From A to …?

Imagine an alphabet that ended questionably with a Y? rather than a reassuring Z! Well there was actually a time when this familiar tailender was removed from the alphabet!

The English alphabet we know today took its modern 26-letter shape in the 16th century. But the origins of most letters of the English alphabet can be traced back to Egyptian hieroglyph symbols of 4,000 years ago, with a sprinkling of Semitic, Phoenician, Greek and Roman influences thrown in.

As with many letters of the English alphabet, Z also has an interesting history. Three-thousand years ago the Phoenicians used a letter called ‘zayin’, meaning ‘ax.’ It was in the form of a vertical line, with horizontal lines at the top and bottom–like an uppercase ‘I’.

The Greeks adopted it as ‘zeta’ around 800 BC. By this time the vertical line had become slanted, and the top and bottom lines had become elongated. Zeta took on the shape that we know as Z today.

But around 300 BC, the Roman Censor Appius Claudius Caecus felt that this letter was not being used frequently and decided that it had become archaic, and this letter was removed from the alphabet. According to some biographers he simply did not like the sound of the letter, and felt that when it is pronounced by pulling the lips over the teeth, the speaker looked like a smiling corpse!

Two hundred years later, Z was reintroduced to the Latin alphabet. At the time, it was used only in words taken from Greek. Because of its absence and reintroduction, zeta is one of the only two letters to enter the Latin alphabet directly from Greek.

So Z returned to the 26th place, but it was not always the last. For years, the ‘&’ symbol (now known as the ampersand) was the final letter. The symbol was pronounced as “and” but always used together with the Latin ‘per se’ meaning ‘by itself.’ So when rattling off the letters  “X Y Z and per se“ these rolled into being recited as ”X, Y, Z, ampersand.”

Early English did not have a Z, but used S for both the sibilant sounds. Even today the letter is relatively less used in ‘British English’ spellings as compared with ‘American’ English; (it is sometimes an irritant to find all these words underlined by Spellcheck if spelled with an S!)

It is also interesting to browse through the Z letters in tz cartoon.jpghe English dictionary and discover that the majority of the words listed there have their origins in a variety of other languages and cultures. Who would have thought that “ze leetle zee” would have such had such an adventurous history!

I for one enjoy the letter Z. It’s zippy, zappy, full of zest, and helps to create the right buzz!

–Mamata

Year of the Rat

This month has been one of the start of the New Year for several different communities, especially in India, as I wrote earlier. Every culture has its own calculations, myths and legends associated with the annual cycle of time. rat.png

Last week was the Chinese New Year, and the start of the Year of the Rat. The year of the Rat signifies the first year in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac. The years of the Rat include 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, and now, 2020.

The Chinese zodiac is based on a repeating 12-year cycle, with each year signified by an animal, in the following order–Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Those born in a specific year are said to possess certain characteristics of the animal, as defined in the Chinese belief system; and their fortunes are determined accordingly. For example people born in the year of the Rat are supposed to be intelligent, charming, quick-witted, practical and ambitious. They are also likely to be timid, stubborn, greedy, devious, too eager for power, and love to gossip!

Why these animals and why this specific order?  There is an interesting legend linked to this. The story has many versions, but in essence it tells about a race. This is one version.

Once long, long ago, the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in traditional Chinese religion wanted to select 12 animals to be his guards. He sent his messengers to earth to invite all the animals in the world to take part in a race which would end by entering the Heavenly Gate.

Twelve species turned up at the start line: a pig, dog, rooster, monkey, sheep, horse, snake, dragon, rabbit, tiger, ox and rat.

As a reward for turning up, the Emperor named a year in the zodiac after each of these animals, but the race was to determine the order in which each animal would be placed in the zodiac, depending upon the order in which they reached the finish line.

All the animals set off on the course. On the way there was a big river that they had to cross. The Rat had got up and started early, but when it reached the river it felt helpless. But then it saw the strong Ox about to enter the water, so it used its wits and climbed onto the Ox’s head. The Ox was kind and let it ride with him. But as soon as they reached the other side, the wily rat quickly slid down and scampered to the finish line. And so the Rat came first, followed at number two by the diligent Ox.

Tiger and Rabbit were not far behind. Both were fast and competitive, but Tiger was faster and came in third. Rabbit who nimbly crossed the river by hopping on stepping stones and a floating log came fourth.

