Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Some great Biographies…

Who doesn’t love biographies of great scientists??
But, unfortunately, it is only a handful of scientists who capture the imagination of the public. And it is their biographies which sell like hot-cakes. Here, I list some non-so-well known biographies which I really liked..

“Chandra” by Kameshwar Wali is one of the most inspiring books that I have ever read. I have read the entire book twice and would love to read it again. It is not really a scientific biography. Non-physicists should have no problems with the book. Quite a lot of space would have been devoted to his days at Cambridge. And, the famous Eddington-Chandra episode is surely the highlight of this section!!
The book ends with a very long “interview” with Chandra. In this, you will find him talking about a huge number of things : Physics, India, Art, Personal life, why he never came back to India etc. The book is a fitting tribute to this great man.

ps: I have found that very few in India know about Chandra. I have his photo in my room and not a single visitor to  has been able to identify him. Hence added it to the not-so-well-known list!

Next up is Climbing the Mountain., a biography of Julian Schwinger by Jagdish Mehra. Schwinger won the Nobel with Feynman and Tomonoga and (unlike Feynman) remained outside the public glare to a large extent. This book is more of a scientific biography. But, it has enough juicy anecdotes to make it enjoyable for non-physicists. Much like Dirac, he isolated himself from the rest of the physics community in the later years. This book and QED and the men who made it are probably the only detailed accounts of his life. Btw, Mehra has a fabulous book on Feynman too.(The Beat of a different drummer) But, I said not-so-famous pple!

Yet another physicist: John Bardeen. The only person to have got two Nobels in physics. Despite the fact that we use his discoveries (semiconductor transistors!!!..) on a daily basis, not many of his know him. His other Noble was for the BCS theory of Superconductivity. He played a major part in developing a great condensed matter physics program at UIUC. This book must be easily accessible to non-experts.

Now, something outside physics.. There is a wonderful autobiography by Werner-Von-Braun, the man behind the V2 of Germany (WW II). He later moved over to the US and was behind the “Saturn” launch vehicle. I am having trouble tracking down the book’s title..( can some one help me???) I read it quite a while ago in IITM’s library. In this book, he narrates explains some of Hitler’s plans, the german rocket program etc. He explains his move to the US. It has a gentle mix of politics and science (and controversy!!)…it must be a fascinating read for any space-enthusiast.

Do you have your own choice of great-but-not-popular biographies??


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Scian Melt # 13

Sowmya has the latest edition of the Scian Melt . It is a nicely categorised collection of links to posts on science. And, The next melt is still up for grabs…mail Selva if u r interested.

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To add to his numerous other discoveries, here is a new Supernova to Vishnu’s credit!! This is a very bright one! .. 14.3 mag. This is roughly the brightness of Pluto(I mean the apparent brightness, as seen from earth) Such bright ones are pretty rare. Here is the page from Smithsonian which lists recent supernova discoveries.

“2006E” is the one that Vishnu shares with Puckett (a well known supernova hunter) and others.You can easily make out that there arent many in the mag 14** range. Here is an image of the supernova from Vishnu’s website.Many congratulations to Vishnu!

**In the magnitude scale a lesser ‘magnitude’ implies greater brightness.
Such a definition is for purely historical reasons. This is a logarithmic scale.

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There are quite a few interesting articles on Einstein’s work in the Current Science Special on Einstein.
I noticed this thanks to Woit. Contributors include David Gross(Nobel ’04),Atiyah(Fields ’66 ,Abel ’03),Ashoke Sen,Ashtekar,Narlikar amongst others.
T Jayaraman of IMSc has an article on Einstein’s Political Thoughts! .
I havent read any of these articles in detail..So, no comments as of now.

