Indian science is waiting to take over the world. REALLY?!!, I thought to myself.
Forgive me for being very skeptical when I started off on 'Geek Nation' by Angela Saini. It seemed the sort of book tailored to scare the Goras stiff. First the Raj, then Land Rover, then the World Cup, now those bloody Indians will rob us of our science! I could imagine them going all red in the face as they raced through the pages for horrid revelations. Pulp fiction. But guaranteed to be popular, I thought to myself.
After all, what could a hoity-toity, London bred, Poonjabi journalist on a summer trip to India have uncovered, that dedicated Indian science journalists have missed all these years.
As it turns out - plenty! No, the book didn't convince me that Indian science will rule the world. In fact, the first few chapters actively dissuade you from entertaining any such assumptions. I have a sneaking suspicion the publishers picked the title just to catch your attention and draw you in. But once you ARE in, Geek Nation rewards you with honest, straightforward reporting. And tonnes of painstaking research. That could only have come from someone truly passionate about the subject.
For one, the writing talks to you, instead of over you. Going through the book, you wouldn't know it was penned by a Master in Engineering, from Oxford, no less! It's written more like a novel, or actually a travelogue. A determined journalist criss-crossing the country, landing up in the strangest of places, uncovering adventures of the mind.
On a flippant note, I wonder what effect a decidedly pretty, tank top wearing, Angrez accented young woman firing questions by the dozen had on brahmachari pundits at the Academy of Sanskrit Research centre near Bangalore, librarians at the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore, rocket scientists in sweaty Trivandrum, forensic experts in Mumbai and nerdy collegiates at IIT Delhi. An entire book could be written on what those blokes made of her. Or even a block buster TV series.
That flippancy is entirely ill advised of course. Angela Saini commands professional respect, for the sheer spectrum of stories she's dug out. Some are the non sexy sort, usually reported in a cursory column in the inside pages of a newspaper. And almost never on TV. Genetic engineering that lets suicide prone farmers eke out a living. Tuberculosis research done for free, with scientists across the globe interacting only over the internet. Electronic governance that lets Rajasthani villagers pay their bills in a few minutes.
Angela takes the trouble to actually go to those places. Bring those people alive in her pages, tell you how powerfully their lives have changed. She almost makes you feel ashamed that the only technology reporting you've seen of late is the spec sheets of latest cell phones and laptops on the market.
There are of course the customary nods to the software industry. But even here, sometimes startling information. For example, did you know Dr Narayan Murthy hitch-hiked across Europe in his twenties, and was even thrown in jail in communist Bulgaria? It cured him of his leftist leanings for life and made him a capitalist entrepreneur!
India's much toasted space programme finds mention, but again the material is brand new, not rehashed from the newspapers. Our quest for nuclear power from Thorium is mentioned, though the fact that recent commercial deals have practically put paid to those ambitions, is not.
Surprisingly, there's almost nothing on the Universal Identity project, among the most closely watched tech projects in the world right now. Or on our fledgling innovations in defense - Light Combat Aircraft anyone?
But every few pages, there are these nuggets that literally jump out at you. Make you say - man, I never knew that! Try this for size - IT city Bengaluru was named after a bunch of magic beans -'Benda Kaluru!' Here's another one. Luxury town Lavasa, in Maharashtra, is wired with miles of optic fibre. Computers, not humans, are meant to man its water, electric supply, traffic and other amenities.
For the truly eye popping - An Indian 'Mind Reading' machine that sentences people to jail, actively being used by the Mumbai Police. What the @#!?!
There's other stuff, quainter, older. India's Bakshali Manuscript from 700 AD, perhaps Asia's oldest mathematics textbook. The Vaimanka Shastra - a guide book on how to build and fly spacecraft, gleaned from the Vedas, no less!
Whacko as that may sound - personally, it was an area where I got stuck. Was it simply an attempt to offer up a piece of Indian culture, for the laughing pleasure of a few firangs? I wondered. Angela offers it as an example of pseudo-science, even attempts a stab at psychology.
Many modern, scientifically minded Indians are paradoxically, also increasingly religious she suggests. And unlike their rural counterparts, who're happy to believe in just about any old myth or superstition, these folks are plagued with a desire to intellectually explain, why they believe so ardently. And so, there's a rising tide of pseudo-science, an effort to seek out elements of atomic theory in the Vedas, to stake claim to aircraft, even before the Wright Brothers managed to invent them.
Maybe she is right. Or maybe she is completely wrong. I'd rather admit there are some things I don't understand. Does chanting certain mantras cure specific diseases? I don't know. But I have seen patients of liver cirrhosis, cancer, asthma … walk out cured, after attending faith healing, or charismatic retreats. The doctors who treat them can't explain it. Go figure.
Maybe it's not science. So, let's take something that is. Two years back, British doctors dismissed homeopathy as complete bunkum. Its cures were only because patients convinced themselves they'd get better, they said. Then last year, IIT Mumbai debunked that claim. Under high powered electron microscopes, they observed homeopathy capsules absorb nano-particles of vital chemicals. It's those nano-particles, when released in the blood stream, that work the cures homeopathy claims. So who's right?
That brings me to a larger question. How different is our faith in science, from our faith in religion? We accept what scientists tell us, it's not like we're doing any experiments to cross check their claims. Ditto, for what pundits and priests dole out for us. For better or worse, our modern belief system is still based on TRUST, not on science, no?
That's why when scientists tell us nuclear power is safe, we believe them. Because after all, they are the brightest bulbs around. When scientists tell us the glaciers are melting, we believe them too. After all, who has the time to take a thermometer to the South Pole!?
It's only when a Fukushima happens, or when newspapers offer up the inside dope on what climate scientists are REALLY emailing each other about - that we do a double take. And look for someone else to believe in. Just a personal observation, for whatever its worth.
Back to the book. It has its share of bloopers of course. Chess is nowhere as popular in India as the first chapter claims. Try cricket for size instead. Forensic science based on fingerprints WAS developed in India and so was plastic surgery, though the book doesn't seem too sure about that.
Another loophole I noticed, is the scant attention given to the latest, young crop of software entrepreneurs. Teams of two, three or five engineers, who're letting Indians run bank accounts on their cell phones. Or download the latest weather reports for their farms. Or who remotely run American government websites, sitting in Kolkata.
Finally, should you buy 'Geek Nation'? I'd say you should. If nothing else, for the splendid stories that no one else devotes any printing space for. It won't convince you that Indian science is better or more revolutionary than anyone else's. I wasn't completely convinced that similar revolutions are not taking place in say far away Iran, or China, or Indonesia or Brazil
But Geek Nation WILL tell you how scientists are changing India, bit by bit. How there is a world beyond the hi-tech metros, that's gearing up to reap the benefits of technology. And how science is not just about slick gadgets and giant leaps to the moon. It's about the sweat and toil and dreams of thousands of faceless Indians, who do what they do, for the pure passion of doing it.