Lumps and Bumps


I was just thinking about the amount of time we spend worrying about lumps and bumps on our skin and other surfaces, those seen and those unseen. Parents worry about rashes, boils, sties and other sundry outbreaks on their children’s skin. Teen years are spent worrying about acne, pimples, blackheads, whiteheads. Tumours, cysts and polyps occupy significant mindspace in old age. And through all our living years, moles and warts are a part of life.

What on earth are these things? Here is a quick overview.

Rashes are any area of irritated or swollen skin. They involve changes in colour, feeling or texture of the skin.  They are often itchy and painful and can appear red, purple, grey, or white.

Boils are painful, pus-filled bumps that form under the skin when bacteria infect and inflame hair follicles. They usually start out start as reddish or purplish, tender bumps. The bumps quickly fill up with pus, growing larger and more painful until they rupture and drain. If that sounds bad, a carbuncle is worse. Carbuncles are a cluster of boils that form a connected area of infection under the skin.

A stye is an  inflamed oil gland on the edge of the eyelid, where the eyelash meets the lid. It appears as a red, swollen bump that looks like a pimple, and is often tender to the touch.

And here are the ones which trouble us during adolescence.

Acne is when hair follicles under the skin become clogged. Sebum—oil that helps keep skin from drying out—and dead skin cells plug the pores. Most often, the outbreaks occur on the face but can also appear on the back, chest, and shoulders. Acne is the generic name which includes pimples, zits, etc.  

To be specific, pimples are small pustules which develop when the oil glands become clogged and infected, leading to swollen, red lesions filled with pus.

Blackheads are also a type of acne, but different from pimples. They are open bumps on the skin that fill with excess oil and dead skin. They look as if dirt is in the bump, but it is irregular light reflection off the clogged follicle that causes the dark spots.

Whiteheads too are acne and occur when oil and dead skin close off hair follicles or oil glands. But they form closed bumps on the skin.  

Moving on from teen-woes, here are lumps and bumps we worry about as we grow older:

Tumours are solid masses of tissue that form when abnormal cells group together. Tumours can affect bones, skin, tissue, organs and glands. Many of them are not cancer but they still may need treatment. 

Polyps are tissue growths that most often look like small, flat bumps or tiny mushroom-like stalks. Most polyps are small and less than half an inch wide. A polyp can be flat, raised or on a stalk. Uterine and colon polyps are the most common, but it is also possible to develop polyps in the stomach, ear canal, nose, etc.

Another type of lump is a cyst which is a small pocket of tissue filled with air, fluid or other substances. Cyst maybe caused by genetics, inflammation, infection or other issues.

And the ones that are age-agnostic:

Warts are small, noncancerous growths which appear when the skin is infected with one of the many viruses of the human papillomavirus (HPV) family. The virus triggers extra cell growth, which makes the outer layer of skin thick and hard in that spot.

Moles are small dark brown spots and are caused by clusters of pigment-forming cells (melanocytes). Most people have 10 to 40 moles that appear during childhood and adolescence and may change in appearance or fade over time.

That was a yucky one! But yucky is part of life!


It Takes Guts!

‘Gut Ecology’ is the name of a book brought out by the St. Marks Academic Institute which is dedicated to ‘advancing scientific knowledge of colorectal disorders’. I think the book, which features topics like ‘The gut microflora: traditional and molecular identification techniques’, and ‘The ‘unculturables’’ deserves to be a bestseller. Not that I would understand the contents, but I have to admire the dedication and scientific spirit it takes to spend a lifetime researching and writing on such topics! Guts indeed!

But what exactly would the book be about? Let’s break it down. Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with the environment around them. An ecologist studies the relationship between living things and their habitats. ‘Gut’ is commonly used to refer to the stomach, entrails, parts or the whole of the digestive tract. So a ‘gut ecologist’ would study the insides of our digestive tract to understand the micro-organisms (collectively referred to as gut microbiota) that live there, and how they interact in our digestive system.

For very long, the presence and role of micro-organisms in our body was not known. It was in the 1670s and ‘80s when Antoine van Leeuwenhoek started using his newly developed handcrafted microscopes that scientists started studying them. Leeuwenhoek described and illustrated five different kinds of bacteria present in his own mouth and that of others, in a letter he wrote to the Royal Society of London in 1683. He later also compared his own oral and faecal microbiota, and proved that there are differences in micro-organisms in body sites. (See why I say it takes guts to be in this field!)

