Friday, December 06, 2013

Philately - 1953 - The year of the railways

5 Commemorative stamps were Issued in 1953. One to commemorate the Centenary of the Indian railways, two for the Centenary of Indian telegraph and two to commemorate the successful conquest of Mount Everest.
This Railway centenary stamp, has been a part of my collection ever since I remember collection stamps. Not really sure who gave it to me but I did dearly treasure it.  The stamp was 2anna black and white issue

A bright violet and a brown stamp, commemorate the ascent of man on Mount Everest.

Blue-green and a blue stamp were released commemorating 100 years of Indian Telegraph.  60 Years later on 15 July2013 Ashwani Mishra sent the last telegram to Rahul Gandhi. Just like this stamp the 163 year old Indian telegraphs, passed into history this day. Like I have said before, philately gives one the satisfaction of treasuring this small part of Indian history.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Philately 1952- A poetic Year.

In 1952, the post office released six stamps. All stamps depicted Indian saints and poets.
In bright emerald-green, costing 9p was the poet Kabir.

Tulsidas, considered as the reincarnation of Valmiki and the author of Ramcharitamanas, cost 1anna and coloured caramine.By choosing to write the story of Ram in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, Tulsidas made the holy book accessible to the common people thus breaking the hegemony of the Brahmins.

Meera bai, from the 16th Century, was probably was the forerunner of women's liberation movement. She fearlessly broke with tradition and resisted feminine stereotypes, Meera is also an enduring symbol of a liberated woman who risked all to protect her independence, freedom and happiness. The stamp was orange red and cost 2 anna

Surdas, costing 4annas was coloured bright blue. Surdas was a blind singer and is said to have composed over 1,00,000 songs, though only about 8000 exist today.

The first four poets are considered the most prominent figures of the Bhakti movement. It upheld a path to salvation through a personal relationship of love, devotion and surrender to, usually, a particular deity. This form of religion could be practiced by anyone, irrespective of sex or caste.

4.5anna, Ghalib was coloured bright mauve. During the anti-British Rebellion in Delhi on 5 October 1857, three weeks after the British troops had entered through Kashmiri Gate (Delhi, some soldiers climbed into Ghalib's neighbourhood and hauled him off to Colonel Burn for questioning.He appeared in front of the colonel wearing a Central Asian Turkic style headdress. The colonel, bemused at his appearance, inquired in broken Urdu, "Well? You Muslim?", to which Ghalib replied, "Half?" The colonel asked, "What does that mean?" In response, Ghalib said, "I drink wine, but I don't eat pork."

The most expensive of the lot was Rabindranath Tagore in Brown and costing 12 a. ( Today a mint stamp will cost anything upwards of 2000 Rs- A compounded annual return of 14%!!)

The value of these stamps can double, if you can find a pair. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Philately- 1951, Play the game, in the spirit of the game.

Three stamps were released this year, and delightedly I have all three of them.

The first one was released on 13th Jan and commemorated the centenary of Geological Survey of India. The Black and claret, 2 anna stamp depict two Extinct Stegodon ganesa, a first ever reconstruction of a pre-historic creature on a stamp.
In 1928 century 3 metre long fossil tusk of an elephantine mammal Stegedon ganesa found in India by Dr. Darashaw Nosherwan Wadia. In 1984 the postal department released a stamp commemorating Dr Wadia's contributions to Indian geology and in 2001 another stamp was released to commemorate the 150 years of Geological survey of India.

The two other stamps released were for the First Asian Games, which were held in New Delhi. It must have been quite an amazing feat to do, considering that the country was still dealing with the after effects of partition and the decision to hold the games in New Delhi was done just three years earlier. For a young nation, it was truly a event to be proud of.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Philately- 1950, India becomes a Republic.

1950 is a landmark year for India. This is the year, when India adopted its constitution and what a constitution it has been. It has been very successful in keeping a diverse nation united and managed to prove all pessimistic pundits wrong. In commemoration of the coming in-force of the constitution, 4 stamps were released. These were the only commemorative stamps that were released that year.

A 2 anna, scarlet coloured stamp depicting rejoicing crowds. Two children are seen viewing a procession of cavaliers carrying flags and blowing trumpets which herald India’s attainment of full Nationhood.
A 3.5 anna Ultramarine stamp depicting Quill, Ink-well and verse. The background shows Mahatma Gandhiji’s favourite hymn “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.”, symbolize Nation’s Education.
A 4 anna Violet stamp with a ear of corn and a plough
The 4th stamp was a maroon 12 anna Spinning-wheel and cloth.
The stamps were designed by the British ad agency D.J. Keymer & Co. This is the same company that Satyajit Ray first worked for. Coincidentally, it was this year (1950), that Ray was sent to England by the company, where watching about a 100 movies in six months Ray got motivated to be a film-maker. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philately - Year 1949. an archeological expedition

In the year 1949, 4 Commemorative stamps were released. I do not have any of the 4 and my hunt is on for them. However, 16 definitive stamps were released that year and and 3 more in 1951, making it a total of 19 definitive stamps. At this point, before I proceed, I own you an explanation of what is Commemorative and definitive.

A definitive is a stamp that is a part of a regular issue of a country's stamp available for sale by the postal service for an extended period of time. Hence these 19 stamps were available until 1955 at least. They are also called 'regular issues'

Commemorative on the other hand are issued to honour a person, place, heritage of the nation or an event and available for a limited time. Both the 'Definitive' and Commemorative stamps have postal validity.

Now these 19 stamps issued are together clubbed together as 1st Series of definitives. They are also called the Archeological series, since they feature historic monuments.

I have 17 of the 19 and the monuments represented are.

From top left to bottom right, the stamps are.

Elephant Motif from 'ajanta caves'.
The Horse from Sun temple of Konark.
Trimurti from elephanta caves. Though this one is reduced to the size of a small stamp, the original is about 20 feet in height.
Bodhisattva . There are two stamps, which are mirror image of each other. The second is the correct posture of the image.
Nataraja from Thiruvelangadu.
Mahahbodhi temple (Bod gaya)
Eastern gate of sanchi stupa.
Lingaraj Temple , Bhuvaneshwar. In 2 colours; Lake and Bright blue.

Tomb of Md. Adil Shah ( Also called Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur)
Kandarya Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho.
Golden Temple in Amritsar
Victory tower in Chittorgarh
Red Fort  in Delhi
Taj Mahal in Agra

The two that I do not have are;
Qutab Minar
Satrunjaya Temple.

These stamps replaced the existing issues of King George VI series, which were still valid and commonly used even after Independence until their stock were exhausted.
P.S. Apologies for the badly arranged stamps on the photographs. They are not mounted, but I placed them from my stock album to photograph.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Philately- 1948, The year of the Mahatma

If 1947 was a year to cheer, then 1948 was the year to mourn. Mahatma Gandhi, was murdered by a nut-head. Hence on 15 August 1948, on the first anniversary of Independence, the postal department released 4 mourning issues of the Mahatma.
A total of 5 stamps were released n 1948, other than the 4 mentioned above, on 29th May 1948 a Stamp featuring a Lockheed Constellation aircraft was released. This stamp was meant for one day use only i.e. for the first flight of India-U.K. on 8th June 1948. A total of 0.57 million of these were printed and the once that have cancellation, are quite treasured by stamp collectors and history buffs. Being a small collector, I have only managed to get an un-cancelled issue, nevertheless its quite a treasure for me.

On 15 August 1948, 4 stamps featuring the Mahatma were released as mentioned above. They were printed by Courvoisier, La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. Today these are the most treasured stamps of any collector. These 4 stamps in any condition can cost between 10,000 to 20,000 Rs. If they have the words 'specimen' overprinted on them then the cost is not less than 5 lakhs. These stamps prepared by the Indian embassy in Switzerland were mounted on a golden foil and presented in a black velvet folder.

The first is a 1.5 anna Brown stamp, 25 million of these were printed. This is the most common of the 4 stamps.

These 3.5 anna Violet is quite a pretty shade and 2.5 million of these were printed.

3.75 million of these 12 anna Grey-green stamps were printed.

Now for the most soth after stamp, the jewel of a philately collection, the apple of my stamp collection. Since  it was a 10 Rs stamp, the sky high cost of the stamp automatically put it out of reach of most Indians.

