Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Icicles Hang by the Wall

The city is draped in freshly fallen snow! It looks so pristine that it's heartwarming (although in a frosty kind of a way). I couldn't resist roaming around for some quick captures (in time before the slush takes over). Frostbitten as my fingers are, it felt delightful! Now for a cup of hot chocolate, a fuzzy blanket, and a mystery novel. What say?

As the Bard of Avon wrote, "When icicles hang by the wall.."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The One World Schoolhouse

As most of us will agree, "there is an enormous difference between bemoaning the state of education and actually doing something about it." As founder of the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization aimed at "changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere," educator Sal Khan indubitably falls into the sparsely populated actually-doing-something category! In his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, he shares with us the story of how he embarked upon his remarkable expedition to transform education and his vision for the schoolhouse of tomorrow.
Book review: The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan

Saturday, December 01, 2012


Thrilling as it may sound to be able to rewrite our genomes — to harness synthetic biology to transcend challenges such as disease and scarcity of food that have plagued the human race since eternity and venture into the realms of transhumanism, we are still a long way from that goal. And yet, much of this is more than just a pipe dream. In the book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves, Harvard professor George Church, a pioneer in the field, and co-author Ed Regis take us on a wonderful tour of synthetic biology giving us a clearer picture of what we have achieved and can achieve in the near or distant future and the tools and ideas that can take us there. 

Book review: Regenesis by George Church and Ed Regis

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Day at the Aquarium

Last Saturday I went to the New England Aquarium, which happens to be one of my favorite neighborhood destinations. Needless to say, I was armed with my new super-zoom buddy. Turns out the aquarium's central attraction, the Giant Ocean Tank, is "undergoing a top-to-bottom, 21st-century transformation." The penguins and several of their buddies are therefore on vacation. I am certainly looking forward to the makeover, which is due for completion in summer 2013! Meanwhile here are some shots, mostly of swimmers in near-perpetual motion, set in the aquarium's low-light ambience. I'm still getting used to the camera's manual mode (and clearly remain far from my target). So please do bear with me!
"Jelly jam": Japanese sea nettles on a collision course

Monday, September 10, 2012

So Long, and Thanks for All the Inner Fish

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, a book with a rather curious title, traces our shared lineage with other organisms going back hundreds of years to our aquatic ancestors. Its author, Neil Shubin was a member of the team that, in 2006, discovered the purported missing link between fish and terrestrial tetrapods. It was a paleontological breakthrough that fascinated academics and laypersons alike (links: Nature and New York Times). The 375 million year old fossilized animal, excavated from the Canadian Arctic exposures, was named Tiktaalik, or "large freshwater fish" in the Inuktitut language. As a paleontologist who taught anatomy to university students, Shubin has written this wonderful book which helps us understand anatomy in light of our shared descent with the rest of the animal kingdom. According to him:
The best road maps to human bodies lie in the bodies of other animals. The simplest way to teach students the nerves in the human head is to show them the state of affairs in sharks. The easiest road map to their limbs lies in fish. Reptiles are a real help with the structure of the brain. The reason is that the bodies of these creatures are often simpler versions of ours. 
Book review: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Wildlife Safari

I have been looking for an excuse to revisit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for a while. My renewed interest in this place was spurred by the knowledge of it being home to the only two surviving Northern White Rhinos in the world (a species I got particularly attached to after reading Douglas Adams' book Last Chance to See and watching the follow-up BBC documentary shot 20 years after the book). My PowerShot SX40 HS, which has been sitting practically unused since purchase, gave me that excuse I needed to make this long overdue visit finally happen. The SX40 is a high-end, super-zoom point-and-shoot. Most of my captures are of either distant or moving targets. 
African lion at Lion Camp enjoying his siesta

Monday, September 03, 2012

Of Megafauna And Men

During the Pleistocene epoch, colossal relatives of many familiar present-day creatures roamed the earth. Some of these formidable megafauna species vanished abruptly (in what paleontologists like to call blitzkriegs) while some faded out gradually. Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth's Largest Animals by Sharon Levy is a safari through the Pleistocene and the (ongoing) Holocene epochs acquainting us with behemoths then and now. In the author's own words:
This book tells the story of the megafauna and us. It is a tale of human coexistence and clashes with giant animals, past and present, and our responsibility toward them in the future.
Just as the struggles of surviving megafauna offer clues about how and why their lost cousins perished, Pleistocene extinctions offer lessons that can be critical for the conservation of megafauna living today. 

Book review: Once and Future Giants by Sharon Levy

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Garden Canvas

The Meadowlark Botanical Gardens were quite a treat for my humble little point-and-shoot. I found this place to be perfectly charming with its uncountably many shades of green, formidable expanse, curious decor and artwork, and eclectic collection of visitors (including flyers, swimmer, crawlers, and of course walkers)! Without further ado, here are some captures.
The caterpillar and the ladybug share arboreal real estate

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Language Wars

A language is a transcript of history, not an immutable edifice. 
And yet people continue to quibble and bicker about what qualifies as "proper" English. While the wars wage in full flourish, we continue to struggle with the unavoidable and confusing baggage of grammar, spelling, punctuation, pronunciation, and vocabulary. In his book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, Henry Hitchings makes the horrors of the English language a tad less horrifying by helping us understand it better from a historical and geographical standpoint.

Book review: The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Lies Beneath

While philosophers and scientists have been trying to unravel the mysteries of the human psyche since time immemorial, the focus has generally been on the conscious mind. It is only over the last couple of centuries or so that the significance of unconscious mental processes began to be truly appreciated. While this revelation has given new directions to neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, its influence extends beyond the frontiers of science. Artists from different schools (mannerism, impressionism, modernism, and expressionism, to name a few) have knowingly or unknowingly exploited the observer's unconscious to create evocative masterpieces. In his book The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel tells an intriguing story about how the unconscious, for the first time, came to be the focal point of a cultural movement in Vienna of the 1900s and provides a scientific treatise on the inner workings of the brain as it creates art or responds to it. What unified the artistic and scientific endeavors of fin de siècle Vienna was the general propensity toward looking beneath the surface for hidden answers and deeper truths, a practice that was to have a long-lasting influence on science and art.

Book review: The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cogito, Ergo Sum

People willingly concede that when it comes to nuclear physics or kidney dialysis, specialized knowledge is essential. But let the conversation turn to consciousness, and everybody chimes in, on the assumption that they are all entitled to their own pet theory in the absence of pertinent facts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the reasons for such naive theorizing is that the enigmatic nature of consciousness baffles us all (scientist, non-scientist alike), and we try to analyze it within the realms of our individual conscious experiences. For those truly curious, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch will be an intellectual adventure that attempts to provide several such "pertinent facts" and directs us toward the right questions that need to addressed to resolve this longstanding enigma.

Book review: Consciousness by Christof Koch

Monday, May 28, 2012

Awaiting Venus

The countdown has begun as the world prepares to see Venus make its transit across the Sun, a rare event and the last of its kind this century. On June 5-6, 2012 we should be able to watch Venus appear as a black spot and glide slowly across the face of the Sun. Some quick facts about the Transits of Venus: 
  • They occur at gaps of 8,121.5, 8, and 105.5 years (the full pattern repeats every 243 years).
  • The last one occurred in 2004. After 2012, the next one is not due until 2117! 
  • Depending on where you are (see map below), you may be able to watch the full transit, only the entry (before sunset), only the exit (after sunrise), or neither. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Topol-logy 101: Healthcare for Homo Digitus

Cardiologist Eric Topol's recent book The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care was quite an eye-opening and thought-provoking read. We live in an age where our lives are heavily reliant on smartphones and other digital gadgets. Be it navigation, finding a nearby restaurant, or simple event reminders, digital practice has transformed our lives. Yet healthcare continues to be a different (and alarmingly primitive) experience. Some radical change is called for in this arena, be it in small matters like eliminating the annoying paperwork preceding a doctor appointment or getting your physician to respond to your emails quicker or bigger matters like conquering deadly diseases, saving lives, and reducing healthcare costs. This "transformation that accompanies radical innovation" is what Dr. Topol refers to as "creative destruction" in the title of his book. The key to it lies in the unified incorporation of four digital domains into healthcare: wireless physiological monitoring, genomics, imaging, and health information technology.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Discovering Madrid

It is a city teeming with life, an art-lover's paradise, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The official symbol of Madrid is an upright bear next to a Madroño tree, displayed in form of an almost 20 ton statue at Puerta del Sol, the city center.
The bear and the Madroño tree at Puerta del Sol. The Madroño tree is often referred to as a strawberry tree as it bears little red berries that look similar to strawberries.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pause, Rewild, Play

In his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, biologist Rob Dunn presents a compelling perspective about how, in spite of the tremendous progress in human civilization, our lifestyle, in particular our interaction with other species, continues to be guided (and occasionally misguided) by primitive cues from our ancient brains.

Book review: The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Connecting the Dots to Who You Are

The connectome, a term coined by Olaf Sporns, is a neural connectivity map for the entire brain. In 2010, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Connectome Project, a $30 million initiative seeking to use advanced medical imaging techniques to map the structural and functional connectivity of the healthy human brain. The participating institutions were to be Washington University, St. Louis, the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University, Boston, and the University of California Los Angeles. "Better understanding of such connectivity promises improved diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders," said their news release. This post is about the recently released book Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are which happens to be quite an illuminating read on this cutting-edge topic. 
Book review: Connectome by Sebastian Seung