Trustee's rebuttal

Minister's claim on Hawking

By G.S. Mudur and Amit Roy
  • Published 18.03.18
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Stephen Hawking

New Delhi/London: A founding trustee of the Stephen Hawking Foundation has said he is certain that the late scientist “did not support the claims” made by Union minister Harsh Vard¬han that “our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc2”.

Asked by The Telegraph about the comments of the Union science and technolo¬gy minister, Malcolm Perry, who is also a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge, said in an email response: “I am not aware of Stephen Hawking making any com¬ment on the Vedas.”

Perry added: “It is quite possible that he made a reference to the Vedas playfully when discussing creation myths — such as found in the Bible or the Vedas — when comparing them to the now conventional scientific picture of the big bang accompanied by a period of inflation, or perhaps when discussing the noboundary proposal for the creation of the universe.”

“I am certain that he did NOT support the claims made by your minister that ‘our Vedas might have a theory which is superior to Einstein’s theory of E=mc2’,” said Perry, who is on the governance panel of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, a notforprofit entity established on the initiative of Hawking in 2015.

Vardhan, who had on Friday asked journalists to get in touch with him if they could not find the source of his claim, was in Bangalore on Saturday and could not be contacted by this newspaper despite repeated attempts.

In the UK, the president of the Royal Society, Venkatraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan, wasn’t impressed when Vardhan’s assertion was put to him.

“I’ve commented many times before on these sorts of things, and India needs to deal with its own problems,” said Ramakrishnan, a Nobel laureate who researches at Cambridge where Hawking too had researched.

“In any case, the people who don’t like what I say simply dismiss me as a westernised outsider,” he added. “In this case, you ought to ask the three — not just one — Indian science academies what their response is.”

Ramakrishnan’s parting shot was: “A better Stephen Hawking quote would be, ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge’.”

The minister had made the comment at the inaugural session of the 105th Indian Science Congress in Imphal on Friday.

Two years ago, Ramakrishnan had attended the congress in Mysore, dismissed it as a “circus where very little science was discussed” and vowed never to attend another.

The previous year’s congress, held in Mumbai, had witnessed an attempt to saffronise science when one delegate had given a lecture suggesting a sage had invented planes in Vedic times.

“The idea that Indians had airplanes 2,000 years ago sounds almost essentially impossible to me,” Ramakrishnan had said. “I don’t believe it. The point is that if that technology was produced in a method so described that anybody could replicate it, then it becomes science.”

The Royal Society is the world’s oldest independent scientific academy, dedicated to the promotion of excellence in science, and it motto — “Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s word for it)” — reflects a “determination to withstand the domination of authority and verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”.

So far, few in Cambridge have unearthed any observation by Hawking, who died on Wednesday, that amounts to a scientific endorsement of the Vedas.

The Telegraph also consulted one of Hawking’s closest friends, cosmologist and astrophysicist and astronomer Royal Professor Martin Rees, who said he had written a long obituary notice on his late colleague. This pointedly has no mention of the Vedas.

“I would not know anything about this,” said Rees, who declined further comment.

The science writer, Simon Singh, who studied physics at Imperial College London and did his PhD in particle physics from Cambridge, expressed impatience with Vardhan.

He said: “It’s sad that a science minister tries to exploit the passing of a genius to falsely promote his own religious agenda. It’s sad that a science minister seems to have such a feeble grasp of science. And it’s sad that, instead of writing some words to celebrate Professor Hawking’s life, I have to waste time responding to nonsense comments from a nonsense science minister.”

Several senior scientists in India on Saturday expressed disappointment at what they view as Vardhan’s decision to pick up an unsubstantiated claim from a sevenyearold prank on Facebook and try to propagate it through his speech.

“It is tragic that ministers charged with overseeing the scientific progress of our country do not seem to have access to validated, verified sources they can quote when they want to make impactful statements,” said Shubha Tole, professor in the department of biological sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

“We have seen many examples of this; it speaks of a drastically impoverished communication between the government and the scientific community. Each side needs to recognise how such severely limited engagement with the other will be devastating for Indian science, and with it Indian technology and progress,” said Tole, a fellow of all three Indian science academies.

Several scientists view Vardhan’s claims as just another example of an attempt to link ancient Indian achievements with modern science.

“India has a lot to boast about its ancient heritage. We have a rich tradition in ancient science and technology — but such claims are imaginary things,” said Soumitro Banerjee, professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Calcutta.