What on earth is an interrobang?

Interrobang (noun; syllabication: in∙ter∙ro∙bang; pronunciation: in-TAIR-uh-bang) is a punctuation mark in the form of a question mark superimposed on an exclamation point, used to end a simultaneous question and exclamation. It is derived from iterro(gation) point or question mark + bang (printers’ slang for an exclamation point).

It was introduced in 1962 by Martin K Speckter, head of a New York advertising and public relations agency and editor of TYPEtalks magazine). In an article in TYPEtalks, Mr Speckter declared that copywriters needed a new mark to punctuate rhetorical statements where neither an exclamation point nor a question mark alone exactly conveyed the writer’s intent.


CAN God particle SOLVE the mystery of the Universe?

The Universe. A 13.7-billion-year-old expanse of flat space filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies and vast clouds of glowing gas called nebulae (Latin for ‘clouds’). This infinite space has been expanding and the galaxies are moving further apart. The rate of expansion is mind-boggling: imagine a pea growing to the size of the Milky Way in less time than it takes to blink. Only a tiny proportion of the Universe’s stuff is visible. The rest is known only as dark matter and dark energy. Their true nature is still a mystery. Clues to the destiny of the Universe are hidden in dark matter and dark energy.

The Universe is filled with an invisible energy field. This field – known as the Higgs field – creates a drag on particles. If a particle moves through this field with little or no drag, it will have little or no mass. Alternatively, a particle interacting significantly with the field will have a higher mass. Higgs bosons suffuse the field and act as intermediaries between the Higgs field and other particles. When other particles attract Higgs bosons they acquire mass. It’s the very reason matter exists in the Universe.

Elementary particles are the fundamental units of matter and energy. The best known of these units are electrons, protons, neutrons and photons. Each elementary particle has three characteristics: mass (some particles have zero mass), charge (every particle has a positive or negative or charge; some particles have zero charge) and spin (every particle spins somewhat like a top, except Higgs boson). Physicists believe that for every ordinary particle there exists a ‘superpartner’ with identical characteristics – except that its spin differs by half a unit. This is known as supersymmetry. There is still no direct evidence for the existence of supersymmetry.

According to the Standard Modelof particle physics – a powerful theory that is central to the modern understanding of the nature of time, matter and the Universe – all elementary particles fit into two categories: fermions and bosons.

 Fermions (named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi) are the particles of matter; they’re only created in particle–antiparticle pairs. There are two classes of fermions: leptons and quarks. Both contain six particles: leptons – electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau, tau neutrino; quarks – up quark, down quark, strange quark, charm quark, top quark, bottom quark. There are three generations of fermions. The first generation particles make up the ordinary matter: protons (each an up-up-down quark triplet), neutrons (each an up-down-down quark triplet) and electrons. The second and third generation particles are produced in high-energy reactions and decay quickly into first-generation particles.

Bosons (named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose) are particles that transmit force by the exchange of an intermediate particle peculiar to that force. They are: gluons, W and Z bosons and Higgs boson.

The Universe is held together by four types of fundamental forces. Gravity is the long-range force: it holds chair to the floor and planets in their orbits. Electromagnetic force is the attraction and repulsion between charged particles: it enables light bulbs to glow and lifts to rise. The strong force keeps atomic nuclei together: it binds together the protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. The weak force is also a kind of ‘nuclear’ force: it causes elementary particles to shoot out of the atomic nucleus during the nuclear decay of such radioactive elements as uranium.

The strong force is mediated by gluons, the electromagnetic force by photons, the weak force by W and Z bosons, and gravity by hypothetical particles called gravitons. The Standard Model does not include gravity.

