Sunday, May 1, 2011

Don't Separate Science from Religion, Folk Culture or Crankdom

You may, perhaps,like to go through this brilliant review by Prayik Kanjilal of this recently published book by Angela Saini.
The essence of a scientific outlook is to be compulsively curious about the world around us.And to use the results of that enquiry to make for a better life for ALL people.
In his famous report to the British Parliament in 1835,Macaulay is on record to say that in his travels through India he could not find beggars or thiefs and found people to have sound moral values.He goes on to say that the British could never rule India unless they broke the backbone of the nation, the rich social and cultural heritage and the ancient system of education. Unless this was broken and the Indians were made to believe that everything English and Western was superior,they could never be ruled and dominated.
The past almost 200 years have shown how effective the Western world has been in demolishing our ancient culture, folklore and education system.Unfortunately, even after Independence,only the ruling class changed but not the ideology of the elites subjugating the masses and fattening themselves at their expense by cynically exploiting the natural resources which belong to all for their personal accumulation.
It is in precisely this context that even science has operated and it is time that we revive our rich ancient traditions and rely on our own resources rather than being a copy-cat culture.To be sure,adopt what is good and Socially relevant from all over the world.I especially admire the unequivocal concept of equality,as opposed to our caste ridden system premised on inequality, on which the Western citizenship is largely based.
We just can't afford not to embrace the spirit of service and equality for all and Science better serve that cause instead of being a handmaiden of the elites.

Science with a dash of jugaad
April 30, 2011 By Pratik Kanjilal

Geek Nation: How
Indian science is taking over the world
by Angela Saini
Hachette, Rs 499

An interview-based book tracing the growth of Indian science from the Nehruvian era to Chandrayaan is intrisically valuable. And it is timely when internationally, India is perceived to be transitioning from the land of holy cows and lighter-than-air babajis to recapture the legacy of Aryabhata and Sushruta. But was Geek Nation written for the Indian reader? If I had read it on a rainy English evening with a refreshing pint within easy reach, it would have purged my mind of elephants, maharajas, big fat weddings and similar Orientalist claptrap. Reading it in the hard light of Delhi’s summer, I was not initially moved. But it was interesting nevertheless because I was seeing India through the eyes of an outsider — a reporter.

Geek Nation is a journalist’s book. That is both its strength and its weakness. Angela Saini, a British engineer and science journalist, offers sound research and scrupulously balanced reportage from the forefront of Indian science. But the book keeps to the rubric of the journalistic story — he said, she quipped, they countered, and so on. Saini’s groundwork is exhaustive but had she crossed the reporter’s line and spoken her own mind, this would have been a more substantial book.

Saini comes to India prepared to discover geek paradises in academia and finds grimy, claustrophobic dystopias instead. She seeks creative minds and finds awkward swots speaking funny English. She seeks the next Google and finds barracoons of coolie coders. And she struggles to accept a culture in which plenty sits easily with penury, as does quasi-religious charlatanry with rigorous science.

Indian readers will be rapidly exhausted by these oppressively progressive Western anxieties. When a technological culture ramps up, it first uses its creativity to do things cheaply and efficiently. Pathbreaking innovation follows after building institutions, skills and capital. What was Japan doing after World War II? What did China and Korea do after the Cold War? They made cheap trucks, cars, bathroom tiles and pen drives. That’s normal.

Most Indians would not be upset if the IITs are grimy by Western standards, and they would prefer that its graduates worked on e-mandis rather than the next Google. And personally, I find it difficult to understand the Western compulsion to surgically separate science from religion, folk culture and crankdom. Interesting ideas sometimes come from unexpected quarters. Like Ayurveda and folk medicine, long dismissed as jadi-booti mumbo-jumbo, now inspire serious research.

But don’t be cowed by these vexing cross-cultural tensions. Remember that this is primarily the story of a quest. And since the Indian media has almost forgotten how to report science, the journey’s logbook can tell us all something about ourselves.

As she goes along, Saini arrives at an accurate analysis of India’s problems. Our children are hacking the exam system when they should be hacking the world. They are focused on fat salaries rather than interesting careers. And neither government nor business are putting even a fraction of Western budgets into original research.

Then Saini moves on to the meat of the story: what is being achieved despite these deterrents? A lunar mission which has found water on the moon, settling a question of a century’s vintage. A guerrilla open source research programme for creating the next generation TB drug, which the West has almost given up on. A biometric national ID project for over a billion people, something that the UK, with a population of a mere 62 million, has shelved as impossible. All this was achieved by the famous Indian tradition of jugaad — making do with what you have. Jugaad has typified Indian science from the earliest post-Independence days, when rocket hulls were transported to the Thumba launch pad on bicycle carriers.

I don’t mean to disparage geeks, but the word indiscriminately applied grates on the Eastern ear. To my mind — and I consider myself a geek — it signifies a compulsively curious person, someone who is equally interested in understanding Einstein’s proof for the photoelectric effect, the Big Mac Index and the magnetic compass in a carrier pigeon’s eye. But I would hesitate to apply that word to visionaries of the stature of Vikram Sarabhai or Jawaharlal Nehru, who are identified as geeks in this book.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine