Illuminating Indias scientific contributions

Illuminating Indias scientific contributions
Illuminating Indias scientific contributions

A brief chronicle of the country's inventions and ideas that have been pivotal in shaping the world come to life as part of the UK-India Year of Culture. Some of the most important ideas in the history of science, technology, mathematics and engineering find their roots in India. Thanks to the influence that Indian scientific thought had on the civilisations with which it made contact, those ideas and inventions spread throughout the world. Illuminating India: 5000 years of science & innovation is an exhibition at the Science Museum in London that will showcase just some of the highlights from the long and prodigious history of contributions that have been made to science and technology from the subcontinent. It tells stories ranging from the earliest feats of civil engineering achieved by the Indus Valley Civilisation 5,000 years ago to the interplanetary expeditions of the Indian Space Research Organisation today. It is on the one hand a story of people - mathematicians from Brahmagupta to Srinivasa Ramanujan, scientists such as J.C. Bose and C.V. Raman, and modern computer technologists like Ajay Bhatt and Vinod Khosla. On the other hand, it is also a story of place - the unique environment that shapes India made possible the Great Trigonometrical Survey which established the precise curvature of the earth, and its high mountains with clear skies enabled important advances in astronomy and solar physics. The exhibition also shows the close relationship between science and culture. Jain scholars, contemplating the vast scale of the cosmos and of cycles of rebirth, developed advanced mathematics including different types of infinities to grapple with their philosophical concepts. Making extensive and detailed astronomical observations in part to have certainty about when auspicious occasions would fall in the calendar, Vedic and Hindu jyotis as also made huge advances in understanding the motion of heavenly bodies and the mathematics needed to accurately predict regular astronomical events. In the Mughal period, Akbar created elephant reserves and Jai Singh II commissioned the world-renowned Jantar Mantar observatories. Scientific thought and endeavour has been at the heart of India throughout its history and valued by the many different peoples of the region. It is often - and I believe, mistakenly - thought that advances in technology inherently involve devices of increasing complexity and therefore expense. Another area in which India is having a transformative impact on our relationship with science and technology today is through the concept of jugaad. In English often called "frugal innovation" or "hack" - though jugaad itself is gaining more popularity as a term - it refers to low-cost solutions to technical requirements. The exhibition includes a number of examples of how the practice of jugaad in India has had a lifechanging - and lifesaving - effect on people not only in India but across the world. Perhaps the most famous example of this in medical technology is the Jaipur foot. The use of cheaper and more flexible materials than the Western composite carbon fibre models, combined with the increased ease of fitting the prosthesis, revolutionised the accessibility of artificial limbs to the poorest and most in need. BMVSS, the charity who distribute and fit them, estimate that there have been over 1.5 million beneficiaries of the Jaipur limbs. A similar breakthrough was made by a team of students in 2008 on Stanford University's Design for Extreme Affordability course, itself a reflection of the importance of jugaad. Doing their research in India, and with two of the team - Naganand Murty and Rahul Panicker - coming originally from India, the group developed a neonatal warming pouch that performs the same job as a Western hospital incubator at a fraction of the technological complexity and cost. While a standard hospital incubator costs around $20,000, an Embrace Nest sells for approximately 1 per cent of that cost. To date, over 200,000 new-born babies have been supported by this innovation according to Embrace. Jugaad has also manifested itself in surprising ways and places. The dabbawallah network in Mumbai makes use of a simple alphanumeric and colour-coding system to deliver and collect some 130,000 lunches every day. That such a large and complex delivery system can be maintained cheaply and efficiently without the use of an IT system is a testament to how jugaad innovation can produce affordable and sustainable working practices with simple technologies. It has attracted the attention of researchers at the Indian Institute of Management and Harvard Business School for this reason. Stories such as these also speak to another important theme addressed in the exhibition. India's contributions to science and technology do not take place solely in India. Members of the Indian diaspora make contributions to advancements across the globe. Some of the most ubiquitous of modern computing hardware and software - Sun Microsystems, the USB, the Intel Pentium processor - were achieved by teams led by engineers born and educated in India, and working in the US. Many of those who went to the US in the 1970s and 80s to make the most of opportunities there are now returning to India as it establishes its place a world leader in information technology. The significance of India's contributions to the history of science, technology, engineering and mathematics cannot be overstated. From the birth of the mathematical concept of zero over 1500 years ago, to the lifesaving medical technologies of today designed on the principles of jugaad, India and its people have played a pivotal role in shaping the global narrative of the history of science. The Science Museum welcomes the opportunity to celebrate this story as we mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence as part of the 2017 India-UK Year of Culture. Matt Kimberley is Head of Content for 'Illuminating India: 5000 years of science & innovation' at the Science Museum, London.

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