SOME MUSINGS ON NATIONAL SCIENCE DAY
At school, I was lucky to find a small but wonderful set of similarly enthused friends, with whom I spent hours discussing maths or science problems, speculating on alternate universe theories and discussing random science factoids we had just found out about. And when I came home, there was my Dad, with whom I enjoyed endless discussions (and arguments) on all things science-related, who challenged my thinking and knowledge and always pushed me towards reaching depth in understanding the ideas I was encountering.
As I finished school, I had no idea what I wanted to do next. I certainly didn’t know then that I wanted to be scientist. I knew I was going to college. And I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, nor did I want to study engineering like almost every one of my peers seemed to. So I applied to study the only thing I did know I would like – Science! I remember my teachers at school were utterly aghast on hearing this! ‘Why, ma!’, they exclaimed, ‘You’re good at studies! Why are you throwing your future away by doing a B.Sc? You should do Engineering! ‘
Somehow, and thankfully, I didn’t buy that logic. I joined an all girls college for a B.Sc in Physics and I have to admit, it was a deeply underwhelming educational experience as far as classroom learning went. But despite all that it lacked, it offered me something that I now know was immensely valuable – vast quantities of free time and mind space, (unlike some of over-loaded schoolmates who took engineering) which I spent reading copiously, and often aimlessly, using my curriculum as a springboard for exploration and spending interminable hours talking about it all with a couple of like-minded friends.
So although Mendeleev, who formulated the wondrous table that captured my adolescent attention, was my first hero, I was to have many more as I continued to study Science. In college, I discovered Einstein, Fermi, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Bose, Raman, Feynman, Gellmann and so many more! Somehow , inspired though I was by their work and all that I was learning, I didn’t seem any closer to knowing what I wanted to do after college. At that stage, it simply never struck me that I could be even a small part of this world that I was so in awe of. It seemed to me, that scientists were like rock stars, and I was on the periphery, an ardent and knowledgeable fan, a true connoisseur of their art.
I’m not quite sure exactly when that changed. But I do recall, on one of those days of random reading, happening upon an old hardback book in a dusty corner of the library. Perhaps it was a biography of a physicist I was interested in then, I’m not sure now. I flicked through the pages and landed on a full-page black and white photograph of a most serious looking group. A younger Einstein, with his placid face, caught my attention and I took notice of the caption. It turned out to be a photograph that was taken at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927, a congress of the leading physicists of that time. Suddenly, what otherwise seemed like a prosaic photo startled me, as I realised there was actually one solitary woman there – the incredibly talented Marie Curie!
I suddenly realised then, that she was the only female scientist whose work I knew about. I remember reading about her story, how hard she fought to be at the Sorbonne and mulling on what it must have been like for her to be a scientist at a time when many women still hadn’t won the right to vote. I was moved by her dedication and her ground breaking contributions and inspired by her two Nobel prizes. I wondered why it had never struck me as odd that I had, thus far, no female scientific heroes! Seeing her defiantly staring out from the picture though, holding her own, every bit an equal to the others (and more decorated than most), made a deep impression on me. I’m certain now that it had something to do with why I started to think about the possibility of being a researcher myself.
Cut to many years later, one of the proudest moments for Indian scientists in recent recollection came as we successfully launched an artificial satellite into orbit around Mars in 2014. Many of us woke up the following day to those now famous pictures of scientists at ISRO congratulating each other and celebrating their success. And although a lot of credit and mention was given to the technological challenges they overcame and the scientific ingenuity on display, what seemed to capture the world’s attention, causing the photos to go viral, was that the scientists were Sari-clad, traditional-looking, middle-aged Women! Even in India, how surprised too many of us seemed, to find that women who looked like they could easily be our mothers, or aunts, or sisters were such an integral part of that incredible mission
I just know though, there were girls all over our country that saw those photographs, and for the first time began to think about being a scientist too.