Tag Archives: Science

Decoding the Significance of Indian-American Heritage

One of our seven beloved grandchildren asked the other day, “How do you say ‘reception’ in Indian?” She needed the information for her school paper, Growing up in a Multicultural Family.

A few months ago, another granddaughter had asked, “Has anyone in our family invented something?” for her high school paper.

The significance of Indian American heritage can be decoded through an understanding of “reason” and its limitations.

The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant would say, “All knowledge flows from the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.

The world continues to subscribe to the philosophy of Kant.

Science, six sigma, policies, laws & regulations, and the like are products of reason. America excels in the products of reason. Most Nobel prizes go to Americans and America is home to top-notch technologies, products, and services.

In spite of these incredible accomplishments, why then has America not been able to tackle racial disharmony for over a century?

The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and a host of newer laws, policies, rules, and regulations have been adopted since then, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.

Racism persists because the nation is limiting its pursuits to the products of reason, but the solution is not to be found there.

Swami Vivekananda was an Indian monk revered in his native land and widely respected in the United States. Asserts Vivekananda, “Indian thought dares to seek, and successfully finds, something higher than reason.”

Swami Vivekananda’s wisdom can be proved.

Intuition is immediate cognition without the benefit of the five senses and the rational mind. Perfect intuition translates into the capacity to discern truth from falsehood. We all have a certain level of intuition, but the accuracy is generally too low to be of any practical value.

How does one discover something higher than reason? Obviously, one cannot use reason itself for such an inquiry.

Seers have left behind clues in the form of discoveries over millennia that couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge, and in every case, the process used is meditation, known for thousands of years.

As an example, the four Vedas are the most ancient scriptures of humanity. Their knowledge and wisdom couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge as there was none. This is why they are referred to as “revealed” (Shruti).

Another example, physics realizes that the universe came into existence pursuant to a big bang moment 13.8 billion years ago when it was an incredibly small energy phase (10-33 cm in diameter), unbelievably hot and immensely dense. Physics realizes too that on the other side of the big bang, there was absolutely nothing, a void.

How did “nothing” transform into the energy phase of the big bang? No product of reason has an explanation, and the explanation they do have is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes.

Inspired by Indian wisdom, my friend and associate physician turned theoretical physicist, Jim Kowall found the answer: “Consciousness of the void created the universe”.

How did seers know that meditation is the route to progress? They cite their Guru as their source, but how did their Guru know it? If you keep going back, you will eventually run out of Gurus, and then the question is, where did the first sage get the knowledge?

This is where the inquiry comes to an end, and the belief in God exponentially increases.

Meditation also brings about a rise in internal excellence, inducing positive changes from within. And this hypothesis can be tested as internal excellence can be measured.

Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion, gender, political affiliation, or national origin.

A rise in internal excellence is accompanied by a rise in positive emotions (love, kindness, empathy, compassion) and a fall in negative emotions (anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, despair, fear, sorrow, and the like).

So, society needs to do meditation to bring about a rise in racial harmony and a fall in societal discord. Who would have thought? 

Relatedly, the best performance results when the best products of reason are combined with a program to enhance internal excellence

The ancient contributions notwithstanding, science is the appropriate body of knowledge to use when the system fundamentals are well understood. When they are not, but measurements are available, data-driven methodologies such as six sigma are appropriate. When system fundamentals are not well understood and measurements are not available, then enhancing one’s focus of attention as with meditation, remains the only route to new discoveries. Take care though, discoveries made this way must nonetheless meet the rigor of logical scrutiny.

Remember, transcending reason may well produce new knowledge, but once produced, it is subject to all the constraints reason imposes on all knowledge.

This in a nutshell is the significance of Indian American heritage. American heritage provides the best products of reason, while Indian heritage suggests that transcending the bondage of reason is the only route to further progress and teaches how.

Indian American heritage has the capacity to make a substantial contribution toward a better and more peaceful nation and world. These ideas should be front-and-center in the conversations to further strengthen US-India strategic partnership.


Pradeep B. Deshpande is an Indian-American academic in America for fifty-five years. He has interacted with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, a friend and associate of his late father in the freedom struggle.

Acknowledgments. This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Gurumahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumoorthy Hills, Tamil Nadu, India.


 

California: The Cure

Legends of Quintessence – a Science Fiction column with a South Asian twist. 

Chapter 1

In a tiny house by the outskirts of Fresno, the morning was very quiet. Twenty years ago such a lull would be constantly interrupted by the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the windmills. Today, the windmill farm had been replaced by an energy farm that used a combination of solar fields and wind tunnels to maximize energy output. Quiet, efficient, and as ugly as could be. This stretch of California had stayed virtually untouched by the development frenzy that had gripped the state for as long as one could remember. 

The silence was broken by the phone

She jumped at the sound. 

Her hands shook as she picked up the phone, not saying anything. 

“Ms. Sana?”

“Yes, who are you?” 

“I am Vink Bhatia from the Center for Disease Prevention: CDP. We are calling from the Richmond center. We would like to call you in for a meeting to advise us.” 

She panicked, trying to breathe normally, “Do I have to come? My case is closed and I have not been involved with the CDP for 26 years now. I have no new information or anything for that matter.”

“No ma’am,” said Vink “We need your help. We have no other hope for what is staring us in the face. Please come and see us this afternoon and I will explain everything.” 

Once she put the phone down, she sobbed fiercely as all the memories she had suppressed came flooding back. 

Twenty-eight years ago, she had graduated from Strafford University, ready to save the world through research on vaccines. She joined the Center for Disease Prevention (CDP) Research Center to work on the development of vaccines for targeted assignments. It was the perfect time to be in a perfect world. The political upheaval of ten years ago was far behind and they finally had a president that came from California.

A woman of mixed ancestral background was voted into Presidency and led the country to financial success and stability through her political tact and focus on science, international relationships, and trade. It was just as well since the world was moving faster towards space exploration and travel. All eyes were shifting from regional and national boundaries to planetary and galactic boundaries.

She joined the team headed by Professor Braun. Her work was a combination of genetic engineering and cloning to develop vaccines. What had become clear to space agencies and companies contracting space missions was that, without vaccines that could trigger the immune system to mirror and overpower microbes in space, humans would be defenseless. In the last two years, there had been seven outbreaks of diseases brought back to Earth by space travelers. They had been hard to contain and three of them had had very sad conclusions with entire communities being quarantined till they were wiped out. Never had the CDP felt the heat like it did then.

The whole world unanimously agreed on the need for accelerated research to develop potent vaccines to protect humanity. Money poured into top research institutes and whole departments sprung like wild mushrooms in monsoon. There was enough funding to last for decades of research and development. 

Chapter 2

She worked on some very bizarre and strange microbes that took a lot of effort to clone, control, and conduct tests on. More than once she and her team had to quarantine themselves, as they worked to contain the aggressive multiplication of microbes.

The worst were the ones that came from the outer asteroid belt beyond the solar system. That part of the belt was where space mining companies really wanted to go for expensive and rare elements. The outer belt was rich in both elements and pathogens due to the increased gravitational forces in that part of the galaxy. 

In her line of work, she would often assist astronauts, lifting planetary dust off of their gear before they went into the sterilization chambers. She knew the frequent travelers by name and they joked and shared stories each time they met her.

This winter when Salas came back he was hurt. The official story was that his communication link with base had snapped due to a magnetic storm and a tiny piece of asteroid debris had hit him with moderate speed. When they were alone she looked at him, “Hey man, this time you lost it”, she said as she winked with a smile.

Salas looked up and she recognized the fear in his face.

“Can you shut off the recording for a couple of minutes?” he said.

”What’s up?” she was puzzled and not taking her eyes off him as she used suction to lift off the dirt from his clothes into five separate partitions within the sampler.

