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books Updated: Apr 08, 2011 23:16 IST
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Geek Nation
Angela Saini
Hachette
Rs499 pp 288


What is ‘Indian science’ when it is at home — or abroad? The term has a slightly dubious ring, conjuring up an image of old-fashioned nationalists who believe many modern scientific discoveries were prophesied in Hindu scriptures.

I had a conversation with a man from Madhya Pradesh a while ago who told me, in all seriousness, that people in India in ancient times had flown airplanes. Why were there no remains of the antique Indian airplanes? “They hid them in caves,” was his answer.

In Geek Nation, Angela Saini is not really writing about Indian science, so much as about Indian scientists. They are popping up all over the place at present — writing computer code, sending rockets to the moon, making medical discoveries — and creating a new international stereotype for a nation that was until recently famous abroad for its poverty and spirituality. If you plug a USB (Universal Serial Bus) cable into your computer or log on to Hotmail, you are using technology or systems created by an Indian. Only in India would an eccentric aeronautical engineer in his 70s — APJ Abdul Kalam of the bobbed hair — become a cult figure among young people and be chosen as the country’s president. As the journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote at the time: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to become president of India. But, by God, it helps!”

In her book, Saini travels around the country meeting scientists and others who range from brilliant to bonkers. Attempts to connect to India’s early scientific past (the use of zero combined with a decimal system, fractions, division, squares, cubes, the minus sign, algebra, pi and infinity can credibly be claimed as Indian developments) often lead her to crackpots. She shows how genuine students of science, such as her father, benefited from the technical vision of the founding parents after Independence, even if India’s investment in scientific research is still woefully low compared to Japan or the US.

She hangs out at one of the 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) — colleges, which between them are given less than $200 million a year by the government, but turn out exceptional graduates. Saini looks at the national predilection for chess, tuition and academic competition; and at the fearsome ability of Indian students to work long hours. She also watches slum children pick apart some of the 50,000 tonnes of dangerous electronic waste that is shipped to India annually from the West.

In parts of the country, pseudoscience flourishes in the absence of a system of peer review. But Saini believes “one of India’s scientific strengths is that no idea is too off-the-wall to be entertained”. Digitisation and cheap technology are being used to make the operation of the bureaucracy more transparent. Large scale collaboration between scientists — without clear definition of ownership — seems to flourish in India. This is partly a matter of numbers, but also because everyday social cooperation is more common in India than in many other countries.

By the end of Geek Nation, almost accidentally, Saini becomes more approving towards the wacky and imaginative elements she encounters. Perhaps engineers and researchers have “a unique freedom to explore the edges of what’s believed to be possible”. She believes that in western countries, science can become “so boring and straitjacketed that children no longer dream of becoming engineers, inventors and laboratory researchers, as they do here”.

There are, however, some flaws among the many entertaining and informative stories. Geek Nation is — in part — another account by a young NRI who returns to India in search of some explanations. I was brought up short at the beginning of Saini’s book to read that Jawaharlal Nehru, an “important geek”, had “wedged a plea into the Indian constitution, announcing, ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper.’” The author describes this as a driver of the change, which got the country’s space programme off the ground. But in fact the sentence was added to India’s Constitution (along with other ‘fundamental duties’) more than a decade after Nehru’s death, in a nakedly political move by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency in 1976.

It is not the author’s only error. The Gateway of India in Mumbai is referred to as India Gate (which is in Delhi), an electrical engineering student becomes a mechanical engineering student a few pages on, and British rule in India is described as lasting for merely “eighty-nine years” (tip: don’t trust Wikipedia)!

None of these mistakes is fatal, but they do make you wonder whether the rest of the book is factually watertight. Saini has a genuine talent for describing science. She can tell you why the zebra fish’s genome is particularly useful for determining how human bodies work at the primary level. She can explain how to mix thorium with uranium to kickstart a reaction in a forthcoming Advanced Heavy Water Reactor in Trombay. It all sounds plausible — but I wish she had checked her history.

A version of this review appeared originally in London’s Sunday Times. Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait