The many joys of learning science

Jayant V Narlikar

February 28 is celebrated in India as the National Science Day (NSD). The date itself pays tribute to the discovery of Raman Effect which brought a Nobel Prize to C.V. Raman. Apart from speeches and films highlighting the role of science and its importance to the common citizen, various programmes on National Science Day highlight the scientific temper — the scientific temper owes its origin to the way science proceeds to expand its role in understanding nature, it is an attitude of mind which we should all cultivate that aims at being rational in our action and overall behaviour.
But scientific temper has a wider role to play, which takes it well beyond the highways and byways of science.
Science progressed over the years by admitting new facts and ideas to its fold by demanding their critical appraisal. Do not accept a statement as factual until you have evidence to support it…even if it comes from a distinguished or important personage. So says the scientific temper.
Jawaharlal Nehru had greatly supported the scientific temper and had written about its importance for India which he saw as bound up in many superstitions.
Writing in his Discovery of India he had expressed the hope that after the country gains independence its citizens would learn to adopt the scientific temper.
Of the many age-old beliefs they would learn to discard those which have ceased to be relevant and retain only those which have stood the test of time. Unfortunately this has not happened. The majority of our countrymen still continue to have superstitions.
The NSD therefore has a role to play. On this day there are talks and presentations debunking superstitions of various kind, as well as programmes presenting highlights of science so as to make people appreciate science and be science-friendly. In particular, children are an ideal target group for NSD.
Arvind Gupta, a science populariser has created a niche for himself through his science toys. Made mostly out of discarded material with minimal additions of equipment bought outside, these toys are very cheap to make but are remarkable in what they do. To a superficial observer they look magical until their secrets are explained.
The secret of each toy is based on some law of science, the same law that appeared in the school textbook. But whereas the textbook version was presented in the class in a dry and uninteresting form, the toy version is of great interest to the student since it is manifest through the law in action.
Indeed, Gupta’s creations show that practical demonstration is the best way of learning science. Of course, there are many ways of demonstrating to the uninitiated, how science works. The important thing is that the demonstration is in some action-oriented mode.
Famous scientist Michael Faraday had realised this and stressed the importance of practicals in teaching science. He had set up the Royal Institution of Great Britain back in the 19th century. Even today, this venerable organisation has been following Faraday’s practice of presenting basic science to the layperson through lecture demonstrations.
And the response of the general public has been overwhelming. It is said that the crowds caused such traffic jams that the Albemarle Street where the Institute is located had to be declared a one-way street. It is in fact the first one-way street in the world!
It is said that when he carried out a demonstration of electric motor in front of Queen Victoria, she asked as to what was the use of that exercise.
Faraday is believed to have replied: “Your Majesty, you do not ask what is the use of a new born baby!”
In short, when studying basic sciences one should enjoy them as additions to human understanding. They may turn out to have practical applications but that issue is secondary.
The Royal Institution has had distinguished scientists heading it. But despite their work at very advanced level of science, they have all shown great interest in bringing science to the masses. Here is an anecdote about Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Laureate head of the Royal Institution, showing how seriously he took that activity.
Bragg had been making a film for use in a lecture demonstration to schoolchildren. When the film was complete and was seen by Bragg and the film director, the latter was not too happy with some parts of the film. Two portions needed to be re-shot. Somewhat hesitantly he brought the matter to Bragg’s attention, being afraid that Bragg may be too busy to spend more time on the film. But Bragg readily agreed to redo the portions. The film director asked him to wear the same suit that he had worn in the film.
However, when Bragg looked for the suit he could not find it. The suit was getting old so his wife gave it to their maid servant to sell it at the charity auction in her village. Bragg realised that unless that suit was found he would have to re-shoot the whole film.
“Let us find that suit!” he said and decided to trace it in the village of the servant. So the Bragg couple drove to that village and called on the organiser of the auction. That lady recalled who had bought the suit and directed the Braggs to that buyer’s house in the village. That person confirmed his participation in the auction but said that he had only bid for the jacket: the trousers were sold in another lot.
So borrowing the jacket for the shooting, the Braggs tried to trace the buyer of the trousers. Alas, that could not be done as the buyer was not locally known.
So the Braggs returned to London with the jacket only. And Bragg asked the filmmaker to shoot the revised shots such that only the jacket should be visible.
This the filmmaker could do and thus the problem was resolved. This example illustrates the importance attached to teaching science to schoolchildren by a distinguished scientist.