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‘Space Life Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science’ review: The struggles and triumphs of India’s scientific fraternity

Science, even as it takes apart and analyses phenomena, has a unifying effect on humankind as a whole because it plays on the canvas comprising the wide expanse of the universe against which our differences appear meaninglessly small and petty. But what does it take to build such a magnificent enterprise, get it working and actually obtain results to questions of cosmic significance? The answer is a story of endeavour, personal achievement, institution building, mobilising of funds and inspiring and holding together many, many people. It has been no different in post-Independence India, when the pursuit of science has been to a great extent democratised, and India is a key voice in the field of science. How did this come about? This is the story that Hari Pulakkat aims to narrate in Space Life Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science. He delves into the lives of some of the visionaries and institution builders and reveals their stories, tied close to the development of Indian science over the decades.

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A telescope in Ooty

The Sun is an object of never-ending fascination. It is also interesting from the point of view of astronomy that the longest datasets we have are of sunspots. The telescope in Kodaikanal itself has a hundred years of such observations. Using the telescope in Ooty, P.K. Manoharan mapped out the Sun’s heliosphere. But the telescope had not been built for just observing the Sun. It was the first radio telescope to be fully built in India, thanks to Govind Swarup, whom the author introduces to readers as a forceful, creative personality, who went on to build the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in Pune and establish the field.

Perhaps because it is a field that excites and tantalises with its grandeur, many more pages have been allotted to documenting the story of Space Science and Telescopes which form the “Space” section. But the writer’s engaging narrative takes the reader on the trip to space quite efficiently. They are inspiring stories — the scientists and researchers often worked on shoe string budgets, building every instrument from scratch. After overcoming many challenges, as Pulakkat reveals, entire fields of research were established and maintained.

Women in the field

After the first mention of a woman scientist’s name, the reader has to wait for quite some time before the next, and the next. Nipanjana Patra, Annapurni Subramaniam, Shyni Varghese and Manju Bansal are the few women to be named and discussed in the stories. There are a few more mentions, but not comparable in number to the plethora of male scientists whose stories have been narrated.

Some of the most inspiring narratives involve Govind Swarup and C.N.R. Rao and also R.A. Mashelkar’s energy in infusing life into the National Chemical Laboratory.

In a tribute, the author writes, “Reading Rao’s research papers of the last 50 years is like reading a mini history of the chemistry of solid-state materials.” This is no exaggeration, with Prof Rao being known for being prolific in the field. “I do not accept no for an answer,” is a defining quote of Prof Rao, whose career the author follows through his stints at IISc, IIT Kanpur, Oxford University, back to Kanpur and IISc where he takes over as director. The book includes stories from the lives of scientists like Swarup, B.V. Sreekantan, Venkataraman Radhakrishnan, U.R. Rao, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, C.N.R. Rao, Man Mohan Sharma, Mashelkar, and many others. A lot of attention is given to the illustrious students of these visionary leaders.

One person missing in the stellar list of institution builders is physicist Alladi Ramakrishnan and the Madras school. But the strength of the book is not in its completeness — which would be a marathon task anyway — but in its engaging and inspiring quality. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of science in modern India.

Space Life Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science; Hari Pulakkat, Hachette India, ₹699.

shuba.desikan@gmail.com


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