Glorifying the past is just a way of avoiding today’s grave problems

History beat out Marathi, marginally, as my least favourite subject at school. I would have loved history textbooks if I were allowed to read them like novels. But, no, we were made to mug up facts. Battle of Plassey took place on 23 June, 1757. The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter on June 26, 1214. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June, 1914 … and so on the facts kept coming in thick packets and without time to digest.

And I kept asking, “What’s the point of studying history?” But never got a satisfactory answer till my teenage hormones had been supplanted by adult maturity. When I did get one, I could finally lay to rest all the unjust curses various historical figures had to bear because they committed historically important acts on bizarre dates and under twisted circumstances.

The real value of history is not, as most think, in “teaching” us to avoid mistakes made in the past. For history is never repeated and no two years are ever alike, how much ever writers would love to draw parallels. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker contends that not studying history would commit humanity to the trouble of “presentism”, where we might exaggerate “our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed”. Thus believing that “things are much worse than they have ever been”.

Making history do our bidding

In India, the exact opposite happens. Historical facts are misinterpreted or, worse, made up and turned into jingoistic propaganda. Instead of worrying about the troubles we face today, we proudly boast about our historical achievements and claim that independent India’s potential is no different.

When talking about the country’s achievements, our leaders like to skip the period when conquerors pillaged and the British ruled, and look at the “golden past”. A time when, they believe, India’s wealth in the world was unparalleled and our achievements unprecedented.

Because a lot of Indian kings of that supposed golden era were no benevolent dictators, these leaders choose to talk about our intellectual achievements, especially those in science. You must have heard from respectable people about how we had invented planes that could fly to Mars and back, how plastic surgery was used to stitch an elephant’s head on a human, and how we made medicine to bring the dead back to life.

“This effort of creating a false history of science in India is a spectacularly bad example of the absurd lengths to which attempts at glorification of our past can go,” said leading scientist Roddam Narasimha in an editorial in Current Science.

If Gopnik’s worry for the West about not studying history is suffering from presentism, then Indians need to worry about suffering from pastism. Our perception of our past is blocking us from working on the grave problems we face today.

And we find ourselves in this position because of two reasons. First, we have not invested enough in studying the history of science in India. Second, we ignore the voices of the few scholars who have uncovered at least some of the true history of science in India.

In 2009, the Indian National Science Academy celebrated 50 years since the conception of the history of science programme. In an article that year, AK Bag, editor of the Indian Journal of History of Science, said that despite the programme’s efforts only about 40 source manuscripts have been thoroughly studied, leaving more than 100 such documents untouched in oriental libraries.

To be sure, there have been some remarkable achievements made by ancient Indian science. These include the first recorded use of plastic surgery to heal broken noses, the development and application of many key theorems in algebra, and even correctly predicting the motions of the solar system (centuries ahead of the Greeks). And, as we scour source documents, more are bound to be revealed. But that is no reason to make up fantastical notions of what our ancestors achieved.

This kind of behaviour may come about because, according to Narasimha, we do not have reliable history-of-science books for the masses. Without the right facts, teachers suffer, education is incomplete and it is easy to manipulate public perception. “Somebody needs to write such books,” Narasimha concluded.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia. This post was corrected to attribute the Current Science quote to Narasimha.

Rotavac is not India’s first indigenous vaccine

While the recently released low-cost rotavirus vaccine, Rotavac, is a great achievement for the country, it is not the “first indigenously developed vaccine”, as the prime minister’s office claims and then was parroted by newspapers. The honour goes to the bubonic plague vaccine developed in Bombay in 1897.

This is also not just a matter of semantics, where we ought to assume that the prime minister’s office implies “indigenous” to mean developed in Independent India. Because, as we have seen in the past, the prime minister is only too happy to (wrongly) claim centuries-old achievements to be “Indian innovations”.

India has played an important role in the history of vaccine’s use to fight disease. Their use means that the poorest of the poor today can live well beyond the age at which most kings died not too long ago. And the least we can do when we take vaccination forward in India today is to honour our past achievements.

Honouring history

The use of the first vaccine was pioneered by English scientist Edward Jenner in 1798. In the two centuries since, we have developed vaccines to fight 25 diseases. Fittingly, the disease against which the first vaccine was developed – smallpox – has been eradicated globally. The next disease on the list of diseases to be eradicated by the use vaccines could be polio.

But for nearly 100 years after the smallpox vaccine came in to use, the process of developing vaccines against other diseases remained difficult. This is because a vaccine then needed a naturally existing weak form of the disease. In the case of smallpox, that weak form was found in cowpox.

