Every fortnight, The Intersection narrates stories that meld culture, science and history in India. Through interviews, anecdotes and original research, Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian bring alive the rich breadth of human imagination and knowledge, making for a riveting listening experience. The incessant punning — well, that's just a bonus.
Our constitution was under attack (from natural elements). Protecting this historic document from deterioration was critical. When two boxes hooked up to nitrogen and oxygen cylinders were delivered to the Indian parliament in 1995, it was significant moment in the preservation of the Indian constitution. Padmaparna and Samanth investigate the science that ensures the protection of the very foundation of this country.
The Indus Valley Civilization was a Bronze Age civilisation spread across the northwestern regions of South Asia; it was one of three early centres of civilisations of the Old World, and the most widespread. In this episode we look at how the landscape evolved in the Western part of India during the Holocene. And how humans interacted with the changing environment. And what that can inform the current climate challenges we face.
What if the world spoke one language? And we never needed Google Translate? One man dreamt of such a language a century ago -- Esperanto. In this episode, we explore the life of Lakshmiswar Sinha, the most famous Indian Esperantist of the 20th century -- a man who at one time was a much sought-after speaker of this utopian language.
Humans take 3D vision for granted--we don't stop to gauge the distance of a cup of chai on the table before reaching out for it. It is a complicated process that requires highly-developed neural networks. Or does it? Scientists have found several animals, including insects, use 3D vision without brains as large as ours. Studying these creatures and their behaviour can help humans better design vision systems for our own kind and for the robots we build.
On this episode, Padma and Samanth deep-dive into the fascinating phenomenon of 3D vision in the insect kingdom.
For many children, especially in India, the thought of picking up a science or maths book inspires terror. There's no fun in a system that promotes rote learning over curiosity and understanding. Fortunately, things are changing. Books that explain STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) concepts in an interesting and engaging way are finding space on children's bookshelves and in school libraries and inspiring kids to embrace the subjects instead of running away from them.
On this episode of The Intersection, Padma speaks to the folks at Pratham Books--an organization that publishes titles on things from friction, bio-luminescence and evolution to subtraction, spiders and blue whales--about the importance of introducing children to these concepts at an early age and making science and maths more fun for them.
A recent study found that India's farmed chickens are dosed with the world's strongest antibiotics. This is done so that they're immune to diseases they could contract in the cramped, filthy quarters that they're kept in. All over the world, the meat industry treats animals cruelly, to meet our huge demands and this is contributing to our destruction of the planet. But a few scientists are working to change this. On this episode of The Intersection, Samanth and Padma break down the science of lab-grown meat and discover what it tastes like.
Labradoodles and Saint Bernards are great, but have you ever met a Chippiparai? This lithe stunner is just one of the handful of indigenous dog breeds that are still found around India. Sadly, many of these breeds are disappearing. On this episode, Samanth and Padmaparna speak to dog lovers who are doing their best to conserve these beauties and to a dog-loving civil servant who has studied homegrown breeds for most of his life and has even written a book about them.
Mars has captured our imagination for decades. Our neighbouring planet, easily identifiable as a red orb in the night sky, has inspired scores of research papers, sci-fi novels and alien flicks. People like Elon Musk are even figuring out ways to colonize Mars. But we need to know more about the planet before setting foot on it. What if there is something or someone that already calls Mars home? In this episode of The Intersection, Samanth and Padma speak to a group of scientists working here on Earth to figure out what we might find on Martian soil.
The Spanish Flu was the biggest pandemic of the last century. Five hundred million people were affected and over 14 million people died in India, the worst affected country in the world. But apart from taking millions of lives and disrupting families, the Spanish Flu also had geopolitical repercussions, including on India's freedom struggle.
In this episode of The Intersection, Padma and Samanth learn about the Spanish's Flu's wide-ranging effects and how existing flus around the world share properties with the dangerous 1918 strain.
At some point of time, every human that has ever walked this planet has looked up at the night sky and wondered what the cosmos is trying to tell them. Tribes turned to the heavens when looking for structure and found ingenious ways to build their lives around the stars they saw every night, as Samanth and Padma discover in this stellar episode of The Intersection dedicated to ancient astronomy.
Stampedes are all too common in India--at temples, religious festivals, sporting events and most recently, at a railway station in Mumbai. Though it might seem like unpredictable, unorganized chaos, there are actually computational models that study such potential situations and help authorities, designers and architects avoid them. As The Intersection returns with a new season, find out why stampedes occur and what to do if you're stuck in one.
