Outstanding old egg


Only in the world of Wodehousian humour has one found a guy calling his lover an “outstanding old egg”, but the expression seems apt for a seriously astounding discovery recently. 

Believe it or not, archaeologists have unearthed an egg that is both old and outstanding. It was found among a host of other artefacts — a woven basket, pottery vessels, coins, leather shoes, an animal bone and more eggs — by people digging for a new housing estate in Aylesbury, England. Archaeologists determined the findings to be 1,700 years old. 

All but one of the eggs broke, “emitting an incredibly sulphurous smell”, says a blog of the Buckinghamshire Council. The sole unbroken egg was placed in a museum. 

Dana Goodburn-Brown, a heritage scientist, conservator and founder of DGB Conservation, did a micro CT scan of the egg. The finding was startling — the ancient egg, likely that of a chicken, was “still full of liquid and an air bubble”. 

Scientists are excited by this unique research opportunity. “We were all amazed to hear that the egg is even rarer than we had realised, and with its intact liquid centre is the only known example of its type in the world,” the blog says. 

The next step is to find out how the liquid stayed intact in the egg without leaching out and how we can emulate that kind of packaging skill.





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The healing power of data


The emerging trend in healthcare is the use of data analytics, which can predict, for instance, disease outbreaks and, at an individual level, whether a person is likely to develop a certain illness, or a woman is likely to deliver a baby prematurely. 

In November 2023, the UK Biobank released the full genetic sequences of half a million people — a treasure trove that scientists could use to uncover links between DNA and diseases. 

By analysing these genomes alongside clinical data, researchers can identify genetic markers associated with diseases, predict patient outcomes, and tailor treatments based on individual genetic profiles. 

This approach holds immense potential in tackling complex conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and rare genetic disorders. 

What UK Biobank released was a large dataset, but it is truly tiny compared to the ocean of data lying out there. Billions of pieces of data, including images (X-rays and other scans), are awaiting the attention of researchers. 

Incidentally, researchers at AIIMS, Delhi, are collecting images of oral cancer and pre-cancer cases and labelling them; 5,000 labelled images in hand, they aim to do ten times as much. 

A hospital chain in the US is using data to analyse the pathology of kidney donors and recipients to determine the right match. 

Similarly, there are mountains of data on the side of the commercialisation of drugs. 

Data abounds for deciphering everything from patient behaviour management to how a drug sales representative can best approach a particular doctor. 

Analytics-ready data

But data exists in silos and doesn’t readily yield to analytics (picking up non-obvious trends). Someone needs to ‘integrate’ the data to make it ‘analytics-ready’. 

A US-headquartered start-up called Agilisium Consulting, founded by Chennai-origin Raj Babu, does the job of getting data analytics-ready. 

Agilisium, in a way, encapsulates two entwining trends in the data industry — the business opportunity in integrating and ‘cleaning’ data to make it suitable for analytics; and the drastic reduction in cost, thanks to cloud computing. 

Babu earlier worked for 20th Century Fox and Universal Music Group, where he had to rummage through data and suggest the best times to display or withdraw a movie, or place a DVD on a Walmart shelf. 

Having cut his teeth in the field, he combined the ‘agility’ of data with his favourite Matt Damon-starrer sci-fi Elysium to start up Agilisium Consulting a decade ago. Its services include data architecture consulting, data integration, and storage and analytics. 

In a way, Agilisium is like ChatGPT at an enterprise level. Over 70 per cent of its 850-odd staff is stationed in Chennai. 

In a conversation with Quantum, Babu gave the example of Amgen, a US-based biotech research company, which was overwhelmed by the amount of data sets it had and sought Agilisium’s help to handle it. 

Asked if managing so much data requires large computing power, Babu says the company hires compute power from the cloud. 

Agilisium is an ‘AWS or Amazon Web Services partner’, which means it provides AWS cloud services and solutions to customers. 

Amgen says its data processing time dropped from 48 to 12 hours and it was able to ingest several petabytes of new data sets without disrupting the system performance. 

“We grew from hundreds to thousands of users, while reducing the errors in our data metrics,” says Sheetal Pillai, Amgen’s senior manager in charge of commercial data sciences. These new approaches to data management and processing enabled Amgen to scale up quickly, reduce time-to-market, and unlock more computing power. 

Million-dollar pitch

Agilisium recently announced that it has set apart a million dollars for co-innovation. 

Its pitch: If you have a problem and the data that can be used to solve it, then it will invest $25,000 (in terms of professional time, buying cloud capacity, and so on) to provide a solution. Agilisium’s takeaway will be the learnings as well as a chunk of codes, which can be applied elsewhere.

None of this would be possible without the tremendous fall in the cost of hiring cloud services. Today, you can store 100 TB of data on Azure for $1,600 a year. Amazon S3 offers the same for $2,100. Earlier, when you had to buy your server, it cost millions. 

Babu says India can become the “data-driven digital R&D hub of the world”.





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AI that approximates the human brain 


With the growth in demand for artificial intelligence (AI) technology and its applications, and the supporting infrastructure — particularly for computing, storage, and energy needs — the search intensifies for new hardware technologies based on new materials, and the architecture needed for the transition.

Researchers at IIT-Madras have come up with ‘memristor-based devices’ for designing low-power, high-performance hardware for AI and internet of things (IoT). A memristor is an electrical component that can “remember” the amount of charge that has passed through it and alter its resistance accordingly. Moreover, memristors are capable of ‘non-volatile memory’, namely they can “remember” their resistance state even after the power is turned off. 

So how does a memristor-based device store data or perform logical functions? 

To understand this, let’s look at the memristor-based device’s structure. To create one, we put a layer of insulator or semiconductor between two metal electrodes. By sending electricity through these electrodes, you can alter the layer’s ability to conduct electricity. When you send electricity in one direction, it makes a pathway between the electrodes and there is flow of electricity. When sent in the opposite direction the pathway breaks, impeding the flow of electricity. We can think of these two outcomes as “on” and “off”, which we can use to store data or make decisions in a computer. 

Dr Abhishek Misra, faculty at IIT-M’s department of physics, says, “Memristor-based devices are at the forefront of the development of low-power, high-performance electronic hardware required to implement the emerging concepts of AI and internet of things (IoT). These AI- and IoT-based technologies can serve humanity in various ways such as providing better healthcare, security, and education, to name a few.” 

Unidimensional factor

Like many technologies popular today that were born in the 1950s and beyond, the memristor, too, has a long history. In 1971, Leon Chua theoretically proposed the memristor as the fourth fundamental circuit element (after resistors, capacitors, and inductors). In 2008, researchers at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, led by R Stanley Williams, announced the practical realisation of the memristor using certain metal oxides, making it the first experimental demonstration of memristive behaviour. In the 2020s, the exploration of memristors continues to advance, with research focusing on scaling up memristor-based technologies for commercial applications. 

Researchers at the IoE Centre for 2D Materials Research and Innovation (C2DMRI) at IIT-Madras have developed an innovative memristor device architecture using one-dimensional core-shell heterostructures of molybdenum dioxide-molybdenum disulphide. 

It offers significant advantages including ultra-low power operation, volatile and non-volatile resistive switching, a smaller footprint, and speed. 

Renu Yadav, PhD scholar at IIT-M’s physics department, says “the developed memristors can be as intelligent as a human brain. These devices can store as well as process information — thereby providing smarter solutions to the traditional von Neumann architecture, where the processing and storage units are separated”.

These structures, grown via chemical vapour deposition (CVD), feature a distinctive coaxial electrical contact between the inner core (metal molybdenum dioxide) and the outer shells (atomically thin-layered molybdenum disulphide) with a unidimensional geometry, marking a substantial leap from memristor design involving two-dimensional layered materials.

The devices are categorised as non-volatile (displaying a strong conducting path even without power supply and hence needing a voltage to break it), and volatile (weak conducting path that breaks on its own).

Nano advantage

Conventionally, metal oxides such as titanium dioxide, aluminium oxide and hafnium oxide are used as the sandwiched layer. However, after the discovery of atomically thin, two-dimensional layered materials such as molybdenum disulphide and tungsten disulphide, these are being explored for use as a resistance switching layer. Such memristors based on layered materials have advantages such as ultimate vertical scaling, reduced operating power, and energy efficiency.

The IIT-M team has fabricated the memristors on nanowire to make it unidimensional. 

Nanowire consists of a core shell heterostructure, with the metal core molybdenum dioxide serving as one electrode and the layered semiconducting shells of molybdenum disulphide serving as the switching layer. 

Further, a silver electrode is deposited on the axial direction of the nanowire to complete the metal-semiconductor-metal memristive structure. Depending on the thickness of the molybdenum disulphide shell in nanowire, both volatile and non-volatile resistive switching are achieved.

