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India?s lost scientific temper

Narlikar?s book traces Indian science from Vedic to date, advocating a reform of the university system and more science fiction.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2003 10:16 IST

The Scientific Edge
The Indian Scientist from Vedic to Modern Times
Jayant V Narlikar
Penguin India
Science, Reference
Pages: 182
Price: Rs 250
ISBN: 0143030280

One of Jayant Narlikar’s many anecdotes is apocryphal: the computer at his Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune had acquired the latest astronomical software, and he was showing it to an educated visitor. Her question: “Can I get a computerised horoscope made here?”

Pretty pathetic for a society which made many contributions to science — thousands of years ago. Narlikar gives a fascinating account of the history of Indian science in The Scientific Edge, and tries to analyse how we went wrong, how we fell behind in science and technology, and some ways in which we can get back on track.

His scholarship starts with Vedic contributions, such as the Shulva Sutra, which contains Pythagoras’ theorem (x2+y2=z2) — before Pythagoras! Someday we may rename it the Shulva theorem. India, however, really got into stride around the fifth century A.D., with the mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata, who was ridiculed by contemporaries for thinking that the Earth spun on its axis! It was only with Copernicus that humans finally abandoned the idea that the Earth was fixed at the centre of the Universe.

Narlikar says that Indian science reached its final glory in the 12th century with the mathematician Bhaskara, whose Chakravala method gave solutions to some of Fermat’s problems of the 18th century. After that it was downhill.

None of India’s rulers were interested in science for the sake of science. Indians forsook experimentation for pure theory. And the Europeans drive for conquest and power led to invent new instruments, none of which appears to have caught the fancy of our lotus-eaters.

Wait: the worse is yet to come. Narlikar derides the current obsession with spurious Vedic mathematics, which he says are just tricks for solving arithmetic problems, and distract from true work in abstract mathematics. It seems our current rulers are just as bad as those of the past 1,000 years when they subordinate science to politics and ego.

In such a climate, is it a surprise that Indians are not engaged in current problems of the philosophy of science — such as the debate over whether the world is what we construct, through newer and newer theories, or whether it is one we discover and adapt our theories to? We just don’t have a scientific society, whether one looks at education, or at popular culture.

Some of the changes Narlikar advocates include a reformation of the university system, and more interaction between teaching and research. He also talks about the importance of science fiction in inculcating scientific temper at a popular level. Narlikar himself has penned a science fiction novel, and he informs us that Marathi and Bengali enjoy the largest following for science fiction. Unfortunately, most fiction writers abandon science early in their lives, and so are ill-equipped to deal with the kind of sophisticated sci-fi that their videshi counterparts do. So Narlikar wants more scientists to write science fiction.

Above all, he wants Indians to study more astronomy. Not surprising, since the history of science shows us that the great paradigm shifts in human views of the universe have been enabled by work in the field of astronomy-maths-physics, whether it be Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. Will India ever produce a historically great scientist? Not until we stop reading horoscopes and start reading science fiction.

"I have set great store by the science-society interaction as a motivating force for a science fiction story. In India there is a continuing battle between scientific facts and age-old superstitions. Science and technology are seen both as means of curing all existing evils and ailments of the society and as sources of new evils and ailments. reality lies between the Utopian expectations and doomsday forecasts. Sci-fi can focus on such issues, and the more subtly the message is presented by the fictional component of the story, the greater is its success.

Science fiction stories written with this motivation have a very constructive role to play in India today because our country has been pushed or carried headlong into the age of science, and consequently many misconceptions, fears and antipathies of science exist at all levels of the society. Sci-fi can help make society aware of the power and influence of science and soften any shocks brought about by science-induced social changes."