29 Mar 2012

‘Democracy too is Darwinian'


TEAM SPIRIT: While a colony of bees has a queen, workers and drones, there is no monarchy. Photo: S. Rameshkurup
The Hindu TEAM SPIRIT: While a colony of bees has a queen, workers and drones, there is no monarchy. Photo: S. Rameshkurup
Socio-biology throws surprises at us, asking us to be appreciative of many other animals and even insects like the honeybee and the cockroach.
We have just gone through a series of successful elections in several states of India. This has once again shown to the world, and particularly to our own ruling politicians, that we take democracy seriously, and believe in consensus-based decisions. And all of us are delighted that the people of several countries in the Arab world (and Myanmar too) have the opportunity to vote and practice democracy.
Is democracy a human invention, thought out by homo sapiens and practiced by us? What do other social animals do? Are there social practices in animal societies that have an evolutionary origin, handed down to us? The field of socio-biology throws not only surprises at us but also teaches us some lessons, asking us to be humble and appreciative of many other animals and even insects like the honeybee we admire and the cockroach we detest.
Professor Raghavendra Gadagkar of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore is a well known “eusociologist” who specializes in insect group behaviour of wasps and bees. He recently described to us how a colony of wasps or bees organizes itself and optimises resources. He points out that while the colony has a queen, workers and drones, this is no monarchy. The queen does not proclaim what the colony should do. (We call her the queen, rather anthropomorphically, since all she does is sit around and lay eggs, and is pampered by a retinue of ‘assistants').
She too is just a worker, a special type of worker whose job is just to keep on laying eggs. There are no palace intrigues, and she too can be, and is, overthrown or displaced by another ‘egg laying machine'. When the colony is divided into two, the second queen-less part makes its own queen.
The “queen” is of course more important than the average worker, but she is not a dictator whose order the colony must obey. It is a group activity, with each member playing its role by common agreement.
Yes, the cockroach, the pest whom we want to smash to death the moment we see it in the kitchen, too forms a congenial society with consensual rules. Dr. Jose Halloy and his group at the Department of Social Ecology at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium has been studying cockroach colonies for over a decade.
He has come to the conclusion that cockroaches practice a simple form of democracy. In its society, each insect has equal standing and decisions made by group override those of individuals, and such group decisions govern what the entire group would do.
How does one devise an experiment to arrive at such an important conclusion? Halloy's experiment was simple and decisive. He placed the group of cockroaches in a large dish that had three shelters.
The cockroaches did much “consultation” among themselves by touching and probing each other through their antennae, and after such consultation, divided themselves into groups and ran towards the shelters, away from the light (recall they like dark and no light).
The surprise was in the result. Each shelter could hold 50 insects. Yet when 50 cockroaches were used in the experiment, they divided themselves into two groups — 25 went off to shelter 1 and 25 to shelter 2, leaving shelter 3 vacant. When the researchers brought far larger shelters, each housing far more than 50, the cockroaches formed a single group and all went into a single shelter.
Halloy explained the results to mean that a balance is struck between cooperation and competition for resources. Group formation optimizes this balance. As he says: “It allows them to increase their reproductive opportunities, promotes sharing of resources like shelter or food, and prevents desiccation by aggregating in dry environments, etc”.
Mammals also
Turning to mammals, we do find democracy, or group decisions that govern the action of the entire colony. Professor Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex, UK, who has been studying colonies of red deer, finds that individuals benefit if they synchronize their activities and movements, and they have to decide such things collectively.
It is in the interests of the group members to stay together, so that they reproduce more, optimize resources, detect and avoid predators better — no different from cockroaches?
More recently, Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University, Georgia, U.S., finds increasing evidence for similar group decisions and behaviour in chimpanzee societies too. In his forthcoming book “chimpanzee politics”, he describes how an “alpha male” spends a lot of time grooming allies, sharing food with them and keeping them on his side. Such consensus builders form more stable social structures and make group consensus decisions. Would this be the beginning of group politics, I wonder!
Conradt and Roper describe, in their paper “Democracy in animals: the evolution of shared group decisions” (Proceedings of the Royal Society; B 2007, 274: 2317), a game theory model of animal group behaviour. They show that a consensus decision is when the members of a group choose, collectively between mutually exclusive actions.
This involves consensus “costs”, but equally shared decisions result in lowered consensus costs than unshared decisions. Is this not what democracy is about? As we study insects, fishes and mammals, we see the evolution of cooperative and consultative behaviour in many such animal colonies and societies, where the members choose to forego some privileges and bear some costs in order to promote harmony, survival and flourishing of the group-democracy in action.

27 Mar 2012

Temperatures ‘could rise by 3°C by 2050’

In this file photo a villager holds an umbrella to protect himself from the Sun as he walks over the parched land on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar in India.
AP In this file photo a villager holds an umbrella to protect himself from the Sun as he walks over the parched land on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar in India.
Global temperatures could rise by 1.4-3 degrees centigrade above levels for late last century by 2050, a computer simulation has suggested.
For the study, almost 10,000 climate simulations were run on volunteers’ home computers, the BBC reported.
The projections were somewhat higher than those from other models.
In the study, the researchers aimed to explore a wider range of possible futures, which they say helps “get a handle” on the uncertainties of the climate system.
According to the researchers, people planning for the impacts of climate change need to consider the possibility of warming of up to 3°C by 2050, even on a mid-range emission scenario.
The study, run through climateprediction.net with the BBC Climate Change Experiment, ran simulations using a complex atmosphere-ocean climate model.
The representations of physical parameters were varied between runs of the model, reflecting uncertainties about precisely how the climate system works.
Additionally, the forecast range was derived from models that accurately reproduced observed temperature changes over the last 50 years.
The low end of their range is similar to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2007 report, but the high end is somewhat above the range their analysis produced.
Myles Allen, the principal investigator of the study from Oxford University said other climate modelling groups’ data did not “set out to explore the full range of uncertainty, which is why studies like ours are needed".
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change — for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.
Gabi Hegerl from the University of Edinburgh described the research as “an important step toward estimating uncertainty more comprehensively".
The study has been published in Nature Geoscience.

26 Mar 2012

Liquid battery could charge green energy

Liquid battery could charge green energy
Engineering professor Donald Sadoway on Thursday used an old-school chalk board at the prestigious TED gathering to write the formula for a liquid battery that could one day cut the need for new power plants.
"The way things stand, electricity demand must be in constant balance with supply," Sadoway told the tech-savvy audience in southern California.
Inexpensive batteries made from liquid metal could store electricity from solar panels, wind farms, or existing generation facilities and save it for when it is most needed.
That would be a major change from today's consume-it-now-or-lose-it systems.
"The battery is the enabling device here," he said. "With it we could draw electricity from the sun even when the sun doesn't shine."
Sadoway and his team of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were so confident in their creation that they started Liquid Metal Battery Corporation and plan to have bistro-table size models out in two years.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is among the company's backers.
The company plans to eventually bring to market a liquid battery the size of a 40-foot shipping container and capable of holding enough electricity to serve the daily needs of 200 typical US households.
"You could have these batteries in the basements of buildings drinking up power in the wee hours," Sadoway said.
"It means we don't have to build more plants, power lines just for peak use," he continued. "The limits are way out there, not only in terms of what it can do for renewables."
The key metals in the battery are common vanadium and magnesium, the professor explained as he chalked a basic chemical equation on the board.
TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a series of conferences designed to present cutting-edge ideas. Speakers are given only 18 minutes to give deliver their pitch.

Why meditation makes our brains smarter?

WASHINGTON: Meditation does make the brain smarter, allowing it to process information faster and improve decision making, according to the latest study.

Eileen Luders, assistant professor at the University of California Los Angeles Lab of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues have found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification (folding of the cortex, which may allow the brain to act faster, with a host of benefits) than non-meditators.

Further, the amount of gyrification and years of meditation were found to be directly linked, offering more proof of the brain's adaptability to environmental changes, the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience reports.

The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of neural (brain) tissue, which plays a key role in memory, attention, thought and consciousness.

Hence, the greater the gyrification or folding, the better the brain is at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and so forth, according to a California statement.

"Rather than just comparing meditators and non-meditators, we wanted to see if there is a link between the amount of meditation practice and the extent of brain alteration," said Luders. "That is, correlating the number of years of meditation with the degree of folding."

The researchers took MRI scans of 50 meditators, 28 men and 22 women, and compared them to 50 non-meditators matched for age, handedness and sex. The scans for second group were obtained from an existing MRI database, while the meditators were recruited from various meditation venues.

The meditators had practiced their craft on average for 20 years using a variety of meditation types -- Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and more. The researchers applied a well-established and automated whole-brain approach to measure cortical gyrification at thousands of points across the surface of the brain.

They found pronounced group differences. Perhaps most interesting, though, was the positive correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of gyrification.

Soon, LED bio-bulb to help you get restful sleep

Those struggling to get a restful night’s sleep will soon be able to have one, thanks to the new LED bio-bulb that will allow people to see at night without hindering body’s natural mechanisms.
Most people usually find it difficult to get a restful sleep for several hours after sitting under bright lights post sunset.
Now a Florida inventor is testing a new LED bio-bulb that could regulate the body's circadian rhythm by helping control the production of melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone that tells us when it’s night time, Discovery News reported.
Fred Maxik, founder and chief technology officer of Lighting Science Group Corp asserted that this can be achieved by eliminating a small segment of the blue wavelength of light (around 465 to 485 nanometers) produced by the lightbulb.
“We’re looking at a way to filter out that part of the spectrum, and still have a white light,” Maxik said.
“Our ability to restore the natural position of where we were and natural hormonal secretions is an appealing one.”
Almost 20 years ago, medical researchers found that the eye has a separate photoreceptor that picks up wavelengths of light, and then, sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which secretes melatonin.
Although melatonin does not make a person sleep, it does tell the body to prepare to rest.
Maxik said that he is attempting to help people see what they are doing at night, like reading, doing homework or watching TV, without making it hard to fall asleep when they are ready. He is also trying to make it dimmable. 
“You need to remove part of the light spectrum, a significant notch taken out of that, and create a light that people don’t see as something that’s unusual.”
“It has to be something that's natural,” Maxik added.

