Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rancho certainly didn’t get his basics right

A scene in the recent Bollywood blockbuster, three idiots, goes as follows: The principal of the college explains to an eager bunch of freshers how the Americans spent years of complex research and millions of dollars in developing a pen that can be used in a spacecraft, even in zero and sub gravity conditions and in extremes of temperatures. At that instant, Rancho (the character portrayed by Aamir Khan), almost innocently asks, “Sir, can’t we use a pencil instead?” when all the students burst into laughter. If anything, it only establishes the fact that he did not know about the perils of using a pencil in a spacecraft and the Space Pen.

PS: This scene could have been probably inspired by the age-old joke, which probably originated in the Cold war era and continues to circulate via e-mails and SMS’ worldwide, in which the US and Russia (or USSR), in the height of the space race, were developing a pen for use inside spacecraft and during one such meeting between scientists of both the countries, the Americans extolled about the features of a pen with complex functionalities that could write underwater, in zero gravity and other complex environments. When questioned, the bemused Russians replied, “That’s simple, we use a pencil.”

Is it really as simple as it is being made out to be? Did the Americans really miss out on anything?

Chew on these facts first

  • Pencils produce fine particles of lead dust (not to mention pieces of wood) – the perfect ingredient for a conflagration inside an oxygen-rich atmosphere such as a spacecraft
  • These fine particles can also clog certain vital parts of the complex machinery inside, turning the spacecraft into a veritable flying coffin (after the MiG aircraft, of course)

Now here’s a trivia bit that would astound even Derek O’ Brien...

Developed by an American researcher in private, who had to undergo a harrowing time before his invention was accepted by NASA (who were also researching on similar lines at that time), the Space Pen comprises pressurised nitrogen cartridges that ensure smooth writing by pumping out ink at a constant rate, no matter what the external atmosphere is.

John Fisher was the name of this whacky inventor.

Legend has it, as in any other fairytale, NASA, and later the Russians, were hooked on to this invention, and the Space Pen became associated with tales of invention folklore.