ISRO keeps up steady trickle of photos from Mars Orbiter

The Wire
May 23, 2015

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO

Image of Tyrrhenus Mons in Hesperia Planum region taken by Mars Colour Camera on February 25, 2015, at a spatial resolution of 166 m from an altitude of 3192 km. Credit: ISRO

On May 22, the Indian Space Research Organization released two new pictures snapped by the Mars Orbiter Mission, currently in orbit around the red planet. They were taken by the Mars Colour Camera on-board the orbiter in February and April, and follow a heftier batch of photos released in the third week of March. On the same day, ISRO was given thePioneer Award by the International Space Development Conference, organized by the American National Space Society.

One picture shows Tyrrhenus Mons (above), a major volcanic elevation located in the southern hemisphere of Mars. While it isn’t major in the same sense Mount Olympus Mons is – as the tallest mountain in the Solar System, located almost on the opposite side of the planet – Tyrrhenus is significant for its age and formative history. It is one of the oldest volcanoes on Mars, being 3.7-3.9 billion years old, and formed by hot clouds of ash being blown through the surface by molten rock that suddenly encountered steam or a cloud of gas.

The second picture shows the oddly shaped Pital Crater (below), located near the Valles Marineris canyons below the equator. The picture appears to have been taken in April, from a height of 808 km.

Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO

Pital crater, an impact crater located in Ophir Planum region of Mars. Credit: ISRO

The Mars Colour Camera that took the picture is among five scientific payloads. It has an instantaneous field of view ranging from 19.5 m to 4 km and a 2048 x 2048 squared-pixel detector. Its imaging capabilities are also complemented by MOM’s highly elliptical orbit around Mars, which takes it 77,000 km from the planet at one point (its closest orbital approach is at 421 km). The great separation allows the Colour Camera and others to take pictures with large fields of view.

This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

The camera has multiple objectives: to image features on the planet’s surface, to map the geological features surrounding probable sources of methane (which are determined by a companion payload called the Methane Sensor for Mars), to image dust-storms over six months and to map the polar ice caps. As an aside, the camera will also provide important context to the data logged by the four other instruments.

Those instruments are a Methane Sensor for Mars, Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyser (to determine composition of particles), Lyman-Alpha photometer (to measure the relative abundance of hydrogen and deuterium in the upper atmosphere), and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (to measure thermal radiation).

On March 24 this year, the orbiter completed its original six months around Mars, and the mission was promptly extended by six months (it is now on the verge of completing its eighth month). On the same day, ISRO released a batch of pictures from the Colour Camera, including stunning snaps of the blue-tinged Valles Marineris.

Curious Bends – outraged warriors, bizarre obsessions, dubious drugs and more

It’s been one year since we launched Curious Bends – a newsletter where we bring you science, technology, data and India stories from around the web, once a week (subscribe).

We’ve enjoyed serving you important and interesting stories. Thank you for being loyal subscribers!

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect. Help us do that and improve what we do by taking this two-minute survey. We respect your privacy, so the option to tell us who you are is up to you (but we’d LOVE to know).

Starting this week, the newsletter has a new home at The Wire.

1. India’s bizarre, fascinating and occasionally horrifying obsession with urine

“Urine is one of those perennially surfacing topics in Indian media and it is difficult for a year to go by without multiple references to urine, whether of humans, cows, rhinos, tigers or elephants, of the diseased or undiseased kind, medical therapies, recipes for consumption and more. As a nation, we are obsessed.” (6 min read, scroll.in)

2. India has more illiterates than anywhere in the world—partly because of a preference for sons

“An extra child—which is likely had to have a trophy son—in the family reduces schooling, on average, by 0.1 years. Furthermore, that extra child reduces the probability of ever attending or being enrolled in school by up to 2%. Both numbers may seem small, but for the size of India’s young population, the upshot is that millions don’t go to school enough or at all.” (3 min read, qz.com)

3. Why Indians aren’t outraged about climate change

“Astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.” (6 min read, thewire.in)

+ The author, Amitav Ghosh, is a celebrated Indian writer whose work in English fiction has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

4. World Health Statistics 2015: some achievements, many concerns

“The World Health Organization (WHO), on Wednesday, released this year’s World Health Statistics (WHS) which evaluate achievements in health with respect to targets set as part of the MDGs. While WHS lists some landmark accomplishments reported in the 15 years since the beginning of the global programme, the overall results have been a mixed bag with great variations between regions and countries.” (7 min read, downtoearth.org.in)

