India’s science leadership

On October 17, the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) introduced a reading module for middle-school students called “Chandrayaan Utsav”. It was released by Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in the presence of S. Somanath, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, and claims that the Chandrayaan-3 achievement was great but not the first, that “literature tells us that it can be traced back [to the] Vymaanika Shaastra: Science of Aeronautics, which reveals that our country had the knowledge of flying vehicles” in ancient times.

ISRO is currently flying high on the back of completing the first uncrewed test flight of the Gaganyaan mission, the launch of Aditya-L1 to study the sun, and the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission. Yet in May, Somanath had said at another event in Ujjain that many mathematical concepts as well as those of time, architecture, materials, aviation, and cosmology were first described in the Vedas, and that “Sanskrit suits the language of computers”.

Such pseudoscientific claims are familiar to us because many political leaders have made them, but when they are issued by the leaders of institutions showing the country what good science can achieve, they set up more than a contradiction: they raise the question of responsible scientific leadership. Obviously, the first cost of such claims is that they do unto the Vedas what the claimants claim the liberals are doing unto the Vedas: forgetting them by obscuring what they really say. Who knows what the Vedas really say? Very few, I reckon – and the path to knowing more is now rendered tougher because the claims also cast any other effort to study the Vedas – and for that matter any other fields of study in ancient India – suspect.

But the second, and greater, cost of such pseudoscientific claims relates to the need for such leadership. For example, why don’t the claimants display confidence in the science being done today? (We’ve seen this before with the Higgs boson Nobel Prize and S.N. Bose as well.) I would have liked Somanath to speak up and refute Pradhan on October 17 but he didn’t. But what I would have liked even more is for Pradhan to have held forth on the various features of the Chandrayaan-3 lander and the challenges of developing them. There is a lot of good science being done in India today and it is sickening that our politicians can’t see beyond something that happened 7,000 years ago, leave alone understand the transformative new technologies currently on the anvil that will define India’s ability to be any kind of power in the coming centuries.

A friend of mine and a scholar of history recently told me that Homi Bhabha chaired the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in 1955 – when India didn’t have nuclear power. That kind of leadership is conspicuous by absence today.