Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The failed discourse on Indian Science!

The following article was written for Niti Central. Pasting it here for reference:

The “Eminent Historian” rued in the Hindustan Times that “The Republic of India is not becoming a scientific power any time soon”. He cites recent utterances at the Indian Science Congress as examples. And also cites the lack of enough institutions to pursue innovation.
On Saturday, there was an op-ed in The Hindu “Scientists without a scientific temper”. The byline read – “India has not produced any Nobel Prize winner in science in the last 85 years — largely because of the lack of a scientific environment in the country”.
My mind immediately drifted to something I learnt in late 2010. The Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 2010 was awarded to two scientists whose research led to the world’s first “Test-Tube” baby to be born in 1978. The process is called In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and is believed to be one of the biggest success stories of science.
The world’s second test tube baby was born after a mere 67 days, in India!  The research was led by Dr Subhas Mukherjee – who “along with Sunit Mukherji, a cryobiologist, and Gynecologist Dr Saroj Kanti Bhattacharya, worked on a method of in-vitro fertilisation that was used successfully on patient with damaged fallopian tubes”.
The website of Dr Subhas Mukherjee details how their method “was different” from those who won the Nobel Prize. And the website also painfully details another aspect – the lack of even abject support from the then Government in power. Leave alone support during the research, the then State Government even rubbished the entire research findings (after the baby was born). Dr Mukherjee committed suicide in 1981, apparently unable to take the insults anymore.
It was only in 2002 that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recognised Dr Mukherjee’s work! Ironically, a film made on Dr Mukherjee’s life received an award, but Dr Mukherjee’s work never got an award in our country! The achievement stands out because, it did not merely follow the research that led to the first baby. This was parallel research and the gap between the two babies is a mere 67 days!  I was very much surprised to learn about all this – because I don’t recollect being taught about this. I don’t recollect reading in newspapers or any article by “historians” that took pride in such a stupendous achievement by an Indian scientist as lately as the 1970s!
Back in 2004, there was this PPT that was being forwarded across Indians living in the US/elsewhere. The PPT spoke about how Indians have excelled in the past, and continue to contribute to the scientific excellence in the world (PPT mentioned the number of Doctors and Engineers working around the globe). One of the first slides quoted someone as saying (not verbatim) – “Sanksrit is the best language that computers understand”. I laughed – I mean, this is Sanskrit and the computer we are talking about. How on earth are they compatible? Why would someone say that? And why are our people randomly forwarding stuff that is potentially not true. Why this false bravado?
And then very recently, I read this fascinating piece that explained the commonality between the structure of Sanskrit and various programming languages in vogue. Reproducing just a couple of statements here:
“It has an astonishing property known as a “context-free grammar…Context-free means that the language is utterly unambiguous, and every sentence in it can be derived precisely from a set of rules. The computer languages that exist today…can be described precisely in a few hundred rules. This precision allows these languages (and Paninian Sanskrit) to be lexically analysed by a parser, which can then create a semantic tree structure that encodes the underlying ‘meaning’ of the statement (or programme).”
I’d strongly encourage you to spend some quality time in reading the above article to understand about the language structure of Sanskrit more (and to douse the curiosity on why Sanskrit is the best language computers can understand). I was never exposed to this kind of learning during my schooling – all we had to do was mug up “rama, ramao, ramah”; mug up shlokas and their Hindi meanings; dutifully reproduce them in the examination papers and score marks.
I visited Jantar Mantar in Jaipur in 2012. It blew me away that a few hundred years ago, our kings had a very good grasp of science and have also devised various equipment to study motion of the earth, sun etc. Most of the times Jantar Mantar is in the news because there is dharna in New Delhi near Jantar Mantar. Or worse, take a look at the image below. Photo taken by a friend - "Haryom Payal I love you". It is a pity that we have reduced the Jantar Mantar campus as an assembling point for dharnas, instead of making it a knowledge centre!

