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Science, data and gaga

Curious Bends  –  Delhi’s pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

July 20, 2014

Akshat Rathi

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighbouring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets
Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

+ The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despitethe loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighbouring country. More form UNAIDS here.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 10.05.02

Follow Mukunth and Akshat on Twitter for more. Have a good week!

The best hack for a to-do list


Summary: Every morning, put down on a to-do list only the three most important tasks. 

For the office-goer of the 21st century, a to-do list is both a boon and a curse. While it can help get stuff done, it also creates a lot of anxiety. That is because, on most occasions, the list keeps growing without an end in sight.

What is needed is a way to ensure that you get enough stuff done and end the work day on a happy note. The best hack I know to achieve that is to make a simple tweak to building a to-do list. It is not an original idea, but its implementation has completely changed how I work.

Choose the three most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done that day, and put them down on a to-do list. Come what may, decide to do those three things before leaving work. If possible, do those them first in the morning.

Of course I do more than three things every day, but the idea is that I ensure doing the things that matter the most first. I leave work without lingering anxieties of incomplete tasks at hand.

The exercise is not as simple as than you’d think. The prime difficulty is the prioritisation of tasks. But once you start doing it, you realise through trial and error how to find those three MITs. And it is that which really changed how I work.

Bonus: There are two more tweaks that I’m trying to implement to this routine. First is to ensure that I leave work at a certain time. This is to respect Parkinson’s law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Second is to choose one of those three MITs to be a task towards a long-term goal. On days when I have been able to do that, I feel I’ve accomplished more than what is needed of me at work, and I sleep a little better that night.

This is the first post in “the best hack series”, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: naomi_pincher, CC-BY-NC-ND

Curious Bends  –  the mirror man, leaderless science, Modi’s love for the environment and more

July 13, 2014

Akshat Rathi

1. To prescribe or not to prescribe

There is a saying in Tamil that goes “if your family can’t discipline you, the world will”. That would be the story of the slipshod trio of Wockhardt, Ranbaxy and Sun Pharma, three Indian pharma companies whose drugs have been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), leaving Indian doctors and patients facing a dilemma nobody deserves. On the one hand, these companies’ drugs have no substitutes in the market. On the other, neither their quality checks nor the government regulatory body’s are trustworthy. While culpability swings from deficient manpower to lax rules, what drugs are doctors prescribing? (4 min read)

2. Science in India suffers from a lack of leadership

The Indian Institute of Science wants to construct India’s biggest particle accelerator, but for years the desire has not even materialised into a concrete plan. The difficulty? It cannot afford the cost of construction of nearly Rs. 2,000 crore without help from the central government. But the excuse belies a more visceral problem: the Indian science community has a vacuum at its helm, and it shows. Other developing nations are doing much better. Brazil, arguably India’s peer, is already building its second synchrotron. (4 min read)

3. The man who cycles in Cambodia treating phantom pain with mirrors

He has held more than 20 jobs before this, from being an English teacher in Saudi Arabia to being a body-double in a German film. However… “In the autumn of 2010, Stephen was living in a basement apartment in Vancouver when it struck him that his calling might be mirror therapy. He’d go where there were amputees in pain, give them a mirror and teach them how to use it. Cambodia was his first destination because it had an inordinately high number of amputees, and it was small and flat, which was important because Stephen was planning to bicycle with his mirrors.” (27 min read)

+ The author, Srinath Perur, is a Bangalore-based science and travel writer.

4. Fast turnaround of environmental approvals will cost us dearly

Any developmental project in India requires a government-approved environment impact assessment (EIA). However, two things can decidedly worsen its trustworthiness. First, the company whose project is to be assessed can choose who performs it, no doubt a controversial facility. Second, as the newly installed Indian government seems to be doing, assessments can be “fast-tracked” at the expense of quality. As a result, both biologically diverse and endangered ecosystems around the country are under increased threat. (5 min read)

5. The science bit of India’s budget

Biotechnology, education and renewable energy research are the big winners in the 2014 Union Budget in India, at least in absolute terms. Relatively, however, the rise in funding (4%) is diminished by the rate of inflation (8%), while the slew of new IITs and IIMs are likely to exacerbate a spate of teacher deficiency. Also hanging in the balance is the approval for scientific mega-projects. Nonetheless, scientists are optimistic that things will improve by September, when the government will issue revised estimates of funding figures. (2 min read)


Chart of the week

After the awful 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, polling in the constituency was strongly and predictably polarised. In most polling booths, the party that won also secured more than 90% of the votes. But was this the case across all of the state of Uttar Pradesh? Apparently not, as this analysis and chart shows. Western UP had the most polling booths where the contest was a winner-takes-all, but the extent of polarisation became visibly moderated toward the east. More on this at

For more stuff like this, follow Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. If you have anything to tell us, we can be found at Have a good week!


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