Saturday, May 12, 2018


It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's a Marscopter!

Those who watch it won't be the Little Green Men. It will just be Houston watching the Mars Rover.
NASA plans to load a little helicopter for exploring the Mars terrain on its next Mars Rover mission scheduled to take off in 2020.  Making the Marscopter work is a serious technological challenge (not that the rest of the mission isn't!). Although the Marscopter is tiny (just 1.8 kg, about half a kg more than standard laptops), the real difficulty lies in making it operate in the low atmospheric density of Mars. The atmosphere of Mars is only one percent that of the earth, so that a craft at the Martian surface encounters an atmospheric density which it would encounter at 100,000 feet  off the surface of the earth. The helicopter needs to be as light as is feasible, as well as strong as is feasible. It took the design team four years to come up with a viable machine that is currently under test in NASA's laboratories.

Here is  today's video from NASA.

And here is  one  for the nerdy engineering types.

The 'copter can survey the Martian terrain far more rapidly than the rovers which can explore about a 100 meters a day. NASA plans to use the 'copter for about five flights, over a period of about ninety days. The chopper is expected to cover a few hundred meters in  ninety seconds. We thought Curiosity was a hard act to top, but this one bids fair to outdo it. We wonder what they will call this one. Cat? That would be a killer!

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Rahul Basu 04/03/1956-05/03/2011

I proudly told the crowd  that I knew you,
They see your picture in all works of mine.
They come and ask me, `Who is he?'
I know not how to answer them. I say, 'Indeed, it is hard to tell.'
They leave disdainfully and blame me,
And you sit there smiling.

I put my tales of you into lasting songs,
The secret gushes out from my heart.
They come and ask me, `Tell us what they mean.'
I know not how to answer them.
I say, `Ah, who knows what they mean!'
They smile and go away in utter scorn.
And you sit there smiling.

`Sit smiling',  Rabindranath Tagore.

 This post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Chandrasekhar Lectures

 Last month was a month with an unexpected  treat,  the pleasure of attending the Chandrasekhar lectures  by the distinguished physicist K.R. Sreenivasan, at the International  Centre for Theoretical Sciences in Bangalore,  which is currently celebrating a decade  of existence, and of hosting stimulating programs high intellectual quality. Prof. Sreenivasan gave a beautiful set of three lectures on Chandrasekhar's personality, work, and Prof. Sreenivasan's own seminal work on turbulence and its scaling laws.

The most interesting part of the lecture was Sreeni's take on the inner sadness of  Chandrasekhar's later years. Someone commented that the huge gap between Chandrasekhar's upbringing and  surroundings contributed to his isolation, in addition to his well known controversies with Eddington and others. Various University of Chicago alumni reminisced  about how he always kept track of  Indian students, even if he didn't really know how to interact with them,  and  didn't like them succumbing to the lure of what he termed 'fashionable physics' (i.e. various forms of quantum field theory). More down to earth forms of physics, like condensed matter physics, did meet with his approval.

Interestingly, on an occasion when Chandrasekhar had visited IIT Madras, many years ago, a student asked him what advice he would give those who are starting on their careers. Chandrasekhar said his advice was, `You have to work all your life. If you actually work all your life, at the end of your career, I assure you, your work will amount to something'. 

It was all the more appropriate that the speaker at the Chandrasekhar lectures was  Prof. Sreenivasan,  indisputably someone who had worked all his life, and with important contributions in every phase of his life, and that the occasion was his 70th birthday. We take this opportunity to raise a toast to his achievements, and to thank him for his leadership of, and unstinting support to the nonlinear dynamics community over the years.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gravitational waves: The fourth event

A new gravitational wave signal arising from a black hole collision was detected on August 14, this year, and was announced by the National Science Foundation today. A special feature of this observation was that it was observed by the pair of LIGO detectors in Livingston and Hanford in the  U.S.A as well as by the Virgo detector in Pisa. As a result, the location of the event, which involved the merger of two black holes of 25 and 31 solar masses, into one  spinning black hole of 53 solar masses, could be pinpointed 10 times more accurately than it could be using the LIGO detectors alone. The event, designated GW170814 was located in a region of size 60 square degrees which is about 1.8 billion light years away.

Further details are awaited in a forthcoming Physical Review Letters. Meanwhile, here is  a video of a numerical simulation uploaded by the Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut).