5. Most antidepressant drug combos in India are unapproved

“The health of 120 million patients in India is in jeopardy because of the proliferation in the past decade of unapproved and unregulated combination drugs commonly used as anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and anti-psychotic medication, a new study has found. The research findings are especially troubling for people who are depressed because 8-in-10 antidepressant and 7-in-10 anti-psychotic combination drugs in India don’t have the proper approval. Worldwide, depression has already taken over as the leading cause of disability but its treatment in India is largely unregulated.” (4 min read, thewire.in)

Chart of the Week

In the past year, Curious Bends has shared a total of 212 stories with you from 69 different sources. Of course, our selection is biased because of the places we read most. However, our effort to spread the net broad has showed us that the state of science journalism for India-related stories is not nearly as poor as we had thought going in. The problem is that, while there are a lot of sources that publish good stories that fit our criteria, they don’t do it consistently enough. That’s why we find curating these good stories worth our effort, and it is reinforced by the fact that so many people have subscribed to this newsletter.

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Roundup of missed stories – May 23, 2015

I’ve missed writing/commenting on so many science papers/articles in the two weeks following the launch of The Wire. The concepts in many of them would’ve made fun explainers, some required a takedown or two, and one had surprising ethical and philosophical implications. I think it might be a bit late to write about them myself (read: too tired), so I’m going to lay those I think are the best among them out here for you to take on in ways you see fit.

  1. Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access – An OA whitepaper from a big proponent of OA, the Max Planck Digital Library. Has data to support argument that money locked in the currently dominant publishing paradigm needs to be repurposed for OA, which the whitepaper reasons is very viable. Finally, suggests that for OA to become the dominant paradigm, it must happen en masse instead of in piecemeal fashion.
  2. Self-assembling Sierpinski triangles – Sierpinski triangles are a prominent kind of fractal. So, “Defect-free Sierpiński triangles can be self-assembled on a silver surface through a combination of molecular design and thermal annealing” suggests some interesting chemical and physical reactions at play.
  3. The moral challenge of invisibility – A new optical technique allows people to look at their bodies and see nothing, thanks to an apparatus developed by a team of researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Cool as it is, physicist Philip Ball writes that users of the technique felt their social anxieties reduce. This appears to be a curious axiom of VS Ramachandran’s mirror-box technique to reduce phantom-limb pain in amputees.
  4. Open Science decoded – “Granting access to publications and data may be a step towards open science, but it’s not enough to ensure reproducibility. Making computer code available is also necessary — but the emphasis must be on the quality of the programming.” Given the role computing and statistics are playing in validating or invalidating scientific results, I wholeheartedly agree.
  5. EPR Paradox: Nonlocal legacy – I haven’t read this article yet but it already sounds interesting.
  6. In the beginning – A long piece in Aeon discusses if cosmology is suffering a drought of creativity these days. The piece’s peg is on the BICEP2 fiasco so maybe there are some juicy inside-stories there. It also ends on a well-crafted note of hopelessness (that’s one thing I’ve noticed about longform – the graf is often the last para).

We might be trapped in this snow globe of photons forever. The expansion of the Universe is pulling light away from us at a furious pace. And even if it weren’t, not everything that exists can be observed. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. There always will be. Science has limits. One day, we might feel ourselves pressing up against those limits, and at that point, it might be necessary to retreat into the realm of ideas. It might be necessary to ‘dispense with the starry heavens’, as Plato suggested. It might be necessary to settle for untestable theories. But not yet. Not when we have just begun to build telescopes. Not when we have just awakened into this cosmos, as from a dream.

Last: I foresee I’ll continue to miss writing on these pieces in the future, so maybe these roundups could become a regular feature.

Why Indian science projects must plan for cultural conversations, too

The Wire
May 18, 2015

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory; the mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population; and even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the centre that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.

During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.

On March 26, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:

  1. Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.

There is little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.”

As seas exchange heat, the Indian Ocean is becoming a marine hothouse

The Wire
May 21, 2015

Since about 1998, the rate at which the Earth’s surface temperature has been becoming hotter due to anthropogenic global warming has slowed. It slipped from about 0.12 kelvin per decade since the late 1800s to about 0.05 kelvin per decade. For a time, climate deniers jumped on this statistic to refute that the burning of fossil fuels was warming the planet. However, scientists found out that such variations were due to the internal variability of the world’s climate, and that such hiatuses would occur again.

In fact, during the hiatus period the subsurface Pacific Ocean was found to have absorbed a significant amount of heat. But recent measurements of the sea’s depths have actually signalled that the temperature there is dropping, not increasing. If the Pacific Ocean had absorbed the heat from Earth’s atmosphere yet its subsurface waters were cooling, where is the heat?

As it turns out, the Pacific has been leaking it into the Indian Ocean for the last decade, via currents running along the Indonesian archipelago. A team of researchers from France and the US found that the upper 700 m of the Indian Ocean accounted for more than 70% of the global heat gain in 2003-2012.

“The model simulation and hydrographic data both showed that Indian Ocean heat content did not increase much prior to 2000,” said Sang-Ki Lee, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and lead author of the study. “We believe that the massive heat transport from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean occurred during the past decade is a fairly unusual phenomenon.” They published their findings in Nature Geoscience on May 19.

To support the measurements they made, Lee and his team simulated the warm water’s flow from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean in a computer program. “It is not clear how good the model is in simulating the features of the Indian Ocean, specially at subsurface levels,” P.N. Vinayachandran, associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, told The Wire. “The reliability of results would depend on this factor.”

Nonetheless, the hydrographic data mustered by Lee and co. and their model’s ability fit in seamlessly with the onset of the hiatus in 1998 lends a platform from which to explore the consequences of their find. According to their model, the warm water was transported into the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian Throughflow. It is a series of deep straits in the archipelago through which, due to a pressure gradient between the two oceans, 15 million cubic metres of warm water flowed per year.

The resultant cooling of the Pacific is likely to influence the El Nino southern oscillation, an anomalous heating and cooling of the Pacific’s waters off the tropical South American coast. Normally, they are about eight degrees Celsius cooler than the waters along eastern Indonesia. However, during years in which the trade winds blowing from South America to Australia and Indonesia fall off, the water along the coast of Peru becomes warmer. The result is floods in Peru and droughts in Australia and Indonesia.

The study’s authors state that the heat being pumped into the Indian from the Pacific Ocean was driven by a converse event – of the waters having becoming warmer off the coast of eastern Indonesia. Warm waters are typically nutrient-deficient and don’t support fisheries. They are also detrimental to marine ecosystems in general, greatly endangering creatures that can’t relocate to cooler waters quickly (such as coral reefs) and in turn other creatures dependent on them (like the orange-spotted filefish).

Moreover, the study reconciles the Pacific and Indian Oceans’ warming trends while also emphasizing how little we know about heat absorption by the world’s oceanic basins despite their significant effects on climate. It also raises important questions about where and how the stored heat will be released and with what socioeconomic consequences.

“It is possible that the upper ocean warmth in the Indian Ocean may be carried to the North Atlantic Ocean to increase the frequency and amplitude of Atlantic hurricanes and to accelerate the melting of Arctic sea-ice,” Lee said, but that would be on a much longer timescale.

On shorter timelines, during the Indian summer monsoon, deeper, colder water rises to the surface along the Somalian, Arabian and western Indian coasts. Lee explained: “Due to the increased upper ocean warmth the upwelling may bring warmer water to the surface releasing more water vapour to the atmosphere and thus increasing the moisture transport to India and the Southeast Asia.” This would bring more rain – and possibly floods.

Another possibility, which Lee says their team will next investigate, is the Indian Ocean transporting its heat into the Atlantic Ocean via the Agulhas current that bends around the coast of South Africa. This presents more devastating consequences because the Atlantic has already been on a warming trend since the 1950s.

Finally, the oceans aren’t bottomless either. Once a threshold is reached, they will release the heat back into the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change from February this year predicted the event would be like a burst, starting from around 2020, a sustained release that would be associated with “warming across South America, Australia, Africa and Southeast Asia.” The event will also accelerate the melting of ice in the Antarctic and lead to rising sea levels.

Recent studies – including Sang-Ki Lee’s – present an important challenge. The global impact of climate change hasn’t yet visited humans the way it visited the golden toad (by wiping it out) and there is still talk by governments to reverse its impact. But with the warming hiatus predicted to end by 2020 and the Indian Ocean shown to be a prominent player in global climate variations, the world could receive a brutal preview of what life might be like at the end of this century in the next 10 years.

Two of Alan Turing’s WW-II papers are now in the public domain

The Wire
May 21, 2015

A scientific paper written by Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist who cracked the Enigma code during the Second World War and bolstered Britain’s war efforts, was recently declassified by the British government and uploaded to the arXiv pre-print server. The paper’s entitled ‘The Applications of Probability to Cryptography’. It has Turing bringing to bear a style of reasoning that is absent in today’s statistics-heavy technical literature. It is both didactic and meticulous, and provides great insight into how Turing explored the cryptographic problems he was confronted with.