16 Mar 2012

Solar energy powers people’s lives

Julie Sauerwern and her daughter with solar panel.
Julie Sauerwern and her daughter with solar panel.
Retired Indian Army major general K.K. Tewari, 89, is a convert now: He is gradually changing from conventional electricity to green, solar energy to operate electronic gadgets in his house.
Interestingly, the catalyst for change was the destructive cyclone Thane. When Thane uprooted power poles throughout Puducherry and neighboring Cuddalore and put the neighbourhoods in darkness, only Auroville, the international spiritual township, had its lights on.
Many families in Auroville carried on with their chores as if nothing had happened thanks to their solar energy installations.
Seeing this, many people in the region are quickly turning to solar energy, not because they are expecting another Thane, but since power cuts have become a regular nuisance in this part of the country.
And General Tewari, whose bedridden wife Dr Kamala Tewari, 85, needs fan and light on all the time, is one among the new converts.
Ms Julie Sauerwern, 42, along with her two daughters — Rearnie, 5 and Nila, 2 — was among scores of Aurovilleans saved by solar energy. Julie works as an outstation designer for children’s books for schools in the South Pacific islands.
After Thane, her neighbours’ solar batteries and panels helped her meet her deadline. So, she is now planning to switch to solar energy.
Pointing to the efficiency of the solar kitchen in the township, Mithran from Germany, a regular visitor to Auroville, said, “I was shaken up after Thane’s destruction.
At the same time, I was in awe of the solar kitchen in Auroville, the oldest working solar bowl model in the world, as it was not affected. We got our well-cooked, tasty food as usual.”
Solar energy experts Jorz Zimmermann and Rishi said solar power provided supply to operate even washing machines and water heaters.
“We hope Thane has taught us a lesson on energy efficiency,” they said. They added that the government could come out with solar farms where panels are fixed to receive energy and excess power would be passed on to the grid. This way even Chennai could be empowered not to depend on other states for electricity.
Renewable energy meet from March 12
As Chennai is hosting India’s biggest renewable energy conference and exhibition on March 12-13, 2012, DC interacted with Sudeep Jain, chairman of the Tamil Nadu energy development agency(TEDA), which works under the Union ministry of new and renewable energy, about the achievements of Tamil Nadu in the renewable energy sector.
The programme will have over 150 renewable energy companies showcasing successful models of solar, wind, biomass, and waste-to-energy power, which could be used in households.
TEDA is expecting over 5,000 renewable energy enthusiasts at the event in addition to top government officials from energy/ renewable energy departments of over 10 different states.
What are the major renewable energy equipment/gadgets in use among the public?
Box and dish-type solar cooker, solar lanterns, torchlight, streetlights, education institution campus and garden lights are widely used apart from solar fencing and mobile chargers.
TEDA has been conducting awareness campaigns throughout TN through exhibitions, seminars, workshops, business meets and training programmes. We also produce short films on success stories.
At present, how much do renewable energy technologies contribute to the daily power consumption of TN?
The installed capacity of renewable energy is 7466.10 MW. Renewable and wind energy installed capacity in TN are 36 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively of India’s total renewable and wind energy installed capacity. The percentage of renewable energy penetration in the TN grid is around 14 per cent.
Can you predict any increase in renewable energy usage in the state after the conference?
Renergy 2012 conference will focus on enabling India become an attractive market for renewable energy investors and entrepreneurs.
We would provide forums for the public to understand renewable energy sources and use them to save on electricity bills.
Energy roadmap for state
The World Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE), Pune, is involved in developing a renewable energy roadmap for Tamil Nadu.
To recommend to the government to tap solar energy in various spots across the state, WISE officials have started identifying the places through GPS (global positioning system) and providing suggestions on successful renewable energy technologies which could be put to use in specific districts.
Green bank
In a first-of-its-kind in the state, a bank is fully operated with solar energy. The Pallavan Grama Bank, at Ammapettai, in Erode, has all computers, scanners, fans and 30 LED lights operated using solar power obtained from eight solar panels fixed on its terrace. The bank administration is now fixing solar panels in four other branches.
Subsidies for solar equipment
The Tamil Nadu energy development agency provides 30 per cent subsidy to individuals for switching to solar energy. Soft loans will be provided up to 50 per cent for domestic users. Officials say it is a one-time investment for solar water heaters and solar dish cookers.
The cost of a 100 lpd (litres per day) solar water heater is around `23,000 and a dish cooker costs around Rs 8,000. The payback time for domestic use is maximum five years and, for industrial use, three years.
Solar potential in India
Minister of new and renewable energy M. Farooq Abdullah said India has good potential for solar power as it receives solar energy equivalent to over 5,000 trillion kWh per year, which is far more than the total energy consumption of the country.
The daily average solar energy incident varies from 4-7 kWh per square metre of the surface area depending upon the location and time of the year. He says that solar radiation is available at most locations in India for about 300 days a year.
Solar helpline
The ministry of new and renewable energy has started a voice call-based national helpline, in English and Hindi, on solar water heater to create awareness and address consumer requirements.
The toll-free helpline 1800-233-4477 functions from 0930 to 1800 hours Monday-Friday and 0930 to 1330 hours on Saturdays. It would guide the consumer choose the right solar energy gadgets. More details at: http://www.stfi.org.in

Electricity-generating superbugs from space offer new source of power

Bacteria usually found 30km above the earth have been identified as extremely efficient generators of electricity. Bacillus stratosphericus – a microbe commonly found in high concentrations in the stratosphere orbiting the earth with the satellites – is a key component of a new ‘super’ biofilm that has been engineered by a team of scientists from Newcastle University.
Isolating 75 different species of bacteria from the Wear Estuary, Country Durham, UK, the team tested the power-generation of each one using a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC).
By selecting the best species of bacteria, a kind of microbial “pick and mix” they were able to create an artificial biofilm, doubling the electrical output of the MFC from 105 Watts per cubic metre to 200 Watts per cubic metre.
While still relatively low, this would be enough power to run an electric light and could provide a much needed power source in parts of the world without electricity.
Among the ‘super’ bugs was B. Stratosphericus, a microbe normally found in the atmosphere but brought down to earth as a result of atmospheric cycling processes and isolated by the team from the bed of the River Wear.
Grant Burgess, Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Newcastle University, said the research demonstrated the “potential power of the technique.”
“What we have done is deliberately manipulate the microbial mix to engineer a biofilm that is more efficient at generating electricity,” he explained.
“This is the first time individual microbes have been studied and selected in this way. Finding B.altitudinis was quite a surprise but what it demonstrates is the potential of this technique for the future – there are billions of microbes out there with the potential to generate power.”
The use of microbes to generate electricity is not a new concept and has been used in the treatment of waste water and sewage plants.
Microbial Fuel Cells, which work in a similar way to a battery, use bacteria to convert organic compounds directly into electricity by a process known as bio-catalytic oxidation.
A biofilm – or ‘slime’ – coats the carbon electrodes of the MFC and as the bacteria feed, they produce electrons, which pass into the electrodes and generate electricity.
Until now, the biofilm has been allowed to grow un-checked but this new study shows for the first time that by manipulating the biofilm you can significantly increase the electrical output of the fuel cell.
As well as B. Stratosphericus, other electricity-generating bugs in the mix were Bacillus altitudinis – another bug from the upper atmosphere – and a new member of the phylum Bacteroidetes.
Newcastle University is recognised as a world-leader in fuel cell technology.
Led by Professor Keith Scott, in the University’s School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, the team played a key role in the development of a new lithium/air powered battery two years ago.
Professor Scott said that this latest fuel cell research can take the development of MFC’s to a new level.
The study has been published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

Was Einstein wrong-or was cable loose?

The world of science was upended last year when an experiment appeared to show one of iconic scientist Albert Einstein's fundamental theories was wrong - but now the lab behind it says the result could have been caused by a loose cable.
Physicists at the CERN laboratory near Geneva appeared to contradict Albert Einstein last year when they reported that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos could travel fractions of a second faster than light.
Einstein had said nothing could ever travel faster than light, and doing so would be like traveling back in time.
But James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, said on Wednesday the lab's startling result was now in doubt.
Earlier on Wednesday, ScienceInsider, a website run by the respected American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported that the surprising result was down to a loose fibre optic cable linking a Global Positioning System satellite receiver to a computer.
Gillies confirmed that a flaw in the GPS system was now suspected as a possible cause for the surprising reading. Further testing was needed before any definite conclusions could be reached, he added.
The faster-than-light finding was recorded when 15,000 neutrino beams were pumped over three years from CERN to an underground Italian laboratory at Gran Sasso near Rome.
A possible explanation has been found. But we won't know until we have tested it out with a new beam to Gran Sasso, Gillies told Reuters in Geneva.
Physicists on the experiment, called OPERA, said when they reported it last September that they had checked and rechecked over many months anything that could have produced a misreading before announcing what they had found.
A second test whose results were announced in November appeared to provide further evidence that neutrinos were travelling faster than light. But many experts remained sceptical of a result that would have overturned one of the fundamental principles of modern physics.
Gillies said CERN would be issuing a full statement early on Thursday.

15 Mar 2012

Towards bio innovation

Advanced bio-fuels could create millions of jobs while greening the economy
Transforming agricultural residues into advanced bio fuels could create millions of jobs worldwide, economic growth, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and energy security by 2030, according to a report by Novozymes, the world leader in bio innovation and industrial enzymes.
The Bloomberg New Energy Finance report “Moving towards a next-generation ethanol economy'' was commissioned by Novozymes. It estimates the socio-economic prospects of deploying advanced bio fuels in eight of the highest agricultural-producing regions in the world, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, EU-27, India, Mexico and US.
“A huge global resource of agricultural residues can be harvested sustainably every year without altering current land use patterns and without interfering with the food chain,'' according to Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes. According to the report, an estimated 17.5 per cent of the agricultural residue produced could be available today as feedstock for advanced bio fuels. With this amount, enough advanced bio fuels could be produced to replace over 50 per cent of the forecasted 2030 gasoline demand.
The world has a unique opportunity to develop a next-generation bio product industry based on agricultural residues by 2030, the report states. The socio-economic prospects of deploying advanced bio-fuels go well beyond energy security. The report shows that the eight regions analysed have the potential to diversify farmers' income, generate revenues ranging from $1trillion to $4.4trillion between today and 2050 and create millions of jobs. For example, advanced bio fuels could create up to 2.9 million jobs in China, 1.4 million jobs in the US and around one million in Brazil. The impact on climate change would also be reduced considering advanced bio fuels emit 80 per cent less greenhouse gas than ethanol.
“At a time when we're all striving to create jobs to secure our economic future, as well as finding a sustainable way to produce energy, this study shows the benefits of a transition towards sustainable bio fuels and bio products based on agricultural residues,'' said Riisgaard. ``It also strongly signals that policy incentives will result in great payback to society,'' he added. The report states the technology exists today to produce advanced bio fuels from agricultural residues, and the first commercial-scale facilities will start production this year. Moreover in the coming decades a variety of other advanced bio products such as chemicals and plastics could also be produced based on the same feedstock and pave the way towards a bio-based economy, independent from fossil fuel.
While the potential is high, broad deployment of advanced bio fuels is not a given. The report highlights a series of barriers in terms of feedstock supply, insufficient infrastructure and high capital costs that can prevent the industry from unlocking the value of this agricultural residue resource. It will depend on policy makers to put solid incentives into place that actively encourage the necessary investments, including long-term mandates for advanced bio fuels, incentives for the collection of farming residues and tax breaks for investments.

The green tip

CONSCIOUS EFFORT: To turn environment friendly. Photo: M. Moorthy
The Hindu CONSCIOUS EFFORT: To turn environment friendly. Photo: M. Moorthy
The “No to plastic” campaign is gradually catching up in the city
Over the last week, walls sporting artistic coats of paint, traffic islands with spruced up green tufts, and white boards exhorting denizens by way of striking verses and catchphrases to keep the city ‘clean and green' have all mushroomed under the compass of the city beautification project. The ‘say no to plastic' campaign has long been a part of the initiative.
Yet, after many clean-up campaigns and rallies organized by the city corporation in collaboration with students and voluntary organizations, plastic bags continue to be the product of choice in most of the city's commercial establishments, particularly in department stores. Senior officials of various Government Departments here have repeatedly called for use of bags made of paper, jute and cloth while stepping up a drive to confiscate non-biodegradable plastic below 40 microns of thickness.
“Though many stores claim to use biodegradable bags, the important question is how many of them find themselves back into the recycling process,” notes a government official. “If left lying around in open spaces, they can cause pollution too,” he adds.
“What is the use of banning plastic bags in stores when it is offered for a price?” asks Durga, an IT graduate. “Department stores charge anywhere between Rs. 2-5 per bag. They could consider charging Rs. 5 and providing a cloth or jute bag instead.”
Exploring alternatives
But there are a few enterprises that have sought the road less travelled. The Uzhavar Sandhai, where farmers sell their produce directly to customers, at K.K. Nagar is an illustration of awareness percolating from seller to buyer. Farmers here are aware of the environmental consequences of plastic, which they duly pass on to clients who demand plastic bags. There are no plastic bags in sight here and mornings are bustling with shoppers carrying wire baskets, jute bags and cotton bags. “Earlier some farmers used to give away vegetables in plastic bags. But we stopped supply of plastic bags completely a month ago,” says Socrates, executive officer of the market. “Even morning walkers who drop in to buy a bunch of greens and insist on bags are directed to a vendor with coarse gunny bags.”
“We have been asking customers to bring their own bags,” says Paneer Selvam, a tomato vendor. “If someone turns up without a bag, we ask them to come the next day. But after a month, customers have made it a custom to bring their own bags.”
A few like housewife Indhira Gandhi reuse the plastic bags available at home for shopping. “It is better to reuse available plastic bags than to buy new ones,” she feels. “But as long as bigger shops continue to stock them, there is no end to the menace.”
Even small canteens and roadside shops have switched to paper cups that are a tad more expensive than plastic ones, keeping environment consciousness in mind. Some fruit and sweet stalls pack their wares in bags made of tissue paper.
A flower shop in Mannarpuram has shown its customers that the eco-friendly route is not necessarily an expensive one. Both dried flower arrangements and bunches of fresh flowers are handed over in bags that are fashioned out of newspapers — two sheets of paper folded artfully and held by glue and staplers, with a string for handle. “Our green tip has come in for a lot of appreciation,” says Ejula Mathew, proprietor. “I looked up the internet for ideas and came up with this home-made bag.”

Lighting up rural homes

Useful innovations: Electrical engineering students of SSN College of Engineering with solar lamps. Photo: Special Arrangement
The Hindu Useful innovations: Electrical engineering students of SSN College of Engineering with solar lamps. Photo: Special Arrangement
Configured solar lamps for villages reeling under power crisis.
At a time when many States are facing a power crisis, a group of electrical engineering students have taken up an initiative to light up study centres in remote villages in Tamil Nadu with solar power. A batch of students of Lakshya, the E Cell initiative of SSN College of Engineering, went to a few remote villages in Tiruthani recently where they installed solar lamps at homes of a few children that also double up as study centres.
Taken up as part of the E-Week (Entrepreneurship Week) celebrations in colleges organised by the National Entrepreneurship Network across cities between February 11 and 18, the team had planned to cover a few other villages that reeled under constant power cuts.
“We have been planning to take this initiative for the last couple of weeks, where we raised sponsorship of Rs.30,000 to buy the lamps and panels that we configured to suit the needs of these villages,” explains Vidarth Jaikrishnan, third-year student of the college and the team leader.
To make it more cost-effective, the electrical engineering students bought a panel that could charge two lanterns. Each lamp can light up a 300 sq. ft. room. Their next task was contacting NGOs who could connect them to remote villages where infrastructure facilities were poor, especially places where the need for electricity was more felt. AIDIndia identified three villages that were in dire need of power.
According to Chitra K., project manager, AIDIndia, Tiruttani, students use the Rs.10 torch light battery in some of these homes to study as it is usually in the evening that there are regular power cuts. There are three such study centres in the village where children up to Class VIII gather to study.
Nine configured solar lamps are ready with the team of 17. “We also explain students how solar lamps work and about its advantages. If this is successful, we plan to procure more lamps and set out to a few identified villages in Lathur and Thiruporur,” says Vinay Kumar, another team member.
The team plans to scale up this social venture beyond the E-Week. “We plan to rope in our juniors so that they can take it forward. We are also confident of getting in more sponsorship so that we can buy more lamps,” adds Vidarth.

Nobel scientist who warned of thinning ozone dies


F. Sherwood Rowland. File photo
AP F. Sherwood Rowland. File photo
F. Sherwood Rowland, the Nobel prize-winning chemist who sounded the alarm on the thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer, has died. He was 84.
Rowland died Saturday at his home of complications from Parkinson’s disease, the dean of the University of California, Irvine’s physical sciences department said Sunday.
“We have lost our finest friend and mentor,” Kenneth C. Janda said in a statement. “He saved the world from a major catastrophe - never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity and did so with integrity and grace.”
Rowland was among three scientists awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry for explaining how the ozone layer is formed and decomposed through chemical processes in the atmosphere.
The prize was awarded more than two decades after Rowland and post-doctoral student Mario Molina calculated that if human use of chlorofluorocarbons, a by-product of aerosol sprays, deodorants and other household products, were to continue at an unchanged rate, the ozone layer would be depleted after several decades. Their work built upon findings by atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen.
Their prediction caught enormous attention and was strongly challenged partly because the non-toxic properties of CFCs were thought to be environmentally safe. Their work gained widespread recognition more than a decade later with the discovery of the ozone hole over the Earth’s polar regions.
“It was to turn out that they had even underestimated the risk,” a Nobel committee said in its award citation for Rowland, Molina and Crutzen.
Mr. Molina said his former mentor never shied from defending his work or advocating a ban on CFCs.
“He showed me that if we believe in the science ... we should speak out when we feel it’s important for society to change,” Mr. Molina told The Associated Press.
“Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?” Rowland said at a White House climate change roundtable in 1997.
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” he asked.
Rowland was survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Joan, a son and a daughter.

