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Building Myself from Scratch

I was watching a sixties movie last week. Halfway through the black-and-white classic I remembered having heard from my father’s mouth that this was an outstanding movie. I was surprised that I had that insignificant and meaningless (to me then) one sentence film review in my memory because I must have been under 10 then. The movie really was very well made. It wasn’t a popular movie then and isn’t remembered much now either. It suited my taste and style though. I asked myself if I had acquired that taste from my father. This could be my wishful thinking. Yet it always amazes me to think how that half set of genes of each of my parents eventually shaped me to this day. How this 60+ kilos of my body with all its fully functioning organs emerged from that single tiny cell formed about 38 weeks before my birth? Read on …

Post-COVID-19 World: Is De-urbanisation on the Cards?

Cities emerged most likely as a consequence of the mankind’s shift to agriculture as the dominant occupation. Unprecedented urbanisation happened as an aftermath of the industrial revolution. So it’s basically the economic need that drove us here. Social needs hardly require us to live amidst hundreds of thousands of other people around. Now with internet connecting us without the need to be physically connected, it’s time we questioned the old, and still very much in vogue, model of city based services. Do we continue to allow the megacity dinosaur grow or let the small town/village birds fly? Here in this article I compare evolution of civilisation with evolution of life. Read on…

The Loan of Water

We animals are, in a way, freeloaders. Plants do primary production and we consume. However we owe plants some favour in return. Here in my interdisciplinary take on animal-plant interactions and the water scenario I try to explain the give-and-take relationship. A bit of philosophy too is thrown in the mix. I find the overlapping boundaries of different scientific disciplines most interesting. 5 minutes read…

The Bright Side of Viruses

It’s natural to think of viruses as enemies of mankind. More so when we are in the middle of a pandemic. But things aren’t quite that bad when we extrapolate the impact to all living beings throughout the history of life. I wrote this short article where I tried to explain one benefit of viruses which has had a huge impact on who we are. There is also a high level overview of how viruses operate. Please read if you are interested. If the topic fires your curiosity, Carl Zimmer’s ‘A Planet of Viruses’ is a good beginners level book and the book referenced in the article is a pretty detailed take on the science of viruses.

Lovelock Writes at 100

We are the “highest” species on the Earth, at least in our anthropocentric view. Would we continue to dominate in future? No, says the visionary James Lovelock. Who then is going to take over? When? Are we going to continue or become extinct? Read on… only 3 minutes long…

Minding the Body

“सिर्फ अहसास है ये रूह से महसूस करो”
Why do we feel what we feel? Is there science behind how we make decisions? Read this 5 minute article by me curated by Medium.

“…When I am running out of energy, my body tells me to go and get some food. Or drink. Its alerting mechanism comprises of, among other things, the feelings of hunger and thirst. I cannot ignore these prompts for long. These are bodily sensations that belong to a particular type of feelings. Some other feelings are purely mental…”

Game, set, match Mother, by design

Almost like a ritual before preparing to serve, a tennis player picks up three balls, looks at them once and rejects one. How efficiently could one reject a bad ball out of three with just a casual glance? Yet statistically this process makes sense. If not for one’s inability to grab more than three, the player has a better chance of ending up with the best two balls if there are more balls to reject. Anyway, this act passes off as a trivial routine – too mundane to register in our minds focussed on what is going to happen when the ball is in play. But this is exactly the process that mitochondria follow at a crucial stage in our lives and this has a huge impact on who we are.

A mitochondrion is technically an organelle – a tiny organ inside a cell. One of the curious features of mitochondrion is that, like a cell, it has its own DNA. This sure sets it apart from other functional organelles inside the cell and raises its status as something that might have its own life. Indeed it is now widely recognized that mitochondria were once free living bacteria that an ancient cell had engulfed. It has been living inside and producing offspring ever since. Mitochondria multiply and so do mitochondrial DNA. Cells too multiply and divide the mitochondrial population among themselves.

So far so good. But then something happens to certain cells as a result of organisms performing sex which disturbs this usual peaceful settlement process. These ‘sex-related’ cells are called germ cells. When an organism performs the act of sex, a germ cell from outside (sperm) fuses with the resident germ cell (egg) along with its genetic content. The two DNAs recombine and become DNA of the fused cell. Now think of the mitochondria inside each of the fusing cells. There are two sets of populations – one from Mars (sperm) and the other from Venus (egg). Too many individuals to accommodate in a restricted space. Some primitive form of sex had the two parties settle the score among themselves by trying to kill each other. Things are much streamlined in higher organisms like us humans. Not sure if this was a peaceful solution but one set of mitochondria completely vanishes from the scene and the individuals belonging to the other set occupy the newly formed cell. No prize for guessing which group sacrifices itself. The intruders – the mitochondria that previously belonged to the sperm cell – of course.

The offspring of mitochondria that belong to the mother organism’s germ cell occupy the newborn fused cell which eventually develops into a new individual organism. And life goes on. In all animals and most plants and other eukaryotes, only mother’s mitochondria are passed on to the next generation. The male’s only contribution is in providing sperm for sex. Everything else is a dead end for male. So much for the patriarchal society we are proud of!

Besides nurturing the egg and, in mammals, the pre-birth baby, the female body carries out some amazing processes inside the egg cell before and after sexual fusion that are beneficial to the offspring and to the living world in general. To be precise, to the mitochondria. One such process of great significance is called mitochondrial bottleneck. Let me explain.

The single biggest threat to life is damage to its DNA. Back in the times of early Earth, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun would do most of DNA damage. These days, a slow process of damage happens in the form of mutation during the process of creating copies. A few random mutations here and there are non-life-threatening. However, in bacteria such mutations tend to accumulate in the cells and over a period of time could potentially cause extinction of the species. The phenomenon has a popular scientific name – Muller’s ratchet. Mitochondrial bottleneck during the process of fertilization is a mechanism to mitigate the risk posed by accumulating mutations. Just like that tennis player, the egg cell sorts its mitochondrial DNA in clusters and then selects only a few to be passed along while rejecting the rest. Statistically, this process leads to reduced mutations in the mitochondrial DNA that is eventually passed on to the offspring thus ensuring a safer mitochondrial genome for the next generation.

You may be thinking, but that ‘purifies’ the mitochondrial DNA and not the DNA of the cell that in reality is the blueprint of an individual. How important are mitochondria to the overall functioning of the cell and eventually to the organism is a topic in itself – too big to cover here. From the obvious respiration which provides energy, to control of almost every aspect of the cell including sex, ageing and death, mitochondria have a critical role in our well-being. And in a yet another clever design by nature, a mother will pass on more mutational load to her male offspring (that cannot pass on the deleterious mutations further) than to her female progeny. This phenomenon – often referred to as mother’s curse – has been studied in the fly Drosophila – the most common guinea pig for genetics studies (Innocenti et al., 2011) and is likely to be present in all animals. If you are a male reading this, bad luck, but it’s just nature’s design to ensure the protection of what matters most – mitochondrial DNA!

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Innocenti et al. (2011) Experimental Evidence Supports a Sex-Specific Selective Sieve in Mitochondrial Genome Evolution. Science, 332, 6031.

Needless grapes

It took nature more than a billion years since the Earth was born to devise a mechanism for trapping Sun’s energy. This made life in the ocean self-sufficient. Then around half a billion years ago, it delegated the responsibility to plants and animals to carry life forward. To uncharted territories. Plants marched towards the land. Animals came along.

Passing the baton from generation to generation, life kept on conquering territories. There was a big deterrent on land though. In water based plants, male sperms swim to meet the female egg for fertilization. The fertilized egg then needs water to germinate. Water wasn’t as readily available on land as in the ocean. The very core of life’s survival – reproduction – was under threat.

