Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dissecting my Conflicted Brain

No wonder Science is misunderstood[Image from]

Sometimes I wonder if I should've chosen less taxing electives in my course. Science journalism classes are really engaging but a ton of work. Environment elective is equally engaging but surprisingly very emotionally taxing. Now and then I find myself a little confused. From 8.30 AM to 10 AM I'm lost in the wonder of science and how it's shaped our lives. Then from 11 to 12.30 I find myself acknowledging how in the craze for economic 'growth', science and engineering is sucking all the life out of indigenous people and their surroundings. Not to mention the time in between where I'm attending our Covering Deprivation class which makes me uncomfortably aware of how hypocritical it is to get distressed by the poverty around us, sitting in my Levi's Jeans in an AC hall. So that's my Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in a nutshell.

Pretty intense stuff in itself, but made even more hard-hitting by the fact that all are taught by such amazing teachers. You can't imagine how new this is all to me. Studying in crappy institutions up till now, my view of the Indian education system tends to be pretty dismal, perhaps unfairly so. So the emotionalness of classes only makes me grateful.

Particularly distressing though is the possibility of the optimism of Science classes and the pessimism of the Environment classes ultimately canceling each other out, and having a net effect of nothing on me. Somehow, our Science class outing today to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences quelled these fears somewhat.

Thanks to our super-proactive lecturer, we got to meet a theoretical Physicist called Prof. Murthy (of course he probably has a proper name) who along with some other scientists is spearheading a project called the 'Indian Neutrino Observatory'. Now theoretical physics is pretty much the most hardcore science of all in a way. It's all about understanding the most fundamental basis of everything that exists. Now I wasn't the biggest Physics buff in school by a long shot but I always figured unlike Chemistry and Biology which had some kind of direct tangible effect on our lives (eg. Coca Cola, Cancer), Physics was kind of unnecessary. I mean, come on. Till maybe electricity level physics is forgivable. But what possible need do we have to find know whether the Higgs Boson really existed? Or spend millions on research in the hope of assigning a mass to a sub atomic particle that might not even exist?? And do we really need to know what Jupiter is made of? Seemed a bit frivolous. Something that would interest and affect only geeks and physics fanatics. And nuclear energy? Oh that's gonna spell doom anyway.

It's easy to form those kind of judgements without really knowing what the deal is.
And I'm beginning to realize how horribly wrong I have been. Every possible technology we take for granted now is in some way a spin off from particle physics experiments. That XRay you took for your broken toe? Physics. That cell phone near you that just beeped? Physics. Waiting for Glee to air on TV? Physics. Oh wait who wait's for stuff to air on TV these days with the Internet? PHYSICS!
Really! i feel pretty stupid about my previous attitude. Imagine if teachers in school actually told us all this in school. In not doing so, I think it's pretty probable that we lost out on thousands of potential scientists, who are probably stuck in high paying jobs they hate.

Anyway, back to Professor Murthy. Now the Indian Neutrino Observatory sounds pretty fancy. To reemphasize its fanciness is the fact that it's set to be built more than a kilometer under a mountain in Theni, Tamil Nadu. Basically it's gonna house this thing called a detector that will try to capture and detect neutrinos emitted from the sun (they're underground to filter out the background 'noise' that is also emitted. Neutrino's, unlike the unwanted noise is not affected by the kilometer of rock in between). So this sounds like a hell (no pun intended)lot of work eh? And you'd probably expect the whole baggage of displaced villagers, angry activists, adamant scientists to follow. But these guys really seem to be different!

Dr. Murthy was disarmingly transparent to us, revealing all the opposition, the thrills and the disappointments they had to face on the way. It was really heartening to hear how the environmental and social impact of their endeavor has been such a high priority for them since the beginning. They spent years and years just to find a spot that would pose the least threat to human and wild life. They spent time, manpower and money to educate the nearby folk on what their project was about and how their livelihood would not be intruded. Even their website shows their dedication to this. I've never seen such an extensive FAQ page anywhere on the net. They've entertained the most fundamental and controversial questions that I bet a lot of other scientists would dismiss or get agitated over. Obviously, societal acceptance is a big deal for them and that seems to be a rare trait in these days of anti-nuclear agitation. I bet if the Kudankulam N-plant planners, politicians and experts involved really had nothing to hide, they would've have taken a little more reasonable and educated approach to pacify the displaced and the activists.

Dr. Murthy described to us how they had almost settled on a spot in Nilgiris to be the site of the INO, but a clearly unintelligent newspaper (no prize for guessing which) needlessly agitated the people in the areas by raising baseless concerns about radioactivity and resource depletion. This resulted in the cancelation of that plan and further delay, not to mention seemingly diligent scientists being attacked. Now I feel disgusted at this hyperactive, disillusioned, irresponsible role the media played. Because as Prof. Murthy said, there is no question of harmful radiation, since the entire focus of their experiment is based on keeping the lab surroundings as unpolluted of radiation as possible! Any radiation would defeat the purpose. Hence, it was like accusing a germophobe of bad hygiene!

Today, Science and Industries are dangerously close to being labeled the enemy. And incidents like Kudankulam, Bhopal tragedy, Tata's Singur plant and countless others are responsible for this. I'm hanging on to my belief that the INO project will change this trend, and show us that it is possible to be socially responsible in the path to progress. Otherwise, pursuing science journalism might end up taking a bigger toll on my conscience than I'd imagined.


  1. Thank you!

    Brilliant piece, Nan. And voiced so many concerns I was having. It's hard for someone who sees the potential technology offers and also cares about the planet to to pick a side.