Archive for the 'Science' Category

The Quantum Indians

At the turn of the 20th century, the world was witnessing a renaissance in the area of quantum physics through the work of great scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford or Neils Bohr. Unknown to the world, three Indian scientists were also making significant contributions to the quantum world with revolutionary deductions, interpretations and theories.

Ignobel Indians

Several Indians have collected Ig Nobel prizes over the years, awarded for seemingly ridiculous scientific research. Priyanka Pulla in Open:

KP Sreekumar won the 2002 Ig Nobel prize for Mathematics for his 1990 paper, ‘Estimation of the total surface area in Indian Elephants’

For KP Sreekumar, winning the Ig Nobel was an anticlimax. Most winners benefit from the never-before spotlight on their work that the prize guarantees, but Sreekumar didn’t exactly get covered in glory. Instead, his work became a quiz question. On a contest aired on TV, the quizmaster asked what the most foolish study ever to emerge from Kerala was. The correct answer was Sreekumar’s paper.

“It shattered me,” says the mild-mannered researcher from College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Mannuthy, a suburb of Kerala. Considering that a colleague of his almost got killed by an elephant tantrum while measuring the animal’s height, Sreekumar has reason to be bitter. He spent almost three years measuring 24 different elephants to develop a formula to predict their surface area. Elephants can be moody creatures. Throw in a few thousand kilograms of sheer, lumbering tonnage (Sreekumar’s subjects weighed between 1,880 kg and 5,290 kg), and you have reason to watch your manners around these jumbo pets.

Further, a quick Pubmed (a database of life-science papers) search reveals that this vet’s choice of subject was not that all flummoxing after all. As far back as the 1930s, researchers were measuring the surface areas of everything from chacma baboons and cotton rats to—for whatever obscure purpose it served—unborn pigs. More:

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee addresses 2013 graduates

Dr. Mukherjee, the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, delivered the Commencement address at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s 2013 Commencement and Academic Convocation. From mskcc.org:

“Science,” Dr. Mukherjee asserted, “is among the most profoundly human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanizing effects of technology, science in fact remains our last stand against it.” Invoking “the indelible image of Gregor Mendel, a monk in wire-rimmed glasses, tending his plants, stooping with paint brush and forceps, to transfer the orange dust of pollen from one flower to the next,” he described a quality he called the “tenderness” of the scientific enterprise.

“It’s not a word typically used to describe science or scientists,” Dr. Mukherjee acknowledged. “It describes a certain intimacy between human beings and nature, a nourishment that must happen before investigation can begin.”

Dr. Mukherjee framed his talk by asking how Mendel, working in the mid-1800s in the garden of his monastery, “stumbled upon what is arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next.”  More:

Esther Gokhale — the posture guru of Silicon Valley

In NYT:

She believes that people suffer from pain and dysfunction because they have forgotten how to use their bodies. It’s not the act of sitting for long periods that causes us pain, she says, it’s the way we position ourselves.

Ms. Gokhale (pronounced go-CLAY) is not helping aching office workers with high-tech gadgets and medical therapies. Rather, she says she is reintroducing her clients to what she calls “primal posture” — a way of holding themselves that is shared by older babies and toddlers, and that she says was common among our ancestors before slouching became a way of life. It is also a posture that Ms. Gokhale observed during research she conducted in a dozen other countries, as well as in India, where she was raised.

For a method based not on technology but primarily on observations of people, it has been embraced by an unlikely crowd: executives, board members and staff members at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, including Google and Oracle; and heavy users of technology like Mr. Drudge.

“I need to do things that make sense and that I can see results from. Esther’s work is like that,” said Susan Wojcicki, 44, one of Google’s senior vice presidents, who has suffered from back and neck pain that she attributes to doing too much work at her desk. More:

Find your primal posture and sit without back pain: watch Esther Gokhale at TEDx Talks

Freedom From Famine — The Norman Borlaug Story

Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)was an American agronomist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives”. See Wiki

In Times of India: By cranking up a wheat strain containing an unusual gene, Borlaug created the so-called ”semi-dwarf” plant variety — a shorter, stubbier, compact stalk that supported an enormous head of grain without falling over from the weight. This curious principle of shrinking the plant to increase the output on the plant from the same acreage resulted in Indian farmers eventually quadrupling their wheat — and later, rice — production.

