'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Three Eggs


This egg originally belonged to an emperor penguin in Antarctica and was found - and flicked - by a certain Mr. Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his group back in 1910. The story is very briefly told in

The quest for the penguin's egg was an attempt to marshall evidence for an early theory on embryogenesis and evolution. Despite the heroism shown and sacrifices made by the seekers (and for some of them, the sacrifice was the supreme one), most accounts mark their efforts as ultimately quite futile - the eggs did not yield the kind of data anticipated and the theory they were trying to establish had to be discarded (An insensitive way of putting it in Malayalam would be: "the theory yielded an elephant's egg!").


The story of Virabhadra Rao's Egg has many more horrible deaths than the penguin's. Still, it is an altogether more funny one!

Sometime around 1940 in Madras, a certain young scientist named Virabhadra Rao planned to research the embryology of a certain species of sea slug called 'kalinga ornata' (aside: wonder what this animal has to do with Orissa!). The project faced severe initial difficulties as the species is hard to obtain. After plenty effort, Rao finally found an adult specimen and kept it in a stone trough in his lab where many other scholars were engaged in the study of various marine species (all live specimens kept in glass vessels and troughs). A certain colleague of Rao's noted how pleased everyone was to see the slug peacefully creeping around the bottom of its new home.

The next day, when the lab was opened, everyone was in for a profound shock. The water in every container had turned into something like 'kanji' and most specimens were lying dead, chocked in the slimy mess. And there was a foul smell in the air. In Virabhadra Rao's trough, there was no trace of his slug!

During the sad cleanup, an attendant spotted the slug at the bottom of a trough, in a far corner of the lab; it was quite alive and a thin sticky thread was rapidly issuing forth from its belly. "It has caught diarrhoea!"

It took a while for Rao and friends to figure out what was happening. The slug was laying eggs - millions and billions of them - in an unending stream. It first filled its 'home trough' with eggs and then crept out and crawled into the next trough and then to the one beyond it and so on, laying eggs constantly, souping up the water in each vessel. Despite its having been at it for perhaps the entire night, there was no sign of a letup. The older eggs had already begun to die and decay - raising a stink.

Soon thereafter, the phrase 'Virabhadra Rao's egg' came to mean "foul, sticky mess" in the group. As a good friend of his(*) remarked, "Rao is a neat and meticulous chap. Sad irony, his name got associated with utter filth"


This egg has yet to be clearly seen and sized up. Indeed, it has yet to be sought with anything approaching Cherry-Garrard levels of intensity; and to be honest, even its existence is not yet confirmed. On the flip side, it has yet to record a kill!

Sometime back, I wrote here about the geometry problem of finding that convex planar figure (let me call this C) from which when two mutually congruent convex shapes of largest possible area are cut, the highest fraction is still left over. Some experiments indicated C has to be a smooth and fat figure (details are here: and I proposed the name 'Perunthachan Oval'for it - among other things, as a homage to Kerala's legendary master-craftsman.

To my knowledge, no further work has happened anywhere on this problem. So, the Perunthachan oval now exists only in my fond hopes. But I hereby go one level up and christen its 3d analog, the 'Perunthachan Egg' - at least its logical continuity from 'oval' is indisputable!

Moreover, this egg has the potential to be the first ever Mathematical object named solely after a Mallu - only the first half of the (admittedly, much better established)'Madhava Gregory series' belongs to Kerala!

Correction (Jan 2013): Am surprised to note that there is a very modern Mathematical concept named after a Keralan mathematician I have been privileged to have met. Here it is:


(*) Virabhadra Rao's friend who recorded the slug-saga for posterity was K. Bhaskaran Nair (1913-1982) - zoologist, teacher and author. In his time, he was considered a preeminent master of scholarly Malayalam prose. And his 'Atta akashathekku' ('Astronaut Leeches') is a jewel of a popular science (mostly biology) work, ranking right up there in the Gould-Attenborough class. Unfortunately, Mallus have not remembered his contributions well. He has no wiki presence; google with "K.Bhaskaran Nair" and almost all pages popping out will be on a namesake of his who was a comic film actor of moderate to tolerable calibre.

And almost a lifetime after Rao's investigations, his slug continues to puzzle researchers - wiki says: "little is known of its biology"


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