Saturday, February 16, 2019

Ribosomes - Making Sense of Blobology



This is not a book I would ever pick on an impulse. The cover itself  is quite intimidating - a confusing, colorful blob of tangled ribbons. On first glance it looks like a tome for the lab nerds, for those seeped in structural biology, the followers of specialized science journals, and certainly not the general reader.

I picked this book only because on the dark cover, I noticed blurps from three writers I admire - Siddharth Mukherjee, Richard Dawkins and Bill Bryson. The stock comment ' I could not put this book down' from one of them pointed towards the possibility the book could be read - and understood - by folks like me, those who are not specialists but merely curious.

I was not at all disappointed.  The author,Venki Ramakrishnan is the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and his book, "Gene Machine" is a personal story of a physicist turned biologist who helped decipher the secrets of the Ribosome.  Even if the topic sounds esoteric, the book is a down-to-earth narrative of a boy from Baroda who made it big.

Yet it is not the typical story of a south Indian vegetarian in USA. You get the impression of a adventurous, outgoing guy riding a series of lucky breaks. Perhaps the first of these came through a HoD at Baroda-U who got a letter from Ohio University seeking prospective students. Nineteen year old Venki is then offered a graduate scholarship without the usual GRE scores. He lands up in the America in the midst of the anti-war protests of 1971, and immediately after graduation, gets married to Vera Rosenberry, a talented illustrator of children's books, and a single mother.

In the initial chapters, Venki has a nice way of explaining his work with analogies. In the late 70s everybody knew that the ribosomes were responsible for protein synthesis, but nobody knew how -

"Imagine you are a Martian peering at the earth from above. You observe tiny objects on the surface that move mainly in straight lines, ocassionally turning at right angles...you could tell tht they consume hydrocarbons and emit carbon dioxide along with some pollutants and some heat. But you have absolutely no idea what these objects are, let alone how they work. Only by knowing the detailed construction of the object would you be able to see that it is made of hundreds of components that work together and that it has an engine connected to a crankshaft that make the wheels turn..."

Venki's search takes him from the university to his first job with the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee and then to Brookhaven on the East Coast. Along the way, X-ray crystallography becomes the main tool for deciphering the structure of the various complicated components of the ribosome at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK.

The book also helps you catch a glimpse into the petty politics of those engaged in cutting edge science, of the walled garden that is open only to those from 'elite' institutions, and the manner in which the race for a Nobel Prize brings out the worst in many scientists.

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LINKS

Good Reads - Gene Machine - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39088590-gene-machine

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Crumbs



This is an old print advertisement from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). On the bottom corner of this haunting image of people reacing out to the last crumbs on the plate, the fine print simply says, "A little from you can mean a lot. Make a contribution."

I do not know if people actually noticed the illustrations on the rim of this plate, or if the message got them to make a contribution, but I was reminded of this last sunday.

One of our neighbors had set up a shamiana to celebrate Basant Panchami and Saraswati Puja, a festival that marks the arrival of spring. As is the norm, a community kitchen was set up and hot food (puri's, kichri, curries and chutney) was being served as "prasaad", a holy offering.

I had just finished eating the food on my plate when I noticed a Jain neighbor sitting next to me. He was carefully picking out each an every crumb from his plate, leaving it absolutely clean.

Feeling a bit ashamed I started cleaning up my plate too, and asked him what prompted him to eat so carefully. He laughed at the very idea that I found it unusual and said, "According to Jain tradition, wastage of food is considered one of the worst sins...so for us, the first rule is to take only the quantity of food we really need, and then to remember that the holiest prasaad is the last sprinking of water used to clean-up our used plates...even the water used to clean a plate is not be wasted"!

Now that is something to think about...which are the other cultural habits or religious traditions that encourage people from wasting food?

A little from each of us can certainly mean a lot.

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LINKS

Why to Jains have strict food habits? -- http://www.jainism.com/blog/why-do-jains-have-strict-food-habits

Jainism - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Prime Lens - Back to Basics




A kit lens makes you lazy. This is the first thing you learn when you step out of your comfort zone in photography.

