Science

Covering Science at The Wire: 10 Picks from 2015

Was it a great year for science? Was it a lousy year for science? Beyond its perception as an exotic enterprise – which it can often seem to be – science is, at its roots, human. And like all humans, it had its good times and bad times in 2015. The Wire carried articles on issues across this spectrum, addressing questions on everything from sexism and publishing woes to public policy and particle physics. Here are 10 picks from over 450 that we published, in no particular order.

Colonies of Vibrio cholerae bacteria. (Public domain image)

Colonies of Vibrio cholerae bacteria. (Public domain image)

1. Remembering Sambhu Nath De, the medical man for the blue death

Science had been De’s only passion. He had never cultivated close relations with the establishment as such. Hence, as P. Balaram, one of India’s leading scientists and editor of the journal Current Science, noted in a special issue dedicated to ‘S.N. De and the cholera enterotoxin’ (1990), “… De died in 1985 unhonoured and unsung in India’s scientific circles. That De received no major award in India during his lifetime and that our academies did not see it fit to elect him to their Fellowship, must rank as one of the most glaring omissions of our time.” Indians lament that scientists such as J.C. Bose, Meghnad Saha and S.N. Bose never received a Nobel Prize. But they have at least won the adulation of the common Indian. In contrast – and what is perhaps more tragic – is that De’s heroic tale of intellectual brilliance and perseverance has remained unknown to the layperson.

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2. Modi wants the DNA Profiling Bill passed right away. Here’s why it shouldn’t be.

Given the scale of issues with the draft Bill, and its potentially disastrous sidelining of privacy concerns, its scheduled introduction in the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha seems hurried – despite having first been mooted more than a decade ago. Some of the issues may have escaped the drafting committee’s concerns by way of not having received appropriate feedback – such as the issue of hidden costs – but the committee must explain why there is a lack of access to data of the people by the people, why there are no sound anonymisation protocols, and why there are insufficient self-regulation and protection measures.

3. Killing off India’s dogs is not the way to get rid of its rabies problem

The purpose of neutering and vaccination is to ensure that dog populations are small, stable, healthy and safe. Vaccination reduces the incidence of rabies. Neutering – castration in male dogs and ovario-hysterectomies in female dogs – reduces fighting related to reproductive activities and makes dogs more sluggish and docile. This in turn reduces the incidence of dog bites. Moreover, the territorial nature of dogs means that the retention of a neutered and vaccinated population of dogs in a locality prevents new dogs from occupying the area. When street dogs are removed or eradicated, new dogs enter the neighbourhood which heightens the incidence of dog bites due to fear and fighting.

Credit: makelessnoise/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: makelessnoise/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

4. Why the cure for migraines could come from the Parsi community

Migraines – debilitating and agonising, there’s not much that can be done about them. Science is still looking for an effective way to prevent these recurring headaches. The answer to what can help cure migraines may lie in research conducted among the Parsi population. This episode of The Intersection investigates how the homogeneous nature of this community can assist science in finding a solution to migraines.

Abhay Ashtekar. Credit: pitt.edu

Abhay Ashtekar. Credit: pitt.edu

5. ‘Good scientists solve problems, but great scientists know what’s worth solving’

“I learnt this from Chandra more than anybody else – many people can solve a problem. I mean, I can solve many problems even more elegantly than Chandra might have solved. But the skill is to come up with a problem – to come up with the right problems. Things that are going to change the direction. Things that are not going to be only incremental progress but really could make a difference. And that, I think, is not easy. That is what distinguishes great scientists from good scientists – the ability to really spot this, what is really worth working on. I don’t mean to trivialise the second ability, which is the ability to solve a given hard problem, because it requires both the arsenal of tools and some brilliance. But it’s not the same as coming up with the right questions to ask. That is, I think, something that students should be aware of.”

Elephants in Nyanza, Kenya. Credit: chadica/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Elephants in Nyanza, Kenya. Credit: chadica/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

6. Why don’t elephants get cancer?

In 2012, Carlo Maley, an evolutionary oncologist from Arizona State University, gave a talk about Peto’s Paradox at a conference of evolutionary medicine and epidemiology in Washington, D.C. He had found that elephants had 20 copies of a gene called TP53 that produce p53, a protein crucial for suppressing tumours. This protein is like a fact-checker, examining newly formed cells and verifying if they have correct DNA copies. If any are corrupted, it either attempts to repair or gives the command for the cells to commit suicide. If it didn’t give these instructions, the cells would turn cancerous. The protein is so crucial to our well-being that David Lane, a British cancer biologist and one of the discoverers of p53, called it the ‘guardian of the genome’.

The three winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, 2015. Source: nobelprize.org

The three winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, 2015. Source: nobelprize.org

7. How an ancient Chinese text fought malaria and won a Nobel, while India lags behind

The difference in the investigative traditions employed by Tu and Indian phytotherapists shows in many ways. For one, a Chinese herbal preparation named Dansheng has entered phase 3 clinical trials to verify its curative effects in people with diabetic retinopathy – no Ayurvedic recipe has come as far. Second, the Chinese government’s more-meaningful support was reflected in a greater visibility of the country’s traditional medicines in databases of scientific literature, even in 2013, but not so much of Indian medicines. Third, as Youyou Tu’s example illustrates, the success of the Chinese has been in recognising the limits of ancient knowledge.

Women at a conference. Credit: womendeliver/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Women at a conference. Credit: womendeliver/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

8. Women in science and a tale of two hunters

Of course, this parable applies only to Shikaris whose daring (unlike their science) is commensurate with their national standing; it certainly does not apply to male scientists who are too decent and/or scared to live their caveman fantasies. I hope that this parable will sound dated in years to come, not just because we are seeing the last of the repressed old hands and social misfits who have imposed their misogyny and attempted seductions on unwilling women in every profession, but because younger male professionals don’t usually see women as over-the-shoulder carcasses for later consumption.

Pollution. Photo by Billy Wilson, CC 2.0

Pollution. Photo by Billy Wilson, CC 2.0

9. Sleepwalking towards disaster

Across the subcontinent the media have allowed the meta-crisis to be largely obscured by the noise and dust of ‘breaking news’. When crops fail the focus is usually on political and human stories, not on changes in climate; that erratic rainfall may have been a factor in the Maoist insurgency in Nepal is rarely reported; when factory buildings collapse in Dhaka, killing hundreds of workers, it passes almost without notice that many of those workers are ecological refugees from districts where formerly productive land is being gradually invaded by saline water. Climate change may also be a factor in the insurgencies of central and eastern India – but to what degree we do not know, for one of the failures of global knowledge systems is that they have yet to provide us with a means of gauging the effects of climate change on human conflicts.

Lesser Woolly Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus sedulus). Credit: Bernard Dupont/ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lesser Woolly Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sedulus). Credit: Bernard Dupont/ Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

10. Even bats need to wake up and smell the coffee

The study, published in the August 2015 issue of the journal Biological Conservation, shows that bats respond negatively to tea plantations that are extensively modified by humans. But they do quite well in shaded coffee plantations and forest patches. Clair Wordley, a biologist at Leeds University and lead author of the study, told The Wire that traditional coffee growing in India, with native coffee varieties that support bats growth, are giving way to uniform plantations of Coffea robusta that is more popular for the instant coffee market. “Keeping coffee grown in the traditional way with lots of different native trees is great for bat conservation – and they’ll probably thank you by eating some of those insect pests,” she said.