Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politics And Pettiness In Indian Seismology

American seismologist Roger Bilham who has previously visited India many times to attend workshops and to meet colleagues on a tourist visa is now blacklisted and is being refused entry in to India.

A year ago he and Vinod Gaur of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore wrote a paper in Current Science  (open access) suggesting that there is small probability of a 6-7 mag earthquake near or at the site of a proposed nuclear power plant at Jaitapur in southern Maharashtra and that this should be taken in to account in the design of the plant. The paper was criticized by several Indian seismologists.  The scientific debate has been summarized by K.S Jayaraman.

This May, Bilham was denied entry into New Delhi and deported.  The reason given was that he was coming for activities not consistent with his tourist visa status. Bilham suspects that this decision by the Indian government is due to pressure from a senior Indian seismologist.

From G.S Mudur's article in The Telegraph:

The government decision was presumably based on recommendations made by one or more influential seismologists in India,” Bilham wrote to the IISc on October 17 this year, in a letter where he has declined to evaluate the PhD thesis of a young scholar. 

The IISc had requested Bilham to assist in the evaluation of the thesis. 

“It has been brought to my attention that some younger colleagues have been intimidated by a retired (Indian) seismologist who once held a position in Hyderabad, from working with me, or being associated with scientific studies, or discussions,” Bilham told the IISc. 

“The intimidation takes the form of suggestions that future funding, or chances of promotion, or job security, may be placed in jeopardy if these young scientists are in any way associated with my name,” he wrote, adding that his presence on the panel of thesis examiners might turn detrimental to the future of the young scholar. 

If true, this is a sorry sorry situation. What was it that Prof Krishna Kumar wrote about Indian academia and research institutions recently?... 

Inadequacy of funds is, of course, worrisome, but it cannot explain the extent to which malice, jealousy and cussedness define the fabric of academic life in our country.

All that seems to be on full display here. Several Indian seismologists have spoken out against Bilham's entry ban. More scientists must speak out. Scientific differences and even personality clashes should not translate into bans for scientists. If the tourist visa is indeed a problem then Dr. Bilham should be asked to apply for the correct visa category. But just keeping silent shows our government as a whimsical petty system which takes offense at any dissent, in this case, someone pointing out that it may have been wrong in its assessment of seismic risk. So far there has been no detailed explanation from the government for Bilham's ban.

HT: Nanopolitan

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Groundwater Powered Grain Mill In The Kumaon Lesser Himalayas

What is this mountain made up of?

Rocks off course. In this case the Deobang Formation dolomites and phyllites of the Lesser Himalayan Sequence. But a not so insignificant volume of this mountain is groundwater. Say 2% or 5% or locally near a fracture zone or a section of  weathered schists and phyllites maybe somewhat more.

Groundwater plays a big role in Himalayan farming economies. The point was driven forcefully to me as I made a traverse from the village of Shama to the village of Gogina which I covered in my post Interactive Geologic Map and Cross Section of Kumaon Lesser Himalayas.

During this traverse we came across a stream. Our hosts pointed to a small hut near the stream and told us that it was a water powered grain mill. My friend (many thanks Swati Pednekar!) has compiled a small video of that mill. Check it out. That's me in a blue shirt and blue cap looking intently at some mylonites and augen gneiss.

The pipe you see leading up to the hut brings water from the stream and powers the machinery that runs the stone mill. But.. you will say. .. this is surface water. Why do you call it a groundwater powered mill?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Summary Of India Draft National Water Policy

How India manages its water resources is an issue of paramount importance. S. Ramesh at InfoChange.org gives an excellent summary of the National Water Policy and its merits and demerits.

The draft National Water Policy has gone into two revisions, first in May 2012 and then again in July, after being tabled in January when protests were made about the policy treating water as an economic good, and favouring privatisation. Still, the soul of the draft remains intact except for a few points.

There is every likelihood that water will become a highly rationed commodity in the future. We will have to pay for any excess water we use after our basic domestic, sanitation and agriculture requirements have been met. This makes a national-level legal framework to control water use and prevent inter-state, intra-state and regional water conflicts absolutely imperative.

Statistics on India's water availability are summed up in one paragraph and a table gives projected increase in water demand for various sectors. One quirky detail... Inland navigation which has no demand in 1988 shoots up to 15 bcm (billion cubic meters) in 2050! Is that due to the building of large canals to transfer water from one river basin to another? (I haven't read the report by the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development  Plan 1999 from which this data was taken). Inter basin transfer of water or river linking as it is also known is often being presented as one solution for supplying southern Indian water "deficit" basins with "excess" water from mostly northern Himalayan rivers, although there are more local versions of the plan too. The problem off course is to get states to agree that they have excess water to part with, along with a host of other issues involving resettlement of displaced people and energy and ecological costs.

Quite a useful overview. And there are more interesting articles on India's water resources and the debates over privatization of water on the InfoChangeIndia website.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Can You Publish Poetry In The Journal Science?

In the late 1800's this doggerel:

And Holmes cries "rejected,
They're nothing but Indian chips."
He glanced at the ground,
Truth, fancied he found,
And homeward to Washington skips...

So dear W.J.,
There is no more to say,
Because you'll never agree
That anything's truth,
But what issues, forsooth,
From Holmes or the brain of McGee.

This I found in 1491: New Revelations of The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and the context is the contempt with which federal scientists looked upon amateurs who hunted for ancient American Indian artifacts and skeletons. Charles Abbot a physician from New Jersey was one such amateur and in 1872 he found arrowheads, scrapers and other implements on his farm in the Delaware Valley. Consulting a geologist he found out that the gravels containing the implements were ten thousand years old, implying a very old presence of Indians going back maybe to the ice ages in north America. Off course in those days there was no absolute dating methods available to ascertain the age of rocks. Geologists used context, in this case for example the gravels were older than historical layers. Then using educated guesses on rates of processes like sedimentation rates a likely age was proposed.

This went against the prevailing wisdom which regarded Indians as a more recent entry in to the continent sometime during historical times, perhaps a few hundred years before colonial times to the first millennium B.C. at most. The Bureau of American Ethology's scientist William Henry Holmes and the United States Geological Survey's W.J. McGee assigned to investigate Abbot's claim stuck to the official position and rubbished the find.

Hence Abbot vented his frustration in verse in the journal Science (I guess publishing in Science was easier in those days!).

Its not that Holmes and McGee were incompetent. But they clearly did not like amateurs messing around their domain, ever so often announcing sensational finds and spinning stories not backed up by any evidence.

Another concern was that amateurs often disturbed an archaeological site and made later documenting artifacts and skeletons in their proper stratigraphic context and exact location very difficult.

The issue of a Pleistocene presence of Indians in north America was settled in 1927 when a team led by Jesse D. Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History found at Folsom New Mexico a spear point stuck inside a bison skeleton. Earlier, federal scientists fed up by Figgins's claims of a half a million year antiquity to human presence in North America had insisted that Figgins unearth any new discoveries only in the presence of independent experts. The site was excavated in the presence of three well considered scientists who agreed that the find was real and could have only one explanation which was that people were present in north America in the Pleistocene.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Quote: Darwin On Marriage

Apart from evolution much pondering on the pro's and con's of marriage:


"It is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all," he writes, "No, no won't do – Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London."

"Cheer up. One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless and cold, and childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. Never mind, trust to chance… There is many a happy slave."


"Eheu!! I never should know French, – or see the Continent – or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales – poor slave."

read more on this post by James Randerson  The Private Life of Charles Darwin @ Guardian's Notes&Theories.