The stamp had the words 'bapu' printed in hindi and urdu as a symbol of communal harmony. The stamp created a bit of controversy anyway, since bapu was not shown in his customary dhoti.
100 such stamps had the words 'SERVICE' overprinted on them. These became the worlds least printed stamps. They were meant for the use of C Rajagopalachari, the governer general of India. Today it is estimated that only 18 such stamps exist in the world.
On 5th Ocotober 2007 it was auctioned for 38,000 Euros and on May 19th 2011 re-auctioned and sold for a world record price of 1,44,000 Euros making it the most expensive modern stamp.
Unfortunately my collection does not have the 'Service' overprints, but at least, I feel good to own the 10 Rs Gandhi stamp.
Any of you, who collected stamps in childhood, or acquired a collection or know any one who has a collection of stamp- do keep a look out for the precious 1948 Gandhi's .

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Philately - India after Independence - 1947

When India won her Independence, the Indian government had to deal with a lot of problems; Starting with the refugees, to handling peoples mails. The postal system was already in place, the stamps though had to be designed and printed by the Indian Government.
The tri-coloured Indian flag, featured on Independent India's first stamp. It was printed on 21 Nov. 1947 at Indian Security Press in Nasik. It features the words "Jai Hind" and cost 3.5 annas. This was the cost of an International mail.

The next stamp features the Ashoka capital and cost 1.5 annas. That was the cost of a local mail and 22.7 million of these were printed. Guess people wrote a lot those days, considering the poor rate of literacy.
The next two stamps were printed in Dec 1947, and are thus the second stamps of Independent India.

The final stamp released that year cost a whopping 12 annas. It was meant for International mail sent via air. Hence it aptly features a Douglas DC-4. Despite the cost, 2.4 million of these were printed.

Though I mostly collect cancelled stamps, i.e. stamps that have been used in postage, at some stage of their life- Being the first 3 stamps of India, I was truly delighted when I came across three un-cancelled stamps and decided to make them an exception. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Philately - The Monarchs.

It is called the 'Hobby of the Kings', but today it appears to be following the kings- Philately, which is a fancy name for stamp collection, happens to be a hobby which I picked up during my childhood and has stuck with me all these years. Philately is not only a window to history, it is also a very easy and inexpensive way (most of the times) to keep with you a part of that history.  In the coming days, I will share with you my small little collection of stamps and post some of the interesting things that I have learnt from these small bits of papers. I will endeavor to take the jargon out of philately and get some much needed factoids into it. I will only showcase the stamps that I have and since I collect only stamps of India, it will only be Indian stamps. Both prior Independence (15th August 1947) and after India won her freedom.
So lets start with a small post on stamps of the pre-Independence days. The stamps of  British India period, feature the profile portrait of the ruling  monarch. Four Monarchs feature on Indian stamps- any idea who they are?

From 1st October 1854 ( the day the first stamp was released in India) to 1902 ; the stamps carried the profile of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. She is the only Queen, to feature on British India stamps and so is quite easy to identify.
This first stamp, which reads "East India Postage" was released prior to 1882, after this year, the British crown took over from East India Company ( because of the Sipoy Mutiny or first war of Indian Independence).

From 1901 to 1910 it was King Edward VII.  He is shown with receding hair and appears without a crown. 

From 1910 to 1936 it was King George V. He appears with a crown and has a well kept beard.

From 1937 Until Independence it was King George VI. He too appears with the crown but has a clean shave.
So I hope after reading todays post, you will be able to identify a monarch with a glance at the stamp and approximate the time period. Hoping you will all enjoy this fascinating window into Indian History.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

'As blind as a bat'

Is a bat blind and needs echolocation like how we are taught? 
Nope, bats aren't blind at all!! There are about 1,100 species of bats in the world and not one is sightless. The fact that bats are blind and use echolocation or 'sonar' is completely bunkum. Fruit bats don't use echolocation at all. Their favourite food (yes, you guessed it right- Fruit) does not move much and they use their colour vision and keen sense of smell to locate it. For navigation, they use their large eyes. The Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) is the only bat that feeds on mammal blood; it has a vision that can rival our night vision devices. It can see a cow 120 meters away; in pitch darkness (try beating that). Microbats that eat insects do use echolocation to hunt.However for all other purposes (avoiding obstacles, spotting landmarks or calculating flying height) they use their eyes. Unlike Fruit bats though, microbats see in black and white. There are fish eating bats too, like the Greater Bulldog bat (Noctilio leporinus), which again uses its keen vision and big feet to scoop out fish from water. Lots of bats around your home means a lots
of less mosquitoes to deal with, because one hungry bat can munch up to 200 mosquitoes per night. Burrp!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A chemistry of two leaves.

My wife and I were visiting a nursery when we came across an amazing plant. The nursery lady, told us that it was called “Basmati grass.” When crushed the leaves smell like basmati rice, and if you add it to rice when cooking, even ordinary rice can have the aroma of basmati rice. After a bit of research, I have learnt that the shrub belongs to the lily family and is native to Indonesia. It is called the ‘Screwpine’ or Pandan. The strap like leaves have the same volatile compound that gives basmati rice its distinct, nutty, aroma; 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (also contributes to the aroma of crabmeat and popcorn).  

Seasoning of Indian curries is incomplete without the all important ‘curry leaves’ The curry leaf plant, ‘Murraya koenigii’ belongs to the citrus family. The leaves have subtle, woody fresh notes and are either simmered or briefly sautéed in cooking oil. These leaves contain a remarkable alkaloid called ‘carbazole’ – which is not only an antioxidant but also has anti-inflammatory properties. This molecule is also used as a precursor for anti-HIV, anti-cancer, antibacterial and anti-fungal drugs. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Antimony Facts.

Nebuchadnezzar, of hanging gardens of Babylon fame, painted his palace yellow by using an Antimony- lead mix. Soon he went mad, sleeping outdoors in fields and eating grass like an Ox. Around that time Egyptian women, used antimony as mascara to decorate their faces. During medieval times, alchemist – not to mention Isaac Newton- grew obsessed with the sexual properties of Antimony. Some insisted that Antimony was the essence of femininity- so much so that the alchemical symbol of antimony became the general symbol for “Female.”
Antimony was also used as a laxative. Unlike modern laxatives antimony pills didn’t dissolve in the intestines, and the pills were considered so valuable that people rummaged through faecal matter to retrieve the pills. In some families the antimony pills were also passed down as family laxative heirloom.
In the 1930’s in China, a poor province decided to make money from antimony, since it was the most abundantly available resource there. But antimony coins are soft, easily rubbed away and toxic, all properties of bad money. The government soon withdrew the coins. Though worth just fractions of a cent then, these coins fetch thousands of dollars from collectors today.
Mozart is supposed to have died by taking too much antimony to combat a severe fever.
Today Antimony is used to make custom built acids. Antimony pentafluoride, (SbF5), with hydrofluoric acid (HF), produces an acid with a pH of -31. This acid is 100,000 billion billion billion times stronger than stomach acid (pH 1) and will eat through glass, and dissolve the hand that holds the glass too. (It is stored in special Teflon lined containers)

Ah! This reminds me, although unrelated to the topic. Prior to 1890, scientists judged acids and bases by tasting or dunking their fingers in them.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tasting time

Today if you want to check the time at the middle of the night, you either have a backlit watch or may be a talking clock. Well back in the seventeenth century, when neither of that existed, M. de Villayer, a French inventor, tried using the sense of taste.

He designed a clock so arranged that when he reached for the hour hand at night, it guided him to a small container with a spice inserted in place of numbers, a different spice for every hour of the night. Even when he could not see the clock, he could always taste the time. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Bycatch- An ecological nightmare.

