India’s PSLV-C23 launched by ISRO from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. (Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • India’s future lies in envisioning an era of big tech — technological goals so audacious that they inspire awe and stir the youth to rise up to the challenge.

    Along with the moon mission, India must launch even bigger and outlandish big tech goals like reaching Venus, zero-emission megacities, and eliminating one vector-borne disease a year.

“It is impossible to construct an engine which will work in a complete cycle, and produce no effect except the raising of a weight and cooling of a heat reservoir.” The reader may not be faulted for concluding that this is one of those perfunctory disclaimers in an automobile, refrigerator, or a pump-repair manual. Perhaps written uninspiringly by a dreary mechanic plodding through a listless day at work. In that case, you may be surprised to learn that this single statement is pivotal to explaining profound conundrums such as why time seems to only move forward, how even black holes can emit radiation, the nature of life itself, and why it is extremely unlikely that Humpty Dumpty will spontaneously come together after the fall.

This statement is the second law of thermodynamics, expressed by none other than the father of quantum theory, Max Planck. This veritable law of nature is perhaps more familiar to non-scientists who typically experience uncontrolled disorder in their daily lives. Incredibly, this profound scientific law had humble workshop origins. It was first recorded by a French engineer, Nicolas Sadi Carnot, who was doing what most engineers in his position are expected to do — tinkering with machines to improve their efficiency. Dead long before the births of the founders of quantum theory or Albert Einstein, he had no idea about either the mysterious quantum nature of matter or the profound connections between space and time.

Those who espouse the dictum that technology can come only after science might hope that this breakthrough is an exception to an unwritten rule. However, this is not the only example. Historically and contemporaneously, it is fairly common to find that significant scientific advances arise from concerted tinkering to solve pressing technological challenges. Some of the most esoteric branches of scientific analysis owe their origins to the solving of practical problems like maximising areas for construction, minimising distances on curved surfaces for long-distance survey and travel during the European age of exploration, or, the most mundane of all, practical bridge design. More tellingly yet, more than 30 Nobel prize awards, including the discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), owe their origin to just one technological breakthrough – the cathode ray tubes, which led to the accidental discovery of X-rays.

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Those who believe that a focus on engineering and technology hinders science are probably not scientific researchers and, more probably still, lack a true understanding of the nature of scientific discovery. Imperfect public communication and inadequate coverage of technological issues in the media encourage many people to confuse technology with mundane maintenance and management. In the same vein, the general public’s assessment of science is exclusively envisioned in terms of colliding atoms, discovering distant planets, or abstract debating of the nature of the universe. In reality, these are not disparate circles in a Venn diagram. All advancements in scientific understanding, from the discovery of laws of inertia, to modern physics, to the current data science, were all driven by tectonic shifts in technology. This is not a coincidence but a direct result of technology and science feeding into each other.

Below the tip of any scientific discovery lies a vast iceberg. This iceberg is an agglomeration of tinkering, luck, observation, inspiration, abstraction, deduction, communication, and, most importantly, people. None of these individual components is exclusive to either the pursuit of the so-called pure sciences or engineering. Inexpensive off-the-shelf sensors, probes, computers, and high-speed internet have made boundaries between disciplines not just grey but permeable. The scientific community already knows this and it is fairly common to find engineering researchers publishing copiously in science journals. Similarly, the US National Science Foundation has a fairly large and vigorous division of engineering. India has named its venerable technical education and research champion appropriately as the Department of Science and Technology. For India to fall victim to the false dichotomy between science and technology would be doubly tragic. Not only would it obstruct our country’s progress, it would be completely contrary to India’s civilisational traditions.

A close examination of Indic traditions shows how intertwined philosophy, science, and technology were even several centuries ago. Many know that mathematics and the pursuit of logic reached dizzying heights in ancient Bharata; however, few understand that this pursuit was not performed in isolation from its applications. Sulbasutras depict geometrical considerations for designing fire-altars, thus showcasing how theoretical pursuits were conjoined with practical applications.

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The philosophical and cultural zenith of Indic thought is represented by the Indic expositions on kala (time). For the rishis, kala was not some subtle theoretical idea but one that united complex calculations with diligent book-keeping. Several instruments to keep an ‘eye’ on time were devised by applying feedback between experiments and theory. A fascinating example of this jugalbandi is the unit of time called truti, which was defined as the time taken by a sharp needle to pierce a lotus petal. Yet even such an exacting concept manages to incorporate many abstract ideas. Kandariya Mahadeva Temple of Khajuraho showcases this singular confluence in a towering monument of architecture and piety. This temple’s singular fractal structure stems from a beautiful synthesis of Hindu cosmology and architecture. Fractals are simple yet infinitely complex geometric structures epitomising the very idea of dimensionality while forming mind-bending infinite hierarchies of self-similar recursive geometrical forms. The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple showcases several scaled-down/up self-similar repeating architectural units, and it represents the self-similar nature of the Atman and Brahman of Advaita Vedanta. It also expresses, in a sense, the Vedic understanding of infinity.

Science, technology, and engineering in their existence and practice are not distinct entities but part of a subsuming whole – an advaita. Just like the Brahman of advaita, natural phenomena are inherently amorphous and impersonal. Their structured scientific description merely defines how we choose to explain those using abstractions from our own brains. Similarly, conceptual designs and mathematical truths and patterns of phenomena are all part of this continuum, and all attempts to classify them into silos are simply for our convenience and not an essential requirement. Therefore, trying to fracture the pursuit of progress into competing endeavours of excellence does not work.

India’s decline from the dizzy heights of a leading power has been accompanied by a steady decline in this close inter-braiding of science and technology. Redemption is possible only when we are brave enough to wholeheartedly embrace technology in all its grandeur without being misled by a non-existent science-versus-technology distinction. India’s future lies in envisioning an era of big tech – that is, technological goals so audacious that they inspire awe and stir the youth to rise to the challenge.

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One of the most important and immediate such goal should be putting humans on the moon. This supreme feat, which is shared by the most exclusive national club in the world, must be seen as the first testing of waters. It should be treated at par with great public works projects because it will lead to a multiplier far greater than terrestrial feats in infrastructure. This will entail projects and sub-contracts on high-speed computing, materials science, physics of high-speed aerodynamics and plasma, chemicals discovery and processing, advanced microelectronics, astrobiology, 3D printing, and supply chain and logistics solutions based on emerging technologies such as the blockchain. This will not only rejuvenate many moribund academic and industrial research groups across the country but herald startups, which would inevitably move up the value chain.

The broad goals and ambitions of the project will not hinder but rather stimulate fundamental science. The mission success itself can be used to study the geology of the moon, extreme environment chemistry, animal and plant response in zero and reduced gravity, astrobiology, and setting up probes for deep space imaging.

More importantly, big tech should be the axis around which we should tailor our policy and not the other way round. Detailed strategy, budgeting, target, limits, and benchmarks for these endeavours should be flexible enough to fine-tune the final policy targets. With this clarifying prism, science will automatically leapfrog. This is not a framework of hindrance but one of discipline, planning, encouragement, nudges, and quantifiable feedback. Along with the moon mission, we must launch even bigger and outlandish big tech goals – reaching Venus, zero-emission megacities, eliminating one vector-borne disease a year, making river water chemical-free, benchmark growth with number of tech startups, and indigenise one critical military hardware a year. In other words, we must move from the times of five-year plans to an era of five-tech plans.

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These big tech goals would in turn propel science, engineering, education, management, and, most importantly, the overall culture of policy. Finally, with the non-duality of science and tech will come their unification with society – the ultimate unified entity of civilisation.

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