Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Santa Cause

Just came across this ad spot for Greenpeace by an Australian ad agency. Maybe its poetic justice that I'm posting this on the day Al Gore and the IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri accept the Nobel Peace prize for their contribution to the awareness on global warming.
It does look like Santa's gonna have to buy a boat sometime soon.

Of carnivorous pitchers and viscoelastic deaths

"A Viscoelastic Deadly Fluid in Carnivorous Pitcher Plants"
Its not everyday that a scientific paper with a title like this gets published. But it did, recently on PLoS one, the free access online journal that publishes papers from all disciplines. So, what did Laurence Gaume (biologist) and Yoel Forterre (physicist), the French authors have to say?
That carnivorous pitcher plants can get pretty sticky when it comes to getting their one course meal. Okay that doesn't sound too impressive huh? Take this..
All this time we spent in school reading about pitcher plants (genus Nepenthes) capturing insects by their slippery surfaces and the enzymes inside that digest the insect slowly... well thats not all. As it turns out this digestive enzyme in some species (Nepenthes rafflesiana pictured above being the star of the show here) has viscoelastic properties.
Apparently, thats the physicist and his fluid dynamics jargon speaking here.
In plain speak, the fluid has both viscous and elastic properties that ensure that once the unfortunate bug gets anywhere in contact with the fluid its in a real sticky mess. The viscoelastic filaments in this fluid act like a quicksand, coating the insect and making it immobile the more it struggles. Meanwhile it gets digested. What a way to die!
Oh yeah, thats not all. This miracle fluid works perfectly well even after 90 percent dilution with water. Which figures, because these tropical plants see a lot of rain and if a little bit of water ruined your whole prey capture mechanism, then grandpa Natural Selection would have kicked you out long back.
Messieurs Gaume and Forterre apparently had a ball doing this study using insect bioassays (read killed different insects with the same stuff to see if they die the same), high speed photography and rheological analysis (thats the physics geek there again!).

The Indian pitcher plant Nepenthes khasiana (left)

Public Library of Science journals
Carnivorous plants on Wikipedia

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Music ... and a fragmented society

Its been a long time since my last post, so its time to catch up on things a bit.
I've been saving this from the time I read this article by David Brooks in the New York Times a few weeks ago, itching to get it onto my blog. Brooks talks about the 'classic rock' bands of yore like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, U2, Springsteen and the E-street band and how they drew upon a range of musical influences (blues, country, soul) and created a unique new music. Unique enough to still be able to fill up stadiums till they burst, anywhere in the world. And this is more than a quarter of a century since this stuff really took off. Their mind boggling success went hand in hand with this 'musical integration'.
And then, he says it all started to change (go wrong?). What started was a fragmentation of music into different styles, moving away from this 'integration' and very soon you had as many genres as you had communities and ethnic identities even. And at the rate its moving, we may soon have a music genre for all of us.
Okay fine.. nothing special huh? But what really opens your eyes and forces you to think deeper are these last lines and the simple truth in it :

We live in an age in which the technological and commercial momentum drives fragmentation. It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.
Music used to do this. Not so much anymore.

The Segmented Society - David Brooks (op-ed in the NYT)