Science: Communicating, Educating and all that Jazz!


Subhayu Bagchi

Credits : vlad tchompalov (unsplash)

  In this piece the author looks back on the ills of misinformation and lack of scientific thought prevalent in modern society and tries to chart a way out of this situation. The path, suggested by the author, lies in undertaking programmes of science communication across all boards and inculcation of scientific discipline from an early age even in the household. In summary, it aims to set up a system of science education that takes a holistic approach to science outside classrooms.

  It has been almost a year since we started this little endeavour (Cogito137 - The Thought Capsule) : a rag-tag bunch of students of the basic sciences from a third world country, coming together to spread the joys and wonder of the ideas we love the most and celebrate it along the way. As I draw close to this journey, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss what my science is to me and how I hope it is perceived by others, and possibly chart a way forward for science in the great democratic republic where I was born and raised.

  Growing up, each of us have heard the same pieces of advice: ‘A developing country like India needs engineers and doctors to progress in the world forum. We are not even economically well-enough to reduce poverty, how are we going to fund “research”? How is “research” supposed to produce food on the table?’ People far better than me have attempted to quell such unfounded doubts. So I will not step on their toes, rather what we can try to do is look at avenues of spreading scientific literacy in India. Scientific literacy of the general public is the first step to get out of the shadows and shine on the world stage.

  What do I mean by scientific literacy? How is it different from scientific education? I would begin by saying that one does not imply the other.

ISRO chief K Sivan sought the blessings of the Seer of the Sri Krishna Mutt in Udupi ahead of the Chandrayaan-2 launch (2019) (credits : The Hindu)ISRO chief K Sivan sought the blessings of the Seer of the Sri Krishna Mutt in Udupi ahead of the Chandrayaan-2 launch (2019) (credits : The Hindu)   I have been lucky to be under the tutelage of some wonderful teachers of the humanities who have opened my eyes to the arts in the sciences. On the other hand, we see splashed across newspapers, the chiefs of space agencies performing auspicious pujas before important launches and wearing certain stones on their hands to seek the blessings of the Gods. It is easy to overlook the extent of damage this causes to the general public and to the future. So please do not confuse the two.

  Scientific literacy entails an awareness of the process of science: a series of logical deductions based on verifiable assumptions. Scientific literacy is what is taught to us at high school level. It is what helps us to do ‘household science’, like curdling milk, use thermometers, or remember to disconnect major appliances during a thunderstorm. These are very elementary applications of easily understandable concepts that are hard-wired into our brains from a very young age. This is the first stage of building scientific literacy. Increasingly over the years, even the basic education system has been exploited by petty politics to such an extent, that this fundamental bulwark of scientific literacy is being impacted.

  The next step is to create a sense of scientific enquiry in the household. Much like charity, science also begins at home. Looking back, my curiosity for everything scientific was founded on a few pivotal points like my father (a pharmacist by profession) explaining to me how vaccines (and medicines for that matter) work inside the body, or me trying to explain to him why oil spills from waiting cars on a wet road show a rainbow of colours. Science is the attempt of explaining the world to yourself and to others in a way that is verifiable and reproducible. Science communication can be as simple as explaining why plants are green to letting a child find out how seeds become saplings through a small fun project.

 The then ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan visited the Tirupati temple with replicas of Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM)PSLV-C25 to seek divine blessings (2013). The replicas were placed for a while at the feet of the idol of Lord Venkateswara.(credit : India Today) The then ISRO chief K Radhakrishnan visited the Tirupati temple with replicas of Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM)PSLV-C25 to seek divine blessings (2013). The replicas were placed for a while at the feet of the idol of Lord Venkateswara.(credit : India Today)   At this point, another question arises: for this to truly work, should there be a science-educated person in every household? The answer is no. What you need is an attitude (and aptitude) for finding answers out for yourselves. This extends to the point of seeking advice/knowledge from those-in-the-know. The ability to look for answers to experts, and believing in the science of experts, is something that is sorely missing in today’s age of gimmicky news and farce tabloids. It doesn’t help when people in positions of power preach absurd things like defeating a virus by banging utensils or lighting lamps. When one sees an eclipse, it is far more worthy to explain the position of planets in simple terms and then take the child to a planetarium, than doing the harmful act of putting it down to a demon in the sky. The best gift you can give a scientist is to ask them about their work/research. Be careful though, sometimes we have a hard time stopping.

  Science communication, in its essence, ranges from explaining why asphalt roads look shiny from afar in hot weather, to presenting the fruits of cutting-edge research from journals to the public audience. Science communication needs to come out of the journal clubs, laboratories, scientific journals and into classrooms, xerox shops, grocery stores, households. Science should be less taught as a subject in school and more as a way of life.

  Summing up, I would condense it in three succinct points as below:

  The last bit brings me to my last point: in order for experts to exist, in the first place, more research should be encouraged. And one way of doing that is to fund more fundamental research in the basic sciences. Almost without exception, all fundamental research leads to applicable technology. The theory of the electron in an atom now gives us the mobile phones you see each day. But that connection could never have been foreseen. So if we are to build a sustainable future, funding research in all fields of science is the most important step among many to eradicating a host of other problems in the long term. In this regard, introduction of High-Yield-Variety of seeds and the resultant Green Revolution should be cited as an example. All in all, the revolution of science communication that we have undertaken should not be seen as the cause for a select few but should be welcomed by everyone to step into a better world, more equal and secure for all.

It do be like that sometimesIt do be like that sometimes
Credits : xkcd comics

Subhayu Bagchi is an alumnus of IISER Kolkata. He is currently a grad physics researcher at Ole Miss; and a games and puzzles aficionado. He also dabbles in freelancing, music and scicomm. Never perfect.

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