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I had the opportunity to visit Sweden last month to attend a management program on Corporate Responsibility. It was an amazing experience. My most memorable experience was the visit to the Nobel Museum at Stockholm. We were lucky to have a very well informed guide. Let me narrate to you a cute story that I heard there. You see the chair below. There is a tradition that after the Nobel dinner the prize winner who signs behind the chair. Once there is no more space for signatures it is bought to the Nobel Museum.

There was one chair in the Museum which was kept locked in a glass case. We thought it belonged to a famous prize winner.

It turned out that this chair had the signature of Koichi Tanaka, a Chemistry Noble prize winner from Japan. He was only a salaried engineer with just a bachelor’s degree. He was not a PhD like most other winners. In fact, he is the first recipient of the chemistry prize with only a bachelor’s degree. He is very famous in Japan because of his unlikely achievement. All the tourist from Japan were insisting on sitting on this chair and taking a picture. They were not even interested in Einstein’s chair as much as this one. The chair was showing signs of breaking because of the demand and hence they decided to protect it in a  glass case.

Here are some more picture from the Museum

A brief about all the prize winner till date is hung a clothes line near the entrance of the Museum.

The hand written will of Alfred Nobel.  According to the guide the most revolutionary aspect of the will was the clause that the prize should be awarded without consideration of nationality. At the time it was written, it was very controversial since many swedes felt that Nobel was giving away his wealth to other countries. But it was this very same clause that made the prize so prestigious.

Inscriptions on the floor of the Museum

Me and our guide in front of Nobel’s will

Quotes by Nobel winners on the walls of the Museum

I am reading Super Freakanomics. I am enjoying it ever more than the first book. The chapter on global warming intrigued me the most because it seems to be so out of synch with the conventional wisdom. I want to share with you some radical thoughts and ideas from the chapter and am really interested in knowing what you think of these facts.

Cows flatulence, belching and manure emit methane which is 25% more potent then CO2.  Cows are responsible for about 50% more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.

Sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere can act as a sunscreen and reduce earth’s temperature. This was observed in 1991 when a powerful volcanic eruption in Mt Pinatubo spewed huge amounts of sulphuric ash in the sky and for two years it reduced the average temperature of the earth by 1F.

CO2 may have little to do with the current global warming. All the heavy particulate pollutants we generated in the past decades cooled the atmosphere by dimming the sun. The trend began to reverse as we started cleaning up our air and global warming may actually be the result of good environmental stewardship.

Ice-cap evidence of past several 100 years shows that carbondioxide levels increased after a rise in temperature and not the other way round.

CO2 is not a very efficient greenhouse gas. If you double the carbondioxide in the atmosphere it will only trap 2% of the outgoing radiation. It is subject to law of diminishing returns. Each additional gigaton of CO2, has less radiative impact than the previous one.

As the CO2 in the atmosphere increases, plants would require less water to grow.  Doubling of CO2 will result in 70% increase in plant growth.

The increase in sea level in not primarily driven by glaciers melting but by increasing ocean temperature. Sea levels have been rising since the last ice age and they are 425ft higher today. In the past century it has risen less than 8”.

Only 12% of the solar energy absorbed by the solar cells is converted to electricity, the rest of the energy absorbed in radiated as heat thus contributing to global warming.

In the past several years the average global temperature has decreased.

Some geoengineering solutions

200million tons of supher di oxide go into the atmosphere each year. All this stays in the troposphere. If  100,000 ton can be relocated to the higher troposphere, it can completely reverse the effects of global warming.

Solution1: 18mile long hose to the sky through which liquefied Sulphur di oxide can be sent up. This project would cost $20M with an annual operating cost of $10M.

Solution2: Simply extend the smoke stacks of some strategically located coal plants. A handful of coal plants emit more than the required amount of Sulphur to cool the planet. If we can extend their smoke stacks to 18miles it will be emitted in the stratosphere.