Gut bacteria
Gut bacteria

Now we know that the human gastrointestinal tract—from mouth to anus– is divided into sections, and each provides a different environment and different kinds of micro-organisms thrive in each section. In all, about 100 trillion micro-organisms (most of them bacteria, but also viruses, fungi, and protozoa) exist in the human gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the colon contains the highest microbial density recorded in any habitat on Earth, representing between 300 and 1000 different species. There are actually about as many bacterial cells in our bodies as there are human cells, and they contribute over a kilogram to our weight! So Stewart Brand, the American writer, environmentalist and editor of the highly influential Whole Earth Catalogue was right when he said, ‘If you don’t like bacteria, you’re on the wrong planet.’

These organisms are such an integral part of the functioning of the human body that they are sometimes called ‘the forgotten organ’.

A foetus has no bacteria at all in the system. Through the process of birth, it picks up a good number, and then in the first few years of its life, the child picks up a huge number of different bacteria from its environment. Fascinatingly, like fingerprints, a person’s gut microbiota composition is unique to each individual.

These micro-organisms influence our energy metabolism and many other areas of human health, from immunity and the progress of diseases, to appetite, to nutrition uptake, and even personality! They therefore greatly influence our health, well-being, weight etc.

External factors influence the composition of these micro-biota but by changing our diet or fasting can change the composition of these life-forms in our systems, in a matter of days or weeks, and this is why it is important to pay attention to what we eat. This is also the reason why medical science is increasing focus on  prebiotics and probiotics. If like me, you are confused about the two terms, here are simple definitions:

* Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the “good” bacteria (normal microflora) in the body.

* Prebiotics are foods (typically high-fiber foods) that act as food for human microflora. Prebiotics are used with the intention of improving the balance of these microorganisms.

Kudos to the scientists who work so hard to help us understand our bodies and their functioning, ready to spend their lives poring over microscopes to figure out how we can live healthier and better!


Bridge-building Women

The recent tragedy of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi in Gujarat has brought into focus a lot of information on bridges and news reports are filled with engineering terms related to bridges.   

While the blame game is on about who was at fault—engineers, contractors, civic authorities, or just the uncontrollable rush of holiday makers, it is perhaps a good week to go back and understand a little about early bridges and bridge builders. And to discover that one of the first patents for a chain-suspended bridge in England was filed in 1811 by a woman! This was Sarah Guppy an engineer, inventor, campaigner, designer, reformer, writer, environmentalist and business woman, in a period when it was unthinkable that women could be anything except wives, homemakers and mothers.

Sarah was born in 1770 in a wealthy merchant family of Birmingham. It was a period when the industrial revolution was shifting the largely agrarian economy of England towards mechanized manufacture. In 1795 Sarah married Samuel Guppy, a rich Bristol merchant fifteen years older to her and settled into family life in Bristol.    

As per the societal norms of the time, women were expected to keep house and raise children. Sarah largely conformed to her role (she went on to have six children), but she was far from docile and dull. Sarah was exceptionally well-read, talented and creative; she and her husband were part of a Bristol social set that included mercantile and innovative people. Among their friends were Thomas Telford a road and tunnel engineer, and the family of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was one of the most versatile engineers of the 19th century, responsible for the design of tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships. He is best remembered for his construction of a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Coming into contact with such people sparked Sarah’s interest in the science and craft of engineering, and triggered in her creative mind the desire to herself invent engineering solutions.

Sarah was an early advocate of a suspension bridge in Clifton, and was engaged in preparing models of a bridge that could span the river Avon, a project that had long been debated and discussed. Her idea was to work on a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge, and she made drawings for the same. Her son Thomas was GWR’s principal engineer, and she gave the design and plans for her bridge over the Avon to Brunel.

When her youngest daughter was just a year old, Sarah applied for a patent for a way of piling foundations to create a new type of suspension bridge. In March 1811, she obtained a patent for ‘erecting and constructing bridges and rail-roads without arches or sterlings, whereby the danger of being washed away by floods is avoided’.  What was noteworthy was that Sarah became the first woman ever to patent a bridge. Even more noteworthy that this was in a period when married women could not even own property in their own name. This included patents which were considered to be intellectual property which could have some value.

The patent had no drawings and no detailed information as to how the bridge was actually to be built. However her designs provided the blueprints for Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge and Thomas Telford’s Menai Bridge. When Telford approached her for permission to use her patented invention, she reportedly waived the fees, but managed to claim credit for its design.

Sarah’s inventive mind did not stop with that. She developed a devise to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls, and sold the contract to the British Navy. She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees. Even as she played her role as homemaker, she came up with innovations. She designed a bed that could also be used as a gym with steps and bars for exercising; and a coffee urn whose steam could be used to boil an egg and at the same time keep the toast warm. An all-in-one breakfast hotplate! She was even granted a patent for this in 1812. In all Sarah took out ten patents, a remarkable the late Georgian and early Victorian period.  

