Thursday, February 29, 2024

Wither, scientific temperament? | Mint

First, take the truly awful recent front-page report about two deaths in a small Haryana village. Six years apart, two young women from there fell in love. One with a man outside her caste. The other with a man from another village. Both these caused plenty of local annoyance, not least from their own families.

You know what’s coming. Eventually, the women’s own families allegedly killed both. There are some ghastly, nauseating quotes from family members. “How can you be with someone from a village nearby?” asked the mother of one of the murdered women. “Girls cannot interact with men, especially from their own village or from those nearby.” The bereaved husband of the other woman listened to his own mother say: “[Their marriage] is a shameful deed. I would have never accepted it.” And both households, the report tells us, believed that “you cannot marry someone from the same village because it is like marrying your brother.”

And if these two murders weren’t horrifying enough, we have the chief minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar. Supporting a call to prohibit marriages between people from the “same gotra and village”, Khattar had in 2020 claimed such prohibition had “scientific backing”.

The word “gotra” usually refers to lineage that, to many people, marriage must not violate, for that would amount to incest. I don’t want to argue about this, nor chase a precise definition of the word. But to suggest that someone from the same or nearby village is automatically of the same “gotra“, as these murderers did, is, by itself and at best, questionable. To murder a woman for such a relationship is a grotesque crime. That a chief minister waves away such atrocities is unconscionable.

But that he does so by invoking science is profoundly disheartening. He seeks a patina of respectability for an outlook that’s indefensible in anyone, least of all an elected official, and he thinks he will get it by tossing us the phrase “scientific backing”.

No, Shri Khattar, there’s nothing scientific here. Just irrational hatred.

Second, take a short clip that’s making the rounds. It features a young woman interviewing Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister for road transport and highways, in what looks like a tunnel (https://bitly.ws/VjW9). In fact, it is indeed a tunnel, being built below the western reaches of New Delhi. Gadkari explains at some length why this tunnel is such a marvel of planning, engineering and cost savings. Judging by the comments the clip has attracted, this has become one more reason to applaud Gadkari’s vision and drive.

Which is all good, as far as it goes. But the interview features two statements that might furrow some brows. The first is that the tunnel is 28km long. The second is about people driving to Delhi airport from Punjab and Haryana. “People coming to Punjab and Haryana, from Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, they can turn after Panipat and use UR-2 to directly reach airport in 20 minutes,” Gadkari says.

One problem: just two days later, there was news of work on this tunnel being “80% complete” (https://bitly.ws/VjWK). The length of this nearly-complete tunnel? Not 28km, but 3.6km.

Another problem: even a quick glance at a map shows that the distance between Panipat and the airport in Delhi is about 100km—most of it along an arrow-straight existing road. What kinds of cars on what kind of road will cover that distance in 20 minutes, meaning at a speed of 300km per hour?

My complaint here is not about Minister Gadkari. He may have had the travel time from the highway to the airport in mind, not the time from Panipat to the airport. Secondly, the whole Dwarka expressway, including the tunnel, is 28km. These things happen. My complaint is with his interviewer. By not challenging these astonishing numbers right there—as any reasonable journalist must—she allows them to stand. One more opportunity lost, for a simple fact check involving simple numbers, maybe even a simple look around her. When it comes to numbers that they run up against, why are so many journalists so willing to ask no—zero—questions?

Third, a mathematician called C.K. Raju spoke at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi a few days ago. One report (https://bitly.ws/VjXH) about this event started with these two lines recounting some of what Raju spoke about:

“Albert Einstein was a fraud who never really understood relativity. Euclid never existed; he was an invention of the Church. And modern mathematics is religious propaganda of the West that stole calculus from Indian ‘ganita’ without understanding it.”

Raju went on: “Einstein did not discover the theory of relativity … He was a clerk at the patent office who stole ideas from others.” And “ancient Indian mathematics”—‘ganita’—is superior to “Western ethnomathematics.”

Raju’s overall effort is one I—again—have no complaint with. He wants to show that Indian mathematics has a long, storied heritage, with plenty of stellar discoveries to its credit.

Now, there’s plenty of truth there. Aryabhata found a way to calculate the value of pi accurate to four decimal places—a value good enough for nearly every purpose you can come up with, even today. He also concluded that the apparent motion of the stars was due to our own planet’s rotation. Hemachandra knew of what are called Fibonacci numbers in 1150, half a century before Fibonacci wrote about them; and, in fact, other Indian mathematicians described them as early as 200 BC.

There’s a lot more in that vein. The question, though, is this: to make this case about the achievements of Indian mathematics, is it really necessary to denigrate Western mathematics? Is it really necessary to call one of the greatest minds of the 20th century a “fraud”?

So, when he does these things, what can we conclude about Raju’s confidence in his own words? Besides, the way of science is to recognize what others have accomplished and build on it. This is why Isaac Newton so famously said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

When we instead kick away those shoulders, what does that say about a scientific temperament?

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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Updated: 23 Sep 2023, 12:32 AM IST

#Wither #scientific #temperament #Mint

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