Posts Tagged ‘Science’

Searching for a Nobel Laureate in South Asia

February 15, 2014

I was surprised to hear how our leading educationists propose to produce a new Nobel Laureate. It was at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of one and the encomiums were laced with the inevitable laments on how few there had been from South Asia. This brought us naturally to the ‘What-Is-To-Be-Done’ question.

And, here, in a nutshell, was the answer:

Surely, there must be, in our beautiful countries with their huge populations, somewhere, some uncut diamonds lying undiscovered obscured by grime. All we would have to do is search hard enough, with sufficient honesty and dedication, and we would locate a gem. Presto, we will have our next Nobel Laureate.

Call it the Needle-In-The-Haystack theory of locating genius.

On to the modalities: How exactly would we go about this find-and-polish routine in our beautiful countries with their huge populations wracked by poverty?

Here was the answer to that question:

We will cast a wide net reaching the furthest nooks and crannies of the countries to identify the best and the brightest high-school graduates who will then be provided free places in our elite institutions. We will do this year after year till lady luck smiles on us, blesses our generosity, and rewards our efforts.


I had two questions.

First, there are countries that contribute Nobel Laureates year after year. Do they employ this random hit-or-miss strategy? Or do they have in place cultures of knowledge in which one advance leads to another, in which groups are engaged in an ongoing collaborative quest for new discoveries.

This will immediately meet with the objection that one ought not to compare South Asia to such countries.

My second question anticipates this objection and asks if the few Nobel Laureates from South Asia were actually flash-in-the-pan discoveries?

As a matter of fact, I was led to this exploration in 2013 when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the Higgs boson. My curiosity about the ‘boson’ led me to Satyendra Bose whose work in the early 1920s provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein statistics – particles that obey the statistics carry his name.

That for me was not the most important finding. What surprised me was the scientific milieu in the early 20th century of which Bose was a part. Born in a village some distance from Calcutta, he attended local schools from where he graduated to Presidency College whose faculty was studded with scientists of international renown and whose students included more than one that made big names for themselves, in turn.

After completing the MSc in 1916, Bose joined the University of Calcutta starting work on relativity and translating original papers into English from German and French in collaboration with his colleague Meghnad Saha. In 1921, he joined the University of Dhaka and produced a paper based on his research. When it was turned down, he sent it to Einstein who translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the most prestigious journal in the field.

As a result of the recognition, Bose worked for two years in Europe before returning to Dhaka in 1926. Because he did not have a doctorate, he could not be appointed a professor but an exception was made on the recommendation of Einstein and he was made the head of the department. He moved back to Calcutta in 1945 when the partition of Bengal became imminent.

Bose was well-versed in Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit. He devoted time to promoting Bengali as a teaching language translating scientific papers into it. And he could also play the esraj, a musical instrument akin to the violin.

The point of this long digression is to dispel the impression that scientists of the highest quality in South Asia were somehow thrown up at random by chance. One can clearly see that there was an eco-system of knowledge generation at colleges and state universities where students familiar with many languages worked with mentors of repute, communicated with leading scientists in Europe, and produced work that made a contribution at the cutting edge of their fields.

It was impossible for me grasp the standards at which the University of Dhaka must have been operating right up to 1947. And surely, the Universities of Dhaka and Calcutta could not have been complete outliers. Similar environments must have been in existence, for example, at the Government College and Punjab University in Lahore, at the University of Allahabad, and at St. Johns College in Agra.

Where have these eco-systems of knowledge and learning disappeared? If one looks at public institutions of learning in South Asia today, would we conclude that we have moved forward or backward? What has been the extent of that movement? And, do we have students coming through our schools and colleges well-versed in four or five languages, able to translate original papers, and to communicate with confidence with the authorities in their fields?

Is it any wonder that we have no recourse now but to pray for miracles while searching for the needles in the haystacks and the diamonds in the rough?

It is a much easier alternative than trying to figure out and reverse the steep decline of the culture of knowledge in our public schools and colleges. There may well be a needle in the haystack but it is the eco-system of knowledge bustling with and retaining many near-Nobel Prize winners that will produce the string of laureates we are looking for.

