Science in ten minutes

Non-scientists gather! The most challenging science in the most effortless ten minutes of your time. Also, awaiting your suggestions for topics. Show off your scientific knowledge to your friends and at gatherings! Let’s learn together!

New topics twice every month and will come out along with the release of the fortnightly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates. You will need to spare only ten minutes twice a month to learn something new. Also, learn on the go! Each article will be released as a podcast episode as well.

Go to the topic you want to read about by clicking on the index card below:

Is something missing from the list above? Just write the topic in this box below and I’ll take care of the rest!

What is the internet?

We use it every day. You are using it now to read this. But what exactly is it? Is it a box? Does it have storage? How are we able to store things on the internet and never run out of space? Will we ever run out of space to store things? And where are the “clouds” where things get stored? You will know everything there is to know about all these. The Internet is basically just a network of the billions of computers and electronic devices in the world. Websites are just as they sound – Sites where information is stored and can be accessed by visiting those “sites”. So, the World Wide Web is just a collection of different websites, and it is essentially physical storage. These websites are saved on servers and when you want to visit a website, the information is sent via physical cables to your computer, and you view the information using an application called a web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, etc.). Yes, even wireless connections like WiFi rely on cables at some stages on their path. And each of these websites has a unique “link”, which is its address on the server. Hence, there are many ways you can bring your computer to join the world wide web (WiFi, broadband, cable, DSL, 4G or 5G, etc.).

Now that we know what the internet means, we can understand what the cloud means. Just like your computer or other devices have physical storage on them like hard drives, the servers we talked about earlier also have storage. Along with storing websites, you can use them to store your data as well, but more securely. This is called cloud storage, which is essentially what YouTube and others are. The question now arises – With more than two million terabytes of data being added each day on the internet, will the servers ever run out of space? As we know, the internet itself is just a network of all computers, so the connection or accessibility will never run out. However, the servers holding all that information may run out of space. But with servers being added every day with newer technologies of memory storage, it is unlikely for space to run out so easily. The real problem is not whether we will find space to store our data, but whether we will find our data. As the volume of data increases, retrieval could become a bigger problem than storage itself.

More information: Click here for a longer, but easy tutorial on the internet.

The Standard Model
(How the universe works)

The resultant of over 400 years of physics research is the Standard Model, which provides the explanation about the working of the universe. Of course it is a developing theory and over 95% of the physics is still left to be fitted into it. But we have a good start. I realize that when scientists talk about such fundamental things, it becomes difficult for a common man to follow it, and as a result, people in general fail to understand its significance. But after this, I promise you will be able to grasp what scientists are talking about.

In general, we know that everything is made up of particles of some kind. While there are many types of particles, they are of two major types – particles that make up matter, and particles that make up the forces acting on matter. Matter particles (Fermions) are the electrons, up quarks, down quarks, neutrinos, plus 8 more complex variations of these. Matter is made using atoms (electrons + up quarks + down quarks), while neutrinos are extremely light, non-interacting particles constantly flowing through you, me, and everything without interacting with anything.

Acting on these matter particles are four types of force particles (Bosons). Without forces, these particles would be wandering lost around the universe without doing anything. The first type of force, the electromagnetic force, acts on matter having some positive or negative charge on it (Photons). The second type of force, the strong force, keeps the matter particles (quarks) together (Gluon). The third type of force, the weak force is responsible for decaying of particles to simpler forms, which is the method used by the Sun to give us energy, resulting in two types of force particles (W and Z bosons).

After the basic picture, now comes the final force particle that ties all of this together (Higgs boson). The Higgs Boson is a very complex field, but in simple words, when the Higgs field acts on matter particles, it gives it the thing we know as mass. Not everything is known about this though, but since this field is responsible for giving matter particles their mass, it is unofficially known as the God particle. However, all this leads us to three open questions that still need answers – 1) How can we fit in gravity, which is a major force in the universe, into this standard model?, 2) Are these forces different or are they manifestations of a single force (A Grand Unified Theory)?, and 3) While all this is impressive, it still accounts for only 5% of the energy of the universe. What about the remaining 95% that we are calling dark matter and dark energy?

