Friday, February 29, 2008


I am an avid collector of seashells. There is something about these lifeless remnants of calcium carbonate from the exoskeleton of mollusks that never cease to fascinate me. Have you ever looked at them closely, observing the ridges, the patterns of rings, the different shades of colors? Like fingerprints, every shell is different from the other one, even the one lying the closest to it. It is so much fun digging your hand in the wet sand after having targeted a particular shell embedded in it, visible only half way. There is so much mystery involved in how big it would be, or how colorful. Sometimes your eyesight deludes you into picking up something that was nothing more than a half split and discarded groundnut shell. And then I jump excitedly when I find two little shells jointed together at their tips. It makes me think of the life that was nested within it, popping its head out occasionally to feed itself or move or see the world. The shell protected it from danger, from adverse weather conditions, giving it the luxury and comforts of a protected existence. And then the life within it died and was washed away, leaving behind remnants of hard rock to live a life of loneliness and solitude till it is either picked up by a collector like me, or vanished into the elements of the earth in anonymity. If shells could tell stories, have you wondered what would those autobiographies look like? Subjected to the sun and the moon and rain, being washed away by the sea again and again, tossed back and forth from the sea to the shore, so many of them all lying lonely, discarded, disjointed, witnessing hundreds of generations come by and go?

I have often wondered how long shells last before the elements are degraded back into the earth and recycled. What gives them their distinctive color and size and patterns? Is it influenced by the environment, or by the genetics of the organism? How can one determine the age of shells? If there was life on other planets, would there be seashells too? There are hundreds of questions I ask myself when I look at a shell. Like people spend hours looking at old photo albums and reminiscing about happy memories, I spend hours, looking at each and every shell I have collected. Back in India, I have thousands of them collected from different parts of the world, neatly dated and labeled in transparent jars. How it broke my heart to leave everything behind. When a friend was visiting Europe and asked me what I fancied from Europe, I’d asked the friend to collect as many shells from as many different beaches as possible. So my collection included shells from the beaches of France, Spain, and Italy, not to mention dozens of beaches in India. My greatest collection were these hundreds of little conch shells in Vizag that housed the hermit crabs, and our home stunk for days while I boiled them and cleaned them.

So what got me thinking about shells, of all things? The weather has been darn good for the last 2 weeks, and after a day’s bunking classes and coming early from work, me and my roomie decided to go to the beach. Now the beaches around here haven’t impressed me a lot in terms of their shell collection. I wasn’t even expecting shells in a beach that is no more than 2 feet wide. But there they were, tiny pieces of black and white jutting their heads out. They weren’t pretty and all looked the same, no beautiful ridges, just tiny lumps of black and white and grey. But even before I knew, I was crouched on the sand, collecting these little shells with both hands, as many as I could, stuffing as many as I could in my pockets and socks. A few hours later, I was a happy kid, running gleefully on the beach. I put my prized collection in a transparent container and placed it on my study table, in between pens and pencils, for me to see them whenever I look up. Now these shells do not run the risk of being lost in anonymity, washed by the waves and ending up being nobody while no one knows them. They can live with me to be marveled at by people who visit me and see them.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Science Fo(u)r You…

Mingling with different cultures is a great way to learn new things. Everyone of us brings unique things, that makes a cross-cultural study environment such a diverse and rich learning experience. Last week was the Chinese New Year, and the group in our class was discussing and reviewing the following paper-

The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: natural experiment on the influence of the psychological stress on the timing of death (DP Phillips, GC Liu, et al, 2001)

I haven’t referenced it properly here, but that is okay. What I found interesting in this paper was the fact that Chinese and Japanese people consider the number “4” unlucky. “In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, the words DEATH and FOUR are pronounced almost identically”. It seemed funny to me at first, but then again, aren’t there similar notions attached to the number 13 by many people? What was more incredible was the fact was the finding that on the fourth day of the month, cardiac deaths were significantly more frequent than on any other day. The paper discussed experimental designs to test the validity of the finding. Much to my amazement, the hypothesis did have substantial validity, the mortality peak on the fourth day of the month being called the “Baskerville Effect” (After the hound of Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Evidently, the deaths are mainly due to chronic heart diseases, reasserting the proposed hypothesis that cardiac mortality increases on psychologically stressful occasions.

Now what does it translate into from a layman’s point of view? That more people die on the 4th of any month compared to the other days, just because the way the words “four” and “death” is pronounced is similar? Apparently that seems to be the case, though in not so much of a cut and dried way. It is more of a cultural phenomenon with unpleasant associations, and it seems that the number 4 evokes discomfort and apprehension in some members of the Chinese and the Japanese population. “Some Chinese and Japanese hospitals do not list a fourth floor or number any rooms 4. Mainland Chinese omit the number 4 in designating military aircraft—an omission said to result from the link between “four” and “death”. Some Japanese people avoid travel on the fourth of the month, and some
Chinese patients are apprehensive about this date. Aversion to the number 4 is also evidenced by Chinese and Japanese restaurants, which avoid this number”

Four and death have similar pronunciations in the native language. However, the pronunciation of 13 in English is not related to death. This apparent lack of “linguistic link” may explain why English population shows no peak in mortality during the 13th day of the month.

Personally, I didn’t really want to shrug off the hypothesis till there were stronger evidences to disprove it. It might sound incredible, but incidences happening a certain number of times in a distinct pattern changes intangible beliefs into science, provided of course there is a suitable logic to back it up. My Chinese friends were reluctant to speak about this issue on an auspicious day, which in itself showed their strong beliefs. They did accede that most people strongly associated the number four with death.

Now, I hadn’t heard anything like this before, and this got me thinking. I personally have some strong associations with the number 4, not that I am a believer in numerology. I was born on the 4th day. For quite a few years, my roll number has been 4 in school. My name starts with the 4th alphabet. I thought I had found true love when I was in class 4 (don’t even ask me about it ! I still know the guy !). This is the 4th city I am living in. I don’t even have any issues with the number 13. I had applied to 13 US schools a few years ago, and my family had some qualms about it. I wasn’t trying to prove a point, 13 happened accidentally, and I let it remain that way. Big deal. I don’t really have issues with numbers or alphabets as such. However, your perspectives and comments would make the discussion here all the more interesting. If you are looking for the paper and are unable to find it, please drop me an email. It's past 4 am, and I must sleep now.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

(Role)ing On The Floor Laughing

Some professors have this amazing way of teaching in class. Slideshows, video clips, whatever works. I remember my days in India when a conch-shell bespectacled prof would come and make us write notes for a full two hours till our biceps threatened to fall off. If the prof was especially a woman, she would hold the bunch of brown papers back from the days of Akbar’s rule so close to her bosom that any unsuspecting individual would suspect she was holding confidential FBI reports. Anyway, things are different here, and professors device new methods to ensure that people like me do not doze off in class. Sometime back I was in a class on asbestos and lung cancer, and the prof spent an hour’s class passing samples of asbestos in different forms so that we knew what he was talking about. And no, he did not hold the asbestos samples close to his bosom like the confidential notes in the previous case.

So I am taking this class on the health of mothers and children in developing countries, and we had already spent a few classes looking at the live videos of childbirth. While my fellow mates stared in amazement and excitement, I clenched my hands together, almost on the verge of passing out. Trust me, it might be very touching, but not really exciting to see clips of childbirth, especially when you have a history of passing out every now and then.

This being done, the prof told us that the next class would be spent enacting a skit. There would be a particular maternal health situation and the students will take on different roles to present a short play. Now this was a cool idea, since although we were not very clear about the scripts, we were told the various roles people would have. There would be big officers from the government agencies who are involved in policy making and implementation. There would be renowned doctors and skilled birth attendants. I mean, all these roles would be enacted by different students in the class. So after class, the teaching assistant came up with her list of who was gonna be what. Though it seemed like child play, suddenly I was very excited at the prospect of participating in this play. You see, barring the “scared of bloodbath” part, I have always thought that being a doctor is a cool thing to do in life. So even if not in real life, I could at least act the role of a doctor in the play.

Teaching Assistant (TA): So X, Y, and Z are gonna enact the role of policy makers from the WHO. (X, Y, and Z do a somersault in joy).

A and B will act as representatives of the World Bank (Same reaction, more somersaults ensue).

P, Q, and R will be health workers (I started to wonder when she would tell me about my role. Which by the way I was sure was going to be that of a doctor).

C and D can act as birth attendants.

G and H will be nurses.

K, L and M would be doctors (What !!! I am not a doctor? Then what am I? A sinking feeling started to dawn on me).

Anyone else remaining?

I raised my hand in anticipation. The TA smiled. I started to breathe easy.

TA: Oh yeah, we forgot you (She looked at the list in her hand).

I: So what will I be?
TA: You’ll be the patient.
I: What? What patient?? (I was already disappointed).

TA: A pregnant patient.
I: Ohhh !!!!!! (Suddenly, my world had become very dark).

TA: We are dealing with health issues due to multiple pregnancies here. Developing nations need to know the harmful health effects of producing too many children. You will be the woman on her 5th pregnancy who already has four kids.

Everything had suddenly gone irrelevant for me. Pregnant with the 5th child, of all the roles? I don’t know why, but all I was reminded of was the white rats in the labs that reproduced in litters. If each of our lives was a movie, I am sure everyone was the protagonist, the hero and the heroine in their own lives. I did not care about the “pregnant” silence and my “labored” breaths as I refused to take the bus and walked back home instead. Punning was the last thing on my mind, believe me.