Industrialise or perish …

During the construction of the KRS Dam in Mysore in 1924, the chief engineer had a peculiar habit. They used candles for lighting in those days. Every evening at 7 pm, the chief engineer would extinguish his candles, pull out another set of candles from his suitcase and light those instead.

His mystified assistant asked him why he did this every evening. And the chief engineer replied, “Upto 7 pm, I do official work, for which I use the candles supplied by the government. After 7 pm, I do my personal work, for which I use my personal candles. I will never use government candles for my personal work.”

That was Bharat Ratna Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya, the first global-level engineer produced by our country. Today is his 156th birthday. This day is celebrated as Engineers Day in India.

Sir MV as he was popularly known, was an engineering genius, a statesman, scholar, former Diwan of Mysore and a man of exceptional integrity. Here in Bangalore, MV is known as the Father of modern Karnataka.

MV was born in Muddenahalli, a small village about 80 km from Bangalore. After obtaining his BA from Central College Bangalore, he did his civil engineering from the College of Science at Pune. His first job was at the Public Works Department at Bombay. From there he went on to work with the Indian Irrigation Commission. He designed complex irrigation systems in Maharashtra and Gujarat (then known as Bombay Presidency) and automatic floodgates for the Khadakvasla dam at Pune, for the first time in India. After that, Sir MV designed and implemented one mega-project after another across India.

Opting for early retirement at the age of 48, MV continued to work as a consulting engineer. At the request of the Nizam of Hyderabad, MV designed a unique system of tanks to contain the devastating annual floods in Hyderabad. The famous Tank Bund that connects the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad is MV’s brainchild. Soon after, in 1908, MV was appointed as the Chief Engineer of Mysore and later the Diwan of Mysore, till 1919. The first thing that MV did after he became the Diwan was to invite all his relatives for dinner. At the end of that dinner, MV told them never to approach him for any personal favors!

During his tenure, Mysore flourished, as he implemented irrigation works, power projects, factories, public institutions and engineering colleges throughout the kingdom. His greatest achievement was the Krishnarajasagar Dam at Mysore. The dam was one the largest in the world at that time.

In 1915, he was knighted by the British, and after independence, during the tenure of Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister, Sir MV received India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna in 1955.

In acknowledgement, MV wrote to Nehru, “If you feel that by giving me this title, I will praise your government, you will be disappointed.”

That was the man he was.

In turn, Nehru wrote back that the award was given to Sir MV for his services, and not to silence him!

MV had a simple and clear policy – Industrialise or Perish. That policy frequently put him at odds with Mahatma Gandhi, although he had a good personal relationship with him. In fact, MV openly opposed Gandhi’s non-co-operation movement in 1921. And he went even further. In a letter to Gandhi on the eve of the first Round Table Conference in London in 1930, Sir MV advised him to wear proper clothes! MV was an immaculate dresser himself, always seen in well-tailored suits and a characteristic Mysore peta on his head.

MV led a spartan life. He was a strict vegetarian and teetotaller. His fondness for Nanjangud bananas was well known. Unfortunately, that variety is almost extinct in Karnataka now.

MV died in Bangalore in 1962 at the age of 102 and was cremated at Muddenahalli, his birthplace. Muddenahalli is now being developed as a premier academic hub in South India.

“It is better to serve like steel, than rust and wither away like iron”. … Sir M Visvesvarayya, Sept 15, 1860 – April 14, 1962.

Cheers … Srini.

Death by Diclofenac – Save the Indian Vulture.

long billed vulture compressed
Indian vulture pair (Gyps indicus) at Ramadevarabetta, 50 km from Bangalore. © SK Srinivas

The Indian vulture is close to extinction.

There was a time when nine different vulture species ruled the Indian skies. Now, this majestic genus of scavengers is officially listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered – and that’s one step away from extinction. Once upon a time, there were 80 million vultures in India. Now, there are a few thousand left.

The primary cause for the eradication of vulture populations is absurdly simple – a drug called diclofenac.diclofenac

This drug is a popular pain-killer, commonly prescribed by doctors and also available over the counter without a prescription. Diclofenac is used, or rather misused, by people who use animals for hard labor, in villages and cities across India. You see, the drug reduces muscle soreness and joint pain. That allows people to push their animals harder and harder, until they die from sheer exhaustion.

After death, people simply discard the carcasses for scavengers to feed on. The problem is, many bird species cannot tolerate diclofenac. Unlike humans, Indian vultures lack certain enzymes that are needed to break down diclofenac. As a result, diclofenac is extremely toxic to vultures. It causes acute liver and kidney failure. Vultures die within hours of ingesting flesh that contains even traces of diclofenac.

This was discovered only in 2003. Less than a decade later, vulture populations in India have fallen by 98%. That’s ninety-eight percent. Although diclofenac was officially banned for veterinary use in 2006, its illegal use still continues.

If vultures become extinct in India, what will follow is chaos. The vulture is a perfect scavenger. This is because its stomach acid is so strong that it destroys almost all pathogenic germs, thereby putting a dead stop to diseases that can arise from rotting carcasses.

