Archive for November, 2011

Ayurveda against Anaemia

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Anaemia is a reduction in red blood cells in our body, caused usually by iron deficiency. In India, about 52% women suffer from Anaemia. This can be easily remedied by providing Iron supplements like Folic acid. In today’s Indian express, there is an article by Ms.Sheela Rani Chunkath, a well respected IAS officer and a former Health Secretary of Tamil Nadu. The article talks about Ayurvedic medicines to tackle Anaemia. She talks about the widespread prevalence of Anaemia in India and argues that Ayurvedic medicines should be used instead of Folic acid.

The mere fact that Iron is present in many food items that we eat, means that any form of iron-rich food could help reduce Anaemia. But her argument that just because we have not so far been able to eradicate Anameia suggests that we should use Ayurveda is flawed. The reason why Anaemia still exits to a large extent because the implementation of the program is not good enough. The problems is not with Folic acid. So I sent her an email pointing this out and also asking her for a copy of the study that she refers to as having been done by the health department in Thiruvannamalai district.

Dear Ms.Chunkath,

This is with reference to your article in today’s magazine section of the New Indian Express that can be seen here. In today’s article you had talked about Anaemia in which the second paragraph says

We have a big national programme to distribute iron and folic acid to women and adolescent girls. But it does not seem to have made a dent on the anaemic status of our women, with more than 60 per cent continuing to be anaemic.”

In the next paragraph you talk about Ayurvedic treatments and how “With a little training, our health field staff can eradicate anaemia in the community.”

As a former Health Secretary of Tamil Nadu, your opinions on Health are extremely important and consequential. But by making the above two points, you imply that the reason for widespread Anaemia in India is the ineffectiveness of Folic acid. But is it not true that the real reason why Anaemia is still prevalent is that the folic acid supplements do not reach every woman and girl? After all the effect of folic acid on anemia is well established and a straight forward one. And that is a failure of administration and not a failure of Folic acid. If so, then how is it right to use the argument of a failed implementation against a Folic acid?

You also refer to a study done by the Health department in Thiruvannamalai district regarding the efficacy of Siddha and Ayurvedic Iron preparations. Can you mail me a copy of the study done or let me know where I can get a copy? You also suggest that the side effects of Ayurvedic anaemic medicines are fewer than that of Folic acid. Did the Thiruvannamalai study look for side effects of the Siddha and Ayurvedic medicines too?


I do not doubt her intentions, but it is important that any medicinal claim should be supported by evidence. To be fair, she does say that there has been a study on the effectiveness of Ayurvedic medicines on Anaemia(though we dont know how rigourous that has been and so I have asked for the details), but it is doubtful if she really give as much importance to evidence as is needed as can be seen in the below paragraph from the article.

Learning ayurveda from the original texts would give our ayurvedic students the much needed confidence.  In fact, Sarangadhara says that he has only listed those remedies that learned sages have found most effective and which will promote health and welfare of mankind.  In my opinion, most trials of these medicines had been carried out on humans aeons ago and only those which had stood the test of time and do not cause side effects have been included in the Sarangadhara Samhita.

Why should reading Sanskrit texts give more confidence to students? Should not confidence be built up by evidence? She also seems to place her faith on Ayurveda merely because she is of the opinion that trials would have been conducted by sages. Does not sound more like wishful thinking than evidence based reasoning?

Categories: Medicine Tags: ,

Do infants have a right to life?

November 26, 2011 4 comments

Being what I am, I chose Connemara Library over British Council Library merely because Connemara’s annual membership fee is less than 3% of the British Council’s. Of course, one of the problems with going in for the cheaper option is that each time I search the computerised catalog of the Connemara library for a book that I want, and go looking for it in the shelves, the probability of my finding that book is negligible. There have been times when the computer told me that there are about 10 books by Isaac Asimov on the shelves, but I could not find even one. Even worse, “The Big Bang” by Simon Singh, which the computer always says is available, eluded me for the last 1.5 years. Only last week did my search end. But dont jump to the conclusion of a happy end. The climax could not have been more tragic. I was forced to buy it on my own.

But occasionally I do find some good books, and considering my membership fee, I must say the return on investment is reasonable. One such book was “Should the baby live?” by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer. The book is about severely handicapped infants and whether it is better for us to save the children or to let them die. It also tries to answer questions of how to decide what to do and who should decide.

The initial chapters talk about a few high profile cases in the US and UK regarding severely handicapped children, and whether the doctors or parents have the right to let them die, and their fallout. I, of course, cannot cover his entire argument here, but there is one point that struck me as novel and he argues persuasively about it. That is the question of whether infants have a right to life.

You might think this is a stupid question, and that obviously they do have the right. But he argues that they do not. When a child has severe problems like Anencephaly, where the child is born without a brain, is it really right to keep the baby alive? This medical condition is an extreme case, and the problem is that there will always be handicaps that lie in the gray areas, where one cannot be completely clear on what needs to be done. But his argument is that such cases should not be decided on the premise that infants have the right to life. For any entity to have a right to life, it must be self-aware, have a continuous concept of self, have plans for the future etc. One might argue that the fact that the infant has life is a good enough reason to give it the right to life. But if that is the case, what about bacteria. They too have life, don’t they? Would you want to grant the right to life to bacteria too? But it is not merely the fact that our choosing to give a right to life to all living things would lead to absurd conclusions like right of life to bacteria, that should make us decide who should have the right to life. Thinking about it, the right to life should be given to all those, who would fear death, or know the consequences because of it. If an organism is not even capable of doing that, how does it make sense to give it a right to life. So, the criteria that the entity should be able to feel the death, realise its consequences, at least to some extent, should be the ones that should be given the right to life. Not pebbles and keyboards.

Does that then mean that anybody can kill an infant, or let it die? No. As the authors themselves point out, the consequences of such a position are not as dramatic as they might seem to be. What then prevents us from killing infants who have the slightest deformity, or even worse, what if, as in our country, people start killing off female infants? The point is that, when considering what to do to an infant, a lot of other rights, apart from the right to life of the infant comes into picture. The first one, is the right of parents to have a child. This right straight away ensures that infants can be done away with as and when it pleases somebody. In most cases, parents are so attached to their baby, that this right overshadows everything else. But what if parents themselves do not want to have the child. Then, they still need not kill an infant, but can give it for adoption to others. To a childless couple nothing could give more joy. Herein comes the right of other members of the society. The parents can decide that they will not be responsible for the child. But once they decide that, it is upon the society (or the government) to decide what to do. Then on, the parents do not have any say on what is done to the child. Thus the society can decide to put up such children for adoption. Now coming to the case of female infanticide. Here too, the larger interests of the society is at stake, as decreasing female ratios will lead to other social ills. Thus, in such a case, the government can use its right to a good future to prevent such killings by legislating against it.

As can be seen, the premise that infants do not have a right to life does not lead to a social catastrophe. Most things will remain as usual. But what such a stand leads to is that, parents and the doctors can sit together and decide on what needs to be done to children who are handicapped. Thus, the simplistic view of all living things having a right to life, will not be a barrier in deciding on the cases of such children. If the chances of the child leading a reasonably normal and satisfied life are very little, then it is better to let the child die. If that sounds cruel, one must also look at how the lives of the parents of such children are severely impacted because of the child’s handicap. The authors cite studies where parents of such children have a considerably high rate of break-ups. Moreover, for the rest of their lives, or at least for the lifetime of the child, the lives of parents are thrown into complete disarray. Their professional lives will be affected. They will not be able to fulfill their dreams. Moreover, having such a child prevents them from trying for a next child, in the fear that the next child could also be a victim of the same ailment. All these aspects need to be balanced with the possibility of the child leading a normal life and a rational decision can be arrived at.

