Unsolvable Problems – A Math Story With a Moral

By Anupum Pant

True Story

Back in 1939, a first year doctoral student at Berkeley, George Dantzig arrived late for a statistics class one day. On the board, professor Jerzy Neyman, a renowned mathematician, had written two problems, and it wasn’t very clear to George what he had written them were for. As any other student would assume, George assumed them to be homework problems and noted them down.

He went back and started working really hard on those problems. They seemed a little harder than usual to him. Nevertheless, George was determined enough. After a couple of days, when George was satisfied with his solution, he went to his professor and apologized to him for taking so long to finish the homework. Without looking at what he had done, the professor told him to put the work on his table, and he’d see it later. George did exactly that.

Six weeks later, on an unsuspecting Sunday morning, at 8:00 in the morning, George was awakened by a frantic knock on the door. It was professor Neyman. With a pile of papers in his hands, he seemed very excited. It was only then, through professor Neyman, that George came to know what he had done on those papers six weeks back.

Six weeks back, those two problems which George mistook for homework turned out to be two examples of unsolved statistics problems Neyman had written on the board. George had unknowingly noted them as homework, and ended up solving the 2 unsolved statistics problems.

Later the papers on these problems were published. However the second one was published much later, in the year 1950.

Moral: When people are not tied down by prejudice, by putting in good work, they often manage to achieve extraordinary things.

Via [Snopes]

Human Foot Pwns Any Shoe We’ve Ever Made

By Anupum Pant


No doubt we have come far enough to be able to cram in Billions of transistors on a few mm² of real estate. Hell, we’ve even been able to construct single atom transistors. Technology sure has come far, but within a just few decades of evolution of technology, are we really sure that we’ve done better than the work done by nature through Millions of years of evolution in the field of bio-mechanics? I’m not too sure we have. Rather I believe, nature already is far ahead of us. That is probably the reason, we are not even close to properly understanding how animate matter really works. We have a long way to go. And here is why I say that…

Although this was back in the year 2010, it is still relevant.

Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard

Professor Daniel E. Lieberman from the Skeletal biology lab of Harvard asked a simple question, “how and why did ancient humans run comfortably without modern running shoes?”
This question encouraged him to start a research in his Skeletal biology lab – The result of which made the professor to ditch his shoes (read on to know why). Now, he is the “barefoot professor”.

In a 2 Million year span through which humans have been running, it’s been only a couple of decades since they’ve started using shoes to run. Before that, for Millions of years, people used to run barefoot. In the process that has lasted about 2 Million years, the professor believes that the human foot was able to evolve into a very advanced bio-mechanical device. Turns out, you don’t need shoes to run, you just need feet. The foot easily beats any modern running shoe. Here’s how…

The Research

In their research, they observed and studied several cases of people running with and without shoes. With the help of modern technology (again) they were able to map out the kind forces that are experienced by the foot in both cases. Moreover, they found a stark difference in how people run with shoes, and how they do it without shoes.

Running with a shoe: When people run with shoes, they tend to rely on the soft cushion at the heel of the shoe, and most of the time they land on the heel. This abrupt landing creates huge impact forces and hurts your foot. In the long run, it causes problems. Nature clearly didn’t design the foot to run with shoes! As the video screenshot shows… (the running style is of course shown without the shoe).

running with a shoe

Running without a shoe: Now, that doesn’t happen when you run without a shoe. Since you don’t have a cushion to rely on, you tend to land on the front part of the foot (with almost a parallel footing, a little tilted towards the front). This part isn’t solid like the heel. It has been crafted very carefully by the nature to absorb the impact forces (or in other words to delay the time for which forces are experienced, like a shock absorber). That means, there are no peak impact forces. The curve, as you can see is a beautifully smooth curve, without peaks.

running without a shoe

In the following video, Madhusudhan Venkadesan explains this using a simple pen analogy (at 3:52).

via [ScienceDump]
Know more at the website [RunningBarefoot]

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Disposable Paper Microscope Costs Just 50 Cents

By Anupum Pant


While doing my daily rounds on the internet today, I came across this awesome piece of modern engineering – An extremely durable and disposable microscope made out of paper and very tiny ball lenses. I saw it first on a Ted talk that I’ve attached below. Ingenious I say!

What’s new?

Microscopes are no longer those sensitive, bulky and costly instruments which were used to observe tiny life forms. These engineers have changed the age-old definition of the microscope. The fold-able paper microscope or foldscope is an origami microscope that weighs just 9 grams and is designed by a Manu Prakash, a Bioengineer professor and his team from Stanford. Instead of costing thousands of dollars, this ingenious origami microscope costs less than a dollar and is set to transform the way people use microscopes.

Besides being light, cheap and foldable, the microscope is water proof, durable to the extent that it can be dropped from the top of a building without getting damaged, does not require any external power, provides a 2000x magnification, can be assembled by a first grader in ten minutes, is easy to carry and is absolutely flat! What more can we ask for!

It can even project the image of bacteria on your wall. How cool is that! I bet your lab microscopes can’t do that.

It is set to transform the lives of those billions of people living in the developing countries. The piece of engineered paper will change the speed and accessibility of medical diagnosis in the poor nations.

Material and actual cost

Well, as the heading tells you it is a 50 cent microscope, not really. It costs only a little more than that. Still, it costs lesser than a dollar – about $0.97. Here is the material cost break-up:

  • Tiny Spherical lens: $0.56
  • 3V button battery: $0.06
  • LED light: $0.21
  • and a couple of other things like tape, paper and switch: $0.14
  • Total: $0.97

Beta testing: The team is currently looking for beta-testers for Foldscope. They’ll choose 10,000 people who would test it in a variety of settings and would help them generate an open source biology/microscopy field manual. See “Ten Thousand Microscopes signup” for details.

It reminds me of

The incredible cheap microscope discussed above is new and very precise. Until recently we didn’t have that. DIYs on the internet taught us to construct (not really) not-so-accurate microscope setups at home using a laser pointer.

All you were supposed to do is point the laser pointer through a suspended drop of bacteria infested water (or other clear liquids).This is how I toyed around (I still do) with a laser pointer to see hazy pictures of possible micro-organisms:

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