Sighting Snowflakes In Bangalore

I came out of my house one evening and the green grass was sparkled over with hundreds of what-looked-like-snowflakes. And as I lifted my head to look up, I saw thousands of transparent winged seeds snowing down from the trees all around. It was a magical sight.

My housing complex has a large number of African Tulip Trees, and these were the sources of the ‘snow’. This native of Africa’s tropical forests (Spathodea campanulata) is an invasive species in some parts of the world, but fortunately does not seem to be a problem in India.

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For a few months, these trees were in bloom, clusters of bright orange flowers, each individual flower the shape of a tulip. The trees used to be a riot of colour and sound, with the dozens of birds which came to sip the nectar from the flowers. Then these flowers turned to seeds—when mature, these are brown and woody. And now the seedpods are bursting, releasing the 500 or so seeds that each pod has. Each seed is tiny and covered in a transparent polythene-like covering, which floats down lazily to the ground. And at this stage too, there are birds that visit the tree-yesterday I saw a parakeet feasting on the seeds and releasing the empty cases to float to the ground.

68811143-005D-42A1-BBF5-06B5CB2BD4A2It was like my textbook coming alive. ‘Seed Dispersal Mechanisms’ is what I think the lesson was called. And it described dispersal by wind, by water, by animals and birds, by ballistic action, etc.

I could only marvel at the tree for producing and sending down thousands of seeds every season. Sadly, for most to be swept away by the gardeners. Presumably, the very large number of seeds the tree has evolved to produce is to make up for the very small probability of any of them actually growing into an adult tree.

I can only hope a few of the ones I have seen this season manage to escape and are able to fly a decent distance away from the attention of gardeners and home owners, and land on un-managed land and fulfil their function!

–Meena

PS: While urging our readers to take all precautions and stay safe, MM will try extra-hard to focus on everything other than Corona during these difficult times. Life is beautiful!

 

So Many Ways to Downtime!

A few days ago a friend said ‘What with everything closed for Corona, it is so dull and boring, wish we could just HIBERNATE.’ Probably a sensible thought, except that given the temperatures outside, it would be aestivation, rather than hibernation.

3-s2.0-B9780124095489111674-f11167-03-9780444637680AESTIVATION, lesser known cousin of hibernation, is ‘summer sleep’– a survival strategy used by many vertebrates and invertebrates to endure arid environmental conditions. Key features of aestivation, like hibernation (winter dormancy) include significant metabolic rate suppression, conservation of energy , altered nitrogen metabolism, and mechanisms to preserve and stabilize organs and cells over many weeks or months of dormancy. Even more than in hibernation, strategies to retain body water are important in aestivation, as dryness or aridity is the key trigger for the summer sleep.

A surprising number of animals aestivate—vertebrates such as lung fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and certain invertebrates such as molluscs. Bees, snails, earthworms, salamanders, frogs, earthworms, crocodiles, tortoise, etc. are examples of the aestivating animals. The duration of aestivation varies among species–some enter this state for a few months, others for a longer period.

Well, there are other kinds of ‘downtimes’ we can choose from too.

There is BRUMATION, which is the equivalent of hibernation for reptiles. Mammals hibernate and reptiles brumate, but there are other differences too. During hibernation, a mammal is sleeping and does not have to eat or drink. But brumation is not true sleep and the reptile still needs to drink water. A brumating reptile may have days where it will wake, show some activity, drink water, and then go back to its dormant state.

Or we can take the option of TORPOR, which involves lower body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and metabolic rate. But unlike hibernation, torpor is an involuntary state that an animal enters into as the conditions dictate. Also unlike hibernation, torpor lasts for short periods of time – sometimes just through the night or day depending upon the feeding pattern of the animal. During their active period of the day, these animals maintain a normal body temperature and physiological rates. But while they are inactive, they enter into a deeper sleep that allows them to conserve energy and survive the winter.

Or there is DIAPUASE, a form of developmental arrest in insects that is much like hibernation in higher animals. It enables insects and related arthropods to circumvent adverse seasons. Winter is most commonly avoided in colder areas, but diapause is also used to avoid hot, dry summers and periods of food shortage in the tropics.

Now, which one do you prefer?

–Meena

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colour Me Blue

As we celebrate Holi, the Festival of Colours, here is a piece on the hues that brighten our lives.

