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Science & Technology - JULY 2021

Indian scientists have found a theoretical model explaining a unique kind of motion, called direction reversing active motion, exhibited by some bacteria that feed on other microorganisms, according to a statement released by the the Department of Science and Technology on Friday.

This analysis can help in building more efficient artificial micro- and nano-motors used in drug delivery and bio-imaging using the concept to incorporate a reverse gear.

Bacteria move by propelling themselves with a velocity that changes direction randomly, which is called active motion. Besides bacteria, this kind of motion is found in living systems ranging from cells at the microscopic scale to the flocking of birds and fish schools at the macroscopic scale. It is also seen in artificial systems, including granular matter self-catalytic swimmers, and nano-motors.

Some microorganisms, such as predator bacteria Myxococcus Xanthus and saprotrophic bacteria Pseudomonas putida, exhibit a unique kind of reversing active motion, whereby, in addition to a diffusive change of direction, the motion also completely reverses its direction intermittently, it said.However, very little has been understood theoretically about the statistical properties of such motion.

Novel dynamic phase

In a recent study published as a letter in the Physical Review E, a team of scientists from Raman Research Institute and S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences has uncovered novel dynamical phases arising from the interplay of diffusion and velocity reversal in the direction-reversing active motion exhibited by such bacteria.

The study provided a theoretical understanding of such motion through exact analytical results for the position distribution and target search-time distribution by using a model, the statement said.

"This model explains the advantage of directional reversals, namely, faster spread leading to faster searches," the authors pointed out.

The authors explained how their research found that M Xanthus relies on the directional reversal to increase its spread, thus making search for a target efficient, in spite of a much slower speed (about a micron per minute) compared to faster bacteria like E. coli (which moves about 30 microns in a second).

Further, the most important finding of this work is the prediction of a novel phase where the dynamical laws governing the dispersion along two orthogonal directions are fundamentally different.

Stars like our Sun can go through a mid-life crisis, according to new research carried out by scientists from IISER Kolkata. This can lead to dramatic changes in their activity and rotation rates. The study also provides an explanation for the breakdown of the long-established relation between rotation rate and age in middle-aged sun-like stars. The work has been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters.

At about 4.6 billion years of age, the sun is middle aged, that is, it will continue to live for roughly the same period. There are accurate methods for estimating the age of the Sun, such as by using radioactive dating of very old meteorites that have fallen on the Earth. However, for more distant stars which are similar in mass and age to the Sun, such methods are not possible. One of the methods used is called gyrochronology. There is a relationship between rotation rate and age, that is the rotation rate of a star slows down with age.

When the stellar wind escapes from the star, it carries away with it a part of the angular momentum of the star, which results in its slowing down. The stellar wind has two drivers: one is the high temperature of the outer atmosphere of stars – the corona – which results in an outward expansion and hence plasma winds that emanate out. The other is the magnetic field. “The magnetic field actually heats the corona and so when magnetic activity is strong the winds are strong and since wind carries away the internal (rotational) angular momentum of the star, it slows down its rotation,” explains Dibyendu Nandi, one of the authors of the paper. This is called magnetic braking. As the star ages, due to this mechanism, its rotation slows down and this relationship is used in gyrochronology to estimate the age of the star.

However, there is a breakdown of the gyrochronology relationship, because after midlife, a star's rate of spin does not slow down with age as fast as it was slowing down earlier. Another intriguing fact is that the Sun’s activity level has been observed to be much lower than other stars of similar age. A third observation that is part of the puzzle is that there have also been periods in the past when extremely few sunspots were observed on the Sun for several years at a stretch. For instance, during the Maunder minimum which lasted from 1645 to 1715.

The researchers use the dynamo models of field generation designed to explore long-term activity variations and come up with a theory that can possibly explain the above puzzles. According to a press release by the Royal Astronomical Society, they show that at about the age of the Sun, the magnetic field generation mechanism of stars becomes sub-critical or less efficient. This allows stars to exist in two distinct activity states – a low activity mode and an active mode. The star may thus fall into a low-activity mode and suffer drastically reduced angular momentum loss due to magnetized stellar wind.

“We have a hypothesis, a theory backed by simulation results which seems to self-consistently explain the diverse puzzling behaviour witnessed in middle-aged stars. We have provided a clear demonstration that the theory can explain certain observations, and, therefore, is a leading contender [to throw light on] their origin. In the future, independent observations may reconfirm or deny our theory,” says Prof. Nandi.

The ISRO-NASA joint mission NISER (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite, aimed at making global measurement of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging, is proposed to be launched in early 2023, Earth Sciences Minister Jitendra Singh said on Friday.

In a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha, he said NISAR is a joint Earth-Observation mission between ISRO and U.S. space agency NASA for global observations over all land masses including the Polar cryosphere and the Indian Ocean region.

"NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISER) has not been launched yet. NISER is proposed to be launched in early 2023," said Mr. Singh, who also is the minister for the Department of Space.

It is a dual-band (L-band and S-band) radar imaging mission with the capability of full polarimetric and interferometric modes of operation to observe minor changes in land, vegetation and cryosphere.

NASA is developing L-band SAR and associated systems while ISRO is developing S-band SAR, spacecraft bus, the launch vehicle and associated launch services, Singh said.

The major scientific objectives of the mission are to improve understanding of the impact of climate change on Earth's changing ecosystems, land and coastal processes, land deformations and cryosphere, he said.

NISER is one of the crucial collaborations of the ISRO and NASA. India and the U.S. had agreed upon this mission during then President Barack Obama's visit to India in 2015.

The International Space Station (ISS) was thrown briefly out of control on Thursday when jet thrusters of a newly arrived Russian research module inadvertently fired a few hours after it was docked to the orbiting outpost, NASA officials said.

The seven crew members aboard — two Russian cosmonauts, three NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a European space agency astronaut from France — were never in any immediate danger, according to NASA and Russian state-owned news agency RIA.

But the malfunction prompted NASA to postpone until at least August 3 its planned launch of Boeing's new CST-100 Starliner capsule on an uncrewed test flight to the space station. The Starliner had been set to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Thursday's mishap began about three hours after the multipurpose Nauka module had latched onto the space station. The module's jets inexplicably restarted, causing the entire station to pitch out of its normal flight position some 250 miles above the Earth, U.S. space agency officials said.

The "loss of attitudinal control" lasted for a little more than 45 minutes, until flight teams on the ground managed to restore the space station's orientation by activating thrusters on another module of the orbiting platform, according to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA's space station program.

In its broadcast coverage of the incident, RIA cited NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as describing the struggle to regain control of the space station as a "tug of war" between the two modules.

At the height of the incident, the station was pitching out of alignment at the rate of about a half a degree per second, Montalbano said hours later in a NASA conference call with reporters.

The Nauka engines were ultimately switched off, the space station was stabilized and its orientation was restored to where it had begun, NASA said.

Communication with the crew was lost briefly twice during the disruption, but "there was no immediate danger at any time to the crew," Montalbano said.

A drift in the space station's normal orientation was first detected by automatic sensors on the ground, and "the crew really didn't feel any movement," he said.

What caused the malfunction of the thrusters on the Nauka module, delivered by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has yet to be determined, NASA officials said.

Montalbano said there was no immediate sign of any damage to the space station. The flight correction maneuvers used up more propellant reserves than desired, "but nothing I would worry about," he said.

After its launch last week from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, the module experienced a series of glitches that raised concern about whether the docking procedure would go smoothly.

Roscosmos attributed Thursday's post-docking issue to Nauka's engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported.

"The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to 'docked with ISS' mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module," Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.

The Nauka module is designed to serve as a research lab, storage unit and airlock that will upgrade Russia's capabilities aboard the ISS.

A live broadcast showed the module, named after the Russian word for "science," docking with the space station a few minutes later than scheduled.

"According to telemetry data and reports from the ISS crew, the onboard systems of the station and the Nauka module are operating normally," Roscosmos said in a statement.

"There is contact!!!" Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, wrote on Twitter moments after the docking.

Swati Mohan, an Indian-American aerospace engineer who led the guidance, navigation and controls operations for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, expressed hope that the advances being made in space tourism would make space travel accessible to more people.

To a question on recent trips of billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to space during an online talk organised by the U.S. Consulate-General Chennai as part of its “Diaspora Diplomacy” series on Wednesday, Ms. Swati compared the recent events with the nascent stages in the evolution of air travel.

She said while air travel remained accessible to only a few people in the early days, the subsequent growth in the industry and technology made it an integral part of travel for most people.

“I would love to see space tourism doing the same for space travel,” she said and added that it could accelerate technological advancements, thereby making exploration of space not limited to a few but an activity that many could participate in. “It is something to see the world from outside of it. It changes our perspective. The more we have that change across society, the more it will help us to take care of our planet better,” she said.

She said although she was raised in the U.S., she had a strong connection with India.

To a question on whether she faced any discrimination because of her Indian identity, she said that being a woman in a man-dominated field was more challenging than being an Indian.

Highlighting that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where she worked, had people from diverse backgrounds, she said she never faced any issues because of her Indian-American identity.

However, she said there were a few instances of people making insensitive comments during her growing up years.

She said that though she was a Hindu, she did not try to connect science with her spirituality. She said while spirituality to her was about internal reflection, science was about understanding what was around.

Dr. Swati recollected that though she wanted to be a doctor at a young age when space related things were her hobby, she subsequently realised that space was her true passion.

She stressed on the importance of seizing and creating opportunities to realise one’s dreams.

She said that ISRO and NASA had collaborated in the past and expressed hope that the collaboration would continue.

Judith Ravin, U.S. Consul-General, Chennai, spoke on the Indian diaspora and the key role played by Indians in many fields in the U.S.

Awarded the Nobel prize for Physics for his discovery of the Unified Theory of Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions, he was an out-spoken rationalist and critic of climate change deniers

Undoubtedly the most influential particle physicist in the last five decades, Prof. Steven Weinberg died at the age of 88 on July 23 at Austin, Texas.

Though Prof. Weinberg died last Friday and that information was shared on social media by shocked scientists, there was no mention in mainstream print and television news media. The uncertainty continued for 48 hours, leading to speculation that it was fake news. However, a condolence note from the University of Texas where he was Professor, put to rest all rumours though details of the cause of death are still not known.

Steven Weinberg shared the Nobel prize for Physics in 1979 with Sheldon Glashow of Harvard, U.S.A. and Abdus Salam of Imperial College, London, UK, for his discovery of the Unified Theory of Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions. He was the Director of Theory Research Group and Regental Professor at the University of Texas. His wife, Louise Weinberg, is a Professor in Legal Studies at the University. They have one child.

He had his education at Cornell and Princeton University. He was a faculty at California University at Berkeley, MIT, Columbia University and became a Professor at Harvard. He moved to Austin in 1982 from Harvard and was instrumental in developing the High Energy Physics Group there. His outstanding research on elementary particle physics and cosmology got him the Nobel Prize in Physics, the National Medal of Science, and American Philosophical Society awarded Benjamin Franklin Medal, Oppenheimer Prize, and many other awards. He was elected to the National Academy of Science and Britain’s Royal Society and other academies, and holds sixteen honorary doctoral degrees from internationally well-known Universities. The list of awards, honours, memberships of societies runs into several pages.

Prof. Weinberg has more than 350 publications of great repute and 15 books to his credit. These books include his exposition of The Quantum theory of Fields I, II, III and Gravitation and Cosmology - Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity. These books are like the Bible for all graduate students pursuing research in high energy physics, gravitation or astrophysics. He has more than 50,000 citations, many of which are classified as highly influential.

Seminal contributions

He is well known for his Electro-weak unified theory, Weinberg angle, Weinberg-Witten theorem, Asymptotic safety, Axion model, Technicolour and several other contributions. His work on electroweak unification needed a new gauge particle known as W boson which was discovered 10 years later. The same work left a gap for a particle known as Higgs particle, needed to break the symmetry which had to wait for 40 years to be discovered.

His extraordinary abilities to expose complex subjects led him to write books such as The first three minutes: A modern view of the origin of the Universe, which has been translated into 22 languages including Tamil, and Dreams of a final theory (translated into 16 languages). His latest book, To explain the world, published in 2015, brings out his deep commitment to understand nature and its laws.

Prof. Weinberg was a rationalist and spoke against irrational anti-science ideas without hesitation. He wrote the book Facing Up: Science and its Cultural Adversaries, exposing the harm done by irrational and religious ideas. In now, oft-quoted remarks, he said: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion. Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things”.

He was a self-declared atheist and firmly committed to science and expressed his view on religion and God fearlessly: “Science does not make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible not to believe in God.”

Before Big Bang theory started having evidence he was attracted to Steady State theory of Hoyle and Narlikar: This he attributed to: “The steady state theory is philosophically the most attractive theory because it least resembles the account given in Genesis.”

My personal interactions happened on two occasions. The first was when I visited Texas University at the invitation of another great physicist, Prof. E.C.G. Sudarshan. I attended Prof. Weinberg’s lectures on quantum mechanics — new proposals which were brilliant. On the second occasion, when he visited Dublin for a lecture at Trinity College, he explicitly put in the dustbin the claims that ancient Indians had knowledge of atoms, and speed of light as mentioned in Vedic literature. He said there were no equipments, technologies and machinery available at that time to make these claims.

In the late 80's there were serious efforts at building a superconducting super collider (SSC) in Texas, proposed by Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate of the `God Particle’ fame. Prof. Weinberg was in the Science Policy committee for the SSC. He argued vehemently in favour of the project. However, after spending $2 billion, the program was cancelled due to opposition from some senators. They were also backed by other prominent scientists like the Nobel Laureate P.W. Anderson from the field of Condensed matter physics, who probably thought that it would be a drain on resources available for other fields of research.

Weinberg was disappointed with the cancellation. The result was that the rivals in Europe achieved the construction of Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Geneva, which made fantastic discoveries that ended up with the discovery of the missing link the Higgs particle. Prof. Roy Shwitters, the Director of SSC Laboratory speculated that, had the project been completed, it would have led to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle 10 years before.

Pushed for peace

Weinberg was against the U.S. withdrawal from Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He along with 50 intellectuals and scientists asked the U.S. Congress not to support funding for missile components which would result in violations of the treaty. Unfortunately the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 2001.

He was also against the climate change deniers. He remarked after receiving an honorary doctorate from Rockefeller University, “It is generally foolish to bet against the judgements of science, and in this case of climate change, where the planet is at stake, it is insane.”

His books, contributions in particle physics and his views on social issues are extraordinary and his demise is a great loss for science and the world.

T.R. Govindarajan is professor (retired), The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai


The launch of the first uncrewed mission planned in December, as part of the human spaceflight programme 'Gaganyaan', will be delayed due to the COVID-19-induced disruption in delivery of hardware elements for the ambitious venture, ISRO confirmed on Monday.

"Definitely it will not be possible in December. It's delayed", Chairman of ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), Mr. K Sivan, told P T I here.

"It (uncrewed mission) will shift to next year".

