Curious Bends – metal-plated insect syringes, white tigers, steppe eagles and more

1. Found: the first metal-plated syringe in a living creature

On a fig tree in the beautiful campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers have found a wasp that uses a zinc-plated “syringe” to pierce through the skin of unripe fruit and lay her eggs. What’s more, to reveal this intriguing adaption of nature, they used jury-rigged video equipment to capture close-ups of the wasps. Of course electron microscopy was needed to be sure… still a nice example of jugaad. (3 min read)

2. Everything you know about the white tiger is wrong

The white tiger is not really an endangered species. It’s an oddball animal produced purely for human entertainment. Its natural tropical habitat in India is not good for a predator that has lost its camouflage, and, if any existed in the wild, they would have died out. Instead, they remain in our zoos, suffering from the consequences of severe inbreeding, all because they bring in the crowd and, thus, money. (7 min read)

3. After devouring vultures, diclofenac is eating its way through eagles

After pushing vultures to the verge of extinction in South Asia, the veterinary painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac is turning out to be a threat to eagles as well. India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan have banned the drug’s veterinary use, but it is available for human use and hence gets used illegally to treat livestock. (2 min read)

4. One social enterprises’s attempt to provide sustainable clean water to rural India

Water ATMs are popping all over small villages outside India’s capital. Clean drinking water is available for ₹1/litre. If the ATM’s tank falls below a certain level, it triggers a text message to the control room to fix the problem. But the uptake of water purchase is nowhere near sustainable. People prefer the free option, even if it is not clean or easy. (5 min read)

5. The simple rule that is China’s weapon to win the war on malaria

From 26,000 cases in 2008, the incidence of malaria in China has dropped to 2,716 in 2012. The reason is that they follow a simple 1-3-7 rule. New cases must be classified within three days and risk to the local area evaluated within seven days. (3 min read)

6. Animated timeline: creation of Indian states from 1951 to 2014
India has a 29th state in Telangana. Economists argue that this is a good thing. New states grow faster than old ones. If they have their way, India may one day have 50 states.

Chart of the week

More than 2 million people responded to the “My World” survey run by the United Nations. They all unanimously agreed that education was their top priority, regardless of the economic background they were from. Action taken on climate change, on the other hand, sat right at the bottom, along with need for reliable energy at home. More from MSNBC here.

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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!

Solar wind and space dust create new source of water

Water ice is the most abundant solid material in the universe. Much of it was created as the byproduct of star formation, but not all. John Bradley of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and his team may have discovered a new source of water in our solar system. His lab experiments reveal that the solar wind may be creating water on interplanetary dust.

The sun ejects high-speed charged particles in all directions. Bodies in the inner solar system get bombarded by this wind of particles, which continuously varies in intensity.

Small bodies, such as dust particles or tiny asteroids, can be eroded by these harsh winds. Larger bodies that do not have an atmosphere, such as the Moon, are bombarded by both the solar wind and tiny meteorites. This form of bombardment causes a phenomenon called space weathering. (Atmospheres protect planets from tiny meteorites, while a magnetic field can deflect solar winds.)

The lunar dust brought back by the Apollo missions showed for the first time the result of space weathering—though not immediately. A careful examination of the dust returned from the lunar surface had to wait until the 1990s when scientific instruments became good enough. When finally observed under sufficiently powerful microscopes, the dust particles revealed what have been called “rims.”

These dust particles are usually made of silicates—compounds of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen and few metallic elements. The rims are the result of chemical modification of the surface of the particle, caused by high energy impacts and the continuous bombardment of the solar wind.

The modification leads to an imbalance in the chemical structure of the particle, sometimes loosening the bonds holding oxygen and hydrogen atoms in the silicates. This made scientists speculate that there is a chance that water could be formed somewhere in these rims .

Water needs two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. If silicates provide one atom of each element, then only one more hydrogen atom is needed. Conveniently, hydrogen atoms are available in abundance in the solar wind, where they are found as high-energy protons (hydrogen atoms stripped off their electrons). If the conditions are right, this charged hydrogen atom can react on a dust particle’s rim to form water.

Plausible as this seems, past attempts to find water on these rims gave mixed results. The problem was that the reactions were happening at such tiny scales, and instruments weren’t good enough to unambiguously detect water.

That’s where Bradley’s work comes in. The team attempted to locate water using a highly-sensitive method of analysis called valence electron energy-loss spectroscopy. The method involves exposing a sample to a beam of electrons that, on hitting the material, will get deflected at different speeds. The deflection and the speeds can reveal how much energy was lost by the electrons in the process, which is based on the type of atom it hits. The instrument can identify the composition of a material at very small scales, just enough for Bradley to analyse silicate rims.