Higgs Boson is the particle that provides mass to other elementary particles, and hence, is also referred to as the God Particle. After an experiment in the CERN research facility in 2012, scientists announced that a particle consistent with the Higgs Boson was observed. Boson is named after Dr Satyendranath Bose – an Indian scientist. Do you want to know what the Indian TV media discussed then? I wrote in detail here, but the summary is this – they debated the existence of God, the conflict between science and religion etc. Not even a small programme on Dr Bose.
Or let’s take the example of another forte of our ancient sciences – Civil Engineering! At times, we at least see a cursory mention of Sushruta and his treatise – but we very seldom see a single programme explaining the greatness of our structures. It takes a National Geographic channel to make a couple of programmes, but our discourse never focusses on this brilliant past. Sadly, the only window of our architectural wonder to the outside world is that “monument of love“, which pales in comparison to the myriad forts; to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves; and to the Angkor Wats.
And now, we come to the Indian Science Congress of 2015 (the main reason why many liberals, historians, academicians are bombarding us with their bhashans!). When I first read what the Science and Technology Minister of India said that Pythagoras theorem was first used in India much before Pythagoras proved it, I laughed. And I wondered why people keep making these claims and give wrong headlines to the media. The likes of NDTV dutifully started their reporting too – and the usual bashing of the RSS, BJP, Sangh Parivar begun in earnest.
Until support came from unexpected quarters – Shashi Tharoor! He plugged his 2003 article in The Hindu  in which he cites a reference of a fascinating book written by an American writer Dick Teresi! It took research by an American writer to tell us the depth and vastness of Ancient India’s grip on science and mathematics hundreds of years before the Newtons, Eulers, and lo behold – the Pythagoras’s!
It still sounded a bit far fetched – but this set of tweets from one Vinay sealed it for me (and hopefully many others). A full read of this link is strongly recommended, for it delves into nice details – I am merely stating a pithy summary:
“Indians never sought “proofs”. We sought computational techniques than model/proofs. To this extent we were a “algorithmic” civilization. The Greeks loved proofs. Not us.”
When confronted with this, the liberals, academicians etc started to change track – now, it was no more about the Pythagoras theorem being in use hundreds of years before in India. It was now about this:
“Beauty about knowledge is that people in different civilisations often discovered similar things. No reason to claim West or India is superior”.
It wasn’t anymore about the actual mathematical studies that happened in ancient India – now that people became aware about books that spoke in detail about the same – the debate sought be moved around “sure, we were great, but so were everyone else”.
Speaking of the Pythogaras theorem - here's a link I came across on rediff. Fields Medal winner Manjul Bhargava explains to us how this theorem was in vogue in various civilizations right from 2500 B.C.! Maths enthusiasts would love to read this piece. 