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Noether’s theorem

I had earlier made a post about  Clifford’s post on the “Greatest Physics Paper”.
It is always fun to talk about history of physics and this thread certainly served that purpose. I also thought that Clifford had intended to have a debate and then run away…
But, surprisingly, he has come back to the post and it is time to Vote!!
AND Emmy Noether’s Symmetries Paper (my suggestion) is amongst the final five!
As expected, The Principia is currently leading the way…

Update : Noether’s paper is not doing very badly…it is ahead of both the Einstein Papers :))

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The Physics year is now a thing of the past. And quantum diaries , a project where numerous physicists from around the world blog about their daily lives and physics, has also reached its target lifetime of one year. A review of the past one year’s experience (by the Editor,QD) can be found in the latest Symmetry Magazine. ‘Symmetry’ is a wonderful magazine brought out by Fermilab. I have never seen this in the print form , but it looks pretty similiar to the Cern Courier.

Getting back to Quantum Diaries.. there were a few blogs which were updated regularly and has some nice posts. But, quite a few bloggers were pretty irregular! For ex, John Ellis had a blog at QD and his last post was in July’05! Prof.Ellis is a very well-known physicist and I am sure that his blog would have raked up a large amount of traffic. Anyway, some of the bloggers there hope to continue their blogging.

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24 asteroids and counting…

Amateur Astronomers are a rare breed in India. This might be due to a variety of reasons. The primary reason is probably the reasonable financial commitment involved in this hobby. Ofcourse, small pockets of enthusiastic amateurs exist. But when compared with countries like the US, the numbers here are much lesser. There aren’t many telescope makers either.

Given this, the first Indian amateur astronomer to discover an Asteroid must be quite a special guy! Vishnu Vardhan Reddy is the one who accomplished this feat and he now has 24 asteroid discoveries to him name! I first met Vishnu on a mailing list. Since then, I had been paining him to give a lecture at our Astro Club. Finally, he was in India for a month and gave a lecture at our Astro Club on Jan 3rd.

Vishnu’s path to these discoveries is pretty fascinating. After getting his masters in Communcations, he worked as a Science journalist for the Asian Age (based in Delhi). He was into amateur astronomy since his school days, thanks to Prof.Devdas in Chennai. Infact, most amateurs in Chennai owe their initiation to this dedicated man who is now 80+ and is still making telescopes! Do read Vishnu’s recollections about his childhood. After learning from Prof.Tom Gehrals that even amateur astronomers could make significant contributions to asteroid hunting, Vishnu took serious interest in finding asteroids. An asteroid is detected by observing its motion wrt background stars. One needs to take periodic photographs of the sky to make out an asteroid. Ofcourse, the larger a telescope you have at your disposal, the better equipped you are. Quality photography equipment is also necessary. Vishnu got a 12″ Meade scope thanks to an unexpected loan from a friend whom he had never met!!

Gregg quickly asked me if I could come up with the money later. I said I don’t have anyone but I can try for sure. He took out his Credit Card and ordered the telescope right away. I was shocked at first. Here was a guy who spent $3,000 on a telescope without even seeing my face!

Mind you, these are atrociously costly toys. Today, the cost of this Meade scope would be ~2 lakhs . But, to his dismay, Vishnu found that a 12″ Meade is not sufficient to make asteroid discoveries on a regular basis! The very purpose of collecting $3000 from various sources seemed lost. However, things fell into place during a visit to the US. He met experienced asteroid hunters and finally found his first asteroid! Do read his rather elaborate account of this discovery.

With $200 in pocket, I took a 3-day bus journey from Michigan to Arizona in the last week of June. The bus went through 7 states arriving in Tucson 10 hours late!


Curious, I asked what they were and he replied, “Dude, you have found 2 asteroids.” Not sure if that’s true, I went and checked the MPchecker again so that they got the numbers right. Yes, they were new and I found them.At last after 3 years of chasing all kinds of things, I finally got not one but 2 asteroids. Too tired to enjoy the new discoveries, I crashed on the bed at 5.30 pm.

The whole thing must have been quite an ordeal!

After this, he switched fields and is now into Professional Astronomy. But, he still tweaks around with amateur scopes, sets up remote observatories and makes quite a lot of asteroid discoveries with them. His latest one was a binary asteroid near the Earth. He told me that this is the first such discovery using amateur equipment. Congrats and BOL to Vishnu for future discoveries!

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