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The Great Inventor

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The Great Inventor

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 20, 2013 at 5:34 pm

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How to keep veggies healthy

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An easy way to keep your veggies fresh and nutritious is suggested by a group of seven plant biologists who have just published a paper in Current Biology:

The modular design of plants enables individual plant organs to manifest autonomous functions and continue aspects of metabolism, such as respiration, even after separation from the parent plant. Therefore, we hypothesized that harvested vegetables and fruits may retain capacity to perceive and respond to external stimuli. For example, the fitness advantage of plant circadian clock function is recognized; however, whether the clock continues to influence postharvest physiology is unclear. Here we demonstrate that the circadian clock of postharvest cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is entrainable by light-dark cycles and results in enhanced herbivore resistance. In addition, entrainment of Arabidopsis plants and postharvest cabbage causes cyclical accumulation of metabolites that function in plant defense; in edible crops, these metabolites also have potent anticancer properties. Finally, we show that the phenomena of postharvest entrainment and enhanced herbivore resistance are widespread among diverse crops. Therefore, sustained clock entrainment of postharvest crops may be a simple mechanism to promote pest resistance and nutritional value of plant-derived food.

This simply says that if you want to maximize health benefits from vegetables, try to keep it in the open as far as possible. If the harvested veggies are exposed to the day-night cycle, then they continue to produce useful healthy chemicals. It is such a simple step that we decided not to push our vegetables into the fridge unless needed.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

June 22, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Science: what the prime minister should know

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The prime minister does not write his own speech, but I’m sure that policy statements are not left to speech writers. That is why the prime minister’s speech on science is important. The Hindu is not the only news source to report a speech so packed with misconceptions that it requires comment:

In an address at a CSIR function got up to celebrate the 70th Foundation Day here, Dr. Singh said: “We cannot rest on our laurels. As a nation, we have not succeeded in mobilising enough private investment in science to raise our investment in scientific research to two per cent of GDP. We need to recognise that excellence has not percolated across all research and academic institutions. We have not been able to make an impact on a world-scale commensurate with our large scientific manpower pool.”

Let us take the points one by one.

Misconception 1: our large scientific manpower

The government persists in totaling up the people who pass a bachelor’s degree in science and call that our scientific manpower. This is completely wrong. After a bachelor’s degree in science people go on to do completely different things. My wife has taught a class of 60-80 each year for about 20 years now. Around fifty of these 1500 people are doing research or other creative jobs where they use their training in science. In most colleges around the country the fraction is much lower than this 3%. It might not be a mistake to assume that less than 0.1% of science graduates add to the country’s scientific manpower. Then, of course, one has to contend with the fact that almost all of these people prefer to work abroad. If you think I am mistaken, just check how difficult it is for the IISERs to find employable teachers. If you count as scientific manpower the number of people employed in doing creative science in various research institutes and labs around the country, the number will not exceed 1 lakh. That is less than 0.01% of the population.

If you count the number of people who work at technical support jobs in labs, hospitals, etc, the number would increase significantly. However, since the prime minister’s speech is about innovation, I restricted to count to creative science jobs only. I have probably missed some innovative science entrepreneurs, and creative scientists working in the industry, but their numbers will not change my count by more than a percent of the small total that I have estimated; in other words the number of creative scientists will not exceed 0.0101% of the population.

Misconception 2: commensurate impact on a world-scale

A good idea does not cost anything, but proving it does. Without a proof, a great idea remains a pipe dream and does not become science. The number of good science ideas produced in a society depends not only on the number of people actively doing creative science, but also on the number of people giving them good technical support. So the cost of good ideas is not only in the lab and the computer, but also spread over the whole apparatus of school and university teaching.

China’s largest universities are those which train teachers; they are called “normal universities”. India finds it difficult to hire teachers in prestigious institutes like the IISERs and the IITs (even if you count only the science departments in the latter). One publicly available measure of scientific impact is the number of citations each paper has. A possible measure of a country’s impact on science is to total the citations to each paper written in that country. By this measure, India’s impact is small but continuously rising. The impact of Chinese science has been much greater.

One possible line of investigation is to correlate impact with GDP and with actual spend on science. Commensurate impact will very likely turn out to be commensurate in terms of money spent. India’s spend on education and research is the worst in the BRIC countries.

Misconception 3: industrial investment in scientific research

It is a complete misconception that India has an innovative industry (apart from a few worthy exceptions). One measure of this is provided by an unsuccessful start up by the Tatas. The group seeded the Computational Research Laboratory Ltd with a computing power which took it into the world’s 50 biggest supercomputing installations in 2010. The idea was to sell computing time to other industries which needed such a facility for their own research. This venture has had zero growth.

With virtually no industrial basic research being done in the country, science is an unattractive career choice for most school children: the only jobs are government laboratories and universities. In Germany, Japan, even Finland, a Ph.D. increases income prospects. Not in India.

In this situation newspapers trumpet fool’s gold as “scientific achievements”: the test of a new missile, the building of a submarine, supercomputers which are never used, low-cost computers which never reach the field. Very good research is being done by dedicated scientists around the country: new materials, fantastic theoretical and computational work, innovative biology, insights into weather, etc. These are neglected by news channels, who prefer to copy science stories from New York Times.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

September 27, 2012 at 5:08 am

Educating India

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Two weeks ago the prime minister addressed the Indian Science Congress to say that it was a pity that China had overtaken India in the science race. Those of us close to children in school cringed at the banality of this statement. A country where a school teacher’s job is to mark out the sections of a text book which can be skipped for exams should introspect about education when comparing itself to another in which the five largest universities are dedicated to teaching teachers.

School education is the most important part of education, but it is unglamorous. We never see Kapil Sibal talk about it. There were no talk shows on education until TOI reported:

Fifteen-year-old Indians who were put, for the first time, on a global stage stood second to last, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities.

India ranked second last among the 73 countries that participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted annually to evaluate education systems worldwide by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Secretariat. The survey is based on two-hour tests that half a million students are put through.

China’s Shanghai province, which participated in PISA for the first time, scored the highest in reading. It also topped the charts in mathematics and science.

“More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15 year olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%,” noted the analysis.

The states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, showpieces for education and development, were selected by the central government to participate in PISA, but their test results were damning.

Even now the few things that appeared in the media completely bypassed the actual report, and the state of elementary education in India. It is depressing reading. The press release on the PISA website reads:

Himachal Pradesh-India

  • The average reading literacy score for Himachal Pradesh-India was the lowest average reading score observed in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+, along with that of Kyrgyzstan.
  • In Himachal Pradesh-India, 11% of students are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline needed to participate effectively and productively in life. It follows that 89% of students in Himachal Pradesh-India are estimated to be below this baseline level. This compares to 81% of student performing at or above the baseline level in reading in the OECD countries, on average.
  • In Himachal Pradesh-India, students attained an average score on the mathematical literacy scale statistically the same as observed in Tamil Nadu-India and Kyrgyzstan. 12% of students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development. This compares to 75% in the OECD countries, on average.
  • Himachal Pradesh-India’s students were estimated to have an average score on the scientific literacy scale which is below the means of all OECD countries. This was the lowest average science score observed in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+, along with that of Kyrgyzstan.
  • Himachal Pradesh-India’s students were estimated to have an average score on the scientific literacy scale which is below the average of all OECD countries. 11% of students are proficient in science at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. This compares to 82% in the OECD countries, on average.


Tamil Nadu-India

  • Students in Tamil Nadu-India attained an average score on the PISA reading literacy scale that is significantly higher than those for Himachal Pradesh-India and Kyrgyzstan, but lower than all other participants in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+.
  • In Tamil Nadu-India, 17% of students are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline needed to participate effectively and productively in life. This means that 83% of students in Tamil Nadu-India are estimated to be below this baseline level. This compares to 81% of student performing at or above the baseline level in reading in the OECD countries, on average.
  • Students in the Tamil Nadu-India attained a mean score on the PISA mathematical literacy scale as the same observed in Himachal Pradesh-India, Panama and Peru. This was significantly higher than the mean observed in Kyrgyzstan but lower than those of other participants in PISA 2009 and PISA 2009+.
  • In Tamil Nadu-India, 15% of students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development. This compares to 75% in the OECD countries, on average. In Tamil Nadu-India, there was no statistically significant difference in the performance of boys and girls in mathematical literacy.
  • Students in Tamil Nadu-India were estimated to have a mean score on the scientific literacy scale, which is below the means of all OECD countries, but significantly above the mean observed in the other Indian state, Himachal Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu-India, 16% of students are proficient in science at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. This compares to 82% in the OECD countries, on average. In Tamil Nadu-India, there was a statistically significant gender difference in scientific literacy, favouring girls.

