The political and economic news never fails to intrigue, enrage or baffle these days. And then there’s the human story — the story of a pre-sapiens race. This week, it’s the bizarre account of over 30 people across north India being duped by a couple of snake oil salesmen who have moved up the value chain. The father-son duo cut their teeth selling allegedly medicinal snakes in Dehradun, for Rs 17 lakh. And then they realised that there’s nothing like a bit of science to deliver the smoke and mirrors. Not the real thing. The mere trappings of science suffice to tantalise.
A couple of radiation suits and hazard stickers were sufficient to part a businessman from Rs 1.43 crore, which the duo took to fund the development of a “rice puller” to harvest electricity from thunderbolts. Sounds plausible enough, with storm warnings every day. And remember, Benjamin Franklin did the exact same thing, only he used a kite and a key that cost a few cents. Presumably, the price tag goes up dramatically if the harvesting is done by people in radiation suits. And market sentiment rises if the “rice puller” is to be sold to Nasa through DRDO.
Indian rationalists, despair. This is the land of the gullible, the once and future kingdom of Ramar Pillai. Remember the charlatan who cooked up hydrocarbons from herbal messes by the simple expedient of secreting some fuel in the stirrer? He had a bull run with the press, and even some scientists were prepared to look seriously at a man who was claiming to violate all the laws of thermodynamics. Fortunately, the “rice puller” has been stopped in its tracks before it could become a craze. But we won’t have to wait too long before the spirit of Ramar Pillai rises again.