Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Water memory" - a myth that wouldn't die

Holy pseudoscience, Batman!

Homeopathy websites (too many to list; I found the material for this post here) are all gleefully abuzz today** with the following factoid - New Research From Aerospace Institute of the University of Stuttgart Scientifically Proves Water Memory and Homeopathy.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

et tu...? Acupuncture and pain in Nature

Physician and blogger Harriet Hall, MD, once coined an exceptionally apt phrase to describe research in many alternative medicine modalities - "Tooth Fairy Science"; it refers to research undertakings into a phenomenon whose existence is yet to be established. In a post in her blog Science-based Medicine, she explained:
You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven't learned what you think you've learned, because you haven't bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.
Priceless. And of all the modalities championed by modern peddlers of pseudoscience, acupuncture most certainly qualifies as a prime example of Tooth Fairy Science.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Glad Venture with Tintin

Stealing from our busy professional lives a couple of hours in a rather buccaneer fashion (Red Rackham would have approved!), my good wife and I - ever the partners in crime - went to watch the newly released (in the US; the world - alas! - has watched it much before us) Spielberg movie, "The Adventures of Tintin".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Au contraire, Religion IS the problem

Philosopher and author Ophelia Benson shared on Twitter today an article about Ms. Sahar Taman, a founder of Journeys to understanding, a non-profit organization trying to open up the understanding of the Arab world amongst the rest of the world, especially the US. The article reported on an interview of Ms. Taman taken by the Connection Point blog of a non-profit organization, Peace X Peace; Ms. Taman talked about her work in Egypt, trying to promote what she terms as "interfaith dialog". According to her, this is about bringing a reconciliation amongst the practitioners of various faiths - Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or any other - so that everyone can realize their essential humanity, and find common ground that way.

No doubt, a noble goal. But will this enlightened end justify the means Ms. Taman embraces, with her inordinate insistence on faith as the panacea? Ever curious, I left a few questions after the blog post, but it is caught in moderation for the past several hours. I don't have much hope of having it live, and so I decided to go ahead and ask the same questions in my post. The quotes in italic are from Ms. Taman, based on her interview.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Man Whose Name Boson Honors

In the past several days, the world was waiting agog for the news: is it there or is it not? As the Honorable Beeb reported:
The most coveted prize in particle physics - the Higgs boson - may have been glimpsed, say researchers reporting at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva... Scientists say that two experiments at the LHC see hints of the Higgs at the same mass, fuelling huge excitement. But the LHC does not yet have enough data to claim a discovery.
Although we may have to wait another year, the BBC article and the one on CNN, both highly informative, explain the excitement around the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson, a currently-theoretical, elementary subatomic particle that is purported to provide mass to matter, and is the integral part of the theoretical Higgs mechanism by which mass is proposed to be generated.

I, sadly, don't understand enough of quantam mechanics or mathematics to launch into an extensive discussion of the properties of the elusive Higgs Boson particle. A nice Q&A at the BBC Science & Environment website explains a lot of the concepts. I, on the other hand, want to briefly focus on the person, who introduced the principles of Statistical Mechanics guiding photons in 1924 and after whom physicist/mathematician Paul Dirac named the one of the most elementary of subatomic particles, Bosons. That person is Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian physicist who made significant advances in the studies of Statistical Mechanics and Quantam Statistics.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Arrogance of Faith

James Taylor, 41, was quadriplegic and had severe developmental disabilities, requiring constant care and attention. His aged parents placed him in a group home for the developmentally disabled, near Schenectady, NY, hoping that he would receive that care. What is unfortunate is that these types of group homes, run either by the State or private entities, often fall far short of any reasonable expectation, as today's NY Times reports. Left unattended for 15 minutes in a bathtub, James Taylor, unable to lift his head, drowned in the water of his bathtub and died. The NY Times investigative report reveals that this is not an isolated incident. Apparently, "In New York, it is unusually common for developmentally disabled people in state care to die for reasons other than natural causes." It is disturbing and inhuman per se, a terrible state of affairs; the quality of care and advocacy for this marginalized group of human beings, people with developmental disabilities, is abysmal, and what's more, there is almost no or nominal redress after these tragic events. The Times investigation paints a general picture of apathy and lack of concern for these people on part of the caregivers, as well as the State.

