Book cover of Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science
If you pick up this book, and you should, do resist the temptation, if any, to skip ahead to the part that deals with India’s space programme. Putting satellites in space is a splendid achievement, and should be celebrated, but skipping forward would hamper the book’s significant point: Science can be important without being non-glamorous, yet can make for engrossing reading. So, the birth of India’s space programme, the construction of its first few satellites, the coming together of its institutions, and its rapid growth to the present time, are all covered beautifully, yet Isro’s story is only a part of the book — two chapters out of 15. The other chapters are as important and interesting as the ones about our space programme, which is a telling fact about the subject as well as the writing.

We are told about key people and institutions that made science in India grow and flourish from the “era of foundation-building” to the present period of “international competition”. These are Indian achievements in astronomy, chemistry, and biology, though many discoveries or innovations have crossed the boundaries of their disciplines to spark advances in adjacent or even distant areas.

Fact-based as this book is, its core contains a great emotional charge springing from the undercurrent of nation-building, the pursuit of an idea of Indianness based on modernity, the quest for truth and social welfare through science.

Such foundational figures as you will remember from school textbooks, such as Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sara­bhai and Govind Swa­rup, for instance, do appear in these pages, and vividly so. Their stories are characterised by intellectual daring and innovation despite lack of funding and resou­rces. So, for instance, Swarup, though hamp­er­ed by lack of reso­u­rces, still could build, with audacity and skill, the world’s largest steerable radio telescope (in Ooty, India). The telescope is still the largest steerable one in the world, and is still in use. We are told how Swarup dreamed even bigger and led a team to build the Giant Metrewave Radio Tele­scope, an array of several telescopes working in concert. GMRT is invaluable for astronomy, has made a number of important discoveries, and would have been a matter of pride for any nation. It is not well known here, and it should be. Kudos to the writer for chronicling it thoroughly.

The book also reminds us that beyond being scientists, people such as Swarup (or Bhabha, or Sarabhai, but also others) were among the leading guardians of the modern scientific impulse in India, and advocates for the pursuit of science despite Indian poverty and intellectual rigidity. So, the book has a beautiful quote from Swarup: “If temples are relevant, searching for the mysteries of the universe is also relevant.”

Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science
Author: Hari Pulakkat
Publisher: Hachette
Price: Rs 699   Pages: 336

Apart from the big names, we are introduced to lesser-known but significant scientists in a satisfying way, with adequate depth of details. It is remarkable that most of these scientists came from small towns and villages, some even from families with no prior exposure to higher, modern education. Many of these scientists turned down more lucrative and promising opportunities abroad to strengthen scientific research in India — a recurring theme in these examples, which evokes the nation-building sentiments of those times. Even in subsequent decades, this spirit endured and evolved.

Many examples in the book relate to “pure” science, but others also speak of applications. For instance, the plucky work of Rama Rao in chemistry led to major strides for India’s pharma industry, which was then empowered to save millions of lives at low cost. Lesser-known scientists made breakthroughs that kick-started whole sectors of the economy and gave jobs to thousands or millions of people. For instance, the work of Ramasami (no second name provided) sparked a spurt in India’s leather industry and then also made the industry largely non-polluting. Another example: The last few paragraphs of the book introduce us to Debojyoti Chakraborty and his team, the inventors of “Feluda”, which is India’s home-grown test to detect Covid-19. The point is that the Bhabhas and Sarabhais should be celebrated, but so should the lesser-known scientists. Their stories make science relatable, aspirational. We are also told about current and upcoming research projects; this information makes the book even more compelling. We need these stories of innovation to circulate today so that a republic infected with fantasy-fuelled fanaticism can remind itself of what inclusive, non-competitive nation-building can look like.

Along the way, we are also told what ingredients make an educational institution attract and produce good scientists who are productive. We realise that cultural, procedural, financial and other non-scientific inputs go into making good science — the proverbial mud in which the blue lotus blooms.

This book is a focused curation, and is not meant to be an encyclopaedia of science in India. (Encyclopaedias, I suppose, are worthy enterprises for a large team with good funding.) That is not the function of this book. It is a narrative with multiple strands, meant for a general audience, and written as such. The writing is accessible, the depth of details satisfies without overwhelming, and the voice is conversational and welcoming. There is a lot of pleasant variation from general narrative to individual profiles, and from one setting to another. Passages of pure scientific exposition are woven skilfully into the narrative, which is extremely instructive. A good story is told calmly and expertly. The writer must be commended for the depth of his reportage, which includes, besides interviews with key figures, conversations with their colleagues, and even associates in industry. It feels the writer is chatting with us over steaming cups in the living room, which is exactly how you tell a science story that inspires.

Hari Pulakkat is a senior science journalist who has spent decades in major news outlets, and in 2020 won the Indira Gandhi Prize for Popularisation of Science. This is apparently his first book. Here, he has produced an engrossing narrative introducing us to landscapes and figures that are away from public gaze. This is a highly recommended book for the general audience.

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