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Exploring India and France’s rich scientific history

‘Science Beyond Borders’ – a travelling exhibition – showcases the story of India, France across three centuries in the fields of science and technology

Vikram Sarabhai (left) and Jacques Blamont, the first scientific and technical director of the French space agency, in Thumba. (CNES/1972)

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Did you know that India and France’s collaboration in the space sector goes as far back as 1963? Dr Vikram Sarabhai, regarded as the father of the Indian space programme, met Jacques Blamont, the first scientific and technical director of the French space agency Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES; National Centre for Space Studies) a year back during a conference in Washington DC. CNES would then go on to support the Indian Space Research Organisation’s nascent sounding rocket programme.

This and many other interesting bits of shared scientific history between the two nations are part of a new traveling exhibition – ‘Science Beyond Borders: Connecting the dots between India & France’. Part of the ongoing fourth edition of Bonjour India – a cultural, educational and social initiative – this exhibition looks at the joint Indo-French efforts in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

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The exhibition opened in New Delhi at India Habitat Centre’s Visual Arts Gallery on 12 April and will be on display till 22 April. It will then travel to four cities – Bengaluru, Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad – across May to September.

'Science Beyond Borders' focuses on multiple areas of collaboration between the two countries: mathematics, medicine, nuclear science, biodiversity, aviation, physics, visual analytics, locomotives, astronomy, cartography and more. Instead of relying heavily on technical details, the exhibition – a mix of audio visual content, text and archival photographs – sheds more light on some of the pioneering Indian and French scientists, academicians, entrepreneurs and institutions that worked together.

Some of the most interesting exhibits include the ones on French colonial medicine in India, the dawn of Indo-French aviation way back in Lucknow, in 1785, and how India and France have been engaged in cosmic ray research since the 1950s. For example, who would know that French Centaure rockets, which were used for upper atmospheric research, became an essential part of the Indo-French space research efforts in Thumba? There are similar interesting snippets strewn across the fields of biodiversity and physics as well.

The exhibition – a mix of audio visual content, text and archival photographs – is on display in Delhi till 22 April.
The exhibition – a mix of audio visual content, text and archival photographs – is on display in Delhi till 22 April. (Nitin Sreedhar)

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Dr Nicolas Gherardi, deputy counsellor for education, science and culture, Embassy of France, and country deputy director, French Institute in India said the curation process was a long effort that involved a team of scientists working in India and France and science historians.

“It was a very long process. The idea started more than a year ago. At first, we started from an online blog. But after a few months, we saw there was a lot of material that could go beyond the blog. We wanted to do something bigger. That’s when the team came together,” says Gherardi. “The process involved a lot of archival work. I’d say we had the raw material but it had to be simplified.”

Didier Raboisson, attache for scientific and academic cooperation, French Institute in India, is also part of the curation team and said one of the most complex parts of the curatorial process was to “simplify the science” and make it accessible to everyone.

Gherardi says the exhibition will appeal to everyone in the general public. At first, it was aimed at just students and scientists. But the rich content and archival information at hand led the team to make the exhibition “less scientific” and make it more about “the history of science” to discuss the people to people interactions that began several centuries ago.

‘Science Beyond Borders’ is on display in New Delhi and open to the public from 13 April till 22 April 2022, 11 am to 8 pm.

Also read: A new science exhibition explores the human mind

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