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Perfection

If you are anything like me, you always chase perfection. You want to do everything just right. Just so. You write. It is not good enough. You delete it. Start again. It’s a new day now.

Yesterday is over. But today is the day you are going to start. Why is today different? You don’t know, it just is. Maybe this is too big. Maybe you don’t want to do this.

I don’t know what the answers are. Never have. But I like to look for them anyway. It’s not easy. Most of it leaves you with an immense sense of inadequacy. But it’s fun when you figure something out. Most of it doesn’t matter. Maybe it never will. But you can’t know that till you try.

You try, it fails. You try again. You wake up. You wonder. Why am I doing this? It is fun, you tell yourself. It’s really not.

Some people say that they follow their passion because it makes them happy. I don’t know if I agree with that. Happiness is such an abstract term. We use it freely, and maybe we should, it’s not a bad word really. But you don’t work hard at a craft because it makes you happy. No, drugs can make one happy pretty fast.

You work anyway. Because it makes you something that is better than happy. It makes you satisfied, about a job well done, a song well sung. I don’t care what you work at. But if you work at it as much. It probably satisfies you. It brings meaning. It makes you feel part of something greater. Hard work isn’t about hedonism. It is about creating something.

I haven’t got kids. But I like to think that this is something like that. Having kids isn’t easy. In fact, it’s hard. Very hard. But we do it anyway.

The struggle is in every sense the most alive one can ever expect to feel. We chase happiness. But what we want is the struggle. The chase, for perfection that can never really be.

Wow! I just wrote a lot of words. Some of them mean something, most probably don’t. Why am I writing this? Because this is not perfect. It will never be that. But it doesn’t have to be. I am not happy about that. But that’s ok. This is about the struggle.

So here goes…

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The Problem with Fantasy Novels

reading-925589_960_720The problem is about stories in general. But I wanted to stick to an area that I know more about.

I was thinking about Harry Potter. You know, the story we all know and love. And it got me thinking about how much of my value system is inadvertently defined by that book.

I have an insistence of giving people second chances, sometimes beyond what is reasonable. I was wondering where I could have gotten that idea. This sort of irrational trust in humanity is definitely not reinforced by reality. So why was it that I was so consumed by this notion?

It was pointed out to me recently that it is probably because I read too much Harry Potter as a kid. That is when it clicked: Harry Potter is indeed why I give people second (or even 51st) chances. Throughout the books (Spoiler Alert!), all the good guys have an irrational trust in people. Sometimes, even when everyone in the world has a reason to not trust a given person.

The most obvious example is Snape, where Rowling trolls the readership twice with the same gambit. The first time in book one and the second in book seven. Both times, showing how Dumbledore was right to trust a guy that no one else would. The Potters trust their friends. All of the order of the Phoenix trust each other. It is really a rosy picture.

But it also got me thinking about how it all works out for everyone in the novel, in the end.  Yes, people die. But the good guys win.

I don’t have a problem with that. The problem, for me, is this: How they win. They win because in harry potter, love is the strongest force.

Isn’t that convenient? Harry Potter seems to get into all of his trouble by seemingly normal, non-magical actions. But he gets saved magically. Deceit doesn’t get magical powers, anger does not. No emotion except love gets a bonus strength. That’s not a fair fight.

Let us remove the power of love from the framework of the Potterverse. What would happen then?

Well, nothing good. Harry Potter and his family are murdered when he is a baby. Everyone dies, Voldemort wins.

How is that for a rosy picture?

For all that I like about Harry Potter, this seems like a flaw. Why did JK give love the magical power? It seems to imply that without the intervention of a magical Deus Ex Machina, the good guys could never win.

It got me thinking about other fantasy universes, the good guys always get a magical bonus to make sure that the good side wins. Let’s take a non-western fantasy story, one without the ‘chosen-one’ prophecy. For this, I take the example of the manga “One-Piece” where, like most shonen manga, the story is all about hard work.

But even here, it seems to me that the protagonist can achieve ridiculous amounts of strength through hard work. In the real world, 10 people can’t possibly take on a world government. Swords, can’t really stop bullets. Fists, can’t stop swords. Having a strength of will can’t make people faint by sheer presence. So the Dues Ex Machina here is hard work.

Let us look at religious mythology. The good guys have God on their side. Isn’t that convenient the literal Dues Ex Machina (Latin: God From the Machine)? What good is a virtue if it cannot survive on its own?

