We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Communication, journalism and bullshit

A week or two ago, a scientist impressed with The Wire‘s coverage of science recommended that I stick to covering the good stuff (my syntax) and keep away from highlighting pseudoscience and other happenings of questionable footing.

Then, a few days ago, a science writer expressed an adjacent set of complaints to me. He said that (a) he had a problem with most science journalism simply being science communication, and (b) that whatever was being communicated was invariably optimistic about science’s intention itself.

Both these men are expressing valid concerns – but my disagreement with them was almost immediate. And the reason I’m discussing them here is that the scientist’s advice and the writer’s first complaint allude to a common concern: do people know how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience?

It’s a skill many of us take for granted, often because we’re aware of

  1. The investigative methods of science
  2. Common sources of inaccuracy and imprecision, and
  3. The features of scientific publishing

– all topped off with a passing familiarity with subjects most often in the news. For example, almost everyone in my social circles will suspect a news article claiming scientists have successfully cloned a fully grown human being or resurrected a mammoth. But I can’t say that all my readers will be able to as well.

So covering pseudoscience and research misconduct is a way to, first, highlight the existence of these modes of interrogating a claim and, second, to encourage readers to employ them with every (scientific) claim they’re ever faced with.

Another way to elucidate these modes – and delineate more like them – is to communicate sound science (as distinct from addressing it as a journalist). A typical example of this is for the communicator to take up a seemingly complicated piece of science and break it down in such a way that you stay faithful to scientists and their work – as well as to your intention to ensure a non-scientist gets the science and its spirit.

To “let the science speak for itself” – as the scientist told me – first requires an awareness of the boundaries within which scientific claims must qualify themselves. In a country like India, I suspect (from experience) that many people are unaware of these boundaries. It might not even be far-fetched to say that, in these circumstances, science communication is a form of science journalism. And science journalism can only benefit from a readership that knows and asks the right questions.

I’m reminded at this point of the words of Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, p. 530):

The suspicion and fear of science [in the early to mid-nineteenth century] was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

Science can have these attributes (at times more so than we might like to acknowledge) and such effects, and that’s when science journalism – a la the writer’s second concern – is required. But it has to be preceded by science communication, or Gwyneth Paltrow is going to sell you her jade dildos. Or worse.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

Why does the mention of 'ancient Indian science' have a sheen of dubiousness?

The 2015 Indian Science Congress is set to begin on January 2, hosted by the Mumbai University. This prestigious event – modeled after the British Association for the Advancement of Science – sees India’s and the world’s foremost researchers coming together for a week once a year, talking about their work, participating in discussions and generally interacting with students, other researchers and enthusiasts. It was first conducted by the ISC Association in 1914.

This year’s roster of speakers also boasts of many impressive names: Ada Yonath, Manjul Bharghava, Paul Nurse, Randy Schekman, SRS Vardhan, Muhammad Yunus, K Radhakrishnan, etc. Of course, it’s not about the names but about the quality of presentations and all the novelty and wisdom that a gathering like this has to offer. Nonetheless, in the midst of this celebration of science is a dubious session dedicated to ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’ (Jan 4, 9.30 am to 1.30 pm) – and I say dubious not because of the people but the quality of work supposedly on offer.

During this session, some Indian researchers are set to present theses on the applications of ancient botany, the neuroscience of yoga, ancient Indian aviation technology, science in the Vasthusastra, and advances in surgery in the country 8,000 years ago (I’ve listed excerpts from some of their abstracts at the end of this post).

Making outlandish claims

Tell me there isn’t something about them that immediately pings our disbelief sensors. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Center in May 2014, claims like these have been staked by right-wing outfits bent on rewriting history to better suit the future they’re constructing. The first casualty, as always, was the truth. The next, however, was the scientific method, whose rigor and diligence was often disregarded to secure nationalistic bragging rights.

Ayurveda, or even ayurgenomics, was only the tip of the berg. On December 26, 2014, one of the speakers at the forthcoming ISC said he would talk about how airplanes in the Vedic age could fly between planets. On December 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during a speech that the Hindu deity Ganesha – who has has the body of a human and the head of an elephant – was proof that plastic surgeons were practicing in the country at the time. Around the same time, a Parliament minister claimed a sage had conducted a nuclear test in the second century BC. In November, the leader of a group calling for wider Sanskrit teaching in schools said NASA’s work on the god particle – such as it is – was founded on its knowledge of Sanskrit. And so forth.

Perhaps the first indicator of dubiousness is the outlandishness of these claims. On the one hand, you have an inter-species transplantation of an entire head, and on the other, the way more believable legacy of Sushruta, an Indian surgeon who lived between 800 and 600 BC and his likely seminal investigation of the design of surgical instruments, especially for endoscopy and rhinoplasty.

