The India Science Festival (ISF) is an annual celebration of science with lectures, panel discussions, book discussions, demonstrations, and workshops. The fourth edition was held recently at the sprawling campus of Hyderabad Public School.
The India Science Festival was first organised in Pune in January 2020 by Aspiring Minds, a Delhi-based firm founded by Varun Agarwal, an MIT, Boston graduate. The theme was AI and Neuroscience. I was then invited to deliver a talk on ‘Indian Mathematics — From Zero to Infinity’.
Covid forced the 2021 and 2022 versions online, but 2023 was welcomed with a physical festival in January. Varun Agarwal and others had meanwhile founded Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology (FAST), which organised ISF 2023.
Large tents on lawns; huge screens; free admission to the public; top-notch scientists, writers, policymakers as speakers; stalls where companies and research labs demonstrated the latest tech; food stalls with several cuisine choices; friendly and helpful volunteers; eager school students by the busloads — all these characterised the India Science Festival and its festival atmosphere.
What sets India Science Festival apart?
I was invited again this year to the India Science Festival held in Hyderabad from 20–22 January 2023, to deliver a talk on Varahamihira’s eclipse proof. This open-minded platform for both cutting-edge science and India’s historical contributions sets the India Science Festival apart from serious conferences that exclude the scientifically curious public.
FAST India has developed an Ease of Doing Science (EODS) Index, released at the inaugural function. It is a serious statistical survey of funding, collaboration, commercialisation, and institutional support in India.
This is a brilliant quantitative measure. One hopes this informs and shapes policy, funding, and opens up possibilities.
Indian science & tech through dance
Mallika Sarabhai’s troupe performed a Bharatanatyam dance at the India Science Festival with songs in Sanskrit, Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, and other languages demonstrating themes from Indian science and technology:
The Harappan measuring scale;
Sushruta’s invention of nasal plastic surgery;
Pingala’s Meru Prastara, more popularly known as Pascal’s triangle;
Bhaskara’s algebraic problem in Lilavati, involving the number of arrows expressed as a polynomial in the Arjuna-Karna battle;
Jehangir’s fascination with ornithology and cranes;
JC Bose’s plant sensitivity meter, etc.
There were cheers from the ISF 2023 audience, showing their appreciation.
Four parallel hourly sessions, at four halls, means one had to choose which event to attend. Over seven hours, this amounted to 28 events a day, over two days.
ChatGPT and AI at India Science Festival
AI, especially chatGPT, was mentioned in several lectures and discussions.
Microsoft VP Charu Srinivasan predicted that AI would revolutionise everything as much as smartphones and the internet. Humanity now produces more data per day than in the past 2,000 years before computers were invented.
Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award-winner Dr Anurag Agarwal said ChatGPT can pass some medical qualification exams in the US and become a doctor. Patients with mental health issues reported a 25 percent faster response time and 40% greater satisfaction from ChatGPT than a human doctor.
An app called Ada now diagnoses several diseases. Google’s DeepMind software folds proteins better than top human experts.
The audience asked whether AI would replace software jobs, write books, do research, or substitute teachers. Even experts could only guess. The only consensus was that AI will impact us far and wide.
India’s science ambitions
A panel at the India Science Festival discussed “India’s Science Ambitions”. FAST’s Agarwal lauded Bharat Biotech for Covaxin — making India one of only five countries to develop a vaccine. He also observed that payoffs in science are often long-term: Boolean algebra became central to computer science a hundred years after George Boole invented it.
IBM’s Sriram Raghavan invoked a cricket metaphor: India needs star scientists like cricket superstars Tendulkar and Kohli, and also requires lesser talent who can earn in science like they do in cricket. Australian Tom Barlow (Barlow Advisory Group) observed that India has a fantastic talent for self-organisation that’s not valued enough.
Vijayaraghavan from the NCBS pointed to the diversity of timescales and expectations: Universities think in decades; industry by quarterly results; politicians week by week. Dipanwita Chattopadyaya, Chairperson, IKP Knowledge Park, Hyderabad, argued for including history of science in curricula and quoted a Maya Angelou poem.
Books on science in Indian languages
English nonfiction has overtaken fiction, declared Juggernaut Books editor Devangshu Datta. There are excellent books about tuberculosis, Covid, and Indian anthropology.
“Did the TV series ‘Rocket Boys’ create more awareness about Indian science than books?” wondered NDTV’s Maya Sharma. Author Jahnavi Phalkey noted that science books are like Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant — their intention dramatically differs from their results.
“Why does the panel confine itself to English books?” a reader questioned and noted that there are Telugu books on science too.
The panel mostly pleaded ignorance about books in Indian languages, except Datta who mentioned Bengali science writers. FAST has announced a scholarship for writing science books.
Also read: A rare Tamil translation of Aryabhata
Stem cells and medicine
Jyotsna Dhawan from the CCMB gave a sweeping overview of cell biology, ageing, and medicine. Stem cells in embryos are pluripotent: They become all types of cells in the human body.
Exercise activates satellite cells to make new muscle tissue. Blood transfusions from youth rejuvenate stem cells in older people. This may slow down ageing and treat muscle diseases.
But pancreatic and cardiac cells are the hardest to regenerate. Pluripotent stem cells can be harnessed to treat diseases and damaged tissue or organs (by replacement). The ethics will be determined by philosophers and governments, not only doctors and scientists.
InStem in Bangalore and CMC Vellore are involved in such research.
Space and the private sector
Bidushi Bhattacharya, who was earlier with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, said when rocket scientists left the JPL for SpaceX, they wondered why the PayPal guy ventured into rockets.
Skyroot, a private Indian company, developed an indigenous rocket called Vikram and launched it at ISRO’s Sriharikota in November 2022. Skyroot’s CVS Kiran (formerly of ISRO) claimed that ISRO doesn’t fear failure, while private companies are scared of every risk and so try to optimise costs and components. They use composite materials and 3D-printed a cryogenic engine. 3D-printing has enabled designs and testing in two days, things that took eight months earlier.
VC firm Antler’s Rahul Seth opined that start-up engineers don’t worry about limits. They think they can do anything and then do it. Pixxel’s Kshitij Khandelwal said they developed India’s first non-ISRO satellite. They also developed a hyperloop, which they demonstrated to Elon Musk. Foreign companies also want to launch using Indian rockets. Space ventures will exploit low-earth orbits and then higher orbits before mining asteroids or the moon.
ISRO’s InSpace is a platform that enables non-technical collaboration between ISRO and private space tech companies.
ISF 2023: Tailpiece
It was a pity that the India Science Festival got almost no media coverage in spite of support from the Telangana government, apart from such a huge effort and an excellent bouquet of speakers.
It was disappointing that Cyberabad citizens and tech company employees didn’t throng the venue in the thousands, though it was free. But these may be early days. One hopes the festival of science grows and thrives.
(R Gopu is part of the Tamil Heritage Trust (THT), and is interested in history and heritage. He is also one of the co-founders of the Varahamihira Science Forum)