SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, August 2, 2001, Chandigarh, India

Earthquake-calls on shaky ground
Doug Alexander and Biswajit Choudhury

Accurate earthquake prediction is a long way off yet, say scientists, but a lot can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths and destruction from earthquakes. Where are the ways and means by which casualties can be kept down in such natural disasters?

World’s highest observatory
Radhakrishna Rao
he Indian astronomical observatory at Mt. Saraswati in Hanle in the Ladakh region which has become operational with a two metre optical infrared telescope. It has been set up by the Bangalore based Indian Institute of Astrophysics for collecting data on various aspects of stars and stellar systems, such as star forming regions in remote galaxies, supernovae, high redshift radio galaxies, gama ray burst sources, large scale structure of the universe and cosmology. This telescope is remotely operated through a communications link centring round an INSAT-3 satellite.

New ceramic fuel cells
esearchers are developing a novel ceramic fuel cell which, besides converting hydrogen into electricity and heat, eliminates the drawbacks associated with conventional fuel cells.


J. P. Garg tests your IQ 



Earthquake-calls on shaky ground
Doug Alexander and Biswajit Choudhury

Accurate earthquake prediction is a long way off yet, say scientists, but a lot can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths and destruction from earthquakes. Where are the ways and means by which casualties can be kept down in such natural disasters?

The Gujarat earthquake is six-month old, but one question lingers: Could such devastation have been prevented?

India’s largest earthquake in 50 years has claimed tens of thousands of lives, displaced 300,000 people and caused damage worth an estimated $3.3 billion.

One Indian scientist says: “Had there been a system to predict a quake, we could have warned the residents of Gujarat five minutes before and prevented all the damage.”

But the problem is there is no scientifically proven way to accurately predict an earthquake.

“We can predict the probability of where they are most likely to occur but what we can’t predict is exactly where, when and how big,” says seismologist Chris Browitt of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

Earthquakes can be preceded by changes in the earth such as small-scale fracturing, surface bulging and groundwater contamination. But these indicators don’t always occur, and some earthquakes happen without any warning signs.

“There are teasing indicators in earthquake zones... but they don’t make enough sense to us to make predictions,” Browitt says. “We haven’t been able to relate them to the place, the size and the time of the earthquake.”

There have been a couple of successes. Seismologists accurately predicted the 1973 Blue Mountain Lake earthquake in New York two days before it happened, and a Chinese seismologist used sophisticated monitoring equipment to predict the precise time of the Heicheng, China, earthquake in 1975, which helped save 100,000 lives.

But those are exceptions. The science of earthquake prediction is in its infancy.

Mary Lau Zoback, chief scientist at the California-based Earth Hazards Team of the United States Geological survey, argues that forecasting the risks of earthquakes and making cities earthquake-proof is the better option.

“We have moved to forecasting because their is no scientific method to predict earthquakes,” she says.

Instead, seismologists forecast by examining historical data, geological history and the movement of the earth’s crust to map out areas of risk over several years. Certain areas around the world — where plates that make up the earth’s surface move past or crash into one another — face the greatest risk of seismic activity. These include the Pacific Rim from the west coast of North America across Alaska to the east coast of Russia and China, South-East Asia and the Himalayan region.

Even forecasting has its problems.

Central California’s Parkfield is forecast to have an earthquake every 22 or 23 years. The last one was in 1966, and scientists who have wired this remote area with the world’s greatest concentration of seismic monitoring equipment are still waiting for another quake.

Gujarat, which suffered from an earthquake in 1819, wasn’t supposed to have another so soon. Zoback says the epicenter of Gujarat’s earthquake was 500 kilometres south of a major plate collision zone and recent studies show its last quake before 1819 was 800 to 1,000 years ago.

In light of such scientific uncertainty, Zoback says efforts should go toward minimising impacts by building quake-proof homes.

“The real challenge, particularly in developing countries, is to focus resources on improving construction,” She says. “That’s a much more efficient way of addressing earthquakes”.

Such planning is critical: 40 of the world’s 50 fastest growing cities are situated in earthquake zones. A total of 249 earthquakes between 1990 and 1999 claimed 98,678 lives, affected another 14.3 million people and caused an estimated $215 billion in damages, according to the World Disasters Report for 2000, published by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Yet an emphasis on what bureaucrats call “disaster management “ gets little attention — particularly in developing countries.

John Hogan, an officer with the risks and disaster management unit of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), says cities in developing countries are woefully unprepared for earthquakes.

“Most cities can barely keep up with day-to-day functions: distributing water, collecting rubbish and housing people,” he says. “When nature throws something unexpected into a city, the consequences are much more severe than in a city that has better (disaster) management.”

