Archive for May, 2012

Top 5 tips to buying petrol in Chennai

May 29, 2012 Leave a comment

In case you have been spending the past few days in the International Space Station, let me bring you up to date with what is happening in Chennai. The petrol and diesel situation in Chennai is becoming worse. In brief the situation is this. There is no fuel in the city. Neither petrol nor diesel. It cannot get briefer than that. But as always brevity leads to some inaccuracies. It is not that there is no fuel at all. There is some fuel. Somewhere. It is just that nobody knows where.

As my friends would readily attest, I am a socially conscious, ethical, large hearted, selfless individual reminding them mostly of those heroes in the movies who, while mouthing take-my-life-but-spare-that-person’s  dialogues, run and position themselves, with open arms as if about to hug somebody, between the gun and the intended recipient of the bullet. Not wanting to prove them wrong, I thought I should make a list of tips for those who have had the privilege of not having to fill petrol in their vehicles in the last one week, but whose fuel level indicators are slowly making them come back to earth and urging them to wonder what all this fuss about fuel shortage is. Here are the top 5 tips then.

Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Chimpanzee shows ability for foresight and deceiption

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

When you walk into the Vandalur zoo, one of the first animals you meet is the Chimpanzee. Thanks to their striking similarity to humans, many visitors stand trasnsfixed wondering whether these animals too think like us. While some may deny that, and others might think it is obvious, science is yet to have its last word on this debate. A new study suggest that those who think it is obvious that the Chimpanzees too think like us, might not be very much off the mark.

The chimpanzee Santino, from Sweden, shot into limelight when a study was published in 2009, that suggested that it had the ability to plan for future events. The study showed that the chimp was collecting objects, like stones, and keeping them in store, so that he can hurl them at visitors.

But it was hard to establish, if the chimpanzee was indeed planning for the future. What if he was just collecting stones for some other purpose, but when he saw the visitors, realized that he could use the same stones at the visitors too.

A new study published in PLoS one, an open access journal, on May 11th 2012 titled Spontaneous Innovation for Future Deception in a Male Chimpanzee,  went one step further in giving chimpanzees the benefit of doubt on whether they have foresight or not. In the 2009 study, it was observed that the pile of objects was visible to all, and every time he was about to send one from his collection flying at a visitor, he would precede it with an aggressive display.

Zookeepers spotted this hint and started warning visitors to back off, as soon as the chimpanzee put on its aggressive display. This time around, the chimpanzee acted smarter. He learnt to avoid giving such a cue to the zookeeper, by not displaying his aggression before throwing. In one instance, he took two objects, held it in a hand, and walked slowly towards the visitors. On the way, he also casually picked up an apple lying down, and put it in its mouth. When he came close enough, he threw the stones suddenly at the visitors without any warning.

Santino walking towards the visitors, on the way pick up an apple, possibly to give the impression to the visitors that he is not really planning to throw those stones he has in his left hand (Picture taken from the paper. See reference at the end)

Moreover, he also started storing his ammunition in places the visitors cannot see, like behind a rock or behind a log. Such concealment did not stop with naturally available hiding places. Santino also covered up the visible piles with hay brought in from a different place.

“By combining his old strategy of gathering projectiles in advance with his new strategy of concealment and behavioural inhibition, he could extend his ability to throw stones at visitors from close range” says the study.

But the authors are cautious enough not to attribute a theory of mind, the ability of an individual to think of what another individual could be thinking, to Santino yet. “What the behaviour does appear to show is that the chimpanzee is able to predict the behavioural responses of others not present at the time of the prediction”, the authors write.

Reference: Osvath M, Karvonen E (2012) Spontaneous Innovation for Future Deception in a Male Chimpanzee. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036782. A PDF of the paper can be downloaded from this link.

Einstein shows the way

May 16, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the first things that drew me to physics was the theory of relativity. It is so counter intuitive that it caught my imagination right away. After all relativity shows us that time travel to the future is indeed possible, provided you travel fast enough, and who can resist that. But this theory is by no means restricted to just some abstract physics. It is absolutely essential for GPS to work. This is what I touch on in my latest article for the New Indian Express.

Here is a video that explains the same.

Categories: Physics, Writing Tags: , ,

Neurosurgeon says “I” am more than the “merely physical” brain

May 6, 2012 Leave a comment

In today’s Open Page of the Hindu, there is this article by a Neurosurgeon Mr.Ganapathy from the Apollo Hospitals. The title is “Who am I? my brain or my mind?”. The article starts off with a conversation he has with his grand son, where the boy tries to evade punishment for something he did by saying his brain, and not he, was responsible for the act. The article then goes on to try defining where our sense of identity comes from and to talk about freewill and whether we can hold people responsible for what they do.

As I have written before, the brain is the place where our consciousness resides. There is nothing beyond the brain. If every atom of my brain was replicated exactly to make a copy, it would exactly be me. It will be everything that I am. There are a lot of points that I disagree with in the article and coming from a neurosurgeon, I thought it was worthy of some analysis.

The article starts off on the wrong foot with the title. It seems to suggest that the brain and the mind are different things. One can say the brain is the physical organ while the mind is what emerges out of it, but such a meaning means both are complementary and not mutually exclusive as the title seems to suggest. But I have personal experience where papers change the titles of the articles, and so I will move on.