After struggling for another 100 million years, nature invented pollens that carried the male sperms to the female egg using the wind. A neat strategy to overcome dependence on water. Sperms in the pollen and egg fertilize to produce seed which then germinates into a new plant on wet ground.

Now what if there’s not enough wind to carry pollens? Nature looked around and saw insects. They were feeding on pollen-bearing organs with no apparent benefit to the plant. Why not use these freeloaders to carry pollens? But they needed to be tricked into doing so. Thus came about one of the most effective innovations of nature – a rare combination of beauty and utility – flowers. Their colours and fragrance attracted the insects. They found nectar in there which they fed on unaware that the plants quietly loaded pollens onto them while they were busy feeding. This was a huge relief. Plants no longer needed to depend on natural agents – water or wind – to transport sperms to eggs. Reproduction was back on in full swing.

With plants going to far away places via this newfound reproductive strategy, a new challenge surfaced. The seeds that were produced as a result of fertilization still needed water to germinate. How do you carry the seed to wet grounds?

The plants went for the tried-and-tested strategy. They added an enticing structure called fruit around the seed. Again, it was not just a marketing ploy full of colours and fragrance. It did have value proposition too in the form of food. Many birds and mammals fell for it and inadvertently participated in dispersal of seeds.

And then came to this world a bipedal animal with specially modified thumb to easily pick fruits. This gave him advantage over other creatures. He did not however stop at helping the cause of plants by dispersing the seeds. He used the advantageous grip to pick and throw stones and other tools at fellow animals. He then began consuming the seeds on a large scale. Worse, he even invented seedless grapes!

Why this sexpensive business?

Sex is expensive. At a minimum, it requires persons of opposite gender to come together. It may superficially seem to be a non-issue because for every female, there is a male around (well almost). But it does take quite a lot for a person from Venus and another from Mars to come to a meeting place on Earth. Yet getting together is just the beginning. They must then like each other to begin a meaningful conversation that could lead them further. Thereafter they need to love each other. It demands a lot of effort to impress one another. Too much energy goes in singing, dancing, feeding, eating, gift buying, villain-bashing, showing off beauty and strength, chatting (love letters in the past), and so on. All done. Then each of the lovers need to shun the competition. Because signalling does not discriminate between individuals of the opposite gender. Ask a plant which spends so much energy producing flowers with all their visual beauty and fragrance and then gets a bunch of freeloader insects who would not assist with pollination. Is it all worth it?

The above para was intended for fun. But there is a huge scientific cost too to this whole business of sex. Finding mates is a huge biological/ecological problem. Then there are costs associated with the fundamental sexual process of cell division – meiosis. Unlike mitosis (cloning) which finishes in under 2 hours usually, the sexual cell division of meiosis takes much longer to finish. If a female were to self-reproduce, she could pass all of her genetic material to the offspring and not just half. And then, ecologically speaking, half of the progeny in the form of males would not need to be produced at all. Why even bring these un(re)productive beings to life just to eat up resources?

What on Earth then are the benefits of sexual reproduction that the nature has preferred this mode over cloning? Well, that is one of the trickiest questions which the scientific world is yet to find a satisfactory answer to.

Cloning would produce the same individual every generation with the exception of cases affected by mutation. Does sexual reproduction enable life to stay ahead in the arms race with the villain who wants to disrupt life? By disturbing the pattern of life form just a little every generation? Making every eukaryotic individual unique? So that the villain cannot come up with a strategy based on its understanding of the earlier generation? And under this ever changing guise, life quietly goes a step further? But who is this ‘villain’? Even harder question is: who or what is this ‘life’?

With science, every answer leads to further questions, no?

Two sigmas ruin the bell curve

Campus of a premier national institute in India in the nineties. It was dark. Sounds of some people stomping next to the hostel building followed by glass shattering broke the eerie silence. There was a sudden surge of activity in the ground floor wing and everyone came out of their rooms. It was first year Science post-graduate students’ wing. Soon their seniors emerged from the upper floors. An extraordinary general meeting followed. It was a war-like situation. An Engineering graduate student had attacked the room of a Science post-graduate student.

It was not a personal feud. A full-blown inter-caste war it was. The echoes of which were felt decades later when the Engineering almuni left out the Science post-graduates from the celebration of 25 years of graduation. Such deep rooted was the strife.

Chevron fold at Ulverstone, Tasmania in December 2016

Superficial cause: Engineering students who held the majority decreed that a second year Engineering student was equivalent in ‘campus social status’ to a first year Science student. The right of ragging (hazing) a Science post-graduate fresher came with it.

Deep cause: An Engineering candidate was superior to a Science graduate because, ha, no brilliant student in his right senses would do a Science graduation ahead of Engineering and Medicine. So yeah, notwithstanding an altogether different discipline, Science graduates represented an inferior ‘caste’ and needed to be treated as such.

A classic case of conflict due to combined effects of majority-minority dichotomy and social stratification it was. One hopes the current generation is more sensible and that things are much better now.

Call it race, caste, tribe, religion, institutional loyalty, nationalistic pride, geographic superiority or “phylumbaazi” (a colloquial term frequently in use in the region) – excessive invocation by these groups of collective entitlement of their members render them nothing more than refuges of mediocrity. For people who do that are not contributors to the value of the group, but are exploiters of the current value. This applies as much to the “superior” group as to the “inferior” group. Fundamentally they are doing the same. One wants to continue to get the benefits by victimising others for the current perceived superiority of its group, and the other wants to continue to get the benefits of being the victim. None is bothered about the declining perceived value of their respective groups because of their frequent stake at entitlements.

True value-adders of either group do not need benefits of perception. On the other extreme, the bottom-dwellers of either group are content with what they have. It’s the mediocre people in the group who stake a claim to the cake without actually contributing to its making. Unfortunately, the statistical bell curve ensures that such mediocre people will be in the majority. So in the end whether this majority follow the value-adders or dictate their terms onto them determines the merits of the group. It’s not hard to see then why true value-adders sometime leave a group they naturally belong to.

We see people seeking entitlements for various reasons, often at the expense of true merit. One common scenario is: we stuffed it up and are now entitled to prevent others from stuffing it up further. Yet another: we once studied head-down-bum-up to acquire this highly coveted qualification or get into this universally revered institution and now will reap benefits for the rest of our lives. Or: we were treated unfairly when we were new and now that we have reached this position of dictating terms, why should the freshers have it easy? Or simply, we are the sons of the soil and therefore entitled to chew up all the resources here without being accountable to anyone. Whatever the cause, such claims of entitlements have one thing in common – the rhetoric usually comes from the mediocre in the business. And when they seek to extend such entitlements for their offspring, the caste comes in handy.

How to create in zero easy steps

Ever thought of writing a story or composing a piece of music? And wondered what training courses might help? Training helps. Not in creativity though. It might help you master the tools and techniques. But that’s it. It won’t help at all with the creative process.

The very fundamental requirement of training is existence. Of processes. Of tools. Of things. That’s what one will train on. And the very fundamental requirement of creation is non-existence. That’s what one will bring about. Did you see the contradiction?

Music is an arrangement of sounds into patterns. Sounds need to be produced using tools and knowing techniques on how to use the tools. The tools are, to name a few, a flute where wind has to be blown into, a guitar where the string needs to be plucked, or a drum that needs to be struck. Voice is also generated using our own biological tools. One can train on efficiently using any of these tools by mastering the techniques. Does that mean however one can produce music? No.

