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Gujrat Thursday, 22 February, 2018 - 07:41

Scientists discover the first Ichthyosaur skeleton from India in Gujarat.

Ichthyosaurs were large marine reptiles which once lived in the Earth’s oceans. Though considered distant relatives of snakes and lizards, ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs. So far, scientists have found fossil evidences of these giant ‘fish-lizards’ in parts of South America, North America and Europe. However, recently, paleontologists from India have discovered one such fossil in the Kachchh basin of Gujarat.

“No ichthyosaur remains have been reported so far from the Triassic rocks of India. From the Jurassic, the skeleton collected by us is the first from India. It is the oldest known occurrence of ichthyosaurs in India and is the only near-complete skeleton of ichthyosaur from India”, says Dr. Prasad Guntupalli, one of the authors of the study by a team of researchers from Delhi University, Manipal University, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and Kachchh University. It was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Ichthyosaurs are believed to have existed since the early Triassic Period (about 250 million years ago) until the Cretaceous period (about 90 million years ago). Their diversity was known to have been greatly affected by the end Triassic mass extinction -- a global extinction event that occurred about 200 million years ago. Though they made a comeback during the Jurassic Period (200-145 million years ago), they were eventually wiped out of the planet in the early Late Cretaceous (90 million years ago).

Explaining the timeline of ichthyosaurs, Dr. Guntupalli says, “Around 250 million years ago, all the continents that we see today, was assembled into a single supercontinent known as Pangaea. This supercontinent broke up in the late Jurassic (160 million years ago) into two major continental blocks known as Gondwanaland (comprising of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, India and Madagascar) and Laurasia (consisting of North America, Europe and Asia)”.

Interestingly, most fossil remains so far of ichthyosaurs were found in Laurasian continents with limited occurrences from Gondwanaland. This discovery, one of the rare finds of near complete skeleton from the former Gondwanaland, has hence intrigued many. It was found in the lower Katrol Formation, a type of Jurassic rocks found in Kachchh. “The Upper Jurassic (152 million years) Katrol Formation is predominantly represented by sandstone and shale rocks”, says Dr. Guntupalli.

In the recent discovery, the researchers have presented a preliminary description of the ichthyosaur skeleton. The fossil remains at the excavation site included vertebral column, ribs, neural spines, gastralia (bones found between the sternum and the pelvis in reptiles) and two associated fins, alongside a part of the snout, jaws and other bone fragments. Further examination by the researchers revealed that the specimens belong to the family Ophthalmosauridae, which had a graceful dolphin-shaped body as long as 5.5 meters.

The discovery hints at the movement of animals between Indo-Madagascar and Mediterranean faunal provinces, during the Jurassic Period. Does it mean a possible seaway connected the two landmasses? If so, this seaway connected Tethys, an epicontinental sea that existed between Laurasia and Gondwanaland, which could have facilitated faunal exchanges between today’s Europe and Madagascar.

But, have you wondered how paleontologists excavate these fossil remains, study them to this depth, and find out who exactly these fossilized remains once were? “Fossils collected from the field are often embedded in rock matrix, as is the case with the Ichthyosaur skeleton we have collected from Kachchh. The first step we follow is to free the fossil specimen from rock matrix by cleaning with equipments like pneumatic tools and sand blaster, and sometimes by treating with mild acids”, explains Dr. Guntupalli, sharing some insights into his skillful work. “Following this, the fossils are treated with consolidants to strengthen fossils and finally deposited in a museum so that they are available for future study by any researcher and for display to the public”.

There have been quite a few related fossil discoveries in India. “Ichthyosaurs remains comprising of a few isolated teeth and fragmentary vertebrae, believed to be 100 million years old, have been discovered in the rocks of the Cauvery basin in South India”, says Dr. Guntupalli, adding that future explorations in remote areas such as Kachchh are expected to lead to more exciting discoveries of palaeontological significance.

