The term nanotechnology conjures up the image of a lab with electronics and wires, power (electricity) and cutting-edge applications, perhaps even a vision of the minute, but almost never its impact on society, the big science or even traditional medicine. Pankaj Sekhsaria’s book Nanoscale is a great place to begin to unravel the connectedness of disciplines, the impact of this science and how Indian society has given its own twist to the way of approaching the nanoscale.
The term nanoscale as used in this book can be somewhat approximately defined as the range of size from one nanometre to 100 nanometres. While a carbon atom would be a tenth of a nanometre, a virus can be about 100 nanometres in size. Within these two orders of magnitude lies a world of science that is brought alive in the book.
The author has taken up work being carried out in four labs to illustrate the extent to which this science has integrated with the needs and dictates of Indian society. The first one is the development of the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope at the physics lab of the University of Pune – a process that exemplifies sustained hard work as it does quirky jugaad tactics. Not stopping with a description of the development of this important scientific tool, the book also explores subsidiary concerns such as the absence of a culture of commercialising such systems and processes.
Who would have thought that gold, in the nanoscale, appears red or blue but not its familiar glowing shade of yellow? The book offers interesting tidbits such as this, even while tackling involved arguments. In Chapter 3, “Ancient Ayurveda, New Nanotechnology,” the story moves on to the Centre for Nanobiosciences, at the Agharkar Research Institute, also in Pune. From the nuts and bolts approach of the physics department, the reader is transported to a study of molecules, gold bhasma and Ayurveda. Here we have people trained in modern scientific method studying and characterising medicinal products traditionally used in Ayurveda. What could follow when Charaka meets modern medicine, but a discussion of hierarchies, method, philosophy and world views. A short but interesting flavour of this is provided in the book.
Technology at the nanoscale can also impact society, it is not merely a subject confined to the labs or is fuelled into business, yes the reader does suspect that, and the book proceeds to elucidate this in an engaging manner.
The scene of action shifts to Hyderabad where, at the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials, a low-cost, drinking water purifier system is being developed. At this centre, mainly focussed on high-tech industrial and defence, mostly high-cost, innovations, the nanosilver incorporated ceramic candles for disinfecting drinking water, is a promising low-cost project. However, the process of trying to commercialise it has been a failure.
The final tale is also set in Hyderabad, where at the LV Prasad Eye Institute, nanotechnology is used to treat retinoblastoma, the most common malignant eye tumour in infants in India.
This is a narrative of Indian science that brings out how it interacts with society. Often the results are new, unexpected even, but never dull.
Nanoscale: Society’s Deep Impact on Science, Technology and Innovation in India ; Pankaj Sekhsaria, Writers Upfront, ₹475.