Learning to ‘use’ a tool to produce sound is similar to being literate. Mere learning to use a language can never make a creative writer. One may just know how to convey a message using a language. Some other may be expert in using the language with correct usage of syntax every time. Still, he or she is just ‘using’ the tool and not creating anything. As long as, of course, he or she is not ‘composing’ a new tangible using a new idea. Unfortunately there is no training for that. There cannot be.

Idea-to-tangible realisation does require the help of people trained in skills, but that’s further down the line. The first step is ‘generating’ the idea which requires one’s intuition to work. The second step of ‘composing’ something from the idea also is intuition-heavy though it may be assisted by learned skills. It is when one wants to convert the composition into tangible outcome that skills become important. Because this is where we are talking of tangible things, people become aware of things from this stage on. Unfortunately, many wrongly presume this to be the first step in creation. Without the first two steps of ‘generating’ and ‘composing’ the idea, there really is nothing new. It can at best be a smart rehash or at worst outright plagiarism.

Mother Keeps

Be. Do. Life seems to be constantly switching between these two modes. You would be hard-pressed to choose between the two. If activity is what makes life ‘life’, you can’t perform if you don’t survive. You can’t however rest easy just by surviving. What’s the point of living if you don’t do anything good? And to just survive also, you need to ‘do’ things – build shelter, find food, participate in the ritual of reproduction, etc. Survival and activity very much go hand in hand. And none is more important than the other. That’s life. An intelligent mix of survival and activity. Of be and do. Of maintenance and project. Of upkeep and progress. Of reproduction and metabolism.

There are different scales and perspectives at which we witness life’s survival and activity. One may go on to generalise the dominant role of plants in the ‘survival’ of life and of animals in the ‘activity’ of life. Animals after all have the attribute of motility which takes them around to perform. Plants on the other hand are literally rooted to protect life. Sure it does not mean that plants only ‘be’ and animals only ‘do’. It’s the dominant role we are talking about here. And remember neither of upkeep and progress is more important than the other.

In a similar vein, the nature appears to have conferred upon females the generic role of survival and upon males of making changes. Female body is equipped with ‘inward’ strength and male body with ‘outward’ strength. The nature has relied on the solidity of female’s inward strength and given her the principal role when it came to reproduction. The male’s contribution is restricted to providing sperm for fertilization. Even his mitochondria are not allowed to pass on to the offspring. In most plants too only the maternal mitochondria and chloroplasts are inherited by the offspring. Viewed this way, the heritage of life lies with the female. Mind you, life survives through reproduction only. Women are the true carriers of ‘vansh’ in that sense. Glad we have a festival that celebrates a female deity.

Lowest Common Denominators of Life

Our body parts are all quite different – in form as well as function. The roughly triangular shaped dark-brown coloured liver processes blood to make it nutrient-rich and also produces bile – a fluid vital for digestion. The skin on the other hand takes the form of the animal itself and acts as an interface between the animal and the environment. Each of the diverse body organs grows by multiplication of cells of specific type. It is therefore weird to even think that they all originate from one single cell. It is true however that we all started as a single cell – the zygote.

As if that was not weird enough, the zygotes of different vertebrate animals are not different at all if one ignores the genes inside. Even during the early development stages, it is difficult to distinguish between a human embryo and a fish embryo.

Like the zygote, sex is another common denominator of most animals and many plants. If all sexually reproducing organisms had feelings (and money) like humans, they would buy erotic stories more readily than science fiction. That’s the benefit of appealing to the lowest common denominator that many storytellers aspire to draw.

For marine life, ocean – specifically the top part which receives light from the Sun – is where it’s all happening. The equivalent of ocean on land is the soil. Plants directly grow on soil whereas animals roam around and eventually merge themselves with soil. Plants and animals, and also a few other allied life forms grouped under Eukaryotes, have a basic unit – cell – which is the building block of their entire structure. Scientists have come up with the concept of LECA – last eukaryotic common ancestor – to represent life that could potentially have been at the junction where the plant, animal and other eukaryotic branches meet down the evolutionary tree of life.

LECA however is not the lowest common denominator of cellular life because it does not represent bacteria and archaea which also are made of cells, albeit lacking a nucleus. So encompassing them all is another imaginary ancient life form christened last universal common ancestor or LUCA. LUCA is sometimes also expanded as the last universal cellular ancestor. If, leaving the functions aside, we deem the information as the real ‘life’ thing, we can arguably consider as the lowest common denominator the genetic code or even the molecules that make up the genes. Beware though, any such move will immediately bring the viruses within the scope of life.

Whatever is the real lowest common denominator of life, cell is still the universally agreed basic unit. Just a casual look at cell structure presented in a text book makes one marvel at the level of organisation inside. No wonder then that life forms are called organisms, a term etymologically related to ‘organisation’.

पहली बार

“आई एस एम चलोगे?”
“माइनिंग कॉलेज?”
“हाँ, वही | कितना लोगे?”
“पंद्रह रुपिया |”
“दस में चलो |”
“पहली बार आये हो का?”

सच, पहली बार ही आई एस एम धनबाद गया था तब वह | पकड़ा गया था | कई बार लुट चुका था यूँ वह पहली बार जाकर | पुरानी दिल्ली स्टेशन के बाहर से ऑटो लेकर जब वह पहली बार चला था, ऑटो वाले ने “मुस्कुराइए कि आप दिल्ली में हैं” कहकर चूना लगाया था | वो सबक उसे अच्छी तरह याद था | इसलिए किसी और समय मुंबई एयरपोर्ट से नवी मुंबई जाते हुए टैक्सी वाले से लड़ पड़ा था | भाड़ा एक तय हुआ था और हर दो किलोमीटर पर टैक्सी वाला अतिरिक्त कर की बात कर रहा था | मौका पाते ही उसने एक डायलॉग मार दिया था: “ये मत समझो कि हम पहली बार आये हैं |”

थोड़ी नोक-झोंक के बाद टैक्सी वाले ने ब्रम्हास्त्र फेंका था: “ए, जास्ती शहाणपना करने का नई | इदरीच सटका दूंगा अपने भाई को बुलाकर |”

चुपचाप नोट थमा दिए थे उसने टैक्सी वाले के हाथ |

वह सोचता था कि पहली बार का नाजायज़ फायदा केवल भारत के लोग उठाते हैं | इधर अमेरिका में भी नौकरी के चक्कर में घूमते घूमते महसूस हो रहा था कि जब तक उस देश में काम न करो, आपका कोई अनुभव नहीं है | भारत में दस साल का मैनेजमेंट का तजुर्बा गया भाड़ में | फिर एक नयी शुरुआत की थी | खूब मेहनत की थी पांच साल तक | बीच में एक तरक्की भी मिली थी |

फिर उसने सोचा था कुछ और पढ़ ले | यूनिवर्सिटी में पूछताछ की तो पता चला कि फिर से मास्टर्स करना पड़ेगा क्योंकि अपने देश के पोस्ट-ग्रेजुएशन को वहाँ कोई पूछता नहीं था | थक चूका था वह यूँ बार बार जन्म लेते हुए | मानो सालों की ज़िन्दगी उसने जी ही नहीं |

हद तो तब हो गई जब वह दूसरी नौकरी के सिलसिले में एक छोटे शहर गया था | संगीत में अच्छी खासी दिलचस्पी थी उसकी | गा-बजा भी लेता था | सो देसी समुदाय में मेलजोल बढ़ाने के लिए वहाँ एक सांस्कृतिक कार्यक्रम में हिस्सा लेने गया था | वहां भी देसी लोगों ने उसका पूरा इंटरव्यू लिया था | फिर एक देसी नेता ने फैसला सुनाया कि वह केवल कोरस में गाने के क़ाबिल है | वह समझ गया था कि वहाँ भी पहली बार आया था | और क्या उम्मीद कर सकता था भला |