It heralded the Green Revolution.

Below, Freedom From Famine – The Norman Borlaug Story:

 

Genomes link aboriginal Australians to Indians

Ed Yong in Nature:

Some aboriginal Australians can trace as much as 11% of their genomes to migrants who reached the island around 4,000 years ago from India, a study suggests. Along with their genes, the migrants brought different tool-making techniques and the ancestors of the dingo, researchers say.

This scenario is the result of a large genetic analysis outlined today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It contradicts a commonly held view that Australia had no contact with the rest of the world between the arrival of the first humans around 45,000 years ago and the coming of Europeans in the eighteenth century.

“Australia is thought to represent one of the earliest migrations for humans after they left Africa, but it seemed pretty isolated after that,” says Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the study. More:

Genomic study traces Roma to northern India

In NYT:

The Roma people of Europe, often called Gypsies, are long thought to have originated in India because of similarities between Roma and Indian languages. But historical records are scanty.

Now a wide-ranging genomic study appears to confirm that the Roma came from a single group that left northwestern India about 1,500 years ago.

“Some genetic studies have also pointed to India before, but it was not clear what part of India,” said an author of the study, David Comas, an evolutionary biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. More:

Himalayan journal

In NYT:

Aaron Putnam, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, is a leader of an expedition to Bhutan to examine links among climate, glaciers, water resources and society in the Himalayas.

Follow his journey at scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com

Wednesday, Sept. 26

The day after the arrival of our colleague Scott Travis in Thimpu, Bhutan, we gathered our gear and loaded a small bus that would convey us to the beginning of our trek into Rinchen Zoe La. We traveled for about 12 hours along twisting, narrow gravel roads that hugged the most precipitous topography I have ever seen.

Along the way we ascended high mountain passes and ducked into the low, humid rain forests that characterize the impressive climatic and ecological gradients compressed into the small country of Bhutan. more:

 

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The cancer puzzle

Via 3quarksdaily:

A woman’s drug-resistant TB echoes around the world

Geeta Anand from Mumbai in WSJ:

Over the past six years, Mrs. Sheikh, 40 years old, mortgaged her family’s rice fields, spent her father’s and brother’s life savings, and crisscrossed India in search of a cure for tuberculosis. But instead of getting healthier, Mrs. Sheikh grew increasingly resistant to medication with each failed treatment. This year, Mrs. Sheikh became one of India’s first documented cases of TB that is resistant to virtually all the medicines approved to treat it.

In recent decades, tuberculosis, a fatal infection characterized by the coughing of blood, was generally treatable. The Wall Street Journal reviewed years of Mrs. Sheikh’s medical records, interviewed her doctors and TB workers across India and traveled with her as she pursued treatment.

Her six-year journey to all-but-incurable TB exposes a blind spot in an Indian medical bureaucracy that, for decades, neglected to implement widespread testing or treatment for drug-resistant strains. As a result, a curable disease has mutated into a killer.

The global community is worried about the danger. Health officials have urged India and other countries with increasing drug resistance to take stronger action. And this year the U.K. added India to the list of countries whose citizens must be tested for TB to obtain a visa of six months or more. More:

What it feels like for a sperm

Posted by Shekhar Bhatia:

My son Aatish’s science essay, “What it feels like for a sperm, or how to get around when you are really, really small,” which he wrote on his blog Empirical Zeal, is in the anthology, The Best Science Writing Online 2012, published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The book, released yesterday, has 51 essays and showcases “the most provocative, original, and significant online essays” from 2011.

Go to this Amazon link and click on the image of the book to read four of the 51 essays.

And from the review at Tracker (Knight Science Journalism at MIT):

There’s DeLene Beeland’s lovely, compassionate piece about saving the “church forests” of Ethiopia; Aatish Bhatia’s smart and hilarious “What It Feels Like For A Sperm”; Biochem Belle’s ethically shadowed portrait of Fritz Haber; Rob Dunn’s incredible “Man Discovers A New Life-Form At A South African Truck Stop”; Maggie Koerth-Baker’s elegantly clear explanatory study of nuclear power plant operations in the wake of Fukashima; Puff the Mutant Dragon’s fantastically written “Sunrise in the Garden of Dreams”, about the lethal nature of organophosphate pesticides. There are well-known stars of science writing – David Dobbs, Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn McKenna, Ann Finkbeiner, Kate Clancy, Christy Wilcox – and there are rising stars.

