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The Indus Valley Civilisation arose around the same time as Ancient Egypt. Many weights have been found where its cities stood. Used to measure everything from food to gemstones, they show that the Indus Valley people had the mathematical knowledge and tools to build great cities and water systems. Courtesy: Science Museum Group
The Indus Valley Civilisation arose around the same time as Ancient Egypt. Many weights have been found where its cities stood. Used to measure everything from food to gemstones, they show that the Indus Valley people had the mathematical knowledge and tools to build great cities and water systems. Courtesy: Science Museum Group

Watching Indian science unfold—in London

At the end of the day, the world of science can never be wedded to national boundaries

You can read the words ‘Indian science’ in two ways. It could mean science in India, or it could suggest India in science. It’s important to be clear about this if you care about India. The first means the way science is developing in India, our present history in other words. The latter has a sense of the contributions Indian scientists, thinkers and mathematicians have made to the development of science—and that could be anywhere in the world.

If you are a visitor to London, for instance, you could—apart from soaking in the theatre, etc.,—do worse than popping into the Science Museum, which has been hosting an exhibition on Indian science. It is by no means the definitive ‘last word’ collection of objects—that surely awaits an exhibition in India—but it includes some wonderful and informative displays. Besides, the subject matter is pretty much pioneering outside India.

Importantly, the exhibition places science in the context of Indian society and culture. So, for instance, the early human habit of gazing at the stars in awe develops into a more systematic observation of the cosmos some 5,000-plus years ago. Astrology, in turn, evolves into astronomy partly because of a need for a precise calendar for religious occasions and the changing of seasons. Tracking this continuum, there’s a model of the Mars colour camera that took photographs of the red planet from aboard the Chandrayaan orbiter Mangalyaan in 2013.

There are sections on physicists C.V. Raman and Satyandra Nath Bose, physicist and biologist Jagadish Chandra Bose and the self-taught mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, including instruments developed by them, alongside academic papers and letters, which influenced science everywhere. An elaborate Jain map of the world and the world’s first standardized chart weights from the Indus Valley civilization going back to 3,000-2,500 BCE (perhaps longer), and replicas of Ayurvedic surgical instruments are only some of the artifacts that will keep the visitor engrossed in the unfolding history of Indian science.

A Bhugola, or ‘Earth-ball’, is a near-spherical metal box engraved with a map of the world. It was used for storing foodstuff. This one from 1571 uniquely combines two different ideas: the Hindu notion of an egg-shaped universe and the ancient Greek concept of Earth as a sphere, which found its way to India via the Middle East. Courtesy: Museum of the History of Science University of Oxford
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A Bhugola, or ‘Earth-ball’, is a near-spherical metal box engraved with a map of the world. It was used for storing foodstuff. This one from 1571 uniquely combines two different ideas: the Hindu notion of an egg-shaped universe and the ancient Greek concept of Earth as a sphere, which found its way to India via the Middle East. Courtesy: Museum of the History of Science University of Oxford

There’s plenty more—including displays on technology and information about India-UK collaboration in space science—in this teaser of an exhibition spread across two galleries. But the piece de resistance has to be the earliest known document with a mention of the concept of ‘zero’—an Indian mathematical ‘discovery’ that lays down one of the most important foundational principles of mathematics. The Bakhshali manuscript, found by a farmer buried in the fields of Bakhshali village of Peshawar in 1881, has been loaned to the Science Museum by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Just before the exhibition opened, Bodleian commissioned the birch bark manuscript to be carbon dated and was “shocked" to find it dating back to the second to 4th century AD, hundreds of years older than what was previously thought to be oldest mention of the zero—a 9th century inscription on the walls of a temple in Gwalior.

As Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, explained in The Guardian newspaper: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number." There’s an audio guide at this display where, understandably, queues are long.

The exhibition, which runs until 31 March (there’s an equally absorbing accompanying exhibition on Indian photography on the same floor), is titled ‘Illuminating India: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation’. It is non-judgemental and purely informational. I believe it will be an experience to savour for Indian visitors, particularly young people in education.

The Bakshali manuscript contains the earliest example of our numeral zero ever found. Although we take it for granted today, without the concept of zero our entire system of mathematics—and the technologies that depend upon it—would not be possible. The manuscript was unearthed in 1881 by a farmer near the village of Bakhshali, modern Pakistan. Researchers soon realised the manuscript was one of the most significant discoveries in the history of mathematics. Courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
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The Bakshali manuscript contains the earliest example of our numeral zero ever found. Although we take it for granted today, without the concept of zero our entire system of mathematics—and the technologies that depend upon it—would not be possible. The manuscript was unearthed in 1881 by a farmer near the village of Bakhshali, modern Pakistan. Researchers soon realised the manuscript was one of the most significant discoveries in the history of mathematics. Courtesy: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

That’s the good news. Because, back in India, in the meanwhile, the junior minister for human resources development (a portfolio that is tied umbilically to education and skills) has become the latest person in public office to challenge science. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Satyapal Singh said, is “scientifically wrong", adding: “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw ape turning into a man."

After a furore in the media and among scientists, Singh was pulled up by his boss, the cabinet minister, Prakash Javadekar, who said, “We should not dilute science."

Nevertheless, scientists and others are worried that Singh’s statement is only the latest reflection of a current of “anti-science" among sections of the government. Locating such statements in the realm of culture, former minister of state for information technology Milind Deora, a lawmaker from the opposition Congress party, wrote in The Economic Times last week, “Satyapal Singh is entitled to his personal belief. But as a cabinet minister, he can’t publicly endorse a view that rejects the theory of evolution altogether."

Fortunately, India for the most is diverse enough to absorb or dismiss various points of view. In the run-up to 31 January, the Astronomical Society of India (ASI), through its public outreach and education committee, helped to coordinate events around the total lunar eclipse that would coincide with a blue moon (second full moon of the month) and super moon (its closest position to earth).

“What is important is that we all go outside and see this majestic spectacle that nature will orchestrate for a few hours, and also that we get our friends, family and our communities to share in it," the ASI urged in a widely shared WhatsApp message. It promised to put up the Google coordinates of anyone organizing such informal star-gazing gatherings “so others can join you as well".

In London, Matt Kimberley, the curator of the Science Museum exhibition on India, said the history of Indian science highlights “exchange, endeavour and exploration".

Also important in its evolution is interactions with other civilizations. It is the last that to me is a key takeaway. Because, at the end of the day, the world of science can never be wedded to national boundaries—the ethnic origin of an inventor or discoverer counts for little when you are dealing with abstract concepts and innovations that often begin with no more than jotted numbers on a blank piece of paper or birch bark.

Yet, for a nation that covets the ‘developed country’ status—a desire underlined by President Ram Nath Kovind in his address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day (26 January)—it is entirely understandable that India will search for its own particular ‘Indian science’ history, and no one will begrudge its historical place.

But it should not, in this process, be seen to present itself as anti-science. For the stars we gaze at do not come wrapped in national flags.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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