I am not sure whether Angela Saini had expected her book to be such a successful publication when travelling across India to research the Geek Nation. By now it is on the bestseller lists in the UK and India, has been reviewed numerous times and Angela has given a number of presentations and interviews in USA, India and the UK. I was lucky enough to come across an advert for the book on twitter but can’t recall what triggered my interest; I guess it was the curious relationship between science and religion that features in the book, or the ongoing debates about the enormous economic, technological and social transformations that India is currently undergoing. The book is a fantastic read and offered me who knows virtually nothing about India interesting insights into a strange world.
When I saw that Angela was being interviewed by Alok Jha, one of the Guardian’s science and environment correspondents, in London, I immediately jumped for the opportunity to learn more about her travels and research.The interview was held as part of the Festival of Asian Literature at Asia House in London on May 24th, 2011. Asia House is a marvellous building in the centre of London, not far from Oxford Street. The Grade II* listed building has recently been redeveloped but contains the original decor from the late 1800s. Apart from rooms for public events there are exhibition spaces as well as a splendid cafe in its basement.
The interview largely explored the question whether India was on the verge to challenge the old science superpowers of the USA or the UK. Angela almost immediately rejected that India was already overtaken the Western countries in importance for the development of science. However, by pointing to the long history of science in India she argued that the importance and influence of Indian science and scientists on discussion and debate in major fields was already noticeable. Science and in particular mathematics – it is sometimes claimed that the number Zero was invented and first used in India – have played an important role in the growth of India from a developing country to an emerging economy that is often compared with Brazil, Russia and China – (BRIC). In recent years, the social and economic problems of the fast growing Indian society have increased the political support for developments in science and technology. This is reflected in the emergence of now world-reknowned research centres spread across India. Angela’s research involved travelling to these centres to explore the “geekiness”, i.e. the passion and motivation of the people working in and leading the research there.
To Angela and the reader’s surprise, the enormous technological and scientific advancement in these research labs happens alongside the existence of superstition and belief. For Angela the reliance on non-scientific institutions like superstition and religion reflects the despertion and helplessness of people in many situation. Over the past decades when life in India was often overshadowed poor living conditionsreligion offered people stability and a rtional to explain the condition of their daily lives. Nevertheless, it was surprising to Angela that such beliefs and superstitions are still held and referred to by some world-reknowned scientists. In interviews,top scientists at leading Indian research labs referred to research conducted at the Academy of Sanskrit Research, which might be described as a centre for religious studies. This research at the AoSR has published and translated manuscripts describing “floating vehicles”, “chariots of the gods”, used by ancient warriors. From the point of view of a Western scientist the belief in such chariots by scientists is stunning, if not unbelievable. Yet, it reflects the curious interrelationship between formal science and other kinds of enquiry that Angela also encountered when attending the Indian Science Congress. Here, she found that Nobel Price wining scientists would present the most advanced science and mathematics while next door talks were given about homeopathy and other kinds of alternative medicine that in by Western scientistis largely are seen as unscientific, if not nonsensical.1
The existence of ‘alternative science’ and ‘alternative medicine’ in the same academic environment in India is possible and unproblematic, Angela argued, because science is not in the same way institutionalised as in the Western world; “there is no Royal Society equivalent in India”. The lack of an institutionalised science results in the possibility of questionable science being acknowledged and used by the courts as Angela explained with regard to the use of a “truth machine” by Indian law enforcement and in court whose findings have led to the (wrongful) conviction of people for murder.2
Considering the curiousness of some parts of Indian science, the possibility that alternative science exists next to ‘Western’ science thr
ows up the question of what ‘science’ is actually being undertaken in India and if Indian science will take over the world, which was the title of the event. Angela based her answer to this question on her visits to the various research labs in India. She came to the conclusion that Indian science focuses on pragmatic questions. Funds are given to scientists and their labs if they concern themselves with problems the Indian society currently faces: energy, health, genetics, engineering and computer science as well as space travel, to give but a few example that she covered in her talk and book. This has given rise to important develop in the applied sciences. Yet, there are no or very little funds for basic research although Indian science relies on such research to further advance. It therefore happily welcomes back in India Indian scientists who have been trained and maybe have become world-famous elsewhere, in particular in the USA and UK.
Will India soon challenge Western science and become a scientific superpower in its own right? No, agued Angela in the interview and in her book. Yet, the passion, or “geekiness” as she calls it, with which people engage in scientific endeavors, will help transform Indian society and raise its influence in the world.
Angela Saini is on Twitter – @AngelaDsaini
1 see for example, the site Bad Science where the non-scientificness of alternative medicine is shown. The contributions to the site are made by Ben Goldacre
2 Angela Saini. 2009. The Brain Police: Judging Murder with an MRI. (Wired Magazine).