In the name of science

Today, the word science naturally refers to modern science that originated in the West and spread all over the world giving us a lot of benefits and lots of new technology.  Science and technology are today the most important activities of any country and guides the growth of all countries. What is meant by science is a difficult question and I don’t intend to go into that here. At the same time, I don’t disregard Indian science that gave us very valuable knowledge from Ayurveda or the science of healthy living to a lot of insight into the structure of the universe, which was far ahead of the status anywhere else in the world in those times, metallurgy, in which also India was a leader and so on. I do not intend to discuss that either.

But what I want to discuss is what goes in the name of science today. So many things from ancient practices to ancient beliefs are explained in terms of “modern science” today, which is good so long as the science is good. But, unfortunately, that is not often true. And, unfortunately, most people who are not practitioners of science wouldn’t be able to make out the deceit there. Again, let me emphasise that I am not saying that those practices were wrong or bad, but just that the “scientific” explanations are often wrong.

The Earth is round

Let me just give an example of how people who don’t carefully examine what they are told are misled. I happened to see a video that is being circulated through social media in which a person (possibly a senior lecturer in some college or IIT or some such place) is talking to students about ancient Indian knowledge. He starts by saying that he would like to talk about some ancient history first before coming to now. He then talks about the Varaha avatar. He shows this picture of the Varaha avatar and continues by pointing to the spherical shape of the earth in the picture and says that we (Indians of those times) knew that the earth is “round”. This statement itself shows how uncritical and imprecise he is. The earth is not “round”, it is spherical. Let us forget that for the time being, and focus on more serious matters. He conveniently palms off a modern picture and says that it shows that Indians knew that the Earth was round ten thousand years back. He would have fumbled if anyone had asked him how he reached that conclusion, because the picture he showed is at best a few years old. How can one conclude from it that Indians knew that the world was round ten thousand years ago from a picture that is a few years old? But, unfortunately, no one asked that question. Why did no one ask that very important question? Because, first of all, we have been trained to not question our teachers, and, secondly, because we have been repeatedly told that ancient Indians knew everything there was to know, which have been proved now by modern science. So, we suspend our critical faculty when we listen to a teacher whether in the classroom or outside.


Then he goes on to talk about the twin-star Arundhati-Vaishtha. Now Vasishtha was an Indian sage whose wife was Arundhati. He shows a picture of the constellation, Big Dipper or  Ursa Major and explains how that a particular star there is actually two stars seen together. He continues to say that that star was named Arundhati-Vasishtha in India which shows that we knew that it is actually a double star. Such double stars are not very uncommon, but they are so close together that they cannot be distinguished by our naked eyes. Now, it is a moot question whether the people those days had such eyesight that made it possible for them to distinguish the two stars, or was it just some coincidence. I leave that to the reader to decide. But more important is what followed. He goes on to explain the ritual in South India of newly married couples looking at that star. So far so good. But then he goes on to make the biggest mistakes showing that either he is not a science graduate or has ignored basic physics for the convenience of convincing people about the unbelievable capabilities of ancient Indians. He explains that, normally, twin stars orbit each other in such a manner that one remains stationary and the other goes around it. This may be compared with how we draw a circle using a pair of compasses, with one arm kept stationary at a point and the other moving around it. Then he says that as husband and wife shouldn’t be like that, the stars in this case move around another point between them. Now, it is simply impossible that any celestial object can move around one that is stationary. and goes against basic laws of physics, as the two are attracting each other through gravitational force, and one cannot remain really stationary when the other moves. What actually happens is that the two objects move around their common centre of mass, which is something like the centre of gravity or the point at which it can balance, as though all the mass is concentrated there. You can imagine a merry-go-round in which two people are moving around a point where the whole contraption is mounted. By hiding the truth and presenting wrong ideas, he manages to give the impression that these stars are special and that ancient Indians knew that.

The sad part is that ancient Indians had many great achievements at both the intellectual level, such as the invention of the decimal system of numbers and many other developments in mathematics including some that are now known in the names of Newton and others, and at practical level, such as the method to extract zinc from its ore, which was, for a very long time, a secret that only Indians knew and the secret of the corrosion-proof iron pillars in Delhi and Kodachadri in Karnataka. These are all well documented and also accepted by scholars all over the world. By  fabricating “truths” along with “scientific” explanations that simply go against the basics of science, people like the ignorant professor does only harm to India’s reputation.