 

The truth about the Saraswati

Could the river system that sustained the Harappans be the same as this most sacred Rg Vedic river? Hartosh Singh Bal in Open on some new geological findings:

The identity of the Saraswati, and its fate, has been one of the most enduring enigmas of ancient Indian history. It is a period of our history that in any case is not short of unanswered questions, ranging from the fate of the Harappans to the identity of the Rg Vedic people. For most Indians, these questions connect with the very nature of Indian society. From the origins of the caste system to the possible migration of Indo-Europeans into the subcontinent, the story of our past is deeply tied to our present.

A recent paper published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the USA, compiled from data collected by an international team of geologists, archaeologists and botanists, sheds much needed light on many of these questions. Given the extent of what is at stake, not all the claims in the paper, nor all its findings, are likely to be accepted without arguments. But even so, its conclusions are of immense value in providing details of a past we are just beginning to understand.

The paper titled ‘Fluvial landscapes of the Harappan civilization’ clears up the geological history of both the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river systems and provides a compelling story of how changes in the monsoon led to the growth and decline of the Harappan civilisation. More:

When the mango bites back

Gardiner Harris at NYT‘s Well blog:

New Delhi — Accepting a just-picked mango from a stranger in Lodi Gardens and then putting it directly into my mouth — skin and all — was stupid. I admit that.

But why did my first horrible case of traveler’s diarrhea in India have to result from a mango? I love mangoes, and India’s vast array of deliciously different mango varieties has been one of the great delights of moving here.

“You didn’t even wash it?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, asked me later.

No.

“Even by your standards, that was really stupid,” Dr. Offit said.

But what about the local yogurt I had eaten and the probiotic pills I had taken — weren’t my gastrointestinal flora protecting me? Since we all carry 10 times as many bacterial cells as human ones, wasn’t I for all intents and purposes already more Indian than American?

“Yogurt probably won’t hurt you, unless it’s contaminated as well,” Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an expert on traveler’s health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview. But there is no food on the planet that will protect against an onslaught of toxic bacteria, she added.

Despite decades of immunological research and a recent surge of interest in the bacterial garden of the human gut, diarrhea remains the most unpredictable travel-related illness. There is a grim acceptance among Western expatriates and visitors here that they will be felled by it — often on multiple occasions. More:

India’s mission to Mars in Nov. 2013

The Indian Cabinet on Friday cleared the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) mission to Mars in November 2013. The project, which comes on the heels of the Chandrayaan mission to the moon, envisages putting a spacecraft in the red planet’s orbit to study its atmosphere, with the help of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Nasa’s Mars rover Curiosity is scheduled to land in just two days — 1:31 a.m. Monday, Aug. 6. To get an idea how big a deal the mission is, read this in the Washington Post:

The descent and landing in the early hours of Aug. 6 will be the most complex and hair-raising in planetary history. The destination is a deep crater with a three-mile-tall mountain that NASA could only dream about using as a landing site until very recently.

It’s the most ambitious, the most costly ($2.5 billion) and the most high-stakes mission ever to another planet. It was also described last week by the agency’s top scientist, former astronaut John M. Grunsfeld, as “the most important NASA mission of the decade.”

Nasa will broadcast it live from New York City’s Time Square on Sunday night (Aug. 5).

Indian string theorist wins $3m physics prize

Nine scientists have received $3 million each as awards from the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, a new not-for-profit created by the billionaire investor Yuri Milner.

Among the nine is Ashoke Sen of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India. He has received the prize “for uncovering striking evidence of strong-weak duality in certain supersymmetric string theories and gauge theories, opening the path to the realization that all string theories are different limits of the same underlying theory.”

Yuri Milner is a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon.

