Science searches for myth filters
When a vice-chancellor told the Indian Science Congress last week that the Kauravas were test-tube babies, the usual expressions of shock were somewhat muted by a sense of déjà vu as well as a shrug-inducing feeling that “my grandmother had told me so long ago”.
Scientists are now alarmed by this trend — immensely enjoyable accounts from mythology being passed off as verified accomplishments by wrapping them in scientific terms that can capture the imagination, and then showcasing them at prestigious events.
Those who make such sweeping claims, often to whip up pride about a fabled past, appear oblivious to another fallout: these baseless claims could undermine the genuine scientific advances made in ancient India.
“There is so much that ancient India had achieved — in medicine, metallurgy, mathematics. We should respect the true achievements, not make up false claims,” said Soumitro Banerjee, professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Calcutta.
Banerjee, the general secretary of a nationwide network of scientists called the Breakthrough Science Society, underscored that scientists like him were not ridiculing claims associated with ancient India. “Science is always open to new information, but claims should be backed by evidence,” he said.
The Indian Science Congress is also counting the cost of such claims, which have become a fixture at the event over the past few years.
Officials at the Indian Science Congress pledged on Sunday to curb the spouting of baseless claims from their platform.
They said the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) would introduce tighter screening to filter out unsubstantiated assertions at India’s largest annual scientific conference, but conceded that they could do little when responsible invitees sprang surprises.
Andhra University vice-chancellor G. Nageswara Rao averred at the Science Congress in Jalandhar on Friday that the Kauravas of the Mahabharat were test-tube babies.
“Can a woman give birth to 100 children in one lifetime? Thousands of years ago, we had this technology. We had 100 Kauravas from one mother… because of test-tube babies,” he had said.
Rao also asserted that while Charles Darwin had merely traced the evolution of species from marine life to humans, the theory of Dashavatar (the 10 incarnations of Vishnu) went “beyond” by recording evolution among humans, for instance, from Ram to the “politically nuanced” Krishna.
He cited the Hindu epics to claim that ancient Indians possessed guided-missile technology and that Ravan had 24 types of aircraft.
Another delegate claimed that the ideas of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were flawed and that his own theory would lead to the renaming of gravitational waves as “Narendra Modi waves”.
Rao, a professor of inorganic chemistry, did not respond to phone calls from The Telegraph on Sunday.
His colleague Keloth Basavaiah, professor and head of inorganic chemistry, said Rao was probably trying to inspire the student delegates by invoking “correlations” between ancient and modern science.
Scientists cited how delegates and invitees had used at least three Science Congress sessions over the past five years to make ludicrous claims. The event’s organisers too condemned the trend.
“We are shocked; the speakers should not have said what they did,” Manoj Kumar Chakrabarti, general president of the ISCA executive panel, told this newspaper. “We have scientific panels that examine abstracts of presentations to the Congress and reject unacceptable ones. We will tighten this screening process.”
Panel members, however, said the ISCA had little control over remarks made by special invitees or guests.
“One of the speakers was a vice-chancellor: this tells us what kind of people can get appointed as vice-chancellors,” said Premendu Mathur, professor and head of molecular biology at Pondicherry University and general secretary of the ISCA executive panel.
“We try our best. We check the credentials of the invitees. But what can we do when people in responsible positions make unsubstantiated claims?”
The Breakthrough Science Society stressed that science represented a “self-correcting quest” based on “critical observations, experimental evidence, universal verification and constant advancement”.
“It is wrong to mix mythology and science. Puranic verses and epics are poetic, enjoyable, rich in imagination and contain moral elements, but (are) not scientifically constructed or validated theories,” it said.
“To claim that such innovations existed in ancient India, citing these sources, is not only false but an affront to (the) real achievements in science in ancient and medieval India.”
In 2015, the Science Congress, held in Mumbai, had featured talks on “ancient Indian aircraft” that cited Sanskrit texts.
A speaker at the 2016 edition of the event in Mysore claimed that Lord Shiva was the first environmentalist and that tiger skin reversed the ageing process. Last year, in Imphal, Union science minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that physicist Stephen Hawking had said the Vedas had a theory superior to Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“It is unfortunate -– the Science Congress is being systematically misused to propagate personal beliefs,” Banerjee, the IISER professor, said.
Scientists said there was no evidence to support claims that test-tube babies, aircraft or guided missiles existed in ancient times.
“No technological accomplishment can be made without (the) relevant scientific theoretical foundation,” the Breakthrough Science Society said.
“For instance, the construction of guided missiles requires electricity, metallurgy, the laws of projectile motion and motion sensors… and there is no evidence for the existence of these underlying pillars of scientific knowledge in ancient India.”
Since the Narendra Modi government took over in 2014, sections of scientists have been increasingly worried about government functionaries making claims to portray an exaggerated view of ancient Indian science.
Prime Minister Modi, speaking to a gathering of doctors in a Mumbai hospital in October 2014, had linked Ganesha to plastic surgery in ancient India, a Rajasthan high court judge had in March 2017 claimed peacocks reproduce without sex, and a junior education minister at the Centre in January 2018 questioned the theory of evolution.