As I said, the piece starts off with a conversation with his grandson raising the question of freewill. The article ends on this note:

Is human love, the agony and ecstasy we feel, only an electrical outburst of a circumscribed set of neurons? To explain me [Author’s emphasis] (the mind) as the functions of 1300 grams of a semisolid gelatinous mass, a palpable physical entity appears too naïve? Am I just a sum total of hope, despair, genius, dull mediocrity? Am I electrical impulses zapping from one brain cell to another, helped along their way, by a myriad of complex chemicals? How juvenile! Am I not something beyond the merely physical, something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept of the soul? How melodramatic! The truth, as all great truths are, though currently evading us, is probably somewhere in between.

The two options, he says, are that the mind is merely physical or something ethereal that is closer to a spiritual concept. He concludes that the truth is somewhere in between. I don’t understand this. What does he mean in-between? What could be there beyond the physical mind? There is really no doubt that all the feelings we experience are in our physical brain and not in some vague metaphysical concept. But I see two reasons why the author says this. The clearest hint is this para:

You become a Mother Teresa or bin Laden because of your pre-determined genetic profile, the way your brain is wired and neurotransmitters jump across synapses. Rapists and hardcore criminals will seek clemency, as sophisticated neuroimaging has revealed functional and even structural ‘aberrations’ in the brain. Jumping out of your jeans lies in your genes! It is the hippocampus in my brain which is responsible for my behaviour, not me!

The author’s worry seems to be that, if we conclude that all our actions are determined by physical connections in our brain, then what about moral culpability. Can we not punish people for their mistakes? Do we have to let rapists off the hook?

There is a problem with this argument. Just because you wish to hold rapists and murderers responsible for their actions, you cannot argue that the mind has to be something more than physical brain. Facts cannot be twisted to suit what you wish were true. Facts are facts. It is upto us to handle the consequences. There is really no doubt that it is the brains of their criminals that are making them to do what they do. To argue otherwise is meaningless.

Does that mean we don’t have to arrest or punish anybody for their actions? Does that mean we do away with our judicial system? No. To see why, let us see what decides the way our brains are connected. Clearly, genes play a role. But so do your experiences in your life. If you had Dosa at a particular hotel yesterday and did not like it, you would not order it again at the same hotel. So, what you experienced previously affects what you do today. Similarly, if a small child is admonished today for being, say, impolite, the next time he will think twice before repeating the same mistake, because the previous admonishment too shapes his brain.

Thus, instead of doing away with our judicial system, we need to change the way it looks at punishments. Sentences should not be meted out in a sense of tit for tat. It should not be based on the logic that a criminal deserves to be punished. As I have argued before we do not have freewill and hence such a stand does not make sense. Sentences need to be given by looking at the future consequences of such a punishment. So, when punishing a murderer, we must not take away his life just because he took somebody else’ life. We should do whatever is necessary to make the society safer from people like him. That could mean jailing him or that could mean operating on his brain to remove a tumour which induces in him homicidal tendencies (read this article for a similar case of a person trying to sexually abuse his daughter because of a tumour in his head).

This is the way forward for a humane society. Of course, we cannot always anticipate the consequences of what we do today. But our present sense of justice based on moral responsibility is built on the shaky notion that we all have free will. We do not have that. But that does not mean, as the neurosurgeon does, we argue that there is something beyond the “merely physical” brain. Why should we think of it as “merely” physical? I do not think there is anything demeaning about our mind arising out of the physical brain. Is it not glorious to think that lifeless atoms can come together to come up with something as complicated as our brain?

Categories: Brain Tags: , ,

How to register for cord blood donation

May 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Sometime back I mentioned about cord blood banking and that Prabha and I are going to store the cord blood at the time of delivery with Jeevan Stem Cell Bank (JSCB). We completed the registration procedure today. I thought I can talk about it here so that those interested will know what it is all about.

The last time we went there, they gave us a set of forms to be filled in. They were mostly questionnaires asking us about our medical history, details of the pregnancy and other such details. There were also a couple of forms to be signed which essentially said that if for some reason, like complications during delivery, JSCB is not able to collect the cord blood they cannot be held responsible for it etc. The entire form filling took us just fifteen minutes. In addition to the form, we also had to give a copy of the latest scan report. That was all what was needed to complete the registration.

Once we gave them the form, the person there showed us the cord blood collection kit. The kit contained a pouch in which cord blood will be stored, a couple of small test tube like containers for samples of the mother’s blood. The kit also contained a pouch of gel to maintain the temperature of the cord blood till it reaches the bank. This gel has to be kept in the freezer a day before the delivery. Since we might not know when the delivery is going to be, I feel we can just keep it in the freezer, when we get closer to the date and let it stay there till the day comes. Apart from these there is a pair of gloves for the nurse to use and a couple of syringes to collect blood samples. We need to keep this kit with us and take it to the hospital when we go there for delivery.

Since it is a nurse from JSCB which will do the actual work of collecting the cord blood (and not someone from the hospital that Prabha is going to get into), just before starting for the hospital we need to give a call to the JSBC nurse whose mobile number we were given. We can call her any time 24 x 7, and she will be there at the hospital as quickly as possible. Even if we forget to take the kit to the hospital, we can just inform them and they will arrange for another one.

It is all pretty simple. And all steps are taken by Jeevan to make it as easy for us as possible. I just need to inform our doctor the next time we go to meet her, to let her know that we we have registered with Jeevan to save the cord blood. That is all, there is to it.

If you want more details you can reach them on 9790897918. They will be glad to help you.