Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Most important discoveries of 2013

2013 was an eventful year for science. Many advances were made in our fight against disease, hunger and thirst. Our world is going towards an energy crises as the petrol, diesel and gas that we use is getting over. Scientists worked on alternate fuels and energy sources, and were rewarded with a few interesting findings. The field of computers is advancing with rapid steps. New materials are being used to build faster and smaller computers. The damage to environment remains a serious concern and a lot of research focused on it.
Over the next few days, I am planning to write about some striking discoveries of 2013 that will have big impact on our lives. I begin with a cure for cancer.

1. Gene Therapy Cures Leukemia
In a landmark piece of medicine, three patients were cured of leukaemia (blood cancer) in March 2013 using gene therapy. The therapy was given to five patients. All of them had received standard chemotherapy, but cancer had relapsed (returned). Their only hope was to receive a bone marrow transplant. Most patients do not survive long enough till bone marrow donation is available.
Scientists used a novel approach to fight against the cancer in blood. They took the immune system cells of the patients, and introduced a new gene in those cells. This gene made the immune system cells to behave like hunters of the cancer cells. The cancer cells have a specific protein on their surface. Our modified immune cells tracked this protein and destroyed the cancer cells.
This technique proved really effective. In one patient, all traces of cancer vanished within eight days. Others took a few weeks. One of the five patients died due to another disease and another died after cancer relapsed. Three were cured.
This result means that we have got a new powerful weapon in our fight against an old and deadly enemy of humankind – cancer. Certainly one of most noteworthy discovery of 2013.

2 - Mind controlled artificial leg
Just as we get ready to sign off 2013 and wave in the new year, I want to dedicate this article to all those who got disabled in accidents, wars, rioting and acts of terrorism during the year. The world remained torn in conflict this year too. An unfortunate result of the conflicts is that a lot of people need artificial limbs.
Artificial legs have been available for many years. In fact, the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has competed in London Olympics and many other events wearing an artificial leg. But it is very difficult to do actions like climbing stairs with these legs.
This year in September, an institute in Chicago demonstrated an artificial leg that is controlled by mind. It means that the person wearing this leg has to only think of the action to do, and the leg will make the movement!
Sounds amazing, isn't it? The way this is achieved is equally amazing. The nerves from the damaged part of the leg are made free and attached to healthy muscle. When the person thinks of moving the leg, brain generates a signal and sends it to these nerves. This signal is picked up by a sensor in the leg. A small computer decodes its meaning and moves the leg as per what the brain wanted to do.
You can watch a video of man walking with the mind controlled leg. It's only about a minute - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQqiKrLnieI
It will take a few years for these intelligent legs to be available in market. They will also have to become cheap so that more and more disabled people can afford them.
I consider this as one of the best gifts of science to the world in 2013.

3. Research on sleep and meditation
Have you made your new year resolution already? If not, I can help you by talking about last year’s research on health. This is path breaking research, because for the first time health in humans is clearly linked to what is called as Gene Expression.
What is gene expression? We can compare it to music. A piano may have lots of keys, but the melody we hear depends on which keys are pressed. Similarly our genes have a lot of instructions, but only some are actually ‘pressed’. Which genes are pressed depends on many factors, one of which is the chemicals present around them. This is called gene expression.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s see last year’s discovery about gene expression and health.
In the study, a group of healthy people with no sleep disorders were allowed to sleep less than six hours for a week. At the end of the week, they were kept awake continuously for about 40 hours. Then a blood sample was taken for testing.
It was a surprising result. The gene expression of 700 genes was altered. Many of these genes were related to immunity, stress reduction and inflammation control.
This is the beginning of a new chapter in medicine. It means that lack of sleep produces chemicals that alter the way important genes are expressed. These changed gene expressions may be responsible for disorders like diabetes and cardiac diseases.
In another important study, a similar experiment was independently done on mediation. A group of people was taught meditation for two months. After training they were told to do half an hour of meditation. A blood test was done before and after the meditation.
It brought up another amazing result. The genes linked to good things like energy metabolism, insulin secretion and aging repair were turned on, whereas those related to bad things like inflammation were turned off.
A lot more research is needed, and such research is going on. But the message is loud and clear. Taking enough sleep and meditation can make you healthy at very basic level – that of genes. How’s that as an idea for New Year Resolution?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why schools should start late

10 year old Neha (name changed) stays in the same building as I do. Everyday, she is supposed to learn an amazing amount of facts. New facts of science and geography, rules of mathematics, dates in history and words in English, are just few of the things she learns everyday in school. Add to that everything she talks to her friends and teachers and all the new movements she does while playing, it’s a huge pile of things to learn and remember. But she has an invaluable friend to help her in this difficult job. It’s called Sleep.
After saying goodnight to everybody in the house, Neha goes to sleep at 10 o’clock in the night. As she sleeps peacefully under her Tom and Jerry blanket, a fascinating process starts in her little brain.
Neha’s brain, like all human beings, keeps memories in two different baskets. We learn many new things every minute. As they come in, they are first stored in Short Term Memory basket. The things in Short Term Memory don’t last long. They fade in a few seconds, but repeating them verbally makes them strong, giving rise to the practice of Rutting.
The other basket is Long Term Memory. Memories here stay forever. When we suddenly remember the fond smell of new books from our schooldays, we are using the Long Term memory. Some of the things in Short Term Memory are shifted to Long Term Memory, rest are forgotten.
Short Term Memory has a limited capacity. So when Neha learns all those facts, rules and dates, her Short Term Memory gets full. New incoming facts will be turned away now, just like your email bounces when the mailbox gets full.
But sleep comes to rescue. During sleep, the Short Term Memory is cleared, memories not only get shifted to Long Term Memory, but are also carefully arranged along with older memories.
So sleep helps Neha in two ways. It clears her Short Term Memory for new learning, and creates good Long Term memories. Most of this work happens in the second half of the sleep.
And that’s why early start that most schools have can be a problem. If the child is sleeping late, and rising early for school, the precious hours of sleep doing this housekeeping work may be lost. Some schools in countries like the US have actually modified their start time to allow children to sleep more.
This clearing of Short Term Memory is important for us working adults too. This is where the afternoon naps come in. But more on that some other time. I have to take a nap now.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The champion body grower

In my article on Oct 28 this year, I talked about achieving enormous life spans, like 1000 years. I mentioned that we need to learn to regenerate organs, if we want to live to be a thousand. Today we will talk about some interesting examples of regeneration, but in animals.
There are many characters in our mythology who could regrow cut limbs and even heads. The Greek mythological hero Prometheus could regrow liver. Hollywood and Bollywood films are ripe with humans and robots who regain cut body parts within no time. Organ regeneration seems to be everyone’s favorite fantasy.
We humans have a few regenerative capabilities ourselves. We heal from wounds and grow new skin. Our Livers can regrow after they are damaged. Liver donors can offer up to half of their livers to the needy and regrow it. But these abilities are a mere nothing when compared to what some animals can do.
Everybody has seen a lizard discarding her tail when attacked by a cat. The cat is fooled by the writhing tail. While it is watching the tail keenly, the lizard escapes. It can grow the tail back, ready to fool the next cat.
Similarly, cockroaches and salamanders can grow a cut leg. Lobsters have similar skills. Snails can even regrow their head!
But everything pales in front of the real champion regenerator – Planarian.
Planarian are a kind of flatworms. They live in freshwater. Most are very small, about a centimeter, but some grow to be a foot long. You can easily find great pictures of them on internet – search ‘Planarian images’ on Google.
If we cut a planarian in half, each part will grow to be a complete planarian in a week or two. You can cut them in four, and four planarian will be created. If you are a avid cutter, you can cut them into up to 279 pieces, and you will get a healthy population of 279 planarians.
Amazing, isn’t it? How can they do it? Planarians have a large stock of cells called Stem Cells. Stem Cells are basically unbranded cells. They are not skin cells, nor muscles nor anything else. They can become any other type of cells. Our growth as Embryos uses these cells. (See my November 29, 2013 article on Development).
When a planarian is cut, stem cells gather around the cut. They convert into the right kind of cells for that place. This continues till the whole body is built.
This astounding ability of planarian is extremely useful for scientists to understand regeneration of organs in humans. Studies are going on in universities all over the world to study this mechanism and apply it to growing human organs.
How old is the oldest planarian? No one knows. But it might help us to live to be a thousand.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gut Bacteria and Autism

Bacteria look at our gut as we look at empty land – suitable to build colonies and settle down. Bacteria are very small and their numbers are mind boggling. Crores and crores of them live in our stomach and intestines. Only some of them are harmful. Most are harmless and some are actually useful. The useful ones help in digestion, repair the damaged intestine and even produce precious vitamins.
When we eat junk food or take antibiotics, some of these bacteria die. This disturbs the peaceful environment in the gut, and causes stomach disorders like constipation or indigestion. Our home remedy of eating curd tries to put these good bacteria back.
In the last few years, scientists are uncovering a connection between these bacteria and a disorder much more dangerous than indigestion – Autism.
Autism is a development disorder. It means that it affects children in their development stage, typically 0 – 3 years. Autism causes a broad range of problems. Autistic children find it difficult to interact socially. They experience anxiety, depression and are very dependent on others.
Problems in genes are supposed to cause Autism. But recent research is throwing up some surprising facts.
Parents of Autistic children say that the children suffer from stomach problems much more than other children. Their behavior worsens when they are suffering from these problems. This prompted scientists to study connection between Gut Bacteria and Autism.
A study was published in July this year. It claimed that Autistic children lack some types of bacteria in their stomach. A paper published last week made a very sensational claim – they treated autistic mice with a type of bacteria, and found that some symptoms of autism were cured.
This research indicates that there is hope for Autistic children and their parents. We must keep in mind that these are preliminary studies and it’s a long way to go for any kind of treatment to become reality.
Autism is an extremely unfortunate condition. I will be watching the developments in this research with hopes for the best.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Boredom and creativity

Computers have memory. Computer memory is divided between permanent memory and working memory. The permanent memory stores all your songs, pictures and movies. Working memory is used for processing.
So when you are reading your birthday wishes on Facebook wall, or writing an email, the computer is using its working memory to temporarily hold the text, pictures and everything else.
Human beings also have working memory, which we use when we are busy at a task, like writing or catching a train. This memory is used to keep all the thoughts about the job at hand.
There is an interesting difference between our working memory and that of the computer. When computer does not need all the working memory it has, the remaining memory remains idle. But that is not the case with us.
When we have more working memory than we need, the rest of the space is filled by wandering thoughts. Sometimes these wandering thoughts become more important than the actual job you are doing. You turn the pages of a book, but your thoughts are somewhere else and later you don't remember a word from the book. We call this daydreaming.
This characteristics of our working memory has two interesting effects:
- Those with more working memory do more daydreaming. But it also means that they have more capacity of focusing when the job requires it. So those who seem more distracted, ironically can do a better job at focusing.
- The wandering thoughts lead to creativity, as they enable more connections between unrelated ideas. Now, if you have a boring task in office, your working memory is not used, so your thoughts wonder, and creativity gets a chance.
So getting bored at your desk is not bad, you can turn it into creative ideas. Did you ever have this experience?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Music training enhances hearing capacity of brain

