Metals and Stars

This is the International Year of Astronomy. Some of the earliest discoveries of humankind revolve around metallurgy and astronomy. In fact the seven metals of antiquity are all closely identified with the heavenly bodies. Thus the sun is linked to gold and silver is associated with the moon. As the meteorites rained down from the sky, metallurgy was known as Siderurgy ( literally of the stars ) in many languages. It was a pleasure to read the review of as fascinating book by Richard Holmes. It expands our view of uses of metals in the distant past!

From Books and Arts
Nature 457, 31-32 (1 January 2009) | doi:10.1038/457031b; Published online 31 December 2008

Year of astronomy: Voyaging to discovery, alone
David Bodanis1

-The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes

HarperPress/Pantheon: 2008/2009. 380 pp/576 pp. £25/$40

Everyone knows how to be a great scientist. First, you have to be really smart. Having awed your school science teacher is good. Humbling all the others at university is even better. Then you need to find a place where you can let your solitary genius come out. You might escape to a coffee shop to think; or if your parents are really rich, to a trendy loft apartment or, better still, a remote and windswept cottage. There you will engage in the next and most crucial of stages: the creative torture.

There is an art to this. It is important your torment doesn’t end too quickly — otherwise you’d show you had been working on a problem that was too simple. Yet if the torment never ends, you’ll have nothing to tell anyone about and will remain unknown. After some time, ideally a few months, you get to have a ‘eureka moment’. At that point all you have to do is write up your discovery, accept the plaudits, be it from department colleagues or the Swedish Academy, and then if you can bear it, repeat from the start.

We smile at this recap but the basic vision — science as an endeavour of individual creative genius that explodes in an instant of discovery — is one we take for granted. Yet, as Richard Holmes describes in his new book The Age of Wonder, it was not always so. Most founders of modern science in the 1600s, such as Isaac Newton, rarely saw their work this way. For them the process was clinical, building on a slow accumulation of insight.

The big shift took place in the decades around 1800, a period called the Romantic era. The pursuit of progress by thinkers and artists became more a wait for a divine spark of inspiration than the steady toil of uncovering that had been accepted by their predecessors. And any means by which that spark could be nurtured was embraced.

To guide readers through the science and culture of this period, Holmes masterfully dips in and out of the life of Joseph Banks. He is an inspired choice. As a curly haired 26-year-old, Banks was aboard HM Bark Endeavour on the momentous day in April 1769 when it first glided into sight of Tahiti. Ostensibly Banks was just the expedition’s plant collector, but he soon became more fascinated by the island’s human inhabitants.

For most of the British crew — young men who had been away from female company for long months — the explorations in Tahiti were of one sort only, with the initial going rate being one ship’s nail for one sexual encounter. That rate soon changed — as Holmes describes with gentle skill, the Tahitians were quick to grasp the workings of the market economy, and had a keen eye for the other useful metal objects aboard the ship. Hyperinflation set in, and at one point “there was a crisis when one of the Endeavour’s crew stole a hundredweight bag of nails, and refused to reveal its whereabouts even after a flogging”.

Banks looked further. He took up Tahitian mistresses too, but systematically recorded the local language, studied their religious systems, and even hinted at the true functional significance of native actions that, at first, seemed to be merely bizarre. Within a few months he had helped set the stage for the modern science of anthropology.

Back in London, Banks’s insights, energy and inherited wealth eventually led to him becoming president of the Royal Society. From his headquarters, as Holmes gracefully phrases it, “his gaze swept steadily round the globe like some vast, enquiring lighthouse beam”. His own days of direct discovery were over, but couldn’t other like-minded individuals be encouraged to carry on such wondrous, intense investigations?

One of the young men Banks chose to support was Humphry Davy: friend of the Romantic poets, and — in his quick, intense creation of a safe coal-miner’s lamp in response to underground disasters — a man who made himself into a perfect exemplar of the new, Romantic style of discovery. Davy hurried to the mines, spent intense weeks with the miners and then took himself off to an isolated lab where, using his unique genius, he cracked the problem.

Another of Banks’s protégés was William Herschel, the immigrant Hanoverian astronomer. Herschel is most famous now for having measured the orbit of Uranus and establishing this body as a planet, which almost became known as planet George to honour King George III. But Herschel also worked out the shape of the Milky Way and the Sun’s off-centre position in it, and he discovered infrared radiation.

Although his work relied on the dull accumulation of observational facts, it was the role of sudden insight and genius that Herschel and others emphasized in their written accounts. In Herschel’s case, it was true to his character: he had risen in society by transforming his own life and moving to England. Wouldn’t he imagine there were fresh realms — new planets, stars beyond our Solar System, light beyond the visible spectrum — to uncover in nature as well?

