Monday, January 30, 2012

Science And Nature Programming On Indian Television

Yesterday afternoon I watched a good documentary on the wild game trade and its social and ecological context on National Geographic. The setting was the Central African Republic and the hour long episode followed a researcher studying the hunters, traders and customers involved in Africa's bush meat trade. It was a sobering look at the decimation of wildlife that is occurring in these regions. Logging roads are reaching ever more in the interior and bush meat is highly prized,  due to old social preferences and a lack of alternative sources of protein.

The documentary brought back memories of some fine programming that used to be common on National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet. I say this because I continue to be deeply disappointed with the recent programming on these channels. I looked through the guide and here is a sample of the programs which form the bulk of the repertoire these days. I have divided them up into themes - Science Fiction - Alien Invasion, Crop Circles.. Adventure/Reality - Banged up Abroad, Survivor, Gold Rush Alaska.... Wildlife / Nature - Man vs Wild, Monster Fish, River Monsters, Worlds Deadliest Animals, Duel in the Swamp...

All are fast paced action packed dramas, full of adventurers getting into trouble abroad, or trying to "survive" in a mountain range somewhere or diving into swamps and running through forests grabbing at otters, fish or whatever small animals that come their way. ..The wildlife shows focus on life's brutal side, with plenty of sequences of lions hunting and crocodiles dismembering prey, all with a hushed but triumphant voice telling us that might is right in the jungle.

The kind of unhurried slow paced shows that exposed - through conversations and fine camerawork - the intricacies of a particular topic are being overwhelmed by a gonzo reporting style. Maybe it's the Steve Irwin effect that many nature reporters now feel compelled to run and grab at wild animals. The science depicted on these shows is minimal at best. And what example for conservation and respect for wildlife does it set with such an aggressive and intrusive film-making?

I miss those old shows on so many varied topics - Vets of Rural England, A Social History of Tofu, The Ecology of Tasmanian Tigers, Indonesian Mining Industry, The Chinese Homo erectus, to name just a few.  These shows were excellent examples of carefully thought out ideas and topics and were filled with richly detailed and nuanced contents on the cultural histories of people and communities and their interface with medicine, ecology, geology, evolution and genetics. Lots of relevant science was packed in an episode.

There are still a few shows in this vein being made even now.. Expedition To Borneo.. being a recent example. But mostly,  inane "survival" and extreme adventure episodes, duels between humans and animals and sensational violent hunting sequences with blood and gore are dominating the television screens.The assumption seems to be that people these days have very little attention spans and the best educative value would be provided by rapid visual stimulation and bombarding viewers with an array of facts and conclusions.

That leaves little space for depicting science as it really is - a process of knowing, wherein constructing a hypothesis, gathering data and analyzing it and finding out that that has opened up more questions than answered your initial one is really how we gain new knowledge and clear a path for the discoveries of tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On The Use Of The Word SUSTAINABLE

From xkcd comics:

 From the extrapolation it looks like that by the year 2109 we haven't yet figured out a way to live "sustainably", which is why people are desperately repeating the word "sustainable"!

By the way, the trend up to 2010 in the figure isn't just made up. The increase in the word "sustainable" from 1960 to early part of this century is true. Here's the usage frequency of the word from 1900 to 2005 as depicted by Google Ngram.  I have plotted it along with three other terms- climate change, global warming and sustainable development to understand why it might have increased.

The increase in the word sustainable begins in the 1970's as the environmental movement made its mark and books on that topic began to appear, while climate change and global warming start being used more and more from the mid-late 1980's onwards.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Conversations About Seismic Risk Of The Proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Plant

I get mails from reporters asking me geology questions. I got one today morning from a reporter of a big newspaper about the controversy regarding the siting of a proposed nuclear power plant near the village of Jaitapur in southern Maharashtra.

