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How ancient Indian astronomy can enrich modern science

by Bruno Van de Casteele

June 16, 2013

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Donate Sometimes the news is less scarier than the title suggests. For instance, when I read here about "link astronomy to ancient science", my skeptical senses started tingling. Reading in the first few paragraphs about "astronomy [...] should be linked with ancient science for enriching it" didn't help.

The words were spoken by former Indian president Abdul Kalam, president of India from 2002 to 2007. However, then I started to doubt my skeptical gut... Kalam, even though nicknamed "Missile Man" for his role in the development of the Indian nuclear bomb and long distance missiles, is an engineer, and it seemed odd that he would downplay modern astronomy. Especially since he was opening a new, state of the art planetarium in the city of Ujjain.

So I went looking for the source. Kalam has published on his personal website his speech as prepared for delivery. The quote hasn't really been garbled by the news articles, but by reading the entire speech, the context becomes more clear.

Kalam was referring to the historic roots of Ujjain. He wasn't really referring to this city being the prime meridian for Indian astrologers several thousand years ago. Instead, he mentions the merits of Aryabhata, calculating the radius and volume of the earth and postulating an Earth orbiting the sun in 500 CE, or those of Brahmagupta, who was the first to use zero and calculated using negative numbers and the positional number system in the 7th century.

The initial point that the former president wants to make, is that India should be proud of its history in science. He goes on to highlight the role Indian scientists still play today, for instance in the Indian lunar probe Chandrayaan-I, who confirmed the presence of water molecules on the Moon. Kalam also points out that this is a fine example of international collaboration, and not just an Indian achievement.

Of course he is a former president, and of course you could assume that he just wants to promote good PR for his country. But that would be a disservice to his concluding argument. Indeed, he makes publicity for scientific achievements made in his country, and that is entirely his right. However, he points out in his conclusion that Indian "teachers can draw number of lessons from the Indian civilizational heritage and international experiences". I think he is here not only advertising Indian science, but a communication strategy for promoting science. By tying into a rich past (and present!), it might indeed be possible to interest more people in doing science.

So as you see, my initial skeptical senses were misdirected by a single quote in a news article. It shows that one should sometimes be, well, skeptical, and dig deeper to the actual source. I not only learned a bit about Indian ancient astronomy, but also about an interesting strategy to get people more involved in science.


by Bruno Van de Casteele

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