Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why your grandma loves you

A good deal of my interest in science (in topics other than ecology, I mean) dates back to the time I was working on my doctoral dissertation. When staring at graph after graph became too much, or when I had just managed to hammer out another paragraph full of et al-s, howevers and therefores and really needed a break, my chosen method of chilling out was to browse science journals! I read up all the latest research on pesticide residues, acrylamide in foods, chimp behaviour, cooking oils, vitamin D, and sundry other topics in science. 
That was when I first read about, and was immediately intrigued by, the Grandmother Hypothesis. Since those early days, there has been a lot more written on that subject, including some pretty nice refinements that are stunning simple but exciting in how much they explain. The hypothesis - which includes explanations for why women undergo menopause and why grandmas dote on their grandchildren - had been on my mind a lot lately. When I found myself explaining it to a friend the other day, I decided it was high time I got it out of my system. This week's S and T section in Spectrum carries an article on the hypothesis:

What do women, whales and elephants have in common? Answer: The irreversible cessation of fertility that occurs well in advance of the end of the average adult life span.Or in plain English: menopause. In all the animal kingdom, only some kinds of whales, Asian elephants and women go through menopause. Naturally, scientists have long pondered over why this might be. And funnily enough, your grandmother might have a lot to do with this mystery.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The original Lalbagh

It all started almost two years ago, when the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru asked INTACH to organise some walks in Bangalore to coincide with an exhibition they were having on artists of the 1700s and 1800s. One of the walks we did then was at Lalbagh Botanical Garden.
I've always loved going to Lalbagh (except perhaps on some weekends when you can barely see the trees for the people). Researching the history of the garden for the Parichay was fun - re-reading Tipu's letters where he asks for seeds from elsewhere, reliving Cleghorn's excitement over the Sultan's garden that was to become a botanical garden...
But we had chosen Lalbagh for the NGMA walk because in the eighteenth century, a lot of Englishmen who came to Bangalore - soldiers, draughtsmen, artists - seem to have been fascinated by the place. In the late 1700s, Europe was in the grip of the Picturesque movement, so when artistically-inclined chaps came and saw here a readymade picturesque garden, complete with mandatory ruin, it was but natural that they tried to capture its picturesqueness in their sketches. Robert Home, James Hunter, Robert Colebrooke and Claude Martin all sketched views of Lalbagh.
Spurred on by MBK, I tried to take a closer look at the paintings and at maps that we had for the same period...and was a little startled. Why, it looked like today's Lalbagh was not where the Lalbagh of the 1790s was. A couple of emails to colleagues and friends who are considerably wiser than I, some meetings, a few discussions, and several months later, we had put together a note which was later published in Current Science. Take a look. And the next time you go to Lalbagh, think about how different it once looked.