Source: Why the March for Science?
March for science is a way for the scientists to make themselves heard and perhaps, to make the general public realise that the independence of science is under threat. But, what has happened recently that is so wrong that the scientists had to leave their laboratories and field work to protest on the streets. Why is it that the general public is talking about issues such as terrorism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression but not the independence of science? The reason is that the scientific community has failed to create a face of its own to promote its achievements. Let me explain this further. We all eat food and thank the local grower, farmer, and even acknowledge the agro-companies for nature’s bounty. However, how many times do we, even the scientists, think about the efforts of grad students, science technicians, and principal investigators? I am writing this article on a laptop that has a beautiful 4K touchscreen and is running hundreds of processes in the background, and you are reading this on some kind of an electronic gadget that is equally awesome and far more capable than a typewriter. However, the manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, Samsung have become the face of this technology, and very little thought is given to the engineers working day-and-night to bring to us the technologies that are making our life easier. In fact, everything around us and beyond our sight, from a nano-bead in your face wash to a giant spaceship, has been made possible by the scientific community. I even know some scientists who model the properties of ceramic so that our coffee mugs have better design and strength. When everything around us is a gift of scientific research, then what has happened that scientists are on streets demanding the right to conduct better science without political interference? Probably we all have taken things for granted, and unless the scientists come up with something such as the discovery of gravitational waves, it does not make news headlines. Although, a common person may not even appreciate the importance of the discovery of gravitational waves.
March for science is not in response to the latest developments only, but it is an outburst of scientists who have been tolerating wrong science policies since a long time. For a large part, the scientific fraternity is responsible for the current situation. Scientists, for some reason, have lived with the belief that the only way to serve science is by working tirelessly. They have distanced themselves from the political and corporate labels which are the most effective vehicles of public outreach. Strangely, the scientists are also expected to be non-believers or atheists. This is probably because scientific discoveries have usually contradicted the orthodox religious beliefs and the orthodox, religious society has felt threatened by the logical thinking. Since the political system and working of the political class of the western hemisphere have been influenced by the religious movements, the mistrust between politicians and scientists has continued to exist even today. Moreover, most scientists believe that getting into politics is dirty and requires losing moral values. The scriptures from ancient India tell us that scientific research was a big part of their civilization. However, only the famous scientific philosophers (sages/rishis), or the philosophers inducted in the royal advisory group received funding from the ruling emperor; rest of the rishis had to send their students to ask for donations (bheeksha) from the citizens. Fortunately, the philosophers and their students were revered in ancient India and donating to them was considered a pious job. In return, the ancient philosophers kept themselves detached from worldly pleasures so that the public did not blame them for enjoying on the public donations. Unfortunately, the public still expects the scientists to remain detached from the pleasures of the world, politics, and religion. In many countries, the professors are not well paid, and all they receive from the society is respect. Even the scientists have complied to this public notion and have remained detached from interfering in political decisions and governance. This means that the scientists lack the lobby to influence our lawmakers. For example, a company that manufactures nuclear reactors will have a lobby to influence the lawmakers; whereas, the nuclear scientists are expected to wear white coats and work tirelessly in the R&D facility. If the nuclear scientists need a pay hike, they will have to request the business heads, who will then find out a way to influence the government to loosen their purses. Universities and educational institutes are the largest employers of scientists and science teachers. Who lobbies for them? If a province or a state’s budget is in the red, the university budget is the first to be reduced. The administrators of the universities then pass on the budget cuts to the departments conducting engineering and basic science research. Consequently, we are in a situation where a scientist is expected to wait for the breadcrumbs that the corporates and politicians throw at them. The society does not care much because scientists do not strap bombs on their chests or shoot people to attract attention to their cause. Instead, the scientists work day and night in silence to make everybody’s life better. Also, the scientists will never take up violent means to get themselves heard because their analytical skills are better and they understand that violence brings no good. However, the time has come when the scientists will need to walk on the streets and make the public aware of the importance of scientific research and that it needs money. Scientists will also have to do a better job of communicating the importance of research in basic science. The public usually does not have access to science magazines and journals; they read blogs, newspapers and tabloids. Social networking websites will have to be used in a much better way to reach the masses. The scientific community will have to stop pleasing the politicians and corporates and will have to come to the streets to justify the cost of expensive instruments and facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. Above all, the scientists will have to come forward to join politics because they know things better. A march for science is a step forward in that direction but the scientists will have to be more aggressive in putting forward their agenda and letting people know that scientific system has a rigorous system of peer review to weed off pseudoscience, and therefore they can be trusted.
