November 21, 2013 7:00 pm JST

India's scientific prowess rooted in ancient and modern

TEJRAJ M. AMINABHAVI

The development of science in India is as old as Indian civilization itself. From the ancient Indus Valley Civilization to the present day, scientific and technological progress in India has thrived. The country draws not only on its own history of scientific achievement, but also on the contributions and cooperation of the world scientific community.

     The first forays of Indian science were into bettering human comforts, such as irrigation, water storage, reservoirs and canals, various engineering concepts, agricultural developments for food and shelter, construction methods and other solutions to practical problems. The study of astronomy came from astrological calculations for social and religious purposes -- seasons and celestial events were predicted with accuracy.

     Mathematics has flourished in India. In the late fifth century, the great Indian mathematician Aryabhata began figuring out multiplication rules, negative numbers, decimal number systems and the trigonometric sine and cosine functions. He also worked on elliptical orbital models for Mercury and Venus. In the 12th century, Bhaskara developed theorems related to calculus.

     The Indian way of practicing medicine, even though based mostly on beliefs, has on the whole proven effective.

Proud achievements

During the colonial period, India's science was recognized by European countries. Arguably the greatest of all Indian mathematicians, Ramanujan (1887-1920), while at Cambridge University in Britain, made important contributions to number theory, elliptic functions, continued fractions and infinite series. His theorems, both published and unpublished, still challenge the minds of today's best mathematicians.

     Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) pioneered research on microwaves and the effects of electromagnetic radiation on plants. Satyendranath Bose (1894-1937) is famous for the Bose-Einstein statistics, now an integral part of modern physics. He contributed greatly to theoretical work on general relativity and on experimental work in many areas of physics. The subatomic particles known as bosons, including the Higgs boson, are named after him.

      C.V. Raman (1861-1970), known for his discovery of the Raman Effect that relates to the scattering of light, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, the first Asian to receive a Nobel for science. His discovery is a valuable tool in chemistry, physics and medicine. S. Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), an Indian-born American scientist, is known for his work on stars and how massive they have to be to become white dwarfs -- which can be no more than 1.45 times the mass of our sun. He won the Nobel Prize for his work on this Chandrasekhar Limit. Another Indian born scientist, Har Gobind Khorana (1922-2011), won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for helping figure out how nucleotides and nucleic acids work in the genetic code. He also was the first to synthesize oligonucleotides, which are used in genetic engineering.

     P.C. Ray's (1861-1944) discovery of mercurous nitrite and its derivatives brought him worldwide recognition. Meghnad Saha (1893-1956) developed a theory on the high-temperature ionization of elements and its application to stellar atmospheres, which is now fundamental to modern astrophysics.

     Homi Bhabha (1909-1966) figured out one of the great mysteries of the fast moving, extremely small particles known as cosmic rays. When these particles enter the Earth's atmosphere, they collide with atoms in the air to create a shower of electrons. Bhabha discovered subatomic particles called mesons in these showers, which helped confirm parts of Einstein's theory of relativity.

     Vikram Sarabhai (1919-1971) pioneered India's space development by expanding the Indian Space Research Organization, and is credited with bringing about the launch of India's first satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975. Sarabhai used India's space science to help communications, meteorology, remote sensing and education. One fruit of his efforts, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, brought education to 5 million people in 2,400 Indian villages in 1975 and 1976.

Together with the world

India leads the world in chemical fertilizers and high-yield food products. India's space program includes satellite launches, the development of astronauts and even a recently launched probe to Mars. India has a sustained nuclear program. Indian chemical, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries have benefited greatly from developments in biotechnology.

     India's economic reforms in 1991 opened up a new era of globalization and international economic integration, which in turn have led to modern scientific approaches. India's present scientific and technological landscape is also immense in terms of its knowledge and capabilities in medicine, pharmacology, engineering, agriculture, health and hygiene.

     In recent years, India has significantly increased and sustained novel innovations in science and technology with the help of its widespread, homegrown base. It has also used knowledge from Europe, Japan, China and other countries. It is developing old ideas for modern scientific and technological growth, and integrating these with indigenous concepts. This seems to be the next great step in self-knowledge and understanding.

     In this context, India has progressed scientifically with the help of several bilateral cooperation agreements with many countries for the purpose of science and technology development. All of this benefits the growth of modern Indian science.

Tejraj M. Aminabhavi is All India Council for Technical Education Emeritus Fellow and a recipient of Nikkei Asia Prizes in 2013.

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