Posted by: Vikram | December 25, 2009

Reason and Effect

You cant be a good scientist if you do it because you want to win the Nobel Prize.

You cant place the destination before the journey, and hope to succeed as an individual or a society. Recently, Dr. Ramakrishnan, the chemist who won the Nobel Prize recently pointed out that,

“You can’t go into science thinking of a Nobel Prize. You can only go into science because you’re interested in it.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in his perceptive “Burden of Democracy” points out that we very often seek jobs for position and prestige, not passion or drive. The value of someone and his/her job is determined by his/her perceived ‘rank’ and income, not his/her actual work. On a broader level, this makes us thinks of many issues in an upside down way. A few Indians here and there getting the odd Nobel prize will not make India a country that consistently produces good science. It might put some balm over our deep wounds of inferiority. Our consternation at not ‘winning’ the Nobel Prize seems to stem more from a hurt ego (there might even be a parade of ‘India’s’ Nobel in Mumbai someday), rather than from the genuine grievances of our often neglected scientists.

Think about it, will an Indian scientist ‘winning’ a Nobel Prize make a parent think twice about dismissing his/her child’s plans of becoming a marine biologist ?

This appalling discourse, that conflates the inability of our society to create suitable environments for people of varying ambitions to thrive, with national pride is dangerous and self defeating. India could have tens of Olympic gold medalists but it might not a change a thing about the general difficulty of being a ‘sports professional’ in India. Also, such thinking mixes cause and effect. Indians getting Nobels or winning Olympic Medals should be the effect of a good environment for doing science or pursuing athletics. This means a change in attitudes across society and institutions. The ability of a few to get international prizes cannot be the reason for India being a good country to do science in. In fact, the Indian born people doing science abroad should give us pause to think about what made them go abroad rather than somehow fixating over what they eat at home or which village they were born in.

At some level, the same kind of confused thinking also pervades in how we think about art in India as well. Aakar Patel, in a recent column rightly points out the declining interest in Indian classical art across India. But classical art is as much ‘non-mainstream’ here in America, as it is in India. The vast majority of Americans are not classical music buffs, they patronize Hollywood just like Indians get entertainment from their cinema. But the difference is that America has an environment where young people are exposed to classical music and given the opportunity to learn it. They take up classical music for personal satisfaction and growth not for preserving ‘civilization’. Orchestras exist here because they are how musicians express themselves not to satisfy the art requirement of the middle class.

If we are to ‘fix’ our lack of medals, prizes etc, we need to create as good of an environment for people to become sitar players, chemists and long distance runners as we can. Perhaps we cant match the West right now, but we can do a lot better than we are doing today. Our schools teach our kids nothing but to mostly memorize and spit out, not to learn and grow. If the conditions permit, why not let santoor lessons be part of the curriculum for high-schoolers ? Why not let soccer be a course in school instead of an ‘extra-curricular activity’ ? A more wholistic approach to education will serve India’s future generations well, the prizes, medals etc will then come automatically.


  1. At the risk of confusing two issues, allow me to extend your argument a little further.

    The education system in India needs urgent reform because too many children are NOT getting an education.

    Maybe, just maybe an education system that is more activity based can –
    1) proliferate faster and thereby touch more children

    I think in some ways, this is already being attempted, with the SSA, Pratham’s ASER says that access is improving but quality remains a big problem.

    2) Provide more touch-points for children. These touch points will allow child to chose a stream of education that they are passionate about

    Absolutely right, just taking kids in high school to different univs and colleges, exposing them to various departments, will be a big help. In addition, schools should be asked to be more pro-active in organizing career showcase events.


  2. why do I get the feeling that this post is inspired by 3 idiots in some way? maybe coz I just wrote a post criticizing the movie. hmmm.

    In any case – visited your blog after a long time. Your tone has changed slightly since I last checked.

    Nice post.

    another thing – how about putting your views in more bite sized pieces (i.e. reducing the length of your posts slightly) – I know I’m guilty of the same crime – in case you want to maintain the size of your posts could you at least split the same into points or using sub-headings – would be easier to follow that way…

    • This post was inspired by Dr, Venkat Krishnan’s interactions with the Indian media. Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll try to add headings to my paras. I have done that on occasion before, and it is a good idea.

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