The Gist of Science Reporter: November 2014

The Gist of Science Reporter: November 2014


The launch of India’s PSLV-C23 rocket was delayed by the prospect of satellite debris hurtling through space crashing into it. But eventually the Indian Space Research Organisation’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle PSLV-C23 lifted off from the First Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota at 9.52 am on 30 June 2014. It carried with it five satellites from four foreign countries. And between 17 and 19 minutes after liftoff, the PSLV placed all the five satellites into their intended orbits.

The probable space debris was from the 2011 collision of a US satellite and a Russian satellite at altitudes above 600 km. The two objects identified three days before the launch were 15 cm to 20 cm across. Travelling at great speeds, space debris measuring even a few inches across can damage spacecraft. However, with a delay of three minutes PSLV-C23 successfully avoided the debris without affecting the mission because it had a launch window period of 20 minutes. Since debris in space moves at a velocity of several kilometers per second, by slightly delaying the launch the objects can be avoided by thousands of kilometers.

With the successful insertion into orbit of all the five satellites riding on PSLV-C23, ISRO has notched up an impressive total of 40 foreign satellites from 19 countries that it has successfully launched so far, earning substantial sums of foreign exchange for the country. The countries include Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Singapore, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Turkey and United Kingdom.

The primary payload of PSLV-C23 consisted of the 714 kg French Earth Observation Satellite SPOT-7. Built by Airbus Defence and Space, a leading European space technology company, SPOT-7 is identical to SPOT-6 launched earlier by PSLV-C21 in September 2012.

Along with the primary payload, PSLV-C23 also carried and placed in orbit the 14 kg AISAT, a nano satellite of Germany, for global sea traffic monitoring. It has been fitted with an array of antennas that will receive transponder signals during sea rescue operations. Two other satellites were NLS7.1 (CAN-X4) and NLS7.2 (CAN-X5) of Canada each weighing 15 kg whose primary objective is researching whether satellites can be designed to facilitate sub-metre tracking error accuracy. And finally, PSLV-C23 also placed into orbit the 7 kg VELOX-1 of Singapore, which is a technology demonstrator for the Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University’s Undergraduate Satellite Program, designed to provide students with real-world aerospace experience.

The textbook precision launch of the five satellites on board PSLV-C23 has once again reinforced ISRO’s commanding position as a leading space agency in the world, making India proud.

Menthol Cigarettes Also Harmful

More and more young people are choosing menthol cigarette today with the belief that it is safer than non-menthol cigarette. However, menthol cigarettes too are known to cause diseases like lung cancer, cardiovascular diseases (atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, arrhythmias) and respiratory diseases (lung cancer, chronic bronchitis etc).

A recent study published in Cancer Causes and Control found that menthol users smoked an average of 43 cigarettes a week, close to double the 26 smoked by non-menthol users. The study also found that menthol smokers are more addictive than non-menthol smokers. While smoking menthol cigarettes, the pleasant, cooling sensation causes the user to inhale more tobacco smoke with each drag. Menthol smokers thereby take in high concentration of nicotine than non-menthol smokers. As a result, menthol cigarette smokers may have higher frequency of smoking related sicknesses and become more quickly addicted and also may smoke more cigarettes than those who smoke non-mentholated cigarettes.

Smoking poses a big risk especially among those who start smoking cigarettes regularly in their teenage years. It also harms people who are exposed to it passively. Menthol cigarettes have also been shown to inhibit nicotine metabolisation, leading to increased systemic nicotine exposure.

Two Day Seminar at NIAS, Banglore When Science Meets the Public: Bridging the Gap

A Politician once famously exhorted his followers not to vote for the ruling party since the dam it had built had squeezed out all energy from the water. Yet another chief minister is known to have consulted an astrologer when a super cyclone was heading towards the shores. The astrologer predicted that the cyclone would break into two and so there was nothing to worry about. Hundreds died as the cyclone hit the state.

Last year, despite serious misgivings about unplanned development in the hills and innumerable reports to that effect, the establishment took note only when a disaster struck Uttarkashi and thousands lost their lives. And, of course, even today we keep reading and hearing about people flocking to pay obeisance to fake sadhus and babas who have a penchant for irrational, unscientific and totally ridiculous utterances.

Despite mastering the most advanced mobile phones easily the public still remains confused whether transgenic technology is good or bad, whether nuclear reactors will solve our energy issues or create new radiation hazards, and whether development at all cost is advisable. Policy makers and lawmakers too continue to move ahead with unscientific development projects. Where does the problem lie?

Engaging the civil society has become increasingly essential also because the public has today become sceptical of government communication, said Dr K. Kasturirangan, former member, Planning Commission, in his inaugural address. This is clearly demonstrated by the public outcry over stem cells, GM crops and nuclear reactors, he said. He cited the example of the Chandrayaan-1 project as a case of extremely successful engagement with the public that generated strong “trust plus” in contrast to “deficit plus”. There was a need, he said, for independent communication agencies to engage with public bodies.

But do we have any idea of the belief systems and the scientific bent of mind of the citizens of such a large country like India with mindboggling diversities of language, culture, topography, social strata, educational status and so on? Gauhar Raza from CSIR-NISCAIR pointed out that no national level study had been carried out so far in India to gauge the level of scientific awareness of the Indian populace. Science communication and scientific awareness programmes will have to be designed based on such an understanding, he said. Once people develop an understanding of scientific issues it is easier to take them along. This was beautifully exemplified in a presentation by Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh. Singh said development work of the urban psyche involves displacement of water, soil, forests, people, etc. But local development work involves development of local resources. He recounted how he managed to create awareness in the villagers of Gopalpura in Alwar district of Rajasthan about their problems and the need to look for local solutions rather than depend on government aid. This led to building of embankments to store water, consequently raising the water level in dry wells and rejuvenating rivers. An excellent example of a communication initiative that yielded sustainable results.

Another issue that was raised by several speakers related to the lack of accessibility of information from scientific organisations and agencies. This is a problem often faced by journalists. The issue was raised by T.V. Jayan from The Telegraph, a Kolkata- based newspaper and TV Padma from, an online science news portal. Why this should be the case is somehow difficult to understand. On the contrary, scientific organisations, departments and agencies need to be professionally and ethically mandated to engage the public with the scientific projects they work on and the scientific products they roll out.

Perhaps, therefore, apart from bridging the gap with the public what is also required is bridging the gap between scientists and journalists. Mechanisms need to be worked out to foster greater networking and interaction between the scientific and the journalistic communities.

Throughout the two days of the seminar, however, there seemed to be no doubt that more efforts were required to engage the public with science at different forums. Of course, India can boast of a number of science communication initiatives, both at the national level as well as the regional level. However, these efforts are widely scattered. There has hardly been any effort to bring together such programmes and projects to amplify their effectiveness on a large scale.

Perhaps there is a need to chalk out a national science communication policy or strategy. Such a national policy or strategy could bring together all scientific departments, organisations and universities to forge effective science communication initiatives. It could also assess the level of scientific awareness of different segments of the society and devise science communication programmes accordingly.

It needs to be realised that today public receptivity to science is high. However, unimaginative and piecemeal efforts at communication will only transform this receptivity into serious misgivings about science. At the same time, effective communication programmes hold the potential to increase receptivity among the public for critical and national scientific projects and endeavours.

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