Category Archives: History

Radar: Luftwaffe’s Nemesis

Figure 1
Figure 1

Ever since Louis Bleriot made the first flight across the English Channel, the Britons realized that the possibility of being attacked from the air became a reality. It is this historical event that caused the Ministry of Defense to start developing an air defense system known as the “Chain Home Network”. The primitive stages of this defense network comprise of large ‘hearing blocks’ where the Royal Air Force (RAF) would have someone sit in front of the concrete blocks (above Figure 1) and listen for the sound of approaching airplane armadas. This method did produce results, however, by the time the personnel was able to hear the airplanes and relay it to command center, it was already too late for the RAF to launch an effective counter response. Hence, the Ministry of Defense decided to use another system, which they named the “object-detection system”, but little did they know that it is precisely this system that would turn the tides in favour of the Brits and change the fate of the war during the Battle for Britain. Many historians throughout the world till this day believe that the United Kingdom was key to putting Hitler’s ‘unstoppable’ Blitzkrieg (or lightning war) to a halt in Western Europe. Although what many previously did not realize is that the key component in stopping the infamous Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and effectively preventing the invasion of Britain was in fact an intangible system. This system had a classified name: “Radio Detecting and Ranging” object-detection system; or in today’s terms, it’s commonly known as RADAR.

Figure 2
Figure 2

I knew that the RADAR aided the British in stopping the Luftwaffe from my previous knowledge in the history of World War Two, but how did the RADAR do it?  Well, the RADAR transmits pulses of radio waves or microwaves with very long wavelength that bounces off (or reflects off) of any object in their path. Regardless of the size of the object, it returns a tiny part of the wave energy to a radar dish or antenna (shown above) that’s usually located at the same site as the transmitter. The components of RADAR are actually quite simple; it has a transmitter, a waveguide, a duplexer, a receiver, and an electronic station. The transmitter generates the radio signal with an oscillator, which emits the pulses from a radar (similar to that of a sonar sound you hear in the submarines) and the duration is controlled by a modulator (charges up with high voltage to release the pulse which is sent out through the antenna). The waveguide links the transmitter to the antenna, which broadcasts the radio signal. The duplexer is a switch between the antenna and the receiver or transmitter for the signal when the antenna is used in both situations. The radar receiver, receives the signal that is reflected off the object hit by the pulse emitted from the transmitter. This signal is then sent back to the electronic station for interpretation (commonly a visual image of that object on a circular screen showing the location of that object in Figure 3 shown below). I know this to be true because in my Phyiscs class I’ve learned that this concept of radar is valid and proven. So, by being able to detect the German bombers way before they reached Britain, the RAF was able to effectively assemble a counter-attack strike force against the bombers.

Figure 4
Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 4

In figure 4, it shows the radar (mounted on the top of the AWAC airplane). The radar emits radios waves 360 degrees and when these radio waves ‘hit’ an object (e.g. airplane, flock of birds, etc.) the radio waves are reflected back to the airplane. The amount of time the radio waves take to travel back to the airplane is how far the object is from the radar source. This was the basic functioning of radar. The invention of radar is important then and now because if it weren’t for the development and use of RADAR in World War Two, then a lot more British civilians in London would have been killed and potentially the Luftwaffe might not have been harassed by the RAF on their bombing runs to London, and the Germans could’ve potentially invaded Britain. So, from a British military perspective, the invention of radar not only helped the RAF defend the British mainland but also aided them in bombing runs by methods of triangulation or honing in on a target to get the British bombers on track and hit their targets during blackouts at night. On the contrary however, from a German military perspective, the invention of the radar by the British became a nuisance and a great cost to the Luftwaffe. This is because they now no longer have the advantage of a surprise attack, due to the long detection ranges of the radar, and they have to defend the German cities not only from the American daylight bombing runs, but now from the British night bombing runs as well.

This knowledge and use of radar is also important to modern day times because little do we know that we actually rely on radar almost every single day. Radar has expanded its usage by being placed on airplanes and used for detecting the position of airplanes by air traffic control. Otherwise without radar and with thousands of airplanes flying over the continental US at the same time, it is very likely to crash into another airplane. Another use of radar today is to detect weather patterns and climate change, e.g. formation of a tropical storm/ hurricane, or seeing the position of storm clouds, etc. Now the technology of radar has gotten so advanced that it’s now instead of just detecting objects, radar has now been used to jam other radar in order to make an object become ‘invisible’. So, a major implication from this is that even though radar was designed intentionally for military purposes, throughout the century it has expanded into other areas. This goes to show how such a major invention in World War Two that potentially changed the tide in the Battle for Britain, has found new purposes and adapted in today’s world.

Works Cited:

Brain, Marshall. How Radar Works. HowStuffWorks. Web. 9 Oct. 2011.

How does radar and the Doppler system work?. RADARS. Web. 9 Oct. 2011.

Radar Modulator. Radar Basics. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.

The Rescue Plan That Saved the 33 Men

Chilean Victory
Chilean Victory

A news report that made a the whole world stop what they were doing as  the story was being revealed. On the August 5 a rockfall caused a 33 miners to be trapped 700m underground in a mine that is 800km form Santiago the capital of Chile. Seventeen days later after no contact, the a note was found, declaring that the miners were still alive. Once the miners were located, a huge relief was felt about a the all of the world wide viewers that were keeping tract of the event, however once the miners were located the rescuers were faced with a new dilemma, how were they going to get the miner out? They needed a plan that would get the miner as fast as possible and without causing a rockfall on the miners, due the previous rockfall the mine was at a very unstable situation.

All of the Experts came together and they came up with three main plans of getting the miners out. The collapse 46om  and at 520m underground. They had Plan A, a drill called Strata 950 raise bore machine, the diameter of the drill is 3m to 6m. This drill has a 0-62 rpm speed. The drill that was going to be used for Plan A was a mining drill that is used all over the world, one of the main manufactures are an Australian company called RUC Cementation Mining Contractors.This information led to the estimation that the miner  would be saved at the end of the year. According  to BBC there are three main steps  33 cm hole is made to reach the miners, then hole is reamed to create a larger hole the size of diameter of 60 to 70 cm.  A capsule is brought down to slowly bring up the miners.

Plan A to Rescue the Miners
Plan A to Rescue the Miners

The second plan, Plan B, that experts had come up with was to use Scharamm T-30, this a drilling machine that is attached to a truck it very heavy machinery, that is used to for mining it can be mounted into most standard shaped trucks, it has a rotating head that creates the hole by rotation the blades. The drill releases   a lot of depre that the miner took shifts to clear out. The diameter of the hole created is 156mm at start and it closely increase till the diameter is 56 cm wide.

Plan B
Plan B

Plan C that the experts came up was to used a The Rig 422, an important function that this drill had that other one didn’t was that this machine had its own way of bring up the rumble to the surface. This is the largest drill, that is suppose to get the miner out the fastest. The original purpose of the drill is a to get into  oil chambers so it has more power then the mining drill. The drill creates a hole the diameter of 60cm wide, with the power of the drill The Rig 422 the expert said that the miners could have been rescued by november.

On September the 20th the all three drills where set up and the rescuers were waiting for a one of the drill to reach the miners. During the rescue mission there was a couple of days that the drill from plan B was not working because a part of the machinery break off, however after a couple of days drilling continued.During the wait the miners were keep busy and all of their necessities were met. The men were all talked to therapist to make sure they were in emotionally stable, they a had a nutritionist and a personal trainer so that some of them could lose some weight to they could fit in the rescue shafts. On the 10th of October the plan B has a break through, it is able to get to the miners. Then the top 54 meter of the hole made was lined with steel tubes to reinforce it, the rest of the tube was surrounded by rocks that were strong to withstand by them selfs.

The rescue operation began on October 13 when the first miner was realized from the mine. In the process of saving the miners many scientific aspects had to be used to save the miners. All of the mathematical aspects of physics were important factor in the rescue mission.  For each of the drill the speed and the mechanical understanding as the main factors that saved the miners.


Brown, Adrian . “Rescuers face though challenge to save Chile Miners.” BBC Mobile: News Latin America & Caribbean. British Broadcasting Company, 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <>.

“Chile Begins Drilling Third Hole to Reach Trapped Miners.” Asia One News. Singapore Press Holding Ltd., 20 Sep 2010. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <>.

Jasovsky, Zoltan. “Drilling Machinery – Drilling Rigs.” Envigeo. N.p., 2006. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <


“Jubilation as Chile mine rescue ends.” BBC Mobile: News Latin America & Caribbean 1.1 (2010): 1-10. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <>.

Nelsen, Aaron. “Chilean Miners trapped, but citizen approve government response.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 07 Sep. 2010. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <>.

“Strata 950.” RUC Cementation Mining Contractors. Murray & Robert Group Company, 2009. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <>.

The Geber Problem

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe descended into the Dark ages. The Dark ages were a time of conflict and migration of various barbarian tribes, such as the Huns and the Vikings. During this time, organized civilization (e.g. city states or kingdoms) was scant and scientific development even more so. It was only with the establishment of the Catholic church and the formation of the Holy Roman Empire (in AD 1000) that science began to progress once again, but with limited strides as scientists faced great opposition from the church and meager finances to pursue these endeavors.

It is perhaps a premature and Euro-centric belief that all scientific development stopped in the Dark Ages. While this may have been true for the majority of Europe, advances in science were being made in other places such as India, China and the Islamic Empire. The map above shows the extent of rule of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750), one of the many Caliphate systems that governed the Islamic Empire. During this European Dark Age, the Islamic Empire prospered from agriculture and wealth earned from their military campaigns.

This prosperity lead to the rise of cities like Baghdad and Basra (currently located in modern day Iraq) to become centers of knowledge and learning in this empire. These cities became the home some of the greatest polymaths in the history of the world; such as Al Razi (Rhazes) , Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Khwarimi, Abu Rayhan Beruni (Al Beruni), and Ibn al Hassan (Alhacen). The advancements made in various fields and processes by these people often preceded those of their European contemporaries, such as Issac Newton, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, by up to a millenia!

One of the most interesting and influential scholars of the Islamic era was called Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan or Geber, as he was known of in the West. Geber was an alchemist, astronomer, physicist, pharmacist and chemist during the Umayyad Caliphate. He wrote several tens of books on these different subjects, although few have survived to this day. Geber met a similar fate as Galileo; both were placed under house arrest till their death due to their work and affiliations.

Geber’s greatest contribution to Chemistry was the fundamentals of the Scientific Method. In one of his works, he writes:

The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain the least degree of mastery.

This idea of experimentation remains central to empirical Chemistry, if not all the empirical schools of the natural sciences. It is the use of this process that distinguished him from other alchemists in the day and led the transformation of alchemy to chemistry. Besides the roots of the scientifc method, Geber provided design for several chemical instruments. The use of the alembic, one of Geber’s inventions, made the process of distillation much safer. It also led to another of Geber’s discoveries: aqua regia.

Aqua regia (Latin for “King’s Water”) was created by Geber through the distillation of hydrochloric acid (from salt) and nitric acid (from saltpeter) in sulfuric acid. Nowadays, aqua regia is created by mixing nitric acid and sulfuric acid in a volumetric ratio of 3:1. This mixture is an extremely corrosive acid that is able to dissolve metals such as gold and platinum. The reaction with aqua regia begins as follows:

Au(s ) + 3NO3(aq ) + 6H+(aq ) Au3+(aq ) + 3NO2(g ) + 3H2O(l )

Once produced, the Au 3+ ions undergo the following reaction:

Au3+(aq ) + 4Cl(aq ) AuCl4(aq )

Unfortunately the effectiveness of aqua regia is limited by the fact that it decomposes easily. The following reaction shows the first level of decomposition:

HNO3 (aq) + 3 HCl (aq) → NOCl (g) + Cl2 (g) + 2 H2O (l)

The nitrosyl chloride (NOCl) decomposes further into the following:

2 NOCl (g) → 2 NO (g) + Cl2 (g)

Besides the discovery of aqua regia, he is said to have discovered citric acid, acetic acid and tartaric acid amongst other substances. Not only did he discover these substances, but he sought how to improve existing manufacturing processes with his knowledge.  An example of this would be the use of manganese dioxide (MnO2) in glass making in order to remove the greenish tint created by iron (this technique is still used today).

The great irony of Geber’s greatness is that it made him an almost mythological figure. So, mythological that he seemed unreal and hence, uncredited. In the ages that followed, Geber’s legacy would be shared between many European alchemists in the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance. Although these alchemists made use of his knowledge, they knew little of the origins of the information itself. The lack of information of Geber himself made it possible for other alchemists, who weren’t as well known, to publish their works under his name.

This created what is known as the Geber problem: Who is the true Geber? Historians have been able to differentiate between the real Geber (the one descrbed above) and a psuedo-Geber. The “psuedo-Geber” has been found to be a man by the name of Paul of Taranto in Spain. However, it turns out that psuedo-Geber’s actions were not uncommon those days. Many alchemists practiced psuedepigraphy, which is giving credit to an older established author for their work, as a way maintaining secrecy. Psuedo-Geber’s books were essential to the spreading of properly recorded observations and information to alchemists. This detracted from the mysticism that had always been a part of this field and veered alchemy more towards the path of chemistry. Due to the confirmed presence of one psuedo-Geber, it is possible that there are others casting doubt over the remaining works of Geber. Is Geber a single person or a group of people working under the same name? But most of all, does it matter how the information was attained if it is confirmed to be true?

Geber was not the only one of the scientists from the Islamic Golden age that were left largely uncredited. Due to Christian intolerance, particularly in the era of the Crusades and the Spanish inquisition, works of Islamic origin were either destroyed or disergarded. The church favored the works of scholarly merit left by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, which put Medieval Europe significantly behind in terms of scientific development. Today, we are able to identify and give merit to many of these scientists for their achievements well before the time of their European contemporaries. However, we must ask ourselves if we truly acknowledge the signficance of the works of these scientists. A majority of us learn the traditional sciences with a highly westernized and perhaps, euro-centric outlook. Our minds are flooded with the names of Aristotle, Democritus, Galileo, Newton, Coppernicus and Kepler. Why is it that scientists of other origins, such as India, China or the Islamic Empire are not mentioned as often? Should education in the natural sciences include the learning of science history to give students a better understanding as to the progression of  scientific ideas mankind has taken? And lastly, does religion still play a part in hindering the advancement of sciences today? If so, should we try to alleviate it at all?


“Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty (661-750).” Princeton University. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <>.

“Geber – Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan – Crystalinks.” Crystalinks Metaphysical and Science Website. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <>.

“The Secret Scientists.” Interview by Jim Al-Khalili. Audio blog post. BBC-Podcasts-Documentaries. British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), 17 Apr. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <>.

“The Secret Scientists- Part 2.” Interview by Jim Al-Khalili. Audio blog post. BBC-Podcasts-Documentaries. British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), 21 Apr. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <>.

“The Secret Scientists-Part 3.” Interview by Jim Al-Khalili. Audio blog post. BBC-Podcasts-Documentaries. British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), 29 Apr. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <>.

“Aqua Regia.” Journal of Chemical Education Online. American Chemical Society, 1999. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. <>.

Plastic surgery and You in World War Two


…your palms are sweaty as they grip the controls, and you can feel the tha-thump tha-thump of your heart in your ears. An enemy bomber is cruising below you, completely unaware. You nudge the controls forward, then give a little tilt, and suddenly you’re plummeting towards him, unleashing a torrent of machine gun bullets rat-a-tat-tat-tat. You pull out of the dive and the plane surges upwards to kiss the sky, and your blood sings with the exhilaration of flight. This isn’t your first dogfight, and hopefully it won’t be your last. Who knows, you might even get a medal out of this once the war’s over…

Popular media tends to romanticise aerial battles and the pilots who fought in them. For example, a biopic about the Red Baron, the infamous WWI flying ace, was released last year. Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl wrote a memoir about his time in the RAF. A quick check on Wikipedia gives a list of WWII air aces and their number of confirmed kills, but nothing on the men that they killed.

Those who survived the dogfights however, tended to come away with horrific burns and disfigurements on their hands and faces. In WWII, a number of these men were transported to Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead, England. There, through a number of radical and ground-breaking procedures, their faces would be reconstructed by master plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.


At the time, plastic surgery was still in its infancy. McIndoe thus had to try many experimental procedures on his patients. The men were fully aware of this, and proudly dubbed themselves “The Guinea Pigs”. (A fascinating interview with members of The Guinea Pig Club can be found here.)

One procedure that McIndoe pioneered was the walking-stalk skin graft (or waltzing pedicle tube), an adaptation of an earlier procedure (warning, graphic pictures). Let’s say he needed to graft a piece of skin from the thigh to an afflicted part of the face. McIndoe would cut a flap of skin from the thigh and sew its long edges together to form a tube of skin, or pedicle. One end of the tube would be left in the thigh. The other end would be attached to a site, like the wrist, that was closer to the face. Over a number of weeks, the pedicle would be moved end-over-end until it could be attached directly to the face. From there, McIndoe would be able to open the tube graft that piece of skin onto the burn site.

The pedicle had two advantages over a normal, flat, skin graft. Firstly, the pedicles were less prone to infection, as the raw part of the skin was not exposed to air. Secondly, the pedicle was still attached to the patient’s bloodstream, which lessened the chance of the skin flap contracting and kept it healthy. Although they certainly gave the men an unsettling appearance for a while, the pedicles ultimately helped McIndoe to reconstruct the pilots’ faces.

Archibald McIndoe and his Guinea Pigs demonstrate that plastic surgery isn’t just about getting bigger breasts or nose jobs. McIndoe not only saved the pilots’ lives, he also gave back their faces. Thanks to him, most members of the Guinea Pig Club went on to lead fairly normal lives.For those who have, or have received, severe facial disfigurements, plastic surgery gives them a chance at normalcy and the ability to walk down a busy street without being stared at.

2012…The end is nigh.

(Author’s Note: The other day, I encountered the intriguing claim that the world will end by the year 2012. Having cast my opinions on the fate of mankind once too often, I decided to pursue the origins of this claim)

An artist depection of the end of the world. Possibly from the movie Constantine.
An artist’s  depection of the end of the world.

It is many names such as the Apoclaypse, Armageddon, the End Times, Götterdämmerung, the Big Crunch etc., but the idea of the end of humanity, the world or the universe have persisted in the many civilizations (Mayan, Aztec, Norse, Greek, Roman) of the world throughout history. The study of the end is known as eschatology. Eschatology is deeply rooted in the theology of almost every religion (save perhaps, atheism), where religious scholars use scripture to determine when humanity comes to an end and the signs of this event coming to pass. Religions such as Judaism present a linear path of the universe where the universe is created by God and led to its end in which the universe becomes the perfect creation of God. This is contrasted by other religions that present a cyclical view of the universe such as Hinduism, where the universe is destroyed and recreated in an endless cycle. Take note the generalized views I have presented above are not absolute as there are differing beliefs proposed  by the smaller sects of the main religions.

Eschatology is by no means limited to a religious perspective. Since Einstein’s theory of general relativity (1916), the scientific community has made theoretical explorations into the matter of the ultimate fate of the universe. Ironically, it was through this inquiry that lead to the model of the Big Bang (characterizing the beginning of the universe) which was theorized by Monsignor Georges-Henri Lemaitre. His 1927 work in the Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, he presented the idea of an expanding universe. However, the acceptance of this idea was delayed as scientists, including Einstein himself, were skeptical of his ideas. It wasn’t until 1933 that he was internationally recognized as the founder of this now-deemed plausible theory. From this idea, some scientists began to establish parameters from which the ultimate fate of the universe could be determined.

Nowadays, the general consensus is that the ultimate fate of the universe depends on the following factors: the overall shape and the amount of dark energy contained within the universe. The graph below, showing the relation of the average distance between galaxies and time, presents three possible scenarios:

A Closed universe (Ω > 1) resembles the shape of a sphere. If there is too little dark energy, there will be insufficient repulsion to oppose the internal gravity of the universe leading the “Big Crunch“. And if there is too much dark energy, the universe will continue to expand forever.

An Open universe (Ω<1) resembles the shape of a saddle. Even without dark energy, this universe is able to expand. With dark energy, the expansion of the universe is accelerated considerably. This acceleration poses the potential danger of weakening the effects of gravity, electromagnetic and weak binding forces creating end situations such as the “Big Freeze”, “Big Rip” or universal heat death. Under special circumstances, it is even possible for an open universe to succumb to a “Big Crunch”.

A Flat universe (Ω=1) resembles a plane. Should there be no dark energy in this universe, it will continue to expand with a decelerating rate of expansion. With dark energy, there would be an initial slowdown of expansion, but this would recover over time. The end situations are the same as that of an Open Universe, besides the “Fermion-boson fate of the universe” which was only been recently proposed (2005).

By now, I would hope you have some idea of the religious and scientific views of the end of the universe. However, the crux of the problem remains unresolved: Is the world truly going to end in the year 2012? If not, what could have possibly have perpetuated such a myth? It turns out that this information is possibly false as it originates from two highly publicized sources.

The first is a possible misinterpretation of what is referred to as the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which is a special type of calendar that was used by several Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya. This calendar works in a non-linear system, which gives it a cyclical property at the end of every millennium (millennium of the Long Count calendar, not a Gregorian millennium).  It turns out that December 21, 2012 marks the end of the 13th cycle. Two monuments (referred to as Tortugero Monument 6 and the ) have texts that associate the end of this present cycle with Bolon Yookte’ K’uh, a god of war conflict and the underworld leading to the 2012 apoclaypse belief.

This view has been countered by a members of archaeological community who claim that the text on the monuments parallels that of the Mayan king who has been planning for a future celebration upon the passage of this cycle. Sandra Noble, the executive director of the Foundation for the advancement of Mesoamerican studies, asserts that:

We [the archaeological community] have no record or knowledge that [the Maya] would think the world would come to an end in 2012.[15] For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle…[the Doomsday event is] a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.

This leads us to the second source of the claim’s origin would be from the marketing efforts of the upcoming American film 2012 (which is to be released later this year) that have been so widespread that they have aided the pre-existing claim and risen it to the stuff of legend. This brings into the question of how the perpetuation of lies, even for marketing purposes, can somehow interlace themselves with the existing truth to change the intent of history. With so much misinformation present in all sources of reference, how will be able to tell the truth apart from the spurious claims?

White Phosphorus (WP)

Author’s Note (this is not part of the article): Those of you that take the time to look at the news in the past week, you may have noticed that tensions are rising again in the Gaza region. I first came to know of the issue during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon Conflict. I have since paid close attention to the crisis. You may find information on the recent development of the crisis on this website. Upon reading the linked article on this website, I began to do some research, which led to the creation of this post. I must warn you, however, I have very strong opinions on the delicate issue of Gaza, therefore, some degree of bias is present in this piece. It’s frustrating that this piece will never lead to peace.

What is suspected to be white phosphorus raining down upon Gaza.

White Phosphorus (also known as Willy Pete, you got to love the military types) is a type of munition used by the military for signaling, screening and incendiary purposes. It is used primarily to destroy enemy equipment and limit enemy vision. It can also be used for target location and navigation. More technical information can be found in this website.

White Phosphorus is a historically prominent chemical weapon. It was first formally used in World War I when British soldiers introduced this onto the battlefield in late 1916. Various evolutions of the original found their way into World War II where it was used greatly by the Allied and certain Axis Forces. White Phosphorous was also used in the Cold War Campaigns of Korea and Vietnam.

Chemically speaking, White phosphorus is an allotrope of the element phosphorus.

Allotropes are pure forms of the same element that differ in structure. For example, the element Carbon has several allotropes such as Graphite, Diamond, amorphous carbon and C60 fullerenes. Likewise, the element Phosphorus has many different allotropes such as White phosphorus, Red phosphorus, Violet phosphorus and many others. White phosphorus (also called tetraphosphorus) is a transparent, wax-like solid , which is known to turn yellow when in the presence of light. It is highly flammable and pyrophoric (or self-igniting) in air. To top it all, it is toxic (only 15 mg can be lethal upon ingestion). What better a chemical to use as a weapon.

Its reaction with the atmosphere is what makes it an able smokescreen. When white phosphorus burns in air, it forms phosphorus pentoxide:

P4 + 5 O2 → P4O10

Being hygroscopic (able to attract water molecules), phosphorus pentoxide absorbs moisture in the air to form liquid phosphoric acid:

P4O10 + 6 H2O → 4 H3PO4

This creates a mist of liquid droplets, which creates an effect similiar to that of a three-dimensional textured privacy glass. It scrambles visual light and infrared radiation. The blocking of infrared radiation makes infra-red optics and guided tracking systems useless making it a simple yet effective smoke screen.

However, we are not here to discuss the military merits of this white death. An issue brought up by the Human Rights Watch is in recent Israel-Gaza conflict there is suspected shelling using  white phosphorus shells by the Israeli side. This has caused much destruction of infrastructure, but that is beside the point. The point is that these shells have in used in the deliberate bombing of a civilian areas, including a crowded refugee camp. White phosphorus or what is suspected of being white phosphorus has resulted in several burn victims.

What is significant about white phosphorus fires is that they can’t be put out by traditional fire combating techniques. Chris Guiness, a UNWRA spokesman, states the following on preventing the fires:

What more stark symbolism do you need? You can’t put out white phosphorus with traditional methods such as fire extinguishers. You need sand, we don’t have sand.

More details on the specific shelling incident can be found in this Times Online Article. Another great consequence of the properties of  white phosphorus is the burns it inflicts upon those caught in the fire. White phosphorus burning can result in heavy 2nd-3rd degree burns. Phosphorus burns may also lead to multi-organ failure should it get into the system. Also, there is the toxicity of the smoke that comes with the fire. Similar to radiation, this, overtime, gains the potential to cause illness or even death. What is most frightening about white phosphorus is that it is not an efficient killer. It is much like the chlorine gas used in World War I (read cajo’s article for details) in that can kill in the most inhuman of ways. Perhaps it’s the cynicism that comes with my adolescent mind, however what I am personally most disgusted by the reaction of the Israeli forces. They have denied all allegations to the usage of this chemical and parellely cited that even if they did, they have not ratified any conventions acting against the usage of this.

Readers, I admit that I am inexperienced in the field of politics and my cynical nature does often distort my view of world. While I am informed of the reasons for why Israeli forces would target such areas for attack, what I am still concerned about is the fact that innocents would still be caught in the crossfire. Not only that, but attacks like these almost seem directed at the civilians and when politics finally brings the conflict to a close, I can only imagine that they will leave the place in ruins and open for new incidences of conflict. Readers, I ask you, is it an ethical decision to use this chemical for purposes such as this? Mind you, white phosphorus was never found with the intention of war, it’s just the minds of some people that brought it to this. This holds true for many other elements of warfare and opens a whole new arena for debate as to the ethical usage of chemical weapons. It also holds a frightening possibility. Soon, you may not even be able to trust the water that you drink. Is it possible that ‘enemies of the state’ have poisioned the water with some chemical or virus? 

So, in conclusion, I would like to question the direction military science is headed. Is it truly heading towards the reduction of casualties or preventing conflicts from dragging out? Does it hope for wars to drag out so that science can advance with the low humane standards of war as a catalyst? I don’t know the answers to these and it frustrates me that I can’t find them at the moment. So, I open the forum for replies in hopes that together we can better comprehend the situation and bring together our attained knowledge for solutions.

Mercury-A Brief History

Mercury, symbol Hg, is a heavy, silvery d-block element. It is the only metal that is liquid at standard conditions for temperature and pressure. Mercury occurs in mineral deposits throughout the world and it is harmless in an insoluble form, such as mercuric sulfide,HgS, (also known as cinnabar), but it is poisonous in all soluble forms such as mercuric chloride, HgCl2.


