All about baking soda

For the past several days, I have abstained from reading any worthwhile article.I have voluntarily avoided using the internet.I was away in Kerala attending a wedding.I came back today to my favourite pastime. Yes,  I have an enormous amount of material to read.

One of the first items I noticed was a very informative  essay on baking soda. The very first paragraph itself was loaded with fascinating accounts of the use of baking soda:

” We here at Grist talk a lot about baking soda: how to clean our homes and laundryand hair and teeth and armpits with it, how to kill mold with it, and, naturally, how to cook up tasty treats with it.”

The article in  turned out to be a very useful resource on baking soda. It gave the following information among others:

  • People mine ninety percent of sodium carbonate using which baking soda or sodium bicarbonate is produced in USA from Wyoming’s Green River Basin.
  • According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Wyoming alone contains 56 billion tons of pure layered trona, plus 47 billion more tons mixed with other minerals. We’re only tapping trona at the rate of 15 million tons per year; the Wyoming Mining Association estimates that we have enough on hand to last more than 2,000 year

You may access the story  and enjoy the content at :

Where does baking soda come from, and is it really so eco-friendly?



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After all, antibacterial soaps may not be more beneficial than ordinary soap


The latest issue of the Scientific American (Sept 2, 2016) highlighted the recent decision of the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration  on banning 19 active ingredients in antibacterial soaps. It revealed that “the ruling, 40 years in the making, caps a decades-long debate over whether these germ-busting chemicals are safe and offer any advantage over ordinary soap.”

A major portion of the luggage of young parents of infants visiting India for the first time will be various antibacterial  tissues, toiletries, and  hand sanitizers. They may find the new findings and the follow-up action by the US FDA hard to stomach!

The development may not be new to  people who are aware of the history of soap use and personal hygiene. The evolution of Lifebuoy soap described here is an instance in point.

Lever brothers created Lifebuoy soap in 1894. One of the first things  they did was to start using vegetable oils instead of tallow to make soap. According to one source,  most soaps use beef tallow. This source asks us to look at the ingredients in the soap. Beef tallow may take a fancy name sodium tallowate! we got astray. let us go back to the new US-FDA action.

It is worthwhile to read the entire article in the Scientific American to appreciate the value of plain water and ordinary soap in personal hygiene.

The full article may be accessed at:

Use of ordinary soap may prove to be  very inexpensive. It may not make bacteria resistant  to antibiotics is an additional bonus!





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Start eating healthy foods before processed-food -industry decides what you should eat

Twenty years ago, there  was no major processed-food- producing industry in India. Of late, the situation has changed drastically. Now since many upward mobile families have  husbands and wives working, all types of noodles and colas and drinks saturated with sugar  have become a major part of the foodstuffs  families consume. It has almost reached  a stage of no return. It may be very difficult to go back to healthy eating.  Advanced  countries have reached this perilous stage many years ago. It is now virtually impossible to reduce  consumption of salt or sugar by individuals as they have developed a taste for these ingredients.

Health agencies in those countries have started ‘requesting’  processed -food producers and restaurants to gradually reduce salt content. This way salt consumption may come to healthy levels after several years

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An analysis of a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults reveals that access to healthy foods in a supermarket does not hinder Americans’ consumption of empty calories. In fact, the study found, U.S. adults buy the bulk of their sugar-sweetened beverages and nutrient-poor discretionary foods at supermarkets and grocery stores.

The new findings challenge the “food desert” hypothesis, which posits that a lack of access to supermarkets and grocery stores in some communities worsens the obesity crisis by restricting people’s access to healthy foods.

The study, described in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at data from 4,204 adults who reported their daily food intake in two, nonconsecutive 24-hour periods in 2011 and 2012. The data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The analysis found that nearly half (46.3 percent) of U.S. adults consume sugar-sweetened beverages and 88.8 percent eat discretionary foods such as cookies, pastries, ice cream, cakes, popcorn and candy on any given day.

Sugar-sweetened beverages add an average 213 calories per day to the diet, the researchers found. Discretionary foods add, on average, 439 calories per day.

The largest portion of those products comes from supermarket shelves, the researchers report.

“More than half of the sugar-sweetened beverages and two-thirds of discretionary foods are purchased in supermarkets and grocery stores,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An, who led the study.

“Supermarket purchases of these items are about two to four times as large as all the other sources – fast-food restaurants, full-service restaurants, convenience stores, vending machines and other locations – combined.”

