27 September 2011

A shock-relieving talk on Shock Treatment

       Majority of us keep a horrifying picture about Shock treatment used for the cure of mental illnesses. The bad credit goes mainly to the movies that mislead us and give a feeling that it is some kind of torture or punishment given to the most violent of mental patients.
       So, here we are going to have a talk on the same Shock Treatment that I hope will untether you off some misconceptions.
       'Shock treatment' is just a nickname of this method. Psychiatrists call it as 'Electroconvulsive Therapy' or simply ECT. It will be interesting to know that ECT is the first discovered meaningful treatment method in psychiatry (for movies have always picturized it as a last resort). For the sake of a little history, there was no meaningful treatment for mental illness around just 70 years ago. Von Meduna, a Hungarian psychiatrist, observed that epilepsy and schizophrenia rarely coexist. Even if they did, the seizures (or fits, loosely speaking, the sudden movement of muscles) associated with epilepsy reduced the severity of psychosis. This lead him to develop a treatment for psychosis: to induce seizures artificially using drugs. But use of drugs had many limitations because there was no considerable control over the way seizures occurred. Thereafter, Carletti and Bini, two Italian psychiatrists discovered that electricity can be used to induce seizures in a much controllable way. In 1938, the first experiment of ECT was done on humans, to be found a great success.
A psychotron used to control ECT
       ECT is not at all a cruel treatment. Before applying ECT to a patient, he is always undergone a 'fitness test' including EEG, and X-ray. To those who think it is a torture, ECT is never conducted on a conscious patient but is always given after an anesthesia. That means you don't feel any pain at all. Also drugs are given to prevent very violent movement of muscles during seizures. While doing all these pre-ECT steps, the patient is allowed to breath pure oxygen (a process called hyperventillation). The amount of current passed  is only around 0.5-0.8 ampere and that is for less than 4 seconds, using an apparatus called psychotron. This current never reaches the brain. It just flows through the scalp tissues and so there is no 'struck by lightning' type effects as we see in movies. This current can stimulate brain activity. It is this stimulated brain activity and NOT the electrical stimulus that causes the sudden muscular movements. When the effect of anesthesia wears off, the patient would wake up comfortably.
ECT produce recovery faster than drugs. It is also used in drug-resistant subjects (that is if patient does not respond to medicine) It is not necessarily meant for only the very violent and uncooperative patients (for such patients ECT will be the only way) but is also prescribed for very depressed patients. Psychiatrists say that patients who have received ECT find it less frightening than going to a dentist!
       One more interesting fact: despite being a 70 year old and globally used method, no one knows exactly how ECT works in human body!

21 September 2011

Polysomnography: Measuring sleep!

Today let us talk about another interesting term, Polysomnography. Those who already know that the Latin word 'somnus' means sleep, can guess what polysomnography deals with. Yes, it is a standard procedure to evaluate sleep, mainly for the cure of sleep disorders.
Well, when I say 'measuring sleep' what actually are we measuring? Polysomnography is a multi-parametric test (means it measures different parameters connected to the sleep activity, lest you are frightened by the term multi-parametric) Mainly there are three parts in your body that responds directly to your sleep; brain, eyes and muscles. The study of activity in these three parts constitute the core of polysomnography. Measurements are carried out by placing electrodes on specific parts of the body and measuring the voltage change associated with the corresponding activity.
Now let us have a close look at the core parameters:
Brain activity:
It is studied by the ordinary EEG (Electro Encephalography) technique. It is based on measuring the bioelectric aactivity of brain by placing electrodes on the scalp of the person in sleep. EEG will look like a polygrah, the one you see in a seismogram record of earth quake. Like a random scribble made by a pen. But by looking at EEG, the researcher can understand the various stages of the person's sleep.
Eye movements:
It is studied by a technique called Electro Oculography (EOG). It is based on a rarely known fact that the front part of our eye called Cornea is electrically positive with respect to its hind part Retina. This voltage will obviously change when eye moves left, right, up or down. EOG is based on the measurement of this voltage, thereby giving an idea about the eye-movements.
Muscle activity:
This is studied by a technique called Electro Myogram (EMG). The movements of our muscles are a result of rapid electrical activity within the muscle tissues. EMG measures the voltage change associated with it. In polysomnography, EMG electrodes are usually placed over the chin muscles.

A sample polysomnogram
Along with these many similar activities in the body can also be studied for a very detailed analysis, three of them being  breathing, heart rate and contraction of leg muscles.

19 September 2011

QWERTY Keyboard: Why is it the way it is?

       If you are reading this, surely you have a keyboard in your front. I assume you are using a QWERTY keyboard, which is the most common layout of keyboard.(If you don't know what QWERTY means, it is the name of the way in which keys are arranged in your keyboard. The name obviously comes from the first six letters of the top row of alphabets in your keyboard.)
       Now my question is, do you know why keys are arranged in some seemingly random way rather than in an order? I had asked this question myself and to others, and frankly the answer I could end up in was 'this way makes typing more fast and efficient'. But how? I got many explanations from many and even from myself (rather fit-to-reality type explanations!) all of them being supportive to the making-typing-faster concept.
       But actually, fact is just the reverse. QWERTY layout was invented to make people type slowly, and not fast! Yes it is. This layout was designed by Christopher Sholes in 1874 as part of his design of the first typewriter for Remington & Sons. Obviously, the first typewriter was purely a mechanical device in which pressing of a key would cause a bar to strike against the paper through an inked ribbon. In that machine there was a problem: if you type too fast the bars corresponding to different keys would collide with each other and thereby would jam the machine. Sholes found out an easy remedy for this. He just placed the most commonly used letters in hard to reach positions! And there it was, the QWERTY layout. The Remington typewriters became so popular that even after the invention of electronic typewriters, the Sholes' layout had to be followed as such because people had got used to it. That is how this layout became a universally accepted standard for keyboard.

17 September 2011

@ at 'Did You Know' !

     @ is one of the most common symbols used nowadays. @ became so popular after the invention of e-mail. But how many of us know the standard name of that symbol? Alas! I was sad to know that @ symbol has no standard name! You may be calling it as 'at symbol' (so do I). But there are dozens of other names for @ that reflects similes for the symbol.  Examples are apestaart (Dutch for "monkey's tail"), snabel (Danish for "elephant's trunk"), kissanhnta (Finnish for "cat's tail"), klammeraffe (German for "hanging monkey") etc.
     Before it became a standard symbol in e-mail addresses, @ was used as 'at the rate' for referring to cost or weight of things (e.g. Books @ $5 each). It seems the actual origin of the symbol is still unknown. Some evidences show that before printing presses were invented people who made copies of books used '@' as a short form of 'at'. Another story tells that @ was used as an abbreviation of 'amphora', an old unit of measurement. Anyway solid records are there to show that the symbol @ was used even in 14th century.

11 September 2011

The Science of Falling in Love

"Love is a temporary disease curable by marriage"
Let me begin by apologizing to those who are much passionate about their lovers and associated fancies, for rationalizing their feeling. How many of you have thought about the fact that the much-praised, much-glorified, much-romanticized thing called 'falling in love' is basically chemical in nature? Now let us have a talk on the science of falling in love:
According to Dr. Helen Fischer, an anthropologist and researcher in Rutgers University, USA, love has three distinct stages namely
1. Lust
2. Attraction and
3. Attachment
       If these three stages of your love happen with the same person, you have a very strong bond.
       After seeing the meaning of 'lust' in your English dictionary, don't misinterpret the first stage. Lust is your 'desire to experience love' and for most of you people, that stage might be long gone during your teenage days. For your romantic partner, you may or may not feel lust, both being normal according to Dr. Lisa Diamond (Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol 13 no. 3) Lust is driven by the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
       Attraction is what we refer to as 'love' in common language and what we write stories and songs upon. This stage is a playground of a large number of intense chemical reactions. Most often, this begins in the form of infatuation- an unbearable attraction towards someone. This stage is carried out by a virtual explosion of a few neurochemicals that are similar to the stress hormone adrenaline. Yes, it means a pleasant stress: your knees shake, palms sweat, heartbeat and pulse shoot up, you breath heavily and so on. This is caused by the release of a natural chemical called Phenylethylamine (PEA, nicknamed 'the molecule of love'). The release of PEA can even be triggered by very simple things like meeting of eyes or touching of hands. (Since the sense of men are more visual in nature, it is observed that men get love-stricken easily.) Assisted by the chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrin, PEA creates a state of emergency in your body! At that time your condition will be no different from a drug addict. You get addicted to these chemicals. It seems your entire existence depends on the source of their release, that is the person who triggered it. As long as these chemicals are there in your body, you feel energized or even floating on air and you can talk with your partner for hours on end without fatigue. Put the blame on these chemicals, all the attributes of social obligations, other relations, sense, sensibility etc you had kept in mind for matching get neglected and you fall in love with a person without any of those qualifications. Literally your mind soars with these chemicals.
       Researchers in the University College of London discovered that people in love show lower levels of serotonin similar to the case of those affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That explains why people in love often get obsessed by their partner. Researchers also found that the neural circuits associated with the way one assess others are suppressed. That means your way of assessment get tampered and you tend to idealize your partner and you don't see any flaws in her or him! 
       Attachment, actually, is the stage of real love. You enter that stage after passing the fantasy world of attraction. Feelings of passionate love in the attraction stage (or the chemicals responsible for that) are not long lasting. They diminish after 3 or 4 years. After that, suddenly your lover has faults and maybe you complain that she or he has changed a lot. But actually they might not have changed at all! Only thing is, you have started seeing him rationally without the blinding chemicals. Thank to the hormones Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Endorphin, otherwise your relation will come to end soon. These chemicals are released when having sex. Oxytocin is called cuddling hormone and it promotes the need to be physically held, have close contact with the mate and makes both the partners more caring. Endorphins are chemicals that make a relationship steadier, intimate, dependable, warm and a great sharing experience. They do not induce an 'emotional high' as the PEA does, but induce calmness and stability. Hence they are the reason why people stay married. They trigger grief on a spouse’s death or long separation. Vasopressin is another hormone responsible for long-term relations and also for the monogamy. Vasopressin helps you cling to your partner, even in spite of small adjustment problems. According to Dr. Fischer, Oxytocin and Vasopressin interfere with the pathways of Dopamine and norepinephrine thus explaining why passionate love fades as attachment grows. Endorphins are body's natural pain killers. They also produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure.
        Next time when you are enjoying your time with your partner, thank these chemicals for the pleasure part.

23 August 2011

Let's cry a bit scientifically!

