Saturday, December 25, 2010

Itchy backs and tickly toons

Robert William Wood
Some years ago, I had been to the Brahmagiris in Coorg. The rolling sholas are spectacular and it has a way of bursting into view with special effect that is enhanced by the climb that one has to make. Anyway in the weeks after  my return returned, I developed an itch on my back with eruptions on the skin that kept made me miserable for almost two months. The dermatologist I went to tried out antifungals, antibacterials and when the right remedy was found it quickly subsided but it did raise doubts about the quality of medical diagnostics. When I mentioned this to my birding  physician friend Dr. NS Prashanth, he mentioned that it should have been quite easy to identify a fungal infection using a Wood's lamp, something that every doctor would apparently have in their kit. A Wood's lamp essentially produces ultraviolet light and some fungi glow in UV. The process is termed fluorescence - the fungi convert light in the UV range into light in the visible wavelengths - and should not be confused with bioluminescence which is also seen in some fungi. Wood's lamp is just like our everyday "tubelight" (technically a fluorescent tube - a glass tube internally lined with a fluorescent chemical) but made of a special glass called Wood's glass. Wood's glass is made of Barium silicate with nickel oxide - which makes it very opaque to visible light but letting UV through.
First published in 1907 the introduction reads:

For some are guided by tradition.
While others use their intuition,
And  even I make no pretense
Of having more than common sense
Indeed these strange homologies
Are in most flornithologies,
And I have freely drawn upon
The works of Gray and Audubon,
Avoiding though the frequent blunders
Of those who study Nature's wonders.

Looking up, thanks to Wikipedia for showing the connectedness of things , I found that this Wood was  Robert William Wood (May 2, 1868 – August 11, 1955), a physicist who had a keen interest in UV and IR photography. He also apparently was debunker of frauds and when the journal Nature sent him to investigate something called N-rays he did the little trick of removing a vital prism in the experiment and the discoverer of the rays was still able to produce unaltered results demonstrating plainly that the setup was fake.  Wood liked to amuse people and one trick was to carefully toss sodium into a pond and act as if he was spitting to shock onlookers with explosive  effect ! H L Mencken apparently called him the "wild man of Baltimore" ! Strangely however I had already bumped into his Lear-esque verse and cartoons, long before learning about his other achievements. Pure entertainment that he created to amuse his children, but may well reflect to some extent the poor opinion that physicists in that era tended to have of biology. Indeed one physicist famously compared biology of that time to stamp-collecting. Wikipedia has an article on the "Nature fakers controversy" where this work has been pointed out as a parody of a long controversy at around that time in the United States of America that arose from the conflict between science and sentiment in popular nature writing. The controversy was due to a large number of nature writers of the time conflating fact and fiction. For instance one writer talked about birds applying a mud cast to their legs and another wrote about wolves hunting caribou by tearing their hearts out. This was finally settled and even involved Theodore Roosevelt, their hunting President, who decided that such fake writing should not be included as part of the compulsory reading for children. One protester even wrote a letter to Roosevelt to remove other "fake natural history" such as that written by Charles Darwin !

A pick below of some of the pages (thanks  to the Internet Archive) from Wood's satirical book follows.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great observers - Ernest Hanbury Hankin

Never heard of E H Hankin? You can be excused, for neither had I, until this morning when Colonel Ashwin Baindur dropped his name. Searching around, looking up some bits and pieces at the end of the day I have to decided that he belongs on a pedestal along with so many other lesser known greats.

To start with Ernest Hanbury Hankin (February 4, 1865 – March 29, 1939) studied medicine and came to India to work in the United Provinces (now still UP) and was perhaps among the first to detect the activity of bacteriophages - he noted (in 1896) that there was something in the river waters of the Ganges and Jamuna that passed through filters but was destroyed by boiling and seemed to kill Vibrio cholerae . He suggested that these may have been responsible in reducing the ravages of Cholera in that area. Phages were finally "officially" discovered by Felix D'Herelle in 1917.

Anyway, Hankin did not work further on that front and phages continue to be a field that has a lot of promise but is perhaps supressed by legal frameworks which in turn are perhaps supported by the pharmaceutical industry. Imagine having a drop of water with a few viruses instead of buying antibiotics ! If you have heard about the practice of adding Potassium permanaganate into wells, that was a technique popularized by Hankin to manage cholera and typhoid.This practice led to the emergence of an Anglo-Indian term of everyday usage "pinky pani".

Around 1911 Hankin took an interest in observing birds and the detail of his observation can be found in his careful illustrations. These were first published in Flight - the first aviation magazine and in 1914 he published a book on Animal Flight. He restricted himself to making insightful observations and comparing notes with what he knew on anatomy and noted that he was handicapped by his lack of knowledge on various aspects. He looked up specimens at the Bombay Natural History Society (that was in an era when that organization did allow interested people to study their collections!)

He begins his 1914 book with a quotation from someone who signs as A.O.H. (easily determined as A O Hume - and this was perhaps at a time when he was under the sway of the theosophists - although later separating himself after exposing Madame Blavatsky)

A writer who signs himself A. O. H. watched vultures in Simla at a height of about 7000ft. in the Himalaya Mountains. He states that these birds start their flight in summer between six and seven o'clock in the morning, but in winter not till nearly nine o'clock. Their usual speed of flight he estimates to be from twelve to fifteen  miles  an   hour, the  lowest speed of gliding to be seven to eight miles an hour, and the highest twenty-six to twenty-seven miles an hour. The species observed was Gyps himalayensis, a vulture of 9ft span. When gliding in a straight line for miles the only movement shown by this vulture was an occasional and gradual "shift " of the tail. He says that crows can soar rising in circles without flapping, but that they do so only when the air is quite calm. He states that soaring flight is due to "levitation." This is a miracle or conjuring trick in virtue of which a man can remain unsupported in the air. He says that it consists in "so altering the magnetic polarity of the physical frame that in lieu of being attracted it is repelled by the earth." This power is achieved by "living an absolutely pure life and intense religious concentration." Birds are endowed with this power, apart from such mental exercises, unless, it may be suggested, the hill crow finds it helpful to indulge in irreligious sentiments when trying to descend to earth without  the help of gravity.

Others, having a clearer idea of causation, have attempted to show mathematically how soaring flight could he explained if the wind has a certain upward trend, or if the air is subject to horizontal pulsations. Such theories have been put forward as possibilities. They are admittedly not based on facts of observation, although, by some, they have been mistaken for established doctrines. But, as will be seen, the study of soaring flight brings us face to face with an extremely complicated series of phenomena, and there it room for doubt how far these simple mathematical conceptions carry us towards an explanation.
A selection of illustrations
What captures ones attention is the careful attention, observation and illustrations that he made of soaring birds. He then goes on to compare certain actions and postures with the musculature involved. He notes for instance that there are no muscles in birds that allow the phalanges to be pressed down to enhance the camber. He notes that this is present in flying foxes. His area of research seems to be the exploration of what is today called dynamic soaring and is presumably much better understood. Indeed hang-gliding enthusiasts today have a feel for the subject that would be have been much the envy of Dr. Hankin. In March 1923 Time magazine noted:
People on a London common saw a strange sight—an elderly gentleman playing with a toy aeroplane. He was Dr. E. H. Hankin, M. A., D. Sc., author of Animal Flight (a book dealing with the science of living flight), and he was experimenting with a model glider.
A vulture coming in for landing - at the final stage the flapping is directed forward to brake

When Hankin returned to England, he was also amusing himself with geometrical patterns. He was especially interested in the patterns in the trellis work of Fatehpur-Sikri and Sikandra. And so this multifaceted doctor turned his attention to tesselations comparing Mughal, Arab and Saracen patterns. He especially seems to have taken an interest in non-repeating tile patterns (Penrose tilings) !

Hankin's works are not very well known, but it is clear that he had a lot of time to think. He seems to have spent a lot of time on thinking about education. In one study he noted the upbringing of Quakers and suggested that their emphasis on intuition rather than excessive conscious logic helped them in making scientific advances. His statistics for that time period indicated that one had a 46 times greater chance of being elected Fellow of the Royal Society if one came from a Quaker upbringing ! He later wrote several books :
The first I can only find a reference to (PS July 2014: now online and linked above) is referred to in a 1926 issue of the "Proceedings of the Stanford Conference on Business Education" where the author notes:
There is a little book which I think every business teacher ought to read, by a man named Hankin, in England. It is entitled The Mental Limitations of the Expert. A revision and enlargement of this book has just been published by E. P. Dutton, with the title Common Sense and Its Cultivation. Mr. Hankin is an expert himself, an expert chemist in the British foreign service in India. To have a thinking Englishman live in India is significant. He has time to sit down and think, and some excellent work by Englishmen has come out of India. Among the illustrations that Mr. Hankin gives of expert limitations is this.

He says that, in a certain section of India, a certain caste had developed a high degree of financial ability. The people of this caste had handled banking and financial affairs of that region continuously and almost exclusively. For many years it had been one of the standards of this caste that their children should not attend school. They learned the multiplication tables by units and quarters up to 50—as 49% times 23%. They had most accurate memories for this most complicated of multiplication tables. Everything else they got by intuition and apprenticeship.

Then the English came in, and English education became the vogue. About fifty years ago this tribe began to take to English education, formal education.  Today, Mr. Hankin says. they have almost entirely lost their place of dominance in finance, and it has been taken by another caste, which adheres to the old type of education. By their English education the former controllers of the financial situation lost their intimate contact with things, the intimate try-outs of experience, through which they had been getting something which had made them dominant; and when they lost it they lost their dominance.
Fortunately for us, Hankin died more than 70 years ago and so his works are now in public domain under most jurisdictions.

  • Alexander Sulakvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr. (2001) Bacteriophage Therapy. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. 45(3): 649–659. doi: 10.1128/AAC.45.3.649-659.2001.
Anyone lucky enough to have access to the Cambridge archives might be able to find a portrait of the man  (H62) and perhaps someone will be able to persuade them to release at least a low resolution version into the public domain.
Hankin aged 35

February 2014 - an email to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society received a very prompt response and thanks to Dr John D. Pickles, Honorary Librarian, we now have a copy of perhaps the only portrait of the man. Here it is in full glory. A crop is available on the Wikipedia article.

Apparently some people make use of this bacteriophage story to add "scientific" weight to the idea of the purity of the Ganga. This, naturally is a bit of a misrepresentation, and it may dismay them to note that  most bacteriophage hunters today find the choicest phages in hospital sewage (often including phages that kill antiobiotic resistant bacteria). This inappropriate understanding of research findings encourages the status quo attitude of governments and people to assume that it is fine to dump garbage and sewage into these undoubtedly wonderful rivers because of their "miraculous" ability to recover from such abuse.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Life on a raft

A friend recently approached me for some mapping help and this led me to rediscover some old tools (DIVA-GIS is one of the best free map tools that I know of) and forced me to look back at some recent thoughts. Generating a false-colour altitude map of the Indian Subcontinent heightened my appreciation of some observations and recent readings.
Elevations of India (click to see detail and legend)

Most people, even birdwatchers, often do not appreciate the peculiarities of species distribution and those that do not have the fortune of having a training in biology miss out entirely on the joy of mental stimulation that one gets when one tries to ask more questions.

On the border between northern Bengal (Jaigaon) and Bhutan (Phuntsholing) one can see an interesting phenomenon. Just walk into Bhutan and you see (apart from fewer humans and orderly traffic) that there is a lot of grass and vegetation and after walking up the first bend of the road you will find the commonest sparrow to be the Tree Sparrow, a species that simply refuses to accept life in India a few 100 metres away ! Along the busy roads of Jaigaon, only the House Sparrow may be seen, although it is also found on the Bhutan side. There is a difference in their habitat preferences and the Tree Sparrow seems to be the more picky species. Tree Sparrow do not have the marked sexual dimorphism that is found in the House Sparrow. When the two species occur in the same place, there is little confusion, but hybrids are known although they perhaps need further study. For instance, the only place where they are said to hybridize in India is not in the main distribution area but in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh. The hill forests here are perhaps the least studied of the numerous biogeographical islands within India. The evidence for this supposed hybridization is not even well known - P. C. Rasmussen in her Birds of South Asia (2005) mentions this (presumably based on a specimen that shows hybrid characters) while Clement et al. (1993) (full references can be found on the Wikipedia articles) suggests that the species was introduced by ship to this part of India !

A painting by Bhawani Das (c. 1777)

Looking at the false-colour altitude map one can see a sharply delineated region in the Gangetic plains of Bihar in the altitude range of 50-100 m which corresponds to the region with the most records of the most-likely-extinct Pink-headed Duck. Now we do not really know much about that species, it may have lived in dense swampy wetlands and may even have been crepuscular in habit. Now we do not know about the habitat choice, behavioural or ecological adaptations evolved by this species and sadly perhaps, we will never know.

Considering this, one would imagine that we are better off when it comes to species that are not endangered but this just is not the case. Indeed, few have even really looked at the information available, not so much because they cannot, but because much of the information is scattered and it involves considerable work and trouble to bring together the data in a single location to even begin to examine for patterns. Often the tools required can only be handled by specialists and getting them to work across disciplines can be  daunting given the splintered scholarly ecosystem where academics carve niches outside of which they fear to step. Like mixed-species flocks of birds, interdisciplinary associations must be a tricky balance. A pleasant surprise however comes in the recent work on the  isolation and speciation of two high altitude birds from Southern India - the Rufous-bellied Shortwing and the White-bellied Shortwing. - these birds, whose exact higher level relationships are still shrouded (the genus placement remains questionable with scientists merely guessing that it should be close to the Himalayan Myiomela),  appears to have had ancestors that were widespread when the climate was a lot cooler. With changes in climate, populations were pushed up into the higher reaches of the hills of Peninsular India. Not being strong fliers , these birds were restricted into breeding locally within their own little pools (or beanbags )  and over time, these populations diverged in form, shaped by accident and selective forces into forms that are very different in plumage.

Disjunct distribution of Nephenthes

Now this is not an isolated incident, it is the norm although the isolation mechanisms and forces are harder to identify in other cases. Looking at the islands formed by just plotting altitudes, it is clear that that numerous other studies of this kind could be made within India and naturally "islands" can be created by any kind of barrier. The effects depend on the mobility and the evolutionary history of the species under consideration. Look at this distribution of pitcher plants in the genus Nephenthes for instance. It is well accepted that the Indian Plate rafted away from Gondwana into Asia but lots of debate exist on the timing and presence of bridges. These debates are largely raised by fossil evidence or surprising discoveries like the Purple frog. A recent talk (and paper) at IISc by Prof. Ashok Sahni was particularly interesting - working in an isolated island of scholarship in northern India, his team has looked at insects in Indian amber dating to the Eocene  - apparently there are tons of these fossils in lignite mines and they are usually just destroyed. And the wealth of information trapped there is being looked at - by the worlds leading  paleo-entomologists including David Grimaldi . Apparently the endemism levels in insect are high for India as most of  the insect fauna got onto the raft from Gondwanaland. These fossils come from after the K-T incident (65 million years ago).

Coming back to thoughts of Bhutan - the White-bellied Herons, 36 or so individuals - that live on the edge in the lower valleys of the Himalayan rivers surely have an interesting specialization, found only on the  lower elevations on rivers running southwards along the edge of the Himalayas  they are seriously threatened by dams that are needed mainly to power the growing populations of India. The world population has been optimistically estimated at 200 and as the bird-folks in Bhutan say - one hopes that the supposed 150 more birds in Burma are safer. And Burma is also the the last hope for the Pink-headed Duck.

Further reading