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.

mergingblackholes_v2
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

51xnuim0kil-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_
Representative image [Courtesy: Amazon.com]

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

ada_lovelace_portrait
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”

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

1389632692453260581
Early e.p.t advertisement [Courtesy: Jezebel.com]

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”

Is your “antibacterial” soap really safe for daily use?

L0049721 Magazine insert advertising Lifebuoy soap
Lifebuoy Soap magazine advert (1910s) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]
What comes to your mind when you think of TV commercials for bath soaps? One can recall a sculpted actor pretending to be a “scientist” or “doctor” in a pristine, white lab coat explain why this or that soap has unique, “antibacterial” ingredients which can safeguard your family against harmful “germs”. It may come as a surprise to hear that these antibacterial products (sometimes called antimicrobial or antiseptic) do not have any demonstrated, clinical evidence to prove that they are more effective or safer than plain soap and water. Continue reading “Is your “antibacterial” soap really safe for daily use?”