Sunday, June 30, 2013

“ouch-ouch” disease.

Kamioka mines in Japan have been mined since 710 AD, and have yielded gold, lead, silver and copper. After 1200 years of mining at Kamioka, miners there mined something, which made the place infamous and the word 'Itai-Itai!' a slang for suffering in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05) and the I World War, Japan was hungry for metals. A key metal available at Kamioka was Zinc, which was used in armour, airplanes and ammunition. Zinc in Kamioka was mixed with cadmium and to purify it miners roasted the ore and then percolated it with acid, removing the cadmium. The cadmium sludge was then dumped into the river or on the ground, where it percolated into the ground water. Then in 1912, doctors noticed that the local rice farmers were falling prey to new illnesses. Joint and bone pain, kidney failure and soft bones. One doctor broke a girl's wrist while checking her pulse. Then in 1930's and 1940's the disease exploded as the Japanese demand for Zinc increased. The disease crept from village to village around Kamioka mines. The disease came to be known as itai-itai or "ouch-ouch" disease, after the cries of pain from the victims. After the war in 1946, a local doctor, Noboru Hagino, began studying itai-itai. Hagino, produced an epidemiological map plotting occurrence of itai-itai, he overlaid this on a map of the local Jinzu river. When he looked at the overlay, the two maps looked nearly identical. After testing local crops, Hagino realised that the rice was a cadmium sponge. Conscientious work soon revealed what the cadmium did in the body. Zinc, is an essential mineral in the body, and just like in ground, cadmium interferes with zinc in the body and replaces it. It also replaces sulphur and calcium, in the bones. Once cadmium slips into the body, it cannot be flushed out and neither can cadmium do the biological duties of zinc or calcium. Hagino announced his results in 1961 and as usual, the mining company 'Mitsui Mining and Smelting' denied all wrongdoing. Mitsui also campaigned to discredit Hagino. Hagino though persisted with his relentlessly continuing research and a local medical committee, investigating Hagino's claims admitted that Cadmium might cause the disease. Then a national government committee, overwhelmed by Hagino's evidence, ruled that cadmium absolutely causes itai-itai. To kill Godzilla in the movie "The return of Godzilla," the Japanese military deployed cadmium tipped missiles. Considering that an H-bomb gave Godzilla life, cadmium being used to take it away, shows the dim view Japanese hold of Cadmium.
Today Cadmium is present in batteries, among other things. We dump our batteries which end up in land fills and rivers and then, the cadmium slowly leeches off. The question is, are we repeating the same thing what happened at Kamioka, all over again.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Viral Sex

Imagine a person with Influenza coughs; a flu virus hitches a ride aboard the droplet that he spewed. The droplet lands on another host and invades the cell. But imagine that cell already harbours another flu virus. What happens next is messy; both the viruses reproduce inside the cell and when the host cell starts manufacturing the viral genes they sometimes get mixed together. The new offspring ends up carrying genetic material from both viruses. This mixing is known as reassortment, a viral version of sex.
Today as the genes of the flu virus are decoded, scientist realise that a quarter of all birds with flu have two or more strains in them at once. Thankfully flu virus has a species barrier, so a flu that affects birds should not affect other animals. But what about animals those are in continuous, close proximity to birds- like humans and hens?
On rare occasions avian influenza virus can pick up human influenza virus genes through reassortment. That is a recipe for disaster because the new strain can easily spread from species to species and humans to humans. Also since it has never circulated among humans before; no one has any defence to it too.
In April 2009, the world became painfully aware that the flu viruses also infect pigs, when an outbreak of swine flu jumped from pigs to humans. This swine flu strain called H1N1, is a sorry tale of industrialised scale pig farming. Pigs have the right biology for reassortment. Some of their receptors can accept both human and bird flu viruses. In 1918 a human flu strain infected pigs (it still makes pigs sick) and in 1970 a bird flu strain in Europe and Asia evolved into a swine flu strain. In 1990 scientist had discovered a "triple reassortment" in pigs having genes of Human-bird and pig flu. The 2009 H1N1 was a cocktail of this triple assortment and the Eurasian bird-to-pig strain and estimated to have evolved on 2008. The virus was unusually swift and had soon spread across many countries from its original place- Mexico.
Similarly the H5N1 that infected hundreds of people in Asia in 2005 was a similar bird- human reassortment. As of now H5N1 can only spread from bird to human and not human to human. But all this is just a matter of time. Our industrialised animal farming is a ticking time bomb, waiting for the perfect cocktail of Influenza virus to one day clean the human population.
For now the least we can do is wash our hands, keep good hygiene. The best we can do is, stop eating meat and stop animal farming all together. Else its tick tick tick…
Trivia: The H in H1N1 stands for 'hemagglutinin' . A spike-shaped protein found on the surface of influenza virus. This protein 'agglutinates' (clumps together) red blood cells, hence the name.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Who pollutes more- A vegetarian or a non-vegetarian?

