Recent controversial claims, splashed all over the news, that modern scientific knowledge and its applications, such as in-vitro fertilisation and stem cell research, were used in ancient India have sparked a heated debate in the scientific community. That the speakers used a Science Congress to make these claims, which they said were drawn from references in the epics, did not help.
Academics point out that it is unfair to mix strides in science/ scientific achievements made in Ancient India with the vivid tales of the Indian Epics. India has a fine and deep history of scientific research and discoveries, which have continued through millennia.
Go far back in time and you will see that the very idea of zero – a fundamental concept in mathematics and science originated in India. The first treatise on Astronomy and Time Keeping, also came from India. The Surya Siddhanta dates back to the 4th or early 5th Century CE and it is acknowledged as a trail blazer by the modern scientific world. It was one of the first Sanskrit texts to be translated into Arabic. Interestingly, its mathematical formulations show pre-Ptolemy Greek influence, also proving that ideas have navigated the globe along with explorers, for millennia. The text is quoted as saying:
Thus everywhere on [the surface of] the terrestrial globe,
people suppose their own place higher [than that of others],
yet this globe is in space where there is no above nor below.
—Surya Siddhanta XII.53
Translator: Scott L Montgomery, Alok Kumar
Even more recently (in historic terms), Indian scientists have made a huge impact. There are numerous exciting contributions that have been made in the last 200 years alone. All these are well-recorded, backed by evidence, experimentally proved, recognised globally and must be celebrated as great achievements.
A discovery relevant to something as fundamental as mobile communication today is that of microwaves. Transmission via wireless microwaves/millimetre waves was first demonstrated in Presidency College (now Presidency University) and later at the Town Hall in Kolkata by Sir Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose in November 1894-95. Since he did not file for a commercial patent as he did not believe in patenting, he has not received a credit for his work in this area. But the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has honoured him as one of the fathers of Radio Science. Such was the humility of this giant of Indian science that he put ideas and discoveries before personal fame.
Interestingly, this was the beginning of the Bengal Renaissance, an era that saw many great scientists who had access to both Indian and Western education flourish. Prof P C Ray (1861-1944) was a pioneer of research in chemistry in India, and by 1920, he had more than 107 scientific papers to his name.
The first-ever plaque for chemistry research was erected in his honour in front of The Royal Society, London. Interestingly, the current President of the Royal Society is Prof Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for understanding the structure and mechanism of ribosomes. The journey of research in chemistry has indeed been very successful!
Why The Sky Is Blue
Indian science flourished right through the nationalist freedom movement in India, not by shunning Western ideas and thoughts, rather by gaining expertise and knowledge, travelling to the best universities in Europe, forging international collaborations and winning accolades.
When there was a lack of funds, philanthropists stepped in. There is a famous story that Prof C V Raman had requested an instrument for his research on the promise of winning a Nobel Prize. He kept his promise when, only a year later, in 1930, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics, for his discovery of Light Scattering.
It is also said that he was so confident of his discovery that he had pre-booked his tickets for travel even before the prize was announced! A similar earlier sea voyage had triggered his curiosity about the blue colour of the sky, glaciers and the Mediterranean Sea, and now, on the journey back, the ’Raman Effect’ not only precisely explained it, it was also one of the first evidences of the ‘Quantum Nature of Light’.
Starry, Starry Light
Another giant of the era was Astrophysicist Prof Meghnad Saha, who gave us the famous ‘Saha Ionisation Equation’ in the 1920s. Considered a pillar of Astrophysics and Astrochemistry, the equation related a star’s spectrum to its temperature, chemical and physical conditions.
So, basically, if the Raman Effect explained why the sky and sea are blue, Prof Saha showed us how to measure the temperature of the Sun and other stars by simply studying the nature of light they emitted!
Saha also joined active politics and played a major role in planning India’s future research facilities. He founded the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, a leading research institute that collaborated on the development of detectors for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.
Interestingly, the LHC has detected elusive ‘Higgs boson’ particle, which was later dubbed ‘God’s Particle’ as it proved Higgs’ mechanism of how matter got its mass from fundamental particles and force fields.
The Elusive Boson
Higgs boson is a fundamental particle boson with spin zero, no electric charge and no colour charge, and is thus difficult to detect. The ‘boson’ is derived from another famous Indian physicist, Prof Satyendra Nath Bose (thanks to Paul Dirac who coined it), a student of Prof P C Ray.
He was born in Calcutta and carried out his major research at Calcutta University and Dhaka University. He collaborated with the greatest physicist of all time, Albert Einstein, after he sent him his calculations and formulations. These came to be known as ‘Bose-Einstein Statistics’ in the 1920s. Amazingly, Prof Bose learnt German to read scientific journals and collaborate.
Bose-Einstein’s Statistics, which is taught in undergraduate schools, reveals the behaviour of fundamental subatomic particles or ‘bosons’ that are essential ‘force carriers’ and act like ‘glue’ to hold matter together. Great scientists like Dirac had visited Prof S N Bose in Kolkata and Dhaka.
Prof Bose’s last student, Prof Partha Ghose, has some interesting anecdotes about his mentor, especially about his multi-lingual abilities. Ghose has also collaborated to document the glorious birth of modern science in India in the famous documentary The Quantum Indians.
Prof Bose is not the only scientist with an Einstein connection. Recently, Indian researchers were among those who worked at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, the LIGO project, which detected the gravitational waves that Einstein had predicted a hundred years ago, in 1916. There’s more. The detection of these waves was corroborated by a team of radio astronomers at the National Centre for Radio Astronomy in India. It proved Einstein’s Theory of Relativity right, yet again.
India is all set to get its own LIGO detector. These highly sensitive detectors detect gravitational waves – the ripples triggered during cosmic events, like collisions of massive neutron stars or black holes moving at extreme accelerations, merging together as they travel through the ‘space-time’ fabric of the universe. These waves reach the earth billions of years after these cosmic events take place.
The Fate Of Stars
Also, when we refer to neutron stars or black holes, we cannot deny the Indian influence in the most fundamental concepts of Astrophysics – the famous ‘Chandrashekhar Limit’. It is named after Prof Subramanium Chandrasekhar, who gave us a framework to predict the evolution of stars depending on their masses – how they end up either as neutron stars or blackholes or remain white dwarfs.
He came up with these calculations at the age of 20 and they have been substantiated with proof. An Indian’s calculations on the fate of stars depending on their masses will forever remain an important reference point in textbooks just like Newton’s Laws. Prof Chandrasekhar was awarded Nobel Prize in 1983.
India has also given the world talented astrophysicists and physicists like Prof Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri, who taught and carried out his research at Presidency College, now Presidency University. His famous contribution is the Ray Chaudhuri’s equation. Prof Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, who apart from his extraordinary academic contribution also co-founded the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, which is now a leading global institute doing cutting-edge research.
There have been great minds also in the fields of Mathematics, Biology and Medicine. India is renowned for the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose life and work recently inspired a Hollywood biopic.
No Looking Back
India needs to carry forward this extraordinary legacy and looking back into our ancient epics like the Mahabharata is certainly not the way forward. Quoting Prof Partha Ghose whom I met recently, “
It is demeaning to refer to mythological tales in the scientific context. It is a great disservice to our rich, imaginative cultural heritage that has all but disappeared. It is also unfair to our scientists who have contributed so significantly to international science, and to our research scholars who are struggling so hard in spite of inadequate research funds. India can achieve its great potential only by harnessing its creative intellect, which is its true innate trait.”
Nobel Laureate Prof Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in a recent public speech in Kolkata reinforced the fact that Europe became wealthy and a centre of power not because it was a coloniser but rather due to the age of enlightenment that led it to invest in scientific knowledge and technology, which brought in prosperity.
Science needs to be celebrated by conducting public demonstrations like Prof J C Bose did in the Town Hall in Kolkata and how French physicist Leon Foucault demonstrated that the earth rotates by swinging his famous Foucault’s pendulum. The pendulum still oscillates in the Pantheon in Paris, intriguing and triggering curiosity in every young mind that visits the monument.
Yet India’s science history remains locked up in ivory towers, university laboratories and in museums, and what reaches the masses is unvetted rhetoric that makes tall pseudo-scientific claims.
Certain organisations, media groups and institutions communicate real science to the masses but given the size of the Indian population, that is not enough. Nature and the universe are far more dynamic and beautiful than we know and we will be able to see the wonder that exists only if we extend our imagination based on scientific knowledge.
Madhuri Katti is a Kolkata based physics teacher, heritage enthusiast and an aspiring writer.
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