Cities with suitable building codes, thought-out planning and enforced construction standards fare better in disasters than those that grow haphazardly with little thought to nature’s threats.

Hogan says the key is “to integrate a culture of prevention” in local government.

“People tend to associate local government with mundane bureaucratic processes but when these don’t work the consequences aren’t just frustrating for local citizens — it can also amount to its complete devastation.”

In India, experts agree that there is a failure to put well-researched knowledge about earthquakes and better construction methods into practice.

“We have the knowledge here about constructing for earthquake shocks,” explains DK Paul, head of the department of earthquake engineering at Roorkee University. “The problem is another, that there is no widespread awareness even among builders, engineers, estate agents — people who matter in the ultimate construction.”

In Gujarat, 42 per cent of buildings are made out of mud and stone and thus vulnerable to earthquakes, Paul says. Even in a large city such as Ahmedabad, which was undergoing frenetic construction, earthquake codes are advisory in nature, not mandatory.

Paul says that if earthquake-proofing building methods are not incorporated into India’s construction bylaws, the devastation in Gujarat will be repeated.

Prof. G Shah, an expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, quoted the Gujarat High Court as saying that 75 per cent of building in Ahmedabad were either illegal constructions or unauthorised extensions. Of its 270 high-rises, the products of an economically booming city, only nine were certified as fire-safe.

Money is the other challenge: Reinforcing buildings, upgrading infrastructure and convincing builders to adopt what are often more costly construction techniques impose an additional financial burden — especially for poor countries.

And, while governments and international relief agencies are quick to respond with emergency aid when disaster strikes, there is little financial assistance offered beforehand to minimise future devastation.

“We have to live with earthquakes in the context of the resources issue,” says Prof. Amitabh Kundu, and urban sociologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Red cross has recently acknowledged the need to move beyond disaster relief.

The difficulty remains in convincing wealthy donor countries that disaster prevention can be as important as relief. Because of what Habitat’s Hogan calls the “CNN effect” — people reacting to harrowing television images of war and disaster victims — money does not often materialise for mundane long-term tasks like making schools earthquake-proof, shoring up bridges or reinforcing buildings.

“It’s much more appealing to donate blankets and food during times of crisis — the rewards, so to speak, are much more immediate,” he says. “But in terms of the long-term, developing nations need money to integrate disaster mitigation in planning.

“Otherwise we’ll see a rise of devastation in the future.” GEMINI 


World’s highest observatory
Radhakrishna Rao

The Indian astronomical observatory at Mt. Saraswati in Hanle in the Ladakh region which has become operational with a two metre optical infrared telescope. It has been set up by the Bangalore based Indian Institute of Astrophysics for collecting data on various aspects of stars and stellar systems, such as star forming regions in remote galaxies, supernovae, high redshift radio galaxies, gama ray burst sources, large scale structure of the universe and cosmology. This telescope is remotely operated through a communications link centring round an INSAT-3 satellite.

The remote hub at Hoskote near Bangalore allows astronomers to finetune the telescope for routine astrophysical observation. Located at a height of 15,000 ft, this is the highest optical observatory in the world. Significantly, Hanle is pollution free and is ideally located for the study of celestial objects through a wide range of electromagnetic spectrum. Moreover, Hanle has low sky brightness, low atmospheric absorption and low atmospheric turbulence. This makes the Indian Astronomical Observatory at Hanle the only one of its kind in the world and the new 2-metre telescope an important astronomical tool for the continuous studies covering half the globe-between Canary Islands and Eastern Australia.

Sources in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics point out that Hanle is the best site for the astronomers giving 250 clear nights for the study of stars. China has evinced interest in utilising the data obtained by the optical infrared telescope.

The site of the observatory was selected as a part of the Himalayan Infrared Optical Telescope (HIROT) of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. Considering that the site is remote with minimum infrastructure facilities, it was decided to develop it with a two metre aperture telescope and gain experience in remote operations capability before embarking on the project for a large national telescope.

Interestingly, in addition to the two-metre telescope, a 0.5-metre robotic telescope is planned as part of a pair of telescopes to be installed nearly 180 degrees apart in longitude, which together, constitute the Antipodal Transient Observatory operated jointly by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the McDonnell Centre for Space Sciences, Washington University, St. Louis.

Indian Institute of Astrophysics has also a plan up its sleeve to set up a six metre binocular telescope at a cost of Rs 2,000-million with international cooperation at Hanle.