The food desert hypothesis led the U.S. government to spend almost $500 million since 2011to improve access to supermarkets and grocery stores in underserved communities. States and municipalities also have made efforts to increase the supply of healthy foods, offering financial incentives to build new grocery stores or to increase the amount of fresh food available in convenience stores and gas stations, for example.

“It is true that supermarkets also are the largest source of healthy food,” An said. “But we can’t be naïve and think that people only purchase healthy food from supermarkets. They also buy all this junk food from supermarkets and grocery stores.”

Adding fruit and vegetables improves the diet, An said. “But from the standpoint of obesity prevention, it is only helpful if people replace junk food with healthy food,” he said. “We don’t see from our data that the presence of a supermarket has a preventive effect on people’s obesity or their junk-food intake.”

Indian health agencies must  start the public awareness move now. It is already late. A recent study revealed the usefulness  of  using mobile phones to carry health messages in India



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A fantastic news story on cockroach “milk”

“Structure of a heterogeneous, glycosylated, lipid-bound, in vivo-grown protein crystal at atomic resolution from the viviparous cockroach Diploptera punctata”. This is the title of a paper published in International Union of Crystallography  Journal (IUCrJ) Volume 3Part 4July 2016. Eleven authors from Canada, France, India, Japan and USA wrote this paper. I am sure that no one except a true specialist may have any interest in reading this paper, except when it is explained in simple jargon free language.

I read it for the first time from the following link:

I could not imagine that such a lovely news story remains hidden in that original scientific paper. As on July 29, 2016, 10. 30 AM IST, different versions of the story appeared in over 250 news-outlets  including some of the major mainstream news papers and dispatches of news agencies.

You may be able to appreciate how various news outlets carried the story by using the following link:

No doubt this is likely to be a record of sorts seldom attained by any technical paper.


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Mercury poisoning linked to skin products cautions the USFDA

The United States Food and Drug Administration has just now cautioned people regarding cosmetic products which contain mercury. Some companies promote them as anti-aging skin creams and beauty and antiseptic soaps.

” How will you know if mercury is  in the cosmetic, especially one that’s marketed as “anti-aging” or “skin lightening”? US RDA asks.

It is simple.

“Check the label. If the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” are listed on the label, mercury’s in it” the agency answered. ”  You should stop using the product immediately”.  FDA cautioned the consumer.

You may, if you so desire,  access the consumer note of July 2016  from the following link:

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Nobel Laureates Slam Greenpeace’s Opposition to GMOs, Golden Rice

The Wire

Nobel Laureates Slam Greenpeace’s Opposition to GMOs, Golden Rice

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A Wreath of White Roses Over the Ruins of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha’s Home

The Wire

A Wreath of White Roses Over the Ruins of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha’s Home

BY ON 25/06/2016

Earlier in June, the National Centre for Performing Arts allowed Homi Bhabha’s home in Mumbai to be demolished. Scientists, historians and political leaders are all to blame for this sacrilege.

Homi Bhabha at Mehrangir. Credit: TIFR Archives

We were overwhelmed with inconsolable grief when the present owner of Mehrangir, Homi Bhabha’s home in Mumbai, demolished it during the first week of June this year. Jamshed Bhabha, Homi Bhabha’s brother and the sole owner of the iconic building, had bequeathed it to the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). In turn, NCPA had needed funds to promote its objectives and had auctioned the house on June 18, 2014.

For us, the story of Mehrangir is over with our virtual laying of a wreath of white roses on its ruins (because we cannot trespass upon the hallowed premises now).

Why white roses? Because Homi Bhabha was a lover of trees, gardens and roses. B.P. Pal, a former director-general of the Indian Council of Agriculture, had developed a variety of white roses aptly called Dr. Homi Bhabha Roses. The auction booklet had stated that Homi Bhabha grew various types of beautiful and exotic plants and flowers on his terrace garden in Mehrangir. On Bhabha’s initiative, the erstwhile Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) started to grow roses and, in 1960, the Trombay rose garden had over 750 varieties. Today, a wreath of white roses says it all.

The writing was on the wall when the cash-strapped NCPA sold the ‘family silver’ – about 900 priceless articles like clocks, textiles, rare rugs and carpets, silverware, glass, pottery, antique furniture, paintings and other artefacts that had been inseparable parts of the Bhabha legacy – at three auctions in 2011. When auctioneers were happy, experts on Bhabha’s legacy as well as historians were upset and critical of the NCPA. On August 23, 2012, The Daily Mail (UK) quoted Indira Chowdhury of the Centre for Public History, and co-author of A Masterful Spirit: Homi J. Bhabha, thus: “Mehrangir and all that was inside the building are an invaluable part of history. … Every piece of art has a story to tell. For instance, furniture, some of which was custom-built for the Bhabhas, can tell us a lot about human skills.”