As I said earlier, this problem transcends the genre of Fantasy. It is merely where I first noticed the problem. Look at Sherlock Holmes, he gets super-intelligence on his side to make sure he wins.

If having a virtue is such an obvious weakness, none of it should exist at all. I am not arguing that ethical behavior is infinitely beneficial, but on a societal level, if ethical behavior didn’t help a species survive at all, it would most likely not evolve or die out completely. So on some scale of population ethical behavior is probably beneficial.

So, if it is not always a handicap, why don’t we reflect this in our stories more often? I honestly don’t know.

I have some guesses, though. We all start with a juvenile idea of how the world should work. And as we grow, we see that ethics is not always strictly an advantage. We over-react to this realization by exaggerating this in our stories. We make the good guys so weak that only divine intervention, magic or some other plot device has to save them.

Conflict makes for good stories. We all like to think that we can transcend our mortal limitations and that when we face an impossible problem, a Dues Ex Machina will save us. But reality, as always, doesn’t care about what we want. It just is, what it is.

This is where one starts to resonate with Ramadeer Singh from the movie Gangs of Wasseypur: “Is desh me jab tak cinema hai. Log c*****e bante rahenge”. (As long as there are movies in this country, people will keep acting like idiots.) This has truth to it. But I would like to generalize and rephrase this message.

It appears to me stories are how humans explain metaphysical concepts to each other. Ethics is one important example of such a concept. Moral Fables have existed as long as time (No, not literally). A lot of existential philosophy has also been explored through stories. From Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” or Camus’ “The Stranger”. Stories are how we often illustrate our philosophies and models of reality. This is why we love telling and listening to them.

But when the philosophies and models are deficient or incomplete, (as they almost always are), these get reflected in the stories we tell. I don’t think it is possible to reject stories as Ramadheer Singh puts forth. After all, he too is a character from a story. But what I consider important, is to be able to build better, more useful tales. So that a better understanding of reality can emerge.

This brought me to yet another question: ‘How do we decide if a story is good as is, or if it needs to be updated to reflect new empirical evidence’. Your first response might be in favor of empiricism and reflecting absolute reality. After all, anything else would be delusional. And for the most part, I am not in favor of people deluding themselves.

But what about circumstances where ethical behaviour is a serious and considerable disadvantage to the individual, but for the benefit of society at large (or a more long-term benefit to the individual) What makes an individual ethical in that circumstance, if not some deluded idea of some force behind the ethic that would help him so long as they believed in it?

The belief in one’s own superhuman intellect like Sherlock Holmes, one’s own hard work like Luffy, or a God archetype makes individuals value society/ long-term good over hedonism. Even if, in reality, hardworking individuals do die in random car accidents, Intellect can fail to account for the unpredictable and a God will not save you from a chasing leopard. The belief in being able to bring order to existence, is of value. Even when it seems to have serious limitations.

But, I can hear you object, why would I value fictitious delusions at all. I don’t know. But a sad story does have a psychological impact on individuals. And people feel real emotions for fictitious characters when they watch a movie. The existence of religions proves the psychological effect that a story can have on people’s minds and behavior.

So, are delusional ideas of virtue important? In the end, it boils down to what one’s view of humanity is: Without these beliefs would humans still behave ethically? If yes, then, a story should completely reflect reality with all it’s chaos truly manifested in them. If not, then you’d want more heroic stories, one where the virtue has a convenient plot device helping it.

Campbell’s seminal work, “The hero of a thousand faces” seems to suggest that the human mind is particularly receptive to a very specific hero archetype. He talks about the different stages of a journey for the hero character that is found across stories, cultures, myths and religion. So I wonder if there is some evolutionary purpose to it? Maybe.

Either way, I don’t know what’s the right answer. So far the best I have been able to come up with is this: To be compassionate of some kinds of delusions, but to expose oneself voluntarily to controlled amounts of chaos and disorder in the world. To use this exposure to develop coping skills. We all need to be swaddled in the metaphorical bubble wrap as we are young and isolated from the world in a familial bubble. But in the real world, it seems more useful to have the skills to cope with chaos, than delude oneself into hoping that one would never encounter it.