In The Indian Express: Prof Sen, who has just turned 56, confirmed that his $ 3 million prize had been credited to his account, but said it was still too early for him to decide what to do with it. The physicist whose work is seen by most as revolutionary but questioned by some, said he did not consider the award as an endorsement of his findings.

More here in Nature and in Forbes

 

Jagdish C. Bose and how plants feel sensations akin to animals

Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

In a room near Maida Vale, a journalist for The Nation wrote around 1914, an unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.

 “Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the aforementioned carrot vivisector, was a serious man of science. Born in what is today Bangladesh in 1858, Bose was a quintessential polymath: physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist. He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a U.S. patent, and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honored by the Royal Society in the field of science. It’s clear that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist of some weight. And, like many scientists of weight, he has become popularly known for his more controversial pursuits — in Bose’s case, his experiments in plant physiology.

Perhaps it was his work in radio waves and electricity that inspired Bose’s investigations into what we might call the invisible world. Bose strongly felt that physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. Around 1900, Bose began his investigations into the secret world of plants. He found that all plants, and all parts of plants, have a sensitive nervous system not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. Some plant reactions can be seen easily in sensitive plants like the Mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. But when Bose attached his magnifying device to plants from which it was more difficult to witness a response, such as vegetables, he was astounded to discover that they, too, became excited when vexed. All around us, Bose realized, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it. More:

Why the Higgs Boson matters

Steven Weinberg, professor in the physics and astronomy departments at the University of Texas at Austin, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, in NYT:

In 1967-8 the late Abdus Salam and I independently used this mathematics in formulating a specific theory, the modern unified theory of weak and electromagnetic forces that became part of the Standard Model. This theory predicted the masses of the W and Z particles, which were verified when these particles were discovered at CERN in 1983-84.

But just what is it that breaks the electroweak symmetry and thereby gives elementary particles their masses?

Salam and I assumed that the culprit is what are called scalar fields, which pervade all space. This is like what happens in a magnet: Even though the equations describing iron atoms don’t distinguish one direction in space from another, any magnetic field produced by the atoms will point in just one way. The symmetry-breaking fields in the Standard Model do not mark out directions in space — instead, they distinguish the weak from the electromagnetic forces, and give elementary particles their masses. Just as a magnetic field appears in iron when it cools and solidifies, these scalar fields appeared as the early universe expanded and cooled.

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. The illustrative models studied in most of the papers on symmetry breaking from 1960 to 1964 had introduced scalar fields to break the symmetries, and had typically found that some of these fields would show up as massive particles, bundles of the energy of the fields. Likewise, Salam and I in 1967-68 found that one of the four scalar fields we introduced to break the electroweak symmetry would appear as a new kind of electrically neutral unstable particle. This is the Higgs boson, which may now have been discovered, verifying the Standard Model’s account of how the elementary particles get their masses. More:

Genetically modified cotton helps small farmers in India

Gayathri Vaidyanathan in Nature:

Smallholder farmers in central and southern India who planted genetically modified (GM) cotton achieve larger yields, greater profits and a higher living standard than those who grow conventional cotton, finds a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences1.

The study includes data collected from 533 farm households between 2002 and 2008. During that time period, almost all of the farms switched from conventional to Bt cotton, which contains genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that make the plants resistant to the cotton bollworm caterpillar.

The analysis showed that the yield of plots planted with Bt cotton increased by 24% compared with conventional cotton plots. This translated to a 50% increase in profits, and during 2006–08, families that adopted Bt cotton spent 18% more money than conventional farming households, suggesting an increase in living standards. The benefits were due solely to reduced pest damage, say Matin Qaim, an agricultural economics researcher at the Georg-August University of Göttingen and Jonas Kathege, his PhD student. More:

For the Indian father of the ‘God particle,’ a long journey from Dhaka

Samanth Subramanian at India Ink / NYT:

Satyendra Nath Bose at Dacca University (now Dhaka) in Bangladesh in the 1930s. / The S.N. Bose Project

In the word “boson,” as media reports have plentifully pointed out during the past two days, is contained the surname of Satyendra Nath Bose, the Calcutta physicist who first mathematically described the class of particles to which he gave his name. As was common with Indian scientists in the early 20th century, however, his work might easily have eluded international recognition. Like the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam, Mr. Bose was saved from obscurity by a generous and influential mentor in Europe. In Mr. Bose’s case, that mentor turned out to be one of the greatest physicists of them all: Albert Einstein.

