Science, Reason and Humanity- an alliance for progress.



Let me at the outset thank the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS) for organizing this international conference. The question that we shall discuss has an international dimension but I would deal more with some national and local issues, i.e. those that would help us in our urgent tasks in Thought and Action. This, as far as I know, what Dr.Narendra Dabholkar followed, focus on Maharashtra but have links with the international movement.

The question of rationality has to be thought from a human angle and thus it is an international question too. In this respect, it will have its conflict with narrow sectarian view of ultra-nationalism. To us, ideas of rationality and humanity cannot be separated . When transmitting the message of rationality, the question of humanity also becomes a rallying point in it. And that puts the following questions in public debate: the right to have a decent life on earth, to treat all humans as equal without discrimination or prejudice and to allow equal opportunities of access to means that can give a decent life on earth. This would also bring in issues that the resources on earth are for all of us to share and also we must leave earth’s resources, unspent for the future generations that come after us. This is also to remind ourselves of Gandhiji’s warning that the earth has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed. While agreeing with that, we must also add that the present social order is in fact meant to satisfy the greed of a few super-rich privileged ones. We should not blame the poor for their greed when they cannot satisfy their most basic needs.

Part I


These are some explosive questions and thus Dr.Dabholkar became a threat. Undaunted, he stood up to them. He was prepared to give his life and gave. So did others, like Comrade GovindPansare, Professor M.M. Kalburgi and GauriLankesh. In between, in our neighbouring country, Bangladesh, Dr.Avijit Roy a blogger on science, secularism and rationality (see: Mukto-Mona) was killed, on 26th February, 2015. I did not know him personally but I know his father, Professor Ajoy Roy who taught physics in Dhaka university for several decades and had met Professor Roy, both in Dhaka and in Kolkata. In Kolkata, in presence of his relatives, he told me, They may be brandishing their swords upon us, but why should we bend our heads because of these threats? Thus, Avijit was martyred in a planned murder, his wife Rafida Bonya Ahmed was attacked with the intent of murder. She too would have died. But she has risen, defying the assassins’ designs and has asserted, We stand on the right side of history.

When the news of Dr.Dabholkar’s assassination reached us on August 20th, 2013, we were at a workshop in Bengaluru, on Eyes on ISON. We were shocked and immediately passed a resolution condemning the attack. We planned with greater resolve, to achieve success in our Eyes on ISON programme, explaining to our people about the visit of comet ISON, and hence to bring scientific outlook as an alternative vision, to the people of India.

With the success of the above programme and several others that followed, we in the AIPSN understood that the sacrifices of our martyrs for science and reason have not gone in vain and will serve a greater cause for humanity. This further encouraged us to declare the 20th of August as the National Scientific Temper Day (NSTD) to be observed every year by all people and not limited to the AIPSN. It would be people’s demand and people’s programme, as opposed to the so-called ‘sarkari’ ones. Thus the fifth anniversary of Dr.Narendra Dabholkar’s martyrdom was the first year for the observance of the NSTD. It was a call to celebrate life, celebrate scientific temper that is enshrined in our constitution and in our lives. Its success went beyond our expectations, because wide participation of large number of groups and individuals. Scientific temper is an issue that people want to celebrate.

The building process:

It was the AIPSN’s idea to involve as many like-minded organizations as possible and with this aim a workshop was held in Pune on 4th-6th May, 2018, in which MANS, Lok Vidnan Sangathana and many other organizations from Maharashtra and Telangana enthusiastically participated, apart from the member organizations of the AIPSN. It was also supported by the Mumbai Shramik Sangh, Bhandup. The first appeal for the NSTD was given jointly by the AIPSN and MANS. Our plans were greatly aided by a statement by 160 scientists, led by Professor Jayant Vishnu Narlikar and Professor Nareash Dadhich. It was while preparing the material for the NSTD, we realised that so much material already exists, and making a repository for them still remains an important task. We must jointly attend to this task. Videos of Dr.Dabholkar’s speeches, were used, his writings were translated from Marathi to different languages. We made booklets of several hands-on-experiments to demonstrate to schools about the methods of science, a work in which AIPSN’s members from Pune and Bengaluru worked jointly. Young IT professionals from Bengaluru made posters that became a big draw, throughout the country. As we know, little drops of water can finally create a torrent. There are many more things to be done, e.g. to use the audio-visual media, social media, drama and films for the above purpose, in support of scientific temper. Encouraged by the success last year, we are sure that someday that torrent will rise.

