Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch in the English, Scottish or British History.

Aside : The kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707 by the union of England (England and Wales) with Scotland. In 1801, The Kingdom of Great Britain united with the Kingdom of Ireland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland when 5/6th of Ireland seceded from the union.


Victoria - Self Portrait -1835
Victoria – Self Portrait -1835

Princess Charlotte was the daughter of Prince Regent George, first in line to the British throne and the only legitimate grandchild of King George III. The death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth brought about a succession crisis that forced Prince Edward (Third son of King George) to marry at the age of 50. After King George III and his sons and daughters, there were no legitimate heir to the throne of the British Empire. Prince Edward married Princess Victoria, who was a widow with two children from her first marriage.

Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24th May 1819. She was named Alexandrina after her Godfather, Emperor Alexander I of Russia. At her birth, she was fifth in line to the British Throne. Her father and the King died within a week of each other in 1820. Her uncle, Duke of York died in 1827 and the other uncle King George IV died in 1830, making her the heiress presumptive to her last surviving uncle, King William IV. At the age of 18, on June 20 1837, King William IV died making Victoria, the Queen of United Kingdom.

She married Prince Albert in 1840. Her white wedding dress was unusual as normally wedding dress were more colorful. This apparently started the tradition of white bridal gowns in Christian marriages.

During her long reign, she was target of assassination by Edward Oxford in 1840, John Francis in 1842, John Bean in 1842, William Hamilton in 1849, assault by Robert Pate in 1850, Roderick Maclean in 1882. She lived a charmed life.

She was crowned the Empress of India in 1877. He full title now was “Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India.”

Queen Victoria was the Grandmother of the Royal Houses of Europe. Her daughter Victoria married Frederick, the Crown Prince of Germany and Prussia (who later became Frederick III, German Emperor and King of Prussia). Queen Victoria’s first grandchild, Wilhelm, through her daughter Victoria became Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia after Frederick III. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Maud (daughter of Edward VII) was the Queen of Norway. Another of Victoria’s granddaughter, Alexandra was the Empress Consort and wife of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. Marie, again Victoria’s granddaughter, was the Queen consort of Romania as wife of King Ferdinand I. Victoria Eugenie, Queen of Spain and wife of King Alfonso XIII was also a granddaughter of Victoria. Edward VII, son of Victoria was the King of United Kingdom and Emperor of India. The current Queen of United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II is also a descendant of Victoria.

During the Victorian Era, the British Empire reached the zenith of its expansion and power. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was suppressed and the East India Company nationalized with the passing over of all administrative duties to the British Crown. The EIC was dissolved in 1874. The British Empire extended to six continents and the Victorian Era saw the establishment of dominion of Canada, the Crimean War (Leo Tolstoy was the first War Correspondent), the tripling of population of Australia due to Victorian Gold Rush(Its province of Victoria is named after, you guessed it right, Queen Victoria), Irish famine which resulted in almost a million dead in Ireland and million more emigrated to Canada, America and Australia. Victorian Era was also a boost to technology and sciences. Railroads, electricity, Telegraph, Telephone, Theory of Evolution were all products of the Victorian Era. The first postal stamp, the penny black, with the profile of Queen Victoria was issued in 1840 to make the post a pre-payment system rather than an On-Delivery payment. The first football league was founded in 1888. The oldest tennis championship, Wimbledon was first held in 1877. Victoria’s rule was also the time of giants like Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans), Lewis Carroll, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, John Stuart Mill, Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and Dracula were the product of the Victorian Era.

Victoria died in 1901, the first year of the 20th century, a century that was shaped to a large extent by her rule and that of her descendants. Her son, Edward VII, the future King of United Kingdom and her eldest grandson, Wilhelm II, now the Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia were at her deathbed.

