SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, October 25, 2001, Chandigarh, India
 


Bioterrorism
Anthrax invasion
J. S. Yadav
F
EAR of germ-warfare through dissemination of Anthrax bacteria, essentially causing disease in cattle through air-borne spore infection, has overtaken almost the entire western world. It has resulted in the closure of the Capitol and galleries in Washington; in France the Space Agency was vacated, while in Canterbury the Church has been closed to the public. A scare has been created although very few people have been infected till today.

The Bacillus anthracis bacteria starts out as a spore, which is a microbe's way of shutting down and surviving hard times. It has been shown to persist for as long as 100 years, and can survive being freeze-dried, buried, and shot through a nozzle as an aerosol.

Birth anniversary on October 30
Dr Homi Bhabha — a great visionary
K. S. Parthasarathy
Dr Homi Bhabha “THERE are already oral contraceptives known, but they are relatively expensive and required to be used systematically and precisely.... The problem of getting every villager in over 600 thousand villages in India to use them systematically would be quite enormous. If on the other hand, some substance could be developed which when mixed with an ingredient of one’s daily diet such as rice, grain, or salt would have the effect of reducing the chance of conception by 30%, the problem would be immediately solved. I have no doubt there are many who will hold up their hand in horror at this suggestion.”

Deteriorating brain
C
ONTRARY to the popular belief that memory starts ebbing away after the age of 60, a psychologist has found that human performance in a wide variety of memory tasks starts deteriorating steadily from mid-20s. Denise Park from University of Michigan in Ann Artor selected 350 volunteers of 20 to 70 years of age, who took 11 tests on visual, spatial, verbal and other types of memory.

SCIENCE QUIZ
J. P. Garg tests your IQ

 
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Bioterrorism
Anthrax invasion
J. S. Yadav

* Anthrax is an infectious cattle disease caused by air-borne spore-forming bacterium, Bacillus anthracis.

* Of the 472 cell cultures collections registered with the World Federation of Culture collections, 46 contain virulent strains of Bacillus anthracis.

* Anthrax bacteria are easy to grow in a lab.

* Anthrax strikes through intestinal infection, inhalation and skin infection.

* The human body is resilient to anthrax.

* Symptoms of inhalational anthrax are like common cold.

* Intestinal anthrax causes acute inflammation of intestines, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetites and fever.

* The disease does not spread human to human.

* Even if thousands of anthrax letters are posted, and all are opened, very few people are likely to contract the disease.

* If not treated for a week the disease can be fatal.

* Appropriate anti-microbial therapy is easily available and deaths are rare if treatment is given in time.

FEAR of germ-warfare through dissemination of Anthrax bacteria, essentially causing disease in cattle through air-borne spore infection, has overtaken almost the entire western world. It has resulted in the closure of the Capitol and galleries in Washington; in France the Space Agency was vacated, while in Canterbury the Church has been closed to the public. A scare has been created although very few people have been infected till today.

To overcome the fear psychosis, it is pertinent to know the “what, how and if” of anthrax in action and its cure. The disease is caused by spore-forming bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, which can be easily grown in a laboratory. Anthrax spores can be produced in a dry form which may be stored into particles. These particles can be used in Biological warfare.

Anthrax infection can take three forms, depending on how the spores enter the body, viz. (i) by inhalation of the dry spore particles, (ii) through bruises or cuts on the skin, and (iii) through intestine by eating undercooked meat of infected animals.

Initial symptoms of inhalation anthrax resemble a common cold. Later it may turn to severe breathing problems. The victim dies within one or two days after the onset of acute symptoms. If not treated early it is always fatal.

Skin infections begin as raised itchy burns that resemble insect bites. However, it develops into casicle within a couple of days and then transforms into a painless ulcer, usually 1-3 cm. in diameter, with a characteristic black necrotic area in the centre. The Lymph nodes swell. Approximately 20% of untreated victims may die. With appropriate anti-microbial therapy deaths are rare.

The intestinal anthrax is characterised by acute inflammation of the intestinal tract, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and fever. These are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhoea. About 25% to 60% patients, if not treated, ultimately die.

The incubation period is usually seven days after which the symptoms appear. There have been no reports of the disease spreading from human to human. Moreover, appropriate anti-microbial therapy is easily available and deaths are rare if treatment is given in time. Ciprofloxacin and Ooxycyclin are proven curative drugs to treat anthrax. About 100 pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing copies of Ciprofloxacin, the drug discovered by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical major. Immunisation of the nearest population, however, is the best preventive way to contain the spread of the disease. For this the government and the authorities concerned must “keep their eyes open”.