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tailpiece : Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne have won the  Physics Nobel prize for 2017 for their work on the Ligo/Virgo  experiment and the detection of gravitational waves. See link. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Once again on a Greek island: Corfu

 The first part of July was the beautiful island of Corfu, which may well be the prettiest of the Greek isles. The island boasts of Venetian, Byzantine and Greek ancestry, with monuments from each part casually strewn around in an eclectic mixture.

Here is the monastery Vlacherna, favourite of all post cards and fridge magnets, in the middle of the turquoise bay, with aeroplanes taking off behind it at all times of the day.

The older part of the town lies in between two Venetian forts, the new fort and the old fort.  Winding medieval  streets, and a grand esplanade complete the picture, with numerous sun burnt tourists flocking (and  gawking) everywhere. By the way, there's probably no place where the locals are more kind to tourists, than here.

The Mon Repos palace reposes on top of the Analipsis  hill  of Kanoni, in the middle of a magnificent park, and opposite less than magnificent, but undoubtedly ancient, Greek ruins. It is a beautiful colonial building, and happens to be the birthplace of the Duke  of Edinburgh.

There was much to see, and not enough time. However, this is not the first time this blog has been to Corfu. Readers  in pursuit of completeness may kindly pursue the earlier links, in fact, onetwo , three.
May we meet again, Corfu, Αντιο σας.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Two big science stories

There were two big science stories last month, of vastly differing natures.

Our knowledge of human evolution took a giant leap backwards this fortnight. The oldest known remains of the species homo sapiens have been found in Morocco.  The fossils have been dated to be about 3,00,000 years old. The oldest specimens found before this, were about 1,95,000 years old, which means that the current discovery pushes back the origin of our species by about a 100,000 years. The geographic locations of the fossils, the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco also indicates that humankind evolved at multiple locations in Africa, and there is no single cradle of humanity, as was thought earlier. The remains were dated by dating the artefacts, in this case, flint blades, found in the neighbourhood of the fossils. The fossils were clearly of the homo sapiens type, but were much, much older than anything found so far. The fossil evidence indicates that the specimens looked much like more modern members of the species, but their brain structure and shape resembled the long low shapes of other homonims, rather than the round shape of homo sapiens. The discovery will keep paleoanthropologists busy for a good long time.

The second story was of the type that makes us scientific types blasé these days. Two black holes  collided again, and the universe chirped again, yawn..... , exactly what we were squawking with excitement about, a scant 15 months ago! The Ligo detectors detected a third signal from the gravitational collapse of two massive spinning  black holes, of 19 and 31 solar masses, with spins which were not aligned,  to create a black hole of 49 solar masses, about 3 billion light years away. The surprisingly large frequency of such occurrences has led scientists to predict the birth of  a new area, namely, black hole astronomy.  The theoretical advance should come in the direction of identifying the reason for the frequent occurrence of black hole binaries, which then merge to set off the detected gravitational waves. In short more work for the practitioners of the current discipline.

To summarise, as always, the exciting discoveries need to be followed by huge amounts of painstaking analysis. Meanwhile, it is a pleasure to report that Indian scientists, including a colleague from IIT Madras, have been a part of the LIGO discovery. We look forward to more exciting results.

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Chennai Metro II

The third stretch of  the Chennai metro, and the first underground stretch, was inaugurated today by the Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister  E. Palanisamy today. The trains were crowded, but the crowds were cheerful and applauded  the arrival of the trains. The trains run between Thirumangalam and Nehru Park, a distance of about 8  kms. The Chennai crowds missed the late CM J. Jayalalitha, who had inaugurated the first two stretches.

Here is a video of the first train service. This time, there were  garlands and decorations inside the cars, as well, and free rides till 2.00 pm. Hopefully the rest of the network will get completed in time (scheduled to be July 2018), so that overground commuters can get access to roads cleared of the construction and obstructions required for the Metro. If travel times and access for commuters get as seriously cut as they are supposed to, the entire exercise would have been worth the time and trouble, to say nothing of the expense. Here's hoping for the best, and also for no safety issues. The train stations have been constructed with all modern safety measures, but Anna Salai did cave in a  little bit three weeks ago! However, let us not be needlessly alarmist.  We look forward to taking the train.

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.