Curious Bends – flying cars, a teen innovator, fighting Ebola and more

1. The flying car may finally become a reality thanks to interest from humanitarian organisations

The last thing you’d expect an Amazonian tribe to inspire is a flying car, but that’s the story behind the Maverick, being developed for humanitarian aid workers. Backed by French investors (and its army) the Maverick’s creators promise a vehicle to negotiate most disaster-prone areas with 250-kg payloads and three crew. (8 min read)

2. A plane crash attracts world headlines but nobody cares about 380 people dying on Indian roads

This is a bizarre, take-it-in-your-stride tragedy that sits at the nexus of bigger yet similar issues: bad public infrastructure, lack of driving etiquette and dysfunctional policy. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to believe that the truck that rams into a scooter crossing the road isn’t to blame — and there are those who agree. It takes more than unfortunate, accidental events to kill more people per day than AIDS does. (8 min read)

3. Turning breath into words

Arsh Shah Dilbagi, a 16-year old from Panipat, India, has built a device that allows breath to be converted into words for the disabled. Dubbed an “augmentative and alternative communication” solution, it helps convert a person’s shorter and longer exhalations to the dots and dashes of Morse code and synthesise speech. While not yet widely tested, Arsh is a finalist in the 2014 Google Science Fair on the back of its strength, and expects to be able to integrate it with Google Glass one day. (2 min read)

4. An NGO reunites mentally ill homeless people with their families

Since March 2006, the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation has reunited more than 2,500 mentally ill homeless people with their families. This is a heart-warming service. But when you ask why it exists, you realize you’re exploring why mentally ill people end up lost on India’s streets. Why did they leave home? Were they sent away or did their caretakers not care enough? Complicating the problem further is the fact that in many parts of rural India, mental illnesses are not understood for what they really are — although there is at least one outstanding exception, and the sign of a way ahead. (4 min read)

5. Featured longread of the week: The hunt for Ebola medicines is being accelerated

“The biggest problem remains containment, especially in the months before new medicines arrive. Virologists, such as Dr Ball at Nottingham, worry that increasing human-to-human transmission is giving Ebola the opportunity to become more transmissible. Each time the virus replicates, new mutations appear. It has accumulated and hung on to some mutations, like ‘cherries on a one-armed bandit’, he says. Nobody knows what would happen if Ebola hit the jackpot with a strain that is even better-adapted to humans. But the outcome could be grim, for Africa and the rest of the world.” (8 min read)

Chart of the week

More than 840,000 people killed themselves every year around the world. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India is the single biggest contributor to this morbid statistic, which is too high a number for something that can be prevented. The reasons may be complex but the WHO is hoping an internationally driven project could propel significant change. Read the report hereand see a visual analysis by Vasudevan Mukunth here.

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Image by James Vaughan.

Curious Bends – LED Diwali, insecticide-laden uniforms, Tokay geckos and more

“Rs 400 LED bulb would be available for just Rs 10, at a steep discount of 97.5%. And it is not part of any festival special megasale offer. Instead the scheme has been formulated by the government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) and Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL, a joint venture of public sector companies of Ministry of Power) along with electricity distribution companies. EESL would procure LED bulbs in bulk and sell them to households at Rs 10. The electricity distribution companies will then repay EESL over a period of five to eight years from the savings that accrue due to use of this energy efficient lighting technology.” (3 min read, downtoearth.org)

2. One way to fight dengue: wear insecticide-laden school uniforms

“Using data from dengue studies in Thailand, the study examined the cost-effectiveness of uniforms treated with insecticide under various scenarios. Aedes aegypti, the vector of the dengue virus, bites during the day when most children are in school. In Thailand, children aged 5–14 make up about 65% of dengue haemorrhagic fever patients. Using the WHO-definition of cost-effectiveness, intervention would be cost-effective if it could reduce dengue incidence by 50 per cent and that the uniform for each child would cost US$5.30 or less per year.” (2 min read, scidev.net)

3. Brain gain: how some Indian scientists in the US are being encouraged to migrate back home

“Since 2009, Young Investigator’s Meet in Boston has helped about 80 young scientists get back to India with new, independent careers. The goal is to have around 300 people in the next 5 years and about a thousand scientists in the next 15–20 years back in India. These thousand people could influence the next generation of scientists to think differently,” Parayil says. (8 min read, natureasia.com)

+ The author of this article, Subhra Priyadarshini, is the editor of Nature India.

4. The solution to India’s sanitation crisis lies in changing behaviour not building toilets​

“India’s toilet crisis is largely about its men. Women want the safety and privacy of a toilet at home. But how do you convince a man to give up his scenic open-air loo, with its cool breeze and its ringside view of a verdant paddy field for a cramped, smelly, dark room with a hole? Dog trainers, marriage counsellors, dietitians, hypnotists — currently, Arghyam is enlisting ideas from anyone who has successfully nudged someone to make a behavioural change in men.” (7 min read, livemint.com)

5. Saving tigers and rhinos means losing pangolins, Tokay geckos and star tortoises?

“Come Diwali and it is not just apparel and electronic goods doing brisk business online. It is owls as well. Rummaging through difficult-to-find data and trends, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s (WCCB) cyber wing has noticed how the smuggling of owls picks up during Diwali-the nocturnal bird is said to be the vehicle of Goddess Laxmi. The trade is not limited to owls. There is an alarm over the sudden spurt in trade of pangolins across north India-a phenomenon that has been observed over the last six months, endangering the scaly, small mammal.” (4 min read, indiatoday.com)

Chart of the Week

China no longer has a stranglehold on the world’s supply of rare earth metals

“In the end, Gholz argues, China didn’t get that much benefit from restricting rare earths — save for the release of a fishing captain who had been detained by Japan. Japan has now adjusted and is less vulnerable to trade pressure over rare earths than once believed. The United States, too, managed to wiggle out of China’s rare-earth grip in short order. A few years ago, military planners had worried that crucial weapons systems might be at risk if China disrupted the rare earths supply. But subsequent analyses have shown that this was unlikely.” (4 min read, vox.com)

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Curious Bends – pizza slices, Raman effect, Indo-Pak floods and more

Every year, 300,000 children are born with sickle-cell disease, primarily in Africa and India. It is a genetic disorder that causes some blood cells to become abnormally shaped. The result is that those who suffer from it have a shorter lifespan. The disease can be managed if it is diagnosed early, which means it rarely kills in rich countries, such as the US. But in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is most prevalent, most children with the disease still die before their fifth birthday. Now a diagnostic test that costs less than ₹30, takes only 10 minutes to run and uses simple, high-school physics could help save many lives.

2. A 19th century mathematician taught us the best way to hold a pizza slice

New York-style pizza is great, but it has a holding problem. There is a solution, and you probably know what it is: just fold the pizza into a U-shape. Turns out the maths behind why such folds beat gravity is fascinating and has many interesting applications. Here, in his typical clarity, is Aatish Bhatia explaining it all with pictures and videos.

3. Understanding why the oceans are blue led to applications for detecting bombs and discovering new drugs

Almost a hundred years ago, on a ship back from London, Chandrashekhar Venkata Raman asked the question why the sea is blue. Having heard the answer that it is a reflection of the sky, he remained dissatisfied, for the blue in the oceans seemed too fantastic to be a mere reflection. His quest won him a Nobel Prize and gave the world the Raman effect. Now scientists in India are finding new applications that use the Raman effect, from detecting bombs to finding new drugs.

+ The author, Priyanka Pulla, is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and Takshashila Institute scholar.

​4. Academic faces jail for sharing scientific documents online

“Diego A. Gómez Hoyos, a 26-year-old student in Costa Rica, faces up to 8 years in jail and a monetary fine for making available a document that helps conservationists in Colombia — the second most biodiverse country in the world. It is not an institution or publisher that is pursuing these criminal charges, but the author of the document. It is bizarre and unfortunate that an academic would press criminal charges against another academic for spreading their work.”

5. As the Indo-Pak floods worsen, it is clear that the Indus Waters Treaty needs to be prioritised

Signed in 1960, this treaty has survived the stress and strain that come with Indo-Pak relations. And yet, it is time that the treaty gets an overhaul. With floods in the waters that feed the Indus river having already killed more than 200 people, an update could help spur the developments needed to help prevent and deal with such natural disasters.

Featured longread: Taking a break from technology…for one year

“Do you know what I do for a living? I asked Huck. His eyes grew wide. “All you do is sit on your computer and say, ‘Blah blah blah Congress, blah blah blah Mitt Romney’!” We all — OK, mostly my wife — got a big laugh out of that. For my birthday that year, she and the boys gave me a print emblazoned with Blah Blah Blah. I was 40 years old, due for a midlife crisis, and I didn’t want to have an affair or buy an impractical sports car, so instead I decided that I would take a break. A big one. For a year, I would leave behind online life to attend more closely to what we Internet people call meatspace.”

Chart of the week

The year 2012 was the first year when less than 50% of India’s workforce was employed by the agricultural sector. In the recent decades that shift has been rapid, but what else are these former agricultural workers now doing? An analysis by Datastories.in reveals that a lot of them have been absorbed by the construction sector. The trouble is — you should click here to see more charts — most of these constructions workers become casual labourers with no form of social net. This must change to improve the lives of those at the bottom.

Curious Bends – Vandana Shiva, antibiotics in chicken, asteroid hunters and more

Few technologies, not the car, the phone, or even the computer, have been adopted as rapidly and as widely as the products of agricultural biotechnology. The tools of genetic engineering have allowed a good proportion of the current population to survive and prosper. But such statistics (or any scientific argument) does not stop Vandana Shiva from thinking that the root of all evil lies in GM technology. (42 min read)

2. Chicken consumption is at an all-time high in India. It may be contributing to antibiotic resistance

An investigation of chicken from around Delhi shows that they contain antibiotics beyond the limits setup by international bodies. These antibiotics are used not to treat diseased chicken but to prevent them. However, there are no regulations in India for their use in poultry. This means the amounts used are often excessive, probably contributing to increasing antibiotic resistance. (21 min read)

3. India’s outdated approach to education is hurting students and academia

The University Grants Commission wants to reign in elite institutions, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, by making their courses shorter. This decision, however, isn’t based on any sound research. If such institutions aren’t allowed to experiment with education, then how would you know what works best for Indian students and academics? (5 min read)

+ The author, Vishu Guttal, is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science.

4. India has an asteroid search mission made up of mostly students

“Four years, 260 teams across India, 1200 observations of celestial bodies and 21 discoveries of asteroids. All India Asteroid Search Campaign was started by SPACE, an NGO in India, in 2010 with an aim to increase the love for science, astronomy and scientific research in Indian students. SPACE provides training to students and amateur astronomers to hunt for asteroids.” (2 min read)

5. An interview with Manjul Bhargava, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal

The first Indian-origin mathematician has won the Fields Medal, which is considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics. In an interview, he talks about growing up in India, Canada and the US and how his upbringing shaped up his desire to pursue mathematics, tabla and sanskrit. His hope is that Indian youth will take up research in basic science.

Chart of the week

You must have heard that even today half of India’s population lives off agricultural activities. But how true is that? Turns out that estimating how many cultivators and agricultural labourers India has is no easy task. Here’s an attempt by Hindustan Times.

Curious Bends – Indian Luddites, an academic career, the great forgetting and more

1. Say with pride that we’re Luddites

Science is often confused with technology in India. The consequences range in flavour from amusing to dire – for example, we celebrate rockets, not rocket scientists. So we fund rockets, not rocket scientists. This piece explores the history of this perception with interesting and insightful episodes from the past. Beware, though: some of them have evolved many grey areas. (8 min read)

2. India’s hopes for development rely on its public health strategies

That India is neither a middling nor a superpower nation comes down to how good access to health, water, sanitation and education in it are. Health, in particular, needs special attention because of two reasons. First: India shares a disproportionate fraction of the world’s disease burden — especially among non-communicable diseases. Second: the skill and capital needed to resolve the problem is controlled by private interests operating only at state-wide levels. (10 min read)

3. Forgoing a fat pay cheque is totally worth it to become an academic

“The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. And newspapers are already talking about crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.” (6 min read)

+ The author, Dheeraj Sanghi, is a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

4. China’s JUNO launches international collaboration while India’s INO looks on

The Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory is expected to be completed by 2020, and will search for answers to unsolved problems in neutrino physics. More importantly, it will be China’s second big neutrino experiment and second also to feature an international collaboration of scientists and institutions. The India-based Neutrino Observatory, also foreseeing completion by 2020, is yet to find similar interest. As has frustratingly been the case, it’s the scientists who lose out. (3 min read)

5. Indian universities ban dissections

A campaign led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has borne its fruits: a central body that sets standards for university education in India has banned dissections in zoology and life sciences courses. This move solves some legitimate problems but exacerbates some silly others. For one, removing endangered animals from the table doesn’t mean non-endangered ones can’t be put there. For another, assuming “most zoology students do not use the knowledge gained from dissections after they graduate” excludes those who do, and education is for everybody. (3 min read)

Featured longread: What happened to each one of us before the age of seven?

“… if the memory was a very emotional one, children were three times more likely to retain it two years later. Dense memories – if they understood the who, what, when, where and why – were five times more likely to be retained than disconnected fragments. Still, oddball and inconsequential memories such as the bounty of cookies will hang on, frustrating the person who wants a more penetrating look at their early past.” (18 min read)

Chart of the week

Gone are the days when Britain built most of the world’s ships and ruled the seas. By the end of the Second World War, the US was producing 90% of all the world’s ships by weight. By the 1990s, though, Japan and South Korea had in turns acquired the title. Now this decisive distinction could belong to China. Today, it produces around 35% of the world’s ships. The Economist has more.

Curious Bends – math puzzle winner, worm sperms, banning nuclear weapons and more

1. Asking for a ban on nuclear weapons is futile, but this first step might help

There are many who want nuclear weapons banned, but they tend to be the countries who don’t have them. The countries that have nuclear weapons are disproportionately stronger, both economically and militarily, than the rest. This power imbalance creates a situation where calls for a nuclear weapons ban falls on deaf ears. One way out is to sign a convention barring first-use. (5 min read)

2. American Indian mathematician wins prize for solving 50-year-old math puzzle

Nikhil Srivastava, now at Microsoft Research India, has been named a joint winner of the prestigious George Polya Prize for finding the proof of what is known as the Kadison-Singer conjecture, first proposed by Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer in 1959. It pertains to the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, and asks if unique information can be extrapolated from a scenario in which not all features can be observed or measured. Srivastava and two others found an answer about a year ago. (2 min read)

3. Worm sperm may have helped uncover the mechanism underlying the formation of new species

“Different species are usually unsuccessful at interbreeding; if they do, the hybrid offspring is usually sterile. In this way, species are kept separate and the diversity of life is maintained. In a study published in PLOS Biology this week, scientists observed that when female worms belonging to the Caenorhabditis genus mate outside their species, they end up with reduced lifespans and fewer offspring than usual. While exploring the possible reasons, they may have uncovered a mechanism underlying the formation of new species.” (2 min read)

+ The author of this piece, Nandita Jayaraj, is a journalist with The Hindu.

4. ‘Money is not a problem in Indian science,’ researchers say. This proves them wrong.

Not long ago, senior researchers were complaining that the real problem in Indian science is not money but a lack of leadership. But now, nearly 3,000 junior researchers at India’s premier research institutes are protesting because of lack of funding and delays in payments. There is a disconnect between how science is done at these two levels and it exposes new cracks in the system. (3 min read)

​5. Informal healthcare providers (IPs) outnumber doctors in rural India, but that’s not bad

“IPs are on the margins of formalised medicine, but over the years they have established important niches, particularly in rural areas. They work within well-developed institutional arrangements, which have evolved in different directions in different contexts. This study dispels the myth that IPs are solo ‘quacks’ with only limited links to their community and to local institutions. It also underlines the likelihood that IPs will continue to play a role for quite a long time irrespective of increasing incomes and infrastructural development.” (24 min read)

Chart of the week

An analysis of all rape cases in Delhi registered in 2013 paints a more complex picture of the problem, according to The Hindu. For instance, an interesting fact is that nearly half of some 600 cases filed involved girls’ parents accusing the boy of rape because the young couple eloped. Another is that the conviction rate now is about the same (23%) as the national average was in 2010 (26%).

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Curious Bends — commoner panthers, space diplomacy, big data sells big cars and more

1. Why the GM debate in India won’t abate

It is a sign of its inadequacy that the debate on genetically modified crops in India is still on, with no end in sight. Although public consensus is largely polarised, the government has done its bit to postpone resolution. For one, decisions on GM crops are made as if they were “technical answers to technical questions”. For another, no formal arena of debate exists that also addresses social anxieties. (8 min read)

2. Black panthers are commoner in India than thought

Camera traps installed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of India have shown that about one in ten of all leopard images belong to black leopards (that is, black panthers). These melanistic big cats have been spotted in wildlife reserves in Kerala and Karnataka, and seem commoner in the wetter forests of the Western Ghats. In fact, written records of sightings in these parts date from 1879, and could aid conservation efforts in a country that lost its cheetahs in 1960. (2 min read)

3. One foot on Earth and another in the heavens

For smaller and middle income nations, strengthening institutional and technical capacity on the ground might be a better option than to launch satellites because more than vanity, the choice makes them better positioned to gather useful data. And if such a nation is in South Asia, then India’s planned SAARC satellite could make that choice easier, providing a finer balance between “orbital dreams and ground realities”. (5 min read)

+ The author, Nalaka Gunawardene, is a journalist and science writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

4. Do big carmakers know their way around big data?

When sales slumped, Mahindra & Mahindra, an Indian car-maker, used data gleaned from the social media to strip its former best-selling XUV500 model of some features and sell it cheaper. The company declined to give further details. This isn’t unique—big car-makers around the world are turning to big data to widen margins. But do they know how best to use the data or is it just that putting the squeeze on this lemon is a fad? (6 min read)

5. A geothermal bounty in the Himalayas

As the developing world edges toward an energy sufficiency crisis, scientists, environmental conservationists and governments get closer to a Mexican standoff. This is no better highlighted than with the gigawatts of geothermal energy locked up in the Himalayas. A 20-MW plant could “save three million litres of diesel”, $2 million and 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide in northern India per year. Why isn’t it being used? (2 min read)

Chart of the week

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“Both [female genital mutilation and child marriage] stem from deeply rooted social norms which can only be changed by educating parents about the harm they cause. Making foreign aid conditional on results gives governments an extra incentive not just to pass laws, but to enforce them. Police and women’s activists in some countries have set up phone hotlines and safe houses for victims or girls at risk. Most important is to make sure that girls go to school and finish their studies.” The Economist has more.

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