According to sources in the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency, under the Department of Space, delivery of hardware by the industry was hit due to the lockdown imposed in several States to contain the pandemic in recent months.

As part of the mandate of Gaganyaan, two uncrewed flights are planned to test the end-to-end capacity for the manned mission.

"Design, analysis and documentation are done by ISRO while hardware for Gaganyaan is fabricated and supplied by hundreds of industries across the country," the sources said.

The objective of Gaganyaan is to carry a crew of three to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), perform a set of predefined activities in space, and return them safely to a predefined destination on earth.

Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Space, Mr. Jitendra Singh said in February this year that the first unmanned mission is planned in December 2021 and the second unmanned one in 2022-23, followed by the human spaceflight demonstration.

Four Indian astronaut-candidates (Test Pilots of Indian Air Force) have already undergone generic space flight training in Russia as part of the Gaganyaan programme.

ISRO's heavy-lift launcher GSLV Mk III has been identified for the mission.

Formal announcement of the Gaganyaan programme was made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day address on August 15, 2018.

The initial target was to launch the human spaceflight before the 75th anniversary of India's independence on August 15, 2022.

Meanwhile, the four Indian astronaut-candidates are getting ready to kick-start the Indian leg of the mission- specific training that focuses on physical, mental, psychological and technological aspects.

An expert team has defined the training curriculum.

"Mostly, it will start next month. The training will happen at different locations. Academic training, aircraft trials, Navy trials, survival trials, simulation trials... the training is repeated, updated till they fly." Mr. Sivan said. The crew management activities are being taken care of by Indian Air Force.

ISRO has signed MoU with seven labs of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for design and development of human centric products.

It has signed a similar agreement with academic institutes for development of Microgravity payloads.

The human-centric products include space food and potable water, crew health monitoring system, emergency survival kit, and crew medical kit.

ISRO is also taking the help of French, Russian and US space agencies in "some of the crucial activities and supply of components", sources said.

Mr. Sivan said engines are getting tested and being qualified as part of human rating of the launch vehicle.


The drug is now in Phase-II trials to evaluate efficacy, safety, tolerability to treat COVID-19 patients

A long wait for drugs to treat COVID-19 may come to a close, if Phase II trials of the drug niclosamide deliver positive results. The repurposed drug, an antihelminth originally used to treat tapeworm infection, was found to show promise in an exploratory study undertaken by Bengaluru-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR) and Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (InSTEM) along with Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM), Jammu.

Based on the recommendations of this preliminary study, the drug is now under “multi-centric, phase-II, randomized, open label clinical study to evaluate efficacy, safety and tolerability of NIclosamide for the treatment of hospitalized Covid-19 patients,” according to a press release of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) dated July 5. Since the drug has been used in people earlier for tapeworm infection in adults as well as children, its safety profile is well established and the questions are more about its efficacy in treating COVID-19 and the dosage etc.

Among those following the news about the novel coronavirus, it is well known that the spike protein of the receptor binding domain attaches itself to the ACE2 receptor present in the cell. This is a route the virus uses to enter the cell.

There is also another way of entering the cell, especially in cells that do not carry ACE2.

Alternative route

“The stomach and proximal intestinal epithelium have cells that do not carry the ACE2 receptor but also are infected by the virus, and the cell line we are working with may be a surrogate model for such a system,” explains Satyajit Mayor, Director of NCBS-TIFR, who is an author of the study which has been published in PLOS Pathogens.

To enter such cells the spike glycoprotein finds a different pathway using alternative binding proteins on the surface of the cell. These are not yet fully characterised.

“The other pathway is something that we have been involved in uncovering and working on for the past 20 years at NCBS, and therefore we could immediately deploy our knowledge in seeing how we could influence this route,” says Prof. Mayer.

Blocking the virus

To study the path taken by the virus, the group isolated and purified the spike glycoprotein, attached it to a pseudovirus and tagged it with a fluorescent dye. When the virus tries to enter the cell, it is first engulfed in a membranous vesicle. This vesicle provides an environment of low pH (acidic medium) which is necessary for the virus to infect the cell. Thus, a substance that would alter the pH of the environment would block the entry of the virus. This role can be played by, for instance, niclosamide.

“Niclosamide is a drug used for tapeworm treatment. Other worms, such as pinworms and roundworms, are not affected. It is taken orally so can be used right off the shelf if the dosage and efficacy is proved for Covid,” says Varadharajan Sundaramurthy from NCBS-TIFR, a co-author.

The group has used this method to block the real SARS-CoV-2 virus in culture. “As the pandemic started, we established dedicated space in our biosafety level 3 suite for SARS-CoV-2 infection assays and obtained relevant approvals. So, when bafilomycin and niclosamide showed inhibitory effect in pseudovirus assays, we could immediately test them in real SARS-CoV-2 infection assays,” says Dr Sundaramurthy. “We could further extend these results to the gastric AGS cells with and without ACE2.” Interestingly, AGS cells without ACE2 get infected by the real SARS-Cov2 virus but do not seem to show strong cell death.

Clinical trials

The drug is being taken through a clinical trial by CSIR. Ram Viswakarma, former director of CSIR-IIIM, another co-author, said the following in an email to The Hindu:“CSIR New Delhi (through its constituent laboratory CSIR-IICT, Hyderabad) with an Industry partner received DCGI approval for a Phase II clinical trial, which is currently [underway] in multiple hospitals across India. Once the trial is complete, the results will be submitted to the drug regulator.”


Jeff Bezos wants to build a future where ‘we humans can explore the solar system’

In 2005, six years after he was named the Time magazine’s Person of the Year for helping “build the foundation of our future” and already a multi-billionaire by this time, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos walked into the nondescript office of Van Horn Advocate, a local weekly newspaper in Van Horn town in west Texas, to talk about a project that he had shielded from media for many years till then.

Over the next half-an-hour, Mr. Bezos spoke to the newspaper’s Larry Simpson, a meeting described by Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, as an “impromptu interview” with “its bewildered editor”. It was an interview where Mr. Bezos opened up on his space venture, Blue Origin. By then, he had purchased vast amounts of land — by Mr. Stone’s account, “an area about a third of the size of Rhode Island” — around here. Mr. Simpson was later quoted by NBC News as saying, “He told me their first spacecraft is going to carry three people up to the edge of space and back.” Just a few days ago, 16 years after the interview, Mr. Bezos, now the richest person on the planet, made it to space and back safely from this very town with three others in a space vehicle developed by Blue Origin.

He was accompanied by his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old Wally Funk, who trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s but never got a chance to fly to space until now, and Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student. Mr. Daemen is the first paying customer for Mr. Bezos’ space venture. He only got a chance in the inaugural flight because the person who bid $28 million for a seat had to reschedule. Ms. Funk and Mr. Daemen are now the oldest and the youngest, respectively, to travel to space.

Van Horn, media reports say, has changed over these years, with the venture bringing in money to the town. What has also changed over this period is the space industry, which not long ago was the exclusive domain of governmental agencies. Mr. Bezos isn’t alone in trying to figure out a business out of space travel. Fellow businessmen Richard Branson, who successfully completed space travel a week before Mr. Bezos on a spaceship built by his venture Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk, who runs SpaceX, have made big investments in this area. Mr. Musk’s venture has already been involved in transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Amazon founder’s idea, expressed in a speech at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011, was to help “build a future where we humans can explore the solar system first hand and in person”. What Blue Origin needed to do, therefore, he said, was to drive down cost and make the technology safe. In fact, all the space entrepreneurs seem to have realised the importance of building and perfecting a reusable space vehicle.

Reusable rocket

Blue Origin made its breakthrough with a reusable vehicle in 2015. It was then that its New Shepard space vehicle, named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, successfully made it to space and back. “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts — a used rocket,” Mr. Bezos was quoted as saying in the venture’s blog. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

Just a few months later, in a blog headlined ‘Launch. Land. Repeat’, Mr. Bezos wrote how the New Shepard flew and then landed vertically from where it launched. Reuse demonstrated. And then in elaborating on why he is a “huge fan” of rocket-powered vertical landing, he said this is the technology which scales well to achieve his “vision of millions of people living and working in space”. New Shepard has since made many test trips, carrying with it the dummy Mannequin Skywalker as well as research payloads for NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, among others.

Blue Origin has planned two more crewed flights this year and “many more” in 2022. But “the billionaire space race,” as it is often called, sometimes derisively, has only just begun. Mr. Bezos’ friend Danny Hillis has been quoted by Mr. Stone in his book about Amazon as saying, “Space for Jeff is not a year 2000 or a year 2010 opportunity.” Rather, “It’s been a dream of humanity’s for centuries and it will continue to be one for centuries. Jeff sees himself and Blue Origin as part of that bigger story.”


Can age-related memory loss be reversed?

Scientists at Cambridge and Leeds have successfully reversed age-related memory loss in mice and say their discovery could lead to the development of treatments to prevent memory loss in people as they age.

The researchers show that changes in the extracellular matrix of the brain – 'scaffolding' around nerve cells – lead to loss of memory with ageing, but that it is possible to reverse these (Molecular Psychiatry).

Recent evidence has emerged of the role of perineuronal nets (PNNs) in neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to learn and adapt – make memories. The main function of PNNs is to control the level of plasticity in the brain. They appear at around five years of age in humans. Then, as one ages, plasticity is partially turned off, making the brain more efficient but less plastic.

The researchers investigated whether manipulating the composition of the PNNs might restore neuroplasticity and alleviate age-related memory deficits. They used old mice for their studies.

The team has already identified a potential drug, licensed for human use, that can be taken orally, which inhibits the formation of PNNs. When this compound is given to mice and rats it can restore memory in ageing and also improves recovery in spinal cord injury. The researchers are investigating whether it might help alleviate memory loss in animal models of Alzheimer's disease.


France has already made it mandatory for healthcare workers to get vaccinated, like in the case of Greece and Italy

On July 12, France made it mandatory for healthcare workers to get vaccinated. Beginning September 15, all unvaccinated healthcare workers in France will not receive salary or be allowed to work.

Likewise, Greece and Italy too have made vaccination mandatory for healthcare workers from fall this year. In the U.K., care home workers would be required by law to have the COVID-19 vaccination.

Virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel, Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, cites mandatory smallpox vaccination in several European countries. In 1853, smallpox vaccination became compulsory in England; Italy and Sweden made smallpox vaccination mandatory before England could. Germany made it mandatory in 1874. “Regions with mandatory vaccination proved to have substantially fewer deaths from smallpox than those that relied on voluntary vaccination,” Dr. Jameel says in an email.

Similarly, polio vaccination was made mandatory in several European countries. At this time childhood vaccination is mandatory in several EU countries and recommended in others, Dr. Jameel adds.

Wide exemptions

“Compulsory vaccination has never meant people should be vaccinated against their will. These provisions have always been implemented with fairly wide exemptions on religious, social and philosophical grounds,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist in an email.

In France, it is not the healthcare workers alone who have been targeted. As per the announcement, all unvaccinated people will be denied entry into certain public places like theatres, sports venues and festivals involving more than 50 people in France from July 21, and cafes, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, and long-distance trains from August 1. Entry will be permitted only when unvaccinated people show a negative test result.

Age-old measure

Enforcing reasonable restriction in access to public places to prevent virus transmission appears fair and is an age-old public health measure. Individuals still retain the choice — whether to get vaccinated or not. “Such policies serve more of a nudge to get vaccinated. There is a qualitative difference between being denying entry to a venue and denying salary or refusal to allow to work, as this would impact their economic and social well-being and can have implications beyond the individual,” says Dr. Anant Bhan, global health and bioethics researcher.

“Denying salary unless vaccinated would be coercive as it puts an individual at disadvantage,” says Dr. Lahariya.

Dr. Giridhara Babu, Epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru is of the opinion that getting vaccinated is an individual's choice, and none can be forced out of their will to get the shot. “It is important to educate and have strong social mobilisation strategies to empower people to be aware and get vaccinated. In the case of healthcare workers, vaccination can be made an essential criteria for employment, which can be part of medical fitness after a pre-employment health assessment.”

Ways of protecting

In healthcare settings, there are other ways to ensure that an unvaccinated healthcare worker and the patients are protected — using a PPE kit, mask, face shield, other protective gears and redeployment of unvaccinated staff for services which do not require direct patient engagements, Dr. Babu says.

Dr. Jameel strongly disagrees. He says: “Healthcare professionals provide an essential service and work in a high-risk environment. They are at high risk to get infected and to pass infection to others. Therefore, when licensed vaccines are available, they must take them. No one in a hospital who is exposed to blood and other body fluids is allowed to work without hepatitis B vaccination. COVID-19 vaccination should be no different.”

Effect of nudges

Incidentally, two days after France announced its vaccine policy, 2.2 million people signed up to get vaccinated. It could suggest that nudges can play a role in health promotion, but it could also indicate fear or apprehensions about denial of access to key services or social opportunities which people value, says Dr. Bhan. According to Dr. Lahariya, a majority of those who signed up were in the 18-35 years of age group, who in all likelihood were willing but delaying their vaccination. The compulsion seems to have nudge people to prioritise their own vaccination. At the end of it, it is people who are making a choice about vaccination.

Though only less than 7% have been fully vaccinated in India, according to India's Health Ministry, nearly 80% of healthcare workers and 90% of frontline workers were already fully vaccinated by early July. Any attempt to make vaccination mandatory for healthcare workers in India will surely exacerbate the inequities of differential access to vaccines, says Dr. Babu. There is also the possibility that any coercion might lead to more fake vaccination certificate scams.

Inform and empower

“I am not for making it mandatory for any section or class. This will not only undermine the public support but will also be counterproductive and create newer problems where none exist. As per evidence, coercive measures are always counterproductive; they will only create further panic and fail to increase vaccine uptake,” says Dr. Babu. “The purpose of risk communication is to inform and empower people and respect individual choice. Mandating anything will fundamentally alter this dynamic by overriding personal autonomy.”

Dr. Lahariya says that prior to making any intervention compulsory, a few principles have to be adhered to. “The benefit of such an intervention should be scientifically supported. Vaccines should be easily available and accessible to every eligible citizen, and there should be reasonable exemptions. India does not fulfil one or more of these principles,” he says.

With demand outstripping supply, vaccine shortages have been reported by several States. Also, if the core argument of compulsory vaccination is to protect others and stop virus transmission, then the role of currently used COVID-19 vaccines in India is not backed by scientific evidence. Clinical trials have documented vaccine efficacy against moderate to severe disease, hospitalisation and deaths; there is limited data on their role in preventing virus transmission.

Breaking the chain

“It is clear that while those vaccinated can still get infected, they produce much less virus, thus reducing the chances of transmission. Further, they are protected from severe disease and in a pandemic situation you want your healthcare and frontline workers to be protected and available as much as possible,” says Dr. Jameel.

Dr. Bhan agrees that vaccination contributes to breaking of the transmission chain and case reduction even if it does not completely stop the possibility. This makes a strong case for promoting vaccination particularly among healthcare workers. “But this does not necessarily mean we should be exploring the mandatory vaccination route to push this,” Dr. Bhan adds.

