Monday, December 22, 2008

India Exploration Geologists Fleeing Govt. Petroleum Companies

Geology and livelihoods - 3

I got my bachelor's degree in geology from Fergusson College, Pune. Last week we celebrated the centenary of the department. That is an awfully long tradition of geology in this part of the country. As is inevitable I bumped into colleagues, contemporaries, seniors I had not seen for more than a decade. The department had gone to heroic lengths to get in touch with old students. And I mean really old. There was a sprightly old gentlemen who graduated in 1938 and who soon became one of the star attractions of the afternoon!

I thought it would be fun to compare his lab journal and notes with today's syllabus. What vast differences and maybe some similarities? Come to think of it we still don't teach plate tectonics in second year! :-)

Among the many talks, the one that caught my eye and made me think a bit was a talk by a friend of mine who now works as a senior exploration geologist with a private energy company. He mentioned that around 200 middle and senior exploration geologists have over the last 5 years left government owned oil companies and joined the private energy sector.

Now that is a massive transfer of human capital. I won't say loss of capital since the vast majority of those who left are still working within the Indian oil and gas scenario. Still the government companies feel a little aggrieved. They invested in these people and one fine day all that knowledge base is gone.

I did get the impression talking to friends who have followed this path lately, that financial incentives although certainly important were only part of the motivation. Many, especially those with a Ph.D feel that the government companies don't make full use of their expertise. My friend who is a micro-paleontologist and sedimentologist in a decade and half career with the government didn't always work in his field of specialization.

That is a waste of expertise. Private companies though can't and won't waste. Specialization is rewarded. So while I appreciate the difficulty government companies are facing due to these departures, I see this trend as theoretically a more efficient allocation of human resources.

One practical problem with this theory of efficient resource allocation is that private oil companies hold rights to a very small portion of India's old and new oil producing basins. Private oil companies were only allowed 100% equity in oil and natural gas projects since 2000 under the New Exploration License Policy. So government owned oil companies have ownership of almost all the mature oil fields. Since 2000 nearly 160 new exploration blocks were licensed. Government companies like ONGC along with other national oil companies have done very well in the bidding process winning maybe more than half of those blocks. Not a single international oil major even entered the bidding process.

Besides infrastructure expansion capability, this could turn out to be another limiting factor for India's future oil and natural gas production capacity. India currently imports more than 60% of its oil needs and as its older fields decline, is relying on new finds on the west and east coast offshore basins to boost its domestic oil and natural gas production and relieve it's import requirements. The east coast deep water basins are thought to hold close to 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If true, in terms of energy equivalence this is like doubling India's proved oil reserves as of January 2007 of around 5.6 billion barrels.

The country needs geologic expertise especially in the newer deep water blocks. The government holds rights to a lot of these, but many of their experienced geologists are leaving.

See: Geology and livelihoods

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Family Encyclopedia Gets Evolution All Wrong

The Dorling Kindersley Family Encyclopedia's chapter on evolution sucks.

I haven't ranted about the treatment of evolution in popular and educational literature for a while so here goes. I was at a friend's place the other day and found his son poring over the tome. I flipped over to the evolution chapter. This is supplementary educational material aimed at middle and high school students and for literate others.

Evolution is as well worked out a theory as any. Instead of impressing upon readers in unambiguous terms that the theory of evolution is a theory of immense explanatory and predictive power and is the only workable theory proposed that explains life, what I found was a disgraceful timidly written apology to creationists.

This is one of the most annoying aspects of many popular writings on evolution. Too much territory is ceded to creationists in an attempt to provide a 'balanced argument" so that people get to know "both sides to the story". Well, there isn't any "both sides to the story" as far as explaining the diversity of life is concerned. Evolution is it. Scientific educational materials need to say that clearly and loudly.

Here are some of the problems I found.

a) Trying to present a balance treatment:

Some scientists argue that by looking at the fossil record we can find out more about the past.

Some people believe that this can lead to a new species and that an animal or plant will adapt to its surrounding so that it has a better chance of survival (another big problem here which I will elaborate on later).

However, some people argue that all life forms on the Earth were created by design, in or close to the form in which they exist today.

So the impression given is that of a field vigorously debated between those who believe in evolution and those who believe in creation. This is totally disingenuous. For one, how does the vast majority of scientists translate into some people believe? In any case the merits of any scientific explanation is not decided on whether some, or many or few people believe in it. It is decided on evidence. All the evidence favors evolution as an explanation for life. This is never made explicitly clear.

b) Adaptations benefit individuals or groups?

Some animals choose their mates by means of sexual selection. A male may have elaborate features such as bright feathers, to attract a mate. Characteristics such as these, which may be beneficial to the species are passed on to the next generation.

There is a distinction to be made here that bears on one of the fundamental questions in evolution. Which entity do adaptations benefit? The individual organism or the species / group? One way to think about this is to consider the genetic relationship of organisms within a group. Organisms within a group vary genetically. The reproduction of individuals is independent i.e. it is not coupled to the reproduction of the group and so genes can increase their own reproduction independently of other genes in the group.

Natural selection will favor such genes that allow its bearer to reproduce more than other organisms in the group. Since differential survival and reproduction of individuals is a much faster process than the differential origin and extinction of groups, such genes will spread through the population even if they might be harmful to the group as a whole.

For example it might have been beneficial to the group if peacocks waste less energy developing an elaborate plumage and concentrate on gathering food and reproducing. An elaborate plumage also may expose the population to predators. Keeping plumage inconspicuous would have been a good group adaptation. Except that individual female choice for brightly colored plumage drives the evolution of bigger and brighter plumage, even though there may be a conflict between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group.

I can think of a simpler example to teach middle and high school students. In large penguin colonies or for that matter any large bird colony, Mama after grabbing food goes through an elaborate search among the thousands of squawking babies to find her own baby to feed. If individuals really strive for the benefit of the group, a more efficient group adaptation would have been for Mama to feed any child which is nearest to her. That way offspring are assured of getting food from some adult.

Such a hypothetical altruistic colony may do better than a colony full of selfish individuals. For example perhaps it is less likely to go extinct when scarcity strikes. But such a altruistic colony is unlikely to evolve in the first place since it is susceptible to invasion from a selfish mutant. A mutant parent with the ability to find and feed her own child will be able to produce more children than other altruistic parents, since she will also benefit from strangers feeding her children. The mutation will spread through the population (through her children) and destroy the altruistic group adaptation.

So natural selection will evolve adaptations that benefit the individual and not the species.

In only exceptionally rare cases such as eusocial insects, where only one individual in the group reproduces, and all other individuals are offspring of that founder will we see adaptations that benefit the group. In this case all the non-reproducing individuals share genes with the founder and the only way to pass on a proportion of one's genes is to selflessly help the founder reproduce more and maintain the group.

c) Inheritance of acquired characters.

The process of adaptation occurs when an organism evolves in a certain way to make it better suited to the environment. Some people believe that this can lead to a new species and that an animal or plant will adapt to its surrounding so that it has a better chance of survival

An organism may undergo change due to a number of processes, such as natural selection and adaptation, induced by the environment in which it lives.

No, No, No.

