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.


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], [], [Fischer spacepen], [Snopes]

Soviet Man Who Survived a Particle Accelerator Beam

By Anupum Pant

Not even the world’s greatest researchers are too sure about what really happens when you put your hand in front of a particle accelerator beam.  And yet, we know what happens (not always) when you stick your head into a particle accelerator.

The Accident

That is because a Russian scientist named Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, in the year 1978, working at U-70 synchrotron at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, accidentally put his head into a particle accelerator while checking for a dysfunctional part in the equipment. His head came in the path of a high-energy proton beam moving at a speed that was just slightly less than the speed of light. The beam entered his head from the back and came out from somewhere around the nose. Only he knows what he exactly saw when that happened. Apparently, he saw a very bright light, a light brighter than thousand suns and felt no pain.

Post Accident

The left part of his face, where the beam had passed, started swelling beyond recognition and people were certain that the man would soon die due to radiation poisoning. The proton beam had travelled through his head, burning all the living tissue in between and caused the skin at entry and exit points to peel off. The beam had passed a part of his brain and had burnt a considerable amount of brain tissue too. The picture below shows the path where the beam travelled and burnt all the living tissue.

particle accelerator beam head picture

Miraculously, he survived after being exposed to about 200,000 rads of radiation dose (enough to nearly kill the toughest bacterium)! Hell, even 500-600 rads are lethal for human beings. That was mostly because the beam was very thin and only a fraction of tissues out of the whole body that  got exposed to the beam were severely damaged, it left most of the remainder of the body exposed at pretty low levels of radiation.

Not just that, his mental performance showed no signs of degeneration. He even went on to complete his Ph.D after this accident and still lives a fairly healthy life. However, the accident did leave him with a dysfunctional left ear and a permanently paralysed left side of his face. Notably, the left side of his face became frozen and also never aged. At the same time, the right side of his face ages normally.

At that time this accident was buried by the Soviet Union and was branded as top-secret. It was only a couple of years later the whole world came to know about this.

Anatoli remains to be the only person to have ever done this. Most shockingly, he also survived it and still lives a fairly healthy life today.

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Six Unsolved Math Problems Could Fetch You $6 Million

By Anupum Pant

Till the year 2003, there were seven mathematical problems that had not been solved. Then came in Grigori Perelman, a Russian mathematician, who solved The Poincare Conjecture, a problem which was the first one of those seven unsolved problems.

To Grigori Perelman the prize was completely irrelevant. Sir John Ball, president of the International Mathematical Union tried persuading him for 10 long hours to accept the prize. But, he did not attend the ceremony, and declined to accept the medal, making him the first and only person to decline this prestigious prize.

6 problems yet to be solved

One down. Today, six of them still remain unsolved. Each one of those six problems carries a $ 1 Million for whoever solves it. A total of $ 6 Million to be won! For more than a century the solutions to these six problems have eluded mathematicians.

  1. P versus NP
  2. The Hodge conjecture
  3. The Riemann hypothesis
  4. Yang–Mills existence and mass gap
  5. Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness
  6. The Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture

Today, I’m going to talk about the first and probably the most popular problem among the six millennium prize problems.

P versus NP

The first one and one of the most vexing questions in computer science and mathematics is the P versus NP problem – polynomial versus non-deterministic polynomial. It is quite a popular one and has made appearances in TV shows like The Simpsons and Numbers and in a video game, SIMS 3.

The reason this one interests me more than the other 5 problems is because P versus NP is a problem which is the most likely, among all of them, to be solved by an amateur.

Presently it is not known if P equals NP. The problem if solved could figure which problems can or cannot be solved by a computer. Seems abstract, but if solved it could have great implications. It could dramatically affect our everyday lives.

  • Although mathematicians expect it to go the other way, but if it is proved that P = NP, it would make our current definitions of security obsolete. Public-key cryptography could become impossible. We could face problems with online security if wrong people get proper resources to break public key  – That means it would become possible for people to break into your bank accounts, communications, emails, encrypted data etc…
  • Dealing with optimization problems would become easier. That means everything will be much more efficient. Transportation of will  be scheduled optimally. Moving people and goods would become quicker and cheaper. Manufacturing units would be able to improve their production speed and make less waste etc…
  • Weather, earthquakes and other natural phenomenon would get easier to predict. We might even find the perfect cancer cure.

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