Section: General, Science, Deep-dive Source:
Indore Wednesday, 21 February, 2018 - 16:19

Researchers from Indian Institute of Technology Indore, Indore have developed shape controlled cobalt ferrite nanoparticles, which can be used to accurately measure the humidity of a region.

Humidity denotes the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. Apart from affecting the climate of a region by affecting factors like dew, precipitation and fog, humidity in a region can also affect life. Humans and other animals which uses sweating as a means to control body temperature are affected as high humidity could reduce the amount of sweat produced, and thus affects our ability to effectively manage our body heat. South and Southeast Asia are among the most humid places, with many coastal areas in these regions recording the highest humidity values, due to their proximity to large bodies of water. Humidity in an area could also mean bad news to our electronic devices, leading to corrosion and other defects as a result of water vapour interacting with the electronics of a device. All these factors have led to a huge interest in accurate humidity sensors and humidity controllers.

In their latest research, scientist from IIT Indore developed shape controlled cobalt ferrite (CoFe2O4) nanoparticles (NP) and tested its ability to sense the humidity of a region. Cobalt ferrite NPs have emerged as suitable candidates for a number of technological applications like biosensors, gas sensors, magnetic recording media etc, due to their inherent magnetic, electrical, and mechanical properties along with high chemical stability.

For their study, the researchers used a solution method to produce the nanoparticles, which allowed greater control over the shape of the final product. By controlling the reaction time and amount of solvent, the researchers produced three types of NPs—spherical, cubic and hexagonal NPs for this study. They then tested the humidity sensing ability of all three types over a broad humidity range of 8-97% at room temperature. A high resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM) was used to validate the morphology and size of the three types of NPs, with the size varying between 23.5 to 25 nanometers.

The results suggest the morphology of the NPs playing an important role in the sensing ability of the NPs, with the hexagonal cobalt ferrite NPs displaying the highest humidity sensitivity value and good response and recovery time, among the three shapes. The team also provided a theoretical basis for the humidity sensing of cobalt ferrite using Freundlich adsorption isotherm model.

According to the researchers “the morphology-dependent humidity sensing performance of cobalt ferrite NPs indicates that they are most suitable for room temperature-based next-generation high-performance humidity sensors”

Section: General, Science, Technology, News Source: Link
Mohali Wednesday, 21 February, 2018 - 07:42

In this technology driven world, our quest for better, stronger, smaller, sleeker and more powerful devices has its effect on the environment we live in. Often, sourcing advanced materials to build the next best gadget ends up being unsustainable and hence, we must shift our mentality from one of ‘use-and-throw’ to ‘reuse-and-recycle’. This encompasses reusing all forms of waste, including agricultural waste. In an attempt to fill two needs with one deed, scientists at the Institute of Nano Science and Technology (INST), Mohali, Punjab, have devised a scalable and sustainable solution that may revolutionise energy storage devices, whilst tackling the problem of agricultural waste.

“Waste recycling worldwide is a major concern since landfilling is the most common way of dealing with solid agricultural waste in developing countries like India. On the other hand, biomass wastes are an abundant source of carbon, which is emerging as an alternative to green energy storage. Merging these two concerns throws some light on the focus of this project”, says Dr. Ramendra Sundar Dey from INST, who led this research.

Graphene, an allotrope of carbon and called the ‘wonder material’ due to its electrical and mechanical properties, is now evolving as an alternative to conventional energy storage devices like batteries and supercapacitors. High-quality graphene is currently fabricated by inefficient and unsustainable methods. “In most cases, hazardous and costly chemicals are used for graphitization - a method of degrading material by exposure to elevated temperatures. Large-scale production using this type of method will often lead to contamination of water bodies. Also, the final product may not always be reagent-free and may interfere with the purity of the material”, comments Dr. Dey.