“I need to tell someone. They told me on the base not to say a word. But someone has to know …they may be coming to earth?” He paused and then looked up at her, pleading with tears in his eyes, ”Please, can you just give me five minutes?”

She paused and then turned the room to reclaim mode: they had seven minutes before all processes would kick back on, including monitoring and recording. She knew she would have to sign tons of paperwork and instantly regretted doing it. 

Salas gripped her hand and started blurting, “They know that there is some form of life in the outer asteroid belt. They have known for a long time and are hiding it. They have destroyed evidence many times.”

“Hang on there buddy, who’s they, and what kind of life?” Now she was genuinely interested, even if Salas had gone completely cuckoo.

“The mining companies…They think that they understand the aliens and that they can control them. They do not want to abandon the asteroid belts. I met him”, he paused, “I met it while leaving Base 3, which is at the remote end and is not manned. It was flowing fast and at first, I thought it was a gas cloud but then it hit my shoulder here”, he said showing the back of his right shoulder. “It was hard as a rock and I fell off and I reached out with my gun. I must have hurt it since I felt deep vibrations through my organs and then it flowed away very fast.” 

“Look at my suit here,” said Salas, pointing to a part on his right side that had a splatter of grey almost rock-solid matter. “I think this came out of it”

She jumped up at his confession. Did he mean that he had alien microbes on his suit?

“Don’t move,” she said urgently and reached for a mini sampler and scooped up the hard substance from his suit. “Salas, who else knows about this?” she asked.

“The controllers on Base 2. I told them about the encounter and they did not seem surprised at all. Instead, they told me to not tell anyone, else they would come after me”.

She told him to take some time off to rest and get his nerves back and promised to not tell anyone. 

Chapter 3

She did not report the alien matter as she should have. She worked on it on her own. She divided the amount into two equal halves and experimented with one half – attacking it with earth microbes to see how they would impact the defense mechanisms of the alien matter.

She used the second half to develop immuno-adaptive vaccines for humans when attacked by microbes from the alien mass. She worked non-stop, knowing that there was no end to the greed of the mining companies. Very soon Earth would be facing aliens without knowing if they were friend or foe.

She wanted to be ready…for people, for humanity…for a future where Earth could protect itself against the aliens that mining companies were aggravating.  

Completely unaware of what was happening in parallel, she worked on her own and was able to create the two medical safeguards with which she could arm the world if the need arose. She was almost done and had to conduct the last tests for replication and vaccine stability.

“Just a couple of days more,” she said to herself as she entered her lab on that fateful day.

They were waiting for her at the lab entrance. They had quarantined her work and she was escorted to a remote intelligence location. During her interrogation, she realized that Salas had cracked and told his team leader that she had taken alien matter from his suit. When she asked what happened to Salas, they gave her blank looks. She knew then what could happen to her. But if she told them everything, there would be no hope for humanity.

No matter what happened to her, she would not tell.

She had stored her work in two places by then. One, in the lab where her tests had failed, and the other where the vaccines had worked. She gave up the location of samples where the vaccines had worked on alien mass. She did not tell them the location of the molecules that had the potential to invade alien mass. She was not going to give up the last line of defense! 

They made an example out of her for the other researchers, calling her a traitor for developing vaccines to protect aliens. Her trial and sentencing was one-sided, military, swift, and ruthless. Eleven years in a military prison in Kansas and they ensured that they found every reason to throw her into solitary confinement as often as possible.

She imagined during these spells that she was the trunk of a twisted old tree, with each solitary confinement increasing her rings. Her branches held the weight of future children that wanted the freedom to be born. And close to her roots lay Salas in a resting position. She would often comfort him and let him know that it was ok.

“You have done your part. You can rest. I am the one that failed and my branches feel heavy with this burden.”

On release, she was only allowed to work non-medical, low-income jobs. She chose to be a hairstylist. Given her record, the only place that employed her was a minimum wage salon in Fresno. Routine: wake up, breakfast, get to work, end at 8 pm, back home, eat and sleep. 7 days a week including Christmas and New Year. It kept her sane, it kept her going for 16 years until the phone rang that morning. 

Chapter 4

She opened the door before the bell rang and walked to the car they had sent for her. The 3 hours drive was heavy with silence and she kept imagining in her mind again and again what awaited her at the CDP. As she stepped into the CDP building, a flood of memories hit her and she shivered involuntarily.

A man standing inside came rapidly to her and dragged her away by her arm to a room in the back of the two-story building.

“I am Vink,” he said as he hastily seated her in a chair.

She nodded, “What do you want?”

“You were experimenting on alien matter and developing vaccines for it?” 

She felt her anger rising, “I was not. I have served a long sentence for a crime that I never committed.”

“Oh, you don’t understand?” he said, “ We will need your help now. The mining companies have been exploiting the outer asteroid belt for a very long. We did not know that they were aware that some of these asteroids hosted an alien form of life that can survive in very harsh conditions. A lifeform so evolved that they can move from being fluid to hard as rock. When they die, they become a rock, almost unrecognizable as a living form.”.

He took out some pictures and showed her, “Look, here is one in the process of transforming from a solid rock form to fluid.” 

“So what do you want from me?”

Vink looked at her, “They are sick of being driven out of their homes and have entered earth using our own spaceships. Earlier, we thought that we had managed to contain them within the transportation base, but news from across California and Texas has me convinced that they are out there in these states.”

“Did you guys keep my experiments and materials in my lab?” She jumped up, “We will need to find it back and I need you to give me a lab and any alien mass you might have collected from the transportation base.”

“What had you developed besides what we found?” asked Vink.

“Well….you see some of Earth’s microbes can cause a lot of damage to them and are hard to create vaccines against. How many types do we have?” she motioned. 

“We have three types: two from combinations of flu and a very old skin plague against which all humans today have immunity and one that impacts their external layer”, Vink replied.

“Let’s work with the two combinations and forget the skin diseases…we need lethal diseases, not tame ones.” She stopped and turned sharply to him, “You don’t understand do you?” Vink stared at her.

“Look, they are able to change their form from fluid to solid by diffusing liquids and gases. But when they have to change from solid to fluid form they need to absorb these gases through their outer layer. If that outer layer malfunctions, they can no longer change back to fluid form and are rendered immobile. That is when we can infect them with our microbes”. 

“Stop staring at me and let’s get to work. We have a lot to do…first I will need to replicate these microbes at a mass scale and once we have done that we will need to distribute the vaccines as well,” she said, exasperated. 

Vink looked excited and confused at the same time, “We have not been able to develop vaccines yet. We are working on it but need more time. I am afraid we will lose some people but we are looking to quarantine the two states if needed.”

She looked up from the table and spoke slowly as a matter of fact, “Yes, I know that. I have the vaccine ready. I had it ready before they took me to prison. All we need to do is mass produce it.”

Vink sat down and took a few moments to absorb this. “So you did? Where did you?…They sent you to prison…And all the time you were….”

She stood up restlessly, “Vink, take me to a lab. We can’t waste time chatting!”


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Designer Babies: The Genetic Saviors

Tell A Story – a column where riveting South Asian stories are presented like never before through unique video storytelling.

Genetic Engineering has always been a promising field of science right from its inception, but to advance to a level where babies can be designed before conceiving is definitely fascinating to note. 

Known as Designer Babies, their genetic makeup is pre-selected and altered to serve a purpose as needed. Using pre-screening and gene editing, many such babies have been created so far to save families. Conceived to save siblings from rare genetic disorders, they are also termed as savior siblings. 

It’s been 20 years since the first designer baby was born to the Nash family from Denver, Colorado, but the news is still a miracle to many. Adam Nash was conceived for his stem cells from the umbilical cord, which was later used for the life-saving treatment for his sister suffering from Fanconi’s Anemia. The controversial decision though saved his sister from the rare genetic disorder, it triggered an ethical battle and the family still continues to fight the backlash. 

