Plotting with the Highcharts.js API

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Full output here. Preview:


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Plotting with the API

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Output (non-interactive version):



What is ‘The Last Why’?

Image: Mike Gifford/Flickr

Image: Mike Gifford/Flickr

I’m changing this blog’s name from Is Nerd because I haven’t felt like a nerd for a while and the blog’s contents have reflected that, too. At the same time, I’m not going to split up my stuff between different blogs because, though at all times Is Nerd was being nurtured as a brand, it still only comprised all my publishable output, nothing more or less. So as I feel like I’ve left that identity behind me – not that it ever belonged, of course - I want my blog to acknowledge the same thing.

What’s ‘The Last Why’? As a bumbling science writer, the one question I haven’t been able to answer is how many whys deep do you go. Let’s say I’m writing about the Higgs boson, which I’ve done a bit of. How complicated can I get? Can I presuppose that my audience knows what field theory is? You’d say that depends on who I’m writing for. But I’ve learnt from experience that it actually depends on the word limit. Because no matter who I’m writing for, if I was allowed 3,000 words, I’m sure I can write something that both 12-year old schoolgoers and 30-year old physics graduates could understand. I’d be answering a lot of whys. If I was allowed 300 words, on the other hand, I’d only be able to write something for a very specific demographic – and I’d be answering only a few whys.

To me, the last why is the why that’d settle a question. It’s the why that’s the most challenging to get to and to lay out. It describes the first cause in the cause-effect chain that leads to whatever piqued my curiosity. It’s the why I like asking, and having answered, the most.

Science & Technology

Science Quiz – July 21, 2014

Every week, I create a science quiz for The Hindu newspaper’s In School product. It consists of 10 questions and only developments from the week preceding its day of publication (Monday). The answers are at the end.

(This week’s quiz is astronomy-heavy.)

  1. July 20, 2014, was the 45th anniversary of a landmark incident in the history of exploration: the ______ __ spaceflight landed the first humans on the moon.
  2. Name the NASA spacecraft launched in 2007 to study the two largest asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. In the week of July 14, 2014, the spacecraft helped scientists discover that the second largest asteroid had an evenly thick crust for unknown reasons.
  3. The European Space Agency probe named Rosetta is getting closer to the comet it will aim to land a probe on in November 2014, at the end of a decade long mission. With 12,000 km between them, Rosetta’s pictures of the comet are starting to show it might actually be two icy bodies stuck together instead of being one round lump. Name the comet.
  4. A very well-preserved fossil of a 520-million year-old predator was found in the Yunnan province of China in the week, of July 14, 2014. In fact, the fossil was so well-preserved that parts of its nervous system and brain are clearly defined. What is the geological period between about 543 million and 486 million years ago called?
  5. The Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that crashed on July 17 had on board several scientists en route to a conference in Australia. Name the conference, well known because it is the most-attended by scientists studying the disease ____. It was first organized in 1985. Fill in the blank.
  6. On July 16, 2014, which Middle East country announced plans to launch an unmanned probe to Mars in the year 2021?
  7. An 80-meter wide crater was discovered in the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia on July 16, 2014. What do geologists think caused this “hole” in the ground to appear?
  8. Orbital Sciences, a private spaceflight company, launched its Cygnus cargo spacecraft that arrived at the International Space Station on July 16 carrying supplies. The spacecraft was named ______ ____ in honor of the NASA astronaut who co-holds the record for the most space missions flown by an American woman. She passed away in February 2012. Fill in the blanks with her name,
  9. The Convention on Biological Diversity has been ratified by 51 countries around the world. The conversation brings into force the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization on October 12, 2014. What does this protocol require the 51 countries to do?
  10. Name the American designer, architect and inventor after whom the spherical molecules composed entirely of carbon, called fullerenes or buckyballs, are named. The inventor’s 119th birth anniversary was on July 12.


  1. The Apollo 11 moon-landing, which saw the USA land the first humans on the Moon in 1969
  2. Dawn
  3. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
  4. Cambrian Period
  5. AIDS
  6. United Arab Emirates
  7. A mixture of water, salt and gas may have ignited underground, causing an explosion that blew the hole
  8. Janice Voss
  9. If a company or person uses genetic resources for commercial purposes, it/the person is required to share a part of the earning and profits with the communities involved in protecting those resources
  10. Richard Buckminster Fuller
Science & Technology

Curious Bends – Delhi’s pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighboring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets

Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

  • The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despite the loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighboring country. More form UNAIDS here.

