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I spent a night in the Jura  mountains of Switzerland trying to understand what it takes to survive in sub-zero conditions. I built my own shelter from what was available around me. Here is what I learnt:

  1. Don’t count on building a fire.  Sure, a fire is real comfort against cold but what if you can’t build one? Everything around me was covered in a metre of snow. Finding kindling and wood was practically impossible. Besides, starting a fire in freezing conditions can be a real pain in the ass.
  2. Invest time in constructing a good shelter. Your shelter is your mothership in a hostile environment. Spend a few hours in making it as insulated as possible with what is available. Snow, branches, leaves, and soil create air pockets that keeps the shelter warm.  It should be as small as possible to prevent losing heat through radiation. You should just be able to squeeze into it without touching any portion of it (to prevent conduction heat loss). I used and recommend this survival shelter for cold conditions.
  3. Stay dry. Before you settle into your shelter, make sure all your clothing is dry. It is really easy to lose heat through a single item of wet clothing. My slightly wet trousers kept me from be being fully comfortable and negated a lot of the other preparation I had made.
  4. Don’t fly solo. Things can go horribly wrong real fast. Have someone near you in case this happens. I had left my wet shoes outside my shelter and couldn’t get into them in the morning as they had frozen solid. Luckily, my friends were camping a few hundred metres away. I walked to their camp in my socks and cooked my shoes on their fire before I could wear them.  No toes lost due to frostbite.
  5. Carry a shovel. I didn’t and quickly realized how badly  I needed one. I am not keen on camping gear as I feel it detracts from an authentic wild experience. But I will always make an exception for a portable shovel.  I borrowed one from my friend and it saved me. I used it to clear the ground for my shelter from snow and ice. I also used it to pile snow on my shelter for insulation. Without it I would be doing these tasks with my bare hands or a stick.  It is a real must-have.

SNowyForest

Whatever you do, try camping outdoors with your own shelter. You quickly learn what works under a given set of conditions. No YouTube video or survival manual can replace first-hand experience.

Pictures and adventure courtesy: Vincent Kurmaer

Think.Eat.Save is the theme for this years World Environment Day celebrations. The aim is to bring attention to the problem of food waste and the impact our ‘food-print’ is having on the environment. The wastage of food from farm to fork is also a reflection of the imbalance in lifestyles between the “haves” and “have nots”. While 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste is generated every year, one in seven people go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of five perish every day from hunger. This proportion of the world’s population often has to rely on the natural resources in their vicinity to meet basic nutritional needs. They are also most vulnerable to the impacts of the degradation of ecosystems that provide these natural resources.

Full article on TEEB for Water and Wetlands

CementJigsawFairness has always been one of the aspirations of an ideal society. From the school playground to the International Court of Justice, fairness forms the basis of peaceful coexistence. Equality before law, one person one vote, empowerment of women, affirmative action, and the welfare state are attempts at realizing the principle of fairness and building a more equitable society. Environment protection is no exception. The ‘polluter pays’ principle forms the backbone of most multilateral environment agreements, most notably the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under this convention, developed countries responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions from 200 years of industrialization have to commit to reducing their emissions drastically. Developing countries can industrialize without binding restrictions for the moment. But for how long? Until they reach a sufficient level of economic development? Until the CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 400ppm? Until the consequences of climate change outweigh the benefits of fossil fuel based industrialization?

Developing countries are prepared in theory to accept binding commitments but with a tricky caveat – the commitments should be based on the principle of social justice and not put a massive handbrake on their economic development. Sure, green energy and the carbon market were designed to achieve these goals but it will take several decades and a total overhaul of the standard development pathway for them to have any effect. Developing countries like China and India that are riding on the crest of a quick & dirty economic boom cannot afford to wait for the promised shipment of green tech to arrive. This is at the very heart of the reluctance of developing countries to accept binding greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments. Is there a way to successfully juggle climate change mitigation, rapid economic development and climate justice?

One solution is concrete. Not as glamorous as gleaming wind turbines or shiny electric cars, this ubiquitous construction material has a lot to offer for little investment. For starters it is the most widely used material on the planet. Currently cement production is responsible for 5-8% of all global man-made emissions. Hence even though the cement industry is notorious for greenhouse gas emissions, there is a lot of potential due to the sheer scale of the stuff we use. To put this in perspective, even a modest 10% reduction in emissions in producing a cubic metre of concrete would result in savings equivalent to the total CO2 emissions produced by the entire steel industry. Demand for concrete is expected to double or even treble by 2050. And guess where concrete demand is coming from?