What a wonderful world

Louis Armstrong – What a wonderful World

Sir Richard Attenborough – What a wonderful World


This is a truly a wonderful world and what amazes me is that there is so much to do and so much to learn in this wonderful world. Some days you come to know about the people who lived thousands of years ago and wonder what they thought and how they lived. You learn about conquerors and thinkers who through their sheer will changed the world.   Some time you come to know more about people like Andrei Sakharov and Sophie Scholl who stood up for what they believed was right in the face of overwhelming might of oppression. The courage that this would have required knowing that you and your family would suffer for your beliefs! Other days you peer into the space and wonder if there is somebody peering back at you. You wonder how far the space probes like Viking and Pioneer and New Horizons have gone and you also think about the scientists who made these amazing things possible. You just cannot imagine that human beings could do such things. There are frozen worlds in our solar system that may have liquid water and consequently life beneath their surface while there are planets on which its raining diamonds. Some days you come to know about some new discoveries like the possibility that life formed in the universe within a few millions years after big bang and you wonder whether there were galactic empires that rose and reached their zenith and spread across multiple galaxies and then collapsed millions of years before life began on earth. Some time you wonder if there are space stations at the edge of the solar system looking back at earth and relaying our thoughts and our progress to some distant empire who is worried about whether we are a threat. There were explorers who sailed the world’s oceans in boats that were powered by winds on their sails and there are aircraft carriers now that run on atomic energy and have 5000 people on board. 

I started this blog on 28th February 2010 with the reason for existence of this blog in a post titled Why.  After almost four years and 150 posts later, it seems to me that I have just scratched the surface of things that I do not know. Four years ago, words like Levant, Asia Minor, Polynesia, Mesopotamia, Kuiper Belt Objects, Milwaukee Protocol, Huaxia, Significant Figures did not make much sense to me. I would have guessed what they mean but I would not have been sure of it. But now the story is different. I also know that there would be infinite more terms that I have no clue about. As Donald Rumsfeld would have said, the known unknowns have increased but the unknown unknowns remains unfathomable. There is so much to explore!

Lets go exploring
Lets go exploring

Makemake and Eris

Makemake is the god of fertility and creator of humanity in the mythology of the Rapa Nui people of the island of Rapa Nui in Polynesia. Actually, Rapa Nui forms one of the vertex of the triangle that defines Polynesia. Rapa Nui is in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest inhabited island almost 2000 km away with the nearest continental point almost 3500 km away.

The Dutch explorer. Jacob Roggeveen reached the Rapa Nui island on April 5th, 1722, Easter Sunday. It was named Easter Islands, the name with which we know the islands popularly now. The islands are known for its large stone statues called Moai. I bet you have seen images of these statues and wondered what they are.





Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

Polynesian triangle with Rapa Nui represented by 3.

 Eris is the Greek Goddess of strife and discord. The story goes that due to her nature to cause discord, she was the only Goddess not invited for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Parents of Achilles. Remember Achilles as played by Brad Pitt in Troy?). She became angry and decided to crash the party. She brought with her an apple (Why does it always have to be an apple???) with “To the fairest one” written on it. This obviously caused trouble with all the other Goddess claiming they deserved it. The decision to adjudicate was put on Zeus who wisely delegated that to Paris, son of Priam (Paris – Remember Orlondo Bloom from Troy? The coward, useless guy??). Hera offered Paris ownership of all known world, Athena offered him wisdom and the abilities of the greatest warrior while Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. In his infinite stupidity, Paris chose Aphrodite. Aphrodite gives him the love of Helen who is already married to King Menelaus of Sparta thus sowing the roots of destruction of Troy in the Trojan war.

In the month of March of 2005, 31st March to be precise (4 days after Easter Sunday), the team of astronomers at the Palomar Observatory of Caltech led by Michael Brown discovered the object seen in the below image.

Makemake through the eye of Hubble
Makemake through the eye of Hubble

This was code-named Easterbunny and it has a diameter about 2/3 that of Pluto with an orbital period of 310 years. With the astronomical naming convention of naming classical Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO) after mythological names associated with creation, Mike Brown and his team decided to name the object Makemake after the Easter Island God of creation. Its complete name is 136472 Makemake with the number being a sequential number.

