The Red Rain of Kerala

By Anupum Pant

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In the year 2001, between 25th July and 25th September, people from the Indian state of Kerela (Kottayam and Idukki districts) experienced a bizarre oddity – The Red Rain of Kerala. Sporadic heavy downpours of mysteriously colored water left the people of Kerala dazed. More recently, red rains were also seen in parts of Sri Lanka between 15th November and 27th December, 2012.

Yellow, Black and Green rains have also been reported several times since 1896.

Red Rain of Kerala – Studies

A study conducted in India showed that the rain was colored because these raindrops contained millions of spherical and oval red particles which had an internal structure. These things looked like biological cells. Initially, when scientists weren’t able to confirm the existence of DNA (a fact which has baffled scientists) in them, in spite of an internal structure present in the cells, some started claiming that the origin of these red particles was extraterrestrial, possibly, coming from an exploded meteor.

Later the mystery was solved, the presence of DNA was confirmed and a study, destroying popular media claims, concluded that the red rain of Kerala had been colored due to airborne spores originating from a type of algae. There was nothing alien about it.

The unusual color of the rain was due to the presence of a unicellular micro-organism belonging to Kingdom Protista, of the Phylum Euglenozoa, known as Trachelomonas. Trachelomonas was the main cause of reddish downpours in other regions of the world as well.

[Source: The Red Rain of Kerala]

The Standard World Map is Misleading

by Anupum Pant

Mercator’s projection

Most of us have this image of the world in our minds. This kind of a map, today printed in almost every textbook, known as the Mercator’s projection was first created to make work easy for navigators. Even Google Maps uses a Mercator-derived technique to project the world on a flat surface. But, Mercator’s projection has only deceived our idea of geographical area for all these years. For instance, it has led us into believing that Greenland covers an area which is almost equal to Africa (Also, have a look at the size of Antarctica there. Gosh!). The comparison of these two land masses actually looks like this.

According to this infographic, the actual size of Africa is larger than US, China, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, the UK, Nepal, Bangladesh and Greece, all of them put together. In short, Africa is around 14 times larger than Greenland. Do not underestimate its area.

You can try playing with various combinations on this web app – map fight. Try these: Australia vs. Antarctica; US (contiguous) vs. Russia; and of course Greenland vs. Africa; they’ll leave you spellbound.

Why does this happen?

Since our planet is a sphere (an oblate ellipsoid really), to project it on a flat surface like paper, the actual shapes and sizes of landmasses have to be distorted to some extent. There is no way around it. Today, hundreds of different projection methods meant for various purposes are available, but none of them can exactly show the actual shapes & sizes of the landmasses. Some preserve the shape, some preserves the size, and others preserve direction…so on…

Mercator’s projection, the devious one discussed above, for example, uses a cylindrical projection. That means, it stretches the areas on a globe, which are nearer to the poles. Hence, the imprecise size of Greenland and Antarctica.

What is a perfect map, then?

Even after developing hundreds of projection method, we haven’t been able to spot the perfect method, nor will it happen in the future. But, to get the right sense of area, a projection method known as the Peters (also known as Gall-Peters projection) projection, is said to be the most accurate (in terms of area). It is also one of the most controversial maps.

Peter’s projection also has a huge fan following in spite of its terrible appearance.

Bonus Map Facts:

  1. National Geographic started using the, good looking, Robinson projection from the year 1988, and used it for ten years, then, it moved to the Winkel-Tripel in 1998.
  2. An ideal Mercator’s projection would have infinite height if it doesn’t truncate some area near the extreme poles.
  3. Peters pointed that the Mercator’s projection made developing countries seem much smaller than they actually are. He said that these errors made the struggles of developing nations near the equator looks much smaller to the developed world.
  4. XKCD published a comic on projections – “What your favorite map projection says about you.” 977. [see the explanation here]

Understanding the Impending Helium Crisis

by Anupum Pant

There is too much Helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, present at about 24% of the total elemental mass. Helium is also the second lightest element. So, 24% by mass is too huge a mass for a single light element. It equates to a measure that is probably millions of times more than what humanity could use up in millions of years. Close to about 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined, this element will almost never run out. But, that is only when we talk about the universe. Back in Earth, it is completely a different story.

Helium sources for us

On Earth, Helium is relatively rare. It amounts to only a 0.00052% volume of the earth’s atmosphere. Although 0.00052% is not too less, you also can’t consider it as an abundant element. Moreover, extracting Helium from air is almost 10,000 times more costly than fractional distillation (mentioned in the next paragraph). So, all that Helium in air is nearly useless to us till better methods of extraction are invented.
Thankfully, Helium is also present under the surface of the earth. The source of this kind of deposit is, radioactive decays which take place down there. It mixes with the natural gas and is lost to space, if released into the atmosphere. It is separated from natural gas using a process called fractional distillation – The best process to make Helium.

The largest known underground reserve estimated to contain about 10 billion cubic feet of Helium is a federal reserve (mostly under Texas and Kansas). For years US reserves had been the largest global suppliers of Helium (90%). Even today, these reserves contribute to more than 35% of the total global supply. The price of Helium coming from this source has remained almost unchanged for a long time. While during the same period (10 years) privately held Helium prices have tripled. The gap in prices is increasing every day, creating a big distortion in the market.

Helium Usage

Uses of Helium range from manufacturing smart phone screens (all LCD screens) to optical fibers (Internet cables) to health care (MRI scanners) to scientific research etc. [Uses of Helium]

The Problem

Since Helium has been made artificially cheap due to the Helium privatization act, it is popularly believed to be a cheap gas and is wasted a lot. Instead of using it up for important things, we consume it by filling up party balloons, distort voices and other entertaining activities. In fact, the warning issued by the Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson that Helium could be depleted within a generation, seems to have had no effect on us. We still continue to waste a lot of Helium, release it into the air and keep losing it forever. Not many realize that it is a non-renewable resource.

We have almost reached a crisis already, but it was temporarily averted by the congress. In the future, after about 6-7 years, when the Federal Reserve stops supplying it (at below-market prices), it could be a big problem. I’m not very optimistic about market adjusting within such a small span either. In under a decade, we’ll probably see smart-phone prices, optical fiber prices and health care (MRI scans etc.) prices shoot up precipitously due to this artificial market distortion, if we do not start using Helium properly.