According to the article, she also suggested that the government should intervene and convert the estate into a memorial in collaboration with the NCPA. However, it was already too late.

Alongside eminent scientists such as C.N.R. Rao, Anil Kakodkar and R. Mashelkar, I had wanted to save Mehrangir, and I had written a few articles (e.g. here and here and here). However, we scientists failed to convince the government to acquire Mehrangir along with its priceless legacy; we acted very late. And our indifference was inexcusable.

When those in authority at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) heard of the possible fate of Mehrangir, they wrote letters through “proper channels” to the state government. Prithviraj Chavan, then the chief minister of Maharashtra and recipient of the latest requests, sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to take steps to acquire the house and declare it as a memorial in honour of Homi Bhabha (scientists are government servants; they have limitations.

At the same time, employees of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) filed a PIL even if judicial recourse didn’t promise to help. One can see how futile such efforts were through an Indian Express article published in April 2015; itread that “construction of the bungalow was going on in 1941 and hence it cannot be termed as one of “historical importance” under existing regulations” as under the the Maharashtra Ancient Monument & Archaeological Sites & Remains Act, 1960. I do not blame them. The officials had their limitations and had to work within the law. Chavan, who is a technocrat and a former Minister of State at the Prime Minister’s Office, was apparently unaware of the subtleties of law.

Looking back belatedly, we realise that only a decision by the central government, taken at the highest levels, would have saved Mehrangir.

Homi Bhabha was a great scientist. He was not a community leader nor an SC/ST, OBC or Gujar/Patel/Ezhava/Vaniyar/Modh Ganchi leader. He did not have any separate identity as a Parsi/Hindu/Muslim, nor as a nationalist or as a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family – except that he used to address Jawaharlal Nehru as “My dear bhai” in his letters! Bhabha had no political constituency.

In November 2015, Modi and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis opened a memorial in honour of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution and one of the country’s tallest leaders; he deserves the honours. Maharashtra purchased the house at 10, King Henry’s Road, in northwest London, where Ambedkar had lived during 1921-1922, for $4.7 million. The state may also spend $1.5 million to refurbish it to start a museum.

Both Bhabha and Ambedkar contributed uniquely to the nation. It is not fair to compare their contributions. A report inThe Diplomat explains the political nuances and reasons for the state of Maharashtra acquiring the London building.

Let me congratulate BARC workers for filing the PIL, which kept the flame glowing for some time. The newspaper DNAreported in September 2014 that in one of the hearings “the Centre had submitted that after due consideration, it had been decided that the bungalow could not be declared a national monument.” The Centre has asked the state government to acquire the building. Both had been passing the ball back and forth, and it became clear that neither entity considered Mehrangir’s retention a priority.

When the controversy was at its peak, Anil Dharker, a senior journalist and an NCPA sympathiser, had claimed thatJamshed Bhabha lived in Mehrangir all his life and Homi Bhabha had spent only a few years there – that when his parents bought it, he’d been overseas and later spent a lot of time in Delhi. Obviously, Dharker did not have access to the Tata Central Archives, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Archives or other related documents, which set the record straight. Mercifully, Dharker did not ask for a ration card or driving licence in Homi’s name to prove that he lived in Mehrangir.

Thanks to the generosity of NCPA office bearers, TIFR received from Mehrangir some priceless letters of the Bhabha family. I saw letters written by Bhabha and his mother, which show that the family moved in to Mehrangir on March 16, 1939. Homi and Jamshed lived with their parents when they came back from England in the same year. The auction document, a collector’s item, published by NCPA thus describes the eminence of Mehrangir:

‘Mehrangir can boast of visits by some of the most prominent personalities of those times, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who was a dear friend of Homi Bhabha. Also in 1960, the family entertained the Queen of England in the very dining room which had witnessed visits by many famous personalities.’

A collection of letters belonging to the Bhabha family. Click image to enlarge.

Mehrangir had been designed by Bhabha himself; he was the one who named it so. I got in to Indira Chowdhury, quoted in the Daily Mail article, about the last-ditch effort of NCPA office-bearers to maximise the yield in the auction from builders and investors. They had used her magnificent description of Mehrangir’s history in her book in the auction booklet. I wrote her: “I feel very odd when I think of the noble purpose for which you wrote those immortal lines. Can you describe what you feel about it now?”

