The Ultimate Escape-Challenge 1

So used to the idea of safety on Earth we are, we seldom think about its vulnerabilities. Doomsday prophecies from time immemorial, the recent Mayan scare, predicted asteroid hits…we haven’t seen the last of them and the threats and predictions will continue. At any random moment, an asteroid, comet or some other unwelcome extra-terrestrial material can barge into our home, safe home, Earth and wipe out all that is there, and will be, in one debilitating stroke. The worst case scenario is a neutron star* spinning its way to us. It’s the worst case scenario because “you cannot blow it apart, you cannot steer it off-course, you get out of its way or you can suffer the consequences of being in its path”. So, in this most extreme of scenarios, where we have no choice but to escape for our survival, can we really evacuate the Earth with the technology we have now? This is the answer we seek in the 7 part series, The Ultimate Escape.

The first question that would arise is—where do we go when we evacuate Earth. The nearest Earth like planet, where the scientists place there safest bets is the star system around a star called the Bernard’s star. The problem—it’s a little less than 6 light years away. Imagine taking a little more than 7 round trips around the earth along the equator in a second. Travelling at that speed will take us 6 years to reach the planet. It’s going to be 40 trillion miles away. We obviously cannot use the present space shuttles considering the fastest man-made object in space is the voyager craft which travels at 0.006% of speed of light. We need to find a method of propulsion that would take the craft to a considerable percentage of speed of light.

The very basis of “propelling” something is Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Conventionally, when a rocket is launched, the exhaust from the chemical combustion of fuel is shot out of the rocket and the reaction force propels the rocket. Thus, the faster you can shoot out the material, the faster you travel. But for our new spacecraft, we cannot use this way of chemical propulsion. To achieve really high speeds, you need to shoot out materials faster which would mean more fuel. But if you use more fuel, you would need to shoot out materials even faster to propel the space craft with the extra weight. This is essentially a “cat chasing its tail scenario”—the more fuel we use, the heavier it becomes, the more fuel we need to move the space craft!

An entirely different idea for propulsion is the solar sail. Just as the wind drives a sail boat on the seas, a solar sail can drive the space craft in space. The only difference is, in a sail boat, it is the reaction force of the sail on the air molecules as they strike the sail in the form of wind that impels it forwards. In case of the solar sail, it is the radiation pressure—the reaction force of the photons in form of solar energy—that drives it to very, very high speed. The problem however is that as the craft moves farther from the sun, the solar intensity decreases, and hence the increase in speed goes on decreasing so that by the time the space craft reaches the orbit of Neptune, it does not acquire sufficient speed to cover the rest of the distance to the destined planet in a feasible time.

A solution that might appear to be straight out of science fiction is the use of anti matter—mirror image of matter. When anti matter and matter come into contact with each other, they annihilate, releasing energy equal to 10, 000 times the energy obtained by chemical combustion. However, this energy is extremely difficult to control and can be contained only by strong magnetic fields in a vacuum chamber.

The most feasible answer is, surprisingly, not new. The idea is to propel the space vehicle by nuclear bombs. If big plates of shock absorbers are fitted to the back of a large space craft and nuclear bombs are exploded at some distance behind the shock absorbers, the pressure would accelerate the space vehicle to high velocities. The space craft can achieve speed equal to 7% that of light with continuous such explosions every 3 seconds for 10 days. This idea called project Orion is 60 years old. A working model was made and it was a success. However, nuclear ban treaty was introduced and the research was suspended. We can just pick up the research from then and design our new propulsion system.

Now that we have found a way to reach our destination, the next important thing to consider is the conditions inside the craft itself—at the speed achieved with the help of our new propulsion system, it will take us 80-100 years to reach the new planet Earth2. Gravity, light, air, water and food are what we need.

(The article is based on a National Geographic series: Evacuate Earth.)

*When a star much more massive than our sun (more than 10 times the mass of the sun) runs out of its fuel of hydrogen, its outer core collapses causing a supernovae explosion, hurtling colossal amount of matter at enormous speeds. The core that is left behind is extremely dense and made of neutrons. Barely 10 kilometer in diameter, even one spoonful of this matter would weigh as much as Earth. Its immense gravity tears apart and pulls in everything that comes into its way.

