Friday, April 5, 2013

The Gol Gumbaz and other monuments of Bijapur – Personal Photo Album Part 20

The city of Bijapur in north Karnataka is famous for its historical monuments of Islamic architecture dating back to the Adil Shahi dynasty that ruled the Deccan region of southern India during 1490 to 1686.  The most famous of these monuments is the world renowned Gol Gumbaz, comparable in grandeur and size to a handful of such ancient edifices in the country.  But for these monuments, most of which are well looked after by the Archeological Survey of India, Bijapur is a dusty and rusty old city with little else distinctive about it.

As mentioned in two of my recent blog posts, I had paid a breezy visit to Bijapur in November last year as part of a family of seven spanning three generations.  We had arrived at Bijapur on a bright sunny morning after a long overnight journey by bus from Bangalore, spent some time in a local hotel, and set out on the visit.  We had hired a taxi for our various visits that also included Badami, Pattadkal, and Aihole the next day as narrated in my earlier blog posts.
I had first visited Bijapur about twenty years ago, but this was before the days of digital photography and had nothing to show from the visit.  This time I have been able to put together a short pictorial documentary, focusing on just a few of the sights of this ancient city.

Gol Gumbaz

The following is typically the first view of the gigantic monument as one enters the well- maintained quadrangle of the sprawling Gol Gumbaz complex:

[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]

This is a rather deceptive view since the building in the foreground, now housing a museum, appears to be an integral part of the monument when in fact the domed structure is located well behind it as subsequent pictures will show.

The next picture captures the building in the foreground from some distance on the right side, with part of the domed structure barely visible.

A close-up shot of the same building from the left side shows it in its full glory, accentuated by the huge cannons on either side of the entrance.

As one walks past this building further up on the left, a fuller view of the Gol Gumbuz unfolds as in the next picture, highlighting one of the four seven-storey octagonal corner towers:

The next picture is a frontal view of the whole of Gol Gumbaz as visible from behind a second building that lies between the museum building and Gol Gumbaz.  This second building is seen in an aerial view appearing later.  Apart from indicating how massive it really is (as can be made out from the rather puny looking visitors in the foreground), it also shows how far behind it really is from the unseen museum building in the foreground.

Completed in 1656, the Gol Gumbaz is a massive mausoleum built in memory of Mohammed Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur.  This cubical structure is about 48 meters on each side and capped by a huge dome of 44 meters diameter.  At each of the four corners of the cube is a dome-capped octagonal tower seven stories high, as seen in the previous picture, with a narrow roughhewn stone staircase inside.  The dome is comparable in size to such buildings as St Paul’s Cathedral in London and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though architecturally and otherwise very different.  Incidentally, I have been inside both.

The following picture gives a view of the interior of the building showing the pleasing intersecting arches that give a distinctive look to it, though it is devoid of the intricate carvings and inlay work characteristic of similar buildings of Islamic architecture.  The enclosed structure, seen at the centre of the hall and dwarfed by the arches, surrounds the tomb of Adil Shah.

The Whispering Gallery

Running around the inside of the huge dome is the highly popular and over abused ‘whispering gallery’, so called because even the softest sound note generated at any point can be heard at other nodal points along the interior wall very clearly.  This is because of the large circumference of the gallery with its smooth circular interior that makes possible sound waves clinging to the surface and decreasing in intensity with distance at a slower rate than they normally do because of special acoustic conditions prevailing in the chamber.  The somewhat complicated physics of this phenomenon was first unraveled out by the great British physicist Lord Rayleigh in reference to a similar phenomenon noticed in London’s famous St Paul’s Cathedral.

Visitors to the whispering gallery in Gol Gumbaz almost always shout rather than whisper, thus missing out on the wonderful effects heard with soft sounds.  They end up hearing loud multiple echoes of their voices, often raucous, always eerie, something that amounts to a desecration of the wonderful place.
When we visited the gallery, a thoughtful and helpful guard took charge of the situation briefly and showed us the expected audio effects without interference from other sounds.  Here is a picture of a small portion of the large gallery showing my daughter and grandson listening to the whispers in enthralled admiration.  Mercifully there was no shouting match.

Reaching the whispering gallery at the top (clearly visible in the last picture) in Gol Gumbaz involves climbing up the very narrow roughhewn and very irregular stone steps of a spiraling staircase built into the octagonal corner towers.  This can be strenuous, particularly for the elderly, and I am glad to say I made it to the top without too much effort, but with some assistance from the younger members of the family.  In between the floors I rested a bit, looked around, and absorbed the scene both outside and along the edges of the gigantic building, with camera in hand all the time.

Some sidelights

The view from the top can be spectacular as the next picture shows.  It captures the museum building as well as the other building one has to pass through before reaching the monument.  The lawns and the greenery add to the overall effect.

The next picture shows a view of the intricate sculptured protrusions from one of the sides of Gol Gumbaz at one of the upper floors of the octagonal tower.  Similar sights, though perhaps slightly less spectacular, greet the visitor at each floor.