The human mind may never be capable of understanding all aspects of reality at once. But what we don’t know can and often will hurt us. So it is much more useful to try as much as possible to reduce our domain of ignorance. It is a tough needle to thread, It is often tempting to either judge another for their ignorance, and on the other hand, choosing complete ignorance. But it has to be done, a controlled exposure to increasing doses of chaos seems the only available strategy.

Sorry about the extremely speculative article this time around. This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. And I have tried to lay out the process I used to think about this problem to the best of my ability. Chances are, that I got a few things wrong. I feel I may have missed something obvious here. If so, do let me know!

A lot of you send me interesting articles that add to, contradict or support some of the notions I have put forth. And they have been valuable in the past. So once I had a reasonably coherent presentation of this, I decided to put it up and get your thoughts.


Update: Still a little irregular on the schedule. Hope you guys understand! I’m still figuring this all out! And it is more a hobby-blog at this point so, I am not always able to give it the time I want to. Do keep checking the site once in a while, I will keep posting.

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

Something’s in the dark!

dark
There’s something in the dark

I don’t know what it is.

There’s something in the dark

I can’t see what it is.

 

It’s bright by the fire

Why go out there alone?

It feels safe in here

So I sit here on my own

 

There’s something in the dark

Its moving there, I know.

There’s something in the dark

Over there! By the snow!

 

I could take a torch

And go out and explore

But if I wait, maybe,

It’ll be just like before

 

There’s something in the dark

That’s scaring me to death.

There’s something in the dark

Is that, over there, its head?

 

There are no walls out here,

To shut it all away.

But if it comes for me

I guess, I’ll run that way

 

There’s something in the dark

I don’t know where to run!

There’s something in the dark

I don’t think dying’s fun!

 

If there’s nowhere to run

If there’s nowhere to hide

Then all that’s left is courage

Courage to stand and fight!

 

There’s something in the dark

I hope the thing is weak

There’s something in the dark

My fear’s at its peak!

 

I take my torch and venture

I go out there to see

I pray I’m not a fool

And this isn’t a tragedy!

 

There’s something in the dark

Is there something, though?

There’s something in the dark

At least, I did think so.

 

There’s nothing that I notice

Nothing but this tree

And the leaves of those bushes

Rustling in the breeze

 

There’s nothing in the dark

At least naught to fear

There’s nothing in the dark

Wait! That growl sounds near!

-Shashank V Rao


There we are, another poem. I wrote this more recently. It’s a ballad, this time around. Old readers might want to contrast this a bit with an earlier poem called Box. It is on a similar theme. There are many ways of confronting the unknown, and I find a lot of poetry in the many ways people choose to deal with it. Anyway, see you next time!


Update: Still a little irregular on the schedule. Hope you guys understand! I’m still figuring this all out! And it is more a hobby-blog at this point so, I am not always able to give it the time I want to. Do keep checking the site once in while, I will keep posting.

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

The Melancholy of Creation

There are bestial forms of hunger and greed,
Which give solace to a stranger folk.
A lock guards the door of an empty vault,
Dwell wherein, these spirits unknown.
Outside, a causeless fire rages,
Upon barren rocks and wayward dust.
There are no paths, which one may take
That lead to this mausoleum, or from it, back.
But this haven appears,
At a time when no cause,
Cares to explain the turmoil within.
The seeker shan’t fade to oblivion here
For find peace, he will, in this unlikely place.
And draw he shall, from its empty halls
A flower, beautiful
And to mortals, unknown
And then the haven will fade, to return
On yet another dreamy night,
When the bold one ventures the flames again.
So it is that despite dark times,
We live on, in a fragrant world.

-Shashank V. Rao


A lot more free verse than my usual style and more heavy on the fantasy elements. I realized I hadn’t shared this one on the blog. So I thought I’d go ahead and do that. It is an older piece, but I am quite fond of it. Hope you enjoy!


A small update: This is definitely going to be a weekly blog moving forward. it’s quite hard to keep up with my old schedule for a hobby-blog. I might even not post for a while sometimes. Hope you guys understand! I’m still figuring this all out!

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

 

 

Taming the Wilderness

nature_tree_forest_ray_sunlight-3056.jpg!d

Okay, here we are! Back at it again! I’m really sorry. But I had a bunch of deadlines converge on me and I just couldn’t keep up with the workload. A lot of you guys might not know this. But I also, write an idea journal for myself. It is a less curated version of my blog where I just randomly scribble about flight patterns in Pacific Gulls to what would happen in a universe with negative gravity. These are all my personal projects that I like to keep alive for the purposes of my mental sanity.

Some of these ideas make it to the blog. But as anyone who has done any real science will know. There is no such things as an abundance of answers in this world. Mostly, there is an abundance of questions. Some of which, I don’t even know how I would begin to answer. I like to further divide these into two more categories: Good questions and Bad questions.

A lot of people don’t think there can be bad questions. In my experience, this is not true. I have often found that the overwhelming majority of questions that are asked by me and to me are bad questions.

You would think that I would judge the people asking these. But I cannot. Since I am party to it as well. I think that any person who has tried to learn anything truly new to them has asked, at the very least, a few bad questions.

The famous example I like to give is: “how many kilometers is the temperature?”. This is an example that is (if not very rigorous) simple enough that most people who see it at least understand the existence of such an error.

So yes, there are bad questions asked all the time and my journal is full of these. There are some questions that are good. But of these, many are the of the kind that I don’t have the faintest idea of how to approach. And then there are others that I actually solve, only to discover that faceless horde of the internet has already solved it for me.

I was thinking about number theory (As one does sometimes): the twin prime conjecture. A conjecture is something that appears to be true but doesn’t currently have a formal and rigorous mathematical proof.

Twin primes are prime numbers whose difference is 2. So we have 3 and 5, 5 and 7, 11 and 13, 17 and 19 and so on. The conjecture is that there are infinitely many twin primes.

No one has the faintest idea how to prove this tantalizingly obvious concept. And this is one of the best things about number theory as a branch of math- It is extremely easy to understand some of these problems. Even if they are mind-crushingly difficult to solve.

So where do I fit into this story? Well, last year at about 1 pm in the night I was lying in bed and thinking about this problem. And I was struck by an observation: Every twin pair of twin primes (other than 3 and 5) has a multiple of 6 between them. 5 and 7, 11 and 13, 17 and 19. Could this be a pattern?

And I was off! Thinking about this, more and more. It was such an elegant and subtle thing. I had to wake up and look at a list of twin primes on the internet and lo and behold! It was true, every twin prime sandwiched a multiple of 6 in between! It seemed like the universe had only one recipe for the sandwich of a twin prime. And the filling was always a multiple of 6!!

Then, an even more general observation struck me! Every prime number (larger than 3) had a multiple of 6 either after it or before it.

But an observation is no good in math unless you can prove it. So I had to get out my notebook and pencil (Yes I still use a pencil as an adult! So what?) and was quickly trying to find a proof for this.

There are a few ways that I could prove this. But as the benevolent blogger that I am, I will use the simplest way here.

Every number greater than five (which is the first prime number after 3), let’s call it ‘k’, can be written as one of the six: k= {6n, 6n+1, 6n+2, 6n+3, 6n+4, 6n+5}. (where n is a natural number)

Now for a number to be prime it cannot give a natural number on being divided by another natural number. (except one and the number itself)

So what happens with the way we have defined numbers now

a) (6n) / 6 = n and 6 / 2 = 3

b) (6n+2) / 2 = 3n+1

c) (6n+3) / 3 = 2n+1

d) (6n+4) / 2 = 3n+2

As you can see, in each of the four cases we have at least one natural number that can divide the original number ‘k’ to give another natural number, which is not 0 or ‘k’ itself. So these four cases are never prime.

The only exceptions are 6n + 1 and 6n + 5.

These are numbers that are always adjacent to 6n or 6(n+1). Both of which are multiples of 6!!

So there you have it. Proof! Prime numbers greater than 3 are indeed adjacent to a multiple of 6.

But, I could never figure out how to use this result for the more general twin prime problem despite several hours of thinking.

And then, severely sleep deprived at this point, I decided to google this. (Some would have said this should be the first step.)

But then, after googling this a bit. I came to the disappointing realization. I found this site (From the University of Tennessee at Martin), which called this “Perhaps the most rediscovered result about primes numbers”.

Which means that generations of students saw this seductive problem and came to this precise conclusion independently of each other and were all disappointed to see hordes of thinkers before them, had already considered and abandoned this seductive intellectual dead-end.

Was I disappointed in seeing this? No doubt! It was already 3 pm on a weeknight. I had sacrificed my sleep. I had been called an amateur mathematician by some stranger who didn’t even know of my existence. And most importantly I felt the weight of my ignorance and narcissism rest on me for that brief moment.