When we hear speech, the neurons in the brain respond and make meaning out of it. With age, the response gets slower. This is why old people find it difficult to understand fast changing speech. They also have difficulty in understanding talk in noisy environment.
Research suggests that those who have undergone musical training in their childhood have a much faster neuron response to speech. The researchers tested old people who had as less as 4 years of musical training in their childhood. Even though they haven't practiced music in 40 years, their response to speech was better than those who haven't undergone any training.
This advantage is not limited to old age. It means that throughout our life, our ability to hear even in noisy places will be higher if we are musically trained.
This is the first research of its kind. Such facts cannot be confirmed unless many more studies are done. But surely it gives us a reason to learn music, and teach to our kids.
(Link to the research paper http://tinyurl.com/YScNeuro01
- reading only Abstract should be enough)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Brain and the Birth Canal

In human beings, giving birth is a difficult and risky job. No other animal faces such difficulties while delivering babies. Why should it be so?
Sometime during our journey of becoming human from apes, our ancestors became upright and began walking on two legs. This happened 20 lac years ago, or may be even earlier.
One effect of the upright position was that the birth canal became narrow. Giving birth became an ordeal that women go through till today.
At the same time, the human brain was becoming larger. The large size of the brain is one of the things that makes us human. Our brain is around 1.4 Kg, 2% of our body weight. Elephant’s brain is 5 Kg, only 0.08 % of its weight.
So it was a double challenge. The birth canal became narrow and brain became large. In order to make birth possible, the brain of a baby is only 28% of in size at birth. But it is still too large for the narrow canal. Then evolution came up with another trick.
The head of a baby is not one solid ball like us adults. It is made up of five separate parts, joined by soft patches. Search Fontanelle on internet and you can see what it is. The Fotanelle serves two purposes:
- At birth, the head is pressed together so that it can pass through the birth canal.
- After birth, the brain grows rapidly. The Fontanelle allow this growth. One fotanelle closes a few weeks after birth, another sometime after the first birthday of the baby.
The twin challenge of large brain and small canal has another interesting effect- family and societies. The baby’s brain is not complete at birth. So it needs a long time to learn even basic things like eating. To ensure training of the babies, long term bonds like marriage evolved. Family became a very important unit in human culture, owing to a large brain and small birth canal.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

ISRO's shining moment

Last night, 50 minutes after midnight, Indian scientists at ISRO put the Mangalyaan on right on the path to Mars. It was a huge moment!
They did what no country has been able to do before, to get it right in the first attempt.
The nation feels proud for the ISRO team. Lots of wishes from Yours Sciencely on behalf of all its readers for the journey ahead. Way to go!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Genetics Part 2: Development

Genetics Part 2: Development

Yesterday I made salad for dinner. It had a nice name - Avocado, Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta Salad. I took the recipe from the website of Tarla Dalal, the famous Indian food writer.

I had the right ingredients and followed the instructions. It was fun to cook, and my wife was happy. But I could do it only because I had the recipe.

(Photo courtesy TarlaDalal.com)

Our genes are like recipes. They build our bodies, just the way my salad recipe cooked the dish. The genes build the body one cell at a time.

Our body is made up of cells, there are about 100 trillion (that’s 14 zeroes after 1) cells in our body. We begin life as one cell. Inside this cell is the recipe written on 46 strips of paper called DNA. Arranged as 23 pairs, these strips are called chromosomes, and the instructions in the recipe are called genes.

When the cell divides into two, both cells carry a copy of the recipe. This division continues and new cells get created. New cells are all alike to begin with, but soon turn into different types – blood cells, muscle cells, skin, kidney and so on.

The source of this magic is our recipe. All cells have the same DNA strips, but different genes are ‘turned on’ in different cells, making them special. So if the genes related to skin material are turned on in a cell, that cell becomes a skin cell.

Now we have to understand how complex organs get made from a bunch of cells.

To understand this, you need to remember something you did in your childhood. Did you ever make a paper boat?

(Image courtesy psdgraphics.com)

This boat is made from a sheet of paper, without making a single cut. You can watch lots of tutorials on YouTube on how to make this. I did not have YouTube when I was small, but I learned to make it from my friends.

To make the boat from a sheet of paper, you have to do things like fold the paper, then turn it, bend and again fold and so on. If you look carefully, these steps are nothing but a recipe, and the recipe makes a complex thing like paper boat from a simple sheet of paper. Those of you familiar with origami know that more complicated things can be made with simple sequence of operations.

(Example of origami art, courtesy http://pdxpursuit.wordpress.com)

When such operations are done on strings or sheets of cells, they create organs. The operations have big sounding names, like invagination and neurulation but really they are just folding and turning and bending. Bunches of cells go through these steps, and make the nose and heart and fingers and all other parts of our body. The instructions for the exact steps come from -you guessed it right- the genes, our recipe.

So this is why a child looks like a mixture of its parents. Some parts of the recipe come from the mother and other from the father. But even though the child looks similar to parents, it is not an exact copy. This is easy to understand. Even if you use the same recipe for making Gajar ka Halwa again and again, it is not going to turn out exactly same every time. Similar, but not same. Genes give the instructions, but the actual result also depends upon other factors before and after birth.

So yesterday’s dinner was really awesome! I made a good dish, and also learned some Developmental Biology in the bargain. The only worrying point is, my wife wants me do more of it – cooking of course, not Developmental Biology.

Suggested reading:

1. The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins: Read chapter 8: You Did It Yourself In Nine Months.

2. Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carrol: You will find some great explanation of Animal Architecture in the first three chapters .

Monday, November 11, 2013

Genetics Part 1: Inheritance

Genetics Part 1: Inheritance

The baby is just a few days old. While she plays gleefully, a group of people surround her. They are her uncle and aunties. ‘She looks just like her mother!’ – someone says. ‘But has the eyes of her father’ – says another.

They are all geneticists. Natural, untrained specialists in genetics, like most other people. Even though the science of Genetics is just fifty years old, people have an intuitive knowledge of its principles since thousands of years.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Baby of Hope: does a three year hold hopes for HIV infected newborns?

Three years ago, somewhere in the Mississippi state of US, a woman was detected to be HIV positive while she was in labor. The baby was born, and there was a 25-30% chance of the baby being HIV positive too.
Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist treating the baby, had a difficult choice to make. It takes about six weeks to get confirmed reports of HIV in newborns. Should she start the antiretroviral treatment? This treatment can be toxic, and so is usually given only after confirmation of HIV.
Dr. Gay decided to start the treatment immediately. The baby received aggressive antiretroviral treatment for the next 18 months. Then, the baby stopped coming for the sessions. Dr. Gay assumed the worst. The virus would come back. It was a lost cause.
She was to get a surprise. The baby came back after 5 months. Dr. Gay assumed she would have high virus infection. There was none!
It was magical. Five months after stopping treatment, the baby was HIV free. No treatment was started then.
This find made international news. Dr. Gay and her colleagues were noted by Time magazine in the list of most influential people of 2013.
That was one year ago. The baby is now 3 years old, still off medication and still free of HIV.
Doctors caution against reading too much in the baby’s case, though. It might be a special case. The treatment might not even be responsible for the good result. It is too early to say from one case. In fact a much larger study, funded by US government, is beginning next year to track a number of HIV positive babies.
Let’s watch the developments. This surely holds a ray of hope for all those who are not yet born.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

NASA’s (fake) satellite image of India in Diwali

You must have seen it at least once. Maybe you have liked it, or commented 'Wow!'. A beautiful map of India adorned with dazzling colored lights all over it. This is supposed to be India as seen from NASA satellites during Diwali, the festival of lights.
But something is wrong, isn’t it?
The image shows white, blue, green and red lights in DIFFERENT areas. Do you think some areas in India use red lights and some use only green?
This is not Diwali night seen from satellite. It’s an image created by an institute in US to show the population growth in India. The white lights are the areas of dense population before 1992, blue, green and red lights showing areas of growing population in 1992, 1998 and 2003. So these are night images of India taken over years, and processed to create an illustration.
NASA got apparently frustrated and published an actual image of India during Diwali of 2012. It is black and white and looks no different than any other night. All it shows is where the cities are.
You can have a look at this actual image on the NASA site at

Why not everyone is happy with Mangalyaan

This year’s Diwali lights got more brilliant, when news of the Mangalyaan’s successful launch reached the nation yesterday. Magalyaan, or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was made in fifteen months for a cost of 450 crores. That’s just about the box office collection of Chennai Express, this year’s another spectacular release. ISRO, the Indian space agency got due congratulations.
Mangalyaan will circle around earth till this month end. On December 1, it leaves for the Mars. It will reach near to Mars in September 14. Thereafter, it will circle around Mars to collect important information.
Not everybody is happy though. There are some serious issues that are being raised about this mission, since last August 15 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the declaration. Lets look at some criticism that is being made -
1. The mission is scientifically not significant: ISRO has used a small rocket to launch the vehicle to Mars. The larger rocket called GSLV is not yet ready. Due to this, the actual scientific equipment that the vehicle is carrying is limited to 25 Kg, barely enough for serious observation.
2. India has hurried this launch to beat China: China has beaten India in most of the earlier achievements in space. But China’s own Mars mission failed in 2011, giving India the chance to get ahead. This is the reason for the hurried program.
3. It’s not doing anything new: Six nations have so far sent similar missions and NASA has two vehicles (called Rovers) crawling on the Mars surface. So we will be just repeating what has been already done.
No matter what you think about these points, for ISRO it will be a great accomplishment. It will be doing two things it has never done before:
1. On December 1, 2013, Mangalyaan will leave the earth’s orbit and leave for Mars. ISRO’s vehicles have never left earth’s orbit before.
2. In Sept 14, when it enters Mars orbit, it will have to be slowed down, otherwise it will escape into space. To control the vehicle after 300 days of journey will be a challenge ISRO has never handled.
With bated breath, let’s wait for December 1. Its a difficult phase for any Mars mission. 30 out of 51 Mars bound spacecrafts have so far failed in this phase. Best wishes, ISRO!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Where hormones rule – Part 2: about stress and competition

Can you remember your latest experience of waiting? My fellow Mumbaikars have a rich experience of waiting for the famous local train to arrive or for the traffic to clear. I have myself waited for one and half hour in shining afternoon sun for a friend to turn up. Some of you may also recall waiting for the doctor to come out of the operation theatre and tell how the surgery on your loved one went.
We all know that it is a stressful experience. Waiting for a traffic jam to clear even for ten minutes changes your mental and physical state. You don’t sense most of these changes, though. The blood pressure goes up. Digestion slows down. Immune system starts working at a very low level. Even reproductive system is shut down. The glucose in blood goes up.
What is going on? Waiting is a familiar situation to the brain from Old Times (please read Part 1 of this article about Old Times). Our ancestors waited for hunting, fights with enemies and many other things. Trained for this, your brain is now preparing you for a long period of trouble. All the systems less important in current situation are shutting down. The energy is being diverted to more important systems, like muscles, lungs and heart. But how exactly is the brain achieving this?
Enter Cortisol. A powerful chemical that rules us in periods of stress. We call such chemicals as Hormones. There is a part of our body, called Adrenal Gland, that makes this chemical. Brain orders the gland to make Cortisol. It mixes with blood and makes all necessary changes as the blood circulates through the body.
Small amount of Cortisol produces good effects. It gives you a burst of energy, better vision, memory and hearing, less pain and also a pleasing sensation. This is what the young people experience when they ride their bikes very fast. They are creating controlled stress. They know that they are going to relax in a moment. But when Cortisol remains in blood for a long time, it produces all the harmful effects that we know as stress related problems. They include high blood pressure, diabetes, fragile bones and susceptibility to infections.
Now let’s turn to those Diwali shoppers of Part 1 that you have tagged as successful people. They are under influence of another powerful hormone called Testosterone. This magical chemical is made in the tastes of males and ovaries of females. Testosterone springs into action when brain senses another age old situation – Competition.
All societies that we know have a ladder of social status. We are all aware of our place on the ladder, even though we do not always admit it. Our brain has been trained by the struggle to climb the ladder in Old Times. It knows that going up means a better chance of survival.
The struggle to improve our status brings in competition. Testosterone is brain’s formula for winning. Apart from preparing your body, Testosterone also increases risk taking and confidence in you. It makes you more alert and quick. Many times, these qualities help you to win.
But now Testosterone starts taking you on a ride. We know that brain commands the body through hormones. But it happens the other way round too. With Testosterone in our blood, we become more confident, talk loudly, become more aggressive. The brain tracks all this, and concludes that we are in competition. So it makes even more Testosterone. You are now in a loop.
This is a normal picture of investors when the stock market is going up. Excitement breeds even more excitement. After a while it reaches ridiculous proportions, till the bubble bursts and Cortisol takes us in its arms.
Cortisol has its own loop too, one which is really bad for us. When you are feeling down, your voice lowers, movement slows down, you are less confident. Brain gets these signals, and starts making more Cortisol. This negative loop can have a disastrous effect on your mood, leading to panic attacks.
As a rule, I have stayed away from prescribing any cure. But I want to give one here, something I have practiced. You know that the body sends signals to the brain. You can use this when you feel you are going down the Cortisol spiral. A nice meal, massage, modest exercise can create a feeling of well being and break the negative loop.
When you are anxiously waiting for the train, even smiling to yourself can make a difference. No harm in trying.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Where hormones rule - Part 1: The Old Times

It’s 11’o clock in the night and you are watching Crime Patrol on Television. A particularly gruesome crime is going to take place. You see a man wielding a threatening axe in hand. In a few seconds the axe is going to wreak havoc on the neck of a perfectly innocent family man.
As you watch this, your pupils grow bigger, your blood pressure rises, breath quickens, heart beats faster, a tightness comes in your muscles, blood gets diverted away from your stomach – giving you the butterflies. If someone is watching you now, you are the picture of a person facing danger. You can pounce any time, or run away, as the danger may be.
If you are looking at yourself somehow, you will say – relax, this is just a television show. No one is going to attack you. But the funny part is, you are not even aware of these changes. It is as if your mind and body are on an autopilot.
Before we start understanding why this happens, let me show you a small bit of our history. I will draw a timeline:
- Women started working in factories and offices – Less than 100 years ago
- Men started working in factories and offices – Less than 500 years ago
- Men started working on farms, women cook and take care of children – 7000 years ago
- Men hunt and women take care of children – since more than 1 lac years ago
As you can see, our history is made up of men hunting and women tending to children. There was hardly any cooking. There were no fixed houses, no villages and cities. We were all wandering tribes. Our bodies and minds are shaped in these conditions. Scientists call this as ‘Ancestral Environment’. Let’s us call it, simply, ‘Old Times’.
While trying to understand ourselves and others, the biggest mistake we can do is to think in light of today’s conditions. Our brains are made in Old Times. So when you fight with our office colleague today, your brain thinks of him as a member of another tribe. When you watch terrible crimes or sensational news on television, your brain takes it as an actual danger, not just a moving image.
Well, there is a part of mind that can think and understand this. This is why one part of you is definitely aware that it’s just an office colleague. But there is another part of mind, that is hidden. It is this part that controls the emotions, feelings and bodily reactions. This part is far more powerful than the thinking one. And it was shaped in the Old Times.
In the Old Times, there were very few things that mattered for survival. Danger from enemy like predator or other humans, opportunity to get food, opportunity to find mates and protecting children. Any man or woman who could do these things well, survived. There were no projects to be planned or diplomatic emails to be written.
These critical situations had to be identified quickly. There was no chance of second thought. Imagine one of our ancient forefather standing in the wild. There is a rustle in the leaves. He has to choice but to conclude quickly that it’s a poisonous snake. Thus the brain learned to detect all important situations fast, even if wrongly sometimes.
Now let’s get back to you watching Crime Patrol. Brain detects danger as per Old Times. Facing danger needs speed, strength and alertness. Brain prepares the body accordingly. The pupils dilate to take more light in. The body needs more oxygen, so the breath quickens. Muscles like legs, arms and organs like heart, lungs get more blood. Unknowingly, you become like your ancestor who has just detected a snake in the leaves.
Can you spot successful people in the Diwali shopping crowd? They will be walking straight, heads high, speaking loudly and aggressively. We have taken the first step in understanding them. We have learned that our mind was shaped in Old Times. We need to know a few more interesting facts. This is where the hormones come in. But that has to wait for Part 2.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dog, Corn and Almond : how man changed animals and plants to suit him

After you have checked your Facebook news feed, try this one – type ‘Great Dane and Chihuahua comparison’ in Google search. Some nice images will come up. Some sites will even show a side by side comparison, just like they show for mobile phones.
You are in for a surprise. Great Dane is 7 times tall and 20 times heavier than Chihuahua. Usually, they will be considered two species, but they are not. All dogs are same specie.
What do we mean when we say they are the same specie? Two animals are of the same specie when they can interbreed, which means they can mate and produce offspring. But one more condition, the offspring should also be able to produce offspring.
Horse and donkey can mate to produce mule. But mules cannot produce children. Rarely, Lions and Tigers mate to give birth to Ligers and Tigons. But these rare animals are also sterile, meaning they do not reproduce.
But all dogs, however different they might look, can mate and produce pups. So they are all one specie. But then why do they look so different? Not only they look different, they have different qualities. Retrievers can pick up a bird killed by hunter and bring it back to him. Coolies can herd sheep. Some hounds can pick up scent even across running water and after several days.
What created them? The answer is us. We created all these varieties.
Dog is basically wolf. Thousands of years ago, some wolves started lingering close to human sites. Man realized that they are useful animals. Wolves realized that man is useful company. Slowly, the wolves lost the wild characteristics. They became docile. They learned to stare into our eyes – something that very few animals do.
Now man started experimenting. He understood some basic principles of how to breed dogs for certain desired qualities. Armed with these principles, now called Selective Breeding, he created many types, called breeds of dogs.
So what is selective breeding? Suppose the breeders want to create a dog breed with long ears. They take a group of dogs, male and female, with as long ears as they can get. Now when the dogs produce their first pups, breeders select those with longest ears. When the pups grow up, they mate and create a litter. Again repeat the same process. After some generations, you will have a group of dogs with distinctly long ears. Now you have to keep them breeding inside the group. They will be called pure-breed. All you have to do is to give the breed a nice name.
Man used this technique not only with dogs, but many other animals and plants. The almonds found in the wild are bitter. The bitterness comes from a chemical that breaks into cyanide, which as we know, is poisonous. So anybody who is daring (or desperate) enough to make a snack of wild almonds will get very sick, if not die.
But selective breeding created the almonds that we eat. Due to a mistake in genes, some trees of almonds did not have bitter nuts. Some ancient children must have discovered these while they were playing and were hungry. When the elders found out about the edible almond, they used a branch from that tree to cultivate more trees.
Most of our foods are thus modified using selective breeding. The apples in the wild are only one inch in diameter, whereas our supermarket apples are three inches in diameter, nine times as large. The wild corn cob is hardly half an inch long, but we can easily buy a foot long corn cob at our nearest ‘bhuttawala’.
All this happened thousands of years ago. Most of our crops were created between 10,000 years ago and 2000 years ago. Animals were also domesticated around that time. So man moulded the genes are animals and plants without knowing anything about genetics.
The cow can produce around 20 litres of milk everyday, very little of which is needed by the calf. So why does the cow make so much milk? I think you should be able to answer that now.
(In this article, the word ‘man’ is used interchangeably with ‘human’, only for easy reading. No offence meant to women, who played a big role in shaping our foods and animals).

Monday, October 28, 2013


Would you like to be immortal, live forever? On a more sensible note, would you like to live 1000 years?
Of course it’s not possible today. But see what one scientist has to say on the subject:
“The first human who will live up to 1,000 years is probably already alive now, and might even be today between 50 and 60 years old”.
(Aubrey de Grey – forerunner of anti-aging research, on Television, in 2008. I can't help if his name sounds a little fishy when you pronounce it!)
That would include a lot of us. Are we that close of achieving such a lifespan? We once considered it to be mythological.
The largest lived human being was Jeanne Calment from France. She died in 1997, at an age of 122 years. She met the painter Van Gogh when she was 13 years old, saw the Eiffel Tower being built and did a small role as herself in a movie when she was 114 years old.
Let’s see what we can learn about Lifespan Extension, the word everybody uses.
First we have to understand why we die. Some of us die because of natural causes, like diseases or aging. Some die due to unnatural causes like accidents, violence or suicide. We will consider here only the natural causes, of course.
The biggest natural killer is old age. Age will certainly get you, if nothing else does. But what does aging actually mean?
Aging is not any one thing. It’s a collection of lot of things that are going wrong. Damage to cells, tissues, organs is the most important part of aging.
During most of our life, the cells that make up our various body parts divide to form new cells. This is our body’s way of repairing any damage that occurs. Now, every cell can divide only a certain number of times. After that count, the cell division stops. No further repair takes place.
Damage to important tissues and organs results into death. It is clear then, that to extend our lifespan, we have to overcome aging.
For one, we can postpone aging. We already know a lot about how this can be done. Diet, exercise, healthy lifestyle delay aging. Certain nutrients and supplements are known to restrict the damages. Herbal remedies in ancient sciences like Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurveda serve the same purpose.
But the postponement of age is limited, and not guaranteed. In order to really overcome aging, we must be able to repair the damage that small and big parts of the body have suffered. Let’s see what knowledge we have in the repair department.
Science has been studying the animals who are good at defying death. One kind of Jellyfish is theoretically immortal. The trick that it plays is simple – it has two phases in its life. When it suffers aging in the second phase, its cells change themselves to go the first phase. It can repeat this cycle indefinitely, but is usually eaten by some fish who is not aware of its scientific significance.
Lobsters are also ageless creatures. They do not slow down, weaken, or lose fertility with age. In fact, older lobsters may be more fertile than younger lobsters. Also, they never stop growing. Lobsters are known to live up to 60 years. Nobody knows what will happen if they are not killed by humans or predators.
A salamander can not only regenerate a limb, but can regenerate the lens or retina of an eye and also the intestine.
These animals are able to repair damages to their body. What if we can emulate them?
Now, to repair the damage, we have to do multiple things. Let’s make a small list, as examples-
- Repair DNA : The genetic code is inside every cell and every time the cell divides, it is copied. As with all copying, this copy also makes errors. The errors are called mutations and some of them are harmful. These mutations need to be found and corrected.
- Clear the junk: Our cells are like factories. They create junk like real factories. This junk has to carried away.
- Fill up cell loss: Some cells die and do not get regenerated. We have to compensate for this loss.
- Kill stubborn cells: Some cells are supposed to stop dividing and die. They do neither. What they achieve is that they stop other cells from dividing too. These cells have to be killed.
- Replace organs: Even after solving cell problems, if organs suffer damage, replace them with organs created from other cells of the same body.
We already have many of the technologies needed. Nanotechnology, Gene Therapy, Organ Cloning are some techniques that are being tried, though none of these is mature yet.
A lot of not-for-profit foundations and for-profit companies are working in this field. The Methuselah Foundation encourages research in anti-aging. It gives a prize to anyone who can stretch the lifespan of a mouse beyond current record. Currently, the prize is 4 million dollars and longest mouse age is 5 years. Recently in the news, Google has announced a new venture California Life Company (or Calico) to solve the challenge of aging.
Many people have serious issues with Lifespan Extension. There are ethical and social debates. What would happen if human beings suddenly start achieving such stupendous lifespan? You can find all this interesting debate on the internet. You better get informed and make up your mind. Who knows, in a few years, we might wake up one day to see a Life+ link on Google home page!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Introduction to Nobel Prizes 2013 – III : Chemistry

Are you of the firm opinion that the best use of a computer is to share your vacation pictures on Facebook? Think again. How about helping to create new medicines?
But, before we get to computers and medicine, we have one stop to make - proteins. Proteins are present in every cell of our body. Many parts of body are made of proteins. The proteins like hormones and enzymes control the chemistry of the body.
We also remind ourselves that molecules are the smallest parts of a material. Suppose you have got a bit of common salt in your hand. You split it into two. Take one part and again split it into two. You do this again and again and the salt will become really small. After a while you won’t see it. But it will still be salt. Don’t stop splitting. The last particle that can respectfully call itself salt is a molecule of salt. You split it more and it is no longer salt.
Now, thus prepared, let’s go to medicine.
Many medicines work by attaching themselves with proteins. A molecule of the medicine meets a molecule of a protein. What they do after meeting decides whether you are going to feel better or going to stay in bed longer.
The minutes of meeting of drug and protein molecules is thus the key to finding new medicines. These details are too complicated to be written on the back of a bus ticket, however. They are too much even for a notebook page, or the whole notebook, for that matter.
The scientists who were honoured by the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year discovered how these molecular meetings can be imagined using computer. Their work is being used not only for making new medicines, but also to understand how green plants make food in their leaves, and how we can process sewage, to give a few examples.
Three scientists shared the prize. All three work in the U.S., but hail from different countries.
Martin Karplus is 83 years old and comes from Austria. He teaches in Harvard University and a university in France.
66 years old Michael Levitt is British and associated with Stanford. He is a Israeli citizen.
Arieh Warshel, 72, is also an Israeli citizen. He does his research in University of Southern California.
The most astounding thing is, they did this work forty years ago, when computers were rare. There were no personal computers, only large computers owned by institutions. Their work was not treated with enthusiasm initially. Their colleagues in chemistry thought it was a waste of time.
But as computers became more powerful and more familiar, the work of Karplus, Warchel and Levitt became important to scientific community and the industry. Today, many pharmaceutical companies use this technology to discover new drugs.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Selfless Ants: how elderly termites defend their colony by sacrificing their lives

The elderly people are very important to our society. They posses a lot of knowledge which they pass to the younger generation. The younger people protect our seniors carefully.
But ants have a different way of life. Here, the elderly ants protect the younger ones. It is the old that take the more risky tasks, such as gathering food from faraway places.
Now, scientists have found a remarkable behavior in some types of ants and termites. The elderly actually explode themselves like a bomb in battle with predators.
These type of termites grow a sack of toxin on the back throughout their life. By the time they are old, the sacks become sizable. When enemy attacks, these senior termites are at the forefront. Their sacks burst while fighting, spilling the toxin and killing a lot of enemies.
This is an extreme example of sacrifice. But the study of social insects- like ants, bees, termites- can tell us about many such examples of selflessness. The key to this behavior is hidden in the peculiar genetics of these insects. But more on that some other time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Looking back in time

We all want to go back in time. Well, nobody knows if that is possible. But looking at the past is quite easy.
Every time you look at something that is far away, you are actually looking at the past. Because even though light travels very fast, it takes some time to leave that thing and reach your eyes.
Horizon is about 5 km away. So when you look at a ship on the horizon you are seeing the past, though only fraction of a second ago.
But when you are looking at stars, it’s another matter. They are far away, and light takes a long time to reach us. When you look at the sun, you are looking 8 minutes in the past. Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to us is the third brightest star in the sky. When you look at Alpha Centauri, you are seeing things that happened four years ago.
Now scientists have found a galaxy (which is nothing but a large group of stars) that is really far far away. It is farther than anything we have known before. When you look at this galaxy, you will be taken 1300 crore years in the past. At that time, our universe was very young, a crying baby merely 80 crore years old!
Alas, even through the most powerful telescope in the world, this newly found galaxy appears as a faint dot of light. That is definitely not an arresting sight for non-astronomers like you and me.
Scientists say that they can find galaxies even farther away, taking us very close to the beginning of the universe. To look so far back, they are building telescopes nine times bigger than the biggest we have today.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Venus and the scientist

I want to tell you the story of ordeals of a scientist, who wanted to measure distance to the Sun. What I admire is his strength. Despite of the many misfortunes, he stood firm and continued his work.
This story is narrated in the book ‘A Brief History of Almost Everything’ by Bill Bryson.
Before I tell you the story, you should know what the Transit of Venus is. Sometimes, when you see from earth, the planet Venus appears to be passing over Sun. This is called transit of Venus.
The transits are very rare. They come twice in eight years, then do not happen for more than 100 years. The last two happened in 2004 and 2012. Next one will be in 2117, but few of us can hope to see it.
Now, two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1761 there was a transit of Venus, and many scientists were eager to observe it. They wanted to take some measurements, and use them in calculating the distance from earth to Sun.
(In 1761, Marathas were still big rulers, British had just begun to spread in India and there was no Telephone; it would be invented only after 100 years).
One of these scientist was Le Gentil from France. He wanted to observe the transit from India. He started his journey one year in advance. But on the day of the transit he was still on his ship. The ship was horribly unsteady and it was impossible to measure anything.
Gentil was not discouraged. He reached India and started preparing for the next transit that would come eight years later. After a long preparation, he was perfectly ready. On the day of the transit, as he began his measurements, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost the entire time of the transit.
Bryson writes:
“Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane of the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives have declared him dead and enthusiastically plundered his estate.”
(The most useful measurement was taken by Captain James Cook, who later discovered Australia. Using his measurement, the distance to the Sun was estimated as 15 crore kilometres.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Sleepy Brainwash

Why do we sleep? Sounds like a stupid question. We sleep because we feel sleepy, buddy.
- Yes, yes. But why do we feel sleepy?
- Now you are wasting my time, mister.
We spend a third of our life sleeping. So sleep must be doing something very important to us.
Scientists are trying to find out what benefits sleep has. One such very important benefit has been found recently. Sleep washes our brain of harmful chemicals.
Brain needs a lot of fuel to do its job. You know that our body uses glucose as the fuel. As much as 20% of all glucose consumed by the body is used by brain alone! Naturally, all this fuel burning leads to waste products. These are toxins and have to be removed.
Researchers studied mice and found that these toxins are removed during sleep. When the body is awake, brain has to see and think and do a lot more work. Busy with all this work, it cannot do the cleaning. Brain really is just like us working householders, postponing the cleaning to weekend, isn't it?
This is an important function of sleep, and scientists say that there will be many more. Some scientists think that when the toxins build up, we feel sleepy. So it's not a stupid question, after all.

Introduction to Nobel Prizes 2013 – II : Physics

The picture of the atom in your mind might have a cute little nucleus at the centre, with obedient electrons revolving around it, like a miniature solar system. Well, science no longer shares this endearing picture. If you can look inside the atom, it would be like a big sweet shop, with hundreds of different types of particles appearing and disappearing, just as the sweets do during these pre-Deepawali days.
But till fifty years ago, scientists were scratching their heads about a puzzle. None of these exotic particles appeared to have any property that can explain why atoms weigh anything at all. Peter Higgs was one of the scientists in 1964 to propose the existence of a particle, which was later named Higgs Boson in his honour, that lends mass to atom.
It rarely happens in science that a theory or scientist becomes a household name. Even if we think hard, Einstein with his flowing hair and his special theory of relativity is the only example that comes to mind. So many important breakthroughs are made every year, but people at large remain unaware of them.
So would have been the case with Peter Higgs and his invention too. Higgs Boson would have remained buried in science papers and journals, but a popular science book in 1993 decided to call it the ‘God Particle’. The name became immensely popular. Newspapers and magazines used the word with little discretion. It was one of the best marketing campaigns for science in recent times.
The scientific community was in earnest quest to find the particle, however. In 2008, the European organization CERN built a multi-billion dollar machine called Large Hadron Collider. One of the jobs of the giant machine was to confirm the existence of Higgs Boson. A big team of scientists from many nations worked on the LHC. They succeeded in finding the illusive particle last year.
Prompted by this, the Nobel prize committee awarded this year’s Nobel for Physics to two of the scientists who originally proposed the particle. The prize was given for ‘contribution to understanding the origin of mass of sub-atomic particles’.
Peter Higgs, now 84, is a professor in the University of Edinburg in Scotland, and is planning to retire next year. He was out hiking in the hills when the announcement came. He learned the big news from his neighbors.
Francois Englert from Belgium shared the prize. He independently proposed the particle in 1964, when he was only 30. He is a professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, or the Free University of Brussels.
We Indians should feel proud about the name Boson. It celebrates the Indian scientist Satyendra Nath Bose, who lived and did his research in Calcutta ninety years ago. Einstein himself read and translated his research paper in German. His joint research with Einstein led to a better understanding of the atom. All the particles in the atom fall in two major kinds. One of them – the boson- is named in his honor (The other one is called Fermion).
As many as six scientists submitted papers with proposals similar to Higgs in 1964. The team of scientists at CERN contributed to the actual discovery of the particle. But the Nobel went to Higgs and Englert. Life, and especially Nobel Prizes are not always fair, are they?