Welcome to Curious Bends

A few years ago, I formed a group of science enthusiasts. Our goal was to fix the problem of poor science communication in India. There only existed a handful of science publications and fewer among them did the work that was so critical to a democracy with the potential that India has. We discussed many ideas but couldn’t implement them.

After all these years, science communication in India hasn’t changed much. But the problem kept nagging me all along. So now, with fellow nerd Vasudevan Mukunth, I’ve started a weekly newsletter to address that problem in a small way. The aim of the weekly newsletter would be to become a place where you can come to find interesting stories from global publications covering science, technology and data that have their focus not on the West.

Here is this week’s edition (our second). If you enjoy it, you and your friends can subscribe here.


1. Warheads at supersonic speeds… on the ground
India’s defence research organisation has installed five 4-km long rails at a research lab in Chandigarh for propelling missile warheads at supersonic speeds. Could this be useful for India’s space programmes, too? The timing is suggestive. In July this year, the space agency is slated to launch an unmanned “Orbital Vehicle” that is at the heart of India’s human spaceflight program. The rails can be used to simulate re-entry of crew capsules. (3 min read)

2. In the unfortunate event that New Delhi is nuked…
On the Doomsday Clock, which is a countdown to global catastrophe, the world has come 12 minutes closer to midnight since 1991. Recently, Nitin Gadkari, now a minister in the new Indian government, was exchanging nuclear threats with a Pakistani analyst on TV. This spurred a journalist to look at the government’s emergency plans to deal with a nuclear fallout. Hint to civilians: “To begin with, nothing that can be dug without the help of E. Sreedharan—the Metro Man—is likely to be deep enough.” (8 min read)

3. Are tiger poachers really trying to hack radio-collar data in India’s sanctuaries?
The more we resort to technology to protect something, the more its failings become liable for abuse—except when it’s animal poaching. There was a scare about a Pune techie trying to hack into data transmitted by radio-collars around some tigers. It turned out to be false, but not before conservationists reasoned that poachers relied on simpler, ground-based techniques to trap animals, and that’s why they get away. (4 min read)

4. 101 suicides in two months: is Marathwada the new Vidarbha?
Freak hailstorms in March flattened orchard crops in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region. In the two months since, 101 suicides have been reported. The reason? Faulty agriculture and irrigation policies have driven farmers to orchard farming that is submissive to failing, because of the time and capital investment it requires. (5 min read)

5. Call for action to prevent millions of “invisible” deaths
More than 780,000 babies less than 28 days old die every year in India. The cost of preventing these deaths is a meagre $1.15 (₹ 68) per person. Why then aren’t these deaths prevented? Because these are “invisible deaths”. Parents don’t seek to register their child’s birth or death because they don’t think it can make a difference. This silence perpetuates the myth that newborn deaths and stillbirths are inevitable. (6 min read)

6. Video: Putting hardy small millets back on the menu
Decline in food diversity is driving malnutrition around the world, and the hardy millet is one casualty. This cereal crop can be cultivated in a variety of ecosystems, from coastal areas in South India to mountainous terrain in the Himalayas, but it has become a niche crop. A Canadian agency wants to redress this imbalance in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and to put women farmers in the centre of its approach. (5 min watch)

Chart of the week

If you divide China into two, one half will have 94% of its population (nearly 20% of world’s population). This geographic divide hasn’t changed in last 80 years despite the population tripling. In 1935, a Chinese geographer noticed the divide and drew an imaginary line, called Heihe–Tengchong Line, that no one seems have crossed over to settle. Yet, what this map hides is the fact that China has recently seen the largest migration in human history: 160 million people have moved from rural areas to urban ones in the last 30 years, no doubt within Eastern China.

Please email curiousbends@gmail.com with suggestions or feedback. We’d love to hear from you. For more such stories, find curators Vasudevan Mukunth and Akshat Rathi on Twitter. Enjoy the week!

Nuclear bomb tests reveal formation of new brain cells

Researchers have used the radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests to show that new neurons are produced in one part of the human brain throughout life. Studies have shown that rats can grow new neurons, but there was little definitive evidence that it happens in humans too.

When atomic bombs were tested between 1945 and 1963, radioactive particles were released into the Earth’s atmosphere. Among the isotopes created was carbon-14, which is commonly used in radio carbon dating.

As cells divide, they incorporate carbon from the environment, and some of that carbon comes from the atmosphere. That is why carbon-14 released by the atomic bombs found its way into the DNA of multiplying cells. The amount of carbon-14 in this DNA corresponded to its concentration in the atmosphere at the time the new cells were born.

This essentially meant carbon-14 in DNA can be used as a measure of the age of cells, such as neurons in adult brains. A team led by Jonas Frisén at the Karolinska Institute, used brain cells obtained from 120 people who had consented to have their cells used for experiments after their death. Of the cells analysed, some had much higher levels of carbon-14 than others. This meant that the cells with lower levels were produced after 1963, when bomb testing ceased, and therefore showed that new cells can be produced later in life.


“The idea was to contrast the hippocampus region of the brain with the rest,” study co-author Kirsty Spalding said. They wanted to confirm the hypothesis that new neurons are only formed in the hippocampus, which plays an important role the formation of memory. The results of their study have been published in the journal Cell today.

The team measured the amount of carbon-14 present in the DNA of neurons in the hippocampus and, separately, in the rest of the brain. They then used complex calculations to model the results, which confirmed that new neurons are produced only in the hippocampus.

There were two surprising discoveries. First, these new neurons were produced in small part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. The rest of the hippocampus (and indeed the rest of the brain) showed no formation of new neurons. Second, about 700 neurons were produced every day, which turns out to be a turnover rate of about 1.75% per year. These neurons also lived about three years less than the ones that do not undergo replacement.

So after the brain is completely formed at the age of about two years, no new neurons are added except in the dentate gyrus. Gerd Kempermann at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases, who was not involved in the study, has been studying the role of the dentate gyrus for some years. He welcomed the results and said, “These younger cells are key to the working of the dentate gyrus, possibly because they can respond faster than old cells.”

According to Kempermann, by staying “forever young” the dentate gyrus could play a key role in the difficult task of learning, memory formation and the shaping of individual personalities. That might be quite a jump from the mere fact that new neurons are formed in the brain. But that jump dwarfs the results of this study, in which nuclear bombs—arguably the most destructive aspect of the human legacy—led to advances in brain science.The Conversation

First published on The Conversation.

Image credit: ICTANW