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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Chasing New Horizons: Alan Stern & D Grinspoon #Review

Alan Stern takes us behind the scenes of the science, politics, egos, and expectations that has fueled the greatest space mission of our time: New Horizons' mission to Pluto. And of course, by the time I finish this book, the mission is way beyond its objective - crossed Pluto and would go on to take snapshots of Ultima Thule (~4 billion miles from the Sun) on the 1st of January, 2019. What an eve to celebrate.

Launched in Jan, 2006, the Spacecraft crossed Pluto In July 2015 at a speed of more than 52,000 Kilometer per hour and crossing more than 4.8 billion km from Earth. Focusing its instruments on the long mysterious icy worlds of the Pluto system, continued on its journey out into and beyond. Having completed its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons has maneuvered for a flyby of Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU, nick named Ultima Thule.

The head of the mission, Alan Stern, and his accomplished co-writer, David Grinspoon, trace New Horizons from its conception in 1989 right through 2015’s historic event and beyond. Stern with a 'can-do' spirit infuses Chasing New Horizons, the definitive account of first flyby mission of Pluto and narrates the ordeal he went through the mission towards reaching out to Pluto, a planet when launched and now a largest object in the distant Kuiper Belt.

The authors recount every step of the mission including its highs and lows in a lucidly readable manner. The internal competition for funds and the restrictions imposed on Alan Stern when he was not allowed to seek outside help, a feud with Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s alternating red and green lights (based on the lobby that was against the mission) do make a 'breaking' read. That the support from the team with vivid portraits of the young scientists and engineers who were willing to stake their careers on challenges is a bolt from the blue.

The build-up to New Horizon’s launch is rich with delicious tension. Stern’s team tested and re-tested New Horizon’s design and efficacy, circling back to the drawing board, verifying the bird's credibility. It was unassuming to note that at one point when the lift-off date was projected to fall on Friday the 13th some scientists, weighed down under the ever-famous superstition, almost surrendered to the tug of superstition and aborted the launch. Inclement weather delayed the launch twice, and it was thrilling to read 'no-go' at the last moment when the power failed on the day of launch and Stern decided not to rely on local power generator.

They also mention this nerve-cracking test done often on the 9-year voyage to Pluto - a 3-billion-mile hibernation, with the spacecraft waking up occasionally, studying Jupiter, flexing its software and exhaling the project directors. New Horizons also carries a trove of memorabilia, including ashes from Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who had discovered Pluto in 1930. (And also my name with message 'Go New Horizons' to be beamed on UT).

During New Horizon’s lengthy sojourn Alan Stern kept a thin crew, with other members spread out to various projects only to be merged again in 2015, in a spirit of anxiety and jubilation as the bird, fully awake and functional, approached Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. The team found two additional moons (plus two already uncovered by the Hubble Telescope)—a complex six-body cluster unlike anything else in the observed solar system.

There is this mention about the computer glitch when the New Horizons soared closer to Pluto and when it refused to communicate. It was re-booted successfully and the bird beamed back jaw-dropping images and data, such as the famous thousand-kilometer wide “heart,” - now adorning many mobile phone screens, a bubbled plain of nitrogen rimmed with ice mountains the height of the Rockies, and Cthulhu, a dark terrain across the dwarf planet’s equator. Pluto has an unexpectedly varied geology and a blue haze that looks like a sheet-thin version of Earth’s atmosphere.

What attracted me in the entire writing was the nerve Alan Stern possessed to leave America for Moscow in search of a solution to the plan he had proposed to the mission that was put to hang by some people lobbying against him. (Includes anti-Nuclear group that showed 'radioactivity' concern when Plutonium was to be considered for fueling the bird)

The book presents, to some extent, a sluice of politics that could derail or demoralize a person connected with science, technology and Philosophy. Nevertheless, it could install a kind of courage on any mission in pursuit of excellence.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The First Three Minutes - Steven Weinberg # Review

This book in cosmology should have been read long back - particulary if one has read some books on Big Bang and particle physics.The author chronicles the very early history of the universe while describing the underlying physical concepts. In view of epoch experiments to be conducted with new Large Hadron Collider (LHC), during October 2008 at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The LHC will create the conditions of less than a millionth of a second after Big Bang when there was a hot soup of tiny particles called quarks and gluons. This was one of the fastest read books by me as most of the concepts were already known.