It seems a funny question when I ask "why do our eyes get wet when we cry?". We all know that we cry when we are sad. But how many of us have ever thought 'why do we cry when we are sad?'
Well, science says crying is more complicated a phenomenon than it seems to be. There are three kinds of tears
1. Basal tears: It keeps our eyes constantly wet so that eyes are well lubricated. Basal tears is the paint that our eye-lids paints over our cornea while we blink our eyes
2. Reflex tears: It is produced when our eyes get irritated by any external things like dust. This is the same tears that we produce when we cut an onion (why?)
3. Emotional(Or psychic) tears: This is what we mention when we simply say 'tears' in literature. It is produced when we are hurt or emotionally affected.
This classification is based on the chemical composition of tears. The emotional tears contain the highest amount of hormones. Actually (emotional) tears is a defense mechanism of our body when it is unable to express through words. When we are affected by emotions, like loss of love, realization of a failure etc, our body produces a lot of chemicals and hormones that creates a feeling of being upset. On this, our nervous system stimulates the cranial nerve. This results in the production of neurotransmitters to the lacrimal glands which are situated on the upper outer portion of the cavity in brain where eyes are situated. Thus we cry. As long as the chemicals remain in our body, our state of being upset is continued. That is why the brain gives command to flow these chemicals out through tears. Once these chemicals are disposed, our body relieves from the upset state. Now you can guess, why we feel a bit calm after crying.
Can you guess why we end up crying after a heart-breaking laugh? It is obviously because, our lacrimal grands get squeezed by the intense muscular movement resulting from laugh. 

28 July 2011

What is blue in Bluetooth?

It was a few years before a friend of mine asked me whether I have Bluetooth in my phone. I asked him what kind of tooth it exactly is, because I had no idea what he was asking (I was using my gaudy Nokia 1110i at that time and he laughed on seeing it coming out from my pocket). Forgetting the fact that I have often been lagging behind technologies, let us talk about Bluetooth this time.
I'm sure many of you might have wondered how such a name fell upon a most modern technology. I had many scientific hypotheses of myself on this name before I stumbled upon the fact that Bluetooth got its name from that of a Danish king! Yes really. This name came from that of Harold "Bluetooth" Gormsson, who ruled Denmark in the first century. Actually, Bluetooth was his nickname because of his fondness for blueberries which made his teeth blue. He is considered as one of the most influential kings of Denmark and that was why Ericson, which is a Danish company, named their technology after him. The Bluetooth logo is the initials of Harold Bluetooth in runic alphabet. He was famous for uniting the rebellious tribes of Scandinavia and for bringing them under a single kingdom. If you don't know it, that is exactly what 'our bluetooth' also does- uniting various technologies.
If you are not so bored yet, let me tell you a bit of technology now. You know that bluetooth is an electronic communication technology. When two electronic devices want to communicate with each other, they have to agree on several conditions. First, how to communicate physically. It means, whether to use wires or some wireless signal forms and if they use wires how many wires are required and so on. Even after settling on this, there are many other problems to solve. E.g.,how much data will be sent at a time; the transfer rate which depends on the device used. It means, for an effective communication a set of commands and responses known as Protocol has to be developed. Bluetooth is a protocol developed for this purpose by Ericson in 1994. The Bluetooth technology uses radio frequency waves and takes very low transmission power which saves battery charge (Now you can guess why Bluetooth transfer works only in small distances). It establishes automatic agreement between two electronic devices and so does not require the intervention of user.
[Note: There is an international body called Bluetooth Special Interest Group(SIG) that oversees the development of new Bluetooth standards and new technologies and trademarks.] 

27 July 2011

All Fool's Day- April 1

One of my friends' birthday is April 2. When I was told this I just told her, 'Oh dear, you just missed the right day for you to be born'. So boring a comedy, right? The self-pity on this dialogue of myself made me think a bit on the All Fool's Day, April 1. Why is April 1 a day of pranks and foolishness, or that of Fools literally?
Well, it seems the exact reason is not quite certain. But majority of resources show that it is related to the reformation of calendar around 1582 in France. Before that Julian calendar was widely in use. Due to some astronomical reasons(which is worth another post in this blog) Julian calendar had to be reformed and that resulted into the adoption of Gregorian calendar which is the International civil calendar we use nowadays. The major change in this new system was the beginning of New Year on January 1, rather than on The New Year's Week, March 25- April 1, in the old system. But we can imagine in those days how fast news would have traveled. In fact it took several years for all to know about this change. Some rebellious fellows still continued to celebrate New Year on April 1 even after knowing about this change. These people were called 'Fools' by the general populace. They used to play pranks on them too. This harassment evolved over time and a custom of prank-playing continued on the first day of April. This slowly spread from France to Scotland and England and the found its way into America. Because this spread into other countries, April Fools' Day has taken an international flavour with each country celebrating the day in its own way.
And so it is, the Fools' Day, on which you are licensed to play prank on others.

17 July 2011


Well, all of you might have figured out that this is some kind of 'mania', a special interest. But what exactly is this kleptomania? It is an irresistible tendency to steal things, especially things of trivial value. Funny eh?
Yes, if you are a kleptomaniac you steal as a habit! This is listed as a mental disorder and was first identified in 1960's in US. Kleptomaniacs usually steal things of very little importance like pens, paper clips, ribbons etc. This is different from usual shop lifting or theft because they are interested in the act of stealing and not in what they steal. In fact, some kleptomaniacs may not even be aware that they have committed a theft. This can appear associated with other mental disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Researches also show that frequent acts of stealing like pick-pocketing or shop-lifting can become a mania and the person may become addicted to stealing.
A traumatic brain injury or carbon monoxide poisoning can lead to kleptomania.  

