On the face of it, Once Upon A Try seems like a regular online exhibition about scientific innovation and discoveries. But as one begins to delve into its many layers, interesting nuggets and factoids begin to emerge, ranging from the first recorded map of the Americas from 1508 and Albert Einstein’s letters to the first electronic computer developed in India, to leading-edge particle accelerators and detectors lying in the underground spaces of European research organization Cern in Switzerland. Hailed as the largest online exhibition by Google Arts & Culture, Once Upon A Try brings over 400 interactive exhibitions and 200,000 artefacts from 127 collections to your fingertips. It draws information and images from the archives of international institutions such as US space agency Nasa, Cern, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, UK’s Science Museum Group, Deutsches Museum, Technical Museum of East Iceland and National Museum of Science and Technology, Sweden, along with Indian ones like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Statistical Institute and Heritage Transport Museum.
The exhibits, divided into segments such as Ideas That Changed The World and The Beginning of Voyages, don’t confine themselves to pure science, and look instead at innovation across disciplines ranging from architecture to food. Some pieces resemble time capsules, such as the Olduvai stone chopping tool made nearly two million years ago, one of the oldest objects in the British Museum collection. It was found at an early human campsite in Tanzania in 1931.
What really stands out is the stories of the people behind the inventions—their failings, vulnerabilities and achievements. As Amit Sood, director, Google Arts & Culture, puts it, “We hope it (Once Upon A Try) will give people that extra boost to find their own eureka moment.”
There is a section, for instance, on the life and times of Indian film-maker V. Shantaram which also looks at innovation in cinema. One of the most insightful pieces is by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, about Anandibai Joshee—the first Indian woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Western medicine in 1886, from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. A young mother at 14, she had lost her son soon after his birth—and this inspired her to become a doctor. As did the fact that women would hesitate to visit a male doctor. Unfortunately, soon after receiving her degree and returning to India, she died in Pune, a month short of her 22nd birthday.
There is a detailed report on Prof. Govind Swarup, the pioneer of radio astronomy in India. “He helped build two of the world’s largest radio telescopes, namely the Ooty Telescope and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope,” says Yogesh Wadadekar of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Pune, which is part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He credits Prof. Swarup, now 90, with having set up the centre after he moved to India from Stanford at the insistence of nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha.
The Ooty Telescope is unique, making it possible to track a radio source in the sky by simply rotating the antenna along its long axis to compensate for the earth’s rotation. The Giant Metrewave is one of the most sensitive radio telescopes in the world in the 30-1,500 MHz frequency range. “The latter took a long time to be ready, by around 2000, and it was declared a national facility in 2002. It has open access, and, in the past 15 years, has been used by scientists from 40 countries,” says Wadadekar.
Simon Rein, programme manager of Google Arts & Culture, however, says, “We tend to take innovation for granted, without appreciating the complexity of the process. Inventors are often seen as lonely geniuses. We imagine that the best ideas came to them suddenly, like magic.”
The show tries to change that impression, highlighting the efforts of teams working together over long periods. “That’s why we chose to name the exhibition Once Upon A Try, to pay tribute to this process,” he says. The exhibition can be viewed at Artsandculture.google.com/project/once-upon-a-try.