आज प्लेन में बैठे बैठे यह सब घटनाएं याद आ रही थी | लेकिन आज वह छाती फुलाये बैठा था | अपने देश जो जा रहा था – दूसरी बार |

*****

ट्रेन धनबाद स्टेशन से निकल चुकी थी | उसे जाना था फुसरो – अपने माता-पिता के घर | अभी कुछ मिनट पहले ही उसकी पिछली ट्रेन धनबाद पहुंची थी | हावड़ा स्टेशन पर उसने फुसरो की टिकट मांगी थी तो क्लर्क ने धमकाते हुए धनबाद की टिकट थमा दी थी | और जब उसने हावड़ा-धनबाद ट्रेन में कंडक्टर से टिकट फुसरो तक बढ़ाने की बात की तो कंडक्टर उसे घूरता हुआ आगे निकल गया था | धनबाद में उसके पास दो विकल्प थे – जोखिम उठाकर स्टेशन से बाहर जाकर फुसरो की टिकट ख़रीदे या बिना टिकट फुसरो की ट्रेन में चढ़ जाए | उसने दूसरा विकल्प चुना था | दिन में बस एक ही ट्रेन जाती है फुसरो | उसको मिस करने का खतरा भला वह क्यों मोल ले? वैसे नैतिकता की दृष्टि से वह अपराधी नहीं था क्योंकि हावड़ा-धनबाद और हावड़ा-फुसरो का किराया एक ही था | और चंद रुपये बचाकर वह क्या कर लेगा जिनका मूल्य कुछ अमेरिकी सेण्ट भर था !

थोड़ा स्थिर होते ही उसे सामान की चिंता सताने लगी | ट्रेन में कई तरह के लोग थे | कपड़े-लत्ते वाले सूटकेस की उसे उतनी परवाह नहीं थी जितनी लम्बे बैग की थी जिसमें किताबें थीं जो उसने कोलकाता पुस्तक मेले में खरीदी थी | एयरपोर्ट से वह सीधे पुस्तक मेले पहुंचा था | इस क़दर लगाव था उसे हिंदी साहित्य से | मन बहलाने के लिए उसने एक किताब निकाली |

इससे पहले कि वह एक शब्द भी पढ़ पाता, एक अजीब ख़याल ने उसे घेर लिया | हाल में उसकी ज़िन्दगी में जो भूचाल आया था, कहीं वह उससे भाग तो नहीं रहा है? ना, उसने खुद को सांत्वना दी | इतनी दूर अमेरिका से भारत वो आया था अपने रोगग्रस्त माता-पिता से मिलने | नेहा से हुए मनमुटाव से इसका कोई लेना देना नहीं था | और वह ऐसा सोचे भी क्यों? इस दौरे की प्लानिंग उसने कई दिनों से कर रखी थी | तब नेहा के वह इतना क़रीब भी नहीं था | बस जान-पहचान थी | पार्टियों में कभी-कभार मुलाक़ात हो जाती थी |

फिर, क़रीब चार महीने पहले… एक दिन मंदिर की लाइब्रेरी में उसने नेहा को कुछ दूरी पर किताबें टटोलते हुए देखा था | एक बांग्ला-भाषी को इस तरह हिंदी किताबों के बीच देखकर उसे जागरूकता हुई थी | पूछने पर पता चला था कि नेहा की भी हिंदी साहित्य में गहरी रूचि थी | बस फिर क्या था? कुछ ही दिनों में दोनों अच्छे दोस्त बन गए थे | अक्सर दोनों ऑनलाइन चैट किया करते थे किसी किताब या किसी लेखक को लेकर | पार्टियों में भी दोनों एक दूसरे से बातें करते नज़र आते थे | पहली बार उसे उस देश में कोई अपना लगने लगा था |

फुसरो से दो स्टेशन पहले एक कंडक्टर ट्रेन में दाखिल हुआ | देखते ही वह दौड़ के पास गया और उसने अपनी टिकट न काट सकने की दास्ताँ सुना दी | कंडक्टर ने सब कुछ ध्यान से सुना | फिर अपनी रसीद बुक निकाली और उसे जुर्माना भरने को कहा | वह हक्का-बक्का रह गया | जुर्माने के कारण नहीं | डॉलर में उस जुर्माने की कोई ख़ास कीमत नहीं थी | परन्तु उसका अपने देशवासी से विश्वास उठ गया था उस वक़्त | कोई कैसे एक भले आदमी की नेकी का इस तरह फायदा उठा सकता है?

वापस अपनी सीट पर आकर उसने वही किताब उठा ली | एक पन्ना पढ़ने पर उसका मन कुछ हल्का हुआ | मगर पन्ना पलटते ही आँखों के आगे नेहा की तस्वीर घूमने लगी | आंसू की बूँद के लेंस द्वारा शब्द विकृत और धुंधले होते गए |

एक महीने पहले नेहा को अपने कुछ लेख दिए थे उसकी प्रतिक्रिया जानने के लिए | अगली बार जब उनकी मुलाक़ात हुई थी, उसने उसके पति के बारे में कुछ जानना चाहा था | बस | तबसे नेहा उससे कतराने लगी थी | उसने बहुत कोशिश की थी संपर्क पुनः स्थापित करने की | उसकी बेरुखी का कोई कारण वह समझ नहीं पाया था | नेहा ने कभी कुछ बताया भी नहीं | बस मेलजोल बंद कर दिया था | सम्पूर्ण रूप से |

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खाना परोसते समय माँ ने उसके भीतर की मायूसी भाँप ली थी | वजह पूछा तो उसने ट्रेन वाली घटना बता दी | नेहा की बात वह कह नहीं पाया |

माँ ने कहा: “तू हमेशा ऐसे भोला क्यों बना फिरता है? तेरा भोलापन अच्छा लगता है मुझे | पर दुनिया कोई घर तो नहीं है | बाहर चालाक लोगों से चालाकी से पेश आना पड़ता है |”

“माँ, दुनिया में पहली बार आया हूँ न | इसलिए दुनियावाले लूट रहे हैं मुझे |” फिर माँ की गोद को माथे से छूते हुए वह बोला, “तू मुझे दूसरी बार भी ले आना इस दुनिया में | तब शायद कोई न लूटे |”

Is Predation Nature’s Trick?

We naturally feel empathetic towards living creatures in the lower ranks of the pecking order of food chain – usually the animals. Not many feel about the plants and fungi they eat. The imagery of cruelty of killing the animals however evokes a deep sense of sadness. We also feel sorry for the animals predated on by other animals. In the end we kind of accept it all as Nature’s law.

How about thinking a bit differently? Statistics point to in-sync fortunes of preys’ and their corresponding predators’ populations. And while the average longevity of chicken, goat, sheep and cattle have declined, their population at any point of time has grown extraordinarily because of mass consumption by humans. Tremendous proliferation of plantations of seed grains by humans has prompted the popular author Yuval Noah Harari to say that it is actually the wheat that has domesticated humans and not the other way round.

Does Nature then trick us into believing that we predators manage the future of the preys whereas actually it is the so-called preys that ‘use’ us to proliferate their gene copies? The prey species otherwise would be very vulnerable to the Nature’s fury.

Predation happens on many levels. When a cell ingests a bacteria, it’s called phagocytosis. A close example is our white blood cells which predate on harmful bacteria entering our body this way. The earliest such predation is supposed to have created us eukaryotic types when the purple bacteria and cyanobacteria entered the primitive cells to form mitochondria and chloroplasts respectively – organelles so important to the machinery of eukaryotic life. And again I ask the same question: Did that eventually prove beneficial to the cells or to the cyanobacteria and purple bacteria? Maybe to everyone involved.

The Body Clockwork

It may seem too obvious to even start wondering about. Still, why do we wake up fresh at sunrise and feel tired by the night in the course of a normal day? Why do soft leaves and flowers open up fully with Sun and wilt down at dusk? Do they follow some sort of clock?

There are processes internal to plants and animals too – in fact many – that work in a near 24 hour cycle. We sleep, wake up, sense the surroundings and feed ourselves as guided by the day night cycle of planet earth. Our heartbeat, blood pressure, renal functions and digestive processes are regulated by the circadian clock. The circadian clock in plants controls processes like leaf movement, growth, photosynthesis, emission of fragrance and germination.

Numerous circadian clocks are at work inside living beings every moment they are alive. For ages we have studied how the circadian rhythm impacts the functioning of various organs and how disruption to the rhythm could lead to health concerns. It’s only in recent decades however that scientists have begun to realize how the circadian clock works at the cell level. American scientists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young received the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work that began to unravel the cell level intricacies of mechanisms governing the functioning of the circadian rhythm. They used the fruit fly Drosophila as their guinea pig.

The circadian rhythm at its smallest form operates within individual cells. Clocks operating at various organ levels are called peripheral circadian clocks. Imagine all the peripheral clocks operating independent of each other and the resulting chaos. Don’t worry. Nature is much better at foreseeing and handling problems than us humans. All mammals possess a central circadian pacemaker located at the hypothalamus of the brain. This “master” clock, called suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), ensures that all biological processes kick off at proper times. SCN forms the centre of a tightly coupled circadian system in the body.

Besides controlling other circadian clocks in the body, SCN performs an important role of entrainment of the clock in response to day-night cycle the body is exposed to. The jet lag we experience as we travel across time zones is a popular case that demonstrates this phenomenon of entrainment of circadian clock. Jet lag usually expresses itself with symptoms like fatigue, loss of appetite, insomnia and headaches and is usually cured in a few days. It is caused by the body being exposed to a new day-night cycle thus upsetting the circadian clock it was used to. And the cure comes from the clock’s entrainment in the new ambience with time. The retina normally receives light via rods and cones to make us see things. There is a third kind of receptor – photosensitive retinal ganglion cells – which is responsible for training the “master” clock to the light conditions of the ambience.

In order to understand the mechanism of circadian at the cell level, a recap of basics of genetics is helpful. A gene consists of DNA in the sense that words are made of alphabets. Genes reside inside the nucleus of a cell. Genes carry codes for specific purpose that are copied into messenger RNA (mRNA) via a process called transcription. It’s like duplicating the instructions of a blueprint onto a trusted object. The mRNA then crosses the nuclear boundary and hands over the code to ribosomes in the cell cytoplasm where using the instructions in the code protein is synthesised. The process is called translation. Proteins are the substances that make us and our organs grow. Specific genes are responsible for production of specific proteins.

A gene called Period gene causes production of Period protein. Note that Period is just a name given to the protein and the gene that causes it. The levels of both Period mRNA and Period protein are found to fluctuate periodically every ~24 hours in the fruit fly Drosophila. The Period protein level in the cytoplasm indirectly influences the process of transcription via a negative feedback to control the Period mRNA levels which in turn produces less Period protein. Less protein level then kicks off a positive feedback. The entire process of negative and positive feedback runs on a loop. The process of feedback in higher animals is a complex one. But it suffices to say that similar feedback loops work in humans and other living organisms and are responsible for the universal circadian rhythm of life. In photosynthetic cyanobacteria, circadian rhythms have been observed which do not rely on the transcription-translation feedback loop but rather on the redox state of the cell.

Cell cycle determines when a body cell undergoes division. Strong correlation between circadian clock and cell cycle operation has been observed in unicellular organisms such as cyanobacteria. Extrapolation of these results to multicellular organisms in general and to mammals/humans in particular is an area of active research. Many favour that circadian clock has at least “gating” affect on the cell cycle. Some even point to the reverse process of entrainment of circadian clock by the cell cycle processes. In particular, disruption of circadian rhythm because of external factors has been found to promote cancer development and proliferation of cancer cells. Further, forced entrainment of circadian rhythm though meal timing has been found to slow down tumour progression. Intake of caffeine via drinking of coffee – late in the day in particular – has been shown to disrupt the sleep cycle too. The circadian rhythm thus plays a vital role in our well being.

Fall of Grace

My city looks most beautiful in autumn. Credit goes to the trees lining the streets – Maples, Ginkgo, Claret Ash, Red Oak, Japanese Pagoda, American Sweet Gum, Chinese Pistachio, English Elm, and many more – and the shades of yellow, orange, brown and red their leaves transform into.

These temperate deciduous trees shed their leaves after changing colour from the normal green. This annual fanfare rekindles in me a line from Tagore’s song “jharaa paata go”:

“jharaa paata go basanti rang diye
shesher beshe sejechho tumi ki e”
[Fallen leaves, what colourful parting dress you have adorned yourselves with!]

Science has figured out the what and how of autumn colours and is still trying to make sense of why.

Autumn colouration doesn’t happen to all deciduous trees everywhere. It happens in temperate regions only. In other regions deciduous tree leaves usually just turn brown and fall off. Brown merely indicates dead cells.

Yellow and red and their various shades make autumn a visual feast. And they do represent two different mechanisms of colouration. Interestingly, their geographical distribution is also different. Yellow dominates the European autumn whereas North American deciduous trees usually go red.

Colours in plants are associated with pigments. The universal chlorophyll imparts green colour to normal foliage by absorbing other wavelengths. Shades of yellow and orange come from another type of pigment – carotenoids. These pigments are present all the time but the dominating chlorophyll masks their colour. Chlorophyll decays faster during autumn. This process unmasks the yellow-orange of the carotenoids.

The red colour comes from an entirely different mechanism. The pigment anthocyanin, responsible for the red colour, is produced during autumn as chlorophyll levels are falling. Anthocyanins also give red colour to fruits, but they are produced in the leaves of only certain species.

The reason for yellow colour is pretty obvious from the above. Winter is a period where temperate life switches to maintenance mode. Metabolism is at an all time low. Animals prefer to stay quiet. Invertebrates find relatively warm areas under the ground surface or beneath the fallen leaves. Most mammals hibernate. Life practically comes to a standstill. Plants in such regions also go through their own hibernation though scientists use the term dormancy for them. The idea is to somehow just survive the winter. Autumn is the time to prepare for that.

If you have enough food stored for survival, why spend energy making food? The fuel supply (sunlight) is also not encouraging. Let’s shut down photosynthesis factories and eventually dismantle them. But the leaves possess many useful nutrients. Though eventually everything goes into the soil and enriches the earth’s life system, the tree wants to retain some of the nutrients for itself – notably the precious nitrogen. Chlorophyll content of the leaves decrease for this reason in the autumn. The shades of yellow and orange of carotenoids – masked hitherto – show up.

The red colour is puzzling because the pigment responsible – anthocyanin – is actually produced in autumn. Why would the tree spend energy producing something when there is actually a need to conserve energy?

There are many theories. Some say that their antioxidant behaviour and/or absorption of harmful high energy rays prevent destruction of photosynthetic plant tissues. But why would plants want to protect photosynthetic structures in leaves that are about to fall? Carotenoids attract aphids that suck sap from leaves. Red colours in evolved species could help repel such insects, says one theory. Another reason given is that anthocyanin in leaves helps trees resorb more nitrogen in the trunks and less in the decaying leaves thus conserving the valuable resource.

They may be serving to warn the animals to prepare for the winter. The red colour could dissuade herbivore predators from eating the leaves, but this ecological reason appears to be more valid for young red leaves especially in the tropics than for the senescing autumn leaves of the temperate regions.

It could be a signal for animals to start preparing for the winter. Birds migrate to warmer parts of the globe. Animals such as squirrels store acorns and nuts for the winter. Bats breed during winter hibernation. Early autumn is mating time for them. The males show off their singing skills. Many other animals too have a last hurrah in the autumn before going quiet. The appearance of red, as per one theory, could simply be a warning for animals to go look somewhere else for survival. ‘Beware! We are about to fall.’

Whatever the motive, as the life’s sun goes down, o falling leaves, you brighten up my remaining soul just as Tagore wishes:

“ostorobi laagak poroshmoni
praaner momo shesher sombole
jharaa paata”

“Arthouse or commercial?”

There you go. Pigeonholing starts from the day you conceive a film and reveal your idea to a friend. There isn’t any shade of grey available. It has to be black or white.

You would hope that this is a layman’s view on cinema. But you will be surprised to see most insiders too resorting to such stereotyping. As a filmmaker, I struggled initially with this concept. Then I tried hard that my movie doesn’t get either of the labels. Finally, I completely ignored this notion and that was the wisest thing to do. Why even worry about a categorization that you don’t believe in?

Really, how does one define “parallel” or “mainstream” – specially at the production stage?

If “parallel” means ‘realistic’, no cinema is realistic. Cinema works like a magician’s trick. A perception is created using images and sound. A filmmaker tries hard to present to the viewer the vision he has in his mind. His vision is never fully represented because of several constraints of filmmaking. But he tries to get as close as possible. He does not aim to achieve reality. ‘Realism’ is used, just as a magician does, only to trick a viewer so that he ‘feels’ the movie and not just ‘sees’ and ‘hears’ it. You don’t have background score in real life. So why then adding a song makes a film “commercial”? A song is as much a part of sound design (and in some cases visual design) of a film as is the background score.

Some say that films which are made for festivals are “arthouse”. I find it difficult to imagine that any filmmaker will set out to restrict his film to festival audience only. Filmmaking is one hell of a job. It not only requires extraordinary diligence and patience, it puts enormous strain on your finances and relationships too, particularly if you are new to the game. Who would not want the outcome to be seen and appreciated by many after all that?

The terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘parallel’ represent two extremes of audience-centric and filmmaker-centric films respectively. Any random film will sit somewhere in this spectrum and very rarely at any of the end-points. So in reality it’s almost always a shade of grey.

It eventually comes down to the balance a filmmaker settles at between what he has to offer and what he thinks the audience will like. Or the degree to which a filmmaker surrenders to his perception of what the public wants. Now the fact that he could go wrong with feeling the public’s pulse is a different matter. Each filmmaker is different in where he strikes this balance. As the audience evolves with time, what they like and what the filmmaker has to offer aren’t always very different from one-another.

What the audience like in films depends on a number of factors:

– star(s)
– story
– presentation
– production value
– genre
– other factors intrinsic to the film (that might be escaping me now)

And finally there is this extrinsic factor ‘nothing succeeds like success’.

Of the intrinsic factors, stars and production value have a huge impact on the purse. The extrinsic ‘buzz’ factor is increasingly being controlled by marketing these days. Naturally therefore films leaning towards the ‘mainstream’ side of the scale are big budget films by big studios who can take care of all the factors which makes a film ‘likely to be’ liked by majority of the audience.

We are however entering an era where smart filmmaking is increasingly being rewarded. It’s about playing to your strengths in the areas you can control and mitigating risks associated with areas you cannot influence. And that gives one hope that everything after all is not just about money.

Baptism by Fire?

Fire destructs. Not always though. Ask the scientists who suggested that invention of cooking was a watershed moment in human evolution. They attribute increase in human brain size to fire – the use of fire. Good on those ancestors then who first chose to play with fire. We wouldn’t be us without them.

Devastating forces are all around us. The key lies in control. We have learned to control fire and make use of it. This risk taking has brought dividends to us. Did life come out of similar such risk taking in the first place?

What do we really mean by fire? Two substances – oxygen and fuel – cause fire when they come together in presence of heat. When the heat reaches a threshold, it triggers the first oxidation reaction. The fuel breaks down into simpler chemicals. The reaction is exothermic meaning it gives out energy. The energy in the form of heat triggers the next fuel molecule to ‘burn’ and a chain reaction begins. It ends with exhaustion of either oxygen or the fuel or when some external factor draws energy out of the system. The ‘light’ part of the energy makes us see the fire as flames. The end products of the chain reaction are water and carbon dioxide that go up in the atmosphere.

Do the two substances remind us of something close to our hearts? Our cells run a similar process with sugar as fuel and oxygen. We consume sugar as food and breathe in oxygen as air. The end products are water and carbon dioxide and a whole heap of energy in the form of ATP molecules. You got it right. The process is cellular respiration.

Alright, so you’ve noticed my clever omission of the role of heat in the above cellular process. The energy part is the real trick here that makes ‘life’ so interesting. Here is how.

We take in the sugar and the oxygen. Both are produced by the plants. In that sense we animals are parasites though science does not label us as such. The plant, via another outstanding life process photosynthesis, binds the light energy into sugar molecules. If we see the life in totality, the energy consumption part of the process happens in the plants. The strong chemical bonds of sugar molecules store the energy. During respiration, that stored bond energy is released which drives us to ‘burn’ more sugars.

The fire at the cell level is that photon which life has learned to control and capture and make use of to produce food for its processes. Life’s evolution, if not the origin, is thus fuelled by fire in the form of sunlight – the only regular external input into the earth system. Some primitive form of life – perhaps some microbe – first dared to play with that fire and here we are today, alive and kicking.

Plants and Real Estate

Plants arrange their leaves in patterns. Scientists call these arrangements phyllotaxy. Looking at a variety of such arrangements one wonders at nature’s designs. But could there be some compulsion on plants to grow the way they do?

470 million years ago, plants first appeared on land. They spread quickly to cover vast areas. The ensuing drop in CO2 allegedly cooled the earth so much so that an Ice Age followed.

Their landward march began along the coastline. They kept moving up the continents as much as water allowed them to or as much water they could take along with them. We still have deserts in many interior land areas. It is quite clear then that water bearing land areas formed the real estate for plants to encroach upon. That real estate was much scarce early in the earth’s history.

Plants are good at harvesting solar energy. They have this urge to grab every photon falling near the earth’s surface. To be able to achieve that they need to install their version of PV cells – the leaves – more and more. And in patterns that allow sunlight to fall on each one of them. Necessity is the mother of invention is an old saying and plants knew it millions of years ago. So they invented phyllotaxy and grew taller.

Unlike animals, plants lack the ability to move which is a big handicap in self-defence. Their defence weaponry is limited to use of spines, hairs and visual and olfactory signals. Even these tools need to perform the delicate balancing act of repelling herbivorous animals yet attracting pollinators. And then there is the grand manipulator – human being. In spite of all this, the land is still mainly green. This is no mean feat. Plants didn’t just survive. They have had phenomenal growth. All the leaves’ surfaces together can cover 100 continents of the size of Australia! Such is the expanse of what is called the phyllosphere. Naturally they couldn’t have achieved this without looking upwards in the Z-direction for space.

What do you do when you don’t have much real estate? You build high-rises.

Chicken for Protein, Egg for DNA

I see my backyard chickens pecking for food all the time. What could possibly be their purpose in life, I ask myself. Just feed their guts to process food and absorb the valuable and reject the unwanted? And produce eggs to make offspring who in turn will do the same? Is that all?