According to United Nations and the Pew commission - Farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transport. According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gas emission, around 40% more than the entire transport sector- cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships - combined
Animal agriculture contributes to 37% of methane generated by human activity. Methane has 23 times more global warming potential than CO2.
So no matter what you do, if you are an omnivore, you contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases than a vegetarian.
So 3 questions you answer to yourself.
Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?
If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives isn't motivating, what would be?
If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn't enough. What is?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chicken nuggets with eggs.

Yesterday, I gave you nuggets on 'broilers', today it's on 'layers'. If you have not read that post, I suggest you read it and pass it on for the betterment of the earth.
Here is how an egg is made: Like I told yesterday, a 'layer' is a chicken, which is engineered to lay eggs.
Since only the female chicken lay eggs, the male chicks are disposed off. They are tossed into large plastic containers. The weak are trampled to the bottom, where they suffocate slowly. The strong suffocate slowly on the top of the dead bodies down.
As soon as the females mature, in 16 to 20 weeks, they are put in barns. The light is lowered; sometimes its total darkness 24/7.
The food is a very low protein, almost starvation level diet, for about two to three weeks. Then the lights are turned on for twenty hours, so that the chicken thinks its spring. Immediately, they put her on a high protein feed and she starts laying eggs.
This way a chicken lays over 300 eggs a year, that's over 2 or 3 times more than what hens do in nature.
After the first year they are killed since they won't lay as many eggs in the second year.
What about Free range eggs? There is no strict definition for free range. The most commonly accepted is that they should have "Access to the outdoors" .So a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a 5x5 feet open patch- and the door is closed all but occasionally is how today's free range eggs are made.
Most of the times, we do not realise that the meat that we have bought or ordered in a restaurant, involved the killing of an animal. The meat is so nicely packed and presented; we remain disconnected from the reality of what we eat.
I don't have the Indian figures, but in US alone, 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are given to livestock. (Well, now tell be about drug resistant bacteria!!)
So the next time you pop in that fired egg, remember it is filled with hormones of a stressful bird. They are laced with antibiotics which were fed to the bird to make them live for one year. The bird never saw the sky, nor was it capable for reproducing sexually. The bird lived a cruel life and now may have died cruelly.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chicken Nuggets

Probably the first thing that came to your mind when you read the title was the nuggets of KFC. Ah! But I meant some other nuggets, nuggets as in facts that I will share with you now (these ones are free and I encourage you to share it with your friends too).
Today there are two types of Chicken; 'Broilers'- chickens that become meat and 'Layers' chicken that lay eggs.
Broilers make flesh, since they are engineered to grow more than twice as large in less than half the time.
Chickens once had life expectancy of 15 to 20 years, but the modern broiler is typically killed at around six weeks.(Their daily growth rate has increased by 400%)
The muscles and fat of these chickens grow so fast that the bones can't keep up with the growth, leading to deformities and diseases. 4% of the birds die withering in convulsion.
5% of the chicken, suffer from 'ascites' where excess fluids fill the body cavity.
3 of 4 suffer from some walking impairment, and common sense suggests they are in chronic pain.
The chicken is raised in a windowless room, which is artificially ventilated, with artificial light and continuously fed by drug and antibiotics laced water. Each chicken has space, the size of a smartphone.For first week of their life, the light is kept on for 24 hours, this encourages them to eat more. After a week, the lights are off for 4 hours, which gives them just enough sleep.In conditions like this, chickens suffer from one or more of these problems: eye damage, blindness, bacterial infection of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anaemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases and weakened immune system.
Studies show that 39 to 75 % of chicken in stores are infected with e coli and 8% with salmonella.
Since these drugs laced, shit-contaminated chickens don't taste good, they are injected with salt broth to improve flavour.
During transportation, the chicken is not fed anything, irrespective of weather and length of journey. They are handled so badly when they are caged and removed from the cage that their bones snap. Often the birds will defecate in pain and terror.
The faeces on skin and feathers in a chicken are not required to be completely cleaned. These stains are called as 'cosmetic blemishes' and are breeding ground for microbes.
In India, every week, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained in green faeces, contaminated by harmful bacteria or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumours or skin conditions are shipped for sale.
Chicken after slaughter, is cleaned in the same water as previous chicken batches, one after another. This 'Faecal soup' is the right place for cross contamination of healthy birds if any.
So the next time you munch that chicken remember; that bird never breathed fresh air or saw the sky. It lived in suffering and died cruelly. It was incapable of reproducing sexually. In our bellies is an animal with antibiotics in its belly.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A memorable labour