One thought that could come up is the slippery slope. Since we cannot draw a firm line on when an infant starts becoming self-aware, would that not lead to parents making arbitrary judgments on whether the child is self-aware or not. A solution to that, as the authors suggest, is that we can draw a line at something like a 28 day old infant. Beyond that, the child can be assigned a right to life. It can be argued that a 29 year old infant might not be any more self-aware than a 28 year old infant. At least not much. But it is safer to err on the wrong side. We can be reasonably safe that a child younger than 28 days, will not be self-aware. We are not sure about infants two or three months old. So let us play it safe by drawing the line as early as possible. It is similar to our saying that anybody who is 18 years old can drive, when there is really not much difference between a person 17 years and 364 days old and a person 18 years old.

An important consequence of such a view is that anybody who can envision a future and is aware of one’s own existence, should have a right to life. Thus, all sentient animals, including humans, have a right to life. A chimpanzee or a pig too has a right to life. It might seem odd that we seem to give a chimpanzee or a pig the right to life, but not a human infant. But it follows from the very reasonable assumption that only those who can feel something should have the right not to be deprived of it. Also, there is no reason why we should consider humans to be special. If we do that, we will not be any more different than our ancestors who thought that our caste, race or religion is special when compared to that of somebody else. If we do that, we will be guilty of speciesism.

One small step for super luminal neutrinos

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Remember I had mentioned about some particles seeming to travel faster than the speed of light, why such a result is too good to be true and that they are re-testing it to remove one possible source of error from their experiment?

The results of the re-testing are out, and they have still observed that those neutrinos are showing up earlier than they should. You can read some of media reports here, here and here. The problem was that the neutrinos were observed to appear earlier than expected at the destination by 60 seconds. But these particles originated in a pulse that was 1000 nano seconds long. So one of the suspicions that other scientists had was that the detected neutrinos probably started off in the latter half of the 100 nano second pulse. So this time, they released pulses which were as short of 10 nano seconds. With this confirmation, that particular error is ruled out.

That of course does not mean, that the result is confirmed. There are still other possible problems with the experiment as explained by Jim Al Khaili, a theoretical physicist. You can also read another take on the latest development here. If you are wondering what will reduce the skepticism towards the result, here is what Jim Al Khaili says.

The experiment needs to be re-run independently by other particle physics laboratories, and plans are currently underway for this to take place in Japan and the US, but it will take some months at least.

Of course, there is a good probability that there is some fundamental flaw in the experiment. But till then, let us savour the excitement of the possibility of living at a time when one of the biggest breakthroughs in Physics could come through.

Categories: Uncategorized

Eid al-Adha is SICK

November 12, 2011 7 comments

Pardon my ignorance, but I did not know that Bakrid was such a sick-to-the-core festival. I knew nothing about it till I  chanced upon this Bakrid slide show, while I was going through the website of the New Indian Express.

Look at this camel with a knife under its neck, and all those people around eagerly looking forward to the event.

A camel with a knife under its neck. Source: The New Indian Express Website (

Or, look at this one, with 5 people on it.

A camel on which 5 people are sitting. Source: The New Indian Express Website (

This is a cow, that was just killed, dripping with blood.

A cow dripping with blood. Source: The New Indian Express Website (

Anybody with even a little bit of humanity in them, would be revolted looking at this. So much for Islam being a religion of peace. Wanting to learn its origins, I went to, where else, the Wikipedia entry. The term Bakr-id comes from the Hindi word “Bakra” meaning a goat. Turns out, Eid al-Adha means Feast of Sacrifice. It has this story.

When Ishmael was about 13 (Ibrahim being 99), Allah (God) decided to test their faith in public. Abraham had a recurring dream, in which God was commanding him to offer his son as a sacrifice – an unimaginable act – sacrificing his son, which God had granted him after many years of deep prayer. Abraham knew that the dreams of the prophets were divinely inspired, and one of the ways in which God communicated with his prophets. When the intent of the dreams became clear to him, Abraham decided to fulfill God’s command and offer Ishmael for sacrifice.

