Tag Archive for 'Science'

One million deaths: An unprecedented survey of mortality in India

Erica Westly in Nature [via 3quarksdaily]:

In 1975, when Prabhat Jha was growing up in Canada, his family received a report from India that his grandfather had died; the cause was unclear. Like many people living in rural India, Jha’s grandfather had died at home, without having visited a hospital. Jha’s mother was desperate for more information, so she returned to her home village to talk to locals. Years later, when Jha was at medical school, he reviewed his mother’s notes and realized that his grandfather had probably died of a stroke. Now Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, is nearing the end of an ambitious public-health programme to document death in India using similar ‘verbal autopsy’ strategies.

The Million Death Study (MDS) involves biannual in-person surveys of more than 1 million households across India. The study covers the period from 1997 to the end of 2013, and will document roughly 1 million deaths. Jha and his colleagues have coded about 450,000 so far, and have deciphered several compelling trends that are starting to lead to policy changes, such as stronger warning labels on tobacco.

Public-health experts need mortality figures to monitor disease and assess interventions, but quality mortality data are scarce in most developing countries. Seventy-five per cent of the 60 million people who die each year around the globe are in low- and middle-income countries such as India, where cause of death is often misclassified or unreported. Groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) typically base mortality estimates on hospital data, but in many developing countries most people die outside hospitals. More:

New clues may change Buddha’s date of birth

John Noble Wilford in the New York Times:

In traditional narratives, Queen Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to a branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. Accounts vary as to when this occurred, leaving uncertain the founding century of one of the world’s major religions.

Until now, archaeological evidence favored a date no earlier than the third century B.C., when the Emperor Asoka promoted the spread of Buddhism through South Asia, leaving a scattering of shrines and inscriptions to the man who became “the enlightened one.” A white temple on a gently sloping plateau at Lumbini, 20 miles from the border with India, draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year to read a sandstone pillar documenting Asoka’s homage at the Buddha’s birthplace.

But new excavations by archaeologists at Lumbini have uncovered evidence of a much earlier timber shrine and brick structures above it — all of which lay beneath the temple that is a Unesco World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace. Dating fragments of charcoal and grains of sand, researchers determined that the lower structures were erected as early as the sixth century B.C. More:

And here

Aatish Bhatia: The physics of sperm vs. the physics of sperm whales

Also watch “3 Simple Ways to Time Travel (& 3 Complicated Ones)

Aatish’s blog: Empirical Zeal

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

Plagiarism in Indian science

Rahul Siddharthan in The Hindu:

A few months ago, I helped to organise a workshop on Academic Ethics at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. It was a well-attended meeting, with many eminent participants from the sciences and social sciences, including the heads of some of our leading institutions. Over two days, several themes were emphasised relating to various forms of academic misconduct. Now that one of our leading scientists has hit the headlines over plagiarised text in some of his own publications, it seems it is time to revisit these issues and discuss them more widely.

It was widely reported in mid-February that an apology had appeared in the December 2011 issue of the journal Advanced Materials, by the authors of a paper that had been published in that journal in June 2011, for incorporating verbatim text from an earlier paper by a different set of authors. The newsworthiness of this arose from the identity of the last author: C.N.R. Rao, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, founder of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, fellow of the Royal Society (U.K.), scientific adviser to the Prime Minister of India, and one of the most celebrated living Indian scientists.


The initial reaction of many scientists, including myself, was that this was a non-story: the plagiarism was in the introductory section, probably committed by a junior author inadequately schooled in the ethics of writing, and unnoticed by the senior authors; it was a short passage that did not affect the reported results in the paper; and, once alerted to this transgression, the authors quickly issued an apology. And there the issue should have ended. More:

More instances of plagiarism come to light

On neutrinos and angels

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Express Tribune:

Speed of light issues have often moved sections of religious people in rather strange ways. Way back in 1973, as a young physics lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, I had been fascinated by the calculation done by the head of our department. Seeking the grand synthesis of science and faith, this pious gentleman — who left on his final journey last month — had published calculations that proved Heaven (jannat) was running away from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His reasoning centred around a particular verse of the Holy Quran that states worship on the night of Lailat-ul-Qadr(Night of Revelation) is equivalent to a thousand nights of ordinary worship. Indeed, if you input the factor of 1,000 into Einstein’s famous formula for time dilatation, this yields a number: one centimeter per second less than the speed of light!

These days the internet groans under the weight of claims that the Holy Quran had specified the speed of light 1400 years ago. Dr Mansour Hassab El Naby, said to be a physicist from Egypt, announces that according to his Quranic calculations, this speed is 299,792.5 kilometres per second. He even gives error bars! Another video gives a still more precise figure of 299792.458 km/sec. Given the unrestrained leaps of logic made by the authors, it is not surprising that they all arrive at more or less the same numbers. More:

H. Gobind Khorana, 89, Nobel-winning scientist, dies


H. Gobind Khorana, who rose from a childhood of poverty in India to become a biochemist and share in a Nobel Prize for his role in deciphering the genetic code, died on Wednesday in Concord, Mass. He was 89.

His death was announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Khorana was a professor emeritus.

Dr. Khorana, who received his early schooling from his village teacher under a tree, advanced his education through scholarships and fellowships to become an authority on the chemical synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids, the large molecules in cells that carry genetic information.

He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Robert W. Holley of Cornell University and Marshall W. Nirenberg of the National Institutes of Health. They worked independently of one another and received the award for showing how genetic information is translated into proteins, which carry out the functions of a living cell. More: Also in MIT News

Deciphering the Indus Valley inscriptions

Rajesh Rao is fascinated by “the mother of all crossword puzzles”: How to decipher the 4000 year old Indus script. At TED 2011 he tells how he is enlisting modern computational techniques to read the Indus language, the key piece to understanding this ancient civilization.

Does Islam stand against science?

Steve Paulson in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Water-pump system, Seljuk dynasty, 1206. A group of Muslim scholars says there is no inherent conflict between Islam and science.

We may think the charged relationship between science and religion is mainly a problem for Christian fundamentalists, but modern science is also under fire in the Muslim world. Islamic creationist movements are gaining momentum, and growing numbers of Muslims now look to the Quran itself for revelations about science.

Science in Muslim societies already lags far behind the scientific achievements of the West, but what adds a fair amount of contemporary angst is that Islamic civilization was once the unrivaled center of science and philosophy. What’s more, Islam’s “golden age” flourished while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.

This history raises a troubling question: What caused the decline of science in the Muslim world?

Now, a small but emerging group of scholars is taking a new look at the relationship between Islam and science. Many have personal roots in Muslim or Arab cultures. While some are observant Muslims and others are nonbelievers, they share a commitment to speak out—in books, blogs, and public lectures—in defense of science. If they have a common message, it’s the conviction that there’s no inherent conflict between Islam and science.

Last month, nearly a dozen scholars gathered at a symposium on Islam and science at the University of Cambridge, sponsored by the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Programme in Science & Religion. They discussed a wide range of topics: the science-religion dialogue in the Muslim world, the golden age of Islam, comparisons between Islamic and Christian theology, and current threats to science. The Muslim scholars there also spoke of a personal responsibility to foster a culture of science.

One was Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist at Hashemite University, in Jordan. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Jordan, then took time off to raise four children before going to the University of Iowa on a Fulbright grant to earn her Ph.D. Now back in Jordan, she is an outspoken advocate of evolution and modern science. She has also set up a network for mentoring women, and she recently started a read-aloud program for young children at mosques around Jordan. More:

The use and misuse of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Hartosh Singh Bal on 3quarksdaily:

Over the past month there have been two separate reasons to return to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The first was the result of an astounding piece of mathematics by Ken Ono and his colleagues on the theory of partitions, bringing to a conclusion some of Ramanujan’s most interesting work in number theory. The second was thanks to Patrick French’s recent book – India, a portrait – which ends with a short two page biography of Ramanujan. The first Ramanujan is of course the Ramanujan who should matter, the mathematician, the second is unfortunately the Ramanujan who has come to occupy public memory, the metaphor.

It is not clear what French’s Ramanujan stands for in a chapter that seeks to explain the specifics of individual, social and organizational behavior on the basis of particular Indian traits such as religion or caste, but given the title of the chapter – Only in India – it does seem that French believes there was something particularly Indian about Ramanujan’s story.

This belief is not unique to French and has only been compounded by Ramanujan’s own description of the Goddess of Namagiri as the source of his inspiration. The result is that Ramanujan has come to embody certain romantic notion of eastern or more specifically Indian thought. Even those who want to allude to Ramanujan the mathematician do so in such terms. Paul Hoffman, in an otherwise entertaining book on the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – The Man who Loved Only Numbers – writes, “While Hardy and Ramanujan’s partnership lasted, the two men stood the world of pure mathematics on its head. It was East meets West, mysticism meets formality, and the combination was unstoppable.” More:

India’s destination moon

From The Times:

Standing at the bottom of his garden, cup of coffee in hand, Gopinath Garirao, 63, peered into the dawn sky and marvelled as the Indian rocket streaked into orbit, fuelled by the hopes of a billion people.

When he was born in 1945 India was still under British colonial rule and more than two years away from the bloody chaos of Partition.

