A Candle in the Dark

A look on science, politics, religion and events

Archive for May 2008

This is why you should use SI units

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The recent initial success of NASA’s phoenix lander has led to a lot of attention and excitement about space exploration, and rightly so! However, things haven’t always been this peachy for NASA.

In December of 1998, NASA launched a spacecraft whose primary mission was to monitor the climate of mars from orbit, which was aptly titled the ‘Mars Climate Orbiter’. The total cost of the project was around 300 million dollars. As you’d have probably guessed by now, the mission ended in failure. As the spacecraft approached Mars, it received instructions to power its main engines in order to insert itself into the required orbit. In fact, as the NASA mission page documents, this is what should have happened.

The Mars Climate Orbiter will arrive at Mars on September 23, 1999. As it nears its closest point to the planet coming in over the northern hemisphere, the spacecraft will fire its 640-newton main engine for 16 minutes 23 seconds to brake into an elliptical capture orbit. The spacecraft will loop around Mars roughly once every 12 to 17 hours. The period of the capture orbit will increase if launch takes place on a later date, due to an increasing arrival velocity. If launch takes place at the end of the launch period in late December, the capture orbit period would be approximately 20 hours.

However, the orbiter never reemerged from behind Mars, and all contact was lost. What happened?

Amazingly, NASA messed up the units.

The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit.


Written by parseval

May 30, 2008 at 1:07 am

Posted in engineering, history

Unfair, unbalanced and completely whacko

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Written by parseval

May 29, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Posted in politics, videos

Phoenix Landing

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This is an image the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took of the the Phoenix spacecraft landing on Mars. WOW!!!

NASA phoneix landing


Written by parseval

May 27, 2008 at 2:10 am

The freedom to hurt sentiments

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Dr Abinandanan at the Nanopolitan blog recently highlighted two brilliant verdicts which upheld the principles of freedom of expression and free speech.

However, I was slightly saddened to read a story today on the arrest of a software engineer for posting ‘vulgar’ comments about Sonia Gandhi on an orkut community.

One held for posting obscene Orkut message on Sonia

The cyber cell of the city police crime branch has arrested Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid, an IT professional of Gurgaon, Haryana, for allegedly uploading obscene and derogatory text about Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi on Orkut.

Congress activist Amol Bhokare of Pune, who saw the message, lodged a complaint at the Deccan Gymkhana police in December, 2007. Vaid was found guilty under section 67 of the IT Act.

First of all, I must point out that I have absolutely no idea about the content of his actual post. If he posted any message that threatened actual physical violence, then he deserves to be in jail.

However, (and this is speculation on my part, so skip this para if you want), if the content of the post was merely using foul or ‘vulgar’ language to express his opinion, then I strongly disagree with the decision to arrest him. One of the fundamental rights one expects in a democracy is the freedom to criticize any political leader without fear of reprimand. Most sane people already know that whatever Mr Vaid said was probably stupid and not true; indeed Mr Vaid’s posts were probably extremely ill thought out. But, what really matters is that parodies or criticism of politicians or respected national figures, either dead or alive, seems to be censored with great relish in India.

This leads to another issue which comes up with astonishing frequency, and that’s when the religious/moral/national sentiments are hurt. Did something which was printed hurt your beliefs in anyway? Too bad, learn to look away and ignore it.

Freedom of expression isn’t an ideal which permits ideas and concepts only as long as they conform to the general public opinion, but it means that *any* idea or opinion is permissible, irrespective of how silly, stupid or radical it is, as long as it doesn’t directly threaten physical harm. If your beliefs are fragile enough to be offended by whatever another person says to such an extent that you see it fit to censor that person, you’d be better off taking a deep look at if it’s really worth believing in the first place.

By the way, the actual section 67 of the IT act he was booked under?

67. Publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form. – Whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published in the electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years and with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees and in the event of a second or subsequent conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years and also with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees.

I wouldn’t be surprised if every other bollywood film director was booked under the act.

Written by parseval

May 21, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in politics, rant

Facebook spam?

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One of my old friends, who I hadn’t contacted for quite some time, wanted to know why I had sent him a facebook invite to attend a Rolling Stone and BAC tribute concert.

