Friday, October 28, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol. IV

Here it is again, another edition of Everything Scientific, your one stop for some of the latest breakthroughs in science (the last edition for October). Earlier editions are available at the Science archives. Enjoy this edition, while I take a blogging break till Wednesday, and wish you all a very happy Deepavali.

Deep impact on planetary science

What the surface (and core) of a comet looked like had until recently remained a mystery. What would happen if a huge metal object hit a comet? Would it disintegrate? Would it destroy the object? What?

The solar system has two groups of comets. One resides in a region near Pluto (very far away), called the Kuiper belt. A section of these gets scattered and comes close to the sun and the earth. The other is much farther away, in the Oort cloud (includes the famous Halley’s comet). It was thought that these perhaps originated near the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus) and were thrown far away. We’re still learning about the origin of these comets. In a major international effort, researchers landed Deep Impact on the comet Tempel 1. The comet released huge amounts of powdery debris, and spectacular new information about the core and origin of comets was revealed. The nucleus seemed to have different layers, and contained organic material, ice and silicate materials. The similarities with the distant Oort belt comets was striking. It seems now that they might indeed have originated in a common region, near the giant planets, suggesting major turbulence in this region of the early solar system. This is the cover feature of Science (Vol 310, Issue 5746).

Another missing link

When it comes to anthropoid evolution, North Africa and South Asia (the continents were at different places in those times) is where it all seems to have happened (anthropoids are higher primates, which includes gorillas, chimps and yes, us), and a lot of fossils of early anthropoids (like Algeripithecus in Algeria ) dating before 45 million years ago have been found. Then the next large bunch of fossils found were dated back to a MAXIMUM of 35 million years ago. Cranodental (teeth and skull) evidence that showed how anthropoids evolved in these ten million years in between were somewhat scarce. Substantial changes had taken place between 35 and 45 million years ago.

Now researchers have found two new species of Biretia in Egypt, that date back to AT LEAST 37 million years ago. It’s a missing link in those 10 million lost years, and it shows many features that are in between what was 45 million years ago, and 30 odd million years ago. This throws new light in to migration patterns of early anthropoids. They might have migrated to Africa from Asia, or the populations might constantly have exchanged. We need a more complete set of new fossils to find out for sure. A big breakthrough for anthropologists (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 300-304).
The ground beneath our feet

It looks like the massive earthquake that devastated Kashmir is just a sneak preview of what India and Pakistan might expect. There is a 2500 km faultline that runs through Pakistan, Northern India, Nepal and Eastern India. The Indian subcontinent is pushing its way in to Asia, at a rate of 2 meters every century! There is a possibility of many more major earthquakes striking, with every break of a fault segment (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 208). In recent memory, there have been major quakes in Latur (Maharashtra), Uttaranchal, Gujarat, and now Kashmir. Indian houses are not really quake resistant. It is perhaps high time that urban planners (An oxymoron in India?) start taking these aspects in to account. The costs are high. And it’s not just money that’s lost.

Bad habits? Blame your parents

When gas prices rise, many of us start biking to work or taking the bus. This is normal adaptation, that evolutionary biologists call phenotypic plasticity. But can you get habits from your parents? Apparently, you can. Bird researchers in the Netherlands have found birds adapting rather uniquely. The birds studied adapted their reproductive trends to suit the local warming trends. Over the years, the region was getting considerably warmer, and so caterpillars were more abundant at different times of the year than normal (summer). Now, most birds used to have chicks when the caterpillars were abundant. Due to warming, caterpillars started showing up earlier, and there were less caterpillars when chicks came along. But a large majority of the birds continued to have chicks at the normal time (and survival rates decreased).

But some birds started timing their chicks for when the caterpillars were around (i.e. earlier than normal). This was good, and their chicks survived better. What’s amazing was that their offspring continued this trend of having chicks earlier. A clear hereditary trend of plasticity, that is not only random. Good stuff for the survival of the bird (and showing natural selection). Science, Vol 310, Issue 5746, 215

The oldest noodle

Noodles have been around for a while, in various parts of the world. There still remains some debate on whether it was invented by the Chinese, Italians or Arabs. But how old is it really?

Well…..Chinese researchers have found a superbly preserved sealed earthenware bowl in Northwestern China. The identified that it was millet that was the source of seed-husk and starch grains present inside the bowl.

The noodles were thin (0.3 cm in width), over 50 cm long, and delicate, and resembled a traditional Chinese noodle that’s made by pulling and stretching dough by hand.

The bowl was from the Neolithic era, and over 4000 years old (Nature 437, 967-968).

That certainly puts to rest some debates.