In 1921, Mr. Bose moved from the faculty of the University of Calcutta to that of the University of Dhaka. He had already published papers with his friend and colleague Meghnad Saha, working particularly equations of state, which describe how matter behaves under differing sets of physical conditions. Mr. Bose was not entirely happy in Dhaka at first. A month after he moved, he wrote to Mr. Saha:

Work has not yet started. [The university has] quite a few things but due to utter neglect they are in a bad way. Perhaps I need not elaborate. On the table of the sahibs are scattered lots of Nicol prisms, lens and eye-pieces. It would require a lot of research to determine which one belongs to which apparatus. We do suffer from a lack of journals here, but the authorities of the new university have promised to place orders for some of them along with their back numbers. Talk is going on about having a separate science library.

After he settled in, Mr. Bose began to worry away at the intricacies of black-body radiation. In 1918, Max Planck had won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that objects emit radiation in discrete packets of energy, called quanta; he had also set down an equation governing this process. But as C.S. Unnikrishnan, a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research told me, Mr. Bose was troubled by a perceived inconsistency in Mr. Planck’s process. More:

Falguni Sarkar, a grandson, writes a fond account: read here

Samanth Subramanian blog here

Higgs boson: For Bose, not even a capital ‘B’

Subhra Priyadarshini at Nature India:

Watching the live webcast from CERN and the press conference thereafter, I could only sigh: Wish I were there today to witness history being made in particle physics. The rest of the day went in reading my colleague Geoff Brumfiel’s live blog from CERN and his witty analysis of the discovery of Higgs boson and, of course, the umpteen serious and funny takes on Twitter.

A little later I heard from Archana Sharma, the Indian staff physicist at CERN, who shared her excitement and the star-struck disbelief of a bunch of interns from India presently on a summer programme at CERN. The anticipation surrounding CERN’s scientific seminar on the “Latest update in the search for the Higgs boson” was so palpable at the Route de Meyrin that you could cut it with a kitchen knife, she said, prompting this beautiful piece for Nature India. Archana’s earlier pieces in the run up to today’s announcement have always made for wonderful reading and have celebrated the Indian presence at CERN.

In India, there also has been much speculation[1, 2, 3, 4] on why Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian physicist who lends his name to Higgs boson following his celebrated work with Albert Einstein, has gone unsung through the ages. In fact, there is much criticism of the fact that only the ‘H’ in Higgs boson is written in capital letter. This debate is not going to die soon, at least in the land of Bose, whose Bose-Einstein statistics has become the basis of most quantum mechanics as we know it today. More:

CERN staff physicist Archana Sharma at Nature India:

The excitement and anticipation surrounding CERN’s scientific seminar on the “Latest update in the search for the Higgs boson” was so palpable at the Route de Meyrin in the CERN campus that one of my friends jokingly remarked that you could cut it with a kitchen knife! Understandably so.

Who can say that is not CERN’s magnum opus? In the words of Stephen Hawking, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something special.” And this special revelation may be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe and everything, the space and the space between spaces.

This is just the inception. If black holes and their revelations indeed pave the way for intergalactic time travel, “Beam me up, Scotty” will no longer be confined to the niches of a science fiction fantasy. More:

Western science is overlooking India’s contribution to the discovery

Amit Chaudhuri in The Guardian:

In fact, “boson” is derived from Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian physicist from Kolkata who, in 1924, realised that the statistical method used to analyse most 19th-century work on the thermal behaviour of gases was inadequate. He first sent off a paper on the quantum statistics that he perfected in Dhaka to a British journal, which turned it down. He then sent it to Albert Einstein, who immediately grasped its immense importance, translated the paper, and published it in a German journal. (And so our invented German provenance turns out to be not wholly inappropriate.) Bose’s innovation came to be known as the Bose-Einstein statistics, and became a basis of quantum mechanics. Einstein saw that it had profound implications for physics; that it had opened the way for this subatomic particle, which he named, after his Indian collaborator, “boson”. Few physicists would disagree with the suggestion that the Bose-Einstein statistics have had much wider consequences for physics than the Higgs boson has had.