In this study, the researchers describe a sustainable method to manufacture high-quality graphene nanosheets using waste peanut shells. The shells are ‘carbonised’ (an organic substance is converted into carbon) and processed to form small, low-volume pores that increase the surface area available for chemical reactions. The activated carbon material undergoes ‘mechanical exfoliation’, a common process that involves subjecting it to sound waves of enough energy to agitate the material into forming a mechanically and electrically stable honeycomb lattice structure, akin to graphene. The researchers then tested the electrochemical performance of the resulting material, called peanut shell derived exfoliated few-layer graphene (PS-FLG). They also tested PS-FLG by coating it onto sheets of indium tin oxide, and assembled with a gel electrolyte to form a solid state supercapacitor.

After suitable tests, the researchers found that the graphene from peanut shells had extremely high specific surface area - a desired parameter for better penetration of electrolyte ions, fast propagation and storage. The capacitor with PS-FLG also demonstrated 6 times higher energy density and 3.75 times higher power density than a similar morphology of few-layer graphene-like nanosheets achieved from waste coconut shell.

The researchers are now in the process of patenting the procedure. “The key parameter which makes it more sustainable than other methods is that the production is basically free of any hazardous chemicals or high-temperature furnace for graphitization. An age-old technique of mechanical exfoliation is introduced here for developing few-layer graphene. To the best of our knowledge, this technique makes our synthesis method stand out than the other methods involving agricultural waste materials”, says Dr. Dey.

Section: General, Science, Technology, Society, Deep-dive Source:
Bengaluru Tuesday, 20 February, 2018 - 16:27

Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Hon’ble Union Minister for Science and Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Earth Sciences, Govt. of India visited the Centre for Research and Education in Science and Technology (CREST), Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) at Hosakote. He was welcomed by Prof. P Sreekumar, Director of IIA and Prof. G C Anupama, Dean and Professor-in-charge of CREST and others at CREST.

CREST is a 40 acre sprawling campus with various facilities for space research. The campus houses the control room for remote operations of the two meter Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT), a part of the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) located at Hanle, Ladakh. It also houses the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope optics fabrication facility, where mirrors for the 30 meter telescope will be fabricated.

“The HCT is used to detect transient sources, like supernovae, which lasts only for a short time. It can be moved quickly to observe such fast phenomenon. It has also been used to explore exoplanets—a planet that lies outside our solar system” explains Prof. G C Anupama, Dean and Professor in-charge of IAO and CREST.

After an introduction to the remote operating capability at CREST, Dr. Harsh Vardhan interacted with engineers and scientist at IAO, Hanle via a video conference. The engineers explained the various parts and functionalities of the HCT, while the scientists explained the various observations it could be used for.

Following this, Dr. Harsh Vardhan also interacted with a few students who were working on the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

“Indian science is already comparable and, in some cases, exceeds that of anywhere else in the world. The Thirty Meter Telescope is a testament to this” remarked Dr. Harsh Vardhan during the visit. After the interaction, Dr. Harsh Vardhan visited the India TMT optics fabrication facility (ITOFF) at CREST and planted a sapling. Once operational, ITOFF will be the only facility in India for polishing thin, aspherical mirror segments. India’s share of 86 mirror segments of the TMT will be fabricated at this facility.

The TMT project is an international partnership between California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) and Universities in California, Canada, Japan, China and India. The telescope which was originally planned to come up near Mauna Kea in Hawaii, USA, is now expected to be built in Mauna kea, Hawaii or La Palma, in Canary Islands of Spain. Once built, it will be one of the largest land based telescopes, with nine times the light-gathering power of today’s best telescopes. Its massive 30 meter mirror will be comprised of segments made of 492 smaller individual mirrors. After it is operational, TMT will be a general purpose telescope, exploring great mysteries like the black holes at the center of galaxies, birth and evolution of galaxies, birth, evolution and death of stars and many more.

Editor’s note: There was an error in the mention of the place where the TMT would come up and it has a 30 metre mirror and not 30 foot mirror as stated earlier. The errors are regretted.

Section: General, Science, Technology, News, Events Source:
Bengaluru Tuesday, 20 February, 2018 - 08:03

The Hawaiian sun shines brightly over the placid Pacific Ocean. All of a sudden, a fountain of water breaks the surface! Whoosh! First a flipper, and then a gloriously large tail appears and disappears into the blue!