Isn't it odd that the word for "father" in Spanish ("padre") and Sanskrit ("pitru") sound similar? Especially given the geographic and cultural barriers that separate the two languages? As this episode of The Intersection discovers, there's a reason these languages can sound similar, and what's more, there's actually a way to trace the pronunciations of modern words, sometimes going back 8,000 years. Tune in to know more about the granddaddy of modern Indo-European languages and how a story may have sounded thousands of years ago.
You've probably heard of the Hyperloop, the high-speed mode of transport that could potentially change the way we travel. Dreamed up by entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, the Hyperloop promises to cut travel times substantially, promising to cover 500km in about 30 minutes. There's even talk of the Hyperloop coming to India, and connecting cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and Bengaluru and Chennai. But how does this transport system (that looks like something out of "The Jetsons") work? And is India ready for it? Or are there cheaper upgrades to the current rail network that would be more sensible? Samanth Subramanian and Padmaparna Ghosh find out in this episode of The Intersection.
Music has a power to move us; a few notes of a piece of music can make us feel intensely elated or deeply melancholic. Researchers have done significant work to find out how music connects to our brains and how just a few notes can trigger specific responses among us. This episode of The Intersection goes into the science behind the sounds of music.
We have been taught that like the mule, hybrid animals are sterile. They are generally considered to be ‘freaks’ because human beings are obsessed with ‘purity’ of species. However several experiments have shown that hybrid animals can be fertile and even evolve into a new species. This week, The Intersection tells the story of the Litigon in Kolkata to explain the politics around hybrids in the animal kingdom.
In India, preservation and restoration of old manuscripts is not treated with the seriousness it deserves by libraries. Against this environment of callousness, Anand Akolkar wages a somewhat lonely war, from his humble home in Mumbai. He battles with the harsh elements of nature and an uncaring bureaucracy to preserve and restore old and dying manuscripts. A few thousand miles away in Dublin, we get a peek into the biggest library in Ireland and learn how seriously the preservation and restoration of books is treated. To change our attitude, we need to understand the value of knowledge transmitted through books and learn to cherish them.
Bird watching is not just a hobby that some enthusiasts undertake to pass their time, it can be an exercise in natural historiography itself. Historically and internationally, the contribution of amateur naturalists has been significant and often pioneering. Non-professionals have played a very important role in laying the foundations of Indian natural history since colonial times. And they continue to build on it today as well. Listen to Samanth and Padmaparna in this new episode as they tell us about the amazing bird watchers of Kerala.
Music Credits: Josh Woodward and Chris Zabriske
39 volunteers. 59 countries. 136 airports. With 400 swabs collected over 3 years. That is what it took for researchers to determine the course of bacteria that affect thousands of people worldwide. Multi drug resistant bacteria are growing more powerful each day with microbiologists struggling to find a way to combat these pathogens. Samanth Subramanian and Padmaparna Ghosh talk to Frieder Schaumburg, the microbiologist who ran this study to understand the fight against these superbugs.
People were asked to send in their selfies for a beauty contest judged by AI and the results were shocking. Of the 44 winners of the beauty contest, only one was dark skinned. Elsewhere Microsoft developed a self-learning chat bot, Tay, which was taken offline in just 16 hours because of its offensive behaviour. Are robots inherently racist? Or is it inevitable for them to echo and amplify the prejudices their makers hold?
39 years ago, a radio telescope called Big Ear in Ohio received a sudden burst of waves that were most likely from a source near Sagittarius. The signal, called the Wow signal, named after Astronomer Jerry Ehman’s reaction to it, has never been heard again. But a few astronomers hope to find the mystery behind the source of the signal in the next few years and (hopefully) probe the possibility of a life beyond our planet.
Music Credit: Josh Woodward and Chris Zabriske
Sound Credit: NASA
Bhutan was the first country to take into consideration the happiness of its citizens by measuring GNH (Gross National Happiness). Other institutions in other countries have also tried to set-up similar parameters around the measurement of well-being. But how do you measure something that is so subjective and so difficult to quantify. Samanth Subramanian and Padmaparna Ghosh talk to researchers about the challenges with measuring happiness and its correlation with economic growth.
In 1965, Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli, an officer in the Indian navy, led a group of CIA and IB officials on an arduous trek across 125 kilometres, for a covert mission to spy on China’s nuclear capability. They changed course a month into this arduous trek after encountering a severe avalanche and the story was soon forgotten. The abandoned mission only came back into the news, after a leak in the 1970s, when questions were raised in parliament about the dangers of the lost plutonium. In this episode of The Intersection, Samanth Subramanian revisits the mission and speaks to Vinod Jose on his fascinating story.
Communication is not limited only to the words we hear or the signs we see, it can go beyond that. Plants cannot speak, hear, see or move, so how do these plants communicate? Is their language made up of chemicals and signals? In this brand new episode, we cover the work done by scientists to study the relationship plants have with the complex ecosystem around them.
A lot of what we see around is defined by its colour. When a new colour is added, there are exciting new possibilities in terms of shades that are possible and how they may be used. A new shade of blue was discovered in Oregon, USA which the makers called YInMn Blue, named after the elements it consists of - Yttrium, Indium and Manganese. This is exciting because it’s the first new blue in over 200 years. Padmaparna Ghosh speaks to Professor Mas Subramanian who developed this colour who tells us what makes the YInMn Blue so special.
Music credit: Josh Woodward and Chris Zabriske
Pic credit: Oregon State University
Are the floods in Mumbai, Chennai, Assam and other parts of India related to the wildfires in North America? In his new book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that these calamities are a direct outcome of climate change and our response to this has been inadequate. He also suggests that the Indian media is conveniently ignoring these very serious events because it is more fixated with Bollywood, Cricket and Politics (as a circus).
The rich linguistic diversity of India is under threat, over 300 languages spoken by communities in geographically isolated areas have gone extinct and over a 100 more are endangered. As we move towards homogeneity in the name of progress, several indigenous languages across India are merging with more dominant ones. Meet V K Neelarao who concerned by the intrusion of Tamil in his original Saurashtrian language, made a film called ‘Hedde Jamoi’ to raise awareness for this dying language. Also on this episode, we talk to Dr. Arup Kumar Nath at Tezpur University’s Centre for Endangered Languages about how researchers and students are documenting and preserving disappearing languages and protecting a vital link with our past.
Music credit: Josh Woodward and Chirs Zabriske
Pic credit: www.andamanese.net
It took George A. Grierson about 30 years to finish his masterpiece —the Linguistic Survey of India, a monumental publication that documented 179 languages and 544 dialects across the extensive and diverse borders of India. Today these historic archives are available at the click of a mouse, but this compilation —of fables, songs, stories and epic poetry became a cornerstone of Indian language studies. Almost 100 years later, this epic work had a companion, when eminent Indian linguist Ganesh Devy’s People’s Survey of India was published. He identified 780 languages: some dead, some in the process of dying, some non-verbal and some that reflect the ones that Grierson recorded.
Music by Josh Woodward and Chris Zibriske
Pic Credit: Minna Sundberg
A few decades ago the curator of the Government Museum in Madras approached nuclear scientist Dr. Baldev Raj with a problem; bronze Chola idols that were stolen were being returned or retrieved but there was no way to identify if they were real. This posed a challenge not just to Dr. Raj but all other scientists in India: how to identify the origin of a historical artifact? How to tease out its ‘fingerprints’ and find out the era it belonged to? And can you use science to tell fake ones from real?
How do you think the world will end? Nuclear war, zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion? While we may argue about the brutal method through which our race will perish, meet the 15 people whose job it is to debate the actual possibilities of total destruction of human kind, through a Doomsday Clock. This is an invention that measures symbolically how long our world will survive by taking into account various factors that threaten the world’s survival. On the latest episode, we tell you how very close we are to our own end. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
It is said that the artists and craftsmen who built the Taj Mahal had their arms chopped off on the orders of Emperor Shah Jahan, so they could never build such a structure again. The Taj Mahal is known for its perfection, Rabindranath Tagore thought it was “a tear on the cheek of time” and for centuries the architecture of this monument has fascinated both experts and the lakhs of tourists who flock here every day. However Dilip Ahuja, a scientist, also made a startling observation — that the monument known around the world for its perfection, wasn’t actually perfect.
Only a month ago, Chirag Roy, an experienced naturalist and passionate snake rescuer, was bitten by a venomous snake near the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. The region, home to the four most venomous snakes in India was typically under-resourced. Rushed to a hospital 2 hours away, Chirag didn’t survive. India suffers the highest occurrence of deaths and loss of limbs due to snakebite. Regarded as a ‘poor man’s problem, the situation is compounded by superstition, ignorance and just plain apathy. Samanth and Padma talk to experts across the field about different types of venom, the aftermath of a cobra bite, the use of horses in the making of anti-venom and raising awareness about this very avoidable cause of death.
Biomimicry is the imitation of models and systems that already exist in nature, through various means, for the purpose of human usage. Several useful inventions that we rely on today are a product of seeking inspiration from nature, such as Velcro, LED lights and turbines; by seeking inspiration from natural species as varied as crickets and hawks. This growingly popular science acknowledges that nature can be, more advanced in design than what humans can conceive.
In the 1930s, P.C Mahalanobis built the ‘profiloscope’, which attempted to determine a person's race, using an instrument that was primarily a modified version of a camera. It used the facial features of the subject to determine his race, using a rudimentary version of what we now know as biometry. This now-forgotten apparatus never had an established purpose for its invention, but it did raise the important question: Who is an ‘Indian’?
Amidst the backdrop of a nation that was struggling to establish its national identity, in the face of communal tension and colonial rule, P.C Mahalanobis' instrument attempted to assimilate India on the basis of national identity, in a scientific manner.
Chairman of the British ornithologist club, Richard Meinertzhagen was once the most eminent authority on South Asian birds. In 1954, his collection of over 25,000 bird skins was even acquired by the prestigious Natural History Museum in Britain. Thirty years after his death, it was found that he had stolen birds and passed them off as his own. A lot of his data was also found to be was false. Samanth and Padmaparna speak to Pamela Rasmussen in this fascinating new crime-thriller-science-detective-mystery.
Albert Einstein first came up with the concept of gravitational waves, with the Theory of Relativity as the basis for their existence. A century and countless scientific discoveries later, Einstein's theory has been confirmed -- gravitational waves have been detected by LIGO. This has been labelled as one of the biggest astrophysical discoveries of the century.
Picture: SXS, The Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS project)
Music: Chris Zabriskie
During the 1999 Kargil War, India realised the need for GPS data in the region. The information at that time was owned by the US Air Force, which underlined the importance of developing an indigenous navigation system. Nicknamed desi-GPS, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) will soon replace GPS, which is directly under the control of the US Air Force. It signifies a different kind of independence for our country. It will be useful in land, sea and air navigation, integration with mobile phones, navigation aid for hikers and travellers, and for visual and voice navigation for drivers. The Intersection finds out the history behind the mission of developing IRNSS, and the importance of an indigenous satellite system.
Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
1 hour 58 minutes – that’s the time it took to transport a heart from Indore to Mumbai, covering a distance of almost 550 kilometres. It was the penultimate act in a series of events that began with coordination over a messaging application, WhatsaApp, and ended with the heart being successfully transplanted into a 16-year-old girl in Mumbai. The Intersection goes behind the frenzy, bringing you the story of how a group of committed people is making up for the absence of a centralised, government-supported setup to organise heart transplants in India.
Music: Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
From the kitchens of the 4000-year-old Indus Valley Civilisation comes this story of the world’s first curry and how an Indian writer, Soity Banerjee, recreated the dish in her own kitchen. It wasn’t easy – there was no recipe she could follow or a modern variant she could use as a reference. It took a mix of scientific research (conducted by Arunima Kashyap & Steve Weber) and a process of trial and error before she was able to dish up a curry that could have conceivably been cooked by someone in Farmana, an Indus Valley dig site in Haryana. How did she manage to do what she did? Tune in to find out.
Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
In 2015, The Intersection came across fascinating tales, mind-boggling facts and historical nuggets that demystify science and lend it a human touch. From the man who slept for just two hours every day to the postage stamp that set off a grand space mission, listen to seven of the most intriguing stories that Padma & Samanth brought to you on The Intersection this year.
Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
At a basic level, most of us wish for pretty standard things – food, shelter, clothing and some clean air that we can breathe. Is it really too much to ask for? Air pollution has been the talk of the town, with 13 Indian cities being ranked in a list of the world’s most polluted cities. While we understand that levels of pollution in certain areas are high, we lack hard data. How does pollution flow? Does a green cover provide complete protection from pollutants? Low-cost air quality sensors may help provide the answers to these questions. They cannot compare to the government’s heavy-duty, but often inadequate and poorly-placed, sensors. But, the supplementary monitoring they provide can address pollution at a local level. Is a collaborative effort of this kind what we need to combat the deadly menace of air pollution? The Intersection finds out.
Music: Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
Walking, for someone like Khusbir Kaur, the national record holder in the 20-kilometre race walk event, is serious business. The rest of us generally do not give it much thought. It’s part of our daily life, but have you ever wondered why we walk the way we walk? How do our bodies ensure that we walk in the most energy-efficient manner? And, biomechanics aside, when and why did we switch to moving about on two limbs? The answers, The Intersection finds out, are fascinating, and can lead to a better understanding of the human walk, which can have major practical applications.
Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
For 25 years, the Ig Nobel Prize has been rewarding funny, seemingly absurd achievements that, in their words, “first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK”. But, behind the absurdity lies serious science that can add, and often has added, to our collective knowledge. From the psychiatrist who studied the prevalence of nose picking among 200 children, to the economist who sold enough copies of his book to “single-handedly prevent worldwide economic collapse”, The Intersection examines the stories of a few Ig Nobel winners and the scientific potential of their research.
The burgeoning Indian army contingent fighting in the Second World War faced problems apart from just the ones it encountered on the field of battle. The Indian recruits were found to be sickly and deficient in essential nutrients. The Intersection investigates how nutrition research has evolved since then and how the Indian army overhauled its diet, while simultaneously overcoming the challenges posed by our country’s diverse food culture and habits.
Music: Josh Woodward & Chris Zabriskie
Image: Palmer (CC)
What does reforesting a barren tract of land entail? A popular guess would be that it involves months, maybe years, of aggressive restoration practices, which allow flora and fauna to flourish. But, nature is remarkably resilient and sometimes, all it takes is avoiding human intervention, and simply letting nature take its course. This is the story of Sejal Worah, a woman who almost single-handedly restored a degraded hill located inside a forest in Mussoorie.
Some of us check the time on our wrists, but most increasingly on our phones. But, who dictates what the correct time is? The timekeepers of the nation are actually based at Delhi’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which holds the mandate to develop standards of measurement, including, among others, time. This episode comes to you from within the NPL, bringing you the origins of Indian Standard Time, along with a predicament – should such a large country have just one time zone?
Most of us know pi as an infinite number that plays a crucial role in calculations for circular or spherical objects. But, from the human DNA and the larger cosmos to the way a river snakes its way to the sea, this irrational number can be found all around us. And, its mysteries are tough to crack. Did we invent pi? Or does it just happen to exist everywhere? Why can't we replace it with any other constant? And, more importantly, what is the purpose of this number? Tune in for the absorbing story of pi.
“What wouldn’t I give for more hours in a day!” It's a common sentiment in our hectic era. One way to do it – to enlarge our days – would be to shrink the time we spend sleeping. Here's the story of one Akshat Rathi, who did just that in an year-long experiment to survive, and even thrive, on 4-5 hours of sleep every day. Is his experiment a sign of a future in which we can function on less sleep? Were our ancestors, with their afternoon naps, on to something? Tune in to The Intersection to find out.
Migraines – debilitating and agonising, there’s not much that can be done about them. Science is still looking for an effective way to prevent these recurring headaches. The answer to what can help cure migraines may lie in research conducted among the Parsi population. This episode of The Intersection investigates how the homogeneous nature of this community can assist science in finding a solution to migraines.
On 15 July, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto, becoming the first spacecraft to do so. Much has been said about this nine-year, three-billion-mile journey. However, this is the little-known story of the early years of Pluto’s exploration plan; the story of an innocuous US postage stamp that branded Pluto as “Not Yet Explored”, and how it fired up scientists’ desire to reach the dwarf planet.
Music- Chris Zabriskie
Sound and Image credit- NASA
In this episode of The Intersection, Padmaparna and Samanth trace back to an Indian experiment, conducted in a goldmine in Karnataka in the 1950s. Work was carried out three kilometres underground in search of the elusive neutrino particle that could help uncover great mysteries of the universe, including the Big Bang. Find out what happens when science meets politics and how this quagmire is frustrating the Indian scientific community.
(Music - Josh Woodward and Chris Zabriskie)