Wild buzz: This strange and shimmering universe

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 07, 2016 11:29 IST
Retired IAS officer, Narinder K. Wadhawan, maintains an interest in astronomy, physics, history, music, law, spirituality, administration, short stories and writing. (Photo: Narinder K Wadhawan)


Denizens of the blue planet cannot but help wonder at this strange and shimmering universe that encases them. Knowledge of the universe is being advanced at an astronomical rate yet newer and newer discoveries of heavenly bodies and their curious dynamics confound us just as surely. This steers us to the immortal words of JBS Haldane uttered decades back: ‘’The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.’’

Despite the confundity that attends the advance of the cosmic sciences, there are cogent explanations and laws that explain and augur possibilities. When the sun beats down on you mercilessly during a season marked by high humidity and sparse rain, humans may indulge in such Quixotic desires as the sun be banished! But pause for a moment and think what would be life without the sun? Or what would happen if planet earth somehow slipped from its orbit around the sun? Then again, while sitting out under the stars at a high mountain resort, we do wonder why, despite an infinity of twinkling cosmic ‘diyas’, the sky is not lit up as vividly as a ballroom chandelier? Would the sun radiate light and heat for ever or like all mortals and all that is material come to a pass and be reduced to a spent, white dwarf ?

A fine attempt at answering these fascinating questions is contained in a delightful blog by Panchkula resident, Narinder K Wadhawan. With an academic background in the sciences, a passion for astronomy came to Wadhawan from his father and he has in turn passed it onto his son. Wadhawan was an IAS officer, who retired in 2013 from the rank of secretary to the Punjab Government. His blog, https://narinderkw.wordpress. com, is easily accessible via the internet and is distinguished by its ability to transcend complexities and provide explanations of cosmic riddles with a minimum resort to the dreaded jargon of physics.

The blog is a user-friendly link between the galloping strides of technical knowledge and its distilled access to the common man in an easy-on-the-eye-and-mind format. For example, Wadhawan explains that were earth to be hit by a heavenly body and its velocity fall to zero, the planet will be sucked towards the sun in a spiral and end up in a mass cremation. Or, if the earth’s velocity were to increase dramatically, the planet will escape from the orbit of the sun and plunge off the precipice of life into icy annihilation. Thankfully enough, as Wadhawan assures us, the chances for such a collision are as remote as two flies banging into each other in the Elante mall’s cinema theatre.


Spectacled cobras locked in fierce combat in the well. (Photo: Nikhil Sanger)

As the paddy season unfurls, farmers clean wells and tubewell motors, and in the process discover reptiles fallen in. Reptiles can survive for weeks in wells without food. On August 1, snake-rescue expert Nikhil Sanger was summoned by a farmer of Mehndipur village (Nawanshahar). There were two Spectacled Cobras that had fallen in the night before into a 40-45 feet deep well. When Sanger climbed down the well, he found the cobras locked in mortal combat. The larger cobra (5.5 feet) was aggressive to the point that Sanger could not separate the fighters with his snake-wrangling stick. His rescue operation was hampered by the fact that he dare not come down to the well floor and had to maintain one leg on the end-steps and the other on the tubewell motor.

The entangled cobras were delivering vicious bites to each other. Finally, cold water was sent down in a bottle and Sanger doused the cobras forcing a separation. Sanger quickly hooked the smaller cobra (4 to 4.5 feet) and put it in the rescue container. But the larger one was so enraged that it lunged for Sanger in that dark, confined space by raising its body. Sanger was precariously perched on the steps just a foot above the cobra’s hood. After Sanger subdued the bigger one and brought out the cobras, he expected there would be mortality because of the ‘venomous’ bites. However, both cobras survived and were freed.

In this remarkable incident from December 2012, a Spectacled cobra and two pups fell into a 30-foot well at village Jaffarpur, Nawanshahar. Though cobras are known to bite dogs when threatened, this serpent spent 48 hours with the pups but did not bite them despite the latter clambering over the serpent and annoying their feared adversary. The cobra only hissed at the pups to make clear his/her annoyance. The pups and cobra were rescued by Nikhil Sanger. (Photo: Nikhil Sanger)

I asked legendary herpetologist Rom Whitaker to shed light on why the cobras fought so hard and why, despite the bites, none of them died. ‘’Cobras, as with other species of snakes, like rat snakes for example, regularly eat their own kind (cannibalism) which is probably the case here with these two in the well. One may have been chasing the other and they fell in. Venomous snakes are immune or partly immune to their own venoms. It is also true of the Kingsnake in the Americas, which eats venomous snakes like rattlesnakes, gets bitten repeatedly (I’ve seen it myself) and survives. Mongooses, cats, pigs and honey badgers are some other animals which carry a certain amount of immunity to snake venom.

There has been some discussion of finding out more about this immunity (within snakes/animals) so as to enhance snakebite treatment in humans,’’ Whitaker told this writer.


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