Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dispersed Radiance by Abha Sur - A book review

Western scientists , newspapers in the late 19th-20th century created through propaganda an European  knowledge-is-power brand that ascribed little credit to the works of Indian scientists. JC Bose , who didn’t seek a patent for discovery of wireless telegraphy due to his strong anti-commercialization stance, was overtaken by the Italian scientist Marconi who claimed title to its discovery although it was dated by more than an year of Bose’s. Even recent literature on history of Indian science , written by western authors, do not mention Raman, Chandrasekhar, Saha or Bose although standard physics textbooks will still have a chapter on Raman effect or white dwarfs and Saha’s ionisation equations.
Abha Sur, the author of Dispersed Radiance (published from Navayana)   looks at the impact of caste, class , gender on the history of modern Indian physics through the lives and works of two of India’s greatest scientists –CV Raman & Meghnad Saha. An interesting selection since Raman is a Brahmin, conservative , taciturn while Saha is a low-caste, active in politics & vocal.    
British phrenologists (scientists in 1830s who measured the dimensions of skull & body parts after making a cast of the corpse’s bust and ascribed the shape & size to specific traits of the person) described Rammohan Roy, a social reformer who died in Bristol in 1833, as someone who was effeminate, lacking firmness in views because his brain was of a larger size. Phrenology & Craniology were disciplines encouraged in the west in the early 19th century to establish biological basis for the inequities in social order. French anatomist , Etienne Serres (1781-1868), an early proponent of theory of recapitulation, had assigned adult blacks to the development stage of white children & adult Mongolians to that of white teenagers based on the relative distance between naval & penis in different races.

In India Max Muller had propounded the two race theory which provided the biological basis for caste differentiation although his argument  was more based on cultural development rather than biological reasons. Pramathanath Bose, who incidentally had discovered iron ore mines in Rajhara near Jamshedpur, Indianised the two-wave theory of Aryans by postulating , rather incredulously, that the intellectual development of India was attained with the advent of  Gautam Buddha & that early Aryans were in lower stage of development & that the Arab civilization was largely in the first stage of development.
The author explains the opening argument of the impact of caste in science by stating that generally upper class Indians chose science as a career while in case of lower caste student; his caste was mentioned only to highlight the hardships suffered in his early days instead of it becoming an epistemological identity. The author goes on to explain the effect of science in society through an intellectual exploration of “critical realism” to understand science within the transitory contexts of social & cultural factors. An example is given of Russian physicist, Frenkel (1894-1952) , citing the political & philosophical influences on him for his pioneering “collectivistic” approach to the study of quantum theory of matter.

The author starts off the chapter on Meghnad Saha  by mentioning that the name “Meghnad” was admittedly changed by the scientist (as corroborated by his son Ajit Saha)  from “Meghnath,” a name given by his parents. Perhaps ascribing to the name of Ravana’s son who stood up valiantly against Rama & Lakshmana in the Indian epic Ramayana. More importantly his surname Saha belonged to a lower caste.
Saha believed that the development & awareness of science can create a casteless society and he was most vocal in his social writings which spoke of discrimination against “depressed classes” without resorting to victim mentality and he strongly espoused equal opportunity to all. Saha was a post graduate in mathematics with extensive knowledge of history and literature (an interest that was spurred after he had joined the militant ‘Anushilan Samity’ in Kolkata just after the partition of Bengal in 1905) as well as in physics, thermodynamics and astro-physics (imbibed when he had joined Calcutta university as a teacher in physics). Saha ‘s extensive research on ionization theory of gases led him to modify Johann Eggert’s theory in proposing a correspondence between ionization potential of gases, under the stimuli of light, with the width & intensity of spectral lines. Saha also showed that the behavior of the an individual gas atom to the stimuli would depend more on its specific atomic structure rather than on the selective absorption by the constant stimuli. The author has consciously juxtaposed Saha’s science with his writings on society & caste to conclude, rather brilliantly, that selective appeasement by the government of individual minority group was as much as an anathema to Saha as was the intensity of his belief in individual aptitudes being granted recognition under conditions of equal opportunity. Although none of Saha’s writings echo this direct correspondence , even as an indirect metaphor; the author takes a leap of faith to demonstrate the impact that mediation of scientists with society & politics has on their production of knowledge.

It is widely known that at the time India became an independent nation, research in Nuclear Physics had already started in the University of Calcutta at a center set up by Saha, who was also instrumental in setting up the Indian Academy of Science & Indian Association for Cultivation of Science. However Homi Bhaba, who was a trained engineer as well as a nuclear physicist & 18 years junior to Saha, was made the head of Atomic Energy Commission under whose umbrella Saha’s center for research on nuclear physics was also accommodated. Nehru, then the Prime Minister of India regarded Saha as a critique of the government and one who lacked objectivity. Saha’s criticism of the government’s policy on science actually stemmed from his concepts of scientism & social justice. That is ;science is the be-all-and-end-all for the progress of humanity & removal of poverty & discrimination as well as for distributing prosperity equally among the populace. The author argues that Saha’s mistaken belief that technology is value-neutral was the main reason behind Saha’s dogmatic scientism. Increasingly shunned by Nehru  in the new Indian government, Saha became an elected Member of Parliament in the lower house on an independent ticket and used the forum of parliament to speak on science & industrial policies. Saha had also started a journal called “Science &  Culture” in 1936 to popularise the benefits of science as well as to combat “medieval minds.” The journal was effectively used  to discuss and debate on science policies. Interestingly a journal called “Current Science” , started by Raman in Bangalore, was already in circulation since 1922 on the same theme. The latter regarded Saha’s journalistic endeavor as competitive.   Whether in his journal, “Science & Culture,” or in the parliament or in his letters to prime minister Nehru; Saha was a vocal critic of the Atomic Energy Commission specially on its “secretive entity” as well as on its proclivity to hire foreign experts , disregarding the Indian ones, to give advice on investing in and creating Indian manpower, instruments & equipment to support atomic research.
The author, Abha Sur, in the chapter on Bonn-Raman controversy traces the life and works of CV Raman, the first Indian scientist to be awarded the Nobel prize in physics in the year 1930. CV Raman was an exceptional student whose knowledge and mastery of physics can be understood from the fact that he published his first scientific paper at the age of 19 after obtaining his Master degree in physics. Raman had enormous knowledge in Carnatic music, History, Logic, Economics & Finance. The first decade of Raman’s career was spent as a Financial civil servant in the post of Assistant Accountant General in Calcutta. While he was holding this post, he had published 27 papers while carrying out his experimental research work in physics in the laboratory of Indian Association of Cultivation of Science. Later he joined Calcutta University as professor accepting the Palit chair offered by CU; from where he was awarded the knighthood in 1929 and a year later , the Nobel prize in physics for describing the spectroscopy from  scattering of light rays irradiated on  a sample (also called Raman effect) having unique characteristics related to the energy structure of the molecules of the sample. Raman was the first Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore but his autocratic nature & his partiality towards physics department at the expense of other departments led to his dismissal as Director although he continued at IISc as a professor till he resigned and set up the Raman Institute of Research in the same city.

The author uses an academic controversy that raged for more than a decade between Raman & Max Bonn, a German scientist on the vibrational spectrum of crystal lattice. The detailed description of this technical controversy not only brings out the differing perceptions of the two scientists on the 2nd order Raman spectrum while determining the structure of crystal lattice but also brings out Raman’s exclusive reliance on the theoretical analysis with experimental data adapted to fit the theoretical framework although his career till then was consumed more by his experimental work. The author also successfully brings out through this controversy; Raman’s Brahmin background in adopting an arrogant position of academic superiority over his colleagues as well as his  authoritarian style in driving the organization of his laboratory.
Large parts of this controversy consist of heavy technical analysis and could be a repelling force for the lay reader (though he’ll be fine if he skips that) but is an important element in understanding the social context that Raman was placed in the colonial India ; where conformity to European standards of scientists earned him the highest scientific distinctions while at the same time the quest for national self-identity made him intensely confrontational to the same group.     