Is there a possibility that any hesitancy among healthcare workers, who are among the most informed about vaccines and their benefits, might be to the vaccines currently available in India than against COVID-19 vaccines per se? “India has administered over 400 million doses of vaccines and the safety record is very good. Isn’t that proof enough for people in the healthcare business, who should understand this better than others?” asks Dr. Jameel.


Scientists for the first time have spotted a moon-forming region around a planet beyond our solarsystem - a Jupiter-like world surrounded by a disc of gas and dust massive enough that it could spawn three moons the size of the one orbiting Earth.

The researchers used the ALMA observatory in Chile's Atacama desert to detect the disc of swirling material accumulating around one of two newborn planets seen orbiting a young star called PDS 70, located a relatively close 370 light years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, about 9.5 trillion km.

It is called a circumplanetary disc, and it is from these that moons are born. The discovery, the researchers said, offers a deeper understanding about the formation of planets and moons.

Known exoplanets

More than 4,400 planets have been discovered outside our solar system, called exoplanets. No circumplanetary discs had been found until now because all the known exoplanets resided in “mature” – fully developed – solar systems, except the two infant gas planets orbiting PDS 70.

The study was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

In our solar system, the impressive rings of Saturn, a planet around which more than 80 moons orbit, represent a relic of a primordial moon-forming disc, said study co-author Stefano Facchini of the European Southern Observatory.

The orange-coloured star PDS 70, roughly the same mass as our Sun, is about 5 million years old– a blink of the eye in cosmic time. The two planets are even younger. Both planets are similar (although larger) to Jupiter, a gas giant. It was around one of the two planets, called PDS 70c, that a moon-forming disc was observed. Researchers have now confirmed initial evidence of a disc around this planet.

Both planets are "still in their youth," Facchini said, and are at a dynamic stage in which they are still acquiring their atmospheres. PDS 70c orbits its star at 33 times the distance of the Earth from the sun, similar to the planet Neptune in our solar system. Benisty said there are possible additional so-far undetected planets in the system.

Birth of a moon

Stars burst to life within clouds of interstellar gas and dust scattered throughout galaxies. Leftover material spinning around a new star then coalesces into planets, and circumplanetary discs surrounding some planets similarly yield moons.

The dominant mechanism thought to underpin planet formation is called “core accretion,” said study co-author Richard Teague of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“In this scenario, small dust grains, coated in ice, gradually grow to larger and larger sizes through successive collisions with other grains. This continues until the grains have grown to a size of a planetary core, at which point the young planet has a strong enough gravitational potential to accrete gas which will form its atmosphere,” Teague said.

Some nascent planets attract a disc of material around them,with the same process that gives rise to planets around a star leading to the formation of moons around planets.

The disc around PDS 70c, with a diameter about equal to the distance of the Earth to the sun, possesses enough mass to produce up to three moons the size of Earth's moon. It is unclear how many will form, if any.


Adopting beta-sitosterol-rich diets, plant food and nuts, exercises and yoga practice can make fitter bodies and brains

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15% of the world’s population, or about 785 million people, are mentally disabled – with dementia, memory loss, anxiety and stress-related disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and similar disabilities. In India, a recent study reported in this newspaper states that 74% of senior citizens (people above 60 years of age) reported stress and 88% reported anxiety, after the coronavirus pandemic and the associated lockdown. By the year 2050, the number of senior citizens in India can be about 20% of the population.

Treating aged people

Given this situation, we need a variety of methods to detect and treat such mental disabilities in aged populations, and indeed even in ‘junior citizens’ before they attain the senior stage. Several traditional practices such as Ayurveda, Unani, Yoga and breathing exercises have been going on for centuries. Yet, we need to use modern science and technology, new detection and treatment modes.

Reduces anxiety

It is here that a recent report from a group at the Weizmann Institute in Israel is of interest. They have shown that the compound called beta-sitosterol (BSS) reduces anxiety and synergises with established anxiety drugs in mice. Their paper explores the effect of BSS on various parts of the brain and its chemistry, and can be accessed (Panayotis et al., 2021, Cell Reports Medicine 2,100281).

We need more drugs to treat anxiety and stress-related disorders. The discovery and development of such compounds is a challenge. The most common sources of BSS are plants (called phytosterols). They have been used in traditional Indian medicine and are vegetarian since they are plant-derived. The most abundant source of BSS is canola oil, which has over 400 mg of this molecule per 100 grams, and so does corn (makki, cholam) and its oil. However, canola is not easily available in India. The easiest source of BSS in any supermarket across the country are nuts such a pistachio, almonds, walnuts, and even chickpeas (with 198, 132, 103 and 160 mg/100 grams of BSS).

Dementia is a term that describes a group of conditions affecting the gradual impairment of brain function. It is associated with memory loss, and impaired cognition and mobility. An individual’s personality may also change, and functional ability decline as the condition progresses. Dementia can also impose a burden on the sufferers and their families. An excellent and comprehensive review, titled “The Dementia Epidemic: Impact, Prevention and Challenges for India”, published by R. Sathianathan and S. J. Kantipudi in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (2018, Vol 60(2), p 165-167), is available for free on the net.

Biomarkers of dementia

Scientists and clinicians are concentrating on detecting the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, by looking for biomarkers such as the deposition of insoluble plaques leading to neurodegeneration. In addition, imaging methods, that use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) can detect the onset of dementia conditions ahead of time. We have quite a few centres in several cities with MRI and PET scanning facilities. But we need more clinical and biological laboratories that can detect the roles of genetic and neurobiological aspects even before imaging techniques are used. We also need organic chemists to synthesise newer and more efficient drug molecules to act on neurological problems at their very early stage, inhibiting the neural system from degrading.

India has been a world leader in the area of the chemistry of natural products – identifying key molecules of health interest and synthesising and marketing them across the country and the world. We also have world class biology laboratories that study genetic and molecular biological aspects. In addition, we have centuries-old herbal medicine centres (in Ayurveda and Unani systems) which continue to produce effective cures for dementia. If the country’s Central and State governments, plus private foundations can come together to support research, there is no reason why we cannot reduce the number of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease cases. Senior (and junior) citizens can offer their support by adopting diets rich in BSS, eating plant food and nuts, doing exercises- walking, bicycling, vigorous outdoor games – and yoga practices that help in making fitter bodies and brains.


The National Seismological Network will add 100 more stations by March 2026

The National Center for Seismology (NCS) will commission 35 new stations by December, taking the strength of seismological network to 150, Lok Sabha was informed on July 23.

In a written response to a question, Earth Sciences Minister Jitendra Singh said additional 100 new stations will be installed by March 2026.

The NCS, under the Ministry of Earth Science, is the nodal agency of the government for monitoring and to study earthquakes in and around the country. For this purpose, the NCS maintains a National Seismological Network (NSN) consisting of 115 observatories spread across the country.

The network is capable of recording any event of magnitude five and above in and around New Delhi, magnitude three and above for northeast region, magnitude 3.5 in and above in peninsular, magnitude four and above in the Andaman region and magnitude 4.5 and above in border regions.

In order to spatially densify the gap areas and to improve the magnitude detection threshold down to magnitude three in the country, 35 new stations have been planned in the country and installation is already in progress.

It is also planned to strengthen the National Seismological Network further by adding 100 seismic stations in the next five years to increase the detection capability of earthquake up to magnitude 2.5 throughout the country.

"All the 35 new stations shall be commissioned and will start functioning by December 2021. Thus, the strength of National Seismological Network will increase to 150 by December 2021. Subsequently, additional 100 new stations will be installed by March 2026," Mr. Singh said.

Responding to a separate question on prediction of earthquakes, he said, there is no proven scientific technique available, anywhere in the world, to predict or forecast in advance the occurrence of earthquakes with the reasonable degree of accuracy with regard to space, time and magnitude. No country has the capability of predicting the occurrence of earthquakes in advance.

However, research efforts are made in India and elsewhere for developing an Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) System, to alert people once an earthquake occurs based on the arrival time of P-wave of the Earthquake.

The warning time, however, is much shorter and of the order of a few seconds. The robustness and success rate of such warning system are to be assessed thoroughly before the system can be considered for real time operations, he said.


Bezos, Branson recently made widely publicised trips to sub-orbital space

The story so far: Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson made news this week for their privately funded flight trips to sub-orbital space. Mr. Branson was initially scheduled to make his trip a few months after Mr. Bezos, but advanced the date to beat Mr. Bezos to space. Interestingly, Mr. Bezos’s company Blue Origin took a dig at Mr. Branson’s feat, stating that Mr. Branson’s flight did not reach sufficient altitude to make the British billionaire’s trip qualify as a space flight. Elon Musk is another American billionaire who has taken keen interest in travel to space. His company SpaceX, apart from other expeditions to space, sent two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station just last year.

Why are billionaires racing to space?

Each of these billionaires claims to have been fascinated by the idea of space travel ever since their childhood. As businessmen, however, they can also see a tremendous opportunity to make money by exploiting resources in space. At the moment, it is unclear what exactly they plan to tap from space, as has been the case with any nascent industry. Space tourism is one goal that has been explicitly stated.

Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s space company, plans to charge $250,000 for a seat on its sub-orbital space flight. There is even an ambitious plan to set up a human colony in various planets, as a backup plan to escape the earth in case of a catastrophe. Also, Mr. Bezos, Mr. Branson and Mr. Musk may very well be looking to leave their mark in history as the pioneers of the private space industry. This is probably why Mr. Branson rushed his trip to space, that is, to beat Mr. Bezos.

Lastly, it is not just these big businessmen who have shown interest in the space sector. There are several smaller private companies that are vying for their share of the largely unexploited space business. Altitude Angel, PlanetWatchers and AST SpaceMobile are a few of the notable ones. By some estimates, investment in commercial space ventures almost doubled in the last one year alone. Even public markets have been tapped into recently to fund space ventures. Notably, Seraphim Space Investment Trust, a publicly-traded fund which holds stocks in various space companies, is backed by Mr. Branson.

What do the sceptics say?

The chief criticism levelled against these billionaire-sponsored private space flights is that the money spent on them could be better spent on other more pressing needs. These critics, such as prominent U.S. Democrat politician Bernie Sanders, see privately funded space travel and exploration as vanity projects that do not add to the knowledge base or welfare of mankind.

Supporters of privately funded exploitation of space, however, argue that many nascent technologies such as cars and telephones were once seen as vanity goods too before they eventually became mass products. These are mostly economists who expect the price of space-related services to drop as more companies enter the space sector to compete and increase supply. They also argue that inventions such as airplanes were the product of privately funded efforts and that these efforts have benefited society immensely.

Further, some believe that these trips to space may be used by the billionaires as a marketing exercise to exude confidence in customers about the safety of travel into space. Meanwhile, there are others, such as billionaire investor Ray Dalio, for example, who are not opposed to the idea of privately funded exploitation of space per se, but who still believe that the money could be spent better on other endeavours. They point out that even most of earth remains unexplored and that returns on investing in exploring unexplored parts of the earth may be far higher than returns on space investments.

What lies ahead?

The future of the space sector will depend heavily on how governments frame their policies towards space. The sector remains heavily regulated by governments across the world, usually citing national security reasons.

India, for instance, partially opened up its space sector to private companies only last year. Space research in the West during the Cold War era was largely seen as a subset of military research, which was out of bounds for the private sector. It was also believed that space research and exploration were too expensive and risky for private companies to bear. In recent decades, however, the United States, China and other countries have begun to significantly deregulate and open up their space sector, which has led to the entry of many private companies. Further deregulation of the space sector is likely to bring in more private investments and innovation. This can cause space travel and other space-related services to become more accessible to common folks as well.

The setting up of human colonies on other planets will also bring into focus issues such as the demarcation of property rights. Many have already warned about the risk of a few billionaires colonising territory in space, but others believe that even such colonisation by a few does not pose any risk. Governments, in order to exert their own control over such territory, are also likely to try and regulate private companies trying to set up such colonies.


As he dissects the varied and unusual themes of his first book ‘Space. Life. Matter.’, journalist-author Hari Pulakkat explains where India stands in the global space of science research

The science book genre is an extremely busy one, and after a point, it gets tough to distinguish one from the other. Isn’t everyone talking about space, health and technology? Journalist and author Hari Pulakkat had decided more than a decade ago that should he ever release a book of his own, it had to be different. This year, he finally released Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science.

He claims, in a video call from his Bengaluru home with The Hindu MetroPlus, that “No one has ever written a comprehensive pre- or post-Independence book about science in India. There have been some biographies such as those of physicists CV Raman and G N Ramachandran. But that’s not unusual, since you don’t typically find books on British, Japanese or German science… and if there are, they haven’t been very popular. Science is a complete narrative around the world and you cannot separate by country easily.”

Space. Life. Matter. (Hachette India) is split into three distinct but closely-linked sections: ‘Space’ followed by ‘Matter’ and then ‘Life.’ Instead of what could have been a mind-numbing narrative of facts and figures, the central voice of the book comprises historical anecdotes of some of the country’s most remarkable turning points in science discovery such as Astrosat (India’s first space telescope), the country’s investments in pharmaceutical industries specifically anti-cancer drugs and vitamins, and more.

Advice for younger science journalists
  • Hari says budding science journalists should have a deep love for the subject, adding, “Because you will want to know more yourself, you don’t have any other motivation. There will be nothing that will stop you except the typical industry barriers. The hardest part is getting space for science journalism, not science journalism itself.”

“All of these are independent developments,” he says, “but what links them is the situation in which everybody worked. Everybody was short of money, struggled with bureaucracy, struggled with culture and ambition. In terms of the science they did in the 50s and 60s, it was an era of isolation – no shared territories, resources or conversations. Now, the situation is so much more different; people work across spaces and disciplines.”

Sadly, the book — while highlighting the struggles scientists faced through the times — some readers will feel dismay at the lack of women in its pages which reflects the stigma of women in STEM at thie time. Luckily that is changing, but there is a long way to go to fill this glaring gender void.

Hari is keen on younger generations to, through the book, familiarise themselves with the struggles of previous times and to understand the industry at large in terms of what needs to evolve.

Of research and development

Despite the encouraging improvement of STEM industries in India, Hari points out we have not invested as much as we should in these fields. “India has a large population of scientists. The funding is especially not what it could be, and this is a very open fact but no one has been able to do anything about it.”

That said, he hopes Space. Life. Matter. gives some positive attention to the considerable progress of research in the coming years. “We have come a long way in the past 20 years and our investment in science has tripled and the number of researchers has increased. We also have to remember we are a medium income country and in that bracket, we are on the lower side. It’s tough to make a lucrative career out of writing science literature.”


The company was developing novel recombinant vaccines for COVID-19 and human influenza and would use the proceeds to further clinical development for the same

Mynvax, a vaccine technology startup, incubated by the Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science, has signed an agreement to raise $4.2 million (₹31 crore) in its Series A round of financing led by Accel to bring thermotolerant Covid vaccine to the market.