The discovery of Higgs bosons completes the Standard Model. Sometimes called the God particle because its existence is fundamental to the creation of the Universe, the Higgs boson was proposed in the early 1960s by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and other researchers.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator that smashes protons into one another at nearly the speed of light (Einstein’s speed rule prohibits particles travelling at or faster than the speed of light). The massive LHC sends protons racing in opposite directions through a 27-kilometre oval-shaped tunnel which is 116 metres underground at the Swiss-French border. When the protons collide they produce tiny explosions, which mimic conditions of the Big Bang and create smaller elementary particles, including Higgs bosons. Though Higgs bosons exist only for a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a second, they prove the existence of the Higgs field.

Physicists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Physics (CERN) announced the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. ‘It’s incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,’ exclaimed 83-year-old Peter Higgs who was present at the time of announcement.

The Standard Model is now complete and physicists can say confidently that galaxies, stars, planets – and they – do exist, indeed.

But the Universe still remains mysterious as physicists have yet to find out the true nature of dark matter and dark energy. All normal matter in galaxies, stars and planets in the observable Universe adds up to less than 5 per cent of the Universe. The rest is dark matter or dark energy (dark means it is not in the form of matter we see). Dark matter is a still unidentified force or particle that makes up about 25 per cent of the Universe and holds the galaxies together. About 70 per cent of the Universe is dark energy, which affects the Universe’s expansion.

© Surendra Verma 2020


Can six monkeys strumming unintelligently on keyboards for millions of years write this book?

In 1944 Erwin Schrödinger, the celebrated physicist famous for his ‘cat’ (not a real moggy, but a thought-experiment), wrote a little book, What Is Life?. Stepping outside his field of expertise, he speculated that life’s genetic information had to be compact enough to be stored in molecules in ‘some kind of code-script’. These molecules, passed from parent to child, are ‘the material carrier of life’. (What Is Life? is now available for free on the internet and still makes a fascinating read.)

Francis Crick and James Watson, crackers of life’s code, both have acknowledged how this revolutionary idea inspired them. In 1953, in ‘a few weeks of frenzied inspiration’, as Time magazine put it, the two young and unknown scientists solved the secret of life at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. On 28 February, Crick walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and, as Watson later recalled, announced that ‘we have found the secret of life’. That morning they had discovered the last piece of the puzzle that revealed the double helix structure of DNA.

Although it is difficult to define life, everyone agrees that all living things reproduce and for this they must have a system for storing and duplicating instructions about their structure and passing it on to their offspring. For life on Earth, DNA provides such a system. Its most remarkable feature is its genetic code, which is the same for all life forms on Earth. This feature makes the genetic code as old as life itself.

Our planet was formed about 4.6 billion years ago from a ring of gas and dust around the young Sun. For nearly 700 million years the young Earth was subjected to intense bombardment by gigantic asteroids, the debris left over from the formation of the solar system. Life appeared about 3.8 billion years ago, as soon as the cosmic bombardment had ended. Some biologists say that life on young and inhospitable Earth appeared ‘fully formed, with almost indecent haste’.

Why did life appear on Earth, but not some other planet, say Mars? Should we ask the six monkeys busy pounding keyboards? Leave them alone, let the author try first.

For an intergalactic estate agent our planet is prime real estate. It has the three ‘must have’ things in real estate: location, location and location. What makes a planet fit for life? It must not be too hot, nor too cold. A planet’s distance from its star determines whether it will be hot or cold. It must be at the right distance from its star for the existence of the elixir of life – liquid water. It must not be too big, nor too small. If it is too big, its gravity will attract gases from space. It will then be like Jupiter, which has an outer shell of hydrogen and helium. If it is too small, like the Moon, its pull of gravity will be so weak that it will not be able to hold on to oceans and an atmosphere, as water or gases will be lost in space. It must also be relatively safe from space hazards: bombardment by asteroids and comets, and blasts of dangerous radiation from space. Earth not only has the right location, it has a solid surface that can support water. It also has an abundance of carbon – the other essential ingredient for life. Atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide and water vapour, form a blanket around our planet and keep it at a comfortable temperature for life.

