The Right to Write

On March 11, 2011, East Japan was hit by one of the most devastating tsunamis the world had ever seen,officially named the Great East Japan Tsunami. The world waited in despair as the people of Japan braced themselves for the tsunami triggered by a massive 9.0 earthquake, the most powerful to hit the country. When the wave finally came, cars, houses and whole buildings were instantly swept away. On that day itself, 17,000 people had gone missing, leaving 10,000 dead. But the worst was yet to come. Four nuclear plants in Fukushima Daiichi overheated when the tsunami killed the power lines, causing their coolers to stop working. Explosions soon followed, and then the radiation began to leak.

As far as tsunamis go, the actual size of the tsunami, which was 10 metres, was the not biggest ever, in fact, it was comparatively small. A tsunami in 1958 in Lituya Bay, Alaska, USA, for example, reached 524 metres. However, because it hit a fairly isolated area, very few people died. In contrast, 20,000 people died in the Great East Japan Tsunami at last count, which is again, fairly little compared to the Asian Tsunami of 2004 where 230,000 people died.

What marks the Great East Japan Tsunami as so uniquely tragic is the suffering that not only Japan, but the rest of the world will have to endure. Radiation has already been found in the rainwater that fell on Boston, USA. Seafood may now be radioactive because the amount of radioactive tap water in Japan has become simply too much for the resilient country to contain, and they have been forced to throw the contaminated water into the ocean.

And all because of a tsunami.

Tsunami is a Japanese word which literally translated means “harbour wave”. It is fitting that the Japanese named it because they have unfortunately been afflicted with 195 tsunamis. However, tsunamis have been endangering mankind since approximately 6100 BC, the year when the first tsunami was recorded in the Norwegian Sea.

A tsunami approaching a coast.

Tsunamis are a result of the earth’s continental plates shifting against each other. But it’s not as simple as that.  If the plates just grind against each other as a strike-slip motion, a tsunami is not very likely. They only occur if there is vertical displacement. That is, when one of the crusts acts as a paddle, transferring the energy of the underwater earthquake to the other crust, creating a wave of water. This wave of water, which starts out harmless enough could be, by the end of its journey to the coast of an unfortunate land, up to 260m – like the tsunami in Spirit Lake, Washington, USA in 1980.

The wave of the Asian Tsunami of 2004.

Tsunamis are one of the most dangerous destroyers in the world. Some bright (and somewhat misguided) minds recognised that and picked up on the idea to use a tsunami as a weapon. In 1999, it was discovered that during World War II, in 1944 and 1945, scientists in Auckland were testing a tidal wave bomb. The American government in particular were supportive of the project, for if perfected, it could have been as deadly as a nuclear bomb. However, the project was scrapped when the man made tsunamis never got to a threatening enough size and theoretical flaws were found.

The destinies of nuclear power and tsunamis have long been intertwined. Today, tsunamis can be triggered by using nuclear power to create vertical displacement, though certainly not on the same scale as a natural tsunami. On May 11th 2011, their fates intertwined yet again, in a way that no one could have predicted. In Japan now, the plant workers are, at this moment, working to contain the radiation, with the fate of Fukushima and the rest of the world in their hands.


“The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. […] The dog was called Wellington. […] I wondered who had killed Wellington and why.”

After reading just the first page of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year award, you feel compelled to read more – if only to find out who killed Wellington. That is just how Mark Haddon intended it to be. His rationale was “Who on Earth is going to want to read about a fifteen-year-old kid with a disability living in [Swindon, London] with his father?”

However, as you read on, you find that it is not so much the plot that compels you to keep reading – but rather the extraordinary main character: Christopher Boone, the story’s narrator. Christopher, a 15 year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, can tell you every country in the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7, 507. But he finds feelings baffling.

The book dives into Christopher’s unusual mind, and much of what makes the book so fascinating is Christopher’s quirks, characteristics, likes and dislikes. This is what makes the book unique. He is a fan of Sherlock Holmes – whose adventures are his motive for telling the story – thus the title of the book is taken from a remark made by Sherlock Holmes’ in the short story “Silver Blaze” written by Arthur Conan Doyle; he is also a fan of prime numbers – the chapters are numbered by prime numbers.