I am convinced that this is still the most popular perception of how evolution works. A lot of people I have talked to about evolution (not all of them with a science background) are familiar with the terms natural selection and adaptation but they understand it to mean the inheritance of acquired characters.

But individual organisms don't adapt that it has a better chance of survival. Evolution is not a teleologically process. And individual organisms during their lifetime don't adapt or change to changing conditions and then pass on those changes to their offspring. This inheritance of acquired characters doesn't work because of the separation of the somatic cells that make up the bulk of the body and the reproductive cells that are passed on to build the next generation.

Changes induced if any by the environment in the somatic cell lines don't get incorporated in the genetic material of reproductive cells.

Evolution is a process that takes place in populations. When the environment changes, those individuals who happen to possess traits that help them reproduce more than other individuals will produce more children. Those traits will then become more common in the population. Screening of these traits through successive filters of natural selection over generation results in a better and better fit between successive generations of descendants and the environment.

But it is critical to remember that these changes don't happen during the lifetime of an individual organism. Evolution takes place over generations. Organisms at any one time have different traits from those their ancestors possessed.

Evolution is not taught well if at all at the high school level in India. Biology teachers are not well versed in evolution, they being a product of a system without a comprehensive evolution syllabus at even the undergraduate college level. If an enterprising teacher does introduce the subject it will be by reading up of supplementary materials like this encyclopedia. That won't help students understand evolution any better. And for most students who give up the sciences after school this will be just about their only reading of evolution.

That may hurt us in the long run. Scientific American has an article on why knowledge of evolution can be useful to non-specialists too. Improved public understanding of the subject will have a significant influence on policy decisions on health care, ecology, agriculture.

What has been your experience with such large encyclopedia publications? Is the geology section for example worth referring to? Do you think it is written by experts in the field and can be relied upon?

Monday, December 15, 2008

100 Things I Have Done As a Geologist

Geotripper has started this meme. List out 100 things you have done as a geologist. The entire list is below with stuff I have done or experienced in bold. My explanations in italic.

1. See an erupting volcano
2. See a glacier - Glacier National Park, Montana
3. See an active geyser such as those in Yellowstone, New Zealand or the type locality of Iceland
4. Visit the Cretaceous/Tertiary (KT) Boundary. Possible locations include Gubbio, Italy, Stevns Klint, Denmark, the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller, Alberta.
5. Observe (from a safe distance) a river whose discharge is above bankful stage
6. Explore a limestone cave. Try Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, or the caves of Kentucky or TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia)- Lurray Caverns in Virginia.
7. Tour an open pit mine, such as those in Butte, Montana, Bingham Canyon, Utah, Summitville, Colorado, Globe or Morenci, Arizona, or Chuquicamata, Chile. - Mid Proterozoic porphyry copper deposit, Malanjkhand, central India
8. Explore a subsurface mine. - Late Paleozoic coal deposits in central India Gondwana rift basins.
9. See an ophiolite, such as the ophiolite complex in Oman or the Troodos complex on the Island Cyprus (if on a budget, try the Coast Ranges or Klamath Mountains of California). - Cenozoic ophiolite in Ladakh Himalayas
10. An anorthosite complex, such as those in Labrador, the Adirondacks, and Niger (there's some anorthosite in southern California too).

11. A slot canyon. Many of these amazing canyons are less than 3 feet wide and over 100 feet deep. They reside on the Colorado Plateau. Among the best are Antelope Canyon, Brimstone Canyon, Spooky Gulch and the Round Valley Draw.
12. Varves, whether you see the type section in Sweden or examples elsewhere.
13. An exfoliation dome, such as those in the Sierra Nevada.
14. A layered igneous intrusion, such as the Stillwater complex in Montana or the Skaergaard Complex in Eastern Greenland.
15. Coastlines along the leading and trailing edge of a tectonic plate (check out The Dynamic Earth - The Story of Plate Tectonics - an excellent website).
16. A gingko tree, which is the lone survivor of an ancient group of softwoods that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere in the Mesozoic.
17. Living and fossilized stromatolites (Glacier National Park is a great place to see fossil stromatolites, while Shark Bay in Australia is the place to see living ones) - Proterozoic central and south India.
18. A field of glacial erratics
19. A caldera
20. A sand dune more than 200 feet high

21. A fjord - New Zealand
22. A recently formed fault scarp
23. A megabreccia - Himalayas
24. An actively accreting river delta- Krishna river delta east coast India
25. A natural bridge - Deccan Basalts about 100 km east of Pune, India
26. A large sinkhole - Virginia, Florida
27. A glacial outwash plain
28. A sea stack
29. A house-sized glacial erratic
30. An underground lake or river - Florida
31. The continental divide - Glacier National Park, Montana
32. Fluorescent and phosphorescent minerals
33. Petrified trees - Cretaceous, Central India
34. Lava tubes - Deccan Basalts, West India
35. The Grand Canyon. All the way down. And back.
36. Meteor Crater, Arizona, also known as the Barringer Crater, to see an impact crater on a scale that is comprehensible
37. The Great Barrier Reef, northeastern Australia, to see the largest coral reef in the world.
38. The Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada, to see the highest tides in the world (up to 16m)
39. The Waterpocket Fold, Utah, to see well exposed folds on a massive scale.
40. The Banded Iron Formation, Michigan, to better appreciate the air you breathe.

41. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania,
42. Lake Baikal, Siberia, to see the deepest lake in the world (1,620 m) with 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water.
43. Ayers Rock (known now by the Aboriginal name of Uluru), Australia. This inselberg of nearly vertical Precambrian strata is about 2.5 kilometers long and more than 350 meters high
44. Devil's Tower, northeastern Wyoming, to see a classic example of columnar jointing - Not in Wyoming, but seen classic columnar jointing at Gilbert's Hill, Mumbai (Bombay).
45. The Alps.
46. Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park. From this spectacular summit you can look down onto the floor of Death Valley - 11,330 feet below.
47. The Li River, China, to see the fantastic tower karst that appears in much Chinese art
48. The Dalmation Coast of Croatia, to see the original Karst.
49. The Gorge of Bhagirathi, one of the sacred headwaters of the Ganges, in the Indian Himalayas, where the river flows from an ice tunnel beneath the Gangatori Glacier into a deep gorge.
50. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River, Utah, an impressive series of entrenched meanders.
51. Shiprock, New Mexico, to see a large volcanic neck

52. Land's End, Cornwall, Great Britain, for fractured granites that have feldspar crystals bigger than your fist.
53. Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Argentina, to see the Straights of Magellan and the southernmost tip of South America.
54. Mount St. Helens, Washington, to see the results of recent explosive volcanism.
55. The Giant's Causeway and the Antrim Plateau, Northern Ireland, to see polygonally fractured basaltic flows.
56. The Great Rift Valley in Africa.
57. The Matterhorn, along the Swiss/Italian border, to see the classic "horn".
58. The Carolina Bays, along the Carolinian and Georgian coastal plain
59. The Mima Mounds near Olympia, Washington
60. Siccar Point, Berwickshire, Scotland, where James Hutton (the "father" of modern geology) observed the classic unconformity

