Revealing fact or reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in Indian society

Whenever scientists achieve a breakthrough in understanding the fundamental laws of nature, it is often accompanied by an age-old question: has science nailed its final nail on the coffin of religion? This debate was reignited in 2016 with the detection of gravitational waves.

Merging of two black holes [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) announced that the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detectors in the US in Hanford, Washington and in Livingston, Louisiana had directly observed gravitational waves on 14 September 2015. Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 on the basis of his theory of general relativity. These waves are ripples in space-time (space and time as a continuum of four dimensions) created by large cosmic events such as the merger of two massive black holes. The 2015 LIGO detection not only confirmed Einstein’s prediction but also strengthened the emerging field of gravitational-wave astronomy, allowing us to observe early cosmic processes, including events that immediately followed the Big Bang. Does the observation of gravitational waves have any significance for understanding the relation between scientific knowledge and religious faith? What are the societal implications for this never-ending debate? Continue reading “Revealing fact or reinforcing faith: Gravitational waves and religion in Indian society”

“Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India

Representative image [Courtesy:]

The West has always been fascinated with accounts of the East. While there is no unique “Western” or “Eastern” culture, scholars on both ends of the globe have practiced an “exoticisation” of Eastern systems of beliefs and traditions. This may limit the wider engagement with a plurality of ideas prevalent either in the West or the East.

It is this perspective that Renny Thomas brings to the discussion on ideas of rationalism, atheism and unbelief among Indian scientists, in his article Atheism and Unbelief among Indian Scientists: Towards an Anthropology of Atheism(s) published in Society and Culture in South Asia (2016). In this ethnographic account Thomas notes that several Indian scientists referred to themselves as “atheists”. But on closer scrutiny, he reveals that these “atheist” scientists neither subscribe to the “New Age” “scientific atheism” of (say) Richard Dawkins nor have they abandoned the lifestyles and practices associated with the religion of their birth. Continue reading ““Believers without belief”: The curious case of atheist scientists in India”

The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science

Portrait of Countess Ada Lovelace [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon to British computer pioneer, Alan Turing. This came almost six decades after he was (sadly) convicted of “gross indecency” for having an affair with another man. His conviction overshadowed his significant contributions to the field of theoretical computer science and even put an unfair, early end to his life.

Social prejudices may have scarred Turing’s clean image in the field of computer science. But that did not stop his being recognized widely as the “father” of computer science, primarily for his Turing machine, an abstract model of a general purpose computer. However, the unintended consequences of social exclusion and gender stereotypes may have been just the reasons for another computing genius to carry on her work unrestrained. This forms the crux of Imogen R. Coe and Alexander Ferworn’s article The Life and Contributions of Countess Ada Lovelace in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (December 2016). Continue reading “The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science”

The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine

Portrait of Paracelsus [Image source: Wikimedia Commons]
Theoretical scientist and astronomer Stephen Hawking recently warned that the best way to ensure the survival of humanity was to “spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.” On the brighter side, he added that the end of planet Earth would become a certainty only in the “in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years.” Still, the search for habitable planets has gained momentum with efforts led by government agencies like NASA and billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk.

Humanism is the ethical and philosophical stance that emphasizes the value of human beings, affirmed by their ability to improve human lives through reason. We do not know if Hawking and Elon Musk call themselves “humanists”, but they do believe that the challenges of this age demand new and ingenious solutions even if it goes against conventionally accepted wisdom. Interestingly, a group of alternative medical practitioners in the Renaissance Era, the Paracelsians , also believed that theirs was a “violent age”. The Paracelsians sought new sources to solve the challenges of their age—including mystical. divine and occult sources—as Allen Debus elaborates in his book, Man And Nature In The Renaissance. Continue reading “The Mystical Origins of Modern Science and Medicine”

How the pregnancy test traveled from the laboratory into the hands of ordinary women

Early e.p.t advertisement [Courtesy:]

Whatever individual women (and men) may feel about having children, the home pregnancy test (HPT) has become one of the most common diagnostic tools available over the counter today. In recent times, Indian pharmaceutical companies have marketed the product both to the “traditional house-wife” as well as to the “Generation Z’ers” using glamorous Bollywood stars.

The now ubiquitous home pregnancy test was very different back when it was first launched in the United States during the late 1970s. It came at a time when women were collectively organizing themselves across the world. Medical professionals and government regulators alike felt unequipped and threatened by the emergence of this new technology. Joan H Robinson analyzes the historical phenomenon of the home pregnancy test (HPT) in a well researched and extremely readable article in the October 2016 issue of Social Studies of Science. Using scholarship in science, technology and society studies (STS), Robinson narrates how various institutions navigated a tortuous legal and technological maze in society, to result in the now uncontested product. Continue reading “How the pregnancy test traveled from the laboratory into the hands of ordinary women”