The Blog

The Naming of Things

Recently, Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, was in the news because scientists named a tiny Australian leech after her. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said. “This humble leech has looped across a new scientific threshold—the first microscopic soft-bodied critter to be described inside and out using CT scanning. Imagine the possibilities for identifying legions of tiny organisms that have thus far lived in obscurity. I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to […]



A Library in Jaffna

Shareeq is too young to remember much of the war years. But for another patron, 75-year-old Rajenthiran Selvanayagam, spending time at the library is a peaceful contrast to that era. He lost his wife to the war. His son went mad. Selvanayagam visits the library three times a week. “Having a book in my hand,” he says, “is more than meditation to me.” Read/listen to the report on NPR about the library in a war-torn land. So what books should such a library stock? The authorities, […]



The Original Angry Young Man

The Original Angry Young Man

Many boys who went to school in Madras must’ve worn this costume for the “fancy-dress” competition at school. Draw on a mustache, wear your dad’s wedding reception coat, memorize a couple of Tamil verses, and you are all set! Outside of Tamilnadu, this costume cannot work unless your audience is predominantly Tamil for some reason. Recently, I have been running into a lot of interesting details about the life of the revolutionary Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathi (1882 –1921). There is always the question, why did […]



Mango Mistletoe

Mango Mistletoe

That the mistletoe has medicinal properties, shouldn’t have been lost on any reader of Asterix comics. Getafix needed sprigs of mistletoe to make magic potion for the inhabitants of that little Gaulish village, we knew so well. And some 2,000 years ago, the druids in what is now Britain venerated the plant when it grew on an oak. When they found it, they dressed in white, harvested it with a golden sickle, and sacrificed two white bulls. Or so says that great Roman, Pliny the […]



The Peril of The Seas — Coming to a Coast near You..

The Peril of The Seas — Coming to a Coast near You..

I am working on a story which recalls a Sherlock Holmes adventure The Adventure of The Lion’s Mane. The detective is his own chronicler in this one because trusty ol’ Watson has become a family man. This story introduced me to the idea that a jellyfish can be a killer. “Cyanea!” I cried. “Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!” The strange object at which I pointed did indeed look like a tangled mass torn from the mane of a lion. It lay upon a rocky shelf […]



Millipede Catalyst

Millipede Catalyst

Swarms of this cyanide-secreting millipede have entered houses, writhed on railway tracks causing delays, and, in short, made themselves a nuisance in Japan, their host country. But Chamberlinius hualienensis, the arthropod native of Taiwan which invaded Okinawa Island in 1983, could soon become a source of catalysts in chemical factories. Thanks to a group of enzymes called Hydroxynitrile lyases (HNLs), some plants and bacteria, which have reserves of cyanide-containing compounds, release hydrogen cyanide as defense chemicals. Chemists employ the enzyme for the reverse reaction, combining […]



A rubella-based murder mystery

A rubella-based murder mystery

In 1943, while pregnant with her first child, Hollywood actress Gene Tierney came down with German measles (rubella), contracted during her solo appearance at the now-defunct Hollywood Canteen. (It was very early in the pregnancy and the star was simply trying to do her bit to rally the troops.) The infant, Daria, who was born prematurely, deaf, blind and  mentally retarded, eventually, had to be institutionalized. A year after the birth of her child, a former marine approached Tierney at a tennis party and revealed […]



The Naming of Exoplanets

Last September when I was in Oslo, I sat next to Thierry Montmerle at the banquet hosted by the Norwegian Science Academy. He was the general secretary of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) which had just announced the NameExoWorlds contest to crowd-source names for 20 to 30 exoplanets. So we got talking about this contest. In the past, the naming of planets and planetary satellites fell to Western scientists — the names of heavenly bodies reflect that. Neptune, Jupiter, Pluto, Charon and so are all […]



Sea Monkeys Churning Waterbodies

Sea Monkeys Churning  Waterbodies

When I was a child, I saw these ads for sea monkeys in comic books. I would’ve liked to have sea monkeys as pets back then. A “bowlful of happiness,” that was also easy to care for? What’s not to like? There are monkeys  in India but I definitely didn’t want one as a pet. Though they look wild, I knew they could be trained to do a variety of things: pick coconuts off a palm, pick peoples’ pockets, or dance in a dress to […]



Patna to Poughkeepsie

A while ago, I emailed the writer Amitava Kumar of Patna who teaches literature at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. When I email a writer, it is because: I like their work, their writing has touched me in some way, and I want to record my appreciation. Fan girl stuff  really — nothing more. But this time, I was also writing to tell A.Kumar about an Indian woman whose remains were interred in a cemetery in Poughkeepsie, a woman whose story obsesses me. She was the first […]