In brief, our planet is the Goldilocks planet (‘Ahhh, this porridge is just right’).

Where can we find a planet fit for life? In a habitable zone, of course. A habitable zone, also known as a Goldilocks zone is a region around a star in which a planet’s surface temperature is ‘just right’ for liquid water to exist. The Sun’s habitable zone extends from after Venus to just before Mars, so only our planet is within this zone. These are the present limits of the zone. But during the early history of the Sun, when it emitted less energy, Venus and Mars were probably also within the larger habitable zone. Perhaps water existed on these two planets in their early history. As the Sun heated up, Venus, the planet with a thick carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide atmosphere and closer to the Sun, also heated up and lost its ability to hold liquid water. However, the geological history of Mars, which has very little atmospheric carbon dioxide, shows that it actually cooled off and also lost its ability to hold liquid water. Only the planet in the middle, with its correct balance of greenhouse gases, remained ‘just right’ like Goldilocks’ porridge.

So far, more than 850 planets outside our solar system have been discovered. Most of them are gas giants but some are Earth-size and are in the Goldilocks zone. The search for other planets is also, in part, a search for life beyond Earth, we may be closer to the holy grail of astrobiology, the study of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

You must be wondering why six monkeys strumming unintelligently on keyboards appear in heading and not Goldilocks, the ‘just right’ heroine of the story?

In 1930 the English physicist, astronomer and mathematician James Jeans wrote in The Mysterious Universe: ‘Six monkeys, set to strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions and millions of years, would be bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum.’

He continued to say, ‘… but if we looked through all the millions of pages the monkeys had turned off in untold millions of years, we might be sure of finding a Shakespeare sonnet somewhere amongst them, the product of the blind play of chance. In the same way, millions of millions of stars wandering blindly through space for millions of millions of years are bound to meet with every sort of accident, and so are bound to produce a certain limited number of planetary systems in time.’

Life on Earth is also ‘the product of the blind play of chance’ and Jeans’s six monkeys are also capable of writing the sonnet of life on other planetary systems. We are not alone.

So, you have lost some money because quirks of calculus, what about losing some weight with the help of calculus?

Our awareness of the link between body weight and food intake began in 1896 when Wilbur Atwater, an American chemist, showed that different types of food produced different amounts of energy and the efficiency of a diet should be measured in food calories (or kilojoules). In 1919 American scientists J. Arthur Harris and Francis Benedict devised an equation for calculating how many calories we need to consume each day. The Harris-Benedict equation determines a person’s ideal calorie intake by taking into account age, gender, height and weight (Google ‘Harris-Benedict equation’ to search online calculators to work out your basal metabolic rate or BMR, a scientific term for ideal calorie intake).

Once you know your BMR, fighting the battle of the bulge is a simple task: all you have to do is to strike a balance between two variables, diet and exercise. In her book, Calculus Diaries (2010), science writer Jennifer Ouellette, has turned the simple arithmetic of diet and exercise into calculus by introducing another variable: the ‘tastiness’ (in Tom Lehrer’s song, it would be y for yummy, the function of diet x). To Ouellette, ‘tastiness’ is ‘the pleasure we derive from our food intake, given a fixed number of calories we can consume per day and a fixed amount of money we can spend on groceries.’

‘So if we know what we’re eating each day now, what small change can we make in our diet to optimize how much we enjoy mealtimes?’ she asks. To record the small, incremental change recommended by her, requires a graph pad, a pencil and a good knowledge of calculus.

Wouldn’t you rather eat that chocolate doughnut, now?

© Surendra Verma 2020


Disorder – not order – rules over world

Jules-Henri Poincaré was in the habit of buying fresh bread every day from his local baker in Paris. He suspected that the bread weighed less than the advertised weight of one kilogram. He started weighing the bread daily at his home. After a year, he plotted the graph of daily weights, which showed a bell-curve with the minimum weight of 950 grams but truncated on the left side of the kilogram mark. He reported the matter to the authorities.

