Homi Bhabha and Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Homi Bhabha and Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, 1954. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Castes and moulds

Abha Sur exposes how caste, class and gender prejudices continue to shape Indian science.

The late 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century saw a flourishing of scientific activity in what was then British India. Driven partly by nationalist fervour, several people carried out remarkable work on a range of subjects. One physicist, C V Raman, won the Nobel Prize, and another, Meghnad Saha, was nominated for one. A third, S Chandrasekhar, did seminal work on black holes that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize decades later. Starting with the mathematician S Ramanujan in 1918, ten Southasian scientists had been elected fellows of the British Royal Society before Independence in 1947.

It is this period that Abha Sur examines in her book Dispersed Radiance: Caste, gender, and modern science in India. She investigates hitherto unexplored territory, primarily how caste and gender played out – obviously or unobtrusively – in the lives, careers and, perhaps most controversially, in the scientific output of the scientists of that period, especially in that of Meghnad Saha. Sur justifies her choice of subject, stating that by and large:

Dispersed Radiance is, therefore, a rare effort. It stands out in sharp contrast from many histories of science in India, which often feature what can best be termed hagiographies, with uncritical portraits of various famous scientists. Sur's work is all the more remarkable since in standard scientific narratives, the inner workings of the discipline are not determined by external factors such as class, gender, race and caste. Scientists are often told that they should disregard such factors as they work on a problem, which then feeds the oft-heard assertion that science is neutral and objective.

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Himal Southasian