However, when on some pages every sentence starts with “and” you start feel a little annoyed. Yet you can’t help but feel refreshed by it as it adds to the books authenticity. Much of the rest of the book invokes a similar love/hate relationship with Christopher himself and the people around him, which gives you a sense of the way Christopher’s mind works and how differently he feels (or doesn’t feel) in certain situations.

Mark Haddon

Although Mark Haddon used to work with children with autism, it was way back when – when autism didn’t even have a name. Contrary to popular belief, the book was not intended as a book about autism, but started as one about a poodle that was killed by a pitch fork. As he continued writing, Haddon found that it was a funny story, but only because of the voice he was writing the story with – Christopher’s.

Ironically, though feelings confuse Christopher, his story makes many readers feel like crying while reading one page, and laughing while reading the next. It is this effect that makes the book so special, un-put-downable and re-readable – and thanks to this book’s extraordinary insight into a mind so different from our own, after reading this story, you may never see the world in the same way again.

In Malaysia, a popular conversational question is “So… where do you go to school, ah?”

“Er… I’m home schooled.”

My answer would attract weird looks, confusion and disbelief, so much so that I’ve come to dread the question.

I am not home schooled because of a disability or even because our school system is poor. In fact, much to the incredulity of many, my parents chose to home school my younger brother and I. Seeing as they resided in a country where when people are told that you are home schooled they are most thoroughly confused; this was very brave of them. When they first started home schooling, which was practically from my birth in 1995, it was the late ‘90s, and home schoolers were very, very scarce.

Andrea; 5 days old.

“Home schooled? School… at home? Got such a thing, ah?” People would ask. The answer is yes, got. Another frequently asked question would be, why did your parents decide to home school you? The answer could be that they breastfed me from the beginning (another abnormality in a small town) and it just evolved from there. Or that I did go to kindergarten for about three weeks but I didn’t like how they forced me to study.

I was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, and lived there till I was seven. It was an idyllic childhood in Ipoh – which is a rather sleepy, small town. Thus, Ipoh is one of the last places you would expect to meet a home schooled kid.

My brother and I in Ipoh.

Living in Ipoh was very peaceful, if stagnant; we could ride our bikes in the lane behind our house, and draw on our concrete backyard. However, it certainly was not the case where because we were home schooled we did nothing all day long. We did do activities – to an extent.

When I was two I asked for a violin. This proved to be a pickle, as at that time, there were no violin teachers in Ipoh. Not a single one. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there were piano teachers there. So my ever devoted parents coerced a piano teacher to teach me the violin.

Of course, given the circumstances, things did not work out. My violin was much too big and heavy for me, and in a few months time, I had stopped playing the violin. I have always wondered what if I hadn’t stopped the violin, to be honest. If I had started at that age with a good teacher, well, the possibilities are endless. But you can’t rewind time, and it was not till several years ago that I picked up it violin again, and now it is a central part of my life.

The violin is now a central part of my life.

When I was seven, we moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. KL was very different from Ipoh. For example, in Ipoh everywhere is more or less 15 minutes from each other. But now we had to deal with KL’s immense traffic jams (at least they seemed to be immense, compared to Ipoh’s tinier ones, but no doubt are tiny compared to Hong Kong’s or New York’s). We sold our 20 year old Mercedes which we nicknamed “Benny”.

I had been promised it as my car when I was old enough to drive, but I didn’t mind Benny being sold too much as there were various insects, including a cockroach or two, living in him. In fact, I was relieved. To this day, cockroaches have scared the living daylights out of me. I don’t know if it is their disgusting antennas, the fact that they carry diseases, their tiny, plentiful legs (I am not sure how many they have, as I have never been curious enough to check, but they sure can run fast) or their yucky brown, muddy colour. For me, they are just gross, gross, GROSS.

Anyhow, it was here, in KL, that a huge part of my life would commence. I started tae-kwon-do (a Korean art of self-defence; a variation of karate) in Ipoh, but back then I wasn’t too good at it. But when we moved to KL, all that changed. If I’ve learnt anything in life so far (besides learning how to read and write – just kidding) it’s that the most important thing is to believe. My second tae-kwon-do instructor believed in me greatly, and by the time I was nine, I had achieved my black belt, the highest of all the belts.

But there was one catch – sparring. I was fine with the patterns (a sequence of a set of moves), but to fight, one on one with another person, I just couldn’t do it, and so I stopped TKD.