In ancient times it was believed by alchemists, that if mercury could absorb gold, then if eaten, it would give that person the ability to “absorb” life, making him or her immortal. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, feared death and desperately sought the fabled elixir of life. Reportedly, the Emperor died of swallowing a solution of powdered jade and mercury, made by his court scientists and doctors. It is believed that the excess of mercury is what killed him.The ancient Greeks used mercury in ointments; the ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it in cosmetics, primarily to whiten the skin, which sometimes deformed the face. By 500 BC mercury was used to make amalgams with other metals.

In Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the character “Hatter” is considered a play on words inspired by the phrase; “as mad as a hatter”.  This phrase originated from the symptoms of the felt workers who suffered from mercury poisoning in the hat making process.

From the 17th to the mid 19th century, a process called “carroting” was used to make the felt used in felt hats. Animal skins were rinsed in an orange mercuric nitrate, Hg(NO3)2·2H2O , to separate the fur from the pelt and mat it together. The mercury in this solution consolidated the fur which was then passed through wet rollers causing the fur to felt. These rolls were then dyed and cut into shapes to make hats. The entire process was incredibly toxic, severely damaging the central nervous system, and it was impossible for hatters to avoid inhaling the mercury fumes given off during the process.

Often hatters and mill workers suffered neurological damage due to these fumes. Symptoms of this mercury poisoning included excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, and a desire to remain unnoticed. The patient also had a pathological fear of being ridiculed. The United States Public Health Service banned the use of mercury in the felt industry in December 1941.

18th and 19th Century Hats

Interestingly, Lewis Carrol’s eccentric extroverted character, does not display these classic mercury poisoning symptoms.

In the early 1900’s mercury was used extensively in hydraulic gold mining, in order to help the gold to sink through the flowing water-gravel mixture. Thin mercury particles may form mercury-gold amalgam and therefore increase the gold recovery rates. Large scale use of mercury in gold mining stopped in the 1960s.

Through the process of biomagnification, levels of mercury absorbed by the food fish eat are concentrated in the fish’s system. Therefore when the fish are consumed by a human, there is the potential that dangerous levels of mercury will be absorbed. As high levels of elemental mercury can be particularly toxic to unborn or young children, it was recommended in 1997 by the FDA that women who are pregnant and young children, avoid eating more than one average meal of fish per week.

Today, Mercury is used in thermometers, barometers, manometers and in various other scientific apparatus. However, concerns about the element’s toxicity have led to mercury thermometers and other mercury-based instruments being largely phased out in clinical environments, in favour of alcohol-filled, or digital-based instruments. It remains in use in a number of other ways in scientific and scientific research applications, and in material for dental restoration. Mercury is also widely used in the manufacture of mascara. In 2008, Minnesota became the first state in the US to ban intentionally added mercury in cosmetics, giving it a tougher standard than the federal government.

For me the allure of this infamous element comes from its ability to fascinate humans for so long. Though incredibly useful, the most important property of this metal is that regardless of all the dangers, humans are drawn to this element. It also demonstrates a fantastic development of human thought relating to scientific discovery.


Quicksilver (mercury in liquid form)

Works Cited:

Is the ‘test of time’ a valid ‘test of truth’?

To begin with, I wish every reader a happy new year. Hope you have plans to do greater things than I could ever think of doing…and let’s hope that sometime during the year, you’ll actually do them. Anyway, technological difficulties kept this waiting. To compensate for its lateness, I’ll be more prolific on Chemical Paradigms in the future (A new year resolution). Moving on… 

The first picture I find on Google Images when I type in the keyword

Truth and the criteria of truth is a matter that is often analyzed in the doctrine of Epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge, its limitations and how knowledge differs from belief and other notions. Students and teachers participating in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program would be more familiar with its colloquialism TOK, otherwise known as “theory of knowledge”. This article will use some concepts of Epistemology on truth to analyze the validity of the so called, ‘test of time’. For more information on this particular branch of philosophy feel free to read the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Epistemology.

Let us clarify what is meant by the ‘test of time’. In this article, ‘standing (or enduring) the test of time’ refers to an idea or a concept’s resilience to conceding to other ideas or concepts upon the same issue. For example, the Kinetic theory in Chemistry explains the behavior of gas particles in relation to the established empirical Ideal Gas Laws. While it is true that there have been many advances made in the explanation provided by this theory since its proposal in 1740 (by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli), it has never been completely replaced by an opposing theory and hence, has withstood the test of time.

Another example of this would be Sir Issac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, which was first included in his work Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica (published in 1687).

The Law of Universal Gravitation “proposes that the attractive force between two point masses is given by the formula:

“where m1 and m2 are the masses of the attracting bodies, r the separation between them and G…called Newton’s constant of universal gravitation” (taken from Physics for the IB Diploma, Tsokos, 5th Edition).

However, the variable “G” or “Newton’s constant of universal gravitation” had not been calculated at the time of Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica. This constant had been calculated through British scientist Henry Cavendish’s (also noted for his discovery of hydrogen, which will be the point of discussion in a future article) torsion balance experiment (aptly named the Cavendish experiment).Diagram of the Michell-Cavendish Torsion balance experiment. The torsion balance experiment’s purpose was to calculate the density of the Earth, however, it resulted in the unintentional calculation of “G”. If you are interested in a modernized version of the experiment, feel free to visit the following website. Note, that Cavendish performed this experiment 111 years after the publication of  Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica.

Another thing to note was that Newton had made some reservations on the law. He mentioned in a letter to Richard Bentley (a theologian at Trinity College during Newton’s time) that:

That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”

This supports the fact that Newton was unable to determine what the mediator of gravity was. He was unconvinced that it was simply an “action at a distance”; that gravity acts instantaneously regardless of distance. In the second edition of  Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica, Newton wrote:

I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena and I feign no hypotheses… It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.”

