Saturday, January 03, 2015

the history of science needs a lot more support: michel danino

a brilliant. vintage piece by michel danino: typically gentle, factual, and utterly devastating to the other side! what a gentleman and scholar!

the actual scientific discoveries from india are so amazing that there's no need for any exaggeration. 


Examples could easily be multiplied. A recent exception is Upinder Singh's History of Ancient and Early Medieval India (2009), which devotes over five pages to a more substantial treatment of scientific and medical advances, including Sushruta's surgical techniques to reconstruct a severed nose or ear lobe and remove a cataract or bladder stones — admittedly better examples of surgical skills than Ganesha's head transplant. That is indeed the whole point: if our history books did justice to genuine, well-documented and well-studied scientific and technological accomplishments, there would be no room left for the fantasisers. And it is not just mathematics, astronomy or medicine that have been blanked out by mainstream Indian historiography: chemistry, metallurgy, agricultural and veterinary science, water management and irrigation techniques, textile manufacture and dyeing, construction and transport technologies, perfumery and cosmetics, numerous crafts, and a few intriguing technologies from ice- making to weather prediction and water divining, are all equally worthy of study. They are part of India's considerable heritage of indigenous knowledge systems, beside an equally extensive intellectual field ranging from grammar, prosody, philosophy and logic to literature, plastic and performing arts.

Any study of classical Egypt, Greece or China would naturally include accomplishments in all those fields, so why are most of our Indian historians so shy of dealing with them? I believe plain ignorance of India's traditional knowledge systems is one factor; this attitude is largely a subconscious relic of the colonial era, which had decreed that India's literatures were vehicles of superstition rather than of any genuine knowledge. As a result, most scholars prefer to confine themselves to an overview of literature and the arts. Yet scientific and technological advances are of equal importance; ironically, we owe the first studies of them to a few fine European scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, G. Thibaut or Léon Rodet.

Indian scholars followed with major contributions, but Independent India did little to promote the field: no Indian university has a department of history of science. Search the Internet for a substantial resource on past Indian mathematicians and you will soon reach the website of Scotland's University of St. Andrews. Indeed, scholars from the U.S., France, Japan or New Zealand have in recent years contributed important studies to the field. On the other hand, most of their Indian colleagues — thankfully there have been quite a few and of a very high order — have worked with little or no institutional support. It is hard to understand why our educational system and intellectual circles have failed to realise the importance of history of science as a full-fledged academic discipline. And a very enriching one, too, for it deals not just with the evolution of scientific ideas but with the interface between many civilisations and cultures.

This lacuna is what needs to be addressed. The historians behind the recent IHC petition should realise that some of the blame for the distortions they object to lies at their own door. Their resolution is titled "In Defence of Scientific Method in History," but what is "scientific" about suppressing the genuine achievements of Indian science? If our students had substantial exposure to them, they would feel no need to let their imagination run wild.

sent from samsung galaxy note, so please excuse brevity


san said...

I don't think we should be living in the past and trying to claw self-esteem for ourselves by desperately digging into past achievements. We should instead be focused on our current state of affairs and should be asking why Indians aren't creating more innovations and generating economic prosperity from it.

Pagan said...

Original thinking and English medium cannot go together. I quote MK Gandhi below, although Swami Vivekananda said essentially the same thing:

Education through a foreign Language entails a certain degree of strain, and our boys have to pay dearly for it. To a large extent, they lose the capacity of shouldering any other burden afterwards, for they become a useless lot who are weak of body, without any zest for work and imitators of the West. They have little interest in original research or deep thinking, and the qualities of courage, perseverance, bravery and fearlessness are lacking. That is why we are unable to make new plans or carry our projects to meet our problems.

The school must be an extension of home there must be concordance between the impressions which a child gathers at home and at school, if the best results are to be obtained. Education through the medium of strange tongue breaks the concordance which should exist.

No country can become a nation by producing a race of imitators.


India will never achieve its full potential in science and technology as long as English plays such a dominant role as it does today. The least we can do is to mandate regional language in primary schools. Social sciences should be taught in the vernacular at all levels.