Seeking and seeing parallels does not undermine science

The Magazine supplement of this newspaper recently carried a speculative piece on black holes by Vikram Zutshi. Mr. Zutshi, fascinated by the first-ever image of a black hole that was unveiled by astronomers in April, wrote that there are many striking parallels between Eastern thought and modern astrophysics, especially in their imagining of space, time and the birth of the universe.

Responses from scientists

Ajit M. Srivastava, Professor at the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, wrote to us saying that he trusted only The Hindu for reliable science coverage in India, but that the publication of Mr. Zutshi’s article had shaken his faith in the newspaper. Ravinder Banyal of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, wrote a stinging mail: “The author has absolutely no idea about the process of discoveries and underlying rigour that mark the success of modern science. How can such [an] article evade editorial scrutiny and manage to find place in a respected newspaper? Conflating mythology with the findings of modern science has already created enough confusion and misunderstanding among [the] common public. Rationality and scientific outlook is our only hope to guard against the mighty tides of obscurantism and propaganda that need to be opposed and not encouraged. As a practising scientist, I appeal [to] you to kindly retract this article and issue a clarification for the benefit of your readers.” Arnab Bhattacharya, Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, was equally livid in his response to the article. He wrote: “It is easy to conflate mythology and history, which, combined with a poor understanding of science, leads to an article which is honestly filled with logical fallacies. (Just because a particular deity is represented in black does not imply a connection with a black hole).”

What was missed in this entire debate was the simple fact that the article was a soft feature; it was a personal and emotional response to a certain discovery. It was not a news article and it did not try to peddle religiosity or pseudoscience. In an earlier column, “Carnival of conversation” (November 30, 2015), I had explained in detail this newspaper’s wisdom to draw a distinction between faith and bigotry, and its unwavering commitment to retaining the space for a multireligious and pluralistic public discourse. In another column, “Tall claim is not science” (January 18, 2016), I had spelt out the rules that govern the reporting of science and health stories. This newspaper walks the extra mile to give well-rounded stories on science and technology.

A newspaper publishes both reports and reflective pieces. The reflective pieces sometimes tend to draw parallels between an event and seemingly unrelated worlds. Even scientists have done this. Robert Jungk, in Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists , records the reflections of J. Robert Oppenheimer about Trinity, the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer quoted a short verse from the Bhagavad Gita : “If the radiance of a thousand suns/ Were to burst forth at once into the sky/ That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One/ I am become Death,/ The shatterer of worlds.”

The idea of scientific temper

In India, in the early 1980s, there was an intense debate about the idea of scientific temper. On July 19, 1981, the Nehru Centre in Bombay released a document by P.N. Haksar, along with Raja Ramanna and P.M. Bhargava, which was titled, ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’. It called for fostering scientific temper with care at the “individual, institutional, social and political levels”. In his counterstatement, social scientist Ashis Nandy argued for a humanistic temper as he felt the argument for a scientific temper forecloses the space for criticism of criticisms. The feature in the Magazine is a continuation of this debate.