Friday, November 1, 2013

Two cups and a freezer

When I started this blog, I had grand plans of churning out pieces which would really make people sit up and take notice. Turns out that I only posted four in October, the last one was on the 10th and that too was a [Google] translated version of my original in English. So, I only did three in October. Hopefully, November will be better, then again.

So, what's with the title of this post ? Well, it has to do with the Mpemba Effect. No, that's not a misspelling. It's an African name. Mpemba, the exact pronunciation is tricky even for me with a year in South Africa, but the way I pronounce it, and Africans approve is Ma-pemba. Don't draw out the a after the M.

Semantics out of the way, the reason it's named after an African is because it was discovered by an African, in Africa. A Tanzanian schoolboy to be exact, way back in the 60s. And he did it only with two cups and a freezer. Simply put, the effect says that hot water freezes faster than cold water. Don't believe it ? Mpemba's teachers didn't believe it too and said he was making things up. His friends probably made fun of him, the only guy who took him seriously and was good enough to apportion credit where it was due was a British Physicist, Dr. Denis G. Osborne. The good doctor promised to verify Mpemba's observations, did so and published a joint paper with Mpemba documenting a fact which was noted by Aristotles.

So if it was known since the Ancient Greeks, why name it after Mpemba ?

That's the way Science and Maths work. You come up with something, write a book or a paper to let the world know, the world ( scientific world ) takes note and your name is chronicled and added to encyclopedias, wikipedias, textbooks, you get the idea.

There are a lot of things which can be said here but a few stand out. The fact that even though this phenomenon was known since the days of Ancient Greece but was recognized as a paradox of Thermodynamics, if you will, only in the 1960s. And if the team in Singapore is correct then the explanation has finally been found, as recently as October 2013. So, we have a fundamental natural pheomenon which people were aware of, at least anecdotally for more than 2000 years but which challenged conventional wisdom only in the 1960s, it took 50 years to satisfactorily explain the effect and even then the prinicipal charge has been laid on the ubiquitous Hydrogen bonds, forces of attraction, which themselves are not well understood.

This effect, it's name, it's challenge to the conventional understanding of Thermodynamics and it's eventual 'solution'; speaks a lot about our attitude towards a true, scientific investigation and each other.

The fact that it was known for such a long time and yet the great minds who were so concerned about the study of nature were not bothered about it should make us do a rethink on all the anecdotes and old wives tales which we say are not scientific. Who decides what's scientific and what's not ? A journal ? A publication ? Acceptance by the scientific community ? Approval by the powers that be, in other words, the academic powerhouse dominated by the West ?

The fact that it was a Tanzanian schoolboy who stumbled upon this in his own country and that too with so simple things should be a real eye-opener for people who sneer at Africa and Africans for being wild, ignorant and uncivilized. I am not an African, but I have lived for a year in South Africa and made an attempt to know their culture. Guess where the first heart transplant happened and who did it ?

It was in Cape Town and was performed by Dr. Christian Barnard, the city, the doctor, the recipient and the donor, all of them South Africans.

I know, it's not easy to digest for people with the conventional view on all things African.

Yes, Science, Arts, Architecture, Engineering, Culture, all of these things and more are possible in Africa. The 'Dark' Continent is not only our ancestral home, it's also a melting pot of cultures and ideas from which new ideas continue to emerge and will lead the world in the days to come.

Now let's get to the simplicity of it.

Two cups and a freezer. Erasto was taking cookery classes. Think about that, a boy, that too an African boy taking cookery classes. Would you, an American, European, Indian, Chinese or advanced or emerging nationality male, would you ever take a cookery class ? Would you have even thought of taking a cookery class at school ? Would your parents, friends, teachers etc. have allowed you to even think of such a lowly girly thing ?

Yes, that's how the average male thinks about cooking and cookery classes. Good thing that an 'uncivilized, wild, tribal' African boy didn't think so. So now guess whose name will be remembered by history ?

Back again to the simplicity.

Two cups and a freezer.

You may have heard of the Big Bang Machine. The Large Hadron Collider ( LHC ) is the world's largest machine. It has a radius of around 3 kms, think about that. Using this machine, scientists can recreate high energy conditions such as would have existed during the Big Bang. This will allow many fundamental theories of the structure of the universe to be tested and any observations which either do not agree or are not expected by existing theories would spark new work all over the world.

Fascinating stuff, and although I am not a scientist, I hope to visit the LHC someday, take a picture with it. I wanted to be a scientist doing all sorts of cool stuff when I was growing up. I still fool around but it's not even close to what grad students get to do in their labs. But does everything need such huge and expensive stuff ?

