Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Toilet trouble

(Warning: if you are easily offended by toilet humor, go somewhere else. And though this isn’t a “science” post, worry not, a scientific temper will be felt throughout the post, even if it is a “crap post”)

It was probably Mark Twain who said “sex is the most overrated pleasure, while defecating is the most underrated one” (ok, if he didn’t say it, sue me. At least it makes a good opening line if we pretend he said it).

But this post is not just about defecating, though “relieving one’s self” (as some more gentle readers, particularly Indian ones, might phrase it) plays a central role. This is a tale from a time long gone by, a tale of suffering and endurance, of persistence and heroism, and final glorious victory.

It all started somewhere in middle school/junior high when I joined the junior division of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in a moment of delusion. Actually, we were given a choice between the NCC, the boy scouts, the “green brigade”, and the “students association for road safety”. My choice was made because “real boys” joined the NCC. The scouts were for softies who wanted a ton of badges, and the other two were for pansies. So, there I was, marching up and down in the Southern Indian heat, as a freshly minted cadet.

Now, as some of you might know, part of the training required that we spend time in a “combined annual training camp”. And since most of us were in the NCC for two or three years, that meant attending at least two of those camps. Usually they were held at some old army barrack or government school. The first camp was somewhere in Doddaballapura (which in the old days was 30 km from Bangalore). Kit bags in hand, our unit, filled with upper-middle class or spoilt rich kids, reached the camp. The accommodations (in some large hall) were alright, at least it was clean. The day wore on, and then of course, nature took its course, and the urge hit us (particularly after eating the muck they served). So, we had to look for the loos.

Except, there weren’t any.

The army soldiers and JCOs in charge were supposed to have prepared “camp style” loos, which basically were deep trenches surrounded by a tarp, with a plank to perch on and poop. The rule (apparently) was that there would be around one trench for 10 or so cadets. After each poop, the cadet would use the bucket of sand placed strategically close by, and cover up the results of his colon’s work with sand. This would prevent the poop from stinking (due to slow semi-aerobic bacterial decomposition), wouldn’t attract swarms of flies, and the deep trench would last for the scheduled ten days.

Unfortunately, those lazy bastards (LB’s) decided to cut corners. For the entire group of some 300 cadets (from some 6 odd schools), they dug THREE trenches. Given the time pressures involved (particularly early in the morning), it was practically impossible for each user to complete the assigned task and cover up all traces with sand. This meant that by day two, the bogs were stinking and the swarm of flies around the pits probably resembled the proverbial plague of locusts that Moses saw. The second thing those LB’s forgot was that the camp was being held in mid July or something. Now, just about every person in South India (that would be about 300 odd million people) knows that the monsoons show up in late June. The least they could have done was to have put up a tarp roof over the trench-loos. Nope, to cut corners (and save effort) they didn’t bring any extra tarps. Nature of course is merciless, and did the expected. It rained.

If you can imagine the nature of the cesspool that was created at the trench-bogs after the rains, you are one sick, disturbed individual. There came a day (that would have been day 3 of the camp) when cadets unanimously resolved to halve their food intake, and poop only every other day.

We survived.

The next year was in some ways even more entertaining. This time, the camp was held in a very reasonable government school somewhere, which DID have loos. Except, it wasn’t built to handle 300 odd cadets. Plus, in this camp there were some female cadets as well, so the JCO’s in charge decided that the loos were for the exclusive use of the girls (and the only other set of loos were for the officers in camp), and decided that the rest of us could use the nearby fields.

All was well for about three days. On day four, at around 5 am, I returned victoriously from the fields, and settled down to polish my boots, when we heard loud noises. We looked up in the direction of the fields, and there, running for their lives were a group of cadets with their pants in various stages of fastening. Behind them were a group of furious farmers, swinging their wooden staffs and chasing down these cadets with murder in their minds. Apparently, the rampaging hordes of cadets were destroying the sugarcane crop by stomping across the fields and pooping at will. The cadets survived, and escaped the beating of their lives, thanks to the intervention of some intrepid army jawans, but needless to say, alternate toilet arrangements had to be made. So, we used the fields on the other side of the camp, which were owned by some large landlord who rarely visited the fields.