Our notion of earlier scientists, including Newton, was rewritten to fit this Romantic view. The young poet William Wordsworth, for example, had famously devalued science with his harsh line that when we probe the mechanism of a natural process, “we murder to dissect”. But decades later, as the work of Banks and his protégés became better known, Wordsworth shifted to admire science, seeing Newton as the archetypal Romantic hero: “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

Over time, the simplest Romantic imagery slid away. Few of the hundreds of physicists working today at CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, must view themselves as voyaging anywhere alone. But the Romantic era left great legacies. Newton’s static Universe was gone, and Herschel’s dynamic one — in which stars evolved and the heavens were ever-changing — was in its place. This mutable view was useful for the next notable young man, one Charles Darwin, when he was ready to embark on his own voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle in 1831. And even among today’s doctoral candidates at CERN, who doesn’t hope that maybe, with enough concentration, something very special and very unique could still burst out?

1.David Bodanis is a writer based in London, and author of Electric Universe. His forthcoming book is on the Ten Commandments.

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In her NYTimes article, Natalie Angier has several quotes from Rob Ritchie of UC-Berkeley on the mechanical behaviour of bones (check out his recent publications):

… [H]ealthy bone is disciplined bone, with a structure enviably organized at every scale yet probed, from the caliper calibrations of femurs and phalanges down to the nano dimensions of bone’s constituent atoms. “It’s all in the architecture,” said Robert O. Ritchie, a professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies bone.

Bone is built of two basic components: flexible fibers of collagen and brittle chains of the calcium-rich mineral hydroxyapatite. But those relatively simple ingredients, the springy and the salty, are woven together into such a complex cat’s cradle of interdigitating layers that the result is an engineering masterpiece of tensile, compressive and elastic strength. “We only wish we could mimic it,” Dr. Ritchie said.


Behind the dissolution of bone with age is a system designed for the itinerant years of youth. The skeleton is a multipurpose organ, offering a ready source of calcium for an array of biochemical tasks, and housing the marrow where blood cells are born. Yet above all the skeleton allows us to locomote, which means it gets banged up and kicked around. Paradoxically, it copes with the abuse and resists breaking apart in a major way by microcracking constantly. “Bone microcracks, that’s what it does,” Dr. Ritchie said. “That’s how stresses are relieved.”

* * *

Image courtesy: Prof. Ritchie’s home page.

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Nuclear tests without nukes

An interesting pieces of an article about fusion power that is about to be demonstrated at National ignition facility in the year 2010.  For full article go here

……Next year, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California hope to tick that box off Gould’s list. Despite his foresight, Gould could not have imagined the lengths to which scientists and engineers would have to go to bring his prediction to reality. LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), which was officially completed last month, is a laser on a truly epic scale. The building housing it is 10 stories high and covers an area the size of three football fields; for a very brief instant, its beams deliver a power of 500 terawatts, more than the power-generating capacity of the entire United States.

If all goes according to plan, some time in 2010 the power of those beams will be directed at a small beryllium sphere filled with hydrogen isotopes. The resulting implosion will crush the hydrogen to a temperature and pressure higher than in the core of the sun. If NIF’s scientists get everything right, the hydrogen isotopes will do what they do in the sun: fuse together into helium nuclei and release a huge store of energy. NIF’s principal aim is to reach “ignition”: a self-sustaining fusion burn that gives off more energy than was put in to make it happen–something that so far has occurred only in nuclear explosions and stars……

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Many Ramayanas: The (hi) story of IISc

This is draft blog. I hope to refine it as I go along. I wil also add a narrative of the origins of the Department of Metallurgy and the National Institute of Advanced Studies
S Ranganathan

Many Ramayanas:
In Pursuit of the History of the Tata Institute at Bangalore

Myths travel through time and space and acquire many dimensions in multiple versions. In writing about the classic epic Ramayana, A K Ramanujan talks about three hundred Ramayanas. The version that is most appealing is the appeal of Rama to Sita not to follow him into the forest and her challenge to him to show one Ramayana, where Sita had not accompanied Rama to the forest. This vignette glitters with self similar, fractal character and shines like Indra’s pearls.

In reading the lively exchange in Current Science between B V Subarayappa and P Balaram about the early years of the Indian Institute of Science and their different perspectives on the role of Burjorji Padshah, one felt that even recent history can take on mythical proportions and multiple perspectives. Now Ramachandra Guha, an eminent historian, has waded in giving centre stage to Swami Vivekananda as having inspired J N Tata in founding the institute. This romatic idea is again vigorously contested by B V Subbarayappa.

This article is dedicated to Burjorji Padsha, who lurked among the shadows for over a hundered years to emerge along side J N Tata as a key figure leading to the foundation of IISc. In following this trail of Padshah through the Archives at the University College London, one is fascinated by the material that is available.

