Fascinating Hidden Worlds

The son sat next to me one evening as I was typing out this article and looking up the picture of the Corona Virus.

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Image By https://www.scientificanimations.comhttps://www.scientificanimations.com/wiki-images/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86436446

We both sat looking at the image that showed up and he said, “Wow! Is this really the virus? It looks so lovely, doesn’t it?” I had to agree.

The unimaginable beauty of the microscopic world is so rarely stopped and admired. Who knew a blade of grass could be this spell-binding?

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This particular virus has caused such unimaginable disruption world over, it is humbling to see the world buckle on its knees against the onslaught of this virus. While, viruses and bacteria often come to the spotlight in scenarios such as these, the truth is that we need a multitude of them to survive on a daily basis. There are studies linking gut bacteria  to mental well-being for instance.

Theodor Rosebury, a microbiologist, wrote in 1928, during his research that:

“The knowledge that micro organisms can be helpful to man has never had much popular appeal, for men as a rule are more preoccupied with the danger that threatens their life than in the biological forces on which they depend. The history of warfare always proves more glamorous than accounts of co-operation.”

The Corona Virus has brought the rich world of microbes to the forefront for the world. To give us an appreciation of how many microbes we regularly thrive on for our living, consider these figures: There are an estimated 100 Trillion microbes in our bodies. The estimated number of stars in our galaxy is around 100 billion.

Many children growing up in these times may well be awed by the power microbes, bacteria and viruses exert on us, and go on to study Microbiology and change our understanding of the worlds within us in unimaginable ways.

The microscopic world is a marvelous one. Revealed to us 350 years ago by the talented man often hailed as the Father of Microbiology, Antony von LLeuwenhoek, his letter about animalcules was published by the Royal Society in London. As Ed Yong says in his book, I Contain Multitudes, his letters were published by the Royal Society in “an extraordinary monument to the open-minded skepticism of science“. LLeuwenhoek had no background as a scientist, yet he applied the scientific method to sampling and studying the world around him. In 1680, the draper cum businessman, whose curious mind and hobby led to the revelation of Microbiology was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong – Article from Brain Pickings

For those of you wanting a quick, fascinating glimpse into a Universe within our Universe, please check out the book, Hidden Worlds by Stephen Kramer with photographs by Dennis Kunkel.

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Hidden Worlds

While Lleuwekhoeks early microscopes could only magnify upto 260 times, the images revealed in the book, Hidden Worlds magnify images by upto 1000,000 times. The resulting images are breath-taking.

The images revealed are only black-and-white by the microscopes. Scientists then use computer modeling to color in the images and the stunning pictures are better than works of Art. For instance, the picture below shows some common allergens and pollens that cause so many to sneeze all Spring.

The book briefly explains about SEM and TEM microscopes, the work that scientists typically do to prepare their specimens.

  • Transmission Electron Microscopes: TEM can magnify images by 1000,000 times
  • Scanning Electron Microscopes : SEM can magnify images by 10 – 300,000 times

Looking through the pictures in the book, we realize how marvelous life is, and what a fragile ecosystem we have to thrive in.

Covid-19 has also made us realize the importance of our normal lives. The gratitude to be alive and healthy, to be able to do the work that interests and moves the world forward, to be able to revel in the beautiful companionship of our friends and family.

“As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.” 
― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Writings On Wisdom and Virtues

References:

The Appalam Pounder’s Daughter

This article has been published in Open Page of  The Hindu.

An Aunt was visiting, and her nieces had all gathered around. Lunch was in progress, and though some of the dishes had not turned out quite as expected, they were well appreciated by the folks at the table. Crisp, creamy white lentil snacks called appalams or papads, were passed around with aplomb, and I got approving nods for frying them. 

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The husband had been jesting around the aunt that he had last eaten fried appalams about a year ago.  The aunt gave me a distinctly doleful look.  How could the niece she loved so much have denied her loving son-in-law appalam for this long?

We sat around a distinctly large meal with the fried appalams being passed around, and I looked on amused at the satisfied smiles on the faces of all around. “Any meal becomes special with fried appalams!” my father used to say whenever he spotted them gracing the table.  He truly became a child beaming happily while breaking them off with a joy that is quite disproportionate to the humble appalams.

I said as much to my aunt, the pater’s sister,  and she chuckled happily. “Yes, appalams were your father’s favorite. Three days every month was dedicated to making appalams“, said she, and I sat back to enjoy the nostalgic look that lit her eyes.

We sat enthralled as she narrated the story of how her mother, Visalam Paati, would roast the dhals and set them out to dry. My grandmother’s life has always fascinated me, A mother to 9 children, that generation was responsible for the burgeoning population we have on Earth today thanks to rising health and lack of birth control. 

Feeding and raising such a large family must have been a herculean task, but Visalam paati seemed to have been a competent taskmaster, planner, forecaster, chef and mother. As the appalam making tale unfolded, it was evident that those three days were filled with important buzz. Everyone had work to do, and everyone’s task was equally important:

  • The younger ones had to shoo away the birds while the lentils dried in the sun. #AppalamMinders
  • The older boys would have to pummel and cudgel the dried lentils with an iron cudgel. “No grinders, and mixies or any machines in those days, remember?”, my aunt said. #AppalamPounders
  • The older girls would then have to take the powdered lentils, mix them to cookie dough consistency and roll them out into neat little circles before setting them out to dry again. #AppalamRollers
  • The younger ones took up their sentry watch to shoo away the birds while the appalams dried in the sun again. #AppalamMinders

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“One time, my mother was alarmed to see the appalam dough below spotted with blood and looked up to see that while pummeling, your father had accidentally hit himself on the forehead with the pummel a few times and his forehead had started to bleed. Poor fellow. That month, we had a little less appalam stock because we had to throw out that batch, but your father got his full share because he liked appalam so much, and of course he played the sympathy factor the whole month!” she said and giggled.

Three days a month set aside for appalam making, so that the children may enjoy fried snacks every once in a while seemed to be a lot of planning and processing, Obviously, fried appalams held a special appeal in the hearts of the children. Each one felt they had contributed to the process, and the satisfying crunch must have had a special meaning.

Going to the supermarket and picking up a packet of papads or appalams has become so blasé a task, that I rarely stopped to think about how it was prior to mechanization and automation. 

“Automation has changed so many things hasn’t it?” said one voice, and we all piped in.  The topic of automation took us for a bumpy ride down the river of time. While automation has helped feed and clothe the billions of us, it has not really helped the global climate very much. Mass production and capitalism have also blurred the lines between needs and wants. 

It was a lot to process. Sometimes, in our rush to simplify things, we do rather complicate them don’t we? I loved the mental image of appalam making in a small village house in South India. When was the last time, the whole family pitched in on one activity together that contributed towards something meaningful? Maybe when we painted the rooms a couple of years ago.

Probably that is why the Little House in the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder remains a much loved American classic. It talks of a time when every body helped each other in order to live. 

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I read the book recently, and found myself ardently wishing I could sit with the deer in the prairie even if certain wolf-heavy nights were scary. A simple tale of building a log cabin in the middle of the priarie is a marvelous read, and I am grateful for the fact that I read it as an adult. 

“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

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