Curating during a contagion

Almost 90 per cent of the world’s museums are facing closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aditi Ghose, an Education Assistant at Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata, says museums will have to become emotionally intelligent and responsive to stay relevant through the crisis.

A COVID-19 themed exhibition at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata.

BITM

In the middle of a pandemic, imagine planning a science exhibition that explains the contagion to people. What should it feature — test-kits, ventilators, surgical masks and PPE suits? Does the museum have enough supplies to create exhibits? Can the exhibits be sanitised and safely displayed for the audience? Will enough people turn up?

Museums are having to deal with all these imponderables in between frequent shutdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 90 per cent of the world’s nearly 60,000 museums are faced with full, partial or eventual closure. Most museum staff are working from home, cataloguing, processing and preserving artefacts.

Juggling to protect collections, absorbing financial blows and protecting staff and assets while staying engaged with the public, museums are still aspiring to stay relevant. The museums which have closed down due to poor financing, sponsorships or funding, are no less vulnerable than those partially open. On 29 March 2020, Vincent van Gogh’s famous work ‘Spring Garden’ was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in Netherlands during lockdown.

The International Council of Museums calls museums “institutions” owing their origins to the Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities featuring collections of natural history specimens, artefacts and curiosities, amassed by princes, dukes and other men of stature, museums have always provided sources and spaces for scholarly communication and informative entertainment.”

Museums are repositories of cultural memory gathering material objects and information to guard against its anticipated losses. Around the world, the treasure troves of our times sit proudly among those preceding ours, in climate controlled environments, in glass boxes, on wooden shelves and under shaded lights.

In reality, however, only about 10% of museum holdings ever go on display. Also — just like the records of book in a library point to its location without revealing the full contents — objects in museums are kept separate from their catalogued details, often offsite. The COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to narrow this gap through digitization of rare photographs, videos and other content.  Digital objects are the blueprints — collected, documented and interpreted well — allowing deeper and richer experiences for visitors, especially during lockdowns. They open the museum doors to a global audience, who neither had such an opportunity in the past nor may have in an uncertain future. To survive the crisis, museum professionals across the world must embrace the flexibility of opening up museums to the digital realm.

During the lockdown, explanatory multi-lingual programmes organised by museums are seeking to engage audiences online.

BITM, Kolkata

A one-dimensional transfer of knowledge from museums to its stake-holders — such as through overnight virtual museum tours or mobile applications — does more harm than good. The needs of audiences have changed, as has the audience composition itself. As crisis keeps people at home and they turn to museums for their science knowledge repositories, it is worth creating digital content. Instead of uploading digital copies of existing galleries online, making ample usage of the autonomy, multi-layered multimedia and linked content that the new medium provides might help museums reach entirely new audiences. A website doesn’t have walls, a gallery doesn’t have tabs. The faster we understand this difference  and stop replicating our gallery contents online, the easier it will be to contextualise information.

These are tough times – for museums as well the audience they cater to. Amidst the prevailing confusion, institutional body language could be the powerful unspoken and unwritten message that museums could convey. “In the mist of chaos, museums break the walls that keep us apart,” assures Beryl Ondiek, Director of National Museum in Seychelles. Museums that survive this pandemic will emerge with deeper connections to their audiences and communities. A well-defined, battle-tested sense of purpose, will make them stronger than ever – and also strengthen those they serve. As Anne Marie Afeiche, the Executive Director General of Lebanon’s Council of Museums points out,”We will come through this and we are keeping in mind, for after COVID-19, the reprogramming of activities in our museums, because by saving culture, we save society, it’s diversity, it’s vitality and it’s creativity”.

What’s missing in the global COVID-19 news reportage are the stories behind the stark numbers of those dead or infected. These stories should take centrestage while planning for an exhibition on COVID-19 — the oral histories and the first-hand experiences of people. When the intensity of the crisis needs to be conveyed in a public exposition several years from now, a well curated collection of empty cartons of PPE suits, a jumbo-sized sanitizer jar, a handmade mask or perhaps a hand-written shopping list of essential items will be telling. Likewise, by engaging our audiences emphatically in our closed musums, respecting their voices, allowing them choices and approaching a fresh, unprejudiced attitude towards opening our doors, shall go a long way in keeping museums exciting. The Smithsonian Museum is actually collecting such coronavirus ‘artefacts’ to document the pandemic and plans on letting oral history shape the exhibition.