Up above the world so high

Sturdy and mammoth Looking up to the giants Photo: Bhagya Prakash k.
Sturdy and mammoth Looking up to the giants Photo: Bhagya Prakash k.
ENVIRONMENT The trees on the NGMA premises are a study in themselves
We are in an era where moonwalks are less of a speciality than tree walks. Nevertheless, the tree walk organized by the NGMA in their “arboretum” was more charming than its dance counterpart.
Guiding what seemed to be quite a large turnout for a hot Saturday afternoon was nature enthusiast Vijay Thiruvady of the Lalbagh heritage walk fame. He led the group around the campus, talking about the trees in bloom during this season. The “tree of the month” which was in full bloom in the campus was the Red Silk Cotton Tree, or Bombax.
“The trees drop their leaves in spring to face the onslaught of summer. At this time, their flowers come out for the bees and birds to pollinate. New leaves sprout once the summer is over and the monsoon starts.”
He pointed out that the first references to the tree were made in Guru Nanak's “Bara Masi”. Other historical references include the Mahabharata. “It is said the Pitamah Brahma reposed against this tree after creation. There is a similar tree in the Lalbagh gardens which has larger buttresses. These trees, which grow largely in dry regions, can reach a height of over 130 feet. There are different types of silk cotton trees in India that produce white and yellow flowers,” he explained.
He also talked about the many uses of the silk cotton tree. Its cotton is used in pillows, while its wood is used to make matchsticks. He went on to talk about Cassia marginata with its light-coloured flowers and pipe-like pods with stacked coin-like seeds, and the Rain Tree (Samanea saman). “The Rain Tree has terrific foliage and a good shade. It is probably the only tree under which the grass grows greener than in the perimeter. It derives its common name from the insects in the tree, which make a watery sound. Sometimes one even finds wet patches under the tree. It is known for its leaves which open up during the day and fold up during the night.”
Another tree that Vijay spoke at length about was the Rubber Fig or Ficus elastica, which is indigenous to North-East India, mainly Assam. “The British discovered the first rubber from this tree. Between 1840 and 1870, the tree was exploited for its rubber. But they soon found that only limited quantities of rubber can be extracted from it, so they cut off all the rubber trees in Assam.”
Then there is the Sandalwood tree, which he said is a semi-parasite and has good chances of survival only if paired with another tree close by. “Sandalwood trees are complicated trees. It needs a specific bug in the soil, which is found only in South India, apart from countries like Madagascar, Indonesia and Australia. Sandalwood trees take about 30 to 40 years to mature and start producing oil. The oil is found only in the heartwood, though the roots are also clogged with oil. The best sandalwood oil, with two per cent by weight, comes from Karnataka.”
Vijay also pointed out the Yellow Trumpet Tree, which was in bloom, the Pride of India and the Bougainvillea plant.

11 Mar 2012

Ready to face the exams?


MUNCH AWAY On crunchy tomatoes and cucumber
Appearing for the Board exams? Here's how to keep alert and fit
It is best to keep meals simple and light on the tummy. Heavy meals result in disturbed sleep.
Smart snacking refreshes the body and keeps students alert and awake.

What to eat:

l Ensure that meals are small and simple.
l Snack on crunchy salads such as lettuce, carrot, tomato and cucumber.
l Juicy fruits help de-toxify and de-stress. Eat oranges, pears, apples and papaya).
l Roasted grams such as groundnut and Bengal gram are a good idea.
l Snack on mixed dry fruits, but only around 10 pieces at a time.

Words of caution

Children are stressed and, therefore, their immunity is low. Eating out can result in stomach infection or viral attacks. It's best to eat home-cooked food that's clean and hygienically prepared. High-calorie or high-fat foods can make children sleepy and prevent them from concentrating on their studies.

What to avoid

l Fried foods.
l Greasy, high-calorie desserts.
l Skip junk food.
l Avoid eating out, especially in not-so-hygienic joints
l Do NOT drink juices sold at roadside eateries.

Some general advice

Mark the exam dates and subjects on the calendar and take a look at it every morning.
Keep track of the day and time so that one does not miss out on an exam.
Consultant Dietician Chennai

Transit of Venus- 2012

Series of National Level Workshops for Transit of Venus- 2012

Image Credit: www.exploratorium.edu
Eclipse, when two objects of comparable sizes block each other, occultation, when a body with greater angular size blocks an object with smaller angular size and transits, when an object with lesser angular size come in between the observer and an object with greater angular size are some of the celestial wonders that naturally occur due to movements of the celestial bodies.

One such cosmic event, the Venus Transit- passing of Venus in front of Sun’s disk will take place on the coming 06 June 2012. The transit of Venus occurs in pairs with one that took place on 08 June 2004. The next pair of transit of Venus will occur in 2117 and 2125, making it truly once in life time opportunity.

The first recorded observation of the transit of Venus was done by the British Priest, Jeremiah Horrocks, in 1639. Jeremiah Horrocks was the first who used his observations to measure the Earth to Sun distance, called the Astronomical Unit (AU). The upcoming Transit of Venus- 06 June 2012 will be a life time opportunity for everyone on the Earth. In India, on 06 June 2012, transit will commence well before sun rises and one can observe the phenomena on Sun’s projected image or through approved solar filters supplied by authorised agencies from morning hours to mid morning.

Keeping this event as a peg, VP is proposing to organise a series of regional training programme in different parts of the country between April and May 2012 to train and make a set of resource persons on conducting Day Time Astronomy activities. Each participants of the workshop would have to undertake to initiate activities on Day time astronomy at least in ten villages/ schools.

Vigyan Prasar invites amateur astronomers, science activists, science communicators, teachers (School and college) who are desirous of joining the regional training programme, and who are ready to give undertaking that they will at least conduct 10 field level programmes subsequent to receiving the training may apply. The last date for application is 20 March 2012.

The shortlisted applicants will be informed through mail/letter/phone by 01 April 2012. The travel support restricted to AC-II and frugal accommodation at the place of training programme will be provided by Vigyan Prasar.

Guidelines For Filling The Application Form.

Click Here for Online Application Form.

Click Here to Download Application Form.

10 Mar 2012

జనవిజ్ఞాన వేదిక

                                                      జనవిజ్ఞాన వేదిక

                                     గౌరవ ప్రధానోపాధ్యయులు/ఉపాధ్యాయులకు

మిత్రులారా !

            1988 ఫిబ్రవరి 28న స్థాపించిన జనవిజ్ఞాన వేదిక శాస్త్రీయ దృక్పదాన్ని ప్రజలలో పెంచడానికి కృషి చేస్తూ 24 సంవత్సరాలు పూర్తి చేసుకొంది.25వ రజతోత్సవ సంవత్సరాన్ని ఈ 2012 సంవత్సరం జరుపుకొంటుందీ జనవిజ్ఞాన వేదిక. ఇంత ఎదమడానికి మధ్య తరగతి వర్గమేధావులు, ప్రజల ఆదరించారు. జె.వి.వి. లక్ష్యాలను ముందుకు తీసుకుపోవడంలో ఉపాధ్యాయుల కృషి వెలకట్టలేనిది. ఈ కృషి రాబోవు కాలంలో కొనసాగించాలని ఆశిస్తున్నాము. ఈ సందర్బంగా కొన్ని విషయాలు మీ దృష్టికి తీసుకొస్తున్నాము. వీటి విజయవంతంలో మీ సూచనలు, సలహాలతోపాటు మీ సహకారాన్ని కోరుతున్నాము.

@     విద్యార్ధులలో శాస్త్రీయ దృక్పదం పెంచేదాని కోసం విద్యార్ధి చెకుముకి పత్రిక
        (సంవత్సర చందా రూ!! 130/- లు) మీ పాఠశాల గ్రంధాలయ నిధుల నుండి
        కట్టే ప్రయత్నం చేయగలరు.

@    2012 జూన్ 6 ఉదయం 7.30 గం!! ల లోపు శుక్ర గ్రహణం
       ( సూర్యునికి అడ్డంగా శుక్ర గ్రహం వస్తుంది ) ఇది ఖగోళ అద్బుతం.
       దీని గురించి విధ్యార్థులకు చెప్పాలి ( దీనికి సంబందించిన నోట్ పంపిస్తాము )

@    ప్రతి పాఠశాల గోడ బైట ఆరోగ్య దీపిక బోర్డు ఏర్పాటు చేసి ప్రతి వారం ఆరోగ్య
       సూత్రాలు విద్యర్ధులతో వ్రాయించాలి.

@   ప్రముఖ శాస్త్రవేత్తల పుట్టిన రోజులను పాఠశాలలో నిర్వహించాలి. దీనిని ఉదయం
      పాఠశాలప్రార్ధన సమయం లో నిర్వహించవచ్చు. ( శాస్త్రవేత్తల పుట్టిన రోజుల
      క్యాలెండర్ను పాఠశాలలకు పంపిస్తాము )

@   ప్రముఖ శాస్త్రవేత్తల పుట్టిన రోజులను పాఠశాలలో నిర్వహించాలి. దీనిని ఉదయం
      పాఠశాల ప్రార్ధన సమయం లో నిర్వహించవచ్చు. ( శాస్త్రవేత్తల పుట్టిన రోజుల
      క్యాలెండర్ను పాఠశాలలకు పంపిస్తాము )

@   ప్రతి పాఠశాలలో సైన్స్ క్లబ్స్ ఏర్పాటు చేయాలి. దీని ద్వారా కేంద్ర ప్రభుత్వ సైన్స్
      విభాగం నుండి పాఠశాలకు ప్రయోగాలతో కూడిన మెటీరియల్ ఉచితంగా పంపిస్తారు.

      ఈ కార్యక్రమము విజయవంతం చేయడానికి మాతో సహకరించగలరని ఆశిస్తున్నాము

                                                జనవిజ్ఞాన వేదిక
                                             గుంటూరు జిల్లా శాఖ

     అధ్యక్షులు                             ప్రధాన కార్యదర్శి                         ఆర్ధిక కార్యదర్శి
డా !! బి. సాంబిరెడ్డి                   ఎన్. వెంకటేశ్వర్లు                  యం.ఉదయ్ భాస్కర్      
    9440262072                           9492084527                          9441394911

4 Mar 2012

Question corner: Wet clothes

In the rainy season, clothes, when not dried properly, start stinking. Why?
Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh
Many species of plant and animal kingdoms besides those that belong to neither of these two kingdoms (such as bacteria) release their spores and fertilized eggs into the environment as part of their reproductive phase of life. Normally, these spores or eggs are released some time before the monsoons waiting for a ripe opportunity to hatch, germinate or multiply.
Such spores and encapsulated eggs (also known as cysts), in abundance, either stay put in the layers of dry soil or keep floating like other dust particles in the atmosphere. Once rainy season advents, the spores and cysts are ready to hatch as the humidity, temperature and other physical conditions are poised well.
Though the spores and cysts are in a state of suspended animation, hardly requiring any nutrients, respiration and other physiological processes such as metabolism and growth, the hatched ones are like any other living beings engaged in all kinds of biological processes.
Hence, they do need habitats. The fibrous fabric of the clothes which are not dried properly, come very handy as grounds of attachments for the stability (by anchoring), sustenance, survival and growth of the colonies of the hatched spores and cysts.
The wetness of such clothes meets the water requirement of their physiology whereas the fabric enables them have access to the atmospheric oxygen. The dirt on the clothes, the dusty particles in the atmosphere and the dissolved chemical traces in the wetness of the clothes would provide other material needs of the growing colonies. In other words, the improperly dried clothes are living worlds of microscopic life forms. As part of their physiology, these organisms also excrete wastes which contribute to part of the stinking.
As these monocellular (single cell organisms) and oligocellular (species with limited number of cell aggregates) are growing, their predators in the atmosphere also feed on them leaving microscopic lumps of nitrogenous, thiolic (sulfur based) and phosphorous substances that add more to the stinking.
Clothes which are dried properly would not provide many of the material and physical conditions adequately to the microorganisms for hatching or for survival. Hence, such clothes do not stink that obviously, as the water content, which otherwise serves as medium of material supply, temperature regulator, protective cover, etc, is missing. In seasons other than rainy reason, the spores and cysts are not that populous and abundant in the atmosphere to make use of these features of wet clothes.
Prof. A. Ramachanraiah
Editor, Vidyarthi Chekumuki
Jana Vignana Vedika, Andhra Pradesh

Science park getting ready

V. S. Palaniappan

WATCH OUT, THEY ARE HERE: Models of prehistoric animals at the science park that is coming up in the city. Photo: K. Ananthan
WATCH OUT, THEY ARE HERE: Models of prehistoric animals at the science park that is coming up in the city. Photo: K. Ananthan
Likely to be opened in April
This summer, children will have one more place to hang out – a science park.
According to P. Iyamperumal, Executive Director of Tamil Nadu Science and Technology Centre, the project is being implemented by the centre in association with the National Council of Museums – Calcutta. The park has come up on 6.53 acres near CODISSIA fair grounds. This will be the fourth science centre/park in the State next to Chennai, Tiruchirapalli, and Vellore.
The total cost of the project is Rs. 8.5 crore. The cost is being equally shared by the State and the Centre. Mr. Iyamperumal said that the works that began three years ago were almost complete. The 40,000-sq ft park was likely to be thrown open for public by April.
The objective of the science park is to enable children learn science through play method. There will be three galleries – one on the growth of textile sector, the other on scientific principles behind the functioning of gadgets that one use or see every day, and the third on physical science.
The science park will have models of animals.
A 3D cinema attached to it will screen science-based films. The park will host a number of programmes for students and teachers on a regular basis.

In rare occurrence, Venus & Jupiter coming very close on February 25

Special Correspondent
In a rather not-so-common astronomical occurrence, Venus and Jupiter will come very close to each other in the western part of the sky and be joined by a crescent moon, the three celestial bodies forming a kind of triangle on February 25.
According to B.G. Sidharth, Director-General of the B.M. Birla Science Centre, the two planets, already visible to the naked eye, will keep coming closer after February 25.
Brightest Mars
This phenomenon will be followed by Mars rising from the east on March 3.
In fact, the red planet will be at opposition when the Sun sets in the west. Around this time, it will be the closest to the earth in a period of 12 months, and also brightest.
Mr. Sidharth said planet Saturn would also be visible.

Water colours

On February 28 we remember a great scientist — Sir C.V. Raman. His discovery placed India on the world Science map. He was the first person from Asia to be awarded a Nobel prize in any field of science.
A glass of water has no colour. But a deep sea with the same water is a brilliant blue. Why is this so?
This was the question that C.V. Raman asked himself in 1921 on seeing the colour of the Mediterranean sea from a ship. He immediately began to conduct experiments on board the ship using some simple instruments he had with him. At that time, scientists believed the sea was blue because it reflected the colour of the sky, but Raman found that it was the water itself that caused blue light to scatter more than other colours in light.
At that time Raman was a professor at the University of Calcutta. He returned from his visit of England and Europe and started experiments to study how light behaved when it passed through various substances. On February 28, 1928, one of the experiments gave a clear result. Light of only one colour was passed through a liquid, but the light that emerged had small traces of another colour. This meant that the molecules in the liquid were changing the colour of some of the light passing through it. The discovery created a sensation around the world and was named the Raman Effect. In 1930, C.V. Raman became the first person from Asia to be awarded a Nobel prize in any field of science. The date of the discovery, February 28, is now celebrated as National Science Day in India.
The Raman effect has been very useful in many areas of science. It was found that when light was passed through a substance, a series of colours were seen that could be thought of as a fingerprint of the substance. This idea has been used in chemistry, medicine, biology and many other areas of science to find out what a substance is made of. Recently, people have used the idea to make a device called a Raman Scanner. It can be pointed at a substance to tell what it is. Police have begun to use this scanner to find out if people are carrying any banned substances.
Not all of us will be as brilliant as C.V. Raman. But on the occasion of National Science Day we must remember that we can all be just as curious about the world as he was.
Simply brilliant
Raman was a man of extraordinary ability. He passed his Std. X when he was just 11 years old. At 15 he had a degree, with gold medals in Physics and English. By the time he was 19 he had an MA. Professors at college used to allow him to skip science classes because they knew he didn't need them. In addition to being brilliant, Raman was also intensely curious about the world around him. We saw how his curiosity about the colour of the sea led to the discovery of the Raman Effect. Similarly, his curiosity led to a wide range of scientific work. On his 1921 trip to England he was taken to see St. Paul's Cathedral. Raman became so excited by the whispering gallery there that he performed some experiments and wrote scientific papers about it. As a child, Raman had seen his father play the violin. Much of his life's research work was about the science behind music. He also investigated the effect of sound on light and the structure of crystals. His collection of crystals is preserved at the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore.