‘It’s a good time to be a geek. The label has been reclaimed’

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Angela Saini, 30
uk – based Science journalist

IN 2008, Angela Saini quit her comfortable job as a BBC reporter. She landed in India in 2009 for a story on lie detectors and discovered the theme for her debut book — how Indian science is racing briskly. Saini travelled through the country investigating what the scientific community was up to and in lively prose, describes the characters and their passions. Saini spoke candidly to POORVA RAJARAM on the phone while on her US book tour.

Excerpts from an interview

The subtitle of your book is “How Indian science is taking over the world”. What evidence persuaded you about this?
It’s supposed to be a persuasive subtitle, slightly a product of the publisher’s marketing. My conclusion has got the ingredients of the direction Indian science is heading in. People should read it and come to their own conclusion. The book itself is quite balanced, it doesn’t have a very forthright argument. I haven’t done a comprehensive study. In terms of scientific outputs, publication records and patenting, India still lags behind the West but in direction and growth, it’s quite a phenomenon.

While researching the book, how did your impression of Indian science change?
For a long time, my impression was very similar to that of many people around the world — that it’s dominated by hardworking people and the best go overseas. Initially, I was quite sceptical; some of the scepticism is in the early chapters. I was pleasantly surprised, though. I had to dig beneath the surface to find the shoots of innovation that make India truly impressive. Great original research happens in places like TIFR, Mumbai. There is the groundswell of a new approach coming up, a new wave of thinking, more innovation and some returning brain-drainers offering their expertise.

You mention Nehru’s wish that we all develop a scientific temper. But his vision was also of a technocratic state that moved on collectivism. How do you think creating a scientific temper will work in liberalised India?
I think Nehru was nice at the time but his vision didn’t exactly work. His early investment in science and technology was great — the IITs, nuclear power and the space programme. But it did hold India back. Liberalisation has loosened the leash and carried forward what his socialist vision couldn’t. It gives people freedom.

Your father was a chemical engineer who left India in the 1960s, though he was always optimistic about Indian science. Is he still?
When he left India, Indian engineering and manufacturing were not in a brilliant state. Britain was thought the capital of engineering with a thriving automotive industry. It made perfect sense for him to come to London. The weird thing is, when I graduated in 2003 in engineering, everything seemed to have switched. Britain is not an engineering superpower, instead, India has innovation like the Tata Nano and the software industry.

You found many Indians aren’t familiar with the word ‘geek’. What does it mean to you?
I’m a geek. When I was growing up as a geek, it was distinctly unfashionable. I used to make model rockets, be the president of the science club and tinker with DIY kits. It certainly wasn’t cool. In the last decade or so, because of the big geeks [like] Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the label has been reclaimed. Even in fashion, we have people wearing glasses with fake frames. So it’s a good time to be a geek. The word itself has a lot of negative associations — being boring with your head stuck in a textbook and always without a social life. For me, geekiness is combination of intelligence and passion. You can be passionate about anything. In science it is those who love science and technology, play with it and try to dedicate their lives to it. In that sense, there are lots of Indian geeks.

Poorva Rajaram is Features Reporter with Tehelka
poorva@tehelka.com

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