Silver linings in a dull year

Silver linings in a dull year

What happened in India...

Silver linings in a dull year

FEATHERS IN NDIA’S CAP:Among other achievements are two embryonic stem cell lines at JNCASR, Bangalore.From the successful testing of Agni-4 to a futuristic gene card and the creation of monsoon clouds, an otherwise dull year for Indian science saw an occasional bright spark here and there, writes Kalyan Ray

In an otherwise uneventful year for Indian science in which Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) failed to achieve any breakthrough in operationalising the heavy-duty geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle and nuclear establishment was unable to come out of the Fukushima consequences, two little-known flights were the silver lining.

Both flights took place outside India. But they symbolised progress after learning from past failures. The first one happened in September in Melbourne when a tiny five-seater named CNM-5 took to the skies. Developed by scientists at National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in collaboration with Mahindra Airspace, the turbo-prop plane flew between 10,000-15,000 ft leaving the failure of the Saras accident behind.

CNM-5 could be used for medical evacuation and ferrying critically ill passengers to hospitals as it has space to accommodate two stretchers and life support systems. Without the medical equipment, it will have five seats and could be an air-taxi for the North East and the islands. It needs only a 500-mt runway – something similar to a metalled road – for take off and landing.

The second flight happened in the beginning of December when a fully modified Brazilian Embraer aircraft fitted with indigenous Airborne Warning and Control System (AEW&C) took to the skies at Sao Jose campus of Embraer in Brazil with about 1,000 mission system components developed by defence scientists at Centre for Airborne Studies in Bangalore.

The success has a special meaning to defence scientists because the first Indian AWACS programme that began in the 1990s came to a halt after an Avro aircraft carrying the Indian instrument crashed in Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu in 1999 killing eight scientists and crew. After a hiatus of four years, the project restarted on a new platform.

The year gone by would be remembered for turning the clock back on the time of human arrival in India. Scientists dug out more than 3,000 pieces Acheulian tools at Attirampakkam – an open-air paleolithic site situated near a meandering tributary of the river Kortallaiyar, northwest of Chennai.

Analysis of Indian tools by an Indo-French team suggests that these artefacts were made between 1.07 to 1.5 million years ago suggesting that early man might have arrived within 10,000 years of their migration from Africa.

The Tamil site predates Isampur in Hunsgi valley in Karnataka, which was so far the oldest human habitation in India. A different group of archeologist showed humans stayed in Isampur 1.27 million years ago. However, which route they took and how they moved inside the country remained a bone of contention.

Of stem cells & gene research

While retracing the footsteps of early Indians was a key area of focus, another group of CSIR geneticists has come out with a futuristic gene card that locks a person’s genetic secrets.

Only a handful of cards was made and shown to the Prime Minister, but will not be released to the public till a policy decision is taken on how much genetic information can be released in the public domain.

Two human embryonic stem cell lines kept in a laboratory in Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore have become components of an international bouquet of genetically well-characterised human embryonic stem cells that may lead to an improved and safer stem cell therapy. The cell lines could be used to design in vitro test systems that may be able to help decide which of the different human populations would benefit most from a particular drug.

In yet another significant research, naturally flowing clouds seen in the monsoon season was created by a JNCASR team, opening up new avenues for researchers to examine climate and monsoon behaviour. Scientists at National Brain Research Centre showed magnetic resonance imaging could be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease though the technology is too premature to be used in the clinics. Indian farm scientists at Indian Agriculture Research Institute in Delhi have mapped the entire genome of pigeon-pea that would help crop breeders to come out with better pigeon-pea (arhar) varieties capable of giving better yield and fighting a common disease like Fusarium wilt.

ISRO’s contribution

It’s not that ISRO did not do anything in the last 12 months. It launched two communications (GSAT-8 and GSAT-12), one remote sensing (Resourcesat) and one climate-study (Megha-Tropique) satellites using a commercial rocket and indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

The space agency also came up with India’s fastest supercomputer, which has a capability of 220 trillion floating point operations per second. But its inability to move forward with GSLV after a string of failure blocked many other ambitious missions including launching of India’s first dedicated military satellite.

Defence scientists too successfully tested India’s longest-range missile Agni-4 that can strike at a distance of 3,500 km giving the researchers much needed confidence to go ahead with a 5,000-km range missile, which may happen within a few months.

Nuke issues

Compared to space and defence, the nuclear-establishment remains down and out battling with nuclear-safety issues and intense protests in Jaitapur and Kudankulam in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. The road ahead becomes more difficult for the Department of Atomic Energy, which after years of secrecy finally showing some signs of opening up to overcome the anti-nuclear sentiment.

Reason for cheer

Indian science, however, found a cause for celebration towards the fag end of the year when frog-hunter S D Biju from Delhi University, who discovered several new and lost amphibian species from all over the world featured in the cover of the venerable The Economist. Biju, whose work was reported in Deccan Herald in the past, is the first Indian scientist, who received such a recognition ending 2011 on a happy note.