As we prepare now for the NSTD 2019, this conference comes as very timely, where international delegation too will share their experience and express their points of view. With this background of Thought and Action I want to place a few points and will illustrate them with some real life personal experiences.

On the tasks and approaches:

Firstly, let us recognize that Rationality and Humanity are social issues and have to be judged in terms of evolution of history, progress in science, technology, evolution of human thought. All these issue have to focus on nature and on human relations in society. In the process the discussion must also encompass the relation between human society and nature. These are the points on which the AIPSN conducts its campaigns. For progress of humanity, science and reason are important. Similarly, issues of morals and ethics are to be addressed and should not be bound by antiquitous ideas of tradition and culture. These last issues are not related to science directly, but are important for all of us. They would involve the question of conflict-resolution between individuals, families, communities and nations and in the last case, their differences must be resolved by non-military means. We must also create occasions to meet and interact, as we are doing now. Sometimes, we may not be able to meet or require to meet but conduct common mass programmes in our respective countries, e.g. the Global March for Science or mass participation in viewing the Annular Solar Eclipse on 26th December, 2016, which will be visible as partial eclipse in 13 countries in Asia and Africa- a programme for which the AIPSN is making various preparations.

Thus, when discussing the issues of humanism and rationality, its historic perspective has to be kept in mind and in this we must examine (1) the role of the state and the society, (2) roles of organizations and (3) role of individual action. In this meeting, point (2) will come under discussion. So, I would point out a few things on the other two points, briefly on point (1) and some personal illustrations for elucidating both points (1) and (3).

Part II

Society-State and Individual.

As a biographical point, I was born seven years after India’s independence and I could see the role that the state was beginning to play in people’s welfare. Its record is not of unblemished success but it cannot also be dismissed as one of failure.

Twenty years before my birth, my father’s father died of small pox at the age of thirty-four. He was attended by doctors. But the doctors lived several miles away and where were the medical shops nearby? As one of my medical friend tells, my grandfather would have succumbed to meningitis or pneumonia when he had the attack of small pox. In the absence of medical help, near at hand, neighbours’ goodwill, thorough their prayers, pujas, prasads and charanamrits were all that the family could secure. Though the family was religious, they were rational enough not to entertain astrologers nor faith healers- even 80 years ago. But how would the rationality be put to use if the ingredients were too difficult to procure, because of their non-availability or because of their costs? Idea of rationality faces a material block in such cases and cannot make its way to satisfy humanitarian aims, i.e. to protect the life of a suffering individual. There is another story of a tragedy that I would record. My wife lost her brother, due to meningitis, when he was ten years old. That was in the mid-1960’s. They had trained doctors and nurses around them in a government hospital but the special medicines that were needed when the condition worsened, were not available in the small town by the river Tungabhadra, where they lived. In this case too, they did not allow themselves to be exploited by astrologers or faith healers. The family was deeply religious but even religious people may have grater confidence in modern science than on faith healers or divine acts. They learn these from their experience. But when hope vanishes, despair gives way to despondency- it is at these moments that faith takes precedence over science in people’s minds and they become vulnerable to exploitations by god men, astrologers etc. Such instances galore.

In contrast to the above cases,let me describe what I saw in my childhood. In those days, we would be given small-pox vaccinations by the local municipality, free of cost. Our family not only ensured vaccination for ourselves but also for our neighbours. Same would be the case, before the onset of the cholera season. One of my uncles, who was a respected physician took special care that all the families that consulted him, and their neighbours too, were inoculated. Similarly, about fifty years ago, when my mother was once attacked by monkeys (called reverentially as VanarSena) she took a course of fifteen anti-rabies injections. My father would collect them from the government agency, to be preserved in a local medical store which had an ice box (refrigerators were meant only for the rich and aristocrats and were seen on films). About twenty years before that, i.e. in the 1940’s, these were not so easily available. These anti rabies sera were manufactured by the Pasteur Institute in Shillong and in the 1930’s and 1940’s many would be advised to travel to Shillong to get them fresh. But how many could afford such arrangements? Our people lived in such vulnerability until the Bengal Chemical, Bengal Immunity started producing several kinds of sera, including those against snake bite. It was only then that our society got some minimum level of security if such exigencies happened. This was then followed by large scale production of drugs and pharmaceuticals by the Indian public sector. The Indian Patents Act 1970, Kefauver Committee, Hathi Committee reports played important roles in these developments that brought down the costs drastically. These have now been reversed with the closure of many public sector units in the field of drugs and pharmaceuticals and public expenditure on health is being replaced by insurance driven schemes, e.g. the Ayushman Bharat. Rationality for humanity demands that we engage in public debate on these social issues and bring back welfare in public debate and assert that public welfare and private profit are antagonistic to each other. The former represents duty to humanity while the latter is irrational, coercive and detrimental to the public.