Sarah was not just ahead of her times in her engineering prowess. She wrote and presented schemes for a wide range of issues including animal welfare, education, agriculture and horticulture. She also wrote a book for children, and founded a charity school for girls. 

Bridging the span across continents, and across nearly a century, this is a good time to remember Shakuntala A. Bhagat—India’s first woman civil engineer. Shakuntala was born on 6 February 1933. Her father S.B. Joshi is regarded as the Father of Bridge Engineering in India. She was just 20 years old when she got her civil engineering degree from VJTI in Mumbai, the first woman in India to do so. From 1954-1956 she went to West Germany and UK for practical training, and went on to get her master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She returned to India to join IIT Mumbai as assistant professor in 1960. She went on to become Head of the Heavy Structures Laboratory at IIT.

Shakuntala was more than an academic. She pioneered many innovative structural designs, especially for bridges. She and her husband designed and patented an innovative prefabricated modular system known today as the Quadricon Modular Bridge System. This is a series of prefabricated mass-produced modular bridge steel parts, small and lightweight enough to make transport easier for builders. They can be used in different types of bridges, different spans, traffic widths, and loads, all they had to do was change the combination of the assemblies.

Shakuntala Bhagat was awarded the Woman Engineer of the Year Award in 1993.  She passed away in 2012, a century after the first patent for a bridge was awarded to Sarah Guppy. She left behind a lasting legacy of over 200 Quadricon bridges around the world (including 69 in India) in terrains that challenge engineers even today.

Recently the Government of India announced the establishment of the Indian bridge management system to collect information on bridges. This would certainly be enriched by adding information on the pioneers who designed and built bridges.   


Spider Art and Science

In India this is the time of year when “spring cleaning” takes place. In the run up to Diwali, homes are thoroughly aired, dusted and cleaned, and every nook and corner cleared of dirt and cobwebs. Just as this frenzy of cleaning activity has begun, I read a news item that in one of the most famous art museums in the world, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the cleaning crew had been given an  order “No vacuum cleaners and no dusters”. They had been given special instructions not to clear, or even slightly disturb, a single cobweb inside the gallery for the last three months. In fact, the Museum Curator takes a round every week to check that all crevices and corners have adequate cobwebs!

This preparation has been the prelude to an exhibition titled “Clara and Crawly Creatures” which will open to the public from 30 September 2022. The exhibition explores how perceptions of insects in art and science have changed over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, lizards, insects, and spiders were associated with death, and with the devil in European culture, but the exhibition notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a re-imagining of the role of insects after the microscope allowed artists and scientists to appreciate beauty that wasn’t always so obvious.

The exhibition prominently displays Albrecht Dürer’s 1505 painting of a stag beetle, its pincers raised. The exhibits take one through the history of how insects have been perceived over the centuries by artists and scientists who have been fascinated by the beauty and ingenuity of these small creatures. The culmination and the highlight of the exhibition is a dark room which has a huge installation by artist Tomas Saraceno– made from silk woven by four spider species that he houses in his studio in Berlin. In fact Saraceno emphasizes that it is not him, but the spiders who should be recognized as the artists.

Attention is also drawn to the uncleared cobwebs in the rest of the gallery by An Open Letter for Invertebrate Rights, written by Saraceno and placed next to one of the webs in which he makes a strong case for coexisting with creepy-crawlies rather than viewing them as pests. Saraceno, who allows spiders to thrive in his own home, suggests that it is humans who are living in the spiders’ world rather than the other way round. As he puts it: “Spiders have been on the planet almost 280 million years and we humans only 300,000. With this letter on invertebrate rights, we say: ‘Hey look, spiders have the right also to come to the museum, spiders are around you’.”

Tomas Saraceno, the person, also breaks all the traditional perceptions of ‘artist’ and ‘scientist’. Trained both as an architect and a visual artist Saraceno’s works demonstrate a stunning intermeshing of art, physics, biology, astronomy and engineering. Saraceno is also an environmental activist who is constantly exploring   new, sustainable ways to inhabit and sense the environment. In 2015, he achieved the world record for the first and longest certified fully-solar manned flight. In the quest for more sustainable ways of living he has worked closely with indigenous people as well as with renowned scientific and technological institutions.

Among all his other passions and accomplishments, Saraceno is an ardent ‘arachnophile’—an advocate for spiders and their ingenious airborne lifestyle, and spiders’ webs that inspire a lot of his work!  As he often reminds us: “Somehow, when people talk about spiders, they forget that some spiders weave webs; [in fact,] they’re very dependent upon their multifunctional webs that provide shelter, protection, food and, when vibrated, a means of communication.”

The multi-functionality of the web, as well its unique structure, can be attributed to the incredible spider silk which it produces and uses not only to spin its web but which has multiple functions. Any individual spider can make up to seven different types of silk, but most generally make four to five kinds. This is produced in internal glands, moving from a soluble form to a hardened form, and then spun into fibre by the spinnerets on the spider’s abdomen.

