Amit Paranjape’s Blog

The 2014 Nobel Prizes In Sciences

Posted in Current Affairs, Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on October 13, 2014

(I wrote this article in the The News Minute on October 13, 2014. I am reproducing the article here, on my blog).

Nobel Prize (image credit: Wikipedia)

Nobel Prize (image credit: Wikipedia)

The Nobel Prize is considered as the pinnacle of recognition in sciences. They are awarded in three categories: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry. From a common man’s perspective, these science category prizes are often awarded for some esoteric areas of research. Areas of research which are very important and path-breaking, but something that a common man cannot easily relate to. This year though, it was different.

All three prizes were awarded for work that has tremendous practical significance and immediate real world benefits.

The ‘Internal Brain GPS’ system

Have you wondered how some people have an innate sense of ‘direction’? Well turns out, we have some kind of an ‘internal GPS’ system in our brains. Research has identified specific nerve cells: ‘place cells’ and ‘grid cells’, which are located in the hippocampus area of the brain. These cells help in determining our ‘orientation’ and ‘position’ in space, and help in navigation.

For their pioneering work in this area, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to John O´Keefe, and the husband & wife team of May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. It is interesting that O’Keefe’s work on the ‘place cells’ was done in the early 1970s, while the Mosers’ work was done in the last decade.

To quote from the Nobel Prize Press Release, “The discovery of the brain’s positioning system represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how ensembles of specialized cells work together to execute higher cognitive functions. It has opened new avenues for understanding other cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning.”

From ‘Microscopy’ to ‘Nanoscopy’

For over 125 years, the limit of the optical microscope has been set by Abbe’s law , which implies that we cannot magnify objects that are smaller than half the wavelength of light (400 nano-meters). Viruses, cell components, protein molecules are much smaller than this size. Until recently, the only way to ‘look’ at these objects was via electron microscopes. However, unlike optical microscopes, electron microscopes have limitations. One of the biggest ones (as far as micro-biology is concerned) is that they cannot observe ‘living’ cells and interacting molecules.

The pioneering work of the 2014 Nobel laureates in chemistry has helped in working around this optical microscope limit, and opening up the world of ‘nanoscopy’. Two separate principles were awarded, but both have one commonality. They work by using ‘fluorescent’ molecules. Stefan Hall developed the system of ‘STED’ (stimulated emission depletion) microscopy in 2000. Here, two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample can then yield an image that is better than the Abbelimit.

Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working independently of Stefan Hall worked on the ‘single-molecule microscopy’ method. The method tries to turn on the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. The same area is imaged multiple times, and a composite processed image delivers a resolution much better than that dictated by the Abbe’s limit.

The LED Lighting Revolution

I am sure everyone has seen a Blue/White light emitting diode (LED light. These are getting increasingly popular over the past few years. LEDs are revolutionizing lighting and deliver over 90% electricity savings over conventional incandescent lights. They can also last over 100 times longer. Today, close to 25% of world’s electricity consumption is used for lighting. Over the next few years, LED lights have the potential of driving down world’s electricity demands by up to 20%!

Red and Yellow LED lights have been around for over 40 years. To produce white LED, we need to mix the Red and Yellow LED light, with a Blue LED light. Hence the need for a Blue LED light. Theoretically, building a Blue LED seemed straight forward, but practically it took over 30 years to come up with a process to produce a diode that can emit blue light.

Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the early 1990s that produced bright blue light beams from specialized semi-conductors. Over the past 2 decades, further development has driven down the cost of the blue and white LEDs significantly and the prices continue to fall.

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References: Wikipediahttp://www.nobelprize.org/

If you want to understand these research areas better, I would recommend the Nobel Prize website, as well as these terrific podcasts from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/science-talk/

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Driving In Europe – How It’s Different From U.S.

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2009
Autobahn

Autobahn

 There are many more differences than just seeing cars cruise-by at 250 km/hr!

On continental Europe, they drive on the same side of the road as the United States. But the similarities really taper off from there! Recently, I had my first opportunity to drive in Europe, and it was a great experience. In this blog, I will highlight the contrasts between the two systems that are separated by much more than the Atlantic Ocean.

Readers who have extensive driving experience on both sides of the pond are welcome to add their own insights. For readers who haven’t driven in Europe, this article will be (hopefully!) an interesting guide, and an invitation to checkout this experience on your next trip. Note – my experiences are based on driving in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Unless you are lucky enough to get a ‘company car’ in Europe – renting a car might be your best (and only) option. Car renting in Europe is quite expensive. But you can always look for bargains. Like in the U.S., renting a car in a suburb or a small town is significantly cheaper than renting at an Airport or in city center (‘zentrum’ or ‘centrum’ – as they call ‘downtown’). A manual transmission car is much cheaper than an automatic. A US driving license and a credit-card is typically all you need to rent, but many rental companies will also ask for your Passport as an ID Proof.

1. Where are the Pickup Trucks and SUVs?

The first thing you might notice is the near complete absence of pickup trucks! The SUVs are also significantly fewer in number. You will find a lot of station wagons. Clearly, the ‘drive’ towards reducing demand for oil, starts with vehicle ‘size’!

2. Better Driving Discipline – Fewer crazy drivers!

At first impression, the driving discipline definitely feels like it’s a notch higher than that in the U.S. Drivers seem to be more considerate when allowing lane changes, merge-ins, etc. Similarly, the fast lane is strictly used only for passing.

 3. Smaller cars

You feel like the entire class of automobiles got shrunk down by 1 or 2 sizes. The American compact car is a standard in Europe, an American medium sized car is a large car, and so on. Some of the cars are outright tiny – and smaller in size than the recently launched ‘Tata Nano’. On a related note (and quite interestingly, I may add..) – Toyota Prius was more common on European Roads than other iconic Toyota cars.

4. Better maintained cars

In general the cars seemed better maintained than in the US. Not sure if this is driven by necessity (wintery weather conditions, etc.) or by stricter enforcement (regular certification requirements).

5. Manual Transmission & Diesel Engines

These are again novelties to most American drivers. Both are quite popular given that they deliver better efficiencies (ultimately expressed as a lower cost per km) than the automatic transmission and gasoline counterparts.

6. Sheer variety of cars

My belief of U.S. being the global leader in variety of cars got corrected. The sheer variety of cars in Europe is huge! And the number of configurations available for a given model is also extensive. E.g. – Manual/Automatic, Gasoline (Benzin) / Diesel, etc. In addition to all the major global brands you commonly see in the U.S., there are quite a few other brands as well.

7. Speed limits

Contrary to prevailing belief amongst many – they do have strict speed limits on European highways. Even in Germany – 120 kmph (roughly equal-to 75 mph) is common on most highways, but they change to 100 kmph, 80 kmph, etc. based on road/traffic conditions. Many speed limits are ‘dynamic’ – they are indicated by electronic signs and change depending on the external conditions and time of the day. The adherence to the speed limits is fairly decent. There are only certain sections of Autobahns (away from urban centers) in Germany that have no speed limits.

8. Where are the cops?

In my 4 days of extensive driving, I swear I just saw one police car on the highway! That too was at a site of an accident. And yet, the speed limits enforcement and compliance is quite high. I guess they use cameras and technology a lot more in Europe, for traffic rules enforcement. If you are caught speeding, the ticket is mailed to you – complete with your picture driving the car, as proof.

9. 18 Wheelers

The 18 Wheelers are similar to what you would see in the US. Though, you see significantly fewer on the road. I guess there could be two primary reasons: 1. Europeans consume less stuff. Less stuff = Less Volume & Weight to ship! 2. They use a lot of rail transportation.

10. ‘Seamless Borders’

Crossing from one country to the other in the Schengen Region  is as seamless as crossing state boundaries in the U.S. or in India. Typically, there are just 1 or 2 signs welcoming you to that country and some changes in speed limits. That’s pretty much it – Plus the roads signs change from one language you cannot understand to a different one that you cannot understand either 🙂 But the graphical signs are self-explanatory.

11. Round-Abouts/Yield

When driving on city roads – a ’round-about’ circle is something that might confuse an American driver! It’s a different system of yielding – instead of a 4 way stop-sign.

12. Various kinds of ‘entities’ on the city roads

I can understand why Americans sometime dread driving in European cities!  In addition to the tiny roads – you have bicycles, pedestrians and trams to deal with! Amsterdam also has a few human powered bicycle taxis (And I thought Kolkatta was the only big city in the world to have them!).

For me personally (and others who regularly drive on Indian roads) I guess this ‘diverse traffic’ is not that bad 🙂

13. Bicycles lanes

Bicycles are omnipresent in Holland. They are also quite popular in other countries as well. On most city roads, bicycles have separate dedicated lanes. It’s quite interesting to see a few folks ‘bike’ from their home to a rail station – ‘fold’ their bikes (yes, some bikes literally fold in half – and can be stowed away easily..) board the train to the city, disembark and again ride to their office building!

Motorcycles are also more common, and they ‘optimize’ lane usage at traffic lights or in traffic jams by moving forward by the side of stuck 4 wheelers (the way they always do in India 🙂  ) . Initially I thought they were breaking the rules – but then it seemed like it was a ‘standard’ procedure.  

14. Gas Stations

The first time you pull into a Gas Station – be prepared for a sticker shock! Gasoline is currently priced around 1.40 Euros/liter. At the present exchange rate, that roughly translates to USD 7.60/Gallon. Diesel is a little cheaper at around 1.05 Euros/liter (USD 5.80/Gallon).  Add to this the price of a comparable car is approximately twice as much in the U.S. – and you will understand why driving is so expensive in Europe!

At Gas Stations in Europe you can literally fill ‘Gas’ ..LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), that is 🙂 . Note in Germany and the Netherlands, they refer to Gasoline as ‘Benzin’. Instead of 3 varieties of gasoline and 1 variety of diesel – at European filling stations, you will typically find 2 varieties of gasoline, 2 varieties of diesel and LPG. Initially, I was confused to note the significantly higher octane rating numbers in Europe. However, that is apparently because of slightly different standards. (For more information, checkout: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octane_rating )

Reliance on Diesel and LPG is part of the drive towards reducing cost / km. LPG is significantly cheaper than Gasoline. Diesel typically yields a much better fuel efficieny in terms of km / liter.

15. Use of GPS and other electronic gadgets

The use of GPS based navigation has increased significantly over the past few years (as it has, in the U.S.) and old fashioned ‘paper’ map based navigation is a dying art. I however had to use this ‘old’ and tried and tested art form – since my cheap rental didn’t have a GPS.

Similarly, I understand that hands-free mobiles are mandatory – hence most cars have an integrated Bluetooth mobile integration with the car’s sound system.

In general, I also observed that for a similar model – an European car would typically have many other smaller gizmos – tire pressure monitoring, range calculators, etc.

Helpful links

Description of Autobahns from Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobahns

A good site with lot of information (speed-limits, restrictions, etc.) about various Autobahns http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de/index_e.html

(Image credits: Wikipedia)

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