N.B. the comments and thoughts are welcome. I am a student of science and believe that this article can only be improved through a peer review process.
To that second reviewer: please tone down your harsh comments 😛
Never ever have humans recorded their life the way they do it today. One falls sick, there is a status update on Facebook. Whether it is first birthday or inconsequential 26th, celebrations are shared with everyone over social media. If it is a new guitar or just a bad haircut, there is a record of it somewhere as pictures. When photography was invented, it was a great tool to immortalize an event, art or a person’s achievement. Today, with advent of camera phones, everyone is saving innumerable events every year. However, a pertinent question is – why are we immortalizing ourselves duck-faced? But the more important question is if we are actually immortalizing our moments? Are we really going to preserve the snapshots of our lives? Do you even remember where are the pictures that you took three months ago?
When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I owned a Canon point-and-shoot camera. I loved taking picture with it and saved them all in DVDs. By the time I finished my degree, I probably had 5 DVDs. I did not print of any of those because all the moments were dear to me and I simply did not have enough money to document them in tangible form. Today, 5 years later, I miss those moments but cannot find the DVDs. I think I lost them or they broke. I clearly remember that 2 DVDs would just not work because they got scratched. When I moved to Canada from India three years ago, I copied all the photos to my computer so that I could see them when I missed my old days. But three days ago my hard disk crashed and I lost everything that I had saved on my computer. More interestingly, I was not even bothered about those pictures when my computer died; I was more worried about the data from my PhD research and all the references that I had collected over the years. Moreover, just because I considered that research data was important, I had it saved it on cloud and was able to retrieve it as soon as I fixed my computer. Why did I not backup my images? It is because I had so many of them that it would have cost me a lot to buy cloud space. Also, I don’t even remember the pictures that I had taken with my smart phone and where I saved them. Although I do remember buying my current phone because of its great camera and ability to take good photos even in low light. But now I wonder if my phone’s camera quality actually mattered to me when I have lost all the pictures that I had taken? In fact, 90% of the pictures that I take with my phone end up being deleted because those moments do not seem to matter much after few hours.
Our ancestors immortalized their moments, tales, events, and stories through tangible and durable records such as monuments, statues, cave paintings, terracotta art etc. In contrast, we are trying to encode our life in magnetic fields and binary numbers. I am forced to think that when the future civilizations will discover silicon and plastic debris, what will they think of us? If our civilization is wiped off and the future humans have to develop everything again, will they be able to develop devices fast enough to see how I celebrated my 30th birthday before my silicon records are decomposed? Finally, are we really documenting our lives better than our ancestors?
I live in Saskatoon (somewhere in Canada) where I have experienced temperatures as low as -450C and I am convinced that this is not the place where nature wanted humans to live: we are invaders from tropics. I am also convinced, from the stories that my parents tell me of my sickness as a child, that I am also not the nature’s favoured one to have seen last 29 winters. A lot of us are surviving today not because of our physical or genetic fitness, but because of mental capabilities of millions of scientists who have been developing medicine, heating/cooling systems, water filters and what not. Clearly, “survival of the fittest” does not apply only to an individual, but to a population that is ready to fight, physically and mentally, the challenges thrown by nature. I am stretching my thoughts and after enough elasticity I ask myself if mental advancement is the real means to long term survival of a race of biological species? Cockroaches have survived more than 300 million years with just about 1,000,000 brain cells in comparison to humans with about 1,000,000,000,000 cells who have been inhabiting this planet for only a fraction of that time.1 (Not to mention Katsaridaphobia – fear of cockroaches in humans).
A normal population curve of naturally fit people (fig. 1) would tell us that the proportion of a population that is naturally fit to survive is very small. A large proportion of population falls under the mediocre category; such individuals may survive but are not the favoured ones as they may lack some characteristics that would eventually be their Achilles heel on the day of judgment. The same curve would also tell us that only a very small proportion of our population is smart enough to contribute to our collective wisdom that helps us to develop technologies for human survival. Therefore, we can say that while a very small proportion of population is fit enough to survive on its own, the rest of the humanity is simply riding on the wisdom of very few geniuses. In other harsher words, our human population primarily consists of weaker people like me who would have not survived had it not been for those very few smart guys.