Newton’s law was superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity (developed between 1907-1915, which is about 220-228 years after the publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principica Mathematica), which attributes gravity to the curvature of spacetime. The basis of the theory is that gravitational attraction between two masses is not the result of an attractive force (as per Newton’s explanation), rather it is the warping of space and time by the two masses that causes the motion. This explains a wide range of phenomena such as gravitational waves, gravitational lensing and gravitational time dilation, which further our understanding of certain astronomical phenomena such as black holes and is also the framework for the Big Bang Theory. General relativity can be used for practical situations too and can attain results of a higher degree of precision. However, it should be noted that Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is still widely used for more ‘down-to-earth’ (forgive the pun) situations for its simplicity and so has arguably endured the ‘test of time’.

(Author’s note: Due to the complexity of theory, the author will recommend several websites and books to refer to at the end of the article and forgo the explanation here. If readers have a concise explanation, please include it in the comments area. Thank you very much for your cooperation)

In both cases (that of Kinetic Theory and the Law of Universal Gravitation), it can be seen that over time (may it be days, months, years or even centuries) that ‘advancements’ have been made to the laws/theories in order for them to explain a wider range of phenomena. It is important. however, to distinguish between the case of the Law of Universal Gravitation and a law/theory that has failed the test of time.

An example of a law/theory that has failed the test of time would be Ptolemy’s Geocentric model of the Universe. Ptolemy’s Geocentric model, which was accepted for hundreds of years, was replaced by the Coppernicus’ Heliocentric model of the Universe that was supported by the observations of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. The Geocentric model no longer has any applications (except for literature), while the Law of Universal Gravitation may still be used. Perhaps someday, we will no longer have a need for the Law of Universal Gravitation and at that point, it would have failed the test of time.

Now, for the moment of truth (apologies for the pun), to confirm the validity of the ‘test of time’. By Epistemological principles, we find that the ‘test of time’ is not a ‘test of truth’.

The ‘test of time’ is based around the belief that over time in any given idea or concept, logical flaws will be found for ideas or concepts that are not true and those that are true will have no negative change in validity. However, consider the case with Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe. We know that over time it was proven to have flaws and eventually considered not true. However, we must ask why it took so long for people to realize that Ptolemy’s model was incorrect.

Was it because there wasn’t sufficient technology to determine otherwise? This may be part of the case as the first instances of empirical evidence against Ptolemy only appeared in the 1200s during the “Maragha Revolution”. In his book, Kitab Nihayat al-Sul fi Tashih al-Usul (A Final Inquiry Concerning the Rectification of Planetary Theory), Ibn Al-Shatir (an astronomer from the Damascus Maragheh observatory) provided mathematical evidence against the Ptoleamic model. His calculations for moon are said to be almost identical to that of Coppernicus, who we now acclaim for his heliocentirc model.

Was it because there was some external body preventing the change in ‘truth’? This case is probably closer to the reality of the situation. The Ptolemaic model was well accepted by the ancient world. Particularly by the church, who had integrated the Ptolemaic model into their teachings. A notable interference by them and the progression of ideas would be in the Galileo affair. With the publication of his book Siderus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), Galileo had mentioned many instances of heavenly imperfection through telescopic observations. These included the presence of mountains on the moon, Jupiter having moons, phases of Venus and sunspots. This lead to Galileo’s house arrest and the burning of several other Coppernicians at stake in parallel instances of the matter. Nonetheless, this was a turning point in scientific history and eventually led to the acceptance of the Coppernician model with Kepler. Mind you, it was not only the church who were responsible for the restriction of scientific development. In fact, in the case of Coppernicus, certain influential members of the church (such as Pope Clement VII, Archbishop of Capua Nicholas Schonberg, and several other cardinals) were supportive of the idea. Rather, it was the public and the critics of educated society, that prevented Coppernicus from publishing his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly spheres) until the day of his death.

So, this shows how possible intervention from other parties can warp our perception of what is true, which has been the case in other fields of study, not exclusively science. Going back to the idea of the ‘test of time’, a ‘test of time’ is meaningless if such an administration is put into place. If the church or ,in more recent years, the media enforced more stringent measures, it is possible that instead of moving progressively towards the truth, we would be diverging into fallacy, which work against the intention of a ‘test of time’ that intends to increase validity of true ideas over time.

To conclude, bring back your attention to the cartoon at the very beginning of the article. Given that situation, will the ‘test of time’ work? Is there a better way to ensure that external administrations don’t warp the ‘truth’ to their favor so that we can progressively move on to a better or worse future? I say worse because that is a possibility. Remember, the truth will not always be to mankind’s favor.

Recommended websites:

On epistemology;

On general and special relativity;

Recommended reading:

On general and special relativity;

  • Relativity by Albert Einstein (Authorized translation by Robert W. Lawson)

Posthumous Fame

Sorry to interrupt what would otherwise be a jolly holiday season, yet my topic today concerns death. Death, sadly, often precedes the recognition of one’s work in science. Why you ask? Well, although this is highly subjective (and feel free to disagree), here are my theories:

Public Resentment:

                It seems to be human nature to shy away from change and to accept the simplest of answers. Perhaps the cliché, “Ignorance is bliss,” holds true for scientific discovery as well; the less we know, the more comfortable we are, and therefore, the harder it is for ourselves to open up to new, dangerous ideas that uproot our basic philosophies. In much the same way, the public has often resented new discoveries (history is full of this), labeling them as false and foolhardy despite their valid nature, in order to maintain peace of mind.

I’ve been a victim myself. When my teacher proposed that gravity might not pull us towards the Earth, but instead, push us away from it, I was blown out of my mind! How cool would that be? And how controversial! Such a claim would not blow over easy in the public eye. I know I’d be skeptical myself!

Such is the story of many scientists who have died before the recognition of their work: Galileo, Kepler, Avogadro, and many more. They have been ridiculed, banished, and even executed in their search for higher knowledge, many as a result of public disagreement.

For example, take our friend Galileo here.


Galileo himself suffered at the hand of the Catholic Church, dying in infamy at the time of his death. His views upon heliocentrism, the theory that the sun lies at the center of the solar system with Earth orbiting around it, were dismissed by the Church as an act of heresy, an attack against the fundamental principle that the Christian God created Earth to be stationary, with the sun revolving around it. As punishment, Galileo was forced to renounce his theories and endure permanent imprisonment under house arrest. All of his publications were banned, including those he might write in the future. Thus, stripped of any credit, Galileo’s work failed to be recognized during his lifetime. However, Galileo has since been pardoned, but not until 1992 has the Church conceded to Galileo’s claim that the Earth is not stationary, over 350 years later. Today, it is rare to find one who does not know of Galileo Galilei; his scientific accomplishments are no less than legendary.

 Dispersal:A Sample of Leonardo's Scientific Work

                Sometimes, it all depends on who you know… or who you don’t know. Accreditation by others of prominence in one’s respective field is, in most cases, necessary for the approval of one’s work. Therefore, recognition often lies in the hands of a few key figures; whether they approve or disapprove could make all the difference. Contacting the right people and persuading them to the desired viewpoint could, in itself, be considered an art. Kepler’s work, for instance, failed to impress Galileo and DesCartes, two prominent astronomers, and was even rejected by his own teacher.

Even the scientist’s own background, especially during the time of the class system, played part in the recognition of his or her work. Imperfections in the lifestyles of certain rising scientists, could , and often would, be used against them, as they did to the grand Leonardo DaVinci, whose lack of study in mathematics and Latin severed his scientific career.

 Posthumous Fame Outside of Science:

Science is not the only victim of posthumous fame.

Politics, Art, Philosophy, Writing, Mathematics, you name it. History is marked by the struggle of many who have fought to see their work recognized, only to die before this is accomplished.

Emily Dickinson          Van Gogh may well be one of the most famous Impressionist artists to have ever lived, though his collection of paintings, now worth millions of dollars, were initially coined as displeasing and unexceptional.

          Shel Silverstein, a contemporary poet, recently gained posthumous fame for his collection of witty and entertaining poetry.

–            Emily Dickinson, a renowned American poet, led a private life, only publishing a fraction of her poems during her lifetime. The rest, found after her death, brought her great fame and admiration when published.

Sources: : Galileo, Emily Dickinson, Kepler, Leonardo DaVinci

The Little Boy and the Fat Man – chemistry behind the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

First of all, Merry Christmas!
I realize that perhaps a slightly lighter topic would better accompany the joyful atmosphere at this time of year, however (unfortunately) Christmas Dinnerproving or disproving the existence of Santa Claus or  providing a scientific explanation of why Rudolf has a red nose does not appeal to me as a particular area of interest. Hence, if you are reading this with a candy cane in your mouth, unwrapping your presents and reminiscing about the turkey you had last night (something I’d rather be doing right now), feel free to turn away and indulge in the holiday joy.

My investigation was inspired by the book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, which I finished reading earlier today (good book, great author). At the conclusion of the plot, specialists at the National Security Agency prevented the leaking of America’s top secrets to hackers, terrorists and various governments worldwide by decoding a secret key. They discovered a clue to the key, which states: “[the] Prime difference between elements responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki”The answer was 3, the difference of neutrons between two isotopes of Uranium: 238 and 235. These two isotopes were used to fuel the two atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, which, as we know, bombed the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the conclusion of World War II.

Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

The bombs were the brainchildren of the Manhattan Project, a top secret project involving brilliant scientists like Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. But they were more than the fruits of a scientific discovery. What followed the bombings was a catastrophe and a Revolution. The bombs were the direct killers of over 200,000 people, important factors to concluding the largest war so-far in human history, and the catalysts to a new world order. But right now, we will limit our scopes, and take a sneak peek at the science involved in the making of atomic weapons.


In reality, the fissile which fueled the Fat Man was Plutonium 239, although Uranium 238 did surround the material. A fissile is an isotope of an element whose nucleus will split upon being hit by a neutron in a spontaneous process when a critical mass is formed. The fissle were isolated from solid uranium tetraflouride and plutonium nitrate by chemists under the leadership of Oppenheimer, as shown by the chart below:

Isolation of U-235 and Pu-239

Producing the bomb required scientific calculations. For example, when producing the Little Boy, scientists wanted to determine how many fissile of U-235 were required for the detonation. According to Dr. Frank Settle of Washington and Lee University, the following calculations took place (information taken from here):

A 20-kiloton explosion, equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, was desired. To find the energy released, the unit was converted to joules:

  •          20 kilotons TNT = 1 x 1013 cal = 8.4 x 10 13 joules

Each fission (the process of splitting an atom) produced 3.2 x 10-11 joules. The total energy is divided by the energy produced by each fission to find the number of fissions (N) required:

    • N = (8.4 x 1013 joules)/(3.2 x 10-11joules per fission) = 2.6 x 1024 fissions

2.6 x 1024 fissions required the same amount of atoms of U-235. The number of moles of U-235 isotopes required was determined using Avogadro’s number,  6.02 x 1023:

    • moles235 = 2.6 x 1024 atoms(1 mole U-235/6.02 x 1023 atoms) = 4.3 moles U-235

Total mass=number of moles x mass per mole. Also, The weapon had a 10% efficiency. Hence,the final amount is approximately:

    • m235 = [4.3 moles (235 g/mole)]/0.10
  •                       = 10kg of U-235

Continue reading The Little Boy and the Fat Man – chemistry behind the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki