Lycurgus Cup – An Ancient Nanotech Marvel

By Anupum Pant

The concepts of modern nanotechnology must have been first seeded in the year 1959 by the renowned physicist Richard Feynman, but Romans were already doing it back in 300 AD (around 290-325 AD). About 1700 years back, utilizing the principles of Nanotechnology, Roman engineers had crafted a magnificent chalice – Lycurgus Cup (picture). Like the Prince Rupert’s drop, this is another glass marvel you should know about.

Side note: You can listen to the legendary lecture by Dr. Feynman on YouTube – There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, where he discusses the “possibility of synthesis via direct manipulation of atoms”, or Nanotechnology.

Lycurgus cup description

The Lycurgus cup was probably the first ever optical artificial [meta]material – Ruby Glass – engineered to have properties that may not be found in nature. Its unusual optical properties are something that makes it stand out.

Normally, the cup appears green, but if it is illuminated from the inside or lit up using a light placed behind it, it glows ruby-red; hence the name, ruby glass. This kind of glass is known as a Dichroic glass. Dichroic  literally means ”two colored” and is derived from the Greek words ”di” for two, and ”chroma” for color; in this case, the colors green and red.

The technology behind this cup baffled scientists for around 40 years (from 1950s to 1990s). It was only in 1990s that they figured out how it really worked. The goblet has been preserved well, and is presently at display in the British Museum.

Dichroic glass

Dichroic glasses do not use paints, dyes, or any coloring agents for the color. They are made using fine coatings on glass. The coatings themselves do not have a color, but rather they bend light to reflect colors like a prism does, to make rainbows.

These colors are visible due to the presence of very minute amounts of finely ground gold and silver particles in it. Romans could have included these powders unknowingly as contaminants or might have added them on purpose to achieve the very effect, we’ll never know.

Inspired by an age-old technology

NASA, in the 1950s, used a similar technology to fabricate a kind of glass that could selectively reflect light wavelengths. They achieved this by depositing a thin-film of metal on the glass.

With innumerable combinations of oxides, glass colors and patterns available, the possibilities to utilize this phenomenon for various useful purposes are endless.
The unusual properties of this cup have also inspired material scientists to create concepts for an invisibility cloak using modern nanofabrication technology. [Source]

I want to study interesting materials like these

If you think the Lycurgus cup, Wolverine’s claws and Aerogels (If you haven’t heard about it, you must definitely check this out!) are awesome. You can make a career in researching materials like these by making a foray into Materials Science and Engineering. Most good universities offer a course in it. It is a budding field, growing at a rapid pace, replete with real-world challenging conundrums waiting to be resolved.

Tardigrades – Toughest Creatures on Earth

By Anupum Pant

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So, if you think elephants or cockroaches are tough, that could be because you probably haven’t heard about these amazing creatures called Tardigrades (picture).

What are Tardigrades?

Tardigrades, also known as moss piglets or waterbears, are oddly cute little animals that live in water and feed on moss. Their size ranges from 0.1 mm to 1.5 mm and they have eight legs (they walk like bears). The most extreme thing about these extremophiles is that they can survive almost anything (actually, they kind of die for a while with an option to come back to life later). Here is a list of things Tardigrades can survive. They can:

  • Survive without water and food for 10 years.
  • Waddle away in the vacuüm of space (for 10 days & get exposed UV radiation), come back and walk around as if nothing happened.
  • Survive 1000 times more radiation that would kill an elephant.
  • Live through extremely low temperatures (almost absolute zero) or high temperatures (~150 degree Centigrade)
  • Repair their own DNA after getting exposed to lethal amounts of radiation.
  • Survive pressures of about 300 Jumbo jets stacked on a person. (6 times more than the deepest ocean trenches)

Scientists love them

People at NASA and the European Space Agency love doing tests on them because they think, Tardigrades can help them understand the origin of life on earth (probably by supporting Panspermia). Also, scientists want to find out more about their extreme capabilities. If you ask them, if these things are aliens, they’ll tell you – “Probably not”

[Learn more about Tardigrades]

Deal with Poverty or Go to Mars?

by Anupum Pant

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its Mars orbiter, Mangalyan (Translation: Mars Craft) on November 5th 2013 with a hope to become the 4th such organization in the world, to step into Mars exploration. I must say, it is quite a fete for a developing country which has to deal with a myriad of other socio-economic menaces. Besides that, this mission also placed India above every other Mars mission ever, in terms of the total cost involved. Frugal engineering, has helped ISRO to go to Mars with low costs – with a mere $73 Million dollar budget, MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) has become the cheapest mission ever to Mars. [silly comparisions to put this into perspective]

Side note: India’s other pioneering low cost endeavors – World’s cheapest car; World’s cheapest tablet and cheapest house.

But, this successful launch came with a throng of detractors, ridiculing India for not using these $73 Million to deal with poverty (or “clean feces off its roads”). Clearly, they did not think it through before making such comments.

  1. A nation’s economy is a huge and complex thing. Things aren’t as simple as, stop space exploration funds and divert them to tackle poverty. A number of things run in parallel. Also, every nation has its own set of problems and they don’t stop spending billions of dollars for technological advancement to focus only on social or economic issues. And, I’m sure that the government India is also taking enough steps to tackle its national issues with a firm footing on advancement of technological avenues like space exploration.
  2. The main part of this article: In contrary to what is popularly believed, money spent on space exploration does not nebulously float out of earth (on the other hand, distributing this money among the poor would breed complacency among them and cause the money to literally float out). It plays a major role in creating new technologies, products, jobs and businesses. Let us take the example of NASA here:
    Space exploration has led to development of many things that you use daily. There wouldn’t have been any computers, wrist watches, Velcro, cell phones, GPS navigators etc, if funds were never allocated to the “wasteful” space research.  Without this, there is a chance that you wouldn’t have heard of solar energy, cryogenics or even robotics. Also, several improvements in health care, energy and the environment are a result of research done for space exploration. [10 NASA inventions you use everyday].
    When you think of all this, $73 Million seems like an extremely small number. Remember, that this is also helping other businesses (vendors etc) flourish, which in turn are creating jobs for the poor and spurring innovation.
  3. Thirdly, The Indian Space Research Organization is a unique organization which has managed to stay the world’s most profitable space organization and has sustained on a minuscule budget of about $1 Billion. It relies on the Indian low-cost mantra to develop innovative technologies. As a result, this intelligent government venture has helped to create a profitable environment for space research. Hence, it isn’t a “wasteful” allocation of funds. Additionally, with its engineers living off a small salary ($20,000) as compared to American engineers ($100,000), we can definitely place our trust on an organization like ISRO – Like previous missions, they’ll make much more than $23 Million from this mission too. In other words, they’ll bring money in, not let it float out (better option for dealing with poverty, than just distributing it among the poor).

That said, 21 out of 51 missions to Mars have failed and it means that there is still a long way for this absurdly low-cost Indian mission [also a risky one] to be a completely successful one. So far, it is doing pretty good. We can only wait and see, what the end will be like.