When did modern science emerge in India?

A thematic issue in the Indian Journal of History of Science describes the evolution of modern science in pre-colonial and colonial India

January 19, 2019 06:28 pm | Updated January 20, 2019 11:14 am IST

A view of the display gallery at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, founded by Meghnad Saha on the occasion of its diamond jubilee year (2011).

A view of the display gallery at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, founded by Meghnad Saha on the occasion of its diamond jubilee year (2011).

Considerable debate and discussion have been going on in recent weeks about the practice of technology and science in India from ancient times to today. Sadly enough, some people have attempted to interpret mythological events in terms of the discoveries and inventions of today’s science, thus claiming that they existed already centuries ago. In this context, a historian has rightly pointed out that the history of science in India must be treated as a serious subject rather than a matter of speculation (A. Ramnath, The Hindu, 15 January 2019). He quotes the historian David Arnold who cautioned that while the sages of antiquity may have had ideas compatible with the atomic theory of matter, their “felicitous intuition” was a step removed from the modern scientific method which relies on sophisticated instruments.

This seems to have been the practice not just in India but elsewhere in the world of those days. Now, “modern science” or the Baconian method (Francis Bacon, English philosopher 1561-1626) of inductive reasoning, careful observations and skeptical analysis of results has come to stay. The method of modern science involves: “ask a question or have a theory, do careful experiments/observations, interpret the results, conclude rationally, have it repeated and tested by others, and if it is confirmed by others, your theory is right. Note that if at a later date, this theory or law does not fit new facts and discoveries, your theory may need modification or even rejection”.

European explorers

This “modern scientific method” started to emerge in India in the late 1490s as European explorers such as Vasco de Gama, John Cabot, Ferdinand Magellan and others came over to the “East Indies.” This was quickly followed by traders and explorers from England, France and some other parts of Europe. Many of them, traders and capitalists, had to “discover India” and its environs, wealth and health, metals and minerals, began exploiting them for colonial gains. In order to do so, they used scientific methods. In addition, several of them who practised contemporary science, technology, agriculture and medicine spread such knowledge to the “natives.”

This has been the emergence of modern science in Colonial India. A thematic issue with this title has just been published by the Indian Journal of History of Science in its December 2018 issue (it is available free on the web (at https://insa.nic.in, go to Journals, click at Indian Journal of History of Science, Volume 53 , Year 2018, Issue 4, and go to your article of interest).

This issue has been guest edited by Prof. Arnab Rai Choudhuri, a physicist from IISc Bengaluru and Prof. Deepak Kumar of JNU. Prof. Rai Chaudhuri is also a science historian and his incisive analysis, “On practising western science outside the West: personal observations on the Indian scene” which appeared in the 1985 August issue of the journal Social Studies of Science is even more relevant today. And Prof. Deepak Kumar, a renowned historian from JNU, has written authoritatively on “Science and the Raj” (OUP, edn 2, 2006) and “Technology and the Raj” (SAGE 1995) on the history of science in India.

The editorial of the issue by Dr. A.K. Bag, a well known historian of both ancient and modern science in India, tracing the Indo- European encounter and features of modern science in pre-colonial and colonial India, is scholarly, exhaustive and very instructive. The issue has 30 other articles covering how the Bengal Renaissance and the erstwhile capital of British India in Calcutta helped make Bengal (Calcutta/Dacca) the early capital of modern science in India. While J.C. Bose , C.V. Raman , S.N. Bose, P.C. Ray and Meghnad Saha are covered, Dr. Rajinder Singh goes beyond the “Big Three” (C.V. Raman, S.N. Bose and M.N. Saha), and writes about Professors B.B. Ray, D.M. Bose and S.C. Mitra. The piece by Dr. John Mathew: “Ronald Ross to U.N. Brahmachari: Medical Research in Colonial India” talks about how Prof. Brahamachari’s drug “urea stibamine” saved thousands of lives from the parasitic disease Kala Azar. Incidentally, Brahmachari talked about this in his Presidential Address in 1936 at the 23rd session of the Indian Science Congress at Indore. And the article on “Organic chemists of pre-independence India: with spend focus on natural products” makes special mention of a remarkable polymath, Prof. Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, who isolated important drugs such as reserpine from sarpagandha and azadirachtin from the neem tree. When Partition came and he was requested to come to Pakistan, he first refused and then went in 1951 where he helped start the CSIR and the Atomic Energy labs of Pakistan, and an excellent organic chemistry which is still carrying on excellent work. He may thus be regarded as the one who laid the foundations of science and technology in the nascent country, Pakistan.

Forgotten pioneers

Three other contributors are worth nothing; one of them by Sodhi and Kaur on “The forgotten pioneers of fingerprint science: fallout of colonialism,” talks about two Indian police officers, Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. While these two subordinates did the hard work and quantified fingerprinting using analytical pattern method, their boss Inspector General of Police Edward Henry took the credit! Haque represented 5 years later to the Governor he was given an honorarium of Rs5,000 and Bose Rs10,000.

The second is about Nain Singh Rawat who travelled all the way from the Tajikistan Border of the Himalayas down the entire Himalayan track, took careful notes and helped prepare the Upper Road Map in the late 1800s. This helped the Survey of India later.

And the third is that of Radhanath Sikdar of Calcutta who discovered through his computation that Peak XV was 29,029 feet high, thus making it the highest in Himalayas and thus the world. However, it was named Mount Everest, after his head officer at the Topographical Survey of India. Dr Bag in his editorial mentions these two discoveries and how the government of India issued a commemorative postage stamp in honour of Rawat and Sikdar on June 27, 2004.

While we have highlighted only some articles from the journal, the entire issue is a collection of carefully researched, compactly written and easily readable articles on the birth and growth of modern science in India and would be an ideal teaching and research material in science education.


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