However, almost by accident, Louis Pasteur developed a laboratory method to generate a weak form of a disease. He used the method to create a vaccine against anthrax and chicken cholera. This is what revolutionised the work against infectious diseases.When injected into or ingested by the human body, vaccines work by stimulating the immune system and preparing it for when the real thing attacks in the future. Many vaccines provide lifelong immunity to a disease.

A young Russian, Waldemar Haffkine, was keenly following Pasteur’s work. At the time, cholera epidemics were common worldwide and someone had claimed to have isolated the bacteria that caused the disease. Despite Pasteur and Jenner’s work, many believed that that bacteria can’t be the sole cause behind cholera.

However, Haffkine agreed with the theory and worked hard on developing a cholera vaccine. He achieved success in 1892 and conducted the first human trial of the vaccine on himself. Having survived, he made the findings public but was dismissed by senior scientists.

The Plague Laboratory

Determined to see his invention have some impact on the world, he travelled to India where cholera epidemics had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. His trials in Uttar Pradesh succeeded and he managed to vaccinate thousands. In 1895 he returned to France having caught malaria. But in 1896 was requested by the Governor of Bombay to help develop a vaccine against plague, which was ravaging the population of Bombay and Poona.

Against the advise of his French doctor, Haffkine travelled back to India and worked persistently to develop a plague vaccine. He succeeded within months, and, like the last time, tested the vaccine on himself. Within a few years, the vaccine was used to inoculate millions of people.

In 1899, a former residence of the Governor of Bombay was turned in to the Plague Laboratory and Haffkine made its director. The lab was renamed the Haffkine Institute in 1925, and remains an active institute for biological research in the country.

Haffkine was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897. A London magazine wrote this about the announcement: “a Russian Jew, trained in the schools of European science, saves the lives of helpless Hindoos and Mohammedans and is decorated by the descendant of William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great.”

If you forgive the colonial tone, it is an apt eulogy in a rapidly globalising world that was being created then. His work is arguably no less “indigenous” to India than Rotavac, so it is sad that we forget such a legacy in celebrating the country’s new achievements.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image from Wikipedia

Curious Bends  –  the history of the zero, flooding Asia’s rivers, maddening imprisonments and more

1. Was the zero really reinvented in India?

The academic and scientific environment in India leaves a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, many Indians are sated on the copious vestiges of the past, one of which is a claim to the invention of the zero. How true is that claim? The investigation takes the reader from Switzerland to Babylon and then from Rajasthan to Cambodia to reveal a bizarre story. (27 min read)

2. Climate change will increase flow in Asia’s big rivers

Climate change will affect emerging nations the most. Apart from slowing down economic growth, it also exacerbates their under-preparedness by threatening to disrupt ecosystems that support millions. In fact, the five big river systems of Asia that are fed by Himalayan glaciers—of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong—together support 1.3 billion people. According to a new study, climate change will increase water flow in them until 2050. Are policymakers prepared to confront how this will alter cropping calendars? (2 min read)

3. Suicide statistics, squalor & recidivism haven’t ended solitary confinement

Delve into the deceptively placid world of solitary confinement, its passions-packed history, the costs of running them, and the emotional and psychological damage it inflicts on those who underwent it. There is no alternative to the strong prose in this piece, so sample this: “One winter in Shawangunk, in Ulster County, NY, two inmates on either side of his cell devised a simple game. From morning to night, as Billy watched, envelopes of excrement went from one side to the other, careering past his cell like hockey pucks flying into a revolting space-time dimension. Most of the projectiles landed, and remained, just outside his cell door. After several days, he yelled: ‘If you have a beef with each other, go at it like men. Don’t do this bozo shit!’ … They came up with a new game. For five long weeks, they tirelessly banged on Billy’s cell with their sneakers.” (40 min read)

+ The writer, Shruti Ravindran, is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She recently graduated from Columbia University.

4. The amazing micro-engineered, water-repelling surface that lives outside your window

The curious incident of water-repelling leaves in the garden inspires two physicists to explore how some leaves in nature are superhydrophobic—that is, completely water-averse. Using a high-speed camera and some high school math and physics, they show how this cool effect comes about. (7 min read)

5. An interview of T.V. Jayan, science editor of The Telegraph (India)

This interview was published in 2011. However, Jayan’s views on science journalism in India are no less pertinent. He talks about understanding science, misreporting, sensationalisation and ethics. He has advice for aspiring science journalists, too: “Read, read and read.” (9 min read)

Interactive story of the week

Immerse yourself in the wonderful story lives of Vumbi pride of lions at the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Produced by National Geographic, the story has 23 short chapters and a compassionate aesthetic to help you understand the complex lives these animals lead, how they grow up, how they hunt, why they eat what they eat, the tribes that live around them, the people who kill them and what we can do to help them. The Vumbi might have provided narrative fodder but their stories are true for every lion in the wild.