With his permission I have pasted his question and my reply below-

Dear Suvrat,

After the press conference by Dr Bilham regarding the earthquake hazard  to Jaitapur. NPCIL has issued a press release, which mentions about the various studies carried out on behalf of NPCIL. They are mentioned in the file attached with this mail. I was wondering whether they have taken adequate test for the Jaitapur site.

I would be obliged if you could see the mail and give your feedback.

Warm Regards

Dr. Bilham is Dr. Roger Bilham who along with Dr. Vinod Gaur recently published a paper (open access) on the tectonic situation and seismic risk along the southern Maharashtra region. My post summarizing the paper is here.  NPCIL is the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and their press release can be found here.

Here is my reply. I've added a couple of words (in black for clarity) -

Hi XX-

The list itself covers all the geological studies that can be done. I cannot off course speak to whether individual studies were comprehensive or not. I am curious whether the NPCIL already has or is planning on making all these studies available to the public so that independent experts may evaluate the findings of the government scientists.

Geologically there are two limitations here. One is that, there is no reliable historical documentation of large seismic events from this area (Jaitapur). Second, there is no surface expression of faults and displacements along these faults that may give us some idea whether and with what frequency was this area affected by large earthquakes in pre-historic times. Therefore it is difficult to develop a robust statistical extrapolation of the risk of large earthquakes.

This uncertainty means that people can read what they want to into all the tests and theories about this area. People who don't want a nuclear plant can say.. look, an earthquake can hit any time.. just like Latur. No scientist can disagree with that.

On the other hand the nuclear establishment can say with some justification that over the life cycle of a nuclear plant (next 100 or so years) there is a small probability of a moderate size earthquake (6 -7 Richter) and an even minuter chance of a tsunami and we can deal with the engineering requirements.

I don't see any side giving way because the opposition to nuclear energy goes deeper than just geological considerations and its hard to change the government's mind on anything.   From what I have read about the general geology of the area I suspect that everyone can beat the geological risk angle to death and get nothing new out of it.

One impression I did make when I followed some of the panel discussions on the Tamil Nadu nuclear plant on TV shows is that some of the nuclear scientists were dismissive and even contemptuous of civic society concerns. Maybe a similar attitude has aggravated the situation at Jaitapur.


Latur is the area in southern Maharashtra which suffered a 6.4 mag earthquake in 1993. It was long thought to be at low seismic risk. The Indian government is promising to engage with civic society on all aspects of the construction of the many planned nuclear power plants and in that spirit of openness I hope they make the relevant geological studies available for anyone to critique.

I will post more on this topic as the story develops.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Self Help Against All Those I"ll Heal You Quacks

I love the link posted by David Bradley on his excellent science blog sciencebase. The site is called The Red Flags of Quackery and its a one stop checklist to guard yourself against fantastic claims about miracle cures and from self styled "experts" conjuring up explanations for the unexplained.

David Bradley gives some sound advice too:

If your putative sCAM practitioner mentions energy as being some kind of universally pervasive force, point out that energy is nothing more than the capacity to do work in the thermodynamic sense and ask them in what units they are measuring the mystical energy of which they speak. If they try to invoke ancient wisdom point out that demons, blood-letting and trepanning are ancient wisdom. If they hint at ancient eastern mysticism, remember the words of the mighty Tim Minchin: “There is no eastern and western medicine, there’s medicine and then there’s the stuff that hasn’t been proven to work.”

The bonus for going to his site is this incredibly funny video of comedian Dara O'Briain's put down of alternative medicine and homeopathy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Outstanding Problems In Indian Geology And Some That I Just Made Up

In the October 2011 issue of the Journal of the Geological Society of India, K.S. Valdiya one of India's senior geologists and ardent spokesperson for earth sciences identifies some burning questions (behind paywall) in Indian geology.

Here is his list:

1) When did India dock with Asia?   The question asks essentially when did land bridges form between the two continents. There are similarities in vertebrate fauna of the Maastrichtian Murree (~ 68 mya) sediments of Kashmir and those from Asia suggesting an earlier welding of the two continents than is generally accepted.