In January of the same year, the same team of astronomers from Caltech also discovered what they called Xena or Planet X. The way these objects are discovered is by comparing successive images taken of the same region of space on successive days. Since the star move very slowly, they would appear stationary in these images while planets, dwarf planets and other objects that are closer would appear to move. Now the space is so huge, the objects so dim and the number of objects that are visible so large that this is a very difficult task. Sophisticated computer programs are written that compare these images and identify possible matches. These possible matches also number in thousands due to problem with telescope (eg, dust particle on mirrors), the imaging device (eq, photographic plates not properly handled, problem in digital cameras) etc that these matches would still have to be visually inspected by an astronomer to classify them as possible matches. Below is the image that shows Xena in three successive images.

Movement of Eris
Movement of Eris

 Now the problem with Xena is that it is larger than Pluto (around 12 km in diameter) and 27% more massive than Pluto. When the discovery of Xena was announced along with the discovery of Makemake, it created a huge controversy. Is Xena a planet? It is larger than Pluto and if size is the criteria then it should be classified as a planet and be Planet X or the tenth planet. Can Makemake be also classified as Planet, it is just 2/3 the size of Pluto? Can Ceres, in the asteroid belt, also classified as a Planet? These discoveries led to much “discord and strife” in the international astronomical community finally forcing the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to define planets as

(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar System Bodies”.

This resulted in Pluto relegated from the elite club of Planets to that of dwarf planets along with Xena, Sedna and Makemake. Due to the effect that Xena had, its discoverer Michael Brown appropriately named it Eris (136199 Eris).

Eris with its satellite Dysnomia
Eris with its satellite Dysnomia

 Fun Facts: Makemake has an orbital period of 310 years meaning it takes 310 years to complete one orbit around the Sun. Eris has an orbital period of 560 years (Aphelion around 97 AU) and at its most distance from the Sun, is almost twice as far away as Pluto is and believe me Pluto is far far away (Aphelion around 48 AU). New Horizons space probe, currently travelling at 14.8 km/s was launched in 2006 and will reach Pluto only by 2015. At its current speed, it can fly around earth in less than an hour. That should give you a perspective on how far away these objects are. Now the same Caltech team of Michael Brown also discovered 90377 Sedna. Now if you think Eris is very distant then Sedna is far, far, far, far away. Its aphelion is 937 AU, almost ten times as distant as Eris is and its orbital period is 11400 years! The last time Sedna was in the same position as today, humanity still had more than a thousand year to domesticate sheep and start agriculture (8000 BCE). 


Orbit of Sedna - Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto's orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.

Orbit of Sedna – Red ellipse is the orbit of Sedna while the purple ellipse is the orbit of Pluto. Note how Pluto’s orbit intersect that of Neptune (blue circle) making Pluto nearer to the Sun than Neptune at some points of its orbit.


Language of the God

When the Assyrian army of Senecherib invaded Jerusalem, he sent his cupbearer, his Rabshakeh, to the walls of Jerusalem where he had a parley with the representatives of Judah. 2 Kings 18:26 and Isaiah 36:11 details what happened next.

 Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

This is the first reference to Aramaic in the Bible. Aramaic was the dominant language of the Mesopotamia for more than 3000 years. It was the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire, Babylonian Empire and the Achaemenid Empire. It was the refined language of polity and religion. In some sense it played the role similar to one played by French in the 18th and 19th century CE. After the fall of Kingdom of Judah in sixth century BCE (586 BCE), Aramaic started being used increasingly in Israel as well. Few books of the Hebrew Bible notably Daniel and Ezra are in Biblical Aramaic.

Aramaic is not a single language but has numerous dialects that were spoken during different times in different regions. Some of the dialects are close enough to be inter-understandable (A new Word!) while others are too different. Modern Hebrew script is based on the Imperial Aramaic Script.