When massive trawlers spread their nets, to catch those tasty shrimps or fish and haul them onboard they haul much more than shrimps. In fishing industry it is called a “bycatch”. An average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying as bycatch. Shrimps account for only 2% of global seafood by weight, but shrimp trawling accounts for 33% of global bycatch. Most of us are unaware about this, since there exists no bycatch label on our sea food. How would you feel, if the shrimp you buy had this tag on it “13 KILOGRAMS OF OTHER SEA ANIMALS WERE KILLED AND TOSSED BACK INTO THE OCEAN FOR EVERY HALF KILO OF THIS SHRIMP”
While catching fish like tuna, among the other 145 species regularly caught the following endangered species meet their end. manta ray, devil ray, spotted skate, bignose shark, copper shark, Galapagos shark, sandbar shark, night shark, sand tiger shark, (great) white shark, hammerhead shark, spurdog fish, Cuban dogfish, bigeye thresher, mako, blue shark, wahoo, sailfish, bonito, longbill spearfish, lancet fish, grey triggerfish, needlefish, blue runner, black ruff, dolphin fish, bigeye cigarfish, porcupine fish, rainbow runner, common sea horse, Bermuda chub, opah, escolar, leerfish, tripletail, goosefish, monkfish, sunfish, Murray eel, pilotfish, black gemfish, bluefish, cassava fish, red drum, greater amberjack, yellowtail, common sea bream, puffer fish, loggerhead turtle, green turtle, leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, Kemp’s ridley turtle, Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Audouin’s gull, balearic shearwater, black-browed albatross, great black-backed gull, great shearwater, great-winged petrel, grey petrel, northern royal albatross, shy albatross, sooty shearwater, southern fulmar, Yelkouan shearwater, minke whale, sei whale, fin whale, common dolphin, northern right whale, pilot whale, humpback whale, beaked whale, killer whale, harbor porpoise, sperm whale, striped dolphin, Atlantic spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, and goose-beaked whale.

So imagine, you have a plate of sushi. Now imagine this plate also holds all the animals that were killed for your sushi. That plate then would have to be 5 feet across to accommodate all the bycatch.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What colour are carrots?

Orange you say..? Well for 5,000 years, carrots have been anything but orange. The earliest use of carrots by humans are found in archeological sites in Afghanistan, those were purple in the outside and yellow inside. Next in line are the ancient Greeks who cultivated carrots for medicinal purposes and Roman physicians in
the 2nd century prescribed it for expelling wind. The Arab traders carried the carrot seed to Asia and Africa where it blossomed into various shades of purple, white, yellow, red, green and even black carrots. So where did our orange carrots come from? It was grown in 16th century Holland, patriotically bred to match the colour of the Dutch Royal House of Orange! By the 17th century, the Dutch were the main European producers of carrots and all modern varieties are descended from their four orange ones; Early Half long, Late Half Long, Scarlet and Long Orange. Well non-orange carrots are making a come back, so the next time you see a white , yellow, dark red or purple carrot, don't run away from it, they are natures natural breeds. Anyone for a ' Tiranga gajar halwa' ?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

What is the capital city of Thailand?

Krung Thep (pronounced Grung Tape). What happened to Bangkok then ! Well Thai's haven't used
the word Bangkok for nearly 200 years now. Only ignorant foreigners and their encyclopedias use it. Bangkok was a small fishing village until King Rama I moved there in 1782 and renamed it 'Krung Thep'. Although Krung Thep is used for all daily purposes its official full name is ' Krungthep Mahanakhon Amorn Rattanakosin Mahintara Yudthaya Mahadilok Pohp Noparat Rajathanee Bureerom Udomrajniwes Mahasatarn Amorn Pimarn Avaltarnsatit Sakatattiya Visanukram Prasit (quite a mouthful this one).
In Thai it's written as a single word with 152 letters. Krung Thep means 'City of Angels' (yes, the same as Los Angeles). Well if you still insist on using the word Bangkok, in Thai it means Village of Plums.(Well for
those curious, the official Thai name roughly translates as; Great city of Angels, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of the reincarnated spirits')

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Anything for science.

One of the biggest hazards of deep sea diving is something called the ‘bends’. The air was breath is 80% nitrogen. Put the human body under pressure, and the nitrogen is transformed into tiny bubbles that migrate into the blood and tissues. If the pressure is changed too rapidly, as with a too quick ascent by a diver; the bubbles trapped within the body begin to fizz like a freshly opened soda bottle, clogging tiny blood vessels and depriving cells of oxygen and causing so excruciating pain that sufferers are prone to bend in agony. A great deal of what we know about surviving at extremes is owed to extraordinary father and son team of John Scott and J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane’s gift to diving was to work the rest intervals necessary to manage an ascent from the depths without getting the bends. With Admiralty funding, JBS acquired a decompression chamber that he called the ‘pressure pot.’ This was a metal cylinder in which three people could sit at a time and could be sealed and subjected to tests of various types. Volunteers were required to sit in ice water while breathing ‘aberrant atmosphere’ or subjected to rapid changes or pressure. In one experiment, Haldane simulated a dangerously hasty ascent and the dental fillings in his teeth exploded. It is said that every experiment ended with someone having seizures, vomiting or bleeding. The chamber was virtually soundproof, so the only way for occupants to signal distress was to tap insistently on the chamber wall or to hold up notes on the small window. Once while poisoning himself with elevated levels of oxygen, Haldane had a fit so severe that he crushed several vertebrae. Collapsed lungs were a routine hazard. Perforated eardrums were quite common. Haldane in one of his essays writes “ the drum generally heals up; and if the hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, on can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.” It was not just Haldane, but even his colleagues and family were subjects of his experiments. Sent on a simulated descent, his wife had a fit that lasted 13 minutes. When at last she stopped bouncing across the floor, she was helped on her feet and sent home to cook dinner. Haldane happily employed anyone who happened to be around and on one occasion a former prime minister of Spain, Juan Negrin. Dr Negrin complained afterward of minor tingling and ‘curious velvety sensation on the lips’ Dr Negrin was lucky, a similar experiment with oxygen deprivation left Haldane without feeling his buttocks and lower spine for six years.

Adapted from Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything”

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Who has more hair: you or a chimpanzee?

Both chimps and humans have the same number of hair follicles about 5 million. However, the human hair is thinner and more transparent than the hair of other primates.Hence, although we have equal number of hair, the chimps look hairier. We have lost our fur and no one knows why for sure, there are many theories
floating around (and you can cough out your own theory too, no one will mind). But I would like to agree to the one proposed by Darwin, 'Sexual Selection' . Darwin believed that as we humans evolved, our ancestors
chose partners with lesser and lesser hair and the hairy ones finally lost out. We see this even today, where our fascination for that smooth, hairless female skin makes the women spend painful hours waxing in a parlour. Similarly, we men have to spend time everyday in front of the mirror, to satisfy the women's need for clean shaven men. Now again no one knows why men retained facial hair, but for this I have my own theory
(all brickbats for me, not Darwin) I believe, our ancestral women were much more tolerant towards men with facial hair than men were towards women. May be after a day of hunting the woolly mammoth, men wanted to feel something much smoother! The present day women though have lost that tolerance and I am sent right back to the shaving mirror, even if a stub of hair protrudes from my face!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Elementary elements.

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers
Two of the rarest natural elements on earth are Astatine and Francium. Astatine is so rare, that it is practically unstudied. It has a name and a place on the periodic table, but nothing else. Francium is so rare that it is thought that at any given moment there may be fewer than twenty francium atoms on earth.
Astatine is the only element whose discovery was confirmed by a non-primate. Emilio Segre had identified Astatine in 1939 and injected it into a guinea pig to study it. Because, astatine is below iodine in the periodic table, the body thinks it to be iodine and handles it as such. So in the guinea pig, it was selectively filtered and concentrated by the rodents thyroid gland. Pretty neat trick!

I know the above elements like many other in the periodic table are quite obscure, but that does not mean obscure elements come in trace quantity. Take for example cerium, there is more of it on earth than copper. There is more neodymium and lanthanum than cobalt or nitrogen. Not surprised yet. Praseodymium, samarium, gadolinium and dysprosium are more abundant than tin. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Does wearing sunglasses cause anaemia?