Consider:

When the whole evidence about some event is taken into account it may be extremely difficult to estimate the probability of the event, even very approximately, and it may be better to form an estimate based on a part of the evidence, so that the probability may be more easily calculated. This happens in cryptography in a very obvious way. The whole evidence when we are trying to solve a cipher is the complete traffic, and the events in question are the different possible keys, and functions of the keys. Unless the traffic is very small indeed the theoretical answer to the problem “What are the probabilities of the various keys? ” will be of the form “ The key . . . has a probability differing almost imperceptibly from 1 (certainty) and the other keys are virtually impossible”. But a direct attempt to determine these probabilities would obviously not be a practical method.

Here and there, he also admits he’s making guesses – some quite in the air and others not so much – of the sort that are inadmissible in the modern era of scientific publishing, where demands on researchers to be exact have driven many to fabricate results and fake conclusions. At one point, Turing writes, “This judgement is not entirely a guess; some rather insecure mathematical reasoning has gone into it”, prompting the popular statistician Andrew Gelman to quip on his blog: “He’s so goddamn reasonable. He’s everything I aspire to.”

The paper was uploaded to arXiv on May 18 together with another called ‘The Statistics of Repetitions’, both accompanied by editor’s notes that focused on what it was like to prepare manuscripts “at a time when typographical errors were corrected by hand, and mathematical expression handwritten into spaces left in the text”. The papers can be found hereand here.

Alan Turing’s claims to fame are many, ranging from deciphering the Enigma code used by the Nazis for encrypted communication, to defining the hypothetical Turing machine that’s influential in studies of computing, to predicting oscillating chemical reactions that were observed about a decade later. He was also gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime in the UK, and was chemically castrated when he refused to be sent to prison for fear he’d have to discontinue his work. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, barely 42 years old. In 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology for the way Turing had been treated in his lifetime. Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him posthumously in 2013.

Most recently, he was brought to life in the blockbuster movie ‘The Imitation Game’ (2014), where he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

It’s time for ISRO to reach for the (blue) sky

The Wire
May 19, 2015

Almost 40 years after the launch of Aryabhata, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully placed another satellite into orbit, this time around Mars – becoming the world’s first space agency to have done so in its debut attempt. There are many similarities between the April-1975 launch of Aryabhata, India’s first satellite, and the September-2014 orbit-insertion of the Mars Orbiter Mission. But if the Mars mission suggests India has come a long way, ISRO’s commitment to blue-sky research – putting financial and scientific resources into projects that do not have immediate or even obvious applications – is still not apparent.

Aryabhata was launched at a time when the socio-political climate in India was fraught with uncertainty, and technology was barely a blip on the horizon as the promised secret solution. There had been widespread skepticism about what a scientific satellite – which at the time cost Rs.5 crore to build – could do for a “cow-dung economy”. A skepticism of the same flavour most recently surrounded the Mars Orbiter Mission, with many asking how it could help alleviate poverty in the country.

Symbolic victories

Even though astronomers had planned to use Aryabhata conduct experiments in astrophysics, the satellite suffered an electrical failure after four days in orbit. Nonetheless, it was hailed a success because it was one symbolically. The man responsible for its launch, Vikram Sarabhai, had inspired a nation that anything was possible should one apply herself or himself to it. Since 1962, with the establishment of the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Kerala, Sarabhai had rapidly inculcated a generation of scientists fluent in the engineering and physics of building and launching rockets with that belief. By 1975, India had been brought to the doorstep of full-fledged space research.

Sadly, Sarabhai passed away in 1970, although by then he was able to found ISRO (superseding the Indian National Committee for Space Research set up in 1962) in 1969. But despite being born of the seemingly entrepreneurial seed that was Sarabhai’s vision, ISRO seldom engaged in blue-sky, curiosity-driven research – where practical applications are not apparent while the potential for discovering new applications of science is great. This reticence is all the more glaring given the fact that ISRO is one of the few institutions in the country that remains fairly removed from bureaucratic interference despite being substantially funded by the central government.

Despite its open-ended mandate, ISRO has only pursued goals that have well-defined implications, such as expanding the scope of our meteorology, communication and navigation technologies. Agreed, it would have been hard not to focus on such applications-driven nearer-term goals — nearer at least than the prolonged periods of hopefulness often required for blue-sky research — while the government was absorbed in capacity-building in the 1970s.

However, what’s the point of continuing to do predominantly that until the 2010s? For the government, the agency has become the leading provider of solutions to problems in weather-forecasting and communication. Even as Sarabhai had aspired to free India from the clutches of economic frugality through its space program, ISRO had inculcated a space program bereft of scientific curiosity – a frugality of the imagination.

Questioning Sarabhai

It is also worth asking to what end Sarabhai had himself looked to space. The answer is hard to divine, but important to know for what it can tell us about the history of scientists’ ambitions in India. While he believed that space research and, in time, exploration, could make India prosper, did he really support blue-sky research? Or was that simply us extrapolating his ambitions? Did Sarabhai only ever think of space research in terms of pressing it into the nation’s questions of poverty and economic development, or did he one day want to land an astronaut on Mars? There is a telling paragraph in the book A Brief History of Rocketry in ISRO by P Radhakrishnan and PV Manoranjan Rao:

Independent India was lucky to have Jawaharlal Nehru as its first prime minister, for he shared a common ideal with [Homi] Bhabha and Sarabhai. He believed that modern science and technology were indispensable to the development of the country. He declared: ‘Science alone can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, in sanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

This bears many similarities to the relationship ISRO enjoyed with subsequent heads of state. Most recently, Narendra Modi took great pride in the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission in September and the successful launch of the GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle in December, both 2014. He also called for ISRO to launch a SAARC satellite, a communication satellite to service South Asia’s nations, which the agency said in March would be ready in 18 months.

However, from 1975 until now in 2015, neither the government nor the agency has professed much interest in defining and pursuing long-term science programs. In that period, ISRO has launched around 60 non-scientific (indigenous) satellites and fewer than 10 scientific satellites. But over 40 years, the problem has evolved to one of systematicity. The problem is not that we haven’t had more scientific satellites but that we are missing a coherent agenda for scientific research. If such an agenda exists, and one hopes it does, it has remained hidden thanks to ISRO’s baffling lack of public outreach.

The 1975 agenda

If the people doubted the applications of Aryabhata and the Mars Orbiter at the times of their launches, they were also quickly won over by their eventual symbolic victories. No doubt these missions were among the most significant of their times, but going ahead, ISRO will have to translate the symbolism to achievements that are better grounded in research agendas and more meaningful to the country’s scientific research community, instead of scattering them across the landscape of our enterprise. A crucial part of this involves public outreach – putting out constant and frequent updates like it did leading up to, and for a bit after, the Mars Orbiter Mission.

Aryabhata’s designation as a satellite for astrophysics research was quickly forgotten as its four-day stint in space was used to herald a new era of resource-surveying and communications satellites. Similarly, the launch of the GSLV Mk-III was not accompanied by any discussions by ISRO on how it was going to leverage the increased payload capacities the advanced launch rocket brought. Finally, while the Mars Orbiter Mission can be seen as a demonstration of ISRO’s capabilities in executing interplanetary missions, the agency has failed to detail how precisely it will be useful for future missions or, in fact, what those missions might be.

Most antidepressant drug combos in India are unapproved

The Wire
May 17, 2015

The health of 120 million patients in India is in jeopardy because of the proliferation in the past decade of unapproved and unregulated combination drugs commonly used as anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and anti-psychotic medication, a new study has found.

The research findings are especially troubling for people who are depressed because 8-in-10 antidepressant and 7-in-10 anti-psychotic combination drugs in India don’t have the proper approval. Worldwide, depression has already taken over as the leading cause of disability but its treatment in India is largely unregulated.

Combination drugs – also known as fixed-drug combinations – is the term used for two or more drugs that are taken together in a single ‘dosage form’ like a tablet or capsule. They comprise a mix of chemical compounds that act on different enzymes in the body. Combination drugs are usually used to tackle prevalent infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. In India alone, from 2002 to 2013, 732 million units of combination drugs were sold, worth Rs. 1,820 crore.

The government body responsible for regulating the licensing, manufacture and distribution of combination drugs is the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation. This is a body whose diligence has often been questioned, notably by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, when it was pulled up for not having a permanent committee of medical experts attached to it.

Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from Mumbai and London has estimated the scale of unregulated combination drugs circulating in the market. Using data from the CDSCO and PharmaTrac, a database of national drug sales, the team estimated that 76 formulations of combination drugs were available in the market that weren’t approved by the CDSCO. Their total value: Rs. 470 crore.

Overall, since 1961, the CDSCO has approved only 69.3% of all combination drugs available in India.

The researchers, affiliated with the Foundation for Research in Community Health (Mumbai), the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, and the Queen Mary University of London, published their findings in the journal PLOS Medicine on May 12.

The 76 unapproved formulations together made up 129.3 million combinations that had been sold. They were split into four categories: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), metformin, antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs.