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Isaac Asimov’s The God Themselves

Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific writers the world has ever seen

Were Isaac Asimov, the person who coined the term robotics, alive, he would have celebrated his birthday today.

This master of hard science fiction, born as Isaak Yudovich Ozimov, was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Indeed, he admired his fellow science-fiction author and science writer Arthur C. Clarke so much, he entered into the lighthearted “Treaty of Park Avenue,” which stipulated that Clarke was free to refer to himself as the best science fiction writer in the world (Asimov being second-best), provided he admitted that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (Clarke being second-best).

Asimov is known to be one of the most prolific writers the world has ever seen. He has written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards spanning varied genres including science fiction, mystery, thrillers, popular science-in short covering nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

What one notices in Asimov’s extensive work on fiction is that his writing style is extremely “unornamented”. It was a style he adopted out of choice. In the beginning of his book Nemesis, he states:

“I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.”

This was something his critics sometimes pointed at, but more fingers were raised at the general absence of sexuality and of extra-terrestrial life in his science-fiction.

His book The God Themselves, was written in response to these criticisms, winning Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973.  It was also Asimov’s favorite, as stated in his autobiography “Yours, Isaac Asimov” (page 225).

Deviating from his general style of linear chronology, the book starts with chapter 6 and then backtracks to fill earlier material. The book is divided into three parts:

1. Against Stupidity…

2. …The God Themselves…

3. …Contend in Vain

A quotation by Friedrich Schiller (German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright, 1759–1805) “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” (“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”) was the inspiration for the title of the book as well as the parts.

To Isaac Asimov’s avid readers acquainted with his popular Robot series and Foundation Series, The God Themselves comes as a fresh and delightful surprise. The story starts with a scientist of limited ability but of protective ego, Frederick Hallam, discovering an unusual isotope of plutonium which, by the physical laws of our universe, is impossible to exist. This leads to the discovery of a parallel universe with different physical laws and the development of an ‘Electron Pump’ which trades matter between our universe and the other ‘para-universe’, yielding a nuclear reaction in the process. On the surface, it looks like a cheap, clean, and apparently endless source of energy. However, as the middle aged rival of Hallam, physicist Denison and an idealistic young physicist Lamont find out, the latter at the cost of his career, everything is not right. Earth is probably hurtling towards its self-destruction and the only other living being who wants to prevent this catastrophe resides in the para-universe. Ending with a spectacular climax, not only does the book thrill its readers, it also raises questions of social issues and deals with human (and alien) psychology.

Of the books three parts, the first narrates of the happenings on Earth, the second of the planet in the para-universe and the third takes place on the lunar landscape. Asimov cites the middle section as the one he was most proud of in all his writings. This section deals with both aliens and alien sex, called “melting”, putting the earlier criticisms to rest. The alien society is formed of the “hard ones” and the amorphous “soft ones”, the soft ones having three sexes, with each sex having a defined role. The names of the three immature aliens portrayed in the second part—Odeen, Dua, and Tritt—come from the words One, Two, and Three in the language of Asimov’s native Russia. (The original forms are odin, dva and tri).

20 years from the publication of what Asimov considered his best work, the prolific writer met his end on April 6, 1992,  as a result of heart and kidney failure. Janet Asimov, Issac’s second wife, reveals in her edition of Asimov’s autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, that the myocardial and renal complications were the result of an infection by HIV, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion received during his earlier bypass operation.

The exact birth date of this man born in Petrovichi in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (near the modern border with Belarus) to Anna Rachel (Berman) Asimov and Judah Asimov, a family of Jewish millers.,  still remains elusive and is known to be between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920. However, as he himself chose to celebrate his birthday on this day, so does the world.

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The Psychology Behind Fear

In the previous article we saw the what and the how of fear (namely what is fear and how is fear created), in this article we’ll look into the why. Why is fear created?

The instinct of fear is required for the very survival of human beings as with any other species. If we did not possess fear, we would be routinely getting hit by trucks, slicing our hands while cutting vegetables, falling off cliffs and dying instead of admiring the scenic beauty or getting bitten by poisonous snakes and rabid dogs.