There is only one solution: take time and trouble. Train teachers well. Pay them well. Why is an elementary school teacher’s pay not on par with the highest bureaucrat’s? Pay for schools too. Spend 1% of the GDP on elementary education for the next 20 years. When students of that generation enter the economy the costs will be recovered. Parents have that kind of planning horizon. Can they force governments to do the same?

Do we live in an age of megaquakes?

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Have you also been having conversations about megaquakes recently? Has someone pointed out that 2012 is coming? It turns out that similar questions have been exercising geo-scientists. Nature reports:

Beginning in late 2004, a flurry of massive, tsunami-spawning earthquakes have rocked the world, first slamming Indonesia, then Chile and most recently Japan. Temblors that size are rare indeed: only 7 quakes as large or larger than 8.8 — the magnitude of last February’s Chilean event — have occurred since 1900.

So what does it mean that three of those seven shocks have happened almost within the span of six years?

That’s a beautiful piece of writing: putting the problem in terms that everyone recognizes in a few short opening sentences. The article goes on to report a headlines-grabbing scenario:

The recent spate of far-flung quakes is remarkably similar to a cluster that occurred in the middle of the last century, says Charles Bufe, a seismologist retired from the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver, Colorado. The seismic events in that supposed grouping, consisting of 3 magnitude 9 or higher temblors, struck Kamchatka, then Chile and then Alaska within a 12-year interval. The odds of quakes that large occurring randomly within such a short time span is only four per cent, Bufe noted today at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Memphis, Tennessee. … According to their model, Bufe says, the probability of another quake of magnitude 9 or larger striking in the next 6 years is about 63 per cent.

The simpler alternative, and perhaps more mainstream, view is:

[T]he apparent clustering of such megaquakes, including the recent Indonesian, Chilean and Japanese events can be accounted for without a direct link, several scientists say. “When you run statistical tests, you can often get numbers that sound interesting,” says Richard Aster, a geophysicist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. In this case, he suggests, the clumping could come down to the statistics of small sample sizes. Since 1900, there have been only 14 quakes larger than magnitude 8.5. And whereas modern seismology goes back only a little more than a century, the tectonic processes that generate major earthquakes unfold over hundreds or thousands of years, he adds.

More detailed studies seem to bear out the conventional view, as the report goes on to say:

Tom Parsons, a seismologist also with the USGS in Menlo Park, and colleague Aaron Velasco, of the University of Texas at El Paso, analyzed the USGS earthquake database to see if temblors of magnitude 7 and higher might have triggered midsized quakes elsewhere in the world. Between 1979 and 2009, seismometers recorded 205 quakes with magnitudes above 7, Parsons notes. Although many of those quakes triggered local aftershocks in the day or so after the initial event, Parsons and Velasco found no corresponding increase in the frequency of distant quakes with magnitudes ranging between 5 and 7.

The team’s analysis also suggests that stress redistribution to nearby faults after a major quake is limited to distances from the epicentre no more than two or three times the length ruptured by the original quake. That, says Parsons, means that even megaquakes shouldn’t trigger large quakes more than a couple of thousand kilometres away.

So, the answer to the question posed in the title is likely to be “No”.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

April 16, 2011 at 3:31 am

Another little god of science

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Sify reports:

Speaking at the inaugural session of the Children Science Congress, [Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan] said that India is too much into rituals and ceremony.

‘Science is about curiosity and icons and celebrities have no space in science. I have been sitting at this platform from last 45 minutes and leaving 15 minutes talk, rest all have been ceremonies – giving bouquets, biodata reading, garlands and shawls. Scientists do not want any of these things and rather we could spend this time in reading their work,’ he said amidst applause by over 3,000 students attending the session.

The logic seems to have completely passed by a student who was quoted in HT:

“We sure would love to have a picture with Venky (as he is popularly known),” said a Class 10 student.