61. The moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley
62. Yosemite Valley
63. Landscape Arch (or Delicate Arch) in Utah
64. The Burgess Shale in British Columbia
65. The Channeled Scablands of central Washington
66. Bryce Canyon
67. Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone
68. Monument Valley
69. The San Andreas fault
70. The dinosaur footprints in La Rioja, Spain

71. The volcanic landscapes of the Canary Islands
72. The Pyrennees Mountains
73. The Lime Caves at Karamea on the West Coast of New Zealand
74. Denali (an orogeny in progress) - Himalayas
75. A catastrophic mass wasting event
76. The giant crossbeds visible at Zion National Park
77. The black sand beaches in Hawaii (or the green sand-olivine beaches)
78. Barton Springs in Texas
79. Hells Canyon in Idaho
80. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado

81. The Tunguska Impact site in Siberia
82. Feel an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 5.0.- Recent September earthquake near Satara, Maharashtra was just about 5.0
83. Find dinosaur footprints in situ
84. Find a trilobite (or a dinosaur bone or any other fossil) - Cretaceous south India, Ordovician S. Appalachians.
85. Find gold, however small the flake
86. Find a meteorite fragment
87. Experience a volcanic ashfall
88. Experience a sandstorm
89. See a tsunami
90. Witness a total solar eclipse

91. Witness a tornado firsthand. (Important rules of this game).
92. Witness a meteor storm, a term used to describe a particularly intense (1000+ per minute) meteor shower
93. View Saturn and its moons through a respectable telescope.
94. See the Aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights.
95. View a great naked-eye comet, an opportunity which occurs only a few times per century - Halley's comet 1986
96. See a lunar eclipse
97. View a distant galaxy through a large telescope
98. Experience a hurricane
99. See noctilucent clouds
100. See the green flash

Looks like I have a lot of ground to cover. Especially, what.... you geologist?, Canyon?!!!!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Litigation to Ban Blur Google Earth Filed in India

From DNA a report that Mr. Amit Karkhanis who is an advocate has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the Bombay High Court requesting the Court to direct Google to blur images of sensitive areas in the country.

“This website aids terrorists in plotting attacks,” the plea states.

Now take a look at the targets the terrorists hit in Mumbai. A train station, a pub, a hospital and a hotel. These are the kinds of locations along with a street map that even shoddy government of India approved tourist literature actually highlight! Blurring locations deemed worthy of secrecy ain't going to stop terrorists from randomly picking any crowded area in India's teeming cities and causing mayhem.

City street maps and points of interest are available independent of Google Earth images. Most smart phones these days come preloaded with street maps and location based navigation services. It is an exercise in silliness to blur a few location here and there and hope that will deter terrorists.

Maybe it makes sense to blur locations of military and strategic interest. I really don't believe so, since spy agencies of various countries have already mapped those. And if the spy agency is in collusion with the terrorists then you have a bigger problem at hand that won't be solved by banning Google Earth.

I hope the Bombay High Court shows Mr. Karkhanis the correct place to file such PIL's.

Which is in the garbage can.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Some Great Lines from Edward O. Wilson

From NPR's Science Friday a talk on ant societies and superorganisms by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler.

E.O Wilson on the dominant role of females in ant societies:

I am a feminist too, but ant societies are liberalism run amok

On the success of the socialist model in ants:

Marx was right about socialism. He just applied it to the wrong species


Bert Hölldobler on within group and outgroup recognition:

Maybe we need to maintain some level of xenophobia otherwise we won't enjoy a football match.

What a fascinating talk! Do Listen.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Groundwater Flow in Basalts, Caught on Video

The volcanic rock basalt underlies the city of Pune and much of the state of Maharashtra. Its rock mass is made up of an interlocking fabric of crystals and it doesn't have interconnected pore spaces through which water could be transmitted. The permeability of the rock mass is negligible. But basalts can be prolific aquifers. The reason is the various kinds of fractures and joints that serve to store and transmit water.

I came across a construction site near my house the other day and saw that they had dug a pretty deep hole for a foundation. I could see a thick rock profile consisting of two basalt flows. The upper flow was an amygdaloidal vesicular basalt. The lower one was a compact basalt. These are field terms used to categorize flow units with different physical characteristics. At the junction of the two flows was a fractured zone. The fractures were horizontal giving the basalt a sheeted appearance. And water was flowing out of these fractures at a fair pace. Take a look.

Groundwater flow in Basalt

This narrow flow zone which is a few feet thick is really the aquifer in this case. The compact basalt below forms the base of the system. Above this water seep you can see that the amygdaloidal basalt is bone dry. I wrote before about the enormous influence basalt hydrology has on the lives of Maharashtra farmers. You can get an idea why that is so. Finding water in basalts can be tough work because of such narrow permeability zones. Farmers often have the misfortune of farming tiny plots of land over basalts with no or very deep permeability zones. Digging wells into basalts is expensive and risky. Without proper geological guidance many poor farmers remain without access to groundwater.

So far this shallow groundwater system is not being exploited as a resource within the city of Pune. But that might change. Looking twenty years ahead, an expanding population and more water intensive life styles as people become prosperous might strain the surface water supply, which currently is sufficient to give citizens of Pune one of urban India's highest per day per capita allowance of around 200 liters.

Add to that are the vagaries of the monsoons. Even without global warming induced perturbations to rainfall, Indian monsoons are characterized by a decadal scale natural variability. Pune over the last 3-4 years has experienced higher than average rains but extended periods of lower than average rainfall is also a likely scenario in the future. A combination of lower rainfall and higher population might mean that the surface water reservoirs fall short of supplying enough water. The aquifer underneath Pune might gain importance in this context.

Unfortunately hydrologists don't really know how much water is present in the aquifers underneath Pune. The state ground water board periodically issues completely useless statements about the level of groundwater either going up or going down by said amounts. These are based on a few observation wells in areas where the aquifer is not being exploited. But there is practically no quantitative assessment of what will happen to the groundwater system if people suddenly start sucking water out of it. The system has not been studied under stress.

There is an opportunity to do that. On the outskirts of the city private water suppliers have sunk dug wells and bore wells. Year after year they are pumping water out of the shallow and deep aquifers. The water balance is not understood. How much should be taken out so that natural recharge will balance extraction? But I don't see government scientists rushing with their measuring tools to take advantage of these potential data points. Scientific progress relies as much on opportunism as on any other attribute. But state hydrologists lack the flexibility to deviate from their 2 year or 3 year of 5 year plans and schemes they are directed to follow.

Pune must have a science backed plan if and when the time comes to start exploiting the underlying aquifers. The time to start a serious research program is now.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Why An Undergraduate Thesis Is So Useful

My Bookshelf Series - 4

My bookshelf series continues. This one is from one of my favorite books on evolutionary biology, John Tyler Bonner's Life Cycles.

Some years ago a friend who happened to be a distinguished mathematician came to Princeton and we arranged to have lunch. He came to my office a bit early, so I asked him to please have a seat and find some reading matter on the shelves and I would return shortly. When I came back, to my horror he was reading my undergraduate senior thesis, the first half of which is an analysis of the problem of development using symbolic logic. I admonished him for picking it out in a room filled with good books. He replied, " Don't be silly, this is wonderful". When I asked him how he could say something so absurd, he said, " You don't understand. What's wonderful is that you got this out of your system so early in life".