Fear is also linked to evolution-people who feared the right things survived and passed on this information through their genes. Even a person who hasn’t seen a snake once in their lifetime would still grimace and move back at the sight of one. Our ancestors living in the wild wouldn’t want to trample a snake, getting bitten in return. The instinct to avoid them still remains. The nuances of modern civilization haven’t altered our primitive reflexes much. Though the stimuli might have changed-our response to them hasn’t changed. The instinct that would push us to run away at the sight of a lion is the same that prods us to walk faster when confronted with shady looking people in a dark alleyway.

However, not everybody fears the same thing, or not even the same thing in the same amount. Children are born with only two innate fears-that of heights and of loud noises. It seems every other fear is acquired. The earliest example of this can be seen in humans who would hide in caves in the event of a storm and stay there till it subsided because of  their fear of lightning. They anticipated lightning. The did not have to witness lightning to run away-in which the time to escape would have been too little anyway. The anticipation was enough.

The ability of humans to be conditioned to fear certain things is called fear conditioning. In an experiment in psychology, John Watson proved this conclusively in the 1920s. The subject was an 11 month old  toddler who previously had no fear of white mice. Indeed, it would often reach out to these laboratory test animals and show joy at their sight. Watson and his assistant conditioned “Little Albert” to fear white mice by making a terrifyingly loud noise every time he reached out for those rodents. Over time the child not only developed the fear of white mice but also of other furry white creatures including Santa Claus mask with a white beard! He would cry and move away at the sight of any of those things. This was a case of Pavlovian (classical) conditioning, where a neutral stimuli (the rat) had been paired with a negative effect. Though not one of psychology’s gentlest or most ethical experiments, the test did confirm the concept of fear conditioning.

Similarly, people with irrational fear of certain objects or situations-such as the fear of enclosed places-might have had bad experience in the past relating to closed places resulting in their being conditioned, though not consciously, to claustrophobia. By this rationale, these irrational fears can often be treated by exposing the subject to the perceived negative stimulus repeatedly and obtaining neutral effect. Eventually, these people come to see the stimulus as neutral as well.

Thus, by understanding the psychology behind fear, several people have been cured of numerous phobia over time.

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The science behind Fear - Part 2

 

In the previous article we found how the brain processes the signal and induces what we call fear. In this article we’ll have a glimpse of the typical symptoms associated with the brain’s response and why they are necessary.

The fight or flight response is characterized by

a)      increased heart rate and blood pressure

b)      pupils dilating

c)       experiencing a “chill”

d)      tensing of muscles resulting in goosebumps

e)      shutting down of non-essential systems like digestive and immune system

f)       relaxing of smooth muscles

g)      trouble focusing on small tasks

Each one of these response is directed by the flood of hormones in the body as ordered by the brain through various channels but before finding out how this is achieved, let us analyse why this kind of a response is necessary in the first place.

In case of danger, any human being has two options (any organism for that matter) – either face the situation and overcome it (fight) or flee the danger (flight). In either case, the body needs to be ready; it needs to take action, and take it fast. Increased heart and blood pressure ensure that enough oxygen is being supplied to all essential part of the body so that quick action can be taken. This would also mean the oxygen intake to the body itself has to be increased. Thus, the smooth muscles relax to let in more oxygen into the lungs. (These are the muscles which do not need any conscious thought for their activation, for example those in lungs, walls of stomach, bladder, walls of blood vessels etc., and are also called involuntary muscles as opposed to the voluntary muscles which are activated only by conscious effort viz. the muscles used for locomotion. The latter are also called skeletal muscle as they are anchored by tendons to the bones.)

Efficiency of circulation is also increased to make sure the requisite organs receive the most amount oxygen. Veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups. This is what causes the “chill” as there is less blood in the skin to keep it warm. To allow more energy for emergency functions, non essential systems shut down.

To make sure enough sensory data is being received, pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible.

The level of glucose and adrenaline in the blood rises to energize the muscles. As the muscles tense up, a person experiences goose bumps. The hairs are forced upright as the muscles attached to each hair on the surface tense up.

Since the brain is directed to focus only on the big picture in order to determine where the threat is coming and how best to survive, it finds it difficult to concentrate on smaller tasks.

Thus, every single part of the body is utilized and prepared to combat the danger. And how exactly are all these things coordinated?

There are two systems attached to the fight or flight response – the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. Let us not worry too much about the complicated names and instead just focus on their functions.