If you enjoyed this edition, please ask your friends to subscribe to Curious Bends.

Once Dawn arrives at Ceres, it will spiral in (from blue to red) toward the asteroid's surface and map it.
Science & Technology

A thicker crust on Vesta questions how it was baked

Billing its mission as a journey to the beginning of the Solar System, the NASA Dawn probe has revealed more information about the asteroid Vesta that has scientists both eager and cautious about what they have learned.

The second largest in the belt of bodies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Vesta is almost as old as the Solar System itself. Of late, its internal structure has spurred more interest because it is similar to that of Earth’s: with a crust, mantle and core.

One team, headed by Harold Clenet, a scientist at the Earth and Planetary Science Laboratory, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, has concluded that the asteroid’s newly discovered features defy conventional beliefs of how they may have formed.

Because Vesta’s formation and internal composition are thought to be similar to Earth’s, Dr. Clenet asserts that based on his team’s findings, we rethink some aspects of how the Solar System was formed, too.

On the other hand, the science team behind Dawn, led by principal investigator Christopher Russell, a professor of space physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, contends the Clenet et al team’s reliance on “simplistic” models to come to broad conclusions without sorting out other possibilities first.

Vesta, as photographed by Dawn in July 2011. The asteroid must've seen better days.

Vesta, as photographed by Dawn in July 2011. The asteroid must’ve seen better days. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Missing olivine

Dr. Clenet and his colleagues from the Universities of Bern, Brittany and Arizona used observations made by Dawn between July 2011 and September 2012 of two large craters near Vesta’s south pole. These craters were formed by meteorite impacts so powerful that the material they dislodged comprises 5% of the meteorites that fall on Earth. And what information we had of Vesta pre-Dawn came from their fragments.

More pertinently, the impacts also dug out enough material to provide scientists with a glimpse of what they thought was Vesta’s mantle.

But they were in for a surprise. They found that a common silicate mineral of the mantle, called olivine, was missing in observations of the southern hemisphere craters. “Olivine is a very common mineral on Earth and represents about 60% of Earth’s upper mantle,” Dr. Clenet said.

In the absence of this signature material in the craters, Dr. Clenet was led to believe Vesta’s mantle has not been exposed at all, and what they were observing might still be the crust. That would mean the crust is some 20 km thick in the northern regions of Vesta, and about 80 km thick in parts of the southern.

“This does not fit with the chondritic models of planet formation,” he added, chondrites being the most primitive material that formed at the beginning of the Solar System, “and thus question the nature of the initial material that formed Vesta.”.

Because of the shared principles of their origins, Dr. Clenet’s findings, published online in Nature on July 16, also cast doubt on what Earth’s early years may have been like, he thinks.

However, Prof. Russell advised more caution because observations of Vesta by Dawn have proved the chondritic model more simplistic than correct.

Vesta and its variegated mineral composition, as studied by Dawn.

Vesta and its variegated mineral composition, as studied by Dawn. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Not the last word

Planetary bodies that have a hot, inner core also have distinct layers of material: the crust and the mantle. The mantle is formed by cooling magma, and olivine is the first mineral to crystallize when magma cools. In this picture, Prof. Russell said, “One of the predictions is that the differentiation would make a deep magma ocean in which olivine was the major constituent of the mantle, but a pure olivine mantle clearly does not exist.”

“Why? Is there a different chemistry?”

He contends the Clenet et al team’s reliance on the “simplistic” absence of olivine to come to such broad conclusions without sorting out other possibilities. Dr. Clenet argues that olivine may have been superficially removed from Vesta’s upper mantle by “huge impacts”, but the fact that the dislodged mineral can’t be found anywhere else in the asteroid belt lends credence to the hypothesis that the crust is thicker.

Prof. Russell, on the other hand, thinks maybe the body didn’t heat up enough to make an olivine-rich mantle in the first place, or the composition of hot radioactive substances was different, or the overlying material didn’t percolate the way we think it might have.

Similarly, Maria Cristina De Sanctis, Dawn co-investigator at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Rome, is also wary. She said that although Vesta is similar to Earth, “it is much smaller and it is difficult to have such a small object similar to our planet, and mass is an important factor in the evolution of planets.”

While the research community sorts out the possibilities, “the present paper in my opinion contains little new real insight into the problem,” Prof. Russell concluded. “Its publication has puzzled a number of us on the Dawn team.”

The probe is currently on its way to Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, and will get there in March 2015.

