Archive for February, 2012

The Generalists

February 23, 2012 1 comment

Here is my next article for the New Indian Express. It is about Stem Cells. I spent close to a day trying to understand them so I could write a small piece about it. Stem cells have huge potential and is important we learn about them. Did you know you could donate umbilical cord blood (at the time of birth) so that it can be useful to others? Check it out and let me know what you think.

Categories: Writing Tags:

My Picks – 11th February 2012

February 11, 2012 1 comment

I missed out on posting links last week. So I am compensating for that this time.

Carl Zimmer reports on a debate about whether details of experiments that gave an already existing virus the ability to spread from ferrets to ferrets should be published in full.

Read this shocking piece about how organ harvesting is common among death row prisoners in China.

Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The war among the four.

“If I kill him, are you going to eat him with me?” 3 boys lost at sea for 51 days without food.

A video about entropy. But does not answer all my questions. Someday I intend to write an explanatory piece about Entropy. Just so I understand it well.

About home scientists.

Richard Dawkins was in India in January for the Jaipur Literary Festival. That is the event where we ensured that Salman Rushdie’s does not attend the festival even via a video link. Here is what he says. Our own TV debates on this issue was pretty muddled. They kept comparing Salman Rushdie to somebody who posts nude pictures of another person. What a stupid comparison? When will we understand that “blasphemy is a victimless crime”.

Did we evolve to lie to ourselves Just so that we can do the lying well? A review of a book, “The folly of fools”. Also, an interview with the author of the book Robert Trivers.

Look at these bookshops. Fantastic.

Gonorrhea is becoming untreatable.

Here is a picture of a shark eating another shark. The article says that the predator is also called carpet shark. Looking at the picture, you can see why.

The peppered moth example is often used to explain evolution. But it seems to have had a chequered history. Jerry Coyne criticized the experiments based on which the moths initially became so popular an example of natural selection. But another researcher did better experiments to establish that the hypothesis was indeed true, but before he could publish the results, he died. The results are finally published now. I had no clue that so much happened about it, even though I have seen the example cited frequently. Jerry Coyne too summarises the history for us.

Here is an anthology of some of the best blogs of 2011. Read them when you get the time.

A couple of posts arguing for doing away with DRM on e-books.

Science Write Carl Zimmer has written a cover article for Time on Animal Friendships. I could not read it since I don’t have access(neither to the online version, nor the print edition). But the first few paragraphs look exciting. If you have access, do not miss it.

An article by a writer, on the uninsured in America. A first person perspective.

Richard Dawkins argues why “beyond reasonable doubt” in the judicial system, is not true in many cases.

A new drug works for mice who have Alzheimer’s. Not sure if it will work for humans though.

Why does the Zebra have stripes? Here is a possible answer. And some problems that Jerry Coyne raises.

Darwin’s manuscripts now available online. Don’t know if I will reach even one of them. Some day…

Gene therapy helps people with congenital blindness see. Is that not incredible?

That will keep you busy for some time? Won’t it?

Categories: Links

The expanding universe

February 9, 2012 1 comment

Here is my new article for the New Indian Express. I talk about how we know that the universe is expanding. For me, the most interesting part of it is that we can understand the basis of why we think that the universe is expanding from a very simple principle of Doppler effect. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Recently, I have been hearing a lot about structure in writing. I am sure, mine has nothing remotely resembling that, and even if it has, it must be a crumbling one. Must find out what structures are all about.

Categories: Writing

Nature ≠ Good. Artificial ≠ bad.

February 4, 2012 3 comments

Last week, when I came out of a bank, a young man came to me asking if I cared about the environment and whether I could spare a few minutes. I was probably a random choice, but the fact that I cycled to the bank could have also played a part. He told me he was from Greenpeace, and showed me some pictures from his folder. He started off with GM foods.

He started telling me that GM foods are harmful, that they should not be allowed, and that Greenpeace was actively campaigning against it. I wonder why he did not choose the more simple ideas like pollution, e-waste etc. But he continued with GM foods. I asked him what the problem with GM foods were. There were studies that showed GM foods were harmful to our health, he asserted. He also told me that sometimes the danger is not easy to assess since the effects take a long time to show up, but that in the meanwhile we would have consumed a lot of this harmful food.

I asked him why he thinks natural foods are good for us. He simply replied those are natural, as if that explained everything. So I showed him an apple, which a fruit vendor was selling right behind him, and tried to explain to him that this apple too could have had a mutation while its DNA was being inherited from its parent, and hence even that apple could be harmful. After all mutations almost always happen while inheriting genes.

At this, the guy next to him told me that even though there is a mutation it is its “own” genes and hence not harmful. He also pointed out that Bt Brinjal had a gene inserted into it that made it harmful to insects. “So what?” I asked him. He logically (at least that is what he thought) pointed out that if the gene harms insects, it will harm humans too. To which I pointed out that our body itself has lots of immune mechanisms that fight bacteria and viruses, and going by his logic our immune system should also be killing us.

His point about the mutation being in its “own” genes was also a bad argument, since all genes are just A, T, C and G. There is really nothing to say that mutations are ok as long as they are their own genes. “Own genes” does not have any meaning, but I did not argue about that there because now the first guy told me that he was not against GM foods, but only wanted them to be tested rigourously. I agreed to this, but asked him why natural food products need not be tested, since they too could contain harmful mutations and that if one is worried about GM foods because their genes have been modified, even “natural” mutations should give us sleepless nights. I also explained to him how artificial selection over the centuries (like breeding dogs) has changed the genetic make up of other animals, and that the only difference between GM foods and dog breeding is that instead of waiting for the mutations to occur randomly, we are inserting the mutations ourselves.

This time he told me that because of GM foods, we are losing out on diversity and that farmers will now become dependent on multinationals like Monsanto. I acknowledged that those are indeed problems that we need to be worried about, but in that case let us not scare people about the health effects of GM foods, but work on highlighting those points about economic impacts and farmers’ issues.

I suspect that the reason why he chose GM foods was that, campaigning in a city, that is what people would be worried about. He can talk about pollution, farmers’ rights etc, but who would be bothered about those issues in a city. People are worried only when they are about to be affected personally. The issue of GM foods is somewhat complicated. My intention of this post is not to give you the arguments for and against GM foods. Neither is it my idea to belittle those 2 young people, because their intentions were genuine. They were idealistic and wanted to bring about some change. I recognise, understand and truly appreciate that. I have been there.

The subject of this post is a more general one than just GM foods. And that is that the widespread idea that that anything natural is somehow better and safer than anything artificial. This perception is highly common, and I believe that it was the fact that GM foods are human made that lay at the heart of people’s opposition to it. Such a thought is also at the basis of why items like health foods, shampoos and soaps all are sold with the tag “Natural”. This tag is also used as an antonym to chemicals too.

At one point during my discussion, the two guys raised the topic of fertilisers too and told me that since they were chemical fertilisers, the food produced using them are harmful. I tried explaining to them that cow dung has chemicals too. The argument did not have any effect on them.

But my point is this. How can something be good just because it is natural? A python hug is natural. Will anybody argue it is good for our health? Cancer is natural (though it can be artificial too). So is a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano eruption. The AIDS virus is natural. The common cold virus is natural. Naturally poisonous plants exist. Do you want them? Medicines are artificial. Will you stay away from them?

As for the word “chemicals”, when people say something is free of chemicals, they are blabbering. Water is a chemical, for heavens’ sake. I am not trying to say fertilisers are good and that they should be a part of our diet. That fertilisers could be harmful and it is good to be suspicious of them, is not something I doubt, and we have seen those suspicions vindicated bdefore. But let us not be fooled by the idea that they are harmful just because they are artificial. They are harmful because they are harmful. Organic foods can be harmful too. Here is an example. So whether something is good or bad for us should be decided on the tests conducted, not on wishful thinking, or fanciful ideas about Nature providing us all the things we will ever need, or Nature being a caring mother looking after all its children.

It is important to understand that Nature is essentially indifferent towards us. It (if the “it” means anything) is not bothered about us. The line between artificial and natural is not very useful when talking about the harm it causes. The dividing line itself is very blurred. Is cow’s milk natural considering that they are from animals that have such huge udders because of artificial selection? Artificial selection too works only because genes are changing. The only difference is that we dont manually change them, but wait for change to happen and seize upon changes that appear to be useful to us. In this case, bigger udders. And some of those genetic mutations would have played changed the the quality of milk too. But we don’t look at cow’s milk as artificial. Why so? Is wheat natural? After all, it too is the result of millenia of artificial selection and cross breeding by humans.

The next time somebody asks you for something natural because that will be healthy, ask them to try snake venom. And if they want chemical free food, their only option would be vacuum (that is if they don’t mind the taste of the Higg’s field). There are good and bad things that are natural. Similarly there are good and bad things that are artificial. Whether something is artificial or natural alone does not determine if it is good or bad for us. We need to realise that.