Slo-mo mojo

FLIES live shorter lives than elephants. Of that there is no doubt. But from a fly’s point of view, does its life actually seem that much shorter? This, in essence, was the question asked by Kevin Healy of Trinity College, Dublin, in a paper just published in Animal Behaviour. His answer is, possibly not.

How animals perceive time: Slo-mo mojoThe Economist, 21 September 2013.

Image credit: The Economist

Seek and destroy

Eric Drexler may get the credit for popularising the idea of nanotechnology in his books of the 1980s, but chemists have been dreaming of manipulating molecules to do their bidding ever since they found out that all matter is made of atoms. While Drexler’s self-assembling molecular machines may remain a dream, in the last decade chemists have already achieved a more practical version of that dream. Nanoparticles have found use in manufacturing, materials, energy, electronics and medicine. Now, a newly emerging field is using them to do two things at once diagnose and treat diseases.

Seek and destory.  Chemistry World, 1 October 2013.

This tablet is not the magic pill

The Indian government needs to open its eyes and realise that the technological utopia it envisions in the low-cost tablet is no cure for poor education, poverty or inequality

The last few days have brought the Aakash tablet back into the media limelight. Last Friday, Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Pallam Raju said that troubles with the manufacturer could doom the project. But the next day, former HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, who started the project, denied Mr. Raju’s comments. He further added: “I want public services to be delivered through Aakash. I want Aakash to be a platform for 1.2 billion people.”

Before Mr. Sibal sets more ridiculous targets and spends taxpayers’ money on them, he needs to be stopped. His fanciful ideas are wrong. First, there is no evidence that a tablet can solve any of the problems that he claims it can. Second, it is not clear how the Indian government will ever be able to produce (or procure) a tablet that costs less than $35.

Root of the idea

The idea for the Aakash tablet and troubles that the project brings with it have both been inherited from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project launched in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OLPC’s hope was that empowering children in the developing world with computers connected to the internet will help them learn faster, develop better skills and reach their full potential.

But there were problems with the idea right from the start. First, it hadn’t been tested on a large enough population to make a reasonable cost-benefit analysis. Second, the project claimed that scaling up production will reduce the cost of each laptop below Rs.5,400 ($100), though they weren’t sure how. Third, OLPC thought better education was the panacea to all problems irrespective of a country’s needs.

Despite these issues, OLPC received backing from the United Nations Development Programme in 2006. With this stamp of approval, its large-scale implementation began. About eight years after its launch, the results are in and OLPC hasn’t done so well.

Tested in Peru

Peru was the site of the largest experiment. More than 8,50,000 laptops were given out at a cost of Rs.1080 crore ($200 million). In treatment schools where the number of laptops per child was increased from 0.12 to 1.18, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank found that OLPC failed in its goals. Test scores in languages and maths remain dismal. Enrolment isn’t higher than what it was before.

A 2010 study in Romania, another middle-income country, found that those children who were given laptops were, not surprisingly, more proficient in its use. But they did not score anymore in exams than those who didn’t have computers. Even in a low-income country like Nepal, a small-scale study produced the same results. Furthermore, the price of each laptop, up until 2010, remained at more than Rs.10,000 ($200).

More than 20 lakh laptops have been handed out so far. Berk Ozler, senior economist at the World Bank, argues that OLPC is a mess. A report by Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames of the University of California Irvine, says: “Unlike Negroponte’s approach of simply handing computers to children and walking away, there needs to be integrated education improvement efforts.” It is not clear how governments all around the world fell for the scheme that is backed by little evidence.

OLPC’s latest victim is India, even though Aakash is not a laptop. Mr. Sibal, like Negroponte, considers Aakash to be the panacea to all problems. It’s not just that. Mr. Sibal also wants Aakash to be the cheapest tablet. This has proved to be a major hurdle. Datawind, a Canadian company, won the tender to provide tablets at a cost of less than $35. Its first version failed miserably because of poor hardware. The newer version seemed more promising, but it looks like Datawind will default on its promise to deliver 1,00,000 units by March 31.

Even if the government somehow, however difficult it may seem, is able to get access to cheap tablets, they are not going to help achieve its aims. Can a laptop overcome the negative impact of a bad teacher or poor school? Can it make children smarter despite the lack of electricity, water, toilets or playgrounds? Can it overcome the limitations of stunted growth among the malnourished? Can Aakash increase productivity of the workforce to counterbalance the money invested in it?

There is no evidence that it can do any of these things. And yet, the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology “strongly hinges around a low-cost device through which the content created can reach the learner.” This adoption of OLPC’s main idea is fraught with problems. Warschauer and Ames rightly argue that handing out laptops, or in India’s case, tablets, ignores the local context and thus avoids solving any of the targeted problems.

Right now when government officials are themselves confused over the future of Aakash, it is important to step back and analyse the reasons for pressing forward with a hopeless idea. Without concrete evidence, it would be foolish to continue.

This is a referenced version of an Op-Ed that was first published in The Hindu.
Image credit: The Hindu

Molecular cages to the rescue

X-ray crystallography has shaped modern chemistry. It is arguably the most powerful tool for molecular structural analysis. But it suffers from one big drawback: it can only analyse materials that form well-defined crystals. This may now be about to change. Researchers in Japan have used ‘crystal sponges’ to hold molecules that can’t be crystallised, allowing them to be analysed using x-ray crystallography.

Molecular cages to end crystallisation nightmareChemistry World, 27 March 2013.

Image credit: Yasuhide Inokuma

HIV infection cured?

On Sunday American researchers reported that a baby girl has been effectively cured of HIV infection with the use of standard antiretroviral drugs. This is an exciting development giving hope that AIDS, which is caused by HIV, may be cured in young children, but there are many steps to be taken before that can happen.

Researchers ‘cure’ HIV infection in a babyThe Hindu’s science blog, 5 March 2013.

Image from here.

Submerged continent found

A group of scientists from Norway, Germany, South Africa and the U. K. have discovered a submerged continent in the Indian Ocean.

Their measurements predict that the continent, which they have named Mauritia, lies under Mauritius and its broken chunks today extend more than 1000 km northwards till Seychelles.

The discovery was sparked when they found crystals called zircons on Mauritian beaches. Zircons are resistant to erosion or chemical change and some of the ones they found were almost two billion years old, much older than any of the regular soil or sand samples found on nearby islands. Such old crystals, they thought, could only belong to a submerged continent, and may have perhaps been pushed up on the surface by underwater volcanoes.

To confirm whether these zircons indeed belonged to such a continent, they consulted satellite data which can help detect submerged land masses.

Nick Kusznir, professor of geophysics at the University of Liverpool in the U. K. and co-author of the paper that appeared this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, says: “We found that under Mauritius there were areas with an unusually thick Earth’s crust.”

In deep oceans the thickness of Earth’s crust, which forms the upper layer of the planet and protects us from the extremely hot magma underneath it, is about seven km.

But underneath Mauritius and leading to Seychelles, which is more than 1,000 km away, there were large chunks of the crust that were as thick as 30 km. “While we cannot be certain about the origins of the zircons, when combined with the evidence of thicker crusts in such big parts of the ocean floor, we can be quite certain that a small continent existed underneath Mauritius,” says Kusznir. There are a number of popular myths about submerged continents.

For instance, in the 19th century Lemuria, a large submerged continent in the Indian Ocean, was considered to extend from Antarctica to Kanyakumari. But its claimed existence did not stand the test of science. The Earth’s crust consists of seven or eight major “plates”, which are slowly but constantly moving relative to each other.

Over millions of years these have shaped how the world looks today. Some 140 million years ago, the Indian subcontinent split from a supercontinent called Gondwana, which also consisted of modern Africa, Australia, Antarctica and South America.

It eventually collided with the Eurasian plate some 50 million years ago, raising the Himalayas in the process.

Scientists predict that it was in between leaving Gondwana and colliding with the Eurasian plate that this continent Mauritia may have existed as an archipelago, a cluster of islands, squeezed in between Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent.

On the uses of finding such a submerged continent Kusznir says: “A better understanding of the sea floor and such submerged land masses can help us in better exploration of oil and gas in the oceans.”

First published in The Hindu.

Reference: Torsvik et al. Nature Geoscience 2013
Image from here.

Marine biology: Flea market

A newly discovered virus may be the most abundant organism on the planet

What is the commonest living thing on Earth? Until now, those in the know would probably have answered Pelagibacter ubique, the most successful member of a group of bacteria, called SAR11, that jointly constitute about a third of the single-celled organisms in the ocean. But this is not P. ubique’s only claim to fame, for unlike almost every other known cellular creature, it and its relatives have seemed to be untroubled by viruses.

As Jonathan Swift put it in a much-misquoted poem, “So, naturalists observe, a flea/Hath smaller fleas that on him prey”. Parasites, in other words, are everywhere. They are also, usually, more abundant than their hosts. An astute observer might therefore have suspected that the actual most-common species on Earth would be a “flea” that parasitised P. ubique, rather than the bacterium itself. The absence of such fleas (in the form of viruses called bacteriophages, that attack bacteria) has puzzled virologists since 1990, when the SAR11 group was identified. Some thought the advantage this absence conferred explained the group’s abundance. But no. As they report in this week’s Nature, Stephen Giovannoni of Oregon State University and his colleagues have discovered the elusive phages. Swift’s wisdom, it seems, still holds good.

Tracking down a particular virus in the ocean makes finding a needle in a haystack look a trivial task. A litre of seawater has billions of viruses in it. Modern genetic techniques can obtain DNA sequences from these viruses, but that cannot tie a particular virus to a particular host.

To do so, Dr Giovannoni (pictured) borrowed a technique from homeopathy: he diluted some seawater to such an extent that, statistically speaking, he expected a 100-microlitre-sized aliquot to contain only one or two viruses. The difference between his approach and a homeopath’s was that what homeopathy dilutes almost to nothing are chemicals, and thus cannot breed. A virus can, given a suitable host. So he mixed each of several hundred aliquots into tubes of water containing P. ubique. Then he waited.

The race is to the Swift

After 60 hours, he looked to see what had happened. In most cases the bacteria had thrived. In a few, though, they had been killed by what looked like viral infection. It was these samples that he ran through the DNA-sequencing machine, in the knowledge that the only viral DNA present would be from whatever it was had killed the bacteria.

His reward was to find not one, but four viruses that parasitise P. ubique. He then compared their DNA with databases of DNA found in seawater from around the world, to find out how abundant each is. The upshot was that a virus dubbed HTVC010P was the commonest. It thus displaces its host as the likely winner of the most-common-living-thing prize.

That does depend, of course, on your definition of “living thing”. Some biologists count viruses as organisms. Some do not. The reason is that a virus relies for its growth and reproduction on the metabolic processes of the cell it infects. This means viruses themselves are hard to parasitise, since they do no work on which another organism can free-ride. Which is why the next two lines of Swift’s poem, “And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em/And so proceed ad infinitum”, are wrong—and why, because HTVC010P itself can have no parasites, it probably really is the commonest organism on the planet.

First published in The Economist.  Also available in audio here.


  1. Zhao et al., Abundant SAR11 viruses in the ocean, Nature2013.
  2. Brown et al., Global biogeography of SAR11 marine bacteria, Mol Syst Biol2012.
  3. Swift, Poetry: A Rhapsody, 1733.

Image credit: Lynn Ketchum