Yes it can, and to tell you how it does I need to introduce to you two nutrients. 
1. Folic Acid; it is one of the vitamin in the B complex group. Among it's many functions one very important is the role it plays in manufacture of red blood cells (RBC's are small cell's in your blood that transport oxygen, Anaemia is a fancy name for their deficiency)
2. Vitamin D; Body produces its own vitamin D from cholesterol in the presence of ultraviolet light (UV).
Like you can see, our body needs the UV light for Vitamin D production, but the same UV light is quite deadly for Folic acid and can destroy it. So the body has to hit a balance between the UV light it receives, not too much not too less. To maintain this balance it pulls a pretty neat trick. 
Introducing Melanin; Melanin is a pigment that gives our skin its colour, most importantly it is body's natural sunscreen, blocking the UV rays. The amount of Melanin is controlled by the boss of all glands,the Pituitary. Whenever you are exposed to sunlight, the Pituitary gland goes into an overdrive, cranking up melanin production to protect the body's Folic Acid reserves. When you come into a shady area, it reduces melanin production to keep Vitamin D manufacture unaffected (which needs UV). So how does the pituitary, which is located in a dark corner of the brain, know whether there is sunshine or not? It has its own spy-cam,
your eyes. When sunlight falls on the optic nerve, it triggers the pituitary to produce melanin or reduce it when there is no sunlight. So when you wear those fancy sunglasses and walk in sunlight, your pituitary thinks
that you are still in the shade. Melanin production is still at the shade levels. However, the UV light is now destroying your Folic acid en masse. Over a period, your Folic acid reserves deplete, which leads to a fall
in RBC production leading to anaemia. Phew! So next time you think you have anaemia, and pop in that iron supplement, try popping out those Ray-Ban's. Your doctor never told you this did he/she?

Friday, October 18, 2013

What's wrong with my cotton shirt ?

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For all its virtues, cotton is the preferred choice of material for most of our clothing. I even purchased a few shirts, which had a label proudly displaying “100% Organic Cotton.” Similarly, it feels good when I know; that the paper I use has “XX% recycled fibre in it.” Despite all these feel good labels, it’s a marketing gimmick after all. By trumpeting the narrow virtues of the product, we easily miss the big picture and miss the numerous negative impacts of our purchase. My Cotton shirt was indeed organic, the farmer who grew the cotton, did not use pesticide on his crop. Cotton crop alone accounts for 10% of the worlds pesticide. The organophosphates (which cause central nervous system damage in humans) that they spray, to control bugs and weeds, ends up in streams and rivers. Given this damage, the benefits of Organic cotton are indeed laudable. Then there is the downside. Cotton is a very thirsty crop; it took about 2.5 tonnes of water to make the cotton for my shirt. The shirts I purchased had various hues. Cotton yarn is bleached, dyed and finished with industrial chemicals that include chromium, chlorine and formaldehyde, each a toxin in its own sense. Cotton, resists absorbing dye, so when a dyed yarn is rinsed, a large amount rinses into the factory wastewater, which is pumped into our local rivers. These dyes harbour carcinogens- hence workers in dye plants have unusually high rates of leukaemia. Similarly, various products make claims on being healthy or environmentally friendly based on a single attribute (fried snacks do not become healthy just because they have zero transfat or no cholesterol). Indeed nothing made industrially can be utterly green or healthy only relatively so. When my wife explained to me on how a drug discovery is made, I realised the immense amount of research that goes into such a find. The care taken to learn about the impact of the molecule on humans, its metabolism in the body and the time taken for it to be eliminated from our system is truly commendable. However, how much research actually goes into studying what happens to the eliminated molecule. These chemicals once eliminated do not just disappear. Take for example all those tiny doses of synthetic estrogens, found in birth control pills. Even though the human body excretes these estrogen compounds in the form of a metabolite, bacteria in sewage cleave the molecule and recreate the original compound. This estrogen, is known to “feminise” male fish (male fish stop making sperm and instead produce eggs). Similarly any of us who take antibiotics or use antibiotic soap add, it to the 11,000 tons of antibiotics used annually by animal farms.

To know our shopping impact, I recommend the site Though mostly focused on US and European products, we will find many products we used in India reviewed. Use it in making an informed purchase, make a difference to your health and environment. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ridges on the edges

Take a coin and look at the edge; can you see the ridges. Those ridges are the invention or innovation of Sir Isaac Newton. After all the laws and discoveries had made Newton famous, he was appointed as Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. Counterfeiting of currency was rampant during those days. Newton implemented a harsh regime to deter counterfeiting, which included hanging and quartering of convicts.

Many coins were made of precious metal, and people used to shave the edge of coins to collect the metal. To prevent this Newton introduced the milled edges on coins and is still followed today. In recognition of Newton’s contribution, the British £ 2 coin issued in 1997 had the phrase “Standing on the shoulders of giants” around its milled edge. These words are taken from a letter that Newton sent to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, in which he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” 

Monday, October 14, 2013

He saved millions and he killed millions…

Nitrogen is a very important element for plants and abundant in the atmosphere. But this nitrogen is pretty inert and hardly available for plants. So when someone invented a process to make nitrogen react at an industrial scale and make a vital compound, he pretty much changed the face of agriculture. The process was of manufacturing Ammonia, a precursor for all fertilizers and the person who invented it was a German, Fritz Haber. Our textbooks immortalize him by teaching us the Haber process of manufacturing ammonia, but this is the story of Haber’s dark side. Although Haber’s process saved millions of people from starvation, Haber cared little about fertilizers. He had pursued cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives during the First World War. His murderous inventions were, not appreciated in his family and more so by his wife Clara Immerwahr, who constantly pleaded with Haber to give up his projects. Clara was the first woman to earn a Ph.D from the prestigious university of Breslau. She supported Haber by translating manuscripts into English and providing technical support for his nitrogen projects. But she refused to help on the bromine projects, because she was aware that the project was meant to develop chemical warfare (which was banned by the Hague Pact). In 1915, Germany tried to shell the Russian army with xylyl bromide, but the temperature in Russia was so cold that the compound froze solid. Haber, abandoned bromine and adopted its cousin chlorine. Haber had replaced bromine with three Chlorine compounds. Grunkreuz ( green cross), blukreuz ( blue cross) and the blistering agent gelbkreuz ( yellow cross) today infamous as mustard gas. The first attack at Ypres, had 5000 Frenchmen burned in a muddy trench. Horrified by her husband’s projects, she pleaded him to stop. When Haber, gave a dinner party on the success of the Ypres attack, Clara was so appalled that she shot herself in the chest, with Fritz’s army pistol. The very next day, without making any funeral arrangements for his wife, Haber left for the eastern front to carry out more attacks. Despite Haber’s chemicals, Germany lost the war and was denounced as a scoundrel nation. After the war in 1919 the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Haber for his process, but a year later he was charged as an international war criminal for prosecuting a campaign of chemical warfare. Humiliated at the huge repatriations Germany had to pay to the allies, Haber spent six futile years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans, so that he could pay the repatriations himself.
Haber had also invented an insecticide called Zyklon A. A German company tinkered with his formula after the war, to produce a more efficient second generation gas. Within years the Nazis took over Germany and were gassing millions of Jews with this second Generation gas- Zyklon B. Nazis exiled Haber, for being a Jew and he died in 1934 while travelling to England to seek refuge

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Crash Course on Particle zoo…