The unidimensional core shell heterostructure has a 10-nm diameter metallic core wrapped by a few layers of molybdenum disulphide, leading to smaller memristors.

Misra says the memristor device architecture has the potential to serve as a basic building block for future integrated circuits.





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What’s keeping India awake at night?


Alongside initiatives like ‘start-up India’ and ‘stand-up India’, the country appears to be in dire need of a ‘sleep-well India’ movement. All of its amritkaal dreams of prosperity may come to nought if its people are unable to be productive for lack of sound sleep. 

Recently, three researchers — Karuna Datta and Anna Bhutambare of the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune; and Hruda Mallick of SGT University, Gurugram, Haryana — embarked on a project titled ‘Systematic review of prevalence of sleep problems in India’. They scoured thousands of scientific papers from repositories such as PubMed, Google Scholar, PsycNet, and Epistemonikos, and distilled them down to 100 studies for their analysis. 

Their conclusion? “India has a health burden of sleep disorders.” 

In a (yet to be peer-reviewed) paper they said their “final analysis showed major sleep disorders like insomnia, obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), restless leg syndrome (RLS), in a sample of 67,844 individuals”.

The overall estimate for prevalence of insomnia was 25.7 per cent — one in four Indians is affected. The prevalence of OSA was 37.4 per cent, and RLS 10.6 per cent. “An increased prevalence was seen in patients of diabetes, heart disease patients and in an otherwise healthy population,” the paper says. 

The study divided the sample group into ‘patient’ and ‘healthy’ subgroups, and compared the incidence of sleep disorders. It was 32.3 per cent and 15.1 per cent, respectively, for insomnia; 48.1 per cent and 14.6 per cent for OSA; and 13.1 per cent and 6.6 per cent for RLS. 

Within the healthy group they found insomnia was prevalent in an “alarming” 34.7 per cent of college students. The consequences included ‘excessive daytime sleepiness’ in every fifth person surveyed.

Lifestyle modification

Pointing out that sleep plays a big role in the progression of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, the researchers call for a task force to delve deeper into the findings. They also suggest lifestyle modifications to reduce the disease burden before taking recourse to drugs for sleep disorders. 

Notably, two of the researchers, Datta and Mallick, were involved in an earlier study that looked at the effect of yoga nidra on reducing sleep disorders. In their paper, published in The National Medical Journal of India, they say they enrolled 41 persons with chronic insomnia for the study on non-pharmacological interventions. Twenty of them received a “conventional intervention of cognitive behavioural therapy” and the rest took up yoga nidra, which is described as a “systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation by turning inwards, away from outer experiences”.

Both worked, but they found that during the ‘non rapid eye moment’ phase of sleep, yoga nidra led to marked improvement in the ‘deeper’ and ‘deepest’ stages of ‘total sleep time’. Yoga nidra improved both ‘slow-wave sleep’ and ‘sleep onset latency’ (time taken to fall asleep).





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Back-to-back success of GSLV proves the rocket’s capabilities: ISRO Chairman 


On August 12, 2021, when the GSLV-F10 rocket failed midway in its mission to put into orbit the Earth Observation Satellite (EOS-03), many industry experts and space analysts wrote off the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Sadly, the failure happened on the birth anniversary of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who is regarded as the father of the Indian Space Programme. 

In fact, after that failure, the rocket was even termed a “naughty boy” by a former ISRO official (as per media reports) as it had a 40 per cent failure rate. However, the GSLV has bounced back, with consecutive successes – first, with the successful launch of GSLV-F12 in May 2023 and with the launch of GSLV-F14-3DS mission on Saturday. 

S Somanath, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, after the successful launch of GSLV-F14/INSAT-3DS Mission on the rocket, told newspersons, “The GSLV has not had such a good name with regard to the performance. (But) That has been a thing of the past. The payload pairing, especially with a bigger diameter, had a chequered history. This has now been corrected.”

“We have had very good missions — the last one and the present one — after the one that failed in the cryogenic stage. Two successive missions have happened after the failure. With this confidence, we should go into the future without any worry about the configuration of the vehicle. However, every mission of a rocket has its own uncertainties and worries. But this has been overcome by our design and analysis of the system, including the cryogenic stage and payload pairing,” he said.

“In today’s mission both the rocket and satellite performed very well. All the performance-related issues of the previous generational satellites have been addressed, more capabilities have been added to the payload. We believe the satellite is going to be an important one for the nation — we want to secure our citizens against weather-related information and disaster-related information that are crucial for protecting life and property,” he added.

In the pipeline

The next mission of GSLV will be the NISAR-Nasa-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar-satellite mission. It is a very big satellite. The rocket’s capability has also been steadily increased with payload and volume.

Somanath said it was a perfect induction of the spacecraft into orbit. GSLV is targeting a geostationary orbit – 170 km perigee (nearest to Earth) and 36,000 km apogee (farthest) but desires to raise the apogee further because that would give the satellite a longer life. “Today, we have 38,000 plus km apogee accomplished with no other issues. So, it is a very perfect mission with a little over performance that has been given to the satellite which increases its life,” he said.

The satellite is the third in the series of INSAT for weather and disaster warning-related activities. The satellite has been fully funded and will be fully utilised by the Ministry of Earth Science and other users. Two payloads – an imager and a sounder – are required to measure atmospheric parameters. It also has data-related transponders that collect data across the country from ground-based observations related to weather and make it available for computation modelling. It also supports a distress alert-based receiver and transmitter that supports in terms of disaster. 

The INSAT series has been extremely useful — they can image the entire country every 15 minutes. This data goes to the computational and observational capability of the country, and the weather forecast is given based on this observation and analysis of this data. This is augmented by better instruments put in INSAT-3DS compared to the ones done earlier. 





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Glass meets carbon


Researchers at the Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology (IASST) have developed a novel method for directly synthesising carbon nanotubes on glass substrates at 750oC. This has wide-ranging impacts in the fields of energy research, biomedical and optoelectronics.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) find applications in fields such as rechargeable batteries, flexible electronics, aerospace, transparent electrodes, touch screens, supercapacitors and medicine. However, conventional methods of synthesising CNT require high temperatures reaching ~1000o C and metal catalysts such as Fe, Co and Ni. These catalysts pose biocompatibility concerns for potential biomedical applications. And removing these catalysts from CNTs raises up the cost, highlighting the need for cleaner, more sustainable methods of CNT synthesis.

On that note, the IASST researchers have pioneered a novel method for directly synthesising CNTs on glass substrates at a temperature of 750°C. The experiment is performed using a Plasma Enhanced Chemical Vapour Deposition Technique (PECVD), where plasma is generated using a specially designed spiral-shaped fused hollow cathode source. This process circumvents the need for elevated temperatures and eliminates the need for a transition metal catalyst. Furthermore, this synthesis is executed under atmospheric pressure, adding commendable cost-effectiveness to its advantages compared to counterparts in the field.

Several factors, including the plasma characteristics, substrate’s composition, temperature and plasma pre-treatment significantly influence the CNT growth. Optimally, the pre-plasma treatment of the glass substrate at an elevated temperature enhances the surface area, exposing a more significant amount of its constituent elements directly to the surface. Of the elements within the glass, Sodium (Na) emerges as the primary catalyst for initiating CNT growth. It has also been observed that the Na present in the CNTs can be easily removed by washing the CNTs with deionised water.

The finding marks a significant stride towards addressing challenges in CNT synthesis and advancing their application in various fields, says a press release.

Here comes Syncubator

Dr Gajendra Singh and Dr Satyasheel Ramesh Pawar and Keshav Verma, a B.Tech Mechanical Engineering student of IIT Mandi have invented a ‘SynCubator’ — a neonatal incubator. The device has been selected for the prestigious ‘Stanford Biodesign Innovators Garage’ programme.

Designed as a multifunctional neonatal incubator, SynCubator offers a unique solution to the challenges faced in transporting and providing critical care to newborns. Unlike traditional incubators, the developed device doubles as both a standalone warmer and an incubator, adaptable to the specific needs of each infant.

According to a press release, the rugged aluminium frame ensures high portability, allowing transportation using the typical 4-wheelers, and it maintains temperature in the range of 35–38oC, maintains relative humidity between 50-70 per cent. It also grants access to all probes available in an adult ambulance and enables continuous video monitoring of the baby through an android or IOS app.

“Utilising a user-friendly mobile application, healthcare providers gain the ability to remotely monitor and adjust critical parameters such as temperature, humidity and oxygen concentration in real-time. Moreover, continuous video monitoring enables both medical professionals and parents to closely observe the newborns’ condition, irrespective of their physical location,” the release says.





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