By Dr. L. S. Kothari
Most of us normally associate science with what science does for society. We regard rockets, satellites, aeroplanes, T.V., telephones or cellular phones, railways, motor cars... as gifts of science. One could also talk of nuclear bombs, fire arms, pollution, drugs... as contribution of science. However, if one were to talk to scientists they would consider these as unimportant consequences of their study. To scientists, as it should be with us, science is the study of Nature, pursued without any profit motive and with an open mind. It is search for truth about Nature.
There are many branches of science like astronomy, cosmology, high energy particle physics, etc., which are pursued with great devotion and on which enormous amounts of money is spent, that have no possible applications, as far as one can see. There have been people who have spent their entire life observing stars at night or watching birds or living in jungles observing wild animals in their natural surroundings. This total commitment to a chosen task is not peculiar to men of science. We find this in saints and in all great artists, musicians, writers and other creative persons.
Science is a creative activity. When one obtains a new insight into the working of Nature one is as much thrilled as say a painter or a sculptor when he creates a masterpiece. However there is one major difference between science and the arts.
Scientific effort is cumulative and co-operative, whereas each artistic creation is complete in itself. In science, every newly established fact, however insignificant it may appear to be at the time, and every new idea, however small, is sooner or later, bound to contribute to major advances in our understanding of Nature. Even such a great physicist as Newton wrote, "If I can see a little farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. "
Pursuit of science is one of the most selfless human activities. In this respect too it is similar to the activities of saints or great heroes or artists. One cannot define their motivation―in some sense it is service to God. As Einstein put it, "The state of the mind that enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover, the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or programme, but straight from the heart."
Study of Nature is capable of transforming individuals. When one looks at Nature a little closely, one is wonder-struck by the apparent simplicity of the basic structures and the complexity of the universe around us. Newton felt the presence of a cosmic mind in the harmony of the motion of planets round the sun. Pascal trembled at the thought of man's minuteness between the two infinites, the immensity of the whole and the complexity of each part. He said, "These infinite spaces frighten me." In more recent times Einstein said, "This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience........."
Technology is the application of science. How science is applied is not a part of science. Rockets, satellites, aeroplanes... are examples of technology, as are nuclear bombs, RDX, fire arms, poisonous gases, drugs, and so on. Where to apply science is often decided by the Government of the country.
We are now celebrating the 50th anniversary of our independence. If we look back, we find that before independence Indian physicists made very significant contributions to world science. To mention a few: we had C. V. Raman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930 for his work on scattering of light. Raman effect is still extensively used to study molecules. We had M. N. Saha, who was the first person to correctly decode the messages from the stars―by analyzing star light one could identify the elements present in a star and their states of ionization. Then we had S. N. Bose. All particles in Nature are grouped into two types―one called fermions after the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and the other bosons after Bose.
Now we often boast of having the second largest scientific manpower in the world. In spite of this and much large Government support, our contribution to world science after independence is negligible. On the technology front too we can hardly claim any new development. All our technological advances have been based on imported technology. We can hardly claim to have developed a 'new' product on our own which is accepted internationally.
To come out of this sorry state of affairs all that we have to do is to open our eyes to 'the light that has illumined this country for these many, many years and will illumine this country for many more years and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate present; it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error taking this ancient country to freedom.'
We have a huge population, and have got used to putting all blame for our tardy progress on this one factor. Population is something given, and it cannot be wished away. We have to learn to use it as an asset rather than treat it as a handicap. It can be an asset provided it is properly educated and trained. And this training has to start very early in life from the primary stage. As Gandhi puts it, "I am a firm believer in the principle of free and compulsory Primary Education for India. I also hold that we shall realize this only by teaching the children a useful vocation and utilizing it as a means for cultivating their mental, physical and spiritual faculties." We observe that Gandhi placed equal emphasis on mental, physical and spiritual education. This is extremely important and has been advocated by most modern educationists around the world. For example, Robert Fulgham in his book, All I really need to know I learnt in Kindergarten (IVY Book. NewYork. 1988) writes: "All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learnt in Kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there on the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learnt:
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little sea in the Styrofoam cup. The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we all like that. Professor Frank Press, former President of the U.S. National Science Academy writes, "We must begin early by providing children with a challenging and stimulating introduction to science in the elementary grades―a hands-on experience that will give them a taste of real science and build their appetite for more." The well known biologist and statistician, Prof. J. B. S. Haldane had the following to say, "The most important part of science, in my opinion, is not knowledge, but method. Scientific method cannot be explained but only demonstrated."