While there are rigorous regulations for combination drugs used to treat tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and for contraception, the researchers found 73% of NSAIDs and 81% of antidepressant combination drugs don’t have CDSCO approval. They also found that 20% of metformin and 70% of antipsychotics are unapproved.

In 2007, the CDSCO had banned the sale of 294 combination drugs. However, the drugs’ manufacturers were able to obtain a stay from the Madras High Court on grounds that the state government had provided them with the licenses to manufacture and sell the combination drugs. The conflict between the CDSCO and state authorities exists thanks to some ambiguously framed rules in the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945, which empowered state-level licensing bodies to make decisions overriding CDSCO approval. Though the rules were amended in May 2002, the CDSCO has taken few active measures to ensure manufacturers operating with old licenses had to get new ones – resulting in cases like the one still pending in the Madras High Court.

In the meantime, the lack of regulatory oversight means not only low-quality but also potentially dangerous combinations of drugs. What’s worse is that certain combination drugs may not be as effective as they promise to be.

In a 2008 article in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, CS Gautam and Lekha Saha of the Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, highlight the case of ‘irrational combinations’, where two drugs act on the same enzyme inside the body and therefore can’t provide better treatment than if just one of the two drugs were involved.

They use the example of nimesulide + paracetamol: “Nimesulide alone is more antipyretic than paracetamol, more anti-inflammatory than aspirin, and equivalent in analgesia to any of the NSAIDS alone, so efficacy gains are unlikely with added paracetamol”.

Irrationality has been the ground for nimesulide, and dextropropoxyphene, having been withdrawn in multiple countries. When consumed as part of NSAID combination drugs, nimesulide causes liver toxicity while dextropropoxyphene can be fatal. In India, however, 723 million tablets/capsules of nimesulide and 21 million tablets/capsules of dextropropoxyphene combination drugs were sold in 2011 alone.

An upvote for Ayurveda from the Swiss government – alongside homeopathy

The Wire
May 15, 2015

Despite the unsubstantiated science behind it, the Ayurveda medicine system was granted a vote of confidence by the Swiss government, swissinfo.ch reported on May 12. According to updates made to the Swiss Regulation of Complementary Medicine, Ayurveda practitioners will now be able to obtain a national diploma after passing a state-administered exam.

The updates followed intense lobbying after Ayurveda wasn’t included in a list of alternative therapies that could be covered by Swiss health insurance providers in 2005. They were anthroposophic medicine, phylotherapy, neural therapies, traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy. Until 2017, they will be included under basic health insurance packages on a trial basis.

Among others, anthroposophic medicine involves using mistletoe to cure cancer while neural therapies are based on injecting anaesthetics near nerve-centres. Phylotherapy is herbal medicine.

Ayurveda proponents had been asked to wait until 2017 before being considered again, according to the Swiss Professional Association for Ayurveda Practitioners and Therapists. Instead, the Ayurveda lobby had worked to induct it under the national diploma program.

Now, practitioners without a medical degree can obtain a professional qualification through the exam and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the health insurance sector. More, practitioners of three other systems of alternative medicine are now eligible for the exam: Chinese and European traditional medicine, and homeopathy.

Although seekers of alternative therapies can now pay a visit to someone who has passed a national exam instead of some other arbitrary test, it is Ayurveda’s dubious company that belies the credibility of the Swiss government’s decision. Homeopathy amongst them has been widely discredited for being pseudoscience and international government support has been largely withheld.

Without focusing on a single system, scientists believe the biggest effect of the Swiss government’s decision to recognise and fund alternative medicine – as opposed to evidence-based medicine – will be the credibility it will accrue without having presented objective proofs of effectiveness. Even if the Swiss government has said it will conduct independent investigations into whether the claims of alternative systems are dependable, many feel political pressure might lead to evaluators registering false-positives.

The situation parallels one in India, where Ayurveda has a market worth Rs.8,000 crore (2013) but is backed by research or data that is neither coherent nor of quality at par with that behind allopathic medicine, attributes that do nothing to allay the deep-seated and prevalent prejudice against non-Western medicine. Further, the Central Council for Research into Ayurvedic Sciences – which coordinates pharmacological research into alternative medicine systems in the country –does not conduct placebo-controlled clinical trials, the touchstone of medical research.

Simultaneously, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research continues to support research into areas like ayurgenomics – the use of ayurvedic principles to determine genetic predispositions to some diseases. Ayurgenomics in particular featured prominently in the manifesto that the BJP put out ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and which the party has continued to unabashedly support since it came to power. The result is the risk of legitimate practitioners of Ayurveda eschewing rigour in favour of political timing. The effect of political pressure is often to make the two indistinguishable.