The Indian Institute of Astrophysics, an autonomous research institute under the Department of Science and Technology has a rich and variegated history spanning over two centuries, which includes some important discoveries such as those of the Evershed Effect, atmosphere on Jupiter’s satellite Ganymede, the rings around Uranus and the asteroid Ramanujam. The Institute is active in the study of the solar system, distant galaxies and quasars. Studies of solar dynamics such as sunspots, solar chromosphere and regular expeditions undertaken to observe total solar eclipses, in particular to study the solar corona, are some of the major research areas in solar astronomy in which the Institute has an active interest. The Institute’s research activities are supported by excellent facilities at its headquarters in Bangalore and its field stations at Kodai Kanal, Kavalur, Gauribidnur, Hoskote and Hanle.


New ceramic fuel cells

Researchers are developing a novel ceramic fuel cell which, besides converting hydrogen into electricity and heat, eliminates the drawbacks associated with conventional fuel cells.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It is produced from raw materials of which there is an unlimited supply and it burns without producing any carbon dioxide whatsoever.

Fuel cells are an equally environmentally friendly means of converting hydrogen into electricity and heat, a report in Fraunhofer Gesellschaft said.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Sintered Materials IKTS in Dresden are developing a special type of fuel cell — the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC).

This fuel cell also functions with natural gas supplied through the existing supply network, the report said.

The drawback of natural gas is that it contains traces of contaminants which can limit the service life of most types of fuel cell. The nobelmetal catalytic converters used in such cells gradually become less active and the plastic membranes eventually become clogged.

These problems do not arise in the new ceramic fuel call. Although it has a relatively high operating temperature of between 800 and 1000 degrees Centigrade, this gives it the distinct advantage that the natural gas can be converted into hydrogen directly in the fuel cell, which can attain a particularly high electrical efficiency rating of up to 55 per cent.

Integrated in a district heating power station, such cells enable buildings to be supplied with a decentralised source of heating and electricity.

The Fraunhofer Institute is currently working on the construction of a module consisting of multiple fuel cells. As explained by Dr Peter Otschik, “The demonstration setup consists of fifty cells — each one delivering a voltage of 0.7 V and an electrical current of 25 amps. The total electrical power output of just under 1000 watts is about equivalent to the power consumed by a domestic water kettle.”

Over the next three years, the scientists will be working on behalf of Entwicklungsgesellschaft Brennstoffzelle GmbH in Dresden on the construction of a combined heat and power system that produces five times the output of the present system in terms of electricity, and also makes use of the co-generated heat energy.

“The individual fuel cells and modules will be designed in such a way that they are sufficiently adaptable to be integrated in a wide range of different-sized generating stations,” Otschik said.

“Beyond that, we want to reduce the size of the fuel cells even further and increase their energy yield. And our overall goal is to achieve greater reliability at lower costs,” he added. PTI



VLF antenna detects pre-quake signals
A tiny antenna buried 120 metres below the surface near Agra has been keeping an “ear” on earthquakes in the Himalayas and successfully provided early warnings, scientists have reported.

Physicists Birbal Singh and his colleagues at RBS College in Agra claim that their bore-hole antenna has been detecting bursts of very low frequency (VLF) radio signals — in the range of 3 to 30 cycles per second — prior to earthquakes in northern India.

In their latest report in Current Science, the scientists say their unique antenna picked up the warning radio bursts 16 days prior to the occurrence of 6.6 magnitude earthquake at Chamoli in Uttar Pradesh of March 29, 1999. According to the scientists, rocks under compression generate electromagnetic radiation that travels through the earth’s crust along channels that may act like a wave-guide between the source and their borehole antenna at Bichpuri, 12 km west of Agra.

The scientists claim they were also able to detect the precursory radio signals associated with “distant severe earthquake in Afghanistan in the northwest and in some part of China in the northeast”. PTI

New Analgesic invented
Two researchers from Andhra Pradesh have secured a US patent for their invention of a new compound that is claimed to possess powerful analgesic, anti-inflammatory and curative properties, holding potential for a new pain-killing drug.

The new biologically active compound, isolated from a forest flora, was invented in a joint effort by C. Janakiram, Deputy Director (Technical) in the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, and Mohammad Khalilullah, a Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad, Janakiram told PTI. The application for the Paten was filed 1999 and was granted recently, he said.

“The compound, AK-CIJR-95, with potent analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties is useful in treatment of conditions involving pain and/or inflammation such as migraines, musculoskeletal and joint disorders”, Janakiram said.

He said the herbal composition, had already been tested on nearly 200 voluntary patients — suffering from various ailments such as migraine, low-back pain, cramps, headaches, and the like — at three different centres in the country with promising results.

