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November 23, 2014

Jai Vigyan?

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The eighth ‘Fundamental Duty’ enjoins every citizen ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform’. Amongst obligations laid out by democracies to their constituents worldwide, this ask by the Constitution of India is rather unique. Developing a scientific temper is to lead a life of intellectual enquiry and observation, and to inculcate principles of fairness, equality and democracy within our thought processes. It should be a source of pride for us that the core framework defining our moral obligations to the state includes an expectation to not just live but also to think like a free person, and thus espouses perhaps the most complete definition of freedom that a nation ever expressed.

When Mangalyaan, India’s first interplanetary mission rocketed towards Mars from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Tuesday, this is the spirit that it echoed and endorsed. As the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter carries out experiments and searches for evidence of life on the red planet, it will also capture the imagination of a billion people like almost nothing before has, uniting us in the process. This mission can very well lead to a whole generation dreaming beyond the bleak realities of everyday life, inspiring them to grow up and reach for the stars. ISRO has now made India only the fourth participant worldwide in humanity’s quest to understand Mars, and the Rs.450 crore spent is a small price for the manifestation of a nation’s spirit of adventure and thirst for knowledge.

And yet, shortly before the launch of one of the most complex scientific projects undertaken by humanity, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan thought it necessary to take miniature replicas of the rocket and the Mars orbiter spacecraft to the feet of a deity and conference with supernatural forces. The chairman engaged in pooja at the Tirumala shrine at Tirupathi ahead of the historic moment of launch and asked for “a little divine intervention.”

ISROEven in today’s world, our species possessing well-developed brains, complex technologies and centuries of scientific progress, remains fearful and superstitious, and such unfounded paranormal beliefs hold an extraordinary sway in our daily lives. Superstition is an epidemic that persuades us to run away from reality.

How is a sneeze or two while leaving the house supposed to influence your performance at an exam? Can the position of constellations thousands of trillions of kilometres away somehow determine the state of one’s marriage? And are the ISRO Chairman’s actions any different from these?

Moreover, such irrational behaviour from the head of the Indian government’s primary space agency is unbelievably senseless. Pascal’s wager is a poor excuse for anyone to think that two events with no observable process linking them in any way can somehow influence each other. This is not just ignoring the spirit of enquiry, but outright denying and denouncing the scientific method. How does taking on such an ambitious project even make a difference in our technological prowess, if praying to our imaginary friends in space is seen as a reasonable precaution? When the agency which is supposed to be a temple of science and uphold the search for truth and new knowledge, is worshiping a Hindu deity in such a public manner, are we making any progress at all? We should all be thankful that a black cat did not cross the scientist’s path; otherwise the mission could very well have been postponed in want of a more auspicious mahurat and a poojan for Mangaladevata.

This also goes on to show how we have grown used to this strange form of cognitive dissonance which allows such an epidemic of mystical belief to remain. It is ironic that astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, who visited Pune’s science park just last week stressed on exhibits on eradication of superstitions. While he and others such as Shivaprasad Khened (director of the Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai) and astrophysicist Prakash Tupe plan to open planetariums and encourage kids to adopt a mindset free of religious dogma, aren’t the ISRO chairman’s actions undoing all this and making a mockery of the hard work and efforts put in by the hundreds of researchers and technologists involved with the institution.

Most of us have our own quirks and idiosyncrasies that we give in to, sometimes even subconsciously in the course of our daily lives. Sachin Tendulkar can very well choose to put his left pad on first, and if it makes you feel any better, there’s no one stopping you from downing a spoonful of yoghurt. But Radhakrishnan’s actions are an endorsement of these myths and home-grown forms of witchcraft and sorcery by a state agency, and violates article 51A(h) of the constitution in letter and spirit. While we undertake journeys into uncharted orbits and into the vast unknown, let’s try not to get a driver who’s intoxicated on the opiate of the masses.

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