In school we were taught about the proton, neutron and electron – which allegedly made up the basic structure of an atom. We were taught that these are the basic structure of all matter. Well, now that we are grown and no more in school, its time we learn some adult stuff. So here is the crash course, to start with.
Lets recap- We know that an atom has a nucleus, which contains protons and neutrons. Electrons go around them. We also know electrons are negatively charged and have negligible mass. Protons are positive and neutrons are neutral and have equal mass.
Our old friends’ electrons are not alone, they have 5 more brothers and physicists call them flavours. Electron, Muon and tau are negatively charged brothers and electron neutrino , muon neutrino and tau neutrino have no charge. Electrons are smaller than muons which are smaller than tauons. All six together are called ‘Leptons.’
Our other old friends, Proton and Neutrons are actually made of smaller particles. These smaller particles are called Quarks. Quarks come in six flavours. Up (u), down (d), charm (c), strange (s), top (t) and bottom (b).
Protons are made of 2 up quarks and one down quark. Neutrons are made of one up and 2 down quarks. Similarly various other particles are made up of a combination of these quarks. When a particle is made up of 2 quarks it is called a ‘Meson’. When it is made of 3 quarks it is a ‘Baryon’. Protons and neutrons are examples of baryons.
In terms of mass u & d are lighter than c & s, which are lighter than t & b.
Just one thing to remember, these 6 quarks, mentioned above also have an anti-quark each.
So the above are the 12 elementary particles that make up our universe, including you and me. Now for the four fundamental forces of nature, without which the zoo is not complete.
1. The strong force: The strongest force in nature, but has a very small range (just within the nucleus). This force holds the quark together and forms the protons and neutrons.
2. Electromagnetic force: Responsible for electromagnetic emission and absorption.
3. The weak force: It has a smaller range than the strong force. It is an important part of nuclear reactions
4. Gravitational force: He needs no introduction. This though is the weakest of all forces, but has an infinite range.
Now these forces are carried by the so called ‘force particles’ Gluons carry the strong force, photons carry the electromagnetic force and W and Z bosons carry the weak force. Though not a part of the standard model, Gravitons are suggested to carry Gravitational force.
Gluons and photons are massless, while rest of the elementary particles have mass. The reason for this was explained by the Higgs- boson particle. The so called ‘God Particle’ that is making news now and then. Scientists at CERN are trying to hunt it down to conclusively prove its existence. Thank you and hope you had a lovely time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What is the difference between regular, quick cooking and instant oats

Oats that we eat as breakfast cereals are generally whole grains, and are also called groats. To make groats, the grain is roasted at a low temperature which inactivates the fat-splitting enzyme (else the grains would quickly turn rancid). This roasting also gives the grain greater integrity when cooking. The whole groats are then processed into various shapes, and all have nearly the same nutritional value. Most of the oats we buy are either steel-cut oats or rolled oats.
Steel cut oats are groats, which are cut into two to four pieces for faster cooking. Rolled oats are whole grains that are steamed to make them soft and then pressed between rollers to make them thin. The thinner the oats are rolled, the faster they rehydrate. Regular oats are about 0.8mm thick, “quick cooking” oats are 0.4mm thick and instant oats lesser than this.
Oats have several nutritional significance, that make them a highly recommended breakfast cereal. Oats contain a number of phenols that have anti-oxidant properties.
They are also rich in indigestible carbohydrates called beta-glucans, which absorb and store water. This beta-glucan property gives oatmeal its smooth, thick consistency. They also help lower our blood cholesterol levels. These, glucans are found mostly in the outer layers of the oat grain.
Oats do not have gluten-producing proteins, but are still avoided by people with gluten intolerance because many machines used to process oats are also used to process wheat and cross contamination cannot be necessarily avoided. 

Trivia: A German immigrant, named Ferdinand Schumacher, in late 19th Century developed rolled oats. Henry Cromwell neatly packed the oats for retail packaging, with cooking instructions. The brand was called “Quaker oats.”

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

When the Noble prizes were wrongly awarded.

In 1934, the well known Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi reported to the world that he had created element no 93. Fermi and his team claimed that by bombarding uranium samples with neutrons, they had not only created element 93 but other transuranic elements too. Fermi was awarded the Noble prize for his discovery. But in 1939, to everyone’s disbelief, two German scientist contradicted Fermi’s results. Fermi had not created transuranic elements, but rather discovered nuclear fission. Element 93, today called Neptunium (after planet Neptune) was finally discovered by Edwin McMillan and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1951. But the Noble prize was already awarded to Fermi for the discovering the transuranic elements. So rather than admit its mistake, the Swedish Academy, stubbornly rewarded McMillan only for investigating “the chemistry of the transuranic elements” 

Friday, September 27, 2013

The boy who got the first vaccine.

A young mother once bought to Louis Pasteur, her son, so mangled by a rabid dog that he could barely walk. The mother was in distress because those days the only result of such a bite would be certain death. Louis Pasteur (after whom pasteurisation is named) treated the boy with a rabies vaccine tested only on animals. Pasteur wasn’t a licensed doctor, and he administered the vaccine despite the threat of criminal prosecution if he failed. The vaccine worked and the boy lived. You may have heard this story before, but what happened next is probably much more moving. The boy’s name was Joseph Meister, and he grew up and became the groundskeeper for the Pasteur Institute. Poignantly, he was still the groundskeeper in 1940 when the German soldiers overran France. A company of German soldiers arrived at the Institute and one officer demanded that Meister, the man with the keys, open up Pasteur’s crypt so that he, the officer could view Pasteur’s bones. Meister committed suicide rather then be complicit in this act. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The most interesting and the least ambitious living organisms on earth.

For me, the most interesting living organism on earth may give us a glimpse of how life may have evolved on earth. The creature is the ‘Slime mold’ formally called myxomycetes. When the environment is conducive to slime mold, they exist as single celled organisms like amoebas. However, when the conditions turn unfavourable, they crawl to a central gathering place and turn into a slug- much like a horror movie! The slug, the slowly chugs along to a slightly better exposed position and transforms itself yet again. This time it takes the form of a plant. Some of the cells, reconfigure themselves and move on top to the plant to form a bulb, known as the fruiting body. Inside the fruiting body are millions of spores that at the right moment are released into the wind, to spread out and become single-celled organisms, and continue the cycle all over again.

The least ambitious living creatures on earth (as per David Attenborough) are also the hardiest- Lichens. They grow anywhere from old buildings, to windy mountain tops and in the Arctic wasteland where nothing else but rocks exist. In Antarctica, where nothing grows, there exist 400 hundred types of Lichens. For a long time no one knew how lichens managed to grow on rocks, without any nourishment or without producing any seed. Now we know that Lichens are a partnership between fungi and algae. The fungi excretes acids that dissolve the surface of rocks, freeing minerals that the algae convert into food, sufficient for both. There are an astonishing twenty thousand species of lichens on earth, and they thrive in harsh environments. They grow very slowly, and if you spot one the size of a dinner plate they are “likely to be hundreds if not thousands of years old” according to Attenborough. We humans need a point, a goal or a desire to exist, but “life even at it simplest level occurs apparently just for its own sake” Attenborough adds.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Heavy water ( Noble prize for rat piss)

99.9 % of the Hydrogen in our Universe has a proton and an electron in its atom. But a few hydrogen atoms have an additional neutron, which make that hydrogen a wee bit heavier. This is deuterium, and any water, composed of this hydrogen is called heavy water. In early 1930’s Harold Urey discovered deuterium, a sure shot Nobel Prize winning discovery. Another scientist, named Gilbert Lewis decided to piggy back to this no-miss prize by investigating the biological effects of water made by deuterium. University of California at Berkley, where Lewis worked, had a well equipped physics department, which incidentally had the world’s largest supply of heavy water (a few ounces’s mixed with lots of normal water). Heavy water is very scarce, and the department’s head, Ernest O. Lawrence was reluctant to part with it. Lewis begged and finally Lawrence relented on the condition that Lewis gave it back after the experiments. After isolating the heavy water, he decided to give it to a mouse and see what happened. Heavy water cannot be metabolised by the body, hence the more you drink, the thirstier you feel. Lewis’s mouse, gulped down all the water in a few hours and ended up dead. The experiment was of course hardly Noble prize worthy; but Lawrence went ballistic when he learnt that a mouse had pissed away all his precious heavy water.
Gilbert, Lewis worked in the Chemistry department of University of California for over forty years and made it one of the best in the world. His biggest contribution to science is the discovery of how acids and bases work and react. It is said that no one has ever received more Nobel prize nominations than Lewis- and was probably the best scientist never to win a Nobel Prize.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Virus that gets infected by a virus.