Many questioned them for the motive of conception and few demanded explanation for challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scientists continue to fear the consequences that may evolve in the future as the technology develops and gets adopted by the masses. 

The success of the first designer baby opened doors for many families that have a legacy of rare inherited genetic diseases. Since 2000, many countries have emulated the technology to save families. India had its first savior baby in 2018. Kavya Solanki conceived to save brother Abhijit from a rare blood disorder, thalassemia major. 

This powerful technology involving alteration of DNA sequences and modification of gene function is known as CRISPR technology. In-vitro fertilized embryos are genetically screened using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to find the one embryo that would be a potential bone match for their older siblings. Following this, the genetic makeup is selected or altered, often to include or remove a particular gene or genes associated with a disease that runs in the family. 

Though benefitted a few, scientists fear the rise of an elite class of genes created with illegal intentions. Gender diagnosis, trait preferences, the endless list of alarming consequences goes on; that may pose a major threat. Few scientific researchers have also raised concern over the health risks to human species with such creation of future generations. 

Tell-A-Story sheds light on this unique technology and its prospects while sharing the experiences of those families who have had designer babies, as they talk about the backlash, the need, and question of consent of the newborn. The video story also addresses the legal framework, future implications, and what lies ahead! 


Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.

For more such intriguing stories, subscribe to the channel. You can also follow the stories on Facebook @tellastory2020 and Instagram @tell_a_story2020

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 3

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing the last in a 3 part series on Chennai’s restoration of its marshlands. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story! 

(Featured Image: Mylapore Tank holds water even during the dry season, but only because its bottom has been paved over.)

Temple tanks

As in most Indian cities, Chennai’s piped water supply is available for just a few hours a day. And many parts of the city have no water connection at all. So many people pump groundwater, either on their own property or from government wells on the street. Others hire tanker trucks to fill their cisterns with water that has also been extracted from underground. “A huge quantity, almost 200 MLD [million liters daily] of water, is being shipped every day,” a water utility official told me. But surface and groundwater are not separate sources; they are linked by gravity and hydraulic pressure. So when people pump groundwater, they are ultimately depleting surface water as well, and near the coast, they are turning their water salty. 

With little monitoring and few restrictions, the city’s groundwater table is dropping by some 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) every year. That’s why finding creative ways to recharge groundwater within the dense, paved city is a critical step toward having enough water for people and for nature. And that’s where many small projects come into play. Recharge wells are becoming more common around neighborhoods in Chennai, their round perforated covers, a little larger than manholes, pocking city streets and sidewalks. Those covers lead to wells averaging 4.5 meters (15 feet) deep that simply give water a path into the permeable subsurface, and eventually into the aquifer. 

Through water as leverage, Madras Terrace, a local architecture firm, has proposed another approach to getting water into the ground across the city: temple tanks, a remnant of the eris system. In the past, “you cannot find a village without a temple, and you cannot find a temple without a water body,” says KK. Lots of those villages and temples have now been subsumed by the city.

One bright, blue-sky day, just before I leave India, I meet with Sudhee NK, an engineer and financial planner with Madras Terrace. We rendezvous in charming, bustling Mylapore, a neighborhood centered around Kapaleeswarar Temple, marked by a 37-meter-high (120-foot-high), pyramidal tower intricately carved and painted with some of Hinduism’s more than 3,000 gods. Vendors sell flower offerings, clay cups meant to be broken after drinking, and small deities. One of Chennai’s most notable tanks, occupying a city block, sits alongside the temple. With its top at street level, an inverted, stepped pyramid descends into the ground so people can continue to access water as the table falls.

Sudhee explains that, historically, the tank bottoms were unpaved so that groundwater replenished the tank from below, and rain and runoff from above helped to recharge the water table. Temple tanks were connected to larger eris systems and also served ritual purposes. Today the Kapaleeswarar tank holds water—ducks swim along the side and turtles bask in the sun—but only because the bottom was paved about 10 years ago to retain water for religious ceremonies. This water is effectively a mirage, says Sudhee.

To show me the true status of the water table here, he leads me across the street to another temple tank, Chitrakulam Pond, believed to be more than 2,000 years old and not cemented. Its bottom is carpeted with a mat of fresh grass, sprouted from recent rains, but the water has descended deep underground. “This is the real situation,” says Sudhee. Too much pavement and too many borewells are to blame for water levels more than 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface, he says.

Tanks that have not been paved over reveal the true state of Chennai’s water table, which, during the dry season, often lies dozens of feet below ground.

Sudhee and colleagues want to restore temple tanks across Chennai to their natural, unpaved state, to move water underground. The city government, Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), is connecting stormwater drains to temple tanks wherever possible to allow for groundwater recharge. And Sudhee’s team is also helping to raise the water table by collecting rainwater from buildings via vegetated ditches, called bioswales, placed strategically along streets, on hotel properties, in backyards, and in schoolyards. The Mylapore project is expected to provide on average 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of water per day. Replicating the project across 53 other temple tanks in Chennai could result in 60 million liters (16 million gallons) per day of recharge, according to the Water as Leverage team’s projections.

Reconnecting with culture

Despite stated government support for these slow water projects, getting utility engineers to embrace green solutions is difficult, says Balaji Narasimhan, the hydrologic engineer who is also involved in the Dutch-local partnership. That’s in part because the systems are more complex than concrete-lined drainage channels, levees, and dams. Slow water projects usually have a biological component, such as plants that may require soil amendments to achieve the chemistry or filtration they need. Silt traps must be cleaned. Also, because such projects tend to cover a larger area than concrete solutions, the public is more likely to come in contact with them, so project managers need to cultivate community support. But that requirement can be a benefit, says Narasimhan, reconnecting people with their water. 

KK tells me, “Even 200 years ago, people used to worship rivers as goddesses. Because of that, we were preserving water. Now we’ve lost those cultural values; we forgot.” When water “magically” arrived via centralized distribution, people stopped caring for their water bodies. In North Chennai, parts of which remain somewhat rural, Jayaraman, the activist, has witnessed that loss in a single generation. “Among the older people, there is a far more intimate knowledge of hydrology, of seasons,” he says. “Among the younger people, that is eroding quite quickly. It erodes with the landscape. Your culture goes with the landscape.”

But the reverse may also be true. As government agencies and NGOs hold and reclaim space to reestablish slow water, and as people harvest some of their personal water from local supplies, Narasimhan says he hopes they will become newly motivated to keep them clean and replenished. 

One project is directly targeting the next generation. On a warm, partially overcast day in early December, I grab an autorickshaw to Tholkappia Poonga Eco-Park, a 24-hectare (58-acre) green oasis in the heart of the city, near the mouth of the Adyar River, which bisects Chennai. Separated from the beeping traffic outside by concrete walls, the tree canopy is thick here, and the peaceful walking paths and the air above are bustling with butterflies, beetles, blue-and-yellow grasshoppers, crane flies, lizards, lorikeets, and other birds. 

Despite the significant loss of wetland habitat, an astounding array of native biodiversity clings to life in and around Chennai.

Years ago, an area creek feeding the river was filled in for development and this place became a dump, piled high with garbage and human waste and used for illegal activities. To counteract pollution and biodiversity loss, local NGO Pitchandilkulam Forest Consultants and city agency Chennai River Restoration Trust began restoring the area’s former river and estuary habitats 12 years ago. 

My guide during this visit is K. Ilangovan, an ecologist and wetlands specialist who has overseen this project from the beginning and has himself planted thousands of trees, including mangroves and 250 other species of plants. Since forest restoration here began, he’s observed snakes, mongooses, mice, and even jackals that feed on crabs and fishes. “We didn’t introduce anything here,” he says. After the replantings, “everything came.”  

