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Science writing: A neglected form of literature that needs focus

Science has more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could

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The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons

Along with philosophers, tax lawyers and computer programmers, scientists are perceived as speaking in a language which is supposedly the same as that of common people, but scarcely intelligible to them. And then they use strange symbols, complicated equations, and considerable jargon to talk of “things” unlikely to affect an average person’s life or to be even seen without specialised equipment.

So can scientific writing in any way be even comparable to literature? Yes, for scientists, across various disciplines, are also dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else, and can express themselves on their subject in ways the most lyrical poet, the most imaginative novelist or the most incisive historian could well envy.

Be it those trying to discern the cosmos’ origin, matter’s structure, the bewildering development and processes of life, including by evolution (despite what some Indian ministers may think), the abundant marvels of nature (including, but beyond humans too), and so on, scientists have written about their work and findings in absorbing ways.

Also Read: Scientists Use Pocket-size Device to Map Human Genetic Code

And in this, they have more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could.

Let us take a selection from the last century, which was full of developments across all spheres of science.

And since our existence in terms of our position in the world and the universe is key, we can start with an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician placing things in perspective.

“… we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in time and space. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space — a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world.

Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution -- and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons
Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion seem equally foreign to its plan,” wrote Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) in “The Mysterious Universe” (1930).

Also Read: Scientists Solve Mystery Of When Flowers Originated

Then, coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Among the best to explain its significance is Helena Cronin (b. 1942), a philosopher of biology and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics.

“We are all walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, our brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past,” she says in the beginning of her “The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today” (1991), on one of science’s “foremost achievements” — the Darwinian theory.

Then there are those unravellers of life’s basic building block — DNA structure discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick.

About the moment of discovery, Crick, in his autobiography “What Mad Pursuit” (1988), says his research partner remembers he went into the pub across the road where they launched daily and told everyone they had discovered the secret of life. “Of that, I have no recollection, but I do recall going home and telling (wife) Odile that we seemed to have made a big discovery. Years later she told me that she hadn’t believed a word of it. ‘You were always coming home and saying things like that,’, she said, ‘so naturally, I thought nothing of it’…”

Also Read: Planets Beyond Milky Way Galaxy Discovered For First Time

Watson, after his “The Double Helix” (1968), followed up with “Avoid Boring People” (2007), which has each chapter ending with lessons such as “Never Be The Brightest Person In A Room”, “Avoid Gatherings Of More Two Nobel Prize Winners”, but also “Work On Sundays”, and “Put Lots Of Spin On Balls”.

Switching to the physical world, we cannot ignore possibly the 20th century’s most well-recognised scientist — Albert Einstein. Let’s take his insightful essay, “Religion and Science”, in which he eloquently pleads the case for new, better form of religious experience which will give rise to a new relationship between these two.

After discussing the need-based and the social impulse-based variants which have in common “the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God” and which is only surmounted by “individuals of exceptional endowment”, he comes to a third — “cosmic religious feeling”, which, according to Einstein, “is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

For “only those who realise the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue…”.

Also Read: Is the moon’s surface evolving?

Can there any better exposition of science’s purpose? (IANS)

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in) 

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Biotechnology Can Meet The Growing Energy Needs Of Rural India

The Indian economy also has a distinct advantage with respect to its demography that can ensure sustained growth for the sector.

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Indian biotechnology industry has flourished over the years. As of 2016, India had over a thousand biotechnology start-ups. Pixabay

Over the last two-to-three decades, the major success story of the Indian economy has been the stellar growth of its IT industry. But as the dividends from the sector reach the eventual inflection point, India needs to build similar competencies in other industries to ensure sustained growth and prosperity.

It is not acknowledged as often but the biotechnology industry seemed poised to take over the mantle. In the span of a decade beginning in 2007, the industry has grown exponentially in size from about $2 billion to over $11 billion in terms of revenue. By 2025, it is targeted to touch $100 billion.

