Big science, bigger nationalism.

Nature India ran a feature on March 21 about three Indian astrophysicists who had contributed to the European Space Agency’s Planck mission that studied the universe’s CMBR, etc. I was wary even before I started to read it. Why? Because of that first farce in July, 2012, that’s why.

That was when many Indians called for the ‘boson’ in the ‘Higgs boson’ to be celebrated with as much jest as was the ‘Higgs’. Oddly, Kolkata sported no cultural drapes that took ownership of the ‘boson’ as opposed to Edinburgh, quick to embrace the ‘Higgs’.

Why? Because a show of Indians celebrating India’s contributions to science through claims of ownership betrays that it’s not a real sense of ownership at all, but just another attempt to hog the limelight. If we wanted to own the ‘boson’ in honor of Satyendra Nath Bose, we’d have ensured he was remembered by the common man even outside the context of the Higgs boson. For his work with Einstein in establishing the Bose-Einstein statistics, for starters.

This is an attitude I find divisive and abhorrent. At the least, that circumstantial shout-out leaves no cause to remember S.N. Bose for the rest of the time. At the most, it paints a false picture of what ownership of scientific knowledge manifests itself as in the 21st century. The Indian contribution, the Chilean contribution, the Russian contribution… these are divisive tendencies in a world constantly aspiring to Big Science that is more seamless and painless.

Ownership of scientific knowledge in the 21st century, I believe, cannot be individuated. It belongs to no one and everyone at the same time. In the past, using science-related decorations to impinge upon our contributions to science may have inspired someone to believe we did good. Today, however, it’s simply taking a stand on a very slippery slope.

I understand how scientific achievement in the last century or so had gained a colonial attitude, and how there are far more Indians who have received the Nobel Prize as Americans than as Indians themselves. However, the scientific method has also gotten more rigorous, more demanding in terms of resources and time. While America may have shot ahead in the last century of scientific achievement, awareness of its possession of numerous individuals on the rosters of academic excellence is coeval tribute to some other country’s money and intellectual property, too.

I understand how news items of a nation’s contributions to an international project could improve the public’s perception of where and how their tax-money is being spent. However, the alleviation of any ills in this area must not arise solely from the notification that a contribution was made. It should arise through a dissemination of the importance of that contribution, too. The latter is conspicuous by its absence… to me, at least.

We put faces to essentially faceless achievements and then forget their features over time.

I wish there had been an entity to point my finger at. It could’ve been just the government, it could’ve been just a billion Indians. It could’ve been just misguided universities. It could’ve been just the Indian media. Unfortunately, it’s a potent mix of all these possibilities, threatening to blow up with nationalistic fervor in a concordant world.

As for that Nature India article, it did display deference to the jingoism. How do I figure? Because its an asymmetric celebration of achievement, especially an achievement not rooted in governmental needs even.


This post also appeared in ‘The Copernican’ science blog at The Hindu on March 28, 2013.