It is encouraging to see science and technology leaders like Mr. N. R. Narayana Murthy and Dr. C.N.R. Rao taking note of the serious deficiency in scientific research in India. While Mr. Murthy has highlighted the need for better support and incentives, Dr. Rao has focussed on the failure of elite institutions such as the IITs to keep abreast of important advances so they don’t become just “glorified engineering colleges.”
Both points are valid, but I would like to address another aspect of the challenge — of attracting talented young minds into the basic sciences. Put another way, how do we make basic sciences attractive to young minds. Based on more than 20 years’ experience teaching both science and engineering subjects in the U.S., I feel that the key is to student interest in science at the earliest — in high school if not earlier.
Interest in science, like in music, manifests early in life. Children should be exposed to the wonder and beauty of science at the earliest. It may not be out of place to recount my own experience. My interest in science, especially mathematics was awakened when my father introduced me to Sir Arthur Eddington’s wonderful book, Nature of the Physical World. This led me naturally to Albert Einstein’s (with Leopold Infeld) The Evolution of Physics.
Although I graduated with an engineering degree and had a promising career before me, the pull of mathematics proved strong. After spending an unhappy semester at an IIT, I went to the U.S. for advanced studies in mathematics (and mathematical physics). I had the opportunity to work with both science and engineering students, and was struck by a remarkable difference I found in the attitudes of the two groups.
I found engineering students to be pragmatic and much more aware of career opportunities. Science students, on the other hand, were more likely to be excited by discoveries and beautiful ideas and theories. This was particularly the case in mathematics.
The peer pressure, the desire to be recognised by other workers in the field across institutions and even across national boundaries, is particularly strong among scientists. I remember the great respect that American mathematicians had for the Soviet school of mathematics even at the height of Cold War.
Like all generalisations, the one above is an oversimplification, but it can be said that students are drawn to science and the professions for fundamentally different reasons — science is exciting, while engineering (and other professions) promise a good career. This is not to suggest that science cannot be a rewarding career, but that is not what attracts young minds to science. And almost without exception I found that science and math majors, especially those who excelled, had been drawn to the subject in high school or earlier, inspired by a parent or a teacher.
A major obstacle that our children (and teachers) face is the paucity of well-written popular science books in Indian languages. Chinese, Japanese and Korean children do not have to deal with this handicap.
I am convinced that we will not be able to attract talented young minds to science in good numbers until we make available to children and their teachers high quality popular science works in Indian languages.
The message is clear: the time has come to move beyond discussing generalities and take science where receptive minds are. This means taking science to children — and their teachers — in the language they understand. This should be a priority.