The forgotten first lives of India’s fauna

Two juvenile purple frogs rest on wet soil dotted with tiny green leaves.

https://twitter.com/TheHinduScience/status/1327211745677545472 Prof. Biju said the Rohanixalus is the 20th recognised genus of the family Rhacophoridae that comprises 422 known Old World tree frog species found in Asia and Africa. He said there are eight frog species in this genus Rohanixalus, which are known to inhabit forested as well as human-dominated landscapes right from the northeast,…

Super-spreading, mobility and crowding

I still see quite a few journalists in India refer to "super-spreaders" vis-à-vis the novel coronavirus – implying that some individuals might be to blame for ‘seeding’ lots of new infections in the community – instead of accommodating the fact that simply breathing out a lot of viruses doesn’t suffice to infect tens or hundreds…

On resource constraints and merit

In the face of complaints about how so few women have been awarded this year’s Swarnajayanti Fellowships in India, some scientists pushed back asking which of the male laureates who had been selected should have been left out instead. This is a version of the merit argument commonly applied to demands for reservation and quota in higher…

Trump, science denial and violence

For a few days last week, before the mail-in votes had been counted in the US, the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump seemed set for a nail-biting finish. In this time a lot of people expressed disappointment on Twitter that nearly half of all Americans who had voted (Trump’s share of the popular…

How do you study a laser firing for one-quadrillionth of a second?

A collection of lasers of different frequencies in the visible-light range.

I'm grateful to Mukund Thattai, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, for explaining many of the basic concepts at work in the following article. An important application of lasers today is in the form of extremely short-lived laser pulses used to illuminate extremely short-lived events that often play out across extremely short distances.…

Vaccines for votes

A photograph of a person inserting a piece of paper into a box via a slit, akin to casting a vote in a ballot box.

A week or so ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar released its poll manifesto, the first point on which was that should the party win, it would make a COVID-19 vaccine cleared by the ICMR available for free to every resident of the state. It was an unethical move, and Siddharth Varadarajan and I…

Powerful microscopy technique brings proteins into focus

Scientists using a 300kV cryo-electron microscope at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, Dortmund. Credit: MPI Dortmund

Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) as a technology has become more important because the field that it revolutionised – structural biology – has become more important. The international scientific community had this rise in fortunes, so to speak, acknowledged when the Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to three people in 2017 for perfecting its use to…

A future obscured by exponential growth

An artist's rendering of spaceships over a city, casting yellow tractor beams down as the skies darken with clouds above.

A couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I think most of us realised how hard it is to comprehend the phenomenon of exponential growth. Mathematically, it's trivial – a geometric progression – but more physically, the difference between linear and exponential growth is very non-trivial, as a cause-effect chain where each effect leads to multiple…

The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.” This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one…

The passive is political

A wooden sculpture of Pinocchio, with a long nose to suggest he is lying about something.

If Saruman is the stupid shit people say, I have often found Grima Wormtongue is the use of the passive voice. To the uninitiated: Wormtongue was a slimy fellow on Saruman's side in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He was much, much less powerful compared to Saruman, but fed the wizard's ego, lubricated…

Christopher Nolan’s explosion

A photograph of multiple explosions going off together, emitting red and orange sparks and lots of blue-grey smoke.

In May, Total Film reported that the production team of Tenet, led by director Christopher Nolan, found that using a second-hand Boeing 747 was better than recreating a scene involving an exploding plane with miniatures and CGI. I'm not clear how exactly it was better; Total Film only wrote: "I planned to do it using…

Thermal gun, sanitiser and volatility

Most of the shops I visit to purchase my supplies dispense an alcohol-based hand-sanitiser at the point of entry and have a person stationed there to check customers’ body temperature with a contactless thermal gun. They used to point the gun at the forehead but of late many of them have started aiming it at…