science & tech dec-feb

  • New method to treat narrowing of arteries
  • Nano Crush ,

In a breakthrough for treating abnormal narrowing of branching arteries, scientists have developed a new stenting technique called ‘Nano Crush’ that offers an easy, long-term treatment for the condition.

The technique, developed by a team of doctors at Fortis Hospital, Anandapur in Kolkata was presented at the European Bifurcation Club meeting held in the Netherlands recently.

The treatment of stenosis or abnormal narrowing at the branching points of arteries is a major challenge for interventional cardiologists.

Traditional stents placed at such points often compromise one of the branches. Existing treatments for stenosis involve more metal and are difficult to execute.

The Nano Crush technique is an easy and effective method of stenting the branching arteries as it does not affect blood flow in any of the branches and offers a long-term solution, according to the researchers led by Dr. Shuvanan Ray, chief of Cardiology at Fortis Kolkata.

“The classical stenting technique is time consuming, difficult, technically demanding and at times leads to incomplete revascularisation,” said Dr. Ray.

The technique has shown promising results when tested on a sample size of 70 patients.

“We have patients with more than four years follow up and we are confident of the effectiveness of the technique,” researchers said.

“Going by the impressive outcome, the Nano Crush method may be applied widely among patients with stenosis at branching points of arteries,” said Dr. Ray, who led the team comprising of Dr. Prithwiraj Bhattacharya, Dr. Priyam Mukherjee and Dr. Siddhartha Bandhopadhya.


  • Jumping robot to assist in earthquake rescue efforts

An agile jumping robot developed by U.S. scientists who drew inspiration from one of the animal world’s best leapers could one day help in rescue efforts after earthquakes or building collapses.

The robot can jump one metre in less than one second, according to the report in the journal Science Robotics.

Known as Salto, the 26-cm tall robot can leap higher than a bullfrog and almost as high as a galago, or bush baby, a small primate found in Africa. That’s better than a human but not the highest of any robot — other machines have been made that can jump more than three meters in a single leap.

But Salto does hold the crown in vertical-jumping agility, which researchers define as the ratio of the maximum jump height to the time it takes to complete one jump. “To have a high vertical-jumping agility, you have to be able to jump high and do it quickly,” explained Duncan Haldane, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study.

According to co-author Justin Yin, “Salto can jump to a height of one metre in 0.58 seconds and be immediately ready to jump again.”

It also attains 78 percent of a galago’s vertical-jumping agility, said the report.

Salto, which stands for “saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles,” weighs just 100 grams.

The one-legged robot can jump from the floor, flip forward and then kick off a wall, reaching even greater heights.

Researchers hope it will aid rescuers by offering a service that can easily navigate rubble and tough terrain.

“Our goal was to have a search-and-rescue robot small enough to not disturb the rubble further, and to move quickly across the many kinds of rubble produced by collapsed buildings.”

  • India now an associate member of CERN

India on Monday became an associate member of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, after the government completed internal approval procedures on the agreement it signed in November last year.

On November 21, Sekhar Basu, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and Fabiola Gianotti, CERN Director-General, signed an agreement to admit India to CERN as an associate member. But India had to “notify CERN of its final approval for the agreement to enter into force” and become an associate member, which it did on Monday.

“Becoming associate member of CERN will enhance participation of young scientists and engineers in various CERN projects and bring back knowledge for deployment in the domestic programmes. It will also provide opportunities to Indian industries to participate directly in CERN projects,” Dr. Basu had said after signing the agreement last year.

India has been actively involved in CERN’s activities for over 50 years. “Indian physicists, engineers and technicians have made substantial contributions to the construction of the LHC accelerator and to the ALICE and CMS experiments, as well as to accelerator R&D projects,” said Dr. Gianotti in a release.

According to the release, being an associate member will allow India to take part in meetings of the CERN Council and its committees (Finance Committee and Scientific Policy Committee). Indian industry will be entitled to bid for CERN contracts, which will open up opportunities for industrial collaboration in areas of advanced technology. Also, Indian scientists will become eligible for staff appointments.

Cooperation Agreement

In 1991, India and CERN signed a Cooperation Agreement, setting priorities for scientific cooperation. India and CERN have signed several other protocols since then.

But India’s involvement in CERN began in the 1960s with researchers from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, participating in experiments at CERN. In the 1990s, scientists from Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, too got involved.

Researchers from TIFR, Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology and other institutes built components for an accelerator (LEP) and detectors (L3, WA93 and WA89). India was granted Observer status to the CERN Council in 2002.


  • Outrage in China over IUD ‘removal’ — national population policy in China

A few months after Lu Qiumei gave birth to her daughter in 2012, officials visited her home and told her she was required to be fitted with an intrauterine device.

For more than three decades, this was national policy in China. The IUD was the government’s most important tool for limiting couples to one child, and almost all new mothers were required to get one.Ms. Lu considered the demand invasive and potentially harmful to her health. Still, like hundreds of millions of Chinese women, she had one put in.

Now, a year after abandoning the “one-child” policy, the government is hoping to make it up to Ms. Lu and millions of women like her — by removing their IUDs for free. But the offer, made without an apology, has provoked outrage.

While IUDs elsewhere can often be removed with the tug of their strings in a doctor’s office, surgery is usually needed in China because most devices are designed or altered to be more difficult to extract. But many Chinese women have chafed at the thought of the government’s getting involved, yet again, in their private lives. And for many mothers, the offer has come too late for them to consider having a second child. China began demanding that women be fitted with an intrauterine device after they had one child, and sterilised after they had two, in the early 1980s. From 1980-2014, according to official statistics, 324 million Chinese women were fitted with IUDs.

Last year, confronting an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, President Xi Jinping decided to scrap the policy.



  • Looking towards a greener future– Green bonds

Green bonds, which finance environmentally friendly businesses and assets, have emerged as one of the key financing mechanisms driving the global economy’s transition to a greener future. Since the issuance of the first green bond in 2007 by two multilateral development banks (World Bank and European Investment Bank), the green bond market has grown exponentially and is currently pegged at over $180 billion in cumulative issuance. Penetrating markets across developed and emerging economies, green bonds have seen extensive participation from corporates and financial institutions, including sovereign and municipal bodies.

A groundbreaking year for green bonds was 2015. Global markets witnessed currency green bonds and innovative structuring along with maiden green bond issuance in a number of countries. The green bond market was further strengthened with issuance doubling to $81 billion in 2016 from $42 billion in 2015. Supported by market-driven state policies and marked by a rapid growth in green bond issuance in India and China, the Asian market has emerged as a frontrunner in the green bonds space.

Contributing to sustainable growth

India’s green bond market has witnessed a number of critical milestones following Yes Bank’s and India’s first green infrastructure bonds issued in February 2015. A growing number of corporates and financial institutions have leveraged this innovative mechanism to raise capital, attracting foreign investments and inducing momentum in the market. India also witnessed its award-winning first green masala bond (rupee-denominated bond), with the International Financial Corporation raising an off-shore rupee bond on London Stock Exchange for investing in Yes Bank’s green bond, demonstrating how innovations in emerging markets have the potential to capture global attention.

Green bond issuance in the country witnessed a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in 2016, cumulatively amounting to about Rs.18,131 crore (equivalent to $2.7 billion) and making India the seventh largest green bond market globally. These green bonds have been crucial in increasing financing to sunrise sectors like renewable energy, thus contributing to India’s sustainable growth. The Climate Bond Initiative, in its India update, indicated that about 62 per cent of the green bond proceeds have been allocated to renewable energy projects, followed by the low carbon transport sector and low carbon buildings accounting for 17.5 per cent and 14 per cent of the proceeds, respectively. At 2.2 per cent for each, the allocation of green bond proceeds towards water management and waste management has been somewhat limited owing to perceived sector-specific issues as well as due to projects being smaller in size and geographically dispersed.

Indian regulators have shown exemplary foresight in recognising green bonds as a key tool towards financing the nation’s climate change targets and in guiding the development of the green bond market through necessary policies and reforms. In January 2016, the Securities and Exchange Board (SEBI) of India published its official green bond guidelines and requirements for Indian issuers, placing India amongst a select set of pioneering countries who have developed national level guidelines.

In addition to SEBI’s guidance on green bonds, the Reserve Bank of India passed regulatory reforms aimed at strengthening and expanding India’s corporate bond market. The extent of partial credit enhancement provided by banks has been increased to 50 per cent from 20 per cent of the bond issue size, while also permitting banks to issue masala bonds — key moves that will bolster the Indian green bond market.

Expectations from 2017 and beyond

The full potential of India’s green bond market remains untapped, with only a limited number of issuers so far. With increasing interest from the government and market regulators, 2017 is expected to see further developments in terms of innovations and supporting policy and regulatory frameworks aimed at bringing more clarity and impetus to the space.

Further to the interpretation indicated in SEBI’s green bond guidelines on what classifies as ‘green’, there is a need for developing a formal definition of ‘green’ to ensure understanding across sectors. A more descriptive and exhaustive classification from Indian regulators and policymakers in the coming years would be crucial in expanding the green bond market further.

Following global trends, the upcoming year is poised to witness the first ‘blue bond’ issuance (bonds used to specifically finance water infrastructure) in India. Globally blue bond issuances have crossed $10 billion, with India yet to enter the market. Given the rising financing gap in India’s water sector, it is imperative to utilise such innovative mechanisms for water infrastructure augmentation as well.

While credit enhancement has given an impetus to green bonds and will remain crucial, there is a scope for other innovative mechanisms such as securitisation. Many standalone green projects such as roof top solar, energy efficiency and rural water supply still remain unattractive to institutional investors owing to the smaller scale and vast geographical spread. Aggregation and securitisation of such projects could be a welcome move in providing mainstream debt to small-scale green projects.

The recent drive by the Prime Minister to resuscitate the municipal bond market for water supply projects in cities such as Pune and Hyderabad is highly commendable. The Indian government’s ambitious push for smart cities has opened emerging points that may be suitable for private sector participation and may soon culminate into India’s first green muni bond.

With an eventful year gone by, especially the formalisation of the Paris accord at the COP22, 2017 promises to deliver on some of the commitments undertaken globally for green financing. With developed countries reaffirming their $100 billion mobilisation goal per year by 2020 to support climate action in emerging nations, utilisation of green bonds as an effective vehicle to tap into climate funds is anticipated to grow. Collective participation of regulators, policymakers, corporate and financial institutions is going to be crucial in pushing frontiers of green bonds further, unleashing new opportunities in addressing climate change.


  • HIV: The self-test option  – OraQuick HIV self-testing

With the World Health Organisation releasing guidelines on HIV self-testing, a major obstacle in improving access to diagnosis has been cleared. Though much progress has been achieved in India in making HIV testing accessible and free of cost, many infected persons remain unaware of their status. Across the world, nearly 40 per cent of people with HIV are unaware of their infection and run the risk of unknowingly transmitting it. Besides going a long way in preventing new infections, early diagnosis will help in a prompt start to treatment and enable the infected to live longer and healthier. Though there has been a 66 per cent drop in incidence in 2015 in India compared with 2000, the number of new HIV infections last year was 86,000; children below 15 years of age alone account for 12 per cent of this number. In 2015, the total number of people with HIV in India was estimated to be 2.1 million. Of this, 1.5 million were detected and tested at integrated counselling and testing centres (ICTC) and about a million people are on treatment. This leaves about half a million who are unaware of their HIV status. The government has approved in principle the proposal to take HIV testing closer to those in need by starting community-based testing. This will soon become operational and will be in addition to institutional testing. India is also weighing the option of self-testing.

The WHO-approved OraQuick HIV self-testing is based on HIV antibodies present in oral and blood samples. The test can detect antibodies developed within three months of getting infected. It is a screening test, and a positive result should be reconfirmed though a blood-based test. Despite greater awareness, people with HIV still face stigma and discrimination. As a result, getting everyone at risk of HIV infection tested has been a challenge. The OraQuick self-testing makes diagnosis easier and faster, besides ensuring privacy and confidentiality, thus encouraging more people to get tested. But there are challenges in terms of counselling and sensitivity, with the accuracy of the tests pegged at around 93 per cent. Counselling has to be done through innovative ways, such as over the telephone, as in the case of the U.S. Unlike the conventional method of getting tested at ICTCs, people self-testing should be more aware about the possibility of false negatives. But the risk of not getting tested far outweighs the limitations posed by self-testing. Twenty-three countries have in place policies that support HIV self-testing. It is time India adopted it quickly to enable more people to test themselves and help break the transmission cycle.

  • The nowhere people

An increasing number of people globally are facing displacement due to droughts, famines, rising sea levels and other natural disasters caused by climate change. This class of migrants has been labelled as ‘environmental refugees’ in popular literature. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international body reviewing trends of internal displacement, an estimated 24 million people are being displaced annually by natural disasters since 2008. This crisis will make almost half a billion people worldwide “environmental refugees” by the end of the century.

The UN Refugee Convention (1951) grants certain rights to people fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, affiliation to a particular social group, or political opinion. The rights they are entitled to follow principles of non-discrimination, non-penalisation, and non-refoulement. However, people migrating due to environmental disasters have no such recognition of their ‘refugee’ status in international law, leaving them without any basic rights of rehabilitation and compensation. In September 2015, in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, New Zealand reportedly refused a man and his family asylum. Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, who had sought it on the grounds of being an ‘environmental refugee’, lost his appeal before the New Zealand Supreme Court, which rejected the argument that he faced persecution because of climate change, since no such category is listed under the UN Refugee Convention. He was deported to his native island, which regularly witnesses environmental problems including storm surges, flooding and water contamination.

The Paris let-down

The Paris Agreement presented a unique opportunity to set the record straight by addressing the challenge of increasing environmental refugees. Before the negotiations commenced, numerous demands were made to incorporate ways to tackle climate migration in the final agreement. These included recognising the threat posed by climate change to livelihoods and human safety, and environmental refugees or migrants affected by climate change; providing technical and capacity building support to national and local initiatives tackling such displacement; and developing suitable policies to manage loss and damage by addressing climate change-induced displacement. However, the Paris Agreement falls considerably short of these expectations. While some hail this agreement for alluding to the rights of ‘migrants’ in its Preamble, it is an anaemic attempt at appreciating the gravity of this crisis. There is also little follow-up in the text of the agreement to address this problem.

The agreement, in Paragraph 50 of the Loss and Damage section, creates a task force to build upon existing work and develop recommendations for addressing climate migration. But this is meaningless for two main reasons — first, the recommendations of the task force have no binding authority; and second, no details are provided on its functions, operations, funding and other aspects. This ambiguity further erodes confidence in the realistic capability of this task force to effectively tackle climate migration.

The way forward

Almost one year after the Paris Agreement, its significance in displaying collective political will to take meaningful action against climate change cannot be undermined. However, this should not excuse its deficiencies in addressing a burgeoning population of environmental refugees.

The draft of the Paris Agreement discussed before COP 21 provided for a Climate Change Displacement Coordination Facility. This facility was intended to target organised migration and planned relocation of displaced persons, securing emergency relief, and arranging compensation for those displaced — actions more meaningful than those of the task force in the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, this coordination facility did not make it to the final text of the agreement, but it may be worthwhile to reconsider its establishment.

While such a coordination facility can provide short-term support to relocate migrants and rehabilitate them in safer regions, a permanent solution requires an international treaty framework that recognises ‘environmental refugees’ and the obligations of nation states in accommodating them within their territories. We are already witnessing a world that is reactionary towards political refugees. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two events that testify to the underlying paranoia towards immigrants. Ignoring environmental refugees or their status under international law keeps them in legal limbo and endangers their survival.

This scenario can be averted by either expanding the ambit of the existing UN Refugee Convention to include climate migration, or by creating an independent treaty framework addressing the challenges of climate change-induced migration comprehensively. It is also pertinent to mention that while India, the U.S., and China have all ratified the Paris Agreement, there is little discussion on steps to be taken by the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The absence of such discourse is ironic given that the three countries are predicted to suffer tremendously from climate change-induced migration, resulting in large-scale displacement of their own populations. Therefore, it should be in their collective interest to lead efforts on finding an international resolution to this problem before the ensuing harm becomes irreparable.

Ameen Jauhar is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. Views are personal.

  • Morbid Anatomy Museum closes its doors  –  Morbid Anatomy Museum

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, a showcase for unusual taxidermy, natural history specimens and other objects at the intersection of art, science and beauty that opened to much fanfare in Brooklyn in 2014, abruptly shut down on Sunday after the failure of a last-ditch fund-raising effort.

The closing came two weeks after museum leaders sent an email appeal saying they needed to raise $75,000 via memberships or donations or else close in the next several months. As of Monday, that plea had brought in just over $8,000.

“Good press doesn’t pay the rent,” the museum said in a statement on Monday that confirmed the closing.

“Our institution was made possible by an incredible investment from our founder and a dedicated group of early supporters, but we were unable to develop both the broad support from our audience and from grants, gifts and other sponsorship that is necessary for sustainability.”

No success

In a telephone interview, Tracy Hurley Martin, the museum’s chief executive and the founder referred to in the statement, put the museum’s annual budget at about $3,00,000 a year, including $10,000 monthly rent but not what she called the “substantial costs” of developing the space into “a beautiful cabinet of curiosities.” The museum had applied for foundation and government support in the past year, without any success, she said.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of competition out there,” Mr. Martin said. “We just fell through the cracks.”