Some other geoengineering solutions are discussed in the book. What I found most appealing is that these don’t require large scale behavioral changes from us, which many people consider quite impractical and much more cost effective than most conventional solutions.

The question is, why aren’t these options more widely discussed? There must be a catch, right. What are your thoughts on this?

I spotted this book a couple of months back at a bookstore in Bangalore. It caught my eye because it dealt with many subjects that interest me –  Shiva, Indus Valley, river Saraswathi and real stories behind mythology. I read a couple of pages and found the style of writing very text bookish. I decided not to buy but instead borrow it from the library.

In the past couple of weeks many people wrote to me about this book. My friend Archana presented it for my birthday. On the same day my library delivered a copy. Another friend, Meenks wrote to me from the US recommending the book. He had read reviews of the book and thought I would like it. It was almost as if the entire universe was conspiring to make me read the book 🙂

All my friends were right, I loved the book. Although I was not mistaken in my initial assessment of the style of writing, I enjoyed it all the same.

 It is the story of Shiva, a Tibetan immigrant who comes to Meluha (mainland India) to escape from the incessant tribal wars in his countru. In Meluha he is given Somras which makes his throat turn blue. Thus he becomes Neelkanth, who the Meluhan legend says would be their savior. The story is about Shiva’s discovery of his true destiny. In the course of the story we are introduced to many mythological characters in their new Avatar. Brahma the Meluhan scientist who invents Somras, the drink of immortality. Saptharishis are selected students of Brahma to whom Somras was first administered. Lord Rama, an ancient king who broke the caste barrier to the access to Somras.  He laid down a social order which ensured that everyone got equal opportunities regardless of their birth.  Sati, the daughter of the current Meluhan king, Daksha. Manu, a Pandya kind from the land of Tamil sangam!!!!

I know, I know. I can hear many of you are screaming in protest at the blatant disregard for actual historical facts

Amish, the author the book has the imagination of a child. It is innocent, idealistic and without boundaries. And just like a child his story is very simplistic. It lacks the nuance and depth of an adult’s book.  Have you seen the cartoon network adaptation of Ramayan in English? This book gives you a similar feeling.  Shiva comes across as a cool dude of the new millennium who loves marijuana and has modern views of equality, justice and democracy.  Sati is the feminist of the last millennium, intelligent, well read and a warrior and yet willingly submissive to the rules of her tradition. She silently bears all the insults hurled at her and raises her voice only when someone insults Shiva. Towards the end Shiva resembles Ahoka, filled with grief for having fought a pointless war. There are also references to the ideological clash of communism and democracy.  The book is the first of a trilogy and the climax is cleverly crafted to make you long for the next one.

The Immortals of Meluha is very much a children’s book at heart. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Those of us who are closet comic book readers, who can still experience the magic of Astrix, Archie and Bhagavatam will understand its appeal.

It comes as no a surprise that the inspiration for this book was Cameron Diaz, since in many ways the book reads like a movie script. In author’s words “ the stories are as much about passion, love and revenge as it is about cool scientific discovery.” The book begins with the history of each component of the equation; e, m, c, =, 2 and this is the part I loved best. Towards the end, the book dumbs down a lot, with focus more on the politics of the atom bomb rather than the science behind it. This is part I did not like.

 Before the 1800s there was no overreaching notion of energy within which all “powers” could fit. Electricity was considered different from wind which was different from heat. Michael Faraday’s  work on the relationship between magnetism and electricity helped establish the concept of energy. He was a deeply religious man and felt that a single force spreading throughout the universe and never getting destroyed was proof of god’s design.

In 1543 Robert Recorde, a text book writer in England invented the “= “sign. It was widely adopted during Shakespeare’s time. The author says” A equation is not simply a formula for computation. Scientists started using the symbol =as something like a telescope for new ideas.

In 1700s a scientist named Lavoisier proved that matter moved from one form to another, it never ceased to exist. This discovery helped establish the concept of mass as a common theme running through all matter. It is really sad that such a great scientist was executed during the French revolution.

In 1676, a 21 year old Danish scientist called Ole Roamer proved that light travelled in finite speeds. Before him everyone assumed that light travelled at an infinite speed. Although he was able to accurately predict the appearance of Io, a planet of Jupiter, based on his calculations of  speed of light, for 50 years scientists did not accept his findings. This was because his boss, Cassini declared Roamer was wrong and used all his influence to ensure that the scientific community rejected Roamers discovery.

In 1726, a Dutch researcher, William sGravesande was making some observations by letting weights plummet into a soft clay floor. What he found was that if a small brass weight was pushed twice as fast as the previous one it was pushed four times as far into the clay. It was flung three times as fast, in went nine times as deep. Based on this research, a brilliant scientist Emilie Du Chatelet concluded that energy can be defines as the product of mass and the square of velocity (mv2). There is also an romantic dimension to this story. Du Chatelet was Voltaire’s lover and he used his influence as a writer and thinker  to establish her legacy.

The book goes on to describe how all these great scientists paved way to Einstein’s famous equation and his theory of relativity.

Apparently, Diaz’s statement that she would like to understand E=MC2 inspired this. I can definitely say that the book will connect to readers with no background in physics. To that extent the author has achieved what he set out to do.

I am re-entering the blogosphere after two years with a news that has been troubling me for over month. Stephen Hawking declared that aliens are likely to exist, but we should not try to make contact with them. He said, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

It seemed to be something right out of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. It got me thinking. Hawking seems to have based his hypothesis on the history of human civilization . Powerful countries colonized and imposed their culture on the less civilized ones.

 I am big fan of Carl Sagan and my love for astronomy began with the tele-series Cosmos. Most of us would be aware of his efforts to reach out to aligns. In his famous book “Contact”, he describes a fictional encounter with aliens, where they are described as friendly, benevolent and godlike beings. So, this revelation by Hawking, another scientist whom I greatly respect, whose book “The brief history of time” I truly admire, came something as a shock.

As I pondered over this statement, I was reminded of a theory which I read very long back. Every civilization goes through a phase called technological adolescence, just as human beings go through an adolescence phase which is fraught with danger. In case of human adolescence, there a role models and guides in the form of parents from whom they learn to navigate safely through this phase. Civilizations too go through a phase where they are technological advanced enough to wield a lot of power but not mature enough to handle it responsibly. Unlike human beings, civilizations do not have role models to learn from. So most of them tend to self-destruct during this phase.

By extension, any civilization which has emerged from technological adolescence, should be mature enough to control its aggression. It should have moved from a model of destroying and colonizing the weaker beings to collaborating and living synergistically with its environment. Just like how our civilization is coming to understand the evils of destruction and over utilization of resources. We are coming to terms with the fact that living in harmony with other living beings is vital to our survival. All of us would agree that our civilization can survive only if our collective better nature prevails. We stop fighting wars, stop discriminating on the basis of race, gender and religion, stopping felling trees and killing animals and over utilizing resources.

Wouldn’t this be true any advanced civilization. Even if their initial stages of evolution were violent, they could have survived the technological adolescence only by turning a page in their history. They could have survived only by developing a healthy respect for nature, only by understanding synergy and symbiosis. So why would they want to destroy us? In fact, Carl Sagan goes a step further and theorizes that the early messages from aliens may be on how to avoid technological disaster. How to safely pass from adolescence to maturity. These are the words of Carl Sagan “Perhaps the transmissions from advanced civilizations will describe which pathways of cultural evolution are likely to lead to the stability and longevity of an intelligent species, and which other paths lead to stagnation or degeneration or disaster. Perhaps there are straight-forward solutions, still undiscovered on Earth to problems of food shortages, population growth, energy supplies, dwindling resources, pollution and war. There is, of course, no guarantee that such would be the contents of an interstellar message; but it would be foolhardy to overlook the possibility.” (Ref)

Last week I watched a talk show on TV. The discussion was about the poor sex ration in India. As per one of the participants about a million female fetuses are aborted every year. This, in spite of the fact that sex determination is illegal in India.  In some regions like Punjab the ratio is as low as 725 females for every 1000 males. The sex ratio in India is 933(the world average in 1025). There were many interesting opinions expressed during the discussion.

One doctor was strongly in favor of sex determination. He asked “What is the purpose of bringing an unwanted child into this world. If the parents don’t want a girl child, wouldn’t the child have to face rejection though out her life?” There was another lady who had gone to the court stating, she had two girl children and she wanted a boy, so she should be allowed to determine the sex of her baby. She claimed that it would be the same if she had two boys and wanted a girl. To that someone replied, ”You cannot have designer families”

An expecting mother said that she would like to know the sex of her child, not because she wanted to select the sex but more because she would be able to bond better with her unborn child. A doctor, who was the creator of the first test tube baby in India said, “Banning sex determination without examining and correcting the larger social context which results in people not wanting a girl child, would be of no use. That is why this law is such a failure in India”.

That is an interesting point of view. I tried to examine this bias from my own social context. Having been born in family of generations of educated women, I never ever felt disadvantaged because of my gender. My mother and my grandma are both post graduates.  I always assumed that this kind of bias toward  boys, happens in a different class of society. I later discovered this is not true at all.

I was discussing this with my grandma. She has three girls, my mother being the eldest. She said that when her third daughter was born after a gap of 10 years, people refused to break the news to her. They thought she might die of shock and disappointment. My grandma told, “ I could not understand what all the fuss was about. But I understand now”. She is 80 years old and although she is financially independent she cannot live alone. She lives with my mom. She feels it is her son-in-law’s house. Whereas if she had a son, she could rightfully live with him. The second reason she gave was very interesting, “As a mother you are very emotionally invested in your daughters. Till you die their problems are yours, their children’s problems are yours. You always feel the need to protect them. Whereas with sons, after they are married you do not have that level of involvement in their life. You don’t feel so much pain”. I am not sure I agree with this argument. I have a son myself and I can’t think of any time when I would not feel the need to protect him or feel less emotionally invested in him.

My dad has two daughters and now I recall several instances when people used to express regret that he does not have a son. I just cannot understand this attitude. If people who are poor, are dependent on their sons for financial support, who do not have the means to get their daughters married what to have boys, it is understandable.  I wonder why this bias among people who have practically nothing loose by having a daughter.

Long ago I read an article written by an American journalist about female infanticide prevalent in several villages in South India. Most of these people live in appalling poverty and just cannot afford a female child. Whereas she found many women in Mumbai, who were rich and educated and hence had access to illegal sex determination clinics and routinely got their female fetuses aborted.  She says she had less sympathy for these women then those poverty stricken women in villages who killed their female children in desperation.

Do let me know what you think what you think about this issue. Why is there are predominant preference for a male child in our society? Do you think banning sex determination is the solution to the problem?

My husband and I are expecting our second child next month. We have been researching on Stem Cell Banking of Cord Blood for some time now. We spoke with two concerns which provide this service in Chennai, LifeCell and Jeevan blood bank.

Cord cell banking typically involves taking blood from the umbilical cord immediately after the baby is born. This blood is processed and preserved at -193C. It costs about Rs 75,000 to store it for 21 years.

From what I understood, stem cells from cord blood have been used successfully in curing leukemia. In most cases it has been used for the relatives, rather than the child itself.  It claims to help in the cure of 75 diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Arthritis. So far I have not found any evidence of this actually been done. I also heard that these stem cells cannot be cultured. Hence they can be used only once or twice. Which means if you use it for a relative (brother or father etc), it will not be available for the child.

If any of you have information or personal experiences to share on cord cell banking and its benefits, please do share it with me. It will help us take a more informed decision.