Quite correct. I never wrote a senior undergraduate thesis, but my Master's dissertation? I keep that locked up. But why go back so far? I cringe with embarrassment at some early posts in this blog.

See: My Book Shelf Series

Giant Protist Tracks and Early Animal Evolution

Chris at Highly Allochthonous has an interesting post on recently discovered tracks made on a sandy sea floor by a giant protist. Similar fossil tracks have been found in early mid Proterozoic sediments. Chris gives an example from Australia (2 billion years old) but there are reports of tracks and even interpreted burrows from mid Proterozoic Vindhyan basin (1.5 -1.8 billion years old) of central India. These have been interpreted by some researchers to point to a deeper origin of metazoans (multicellular animals) than molecular phylogeny and the bulk of the body fossil record support. These data suggest a timeline of around 600-700 million years ago for the origin of metazoans.

The tracks made by the unicellular protist means that such deep origin interpretations are again in doubt. I've been reading claims and counterclaims on this issue for quite a while. I would like to add to what Chris has discussed by giving a list of the reasons why most paleobiologists feel that the pattern of appearance of macroscopic animal fossils faithfully records evolution. In effect the list below is a critique of the view that animals evolved much much before what the macroscopic fossil record indicates. I have taken these from an essay by Simon Conway Morris, an expert in early animal evolution.

1) these ancient “traces” are typically highly restricted in distribution and sometimes only known from a single slab of rock.

2) no explanation is offered as to the failure of the “organisms” to diversify in what would otherwise appear to be an ecological “vacuum”.

3) the structures in question are almost all remarkably different from one another.

4) all other evidence points to a “microbial world” uneffected by a putative macroscopic ecology ( i guess by this he means that the preservation of bacterial mats as stromatolites suggest a minimal disturbance of the sea floor by large critters).

5) the important fact that even in late Neoproterozoic sediments yielding exquisitely preserved softbodied algae, there is no corresponding preservation of metazoans.

So there are very good reasons to be skeptical of claims that diverge widely from evidence given by molecular phylogeny and the body fossil record.

There is a misconception I have encountered that for several billion years "nothing much" of evolutionary importance took place, that the planet was inhabited by boring bacteria and then unicellular eukaryotes. Then suddenly in the early Cambrian macroscopic life took hold. Such a view prevails because people focus on the evolution of form. But we do know that we share with protists many of the molecular mechanisms responsible for cell physiology and even more complicated processes like gene shuffling and meiosis are present at various levels of development in protists. All these must have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years before the origin of metazoans.

Multicellular animals evolved from protist ancestors. They were built on this already existing molecular scaffolding.

The origin of metazoans can be seen in this light as evolution favoring an increase in size made possible by ecological triggers perhaps like an increase in the level of atmospheric oxygen by the latest Proterozoic. The novelty was the evolution of development. Creatures grew larger by cells dividing into specialized groups and sticking to each other for a large part of the life cycle of the organism.

Even this did not appear in a jiffy. The Cambrian "explosion" is an awful and nebulous term that confuses more than clarifies. We now have enough of a fossil record spanning the latest Proterozoic -Mid Cambrian - spanning nearly 60 million years- that indicates the evolution of successive grades of animal complexity in several bursts of diversification. The early-mid Cambrian phase (the "explosion") represented by Chenjiang- Burgess type fauna was the youngest of such events in which triploblastic animals rapidly (geologically speaking) diversified. The figure below summarizes our present state of knowledge.

Source: Origin of Phyla

Complex multicellular animals evolved from slightly less complex ancestors which in turn....

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai 26th 27th 28th.... and On and On

I am just unable to get my mind of the disaster in Mumbai. Unable to write science.

One of my rugby friends who is a professional chef lost 5 friends when terrorists stormed into the Taj hotel kitchen and started shooting. I didn't have the words to console him. I cannot imagine what he and others are going through.

I have to help out in a rugby clinic for schoolchildren tomorrow. Not sure what I and the other coaches should tell them. Should we just go about our business and pretend life has returned to normalcy? Does sports really unify? Does it help heal? Will it help us and my rugby chef friend take our minds off what happened?

For a sample of reactions from the Indian Blogosphere visit Desipundit.

Science blogging will resume soon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pune Girls Rugby Kicks Ass!!

I've posted below some video clips from last Saturday's Women's 7 a side rugby tournament that took place in Pune. This was India's first ever Women's contact rugby tournament. In a country where people are obsessed over a particular stick and ball game, rugby is relatively unnoticed. It does have a cult following and interest is growing among young athletes. India does have a mens rugby team but the women's game has been neglected so far. This tourny was a fantastic opportunity to give the women's game some exposure.

Pune fielded 2 teams. There were teams from Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Hong Kong. Hats off to them for traveling over 25 hours by train (Hong Kong flew in!)to come and play in Pune. At the end of a grueling tournament the Hong Kong Hotties won with the Pune She Elephants coming second.

The tournament was organized by Khare Football and Rugby Academy (KFANDRA) and the Pune District Football and Rugby Association (PDFRA) under the aegis of the Western India Rugby Football Union. Notice to organize this tournament in Pune was short and over a mad two weeks, KFANDRA and PDFRA worked overtime and planned and executed everything meticulously.

Enough talk. Here's some action:

Pune She Elephants v Hong Kong Hotties

Kerala Vs Hong Kong Hotties

Pune Lionesses Vs Jammu and Kashmir

Rugby Carnival Varun's Drum Beat

All in all it was a terrific atmosphere. Parents showed up in large numbers to support us, there was a lot of media coverage and the girls showed great determination and strength. That made for some very competitive and bruising rugby.

Finally thanks to the Rugby brothers of Pune, Swapneel Khare and Surhud Khare, founders of KFANDRA. They made sure that women's rugby in India is finally getting the opportunity and exposure it needs to grow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Collection of Geological Haiku

The Haiku meme I started some time back got quite a good response. I have posted below links to all the aspiring poets in the geoblogosphere who contributed. As I had hoped the meme mutated as it spread through the population of geologists. My initial rule of a reference to a geological time period was made more fluid and rightly so I think to a reference to the passing of geological time or a reference to a geological process. Bloggers also wrote short accompanying explanations and posted visuals too. That made for some imaginative and evocative verse.

If I have missed anyone let me know and I will update the list.

In no particular order:
To end this thread since climate change is the issue all of us are going to be grappling with over the next few decades some thoughts:

warm chill warm
a mere blip Holocene
until the big freeze

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Find Connections But Am An Insensitive S.O.B

Between work I am really busy this week helping organize India's first ever Women's 7 a side contact rugby tournament. It is to be played in Pune on November 22. There are teams from Pune, Kashmir, Kerela and Uttar Pradesh as well as a women's rugby team from Hong Kong! Hopefully next week I will post some photos from the tournament.

Meanwhile I did get time this morning to get psychoanalyzed from this website. Just type in your web address and out comes a profile. Here is mine:

The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

You even get a brain map showing the parts of your brain that were active during writing! Here's my brain.