We can only paint a full picture of the universe when we have answers to these questions. But who knows whether we will run into more questions once we have solved the problems at hand.

For a beautiful explanation, look at the following video by David Tong, theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge:

Interested in reading more about the unified forces of nature? Read my article on unifying the forces of nature for a detailed perspective.

String Theory: Are we all manifested by strings?

We have heard a lot about String Theory. However, not all of us have really understood what it means to study “strings”. If you would go back to the previous topic of The Standard Model, we reached the conclusion that everything is made up of particles (electrons, quarks, gluons, etc.). But we got stuck at the point of combining all this with gravity. This is where String Theory comes into the picture and essentially says that even these particles are made up of one-dimensional strings. Each of these strings is identical but the reason different particle types exist is that they vibrate at different frequencies. It means that if a set of strings vibrate at a certain frequency, they are creating quarks. If they vibrate at a different frequency, they create electrons, and so on. As the research on string theory progressed, we saw that only having strings is not the complete picture. So, scientists use something called “branes” for understanding to which these strings are connected. Branes are like sheets and can be of any dimension. For example, a brane having a front and back would be two dimensional, a brane having front, back, up and down would be three dimensional, and so on. We live in a three-dimensional world, but scientists believe that there are even higher dimensions than these where the strings vibrate, which we are not able to access because they are way too nanoscopic to perceive or measure. Another important aspect of string theory is that for every matter particle, there will be a force particle present somewhere (read the previous topic on The Standard Model). If we are able to solve string theory, we might be able to relate gravity to the other fundamental forces, and maybe also uncover other exciting physics in our universe.

At this stage, there is no experimental evidence for string theory, but it gives hope for unifying the physics of the universe because the biggest to smallest matter and forces can be tracked down to identical strings. That is the beauty of this idea. If String Theory is proven to be correct, then everyone and everything is identical at its core, and the differences created are only superficial. Does this ring a bell? (Can we reach the unifying force of nature?)

Gravitational Waves
(Universal waves of spacetime)

After understanding how the universe works (The Standard Model) and what makes up those components of our universe (String Theory), it is time to understand the web that controls these components – Gravitational Waves. It is not difficult to understand, but the only reason it becomes difficult to understand is that the visualization of dimensions is difficult. It is easy to understand two-dimensional and three-dimensional spaces. A sheet of paper, for example, can be imagined as two-dimensional compared to the real world. But when we already have length, breadth, and height, it is difficult to imagine where you can add the next dimension. I can give you a flavor. You can do this small experiment at home with a small ball or a piece of aluminum foil, a flashlight (you can use your phone), and a flat surface (floor, wall, etc.). Here is a snip from my article. You can read the whole article here.

Do you notice the shadow becoming bigger and smaller as you move the ball front and back? Simple right? This circle on the wall has a length and breadth, but no height. We are not changing the actual size of the ball, but changing its position in one dimension is changing its shadow in the two other dimensions. This means by analogy that you move the ball in the third dimension, which is bringing about a change in the first two dimensions. If a creature did not know how to see the third dimension, it will be magic to them. Similarly, if a creature can perceive the fourth dimension and makes changes to it, we will see changes in three dimensions. In that case, we will see it as magic, but it’s just physical reality.

Now that we get an understanding of how the fourth or higher dimensions can affect our existing three dimensions, we can try to understand gravitational waves. The first successful theory of gravity was given by Sir Isaac Newton, which was well-received. He said that gravity is a force of attraction between two bodies and depends on their masses and the distance between them in space. This is not wrong, but it is not the bigger picture. Then came Albert Einstein with his General Theory of Relativity, where he stumped everyone by proposing a new and complex picture; but it made sense. He said that instead of just space, we should consider something called spacetime. Just like we don’t see light itself, but light helps us see things, in the same way, we feel the effects of spacetime. Let’s say you are holding a piece of string and a bird comes and sits on it. If you suddenly tug at the string, the bird will feel the effects of it because it was sitting on it. Similarly, if you are sitting on a hammock (hanging bed made of cloth suspended between two trees usually) and somebody jumps on it, you will feel the effects because you are also on the same hammock. On similar lines, say you are in a cage made of flexible material. If somebody enters the next cage, you will feel a force towards that person. But you know this is not the case and the attraction is only because of the bend in the cage you are in. Now imagine the same cage in multiple dimensions. This is the web of spacetime we exist in. So, if something approaches us, we feel the tug, but perceive it as gravity. Gravitational Waves are a direct result of this theory of gravity. A major event in the universe (for example, the collision of two black holes) sends ripples through spacetime, which gets weaker as it travels. As a result, the gravitational wave we detected in 2015, due to the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away, was weaker than the vibration of a nucleus by the time it reached the Earth. The LIGO detector was specifically designed to be this sensitive to detect these waves, and we are constructing similar detectors all over the world for this purpose.

Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation: Killing cells that forget how to die

Cancer is a difficult subject to discuss for people undergoing it themselves or their loved ones. And I am one of them because my mother struggled with it in her life, so I have seen her pain. It usually becomes very difficult to understand the situation if one is not aware of the terms used by the doctors or in reports. This is because while those terms make diagnosis fast for doctors (they may not have a lot of time to explain due to so many patients), they fly over a common man’s head and make understanding out of reach, which ideally should not happen. Amidst all this, misinformation and disinformation are also prevalent. So, in this topic, I try to explain the terms used by doctors and in reports in a simple manner. I have also provided recognized resources for further information from the American Cancer Society. If you feel or notice any signs or symptoms, get them tested and diagnosed by a doctor as soon as possible. Cancer risk, prevention and screening guidelines by age

We have not yet been able to completely cure cancer in most cases because we don’t have a permanent cure yet. However, we have other treatment forms among which chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the most commonly used forms. Other than this, there are options like surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and more. I will discuss some of them briefly and in simple language to make it easy to grasp. To begin with, I will talk about cancer itself. In simple words, your body is made up of cells of different kinds, which work together to keep your body functioning. In their natural cycle, cells are created, they perform the functions they should, they die, and finally, they are removed from the body. But if something goes wrong in the body, the old cells don’t die and new cells keep getting produced. This is cancer, and the body cannot function as it should. This can happen in any part of the body and the cancer is named based on the part of the body it occurs in. Cancer can also occur in the blood cells in addition to other solid parts of the body. The lumps of these over-produced cells are called tumors. Some types of cancers are also hereditary. (What is cancer and understanding your diagnosis)

If this tumor does not spread to other parts of the body, they are called benign (not cancer), and if they do spread, then they are called malignant (cancer). The stages of cancer imply the size of the tumor and how much it has spread to other parts of the body. But how does it spread? Few cancer cells can break away from the tumor and travel to other parts of the body via the bloodstream. Although most of these escaped cells are killed before they start growing, sometimes one or two of them settle in a new area and start growing. This process of spreading cancer cells to other parts is called metastasis. Recognizing signs and symptoms, followed by proper tests and diagnosis by a doctor is extremely crucial for the early detection of cancer (Signs and symptoms, tests and diagnosis, early detection of cancer – guidelines)

As per scientific and medical research until now, the treatment of cancer focuses on curbing the over-production of those cells and the destruction of cancer cells. There are many ways in which this is done. If the tumor is large, then the first option that doctors employ is usually surgery. They would surgically remove the big lump and then employ other methods to clean the remaining cells off the body. Surgery can also be used to take out a small piece of tissue from the lump and test it to find out what type of cancer it is, or do other lab tests on it. This is called a biopsy. Now come the other treatment types into the picture. Chemotherapy or “Chemo” is the most common type of treatment used. It refers to the use of drugs that kill the tumor cells. Not all drugs work in the same way, but they are intended to perform the function of eliminating tumors, stopping the growth of cancer cells, and easing the symptoms caused by cancer. The fine lines of determining: –

1. Which drugs to use (Can be one drug, or a combination of drugs)
2. How to put it into the body (From the mouth – oral, using a cream or gel – topical, through the veins – intravenous, through arteries – intra-arterial, through the spine – intrathecal, through the muscle – intramuscular, and so on. Ask if you are not clear.)
3. The schedule of doing that, and
4. How much to use for every sitting

are determined by the doctor for each case and can be changed depending on the progress and results of the patient (How chemotherapy drugs work).