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We received many helpful replies to our survey (if you filled it out, thank you!). One popular request was to send out Curious Bends twice a week, and we’re going to give that a try.

If you have any suggestions or other feedback, send them to You can also find Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. Have a nice week!

Computer simulations reveal war drove the rise of civilisations

According to British historian Arnold Toynbee, “History is just one damned thing after another.” Or is it? That is the question Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut in Storrs tries to answer in a new study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He and his colleagues show history may be deterministic, at least to a certain extent. Their computer simulations show that warfare may have been the main driver behind the formation of empires, bureaucracies and religions.

Historians may be a bit leery about scientists making this sort of attempt, since history is driven by a complex set of of events, some of them seemingly one-time only. But Turchin thinks otherwise. Through an approach he calls cliodynamics (named after Clio, the Greek muse of history), he wants to unravel the past by testing hypotheses against data.

For his latest work, he joined with Thomas Currie, a lecturer in cultural evolution at the University of Exeter. In the new study, they use a computer simulation to model the largest societies in the years between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE.

Their model uses a map of Africa and Eurasia split up into cells that are 100 kilometres on each side. The properties of each cell are its natural landscape, height above sea level and the possibility of agriculture (which was the main driving force behind societies). The borders are seeded with military technology, starting with the use of horses. That technology then spreads as societies fight it out virtually. What emerges is the probability that each cell of land could or could not be occupied by civilisations as time progresses.

Red depict higher probability of existence of a civilisation and green lower. Thomas Currie

“Remarkably, when the results from the simulation are compared with real data from the past, the model predicts the rise of empires with 65% accuracy,” Currie said. If military technology is removed as a factor, the model’s accuracy falls to a mere 16%. “It seems warfare created intense pressure that drove these societies.”

Other researchers such as Jared Diamond and James Robinson have suggested, respectively, that agriculture and social institutions drove civilisations. They undoubtedly contributed, but Turchin and Currie argue that their results show that competition through warfare may have played a more important role.

Peter Richerson, emeritus professor at the University of California at Davis, studies cultural evolution and is impressed by cliodynamics. “It is early days yet, so the specific hypothesis tested here is liable to prove wrong or at least incomplete,” he said. “The model fails to predict the emergence of large empires in Central Asia. Something not in the current model is going on there.”

Currie agrees. “Our results are a good fit because of the broad scale. We are aware we are glossing over many complexities,” he said. Still, there is lots of potential value in building these models. The global database of historical events has many gaps. With efforts underway to grow these databases through all the information that historians, archaeologists and social scientists can find, the models are bound to get better.The Conversation

First published on The Conversation.

Image credit: kaptainkobold

The Treasures of Urine

Michelle Clement’s post on What can urine tell us? has arrived at an opportune time. I am reading John Emsley’s The Shocking History of Phosphorus and much of the first chapter is about the discovery of phosphorus from urine.

Alchemists of the day were desperately and highly secretively searching for the philosopher’s stone. Henning Brandt, the discoverer of phosphorus, thought because urine is golden there must be something in it which make is to golden. Possibly gold?

In his attempts to isolate gold out of urine, Brandt evaporate urine to a paste and heated the residues hard to find shining vapours rising from it. When condensed he found that the shining liquid burst into flames if brought in contact with air. So he started collecting the vapours under water instead. The waxy, white solid that formed at the bottom was phosphorus.

So why phosphorus from urine? We tend to eat a lot more phosphorus than is needed by our body. So most of it is excreted.

A typical sample of urine from an adult male contains (per litre) – 52 g creatine, 21 g urea, 6.5 g chloride, 4 g sodium, 2.2 g potassium, 2.3 g amino acids, 1.4 g phosphorus, 0.7 g ammonia and  0.3 g magnesium.

Although Brandt had discovered this light-giving element in 1669, he did not divulge the method of obtaining phosphorus until 1678, by which Johann Kunckel, professor at the University of Wittenberg, had succeeded to isolate phosphorus and was touring the  European royal courts showing off the element and claiming to be its discoverer.

For many years it was thought that Kunckel discovered phosphorus, until papers from Leibniz (yes, the same calculus guy!) revealed that he had conversed with Brandt’s wife about the discovery of phosphorus and which finally gave credit to the its true discoverer.

It seems that for at least a hundred after its discovery, urine remained the only source to obtain elemental phosphorus. Even today 3 million tonnes (worth ~$1 billion) of phosphorus is obtained from human excreta. Such are the treasures of urine.