And, in keeping with the mood of International Women’s Day, it references M.S. Subbulakshmi, doyenne of Carnatic music, and a path breaker.

Happy Holi, Happy IWD!

Last week I was reading an old-fashioned novel, where the hero’s sidekick was wearing a taupe coloured suit. Not being quite sure what ‘taupe’ was, I looked it up, and learnt that it is a dark brown colour between brown and grey and that the name originates from the French taupe meaning mole (the animal).  The name originally referred to the average colour of the French mole, but since the 1940s, its usage has expanded and blurred to mean anything greyish brown or brownish grey.

Names of many colours are derived from nature. Fuchsia was named for the colour of the flowers on the fuchsia plant, itself named for Leonard Fuchs, a 16th-century botanist. The word orange comes from the Old French orange, from the old term for the fruit pomme d’orange. The French word, in turn, comes from the Italian arancia, based on Arabic nāranj, derived from the Sanskrit nāraṅga. An inter-connected world indeed!!!!

Teal is a bluegreen colour whose name comes from that of a bird—the common teal (Anas crecca)—which presents a similarly coloured stripe on its head.

‘Puce’ is also one of the nature-colour names, but with a particularly yucky background. Puce is the French word for flea. The colour is said to be the colour of bloodstains on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings, or after a flea has been crushed. Strangely it was one of Marie Antoinette’s favourite colours!

People too have lent their names to colours.

‘Mountbatten Pink’ is a naval camouflage colour close to greyish mauve. It was first used by Lord Mountbatten during World War II. When he noticed a liner ship of the colour seeming to disappear from view in the early morning light, he felt it was a good colour for naval ships to render them difficult to see at dusk and dawn, and so started applying them to his naval ships.

‘Alice Blue’ is a pale shade of azure blue, much liked by Alice Roosevelt daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, which sparked a fashion sensation in the United States.

MSBut for a South Indian like me, the most important person-colour association has of course to be ‘MS Blue’, said to be a favourite of legendary singer M.S. Subbalakshmi.  This colour became synonymous with her after she started wearing Kanchipuram silk saris of this shade at her concerts. These were specially made for her by Muthu Chettiar, a weaver from Madurai. The savvy businessman that he was, he carefully regulated supplies to ensure enduring demand from Madras high society ladies!  It has been clarified that MS Blue is not peacock blue but ‘mid-sea blue’.

Continuing on the theme of blue, the colour of 2020 (Yes, they announce a colour for every year! A good source of income for the interior design and fashion industries) is PANTONE 19-4052 Classic Blue whose properties include instilling ‘calm, confidence, and connection’. Additionally, it is claimed that ‘this enduring blue hue highlights our desire for a dependable and stable foundation on which to build as we cross the threshold into a new era’.

Another interesting fact I learnt was that research by several academics including linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay has revealed that if a language had only two terms for colours, they were always black and white; if there was a third, it was red; the fourth and fifth were always green and yellow (in either order); the sixth was blue; the seventh was brown; and so on.

–Meena

National Science Day

28 February marks National Science Day in India–it is the day in 1928 when Sir C. V. Raman discovered the Raman Effect. For his discovery, Sir C.V. Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930.

The discovery of the Raman Effect itself happened at Calraman effect.jpgcutta, but Bangalore was also Sir Raman’s ‘karma bhoomi’, in that he worked at the Indian Institute of Science from 1933 till his retirement in 1948, after which he founded the Raman Research Institute in the city, and continued working there till his death in 1970.

So on this Science Day, here is a little information on one of the exciting science education venues coming up in Bangalore. Science Gallery Bengaluru, under construction in Hebbal (not too far from IISc and the Raman Research Institute), ‘will be a dynamic new space for engaging young adults at the interface between science and the arts’. The under-construction centre anticipates a footfall of about 40,000 people a year, with a focus on 15-­25 year olds. It is a multi-stakeholder collaboration, including Govt. of Karnataka, Trinity College UK, Indian Institute of Science, etc.

Scheduled to open in 2021, the Science Gallery is already active, having put up several events including ‘Submerge’ a major exhibition on Water.

And keeping with the theme of Science Day 2020 which is “Women in Science”, the Executive Director of the Science Gallery is Dr. Jahnavi Phalkey, a historian of science and technology.  The Board is chaired by Dr. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, and includes Dr. Geetha Narayanan.