Radiation Therapy is another common type of therapy used for cancer treatment. This can be used alone or in combination with other forms of treatment. In this therapy, high-energy particles are aimed at affected regions from outside the body. These travel inside and break the DNA in the cancer cells, which kills the cancer cells. Of course, these high-energy particles are very likely to affect the nearby cells as well, but they are quick to recover and work the way they should. While chemotherapy affects the whole body (depending on the type of drug used), radiation therapy is local to the chosen region of treatment. So, what types of particles are chosen to be radiated into the body? There are many types of radiation beam options available like X-Rays, gamma rays, proton beams, electron beams, and so on, and the particle beam is chosen depending on the availability in the treatment center and the requirement of the patient. The most common ones are X-Rays and Gamma rays (Getting External Beam Radiation Therapy). Doctors can also place a radioactive source near the tumor inside the body surgically or prescribe radioactive drugs orally or through the veins (How radiation therapy is used to treat cancer). It goes without saying that special and specific precautions are to be taken for Radiation Therapy.

GPS (Global Positioning System): How do they track us?

Global Positioning System or commonly called GPS is a navigation system that helps us determine any location in the world. But I have seen many critical and trivial questions like – “How does it track us?”, “Is GPS and Google Maps the same thing?”, “Does GPS work through the internet?”, “Do I need to install GPS to use it?”, and so on. I feel it is important to know about the technology you are using so that you can use it in case of emergencies.

The shortest explanation would be: “GPS is a satellite-based navigation system owned by the United States government and it is run by the United States Space Force, which is a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. It involves receiving radio signals on the ground from at least four GPS satellites and calculating its position in three dimensions.” I will break down this basic principle to explain what happens behind the scene, which will answer most of the basic questions you may have about it. GPS is a system that is made and controlled by the U.S. Space Force, which comes under the U.S. Government of course. They made special satellites having onboard atomic clocks that are able to send signals at a particular range of frequencies (radio, frequency 300 GHz and below) about their status, position, time, etc. At least four of these satellites interact with each other to calculate the time difference between them to know their positions. These radio signals travel at the speed of light to our devices from these satellites. Finally, our device uses the time information from at least four of these satellites to calculate its position on the Earth. Why do I keep mentioning “at least four satellites”? This is because the network of these satellites is made such that there are at least four satellites above our heads at all times. And our position is determined at the intersection of their individual sphere of coverage. Something like this:

But since there are only 31 satellites orbiting the Earth as part of this GPS network, there is bound to be some delay in synchronization between the satellites and our devices. This delay comes due to Time Dilation, which literally means the difference in time. And this time dilation is affected by several other factors like atmosphere, gravity, relativity, etc. So, the calculation of position is done keeping this time lag in the calculation. If anybody is interested in the physics of this, please read this (How time dilation and GPS are related).
So, from this explanation, we can understand that we are able to track ourselves using this system, Google Maps uses the GPS system to provide our location on the map, GPS is made into a device because it has its internal clock and can receive radio signals, and GPS has no relation to the internet because it uses radio signals. GPS is only one network of satellites. Several countries now have their own network of satellites to do the same work due to legal and other issues with using a U.S.-based system. For example, China has the BeiDou Navigation System, Russia has the GLONASS System, the EU has the Galileo Navigation System, India has NavIC System, and Japan has the QZSS System. Japan’s QZSS enhances the GPS accuracy over Asia-Oceania at the moment but is scheduled to go independent in 2023.

Light and vision: Are we seeing light or using light to see things?

We can see everything around us when we have light, but we can’t see light itself. Or can we? You might say that we can look into a torch (don’t do it for real; it will damage your eyes) and see only light. But it is not true. It is just an extremely bright light blinding you to the point of not being able to see clearly. If we reduce the intensity of the light, what would we see? The insides of the torch. But then, one might argue that we can indeed look at other “colored” lights or even white light for that matter. But we are able to see the brightness and not the light itself. It is true that our eyes detect the light photons that bounce off objects that tell us what lies in front of us. From this perspective, we are “looking at” light and not the object. Let’s break this down and understand what we are seeing.