While I was waiting to join my current lab as a PhD student I tried my hand with growing vegetables. What I figured out was that to make Earth produce food is a tough job and my arms were too weak for that. This simply translates to the fact that some of us would have died of hunger had it not been for some unknown farmers who are sweating it out for people like me. Now, I am not a believer of those apocalypse prophesies but I do believe that there will be a time when the fitness of our population will be tested. On that day humans will be pitched against many other species. Competition will be severe. But, I believe that human race will survive because of those few fit people. I am already proud of them.
Fig. 1: The bell curve showing normal population frequency (Handmade!!!)
Few weeks back in my department we organised an event called “The Great Curry Cook Off”. For this people had to sign up to prepare curries that others paid to eat and at the end of the event people who had paid to eat would vote for the top 2 preparations. I decided to make chick peas. About a year and a half ago I didn’t even know how to boil rice and here I was cooking for a competition. Though I did not win, I knew that my curry was great. One big lesson was that biologists working in lab can be great cooks.
Let me explain.
If you are a biologist and work in a research lab then you definitely follow protocols that require long lists of ingredients. Some ingredients have to be prepared fresh while you are working on some other step of the protocol – multitasking is important here. Few chemicals have to be protected from light and shock, and a lot of them have strict thermal requirements. Your time management skills are very important so that you add each ingredient at the perfect time to continue your reactions in a way that you want. I cannot emphasise the importance of your patience which a lot of us run out of. In short, as a biologist, you deal with a very complex cooking recipe which has to be served to a large number of audience in the form of peer reviewed journals and you better be good else the reviewers are always trying their best to kick your bu** hard.
Now, just like cooking a dish, where does a biologist get the recipe for experiments? They probably get it from senior lab mates or researchers (mothers and grandmothers in case of cooking). Lot of biologists take protocols from peer reviewed research papers (cookery books in case of cooking). In an ideal world, which a PhD student wished (s)he lived in, all these protocols and cooking recipe should work in the very first shot and give the desired results with no error bars; after all these protocols have worked for the rest of the world. However, we all are hit hard by the reality – protocols suck. Another reason why a biologist could be a better cook is that when they follow a protocol in lab they make sure that the function and importance of each step and ingredient is known – what if an external examiner decides to ask you a question on the importance of annealing temperature in a PCR reaction. Similarly, when a biologist is in kitchen (s)he knows the function and effect of each spice, ingredient and cooking conditions such as heat and stirring which leads to a better cooked dish. Hence, it’s the intuition, time management skills, and most importantly patience that makes biologist a master chef. A biologist also knows that every time an experiment is repeated the error bars tighten up (Error α 1/n) and the same wisdom is applied in kitchen. Therefore, the skills that biologists learns in lab helps them to make tastier food provided they are left with enough energy at the end of the day to cook and they supervisor pays them enough to buy proper monthly groceries.
What is that first thing you would like to have when you land at JFK International airport after a 21 hour long non-stop flight? If you are from Americas then your nose is probably trying to catch whiffs of coffee and if you are from Indian subcontinent, as I am, you would crave chai. Since JFK is in New York, in the United States of America (duh, even an illiterate who watches Hindi movies would know it), it would be easier to find a hot pot of coffee and that is what I chose to drink. But, seldom did I know that this craving for caffeine was about to lead me into struggle and embarrassment.
You see, ordering tea or coffee in India is a very simple affair. All you have to tell the waiter or chai wallah is that you would like tea or the type of coffee and they will make it for you. When I say “the type of coffee” I mean you just need to tell them if you need cappuccino or a regular coffee. Every coffee/tea house in the subcontinent has their own readymade coffee/tea recipe and customers are usually never asked for their preference. Customers also never ask for customisation unless someone is diabetic and needs to cut down sugar intake. Please mind that I am talking about an average Indian’s experience. Big hotels might still offer you some customisation but not your regular tea shop. Since I have always been a student (aka poor) I have never been to a big hotel to try tea Therefore, I am used to that “Indian” method of ordering beverages but America was going to teach me a lesson soon.
