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Science for science's sake

M.G.K. Menon        Print Edition: Jan 8, 2012

The problem we have is that India has had a very long and distinguished tradition in science and technology. There's no question about it. For example, I will be going next month (in January) for a meeting organised by the Bose Institute in Kolkata on confluence of minds. And the three minds they have chosen for this are Gurudev Tagore, Acharya JC Bose who created the Bose Institute, and Prashant Chandra Mahalanobis, who knew Gurudev well, and who created the Indian Statistical Institute. Now, this is called the confluence of minds. Completely different types of people. Two of them were born around the same time - Tagore and Bose. And Mahalanobis was born much later. They really represent what I would call the confluence of minds. Now I wish we could have a confluence of minds today of a similar nature involving more current people.

Let me be very clear that I am an optimist and therefore really look forward to positive things which can emerge and which can be done. What happens today is that very good young students want to do other things - there are any number of avenues open. In my day, when I did my schooling and college graduation, and then the higher degrees, there was very little that one could do other than science, engineering, law, medicine and a few other things. Today the opportunities are infinite. That's the problem. And we are not generating enough, and giving an opportunity to the brightest in the country.

So therefore I think what is important is to be able to offer the largest number of opportunities to the very young to do what they like. I don't care that they do science necessarily. I would like some of them to do science, but let them do anything which is creative. That's what's important. On the other hand, today's attraction is money. That's what most people are after - nothing but money. I am not calling it Lakshmi and Saraswati; there is no conflict between those two, but it's a question of money for the sake of money. There is a very big difference between the two.

Now, in this process, most people are searching for money. So those who do science and are very good at it, want to do IIT entrance. Then they go for these tuitions and so on. And by the time they finish with all those examination efforts and the tuitions, they are completely drained. There's nothing much left in them. And then they get into an IIT, and then what is their aim in getting into an IIT? Not to do engineering, per se, but to then get out and do an MBA. And from an MBA, they want to go into areas like finance, and so on. And very large number want to essentially ener the IT sector, which is the money-making  sector. You don't have the equivalent of Steve Jobs. He of course made a lot of money, or Bill Gates made a lot of money. But they also contributed in the sense of opening up wholly new avenues and opportunities for the public at large. Now that is not the effort. The effort is only to do a job which gives you lakhs, tens of lakhs, crores of rupees. Whereas that is not how I looked at science when I grew up.

So we have to attract the young. Second point I wanted to make is that there are many more institutions today compared to the old days. And I still recall discussions with Homi Bhaba, and he told me about the days when he was in Bangalore, and he was thinking of these completely new areas, of elementary particle physics, and high energy physics. And he had to create an institution, that was the proposal he made to the Dorabh Tata Trust, called the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research today, to provide opportunities for the young to be in new areas of nuclear science and mathematics, including all the high energy physics, particle physics and so on. Because these two areas are the underpinning.

But today that is not the case. There are any number of institutes that are present, and one is looking for the best people. That somehow is not happening. For example, if you want to look at the old days, you had a lot of very bright self-taught people. CV Raman, for example, was one of those who never went abroad. In fact he said that he was grateful to the English civil service, who had said after examining him that you are a vegetarian and you will go to England. And you will be continuing with vegetarian food, and with that you will not be able to survive in the cold climate. So he was not sent. He stayed in India. And he said that he was most grateful to that civil servant for preventing him from going. Now, in a sense, what he was implying by that was that a lot of science comes from within, innovation comes from within. And that must be given free rein.

Now, it doesn't mean that nobody should go abroad; Bhabha went. And he had opportunities in Europe to meet the best. He came back to India, and then dreamed of the needs of India, in terms of the whole nuclear programme. That we could increase the energy release by million-fold.
Now, why am I saying all this. it's because I'm not saying that you needn't go abroad or you can go abroad. But the best opportunities must be made available to the young.

To me the invention of the x-ray represents the core of science, that is, a discovery which was then applied, made into a technology, and then was an innovation of profound magnitude, which has then gone on to the cat scans and MRIs, etc. the same basic approach. And at the same time available on a wide basis. To me, those are the people whom one should give respect to. Not necessarily only those who make money. Unfortunately a lot of our newspapers and economic journals keep on talking about the money made by very rich people. Money, money, money. What a great house this person has; what yachts he has; what sort of lifestyle they lead; how they travel in huge luxurious planes and yachts.

