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Indian Science Congress: Real science ignored, say scientists

Other scientists who attended the event too said the controversy sidelined good work presented at the event.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala , Mihika Basu | Mumbai |
January 8, 2015 1:46:50 am
Manjul Bhargava at the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar) Manjul Bhargava at the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

As the 102nd Indian Science Congress finds itself at the centre of claims and counterclaims over ancient India’s scientific prowess, scientists who presented papers at the event said it was unfortunate that controversy overshadowed key scientific work.

Dr Manjul Bhargava, the first mathematician of Indian origin to win the Fields Medal and who addressed a session at the event, told The Indian Express that presentations with “questionable scientific merit” should not be used to discredit the event. “(Those) are not the ones that should attract the attention of scientists, students or media,” said Bhargava in an email interview on Tuesday, adding that there were many sessions of “extremely high scientific quality” and that the Congress itself “has been truly spectacular as a whole”.

“My favourites were the sessions on ISRO and the Mars Mission… the evening public lectures by Nobel Laureates, and the sessions on mathematics and computation. Many of these sessions… included scientifically substantiated breakthroughs in ancient Sanskrit works that are relevant today. I wish these would get more media attention,” he said.

On Sunday, during a session on ancient Indian sciences, Captain Anand Bodas, a retired flying instructor, presented a paper claiming that the science of building and flying aeroplanes was recorded by Maharishi Bharadwaj in the Brihad Vimana Shastra, several millennia before the Wright Brothers built their aeroplane.

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Other scientists who attended the event too said the controversy sidelined good work presented at the event. Mayank Vahia, national coordinator of the Astronomy Olympiad, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, said it is a “pity that such a minor issue overshadowed the Congress which had excellent sessions. There were so many Nobel Laureates who came and explained science to students”.

Dr Prasad Subramanian, scientist and associate professor at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, said that “as a scientist, it feels sad that other equally important sessions have been sidelined because of one session”.

They also said that papers such as the one Bodas presented should have been better reviewed. Dr Animesh Dhar, researcher at the University of Kansas’ Cancer Center, said, “Whenever there are such presentations, scientific validation is necessary. In this case, absence of validation sparked all the controversy.”

But Bhargava said that while he would prefer that papers presented at the Science Congress be well researched and scientifically substantiated before they are presented, it is not always possible to peer review every presentation ahead of the Congress.

“Invitations are sent to people to speak in sessions about proposed topics. Scientists and the public judge the quality of the presentations once they are given. Those presentations that have questionable scientific merit will be judged by fellow scientists for what they are, as will those presentations that contain true scientific breakthroughs. This is the peer review process, and is how it should be,” he said.

Organisers defend session

Organisers said the idea to conduct a session on ancient sciences emerged following a meeting of various university vice-chancellors with the Governor of Maharashtra. It was the vice-chancellor of Kavikulaguru Kalidas Sanskrit University in Nagpur, Uma Vaidya, who proposed the idea for such a session, said S B Nimse, chairman of the 102nd Indian Science Congress. Nimse said the sessions had been decided by a committee he headed and which had seven members, including TIFR Director Mustansir Barma, IIT Bombay Director Devang Khakhar, scientist Anil Kakodkar, Professor Kothari and two local secretaries. He too agreed that the controversy had “impacted other sessions”.

Associate prof and head of Sanskrit department at Mumbai University, Gauri Mahulikar, who gave an overview on ancient Indian sciences through Sanskrit at the Science Congress, said that between August to December this year, there were several meetings between Vaidya and Sanskrit department of Mumbai University. “In one of the meetings, which included Vaidya, myself and teachers from Mumbai University’s Sanskrit department, it was decided to have such a topic at the Indian Science Congress. Thereafter, we called for papers and received five abstracts or presentations, which were jointly reviewed by Vaidya, myself and our teachers,” said Mahulikar.

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