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- India’s Science Geniuses (and the Problems They are Solving) is a new book coauthored by scientist Archana Sharma and science journalist Spoorthy Raman.
- The book is a compelling, fast-paced read and fills the vacuum of accessible and affordable literature about contemporary Indian scientists.
- However, the narrative’s subjects are male- and upper-caste-dominated, it places too much emphasis on the Nobel Prizes, and overlooks the dubious nature of the term ‘genius’.
Hyderabad: As the COVID-19 pandemic was creating havoc around the planet, Archana Sharma and Spoorthy Raman were working at ungodly hours. Sharma, a senior physicist at CERN, in Europe, and Raman, a Canada-based science journalist, were working towards their new book, India’s Science Geniuses (and the Problems They are Solving).
For Sharma, it was very early in the morning. For Raman, it was very late at night. They worked through these hours, talking to 30 scientists whose work would later make it into the book.
Released to the public in late June this year, the book has drawn the attention of several people in the Indian science ecosystem. The cover quotes former secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Ashutosh Sharma, calling the book “eye-opening”.
The book is a compelling, fast-paced read and fills the vacuum of accessible and affordable literature about contemporary Indian scientists. It locates the work of the featured scientists in the context of Nobel Prize-winning discoveries that have happened worldwide. In doing so, it paints a glorious picture of the Indian science ecosystem.
And that’s where the book launches itself into dangerous territories.
The book begins with a preface from Sharma. She talks about how India’s Science Geniuses was born out of its predecessor, Nobel Dreams of India: Inspiring Budding Scientists (Juggernaut 2020), where Sharma and scientist Swetha Vijayakrishnan spoke to more than a hundred scientists in the country.
According to Sharma’s preface, the “common thread in all the stories: rigour and persistence”, drove her to conceptualise India’s Science Geniuses as a compilation that would highlight the work of thirty 30 scientists working in “Nobel-winning niche fields”.
The preface also liberally highlights Sharma’s own journey as a scientist: from growing up in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, to becoming a senior scientist at CERN. It touches upon her struggle as a woman in science and as somebody who had a “long-lasting imposter syndrome”.
It ends by reminding readers of the importance of cultivating one’s curiosity to successfully pursue science. Sharma writes in this regard: “Do not forget: the flame of curiosity burning in you cannot be put out.”
The book then swiftly segues to the work of scientists it features. The narrative is separated into three broad sections – biology, physics and chemistry – with each section featuring the work of 10 scientists working in Nobel-winning areas.
This classification is rather surprising. Science, as we know it today, is highly interdisciplinary, where boundaries between physics, chemistry and biology are blurring with every passing day – if not rendered almost meaningless. How did the authors then classify “How do we make sense of our brain using mathematics?” as biology and “How do we make sense of movements in our cells?” as chemistry?
According to Spoorthy Raman, their rationale was to categorise the work of a featured scientist based on the subject in which the relevant Nobel Prize was awarded. For example, the chapter titled “How do we make sense of our brain using mathematics?” features Srinivasa Chakravarthy from IIT Madras and is placed in the biology section.
This is because a part of Chakravarthy’s work in modelling the brain included verifying results from the works of John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser. The trio was awarded the medicine/physiology Nobel Prize in 2014 for their work on how certain neurons in the brain encode spatial information.
Each chapter begins with a title that foregrounds a research question and appears to be a culmination of three broad ideas. At the beginning is a brief biography of the researcher being featured. The bulk of the chapter comprises the work of this scientist, interrupted by a box that talks about the corresponding Nobel Prize-winning discovery. This box also tells us how the work of the featured scientist is building upon, or related to, this work.
The authors are gracious in not using jargon while ensuring that the science hasn’t been oversimplified. Several chapters underline how important collaborations are for the progress of science. For example, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research biologist Sandhya Koushika is quoted as saying, “I love working with physicists because, unlike us biologists, they are always trying to find generic theories of how things work. They are simplifiers.”
Importantly, the book highlights scientists across academic stages – from assistant professors to retired professors, from ones who have only recently started their laboratories to ones who have headed institutions. While some names are well known, several are not.
At least in this context, the book lives up to its promise in the preface: “The stories have been selected to showcase a representative diversity of scientists from our country working on cutting-edge scientific research.”
This said, the promise is only partially fulfilled.
While the book does feature scientists from diverse stages of academic careers, the composition of the book is largely male and upper-caste. Except for the biology section, where six women scientists have been featured versus four men, the physics and chemistry sections are both male-dominated.