People from nearby neighborhoods were involved in the planning and planting so that they would better understand the area’s purpose, and some still have jobs here taking care of the plants. During the monsoon, the whole park becomes flooded, storing water, says Ilangovan, and the surrounding neighborhoods have seen higher water levels in wells and reduced flooding, including during 2015, when they were spared the worst of the flood. The microclimate has also changed, keeping it a little cooler than the concrete jungle elsewhere in the city. The third phase of restoration is now underway; ultimately 145 hectares (358 acres) will be restored. 

Aside from offering homes to a variety of creatures in the middle of the city and mitigating water problems, the Eco-Park is a favorite field trip destination for school children, who come here and are blown away, says Ilangovan. Living in the city with little exposure to nature, “They are so happy to touch and feel the plants. You can see the brightness in their faces.” That outreach is critical to changing the direction of society, he says. “We can’t go and change the people with 40 or 50 years’ age,” he says. “So I focus more on the kids.”

Amidst growing environmental awareness of the general public and the government, four of the seven projects proposed by the Dutch-local partnership are moving forward, says Jayshree Vencatesan, including the Mylapore tank and Muttukadu Backwaters. Separately, her nomination of Pallikaranai as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, is under consideration by the central government in Delhi. But development pressure remains intense. “We as a country are trying to become more of a wealthy nation,” says Vencatesan. “And if we assume that people don’t want that, we are wrong.” 

Back at Pallikaranai Marsh, walking down a muddy path at the edge of shallow open water, we pass trees planted by Care Earth Trust, trunks wrapped in cuttings of an unpalatable plant to deter nibbling cattle. Bee-eaters and kingfishers whiz by, and a fan-throated lizard darts under a rock. The sun glints off an iridescent green jewel beetle with black spots, bumpily navigating stems and leaves. Antennae waving about, it suddenly flips, revealing a bright orange undercarriage. There’s still plenty to amaze here.

Educating people about the value of water systems and biodiversity is a long-term process, says Vencatesan, one that she’s been working toward with her characteristic persistence for decades. Near the spot where I was stuck in the minivan, she is planning to reroute traffic away from the marsh and build a pedestrian “ribbon walk,” where people can interface with nature. “They should see a value in it,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to last.”

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story!


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Pfizer’s Vaccine Expert Discusses Allocating Doses For Low Income Communities

Dr. Advait Badkar, Senior Director of Pfizer’s Drug Design Team.

Radha Rangarajan, CSO of a medical devices company, and healthcare journalist Sujata Srinivasan, interviewed Advait Badkar, a Senior Director in Pfizer’s Drug Product Design and Development organization. Badkar is leading the efforts on the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine program with respect to the formulation and process development, scale-up, technology transfer, and registration across global markets. The team Badkar heads specializes in novel delivery technologies with emphasis and expertise in nanoparticle-based modalities.

IC: Are there any differences in immunogenicity in subpopulations? 

Pfizer and BioNTech’s Phase 3 clinical trial data demonstrated a vaccine efficacy rate of 95% in participants without prior SARS-CoV-2 infection (first primary objective) and also in participants with and without prior SARS-CoV-2 infection (second primary objective), in each case measured from 7 days after the second dose. Efficacy was consistent across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics. 

IC: Participants enrolled in Pfizer’s clinical trials were known not to have been infected previously with COVID-19, for obvious reasons. But now that the vaccine is publicly available, it is not possible to test every person before vaccinating. In India, 70%-80% of people have the asymptomatic disease and are unaware of their COVID-19 status. Are any studies planned to assess the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in previously exposed populations? 

Yes. Immunity after vaccination is a question we continue to explore in our research. The duration of immunity after COVID-19 requires observing a large number of people who have had the disease once until some get it a second time. Because the first known cases of COVID-19 only occurred in December 2019, there hasn’t been enough time to observe a significant number of second illnesses to know the duration of natural protection. 

We will better understand transmission when we have data on protection for those who were previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or infected with COVID-19, asymptomatic disease and severity of the disease. Our trial will continue to study those areas to determine the full protection and potential of the vaccine. 

IC: Even though the science behind mRNA vaccine is not new, some fear that it might alter the genetic makeup, or cause other irreversible side effects. How is Pfizer’s outreach arm dispelling these myths?   

There is no evidence to support that notion. To the contrary, the mRNA platform is well suited for a pandemic response on many levels.  

First, one aspect of safety – unlike some conventional vaccines, mRNA vaccines are non-infectious, and there is no need for a viral vector to deliver the mRNA vaccine. Second, because no viral vector is used, mRNA vaccines pose no risk of an anti-vector neutralizing antibody response, thereby permitting repeated boosting, which may be important if additional vaccinations are recommended in the future.  Third, speed, mRNA technology enables rapid development if the vaccine needs to quickly adapt to potential mutations. mRNA vaccines have an efficient, fast production process, without the need for complex mammalian cell systems.

IC: Is there any plan to simplify the vaccination protocol to one dose? 

No. Pfizer and BioNTech’s Phase 3 study for the COVID-19 vaccine was designed to evaluate the vaccine’s safety and efficacy following a 2-dose schedule, separated by 21 days. The study concluded that the two doses are required to provide the maximum protection against the disease, a vaccine efficacy of 95 percent. 

IC: What are your thoughts on how to choose between the different vaccines?

At Pfizer, we understand that mitigating this global pandemic will require more than one vaccine and more than one company’s efforts. In March of 2020, Pfizer announced a 5-point plan calling on the biopharmaceutical industry to join the company in committing to an unprecedented level of collaboration to combat COVID-19. The industry responded. We are rooting for each other’s success and are confident that science will win.  

IC: What is the plan for a global supply? How will these be administered?

Pfizer and BioNTech are firmly committed to equitable and affordable access for its COVID-19 vaccine for people around the world. That commitment includes the allocation of doses for supply to low-income countries at a not-for-profit price. We are actively working with governments all around the world, as well as with global health partners to work towards fair and equitable access to our vaccine. We are also partnering with global health stakeholders to provide expertise and resources that can strengthen healthcare systems where greater support may be needed to deploy COVID-19 vaccines.  


Radha Rangarajan, Ph.D., is Chief Scientific Officer at HealthCubed Inc., a medical devices company. Prior to this, she was the founder and CEO of Vitas Pharma, a drug discovery and development company focused on novel drugs to treat multidrug-resistant infections. Radha has also worked in the Drug Discovery division of Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, her Ph.D. from Rockefeller University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health before moving back to India in 2003.

Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning, independent business and healthcare journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team, whose grant-funded, data-driven reporting is carried by media outlets statewide. Previously, she was the Connecticut correspondent for Crain’s Business, business reporter at NPR’s regional station WNPR, U.S. correspondent for the Indian edition of Forbes, editor of Connecticut Business Magazine, and Interim Chief of Bureau at CNBC-TV 18, Chennai, India. You can follow her on Twitter @SujataSrini

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. Find Part 1 here!

The Eris System

The people of Chennai don’t have to look far for inspiration on how to work with nature to finesse water cycles. Starting at least 2,000 years ago, ancient Tamil people ensured that they had water year-round by building a series of connected ponds on a slope from the Eastern Ghats (“mountains” in Hindi) east to the Bay of Bengal. These eris, the Tamil word for tanks, are open on the higher side to catch water flowing downhill, while the lower side is closed with an earthen wall called a bund. An overflow divet in the top of the bund gives excess water a path to continue on to the next eri downhill. “System eris” were built off of rivers and creeks to capture their peak flows, while “non-system eris” were dug in areas without natural waterways to capture rainfall in a series of connected depressions. Eris were described in early Tamil literature and temple engravings, says Krishnakumar TK, an amateur historian and local travel writer who works in information technology and goes by the name KK.