Growing new hair

Stem cells are showing promise in all kinds of areas. Now, normal hair follicles grow, regress and rest for the rest of their lives. Researchers found that some of the cells of a hair bulb could undergo clonal growth in cell culture. People thought that they might indeed be real, multipotent stem cells that could sustain long-term hair follicle renewal. Recent work shows that this speculation is indeed true. Some of these cells were isolated from rat whiskers, and cultured. Then they were taken and transplanted in to newborn mice when hair was just being formed. This was then grafted in to nude mice (these are special mice which have no hair). Guess what? These formed all hair lineages , including the root sheaths, hair shaft, sebaceous glands, and epidermis, AND were found after many cycles. Now this is waaaay better than a hair transplant (where the hair is put in from a different part of your scalp, and will eventually die). Baldies, hope is on its way. (PNAS link).

Inhibiting the toxin and not the bacteria

Old school drugs against bacteria would try to kill them. That was the only objective. Bactericidal. Destroy them completely.

However, times are changing. Bacteria now are increasingly resistant to most antibiotics. What we consider routine (a treatment with antibiotics) might not be possible even a decade from now. New drugs against bacteria are scarce, and it is an ignored area (not a “cool” area of research any more), so we might be in big trouble. But this new need is resulting in new approaches to drugs against bacteria. One approach is not to focus on drugs that kill the bacteria, but to develop molecules that inhibits the virulence factors, the actual toxins in the bacteria. So here, the focus is not the bacteria, but just the infective agents in the bacteria. One recent effort has identified a couple of promising new lead drugs that prevent the Cholera bacteria Vibrio cholerae from expressing two critical virulence factors, cholera toxin and the toxin coregulated pilus. So this doesn’t kill the bacteria, but it does prevent the bacteria from colonizing the intestine (when tested in infected mice), and so prevents the disease.

An interesting and refreshing approach, which may well work in synergy with present antibiotics. (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5748, 670-674).

The tsunami wall

In an earlier post discussing the economics of conservation, I had discussed how costal forests (mangroves etc) and environmentally sensitive economic planning would have prevented some of the massive destruction that the tsunami caused. Here is another detailed report in Science (which includes authors from the M.S. Swaminathan Research institute in India), where they studied the protective impact of forests in Cuddalore (one of the worst hit districts in Tamil Nadu).

Take a look at the image. Dark green shows dense costal forest/tree cover. Light green shows open tree vegetation. Blue with dots show inundated regions, and red shows damaged regions.

There is NO overlap between the greens, and the red and blue. Basically, the costal forest areas suffered almost no damage.

The data speaks for itself. (Science, Vol 310, Issue 5748, 643)

That’s all for this edition folks!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

55 for quakeday

Sitting in the bus, Ali thought that evening's iftaar was especially outstanding. He loved festivities, and remembered sneaking out as a child to celebrate diwali with his Pandit neighbors, usually during the month of Ramzan.

He was leaving Srinagar to work in Delhi.

The next morning in Delhi, he saw a newspaper.

"Earthquake flattens Kashmir."

55 words for earthquake relief.

Desipundit has declared today to be blogday. So, do your bit, and contribute to organizations working for earthquake relief (there’s a list on the Desipundit post). Two random picks; Oxfam and CARE.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Stray dog, and its Indian avataar

Stray dog, or Nora inu was made by Akira Kurosawa long before he made Rasomon or Shinchinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai), or Ran, or any of his other magnificent movies that guaranteed his place in the pantheon of the greatest filmmakers of all time. But this movie gives us a superb preview of the stellar cinematic work that would follow.

The plot of the movie itself is very simple, but brilliant. A rookie homicide detective, Murukami (a very young Toshiro Mifune) has his gun pick pocketed in a bus. What would a cop do if his service weapon was stolen? The rest of the story unfolds as a panic stricken Murukami tries to recover his stolen weapon.

The movie gives us a superb insight in to post-world war II Japan (the movie was made in 1949). The country was slowly recovering from the trauma of the loss of the war, and this trauma and loss of honor is subtle but visible through out the movie, not just through Mifune’s role as the cop (who feels his honor is lost with the loss of the weapon, and wants to resign). As a heat wave strikes Tokyo, he wanders the streets in disguise trying to find his revolver. Kurosawa’s other talisman actor, Takashi Shimura plays the role of the senior detective, Sato, with whom the hapless Murukami is assigned to work with (by his benign boss), to recover the lost weapon. Detective Sato (Shimura) smiles and tells the rookie, “A stray dog sees only what it wants to see”, and the footage points to a dog, panting in the heat. As the story unravels, the plot thickens. The gun has a life of its own, and passes from hand to hand, leaving behind a gory trail, as the cops pursue it, always a step behind, leading to the thrilling climax.

Given the simplicity of the plot, the script and screen play need to be absolutely perfect. And it is. Along with it, Kurosawa explores human nature, the effects of the war, and the social meltdown in Japan that followed superbly. And Mifune, though raw, has the suggestion of the swagger that would one day become screen legend. An early masterpiece from the Kurosawa stables.


