The Blog

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 now 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 for an unintended gift. Fan girl stuff  really — nothing more. But this time, I was also writing to tell him about an Indian woman whose remains were interred in a cemetery in Poughkeepsie, a woman whose story obsesses […]



Curtailed Careers of Women in China

Women enter the workforce the same time as men but they typically take some time off during their child-bearing years. Instead of being allowed to stay on longer to compensate, they have to step down sooner in China. Women scientists retire at 55, while men retire at 60. I can’t come up with any good reason for why this should be the case. This also tells me that someone should be looking at such policies across the globe. From the letters to the editor in […]



On Single-Sex Labs

On Single-Sex Labs

India’s first Nobelist C.V. Raman maintained a strict separation of sexes in his laboratory, his student Anna Mani recalls in this profile by Abha Sur.    Raman would mutter “Scandalous!” every time a male and a female student walked together by his window. With a touch of amusement, Mani noted that Raman must have had an uncanny sense, for even while bending over a microscope, he would be able to catch a glimpse of an “offending” couple. She remembered one incident vividly. She was talking […]



Tengo poco Sanskrit

Tengo poco Sanskrit

I am a Tam-Brahm, which is short for Tamil Brahmin. My ancestors were Hindu priests. You can expect people from such families to have a smattering of Sanskrit, the language of liturgy. My great-grandfather worked in a temple in Mylapore — not Kapaleswarar’s, but a smaller one on a side-street. He carried around the brass plate with a burning cube of camphor by one of the shrines. People  occasionally threw a big coin into this plate. There must’ve been some regular pay as well, but […]



Meenakshi and The Supernumerary Nipple

Meenakshi and The Supernumerary Nipple

Legend says that the Pandya king, the ruler of Madurai, rejoiced at the birth of his daughter. She had beautiful eyes, like a pair of chiral fish. So she became Meenakshi (Sanskrit for “fish eyes”). The royal child had another physical characteristic, which the king and his wife didn’t think was so hot. That was the extra nipple on her chest between the usual two. Not to worry, the wise men of the court told the parents. It would just fall away when she met […]



The Universal Correspondent

The Universal Correspondent

Those were the days when I was struggling to establish myself as a journalist. They used to call me Universal Correspondent since I had no authority to represent any particular publication. Still, I was busy from morning till night, moving about on my bicycle or on my neighbor Sambu’s scooter. I was to be seen here and there, at municipal meetings, magistrates’ court, the prize distribution at Albert Mission, with a reporter’s notebook on hand and a fountain pen peeping out of my shirt pocket. […]