Everyone thought that the dragon with his magical powers of flight would be in front. But in fact the dragon took a detour to go ashore to help some villagers extinguish a fire. When it returned to the river, it saw that Rabbit was struggling on the log, and so the dragon used its breath to blow it to shore. The Rabbit never found out where the helpful breeze came from, but it finished before the Dragon, who came in at number five.

The Horse wasn’t far behind the Dragon and thought that sixth place was in the bag. However, it hadn’t noticed that the Snake had hitched a ride by wrapping itself around the Horse’s legs to save energy. Just as the finish line was in sight, the snake uncoiled itself and frightened the Horse. The Snake thus slyly slithered to sixth place while the horse came in seventh.

Next up were the Sheep (or Goat in some stories), Monkey and Rooster. They decided to work as a team and made a small raft to help them across the river. When they reached the other side, they dashed to the finish line. The Sheep/Goat reached first followed by the Monkey and the Rooster—ranking at number eight, nine and ten respectively.

That left the Dog and the Pig. The dog was playful and could not help splashing and enjoying itself in the river water while all the others overtook it. It landed up wet and panting to claim the eleventh rank. And where was the Pig? True to its nature, half way into the race it got hungry. So it decided to look for, and eat something to keep it going. But it ate so much that it just had to lie down and nap! When it awoke from its snooze, and made its way to the finish line, all the other animals had long crossed it. The Emperor had almost given up on it, but was happy to assign it the final space in the zodiac.

And so the 12 animals became the Emperor’s guards and were also assigned their place in the zodiac.

There is an interesting Post Script to this story which explains why the Cat is missing from the list. As the tale goes, Cat and Rat were then good friends, and both decided to join the race. But the Cat had a habit of waking up late. So, fearing he might miss the grand race, he asked the Rat to wake him up the next morning. The Rat, however, forgot his promise and left without his best friend.

Alas, when the Cat finally woke up, it was already too late, and he did not make it to the race on time. Hence, there is no year in the Chinese zodiac named after the Cat. And, this is why, until this day, the Cat will always hunt the Rat!

Here’s to the Year of the Rat!

–Mamata

 

OK Boomer!

It is the story over generations—the older generation that cannot help lapsing into the “when I was your age…” line, and the younger generation with their hidden smirks and “here they go again” line. This year there are two words that sum up the feelings—OK Boomer!

Who or what are boomers? This is the name that was given to the generation that was born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. This was the period marked by a baby boom following World War II. In several parts of the world this generation also enjoyed higher incomes and standards of living as compared to their parents. It was a generation that also had some surplus from their hard earned income to spur a surge in consumerism.

Following the baby boomers was Gen X, the generation that was born in the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s. Gen Xers as they were called sometimes called the “latchkey” generation, where both parents either worked, or children of single parents as  more and more women joined the workforce. This generation was perceived by the boomers as being cynical, slackers and drifters.

Then came Gen Y, also called the millennials–a phrase used to generally describe a person who reached adulthood in the early 21st century, and covers the generation of people born between 1980 and 2000.

Now we have Gen Z the generation reaching adulthood in the second decade of the 21st century; in other words those born in the 2000s. A generation also described as iGeneration (iGen), Gen Tech, Gen Wii, Net Gen, Digital Natives, and Plurals.

Today, we often have all the four generations in coexistence and interaction, each with their very distinct histories, experiences and perceptions about life and times. No surprise then that each generation perceives the other very differently, each one articulating the issues of the ‘generation gap’ in their own way. For Gen Z, anyone not in their teens are simply relics from the age of the dinosaurs. For the dinosaurs, the young twenty-somethings are a species apart. The war of opinions and words about the ‘appropriateness’ of attitudes are lifestyles is articulated by the elders in long lectures. But the new Gen needs only two words to sum up their take on this—OK Boomer!  Younger people are calling older people (or anyone who disagrees with their beliefs or are deemed uncool) boomers.

The term “boomer” now represents older people from a different generation that just don’t get it, or anyone who disagrees with their beliefs, or are deemed uncool. A boomer is someone who is intolerant to new ideas and who is ignorant to new ideas.

The term originated as a meme on the social media platform TikTok, and gained popularity throughout 2019. The OK Boomer meme really started out as a fun, light-hearted joke,but soon became viral and was used generally in a humorous and ironic way to describe or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people.