After landing at the JFK I exchanged a pile of Indian rupees for just a handful of US dollars and my first purchase was a coffee. I spotted a coffee kiosk with a girl, definitely of Indian origin, at the cash counter. I approached the girl with sleepy eyes and asked for a cup of coffee to which she said something that I did not catch. I learned my first lesson- your ears also sleep after a very long and tiring flight. I begged for her pardon and asked her to repeat what she had just said.
“What size coffee do you want?” she repeated with a stern look on her face.
Now that was a question completely absurd to me. In India even the size of your beverage is fixed with its recipe and here I was standing in front of a girl who was asking me the size of my coffee with a condescending look on her face. I gulped down my hesitation with some saliva and asked for my options.
“Small, medium, and large,” she replied as if it was obvious.
As a student of science I have always hated such generalisations (and LBS system) of measurements; how would I know how much coffee comes in small, medium or a large cup? I was the only person at kiosk and still the cashier seemed impatient dealing with a foreign customer. I measured my craving for caffeine in terms of small, medium or large and thought I should go with a large coffee.
“Llll-arge please,” I responded with hesitation.
Now I don’t remember how much it cost me but if I could measure it in terms of embarrassment, I would say it was expensive. I also remember myself remembering Einstein’s theory of relativity soon after that; because those few seconds, that I took to decide the size of my coffee, seemed like hours, especially because I was making a fool of myself in front of a beautiful girl.
Paying for coffee, in a currency that you have just been introduced to, was also not easy. If you have ever been to a new country and dealt with a new currency, you would know that identifying coins and their denominations is tough. I fumbled with coins in my hand to find the correct amount. Seeing the cashier’s impatience, I dropped all the coins I could find in my pocket on her desk. She quickly sorted the change, slid the ones she wanted into her cash drawer and asked me to take back the rest. At this moment she heaved a sigh of relief and showed me where the cups were so that I could get my coffee.
What? Now I have to make my coffee? How on earth does one do that? I had never done it before. What the hell was that girl there for? Just to charge for the raw materials? I assumed I had made a mistake and should have settled with bottled water but the cash was paid and I was standing before coffee cups stacked in three sizes – small, medium, and large. Good thing was that I was hidden behind the paraphernalia of coffee making and there was no one else seeing me, especially not the girl at the cash counter. I ran my eyes around and found large flask labelled hot water. I understood that the steps would be similar to preparing a tea from a tea bag. I poured cup full of hot-almost boiling water into my cup and as I moved further I saw a similar flask labelled coffee. I realised then that I had made a mistake. I had to throw water and pour coffee instead. But, I was hesitant to throw water – what if the girl saw me and charged me for taking large cup of water and wasting it. I looked around, made sure that no one was watching and quickly threw that cup with hot water in garbage bin. I clandestinely took another large cup and proceeded towards the coffee flask. I thought that there would be prepared coffee in the flask and I will just have to open the tap and get my coffee. So I opened that tap and saw black, tarry liquid dropping into my glass. It did smell like coffee. Since I had paid for a large coffee I filled the cup to its brim, covered it with a lid and walked towards my seat.
Finally, I was having my coffee. I pulled out some biscuits from my bag, took a bite, sipped my coffee and coughed it all out instantly. Never ever had I drank anything this bitter in my life. I know people drink black tea without sugar in India but that is only when they ask for it otherwise the standard tea or coffee has milk and sugar. My cough had drawn enough attention including of the girl in coffee kiosk. I pretended as if biscuit had choked me (as if people knew I had eaten a biscuit; genius). I wiped my mouth with a handkerchief, and acted as if everything was normal. I looked at my cup of coffee and thought that I, under no circumstances, would be able to drink an ocean full of bitter-black-hot water. But I could not even throw it because I had paid for it and the girl was still looking at me. So, I decided to take big bites of biscuits and gulp it down with coffee. I decided to do that until I felt that I have had enough biscuits to fill my syomach and there after I could throw the remaining coffee.