2) This one deals with the southern limit of the Himalayan orogen.  What is the nature of deformation at and southwards of the Himalayan Frontal Thrust i.e. underneath the Gangetic alluvium?

3) What is the structural, tectonic and magmatic significance of the zones of "lineaments" along the Narmada-Tapi rift and along the Western coast of India? These lineaments are related to the stretching and rifting of India in the late Cretaceous but can we measure displacement along these fractures and are some of them conduits for the Deccan magmas? What is their relationship to seismic activity?

4) What is the nature of the Palghat Gap? This is a break several tens of kilometers wide in the Western Ghat mountain chain long interpreted to be an ancient shear zone. What do we make of a peneplained Precambrian terrain reaching great heights of over 7000 feet in the southern Western Ghats?

5) What is the relation between rift basins in Khambhat Gujarat and Sanchor -Barmer Rajasthan with the Marion hot spot. Is the genesis of these Jurassic-Cretaceous hydrocarbon bearing basins related to the passage of the Indian plate over the Marion "plume"?

6) How do we interpret the distinct structural and metamorphic boundaries in the various Precambrian terrains of Peninsular India? Are they ancient suture zones... recording Archaean collision events between micro-plates?

There is a lot here to chew on. These are questions that will require devoted research programs with expertise in a variety of geological sub-disciplines. There is a lot of work addressing these questions already going on but apparently K.S. Valdiya feels more needs to be done.

I have my own list of urgent questions. This list is not so much a list of unanswered questions or a list of great mysteries but more a collection of societal expectations that our scientists should fulfill. As a citizen of India these are the questions I would ask our geologists to pay attention to and devote their energies to studying.

1) A detailed quantitative hydro-geological characterization of the hard rock aquifers of Peninsular India. Vast areas of Peninsular India are underlain by basalts and granites. Water in this crust is stored in and flows through narrow zones of cracks and fractures. Tens of millions of farmers depend of ground water from these aquifers. Some more tens of millions are too poor to spend money on ground water exploration and digging wells in these hard terrains. They need help. And a more detailed understanding of these aquifers, their water bearing capacity and what would be their sustainable extraction limits under varying climatic and usage scenarios is urgently wanted.

2) Long term monitoring of Himalayan glaciers and the water budget of the rivers of the Himalayan foothills and Gangetic plains. Some recent studies suggest a gradual decline of Himalayan glaciers in response to global warming with implication for the future water supply to the glacially fed rivers of north India. We need to make an early start in understanding potential changes in water availability and their impact on agriculture and livelihoods.

3) Sediment budget of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta region. This enormous delta has been built over the Cenozoic by sediment brought by rivers draining the Himalayas. How will shrinking glaciers, changing rainfall patterns and changing river flow regimes influence the sediment supply and its deposition in the alluvial plains and the delta region? Is there potential for the delta to degrade thus exacerbating the effects of sea level rise?

4) A detailed mapping of soil varieties and studying concerns over soil degradation and soil erosion.

5) How much shale gas is there in the many sedimentary basins of India?

6) Do we have enough understanding of contaminant transport through shallow and deep aquifers? Is groundwater quality given enough importance and is it studied in enough detail to answer apprehensions about potential contamination of ground water from fracking that may result from the hundreds of shale gas wells that will be drilled in the near future?

7) Is carbon sequestration at deeper crustal levels in the vicinity of some or many of the planned coal fired power plants geologically feasible?

8) Do we have significant uranium ore deposits?

There are probably many more questions, but I have given a sample that touches on three crucial subjects - Water Security, Food Security and Energy Security. Geology forms an important component of the foundational knowledge required for providing a better quality of life for hundreds of millions of Indians.  Indian geologists must proactively wrestle with these questions and play an important role in answering to these three concerns of Water, Food and Energy in this century.