In 1778, Marie Antoinette was giving birth to her first child. There was a lot of excitement in France, since the queen, though 23 years old, had yet to bear a child after 8 years of marriage to King Louis XVI (those days the queens only job was to bear an heir to the throne). Customarily the royal birth was an event for the spectators too. The moment the delivery was announced, spectators would enter the labour room and in the case of Marie Antoinette, there was such an excitement that the spectators surged into the room, and would have crushed the young Queen had the bed not been ringed with tapestry screens. As the room filled, people started climbing onto furniture. The queen fainted, apparently suffocated by heat and lack of oxygen in the room. Louis, who was a tall and strong man, broke through the crowd and forced open one window which had been sealed shut. The queen revived. After this incident the tradition was ended at Marie Antoinette's insistence and only a select relatives and ministers would attend the queen's future births.

# end

Monday, June 24, 2013

Worst executioner in history.

In 17th century England, an executioner by the name Jack Ketch had created panic in the people sentenced to the gallows. Here is his story. In 1683 at Tower hill, Ketch carried out the public execution of Lord William Russel, who had been condemned as a Catholic (Yes, it was enough to warrant a death sentence those days) Russel paid Ketch to make a clean job of it, and when the first blow was rendered, it merely glanced his neck, he looked up and complained, "You dog! Did I give you ten guineas to use me so inhumanly" in the end it took Ketch 4 to 5 attempts to sever Russel's head. The botched execution created an outcry, but his executions now drew larger crowds than anyone else's as the public clamoured for drama of Jack Ketch's performance ( clearly people did not have any other entertainment those days) in which victims would tremble with fear.
Two years later, Ketch was called again for beheading James Scott, the duke of Monmouth (beheading was the punishment of nobles, the common man was hanged).
Scott was aware about Ketch's reputation, and urged Ketch not to repeat it, paying him six guineas upfront and six more for a clean kill. He even inspected Ketch's axe to see if it was sharp enough. All this made Ketch so nervous that even after six blows, Scott was not dead, but writhing and screaming in agony. As the crowd roared with horror, Ketch threw his axe and challenged anyone in the crowd to take over if they could do better. The sheriff ordered Ketch to pick up the axe and finish the job, which he did after two more attempts. But even then he had failed to sever the head, and had to complete the task with a butcher's knife soaking the scaffold and nearby spectators with blood. The crowd were so enraged, that Ketch had to be escorted away for his own safety. After the disaster of the Duke of Monmouth's execution, Jack was sacked and imprisoned. His replacement was a butcher named Paskah Rose, but Rose was caught stealing a coat and hanged at Tyburn. Amazingly, despite everything that had passed, Ketch was now rehired in his place. Call it job security!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hedging in Roman times.

Augustus Caesar, was returning back to Rome, triumphantly, after having defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. No one in Rome was sure, which side would win the battle, but the victory of Augustus ended the Roman civil war. On is journey home, Augustus was greeted by a man with a Raven which had been taught to say "Greetings to Caesar, our victorious commander" Augustus was impressed by the bird and moved by the mans loyalty, as it would have taken many a months to train the raven, and the outcome of the civil war had been by no means certain. As a reward the man was given 20,000 sesterces for the bird.
The man had a business partner and he did not share any of this good fortune with him. The angry partner approached Augustus and told him that the bird trainer had a second Raven, which Augustus must also inspect. Augustus summoned the bird, which repeated a phrase of its own; in this case "Greetings to Antony, our victorious commander" Looked like the trainer was after all not that loyal and had cleverly hedged his bets. Augustus was amused, rather than angry (the trainer was truly fortunate I must say) by the duplicitous scheme and punished the man only by ordering him to share the money with his partner.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Domestication and enslaving by non humans.

If you believe that only humans domesticate other animals and also only humans kept slaves, then you need to read this.
Well, we humans have company, besides us, ants are the only other species to domesticate other animals. Many species of ants, domesticate aphids. They also shepherd them by taking them to the tender growing shoots of plants. The aphids suck the juices from these plants to feed themselves. Now ants will "milk" the aphids by stroking them with their antennas on their abdomens to stimulate them to release sweet liquid called 'honeydew'. When it is about to rain, the ants herd their livestock below the leaves so that they are not washed away. In exchange for their honeydew, ants provide protection for the aphids by attacking insects or parasites that threaten the safety of the herd. They also ensure that they are well fed by carrying them to new food source when the host plant is sucked clean. Also ants will often tear away the wings of aphids to stop their "cattle' from flying off.
Some ants like Polyergus, enslave smaller formic ants. They employ the smaller ants to take care of their young ones. The Polyergus, cannot care for their brood, because of their sharp mandibles. So they raid and steal the pupae of nearby ant colonies. When they emerge from their cocoons, the "slave ants" start to nurse the brood and perform other colony duties. To maintain a steady workforce, raids are conducted every month or so.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The carbon Silicon saga –II

Like I mentioned yesterday, Silicon nearly missed in becoming the backbone of today’s digital world. That place was nearly snatched by Germanium, and we may be all talking of Germanium valley, California or Bangalore would be the Germanium valley of India.
William Shockley, an electrical engineer and physicist at Bell labs was trying to build a small silicon amplifier to replace vacuum tubes in mainframe computers. Vacuum tubes were fragile, prone to overheating and consumed a lot of space. These tubes performed two major functions in an electric circuit. One, it amplified electronic signals, so faint signals did not die and secondly they acted like a one way valve for electricity, so electrons could not flow backwards into circuit. Shockley knew that he could achieve the same with semiconducting materials. Shockley worked with Silicon and built a silicon amplifier, which did not amplify anything. After two unsuccessful years, he dumped the project to two underlings, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Bardeen and Brattain realised that silicon was too difficult to purify and instead substituted Germanium and built the world’s first solid-state amplifier in December 1947. It was named the transistor. Shockley, who was in Paris at this time, did not want to miss on the credits for the invention and he rushed back for all the photo-op’s. Today all the publicity photos at Bell Labs show Shockley standing in the centre and Bardeen and Brattain flanking him on either side. Shockley then pushed Bardeen to another lab, so that Shockley could develop a second generation, commercial friendly transistor and keep all the credit to himself. Bardeen was so disgusted that he resigned from Bell labs, took an academic post and gave up semiconductor research altogether. Soon germanium transistors were all around, from improving computing power to making pocket radios. But many scientists were still working on Silicon. Silicon was not only abundant; germanium transistors generated a lot of heat and stalled at high temperatures.
In 1954, at a semiconductor meet, after a speech about the unfeasibility of silicon transistors, an engineer from Texas got up and announced that he had with him a working silicon transistor. His name was Gordon Teal, he hooked up a Germanium run record player to speakers and lowered the players circuit in a pan of boiling oil. As expected the player stopped. He then replaced the Germanium transistor with a Silicon one and repeated the experiment and this time the music continued playing.
Silicon Transistors were back.
In 1958, Texas Instruments hired a Six foot six inch tall engineer called Jack Kilby. His job was to solve a computer hardware problem facing the industry. Though cheap silicon transistors were now available, newer computers required lots of them in their circuits. In addition to this, there also were carbon resistors and porcelain capacitors to deal with. All these components had to be hand soldered by technicians peering over a microscope. It was very common for the frail wires of the circuit to break and render the whole thing useless. Kilby was hired to solve this problem. Kilby managed to carve all the resistors, transistors and capacitors in once block of a semiconductor and the Integrated Circuit (IC) was born. Not trusting the purity of silicon, Kilby used Germanium for his IC. Soon IC’s allowed engineers to automate the carving process and make microscopic transistors- the first real computer chips. Kilby though never got full credit, one of Shockley’s proteges filed a rival and slightly more detailed patent claim a few months later and wrested the rights away from Kilby’s company. Silicon, it turned out was much cheaper than Germanium and plentiful in supply. Soon Kilby’s Germanium IC ended up in the Smithsonian museum and silicon IC’s were in the market. As Sam Kean neatly summarises in the book ‘The Disappearing spoon:’  “After germanium did all the work silicon became an icon and Germanium was banished to periodic table obscurity”
This post is inspired from the above mentioned book. The complete title “The Disappearing spoon: And other true tales of Madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements” quite a mouthful but a wonderful read.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The carbon silicon saga - I

Carbon is the backbone of life on earth. If not for carbon, there would be no life. Why is carbon so versatile? As you know, atoms have electrons orbiting around their nucleus. Each orbit can hold a specific amount of electrons. In nature, atoms love to have their orbital full, since that makes them most stable. Carbon, element no. 6, has in its outermost orbital 4 electrons, and can accommodate 4 more. So it seeks electrons from any neighbouring atoms it can find and in its zest to find electrons, it bonds with virtually anything ('bonding' is chemistry lingo for sharing electrons). This promiscuity makes carbon such a life giver. Carbon can bond with upto four other atoms and is not picky about the direction in which it wants to bond. This allows carbon to build a complex chain of even three-dimensional webs of molecules. Unlike many other elements, carbon also shares electrons (Many elements steal electrons and fill up their orbitals). This sharing nature of carbon also makes it stable. With such gentle and accommodating nature, carbon can form amino acids, which forms proteins, which ultimately form life.
Is there no other element like carbon then? Well there is and it is a big hit among people looking for life in outer space and writing science fiction. It's eight elements away, sits right below carbon on the periodic table and is called Silicon. Silicon too has vacancies for four electrons in its outermost orbital and leaves it in the same predicament as carbon. But unfortunately (for sci-fi fans at least) silicon cannot pull some nifty tricks which carbon can. One for example is; carbon combines with oxygen, forming carbon-di-oxide, which is a gas and is easily shuttled around the body. Silicon would form Silicon di oxide, which other than being closely related to sand is a solid. Since solids stick together, its difficult for them to get in and out of cells when needed. Silica, does not even dissolve in water and that makes nutrient transport impossible. If the above reason does not satisfy you, then how about this- Since Silicon has more protons-neutrons and electron than carbon it is more bulky than carbon. The lean, thin carbon can contort, itself into ringed molecules we call sugars. Rings are in state of high tension and so pack in a lot of energy and the bulky silicon is just not supple enough to bend into the right position to form rings. For reasons like this and some more, carbon has made itself irreplaceable in the story of life.
Just like the carbon has formed the backbone of life, Silicon too has its share in our life. Today it forms the backbone of our digital world. Without silicon, you probably would not be reading this. Silicon to digital world is what carbon is to life. No computers, no smart phones and no blogger without silicon. But silicon a few years ago nearly lost this title to the element sitting right beneath it in the periodic table- Germanium. That story in tomorrows post.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How much Radiation...

Adding to yesterdays post on radiation on earth is today's post on quantity. I'm sure it will not overwhelm you. The three important units of measuring radioactivity are Becquerel (Bq), gray (Gy) and sievert (Sv).Here for our well being, the one we need to be concerned with is sievert. Sievert measures the radiation absorbed and is used when we want to judge the effect of radiation on us. What matters here is how big the dose is, the type of radiation on us and over what period of time it was given. Below is a table, just to get you scared.
Dose, (in millisieverts) Event
10,000 Given as a single dose, this will be fatal within weeks
6,000 Exposure of Chernobyl workers who died in a month
5,000 A single dose of this could kill half of those exposed
1,000 A single dose causes radiation sickness. Symptoms include nausea, lower WBC but you will live.
1,000 Accumulated over a period of time, this amount causes cancer in 5% of the people, years later.
400 Radiation levels recorded at Fukushima plant, per hour.
250 Average annual background level at Ramsar in Iran
100 Lowest annual dose at which an increase in occurrence of cancer is clearly evident in recipients.
20 Average current limit of employees in nuclear industry
16 CT scan: Heart
10 Full body CT scan
9 Airline crew flying New York to Tokyo polar route, annual exposure
7 Average annual background radiation per person in Finland
2.2 Average per person in UK
0.2 Chest X-ray
0.005 135g of Brazil nuts / dental x-ray

Just to lighten your mood: you need to eat about 270 tons of brazil nuts, to die of radiation poisoning.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Irradiated earth.

Ship wrecks are a very expensive proposition to raise and bring it ashore. Many ship wrecks lie untouched in the bottom of the ocean. Many wrecks of metal hulled warships, built before the Second World War are popular site for divers. They dive to salvage small pieces of steel, which are then used in the manufacture of radiation sensing scientific devices like Geiger counter. This steel is a precious resource because it was produced before the Second World War, and is the world's only source of steel which is free from the possibility of nuclear contamination. In other words, thanks to all the testing and dumping of nuclear waste, there is a very good chance that any metal that you use will have some quantity of radiation in it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A failed revolutionary, but a geologist, who became famous in medicine.

Dr. James Parkinson, was a socialist and author of provocative pamphlets like "Revolution without bloodshed". In 1794 he was accused in a conspiracy to shoot King George III, in the neck with a poisoned dart. Dr. James was hauled before the Privy Council for questioning his role in the plot, now called 'The pop-gun plot'. He was nearly dispatched to a prison in Australia, but then charges against him were quietly dropped one fine day. Dr. James then became very quiet and conservative for the rest of his life and never caused trouble again. He developed interest in Geology and became one of the founding members of the Geological Society. His book "Organic Remains of a Former world" remained in print for decades and possible became the only person to ever win a natural history museum in a raffle. In 1785, the museum in London's Leicester Square, had been founded by Sir Ashton Lever, but he drove himself to bankruptcy, with his unrestrained collecting of Natural wonders. Dr. James kept the museum until 1805, and later sold it. We all may not know Dr. James for all the above mentioned anecdotes, but one study of his has made him a household name. He studied an affliction, then called the "shaking palsy" but known ever since as 'Parkinson's disease'

Sunday, June 16, 2013

From dominoes to computer games.

Solomon Golomb, a very elderly mathematician has made important discoveries in space communication and electrical engineering. Though you may not have heard of him, you have certainly come across one of his creations, which became a global pop culture. Early in his career, Golomb came up with the idea of polyominoes, which are dominoes made out of more than two squares. A triomino is made of three, a tetromino out of four and so on. Martin Gardener, who wrote a monthly maths column in scientific America between 1957 and 1981, published a column on how polyominoes fit together. The column caused such international interest that Golomb's book ' Polyominoes' was translated into Russian, where it became a bestseller. One fan made a game that involved falling tetrominoes. That game, Tetris became one of the world's most enduring and best loved computer games. Now who tells me they have not played Tetris !!

# end

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Er... is it postive or negative ?

If you have a problem like me- frequently getting confused, between Cations and anions. Just remember cations are pussy-tive .

Friday, June 14, 2013

Generation Gap

If you are the one who likes drawing family trees, tracing back your forefathers, here is some food for thought.
If you somehow manage to draw your tree spanning 800 generations, you will have effectively covered more than 50,000 years.
But of these 800 ancestors of yours, 650 have spent their life in caves.
Only the last 70 had any effective means of communication with each other.
Only the last 6 saw a printed word or could measure heat and cold with any precision.
Only the last 2 used and electric motor.
Most of the items that make up the material world today were developed within the lifespan of the 800th Person. (That's your dad )

Inspired from: NASA report SP-5067, 1966

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I'm on cloud nine.

The International cloud atlas today consists of two volumes, containing many unknown and unusual cloud formations. Many of these clouds, I don't think evoke any interest outside meteorology. The first cloud atlas published in 1896 had only 10 clouds. (Mariners like me still study only those 10 clouds, which more than suffices our practical requirements) Among the 10 in the original atlas, the most fluffy, soft, cushiony looking one was number 9, cumulonimbus. That seems to be the source of the phrase "to be on cloud 9". That's how the story goes, although it's an unconfirmed etymology for the phrase. Its just too cute to let it go.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lady, Have you been “Paptized?”

George Papanicolaou, a Greek cytologist, arrived in NY in 1913 and to support himself, sold carpets. Finally after a long hunt he ended up getting a research job at Cornell. He was assigned to study menstrual cycle of guinea pigs. Not a very exciting job, but Papanicolaou gave everything into it. He scraped cervical cells off Guinea pigs using nasal speculum and Q-tips. Under a microscope, he found that the cells of guinea pig changed shape with their ebb and rise of hormones and Papanicolaou was able to foretell the precise stage of the menstrual cycle of a Guinea pig to the day.
Papanicolaou realised that he could try the same technique on women and recruited his wife Maria, to donate her cervical smears. She contributed her share everyday and expectedly he found that cells sloughed off by the human cervix could also foretell the stages of the menstrual cycle in women. A discovery of absolutely no value, since women could calculate their cycle quite accurately and had been doing so for centuries. But Papanicolaou had other ideas, he wondered if these smears could be used to test for any pathological conditions. Papanicolaou now began collecting cervical smears of women with various gynaecological conditions like- fibroids, cysts, tubercles, streptococcal and gonococcus infections, etc. hoping to find some pathological mark in exfoliated cells. Papanicolaou found that cervical cancer was prone to shedding abnormal cells of "aberrant and bizarre forms" with bloated nuclei, ruffled membranes and shrunken cytoplasm. Thrilled by his result, Papanicolaou published his method in an article "New cancer Diagnosis" in 1928 and called the test "pap smear". The technique was neither accurate not particularly sensitive and his colleagues argued that it was better to perform a biopsy of the cervix than rely on an unreliable test. Undaunted, from 1928 to 1950, Papanicolaou worked tirelessly, spending hours viewing cells under a microscope and typing reports on specimens. Later a gynaecological pathologist, Herbert Traut joined him to interpret his smears and a Japanese fish and bird painted, Hashime Murayama was hired to paint watercolours of his smears.
Then at a Christmas party in 1950, he was challenged by a tipsy gynaecologist to pinpoint the precise use of his smear and in the heat of the moment Papanicolaou had a thought- to use Pap smear not to find cancer, but to detect its antecedent or precursor. Papanicolaou speculated that his test thought imperfect might capture the disease at its first stages and give a woman a chance to receive preventive care and greatly decrease the likelihood of ever developing cancer. 
In 1952, Papanicolaou convinced the national cancer Institute to launch a clinical trial to test his technique. 1,50,000 women of Shelby county participated. Temporary "Pap clinics" were setup at nearly every corner in the county. The samples were analysed at university of Tennessee and 555 women were found to have cervical cancer. Astonishingly 557 women were found to have pre-invasive cancers curable by relatively simple surgical procedure. What Papanicolaou had noted was that cancer did not arise directly out of a normal cell. Instead, cancer often slouched toward its birth, undergoing discrete, transitional stages between fully normal and frankly malignant cell. Identifying and eradicating this premalignant stage before the cancer spreads is the basis for the pap smear.
The Pap smear test is today widely recommended and has proved quite effective, thanks to the persistence and tenacity of Papanicolaou.