The sticky silk prevents the prey from slipping off the web, and is useful to wrap and immobilize the prey once it is caught. The spider used the long strands or draglines as a safety line, to keep itself connected to the web; these are also used for parachuting or ballooning to help the young to disperse and find new areas as food sources; they also act as shelter for the spider. The chemical properties of the silk make it tough, elastic and waterproof. Each strand which is finer than the human hair is believed to be five times stronger by weight than steel of the same diameter, and thus has an incredible tensile strength. No wonder then, that Tomas Saraceno can use it for his installations!

Spiders are master engineers, gifted with amazing planning skills and a material that allows them to precisely design functional webs, which they create in a mind-boggling variety of patterns. Saraceno sees the web as vital for the life of a spider. “The web is a tool for a spider to sense what’s around them—it’s part of their body, almost. Some spiders are blind, or some spiders have eyes but their vision is very bad. They also don’t have ears—they can’t hear. They feel vibrations on their web to understand what’s going on around them. I wanted to build something that allowed a human to be inside the mind of a spider.”

It is this that drove his first major show in the United States called Particular Matter(s). This included a giant spider web installation that enabled humans to experience (in a dark room) the vibrations around them, as a spider would.  

Saraceno was born in Argentina but currently lives and works in Berlin, and exhibits in different parts of the world. He is much more than an artist. He is a passionate social and environmental justice warrior. His mission, he feels, is simply to get humans to understand that they are not the top of a pyramid of power in what is called the Anthropocene era, but exist on a horizontal plane with all non-humans, to which they should be sensitized and from which they have plenty to learn. He advocates for what he prefers to call the Aerocene era in which interspecies-cooperation and clean air are required.

The exhibition that opens this week is yet another reminder of this message and its urgency. In India the first week of October is celebrated as Wildlife Week when the spotlight is usually on the more charismatic and larger mammals and birds. Tomas Saraceno’s mission to celebrate the less visible but vital members that make up the much larger proportion of ‘wildlife’ is a timely reminder that in the web of life, each and every strand is critical.


Engineering Woman Power: A. Lalitha

15 September is celebrated as Engineering Day in India to mark the birth anniversary of M Visvesvaraya, one of India’s greatest engineers who made a vital contribution to the field of engineering and education. Visvesvaraya is best known for designing one of India’s first flood protection systems, construction of dams and reservoirs, and setting up one of the first engineering institutes in the country, the Government Engineering College, now called University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

Today there are hundreds of engineering colleges in India and tens of thousands of students, both boys and girls, compete to gain places in the best of these colleges. While the idea of a woman pursuing engineering is not uncommon today, the way had been paved by spunky pioneers who took on numerous challenges in a different time and circumstances. This is a good day to remember one of these women—A. Lalitha.

Lalitha was born on 27 August 1919 in a middle class Telugu family, one of seven siblings. Her father was himself an engineer, and fairly broad-minded, but societal norms and expectations took precedence over personal beliefs. Thus, as was the norm in those days, while Lalitha’s brothers were supported in pursuing higher studies, the girls in the family were educated only till the primary level, and then married off. Lalitha herself was married at the age of 15. But her father ensured that even in her new life she could continue to study till she completed class 10.

Sadly Lalitha’s married life was short-lived. Her husband passed away when she was just 18 years old. Lalitha had recently become a mother to a baby girl. Now she was a young widow with a four-month-old daughter, living in a society where widows were shunned and relegated to a life of isolation and austerity. This is where Lalitha’s fighting spirit led her to quietly start breaking the first of many barriers.

She moved back to her father’s house with a strong resolve to study and get a professional degree so that in future she could become self-reliant. Her father supported her decision, and Lalitha cleared the intermediate exam from Queen Mary’s College in Madras. This was the first step to moving ahead.

At the time there were women who were studying medicine. But Lalitha felt that a career in medicine would not leave her sufficient time and attention for her young daughter, who was her priority. Living in a family of engineers, this was an option that came to her mind. At that time technical education was itself in a nascent stage in India, and the idea of women entering this field was unheard of. No institute was admitting women. Once again, her father Pappu Subbarao helped to open a door for his daughter. He was a professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering (CEG) in Guindy, and he put up a special request to the then Principal of CEG Dr KC Chacko, that his daughter be permitted to take up an engineering course. He also put forward the appeal to the Director of Public Instruction, RM Statham. Luckily, both these officials were forward thinking and were agreeable to opening admission for a woman for the first time in the history of CEG. Lalitha applied for the electrical engineering course.