I have been photographing with an 18-105mm lens for more than 10 years now and thanks to the convenience of zooming in and out, I had all but forgotten the basics of photography. I knew I needed to get back to the basics, to detox, to relearn, and a fixed-focus 'prime lens' seemed the best way forward.

The ones I could afford were shortlisted to the Nikkor 50mm 1.8 lenses which came in two types 'D' and 'G'.  The 'D' was a older version without an inbuilt focusing motor, and it came for less than half the price of the 'G'. Since I was using a camera body that already had a motor the former seemed better value for money - especially when it came at an an extra discount during the recent Amazon Sale.

So last month, I set aside my kit lens for the first time, and twisted into its place a brand new 50mm 1.8D. The Nikon D90 now felt like a strange new animal - lighter, faster and sharper than ever before, and yet completely unfamiliar. Despite clocking nearly 50,000 'shutter actuations' on the D90, I realised that  knew very little about the nuts and bolts, the basics of photography: focal lengths, F-stops and apertures.

They say the 50mm lens shows you the world the way your eyes see it, by "rendering images that closely match the true perspective of the human eye". Sounds nice... but when you look through the 50mm lens for the first time you feel like a horse with blinkers plodding through a tunnel. The world shrinks. Instead of just zooming you now need to use your feet and composition becomes a bit of a struggle.

The 50mm lens is also a bit puzzling with all its numbers and dials packed into a tiny ring. So here is a collection of links that has helped me re-learn photography -






Understanding Exposure and F-Stops:
  • Expert Photography - https://expertphotography.com/understanding-fstops-stops-in-photography-exposure/

And just in case you too are weighing the pros and cons of a prime lens, these might help -


Friday, February 08, 2019

Black Sheep and Deccan History

I love the way history is being re-examined and re-written by a new band of writers. Until a few years ago I only knew of William Darlymple as a somebody who could tranform meticulous research into narratives that appealed to a wider audience. I often wished we had Indians writers who could go beyond the colonial period and breathe some life into it.

In this context I was glad to see Sanjeev Sanyal's "Land of Seven Rivers", and Manu Pillai's "Ivory Throne".

My first book this year was the much acclaimed second book by Manu Pillai -  "Rebel Sultans". This one chronicles the deep linkages South India once had with what is now called the Middle East - especially Iran, Iraq and Arabia.



Despite the fact that I grew up in Hyderabad, I knew practically nothing about Deccan history. I was aware of a few names and places,  of the fabulous collections at the Salar Jung Museum, vaguely remembered visiting the Golkonda Fort a couple of times, and often noticed the Falaknuma Palace from the school playgrounds.  But until I read this book I never knew that Nizams who built all this -  the Quli dynasty -  traced its origins to a family that once ruled the Levant - the House of Black Sheep, also known as the Black Sheep Turkmans.

Who were the Black Sheep Turkmans?  It was aparently a title - "Kara Koyunlu" - of a monarchy that ruled over vast areas of present-day Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1394 to 1498. After more than a century of rule this ruling family was ousted by a rival clan known as the House of the White Sheep. Ousting a royal family in the Middle Ages usually meant only two things - death or blinding of all the male heirs. A young boy from the House of Black Sheep ran away to India to escape this fate. He first enlisted as a mercenary in the Deccan Bahmani Sultanate, and then went on to set up his own feifdom at Golkonda in present-day Hyderabad.

The "Rebel Sultans" is also a window into the colorful history of the rest of the Deccan. It tells you how Aurangabad was originally the city of Khirki by an Ethiopian-born military leader named Malik Ambar. It tells you that contrary to popular narratives, the Battle of Talikota was not a war between a Hindu kingdom and a coalition of perfidious Muslim warlords. The kingdom of Vijayanagara which was utterly destroyed after this war had its own share of double-dealings, political miscalculations and hubris.

The book also has many tantalising threads that need to be knitted together. It leaves me with a wish to know more about Timur the Lame, the Turkman raider who later inspired his clansman Babur, to raid India for its riches after having been beaten out of Samarkand. I want to know more about the Kakathiyas who were perhaps the most egalitarian rulers in medieval India, and I need to  have a better understanding of philosophy and preachings of Eknath, who, like Kabir, bridged differences across castes and religions.

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LINKS

- Amazon - "Rebel Sultans"