Friday, March 19, 2010

Perpetual Motion

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At some point in my teenage years, there was a time when I wanted to be a scientist. That was the time I was reading biographies of scientists and some books on science. I was besotted with the idea of perpetual motion. Wouldn’t it be possible to evolve a device or a system that perpetually produces more energy than it consumes, resulting in a net output of energy for indefinite time? It would be the answer to half the problems the world faced. What a great invention it would be!

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Our Physics Professor Devassy was a friendly person and one could approach him with any doubt. He would hear you out patiently and tell you how to proceed. One afternoon I went to him with my hopes about the possibility of developing a perpetual motion machine. Professor Devassy was not impressed. Such a machine just cannot exist, he said, since the law of conservation of postulates that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

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He nearly dashed my hopes, but I was not convinced and decided I would pursue the matter. My efforts were intensified when I read that in 1618, a ‘water screw perpetual motion machine’ was developed by a person called Robert Fludd. This was the first recorded device that produced useful work, that of driving millstones, but for some reason, it did not go on working endlessly. Several others had made similar attempts to develop such devices.

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I was fascinated by the possibility of magnets. I imagined a simple device: a wooden ramp at the top end of which a magnet would be placed. It would attract and pull a metal ball up the ramp. Near the magnet would be a small hole that would allow the ball to drop under the ramp and return to the bottom, where a flap allowed it to return to the top again.

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Prof Devassy dismissed it: the device simply could not work because any magnet strong enough to pull the ball up the ramp would necessarily be too powerful to allow it to drop through the hole. Faced with this problem, I tried several tacks. Like, if it were an electromagnet which loses its magnetism the moment the ball reached the top? This could easily be achieved through a relay that would get activated when the ball reached or crossed a critical point on the ramp.

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Any perseverant scientist knows that his ‘Aha!’ moment will come, sooner or later. Mine did, one night. I had an early dinner. The book I had taken to my bed was a collection of proverbs. I must have read for fifteen minutes before I dropped off to sleep. ‘Eureka!’ I cried.

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The next thing I knew was that I was in the Stockholm Konserthus on the 10th Dec in the company of Prof Devassy who had recommended me for the Nobel prize in Physics for inventing the perpetual motion machine. King Carl XV Gustaf of Sweden pinned the Nobel Prize Medal on my lapel, ceremoniously handed over the Nobel Prize Diploma and the document confirming the Nobel Prize amount. As the resounding applause died down, I was requested to make my acceptance speech and explain the principle behind the invention in simple terms for the benefit of the august audience.

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I made no secret of my elation at being made a Nobel laureate and dedicated the distinction to Professor Devassy who, I said, was the inspiration. Adding the appropriate things about the honour conferred on me, I explained that my machine was based on two simple proverbs: ‘a toast always lands the buttered side down’ and ‘a cat always falls on its paws’. ‘The procedure is simple, ladies and gentlemen,’ I expounded.

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Apply butter to one side of a toast. Strap the toast onto the back of a cat with the buttered side facing outwards. Take the toast-cat assembly to the first floor. Drop it through the window. Force of gravity will let the assembly fall towards the ground, but as it approaches the ground, the whole assembly will rotate through 180° so that it can land on the buttered side of the toast. As the buttered side of the toast approaches the ground, the whole assembly will rotate again through 180° so that the cat can land on its paws. This will keep happening regularly so that the toast-cat assembly will spin midair. Now, it is easy to convert this rotary movement into mechanical or electrical energy by connecting the cat-toast assembly to suitable gadgets!

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

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I had nurtured different ambitions at different stages in my life. My earliest desire as far as I can remember was to become an oracle in the small temple in our village. Entranced, I would watch him preparing for his performance. Attired in nothing but a short thin red towel, he would collect hibiscus and other flowers and place then a fresh plantain leaf along with several items which included turmeric powder. Armed with a ‘sword’ that jangled, he would start dancing, ever so slowly to begin with. As he got into the act, the pace of the dance would quicken. Then it would enter the frenetic zone and he would be in direct dialogue with God. That’s when it would happen – he’d hit his skull with the sword. This masochistic game would go on until those who stand around him watching the spectacle were satisfied that he had lost sufficient quantity of blood. A lot of turmeric powder would be applied the forehead of the oracle would be all red and yellow. To my young mind, being hurt was a small price to pay if one could communicate directly with God!

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It was in the year I started going to school, that the dirt track connecting Cannanore and Bangalore which passed through our village was being upgraded. Workers were busy levelling the dirt road, carrying gravel in baskets and molten tar in tins or buckets, spreading the gravel evenly and then pouring the hot black liquid on the track, all this under the hot summer sun. I watched all this for about three days when a contraption I had never seen in my life appeared on the scene. Referred to as the ‘engine’ (Actually, they pronounced the word as ‘injun’) – it was coal-fired, and had two broad heavy metal wheels and a hooded cabin in which sat the driver, his hands clasping the steering.

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When everyone sweated it out in the hot sun, there was shade wherever he went in his ‘chariot’; when all others worked standing, walking or running, he worked at his seat; he was the first to be served at tea-time; he was so powerful that his fingers could move the behemoth he sat in. Wasn’t I impressed? I was enamoured by the perks his job carried. I wanted to be an ‘injun-driver’ when I grew up.

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It was in one of the bus journeys that I discovered my next passion: the conductor. His whistle stopped and started the bus; he collected all the money; he had the authority to decide whether (and how much) to charge for the luggage; he was the last word in deciding whether a child would travel free or on a half-ticket (or a teenager on a half-ticket or full fare). As passengers without seats struggled not to fall into the laps of those seated as the bus careened and swerved, the conductor was steady as the Gibraltar. I was naturally spell-bound. A bus conductor is what I wanted to grow up into.

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The job of the TTE in the train, somehow, did not appeal to me as a model profession I wanted to pursue. True, he was immaculately turned out in his spotless white trousers, black jacket, tie and gold-braided cap, but he did not seem to exude the authority of the bus conductor.

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All these were in my pre-teen days. A couple of years later, my ambitions changed – I wanted to be an English professor like Prof Madhukar Rao of Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam who treated his students as his equals and whose freewheeling classes were great fun. What if some used to say that the secret of the pink cheeks of his was the dash of rouge from his wife’s dressing table? He looked good and he was good. That was all that mattered to me.

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And then I wanted to be a math wizard like Prof Veeramony. Son of a clerk in a private firm, he was a self-made man. He had financed his studies by giving tuitions for those in junior classes. After getting a job, he continued the practice in order to supplement the income, but the question of their getting any favours did not arise at all. In fact, he respected students who did not seek tuitions. He has a booming voice that resonated in the classroom. He was a great singer, and would render the popular romantic numbers of Mohamed Rafi and Yesudas with such feel. Very handsome, he was admired by the girls in the college, but seemed totally unaffeced by all the attention he was getting.

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He was, of course, a great teacher. I have not come across another who could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard. In the Pure/Analytical/Projective/Solid Geometry classes, he would draw the lines and circles given in the question using a chalkpiece. As he said, ‘Draw the perpendicular from P on AB’, one could hear a series of taps on the blackboard and see a dotted line through P at exact right angles to AB. One wondered how he managed that and waited for the next time he’d do it. All he did was to hold the tip of the chalk, place it lightly at P and just run it towards AB. Voila! Instead of a solid line, you had a perfect dotted line. I must confess that it took me a fortnight’s practice during lunch recess to come anywhere near his seemingly effortless feat.

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Becoming a banker minding someone else’s money was never on my agenda; that I ended up as one is the greatest tragedy of my life.