Few minutes would have passed and I had just managed to gulp one biscuit with few small sips of coffee when I saw a man, in a very shabby denim wear, purchase a large cup of coffee. He disappeared into the same corner where I had poured coffee. Few minutes later I saw him reappear on the other corner of the kiosk adding things to his coffee. Watching him I realised that I had missed few more steps to make my coffee. I let that man go and walked to the same corner and saw sachets of sugar and flask of cream and milk. Alright, I understood then that I had to add all these things to my coffee in a proportion to make my coffee drinkable. I quickly opened the lid of my coffee cup and saw there was hardly any space for anything in it. If I were to add stuff to it I would have to throw some coffee and make space.
If somebody sees me throw coffee they would think that I am an ignorant idiot and didn’t even know how to make my coffee. Okay, I accept that I was not bothered about anyone else watching me but the girl at the cash counter. However, before I could throw my coffee I met another predicament – how much should I throw? I didn’t know how much milk or cream would I need to make this coffee palatable. So now I kept waiting for someone to come and make their coffee so that I could see how much dairy I would need. Fortunately, a gentleman in a suit came soon. He tucked a folder he was carrying under his arms to free his hands. He just had 3/4th of his cup filled with coffee. I watched him add equal quantities of milk and crème but no sugar. I copied him with respect to milk and crème. Since I wasn’t sure of how much sugar would I need I started with 2 sachets. I realised that I would need at least 1 more and so I added. I stirred my coffee and found that I had prepared my first cup of lukewarm coffee to swallow my embarrassment. But, it was an experience I can never forget. Now I have my own coffee maker and I just love my blend.
You are what you eat is what they say and I am an Indian. Born and brought up in India I was fed only on Indian food or Indianised version of any other food. So, my veins pretty much carry Indian curries and I smell like a spice garden. On September 3, 2013 I left India for Canada. Before this I had never entered a kitchen with an intention to cook or to even attempt to learn to cook. Mothers always worry when their children leave them and my mother’s biggest worry was my food. She would tell people, “this boy cannot even make chai properly.” So, when I landed in Canada I needed two things very badly: a good sleep, and food. Sleep was the easy part and for food, initially I managed to survive on whatever I could buy from cafeteria and food court in my University. But, the concentration of Indian spices in my blood was declining sharply and I was craving for Indian food exactly in a manner a drug addict craves for a shot. Only solution was to cook.
On my first weekend I decided to go for groceries. At this juncture the biggest problem was to decide what to cook. I have eaten hundreds of India food items and I didn’t know to prepare even one. So standing on the aisle of Indian food at the Superstore I was like a thirsty man caught in the middle of an ocean: water everywhere but not a single drop to drink. I perhaps could boil rice, I bought it. I might need condiments and salt, I thought, so I bought them. But, the real craving was for some curry, dal or sabzi. This is where I was stuck. A boy who had never entered kitchen would never know how raw lentils look like. I didn’t even know what they were called. After few minutes of deliberation with myself I picked chicken thighs, and two random lentils.
It was Saturday night and I was about to cook for the first time. When I was at Superstore, I had only one major question-what to cook. Now, when I was about to cook I had an ocean of questions. I had to boil rice. First question, how much rice is required for one person. Second question, how much water is to be added. Third question, for how long does it stay on heat. Finally, when the rice was boiled, last question- who the hell is going to eat it. I had added extra water, overcooked it and had it even remotely looked edible, probably 10 people could have eaten it . That night again I was found at the Subway eating a 6inch. I had not given up though. Laptop is one of my best friends and it came to rescue again.Next day I looked up on YouTube how to prepare lentils that I had bought and I had a decent meal prepared. That was perhaps the most satisfying meal I have ever had in my life. That day I was convinced that internet is the best invention of mankind after wheel and YouTube is a life saver. It has been over a year since then and I have often found myself creating Indian flavours in Canada. Now, I don’t even have to look up recipes on YouTube; I can recall taste and texture of the food I had eaten and can prepare the same thing in my kitchen. I am proud of myself and Indian food. Here are some of the things that I have prepared over the last year. There are lots of videos available on YouTube but I will share the ones that, I found, would give the best results with less effort.
Tandoori chicken. I had bought boneless chicken and this was the first chicken item I looked up on YouTube. This tandoori chicken does not look the way you may find in restaurants but it tastes far better. Had spices to the heart of the piece. http://youtu.be/vCODeJt9gvc This video uses some kind of a Gas tandoor but I baked it in a normal oven.
