“Back in 1983, when Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath saw a section of a brain under a microscope for the first time she fell in love with it. It was not the ugly brown lump that she had seen in photographs. It was a sophisticated, seamless organ— an intricate web of connections,” reads the beginning of the chapter, A Drug to Reverse Memory Loss. It sheds light on neuroscientist Vijaylakshmi Ravindranath’s fascination with the brain and her research into brain disorders. Today she heads the Centre for Brain Research at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where she continues her research on the ageing brain, including dementia.
Many such stories form a part of author Shweta Taneja’s new flip book, They Found What?/They Made What? about discoveries and inventions by Indian scientists. Meant for children and adults alike, this book published by Hachette India features names such as Subhasis Chaudhuri, director, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mitali Mukerji, chief scientist at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, wildlife ecologist Divya Mudappa, physicist C.V. Raman, and more.
The idea is to demystify science for the layperson, and get insights into where scientists get their genius ideas from. “We tend to take everything science very seriously,” says Taneja about opting for the flip book format. “From the ideation stage itself, I wanted to create a creative book on Indian scientists that brings out the fun, the wacky and the innovative elements of science.” She wanted to take a deep dive into science, but in a way that was entertaining, imbued with humour and a dash of irreverence. “Which is why when I saw there were two books in the singular creature that I had created, I asked my editor if we could turn this into a flip book. Once the logistics of this sudden idea were figured out, we knew we were onto something special,” she adds.
The book is an effort to capture the element of creativity in science—the fact that you need to have imagination, talent, and a certain flair to dream up new inventions. The author tries to capture this feeling, that moment when a scientist has created something new, even if it is in his or her head.
They Found What?/They Made What? is populated with stories of some incredible innovators, particularly women scientists. Taneja particularly loved Ravindranath’s enthusiasm, and how her voice sparkled when she recalled the first time she looked at a brain cell through a microscope. “And ecologist Divya Mudappa’s determination to work in reforestation for two decades has been really inspiring,” elaborates Taneja. “There are many other women who I have been lucky to get stories of.”
Take, for instance, Archana Sharma, who moved to CERN as one of the first Indian scientists with a one-year-old baby on her arm. Today she is a global expert in GEM detectors, leading 300 scientists across 16 countries. “Or Manjula Reddy, who has been studying the bacteria E. coli for decades. Physicist Rama Govindarajan, who studies monsoon clouds through equations. Or Kamala Sohonie’s sheer stubbornness in becoming a scientist. She stood outside C.V. Raman’s office for a week, urging him to let women researchers in,” she adds.
Taneja’s research for the book was intense, and her training as a journalist helped her with this. For each story, the primary sources were the scientists themselves. She spent hours speaking to them, trying to understand their lives, how they worked and what their research meant to their peer group and to the society. “Then I read papers written by them. It helped that I am not from the technical scientific field myself. I had to break down concepts and ideas, understand them and then write it for the kids,” she explains.
Every story in They Found What?/They Made What? features quizzes and trivia, engaging the kids at every level. “Let me tell you, it’s hard when no one other than the scientist and their peers understand what they’re doing,” says Taneja. She shares the example of Manindra Agrawal, a computer science professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. After speaking to him, she was flummoxed as to how to make his theorem accessible to kids. “I relied on my instincts. I talked about his mind as a haveli with old rooms, where different parts of an equation lived,” she adds.