....  And finally, the biggest mystery of all in Indian geology... Why are there so few Indian geologist bloggers? .. :)

Besides my blog I know of only one other!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Musing About Cosmology and Evolution

Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday is making quite a bit of news. A few days ago science writer Kitty Ferguson  talked about Hawking and his work and his life on Fresh Air.  I enjoy talks on cosmology and I read popular articles on it. Up to the time I started graduate school in the United States I did not read much science beyond geology. Carl Sagan's Cosmos was my start on widening my reading to other sciences.

After reading a well written article on cosmology I come out feeling I have understood something...but just what..? Generally, I am unable to explain in any detail what I have read to friends or put it down in a coherent written format either. I think I know what Hawking radiation is and what is significant about the Higgs Boson but can't really express my thoughts beyond what I have read.

My experience with the theory of evolution has been somewhat different. I was completely ignorant about evolution well into graduate school. My adviser who doubles up as a sedimentary geologist and paleontologist encouraged me to start reading.  Today I consider myself fairly well informed about the field. The difference from cosmology has been that I am confident enough to express my thoughts on evolution either in conversation or in writing. I find I am able to think about basic principles and apply them to different situations and contexts beyond say what I have read in a popular article or book. I occasionally read the primary literature too.

Is my not so strong math background preventing me from looking at cosmology under the hood? I get the feeling that without working through the equations I am stuck nodding my head at whatever article I happen to read and nothing much beyond that. Many sub fields of evolution are also intensely mathematical. But I found that there are also many principles of evolution I could happily think about without the math. Evolution is all about armchair theorizing for me. I came up with  posts I am proud of on Tasmanian Devils And A Selfish Gene and another on the Red Queen one afternoon dreamily thinking about natural selection.

With Cosmology I don't have the wherewithal to write anything original. I have to get my kicks from Stephen Hawking on Fresh Air.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Minister Promises Evidence Based Science Policy

At the 99th edition of the Indian Science Congress held in Bhubaneswar Orissa, Minister of Science and Technology Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh  announced that India will pursue a “well-balanced, transparent and evidence-based science policy”.

Since he has stressed that the policy will be evidence-based,  here is my recommendation - The Minister should issue a strong statement rejecting homeopathy and astrology as sciences and withdraw all government support for these fields.

oh.. and make Ben Goldacre's Bad Science compulsory reading in High School / College.

Tip: Indigenus

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Volcanic Island In The Red Sea

Nearly coinciding with the New Year, volcanic activity of the west coast of Yemen has given rise to a new volcanic island.

 From the NASA Earth Observatory article:

An eruption occurred in the Red Sea in December 2011. According to news reports, fishermen witnessed lava fountains reaching up to 30 meters (90 feet) tall on December 19. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites observed plumes on December 20 and December 22. Meanwhile, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite detected elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, further indicating an eruption.

The activity in the Red Sea included more than an eruption. By December 23, 2011, what looked like a new island appeared in the region....

....The volcanic activity occurred along the Zubair Group, a collection of small islands off the west coast of Yemen. Running in a roughly northwest-southeast line, the islands poke above the sea surface, rising from a shield volcano. This region is part of the Red Sea Rift where the African and Arabian tectonic plates pull apart and new ocean crust regularly forms.

 The Red Sea is one arm of a great three armed rift system that includes the Gulf of Aden and the East African rift valley as the other two arms. If you want to know more about divergent plate boundaries and rifting along this complex system I would recommend this primer at

And don't forget to check out the image comparison tool with its cool slider at the NASA Earth Observatory website by clicking on the View Image Comparison option.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Testosterone Tattoos And Tequila Equals Snake Bites

Here is a great way to begin the New Year. Start following Quirks & Quarks, a weekly science talk show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hosted by the lively Bob McDonald.

I came across it recently and have heard some pretty interesting talks already. Here is a sample from the last couple of months -

The Dolphin In The Mirror
Pinning Down The Permian Extinction
Out Of Africa And Hybrid Humans
Cosmos And Dark Energy

As for the quirky post title?... Listen to the Show! :)

Have a great 2012..