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Science, God, Nationalism and the ISRO’s milestone

Science, God, Nationalism and the ISRO’s milestone

When India accomplished a controlled landing near the moon’s south pole on August 23 around 6 pm Indian time, it heralded a historic moment in the country’s space research saga and for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This marvellous engineering feat makes India only the fourth nation after the United States, the Soviet Union and China to achieve a controlled lunar landing and the first to touch down at the polar region, about 600 km from the pole.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission understandably generated a mass jubilation among the populace, amounting to hysteria generating strong vibes of nationalism, as comparable to a high-voltage cricket match. This moment belongs to all those unsung heroes in ISRO who worked behind the scenes to make this happen. It needs to be specially mentioned that many of the ISRO engineers graduated from local engineering colleges, and not from the front ranking educational institutes in the country like the Indian Institutes of Technology.

From the humble beginnings in a coastal village of  Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram – epitomised by a popular photograph showing some members of the ISRO staff carrying part of a rocket on a bicycle – the Indian Space Organisation has come a long way, literally as well as figuratively.

Apart from executing a superb engineering feat of soft landing of the moon craft Vikram, the scientific output in real terms is expected to come from the analyses of the observations to be made by the rover Pragyan, which is currently being set free to move around on the lunar surface to detect the chemical composition of the soil using its various types of sensors, most importantly to find clues of a chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen in the moon’s thin layer of upper soil. The analyses of the spectral measurement data collected using infrared spectrometer from the short-lived rover delivered through the first Chandrayaan mission in 2009, along with data from other space missions like Cassini (1999) and Deep Impact (2009) suggested the presence water molecules that might be sourced from the impact of a water bearing comet or asteroid, or internally from the moon itself.

Analysed by a group ISRO and NASA scientists, led by the planetary geologist Carle Pieters from Brown University, in a paper published in an issue of Science in 2009, the data indicated that the lunar Polar Regions hold better chances of having water or hydroxyl than elsewhere. The paper was also quick to provide a caveat that this is just a very thin film of water and not to be confused with a puddle or lake. The question of its actual source remains unanswered. If the Chandrayan-3 mission is able to provide solid evidence for the presence of usable water forms and for their sources, only then it would be possible to characterise this mission as scientifically successful, notwithstanding the superb engineering mastery exhibited during the mission.

Celebrating the culmination of the moon landing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “This success belongs to all of humanity and it will help moon missions by other countries in the future”, acknowledging the fact that science is universal and unifying. Most importantly, science is a cooperative venture. The International Space Station (ISS) – a unique space-based world-class research centre international cooperation in space research – is an excellent example. The participating nations are using it as a platform attempting to solve problems in medicine, ecology and several other branches. Science can’t develop in isolation, and no nation or any specific societal or cultural group can think themselves as superior to others in intellectual abilities. Science progresses through active collaborations and enduring partnerships, not just limited to national borders but spanning the entire globe. At various occasions, the ISRO chairman has himself graciously acknowledged the support from NASA, JPL, ESA and Australia’s space agency and commented on the importance of global contributions to the success of projects. Thus being a scientific organisation, ISRO with an international reputation needs to be cautious of safeguarding its secular image when it comes to public perception, both nationally and internationally.

But certain developments set alarm bells ringing, such as the attempts to entwine itself with a particular religious narratives by allowing the Chandrayaan landing site to be named “Shiv Shakti”. This attempt conflicts with internationally accepted norms for naming the planetary sites prescribed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). According to the IAU guidelines, “No names having political, military or religious significance may be used, except for names of political figures prior to the 19th century”, although it may be argued that such norms are only applicable to physical features and not to the landing sites. The prime minister, who proposed the name for the landing site, links “Shiv Shakti” to “India’s commitment to universal welfare and the power of women”, but it may alternatively be interpreted as an attempt to link the Chandrayaan success to his party’s nationalist narratives by meshing science with a particular religious symbolism.

Banu Subramaniam discusses in her book Holy Science how a political movement can mesh science, myth and pseudoscience, resulting in a “scientised religion” and “religionised science” that would agree with a vision of “archaic modernity”. Such tendencies are not restricted to India, one only needs to look across the border to Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan where laws are made in tune with a particular interpretation of Islamic belief with devastating impact on the respective societies.

Amid debates among the public over faith vs science in the country in the background of Chandrayaan-3 mission, former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair said that even great scientists like Albert Einstein were of the view that there is something beyond the visible universe and referred to it as God or creator. He is wrong in saying that Einstein believed in a God as a creator and a “law giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment”. Einstein said this: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” This places him firmly in the tradition of Spinoza in repudiating the notion of a god who took part in human affairs.

What seems to be missing in the statements of the former and present ISRO leadership regarding their public displays of their temple visits is the fact that the “cosmic awe” of scientists like Einstein cannot be equated with a personal god who decides the success or failure of a scientific mission like “Chandrayaan”, based on a reward system of pleasing the god/s. As Richard Dawkins opined, the argument that religion and science occupy separate magisteria is also not logical because religions still make claims about the world which on analysis, turn out to be scientific claims. It can also be established that it is not the profundity of the metaphysics that attracts the majority of religious adherents, it’s the indoctrination received from the parents during their formative years. The convictions that you passionately believe in would have been a completely different set of convictions had you happened to be born in a different place.

ISRO is a highly admired institution that is involved in science and technology for the benefit of humanity. Society at large looks up to those who are in leading positions in this organisation as motivators and influencers. Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India contended that scientific temper motivates intellectual enquiry and observation; it conflicts with the method of religion, which relies on emotion and intuition, thus producing “intolerance, credulity and superstition”. Following the legacy of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder and architect of the Indian space programme, the present leadership of this scientific organisation would also be doing a great service by championing the cause of scientific temper among the younger generation, as per Article 51 A(h) of the Indian Constitution, thus tapping the liberating potential of human minds.

C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

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