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At 7.14 a.m. on June 30, 1908 a huge fireball exploded in the Siberian sky. A thousand times the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, it flattened an area of remote Tunguska forest bigger than metropolitan New York, forming a mushroom cloud that almost reached into space.

What was it? A wayward black hole, a crashing comet, an rogue asteroid, an exotic rock of antimatter or mirror matter, a methane gas blast from below, an alien spacecraft, a laser beam fired by extraterrestrials, or an early experiment in nuclear physics which got out of hand?

More than a century on, this grand dame of science mysteries still fascinates scientists and charlatans alike.

Australian science journalist and author Surendra Verma tells the incredible story of this famous fireball. He also examines the major theories – scientific and fanciful – and evaluates the new evidence that claims that the mystery has at last been ‘solved.’ Or, is it?

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A smack that taught me to respect all religions

A personal experience

The memory of the moment is imprinted on some stubborn neurons that refuse to die. Even after more than 60 years when I look at my left cheek in the mirror and remember that moment, it seems deep red and the pain still sharp

I was 10 then and I was spending my summer vacation with my maternal grandfather in a small, scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas. One Sunday morning, he took me for a walk through the narrow streets of the town.

As we walked came in view the graceful curves of arabesque motifs on the dome of a majestic mosque, a marvel of Mughal architecture in that corner of the world. After a short walk, through the arched portal, I saw a vast expanse of the checkered marble floor, crowded with men in white skull caps kneeling with their faces towards Mecca. My grandfather, a not-so-devout-Hindu, stopped in front of the mosque, pressed his palms together and bowed his head as a sign of respect. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

After a few minutes’ walk, the street became quieter and steeper, and we were now in front of a Catholic church. Through the large stained-glass windows, I could see Christ on the cross, exquisitely carved in white marble. My grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

Now we turned left into a wider street and walked downhill past a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, a simple whitewashed building proclaiming that elegance is ingeniously simple. From the street, I could see Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures, resting on a low table covered with a white silk cloth. An old man with a long snow-white beard and blue turban sat cross-legged in front of the table. In his right hand was a fluffy white fan that he waved gently over the holy book. Again, my grandfather stopped, pressed his palms together and bowed his head. His stern eyes demanded the same from me. I obliged.

About two hundred yards further on we were now in front an ornate Hindu temple, full of statues dressed in garish garments. Sweet smells of burning incense and enchanting sounds of prayers reminding Hindus of their karma in this world. My grandfather repeated his ritual of respect for places of worship. But I exploded, “Why we have to bow in front of every stupid temple?” I ran inside the temple and spat on a statue of a god.

My grandfather grabbed me and smacked me on my left cheek with a force I thought only Hercules was capable of applying. “I don’t care whether you practice any religion, but you must always respect all religions,” the words erupted from his mouth like lava from a volcano. My grandfather was a man of peace and non-violence, the Mahatma Gandhi of our family. He always exuded happiness and contentment, and I had never seen him angry.

Twelve years passed, and the memory of the childhood incident somewhat dimmed. My grandfather now dead, his body on a funeral pyre a few yards from the River Ganges. A crowd of hundreds of solemn mourners, a Hindu priest chanting a prayer and throwing something on the funeral pyre. I’m watching the ritual from a distance with scepticism, far away from the flames, and then suddenly I felt my left cheek burning and grandfather’s voice thundering in my ears, “You must always respect all religions.” I pressed my hands together and bowed my head in the direction of the funeral pyre.

And then I walked away, wondering, “How could I respect all religions if I don’t know anything about them?” I started reading English translations of scriptures, commentaries and other books on all major religions. I found the books all enlightening and saw no reason I couldn’t respect all the great religions of the world.

I could never learn the divine language that comes so easily to people of faith. But I do know my grandfather would be proud of me. I can be an atheist and still respect followers of all religions. There is no paradox here.

© Surendra Verma 2020

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Light up that bulb in your brain


Designers often symbolise creativity with a light bulb. This popular design symbol has now the approval of neuroscientists. They have found that a small region on the right side of the brain shows striking increase in electrical activity (the brain scan literally lights up) when people experience a sudden eureka moment.

Researchers scanned volunteers’ brains while doing simple word puzzles. The puzzles involved finding a common word that linked three different words, for example, fence, card and master (answer: post). In more than half the cases the answer came in a flash of insight. The volunteers’ ‘Aha!’ moment generated a striking increase in electrical activity in the right side of the brain.

Well, what could you do to light up that bulb in your brain?

American psychologist Robert Epstein believes in four core competencies of creative expression:

Capturing. Whenever you get new ideas, learn to preserve them.

Surrounding. Surround yourself with interesting people and things.

Challenging. Tackle tough problems.

Broadening. Expand your knowledge.

Once you have acquired these four core competencies, the following tips, based on a list devised by Ulrich Kraft, a German physician, would help you to be creative:

Wonderment. Retain a child-like curiosity about the world around you.

Motivation. You know Thomas Alva Edison’s famous aphorism: Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. As soon as the first spark of 1 per cent inspiration arises, follow it with determination.

Intellectual courage. Think outside the square. Avoid using this over-used phrase in your reports and talks, but practise it.

Relaxation. Relax, ponder, daydream.

© Surendra Verma 2020