Further, the proponents of these claims almost always refer to supposed advancements in the Vedic periods – 1750-500 BC – when the Vedas were composed and Hinduism as the right-wingers would have it was pervasive. Whatever happened between 500 BC and 1947 AD does not feature in their claim as if they resent the changes that happened in this period, especially the Mughal colonialism and British imperialism.

And worse yet, these technologies’ perceived identity is associated not with a land but with a religion and, for some reason, a language. Why ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’? Even if the purported scientific texts were composed in Sanskrit, what does the language have to do with the validity of the texts themselves?

Legitimacy through scrutiny

Statements and coinages such as these seem to admit that the claimants couldn’t muster the kind of evidence that the scientific method and scientists tend to prize today, coinages that are dismissive of what is widely held to be the nature of incontrovertibility. The claims are often repeated without substantive information, attributed to people long dead or instances with little documentation, or held to be factual on the basis of religious texts and myths.

If the BJP government is at all intent on legitimizing historic Indian research, it is puzzling why it isn’t going the way of common sense: by indexing the literature, subjecting it to textual and linguistic analysis, promoting conferences that are able to critique these efforts, increasing access to the data, complementing all of them with archaeological digs, and publishing a journal or two with well-formatted literature.

By ‘well-formatted’, I mean with citations and references (not just to other questionable work but also accredited ones), sections delineating the nature of work and why it was undertaken, one on the methods of study used and one on possible sources of error – whether statistical or hermeneutic. Scientific literature is after all an honest documentation of investigation, and its honesty lies in it being open about what can/can’t be disputed and why/why not. Without this information, outlandishness isn’t going to go away.

Admittedly, all these efforts toward legitimization need money, so spend money. Get everything checked before impressing upon the people that this or that happened. Money and efforts should also be spent to integrate scientific-historic literature like this with mainstream scientific and sociological literature, by making it easier for authors to be read and understood by other authors, and by creating a research environment that supports replication and criticism with discipline and sans vitriol. Or politics. If there is anything worth knowing about our past that is true, those who are championing such and other truths are abdicating their responsibility to make it teachable.

The correspondence principle

For example, one of the talks scheduled for January 4 at the ISC, titled ‘Neuroscience of Yoga’, seems interesting for the insights it could provide on the discipline’s physiological effects. It speaks to a concept in physics called the correspondence principle: that a new theory should be able to account for the effects of an old theory it replaced at least in the domain where the old theory worked. For example, Newtonian mechanics was able to explain the orbits of planets around stars but not the formation of black holes. In the 1900s, it was replaced by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was able to explain both the orbits of planets as well as the formation of black holes.

According to the correspondence principle, then, if both theories were able to explain planetary orbits, then they should have some comparable equations or principles in that domain. In other words, the theories must be able to ‘talk to each other’ when discussing planetary orbits.

In much the same way, if staked truths – of Ganesha’s transplanted head, Karna’s surrogate birth, and Agastya’s and Bharadwaja’s spaceships – are to persist, then their underlying principles have to correspond with the scientific zeitgeist. Otherwise, all that the claimants are doing is walling themselves in and depriving themselves of the scrutiny that still could, if allowed, dredge up a few gems from our distorted pasts.


1. Engineering Applications of Ancient Indian Botany by AS Nene (Professor of Civil Engineering (Retd.), VNIT Nagpur. nene_ashok@yahoo.com)

Synopsis: Normally engineers are not concerned with botany. Indian engineering philosophy (Shilpashastra) comprises of ten sciences, thirty-two techniques and sixty-four skills of engineering. All these sciences are interlinked in one way or other. Krushishastra (Biological Sciences) alone includes thee techniques and twenty-one skills. Innumerable ancient references of botany related to engineering are available in digital libraries. Such ancient texts, describe applications of various components (Panchanga-five parts) of trees, plants, and creepers to engineering. It is concludes that; * Ancient Indian engineers had adequate knowledge of Indian botany and knew how to implement this knowledge for strength, durability and aesthetic purposes. * With the advent of modern materials, organic materials were replaced by synthetic materials. * However secret of endurance of Indian heritage structures lies in materials used and the construction techniques. * More research with laboratory and field investigations is necessary.

2. Neuroscience of Yoga : Understanding the ‘process’ by Dr. Veena Londhe, Dr. Madhusudan Penna

This research reveals the changes that occur at the different levels of a human body-mind complex. The most structured and well known Astanga Yoga of Patanjali gives the benefits of each limb in a cryptic way. The yamas would simplify the practitioner’s life to a great extent and would cause less mental disturbance if followed in the right spirit. The niyamas would regulate the personal life of a practitioner by satisfying his will, intellect and emotion. The research though unable to throw light on these subjective issues still their precedence as well as pervasion throughout the life of a practitioner are in a way conducive to the overall change in his personality.