In fact, the 2005 decision in Switzerland followed by a referendum in 2009, when not any scientific committee but 67 per cent of the Swiss electorate voted to include the five alternative systems under the basic health insurance package. In response to the verdict, Ignazio Cassis, then vice-chair of the Swiss Medical Association, had told New Scientist in 2011, “This isn’t science, it’s Swiss politics.”

As of 2011, Switzerland had 17,200 registered practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine, the most per capita in the world.

What’s up with the Nepal earthquake?

On April 25, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Nepal near its capital, Kathmandu. The country’s general underpreparedness for quakes together with flimsy public infrastructure resulted in the loss of over 6,600 lives (at last count; May 2). But the root of the blame lay with the Nepali and Indian governments’ inexplicable blindness toward the possibility of megaquakes in the region, which geologists from around the world have warned of since a decade. While India continues to plan hydroelectric projects in the region, Nepal has few quake-proof shelters, not to mention buildings that that can barely withstand one.

The scale of the disaster – with some projecting the eventual loss of life to hover around 10,000 – will serve as a shrill wake-up call. Aside from comparisons to the quake that ripped through Port au Prince in 2010, policymakers now have a sordid number to place on the cost of overestimating the Himalayan region’s geologic stability. People in the region will also likely (rather, hopefully) pay more attention to geologists, for whom this earthquake is both a tragic I-told-you-so moment as well as a call to study further one of the world’s most prominent yet poorly understood seismological hotspots.

The quake’s origins can be traced to the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Eurasian plate. Since the late 1980s, geologists have agreed that before the crash, the Indian plate was moving almost twice as fast as the other plates were for about 20 million years, at 140 mm/year, for over 6,000 km. Some 40-50 million years ago, the Indian plate rammed into the Eurasian plate, folding upwards and creating the Himalayas. The aggressive collision continues to this day, with India moving into Asia at 67 mm/year, pushing up the Himalayas at 5 mm/year. The tensions building up in the rock as a result keep the Himalayan range geologically active, with earthquakes as means to relieve the stresses.

Of particular concern is the central seismic gap, which runs northeast of Delhi along a region woven with unstable faults and including over 10 million people. Until April 25, observers had been concerned by the paucity of earthquakes in the gap: the longer there were no quakes, the more the pent up stresses, and the stronger a future quake will be. In February 2015, Priyanka Pulla had reported in Science that an earthquake that occurred in the CSG in 1505 could’ve been weaker than thought, further intensifying the chances of a “megaquake” in the future. One finally came to be near Kathmandu, and it likely won’t be the last.

The key to predicting future quakes, their occurrence patterns and locations will be to understand the structure and behavior of the earth below the Himalayas and – farther back in time – reconstructing a seismological history of the subterranean volume of rock.

A paper from March 12, 2015, from a team of researchers from India and Australia in the journal Lithosphere, attempts to answer the former question, describing the “spatial distribution of the rock uplift” in the western 400 km portion of the CSG. The researchers write,

Although the vulnerability of this region to large earthquakes has been identified for quite some time, the active structures that could potentially host a large seismic event remain poorly understood across much of the central seismic gap, particularly within the western half of the gap that spans the state of Uttarakhand, India. Since earthquake magnitude relates to rupture area, and therefore is a function of fault geometry, understanding which fault segments have accommodated slip over time scales of 1,000–10,000 yr is relevant to assessing where rupture might occur next in this region of the Himalaya and how large such an event could be.

The team’s conclusion describes an active thrust fault below Uttarakhand pregnant with enough tension to unleash a quake measuring at least 8 on the Richter scale. This, in a state already prone to crippling landslides and floods, and with 70% of its population (of about 10 million) residing in rural areas. They attribute the tremendous tension to a geometry of rock that has partially separated from a layer beneath and caused folds and deformations. The technical term for this geometry is a décollement:

the landscape and erosion rate patterns suggest that the décollement beneath the state of Uttarakhand provides a sufficiently large and coherent fault segment capable of hosting a great earthquake.

The answer to the second question – of how the Indian plate rammed into the Eurasian plate harder than usual – is what a team of researchers from MIT and the University of South California have taken a shot at in the May 4 issue of Nature Geoscience. The team uses numerical simulations to describe a scenario in which the Indian plate could’ve been actively pulled into the Eurasian plate as if its motion was lubricated by smoother mantle flow, over which our planet’s tectonic plates slide.

