Monday, September 24, 2007

Voyage to the Lilliput

The Return of Vamana

Even as the girl in Malgudi adjusts with one hand the Mysuru Mallige, the other hand is twirling the knob of the Ipod-nano. Nano is everywhere. The textile industry markets nanotech shirt. The cosmetics industry goes gaga over ancient Kajal and then wants to add that most beautiful of all molecules- the buckminsterfullerene- to the powder. In its more powerful form it allows in an inexorable fashion the implementation of Moore’s Law, formulated over forty years ago. The law states that the number of transistors doubles every eighteen months. It has a corollary that the cost of the fab needed for manufacturing these tiny miracles doubles at the same rate, giving nightmares to the Ministry for Information Technology in India. In its most dramatic form, Intel unveiled its teraflops chip, which packs a mean punch in its 65 nanometer dimensions. With 60 cores assembled together, a gargantuan machine of a decade vintage is replaced by a tiny tiled piece. It is a measure of some joy and minor regret that this amazing feat was accomplished by an Intel design team, which had a large number of Indians from Bangalore. The regret, of course, is that it is still Intel Inc and not India Inc.

The word Nano spells magic It is given the National Initiative status by two Presidents of the USA , written with a Jeffersonian idiom couched in words of great eloquence and promise. It was felt by President Clinton and President Bush that long after their escapades in the White House or the Middle East are forgotten, the opening of the nano-Kingdom will be seen as their legacy. Our own Rashtrapathi Bhavan was not immune to the charms of the very small. The corridors of the Departments of Science and Technology and Biotechnology are abuzz with nano.

What is Nano? Nano means ‘ dwarf ’ in Greek. It is one billionth of any unit. While this word itself was not used in 1959, Richard Feynman immortalized this tantalizing concept that we can see the very small and move atoms and assemble them by stating that there is plenty of room at the bottom.

As happens with such situations, this was not noticed by many. Then along came Herbert Gleiter, who devised a most amazing way of preparing small clusters of metals and gave life to nanostructured materials. Even then the science may have remained dormant but for two spectacular discoveries- namely Buckminsterfullerene by Robert Smalley and H W Kroto and the discovery of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope by Heinrich Rohrer and G Binning. Now suddenly the one billionth of a meter can be seen and touched. The images that the micrsoscopes revealed were bewitching, the most famous being the creation of the IBM Logo with Xenon atoms.

Where does Vamana come into this? He is the fifth avatar of Vishnu in the Hindu Mythology and is the first human form in the incarnations. Vamana means ‘dwarf ‘. As has been narrated many times, Vamana requests King Bali for as much space as could be covered by three of his footsteps. On being granted his wish he takes the Viswaroopa and occupies all space and earth and the head of the king. It may be fanciful but it appears that nanoscience and nanotechnolgy are following a similar path of taking all space in science.

Following the US initiative every nation and every region is formulating a nanoscience initiative. It includes tiny nations like Singapore and mighty regions like Europe. China and India, as they emerge as modern industrialized economies, are also investing heavily in this area. Thanks to the initiative of Prof C N R Rao, the Department of Science and Technology gave grants of Rs 200 crores during the Tenth Five Year Plan. It is expected that under the Nanotechnology Mission to be launched during the Eleventh Five Year Plan Rs 200 crores will be given as grants every year. New books and new journals appear every month. Books by Prof Rao and Prof T Pradeep are widely read. Conferences abound. We hosted the Eighth International Conference on Nanostructured Materials in August 2006.

My own affair with Nano began with my doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge in 1962. It was an awesome experience to look at atoms with the field-ion microscope and feel God-like in evaporating tungsten atoms at liquid nitrogen temperature. This microscope predates the Feynman lecture and not many may know that its invention is due to the collaboration between Erwin Mueller and Kanwar Bahadur, who were the first to see specimens with atomic resolution in 1956. Since my work was with atomic configuration at grain boundaries and at some level bulk nanostructured materials are full of grain boundaries I was invited to the Membership of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Nanostructured Materials and the International Committee on Nanostructured Materials. As a member of the PAC of DST in 1992 I helped organize the first coordinated programme on Nanomaterials with participation from IISc, IGCAR, University of Madras, IIT Kharagpur and the University of Pune. I was also drawn into the India-Brazil-South Africa programme on Nanotechnology.