Celebrating things that fall through the cracks has been the central mission of Morbid Anatomy, which was created as a do-it-yourself intellectual salon in 2008 by Joanna Ebenstein, a freelance writer and curator, and run for years out of a closet-size space near the Gowanus Canal.

After moving to its three-level home behind a black façade on the neighbourhood’s Third Avenue, Morbid Anatomy became a museum. It received official non-profit status in May 2015 and expanded its calendar of popular taxidermy classes and lectures on topics like cryptozoology or skulls in Renaissance comedy.

It organised quirky exhibitions on topics like early 20th-century stage magic and 19th-century anatomical wax models, often drawing on little-seen items from private collections.

What turned out to be the final show, ‘Taxidermy: Art, Science and Immortality,’ featured ‘The Kittens’ Wedding,’ an elaborate tableau of tiny, meticulously dressed felines created by the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, whose work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London but had never been formally shown in the United States.

“I want people to walk in and say: ‘Wow, this is really interesting. Why don’t we know about that? And what does it say about us today that we don’t know about it?’” Mr. Ebenstein once said in an interview, describing the museum’s mission and aesthetic.

  • Jet stream in Earth’s core discovered

Using the latest satellite data that helps create an ‘X-ray’ view of the planet, scientists discovered a jet stream within the Earth’s molten iron core.

“The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites are providing our sharpest X-ray image yet of the core. We’ve not only seen this jet stream clearly for the first time, but we understand why it’s there,” said lead researcher Phil Livermore from the University of Leeds in Britain.

“We can explain it as an accelerating band of molten iron circling the North Pole, like the jet stream in the atmosphere,” Mr. Livermore said. Because of the core’s remote location under 3,000 kilometres of rock, for many years, scientists have studied the Earth’s core by measuring the planet’s magnetic field — one of the few options available.

  • Centre announces Rs 207-crore project for Majuli island  — world’s biggest river island Majuli

A Rs 207 crore project for protection and development of the world’s biggest river island Majuli, located along the river Brahmaputra in Assam, was announced by the Centre on Tuesday.

The announcement was made by Union Minister for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) Jitendra Singh.

“This is a serious effort by the Ministry for the upliftment of the famous scenic island which was recently also declared a separate district,” Mr Singh said in a statement.

The amount earmarked by the Ministry will be spent primarily for safeguarding the land loss due to erosion and to protect the 80 km length of the bank line on the right bank of river Brahmaputra along world famous Majuli island.

Presiding over a meeting of the Ministry of DoNER with participation by the officials of North Eastern Council (NEC) from its headquarters at Shillong through video conferencing, he said it is a matter of pride that the Ministry has succeeded in breaking the jinx of allocated funds remaining unspent year after year, for the last several decades.

Citing figures, he said, out of Rs 2,400 crore allocation for Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR), Rs 1,743 crore have already been spent in the first nine months in the current financial year, which is a quantum jump compared to what it was in the preceding financial years.

Similarly, Mr Singh said, the NEC has already spent Rs 702 crore till now since April 1 in the current financial year, whereas in the last financial year of 2015-16, the total amount spent in the whole year was Rs 760 crore.

The Minister said several out-of-the-box decisions taken over the last one year have contributed to the expediting of the projects and increased spending of funds.

This, Mr Singh said, is borne out by the fact that during the current financial year, so far 99 projects have already been completed out of which 76 fall under NLCPR scheme and 23 under the NEC.

These include projects related to roads, water supplies, education, among others, he added.

  • John Glenn, first American to orbit Earth, passes away at 95

John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died on Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95.

Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalised for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

An American space hero

John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected—flying and politics, and he soared in both of them.

Before he gained fame orbiting the world, he was a fighter pilot in two wars, and as a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record. He later served 24 years in the Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero — a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years and nerves of steel. Schools, a space center and the Columbus airport were named after him. So were children.

The Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit in 1957, and then launched the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961. After two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr. and Gus Grissom, it was up to Glenn to be the first American to orbit the Earth.

“Godspeed, John Glenn,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed just before Glenn thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad, now a National Historic Landmark, to a place America had never been. At the time of that Feb. 20, 1962, flight, Glenn was 40 years old.

During the four-hour, 55-minute flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life — “Zero G, and I feel fine.”

“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview with the Associated Press on the 50th anniversary of the flight. “I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”

Glenn’s ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule had its scary moments. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control was worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. But the heat shield held.

A lifelong love of flight

Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in New Concord, Ohio. His love of flight was lifelong; John Glenn Sr. spoke of the many summer evenings he arrived home to find his son running around the yard with outstretched arms, pretending he was piloting a plane.

Glenn’s goal of becoming a commercial pilot was changed by World War II. He left Muskingum College to join the Naval Air Corps and soon after, the Marines.

Glenn’s public life began when he broke the transcontinental airspeed record, bursting from Los Angeles to New York City in three hours, 23 minutes and eight seconds. With his Crusader averaging 725 mph, the 1957 flight proved the jet could endure stress when pushed to maximum speeds over long distances.

In New York, he got a hero’s welcome at his first ticker tape parade. He got another after his flight on Friendship 7.

For the next four years, Glenn devoted his attention to business and investments that made him a multimillionaire. In 1974, Glenn ran for the Senate again and won.

Glenn represented Ohio in the Senate longer than any other senator in the State’s history. He became an expert on nuclear weaponry and was the Senate’s most dogged advocate of nonproliferation. He was the leading supporter of the B-1 bomber when many in Congress doubted the need for it.

Glenn said the lowest point of his life was 1990, when he and four other senators came under scrutiny for their connections to Charles Keating, the notorious financier who eventually served prison time for his role in the costly savings and loan failure of the 1980s. The Senate Ethics Committee cleared Glenn of serious wrongdoing but said he “exercised poor judgment.”

Glenn returned to space in a long-awaited second flight in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. He got to move around aboard the shuttle for far longer nine days, compared with just under five hours in 1962 as well as sleep and experiment with bubbles in weightlessness.

In 1943, Glenn married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor. They had two children, Carolyn and John David.

The couple spent their later years between Washington and Columbus. Both served as trustees at their alma mater, Muskingum College. Glenn spent time promoting the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, which also houses an archive of his private papers and photographs.

  • ‘War against malaria far from over’

The global fight against malaria is in “urgent need” of more funding, said the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday while releasing the latest World Malaria Report.

According to the report, there were 212 million new cases of malaria and 4,29,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. Further, nearly 78% of Plasmodium vivax malaria cases in 2015 occurred in just four countries: Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on malaria programmes, the U.N. health agency said too many people are missing out on available resources like medicines and bed nets that protect against mosquitoes that spread the disease.

WHO had set a goal of cutting malaria cases to “near zero” by the end of last year. It fell far short, and now is aiming to reduce malaria cases and deaths by at least 90 per cent by 2030. “We’re far from having completed the job,” said Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s malaria department. “The hardest is yet to come.” Dr Alonso added that the gains could be hurt by a lack of funding, which had stagnated in the last six years.

In the report, WHO has also expressed concern about the quality of data: the report said surveillance systems catch fewer than 20 percent of cases. The vast majority cases are in Africa. About 70 percent of deaths are in children under the age of five.

Chris Drakeley, director of the malaria centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that even the incremental drop in malaria cases was significant. He noted that new approaches to fighting malaria like giving out medicines to children during high season to prevent infections were proving effective.

Other experts said WHO should rethink its priorities when it comes to malaria spending. “They’re looking at innovative ideas and investing in new tools like vaccines but they’re missing the basics,” said Sophie Harman, a public health expert at Queen Mary University in London. Ms. Harman also questioned whether WHO’s latest 2030 goal was realistic. “It has symbolic meaning that WHO is still committed to this,” she said. “But probably nobody in public health thinks this is really achievable.”



  • India has just what hyperloop needs– hyperloop transportation system

When Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. (HTT) met Union minister of road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari in the Silicon Valley, Mr. Gadkari mistook him for Tesla Motors Inc.’s founder Elon Musk. Mr. Gresta clarified his identity and now his California-based start-up is in talks with the transport ministry to build the hyperloop transportation system in India. HTT’s system is based on the hyperloop concept, which was envisioned by Elon Musk. It is a new mode of passenger transportation that pushes a pod-like vehicle through a near-vacuum tube at airline speeds. According to Mr. Gresta, India needed such system. He has experienced the country’s transportation problem first-hand when he landed in Bengaluru this month and had to travel by car from the airport. “Oh my God, it was crazy, I took forever. You guys drive like there is no tomorrow,” he said. Edited excerpts.