Light is basically photons. And when photons hit objects and go into our eyes, they hit the retina. The special cells in the retina called cones and rods detect the colors by reacting to wavelength. The photoreceptor cells convert these photons into electrical signals and send them to our brains using the optic nerve. Our brain then paints an image for us using the information. If we go by this logic, then we are only seeing photons and not objects, which is true from this perspective. But just like we saw gravity from a larger perspective to understand relativity, we should broaden our view to see the bigger picture. Consider a scenario to understand the phenomenon. You have a box of chocolates. But you can only use your sense of taste to count the number of chocolates in the box. So, someone starts feeding them to you. As you eat the chocolates one by one, you count them in your head. Finally, you say that there are 20 chocolates. That was true, but before you ate them all because there are none in the box right now.

By the same analogy, in order to “see” something, we must know where it is at that moment. If we can see a book, it means that the book is there in front of us and we can point to it. But when the photons hit our eye, they are basically gone because the light that falls into our eyes is a stream of photons. New photons keep coming and the older ones are constantly converted into electrical energy in our retina. So, if your eyes have detected one photon (or light), that particular photon no longer exists. Hence, we can conclude that we use light to perceive things around us visually, but we cannot perceive light itself. Rather, we detect light constantly.

Can you now try to explain using this logic how we are able to see the moon? (HINT: The moon is illuminated by light from the sun)

Viruses aren’t really alive?

There are so many types of microorganisms around, on, and inside us. But we don’t really differentiate between them. However, it is important to do that so that we know what is wrong with us health-wise when the wrong kind of microorganisms strike, so that we can possibly use the right kind of microorganisms to strike back at them. There are several kinds of them like bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and so on. But of the whole lot, viruses are completely different. While we generally assume microorganisms to be living things, viruses are not exactly “alive”. They are actually just a piece of information that can be passed on. A bacteria, for example, is a living thing that has a body, mind, etc. just like any other living thing has a system. But a virus is a set of instructions and can enter human cells, bacteria cells, animal cells. or just any cell. So, even bacteria can be affected by viruses! Weird, but true. So, the virus is just like a computer virus – a file having a set of instructions – that enters the computer and tells the files to corrupt themselves. It is essentially just DNA or RNA wearing a protein coat.

This is the reason why we can’t exactly “kill” viruses since it is not really “alive” in the first place. If a living body is affected by a virus, all we can do is force the cells to forget the information from the virus or kill the ones that know them so that the information passing stops at that point. This is precisely what vaccinations and antivirals do. Vaccinations are a form or component of the actual virus in a highly weakened form that are introduced in the body, prompting our body to see that a wrong kind of information is being passed through the body and has to be stopped. Our body then trains some antibodies to kill any cells having that kind of information, so when the body is faced with that virus at any point in life, it can invoke those already trained antibodies to kill the cells. In case of antivirals, it is a slightly altered version of the virus that just disrupts the viral information being passed on and stops the replication of the wrong information. Major and common examples for such vaccinations are the polio or rabies vaccines. As the world is developing further, we are trying to find vaccinations for other such virus induced cell corruptions like cancer, HIV, etc.

There can be three types of end results to the virus: (1) People can get immune to it over millions of years and the virus just fades out. It just means that it no longer affects us. (2) The species that it affects can die out so the virus is no longer able to spread and hence just ends. This situation may have occurred in the history of the planet, as we don’t even know all of the viruses that affected animals during the ice age, for example. (3) The last option is that the virus becomes so common that it does corrupt cells, but it is not enough for the host to die. And the host recovers, the virus just becomes dormant for a while, and we go about our lives until the virus strikes again with the same mild illness. Just like common cold.

So, listen to the doctor when he suggests different treatments for two people who both seem to have a similar looking infection. If you try to kill the symptoms of a bacterial infection, you can never kill the bacteria and you will keep getting sicker. And you never treat viral infections with antibiotics because there is nothing to actually kill. Keep this science in mind the next time you are trying to understand the doctor’s advice. Stay happy and healthy!