03 June 2011

Yellow Journalism

We are all familiar with the adjective 'Yellow Newspaper' or 'മഞ്ഞപ്പത്രം'. A yellow newspaper refers to one which runs behind sensationalism, uses distorted stories, biased opinions and misleading photographs in a crazy attempt to increase circulation.
But do you know how this word 'Yellow Journalism' came to use?
Here is the story: In the 1880's, during the Industrial revolution machinery became so cheap that publishers could print enormous copies of dailies easily. This had stimulated an unhealthy spirit to increase circulation among the newspapers. At that time, there were two leading newspapers in New York, The New York World run by Joseph Pulitzer and The New York Journal run by William Hearst. Pulitzer's World  had a very popular comic series by cartoonist Robert Outcault called 'Hogan's Alley' featuring a character 'Yellow Kid'. But this fellow Hearst simply hired Outcault and another staff member of New York World and began printing 'Yellow Kid' in his Journal. Pulitzer got angry on this. What he did was, he hired another cartoonist and started printing 'Yellow Kid' in his front page! This comic strip used a special, non-smear yellow ink. On seeing this silly fight between Pulitzer and Hearst, the critics coined a word 'Yellow Journalism' referring to the significance of the cartoon. 

20 May 2011

Jumping out of a bus: A physics challenge!

If you have studied Physics at least upto Higher Secondary level, you will be well aware of inertia and its plays. And here goes a popular question; why do we run forward after jumping off a running bus? You should notice that 'forward' is highlighted. When I asked this question to a post graduate in physics, he felt it insulting!
'Who doesn't know that it is inertia? Don't you treat me like a school boy!'; that was his reply.
Well, after asking this to a lot of people I feel this is not a school-time question. If you also say 'It is obviously inertia', you should answer this question;"Then why do you jump forward?" Let me explain this question a bit: Here, what you mean by inertia is your inability to come to rest by yourself, since, before jumping out you were moving forward with the velocity of the bus. If you don't nullify the effect of that velocity you will fall forward, right? I hope you don't disagree upto this point. But the crucial question here is, if you jump forward, how will you nullify that effect? You are just adding extra velocity to that forward velocity! In order to cancel the effect of a forward velocity, you have to introduce a backward velocity, not a forward one. So it means if you jump off a bus and run forward, you cannot cancel the effect of inertia.
Most of you may not agree to this because your experiences tell the reverse. But I didn't say you have to jump backward next time while jumping off a running bus. I just said, you cannot cancel inertia by jumping forward. Actually, the answer to that question is not purely physics but at the most physiology! If you are to cancel the inertia effect, physics tell you to jump backward. But the physiology of your body is not suitable for that. As long as you cannot jump back with a velocity greater than that of the bus' forward velocity, your resultant velocity will be along the bus' direction and you tend to fall back. Now because human body cannot prevent a backward fall, you should not do that. Human body is well equipped to prevent a forward fall (that is what we do while walking and running) with two legs and that is why we jump forward although it increases the effect of inertia.
Still don't agree? Suppose you throw a glass bottle from a running bus to the road. When will it break more easily, when you throw forward or when you throw backward? The answer to this question will solve our first question well.

18 May 2011

The most expensive beverage in the world!

'Beverage' is one of the most popular terms in our society. So it can be interesting to know about the most expensive beverage in the world, right? Its name is Kopi Luwak. It is basically a coffee bean and it costs between 200 to 1,200 US dollars per kilogram. Then it should be something very great, isn't it?
But then you should know how it gets this value. Kopi Luwak is also called civet coffee (Civet or Luwak is a small mammal found on certain regions of Asia). It is made from a type of coffee bean berries. What civets do here is to eat these berries first, for their fleshy pulp. Then these berries go  through the digestive tract of civets, gets mixed with various enzymes and digestive juices there and finally gets defecated! Now we have to collect it. Yes, I mean it, we have to collect shit! After gathering, washing, sun drying and brewing, these excreted beans yield a highly aromatic coffee. And there it is, the most expensive beverage in the world. Looking at the size of a civet, you can imagine how difficult the production of this coffee can be,

Kopi Luwak is produced mainly in the islands of Sumatra, Java, Bali and also in Indonesia and Philippines.

16 May 2011

Pseudologia Fantastica

Funny term, ain't it? Doesn't it seem like a scientific term? Yes, it is. You may find it interesting to know that telling lies can be a disease!
Pseudologia fantastica is the scientific name of the disease 'pathological lying'. That is the state in which you tell lies as a habit or as a compulsion. While ordinary lies will be aimed at certain purposes like making profit, escaping punishments etc, pseudologia fantastica is characterized by lies without purposes.
It is a mental ailment usually reported in youth, typical onset age being 16. Most of the reported patients were found to have abnormalities in the central nervous system and this is not a kind of serious psychosis. A typical characteristic is that the lies told by the 'patient' may not be completely improbable, but may have some element of truth. If you force him, he may admit that it is a lie, although unwillingly. Also the tendency to make lies is long lasting, and most of the lies told will be in favour of the liar himself. E.g, telling a brave thing he had done, telling that some very famous person is his relative etc. This disease can also be present as a false memory syndrome, i.e., the sufferer actually believe that fictitious things have happened.