Now, I am at a cross roads in my life. I am 15, and very soon I shall have to decide what I want to do in life. That is a huge pressure; this one decision will decide the rest of your life, or at least the next four years. However, I am already fairly sure it will be music. But it will not be something to do with bugs, I can tell you that much.

What are we made up of? Not hair. Not skin. Not bones. But cells. If a very thin slice of a plant stem is cut and put under a microscope you will see thousands of tiny box-like structures. These are cells.

You could think of cells as the sibling of particles. Only where particles make up our world’s infrastructure, cells make up the infrastructure of the living beings that inhabit the world. Thusly, cells are living and particles are non-living.

When you think about it, cells are mind boggling. It’s crazy to think that thousands of miniscule structures make up your entire body. How is that? Well, your body is much like a food chain. Cells make up tissues, tissues make up organs, several organs make up a system, and several systems make up an organism. Of course, it is unlike a food chain in the sense that organs don’t eat tissues etc.

The physical aspects of cells

Let’s start at the bottom of the chain, and basically the whole foundation of organisms. Animal cells are usually rounder than plant cells, which are boxier. An animal cell’s physical components are a cytoplasm, mitochondria, cell membrane, granules, and a nucleus. Plant cells consist of cellulose, a cell membrane, a vacuole, cell sap, plastids, chlorophyll, chloroplasts and a nucleus. Though animal and plant cells have different components, every single cell has a cell membrane. However, only most have a nucleus.

When put under a microscope, the typical animal cell’s cytoplasm looks like a thick liquid floating about, and floating about said thick liquid is the mitochondria and granules. Right smack in the middle is the nucleus, or the brain of the cell. It decides what goes in and what goes out and what is kept. The shape of every cell differs, thus it is impossible to draw a typical cell, but it is possible to show a rough sketch to show the characteristics which are standard in a cell.

The anatomy of an animal cell.

The plant cell’s structure differs greatly. Usually it is a rectangular shape, with its nucleus hiding in a bottom corner. Hence, if you were to cut the plant transversely (crosswise), you may not see a nucleus at all. Its vacuole takes up most of the cell, and the chloroplasts are sprinkle much like jellybeans on the outline of the vacuole. Weird but true.

The anatomy of a plant cell.

For cells to make tissues and those tissues make organs etc, they have to be specialized. Like the different people who make up the different parts of our world, cells are different. Though they are not as unique as each human, likewise they each have their own purpose.

Specialization starts with one cell splitting into two. Let’s say we have one cell (just to let you know, this cell’s specialization is, specialization). So, cell one splits into two. Now we have two cells, one cell becomes specialized and the other retains its ability to split. The beauty of specialization is how it’s so simple, yet it’s vital to all organisms. I’m sure you know how a baby is born. Let’s skip to before the baby is a fetus. It is a single cell. Then, like magic, it divides. At the speed of light, from one to two, to four, to eight, to 16 etc. Before you know it, you have a whole fetus, and the division doesn’t stop till the baby is fully grown.

Tissue culture

Animal tissue culture is when you take developing animal tissues and treat it with enzymes to separate the cells. The cells are then put into a culture vessel (shallow dish) containing nutrient solution, which makes the plant grow artificially. The vessel will eventually have a layer one cell thick, upon which the division will stop there until the cells are removed to another vessel. However, most mammal cells divide no more than 20 times.

Plant tissue culture is rather amazing. From just small amounts of plant tissue, great quantities of plants can be reproduced. First, a small amount of plant tissue is treated with enzymes, which separate the individual cells. The cells are then treated with hormones which help roots, stems and leaves grow from said cells.

And alternate method is taking a small piece of plant tissue and putting it on nutrient jelly. The nutrient jelly, as you may have guessed, gives the tissue the nutrients to grow into a callus, and eventually a plant.

You may be wondering what the use of tissue culture is, we have the organic plants and animals, why do we need artificial ones?

Well, tissue culture, much like pop culture, can be done at a mass level. Tissue culture, perhaps unlike pop culture, is very useful. When used at said mass level, it can help research on diseases, and sometimes can take the place of the cruel practice of animal testing.

Cells… superstars?

Though they may seem boring, they’re a vital part of our lives, indeed, they are us. Studying cells can help to develop live-saving vaccines, particularly recent progress for a vaccine against AIDS, which can prevent the AIDS from entering a cell.

Cells are greatly needed, well-liked, and respected (Well… you know what I mean). In a pop culture context, you could say that cells are the superstar of biology. Though they don’t have to worry about the paparazzi, and probably don’t have to worry about falling out of the spotlight, for children and adults alike will be studying them for years to come.

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The almighty Atoms

How stable is our world?

The Earth literally shattered a majority of Haiti’s buildings and infrastructure during the recent tragic earthquake there. Natural disasters like this can make one wonder if our tables and chairs won’t suddenly disintegrate in front of our very eyes. Fortunately, that question has been answered a long time ago.

Since Homo sapiens ruled the Earth, our world’s greatest minds have been bothered by one question (actually, they had many questions, but this particular one was rather important). That question was “What is the world made up of?” We have discovered since that it is made up of matter. But what is even more interesting is what matter is made of.

In 1807, the secret was finally revealed by John Dalton. He discovered that matter (as a matter of fact) is made up of particles. Particles are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which for the longest time scientists thought was the smallest thing in the world. However, when said atom was cut open, it revealed an even smaller nucleus.

John Dalton discovered the atom

A breakthrough was made in 1919, when a scientist named James Chadwick discovered that revolving around the nucleus were clusters of tiny protons, neutrons, electrons and about 70 other, miniscule sub-atomic particles.

The Kinetic Theory

Thus, the Kinetic Theory is a fascinating one. That’s because it states that the world is made up of the aforementioned atoms, which are the tiny building blocks that support our lives. The notion that we big, heavy humans are supported by these little, cannot-be-seen-by-the-naked-eye things seems hard to believe. But it’s true.

For example, the particles which, bit by bit, make up the computer which you are using to read this now are actually moving. The movement is a very, very slight vibration fueled by kinetic energy. Throughout all the matter in the universe, kinetic energy is coursing through it. Some have less and some have more. Your computer has less, much less kinetic energy than say, your mum’s perfume. That’s because your computer is a solid and your mum’s perfume is a gas.

Confused? Think about it this way, we are what we’re surrounded by. Imagine that solids are the older generation of human beings today, stiff and stuck in their ways. Imagine that liquids are the youth of today flowing, free but slightly restricted. And imagine gases are hyper little kids, bouncing of the walls. Got that image in your head? Okay, now here’s the fun part:

The people you just imagined are actually particles, which make up solids, liquids and gases. The simplest example is water. As we all know, water is a liquid. But when we freeze it, it magically becomes its solid form, the hard, dense ice. That is because the water has hit its freezing point of 0°C, thus freezing the liquid into a solid. Likewise, doing the opposite and heating the water till it reaches its boiling point of 100°C creates its gaseous form – steam.

So when heated up, the water particles gain heat energy and move faster and faster till they break free of their bonds and is then free to move about at a high speed, occasionally colliding with each another in their new state of matter: gas.

The Different States of Matter (Source:

Proof that particles move – Diffusion

Have you ever noticed that when a person wearing a strong, pungent perfume walks into a room, within a few minutes the entire room smells like said perfume? Well, that magic is called diffusion.

With the high freedom these gas particles have, it’s not surprising how versatile they can be. For example, if gas is put into a jar, you will notice that it will spread itself out quickly and evenly. That’s because the gas particles move. In fact, they move so fast, that gases take mere hours to diffuse.

Liquids, on the other hand, can take days to diffuse as liquid particles move slower than that of gases.

Proof that particles move – Brownian motion

For many years, there was no proof that particles move. People were still uncertain what exactly we and the world were made of. However, about 150 years ago a scientist and botanist named Robert Brown erased all doubt and uncertainty regarding atoms. While gardening one day, he noticed that the fine pollen grains on the surface of the water were moving about, upon further investigation through his microscope, he discovered that the pollen grains were moving about in random motion.

Progress on this was made slowly but surely, but the breakthrough was in 1923 when another scientist, Norman Wiener, made what Brown had noticed clearer. He stated that the visible, tiny pollen grains were constantly colliding with the scores of water particles, causing the random motion. That breakthrough is called Brownian motion, after the scientist who discovered it.

Certainly, the world seems more fascinating once you have discovered atoms. And it is nice to know that the world is probably not about to crumble beneath our very feet.

June 2023