Why science is not in our culture

Why are Indians no good with science at the basic level?

C.N.R. Rao recently said that science in India is crippled by political apathy. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
C.N.R. Rao recently said that science in India is crippled by political apathy. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

How many of India’s car owners can fix their own cars? The question isn’t if we fix them regularly, but whether we can. I would say we can’t. The reason hasn’t to do with cheap labour. Television personality Jay Leno, who can afford labour more easily than most of us can, builds and maintains his own cars, called hot rods. Hundreds of thousands of Americans do this.

How many Indians can do that? I can’t think of many.

American high schools have a class called Shop, in which teenagers learn how to work machines like lathes. This is one of the most popular classes there. There is little chance we will expose our precious children to such dangers here.

I was thinking of this when I read Bharat Ratna C.N.R. Rao’s observation that science in India is crippled by political apathy. It was the intrepid scientist who made progress in spite of the “idiot” politician, who withheld resources.

Perhaps this is so in the higher sciences, where we attempt to duplicate things done by advanced nations on smaller budgets. My problem is trying to figure out why we are no good with science at the basic level.

The thing that strikes the reader when first encountering Aristotle is the quality and precision of his observations. A bird is a “feathered biped”. How neat is that description.

Aristotle notices that birds bend their joints in the opposite direction as humans, something I hadn’t noticed but should have because it is obvious.

This view of the outside world that Aristotle represents best is, more than anything else, responsible for the prosperity of some parts of humanity and the lack of it is what has left us poor. No big budgets are needed to push science in a culture, in my opinion.

We were a monsoon-fed economy for 4,000 years, falling by the million in the years when it “failed” (what sort of culture demands that the weather not fail?). Why didn’t we think of drip irrigation? Why did we wait for Israel to occupy arid land and show us this simple but effective technology?

What I am referring to is about all forms of invention, including design. What is, for instance, the contribution of Indians, with the second largest number of English-speakers on earth, to English typography? Whatever field you work in, think about what aspect of it is pioneered by South Asians, who are a fifth of humanity.

Our peasants and labourers still use equipment that Europe gave up hundreds of years ago. Not because it is cheap, but because there is no thinking of qualitative improvement. If it works, that’s good enough for 10 generations or 20. This is quaintly referred to as India living in many centuries at the same time, but is actually quite bizarre. This is not fertile ground for science.

There is something fundamentally wrong in the way the Indian approaches the outside world. This manifests itself in many ways, and I’ve written about this before, and science is only one of them.

Science is defined as knowledge acquired by study. Continual study.

The point of origin is one aspect. It is true that Indians invented numerals and that China gave the world gunpowder and ideas about flight. But we couldn’t make anything of these discoveries.

It is also true that geography often determines scientific progress. It is the nations of the Atlantic seaboard—Britain, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and France—rather than those of interior Europe that became colonizing powers. This is because they had the incentive to build ships strong enough to sail the ocean and to carry the cannon (which they also refined) with which they conquered the New World and larger but weaker nations like India.

The nations that didn’t have this, like Germany, or were in the more placid Mediterranean, like Italy, could not do likewise.

But through all of this, it is the constant outward looking gaze of their culture that made them inventors at the level of the individual. In India, we don’t have the need to pursue the human instincts of observation and scientific curiosity.

V.S. Naipaul has a devastating comment on Indians in his novel A Bend in the River.

He says Indians go through an airport without noticing how it is that it works. The ideas that make it function as a unit. All this we leave to other people, the West, the real scientists. We, huddled together in our groups, are too terrified to explore the world alone.

If we accept this, and I do, the problem is not budgets and certainly it is not politicians. It is the absence of primary science in the Indian culture and therefore in its schooling.

No politician, whether an idiot or not, can solve that.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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