By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata, Dec 23: Ditching their neutral white laboratory coats, Indian scientists this year hit the streets in large numbers deploring budget cuts and the Centres backing of “unscientific ideas” and “pseudo-science” amid global attention over a peacock-celibacy controversy.
The negative attention was offset by the warmth and solidarity exhibited by Indian scientists as they opened up lab spaces to help stranded peers in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s immigration/travel ban while the launch of a South Asian Satellite and Nobel win for the discovery of gravitational waves brought the spotlight back on “real science” and on the Indian participation in mega science projects.
In a follow-up to the mammoth global “March for Science” in April, a section of Indian scientists, students and enthusiasts supplemented the international effort with pan-India rallies on August 9 to press for higher funds for basic research and to demand that the propagation of unscientific ideas and religious intolerance be stopped.
Participants in 15 cities, including New Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru, responded to appeals by eminent scientists and activists, including the late P.M. Bhargava, a noted molecular biologist and a known voice of dissent, who passed away earlier this year.
The scientists participating in the march demanded that the propagation of “unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance” be curbed.
The idea of a protest also gained traction following the outburst over a Rajasthan High Court judge’s claims about peacocks being “celibate”. Statements such as “the peahen gets pregnant” only by “swallowing the tears of the peacock” had triggered a huge outcry in social media as well as in public discussions.
Eminent Indian ornithologists had denounced the comments and expressed shock at the “non-science”-based remarks.
And, in what could be seen as an influence of politics in science, the judge had also suggested that the cow should replace the tiger as the national animal because “it’s holy”.
In the midst of all this, the government announced a panel to conduct what it said will be “scientifically validated research” on cow-derivatives — including its urine — and their benefits (Panchgavya).
Meanwhile, the Indian Institute of Science Alumni Association (IIScAA), Bengaluru, was forced to cancel a workshop on “Astrology as a Scientific Tool for Individual Progress” following a social media outcry and outrage from the faculty.
Another thorny issue that Indian science faced in the year was the menace of fake or predatory journals. The country is among the biggest contributors of fake or pseudo journals.
India’s leading inter-disciplinary science journal, Current Science, raised an alert on a predatory journal that was operating from an IP address located in Turkey, snaring unsuspecting researchers into submitting and promising to publish research articles.
But there was much to cheer about as the year came to an end.
As three American scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their contribution to detecting gravitational waves — ripples in the fabrics of space-time which were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago — the Indian gravitational wave research and astrophysics fraternity was thrust back into the limelight.
They saw it as a major encouragement to participate in mega science projects and be leaders in them.
Close on the heels of the Nobel announcement in October came a “Diwali dhamaka”. This was the detection of the first gravitational waves produced by the merger of two ancient remnants of stars known as neutron stars by scientists at the LIGO and Virgo detectors and the world over, including in India.
What intrigued people worldwide was the observation that the very high energy released in this process sustains exotic phenomena that may have produced a major fraction of the gold in the universe.
But the event that stood out as the show stopper in India’s science diplomacy policy was the successful launch of the South Asian Satellite. This is the first time a communication satellite built and launched by India will be put to the common use of the South Asian countries.
Indian science was also celebrated outside the sub-continent.
London’s Science Museum kicked-off its “Illuminating India: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation” exhibition in October, narrating through artefacts the remarkable history of Indian innovation and discovery that has been influencing and changing people’s lives for 5,000 years.