My last picture of Gol Gumbaz presented in this album is unusual by any standards.  While climbing up the stairs, I noticed an overhanging live beehive at some distance and instinctively zoomed in on it and took a picture.  The bees appeared to be so active and I was so fascinated by what I saw that I tried a super zoom (hand-held) shot of the bees and obtained several good pictures.  Here is a composite of the two pictures, the first showing the hive at a distance and the second an ultra-close up of the busy bees in action.  These are among the most treasured pictures in my collection over the years.  I also captured a short HD video clip of the bees at work.

Before leaving the Gol Gumbaz complex we spent a little while inside the impressive museum building, but my enthusiasm for the exhibits had been deflated by the sight of the ubiquitous ‘No Photography’ or some such stupid exhortation adorning most museums in the country, something that the otherwise efficient Archaeological Survey of India is hard put to justify considering that they ought to be promoting tourism among other things.

Bara Kaman

Located in the heart of the city, Bara Kaman is like an unfinished, indeed barely begun, symphony.  Apparently, Ali Adil Shah wanted to build a mausoleum of unmatched architectural quality.  Twelve great arches were planned to be placed vertically as well as horizontally surrounding his future tomb.  However, for reasons unknown, the work on the structure was left grossly incomplete.  One outlandishly incredible myth is that the construction of the mausoleum was stopped because once completed its shadow would touch the Gol Gombaz!

Though the site itself is well maintained, the entrance to it through a busy side street is an absolute insult to such a heritage site (see picture below).  On one side of the prominently displayed name board is an ice-cream parlor and on the other side a poster (in Kannada) advertising non-surgical solutions for some nagging physical ailments!  Such ads are generally found in public urinals and I had the feeling the entrance was not very different from one.

Stepping inside, we were indeed greeted by a very impressive sight as the next picture shows.  Incidentally, all humans seen in the picture belonged to my entourage; only I was missing for obvious reasons.

The next picture of Bara Kaman shot from the elevated floor level shows the raw and rugged beauty of the intended structure, without any disturbing human presence.


Located on the western ramparts of the very extensive Bijapur Fort between two bastions is the Malik-e-Maidan, roughly translated as the Master of the Battlefield, known to be one of the largest cannons in the world.  Being 4 m long, 1.5 m in diameter and weighing 55 tons, this was transported from Ahmednagar in the 17th century as a war trophy employing a huge convoy of oxen, elephants, and men.  The next picture shows it amidst its surroundings in its present location in Bijapur.

Here is a close-up view of the famed cannon on a platform specially built for it.  The cannon's nozzle is fashioned into the shape of a lion's head with open jaws and between the carved fangs is depicted an elephant being crushed to death.

When I saw this behemoth, I was reminded of the one in the Jaigharh Fort near Jaipur in Rajasthan.  It is displayed fully mounted on its carriage within a covered enclosure [See my earlier blog post: 14) Jaipur the Pink City - Personal Photo Album Part 3 (Oct 10)]

Ibrahim Rouza

The Ibrahim-Rauza is a pair of beautifully symmetric buildings with large central domes and tall narrow minarets facing each other, built by Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1580-1627).  As one enters the complex through a long pathway in a large courtyard with excellently maintained lawns, the building seen on the left is his tomb and the one on the right is a mosque.  The two monuments are separated by a water tank containing a fountain, all on a raised common platform.  The complex is captured in the next picture from just inside the main entrance.  In sharp contrast to the green courtyard, the buildings present a picture of decay and discoloration, even desolation, mainly through ravages of harsh weather over a period of several centuries.

When we entered through the main gate without realizing we had to buy entry tickets, we were harshly pulled up by the tickets clerk who then went on to perform his job as if he was doing us a special favor.

The next picture is a close-up of the tomb with the empty water tank in the foreground.  Without the rusty exterior, it would have been a great sight indeed.

The fa├žade of intricately and superbly sculpted arches embellishing the entrance to the mosque is captured in the following picture:

The arches and pillars inside the mosque present a pleasing picture as seen in the next photograph despite the discoloration and decay.

I sign off with a very curious and interesting  zoomed-in picture of an overhanging ‘key-chain’ of huge intersecting rings supporting what looks like the tip of a gigantic ‘key’ near one of the upper sections of the mosque protruding outward.  I have no idea of what this signifies.


Because of paucity of time we had planned on seeing only four of the numerous monuments dotting the city and regrettably missed out on some that deserved as much attention as the ones filling these pages of my album.  After a quick lunch we hit the road to the Alamatti Dam site near Bagalkot and other places.  The dam site presented some unexpectedly beautiful sights which I intend to feature in a future blog post.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Chalukyan Stone Temples at Pattadkal and Aihole – Personal Photo Album Part 19


My visit to the famous Cave Temples of Badami on a glorious afternoon on 11 November last year was chronicled last month [see: 63) Rock-cut cave temples of Badami and surroundings – Personal Photo Album Part 18 (Jan 13)] with a promise that I would write about my visits to the other two places that morning in a later post.  I am doing so rather sooner than intended principally because these two places, Pattadkal and Aihole (pronounced eye-ho-le), together with Badami form a trio of closely related and conveniently located (see the Google map of the region below, marking out these three places in relation to Bagalkot at top left) tourist spots in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka, all relics of the great Chalukyan empire that ruled most parts of south central India between the sixth and twelfth centuries.

My group had arrived at Badami the previous night after visiting Bijapur and other places on the way and checked into a good hotel.  These visits, which included the famous Gol Gumbuz, will be the subject of a future blog post.  Early in the morning we wasted sometime on our breakfast and headed for Pattadkal which we reached in very hazy and overcast conditions after driving for about an hour on a road that is quite an insult to the great stone temple complex that greeted us.


In Kannada, Pattadkal literally means ‘coronation stone’ and was once the capital of the Chalukyas and the place where the early kings of the dynasty used to be crowned. It lies on the banks of river Malaprabha in Bagalokot district about 25 km from Badami.  What the visitor finds today is a group of stone temples and monuments, all located close to each other within a large rectangular complex superbly maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India as a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1987.  With its rich greenery and sprawling lawns in the midst of a nondescript village, it looked to me more like an oasis in a desert.  The place represents a harmonious blend of architecture of the Nagara (north Indian) and Dravidian (south Indian) styles in its many distinctive structures.

The biggest and best known of these structures is the Virupaksha temple, built by Queen Lokamahadevi in 745 AD to commemorate her husband Vikramaditya’s victory over the Pallavas of Kanchi.  Other important ones are the Sangameshwara temple, the Mallikarjuna temple, Kashiviswanatha temple, the Galaganatha temple, and a nearby Jain temple.
Here is a view of the complex from near the entry gate capturing the greenery in the foreground with three of the major monuments standing out against a hazy background at a distance.
[As in my previous albums, all pictures are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]

The next picture is a panoramic view of the complex from a closer vantage point showing all three monuments besides two others on the far right.  All but one of the humans in the picture belong to my group (including the friend and guide who looked after all our needs throughout the day) and provide a sort of relief to the overall view, something that might not have been needed if bright and sunny conditions had existed.

Here is a view of the Galaganatha temple on the left and the Papanatha temple on the right, with the tree in the foreground and the lawn around it both enhancing the beauty of the view.

Here is a view that highlights the rich green lawn and the flora in the foreground as much as the three monuments in the background:

The next picture shows the Sangameshwara temple in the right foreground, the view again accentuated by the rich lawn around it.

Here is a view of the famous Virupaksha temple:

Here is another view of the Virupaksha temple along with the rock ‘Victory Pillar’ nearby on the right that carries some significant inscriptions in old Kannada.

Despite the gloomy weather that also affected the quality of my pictures to a considerable extent, the visit to Pattadkal was both memorable and enjoyable for us.  Our parting memory of it is etched in the next picture as we walked out of the complex on a paved path lined with some more serenely beautiful flora and greenery.

Our next destination was the sleepy village of Aihole, a much shorter distance but on a road even worse than the one leading up to Pattadkal.


Described as a cradle for temple architecture in the country, this place village was used in the Chalukyan period as a laboratory of sorts for experimenting with temple building in different styles and sizes.  About twenty temple complexes housing about six times that many temples in all have been identified in Aihole.  Since we had given ourselves only about ninety minutes for this visit we had to contend with seeing only the more important complexes.
It was still hazy and overcast when we reached the place and spent most of our time at the imposing Durga temple complex seen partially in the following photograph.  The plant with its shimmering leaves and flowers in the foreground attracted my attention as much as the temple itself in the background and I have tried to do justice to both.

My next picture shifts its attention at a different angle squarely to the iconic and photogenic Durga temple that would have looked far more impressive but for the unavoidable haze surrounding it.  The pillared corridor surrounding the shrine contributes greatly to the majesty of this monument.  There are beautiful carvings on the walls and ceilings, both in the interior and on the exterior.

Here is a rear view of the same monument, with the intricate carvings both inside and outside standing out in considerable detail.

Stepping inside, I took this picture of the interior showcasing the ceiling as well as the pillars.  The effects of centuries of aging are obvious.

Very close by is the Ladkhan temple housing a Shiva lingam shown in the next picture.  Its two tiered ceiling gives it a very distinctive appearance.

Just across the Durga temple complex on the other side of the road is this Ambigera Gudi complex, the well maintained lawns adding value to the sight.

On our way back, I took the following picture showing the Jyothirlinga temple with the trilingual tablet describing the place standing out nearly as impressively as the monument itself inside the well cordoned complex.

My final picture of this album shows a structure housing a stone statue of Nandi (the bull) in the foreground inside the Jyothirlinga complex, with the temple itself seen in the background.


Unlike Badami and Pattadkal, Aihole is yet to be bestowed the ‘UNESCO Heritage Site’ status.  Two possible reasons are the scattered nature of the monuments and their general state of preservation, many of them in rather decrepit condition.  Nevertheless, Aihole commands as much attention as Pattadkal for its historic and cultural importance, a thought that was not lost on us as we drove back to beckoning Badami.

Before the all-important visit to the famed cave temples and surroundings of picturesque Badami that awaited us in the afternoon (and chronicled in my earlier blog post), there was an equally important interlude – a traditional and sumptuous lunch at the ancestral home of our local host and guide who was also our constant companion throughout the day.  For good measure, nature lifted its veil and showed us Badami at its very best.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Roadblocks and diversions in the path of scientific advancement – Some examples from the history of Physics

The Context

In one of my previous blog posts [see: 32) Chandrasekhar - Fermi-Dirac and White Dwarfs (Aug 11)] I had written as follows under ‘Science and Truth’ by way of a summation:

Authority, dogma, faith, belief, superstition, etc., are human traits found all too commonly in almost all walks of everyday life.  However, one doesn't expect to encounter them in the world of science which is characterized precisely by their absence.  But, since science cannot always be separated from what scientists do, it is not uncommon to find these traits in the day to day affairs and actions of scientists.  The Eddington affair narrated here is a classic example of this.  The history of science is replete with such episodes that have had an immediate negative impact on the march of scientific progress*.  However, the damage has always been temporary; science in its relentless pursuit of truth has always bounced back and triumphed in the end.  Even Eddington's influence could not negate the white dwarf star theory for too long.  The scientist advocating the theory may have suffered, but not science itself.  This amazing proclivity is what sets science apart from other human pursuits.

I had also gone on to add parenthetically, “*This is far too important for just a casual reference like this and I intend to expand on the theme in a future blog post.”

It is now time for me to follow up on this promise, taking a few glaring examples from the history of physics to drive home my point, in addition to the Eddington-Chandrasekhar episode discussed earlier.  These examples are discussed not so much to highlight an immediate negative impact on the march of science as in the Eddington episode, but as major roadblocks and diversions in the path of scientific progress and for their historic importance.  My choice of examples has been dictated largely by my professional background, which is mainly physics, and I am sure such examples abound in other branches of science as well.  However, I hasten to add that I have endeavored to communicate my ideas in a non-technical language and with their essence understandable to all categories of readers.
Aristotelian Legacy and the Copernican Revolution

Following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors Socrates and Plato, and belonging to the golden era of Greek civilization, the very cradle of human civilizations, Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was perhaps the greatest contributor to original knowledge the world has ever known.  His work and writings in  philosophy, science, mathematics, metaphysics, art, poetry, politics, logic, rhetoric, morality and a host of other disciplines made him a sort of all-in-one walking encyclopedia, something that was possible only in such early times in the history of civilization.

In the realm of science, while Aristotle’s contributions to what may be broadly called biology stood the test of time to a considerable extent, most of his contributions to what later came to be termed physics were only like castles in the air, without firm foundations.  They were founded largely on the process of reasoning rather than experimentation, the hallmark of true science as was to be demonstrated by Galileo nearly two thousand years later.

Such an aura of reputation was built around Aristotle that he came to represent all that was authoritarian, revered and dogmatic as much in science as in other disciplines, stifling its growth for a very long time to come. The Aristotelian legacy was to do more harm than good, especially in the hands of the powerful Roman Catholic Church which ruled and controlled the minds of people based on such authoritarian precepts.
One such legacy was the geo-centric world view that placed earth at the centre of everything in the universe and would not tolerate any arguments or even evidence to the contrary.  The observed motions of heavenly bodies – planets, stars, the Sun and the Moon – were all artificially made to fit into a geocentric system through some tortuously complex mechanisms conceived by Ptolemy and others just to preserve appearances and essentially to conform to church dictates.

The geocentric system had met a feeble challenge from people like Aristarchus even in ancient times but it was only in the mid sixteenth century that it was confronted with a formidable and eventually victorious rival in the form of the heliocentric (sun-centered) model proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish monk who summoned enough courage to publish his arguments towards the end of his life knowing he would not live to see their acceptance.  Based largely on observational evidence he effectively dethroned the earth from its central pedestal and showed how a sun-centered system accounts for the observations elegantly without all the complexities devised by Ptolemy and others.  It took nearly a hundred years more for its universal acceptance through systematic mathematical analysis by Johannes Kepler and the subsequent clinching observational evidence provided by the great Galileo to the consternation of the church.  The rest is history.

Science had fought a long hard battle lasting many centuries, unparalleled in the history of human thought, before triumphing over authoritarian religious dogma that had tried to stifle the quest for objective truth.

Ironically, thanks to the power of mathematics coupled with the speed of number crunching operations with computers, it is indeed irrelevant whether we adopt a heliocentric or geocentric or any other world view today.  Nevertheless, the Copernican revolution uprooting the Aristotelian legacy was a major milestone in the history of scientific advancement.

Falling Bodies

A popular ‘prediction’ of Aristotelian arm-chair logic was that a heavier object would fall faster than a lighter one if dropped from the same height on earth.  Like the emperor’s invisible clothes unveiled by an innocent child, it took a simple demonstration by Galileo centuries later to unravel the fallacy of this.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no conclusive evidence that Galileo actually employed the leaning tower of Pisa to demonstrate that bodies of different weights took the same time to hit the ground when dropped simultaneously from the same height.  However, he certainly delivered a death blow to the myth.  A convincing explanation as to why this is so had to await Newton, Galileo’s worthy successor in the scientific firmament.  Using Newton’s (universal) law of gravitation, coupled with his second law of motion, it can be shown that different masses acquire the same acceleration under the earth’s pull of gravity.

If there were any doubters, the Apollo 15 astronauts demonstrated this live with a hammer and a feather on the airless surface of the Moon for all TV viewers to see.  However, there are some people who doubt that astronauts ever went to the Moon!  There is no question of convincing them of anything!

Aristotle’s authoritarian influence was so strong that it had occurred to no one to put his argument to a simple observational test.  The idea that observational/experimental evidence and not arm-chair logic would be the final arbiter in any dispute was virtually unknown.  From the perspective of scientific pursuit today it is absolutely astonishing that this remained so for centuries until the advent of Galileo on the scene.  No wonder science historians consider Galileo as the true father of modern science.

Nature of Light

Few things in everyday life are more familiar to us than light that enables us to see things around us.  Incidentally, we can only see objects that reflect/scatter or emit light, but not see light itself.  One of the most fascinating questions about the world around us concerns the nature of light itself – What is it?  What is it made of it?  How does it travel?  At what speed?  Etc.

It has long been recognized that light carries energy and travels at a finite, though enormously high, speed.  It was Newton who first proposed the corpuscular theory of light according to which it consists of corpuscles (particles) travelling in straight lines and can be reflected off material surfaces like bullets or pierce through transparent materials similarly.  On the face of it, this was an elegant and viable theory of light, accounting for some well-known properties, including reflection and refraction (bending when passing from one medium to another).  It held sway for a long time but eventually ran into serious trouble.

Newton himself had discovered a property of light that led to the formation of colored fringes when white light was reflected off very thin material.  We often see this when oil from a truck has leaked and spilled over a smooth road coated with a thin layer of rain.  Called interference, this phenomenon defied explanation under the corpuscular theory.  Also, Newton’s theory predicted that the speed of light should decrease when it refracted from a dense medium like glass into a rarer medium like air, but actual observations later showed just the opposite.  Another phenomenon that defied explanation was diffraction, the observed bending of light and formation of fringes when it passes through very narrow obstacles or at straight thin edges like a razor blade.  Yet another property of light called polarization fell totally outside the scope of the particle theory.

All these phenomena posed an insurmountable challenge to Newton’s theory much to his mounting annoyance when he realized that a rival theory proposed in 1678 by Dutch physicist Christian Huygens threatened to overthrow his own pet theory.

Huygens realized the need for a better theory of light considering that some of its properties were akin to those of mechanical waves on the calm surface of water in a pond, generated and propagated when an object is dropped or dipped into it.  He visualized every point in a medium through which light passed as a secondary source of spherical wavelets, propagating at constant speed and carrying energy in the direction of motion of the light ray.  Each of these wavelets gave rise to others in turn, thus setting up an expanding wave form much like the two dimensional waves we observe on the surface of water when disturbed.  With such a model he was able to explain practically all the phenomena where Newton’s corpuscular theory had failed.
As in the case of Aristotle and his geocentric world view, Newton’s exceptional fame and authority was to thwart the acceptance and use of Huygens’ wave theory for quite a long time, to which Newton’s own attitude and opposition contributed in no small measure.  Eventually, it received its due recognition and Newton’s theory was duly consigned to the dustbin of history.
Rather curiously, Newton’s particulate picture of light underwent a sort of revival when Einstein came up with his photon theory of light in early twentieth century to explain certain phenomena that had been freshly discovered and had defied explanation by the wave theory itself.  However, the photons that Einstein visualized were packets of energy whose magnitude depended on the wavelength of the light in question and bore only a superficial resemblance to Newton’s corpuscles.

The wave theory itself underwent a metamorphosis in mid nineteenth century in the hands of Maxwell who bestowed on it an ‘electromagnetic’ character and a vastly expanded scope.  Also, the electromagnetic wave theory and the photon theory were both found to be perfectly valid descriptions of nature in their respective domains of applicability and the ‘duality principle’ associated with them became a fundamental attribute of nature.

The Enigmatic Aether

Historically, an inescapable implication of the wave theory of light, either the classical or the electromagnetic version, was that light waves required a medium to pass through just like mechanical waves (two common examples of which are longitudinal sound waves through air and transverse waves on the surface of water).  The fact that light from the Sun and stars are found to travel vast distances of empty space posed an obvious contradiction.  Since physicists in those days found it impossible to conceive of light without an associated medium, they decided to bestow such a material property to empty space itself and called this hypothetical medium the aether!(often also spelt as ether).  However idiosyncratic the idea may sound today, it was looked upon as perfectly sensible, indeed very essential, in those times.
When a systematic study was made of the properties that such an all pervasive medium ought to possess, it was deduced that the luminiferous aether should have, as one writer put it, “… some fairly impressive physical properties.  It was simultaneously a fluid (in order to fill space) but also more rigid than steel (to support the high-frequency oscillations of light waves).  Aether could have neither mass nor viscosity, otherwise it would affect the motions of the planets.  Finally it had to be non-dispersive, transparent, incompressible, and continuous at a very small scale.”  Apart from such absurdly impossible properties the aether would also provide, according to Newton’s ideas on space and time, “a universal frame of reference, and all other motion (like that of the Earth around the Sun) occurred relative to this frame, moving through the aether.”

Even as the notion of the aether clung to the body of physics like a leech, American physicists Michelson and Morley came out with the findings of a historic and super-sensitive experiment that settled the question once for all – the aether could not exist; otherwise their experiment would have easily detected its presence!    This ‘cognitive dissonance’ between theory and observation wouldn’t go away easily until Einstein came up with his revolutionary theory of relativity that totally dispensed with the need for the existence of any exotic medium like the aether.  Sanity was finally restored, but the progress of physics had suffered considerably because of its conservatism.

The N-Ray Episode

In 1903, Rene Blondlot, a well-known French physicist working in the University of Nancy, announced the discovery of a new form of radiation analogous to X-rays and named it N-Rays.  This followed a spate of publications about the supposed properties of these novel radiations, with over a hundred scientists involved.  These rays were supposed to be emitted by most substances, including the human body.  This ‘discovery’ excited international interest and a fair amount of skepticism as well by people who couldn’t reproduce the effect, including Lord Kelvin and William Crookes in England.
The noted American physicist Robert W Wood, also known to be something of a prankster and debunker of nonsense, was one of those welcomed by Blondlot to his laboratory to see a first-hand demonstration.  Wood smelled a rat and stealthily removed a prism used as an essential piece of equipment in the darkened room and the experimenters still claimed the ‘detection’ of the N-rays.  He similarly replaced the object supposed to be emitting the rays with a dry piece of wood (no pun intended), and with the same result.  He duly reported his findings and the N-ray related publications declined exponentially and soon died away.  The episode became an example of what Irving Langmuir called pathological science.

Blondlot’s claim was not really a hoax as many such claims actually are, but illustrates the lack of unbiased objectivity and illusionary tendencies that sometimes haunts even scientific investigations.  The episode illustrates how even hardened scientists can sometimes become highly subjective and claim findings that matched their a priori expectations.  It is very frequently cited as a classic example of the dangers inherent in experimenter bias, the very antithesis of good science.  The history of science is replete with many examples not only of such delusional discoveries, but also outright hoaxes and plain cheating.  I would like to reserve them for separate treatment in a later blog.  But the bottom line is that science has always bounced back from such setbacks and triumphed in the end.

The ‘Martians’

Extraterrestrial life has been an eternal fascination for all mankind.  This is also the dominant theme of all science fiction.  But till date there is no evidence of the actual existence of advanced life forms anywhere outside our mother planet.  While this has never bothered fiction writers from conjuring up their tales, hard headed scientists have also occasionally fallen prey to the temptation of interpreting highly questionable observations as evidence in favour of extraterrestrial life.

Giovanni Schiaparelli, a reputed Italian astronomer, made numerous telescopic observations of planet Mars during its opposition in 1877 and observed a dense network of linear structures on its surface, which he called ‘canali’ in Italian but was loosely translated into ‘canals’ in English, and drew worldwide attention as representative of the handiwork of intelligent life on the planet.  Questionable observations mingling with unquestionably wild speculation led to the hypothesis of the ‘Martians’ and a fancy folklore and colorful fiction grew up around it.

Adding fuel to the fire was the role of the American astronomer Percival Lowell who became a strong votary for the existence of intelligent life on Mars based on his own ‘supportive’ observations and interpretations.  Though it was soon conclusively established that what these two astronomers and their supporters had observed was just some optical illusion, compounded by poor quality optics, the hysteria didn’t die away easily.  As recently as 1938, Orson Welles was successful in frightening vast radio audiences out of their wits through a fake ‘live’ broadcast of  an attack on Earth from these ‘Martians’.

It was not until the early sixties of the last century that all speculation about unusual features and happenings on the surface of Mars were fully dispelled through close-up pictures and studies of the planet by NASA’s Mariner space crafts.

In recent months, Curiosity the NASA automated Mars Science Laboratory roaming on the surface of the red planet has made some tantalizing discoveries, but no evidence of any form of life has emerged as yet, nor is any really expected to turn up in this mission.

The Elusive Neutrino

Radioactivity is the process of emission of ionizing radiation by unstable atomic nuclei.  Three such processes are common, involving the emissions of what came to be called alpha rays, beta rays, and gamma rays respectively.  When an alpha particle (stable nucleus of helium) is emitted the unstable parent nucleus decays into a more stable daughter nucleus of a different element.  When a beta particle (an electron) is emitted the parent nucleus decays into another nucleus in which one neutron will have changed into a proton.  When a gamma ray (a high energy photon) is emitted the unstable nucleus loses some of its excess energy and drop down to a lower, more stable, state without undergoing any elemental transformation.

In all the transformations involving radioactive decay and other nuclear processes, the fundamental principles of conservation of energy, linear momentum, and angular momentum (spin) are inviolable.  But beta decay had raised grave questions about the validity of one of them and driven physics into a major crisis before being resolved in a manner that marks one of the greatest triumphs of the scientific method.

In beta decay, the parent nucleus emits an electron (or a positron) and changes to another nucleus as in the following example: 6C14 -> 7N14 + (-1)e0.  The root of the trouble with beta decay was that the sum of the energies of the decay products was invariably less than the energy of the parent, though not always by the same amount.  The beta energies exhibited an unexpected continuous spectrum up to a maximum value and this was another puzzle.  Even the momentum was not fully accounted for.  These anomalies prompted a series of very sensitive and precise measurements, thereby giving a boost to experimental techniques, but could not be resolved.  The community of nuclear physicists the world over faced such a serious situation that some of them were even prepared to abandon the cherished energy conservation principle, at least in the beta decay process.

The stage was set for a radical solution to the crisis proposed around 1930 by an extraordinarily brilliant Austrian theoretical physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, best known for the ‘Exclusion Principle’ named after him and a founding father of the New Quantum Mechanics.  Realizing that his idea might not be accepted for formal publication, he informally postulated in a conference of ‘radioactive’ physicists the existence of an unknown neutral, massless, and chargeless particle that carried away just the amount of unaccounted ‘missing’ energy!  Furthermore, he attributed its non-detection to its exceptionally low interaction with matter in any form!  The equation in the example cited earlier would now read:  6C14 -> 7N14 + (-1)e0 + 0n0 where n represents the new particle later called the neutrino (actually its anti-particle).  The whole idea sounded so outrageously unconventional, even ridiculous, that it met with little enthusiasm despite having come from one of the founders of the new quantum mechanics.  But not for too long!

The celebrated Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the all-time greats in the history of physics, took up Pauli’s idea seriously and incorporated it into a very sound quantum-mechanical theory of beta decay that conferred virtual acceptance to the neutrino hypothesis.  But the clinching evidence came from the elaborate and successful experimental detection of the particle by Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines in 1956, an eventual Nobel Prize winning effort.

Today the neutrino is so well known as to constitute an integral part of any fundamental theory of astro-particle physics and we even have ‘neutrino telescopes’ in operation in some parts of the earth deep underground.

Fusion, hot and cold

Even small amounts of matter can be transformed into enormous amounts of energy under certain conditions in accordance with Einstein’s famous relation between the two, E=mc2, c being the speed of light and equal to a huge 300,000 km/sec. Nuclear fusion is the process taking place all the time deep inside most stars, including of course our Sun, by which energy is generated by the fusing together of four hydrogen nuclei (protons) effectively into one helium nucleus.  Nuclear fission is the opposite process in which a heavy nucleus like uranium breaks up into smaller fragments, also releasing energy because of a net reduction in mass.

Both these forms of energy have been harnessed on earth by Man.  While fission energy has been put to use for both constructive (as in nuclear power reactors) and destructive (as in nuclear weapons) purposes, fusion energy is so far confined to destructive purposes only, with the ‘hydrogen bombs’ based on fusion deadlier than the ‘atom bomb’ based on fission.
Nuclear fusion requires the material (hydrogen nuclei) to be heated to temperatures of the order of tens of millions of degrees, a requirement easily fulfilled inside most stars.  In ‘hydrogen bombs’ such temperatures are uncontrollably created by the initial explosion of a fission bomb that acts as a trigger.

Because of the virtually limitless supply of hydrogen in the form of water on earth, controlled fusion energy can be a solution to all our energy needs if it can be harnessed in a controllable manner.  Till now this has been just a pipe dream because of formidable technical problems that persist in spite of huge investments in resources and efforts spread over the last 5-6 decades.
It is in this context that a claim in 1989 from two scientists, Martin Fleishmann in UK and Stanley Pons in USA, created worldwide interest, excitement, and even sensation.  They claimed to have produced fusion energy in small amounts in a room temperature tabletop experiment involving electrolysis of heavy water (in which the hydrogen atom of ordinary water is replaced by its heavier cousin deuterium that is made up of a proton and a neutron) on the surface of a palladium electrode.  It soon failed one of the most fundamental tests for good science and a basic tenet of the scientific method – reproducibility.