But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also felt an excitement in this feeling! I had my ignorance laid bare to me and this meant I could learn something new.

The best feelings that one can often hope for in a career of science is a sense of humility when confronted with the vastness of knowledge, the even greater sense of humility when confronted with the vastness of ignorance. and our improbable capability to reduce some of the latter.

The unknown is scary! And rightly so. For our cave-dwelling ancestors, the unknown could have meant death. Arguably this continues to be true in the modern world. But what is remarkable to me is the fact that we can choose to expand our sphere of knowledge more and more. Sometimes, through the work of thinkers long gone and other time through painstaking thought and effort and math (yes you usually need math).

The simplest way to get a child to sleep in a dark room is a night lamp. That is what knowledge is to ignorance. It can’t light everything. But it is enough for one room.

But coming back, this is the inevitable fate of most of the good questions I have in my journal. So you might ask what, if anything, did I achieve in making this observation and by the tiny proof I presented here. The answer is: I solved something on my own.

A Rubik’s cube is a puzzle that was solved long before I was even born. And there are a lot of people who will look up the algorithm to solve it so that they can amaze people at parties. I never understood that. To me, that is like buying a trophy from a gift shop instead of winning the trophy for yourself.

It is not the trophy but how you get it that makes it joyful and satisfying.

Don’t mistake me, I do think there is value in reading. I do a lot of that for a living (but you might have guessed, I am not a mathematician!). Ultimately science is about questioning existing ideas and verifying repeatable experiments as it is about reading great thinkers and their ideas.

And that is something I don’t want to forget. I continue to write in my journal even when I don’t write my blog posts. Because these blog-posts need to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

I don’t need to restrict myself in my journal. Often my journal entries will end with the phrase “dead end!”, “does this mean anything?”. Or worse it will end with, “question made no sense, apparently!”. I don’t post these on my blog very often. Because this blog is about ideas that I have been able to develop to some satisfying degree or have neat mental ‘box’ to put them in. A half-developed idea that was abandoned by me, doesn’t make for an engaging read.

But I do find great joy in just being baffled by simple things that exist in direct defiance of my understanding. And in willing a small minority of these into being categorized and labeled in term of something more familiar.

To some extent that is why I have chosen my career in science. But regardless of what you do. I’d definitely recommend keeping an idea journal. It’s an idea I picked up while checking out a documentary on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Who did this as well, as have a lot of people.

Often our journals go into the territory of dear diary nonsense. And there is perhaps a place for a different personal-journal for that purpose. But I do recommend an idea-journal if you don’t already keep one. It is remarkably fun!


A small update: This is definitely going to be a weekly blog moving forward. it’s quite hard to keep up with my old schedule for a hobby-blog. I might even not post for a while sometimes. Hope you guys understand! I’m still figuring this all out!

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

Kitchen Chemistry: Maillard Reaction

fries

So, it’s definitely been a while since I did my last kitchen chemistry segment. I know what you’re thinking. I’ve only ever done one other kitchen chemistry post (It was about milk) so, for me to talk about this as a regular segment is hardly appropriate.

Fine! I confess I am not terribly good at planning my posts. Whenever I commit to writing about some topic in the future. I immediately don’t feel like writing about it anymore. I like to write about whatever is on my mind at the time and predicting that in advance is hard. So committing to future posts is probably not something I should do (not that it is likely to stop me)

At the moment, I am obsessed with bread. So we’re going put alien life on hold for a bit and talk about the science of cooking!

One of the most ubiquitous reactions in the kitchen is the Maillard Reaction. This nifty little reaction is the mechanism behind frying, roasting, sauteeing, baking etc (Everything except boiling and steaming basically). And it is one of those things that make chemistry beautiful to me. One simple concept that can explain a lot of apparently dissimilar things.

What is the Maillard Reaction, you ask? Well, it is one of the four browning processes that we see and study in the kitchen. These are (in increasing order of temperature): Enzymatic Browning, Maillard reaction, Caramelization, and Pyrolysis. Let’s take these one at a time.

Enzymatic browning: a fancy way of describing spoilage. When food is acted upon by oxygen it converts some of its natural phenols into quinones that then react with proteins to give melanin.

Melanin is the same stuff that gives color to human skin, hair, and eyes. It is a pigment that is brown, black or red. The red pigment is why it is possible to have red hair. Though, eye color is not solely controlled by pigmentation. Melanin controls only whether eyes are light or dark. The actual hue (color) of the eye is determined by the exact same process that makes the sky blue: Rayleigh scattering! (Isn’t that amazing?)

But I digress, melanin is the reason that a cut slice of apple turns brown. The phenols get oxidized into melanin. Most research focuses on preventing this browning. This reaction is inhibited by acidity, so squeezing lime juice and other natural acids on foods is an effective way of preventing this. Low temperatures reduce the rate of all reactions, so putting your fruits in the fridge is another obvious strategy.

However, this is not always something undesirable. For instance, the characteristic phenols in grapes are what give wines their flavor profiles and this process can be put to commercial use in wine-making

Maillard Reaction: Now we come to the nonenzymatic browning reactions. The first of these and probably the most important is the Maillard reaction. This reaction takes place through a series of elegant steps. But here is the simplified version:

It is a reaction that takes place between sugars and protein, in low acidity conditions, at about 100-175°C. With its peak at about 140-165°C. So this is the key here, this is why when you are cooking meat, sautéing onions or baking bread, you want the bulk of your material to have this temperature. The several possible sugars present in foods can mix with myriad proteins to create several hundred flavor profiles and fragrances. No wonder this reaction is so ubiquitous to cooking food

But more on this later, let’s check out the other competing reactions first.

Caramelization: This reaction peaks at higher temperatures than the Maillard reactions. But is by no means mutually exclusive to the Maillard reaction. Caramelization is an extremely complex set of reactions (unlike the Maillard which is quite elegant and more predictable). It is a reaction that breaks down sugars, in neutral acidity, at about 160+°C. Giving a sweet, nutty flavor characteristic of caramel.

Pyrolysis: In other words, ‘Your kitchen’s on fire!’ Jokes aside, the thermal breakdown of foods at higher temperatures is definitely one way of browning your food. This happens quite often when novice chefs (like myself) decide to increase the flame to full in the vain hopes of speeding up the cook!  But as any experienced chef (like myself 😛 ) knows, higher temperatures accelerate burning of foods rather than the delicate Maillard reaction that we are often going for. So yeah, it goes without saying, but I’m just putting it out there. Don’t burn your food! It produces a lot of stuff that won’t taste good and is bad for your health. So just don’t do it, ok?

So the last three reactions really compete with each other so controlling these is a subtle art that boils down to three factors: Temperature, pH, and Moisture.

Temperature is the reason why microwaves struggle to bake and sauté foods. Microwave ovens depend on making the highly polar bonds in food rotate. This motion becomes heat. Now there are plenty of polar molecules in nature but none as common as water. So microwaves chiefly heat by spinning water molecules.

Since water boils at 100 °C. Microwaves rarely exceed these temperatures and typically cannot reach high enough temperatures for any non-enzymatic browning. One can, however, ‘hack’ a microwave. By smearing oil on foods placed in the microwave. However, most foods are so high in water content that one can expect this to rarely happen in most cases. Hence, microwaves are more reliably used to reheat rather than cook.

pH: Maillard is inhibited by acidity, this means that any sour flavor must be added to a cook after it is done. Adding sour flavors at the start will inhibit the Maillard reaction. For instance, this is why onions are sautéed before adding tomatoes while making curry. It is also why tamarind, vinegar or lime is added to food after turning off the heat. So that the delicious Maillard reaction can go on unhindered by the acids.

Water: Water prevents the temperature from getting above 100 °C and is therefore undesirable. This is why finely diced onions cook faster than large pieces. The high surface area to volume ratio in smaller pieces makes the water boil away from the bulk of the onion faster. This means that the Maillard reaction can start pronto!

There’s also a fourth but less effective way, that can perhaps be counted, of controlling the protein to sugar ratio. This is why cookies are more caramelized than bread. But usually, this is rarely something a cook can control about their ingredients as the protein to sugar ratio of most ingredients is predetermined. Which is why is this is not usually counted.

Of course, with even these guidelines, one can’t completely stop any of these reactions from competing with each other in your cook. Where there is one, there are the rest. But by carefully tweaking these settings cooks can get ingenious flavors out of foods.

