Current General Knowledge: September 2011

ABBREVIATIONS
PAK-FA: Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation.

AWARDS
Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Awards
Eleven scientists have been selected for the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, 2011. First given in 1958, the country’s highest award in science is named after the founder director of CSIR, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. It is given to a scientist up to 45 years of age and carries a prize of Rs 5 lakh.

The winners include Amit Prakash Sharma of International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi and Rajan Sankaranarayanan of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad for the biological sciences category. In the chemical sciences category, Balasubramanian Sundaram of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Banglore and Garikapati N have won the award.

The award for earth, atmosphere, ocean and planetary sciences category went to Shankar Doraiswamy of National Institute of Oceanography, Goa. In the engineering sciences category, Sirshendu De of IIT, Kharagpur and Upadrasta Ramamurty of Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Banglore, were given the award. Mahan Maharaj of Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University, Howrah and Palash Sarkar of Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata were picked for the award in mathematical sciences category.

In the medical sciences category, Kithiganahalli N Balaji of IISc, Banglore, was nominated while the award for physical sciences category went to Shiraz Minwalla of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

Jnanpith Award, 2009 & 2010
Eminent Hindi authors Srilal Shukla and Amar Kant have been chosen for Jnanpith award 2009. Renowned Kannada litterateur Chandrasekhar Kambar has won it for the year 2010.

For most readers in Hindi, Srilal Shukla’s name is synonymous with Raag Darbari, the novel that made reading Hindi books fashionable. The novel was translated into English by Gillian Wright, to introduce English readers to the hard-hitting satire of the Hindi hinterland.

A former IPS officer later inducted into IAS, Srilal Shukla (born 1925) authored about 25 books, important among which are Makaan, Sooni Ghaati Ka Sooraj, Pehla Padaav, Ahyatvas and Bisrampur Ka Sant. He also wrote a detective novel titled Aadmi Ka Zahar, which was serialised in the weekly magazine Hindustan. He has already been conferred with the Sahitya Akademi Award, Vyas Samman and Padma Shree (2008).

Amar Kant, who shares his year of birth with Shukla, is the author of Inhin Hashiyon Se, that earned him Sahitya Akademi Award (2007). At one time, fighting penury, Kant was willing to sell his Akademi Award. His short stories like Hatyare, Dopahar Ka Bhojan and Diptee Collector were part of syllabi in several Indian universities. Kant also authored Sukha Patta, Kale Ujale, Beech Ki Deewar and Desh Ke Log.

Kambar, who has won the Jnanpith for the year 2010, is a novelist and playwright. His noted works include Takararinavaru, Saavirada Neralu, Chakori (poetry collection) and Harakeya Kuri (plays). He is also a recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi and Sahitya Akademi awards.

DEFENCE
Stealth fighter PAK-FA
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited expects an indigenous fight-generation stealth fighter aircraft to be inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in about six years. The aircraft, called PAK-FA, is being developed with Russia.

Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi has unveiled PAK-FA, also dubbed as the T-50, which will be the base variant for developing a version that specifically caters to Indian requirements.

PAK-FA is a Russian acronym for Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation and its designers have claimed that it is comparable to the F-22 Raptor, US Air Force’s latest fighter.

A joint venture company on the lines of cruise missile manufacturer BrahMos will be set up for the purpose. HAL’s contribution will include fuselage composites, flight software, including the mission computer, navigation systems, avionics and cockpit displays and counter-measure dispensing systems.

Unlike the Russian version, the Indian aircraft will be a two-seater aircraft, which will involve limited re-designing of the fuselage, wings and control surfaces that will be undertaken by HAL. The project had kicked off in 2007.

Amphibious vessels to strengthen Indian navy
The Union government has cleared the Rs 2,176-crore acquisition of eight specialised vessels or LCUs (landing craft utility), capable of “hard beaching” on enemy shores, to boost the countryís amphibious warfare and island protection capabilities. The LCUs will help in swiftly transporting thousands of troops, heavy weapon systems and infantry combat vehicles over long distances to take the battle right to the enemy mainland.

The vessels will be built by the Kolkata-based Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd.