He joined the Indian Railways as an engineer in 1969 – the year that Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon – and worked there until he retired in 2005, on a pension of £100 a month. He has lived through one war with China and three with Pakistan.

There he was, standing outside with his wife, Kalavati Bai, watching the launch of Chandrayaan1 – India’s first unmanned mission to the Moon – from his own back garden.


Chandrayaan-1 (meaning “Moon Craft-1”) on its way to the launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. / Indian Space Research Organisation
Chandrayaan-1 (meaning “Moon Craft-1”) on its way to the launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. / Indian Space Research Organisation

India launched its first lunar mission from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) north of Chennai, at 06:20 am (0050 GMT) Wednesday, October 22, 2008, putting the country in an elite group of nations with the scientific know-how to reach the moon. The 3,000 pound (1,400 kilogram) satellite Chandrayaan-1 will join Japanese and Chinese crafts currently in orbit around the moon for a two-year mission designed to map out the whole lunar surface. AP

The rocket on the launch pad

The rocket on the launch pad

From BBC:

On an island off the Bay of Bengal in southern India, the mood is upbeat but also slightly tense.

This is the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota – India’s launch pad for its satellite missions.

It’s now being prepared for what is the country’s most ambitious space venture to date, an unmanned mission to the moon.

Its indigenously built satellite, Chandrayaan-1 – the name is Sanskrit for lunar craft – will blast off on an Indian-built rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, early on Wednesday.

Click here and here for updates

Beyond The Moon

Mukul Sharma in the Times of India:

But why on earth are we going to the Moon at all and that too at a cost of nearly Rs 400 crore? Surely there are other pressing priorities back home like poverty, literacy, medical care, infrastructure development etc that needs urgent attention and the taxpayers’ money.

Besides, why are we doing this now when others have done it several decades ago? The former Soviet Union and the United States both launched successful lunar orbiting satellites way back in 1966.

We’re told that, among other things, the mission will try to source non-radioactive Helium-3 which is scarce on Earth but believed to be abundant on its natural satellite and is seen as a promising fuel for advanced fusion reactors in the future. Once located, we can transport it back from the moon to run nuclear plants and generate abundant electricity. Apparently, a couple of tonnes of Helium-3 are enough to meet the energy needs of the world. So how come other advanced nations of the world haven’t thought along similar lines?


Authors@Google: Salman Rushdie


Good morning. It’s Sun-Earth day today

Why will an estimated 15 lakh pilgrims take a holy dip in the Brahm Sarovar at Kurukshetra tomorrow? It’s because of a a rare (though in India, partial) solar eclipse which will be visible starting 4.03 pm. Read the Indian eclipse story in The Hindu here.

But first, what exactly is a solar eclipse anyway? The eclipse occurs when the new moon moves directly between the sun  and the earth. The moon’s umbral shadow will fall on parts of Canada, Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, Russia, Mongolia, and China. Science News has some answers here.

And, don’t miss NASA’s live webcast tomorrow from China where a total solar eclipse will begin at 6.09 pm, China time. Click here for the link.

Be warned, if you miss the action, you’ll be waiting until July 22, 2009 for the next total solar eclipse.

Finally, to understand the significance of solar (and lunar) eclipses in both Hinduism and Islam click here and here.

Take a deep breath — and thank Mount Everest

From Science Now:

Next time you pause to view a scenic mountain vista, consider that the oxygen your lungs are taking in resulted from the same process that raised those peaks. Researchers have connected the periodic formation of supercontinents in Earth’s geological past to the nourishment of tiny, oxygen-producing sea creatures, and the process continues to this day.

At least seven times, the massive plates that make up Earth’s continents have slammed together–sometimes two at a time, and sometimes all of them–forming what geologists call supercontinents. Those gradual collisions severely warped the intervening crust and pushed up high mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas. Each time, over millions of years, wind and rain wore down those mountains into dust that was flushed into the sea. There, minerals containing iron, phosphorus, and other elements became food for microscopic plant life that flourished and, through photosynthesis, boosted the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. The result, a team reported on 27 July in Nature Geoscience, was that atmospheric oxygen content rose from what they call negligible levels about 2.65 billion years ago to about 21% today.


Oil painting ‘invented in Asia, not Europe’

Roger Highfield in The Telegraph, UK:

In 2001 the Taliban destroyed two ancient colossal Buddha statues in the Afghan region of Bamiyan, around 140 miles northwest of Kabul, which were hewn out of sandstone cliffs in the sixth century and, measuring up to 55 metres, were the biggest of their kind.

Although caves decorated with precious murals from 5th to 9th century A.D. also suffered from Taliban attacks on this World Heritage Site, they have since become the focus of a major discovery, revealing Buddhist oil paintings that predate those in Renaissance Europe by hundreds of years.


Where billions vanish

Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University, in Dawn:

Gen. (retd) Pervez Musharraf, aided by his trusted lieutenant and chairman of the Higher Education Commission, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, lays claim to a ‘revolutionary programme’ that has reversed the decades-old decline of Pakistan’s universities.

The higher education budget shot up from Rs3.9bn in 2001-02 to an astounding Rs33.7bn in 2006-07. But, in fact, much of this has been consumed by futile projects and mega wastage. Fantastically expensive scientific equipment, bought for research, often ends up locked away in campuses.

An example: a Pelletron accelerator worth Rs400m was ordered in 2005 with HEC funds. It eventually landed up at Quaid-i-Azam University, and was installed last month by a team of Americans from the National Electrostatics Corporation that flew in from Wisconsin. But now that it is there and fully operational, nobody – including the current director – has the slightest idea of what research to do with it. Its original proponents are curiously lacking in enthusiasm and are quietly seeking to distance themselves from the project.


India-Pakistan nuclear war would cause worldwide destruction

From NewScientist:

Apart from the human devastation, a small-scale nuclear war between India and Pakistan would destroy much of the ozone layer, leaving the DNA of humans and other organisms at risk of damage from the Sun’s rays, say researchers.

Michael Mills of the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, and colleagues used computer models to study how 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs would affect the atmosphere.

They say that their scenario – in which each country launches 50 devices of 15 kilotons – is realistic, given the countries’ nuclear arsenals.

[Photo: A nuclear bomb is detonated in a test blast at Mururoa atoll, French Polynesia, in 1971./AP]


University of Colorado at Boulder:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke: 90th birthday reflections

Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, speaking to you from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

As I approach my 90th birthday, my friends are asking how it feels like, to have completed 90 orbits around the Sun.

Well, I actually don’t feel a day older than 89!

…Watch the video:

Sundown With Arthur

Jeff Greenwald in Wired:


When last I saw Arthur C. Clarke, in March of 2005, his memory was already fading.

It was late afternoon. We sat on the patio of the Galle Face Hotel, one of Arthur’s favorite spots in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It had been nine years since my last visit to his adopted island. Now I was back working with Mercy Corps, an international aid agency, on a tsunami relief project. Clarke sipped his tea and stared west, where the Indian Ocean stretched in an uninhibited arc to the coast of Somalia.

“I don’t remember anything about working with Stanley (Kubrick) on 2001,” he said, “or my months at the Chelsea Hotel. I don’t remember my last scuba dive, or what my mother’s face looked like. The only thing I remember with any real clarity is the first kiss with the love of my life — and our last words, before we parted.”

[Photo: Clarke stands by his private satellite dish, one of the first private dishes in Asia, on the deck of his Sri Lanka home.]


For Clarke, issues of faith, but tackled scientifically

From the New York Times:

spaceodyssey.jpg“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90. This may not have surprised anyone who knew that this science-fiction writer, fabulist, fantasist and deep-sea diver had long seen religion as a symptom of humanity’s “infancy,” something to be outgrown and overcome.

But his fervor is still jarring because when it comes to the scriptural texts of modern science fiction, and the astonishing generation of prophetic innovators who were his contemporaries – Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury – Mr. Clarke’s writings were the most biblical, the most prepared to amplify reason with mystical conviction, the most religious in the largest sense of religion: speculating about beginnings and endings, and how we get from one to the other.

[Photo: Keir Dullea in the film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”]


Previously on Asian Window:

Foreign couples turn to India for surrogate mothers

Reproductive outsourcing is a new but rapidly expanding enterprise in India. Amelia Gentleman reports from Mumbai in International Herald tribune:


Yonatan Gher and his male partner plan eventually to tell their child that it was made in India, in the womb of a woman they never met, with the egg of a Mumbai housewife they picked out from an Internet line-up of candidates.

The embryo was formed in January in an Indian fertility clinic about 4,000 kilometers, or 2,500 miles, from Gher’s home in Tel Aviv, nurtured by a team of doctors who have begun specializing in surrogacy services for couples from around the world.

As they waited to see if the fertilization process had been successful, Gher, 29, and his partner sped around the streets of Mumbai in the back of an autorickshaw, drinking in scenes of a country they had never previously visited, staring at the unfamiliar faces of Indian women and children and “trying to imagine our child,” he said.

(Photo: Surrogate mothers at the Kaival Hospital at Anand, in the western Indian state of Gujarat in February 2006. AP)


IHT also has photos and audio of an Israeli man searching for a surrogate mother