Closer home, the National Council of Science Museums is also curating an interactive digital exhibition on the pandemic.

Creating, hosting or managing museums has never been fast, easy or cheap. Making them digital or interactive will also not be. Once museums have survived these uncertain times, they need to become more emotionally intelligent and responsive. Museums have to become good listeners.

(Aditi Ghose can be reached at aditincsm@gmail.com)

Nature India special issue on COVID-19 is out

For most of us, 2020 will be marked as the year of great imponderables. We seem to know as much about the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its effects on the human body and societies at large, as we don’t. Ever since the virus broke out, ‘uncertainty’ is one of the most commonly used words in conversation, news reportage and emails.

Across the globe, very few lives have been untouched by the direct or indirect effects of the novel coronavirus. China, the most populous nation on Earth, bore its brunt as the virus jumped into human populations in the country’s Hubei province in late 2019. Though China reacted quickly to contain it, the contagion had spread via international travellers.

India, the world’s second most populous nation, reported the first case of the novel coronavirus on 30 January 2020. The number of people becoming infected by the virus began to rise quickly, prompting the government to impose a two-month complete shutdown of the country – the longest ever in its history.

An enormous population, a weak healthcare system, and traditionally meagre investments in scientific research and development meant there was enough reason to worry. However, the severe economic and social fallouts, like elsewhere in the world, forced the government to allow a regulated easing out of lockdown.

Nature India started reporting on COVID-19 in India from the outset. As the pandemic began unsettling every facet of life from healthcare to education and community life to businesses, our coverage embraced a new normal, going beyond pure science to a parallel reflection of its links with society, culture and life.

Nature India’s special issue on COVID-19, therefore, seeks to consider answers from the future. In a rapidly evolving pandemic, some of the articles in this special issue bear a time stamp. However, they will hopefully remain relevant for a long time to come as chronicles of the biggest human crisis any of us has faced in our lifetimes.

As we scrutinize India’s response to the mammoth healthcare challenge, we also look at vaccines and drugs being tested across the world in a hope to arrest the respiratory infection. We dive into the science of how the immune system responds to the virus and question if submitting genome sequences to global repositories at record speeds makes any sense without accompanying patient data. We explore how the packaging of the future would look like, and explain how to care for the elderly and critically ill in times when hospitals are struggling to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

Everyone has a COVID-19 story to tell. We feature some extraordinary everyday stories — a doctor on the frontline handling COVID-19 patients in a Delhi hospital, a scientist in the southern state of Kerala who hasn’t been able to start her dream laboratory due to the lockdown, and an Arctic explorer who endured months of darkness and isolation in the north pole before coming back to a world struck by a new virus.

This special issue also features the story of Ayurveda, and why it is time for India to apply scientific rigour to the study of the ancient system of medicine. We talk of the importance of socially influential groups, scientists, and religious leaders, in spreading the right messages and scotching misinformation in a public health emergency.
In many countries including India, the pandemic is testing the limits of science and of human perseverance. It is taking a toll on our mental health – how we live, work and communicate are set to change for a long time to come.

Science will hopefully find a solution to this unprecedented human suffering soon.

[Download the Nature India special issue “COVID-19 Crisis” free here.]

(For Nature India’s continuing coverage on the the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis, please visit our special page.)

Nature India 2019 annual volume is out

Cover design: Marian Karam

Critics of India’s space programme have, in the past, demanded justification for sending rockets into space while the urgent issues of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and poor health cry for attention and funding. India has maintained that her space programme runs on less than a tenth of NASA’s budget, making it one of the most economical in the world and producing development-based benefits for the country’s environment, weather predictions, education, agriculture, and health.

Therefore, it was surprising when India’s ambitious, but unsuccessful, voyage to the far side of the Moon in 2019 did not publicly reignite that discussion. Instead, most of the 1.3 billion-strong nation stood in solidarity with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when the Moon lander, Vikram, lost contact with the Earth station and later crash landed. A misty-eyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled a tearful ISRO chief K Sivan. The country grieved, hoping and praying there would be a successful run to the Moon in the coming years.

We capture these tears, tribulations, nail-biting drama, and the science behind India’s shoe-string-budget space programme in this year’s cover story.

Talking of the science-economy relationship, we also analyse in one of our features the direct macro-deliverables from government research funding and look at the best ways in which a resource-poor country such as India can ensure tangible benefits from each rupee spent on scientific research.