The company was developing novel recombinant vaccines for COVID-19 and human influenza and would use the proceeds to further clinical development for the same, it said on Monday.

LetsVenture and a few early stage angel investors also participated in this round, which received the backing of its pre-Series A investors such as 1Crowd, Kotak Investment Advisors and other angel investors.

The company said that with the support of BIRAC, Government of India, early-stage investors and SID, IISc, it was able to rapidly demonstrate its ability to develop novel vaccine candidates which have been rigorously tested for performance and unique attributes such as heat tolerance, to increase access to the vaccine across the country.

Dr. Gautham Nadig, co-founder and Executive Director of Mynvax said that in addition to expeditiously advancing its existing vaccine candidates, both in India and overseas, the company would also invest in developing new vaccine modalities.

Mynvax would begin to build partnerships with large vaccine manufacturers to hasten the deployment of much needed vaccines, he added.

Mahendran Balachandran, Partner, Accel said, “We strongly believe that Mynvax's platform has the potential to make a huge positive change in the Global vaccine landscape for major respiratory illnesses.”

Mynvax was founded in 2017 by Dr. Raghavan Varadarajan, Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Dr. Nadig, an alumnus of the Institute, with the aim of advancing innovative and broadly protective influenza vaccine technologies.


Active and neutral mutations are distinguished by studying their neighbourhoods

Researchers at IIT Madras have developed an AI tool called NBDriver (neighbourhood driver) for use in analysing cancer-causing mutations in cells. By looking at the neighbourhood, or context, of a mutation in the genome, it can look at harmful “driver” mutations and distinguish them from neutral “passenger” mutations.

This technique of looking at the genomic neighbourhood to make out the nature of the mutation is a novel and largely unexplored one. In a paper published in the journal Cancers, the researchers explain that the nature of the mutation depends on the neighbourhood, and how this tool may be used to draw the line between driver and passenger mutations.

B. Ravindran, head of the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and AI at IIT Madras and one of the corresponding authors, said in a press release that one of the major challenges faced by cancer researchers involves the differentiation between the relatively small number of “driver” mutations that enable the cancer cells to grow and the large number of “passenger” mutations that do not have any effect on the progression of the disease.

In previously published techniques, researchers typically analysed DNA sequences from large groups of cancer patients, comparing sequences from cancer as well as normal cells and determined whether a particular mutation occurred more often in cancer cells than random, said Prof. Karthik Raman, from the biotechnology department of IIT Madras and another corresponding author. “However, this ‘frequentist’ approach often missed out on relatively rare driver mutations,” he noted, adding that some studies have also looked at the changes caused by the driver mutations in the production of essential biological products such as proteins.

Statistical modelling

The method of distinguishing between driver and passenger mutations solely by looking at the neighbourhood is novel. “Through robust statistical modelling, we show that there is a significant difference in the pattern of sequences (or context) surrounding the driver and passenger mutations,” said Shayantan Banerjee, who is a master’s student in the Department of Biotechnology, IIT Madras, and the lead author of the paper.

Accuracy of tool

The researchers studied a dataset containing 5,265 mutations to derive the model. According to Prof. Raman, NBDriver, had an overall accuracy of 89% and ranked second out of 11 prediction algorithms. In comparison, he said that the top performing tool, or FATHMM, achieved an accuracy of 91% on the same dataset.

For the future, the group aims to develop an easy-to-use drag-and-drop web interface that will enable cancer researchers with limited computational or programming skills to get predictions and extract genomic information on their preferred set of mutations. “We will also be pursuing further studies on the context [or neighbourhood] of these mutations, and how they impact the evolution of cancer. Why do we see differences in the context between the driver and passenger mutations in the first place?” said Prof Raman.

The group also plans that NBDriver will be a part of a broader cancer genomic sequence analysis "pipeline" being developed at the centres.


Meteorologists were stunned this week when three successive thunderstorms swept across the icy Arctic from Siberia to north of Alaska, unleashing lightning bolts in an unusual phenomenon that scientists say will become less rare with global warming.

“Forecasters hadn’t seen anything like that before,” said Ed Plumb, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fairbanks, speaking about the storms that started on Saturday.

Typically, the air over the Arctic Ocean, especially when the water is covered with ice, lacks the convective heat needed to generate lightning storms. But as climate change warms the Arctic faster than the rest of the world, that's changing, scientists say.

Tripled in frequency

Episodes of summer lightning within the Arctic Circle have tripled since 2010, a trend directly tied to climate change and increasing loss of sea ice in the far north, scientists reported in a March study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. As sea ice vanishes, more water is able to evaporate, adding moisture to the warming atmosphere.

“It’s going to go with the temperatures,” said co-author Robert Holzworth, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

These electrical storms threaten boreal forests fringing the Arctic, as they spark fires in remote regions already baking under the round-the-clock summer sun.

The paper also documented more frequent lightning over the Arctic’s treeless tundra regions, as well as above the Arctic Ocean and pack ice. In August 2019, lightning even struck within 100 kilometers of the North Pole, the researchers found.

In Alaska alone, thunderstorm activity is on track to increase threefold by the end of the century if current climate trends continue, according to two studies by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, published over the last year in the journal Climate Dynamics.

“What used to be very rare is now just rare,” said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As the parade of Arctic storms this week demonstrated, lightning is already appearing in unexpected places, he said. “I have no memory of three consecutive days of this kind of thing” in the Arctic.

On the water

On the water, the lightning is an increasing hazard to mariners, and vessel traffic is increasing as sea ice retreats, Holzworth said.

People can become lightning rods and usually try to get low for safety. That’s tough to do on flat tundra or ocean expanse. “What you really need is to pay better attention to the lightning forecasts,” he said.


A study by researchers from the University of Maryland disputes the prevailing hypothesis on why Mercury has a big-sized core relative to its mantle (the layer between its core and crust). Scientists had argued that hit-and-run collisions with other bodies during the formation of our solar system resulted in much of Mercury’s rocky mantle being removed, leaving behind the big, dense, metal core inside. But new research reveals that Sun’s magnetism is the reason for this and not the collisions.

The researchers developed a model showing that the density, mass and iron content of a rocky planet’s core are influenced by its distance from the Sun’s magnetic field (Progress in Earth and Planetary Science).

There is a gradient in which the metal content in the core drops off as the four inner planets of our solar system get further from the Sun. The current work explains this by showing that the distribution of raw materials in the early forming solar system was controlled by the Sun’s magnetic field.

The new model shows that during the early formation of our solar system, when the young Sun was surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas, grains of iron were drawn toward the centre by the Sun's magnetic field. When the planets began to form from clumps of that dust and gas, planets closer to the sun incorporated more iron into their cores than those further away.


This is the first case in which a super-polynomial lower bound has been established for constant depth circuits in the algebraic domain.

What differentiates humans from computers? Is it only a matter of time before efficient algorithms enable a computer to perform the most creative tasks, even to the extent of proving mathematical theorems — an accomplishment that is considered the acme of human contribution to progress in Mathematics? Or is there an inherent limit to what even a super computer can do?

A problem in Computer Science holds the key to the above questions. No, it is not solved yet, and is, in fact, listed as one of the “millennium problems”, along with six others, including the Riemann Hypothesis. It carries a prize of a million dollars for solving it. The problem is the P versus NP question. This is a problem that classifies computing problems into classes according to the time and resources that will be used up in tackling them and forms the cornerstone problem of computational complexity.

The news today is not that the P versus. NP problem has been solved — we are far from it — but that three computer scientists, including one from IIT Bombay, have made headway in a related problem. This is significant enough to draw the attention of the computational complexity community. The work by Nutan Limaye from IIT Bombay, Srikanth Srinivasan currently at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Sebastien Tavenas from CNRS, France, has been posted online as a preprint in public domains and has been subjected to much scrutiny in the last fortnight.

Understanding complexity

The P versus NP problem may be understood by looking at a situation we have encountered recently, which albeit grim is very illustrative. Consider the problem of vacant hospital beds to which patients need to be assigned — let there be, say, 100 beds available, and these should be matched with demands from 250 patients. In assigning beds to patients, several factors need to be considered, such as the actual state of the patient — whether they really need the bed, the distance that needs to be covered (whether it is the bed that is closest to the needy patient), no two patients must be allotted the same bed, and no beds must go vacant, etc. Now, making a list “efficiently”, that is, in a short time, may be a daunting task. But if some intelligent supervisor writes down such a list allotting the hundred beds to a hundred patients, it can be checked by a computer quickly and efficiently. Thus, verifying a “yes instance”, as the computer scientists call it, is a task that is much easier than finding a solution.

Further, the time that is needed for solving or verifying a yes instance of the problem of allotting hospital beds grows with the number of variables — in this case the number of beds and patients. This is an instance of a problem that would be in the NP category, or nondeterministic polynomial time algorithms. The time needed for verifying a yes instance of problem grows as a constant power of the number of patients, and the verification is said to run in polynomial time

If it were possible to write a programme that could “solve” this problem efficiently, that is, write a programme that takes time that scales as a polynomial in variables, and this is possible, then one can say that this problem of allotting hospital beds is in P — the class of problems for which polynomial time algorithms exist. Any problem that is in P is automatically in NP, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

In fact, it is also believed that P is not equal to NP. That is, problems for which efficient algorithms exist are only a subset of the problems for which yes instances can be verified in polynomial time. However, this has not been proved. For instance, if you are asked to list out all the possibilities of allotting beds to patients, that is a problem that becomes very hard. It is not in P. In fact, it is so hard that it is not even verifiable in polynomial time and it is not even in NP

This problem is the holy grail of computational complexity theory!

Branching off from the Boolean

It must be said that all the above arguments live in the Boolean world — that is, in deciding the P versus NP problem, we had in mind inputs that were bits (or binary digits made up of strings of 0s and 1s) and the algorithms involved operating on these with AND, OR and NOT gates. Thus, the time taken to run the programme grows with the number of gates used and so on.

Another example of a problem involving the P versus NP question concerns very large prime numbers. If a yes instance is given, that is, someone gives you an n-bit representation of a large prime number and asks you to verify whether it is prime, this can be done easily, using a number of logic gates that scales as a polynomial in n. That is, the size of the problem grows as n-raised-to-the-power a constant. So, the size is polynomial in n, and the checking problem is a member of the “non-deterministic polynomial” class or NP. In fact, there is now a polynomial time algorithm which when give an n-bit number as input outputs yes, if the input is the binary representation of a prime, and says no if it is not. This algorithm due to Manindra Agarwal, Nitin Saxena and Neeraj Kayal in the early 2000s was a big breakthrough, but that’s a story in itself.

However, to construct a number that is prime will take much more resources. It is believed to be “exponentially hard”, or that as the number of bits increases to a large n, it will take resources that scale as a constant-raised-to-the-power n. This is in the non-polynomial class. But since it is not proved, it is possible that one day someone will develop a smart algorithm that can devise a way to compute the prime number in polynomial time. The whole P versus NP question is to show if there are problems that can be verified in polynomial time (that is, they belong to in NP) but computing which would take non-polynomial time. This would imply that NP has problems that are outside of P.

“People would like to show this because there are applications in cryptography and in randomised algorithms. Though it looks theoretical there are practical applications as well,” says K.V. Subrahmanyam, a computer scientist from the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

There is a bifurcation in the field of complexity theory: the Boolean world and the algebraic world. While in the Boolean world, the inputs are in the form of bits or binary integers made up of a string of 0s and 1s. The circuits are made up of AND, OR and NOT gates. Outputs are again binary integers. In the algebraic complexity studies, inputs are algebraic variables and the circuit performs addition and multiplication operations on the variables and the output is a polynomial in the variables.

In 1979, Leslie Valiant, who is now with Harvard University, defined the algebraic analogue of the P versus NP problem. This is dubbed the VP versus VNP problem. “He suggested an easier question, and he showed that you will have to settle this question if you want to settle the P versus NP question,” says Prof. Subrahmanyam. This question is also far from reach at present. However, in algebraic complexity theory, there is the possibility of using known mathematical techniques to prove the result. “Proving hardness in algebraic circuits is quite different from proving hardness in Boolean circuits. There are connections, of course, but there are many differences as well,” says Meena Mahajan, computer scientist from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. These differences could work in the favour of the algebraic complexity community for, as she adds, “For algebraic circuits there is a richer set of techniques from mathematics that could potentially be used to prove hardness.”

Because it is difficult to prove the above theorems for the most general classes, people look for simpler models, by restricting some parameters. One of these is the “depth” of the circuit. Prof. Mahajan explains, “Loosely speaking, depth corresponds to the time required to evaluate the circuit on a parallel computer with as many nodes as gates in the circuits.”

The simplest of the lot are circuits with constant depth — in which the depth does not depend on the size of the input for instance.

“For Boolean circuits of constant-depth, super-polynomial and even exponential size lower bounds have long been known,” she adds. She is referring to the so-called parity problem. If you are given a long string of 0s and 1s, an n-bit binary number, to compute whether the number of 1s in this input string is even or odd would require super-polynomial time in constant depth Boolean circuits using NAND gates. This was shown over 35 years ago, yet no analogous result was proved in the algebraic domain. “Until now, that is. Now, the LST paper tells us that computing the determinant of a matrix, a bread-and-butter operation in linear algebra applications, provably requires super-polynomial size if we are allowed constant-depth,” she explains.

The paper has not yet been peer reviewed. But it has been posted online for long enough for there to have been strong reactions in case of mistakes. “So far, no flaws have been discovered, and while we await the final reviews, there is no reason to suspect flaws. The result is significant enough that a large section of the computational complexity theory community, and probably the entire algebraic-complexity-theory sub-community, is looking at it closely!” says Prof. Mahajan.

The collaboration

Nutan Limaye had been working on complexity theory for some time when she and Srikanth Srinivasan met Sébastien Tavenas at a conference (FSTTCS 2019) that she was co-organising at IIT Bombay.

Prof. Tavenas had an interesting result along with Neeraj Kayal, of Microsoft Research, in Bangalore, and Chandan Saha, from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in 2016 (‘An Almost Cubic Lower Bound for Depth Three Arithmetic Circuits’). Since Prof. Limaye and Prof. Srinivasan (who was also at IIT Bombay at the time) were interested in the area, they were only too overjoyed when Prof. Tavenas decided to visit IIT Bombay for a longer time. They continued to work on this problem and in 2019, they had a small result. Year 2020, with the lockdowns and the onslaught of the pandemic went off “at a crazy pace”. It was in 2021 that things started to fall in place. “In March 2021, I had a chance to visit Srikanth at Aarhus. I had gone with the thought that we must work on this problem. That’s when we had the first breakthrough,” says Prof. Limaye.

Around March 20 to 22, as she was planning to leave, they got another improvement on their results. But it was not until she had returned to Mumbai and they were writing it up that they got this idea of “escalating” the lower bound they had and making it much better.

“When you are able to prove a lower bound in a restricted setting, there are other theorems sitting around with which you can pad this result and prove the dream result you want,” says Prof. Limaye. The whole thing worked out, and around the end of May 2021, the escalation happened.

