A few years ago, I was at an international conference in Delhi which dealt with important issues arising from changes brought about by the rapid progress of science and technology. As the meeting progressed, with international experts highlighting the action needed in various fields, I began to feel uncomfortable, much like a diner at a sumptuous buffet searching desperately for that missing ingredient — a pinch of salt. The subject I wanted to hear about but which was being glossed over by the speakers was “scientific temper”. Ultimately, it was left to me to make a case for it, not only for the scientists but also for the common citizen, whatever his or her occupation.
What is scientific temper? Let me cite a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India : “The impact of science and the modern world have brought a greater appreciation of facts, a more critical faculty, a weighing of evidence, a refusal to accept tradition just because it is tradition…”
He then went on to say: “But even today, it is strange, how we suddenly become overwhelmed by tradition, and the critical faculties of even intelligent men cease to function…” Nehru concludes with the hope that, “Only when we are politically and economically free, will the mind function normally and critically.”
Alas, what has been the outcome? More than seven decades have elapsed since Nehru’s deadline of Indian independence but where are we vis-à-vis scientific temper? We continue to be hidebound with tradition and waste precious time and money in rituals which may have been relevant in earlier times but which have no relevance to modern living.
An interesting sidelight on superstitions has been thrown by Jiří Grygar, a scientist and science communicator from the Czech Republic. He finds that during the Soviet-dominated era, no superstitious ideas were publicly aired as these were feared to be against the beliefs subscribed to by the state. In the ‘free’ thinking times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, all pent-up superstitions have come up.
Further, there are new superstitions that have their origin in the age of space technology. Towards the end of the last century, I had visited the radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico forms one of the vertices of a rather notorious triangle whose other vertices are at Bermuda and Florida. Known as the Bermuda Triangle, it has generated considerable excitement because of a claim that it formed a region within which mysterious (and possibly malicious) forces were present. A book on the Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz which describes disturbing and unfathomable events makes for fascinating reading. If those accounts were true then the Bermuda Triangle did encompass a sinister region. There have also been accounts of pilots losing their way and their lives, and watches stopping for an appreciable time, which, in short, were events that defied a rational scientific explanation.
A few years later, scientific attempts were made to test the veracity of the Triangle events. Lawrence David Kusche did seminal work in debugging the Triangle stories. His investigations have shown that the stories were either inflated, or did not tell the whole truth, or tinkered with the vital part of the evidence. Thus, one can safely say that there is no tangible evidence to ascribe an alien character to the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless as a scientist, whenever I invite questions from an audience of school or college students, the question inevitably pops up: What is the mystery behind all that is going on in the Bermuda Triangle? The questioner is visibly disappointed to learn that there are no black holes or dark energy or powerful aliens hiding there. When I asked my host in Arecibo how the locals react to such questions, he laughed and said that the Bermuda Triangle had long ceased to be a matter of concern. It of course serves the purpose of attracting tourists.
Harmful rays believed to be prevalent during a total solar eclipse keep many of our citizens behind closed doors. I once saw a total solar eclipse while in Zimbabwe. Recalling a previous eclipse in India, I was expecting to be greeted with the sight of empty roads and inhabitants behind closed doors in their houses, as is the case in India.
Nothing happened. Perhaps Zimbabweans were blissfully unaware of the evil rays. But in India, we are good at coming up with antidotes. As a housewife from a well-educated family once explained to me, the food in the fridge is supposed to be destroyed after an eclipse as evil rays will have contaminated it. However, the local priest had a solution which would avoid the food being wasted. His solution, the woman proudly told me, was to smear the fridge with cow dung, which would protect the food.
Here is another example. An executive of a firm had to catch a flight on a certain day but found out later that travelling on that particular day was inauspicious. He was told that the day prior to this was a “good” day. But he had other engagements that day. So what did he do? He stored his bag in his neighbour’s house on the earlier day and picked it up while on his way to the airport the following day. By leaving the bag in the neighbour’s house he was supposed to have begun his journey the previous “auspicious” day. This trick, known as “keeping prasthan”, is sufficient to deceive evil spirits.
All these are examples of pseudoscience that grow around superstitions. But there are apparently more serious aspects that have grown around our mythology. Did our Vedic forefathers possess a knowledge of science that was well beyond the level attained by modern science? While references in our Puranas to the Pushpak Viman, Vishwamitra’s counter heaven in mid air, and weapons such as the Brahmastra and Indra’s Shakti look persuasive, they do not have the details that would stand the test of scientific scrutiny. If such claims are to have standing, their supporters have to give us their technical details. For example, what was the basic mathematical principle that explains how a craft such as the Pushpak is lifted and which propelled it through air? And, if the Brahmastra was a nuclear device, which would indicate a knowledge of nuclear physics, why are there no references to the forces of electricity and magnetism, knowledge of which would be necessary to understanding nuclear physics? In today’s modern age, the facility of running tap water and electric lighting is considered the basic minimum for living and forms a part of the manifestos of all political parties. Yet, as the Mahabharata tells us, the Hastinapur palace of Duryodhana or the Indraprastha abode of the Pandavas did not possess this minimal facility.
Recently, there was a claim made in India that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incorrect and should not be taught in schools. In the field of science, the sole criterion for the survival of a theory is that it must explain all observed phenomena in its domain. For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. This is because the origin of life on earth is still unexplained by science. However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.
In the final analysis, scientific evidence is what should have the last say.
Jayant V. Narlikar is Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune