Mythmaking eclipses annual science meet

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It was billed as the largest congregation of scientists from across India and abroad and was well-known as an annual platform where Indian scientists interacted with their foreign counterparts.

More than six Nobel laureates, 400 scientists and nearly 16,000 delegates attended the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai from 3 to 7 January, which had held its first session in 1914. Envisioned by two British chemists, Prof JL Simonsen and Prof PS MacMohan, on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Congress had hoped to stimulate scientific research in India.

But over the years, it has ended up being mired in rituals, except for a few serious discussions on future technology and high-end research initiatives. This year, the Indian Science Congress, the ‘Mahakumbh’ of Indian science, may only have generated a lot of hot air rather than promoting any real exchange of ideas between the best scientific minds.

For starters, the Congress began with a controversy and concluded with one.

If it was for Union Science and Technology Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan to affront the sensitivities of a section of the scientific community at the inaugural session in presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh Governor and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ram Naik went a step further at the valedictory function. Naik gave Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Veer Savarkar the credit for bringing scientific knowledge to the arena of public debate in modern India.

Quantum of wisdom For the first time ever, ancient Indian science was one of the main themes at the Congress
Quantum of wisdom For the first time ever, ancient Indian science was one of the main themes at the Congress

However, Prakash Javdekar, Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, refrained from being forthright at his appearance at the Congress.

“Good will survive, (what is) not relevant will perish,” said Javdekar, hoping to avoid getting drawn into a controversy.

The 102nd Indian Science Congress, for the first time in its history, made ancient Indian science the theme for a session, where Captain Anand Bodas, a former pilot and trainer, took everyone by surprise, by claiming that aircraft were invented by a sage in the Vedic era.

He went on to say that these aircraft could travel from one planet to another, halt mid-air and move in any direction thereafter. According to Bodas, there are 97 reference books on aviation and in Brihatvimanashastra, Maharishi Bharadwaj has provided 500 guidelines for making planes.

“That statement was not expected, unless you have at least some traceable clue,” said Dr SB Nimse, the outgoing president of the Indian Science Congress Association, of Bodas’ assertions.

However, Dr Rajan M Welukar, Vice Chancellor, Mumbai University, where the current session was held, said, “Don’t straightaway reject it. It is for the scientific community to approve or disapprove (these) thoughts.” He said the subject had been included in the Congress to provide a platform for such assertions. “It may be wrong,” Dr Welukar said. “Even several thoughts of Thomas Edison were wrong.”

At the same time, Dr Welukar asked the revivalists of ancient Indian science not to be stubborn. “Be proud of the past. Don’t develop the wrong notion (that) the past is unquestionable,” he said.

An exhibition at the venue of the session claimed the first man to build and fly an aircraft in the modern era was Shivkar Bapuji Talpade in 1895, eight years before the Wright Brothers flew the world’s first successful aeroplane.

Meanwhile, Prof Parimal Mishra of Dr Reddy’s Institute of Life Sciences said he does not find the logic of reviving the debate (on ancient scientific achievements) at this point in time as convincing. “I don’t believe in their arguments (although) I believe in logic and science,” said Dr Mishra. “Why now, all of a sudden (has this come up)? Have they got some (new) nodal point now?”

Dr Harsh Vardhan argued algebra and the Pythagoras’ theorem originated in India, but that Indian scientists have graciously allowed the Greeks to take credit for it. “We all knew beejganit much before the Arabs did, but very selflessly we allowed it to be called algebra,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, an Indian-born scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California, launched an online petition demanding the cancellation of the session on ‘Ancient Indian Aviation Technology’, as it questions the “integrity of scientific processes”.

Dr Gandhiraman’s online petition reads: “We, as a scientific community, should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with the backing of influential political parties.”

It seems that in their claims — substantiated or otherwise — BJP ministers may only have taken a leaf out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book, who said that in ancient times, India had charted new frontiers in the field of science.

“Mahabharata says Karna was not born out of his mother’s womb. This means, people (even) then were aware of genetic science. There must have been a plastic surgeon who fixed an elephant’s head on Ganesha,” Modi had said at an event in Mumbai last year, adding that the world has now accepted what mathematician Aryabhatta had claimed centuries ago.

Two major initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — Make in India and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan — on how technology can be a driver in improving the quality of life, also found prominent place in the agenda of the plenary session.

The 102nd Science Congress had as its theme ‘Powering Possibilities’ — for the future of advanced safety, healthcare, agriculture, environment, education, industries and entrepreneurs. The preamble of the information booklet said it expected to provide a platform where challengers connected with creators, to inspire future possibilities.

But instead of challengers connecting with creators, the Congress ended without any customary recommendations, while creating unintended controversies, primarily generated by government functionaries.

It may be nobody’s case that ancient Indians were advanced in mathematics, astronomy, health sciences and several other scientific fields. There may be no means of validating the theories on the basis of rational explanations, but many of them have been documented in ancient scriptures. Instead of inviting contemporary scientists to re-validate these ancient scientific treatise — which would have been welcomed by the global scientific community — a section of the present ruling dispensation is engaged in imposing the primacy of ancient wisdom. Even if there is substance in these treatise, the scientific community, fed on and nurtured through western English education, might not accept them as fundamental.

NB Nair is the executive editor of Indian Science Journal

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