The science of debit and credit cards

We all have debit cards, credit cards, or both. We insert, tap, or swipe them to pay at stores or at ATMs. But the science of how cards work is important so that we know where to use which card, how to keep them, and how to keep them safe. We will consider the example of paying at stores for reference. When we pay at stores, we usually insert or swipe the card on the machine, enter the pin and the transaction is complete. We all assume to an extent that the chip on the card holds all the information and transmits the information to the card. That is partial information and having only partial information can be more dangerous than wrong information. Not all cards have chips. Chip cards are a newer type of bank card. Do you remember everyone used to swipe their cards? This is because earlier, magnetic stripe cards were used. As the name suggests, those cards had a magnetic stripe. Once chip cards started to be used, the insert or tap option became available. So, the chip or the magnetic stripe will transmit information depending on whether we swipe it or insert it. Magnetic stripes work in the same way as audiotapes or harddisk. The process is called magnetic storage. We know that all data is stored in bits of 1 and 0. Whatever information we have can be written in several languages like English, Hindi, German, French, and so on. “Hello” in German is written as “Hallo”. In the same way, binary is a language having The Alphabet of 0 and 1. So, in binary, “Hello” is written as “01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111”. Just like that, any information or data can be expressed in these bits. These bits are converted into a magnetic field, which is fairly easy as there are only two types of bits being converted into magnetism. This magnetic field is loaded onto the magnetic stripes, which are on the credit or debit cards. Since it is fairly easy to magnetize a stripe, it is also easy to demagnetize it. If you remember, we were warned not to keep our bank cards, phones, etc. near computers or other strong magnetic sources. The reason is simply that our data could get demagnetized and hence, erased. But nowadays, we have chip-and-pin-based cards because it is easy to read magnetic stripes while swiping, and data breaches were becoming very common because no PIN was required. So, now we have chip-and-pin cards, which we insert into the card machine, enter a security PIN, and the transaction is confirmed. In this system, our data is stored on a chip instead of just the magnetic stripe. The advantage, in this case, is that a chip doesn’t only store data, it also acts as a small computer. So, it is able to protect our data using encryption. It doesn’t have a power source by itself but activates when it comes in contact with a reader, and only sends and receives data by encryption. Hence, it is 1000 times safer than magnetic stripe-based cards.

But why is it important to know all this? All this information is important to protect ourselves from identity theft. Wherever possible, pay by inserting your card or tapping to pay. Avoid using swiping machines and ask for alternate methods, if available. And most importantly, when you dispose of your old debit and credit cards, make sure you cut through the chip as well as the black magnetic stripe on the back.
This is just one type of payment. A lot of payments these days happen online, and a lot of thefts happen there. Keep in mind that hackers are making false websites that mimic real websites to steal your information. A few tips to keep in mind before making online payments:
— Check the website you are paying on. It should have a security certificate and the URL (link) starts with HTTPS. This indicates a secure connection.
— Don’t pay on public or unknown wifi networks.
— Don’t use public computers to make payments.
— Use a strong and complex password or PIN.
In addition, read everything before you proceed, keep your receipts, and compare them with your passbook to keep track of all transactions. Inform the bank as soon as possible if you see discrepancies.

Magnetic stripe on a payment card (Image credit: Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chip on a payment card (Image credit: RRZEicons, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why is Polio resurfacing after having been almost eradicated?