As summed up by a reviewer at that time, “Many scientists tried to replicate the experiment with the few details available.  Hopes fell with the large number of negative replications, the withdrawal of many positive replications, the discovery of flaws and sources of experimental error in the original experiment, and finally the discovery that Fleischmann and Pons had not actually detected nuclear reaction byproducts.”  Like the N-ray episode discussed earlier, in course of time this ‘Cold Fusion’ episode came to be regarded as another instance of pathological science.

The fact that many die hard experimenters still continue to pursue their cold fusion researches does not necessarily bestow any authenticity for cold fusion as opposed to hot fusion which is a demonstrated fact, though it has proved impossible to harness for peaceful purposes till now.

Faster than light entities

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity sets an upper limit on the speed that anything can travel with respect to anything else.  This is the well-known speed of light whose value is close to 300,000 km/sec.  Nothing can travel faster than this under any circumstances and this is one of the most fundamental truths of nature.  Even science fiction writers seem to respect this and try to overcome the limitation in devious ways such as travelling through hypothetical worm holes in space-time to bridge the travel time gap.  Space travel to distant stars and their planets is a virtual impossibility because of the enormous span of time, a few thousand years at the very least, involved in just reaching such a place even using highly futuristic technology.

Einstein’s theories have withstood every conceivable challenge repeatedly, both theoretical and observational, and the concept of the ultimate speed inherent in them has found experimental support in innumerable ways.  For example, it is a well-established fact that the speed of a fundamental particle such as the proton doesn’t reach the speed of light (though it comes tantalizingly close to it) even when imparted the fullest possible energy employing the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva.  All the gargantuan energy goes to increase the mass of the particle, not its speed beyond the limit.

Not to be discouraged by nature-imposed limitations, some physicists, including the highly respected India born George Sudarshan, proposed particles called tachyons with an ‘imaginary mass’ that would always travel faster than the speed of light.  This idea has remained only as a mathematical curiosity without any application or relevance in the real world.

Against this background came the stunning news from the CERN-associated OPERA experiment in the Gran Sasso Laboratories in Italy in September 2011 that neutrinos produced at CERN travelled faster than light through the earth’s crust (nothing is impervious to neutrinos) and reached their detector about sixty nanoseconds sooner than they ought to have!  To be fair, the OPERA team announced this with caution and emphasized that the findings that had emerged over a significant period of time needed to be double-checked and replicated elsewhere though their own findings were inside the confidence level for such measurements.  Yet the news was received with a wide spectrum of reactions, ranging from contemptuous dismissal to qualified acquiescence, with the majority reaction being studied skepticism so characteristic of the method of science.  While most people were resigned to waiting for further developments there were some who jumped to a variety of speculative conclusions and started publicizing them in various media.  Novel theories accommodating faster than light entities also started cropping up without sufficient regard to their implications for existing ones.
One of the observations strongly against the superluminal (faster than light) neutrinos was a major astrophysical observation associated with the great supernova of 1987 that was detected in the Large Megellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy about 168,000 light years away in the southern skies.  Two to three hours before the visible light from this supernova explosion reached the Earth, a burst of neutrinos was observed at three separate neutrino observatories.  This is due to expected neutrino emission which occurs simultaneously with the event.  If these neutrinos had been travelling as fast as the Gran Sasso neutrinos they should have arrived about four years before the light did, not just a few hours!

An undercurrent of controlled chaos prevailed in the world of physics for some time before the ICARUS study of the same type of events from the same source, also at Gran Sasso, restored the status quo once for all in favour of Einstein’s theory as could only be expected.  As a large number of observers had so strongly suspected, the earlier measurements had suffered from instrumental calibration errors.  Coming from such an internationally reputed institution this was not quite acceptable and two of the prominent people involved in the first announcement had to resign from their positions.  More importantly, sanity had been restored and science had triumphed yet again.


Ever since its quest began for objective truth and unraveling the workings of nature, the path of scientific progress has never been smooth.  It has often been strewn with roadblocks, bottlenecks, misdirections, diversions, pitfalls and other impediments and suffered the consequences.  However, because of its unique self-healing nature, science has always recovered from its setbacks and come out ultimately triumphant as the episodes narrated here demonstrate.  The work of scientists may have suffered from a whole gamut of human shortcomings – subjective judgments, misjudgments, prejudices, authoritarian influences, dogma, superstitions, bias, dissonance, professional jealousies, conservatism, a certain degree of lemming mentality, plagiarism, deceit and even cheating – but in the long run and last analysis these have not done any lasting damage to science itself.  Paradoxically perhaps, it has in fact emerged stronger.