She clarified that she had not noticed that the auction document cited their work. Without directly answering my question, she sent me the link to an article she had written in the Indian Express in October 2011 protesting the NCPA’s decision to auction off the Mehrangir artefacts in 2011.She said she had visited Mehrangir sometime earlier, and the article aptly reflected her sentiments. An excerpt:

The reasons for the strange compulsion felt by the NCPA, which inherited the house from its founder, to auction its contents last week will never be known. As I walked through the house and viewed the opulence of its contents, the moment spoke about the conversion of the past into a profitable resource.

She recalled that in the dining room was a large portrait of Meherbai, painted by Bhabha himself, and of his aunt Lady Meherbai Tata. “Meherbai Bhabha wears an exquisite Chinese gara sari that hints at the many uses that were found for the treasures that came in through trade,” she added in the article. Chowdhury bemoaned the fact that the auction catalogue referred to them as the “Bhabha ladies”.

The fact that one was his mother and the other his father’s sister who had married Sir Dorab Tata and after whom the Lady Tata Hospital is named was expunged. The catalogue introduced the ‘Bhabha ladies’ only to talk about the emeralds and the ‘European-cut diamonds’ that one of them is wearing. On the first floor were amazing writing implements of the early 20th century – telescopic pencils and expandable barrel fountain pens. One had the signature of Mehri D. Tata embossed on it. However, the auctioneer was at a loss when a buyer asked what the pen was doing there. One could go on about the erasure of history that such moments exemplify, but there is a larger point.

(L to R) Homi Bhabha, Jehangir Bhabha, Meherbai Bhabha and Jamshed Bhabha (sitting on the floor). Credit: TIFR Archives

“After it was sold I did not believe that the house would be brought down. And even now I find it hard to believe that Meherangir has been reduced to rubble”, she showed her feelings in an e-mail message when I informed her that the owner has demolished building.

On June 18, 2014, the Mumbai Mirror reported that Smita-Crishna Godrej, who had purchased Mehrangir, assured her friends that “the iconic home where brothers Homi and Jamshed grew up will not be torn down to make way for a high rise and will only be used as a family home”. Of course, the owner is entitled to do whatever she wanted to her property. After the auction, Kushroo Suntook, chairperson of the NCPA, said, “Hopefully, it is for end-use. I would be upset if the structure is demolished.”

Jamshed Bhabha himself never thought that the buyer would demolish Mehrangir – as hinted at in a conversation he’d had with Suntook years before Jamshed’s death. I believe that many of the eminent persons who had written to Modi to stop the auction would not have been clinically indifferent to this legally defensible but inexcusable sacrilege. The central or state governments could have saved Mehrangir by compensating the NCPA by a reasonable amount. Now, its auction retrospectively highlights the need to identify heritage buildings and to take effective measures to conserve them.

What did Homi Bhabha do for India? It is available as a half page note he sent on July 11, 1954, to Nehru describing his vision of atomic energy. It had these items: setting up the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay; uranium prospecting, mining and fuel fabrication; production of heavy-water, enrichment of uranium; setting up power reactors, breeder reactors, plutonium extraction plants; and setting up special reactors for the propulsion of ships. All these have been achieved. And each one of these has grown into huge industrial projects. Apart from strategic applications of nuclear energy, India presently mines and mills its own uranium, fabricates nuclear-fuel elements and designs, constructs, commissions and operates power reactors. Moreover, the use of radioisotopes in medicine, industry and research has grown a hundred-fold over the last few decades.

With the support of Vikram Sarabhai, Bhabha laid the foundation for India’s notably successful space programme as well. Thanks to them, we were witness to the consolidation of a highly successful technological enterprise – so much so that developed countries couldn’t help but take note.

Bhabha died on January 24, 1966. It was one of the saddest days for India and its scientific community. The next day, we all went to work. All the institutions under the Department of Atomic Energy were open that day. An eerie silence pervaded everywhere. Many wept openly. The sense of loss among the senior scientists was total. Everyone felt orphaned. The thoughts about Bhabha and his premature death brought a lump in our throat. And old timers feel the same way about the demolition of Mehrangir.

The author is grateful to Reetesh Chaurasia, a scientific officer with the Department of Atomic Energy, for compiling the letters and photos from the TIFR Archives at a very short notice.

K.S. Parthasarathy is former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

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