The most intriguing chapters in the book are the First Three Minutes (Chapter 5) and First One-Hundred Seconds (Chapter 7). Standard model of cosmology proposes that the universe is made of , well known, four fundamental physical forces; weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravitational force. When the universe was 10(e-43) seconds old (the first moment of the universe), the temperature was about 10(e32) K, and all the four forces were considered unified. (Just like the postulates of Qunatum Mechanics, where the first one is that the Universe was a smooth flow of Energy in the beginning, when matter came later!- but holds still good)

The author, being a Nobel Laureate, is one of the pioneers in this field of research and  proposed the existence of unified of weak and electromagnetic forces for which he was awarded Nobel Prize. When the universe was above the critical temperature of 3*10(e15)K, these two forces were symmetrical and had the same strength, and the symmetry broke as the cooling of the universe decreased the heat below the critical temperature. It is during the symmetry breaking epoch matter acquired the mass through Higgs Bosons. Between the first 10(e-43) to 10(e-36) seconds of the universe's birth, all the four forces were unified, but after 10(e-36) seconds strong nuclear force separated and the universe went through an inflationary epoch (sudden exponential expansion) between 10(e-36) and 10(e-32) seconds.

Reheating of the universe between 10(e-32) and 10(e-12) seconds resulted in the production of hot quark-gluon plasma. Particle interactions in this phase were energetic enough to create large numbers of W bosons, Z bosons and Higgs bosons, which are most the fundamental forms of matter. There after when the universe was about 10(e-12) seconds, the production of W and Z bosons stopped. This was followed by the quark epoch, between 10(e-12) to 10(e-6) seconds, the four natural forces took the form that is prevalent in the current universe. This was followed by the Hadron epoch, between one microsecond to one second, quarks started binding together to form hadrons (protons and neutrons), which are held together by the strong force. One second after the big bang, the lepton epoch began when neutrinos stopped interacting with other forms of matter. Leptons includes; the electron, the muon, the tauon (tau particle), and the associated neutrinos (electron neutrino, muon neutrino, and tau neutrino). Leptons and anti-leptons were annihilated except for a small residue, and this was followed the photon epoch where photons dominated the universe. Nucelo-synthesis of helium occurred during the first 3 to 20 minutes; after about 380,000 years after the Big Bang the temperature of the universe fell to the point where nuclei could combine with electrons to create neutral atoms. As a result, photons no longer interacted frequently with matter, the universe became transparent and the cosmic microwave background radiation was created. Then we were to coin the formation of Amino acids after certain drastic reactions and the events unfold.

During the very first minute, when the universe was in thermal equilibrium, the numbers and the distribution of all particles were determined statistically and not by prior history; cause - effect relationship did not exist! The universe started with equal number of protons and neutrons, and the conversion of neutrons to protons (that form the basics of Nuclear Chemistry like photonuclear reaction) occurred through its interaction with; electrons, positrons, neutrinos and anti-neutrinos. Hydrogen and helium were produced in abundance prior to the evolution of galaxies and stars. Stars evolved using hydrogen as a nuclear fuel to generate energy and their existence.

The detection of background cosmic microwave radiation (CMR) in 1965 by Penzias and Wilson, was one of the most important discoveries of 20th century. Other chapters give a historical and simplified development that lead to the prediction of of CMR, a remnant of the big bang, and also history of cosmological theories of nucelo-synthesis of heavier elements.

This book is a must read for all the undergraduates in Physics and Chemistry. Recent advances in cosmology might have rendered some information contained in this book as obsolete. Nevertheless, this book is very well structured with useful glossary of physics terms and concepts and a mathematical supplement.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Your Brain is a Time-Machine - The Neuroscience and Physics of Time - Dean Buonomano #Review


The brain is an illusion factory! Well, this is how the author considers before completing his thoughts about the brain and its perceptions. Time and activities based in life are aptly considered by this author to prove how our brain is a machine that has its own way of considering events and classifying them.

The book begins with a summary of the psychology, philosophy, pharmacology and physiology of time. The author has an excellent grasp of the issues at stake and the importance of doing research on these topics. How do drugs affect our time perception, and what does that tell us about the brain? How can neurons or neural networks detect measure time?  

The book also describes a bit on the physics of time and the philosophical implications. Does time even exist, or is it (like many other things), a persuasive  illusion that the brain construes to give us an advantage in evolution? Is present-ism (only the ‘now’ exists) or eternal-ism (time is another dimension and ‘now’ is to time what ‘here’ is to space) the correct model of the universe? 

