Ancient science, modern science: The rationality of being irrational

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Aranmula is village in Kerala where Asary brothers create wonder with iron ore when they produce mirror from it with a crude furnace and some sort of meditation. This sort of metallurgical process may never have come across any of the modern metallurgists. Is it prudent enough to brush this aside as a mystic act? Or is it that the realm of science is yet to reach such dimensions to be explained? May be one day science will be able to decode and derive the scientific repeatability in it. Because science ever keeps on evolving and deriving newer rules of nature and hence not been having permanent axioms. But what is unique to science that it keeps on correcting its own principles when it confronts the actual observations having aberrations from the accepted norms of the times. Our scientific community needs to be more rational while evaluating our feats of ancient past; lest we may acknowledge some of these from the westerly winds.

The latest edition of Indian Science Congress had a session named – Ancient Science through Sanskrit. A section of scientific community and not so scientific community both raised their eyebrows towards this session. This bewilderment emerged out of the usual habit of undermining anything that is originating from India’s ancient past. For them it was an act of ‘India obsessed brigade’ which was here to make folly of the event. But truly speaking is it also a kind of fixation not to grant the civilization any credit for its genuine contribution in the ancient past? This may be anything but scientific in attitude. They look to western science always to pronounce if a particular contribution is from the Indian academicians of yore.

10 Dharwad Regional Science Center ancient Indian medicine

Science stands for questioning but does certainly not advise rank rubbishing. Any concept or argument that does not seem to testify the scientific tenets should be evaluated before concluding anything. The very habit of discarding an argument without testifying on the basis of scientific scrutiny is again unscientific.

There is enough evidence of India had been pioneer in astronomy and mathematics in the ancient era and hence we are well conversed with the names like Aryabhatta, Varahamihira, Bhaskara and many others. A theorem known to our mathematics text books as the Pythagorus Theorem, in all probability was actually deduced by Baudhayana in his Sulba Sutras much earlier. Celebrated British Physicist Astronomer Stephen Hawking quotes from academic papers published in 1901 by the German researcher Albert Buerk when he writes, “Not only the Pythagorus theorem was known and proved in all its generality by the Indians long before the date of Pythagorus (about 580-500 BC), but that they had also discovered the irrational.” Hawking further adds from Buerk that, “… So far from Indian geometry being indebted to the Greek, the much travelled Pythagorus probably obtained his theory from India” (God Created the Integers, Page 18). Though, Hawking continues with the talk of criticisms of Buerk’s above works.

During the course of conducting research for the film ‘Vedic Mathematics’, which later won the National Award for Best Scientific Film, this issue confronted the film makers. Our access to the experts of the subject and the literature brought to our knowledge by them made it amply clear that it was Baudhayana, had also propounded the similar theorem as by Greek mathematician Pythagorus. I remember how Dr. Devi Prasad Tripathi of the Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Kindriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetham, New Delhi went at great length to explain that indeed it was Baudhayan in about 600 BC to have presented proof of the theorem, much earlier than Pythagorus.

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The debate on the connection between imagination and mythology, history and science is “a necessary one”, opines Dr. D. Balasubramanain, a celebrated scientist, formerly director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a Unesco’s Kalinga Prize winner for science popularization and an acclaimed science writer (The Hindu, 2014). He recalls the interesting response made by a scientist Sharath Ananthamurthy to an article by television commentator Karan Thapar questioning silence of Indian scientific community on some of the mythological examples being claimed as examples of scientific achievements. Ananthamurthy talks of three varieties of scientists in India. One is too embarrassed to react; the second type is indifferent to such claims and is comfortable in their labs as long as research funds keep flowing and the third type who go around giving speeches around on such mythological instances in their zeal to “recover our great Indian heritage.” He however regrets that in all this, we may lose sight of some of the achievements that ancient India made, such as in mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and so on.

We may not always be taking meekly of our ancient achievements merely on the pretext that it has not yet been ratified by the western scientific community and work for its recognition if it is aligning with the modern science while keeping in mind that science itself has been evolving.

Having interests in science and technology, L D Kala regularly writes on the subjects for newspapers and magazines. At Hill Post he writes a column on Science and Tech. He lives in Delhi

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