Still, science and the west are largely synonymous and coeval: they are two words that have the same far-reaching meaning. Just as Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings consume and digest the Japanese prints they were responding to so that we don’t need to be aware of Japanese prints when viewing the post-impressionists, western science is pristine, and bears no mark of what’s outside itself. More:

Higgs boson explained

In The Guardian:

For a child in the back seat of a car: “It’s a particle that some scientists have been looking for. Because they knew that without it the universe would be impossible. Because without it, the other particles in the universe wouldn’t have mass. Because they would all continue to travel at the speed of light, just like photons do. Because I just said they would, and if you ask ‘Why?’ one more time we’re not stopping at Burger King.”

For religious fundamentalists: ”There is no Higgs boson.” More

Paintable battery

Research by Neelam Singh, Charudatta Galande, Andrea Miranda, Akshay Mathkar, Wei Gao, Arava Leela Mohana Reddy, Alexandru Vlad and Pulickel M. Ajayan. From Innovation News:

The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries now found in many mobile phones and laptops may one day be sprayed like paint onto virtually any surface, potentially ushering in a new generation of thin, flexible devices, researchers say.

Spray-paintable batteries even might become available to the general public someday at hardware stores, the scientists added.

Lithium-ion batteries power most portable electronics nowadays, but their spiral, jelly-roll-like design generally limits them to rectangular or cylindrical shapes.

Now researchers have succeeded in painting these batteries onto a diverse range of surfaces, including glass slides, stainless steel, flexible plastic sheets, glazed ceramic tiles, and even the curved side of a beer mug.

“We can convert almost any object to a battery,” Neelam Singh, a materials scientist at Rice University in Houston, told InnovationNewsDaily. More:

How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains

This piece by Aatish Bhatia published on his blog Empirical Zeal won the first prize in the 3QuarksDaily Science Prize:

In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.

One of the first fences in this color continuum came from an unlikely place – crayons. In 1917, the first crayons were imported into Japan, and they brought with them a way of dividing a seamless visual spread into neat, discrete chunks. There were different crayons for green (midori) and blue (ao), and children started to adopt these names. But the real change came during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II, when new educational material started to circulate. In 1951, teaching guidelines for first grade teachers distinguished blue from green, and the word midori was shoehorned to fit this new purpose. More:

[ps by Shekhar Bhatia: Aatish is my son]

Access to this video is blocked in India

Posted by AW:

What is a flame?

What would you say if an 11-year-old child asked you to explain, “What is a flame?”

The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University recently asked scientists to answer the question “in a way that an 11-year-old would find intelligible and maybe even fun.”

The Center is a project of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

By April 2, the deadline for “The Flame Challenge”, the Center had received as many as many as 822 entries from the United States and from 30 other countries. “They ranged from a single sentence to pages of prose; from poems – including one shaped like a flame – to live-action and cartoon videos with special effects.”

The winning entry is a 7-minute video with an original theme song by Ben Ames, an American working on his PhD in quantum optics at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

The Center posted the winning video at it website (www.flamechallenge.org ), but if you are living in India you cannot watch the video. An “announcement” on the site says “This website/URL has been blocked until further notice either pursuant to Court orders or on the Directions issued by the Department of Telecommunications.” Even the video of the interview with the winner is blocked in India.

There are many ways of sharing videos on the web. The two popular routes are either to put it up on YouTube and then give a link on your website, or post it on Vimeo, a video-sharing website on which users can upload, share and view videos. Once you have uploaded your video you embed it on your blog or website or give a link to it. A viewer can then watch it either on the blog/website or go to YouTube/Vimeo and do a search.

The problem with “The Flame Challenge” winning video is, the Center posted it on Vimeo, and access to Vimeo has been blocked across India by a court order. Check out http://vimeo.com/40271657. [By the way, you can download the video from Vimeo, but you cannot watch it online]

Anyway, for all of you with curious minds and inquisitive kids, here’s the winning video on YouTube. It’s truly brilliant.

 Related post: Hackers take protest to Indian streets and cyberspace

A Nepal poppy and a sneezing monkey among top 10 new species

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and a committee of scientists from around the world announced their picks for the top 10 new species described in 2011. [via a Tweet by Amitav Ghosh, author of Sea of Poppies]:

Common Name: Nepalese Autumn Poppy

Family: Papaveraceae

How it made the Top 10: Many newly discovered species are small in size or secretive in habits, but not all. This beautiful and vibrantly colored poppy has remained unknown to science until now. This is no doubt due in part to the extreme environment where the flower lives at an elevation of 10,827 to 13,780 feet in central Nepal. It is also evidence of the paucity of botanists studying the Asian flora as specimens of Meconopsis autumnalis had been collected twice before, although not recognized as new — first in 1962 by the storied Himalayan plant hunter Adam Stainton and again in 1994 by staff of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Plant Resources. The recent rediscovery of the poppy in the field was made by intrepid botanists collecting plants miles from human habitation in heavy monsoon rains.  More: and here

… and a snub-nosed monkey from Myanmar (Burma) that sneezes when it rains

Name: Rhinopithecus strykeri

Common Name: Sneezing Monkey

Family: Cercopithecidae

How it made the Top 10: Since 2000, the number of mammals discovered each year only averages about 36 so it was nothing to sneeze at when a new primate came to the attention of scientists who were conducting a gibbon survey in the high mountains of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Rhinopithecus strykeri is the first snub-nosed monkey to be reported from Myanmar and is believed to be Critically Endangered. It is distinctive for its mostly black fur and white beard and for sneezing when it rains – although it tries to avoid dripping rainwater in its turned up nose by sitting with its head between its legs. While conducting interviews for the Hoolock Gibbon Status Review, hunters and villagers told the survey team of scientists that they could find this snub-nosed monkey by waiting until it rained and listening for sneezes in the trees. We say congratulations… and Gesundheit.

More here and here

 

The secrets of bird colours

Diversity of non-iridescent or angle-independent feather barb structural colors in birds and the underlying nanoscale morphology of the color-producing (photonic) nanostructures revealed using electron microscopy and synchrotron small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS). Credits: Collage by Vinod Saranathan, photograph of Plum-throated Cotinga (Cotinga maynana) by Thomas Valqui.

For millennia birds have been prized, even hunted, for their beautiful plumage, but what makes their feathers so colorful? Read the fascinating work of physicist turned ornithologist Vinod Saranathan. At Phys.Org:

A new X-ray analysis of the structure of feathers from 230 bird species, led by Vinod Saranathan of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, has revealed the nanostructures behind certain colours of feather, structures that could inspire new photonic devices.

A report of the research appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

“Pigments or dyes are the most common ways to make color in birds as in other organisms. Pigment molecules absorb certain portions of the white light spectrum and the portions that are not absorbed manifest as the colour we see,” Vinod tells me.

“For instance, melanosomes, granules filled with the pigment melanin, produce blacks, browns and reddish-browns in feathers, whereas other pigments such as carotenoids produce the majority of bright yellow, orange or reddish colors.”

He explains that parrots even have their own class of pigments (psittacofulvins) which give them their vivid yellow and red plumage.

“However, there are no known blue pigments found in vertebrates and the only known green pigment in birds is found in turacos, a group of birds endemic to sub-Saharan Africa,” Vinod says. More

Also read here

 

Antiviral drugs could blast the common cold — Should we use them?

Carl Zimmer in Wired:

At five a.m. one day last fall, in San Francisco’s South of Market district, Vishwanath Lingappa was making rabies soup. At his lab station, he injected a syringe full of rabies virus proteins into a warm flask loaded with other proteins, lipids, building blocks of DNA, and various other molecules from ground-up cells. It cooked for hours on Lingappa’s bench, and occasionally he withdrew a few drops to analyze its chemistry. By spinning the fluid in a centrifuge, he could isolate small clumps of proteins that flew toward the edge as the bigger ones stayed close to the center.

To his mix, Lingappa had added a particular protein he wanted to study. He suspected that the rabies virus used this protein in the infected cell to assemble the capsid, or external shell, of replicated viruses. He had tagged the target protein with radioactive atoms, allowing him to follow it as it interacted with other elements in the soup.