The anecdote, probably apocryphal, gives an insight into the renowned physicist and mathematician’s life-long quest for beautiful mathematical patterns. He said that ‘it may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of all kinds.’

Years later, in 1908, Poincaré made a remarkable observation which led to the foundation of the new science of chaos. He was then working on a problem to predict the positions of planets as they moved around the Sun. The task seemed simple. Note the starting positions and velocities and feed them in a set of equations based on Newton’s law of motion. He encountered no problem when he used data for two planets (the discovery of Neptune in 1846 had been similarly predicted from the observations of deviations in the position of Uranus). But when he worked with data for three planets he was surprised to find the outcome had turned upside down the great laws of motion. He concluded that it’s impossible to predict the motion of more than two planets: ‘Small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible.’

Poincaré’s observation received little attention from his contemporaries, but has now earned him the title of the ‘founder of chaos theory’ as we know now that the behaviour of a dynamic system depends on its small initial conditions.

Chaos is the fast-growing area of science that describes disorderly systems. The behaviour of a chaotic system is difficult to predict because there so many variable or unknown factors in the system. Chaos is a dynamic phenomenon. It occurs when the state of a system changes with time. Even simple systems can grow exponentially* with time, making long-term prediction of the future impossible. The behaviour of a dynamic system depends on its small initial conditions. In a chaotic system, even a small change can bring about major upheaval. Chaos helps scientists to understand the complexities of nature as it provides a bridge between the laws of physics and the laws of chance.

The wider significance of Poincaré’s observation was recognised in 1963 when Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, developed a computer model to predict weather patterns. While working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he developed a simple computer model to forecast changes in weather at a number of places. In one of his equations he used a rounded number; for example, 0.506127 became 0.506. He was surprised to see that his model now predicted quite different conditions. This suggested that even a small initial unpredictable condition such as a flapping butterfly could produce a larger global change in weather. Lorenz didn’t call it the chaos theory – the name was invented in 1972 by mathematician James Yorke.

This is now called the ‘butterfly effect’: an action as small as a butterfly flapping its wings, say in Beijing, could bring about a snowstorm weeks later thousands of kilometres away in New York. Chaotic behaviour occurs in phenomena as diverse as the stock market, disease epidemic, population changes and the human heartbeat. Chaos theory, which touches all disciplines of science, can be used to examine the apparently random unpredictable features of the everyday world, such as the turbulent flow of water, traffic jams, the path of the winds and the build-up of clouds.

In 1975 a maverick mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot pioneered the mathematics of fractals (a term he coined from the Latin fractus, broken). His fractals helped to picture the actions of chaos, rather than explain it.

Most patterns in nature aren’t formed of simple geometric figures such as squares, triangles and circles, but of shapes that are jagged and broken up. Before Mandelbrot, mathematicians disdained describing such shapes mathematically. Classical geometry cannot describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline or a tree. ‘Clouds are not spheres,’ as Mandelbrot says, ‘mountains are not cones, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line’.

Mandelbrot invented a new geometry of irregular and fragmented patterns around us. He called these beautifully complex patterns fractals. ‘Small parts are the same as the big parts; that’s the definition of fractal’, says Mandelbrot. ‘A cloud is made of billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth but irregularities at a smaller scale.’ Ferns, cauliflowers, snowflakes, rivers, mountains and lightning – they all are fractals. Fractals can be described by simple mathematical equations that can be used to generate computer images.

Fractal geometry is now used to compress computer images; locate underground oil deposits; build dams; understand corrosion, acid rain, earthquakes and hurricanes; study global climate change; and even to model booms and busts of stock markets.

Some psychologists suggest that the basic idea of chaos also works in our personal lives: a small act of kindness causes a small ripple and if there are enough small acts they could magnify into the butterfly effect of happiness making people happier on the other side of the street, the town, the world.

© Surendra Verma 2020