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.

Curious Bends – math puzzle winner, worm sperms, banning nuclear weapons and more

1. Asking for a ban on nuclear weapons is futile, but this first step might help

There are many who want nuclear weapons banned, but they tend to be the countries who don’t have them. The countries that have nuclear weapons are disproportionately stronger, both economically and militarily, than the rest. This power imbalance creates a situation where calls for a nuclear weapons ban falls on deaf ears. One way out is to sign a convention barring first-use. (5 min read)

2. American Indian mathematician wins prize for solving 50-year-old math puzzle

Nikhil Srivastava, now at Microsoft Research India, has been named a joint winner of the prestigious George Polya Prize for finding the proof of what is known as the Kadison-Singer conjecture, first proposed by Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer in 1959. It pertains to the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, and asks if unique information can be extrapolated from a scenario in which not all features can be observed or measured. Srivastava and two others found an answer about a year ago. (2 min read)

3. Worm sperm may have helped uncover the mechanism underlying the formation of new species

“Different species are usually unsuccessful at interbreeding; if they do, the hybrid offspring is usually sterile. In this way, species are kept separate and the diversity of life is maintained. In a study published in PLOS Biology this week, scientists observed that when female worms belonging to the Caenorhabditis genus mate outside their species, they end up with reduced lifespans and fewer offspring than usual. While exploring the possible reasons, they may have uncovered a mechanism underlying the formation of new species.” (2 min read)

+ The author of this piece, Nandita Jayaraj, is a journalist with The Hindu.

4. ‘Money is not a problem in Indian science,’ researchers say. This proves them wrong.

Not long ago, senior researchers were complaining that the real problem in Indian science is not money but a lack of leadership. But now, nearly 3,000 junior researchers at India’s premier research institutes are protesting because of lack of funding and delays in payments. There is a disconnect between how science is done at these two levels and it exposes new cracks in the system. (3 min read)

​5. Informal healthcare providers (IPs) outnumber doctors in rural India, but that’s not bad

“IPs are on the margins of formalised medicine, but over the years they have established important niches, particularly in rural areas. They work within well-developed institutional arrangements, which have evolved in different directions in different contexts. This study dispels the myth that IPs are solo ‘quacks’ with only limited links to their community and to local institutions. It also underlines the likelihood that IPs will continue to play a role for quite a long time irrespective of increasing incomes and infrastructural development.” (24 min read)

Chart of the week

An analysis of all rape cases in Delhi registered in 2013 paints a more complex picture of the problem, according to The Hindu. For instance, an interesting fact is that nearly half of some 600 cases filed involved girls’ parents accusing the boy of rape because the young couple eloped. Another is that the conviction rate now is about the same (23%) as the national average was in 2010 (26%).