The eris system is the opposite of modern development’s tendency to move water off the land as fast as possible. The early Tamils understood that, by slowing water’s flow, the eris reduced flood peaks and prevented soil erosion. They gave water time to seep underground, filtering it and keeping the water table within reach of wells. The eris also served as visual indicators of water availability because they were connected to the water table, says Vencatesan. Seeing the water level in a pond signaled to farmers when to sow their crops. Cultural rituals dictated system maintenance and water sharing. Tanks were also part of every temple complex, bringing water into the heart of religion and culture.

And because many eris were connected to creeks, rivers, coastal wetlands and freshwater marshes, they provided natural waterways their due along the way. Even eris not directly connected to rivers helped to feed the local hydrology because underground aquifers are extensive, so water absorbed in one place could feed a river some distance away. The words “lake,” “tank,” and “water body” are interchangeable here because, after so many generations, no one remembers whether a particular water body is natural or human-made. 

British engineers in the 19th century were amazed by the scale of the eris system—reportedly more than 53,000 bodies of water across southern India—and the deep knowledge of topography and hydrology required to build it. Alas, British respect had limits. Their centralized management supplanted the traditional system by which villages managed their local eris themselves, removing accumulated silt each year and using it to fertilize fields. The British neglected this maintenance and the eris fell into disrepair, making it easier to justify filling them in and building on top of them—a pattern that continued after independence.

As they built roads, the British obliterated the flow pathways that had linked water bodies, says KK, giving the rainwater nowhere to go. “They did not understand our system,” he says. Today, many famous city landmarks and neighborhoods—Loyola College, Central Chennai Rail Station, T. Nagar, Nungambakken—sit atop former tanks and lakes, says KK. Street names such as Spur Tank Road and Lake View Road commemorate ghost water bodies that once sustained and protected their neighborhoods. Fewer than one-third of the 650 water bodies that KK has documented in and around Chennai remain. The surface area of water decreased from 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) in 1893 to less than 3 kilometers (1.1 square miles) today, so in heavy rains, water floods into city streets, homes, and businesses.

Ironically, given KK’s passion for finding and documenting historic water bodies, the IT company he works for is in a special economic zone built atop Pallikaranai Marsh and the neighboring Perumbakkam wetland. He chuckles ruefully, showing me the area on a map. “We used to have hundreds of thousands of migratory birds visiting this marshland some 20 years ago. I have seen [it] getting destroyed in front of my eyes.” With just 10 percent of the marsh area remaining, “Even I can’t [see] the water from my workstation, and I’m on the fourth floor.” But as the title of Krupa Ge’s book invokes, Rivers Remember. This area hasn’t forgotten it is a marsh. During the 2015 monsoon, it flooded to the second floor.

Kids bird watching at the Marsh.

Wetlands = wastelands

Another British legacy that facilitated the destruction of wetlands was their official designation as wastelands. To Jayshree Vencatesan, the notion of wetlands as wastelands is anathema. “I grew up in the hinterlands, where this notion of waste doesn’t exist,” she says. “To us, nothing is a waste.” That attitude was once widely shared across southern India. Many areas the British saw as “waste” were shared-use commons, called poromboke in Tamil and dating back to medieval times. The ethic surrounding the use of the commons is even older, says Vencatesan, rooted in Tamil scriptures, which described the resources that wetlands provide—fish, seasonal agriculture, fodder for animals, medicinal plants—as well as the requirement to protect them, including penalties for those who didn’t. People understood and accepted that wetlands and other ecosystems were multifunctional habitats, supporting not just humans but other organisms as well. As a common property resource, water was subject to rules regarding how it was allowed to overflow from one water body or wetland to another. “This is essentially upstream-downstream equity, you know?” she says.

As she learned more about wetlands throughout her career, in part by working with Indigenous people who continue to live close to the land and water, Vencatesan internalized those values of multipurpose landscapes. She also learned that it’s critical to allow certain wetlands to follow their natural rhythm and go dry part of the year, to support the natural life cycles of animals and plants, including crops. “All of our melons and gourds and stuff like that used to be grown when the moisture is retained, but the surface flow is not there.”

In contrast, the British viewed land as property, so the commons, which could not be bought, sold, or built upon, “presented a very peculiar problem for them,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, who goes by Nity. A local community activist with a collective called Vettiver Koottamaippu, he works in North Chennai, where industrial facilities like coal plants are displacing fishing communities. “From a revenue point of view, it was wasteland.” As surrounding lands were developed, tension mounted over these two sets of competing values. “Of course, the old values lost,” he concludes. “And what we have is a disaster called Chennai.” 

The lost values are arguably as significant as the declines in sustainable subsistence and healthy, functioning ecosystems. People’s identities are entwined with their place. When development annihilates a place’s natural heritage, people also suffer cultural loss—loss of identity. For example, Pallikaranai Marsh is home to neithal (Nelumbo sp.), an endemic, striking, blue-violet water lily, one of the earliest flowers described in Tamil literature, says Vencatesan. Other beloved creatures of the swamp include the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and, perhaps surprisingly, the hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale), one of India’s four venomous snakes. “Snakes are revered in Tamil Nadu,” says Vencatesan, who grew up in a neighboring state. “They think it’s a god, so, yeah, they have no problem with snakes.”

Today Chennai’s wetlands are still officially classified as wastelands, which has made Care Earth Trust’s progress thus far, conserving 620 hectares of Pallikaranai Marsh, all the more remarkable. The organization is also working to restore numerous other “wastelands” that are, or were, connected via water pathways to Pallikaranai. On a visit to a few of these sites with Care Earth staff, I see candle flower (Senna alata), a medicinal plant whose flowers exude a milk that soothes skin injuries, as well as bronze-winged jacanas (Metopidius indicus), fish eagles (Icthyophaga humilis), black bazas (Aviceda leuphotes), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), and many other native species.

At Thalambur Lake, we walk along a new levee that they pushed up with a bulldozer to keep water in the lake longer so that fish can lay eggs once again. The levee is pocked with young saplings of peepal and native bamboo. Looking down into the lowland, I can see the small islands they built and planted with trees to serve as nesting sites for birds.

At another spot just off of Mahabs Highway is a dock where you can rent paddle boats to explore Muttukadu Backwater, south of Pallikaranai. Dozens of pelicans sit on the water, bobbing on its calm surface. Here and in other neighborhoods near the ocean, excessive groundwater use has allowed seawater to push in, turning aquifers salty. Muttukadu has grown too salty for some of its native fish, and water levels have dropped. In response, Care Earth Trust has begun educating local people, petitioning the government to regulate water extraction, and restoring pathways to allow fresh water to flow into the wetland and replenish it. They’ve also started replanting mangroves to improve breeding habitat for fish.

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. To reduce flooding and bridge droughts, India’s southern coastal metropolis is using ancient knowledge, community action, and wetlands restoration to better harness its monsoon rains.

Half the story

From a minivan on the shoulder of Old Mahabalipuram Road on the south side of Chennai, hemmed in by honking trucks and autorickshaws, we watch a painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) move with studied dignity through the long grasses of Pallikaranai Marsh. With each step, knee flexing toward the rear, the webbed foot closes, then spreads open again to find purchase on the soft land. As it tips toward a fish, striped white-and-black tail feathers spread, flashing a surprising red whoosh. Nearby an endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) swirls in for a landing, green-backed herons (Butorides striata) fish, and gray-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) tend to young among cattails and sedges—just a few of the 349 species of flora and fauna found here. We are watching from the vehicle because, with the traffic hurtling by, it’s not safe to get out. It’s a claustrophobic feeling—for myself, but more so for this delicate ecosystem. Just across the marsh, not far away, a network of power lines, buildings, and roads stretch beyond view.