In India, according to Health Department sources, causes of anthrax disease were commonly reported among the tribal communities in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh Orissa and West Bengal. In an outbreak of the disease six weeks ago two persons had died of anthrax in Alagurkhi village of Kolar district in Karnataka, that also took a toll of 20 sheep, an ox and two cows, reported UVS Rana of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, New Delhi.

World over, the largest reported anthrax epidemic occurred in Zimbabwe between 1979 and 1985, when more than 10,000 human cases had been recorded, nearly all of them cutaneous.

Fortunately, the human body is somewhat resilient to anthrax, and it takes thousands of spores to cause infection, says Phillip Hanne, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Technology at the US University of Michigan. He further observed; “Anthrax is a very inefficient sort of murder weapon. If you send out thousands of anthrax letters, even if they are all opened, very few people are going to contract the disease. For once with anthrax nature cuts us a break.”

Prof Yadav is Chairman, Dept. of Biotechnology & Dean, Faculty of Science, Kurukshetra University.
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Dr Homi Bhabha — a great visionary
K. S. Parthasarathy

“THERE are already oral contraceptives known, but they are relatively expensive and required to be used systematically and precisely.... The problem of getting every villager in over 600 thousand villages in India to use them systematically would be quite enormous. If on the other hand, some substance could be developed which when mixed with an ingredient of one’s daily diet such as rice, grain, or salt would have the effect of reducing the chance of conception by 30%, the problem would be immediately solved. I have no doubt there are many who will hold up their hand in horror at this suggestion.”

You may attribute these statements to Mr Khushwant Singh or to some eminent demographer. Certainly not to Dr. Homi J. Bhabha, the architect of nuclear India, who made these suggestions at the 6th International Conference on Planned Parenthood in 1959.

Dr. Bhabha was a visionary. He went to Cambridge in the late twenties. He was 18. His father wanted him to be an engineer. He thought that he could join Tata Industries later after securing an engineering degree. Bhabha had different ideas. He loved physics. “But you are not Socrates or Einstein”. His father taunted him.

After an illustrious career, he returned to India. Soon the World War broke out in 1939. He could not return to England. He accepted a readership in the Institute of Science, Bangalore. With the support of Mr. J.R.D. Tata, he established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore in less than two months of receiving a grant Rs 45000 from Sir Dorab Tata Trust. Six months later, Bhabha shifted the institute to Bombay. T.I.F.R. was the cradle of India’s atomic energy programme.

On April 26, 1948, Bhabha wrote a letter to Pandit Nehru highlighting the need to take more energetic measures to develop the field of atomic energy. He felt that this was essential to ensure that India did not fall even further behind the industrially advanced countries of the world. He asked for Rs 10 lakh for the atomic energy programme during the first year to be followed by Rs 1 crore for the next three years. The current budget for the programme is several thousands of crores!

Dr Bhabha asserted that because of paucity of scientifically and technically trained personnel some of the top people would have to do more than one job at the same time.

I have spent over 38 years in the DAE family. I witnessed the retirement of dozens of scientists and engineers. Many of them developed expertise in several fields. Very often, it is difficult to label such persons as a mere mechanical engineer or a chemical engineer, a metallurgist, a physicist or chemist or an electrical engineer. Dr Bhabha ensured that specialists in all disciplines worked together. The greatest strength of any unit of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) lies in its multi- disciplinary background. It begins in the training school itself. Every one must acquire basic knowledge on all disciplines.

Though Dr Bhabha was a mechanical engineer and an eminent physicist, the first research scientist to be appointed by him soon after the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, was Dr A.R. Gopal Ayengar who was asked to head the newly formed cell biology unit. We are indebted to Dr Bhabha for nurturing the multi disciplinary atmosphere in Trombay. If you want to gather information on any field, be it robotics, high pressure physics, metallurgy or radiobiology, medical physics or biotechnology there will be at least one specialist available in Trombay.

Bhabha’s vision on atomic power generation conveyed to Pandit Nehru in a half page summary note on the August 8, 1954 listed 13 items. Each one of these developed into massive programmes covering all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. The list included setting up of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, uranium prospecting and processing, plants to produce heavy water and beryllium, a uranium enrichment plant, atomic power plants, breeder reactors and a plutonium extraction plant. Among the subsidiary activities he included training and development of manpower, supporting and financing research in the universities (one of his favourite themes) and research institutes and developing and promoting the use of tracers in biology, medicine and industry. This was many years before setting up any nuclear power plant anywhere in the world. The notes from Bhabha to Nehru must be made compulsory reading material for any science administrator.