If vultures do not exist, their place will be taken by rats and stray dogs, with catastrophic consequences. Rats and dogs are inefficient scavengers and they readily transmit germs from rotting carcasses to humans. As it is, India has the world’s largest population of stray dogs – and the world’s highest number of deaths due to rabies. At any given hour in India, there are two deaths due to rabies and one thousand eight hundred dog bites.

That situation will get far worse when there will be a huge increase in rats and feral dogs, after vultures go extinct. We can expect widespread epidemics of rabies, plague, anthrax and leptospirosis.

The economic costs will be astronomical, estimated at a BILLION dollars per annum.

There are some groups of deeply worried people that are fighting to save the vulture, with limited success. Vulture populations continue to decline, however, largely due to public apathy.

egyptian vulture001-comp
Pair of Egyptian vultures, at Ramadevarabetta. © SK Srinivas

In South India, one nesting site for vultures is Ramadevarabetta, a rocky hill at Ramanagaram, about 50km from Bangalore. This place is better known as Ramgad, where India’s most successful movie, Sholay was filmed from 1973 to 1975.

Once, Ramadevarabetta had hundreds of vultures.  Now, you’re lucky if you sight any. The Karnataka government made the site a preserve for vultures and banned the veterinary use of diclofenac, with negligible effect.

What can you do as an individual? Simple. Stop using diclofenac and other fenac painkillers, for your aches and pains. There are many effective painkillers available to you, that are not toxic to vultures and other birds, like piroxicam, meloxicam, paracetamol, and celecoxib, to name a few. Tell your doctor not to prescribe anything containing diclofenac and closely related drugs like aceclofenac.

Be nice to the Vulture. Or watch your childrens’ future go the dogs – literally.

NO cheers … Srini.

BUVUOS KOCKA … The Magic Cube

It drove us nuts when we were young. It spawned an entire generation of geeks and created a complete branch of mathematics.

It’s the most popular puzzle and the highest selling toy of all time – Rubik’s Cube.

Hungarian architect Enro Rubik designed, hand-carved and assembled the Cube in 1974. Having made it, Rubik realized it was impossible to solve the puzzle by twisting at random. It took him more than a month to figure out the solution to his own puzzle. The Cube became popular after Rubik joined Tibor Laczi, a Hungarian businessman and amateur mathematician. With the help of British toy expert Tom Kremer, Laczi sold a million pieces to Ideal Toy Corporation, which eventually bought the rights to Rubik’s Cube, and made it a household name.

Cube Trivia: The Cube has only ONE correct solution. And 43 quintillion wrong ones. That’s 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 wrong answers!

More than 350 million Cubes have been sold till date, and it is estimated that one-eighth of the world’s population has tried to solve it. It takes a minimum of fifty-two moves to solve it. The official world record is held by Vietnamese Minh Thai at 22.95 seconds. If you try to solve the cube by randomly twisting at one move per second, you can keep doing it for every second of your entire life and still get nowhere. Cube-induced inflammation of the wrists and fingers was common in the eighties. There’s even an official medical term for it – Rubik’s wrist. Just like Blackberry thumb!

“It was wonderful, to see how, after only a few turns, the colors became mixed … After a while I decided … let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the Big Challenge: What is the way home?” – Enro Rubik, 1974

P.S: BUVUOS KOCKA is Hungarian for Magic Cube.

Biotech for dummies …

Greetings Fellow Primates :

The Age of Biotech is upon us, whether you like it or not. So don’t you think it’s about time you became BT-literate?

Public domain image - by JJ of Wikipedia Commons

Biotechnology involves the use of cellular and molecular processes to make products. And by ‘cells’ one also means human cells. And guess what …we’ve been doing it since the Stone Age. Humans have used microorganisms since millennia to make useful products like bread, cheese, yoghurt, and mankind’s most profitable biotech product till date – booze.

So what now? Well, over the past two decades, our understanding of biology has reached a point where we can actually program the smallest parts of organisms, their cells and molecules to do what we want them to do.

Actually biotechnology is a multi-disciplinary field, a collection of various technologies, ranging from biology, physics and chemistry all the way to mathematics, statistics, electronics and IT.  It is truly the technology of life.

BT applications are awesome and staggering in their scope and impact. Here are just a few applications:

Monoclonal antibody technology can create highly specific antibody cells that can seek and find cancer cells and diagnose infectious diseases in humans and do it fast.

Cell culture can grow cells outside of living organisms. Its applications alone would fill a library. We can, for example, grow plant cells and harvest potent drugs from them at will.

Biosensors combine biology with microelectronics, to produce astonishing detecting devices that could, in principle, perform any diagnostic test you care to name.

Recombinant DNA technology is what really catches everyone’s fancy. We can actually modify combine genes at the molecular level.  And many people don’t like that.  For Recombinant technology can literally change the face of Mankind. Currently, we use it to produce new vaccines; treat some genetic diseases; develop new drugs; increase crop yields; develop biodegradable plastics; improve food nutritional value and lots of other mind-boggling things. Including ‘blasphemy’ like cell cloning.

Proteomics will be used to improve existing proteins, especially enzymes, andcreate proteins not found in nature. Chemicals, textiles, pharmaceuticals, paper, food, metal and and energy industries have already  benefited from cleaner, more efficient production made possible by BT.