So unless you are eating something only boiled and steamed. Anything that is roasted, sautéed deep fried, baked or grilled has gone through the Maillard reaction. And that is the final question: why is this reaction everywhere.

Well, the simple answer is that it is easier for your body to process the Maillard products. A raw potato is a lot of work for the body but chips are not. And that is exactly what your mouth will tell you the next time you bite into your food!

So, hopefully, you’ll have something to think about when you cook next time. Let me know. In the meanwhile. Writing about all this food has made me hungry. So see you next time!!


A small update: This is definitely going to be a weekly blog moving forward. it’s quite hard to keep up with my old schedule for a hobby-blog. Hope you guys understand!

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

An unlikely home.

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Last few posts I have been taking a different aspect of our planet that makes life possible and talking about how that can be used to find criteria for extraterrestrial life. So, now I want to talk about likely sources of bias in these arguments. Firstly, there is the fact about the goldilocks zones that I brought up.

This definitely has some caveats. Primarily because this can be misconstrued to think that a particular zone of distance from a star that is sufficiently heated is the only possibility for life.

Why is this wrong? Well, for one thing, not all heating in the universe comes from stars. We just think that because that’s where our own planet gets its heat. This is the exact kind of survivorship bias that comes from having just one sample for our analysis.

So what else can be a source of heat? Here’s an answer, tides! The tidal effect of the moon is strong enough to cause sea levels to rise and fall. Imagine the reverse: the tidal effect of the earth on the moon. It is in fact, so strong that the earth has tidally locked the moon in place. Which means that the moon is forever locked to show the same side of it to the earth always.

What about other planets and their moons. When a planet is large enough, like Jupiter or Saturn, its moons can be heated this way, to the point where moons like Io have significant volcanic activity. It seems likely that the moon Europa is an ice world with subsurface liquid water despite being outside the habitable zone of the Sun.

An interesting paper recently appeared in nature that prompted me to go into the subject of astrobiology on the blog. It was about some recent research on the Saturn’s moon Enceladus. You might remember I had shared this on my facebook page recently.

So anyway, there was this spacecraft called Cassini which had recently sent back data from the Enceladus. This data showed details of plumes (it is a science word for the way smoke rises from chimneys) of methane emerging from the planet.

Now the thing about methane is that it is a reasonably reactive molecule (it burns like hell). So in its natural state, it should just react away upon formation. The presence of methane is often considered one of the signs that life may (And it’s a small chance) also be present.

This was pretty cool in itself. But this paper (which appeared in Nature) took it to a whole other level. They simulated conditions of Enceladus in a lab. And there they tested several microbes of the earth. They were looking for several markers. But here is the cliff notes version: The microbes survived in the Enceladus like conditions and were also able to account for the Methane Concentrations on Enceladus.

So what does this mean? It means that there already exists life, on earth, that could survive in another world. This study cannot possibly say if such life already exists on Enceladus. But this is strong evidence in support of the fact that it cannot be ruled out at all. And at the very least. We could seed life on this moon of Saturn if it doesn’t already have some.

I am not an expert in this field but this seems quite incredible to me. We live in exciting times.

I do hope that the probes to the Gas Giants continue to yield useful data that can further narrow down on the possibility of life within our solar system. It would be really exciting if some did exist in our neighborhood. Because, if not, then our nearest star is about 4 light years away. That means even our fastest spaceships would take a human there in about 54,000 years.

So yeah, if we want data on non-intelligent life (Defining intelligence by an ability to build radio antennae) then the solar system is our only bet. If we don’t find anything here. Then our only hope would be to send small nanoprobes at nearly the speed to light to these distant stars. Or wait for some civilization there to start broadcasting radio waves. It took earth life about 4 billion years to get there so I wouldn’t hold my breath for this to happen if I were you.


A small update: I have been trying to get back to my original schedule  (MWF). I have been really going crazy not updating this blog. But I still have my research piling up so might miss a few posts. Hope you guys understand!

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the calendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!

A Magnetic Planet

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Last time we were looking at what makes earth habitable. The first thing I spoke about was water. And then,  understandably, I got carried away. (It’s my favorite chemical)

But let’s talk about some of the other things that make our planet awesome. Here’s something you and I only ever think about it on that odd day when we decide to use a compass. (Like a cave-person.) : Earth’s magnetic field!

