Science Day

Science Day

While a handful of thinkers in the Hindu world are debating about the right planetary and zodiacal configurations on which the birthdays of divinities and other festivals are to be celebrated, India also observes  National Science Day on February 28 (Gregorian calendar). Started just over two decades ago (1986), it is a day which inaugurates a whole month of Science-related and Science-inspiring activities, and also awards prizes for the best science-popularization efforts in magazines, newspapers, lectures, and books.

Most importantly, like Black History Month in the United States, the goal of Science Day is to raise science-consciousness among the masses, gradually weaning them away from outworn beliefs, silly superstitions, and a general fear of what science is all about. People are encouraged to watch the skies, locate stars and planets, do experiments and read science books.

We live in a world where, contrary to earlier hopes and expectations, science has come to be marginalized in the minds of many. The general public has been led to believe, thanks to academic philosophers who play clever I-gotchya-you logic, that science is just another way of describing the moon or appreciating the rainbow, and has no greater claims to knowledge than mythology, religious revelations, grand poetry, and speculative philosophy. Science is often seen by the public as no more than a tool for games and gadgetry, for medical technology, washing machines, and creature comforts. Then again, some zealous scientists, by degrading the religious dimension of the human condition, have created the impression that science is derisively religion-unfriendly, and is therefore more dangerous than desirable for human culture.

What needs to be emphasized is that the deeper essence of science expands our mind, enhances our appreciation of our world, and uplifts our spirit. These aspects must reinforced periodically in science courses and through public proclamations like Science Day.

Perhaps the United Nations Organization should follow India’s lead in this regard and declare a whole month as Science Month in all countries.

February 28, 2009

Wars between Old and New

The mindless veneration, often distortion, of poorly understood or anachronistic sacred texts have led to unhappy consequences in all religious traditions. When these are extended to the realm of societal mores and values in a changing world, the excesses of religious zealots degrade and denigrate the very best in any religious tradition.

There is a tug of war going on the world over, under the umbrella of every culture and tradition, between radical forces that are out to change societies in every respect – whether in matters pertaining to social justice or sexual morals – and those who will neither budge nor tolerate any deviation from their own perspectives on what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is to be allowed and disallowed, on the basis of the Ten Commandments, the Sharia, the Manudharmashastra or whatever that they regard as the last sacred word in moral law which one and all should accept, or else….

This morality-war is waged in increasing intensity among casual commentators on the internet and deep-thinking intellectuals who write books and give lectures, whether in India or the Middle East, in Western countries or wherever. Now and again, ideological warfare spills into the open, instigated by the prating and preaching of the more extremist elements who feel that unleashing a mindless mob can be more effective in achieving their goal of an imaginary Utopia than reasoning or persuasive discourse. The fundamentalists who burn abortion clinics in the Western (Christian) world, the honor-killers of their sisters and wives in the Islamic world, and the attackers of women in pubs in the Hindu world, and the like, are all spiritual cousins who belong to the same religion of Intolerance and Self-Righteousness. If such moral extremists are a periodic nuisance in civilized societies, they can become monstrously dangerous when they come to wield political power and police in any nation.

At this crucial juncture in human history it is incumbent upon spiritual and lay leaders to argue for the preservation of all that is good and glorious in their traditions, and also condemn unequivocally mischievous, criminal, and violent misbehavior in the name of any religion that tends to snub free expression of thought and stifle human freedom of action.

On the Impact of Darwin

On the Impact of Darwin

This year celebrates the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. It is also the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his scientific classic, On the origin of Species. During these hundred and fifty years, more pages have been penned on Darwin and his work than perhaps on most other scientists and theirs works: more perhaps than Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein, more certainly than Leonhard Euler, Michel Faraday, or Heinrich Hertz whose contributions have touched the core of science and altered the course of history no less.

The reason for this is that Darwin’s discovery touches our self-appraisal as beings in the universe far more profoundly than Jovian satellites, gravitation, or the curvature of cosmic space, more directly than differential equations, electromagnetic induction, or the transmission of electromagnetic waves. The only time such a jolt had occurred before was when the Copernican discovery summarily kicked our habitat from the prestigious center of the universe, and transformed it into an insignificant speck in a vast and silent expanse. Darwin’s work removed us from the pedestal wherein we were seen as the crowing jewel in God’s creation. In the view of some it not only mercilessly reduced us to just another of the countless life-forms that crowd the earth, but also revealed our lineage to be simian rather then saintly, or as one wit quipped, we are nor not so much the apex as the ex-ape of creation.

It is both biological and cultural to regard oneself as the center of the universe. The sun seems to rise and set from our perspective, we evaluate the world and react to changes with self-preservation as the bottom line. So it is not surprising that practically every religion gives a special place to humanity among the plethora of life forms. Other creatures, bereft of language and scale of values, have never protested this presumption in any biological court of law. Darwin’s suggestion that we were not molded by clay, nor fashioned on the sixth day, nor come into being from the mind of God, as reported in religious mythopoesie, but that we just emerged as a result of slow changes over the eons, like so many other sister-species, not only belies assertions in sacred texts, it also seems to trivialize Homo sapiens, and certainly appears to take away all sanctity from this special-to-God creature.

It is both understandable and legitimate for traditionalists to resist the Darwinian view of anthropogenesis not only as an affront to human dignity but also as assault on the religious framework. There are at least three ways of reacting to this predicament. One is to declare cold-bloodedly that the religions are dead wrong on this matter, as they are on many other issues pertaining to the phenomenal world. The other is to proclaim that that since the scriptures (revelations by God Almighty) cannot, by definition, by wrong, it is Darwin who has been misled by superficialities which hide the true essence of things, and must therefore be rejected, or at best, be accepted as just another theory formulated by the finite human mind which can never fathom the Ultimate Infinite Mystery. The third alternative has been to find a reasonable via media by recognizing the role and relevance of religion as an important and meaningful cultural and spiritual experience, and also interpreting religious texts in symbolic and metaphorical rather than in literal modes, while maintaining the integrity of science and its methodology. The oft-mentioned warfare between science and religion is between the ardent protagonists of the first two schools while members of the third group write such books as “How one can be a good Christian/Hindu/Jew/Buddhist/Muslim etc. and also subscribe to Darwin and evolution.”

My own suspicion is that the first two groups, in their own belligerent ways, are perhaps closer to their truths, but the third course is the best for a peaceful world where science can flourish and religiously inclined people can find fulfillment also. This approach is difficult for those who see every aspect of the human condition in black-and-white terms: a point of view, which inevitably leads to intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry, when taken to the extreme. But it is the only way by which we can handle this situation which may seem quite simple from the perspective of die-hard rationaltry (worship of the Goddess of Reason alone) or mindless faith, but which is enormously complex in the context of human emotions, culture, sensibilities, and psychology.

With all the problems that have emerged from the Darwinian Pandora’s Box, it is appropriate for enlightened humanity to pay homage to the name and memory of a scientific searcher who relentlessly pursued his quest and uncovered one of the great mysteries of the phenomenal world, namely, the emergence, continuance, and extinction of countless species with an incredible range of properties and propensities that adorn our planet, and of which we ourselves happen to be among the more remarkable ones. It is no less enriching to regard ourselves as one culminating end-point in the complex web of life that has been unleashed on the planet by the marvelous laws of nature, with potential for further change, than to imagine ourselves to be the most wonderful creation of the Cosmic Creative Principle that many choose to worship as God

V. V. Raman

12 February 2009