For people around and over the age of 60, the memory of polio and its consequences might be in memory. But for a lot of us falling in the younger category, it might be easier to ask “Why do I need the polio vaccine?”. Polio is basically a life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus, which affects a person’s spinal cord, and can cause paralysis at its extreme. Vaccination drives against polio have brought it under control and helped in eradicating polio from most parts of the world, and the fight is still on. Two types of vaccinations are used against polio – one is the inactivated poliovirus injected by a trained healthcare professional (four shots), and the other is an attenuated or weakened poliovirus given by oral route. Since an inactive or weakened virus is used, the body quickly reacts and produces antibodies to fight the disease. Now that the body is able to identify the poliovirus, it knows how to produce the correct antibodies if it encounters the poliovirus again. In fact, this is how most vaccinations work. While it has been largely under control, there are still some regions in the world that are trying to eradicate polio. However, we are seeing cases of wild poliovirus in recent times in regions of the US, UK, and Israel, where polio was already eradicated. This is happening due to unvaccinated individuals. The only way to keep a virus out of circulation is by continuing vaccinations until the chain is broken, which is what happened with smallpox. But we are still far from eradicating polio yet, and we must continue the chain of vaccinations for more generations before considering ourselves safe from poliovirus. Since the cases of wild poliovirus are few, it is easy for the new generations to ask whether we still need the vaccination. The answer is that yes we do. Please check your vaccination records and keep yourselves updated. Just because we haven’t seen the severity of a disease, it doesn’t mean we should lose our vigil. Outbreaks can occur at any time if the virus still exists in nature. So, the alert is not just for polio, but for any virus that is still existing in nature. Viruses are not living things that can be killed (Read in short about how viruses work). They can only be eradicated by breaking the chain of transmission, and outbreaks are just one infected traveler away.

Radiocarbon dating: How do we know how old is something?

We keep reading about finding ancient artifacts and scientists somehow find out their age. Also, we know how old the Earth, Sun, other planets, the moons, etc. are, but how? The technique called Radiocarbon dating is used for this. Everything is made up of atoms. This is common knowledge. But atoms of what? Carbon majorly! Carbon forms the basis of everything. There can be stable or unstable forms of any element depending on the number of electrons, protons, and neutrons they have. So, in the case of carbon, the most stable form of carbon that everyone and everything has is called Carbon 12, or C12. However, in addition, there is another form of carbon called Carbon 14, or C14, that exists at the same time. There are all kinds of rays and energies hitting us from the universe including cosmic rays. When these cosmic rays hit a form of nitrogen called Nitrogen 14, they get converted into Carbon 14. C14 reacts with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide, which is absorbed by plants. All other living beings when they eat plants and non-living things made of plants get this C14 now. C14, however, is not as stable and decays over the years because it is radioactive. So, say over thousands of years, the concentration of C12 remains the same, but the concentration of C14 reduces. And by finding out the ratio between the two, we can estimate the age of that artifact.

Carbon 14, as I said, is radioactive. But it is very weak and its radiation doesn’t even penetrate the skin cells. These Carbon 14 atoms work for dating anything which is up to 60, 000 years old. Anything older than that (for example, dinosaur fossils) will need a more unstable element that decays over an even longer period. Some of these elements are:

Here we see a term called half-life. It is a pretty commonly heard term as well. To understand this, let’s say I gave you 12 apples and you give me half of it. Now you have 6 apples. Next, you give me half of your remaining apples, so you are left with 3. Then, you again give me half of the remaining apples, so you are left with 1.5 apples. So, you see that in this manner, we can keep halving the number of apples and this process can go on for a long time. The same thing happens with the quantity of C14. Let’s say we are measuring the age of an animal we found that has started to fossilize. It would have had a certain amount of C14 in its body when it died. At some point of time during decay, its body will have half the amount it started with. This is the first half-life. At some point, the C14 quantity will be half of this remaining quantity. This is the second half-life and a quarter of the original quantity. Again at some point, there will be half of this remaining quantity, which is called the third half-life. Likewise, it keeps going like this for several years. And for other materials given in the table above, this half-life is achieved over billions of years and hence, they can be used to find the age of billion-year-old fossils, planets, moons, the Sun, etc.

Surgery basics: Laparoscopic vs open

When someone requires surgery, there are a number of options available to them. While your surgeon is in the best position to decide what works best for you, it is important to understand the meaning of the options provided to you. This knowledge will help you understand the doctor’s instructions during your recovery, which is very important. The two most common methods of surgery adopted in the world are open surgery and laparoscopic surgery. When we get to know from the doctor that surgery is required, we often skip the main question of what the surgery will be, and how would the post-operative care proceed. Open surgery is the most conventional style of surgery, where the surgeon makes a large incision of up to 10 inches in order to fully access the organ or the wound to be treated. In this, a surgeon can cut through tissues, replace organs, join two structures, and basically do everything. But the downside is that the wounds of this surgery take a long time to heal and post-operative care is extremely critical.

