Saturday, April 30, 2011

Geek Nation by Angela Saini: A Review

By John Cheeran
India is in the eyes of the beholder. It can be anything to anyone. Such freedom allows you to come up with premises such as ‘Is India a geek nation?’
Angela Saini’s Geek Nation – how Indian science is taking over the world -- is an attempt to find out whether the large number of engineers and doctors churned out by this vast country’s educational institutions make it a nation of geeks. Saini, a UK-based science journalist, after her detours through space centres and Sanskrit research institutes is not entirely convinced that India is geeky in spirit and soul.
Geek Nation is an interesting read. Saini, daughter of an Indian immigrant engineer, is an engineer-turned-journalist. Her book informs the reader about the ancient and modern tradition of India’s experiments with truth and science.
For, how many, in this age of ‘information technology,’ know of the role played by former prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru to inculcate scientific temper among the ignorant and illiterate masses? Saini, quite rightly, points out that contemporary India’s large posse of software engineers and doctors and technicians are a direct result of the lead role played by Nehru especially in setting up premier institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IITs).
And, yes, an Indian – Aryabhatta -- invented zero! But such an inquisitive tradition has been abused too in modern India. The trend of Indian middle classes re-imagining a glorious Hindu past and looking for all science in Vedas and Upanishads is in fact hilarious as well as disturbing.
To begin with Saini is forced to explain the title of her book. In the past to be a geek meant something of an oddball. And that’s why Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy asks Saini ‘is geek a good thing?’ Saini reassures him that being a geek is a good thing according to her book.
Saini, in her quest for geek grail, visits Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thumpa in Kerala, Indian Space Science Research Organisation in Bangalore, Infosys Campus in Electronics City, IBM India Research Lab, Tata Consultancy Services headquarters, National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the tuberculosis clinic in Chennai as well as the Academy of Sanskrit Research in Melkot in Karnataka, and The Oriental Research Institute in Mysore. She also meets Indian Rationalist Association president Sanal Edamaruku in New Delhi. And, much more.
Predictably, scientists who Saini visit are an optimistic lot and assure that India will catch up with science superpowers such as the US, China and Japan soon. But it is quite evident that scientific temper that Nehru wished for is quite absent in the country despite the large number of qualified engineers and doctors.
The zeal of some of India’s scientists leaves Saini troubled as in the case of Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software. Mukundan claims that he can read anyone’s mind with his mindreading machine. Saini says the problem lies with Indian leaders and police officers, in thrall to science and technology, seem willing to place their trust in new research and inventors however wacky their ideas might sound to others. In India, unlike anywhere else, nuttiness, without which science can’t flourish, is encouraged without any questions. It can, at times, backfire too.
The only way India can transform its society is by coming up with cutting edge scientific and technological inventions. India’s so called IT revolution has not yet resulted in a microchip. We still don’t have our own aircraft engine. We can’t develop drugs that will cure infectious diseases. Saini observes that efforts of Indian biotechnologists to develop a single drug to fight tuberculosis remain almost a lottery.
India aims for low-cost solutions. India’s research budget is frugal when compared to the West and China. The country’s advantage is that it has a huge, but cheap, educated workforce who can be tasked to crack software and research codes. There is no reason to despair of a technological dystopia. May luck be with India.
But I wonder why Saini visited Lavasa and a devote a whole chapter – Geeks Rule – to Ajit Gulabchand’s real estate project when she wanted to figure out if there was a real scientific revolution going on in the country.
Finally, is it of any consequence that I was reading Geek Nation a few days after the ‘Geek Nation’ paid a tearful farewell to Sathya Sai Baba, considered a saint by many and a charlatan by many others?

Title: Geek Nation
Author: Angela Saini
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hachette India
Pages: 280
Price: 499

1 comment:

Anuradha Goyal said...

Very rightly said - India is in the eyes of the beholder. My review of the book:

John Cheeran at Blogged