We see that almost every educationist and scientist is stressing the great importance of training children mentally, physically and spiritually from a very early age. Unfortunately, in our country we have neglected primary education and the results are before us.
Compulsory and proper early education helps to identify and nurture talent. One does not know how many Ramanujans are lost to the country because of lack of proper elementary education and our inability to identify talent.
Let us look at the list of subjects that Gandhi advocated which should be taught at the primary stage: Mother tongue, Arithmetic, Natural Science, Social Science, Geography and History, Manual and Polytechnical Work, Physical Culture, Art and Music and Hindustani. Though not specifically mentioned, Gandhi laid great emphasis on moral education as well.
We notice that there is no mention of English in the subjects for primary schools. Gandhi advocated mother-tongue as the medium of instruction. This is an important point. One of the reasons for the poor quality of scientific research in our country at present is the fact that a foreign language, English, is used as the medium of instruction at college and university levels. Many of the current scientific concepts require deep thought, and are far removed from daily experience. To be able to understand and appreciate these concepts, a thorough knowledge of the language is essential. If science is taught along with the language, it can happen that the teaching of language lags behind that of science, and then the students will tend to memorize the results rather than understand them.
It is not uncommon to find students who have done very well at the examinations but whose understanding of the subject is very poor. We would do well, following Gandhi's advice to switch over from English to mother-tongue as the medium of instruction both at school and college/university levels.
We now consider a little different question. One cannot deny the existence of two distinct realities; the 'external world' we see around us and the 'internal world' of the mind of the self. Science deals with the external world of space and time, matter and energy. Religion or dharma deals with the internal world, the world of values. Science is the basis of technology while religion is the basis of ethics. They represent two great systems of human thought. In India there has never been a big divide between science and dharma, and the west has also gradually come round to realize this. Planck, one of the founders of modem physics saw no contradiction between religion and science. Indeed, he believed the two to be perfectly compatible. Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of the world, said, " ... Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe― a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way, the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive." Let us compare statements of the scientists with what Lord Buddha said: "believe nothing merely because you have been told it or because it is traditional or because you yourself have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatever after due examination and analysis you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings, that doctrine believe and cling to and take it as your guide." Could one have defined the scientific spirit in a better way?
Gandhi too exemplified the true scientific spirit. He called his autobiography, 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'. He considered Truth as God. He never gave advice to others without trying it out himself first and there are many stories to illustrate this. Besides this, he knew and understood the country and its people intimately, as few before or after him can claim. It is therefore only proper that for the progress of the people, we should very seriously heed the advice he gave. In India, we have been working on problems of world wide interest, both in science and technology. We have spent lot of money on super-conductivity, nuclear energy, space research, ... without much tangible results. A recent newspaper report states that we spend more money on much talked about diseases like cancer and heart diseases and far less on the more common and widely prevalent diseases in India.
There are innumerable problems crying for solution, which concern the common man: water distribution and utilization, safer and comfortable public transport (three wheelers and cycle rickshaws), pollution, proper roads, use of wind power, ...But hardly any attention is being paid to these at present. All that we have to do, if we are interested in the welfare of our people, is to seriously head Gandhi's Talisman:
"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen. Ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away. "
If we fail in this then Gandhi warned: "It is we, the English-knowing Indians, that have enslaved India. The curse of the nation will rest not upon the English but upon us."