Can India have a scientific revolution?

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on January 02, 2015


Basics are the best: ‘The light of navigation’, 1608, from a Dutch sailing handbook shows the essentials of scientific discoveries — compass, an hourglass, sea astrolabe.

Photograph by Lala Deen Dayal of Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, one of the most important sundials.

Yes, if we return to the beginning. Instead of one laptop per child, perhaps we should consider giving one sundial per child

My scientific education as a teenager began sometime in the ’80s in Jaipur. It could have been the day my father bought me an electronics hobby kit to play with. I enjoyed making radio transmitters and sound-triggered switches, and soon had a small chemistry workbench in my room. When I started preparing for college entrance exams, those juvenile projects would give way to martial training in solving problems.

In particular, there was something poetic about IE Irodov, the Russian physicist whose physics problems were the holy grail for engineering aspirants across India. The problems went somewhat like this:

“Imagine a shaft going all the way through the Earth from pole to pole along its rotation axis.”

“A machine gun is shooting through a swiftly revolving airplane propeller. It is automatedly timed to shoot between every blade…”

“A steel ball of diameter d=3.0mm starts sinking with zero initial velocity in olive oil...”

Once I entered the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, my love for science subsided for lack of passionate inspiration. Instead, my attention quickly trained itself towards literature and the dramatic arts.

Many years later, over 30 years old with little to show for it, I was reading SC Coutinho’s The Mathematics of Ciphers on cryptography, the science of secrets and ciphers. Somewhere in the second chapter, it said that all numbers can be expressed as a unique product of prime numbers. So 55 can be expressed only as 5x11, where both are prime numbers. Similarly, 174 is 2x3x29. Nowhere in my entire institutional education, whether at school or IIT, was this profound fact made known to me by a teacher or textbook. In a sense, primes are the atoms, and composites are molecules in the world of numbers. Now I could think of mathematics in terms of chemistry. Was there then something like Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements, but for numbers? If I had known this as a teen, I would almost certainly have studied mathematics from an early age. Nonetheless, an encounter with this theorem kicked off a much-delayed scientific revolution in my life.

Sixty-eight years after Independence — while a manmade robot tiptoes on the red sand of Mars — we still struggle with issues such as food, security, injustice and religion. How can such a nation undergo a scientific revolution just like I had, I thought? After five years of wrestling with this idea, I maintain that such a scenario is not only easier than people think, but inevitable in the near future. For this to happen, however, our education must take on the urgency of war.

The social philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote in 1861: “If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order.... Education is a repetition of civilization in little.”

Spencer’s model emphasises that historical order is the sequence in which knowledge ought to be taught. This process shows to the student the actual evolution of ideas, and does not create the misconception that what is written in a textbook is self-evident or incontrovertible. The history of science shows that no idea can be taken for granted, and great theories can collapse with more evidence to the contrary.

In some remote past, our long journey into enlightenment was put into motion by two primitive instruments — the sundial and the compass. The first helped us navigate time, and the second helped us navigate space. The sundial is a machine which uses the Sun as its only moving part, giving us a direct connection to a 4.5 billion–year-old alien star visible to everyone. The compass, on the other hand, was a way of seeing invisible magnetic currents that came from the interior of Earth. The knowledge that came from these two fountains was significant. More has been accomplished in the history of science by people with such primitive devices, than has been done with laptops and cell phones. Instead of one laptop per child, perhaps we should consider giving one sundial per child.

In a sense, primes are the atoms and composites are molecules in the world of numbers. Nowhere in my entire institutional education was this profound fact made known to me

In an essay considering the sundial as a primitive computer, which uses sunlight as data, ‘writer, squatter’ and my friend Wilfried Hou Je Bek once wrote — “Time (and every device that sublimated it) is not the only abstraction of the sun that led to a wide range of applications. A similar story could be written for fire. Fire, once under human control, brought the heat of the sun into the night. This power led to an entire different line of technological progress, starting with the ability to boil food, and ending with nuclear energy. In this last line of development, solar power, and especially the rhetoric behind it, is an interesting reminder of the fact that we are in the end, still struggling with making the most of the Sun.”

Technology also has its mythology

Nuclear science and the space programme are often seen as major achievements of Indian science, even though they are only technical feats, or applications of science that already existed. Both programmes serve as a demonstration of technical power to the outside world, rather than to deepen scientific culture at home. Historian of science Rajesh Kochhar summarised our situation thus, “Independent India’s attitude towards science has been fashioned by its colonial experience. Thus India has sought to utilise applied science in furthering its foreign policy objectives. Under the Indian auspices, modern science was Brahminised during the colonial period, and Kshatriya-ised after independence.”

Historian David Arnold also observes that: “Company rule in India was contemporaneous with one of the most momentous phases of modern science, from the rise of Enlightenment natural history to the eve of Darwinian biology.” Many officers of the East India Company who were not professional scientists became hobbyists in geology, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Even though the Company never intended it, some of their projects had the effect of transferring Western science to India.

This happened because prior to the discovery of atomic physics, most instruments and devices betrayed their function by their outer appearance. Such antiquated and open analog mechanisms — microscopes, telescopes, sextants and clocks — are still popular today as ‘steampunk’, referring to science in the Age of Steam. In contrast, the digital technologies, which surround us today, attempt to conceal the inner science of atoms from the end user. And this is what makes extremely ordinary technology seem like advanced science.

The author Nick Haraway makes this problem clearer, “ — cellular phones, laptops, even radio and television — require an understanding or at least an acceptance of objects we can never apprehend directly in any way. It’s not that any sufficiently advanced technology is magic, it’s that any technology taking place beyond the threshold of our senses is.”

This means that a lot of our technology is mythical, sometimes resulting in large-scale infrastructural failures. Entire airplanes continue to go missing on a planet that has successfully landed probes on Mars. A very interesting study by Superflux — a design studio based in Ahmedabad and London — created miniature replicas of the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter so people could play with it. Anab Jain, one of the founders, rightly observed that, “there is almost no dichotomy between science and mythology in the lived reality of the Indian population.” While this is politically problematic, Indian mythology does contain a rich network of metaphors which allow us to articulate complex ideas in everyday language.

We saw earlier how the prime numbers are metaphorically the same as atoms in chemistry. The science of metaphors, also known as mathematics, underlies all branches of science — and in fact may be considered the purest science. The practise of mathematics does not require millions of dollars and expensive equipment, making it the perfect choice for a developing country that desires a scientific awakening.

India cannot lead a scientific revolution by looking into the answer sheets of students like the US or China. By chasing the illusion of the ‘cutting edge’ we will merely drown more resources into an infinite drain. The greatest advantage of India’s population is its innocence towards science, like a fresh mind unencumbered by the weight of knowledge. In metaphors again, we can think of our collective knowledge like a catapult stretched back to its farthest limit. Or as Professor Irodov would have written — “A smooth rubber cord of length ‘l’ and elasticity ‘k’ is stretched between two fixed points. A pebble of mass ‘m’ is placed at the centre and stretched back to its limit. Calculate how far the pebble will fall when released.”

India can have a scientific revolution. But if we are to take the great leap forward, we must return to the beginning.

( Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)

Follow him on twitter @fadesingh

Published on January 02, 2015

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