Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Serious Pursuits Like Science And Such

Over the last 3 weeks, I've had the most amazing, life-altering experiences that I can't possibly encapsulate in this space. My work has taken me across some of India's most exciting science labs and research facilities. I've met dynamic scientists, engineers and thinkers - many at the top of their game not just in India but globally - who have generously shared their time, energy and wisdom dumbing down their science for me to understand. It is an unparalleled privilege and I'm still recovering.
The following are my observations from these visits & encounters.

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The Story We Forgot To Tell 
I'm old enough to remember a time when our list of national heroes included people of science like S. Chandrasekhar, Homi Bhabha and even Rakesh Sharma. Somewhere along the way the number of heroes began to dwindle until we were left with our standard go-to-guy, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, whom we'd summon every time we wanted to prove we were an intellectual race. Today's newspapers are filled with articles from The Guardian and the New York Times extolling the latest advances made in Western science and it would appear that Indian science has flatlined.

When did we stop doing any science of worth? Turns out, not ever.

Did you know that we have one of the world's most sophisticated and sensitive radio telescopes in our own backyard, which our astronomers are using to understand how galaxies are formed? (One PhD student I met was using it to hunt for aliens. For real.) 

Did you know that Indians are an integral part of the LHC experiments at CERN? (Wanna hunt for the Higgs-Boson particle? Good luck doing it without Indian-made detectors.)

Did you know that Indians were the first to detect atmospheric neutrinos way back in the 1960's and that the world's largest magnet will be used in an underground observatory being built just to study neutrinos? (Did you also know you could 'Like' its page on Facebook?)

Did you know that Indian biomedical engineers have created a low cost cardiac device that's brought down global prices hiked by international biotech corporations, allowing the poorest of the poor to have access to life-saving heart valves?

Did you know that in a few years, we'll be setting up our own observatory in space to study the Sun's corona?

Did you know that it is now possible for Indians to make a good living researching the flight mechanisms of insects or discovering how memories are made?

Did you know that in the last 5-10 years, various Indian governments have pumped good money into science and technology research, the results of which are now beginning to show?

Did you know that as the West protected its own interests by keeping some of its most sensitive science & engineering methodologies under wraps, our chaps went about developing their own funky instruments and techniques (and not just to build missiles either).
Did you? Because I sure as heck didn't. If anything, my ignorance was astounding - and as tremendous as the excitement I was sensing as I traveled from one research institute to another. These were not grumpy, snobbish or cynical scientists I was meeting. This was a whole other breed...

Indian Science Is Sexy
Yes, you heard me. Indian science is sexy. First, the best of it is being done in places that look like this:

This used to be, like, a palace. For, like, a king.
....and this:
Those white things in the water aren't polythene junk, they're ducks
Second, Indian scientists seem happy. They look well-fed and well-clothed. Some of them even work out. They have cars and smartphones and a childlike enthusiasm of those who're in love with their jobs and can't believe they get paid for it. Their (extremely fancy & very well-equipped) labs are their playgrounds and they're using them to build some pretty snazzy sand castles.

But the real reason I found the scientists I met sexy is because they're fun and they want to hang out with us. It may not have been so a few decades ago ("Indian science used to be very Brahminical..." I was told) but today it's different. Many want to talk about their science and tell us how they're spending our tax money to discover and create wonderful things. They want to let us into fascinating worlds where brain cells switch on & off like LEDs and things are present & absent at the same time. They're throwing open their doors to us - regardless of who we are, where we come from, how much money we have or what caste/ religion we are.

In short: It's a great time to be a nerd. What we need now is for the nerd to be heard.

Make Some Noise For Indian Science
As a card carrying member of the media, I am drawn into many discussions about the state of science communication in the country in the course of my travel. Each tale carries untold horror: from misrepresentation (in one misguided article in a popular current affairs magazine, a cell biologist working on how cell membranes work was celebrated as the man who'd found the cure to AIDS) to being outright ignored. While Arnab is busy yelling down Suhel Seth, these folks are left wondering why we couldn't sneak a single 3-minute science story into a 24 hr news cycle. 
I tell them I hold them equally responsible for this complete breakdown in communication. I cite examples of Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman who did more for mainstreaming scientific thought than anyone from the press. They nod their heads in agreement and pledge co-operation if we could just give them the platform. We conclude that both the scientific community and the Indian media need an attitude adjustment. After a particularly energetic exchange with an astronomer, we both slump back into our seats, destroyed by the irony of an Arts major (me) being the only person left in TV, who gives a damn about this man's work. We speak in idealist tongues but the truth is more complex than we have courage to accept or ability to comprehend.

The Afterglow
Back from this most epic trip, I find my world view changing. Every new thought is now visualized as a string of neural fairy-lights in my hippocampus. When I look up at the night sky, I'm thinking of how I'm looking not just into the distance but also into the past. Even that ridiculous ad for Sunsilk Shampoo thrills me because I now understand how its nanoparticles are great for my hair. Knowing how things work hasn't taken away the romance, it's enhanced it. Everything is magic now and I'm completely sold.

The GMRT outside Pune: Standing beneath these beautiful antennae, wondering which galaxy, star or planet they're currently eavesdropping on, is pure, distilled joy.
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I strongly recommend that you read the comments section of this blog, which provides deeper insight into the Indian science community in a way this post cannot.

15 comments:

  1. Lucky you. It's fascinating to enter into a new world, at least one new to you. And yes, I think it's an enormous privilege which journalists and filmmakers have.

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  2. A very interesting read and good to see such a positive take on science in India, even though it does not totally jive with the feedback I get from friends who are scientists in India.

    One point I totally agree with is that Indian media is far behind in terms of good science reporting. Suspect fault is on both sides.

    Are you doing a particular TV/print-media series based on these experiences?

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    1. I have no doubt that folks within the field might have a different take. But coming in from the outside and being generally clueless about current S&T, I was quite pleasantly surprised to meet so many scientists that weren't disgruntled, underpaid or downright miserable. And yes, it's a shame how little about Indian science makes it to the public domain.

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    2. Yeah. A 26-pat TV series that's currently in pre-production.

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    3. I think the excitement has to do with the current crop being so young, many US/UK-trained, and who are coming back to find facilities and funding levels close to what they had back there. For those of us who have worked with ancient, WWII-era equipment back in India during our undergraduates, this is a pleasant surprise. Also, with drastic cuts in science budgets in US/UK, many are now looking at India as a great opportunity for research.

      On the negative side, the complaint I most frequently hear is that bureaucracy is still bad, old people are helm are resistant to change etc. Also have heard complaints from women scientists of rampant sexism in the workplace.

      On a general note, I think Indian science is suffering from a lack of good policy directives (and is getting beaten by China in the process.

      But, positive stories like this are great and should be highlighted in the media. Important for the next generation to be inspired as well.

      Sorry about the longish comment. This topic is quite close to my heart :)

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    4. (I love longish comments)

      Everything you say is correct as per my observation as well. The guy who made the 'brahmin' comment was refering to a lot of the things you write about.
      Yet, for me, it was so far from my pre-concieved notions that I chose, very deliberately, to write a positive note on what I saw.
      Overall, I am left thinking that scientists are a brave lot to continue to do science in India. Those who are returning are bringing new vitality and expect more from their institutions (in terms of support).
      I just wanted to put it out there that (a) Indian scientists have always been and continue to do great science and that (b) now is probably one of the best times to be a scientist in India.

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  3. Totally agree with your last paragraph. And, as I said, I am very glad that you are putting the message out there. (Left to grouchy cynics like me, only the negatives will get highlighted.)

    Great to know there will be a TV series based on this. Looking forward to it!

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    1. Thanks for reading :)
      Tangentially, my sister, who went to Harvard, shattered all my idealism about the place when she told me what a White-Boy, sexist place it could be. Similarly, Indian institutions have more than their share of problems right now...but I'm a romantic...I get taken by the fire in a scientist's eyes as s/he talks about proteins folding & misfolding and it makes me all glow-ey inside :D

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  4. ha what to say, i don't want to comment, if put it will be long. Ok. What to say ? You have visited institutes for 3 weeks. Does that mean you got idea of research in India, No absolutely not . Publishing in Science and Nature doesn't mean they are great. ( Science and Nature are leading journals with high impact factor), ha why don't scientists lead a happy life, with a superb 6th pay commission and all. And the students working their A## day and night out. Did you interviewed PhD students, even if they spoke good about their research in lab, did you interview them in personal ? 98 % of scientists are psychos and they don't know about the research, just the students work and they take credit and the students will become psychos, It is very difficult to understand until you are not Phd student in science. Just read this http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php, this is the life phd students even in USA, so imagine in India. I know you are going ga ga over these research exploits of India, but what lies beneath your ground is always difficult to see
    thanks

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    1. I did not claim to say I understood the entire scenario of research in India. Please read my responses to comments above. I am an outsider. I wrote this as an outsider.
      Having said that, it is my personal belief that we should celebrate the spirit of those who are doing science in India. As a member of the media, I believe that if we project the good that is happening, the profile of science can go up and who knows maybe some your 'ha ha' points might be addressed someday.
      Thanks for dropping by :)

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  5. Awesome stuff written out here.... I was discussing a similar or a parallel topic with a friend as to how the western countries are surpressing Indian talent and creativity by offering comfortable outsourced jobs having good money. My opinion on a larger front is that they are trying to pull India back from becoming a superpower and we are falling into their hands. Only if such positive stories reach out to the public and encouragement given by our media and likes, can we once again jump to be at the top of R&D sector.

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    1. Interesting perspective. Thanks for reading!

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  6. I could go on an on about this subject. The fact that I spent two weeks visiting institutes in India last year and will spend a month with 20 scientists visiting 12 institutes in 11 cities in October gives you a sense of how important we think India is in the long-run.

    I use the royal "we" and perhaps all is not as rosy as it might seem (and I need to parse my words here).

    Is the funding situation in India looking up compared to when I studied there? Yes.

    Are there new opportunities for young researchers? Yes.

    Are there problems? Most certainly. Do we have enough science to meet the aspirations of 1 billion plus people? Most certainly not.

    Your mileage will vary based on the institutes you visit, the fields you research, and the people you meet. There are some true visionaries. There are also people who left the country after securing solid funding and tenure-track positions because (according to them) the situation is dire.

    But we have to start somewhere, don't we?

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    1. Thank you so much for the insight, bhalomanush.

      Yes, we absolutely do have to start somewhere and I strongly believe that Indian science can't thrive in isolation. The rest of us, who make up the billion, need to know what's going on (to a certain extent) so we can support the field or at least have an opinion.

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