Why is that important? Well, let me tell you about another thing that most of us ignore: the giant nuclear explosion in the sky. (The Sun)

Okay admittedly, the sun provides most of the usable energy for life on earth. But it is still a giant fiery ball of death. And every once in a while, it gurgles up some of its innards and spews it out in random directions.

Now if the sun shoots up some of its fiery insides at you, you don’t want to be in its way. But hey, that’s just me! The Earth and the other planets of our solar system don’t get this choice in the matter. They get constantly hit by these lumps of solar plasma. But, in the case of Earth, these get conveniently deflected thanks to our magnetosphere.

This is why we see as arouras. The interaction of this charged solar particles with the atmosphere near the magnetic poles. Yes, the magnetic field of the earth is a real unsung hero that in the story of life on earth. Without it, our atmosphere would have been blown away by the solar wind.

A good case study is Mars. Mars barely has any atmosphere, with a mean surface atmospheric pressure that’s only about .6% as that of the earth. This cannot be explained away by the slightly smaller strength of Martian gravity.

But it is the fact that the smaller size of Mars has caused its internal magnetic dynamo to shut down (for the most part) by becoming solid. This means that Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field like the Earth. So solar winds blow off any atmosphere that the planet has.

The magnetic field would have existed at some point in Martian history before the core cooled enough. This makes the possibility of finding fossils of Martian life, likely. This is one of the many facts that are consistent with the theory of panspermia that I mentioned in my post- Let There Be Life.

Mars has water. None of it at the moment is in its liquid form, given the current atmospheric pressure which when combined with its distance from the sun is frozen solid. But there is abundant evidence to indicate that this was not always the case. There is evidence of several geological landforms like gorges (similar to the grand canyon), that indicates that indeed liquid water once existed on Mars when it had a thicker atmosphere. With some oceans hypothesized to be as large as the Arctic Ocean.

Considering how quickly life emerged on Earth, these early martian oceans with conditions similar to earth could have definitely evolved simple single-celled organisms. You never know!

But, the lack of a magnetosphere is one of the reasons that I am highly skeptical of a permanent human colony on Mars. It is one of those things that are often ignored in pop-culture but will be ultimately the most difficult to answer. More so than liquid water or oxygen (which a smart human colonist can create on Mars)

Even the celebrated novel ‘The Martian’ which for the most part is extremely accurate, chose to ignore this subject by saying that NASA created a fictitious cloth that can shield from this radiation. And there is a very good reason for this. As smart as Mark Whatney (the protagonist) is in the story, there is no way that he could survive the intense solar radiation that Mars is constantly bombarded with. In fact, Andy Weir (the author) is a smart guy and he consciously chose to ignore this unsolvable problem for his novel. Here is a quote from the book, “With no magnetic field, Mars has no defense against harsh solar radiation. If I were exposed to it, I’d get so much cancer, the cancer would have cancer.” So I guess I can forgive the fictitious material. (Admittedly, NASA does have some such fabrics in stages of development)

Elon Musk once joked about this same subject, by suggesting that we drop nuclear bombs on the planet to heat it up. The internet reacted to this by calling him a super-villain. But in all fairness though, It could work, if we were really desperate.

Let’s hope humanity doesn’t choose to ever do this. Because slim as it may be. The red planet is the easiest place for us to find evidence of extraterrestrial life.

There there is so much more to say on this subject. So I’ll be sticking to this topic for a while in my future posts.


A small update: I have been trying to get back to my original schedule  (MWF). I have been really going crazy not updating this blog. But I still have my research piling up so might miss a few posts. Hope you guys understand!

Many of my readers like to binge the blog. So in the meantime, maybe you can check out some of my earlier posts. Feel free to go back to the first post and scroll through them all (the caendar in the sidebar should help)! Here are some of the popular ones though:

Childish

Sports: The Best Thing Ever!

Disagreements

A Poem for Diwali

Textiquette: We all text let’s do it better!

Kitchen Chemistry: Milk

Lightning Cannons

Dissecting ‘Socha Hai’

Bad Movie vs No Movie


If you like this post and are not subscribed to this blog by email, Go ahead and click the link in the sidebar! If you are following the facebook page, you might not get all the notifications unless you have checked the options to see posts from the flying puppy first. So if you don’t want to miss all the new posts coming out, be sure to follow the blog by email! Also, do share this article with a friend who might be interested in learning new cool things every day!