The main result is that they have constructed a polynomial to be computed in a constant depth (the so-called Sigma-Pi-Sigma) circuit, and they show that this would take more than polynomial time to compute, that is, it will take super-polynomial time to compute.

“The Sigma-Pi-Sigma expressions are the simplest ‘non-trivial’ expressions for polynomials,” says Prof. Srinivasan. “This is the first strong limitation on their power…the previous best bound was cubic.”

To construct the polynomial, they take (n X n) matrices, approximately (log n) of them, and multiply them out. Any entry of the resultant matrix is a polynomial that suits their purpose. This is called the iterative matrix multiplication polynomial.

“The result we have turns out be surprisingly simple in the end. I think most researchers working on these problems will be surprised but happy about this, as it indicates scope for future work. Complicated results are harder to build upon than simple ones,” says Prof. Srinivasan.

While scientists may differ on whether this result will lead up to showing VP not equal to VNP, they will appreciate that this is the first case in which a super-polynomial lower bound has been established for any problem in the algebraic domain, about 35 years since the parity problem had been shown to take non-polynomial time in the Boolean arena.


They advocate inter alia ‘rebalancing of exams’ — focus on assessing application

A survey by the Oxford University Press (OUP) of science teachers in 22 countries on their respective national science curricula found that fewer than half of the respondents (46%) believe that the science curriculum in their country prepared children for the future.

Only 31% of teachers surveyed said science education was fit for the future. In India however, 80% of respondents agreed that the curriculum enabled students to become scientifically literate and active citizens, as opposed to 59% in the U.K. and 67% in Hong Kong. Of the 398 teachers that responded in the report, 74 were from India.

Sivaramakrishnan Venkateswaran, Managing Director - Oxford University Press India said in a statement: “The study of science helps to fuel curiosity in young minds and makes them think about solutions to challenges in everyday life. Its relevance in a pandemic-afflicted world has only grown. It was important to sense check what science teachers felt about how their subject needed to evolve. We are delighted with the strong participation of science teachers from India in our survey and their belief that the current curriculum is helping students to become scientifically literate and active citizens.”

The research was undertaken alongside OUP’s active involvement in developing the science framework for the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) 2025, a global evaluation exercise to compare learning assessment of school-going children.

Teachers were asked to recommend ways in which science curricula could evolve to remain relevant. Their recommendations included:

Ensuring that science education prioritise practical skills through experimentation in the classroom, updating content regularly, increasing the connection between the science that was being taught in the classroom and what is happening in the world outside.

Teachers also requested a “rebalancing of exams” — away from the current focus on knowledge, towards assessing the application of science.

Practical experimentation

COVID-19, teachers said, had an impact on science teaching in the last year, in making them unable to perform practical experimentation in the classrooms.

The science teachers and educators were from the U.K., India, Hong Kong, Pakistan, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, U.A.E., Estonia, Greece, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, Portugal, Sweden and Thailand.


Which variants come under which category?

What began as a pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, has assumed global proportions and claimed countless lives within a span of two years.

At the outset, the virus spread through droplets of saliva, cough particles or nasal discharge from an infected person. Within the passage of a year, December 2020 saw the emergence of changing COVID-19 variants. These changes in variations allow the virus to be more contagious than before.

The changes in the variants occur when there is a mutation of the genes of the virus. However, these mutations are only natural. M.D Robert Bollinger told the Johns Hopkins University’s Medical Organisation, that “All RNA viruses mutate over time. For example, flu viruses change often...”. MD Stuart Ray told the Hopkins Medical Organisation that “Geographic separation tends to result in genetically distant variants.” In light of such developments, the new mutations are bound to be several and distinct from one another. (New Variants of Coronavirus: What You Should Know | Johns Hopkins Medicine)

The World Health Organisation has classified each emerging variant as either a Variant of Concern (VOC) or a Variant of Interest (VOI). The Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants fall under Variants of Concern. Whereas the Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda fall under Variants of Interest.

What is a Variant of Concern?

According to the World Health Organisation, a variant of concern translates to a rise in transmissibility, an increase in fatality and a significant decrease in effectiveness of vaccines, therapy and other health measures.

What is a Variant of Interest?

According to WHO, a VOI is a SARS CoV-2 variant with a genetic capability that affects characteristics of the virus such as disease severity, immune escape, transmissibility and diagnostic escape. The world health body further confirmed that a VOI causes a consequential volume of community transmission. A global increase in cases poses a risk of large proportions to worldwide public health.

Here’s a comprehensive list of the new variations and their biological characteristics

B.1.1.7 or the Alpha variant

According to Johns Hopkins data, this variant was first detected in Southern England in 2020. According to a Lancet study, patients suffering from bouts of the Alpha variant posed a greater risk of CCU admission and a 28-day mortality, if weighed against patients with non-Alpha strains of the virus. The study also asserts that for those receiving critical care, “mortality appeared to be independent of virus strain”.

As published in the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Infectious Disease Research Policy (CIDRAP), an Oxford study revealed that after adapting to covariables, patients receiving primary care and infected with the Alpha strain were more likely to die in 28 days than those infected by other strains of the virus. The study also clarified that the B.1.1.7 variant was identified with a doubled probability of requiring CCU admission.

CIDRAP also states that evidence was found between the variants correlation with age, sex, ethnic group or race. But patients who were inflicted with this variant were notably younger. Though the virulency was found to be reduced, a certain percentage requiring mechanical ventilation in the first 24 hours of admission was higher.

B.1.351 or the Beta variant

The Beta variant first appeared in South Africa. Accoring to Johns Hopkins findings, the viral strain may have the potential to re-infect individuals who have recovered from earlier strains of the virus. The variant may also be resistant to some vaccines. CIDRAP states that the strain has a greater viral load than its pervious strain.

P.1 or the Gamma variant

First cases of the Gamma variant were detected in the U.S. in January, 2021. According to CDC, the initial cases were identified in a group of travellers from Brazil who had to undergo testing during routine screenings at an airport in Japan. (About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19 | CDC)

According to the Global Virus Network (GVN), this variant has shown pronounced transmissibility. The network further states that its mutations N501Y, K417N and E484K in the “receptor building domain of spike protein”, tend to amplify its affinity to human receptors. Gamma (P.1) - GVN

Most importantly, this variant tends to escape from the immune responses of the body. With each mutation, the virus becomes more contagious than its previous strains.

B.1.617.2 or the Delta

This variant was initially detected in India in December 2020.

Explained | What is the Delta plus variant?

Yale University’s Yale Medicine Organisation has said to combat this highly contagious strain, vaccination is key. The Organisation has said ‘People who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus appear to have protection against Delta’. The medical body has also spoken about “hyperlocal outbreaks” which means that a low-vaccinated town that is surrounded by a high-vaccinated town could lead to virus contained within its borders. Therefore, vaccination is the best weapon to combat the fast moving Delta variant. (5 Things To Know About the Delta Variant > News > Yale Medicine)

By far, India has recorded more than 50 cases of the Delta Plus variant.

B.1.617.1 or the Kappa variant

According to the World Heath Organisation, the first samples of the Kappa variant was documented in India, in October 2020. The kappa variant is a double mutant virus.

Two cases of the variant have been reported in Uttar Pradesh. Genome sequencing of 109 samples was conducted at the King George’s Medical College in U.P. The Delta Plus was found in most of the samples, where as the Kappa was found in 2 samples.

C.37 or the Lambda variant

The variant was first detected in Peru in December 2020. It is more contagious than the Gamma or Alpha variations.

Of late, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer has confirmed cases of the Lambda variant in the country. A New York University Study published on July 2 implies that the variant may be resistant to antibodies emerging from the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna. The study concluded that it is not enough “to cause a significant loss of protein against infection”.


Sirisha Bandla looks out the window at Earth in zero gravity on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space on July 11, 2021.

Indian-American Sirisha Bandla, on July 12, joined British billionaire Richard Branson and four others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a journey to the edge of space.

Indian-American astronaut Sirisha Bandla said it was an “incredible” and “life-changing” experience to see the Earth from space during her maiden trip on Virgin Galactic’s first fully-crewed suborbital test flight and hoped the cost for space travel would come down in the future.

Ms. Bandla, a 34-year-old aeronautical engineer, on July 12, joined British billionaire Richard Branson and four others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a journey to the edge of space from the U.S. state of New Mexico.

They reached an altitude of about 88 km over the New Mexico desert — enough to see the curvature of the Earth. The crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.

“I am kind of still up there but (I’m) so glad to be here. I was trying to think of a better word than incredible but that is the only word that comes to my mind...Seeing the view of Earth is so life-changing...The whole trip to space and back is just amazing,” Ms. Bandla told NBC News in an interview.

Ms. Bandla described the moment as emotional, adding, “I have been dreaming of going to space since I was young and it is literally a dream come true.”


Billionaire Richard Branson floats in zero gravity on board Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket plane VSS Unity after reaching the edge of space above Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, U.S. July 11, 2021 in a still image from video.

Bandla becomes third Indian-origin woman to fly into space

Swashbuckling entrepreneur Richard Branson hurtled into space aboard his own winged rocket ship on Sunday in his boldest adventure yet, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos.

The nearly 71-year-old Mr. Branson and five crewmates, including aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla, from his Virgin Galactic space tourism company reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth — and then safely glided back home to a runway landing.

“Seventeen years of hard work to get us this far,” a jubilant Mr. Branson said as he congratulated his team on the trip back.

Mr. Branson became the first person to blast off in his own spaceship, beating Mr. Bezos by nine days. He also became only the second septuagenarian to depart for space. (John Glenn flew on the shuttle at age 77 in 1998.)

Ms. Bandla became the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma is the only Indian citizen to travel in space.

With about 500 people watching, including Mr. Branson’s wife, children and grandchildren, a twin-fuselage aircraft with his space plane attached underneath took off in the first stage of the flight.

The space plane then detached from the mother ship at an altitude of about 13 kilometres) and fired its engine, reaching the edge of space. The entire flight up and back aboard the sleek white ship, named Unity, took just under 15 minutes.

The flamboyant, London-born founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways wasn’t supposed to fly until later this summer. But he assigned himself to an earlier flight after Mr. Bezos announced plans to ride his own rocket into space from Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Mr. Branson, who has kite-surfed the English Channel and attempted to circle the world in a hot-air balloon, denied he was trying to beat Mr. Bezos.

Space tourism race

Another one of Mr. Branson’s chief rivals in the space-tourism race among the world’s richest men, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, arrived in New Mexico to witness the flight, wishing Mr. Branson via Twitter, “Godspeed!”

Mr. Bezos likewise sent his wishes for a safe and successful flight, though he also took to Twitter to enumerate the ways in which be believes his company’s rides will be better.

Bezos’ Blue Origin company intends to send tourists past the so-called Karman line 100 kilometres above earth, which is is recognised by international aviation and aerospace federations as the threshold of space.

But NASA, the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and some astrophysicists consider the boundary between the atmosphere and space to begin 80 kilometres up.

The risks to Mr. Branson and his crew were underscored in 2007, when a rocket motor test in Mojave Desert left three workers dead, and in 2014, when a Virgin Galactic rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other.

Ever the showman, Mr. Branson insisted on a global livestream of the Sunday morning flight and invited celebrities and former space station astronauts to the company’s Spaceport America base in New Mexico. R&B singer Khalid was on hand to perform his new single “New Normal” — a nod to the dawning of space tourism — while CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert served as the event’s master of ceremonies.

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 apiece. Blue Origin is waiting for Bezos’ flight before announcing its ticket prices.

Musk’s SpaceX, which is already launching astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA and is building moon and Mars ships, is also competing for space tourism dollars. But its capsules will do more than make brief, up-and-down forays; they will go into orbit around the Earth, with seats costing well into the millions. Its first private flight is set for September.

Musk himself has not committed to going into space anytime soon.

“It’s a whole new horizon out there, new opportunities, new destinations,” said former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the last shuttle flight 10 years ago. He now works for Boeing, which is test-flying its own space capsule.

“This is really sort of like the advent of commercial air travel, only 100 years later,” Ferguson added. “There’s a lot waiting in the wings.”


She will be part of Virgin Galactic flight

Sirisha Bandla, a 34-year-old aeronautical engineer, is set to become the third Indian-origin woman to head to space when she flies as part of Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight test on Sunday.

Ms. Bandla, who was born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, and brought up in Houston, Texas, will join Sir Richard Branson, the company’s billionaire founder, and five others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a journey to the edge of space from New Mexico.

“I am so incredibly honoured to be a part of the amazing crew of #Unity22, and to be a part of a company whose mission is to make space available to all,” she tweeted.

Ms. Bandla will be astronaut no 004 and her flight role will be Researcher Experience, according to her profile on Virgin Galactic.

She will become the third Indian-origin woman to fly into space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams.

Ms. Bandla started in her role as the Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic in January 2021.


It is more than a year since the first nationwide lockdown to contain COVID-19 in India started in March 2020, when schools were closed

By the end of June 2021 over 150 million children in 19 countries were either attending virtual classes or had no schooling at all. It has been more than a year since the first nationwide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in India in March 2020 when schools were closed and online classes came in vogue. Parents, teachers, administrators, governments and children themselves have raised major concerns over this potentially life-altering decision for the school-going children.

The recent second wave of the pandemic has made everyone all the more anxious and apprehensive about the safety and wellbeing of children. This situation has not only led to the loss of education but also their social and mental wellbeing with hitherto unknown long-term consequences.

Lessons learnt

Moving beyond the emotional conundrum, let us look at what we have learnt over this past year about COVID-19 and its impact on children so as to make a scientific rationale towards the return of young pupils to the classrooms and hallways of school buildings.

Children get infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus but the overall risk of infection remains much lower than that of the adults. Studies suggest that children are half as susceptible to infection as adults mainly due to the biological difference of having fewer ACE2 receptors and that too mostly in the upper respiratory tract. These are the receptors in human cells through which the spike protein of the virus binds to the cells. Although mutations in spike proteins have been identified among the virus variants such as beta and delta, it is expected that children will continue to be less susceptible as long as ACE2 receptors remain the major binding sites for the virus.

It is known that 90% of infections among children remain asymptomatic or mild, and although the few children with severe disease will need hospital care, only 1-2% require intensive care unit management. Children with underlying health conditions could be at higher risk for severe disease. With a low incidence of 12 per 100,000 children, according to the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, the most life-threatening complication that can occur is called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) but most children have recovered well with few deaths mostly attributable to management issues.

The last nationwide serosurvey (December 2020-January 2021) reported that the proportion of children 10-17 years old with prior infection was similar to the adults at around 25%. This indicates that children were not at a higher risk of infection than the adults. It has been suggested that children had a relatively higher infection rate during the second wave of the pandemic. However, we did not see any rise in the overall proportion of COVID-19 positive children in the country.

Global studies

Globally and in India schools have never been reported as the focal point of any super-spreader event. Data over the past year from several countries where schools were functional at various levels clearly show that the rate of COVID-19 transmission among students in schools was much lower than in the community.

