ASHOK PRASAD | 28 JULY, 2017
When I am in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.-W. H.Auden
Auden was on the mark! Scientists do carry the unenviable reputation of being aloof, unapproachable and snobbish. On the whole ,they are unable or unwilling to relate to the people around them by their inability to communicate effectively with those who do not share their professional orientation.Having been a practising scientist for almost my entire professional career, I make this observation with a sense of regret.
There are of course some very notable exceptions . The great Professor Yash Pal ,whom we lost yesterday was one of those. I am reminded of the author Eric Segal's famous aphorism in one of his bestsellers:
."...oasis of urbanity in the sewer of scientific snobbery." The late professor fits the bill!
A scientist par excellence, he made notable research contributions which enhanced our understanding of cosmic rays. But he always believed that the responsibility of a scientist was not just limited to his/her laboratory and publications in the learned journals. In his reckoning , scientific communication to the community at large was just as vital a function of a practitioner of science as interactions with colleagues. While unfailingly felicitous,he harboured an emotion close to contempt for those colleagues who tended to overlook this vital function.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that he was one person most responsible for giving science a human face and making it more approachable over that last three decades. I recall him quoting John Dewey in one of our interactions:
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.
He felt the biggest disservice a parent or a teacher could do to an impressionable mind was to stifle natural human curiosity that we are all born with and which is so essential in our overall development.
Youngsters in their late twenties and early thirties today spontaneously recall his television appearances where he used to invite questions on science . Many a time he did not himself have the answers handy. On such occasions he used to consult his scientist colleagues elsewhere and acknowledge their contribution in his responses. I vividly recall him mentioning in a conversation that we had a few years ago that he invariably learnt something he was unaware of in each of the programmes. One such instance was when he was once asked by a 10 year old why one could sense musty smell when rainwater reached a parched soil. Not being versed in biology, he consulted a microbiologist to decipher this conundrum and fully acknowledged his contribution.
He held a firm belief that the education system in India was headed in the wrong direction right from the primary stages. When appointed to head the University Grants Commission, he took it as a challenge and produced several consultative papers with meaningful suggestions . He believed that unless we are in a position to institute reforms ate the primary education level, we would not be able to instill scientific temper that was so necessary for any meaningful progress.
A hardcore atheist in his personal sphere, he tended to believe that inculcation of religious orthodoxy that shunned legitimate enquiry was inimical to personal development and true humanism. According to him, the only true unifier of humankind was science which was much more international in its scope than any religion, political boundary , caste or community affiliation. He not surprisingly tended to view development of scientific temper as salvation of the most difficult human problems which he believed arose from improper development of science. I recall another discussion with him a few years ago when he brought out his copy of the volume Top 1000 Scientists From the Beginning of Time to 2000 AD by Philip Barker and identifying the names he believed that had truly served science in the best fashion. All of the names he mentioned were those who had made significant efforts towards propagation of science..
Unlike many of his colleagues, he did not place a high premium of contemporary scientific honours as he believed that these honours, whether they were conferred by a state or a learned society always tended to distract the scientist from his/her primary goal i.e. attempting to answer a particular question and coming up with new questions. He did not believe that membership of learned societies like the National Academy of Sciences or the Royal Society reflected the true standing of a scientist .
Another of his exhortions to budding scientists was to ignore the disciplinary limitations. He believed that unless we are able to transgress the inter-disciplinary boundaries, our creativity would be invariably curtailed. According to him, all the classic scientific researches were those where the researchers ignored the orthodox disciplinary parameters.
And he was always adamant that one of the main responsibilities of scientist was to mentor juniors to take over the mantle. He himself had taken a very keen interest in the development of many juniors and was always willing to counsel anyone who approached him. We came to know each other quite late and I of curse never worked with him directly. But I owe him a massive debt of gratitude for proposing my name for the different international committees-even without my knowledge!
Hie tenacity of purpose and uncompromising integrity was in evidence when he took on the Government of Chhattisgarh over fake universities in the Supreme Court of India and save thousands os innocent students from grief.
A multifaceted personality oozing with superabundant humanism he would be regarded by most Indians as the person who humanized science (along with his protege Avil Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam). It was largely through his efforts that science has become far more colloquial than it has ever been in modern Indian times.
I would stand corrected but I simply do not see anyone on the scientific horizon today who can fill his shoes -and wear all his hats. He shall be sorely missed!