In 1992, a microbiologist named Timothy Rowbotham, was searching for the cause of a pneumonia outbreak in Bradford, England. During his hunt, he took some water from a hospital’s cooling tower and put it under a microscope. In this water he found a promising candidate; a sphere of bacterial size, sitting inside an amoeba. Rowbotham believed he had found a new bacterium and called it Bradfordcoccus. He then spent years trying to figure out if it was the cause of the pneumonia outbreak. Budget cuts then forced Rowbotham to abandon his study and close his lab in 1998. He handed over his samples to his French colleagues for storage. For five years ‘Bradfordcoccus’ languished in obscurity, until Bernard La Scola of Mediterranean University, decided to take another look at it. La Scola, found that Bradfordcoccus did not have the smooth surface of spherical bacteria. Instead it was made of made of interlocking plates and hair like protein threads were radiating from its outer shell. The only thing in nature with such shells and threads were viruses. Until then no one had known any virus which was as big as Bradfordcoccus, it was hundred times too big to be a virus. La Scola discovered that it reproduced by invading amoeba and forcing it to build copies of itself. Only viruses behave this way. La Scola, gave Bradfordcoccus a new name to reflect its viral nature- Mimivirus (in honour of its ability to mimic bacteria).Genetic study of Mimivirus, provided more surprises. It had 1,262 genes. It was as if someone took the genomes of flu, the cold, smallpox and hundred of other viruses and stuffed them all into one protein shell. It had more genes than some species of bacteria. Mimivirus, was breaking all the rules of the virus world. Scientist found Mimivirus, in the lungs of patients suffering from pneumonia, but they are unsure if it causes pneumonia or colonise in people who are already sick. Scientist also do not know what mimivirus do with all their genes. In 2008, La Scola discovered that Mimivirus can be infected by a virus of its own. This is the first time anyone has found a virus of a virus. We humans are a blend of mammal and virus. Remove our virus derived genes and we would be unable to reproduce. A mimivirus, in an amoeba, functions just like how a human cell would function, probably giving us a peek into how first life evolved on earth.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

How to make brinjal fry less oily.

Brinjal, aubergine, mad apple, garden egg or eggplant these are the various common names for brinjal. Probably the many shapes, sizes and colours have contributed to this name. Despite all the varieties, all brinjals have a spongy interior, with many tiny air pockets between cells. When cooking the air pockets collapse and the flesh is consolidated into a creamy mass. Hence when cooking, as the air pockets break, a large brinjal shrinks into a small volume. Also these air pockets have another consequence, when frying brinjal, it soaks up large amount of oil making any brinjal dish very rich. Unless, you are cooking the Arabic Turkish dish “Imam bayaldi” (the priest fainted) which requires brinjal to be soaked in oil, cooks can employ two tricks to reduce the oil absorption. Precook the brinjal (microwaving will suffice), this breaks the air pockets or salt the brinjal, this draws water from the cell, into the air pockets.

On a totally unrelated note, I just remembered a very interesting fact. The bitterness of cucumber is caused by a bitter chemical called ‘cucurbitacins’. This is a defect in cucumber and such cucumbers are disposed. Amazingly the same chemical, cucurbitacin, gives ‘bitter gourd’ its prized trait- the bitter flavour!! Cucurbitacin, is a water soluble compound, and blanching bitter gourd, before cooking can reduce its bitterness to a large degree.

P.S. : Thank you Lloyd, for pointing out that dish was Turkish. Though the controversy on its origin still reverberates in kitchens around the middle east; Ill stick to Turkey until its conclusively proven otherwise.  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Olive Oil and Myths

When olives are six to eight months old, they begin to turn from green to purple. This period is best suited to extract olive oil. The olives are now cleaned, coarsely crushed, with its pit and sometimes with a few leaves from the tree. It is then finely ground to a paste, to break open the cells and free their oils. The paste is then mixed for 30-40 minutes, this separates the oil droplets from the watery olive pulp and the oil droplets coalesce with each other. The paste is then squeezed, to extract oil and water. The oil is then separated by centrifuge (sometimes by other means) and filtered. The oil that is derived by the first cold pressing is called “extra virgin” oil. The oil is required to have less than 0.8% free fatty acids (more free fatty acids means oil is damaged and unstable). More oil is then extracted by heating the paste and pressing it repeatedly, but this oil is of lesser quality. “Virgin” oil has less than 2% free fatty acids. If the oil has higher, fatty acids, then the oil is refined, this removes all impurities, including flavours. Once refined, producers add a bit of “virgin” oil to give it flavour. The greenish golden hue, of virgin olive oils are due to the presence of chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments. The flavours are due to the many phenolic compounds and hexanols. The aroma is due to the many volatile molecules like; flowery terpenes, fruity esters, green smelling fatty acids found in leaves etc. The green chlorophyll that colours the oil, also can damage the oil in the presence of light. Hence these oils are kept in dark opaque cans. Unfortunately, many myths persists around olive oils. Many people, consume olive oil for the anti-oxidants it has, oblivious to the fact that higher quantities of anti-oxidants can be got from fruits and vegetables. I was once shocked to hear, some one tell me that olive oil does not have any calories! Like any other oil, it has 9 Kcal for every gram (1 tsp will have about 45Kcal). So other than flavouring your food, do not expect olive oil to work any miracles upon your health, especially when used for frying. When used for frying, most non-refined, non-hydrogenated oils are as good as olive oil.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Treating the common cold.

Common cold has troubled mankind for centuries and mankind has put forth various reasons for the cause and has tried out various remedies to fight it off. Today we know that it is caused by a virus; Human rhinovirus (HRV). They are remarkable simple with only 10 genes (we have about 20,000 genes) and yet they enter our body, outwit our immune system and give us cold. HRV spreads by making noses run. People with colds wipe their noses, get the virus on their hands and then spread the virus onto door knobs and other surface they touch. The virus hitches onto the skin of other people who touch those surfaces and then slips into their body. Over the next few hours, by trickery, they slip into the cells that line the interior of nose, throat and lungs they then use these host cells to make copies of its genetic material and protein shells to hold them. The host cells then rip apart and the new virus escapes. HRV infect relatively few cells and cause little harm. So why do they cause such miserable experience? Blame our immune system. Infected cells release special signalling molecules, called cytokines, which attract nearby immune cells, which then make us feel awful. These immune cells create inflammation around affected area, which triggers a scratchy feeling and leads to production of a lot of mucus. So even after the virus has escaped, we have to wait for our immune system to calm down, before we can say that our cold is finally over.
There is no vaccine for cold, nor any drug that has consistently shown signs of killing the virus. Infact, some treatment for cold may be worse than the disease itself. Parents often give their children cough syrup for cold, despite the fact that it does not help. Cough syrup itself poses a wide variety of rare yet serious side effects, like convulsions, rapid heart rate and even death. Another popular treatment is antibiotics, despite the fact that they only work on bacteria and are useless against viruses.
HRV comes in many genetic variants; any drug that attacks one protein on the virus may prove useless against another variant. Every time you have a cold, it is very much possible that you have been affected by a new variant, since the body has built immune resistance to the previous strains.
Do we need a cure for common cold? HRV itself is relatively mild and most colds are over in a week. In fact HRV may offer some benefits to their human hosts. Many studies show that children who get sick with relatively harmless viruses and bacteria may be protected from immune disorders when they get older, such as allergies and Crohn’s disease. HRV may also train our immune system not to over react to minor triggers, instead directing their assaults to real threats. Perhaps we should not think of colds as ancient enemies but as wise old tutors. 

Condensed from ‘A planet of viruses’ by Carl Zimmer.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Have you heard about the ‘Rod of Asclepius’

Have you heard about the ‘Rod of Asclepius’ – the snake wrapped around a staff that is a symbol of medicine? Many historians today believe that the snake was originally a worm, a Guinea worm to be precise- Here is the story. Since the beginning of human history, a parasitic worm called ‘Dracunculus medinensis’ or Guinea worm, has plagued people across Africa and Asia. The larvae of Guinea worm are eaten by water fleas that live in still water bodies. When people drink the water, their digestive system destroys the fleas but not the larvae. Some larvae migrate from the small intestine into the body, where they grow and eventually mate with each other. About a year after the infection, adult females, which grow about 2-3 feet long, and full of larvae themselves; make their way to the skin of the person harbouring them. Once they get to the surface, these female Guinea worms begin to secrete acid, which burns them an exit tunnel. The worm then starts to make its way out, and the acid secreted burns the human host so much that he seeks relief in cooling water. As soon as the worm sense water it emits a milky fluid full of thousands of larvae, which start the cycle all over again. In ancient times, the only effective treatment was to wrap the worm around a stick and slowly, but carefully pull it out. The process lasts for many painful weeks. If the process is hurried along too quickly, then the worm breaks, causing even more pain to the host or even death. Early doctors used a simple drawing of the worm wrapped on a stick to show they offered their services of removing the worm by wrapping then around a stick. Today this drawing evolved into the ‘Rod of Asclepius’. Since we know how Guinea worm spreads, awareness has been created about the parasites reproduction. Victims are asked to avoid water when looking for relief and potential victims are asked to avoid water that could be infected. From about 3.5 million cases 25 years ago, the worldwide infestation has today reduced to less than 10,000. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

When the world lost 10 days.

