Dinosaurs v/s Spacecrafts – Inspired by two ‘Best of Bristol’ lectures

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator. This is how Dr Lucy Berthoud, a Professor of Engineering Design at the University of Bristol, ended her talk ‘The best-selling show: Is there life on Mars?’. Part of the Best of Bristol lecture series, it was a riveting presentation. Then again, how can something suggesting I may well be visiting my grandchildren on Mars not be? The only other BoB lecture I attended was called ‘Knowing the Impossible: the colour of dinosaurs’, and although JiaQi next to me was legitimately dozing, I was extremely impressed.

Dr Jakob Vinther spoke just as passionately about distinct melanocytes of fossilised dinosaur feathers as Dr. Berthoud did about her work in the European Space Agency on a rare interplanetary project with opportunity that arises once in sixty thousand years.

To summarise Prof Benton and Dr Vinther’s talk:

Dinosaurs lived in a time we can never know completely of, but yet know so much about as a direct result of various scientific advancements. Fossilised samples, though our primary and most abundant source of information of that age, do not reveal a whole lot.

Or do they?

A team of palaeontologists at the University of Bristol were able to determine the colours of a handful of dinosaur species through the study of fossilised cells. That absolutely blows my mind. Although the talk touched upon some more topics, this was enough to make me marvel at how far we have come as a race.

It also got me thinking about extinction – one unexpected catastrophic event wipes out an entire species and, in a way, resets the planet. Humans have existed for such a short amount of time in the universal timeline that is seems negligible; much has happened before us and much will happen after. I am obviously biased in my opinion, but I believe there is something slightly extraordinary about us, something that by an incredibly lucky set of events, led to a special species. At least in this solar system. Or even on this planet.. How much of the past is yet to be decoded?

Which neatly brings me to Dr Berthoud’s talk:

The prerequisites for life are raw materials/ nutrients, an energy source and liquid water. The basic essentials for a carbon-based life form, for life as we know it. Through international collaborations, various rovers have been successfully sent to Mars in order to monitor conditions. This was not a simple task – designing a spacecraft destined for Mars is to space engineers what performing Macbeth is to actors.

Mars was found to have solid water ice and solid carbon dioxide ice. It was also discovered that many energy sources exist and composition analysis of a Martian rock revealed the presence of organic compounds. At this point, I was completely transfixed, like a child on her first visit to the zoo. Evidence suggested that it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find microbial life-forms on the Red Planet. In fact, microbes even on Earth, such as the infamous Tardigrades or ‘water bears’ can survive extreme conditions. The below-freezing temperatures, high radiation levels, noxious atmosphere and prevalent solid carbon dioxide dust storms may certainly be classified a harsh environment, but those early life forms can totally roll with it. Earth in its early years, after all, was nothing like it is now, either.

My mind was racing: What if we are looking our past straight in the eyes, by studying this cold dead planet and its likely evolution? It is more probable than not that life is more complex and much cleverer than us, and carbon-based is the end-all of possible life. It may well be that we lack the resources to even simply recognise other types of life. If higher organisms do evolve from single-celled Martian equivalents, we Earthlings could play God to them; we could be their passive-aggressive, God exists/ God doesn’t exist, crazy confusing mythological creatures.

Which then begs the question – did another, undiscernible, higher order creature much too evolved for us to comprehend, play God to us in our early years? Were they looking into their past via us? Will we make the same choice, if such an opportunity should present itself disguised as gullible early Martians?

What Dr Berthoud said next flipped my train of thought all too suddenly – There used to be liquid water on Mars. The now cold, dead planet existed under conditions which allowed charming brooks and mighty rivers to flow. This was a time before catastrophic solar winds stripped off the planet’s atmosphere (plausible explanation only).

And then I thought, what if we are looking our future straight in the eye?

A catastrophic event causing such a monumental alteration in a planet’s conditions that is analogous to resetting it: I was reminded plain as day of Dr Vinther’s talk from weeks ago.

Maybe we are looking at both our past and our future. Maybe the reason palaeontology is as fascinating to as futuristic space engineering is because they aren’t that much different after all. The cycle keeps repeating itself – the past is the future and the future is the past.

(Sounds like a delusional person who thinks they know what they’re talking about but are actually 100% bullshitting. I promise you I am doing neither.)

It seems wasteful, unnecessary, as if the same mistakes are being made over and over and over again in an endless loop. It is possible, however, that this cycle will fly off on a glorious tangent of change when a worthy species arises.

And this is where I believe ours may stand a chance, why we may be special – We are questioning the past and future with equal rigor, we are re-defining the problem and focusing on bettering our understanding simply by looking more closely at what is abundant evidence and working tirelessly and innovatively to build appropriate instruments. The question stands: Will we lead the universe into a different dimension of evolution before we create the next catastrophe?

Or maybe I am delusional.


It’s Time To Rip Off The Band-Aids

Thought Catalog

Us humans, well, we like to band-aid everything.

We put on band-aids to cover up failures, to hide battle scars, to mask heartache. We put on band-aids in an attempt to disguise hurt, fear or doubt. We put on band-aids to try and ease the sting from the rejection we received, or to mend the burn we felt when we were forced to watch everything we care about be ripped from our grasp. We put on band-aids when we slip hard, to lessen the brunt of our falls.