These include studies from the U.S. of more than 90,000 students and teachers in North Carolina, and over 20,000 students and staff from 17 schools in rural Wisconsin. Researchers in Norway, Salt Lake City and New York City, U.S. found attack rates ranging from 0.5% to 1.7% in schools suggesting that infected students do not tend to spread the virus at school. Very low secondary attack rates – the risk of spread from one infected person to others in a closed setting – have been reported from school-based investigations in Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Singapore and the U.S. However, attack rates of around 15% were reported from Israel when schools reopened in mid-May 2020 and were attributed to poor implementation of mitigation measures. We also need to watch out for the emergence of variants and the influence on transmission and detection of the virus in children.

The level of community transmission in a district should be the key parameter to guide a graded approach to reopening of schools. For this purpose, a matrix of two indicators – the reported number of cases per 100,000 population and the test positivity rate – could be helpful to categorise districts. Pragmatic thresholds for each will need to be deliberated upon by public health experts. Districts with the lowest case burden as well as positivity rate would be the ideal places for resuming in-person classes.

Safe return plan

We need to have a safe return plan. This would entail stringent adherence to universal masking for staff and students, hand hygiene, physical distancing (more so between students and staff than between the students themselves) and adequate ventilation (keeping doors and windows open, use of fans and no air conditioning). Outdoor areas may be used as classrooms, when possible. Classroom routines will have to be redesigned to limit student interaction inside and outside classrooms, such as staggered timetables for different classes, fewer classes per day, shorter duration of classes etc. High levels of testing and contact tracing within schools would be critical after reopening of schools.

Children are likely to remain asymptomatic even when infected, and hence facility for routine testing of students once or twice every week is a must. Although PCR testing is the current norm, antigen tests with high sensitivity and specificity and authorised for children and asymptomatic individuals are in the pipeline and could greatly increase access to testing in school settings. Protocols for contact tracing of infected students or staff, quarantine, isolation, temperature checks and symptom screening should be in place.

Younger children seem to be less likely to get sick or transmit the virus than teenagers and adults. Modelling studies indicate that reopening secondary schools will impact community transmission more than reopening primary schools. These findings suggest that reopening of primary schools should take precedence over secondary schools until the community prevalence becomes relatively low to allow secondary schools to reopen. Vaccination of teachers and other school staff should be prioritised.

It would not only influence transmission inside school premises but overall high vaccination coverage will reduce the COVID-19 burden paving the way towards safer schools.

As parents, educators, health officials and public administrators now is the time to ask not if our schools should reopen but how and when we can make it happen. The intellectual, social, emotional and mental development of our children is at stake.

(Dr. Tarun Bhatnagar is a senior scientist at Chennai’s National Institute of Epidemiology, an ICMR institution.)


Most often, a human scream signals fear of imminent danger. But screaming can also express joy or excitement. For the first time, researchers University of Zurich have demonstrated that non-alarming screams are more efficiently perceived and processed by the brain than their alarming counterparts.

The researchers investigated the meaning behind the full spectrum of human scream calls. The results revealed six emotionally distinct types of scream calls indicating pain, anger, fear, pleasure, sadness and joy. They found humans respond to positive screams more quickly and accurately and with higher neural sensitivity than to alarming screams.

In the trials, 12 participants were asked to vocalise positive and negative screams that might be elicited by various situations. A different group of individuals rated the emotional nature of the screams, classifying them into categories. The brain activity of participants listening to the screams was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to know how they perceived, recognised, processed and categorised the sounds. They found different brain regions showed much more activity and neural connectivity when hearing non-alarm screams than when processing alarm scream calls. “It's highly possible that only humans scream to signal positive emotions like great joy or pleasure. Unlike with alarm calls, positive screams have become increasingly important over time,” Sascha Frühholz says in a press release. Researchers suggest that this may be due to the communicative demands brought about by humans’ increasingly complex social environments.


The design and manufacturing of the conjugate vaccines allows them to be stored in regular refrigeration settings of 2–8 degree Celsius

Cuba’s State-run corporation, BioFarma, said on Friday that its indigenously produced Soberana 2 vaccine was 91.2% efficacious in phase-3 trials. This follows closely on an announcement that another of its vaccines, Abdala, had reported an efficacy of 92.8% in late stage trials.

The greater-than-90% efficacy puts them in a select league; however, unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that had reported an efficacy of over 90%, both the Soberana and Abdala are three-shot vaccines.

Both are subunit vaccines, meaning that a part of the virus forms the antigen and is hitched on to another construct. In Abdala the spike protein of the coronavirus is combined with a chemically manufactured adjuvant, whereas in Soberana 2, the spike protein is chemically linked to the tetanus toxoid, making it a conjugate vaccine. The design and manufacturing allows the vaccine to be stored in regular refrigeration settings of 2–8 degree Celsius.

Conjugate vaccines

The most common conjugate vaccines are those used for Haemophilus influenza type b and the pneumococcal bacteria. However, a unique aspect of the Soberana vaccine is that it is by far the only one among coronavirus vaccine candidates that relies on the conjugate vaccine technology.

Marlene Ramirez Gonzales, one of the scientists involved in the Cuban vaccine development project, in a March letter to the British Medical Journal explained the rationale:

“The [Carribean] island’s four vaccine candidates against COVID-19 are developed as subunit vaccines, one of the most economical approaches and the type for which Cuba has the greatest know-how and infrastructure. From protein S - the antigen or part of the SARS-CoV2 virus that all COVID vaccines target because it induces the strongest immune response in humans - Cuban [vaccine] candidates are based only on the part that is involved in contact with the cell’s receptor: the RBD (receptor-binding domain) which is also the one that induces the greatest number of neutralising antibodies...Cuba had already developed another vaccine with this principle. It is Cheimi-Hib, ‘the first of its kind to be approved in Latin America and the second in the world’, against haemophilus influenzae type b, coccobacilli responsible for diseases such as meningitis, pneumonia and epiglottitis.”

Experts say that while there are no inherent disadvantages to taking a conjugate-vaccine approach for coronavirus vaccines, they have generally been used against bacteria and not viruses.

The two parts of a conjugate vaccine are typically connected by chains of polysaccharides, according to epidemiologist and public health expert, Chandrakant Lahariya, and they generally induce a weaker immune response in young children. “Cuba has a long history of vaccine development and has developed certain platforms that work to their advantage. So it makes sense for them to adopt this route. There is nothing inherently disadvantageous, though, to this approach,” he said.

Effective response

For an effective vaccine response, not only antibodies but even killer T-cells, or those produced by the immune system and capable of destroying infected cells, must be produced. In a protein sub-unit vaccine, the spike protein may be able to elicit a strong antibody response but when combined with the tetanus toxoid, a very widely used childhood vaccine and therefore one which the immune system recognises, such a T-cell response could also be generated and conferring more effective protection, said Shahid Jameel, virologist and Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University.

He added that while there could be “logistic” concerns with a three-dose vaccine, it wasn’t right to compare efficacies of various vaccines as those numbers had different contexts. “Every vaccine's efficacy results are in comparison to placebo, and not against another vaccine.... each trial was done differently.”

While the efficacy results of the Cuban vaccines haven’t been published in peer-reviewed journals, that the vaccines have been developed entirely by the public health system and amidst a U.S. trade embargo, are among the reasons why they have evoked interest in several other Caribbean countries as well as beyond.

Global response

Iran’s Pasteur Institute has said it will participate in phase-3 clinical trials for Soberana 02, with another 60,000 to be enrolled in Venezuela. Other countries including Mexico, Jamaica, Vietnam, Pakistan and India have expressed an interest in the Cuban vaccines, as has the African Union (on behalf of all 55 of the African nations). Cuba, which exports medical services, has said it will apply different rates for vaccines depending on the importer’s ability to pay.


Balasubramanian and Klenerman for DNA sequencing techniques

The 2020 Millennium Technology Prize, announced in May, has been awarded to Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman, “for their development of revolutionary DNA sequencing techniques.” Their work is a perfect blend of science and innovation, and very apt as we have all heard a great deal about genome sequencing in the context of the ongoing pandemic.

Emphasis on innovation

Awarded by the Republic of Finland, along with top Finnish academic institutions and industries, The Millennium Prize has a 21st century outlook, with a strong emphasis on innovation. Past winners include Tim Berners-Lee (for implementing the world-wide web) and Frances Arnold (for her work on directed evolution in a laboratory setting). Three of the eleven awardees so far have subsequently won Nobel prizes. We wait, with bated breath, for Balasubramanian and Klenerman!

Shankar Balasubramanian was born in Chennai, and has lived in England for most of his life. After his PhD, he joined the Chemistry Department, Cambridge University. He teamed up with David Klenerman, recruited by the Department around the same time. The initial aim was to build a microscope that could follow single molecules. Of special interest to him was the molecular machinery that DNA uses to make copies of itself. Somewhere in their discussions arose the germ of the idea for a new way to read the alphabet that make up DNA, and to thereby access the information stored in them.

DNA (or RNA, in some viruses), the genetic material of life forms, is made of four bases (A, T, G and C; with U replacing T in the case of RNA). A chromosome is the duplex of a long linear chain of these – and in the DNA sequence is information – the blueprint of life. Life famously can replicate, and DNA replicates when an enzyme, DNA polymerase, synthesises a complementary strand using an existing DNA strand as the template.

Breakthrough idea

The breakthrough idea of Balasubramanian and Klenerman was to sequence DNA (or RNA) using this process of strand synthesis. They cleverly modified their ATGC bases so that each shone with a different colour. When copied, the “coloured” copy of DNA could be deciphered from the colours alone, using miniature optical and electronic devices.

A very significant advance in their “Next Generation Sequencing” (NGS) method lies in the size of DNA that could be sequenced at one go – more than a million base pairs can be sequenced, which translates to hundreds of genes or even the whole genome of an organism. This is made possible by simultaneously sequencing hundreds of pieces of DNA at the same time. Many copies of this long DNA “sentence” are randomly broken up into small pieces, each no more than a few hundred bases long, which are all sequenced together. The “reads” are then fitted together, in the manner of a puzzle, to give the final sequence.

This technology was spun off as a commercial entity, Solexa, with the initiative of Balasubramanian and Klenerman. This phenomenally successful startup was later acquired by the biotech company Illumina.

Falling cost

What about the cost of all this sequencing? When the Human Genome Project delivered the first, near-complete sequence of our genome, the cost was estimated to have been 3 billion dollars. As all our chromosomes together have 3 billion base pairs, it becomes an easy calculation – One dollar per sequenced base. By the year 2020, Next Generation Sequencing technologies had pushed the price for sequencing your genome down to a thousand dollars – when this technology becomes prevalent in India, this sum should become a few thousands of rupees!

To think that a coronavirus genome has not 3 billion but 30,000 RNA bases – not surprisingly, this has resulted in an explosion of data on the genomes of the novel coronavirus and its variants. Health authorities in the United Kingdom have sequenced the viral genome of one out of sixteen people who have tested Covid-positive. The popular genomic data sharing site GSAID has over two million submissions of Cov-2 genomic sequences, from 172 countries. NGS has been at the heart of monitoring the spread of viral variants across the globe, and tracing the source of outbreaks.

Shankar Balasubramanian continues to run a fine laboratory, focused on the design of therapeutic molecules that would tune down the uncontrolled expression of certain genes, and so control the damage they cause in conditions such as cancer.

(This article has been written by D. Balasubramanian in collaboration with Sushil Chandani who is a professional computational biologist, )


It's going to be only the second launch of the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency in the COVID-19-hit 2021

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is getting back into launch activity fully at Sriharikota spaceport with the planned orbiting of geo imaging satellite GISAT-1 on board GSLV-F10 rocket on August 12.

It's going to be only the second launch of the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency in the COVID-19-hit 2021.

ISRO successfully launched PSLV-C51 mission on February 28 with Brazil's earth observation satellite Amazonia-1 and 18 co-passengers, including some built by students, on board.

The 2,268-kg GISAT-1 was originally slated to be launched from Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh's Nellore district, about 100 kms north of Chennai, on March 5 last year but was postponed a day before the blast-off due to technical reasons.

Thereafter the launch was delayed due to COVID-19- induced lockdown which affected normal work.

It was scheduled for March 28 this year but a "minor issue" with the satellite forced its postponement.

The launch was later expected in April and then in May but the campaign could not be taken up due to lockdown in parts of the country triggered by the second wave of the pandemic.

"We have tentatively planned the GSLV-F10 launch on August 12, at 05.43 am, subject to weather conditions", an ISRO official told PTI on Saturday.

According to ISRO, GISAT-1 will facilitate near real- time observation of the Indian sub-continent, under cloud-free conditions, at frequent intervals.

GISAT-1 will be placed in a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit by GSLV-F10 and, subsequently, it will be positioned in the final geostationary orbit, about 36,000 km above earth's equator, using its on board propulsion system.

The earth observation satellite will provide the country near real-time images of its borders and also enable quick monitoring of natural disasters.

Experts said positioning the state-of-the-art agile earth observation satellite in geostationary orbit has key advantages.

"It's going to be a game-changer in some sense for India," a Department of Space official said.

"With onboard high resolution cameras, the satellite will allow the country to monitor the Indian land mass and the oceans, particularly its borders, continuously," the official said.

Listing the objectives of the mission, ISRO had earlier said the satellite would provide near real-time imaging of the large area region of interest at frequent intervals.

It would help in quick monitoring of natural disasters, episodic and any short-term events.

The third objective is to obtain spectral signatures of agriculture, forestry, mineralogy, disaster warning, cloud properties, snow and glacier and oceanography.


Understanding the beetle’s behaviour is important in order to devise ecologically sound management strategies

India is the seventh largest producer of coffee, exporting 3,95,000 tonnes annually. Of the two varieties of coffee grown widely in India, namely, arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora), the arabica plants suffer infestation by a variety of longhorn beetle called the coffee white stem borer (Xylotrechus quadripes).

The lifecycle of the beetle lasts between 142 and 390 days. The female lays about 50-100 eggs in the cracks in the bark of coffee plants. Once the larvae hatch and grow, they chew the bark and tunnel into the stem where they end up obstructing the flow of food, which may even kill the plant. The damage done by the coffee white stem borer amounts to $17-40 million lost annually.

Managing this pest is a difficult problem. The larvae burrow deep into the wood, therefore, it is difficult to kill them using insecticides. Several strategies are being tried to manage the pest. These include placing shady trees at strategic points, as the beetles prefer open, sunlit areas; using insecticides to kill adults; bark scrubbing to get rid of the eggs laid in the cracks; stem wrapping to prevent adults from laying eggs in the stems; mass trapping of adults using pheromones and even getting rid of affected plants. “Though these methods are effective, for various compounding reasons the coffee white stem borer has become one of the toughest pests to control,” says Shannon Olsson from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCBS) Bengaluru.

Prof. Olsson and a team of researchers have been studying the coffee white stem borer. Their aim is to study the insect and the way it approaches various plants and its response to plant volatiles so that a ecologically derived management strategy can be worked out. According to her, historically, it has been noted that the beetle attacks only arabica unless the area is heavily infested. However, recent studies by the team, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, have shown that this is not because the beetle is more attracted to one variety than the other.

