Archive for December, 2011

Colour is in the eye of the beholder

December 20, 2011 1 comment

Here is my next write-up for the New Indian Express. I talk about the subjectivity of colours and why colours are not the properties of the objects themselves but only exist in our heads.

This leads to an interesting possibility. Does this subjectivity mean that bats (that don’t see) could use these colours for different textures of surfaces they encounter (as Richard Dawkins wondered in one of his books)? Do other animals use these colours as labels for the different temperatures they feel or for the different sounds they hear? I don’t know. But there is a probability that we might never know it. It is with this thought (though not put this way) that I end the article.


All set to satisfy our curiosity

December 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Mars rover Curiosity was launched on November 26th 2011. It will be on Mars in Aug 2012 (takes about 8.5 months). The Wikipedia says that it will land some time between Aug 6 and Aug 20, 2012, while the countdown on the NASA mission page, gives a precise countdown suggesting Aug 6th as the landing date. As explained in this pdf on their website,

The overarching science goal of the mission is to assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life, both its habitability and its preservation.

In brief, we are looking for aliens. Ok, not exactly, but this is a step. But if you think looking for extra-terrestrial life is madness, here is Neil deGrasse Tyson answering a question on an online chat recently.

Question: What do you think will be the biggest scientific breakthrough upcoming in the next 50 years

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Life elsewhere in the solar system. Mars, most likely.

Of course that does not mean intelligent life. If at all we find life, it will, in all probability be only microbes. But that is reason enough to look forward to the landing. Here is the rover.

The Mars rover, Curiosity

Getting the rover there, is in itself a great achievement. Look at this animation to see how it will happen.
Watching the animation above, makes me wish I were on it.
In case, you are wondering why the landing is complicated, Phil Plait explains:
I’ve heard some folks wondering why NASA is using such a crazy complicated way to land the rover. The reason has to do with the gravity and atmosphere of Mars, as well as the mass of the rover itself. Landing on Mars is difficult. It has just enough gravity to make it hard to land with just rockets; it would take a lot of fuel, and that means you have to lug that all the way there, which in turn means less mass available for the science package. Mars also has air, which means you can use parachutes, but the air is too thin to make it practical to use them all the way down like we do on Earth. So we’re stuck having to use both rockets and parachutes.
But apart from looking for signs of capability to support life, this rover is looking at life harbouring conditions also because we are considering landing on the planet in the future. Apart from that the rover is going to take samples of rocks, and it is landing at a site that has a layered terrain that will help us know the evolution of the planet. You can follow all the updates on twitter.
Categories: Astronomy Tags: , , ,

The gene’s eye view

December 3, 2011 1 comment

The New Indian express has asked for an article every fortnight (Yay!). This is my next piece for the New Indian Express. I talk about why evolution must be looked at as being for the benefit of the gene (and not as for the benefit of the individual). This is the crux of the classic book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins; the book that changed the course of my life. Without that book, I would have been a hugely different person today.

The article is titled “Soft emotions spur genes in evolution race” by the paper, though I had called it “The gene’s eye view”. I dont mind their changing titles, but in this case, they have got it wrong. The title seems to suggest that the emotions are the cause, and the genes the effect. It is actually the other way round. It is the genes that cause the emotions. I guess I should point that out to them.

Categories: Writing