Part III

Private actions: Dialogue at the the time of eclipse

The last section describes briefly point (1) that I had pointed out. This part deals with point (3) and describes some private actions on our part and how they can influence the question of rationality. This part will also appear as an article in Marathi in the journal, Shaikshanik Sandarbh to be released on 20th August 2019. The title is borrowed from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Love at the time of cholera. Here I deal with certain private and public perceptions in the context of eclipses , which gives us a chance to interact with the public and relate them to a dialogue on rationality. Dialogue on humanity can be linked but would be a longer process

Let us recall, twentieth of July, 2019 marked fifty years after man’s landing on moon. That gave thrill to many of us at that time and also recalling it fifty years after.{S.Chatterjee, Deccan Herald, 20th July, 2019, A trip to nostalgia; https//}. It showed that heavenly objects can be reached by humans! A few days ago, on 16th July, 2019 we had a meeting of residents of our apartment. At the request of one of our senior members, we had to conclude it at 9:30 PM, because a lunar eclipse was to start at 01:30 on 17th July, 2019, and he advised that all must finish their dinner by 10:00PM.

Now, I narrate here two episodes in my personal life that concern copper moon total solar eclipses. The first one was on 20th February, 1989. At that time my wife,Vani was pregnant. Well-wishers, relatives, neighbours, especially our land lady came to Vani with advices on the do-s and don’t-s at the time of eclipse. These were extremely humanitarian considerations on their part, but we did not accept since they lacked rationality.

We finally went to our family physician. We invited him to join us in the terrace party that we planned to organize at the time of the eclipse. We also asked him, Can you tell us, when did this myth about eclipses and pregnancy start? He said that he did not know that, but he too would like to know.

At the appointed time, there were only three of us at the terrace, myself, Vani and the doctor. We arranged tea, biscuits, samosas and mirchi-bhajji for the copper moon party. The doctor had come with the news, To answer your question, I had met three famous gynocologists and asked them. All three of them said that they did not know, how this myth started. But all three of them gave the same advice, Why take a risk?

But we have taken a risk and you are a co-conspirator, in that! we joked. He smiled and took a bite at the samosa as we kept watching the copper moon. We looked around, all other terraces were empty. Some neighbours had even shut the windows to stop the evil effects to enter their homes!

My wife delivered just three months after that, without any complication. Our son, who is now 30 years old is a lawyer at the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court.

Four years later our daughter was born. Some relatives quickly checked the name of the star of her birth and wanted us to name her after that. Being an astrophysicist, I agreed that it was good to name her after a real star (not film star nor astrological stars) and my choices would be Alpha Centauri or Proxima Centauri , the closest stars to our solar system, being only about 4.2-4.3 light years (40678000000000 kms) away. In this debate two weeks passed, and thus the most auspicious day for naming was also gone, with our new born daughter being still nameless. Thus, we could not enter her name in the corporation’s birth registration office either! The formula was now given by my wife, Forget about stars, planets, comets, galaxies or black holes and white dwarfs. Let us think of something on our Earth. So, both of us decided to name her Alakananda after the Himalayan river. She is now 25 years old and is a dancer and journalist, who lives in Pune.

But eclipses have always fascinated us and the family travels to see total solar eclipses,whenever they can be seen in the country, e.g. to Ratangarh (Rajasthan, 24th October, 1995), Gandhidham ( Gujarat, 11th August, 1999), Patna (Bihar, 22nd July, 2009). Unfortunately, in the last two events the eclipses were eclipsed by rain clouds. But travelling to see these eclipses, meeting enthusiasts, waiting to see, give us great fun. In all these cases, we were also a part of the All India People’s Science Network’s mass viewing team.

Let me now describe the recent episode, concerning the total lunar eclipse on 31st January, 2018. On that occasion, we decided to watch it from our terrace. My son happened to be in Bengaluru and was to leave for Delhi at night. He said, I would watch the start of the eclipse- I know you both watched it when I was in my mother’s womb. How I wish I could have the ‘Divyadrushti’ at that time to watch it from there. I would not miss this one. After watching it from the terrace, he left for the airport. A positive thing has happened these days due to publicity from different science groups, rationalists’ associations etc. Offices, public transports operate normally during eclipses (not so in the 1980’s and 1990’s) though fewer people come out in the streets. The taxi driver came on time, and the flight too was not delayed. My son landed at Delhi safely, though it took off at a time when the moon was still copper red.