Chilli chicken. This is one of the most famous Indo-Chinese dishes that you will find in almost all the restaurants in India. It is really simple to cook and tastes amazing. http://youtu.be/77mTZjLhy0o Beware of splattering of oil when you fry chicken.
The bread that you see in this picture is called lachha parantha which I bought from a local Indian groceries store. But, the curry that you see is a chicken item prepared in the way my mom prepares it. You will not find any recipes for this item on internet because this type of chicken is prepared only in a very small pocket of region to which I belong. The recipe, in short, is as follows. We evenly chop onion. You would need as much onion as the weight of your chicken. Also add chopped ginger, finely chopped garlic, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds and some whole dry red chillies along with onion. Fry till onion melts into the oil. Flame has to be medium-high. Add lots of evenly chopped tomatoes and cook until they loose all the moisture and oil begins to separate out from the ingredients. At this juncture add red chilly powder, garam masala, salt, turmeric powder, ground pepper. Cook for 5 mins with constant stirring. Add chicken pieces. Cook properly. The preparation at this moment will look like the one in picture and this can be eaten with roti or bread. But, some people like to eat it with rice so add some water and do not forget to season the final product with chopped cilantro leaves.
Palak paneer. This is one of the most famous paneer (cottage cheese) items prepared in a thick and rich sauce of palak (spinach). Tastes best with Naan or plain parantha. http://youtu.be/ZtPDWTAYpoY
Dum aaloo. This I prepared along with a friend and tastes amazing. The gravy is made from yogurt which gives a mild taste along with the hotness of spices added to prepare it.
The star of this plate is Karele ki sabzi. This is the greenish item you see on the plate. It is prepared from bitter gourd/melon. I usually hate this vegetable but the way this guy has made it in the link that I am sharing here is amazing. Do try this. http://youtu.be/vPXg2Ypl9bg
Sewain ki kheer. My aunt makes this and that is best sewain ki kheer I have ever had.
Aaloo ka parantha. If you have ever been to North India then it is impossible that you have missed this guy. Aaloo ka parantha is the star of North Indian breakfast items. I did not see any recipes for this. I imagined the ingredients and came up with this delicious parantha (stuffed bread). To make this first we need to prepare stuffing. Boil some potatoes, mash them, add salt, finely chopped green chilies, finely chopped ginger, finely chopped onion, some garam masala, some ground pepper, some red chilly powder, cumin seeds, coriander seed powder and finely chopped mint leaves. Prepare a homogenous mixture. Now, knead wheat flour into a soft dough. Take big ball of dough and slightly flatten it so as to place the filling mixture in it’s centre. Cover the filling from all sides in the same dough so that you get a ball of dough filled with mixture in its centre. Roll it gently. Cook it on high heat over a pan with gentle patting of oil or butter.
Now I can make paneer (cottage cheese) ka parantha, gobhi (Cauliflower) ka parantha and methi (fenugreek leaves) ka parantha as well. (I am sorry if it sounds a bit of self praise, I am happy that I can feed myself some good stuff)
Kadhai Paneer. Goes great with cocktails.
Roti. Roti is the most commonly eaten bread in India and I am especially proud of myself that I know how to make it. Ask an Indian and he would tell you how tough it is to make a roti for a novice. The trick starts from preparing wheat dough that is of the right consistency and has been properly kneaded. Then everyone cannot roll this thing into a good round shape. Finally, making the rotis puff is the most tricky part. My rotis puff each time now and this is what makes them soft, healthy and easy to digest. I can not write down the real trick to get soft, puffed rotis because the texture of dough can only be felt. I have taught this to a friend of mine who would jump every time the rotis would puff. Actually even I jump to see my rotis puff. Oh! I am so proud of it.
Vegetable Biryani. It is Diwali today and this is how I treated myself on this day. Here is the video that you can watch to learn this delicious rice item.
http://youtu.be/-WJZv6OU9x0 I am sorry this video does not have English subtitles but they do mention all the steps in English as she cooks.
Now I realise that it is not easy for a mother to cook food for a family. Just deciding what to cook is frustrating and when each family member demands different taste, the task becomes much more difficult. But then moms are the most efficient beings on Earth we all love them. My mom is happy to know that I am eating well. Since the cooking has been sorted out, I need to figure out one important thing – my PhD.