“We found that [the beetle] is attracted to both varieties and uses the volatiles released by the host plants to locate them,” she says. Further, the studies showed that the beetles preferred to approach robusta over arabica. “Subsequent experiments in our lab have also shown that the beetle can and will lay eggs on robusta, but that robusta apparently can partially defend itself against the beetle as it begins to bore through the wood,” Prof. Olsson explains. “However, it is important to note that this defence is not absolute – not all plants we examined prevented the beetle from developing into an adult and emerging.”

Recent reports have shown evidence of infestation in robusta, although not at levels seen in arabica. Hence, a complete shift in cropping from arabica to robusta can potentially face a similar infestation problem unless different management practices are followed, she explains. “While it should not be a total replacement for arabica, the lower infestation rates of [the beetle] in robusta, indicate that it could serve a suitable trap host plant if organised strategically.”

The paper also provides the interesting statistic that coffee plantation area in India has increased by 56% in the past 25 years, converting the diverse forest regions of Western Ghats. In this, the planted area of robusta has increased by 810% from 1950 to 2019, replacing arabica farms that experience severe damage from pests.


These ancient objects are among the least understood SNe.

An extremely bright, hydrogen deficient, fast-evolving supernova that shines with the energy borrowed from an exotic type of neutron star with an ultra-powerful magnetic field has been spotted by Indian researchers.

A deep study of such ancient spatial objects can help probe the mysteries of the early universe, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) said.

Supernovae (SNe) are highly energetic explosions in the universe releasing an enormous amount of energy. Such type of supernovae called SuperLuminous Supernova (SLSNe) are very rare.

This is because they generally originated from very massive stars (minimum mass limit is more than 25 times that of the sun), and the number distribution of such massive stars in our galaxy or in nearby galaxies is sparse. Among them, SLSNe-I has been counted to about 150 entities spectroscopically confirmed so far, the DST said.

These ancient objects are among the least understood SNe because their underlying sources are unclear, and their extremely high peak luminosity is unexplained, it said.

The SN 2020ank, first discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility on January 19, 2020, was studied by scientists from Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) Nainital, a research institute under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), from February 2020 and then through the coronavirus lockdown phase of March and April, the DST said.

The apparent look of the SN was very similar to other objects in the field. However, once the brightness was estimated, it turned out as a very blue object reflecting its brighter character, it said.

The team observed it using special arrangements at India's recently commissioned Devasthal Optical Telescope (DOT-3.6m) along with two other Indian telescopes: Sampurnanand Telescope-1.04m and Himalayan Chandra Telescope-2.0m, it said.

They found that the outer layers of the onion structured supernovae had been peeled off, and the core was shining with a borrowed energy source, it added.

The study led by Amit Kumar, a PhD student working under S B Pandey, and published in the Monthly Notice of the Royal Astronomical Society suggested a possibly powering source from an exotic type of neutron star with an ultra-powerful magnetic field (magnetar) with a total ejected mass of ~ 3.6 一 7.2 times the mass of the sun, the DST said The study established the role of 3.6. DOT is exploring very rare distant SLSNe in the future.

Deeper investigations could explore the underlying physical mechanisms, possible progenitors, and environments hosting such rare explosions and their possible associations with other energetic explosions like Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) and Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), the DST said.


Participants at Samvedan 2021 will tackle societal problems

The Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and Sony India Software Centre have proposed to host a hackathon — Samvedan 2021. Contestants will be asked to develop solutions for the country’s societal problems. Participants of the IIT-Madras Pravartak Technologies Foundation (IITM-PTF)’s ‘Sensing Solutions for Bharat’ will use the Internet of Things sensor board. The competition is based on Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation’s Spresence board. Registration commenced on July 1, and is open to all Indian nationals.

Winners will be eligible for entrepreneurial support from IITM-PTF. The contest is open to industry personnel and academics too.

Event coordinator V. Kamakoti, professor, Computer Science and Engineering Department, said IITM-PTF would offer entrepreneur-in-residence scholarship for the top team for a year to enable them to nurture their project into a start-up.

Masayuki Toriumi, managing director, Sony India Software Centre, said the company would like to use its leading-edge technology to help solve the country’s problems. Each team can have a maximum of three members, and the challenge will be held in three stages. Of the 75 ideas selected for the quarter-finals, 25 will make it to semi-finals, and seven finalists will be selected. Each finalist will receive prizes worth ₹3 lakh. Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation will provide each quarter-finalist a free Spresence board.


According to the FAA, there were 45 space launches and reentries last year, a record, and that could rise to more than 70 this year.

The tool, called the Space Data Integrator, will replace a system in which much of the work of giving telemetry data about space vehicles to air traffic control managers is done manually.

Federal regulators said Thursday they now can better track rocket launches and space vehicles returning to Earth, which could cut the amount of time that airplanes must be routed around space operations.

The Federal Aviation Administration said a new tool automates the near-instantaneous delivery of data about a space vehicle's flight path to the nation's air traffic control system.

The tool, called the Space Data Integrator, will replace a system in which much of the work of giving telemetry data about space vehicles to air traffic control managers is done manually.

Elon Musk's SpaceX was the first company to share flight telemetry data with the FAA, and others including Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have since joined the program, according to the FAA.

The FAA said the new technology was first used on June 30 for the launch of SpaceX's Transporter 2, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying dozens of satellites into orbit. It will be used again with the pending return of a SpaceX cargo ship from the International Space Station, the agency said.

“With this capability, we will be able to safely reopen the airspace more quickly and reduce the number of aircraft and other airspace users affected by a launch or reentry,” FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said.

During space operations, the FAA shuts down a huge section of airspace for hours in case the rocket or the space vehicle breaks apart. Airlines must reroute flights, which causes them to burn more fuel and fall behind schedule. A single launch can affect hundreds of flights.

The growth of the commercial space industry, and with it the number of launches and reentries, has raised concern among airlines that disruptions will become more frequent.

According to the FAA, there were 45 space launches and reentries last year, a record, and that could rise to more than 70 this year.

The FAA said other changes it has already made have reduced airspace closures from an average of more than four hours to a little more than two hours for a launch. The agency said the Space Data Integrator will reduce that further, but didn't give a precise time.


In India, the number of deaths per year linked with abnormal cold temperatures is 655,400, while as the number of deaths associated with high temperatures is 83,700, according to the researchers.

Nearly 740,000 access deaths in India annually can be attributed to abnormal hot and cold temperatures related to climate change, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

An international team, led by researchers at Monash University in Australia, found that globally more than five million extra deaths a year can be attributed to non-optimal temperatures.

The study published on Wednesday found that deaths related to hot temperatures increased in all regions from 2000 to 2019, indicating that global warming due to climate change will make this mortality figure worse in the future.

In India, the number of deaths per year linked with abnormal cold temperatures is 655,400, while as the number of deaths associated with high temperatures is 83,700, according to the researchers.

The team looked at mortality and temperature data across the world from 2000 to 2019, a period when global temperatures rose by 0.26 degrees Celsius per decade.

The study, the first to definitively link non-optimal temperatures to annual increases in mortality, found 9.43 per cent of global deaths could be attributed to cold and hot temperatures.

This equates to 74 excess deaths for every 100,000 people, with most deaths caused by cold exposure.

Global warming may “slightly reduce the number of temperature-related deaths, largely because of the lessening in cold-related mortality,” said Professor Yuming Guo, from the Monash University.

“However in the long-term climate change is expected to increase the mortality burden because heat-related mortality would be continuing to increase,” Guo said.

The data shows geographic differences in the impact of non-optimal temperatures on mortality, with Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest heat and cold-related excess death rates.

Cold-related death decreased 0.51 per cent from 2000 to 2019, while heat-related death increased 0.21 per cent, leading to a reduction in net mortality due to cold and hot temperatures.

Of the global deaths attributed to abnormal cold and heat, the study found more than half occurred in Asia, particularly in East and South Asia.

Europe had the highest excess death rates per 100,000 due to heat exposure, according to the researchers.

Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest death rates per 100,000 due to exposure to cold, they said.

The largest decline of net mortality occurred in Southeast Asia while there was temporal increase in South Asia and Europe.

Previous studies had looked at temperature-related mortality within a single country or region.

“This is the first study to get a global overview of mortality due to non-optimal temperature conditions between 2000 and 2019, the hottest period since the Pre-Industrial era,” Guo said.

The researchers used data from 43 countries across five continents with different climates, socioeconomic and demographic conditions and differing levels of infrastructure and public health services.

“The study had a large and varied sample size, unlike previous studies,” Guo added.

The mortality data from this study is significantly higher than the second-largest study published in 2015, conducted across 13 countries/regions, which estimated 7.7 per cent of deaths were related to cold and hot temperatures.

“The importance of taking data from all points of the globe was to get a more accurate understanding of the real impact of non-optimal temperatures under climate change,” Guo said.

Understanding the geographic patterns of temperature-related mortality is important for the international collaboration in developing policies and strategies in climate change mitigation and adaptation and health protection, he added.


Vital challenges: Even with the ongoing vaccination drive, there are many ground reports about vaccine inequity and vaccine hesitancy that demand urgent attention and intervention.

India needs effective communication strategy to tackle vaccine hesitancy

On June 21, India administered 8.6 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines, the highest daily doses since the start of the drive on January 16. With an officially projected supply of around 210 million doses of COVID-19 in the period from June 21 to July 31, India should be able to administer 5 million shots a day (6 million shots a day, if we exclude holidays) and sustain the tempo for the coming weeks. Yet, this would not be enough to achieve the stated target of jabs for the entire adult population by the end of 2021. To achieve that, India needs to conduct at least 10 million jabs a day, now onwards.

Even with the ongoing vaccination drive, there are many ground reports about two challenges, which demand urgent attention and intervention.

The first is vaccine inequity. There is low uptake of COVID-19 vaccine among groups such as slum dwellers and urban poor as well as in rural population. Some of these inequities have their origin in supply side aspects, as most vaccination centres are in urban settings, and the need for prior and, for some, mandatory, registration on the digital platform.

The second challenge is vaccine hesitancy. Misinformation on social media has further aggravated this. However, we need to remember that this is not an India-specific or COVID-19 vaccine specific phenomenon.

Way back in 2014, World Health Organization (WHO) constituted an expert group to study vaccine hesitancy. The group recognised that when it comes to vaccines, there is a spectrum from people who accept all vaccines at one end to those who refuse all vaccines, and the majority falling in between. The expert group suggested the need for a timely, transparent and effective communication strategy to tackle vaccine hesitancy. In 2019, WHO had identified vaccine hesitancy as top 10 global public health challenges.

Telephonic survey

In India, a telephonic survey amongst over 3,000 urban and rural respondents from Delhi-NCR (Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), done by National Council for Applied Economic Research, between December 23, 2020 and January 4, 2021, noted that while 61% were willing, there was hesitancy among 39%.

In April 2021, another survey in 14 slum clusters of Delhi and Ghaziabad, amongst 2,097 families and 4,774 respondents, only 7% of respondents were willing to get COVID-19 vaccine. Many thought that since they were healthy they did not need vaccines and nearly one-third of respondents were afraid of vaccines.

In Madhya Pradesh State, reportedly, 270 COVID-19 vaccination sessions in rural areas ended up as zero sessions, where nobody turned up.

In the four months since the opening up of COVID-19 vaccination for 45+ populations; only 48% of the 60+ population has received at least one dose. That is a reminder that merely availability of vaccines does not translate into increased coverage. Vaccine hesitancy seems to be playing a role in keeping the coverage low.

In the last few weeks, the Indian government has taken some corrective measures to rejig the COVID-19 vaccination strategy, resolve a few policy issues, streamline vaccine procurement and supply. However, there seems relatively less attention on the challenges related to implementation and delivery.

By end of June, India’s vaccination drive is at an early stage with nearly 4.5% of the total population receiving both shots. The demand seems high, however, once India achieves approximately 50% to 60% coverage of adult vaccination with at least a single dose, hopefully by early October 2021, then there could be a situation of sufficient vaccine supply but not enough takers due to vaccine hesitancy. Also, there is risk that while aggregate coverage may appear high, some population groups, especially the most vulnerable, may have relatively low coverage.

Therefore, early identification of the excluded population sub-groups and the vaccine hesitant group is an urgent need. We need to plan and prepare for such eventualities to achieve coverage as close to 100%, to halt the march of the virus.

Addressing inequity

First, analyse vaccine coverage data by every possible equity stratifiers such as rural urban, rich and poor, religion, deprivation status, tribal and other population sub-groups. The government needs to use more granular data by equity stratifiers and develop appropriate strategies to scale vaccination coverage in those settings and areas. Special mobile-based vaccination sessions should be conducted in those areas and population groups.

Second, generate scientific evidence to understand vaccine hesitancy. The government needs to engage academic institutions to conduct primary research to understand the concerns of people who have any form of hesitancy. Alongside, professional agencies, with experience in social marketing should be engaged in developing vaccine communication campaigns. Instead of newspaper advertisement, science and evidence-based communication for vaccination drives need to be implemented. In rural and urban slums and tribal areas, the communication strategy should be done with the help of frontline workers, Panchayat and local influencers.

Third, implement the evidence informed COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy adapted for local context: the Indian ministry of health & family welfare had formulated a COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy, in Dec 2020. However, many of the health functionaries are not even aware about various communication strategies. Some of the good practices including financial and non-financial incentives (both at individual and community/village levels) implemented by various districts and Indian states should be explored for further expansion.

Science-based strategies

The Indian government aims to achieve COVID-19 vaccination of the entire adult population in India by end of 2021. However, it will be a naive to assume vaccine coverage is simply a function of vaccine availability. It is sine-qua-non that the challenges of vaccine inequity and hesitancy are identified in advance and evidence and science-based strategies and communication plans are drafted and implemented to tackle this with immediate priority.

(Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, a physician-epidemiologist, is a public policy and health systems expert and co-author of ‘Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic’).


Stress free: Colour of hair can be reversed in young.

Does stress make hair go grey and is colour reversal possible?

Researchers at Columbia University have found (eLife) that stress can accelerate greying, and surprisingly the hair colour can be restored when stress is eliminated. They also found that stress does not affect the colour of hair that has already grown out of the follicle. When hairs are still under the skin as follicles, they are subject to the influence of stress hormones. Once hairs grow out of the scalp, they harden and permanently crystallise and serve as record of past stresses, much like the tree rings hold information about past.

The researchers developed a new method to capture highly detailed images of tiny slices of human hairs to quantify the extent of pigment loss (greying) in each of those slices. Each slice, about 1/20 of a millimetre wide, represents about an hour of hair growth.

While the colour difference may not be perceptible to the naked eyes, under a high-resolution scanner, subtle variations in colour were seen. The researchers analysed individual hairs from 14 volunteers. The results were compared with each stress level volunteer on a weekly basis. They found that some grey hairs naturally regained their original colour and when the change in colour was compared with stress levels, a striking association was seen.