After my stint in the NCC in high school, I decided I would never be stupid enough to sign up again. But my college had other ideas. For some reason (I think it was something about building character in all students) in our first year of college we had to be a part of either the NCC, or the NSO (sports authority) or the NSS (national service scheme). Unfortunately, I was told that to be a part of the NSO one had to have played some sport at the district or state level. That I had done only in fantasy, so that was out. The NSS was out because we had to know how to read and write Tamil fluently (except that I later found out the fluently part was flexible). So I ended up in the NCC again (for just one year), and had to go for yet another training camp.

This time the camp was held in a small village school in some tiny town 50 odd kilometers from Madras, which had a “famous temple” (that’s not saying much since every village in Tamil Nadu with a population of over 5 people has a “famous temple”). This school was still in partial construction, and so, unsurprisingly did not have loos. The buildings were strategically located far from the village, with a barren hill right behind it. So, by default (since the LB’s in charge decided they didn’t even want to dig three trenches), the mountain became our potty of choice.

We might have been students of engineering colleges, but we weren’t to bright (either that, or we were just so used to the comfort of our nasty dorm loos that we couldn’t think straight). The first couple of days went off fine, but with the start of day three two new problems emerged. We had taken the easy option early in the morning (it is hard going out for a poop with a torch in hand), and so had pooped at the base of the mountain. That was fine for the first two days, but by day three there wasn’t a safe, clean spot at the base of the mountain to poop in, thanks to a few hundred restless bowels. Hiking through the mess in the dark was out of the question. We should have started at the top of the mountain and worked our way down, but we were too stupid for that (either that or our bowels wouldn’t hold that far). The remaining week was spent in misery amidst a howling stench. So much so that our ordeals were immortalized in song, and the lyrics of a popular Tamil and Telugu chartbuster at the time (from a movie called Ratchagan) which went “Sonia, Sonia sokkavikum Sonia…” was altered to “Poniya, poniya, inniku poniya….” (sorry, a translation won’t work).

I lived to tell this tale.

What’s the moral of this story? Nothing. Except that I strongly advocate the principles of leaving no trace while camping, and recommend the use of well dug cat-holes while backpacking.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lizards and ‘roaches and bugs, oh my!

For too many of us, the very thought of a cockroach sends shivers across our collective spines. They are the bugs of nightmares, the ultimate creepy-crawly, winged monstrosities, with whip-like antennae leering at you. We look at them with fear and revulsion. A ‘roach (or what looked like one) flew by me, landing two feet away, as I was walking back home last night, scaring the shit out of me.

But our dislike of little critters goes far beyond just ‘roaches. A lot of us are disgusted, mildly afraid or absolutely terrified of a whole range of insects (particularly spiders, jumping locusts and the like) through small reptiles like our friendly neighborhood gecko lizard.

I can understand why some of us are scared of ‘roaches. They may be the ultimate survival machines, eating and living off anything, but they’re creepy, fly about suddenly, as if to exclusively startle, enter food boxes and crap on food (and spread a bunch of diseases), they are major pests, AND they’re just darn ugly (though if your house has ‘roaches, you’d better start fixing your drains and cleaning your house).

But why are we scared of spiders or lizards? They serve critical roles as insect predators. They’re the good guys, and hunt down and eat pesky flies, mosquitoes and even small ‘roaches. A lizard, over the course of a lifetime, is going to eat many times its own body weight worth of pesky or harmful insects. Isn’t that a good thing? Most spiders that we find in our houses don’t bite (I mean, how often will we find a tarantula in our houses?), and almost all lizards are rather harmless, and usually terrified of us. And I’m not even going to get into our irrational fear of bats and the like.

So, why do we still fear them?

More importantly, how can we get rid of our fear and revulsion for them, especially since we know that they’re harmless, and are actually doing some good? And how do we teach our kids not to be scared of them?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Stephen Hawking, and a physics festival

Back in the early days of my college life, there were distinct classes of science nerds. There were the wannabe science nerds, who thought it was cool to unite philosophy and science and so would read absolute rubbish like Capra’s “The tao of physics” (yes, I read that book too, during younger, more naive days). But a clear evolution towards being a true science nerd almost required reading one or all of three books. Feynman’s lectures, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s A brief history of time. Once these books had been tackled, you were well on your way towards science geek superstardom.