Why do you want to set up the hyperloop system in India?

India has amazing potentialities right now because it has the right density, the lack of infrastructure and the political willingness to change. This combination of factors could be disruptive in a country that we know would be leading the world in the next few decades. India has everything in terms of the resources and minds. It is a responsibility to embrace innovation because it is the only way to actually fix the problem.

Have you discussed it with the government?

I actually met Mr. Modi (the Prime Minister) in the Silicon Valley and Mr. Gadkari (Union minister of transport and highways). Mr. Gadkari demonstrated a big interest for hyperloop and he also said it publicly. We have had a proposal on his table for a couple of weeks. We had a very long commercial conversation with Mr. Gadkari. He said he wants to do it. He said that he is ready to give us land. So, we have to see if he wants to do it or not.

Considering infrastructure challenges, can it happen in India?

It needs to happen, this is the country that needs it more. How can you fix the problem? It is not building other roads. This system is broken in every possible way. The rails are not a viable way to fix the problem as you see it. They are too expensive and are not profitable and are subsidised by the state. We need a system that can be profitable which is efficient and fast and that is hyperloop and we are ready to build it.

We have read about such systems in science fiction books, how far is it from reality?

We have the technology. We are the only company that owns the trademark hyperloop in 20 countries, including India. We are the only company that has licensed technology tested by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We have the vacuums made by a labelled company that is the inventor of the vacuum pumps. We have all the elements to build hyperloop. We are not inventing anything new. We are putting together technology that already exists. We are doing it in a very smart and efficient way. We can actually build it right now. There is criticism that you will never be able to build it right away. Well, I have bad news for these naysayers. Hyperloop can be built on top of existing infrastructure like rail, highway and can be built (along)side. For example a highway between Pune and Mumbai… Give us the land and we will build.

Globally over a million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes, can this system save lives?

You have to understand 80 percent of the fatalities are caused by human error. We are completely managed by computers and supervised by humans. Our system implements what we call ‘swarm intelligence’ like the ants or the bees. The ants are capable of forming a line and with antennas and pheromones, they are able to communicate almost at the speed of sound. We are using a similar system. The first capsule analyses the tube and communicates to the next one. It is not only capable of controlling the systems through sensors and the mothership but in the case of lost communications, the capsules are intelligent (enough) to react, slow down and stop. You are always able to stop the capsule and evacuate the people safely.

But don’t you think high-speed trains like in Japan and China make more sense?

You have to imagine, in our system, you don’t need an electrified truck on the ground like the high-speed rail that uses too much energy. It costs too much because you have to bring the system to superconductivity. The hyperloop is a very simple system. Imagine you have a capsule full of people and you put it inside a tube. You evacuate the tube from the air so there is no resistance.

Now you can move the capsule at the speed of sound with very less energy. We are using a combination of renewable energy to produce electricity with the solar panel, the wind and the capsule also generates electricity while moving.

Could you give the cost comparison?

We should talk about where you are building it. Are you building it in Switzerland with mountains, bridges and tunnels or you are building it in a desert? But on average you can talk about $40 million per kilometre compared to high-speed train which costs two times (as much) when we are lucky or six times when we are unlucky like in California.

Are you working with any partners in India on hyperloop technology?

We have 25 people working from India as part of our contribution programme. Besides our own employees, we also have a crowdsourcing approach. We have a community of almost 800 people. We have a programme called the hyperloop academy. We want to launch it in India to allow students to join our team and compete on developing and solving tasks related to the real hyperloop.



  • Prototype of super, super computer in 2017

China plans to develop a prototype exascale computer by the end of the year, state media has said, as it seeks to win a global race to be the first to build a machine capable of a billion, billion calculations per second.

If successful, the achievement would cement its place as a leading power in the world of supercomputing.

The Asian giant built the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight machine, in June last year, which was twice as fast as the previous number one.

It used only locally made microchips, making it the first time a country has taken the top spot without using U.S. technology.

Exascale computers are even more powerful, and can execute at least one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second.

Though a prototype was in the pipeline, a complete version of such a machine would take a few more years to complete, Xinhua news agency cited Zhang Ting, application engineer at the National Supercomputer Center in the port city of Tianjin, as saying.

“A complete computing system of the exascale supercomputer and its applications can only be expected in 2020, and will be 200 times more powerful than the country’s first petaflop computer Tianhe-1, recognised as the world’s fastest in 2010,” said Mr. Zhang.

The exascale computer could have applications in big data and cloud computing work, he added, noting that its prototype would lead the world in data transmission efficiency as well as calculation speed.

World leader

As of last June, China for the first time had more top-ranked supercomputers than the U.S., with 167 compared to 165, according to a survey by supercomputer tracking website

Of the top 10 fastest computers, two are in China and five in the US as of November, the ranking said. Others are in Japan and Switzerland. China has poured money into big-ticket science and technology projects as it seeks to become a high-tech leader.

Despite some gains the country’s scientific output still lags behind, and its universities fare poorly in global rankings.



  • Death of a naturalist — IUCN Conference –IUCN Conference 

Peter Jackson’s death last month in England after a prolonged and sad illness went virtually unnoticed in this country. This is a pity given his lifelong association with India and his two signal contributions to nature conservation, one in Haryana and the other in Gujarat.

Jackson came out to India in the early fifties as a correspondent for Reuters and was among the first to report the ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. Subsequently he became Secretary of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, which had been established in May 1950 under the chairmanship of Mahatma Gandhi’s close associate Horace Alexander, with Indira Gandhi as one of the founder-members. She had got interested in birdwatching while jailed in Naini between September 1942 and May 1943. Her father, who was himself then in Ahmadnagar Prison, had sent her the second edition of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds which she read and used both in prison and after.

Protecting the Sultanpur jheel

In November-December 1969, the International Union for Conservation of Nature held its Tenth General Assembly in New Delhi. Over 300 of the world’s biggest names in conservation congregated for the event. Indira Gandhi had made a forceful inaugural address on November 24, 1969. Thereafter, Peter Jackson wrote to her on March 29, 1970: “During the IUCN Conference, I took a number of distinguished wildlife experts and ornithologists to the jheels at Sultanpur in Gurgaon district, about 25 miles from Delhi. They were astonished at the wealth of wildlife and decided on the spot that efforts should be made to have the jheels protected…

“All of us interested in the Sultanpur jheels feel that your interest would add immense impetus to the creation of this Nature Reserve of a kind which few, if any, capitals in the world boast within a short distance.

“We know the heavy demands on your time, but, as you are a founder-member of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, we wondered if you would like to slip away for about three hours one morning to see the Sultanpur jheels…”

Two days later, Indira Gandhi noted on his letter: “I could. How long will the birds be there?”

On April 1, 1970, Moni Malhoutra, her undersecretary and aide on environmental matters, after speaking to Jackson, informed her that the flamingos and pelicans would be around for a few more weeks though the ducks were already beginning to migrate. He suggested that the Prime Minister visit the Sultanpur jheel on Sunday, April 5, 1970, to which she responded the same day in her own hand: “US [undersecretary] seems be innocent so far as security arranged are concerned. I am very much afraid that the sanctuary may be ruined.”

Subsequently, Indira Gandhi sent Malhoutra to visit Sultanpur and brief her. The papers that Jackson had sent her were passed on to the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, who wrote to her on September 25, 1970 that he had initiated action to develop the jheel into a bird sanctuary and a tourist destination. Four days later, she complimented the Chief Minister for the steps he had taken, adding: “I hope one day to visit them [the jheels] myself, quietly and without fuss.”

The sanctuary was notified on April 2, 1971 and the formal inauguration took place on February 6, 1972. Indira Gandhi sent a message: “The development of the IUCN Conference as a bird sanctuary will be widely welcomed by all lovers of wildlife and conservationists. The potentiality of the jheel, which attracts a large variety of birds, was first noticed during the IUCN Conference in Delhi. I congratulate the Government of Haryana for having acted so quickly to preserve and develop this great natural asset. The proximity of the sanctuary to our capital city will make it an obvious tourist attraction for all who are interested in our natural heritage. To the people of Delhi in particular, it will afford easy escape from the monotony of urban life, and the joy of observing some of nature’s most beautiful creatures in their own habitat.”

Abandoning the park plan

Peter Jackson left India in mid-1970 and joined the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. But he kept up with India regularly. He visited Porbandar a decade later. During that trip, according to his own account, he “spotted a small lake where over 4,000 Lesser Flamingos were gathered”. When he was told that that the lake’s days were numbered and it was soon going to be filled up to construct a park, he approached Indira Gandhi. The Prime Minister immediately spoke to Madhavsinh Solanki, the Gujarat Chief Minister, who assured her that the park plan would be abandoned. This paved the way for the notification of the bird sanctuary in the Mahatma’s birthplace in November 1988.