During the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the common language of the Jews. Even the modern translation of the New Testament has many Aramaic words with thankfully their native translation given alongside. To quote a few

Mark 5:41 (The miracle of Daughter of Jairus)

 And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha kum”, which translates as, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.”

Matthew 27:46 (Jesus on the cross)

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Another interesting reference occurs in Mathew 5:18

 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

It is believed that jot refers to Yudh, the smallest letter in Aramaic script and tittle refers to Waw, the second smallest letter. Both of the these characters were frequently forgotten to be written. This biblical verse is the origin of two common idioms; “not one iota” (iota being the smallest Greek letter) and “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”.

The Aramaic also appears in the form of Hosanna which means save or rescue.

Many personalities of the Bible including Thomas (comes from Aramaic tômâ meaning twin), Barabbas (Son of the Father), Bartimaeus (Honorable son – Timaeus is Greek for honorable) have their roots in Aramaic. Places like Golgotha (Place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified) are also in Aramaic.

In fact, the most likely real name of Jesus was Yeshua or Joshua or Yehoshua, all meaning “to rescue”, with its roots in Aramaic.

Indian Locomotives

[Edited to add image of a WDS6 shunting engine]

Last week while travelling through the gorgeous Konkan Railways, I had the chance to see multiple types of locomotives which made me think on the different locomotives in the Indian Railways.

American Locomotives Company (Alco) was a dominant locomotive manufacturer in the USA that became defunct in 1969. Prior to going under, Alco exported WDM-2 to the Indian Railways in 1962. The Diesel Locomotive Works in Varanasi has been building these locomotives since 1964. If you are an Indian and if you are asked to picture a train engine, it is more than likely that you would picture one of these beasts. These engines are the most numerous engines in the inventory of Indian Railways.

WDM2 – You can see WDM2 written on the engine

But what does WDM2 stands for? The naming scheme of the Indian Railway engines, at a higher level, is as below

First Letter – Denotes the gauge of the engine, W stands for Wide (Broad) gauge, Y for meter gauge and Z for narrow gauge

Second Letter – Denotes the motive power, D stands for diesel, C for DC electricity and A for AC electricity

Third Letter – Denotes the type of carriage that the engine pulls, M stands for Mixed, P for passenger and G for Goods

Fourth Number – Chronological model number, post 2002 it denotes the HP in combination with the fifth letter.

Thus WDM2 stands for Wide Gauge, Diesel Engine used for both passenger as well as freight train whose model number is 2. The five digit engine numbers are also grouped basis the engine type. For example the high speed, high power electric engine WAP-4 used to haul the faster and longer Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express are numbered from 22201 onwards.


 The engines pull in either the Long Hood or Short Hood mode. In the long hood mode, the driver cab is at the back of the engine as shown for WDM-2 below

WDM2 in Long Hood
WDM2 in Long Hood

While in the short hood mode, the driver cab is at the front of the engine.

WDM2 in Short Hood showing Ditch Light and Buffer
WDM2 in Short Hood showing Ditch Light and Buffer

The Mumbai Suburban railways do not use a separate engine but instead work on Electric Multiple Unit or EMU that has electric traction units on one or more of the carriages. The electric traction units are situated below the antenna like thing that connects to the overhead wires.

WDS6 - Shunting engine
WDS6 – Shunting engine

Fun facts :

The two smaller lights at the lower half of the engine are called the Ditch Light. They are generally placed at the same width as the rail tracks thus providing reflection of the tracks. These were used to view obstructions on the track on curves or ditches in mountainous regions. These lights flash alternately when horn is sounded to make the train more visible.

The two rounded “Things” that connect the engines to coaches or between rakes are buffers to reduce the shocks. I used to think in my childhood (some adult must have told me) that those things are magnets and that is how the rakes are attached to each other. I used to wonder how is that the magnets do not affect the iron rails or why are the magnets not covered with nuts and bolts and other sundry iron items that gets attracted to them. Instead it is the coupling that connects the rakes.

 The Indian Railway Fan Club website (http://www.irfca.org/) is a good place to know more about the Indian Railways