Interested in Vesta’s colorful history? Read thisFeatured image credit: Once Dawn arrives at Ceres, it will spiral in (from blue to red) toward the asteroid’s surface and map it. Photo: NASA/JPL



I hate travelling. But don’t confuse that with going to new places and meeting new people. I don’t mind that. What I dislike is catching a train or a flight and mingling with other people on the move, in train stations and airports, while waiting for cabs and on the way to wherever I’m going. It’s not that I don’t like people – I do, but I’d rather see them in certain settings instead of everywhichwhere. However, I’m willing to concede one exception, at least as far as the supposed pleasure of traveling is concerned, not the people part.

Flying back from Delhi to Bangalore on Saturday, the plane I was in experienced some tremendously beautiful weather – perhaps not for the pilots. I blame my luck on international flights, on which I’ve never managed to check-in online soon enough to land a window seat. It’s only on domestic flights that I’ve been able to do that, and after a long time – almost two years – I got the chance to climb into one. I prefer to sit by a window because I love clouds. Who wouldn’t when they could see them from above?

The skies above Delhi were like Delhi itself. Clouds seared by such heat that they were each isolated streaks forbidden from coalescing. It was a forlorn empyrean, dotted with suspensions that summer’s patronizing forbearance had reflected and refracted through to a toasty, flaxen hue, some pitiably even speckled with rashes of dust. Winds were absent, too. I hoped they would dissolve in dusk’s indigo ink and fall off, decay into the night and return once more to the shadows they came from. Oh, but fly an hour’s worth outward from Delhi and you’ll see such clouds…

… like cotton fluffs resting on a never-ending sheet of glass, casually suspended on the shoulders of warm currents. Some were wise old men of the sky, wandering in the shadows of behemoth coalitions that only storms could move. Some were flattened reeds like seraphic asylums that only the truculent vaporescence aspired for. The heavens had a hinterland, too, an Arrakeen meta-paradise of self-contained worlds turning gently on axes above and below where I flew. Only cold and wayward spirits of inspissation could smuggle water between them.

There were ridges beading a distant horizon, sententious altocumuli, immense lenticular disks that stretched like an infinite folio over us. There were inchoate memories of wetness that swam over and under the plane’s wings, slovenly masses that wept saintly tears on my window’s glass, frozen crystals locked in a bipolar feud over dew points like disavowed madmen over obscure theologies. Some minutes, we’d fly through strongly disputed space, clouds roiling in mile-wide moshpits propeled by capricious winds. Just as suddenly, we’d fly through an ethereal terra nullius filled with clean air. But through it all, it was hardly a reckless world.

That there was anything to see was because of light that had become trapped in this microcosm of wind and water. Light-year-old shafts were reduced to Brownian zig-zags through this benign maelstrom. There was something very deterministic about it all, a very spiritual and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen in years. The sun would occasionally shine through haloes around dulcet cumulonimbuses, enlightening the havens with a self-effacing, colorless glow. And just as suddenly, the plane banked and the sky was stolen from my window. I lost myself in the slipstream, and slept.

I knew enough to not hope the lands below would ever match any of my pelagic fantasies, or that walking them would kindle anything resembling the splendor of elysian waterworlds. I do long to return to the skies again.

I wrote this on the flight from Delhi to Bangalore on July 12, 2014. Featured image:

Psych of Science

Plagiarism is plagiarism

In a Nature article, Praveen Chaddah argues that textual plagiarism entails that the offending paper only carry a correction and not be retracted because that makes the useful ideas and results in the paper unavailable. On the face of it, this is an argument that draws a distinction between the writing of a paper and the production of its technical contents.

Chaddah proposes to preserve the distinction for the benefit of science by punishing plagiarists only for what they plagiarized. If they pinched text, then issue a correction and apology but let the results stay. If they pinched the hypothesis or results, then retract the paper. He thinks this line of thought is justifiable because, this way, one does not retard the introduction of new ideas into the pool of knowledge, because it does not harm the notion of “research as a creative enterprise” for as long as the hypothesis, method and/or results are original.

I disagree. Textual plagiarism is also the violation of an important creative enterprise that, in fact, has become increasingly relevant to science today: communication. Scientists have to use communication effectively to convince people that their research deserves tax-money. Scientists have to use communication effectively to make their jargon understandable to others. Plagiarizing the ‘descriptive’ part of papers, in this context, is to disregard the importance of communication, and copying the communicative bits should be tantamount to copying the results, too.