At around 10 in the morning, Lingappa took pictures of the mixture. By lunchtime, seven hours into his workday, the images were developed and ready to show off to his staff. In the conference room, a table was strewn with take-out sandwiches, and an abandoned bowl of oatmeal sat on a credenza. As Lingappa held up the films to the light, his colleagues crowded behind him to make out black streaks across the images. Read full article here

When Einstein met Tagore

Image: Book jacket

Maria Popova in Brain Pickings:

Einstein: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

Tagore: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.

I have taken a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

Einstein: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity. (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

Tagore: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty. More

The fight to save the tiger

An innovative scientist in India may have discovered a way to avert extinction. Phil McKenna in The Smithsonian:

“It’s a sign saying, ‘I am here! I am here!’ ” says Ullas Karanth as he flails his arms and jumps up and down in a mock attention-grabbing wave.

He is referring to a scrape, a patch of jungle floor recently cleared by a tiger’s hind paws. It’s huge, the size of a cafeteria tray. Based on the freshness of the uprooted grass along the edges, Karanth figures a tiger passed here sometime last night. I kneel down and am hit by an overwhelming stench—the musky spray of a quarter-ton cat that has just marked its territory.

Signs of tigers are everywhere inside Nagarhole National Park in southwestern India. From our forest service lodge we hear the telltale alarm calls of deer in the middle of the night. On early morning drives Karanth, one of the world’s leading tiger biologists, points out paw prints the size of dinner plates. We pass trees with trunks that the cats have raked bare, signposts for rivals and potential mates.

Karanth has deep piercing eyes that can spot a deer a quarter of a mile away from inside a moving vehicle. He prefers, however, to drive with his head sticking out the window so he can read the tracks of every animal that has crossed the path beneath our wheels. Gleefully calling out each animal by name, he seems oblivious as the vehicle swerves alarmingly from side to side. More:

The Indian search for extraterrestrials

Manu Joseph in Open:

So, in 2001, a group of Indian scientists sent a balloon about 40 kilometres above the Earth to see if they can nab alien microbes that were tumbling down from space. The payload of the balloon had highly sophisticated sterilised cans that were designed to capture air samples and bring them back. But for rockets, balloons and shuttles, nothing on Earth, not even volcanic ash, rises beyond 20 kilometres. So if there were microbes at an altitude of 40 kilometres then, in all probability, they were coming down and not going up.

The probe, which was launched from the Tata Insti- tute of Fundamental Research’s balloon launch facility in Hyderabad, and funded by the Indian Space Research Organisation, was headed by astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar.

Narlikar has spent a good part of his scientific career questioning the Big Bang theory—the hypothesis that the universe, including space and time, were created when an unimaginably minuscule point of almost infinite energy inexplicably and suddenly expanded to become everything.

When I interviewed him about ten years ago, he was standing outside the Homi Bhabha Auditorium in Mumbai, holding a glass of chai and looking severely at everything around him. He said that according to the Big Bang theory, the universe was created “in about three minutes” after something happened to nothing. “Chai takes longer.” More:

 

Kashmir scientists clone Pashmina goat

Compiled from despatches:

Noori, a cloned pashmina goat, stands inside a sheep breeding center at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in Alastang, some 25 kilometers from Srinagar.

Scientists in Kashmir have cloned a rare Himalayan goat, of the kind famed for its silky Pashmina wool — or cashmere.

The team from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Science and Technology (SKUAST) named the goat Noori (“light” in Arabic).

The healthy female kid was born on March 9 using a foster mother and it took the scientists two years to standardise the technique, Director Research of SKUAST Shafiq A Wani said.

The team of scientists was led by Associate Professor, Centre of Animal Biotechnology, Riaz Ahmad Shah, and included Nazir A Ganai, Hilal Musadiq, Mujeeb Fazili, F D Sheikh, T A S Ganai along with Syed Hilal, Maajid Hassan and Firdous Khan as Research Associates.

Shah was the key researcher in the team of scientists who earlier in 2009 gave the first cloned buffalo calf, “Garima” to the world using the same hand-made cloning technique while doing research at the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal in Haryana.