Didn't have to lie down on a couch. Didn't have to spend a dime. Don't you just love technology!

Tip: Greg Mankiw's Blog

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Men Are From Mars Women Are.....

Maybe, but I like this description of sex differences too:

Some would deny there is a deep difference. Some would psychobabble about a nurturant sex and a competitive sex. Geneticists would point to the XX and XY chromosomes, economists to the relative parental investments in offspring, veterinary students (and others who go around peering between animal legs) to the shape of the creatures genitals. Freudians, fundamentalists and sexual politicians could add their own ideas.

But from the perspective of organelle conflict, all these criteria (in so far as they are valid) are superficial. They specify things that derive from the deepest of the sex differences. Sex chromosomes, genital shape, reproductive investment and perhaps even personality all arguably follow from the resolved conflict of the organelles. The deep nature of maleness is to eject organelles from reproductive cells; the deep nature of females is to keep them.

Great! Males throw stuff out, females like to collect things. Didn't we all know that! These days I am in a mood for reaching out for a book from my shelf and rereading a passage or two. This one is from Mark Ridley's The Cooperative Gene. I highly recommend the book. It makes you think about the deep general features that all multicellular life share.

One of these features is anisogamy which is sexual reproduction involving reproductive cells or gametes of unequal size. The evolution of the eukaryotic cell initiated through a merger of two bacterial cells over a billion years ago made complex life possible, but the merger came with its own baggage, literally. The merged cell had two independent genomes. This was a situation with a potential for conflict between the two genomes. One analogy that helps is to think of a corporate merger which creates two independent management teams. It won't work. They will start undermining each other. One team has to go or turn submissive.

Evolution changed the eukaryotic cell through such mechanisms. Over time one genome ceded control by transferring most of its genes over to the other genome. This cell with the smaller genome evolved into the organelles; mitochondria (and chloroplasts). Human mitochondria have 37 genes. Ancestral mitochondria probably had 2500 genes a figure typical of bacteria. So over 98 percent of mitochondrial genes have been transferred or lost during evolution. Transfer of genes was one solution to genomic conflict. But sexual reproduction created another problem. It brought together two sets of the remaining organelle genes in one cell after fertilization. So the problem of organelle genomic conflict remained.

The evolutionary solution was for one type of reproductive cell to eject its organelles before fusing with the other type. The ejector gamete became the smaller sized sperm and the gametes which kept its organelles became the eggs. Ridley argues that sex differences follow from this great fundamental divergence.

Evolution is a quirky process. The specific evolutionary pathway taken by lineages is contingent upon historical and developmental constraints. Evolution develops one on one solutions to changing ecological pressures. But early in the history of multicellularity, the biggest limiting factor was within.

Sexual reproduction, gender and meiosis were evolution's across the board general solutions that enabled life to cross a threshold of complexity. You can think of this as the evolution of evolvability. I like big themes like the one presented in the book. This is a very readable account of various types of genomic conflicts and the ingenious devices that evolved through natural selection that minimized conflict.

I mean who would have thought that the evolution of gender helped resolve a conflict :-)

Is there a lesson here for humanity? Sure, and here is my prescription for harmonious relations between men and women. Let women keep all the stuff they want. Men, don't to try to argue, cajole, plead, sulk or throw a tantrum. It won't help. Females are good at keeping things. They have had a lot of practice. They have been doing it for more than a billion years.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Geology Haiku Meme

Announcing the Geology Haiku Meme

deep in a bioreef
a Permian story
calcite dripstones tell

Respond Geobloggers!

Rules: Three lines and a max of seventeen syllables. Use of kigo, which is the traditional reference to a season, may be substituted by a reference to a geological period. The use of kireji, which is a word that serves to give structural support to the verse is not widely practiced in English haiku, so you may give that a pass.

Leave a link in my comments section and I'll post a collection of Geology Haiku links soon :-)

See: A Collection of Geological Haiku

Monday, November 10, 2008

That's Why North Indians Cough More

A stunning image of north India taken by the the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. Image was taken on October 30 2008.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

The haze seen has many causes. Urban pollution, big fires (red dots) and small fires lit for cooking and maybe a sandstorm. Is this worse than Los Angeles at its worst? With winter setting in the northern parts of the country the air quality will deteriorate even further as millions of charcoal and wood fires are lit for warmth. Respiratory problems increase dramatically in the winter in north India.

India faces a frightening challenge of improving air quality both in urban and in rural settings where indoor pollution is a major health hazard. The government has launched the National Action Plan for Climate Change (15 Mb) with separate missions aimed at providing clean energy. Even with a sense of urgency it will likely take a couple of decades to unfold. In the meantime how do you provide alternatives to ten's of millions of people who light up coal and wood fires inside their houses? The National Action Plan besides its focus on large scale clean power generation, urban pollution, sea-level rise and so on, must also provide strong incentives to companies involved in producing low-cost clean energy solutions for rural India.

Friday, November 7, 2008

More Jurassic and Cretaceous Reminiscences

Another passage about the Jurassic oolite from Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed The World.

Within the oolitic horizon there are countless variations-of color (gray, orange to ochre to pale scarlet) and fineness of texture, size of oolith, and width of banding and bedding plane.

I chanced during my journey upon a roadside quarry near the village of Northleach, and the ebullient owner happily showed me around, pointing out with delighted pride the different colors and thicknesses of his rocks, and the uses he could make of the various types.

That triggered a lot of memories for me. Not of the Jurassic but of the Cretaceous of south India. I had just started to take geology seriously and a bunch of us outdoor enthusiasts decided to go on a fossil hunting trip to the continental-marine Cretaceous sedimentary basin of southeast India.

These basins formed in the early Cretaceous as India which was part of the southern hemisphere super continent Gondwanaland broke away from Australia and Antarctica. The map below shows the paleo geography of early Cretaceous. Notice the southern hemisphere location of India at that time and that India has rifted away from Australia and Antarctica and now has a distinct eastern continental margin.

A number of NE-SW trending basins formed on this rifted continental margin of eastern India. The map below shows these eastern Mesozoic-Cenozoic basins. The Cauvery basin which I visited is the southern most of the basins.

Source: Geotimes

All these basins have offshore extensions in the Bay of Bengal. Today these Cretaceous eastern basins have acquired an economic importance with the potential of hydrocarbon deposits especially in the offshore portions of these basins. Reliance Energy recently discovered oil and natural gas from the deep water Cretaceous section of the Cauvery basin and more discoveries of oil and gas are likely.

But in those early college days my interest was palaeontology and fossils. We had discussed the trip with some palaeontologists from the graduate geology department in Pune and so had all the good fossil bearing localities on map. Every day we explored the terrain around the village of Ariyalur which was our base and is located in a rather remote rural portion of Tamil Nadu. One afternoon we got a bit frustrated trying to find a quarry. As we walked on a man on a bicycle approached. Seeing we were distant city dwellers he stopped and started chatting to us proudly in English, eager to show off his vocab. We asked him about fossils and he replied grandly:

Yes Yes, just two miles down this road, there is quarry which is notorious for fossils!

Now as far as I know these long dead Cretaceous beasts entombed in clays and marls have never harmed a human. I guess he meant famous, but maybe the man was indicating to us that the quarry owner is a psycho?

