Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

                                                                     Interactive science series

Q: What is happening to the green house gases in the earth and those that are released into the atmosphere?

Krishna: Some of them are being absorbed by the oceans. That is why they are turning acidic. Some CO2 is being soaked up by the  trees of the forests.

Recently I read an interesting research paper. It was published online on July 31 in Nature Geoscience.

According to the paper,  the methane ( a powerful greenhouse gas) trapped beneath blankets of ice in Antarctica,   is being eaten by bacteria. And scientists suspect they’re hungry enough to gobble all of it up before it can escape into the air!

 Millions of years ago, sea levels were higher. This left an ocean covering Antarctica. When sea levels dropped and the ocean retreated, it left behind a layer of debris from plant and animal life. As global temperatures cooled, a thick sheet of ice gradually formed. Years went by. Eventually, bacteria under the ice broke down the organic material. And they exhaled methane.

Four years ago, scientists drilled down more than 800 meters (about half a mile) through the ice. Then they scooped up samples of water and sediment from the lake below. This Lake Whillans is known as a subglacial lake, or a body of water that sits far below some ancient blanket of ice. That’s what scientists believed, anyway. No one ever measured it as it’s very difficult to get to the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet. 

Analyses of those lake samples now confirm for the first time what scientists had long suspected. Yes, there is methane. And the methane’s chemical makeup confirmed that it came from bacteria eating ancient organic material. But the scientists also found something they hadn’t expected. There’s another group of organisms, and it is eating the methane. These bacteria digest methane and release carbon dioxide (CO2). Yes, CO2 is also a greenhouse gas. But it’s a far weaker one (methane is around 30 times more powerful than CO2) — and plants can soak up the CO2.

Q: ISRO's recent satellite launch failure made me ask this question. Why are heat shields needed for satellites and other spacecraft?

Krishna:  The heat shield is an encasing which protects the satellite housed in the rocket from heat and acoustic pressures that it would experience during the lift-off phase in the earth’s atmosphere. Once outside the atmosphere, the pressures are reduced, allowing removal of the shield.

Other space craft like space shuttles need them because the forces on re-entry far exceed those during a launch, enough to tear an unprotected spacecraft apart. Rockets are built to withstand the atmospheric forces as they leave the atmosphere, but it’s nothing on the scale of re-entry.

The reason for these intense forces is the atmosphere. When a spacecraft returns from orbit, or elsewhere, it is travelling at anywhere up to ten kilometres (six miles) a second. It needs to slow down considerably to make it to Earth’s surface, and the easiest way to do this is to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a ‘brake’. Spacecraft are actually designed to make use of this, so the wide heat shield bears the brunt of deceleration as the spacecraft passes through the atmosphere. We use the atmosphere as a handy way to decelerate spacecraft, rather than relying on fuel alone. On the way up a rocket has its ‘pointy’ end first, reducing atmospheric drag. It’s also travelling at a much slower speed than a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere, so it doesn’t experience the same forces or heating.

Q: Is there a difference between baking soda and baking powder?

Krishna: Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. When baking soda is combined with moisture and an acidic ingredient (e.g., yogurt, chocolate, buttermilk, honey), the resulting chemical reaction produces bubbles of carbon dioxide that expand under oven temperatures, causing baked goods to expand or rise.

Baking powder also contains sodium bicarbonate, but it includes the acidifying agent already (cream of tartar), and also a drying agent (usually starch). Baking powder is available as single-acting baking powder and as double-acting baking powder. Single-acting powders are activated by moisture, so you must bake recipes which include this product immediately after mixing. Double-acting powders react in two phases and can stand for a while before baking. With double-acting powder, some gas is released at room temperature when the powder is added to dough, but the majority of the gas is released after the temperature of the dough increases in the oven.

Q: Why don't we feel the Earth's movement in space?

Krishna: Because we are also rotating with the Earth. You don't feel that you’re moving because everything around you is also moving with the same velocity.

But then you can always see and feel the sun and the moon raising and the planets and stars 'movement' in space. 

Q: Q: Can Diabetes be cured?

Krishna: You cannot 'cure it actually' as long as you don't tweak your genes. Because diabetes is usually written into your genes.

But by taking care of your health it can be arrested, like I did!

Most of my family members had/have diabetes. My two (paternal and maternal) grandmothers, all my uncles and aunties (paternal and maternal), most of my cousins, my mother, my only sister. All these people are genetically related to me. I knew I was predisposed to diabetes. So I controlled my life style, weight and food habits and do rigorous exercise. By doing all these things  I stopped my genes  from never expressing clinically evident diabetes or pre-diabetes till now. But technically, my diabetes is not gone, and exist in my genes. If I lose control over my life style or something drastic happens, I know I would become clinically  positive for diabetes. This reality motivates me  to be careful always. And I succeeded till now. :)

Q: Is cracking hand bones harmful?

Krishna: No, not according to science! We won't get arthritis if we crack our bones like our elders would want us to believe!

The noise we hear when our joints pop is likely to be due to movement of the tendon over bone. Tendons attach muscles to bones and are a bit like elastic bands that stretch over joints. It is thought tendons can make a popping noise when they move quickly across a joint. When a joint moves, the position of the tendon changes relative to the joint. Sometimes the tendon will shift its position slightly, causing it to make that popping sound as it snaps back to its normal place. This noise is quite normal whether it’s loud or soft, or happens frequently or not.

The chronic degeneration of joint cartilage, known as osteoarthritis, leads to stiffness and reduced mobility of the joint. When this cartilage is damaged the surfaces of the bones rub against each other during movement, causing pain. Many factors contribute to arthritis, and people experience joint pain for many possible reasons, including genetics, age, weight and previous injury.

Synovial fluid is a substance found in the cavities of joints. It has a consistency similar to egg white and its purpose is to lubricate the joint to reduce friction during movement.

Early research suggested when the joint is extended the pressure within the joint is greatly reduced, causing gases dissolved in the synovial fluid to form microscopic bubbles or cavities. Eventually, joint fluid rushes into the areas of low pressure and the larger bubbles collapse, or pop, producing that familiar sound.

In 2015, a group of researchers from Canada used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate the mechanisms of knuckle cracking. They concluded knuckle cracking occurs as a result of formation of space in the synovial fluid in the form of bubbles rather than the collapse of the bubbles due to synovial fluid rapidly filling the space, debunking the previously held notion.

Q:Are owls bad omens?

Krishna: There are no good and bad omens. If you lose control over the situations you are in, you blame everything around you for your misery. This is just perception based superstition.

Q: How and why owls are considered bad omens? 

Krishna: Poor understanding of things in pre-scientific era lead to this misconception...

The reason why owl is considered a bad omen traces back to early centuries, when mice used to spread lots of diseases (they still do today) and we had little knowledge on how diseases spread and about germs. Owls would come to your rat infested barn/house because they wanted to get some “food”. And people would connect the wrong dots, associating diseases to the visit of an owl rather than to rats.

I want to give another example like this ... originated in misconception ...

People used to think Lychee fruits cause death! Outbreaks of acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) among children in India and Bangladesh were attributed to consumption of the fruit of the Asian lychee tree (Litchi chinensis). But according to recent research,  exposure to agrochemicals used in lychee orchards rather than consumption of the fruit is the actual reason (1)!

Now we know the truth. We can come out of these superstitious and myth-related states now if we wish to!

Q: How can dead bodies be liquified?

Krishna:  By a process called alkaline hydrolysis. Alkaline hydrolysis (also called biocremation, resomation, flameless cremation, or water cremation) is a process for the disposal of human remains which produces less carbon dioxide and pollutants than cremation. The process is being marketed as an alternative to the traditional options of burial or cremation. It refers to types of nucleophilic substitution reactions in which the attacking nucleophile is a hydroxide ion.

Machines break down tissue using lye (water mixed with a small quantity of potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide), which snaps the chemical bonds that hold together proteins, fats, DNA and other bodily building blocks. Multiple mechanisms can be used: The most expensive machines boil the lye at high pressure and 150 degrees Celsius, which can disintegrate a body in few hours. Cheaper models—unpressurized and operating below boiling point—might take a day (and are frowned on by some of those championing the pressurized approach, who are not convinced the budget-friendly models will always fully digest the remains). Some machines keep the body horizontal; others tip it into the lye. But with any of these approaches what comes out should be a brown soup of simple organic molecules that can be poured into a sewer system. The bones, however, do not dissolve. They can be pulverized and given to the family of the deceased.

Q: Do people always listen to good advice given by experts?

Krishna: Human perception is a strange thing. People get influenced by several biases. 

I met an interesting lady sometime back. She gives importance to statuses in society and money people have. According to her, rich people can never go wrong or be wrong! Because all their 'rightness' made them succeed and rich! She listens to them when they talk and think all that they say is correct even if it is not! Hmmm!

Poor people or experts who are not rich don't even exist in her world. When such people talk, she just ignores them or argues against them. What can you say about such people?

Hit 'ignore' button and move  on! Science doesn't give a damn! 

Q: After reading my reply to one of the questions here that 'ghosts are creations of human mind and don't really exist' and the article  science-and-the-paranormal , a lady sent me this message (by the way the lady says she has a Ph.D. in Computer Science and is a highly qualified  professor):

"Madam, Ghosts are not the creation of human mind. If you don’t have the faith on such entities go and view the ghosts in the Bhangarh, Rajesthan, India. Science doesn’t know anything about the spirits and supreme beings. Science is full of doubts and is not good enough to give the right perspective. Bhangarh Fort Bhangarh of Ghosts ". (I just copied and pasted her message and any spelling mistakes are the lady's, not mine)

And this is my (Krishna's) reply to her: Several people who visited the fort confirmed to me that they didn't face or see any ghosts there. It seems even the care takers of the fort told them that the stories 're made up to increase the mystery and make more tourists visit the place. 