Take the example of Mahatma Gandhi. We have an example in this country of a truly great man. What did he have when he died? His spectacles? His loin cloth? It was all that he had. He did not possess. And so what I would really say is that somehow what is missing to me is the heart of science. The heart of science is something quite different. It is really all these questions. For example, Galileo was told by his father to become a doctor and to study medicine. His father said look, you won't make any money as a professor of mathematics, but you will make an enormous amount of money as a practitioner of medicine. But Galileo said that this is what interests me. He was greatly influenced by a famous mathematician of Italy whose lectures he had listened to.

Similarly for instance, Bhabha. If you read his books or quotations from the books what he has recorded, you will find that he has also told his father that physics and mathematics are what I am cut out to do. That is what I want to do. I don't want to be one of the great men of Indian industry in the Tatas. The opportunity existed, and that's what his father wanted. That here was a young man, brilliant in mathematics and physics and so on, broad vision of music, painting and everything else, who could become a great man. Like Cyrus Mistry is today going to become the next successor to Ratan Tata, and Ratan was the successor to JRD Tata, and so on down the line. So, Homi also said, father that's not what I'm cut out to be. I want to do science, physics and mathematics.

So what I'm driving at is that any number of these examples exist. And these are people who we put in front of us. Every currency note has Mahatma Gandhi's picture, but he was not a man who worshipped money. And yet, he is a man of ideas. The motivation has to be the motivation of ideas, of innovation, of discovery. And this is why I very often quote that famous nursery rhyme to little children. The first line is well known: Twinkle twinkle little star. But the next line is the importance of science: How I wonder what you are. And that evokes a feeling of awe. Those are the important questions in life - how, why, what. And also as my great friend Gilman used to say, also the question, why not? It's not enough to ask the question why, but sometimes you have to ask the question why not. The other day I gave a talk to 10+2 students in Trivandrum. And I pointed out, can you let me know what is the greatest single discovery, if it's true, that has been made this year? They couldn't answer. And I said, if it's finally proven that there are particles which are called neutrinos, which can travel faster than light, and which dispute what Einstein had stated in 1905 that nothing can travel faster than light, then you would have one of the greatest discoveries by asking the question, not why, but why not. Gautama Buddha also said, never believe what your teacher says. You know what you hear on the radio, what you see in the newspapers, what you see on the television, don't believe necessarily. Ask yourself the basic question. All these quotations are here.

I believe now for the next Plan, one of the major projects that has been approved in science is the International Neutrino Observatory to be built in India. But it becomes more and more difficult as you move along. Things become much more complicated. The large hadron collider in Geneva or the big experiments that are being done, compared to the old days when one operated with relatively trivial equipment. If you see the discoveries that CV Raman made, and you look at the little equipment he used, just a reflecting mirror through a media and spectrascope, and he used to carry a little pocket spectrascope. I used to wander around with him.

Those have formed the basis of great discoveries.

It's not about the west. We've had great universities in this country. We had Nalanda, we had Takshashila, etc. and you have to ask yourself, do you realize Nalanda was the same period as Oxford was created? How did Oxford become what it has become? And Cambridge? What makes a great university? We talk of creating a world class university. Can you create these without change in attitudes? So what I'm really driving at is we must have the right attitudes. And that is more important than anything else. Value systems.

What is important is not to want to do these things, but to allow them to happen, give the freedom to the individual, and not be hidebound.
What we have done in the space programme is not new. Instead of that you could have satellites and it can serve a variety of purposes. You can put a nuclear missile and that serves a different purpose. So what I'm driving at is that that by itself is the end product.

My message to India is that we have to be positive, we have to be optimistic, and we have to give essentially freedom for the young to be untrammeled in what they are doing, not controlled, not saying you will get money for this and money for that. Give as much freedom to grow to become what they want to be.

The author is Advisor in the Department of Space/Indian Space Research Organization (as told to Alokesh Bhattacharyya)


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