May 27, 2024


Science It Works

The divide between scientists and lay people is big everywhere

Renowned radio astrophysicist Govind Swarup was a driving force behind India’s efforts in the field of radio astronomy.

There’s a lot of history on Indian science and the people who contributed to it. What challenges did you face in finding all these anecdotes?

It took a long time. I didn’t finish (the research). Covid-19 finished it for me. I would have loved to take another three months. As you can see, the final chapters are a bit shorter. And that is by design—it is not necessarily because of covid—because biology started very late. A major challenge was uneven documentation. This is a problem about any history that you write of India. It may be rich in some areas and not in others. But you cannot write an uneven book, so you have to work that much harder to get more information. If you can’t, you have to bring down the others to a level of the lowest common denominator.

You frequently mention the problem of funding for scientific projects in India. How has this changed?

The amount of money available (today) has gone up significantly. But the mechanisms through which that money flows are pretty slow. We have (government) departments of science and technology, and biotechnology. These didn’t exist in the 1960s and 1970s. There are many schemes within these two institutions through which you now get funding. You can also get international funding sometimes. There is also some philanthropic funding. Things have changed in the last 15 years.

What were the other challenges back then and how have things changed?

A big challenge was foreign exchange. (Scientific) instruments are not made in India. So till liberalisation, when our foreign exchange reserves started increasing, release of foreign exchange was highly controlled. You might have been building your own equipment but you might still need a piece of tubing that was not made in India. You asked for $15 (around 1,100 now) and got only $10, which wasn’t enough to buy it. Things got frustrating. Domestic funding alone wasn’t the problem. There was also a cultural problem. People were complacent and generally laid-back. And within that atmosphere it was not easy for a few individuals to rise above everybody and start tackling problems nobody was interested in.

All that has changed. But I think we still don’t take enough risks as a country. Not just in science…. By and large, we don’t try to solve big problems. We are satisfied with incremental science. In the future, the biggest issue will be to convince society that science is an important activity. Funding will come from that. Politicians have no personal interest in this. Science is no different from any other activity for bureaucrats. If people think that it’s an important activity, then they will also think that way. Science has advanced so much that people often don’t know what’s happening. That divide between scientists and lay people is quite big everywhere, but more so here.

Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science;  <span class=₹699; Hachette India; 336 pp”/>

Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science; 699; Hachette India; 336 pp
(Courtesy: Hachette India)

The pandemic has sparked a tussle between scientific logic and misinformation. How has that influenced the importance of science today?

The majority of people don’t know what’s happening in science and probably don’t want to know. It’s probably cultural and the way science was taught in school. I lost interest too. Only when I started working and reading good books accessible in Delhi’s libraries did I understand how interesting it all was. Lack of scientific temper comes from a lack of interest in science, which comes from bad teaching. It is universal.

Was there anything you wanted to include in the book and couldn’t?

I am happy with whatever I have included but I would have liked to give a little more space to G.N. Ramachandran. Because he is India’s greatest scientist. I did not meet him because he was not around. Most of the book is about people I met and I had planned to write about them only. But slowly others—because of the strength of their work—came into the frame. U.R. Rao, for instance, whom I had met.

How did you try to make the history of chemistry interesting?

India’s contribution to chemistry is substantial. It also contributed greatly to the economy. Our chemical, pharma and genetic industries are large. As a journalist, I wanted to write a story that is significant, not just what people want to read. I still don’t know how a lay person will read those chapters. I was confident about astronomy because everybody wants to know about it. Chemistry, less so. But it is also a challenge as a writer that you try to make things that people don’t want to read more interesting.

Also read: Meet the Stanford researchers who have found a new way to study microscopic ocean life