Don’t make science bureaucratic, let the play stay

Science has never celebrated qua science and thus loses its childlike sense of wonder. It becomes an instrument of the nation-state as it loses plurality and autonomy.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

I remember years ago when I met Professor Satish Dhawan at the Indian Institute of Science. He had invited me and psychologist Ashish Nandy to debate on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and science with his colleagues. Satish had a real sense of life and science. It did not make him less purposive. It was clear that space research was a dream, and he was a dreamer. Space research had a sense of discovery, adventure and storytelling, and yet retained the scientific method’s creativity and rigour. Satish was a fascinating persona, a man with an aesthetic sensibility who lived an ascetic life. I later discovered that he washed his own clothes. He brought that same asceticism to space research. The professor knew how to celebrate science as a statement of creativity and freedom, and he wanted Thumba to be an expression of that.

Today when we read reports of Chandrayaan, they sound like government diktats. Journalism virtually mimics the government handouts: the mission is reduced to a technical answer to a technical question. The nation-state and big science are all-powerful, impoverishing the imagination of science as a narrative.

What one misses, in particular, is a sense of dream and passion, a sense of cognition as anima. I remember that as a child, we would all be marshalled to meet the astrophysicist, Chandrasekhar, to ask him questions. One of my cousins, a nine-year-old, boldly said: “I believe the earth moves around the sun in cycles.” Chandra, shy and reticent at most times, froze. The astrophysicist replied, “Cycles? Did you say cycles? Don’t you know what an ellipse is for?” For Chandra, an ellipse was a life and death-question. As children, we saw research and dreaming as two ritual acts woven together. Watching Chandrayaan, one senses the bureaucratisation of science.

The intervening variable has become the nation-state. With its preoccupation with security, borders and development, the nation-state becomes an arid entity, confusing the creativity of science with management and reducing knowledge to instrumentalism of policy. Science has never celebrated qua science and thus loses its childlike sense of wonder.

Science becomes an instrument of the nation-state as it loses plurality and autonomy. The little ideas of science—flowing as an effervescence of PhDs—disappear. Organisations like the Raman Institute lose their epic grandeur and sense of myth to become pitiable bureaucracies. Policy narrows and impoverishes science. Dhawan and his generation had an intuitive understanding of this danger. I wonder if today’s policymakers have such an understanding.

I do not want to be a wet blanket, but as one reads the media narratives on Chandrayaan, one senses a set of clerical acts. A nation-state sounds like a tutorial college announcing its results. The emphasis is on productivity, targets, and the discipline of a timetable. A sense of play and plurality as well as the anecdotes of invention are lost, and one hardly hears good storytelling associated with Chandrayaan. It’s more like the unfolding of an assembly line.

The pedologic implications of this are drastic. Chandrayaan-3, as a narrative, sounds like a continuation of the New Education Policy report. Both narratives sound like a dismal science. A moon landing loses its sense of mystique and mystery in its reference to security, and few attempts are made to connect to the debates on the Anthropocene and Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis as a different way of looking at the earth. A 19th-century perspective haunts a futuristic science.

The playfulness of science is drained out as the nation-state and productivity take over. There is a loss of soul if not competence. One misses what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called Homo Ludens, meaning ‘Man the player’.

I wonder how a Dhawan or a Sarabhai would have brought laughter back to the story; newspapers exude gravitas, speaking of the growing importance of the moon in scientific and political milieus. It’s an extension of the idea of security rather than seeking the roots of invention. It’s a search for payloads.

One acknowledges the achievement that is Chandrayaan but has to look at it from the angle of history. Maybe one feels like a romantic—I was asking myself how a Bose, Raman, or Gandhi would read such an achievement. In one sense it adds much to the nation-state but does little for India as a civilisation.

It evokes a sense of science as competition but not so much as a ritual of reciprocity. Would Tagore’s idea of Shantiniketan have taken Chandrayaan beyond nation-state parochialism? Would Gandhi have said that Chandrayaan has a little of Swadeshi and nothing of Swaraj? Could one dream of outer space as a new common of knowledge? Dreaming of outer space as a part of the Earth Charter creates a new normative framework for such projects and adds to the legitimacy of the dream.

The Pugwash Movement of Science created a normative framework for atomic energy. It was made more morally pungent by the exemplary scientists, Andrei Sakharov and Linus Pauling. As a teacher of mine once said, space research today combines two kinds of aggression—a war with nature and a war with nations.

It’s time-space has a Peace Constitution, a formal statement against war. Peace becomes more attractive when outer space is treated as part of the earth, both belonging to a commons of discovery. Space cannot just be a technical journey; it has to be a normative framework, a pilgrim’s progress. Science needs to add to the moral perspective.

This requires a new kind of science education, a new pedagogy where science helps create new ethics. One needs a new sharing of knowledge and a new sharing of the fruits of discovery. To commoditise space is to make ecology obscene and to desacralise the earth. Space needs new metaphors rather than the hackneyed repetition of the robot machine.

A new ethics must be born simultaneously with a new vision of science, and this is India’s task as a civilisation. I am sure Satish Dhawan would agree. Outer space must add to the new moral movement of science.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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