By all accounts Padshah was a remarkable personality. He may be enormously admired or violently disliked but can not be ignored. To an extraordinary degree he stuck to his views on what the Institute should be and did not mind crossing swords with Lord Curzon, Sir William Ramsay or Prof Morris Travers. In Ramsay’s words, Padshah was a theosophist, an anchorite , anti-thamaturgist and an admirable Crichton in the Indian Model. This gives valuable insight into their interaction. Crichton is a character from J M Barrie’s play. He comes from a poor background but outshines his master and lady. Ramsay had come to deal with the majestic industrialist J N Tata. Instead he was requested to deal with his secretary Padshah, who introduced himself as the servant to Ramsay and Lady Ramsay. In her diary Lady Ramsay remarks that ‘he was no servant but our master’ and decided to keep a safe distance. Even worse was the plight of Travers. Having been appointed as director of IISc at the age of 35, he had come to usher in science and technology to India from the rarefied atmosphere of the west. But Padshah had completely different ideas. He pleaded for Departments of history, philosophy, economics and archaeology! Travers fought valiantly and requested the intervention of Dorab and Ratan Tata. Both told him that he had to deal with Padshah, as he alone was privy to the details of the vision of J N Tata. In fact even though Tata wanted a Research Institute, it is Padshan who spent eighteen months travelling overseas and prepared the roadmap.

In desperation Travers wondered whether Padshah was a blood relation of the Tatas. There is a poignancy to his query. While the whole world knows about J N Tata and his two sons, it is not so well known that there was Dhunbai , a daughter between the two sons. She was betrothed to be married to Padshah , as he was the son of a close friend of J N Tata. Tragically she passed away at the tender age of ten. This tragedy bound Padshah and family close together. When Tata divided his property three ways between his two sons and IISc, was he thinking of the third child?

Padshah was a keen student of history. He may be pleased that it has found its place, as the Director of IISc is an avid student of history and more particularly that of the Institute over which he presides. He has brought out the role of Padshah in the foundation of IISc. In future articles we will explore that this was not a chance event but a presdestined one. In fact he is responsible for realizing the two other dreams of J N Tata, namely a steel mill and a hydroelectric plant. In the form of Vulcan and Jove and the miniature building all three are held aloft by J N Tata. But this is as much a monument to Padshah in turning those dreams of the visionary into reality.

It is also evident that the process of starting this higher educational institution started as a vision of an Imperial University gradually transforming into an Indian Institute of Science. Ramsay and Travers succeeded in frustrating the idea of Padshah of a University covering all subjects. The first three directors were all from Britain , the Patrons of IISc till independence were the Viceroys and the Chairmen of the council were the Residents of Mysore- a representative of the British crown at the Mysore Durbar. The first Indian facuty appointment was not till two decades after the foundation. True Indian identity came only when C V Raman was appointed as the first Indian Director of IISc. Even though the nationalist impulse of Tata led to the Institute, he was too influenced by Lord Reay’s convocation address in 1889:” It is only by the combined efforts of the wisest men in England, of the wisest men in India, that we can hope to establish in this old home of learning, real universities which will give a fresh impulse to learning, to research, to criticism, which will inspire reverence and impart strength and self reliance to future generations of our and your countrymen’. This speech led to the gleam in the eye of J N Tata, when he resolved to establish an Institute in India

S Ranganathan, School of Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies , Bangalore

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A phase transition called traffic jam

… this is actually a pretty familiar scenario for particle physicists, who are used to studying phase transitions, such as the transformation of liquid water into solid ice. In this case, the critical threshold is temperature, which triggers clusters of molecules to slow down and form a crystal lattice, which then spreads to nearby molecules. A traffic jam is simply a solid made of idling cars.

From an interesting post by Jonah Lehrer, here. Particle physicists — that killed me, though 😉

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Indus Script Deciphered

There are many unsolved problems in life. I am not referring to my wife balancing the home budget. Among the more serious ones are the decipherment of the Indus script. Were the symbols in Moghenjadaro
a product of an illiterate society and just an assemblage of pictograms drawn by our whimsical ancestors? Now a multidisciplinary group of Indian scholars advance proof that it is indeed a language. They have used linguistic entropy to prove that the symbols represent some kind of ordering and inded represent a language.I am pleased that Prof Mayank Vahia , one of the authors , collaborates with Sharada Srinivasan and myself by giving us a project on ancient Indian metallurgy

More details can be found at

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On computers and their use

The metallurgists should stop doing now what the computers can do. The metallurgists should concern themselves with applying the thermodynamic principles to phase equilibria, but they should rely on computers in carrying out the mathematics. This will reduce considerably the amount of time that an individual metallurgist has to spend in order to acquire a working knowledge in this field. It will also reduce the length of scientific papers and the time necessary for reading and understanding such papers. It may also simplify the teaching. As an example, the much used Gibbs-Duhem relation is not really thermodynamics but rather a rule of calculation. I doubt that it is meaningful to emphasize the Gibbs-Duhem relation in teaching metallurgy once the computer technique is available. In fact, I seriously doubt that the Gibbs-Duhem relation will find much use even in the computer programs.

— Mats Hillert in 1970 (Chapter 5. Calculation of Phase Equilibria, Phase Transformations, American Society for Metals, Ohio).

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