Prior to 1582, the world followed the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar, who borrowed it from the Egyptians. But this calendar, assumed one year to be 365.25 days, while in actual a solar year- the time required for the earth to complete an orbit around the sun is 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds. This is 11 minutes 14 seconds less than 365.25. As a result, dates on the calendar gradually lost their intended relation to solar events and seasons. The vernal equinox which was fixed by the first council of Nicaea, as March 21 was actually occurring on March 11, due to the accumulating inaccuracy of the Julian calendar.
So in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, introduced the reformed calendar, which we now know as the Gregorian Calendar. To adjust the dates, Pope Gregory ordained that October 4 was to be followed by October 15. The leap years of the old calendar were readjusted and to prevent the accumulation of another 11-minute a year discrepancy, the Gregorian calendar omitted the leap day from years ending in hundreds unless they were divisible by 400. This is the calendar that we still follow.
There was a lot of resentment from many countries, simply because the reform had come from Rome. Protestant England and American colonies refused to go along and they accepted it only in 1752.
Back in 1582, when Pope Gregory took ten days out of the calendar, there had been grumbling and confusion. Servants demanded their usual full monthly pay for the abridged month and employers refused. People objected to their life being shortened by a Papal decree.

In China the revolution of 1911 introduced the Gregorian calendar, alongside the Chinese one. Until well past 1900 Russia used the Julian calendar and lagged to Gregorian calendar by weeks. This lag explains why the “October Revolution” that brought Vladimir Lenin and Bolsheviks to power in 1917 actually occurred in November.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

We exist- courtesy viruses.

We all believe that viruses are the scourge of mankind, their very mention reminds us of illness and death. But viruses are probably the most misunderstood things on earth, taxonomist are unsure if they are even living or non-living. A few of the millions of species of viruses that exist on earth give them a bad name. Viruses have saved more people than killed them. Marine viruses are the most infectious viruses of all, not to humans but to microbes in water. Every day, about half the bacteria in the world’s oceans are killed by them and humans indeed benefit from their deadliness. Cholera is caused by blooms of waterborne bacteria called Vibrio. But Vibrio are host to a number of phages (virus that infect bacteria). When the population of vibrio explodes, it causes a cholera epidemic. But this explosion also results in the multiplication of phages. The phage population rises so quickly that it kills the Vibrio faster than the microbes can reproduce. The bacterial boom subsides and the cholera epidemic fades away.  A large amount of the oxygen we breathe is also a gift from viruses. An ocean bacterium called Synechococcus, carries out about a quarter of the worlds photosynthesis. The protein that carries out the light harvesting is actually from a virus. Scientists have even found free-floating viruses with photosynthesis genes, searching new hosts to infect. For every 10 breath you breathe, one of those breaths comes courtesy of viruses. Viruses also control the temperature on earth. Algae and photosynthetic bacteria churn out half our oxygen supply. Algae also release a gas called dimethyl sulphide that rises into the air and seeds clouds. These clouds reflect incoming sunlight back into outer space cooling the planet. The viruses check the algae growth and that keeps our planets thermostat at the right temperature. As you just read, viruses have earned a bad reputation, but they contribute more to life than we appreciate. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

How a slice of meat gave birth to the science of Radiology.

When the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, they seized all the wealth and assets belonging to Jews and their sympathisers. So in 1930’s two German scientist, Max von Laue and James Frank sent their Nobel Prize medals to Niels Bohr for safekeeping. Bohr kept it at his institute in Denmark, but by August 1940 the Nazi storm troopers were knocking the doors of the institute. Desperate to hide the medals, Bohr asked his colleague Gyorgy Hevesy to dissolve the gold medals. To do this Hevesy used ‘aqua regia’ – a mix of nitric and hydrochloric acids that fascinated alchemist because it dissolved “royal metals” like gold. Hevesy managed to complete this job just in time. When the Nazi’s ransacked Bohr’s institute for loot, they left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. In 1943, Hevesy fled Denmark, but returned back to the institute after the war. To his surprise he found his beaker intact on a shelf. Hevesy precipitated the gold and Nobel academy later recast the medals for Franck and Laue. If you haven’t heard of Gyorgy Hevesy, then you need to read this. In 1910 Hevesy arrived in England from Hungary are worked under Rutherford on radioactivity. Hevesy was staying in a boarding house and after noticing patterns of meals served, Hevesy grew suspicious of the food served there. He suspected that his landlady was recycling the leftover food and he confronted her with his fears. The landlady denied it, and Hevesy decided to seek proof. So one night Hevesy took some extra serving of meat during dinner and when the landlady’s back was turned he sprinkled some radioactive lead on the meat which he had got from his lab. After dinner, the lady collected the leftovers as usual. The next day Hevsey bough home a radiation detector, from his friend Hans Geiger (today we call it the Geiger counter) and waved it over that night’s dinner. The Geiger counter went berserk and Hevesy confronted his landlady with the evidence. The lady supposedly was charmed at being caught so cleverly, with the latest tools of science. Hevesy, had another idea, instead of sprinkling the lead on dead tissue (cooked meat), he began musing over the possibility of injecting minute quantity of his radioactive lead into living creatures. Since the lead would emit radiation, he could actually track the molecules inside veins and organs, with an unprecedented degree of resolution. Hevesy had discovered elemental tracers, giving birth to the field of radiology. In 1920 Hevesy left for Copenhagen to study under Niels Bohr. Here along with physicist Dirk Coster he discovered element 72, Hafnium. Hevesy was repeatedly nominated for the Noble Prize, for the discovery but the political bickering, prevented him from getting one until 1943. Probably the ‘aqua regia’ stunt did finally help him. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A rarely told story about Vaccination.

In ancient India and China, it was known that people could protect themselves from smallpox by taking scabs from a victim, crushing them into a powder, and swallowing or scratching it into the skin. This unsavoury sounding practice called ‘variolation’ was prevalent in India and slowly spread to the western world in around 1600 AD. The practice though was not widely adopted, because there was a chance of accidently contracting full-blown smallpox and dying. In 1774, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Dorset County, England. A prosperous farmer called Benjamin Jesty, who lived in Dorset, was worried for his family. Although unproven, it was a well known fact in the farming community that milkmaids, who contacted cowpox, were never affected by the deadly smallpox. Cowpox caused pustules on cow udders and reduced milk production. It also caused pustules on milkmaid’s skin, along with fever and headaches. But they would recover in a few days. Two of Jesty’s servants had been infected with cowpox and despite caring for two boys, with small pox, they never contracted smallpox. Jesty had this fact in mind and he decided to take a leap of faith. He took his family to Farmer Elford’s pasture, which had a cow with cowpox. Jesty then took his wife’s stocking needles, dipped its tip on an open cowpox lesion and then inoculated his entire family with the infectious cowpox material. Jesty’s family survived the epidemic and his two sons remained free of smallpox for the rest of their lives. People viewed Jesty’s action of mixing human and animal substances as “abomination” against God. He was scorned, ridiculed and even pelted with stones. As a young boy, Edward Jenner too had heard about cowpox protecting people from smallpox. In 1772, after completing his medical training the 23 year-old Jenner was still intrigued by the connection. Unfortunately no one had studied it and so Jenner began collecting case reports of people who had been infected with cowpox. When he presented his case study to his medical colleagues, they insisted that his ridiculous idea was merely an old wives’ tale. Undiscouraged, Jenner took matters in his own hands and on May 14, 1796 performed the first vaccination on eight year old James Phipps. Jenner inoculated the boy with infectious cowpox “matter” taken from the hand of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had picked up the infection from a cow named Blossom. Just like Benjamin Jesty, Jenner too faced criticism and ridicule and his data was not accepted by the medical community. In 1798, there was another outbreak of smallpox and Jenner inoculated several children, and all of them survived the outbreak. Rather than approach the medical community, Jenner published his findings in a self-published 64 page paper, in which the word ‘vaccination’ was first used. The practice of vaccination began to spread really fast and within a few years vaccination was administered not only in England but also throughout Europe and America. Vaccination for small pox continued for years and on October 26 1977, a hospital cook in Merka, Somalia became the last person to be infected by small pox. Smallpox became the first disease to be completely eliminated from the face of the earth.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A village that made periodic history

