Narendra Modi
NO PLACE FOR ‘MUMBO JUMBO’: The Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum features the Bakhshali manuscript (below left) and tributes to the country’s space programme (below right)

by Amit Roy


INDIA’S prime minister Narendra Modi was due to visit the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum in London on Wednes­day (18) – which is partly why I dropped in to see the exhibits last Saturday (14).

On the first warm spring day of the year, Indi­an parents were ushering their impressionable sons and daughters around displays that reflect the country’s achievements over centuries in everything from mathematics to astronomy, physics and medicine.

Back in India, Modi’s visit will be significant because some Hindu groups have been delving into the ancient scriptures, with their depiction of flying machines and awesome weapons un­leashed by the Gods, to boast of the country’s scientific achievements.

Scientists, however, have very little time for such “mumbo jumbo”.

The president of the Royal Society, Prof Ven­katraman (“Venki”) Ramakrishnan, wasn’t im­pressed when I asked him about the assertion by India’s science and technology minister, Harsh Vardhan, that the Vedas “might have a theory superior to that of Einstein’s E=mc²”.

Vardhan’s alleged source was the late Stephen Hawking, but so far no one has unearthed any observation by the latter which amounts to a scientific endorsement of the Vedas.

Venki said: “A better Stephen Hawking quote would be, ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.’”

The Science Museum can be described as a temple to evidence-based research.

A typical exhibit at Illuminating India makes note of “Bose and Einstein’s subatomic physics” with an example of a letter from the former to the latter and says: “The great Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose formed a close working re­lationship with Albert Einstein after writing this letter to him in 1924, accompanied by a short article on subatomic particles.

“The correspondence began a long-running collaboration between Bose and Einstein that led to the new field of quantum statistics. This enabled scientists to predict the behaviour of subatomic particles that were named ‘bosons’ in his honour. The most recent to be discovered was the Higgs boson in 2013.”

Another display shows handwritten notes made by the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ra­manujan, whose bust adorns Venki’s desk at the Royal Academy.

The exhibition, which opened last year as part of the UK-India year of culture, has a folio from the Bakhshali manuscript, a document shown to hold the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

Other objects on display range from some of the earliest standardised weights originating from the Indus Valley civilisation in 3000–2500 BCE to a payload developed for launch last year “as part of India’s flourishing space programme”.

The exhibition, which had been extended by a month because of popular demand, was due to end on Sunday (22).