Science writer Angela Saini’s Geek Nation is a critical look at a country claiming to be on the threshold of a scientific revolution.
“I’m here to learn about this rediscovered nation of geeks,” the UK-based journalist writes in the book’s first chapter. “My dad, who worked as a chemical engineer in India in the 1960s, used to tell me about the great potential of this land of hardworking scientists and engineers. Yet India never managed to live up to his dreams—until now.”
Saini starts with the successes of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and investigates innovation and research in every conceivable field of popular science, from GM (genetically modified) crops and drug research to e-governance and nuclear power. In all of these instances, Saini questions and probes popularly held assumptions (such as how Indian IT companies are “hotbeds of innovation”) and, in many cases, comes away unconvinced. The book reads like a “sceptic’s guide” to modern Indian science, and has a constant strand of cautious optimism running through it. Early in the book, after a dispiriting visit to an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus, she thinks of India’s engineers: “They aren’t geeks. They’re more like drones.”
Signs of science: Angela Saini travelled to India to learn about ‘this rediscovered nation of geeks’. Photo :Mukul Devichand
Saini spoke to Lounge about the “project mentality” of Indian scientists and parallels with Japan. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Was this the book you set out to write? There’s a pessimism in it which only gives way towards the end.
I started out, actually, quite sceptical at all this hype about Indian science. I kept in mind the reservations that people have that Indian science is not as productive as many other countries in terms of statistical output—publications and patents. So I wasn’t sure what to expect.
By the end, by the very end, I could see the ambition. The subtitle of the book, “How Indian science is taking over the world”—the publishers came up with that one. They really agonized over it, because they weren’t sure what to make of the book. It wasn’t a polemic, and it wasn’t putting forth an argument and then justifying it. It was just me, observing, and coming to my own conclusion. My conclusion was that India does have the ambition to become a scientific superpower, and the ingredients to do that, in terms of graduates, investment and the trajectory of growth of its industries.
India is a deeply sexist country in many ways. Did that extend, in what you observed, to science?
In Rajasthan’s e-governance programme, they’ve made a decision to get women to run the local computer kiosks, because they thought that would be empowering. That’s good. Any technology that reduces the distance between you and the government, gives you access to communication and plugs you into the world has to be emancipating. I find technology very emancipating. I was surprised by how many women engineers there are in India. When I studied engineering in Britain, I was the only girl in my class in my college in my year.
In an early chapter, you draw a parallel between India now and Japan in the 1970s, which began by undercutting American manufacturers and then made the leap to becoming a scientific powerhouse. How similarly placed is India to make a jump?
There are parallels to Japan, but I wouldn’t want to draw too many of them. We live in a different time now, and Japan made its leap with electronics and hardware, whereas India’s contribution is primarily software. They worked a lot with transforming processes and systems in which they produced their products. But that’s the kind of trend you see in developing societies—you start with cheapness, and then move to innovation. In as much as history gives us that lesson, perhaps that’s what will happen in India. But I’m not a big fan of forecasting.
Geek Nation: Hachette India, 280 pages, Rs 499.
You quote many scientists who say that Indian researchers have a “project” mentality. Does this discourage open-ended, speculative research?
There is blue-sky research that happens in India. One of the cultural issues I came to understand is that Indian science is quite unlike the West, where research tends to be straitjacketed. You are quite limited there in what you can do after your PhD, in terms of what will get funded, or what opportunities exist.
Whereas in India, perhaps because it’s a less regulated scientific society, which is not necessarily a good thing, you do have this freedom to do whatever you feel like. You can run free, which leads to really wacky ideas. I have a chapter on this Indian lie-detector device called the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature Test.
It creates this possibility at the other end of the spectrum of real geniuses doing amazing things off the top of their head. You need room for these. When I went to the Indian Science Congress, this senior chemist, Ramachandra Rao, said you need “nuttiness” in science.
Nuttiness is essential. You don’t produce off-the-wall ideas by following everyone else. Einstein came up with his ideas not as a professor in a university, but when he was sitting in a patent office and pondering ideas that no one else could even conceive of.