If you are wondering, the tail belongs to a whale -- the largest mammal on the planet. And this the treat everyone is waiting for at the 38th Maui Whale Festival -- a series of events that celebrate the humpback whales that migrate to Maui in Hawaii, USA, every winter. This annual event is organised by the Pacific Whale Foundation to create awareness about these magnificent mammals. But if you are not in Maui, should it stop you from being a part of the celebration and knowing more about these mysterious creatures? We believe, no!

Whales are remarkable not just for their staggering sizes (the blue whale can weigh upto 150 tons), but also for their remarkable migratory abilities. Whale migrations are one of the wonders of the ocean and the longest mammalian migrations ever known! These giants undertake journeys spanning tens of thousands of kilometres, braving ocean currents, ice sheets and endlessly vast expanses of unmarked water.

These aquatic mammals are widely distributed across the globe. They usually feed on plankton, krill, shrimp, small squids and other small marine creatures. Whales are of two types: Odontocetes – toothed whales such as dolphins, orca and sperm whales; and Mysticetes (also called baleen whales) – whales possessing a sieve-like comb to filter their food from the water, such as the humpback, blue and right whales.

What sets them off on their voyage?

Whales overcome seasonal changes in their environment by moving annually with changing ocean conditions and prey densities. Baleen whales swim to poles to feed in the plankton-rich cold waters during summer, and to more tropical, warm waters in winter to give birth. Toothed whales, on the other hand, move seasonally in a north-south direction, or offshore-inshore.
However, it is often found that whales do not necessarily migrate just in search of food. Sometimes, they do so to give birth in waters that are comfortable for the newborn calves.  Other times, they migrate to save their calves from predators like killer whales (also called orca). Whatever the drivers may be, whales swim astounding distances with routes criss-crossing ocean basins.

Marine biologists have identified persistent trails from the Gulf of California, the Hawaiian islands and the China Sea, to the Bering and Chukchi Seas; from South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina to the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Peninsula; from the Caribbean and the West Coast of Africa to the North Atlantic and the Arctic. Recent advances in photographic identification of individual whales, tagging and genetic capture-recapture studies have revealed that some humpbacks travel distances of about 10000 kilometres, almost twice of what was earlier believed!

The record for the longest migration is held by a female Western North Pacific Gray whale. Tagged in Sakhalin Island, Russia, she went on to reproduce off Baja California in Mexico, and returned to Sakhalin the following spring, covering a whopping 22511 kilometres -- more than half the earth’s circumference!

Whale navigation -- charting the route

Have you ever wondered how these amazing creatures navigate the murky depths of the ocean? Even in deep waters, tagged whales are found to travel long distances in perfect straight lines, indicating excellent navigation abilities. They are able to orient themselves with extreme precision over large expanses of featureless water surfaces, despite interference by strong ocean currents and weather phenomena.

That some individuals have in fact returned by a different route pays further tribute to their skill. Scientists feel that it is unlikely that such impressive and precise navigation can be explained purely by magnetic and solar orientation cues. It is seems reasonable to believe that whales employ alternate mechanisms alongside established models of directional orientation.

Whale songs -- melody on the go

In the aquatic medium, sound waves travel far better than light. Acoustic communication, therefore, is decidedly more effective than visual means in the marine environment. It is well known that vocalizations play a major role in communication between whales.  ‘Whale songs’ involve repetitive, long, low frequency calls. Certain species, especially the bowhead and the humpback, are highly vocal during migration.

Recordings of whale songs have revealed large aggregations of individuals during migration with high density of singing and synchronous exchange of calls. Therefore, it is plausible that they keep acoustic contact during their journey, allowing them to coordinate their movements and maintain cohesion of the herd. Some species of whales communicate using non-song sounds which they make by slapping and breaching the water surface. Social vocalization using such sounds is in an important part of communication between and within splitting and merging herds.

Roadblocks in the journey?

Given their acute sensitivity to sound, underwater human-induced noise is an increasing concern. Studies show that these gentle giants are adversely affected by underwater construction and explosions, seismic airguns used in oil and gas explorations, acoustic remote sensing experiments, acoustic fishing devices, and military sonar devices. These noises can cause injuries, damage hearing and disrupt feeding, mating and communication.

A bigger concern, perhaps, is climate change. Migrant species generally inhabit high latitude regions, where both the speed and magnitude of climate change are felt most acutely. Additionally, migratory species require suitable sites in multiple locations, each of which may be affected differently by a changing climate. As if this is not worrying enough, plankton is very sensitive to variations in temperature; even minor fluctuations cause large shifts in their population. This, in turn, could cause a severe crisis for the whales that depend heavily (quite literally!) on them for nutrition. With globally increasing temperatures, migrating whales are already facing longer journeys and reduced feeding opportunities as favourable bioclimatic zones inch polewards. Should we add more to their long journeys?

Credits for individual elements of the infographic : The sea surface temperatures map: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio The Blue Marble Next Generation data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC) and NASA's Earth Observatory. The Blue Marble data is courtesy of Reto Stockli (NASA/GSFC). Orca : Chris Huh, CC by SA 2.0. Gray whale : Selbst Fotografeirt CC by SA 2.0 de. Humpback whale : Jjw, CC by SA 4.0. Blue whale : Public domain.

Section: General, Science, Ecology, News, Infographics Source:
Kanpur Monday, 19 February, 2018 - 15:44

Researchers from Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Kanpur have come up with a potential roadmap to control diesel engine pollution, by looking at the different techniques available to curb emissions from a diesel engine.

Diesel fuel is generally produced as a byproduct of crude oil. Other means of extraction are also available, providing biodiesel. Diesel engine, first introduced in the late 1800s, is a type of internal combustion engine that compresses air and the fuel together to power the engine. The combustion of air and diesel produces oxides of nitrogen and soot, which if inhaled could cause damage to internal organs, leading to cancer.

Technological advancement over the decades of its existence has also meant engines which are much more efficient at burning their fuel and lower emission of pollutants. However, small amounts of pollutants are still emitted, even today.

Researchers from IITK have looked at the various options available to control emissions, and categorized them under two baskets-- active control techniques and passive control techniques.

Active control techniques refers to methods which reduce the pollutants within the combustion chamber itself. These include  include advancement in the combustion chamber design, use of smarter electronic fuel injection system, exhaust gas recirculation, high-pressure multi-fuel injection with precise injection timing, homogeneous charge compression ignition, etc. all of which restrict the formation of pollutants.

However, not all the pollutants are restricted from forming by just active control. To meet modern emission regulations, active control are teamed with passive control techniques. Passive control technique refers to after-treatment of the emissions to further reduce pollutants. These include after-treatment devices like diesel oxidation control, diesel particulate trap, NO x absorber, selective catalytic reduction.

An efficient combination of both these control techniques leads to lower pollutant emissions. The present research provides a guidebook to all the methods, both active and passive, that are currently available to control emissions and could lead to diesel engines with ever lower emission rates.

Section: General, Science, Technology, News Source: Link
Bengaluru Monday, 19 February, 2018 - 07:53

Humans have always been fascinated by symmetry. Many celebrated works of art are appreciated for their symmetry, such as the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, or Somnathpur temple above. Given the importance of symmetry in our lives, does the brain have a special way of processing symmetric objects? In a recent publication in Psychological Science, RT Pramod & SP Arun from the Centre for Neuroscience, IISc show that the response to symmetric objects at the level of single brain cells, or neurons, is not very remarkable. However, simple neural computations make symmetric objects stand out very clearly compared to other objects

The researchers based their investigation on a well-known rule of object summation. Single neurons in the monkey brain respond to some shapes but not others. For example, a neuron might respond strongly to a triangle but not a circle shape. However, the neural response to both triangle and circle shown side by side is the sum of the responses to the triangle and circle shown separately. In this study, the researchers wondered whether the same rule of simple summation applied for symmetric objects too. “Since symmetry is a property of the whole object but not of its parts, we reasoned that symmetric objects might be special in how their parts interact, compared to asymmetric objects”, says Prof. Arun.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers showed monkeys images of symmetric and asymmetric objects, while recording the activity of single neurons in the inferior temporal cortex, a region of the brain important for object perception. To their surprise, they found that the neural responses to symmetric and asymmetric objects were equally well explained as a sum of their parts. In other words, symmetric objects were not special in the way they were processed at the level of individual neurons. However, they found that symmetric objects were more ‘distinct’ than asymmetric objects, in the sense that symmetric objects evoked different patterns of neural firing compared to asymmetric objects.

The researchers then looked for an analogous effect in perception by performing experiments with human subjects. In one experiment, they asked human volunteers to identify the oddball item in an array of otherwise identical items. They found that the volunteers were able to find symmetric objects faster than asymmetric objects. The volunteers were then asked to perform a separate task in which they had to see individual objects and evaluate whether it was symmetric or asymmetric. The time they took to determine if an object was symmetric was closely related to its distinctiveness, confirming their hypothesis.

Based on their findings, the researchers proposed that even though single neurons respond to symmetric objects much like any other object, it is precisely the simple summation of responses at the single neuron level that causes symmetric objects to stand out among their asymmetric peers. Prof. Arun uses an elegant analogy with paint mixing to explain this concept. “Just as mixing very different paints results in similar colors, mixing different parts to create an asymmetric object makes it less distinct. In contrast, mixing identical parts to create a symmetric object maintains its distinctiveness”, he explains. Thus, simple computations in our brain can lead to profound advantages in perceiving symmetry, encapsulating the adage ‘great beauty lies in simplicity.’

Section: General, Science, Deep-dive Source:
Bengaluru Friday, 16 February, 2018 - 12:42

The European Union delegation is organizing a hackathon for smart city applications at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), here from today.

The hackathon aims to encourage designing new applications that a smart city could offer its citizens, its elected officials or its technical and administrative services.

Organised by the EU team a series of tutorials is already underway in four Indian cities for developers of applications from 12th of February. The programme is being organized in cooperation with Indian and European partners under an EU funded project for India-EU cooperation in ICT standardisation.

European Union Ambassador to India, Tomasz Kozlowski said, "This initiative is just one example of how we are implementing the decision taken at the India-EU Summit held on 6 October 2017 to broaden EU-India’s cooperation on ICT standardisation.”

The tutorials (in Delhi - 12 February; Hyderabad -14 February; Bengaluru - 15 February and Chandigarh -19 February) and hackathon (in Bengaluru on 16th February) will familiarise Indian developers – especially from start-ups and academia - with emerging global standards for machine-to-machine communications (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT). These standards are being developed by the global standardisation initiative "oneM2M", with active participation of the European and Indian standards development organisations (ETSI and TSDSI), and counterparts from Japan, Korea, China and the USA.

While the tutorials will combine training and hands-on exercises, the hackathon will be a challenge to develop real applications – in a smart city context - based on an open source implementation of oneM2M.

An eminent jury consisting of Estonian Ambassador (Riho Kruuv), industrialists, professionals, local elected representatives and staff of EU Delegation, TSDSI, ETSI and IISc will evaluate the proposals, on the basis of the demonstration by the participants on the model of a smart city.

Winning team of the hackathon will get a trip to Estonia, supported jointly by the European Union and Estonia, to attend the Estonian flagship startup and technology event Latitude59. In addition, selected participating team(s) will get direct access to the final jury for the SAP Startup Studio cohort of 2018-19, commencing end of May 2019, and thus an opportunity to receive several months of mentoring at the SAP Startup Studio in Bangalore.

A team from Institut National des Sciences Appliquées de Toulouse (INSA Toulouse), led by Prof. Thierry Monteil, an Internet of Things specialist and active participant in ICT standardisation, will support the implementation of the tutorials and hackathon on the ground.

One may recall, EU-India ICT Standards Standardization Project was started in 2015 with an aim to promote closer alignment between India and Europe with regard to the production and use of ICT standards and to harmonise the exchange of statistical data, thereby facilitating trade, increasing interoperability and the ease of doing business for companies.

Section: General, Science, News, Events Source:
New Delhi Friday, 16 February, 2018 - 07:54

According to the World Health Organization, the safe limit of PM2.5 concentration for humans is 25 micrograms/cubic metre. But, the fact that at any given time, the  PM2.5 levels in Delhi hover between 303.9 and 408.2 -- way above the safe level -- is no news! Newspaper headlines scream on toxic pollution levels and people wearing protective masks has become a common sight.

PM2.5 technically refers to tiny atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of up to 2.5 micrometers. They are often released into the air by the noisy engines of our vehicles, or by burning garbage or biomass, or by industries.

Amidst the frightening PM2.5 levels, many hope for that clean air coming their way some day. To convince us that there is action, statistics are dished out on huge amounts of money being sanctioned for pollution control. Alas, we do not even have official data to measure the exact impact of air pollution on the health of people. Are we taking a shot in the dark? Perhaps!

In the absence of data on deaths related to air pollution, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has decided to commission a study based on data from government hospitals across the country to get an accurate picture of health impact of air pollution. Decision by the CPCB apparently comes in the wake of alarming findings by a collaborative study called the ‘Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India’, which said that air pollution contributed to more than 10% of deaths in the country. In 2015, premature mortality attributed to air pollution contributed to nearly 1.1 million deaths. Of these, 75% were in the rural areas.

The CPCB was quoted by the media as saying that morbidity and mortality rates due to air pollution are being reported in the media without the knowledge of how these are being calculated. The reports quoted Ministry officials as saying that the government is developing a methodology for Indian conditions.

In 2015, the Government told the Parliament that 35,000 people had died due to acute respiratory infections across India between January 2006 and middle of 2015. The deaths are not directly attributed to air pollution.

The Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India study provides the first comprehensive analysis of the levels of fine particulate matter air pollution in India by source at the state level and their impact on health. It is the result of the Global Burden of Disease from Major Air Pollution Sources (GDB MAPS) project, an international collaboration of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Health Effects Institute, USA and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, USA.

The analysis showed that household burning and coal combustion are the single largest sources of air pollution-related health impact, with emissions from agricultural burning, anthropogenic dusts, transport, other diesel, and brick kilns also contributing significantly. Using three different scenarios projecting out to the year 2050, the study identifies in detail the challenges posed by the many sources of air pollution in India, but also highlights the significant progress that can be made.

Also in the year under study (2015), one in four deaths from particulate pollution in India was due to household biomass burning, the study said. Combustion of coal in power plants and industries led to 15% of pollution-related deaths. Together, these sources took 437,000 lives in 2015, mostly in rural India. As many as 1.09 million deaths were attributed to PM2.5 pollution, data show. Even with the most active reductions under an ‘aspirational’ scenario, PM2.5 exposure is projected to cause 2.5 million deaths in 2050.

Amid wrangling as to whether ‘air pollution’ causes deaths, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in January issued notices to all states and union territories on the issue of vehicular pollution affecting the respiratory system and even the reproductive health of traffic police. This move comes in the wake of an application by Dr. Sanjay Kulshreshtha  to the NHRC that the traffic police were the worst hit because of vehicular pollution as they performed duties at crossings where pollution levels were maximum.

As response to the NHRC directive is awaited, a newspaper report said that the air teenage girls breath may be causing irregular menstrual cycles and that the negative health effects from air pollution exposure are infertility, metabolic syndrome and polycystic ovarian syndrome. The study, published in the journal Human Reproduction is the first to show that exposure to air pollution among teen girls is associated with slightly increased chances of menstrual irregularity.