But why just chickens? Why on earth do we humans exist? At some point we ask ourselves: Do we eat to live or live to eat? Does the God or nature or whoever the supreme power is, if you believe in one, want us to protect our ‘selves’ or contribute something to the nature?

Let’s state this conundrum of life’s purpose in biological terms. All the work/activities that we do boils down to metabolism inside the body. We eat food which fuels metabolism. Of course it also helps us survive. But survival goes beyond that. Our genes want us to reproduce so that they get passed on to the next generation. It’s more about survival of our genes. Our fundamental question of activity-vs-survival thus translates to metabolism-vs-reproduction. What is the cause and effect relationship here? Does reproduction facilitate metabolism or benefit from it? Such chicken-and-egg problems refuse to go away whether you look at life at organism level or cell level or molecule level.

Inside the cell, genes containing information as special set of DNAs reside in the nucleus. However, all the action is outside of the nucleus – in the cytoplasm. That’s where protein synthesis happens and proteins make us do everything. The manufacture of protein however is directed by the code written in the DNAs.

Superfast reactions inside the cell materialise metabolic actions. The extraordinary operation of these reactions require a special type of proteins – enzymes – to speed things up. This process of catalysis is one of the fundamental requirements for life to exist. Even the DNAs require enzymes for replication.

Let’s go one level deeper. Life stores information as molecules. One may argue that inanimate objects also contain information. So what’s special about life? Where life differs is that it works on the information stored inside. For instance, an organism’s unique information is stored in the DNAs as code. Life then uses this information and produces proteins for various functions. One ‘special’ function replicates the information so that it can be passed on.

DNAs and proteins have strong mutual dependence. The proteins need DNAs to get created. The DNAs need proteins to get replicated. Another chicken-and-egg!

In spite of this mutualism, metabolic proteins and DNAs do not coexist in the same physical space. Proteins are chains of amino acids manufactured in the cytoplasm of the cell which faces the external environment. DNAs made of nucleotides, on the other hand, are tucked safely as single source of truth inside the nucleus. They are too precious – not to be messed up with – and hence are far removed from the external environment. Yet the DNAs must communicate with the cytoplasmic world to be able to guide the mechanism of protein synthesis. Enter RNA.

RNA, in fact a special type called messenger RNA or mRNA, is a working copy of the DNA. The copy gets made inside the nucleus and it crosses the membrane and enters cytoplasm with the code handy. The mRNA hands over the code to ribosomes in the cell cytoplasm. That is the building site where using the instructions in the code protein is synthesised.

RNA is capable of storing information and it can act as enzyme for catalysis. It can self-replicate too. Voila! You’ve got it. Here is the thing that can do it all. And a new theory of ancient life gets proposed – the RNA World. So, ladies and gentlemen, the first real ‘life’ was when it was all RNAs around! The specialised worlds of DNAs and proteins came later. The most fundamental of the chicken-and-egg problems is resolved.

You wish. If RNAs came first, how did they get converted to DNAs? Was reverse transcriptase available then? How? And also making RNAs out of inorganic raw materials is extremely difficult if not impossible.

If you are still hungry for more, here is another chicken-and-egg food for thought. What came first – virus or cell?

Are We Humans Special?

We do think of us as a special type of animal. So much so that when we say ‘animals’, we subconsciously exclude ourselves. Perhaps so does every species within its community. There is a difference though. We humans do not witness around us, mythological worlds aside, any species superior to us. So yes, in that sense we deserve to be called special. But are we really exceptional or merely the most evolved of the animals?

We have achieved a lot mainly because of our collective intelligence. Throughout human history, we have extended the extremes of our perception – to the far away stars and to the tiniest subatomic particles. That’s not the point though. The question that is bothering me at the moment is how we differ biologically from other animals in a significant way.

Not sure if we discovered fire first, but we are definitely the only ones who cook our food before consuming. In metabolic terms, we use external energy to initiate the breaking down of raw food outside of the body. For other animals, the process starts inside the body when their teeth commence the chewing operation. That surely gives us a huge advantage over them as we get more energy for less.

The other unique feature, unique among land animals anyway, is the fact that our females have a substantially long life post-menopause. For most animals, the main purpose of adult life seems to be giving birth to and raising offspring. Not for humans. The other species who share this trait are the ocean creatures killer whales and short-finned pilot whales.

It may appear so to the uninitiated, but we cannot lay claim to our exclusivity of cognition and social behaviour. It doesn’t take much to notice social behaviours in everyday animals. As regards cognition in animals, we humans often take one of the two extreme views: outright rejection and over-interpretation. Animals do have cognitive capabilities of acquiring, storing, retrieving and processing information to a level of complexity they can handle.

So what sets us humans apart from the other great ape lineages or even the Neanderthals? Why are we so successful? According to philosopher Kim Sterelny, humans evolved as a result of positive feedback loops because of ‘cooperative foraging’. In brief, it’s the simultaneous evolution of cognitive capacities of individuals, maintenance across generations of cultural information and cumulative innovation, niche construction and information-guided foraging – all feeding into each other.

Biologists Richard Wrangham, Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Karina Fonseca-Azevedo however think that invention of cooking played a big role in the evolution of human brain to its present size.

Classifying Life

Why do we need to classify things? I guess the human mind needs it to put things in perspective.

Imagine if there was no concept of centuries and half-centuries in cricket. Strictly speaking, there isn’t much difference whether one scores 100 runs or 99 or even 90. A batsman does not require any special ability to score those few extra runs. Worse, the 30-40 runs he scores after the century are not perceived as valuable enough as the previous 10 runs. Strange, but that’s what classification does. Still it’s a necessity. It’s hard for people to remember every individual score of a player, but it’s easy to remember the number of centuries in his career. So in a way classification is a tool to help us humans overcome our limitation of not being able to comprehend and assess randomness in a continuum.

Biology is no different. We have a fancy jargon here – taxonomy – which further creates fancier jargons. There is classification everywhere – vertebrates vs invertebrates, eukaryotes vs prokaryotes, aerobic vs anaerobic, and so on.

Classroom Biology has taught us a classification system which is represented as the Tree of Life. It follows from the Darwinian model of evolution. So we have species grouped as genera grouped as families grouped as orders grouped as classes grouped as phyla grouped as kingdoms grouped as domains. Phew! And then there are subgroups as and when required.

For instance, the domestic cat has this taxonomic signature: F. silvestris -> Felis -> Felidae -> Feliformia -> Carnivora -> Mammalia -> Chordata -> Animalia -> Eukaryota. So starting with Eukaryota, you keep on adding a distinct property to move up a level in the Tree of Life to finally arrive at your species. Thus a cat can be thought of as a living object containing nuclear cells (Eukaryota) lacking a cell wall (Animalia), which has a notochord (Chordata), with female secreting milk (Mammalia), and which feeds on other animals (Carnivora), has double-chambered bones covering middle and inner ear (Feliformia) and hunts alone (Felidae) without roaring (Felis) and is a wildcat. Of course taxonomy is not so simple and not free from debates and disputes either. For instance, not all Carnivores eat meat all the time.

Notwithstanding the opinion of an Indian junior minister, Darwin was a genius because his model of evolution withstood the onslaught of extensive genetic studies carried out more than a century later.

Darwin’s Tree of Life, however, does not cover the entire gamut of life as we now know. It leaves out microbes – bacteria and archaea. Archaea is a newly discovered domain of life consisting of microbes with appearance similar to bacteria but which differ in genetic processes. Bacteria and archaea are together referred to as prokaryotes to distinguish them from eukaryotes. Unlike eukaryotes, they do not possess nucleus in the cell.

The concept of ‘tree’ reaches its limits with eukaryotes and cannot be extended to include bacteria and archaea types. These types – defined mostly using their genetic characteristics – are related to one another more like a network rather than hierarchical branches. Even the notion of ‘species’ is nearly impossible to apply to microbes let alone the “Origin of the Species”.