Emission reductions in concrete manufacture can be achieved in two ways – 1) increasing the energy efficiency of cement plants or 2) partially substituting cement with less energy-intensive materials. The first option has pretty much been optimised with the energy efficiency in the best cement plants touching 80%. The second option has more potential. Fly ash, a waste product from burning coal can replace up to 30% of the cement in concrete production. However, there is nowhere near enough fly ash in developing countries to match the demand for cement. Thus the answer lies in finding a locally abundant cement substitute. This will also go some way in addressing the emissions resulting from transporting raw material, cement and clinker around the world.

A potential candidate is clay. Clay is definitely an abundant raw material and studies have shown that calcined clay (clay that undergoes a thermal treatment process) can replace between 30-60% of cement in concrete without compromising its durability. However, more research is needed to accurately predict the behaviour & interactions of calcined clays in concrete and their long-term performance over the lifespan of a concrete building. That is small price to pay for a key piece in the greenhouse gas emissions reduction puzzle.

References

Technology Roadmap: Low-Carbon Technology for the Indian Cement Industry

The Laboratory of Construction Materials, EPFL

Nanocem: The Industrial-Academic Research Network on Cement and Concrete

 

 

Scientific paper as a poem

January 28, 2013

Gramicidin S Interrogation

gramicidin

gramicidin S was not like his fellow gramicidins
There was nothing linear about him

Two identical pentapeptides joined head to tail
Synthesized by gramicidin S synthetase

He was recruited for antibiotic duty in 1942
Fighting against bacteria and some fungi too

His fighting technique was well known in vivo
Binding with phospholipids of cell membranes was the way to go

In silico GS was more of a mystery man
Perhaps his intrinsic and native structure could reveal his plan

Know your enemy is what Machiavelli and Sun Tzu say
Maybe GS will reveal all with molecular H-bonding interplay

A good place to start is gas phase isolation
Progressive water(molecule)boarding helps control interaction

Add a bit of cryogenic cooling to avoid thermal congestion
A unique spectroscopic fingerprint is the final destination

GS he seemed like such a tough guy
But it took only 2 water molecules to make him cry

The complex stereoscopic fingerprint of GS was cracked
With these constraints it should be easy for the theorists to attack.

REFERENCES

Nagornova NS, Rizzo TR and Boyarkin OV (2012) Interplay of Intra- and Intermolecular H-Bonding in a Progressively Solvated Macrocyclic Peptide . Science 336, 320; DOI: 10.1126/science.1218709

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

A fictional article I wrote for the Swiss Federal University Lausanne (EPFL).

EPFL will join forces with the search-engine giant Google as well as other scientific partners to develop a translation tool for scientific literature. EPFL’s Probabilistic Machine Learning Lab will be a part of a global initiative called linguaSCIENCE that aims at offering scientists the ability to translate scientific papers in English into their native language and vice-versa. This tool aims to overcome the language barrier often faced by scientists from non-English speaking countries, and thus promote global scientific collaboration. 

facebook map

Collaboration lost in translation?

Science has always been about collaboration. The globalisation of science has resulted in scientists from all over the world working with each other to add to the body of science. It is now almost the norm to have scientific papers with multiple authors of diverse nationalities. However, the extent of this collaboration could be overestimated.

In the spirit of the well-circulated Facebook friendship map by Paul Butler, research analyst Olivier Beauchesne at Science-Metrix examined scientific collaboration around the world from 2005 to 2009 by extracting and aggregating scientific collaboration between cities all over the world (see fig.). Looking at the map there doesn’t seem to be much collaboration outside of the United States and Europe. Beauchesne is unsure if that’s because of a limited dataset or really because there’s little collaboration in those areas. Could language be one of the contributing factors?

Machine learning to the rescue

If so, “statistical machine learning” (SML) could help prevent science from being lost in translation. SML is the process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text. It has already helped Google carve a niche for itself in translation with Google Translate, a free translation service that provides instant translations between 64 different languages.

When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate can make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. Examples of human-translated documents used include those produced by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

However, SML has its limitations. The more human-translated documents that Google Translate can analyse in a specific language, the better the translation quality will be. This is why translation accuracy will sometimes vary across languages.

EPFL is part of the solution

EPFL’s role in the project is to help improve translation accuracy for languages that are relatively poor in the availability of human-translated documents, particularly in the area of scientific literature. EPFL’s expertise in Bayesian inference (which is principled way of combining new evidence with prior information) could hold the key to improving translation accuracy. Bayesian inference is already being applied in fields as diverse as spam filtering and analysing evidence in a courtroom.

Applying Bayesian inference to statistical machine learning could give global scientific collaboration a turbo boost”, says Michael Singer of the EPFL’s Probabilistic Machine Learning Lab. Singer adds that Bayesian inference has been shown to outperform other standard methods (such as expectation-maximization method), especially in the scientific domain. This is because standard methods take into account only the most likely point in the list of word-translation probabilities, but do not consider contributions from other points. Bayesian inference helps provide a bigger picture and better results on the long-term, which could make all the difference when translating languages lacking a significant body of scientific literature. Bayesian inference and EPFL could thus provide a valuable contribution to help improve the accuracy of linguaSCIENCE and overcome the language barrier in science.

REFERENCES

Mermer C and Saraclar M (2011). Bayesian Word Alignment for Statistical Machine Translation. Proceedings of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies: Volume 2 Pages 182-187. ISBN: 978-1-932432-88-6 .

Anthropocene is us

November 18, 2012

Scientists, new-age hippies and religious folk seldom agree on many things. However, one thing they do agree on is how small we all are in the grand scheme of things. Galaxies, Gaia and God have been used to dwarf us puny humans and make us feel small and transitory. They hack away at our ego by pointing out our insignificance. But if you are in the mood for an ego boost, how about a whole geological epoch named after your species? Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Anthropocene marks the point when humans started to change the environment more than they were shaped by it or adapted to it. We were not really masters of the universe yet, but were no longer slaves to the elements and natural cycles. The most important shift that marks the transition from the prior Holocene epoch to the current Anthropocene was that we began to affect the Earth system at a global level some 250 years ago. Climate, biogeochemical cycles and energy balance were no longer immune to our activities. Melting of glaciers and sea ice, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, global warming acquired a human fingerprint.

And like at a crime scene, this human fingerprint will testify before a jury of the future. As we continued to increase the scale of our activities, we literally etch our epoch into stone. All our deforestation, water & land diversion, soil erosion have been recorded in lake and ocean sediments and stand testimony to the impact we’ve had in such a short period of time. The bubbles in Antarctic ice and the rings of trees in Siberia record our reliance on fossil fuels.

Yes, we have left our mark. So do taggers, vandals, litterers, public urinators and defacers of monuments.

A Dangerous Idea

July 2, 2012

She was no queen but a commoner. Yet to scientists, economists, farmers, fishermen and indigenous people, she was the undisputed Queen of the Commons. Elinor Ostrom made Common Pool Resource (CPR) systems mainstream and won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics in the process. Her years of painstaking and interdisciplinary research proved that communities are capable of managing their resources with their own unique system of governance. She proved that people have the intelligence and perseverance to flourish independent of government or private interference. The entrenched myth of Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” was shattered by empirical evidence.

Before her, CPR was rubbished as primitive and wasteful. State and private actors had been abusing this myth to take over land and natural resource management from the hands of local communities that had been self-sufficient for centuries. Under the false guise of benevolent state protection and private efficiency, villagers and forest dwellers were relieved of their rights and treated like infants. Pastures, forests and lakes that had been managed through commons were appropriated for private and state use. Even the word commons was made to sound like an archaic relict, a cross between Middle Ages peasant folklore and fairy tales.

The rebirth of the commons was a rebirth of a dangerous idea. In effect it stated that under the right conditions, people could live free lives. That government was not indispensable and that the private sector was not always an efficient beast. In a sense this small idea had a lot in common with an earth-shattering evolution whose reverberations are still being felt today – the birth of atheism.

The religious heads at height of their powers force-fed the belief that human beings were born in sin and incapable of saving themselves without divine intervention. In a similar vein, the commons-bashers promoted the myth that human beings were intrinsically free-riders and cheats and hence incapable of sustaining themselves without external intervention. Both propogated the belief that people needed to be saved from themselves despite the existence of complex and successful societies that predated governments and organised religion.

The idea that morality came from human beings and not from religion or divine benediction gave birth to the enlightenment and modern science. People were freed from centuries of religious tyranny and allowed the option of non-belief in a divine mover. Of course, the religious powers did not quietly disappear into the night. Thousands perished for questioning myths and proposing alternative explanations to the workings of the universe. Science was held back for centuries and had to claw its way out of the religious stranglehold over people’s minds. In a more modest way the idea of a working and thriving commons had to fight myths, prejudices and vested interests to become widely accepted. It was a small idea whose time had come.

