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As the 'next billion' struggle to emerge from India, the lack of tech laws and growth of band-aid technology, have created a unique Chiba. Sentience of the emerging silicon, is tested here

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Encryption: Now you see it

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Winterovers

The sun settles just over the horizon. It watches, down at the white sheets of the frozen wasteland. Yet its light has already become feeble now. Even the ice can’t catch its glint any more. Shadows grow longer, in a desperate bid to run away from the tired sun. The cold, which had never entirely left, starts its glacial winter wind dance again. The night approaches, waiting to pounce from the shadows. The winter and the night are approaching the Antarctic; they won’t leave for another six months.

Most of the gear is packed away; most of the crew has left for warmer climates. The temperatures fall to a bone freezing -55 C; the winds 18 knots fast, whip everything with a chill factor of -72 C. Even as the continent becomes more and more hostile, the experiments conducted here don’t stop. Only the ‘mad scientists’, the winterovers, remain; preparing to brave icy hell for their pursuit of science.

The Antarctic nights last for six whole months, cloaking everything in darkness. Even for the winterovers, living in frozen blackness is not easy. To add to this, the winds don’t allow evacuation of people or air dropping of supplies. For six months the winterovers are cut off from the rest of the world, their only link is a satellite which lets them call family. Time to time even this falls prey to the weather.

Sven Lindstrom, one of the winterovers, says “I had to go through 16days training in fire fighting, trauma and psychology”. In the Antarctic, one mistake can snuff out life.

A typical day starts at six in the ‘morning’, after a quick breakfast the scientists get to work. Karthik Soundrapandian, another winterover, says “We try to monitor detectors, make sure things are ok. We do this, 30 times a day. If we see an error message, we try to deal with the problem.” On a good day, the problem can be fixed from inside the warmth of the lab.

On a bad day, they have to step out into freezing hell. Sven says “I wear several layers. Close to body sweaters, a woolen fleece jacket, a parka, two face masks, two pair of glowers, mittens and rubber boots.” Karthik adds “working outside with so many layers, it gets hot, you can shed layers as your body warms.”

The glacial wasteland allows the scientists to search for one of the most exotic particles known to modern physics, the neutrino. Karthik says “we try to detect neutrino by detecting light, when the particle hits ice and creates light. From the direction of light we can tell where the neutrino comes from”. Sven adds, “This happens very rarely, but if you have a very big detector then you can see it, detect it”.

This is exactly what the ‘Ice cube’ experiment has done in Antarctica. The entire continent acts like a massive ice cube. The travelling neutrino inevitably hits an ice particle. The resultant light travels through miles in the transparent ice. This light is detected and is used to study bizarre astronomical objects such as black holes and gamma ray bursts.

As the ‘day’, unlit by the sun, comes to an end, the winterovers free themselves from their computer monitors. They return to rooms where they can interact with each other and mark another day closer to sun rise. The winterover’s favourite part of the day, is its end, “we socialize with other people, watch movies, take part in events” says Sven, “every day is different” Karthik adds.

The two winterovers will have to stay in the Antarctic till the beginning of next year. “Everyday I question why I am doing this. Especially after my friends left” says Sven. “I don’t regret it” he adds, Karthik agrees.

(photo from Ice Cube website)