Stray dog seems to have the perfect plot for an Indian rip-off. I can just see Mahesh Bhatt “adapting” it for Indian tastes. Anil Kapoor will effortlessly play the rookie cop (who just recently played a frantic husband in “My wife’s murder”). Going by Indian film tradition, he’ll play a person 15 years younger than he actually is, and will retain the exact same expression as he did in “My wife’s murder”. But, he’ll be a super cop who cannot stand injustice. The gun will be taken from him not by a pickpocket in a bus, but by a seductive damsel pretending to be in distress.

Cop Kapoor will now be forced to resign from the force (in an emotional scene, where the Commissioner will rip his badge off), and will vow to track down the culprits. This will obviously lead to a seedy bar (or a flashy discotheque), where Yana Gupta and extras will be vigorously shaking their booties (pardon my German) in an item number with no connection to the plot. There Cop Kapoor will discover the damsel (Isha Koppikar), who will be one of the bar dancers. He will confront her, and abuse her, and she, teary eyed, will reply

“Jaanna chahate ho ki maine revolver kyun churaya? To sun…”, and reel out how the villains kidnapped her, and forced her in to this life of shame. Love will happen, but because this is a movie with a difference, the songs will play in the background. Meanwhile, Cop Kapoor (and every one else) would have forgotten about the stolen gun, and a web of drugs and deception would have unraveled. A few slick action scenes later (a la the recent fiasco James), Cop Kapoor will also discover that the villain was responsible for the death of his brother, will avenge him, be restored to the police force (with the President’s medal), and live happily ever after with Koppikar.

Mahesh Bhatt, if you are reading this, don’t miss your one chance to achieve cinematic immortality.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Happy hour: Eat less to live longer

(Happy hour is a new series of science related posts, focusing on a single topic, in the style of a casual weekend discussion with friends in a bar).

When in India, I had a number of Jain friends, and visited their houses often, or Jain temples occasionally. There I've encountered a number of Jain ascetics and teachers, many of whom were old. Very old, often in their eighties or older, but perfectly healthy and active. Given their tradition of extreme austerity, plenty of fasts, and a typical meal (eaten once a day) of one chappati and some greens, their extreme longevity struck me.

A number of us have also read about the Okinawans in Japan. This region has the highest life expectancy in the world, with Okinawan seniors living well in to their eighties (with centenarians a dime a dozen). They also have a fifth the heart disease, and a fourth the breast or prostate cancer than Americans.

One thing they have in common with Jains is their lean (though not nearly as austere) diet, and their tendency to follow the Confucian adage of eating until your stomach is 80 % full.

I’ve seen some of this in my own family as well, with my grandpa, and some other folks of his generation. An old uncle of mine (who lived well in to his eighties, as did my grandpa) used to cup his tiny palm, and say “this much of rice in a meal is enough”, and then cup both his palms and say “but you should eat so much vegetable”. Observing weekly fasts was also routine.

The one thing in common here is calorific restriction. This is sometimes easily confused with malnutrition, but is not. Calorific restriction is just restricting the number of calories consumed daily. And these folks apparently live very long. But this is just anecdotal evidence. Is there any science behind this?

Interestingly, this effect was first noticed studies in the eighties, and since then a number of studies in rodents have shown this quite clearly. Reduction of calorific intake by 30-50% resulted in a substantial increase in lifespan, as well as a big reduction in the incidence of age related diseases, a much better resistance to toxins and stresses, and better maintenance of function late in to life. This also included delayed onset of diseases like cancer, diabetes or arthrosclerosis. So it wasn’t just eating less and live longer, but it was eating less and living longer and better.

But for most of this time we didn’t have a real clue about what was going on in the body. Surprisingly, our first real detailed molecular understanding of calorific restriction leading to longer lives came from the humble yeast. Apparently, it’s more useful than just in making beer, bread or wine. Scientists can actually measure how old a yeast is by just measuring the number of mother cell divisions. In their studies, they identified a specific gene, called SIR2 that played a critical role in ensuring this longevity. This is where the power of yeast genetics came in to play. You can knock-out a gene (delete it completely) in yeast very easily, and the yeast strains where this gene was knocked-out lived, but did not show any beneficial effects of calorific restriction. But clearly, the effects of calorific restriction included the activation of various different pathways and processes in the body, which did not seem connected at all with this gene. It seems now that this gene is actually important in maintaining over-all appropriate gene expression. And, this gene is also present in us mammals (where it’s called SIRT1).

The yeast studies gave us plenty of clues on what might happen in mammals, and yes, us. All our cells have little organelles called a Mitochondria. These are the “energy plants” of the cells, where the primary source of energy we use, ATP, is synthesized (using glucose and other substances). Now clearly, logic has it that calorific restriction will have some effect on the mitochondria, since this is where most of the energy we use is produced. So research would definitely try to see how mitochondria function was affected by calorific restriction. Some excellent recent work has tried to pin it down to a few specific processes.

Now, adipose tissue is where most fat is stored. Most of the adipose tissue is white, and called white adipose tissue. This stuff serves as heat insulation, mechanical cushioning and importantly, a source of energy, when energy intake is not equal to output. What researchers have recently observed is that in white adipose tissue, there is a BIG increase in mitochondrial biogenesis (i.e. more mitochondria) in calorie-restricted mice. This means much better and more mitochondrial function. What they also saw was that in mice lacking another specific gene, eNOS (which synthesizes a gas, Nitric Oxide, which then activates a very important pathway that leads to many effects, calorific restriction did not increase mitochondria at all. And, they showed that this eNOS gene in mice regulated the original important gene, SIRT1.

We’re now slowly beginning to understand molecular pathways by which calorific restriction leads to longer, healthier lives.

So if any one says, “lean, mean, fighting machine”, you should take the statement more seriously.

Friday, October 21, 2005

A new blogger

I've known Lahar since we were knee high, in junior school. We went through middle and high school together as well. I have fond memories of many interschool trivia quizzes we aced, on our way to fame and glory.

Lahar went on to become a lawyer. He remains one of the world's great authorities on the work of Alistair Mclean, and an encyclopedia of knowledge on all things cricketing. On his day, he'll put the cricinfo statistitian, S Rajesh, to shame. I believe Lahar showed up on Mastermind India as well.

All this is well and good, but can he blog?

Well, he's taken the first plunge by starting, and calls himself the Culture Czar.

Here's wishing him the very best, and I hope to see many wonderful posts from him. Go read.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Folktales from India

An arrogant courtesan of the king, proud of her intelligence, kept insisting that Tenali Ramakrishna tell her the Ramayana.

“How did a mere monkey like Hanuman burn the city of Lanka?” she asked.

Tenali Rama decided to teach her a lesson.

“Like this!” he said.

And burnt down her house.

(55, during the week. More 55 here: 1, 2, 3)

I was a fortunate kid. I always had a voracious appetite for folk tales, be it from any part of the world. And India is a treasure-trove of folk tales.

There are tales of the wise men; Birbal the wise, or Rama of Tenali, the shrewd Bengali Gopal or Maryada Rama the just. There is the immortal “Panchatantra”, and the “Jataka tales”, where animals talk, and men become fools. But all of this is just the merest tip of the iceberg of tales that our great-grandmothers collectively knew.

But I chanced upon Folktales from India a superb compilation of folktales edited by the wonderful A.K. Ramanujan.. Here he complies folktales from twenty-two Indian languages. There are little known tales in Gondi or Santhali, or fables from Kashmir and Rajasthan, or tales with little morals from Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. There are tales of Birbal or Gopal or Tenali Rama (this 55 tale is adapted from one of the tales in this very book).

And these are stories centered around men, about heroes or imbeciles. There are stories about women, where men are fools or rogues. There are stories about families. There are stories about Gods, but Gods are not fearsome, but easily outwitted by men and women. There are humorous tales about jesters or wits, and stories about animals and birds who miraculously fly or talk. There are even stories with stories in them!

An absolutely wonderful collection, and a fine addition to any home library, perfect to be read, or read out loud.

(ps: A small request to my readers who have blogrolled me. I would appreciate it if you changed the link to read “Balancing life” or just “Sunil” instead of my full name. It’s mostly for academic purposes, just so that my blog isn’t the first hit on google).

Friday, October 14, 2005

Client needs, and product features

Product features are really “what that little thingy you’re trying to sell does”, while a customer’s benefit is what he/she gets if he/she buys it. The customer’s needs (something often ignored) are why those benefits are actually appreciated. Now, any educational psychologist (or market researcher) understands these needs will be broadly classified somewhere under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The needs are broadly under five simple categories:
5. Self Actualization/Fulfillment
4. Esteem/Ego/Self-respect
3. Social/Love/Belonging
2. Security/Safety
1. Biological/Physiological

Now, when you sell any product, you try to figure out what need in that pyramid actually is served by it.

Additionally, when you plan out a product, you start thinking of the ideal customer. Some one who is logical, analytical, objective and looking at measurable traits of your product.

Unfortunately, a majority of the customers are likely to be subjective, emotional and invariably choose your product for reasons completely unrelated to it’s quality alone. This is because what often matters is “Which of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are satisfied?”

Like frequenting a restaurant for example. If someone asks you what a restaurant needs in order for you to go to it, you’ll most likely say that the price a critical factor. The other factor is the quality/value of the food you get. A third might or might not be ambiance.

But when you look at the restaurants you actually go to, you decide based on a whole bunch of other factors that are not based on value or quality. Like for example, the availability of parking, or the accessibility of the restaurant, or the “kid friendliness” of the place, or the music that they play there, or the quality of the waiters. But these were NOT the reasons you said were most important for you. It’s the emotional pull that takes you there, since it satisfies almost ALL of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Still, some products do very well only by focusing on quality features and benefits, because they implicitly understand that Maslow’s needs will be satisfied if the emphasis is on quality features and benefits.

Where is this all going, you ask? Has “Balancing life” lost perspective on life? No, this is NOT the first chapter of my new book ”Count your ducklings before the eggs are laid” (though perhaps it should be). This just summarizes something I learnt at a course in a real business school, which is really ranked, with faculty who really publish research, and taught by a real lecturer.
The blogsphere has been abuzz with the actions of an institute, IIPM, some Imaginary Institute of Planned Mismanagement.

Clearly, their original image was built fortuitously to satisfy Maslow’s needs. In a country where there are droves of unemployed graduates, a school claiming to offer a no-holds barred MBA would have takers. It clamed to provide the “security or safety” need, by promising jobs and the sky. It did provide a sense of belonging (to IIPM), and self-respect. But it didn’t really provide self-actualization or fulfillment.

Yet, any product promising to do some thing, but not really doing so, only has “features” without satisfying customer needs or providing him/her with a benefit. It remains vulnerable, and so, in order to succeed it needs to camouflage its vulnerability. Unfortunately, IIPM chose threats as its means of camouflage.

Now, it’s success, built purely by satisfying needs, is falling apart, since all those needs are under threat. It doesn’t seem to have features or benefits to fall back upon.

Perhaps I can become a self-styled management guru, and write a self-help book called ”How not to run poultry farms……uh….management institutes”.

(This was a lunch break well spent. Have a good weekend y’all).

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Working for the flock

At the beginning of every quarter (especially fall), university campuses become beehives of activity, with students running all over it. Almost always, at around this time there is a rather unique, but definitive event. On a few days, in the morning, you’ll find a bunch of (almost always) middle-aged men, smiling and handing out bibles to people as they rush to class or work. They are everywhere, polite and friendly.

What I call “soft” proselytizing.

Now, though I personally dislike against any kind of religious proselytizing, I understand that it is a free country, and this right is guaranteed. So, if some one wants to proselytize, and increase his or her flock, he/she has every right to do so (with out using “force”).

But I have always felt extremely uncomfortable with this happening on University campuses, and even more so outside school campuses. I understand that organized religion needs young, fresh blood, and that the younger minds are more impressionable, so the youth will remain the “target” in this effort.

But, to me, educational institutions should be places of learning, and questioning, where people develop independent thinking and reasoning. Universities should also encourage and develop greater religious tolerance. So, while learning about different religions (in a comparative religion class) is perfectly fine, I do not feel any sort of religious proselytizing is OK.

Especially in these increasingly intolerant times.

But what do most people think about religious proselytizing on university campuses?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On the day of victory

When the world was young, a strong and manly demon arose. He pleased the Gods who granted him victory over all men. He tormented the earth and the Gods themselves.

A woman, frail, weak, challenged him. They fought for 9 days.

On the tenth day, he was destroyed. By devi, Shakti, Mahishasuramardini.

She was woman.

(55 word microfiction on the day of Vijayadasami. More microfiction here and here)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Where the mind is without fear

IIPM, a rather shady and not very well known management institute is causing some serious trouble.

Rashmi Bansal, an excellent and well known blogger, and editor of a youth magazine called JAM had carried an article where JAM had investigated some of IIPM's tall claims. She also wrote a clarification post with details here. IIPM went on a rampage, spreading lies about an Aaj Tak "expose" on JAM (there was none), and a bunch of thugs have attacked Rashmi on her blog with vile abuse.

But it gets more bizarre. One of the best known Indian bloggers, Gaurav Sabnis, linked to Rashmi's article, and what does he get? IIPM threatens him with a lawsuit, AND makes direct threats against Gaurav.What's worse....they apply unethical pressure on his company, IBM. What does Gaurav do? He shows them the finger. That's right, he stands by what he's said, and resigns from his job.

I didn't know about IIPM before this, and didn't give a damn. But what IIPM has done is unacceptable, and all of us stand by Rashmi and Gaurav.

More on Desipundit.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol III

It’s that time of the month again; time to round up some of the coolest and latest happenings in the world of science. So here’s Everything Scientific Vol. III (the archives are here).

Sonic boom

The final frontier, space, has become less of the unknown thanks to a series of satellites sent out to boldly go where no man has gone before. The satellite Voyager I (launched way back in 1977), has truly reached the unknown beyond, as it has just reached the outer atmosphere of the Sun, and reaching interstellar medium. What’s the big deal, you ask? The outer atmosphere of the sun expands into what’s called solar-wind. At some point, solar winds decelerate to finally merge with the interstellar medium. This deceleration is due to “supersonic flows” causing shock-waves (with rapidly decreased speed). This is like a supersonic aircraft (where there is a sonic boom, which decelerates the air ahead, enabling it to flow smoothly around the craft). The location of this solar termination shock was unknown and under intense debate. Thanks to Voyager, we’ll now know where it is. (four articles and an editorial in Science, Vol 309, Issue 5743, 2016-2029 , 23 September 2005).

Salt on the roads?

Road salt is widely used across the Northeast and Midwest to help melt snow that accumulates on roads during winter. But now it’s becoming clearer that using these vast quantities of salt is having an adverse effect on local fresh-water sources. In some streams in Maryland, New Hampshire or New York, the salinity of the water has reached 25% that of seawater (that’s a 100 times more salt than pristine forest freshwater streams). Watersheds where there is a dense network of roads are by far the worst affected. Continuing use of rock salt will eventually lead to making a number of these water sources unusable. It’s perhaps high time to figure out better and more efficient ways of getting rid of snow on roads (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102, 13517 (2005) link).

Any ideas out there?

Nylon that’s good for you

Nylon-6 is a very widely used form of nylon, used extensively in textile and industrial fibers, injection molding resins, and extrusion resins. These substances have tremendous uses due to their high tensile strength, chemical and heat resistance, and low friction. Almost all of us have used it in some form or another, and modern life is almost impossible without it. Nylon-6 is made from a precursor called caprolactam. Unfortunately making this uses a range of organic solvents and strong oxidants, and a pile of ammonium sulfate waste. Some recent research has found a more environmentally sound way of doing this, using microporous bifunctional aluminophosphate as a catalyst, and air the oxidizer, researchers converted cyclohexane to caprolactam with high efficiency, and NO Ammonium Sulfate waste (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A, 102, 39, 13711-13712 (2005)link).

More power to such research!.

Hurricanes and climate change

It’s really, really hard to directly link massive hurricanes to global warming. The evidence is not direct, or strong, and it has split the research community. Today’s cyclones are stronger than they were 35 years ago, but they are a lot less common than they were 35 years ago (Science 309, 1844−1846; 2005 and Nature 436, 686−688; 2005). It’s still hard to directly hold global warming (which is happening, and is a different issue) responsible for it all. Natural fluctuations seem to favor different hurricane patterns in different ocean basins. It might be nice if the media or groups stopped throwing their own notions or taking strong sides, and if research were allowed to progress and present its findings better.

Intelligent design in court

The theory of “Intelligent design” was created to find a way around court decisions that barred the teaching of creationism in classrooms. It’s a vaguer concept than creationism and doesn’t try to prove it’s own explanation of the origin of species (it’s a back-door entry for creationism). A federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is beginning to hear arguments on whether Intelligent design should be promoted in classrooms. Some parents of children in a school in Dover district have gone to court, saying that the school board is violating the constitutional separation of church and state by requiring a statement promoting intelligent design to be read by teachers before they teach evolution (see Nature 437, 596 (29 September 2005) for more details).

Teaching Intelligent design in a philosophy or religion class is one thing, but there is no room for superstition in science education.

West Nile virus killer

West Nile virus is a rather nasty virus transmitted by mosquitoes (not unlike the Japanese encephalitis virus that’s causing some scares in Northern India presently). A recent study researches the effect of a very effective monoclonal antibody which protects from West Nile virus challenge, even if given days after infection. Using X-ray crystallography, researchers have found the specific regions of the virus that this anti-body targets. They also find out that this inhibits the infection after the virus attaches, by potentially preventing the virus envelope’s conformational (shape) changes. This is a tremendous breakthrough (since it stops the virus AFTER it has entered, thus it’s independent of the mode of virus entry, of which there’s more than one) and points out to specific regions in the virus that a new vaccine can target (Nature 437, 764-769 (29 September 2005)).

Managing India’s biodiversity

In 2000, the Indian Ministry of Forests and environment commissioned a study called “Securing India's Future--Final Technical Report of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan”. This was to figure out how India should manage it’s tremendous biodiversity. Outside experts saw this as a model for other developing nations. The study apparently concluded that many aspects of India’s present model for development are unsustainable. Well, the government didn’t like the results, and so decided that the report should not be “published in full, or part thereof”. Ministry officials decline to comment further (Science, Vol 309, Issue 5744, 2146 , 30 September 2005).

I think we DO have a right to know what it says, and why the government doesn’t want it out.

Science education resources

Finally, to round up this edition of Everything Scientific, here are a few outstanding online resources for science education, with great bits of information for you or your kids.

The American Museum of Natural History’s “ology” site, on all “ologies”
The TryScience project with lots of little science projects for kids (or kids at heart).
Chemistry, Biology, or Geography for kids.

Have fun playing with science there!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A tag, and some microfiction

There’s this silly but intriguing bit of blog tagging going on, and Suhail has tagged me with it. As per this tag, you dig out the 5th sentence of your 23rd post and post it. Well…..that seems like too much of an effort, so here’s some random sentence from some random ancient post.

”Out in Seattle suburbia, beyond Redmond or Issaquah, residents are surprised in winter by visiting deer, raiding their gardens. Possums are everywhere (notably as road kill), and wild hares run in the parks.”, from this post of mine.

If you’re interested in carrying out the meme, go for it!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little bit of Micro-Fiction (the 55 kind) for today


General ‘Nella and his horde were ready. Their strength was growing by the minute, and now the army numbered in the thousands. The invasion was imminent, and it was going to be gory. “Take no prisoners”, he said.

“This pav-bhajji's awesome, but my stomach's rumbling” said Rajesh, as he spat in to the sewer.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The economics of conservation

Rahul, who is an "energy researcher" studying Natural Gas, asks if there is a conflict between economic viability and sustainable resource utilization, and applies economic theory coupled with science, to suggest that economists might have to change some of their views on the issue.

Now, if only looking at the primary motive of an economic enterprise (direct profitability), it appears as if there isn’t necessarily a direct co-relation between (say) the environment, and the economic aspect. But, if looked at holistically, there is. For example, mining (for lets say steel) is a very profitable industry. It might be that a specific ore rich area is a dense forest on hills. Given its value as a resource, it seems essential to mine it, and of far greater value than that one little forest. But, the resultant deforestation is bound to result in deteriorating air quality in that area. Additionally, the hills serve as catchments for the local water sources, which run dry. The amount of soil erosion substantially increases. This results in local agriculture suffering, and the health of the people deteriorating rapidly. Economists do not consider the costs (in terms of human health, or actual resources lost due to losses in livelihood) due to the factory. The question to be asked is if the total value (of the particular economic enterprise) in absolute monetary terms offsets the losses in revenue due to the losses in health and productivity of an entire region. Rahul suggests incorporating an economic value for these losses, that should be considered in the original projection of the economic enterprise.

But the example I’ve taken largely has anecdotal or speculative evidence. Yet a lot of hard-nosed, practical environmentalists (who value the environment, but realize that economic factors are going to be paramount in human societies) are beginning to study environment and conservation in terms of monetary value (nothing speaks to developers or economists like money). The goals of preserving bio-diversity are difficult, and slippery. For example, the Florida panther is extremely endangered. But the land it lives on in Florida is very valuable for commercial enterprise. Sure, the loss of the panther (a sub-species of the mountain lion/cougar) is terrible, but is it far more important than the economy, economists ask? Anecdotal evidence is not an argument against this. But the more practical environmental researchers have realized this relationship between economics and conservation, and this is being reflected in actual research.

For example, take the coffee industry. It is extremely valuable, and employs millions of people worldwide. Coffee is grown on hillsides that were once lush tropical forests. Obviously, the losses to forests have been massive, but given the demand, the logic went that greater coffee plantation areas are needed. But now, hard-nosed studies are showing otherwise. Coffee can self pollinate, but bee visitation can increase yields of coffee by 15-50%. Now, with decrease in native habitat (read tropical forest), the pollinator diversity and visitation rapidly decreases. So, there is some importance of native habitat to the coffee plantations themselves. A detailed and thorough study (with rather conservative numbers) shows the decrease in visitation of pollinators in plantations due to surrounding forest depletion (2004, Conserv. Biol. 18, 1–10). A more impressive study (PNAS, August 24, 2004, vol. 101, no. 34, 12579-12582) (with more conservative numbers) quantifies the economic losses (in coffee productivity) due to forest depletion. In the study done in Costa Rica, a 1 km range of forest patches (for effective pollination) was taken. In the plantation the first 480 hectares were within 1 km of large forest patches, while the rest were not. In the region with forest patches, the output was 21.5 fa/ha, while in the rest, it was only 17.8 fa/ha. The income losses in the region without forest patches was $62,000 per year. So here, more was not better. This study did not even consider indirect benefits (like carbon sinks or water retention/purification) of forests).

Last year, South Asia was devastated by the tsunami. Anecdotal evidence told us that mangrove forests (that existed along the coast, but had since been depleted) would have protected the region. This was even seen in areas like Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu, that surprisingly had little damage due to the tsunami (due to the forests), but neighboring regions were severely affected. But a quantitative study in the area was missing. A recent report (Current Biology, Volume 15, Issue 12 , 21 June 2005, Pages R443-R447), systematically studied sites in Sri Lanka, with different degrees of degradation, and quantified the damage done by the tsunami in these areas (these were all directly in the path of the tsunami, with similar wave energies). Their results clearly showed that where there were mangroves, there was substantial protection against the tsunami. More surprisingly, the damage to the mangrove forests themselves was minimal (due to their own adaptation for survival in such environments!). There was a clear difference between mangrove forests, and mangrove associates (cryptic ecological degradation), and plantations of mangrove associates didn’t make it. Conversion of mangrove forests in to shrimp farms, resorts, urban or agricultural land contributed to the massive human and economic losses due to the tsunami, worth billions of dollars, and countless human lives.

In both these specific cases (with solid numbers), economists did not consider an economic value to the environment (that was being affected).