Laparoscopic surgery, on the other hand, is a type of minimally invasive surgery. This means that the amount of invasion of medical equipment into the body is minimal. The patient will be put under anesthesia and the surgeon will make several small incisions of less than one centimeter or quarter of an inch, and insert long and narrow instruments having a camera on its head. In this way, the surgeon is able to look inside our body on the monitor and complete the surgery without having to open up the body. This method ensures minimal blood loss and damage to other parts of the body not involved in surgery like the skin, muscles, and tissues. Also, since the incisions are so small, there is minimal pain, recovery is very fast, and post-operative care is easy. Having said this, it is not possible at this stage to do away with open surgery and switch completely to laparoscopic surgery. This is because open surgery is still required in cases of organ transplant, or when the patient cannot be given anesthesia of any kind due to age, or due to heart, kidney, or other chronic problems.

In fact, a laser can also be used during laparoscopic surgery to join structures or tissues together or to repair organs. This type of surgery is called a laser laparoscopy. With so many options available, it can be difficult to figure out the best option. But if you go to the doctor with a basic idea of what each of these types of surgery means, you can make informed discussions with your doctor and understand your body’s requirements.

Laparoscopic surgery for kidney cancer. Credit: Cancer Research UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Memory and aging: How does the brain age?

Aging is the reality of life, which nobody can change. As our bodies age and deteriorate gradually, our brain does too because it is part of the body. Just like our body undergoes changes in its structure with aging (like shrinking bones, loosening skin, graying hair, longer healing after getting wounded, etc.), our brain structure also undergoes changes that start affecting our behavior, functioning, and memory. If we understand how our brain is structured and memory is created and accessed, we may be able to work on memory retention with age, and that might make our old age slightly easier.

The overall process is similar to keeping your things in storage compartments and retrieving memories is finding your way to the right storage compartment. But the important part is to know how those compartments are allocated so that we can retrieve any information without many issues during old age. The first step is to understand that memory is not a physical thing that is stored somewhere. It is a specific chemical microscopic chemical change and doesn’t physically exist like mass. From memory creation to remembering things, it’s a three-step process – encoding, storage, and retrieval. The first step is encoding, which involves taking information using our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and other non-basic senses like the sense of space, etc.). The signals from these senses are transported as experiences to an area of the brain called the Hippocampus. This part of the brain decides whether this experience is worth remembering. It is then encoded and transferred as electrical pulses by neurons. These neurons forge links between memories, which are called synapses. The brain is capable of forming more than 100 trillion such synapses or links between memories!

These memories are then stored in short-term memory, where it stays for about 20 to 30 seconds. Then it goes into the conscious long-term memory if it is worth remembering. And if it is something like a procedure of life like driving, tying shoelaces, walking, etc., then it is embedded into unconscious memory after repeated usage. This kind of unconscious memory is slow to acquire because it requires repetition, but once it is there, it is far more resilient to changes or losses. However, other memories like events, recognition, facts, names, dates, etc. are encoded into the conscious memory. If any such conscious memory is repeated or revisited several times, it becomes part of unconscious memory (for example, it can happen to teachers who teach specific classes for several years). It was easy up until now, but memory retrieval is where the brain starts deteriorating with age or other medical conditions. Specifically, due to age, the number of synapses starts reducing gradually. This essentially means that links between memories are lost and our brain is not able to recall something simply because the link is lost. In fact, just like our body loses mass with age, our brain does too. And it has been studied that the weight of the brain reduces with age, and it is at its maximum between ages 20 to 30.

So, what’s the solution? Enhancing the unconscious memory is the best way to keep your sanity intact. Transfer information as much as possible into your unconscious memory by repeated usage of conscious knowledge. For example, the repeated chanting of Sanskrit Mantras and Shlokas is part of this process, which is why it is important to understand what we chant so that we can keep up with ourselves even during old age when the synapses are lost and we cannot make conscious connections any more.