That made our day. With much merriment and anticipation we reached the quarry and found a not so notorious but like Simon Winchester's quarry owner a rather jovial and ebullient personality. He showed us around and gave us samples of claystones from the early Cretaceous littoral facies which contained plant fossils. These were in the form of delicate impressions pressed on clay and you could see clearly the structure of the leaf. A rare treasure which I promptly lost somewhere by the time I graduated.

Geology field trips often throw up these kind of special moments.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

That Desperate For A Obama Victory

Overheard at Obama Victory Party:

"Yay, daddy! Now we don't have to move to Canada!"

Tip: Overheard Lines

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Walking On A Jurassic Outcrop

I am rereading a couple of chapters from Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed The World. It is the story of William Smith a canal digger by profession who embarked in the late 1700's and early 1800's on a pioneering and ultimately heroic effort to map the geology of England. In the chapter entitled A Jurassic Interlude I came across the following passage:

The general line of their outcrop, which extends all the way north from Dorset to the Humber in Yorkshire, some two hundred miles, is one of the great dividing lines of world geology, once seen, never forgotten. Around Bath, close to where a northbound traveler like me today, Smith two centuries before me, first came across it, it is stupendously memorable.

On the western side of the line are the timid, milquetoast clays and weakling shales of the Lias, of the Lower Jurassic; on the eastern side are the tough, thick oolitic limestones of the Middle Jurassic. On the western side the consequential scenery all is valley and marsh, river course and water meadow, lowing cattle and in high summer, a sticky, sultry heat. On the eastern side, underpinned by the limestones, everything has changed: there is upland plain and moor, high hills, high wind and flocks of sheep, and in winter fine white snows blowing on what can seem an endless and treeless expanse.

And on the very line itself, at the point where England has tipped itself up gracefully to expose the limestones at its core and to reveal the huge physical contrast between the hardness and the silky softness of the Lias clays below, is a long, high range of hills and cliffs. The line is, for the most part, an escarpment edge that rolls far to the horizon, separating vales and downlands, from high plains and uplands.

It is a wonderful piece of writing and not just because it invokes images of a bucolic England. Here is yet another example of the pervasive influence of geology and geological processes on livelihoods and human economies.

In the Jurassic depositional basins of England there was a lateral facies variation from clays being deposited to the west changing to carbonate sediments to the east. As these sediments turned into rock they acquired different physical properties. The carbonates i.e. the Jurassic oolite became hardened through the precipitation of copious amounts of calcite cement in its abundant pore spaces. That cement bound the initially loose oolite particles together and transformed the sediment into hard rock. The clays which were very fine grained were not cemented into toughness. Instead they were compressed into rock but remained relatively soft.

Over time these two different rocks types got exposed to the elements and were weathered and eroded at different rates. The clay bearing rocks were softer and formed valleys and lowlands with moist organic rich soils, the hard limestones formed hills, escarpments and highlands with poorer soils. An agricultural diary economy developed on the serene clay lowlands, while a pastoral sheep economy developed on the harsher windier limestone highlands.

In my previous post I wrote about the effect of aquifer yield in basalt provinces and their control on farmer poverty. That post was the first of a thread that I have continued here and plan to write on from time to time. Geology and livelihoods. I like making this connection. It is an under appreciated theme. People always nod in agreement when oil and gas and the mining industry is mentioned. It is not hard to make that connection between geology and economy. But facies change, diagenesis, weathering and rural economies? That usually takes a while to sink in.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Groundwater Map of India and Farmer Suicides

At Cryology and Co. David Bressan has a post on world wide groundwater resources maps produced by the "World-wide Hydrological Mapping and Assessment Programme" (WHYMAP). Following the link he provided I found a groundwater map of India on that site. The map below is actually from the web mapping application and attempts to give a very broad overview of the groundwater resources in the subcontinent.

The Himalayas are categorized as having local and shallow aquifers, the Indus-Gangetic plains belong to one homogeneous groundwater basin and the southern peninsular region is a complex hydrogeological province. These are somewhat misleading categories in that they are not mutually exclusive. For example local and shallow aquifers are found all over India. And the Himalayas have plenty of regions of complex hydrogeological structures. But combined with recharge potential the map gives on a broad scale the likely patterns of aquifer yield across the country.

Looking at Maharashtra I could not help noticing that areas of complex hydrogeological structure and medium to low recharge potential spatially coincided with the vast majority of cases of farmer suicides in the state. This is the region north of Hyderabad and east north east of Bombay. Over the last 6-8 years more than 2000 farmers have committed suicide. The immediate explanation for most of these cases is indebtedness. Farmers borrow money to meet high farming input costs or for other personal reasons and fall into a debt trap if crops fail or give a low yield. The Maharashtra government compiled the results of several studies of farmer suicides and identified conditions that made farmers in these regions particularly vulnerable. These were:

Disruption in regular rainfall cycle since 2001. Long dry spells, deficient monsoon.
Single crop a year, and Cotton the dominant crop. About 70% of farmers who committed suicide had planted cotton.
93 percent of land rain fed. 98 percent of the farmers who committed suicide had no irrigation.
Yield limited by rain, but regular rise in cost of input lowered margin of profit.
Volatility in market price further lowered return.
Commitment to money lender did not leave anything with the farmer.

Farmers are heavily dependent on monsoon rains to water crops. But how does complex hydrogeology figure in this? This agricultural region sits on top of the Deccan basalts. Aquifers are local, shallow, deep, all sorts, and show lateral and vertical heterogeneity in their water storage capacity and transmissivity. I have seen this in the field. The situation can change from high yield to bone dry over a distance of tens of meters. So a farmer with a small landholding of a hectare or so - and there are plenty of them in this region- may just have the bad luck of farming on top of an unyielding basalt. He then has to rely entirely on the rains or get into a groundwater sharing agreement with a neighboring farmer who might have a yielding aquifer under his farm. But during times of water stress there is too little water to go around resulting in crop failure or low yields.

Another problem is that not enough attention has been paid to managing the available groundwater resource. Farmers use dug wells as a primary water extraction method but using the dug well to replenish the aquifer during times of good rain is not practiced widely. This has led to aquifer overdraft and a steady diminishing over the years of the groundwater resource. Not all cases of farmer suicide can be linked to water problems. Crops can get wiped out by pests, yields could have been low due to soil degradation, some instances where Bt Cotton seeds failed and then there are probably cases where despite decent yields farmers simply made irresponsible financial commitments. But the link of low yields to ready availability of water is real.

Tushaar Shah a groundwater expert with the International Water Management Institute has made a strong case that focusing on groundwater replenishment will go a long way in preventing crop failure and improving yields. He gives an example:

Over 86 million hectare of India’s rain-fed areas, mid-season or terminal droughts regularly take a toll on the kharif crop. At such times, using around 1000 cubic metres per hectare of water from wells just-in-time to water a wilting crop just once can raise crop yields by 30-230 percent over rain-fed yield levels.

