Curious Bends  –  the history of the zero, flooding Asia’s rivers, maddening imprisonments and more

1. Was the zero really reinvented in India?

The academic and scientific environment in India leaves a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, many Indians are sated on the copious vestiges of the past, one of which is a claim to the invention of the zero. How true is that claim? The investigation takes the reader from Switzerland to Babylon and then from Rajasthan to Cambodia to reveal a bizarre story. (27 min read)

2. Climate change will increase flow in Asia’s big rivers

Climate change will affect emerging nations the most. Apart from slowing down economic growth, it also exacerbates their under-preparedness by threatening to disrupt ecosystems that support millions. In fact, the five big river systems of Asia that are fed by Himalayan glaciers—of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong—together support 1.3 billion people. According to a new study, climate change will increase water flow in them until 2050. Are policymakers prepared to confront how this will alter cropping calendars? (2 min read)

3. Suicide statistics, squalor & recidivism haven’t ended solitary confinement

Delve into the deceptively placid world of solitary confinement, its passions-packed history, the costs of running them, and the emotional and psychological damage it inflicts on those who underwent it. There is no alternative to the strong prose in this piece, so sample this: “One winter in Shawangunk, in Ulster County, NY, two inmates on either side of his cell devised a simple game. From morning to night, as Billy watched, envelopes of excrement went from one side to the other, careering past his cell like hockey pucks flying into a revolting space-time dimension. Most of the projectiles landed, and remained, just outside his cell door. After several days, he yelled: ‘If you have a beef with each other, go at it like men. Don’t do this bozo shit!’ … They came up with a new game. For five long weeks, they tirelessly banged on Billy’s cell with their sneakers.” (40 min read)

+ The writer, Shruti Ravindran, is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She recently graduated from Columbia University.

4. The amazing micro-engineered, water-repelling surface that lives outside your window

The curious incident of water-repelling leaves in the garden inspires two physicists to explore how some leaves in nature are superhydrophobic—that is, completely water-averse. Using a high-speed camera and some high school math and physics, they show how this cool effect comes about. (7 min read)

5. An interview of T.V. Jayan, science editor of The Telegraph (India)

This interview was published in 2011. However, Jayan’s views on science journalism in India are no less pertinent. He talks about understanding science, misreporting, sensationalisation and ethics. He has advice for aspiring science journalists, too: “Read, read and read.” (9 min read)

Interactive story of the week

Immerse yourself in the wonderful story lives of Vumbi pride of lions at the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Produced by National Geographic, the story has 23 short chapters and a compassionate aesthetic to help you understand the complex lives these animals lead, how they grow up, how they hunt, why they eat what they eat, the tribes that live around them, the people who kill them and what we can do to help them. The Vumbi might have provided narrative fodder but their stories are true for every lion in the wild.

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We received many helpful replies to our survey (if you filled it out, thank you!). One popular request was to send out Curious Bends twice a week, and we’re going to give that a try.

If you have any suggestions or other feedback, send them to curiousbends@gmail.com. You can also find Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. Have a nice week!

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