Column: The wondrous world of science
Around planet Mercury—after six years
The US spacecraft, Messenger, has been travelling for the last six-and-a-half years in our solar system. Finally on 17th March 2011, it reached the planet Mercury, and went into an elliptical orbit around it. Mercury is about 96 million miles from our planet but the spacecraft reached it by a circuitous route, after travelling almost 4.9 billion miles and going thrice past Mercury, twice past Venus, and once past Earth. It sent a large number of very informative photographs and scientific data during this long trip. Planet Mercury is relatively unexplored. The last time it was photographed by a spacecraft and data sent back to Earth was in 1974-75 when Mariner 10 sent back photographs of about 45 per cent of the surface of the planet.
Messenger will stay in orbit for about a year and send back colour photographs of about 90 per cent of the planet’s surface. The data that it provides will throw light on the birth of the planets in our solar system.
Gunshot detectors—now in use
One of the problems encountered by soldiers in a battle situation is to accurately determine where precisely the gunfire is coming from. Both the direction and the distance from where the gun fire is coming needs to be determined accurately before proper counter-action can occur. Now, such a device has been developed and 13,000 such units will be released to the US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, about 1,500 per month.
The equipment, known as Individual Gunshot Detector (IGD), is a small box weighing less than two pounds carried on the shoulders by the soldiers and it is fitted with four small acoustic sensors and a screen. The IGD detects the exact direction from which the gun fire is coming, as well as the distance from which the shot has been fired.
The US has been spending over 200 billion dollars annually in the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade. If a third of this amount had been invested in education and projects related to socio-economic development, Afghanistan would be a prosperous country today instead of being covered in blood, ignorance and poverty. Such wars are not won by spilling of blood. They are won by winning the hearts and minds.
Robots to the rescue
A robot called ‘Monirobot’ has been employed to help at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It is designed to function at radiation levels at which human beings cannot function. The robot was developed through researches commissioned by the Japan’s Nuclear Safety Technology Centre after a nuclear accident occurred at the Tokaimura nuclear power plant in 1999 in which two workers lost their lives. The robot is fitted with a radiation detector, a 3D camera as well as temperature and humidity detectors. It can collect samples and remove obstacles using its special arms. It has a height of 1.5 metres and rolls along merrily on caterpillar tracks.
Washing machines—break world records
Conventional washing machines take about 90 minutes on average to complete the wash cycle involving rinsing and spinning. Now a new type of washing machine has been developed by Russell Hobbs in the UK that completes this cycle in just 12 minutes. It involves two nozzles spraying detergent and water directly on to the soiled clothes. The machine is fitted with various detection systems to automatically adjust the washing time if it contains only half a washing load. The manufacturers claim that it cuts energy and water consumption substantially, besides saving valuable time.
Gene therapy—for Alzheimer’s disease
Certain diseases are caused by defective genes. Gene therapy involves insertion of genes, or alteration/ replacement of genes in a person’s cells and biological tissues to cure the disease. It is still in its infancy and limited successes have been achieved employing it.
Now scientists at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York have found that it is possible to improve the condition of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease by using gene therapy. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes tremors, rigidity of muscles, sluggish movements and impairment of balance. The condition is caused due to the lack of a chemical substance in the brain (GABA). The scientists introduced a virus into the brains of such patients that contained a gene that was able to increase the levels of GABA. This led to a marked improvement in the condition of such patients in clinical trials.
Scientists at Imperial College, London’s department of gene therapy, led by gene therapy Professor Nicholas Mazarakis, have also been making significant progress in using gene therapy to treat various motor neurone disorders. This is an exciting horizon in medicine.