Tracing the lives and works of three women scientists under CV Raman in IISc in the 1930s; namely Lalita Chandrasekhar, Sunanda Bai & Anna Mani; Abha Sur dwells deeply into a discourse where gender discrimination (largely invisible to these women of privileged social backgrounds) was nevertheless present in the social lives they lived whether in their laboratories or in their general lives. For example, both Anna Mani & Sunanda Bai had educated women in their families and found little or no opposition from their families while pursuing their careers in physics (in Presidency College Madras and Banaras Hindu University respectively) but they had to face barbs and ridicules from their male colleagues in their laboratories in case of a slight error in handling sophisticated instruments. Further  both of them were denied their Ph.Ds from Madras university on technical grounds (they did not have a Master degree) although they had half a decade of research & publishing experience on crystallography under  Nobel Laureate CV Raman’s tutelage in IISc, Bangalore. 
The author has made repeated references to the gender-blindness of these three women; their refusal to accord women’s reservation more status than meritocracy almost to the point that they overlooked the caste & gender discrimination  prevalent among the less privileged women in the society and their inability to posit themselves as role models for future generations. Emphasis has been placed on Lalita Chandrasekhar’s conscious sacrifice of her professional career in order to support the research career in America of her Nobel Laureate husband S.Chandrasekhar; so as to point out that science-education for women in the early 20th century was more of a spiritual requirement (unlike that of  men who fulfilled material requirement demanded of them) of a society that was riddled with caste and gender discrimination in colonial India.

This chapter is remarkable in the sense that a large part is taken from the first-hand account of conversations the author has had with Anna Mani; a spinster who retired as the Dy. Director of Indian Meteorological Society although the author laments her helplessness in eliciting more information about Sunanda Bai, who committed suicide  mysteriously  on the eve of her departure to Sweden for pursuing post-doctoral studies;  as her peers & family confronted the author with stony silence giving hint to the stereotyping of Indian women in  upholding the moral & spiritual fabric of the society in preference over her avowed profession.
The author, Abha Sur, gives a detailed account of the personal animosity that both S. Chandrasekhar & his uncle CV Raman , both Brahmins, had with Meghnad Saha. The author also quotes statistician PC Mahalonobis’s (PCM)  biographer Ashok Rudra to say that PCM had kept with him 2 IOU notes for two small loans given to Saha , his classmate; although PCM didn’t keep any records for loans given to others. The author also questions the reverence Saha showed publicly to PCM, his colleague, and calls it uncharacteristic and points out that probably that respect was the behavioral norm of lower caste men to people of higher caste in the society. The author is most intrigued that Saha’s scientific writings bear no metaphorical evidence of caste-discrimination and argues that  erasures of caste in Saha’s writings is as symptomatic of the caste structure as the overt mention of it in the writings of Brahmin scientists like Raja Ramanna. The same erasure is also present in all the biographies of Saha where Saha’s low caste has been mentioned to indicate only his struggle and hardship in his childhood and college days but not so while interacting with his fellow Brahmin scientist like Raman or politicians like Nehru.  The author draws parallel with the idea of Hindu religion as tolerant of other faiths intermingling with it only because it sustains the hegemony of higher castes in the society.

Overall Dispersed Radiance is an academic book delving into micro histories of Raman, Saha, Anna Mani to demonstrate the effects of a caste-and-gender-discriminated society on the production of scientific knowledge and the setting up of scientific institutions. Its not a book on the history of science in India but rather one that points out that hegemony of modern science in India was particularly influenced by the historically embedded discriminatory framework of caste, class & gender existing in pre-independent India. Although sometimes it is difficult to accept the author’s  tendency to extricate minute traces of discrimination from the “caste-less” writings of male scientists or gender-blind reactions of the women  scientists; the author makes scholarly use of various references from the scientific & social literatures of the orient as well as  the occident  to argue that silence and lack of mentions  speak more than words publicly uttered. Dispersed Radiance is also a micro hand book for crystallography and spectroscopy for any one who is interested in those fields  as well as an inspirational book for young scientists pursuing excellence in their fields.  Abha Sur’s style of writing is relatively easy considering that this is a scholarly initiative and she has enough anecdotes on the famous scientists in the footnotes and references to interest the lay reader.

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