‘They Made What? They Found What?’ Review – Enjoyable Ride Through The Life And Work Of Indian Scientists
A new collection of stories on Indian scientists provides knowledge, inspiration, and pride in the Indian scientific endeavour – while still keeping things fun and engaging.
They Made What? They Found What?. Shweta Taneja. Hachette India. 2021. Rs 399. Pages 288.
In the many academic labs scattered across India, scientists are quietly chipping away at difficult problems every day in search of right answers. Many of them work tirelessly with the hope that they can one day discover new truths about the universe or invent things that can help humanity.
Despite the importance of this work, scientific research takes place outside the spotlight. Not far from where I live are some of India’s premier research institutes, such as the Indian Institute of Science, Raman Research Institute, and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, and yet the gravity of the work unfolding in these highly esteemed places is not easily felt by the people living nearby, let alone those far away from scientific institutions.
In this context, science-fiction writer Shweta Taneja’s collection of stories on Indian science is welcome. They Made What? They Found What? was released on 28 February, India’s National Science Day, and contains tales of “daring discoveries” and “ingenious inventions” of Indian scientists.
In her book, Taneja is unafraid to navigate various areas of science – astrophysics, ecology, nanotechnology, mathematics, and neuroscience among others – to introduce her readers to some of India’s bright minds in science and the illuminating work they have produced through years of effort.
Taneja is an accomplished fiction author with experience in journalism and it shows in her non-fiction offering.
Though it can be a challenge sometimes to make science accessible, each chapter in this book reads like a short story with a scientist-protagonist, a supporting cast composed of characters like teachers, colleagues, research interns, and family members, and a string of events threaded together leading up to that “eureka” moment.
Though most of Taneja’s scientist picks are from the more modern era – the last three to four decades – it is heartening to revisit the tales of some familiar faces in Indian science.
The book provides a peek into the life and work of legends like Jagadish Chandra Bose, at a time when he was on a quest to find out if plants had feelings, and Sir C V Raman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist whose work on light scattering has led to his name being associated forever with his novel finding – the “Raman Effect”.
As much as Bose and Raman are towering, inspirational figures, learning about contemporary scientists feels more satisfying because of their proximity to us in time – and, in many cases, space. The curious reader can easily look up these scientists online and see what they are up to these days. Some have social or web profiles too, making it easier to follow their work if one wishes.
Among the present-day scientists featured in the collection are Archana Sharma – an Indian particle physicist who works at the highly respected European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); Divya Mudappa – a wildlife ecologist who is successfully rebuilding rainforests in the globally recognised biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats; Anil Bhardwaj – an astrophysicist who has been a principal investigator on India’s landmark space missions, namely Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan; and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – the India-born physicist and molecular biologist who received the physiology-and-medicine Nobel in 2009.
The chapters of the book, one for each scientist, typically lead up to an invention or discovery. Though this is invariably the high point of a story, the writing is such that the end result seems almost incidental. Whether that was the author’s intention or not, it feels like an important lesson for anyone interested in the scientific endeavour.
‘No research goes to waste’, a mathematician working on the problem of ‘primality testing’ – devising an algorithm to determine if a number is prime – is said to remind himself. Taneja then adds that scientists fail 99.9 per cent of the time, suggesting that failure is part of the scientific process.
An obsession with, and especially attachment to, only a grand, successful end result can be detrimental to progress, especially in the early stages of one's research. A scientist doesn't have to be an Einstein to make a contribution.
The collection also serves up the importance of timeless values necessary for science, like hard work, persistence, and ingenuity.
When Sonam Wangchuk, the inspiration behind actor Aamir Khan’s character in the Hindi film 3 Idiots, is thinking of ideas to solve the water scarcity problem in the high-altitude region of Ladakh, the solution is hard to come by.
Wangchuk and his students combine their intelligence, but make glacial progress till one day the innovator inadvertently cracks the code while teaching geometry at school. Obstacles appear even after this point, but Wangchuk’s passion cuts through the challenges. Inspiration of this kind is readily available in the pages of this book.
Grouses about They Made What? They Found What? are few and minor in the larger scheme of things, though something to consider. Many chapters, for instance, begin with a terse description of the weather from back in the day in a scientist's life. Though these openings set the scene nicely, identical usage across chapters makes the story structure seem formulaic.
Additionally, the younger selves of scientists have been depicted as inquisitive beings who ask questions at every turn, diligently learn about the world around them, and resolve to demystify things. While this may be true of the scientists featured in this particular collection, it may be useful in such a book to show that the paths leading up to science and becoming a scientist can be diverse. A story or two of the 'unlikely scientist' would have made for a useful addition to the mix.
These quibbles, though, don't take away from what is a delightful book. Taneja does well, in particular, to encourage her readers to engage with the material. Fun exercises, experiments, quizzes, trivia, tips, and more ask readers to briefly put on their thinking caps, call on their imagination, and even do some light additional reading if required. These energetic additions sit well with the spirit of science.
The book itself is designed in such a way that it is a double offering, with the front and back covers acting as gateways into two different sections – inventions and discoveries.
The introduction of two interesting characters – Batty and Foxy – to accompany the reader is smart too. While Batty the cat shows the way of science by maintaining a single-minded focus on her object of desire, the spectacled Foxy is eager to educate. Together, they help keep the material light and witty, so that the subject matter doesn't ever feel daunting to the reader.
Overall, They Made What? They Found What? is an enjoyable, informative, and engaging read. And though it is written primarily for kids, it easily serves as a source of knowledge, inspiration, and even pride for anyone in India regardless of age. Here’s three cheers to Indian science.
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