According to their tests, there could’ve been three plates – call them A, B and C – colliding near the Eurasian plate such that A was slipping under B and B was slipping under C. This double subduction zone formed a pipe-like volume beneath the subducted parts of A and B through which the flow of mantle was squeezed (see image). Evidently, the mantle flow would have been slower if A and B had been long (~10,000 km long) and closer together.

Illustration of a double-subduction zone and resulting mantle flow. Credit: Nature Geoscience (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2418)

Illustration of a double-subduction zone and resulting mantle flow. Credit: Nature Geoscience (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2418)

However, numerical simulations run by the team showed that if A and B had been shorter (~3,000 km long) and farther apart, the mantle flow through the pipe-like volume would’ve been fast enough to cause a drop in pressure underneath and pull the incoming Indian plate. And, according to Oliver Jagoutz, from MIT’s Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and his team, this is what could’ve happened – between the Indian plate (A), the Kshiroda plate (B) and the Eurasian plate (C).

The paper reads,

The model yields slow initial convergence at ∼40 mm/yr [until ~120 Myr], because viscous pressure is very high between slabs with a trench-parallel width of 10,000 km and young buoyant oceanic lithosphere, created at the extinct spreading ridge north of Greater India, is subducting beneath the Trans-Tethyan subduction system. Model rates begin to increase at ∼80 Myr because trench-parallel narrowing of the Trans-Tethyan subduction system from 10,000 to 3,000 km reduces the viscous pressure between the slabs and the sea floor entering the Trans-Tethyan subduction system is ageing and becoming more negatively buoyant. The former effect dominates, producing more than three-quarters of the rate increase at 75–70 Myr.

(‘Myr’ stands for million years.)

If these results are corroborated by other studies, the double-subduction mechanism will be a new way to understand how colliding plates could interact, and if they could move faster or slower over time depending on their physical dimensions. As Magali Billen, a geophysicist at the University of California, Davis, writes of the paper in a Nature News & Views piece,

There are other known mechanisms that can lead to rapid changes in plate motion. For example, an upwelling plume head can accelerate mantle flow and an increase in slab density during initial subduction of a plate through the mantle transition zone can accelerate slab descent . However, these mechanisms lead to short-lived, one-to two-million-year pulses of accelerated plate motion. In contrast, the mechanism of double subduction can generate sustained, 20-million-year-long intervals of rapid plate motion, similar to that recorded for the Indian Plate during the late Cretaceous [145-66 Myr ago].

In the study of giant hurricanes, the Saffir-Simpson scale provides a way to measure the relative magnitude of each storm. However, the scale has been calibrated on the basis of storms that have already occurred, and it’s not beyond nature to unleash a storm in the future that breaks the scale. Similarly, there haven’t been enough earthquakes logged in record books to know how many make a pattern, how much is too strong, or if there are time-bound ways to accurately predict earthquakes*. Without these patterns, geologists may accrue a vast body of knowledge yet still not come into a position to predict the time of the next earthquake and its probable magnitude in term for precautionary measures. As the noted geophysicist Roger Bilham wrote in the Annals of Geophysics (PDF) in 2004,

Perhaps the most disappointing observation is that despite a written tradition extending beyond 1500 B.C. we know very little about Indian earthquakes earlier than 500 years before the present, and records are close to complete only for earthquakes in the most recent 200 years. This presents a problem for estimating recurrence intervals between significant earthquakes, the holy grail of historic earthquake studies. Certainly no repetition of an earthquake has ever been recognized in the written record of India and the Himalaya, although great earthquakes in the Himalaya should do so at least once and possibly as much as three times each millennium.

Studies like the two discussed in this post, among a larger body of thousands like them, together allay this significant uncertainty. The Geoscience paper about double-subduction provides the sort of insights into plate tectonics that seismologists could use to describe the long-term behaviors of landmasses and their impact on natural resources in the region. On the other hand, the Lithosphere paper about the presence of active faults under areas like Uttarakhand allow scientists as well as politicos to explore ways to combating disasters in the shorter-term. Ultimately, the goal will be to achieve a prefect union of long-term and short-term knowledge to forecast and survive future earthquakes better.

*Another paper from Nature Geoscience this week discusses the conditions under which earthquake ‘supercycles’ – cycles spanning thousands of years – could manifest.

Thanks to:

  1. @TheCarbuncle
  2. The Seismological Society of America, which opened up access to 23 papers from its two journals “to foster the exchange of information about this region, and in an effort to fulfill our goal to “advance seismology and the understanding of earthquakes for the benefit of society” from two of its journals

Featured image: Something festers… deep in the heart of Middle Earth. Credit: Wikimedia Commons