Gender issues in science have always been important in India. In this issue, we reflect on why a better balance of men and women in leadership positions could lead to higher profitability in scientific enterprises; and also shine a light on India’s gender-skewed science awards. Two stories, about an anthropologist who made important revelations about indigenous Andamanese tribes, and a biologist working on pheromones of snow leopards and tigers, offer fascinating insights into the lives of pioneering women scientists and their science. We also speak to biologist Chandrima Shaha, the first woman elected president of the 84-year-old Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in January 2020, about her vision for mentoring more women in science.

In 2019, we used the term ‘Day Zero’ for the first time to denote the dystopic water emergency that the world is facing today. That’s the day when a city’s taps dry out and people have to stand in line to collect a daily quota of water. Climate change-triggered extreme heat, drying aquifers and extreme weather events have become the new normal for much of South Asia. We look at what this might mean for children, who will continue to endure the toll of climate change for a long time to come. On a more positive note, we explore how some undaunted farmer citizen scientists are finding new ways of adapting to climate-resilient crops.

The Nature India photo contest themed ‘food’ saw breath-taking entries from across the world that demonstrate the deep links between food, health, environment, nutrition, and happiness of communities. We present some of the top entries.

Nature India annual volumes select the best research highlights, news, features, commentaries and opinion pieces published through the year. Through this thoughtful selection, the editors at Nature Research bring to our readers a ready reference of the latest in India’s science.

We look forward to your feedback.

You will find more on our our archival annual issues here: 20182017, 2016, 20152014 and 2007-2013. To subscribe to the Nature India annual issues, please see here or write to natureindia at nature.com.

Building blocks of life from space

Narendra Bhandari, a planetary scientist formerly with the Indian Space Research Organisation, recollects the time when he fortuitously became part of a meteorite detective team.

Narendra Bhandari with a meteorite fragment.

We spend crores of rupees trying to go to the Moon and other planets and bring back rocks. But nature is bountiful, even lugging space debris to our door step free of cost.

I regaled in one such gift a few summers back.

Just before sunrise at 5.15 a.m. on 6 June 2016, a rock of extraordinary type fell from the skies in the farm of Bishan Mehta of the Mukundpura village. The sound woke up the whole village, located in the outskirts of the pink city of Jaipur in Rajasthan.

I was driving down from Ahmedabad to Udaipur in Rajasthan when I heard about the meteorite fall on radio. I called Rajendra Prasad Tripathi, my friend who had recently retired from Jai NarainVyas University, Jodhpur and had settled in Jaipur. Tripathi immediately went to the site and surveyed the small foot-deep pit that the meteorite had created. To his dismay, the Geological Survey of India had swiftly collected all the pieces of the 2.5 kg meteorite. Not one to give up, Tripathi went home to fetch a kitchen sieve and filtered the sand from the bottom of the pit. He found two small pitch black chips, easily distinguishable as meteorite pieces owing to their colour.

Within a day, three of us – Tripathi, Ambesh Dixit of Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur and I – measured the pieces using Mossbauer spectroscopy- to be sure the rocks were a rare type of carbon-containing meteorite, somewhat similar to the famous rock that fell at Murchison, in Australia, in 1969. About 2.5 per cent carbon content made this black, fragile, coal-like rock a scientific treasure.

A fragment of the Mukundpura rock , about 3 cm x 2 cm. The greyish surface on the left is due to heating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Dark black colour of the interior suggests presence of carbon, which contains organic molecules including amino acids, the building blocks of life. Mineral grains appear white.

Anil Shukla

When we analysed the minerals and chemical composition, it became clearer that this was going to be an important rock to study. Soon, we embarked on a detailed study with N.G. Rudraswami and colleagues at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, and found several amino acids in it. Amino acids, the chemical molecules from which biomolecules can be formed, are the building blocks of life.

We found evidence of water activity on various silicate minerals indicating the presence of abundant water on the asteroid where this rock had been lying for most of its life time, till it was kicked off by another space rock to come to Earth. Isotopes of carbon and nitrogen confirmed its extraterrestrial origin from the interstellar space.

M. S. Kalpana at the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad soon joined the effort, bringing a different set of expertise and technically sophisticated machines to complete the description of the extraterrestrial rocks. The team work paid off and using many techniques of mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, we were able to identify over 40 organic molecules of polyatomic aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, including some fatty acids, and naphthalene.

