During the covid-19 pandemic, scientists around the world had to find new methods to continue working. Some carried their scientific specimens and instruments home, while others used technology for greater reach.
Indian scientists, though, are no strangers to challenges. There may not have been any airborne respiratory virus in the 1960s-70s but what did impact the work of experimental scientists then was the lack of advanced equipment, limited budgets, and a general lack of belief in ambitious ideas amongst the scientific community.
In his new book, Space. Life. Matter. The Coming Of Age Of Indian Science, science journalist Hari Pulakkat tells the stories of individuals who tried to overcome such hurdles. The renowned radio astrophysicist Govind Swarup, for instance, was a driving force behind India’s efforts in the field of radio astronomy. Swarup, who died last year, innovated to come up with a larger dish—to capture more radio waves—for the Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT), built in 1965-70 at a modest cost of around ₹58 lakh. More than 50 years later, ORT, the largest steerable telescope in the world, remains in service.
Pulakkat describes many such journeys, in fields ranging from technology and engineering to space, chemistry and biology. Biophysicist G.N. Ramachandran and his work on polypeptides takes up a small but significant part of the book. As Pulakkat writes, being an experimental scientist in India in the 1960s and 1970s “was both a privilege and a curse”. Despite his pioneering work, Ramachandran, who died in 2001, never won any honour from the Union government.
In a video interview, Pulakkat speaks to Lounge about researching the book, his admiration for Ramachandran, and why he feels it is important for India to invest in every area of science. Edited excerpts:
Why did you break down the book into three parts—Space, Life and Matter?
I didn’t want the book to be 10-12 separate chapters with no connection among them, because it covers nearly 50 years. These were all independent developments. What happened in astronomy had really no relationship with developments in chemistry and biology.... Since I could not connect the two, I put them in separate sections. There is a larger theme because all these individuals were living in the same period and faced similar problems. But they did not work or interact with each other.
How pivotal was Govind Swarup to your research?
He was central. I met him (in March 2017) nearly six months after I started work on the book. Till then, I was meeting people randomly, trying to find common threads. The structure for the book fell in place after I met and spent some time with him. In many ways, he is the inspiration behind most of the book.
There’s a lot of history on Indian science and the people who contributed to it. What challenges did you face in finding all these anecdotes?
It took a long time. I didn’t finish (the research). Covid-19 finished it for me. I would have loved to take another three months. As you can see, the final chapters are a bit shorter. And that is by design—it is not necessarily because of covid—because biology started very late. A major challenge was uneven documentation. This is a problem about any history that you write of India. It may be rich in some areas and not in others. But you cannot write an uneven book, so you have to work that much harder to get more information. If you can’t, you have to bring down the others to a level of the lowest common denominator.
You frequently mention the problem of funding for scientific projects in India. How has this changed?
The amount of money available (today) has gone up significantly. But the mechanisms through which that money flows are pretty slow. We have (government) departments of science and technology, and biotechnology. These didn’t exist in the 1960s and 1970s. There are many schemes within these two institutions through which you now get funding. You can also get international funding sometimes. There is also some philanthropic funding. Things have changed in the last 15 years.
What were the other challenges back then and how have things changed?
A big challenge was foreign exchange. (Scientific) instruments are not made in India. So till liberalisation, when our foreign exchange reserves started increasing, release of foreign exchange was highly controlled. You might have been building your own equipment but you might still need a piece of tubing that was not made in India. You asked for $15 (around ₹1,100 now) and got only $10, which wasn’t enough to buy it. Things got frustrating. Domestic funding alone wasn’t the problem. There was also a cultural problem. People were complacent and generally laid-back. And within that atmosphere it was not easy for a few individuals to rise above everybody and start tackling problems nobody was interested in.
All that has changed. But I think we still don’t take enough risks as a country. Not just in science.... By and large, we don’t try to solve big problems. We are satisfied with incremental science. In the future, the biggest issue will be to convince society that science is an important activity. Funding will come from that. Politicians have no personal interest in this. Science is no different from any other activity for bureaucrats. If people think that it’s an important activity, then they will also think that way. Science has advanced so much that people often don’t know what’s happening. That divide between scientists and lay people is quite big everywhere, but more so here.
The pandemic has sparked a tussle between scientific logic and misinformation. How has that influenced the importance of science today?
The majority of people don’t know what’s happening in science and probably don’t want to know. It’s probably cultural and the way science was taught in school. I lost interest too. Only when I started working and reading good books accessible in Delhi’s libraries did I understand how interesting it all was. Lack of scientific temper comes from a lack of interest in science, which comes from bad teaching. It is universal.
Was there anything you wanted to include in the book and couldn’t?
I am happy with whatever I have included but I would have liked to give a little more space to G.N. Ramachandran. Because he is India’s greatest scientist. I did not meet him because he was not around. Most of the book is about people I met and I had planned to write about them only. But slowly others—because of the strength of their work—came into the frame. U.R. Rao, for instance, whom I had met.
How did you try to make the history of chemistry interesting?
India’s contribution to chemistry is substantial. It also contributed greatly to the economy. Our chemical, pharma and genetic industries are large. As a journalist, I wanted to write a story that is significant, not just what people want to read. I still don’t know how a lay person will read those chapters. I was confident about astronomy because everybody wants to know about it. Chemistry, less so. But it is also a challenge as a writer that you try to make things that people don’t want to read more interesting.