All hands on deck

This dates to when I was in college. Gathering around the newspaper over a cup of tea was a family tradition. One day there was a newspaper article about how scientists were catching hold of male Anopheles mosquitos and castrating them, as a means to control malaria.

An uncle listened patiently while another read out the report. And at the end of it, he went: Can’t you control malaria better by simply killing the mosquito you caught, instead of taking all this trouble — plus, dead mosquitos don’t bite, but castrated ones do?

Here’s a story that reminds me of that time [more here].

A research vessel carrying a team of about 30 researchers, technicians and crew members embarked on Sunday on a three-week voyage from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, based at the University of California at San Diego.

The expedition will study how much debris — mostly tiny plastic fragments — is collecting in an expanse of sea known as the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, how that material is distributed and how it affects marine life.

Nice. But couldn’t they have found space on that ship for a couple of guys from say the Bombay Municipal Corporation [on second thoughts, source personnel from some more professional outfit] to get rid of the damn garbage?


8 thoughts on “All hands on deck

  1. It is equivalent of saying instead of asking your spies in the enemy territories to evaluate their power, just ask them to kill the enemy while they are at it.

  2. I think the area they sited was more than the size of texas. At the same time I heard one researcher (on the mission) the other day on radio – she said their mission is little different than previous in the sense they are not just finding the facts but they hope to actually do something too – the info was vague (ie no specifics) but this is what she said.

  3. Prem, that way of thinking is actually too simplistic. One vessel is obviously not going to be able to clean the whole region. What one vessel CAN do, is gather representative data that can then be used to extrapolate the impact of the garbage on the large scale.

    Similarly, even though it might seem initially that killing a mosquito is easier that releasing impotent mosquitoes, actually it doesn’t work that way. To kill X number of mosquitoes, you have to capture them first. What is much easier (and economical) is to capture X/100 mosquitoes and breed them in captivity to get X/10, then make them impotent and release them. X/10 mosquitoes released in the wild actually has a much larger impact on the mosquito population as compared to killing X mosquitoes. (Because, of course, they compete with normal mosquitoes and keep competing till they eventually die). It is actually a pretty clever and effective way of fighting mosquito infestation.

    I know you tend to have a lot of fun at the expense of scientists but perhaps that is only because half the time what you read in popular science articles is some highly simplified version of what they are actually doing. Not that there isn’t any useless research, but more often than not these people know what they are doing, and are clever enough to see the problems that might seem obvious to us (and many more that we can’t even think of).

    • Mate, I have no quarrel with a bunch of scientists rooting around in the garbage — when they are done, I can point them at a promising pile right at the end of my street that, from the various vapors it emanates, promises to be well worth their while.

      My rather flip remark was merely meant to ask, why not get rid of the garbage while you are about it? One ship won’t do it? Cool — send two, ten, whatever it takes, why don’t you?

      I love science to bits — even though I ducked class and dropped out of college. But yeah, I have a fair amount of fun over some of the things science does in the name of research. Not necessarily this one.

      • Prem,

        Usually you make good sense, but not this time. The garbage patch area covers a huge area, almost half as big as the USA. This plastic dump is happening out of sight, and therefore out of mind, and if there is anything that is crying out for study and publicity, it is this. You are a journalist, right? Read up on it please before making irrelevant denigrating comments about it. Honestly, you sound like John McCain.

      • Prem,

        Again, your solution is on the lines of “kill the mosquitoes”. Do you have ANY idea how many ships one will need to send to clean the whole area? What if it is 1 million? Who is going to pay for that? The obviously better way to deal with the problem is pay for 10 ships to go there and study the impact of the garbage, then pay 10 laboratories the equivalent of sending 10 ships to find a way to lessen than impact without having to send 1 million ships and gather that garbage, then spend the equivalent of sending 100 ships to implement any newfound solution and lo! you have reduced the impact from 1million ship worth of garbage to maybe 500,000 ship worth of garbage at the cost of just 120 ships to the taxpayer (or whoever is paying for it). Would you rather have this or have people just wait till someone is willing to pay for 1 million ships and let the world rot till then?

        Prem, you enrich my life by your Bhimsen episodes. And you have been enriching my life by many insightful articles on cricket/politics/journalism etc. But perhaps you should try and learn more about research/science before making flippant comments about them? Believe me, it will enrich your life AND, more importantly, you wouldn’t do the sort of damage that you are probably doing right now. I am sure there are a lot of people in your considerable audience who are just as ignorant about these things as you are; and your possibly ill-informed posts are influencing their opinions in a dangerous direction.

        Of course, it is your blog and you are completely entitled to write your opinions even if you don’t have time to refine your knowhow about the things that you are discussing. It just feels frustrating to read these things on your blog so frequently without any apparent attempt at serious evaluation from your side.

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