As seen in the previous part whether it is the low road or the high road, they both end at the hypothalamus. Now, hypothalamus activates the two systems mentioned above. Once activated, the sympathetic nervous system uses nerve pathways to initiate reactions in the body. All these reactions have only one goal – to make the body alert. Impulses are sent to glands and smooth muscles and the adrenal medulla is asked to release epinephrine and norephinephrine into the blood stream. These hormones, also called adrenaline and noreadrenaline cause several changes in the body including the increased heart rate and blood pressure.

The adrenal cortical system is activated when the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) into the pituitary gland. A hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) is release which moves through the bloodstream and ultimately reaches the adrenal cortex. This then activates the release of approximately 30 different hormones responsible for the aforementioned symptoms.

Thus, this tsunami of hormones prepares us for the threat.

But then these threats differ for different people. What arouses a deep fear in one person might not ruffle the other in the slightest. Why this disparity? In the next part we’ll analyze the psychology behind fear.

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The Science behind Fear - Part 1

“Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real” or so the popular acronym goes. But is that really true? Research shows that children are born with only two fears - that of loud noises and of falling. Everything else is acquired. But as we shall see, even that is not entirely correct. So what exactly is fear? The first picture that the mind conjures is probably that of a person with heavy breathing, eyes opened wide, heart hammering away in their chest and pale face. These are the symptoms typically associated with fear and each one of them serves a particular purpose. Scientifically speaking, fear starts with a stressful stimulus that when sensed by the brain results in the release of certain chemicals which lead to the typical fight or flight response described above. The stimulus can vary from the unexpected slamming of the door, a dog in your vicinity or a gun pointed at you. There are some key parts of the brain identified with the processing of fear - the thalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, sensory cortex and the hypothalamus. The sensory inputs are received from various sense organs - skin, ears and eyes primarily and the tongue and nose occasionally - by the thalamus. Sensory cortex interprets this data. Hippocampus stores previous memories and retrieves them when necessary to decipher the context. Amygdala works as the decoding unit by decoding emotions and determining threat. It also stores fear memories. Hypothalamus activates the fight our flight response. Now the creation of fear happens along two pathways, the low road and the high road. The low road works on the no risk approach. You could also call it being extra cautious. It is always safer to be prepared even at the face of a small danger and later finding out it wasn’t necessary than not to be prepared and find yourself in a life threatening situation. The low road is thus quick but it also makes rash decisions. The sensory data collected by the thalamus is sent to the amygdala. The thalamus doesn’t know if the stimulus is threatening or not, but since it might be, it relays the information to amygdala. The amygdala processes this quickly and tells the hypothalamus to be ready with the fight or flight response. The information processing and transfer over high road takes place simultaneously. It includes the sensory cortex and the hippocampus as well. Here, the thalamus sends the information to the sensory cortex as well and this part analyses the data to establish multiple scenarios and possibilities. It then sends this information to hippocampus which tries to analyse the data obtained on the basis of previous experiences and tries to consolidate the scenario. In case there’s no danger, it relays this message to amygdala which asks the hypothalamus to stop the secretion of fight or flight hormones immediately. What do these fight or flight hormones achieve? How are they related to the symptoms of fear described earlier? We’ll analyse these questions and more in our next part.

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Understanding Einstein - Part 2

In the previous article, Understanding Einstein - Part 1, we had a look at Einstein’s theory of special relativity. In this article we’ll try to understand his theory behind the photoelectric effect. Incidentally, though to the layman, Einstein is known for his theories on relativity, it is interesting to note that he won the Nobel prize not for his theory of relativity but for his theory on the photoelectric effect. This theory was also to be the precursor to the quantum theory.

Now, what exactly is the photoelectric effect? In the late nineteenth century, scientists across the world were observing a strange phenomenon which couldn’t be explained with the existing known laws of physics. When light was shone on certain materials, known as photoelectric materials, it was observed the electrons were emitted above a particular frequency of light characteristic of that material. This phenomenon was known as photoelectric effect. These material can be solid liquid or gases. What was strange about this effect was this:

1. Since from the wave picture of light, it was known that energy of a beam of light depended on its intensity, therefore, more intensity would mean more amount of energy. Thus, it would seem that given a photoelectric material, no matter what the frequency - since according to the wave picture of light energy didn’t depend on frequency - by shining a light beam of appropriate intensity, emission of electrons (called photoelectrons) could be observed. However, what they observed didn’t really with the theory: below a particular frequency, no matter how high the intensity, no emissions were observed. However, even with an extremely low intensity beam of light, once the frequency of light was increased above the particular frequency (called threshold frequency), emissions were observed.