Thus Lalitha became the only girl in a college with hundreds of boys. But as accounts go, she never felt uncomfortable there. Accommodation in a separate hostel was arranged for her, while her daughter was looked after by her brother’s family; Lalitha visited her every weekend. While Lalitha was comfortable and happy in her classes, she missed having company in the hostel. Once again her father encouraged the authorities to open admissions for more women. In response to the advertisement two more women—Leelamma George and PK Thresia joined in the civil engineering course the following year.

As per the government rule then, engineering students had to put in four years of academic work and one year of practical training before they could graduate. Lalitha completed her practical training with a one-year apprenticeship at the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, a major repair and overhaul facility. 

Lalitha received her Bachelor of Engineering degree in 1943. Although they were technically junior, the three women engineers graduated together. Interestingly, the degree certificate of CEG had to replace the word He with She for their first three women graduates! 

Having already crossed several hurdles, Lalitha was ready to start a new phase of life as a professional. However she continued to give priority to her daughter Shyamala and looked for work opportunities which would not compromise her care. She accepted a job offer as an engineering assistant at the Central Standards Organisations of India, Simla. This was suitable as she was able to live with her brother’s family which offered support and care to her daughter. After two years in this job, she moved to Chennai work with her father helping him with his research which had led to several patents. This was intellectually stimulating, but financial pressures led Lalitha to find other work. She moved to Calcutta to work in the engineering department of Associated Electrical Industries. Once more her second brother and his family provided a home for her daughter. 

Lalitha got the opportunity to put all her education to practice, and gained experience and expertise. She worked on large projects, including the upcoming Bhakra Nangal Dam, which was then to be the biggest dam in India. Her tasks included the designing of transmission lines, substation layouts, and protective gear. Her brilliance and abilities began to gain national and international attention.

In 1953, the London-based Council of Electrical Engineers invited her to be an associate member. Visiting a British factory as an Indian woman dressed in a sari attracted a lot of press attention. She later became a full member. In 1964 she was invited to the First International Conference of Engineers and Scientists in New York. She was the first Indian woman engineer to attend. Lalitha subsequently became involved in several international organisations for women engineers. In 1965 she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society of London.

Lalitha continued to work with Associated Electrical Associates (later taken over by General Electric Company) until she retired in 1977. She also lived with her sister-in-law in the same house in Calcutta for 35 years.  Throughout her career she championed the idea of women in STEM careers. Her daughter Shyamala followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying science and maths, and making a career in teaching maths. In an interview her daughter summed up the essence of her mother’s work and life: “What I take from her life is her extreme patience towards people and the quality of doing instead of just talking. She believed that people come into your life for a reason and leave when the purpose is over.”

Not long after retirement Lalitha suffered from a brain aneurysm and passed away at the age of 60, in 1979. Today as many girls take up engineering as a career, most would not know about the grit and determination of a woman who helped pave the way. A. Lalitha—a young widow, dedicated single mother, a brilliant student, a path-breaking professional clad in a sari, who did not need to wear power suits to break the glass ceiling. 


The Whispered Wisdom of Podcasts

I am slow to adopt most things new. And so it was with podcasts. I was pretty skeptical of the audio medium as a means of learning. Being fully old school, for me, the ‘read word’ was the major source of both learning and recreation.

My conversion to podcasts is fairly recent. The audio system that I was using during my walks to listen to music on broke down, and that was when I decided to explore podcasts. And what a world it has opened up to me! Not just walks, but also car-rides and flights have become much more enriching. But I have to admit, while my default state is to sit around the house with a book in my hands, I am not as yet able to sit around with a podcast plugged into my ears. I feel kind of guilty and unemployed. But I am sure the day will come…

While the raw beginnings of podcasting are traced back to the ‘90s, the medium really came into its own in the mid-2000s. The first steps were laid in 2004, by Adam Curry  a former MTV video jockey, along with a software developer Dave Winer, when they coded a program known as iPodder. This made it possible to download internet radio broadcasts to iPods. Within a year, commercial companies realized the potential and with Apple as the first mover with iTunes 4.9, started to offer support for podcasts. Politicians were not far behind—George Bush became the first President to have a weekly podcast as early as 2005. The speed with which the innovation caught on can be gauged by the fact that   “Podcast” was declared “Word of the Year” by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Today tech-savvy India has the third-largest podcast listenership in the world. At  57.6 million listeners, it is behind only China and the US, and growing at a rapid 30+%.

I listen of course to the usual suspects, from Stuff You Should Know, to Ted Talks Daily, to BIC Talks, to The History of India Podcasts, to No Stupid Questions, and 99% Invisible.

