CAMBRIDGE, MA— Prof. Subir Sachdev, the Herchel Smith Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics at Harvard University and one of the top physicists in the area of quantum physics in the world, called on Indian scientists and academicians to speak up against any effort to stifle truth and science even if it puts funding of their institutions in potential jeopardy.
“It is very harmful to make false claims about India’s contribution. In fact, great harm is done to the eager young minds in India,” Prof. Sachdev Told INDIA New England News. “There are enough great achievements to make all Indians proud, and we should just stick to them, and not undermine them by unnecessary unscientific claims.”
Prof. Sachdev has received numerous awards, including Dirac Medal from International Center for Theoretical Physics (2018); Lars Onsager Prize, American Physical Society, 2018; Star Family Prize for Excellence in Advising, Certificate of Distinction, Harvard University, 2016; and Dirac Medal for the Advancement of Theoretical Physics, the Australian Institute of Physics, the University of New South Wales, and the Royal Society of New South Wales, 2015, among others.
Prof. Sachdev received his B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1982, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1985. He holds visiting positions as the Cenovus Energy James Clerk Maxwell Chair at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, and the Homi J. Bhabha Chair at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
Here is a Q/A with Prof. Sachdev:
INDIA New England News: What has been India’s contribution to science and math?
Prof. Subir Sachdev: There have been numerous contributions, and I am not a science historian who can give a complete accounting. But probably the most important contribution of ancient India to mathematics was the place-based number system, which was developed in India around 500 AD.
This was transmitted to the West by Arabic mathematicians in Baghdad. It replaced the far more cumbersome Roman numerals in the West and was crucial to the subsequent development of mathematics. There are numerous famous Indian mathematicians (Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Brahmagupta) who made important discoveries in algebra, trigonometry, and astronomy, which now form the foundations of modern mathematics.
INE: Who are some of the key Indians who have made such contributions?
SS: Again there are many famous Indians, but let me mention Madhava, a 14th century mathematician from Kerala, whose contributions have been appreciated relatively recently. He computed the infinite series for the trigonometric functions, which are now taught in every high school advanced algebra class.
This computation required the concept of limits, and which is central to the framework of calculus. The series were rediscovered in the West by Newton and Euler nearly 300 years later, who are usually credited with their discovery.
Of course, everyone has heard of Ramanujan, whose work was highlighted in the movie ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’. The movie focuses on his brilliant early work, which was appreciated already during Ramanujan’s lifetime. However, the work that Ramanujan did in the last year of his life (on mock-Theta functions) has been properly understood only recently, and that has increased his stature to one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.
In physics, Raman and Bose made key contributions to the foundations of quantum theory in the early 20th century. Many other Indians have carried on their tradition, and I won’t attempt to name them. Most people have also heard of Chandrasekhar (whose theory of certain stars led to the possibility of black holes).
INE: What about ancient India? Some high-level Indian officials have been making claims of airplanes existing in ancient India. How much truth is there?
SS: There is no shortage of great scientific and mathematical achievements in ancient India, but there is simply no truth to outlandish claims like airplanes.
INE: Why is it important to know fact and truth about India’s contribution?
SS: It is very harmful to make false claims about India’s contribution. In fact, great harm is done to the eager young minds in India.
I remember hearing similar claims when I was in school, and as they did not sound believable, I discounted everything I heard as nonsense or exaggeration. So when true claims were made about India’s contributions, I was skeptical about them too.
There are enough great achievements to make all Indians proud, and we should just stick to them, and not undermine them by unnecessary unscientific claims.
INE: What advise will you give to the Indian government when it comes to promoting science and technology?
SS: A solid basis in science and mathematics should be an important part of every child’s education. Students educated in Indian schools are making their mark in numerous fields around the world, and we should work hard to spread the success of our schools to all segments of society.
In higher education, there are numerous elite world class institutions (like the IITs and IISERs), but there is no reason why a similar high standard cannot be achieved at many Indian universities—they should be given greater independence and support.
INE: How should Indian scientists, physicists and academicians react to claims by some Indian officials about accepting mythology as historical fact?
SS: Clearly they should react as scientists, for whom the truth is paramount. I know many scientists in senior positions in India, and I have been impressed by their courage in speaking up, even though this can put the funding of their institutions in potential jeopardy. And I am confident that Indian scientists will succeed in upholding our scientific tradition, despite current political countercurrents (I need hardly add that similar things are also happening in the US these days).