The physics section features three women while the chemistry section features only one (this fraction is lower than the base rate of women faculty members in chemistry in India – 11.5%). Almost everyone featured appears to be Brahmin or upper-caste.
This is in sharp contrast to the book’s preface, which indicates an understanding of how science is not a level-playing field for gender-marginal groups.
Raman told The Wire Science that she had a minimal role in shortlisting the names that would make it into the book. Among the names she did contribute, around 10, she said she made a conscious effort to include more women.
“I couldn’t do much, because people from marginalised-caste backgrounds are already underrepresented in the Indian science ecosystem,” she said. “So you have a very small subset to kind of choose from.”
She suggested that this is a larger conversation for people to take up in the science ecosystem, while underlining the fact that it is crucial that Indian science institutions hire more people from marginalised-caste backgrounds.
Most of the people featured in the book are also affiliated with elite tier-I institutions in the country. Five are from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), five from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, and three from IITs.
There is only one scientist from a central university featured in the book: Dhevalapally B. Ramachary from the University of Hyderabad.
This is worrisome because tier-1 institutions are not the only spaces where science is practised – yet they often feature most prominently in the public imagination, including in the mainstream press. There are several Central and state universities where scientists are actively conducting good research. In fact, Sharma herself obtained her first PhD from the University of Delhi.
Such exclusion of people from Central and state universities invisibilises the work of many scientists who are working with several constraints, including on their funding and infrastructure.
Focusing on elite institutions alone might also be the reason why there is a lack of diverse representation in the book. These institutions, especially IITs and the IISc, have been heavily criticised for the poor representation of women and other gender-marginal groups, and people from marginalised-caste backgrounds, among their employees and students.
The ‘genius’ problem
There are other concerns with the book’s approach to the scientists it features and the Indian science ecosystem in general. Perhaps the most prominent one arises in its title: India’s Science Geniuses.
In a 2020 webinar, sociologist of science Gita Chadha had remarked that “by laying emphasis only on 1) the shining individual ‘genius’ of scientists and 2) the ‘great’ and ‘exceptional’ science, we mystify science beyond social measure. In trying to make it aspirational, we make it inaccessible.”
According to Chadha, a scientific “genius” is defined by two “perceived traits”: “innate ability” for science and an “inevitable eminence”. Who possesses these perceived traits is related to how caste-, class-, gender-, sexuality- and disability-privileged they are. Anthropologist Renny Thomas’s work has shown how Brahmin scientists in an elite science institution regard themselves as naturally inclined to succeed in the sciences.
Raman recounted to The Wire Science that when the title was first proposed, “one of the things that was raised was ‘who are we to call them [the featured scientists] genius?’” It was the publisher who was thus inclined, according to Raman, given that it reflected the “breakthrough” nature of the science that the people featured were practising.
Raman also cautioned readers against considering the book as an “extensive list” of scientists doing breakthrough work in the country.
Along with upholding the construct of the scientific genius, the book also overemphasises on the Nobel Prizes. There’s a long history of controversies surrounding the Nobel Prizes.
Vox wrote about how the Nobel Prizes misrepresent the collaborative and slow-progressing nature of science. They also create a competitive picture of science, instead of a collaborative one, that then affects how the people – especially younger children – perceive science.
The Nobel Prizes have also been critiqued for sustaining the image of the scientific genius. Biologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang wrote in a 2013 article that Nobel Prizes “reinforce a flawed reward system in science in which the winner takes all, and the contributions of the many are neglected by disproportionate attention to the contributions of a few.”
As The Atlantic noted, the Nobel Prizes are rarely about who has made important contributions to science and more about “who has best survived the hazardous labyrinth of academia.”
The book, therefore, works with dangerous tropes – even as it promises a thrilling view of science in India.
India’s Science Geniuses is dedicated to “all students who continue to challenge our imagination and creativity to find new ways of sharing and learning.” In a similar vein, the task for a book on the lines of India’s Science Geniuses would be to challenge dominant imaginations of science in India.
This correspondent reached out to both Archana Sharma and Spoorthy Raman for comments. Sharma had a busy schedule and couldn’t respond by the time this review was published. This review will be updated if and when she responds.
Sayantan Datta (they/them) are a queer-trans science writer, communicator and journalist. They currently work with the feminist multimedia science collective TheLifeofScience.com, and tweet at @queersprings.