Based on modelling, scientists think in middle age, hair needs to reach a threshold before it turns grey. Stress pushes it over the threshold so the hair become grey. While the colour of hair can be reversed when the stress is removed, it cannot be the case in old people.


Both in the first wave and second wave of COVID-19, increase in daily cases was first reported in Maharashtra, then Kerala and Delhi

Both in the first and second wave, an increase in daily reported cases was first reported in Maharashtra, followed by Kerala and Delhi. These could be due to several reasons including greater integrity in testing and reporting data. Can a sharp and sustained increase in daily cases in these States serve as an early warning of an impending third wave? Dr. Tarun Bhatnagar, Senior Scientist at Chennai’s National Institute of Epidemiology, Dr. Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University and Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru explain the advantages and shortcomings of such an approach.

Considering that Kerala and Maharashtra have shown high integrity in testing and reporting cases, should a sustained spike in daily cases in these two States serve as a bellwether of a third wave?

Gautam Menon: We should not make the mistake of assuming that because there is more light under the lamppost, what we are searching for can be found there.

Given that these States have traditionally recorded well, it would be good to pay attention to them, but in a large and diverse country, a new variant of concern could emerge anywhere. We need to beef up testing and surveillance across India and not just in those States. It would be best if we looked for an unusual increase in cases, novel symptomatology and new variants across India, paying special attention to large and crowded cities, and not just to Kerala and Maharashtra. For example, Bengal is potentially another hotspot for a new wave to emerge, given the diversity of sequences obtained from there and Kolkata, its capital, is dense enough for a new variant to spread fast.

Will future spikes be first seen in Mumbai and Delhi or will tier-2, tier-3 cities serve as a better indicator of the beginning of the third wave?

Tarun Bhatnagar: New surge in cases would depend on the magnitude of susceptible population, population density, mobility and implementation of public health surveillance measures including testing and contact tracing. Duration of persistence of protective levels of immunity is another important parameter for the timing of another surge in cases. Published data indicates this to be for 7-12 months. Another critical factor is the distribution of variants with high transmissibility or ability for immune escape. Information on all these factors is needed to say where the third wave could be documented.

Predicting future surges
  • In a large and diverse country, a new variant of concern could emerge anywhere.
  • New surges can arise depending on magnitude of susceptible population, population density, mobility and implementation of surveillance measures.
  • Duration of persistence of protective levels of immunity is another important parameter for the timing of another surge.
  • Future surges in cases are expected in areas with low seraprevalence coupled with high population density and mobility.
  • Tier-2 and tier-3 cities with relatively low case reporting during the earlier waves are more likely to be affected in the future.

GM: The Delta variant that appears to have been responsible for the initiation of the second wave across the west of the country originated in tier-2 and tier-3 cities of Maharashtra, spreading only later to Mumbai. Ideally, we should be sensitive to an anomalous rise in cases at the level of districts, since a new variant that has increased immune escape attributes could emerge anywhere.

Will the high seroprevalence recorded in Mumbai and Delhi diminish its ability to serve as a bellwether of the third wave?

TB: Future surge in cases is expected in areas with low seroprevalence coupled with high population density and mobility. This could happen even in localities within Mumbai and Delhi depending on the representativeness of the serosurveys done in these cities. However, tier-2 and tier-3 cities with relatively low case reporting during the earlier waves are more likely to be affected in the future. However, surveillance is key to early detection of such trends. Vaccination coverage and emergence and distribution of variants that are more transmissible or can evade immune response would also influence a fresh surge of cases.

Giridhara Babu: With increasing vaccination coverage and decline in the vulnerable population, any wave higher than earlier in these two cities might mean a higher reinfection rate and/or waning immune response. But yes, if these two cities have large outbreaks, the rest of the country will follow a similar trajectory as in previous two waves.

What could be the reasons for daily cases plateauing in Kerala?

GB: There might be two reasons, namely better testing strategy and transmission dynamics. One, the detection in Kerala is better than in other States. Although even Kerala can also do better in terms of the number of tests, their testing strategy is good. The districtwise and rural distribution of testing is higher and well distributed compared to other States. Therefore, they will continue to detect cases. The absence of detection in other rural hinterlands in India does not mean that there is no circulation. Two, it is possible that more spread might have occurred within primary and secondary contacts due to the contagious nature of the virus, poor isolation and quarantine efforts, resulting in a propagated outbreak in Kerala.

GM: There are no surprises in Kerala vis-a-vis the rest of the country in terms of new variants that are not seen elsewhere. My tentative guess is that despite Kerala's large numbers of cases, the multiplier between cases recorded and background unrecorded cases may be smaller than in the rest of the country. This means a reservoir of those who are still to be infected, an idea supported by the relatively low seropositivity found there, of about 10%, in a survey in March, a surprisingly low number. So the plateauing may simply be a network effect — those most at risk are likely infected already, but many are not and have been able to shield themselves so far, likely due to the stringent measures undertaken by government and precautions at the personal level. They are slowly getting infected, contributing to the cases, but not at the pace seen in the second wave, due to the restrictions in place.


Scientists have for the first time detected gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of space-time – produced by the collision of a neutron star and a black hole. This finding confirms that there are neutron star-black hole systems and will help answer many questions about the cosmos, from star formation to the expansion rate of our universe.

Gravitational waves are produced when celestial objects collide and the ensuing energy creates ripples in the fabric of space-time which carry all the way to detectors on Earth.

The reverberations from the two celestial objects were picked up using a global network of gravitational wave detectors, the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built, according to the researchers from UK’s Strathclyde University. The university is part of the international network of scientists, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. On January 5 this year, the Advanced LIGO detector in Louisiana, US and the Advanced Virgo detector in Italy, picked up the final throes of the death spiral between a neutron star – the collapsed core of a massive supergiant star – and a black hole as they circled ever closer and merged together.

Just days later, a second signal was picked up by both detectors coming from the final orbits and smashing together of another neutron star and black hole pair.

This is the first time scientists have seen gravitational waves from a neutron star and a black hole Previous gravitational wave detections have spotted black holes colliding, and neutron stars merging but not one of each, the researchers said.

“These detections confirm that there are populations of binary systems consisting of a neutron star and a black hole,” said Professor Stuart Reid from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Strathclyde.

“Such astrophysical systems can help answer many big questions about the universe, from star formation and stellar evolution, to the expansion fate of our Universe,” Reid said in a statement.

Since the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015, astronomers have predicted that this type of system – a black hole and neutron star merger – could exist, but without any compelling observational evidence.

Now that scientists have finally witnessed the existence of this new type of system, they said their detection will bring important new clues about how black holes and neutron stars form.

In future the team hopes to detect many more neutron star-black hole collisions, including cases where the black hole tearing apart the neutron star is observed in both gravitational waves and light.

These observations will help scientists to find out more about what neutron stars are made of.


Asian elephants, in general, do not move in mixed groups consisting of males and females

Asian elephants, in general, do not move in mixed groups consisting of males and females.

Despite the fact that they occupy similar ecological niches, the social structure of Asian elephants differs from that of their African savannah counterparts. This is perhaps due to their differing habitats. It is important to understand this and grasp the diversity of strategies that these endangered species might be adopting to survive.

Since there have been many studies of the African savannah elephants since the 1970s and there have not been many of the Asian elephants until more recently, there is a tendency to believe that what holds good for the former also holds for the latter. However, this is not so, as evidenced by studies conducted by the members of the Evolutionary and Integrative Biology Unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru.

Asian elephants, in general, do not move in mixed groups consisting of males and females. “From what we see, males use smell to track females. They also rove long distances when they are in musth to find females,” says T.N.C. Vidya from JNCASR, who led the studies, in an email to The Hindu.

When they do meet, males check females (and vice-versa sometimes) to probably assess fertility and possibly identity. “Rarely, this might lead to a mating. Sometimes, the male just feeds alongside the female herd for some time and then leaves,” she adds.

A study by the group, which has been published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, looked at adult male associations. Male Asian elephants spent only about 12% of their time in all-male groups as compared to 30-60% of the time in African savannah elephants. There was also a constraint on the group size in the case of the former.

“This may be because of the differences in resource availability,” says P. Keerthipriya, the first author of the paper.

Further, in an African savannah elephant population, young males seemed to prefer old males possibly due to opportunities for social learning. This was contrary to what the group observed in Asian elephants.

The observations of the group can be summarised thus: Young males spent a greater proportion of time associating with females (in mixed-sex groups) than with other males (in all-male groups). For old males, these two proportions were similar. While males met at random in the presence of females, the behaviour when females were not present was different.

Old males preferentially associated with other old males, and old and young males met each other less than expected by chance. Young males met each other as expected by chance. There was no evidence that young males spent more time with old males relative to time they spent with other young males. They also did not preferentially initiate associations with older males.

Another important finding of the study is the restriction on male group size. The group had also found a similar restriction on female group size in Kabini. “This is important and suggests that the food distribution is such that it limits large groups of elephants from feeding together,” says Dr. Vidya.

The study documented 138 independent sightings of all-male groups during the study period. “There would be a lot more sightings if we included the non-independent sightings,” says Dr. Vidya.

The researchers had hypothesised two possibilities for adult male elephants getting together in groups – (i) Testing their strength in a relaxed setting against similarly sized and closely matched age-class peers and settling their dominance position, and (ii) young males preferentially associating with, and socially learning from, older males.

“We found no evidence for young males preferentially associating with older males, thus social learning from older males does not seem to play a big role in male associations in our study,” says Dr. Vidya.

In the study, elephants aged 15-30 years were classified as young and those above 30 years were classified as old. Characteristics such as shoulder height, body length, skull size, and skin folds were used to estimate the ages of the elephants.

“We used the semi-captive elephants near the study area, whose ages are known, as a reference while estimating the ages of the adults,” explains Ms. Keerthipriya.

The researchers used their field data from 2009-2014 based on observations made at the Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks.

“We identified 96 adult males. In all, 83 of them were sighted when they were not in musth, and we used this in this study,” Ms. Keerthipriya clarifies.


Wally Funk, who lives near Dallas, was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board

Sixty years after acing astronaut tests but barred because she was a woman, Wally Funk will rocket into space alongside Jeff Bezos in just three weeks.

Bezos' company Blue Origin announced Thursday that the pioneering pilot will be aboard the July 20 launch from West Texas, flying in the capsule as an “honored guest.” She'll join Bezos, his brother and the winner of a $28 million charity auction, as the first people to ride a New Shepard rocket.

At 82, she'll be the oldest person to launch into space.

Funk was the youngest of the so-called Mercury 13 women who went through astronaut testing in the early 1960s, but never made it to space — or even NASA’s astronaut corps — because they were female. Back then, all of NASA's astronauts were male military test pilots.

Funk said she feels “fabulous” about finally getting the chance to go to space.

“I’ll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait,” Funk said in an Instagram video posted by Bezos.

“Nothing has ever gotten in my way," she added. "They said, ‘Well, you’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ I said, ’Guess what, doesn’t matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done.”

In a cosmic twist, she'll beat the late John Glenn, who set a record at age 77 when flying aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Glenn pooh-poohed the idea of women flying in space, shortly after he became the first American to orbit the world in 1962.

“No one has waited longer,” Bezos said via Instagram. “It’s time. Welcome to the crew, Wally."

The Amazon founder is stepping down as the company's CEO on Monday.

The upcoming launch — which follows 15 successful test flights — will open the door to paying customers. Blue Origin has yet to announce ticket prices or when the public might strap into the spacious six-seat capsule, which reaches an altitude of about 65 miles, just beyond the edge of space. The up-and-down flights last 10 minutes.

The reusable rocket is named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and July 20 is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Funk, who lives near Dallas, was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In the posted video, she said she has 19,600 flying hours and has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

She was among two dozen female pilots who underwent six days of rigorous physical tests — the same ones administered to the Mercury astronaut candidates — in 1960 and 1961. The doctor who had tested the Mercury 7 men had heard the Soviets planned to send a woman to space and he wanted to see if women could endure the effects of weightlessness.

The candidates had to spend hours in an isolation water tank, swallow rubber hose, and get needles stuck in their heads, among other things.

Thirteen of the women — including Funk — passed. But the program was abruptly canceled, and the Soviets went on to launch the first woman into space — Valentina Tereshkova — in 1963.

“They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys,” Funk recalled. "So I got hold of NASA four times. I said I want to become an astronaut, but nobody would take me. I didn’t think that I would ever get to go up.”

It wasn't until 1983 that the first American woman soared into space — Sally Ride, who died in 2012. And it wasn't until 1995 that an American woman piloted a spaceship — Eileen Collins aboard shuttle Discovery. Many of the Mercury 13 women gathered at Cape Canaveral for that launch.

Keen to get to space, Funk reserved a seat years ago on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket ship. She remains on the passenger list; the company plans three more test flights from New Mexico, one of them with Branson on board, before launching customers.

In the video, Bezos describes to Funk how the four Blue Origin passengers will experience zero gravity for a few minutes, then land gently on the desert surface and open the hatch.

“You step outside. What’s the first thing you say?” he asked her.

“I will say, 'Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!” Funk replied, embracing Bezos in a big bear hug.


The Indo-Gangetic plain has a high burden of black carbon with serious implications for regional climate and human health.

Black carbon results from incomplete burning of fossil fuel and studies have previously linked it to global warming.

Black carbon (BC), a form of particulate matter that results from carbon emissions, was most associated with premature mortality, according to a study that tracked mortality rates from different classes of air pollutants in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

The study was funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and conducted by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU); St. Johns Medical College, Bengaluru, and the DST-Mahamana Centre of Excellence in Climate Change Research, BHU.

It appears in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Environment.

The Indo-Gangetic plain has a high burden of black carbon with serious implications for regional climate and human health. Several cities in this belt routinely find themselves at the top of the list of the most polluted cities in India as well as the world. Black carbon results from incomplete burning of fossil fuel and studies have previously linked it to global warming. It’s a relatively short-lived pollutant in the atmosphere but influences cloud formation and atmospheric heat absorption processes.

“However, most of the pollutions-based epidemiological studies essentially relate exposure to particulate mass concentration (PM 10 and/-or PM 2.5) that invariably generalise all particulates with equal toxicity without distinguishing individuals by its source and composition, which genuinely have different health consequences. Importantly, the health effects in terms of mortality due to BC aerosol exposure have never been evaluated in India,” the authors note in a statement issued by the DST.

A 10-point increase in air pollution from black carbon led to an average 5% increase in mortality whereas a similar rise in PM 2.5 led to an average 1% increase in mortality. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) where both associated with a 2.3% and 1.3% increase in mortality, according to calculations by the team.

The detrimental effect of pollutants was higher for males, age group 5-44 years and, in winter. They found that the adverse effect of air pollutants was not limited to current day of exposure but could extend to as late as five days after exposure. Including BC as a potential health hazard inspires and provided a background for more epidemiological studies to provide evidence of health effects of air pollutants from different parts of India, the authors note.