Million Dollar Space Pens or Pencils

If six years ago you had forgotten a Fisher space pen in your car’s glove box and you pull it out today, it will write without a hiccup. It will also write underwater, in extreme heat and in freezing cold. In fact it will write in space too. It has been used for exactly that for decades.

You must have heard of that story where NASA spent millions to invent a pen that writes in space. That is not really true. The millions in research was Paul Fisher’s own money that he spent to develop a pen which would write in weightless conditions. Well, NASA was spending money on it at almost the same time too. But their research program’s budget spiraled out of control and had to deal with public pressure before going back to using pencils.

There’s a good chance you must have received an email like this one, maybe around April 15th:

When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly Discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero Gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a Decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero
Gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass And at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.

Your taxes are due again — enjoy paying them.

Snopes

The Russian one line solution compared to the “$12 Billion” dollar Americans used sounds like a smooth story to tell. But that is not really how it all went down.

At the height of space race, both Americans and Russians used pencils to write in space. But since pencils use graphite to leave a mark, and graphite is flammable, it made pencils not the best things to take into space, especially after the Apollo 1 fire incident. Secondly, graphite conducts electricity pretty well. That means a broke piece of pencil tip, or even the small amount of graphite dust from it could get into the electronics and cause shorts. And then there’s paper, wood and eraser which go with a pencil. All of which produce particles when used and are combustible.

Mechanical pencils were a better solution as they eliminated wood but the graphite was still a problem. Grease pencils or wax pencils solved it to some extent. But again the mark left by any pencil was not as reliable as a pen. Ballpoint pens worked pretty well. However the problem with normal ball pens was that the ink was not designed to work well at low pressures, nor would it do very well in extreme space temperatures. Felt tip pens again used a much thinner ink which wasn’t an ideal choice for usage in low pressure environments like space.

Fisher solved all of these problems by inventing a pen that used an ink cartridge that was pressurized at 35 psi. This ensured the ink would come out irrespective of the orientation of the pen, or the pressure it was in. It also used a non-newtonian  thixotropic ink which acted like ketchup – stayed put as long as the pen was not intending to write, and flowed due to a change in viscosity when the pen had to write. Oh and the ink was designed to work well at -25 to 120 degrees C, not 300 C.

This original spacepen – Antigravity 7 or AG7, the one which was used on Apollo 7 space mission in 1968 after 2 years of testing by NASA, sells on Fisher spacepen’s website for about $60.

This video talks about how it all started from a sandwich:

[Wikipedia], [Physics.org], [Fischer spacepen], [Snopes]

Jellyfish Stings and The “Pee on it” Myth

By Anupum Pant

I haven’t been ever stung by a jelly fish, but from how Destin says it in the video, and other people I’ve seen getting bitten, tells me that it is something no one would want to experience in their life. If you did not know, the sting is awfully painful.

A jelly fish uses venom, not poison. They are two different things. Which means that a jellyfish stings you and uses extremely tiny hypodermic needle like things to inject toxins in your body.

But doesn’t jellyfish seem like a bunch of jelly floating around with no visible prickly parts? how does something so soft actually go about inserting something sharp into your skin?

Turns out, on the surface of those long tentacles these fish have, there are microscopic organelles called nematocysts which it uses to sting you. Even a tiny brush with those tentacles can trigger them. The more interesting part is that these tiny needles act very fast, and like I said, they are also very tiny. So, to see them you need a really high frame-rate camera attached to a microscope.

That is exactly what Destin does in the video below. It’s fascinating to see those tiny stingers do their work so fast under a microscope. Not many get a chance to see something like this.

Just FYI. In case you ever end up getting bitten by a jellyfish, please don’t ask your friend to pee on it. There’s a word going around that this helps, but in reality it doesn’t. In fact it can make it worse. Instead try washing it off with sea water. And then use a credit card to scratch the sting to remove any nematocysts stuck in your skin.

Don’t believe me? Please watch this…

10% of Our Brains? Oh, Come on Lucy!

By Anupum Pant

Have you ever heard people say that we use just 10% of our brains and 90% of it is lying dormant waiting to get awakened? I’ve heard this all the time, from parents, teachers and “self-help” gurus. And that what I believed  too, until a couple of years back when I read it on the internet that it was so not true! Later, I came across an informative science video (shared below) which explained otherwise. Of course it came from someone whose authority we can trust in – TED education.

The 10% thing is a myth has already hit most well-informed people, and yet I’ve heard it once again now. This is coming from an upcoming Hollywood movie trailer. I just watched it and it made me uneasy that people are still propagating it. This was the reason I wanted to make it clear to every one who reads my blog that “we use just 10% of our brains” is a pure myth.

Well, if you haven’t heard people say that, you will, in a couple of days, when the sci-fi movie Lucy will hit the theatres. Or you probably have already seen its trailer. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it below. I was totally flabbergasted by the concept, I think this movie is based on. Pay attention at the 1:11 mark.

But, then it’s only a movie. When other sci-fi movies can show reverberating explosions in space making huge sounds, and people talking in space, it is only normal for Morgan Freeman, a neuroscientist in the movie, to say:

It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent. Interesting things begin to happen.

No!

The myth that humans are only capable of using around 10% of their brain capacity has floated around for a very long time. So much that more than 65% of the people believe that it’s true! There are a number of levels on how this statement is wrong, I cannot even begin to explain. TED makes it easier for me to put across the argument…

Some time ago, a MythBuster Tory Belleci, hooked himself up to a neuroimaging device (magnetoencephalogram) which is able to measure the feeble magnetic fields generated by the brain’s electrical activity. During this time, he involved himself in some memory drills, math calculations, word associations and image comparisons. 35% of his brain showed activity. But again, in order to prove the 10% myth wrong (which they did), it meant that only a certain percentage of the brain was lighting up.

35% might mean to someone that removing 65% of the unused brain shouldn’t make a difference in our cognition. But we know how even tiny lesions can impair normal function. So, myth busters didn’t mean that.

35% in only what we can measure. There’s a lot that happens in there without us having figured it out (yet). Or like the video puts forward a solid argument – “by now evolution would have gotten rid of 90% of the parts which the myth says we don’t use.”

However, not completely relying on what the myth busters “proved”, you might want to have a look at this insightful answer by a computational neuroscientist, Paul King. Turns out myth busters were not totally right. Again, that doesn’t make the 10% myth true.

We do not use all of the different areas of the brain at the same time because they have different functions.  The closest the brain gets to being completely active is during a seizure. At any time there is only a percentage of the brain active. – [Source]

Bad news for people looking to unlock the full potential of their brain by some mystical methods, one thing is for sure, the following is definitely not true.
we use only a certain percentage of our brain at one time, meaning we are not using it to its full potential. No!