So the next time someone from any Gen preceding Gen Z dares to express concern about the up-and-coming generation as inexperienced or naive, be prepared to have an “OK Boomer” coming at them. And remember that the OK isn’t an endorsement, but just the opposite that means Not OK! Till the next gen takes over!

–Mamata

Welcome Tenants

birdTwo weeks ago that I looked up from the road, I saw a largish structure on my roof. Intrigued, I went up to try to figure out what this large mud structure was. I first thought it was the hive of some kind of wasp. But looking at the parapet below the nest, I noticed some bird droppings. And it did not take too much mental work from there on to figure out it was a bird’s nest.

But ‘which bird?’ was the next question. Using conventional bird books, it is not easy to go from nest to bird, I realized. And since I had not sighted the bird, I could not go through that route. I knew it was probably a swift or swallow, so I googled based on that. And kind of figured out it was a Red-rumped Swallow, but could not be quite sure till a bird-watcher friend looked at the nest and confirmed it.

I haven’t met my tenants yet, but bird books assure me that they will be 16-17 cms in length, with generous amounts of rufous-orange on their wings and underparts, and forked tails. They will feed almost entirely on flying insects, catching them on the wing, at a height of up to 100 metres or so.

The amazing ‘encroachment’ on my terrace must have been built by both adults who would have collected mud as pellets in their bills, and worked for 5-15 days to build the flask-shaped nest with a  tunnel-like entrance. They would have lined it with soft grass and feathers.

I suspect the nest was built in the last mating season—between April and September, and 4-5 eggs may have been laid. They would have incubated the eggs for about 2 weeks, and the chicks would have been ready to fly out of their secure home in 26 days.

I missed all that.

But my bird-watcher friend has assured me that these birds tend to re-use their nests for a few years, so I hope to see them this spring!

–Meena

Harvest Season

This is thanksgiving week in many parts of India. A week of festivals marked with celebration and gratitude for nature’s bounty that feeds and sustains us. With the winter season drawing to a close, it is time to reap the harvest of the long months of labour and prayers. Lohri in north India, Pongal in south India, Makar Sankranti in the west, and Magh Bihu in the northeast of the country celebrate the harvest with joy, festivities, and food.

Interestingly, in many other parts of the world, it is autumn, before the winter sets in, that is the season of harvests.  In America Thanksgiving weekend is marked by families joining hands in gratitude over sumptuous meals; in Japan generations of poets and painters have tried to capture the spirit of the annual cycle of seasons in Haikus and brush strokes. Other parts of the world have their traditional ways of marking the cycle of sowing and reaping. Increasingly, as more of the world’s population moves from direct links with the soil to urban life, we seem to revel more in the food and festivities related to these festivals, often forgetting these very elements of nature—sunlight, air, water and soil–that make all life possible.

This week also marks the start of a new calendar year, and the start of the period when the sun begins its northward journey. A good time to give thanks for what has made all this possible, and a reminder to value and cherish every new morning.

This poem by Mary Oliver captures the sentiment beautifully.

 Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver was an acclaimed and award-winning American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with the natural world in an age of excesses of modern civilization. She died, almost exactly a year ago, on 17 January 2019, at the age of 83.

–Mamata

A Traffic Jam of Nobel Laureates

Harvard is on top of the pile of institutions when it comes to Nobel Laureates, with 56 currently on the faculty and 160 being associated with the University at some stage of their careers, either as students or faculty. Cambridge University comes second, with 120 Laureates being associated with it; University of California at Berkeley third with 107, followed by University of Chicago at fourth place with a round 100.

I imagine that at any of these places, the probability of bumping into a Nobel would be quite finite.

However, such a possibility is pretty remote in any city or town of India. Until last week, at Bangalore ….

January 3 saw Prof Steven Hell address the Indian National Science Congress held in the city. Prof. Hell is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. The next day saw Prof Ada Yonath address the same gathering. She is a protein crystallographer who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Both of them stressed the need for scientists to be open minded and for scientific research to be independent.

54E03126-F55D-4DF3-8810-88E1D954EA78January 4 was also the day when Profs Abhijit Banerji and Esther Duflo were in conversation with Manish Sabarwal at the Bangalore International Center, and demystified RCTs, or Randomized Control Trials, the body of work which got them their newly minted Nobels. RCTs are an experimental method to do research on developmental issues like education and poverty, to find what can really be effective to solve the problems, and hence can help policy making.

January 7 saw the 1998 Economics Nobel, Prof Amartya Sen in the city,  felicitating the winners of the prestigious Infosys Prize. Speaking at the event, Prof Sen said ‘There are deep links between friendship and knowledge. Our intellectual horizons expand when we learn from each other.’

January 15 will see Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Chemistry Nobel with Prof Ada Yonath (above) and Prof Thomas Steitz for research on the ‘structure and function of the ribosome’ speak on Science and Society, once again at the Bangalore International Center.

It doesn’t rain, it pours!

Lucky Bangalore, to hear all these messages. And what a great unity in the underlying messages…the importance of evidence-based research, of the need for research to be independent and unbiased, the crying need to base policy on research, and the importance of cooperation and a barrierless world.

—Meena

 

 

SLEEP OVER IT!

It’s the age of startups! Every day one hears of enterprising young 20-somethings making their first million with an innovative product or service that people today lap up with enthusiasm.

I recently read about a number of such ventures that are literally cashing in on sleep (or the lack thereof!) Online mattress brands! In these times when the millennials have too much stress, too little time, inability to get a good night’s sleep, but the ability to afford quick-fix solutions and products, there are smart operators who combine all this into successful commercial ventures. With inviting names like Wakefit, Wink and Nod, Sleepycat and Sunday Mattress, these offer “sleep solutions”. And attractive “offers” from free home delivery and installation, free trial and return, to “sleep internships”, and customised recommendations of the best fit based on an analysis of the customer’s age, height, weight and location!

ripImagine needing so much help to get a good night’s sleep! I have grown up in an age when mattresses had very different connotations. Mattresses were filled with cotton, and were usually of the same size and thickness. Often this cotton was carded by hand by itinerant carders who established camp at the house for a few days marked by the twang of their simple tools, and fluff-filled air. The cotton was filled in covers, stitched in with strong thread, and then beaten heartily with sticks to even out the lumps and bumps. All this done with dexterity and the long experience of a traditional occupation. With mechanisation, these occupations were replaced with neighbourhood shops where the same process was done by a simple machine. Now one took one’s old mattresses there to be opened and redone, with dire warnings that the cotton within was not to be mixed up with any other inferior variety!

This was an exercise carried out every few years. The annual exercise was the sunning of the mattresses. This was a traditional ritual, generally after the rainy season and before Diwali when the strong sun took away the dampness and made the cotton swell. The wonderful smell and feel of freshly-sunned mattresses was guaranteed to induce the cosiest slumber; without any ‘scientific’ testing to arrive at the perfect ergonomic formula.

Furthermore, in addition to supporting the large numbers of family members, most households had a stack of spare mattresses, and quilts. These were stored carefully; many traditional houses had a special space and arrangement for this. They were taken out when guests arrived, and when there were family gatherings like weddings. Over time, as families, and houses grew smaller, and people’s mobility increased, the stacks of mattresses decreased. Then the market began to offer ready-made mattresses, introducing other materials like foam and coir. It became easier to go to a shop and order the one best suited from the limited options available. The familiar childhood mattresses remained at the family home with the parents, to be slept on when visiting them. And as time moved on, and life got faster, the new breed of urban nomads had not the time nor space to go the shop to buy a mattress. Life became so stressed and so frenzied that sleep also became a sought-after commodity. And voila, the market was open for online sleep solutions!

I do appreciate the needs of the times, as well as admire the enterprise to meet the needs. But it also makes me grimace and smile! Belonging as I do to a generation of ‘home-made’ cotton mattresses, I have also inherited several of these. I try, in my own way, to follow some of the annual air-and-sun traditions. And I am grateful that I still get a good night’s sleep without any external help!

–Mamata

 

2020 is here!

vision chartWell, years come and go, so what is so special about 2020?

Nothing really, except that it is the start of a new decade. And 20/20 is symbolic—understood in common parlance to stand for perfect vision! 2020, a few decades ago, also stood for some far-away date, by which the world would be perfect–a happily ever after year. No particular reason for this, that I can see. Maybe simply because it was an easy-on-the-tongue alliterative year? Or maybe because of the pharmacological implication?

But what is 20/20 vision?