Anyway, when I heard that Stephen Hawking was visiting Texas A&M for their annual Physics festival (thanks Patrix) I decided to go down there to hear him speak, after having bought tickets for his talk well over a week in advance.

When I reached the venue I finally understood that there indeed were science superstars. There were thousands of people there, for a sold out talk. People stood at the gates holding little signs saying “Hawking tickets wanted”, making it feel like the opening day of a Shah Rukh Khan movie in Mumbai. If I only had the sagacity to buy a bunch of tickets in advance, I could have made a killing selling them at the venue. The audience was as diverse as it was large. It wasn’t filled with scrawny, bespectacled, gawky, unkempt physics nerds alone. There were distinguished looking professors, moms with their kids, student couples on “dates”, tons of undergraduate students, and the long lines snaked their way into the auditorium. Apart from perhaps Jim Watson, I cannot imagine any other scientist who could so effortlessly fill up a huge auditorium and two spillover halls (which had the talk streaming in live on closed-circuit TV, and which is where I was). Especially a talk that was not free, and didn’t have any free food on offer. Heck, I can’t think of too many scientists who could bring out such an audience even if the talk was free and provided a lavish free banquet.

The crowds meant that the talk started 10-15 minutes late. One of Hawking’s former students, now a distinguished professor at A&M, introduced Hawking, and reminded us that Hawking had made an appearance in the Simpsons, and it is but a matter of time before he appeared on Futurama. I think it will be more than fitting for Hawking to appear on that show.

Stephen slowly started communicating through the speech synthesizer on this wheelchair. It is absolutely amazing that someone who can no longer really talk can communicate this well, thanks to the speech synthesizer. The synthesized voice was pretty good, had a slight British accent, and didn’t have a monotone, so listening to it was pretty easy (I remember reading an article where Hawking said he didn't like his previous speech synthesizer because it had an American accent).

I won’t go in to all the details of the talk itself, but just outline them. He started his talk with different creation myths across the world (and reminded us of the Bishop of Ussher, who in all his infinite wisdom calculated that the world was created at 9 am, on October the 22nd, 4004 BC, and the audience in my room burst out laughing). Hawking went on to then describe his interests in cosmology, and then outlined the Hawking-Penrose theorem, which showed that Einstein’s General theory of relativity implied that space and time would both begin in the “big bang”, and end in a black hole. A consequence of this was that relativity would have to be united with the quantum theory. Hawking also went on to describe (very briefly) how the universe expanded (with more than 90% of the universe’s expansion occurring in the first nano-second of the big bang, and all the remaining expansion taking a few billion years, and this process continues today), and then explained Cosmic microwaves, which are literally remnant heat waves left behind after the big bang.

Of course, if you want more details, you’re better off reading the book.

After the talk ended, I ventured out into the hallways where the Physics festival itself was taking place. This was (in some ways) more fun than the talk itself. Physics students and faculty at A&M had put together a tremendously informative exhibition, showing how some of the most fundamental aspects of everyday physics happen. There were exhibits on Cavendish, and two spheres demonstrating an experiment to calculate the value of G, the gravitational constant. There were exhibits showing how the phases of the moon happened. Other exhibits explained electromagnetism or gravity, or surface tension. There were little levitation devices, or little experiments (like rolling down a boiled egg or a raw egg down a slope. Which one would reach the bottom first?)……tons of stuff that people could see, touch, feel and understand.

The exhibits and the people explaining them were fantastic. The sheer number of people who had shown up really revealed the high degree of enthusiasm for science that still exists amongst people (even in these politicized, ideological days), and there were many, many kids out there, watching and learning. I thought it was an excellent effort by the A&M folks, and I also think science festivals like this, organized by major departments in big research universities will go a long, long way in educating the greater public about science, provide a broader appreciation of science and the road to discovery, and also make the people appreciate universities more (and not view them as elite ivory towers).