Information of Satyendra Bose is taken from here. Also, see information on his class-mate and colleague Meghnad Saha here.

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Education: Humanities and Science

November 7, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion.

Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion. (more…)

Education: A Critique of Mark Slouka

October 28, 2009

Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school) comes across as a persuasive argument that the humanities have lost out to math and science in American schools and that this does not bode well for the future of democracy.

The fact that the essay is persuasive should be no surprise – Slouka is a professor of English and he employs the art of rhetoric at its finest. The language is so elegant that one can read the essay just for that pleasure alone. But one should not allow the intoxication of elegant prose to overwhelm reason – as public policy, Slouka’s essay suffers from at least two major flaws.

Slouka’s main point has validity – the framework in which we reckon the value of things, the thrust of our education, our very language, has become excessively economistic. (more…)

Has Islam a Place in a Modern World?

November 11, 2008

By Bettina Robotka 

The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing “War against (Islamic) terror” and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic scholars and mullahs who have no worldly knowledge, who are neither elected nor responsible to the public, only to God when the Day comes and who have the monopoly in understanding and interpreting Islam.

On the other side of the divide, by the West we are told that modernity means the application of reason and rationality, men in their individual capacity are the lords of the world and the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong and which way to go. Religion has no place in that set-up, because religion has proven to be irrational by refusing to accept the scientific facts researched by scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and by refusing to adjust the religious dogma to fit the realities of the material world. God is thought to be irrational; knowing and believing seem to exclude each other. Secularism, the division between the church and the state, between blind dogma and the human quest to know, to discover the material world and to rule this world through that knowledge, has been declared “progress”.

How should we deal with this? Do we have to choose between religion and modernity, between backwardness and progress?  My answer to it is in the negative. Western modernity has produced unbelievable scientific and technological advancement. But alongside with that, it has produced two world wars and umpteen local wars killing an uncounted number of people; it has produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has created affluence for few, hunger and poverty for many; it is destroying the environment in its race for more material goods, the hold over natural resources and more consumption for a minority. It is threatening the very survival of human life and has failed so far to solve the basic problem of humanity – to provide a humane society for all which is in balance with nature and the universe.

The reason for this I see is the abolishing of religion and the belief in God. It is religion which provides man with morality; it teaches us what is right and what is wrong, it gives us direction and guidance. By abandoning religion and concentrating on material advancement only the moral basis of human society has been lost. But “progress” understood as material and technological progress only is dangerous. It amounts to defining progress as being able to kill more people in a shorter time because of more sophisticated technology. Knowledge acquired without the moral values to handle it has proven to be destructive.

One of the reasons (among others) why communism didn’t work was that the moral attitude one needs to work for the good of all society rather than for money or material gain was lost by banning religion and it could not find another adequate ethical basis. Communism as a materialist idea only did not work. Neither does the Western model of modernity designed as a materialist outlook. So far no substitute for giving a moral basis to human society apart from the belief in God has been found and practiced convincingly. Even in secular Europe whatsoever ethical values are there originated from Christianity even though the majority of the Europeans are not members of a church and do not believe in God. This truth has been realized in the wake of the discussion about European values which had to be part of the draft for a European constitution.  Since then we are witnessing a resurgence of religion over there.

If we look into the history of humankind all societies have developed a religion, a belief in a Power that is greater than us and to whom we are responsible. Religion is intrinsic to man, that is what Karen Armstrong said in one of her interviews. Islam is the last of the revealed religions and it is a valid guide towards the Truth which is a balanced and happy life for human society. In Islam there is no discrepancy between knowing and believing, between the material and the spiritual sides of the world. Belief (Islam) and knowledge (the world) – both come from the same Source, that’s why both can not contradict or destroy each other. Islam is rational and it wants us to use our reason when studying the stars, the sun and the moon, the change of the seasons and the histories of former civilizations. It wants us to go even to China for more knowledge. God wants us to know (Him) and one of the ways for that is by studying His creation. The Christian West has so far missed this point which must be valid for Christianity also because it guides towards the same Truth.

Therefore, the question is not if Islam or religion has a role to play in a modern society but how to read and understand Islam in the light of the realities around us. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims.

Bettina Robotka is presently teaching in Karachi.

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