Monday, July 27, 2015


Why Indian science scores 

WORKING, as I have been for the last couple of years, on a short biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, I became conscious of the extent to which we have taken for granted one vital legacy of his: the creation of an infrastructure for excellence in science and technology, which has become a source of great self-confidence and competitive advantage for the country today. Nehru was always fascinated by science and scientists. He made it a point to attend the annual Indian Science Congress every year, and he gave free rein (and taxpayers' money) to scientists in whom he had confidence to build high-quality institutions. Men like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai constructed the platform for Indian accomplishments in the fields of atomic energy and space research; they and their successors have given the country a scientific establishment without peer in the developing world. Jawaharlal's establishment of the Indian Institutes of Technology (and the spur they provided to other lesser institutions) have produced many of the finest minds in America's Silicon Valley. Today, an IIT degree is held in the same reverence in the U.S. as one from MIT or Caltech, and India's extraordinary leadership in the software industry is the indirect result of Jawaharlal Nehru's faith in scientific education. Nehru left India with the world's second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, integrated into the global intellectual system, to a degree without parallel outside the developed West.

And yet the roots of Indian science and technology go far deeper than Nehru. I was reminded of this yet again by a remarkable new book, Lost Discoveries, by the American writer Dick Teresi. Teresi's book studies the ancient non-Western foundations of modern science, and while he ranges from the Babylonians and Mayans to Egyptians and other Africans, it is his references to India that caught my eye. And how astonishing those are! The Rig Veda asserted that gravitation held the universe together 24 centuries before the apple fell on Newton's head. The Vedic civilisation subscribed to the idea of a spherical earth at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks, assumed the earth was flat. By the Fifth Century A.D. Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3 billion years; as late as the 19th Century, English scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years old, and it is only in the late 20th Century that Western scientists have come to estimate the earth to be about 4.6 billion years old.

If I were to focus on just one field in this column, it would be that of mathematics. India invented modern numerals (known to the world as "Arabic" numerals because the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from us!). It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero, shunya; the concept of nothingness, shunyata, integral to Hindu and Buddhist thinking, simply did not exist in the West. ("In the history of culture," wrote Tobias Dantzig in 1930, "the invention of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race.") The concept of infinite sets of rational numbers was understood by Jain thinkers in the Sixth Century B.C. Our forefathers can take credit for geometry, trigonometry, and calculus; the "Bakhshali manuscript", 70 leaves of bark dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era, reveals fractions, simultaneous equations, quadratic equations, geometric progressions and even calculations of profit and loss, with interest.

Indian mathematicians invented negative numbers: the British mathematician Lancelot Hogben, grudgingly acknowledging this, suggested ungraciously that "perhaps because the Hindus were in debt more often than not, it occurred to them that it would also be useful to have a number which represent the amount of money one owes". (That theory would no doubt also explain why Indians were the first to understand how to add, multiply and subtract from zero — because zero was all, in Western eyes, we ever had.) 

The Sulba Sutras, composed between 800 and 500 B.C., demonstrate that India had Pythagoras' theorem before the great Greek was born, and a way of getting the square root of 2 correct to five decimal places. (Vedic Indians solved square roots in order to build sacrificial altars of the proper size.) The Kerala mathematician Nilakantha wrote sophisticated explanations of the irrationality of "pi" before the West had heard of the concept. The Vedanga Jyotisha, written around 500 B.C., declares: "Like the crest of a peacock, like the gem on the head of a snake, so is mathematics at the head of all knowledge." Our mathematicians were poets too! But one could go back even earlier, to the Harappan civilisation, for evidence of a highly sophisticated system of weights and measures in use around 3000 B.C. 

Archaeologists also found a "ruler" made with lines drawn precisely 6.7 millimeters apart with an astonishing level of accuracy. The "Indus inch" was a measure in consistent use throughout the area. The Harappans also invented kiln-fired bricks, less permeable to rain and floodwater than the mud bricks used by other civilisations of the time. The bricks contained no straw or other binding material and so turned out to be usable 5, 000 years later when a British contractor dug them up to construct a railway line between Multan and Lahore. And while they were made in 15 different sizes, the Harappan bricks were amazingly consistent: their length, width and thickness were invariably in the ratio of 4:2:1.

"Indian mathematical innovations," writes Teresi, "had a profound effect on neighbouring cultures." The greatest impact was on Islamic culture, which borrowed heavily from Indian numerals, trigonometry and analemma. Indian numbers probably arrived in the Arab world in 773 A.D. with the diplomatic mission sent by the Hindu ruler of Sind to the court of the Caliph al-Mansur. This gave rise to the famous arithmetical text of al-Khwarizmi, written around 820 A.D., which contains a detailed exposition of Indian mathematics, in particular the usefulness of the zero. With Islamic civilisation's rise and spread, knowledge of Indian mathematics reached as far afield as Central Asia, North Africa and Spain. "In serving as a conduit for incoming ideas and a catalyst for influencing others," Teresi adds, "India played a pivotal role." His research is such a rich lode that I intend to return to ancient Indian science in a future column.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and the author of seven books, most recently Riot and (with M.F. Husain) Kerala: God's Own Country.

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1 comment:

  1. Koenraad Elst says :

    Koenraad Elst @Ramesh, I tend to be wary of Tharoor, esp. as he starts by praising Nehru, and given his track record, this may still mean that he is smuggling Nehru into the otherwise correct evaluation of ancient Indian science. That is another great risk: bringing in powerful people who will pull this initiative towards their own secular project.