Actually, it denotes clarity of vision—visual acuity, to state it in slightly more ‘ophthalmological’ terms! To explain in layman terms, 20/20 is simply your ability to read a particular line on the eye chart from a distance of 20 feet. The size of the letters on one of the smaller lines near the bottom of the eye chart (or Snellen chart, after the Dutch doctor who developed this system in 1862) is standardized to correspond to “normal” visual acuity — this is the “20/20” line. If the letters on this line are the smallest you can identify, you have normal (20/20) visual acuity. The increasingly larger letter sizes on the lines on the Snellen chart above the 20/20 line correspond to worse visual acuity (20/40, 20/60, etc.). If you can read lines with smaller letters below the 20/20 line, then you have better than 20/20 vision (e.g., 20/15, 20/12, 20/10). The single big “E” at the top of the eye chart corresponds to 20/200 visual acuity. Legal blindness is when this is the smallest letter size someone can read even with corrective lenses.

Vision is more than visual acuity or eyesight. In addition to clarity of sight, “vision” is all interactions between the eyes and the brain, and all neurological processes that take place in the brain to make the sense of vision possible.

Here are some of things we envisioned would happen by 2020:

VISION 2020 was a global initiative that aimed to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. It was launched in 1999 by the World Health Organization along with over 20 other international non-governmental organisations, I am not sure how well it has succeeded. (https://www.who.int/blindness/partnerships/vision2020/en/)

Closer home, India’s Vision 2020 was a document prepared by the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) of India’s Department of Science and Technology under the chairmanship of Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and a team of 500 experts, which set out a plan to change the country by 2020. In Dr. Kalam’s words the objective of the plan was “Transforming the nation into a developed country, ..based on India’s core competence, natural resources and talented manpower, for integrated action to double the growth rate of GDP and realize the Vision of Developed India”.

The reality is here for everyone to see—even those who don’t have 20/20 vision!

Well, be that it may, let us pray not only for 20/20 vision in 2020, but also that our reality is closer to our vision!

So that these are indeed visions, not dreams!

-Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 2020—To a Year of Peace, Prosperity and Plant Health!

farmerThe UN General Assembly has declared 2020 as the International year of Plant Health. The purpose of this is to ‘raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.’ (http://www.fao.org/plant-health-2020/en/)

Plants are the basis of all food chains—in that sense, all life on earth depends on plants for food. And as important—plants give us the oxygen we need to sustain life on earth. The role of plants and trees in regulating climate cannot be over-emphasized. So in very truth, plant health is fundamental to food security and environmental sustainability—the very basis of PEACE and PROSPERITY.

Yet, we don’t pay attention to keeping plants healthy. And that is why the UN has thought of declaring a special year for this.

As we step into the new year and are in the mood of making resolutions, here are a few related to plant health:

  • Ensure that the you minimize use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in your gardens and lawns. This is essential for long-term health of soil and plants.
  • Avoid transporting plants and bio-products across borders while travelling, as these can become pests or lead to major pest attacks in alien ecosystems.
  • Grow local plants, and support locally grown and local vegetables, fruits and other produce.
  • Buy organically-grown produce.

And while we are on the subject, a tribute to one who worked in the area of plant health all his life.

Dr. HY Mohan Ram was one of India’s pre-eminent botanists. He taught Botany in Delhi University for over 40 years and guided over 35 doctoral students. He wrote textbooks, popularized science, was an eminent planner and science administrator. He recognized the importance of reaching out to young people in inculcating scientific temper. To quote: ‘A demanding but satisfying assignment taken up by me was as Chairman of the Committee for the preparation of biology textbooks for Classes XI and XII, sponsored by the NCERT.’ He mentions the goal of such an endeavour as inculcating in the student ‘a spirit of enquiry, creativity, objectivity, the courage to question, aesthetic sensibility and environmental awareness’. India owes him a huge debt–he was guru to generations of India’s botanists in one way or the other.

Another dedicated botanist-environmentalist is Seema Bhatt. And her message is for aspiring women field scientists: ‘I have often worked in situations where I have been the only woman—a fact that has never bothered me. I have never been made to feel any different. I mention this to emphasize the fact that being a woman should not deter anyone from choosing a career like this.’

May we make and keep many resolutions to contribute to a better world!

–Meena

 Quotes from: ‘Walking the Wild Path’. CEE.