In the last 50 years, this marsh has been literally decimated, losing 90 percent of its area to malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and information technology firms. It’s part of a global problem. Over the past three centuries, 85 percent of the world’s marshes, sloughs, swamps, fens, and bogs have been drained, filled in, and built or planted upon. The relatively new IT corridor here is an echo of California’s Silicon Valley, where Google and Facebook squat on filled-in marsh. Over the past few decades, Chennai has sprawled into India’s fourth-largest city, from 48 square kilometers (18.5 square miles) in 1980 to more than 426 square kilometers (165 square miles) today.

And that development has not just harmed Pallikaranai Marsh. The natural landscape on which Chennai was built is particularly rich in water. Pallikaranai is linked hydrologically with a complex system of rivers, backwaters, coastal estuaries, mangrove forests, and ancient human-built lakes in a mosaic of movement—freshwater, brackish, salt—that once covered 186 square kilometers (72 square miles). But an assessment by a local NGO, Care Earth Trust, found that Chennai lost 62 percent of its wetlands between 1980 and 2010. That destruction has depleted habitat for wildlife and spawned dueling water problems for the people of Chennai.

In summer 2019, Chennai grabbed international headlines when it ran out of water. Government trucks made deliveries to roadside tanks, where people queued with vessels and occasionally brawled, resulting in at least one death. When I visited in mid-November, water trucks still plied the streets. But 2019 wasn’t an anomaly. Over the past two decades, Chennai has regularly run out of water during summer months. That’s because paved surfaces throughout the city prevent rain from being absorbed and replenishing groundwater that could be used during the dry season, says Balaji Narasimhan, a professor of engineering who specializes in hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. The simple fact is, Chennai shouldn’t be running out of water at all. During its few months of monsoon, the city actually receives 1.5 times more rainfall than it consumes annually. But today’s water managers do their best to rush rain away in stormwater drains and canals, moving it rapidly out to sea. When they need water later, they turn to dwindling groundwater, distant supplies, and desalination plants.

During monsoon rains, water often floods vast swaths of the city. Among Chennai residents, more emotionally and politically jarring than routine water scarcity was the 2015 flood that killed at least 470 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left many stranded in their homes for weeks. Ironically, it was likely the local mindset of water scarcity that made the flood more deadly. As writer Krupa Ge documents in her book about the flood, Rivers Remember, reservoir managers were reluctant to release stored water ahead of the monsoon rains; when they finally recognized the threat, they discharged too much, too fast.

In addition to poorly planned development, climate change is also exacerbating these water swings. The city has seen increasingly frequent and intense cycles of both flooding and drought over the past two decades. As moderate rain fell early last December and streets began to flood, one local aptly captured Chennai’s dysfunctional relationship with water in a tweet: “till last week, the residents were booking water tankers and from today they will book rescue boats. What a city!”

These bifurcated water disasters are all the more tragic because early Tamil people, whose cultural and linguistic heritage continues proudly in today’s residents, developed an elegant system for capturing the precipitation that fell during monsoons, saving it for the dry season. Their method also replenished groundwater and minimized erosion from heavy rains. And it supported rather than devastated wetland habitats. 

Back to the future?

Beneath the peepal (Ficus religiosa) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) trees, amongst the flower stalls and idli restaurants, greater Chennai’s 11 million people go about their business as cows and dogs wander and nap at will, and jungle crows (Corvus culminatus), Oriental magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis), and dragonflies swirl above the fray. Chennai is more chill than the northern megalopolises Delhi and Mumbai, but it shares that quintessentially Indian sheen of chaos that, upon longer observation, reveals an innate order. An unspoken dialogue of push and pull among countless beings following their individual paths somehow manages to keep the whole in a constant state of flow.

Image of Oriental Magpie in Chennai by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Non-human lives, though, have less and less space to exist across India, where 1.4 billion—with a “b”—people jostle to survive and thrive in a land area one-third the size of the United States. Even so, solutions to this inherent tension don’t have to be an either/or. Reclaiming some of the ancient ways, restoring flow paths and space for water on the land, could provide greater water resiliency for humans and other organisms alike. Today a loose team of people in government, academia, and NGOs are working toward that vision.

The 2015 flood forced the city to acknowledge that poor development planning played a role in amplifying its water disasters. The Dutch office of International Water Affairs advised officials on flood recovery, underscoring that message. The following year, it offered them the opportunity to participate in a multi-year design and development program, called Water as Leverage, in partnership with local water experts and communities. Together they produced two reports that linked existing projects and laid out new ones that would conserve and restore natural and human-built water systems across the entire watershed. The aim was to harness nature, because protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and organisms is a way to also provide resources that people need. 

This concept is part of a “slow water” movement that’s beginning to take hold around the world. Generally speaking, modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In our many attempts to control nature, we’ve sped up water, channeled it, and rushed it away. We’ve forgotten the fact that when we give water a chance to linger on the landscape, floods are softened, water is stored, and natural systems are sustained. Champions of the slow water movement think that the key to greater resilience, particularly in the face of climate change, is a kind of de-engineering that reclaims space for water to pause on land, supporting natural and human-made communities. 

Although it may seem like an unimaginable challenge to restore space for water within a densely inhabited city, many experts think it’s possible. It requires thinking differently. Unlike standard gray infrastructure—dams, levees, stormwater tanks—slow water approaches typically involve many small projects scattered across a landscape that each absorb and hold some water. This dispersed approach is similar to the way that solar panels on every house can add up to a significant amount of electricity generation. 

That any natural water arteries still remain in Chennai is thanks in significant part to Jayshree Vencatesan, a 50-something biologist who founded the NGO Care Earth Trust in 2001 to protect Pallikaranai Marsh and other bodies of water around Chennai. When she began, “people said it was the stupidest thing anyone could do,” she says. “But if people challenge me, saying you cannot do a bit of work, I will take it up.” Based on her years of accumulated knowledge, in 2014 Vencatesan documented the cascading system of 61 wetlands and ancient human-built water bodies across the watershed that drain into Pallikaranai and later juxtaposed them with time-series maps showing what’s been lost. Catalyzing public awareness, her findings were the basis for a ruling by the Honorable High Court of Madras to prohibit further encroachment on wetlands by development, and to implement a state plan to restore some of these ecosystems.

Vencatesan and Care Earth Trust have been heavily involved with the Dutch-local Water as Leverage initiative. Initially, she says, “the government was amused” by the groups’ presentations, given the officials’ general bias in favor of the more typical development approaches of desalination plants, dikes, and filling in wetlands to “reclaim” land. But “when they looked at the final proposal, they were taken by … the in-depth understanding about the city and its hydrology,” she says. This initiative, the court ruling, and other recent events have put the city on course for change. “Until now, nature has been treated in Chennai as an externality, never factored into urban planning.” As this revolutionary shift takes shape, she predicts that sand dunes, marshes and other wetlands, and remnant patches of dry forest will once again become “the natural buffers to the city’s shocks.”

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

In 2020, Science Fiction is Freedom

Legends of Quintessence – a column that interacts with Science Fiction in a South Asian context. 

The year 2020 has been a very strange one. This year has made me reflect on things I hold dear in my heart.

The first critical reflection was on people – family, friends, colleagues, mentors.

The second was freedom. Not just freedom of living in a free, democratic country but also mental freedom. I found my freedom in writing Science Fiction, where there were no boundaries to limit the imagination.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Most of my early pieces found their way to the trash can due to various reasons: moving continents, writing on loose sheets of paper, journals getting lost unwittingly. The intent was never to publish but to find an outlet for creativity. Putting pen to paper as a means to satisfy that creative urge. And somewhere down the line, I realized that I liked writing science fiction more than other kinds of stories. The ideas would come fast and would demand to be written…and I finally shifted from writing on paper to writing on my laptop. 

Then came March 2020 and the COVID crisis. Suddenly daily travel, socializing, watching movies in theaters, and my son’s violin concerts came to a halt. Instead, I started focusing on new gifts of quality family time, exercise, making healthier meals, reading books, and writing science fiction more often. The impetus to publish my writing grew. 