One may want to dismiss these ‘invisible’ forms of life for their tiny size, but their quantity is mind-boggling (estimated microbes in the order of 1030). There are as many, if not more, bacterial cells in our body as human cells.

If that does not give an indication of the power of microbes, consider this: They are in a state of continuous evolution at a rate much higher than us eukaryotes because they can transfer genes among themselves laterally without having to wait for the arrival of offspring. The process is called horizontal gene transfer which dwarfs the vertical gene transfer we are capable of.

But wait, we haven’t finished with life yet. You haven’t seen anything until you consider viruses – the tiniest of all. Unfortunately, the dogma that viruses do not constitute life persisted in academic Biology for far too long. They were relegated to ‘particles’. That ostracizing was mainly on account of the fact that they cannot reproduce without entering a host cell. What was conveniently overlooked was that they carry the most important ingredient of life – genetic material – packaged inside a protein coating. And they outnumber all other life forms by a huge margin. There is a fresh drive now to include them within the scope of life. Some scientists call this “viral life” an empire, distinct from the other, our own, empire – “cellular life”.

Reverse Swing of Societal Norms

The other day in a near empty car park, I carelessly parked my car across the marked lines covering a few parking spots. I knew that my daughter was waiting to be picked up and that it was only a matter of a few minutes. That might have been a good excuse for a parking officer. Not for my teenage daughter though. She vehemently disapproved of my action.

Stunned by her rebuttal, I remembered another “rule of the road” issue that bothers me often. My experience on roads tells me that most drivers tend to go a bit over the legal speed limits. That ‘a bit’ was a bit too much when I drove in Spain earlier this year with most cars speeding past my car at well over 130 kmph on a 120 road. I have this dilemma. Should I be legally legitimate and drive within the prescribed speed limits? Or be legitimate by societal norm and speed up that little bit? To me the latter option feels safer as I have to negotiate less traffic.

These matters might be trivial but the news I heard on car radio was a bombshell. Steve Smith had admitted to a ball-tampering ploy. The cricketing world was shaken. I went on news hunt overdrive to check the reactions from all over the world.

A news item in a leading Indian newspaper carried this line: “Where Smith and the ‘senior’ group slipped up was that they did it so blatantly with so many cameras in place. And Smith’s admission made things worse.” It then went on listing leading cricketers from many countries who had performed the act of ball-tampering at times and admitted to it later in their lives.

People are tempted to take advantage of a situation to the level of unfairness permitted by the rules. Not justified by any means, but it’s in human nature perhaps. We see all the time soccer players fouling others and feigning injury to gain advantage.

Morally-wrong-yet-politically-correct ways have been accepted by our society for a while now. This had to burst and it’s only a start. The results are not going to be pleasant. Strange political leaders are gaining prominence all over the world. They are mostly by-products of people’s gradual rejection of mainstream politicians’ political correctness – a system where we all know something is part of our lives and yet twist it to suit our game at a time appropriate for us.

By inadvertently being part of this course correction, Steve Smith has unwillingly done us some favour. For there lies a criminal in all of us and this regime of political correctness encourages us to go ahead with the crime. It tells us that the whole problem is only when you get caught. Until that moment, you are perfectly fine in the eyes of the law as well as of people in that business.

Somewhere sometime our inner voice prompts us: In this age of competition, everyone does it. The trick is to fool the system a little bit more than others and yet a bit less than the point where you can be caught. It is that point and not the legal word, which in reality defines the line everyone says you should not cross. Your correct judgement of that line at the appropriate time is a measure of your smartness. If you do a Steve Smith, you are an idiot. If you do a Steve Smith minus one, you are a genius.

We may be leaning towards organic food, but are losing out on the organic ways of life. We are letting marketing drive our values and lifestyles a lot. We need a marketing campaign (#MeToo) endorsed by celebrities to destroy a well-marketed celebrity image. We ingest television shows, media headlines, brand promotions knowing fully well that it is money and only money that is driving these. We ridicule the concept of arranged marriage yet enjoy Married At First Sight. Money matters may well determine the outcome of this entire ball-tampering saga too. The problem will remain and build up further… till someone gets caught again.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not pretend adult celebrities are role models for our kids. Kids who are yet to grow up to the twisted ways of us adults are the real role models. It’s time we seek a better way of life by looking down to them. Let’s kid ourselves, literally. And yes, I did take my daughter’s disapproval seriously and have decided to not park car illegally even for a moment.

Bone of Contention

It’s all quiet after the storm. The storm that could have grown bigger had it not been time to drop Nick to his tennis class. The kind of storm that usually eventuated in them not talking to each other for days. He is relieved that it didn’t go that far this time.

It began with a small issue when he forgot to switch off the bathroom fan after use. What followed was a series of generalisations — about him… ‘forgetting is no excuse’, ‘always leave a dirty basin after morning brush’, ‘never pack lunch for kids’, ‘always buy more alcohol for guests than required’, and so on; and about her… ‘never put lid on containers’, ‘usually leave dress on the bed’, ‘can’t do multi-tasking’, ‘spend freely but never log on to internet banking to check finances’, and so on.

She will be away for the next couple of hours doing weekly grocery shopping after dropping Nick. It’s time he did something. Something to ease the situation.

He loves to cook and thinks that’s the best way he could take some pressure off her. He’ll cook as much as he can in two hours so she need not worry about food for the first few weekdays at least. This would let her devote more time towards writing, something she likes to do but never gets enough time for.

He opens the fridge to see what key ingredients he can use and is immediately repelled by the stink of rotten flesh. He shuts the door back. What was that? Ah it was the lamb bone that was left from last weekend. He had kept the bone after removing flesh from a portion of lamb leg. He thought they could use that to make lamb stock. Making stock out of residual bony pieces of meat was in fact her idea. He had thought he would implement that during the week. That never happened. And she was complaining already, “It will ruin everything in the fridge in a few days. What’s the point of leaving something for future that you can’t do?”

Nah, that’s the first thing he needs to fix. Holding his breath, he takes out the bowl containing the bone and empties into rubbish bin. He then washes the bowl thoroughly with extra soap to get rid of the stench.

It’s time to have another look at the fridge. His eyes brighten on seeing a fresh portion of lamb leg tightly wrapped in clear plastic. His cheeks balloon as the jaws manufacture a big smile.

He prepares a mixture of spices and yoghurt in the bowl he had just washed. Then carves lamb leg into small bite-size pieces ideal for curry. He stirs the lamb pieces into the marinate mixture and when ready puts the bowl back in the same spot in the fridge. This time he discards the leg bone in the rubbish, collects all the daily rubbish and throws them in the council bin outside the home.

He goes on to prepare two vegetarian dishes. But he knows his trump card is that lamb marinate. Relieved, he takes a shower when it’s nearly two hours since she left. He is chuckling to himself imagining how she would be pleasantly surprised to see the marinated lamb in place of that rotten lamb bone. He even starts dreaming about night time reward he will get for this act.

Loud noises emanating from the kitchen breaks his dream sequence. She has arrived. But what is she yelling at? He quickly wipes his body, covers his bottom half with bath towel and gets out of bathroom.

Her yelling is amplified at the sight of him, “Don’t you think you need to tell me what you were going to do while I am out? I mean how stupid you could be! You cut the lamb, marinated it and then placed it in the same bowl and at the same exact spot? How am I supposed to know that? When I was putting vegies in the fridge, I didn’t find much space and then saw that bowl. I thought it still had that goddamn bone. I was so annoyed I didn’t look inside and threw everything into the bin.”