazon to change direction westwards. Apparently the Amazon has gone through at least three course changes in the last 110 million years - a short period of time, geologically speaking!

The Oracle forsees a future clash with Redhat

Oracle, one of the largest software companies in the world, seems to have thrown down the gauntlet and taken aim at Redhat - a leader in Linux and open source software. This came in the form of an announcement by Oracle's chief executive, Larry Ellison. He announced that Oracle would begin offering maintenance services for Redhat products, and charge less than what Redhat does for the same! Redhat's shares were crushed by the news, dropping by more than 25% ! The Raleigh-based Redhat, a $1 billion company could become vulnerable to a takeover if their shares continue to drop as a result of this announcement. This might be a game of bruised egos - something that Larry Ellison is known to have in large quantities. Apparently Redhat recently trounced Oracle in a takeover bid for JBoss. This, coupled with an announcement from Redhat that its Linux software would turn software into a commodity caused Ellison to launch this counter-attack. We shall just have to wait and see as to how this saga a classic David vs Goliath scenario.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

New element in the periodic table.

A team of American and Russian scientists have discovered an element with the periodic number 118! It lasted only for a thousandth of a second, but it will mot probably become the latest element in the periodic table.

Some excerpts...
Element 118 would fit comfortably just below radon in a column of the periodic table containing what are called noble gases for their inert chemical properties.
Apparently others have previously claimed to have found the element, but it turned out to be a fraudulent case...
The results were met with praise but also caution from other scientists in the field, particularly given the fraught history of element 118. Another California lab, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, announced that it discovered the element in 1999 but retracted the claim two years later after an investigation found that one of its researchers, Dr. Victor Ninov, had fabricated data. Dr. Ninov was later fired.
This current team of scientists have their detractors too, as they have made claims to have found elements 113, 114, 115, 116, and now 118. The problems lies in the fact that these measurements are extremely difficult to reproduce.

But here is the exciting part...
The scientists said their results also gave hope that they were approaching a long-predicted “island of stability” of even heavier elements, with longer lives and possibly strange new chemical properties.
Apparently the search is on for the next "magic number" nucleus in the field...
But the theorists have predicted that there is another closed shell out beyond all elements discovered so far, including the latest one.
There is general agreement that the next neutron magic number is 184. But that is still out of reach of current experiments.
Well, looks like with all the talk about magic numbers we are truly on our way to an age of fantastical elements and weird properties...

Friday, October 13, 2006

President's "unacceptable" problems...

...according to a story in the Washington Post, President Bush finds a lot of issues and problems "unacceptable"!

Some interesting excerpts...
In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems "unacceptable," including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.
Looks like some of his speech writers are slowly using bigger words with greater frequencies, to test the waters !

Monday, October 09, 2006

Movie Review : The Departed.

[Note : This review might give away a few details of the movie, but not too many that you will notice, or will hurt your viewing pleasure! :)]

Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" (IMDB entry) has all the makings of a cult classic. It has a great director in Scorsese and a class act in Jack Nicholson. Anyone can guess that this movie would be something to remember about.
While most folks would focus on Scorsese and Nicholson, I would like to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan) and Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan). To say the least, they were spectacular ! And not in an over-the-top way...but in a very subdued, sensible way...I think they stole the show from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin and even Martin Sheen! Before this movie, I would have had trouble putting the names of DiCaprio or Damon in the same sentence with any of these stalwarts...

Not that DiCaprio and Damon have shown a lack of talent...don't believe me? Check out The Man in the Iron Mask, Catch Me If You Can, Good Will Hunting, Dogma, and of course The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's just that Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen each are legends in their own right and one can only gape in amazement when you are fortunate enough to see all of them in the same movie.

The Damon/DiCaprio combination just yanks the carpet out from beneath you, especially since you are not expecting it. There's a subdued on-screen competition between the two...not just between the characters they portray, but between the two actors...of course, you say, the story is about two infiltrators -- one in the police department leaking secrets to an Irish mob boss, while the other one is a cop trying to bring down the mob from within. But here's the best part -- for a large part of the movie, they don't know that they're competing! And even before they find realizes that you're watching two very good actors portraying characters with vast undercurrents and that they're being manipulated by two masters -- Jack Nicholson, and to a more subtler but stronger extent, Martin Scorsese.

As I mentioned, there're variations of the competition between the two even before they know of each other's existence...for instance, one is working on taking down Jack Nicholson's (Frank Costello) character and the other is working against the cops to help Costello. But an even more interesting, unknown, rivalry is for the the character played by Vera Farmigia (that of police psychiatrist Madolyn). Both men vie for her and she has to make the choice between the two, and all the while they have no idea who the other person in her life it, and even if there is one.

But when the two, almost simultaneously, become aware of each other's presence, the rivalry heats up, as both realise that the other's success is one's downfall -- not just from the graces of their peers and superiors, but fall from life itself! And then the two characters go into overdrive to find the other's identity, which brings out some of the most intense scenes in cinema. There is one scene where Damon calls DiCaprio using the cell phone of the dead Martin Sheen character. This is the first time in the movie when the two have a chance to literally face off, but the beauty of the scene - not a single word or sound is exchanged! You can see the wheels whirring in their heads, you can feel the desperation, fear and apprehension just jump off the screen, and yet, complete silence!

The hands of the artist, viz. Scorsese, are not evident throughout the movie, and that is what makes it special...he takes in shots and situations in a manner that doesn't show his presence behind the scenes, while being able to still get subtle messages across -- a case in point being a shot of the Boston senate house through the windows of Damon's appartment...on the window screen a rat scuttles across...underscoring the point that the movie is about two rats ("informers", for the uninitiated)!

Watch out for some other surprises from the hands of Martin Scorsese. He is capable of drawing sympathy for the unabashed bad guy (the snitch that is Matt Damon's character)! There is no pretense for drawing in the feels that he is just doing his job, that of infiltrating the police force, just as the cop that is DiCaprio's character is doing his job by infiltrating the mob.

Scorsese also seems to make the city of Boston a character in its own blends in and stand out at the same shapes the paths and scenarios that the various characters play in. The shots of the city are surreal at times.

Of course, one actor who would have really taken away from the main storyline, and the two characters, if he was given longer screen presence is Mark Wahlberg as Dignam. As it is, DiCaprio, Damon and Wahlberg are the ones that remain in your head as you walk out of the movie hall...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Neil Armstrong's grammar correction...

"One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Historic words which have been criticized for decades, because Neil Armstrong apparently forgot to put the article that would have made it grammatically correct...
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Apparently he was supposed to transmit this to NASA's mission control, but he said the latter. Over the years, he has maintained that he said it the way it supposed to be - with an "a".

An Australian scientist has vindicated Armstrong's story, using some high tech sound-editing and analysis software. Excerpts...

Ford said he downloaded the audio recording of Armstrong's words from a NASA Web site and analyzed the statement with software that allows disabled people to communicate through computers using their nerve impulses.

In a graphical representation of the famous phrase, Ford said he found evidence that the missing "a" was spoken and transmitted to NASA.

"I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it, and I find the technology interesting and useful," Armstrong said in a statement. "I also find his conclusion persuasive. 'Persuasive' is the appropriate word."

Well, somehow I have gotten attached to the "flawed" version. To me, it seems to show more human characteristics...we scaled great technological heights to reach the moon, and yet in the excitement, made a grammatical mistake !