The article in The Hindu plugged at the beginning had another byline – “The absurd claims at the ISC were an insult to the several real scientific accomplishments of ancient India”. I read the article with the hope that the author will illustrate some “real scientific accomplishments”. There were zero references to it.
Why Left-Libs failed Indian scientists?
The eminent historian in his piece says this, “Our ancestors had elaborated sophisticated methods of analysis” and proceeds to give zero examples of the “sophisticated analysis”. Or this article that ends by saying the claim of Pythogaras theorem is absurd! The irony is that this entire ilk had the past 10 years to enlighten us on these achievements, considering the fact that they flocked the educational scene of the country. But alas!
Thanks to social media and some very committed bloggers/authors like here and here, I was further enlightened to the ancient texts and specifics of ancient Indian sciences and mathematics (fibonacci series, cataract, plastic surgery, number theory, calculus etc – all of them were prevalent hundreds of years before “proofs” came into vogue!). Before this, all I knew was we invented zero and Sushruta wrote a book on surgery! Never ever was I exposed to this kind of specifics!
Or take the classic example of the mathematical genius Ramanujam – we are told he failed some subjects in school, but are seldom taught about his actual work! What explains this blatant ignorance? Again, thanks to twitter, I keep getting to know specifics of his astonishing work, but what about those who don’t have access to twitter? In many articles, Dr Jagadish Chandra Bose is parallely credited along with Marconi for inventing the radio – but we are never taught in detail about the genius of Dr Bose.
Liberals were dissing that a paper was presented in the Indian Science Congress 2015, which claimed that an Indian flew an aircraft 6-7 years earlier than the Wright brothers did. Social media told me that an experiment did indeed happen in 1895 in which an attempt was made to fly an aircraft – whether it was successful or not is still under dispute. But here’s my point – I didn’t know that we even made an attempt!
Leave scientific achievements in the distant past – our discourse does not even discuss the pride of our achievements in the recent past! So, does this all mean that we bask in our past glory, only fight it out on what we invented/discovered/pioneered, and not care about what the future is? Absolutely not! However, it is very important for us to learn the specifics of our past scientific achievements – it is important to get inspired that we have done this before and we can do this again. For example, the “eminent historian” refuses to see the impact Indian engineers have made to the world of IT. Sure, we did not do pioneering research but science is such a vast ocean – our contributions to the development of technology are phenomenal and something to be proud of; not something to be ashamed of! The pride in our past has to be the inspiration to our present and future. If someone is arguing that we merely bask in the past, he/she fails to lay the foundation for a bright future!
It is of course true that our education system needs to challenge the intellect of the students. There was an uproar a couple of years back when a question appeared in the physics paper of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. The students, parents, teachers, colleges etc claimed the question was “out of syllabus”. The board claimed that the question was “in syllabus” but out of the generally used text book! The administration had to bow down to protests by the parents and award grace marks to all students. The 600 odd students (out of the 1.5 lakh who wrote the paper) must have been devastated – but come to think about it, this simple reform will be a far fetched one! Just one question from the syllabus but outside of the text book – and look at how the analytical abilities of our students change when they enter engineering courses.
There are many other such simple steps that can be taken to enable better innovation; better analysis; better research capabilities. The Prime Minister himself has indicated this at the Science Congress – even giving suggestions that CSR funding may be diverted to science research in schools. This constant dissing of our past and present serves no purpose. Debating “science” and “history” only when the BJP is in power at the centre serves no purpose either!  We need continuous and constructive suggestion and articles – not rhetoric and lofty language! Or not when only Modi or his Ministers say something!


ravinalam said...

Impressive article which highlights high's and lows and we forgot most of this either due to western influence or we thought its not a matter of importance..

when reading this many facts flashed through my mind I could recollect the architectural monument konark temple.. which is a sun/moon dial too (constructed some 750years ago) ,

When reading through higgs boson, I can remember that our media did tell that we supplied equipment to the FERN but not about our great scientist satyandranath bose

Also I can remember the success story of Dr.Varaprasad reddy(shanta biotech MD) who created a low cost drug to fight hepatitis and even this is a crowd funded

CodeNameV said...

I would also like to provide some more information on various topics:

1) Indian ship building was kick-ass, no less. Pliny The Elder's Natural History (book 6 I think) speaks of Indian ships draining Rome of gold which means that was India's export capability. I think Vivek Dahejia and his brother have a paper on economic capability of maritime trade in ancient India. Other records indicate that Indian ships were huge. A book called "A History of Indian Shipping" by Radhamukund Mookerji goes into details. It is a brilliant book with all the available data on ancient Indian shipping. Link here.

2) What point#1 means is that Indians had a pretty good idea of navigation on the seas. This is a fact that comes out even in Mathematical works. Bhaskaracharya in Siddhanta Shiromani explains why and how a Longitudinal zero is required for navigation on sea. It is there in Goladhyaya section. I would in fact love to give you actual quote but this is neither the place for it nor is there any space here :). For a quick ref, you can look at page#114 here.

3) Indians didnt prove anything is another claim. The word for Proof in sanskrit texts is called upapatti. Center for Policy Studies did a brilliant paper refuting this claim that Indians didnt know any proofs. Even Colebrooke accepted in his works that Indians went to great lengths to prove mathematical facts "geometrically and algebraically". I am leaving you a link here.

4) Indian geometry too was pretty brilliant. In fact, Pythagoras theorem was proved geometrically by Sulba Sutras. I have documented this in one of my old pieces on my blog.

5) Indian didn't know irrational numbers. This claim is partly true. But not entirely true. Indians knew that some divisions are never ending. Aryabhatta knew it! Brahmagupta knew it! Pingala who was a logician, not a mathematician knew it. They just didnt classify them as special numbers. That some how is a proof of lackadaisical attitude of ancient Indians towards math. To me, such statements dont sound very scientific, in fact it is silly to make such a claim.

6) Not that 'only ancient India' contributed to science. Not many outside the interested readers and math circles know about AKS primality test which was the result of a brilliant paper by IIT btech grads in late 90s. Yet, Indians are bad at science! It is an Indian scientist who discovered DNA. Chandrasekhar's contribution to Blackhole research is no joke. Sure they were all not in India and did research outside India but like you explain, Boson was an achievement that was done in India but Indian researchers. Arun Shourie wrote a brilliant piece in 2004 (just before NDA Govt went down) on Indian contribution to world science and economy. Not able to find the link now.

When factual claims are made like this, you hear people saying "you are saying as if Indians knew everything". That is an unfortunate over-generalization. Indians didnt know complex numbers. Indians knew that square root of -ve numbers but there is no proof that Indians arrived at imaginary numbers. Indians knew irrational numbers but used approximations and didnt treat them as special (something which is used as a beating stick over and over). Indians didnt know a lot of things before west brought them out but that doesnt mean Indians were superstitious people who didnt have scientific bent of mind!

CodeNameV said...

You have written on a topic that is the closest to my heart and thats why you and your readers have to bare with my looongggisssh and multiple comments.

Therefore, I have to at the outset state this: "I am extremely sorry for this looongggisssh comment"!

I will try to provide corroborative evidence and some extra information.

1) Sanskrit and its context-free nature. Modern comp-sci terminology uses the term Backus-Naur Form. Most of programming languages today are based on this. Panini's treatise Ashtadhyayi on Sanskrit Grammar conforms to this form. There has been a continued effort to get this renames as Panini-Backus-Naur form but so far Academia has been quite stubborn. The logical nature of Panini's ashtadhyayi is pretty brilliant. Panini never got his due.

2) Science in ancient India was pretty big and in fact it was a continuous effort. From Aryabhatta till Kerala Mathematicians, the effort was so continuous that terminology also didnt change! Aryabhatta named an algorithm as Kuttaka (to find roots of an indeterminate equation of first degree in two variables). The name for the method remained unchanged right through Brahmagupta, Bhaskaracharya (both I and II), Narayana Pandita, Madhava, Parameswara, Nilakantha etc. Yet, we are told that all these were exceptions and that ancient India was totally steeped in superstition and mythology, as if there was nothing else.

3) I suppose when it comes to Civil Engineering, your own blog and FB page (thanks to Samsung camera, duh!) is one of the best places to find evidence. Your visits to Jodhpur, Ankor Vat etc show the kind of civil engineering master pieces that were built by our ancestors. To think this was possible without any understanding of math behind it is truly dumb. Yet, with India, this is the picture we get.

4) Boyer, Colebrooke and other great math historians after studying Indian mathematics emerged totally enlightened that the way Indians dealt with Math was not the same as the way of the west, Greek or Romans. It is a pity that many like Mr. Vinay (of Storify link) think we never bothered about proofs. We did. There is evidence through studies on this matter. Dont tell anybody, but this kind of debate is something I miss now that I am off twitter :( ... I do get time however to discuss about uppu-karam with my wife :D

5) Indian mathematics was not just leisure or utilitarian as is claimed so often. The theoretical background was very sound. Indians were literally chasing solutions to indeterminate equations. Without theoretical background it is not possible to even know that such equations exist! Chakravala is a brilliant cyclic algorithm and in his 1918 paper Florian Cajori even remarked that chakravala algorithm has traces of "Mathematical Induction". If it were to come from an Indian scientist working in India, nobody would accept. Cajori was an American mathematician. So nobody refutes him but nobody even accepts his remark as a fact either!

Social Media in a way has brought a level playing field. I used to love twitter for the same reason. SM brings out those positive aspects of India that Main stream media willfully ignores! Its brilliant! When it inspires posts like this from people like you, it makes it even more enriching. Your night-out was time well spent Sudhir and I think even you know it :)

Saran Kakarlapudi said...

Hi Sudhir,
This is one amazing blog post. I got to see both sides of the coin regarding the claims made at ISC 2015. I would like to know all the sources you have used in writing this post. I want to do a little bit of research myself and see where, when and why us Indians have stopped being the curious kind. I would really like to hear back from you. My email is

mukesh singh said...


It's great post.thanks for shearing it.

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