Our most recent example of course, is with the devastation Katrina wrought recently. Louisiana has massively depleted wetlands, and unfortunately the city itself was not protected against level 4 hurricanes. On a recent NPR show, a planner from Holland was interviewed. He said that Holland had very strict wetland conservation rules, and also spent a fair bit of money in ensuring level 5 hurricane safety to every inhabited region. Sure, the money spent was fairly large, but, in his own words, compared to the devastation bad economic planning had allowed the hurricane to wreck, it was peanuts.

Here’s Rahul’s solution:
Value Added Tax can be modified to include an exergy cost (sum of exergy consumption from the environment and waste exergy released to the environment).The tax is a measure of the physical value. This would automatically increase the costs of products that have harmful waste products and renewables would get a boost..

Monday, October 03, 2005

Revisiting Bandini: where strength is from within

Bimal Roy was Indian cinema’s great romantic idealist. Every movie of his portrayed exploitation – social, economic or religious. But his movies were built around extreme optimism, and incredibly strong and sensitive characters, who would overcome life’s great obstacles. A whole generation of great Indian filmmakers were inspired or influenced by his work (Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukerjee and Gulzaar, to name just three). Roy’s last work as a director was Bandini, a fitting swansong for a master.

The entire movie is built around the female protagonist, Kalyani, in a role written specifically for the fabulous Nutan, in one of her most endearing roles. Nutan at that time was pregnant (with Mohnish Behl), and Roy waited months for Nutan to be ready to shoot. The wait was worth it.

The movie starts inside prison walls, with the Independence struggle as the backdrop (yes, I watched it again for the umpteenth time today on Gandhi Jayanthi, the sentimental sucker that I am). An inmate is sick, and the jailor summons the doctor, Deven. An incredibly charming and suave Dharmendra walks in. He inspects a patient, infected with a serious infectious disease (probably tuberculosis), and transfers her to the sick ward. A female inmate is needed to help take care of her. Kalyani volunteers, in spite of the fact that she herself could be susceptible to the disease, and we see Nutan for the first time, clad in a jail sari, with deep sadness in her eyes.

Dharmendra, in yet another subdued, controlled and outstanding role (a reminder of what he was capable of), begins to love Nutan for her selflessness and dedication, and does not care about her past. She is scared to embrace him, because of her past, but he cares for her as she is and not for her past. He leaves the jail to go home, and wait for her. Kalyani’s story then unfolds, as she tells the jailor her tale.

In a village, in pre-independence India, Kalyani is devoted to her idealistic father (Raja Paranjpye). A revolutionary, Bikram (an indomitable Ashok Kumar), enters the town, and befriends them. Though they begin to love each other, their love remains unsaid. Circumstances lead to their engagement, but Bikram goes away and never returns. The villagers continue to humiliate Kalyani, but more so her father.

But Bimal Roy’s characters are incredibly strong. They don’t spend their time weeping, or blaming their fate. Kalyani leaves the village, goes away to the city, and starts working in a hospital. Her emotions are held back, forcibly, only to break down when she hears her father died in an accident. The events leading to Kalyani’s imprisonment are staged perfectly by Bimal Roy.

Finally, Kalyani is released from prison, and once again has to choose between Bikram, and Deven.

This movie is all about Nutan. Her portrayal of Kalyani is spectacular. Her expressive eyes, that effortlessly portray sensitivity, innocence, anger, grief, happiness and most importantly, strength, lingers in your mind hours after the movie ends. There is only limited room for histrionics, but the subtlety and underplay overwhelms you. The incredible potential we saw in her in Sujata is fulfilled here.

The movie is also about women, and their strength. Four decades after this movie, not that much has changed for women still in the sub-continent. They still bear the brunt of society’s anger, or are humiliated for no fault of theirs. Roy’s brilliance was to bring out (not demean or vent against) these aspects of society that still persist. There is the constant subtle portrayal of the old, and the new, and constant change. He was aided by wonderful music (SD Burman), and Shailendra’s sentimental lines (and Gulzar’s debut as a lyricist).

A fitting swansong for a master moviemaker.

O jaanewale ho sake to laut ke aana.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Getting it right....

People I meet for the first time (or relatives or friends I meet after a long time) naturally ask me what I do with my life. I mumble something incoherently about a PhD. They ask me "in what". I say "Molecular Pharmacology". I'm usually greeted with blank stares, or a "what's that?".

I go on to explain that Pharmacology is the study of the interaction of living cells and organisms with the molecules they encounter in their environment. Modern molecular pharmacology looks at these aspects at a molecular level, by which we can understand specific pathways in systems that are affected. I talk about how we use basic biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, genetics and so on to investigate pathways that could serve as potential drug targets, and also study the effects of drugs on these target pathways.

After this long winded explanation, the person listening to me nods understandingly, and sympathetically, and usually replies:

"Ah! So, you're a Pharmacist!!"


One of my collegues puts it across nicely. He says that calling a Pharmacologist a Pharmacist is just like walking up to a doctor, and asking her if she's the nurse.

Same difference.