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A flight of fantasy for science in India

it is an insult to science when an objective view of past intellectual accomplishments is replaced by a chauvinist credulity

Gulf News

In a famous 1966 talk, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman observed, “Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation.”

Hundreds of scientists — many of them based at American universities, many others attracted to science by reading Feynman in their teens — might have suddenly recalled this line at the Indian Science Congress earlier this month. At this grand event, now in its 102nd year, they found themselves suddenly treated, amid sessions on quantum physics, space science, climate change and genetic engineering, to a lecture on “ancient Indian aviation technology” that insisted that airplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago.

Feynman’s dictum embodies the spirit of scientific inquiry. Here, however, within the very citadel of Indian science, was a brazen attempt to assert that all scientific truths of the present day had been fully worked out long ago by the ancient sages of India.

Captain Anand Bodas, a retired pilot invited to speak at the event as part of a panel on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit,” was certain that jumbo airplanes much larger than those of the present day had once trawled the skies. But not only was the obscure and cryptic Sanskrit text, “The Science of Aeronautics,” he cited shown in a 1974 research paper to likely be of fairly recent origin, but also its technological prescriptions are themselves preposterous — as any student today could tell you well before you get to the bit requiring “16 measures of asses’ urine” and 22 of hare-dung.

After the history wars of recent times, here, it seemed, was the beginning of the science wars: yet another instance of the dispiriting tendency in modern India to see human history as a competition to be claimed by the motherland, thereby returning a society destabilised by colonialism and foreign invasions to “proud Indians” who sing the glories of the real engine of Indian history, Hinduism, and the major language of Indian antiquity, Sanskrit.

And yet Bodas’s presentation managed to get the thumbs-up from the screening committee and get onto an itinerary showcasing the best of Indian science and featuring speakers such as Manjul Bhargava, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal for mathematics, and Randy Schekman, the 2013 Nobel laureate for medicine.

Perhaps the more relevant detail was that this year’s event was opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who created a stir — even among his supporters — last October when he declared that the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha was a sign that plastic surgery originated in ancient India.

It was certainly unfair to the hundreds of scientists delivering top-class presentations that so much media coverage of the event was devoted to Bodas’s talk. But few of those present seemed inclined to speak up against this audacious con game, perhaps thinking of it as a kind of intellectual tax to be paid for practicing science under the current regime.

Conspicuous dissenter

A conspicuous dissenter, however, was Nasa scientist Ram Prasad Gandhiraman. In a petition posted on before the event, Gandhiraman pointed out that “Giving a scientific platform for a pseudo-science talk is worse than a systematic attack that has been carried out by politically powerful pseudo-science propagandists in the recent past.”

Elsewhere, Gandhiraman compared the debate to the battle between Darwinists and creationists over what to teach in American schools.

“No society can progress if it decides to ignore or distort science,” he wrote.

Gandhiraman’s views have a distinguished precedent. In a 1995 article, the great Indian astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar dismissed the text on “ancient aviation” that was cited by Bodas:

“To convince a scientist it is not sufficient to refer to descriptions of the epics ... Absorbing and imaginative though they are they are a far cry from what constitutes a technical manual. Imagine that thousands of years later our descendants recover a cassette of ‘Star Trek’ from an archaeological excavation and manage to view it. Are they justified in concluding on the basis of what they see that we ourselves were in possession of the kind of technology shown there? Therefore, we can credit our ancients with giant leaps of imagination to have produced those works ... but no more.

“ ... Let us stress examples of precision which is the hallmark of science rather than ambiguous personalised interpretations of what they said. Only then will we do justice to the achievements of our ancients.”

As Shashi Tharoor, a writer and member of parliament, also pointed out, there is certainly plenty by way of “ancient Indian science” to study with pleasure and pride without needing to make a wager on texts like ‘The Science of Aeronautics’. To take just two examples, the work of Aryabhata in astronomy was genuinely revolutionary, and the discipline of yoga is a distinctively Indian science revealing many truths about both the human body and the nature of consciousness.

But it is an insult to science — and an impediment to future scientific progress — when an objective view of past intellectual accomplishments is replaced by a chauvinist credulity that makes a single undifferentiated mass of myth, metaphor, stories, religious faith, history and empirical study, then picks up scraps from this or that ancient text to argue, post facto, that all scientific advances of the present day were known to ancient Indian Hindus.

The two great transformations of India in the last century are probably the spread of democracy and science over a field in which the tallest trees were those of religion and caste stratification, forces that offered the sanctuary of “traditional wisdom” but also the debilitations of blind superstition and political and social servility. One might even say that science and democracy are interrelated in their commitment to debate, scepticism and intellectual rigour.

It is no one’s case that Indian science is so fragile, after a century of robust achievement, as to be grounded by such flights of fantasy as those seen at this year’s Indian Science Congress. Yet one can’t help thinking that while science and pseudoscience can certainly coexist in the same country, science is left badly damaged when they share the dais in science’s own hall.

— Washington Post

Credit: Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist is based in New Delhi.