Jackson was also closely associated with WWF’s Operation Tiger, which was launched to support India’s own Project Tiger launched on April 1, 1973. It is generally believed that in the seventies, tiger conservation in India was due to the WWF’s efforts. In part, Peter Jackson’s communications skills helped create this impression. The WWF certainly helped raise the international profile of India’s programme but in the first six years of Project Tiger covering nine reserves, the total investment was about Rs.6 crore, of which just about 13 per cent came from WWF. That such an amount was set aside when the finances of the Centre were in a precarious position was entirely due to the Prime Minister herself.

  • Will the superbug scare hit home?

A U.S. woman’s death that took place in September last year has had fingers being pointed at India. An incurable bacterial infection, believed to have been contracted from one of India’s hospitals, is said to have killed the Nevada resident, raising questions about the country’s efforts in tackling a threat bigger than any known epidemic.

The Indian connection

The story of the 70-year-old, described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its Morbidity and Mortality report of January 13 goes thus — during the two years before her death in 2016, the woman was hospitalised multiple times in India for treatment of her fractured right thigh bone. Following an emergency hospitalisation in the U.S. in August last year, testing of a wound sample for antibiotic susceptibility found the infection-causing bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae, which was resistant to all antibiotics available in the U.S.

In its description of the woman’s case, the CDC rather conservatively termed resistance to all 26 antibiotics, including the last-resort antibiotic colistin, “very uncommon”. The agency stated that in the more than 250 isolates of Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), including K. pneumoniae isolated from the Nevada woman, that it had tested, susceptibility of infection-causing bacteria to at least one of the antibiotics in use was seen in 80% of the cases, while 90% of the samples contained bacteria that could be treated by tigecycline, an antibiotic specifically developed for multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The Indian connection to the woman’s death was not restricted to the origin of her infection; the killer superbug’s resistance was attributed to a gene that produces an enzyme now popularly called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1or NDM-1. As its name suggests, the enzyme was first seen in a person who, according to the 2009 study that described the enzyme and the gene coding for it, had undergone a surgical procedure in 2007 at a New Delhi hospital. NDM-1 helps bacteria fend off carbapenems, a group of powerful antibiotics originally capable of killing several bacilli species. What makes NDM-1 frightening is that it is known to be transferred horizontally across bacterial species.



Resistance rampant in India

Encountering multidrug-resistant bacteria is fairly common in India. In 2016, K. pneumoniae made headlines when it caused varying degree of vision loss in a dozen elderly patients who underwent cataract surgeries at the state-run Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital in Hyderabad. Though the bacterium was found to be sensitive to Imipenem, a carbapenem antibiotic, the antibiotic could not help restore vision. An investigation found the bacteria in RL solution, which is used to wash the eyes during cataract procedure.

“It was a case of bacterial infection where one antibiotic was useful. However, at least one instance of bacteria resistant to all antibiotics is seen in our patients in as often as less than six months,” says Rajender Gupta, deputy superintendent of Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital. He maintains that such resistance is seen in patients availing treatment elsewhere before coming to the hospital, a tertiary eye-care centre. “In such cases, we try treatment with multiple antibiotics hoping it works. Otherwise, we leave it to nature as we cannot do much else.” At least three of those affected by the contaminated RL solution followed by The Hindu in the four months subsequent to their surgeries in June, complained of complete vision loss.

Lessons from the U.S.

Dr. Gupta’s words of helplessness in the face of absolute resistance eerily echoed in those of Washoe County health officials who said they have not seen such a pattern of resistance before in their area. These words also underscore a biological fact — bacteria evolve faster than what we can throw at them. Significantly however, the health administration in the U.S. quickly stepped in to prevent spread, yielding lessons for India.

After detecting the superbug, the Nevada hospital isolated the woman. Screening of other patients admitted to the same unit at the hospital did not show spread. The CDC also affirms that a surveillance programme under way since 2010 for multidrug-resistant bacteria in Washoe County, an area home to over 4,00,000 Americans, did not show any additional NDM-1 cases.

Contrastingly, large public hospitals in India — often the only point of care for most Indians — do not have comprehensive policies concerning antibiotic use and infection control. In private conversations with the writer, doctors at one of the two biggest government hospitals in Hyderabad have confided rampant irrational and incorrect antibiotic prescription practices within the institution, highlighting need for hospital-level policies. Private hospitals that claim to have robust infection-control practices and limited patient screening, admit it is hard to match American efforts.

Consequently, reports of colistin resistance from India in recent years have increased as dependence on it grows due to widespread resistance to other antibiotics. A study published by Indian researchers earlier this month in the Journal of Evidence Based Medicine and Healthcare described colistin- and carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae in newborns diagnosed with sepsis at a tertiary hospital in Jamshedpur. Fourteen of the 60 babies infected with bacteria following an outbreak between March and July 2016 reportedly died.

Lack of an action plan

Irrational antibiotic use both among humans and animals is recognised as one of biggest drivers of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The World Health Organisation reported in the findings of a 2015 multi-country survey that 75% of respondents in India said they believed antibiotics treated flu and only 58% reported they knew use of antibiotics should only be stopped when the prescribed course ends. WHO has said candidly in the past that India lacks a National Action Plan to combat AMR.

However, a policy to combat antimicrobial resistance has been in place for more than five years. It envisages a separate schedule for antibiotics to prevent sale without prescription, hospital surveillance systems for monitoring resistance, enforcement of regulation in veterinary use of antibiotics and rational prescription of antimicrobials through evidence-based medicine. Sans an action plan, the policy remains unimplemented. The National Centre for Disease Control is now formulating a pilot plan.

“In Indian labs, it is not uncommon to test bacterial mixtures for a few antibiotics available at hand and unethically report sensitivity findings for as many 20 antibiotics, assuming findings from past testing apply. This is done to justify the cost,” says Sonam Kapur, senior professor, Department of Biological Sciences at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. Prof. Kapur and her team of researchers have created a table-top device that can test antibiotic sensitivity of a urine sample in four hours as against conventional microbiological testing that takes anywhere between 24 and 72 hours.



  • Ethiopian President all praise for makers of Jaipur Foot

Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome praised the makers of the world famous Jaipur Foot for holding two camps in his country and rehabilitating about 700 handicapped persons.

The on-the-spot fitment camps for limbless people were organised in the Mekelle and Harar towns of Ethiopia.

Addressing a ceremony in Harar earlier this week, Dr. Teshome said the efforts of Bhagwan Mahaveer Vikalang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS) to restore mobility to handicapped persons by fitting artificial limbs manufactured by its technicians were laudable.

‘Great humanitarian work’

According to a BMVSS release issued here, Dr. Teshome said holding the camps in Ethiopia was a “great humanitarian work”, which had brought dignity to the lives of handicapped people.

Some patients fitted with the Jaipur Foot gave a demonstration by walking, jumping and squatting.

India’s Ambassador to Ethiopia Anurag Srivastava said the Jaipur Foot camps had helped strengthen relations between India and Ethiopia.

BMVSS founder and chief patron D.R. Mehta said the organisation would be willing to set up a permanent centre in Ethiopia and train technical staff there. Similar centres have started functioning in Afghanistan, Mauritius and some other countries.


  • ICMR to study A.P. kidney disease crisis

Amid mounting concern about high rates of unexplained kidney disease in the Uddhanam region of Srikakulam district, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is launching an intensive study there in February to identify the likely cause.

A high–level ICMR team will investigate the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology (CKDu) that has affected thousands. The ICMR is sending the team following a request from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

‘Indifference’ slammed

The issue snowballed after actor and Jana Sena Party President Pawan Kalyan made a visit in the first week of January to Uddhanam and criticised the State government for its ‘indifference’ to the kidney disease crisis. Mr. Naidu then sought ICMR help for an in-depth study.

Speaking to The Hindu, Dr. Georgi Abraham, director of nephrology at Madras Medical Mission, Chennai, and a member of the ICMR team, said kidney disease in India was mostly due to diabetes, but the causes of what had been reported from Uddhanam for more than two decades could not be established.

Test protocol

“We will do urine analysis, study food habits and examine the water samples to find ways to stop or slow disease progression which leads to terminal illness,” Dr. Abraham said.

The team also has Dr. T. Ravi Raju, Vice-Chancellor of Dr. NTR University of Health Sciences and A.P and Dr. Gangadhar Taduri, senior nephrologist at the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad, epidemiologists and other domain experts. Dr. Taduri, who has researched chronic kidney disease in Uddhanam, said his studies have pointed to silica and strontium as likely causative factors.