Aryabhatta, India’s first Satellite

But the podcast that moved me most, which inspired and fired me was MISSION ISRO. This series traces the history of India’s space programme, essentially through the work of Dr.Homi Bhabha and Dr.Vikram Sarabhai. These two men had not only the vision, but the scientific stature, the international standing and the conviction to overcome all barriers to make this dream a reality. How they convinced the decision-makers in the country that a newly-independent country like India, which was struggling to even feed its people, needed to invest in space, and how they convinced the world that India had the capacity to make this work, is a fascinating tale.  And the vision of the then-PM, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed in the use of science and technology for national development is what made this possible. The clarity of the philosophy of the Indian space programme set by the founding fathers—that it was not for warfare and aggression, but rather, to bring development to the remotest corners of India and to the poorest—is what sets our space programme apart even today.

The refusal of Dr. Sarabhai and Dr. Bhabha and their teams to be deterred by any obstacles– whether lack of equipment, permissions, know-how—is awe-inspiring. The innovative ways they found to get around challenges, to make do with the resources they had, to find supporters and partners, in order to accomplish Mission Impossible brings home the lesson that a clarity of purpose and the belief that it can be achieved will move mountains.

Researched and scripted by Archana Nathan, produced by Gaurav Vaz, Harsha Bogle’s voice brings the podcast to life. The enormous effort in getting interviews with key people who were involved in the space programme and hearing them relate the stories of those times is amazing. And hearing Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s voice sent goose bumps down my spine!

Don’t miss it. It gives us an understanding of our history and achievements from times which today are dismissed so easily. It gives us an understanding of what visionary nation-building is and the mettle that visionary nation-builders are made of.


A Beauty With Brains: Hedy Lamarr

From Hollywood to Bollywood, a beautiful face is what defines the world of cinema and glamour. And along with that, the clichéd belief that beauty and brains inhabit two different worlds, “and never the twain shall meet!”

I recently read about a movie superstar who combined a career in films with a lifelong passion for invention. This was Hedy Lamarr who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The First World War had just begun. Hedy was the only child of her Jewish parents. Her father was a Bank director, who adored his daughter and encouraged her curiosity. They often took long walks and he would discuss with her the working of different mechanical objects—from printing press to street cars. Hedy’s young mind was fascinated with the mysteries of machines. When she was five years old she took apart and reassembled her music box to find out how it worked. Her mother was a concert pianist who introduced her daughter to the arts; and she started ballet and piano lessons from a young age. Hedwig thus grew up in an environment that nurtured both her scientific as well as artistic temperament. She was also endowed with stunning looks.

Before the young girl could further explore her scientific interests, it was her beauty that attracted the attention of a film director Max Reinhardt who invited her to Berlin to study acting. She got her first small role in a German film when she was just 16 years old. In 1932, her role in a controversial film Ecstasy, drew wider attention to Hedy as an actress.

In 1933 she married Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. It was an unhappy alliance; Hedy felt trapped under her husband’s total control, and in her role as hostess to his circle of friends who included unscrupulous businessmen and members of the Nazi party. But even as she played the beautiful wife and hostess, Hedy’s sharp mind was following the dinner conversations and absorbing knowledge of arms and ammunitions.

Desperate to escape the stifling life, she managed to reach Paris, disguised as a maid, and then made her way to London in 1937. An introduction to Louis B Mayer of the famed MGM Studios was the stepping stone to Hollywood. Hedwig transformed into the European beauty Hedy Lamarr, who charmed American audiences with her accent, and mystical grace.

Hedy soon found herself in the famous Hollywood social circuit. Among the many illustrious people she met was Howard Hughes. Hughes was a high-flying American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist. The two became good friends. Hedy’s attraction to Hughes was not so much for his wealth and name, but for his interest in innovation that appealed to her bottled-up inventive streak. Hughes took Hedy to see his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind process. He also recognised Hedy’s passion for the mechanical and encouraged her in this. He gifted her a set of equipment that she kept in her trailer on the film sets and tinkered with between takes. She continued to have her own ‘inventing table’ at home.  Hughes shared with Hedy his dream to make faster planes that he could sell to the US military. Hedy got deeply engaged in the project, researching fish fins and bird wings to understand how they were designed for maximum speed and efficiency, and she made engineering sketches for a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Howard Hughes was very impressed with the designs, and called Hedy a “genius”.

Hedy Lamarr continued to live two parallel lives as it were. She was a celebrated Hollywood star in public, but was also a tinkerer and inventor who often spent evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She claimed that “improving things comes naturally to me”. Rather than star-studded parties she enjoyed being among a small group of friends discussing ideas.

It was at the start of the 1940s when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II that Hedy felt the strong urge to put her innovative mind to work overtime. One story goes that her Jewish mother who had managed to escape from Austria to London was waiting to cross the Atlantic to the US, and at the time the American ships were in danger of being torpedoed by the enemy forces. Another version is that Hedy was deeply disturbed by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while on board ships intended to take them to safety.