Although Abraham was ready to sacrifice his dearest for Allah’s sake, he could not just go and drag his son to the place of sacrifice without his consent. Isma’el had to be consulted as to whether he was willing to give up his life as fulfillment to God’s command. This consultation would be a major test of Isma’el’s maturity in faith, love and commitment for Allah, willingness to obey his father and sacrifice his own life for the sake of Allah.

Abraham presented the matter to his son and asked for his opinion about the dreams of slaughtering him. Ishmael did not show any hesitation or reservation even for a moment. He said, “Father, do what you have been commanded. You will find me, Insha’Allah (God willing), to be very patient.” His mature response, his deep insight into the nature of his father’s dreams, his commitment to Allah, and ultimately his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the sake of Allah were all unprecedented.

When both father and son had shown their perfect obedience to Allah and they had practically demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice their most precious possessions for His sake — Abraham by laying down his son for sacrifice and Ishmael by lying patiently under the knife – Allah called out to them stating that his sincere intentions had been accepted, and that he need not carry out the killing of Ishmael. Instead, Abraham was told to replace his son with a goat to sacrifice instead. Allah also told them that they had passed the test imposed upon them by his willingness to carry out God’s command.

And this story is directly from the Quran (You can read it here), the purported word of god. The last couple of verses say this.

YUSUFALI: Thus indeed do We reward those who do right.
PICKTHAL: Thus do We reward the good.
SHAKIR: Thus do We reward the doers of good.

YUSUFALI: For he was one of our believing Servants.
PICKTHAL: Lo! he is one of Our believing slaves.
SHAKIR: Surely he was one of Our believing servants.

Do you get that? What god demands is servility. Abject servility. Period. And as per that god, somebody who is ready to sacrifice his son, for a dream he had, is a do-gooder. I would consider such a person the worst kind of organism that has ever lived. But I run out of superlatives when I try to describe the god, who considers such an act a good thing to do.

I am, of course, aware, that there are many people who eat meat, and thereby indirectly support slaughter. But I expect that they would not want to eat an animal that has been killed before their eyes. What I think comforts them (I could be wrong here) is the fact that the killing takes place far away from their sight. That distance prevents them from feeling guilty about it. At least it reduces the guilt. There are butchers who slaughter animals without much guilt. Some might use humane methods, but many, I guess, will not. I would justify none of that. But when the ruthless murder of meek animals is made into a spectacle, even as the animal is crying and screaming with unimaginable horror, that becomes an important part of a festival, we sure have lost all sense of morals. What happened to our innate empathy? Are those morals overridden by the intoxication of religion?

I further saw this description of Bakrid, which tries to avoid any misconceptions about the festival by explaining the logic, if it can be called that, of slaughter.

During the celebration of Eid al-Adha, Muslims commemorate and remember Abraham’s trials, by themselves slaughtering an animal such as a sheep, camel, or goat. This action is very often misunderstood by those outside the faith.

Allah has given us power over animals and allowed us to eat meat, but only if we pronounce His name at the solemn act of taking life. Muslims slaughter animals in the same way throughout the year. By saying the name of Allah at the time of slaughter, we are reminded that life is sacred.

We are not supposed to misunderstand the action. The action is justified because Allah has given us power over all the animals, and all we need to do is to mention the name of god, to take ownership. How ridiculous? I am truly amazed at the mentality of those who think that the god needs a sacrifice. What a mean god? In what sense would that thing continue to be god? How can such a vile book, still be considered the word of god by any sane person? If you are going to argue, that they were the morals of a different period of time, does that itself not make an argument against the claim that they are god’s words. The rationale behind the sacrifice is explained further.

The symbolism is in the attitude – a willingness to make sacrifices in our lives in order to stay on the Straight Path. Each of us makes small sacrifices, giving up things that are fun or important to us. A true Muslim, one who submits his or herself completely to the Lord, is willing to follow Allah’s commands completely and obediently. It is this strength of heart, purity in faith, and willing obedience that our Lord desires from us.

That is the problem with religions (and with any kind of cults). Unadulterated obedience is considered a virtue. Any sort of questioning is not looked at favourably. But looking at the story, either god is a vile megalomaniac or a figment of the author’s imagination. Either way, such a god does not deserve to be followed. We all have our morals inside us. What better moral do we need than to treat others as you expect them to treat us? We definitely do not need religions at all to tell us what is right and what is wrong. And in any case, not this kind of religions.

But before I end, I have a question to all those who sacrifice animals on Bakrid or support such a practice. If the guiding argument is to show a willingness to sacrifice what is dear to them, would they be ready to cut off their own body parts on Bakrid, rather than killing other animals? A finger this year, a toe the next and so on. Now, that would make them a real favourite with that god, won’t it?

Categories: Religion Tags: ,

Science as philosophy

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I have written a small piece titled “Science and Philosophy of life” for the New Indian Express (Indian Express is now split into two sister concerns, one is called The Indian Express, that operates in North India, and the other The New Indian Express operates in the South). I had titled the piece as “Science as Philosophy”, but it morphed into its current title while getting published.

I was given a word limit of 550 words. I felt it was too short to write about any science concept and so I wrote my opinion that we humans neither have any purpose for our existence here nor are we part of a plan, and that we do not need philosophy (or even worse theology) to answer questions like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”. Read it and let me know what you think.

Categories: Writing Tags: , ,

Re-testing super luminal neutrinos

November 2, 2011 1 comment

If you missed it, the news is that the CERN experiment which observed neutrinos travelling faster than speed of light, is being done again. The goal is to eliminate one kind of possible error from the experiment.

I will try to explain what the error is, very briefly. What happened in the initial run was this. They had beamed 1020 protons (that is one followed by 20 zeroes, a 1oo billion billion), that collided into atoms to produce neutrinos. The number of neutrinos eventually detected was 16,000. These neutrinos, the scientists observed, reached the detector, 60 nano seconds (a nano second is 1 billionth of a second) ahead of the estimated time (the estimate was based on the speed of light).

The crucial point was that these 1020 protons were not released at the same instant. They were released as one single pulse, that spanned more than 1000 nano seconds. The detection of the neutrinos was also a spread. So what was measured was the average release time of the 1020 protons and the average detection time of the 16,000 neutrinos. But, we don`t know whether the detected 16,000 neutrinos were from protons that were released early in the 1000 nano seconds pulse or in the later part of the pulse, or were they too spread out in an average manner. If the source protons of the detected neutrons were spread out evenly in the initial 1000 nano seconds pulse, then the observations are correct. This is important since the neutrinos were detected only 60 nano seconds ahead of their scheduled arrival, which is very small compared to the duration of the initial pulse. Thus, it is possible that due to some unknown, all the 16000 neutrinos observed could have been from the later part of the initial pulse, thus invalidating the average starting time of these neutrinos.

This is what is being checked now. What the scientists are planning now, is to send multiple pulses of 1 to 2 nano seconds duration, instead of one single pulse of 1000 nano seconds. Moreover, in between these pulses, there will be a gap of 500 nano seconds. So there will not be any confusion on which is the source pulse of the detected neutrinos. Since the pulse duration of 1 to 2 nano seconds, is far less than the supposed early arrival period of the neutrinos (which is 60 nano seconds), this test should verify if the the results observed were indeed true.

I learnt a good deal about the experiment from these blog posts by Ethan Seagal, who explains the intricacies with a lots of pictures. His posts usually have a lot of pictures which are very helpful in visualising what he says. His post on this re-run have some very good pictures explaining this pulse duration problem and the possible bias of it. Have a look.

It could turn out that in this re-run, neutrinos arrive on time and not 60 nano-seconds ahead, as was previously thought. In that case, the whole thing can be scrapped, and we can get back to our work. But if this re-run confirms the earlier finding, there is still a possibility of a systematic error, which can be detected only if other teams of scientists replicate the observations. This re-test will take a few weeks. So it wont be long before the results are out.

Categories: Physics Tags: , ,