15 May 2011

Going to Milan? Smile Please!!

You ever propose to go to Milan in Italy? You will suffer if you are a serious person. Because, in Milan if you ever appear in public, there should be a smile on your face! The law in the province of Milan requires every citizen to wear a smile. If arrested for violation, the fine can go unto $100. You are exempted from this law only if you are visiting a patient in hospital or you are attending a funeral.
Italy has got many strange laws, some nationwide and some pertaining to towns or provinces. Here are a few examples;
* In Italy, a man can be arrested if he’s wearing a skirt!
* In Turin(a city in Northern Italy), dog owners can be fined heavily unless they walk their dogs at least three times a day!
* In Lerici(another northern city in Italy), it’s illegal to hang a towel out of a window to dry it!
* In Rome, groups of three people or more are not allowed to sing, drink, dance, or eat in the streets of the city, lest they want to face a €500 fine!
* In Eraclea, it’s illegal to build sandcastles on the beach!

Although these laws are mostly ignored by citizen in Italy (as is the case with public smoking in our place), there do are such laws there. It means, if somebody wants to give you a kick, there can be many ways of doing it in the form of fine.

10 May 2011

Go to Hell!

Have you ever shouted 'Go to Hell!' to somebody? At least, you must have heard someone shouting it so and the one to whom it is shouted is definitely insulted.
But in Norway many people may say this casually because they have a place named 'HELL' there! In Norwegian language, the word 'hell' means 'luck'. And due to this peculiar name, this place has now become a tourist attraction where the visitors wish to take photograph in front of Hell Railway Station.

09 May 2011

Before building your home in Switzerland!

One of my dear friends is very enthusiastic about Switzerland. Its her over-enthusiasm that made me have a skimming through a few details of Switzerland. I stumbled upon a strange law there,
"Every inhabitant in the country is by law required to have access to a bomb-shelter"
Quite funny, eh? For many Swiss citizens, this space is in a large civil defense shelter, but for others, and specifically non-Swiss, this shelter space comes in the form of a heavy-duty basement shelter. The bomb shelter isn't a nice-to-have or a government recommendation, but it's a mandatory requirement. That means, if you are to move to Switzerland and to build a house there, first of all you have to build a strong bunker beneath your basement. Don't think this is a simple thing. A heavy-duty bunker is very costly to build, having long and thick concrete walls along with carbon steel, vault-style doors, air filters etc.
This law is the proof that Switzerland is very serious about its civil defense and this tradition dates back to World War II, where bomb-shelters were essential against the fear of German invasion.

04 May 2011

Have you ever felt sulfuric acid in your eyes?

Question itself is a bit frightening, right? The most cruel chemical sulfuric acid falling into our eyes!
Well, if your answer to my question is a 'No', then that means you have never cut an onion in your life. Yes, sulfuric acid is the villain that makes you cry while cutting onions.
Let's talk some chemistry this time. When you cut onions, you are breaking the cells in it which releases a sulfur containing chemical called amino acid sulfoxide and some enzymes. These enzymes convert the sulfoxides into sulfenic acid, which is a highly unstable compound. It is suddenly converted into a gas called propanethiol S-oxide. It is a low density gas and so wafts up in the air soon. As you know, our eyes always produce tears necessary to prevent our eyes from going dry. When the propanethiol S-oxide reacts with the water in our eyes, caustic sulfuric acid is formed. Can our brain wait anymore? Before sulfuric acid burns our eyes, brain give order to wash off this villain and we start crying.

03 May 2011

Was Napoleon Really Short?

We all know that Napoleon Bonaparte was called the Little Corporal. And we often quote him as an example to illustrate that limitations can be overcome easily because Short Napoleon was one of the greatest of all conquerors. There is also a term 'Napoleon complex' to informally refer to the inferiority complex certain people have on being short.
But, the fact is Napoleon was not shorter than any average Frenchman! He was actually 1.686 meter tall. Is it really short?
The misconception that Napoleon was short came due to the difference in English feet and French feet. In French units, Napoleon's height was 5 feet 2 inches. But when we convert it to internationally accepted units, it is 5 feet 6.5 inches. So this french unit was misinterpreted by the English speaking world. The salutation 'Little Corporal' might have come from some affection towards him and not from his being short.

01 May 2011

Radio and Nikola Tesla

Once again, I want to talk about a school day question; who invented the radio? The answer is ready-made, isn't it? Marconi! But that is surely not the right answer. Fact is, no single person can be called the inventor of radio. There were many, including the familiar names Hendrich Hertz, Earnest Rutherford and even our own Jagdish Chandra Bose. 
When I went through the history of radio, I stumbled upon a name- Nikola Tesla. A name that we only hear during electromagnetism classes, as the unit for magnetic flux density. We don't often hear about him much. But, he is the highest ranked contributor to the invention of radio. The thing which had prevented the Nobel prize from being given to him was his clash with Thomas Edison, his former colleague and partner in radio related research.
He had a very remarkable personality. In almost all modern electrical inventions, you can trace at least one principle back to Tesla. It is said that he had photographic memory. He could byheart books by volumes and most of the engineering marvels he had done had no drawings! Drawing part were often done in his mind. He had so many revolutionary ideas like wireless power transmission, even in the 19th century. Many of his ideas seemed to be over-imaginative to his contemperories and he was often called a 'mad scientist'.[Read more about him] I believe he didn't get the recognition he deserved. Even our text books neglect him by confining that name to just a measuring unit.
He is, perhaps, the only real scientist who appeared as character in fictions! One of them was made into a movie, 'The Prestige' where Nikola Tesla is a character. It was that movie which made me read more about Tesla beyond that measuring unit.

