Indian-born Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan dismissed as baseless last year’s claims at the Indian Science Congress that India had aviation technology centuries ago, aside from terming homeopathy and astrology as useless and harmful practices.
“It was surprising for me that Indian science academies did not condemn it. Science has to be based on data. You have to show that you did it and others should be able to verify it. It is impossible that India had plane technology 2,000 years ago.”
The biologist who is the current president of the Royal Society, UK’s national academy of sciences, was delivering the Har Gobind Khorana lecture on ‘On Nobody’s Word: Evidence and Modern Science’ at the Panjab University, and said the only exact science is experimentation. “Scientists are humans. We have egos, superstitions etc. What is required is to test our ideas by experiments which protect us from false beliefs.”
To elaborate, he cited the cold fusion theory. Hypothesized by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons in 1989, the theory was later proved inaccurate. “In 2011, it was claimed from CERN experiments that neutrinos travel faster than light. Later, it came out that it was a measurement error,” he said and added that sometimes scientists propose ideas well outside their area of expertise and make mistakes.
Ramakrishnan, better known as Venki among his scientific peers, is the first Indian-origin president of the Royal Society in its 350 years.
Training his guns on two fields of science largely popular in India, Ramakrishnan also came down heavily on the homeopathy and astrology, saying real science is far more interesting than “bogus” fields.
Pointing out that India is the only country where a constitution asks for promoting scientific temper, he said India needs a more rational outlook on such sciences.
Explaining that astrology evolved from the human tendency to look for “patterns, generalize and believe”, Ramakrishnan said, “There is no scientific basis for how movement of planets and stars can influence our fate. There is no reason for time of birth to influence events years later. The predictions made are either obvious or shown to be random.”
“Once beliefs take root, they are hard to eradicate,” he commented, adding, “A culture based on superstitions will do worse than one based on scientific knowledge and rational thoughts.”
Contrary to the general notion that homeopathy originated in India, the biologist clarified that it was a practice started by a German.
“They (homoeopaths) take arsenic compounds and dilute it to such an extent that just a molecule is left. It will not make any effect on you. Your tap water has more arsenic. No one in chemistry believes in homoeopathy. It works because of placebo effect.”
Ramakrishna was however appreciative of modern day astrology considering the more specific scientific advancements made.
“Alchemy is based on beliefs but accumulated huge amount of data about properties of substances led to modern chemistry. Astrology was stuck in the past but modern astronomy has made huge exciting discoveries like the black hole, pulsars etc.”
Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2009 along with Thomas A Steitz and Ada E Yonath for their research in ribosomes, the protein producing molecules in living cells. He was born to well known scientists Dr CV Ramakrishnan and R Rajalakshmi in the temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. After his graduation, he moved to the US for his post doctoral studies.