Bodes well for Science and Women Scientists!

Let us hope that the Science Gallery will help to infuse young people with the spirit of what Sir CV Raman said: ‘Ask the right questions and nature will open the doors to her secrets.’

–Meena

The Sparrow and The Peacock

Whesparrown I was growing up in Delhi, house sparrows were very much a part of our lives. They were everywhere, and by the dozens. In fact, most children of those times got their first nature lessons by watching sparrows—the sex differentiation, how they built their nests, the eggs hatching and the parents feeding the young, their mud-bathing etc.

Everyone loved them, but that is not to say they did not give us some headaches. In the summers, they would fly into the house, and it was a mad scramble to switch off the fans and shoo the birds out before they were hit by it and died. And mothers would keep long sticks handy to chase them when they showed signs of making nests in the fan-cups.

For many years now, sparrows are not to be seen so easily. Now, the recently published ‘State of India’s Birds’ assures me that I need not worry because the population of sparrows has been stable in India for the last 25 years. I believe it, because the report is the result of a collaboration among ten of the most respected research and conservation organisations in the country. But I do know that the population has significantly declined from say 35 years ago. And I do wish I would see more of chirpy little birds.

The report also says that the population of peafowl has increased manifold. This may be attributed, it is being said, to the spread of aridity in the country. This is not all good news, as peacocks come into cultivation and eat up growing shoots, causing harm to crops.

The report identifies 101 bird species as needing special efforts for conservation, including specially raptors and water-birds.

The report is a landmark in Indian conservation efforts, because it provides good quality baseline data, which can help shape conservation efforts and their monitoring. It is also unique in that it is based on data collected by citizens across the country–10 million observations collected by over 15,500 birdwatchers across the country. Truly participatory and truly large scale. And the fact that hard-core research organizations are guiding the effort, gives authenticity to the data and findings.

Knowing is the first step to acting. Now we know to some extent what we should worry about. Time to act now!

–Meena

Monkey at My Window

Yesterday, the results of the Delhi election were declared. Aam Aadmi Party romped home with a thumping majority.

And this is a piece about monkey business, not politics. (This is a statement of fact. Nothing tongue in cheek).

If so, then why start the piece by talking about politics?

Because monkeys taking over parts of Delhi including Parliament and high government offices is often in the news. And there was a statement made by an AAP MLA that “Monkey problem never became a poll issue”! In spite of that, the issue was serious enough that before the Assembly elections, the Delhi government planned for a census of monkeys in the city, for area-wise identification and tackling of the issue. They have roped in Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the country’s premier research institution on the subject.

So it is not like monkeys and elections don’t have a link. How could I resist the temptation?

monkeyAnyway, to get to the matter on hand. For the last month or so, a group of Rhesus Macaques has been visiting our small office in Bangalore every once in a few days. The first reactions were of course ‘so cute’, and ‘shall we give them biscuits’. But as days went by, and the visits became a regular feature, they became bolder. They sat outside the door and snarled when we went to shoo them away. Several times they entered the office. And a few days ago, one of them snatched a tiffin box, went out, enjoyed the contents, and threw away the box.

The erosion of natural habitats is pushing wildlife including monkeys out of their homes. Where do they go except to cities? And our cities are very conducive for certain species. For instance, in the case of monkeys, our unorganized disposal of food and organic waste, and lack of garbage system lead to plenty of food being available, and they thrive.

 

Many means have been tried to keep monkeys away. In Delhi, Langurs were actually employed by the government to visit offices turn by turn and scare the Rhesus monkeys away, till this was stopped as it raised concerns about cruelty to animals (i.e., the Langurs being put to work). Following this, the government is hiring people who can mimic Langur sounds, and they go around doing this, with some success in keeping Rhesus away. A few days ago, there was a news item that Ahmedabad Airport was deploying a man dressed in a bear costume to keep away monkeys. In Bangalore, vegetable and fruit vendors often have large stuffed tigers on their carts for this purpose. (This is what we are going to try in our office too!).

Delhi has also tried translocating monkeys to forests and protected areas. But that obviously has its limits in how many can be accommodated. Himachal Pradesh has spent large sums on sterilization programs, but experts question the efficacy. Now, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has launched a programme with the help of National Institute of Immunology and Wildlife WII to develop a new immuno-contraception technique which will inject a vaccine to prevent female monkeys from getting pregnant. Some experts feel this is the way forward. But when this will be ready, how it will be deployed at large scale across the country, and whether it will ultimately work at scale are questions that remain.

In the meantime, the fundamental solutions remain the age-old ones: (1) vigorously prevent the destruction of natural areas, forests and habitats, and (2) manage waste better.

Not like we don’t know the answers. But …

-Meena

 

 

Swollen-headed

CBCA14C8-CCB2-4EE8-BE0A-E137CB978119At 11.11 by the clock, on the 11th of November every year (pretty palindromic, isn’t it?), at Mainz Germany, the Fools’ Constitution is proclaimed from the balcony of the Osteiner Hotel. This marks the start of the City’s Carnival, which is characterized by people wearing oversized papier-mache heads roaming around the crowds. It seems that this practice started about 80 years ago, but I could not find references as to why “schwellköpp” or ‘swollen-heads’ are an integral part of the festivities.

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Equally mysterious to me is why shops these days have “schwellköpp” mannequins. I really can’t see why anyone would want to buy garments modelled by such weird looking dolls. I know it is all about attracting attention, but surely, there could be better ways to do this than having swollen-headed guys with multi-coloured hair? Fortunately, all the schwellkopp mannequins I have seen have been male. I fear female versions would be really too much.

The practice of using mannequins to model clothes goes back to 15th century France, but those were miniatures. The use of full size dummies started in the 18th century, and these were made of wicker. Later, mannequins were made of wire-work. In the mid-19th century,  papier-maiche dummies took over.  Today most of these figures are made of fibreglass or plastic.

Mannequins are also used by artists (lifeless figures hold a pose much longer than live models!). They have sundry other uses, for example in crash-testing and in testing defense equipment.

The use of these dolls in medical education dates back to the 17th century where ivory manikins were used by doctors as a teaching aids. Even today, medical simulation mannequins are used extensively in education and for teaching first aid.

I can only hope these mannequins are normal-headed. I would hate my doctor to have been trained on a schwellkopp!

–Meena

Wisely, Towards Spring

D268048C-DD39-4287-B9B7-279D6073FAE4Basant Panchami went by last week. The mustard fields of Punjab must have been a riot of yellow, but my own little shrub was beautiful too!

Basant Panchami falling 40 days before Holi, marks the transition towards spring. As always, the festival is celebrated differently in different parts of the country. In some parts of India like Bengal, and even as far afield as Indonesia, it is marked as Saraswati Puja. Apart from the fact that it is the time of flowering of many plants like the mustard which has yellow flowers, the colour yellow marks this festival because of its association with Saraswathi, Goddess of Learning.

I could not really find what the exact association of Basant Panchami with Saraswati is (being a Tamilian, I celebrate Saraswati Puja during Dusshera). But I did come across one very interesting story linking the two.

The story of Kalidasa is well known. He lived in a country with a princess renowned for her intelligence and wit. The princess set the condition that she would marry only the man who answered a series of questions she put to him. Many a man—king, prince, warrior, commoner—tried and failed. The people of the country were fed up (and a lot of male egos probably smarted). A bunch of them decided to teach her a lesson. They set up the village idiot for this. They knew the questions, and tutored him as to how to respond to them—basically not to open his mouth and exhibit his ignorance, but simply show hand signs.

The ruse worked and Kalidasa married the princess. (Actually, he was not called Kalidasa then, but acquired the name later). It did not take the princess long to figure out that her husband was a dolt. She threw him out.

Depressed, he wandered about. In most versions of the story, he went and prayed to Kali in a temple, and she blessed him with brilliance and wit and eloquence (Maybe on behalf of Saraswati? Or asked Saraswati to bless him with these attributes?). There is however a lesser known version of the story that he was kicked out of home and hearth around Basant Panchami, and on the day of Panchami, he tried to drown himself in the Ganga. Saraswati saved him and endowed him with her blessings. Thanks to which he went on to become Sanksrit’s greatest playwright, giving the world such gems as Abhijnanashakuntala , Vikramorvashi , Malavikagnimitra,  Raghuvamsha, Kumarasambhava  and Meghaduta.

So happy journey towards spring! May Basant Panchami bring wit and wisdom to all of us, as it is said to have brought Kalidasa.

–Meena

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

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