Spurring a reawakening with National Science Day

Collectively, Indians have a responsibility to take forward the country’s rich and varied legacy of science

March 01, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:36 am IST

National Science Day , which fell on February 28, commemorates a path-breaking discovery at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta in 1928, that came to be known as the Raman Effect . Three more physicists from Calcutta, namely Jagadish Chandra Bose who was C.V. Raman’s senior, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha , both of whom were Raman’s juniors, had by then made major contributions that were globally acclaimed.

But Raman’s discovery marks the pinnacle for which he would win the Nobel Prize in physics two years later , making him the most visible face of Indian science.

Pursuing scientific truth

It seems very thoughtful and rational that our National Science Day celebrates a discovery and not the birthday of its discoverer. Raman, as a person, was not beyond criticism. The circumstances of his exit from Calcutta where he spent his most productive years, the reasons for his relinquishing the post of Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore before completion of his term, differences with Meghnad Saha, and non-sharing of credit for his discovery with K.S. Krishnan make him appear as arrogant, and not above common human foibles.

But none of these can diminish Raman’s unquestioned scientific prowess and his life-long devotion to the pursuit of scientific truth (through physics).

Objective assessment

It is thanks to the untiring efforts of Dr. Rajinder Singh, noted historian of science from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who has authored six books and 28 essays on Raman, that a clear picture of Raman and his time emerges.

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While Dr. Singh has dispelled with supporting evidence many myths such as Raman’s breaking into tears while accepting the Nobel Prize because he felt humiliated as the honour had to be received under the British flag, or that Raman had worked with very little equipment and insufficient support, these books, read together, (most of which are available in digital version) provide an objective assessment of Raman, the man and the scientist. Two books in particular, Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman’s Work on Light Scattering (Logos Verlag, Berlin, 2004) and C.V. Raman’s Laboratory and Discovery of the Raman Effect (Shaker Verlag, Aachen, 2018) analyse the process, essence and significance of his work. Since history judges a person by the peaks of his achievement, Raman’s standing as an outstanding physicist remains unscathed.

India has progressed a great deal in about a century after the major advances made by the Bose(s), Saha and Raman. Even though none so far, working in India, has personally scaled those heights, our achievements, on the whole, on the application of science and technology in fields such as atomic energy, space research, agriculture and biotechnology have been impressive. Noted historians of science and practising scientists have also been articulating their views on how India can develop as a hub for world-class scientific and technological innovation.

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Two recent developments, namely the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) and the draft National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (draft STIP) , despite having limitations that characterise any government publication, underscore some of the pathways to this direction. The importance of languages has been highlighted in the NEP. S.N. Bose and others had been advocating from the 1940s for the use of the mother languages for science teaching and popularisation. This is an area that requires serious attention. Similarly, the setting up of the National Research Foundation, for instance, to encourage and fund research and development activities, hopefully with much greater and intensive involvement of our university system than hitherto, seems to be a step in the right direction.

Fostering research

The draft STIP has also mooted substantial ideas in order to promote research and innovation and develop ‘a robust system for evidence and stakeholder-driven STI planning … and policy research in India’. The proposal for a Research Excellence Framework for higher educational institutions, once reconciled with the relevant provisions of the NEP, can make a qualitative difference. Likewise, fostering science and technology-enabled entrepreneurship and mainstreaming grassroot innovation and traditional knowledge systems (validated by modern scientific methods of evaluation and assessment) are proposals worth pursuing. It is hoped that the final document would seriously take cognisance of the comments and criticisms on the draft STIP and facilitate India transforming itself to a forward-looking, science-enabled and science-respecting nation.

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Though the state has a key role to play in this process, science requires to be handled with a light hand. The revised guidelines of the Education Ministry this January, about prior permission to be taken, under certain circumstances, before conducting even online/virtual conferences, etc., caused anxiety among some scientists and academics who had voiced their displeasure. Fortunately, this revision has been withdrawn.

Keeping the flame burning

The celebration of National Science Day with the basic objective of spreading the message of science and its importance in improving the lives of people, must be taken forward in the days ahead and should spur a national reawakening instead of being just a ritual. India has a long history of secular enquiry and free thoughts. From Aryabhata, Varāhamihira and Bhāskarācārya to the great scientists of modern India, the tradition of illuminating the world of science continues. Illustrious women like Janaki Ammal (botanist), Asima Chatterjee (chemist), Bibha Chowdhuri (physicist) and Gagandeep Kang (medical scientist) have kept this flame burning. Collectively, we have to take forward the legacy instead of wasting our time indulging in obscurantism, unscientific and unsubstantiated claims. It is only then that the purpose of observing the Day will be fulfilled and the spirit of Raman’s unswerving dedication to science be honoured.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP

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