Dr.Leena Phadke, Dr.Sanjay Phadke (Smt Kashibai Navale Medical College, Pune; Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital & Research Centre, Pune; Centre for Behavioural Medicine, Pune; Yoga Forum, Munich)

Yoga has attracted much attention in recent times driven by interest in health benefits associated with practice of Yoga. While ‘Outcome Research’ has shown clinical benefit in various lifestyle disorders, the ‘process research’ has not kept pace and there is dearth of information on underlying physiological mechanisms and whether there is any specificity to changes associated with different yoga processes.

Our work spanning a decade focuses on the ‘process research’ that includes inquiry at three levels viz. the Autonomic Nervous System (mind-body link), brain mechanisms, and biomechanics. Sophisticated signal analysis technology was specially developed for this purpose (that includes ambulatory polygraph device and signal analysis software). Several studies were carried out with trained yoga practitioners during practice of various yogasanas, pranayam, and dhyan-dharna protocols and multiple parameters of interest viz. ECG (Electrocardiogram sampled at 1 KHz. for assessing HRV), Respiration: bilateral nasal breathing, Core Body Temperature, Pulse & SPo2 (oxygen saturation), EEG (Electroencephalogram – brain electrical activity), and EMG (Electromyogram – muscle electrical activity) etc. were recorded. Methodological sophistication helped unravel several physiological changes, including some paradoxes observed for the first time, are unique to practice of yoga.

3. Ancient Indian Aviation Technology by Capt. Anand Bodas, Ms Ameya Jadhav

Aviation Technology in ancient India is not a tale of mythology but it is a total historical document giving the technical details and specifications. Ancient Sanskrit literature is full of descriptions of flying machines – Vimanas. From the many documents found it is evident that the scientist-sages Agastya and Bharadwaja had developed the lore of aircraft construction. Aeronautics or Vaimaanika Shastra is a part of Yantra Sarvasva of Bharadwaja. This is also known as Brihadvimaana Shastra. Vaimaanikashastra deals about aeronautics, including the design of aircraft, the way they can be used for transportation and other applications, in detail. The knowledge of aeronautics is described in Sanskrit in 100 sections, eight chapters, 500 principles and 3000 slokas. Great sage Bharadwaja explained the construction of aircraft and way to fly it in air, on land, on water and use the same aircraft like a sub-marine. He also described the construction of war planes and fighter aircraft. This paper will deal with manufacturing an alloy for making aeroplanes, the specialized dress material being virus proof, waterproof, shock proof etc. for the pilots. This was given by Bhardwaj Sage in Brihatvimanshashtra. He had mentioned the 97 reference books for the aviation.

In 21st century we all should study and spread the achievements of our Sages.

4. Reflection of Scientific Principles from Vāstuśāstra by Dr. Rahul V Altekar, Dr. Asawari Bapat

The present paper reveals the scientific principles that were followed in ancient India in building structures. Leaving the controversial aspects, the paper embarks on the less known technical aspects of Vāstuśāstra. It discusses the driving philosophy behind delicate and minute carving, uniformity and consistency in design, excellence in aesthetics and decoration, optimization of natural resources utilization, and inseparable approach of architecture and engineering. Thus it focuses on the mantle of key factors like Anthropometry in designing customized homes, various land testing methods (to determine liquid limit, Natural moisture content, Natural dry density, Plastic limit, Permeability, Fertility, hardness), metrology, tooling, joints and application of natural resources (primarily trees, wind and sunlight). It also reviews the different kinds of building materials, their classification, properties and applications.

5. Advances in surgery in ancient India by Dr.Ashwin Sawant (+91 99207 48444)

Suśrut Saḿhitā is the first text of surgery,created not later than 1500 B.C. in India. References of advanced surgeries are also found in Ŗgvedā considered as first text of universe, created not later than 6000 B.C. Indians had realized importance of anatomy for accurate surgery, long before Greeks and were dissecting human body to gain anatomical knowledge, at least a millennium before the Hippocrates. Indian method of human dissection seems better, since it could make visible, minute structure lying just beneath the skin ,which is not possible, even in modern method of dissection. Indians had developed 20 types of sharp instruments and 101 types of blunt instruments required for the surgery, made from pure Iron, many of which are resembling with modern surgical instruments. Indians had well understood importance of healing wound, essential for the successful operation and performed 7 steps of treatment to heal the wound. Vaikrutāpaham , a 7th step recommended in wound-healing, essential for normalizing the wounded skin , is still unknown to modern surgery. Indians knew more than 4 ways of stopping bleeding , an important component of successful surgery. They developed different surgical procedures required in any surgery and used to practice them on dummies, dead animals and on naturally resembling things like fruits & flowers. Pre-operative and post-operative care advised is as per modern protocol.

You can find full descriptions here.