The best way to determine whether water forms on silicate rims is to do these experiments on the types of silicate material that exist in space. Bradley did this by using three types of these minerals: olivine, clinopyroxene, and anorthine. These were exposed to charged hydrogen and helium particles, which were a proxy for the solar wind.

If water is formed by the solar wind, it would only be found in the samples that were exposed to hydrogen—not in those exposed to helium. And that is what happened. As reported in PNAS, Bradley’s sensitive tests repeatedly found water, but only in the samples that were bombarded by hydrogen.

Martin McCoustra at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh finds the work convincing. He said: “I am not very surprised that water could be formed on silicates. However, now that they have shown that it can, it could be an important source of water.”

Bradley’s work implies that water molecules must have been forming for billions of years on interplanetary dust particles, on the Moon, and possibly on asteroids. However, McCoustra warns that “This source of water, albeit new, won’t be able to account for a large proportion of water in the solar system. Most of that water was formed during the process of star formation that our sun went through.”

Some have argued that water-rich comets planted water on our planet. But McCoustra reckons that a single-source is unlikely. And this study provides another potential source for the material that helps make our planet habitable.The Conversation

PNAS, 2013. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320115111First published at The Conversation.

Social entrepreneurs in India: Water for all

Nearly three-fourths of all diseases caused in India are due to water contaminants. Despite that, one in eight Indians still lacks access to clean drinking water. The poor now realise that paying for clean water can save much more in health-care costs later. It was this market that Sarvajal, a social enterprise in India, wanted to cater to.

Founded in 2008, Sarvajal—which in Sanskrit means “water for all”—now sells clean drinking water to more than 70,000 people in rural India. In bigger villages, it employs local people to man filtration plants and sell water. In small villages it installs solar-powered water dispensing machines (pictured) that use prepaid (or pay-as-you-go) smart cards that can be topped up just like a mobile phone. The machines send data to a central server via SMS, which helps Sarvajal ensure regular supply of clean water.

Sarvajal started with some help from the Piramal Foundation, a charity. And it is not alone: Water Health International was launched with an investment from the Acumen Fund and the Naandi Foundation’s not-for-profit company was backed by a charity with the same name. What sets Sarvajal apart is that it has stayed away from government subsidies while still keeping the price of water low. It sells 10 litres of water for four pence (or six cents), just as much or lower than its competitors.

“Subsidies are not a long-term solution,” says Anand Shah, Savajal’s founder, who grew up in America and moved to India to become a social entrepreneur. It took a healthy bit of tinkering to lower the price of installation and maintenance for its water supply infrastructure. It costs on average $2,500 to install a filtration plant, which is about half the expense of similar projects. Sarvajal claims to recover those costs within three years.

Setting up its project was not easy. Savajal needed to deal with things that few businesses in rich countries have to worry about: lack of proper roads in villages, irregularity of power supply, unreliability of water sources and devising a system of money transfer. Having reached a respectable size, Mr Shah is hopeful that scaling up his business further will be less challenging.

Apart from villages, Sarvajal’s other obvious market is the urban poor. Nearly 100m people live in very densely populated slums in India’s cities. They are more willing to pay a higher price for water than villagers who have a much smaller disposable income. But Mr Shah says that “water barons”, sellers of bottled-water, have been trying to block Sarvajal’s entry into cities. After many months of efforts, this time not without help from the government, Sarvajal will soon be launching its first filtration plant in Delhi.

First published on economist.com.

Image credit: Sarvajal

Asteroids likely source of Earth’s water

Bad Science examples from the media: Indian Express, April 29, 2010

Ice asteroids likely source of Earth’s water: Study

Astronomers have for the first time detected ice and organic compounds on an asteroid, a pair of landmark studies.

The discovery bolsters the theory that comets and asteroids crashing into Earth nearly four billion years ago seeded the planet with water and carbon-based molecules, both essential ingredients for life.

Working separately, two teams of scientists using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii found that the 24 Themis, which orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, is literally covered in a thin coating of frost.

It had long been suspected that the massive space rocks that bombarded our planet after the formation of the solar system contained frozen water, but the two studies, published in Nature, provide the first hard evidence.

Still, a mystery remained: How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?

Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.

In other words, 24 Themis some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected.

===========

This article has many flaws. At the very outset, the headline itself is misleading. Unfortunately the piece has fallen to the common temptation of sensationalising the news with an unholy bargain of the truth. Unlike what the headline implies, the asteroid Themis 24 is very much a solid mass covered with a thin layer of ice and not wholly made out of ice. If you want a sensational title, isn’t it good enough to just say “Asteroids likely source of water on Earth”?

Secondly, the article has been sadly stripped of so many important data points that it fails to make the point. For example, when asking the question “How could frozen water persist over billions of years on an asteroid hot enough to vapourise surface ice?” the writer gives no background to the reader about why is it hot enough to vaporise the surface ice. If the piece of rock is in between Mars and Jupiter then a common man would assume that the surface temperature compared to the Earth (which is much closer to the sun) would be lower. Thus, if Earth can have surface ice, then why can’t an asteroid? Although this logic is flawed in itself, it raises many more questions in a reader’s mind such as, is it because the asteroid has no atmosphere? or is it because it travels at a greater speed than earth? and so on. Also, the mystery question is wrongly posed as it should be ‘millions’ (what authors claim by their modelling) instead of ‘billions‘.

Thirdly, there is no mention of the timeline in any of the Nature articles and points to the classic error of ‘making up information’ for the sake of it. I suppose that the writer has come to a conclusion (if at all he has given this article any thought) that first sign of life was seen 3.5 billion years ago thus obviously, water would have come to Earth sometime before that. Thus, the use of “nearly four billion years ago.”

Fourthly, “Only if that layer of frost were continually replenished by the slow release of water vapour released from ice in the asteroid’s interior, the researchers reasoned.” This sentence will only confuse the readers ever more. Why does the ice in the interior of the asteroid sublime only to deposit back as frost on the surface? The more probable reason, as mentioned by the researchers, is ‘impact gardening’ which is the phenomenon of small bodies hitting the surface of the asteroid and churning up the subsurface ice. The impact might also be able to trigger the sublimation of subsurface ice, the authors believe. There is no mention of that in this article!

Finally, “24 Themis — some 200 kilometres (125 miles) in diameter — almost certainly contains far more water locked in its minerals than anyone suspected” is absolutely wrong. Humberto et. al clearly mention that “Although many asteroids show absorptions in this region, they are well matched by hydrated minerals. The spectral features of 24 Themis are significantly different from those in other asteroids and we show that it is accurately matched by small ice particles.” The point the authors make is exactly opposite. There isn’t hydrated minerals or ‘high concentration hydrated minerals’ that the authors observe but water in it’s free form as small ice particles.

As science writers we have the responsibility to communicate science correctly and such obvious mistakes will only create more doubts and lead the readers astray.

ResearchBlogging.org Rivkin, A., & Emery, J. (2010) Detection of ice and organics on an asteroidal surface. Nature, 464(7293), 1322-1323. DOI: 10.1038/nature09028 & Campins, H., Hargrove, K., Pinilla-Alonso, N., Howell, E., Kelley, M., Licandro, J., Mothé-Diniz, T., Fernández, Y., & Ziffer, J. (2010) Water ice and organics on the surface of the asteroid 24 Themis. Nature, 464(7293), 1320-1321. DOI: 10.1038/nature09029

How a Homeopath tried to understand the science behind Homeopathy

At Café Scientifique, last night, I heard Dr. Stephen Cartwright speak on ‘Homeopathy – Dispelling myths and establishing facts’. I had never been to one of these CafeSci evenings, but going from the description, I was hoping there will be many who will be interested in hard scientific facts and theories. Even then, I took a print of the Sense about Homeopathy poster published by Sense about Science, just in case anyone might be interested in knowing more about it later. But within the first few minutes of the talk, I knew I would not need it.

Dr. Stephen Cartwright, is a molecular biologist who, with support from private donations, started researching homeopathy in 2009. Prior to that he trained and setup his own business as a homeopath in Oxford in 1988. Last night, he began his talk with a story about how he first got into homeopathy, and that is when I neatly folded my Sense about Homeopathy poster and put it in my bag.

In 1984, he visited a homeopath, out of curiosity. After talking to the homeopath, he was prescribed some pills which he happily took; only to develop symptoms of sinus within 24 hours. That intrigued him and he took up the study of homeopathy.

‘After 20 years of practising homeopathy, I really wanted to understand the chemistry behind these remedies and that’s why I have put a lot of thought and came up with some experiments to gain some insight. He continued, ‘I will have to delve into some chemistry, please forgive the jargon.’ He goes onto explain his experiments. ‘It is well known’, he says, ‘that homeopathic potencies are affected by sunlight and magnets’ and thus of all the analytical techniques that man has invented to understand the chemistry of atoms he could only use was visible light spectroscopy.

Some definitions before we proceed; succussion means vigorous shaking of a diluted homeopathic preparation in order to activate the medicinal substance; potency is the dilution factor and in homeopathy, a solution that is more dilute has a higher potency.

Panacea? (Image: The Guardian)

Process: In a special cuvette, he mixes a drop of his potencies with 90% ethanol and measures absorption against a control. Control that he uses is non-succussed water, because homeopaths accept that water that has not been methodically shaken does not have any homeopathic remedy in it. The potencies which could be of various dilutions contain a poly substituted phenol. ‘More details cannot be divulged as it is a patentable finding’, he says.

Observations: With an increase in potency (increase in dilution) he sees increase in the absorbance. Different remedies give different absolute absorbance but same trend. The trend is not linear and because he hasn’t done enough experiments he is unable to calculate the trend. Also, a similar trend is observed with an increase in the succussion of a particular potency used. ‘Quite strange’, he admits.

Additional experiments: ‘Why’, he thought, ‘is it that all homeopathic remedies are made in ethanol?’ He did the same tests with 30 different alcohols instead of the potency and found that the trend was found to be exactly same in case 2,4-pentane diol. What does that mean? Now he goes a step further on his claims and makes another theory to explain this phenomenon, ‘2,4 pentane diol is like two ethanol molecules back to back, thus the potencies might be in some way ordering the ethanol molecules to arrange themselves to form something like 2,4-pentane diol.’

Wow! A Nobel Prize deserving discovery, why hasn’t he published it? Oh wait, there is a problem.

Problem: Results are not reproducible because too many factors affect his experiments, factors like time of the day, place in the lab, how many times was the potency shaken, etc. He also observed that when very rarely he has managed to have all the factors in control, he found that on somedays he got the result and on somedays he did not. So how to explain another strange pheonomenon? Of course, another theory. He hypothesises that there is an oscillation in the potency. On somedays it shows effects and on somedays it does not.

On clinical trials he says, ‘These oscillations are the reason why clinical trials fail. Homeopathic remedies behave in strange ways and these clinical trials don’t take that into consideration. Obviously, the results will never be as predicted.’

On expiry date he says, ‘Homeopathic remedies have no expiry date. On occasions, I have found 20 year old medicines are as active as one’s made today.’

Alternative medicine (Image: Chicagoland Homeopathy)

On future scope he says, ‘Homeopathy has been here for over 200 years. 40% of all prescriptions in India are homeopathic prescriptions. There is huge market for homeopathy but because it behaves in these strange ways we need new assays to test these remedies. The demand for these assays is urgent and the inventor will make a lot of money.’

At the end he quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who he claims based the character of Sherlock Holmes on a homeopath, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Enough of the talk, let’s move on to question answers. I’ll enlist the ones I remember.

Q: When you went to the homeopath in 1984, what problem did you have?

A: Nothing, I was quite healthy. Huh? Then why were you prescribed pills? Oh that! You see in talking to him for over an hour, I realised there were so many things that were wrong with me.

Q: What are your thoughts about the claim that water has memory?

A: Perhaps, I don’t know, there has to be some way to explain this strange phenomenon. May be it is true.

Q: Were the oscillations random or regular like a sinusoidal wave?

A: As far as I know, they were regular. Doesn’t that mean that you can then time clinical trials on the days you know the remedy will have a cure!!

Q: Considering that the potency is shaken in 90% ethanol and your claim that with more shaking you observe more absorbance. Is it possible that ethanol is simply dissolving glass or some impurities that are present in glass?

A: I am not aware of it. We take care that the glass used is clean. Of course you do. Did we doubt that? We were talking about dissolving glass or the impurities that get embedded in glass during the manufacturing process.

Q: If homeopathy is so widely used, why hasn’t homeopathy come up with new potencies?

A: Of course we have, you will be able to find potencies of tetracyclines. But te

tracyclines are compounds made to combat disease. Making potencies that way is against the homeopathic principles, right? Homeopaths make potencies of things that cause the disease, right? Oh yes, we make potencies of tetracyclines to combat the side-effects produce by this drug.

Q: This room has many chemists today, including myself and we would to know if you would be willing to share your spectral data with us to let us analyse them?

A: Yes, I’d be willing to that. I am happy to collaborate. Surely, it will be better if you do this before you face the peer-review process.

Q: You have said that you have not published any of this research. But clearly these results have use for homeopaths, have you shared the information with them yet?

A: Not yet. I believe in coming up with a working hypothesis before I do that.

Q: Have you presented your results at a conference?

A: No I do not have money to do that. It is very difficult to find funding because of the fickle nature of the results I’ve obtained. But I will some day. That’s why I give talks at places like these. I came here hoping to be asked intelligent questions, of which there were none, so that I am able to hone my skills of defending my case of homeopathy.

It surprised me that in the many questions asked, no one ever brought the placebo effect into the conversation. It may be because even without that weapon he wasn’t able to come up with convincing answers for the audience. The last question he was asked is the best conclusion I could have asked for to conclude my blog post.

Q for the audience: Will people who have changed their minds about homeopathy after today’s talk, for the better or worse, please raise their hands?

3 out of about 30 raise their hands. The old man who asked this question says, ‘There, Dr. Cartwright, that was a predictable and I dare say, reproducible result.’