A marriage of history and science, and why we need it today 

Human, social and natural sciences will have to work together as they bear relevance to what and how we study natural and human-induced phenomena, says Jahnavi Phalkey, Founding Director, of Science Gallery Bengaluru and winner of the Infosys Prize 2023 for Humanities 

Published - December 28, 2023 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Jahnavi Phalkey

Jahnavi Phalkey | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K / THE HINDU

On a weekday, as the morning peak traffic tapers off on the usually busy Ballari Road in North Bengaluru, Jahnavi Phalkey, the Founding Director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, sits in her office overlooking an African Tulip tree that offers a sense of calm despite feverish construction activity on the premises. The Gallery is gearing up for a formal inauguration soon. 

Part of international network

Science Gallery Bengaluru is part of an international network of university owned exhibition galleries that bring together artists and scholars for public engagement with science, and the only one in Asia.  

“Two things set us apart from our contemporaries: I have pioneered a Public Lab Complex with seven experimental spaces to deliver collaboration between scholars from the human, social, and natural sciences; and practitioners from art, design and engineering. The second is an incremental idea – one where exhibitions become an anchor for a full-blown Research Festival that brings together the same set of scholars and practitioners but with an explicit goal to make research legible in everyday life. With this, Science Gallery Bengaluru becomes a bridge between research and the public,” she says. 

This sets the tone for the conversation, given that Jahnavi was recently declared the winner of the Infosys Prize 2023 for Humanities. According to the Infosys Science Foundation, Jahnavi was chosen for her “brilliant and granular insights into the individual, institutional, and material histories of scientific research in modern India.” Each prize carries a prize of a gold medal, a citation and a purse of USD 100,000 (or its equivalent in Rupees). 

“Her book The Atomic State and many articles insightfully braid the global history of science, especially nuclear science, with the anthropology of the postcolonial state to illuminate rich and textured histories of the everyday lives of science in India,” the foundation said. 

Young discipline

Though it has been around for a while, History of Science is a relatively young discipline, she says. “Regrettably, we do not have a degree programme in history of science at a university nor is the discipline professionalised sufficiently in India. We have, of course, several good scholars spread across the country who practice the discipline since the late 1980s, but we are yet to converge as a field,” she says.

Given the increasing number of scholars trained in the United States and Europe who are returning to India, this will happen in the next few years as the field expands to include not only history, philosophy, and sociology of science, but also newer fields like Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Science Policy Studies, she adds. 

Talking about the process that led to her book, The Atomic State, she recalled how during her course work in the doctoral programme at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she was almost always frustrated by the fact that they studied primarily European and American histories as if any science that happened elsewhere - especially in the twentieth century - was incidental. 

“My book started out as a doctoral thesis about the beginnings of experimental nuclear physics in India. I have traced the fortunes of three laboratories (then Calcutta, Bangalore and Bombay) through three transitions: India from imperial rule to political independence, and therefore of state formation; of experimental physics from table top to large systems and budgets; and a word order that transformed from European imperialism to a Cold War between two new super-powers – the United States and the Soviet Union,” she explained. 

What were the major standouts when we talk about post-colonial science? “The Second World War, and the Cold War that followed, transformed the relationship between science and the state in irreversible ways. With the use of atomic weapons in 1945 – scientific research, sovereignty, and international relations became intertwined inextricable ways across the globe,” she says. 

Launch of Sputnik

Another such moment was the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 – ten years after Indian Independence – which accelerated the race for cutting edge dual use technologies between the two super powers. Scientific research thus came to be deeply implicated in the making of state structures in free India, she further said. 

From someone who has straddled both worlds in a sense - science and humanities – does she think the distinctions between them have faded in today’s world? While acknowledging that the cultural hierarchy between professionals in the human and social sciences, and the natural sciences is “detrimentally strong in India,” she says: “If climate change is the biggest challenge of our times, and artificial intelligence and gene-editing technologies are interesting outcomes of research and engineering – we can no longer organise our present or anticipate futures where we do not collectively question our relationship to fundamental knowledge. In this task, the human, social and natural sciences will have to work together because they all bear relevance to what and how we study natural and human-induced phenomena.” 

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