The act which we take simple has been explained in significant way: that when a baby begins to look at his mother, he views it along several angles at different times and sometimes larger (when she is close) only to stitch these pictures for composing an ultimate face in its database.  This way every one gathers data and webs a new picture or scheme of things in life. The brain records the statistics of what we see, hear and experience and uses patterns to make sense of the world around us. That the brain is an expert in 'scavenging' the information is an important point delivered.

Pavlov's dog, whose stomach acidity was measured at a constant time is used to tell how body behaves with regular time-bound activities.  This is because the brain creates the sense of time as it cannot be physically measured. We, thus the author says, do create 'future' and help ourselves comfortable with the dimension of time.Going along the nuances of time the author describes the relativity with time: "A watched pot never boils" and time flies when you have fun. Chronostasis is considered as stagnant time when you are not enjoying the physical world.

There is this mention about the 'slow motion' in life. People's ability to react quicker and perceive events is compared with a CPU processor, where the processor is designed to withstand a certain over-optimised speed. Likewise the brain enters the 'over-clock' mode.There is more mention about theory of relativity and a good explanation to it with a few examples. That a special relativity is called so because we can ignore the influence of 'gravity' is quite a new approach to explain the same.

Finally an attractive quote that I found would make a few people go sarcastic is here:  There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.The reason we say that humans have free will is because we can't predict what they will do.The brain—the most complex dynamical system in the known universe—tells, represents, and perceives time in multiple ways. In this book of popular science, neuroscientist and author Dean Buonomano investigates the intricate relationship between the brain and time with ample examples. 

In the last chapter, the author cites the core issues. He ponders whether animals plan for the future and whether they reflect on the future in the same way that we do. There is this meeting with the Piranhã tribe who, according to an anthropologist, lived with them, lives in the here and now. The author also takes on free will. If time is just another dimension that we can, at least in theory, travel across, then that should logically mean that everything that is going to happen has already happened which presumably means there is no free will. Free will, the author suggests may only be the feeling associated with making decisions - just like we feel pain when we get painful stimulation. 

Free will, consciousness, space-time, and relativity from the perspective of a neuroscientist, drawing on physics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, 'Your Brain Is a Time-Machine' reveals that the brain’s ultimate purpose may be to predict the future, and thus that it is a time machine. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality - Dean Radin #Review

In this exciting book, Radin shows how we know that psychic phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis are real, based on scientific evidence from thousands of controlled lab tests (yes plenty of). Radin surveys the origins of this research and explores, among many topics, the collective premonitions of the September 11 incident. He reveals the physical reality behind our uncanny telepathic experiences and he debunks the skeptical myths surrounding them. Entangled Minds sets the stage for a rational, scientific understanding of psychic experience.
Everything is connected! The author asks: what's happening to loved ones thousands of miles away? Why are we sometimes certain of a caller's identity the instant the phone rings? Do intuitive hunches contain information about future events? Is it possible to perceive without the use of the ordinary senses?
Many people believe that such "psychic phenomena" are rare talents or divine gifts. Others don't believe they exist at all. But the latest scientific research shows that these phenomena are both real and widespread, and are an unavoidable consequence of the interconnected, entangled physical reality we live in.
Albert Einstein called entanglement "spooky action at a distance" -- the way two objects remain connected through time and space, without communicating in any conventional way, long after their initial interaction has taken place. Could a similar entanglement of minds explain our apparent psychic abilities?
Accordingly, Radin’s meta-analyses focus on telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, a sense of being stared at, and psychokinesis. Entangled Minds does not consider such phenomena as levitation, teleportation, metal bending, psychic surgery, apparitions, and OBEs.
In keeping with the receiving/influencing nature of psi, the long middle section in chapters 5–11 examines two basic types of experiments: those that deal with psi’s receiving function and others that test its ability to influence persons and objects at a distance. Most of these are collections of experiments, and very little of the original research discussed here is the author’s own; Also, he mainly discusses others’ studies—and replications of these studies—to statistical analysis.
The strategy is twofold: first, to present (sometimes corrected) statistical evidence to demonstrate the degree to which the experimental results point to psi by exceeding chance; and second, like Sherlock Holmes, to shore up these findings by eliminating alternative explanations. On the one hand, the odds against chance are—in Radin’s words—significant, amazing,
stupendous, staggering, shocking, and astronomical (in one case, 1 in 10 to the 96th power). On the other, he chips away at the alternatives. Chance, fraud, coincidence, experimental flaws, sensory cues, and recording error cannot account for the results.
A new thing called “filedrawer problem,” which means that researchers keep unfavorable results to themselves drew my attention. In the absence of suitable alternatives, he concludes that “these studies provide repeatable, scientifically valid evidence for psi.”
He is at pains to qualify his conclusions by saying that correlation is not necessarily causation, that all he has really proven is that the outcomes are not due to chance, and that the probability of psi does not validate everything paranormal (Elvis, Bigfoot, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle).
The author then moves on to examine both consciously and unconsciously mediated psychic phenomena. Consciously mediated psi is, for example, when a person consciously tries to send a telepathic message to someone else. Thus, we have a sender and a receiver, both of whom are trying to establish a psychic mental connection for the purpose of transferring information from one person to another. Unconsciously mediate psi typically refers to unconscious responses of a person's nervous system to distant mental influence, often as measure with respect to brain waves or skin resistance.
The study of psi also extends to the cosmological realm of time. Radin addresses the issue of time by examining something called "presentiment," and that is the ability of a person to respond consciously or unconsciously to a stimulus before the stimulus is applied. This is a highly complex area of research, but at its core is the simple idea that humans can react emotionally to certain things that are about to happen, even when they are given no prior physical information relating to this.
The great beauty in Dean Radin's book becomes most visible in his later chapters in which he proposes a connection between psychic phenomena and quantum mechanics. Here, readers can obtain one of the most comprehensive and approachable introductions into this area of physics in print. Radin summarizes much of the debate among physicists regarding the interpretation of quantum phenomena such as entanglement. Indeed, his exceptionally clear description of John Bell's famous theorem.
This is a kind of book every College student or caretaker might consider to read, because it explores the vast amount of research being conducted over 'psi' and its relationship to the quantum science. The vast number of references is mind boggling - never realizable that people might be working on this aspect in so large numbers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How the Physics of the Very Small has Transformed Our Lives by Brian Clegg #Review

Focussing on the civilisation the author narrates about the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages and the birth of steam and electricity saw human life transformed by new materials and technology. Thus the period we are living in now is defined as the Quantum Age, a revolution led by our understanding of the very small and live.

Technologies based on quantum physics account for some 35 per cent of GDP and quantum behaviour lies at the heart of every electronic device. Quantum biology explains how our ability to see, birds’ ability to navigate – and even plant photosynthesis relies directly on quantum effects.

Clegg makes the point that quantum theory, special and general relatively, are subjects that are often neglected in schools, in part because they are too difficult and in part because many teachers have little idea about them .

Electronics provides the most obvious of these applications, but we also visit the quantum world of the very cold where superconductivity and superfluids come into existence – and even explore the relevance of quantum physics to biology. This is all done in a very readable, storytelling fashion. This was particularly strong when bringing in key characters, like the remarkable Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (I read about HKO in our PG courses around Magnetism) responsible for early discoveries in the world of super cold, and the riveting story of the development of the laser which features everything from serendipity to the weird fallout of the US fear of communists in the 1950s that meant a leading scientist was not allowed to read his own notes as he didn’t have clearance to do so.

Ostensibly aimed at the general reader, this book will be of most interest to those who have a flair for science leaning. For the Non-Physics students this book would be a boon as far as information is concerned, but for me I felt I should have read this book long back.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown # Review

I did not wish to write a review about this book, highly belated though if the launch time is considered, but I am just willing to state a few things about this book. Quite serendipitously I happened to watch the movie the same day I finished the book. As with most, there is a lot of difference between the movie and the book - the pace, especially. To some extent the character, dialogues and editing of the episodes are nearly the same. While it took a lot of time to finish the book, the movie finished in just more than two hours.

The book or the movie is not for those who feel spiritually insecure and are not open to listening to thoughts apart from what they learn from their 'faith' when growing up.

The Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and the Holy Blood or Holy Grail were the terms new for me and the entire book revolved around this. The only grace I found was over the mention of Fibonacci Series, radio deciphering, Vinegar, Papyrus and of course, the symbology. Newton's apple finds a mention, albeit not in the right tone.

The overall write up is good, though a bit 'elastic' at places. Some phrases like "Men go to far greather lenghts to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.." and "...when the question has no correct answer, there is only one honest response. The gray area between yes and no. Silence...." caught my literal attention.

The only new 'concept' I learnt was there is always some hidden or crypted meaning in a painting. Watch the movie if you cannot read the book, where the climax, though, is not impressive. Thus, too, the last pages of the book also warranted fast reading.

Overall, refreshing.