Lazy Sunday afternoons, with a nap and a movie, are wonderful. But every now and then, a science festival on a Sunday will be absolute icing on the cake.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

An economist's view on saving the world

We all know there are tons of urgent problems in the world, but we rarely try to prioritize them. Take a look at this video below (it's about 15 minutes long, but well worth it), where Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg (from the Copenhagen Consensus) asks "if you have a few billion dollars, which problem would you solve first...AIDS or climate change?", and prioritizes them purely from an economic perspective. Which problem is economically the easiest to solve (not just in terms of cost, but in terms of "return on investment"?).

Well worth your time.

I pretty much agree with their consensus, though I feel very, very strongly about many of the problems (like climate change). But I would really like to see how they estimated the costs. I would guess that they used typical economic measures (and so would have missed a lot of intangible, indirect costs that would occur with things like loss of forest cover etc).

(On a related note, you might want to read an old post of mine, The economics of conservation).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A problem for the penguins, and where did the sparrows go?

A couple of nights ago, I was watching last year’s extremely popular documentary, March of the penguins. It was bitter-sweet, watching the emperor penguins struggle to make it inland, struggle and take care of their one single egg, struggle and bring up their one single chick, and hard to watch the many chicks that died due to the cold, or lack of food, or predators.

For a moment, I sat up wondering….if a pair of penguins mate just once a year, and have just one chick, and a huge bunch of chicks die, how come the penguin population is still slowly increasing?

And then I smacked my forehead, since the answer was obvious.

So, reader smarter than an eighth grader, here’s the question from middle-school hell. If emperor penguins mate once a year, have one chick each, and there is (exactly) an 80% mortality rate (meaning the chicks die) before the chicks reach adulthood, what must happen in order to ensure that the penguin population remains stable or increases? The answer will be a precise number.


Yesterday, I saw this big, fat sparrow. It was almost big enough to be a pigeon. But that just reminded me of my childhood, and the dozens of sparrows I would see everywhere, in and around my hometown of Bangalore, as well as in Chennai or Hyderabad or other cities I would spend my holidays in. There were sparrows everywhere, and they were perhaps the most common birds in the cities after the ubiquitous crows and ravens. We even had a pair of sparrows try to breed in a rain pipe on our terrace once.

But the last few times I’ve visited India, I can hardly see a sparrow. Perhaps there are none left in the cities.

Where have they all gone? Are our modern houses, which have no nooks or corners for the birds to nest, little disasters for the birds? And why don’t (the few) gardens in Indian cities (both public parks as well as residential yards) have any birdhouses or broken pipes or something the sparrows can nest in?

The cities were a nicer, livelier, more welcoming place with the sparrows around.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Magic and the orange tree

Even as a kid I was fascinated by conjurors and magicians. You know, those chaps who could pull pigeon out of their ass, or make an egg unbreakable.

Magic is something that baffles us, amazes us and makes us believe that something that cannot be done has been accomplished. But then, any knowledge or technology that we do not possess will be indistinguishable from magic. Science breaks down belief by explaining how things happen. But I love magic and stage magicians, and trying to figure out how a trick was performed is an exhilarating challenge. At some time in my life, I tried to pick up some magic tricks from books and suchlike, and mostly failed to execute them efficiently. That was mostly because I was incapable of maintaining a poker face and an expression of mystical intrigue. A combination of my stupid grin and clumsy execution ensured that I would never become the next P.C. Sorcar or David Copperfield.

But I still love “magic” shows, and Lee Falk’s Mandrake comics. Given all that, last year was a good year for a movie buff (such as myself) who loved magic. There were two rather decent movies with magic playing the central part, The illusionist, and The prestige. In both movies, there were enough “how did they do that” moments to keep you involved throughout the movie. But I liked The illusionist more; for two reasons. The first is that the magic in The illusionist, while pushing the boundaries of the possible, remained within them. The prestige actually broke too many laws, including the law of conservation of mass. The second is that The illusionist stayed true to the spirit of magic throughout. It really was an old fashioned “how did he do it” movie.

But the third reason I liked The illusionist had nothing to do with the movie itself. The movie reminded me of a little childhood incident, and one of my earliest science experiments.