26 April 2011

Do We Have Differest Taste Zones on Tongue?

We all are familiar with the 'tongue map' concept which says we have got different areas of tongue that senses different tastes. It also says that there are four primary tastes namely sourness, sweetness, saltiness and bitterness. See the figure. It shows the areas on our tongue which are supposed to receive these primary tastes.
But how many of us know that it is utterly a false idea? Yes, of course it is. This century old misconception comes from the research paper of a German scientist D. P. Hanig published in 1901. Probably, it is the most popular false idea ever presented and Hanig owns the credit of misguiding generations for a century! It was only in 1974, Virginia Collins re-examined Hanig's findings. She does agree to Hanig in one concept; there are variations in sensitivity to the four basic tastes. But it is too small to have any practical significance. Collings found that all tastes can be detected anywhere there are taste receptors—around the tongue, on the soft palate at back roof of the mouth, and even in the epiglottis, the flap that blocks food from the windpipe. 
Another fact is, other than sweet, sour, salty and bitter, there is another fifth distinct taste. It can be called 'meaty' which is the taste associated with meats. It is the taste of glutamate.
It is a mystery why scientists didn't bother about this seemingly simple idea until 1974 and why on earth the text books print this idea even today. [Read more]

25 April 2011

Why Do Watches Always Show 10:10 in Ads?

Most of you must have noticed that the picture of watches in advertisements always show 10:10 on their dials. But do you know why is it so? There are so many rumors regarding this question. Some say, it is the time Abraham Lincoln was shot, some others say it is the time the inventor of wrist watch Patek Philip died. But none of these is true.
According to what Timex says, the answer is quite simple. When the time is fixed at 10:10, it gives the look of a 'smile' and the manufacturers want their products to be smiling at the customers. Another advantage is that in that position, the manufacturers' trademark or logo on the top of the dial is fully visible. Timex clocks always show exactly 10:09:36 in their ads. Later this became a custom to show 10:10 on all watches, and even digital watches show this time.
But it should be noted that there do are some companies whose watches show other times such as 08:20.

19 April 2011

How Many Senses We Got, Just Five?

Sometime when we say something from our intelligent guess work, we say for fun "You know, I've got sixth sense". What make us say so is the assumption that man has only six senses and extra sense is surely superhuman. But how many of us knows that we have got far more number of senses. I'm not talking about any para psychological concepts. Although definitions vary, physiologically number of senses we got varies from at least 9 to more than 20!
The five senses we always talk about are sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. These five senses were identified and listed by Aristotle in the 300 BC's. But modern science has identified many more senses. I'll tell you a few examples I know:
1. Equilibrioception- It is the sense that prevents us from falling while walking and standing.i.e., the sense of balance and equilibrium[Read more]
2. Nociception- This is nothing but the sense of pain. When you touch a hot iron box, you are not sensing 'touch', are you? Pain is a different perception than touch.[Read more]
3. Proprioception- It is the sense that helps you know the position of your own body parts. Have you ever thought a 'sixth sense' is working when you take food directly to your mouth without mistake even if it is perfectly dark?[Read more]
4. Thermoception- This you might have guessed. Yes, it is the sense that helps us know the relative temperature.When you say, 'Oh the climate is too hot', your thermoceptive sense is working. The exact mechanism behind this sense is yet to be known.

Some other senses that I don't know the names are the senses of time, itching, pressure, hunger thirst, fullness of stomach, need for urination and defecation( Number 1 and number 2!) and blood carbon dioxide level. So next time when you joke about your sixth sense, remember, six is too small a number!

Moon and The Great China Wall

Many of you might have read somewhere that the only man-made thing that can be seen from Moon on Earth is the Great Wall of China. Didn't you? But did you know it is purely false? Yes it is. None of the Apollo travelers who were on moon reported such a thing. Other than the Apollo travelers, nobody has ever been to moon. Then who on earth did spread such a 'fact'? It was one Richard Halliburton. The funny thing is, first moon-landing happened on 1969 and Halliburton had died in 1939! Don't think that Halliburton was a lying silly crack. He is a legendary American adventurer and author.(Read more about him here) In his 'Second Book of Marvels' he says "Astronomers say that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made thing on our planet visible to the human eye from the moon". He doesn't say which astronomer told him so. Anyway that is the source of such a widely spread misconception.
The above picture is a satellite image of the Great Wall. Can you distinguish it from the surroundings? And when you know Moon is ten times farther than an artificial satellite from Earth, how is it possible to see The Great Wall from Moon? Should I talk more now?

15 April 2011

Vishu - The Astronomical New Year

First of all, very warm Vishu wishes to all...

I thought today I shall talk about the astronomical side of Vishu.
We all know that from Earth, Sun would appear to revolve around us. The ancient people believed Sun actually is revolving around Earth in a circular orbit. To locate sun in its orbit, they divided the 'solar orbit' around Earth, called the ecliptic, into twelve equal parts. To identify these parts in sky, they joined some of the stars in that portion of sky to make out a picture. Then they named each part according to the picture they made out in that portion. These twelve parts of sky on the sun's path around earth are called the twelve Raashi's(രാശികള്‍), named Medam, Idavam, Midhunam etc. The strip of sky around Earth that comprises of these twelve raashis is called the Zodiac(രാശിചക്രം). See the picture below:
As Sun takes 365 days to make a complete revolution, it is trivial to see that it spends around 30 days (365 days/12) in a particular Raashi. Our Malayalam calendar is based on this concept. That is, our Medamaasam(മേടമാസം) is that period of the year during which Sun is in Medam raashi. The day on which Sun moves from one raashi to another is called Sankraanthi(സംക്രാന്തി). Vishu is astronomically the Medasankraanthi(മേട സംക്രാന്തി), that is, the day on which Sun enters Medam raashi.
Historically, Medam 1 is the beginning of Malayalam calendar. But most of us consider Chingam 1 as New Year which is the beginning of Kollavarsham(കൊല്ലവര്‍ഷം). This is believed to be started by the King of Kollam (Venad Udaya Marthanda Varma) who thought Chingam, the season of harvest, can be the beginning of a new year. Chingam has no astronomical significance. In another post, I had talked about the equinoxes when sun rises exactly in the East. At the latitude where Kerala is, it is around Medam 1 sun rises exactly in the East. So Vishu in Kerala represents Vernal Equinox.('vishu' in Sanskrit means 'equal').
So Vishu is the astronomical new year in Kerala. Once again, Happy Vishu to all

14 April 2011

Sun Doesn't Rise Exactly in the East Always

We have been hearing from childhood that sun rises in the East. But how many of us know that sun doesn't always rise in the East?
Actually only twice in an year does sun rise in the East. On all other days, the position where it rises will be either Northward or Southward to the exact East. And what is the reason? It lies in the fact that the axis of earth's rotation is not perpendicular to the plane in which it revolves around Sun. It is inclined at an angle of 23.5 degrees to its orbital plane.

See the figure above.It shows the variation in the circle of illumination (the circular portion on earth illuminated by sunlight) at different positions of earth on its orbit. It can be seen that on march 21 and September 22, sunrays will fall vertically at the equator. These days are called Vernal equinox and Autumnal equinox respectively. On these days, day and night will be of equal duration in equatorial region, i.e. zero degree latitude. Similarly, in other latitudes, there will be two days(separated by six months) in an year having equal duration of day time and night time and on these days sun will be rising exactly in the East. That means, Sun doesn't rise exactly in the east on days other than equinoxes.
This can be understood more simply by considering the example of a vertical post and its shadow. If we observe the shadow of the post on morning, it will be along west. As time passes its length decreases and after noon it increses along east. But does its length become zero at noon? Not always. Only on equinoxes, we can see that. On noon of all other days, shadow will be seen along north or south directions, although small in length.

07 April 2011

The Caesarean Delivery

When you saw the heading, did you think I am talking about the birth of Julius Caesar? I think some of you might have doubted for a while, "Is this the spelling of the caesarean delivery we often hear?" Yes, it is.
I thought I might write about this because once I saw a friend of mine writing 'scissorian birth'. He wrote so because, he found out the logic that 'birth carried out by the aid of scissors is scissorian birth'. I don't think he is an exception in this misconception.
Technically, Caesarean birth is a surgical procedure in which one or more incisions are made on the  abdomen of a mother to take the baby out, in the case where natural delivery is harmful to the mother(or to the baby).
There are rumors that this procedure got this name because birth of the Roman dictator happened by this method and so the method got this name. But it is false. It is said that this method got its name from 'Lex Caesarea' which are the ancient Roman laws around 700 BC, which required that child of a mother dead in child birth be cut from her womb (Ref: Caesarean section?: Etymology and early history South African Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, August, 2009 by Pieter W.J. van Dongen).This seems to have begun as a religious requirement that mothers not be buried pregnant. It means Caesarean sections were performed even in the times of ancient Romans, although none among them are reported to survive. The earliest recorded survival is around 1500AD.

05 April 2011

"Oh, I think I've already seen it!"

Most of us have at least once exclaimed in our life, 'Oh, I think I've already seen this!" When you are in a get-together with friends, at some moment you feel that you have already been in exactly similar a company some time before. Or when your teacher(usually a teacher you likes a lot) tells a particular thing in the class, you feel he/she had already told this in the class in exactly similar a context. You might have overlooked it as one among the plays of mind.(Of course it is). But did you know this phenomenon has got a name? Yes, that feel is called Deja Vu. It is a French phrase meaning 'already seen'. This term was coined by a French psychology researcher named Emile Boirac.
Although this Deja Vu has been extensively studied by many psychologists, no established theory is there to explain this phenomenon. No one has ever succeeded in reproducing this feeling in laboratory conditions either. The exponents of ESP(Extra Sensory Perception or അതീന്ദ്രിയ ജ്ഞാനം) working in parapsychology consider this as a strong evidence of extra sensory powers. Since ESP itself is something yet to be approved as areal thing, it doesn't make any difference. Many attempts have been there to link deja vu with abnormal psychology like schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder etc and even with the anomalies of neural networks in the brain. But it has been experimentally proved that persons with some observable anomalies in the temporal lobe of cerebrum, feels deja vu very frequently.
Whatever, I have experienced this Deja Vu many times and don't know how this stuff works exactly.

04 April 2011

Murphy's rule

Haven't you noticed when you wait for bus at a bus stop, all the buses go in the direction opposite to that you want to go? When you wait in a queue in railway station, the queue next to yours will move faster and the person in front of your queue will always have a long transaction. A coin dropped from your hand will move towards the farthest corner of your room. When a particular part of your hand is injured, you will more often hit that particular part thereafter. When you try to learn cycle riding on a ground where there is a single tree nearby, your cycle will definitely go towards that tree.
You can find so many such examples and many of them are already put to your notice by rigorous sms senders! But how many of us know that there is a particular name for that phenomena? Yes, there is. And that rule is called Murphy's Law. The law is stated as follows,
"Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong"
The essence of this rule is that the universe is against you! If you do something which has so many possible outcomes, and one of them being a bad one, then that bad outcome will have more probability. There are so many researches going on in this topic. There is even a book titled 'A History of Murphy's Law' by Nick T Spark.
Such incidences often have statistical explanations too. E.g. When you wait at a bus stop, you see buses in the opposite direction because if you get bus in your direction soon, you will not notice those buses in the opposite direction. So statistically, the probability of seeing buses in the opposite direction increases as you spend more time in that bus stop.
I must tell you that the things I told you in the first paragraph is just a common loose interpretation of Murphy's law. Edward Murphy, who was an aerospace designer, coined this word as key principle in defensive design. The law is actually is somewhat too philosophical and I'm not sure all of you will bear it. Interested buddies who can stand philosophical jargon may go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murphy%27s_law

28 March 2011

Death of Lavoisier

In our school chemistry classes we all heard about Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry. At the same time, we heard about French revolution in our history classes. But how many of us were told about the relation between Lavoisier and French revolution? Lavoisier was guillotined (a French method of capital punishment by cutting one's head) at the height of French revolution!
Despite being a scientist, Lavoisier was a member of many aristocratic councils and it was through these political activities he found funding for his research. He also had a Law degree although he never practiced as a lawyer. At the height of revolution, politically termed 'The Reign of Terror', Lavoisier was branded a traitor by the revolutionaries. He was accused of selling watered down tobacco. He had also pleaded for other foreign scientists like Joseph Lagrange when the foreign-born people were being stripped of their possessions and freedom. Jean-Paul Marat, a young man whom Lavoisier had dismissed and who became a leading revolutionary later also took a good part in accusing Lavoisier.
Lavoisier was tried, convicted and guillotined on May 8, 1794 in Paris. The speech given by Lagrange after his death had this famous statement, "It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century."

26 March 2011


Have you ever heard this word 'philematology'? It is the science (or art) of kissing! On hearing this, some of us may frown(in front of others), some may look shy, some may look naughty. But how many of us knows that kissing is not as simple a thing as it seems?
Several studies show that kissing is the second most popular method for showing intimacy(First place goes to holding hands). Technically speaking, "A kiss is the act of pressing one's lips against the lips or other body parts of another or of an object." Although the meaning and the way of doing it varies widely among various cultures, it is being observed as a common attribute of all human beings, even in the primitives of Africa and Australia.
Dr. Christopher Nyrop(1680-1733) studied about kisses in detail and authored a book The Kiss and its History'. He identified many types of kisses, although many of them overlaps in nature. Adolecence kissing is common in many cultures which is just a harmless growing up custom. Sexual or romantic kiss is another popular type which in itself varies in nature in different cultures. Kiss of affection is another popular type which is far deeper and more lasting than romantic kiss. It is not just among parents and children, but also among memebers of the same family as brothers and sisters. Kissing is also observed as a ritual in some cultures. E.g. ancient warriors used to kiss their swords before going to a battle. Kissing becomes a part of religious belief when you kiss the floor of a temple or the hand of The Pope. There are many other types like kiss of peace, kiss of respect, kiss of friendship etc that are observed in various parts of world.The licking and grooming behavior shown by cats, birds, birds etc are also considered as a form of kissing.

Biology also has some interesting things to tell about kissing. It says, kissing is a complex behavior that requires significant muscular coordination involving a total of 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles! Kissing has been studied in a controlled experiment and the result indicates that increasing the frequency of kissing in marital and cohabiting relationships results in a reduction of perceived stress, an increase in relationship satisfaction, and a lowering of cholesterol levels!

Now that I told you this much about kissing, it is not fair to avoid this warning. In India, public display of affection is a criminal offense under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 with a punishment of imprisonment of up to three months, or a fine, or both. So beware!

24 March 2011

Galileo Didn't Invent Telescope

Most of us know Galileo as the inventor of telescope. But actually it was not Galileo who made the first telescope. History says that Hans Lippershey, a Dutch lensmaker made the first refracting optical instrument called telescope. There are also many stories that how he came up with its idea. One among them says, he happened to witness two children playing with lenses and talking how they could make far objects appear closer. There are also rumors that he stole this idea from his apprentices. Anyway, now Lippershey is considered as the inventor of telescope. Galileo introduced a lot of improvements to the instrument and he also own the credit of utilizing telescope for valuable astronomical observations.