These molecules are formed in the interstellar clouds from which our sun and planets were made 4.5 billion years ago. It is surprising that these organic molecules, easily destroyed at high temperature, survived the chaotic and complex processes in the severe environment that resulted in the formation of the Earth. Obviously the rock had not gone through much heating, may be it stayed below 100 degrees Celsius on the asteroid harbouring water, which saved the organic molecules, albeit with some alteration.

Hundreds of meteorites fall on the Earth every year, but what we received were among the rarest of rare rocks – only five such have fallen in India, the last one about 75 years ago. The Mukundpura rocks are now kept at Geological Survey of India museum in Kolkata.

These messengers from space packed with valuable information can tell us how life appeared on the earth. Together, we found over 15 heavenly rocks of different types in the past 30 years, many of which are described in my book Falling Stones and the Secrets of the Universe.

Strange rocks, like the ones that fell at Piplia Kalan and Lohawat in Rajasthan, tell different stories of their origin from different asteroids and their journeys to Earth. They increase our horizon of knowledge on space and fetch us extraordinary material for laboratory studies. These rocks tell us fascinating storiess of how it all began — the formation of the Sun, Earth, planets and life.

(Narendra Bhandari can be reached at nnbhandari@yahoo.com.)

Strike4BlackLives

Post compiled by Ankita Anirban.

10 June 2020 is #Strike4BlackLives and we urge you to participate in this strike. Organised by a group of physicists, led by Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, this is a day to #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM in solidarity with Black colleagues, Black students and Black people who are excluded from academia. Learn more about the strike here.

“As researchers, teachers, students, and staff we devote an immense amount of our time and mental energy to learning more about the world and ourselves within the framework of our own discipline. The strike day gives us the space and time to center Black lives, show solidarity with academics with marginalized ascribed identities, to educate ourselves about the ways in which we and our institutions are complicit in anti-Black racism, and to take concrete action for change.” –  Particles for Justice call to action.

Thousands have pledged to join the strike, including the arXiv and the American Physical Society. Today, take time to pause your academic work and reflect on your role within the academic institution. Talk to your colleagues, organise within your department and work to become anti-racist.

In the UK, just 1.7% of first year physics undergraduates in 2016 were Black and an IOP report from 2012 shows that for PhD- holding researchers, the number is even lower at 0.1%. If you are not Black, take a moment to count how many Black physicists you have come across in your academic career.

Source: https://cx.report/2020/06/02/equity/

It is clear that academic institutions are in need of radical structural change. Yet with so few Black voices within the system, there is an urgent need for non-Black allies to take an active role in campaigning for change.

Here we provide some starting points we have found useful for learning more about racism in academia, how racism and science are inextricably linked and the case for a more inclusive and pluralist science.

Being Black in physics

For non-Black academics, the first step to understanding the extent to which racism pervades academic life is to hear the stories of Black academics. One place to start is the  #BlackintheIvory hashtag on Twitter which has been used to share experiences of Black academics.

Op-ed: The ‘Benefits’ of Black physics students by Jedidah Isler, New York Times, 2015

News: Why are there so few Black physicists? by Ryan Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, 2020 

Perspective: Curiosity and the end of discimination by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Nature Astronomy, 2017

Blog: Ain’t I a woman? At the intersection of gender, race and sexuality by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Women in Astronomy blog, 2014

Addressing the inequalities and discrimination within academia requires structural change. As an individual, you can campaign within your department to recognise the need for this change and enact it in policies regarding hiring, mentoring and support for Black students. When organising a conference or a new collaboration, reflect on your choice of participants and strive to include more Black voices in the conversation.

500 Women Scientists – Black History Month

Fellows of the National Society of Black Physicists

Who are the Black Physicists? A historical list

Science and colonialism

Modern science as we practise it today has inextricable links to empire, colonialism and the slave trade. Here are some accessible resources which introduce how colonialism has shaped science:

Podcast: BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – on astronomy and the British empire

Blog: Black Women Physicists In the Wake by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, 2017

Reading list: Decolonising science reading list compiled by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Building a more inclusive science

In addition to recognising the historical impact of colonialism on science, it is also important to acknowledge the influence it continues to wield within scientific practice today.  Here are some resources that re-centre Indigenous science:

Australian Indigenous Astronomy 

Blog: The fight for Mauna Kea and the future of science by Sara Segura Kahanamoku, Massive Science, 2019

Comment: Towards inclusive practices with indigenous knowledge by Aparna Venkatesan et al., Nature Astronomy, 2019

Article: Challenging epistemologies: Exploring knowledge practices in Palikur astronomy by Lesley Green, Futures, 2009

Article: ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ and ‘Science’: Reframing the Debate on Knowledge Diversity by Lesley Green, Archaeologies, 2008

Long Reads:

Superior by Angela Saini.

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician by Katherine Johnson

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence by Erica N. Walker 

A different kind of dark energy: placing race and gender in physics, BSc thesis by Lauren Chambers, Department of African American Studies, Yale University

COVID-19 fuels India’s biotech entrepreneurship

As the pandemic restricts imports of reagents and kits, India’s biotechnologists are making their own, writes Somdatta Karak* in this guest post.

The Addlagatta lab at CSIR-IICT in Hyderabad has been scaling up production of the key enzyme reverse transcriptase. 

S. Karak

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently called for self-reliance in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 crisis. Being a biologist by training, the question that came to my mind immediately was: are India’s biologists and biotechnologists self-reliant in their laboratories across the country?

I walked down to one such example-setting lab earlier this month – the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad – where chemist Anthony Addlagatta and his lab members have been working to scale up the production of reverse transcriptase (RT), an enzyme at the heart of the diagnostic test that detects the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

RT was discovered in 1970 and it changed our understanding of how information flows in our living cells. Information does not flow in just one direction from DNA to RNA to proteins. RT makes the reverse possible – a conversion of RNA to DNA. Combined with the power of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), invented in the 1980s, the duo ‘RT-PCR’ became an indispensable tool in biology labs across the globe. PCR helps amplify minute stretches of DNA in micro test-tubes.

Fast forward half a century as the world struggles with COVID-19 and urgently needs enough diagnostic kits that use the RT enzyme and Taq DNA polymerase, a bacterial enzyme used in PCR for its ability to amplify short DNA segments.

Though India has been using these enzymes for a few decades now, there is not a single ‘Made in India’ kit in the market. With India’s ability to import reagents and kits for its fairly limited use, the motivation to make a completely home-grown kit has been missing. Now, in times of a pandemic when imports are restricted, we are forced to think of developing these reagents ourselves.

Anthony Addlagatta with the fermentor that is brewing bacterial culture to produce reverse transcriptase.

S. Karak

In Addlagatta’s lab, a 10-litre fermentor has been brewing a bacterial culture cloned to produce the RT enzyme. The lab procured this fermentor for one of their industrial projects. Armed with the know-how of producing RT and Taq DNA polymerase, they wanted to develop their own resources and found the right industry partners in Genomix Biotech, who provided oligonucleotides for an RT-PCR kit. Oligonucleotides are short stretches of DNA or RNA molecules that initiate a reverse transcriptase or PCR reaction. Together they are validating these tests and hope to be in the market with test kits soon. A few kilometres down the road at the Atal Incubation Centre of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Nasar Khaja is also developing RT-PCT kits at his company BioArtis, which manufactures oligonucleotides.

Many other companies across India are developing these diagnostic kits using RT-PCR as well as other methods. Are such home-grown RT-PCR kits going to be in demand only as long as COVID-19 lasts? Can they sustain even after the pandemic?

The quality of these kits will drive their demand when import bans lift. Limited funding and bureaucratic hassles to procure reagents is a huge deterrent for scientists in India to try newer products of unestablished brands. Biotechnologists like Khaja feel that it is the scientific community’s responsibility to groom the home-grown brands. The newer kits might need a bit more enzyme or a few extra steps as opposed to established brands but will give the exact same results at cheaper prices, he says. In the bargain, the scientific community will have supported new start-ups, fostering a culture of product development.

The current Indian market size for many of these home-grown products is too small for start-ups to sustain. Biotech companies in India will have to compete with their global counterparts in quality and price.  Another way of dealing with this challenge could be to attract multinational companies to set up manufacturing units in India. The downside here is that global businesses may not share India-centric goals.

Adversities have often shaped cultures and national objectives. In the 90s, India proactively boosted the vaccine industry to fight Hepatitis-B in the country. This industry is now at the global forefront and also actively participating in the race for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. Would the COVID-19 crisis be able to spawn entrepreneurship in other areas of biotechnology in India?

[*Somdatta Karak is the Science Communication and Public Outreach Officer at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India.]

Lockdown unlocking technology for India’s farmers

Rural communities grappling with livelihood issues and looking for support for farming activities are increasingly embracing technology for survival. Jayashree Balasubramanian, who heads communication at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, talks of her experience with farmers attending virtual ‘plant clinics’.

A virtual ‘plant clinic’ in progress.

MSSRF

It’s a Friday morning and Lakshmi, a farmer who grows paddy, maize and finger millet in central Tamil Nadu, is peering into her phone camera adjusting the webinar settings. From behind her, the top of her toddler’s head pops up on the screen as she navigates her way around the virtual ‘plant clinic’. “I can’t hear you sir, please unmute yourself,” Laxmi says several times in Tamil before the expert on the other side heeds.

‘Unmute’, ‘webinar’, ‘share video’, ‘chat message’ – the Tamil conversation is peppered with these English phrases. The e-plant clinic session is one of the ways in which farmers are getting technical advice and support amidst the world’s largest lockdown that India imposed in the last week of March 2020 to check the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Soon, 39 other farmers crowd up every inch of her phone’s screen. Many of these farmers are holding samples of pests or diseases that have affected their plants. Two ‘plant doctors’ are advising them online in this three-hour session. Some farmers are in their picturesque farms with mobile phones ready to zoom into on-site problems they need advice on.

During the ongoing lockdown, a survey found 227 million internet users in rural India, 10 per cent more than urban India. The increased use of internet at this time is opportune for the rural community grappling with livelihood issues and looking for technical support for farming activities.

Global farming communities have long advocated the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to empower farmers suggesting it may improve farmers’ livelihoods by as much as 500 per cent. The usual bottlenecks – lack of technology access, good connectivity, devices or capacity – suddenly seem to have eased under the pressure of the novel coronavirus crisis. The crucial need to connect is transforming how rural communities and holders of farming knowledge are working around these challenges.

For instance, the plant clinic which Laxmi sometimes attends alongside approximately 25 farmers every week, is rigged up in a physical venue and advertised beforehand so that farmers come prepared with their pest-disease affected plants to consult plant doctors. It also arms them against using any unscientific applications that may cause long-term damage to the soil or plants. A study by MSSRF found that e-clinics cost less than half of what a physical plant clinic would.

A farmer holding up a sample for the plant doctors to see.

MSSRF

Even before the pandemic struck, farmers have been part of such efforts where support is provided on phone or social media. “During the lockdown, farmers started video-calling us, and we realised their need for visual connection and advice,” says Ramasamy Rajkumar, who coordinates efforts across 150 villages in India since 2012. The first webinar on 16 April 2020 saw 82 farmers joining in. “It meant that this was a format we should continue,” he says. While physical clinics build knowledge and capacity, the virtual clinics are building technology skill and mutual support.

Losses from pests or disease attacks can have a devastating effect on crops causing huge damage. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that pest attacks account for 40 per cent of all yield losses prompting the United Nations designate 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, MSSRF has conducted five webinars in three states of India. They have not been without their fun moments. Farmer Kandasamy from Ramasamypuram, had multiple queries and also brought in a neighbouring farmer who had a volley of questions needing resolution. Subramanian, a farmer from Aayavayal helped himself merrily to a snack as he waited for his turn. Meanwhile, Muhammed Andakkulam altered his user name to ‘Beer’, to symbolically reflect reopening of liquor shops in his state of Tamil Nadu. The plant doctors patiently go through each query, sharing their recommendations in the chat box and promising support later on the phone.

Sometimes rural callers also glitch out but resurface miraculously and complete the call, to the envy of urban bandwith-squeezed callers. Most stay connected even after their query is answered, listening to other recommendations on a variety of crops from paddy to brinjal and black gram to coconut.

The farmers’ questions range from concerns over yellowing of groundnut leaves, discolouring of jasmine flowers, white-coloured pests on coconut tree leaves and withering of banana leaves. The common pests they report during the lockdown are whiteflies, thrips, aphids and green leafhoppers.

Purshothaman Senthilkumar, a plant doctor in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu, says the small farmers are facing issues in marketing their yields and report up to 40 per cent losses. “Those who did not have adequate labour to harvest have seen up to 20 per cent losses in the field,” he says. Seasonal pests and diseases have been compounded by shortage of labourers, maintenance, shop closures and non-availability of expert guidance.

E-plant clinics have not only been about technology and technical guidance, but also about moral support for the farming communities.

Honey bees starve in COVID-19 lockdown

Bee farmers are finding it hard to move their bee boxes from one place to another across India. This means their bees can not be fed as usual on seasonal flowers, neither will they pollinate this summer, writes Gopinathan Maheswaran of the Zoological Survey of India, in this guest post.

Pixabay

Across the world, honey bees are the most commonly used pollinators.

In India, more than 9698 government-registered entities – individuals, societies, firms, companies and a few self-help groups – depend on beekeeping for their livelihood. A massive 15, 59, 771 registered bee colonies are spread across various states of India. However, the bee keeping business has its own challenges, especially in cases where farmers depend only on bees as the single source of pollination. Often the health of these colonies suffers from poor nutrition, pests and diseases.

The COVID-19 lockdown has presented a peculiar problem for the beekeepers and the bees. As countries go into extended lockdowns, movement of non-essential vehicles has come to a standstill. In India, the restrictions have made it difficult for the farmers to move the huge number of beehive boxes from one state to another or even within the states. As a result, the bees are starving to death.

During the summer months between February and July, farmers, especially in northern India, go from one state to the other with their bee boxes to feed the bees (Apis indica) on seasonal flowers of mango and litchi trees. Bees feed on the flower honey for nutrition and farmers sell the honey the insects store in their hives. The bees also help pollinate the mango and litchi trees, thereby increasing the production of these two cash fruit crops, and also a variety of other plants.

Farmers in Canada have reported struggling to get their shipment of beehives from aboard. Global food production, which depends a lot on bee pollination, is estimated to get affected due to COVID-19 lockdowns in various countries as without bees the yields of some fruit, seed and nut crops are known to decrease by more than 90 per cent.

This may impact poor and developing countries in the coming years as truncated food supply may result in hiking prices of many essential commodities beyond the reach of the poor in Asia and Africa. The lockdowns also hamper assessment of the damage by researchers, who can not reach the affected areas.

(Gopinathan Maheswaran is a Scientist in the Bird Section of Zoological Survey of India,  Kolkata. He can be reached at maheswaran@zsi.gov.in)

Behind the paper: CP violation in neutrino oscillations

In 1967, Andrei Sakharov proposed conditions required in the early universe for generating
matter and anti-matter at different rates, to explain the abundance of matter in our universe
today. Charge-Parity (CP) violating processes are essential under these conditions.
Measurements of the CP violation in quarks, first performed in 1964, are too small to explain
the difference, and finding other sources of CP violation is an ongoing quest in the physics
community. In April 2020, the T2K collaboration published a paper in Nature suggesting
large CP violation in the leptonic sector, namely in neutrino oscillations. Some of the
researchers involved in the project tell us their story.

A guest post by Ciro Riccio (Scientist, Stony Brook University), Patrick Dunne (Scientist,
Imperial College London), Pruthvi Mehta (Ph.D. student, University of Liverpool), Sam
Jenkins (Ph.D. student, University of Sheffield), Tomoyo Yoshida (Graduated Ph.D. student,
Tokyo Institute of Technology), Clarence Wret (Scientist, University of Rochester)

The oscillation analysis, whose results were recently published in Nature, is the last link in a
long chain of work. It amalgamates the effort of the entire collaboration, from those designing
and constructing the experiment 20 years ago, to the countless hours of detector operations
taken by people all over the world, to the development of the analyses.

The project
There are over 400 people working on T2K, in 12 countries, at 69 institutes. Many of us have
spent years building our bit of the experiment, from physical objects like detector or beamline
instrumentation, to abstract items like data analysis frameworks. Looking at the author list,
you’ll see that T2K consists of collaborators from all over the world. Our daily
communications happen online; in video meetings, emails, and chats. It’s sometimes a
challenge to find good time-slots for connecting people over 16 time zones, and it’s not
uncommon to sign-off from a meeting with a good-night, only to be met with a good-morning,
and vice versa.

Our international collaborators frequently fly to Japan to spend a week or two monitoring the
experiment in Tokai—on the east coast—where the neutrino beamline and Near Detectors
are, or Kamioka—just west of the Japanese alps—where the Far Detector is. In addition to
the flashing computer screens and sounding alarms, we get to witness a very different side
of Japan from the bright lights of Tokyo, from the beautiful mountains and rivers of rural
Japan, to the delicious local specialities. Avoiding the risk of data loss often occurs at the
cost of sleep for the operations experts (as the contributors to this blog post can attest)—but
all is forgotten after a morning visit to the local onsen (hot-spring).