Inspired by: The Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of cancer – Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak. Possible Early Oiling Might Prevent Premature Harm.

Yesterday I watched "An Inconvenient truth", Al Gore's award winning documentary. I have wanted to watch it since 2006, and for reasons I can't explain, I finally did it seven years later. If you have not watched it I strongly implore that you do it.
Now the title of this post may strike you as odd and not related to what you are reading. Let me explain. If you are having difficulties remembering the sequence of geological time scale- use the title as a mnemonic for aid.
Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Palaeocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene.
Among these periods five saw some major extinctions and rest some minor extinctions. The major extinctions were Ordovician (440 million years ago), Devonian (365 million years ago) both these carnages resulted in about 85 percent of species disappearing. The Triassic (210 million years ago) and Cretaceous (65 million years ago) swept clean about 75 % of the species. The best is for the last, Permian extinction (245 million years ago) wiped clean about 95% of the life on earth. Some of the prime contributors to this carnage were- Global warming, Global cooling, Changing sea level, Oxygen depletion of the seas, epidemics, meteor and comet impacts, runaway hurricanes ( hypercanes), massive volcanic eruptions and massive solar flares. Well coming back to Al Gores documentary that I mentioned above- It says our relentless Carbon-di-oxide pumping can cause five of the above mentioned contributors to recur. Each one of them nearly annihilated the earth; just imagine what all five can do. History does repeat itself.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Measuring the velocity of light in your kitchen

Light and microwaves are basically the same stuff, both are electromagnetic waves. What they differ is in their wavelength. So here is an experiment to measure the velocity of light, using kitchen as your laboratory.
1. Take something that easily melts (I would prefer a chocolate slab or a butter slab or even a cheese slice will do) in a plate.
2. Remove the turntable of the microwave. The plate should remain steady.
3. Put the plate in the microwave oven.
4. Cook in low heat, until you can see the food just start to melt in spots. (for chocolate slab, 30- 40 sec should suffice)
5. These spots are the peaks of the microwaves. So the two adjacent spots are the adjacent peaks of one crest and the next trough. The distance between them is half the wavelength of microwave.
6. Now remove the dish and measure the distance between the centres of two adjacent spots. Measure as many spots as you can- and a particular distance will appear frequently. You should get a reasonable average, this way.
7. Now look at the microwave manual- or somewhere in the body of the machine. They will mention the frequency of the radiation used in the machine (it will be somewhere around 2.45 GHz for a home microwave oven).
8. Now use the formula; speed of light = wavelength X frequency
9. So for example if your measured distance between spots is 6 cm; then multiply by 2 to get the wavelength (12 cms). Convert this into meters (0.12 meter). If the microwave frequency is 2.45 GHz use 2,450,000,000 Hz. The product of the example works out to be 294,000,000 m/s (0.15 X 2,450,000,000)
10. So see how close you can come to the true value of 299,792,458 m/sec.
All the best

Sunday, June 09, 2013

How a Geologist made your life liveable.

In the mid 1940's Harrison Brown, of the University of Chicago, assigned a tedious dissertation project to a young Clair Patterson. Geologists then were interested in calculating the age of the earth and Harrison had developed a new method for counting lead isotopes in igneous rocks. Uranium in rocks, over a period of time decays into lead. Scientist knew the exact time taken for this process. By counting the Uranium- lead ratio in a rock, scientists were able to estimate the age of a rock. The process indeed was tedious and Clair Patterson took seven years to complete it. He worked in a very sterile lab, making careful measurements of the lead- Uranium ratios in carefully selected samples of rocks. Patterson worked on meteorites, since it was not possible for him to acquire samples of ancient earth rocks, because earth continuously changes its surface. New rocks are replaced by older ones as the tectonic plates on the earth slowly shift.  Since many meteorites are leftover building materials from the early days of the solar system and have not been tainted, determining the age of the rocks would also give us an idea of the age of the earth. During his experiments, Patterson's samples were continuously and unaccountably contaminated with large doses of atmospheric lead, whenever they were exposed to air. He was bothered by this phenomenon, but kept it aside for some other day. Finally in 1953 Patterson announced the age of the earth as 4,550 million years (plus or minus 70 million years) a figure that still stands today.   
Patterson now turned his attention to the question of lead in atmosphere. The first thing Patterson realised was that until then, the study of the effects of lead on humans was mostly done by lead additive makers. In one case study, a doctor with no chemical pathology training; recruited volunteers to breathe in or swallow lead in elevated quantities. Their urine and faeces were tested. Unfortunately lead is not excreted as a waste product. Rather it accumulated in bones and blood, and in the tests, neither the blood nor the bones were tested. Lead was given a clean bill of health. As I mentioned in the previous post, tetraethyl lead was used as an additive since 1923. Patterson wanted to compare the atmosphere prior 1923 and that of the present day. It was known that snowfall in places like Greenland accumulates into discrete annual layers. By counting back through these layers and measuring the amount of lead in each, he could work out the global lead concentration at any time in earth's history. What Patterson found was that before 1923 there was almost no lead in the atmosphere and since then the level has slowly climbed. He now made it his life's quest to get lead taken out of gasoline. It would be a challenge; Ethyl (mentioned in the previous post) was a powerful global corporation, with many friends in high places. Patterson suddenly found research funding withdrawn or difficult to acquire. American Petroleum Institute and United states Public health service cancelled a research contract with him. Patterson became a liability to his institution, the school trustees were repeatedly pressed by lead industry officials to shut him up or let him go. Despite all the pressure Patterson never wavered and largely due to his efforts the 'Clean Air Act' 1970 was passed and by 1986 all leaded gasoline was removed in US. I remember using leaded gasoline in India even during 1995, not really sure when it was finally banned. It is said, that there was an 80% reduction in blood lead after the ban. Since Lead always will remain in the body, people alive today have 625 times more lead than people prior 1923. Lead though continues to be added to the air, not by automobile fuel but by other manufacturing processes. I wonder how much lead we have in the paints that we use at home. Clair Patterson died in 1995 and if you have not heard of him before this don't beat yourself. Most geology textbooks don't mention him; some books on the subject of dating of Earth have even misspelt his name. A reviewer of one of this book even thought that Patterson was a woman. I myself had not heard of Patterson until I read Bill Bryson's "A Short History of nearly everything" which inspired me to write this post. Large corporations fight tooth and nail to keep their profitable ventures going. Human life is least of their concerns. Asbestos, Endosulfan, DDT (is still present in bovine milk in India today!) low grade plastics, etc just to name a few. How long before we can all say a no? 

The Story of Tetraethyl Lead and CFC's

How much before it is really too much? This is the question that plagues my mind, when I come across instances of health and environment coming in loggerhead with economics. Not many will have heard of an inventor by the name of Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley, an engineer by training, developed an interest in industrial chemistry. This interest would prove too costly for all of us and you will soon see why. Midgley got a job in General motors research and while investigating a compound called tetraethyl lead (TEL) discovered that it significantly reduced engine knocking in automobiles. Lead is a neurotoxin. It can permanently damage the brain and the nervous system. Lead also leads to kidney failure, blindness, hearing loss, cancer and produces terrifying hallucinations. In simple terms, you don't want lead in your system. Since TEL stopped engines from knocking, 2 years after it's discovery in 1921, three of America's largest corporations GM, Du Pont, and Standard oil formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation (later renamed Ethyl Corporation) with a view of profiting from TEL. The additive was called ethyl, because it sounded less toxic than "lead." In the production facility of Ethyl Corporation, the workers exhibited symptoms of lead poisoning (described above). For decades, Ethyl continued denying any problems with TEL, even though fifteen workers had died in early days of leaded gasoline production and untold numbers became ill. To allay the concerns of the public, over the new product, Midgley even held a beaker of TEL close to his nose for 60 seconds, at a press conference, claiming he could repeat the procedure everyday without harm. Midgley, knew the dangers of lead very well and rarely even went near TEL.
After the success of leaded gasoline, Midgley turned his attention to another problem. Refrigerators in 1920's were dangerous, because its dangerous cooling gas used to leak. One leak from a refrigerator in 1929 killed more than a 100 people in the US state of Ohio. Midgley began working on a safer alternative and invented chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's.
CFC were swiftly embraced by the industry and were used everywhere from car AC's to perfumes. As you are aware by now, CFC is not a good thing. One kilo of CFC can destroy seventy thousand kilos of Ozone in the atmosphere and can stay there for centuries, wrecking havoc. Ozone protects us from sun's harmful UV rays. Midgley never knew this because he died before the harmful effect of CFC's were realised by anyone. Midgley, later became crippled with polio, and to ease his life, he invented a series of motorized pulleys that automatically turned him in bed. In 1944 he became entangled in the chords of this machine and was strangled. Midgley was a man of science, but the manner in which science was exploited by the big companies- despite being aware of the dangers is a story that follows. (To be continued in the next post...)

Trying to blog by email

I want to write again, share things that I come across everyday. Since onboard a ship ( that is where I am) I do no have internet, hope blogging by email satisfies my blogging instincts.