Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Scientists Say The Darndest Things

In my few interactions with science folk across India, I've come to have deep respect for their work...and for their kinky sense of humour. Not all scientists are funny, but when they are, they can be delightfully dark.
I met up with a biomedical engineer whose artificial heart pump is designed to assist the left ventricle in doing its business. Unlike the heart, which is a pulsating pump, this one is centrifugal & continuous in nature. It's a nifty little titanium rotor device that ensures a steady flow of blood at all times.
Very seriously, the engineer tells us about extensive studies that suggest that continuous flow of blood through the body does not create any major differences in physiology as compared to a pulsating flow.

Suddenly his face softens, his eyes crinkle and his mouth widens into a spectacular grin.
"Wonly wone thing izzzthere...vether sleepingor DEDD, vee vill naat know. No pulse izzzthere wonly! Hahahahaa..."

I can't tell if she's alive. Quick, someone check her Facebook.

There was also the case of the delightful elevator music at ISRO's headquarters.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

And What I'd Like To Believe Romantic Love Feels Like

From Andre Agassi's autobiography 'Open':

'To my mind, being with the right woman is true happiness. After all the time I've spent putting together my so-called team, the only thing I want now is to feel like a valued member of Stefanie's (wife Steffi Graf) team. I hope he (Pete Sampras) feels the same way about his fiancee. I hope he cares as much about his place in her heart as he seems to care about his place in history. I wish I could tell him so.'

I don't know what it feels like to be in love. Over time I've gotten an idea that it's not a preset condition that you acquire, rather it comes to attain whatever shape & texture you choose to give it. In that sense, I'm not sure of what I'm hunting for or whether I should be 'hunting' at all.
But this understanding of love that Agassi speaks of, seemed like something worth aspiring for.

When I Die

A few days ago, I was watching 'Game of Thrones' and heard this gem of a line.
It's the most beautiful piece of screenwriting - a simple little thing, delicately constructed and spoken with devastating charm by a handsome devil of a man (seriously, you both loathe him and lust for him).
He's prisoner in an enemy camp and chained to a post. His fortunes have turned against him most radically.

Poor Evil Jaime Lannister

And almost as though he were lounging on a billion dollar yacht, he delivers the line that is going to be my epitaph:

"My life has left me uniquely unfit for constraint."


More fancy British awesomeness:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


It might be a Pisces thing. Some of us flow in and out of worlds, blending in and streaming out with fluid ease. We're faithful to every world we inhabit, we give ourselves completely to it. Then we move on. Severing ties is easy when you're equipped with the ability to experience, feel and let go.
It allows us to live a thousand lives in one lifetime. We've been failures, successes, addicts and ascetics. Change has seemed effortless. Almost. We've learnt to use the past for hindsight instead of an excuse for inertia.
We enter at will but leave no footprints. And when we search for a place to rest our heads, we find that nearly every place is home just as simply as it is not. 

News From The Known Universe by Scott Cousins

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Serious Pursuits Like Science And Such

Over the last 3 weeks, I've had the most amazing, life-altering experiences that I can't possibly encapsulate in this space. My work has taken me across some of India's most exciting science labs and research facilities. I've met dynamic scientists, engineers and thinkers - many at the top of their game not just in India but globally - who have generously shared their time, energy and wisdom dumbing down their science for me to understand. It is an unparalleled privilege and I'm still recovering.
The following are my observations from these visits & encounters.


The Story We Forgot To Tell 
I'm old enough to remember a time when our list of national heroes included people of science like S. Chandrasekhar, Homi Bhabha and even Rakesh Sharma. Somewhere along the way the number of heroes began to dwindle until we were left with our standard go-to-guy, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, whom we'd summon every time we wanted to prove we were an intellectual race. Today's newspapers are filled with articles from The Guardian and the New York Times extolling the latest advances made in Western science and it would appear that Indian science has flatlined.

When did we stop doing any science of worth? Turns out, not ever.

Did you know that we have one of the world's most sophisticated and sensitive radio telescopes in our own backyard, which our astronomers are using to understand how galaxies are formed? (One PhD student I met was using it to hunt for aliens. For real.) 

Did you know that Indians are an integral part of the LHC experiments at CERN? (Wanna hunt for the Higgs-Boson particle? Good luck doing it without Indian-made detectors.)

Did you know that Indians were the first to detect atmospheric neutrinos way back in the 1960's and that the world's largest magnet will be used in an underground observatory being built just to study neutrinos? (Did you also know you could 'Like' its page on Facebook?)

Did you know that Indian biomedical engineers have created a low cost cardiac device that's brought down global prices hiked by international biotech corporations, allowing the poorest of the poor to have access to life-saving heart valves?

Did you know that in a few years, we'll be setting up our own observatory in space to study the Sun's corona?

Did you know that it is now possible for Indians to make a good living researching the flight mechanisms of insects or discovering how memories are made?

Did you know that in the last 5-10 years, various Indian governments have pumped good money into science and technology research, the results of which are now beginning to show?

Did you know that as the West protected its own interests by keeping some of its most sensitive science & engineering methodologies under wraps, our chaps went about developing their own funky instruments and techniques (and not just to build missiles either).
Did you? Because I sure as heck didn't. If anything, my ignorance was astounding - and as tremendous as the excitement I was sensing as I traveled from one research institute to another. These were not grumpy, snobbish or cynical scientists I was meeting. This was a whole other breed...

Indian Science Is Sexy
Yes, you heard me. Indian science is sexy. First, the best of it is being done in places that look like this:

This used to be, like, a palace. For, like, a king.
....and this:
Those white things in the water aren't polythene junk, they're ducks
Second, Indian scientists seem happy. They look well-fed and well-clothed. Some of them even work out. They have cars and smartphones and a childlike enthusiasm of those who're in love with their jobs and can't believe they get paid for it. Their (extremely fancy & very well-equipped) labs are their playgrounds and they're using them to build some pretty snazzy sand castles.

But the real reason I found the scientists I met sexy is because they're fun and they want to hang out with us. It may not have been so a few decades ago ("Indian science used to be very Brahminical..." I was told) but today it's different. Many want to talk about their science and tell us how they're spending our tax money to discover and create wonderful things. They want to let us into fascinating worlds where brain cells switch on & off like LEDs and things are present & absent at the same time. They're throwing open their doors to us - regardless of who we are, where we come from, how much money we have or what caste/ religion we are.

In short: It's a great time to be a nerd. What we need now is for the nerd to be heard.

Make Some Noise For Indian Science
As a card carrying member of the media, I am drawn into many discussions about the state of science communication in the country in the course of my travel. Each tale carries untold horror: from misrepresentation (in one misguided article in a popular current affairs magazine, a cell biologist working on how cell membranes work was celebrated as the man who'd found the cure to AIDS) to being outright ignored. While Arnab is busy yelling down Suhel Seth, these folks are left wondering why we couldn't sneak a single 3-minute science story into a 24 hr news cycle. 
I tell them I hold them equally responsible for this complete breakdown in communication. I cite examples of Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman who did more for mainstreaming scientific thought than anyone from the press. They nod their heads in agreement and pledge co-operation if we could just give them the platform. We conclude that both the scientific community and the Indian media need an attitude adjustment. After a particularly energetic exchange with an astronomer, we both slump back into our seats, destroyed by the irony of an Arts major (me) being the only person left in TV, who gives a damn about this man's work. We speak in idealist tongues but the truth is more complex than we have courage to accept or ability to comprehend.

The Afterglow
Back from this most epic trip, I find my world view changing. Every new thought is now visualized as a string of neural fairy-lights in my hippocampus. When I look up at the night sky, I'm thinking of how I'm looking not just into the distance but also into the past. Even that ridiculous ad for Sunsilk Shampoo thrills me because I now understand how its nanoparticles are great for my hair. Knowing how things work hasn't taken away the romance, it's enhanced it. Everything is magic now and I'm completely sold.

The GMRT outside Pune: Standing beneath these beautiful antennae, wondering which galaxy, star or planet they're currently eavesdropping on, is pure, distilled joy.
I strongly recommend that you read the comments section of this blog, which provides deeper insight into the Indian science community in a way this post cannot.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Social Experiment

I bought my first car recently. It's an LSD-hallucination shade of green and looks a bit like those pod-thingies at Heathrow airport that take you from one terminal to another. Aside from the natural euphoria it's induced in me by virtue of being my first car, I have uncovered a rather pleasant side-effect to purchasing the highly affordable 2012 version of the Tata Nano*.

*Beach Not Included
First, unlike its predecessor, it promises not to spontaneously combust (and since I cross my fingers every time I get into it and say three 'Hail Mary's, I assume I'm in the clear). Secondly, everywhere I take it, it tends to make people smile - people who would otherwise scowl at me, like the security guard outside my cousin's home, who recommended I feed it chocolate because it was such a cute little thing.

At shopping malls, guards grin at me gamely and let me pass without too much trouble - they know the car has neither space in the trunk (where the engine goes) nor glove compartments, nor space in the front boot space that's just large enough for the spare tyre. They wave me on with a smile that says: "How can something so cute pack a ton of RDX?"

Because A Nano Driver Could Never Be A Terrorist
This evening, my cousin, his wife, the Nano and I giggled into the driveway of The Leela. The valets beamed at us. Then on our way out, the doorman got into a conversation about the car's specs. A towering Sikh gentleman with an apparently equally statuesque wife, he was especially interested in the head & leg room the car offered us. And then: "Kya mileage?" "Kitney me liya?" "Finance kiya ki full payment?" Ordinarily I would shut such personal questions down in a second, but not this time. The Nano had made the world go rainbow bright with socialist bonhomie. All was candy floss, puppies and proletariat. Short of giving him my bank account details, I answered all his questions and we parted with a warmth uncharacteristic of interactions between strangers in New Delhi.

Of all the benefits I thought I'd get from purchasing a dirt cheap, petrol-burning automobile, earning goodwill from the legendary grumps of Delhi was not something I'd anticipated. I wondered: Which other sourpusses could the Nano join together in harmony? How about we drive Nanos into Taliban strongholds? Or swerve one past Mamata Banerjee's office? Maybe park it under Raj Thakeray's building? Or use it to cheer up Nicholas Sarkozy. Take a ride through Syria, Darfur, Abhishek Manu Singhvi's bedroom...the possibilities seem endless.

There is a flip side too, though. As with most things, the Nano holds equal potential for being used for evil. So if you ever see it driving around with a 'Being Human' sticker across its back, alert the authorities immediately and run for cover.