I believe I am very fortunate that I got to launch a Sci-Fi Column (Legends of Quintessence) with India Currents. When our publisher, Vandana Kumar shared the news with me, it was hard for me to believe that I was becoming part of such a prestigious and long-standing publication. It has been an amazing experience to bring Science Fiction to our readers: Interview with an artist @colorsofhoney, Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, and an interview with @addictedtospice who shared a recipe worthy of feeding Aliens

And now as we look forward to 2021, a year that promises to be better and brighter, I am excited to continue bringing Science Fiction to our India Currents readers. Wish you all a very happy transition to 2021 and see you in the new year!

If you would like to read the Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, here are the links to the chapters:

Chapter 1: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-tales-of-a-deviant/

Chapter 2: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-2/

Chapter 3: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-3/

Chapter 4: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-4/

Chapter 5: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-5/


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 5

This story is published every two weeks as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap: In the last chapter, Sneha’s truth is revealed to the others in the shelter. She also discovers that she has evolved due to her interactions with her cosmic friends. She feels that they have come back for her and once she meets them again, she realizes that her mother is part of them, living on.

Final Chapter: Immortal Grounds 

Sneha sobbed with realization and relief. As she looked around at her new family, she found comfort that her mother was still alive within their floating shapes. She knew that she faced an inevitable question: Should she go with her new family or stay with the humans?

“There’s more like you on various bases across the Universe”. She looked up as the shape right in front communicated with her.

“How many?” she asked, surprised. She thought that Earth had been the only research base for clones.

“Not sure,” it replied, “But we have seen many men and women pass through this constellation that are clones”. Sneha thought for a few moments. She wondered how many of these clones would have free will like hers. “Come with us,” he said, “You are one of us. I can feel your mother’s joy.” 

Sneha sat down for a long time. She looked back at the shelter a few times and knew what would be happening there: They would be communicating frantically with the other bases to report that she was hostile and asking for backup. She knew however that it would be days before any backup would arrive. 

She did not realize how exhausted she was as she fell asleep in between the stories they were sharing with her. When she woke up, she found them wrapped around her, protecting her as she slept. ‘They care about me” she thought as her emotions welled up. Sneha had never experienced any form of love before this. However, based on all she had heard about human emotion, this was the closest thing to love that she had ever experienced. She got up slowly and started walking towards the shelter. As she passed through the shelter walls, she saw them following her inside, her floating circle around her. 

The base commander stood there looking pale. Everyone at the shelter was standing behind him. Both humans and clones looked at her in shock. They still did not understand what was happening and why.

Sneha spoke slowly: “I want all the humans to pack up what you may need for a long trip, find another base that you can go to, and leave this shelter,” She paused, “Please let the others know that this planet and constellation is now for clones only. These are my family’s orders.” She saw them look even more confused. 

“I am giving the clones an option to stay and be part of my family if they want to”. Sneha was not sure how the other clones would react since they had no free will left. Of the nine other clones, only one walked towards her. She looked confused and torn. For the first time in her entire captive life, she was being asked to make a choice for herself….she wanted to but was scared. She shivered as she came over to Sneha and stood by her side. 

Sneha watched over the next few hours as the commander communicated with other bases, trying to find one that could shelter them. They packed and prepared, scared and concerned. She felt oddly at peace as she looked around the shelter and her family. She knew they had been maintaining this in the absence of humans and that’s why it was still functional. Her mother had integrated all her wishes, aspirations, and memories into them. It was time for Sneha to do the same and merge her existence into a floating, shared pool of life and intellect. 

They were finally ready to leave. Sneha noticed that the ship no longer showed any damages from the rough landing. She still had to learn how they managed to carry minerals and metals through space within their lifeform to be able to repair, revive, and build. “Ah, that’s for another day” she told herself smiling. 

Sneha turned to the commander for her parting message: “Do not try to attack us. You will not win. And I will not forgive any attackers”. The commander nodded shakily, ready to move as far away from this base as possible.

As the ship faded away, Sneha turned back towards the shelter. “What are the locations of other bases that are holding clones?” she asked. She listened carefully as many in the floating cloud shared what they had encountered during their journeys. “We’ll start freeing them once my evolution is complete,” she said to them. For now, they all went inside the shelter to rest. 

Go back and read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

The Fine Art of Baloney Detection

I was listening to an excellent lecture on Aristotle and Socrates: How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8). I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. 

We are in the throes of another election season. A season necessarily filled with promises, policies, initiatives, and a fair amount of fluff.  There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. No solid requirements or certifications to do the job. The various forms of media are especially active during this season, amplifying their candidate’s voice. 

There have been disturbing trends towards dictatorship in the past few years in our dear country. We have grown used to being lied to, we are more divided than ever before, and the versions of the truth fluctuate wildly depending on which network or newspaper reports it, it is increasingly hard to determine what the truth is. 

Just a simple search for ‘Media Bias Charts 2020’ is enough to drive home the point:

These problems have always been there. 2000 years ago, the world’s greatest democracy of the times, modern-day Italy, then the Roman Empire, witnessed turmoil that resulted in the decline of democracy. Things took a slower time to do so 2000 years ago, but with accelerated advances in technology linking us faster than ever to ‘breaking news’ and social media amplifiers for everyone, the waters have become noisier and murkier.

Several times in the past few years, I have gone back to reading a fine essay, The Baloney Detection Kit, written by eminent physicist, Carl Sagan. We have been living in a state of dubiety (The state or quality of being doubtful; uncertainty). 

The essay starts off by empathizing with the human condition. Why are we, as humans, willing to believe in things whether or not there is any sober evidence for it? 

It isn’t unheard of to believe in things supernatural, or falling for false advertising campaigns with exaggerated claims, or believing models wearing Doctor’s coats, or blindly believing religious zealots who spout hypotheses with confidence. As human beings, we have been doing this for centuries, and in most probability will continue to fall for some sort of questionable practices. 

As long as there are those who are willing to take advantage of the vulnerable with little or no consequence, these will persist.

While we enjoy the occasional myth or fib, it is important to know the difference. For an adult to attack Harry Potter for instilling witchcraft is worrisome for this very reason. As part of growing up, we want children to outgrow the myth of Santa Claus. Knowing to distinguish fantasies from reality is a necessary tool for survival. 

Which brings us to why we must have a version of Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for us to use. 

It has been a saddening realization to find that Science has not been embraced when it is needed the most. I was reading a book on the greatest inventions of mankind in the past 2000 years. It is a book collating the answers from philosophers, researchers, and professors from various fields. One of the answers given was the framework of Science. I couldn’t agree more. The ability to think, weigh, design experiments with control and test groups, and sift empirical evidence has resulted in the very least at :

  • Saving millions of lives, that in previous generations, succumbed to the disease.
  • Figuring out how to feed a planet that grew from 1 billion to over 7 billion within a generation.

For those who would prefer a straight jump to the Baloney Detection Kit, here it is quoted from the essay:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight—“authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.*
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise)—not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable, are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle—an electron, say—in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

As we move towards an election season amidst the Covid outbreak, economic hardship, and so much more, I hope we can keep reminding ourselves of the Baloney Detection Kit and apply it for ourselves.


Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hindu, and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

Aberration: Chapter 3

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap

In the last chapter, Sneha was disappointed when she learned that she would not travel to the positron cloud. Instead, she would be part of the backup team and find refuge on HR 4189-GR. However, her first steps on the planet were anything but boring. She did not know yet, but what awaited her was more than she could have asked for…

Chapter 3: Unfamiliar Past

Sneha’s head hurt as she lifted it to figure out where she was. She had a hazy memory of double vision and at this point, she was convinced she had been hallucinating. She got up and walked around to realize that she was inside the shelter on HR 4189-GR. As she walked out of the room, she entered the regular sleeping quarters in the shelter. She noticed that at the far end were stairs going up…perhaps to the dome above ground that she remembered seeing as they had exited the spaceship.