In Pune, my daughter too enjoyed it with her colleagues and friends. But something interesting took place at our place. As my wife and I prepared to go to the terrace, others gathered and asked if we were aware that we were exposing ourselves to eclipse-risks. We told that we were not but if you feel that we are doing so, please come up and be around to save us. I cannot say what went in their minds: they came to the terrace, voluntarily and not quite reluctantly.

As we waited for the eclipse to begin, our dialogue also began. And they took very interesting turn. There was no confrontation from either side, all questions were related to physical phenomena.

As the totality ended and faint glimmer of silver moon appeared at the edge, I asked everyone to wait. I rushed downstairs and brought some sweets from our home. Let us enjoy the copper moon party, I said and put a piece in my mouth. Unexpectedly, everyone followed. And no reluctance, nor any suspicion of any risk! There was only one lady who declined, but her husband joined us and accepted the sweets. The lady said, There are some nice sweets in my home. Let me bring them too, though I will not eat. Yet, she did and did not mind that her husband had broken the taboo, while she would not.

This experience, interesting though it was, does not imply that a lurking fear has vanished from their minds. I narrate this to suggest that every occasion is one for dialogue and we cannot prescribe the do’s and don’t-s.

In our dialogue at the time of eclipse, the question of Indian tradition also came up. That gave us a chance to tell them about Aryabhata’s explanation of eclipses- that he knew that the moon covers the sun in solar eclipse and the Earth’s shadow covers the moon in lunar eclipse. I said, This is Indian tradition too. They were surprised. It is necessary for us to enter into such dialogue and talk about Indian tradition, both ancient and modern: about what is true and what is false. The dialogue may not be limited to astronomy.

Eclipses, a throwback to history:

Coming to the question of eclipses, one must mention two epoch-making discoveries that were made during total solar eclipses and they needed such eclipses, for these discoveries to be possible. The first one refers to the first observation of helium spectra in the Sun, taken by the French astronomer, Jules Janssen on 18th August, 1968, in Gutur, Andhra Pradesh. How this preliminary observation led to the discovery of helium is a long story and is given in detail in the June-July , 2019 issue of ShaikshanikSandarbh, in Marathi.

The other one relates to the observation of gravitational bending of light, observed on 29th May, 1919, during a total solar eclipse. It needed the sun’s position to be visible in the sky but sun’s rays to be totally obscured by the eclipse. The observations during the eclipse gave for the first time, verifications of one of the predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The data were got at the time of the above eclipse but for confirmation, Arthur Eddington and his team took four months to analyse the data and declare that what they saw was indeed a verification of Einstein’s prediction. Thus, to many , the total solar eclipse of 29th May, 1919 was the eclipse of the century. It also shows how science advances and thus rationality. Einstein’s ideas on curvature of space-time due to gravitation were based on theoretical constructs but for that to enter the realm of science one had to follow the steps: experiment, observation, inference. Here, experiments mean real experiments (not thought experiments) and real observations. These observations have to be checked and rechecked.

These checks and rechecks are not always automatic. Science has to wait for several things to mature, e.g. technology, the human resource and advances in several other fields- unconnected though they may look at a first glance.

As for practical applications, that was beyond the dream of the discoverers like Einstein or Eddington. For example, they could not dream that their discovery would be used about a century later in the Global Positioning System (GPS) to be routinely used. I am sure that the ISRO also uses it for several routine tasks. Nowadays, it is perhaps needed by them to find the divine geodesy (shortest route) from Sriharikota to the Tirumala temple in Tirupati! The rest would then be protected by the divine blessings: gravity or no gravity. Space-time curvature is already calculated by the Lord and is revealed through the priests to the esteemed scientists in charge of the operations! The pre-launch snag in Chandrayan II thus could not remain hidden and un-revealed! Hailed be the Lord, Glory to Him: O, Tempora!* Om Tempora!! Ohm Tempora!!!

Hark back on the state again:

This brings us back to the question about the role of the movement and the community that we represent. Our duty, vis a vis rationality would be to hark back on the state to assert its commitments to science and scientific temper and perform its duties in the field of welfare of its citizens. In the process, the movement has to continue its work amongst citizens so that the above demand is a demand of the people and the citizens come to understand that humanity cannot progress without science and rationality, i.e. without science and its rational application.