Hidden Figures, No Longer

This is the week of moon missions—past, present and future. Fifty years since the first man walked on the moon, and very soon, India’s own Chandrayaan-2  will become the first space mission to make a soft landing on the South Pole of the moon. Another ‘first’ worth celebrating is the fact that this moon mission is being led by two women, along with a team that comprised 30 per cent women. While programme director Muthayya Vanitha has nurtured Chandrayaan-2 over the years, the journey will be navigated by mission director Ritu Karidhal. Much to be proud of indeed!

Interestingly, while today women are rightfully making the headlines in science and technology, the scene was very different just 60 years ago. The booIMG_20190718_102016.jpgk titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race traces the true story of black female mathematicians who worked as ‘computers’ (then a job description of those who did calculations by hand) at NASA, during the space race. The book describes how the three mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, overcame discrimination and racial segregation, with determination and hard work, to use their brilliant mathematical minds to contribute substantially to some of America’s greatest achievements in space.

The book traces the period from the 1930s through the 1960s in America, when women were still expected to be at home, and faced social, racial and gender discrimination.  Through sheer tenacity, force of will, courage and intellect, these women scientists ensured their stamp on history.

Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself an African-American, whose father was a research scientist at NASA during that period. His accounts of the work, and of his co-workers inspired her to research and tell the story of some of these women whose contributions were hardly known, let alone recognised. Shetterly is the founder of The Human Computer Project which is an endeavour to recover the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Just this year, the street outside NASA’s headquarters has been named “Hidden Figures Way”, in belated honour of these three African-American women whose work helped pave the way for future generations at the space agency.

The book Hidden Figures has also been adapted as a film by the same name, which captures the spirit of the book, although not the details of the work environment at the NASA Langley Research Centre, and the lives and experiences of these women.

In the meanwhile we are proud to honour all the women who are, rightfully, no longer simply hidden figures. What all the women (hidden and otherwise) do have in common is the passion that drove them to achieve their dreams.

As Ritu Karidhal has said “Since my childhood, I realised that science was not just a subject for me, it was a passion. When you are passionate about something, it just keeps you going, it doesn’t matter who is in front of you or what obstacles comes.”

Yes, even the sky is not the limit for those who not just dream, and but also dare!

–Mamata

 

Musings on the Moon

The moon is in the news! This week marks 50 years since the first man landed on the moon, and the papers are full of it, including reminiscences of that milestone year–1969. This took me back to my own association with the moon landing. It was my final school year, and we were told by all our teachers that this was a sure bet as a topic for the essay in our English and Hindi Board papers. So we read all that we could find, and mugged up the names and the dates, and the famous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—the first words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the moon (20 July 1969), and wove them into our creative writing practice.

Those were simple times. Television had still not come to our home. The whole family would avidly listen to the All India Radio news read by familiar comforting voices as they conjured up word pictures of events at home and abroad (the highlight of which was the live broadcast of the Republic Day parade on 26 January). Newspapers in black and white print, and sometimes fuzzy photographs provided the visual support to the audio coverage. We first saw a colour picture of the moon landing in the Span magazine published by the American Cultural Centre.

Being a teenager in Delhi was more about innocent pleasures, than pressures and angst. We had real friends (not virtual) with whom we spent all our time, in school and at each other’s homes, plied with home-cooked food by the much-loved aunties. We had music playing on LPs—Beatles and Woodstock; and the occasional Beat Show, when one of the parents offered to pick us all up and ferry us home for a giggly night-spend together. But we also sated ourselves on the rich offering of music, theatre and art that was easily accessible in Delhi in the 1970s. Books were our BFFs, and sources varied, from the American Library to the hole-in-the-corner neighbourhood lending library.

We were one of the early (now reviled) Khan Market gangs, when ‘hanging out’ meant simply walking around Khan (then not so up-market), and treating ourselves to a coke! Choices were limited, and aspirations were achievable—to join the Administrative Services or become a college lecturer if you were an ‘arts type’, or to become a doctor or engineer. Cut-off marks in lists were in the 60s, and annual fees in the best colleges were still in three figures.

And yet we all got somewhere meaningful, in our own ways, even though by today’s standards we did not “arrive in style” as it were. And we are still there, doing our best to live by our values, in a very different age. It has, after all, been quite an age–half a century–since those days. Since then science and technology have indeed made a giant leap forward, We can be proud that very soon our own moon mission Chandrayaan-2 will be up and away on its way to land on the moon.

Even as we now have the ability to probe the crevices and craters of the distant moon, wonderfully, the moon has not lost its magic for the dreamers and the poets and painters. moon.jpg

We need the moon more than its needs us—look up at the full moon today, and you will know why!

–Mamata

 

Calico Dome: My Introduction to the Genius of Buckminster Fuller

Born July 12, 1895. A tribute on his birth anniversary.

When I moved to Ahmedabad in 1984, one of the ‘must see’ places was the Calico Dome. So dutifully, I went there as part of the Old City sightseeing and shopping experience.

It took me quite a while to figure out what the big deal about the dome was.

….That the dome was more than a showroom for the Calico Mills. That it was more than a venue for a fashion show that Parveen Babi had once taken part in as a student. That it was a historic structure, the first space frame structure in India (today so common in airports, for instance). That it was a design inspired by Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic domes, and designed by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai and inaugurated in 1962.

Well, so what? Nothing, except the geodesic dome is ‘recognized as the strongest, lightest, and most efficient means of enclosing space yet devised by man’.

A geodesic dome is composed of a complex network of triangles. These structures are extremely strong. They can withstand high winds, earthquakes and heavy snow, making them ideal structures for any type of environment. They are also efficient and sustainable. Due to their spherical nature, dome homes provide a large amount of living space, while taking up very little surface area. And due to their lower area-to-volume ratio, they require less energy for heating and cooling.

geodesic.jpg

The geodesic dome embodies all that Buckminster Fuller stood for— ‘Less is More’, and a constant effort towards sustainability through design. Dedicating his life ‘to making the world work for all of humanity’, his designs have continued to influence generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet. He was the first person to use the term ‘Spaceship Earth’.

He was a practical philosopher who contributed to many facets of life and has been called a ‘comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist.’. Just a few examples of how his work has contributed beyond architecture and design: Molecular biologists have now established that his mathematical formula for the design of the geodesic dome applies perfectly to the structure of the protein shell that surrounds every known virus. Several leading nuclear physicists are convinced that the same formula explains the fundamental structure of the atomic nucleus, and is thus the basis of all matter.

Other paradigm shifting designs include the Dymaxion houses, cars and map.

He visited India several time, giving the Nehru Memorial lecture in 1969. During one of his visits to India, he helped build a geodesic structure on the campus of Bengal Engineering College (now, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, West Bengal)

Happy that geodesic domes were something I encountered, including on drives to the airport at Ahmedabad for 20 years, at one of the garden-chowks!

—Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mills and shops closed in the 1990s and the dome went into disrepair. In the 2001 earthquake, the centre of the dome collapsed and heavy rains damaged the interior of the underground shop. Later the dome collapsed completely.[3] [4]

On liquidation of Calico Mills, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) bought it as a heritage property in 2006.

 

 

Putting their novelty aside, dome homes have the potential to solve many of our most pressing environmental and societal challenges. R. Buckminster Fuller’s ultimate goal in designing geodesic dome structures was to solve the housing challenges of an ever-increasing population. He set out to design human shelters that were strong, sustainable and affordable.

The geodesic design is a perfect marriage of the sturdy arch and the rigid triangle, which enables dome homes to be extremely strong. They can withstand high winds, earthquakes and heavy snow, making them ideal structures for any type of environment, especially in an increasingly volatile climate.

Along with their strength, dome homes are incredibly efficient and sustainable. Due to their spherical nature, dome homes provide a large amount of living space, while taking up very little surface area. And due to their lower area-to-volume ratio, they require less energy for heating and cooling.

Additionally, dome homes require far less building materials than traditional homes do, and can be made out of a variety of eco-friendly building materials. They’re also typically less expensive to make than traditional homes, and the fact that they are much smaller than traditional single-family homes also helps keep the costs down. These factors make them ideal for people looking to build an environmentally friendly home on a budget.

While the residential application of the geodesic dome is most heralded in American culture, the original Fuller domes—as well as many since—were actually constructed for commercial use.

In fact, the first dome that was constructed after Fuller filed his patent for the structure was part of the Ford Motor Company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., in 1953. The Ford Rotunda was originally an open-air pavilion, which the company then retrofitted with a roof to create an indoor space. However, the building could not sustain a traditional roof, which would weigh more than 160 tons. Ford turned to Fuller to design a geodesic dome that weighed just 8 tons. Although the Rotunda was destroyed in a fire in 1962, it was proof of concept for many commercial buildings to come.

After the success of the dome used for the Rotunda, other clients came calling, including the U.S. military. The government looked to the Fuller domes for two reasons. First was for how impervious they were to wind and weather, as the military needed shelter for their radar equipment that could withstand the harsh conditions at the Arctic Circle. The dome shape proved to be ideal to withstand high winds with minimal maintenance.

And second, the U.S. government explored using geodesic domes for their light weight and ease of construction. The domes were used to create “speedy but strong” housing for soldiers overseas in the 1950s, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute. In fact, the Marines went as far as creating a 30-foot dome that could be delivered by helicopter and assembled in just over two hours—and that could withstand a day-long barrage of 120-mile-per-hour wind gusts.

MODERN DOMES AND POTENTIAL IMPACT

Since the early days of experimentation with geodesic structures, many have been built, including Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth (although it’s technically a geodesic sphere, not a dome), the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Wash., the original hangar used to house the Spruce Goose, and the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station (from 1975–2003). As architecturally impressive as they are utilitarian, these domes allow their proprietors to do more with less.

This do-more-with-less mentality has also led optimistic individuals to use the geodesic dome shape to solve urban problems such as creating transitional housing in Silicon Valley. A recent proposal by the entrepreneur Greg Gopman aims to provide a small village of dome homes available to rent for just $250 per month.

After all, what the geodesic dome—and its potential—shows us is the impact that architects and builders can have when they truly think outside the box.

https://blueprint.cbre.com/the-impact-and-importance-of-the-geodesic-dome/

 

  1. Buckminster Fuller was a renowned 20th century inventor and visionary born in Milton, Massachusetts on July 12, 1895. Dedicating his life to making the world work for all of humanity, Fuller operated as a practical philosopher who demonstrated his ideas as inventions that he called “artifacts.” Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty. Throughout the course of his life Fuller held 28 patents, authored 28 books, received 47 honorary degrees. And while his most well know artifact, the geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller’s true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.

 

The Dymaxion Map, 1943

Not limiting himself to any one discipline, Fuller took on cartography with this invention – credited as the first two-dimensional map of the entire Earth’s surface that shows it without distortions.

To create the piece, Fuller projected the world map onto the surface of a three-dimensional icosahedron, which was then unfolded and laid flat.

https://www.dezeen.com/2018/08/27/eight-forward-thinking-ideas-buckminster-fuller-exhibition-los-angeles/

he Dymaxion map or Fuller map is a projection of a world map onto the surface of an icosahedron, which can be unfolded and flattened to two dimensions. The flat map is heavily interrupted in order to preserve shapes and sizes.

The projection was invented by Buckminster Fuller. The March 1, 1943 edition of Life magazine included a photographic essay titled “Life Presents R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion World”. The article included several examples of its use together with a pull-out section that could be assembled as a “three-dimensional approximation of a globe or laid out as a flat map, with which the world may be fitted together and rearranged to illuminate special aspects of its geography.”[1] Fuller applied for a patent in the United States in February 1944, the patent application showing a projection onto a cuboctahedron. The patent was issued in January 1946.[2]

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geodesic dome, which has been recognized as the strongest, lightest, and most efficient means of enclosing space yet devised by man.

 

Molecular biologists have now established that his mathematical formula for the design of the geodesic dome applies perfectly to the structure of the protein shell that surrounds every known virus. Several leading nuclear physicists are convinced that the same Fuller formula explains the fundamental structure of the atomic nucleus, and is thus the basis of all matter.

 

Gira and Gautam Sarabhai and his team designed the Calico Dome, inspired by Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic domes. The dome housed the showroom and shop for Calico Mills, which opened in 1962. The first fashion show in Ahmedabad was organised in the Dome.[2] Indian actress Parveen Babi took part in shows in the 1970s when she was a student.[2]

Inaugurated in 1962, the 12-meter wide structure

It was the first space frame structure in India

The mills and shops closed in the 1990s and the dome went into disrepair. In the 2001 earthquake, the centre of the dome collapsed and heavy rains damaged the interior of the underground shop. Later the dome collapsed completely.[3] [4]

On liquidation of Calico Mills, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) bought it as a heritage property in 2006.

 

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

On 20 May this year the definition of kilogram changed. The new definition fits in with the modern definitions for the units of time (second) and distance (metre).

weights

Most of us grew up using the metric system which is an internationally recognised decimalised system of measurement used to measure everyday things such as the mass of a sack of rice, the height of a person, the speed of a car, and the volume of fuel in its tank.

It is interesting to go into the history of this system. The metric system was introduced by the French after the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, at a time when there was a chaotic state of thousands of traditional units of measurement in use. Twelve scientists were appointed to organise a universal and accurate system of measurement. They chose ‘metre’ after the Greek word for measure ‘metron’; and for simplicity of multiplying and dividing they decided to base it on the number ‘ten.’ One metre was to be one-tenth millionth of one quarter of the circumference of the Earth, measured from the Pole to the Equator.

By 1795 all metric units were derived from the metre, including the gram for weight and the litre for capacity. At first people were reluctant to accept the new measures but in 1840 they were legally enforced and there were punishments for those who refused to use the metric system.

The history of the predecessor to the Kilometre—the Mile, can be traced back to the Romans who invented a way of measuring distance in footsteps. A Mile was a thousand footsteps. The Romans marked their miles with special stones called Milestones.

Measuring land was difficult in olden days. Sometimes fields were measured according to how much land could be ploughed by a pair of oxen in one day.  In an unusual way of measuring land—if someone wanted to buy land, coins were put around the edges of the piece of land with all the coins touching each other. The cost of the land was said to be the number of coins that it took to surround it.

Today the global standards for measurement are set by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures which is located in Sevres near Paris. It is this international laboratory where international standards are kept; national standard copies inspected, and metrological research is conducted. The General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), with diplomatic representatives of some 40 countries, meets every six years to consider reform. The conference selects 18 scientists who form the International Committee for Weights and Measures that governs the bureau.

As science advances so does precision, and today measurements are finely honed towards a hundred per cent accuracy. Thankfully, for most of us laymen this fine tuning does not mean too much change. News reports assured us that the ‘new improved’ kilogram would not impact weight watchers or grocery shoppers.

–Mamata

 

 

Aspirations

The last few weeks, my newspapers have been full of news about newly-crowned Queens. There is a Miss World, and a Miss Universe, and numerous other regal titles bestowed on young girls. So far so good.

As a passive observer peeping through the window of the pages of my newspaper, over the years I have been noticing how the run-up to such pageants is becoming more and more elaborate and ostentatious. Qualifying rounds are held in different cities, in the most luxurious hotels. Several glossy pages of the paper feature spreads of photographs of the pretty young ladies going through a variety of activities in different settings, clad to the nines in appropriate designer wear. There is an ever-growing list of event partners—dress designers, hair stylists, skin gurus, make-up magicians, tutors to (re)teach the girls how to walk and talk, and so forth. And, of course how can all this work without the sponsors? So you have sponsors for everything from the eyes to the toes–Miss Expressive Eyes, Miss Dazzling Teeth, Miss Scintillating Smile, Miss Satin Skin, Miss Shining Hair—and on till there is nothing left to miss!

Possibly thousands of girls apply for these pageants with these very visions becoming the stuff of their dreams. I suspect that even as they start the process, so much time and hard-earned money is spent in preparing the portfolios to enter the race. For those “lucky” ones who make it through the various rounds, the metamorphosis begins as they are taken through the paces. But behind the scenes? A bunch of still naive girls living in close proximity, in a fiercely competitive environment–I cannot begin to imagine what the atmosphere will be like—the anxieties, the hostilities, the petty politics, the pressures. As murky as the intrigues in the court of a royal family!

The newspapers kindly give us ‘”the underprivileged outsiders” glimpses into the culminating moments of the qualifying events. The full spread pictures of an array of pretty girls with similar hairstyles, smiles and dresses makes it difficult to tell the difference between them. Until voila—we have the coronation of the Queens. Usually the brouhaha ends there. This year there has been a follow up. We also had the privilege of following the Queens as they visited their “native places”—the town or village that their family hailed from. We saw pictures of cheering crowds, motor cavalcades, cameramen and interviews and family and village elders welcoming their local girl who became Queen.

And I think—Is this the role model for all the young girls in the small towns and villages? Is this what it means to have “arrived?” Is this what parents dream of for their daughters from the day that they are born? Aspirations!

It is a very worrying trend. One observes young girls (almost children) being accompanied to beauty parlours for a host of grooming and beauty treatments. Parents spend much money on consulting nutritionists and dieticians, trainers and gyms, and of course the latest fashion in clothes. “Looking good” becomes the end all and be all. Aspirations!

An even more frightening extension of this is the pushing of young children into the numerous reality shows. I am appalled at the occasional glimpse of children cavorting to Bollywood numbers dressed in vulgar outfits and plastered with make-up. A recent piece about a five-year old girl who won a dance show talked about her childhood in a slum of Kolkata, and how she has made her parents so proud. Her dream is to live in all all-pink fairy tale house. Aspirations!

How disturbing. How sad that in a country where we are still talking about Save Our Daughters, Educate Our Daughters, we seem to be building aspirations that promote superficial showmanship, branding, and objectification of our daughters.

–Mamata

UNDEAD

I think ‘undead’ means

The dead who will not die

 

What then is the term

For the living who do not live?

Who have no wish to live?

Who see no point in living?

For whom there is no joy in living?

 

Are they called the ‘unliving’?

–Meena

(Obviously suffering from GOT withdrawal symptoms!)