It was all about orange trees. I was young, perhaps around 3 years old. I was eating an orange when an uncle of mine terrified me by saying if I ate the seeds of the orange, an orange tree would start growing from within my tummy. I had swallowed a few seeds, so for a moment I panicked. Then I questioned him. He asked me where trees came from. I knew it was from seeds, and his impeccable logic struck me with cold terror. But I bravely carried out an experiment. I had already eaten some orange seeds along with the rest of the orange. I decided to wait, and observe carefully if any leaves started to sprout from my head or nostrils or ears, or anywhere else.

Nothing happened. Weeks later, leaves weren’t sprouting from my ears.

So, I confronted my uncle. With a twinkle in his eye he said there were no trees growing out of my ears because I had chewed up the seeds. The seeds had to be swallowed whole if they were to become trees.

So, idiot that I was, I tried a second experiment. I ate a few more oranges, and this time swallowed the seeds whole (almost choking and killing myself in that process). I survived, waited a few more weeks, but nothing happened.

No orange trees.

Of course, had I been smart, I would have gone straight to my sister or mom or dad and asked them if trees could grow out of little boys. I would have learnt sooner.

But I wouldn’t have figured it all out myself, would I? And that would have been no fun.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Robert Gallo, and some HIV history

A few days back, Robert Gallo, head of the Institute of Human Virology gave a rather interesting talk here. Gallo is one of the early pioneers in the study of human viruses, and of course, played a major role in the discovery of many human viruses, including HIV. Instead of talking about recent data, Gallo chose to give a broad overview of the history and timelines of research in human virology.

I’m not going to summarize all aspects of the talk, since there are too many little details. But there were a few points that I thought were well worth remembering. Gallo pointed out how people (scientists included) have such short memories. Humans seem to have only a 30 year memory of history. Around 1919, there was a huge influenza pandemic worldwide that killed millions. Yet around 1950, people were saying microbiology (including the study of viruses) was an old field. We “knew” all that we needed to about microbes. People said that again in the late seventies/early eighties, when they said that the new frontier was degenerative diseases. I’ve always thought such statements were terrible and expressed a rare ignorance as well as arrogance. I mean, over 99% of all living organisms (in terms of number of species or total biomass) are microbiological in origin!

Gallo went on to talk about the early years of virology and retroviruses. In the seventies, people confidently scoffed at the suggestions that viruses could cause cancer. Yet today we know that nearly 20% of all cancers are caused by viruses or have a strong viral component to their metastasis. Even more interesting were the ideas on human retroviruses. Many people did not believe that there were retroviruses in humans, while others said they were fringe viruses that couldn’t cause disease. But Gallo and others in the 70’s had laid down a lot of basic science research that enabled the later identification of HIV, and the subsequent rapid characterization of the virus, and showing that these viruses attacked immune cells (the helper T cells) that resulted in a severely compromised immune system.

There was also an interesting section where he talked about current antiretroviral drugs that are successfully being used to treat AIDS patients. Once again, human memory appears to be short. More people are now (correctly) arguing that more money needs to be spent on education and AIDS awareness, as well as making treatment available for AIDS patients. However, they addendum is that there is little need for basic research on AIDS, and the focus should now solely be on making treatment available. Gallo pointed out that it was the basic research done 20-30 years ago, even before human retroviruses were discovered, that enabled research with cultured T cells, as well as helped rapidly characterize the virus. Similarly, the modern drugs that were finally available were built on a mountain of knowledge that came from basic, and not applied, research. It is actually increasingly important to continue to increase spending and resources for basic research, because though the results are not immediately apparent, the rewards 20-30 years down the line are tremendous. Unfortunately, economies and countries seem to be unable to think beyond 5 years ahead, and basic science ends up being collateral damage.

Finally, Gallo came out strongly against a number of people who continue to insist that AIDS is not caused by HIV (though the evidence for it is now so vast and compelling that it’s almost as obvious as gravity). While I’m not going to elaborate the various reasons or ideologies behind people who don’t want to accept this, some of their actions are certainly responsible for the deaths of many, many people in the world. By saying the disease is caused only by “bad” lifestyles, or a combination of diet and lifestyle, and therefore pooh-poohing any treatment or options of vaccines, far too many people have had to suffer for it.

A good talk, and a sobering reminder for a lot of us, on AIDS and its global impact.