The failure of experimental science in India

February 6, 2008

Subtitled: Why I will never take up an academic position in Indian science

This is a difficult piece for me to write, as it requires me to try and be objective about making the decision to walk away from a large piece of my career, and life. I hope to do a series of posts giving a personal description of why I chose to abandon a career in science, and also an analysis of what ails experimental science in India, and some suggestions on how this might be fixed. If the overall tone comes across as angry, it is because I am angry. Angry at the wasted talent, the wasted lives. Angry for what could have been.

The normal caveats apply. If it helps you sleep any better, you are most welcome to apply the usual dismissals. The common way to wave away such comments is to say that the person in question just could not hack it. Who knows, it might even be true. Google up my name (Gora Mohanty), and the subject of gamma ray astronomy, talk to any of my associates, and draw your own conclusions. I offer absolutely no apology for claiming that I was a good, if maybe not great, experimental physicist. I am also strongly of the opinion that information technology is the area where it is currently the easiest to do world-class work in India. This is, of course, a very broad area, and the term could also reasonably be used for many areas of scientific research.

I will also note that none of this should be construed a priori as a slam on people I have worked with. I know many excellent Indian physicists who have chosen to remain in the system, and try to change it from within. To each his cup of poison.

To my mind, there are two main reasons behind the failure of experimental science in India, and funnily enough, neither of them has to do with a lack of money. These are: (a) An abject failure of the educational system to inculcate the scientific method in students, and (b) The ad-hoc separation of research, and teaching institutes.

Why Bitu cannot do science

Like most other subjects, science is taught at the primary levels, during the formative years, by rote memorisation. We claim to take pride in the fact that most of our students take quote science unquote courses, and, yes, it is also true that the average fifth standard student in India can parrot to you Newton’s three laws down to the last comma in the textbook. Do an experiment yourself, after they quote you Newton’s law of gravitation, ask them why does an apple fall down to the Earth, and not the Earth up to the apple. My favourite answer to this, mind you, from someone who consistently stands first or second in their primary-level classes, is that gravitation is a property of heavenly bodies. Now, where else could they have learnt this wonderful excuse, except from having had it forced down their throat. And, in case you think that you have not lost out from having been brought up in the same system I offer you a simple challenge: Explain to a lay person in 15-20 minutes, without using any math, why the second law of thermodynamics should intuitively be true.

The problem is that the educational system in India is largely in chaos. People point to the IITs/IIMs as some kind of emblem of India’s brain power, but Prof. C. N. Rao’s comment about how the average mid-level university in the USA does better research work than any IIT was, if anything, kind to the IITs. Even taking the IITs, and IIMs at their own recognition, they cater only to a miniscule fraction of the students in India. Besides, by the time students reach that level of higher education, it is already too late. This point was driven home to me as a graduate student in the USA. The average incoming Indian student is definitely much better equipped than his American counterpart in terms of theory and the mathematical tools of the trade, but the outstanding American students, typically people who have learnt physics by tinkering with things, are on a different plane. Richard Feynman, for example, was a uniquely American genius. This is not to put down the outstanding Indian scientists who have succeeded in spite of the system, but how long can we survive on the basis of 5-sigma events?

What is scary is that I do not see any great eagerness on the part of the educational establishment to bring about the sweeping reforms that would be needed. Though things are definitely changing at the top, it is very much the status quo in most parts of the country. For the most part, the only people that I see who are really anguished about the endemic failures in the system are people who do grassroots science teaching, and popularisation. I recounted my pet story about Newton’s law of gravitation to a senior member of the Orissa physical society (who shall go unnamed), only to be waved away with: “Oh, no, no! This might have been the situation in your days, but not now. Besides, it might be the case for ICSE, but certainly not for our CBSE students”. I suppose that there are none so blind as those who refuse to see. Anybody who is at all interested in the reform of science education in India should look into something called the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Project, and Ekalavya, and the reasons behind its failure. This was India’s chance at a reform on the scale of what happened for US science education after the Sputnik scare, and we missed our chance at it. No matter, I suppose. There will be another astrologer, another charlatan, another godman, another cricket tamasha, another Bollywood item number which will ease our sorrows.

Tied to this is the attitude of all too many professors for whom their students are to be looked down upon, and treated as something just a shade above domestic help. Spare me your outrage about how you do not do this. That could well be true, and if so, more power to you, but you only have to take a look around yourself. I will believe that things have changed when undergraduates in the average Indian institution do not feel compelled to address random visitors like me, as “sir”.

Finally, there is the race to the bottom these days in the various entrance exams, something which is actively encouraged by parents. I guess that Taare Zameen Pe was a nice picture, but when it comes to my kid, he (most definitely he, and not she: Uske liye to wheatish complexion ka ad aa jayega akhbaron mein) will be the IIT topper. Kids nowadays do not have a normal life outside of preparing for exams. There are a myriad institutions now in India whose main focus is on preparing students for the IIT-JEE. Oh, and by the way, you also get a +2 degree along the way. If this is what things have come to, I say shut down the IITs: They are doing more harm than good.

Let a thousand flowers bloom

There is no doubt that there are world-class scientific institutions in India; the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) being usually the first thing that comes to most people’s minds. As opposed to that, most universities outside maybe of the main metropolitan areas, are starved for funding, facilities, quality teachers, and any possibility of being involved in research as a student. This is a very dangerous situation, as a constant inflow of fresh blood in the form of brash new students eager to take on the world is what a research system needs. The artificial divorce between research and teaching institutions hurts both, by reinforcing the horribly pejorative impression that those who can’t, teach, and by ensuring that research institutions are perpetually starved of competent manpower. After all, if people are not shown how to do research, the best that one can hope from them is that they will look up experiments in textbooks and journals, and faithfully copy them. And, yes, we will claim that it is ground-breaking because it is the first time that this experiment was done in India.