In 1701, a teenager named Johann Friedrich Bottger, was attracting crowds on the streets of Poland. He was converting two silver coins into a single gold coin. It was so convincing to the local population, that the story of the boy reached the King of Poland; Augustus the Strong. The boy was hauled before the king and locked into a castle and asked to make gold for the king. Bottger could not meet the kings demand, since his alchemy, like you guessed, was a well woven trick. The king ordered Bottger to be hanged. Desperate to save his life, Bottger claimed he knew how to make porcelain.
Those days, Europe was smitten by porcelain, which was imported from China. The manufacture was a Chinese secret and the Europeans were desperate to break it. It was said that any king who could make porcelain, would wield great power and wealth. King Augustus had a man called Ehrenfried Walter Von Tschirnhaus, researching on porcelain; Bottger was made Tschirnhaus’s assistant. Tschirnhaus, had with him an oven which could reach a temperature of 3000F. This allowed them to melt and analyse porcelain. Soon the duo discovered the secret; one a white clay called Kaolin and secondly, they learnt that porcelain glaze and pottery had to be cooked together and not separately, like it was done elsewhere. The king was presented with the technique and he dreamed of becoming the most influential monarch of Europe. This also meant that the king had to preserve the secret, so now Bottger was locked up under tighter security, with all dreams of freedom blown away.

But the secret of porcelain leaked and people all over Europe started making it and even tinkering and improving it. Mines were opened all over Europe, to feed the burgeoning industry of porcelain. In 1780 a mine in Stockholm, on the isle of Ytterby (pronounced it-er-bee) was opened. Intriguingly the rocks at Ytterby produced exotic pigments and coloured glazes when processed. Today, anyone coming across such a property will first suspect lanthanides, but those days, no one had heard about them. Those days a chemist named Johan Gadolin, had created quite a name for himself as a geochemist. He lived in Finland, across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm. Amateur geologist began shipping unusual rocks from Ytterby to him to get his opinion. Little by little through Gadolins publication, the world began to hear about this remarkable little quarry. Soon chemist began visiting these rocks, and one by one new elements started to be discovered. Today six elements in the Periodic table are named after this little hamlet; more than any person or place or thing. It was the inspiration for Ytterbium, Yttrium, terbium and erbium. More elements kept popping out but chemist ran out of alphabets (‘rbium’, does not sound right). So holmium was chosen after Stockholm and thulium after the mythic name for Scandinavia. Today the small town of Ytterby is a pilgrimage, spot for periodic table fans.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


In 1952, Per-Ingvar Branemark, a Swedish doctor was studying how bone marrow produces new blood cells. His study subject were rabbits, and to watch this production directly, Branemark had made small openings in the femurs of rabbits and covered the opening with an paper thin titanium “window”, which was transparent to strong light. Once the observation was completed, Branemark, wanted to remove the expensive titanium and use it on other rabbits. But when he tried to remove the metal, he realised that it would not budge and had steadfastly bound to the bone. The same thing repeated in his other experiments, titanium always bound tightly to the rabbit’s femur. An idea dawned on Branemark, which made him forget his blood cell study and revolutionised the field of prosthetics. Doctors had always wanted to replace broken limbs and bones of people with something reliable. Despite all efforts, no one was able to integrate metal or wood into the body, because the immune system rejected any such attempts. Whether it was gold, Zinc, magnesium or chromium-coated pig bladders, the blood cells always surrounded the foreign matter and wrapped it with fibrous collagen. Within a few months of implantation, the new appendage would be covered in collagen and slip or snap free. Yet, Branemark found that some reason titanium, was ignored by the blood cells and triggered no immune response. It also fooled the body’s osteoblasts or bone forming cells, into attaching themselves to it as if there was no difference between the two. Since 1952, titanium has been used for implanted teeth, screwed on bones, replaceable hip sockets and many more other body parts. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why do some vegetables and fruits discolour after being cut ?

Freshly harvested vegetables from your garden always taste better, than the one purchased from a shop. Once a vegetable is harvested it begins to change (except hibernating plant parts like onions and potatoes). One a vegetable is harvested, it is cut off from its source of nutrients. So it starts to consume itself and accumulates waste products, hence the flavour and texture starts to change. Some vegetables lose half their sugar in a few hours after harvest and they either convert it to starch or use the energy to stay alive. Some vegetables lose the water pressure in their cells and become limp and chewy. Hence freshly harvested vegetables are full-flavoured than store bought produce, which is usually days to weeks from field.
Many fruits and vegetables, like banana, potatoes, apples and brinjal quickly develop a brown or red discoloration when cut or bruised. This is part of the plants defence mechanism, to protect itself from microbes when it is cut. This discolouration is caused by three chemical ingredients: 1 and 2 ringed phenolic compounds, certain plant enzymes and oxygen. When the intact fruit is cut, the phenolic compounds from the damaged cells vacuole (a storage bag, present in every plant cell) mixes with enzymes of the cells and oxygen in air and form light absorbing clusters. In nature when insects or microbes damage the cell, these phenolic compounds attack the invaders own enzymes and membranes. The brown pigments we see are essentially spent weapons. Though the browning is only on surface and does not affect flavour, for visual appeal you can reduce it by following methods. 1. Coat the surface with lemon juice, the browning enzyme works very slowly in acidic condition 2. cool the cut pieces below 4c, its slows down the reaction time. 3. Immerse it in cold water. The water limits the availability of oxygen and the cold temperature reduces reaction time. 
The enzyme that causes this fruit discolouration has a special use- it can convert stinky chemicals in our breath to odourless molecules. So eating an apple after a meal, can not only keep the doctor away, but also bad breath away.

Trivia: Methanethiol is the molecule that causes garlic breath- it is related to the same chemical that gives odour to skunk spray. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why home made yogurt is better than commercially available yogurt .

The sugar Lactose is unique, in nature it is almost found nowhere else but in milk. This also means, only a few microbes have the necessary enzymes to process milk, that is, digest lactose, and extract energy from it by converting it into lactic acid. This lactic acid is then released into the milk, where it accumulates and retards the growth of other microbes. There are two major groups of lactic acid bacteria. The smaller genus of Lactococcus, which is primarily found in plants. The other is the 50 or so members of Lactobacillus, which are found both in plants and in animals, including human mouth, digestive tract, and vagina. Prior to the start of industrial production of yogurt and buttermilk, humans traditionally left the milk overnight. This naturally fermented the milk, with bacteria like – Lactobacillus fermentum, L. acidophilus, L. brevis, L. plantarum and L. casei. These bacteria take residence in our intestine and shield the intestinal wall, secret antibacterial compounds, boost the body's immune response to particular disease microbes and reduce the production of potential carcinogens. Today the standard industrial yogurt and buttermilk used specialized bacteria that grow well in milk but can't survive inside the human body. Therefore, we do not receive the same benefit and protection the traditionally made yogurt provided. Even the intestines of an infant are colonized by lactic acid bacteria- the Bifidobacteria. These are fostered by breast milk and produce various antibacterial substances, providing protection to the infant. 

On a totally unrelated note-, the famous holes of Swiss cheese are because of a bacterium called Propionibacteria. Propionibacter shermanii, which is used as a starter in Swiss cheese, consumes the cheese's lactic acid during ripening and converts it into propionic acid, acetic acid and carbon-dioxide gas. The carbon-dioxide forms bubbles, or the holes in the cheese. The cheese ripens at 24°c as it is the ideal temperature for Propionibacteria. This warm temperature also is a reflection of the fact that the bacteria originally lived in human and animal skin. Today at least three species of Propionibacteria inhabit our oily skin, the most famous P. acnes, which live in our plugged oil glands.