I am not grudging the facilities research groups have, nor am I saying that spending billions of dollars on Big Bang machines is wasteful. On the contrary, any form of research, as long as it is proper and scientifically executed should be supported and well funded. Not only does it add to our knowledge and have unexpected practical applications, such research is often an inspiration to many children and young people to dream and to achieve more.

India may still be a Third World, developing nation, but it's space programme, which was putting satellites in orbit even before the country became synonymous with IT was a big inspiration for millions of young Indians.

And yet, there is nothing as simple, as elegant, as beautiful, as profound as the simple itself.

All it took was the fall of an apple for Newton.

All it took was a dream about snakes catching hold of their tails for Kekule.

All it took was taking the wrong way to India for Columbus.

Yes, whether Newton really did see an apple fall or not and even if he did whether it really sparked the idea that led to gravity, may be we will never know. In any case, Newton spent close to two decades in developing calculus which gave a solid grounding to his theory of gravity. Even though Newton's Law of Gravity was shown to be an approximation of Einstien's General Theory of Relativity, the Law still stands and Calculus has applications in all fields of human activity, not just scientific.

The point is that such stories, more so if they are true, inspire every Tom, Dick and Harry that they too can do great things. If nothing else, it at least leads them to regard everyday phenomena in a new light, to not brush off what they see in their dreams lightly. Newton, Einstien, Darwin, Curie, Kekule, they all were common once. Newton would have been a farmer if his uncle had not spoken up for him, Einstien worked out his theories when he was a clerk in a patent office, Kekule trained to be an architect.

I have a theory on why so many Indians are good at IT. It's because it's very easy to get hold of computer hardware and software than it is to get hold of chemicals and apparatus needed to conduct experiments. It's why Mathematics is not considered notoriously difficult in Indian schools. Instead of being demonised, as in American media, Maths is actually considered cool in many parts of India and proficiency in Maths is something to be proud of. The reason is simple, to study Maths, to do Maths, you only need your brain, you only need to think.

It will take some time before the technological and scientific gap closes between the haves and have nots. Unlike wealth, this gap is not made that much of an issue and superiority in this field does not mean that the country or person/s is rich. Again, think of Mpemba.

There's an experiment I often used to do as a child. It involved a battery eliminator. It was essentially a small step down transformer which brought down the mains voltage to a level which could be used to light a torch bulb. I got two cathodes, the graphite rod in the center of a cell, called battery in India. Two wires, with the insulation on them, between where they are stuck into the eliminator and where they are wrapped around, either the cathodes or a cathode and a nail, or a metallic spoon or even the container which would contain the electrolytic solution, if you want to spike the container, make sure that it's on an insulating top and the connection is done outside the solution.

The solution can be water into which any eletrolyte has been added. I invariably used NaCl, Sodium Chloride or common salt. We also had Na2S, Sodium Sulphide, often called Saindhav Namak in India. The salt is needed to speed things up. The anions, if they act on a metallic object will produce spectacular changes. Chloride ions acting on a steel spoon or iron nail will produce a green FeCl2, Ferrous Chloride solution. Sulphide ions will produce a black FeS, Ferrous Sulphide precipitate. If you use the zinc casing of the cells whose cathodes you extracted you will get a white ZnS, Zinc Sulphide precipitate. To get these precipitates, the object being consumed has to be connected to the positive terminal or anode of the eliminator.
While the solution or precipitate is generated, you should see a stream of gas bubbling out from the other electrode. The rate at which this happens depends on the strength of the current, nature of the electrolyte, surface of the electrode among other things. That gas is Hydrogen, the H of H2O. 
I last did such an experiment in my room nearly eight years ago and yet, it seems just like yesterday. The materials are easy to get by and improvisations can always be made. I also played with magnets. I still remember making one magnet bend before another. Tip it's head downwards and it's head bobbed up and down, just like a child nodding with bowed head before it's elder.
I didn't talk a lot about the Mpemba effect, nor about Mpemba himself, nor on what the effect or it's possible explanation implies. All of that are just a Google search away. I wanted to explore an angle which this effect really made me think. The fact that fundamental discoveries, great innovation can come from anywhere, that all it takes is to make honest observations and to keep asking why, just like Mpemba did, he never gave up, no matter how much or how long he was ridiculed.
All of us, irrespective of all the meaningless barriers that we have made among us, should dream, should strive never to discount the achievements and potentials of anyone, to disregard stereotypes.
It is important to dream, both with eyes closed and open but it is even more important to act in your full senses. August Kekule ended it best when he explained the dream which led him to the structure of Benzene.
"Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we shall find the truth... But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by waking understanding."

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