Our scientific heritage


Our scientific heritage

JAYANT NARLIKAR'S book has an arresting title, and it is an arresting book. In a series of chapters Narlikar looks at India's scientific heritage, its contribution to science during the medieval and modern periods, and the problems of helping the country come to terms with the modern age. Importantly, with respect to the last set of issues, he writes as a rationalist and as a secular citizen.

Narlikar starts by discussing the real contributions of Ancient India to science. Among these is the enunciation (but not proof) of Pythagoras' theorem. This enunciation (in the Shulva Sutra) considerably predates Euclid's presentation of both the proposition and the proof in his Elements. Aryabhata's and Bhaskara's contributions are discussed before the account ends with a mention of the yet-fully-tapped potential of Ayurveda.

However, a truly scientific theory is expected to result in a testable set of predictions. On this criterion, Narlikar recommends that we discretely ignore claims to the currency of highly technological gadgets, sophisticated knowledge of atomic theory and the like which are in Ancient Indian documents. As an extreme case, there is the question of Vedic Mathematics which, on examination, turns out to be neither Vedic in its origins nor mathematics, if this is conceived as a body of rigorously worked out deductions from a few postulates.

In the section of the book examining the problems of relating to science in modern India, Narlikar discusses several interesting questions including the culture of science as praxis, scientific temper, the need for a body of scientific journalism, and the vexed question of Vedic astrology. Turning to contemporary problems, he raises the question of the role of autonomous research institutes in draining talent from universities, which is a factor in the present rather sad situation in most universities in India. On the question of scientific temper, Narlikar is a convinced supporter, arguing that generally the modern world has led to the greater appreciation of facts, and a refusal to accept the precepts of tradition merely because it is tradition.

In the third and last section, Narlikar examines the prospects of science in India in the future. He starts by asking and then answering the issue of why astronomy should be studied in India. His defence is two-fold. Firstly, precisely because astronomy appears to have such an abstract importance, its criticality for theoretical advances is easily demonstrated. Astronomical observations provide the basis, in many cases, for advances in mathematics, which is the basis of advances in science in general.

In the chapter examining the possibilities of synthesising science and religion, Narlikar makes an interesting comparison between the perceptions of truth held by the two systems of thought. Objectivity and repeatability of experimental observations are insisted on before a theory can be held valid or true, while in the sphere of religion it is the subjective experience of a few, or even of a single individual which is held to be the source of truth. Further, science holds that each stage of knowledge gained by its methods is only a stage of relative truth, while religions have a complete and universal truth to transmit.

The chapters in this book are of uneven quality and Narlikar is obviously more at ease when he is closer to explorations of scientific reasoning. When he ventures into socio-political issues, his touch is less sure. So, he attributes the colonising thrust by the European powers to their search for "balmy climates", while he attributes the relative dormancy of science in India between the 16th and 18th Centuries to the same balmy climate which made little demands as far as the requirements of daily existence were concerned. However, these somewhat bizarre diversions are overwhelmed by the importance of Narlikar's arguments on some of the most contentious issues of the day, on astrology, on the absence of scientific temper and the importance of continued work in the basic sciences. This book is an important addition to the debates around these issues and is to be welcomed for that reason.

The Scientific Edge: The Indian Scientist from Vedic To Modern Times, Jayant V.Narlikar, Penguin, p.216, Rs. 250.

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