  • Milestone in cryogenic engine test paves way for GSLV-MkIII

A milestone crossed in the making of a new cryogenic rocket engine set the stage for the first flight of the country’s most powerful satellite launcher to date, the GSLV-Mark III. The cryogenic stage and the entire launch vehicle’s readiness is closer to fruition after the engine, technically called CE20, passed the ‘high altitude flight acceptance test’ lasting about 25 seconds at Mahendragiri in mid-December.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to fly its new launch vehicle powered by this new engine around March, and send the 3,200 kg GSAT-19 communication satellite to space on it. The launch was earlier slated for December 2016. MkIII, when it completes trials and commences functioning in the coming years, will double ISRO’s lifting power for communications satellites to 4,000 kilos.

Vital stage

In a few days from now, the rocket’s complete cryogenic third stage, replete with fuel tanks and systems built around the engine, will undergo its qualifying test, S. Somanath, Director of ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), Thiruvananthapuram, told The Hindu.

“LPSC has designed and developed the CE20 engine. We are assembling the entire cryogenic stage, which is ready for flight. It will be sent to Sriharikota in a month’s time,” he said.

The cryogenic stage is vital for a GSLV rocket as it gets its final and biggest push in space from this stage; it can take a big communications satellite to higher reaches of 36,000 km above ground. The C25 cryogenic stage was approved at an estimated ₹600 crore as part of the overall ₹2,500-crore MkIII launcher project.

“Realising the CE20 engine was our target in order to achieve India’s capability to lift a four-tonne satellite to GTO (geostationary transfer orbit, around 36,000 km high),” Mr. Somanath said.

“We have been longing for this for a few years. MkIII will be the future work horse after the PSLV,” he said.

MkIII becomes ‘operational’ or ready for regular work after two successful launches in a row. ISRO plans to have one MkIII launch in a year, and the next one is planned for December this year.

Over 200 tests

About the qualification of the CE20, Mr. Somanath said it was the culmination of over 200 tests, some repeated and taking a week to 10 days each. The project picked up pace after early tests on a full-scale engine last year. The space agency has set up a ₹450-crore High Altitude Test (HAT) Facility at the ISRO Propulsion Complex for testing the engine in conditions similar to an actual launch in space.

Calling it an important milestone ahead of the MkIII launch, ISRO said the HAT test of December met all the test objectives.

“The testing of the engine in the HAT facility has helped in finalising the engine start and shut down sequence for the flight,” Mr. Somanath added.

The vehicle’s first two qualified stages are already in Sriharikota, namely the solid-fuelled S200 and the liquid-fuelled L110 stages.


  • India to frame policy on synthetic biology — United Nations Biodiversity Conference

India is taking its first steps to evolve a policy on synthetic biology, an emerging science through which new life forms can potentially be made in labs and existing life forms, such as bacteria and other microbes, tweaked to produce specific proteins or chemically useful products.

The Environment Ministry will be convening a group of experts on biodiversity and biotechnology, to assess synthetic biology work pursued in Indian labs, potential benefits and risks, and the implications of the trans-boundary movement of such life forms.

Synthetic biology in microbial systems holds promise for production of drugs, vaccines, fuel components and other chemicals. A popular example is the production of artemisinin, a powerful anti-malarial drug, in yeast, at a commercial level. Microorganisms have also been constructed to act as sensors that can detect a toxin in vitro (outside a living organism) or in vivo (inside a living organism).

There are assorted labs in India that work on synthetic biology.

Last December, officials from the Environment Ministry participated in the United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Cancun, Mexico, where about 8,000 delegates from 180 countries discussed matters related to biodiversity.

India, so far, has no policy on synthetic biology, and according to a presentation made at the venue, it has promised to “put in place a Synthetic Biology Team for articulating India’s view” at a forthcoming meeting

  • China setting up highest altitude telescopes close to LAC

China is setting up the world’s highest altitude gravitational wave telescopes in a Tibet prefecture close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, with a budget of $18.8 million to detect the faintest of echoes resonating from the universe, which may reveal more about the Big Bang theory.

Construction has started for the first telescope, code-named Ngari No. 1, 30 km south of Shiquanhe Town in Ngari Prefecture, said Yao Yongqiang chief researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Parts of Nagri is last Tibetan prefecture at China’s border with India.

The telescope, located 5,250 meters above sea level, will detect and gather precise data on primordial gravitational waves in the Northern Hemisphere.

To be operational by 2021

It is expected to be operational by 2021, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Yao said the second phase involves a series of telescopes, code-named Ngari No. 2, to be located about 6,000 meters above sea level.

He did not give a time frame for the construction of Ngari No. 2. The budget for the two-phase Ngari gravitational wave observatory is an estimated 130 million yuan ($18.8 million).

The project was initiated by the Institute of High Energy Physics, National Astronomical Observatories, and Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, among others, the report said.

Ngari, with its high altitude, clear sky and minimal human activity is said to be one of the world’s best spots to detect tiny twists in cosmic light.

Mr. Yao said the Ngari observatory will be among the world’s top primordial gravitational wave observation bases, alongside the South Pole Telescope and the facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Gravitational waves were first proposed by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity 100 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2016 that scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced proof of the waves’ existence, spurring fresh research interest among the world’s scientists.

Last September, China commissioned the world’s largest radio telescope in a mountainous region of southwest China’s Guizhou Province to search for more strange objects space, gain better understand the origin of the universe and to boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life.

The installation of the telescope’s main structure — a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches was built at unique valley in Guizhou Province.



  • The city’s bleak future

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new metro system in Pune. He also gave financial approval for a Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai. Earlier, he sought Cabinet approval for highway projects in Odisha and Punjab; in June, his Smart Cities Mission launched 83 projects throughout India, including several for new city roads, sports infrastructure, Bus Rapid Transit systems and waste management.

The city is never a function of concrete objects assembled in space, but rather, how people live together, prosper and create better lives for themselves. Though Mr. Modi’s intentions cannot be questioned, there is little evidence to suggest that he will meet these objectives. The history of urban renewal does not speak well of a city’s expansionist ideas.

Uncontrolled growth

Over the past decade, despite flow of funds for infrastructure, most Indian cities have been unable to expand road networks and metro lines in keeping with the growing demand. Uncontrolled populations have made plans for public facilities ineffective. In the case of Delhi Metro, for instance, since it opened in 2002, it has had to increase the number of coaches, the frequency of trains, the size of stations and the length of platforms. Yet, it struggles to accommodate the mounting numbers. In big towns, 3,000-4,000 cars are registered each week, so more roads are constructed, lengthening already clogged networks. Yet, distances between home and work are rising, commutes increasing 3-7 km on an average. Migrant flow into cities has exceeded all expectations, with a weekly influx of 4,000 families in Mumbai alone. In housing, while builders have promoted high-end luxury homes, public projects in most cities remain woefully inadequate.

When over 60 per cent of the city is unrecognised in the planning process, it has already gone beyond bureaucratic control and design. When the capital’s Chief Minister gives direct amnesty and legitimacy to unlawful occupants of urban land, the game is lost. In the seasonal voter counts in slums that alter civic capacities and neighbourhoods, or those that allow population and vehicular trends to be readily accommodated, the failure of the big city is most apparent.

This is truly unfortunate, for the struggle between India as competitive economy and India as equitable society is most visibly felt in the development of its towns. The reduction of economic ideals to stock market highs and the city to commercial symbols is a convenient method to bypass the more pressing demands of real economics and humane expectations of the city. Throughout the world, the culture of cities has always emerged out of local desires. Los Angeles as film city, Copenhagen as fishing village, Boston as trading post — commercial, cultural and professional attributes have invariably defined the nature of citizenship. But nowhere has the city been treated with such contempt as in India.

The municipal and civic mayhem of the country’s big cities on which Mr. Modi seems to be unjustifiably directing his efforts are the obvious and noticeable lifeblood of Indian urbanity. Sadly, conventional approaches to their mega size which may work in Rome and Shanghai are doomed to fail in Indian conditions. Indian cities are vastly varied. They range in three types: metropolitan accretions such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with the cumbersome statistical dimensions of small States, spreading by usurping surrounding towns. Or Tier-2 cities such as Pune, Jaipur, Bhopal and Lucknow, merely smaller replicas of the metros, but similarly unable to control the suburban sprawl and increasing numbers. Finally, there are small towns such as Meerut and Hubli — part rural, part cantonment — mandi townships, essential to maintaining commercial links to surrounding villages. Restricted in growth and size, it is there that the Prime Minister needs to lavish his efforts.

Unless the government becomes serious in intent and chooses a rigorous twofold path, the demise of the Indian city will be rapid. It must devise a development strategy for small Tier-3 towns that is itself a departure from conventional practices. It must take into account new forms of public housing, regulate bye-laws that restrict commuting and delineate public space over private commerce. If even 70 years after Independence, the Indian city has been unable to define the kind of life urban Indians should live, then Tier-3 towns are a clear opportunity for that experiment.

Second, the process must simultaneously relieve larger towns of the burden of new citizens. The government’s unrealistic plans need to reverse the processes of long-range connectivity, in favour of local outlooks that include pedestrianisation, conversion to mixed-use streets, reduction of commercial activity and an eradication of gated neighbourhoods. Any new expansion of ideas on the ground needs to motivate all participants to live together in ways not imagined before, and encourage a sense of community and inclusion that erodes differences of ethnicity, profession, caste, social and economic position. Within the current insulated demographics of Indian urban life, this may be an impossible task. But given that the city of the future will most likely be an unstable configuration, its survival rests on having a mix of race and class, rural and urban, rich and the future rich.

Fluid migration

The new city’s values will be grounded in a shifting set of people no longer bound to place. For millions of new migrants, the future citizens, home will be a job, a quenching of thirst, a place to lie down. Consequently, the public fields of bureaucratic intervention will only be enablers to migratory tasks, accommodating potential and making physical possibilities happen on the ground when possible. Rather than defining walls and boundaries, the architectural brief too will be informed by these fluid transformations.

In the new city the traditional structures of justice and legislature will be forgotten, replaced quickly by people with private needs. The potential for an urban life without buildings will only be generated by a resolution of migratory forces operating in the city, and encoding something of their own culture, on their own terms. In a culture of expediency and spectacle, the idea of architecture as a theatre for settlement will have none of the responsibilities of its glory days. In fact, the architect and planner will be just like another citizen on the run.

Before that happens, attitudes will require serious realignments. The Indian city’s undisguised fawning and mimicry of Western models bodes ill for an urban culture steeped in an altogether different life and pattern. Stockholm and Berlin may present a cohesive picture for initiating a computerised smartness into Indian urbanism, but they can hardly be imitated wholesale. When 60 per cent of the citizens are without local housing or access to municipal utilities, 40 per cent move about as pedestrians, with a third of those without conventional livelihood, the needs of urbanity are closer to those of Lagos or Cairo than of European or Chinese cities. A more generous and open-minded comprehension of traditional town structure by the government can provide a constructive direction to the country’s urban future.



  • Double delight from Indian telescope data

Astronomers, using data from India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), have discovered two of the most powerful phenomena in the universe — a supermassive black hole and the collision of giant galaxy clusters about two billion light years from Earth.

The two phenomenon have combined to create a stupendous cosmic particle accelerator, researchers said.

By combining data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune and other telescopes, researchers found what happens when matter ejected by a giant black hole is swept up in the merger of two enormous galaxy clusters.

“We have seen each of these spectacular phenomena separately in many places,” said Reinout van Weeren of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) in the U.S., who led the study.

“This is the first time, however, that we see them clearly linked together in the same system,” said Mr. van Weeren. This cosmic combination is found in a pair of colliding galaxy clusters called Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 located about two billion light years from Earth.

Clusters massive

The two clusters are both very massive, each weighing about a quadrillion — or a million billion — times the mass of the Sun. The comet-shaped appearance of the X-rays detected by Chandra is produced by hot gas from one cluster ploughing through the hot gas of the other cluster. Optical data from the Keck Observatory and Japan’s Subaru telescope, both on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, detected the galaxies in each cluster.

First, at least one spinning, supermassive black hole in one of the galaxy clusters produced a rotating, tightly—wound magnetic funnel. The powerful electromagnetic fields associated with this structure have accelerated some of the inflowing gas away from the vicinity of the black hole in the form of an energetic, high-speed jet.

  • GM mosquito trials to control dengue, chikungunya launched

Outdoor caged trials to demonstrate the efficiency of genetically modified mosquitoes to suppress wild female Aedes aegypti mosquito populations that transmit dengue, chikungunya and Zika were launched on January 23 in Dawalwadi, Badnapur, in Maharashtra’s Jalna district.

Based on the results of the trials, which use the Release of Insects carrying Dominant Lethal genes (RIDL) technology, and permission from Indian regulatory authorities, Gangabishan Bhikulal Investment and Trading Limited (GBIT) and Oxitec, plan to conduct open field trials in the country.

Laboratory-based studies have already been carried out in India since 2012 by GBIT and Oxitec and these studies have demonstrated the compatibility of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

“The efficiency to kill offspring was over 99% and male mosquitoes imported from the U.K were able to mate with locally available wild female mosquitoes and the longevity of imported mosquitoes was the same as the wild ones,” says Dr. Shaibal Dasgupta, Project Leader, GBIT, Delhi.

Modified males

Oxitec’s technology uses genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry a dominant lethal gene. When male GM mosquitoes mate with wild female mosquitoes the lethal gene is passed on to offspring. The lethal gene in the offspring kills the larvae before they reach adulthood.

Since male mosquitoes do not bite humans, the release of GM males will not increase the risk of dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

“The caged trials will last 50-55 weeks,” Dr. Dasgupta says. “Surveillance [to undertake open field studies] to gather data on predominance of Aedes mosquitoes in the wild has already started. The open field studies will be conducted for about a year in two villages in Jalna.”

“It is a promising technology and India must certainly look at new vector control methods,” says Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

“From studies carried out in other countries we know the safety is beyond doubt, but efficiency has to be proved, especially in big cities and towns.”

Practical considerations

“There are practical problems of raising a large number of mosquitoes needed for vector control – 100-150 [GM] mosquitoes are needed per person for months together,” says Dr. Swaminathan.

Large numbers of GM male mosquitoes have to be released at regular intervals to compete with wild normal males for mating. Since the larvae die before reaching adulthood, the technology is a “self-limiting approach”.

“India is looking at another alternative. We are about to sign a memorandum of understanding next month with Monash University for vector control using Wolbachia-infected A. aegypti mosquitoes,” Dr. Swaminathan says.

Vector control using A. aegypti infected with the bacterium Wolbachia is achieved by using the life-shortening bacteria strain in both male and female mosquitoes. Uninfected wild female mosquito embryos fertilised by Wolbachia-infected males fail to develop, while embryos from infected females fertilised by infected or uninfected wild males survive. As Wolbachia is maternally inherited, the bacteria are anyway passed on to offspring. Dengue, Zika or chikunguya viruses cannot replicate when mosquitoes have Wolbachia. Unlike the RIDL technology, a feature of Wolbachia is that it is self-sustaining, making it a low-cost intervention.

The downside is that the release of even a single female mosquito infected with Wolbachia could “potentially lead to the alien bacteria spreading in the target population,” says a June 2013 report in Pathogens and Global Health.



Lost continent’ lies under Indian Ocean


Scientists have confirmed the existence of a “lost continent” under the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius that was left over by the break-up of the super-continent, Gondwana, which started about 200 million years ago.

The piece of crust, which was subsequently covered by young lava during volcanic eruptions on the island, seems to be a tiny part of ancient land that broke off from the island of Madagascar, when Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica split.

“We are studying the break-up process of the continents, in order to understand the geological history of the planet,” said Professor Lewis Ashwal from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. By studying zircon, found in rocks spewed up by lava during volcanic eruptions, Mr. Ashwal and his colleagues have found that remnants of this mineral were far too old to belong to Mauritius.

“Earth is made up of two parts — continents, which are old, and oceans, which are “young”. On the continents, you find rocks that are over four billion years old, but you find nothing like that in the oceans, as this is where new rocks are formed,” said Mr. Ashwal.

“Mauritius is an island, and there is no rock older than nine million years old on the island. However, by studying the rocks on the island, we have found zircons that are as old as three billion years,” he said.

Rich record

Zircons are minerals that occur mainly in granite from the continents. They contain trace amounts of uranium, thorium and lead, and due to the fact that they survive geological processes very well, they contain a rich record and can be dated extremely accurately. “The fact that we have found zircons of this age proves that there are much older crustal materials under Mauritius that could only have originated from a continent,” said Mr. Ashwal.

This is not the first time that zircons that are billions of years old have been found on the island. A study done in 2013 has found traces of the mineral in beach sand.

Some concerns

However, this study received some criticism, including that the mineral could have been either blown in by the wind, or carried in on vehicle tyres or scientists’ shoes.

“The fact that we found the ancient zircons in rock (six million-year-old trachyte), corroborates the previous study and refutes any suggestion of wind-blown, wave-transporteEd or pumice-rafted zircons for explaining the earlier results,” said Mr. Ashwal.

He suggests that there are many pieces of various sizes of “undiscovered continent”, collectively called “Mauritia”, spread over the Indian Ocean.