Despite it being the open season for rich people-bashing, there is general consensus that money (and the earth’s angular momentum) still makes the world go round. And while money remains a dirty word in academic circles, scientific innovation costs big money. In spite of science being charged with the task of meeting our biggest environment challenges like energy security and climate change, very few are aware of who controls the puppet strings. There is a hazy awareness that taxpayers pay for science and the boffins in government determine scientific priorities with input from leading scientists. However, most people are unaware of how science gets funded and who decides scientific priorities at the global level. Unlike science itself which is very decentralized, science funding is far more centralized with different groups pooling in money to address globally important scientific challenges. Enter the dragon with three main players :

1. ICSU (The International Council for Science) : Despite rhyming with igloo, ICSU is a powerful body that decides what the scientific priorities and is a sort of United Nations of Science. Around 120 national scientific bodies are members of ICSU and drive the direction of science globally.

2. Belmont Forum : This is an influential group of funding agencies that fork out the cash for most of the global environment change research.

3. Philanthropists : Rich people with crazy ideas that might either revolutionize science or end up as the world’s most expensive school science projects.

Seen as relics of the past when rich patrons funded pet projects, wealthy scientific philanthropists are making a comeback.

With science budgets being tightened and only priority research being funded, the role of philanthropists in pushing the boundaries of science has gained traction. These rich amateurs are what scientists want to be reborn as. Flush with cash, no-strings attached, no need to follow orders from above, no reports or proposals to write or undergraduates to teach. Besides adding a Victorian-era glamour to science, they bring with them skills from the corporate, industrial, tech world that help streamline big science projects and approach problems from a different angle. Good examples of the breed are the X- prize, Solar Impulse and Virgin Galactic. They also pour money into neglected or stigmatised scientific areas that might not otherwise get funding.

Private philanthropy has its drawbacks. It can be self-serving and lead to useless vanity projects that make good cocktail conversation but contribute very little to science. It has also been used to discredit science or pursue discredited science in the past. It may lack a long-term perspective and money may only be available when financial markets are strong.

But for wealthy philanthropists, science could offer a better return on investment than almost anything else out there – including a shot at immortality.

Mind your manners

May 12, 2011

Inconsiderate. The guy who jumps the queue as if you were invisible, the neighbour who is in DIY mode when you want a quiet Sunday, the woman who leaves her dog’s turds for you to behold on your morning jog…and the list goes on and on. There seems to be legions of inconsiderate people waiting to spoil your day and push you over the edge. It is a good day just when you manage to not bump into one of these mood killers.

Where do these morons come from ? Mollycoddling parents who want to be your friend, urbanisation with superabundance of strangers, dependence on laws and police to deal with bad behaviour, digital substitution of personal contact and who knows what else ?

On a larger scale there is massive state and private machinery making sure that this inconsiderate and selfish behaviour is ingrained in our psyche. Industry tells you it is OK to consume more than you fair share of resources even if it means that 50 million people are displaced by dams. Companies convince you that people are incapable of managing their natural resources and privatisation is the answer to all ills. The Government lulls you into thinking that environment regulations are robust and there is no need to worry about that mining giant clearing forests and displacing poor with impunity.

The result is that decisions that affect a small village in India are made in New Delhi and Washington. Environment regulations are watered down to promote a better investment climate. Land grabs and displacement are carried out in the name of national interest and job creation. Apathy feeds selfishness which in turn creates a tolerance on inconsiderate behaviour.

Who’s going to stand up to that rude young man if granny (who has always been a stickler for good manners) has been bundled off to a government-approved and privately-run old age home ?

Die monster die…

August 28, 2010

You know how those monsters in the movies are killed in the end, but just before the movie credits roll some slimy body part spookily begins to twitch ? Cue hopelessly optimistic producers hoping to turn the ghastly movie you’ve already regretted watching into a franchise horror, usually replacing the meagre traces of acting with even more special effects and sex.

The same holds true for the mining giant Vedanta whose controversial bauxite mining permit in the Nyamgiri Hills in eastern India was revoked. You couldn’t make it up ; big mining company with a dodgy reputation, picturesque tribals whose way of life was threatened, international organisations who fed the media with Avatar movie parallels, an Environment Ministry that suddenly woke up to its responsibilities and finally even the Church of England withdrawing its shares in Vedanta fearing negative publicity or fall in share prices or both. Vedanta was caught in a perfect storm that had only one inevitable conclusion. They took it in the balls. And like all good movie monsters they slithered to a dark place to lick their wounds and bide their time. We know the beast still lives and breathes and that a sequel is in the offing; But now is the time to rejoice.

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