Andhra Pradesh University vice-chancellor G. Nageswar Rao undoubtedly has a fertile imagination. How else does one explain his proclamation at the recently concluded 106th Indian Science Congress that the Mahabharat’s Kauravas were test-tube babies? Even a simple online search would reveal that Louise Joy Brown was the world’s first “test-tube" baby to be conceived via in vitro fertilization (IVF) in July 1978. Yet, Rao insisted that the story of 100 eggs being fertilized in earthen pots over 2,000 years back was indeed an early example of IVF.
If Rao believes that the Kauravas were indeed test-tube babies, we must respect his right to stick to, and air, his views in private and public forums. But under no circumstances should he, or anyone for that matter, be allowed to make such claims at a science conference. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. During the 102nd Indian Science Congress in 2015, for instance, some presenters claimed that aircraft existed in the time of the Vedas while others spoke of forms of alchemy—cows turning their food into 24-carat gold—and also referred to a helmet from the Mahabharat era that could be found on Mars.
There are quite a few reasons why such claims are undesirable and even harmful, especially when made by academics and politicians. First, they can influence gullible people, especially since they are being mouthed by persons who are perceived as “respectable". Second, they embarrass a whole nation that boasts of an over $165 billion (around ₹ 11 trillion) IT services industry and is the world’s third-largest start-up ecosystem with over 7,500 tech start-ups. Third, this is a country that boasts of institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro); even has a space probe orbiting Mars called Mangalyaan, and is readying to send a manned mission to the moon in 2022.
Such unscientific claims and inanities also do a massive disservice to the hundreds of scientists at these institutions who have painstakingly worked to make this country a respected science, information technology and bio-technology hub. Science, unlike mythology or religion for that matter, is not based on faith and beliefs. A scientific method broadly involves formulating a hypothesis, conducting an experiment to test the hypothesis, collecting and interpreting data and subjecting the findings to peer-to-peer review.
Consider the case of the Wright brothers. They are generally credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful airplane. However, a whole body of previous research helped this invention—right from an understanding of physics, aeronautics and materials, among other things. However, what if the Romans or Greeks start insisting in scientific conferences that, since their messenger gods—Mercury (Roman) and Hermes (Greek)—had winged sandals as narrated in Homer’s Odyssey, they were the first civilizations to understand flying and aviation? After all, the Odyssey also dates back to the time when the Mahabharat was written (around 800 BCE).
Similarly, alchemy is not considered science. It is a mix of magic, art, philosophy. Western alchemists believed the earth comprised four basic elements (air, earth, fire and water) along with salt, mercury and sulphur. Today, we know a lot more about atoms and elements in the Periodic table. So, on what basis can one make a claim that cows could turn their food into 24-carat gold in ancient India? Further, if Christians begin insisting that all humans are descendants of Adam and Eve, how would those who believe in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution react? And what if those who believe in Greek, Roman, Chinese, or Indian mythology start claiming tomorrow that our ancestors could indeed read minds and teleport themselves because it is part of their texts and scriptures? Further, going by that logic, what can stop us from talking about paranormal events—ghosts, angels, goblins, elves and fairies—at scientific conferences?
To be sure, science is not sacrosanct either. Even today, there are many people and even some scientists who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and challenge the idea that the Big Bang ever took place. Besides, there is no way to prove the existence of black holes or parallel universes. These remain hypotheses but there is a whole body of scientific research (work at the Large Hadron Collider being a case in point) that has helped scientists arrive at these hypotheses—these are not based on faith or beliefs.
Scientists can challenge these theories and modify them where necessary after their peers review and endorse them. In this context, it is heartening that the Indian Science Congress has decided to form a panel to vet future content. If India has to progress, academics and politicians must appreciate that while faith and beliefs certainly have value, they should be kept out of scientific conferences and policy decisions. Indians need to hone their scientific temper to make progress.