The LCUs are likely to be based at India’s first and only regional “theatre command”, the strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). With additional airstrips, OTR (operational turn around) bases and jetties, ANC is slowly being transformed into a major amphibious warfare hub. A strong military presence in the 572-island archipelago is considered imperative to counter China’s strategic moves in the Indian Ocean, as well as ensure security of the sea lanes converging towards Malacca Strait.

N-ENERGY
BARC develops spent fuel automation system
The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre has designed and developed the first of its kind advanced automation system for transferring spent fuel bundles of pressurised heavy water reactors for nuclear reprocessing plants. Introduction of this automation system for reprocessing plant is aimed at transferring the fuel bundles directly from fuel handling area (FHA) of storage pool to the dissolver cell in an automated way, without the necessity of using charging cask. This contributes in eliminating dependency on skilled manpower and thus reduction of man-rem (radiation dose) consumption by workers.

The system design is such that it can easily be adopted to handle fuel from 220 MW PHWR as well as from 550 MW/700 MW with minimum changes. Provision has also been kept for manual changing of spent fuel in case of non-availability of automation system.

The spent fuel bundles from nuclear power reactors are stored under water at reactor site. After allowing it to cool down for a given period, the bundles from the reactor site are transferred to underwater storage facility at the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant site.

PERSONS
Pataudi, Mansur Ali Khan
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, India’s youngest-ever Test captain, also known in the cricketing fraternity as “Tiger” Pataudi, died on September 22, 2011.

Born on January 5, 1941 in Bhopal, the right-handed batsman made his debut for India at the age of 21 in a drawn match against England here in 1961. In a career spanning almost two decades, he played a total of 46 Test matches.

In 1964, Pataudi was bestowed the Arjuna Award before being honoured with a Padma Shri in 1967. A star not just on field but off it too, Pataudi married the then reigning queen of Indian cinema Sharmila Tagore in 1969 and the glamorous couple had three children – Saif Ali Khan, Soha Ali Khan and Saba Ali Khan.

PROJECTS
NTPC to set up first overseas power plant in Sri Lanka
State-run power producer NTPC will set up a 500-Mw coal-based power plant in Sri Lanka by 2016, which will mark its foray into the overseas market. The unit will come up at Sampur in Trincomalee at an estimated cost of Rs 3,150 crore.

A joint venture agreement to this effect was signed between NTPC and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). The Sri Lankan government will give land for the project on a long-term lease. Coal for the project will be imported and supplied by Lanka Coal Company (LCC) and the power generated will be supplied to the CEB.

RESEARCH
Scientists find way to “disarm” AIDS virus
Scientists have found a way to prevent HIV from damaging the immune system and say their discovery may offer a new approach to developing a vaccine against AIDS.

Researchers from the United States and Europe, working in laboratories on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), found it is unable to damage the immune system if cholesterol is removed from the membrane of the virus.

HIV takes its membrane from the cell that it infects, the researchers explained in their study. This membrane contains cholesterol, which helps keep it fluid and enables it to interact with particular types of cell.

Normally, a subset of immune cells, called plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs), recognise HIV quickly and react by producing signalling molecules called interferons. These signals activate various processes which are initially helpful, but which damage the immune system if switched on for too long.

Scientists have now found that if cholesterol is removed from HIV’s envelope, it can no longer activate pDCs. As a result, T cells, which orchestrate the adaptive response, can fight the virus more effectively.

The team now plans to investigate how to use this way of inactivating the virus and possibly develop it into a vaccine.

Usually when a person becomes infected with HIV, the body’s innate immune response puts up an immediate defence. But some researchers believe HIV causes the innate immune system to overreact. This weakens the immune system’s next line of defence, known as the adaptive immune response.

AIDS kills around 1.8 million people a year worldwide. An estimated 2.6 million people caught HIV in 2009, and 33.3 million people are living with the virus.

Neutrinos make light of Einstein’s theory of relativity
Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of relativity is one of the most fundamental pillars of physics — but now scientists say his conclusion that nothing can travel faster than light could be proved wrong.

Scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN, the world’s largest physics laboratory say they have recorded sub-atomic particles, known as neutrinos, travelling faster than the speed of light.

