Day 31: Nothing is lost. It builds up.

24/04/2020

Day 31

I spent the day on work calls and then reading books. While reading the National Curriculum Framework of the NCERT, I began thinking about the personal motivations of those led this effort in 2005. Over the years, I have known much about Prof Krishna Kumar’s ideas on the NCF, textbooks and the directions in which the school curriculum must move into in the future. The other person that everyone who worked on the NCF referred to was Prof Yash Pal. I searched for books on his life or perhaps an autobiography that he might have written. I found it on Arvind Gupta’s site – a biography written by Biman Basu, Prof Yash Pal: A Life in Science published by Vigyan Prasar. This was it. I knew I had to hear this man and his ideas in his own words. So this post is likely to use a volume of quotations, but that is the intention. To gather together some of the ideas and views of this fine man who contributed to India’s space research, higher education and popular science in ways that one will find hard to pack into a single life. 

The India Report of Ray and Charles Eames (via Naveen B) which led to the beginning of NID in Ahmedabad is a remarkably brief for the task it set itself up to achieve. It stands out in its straightforward language.. While reading Prof Yash Pal’s biography, I learnt that he also chaired the Governing Council of NID from 1984 to 1990. The foresight in terms of interdisciplinarity that the report suggested in 1958 stands relevant for institutions even now. 

It is overwhelming to read about Yash Pal’s work in a single sweep compressed into a few hundred pages. He speaks of his career’s trajectory as having built ‘connectivity with the land’ and that ‘nothing gets lost – it builds up’ – 

 “One of the joys of living has been – I started at TIFR; I worked in laboratories like TIFR, and SAC; I had interaction with universities quite a bit; tried to knit universities and laboratories together; then I had people’s interaction during SITE, and later, during these movements all over. Some people think that I have spoiled my career, but I think that connectivity stays. If I go to a space centre, no matter which, I feel I’m part of it. Why does the Chairman of the Space Commission still feel that if some space event is happening I should be there? It is almost 25 years since I left SAC. Why do the various IITs keep inviting me – mostly their students invite me. Why do schools keep inviting me? So it’s the connectivity with the land that somehow I have been lucky enough to build on. And there are empathies with all minds of people; nothing is lost – it builds up.”

His ideas on several areas of research, education and institution building are instructive for those who continue to dream of building world class research, products and institutions in India. The following are some of those. 

On working in science –  

“I think Peters was responsible for introducing a certain way of selecting issues and problems in science for working on. You don’t have to work on everything, but work on something which has a meaning. You ask yourself a question, if you find some answer, no matter what, and then take it up. If you don’t get an answer to that then don’t take it up. It is not realised how much of a difference Peters made to this particular culture of science – experimental science particularly – at that stage in TIFR.”

Peters in the above quote is Polish-born physicist Bernard Peters who trained as a graduate student under Oppenheimer at UC Berkeley. He remained a lifelong associate of Yash Pal. Following a trial in the US for his political activities and links with communists he moved out of the US. Interestingly, Oppenheimer testified against him and asserted his links with the communists. He moved to India on Homi Bhabha’s invitation and stayed on for eight years. 

Source: Biman Basu, Yash Pal: A Life In Science, Vigyan Prasar

Another trivia is that during those Madras balloon flights, Yash Pal would station himself in Vellore, to study the experimental balloons that his co-researchers were releasing from Madras. This is Vellore’s little connection to pioneering experiments in cosmic rays research in India. 

On the necessity of doing this yourself in scientific research – 

“Some people forget that often it is more important to invent a thing yourself than to procure it. Unless the taste of discovery is established early, it will never come.I’m afraid we do not do much of these things now a days; we’ve stopped doing that,” 

He adds – 

“a civilization that protects its young from the hassles of doing things themselves deprives them of great joy and ultimately leads its society into a state of permanent dependence.”

His connection with villages and their realities guided his work in the SAC years. He recollects   that the aims of science programmes his team was developing at SITE were based on a credo to ‘help children realize that science is everywhere’ – 

“I had been to villages and I had by that time started believing that science can be learnt only through doing. You must have experiments and you must do things to learn science properly. But in villages there were one/two-room schools, with no equipment; some did not even have a blackboard. If we had to make science programmes for them what were they going to do? I had a miserable time thinking and wondering for two months and then I wrote down a credo, which was that the objective of the science programmes would be to help children realise that science is everywhere. Science is in the kitchen, science is in the village pond, science is in the bicycle, science is in the flora and fauna, science is everywhere. Having done that I prepared some briefs and worked with producers.”

Several years later, in 1984, at a conference on the impact of space exploration on mankind  in the Vatican city he addressed the participants with this reflection –  

“For the 1,500 people directly engaged in the experiment, SITE was a deep human experience. It generated new capabilities, demystified space technology, and helped to nucleate a large island of self-confidence. But of far greater significance was the generation of new kinship between technologists and the grassroots problems of the country, a common concern for the ultimate social and human goals.”

His days as the Chairman of University Grants Commission were outstanding in the ideas coming from the chairman’s office, if not for anything else. This is also an instance of the social consciousness that the scientist in him possessed. In a letter he wrote to representatives in the government, he proposed – 

“Why don’t we shut down all colleges and universities for a year? Shut down not to go on a holiday, but to venture out to interact with people, prepare entirely new courses, write diaries, and come back refreshed. And with this new course material you begin. Coupling with the country is important.”

He was serious enough to take this proposal to the politicians of the time because he felt he must seek support from representatives of the people for such a movement. It demonstrates the diverse ways in which he could think of a problem and not be hesitant to throw solutions at i. I am sure if that university shutdown was to happen, it would have been the most radical experiment in the history of India’s higher education. Also that for the current lockdown when universities have shut for nearly two months, we would have a precedent to learn from.

After a stint with several important departments and offices of science, education and research in India, Yash Pal wasn’t quite done. He began a fascinating streak of popular communication with the state run broadcaster Doordarshan. My personal memory of the man and his colleagues in science communication began from this point. In Yash Pal’s biography, Biman Basu writes – 

Besides answering questions in over 150 episodes of ‘Turning Point’, he was the Chief Advisor for the TV serials, ‘Bharat Ki Chaap’, ‘Tur-rum-tu’, and ‘Race to Save the Planet’. He was the anchor for the live telecast of total solar eclipse programmes in 1995 and 1999, and the live programme on transit of Venus in 2004.

Biman Das explores his popularity with the media. I think it was the patience and simplified language with which he explained science. Every kid’s question was important for him. He approached them in ways that the current breed of scientists can surely learn from. Here is an example – 

“I think it all happened because of the accident of INSATs and so on; I didn’t train to be a media person or anything, but was connected with people’s science movements. If I tried to be a scientist, I wouldn’t be able to communicate. If you want to communicate you have to bring understanding rather than give the exact answer, which they can write in the exam. I don’t have to say that the diameter of the Earth is exactly 12,000 something kilometres; only a rough approximation would do for understanding. I can say the Earth has a diameter of roughly 13,000 kilometres and its highest mountain is about 10 kilometres high. That’s enough for one to understand the miniscule size of the highest mountain in comparison to the size of the Earth, and to get an idea of gravity, which puts a constraint on the size of the highest mountain on Earth. The exact numbers don’t make a difference.” 

The body of work developed, recorded and curated by educationists and scientists in India during the 1970-2000 period is substantial. It can be built upon by teachers in these times when learning needs like teacher training and textbooks have seen a near takeover by the private sector. Krishna Kumar noted that NCERT still owns about 30% of the textbooks market in India. The other side of it is that there is 70% market share of textbooks that could benefit from this legacy of knowledge created and science movements of the earlier decades. 

As I tried stringing all the institutions that Yash Pal touched through his life, I thought of his decision to return to India after his PhD at MIT. He had an invitation from Columbia University. In the world of 1958-1959, a career in the US and advanced scientific research was nearly guaranteed. He returned to India with a sense of urgency. May be, the man responded to India with a sense of duty. The young man of 1959 doesn’t answer this. Prof Yash Pal of forty years later does take a look back and sums up his life’s mission in these words – 

“I do think that in my life I have done some serious science. Not so great perhaps, but serious and interesting nevertheless. That has given me intellectual joy. Even more, it has opened for me the doors of a lot of fascinating science done by others, many of them far more gifted than me. It has also opened avenues through which one may begin to address questions, which touch the realm of things spiritual. Yes, I do believe that there is something deeply spiritual in the intimate operational manuals of Nature, in the beautiful and logical connections between the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds, in the connections between the living and the non-living and being able to understand the stars, galaxies and the universe, not completely but to a large extent.

In Yash Pal, India had her scientist with a socially consciousness core and soul of a naturalist who would tread softly, work with sincerity and leave an outstanding demonstration of a life in science that the future generation can seek confidence and direction from. 

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