2. The no. of electrons coming out of the material did depend on the intensity of light beam: higher the intensity, greater the no. of photoelectrons emitted. But the energy with which the photoelectrons came out- given by the kinetic energy of the photoelectron and hence the velocity - did not depend on the intensity. Rather it depended on the frequency of the light. Higher the frequency, greater the velocity of the escaping photoelectrons.

These two observations baffled the scientists for long since it did but conform to the laws of the wave picture of light, which had been so successful so far, at all.

Enter Einstein.

He chose to explain this theory based on a very different logic, which was later to give birth to the quantum theory. Take this analogy:

Imagine a room full of infinite no. of kids trapped in it. The condition for them to leave the room is this- they would need to pay a nominal amount of say Rs. 10 at the exit. Now, if someone were to shower numerous one rupee coins, no matter how many coins are showered, there being infinite no. of children, not a single one of them would be able to gather enough no. of coins to escape out of the room. However, if even one ten rupee were showered, one child could grab it and escape. Further, if rupee notes of denominations more than 10 were showered, children could escape with more change in their hands.

Now, if you were to take the children to be the electrons, the room to be the photoelectric material, coins or notes to be photons - the particles of which light is composed, and the denomination of the coins or notes as the frequency, then it makes sense.

Greater the intensity would mean greater the no. of photons. Rupee ten would be threshold frequency of the material. Thus, there being such a large no. of electrons in a photoelectric material, even if you were to shine very high intensity beam albeit, of low frequency, the electrons can’t escape just as the children weren’t able to get out of the room no matter how many one rupee coins were showered. But just as a single ten rupee note was enough to free one child, even a very low intensity beam with frequency equal to or greater than the threshold frequency is enough. Further, greater the denomination, more the change with which the children escape. Replace the denomination with frequency, children with electron and the change with the velocity and voila! you have your answer.

That concludes the two part series on understanding Einstein’s two of of the most celebrated theories.

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Old Medical Practices - How did they do it?

For people who have smugly believed that brain surgery, kidney treatments, curing cataract, rhinoplasty (nose job in simpler words), vaccines and other such treatments demonstrate our greatest advancements in medical science, it’s time to think back. Literally.

It has something to do with a 4000 years old skull that was found by archaeologists in Turkey. A human skull that had a one inch-by-two inch incision—and displayed signs of tissue re-growth. Dead human beings do NOT re-grow tissues. Not a bit. So not only did the ancient human being had his skull drilled and survived, had the hole not been drilled at all, he would have probably died 5-10 years earlier. (Not that it makes much of a difference from here and to us, but it obviously did to our ancient ancestor).

Sushruta Samhita

Now this procedure of drilling holes in the skull is called trepanning. And no, this isn’t some cavemen style skull cracking. Trepanning is creating a very precise hole in the skull mostly to release the pressure inside the skull due to building up of fluid inside during brain trauma. If this fluid is not released, the brain might get compressed resulting in death. This medical practice is followed even today. Just that the process is quicker and more precise; also, less painful. And has to be. Imagine trying to drill a hole through a wooden block with the help of an obsidian rock. Now imagine using the rock to drill hole through the skull. Yes, you need tremendous skill on the doctor’s part and tremendous patience and tolerance on the patient’s part. But what strikes one the most about trepanning is the sheer simplicity and brilliance of the idea, and the understanding of the co-relation of cause, effect and cure by the ancients.

Trepanning is but the tip of the ice-berg. Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit treatise on surgery attributed to Sushruta, a physician from 6th century B.C.E. Varanasi, and one of the three foundational texts of Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine), was written in 3rd-4th century B.C.E. and describes medical procedures of pediatrics, geriatrics, diseases of the ear, nose, throat and eye, toxicology, aphrodisiacs and psychiatry among others. The text is divided into 8 parts namely—chhedya (excision), lekhya (scarification), Bhedya (puncturing), Esya (exploration), Ahrya (extraction), vsrya (evacuation), and sivya (suturing). One of the most notable descriptions in Sushruta samhita, also considered to be one of Sushruta’s greatest achievements was rhinoplasty where he tried to restore the mutilated noses of the patients through plastic surgery. There are evidences to suggest that not only was Sushruta successful in these operations, he was famous so much so that people from outside India travelled both to get the treatment as well as watch the treatment. The surgical practice is described in meticulous details and the same basic practices are amazingly followed today as well. It is a bit unnerving to find that the surgical procedures followed even today are at most a combination of the 8 divisions described in the ancient text, nothing more.