CERN says as part of its “OPERA” experiment, a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 730 km away in Italy travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. It revealed that neutrinos travel at a velocity of 20 parts per million above the speed of light.

Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant.

If the findings are correct, it would force a major rethink of the fundamental laws of nature, including how the universe works.

Einstein’s theory states that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, so firing an object faster than that would require an infinite amount of energy.

World’s Smallest Electric Motor
Chemists at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences have developed the world’s first single molecule electric motor, a development that may create a new class of devices applicable to sectors like medicine to engineering.

In a report published in Nature Nanotechnology, the Tufts team reported an electric motor only one nanometer across — groundbreaking work, considering the current world record is a 200-nanometer motor. A single strand of human hair is about 60,000 nanometers wide.

E Charles H Sykes, associate professor of chemistry at Tufts and senior author of the paper, says, “There has been significant progress in the construction of molecular motors powered by light, and by chemical reactions. But this is the first time electrically-driven molecular motors have been demonstrated, despite a few theoretical proposals — we have been able to show one can provide electricity to a single molecule and get it to do something that is not just random.”

Sykes and his colleagues were able to control a molecular motor with electricity by using a state-of-the-art, low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope (LT-STM), one of about only 100 in the United States. The LT-STM uses electrons instead of light to ‘see’ molecules. The team used the metal tip on the microscope to provide an electrical charge to a butyl methyl sulfide molecule placed on a conductive copper surface. This sulfur-containing molecule had carbon and hydrogen atoms radiating to form what looked like two arms, with four carbons on one side and one on the other. These carbon chains were free to rotate around the sulfur-copper bond.

While there are foreseeable practical applications of this electric motor, breakthroughs would need to be made in the temperatures at which electric molecular motors operate. The motor spins much faster at higher temperatures, making it difficult to measure and control the rotation of the motor.

SPACE RESEARCH
Looking inside the moon
More than 100 spacecraft have been to the moon, including six with U.S. astronauts, but one key piece of information about Earth’s natural satellite is still missing –nwhat’s inside.

Learning about the interior of the moon is the primary goal of a new NASA mission called Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, which was launched on September 8, 2011.

Overall, the moon has about one-sixth the gravity of Earth, but it is not evenly distributed. On the moon, a mountain actually might be a molehill, gravitationally speaking.

Likewise, gravity maps of lunar flat lands show unexplained pockets of extra heft, an indication of subterranean deposits or structures. Learning the interior structure of the moon is considered critical to piecing together the story about what happened to the moon since its formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

Scientists believe the moon’s building blocks were large chunks of debris jettisoned from Earth after a collision with an object as big as Mars. In addition to un-ravelling the moon’s history, GRAIL scientists expect to extrapolate their findings to other rocky bodies, both in our solar system and eventually to those beyond.

The two spacecraft will take a long, slow journey to the moon, arriving on December 31 and January 1. After a few months to manoeuvre into the proper orbit, the pair will spend 82 days flying over the lunar poles, linked by radio waves.

When one spacecraft flies over a region of higher gravity, it will speed up, momentarily changing the distance between itself and its sibling probe. Less dense regions likewise will affect the satellites’ positions. Using the radio waves as a ruler, changes as tiny as a micron — the width of a red blood cell — can be detected.

With gravity maps in hand, scientists can then use computer models and data from other lunar missions to determine whether the moon’s core is solid, liquid or a combination of the two, and what elements it contains.

MISCELLANEOUS
Asterix creator retires after 52 years
Albert Uderzo, co-creator of one of France’s greatest comic book heroes, Asterix the Gaul, has decided to  hang up his pen at the age of 84. The Italian-born artist, who dreamt up the indomitable warrior with his scriptwriter friend Rene Goscinny in 1959, said he was “a bit tired” after 52 years of drawing and that it was time to hand over his creation to younger talent.

The announcement came on the day publishing house Hachette celebrated the sale of 350 million Asterix books around the world, making the diminutive hero one of France’s biggest-selling exports.

Asterix and his jovial sidekick Obelix first appeared in print in October 1959, and their adventures fighting the Roman invaders have since been translated into over 100 languages.

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