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What is Science?

by Sundar Sarukkai
National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 2012
225 pp. Paper, 285 rupees
ISBN: 978-81-237-6367-5.

Reviewed by Roger F Malina

In What is Science? Sundar Sarukkai provides a magisterial overview of science as a human activity today, covering definitions of science, the social organization of science, philosophy of science, and ethical issues arising in and from scientific activity. He ends with an impassioned plea for deep engagement in new dialogue and negotiation by the scientific community  with other segments of society. Through this process he argues scientists will both enrich their creativity, develop new forms of science, but also become far more responsible citizens of the world. The book is written for a general, non academic public and is accessible both to working scientists and artists.

Several particularly strong narratives stand out.

In chapters on Science and Logic, Science and Reality and Science and Knowledge,he outlines the history of concepts such as Time and Space within different philosophical traditions and their connections to scientific periods. I was intrigued with his discussion of the ontological status of space, with some comments on the concept of aether in Indian traditions. It would be interesting to trace this issue of the aether, a topic that has come alive again with the mystery of dark energy in cosmology, but also certain concepts of cyberspace. Linda Henderson, in her forthcoming Leonardo book on the 4th Dimension and non-Euclidian Geometry in Modern Art, develops at length the way the concept of the aether was dominant in much of 19C science and art work even until 1919 and the eclipse confirmation of one of the predictions of general relativity; the concept of the aether continued to have influence in the arts in the post war period and also in spiritual circles and is being re-injected into current art-science discussions as documented by Henderson. Concepts of space in science continue to evolve with string theory.

Sarukkai contextualizes the development of scientific ideas and methods and, more particularly, mathematics, within the multiple influences and exchanges between the various Mediterranean and Asian civilizations, with a strong rebuttal to the dominant European mythology of its predominantly Greek roots (more on this below). He develops at lengths the variety of ways that mathematics is connected at the hip with modern science, arguing in part that this due to the fact that mathematics, as a language, is a proliferating combinations of sub-mathematical languages adaptable to the evolution of scientific practice; here he offers a variety of responses to Eugene Wigner’s ill-posed question about the ‘mysterious effectiveness of mathematics’.

Finally in a very rich and well argued section he further develops his previous arguments on the ethics of curiosity, and its social evolution from a Christian sin to a scientific virtue, and the lack of corresponding discourse in the Indian philosophies.

I am particularly interested in his argument, argued at length in the closing chapters of this book, that the scientific community should and must engage in deep dialogue with other sectors of society. This line of reasoning connects to Helga Nowotny’s call for a ‘socially robust science”; and the proposition that the art-science dialogue currently burgeoning internationally was one example of the beginnings of a deep dialogue and negotiation.

A connected issue is the concern that after 45 years of existence the Indian subcontinent is virtually invisible in the Leonardo publishing program and networks. In the Chapter on “Doing Science” he explains some of the perverse effects of scholarly publishing, and mechanisms with social consequences that reinforce the hegemony of government supported science in North America and Western Europe, mechanisms among others that contribute to the relative invisibility of Indian science in the global scenario.

He frames his book in the chapter on “Defining Science” with Article 51 A(h) in the Indian Constitution which states as a Fundamental Duty of the Citizens of India, “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry of reform,” the only world constitution that embeds science so overtly. He goes on to explain how Nehru himself misunderstood Indian intellectual history and allied himself with the 'sciento-optimism' that was so characteristic of the immediate post world war II era, symbolized by Vannevar Bush's report on “Science, the Endless Frontier.” Since that time the relationship between science and government and science and society more generally has become more complex, a topic Sarukkai explores in depth in the chapter “Science and the Human Subject,” arguing that science more aggressively develop internal controls on unbridled curiosity. The recent debate on whether to permit open publications of the work on genetic engineering modification of flu viruses is indicative that this deeper debate is perhaps being initiated within the scientific community. Even Alan Leshner, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has advocated the need for such deep dialogue, noting that “the link between science and the rest of society is a little fragile these days.”

The closing sections of the book are perhaps less convincing. In a section titled “Science and its Impact on the Self” Sarukkai opens up an almost Jeremiad like complaint, reminiscent of some of Virilio's laments, about the pace of change and the desire for speed. “In an age defined by speed, nothing is enough...there are important psychological and social consequences of living life in this manner..”. However I find myself in sympathy with his conclusion that it is necessary  “to humanize science is to bring back the human subject in its fullness within science and technology''. Indeed over the past few years I have helped create the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMERA: Chimera,fr ) with its aim of working on 'the human dimension of the sciences” as one place perhaps where the deep dialogue that Sarukkai calls for is being initiated. Sarukkai's arguments join my own belief that we need new systems of translation between Science and other sectors of society, and not just science education.

Sarukkai relates some examples of the different ways that science and religion interact in different cultures, citing the way that some scientists from the Indian Space Agency take models of their satellites to a temple in Tiripati Temple before the launch of the satellite. He explains how in the Hindu Festival Ayudha Pooja has evolved to include prayers to computers and scientific apparatus. The cultural and spiritual embedding of the scientific enterprise is rarely made explicit, as Sarukkai successfully does in his discussion of the ethics of curiosity. I remember at the International Astronautical Congress in Bangalore a few years ago, hearing the heads of space agencies each articulate in a few sentences their vision for the contribution of their agency to society. The head of NASA brazenly spoke of exploring and exploiting the solar system, a direct extrapolation of the American manifest destiny doctrine and the endless frontier mythology. The head of the Indian Space Agency, ISRO, talked of contributing to helping human civilization “stay in balance with its planet,” clearly responding to a different cultural discourse; yet it is not simple: One of ISRO's proudest achievements is the launch of the Chandrayan missions to the moon, symbols of technological prowess and tokens of military capabilities, and China also has bought into the cold war era use of space as terrain for national competition. Nehru's original reasoning for including the 'duty to develop the scientific temper' in the Indian Constitution is still alive an well in governmental circles.

Finally, I Iook forward to Sarukkai's future writing on new narratives of the history and philosophy of science. In a number of sections he develops elements of a new histories of the multicultural origins of modern science. Drawing on recent scholarship of Arun Bala and others, one begins to see the outlines of new answers to Joseph Needham 's query of why modern science first developed in Europe and not elsewhere;  incidentally Needham was a founding Leonardo editorial advisor, and author of Science and Civilization in China. The developing answers to Needham's question include; it did; it isn’t always called science now though there are continuity of concepts and methods; science and its methods are not stable objects and are still evolving; modern science is not organically rooted only in Greek thought; in a 3000 year history of science it would be apparent that the interchanges between Asia, the Middle East and Europe were consequently that European scholarship has ideological and political reasons for a particular reading of history of science; that the invention of the printing press in Europe ensured disproportionate documentation of euro-centric historical sources. Finally it is hard not to observe that the history of modern science may look very different 400 years from now (800 years after Galileo) when scientific productivity of the BRIC countries outpaces that of North America and Western Europe and other cultural embedding of science bears its fruits. This will be particularly the case if the kind of deep dialogue and negotiation between science and other sectors of society called for by Sarukkai really takes place allowing the emergence of a new ethical basis for the scientific community.

I highly recommend this book to Leonardo readers. It is intended for students, but also interested scientists and researchers in the arts and humanities.

(For deontological reasons I need to mention that Sundar Sarukkai is a professional colleague as a member of the Leonardo Editorial Board and section editor for the “Re-Imagining the Moon” editorial project of the Journal).

Last Updated 1 May 2012

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