It’s impossible to overemphasise the fantastic experience of Japanese culture as an added
bonus of partaking in T2K. Many of the restaurants in the Tokai and Kamioka areas are
familiar with members of the collaboration, and are very accommodating to international
collaborators. The owner of one particular restaurant in Tokai often recognises Sam and
remembers that he can speak a small amount of the language (chotto), and indulges him to
order in broken Japanese (we like to think it’s good for practice, and not solely their
entertainment). A favourite annual event is the sweet potato festival (imo matsuri), a
community event in Tokai held in November to celebrate the root vegetable that the Ibaraki
prefecture is renowned for.

T2K collaboration meeting, Paris 2019, Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat

The measurement
The Super-Kamiokande Far Detector started construction in 1991 in Kamioka, and operates
24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so as not to miss rare astrophysical events, such as
supernova bursts. The neutrino beam and the Near Detectors started construction 2001
(beam) and 2007 (Near Detectors) in Tokai, and are continuously operating when we have
pre-allocated beam time, sometimes up to seven months per year.
To make our measurement we not only need the neutrino beam and the detectors, but also a
computer-simulated model of the entire experiment, painstakingly quantifying how we think
each component behaves and how certain we are of that description. This includes
everything from the neutrino beam (and the proton beam collisions that creates it), to the
neutrino interactions in our detectors, to the density of the Earth between Tokai and
Kamioka, to how good our detectors are at measuring the neutrinos.

To characterise the neutrino beam, we have two detectors (“ND280” and “INGRID”) 280m
from the neutrino source, which have a staggering amount of neutrinos passing through
them. Occasionally these neutrinos interact at the Near Detectors, occasionally they interact
300km later in Super-Kamiokande, but most of the time they continue out through Earth’s
atmosphere, propagating deep into space. To put things into perspective, this analysis used
about 3×1021 (3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) proton interactions to create the neutrino
beam. Roughly one neutrino is created per proton interaction, but due to their rare interaction rate with matter, we observe a mere 120,000 neutrino events at ND280 (60,000
of which were used in our analysis) and about 500 at Super-Kamiokande over the course of
nine years. In the early neutrino beam experiments of the 1970s, the data are often on less
than 500 neutrino events, with the experiments sitting right next to the neutrino source for
tens of years. Today we have about the same number of neutrino events in a similar amount
of time, but sitting 300km away from the source at Super-Kamiokande. It’s only recently that
we have the technology, international funding support from governments, and scientific
community in place to produce such powerful neutrino beams, which are the backbone of
these precise measurements.

Presentation of final results of the oscillation analysis. Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat

Once the neutrinos are characterised at the Near Detector, the oscillation analysis takes all
the models of the neutrino beam, the detectors, the neutrino interaction, and neutrino
oscillations, combines them with their constraints, and blends them together to describe our
observations. The analysis and all of its inputs turns PhD students’, scientists’ and
professors’ daily work into many cycles of communication-implementation-validation, over
the course of more than a year. When validations and tests are satisfied, we finally get to
look at the data and make our measurement of the neutrinos’ oscillations. That last link in
the long chain has the privilege to see the final result first in the collaboration. The moment
when the plot pops onto your screen and you’re the only person who knows what it shows is
pretty special. For this result, published in April 2020, we first saw the results internally in
Autumn 2018, and spent the time between then and now extensively validating and testing
alternate explanations.

Looking ahead
T2K is currently in the process of updating the analysis using more data taken during
2019/2020, and using better models of the experiment, all thanks to the continuing dedicated
work of all our collaborators. Many of us are also working on upgrades of the neutrino
beamline, the Near Detectors and the Far Detector, to squeeze out more science from the
neutrino beam. Our results published in Nature are the strongest constraint on the CP
violating phase in neutrinos to date, but we have only taken about half of our allocated data.
There is much more to come and the prospects are truly exciting for all of us. As we
continue, we’re including the work of even more people than the analyses that came before;
new students, scientists and professors. We hope they, like us, get their share of the
pleasant, stressful, lovely, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding experience of being on an
international science collaboration such as ours.

Party at Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay. Credit: Pieyre Sylvaineat