Off course if the wells themselves are dry then there is no backup for failed rains. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences report on farmer suicides found that farmers had little or no groundwater available to them during times of rain failure. A combination of complex hydrogeology and poor management of groundwater resources has exerted a powerful influence on the lives and livelihoods of Maharashtra farmers.

Mr. Shah makes the following recommendation for complex hydrogeological terrains:

What hard-rock India needs is a new mindset of managing dug wells as dual-purpose structures, for taking out water when needed and putting water into the aquifers when the surplus is running off. Recharging aquifers needs to get the first charge on monsoon run off. Unfortunately, government planners give it the last priority.

Water available for recharge is estimated after allowing for the requirements of existing and planned surface reservoirs. This is absurd in a country where 70 percent of irrigated areas and 90 percent of drinking water needs are met from groundwater.

Is the government listening? The Prime Minister of India's special relief package for Maharashtra farmers wants to attack the problem on a broad front which includes tinkering with the economics of cotton farming, encouraging a diverse array of crops and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. But water underlies any successful agricultural strategy. In terms of water it lists irrigation development as the only long term solution to the water problems faced by farmers and doles almost 10 times more money to irrigation development than to watershed development. Irrigation development in the language of the government of India means canal irrigation (read mega infrastructure projects) and not local groundwater irrigation.

This, despite the revealing statistic that even though thousands of crores of Rupees have been spent on canals, they irrigate just about 15% of arable areas over the landmass of India and marginal farmers and farmers with small landholding benefit most not from canal networks but through groundwater irrigation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Landslides Trace Kashmir Earthquake Fault

Via an article on the NASA Earth Observatory website on the use of satellite imagery for mapping the 2005 Kashmir earthquake fault trace.

This earthquake was unusual for the Himalayan region as it occurred along a shallow fault and caused a surface rupture. i.e the cracks and deformation was visible at the surface. Deformation due to earthquakes is usually mapped by spotting offsets in artificial and natural linear features like walls and fences or gulley's and streams. That is incredibly hard to do in remote steep terrains like the Kashmir Himalayas. So the researchers used before and after earthquake images from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) aboard the NASA Terra satellite to try and spot this rupture. A team of geologists had mapped this fault using ground surveys but this is a time consuming process and so a complimentary image analysis was done to evaluate whether imagery can provide a reliable way to quickly identify zones of deformation to aid rescue efforts after an earthquake.

The images below are ASTER false color composites which clearly show the fault trace highlighted by a linear zone of white color. These are landslides that occurred along the hanging wall of the fault. Only a small section of the trace is seen in the images.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

False Color Composites are prepared by assigning the three primary colors red, green and blue to the three wavelength bands which analysts feel contain the maximum information about surface features. This arbitrary assignment of colors to bands results in features appearing in colors unnatural to the human eye. Hence the term False Color Composite. Depending upon sensor design a range of wavelengths from the visible part of the wavelength spectrum (reflected energy) to the thermal part of the spectrum (emitted energy) can be collected for study. ASTER the sensor used in this study as the name implies senses energy in both the thermal and reflected part of the spectrum. Only the reflected portion of the spectrum was used to process the images in this study.

Satellite sensors break up the reflected or emitted energy coming from the earth's surface into discrete regions or bands to allow better discrimination of surface features. This works because different surface features reflect or emit efficiently in different wavelengths. A judicious selection of bands can then be used to create maximum contrast between different surface features.

When using reflected energy, usually this wavelength combination as is in this image is near infrared, red and green. The wavelength range is from about 0.5 microns (green) to about 1 microns for near infrared. In this case red color has been assigned to the near infrared band since healthy vegetation reflects a lot of near infrared. Water appears blue and built up areas and landslides which are zones where vegetation has been stripped off and fresh rock and soil exposed appear gray and white respectively, indicating a very high reflectance in the smaller wavelengths.

The surface rupture of the Kashmir earthquake extends over 75 km. Another paper which studied the tectonics of this earthquake has concluded that the rupture has occurred along some subsidiary faults and not along the major boundary fault where strain is apparently still accumulating.

This does not bode well for the Kashmir region.

Update: Robert Simmon a NASA researcher in an email to me points out an error in my post. I gave the impression that the fault trace was mapped using landslides as a guide. This is not so. The fault trace was delineated by mapping the ground deformation i.e the offsets caused by the slip along the fault were mapped by correlating the before and after images. Landslides in fact obscure the fault trace such that the before and after images can't be correlated along such patches.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Beginnings of India

Last week I caught a Discovery Channel special on India called The Story Of India. The first episode was The Beginnings. It was presented by the British historian Michael Wood who has also written a book about this topic. I settled down to watch expecting the story of India to begin with agricultural societies represented by the Indus valley civilization.

To my pleasant surprise Michael Wood took the story way back to Africa and the late- Pleistocene migration of Homo sapiens from Africa around 80,000 years ago. These humans migrated into India soon thereafter taking most likely the coastal route from Arabia into India. There are still relict populations in India which have believed to be descendants of these early settlers. I wrote a post about this some time back. These include the mainland tribals like the Korku and the Kuruba and those in the Andaman chain of islands like the Sentinelese. Mitochondrial genetic analysis supports this contention as the Korku and the Kuruba have one of the oldest mitochondrial genetic markers outside of Africa. The figure below shows migration routes of Homo sapiens reconstructed from genetic analysis.

Source: Univ. of Texas

Wood meet some of these tribal communities and discussed rituals that may be holdovers from very early times. There were some silly moments like when he asked one of the tribals "how does it feel to be the first human in India", but he did highlight the genetic work that is being done to unravel the history of early human presence.

From early Pleistocene settlers the show moved on to the Holocene and the enigmatic Indus valley civilization which lasted from around 3500 B.C to 1800 B.C. Wood talked a lot of town planning and trade between the Indus valley people and centers of civilization in what is now Iran and parts of the Middle East and then talked a little about the demise of this civilization caused most likely due to an increased aridification of the western Indian continent beginning around 2500 B.C. The show then moved on to the arrival of people starting 1500 B.C., speaking an Indo-European language, proto-Sanskrit. The locus of Indian civilization migrated eastward to the Gangetic plain but Wood emphasizes that there is a continuity in the cultural transition from the Indus valley to the Gangetic plains. The focus was on how these Sanskrit speaking people developed the Vedic culture and complex societies around the Gangetic plain. Using linguistic and archaeological evidence he traced the origin of these Sanskrit speaking people to central Asia.

What was left out from this rather predictable but decently presented sequence was any mention of where and when did Dravidian speaking people originate. This is the other big language family in India today, spoken mainly in the south of the country. Dravidian is considered by many linguists as part of the Dravidian-Elamite family of languages that once were spoken all over the northwestern part of Indian subcontinent extending into Iran. Exactly where the center of origin of this language family was is still uncertain but geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforva suggests that it could have been the northwestern part of India or it could be farther west towards Iran and the Caspian region.

What is clear is that Dravidian or proto-Dravidian speakers were in India before the arrival of proto-Sanskrit speakers. Linguists like Colin Renfrew suggest that it is likely that the entry and spread of Dravidian languages in India coincided with the farming dispersal and agricultural expansion that began in the Middle East and which expanded into north western parts of the Indian subcontinent around 8,000 years ago. Dravidian languages entered India through demic diffusion of agriculturists and Dravidian speaking people were the first Neolithic farmers of India. This extended history of Dravidian language origin and dispersal was given no attention in the show. These people are the likely candidates who built the Indus valley civilization and Wood missed out on exploring this thesis further. I've noticed this in many documentaries about India. The attention is always on the arrival of the "Aryans" a term used to describe people speaking Indo-European languages. They in fact arrived much later than Dravidian speakers. Today Dravidian is spoken mostly in the south, an example of language displacement by latter arrivals. There is however a northern enclave in Pakistan where Brahui, a Dravidian language is still spoken.

This is not really a rant on Dravidian vs Indo-European languages. I mentioned that Indo-European speaking people displaced Dravidian languages to the south, but Dravidian speaking farmers too must have displaced or made extinct Austro-Asiatic languages or other unclassified languages spoken by the earlier hunter-gatherer settlers of the continent. The history of India is one of immigration and emigration and superimposition of layer upon layer of language, culture and ethnicity.

I particularly liked one sentence Michael Wood said about India:

India is a country where all the pasts of the human species are still living.

That is a very evocative description of the country and its people. It makes you imagine the great antiquity of human habitation in this part of the world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

NPR Steals My Line on Climate, Well Almost

A while ago I wrote a post on coffee shop conversations about global warming and how to convince friends that it is better to have more faith in peer reviewed science than random self appointed experts who pop up on the Internet and pronounce that an entire field of study with a history of thousands of publications is wrong because that one paper in that hard to find journal says so.

NPR no doubt taking my cue has a similar "How To Be Conversant About Climate" conversation with Michael Oppenheimer, faculty in geosciences Princeton University, about how to convince Uncle Sal at the dinner table that global warming is not only real but is primarily caused by human activity. Oppenheimer is of the view that while the debate about whether warming is taking place is over and settled, there are differences which are quite genuine and not as easily dismissed on how to deal with this problem. That problem has economic, political and cultural roots and needs to be confronted without taking a "I am right and you are wrong" stance.

There is a second good talk on the show. This explores the broader question of why people find it hard to believe in science and scientists. Uncertainty in interpreting data and the results of an experiment, dissent and debate is built into the scientific process. It is the nature of the beast. But it is often bewildering to people that even after say 2-3 decades of work, there is no certain answer from scientists on a problem. People take that as a weakness of the system, a signal that science may not give them ready answers. Maybe we want that certainty, maybe we need closure on a problem, maybe we need to be reassured that yes this is the one correct answer, that we all too readily succumb into believing a confidently told but scientifically unsupported story.

And again how easily available information on the Internet can be at once a boon but also a hindrance and sometimes has dangerous consequences when people in responsible positions choose to believe wild assertions. Harry Collins of Cardiff University gives the example of parents refusing to vaccinate children with the MMR vaccine because they fear that it may cause autism in their child, something that has been refuted by solid scientific work.

Then there is the case of Thabo Mbeki, ex-President of South Africa, who after reading articles on the Internet announced publicly that retro-viral drugs to combat AIDS don't have any helpful effect. The media too bears some responsibility of spreading disinformation through their insistence on giving both sides on the story equal weight even though one side is just illogical and is not supported by any body of evidence and simply does not warrant such attention.

Both a good listen.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Indian Geosciences And Thoughts On Bengali Geologists

From, analysis of an increase in scientific output from India measured using various indicators. For the analysis ScienceWatch used the Thomson Reuters database National Science Indicators. Indian scientific output shows improvement in the number of papers indexed by Thomson Reuters since 1981 and also improvement in the number of citations per paper i.e. a count of how many times your paper is being referred to by other researchers. The reasoning is that if you have said something significant then people will refer to it over and over again.

Here are some stats:

In 1985, the number (number of papers indexed by Thomson Reuters) was approximately 12,500, and for the next 15 years the total never much exceeded 14,000. Around the year 2000, however, the number began to tick upwards, rising to nearly 17,000 in 2001, reaching 20,000-plus in 2003, and winding up at more than 27,000 in 2007.

and regarding citation stats...

Physics, as it happens, features prominently in the next set of graphs(2), which plot the nation's relative citation impact (that is, India's citations-per-paper average compared against the world average in each respective field) in 14 main fields in a series of overlapping periods from 1985 through 2007

...although the impact of India-based research lags the world average in the fields shown, the nation has been on a discernible upswing since roughly the year 2000, with notable gains in, for example, Geosciences(3), Neurosciences(4), and Biology & Biochemistry.

Geosciences citations have improved from being 30% of the world average to around 50% of the world average.

Source: ScienceWatch

A slight improvement I guess over the last 20 years or so, but the condition of a lot of geoscience departments, especially those in state universities leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality research output. I don't want to analyze this to death. Yes we are improving, but still far behind the U.S, Europe, Britain, Japan and China. A lot has been written on what ails Indian science. Here is a polemical view. And here is a more detailed and critical analysis.

I want to digress and write on a different matter.

I survey the research literature in sedimentary geology quite a bit and all along there has been only the rare publication by India based geologists in the leading geology journals on sedimentary topics. With one peculiar exception. Bengali geologists mostly based in eastern Indian Universities have been consistently publishing papers on sedimentary geology in internationally recognized journals.

I've often thought about this on and off and a number of reasons come to mind.

1) Proximity to sediments. Jadhavpur University Kolkata, Presidency College, Kolkata, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, IIT Kharagpur and School of Mines, Dhanbad, where a lot of Bengali geologists are based are all within a days driving distance from a variety of sedimentary terrains. These include the Ganges-Brahmaputra fluvial- estuarine-delta complex, the Mio-Pliocene Himalayan foreland and the late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic Gondwana continental rift basins. But proximity cannot be the only reason. Plenty of other Indian universities to the west and south and north sit right on top of Proterozoic and Mesozoic basins.

2) Institutional support. The east is where the systematic study of geology began in India. Kolkata was the seat of British administration until the capital shifted to Delhi in the early 1900's. The Geological Survey of India was established in Kolkata in the late 1800's. There is a long tradition of geology in this part of the country reflected in well funded geology programs in various universities.

3) Economic incentives. There is coal in the eastern rift basins and oil was discovered early in the eastern state of Assam. There was a requirement for expertise in sedimentary geology and eastern universities developed strong sedimentary geology programs to provide it.

4) But Universities are only as good as the people who work in them. Geology frankly has never been a field which attracts the brightest students in India. Parental, social and economic pressures lead to Medicine, Engineering and Management being preferred. Among sciences, Math, Physics and Chemistry suck in the best students. But there has been strong social and cultural support in Bengal for pursuing any kind of an intellectual career. So maybe many more bright Bengali students become geology researchers than elsewhere in India.

I remember my first ever meeting with my graduate adviser in the U.S. "Meet me at 8.00 am sharp", he barked on the phone. And so I went to his office, braving a bitterly cold mid-west January morning. He was a Bengali sedimentary geologist and a fine one too. Winner of the SEPM paper of the year award for 1986 for his excellent work on alluvial sandstones from the late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic rift basins of eastern India.

Maybe there is a germ of truth to my thesis :-)