SPACE LIFE MATTER
The Coming of Age of Indian Science
Author: Hari Pulakkat
Published by Hachette India
314 pages; Rs699
This is the story of the extraordinary men and women who built science in newly independent India. Conditions for scientific research at the time were far from conducive. There was no equipment, no money and scientific research was far from being a priority in a dirt-poor nation facing a multitude of challenges. Matters were not helped by a hidebound bureaucracy and an ossified university system bound more by rules and hierarchy rather than any ambition to nurture talent.
What on earth could motivate bright young people who would be assured of a brilliant career abroad to sacrifice all that to come and work in India? Yet that is precisely what they did, moved by their dream of building a new nation. Govind Swarup, the astronomer, thought that developing science was a good way of tackling superstition and building a modern nation.
Hari Pulakkat writes: “Scientists in such circumstances had to find unusual ways of approaching research. Normal research -- expensive equipment, abundant travel, a retinue of students —would not succeed under abnormal constraints. They had to find inexpensive ways of making equipment, improvise like Sreekantan with cannibalised parts, find problems that were worthy of attack but could be solved with limited budgets.” The reference is to astrophysicist BV Sreekantan, who in the early days of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, had to make his equipment out of wires, valves, dials and other parts sold in Chor Bazaar, Mohammed Ali Road, in Bombay. As the author points out, an oscilloscope when imported cost Rs 25 — when cannibalised from old parts, it cost 10 paise.
And yet people like Balaram and Mashelkar and Rama Rao and Man Mohan Sharma and CNR Rao and Sreekantan and Govind Swarup and many others featured in this book persevered in the midst of trying circumstances and went on to build the foundations of scientific research in this country. The author quotes Swarup, who said, “People ask me this question, ‘Why are you building radio telescopes in a poor country?’ I ask them, ‘Why are you building temples?’ If temples are relevant, searching for the mysteries of the universe is also relevant.”
Yes, these scientists went on to do great things. But this book is not just about their achievements -- it’s also about them as people. Take the story of PS Goel, space scientist, who came from a village in UP. The author says, “Till 1960, only one person read a newspaper there. This man was Goel’s father… One of his earliest memories was his father telling the villagers about the Russian space programme, about the dog Laika that went into space on board a Soviet rocket.” Vignettes such as this one are scattered throughout the book, giving a human touch to the story.
The book is divided into three parts — Space, Matter and Life. The ‘Space’ section tells the story of how India’s first telescope was built at Ooty, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune and the birth of India’s space programme. There’s also an interesting chapter on Venkataraman Radhakrishnan, CV Raman’s son, who, apart from his scientific endeavours, sailed in his own boat from Southampton to Sydney.
The ‘Matter’ section talks of the growth of India’s formidable pharma reverse engineering juggernaut. There’s a nice little story about the founding of the Indian Institute of Science. Jamsetji Tata met Swami Vivekananda on a voyage to Europe. When Vivekananda learnt that Tata was carrying soil samples to be analysed, he goaded the industrialist to set up a research institute in India and asked him to meet the Maharaja of Mysore for the purpose. Although the Maharaja made available the land, Lord Curzon refused permission and by the time the institute was built in 1909, Jamsetji Tata had passed away.
The final section of the book, ‘Life’, talks about the setting up of the Molecular Biophysics Unit in the IISc, the National Centre for Biological Sciences and the Centre for Biochemical Technology, since renamed as the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which developed the Feluda COVID-19 test.
The book brings to life the inspiring saga of the people who laid the building blocks of India’s scientific achievements. The scientific concepts are explained in simple, everyday language and the anecdotes that pepper the book are priceless. Did you know, for example, that Mallika Sarabhai, who visited Ooty with her father Vikram Sarabhai when Swarup’s telescope was being built, lost no time in dubbing the father of Indian radio astronomy ‘Professor Calculus’?