“The compositions of the compound act rapidly, often providing relief — up to 80 per cent to 90 per cent reduction in pain — within 10 to 15 minutes of application”, Janakiram revealed, adding “it remains effective for up to 24 hours with no observed side effects”.

Explaining the mechanism of the compound’s action, Janakiram said “the compound, which is topical to be applied externally), first removes inflammation and pain of the affected part subsequently curing it”. PTI

Mixtures to control flies
Researchers investigating how flies react to different odours have concluded that using certain mixtures in flytraps could help to control a whole population of house flies.

Flies are attracted to decaying and fermenting substances but using such substances in flytraps is not practical because they dry out too fast and require a lot of maintenance.

In order to determine what substances are attractive to flies, biologists at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, investigated how flies smell.

The insects smell with special cells in olfactory hairs on their antenna and palps. When olfactory molecules bind to the olfactory cells, tiny electrical impulses are transmitted to the brain.

An electrode placed at the base of the hair can measure these impulses and thus determine the reaction to an olfactory stimulus, a report in NWO Research Reports said. PTI

Temperamental faucet
A single glance will tell you how hot or cold your tap water is with the Chameleon faucet.

The prototype faucet, which was designed by Shane Koo for the Price Pfister Pfaucet of the Pfuture contest, features a color-changing thermo film at its tip. The head turns red when the water is hot, blue when it’s cool. Popular Science

Tractor Beam Technology
Scientists have developed a “tractor beam” that can reach out, trap and move objects thereby holding potential as an invaluable tool for manipulating elements of living cells or components of micro-machines. As against fictional tractor beams of the kind depicted in Star Trek which can ensnare a spaceship, the real version works at a microscopic level.

The beam consists of a corkscrew of twisting laser light which is able to seize hold of objects as small as a protein molecule and twirl them around, a report in LPS This Week in Britain said.

Optical tweezers — which allow particles trapped in a tightly focused laser beam to be moved from one spot to another — already exist. But the devices are severely limited by the fact that they cannot change an object’s orientation. A proper tractor beam must be able to rotate objects as well as move them.

The system, developed by scientists at St Andrews University in Scotland, involves an extension of the optical tweezers technology. In both systems, a particle gets trapped in the path of the laser beam because some of the light refracts when it hits the object, which is forced towards the spot in the beam where the light is most intense. PTI



J. P. Garg tests your IQ 

1. This Swedish biochemist discovered how food is converted into energy. He also isolated and prepared in the laboratory the enzymes involved in this process. Name this winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

2. Now we may be able to obtain drugs and chemicals from the dew formed on genetically engineered plant leaves! During the night, when leaves lose less moisture by evaporation, pressure builds up inside and squeezes the fluid out. What is this process called which can help yield rare proteins and chemicals, depending on the nature of the plant?

3. Tattooing with needles is common among some people/communities. But it can cause a potentially deadly infection. Which infection?

4. US scientists have recently developed a miniature microscope a tiny stainless steel tube with a pointed needle which can be inserted directly into a body tissue or organ to be investigated. The function of this fibre-optic microscope is based on the optical phenomenon called OCT. Can you tell the full form of OCT?

5. When a beam of light falls on a colloidal solution, the path of the beam becomes visible due to the scattering of light by the colloidal particles. What is this effect called?

6. Sometimes an alloy is made harder or softer by giving it suitable heat treatment. What is this process called the effect of which depends on the composition of the alloy, the temperature to which it is heated, and the rate at which it is cooled?

7. Sun is the ultimate source of all types of energy available on earth except one. Which one?

8. Bordeux mixture is used for controlling a number of fungal and bacterial diseases of fruit plants. Sometimes it is also used to disinfect pits before planting new saplings. What does Bordeux mixture consist of?

9. This animal, mainly found in forests, is said to be dog’s cousin but differs from dog in at least one easily noticeable characteristic. Which is this animal and what characteristic are we talking about?

10. This fruit contains citric, malic and oxalic acids, vitamin C, natural sugars, B-carotene, etc. Besides being helpful in some ailments, its use protects the eyesight and delays ageing. The leaves of this tree are used in religious ceremonies and the tree itself is called “Kalpavriksha” by the believers. Which tree/fruit are we referring to?


1. Axel Hugo Theorell 2. Guttatin 3. Hepatitis C which can lead to liver cancer 4. Optical coherence tomography 5. Tyndall effect, named after the Irish physicist John Tydall 6. Tempering 7. Atomic/nuclear energy 8. Copper sulphate and hydrated lime (quick lime) 9. Wolf; it cannot bark like dog 10. Mango.