Not only does the treatise expound on the methods of surgery, it gives tips on practicing as well. For example, it is advised to practice “incisions and excision on vegetables and leather pouches filled with different densities of mud, scraping on hairy skin of animals, puncturing on the vein of dead animals and lotus stalks, probing on moth-eaten wood or bamboo, scarification on wooden planks smeared with beeswax”, and so on.

If Sushruta was the father of surgery—spanning simple (relatively) cataract surgeries to complex surgeries involving the ano-rectal regions—Charaka was the one who studied the effect of herbs extensively. Charaka-samhita forms the second part of Ayrveda. It is said the details with which Charaka has described the herbs and their effects of human health can be obtained only through intuitive knowledge. The variety of herbs that are described span the entire nation and it is humanly impossible to analyze all the plants as accurately as described. There is another school who believes that Charaka-samhita was not a work of a single person, but a collection of texts written by different people throughout three centuries.

Edward Jenner might be called the father of vaccination but the credit belongs to the physician Dhanwantari of India. In 1000 B.C.E., Dhanwantari devised a simple way of curing small pox—essentially what Dr. Jenner ‘discovered’ more than 2500 years later.

Root Canal surgery? We have enough archaeological evidence (a Jordanian soldier, to be more specific) to show that this was being performed as early as 200 B.C.E. And so were tracheotomies and incubations.

So much for advancements. At least the ancients didn’t have the human genome decoded. Or maybe they did, but we don’t have the evidence yet.

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R.I.P. Telegram : Memories from my Military Life

During the early years in my Air Force career, telegrams were our leave-line. It was a sure shot way to get leave sanctioned in the unlikeliest of the situations. It was an open secret that many of us used and misused.

First I am reminded of a not-so-funny incident. In one of the Units where I served, there were two guys with the same surname, Rath. In military, it is common practice to address people by surnames and nobody bothers to remember the first name. One Rath lost his father and when the telegram carrying the message arrived, it was inadvertently delivered to the other Rath. This second Rath was devastated, because his father was quite healthy. However there was no way to confirm the same, as there were no telephone lines to his remote village, where his parents stayed. The moment the news spread there was a steady pouring in of sympathizers. It was only when, someone, casually went through the telegram lying on a side table that he discovered the telegram was addressed to the other Rath, causing an immediate shifting of the mourning venue.

R.I.P. Telegram

One of my colleagues had difficulty in getting leave to even get married. Suddenly one day he receives a telegram “Father expired come soon”. Immediately he got the leave sanctioned and proceeded home. However, we were in for a shock when after coming back  he announced that he had got married during the leave period. Our immediate reaction was, “How can you… when your father…..”.  He explained, “The –FATHER- mentioned in the telegram was not MY father. It was the father of the person who sent the telegram”. Of course, this so called person happened to be one of his distant relatives.

Let me remind the reader that for greeting telegrams certain codes could be substituted. It was done to reduce telegram traffic and charge. The procedure, as  I understand, is as follows: suppose you want to send a telegram wishing Happy Birth Day. The greeting code is five. So  in the telegram form you write ‘FIVE’. At the receiving post office, the postal official clerk  comes to know what it means, writes the message-  Many Happy returns of the day - and sends it through the postman for delivery.  This incident is related to my friend – the first Rath of the earlier episode. I had also taken leave to attend to his marriage in his native village. One day while we were away in the nearby town for shopping, his father received a telegram. The telegram had only one message – seventeen. His father though it was some secret military message to recall us back. May be some war had broken out and our leave would be curtailed. The whole family was in panic. There was no way to clarify the same immediately. It was only when we returned in the evening that we saw the telegram and laughed. One of our friends had sent marriage greetings. The post man, being may be untrained and newly appointed did not know to decipher the code and delivered the message verbatim.

-Durga Prasad Dash

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