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Dr. Jai Maharaj

Posts: 165
Registered: 12/13/04
Posted: Jun 8, 2003 4:51 AM
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Why Indian science scores

By Shashi Tharoor
Sunday, June 8, 2003

WORKING, as I have been for the last couple of years, on
a short biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, I became conscious
of the extent to which we have taken for granted one
vital legacy of his: the creation of an infrastructure
for excellence in science and technology, which has
become a source of great self-confidence and competitive
advantage for the country today. Nehru was always
fascinated by science and scientists. He made it a point
to attend the annual Indian Science Congress every year,
and he gave free rein (and taxpayers' money) to
scientists in whom he had confidence to build high-
quality institutions. Men like Homi Bhabha and Vikram
Sarabhai constructed the platform for Indian
accomplishments in the fields of atomic energy and space
research; they and their successors have given the
country a scientific establishment without peer in the
developing world. Jawaharlal's establishment of the
Indian Institutes of Technology (and the spur they
provided to other lesser institutions) have produced many
of the finest minds in America's Silicon Valley. Today,
an IIT degree is held in the same reverence in the U.S.
as one from MIT or Caltech, and India's extraordinary
leadership in the software industry is the indirect
result of Jawaharlal Nehru's faith in scientific
education. Nehru left India with the world's second-
largest pool of trained scientists and engineers,
integrated into the global intellectual system, to a
degree without parallel outside the developed West.

And yet the roots of Indian science and technology go far
deeper than Nehru. I was reminded of this yet again by a
remarkable new book, Lost Discoveries, by the American
writer Dick Teresi. Teresi's book studies the ancient
non-Western foundations of modern science, and while he
ranges from the Babylonians and Mayans to Egyptians and
other Africans, it is his references to India that caught
my eye. And how astonishing those are! The Rig Veda
asserted that gravitation held the universe together 24
centuries before the apple fell on Newton's head. The
Vedic civilisation subscribed to the idea of a spherical
earth at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks,
assumed the earth was flat. By the Fifth Century A.D.
Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3
billion years; as late as the 19th Century, English
scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years
old, and it is only in the late 20th Century that Western
scientists have come to estimate the earth to be about
4.6 billion years old.

If I were to focus on just one field in this column, it
would be that of mathematics. India invented modern
numerals (known to the world as "Arabic" numerals because
the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from
us!). It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero,
shunya; the concept of nothingness, shunyata, integral to
Hindu and Buddhist thinking, simply did not exist in the
West. ("In the history of culture," wrote Tobias Dantzig
in 1930, "the invention of zero will always stand out as
one of the greatest single achievements of the human
race.") The concept of infinite sets of rational numbers
was understood by Jain thinkers in the Sixth Century BCE
Our forefathers can take credit for geometry,
trigonometry, and calculus; the "Bakhshali manuscript",
70 leaves of bark dating back to the early centuries of
the Christian era, reveals fractions, simultaneous
equations, quadratic equations, geometric progressions
and even calculations of profit and loss, with interest.

Indian mathematicians invented negative numbers: the
British mathematician Lancelot Hogben, grudgingly
acknowledging this, suggested ungraciously that "perhaps
because the Hindus were in debt more often than not, it
occurred to them that it would also be useful to have a
number which represent the amount of money one owes".
(That theory would no doubt also explain why Indians were
the first to understand how to add, multiply and subtract
from zero -- because zero was all, in Western eyes, we
ever had.)

The Sulba Sutras, composed between 800 and 500 BCE,
demonstrate that India had Pythagoras' theorem before the
great Greek was born, and a way of getting the square
root of 2 correct to five decimal places. (Vedic Indians
solved square roots in order to build sacrificial altars
of the proper size.) The Kerala mathematician Nilakantha
wrote sophisticated explanations of the irrationality of
"pi" before the West had heard of the concept. The
Vedanga Jyotisha, written around 500 B.C., declares:
"Like the crest of a peacock, like the gem on the head of
a snake, so is mathematics at the head of all knowledge."
Our mathematicians were poets too! But one could go back
even earlier, to the Harappan civilisation, for evidence
of a highly sophisticated system of weights and measures
in use around 3000 B.C.

Archaeologists also found a "ruler" made with lines drawn
precisely 6.7 millimeters apart with an astonishing level
of accuracy. The "Indus inch" was a measure in consistent
use throughout the area. The Harappans also invented
kiln-fired bricks, less permeable to rain and floodwater
than the mud bricks used by other civilisations of the
time. The bricks contained no straw or other binding
material and so turned out to be usable 5, 000 years
later when a British contractor dug them up to construct
a railway line between Multan and Lahore. And while they
were made in 15 different sizes, the Harappan bricks were
amazingly consistent: their length, width and thickness
were invariably in the ratio of 4:2:1.

"Indian mathematical innovations," writes Teresi, "had a
profound effect on neighbouring cultures." The greatest
impact was on Islamic culture, which borrowed heavily
from Indian numerals, trigonometry and analemma. Indian
numbers probably arrived in the Arab world in 773 A.D.
with the diplomatic mission sent by the Hindu ruler of
Sind to the court of the Caliph al-Mansur. This gave rise
to the famous arithmetical text of al-Khwarizmi, written
around 820 A.D., which contains a detailed exposition of
Indian mathematics, in particular the usefulness of the
zero. With Islamic civilisation's rise and spread,
knowledge of Indian mathematics reached as far afield as
Central Asia, North Africa and Spain. "In serving as a
conduit for incoming ideas and a catalyst for influencing
others," Teresi adds, "India played a pivotal role." His
research is such a rich lode that I intend to return to
ancient Indian science in a future column.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under Secretary-
General for Communications and Public Information and the
author of seven books, most recently Riot and (with M. F.
Husain) Kerala: God's Own Country.

Read the complete news at:

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Jai Maharaj
Om Shanti

Panchaang for 8 Jyeshtth 5104, Saturday, June 7, 2003:

Shubhanu Nama Samvatsare Uttarayane Nartana Ritau
Vrishabh Mase Shukl Pakshe Manta Vasara Yuktayam
Poorvaphalguni-Uttaraphalguni Nakshatr Vajr-Siddhi Yog
Vishti-Bav Karan Ashtami Yam Tithau

Hindu Holocaust Museum

Hindu life, principles, spirituality and philosophy

The truth about Islam and Muslims

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