More to follow. Bouquets, and brickbats are invited. If this article does not have you seething, one way or the other, it is because you did not read it carefully enough.

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11 Responses to “The failure of experimental science in India”

  1. Manojendu Choudhury said

    First of all, let me tell you that you have spoken the words out of my mouth. Secondly, I have forwarded this mail to a host of my friends, I am sure you won’t mind that.

  2. buckycat said

    Dear Manojendu,

    Thank you for your comments. I think that the need of the hour is for practising scientists to speak out, as well as those who have left science in India for greener pastures.

    At the same time, the picture is not all gloomy. I am a chronic optimist, and there are also many encouraging signs nowadays in India. I will try to find time to follow up with a post on such issues.

  3. Sunder Sahayanathan said

    Hi Gora! I accidentally came across this you tube video. Just have a look at it.

    I liked the way Prof. Miller explaining Bernoulli’s principle. The experiments he demonstrates doesn’t require hifi equipments. But how many of us (i mean Indian students) have seen such demos to understand physical laws in our high school days? during our school days we all are experts in mugging up the physical laws and vomiting it in the exam papers (including the comma) without digesting it. As we grow up in colleges and universities we do experiments in our practical classes (Young’s modulus, torsional pendulum, diffraction, etc. etc.) which were very well dictated step by step in the practical books as well as there will be instructors who do the steps for u because u may break the instrument. Have we ever attempted to do an experiment of our own to demonstrate a physical law or did our education system encouraged us to do so. I feel these may be one cause for our utter failure in experiments because we never realized its importance.

  4. Ashutosh said

    Dear,

    Your analysis is ture picture of indian science. We all know the problems. But main question is: if not we, then who will solve it……….

    US citizan or British people won’t………

    We have to and we should do it…

  5. P Ganesh said

    You have just proven that finding faults in others is better than correcting oneself. Nothing in life is easy. We should still be great full that we can do science in a great country like India and make a decent living. What more should a scientist want?

  6. Rajul Ranjan Choudhury said

    I totaly agree with your view point and appreciate your effert to speakout, cause one can think of changing only after realizing that change is required.

  7. buckycat said

    Dear P.Ganesh, and Ashutosh,

    You are absolutely right in that finding fault is easier than the long, hard work of coming up with solutions, and that it is up to us to solve the problem. There are also no easy solutions, and nothing that will work over night.

    I also do realise that there are people doing wonderful work in improving Indian education. I strongly believe that a real solution can only come from involving everyone, rather than from within the ivory towers of academia. In my opinion, we need to: (a) Face up to the problems. I submit that many people in the establishment are still unwilling to admit that there are systemic problems, (b) Reach out to people outside the establishment to come up with innovative solutions that do more than offer pablum.

    We are working with various people in this regard, and I will follow up with some ideas on this front. I am a little pressed for time these days, so you might want to take look at a planned event in Feb. Please see the Freed.in 2008 site

  8. buckycat said

    Dear Sunder,

    Thanks for that link. The demonstrations were absolutely wonderful, as was the sheer enthusiasm of Prof. Miller. Simple, inexpensive demonstrations that immediately show the principle in question are indeed great. Some of my happiest times were spent in the demonstration room as a teaching assistant. The most impressive one that I have seen was welding two rods together in the arc from a Tesla coil, while holding them in your bare hands. The voltage was strong enough to have an arc jump a foot of air, but one could safely do this as the high-frequency current passes through your outer skin.

    You are right that few of our students are encouraged to try and apply the laws that they learn out of a book. In India I have yet to see a comparable setup of demonstrations, and a planned set of labs to match those used in undergraduate teaching in the US. Labs are places where you fudge your results to have them come out as expected.

    This is a malaise broader than physics. Biology should be taught by students walking through the fields, getting their hands dirty examining leaves, and pond scum. The good news is that there are people working on simple demos using material readily available in Indian homes. More on this later.

    Regards,
    Gora

  9. […] This reminds me of a very motivating views of a person whom i respect a lot Mr. Gora Mohanty , You can read them here […]

  10. Karthik said

    the problem is those who want to teach dont seem to be getting the point that teaching is
    a)add on to exams , its the other way round
    b)not merely telling(blabbering out some stuff)

    this is what usually happens
    btw i am UG student @ loyola

  11. keygenx said

    sooo true.
    I am a +2 student fed up with
    this education system.
    We been doing particals in
    school before learning the
    theory.On asking the teachers they tell us to memorise the
    procedure. I think the entrance oriented
    approach to higher education
    has made it worse.What you
    actually learn in coaching
    classes are so much useless
    things that you dont even get time to apply in real life.
    What we learn is how to solve
    those big a** questions in iit
    exams without actually
    knowing their physical
    significance.. I want to be a theoritical
    physicist one day
    (www.equax.blogspot.com).
    But i been told by my parents
    and all my teachers to mug up
    all that you have to learn now and concentrate only on
    entrance right now..( I
    especially hate chemistry
    where you have to mug up all
    those equations for which i
    can’t find any practical application). Students , most of em study
    because they need to get past
    their exams and not because
    they are interested.Schools
    strive for 100% pass in board
    exams.They don’t teach concepts in physics
    anymore.They teach you how
    to tackle questions.
    Its hopeless.

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