And, as if this weren't enough to ruin the day, there was, of course, this abomination... this particular group of pious god-botherers that always manages to surface from the fetid depths of humanity, following any tragedy, in order to claim it as proof for their non-existent deity.

Monday, October 31, 2011

education, schmeducation! Tribalism rules.

What's the fucking point of your fucking education and your fancy PhD degree if every time you go out with your wife, you insist (or, your religion insists and you endorse it heartily) that she cover herself head to toe in a fucking symbol of unenlightened medievalism?

All right. That was a rant RAGE speaking.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Proposed (Dis)Honor Killing Bill by India Government

Writing at the Lounge today, Aakar Patel focuses on a new Bill proposed by the Government of India, called “The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of ‘Honour’ and Tradition Bill”. As Aakar notes, all the heinous acts which find mention in this Bill - committing and abetting murder, coercion - are already punishable, but the Bill's sponsor, Dr. Girija Vyas, Member of the Indian Parliament, intends to create a separate law that will allow the prosecution of perpetrators of specific gruesome acts, coyly termed as "honour killing". Aakar shares his concern that this Bill, if passed into law, will fail to address the intended problem, a deeper and convoluted societal issue.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Two Indias

For a while now, I have been reading an interesting and engagingly written book by young British science journalist and author, Angela Saini, titled: Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World. I would perhaps write a review of the book once I am done. In this post, however, I am going to share a few observations from the book that struck an immediate chord with me. I call it 'The Curious Case of Two Indias', referring to a strangely split personality of the country I was born and grew up in. India is, at once, progressive and retrogressive, modern and medieval, scientific and superstitious - a contradiction of existence; the book Geek Nation has ample illustrations of this dichotomy. I refer to a part that relates to my own experience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chronicle of Shame: Indian Manhood

It has been more than two years since I first reacted in anguish in this blog over what seemed to me to be nothing less than an epidemic of rape in the Indian subcontinent. I had asked:
What is it with Indian men and rape?

Is it about sexual gratification in a country where, inexplicably, sex is still a taboo subject and the Indian male is a lustful, prurient, sex-starved lot eager to carry out rape to fulfill a sexual fantasy whenever opportunity presents? Is it about power and control over certain individuals, or a group of people - an uncontrollable urge to dominate? Or, is it a violent response, a lashing out, of the patriarchal societal establishment to the increasing economic and social emancipation of the Indian women, whom it finds it cannot subjugate any further?

In India, it probably is all of the above.
As I have learnt more about the issues surrounding sexual violence against women, it appears that it is more of the latter than former.

Monday, October 3, 2011

RIP, Ralph Marvin Steinman (1943-2011), Nobel Laureate

It was just last week when I wrote about a paper featuring Dendritic Cells, the surveillance sentries of the mammalian immune system. It was remiss of me, and unconscionably so (hindsight, as they say, is 20-20), not to mention the name of Ralph Steinman, who - in conjunction with Zanvil Cohn (in whose lab he was a post-doctoral fellow at that time) - discovered, and coined the term, 'dendritic cell'. Steinman passed away on September 30, 2011, at the age of 68, three days before his name was announced for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in recognition of his life's work on Dendritic Cells.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dendritic cells latch on to HIV fat (love-handles?)