He goes on to argue that if textual plagiarism has been detected but if the hypothesis/results are original, the latter must be allowed to stand. His hypothesis appears to assume that scientific journals are the same as specialist forums that prioritize results over a full package: introduction, formulation, description, results, discussion, conclusion, etc. Scientific journals are not just the “guarantors of the citizen’s trust in science” (The Guardian) but also resources that people like journalists, analysts and policy-makers use to understand the extent of the guarantee.

What journalist doesn’t appreciate a scientist who’s able to articulate his/her research well, much less patronizing the publicity it will bring him/her?

In September 2013, the journal PLoS ONE retracted a paper by a group of Indian authors for textual plagiarism. This incident exemplifies a disturbing attitude toward plagiarism. One of the authors of the paper, Ram Dhaked, complained that it was the duty of PLoS ONE to detect their plagiarism before publishing it, glibly abdicating his guilt.

Like Chaddah argues, authors of a paper could be plagiarizing text for a variety of reasons – but somehow they believe lifting chunks of text from other papers during the paper-production process is allowable or will go unchecked. As an alternative to this, publishers could consider – or might already be considering – the ethics of ghost-writing.

He finally posits that papers with plagiarized text should be made available along with the correction, too. That would increase the visibility of the offense and over time, presumably, shame scientists into not plagiarizing – but that’s not the point. The point is to get scientists to understand why it is important to think about what they’ve done and communicate their thoughts. That journals retract both the text and the results if only the text was plagiarized is an important way to reinforce that point. If anything, Chaddah’s contention could have been to reduce the implications of having a retraction against one’s bio.

Science & Technology

Billow clouds, shocked streams & shedding eddies

I flew from Bangalore to Delhi on Tuesday. The flight was early in the day, at 6, and so I had the wonderful opportunity to watch a sunrise from above a sea of clouds. One very beautiful sight was the presence of uniquely shaped ones, styled like the waves in Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

'The Great Wave off Kanagawa'

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I recalled having seen them in Tuticorin sometime in late 2011, but I couldn’t remember what they were called. Their vortex-like upper tips had me confuse them briefly with a Karman vortex street. Thankfully, one Google search led to another and I came upon the answer: billow clouds.

A photograph of billow clouds.

A photograph of billow clouds. Photo:

Billow clouds, I re-learnt, are the result of what’s called a Kelvin-Helmholtz instability: When two fluids of different densities and sharing a surface are moving parallel to each other, the surface becomes unstable if their relative velocity reaches a certain threshold.

When there’s talk of fluids, surface tension is likely to be involved. Fortunately, that’s what the relative velocity component takes care of. However, “surface tension is not relevant on atmospheric scales,” said Dr. Rajaram Nityananda, of IISER, Pune.

More interestingly, subtle variations on the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability give rise to more complex shapes, and even more complex titles. For example, if the lighter fluid is pushing against the heavier fluid, a Rayleigh-Taylor instability* results. A memorable manifestation of this is the mushroom cloud that forms after a powerful nuclear explosion, where cooler air is pushing into the debris rising upward.

A mushroom cloud rising from the Castle Romeo nuclear test, 1954.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you sent a If you sent a shockwave through two parallely flowing fluids, you’d get the Richtmyer-Meshkov instability. The shockwave will cause both fluids to accelerate and waver, the extent of which builds up over time. If the heavier accelerates into the lighter one, it pushes through as spikes. If the lighter accelerates into the heavier one, it produces bubbles. Eventually, the instability builds up until the two fluids are mixed.

Simulation of a shockwave-induced Richtmyer-Meshkov instability.

Simulation of a shockwave-induced RM instability. Image: Wikimedia Commons

This could be leveraged in the working of jet engines. A parallel flow of fuel and oxygen could be destabilized using a shockwave so the fuel is broken up into finer droplets that are easier to combust.

At last, we come to my “phenomenological” favorite (not that there’s a list): the Karman vortex street. Instead of there being two fluids, imagine just the one, in whose path a blunt obstacle is placed. When it meets the obstacle, the fluid is split into two swirling streams. If the fluid was flowing fast enough, given the shape of the obstacle, the streams reconcile their paths after crossing the obstacle by forming vortices – sometimes a street of them.

Notice the gradual onset of instability until the 49th second. Karman vortices are evidently not hard to find as many satellite images of winds blowing past small islands have shown.

These effects are as astounding as the foundational principles are elegant. If simple disturbances on one and two streams are responsible for a variety of designs, imagine what the depthless roster of fluid dynamics will have to offer.