She knew that the Nazis were hacking the radio systems of the Allies ships so that they could track and attack them. Hedy drew upon her knowledge of war weapons to work on inventing a remote controlled torpedo, and develop a method to improve the United States’ weak torpedo guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution—but the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time were ineffective in escaping Nazi surveillance. She worked to create ‘a secret communication system that could not be hacked’. The system utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time.

Hedy worked on this system with an unlikely partner. This was music composer George Antheil who was known for his experimental compositions. Antheil, like Hedy, was an inventor at heart. As the war loomed the two began sharing concerns, and once when playing the piano together, the idea of the extraordinary new communication system emerged. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. And thus Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. They were awarded a Patent in August 1942, but the US Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The Patent remained  classified until 1981, and during that time was only used in military technology such as sonar or satellite communications. Lamarr was disappointed, but she continued to support the war efforts of her adopted country by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She became an American citizen in April 1953.

Hedy Lamarr continued with her passion for invention, and even till she passed away at the age of 85, she was inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde, and a new kind of traffic light, among many others.

It is believed that Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping innovation was the forerunner of today’s wi-fi technology and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. Difficult as it is to relate a famous movie star and acclaimed musician with the same technology that now brings movies and music to our very fingertips.

Hedy Lamarr’s name will always be primarily associated with her beauty on the silver screen. But so much more interesting and inspiring is her other side that illustrates that beauty and brains can coexist productively. As her son said after her death, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”


Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.


Celebrating Slimy

You would have been exhorted to vote for Parliamentary and your State legislature. You would have been urged to vote at your college elections for your Union rep, or in your housing society for office bearers. . You are routinely encouraged to vote for your favourite participant in some reality show or other.

But have you ever voted for a mollusc?

Well, that is what researchers in Germany are asking you to do! Experts from Senckenberg Museum, Loewe-TBG and the worldwide society for mollusc research (Unitas Malacologica) have put together a shortlist of five molluscs, and the one that gets the most votes is crowned Mollusc of the Year!

And the prize? Well, a bit sad for one representative of the winning species, which will be euthanized, and its cells burst to extract its DNA, which will then be sequenced. But happy news for the rest of that species and molluscs in general, as hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

Why the song and dance? Why can’t the experts just decide which mollusc they want to study and go ahead? Well, essentially, the competition is a way to raise awareness about molluscs. And boy, do we need our awareness raised! The very title of this piece which is propositioned on the world ‘slimy’, is an indicator of the lack of awareness. Our perception of moullscs as slimy creatures comes from our encounters with snails and slugs. But these are just a few species of the over 1,00,000 known mollusc species. Slime is NOT one of the characteristics of that the phylum, unlike the common perception.

Molluscs are the largest family of invertebrates after arthropods, with fossil records going back over 550 million years. They span in size from the microscopic to 45 feet; can weigh up to 750 kgs; can live from hours to centuries—the longest-lived one is known to have survived over 500 years. There are species which live on land and water, both fresh and salt. They inhabit every continent and ocean.

Snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, cuttlefish and chitons are all molluscs. All of them have soft bodies which typically have a “head” and a “foot” region, and often their bodies are covered by a hard exoskeleton.

These creatures have played a significant role in the lives of humans. At one level, they have been a source of protein down the ages; pearls are of course a coveted gem; mollusc shells have been used as money at many times and in many parts of the world. At the same time, some species are serious pests of crops, have destroyed ships at sea, and have led to economic devastation. 

Though there are so many species of molluscs and they are so wide-spread, very little is known about them, either to the general public, or even to scientists. And that is why the competition is important—to create a widespread awareness of this set of creatures which are such a large part of our living world; and to enthuse scientists in their work to study them.

Coming to the specifics of the competition, the five contenders this year are:

Painted Snail
Painted Snail

Tustiaria rubescens, the Barge-footer, also known as the tusk or tooth shell. They live in both the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting muddy bottoms, normally offshore.

Telescopium telescopium, the Telescope Snail lives in mangrove forests along the Indian Ocean including parts of the coasts of Pakistan, Goa (India), Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Madagascar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Vietnam, and  Papua New Guinea.

Cymbulia peronii, the Sea Butterfly, is a species that has been reported from all oceans around the world. These 6 cm wide animals have a gelatinous shell which looks like a transparent slipper. They also have what looks like two wings which enable them to “fly” through water columns.

Polymita picta, the Painted Snail is an endangered snail. known for its colourful shell and the ‘love dart’, a device to stab partners during mating to transfer ‘sexual hormones’. It is found only in Eastern Cuba.