In the last post, I introduced the Dendritic Cells (DCs) as immune sentries entrusted with a surveillance function, and mentioned how HIV is able to subvert the normal functions of DCs and and use them as Trojan Horses to infect CD4+ helper T-cells. I also referred to a 2009 study which discovered a possible involvement of certain membrane lipids in the process of DC-mediated HIV trans-infection of T-cells.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dendritic cells: surveillance sentry of immune system

Dendritic Cells (DCs) are important members of the mammalian immune system. Working at the interface of innate and adaptive immune response, DCs are primarily antigen-presenting cells (APCs). DCs are derived from certain hematopoietic (bone-marrow derived) progenitors of either lymphoid or myeloid lineage, giving rise, respectively, to plasmacytoid DCs (pDCs) and myeloid DCs (mDCs) that localize to mucosal epithelium (inner lining of nose, lungs, the GI tract; also, the langerhans cells of the skin), as well as to peripheral blood.

Mid-week gripes... re: prepublication formats

I'm sorry, but I HATE reading those pre-publication, not-properly formatted, PDF articles that some journals offer. Okay, I am weird in that I prefer on-screen reading to print-reading (see, I'm green. I like to save paper), particularly since I find no point in keeping paper copies of most articles I read.

But these pre-publication PDFs... Gaah! I can't understand them without actually printing out the pages; to me, it's difficult to understand the format-less flow of text on-screen, especially since the tables and figures are placed miles away from the main body text, and it is a pain to navigate a 20-30 page document to get to a figure or a specific reference at the end and thereafter return to wherever I was reading.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Going bananas over RotPotA...

Caveat Lector: This post may contain what one might consider spoilers. Therefore, if you haven't already watched the 2011 movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and are planning to do so, please cease and desist from reading any further. This post contains some of my thoughts and impressions on the said movie.

In no uncertain terms, I quite liked this movie, which has been imagined as a 'prequel' to the long running "Planet of the Apes" franchise (originally made in 1968 by Franklin Schaffner, featuring Charlton Heston; reimagined by Tim Burton in his 2001 multi-award-nominated feature). The 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, under Rupert Wyatt's competent direction, featured some spectacular CGI special effects, and a fabulous performance by Andy Serkis (of the LOTR Gollum fame) as Caesar, the chimp with genetically enhanced intelligence; I don't know how Andy did it, but he has copied the simian movements almost in toto, making for a highly believable Caesar through a performance capture CGI technique (where the motion capture session includes face and fingers in order to capture and reproduce subtle expressions). The storyline was taut and exciting, without a dull moment, and contained some emotionally-charged sequences which were brilliantly executed. James Franco did a decent enough job as the geneticist Will Rodman, and the mandatory feel-good factor (of course!) was provided by India's own Freida Pinto as the San Francisco primatologist, Caroline Alanha. All in all, an eminently watchable movie.

The Primates Meet
Image Credit: Weta Digital/20th Century Fox, via NY Times Movie Review Slide show

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Space - the final frontier? At least, for Google!!

This morning a weird thing happened as I opened my Gmail. Prominent on a yellow band at the top of this page was this terrifying message:

You are almost out of space for your Gmail account. Once you have run out of space, you will not be able to send or receive any emails until you delete some items. You can view our tips on reducing your email storage or purchase additional storage.

It made me almost jump out of my skin. Can this be? I scrolled down, and sure enough, my account is, it says, 94% full, and I am apparently Using 7212 MB of (my) 7616 MB.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Alcohol pwns inflammation; Or, saga of alcohol dehydrogenase from Aspergillus

Aspergillus fumigatus and various other Aspergilli are ubiquitous molds. These are hardy aerobic saprotrophs, growing as easily on breads and potatoes as on plants and trees. However, many Aspergilli are capable of growing in nutrient-deficient or nutrient-absent environments, and surviving in extreme conditions, such as high temperature (up to 55oC) and pH; for example, A. niger, the Black Mold, can grow happily on damp walls. I have observed A. fumigatus grow on the surface of a highly alkaline buffer (pH9; one of the pH meter standards).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lame defence of Evangelical Christianity by Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof, Op Ed columnist for the New York Times, has purveyed yet another exercise in utmost vapidity. In his recent column, which he ostensibly wrote to laud the late Reverend John Stott, a respected British Christian scholar and author, he endeavored to deliver - in what he no doubt thought a clever manner - a defence of evangelical Christianity.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Religious Factors & hippocampal atrophy or hypertrophy?

As a testament to humankind's everlasting quest for knowledge and understanding of the self, a number of scientific studies in the recent times have examined the elusive relationship between the human brain and that fountainhead of human emotion and passion, namely, Religion. There have been studies on neurological correlates of religious experiences and spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer; many studies have looked at both acute and chronic effects of such practices in relation to brain function. A recent study along the same lines, published by Owen et al. of Duke University, in PLoS One on March 30, 2011, has attempted to link religious factors with changes in a specific brain region, the hippocampus, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Raiding a Brothel in my city, the City of Joy

Those who know me and my views are aware that I rarely see eye to eye with the famed New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. A twice-winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, as well as winner of various other awards, Kristof has impeccable credentials and is engaged in laudable social work. But his political arguments and world-views leave a lot to be desired, and can at best be described as 'wishy-washy' in a Charlie Brown-ish way.

Be that as it may, when Kristof sticks to reporting facts, he is a fabulous and intrepid journalist. His May 25, 2011, Op Ed in the New York Times ("Raiding a Brothel in India") is at once fascinating and horrifying.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Human Echolocation: Ed Yong's Article on a PLoS One Study

Ed Yong (@edyong209 on Twitter) is a fabulous British science writer and blogger, who won in 2010 the prestigious National Academies Communication Awards, jointly presented by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. His writing has been featured in New Scientist, the Times, WIRED, the Guardian, Nature amongst other places, and he currently blogs ("Not Exactly Rocket Science") at the Discover Magazine website.

Most of my readers here, I expect, already read and follow him. If you haven't had the pleasure, don't delay. Ed is a fantastic writer, very readable, and he presents the awe-inspiring and glorious world of science in a lucid enjoyable manner. I follow his blog religiously.

In a recent post, Ed presents a fascinating study - published in PLoS One - about how some blind human beings are able to use the technique of Echolocation; they make clicking noises with their tongue (or with an object like a cane) and - from the rebounding echoes - they are able to estimate not only the presence of objects in their paths, but also the distance, size, shape and texture of those objects. Much in the same way as dolphins and bats do, these people can "see" their world in sound. Daredevil, anyone?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fresh Saga of Apologists for Religion Falling Over Backwards

The Religious and the Faithful across the world are quite diligent in trying to spread their beliefs around. Clearly, their intellectual laziness (inherent in their stance embracing 'goddidit' as a single unifying explanation of all natural phenomena) does not dull their proselytizing fervor. As a result, every so often, studies spring up purporting to show how deep and inherent religious belief is to the human nature. Whichever way these studies are constructed, the conclusions - always delivered with a hint of smugness - often seem to be the same:
(1) Religion and religious belief are deep-rooted and universal,
(2) They ain't goin' away nowhere,
(3) Atheists, just deal with it.

A new study from Oxford University under the aegis of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project (funded by none other than the John Templeton Foundation - of course!), brings forth more of the same.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Homeopathic Belladonna in Japanese Encephalitis? Naah-uh!

Heh! Right now I have this stupid grin on my face, because I caught this glaring error in a published paper. Okay, it is a paper on homeopathy referenced in a godawful homeopathy website (that I mentioned in my yesterday's write-up), but nevertheless.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Burqa ban - part Deux: response to Margaret Nelson

Yesterday I wrote about "The Answer's 42" blog and its British author, Margaret Nelson, touching upon my disagreements with her secularist approach regarding the burqa ban in France (and proposed in the UK). Margaret had promised me a detailed rebuttal. Well, here it is, and look! It's a post with my name in the title! Awww! A post solely for me? I am honored, Margaret!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Burqa: To ban or not to ban...

I came across this blog - The Answer's 42 - by way of Twitter, and found it... interesting. The author, Margaret Nelson of the UK, makes a case against the recent French ban of the burqa, speaking on the possibility of a similar ban being put in place in the UK. The write-up has several issues on which I'd like to disagree heartily with the author, and I have left a comment. However, I don't know if my comment will make it through (Have I ever mentioned how much I loathe comment moderation, especially in a so-called 'liberal' blog, and one in which the author charitably mentions, "Comments are moderated - I'll zap anything I don't like"?). Therefore, I am putting my perspective in this blog.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Confusions galore: science and superstition

Modern India presents a paradox to the broader world without. While churning out copious science, technology and engineering graduates from prestigious institutions every year, this country of highly religious and tradition-following people evinces a close juxtaposition of science and religion, and of technology and superstitions. This highly apparent contradiction has always been a topic close to my heart; Angela Saini, a well-known London-based science journalist and author, had bravely taken it up for her project, which culminated in a book entitled "Geek Nation"; in this book, she makes a case for the rise of India as a scientific superpower despite the overwhelming influence of religion in the Indian society.

I'd love to read the book. It has been already released in the UK, and is scheduled to be published in India later this month; I don't know when it'd be available in the US, but soon, I hope.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"You know you've worked in the lab too long when..."

I got a fascinating list - titled as above - that I could just nod my head to - from my dear wife, who collected it from an emailed newsletter she received from a professional body (N.B. PDF here, open at Page 22, if you are reaaaaally interested. Else, it's all below).

As a matter of habit, I started looking for the source; I searched Google with the title. And lo! And Behold! What jumps up but my Nature Blogs colleague Linda Lin's brilliant post with the same title and photos and all, posted early last year! I felt so sad for not having discovered that gem sooner. To assuage my grief, I promptly (of course!) joined the Facebook group that she mentioned in her post.

I also fondly recollected how much fun I had, dropping various microliter volumes of water onto the remaining liquid nitrogen in an ice bucket, to watch the water freeze instantly into globules of ice. Another perennial favorite has been to pour some dry ice in the sink and turn the water on, to make white, cold, billowy smoke. Sigh!

But I understand. We are busy scientists, and can't go running to find every little thing, can we? So here is a definitive list, compiled from above-mentioned, multiple sources, for your kind perusal and enjoyment.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fiddling with our CR-48 some more - Part 1 of ?

Two weeks since receiving the CR-48, I am trying out a few things on it today. The CR-48 performance has really degraded, especially with multiple tabs open. I am looking for solutions to improve the performance, but so far have found none. The CR-48 help forum, with its 1000+ posts, is formidable to navigate; it is filled with a lot of chatter from those that haven't received a CR-48 yet, and the search function for specific posts simply doesn't work.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's the harm?

In my last post on Homeopathy, a commentor, Mike Fowler, mentioned an interesting fact:

Here in Spain, "Homeopathy" basically means something different. Many "Homeopathico" preparations sold in pharmacies here contain trace and greater concentrations of the active ingredient, so they are probably more like "herbal" remedies.

Spain notwithstanding (I agreed with Mike when he further said that it might be a cultural or linguistic issue here), there is an important distinction to be made - not just by the proponents of science- and evidence-based medicine, but also, it would appear, by regulatory agencies. Because it transpires that ignoring this distinction can be... detrimental, quite detrimental. Read on for details.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Almost reaching the fortnight mark with our CR-48

By now, you will have read all about the early days of my rocky romance with our now-fortnight-old CR-48. Perhaps you have even shed a tear or two at my travails, although I suspect that most of you have been wracking yourselves with loud guffaws and howls of schadenfreude.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rudeness? Rudeness my arse!

First things first. Last year, by sheer chance I came across a new magazine in India, called Open, and was quite impressed by it. The issue that I had at hand was a well-written issue, very modern and up-to-date in its outlook, covering a wide variety of notable items, and in clear, conversational English - a pleasure to read. Folks in India may wish to look it up.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two days with CR-48 - Part Deux

When the excitement at being proud owners of a new CR-48 settled down somewhat, I fired up the device and started working on it, tinkering here and there, testing out the capabilities, poking and prodding - as is my wont. I am going to give away my big surprise finding - having used the CR-48 for two straight days, I was not a happy camper. Comparison with Macbooks (especially the MBA, Macbook Air) was probably inevitable, and several times I had to throw up my hands in frustration (details below). Following is my list of gripes, accumulated over a period of two days. Let me know if you agree with me or not.

One in which I ponder social ethics

This post is going to be a deviation from my usual rants. It is going to reflect a rare moment of self-doubt (Ahem!) and I invite discussions from my readers and colleagues - IOW (N.B. In Other Words, for the text-messagingly-challenged amongst us), let me know if I am wrong, somewhat wrong or totally wrong, wrong in the narrow context of the US or wrong globally.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Two days with CR-48 - Part Un

On our way to work yesterday, S and I stopped at our housing office to retrieve a package UPS left there the previous day. We were a bit surprised, because neither of us had ordered anything online for a while. The size of the package wasn't revealing either - a midsized box, fairly nondescript. So when S cut open the box, none of us were quite expecting what was waiting for us inside.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Homeopathy in Hemorrhoids: ouch or aahh?

In the last post, I mentioned the conversation I had with my friend regarding homeopathic remedies. During this conversation was revealed the source of my friend's strange and firm beliefs in this quackery. He presented several anecdotes about members of his family as living proofs of the benefits of homeopathy.

Well, it turns out that the symptom - that homeopathy had apparently helped him and others to be rid of - was the occurrence and persistence of painful hemorrhoids (a.k.a 'piles'). The usual treatment in most cases, according to him, is surgical removal of the hemorrhoids (N.B. I discovered that this is not completely correct; see below), but they recur. Homeopathy 'cured' him and people he knew. He asked me to explain how this was possible, if there was nothing in the homeopathic remedies.

Homeopathy: Diluted out of existence?

Very recently, I've had an occasion to cross swords with a close friend, a working molecular biologist, whose inexplicable belief in homeopathy flabbergasted me. I do know that we Indians have a culturally-conditioned, deep and abiding faith in many modalities of quackery, including homeopathy which is very popular in India. Nevertheless, I'd have expected someone like my friend, who has delved deep into the inner workings of cells, to naturally outgrow such infantile belief systems. Clearly, I was mistaken - but more about that later.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflexions - two

A couple of reflexions from my short trip home this time. Since the topics are rather disparate, I've decided to break my post into two short parts. Here's Part Two (Part One's here).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pouring out of the woodwork?

High hilarity.

Ardent "fans" and "admirers" of Atheism and its prominent faces, such as Prof. PZ Myers, James "The Amazing" Randi, Dr. Michael Shermer amongst others, have been recently pouring out of the woodwork.

So long these "admirers" - all manners of kooks and crazies - would infest the blogs and websites of these leading proponents of sense and sanity (disclaimer: I am a long-time Pharyngula follower); pointing and laughing at their expressed kookery and craziness often provides hours of pure fun. Worthy of particular mention is the Pharyngula segment 'I get email', where PZ puts up and meticulously eviscerates some of the more egregious examples of addle-headed and vaguely threatening (which almost always contain the threat to pray for him) emails he receives.

It now appears that the "enthusiasm" of these crazies spilleth over to other websites, as well. This is a relatively new phenomenon methinks.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reflexions - one

A couple of reflexions from my short trip home this time. Since the topics are rather disparate, I've decided to break my post into two short parts. Here's Part One; Part Two's here.