As William Wordsworth heralded in his Prelude, it is bliss to be alive at the dawn of this New Age. It can be called as the Diamond Age in pursuit of the convention of naming ages of civilization after materials such as Stone, Bronze and Iron. Diamond stands for carbon which in its new nano-avatars as buckyball, nanotubes and graphene dazzles us more than diamond. Though somewhat farfetched the nanotube hopes to grow like Vamana and reach the heavens as a Space elevator. The young scientists of today have the most extraordinary challenges and opportunities in this New Age. Our dream is that many of them will be from India.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Damascus Revisited

Undercover in Damascus

TIME. Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007 By LYDIA WILSON DAMASCUS )

In certain quarters, Syrian lingerie is famous. You may not think so, but the fact is that you may be wearing it and never know. There are Syrian exporters who employ people to cut the "Made in Syria" labels out of frilly knickers and lacy bras, and replace them with ones that say "Made in Italy" prior to exporting them. A friend of mine in Damascus does precisely this job. But what is the reason for Syria's infiltration of so many of the world's underwear cupboards? Why Syria, of all places?
A wander around the capital Damascus gives no clues at first. Syrian culture is relatively conservative and this is reflected in what people wear on the streets. But if you know what you're looking for, you'll gradually start to spot it: a window of lace-up basques here, a display of fishnets there, and over there—an eyeful of bras and boas that would put the Playboy Mansion to shame. A lot of local men have a taste for such things because they're "like children," posits the manager of the upper-end Charme lingerie store. "They get bored easily so a girl must have many outfits." In fact, she needs up to 30 lingerie sets for her trousseau, says Malu Halasa, co-editor of the forthcoming book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie. That demand helps to explain the prolific production of underwear in Syria, and its manufacturing expertise. On the supply side, Damascus' prime position on the Silk Road has flooded the city with silks and satins since time immemorial.
"An Arabic wedding night must be Technicolor," says the manager of the Al-Araba boutique—and that's pretty much what her shop reflects. It displays a bright-red body stocking in its window; inside, it's almost like a party-supplies store, with its luridly colored feathers, fake flowers and faux fur. Fifty percent of the customers are men.
The fun really starts in the labyrinthine markets (or souks) of old Damascus, however. Souk Hamadiya inspired The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie all by itself. Many of the small kiosks lining the souk sell clothes; often, underwear sets are hung just below rows of more traditional outfits like sequined belly-dance costumes. The underwear usually goes unnoticed by visitors, which is a tragedy for Syria makes the raciest lingerie anywhere else in the world seem staid by comparison. "In Syria lingerie is manufactured by very conservative religious families for a religiously conservative clientele," says Halasa. Where frank sexuality and skimpy outerwear are commonplace, such as in the secular West, there is no need to "manufacture lingerie as racy and inventive as this," she theorizes.
Sewn onto the garments are flashing lights, tiny chips that play pop music and stuffed toys on springs. Feathers abound, and several kinds of material are used—latex, leather, cotton, satin and more. But Halasa says her favorite is the relatively subdued "mobile-phone thong," which comes with a holder for a cell phone.
Prices in the souks are around $10-$16 for a bra-and-knickers set complete with son et lumière effects, but expect to haggle. Toward the end of Souk Hamadiya, away from the Umayyad Mosque, is Charme; head upstairs for wedding sets of nightdresses and lingerie from around $15, and for individual nighties costing up to $70. A short taxi ride away in Hamra Street, Asseel has a greater range of conventional underwear; bras cost $8-$25, knickers start at only $3.
"Even China can't compete with our prices," says Maher, a supplier of materials to the lingerie factories. One Kuwaiti woman, browsing in Hamra Street, says, "I come here because it's so cheap and you can find whatever you want." Well, perhaps not always. "I can't find what I want," protests a Syrian woman. "I just want plain cotton underwear, and I have to buy it from women who bring it back from Europe

From the Road to Damascus , April 2005

Which brings us back to that lingerie. The western, feminist woman always has a fascinating struggle with the dress and behaviour of Muslim women in the Middle East: the closely-held veils covering heads, bodies and sometimes also the faces of women of all ages - hiding them from the lustful gazes of men other than their husbands - will often billow in a sudden breeze, revealing current-season designer jeans and acutely-pointed, stiletto-heeled boots. And what to make of the young woman spotted mid-morning near the central Hejaz train station? Veiled more completely than most, only her heavily made-up eyes, sparkling behind layers of kohl and mascara, could be seen - unless you looked down: and there, poking out from beneath her Abaya were feet strapped into diamante and metal-studded open-toe sandals, nails painted the exact colour of sin. The only lust it failed to excite was that of the street's hapless traffic officer, who was looking the other way.
This gorgeous creature, hidden but clearly defined, held the key to the countless, unspeakably kinky lingerie shops we passed daily to, from and within the old city: spangled bras and cut-away corsets; tasselled bodysuits and studded knickers. Pleasure was no stranger here: it was just covered from view until one was in the privacy of one's own home - or someone else's.

Journey to the Stars

Space odeysseys are an integral part of the journeys made by metals. When the primordial Big Bang of the Universe spewed out iron atoms, they came together to make massive earth. Some pieces floating across galaxy still arive on earth and are known as meteorites. In prehistoric times this was the first encounter betwen man and metal . Thus in many languages such as French and Spanish metallurgy is called Siderurgy- literally made from stars. when Aloysius Widmanstatten rubbed some lime juice, a fascinating geometric pattern came into view. This has been caused by the separation of Fe-rich crystals nad Ni-rich crystals cooling at the rate of one million degrees centigarde per year. This leads to a scale of sepaartion on the millimetre scale, easily visible to the naked eye.

Now man is willing to send metals into space. It is remarkable that the rockets used to lift these has its motor case made out of maraging steel- an alloy of iron and nickel- the same as the ingredients of maraging steel. A remarkable opportunity arises as metals can now be processed under microgravity conditions.

Another wonderful connection can be found between astronomy and metallurgy. R Balasubramaniam of IIT Kanpur has argued that the original location of the Delhi Iron Pillar had an astronomical significance. Nirupam Raghavan, spouse of a dear friend of mine , has sought cosmic conections betwen the Nataraja icons of South India with stellar constellations such as the orion.
From V Devika's report in the Hindu of May 17, 2001

Fascinated by the stars
THE RELATIONSHIP between rational wisdom and artistic sensitivity is one of mutual enrichment and respect rather than rivalry for Dr. Nirupama Raghavan, former director, Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi.
The Prakriti Foundation recently invited her to describe her "search for ancient astronomical observations in India." Several points she raised were so interesting that it called for a deeper discussion. So shy and soft spoken is she by temperament that "it would seem almost as if she were talking to herself," was a remark once heard from a member of the audience after a lecture.
"Oh, no! I am completely convinced," said Dr. Raghavan later. "I am in the process of seeking and am overwhelmed. I feel humble when I think of the astronomers of ancient India. They recorded astronomical observations very subtly in the form of imaginative myths, icons and through the observance of festivals. They must have been so awed by all the happenings in the sky that they gave them form and shape, which people began to worhsip.
Dr. Nirupama Raghavan is a doctorate in astrophysics and a member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union. She has written several papers on astrophysics, air pollution modelling and science education. Her book "Celestial Hide-and-Seek" on eclipses with activities, is popular.
To her, science cannot be separated from life and culture. For science to ignore beauty and creativity in life is a limitation. The "twin-culture" hypothesis divides science and life, she says.
Her interest in astronomy was kindled in a very dramatic way. Growing up in Madras, she saw a total solar eclipse when she was fifteen. It was in 1957, when she was pursuing a bachelor's degree in physics at the Women's Christian College, that the Sputnik was launched. There was a tremendous interest in astrophysics then and a Science Congress was held at the University of Madras, Senate House and the Presidency College. There was great excitement that the Sputnik scientists might attend the congress. Dr. Raghavan and a friend dared to go to the university and seek membership to the congress but were turned away because they were too young to be eligible. However, the two young women did not give up till they were granted membership. It was a time when there were very few women pursuing a college education.
During her post graduation at the Presidency College, Nirupama was fascinated that many interesting happenings in physics were taking place inside the stars. She decided to study astronomy seriously and applied to the observatory at Kodaikanal for a Ph.d. An unconventional choice for a young woman in those days. In 1965, only the IITs had computers and allowed research students free access to them. So Nirupama went to the IIT Kharagpur to continue her work. That was where she met Raghavan who was working on his doctorate in Metallurgy. They married and went to the U.S.
After her return to India, with her two children, she did many small projects in solar and stellar atmospheres, solar system and air pollution modelling. Her husband would type out her papers and encourage her. It was when she joined the Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi, as an educator that interest in connecting science to life and context began. Here work was more people-oriented and there was a need to interpret scientific findings not only for children but also the Nobel laureates who visited the centre.
"That is when I began to tell stories relevant to the social context and from the feedback received learnt that such an informal method helped people comprehend complex concepts easily.
It was while she was looking for ancient records of a super nova, that she came up with the idea that the statue of Nataraja could have been inspired by the constellation - Orion - the super man of western astrology. The figure of Nataraja, with his left leg in the cosmic Ananda Tandava, bears a close resemblance to Orion. There are more interesting ideas since the Milky Way galaxy, called the Akasha Ganga in India, ends near Orion. Could the prabhavali be the indication of the brightness of the star and the concept of the third eye of Shiva be the super nova?
"I have a long way still to go to prove this to the scientific world but I am convinced of the possibility," she says. "One of the thrills of astronomy is its beauty. When you look up at a clear night sky, there is so much drama happening. That our past is full of observations and it was all narrated so creatively, is fascinating. Above all, I am delighted that my study connects me to this wonderful past."

Metallurgy at -40 degrees celsius

December 25, 2006

Since 1962 when I went on a ship to England , I have travelled overseas many times. But nothing equals the journey I made to Kazakhstan in November 2006. It is mere 3.5 hours from Delhi to Almaty. But is a world away. This has been the most exciting travel crossing barriers of gerography, history, culture, religion and language united only by metallurgy.

We visited three centres in Almaty. We also had a round table on Nanotechnology.

Then we got into a large minibus with Kulyan, the interpreter, Aizhan & Sultanat and set out for 600 km. It was a new experience- miles and miles of flat space marked only by snow. A few stray camels , sheep & horses (my friends told me that there are fewer horses as the Kazhaks have eaten most of them!) We arrived at Balkash and saw Copper & zinc plants. From copper they get gold & silver - an alchemical touch. Then again a long 400 km ride to Karaganda.

Kazhakstan is the centre of the Eurasian continental mass. Karaganda is at the centre of Kazhakstan . Termirtau- which means iron mountain - is at the centre of Karaganda region. At the Centre of Termitau is the giant 6 million ton Mittal Steel Complex.It is the turning around of this plant that led to Mittal's meteoric rise.

One of the sights was red hot pig iron issuing out of the largest blast furnace I have seen in the backdrop of pure white snow. In the Mittal steel plant we had indian food! And the top manager of the plant was one of my students from BHU!!

We visited many centres and had a roundtable on Metallurgy.

Once more we rode 200 km into Astana- the new capital. Like a genie out of the bottle President Nursultan is building a mighty capital on the Steppes. It is a sight for the gods.

I left for Almaty on Nov 28 and flew back on Nov 29,

Aizhan and Kulyan (an interpreter) met me at the airport and whisked me away to visit the Institute of Physics. I was lodged in a fully furnished flat. The second day I visited Mineral Processing Centre. During the discusion vodka was served. Neat. I was chided for drinking it like cognac
We visited three centres in Almaty. We also had a round table on Nanotechnology.