We put on band-aids as a means of protection. We put on band-aid after band-aid to add barriers between us and everything we are afraid of. Everything that has hurt us, or has the potential to. We put on band-aids to dull the pain. We wear so many layers of band-aids that we don’t even recognize our own flesh and blood anymore…

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A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett

A little princess

Set in London of the early 20th century, this beloved children’s classic has become one of my favourite books. Apart from being a heart-warming and delightful read, the intelligent things Sara Crewe so simply says was why I couldn’t help but turn page after another.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is a talented children’s writer, but her books somehow manage to enrapture adults just the same. A Little Princess is a lovable book, some might find it devoid of that exciting darkness or even predictable, but the fact that I cried when Sara first moved into her attic and was welcomed by a sobbing, heartbroken Becky is proof enough that I was entirely absorbed.

And isn’t that the purpose of a good book, to make you feel as if you’re living the characters’ lives? To take you places you’ve never heard of and spark that resting imagination?

Sara’s fairy-tale imagination is her weapon again all destitute that befalls her at a very young age. Her strength of character and sense of humanity is humbling. ‘So little, yet so old’. The whole plot sometimes seems unrealistic and Sara has been called a Mary Sue, but I disagree. Her silent, fierce pride and ability to “suppose” the fanciest, most romantic scenarios in the worst of times is encouraging even to grown-ups. What more, she even adores books!

This book will touch your heart. The characters are lovably created, right from the Large Family to little Melchisedec, and will fill you with alternating pride and disdain due to the magic Burnett weaves into every chapter.

I feel like Ram Dass deserves a special mention, for being the magician who brought hope into the life of a brave girl who was almost reduced to hopelessness. I find it quite funny how I absolutely despise Miss Minchin and am ready with any number of insults at her mere thought! And poor sweet Captain Crewe, the thought of him fills me with inexplicable sadness.

This story will stay with you forever, these characters won’t seem like characters at all, but the dearest of friends. And to me, this makes A Little Princess a winner!

Simplifying literary analysis

LITWords are beautiful. Words are powerful. Words are magical.

English Literature is a demanding subject, what with having to read Shakespeare and familiarising yourself with his language. But even if you are like me, someone who loves literature and constantly converses in Elizabethan, English Lit. is no joke.

Because I’m a nice person, here’s a great video for all you GCSE and A-Level English Lit. students pulling your hair out over poem/book analyses,  to get your brains ticking!

If you haven’t already heard of TedEd, GO WATCH THEIR OTHER VIDEOS.


dharavi-roof4Irony is my favourite figure of speech. It’s straightforward and it’s layered. It can be sad, but not without an underlying thread of dry humour. It’s usually hidden, but it’s bold. Only your own literary capabilities and imagination can limit the depth you see, and show others, in a single phrase.

When I see the Dharavi slum of Mumbai flanked by skyscrapers, I think of irony. It’s so upsetting, so overwhelming, that it becomes amusing. The stark contrast between the two residences is made even more prominent by their respective inhabitants. One group drives BMWs, shops at Louis Vuitton and takes vacations to the Maldives; the other group drives auto rickshaws, shops at the subzi mandai and buries its cholera-stricken children in crowded cemeteries. Though they live side by side, they might as well have been from different planets.

The United States of America is a powerful nation, with good quality of life and developed in every aspect. Nigeria is a developing country; consumed by poverty and famine, hopelessly in debt.

“With 9.6% of its population chronically depressed, the U.S. is the most depressed country in the world. The least depressed is Nigeria.”

If you don’t see the irony dripping from this sentence, you probably live under a rock. There is a simple logic to this unusual difference – the more we have, the more we desire. My maid’s little boy is jealous because his friend has shoes that aren’t falling apart. I, with a Dell laptop, feel degraded in a world where the MacBook rules. Millionaire Mr.X feels insulted because billionare Mr.Y has 25 beach houses but he only has 23. I’m just trying to make the hierarchy more evident here.

So how does one break out of this personal cycle of unlimited desires? Enjoy the roof on your head, the sound of leaves crunching under your feet, the smell of the rain. Complain a little less, live a little more.

Science is magic

photooo.jpgEver stood on top of a hill you climbed, looking out over its edge, panting, unto an infinite expanse of green trees and azure sky, experiencing an inexplicable connection with the natural world? The bustle of everyday life is rendered irrelevant in that mystical moment. All that matters is living. Exploring. Experiencing. These moments of wondrous revelations could come to different people in different situations.

The day I looked through the microscope and discovered the delicate intricacy of unimaginably tiny cells that make up everything in the infinitely vast universe, was the first time I felt that electrifying connection. I realised the amount of wonder that goes unnoticed by us. There is as much beauty in the process of DNA replication as is in that instant at the top of the mountain.. the top of the world.

Science is magic. Science is nature. It does not work against nature, but is a part of it. It helps us understand our magnificently complicated world. The destruction humans have caused to the earth that gave us everything we ever asked for can be rectified with the help of science.

Solar and wind power can give our rapidly depleting natural resources time to become replenished; biofuels can steer the world away from pollution; gene therapy may be used to create environment- and technology-friendly organisms. Some may argue that we wouldn’t need all this if we hadn’t let technology take over out lives in the first place. But, hasn’t it opened the human mind to unimaginable possibilities, taunted us to challenge our best accomplishments and pushed us to create something even more magnificent?

It is only by learning about the science of all living beings that we can save them. Merge science and nature, and you have got yourself some serious magic.