Dr Bhabha was very considerate to the scientists during the construction of various facilities. He argued effectively against outdated government rules and procedures. He provided cars for the scientists on a 24-hour basis; he arranged lunch and dinner for them in the reactor building at Trombay from an appropriate restaurant. Government regulations were against these provisions. Bhabha wrote to Nehru that such rules and regulations are not really suited for executive work, which is to be done at speed, and under pressure. Nehru agreed.

Every year, October 30 is celebrated at Trombay as the Founders Day. Then the members of the DAE family assemble at Trombay. It is a time of stocktaking. Chairman AEC and Director, BARC address the gathering.

Dr Bhabha died 35 years ago. January 24, 1966, was one of the saddest days for the Indian scientific community. An Air India plane crashed near Mont Blanc Peak. There were no survivors. Bhabha was in the aircraft. The news shocked us.

Next day we worked. All the institutions under the Department of Atomic Energy were open that day. That was the best way to honour the memory of a great karmayogi. I vividly remember that day. An eerie silence pervaded everywhere. Many wept openly. The sense of loss among the senior scientists was total. Every one felt orphaned.

The young generation has only heard about him. I have seen him. Many who worked with him had retired. Still the memory of this great son of India continues to inspire every one of us.

Dr K.S. Parthasarathy is Secretary to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.
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Deteriorating brain

CONTRARY to the popular belief that memory starts ebbing away after the age of 60, a psychologist has found that human performance in a wide variety of memory tasks starts deteriorating steadily from mid-20s.

Denise Park from University of Michigan in Ann Artor selected 350 volunteers of 20 to 70 years of age, who took 11 tests on visual, spatial, verbal and other types of memory.

She found that performance in all the tests decreased steadily with age — the decline in performance between the 70s and 80s age groups, for example, was the same as that between the 20s and 30s.

The findings run counter to the popular notion that mental ability declines sharply after a particular age, a report in New Scientist said.

“It’s not as though you hit 60 or 70 and fall apart we are falling apart as we speak,” she says.

The results are surprising both because the decline starts so early and because it seems to happen at the same rate for many different memory tasks, says Fergus Craik, a psychologist at the university of Toronto.

However, young adults are unlikely to notice any change because they have more than enough reserve brain-power to handle most situations, while middleaged people may be able to use their life experience to compensate for memory loss, Park adds.

Park suggests this decline may point to a global mechanism that has a uniform effect across the brain, such as breakdown in neural signalling.

But Craik warns the study could have missed differences between various kinds of memory by averaging results for each age group instead of following individuals across their lifespan. PTI
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SCIENCE QUIZ
J. P. Garg tests your IQ

1. This ancient mathematician of the world is believed to have lived in Alexandria around 300 BC and is known as the father of geometry. Even after 2300 years, geometry taught in schools is based on his books. Name this genius and also his set of books the number of which exceeds any other published book except the Bible.

2. The fossil remains of the animals Hyracotherium, Mesohippus, Pliohippus, Merychippus, Equs, etc found in about 30 million years old rocks reveal that these animals were the predecessors of a modern animal. Which one?

3. This reddish-orange fruit contains in high concentration fibre, polyphenols (antioxidants), sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and manganese — all useful in fighting heart disease . Name this fruit which was first cultivated in China and is now grown in many other countries of the world (not India).

4. Under certain conditions, a liquid may resist vaporisation up to a temperature which is much higher than the usual boiling point of the liquid. What is this state of the liquid called which has many applications?

5. Sometimes simple substances are absorbed by an organism as a result of which these substances get converted into more complex molecules which then become constituents of the organism itself. What is this process called?

6. As we know, capacitance is the capacity of an electrical device or circuit to store charge. However, in addition to the intentional/desired capacitance, a circuit normally has some capacitance due to nearness of the circuit elements, connections between these elements, presence of electrodes, etc. What is this capacitance called?

7. Unlike mariner’s compass, which contains a pivoted magnetic needle, this compass is based on the fact that sunlight reflected from the atmosphere is partially polarised and is thus used to find direction in polar explorations. What is this compass called?

8. Entropy in a physical system represents the degree of disorder within the system. What does entropy in a computer software system imply?

9. Capric acid is found in wool, fuel oil, cows’ and goats’ milk, coconut and palm oil. Which basic elements are contained in this fatty acid?

10. Name the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2001.

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Answers

1. Euclid ; Euclid’s Elements 2. Horse 3. Persimmon 4. ‘Superheated’ liquid 5. Assimilation 6. Stray capacitance 7. Solar compass 8. Tendency of a software to become more complex and disorganised with the passage of time and thus become difficult and costly to maintain 9. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen 10. William Knowles and K.Barry Sharpless of the U.S.A and Ryoji Noyori of Japan.
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