Curious Bends — internet on dumb phones, new form of matter, canal solar plants and more

1. Two-thirds of the world’s mobile phones are dumb phones. Meet the company getting them online 

The proportion of dumb phones is even higher in the emerging countries. Now a Singapore-based startup launched by Indian entrepreneurs is bringing the internet to such phones using simple technology that tailors services such as Twitter and Facebook to text-only functionality. They already have 17 million users in 36 countries. (6 min read)

2. India’s quest to end hunger and malnutrition with the help of a miracle crop

The problem is not that there isn’t enough food, but that those foods (rice, corn and wheat) don’t have enough nutrients. Now, 30,000 small farmers are growing pearl millets, a variety which has unusually high levels of iron and zinc. “We must re-marry agriculture and nutrition—the two have been too far away from each other for a long time,” says M.S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution. (12 min read)

3. The quest for a radically new form of matter

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Dan Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals. This form of solid is in between true crystals, such as salt, and amorphous, disordered solids, such as glass. Its acceptance by the scientific community has been marred with controversy. Although developed in labs in the 1980s, their natural occurrence was only confirmed recently. It took three scientists a trip to the Russian tundra armed with Kalashinovs for defence to find a few grains that proved their existence. (20 min read)

+ This piece from science writer Virat Markandeya recently won the best Science & Innovation feature at the Press Club of Mumbai’s National RedInk Awards.

4. There is a major flaw in the design of a growing number of hydro-electricity projects

The death of five students from Hyderabad (19 still missing) after they were washed away by the river Beas in Himachal Pradesh should serve as an alarm to the designers of the run-of-river hydro-electricity projects. Flash floods, which probably caused their death, seems to be inherent in the design of such plants. And yet, for such projects “hundreds of agreements have been signed and great stretches of rivers have been apportioned to private and public enterprises.” (4 min read)

5. This two-minute fix could reduce the large number of anaemic children born in India

More than 3 out of 4 children in India suffer from anaemia (iron deficiency) at birth. One way to reduce that number is to delay cutting the umbilical cord for a mere two minutes after the baby has been delivered. The period allows the baby to take in more blood from the placenta, but doctors have been taught by old textbooks to cut the cord as soon as possible. (5 min read)

6. 1,000 Miles of canals in Gujarat are set to be covered with solar panels

The concept is beautiful in its simplicity: take long stretches of open canals in dry, sunny terrain, and cover them with solar panels. The solar roofs prevent the evaporation of water. And the coolness of the water, in turn, will keep the panels at a more efficient operating temperature. Some logistical issues remain, but the plan is genius. (3 min read)

Chart of the Week

This chart shows the disparity between Scheduled Caste and other households in toilet ownership. Probably of greater interest is the blog Data Stories, which is run by a Delhi-based journalist and has some of the smartest data-driven stories. The chart below is a static image of an interactive map, so go check it out.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 14.08.02

Curators Mukunth and Akshat have been brainstorming ideas to reach a bigger audience. You could make their lives easier by forwarding this to a friend. Send suggestions and feedback to Have a good week!

Medical technology: A silent healer

Researchers have developed novel ways to tap the pharmacological potential of an infamous and deadly gas

Carbon monoxide gets a bad rap. The gas, produced by incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons, causes hundreds of deaths every year by poisoning and sends many thousands to hospital. Most of these are the result of leaking cooking and heating equipment, but the colourless, odourless and tasteless substance, known to chemists as CO, has also aided many a suicide. Most horrifically, Nazis used it in gas chambers.

But there is more to the “silent killer”, as CO is sometimes called. It is produced by many cells in the human body, where its molecules play a crucial role in activating enzymes involved in controlling the dilation of blood vessels, and thus blood flow. Mice in which the gene for producing the compound has been knocked out develop faulty organs and die young.

Exploiting this insight, researchers have successfully used CO to treat a number of ailments in lab animals. These include pulmonary hypertension, an otherwise incurable disease in which thickened arteries obstruct the flow of blood, leading to heart failure. The gas can also keep inflammation in check, in particular after organ transplants.

Frederick Montgomery and Duncan Bathe think they have come up with a way to hit the sweet spot. Their Coke-can-sized gizmo, which they devised while working at Ikaria, an American drug firm that both have since left, contains a cartridge of pressurised CO, a tube to deliver the gas to the patient’s nose, and a few buttons to set the required dose. A sensor connected to a nozzle at the end of the tube constantly measures the patient’s breathing rate and adjusts the amount of CO dispensed with each breath. Safety features, including automatic shutdown if anything seems amiss, are meant to eliminate the risk of CO overdose and ensure that none leaks out, endangering others.

Scientists at another American pharmaceutical company, Sangart, meanwhile, have been encasing the gas—or, strictly speaking, CO-ferrying haemoglobin—in a polymer pouch. Kim Vandegriff and her colleagues have been using polymer wrappers a mere nanometre (a billionth of a metre) across. These can be designed to break open only where their payload is needed. Early trials have shown promise in treating sickle-cell anaemia, a disease caused by a faulty haemoglobin gene.

Unlike most drugs, CO is not broken down by the body. Instead, once its job is done, it is transported to the lungs and exhaled. As a result, it produces no side-effects. Given the right dose, then, it can heal silently, too.

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

A list of main references is here. Image credit: The Economist