Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Super Humans

If you meet a guy who has a five-egg omelette and three fried-egg sandwiches laden with cheese and mayonnaise for breakfast, you’d probably call him a glutton. And if you were told that he has a 12000-calorie diet when the average male has 3000 calories, you’d probably think he’s headed straight for a heart attack. But the difference is, we’re talking about Michael Phelps here.

Michael Phelps, as you know, is the Flying Fish. He’s the 6 feet 4 inches guy towering above all athletes produced by mankind. With an unimaginable 23 Olympic Golds to his tally, this swimming legend trains like a maniac. He swims for 6 hours a day and runs on land for 120 minutes. He burns so many calories that he constantly needs to fuel his inner submarine.

In the Rio Olympics, he hauled 5 Golds and 1 Silver at 31, an age when most of his peers would have been swimming with pigs in the Bahamas. You’d be surprised to know that Michael drew a blank in his first shot at Olympics. He finished fifth at Sydney in the Year 2000. But then he was barely 15.

Another giant who had a terrible first Olympics was Usain Bolt. He was selected by Jamaica to run the 200 m race at the Athens games in 2004. Hampered by an injury, Usain didn’t even make the cut. Many wrote him off. But the Lightning Bolt struck back to become the World’s Fastest Man with the unbelievable record of pulling off a triple-triple in 3 consecutive Olympics.

A juicy fact about him is that the name Usain was chosen by his mom on the suggestion of a 12-year-old boy who told her it means ‘beautiful’. Incidentally, till the age of 12, his mom always used to beat him in races that they never timed!

Curiously, Usain has an equally legendary appetite like Michael Phelps. During his 10-day stay at the Beijing Olympics, he’s supposed to have gobbled up 1000 chicken nuggets and loads of French Fries. His weakness for food, might have prompted him to open a sports themed restaurant called ‘Tracks & Records’ at Kingston.

But which of these two greats, is the greatest? If one goes by the glitter of gold, it’s got to be Phelps. The heart, however, doesn’t merely go by numbers. For being a charming trail blazer from a tiny island nation, the race has to be won by a mile by the thunderous Bolt.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Big is Small

Google has its massive headquarters in Silicon Valley and it’s famously called Googleplex. The seemingly unremarkable name has something very mathemagical about it.

If you google, the word ‘googleplex’ you’ll discover that it’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100. To normal folks, it might look like just another geeky number. But to scientists, it is the largest number with a name. To give you a perspective of how huge it is, try jotting down the number of zeroes on a piece of paper. Apparently, the whole observable universe will not be enough to fit in the googleplex. It’s that humungous!

Contrast this with the world of small numbers. When we say microscopic, we are probably referring to micro numbers or numbers that are one millionth in size. Bacteria are usually 5 micrometers long. Red Blood Cells are 10 micrometers in diameter. A strand of hair is 50 micrometers in thickness.

As we made more progress in precision measurement, the scientific world switched over to the nano scale or numbers that are one billionth in size. Much of the inner secrets of biology can be gleaned using the nano scale. For example, haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein, is about 5.5 nanometers in diameter. And the basic building block of life – the DNA molecule – is around 2 nanometers in diameter.

The world of small then got tinier and tinier with more breakthroughs. Atoms are now measured in picometers (one trillionth). Protons are described with femtometers (one quadrillionth). The smallest known fundamental particles (the Quarks) are quantified in attometers (one quintillionth). And with the discovery of the god particle, many are wondering if using zepto (one sextillionth) or yoctometers (one septillionth) makes more sense. Yocto is one trillionth trillionth. It’s unimaginably inconsequential.

Still, is that the smallest length we can measure? To sidestep this query, Physicists proposed the theoretical concept of Planck Length. It’s technically the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point. It’s at least one nano times smaller than yocto. Planck Length is the smallest observable length in the universe. If you want to probe teensier sizes, you’d need so much energy that you’d have to create a black hole for it! Hopefully that should put an end to all the small talk.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Lighter Side of Olympics

Jason Statham, the action hero of Transporter, and the Brit star with more Facebook fans than Narendra Modi (54 million fans, at the last count) is a man known for multiple talents. He’s studied Kung Fu, Karate & Kickboxing. He can play football well. And chess, even better. As a teenager, he chose diving as his first love. Not many know, Jason competed in the Olympic trials thrice (Seoul, Barcelona & Atlanta). Thankfully his sporting career nosedived. Else, we’d never have seen him biffing the bad guys to pulp.

Some other celebrities did fare better at the Olympics, though. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the big daddy of child rearing best known for his book ‘Baby and Child Care’, won a gold medal for Team Rowing for the United States at the 1924 Paris games. Philips Noel Baker, British politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1959, won a silver at the 1920 summer games. Incidentally, he’s the only guy to win an Olympic medal and a Nobel.

Trivia aside, the one other thing that’s fascinating about the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the parade of odd names on display. Kim Yoo Suk is a perfect example. He’s a South Korean pole-vaulter with no medals to his credit. One vicious meme about him reads, ‘He looked like a winner, till the crowd started to chant his name’. Poor, Kim!

Equestrian William Speed Lane Fox-Pitt is another sportsman worth tracking at Rio. With his name, he could have chosen any form of racing. But our man opted to saddle up. Remains to be seen if he outfoxes his opponents.

Chinese gymnast Dong Dong is apparently eyeing a gold again in the trampoline event. If that happens, don’t be surprised if you’re swamped with headlines like ‘Dong Dong on a Song Song’.

Lee Bum-young is a titter worthy footballer. He made a name for himself as a goalkeeper in the 2012 London games by saving a crucial penalty in the quarter finals. If he hadn’t, everyone would have panned him as a bummer.

I’ll shed light on many more athlete names in the days to come, but for now I’ll wind up with a terrific fact: The first person to use the word ‘Olympian’ in writing was not an ancient Greek. It was Shakespeare.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Living Dead

Ludwig van Beethoven had a nasty surprise in his childhood. He was told that he was the second Ludwig van Beethoven of the family. He didn’t grasp a word of what was being said, till his parents clarified to him that just a year before his birth, they had another baby boy who was christened Ludwig. Sadly, his elder brother didn’t even last for six days. So basically, Beethoven was named after his dead brother.

When Beethoven gave his first public performance at the age of 7, he was billed as a child prodigy. But those who vaguely knew the family, confused him with his brother and raised doubts about his age. That was only one tiny problem. The spectre of the dead elder brother cast a long shadow on his life.

Artist Salvador Dali faced an even bigger predicament. He too was named after a dead sibling. The trouble was, he was born nine months and six days after his elder brother. That made everyone around think that may be Salvador had reincarnated.

Dali spent a good part of his life traumatised. He added many layers of eccentricities to his persona just to be different from what his parents had imagined for him. As he later philosophised, “Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.”

What Beethoven and Dali were bestowed is called ‘Necronyms’ (names of dead ones). And it’s a subject of great debate in the world of nomenclature. It was a prevalent practice in the era when child mortality rates were high. Anxious fathers who wanted their lineage and family name to survive, often resorted to this seemingly morbid practice.

I suspect necronyms might have been common in societies that followed the tradition of naming the first child after the grandfather. If the first child had a premature death, the name was foisted upon the second one. Even Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was a victim of the tradition. One wonders if the resulting identity crisis caused Van Gogh to paint over 30 self-portraits. To conclude, all I can say is, some names are better off dead. There’s no need to exhume the remains.