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For a Science Culture

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  18 March 2018 12:00 AM GMT

At the 105th Indian Science Congress that began at Manipur University in Imphal on Friday, Prime Minister rendra Modi harped on two things that merit attention as well as alysis. But first a Northeast-centric preamble: that a State capital of a northeastern State that is ragged by the largest number of militant groups espousing myriad causes that are often a total confusion in themselves, Manipur, has been chosen as the venue for the country’s biggest science congregation, speaks a few good things when it comes to the perception of this region as the country’s hub of secessionist violence in the minds of the so-called mainlanders. This is a welcome augury. An impression has gone out that Imphal too, despite the boycott call given by some militant groups, can fit into the tiol scheme of things when it comes to organizing an event as crucial as the science congress where about 5,000 delegates, including scientists, research scholars, corporates and students are participating. Good work, Manipur University.

Now what Modi has said. First, he has called upon Indian scientists to define R&D (research and development) as “research for development” to evolve effective solutions to the big problems the country is facing. He has called science an end to making a difference in the lives of others – commoners who need to be benefited from scientific and technological research and, and for, development. This is a progressive outlook on what science should strive for. It cannot remain a secluded wonderland for scientists working on startling and incredible theories in air-conditioned research chambers and laboratories. Scientific research fruits must percolate down so that they reach the lives of ordiry citizens, especially the poor and the downtrodden lot who are looking for empowerment within the ambit of a democracy that has thus far failed them in many ways despite the democracy being a high-frequency, high-amplitude pompous slogan. Therefore, as Modi has rightly stressed, it must be research for development, not merely research and development.

The other interesting thing is his “persol request”, not any directive from the government. (Here, the good thing is that at least a functioning democracy seems to be at work when the country’s chief political executive makes a persol request.) He has “persolly” urged the scientists at the congress to interact for 100 hours every year with 100 senior school students – at the secondary and higher secondary levels – to “teach them various aspects of science”. This idea innovation is a new one to have had its genesis in the mind of a politician, that too in a domain as science that is repugnt to most in the political universe mostly in the business of petty politics and theft of public fund.

What do our schools teach when it comes to science education? Teachers, mostly not trained in the art and science of science education, especially the rigour and marvel of mathematics, fail to inspire scientific temperament in their students. They fail to motivate them to think creatively, beyond the bounds of their syllabi, beyond the textbook stereotype. Thankfully, however, the new NCERT textbooks, in circulation since last 10 years, have box items where very interesting matters of knowledge beyond the syllabi are packed up lucidly and interestingly to fuel out-of-box thinking. But these items are often glossed over. This is the sad part of the story in most of our schools, including the ones boasting of marble floors and air-conditioned smart classrooms. Here, scientists, with proven track records, can help. They can show students the way. They can be a huge inspiration in a country that is in a dire need of pure science research, especially in physics and mathematics that have applications everywhere, including in the life sciences (haven’t you heard of biomechanics?).

Scientists, especially from research institutes, should pay heed to what the Prime Minister has said. He is talking sense. And he is talking in an area as paramount as science R&D.

Superior to Einstein?

That a huge majority of our politicians talk irresponsibly on public platforms and become butts of ridicule while they remain blissfully unconcerned, is not news. That most of them underrate the man on the street because they think they are VVIPs and so are entitled to all privileges possible on earth, is not news either. What might go as news is when a Union minister, that too handling science and technology affairs, traverses miles in his fanciful imagition, drawing bizarre resources from the ancient world of wisdom, and reaches one of the most sophisticated and revolutiory theories in modern physics – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, postulated during 1905-15 – and makes a sweeping comment vis-à-vis another great giant in the field, the recently departed Stephen Hawking, as to what this towering cosmologist’s take was when it came to his understanding of the Vedas!

So the news is: at the Indian Science Congress in Imphal on Friday, the minister, Harsh Vardhan, recalled Hawking as “emphatically saying on record (emphasis added) that our Vedas might have a theory superior to the Einstein’s theory of e=mc2”. This equation, from the special theory of relativity, is about mass-energy (m-e) equivalence, ‘c’ standing for the speed of light in vacuum and ‘2’ for “square of the speed of light”. One of the most revolutiory ones in our notion of energy and understanding of the bewildering space-time continuum, this equation tells us that mass and energy are two sides of the same coin – the Ultimate Reality if one may so, as Eastern mystics often point to. But the minister, hiding behind Hawking’s ‘comment’ that he has failed to prove, seems to suggest that ages before the genius in Einstein walked on earth, our Vedas had already cracked the space-time and gravitation riddles. When reporters asked him about the source from where he got to know about what Hawking said, he rather asked them to find it out themselves! This is utterly irresponsible. However, if the minister thinks he is right, he must prove it – that is, why and where Hawking said so. If he can prove, well, some serious rethinking on the whole history of physics will be in order. It will be a huge, intense and crowded research area. Mr Minister, are you inspiring this really? Else, what are you talking?

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