What..? I hadn’t done anything like that! After profusely apologizing for the spam, I asked him to forward me a copy of the mail.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Facebook
Date: Sun, May 18, 2008 at 11:17 AM
Subject: _______ invited you to the event “ROLLING STONE & BAC present COME TOGETHER with The Be…

_______ invited you to “ROLLING STONE & BAC present COME TOGETHER with The Beatles” on Saturday, May 31 at 6:30pm.

_______ says, “I’ll see you there then?”.

Event: ROLLING STONE & BAC present COME TOGETHER with The Beatles
“A Tribute Concert”
What: Concert
Host: Rolling Stone magazine, India
When: Saturday, May 31 at 6:30pm
Where: Bucks Theatre (YMCA Nandanam)

To see more details and RSVP, follow the link below:

The Facebook Team

I’m extremly annoyed.

It could be that someone hacked into my account to send the invite, but I don’t think that’s likely, cause I can still access my account. Anyway, off I go to delete my facebook account.

Written by parseval

May 17, 2008 at 9:02 pm

Posted in WTF

Hot poetry from MIT

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These are samples from MIT’s poetry page for the Thermodynamics of Materials course, taught by professor Craig Carter. Check out the website for more really good (and some terrible) compositions. This one from Juliãn Villarreal is simply brilliant.

Solids, Liquids, Gases, lend me your heat; I come to bury Willard, not to raise him. A mess of atoms lives after him; The heat is oft stored with their bonds; So let it be with Gibbs. The noble Carter Hath told you that Gibbs was minimized: If it were so, it’s at stability, And at stability hath Gibbs done it. Here, under leave of Carter and the rest – For Carter is a knowledgeable man; So are they all, all knowledgeable men – Come I to speak in Gibbs’ funeral. He was heat’s friend, generous at low T: But Carter says he was minimized; And Carter is a knowledgeable man. But entropy hath brought many systems To parity whose energies were less: Is this how Willard was minimized? When temperature rose, Gibbs hath died. “Minimized” should be made of sterner stuff: Yet Carter says he was minimized; And Carter is a knowledgeable man. We all did see that in the lecture hall He thrice showed Gibbs in differential form, Which we did thrice confuse: was this “minimized”? Yet Carter says he was minimized; And, sure, he is a knowledgeable man. I speak not to refute what Carter spoke, But here I do speak so that all may know. we all did love Gibbs once, not without cause: What cause witholds us then, to exalt him? O grade point! thou art fled to fours and threes, but 3.046 hath taught us much. Such as these: Gibbs is naught for systems in parity, And equals enthalpy less S and T.

This one is from professor Carter himself.

To freeze or not to freeze: That is the question: Whether ’tis fav’rable to gain entropy with such jostlings of outrageous portion Or to bond, free’ng seas of enthalpy And thus subside S? P and T: thus G No more; and by reducing say we end Activations of thousand nat’ral shocks that bonds do suffer. ‘Tis min’mization Devoutly pursu-ed. To freeze, to melt; To melt: perchance to flow; ay, there’s the rub which warms shackles that tie so rigidly; by such warmth to be dislodged, even boil.

And of course, what good is a poetry page without limericks?

There is a state function named S,
Whose growth is a pitiful mess,
“Just look at its gut!”
“The size of its butt!”
Poor entropy will never be less.
-Terry Huang

This one’s from Tim Hong

There once was a smart girl named Sandy,
When it came to thermo she was quite handy,
Request a phase plot,
And more often than not,
The Gibbs phase rule was her modus operandi.

And while on the subject of MIT poetry, check out this song by the fifth beatle, Prof Max Tegmark (Thanks to Chiranjeevi for the pointer)

Written by parseval

May 13, 2008 at 11:48 pm

Posted in fun

Men maybe from mars, but bacteria get transferred from venus?

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Does Venus have life in its atmosphere?” was the bold headline of the article in the science section of the Times of India (May 1st, 2008), and The Economic Times. From the article,

“According to latest research, the planet Venus has microbial ecology high in its atmosphere.”, Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University said.

“Every 580 days, when the Sun, Venus and Earth are in a line, microbes from Venus can be transferred to the Earth. The planets Venus, Earth, Mars are surely interconnected biologically and life on earth represents a connected chain of being that extends to the remotest corner of the cosmos.”

I know prof Wickramasinghe is a proponent of panspermia, but this claim does seem rather extravagant, to put it very mildly.

It seems The Hindu* has the same article online. Don’t these people bother to employ a science editor to glance through whatever they copy & paste from some source?

*- The newspaper, not the religion.

Written by parseval

May 1, 2008 at 9:04 am

Posted in media, pseudoscience