“According to the new results, this break-up did not involve a simple splitting of the ancient super-continent of Gondwana, but rather, a complex splintering took place with fragments of continental crust of variable sizes left adrift within the evolving Indian Ocean basin,” Mr. Ashwal said.


  • Violations in India, penalties elsewhere


British engineering giant Rolls-Royce recently agreed to pay a $809-million fine (over ₹5,500 crore) for its corrupt practices in India, Russia, China, Thailand, Nigeria and Malaysia.

In the U.S., on January 6, Mondelez International, formerly known as Kraft Foods and of which Cadbury is now a part, agreed to pay $13 million to the U.S. authorities for paying an Indian agent, who in turn may have bribed government officials, for obtaining 30 different licences for phase II of its chocolate factory in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh. In October 2016, Cognizant admitted to possible violations governing anti-bribery laws of the U.S. in its operations in India. In September 2016, Anheuser-Busch InBev paid $6 million to settle corruption charges against one of its Indian companies where it had only a minority stake — the Indian company in question allegedly tried to buy off an employee who had turned whistle-blower and was informing U.S. authorities about its practice of using third-party sales promoters to pay bribes to Indian government officials. In 2012, Oracle paid a $2 million civil penalty in the U.S. to settle charges arising from a slush fund in India used to pay bribes.

It is almost an annual feature in the U.S. to see an American corporation admitting to have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in its Indian operations, and agreeing to pay huge penalties. These could range from bribing government officials to misleading accounting practices in order to hide slush funds. A similar parallel can also be occasionally seen in the U.K., as the Rolls-Royce case illustrates.

Paying for others’ sins

A scan of global anti-corruption jurisprudence and its impact on ordinary Indians inevitably throws up a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ scenario. An aggressive global firm enters the Indian market, realises that it is deeply corrupt, engages middlemen to pay bribes to bureaucrats and politicians, secures huge businesses and swells its balance sheet. If caught, it apologises for the ‘mistake’, and offers to pay financial penalties to offset possible criminal trial and long jail terms for its officials — all in the home country, not India.

An average Indian pays either by way of taxes into government coffers that go into official purchases made from that company, or from his personal finances to buy its product. In those purchases, the ordinary Indian pays more than the legitimate market price because of corruption, contributing a part of the kickback paid to the middlemen who facilitate the company’s business in the Indian market.

Worse, when the company offers to pay a fine to offset criminal proceedings, that average Indian consumer would also partially contribute to it, because it is from markets like India that such foreign companies make their profits, part of which would be used to pay off their governments that uphold law.

To be fair, it is the effective implementation of anti-corruption laws in the U.S., the U.K. and most other developed economies that are forcing global business giants to pay huge fines for their questionable practices. It is a demonstration of the effective implementation of laws of their homelands, and caution to anyone from those economies against bribing someone in countries like India.

The troubling questions

What is worrying is the attitude of the Indian government and its anti-corruption bodies to this by-now-well-established global phenomenon. It is not known if India gets a share of the fine imposed under FCPA or other anti-corruption laws in developed economies.

There is nothing on record to show that in the long history of FCPA in the U.S., which came into being in the post-Watergate period in the 1970s, the Indian government has evolved any mechanism to regularly follow FCPA filings, and seek domestic remedy here in India. Nor is there any assurance that agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) would take evidence from those filings to pursue cases here against those involved.

Despite landmark judgments of the Supreme Court to improve our anti-corruption architecture, at least one loud nationwide movement against corruption, and the issue of graft finding a regular appearance in political rhetoric, it is a fact that India does not have an effective anti-corruption mechanism yet in place.

The CBI, ED and other agencies are only as good, or as bad, as those political leaders in power. Successive governments have deployed them for political score-settling than for fighting big corruption. At the highest levels, there is also a clear link between the corrupt big sharks and political funding.

The last significant reforms in the administration of CBI and ED were ordered by the Supreme Court in the Vineet Narain case of 1997, by which it tried to bring some amount of autonomy to the agencies, especially bringing in supervision by the Central Vigilance Commission. However, the agencies have remained caged parrots, as the Supreme Court observed during the last government’s tenure.

It is no more just about autonomy of anti-corruption agencies or enactment of the long-pending Lokpal act. It is now troublingly also about competence and accountability. Anecdotes emerging from those investigated in recent times, closure of cases and chargesheets, and the apex court order ordering the CBI to probe its former chief Ranjit Sinha, all point towards mounting incompetence in Indian agencies, especially in exploiting the digital databases across the world, celebrating whistle-blowers and enforcing the law with impartiality.

Unless urgent parliamentary oversight — not perfect, but the best among the available options — is brought on to federal investigation agencies, nothing may change.



  • In ISRO’s launch of 104 satellites, 88 will be from U.S.
  • The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is on the cusp of making history when it sends 104 satellites into orbit on its PSLV-C37 rocket on February 15. Only three of them are Indian satellites.

Notably, in ISRO’s first mission of 2017, a single U.S. Earth imaging company, Planet, has made an eye-popping bulk booking for 88 of its small ‘cubesats’.

No space agency has launched such a large number of satellites in a single flight so far. (While ISRO’s PSLV launched 20 satellites last year, Russia’s Dnepr launcher holds the record for lifting 37 satellites to orbit in June 2014.)

The PSLV will carry a main remote-sensing satellite in the Cartosat-2 series and two small spacecraft, all for ISRO, and 101 small foreign commercial satellites.

The 88 cubesats are part of Planet’s earth observation constellation of 100 satellites. They weigh around 5 kg each and are called ‘Doves’ or Flock 3p. For California-based Planet, too, it will be the record largest number of cubesats to be flown in a single launch, according to one of its executives.

Planet, an earth observation company formed in 2010 by former NASA scientists, has chosen ISRO’s PSLV launch for the second time. It got its earlier set of 12 ‘Doves’ launched in June last year.

Cartosat-2 & INS-1

The main passenger on PSLV-C37 will be the fourth in the Cartosat-2 series, a very high resolution Earth observation satellite of about 650 kg, and occupies roughly half the space in the launch vehicle. It will carry two more Indian nano satellites, INS-1A and INS-1B, each weighing about 10 kg. They have a short lifespan of six to 12 months.

All the payloads will totally weigh around 1,500 kg, according to an ISRO official who did not want to be named. The 88 Doves would be released in sets of four cubesats. The other co-riders are cubesats or small specialised satellites of customers from Israel, the UAE, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. They will be released separately into their orbits at around 500 km from Earth. While ISRO has been cagey about giving details of its customers,

Planet’s executive Mike Safyan announced on Friday, “In February, we are launching 88 satellites — the largest fleet of satellites launched in history. The Dove satellites, collectively known as “Flock 3p,” will ride aboard a PSLV rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.”

Biggest launch

“This is the 15th time Planet is launching Dove satellites; and it will be our biggest launch to date. Combined with the 12 satellites of Flock 2p operating in a similar orbit, this launch will enable Planet’s 100-satellite ‘line scanner’ constellation of Doves,” Mr. Safyan said.

Since September 2015, the PSLV has launched 18 small U.S. earth imaging satellites in a total of 79 foreign spacecraft — which earns it some revenue and an increasing global market share.

The Planet series comes even as COMSTAC, (Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee under the U.S. FAA) is considering if U.S. satellites can be sent to space on Indian launchers. Sources said PSLV’s U.S. clients were being approved on individual basis.


  • 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave discovered


Archeologists have discovered the 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave, which had hidden ancient Hebrew scriptures from the Second Temple period that were later looted by Bedouins in the middle of the last century.

The excavations in the cave on the cliffs west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, represent a milestone in Dead Sea Scroll research.

The excavators, including Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, are the first in over 60 years to discover a new scroll cave and to properly excavate it.

Excavation of the cave showed that at one time it contained Dead Sea scrolls. Numerous storage jars and lids from the Second Temple period (530 BCE and 70 CE) were found hidden in niches along the walls of the cave and deep inside a long tunnel at its rear.

The jars were all broken and their contents removed, and the discovery towards the end of the excavation of a pair of iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s (stored within the tunnel for later use) proves the cave was looted.

“Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave,” said Gutfeld.

“Although at the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we only found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing, the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen,” he said.

“The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more,” he added.

The finding of pottery and of numerous flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorated stamp seal made of carnelian, a semi-precious stone, also revealed that this cave was used in the Chalcolithic and the Neolithic periods.

This first excavation to take place in the northern part of the Judean Desert will help understand the function of the caves with respect to the scrolls, with the potential of finding new scroll material.

The material will provide important new evidence for scholars of the archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea caves.

“The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered,” said Israel Hasson, Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain,” Hasson said. PTI MHN SAR MHN