Teredo navalis , the Naval Shipworm is a clam which looks like a worm. They are also called shipworms, as they used to eat through the hulls of wooden ships. They are said to have eaten through Columbus’ ships and stranded him in Jamaica! They are found throughout the tropics and subtropics. 

The competition (this is the second edition) closes today, 15 March. So hurry to and cast your vote to support research which will help us understand our living planet better.


Magnolia Lady Janaki Ammal

Whenever I write a piece about plants, one of the things that interests me is how the plant got its botanical name. In many cases the nomenclature includes the name of the scientist which was associated with the discovery or study of the plant. Most of the names are western. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about a plant that is named after an Indian botanist, and that too a lady! This plant is a variety of the magnolia and is named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

The story of Janaki Ammal herself is fascinating and inspiring. And her contribution to plant sciences covers a wide and impressive range of achievements.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on 4 November 1897, in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a large family consisting of 19 children from two wives, and Janaki grew up amidst numerous siblings, in a home environment which had a well-stocked library, that included scientific and literary journals, and a well-tended garden. Her father had a keen interest in natural sciences and kept abreast with developments in the sciences. He also wrote two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. From an early age Janaki herself had an avid interest in the natural environment, and a scientific temperament.

It is this that decided her further academic studies after she finished school in Tellicherry. At a time when women (including her sisters) were married off at a young age, Janaki chose to move away from home in pursuit of higher education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College. After graduating, she taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras. It was then that she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship for Asian women to study in the United States. She travelled to America to join the University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar in 1924 and earned her Masters of Science degree in 1925. She continued her work which focussed on plant cytology and breeding of hybrid plants to earn her doctorate in 1931. She was the first Indian woman to receive this degree in botany in the US.

Returning with a doctorate from the US, Janaki returned to teaching as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, from 1932-1934. She then joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore. At the time, India was importing sugarcane. Although India also produced a lot of sugarcane, it was not as sweet as the imported one. The Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore had been set up to carry out research to improve the quality of sugarcane grown in India. The work of two scientists there, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman, especially in cross-breeding different varieties was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Ammal joined these scientists at the research institute in 1934, and started her research in sugarcane. Her cytogenetic research of sugarcane, and her experiments with cross-breeding and hybrids led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India. Janaki faced many professional and personal challenges as a highly educated unmarried female scientist in a male-dominated institute where, despite the “science”, a patriarchal and traditional mind set prevailed with respect to gender and caste. 

In 1935, she was selected as one of the first Research Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences set up by the Nobel laureate CV Raman.

In 1940 Janaki went to England and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London as an assistant cytologist. England had just declared war on Germany; Janaki worked through the bombings and blackouts, often, it is reported, diving under her bed at night as London was bombed, and going to her lab in the morning to clear the broken glass and debris from the previous night’s bombing, while she continued to focus on her research.

Janaki worked closely with the geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington for five years. The two collaborated to write the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is a key text for plant scientists even today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about breeding and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley in a paid position as a cytologist. Janaki became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations was a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. This was named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal in her honour, and continues to bloom in Wisely even today.

Janaki returned to India in the early 1950s at the request of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Her brief was to “improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture”.

She was appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 to collect and survey India’s flora, under the supervision of Britain’s Kew Gardens.

It was during this period that Janaki found herself looking beyond pure research and realising that in the race for increasing food grain production, the country was losing vast tracts of forests and valuable indigenous plant species. She was also distressed that despite Independence the system of plant collections and research remained colonial in mind set and practice. She was also keen to revitalize and indigenize botanical surveys.  After spending decades applying her research skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. She began to speak of the value of indigenous cultures and the important role of women in preserving and cultivating local plants, which were being threatened by mass production of cereals. 

Janaki was among the pioneers that foresaw and warned of the threats to the fragile ecosystems in the race for ‘development’. She continued to speak out about this till the end of her life. At the age of 80 she vociferously opposed the proposed hydroelectric plant in Silent Valley in Kerala that would have threatened the unique biodiversity of a pristine evergreen tropical forest. Her voice as an eminent national scientist was respected, and was contributory to the scrapping of the proposal.

Janaki Ammal continued her distinguished public career in many important government postions: She headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She worked as an officer on special duty at the regional research laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and had a brief spell at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. In November 1970 Janaki decided to settle down in Madras where she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. Her research work continued unabated, with special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued her research at the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras and kept on publishing her work until her demise in February 1984.

A lifetime of pioneering work by a woman well ahead of her times. But whenever she was asked about her life, all she had to say was “my work is what will survive”. An unassuming woman who lived a simple Gandhian life, married to her work, and her first and life-long love for plants. A brilliant mind who made her own choices and forged her own path in her pursuit of knowledge. A trial blazer who “sweetened the nation and saved a valley”—Janaki Ammal.