Science doesn't know anything about spirits? Several scientists tried to find out the truth.

Madam, as a highly qualified person, you should have analysed all this critically before sending me your message. You hallucinate something or imagine things. These things are mostly based on the stories you hear and fears you face. You feel your fear! The world presented to some by their perceptions is nothing like reality!

And you ask science to explain your hallucinations and imaginations and prove them right (or wrong)! What a pity!

How can science explain or prove something that doesn't exist in the first place? Not finding evidence is itself proof that what you imagine is not true!

 The difficulty in scientifically evaluating ghosts is that a surprisingly wide variety of phenomena are attributed to ghosts, from a door closing on its own, to missing keys, to a cold area in a hallway, to a vision (hallucination) of a dead relative.

Ghost hunters use many creative (and dubious) methods to detect the spirits' presences, often including psychics. Virtually all ghost hunters claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones. Yet none of this equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts. Other researchers claim that the reason ghosts haven't been proven to exist is that we simply don't have the right technology to find or detect the spirit world. But this, too, can't be correct: Either ghosts exist and appear in our ordinary physical world (and can therefore be detected and recorded in photographs, film, video and audio recordings), or they don't. If ghosts exist and can be scientifically detected or recorded, then we should find hard evidence of that — yet we don't. If ghosts exist but cannot be scientifically detected or recorded, then all the photos, videos, audio and other recordings claimed to be evidence of ghosts cannot be ghosts. With so many basic contradictory theories — and so little science brought to bear on the topic — it's not surprising that despite the efforts of thousands of ghost hunters on television and elsewhere for decades, not a single piece of hard evidence of ghosts has been found.

Many people believe that support for the existence of ghosts can be found in no less a hard science than modern physics. It is widely claimed that Albert Einstein suggested a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts, based on the First Law of Thermodynamics: if energy cannot be created or destroyed but only change form, what happens to our body's energy when we die? Could that somehow be manifested as a ghost?

It seems like a reasonable assumption — unless you understand basic physics. The answer is very simple, and not at all mysterious. After a person dies, the energy in his or her body goes where all organisms' energy goes after death: into the environment. The energy is released in the form of heat, and the body is transferred into the animals that eat us (i.e., wild animals if we are left unburied, or worms and bacteria if we are interred), and the plants that absorb us. There is no bodily "energy" that survives death to be detected with popular ghost-hunting devices.

If ghosts are real, and are some sort of as-yet-unknown energy or entity, then their existence will (like all other scientific discoveries) be discovered and verified by scientists through controlled experiments — not by weekend ghost hunters wandering around abandoned houses in the dark late at night with cameras and flashlights.

According to science, ghosts don't exist, and that reports of ghosts can be explained by psychology, misperceptions, mistakes and hoaxes. There is absolutely no evidence of ghosts. Period!

If a highly qualified person like you believe in irrational things, support baseless beliefs and propagate them, imagine what would happen to the illiterates. I feel sorry for both ... more for you! Because when I visited your website, I found more about your irrational beliefs like Astrology. 

Okay you have every right to believe in whatever you want to believe. I respect your right. But I can't support people like you propagating pseudo-science-like- astrology and misleading people about non-entities like ghosts. Sorry!

(Against my nature, I had to give this stern reply because being a trained scientist, this lady ridiculed science, made baseless allegations against it and resorted to anti-science and pseudo-science promotion).

A scientist friend of mine who read this reply of mine told me with the camera-carrying generation of today most of these planted stories got a severe beating as nobody could give picture evidence without intentionally photo-shopping and providing false images and getting caught in the process.

Q: A thirteen year old girl asked me after reading the above Q and my reply to it, ''Madam,  what will you do if you suddenly encounter a bhoot (ghost) when you are alone in the night? Won't you get frightened?"

And this is my reply to her: :) Several people ask me this Question. Because I stay alone most of the time. 

I don't get frightened because according to science there are no real ghosts. My trust in science really assures me and makes me very courageous. 

Like you have asked, if I hallucinate a ghost, the first thing I ask the ghost is to provide evidence that he or she or it is really a  ghost and not my hallucination. I will try my best to come out of that hallucination. Hallucinations are real. Your brain plays lots of games with you under certain conditions. It is a strange situation. If you cannot differentiate between imaginations from realities, you go insane. If you cannot resolve these situations correctly, you become irrational. you suffer mental issues.

If I cannot solve the problem myself, I will go to a medical professional to get assistance. And I try to get cured.

Anyway, I am sure such a situation doesn't arise for me. My training in Science keeps me sane all the time! 

Q: What is the most interesting thing that you do and I don't, but I should? 

Krishna: I tread in a wonderful world called ‘pure science’. It is completely different from ordinary world. Wonder whether you have ever encountered it.

If you do, please enter it, it will change you for ever. And you never want to go back to any other world again. It’s grip is so tight, you cannot escape from it. Ever!

Krishna in a wonderland (called Science)



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