The shelter still functioned rather well for an old abandoned structure. The technology must have been centuries old and abandoned for as long, but a few years ago, when another spaceship was forced to land here, they found the shelter still functioning. Since then, it had been used as an emergency refuge. Sneha crossed the sleeping quarters and walked up the stairs to enter the fiber enclosure and looked around at the eerie atmospheric display of HR 4189-GR. She was about to turn around and go back underground when she heard a thud on the round wall behind her. She turned thinking it was someone from the crew but felt her throat dry up as she watched floating vapor change shape and come directly in front of her.

She saw the double vision again. The floating vapor transformed into solid shapes that moved and then reconnected back with the floating mass of vapor. She wanted to speak but knew in her mind that her language would be useless in communication. Somehow, this creature had managed to communicate with her telepathically. She reached out her hand, scared, but wanting to touch the floating shape.

She heard footsteps and saw the fluid shape move across the room and disappear into the wall. Sneha was stunned by her realization: there was something else on this planet besides just humans and clones. She waited for everyone to fall asleep and when all was quiet, Sneha walked outside. She picked up the gravity modifier and then almost dropped it in alarm, as she heard a voice in her brain say, “You do not need it.”

She panicked and ran up to see if she could spot anyone or anything through the transparent dome.

For many moments, Sneha stood debating if she should step out of the structure on her own. “Come out,” she heard her brain speak to her again. She stepped back in alarm but then decided to follow her instinct. She had come so far for an adventure …so why back down now?

As she stepped outside she felt surrounded by the floating shape. As her hand passed through the dense cloud it felt heavy and empty at the same time. “Your mother knew us. She was here”….she did not even realize that she was walking away from the structure towards a far-field of shapeshifting stones. As Sneha snapped back to reality, she wondered, how she was able to walk comfortably while gravity shifted constantly on this planet. She had left her gravity adjuster behind. 

They arrived at the field and she saw the floating mass transform into two distinct shapes, almost solid and opaque. “Who are they?” she wondered. “We are the Zetarians that inhabit the space your people call Antilla”. “So the legends were true,” Sneha thought. “Yes,” they replied. 

“Have you always lived here? How long has your species lived in this Constellation? Why did you approach me?” Sneha asked with absolutely no attempt at pacing her questions. “How do you know my mother?” 

The shapes moved closer to her, “Do you not remember yet? We have part of your DNA and you have part of our Fasilogram.”

There was a long silence as if they were waiting for her to suddenly see the light. “Do you mean my mother had your ‘Fasilo’?” Sneha asked confused…her mind was now evaluating a million possibilities…”But how did she get a part of you in her?” She asked. 

One of them moved closer and dropped a part of its mass on her arm. She watched in part horror as the heavy droplet disappeared into her skin. “So you are now part of me?” She looked at the shape and asked awkwardly?

“Wait!” it said. “Give your mind and body time to remember”. “Go back now and rest,” the other one told her. 

“No, don’t leave now!” she shouted at the disappearing shapes. She thought she heard a faint reassurance. “Don’t worry, we will be back soon,” as they completely disappeared. Sneha walked back to the shelter and lay down to rest. Something was going to change, she knew that. She believed that they would be back but had no idea what would happen then. Should she warn the others? Then she looked at her arm almost hoping to see her skin throw out the mass it had absorbed earlier. Would she die now? Or get some horrible, uncurable cosmic disease? 

Why only her? They had approached only her. Her mind bounced around a thousand questions as she fell asleep.

Go back and read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Are We Going to Be Normal After This Pandemic?

The answer is NO if “normal” means “status quo ante” or going back to what we were before. The answer is neither disappointing nor a surprise.  It is absurd to expect something to stay standstill in an endlessly rotating planet called Earth which is somersaulting in an immeasurably vast universe. Our impatience, however, in waiting for the dreadful pandemic to end is indisputably natural. Sure enough, It will end because nothing lasts forever.  

So what will post-pandemic pictures unfold to our weary eyes?

We have to watch what follows with cautious optimism. Jumping off the hell is not synonymous with plunging in heaven. The spectrum of the post-pandemic period will be interspersed with new challenges testing our prophetic prudence. Have we mastered our learned lessons or will our fickle memory sequester it in oblivion? If we are intelligent enough, it will prepare us for the future. For the sake of brevity and expediency, let us settle our hopes and fears in two classes.

WHAT WE HOPE FOR:

We hope to have surmised that we are truly mortals who have learned that death does not always visit us in small and scattered incidents. It may as well raid us in a sweeping, devastating way and compel us to feel like helpless prey. As we dreadfully watched the steep rise in brutal mortality caused by the pandemic, science also told us that such catastrophes are not unprecedented.

We have been frequented by episodes of smallpox, polio, plague, cholera, Hong Kong and Spanish flu, and such disasters of diseases propounded by microbes. We feel like running deers chased by a terrifying tiger close behind. The pandemic we are facing is neither the first one nor the last one. A second pandemic could well be preparing itself, waiting for its opportune time. They may be unpredictable but chronologically sequenced with the passage of time.

We hopefully are better prepared each time, cautiously cognizant for the world. We have to communicate faster than the velocity of the worms and combat by a joint endeavor. This is the only way to curtail our mortality imminent upon a visit by unanticipated invaders. Pointing accusatory fingers at who started this microbial massacre will only amputate our aiding arms. United we stand, Divided we fall.

“Let us hang in together, or indeed each one of us will hang separately,” as most prophetically pronounced by Benjamin Franklin.

A bacterial war will be won only by sound teamwork unifying the whole world as a single team. By not learning this lesson this time, we made a serious mistake of creating Divided Countries of the World and paid an exorbitant price for it. History has a pattern of repeating itself unless we are vigilantly watching with a discerning eye.

What we hope not:

We hope not that this pernicious pandemic leaves any sequelae behind. Sequela is a medical term used for complications that emerge long after the disease disappears. This infection is new to us and therefore, we are not completely knowledgeable about the course it may run. We will have to combat all complications as they come. 

Not only the physical but also the psychological damage that the pandemic can leave behind may need to be faced factually. Our particular concern should be centered around our children who have painfully grown through a period of sustained trauma and deprivations.

I met a young man who passed his childhood in a war zone. Years later, he wakes up screaming at night when hearing an ambulance pass by. Children, in general, may be equipped with greater immunity against the disease but they are also more prone to retain a sustained memory of a mental trauma that they were exposed to. No math can predict the extent of the aftermath. It is essential to remember this aspect because children of today will be the deciding fate of tomorrow.

I am also concerned that too many stream sessions and loss of interpersonal interactions may lead us to subordinate the value of human touch and direct encounters. To deal with peoples’ images rather than people themselves can push us downstream fostering a phobia for live human interactions. Our emotional and physical closeness to each other is the very bulwark on which we sustain. Let us not be unmindful that we need each other to survive and thrive.

“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing, “ said T.S. Elliot.

The social, economic, and emotional impact of this catastrophe should not be underestimated either. Depression, suicidal tendencies, self-effacing and destructive patterns of behavior, and horrors of hooliganism may surface much to our dismay.

Finally, we hope this tragedy does not drive us away from God. God may not protect our Temples and Churches but the secret of our love and happiness lies in God hidden in our hearts. We keep on hoping because Hope is nothing but the constancy of faith. Most faiths have accepted and established a parent-child relationship with God. The more we are disappointed, the more we turn to Him until we are hale and healed. The course of our actions will let us see who we are and who we are not. Our deepest compassion for the bereaved families should never fade.

Peace! Peace!! Peace!


Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com.