If you thought this was an ‘urban’ problem, people living in rural areas have no reason to celebrate when it comes to breathing clean air, either! The production of straw in Punjab and Haryana has been around 28.5 million tonnes, of which 20.1 million tonnes is burnt to clear the agricultural land for Rabi crops. Smoke from this travels and settles over areas around Delhi, adding to the toxicity created by dust and polluting emissions. Exposure to PM2.5 from burning of domestic biomass chulha is the deadliest source of air pollution in India, responsible for around 25% of pollution linked deaths in the country, according to the Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India study.

The Central Government has decided to earmark Rs.1000 crore in the coming budget to tackle the problem of stubble burning in Delhi’s neighbouring states, in an effort to make the capital’s air more breathable.

If you thought long road trips was a way to escape the city’s busy life, and the pollution, think again. A news report by Research Matters says that the exposure to PM2.5 exceeded the permissible limit even on national highways. Passengers travelling in a non-AC car were the most affected, as compared those traveling by bus and AC cars.

Going by the trend, clean air definitely seems to be a distant dream.

Section: General, Science, News, Featured Source:
Bengaluru Thursday, 15 February, 2018 - 12:12

Do animals have consciousness and free will? Are they capable of making informed decisions or do they merely act out based on instinct?

A unique interaction and discussion took place at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, on 14th of February on “Animal Minds”. The session consisted of a philosophical enquiry into the minds or the lack thereof, of non-human animals.

Prof. Anindya Sinha, a primatologist from NIAS, Mr. Nitesh Anchan, a doctoral scholar and Mr. Nishant M Srinivasaiah, also a doctoral scholar, presented varied approaches with which they address this question in philosophy though their respective research.

Mr. Anchan approached the question of whether animals have minds through the lens of history. Starting as far back as the 384 BC with Aristotle’s ideas on the subject of mind which consisted of a hierarchy with humans at the top of the list, and animals at the bottom, to Darwin’s ideas on the subject: the difference between humans and non-human animals was only one of degree and not of type.

Coming from the other side of the timeline, Prof. Sinha presented his work on Bonnet Macaques. He expressed his view that the study of behaviour was the only means we possess to empirically analyse the existence of an animal mind. He recounted the experiments conducted in the field which recorded a novel behaviour in the juvenile Macaques. The animals showed higher cognitive abilities by interacting with humans through vocalisations and hand gestures, to ask for food.

Prof. Sinha argued that the animal gestures were referential and intentional, specifically to attract the humans attention, as the Macaque only extended its hand when it made eye contact with the human. He went on to say that cognition is embedded in behaviour directly and that such a combination of different kinds of signals could be an early cognitive precursor for human language.

Mr. Srinivasaiah who works on wild Asian Elephants also, added to the arguments that Prof. Sinha was making by recounting his experiences in the field. He made a case for how interaction with humans is making elephants adapt to novel challenges in their surroundings through conscious decision making. He presented results of how information is passed through the only male groups formed in elephants, which is a recent phenomenon. The researchers think that these male groups are formed so that the younger males can benefit from the knowledge of older males while navigating through an increasingly human dominated landscape. He provided an example of how younger males that associate with crop raiding older elephants are more likely to raid fields later in their lives, when compared to younger males associating with older males that do not engage in crop raiding behaviour.

Or how upon encountering a novel object in their surroundings, namely a camera trap equipped with a flash, the elephants were seen to gauge whether it posed a threat and when they were certain it did not, they still came back to look for it while passing by. These findings suggested that they were aware of the changes in their surroundings, and were making decisions and changing their behaviour appropriately to tackle them.

When the discussion was left open to the audience many questions were added to the interaction showcasing exactly how deep this question is. Starting from what would be the distinction between a human and a non-human to whether we should look at the evolution of behaviour through the lens of Darwinism or Lamarckism were touched upon.

The NIAS Wednesday Discussion meeting, of which this discussion was a part, are held on every Wednesday as part of a larger outreach program. The faculty and students of the Institute meet every Wednesday morning for academic discussions after a lecture usually delivered by one of its members.

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