Prof. Venkatraman should know that India has a long history of neglecting ideas even as it almost deifies the person. Gautama the buddha was actually deified as part of a strategy to nullify his ideas. Gandhi is turning into stone as India becomes the land of scams. Ambedkar is a statue at crossroads as supporters of equal rights for dalits begin to be arrested as Naxal sympathisers. The very notion of school has been turned into a meaningless idol as children are taught to memorize rather than understand: back to brahminical learning.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

January 5, 2011 at 4:33 am

What were the top science stories of the year?

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With every magazine publishing a list of top 10 science stories of the year (see Physics World, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Discover, you name it) it might be time to inject a dose of skepticism. I thought a bit about what I would consider part of such a list, and came up with legislation for what may and may not be in such a list.

First Law: The story must be about a discovery: not just an outstanding disaster like the Deepwater Horizon debacle. Science policy, science funding, ethics in science are news, sometimes important news, but not discovery. Such news stories should not be part of these lists.

Second Law:The observation must be correct, or, at the very least, not be challenged before the end of the year. Stories about the demise of earlier years’ lists should be made part of such lists, otherwise tales of dead science keep making the rounds of secondary and tertiary sources like the Wikipedia.

Third Law: Any story about a new verification of an already long-verified theory should not make it to such a list on the basis of the test alone. Such a test would only make the cut if it could be seen as the beginning of a new field, for example, by solving a deep technical challenge. By extension, the discovery of an expected phenomenon cannot be a big story. To take this further, incremental advances in long on-going projects will find it hard to get on to the list.

If one examines Physics World’s list by these criteria one discovers:

  1. Antihydrogen success: ongoing and incremental
  2. Exoplanet atmosphere laid bare: expected, but pushing the envelope
  3. Quantum effects seen in a visible object: expected, but huge technical advance
  4. Visible-light cloaking of large objects: expected
  5. Hail the first sound lasers: expected
  6. A Bose–Einstein condensate from light: expected
  7. Relativity with a human touch: ho hum
  8. Towards a Star Wars telepresence: not again
  9. Proton is smaller than we thought: so?
  10. CERN achieves landmark collisions: story of 2009

An examination of the list from Nature shows:

  1. Natural disasters pummelled Earth: newspapers may be interested
  2. Ancient kissing cousins were found: unexpected and strange
  3. Doctors gained new weapons against HIV: good for them
  4. Scientists unveiled a synthetic genome: work in progress
  5. Climate-change policy stalled: politics, not science
  6. Oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico: industrial disaster, not science
  7. Stem-cell research rode a roller coaster: politics, not science
  8. Japan’s space agency had a hit and a miss: newspapers love this
  9. Astronomers joined the dark side: funding stories are not science
  10. The budget crunch hit European science: another funding story
  11. Arsenic-based life was discovered. Or not.: there is no claim as yet of “or not”
  12. A morality expert was accused of mischief: ethics is not discovery

Physics World does far better than Nature in one sense: it picks real science stories. Nature picks news on science policy and politics more often than the real thing. Scientific American does not even do as well as Nature:

  1. Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: news, not science
  2. The Haiti Earthquake and Cholera Outbreak: news, not science
  3. Major Advances in HIV and AIDS Prevention: incremental, more news than science
  4. Synthetic Life: incremental
  5. Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull: news, not discovery
  6. A New Direction for NASA: policy, not science
  7. WikiLeaks: not even close
  8. Return of the Electric Car: return? interesting news, but not science
  9. A Microbe That Lives on Arsenic… Or Does It?: unexpected
  10. Neandertal Genome Decoded: had to happen sometime

I guess you notice the emerging pattern here. The media needs round numbers and hype, whereas science is a long slow process of discovery, not very well suited to media. On the other hand, the magazines are at least trying: even if they get it wrong.

Can one do substantially better? Perhaps. The first step would be to try to figure out what scientists found most exciting in a given year. A search through a restricted field of science, a database of cosmology and high energy physics reveals the following broad topics remained interesting: the large scale structure of the universe, possible formulations of the quantum theory of gravity, and the physics of strong interactions and particle physics.

Finally, to answer the question in the title, the biggest science stories of the year are:

  • Possible existence of arsenic metabolizing bacteria: choice of news magazines
  • The large-scale structure of the universe: choice of physicists

Is this useful? Not really. Most important ideas and observations take years to mature. What may eventually be the most important science might never, in any year, be the most visible. The standard model of particle physics is one such example.

Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 28, 2010 at 4:47 am

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