The biotechnology industry, however, has been impacting Indian lives long before it grew so much in size. Back in the mid-1960s, advancements in biotechnology drove the Green Revolution, which enhanced farm yields and made the country self-sufficient in food production.

A similar contribution from the sector was witnessed in the White Revolution when India became a milk-surplus nation and improved the nutrition level of its citizens.

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However, a few challenges need to be addressed if India is to fuel the growth of its biotechnology industry and achieve its target of making it a $100 billion industry by 2025. Pixabay

More recently, the meteoric growth of the Indian pharmaceutical industry is a result of process innovation that has given the country a cost advantage in the manufacture of drugs.

Further, the growing energy needs of India’s rural areas have been increasingly met by biomass fuel.

These outcomes have been the result of years of concerted efforts by the Indian government to enable the growth of the industry. As early as 1986, Rajiv Gandhi, recognising the potential of biotechnology in the country’s development, set up the Department of Biotechnology, making India one of the first countries in the world to have a government department solely dedicated to biotechnology.

Over the years, the Department of Biotechnology has set up 17 Centres of Excellence at higher education institutions across the country and has supported the establishment of eight biotechnology parks across different cities. The biggest contribution of the department has been in setting up of the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) in 2012, which has successfully supported 316 start-ups in its six years of existence.

Due to these efforts, the Indian biotechnology industry has flourished over the years. As of 2016, India had over a thousand biotechnology start-ups. To put matters in perspective, Australia has a total of 470 biotechnology companies. More than half of these start-ups are involved in healthcare – drugs, medical devices and diagnostics – while about 14 per cent are in agricultural biotechnology and about 18 per cent in biotechnology services.

The Indian economy also has a distinct advantage with respect to its demography that can ensure sustained growth for the sector. More than half the Indian population is below the age of 25. On a global scale, the median age in India (26.5 years) is much below that of China (35.9 years) and the US (37.1 years). An effective utilisation of this demographic advantage will provide India a competitive edge over all other emerging economies in the advancement of biotechnological research and development.

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he industry argues that India’s stricter standards for patents discourages innovation and dampens foreign investment. Pixabay

However, a few challenges need to be addressed if India is to fuel the growth of its biotechnology industry and achieve its target of making it a $100 billion industry by 2025. First, India’s research and development expenditure is quite low at 0.67 per cent of GDP, not only compared to mature biotechnology economies such as Japan and the US (which stands at around 3 per cent) but also in comparison to emerging economies like China (which is at around 2 percent).

Second, and more specific to the biotech pharmaceutical sector, there are a few India-specific challenges with the country’s IP regime. There are two main areas of contention for the industry in India’s approach to intellectual property. The first issue lies in Section 3(d) of the Patents (Amendment) Act, 2005, which sets a higher standard for patentability than mandated by TRIPS. The industry argues that India’s stricter standards for patents discourages innovation and dampens foreign investment. The second issue is that of compulsory licensing, which gives the government power to suspend a patent in times of health emergencies. Although India has used this option only once, the industry feels that such regulations keep investors clear of Indian markets.

A third challenge lies in the risk involved in the Valley of Death, that is, the risk of failure in the transition of innovative products and services from discovery to marketisation. Most of the early research funding, often provided by universities or the government, runs out before the marketisation phase, the funding for which is mostly provided by venture capitalists. It becomes difficult to attract further capital between these two stages because a developing technology may seem promising, but it is often too early to validate its commercial potential. This gap has a huge impact in commercialisation of innovative ideas.

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Thus, the Indian government needs to act on these challenges facing the biotechnology sector. An increase in investment towards research and development and building human capital is the most crucial point of action. These initiatives have shifted growth trajectories of countries like China away from India. As for the challenging IP regime, the government needs to come together with the biopharma industry and chalk out a middle ground that recognises the value of innovation and does not hurt its investment attractiveness. Finally, for the Valley of Death concerns, the government can build a mechanism where funding can be provided for select innovative ideas based on their national importance. Only such action-oriented steps can make biotechnology the next success story of the Indian economy. (IANS)