MATHEMATICS, TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE IN INDIA

MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE IN INDIA

More than a thousand years ago, Indian astrologers suggested that white light from the sun was composed of all colors. The West didn't recognize this idea until Newton published the results of his famous double prism experiment in 1672. The Hindu developed the idea that all numbers can be represented by the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0. The idea was picked by the Arabs—hence the name Arabic numerals—and was later introduced to the West. To the East Indians the constellation Capricorn is Makaram (the antelope).

India has its own space program and nuclear reactors. India uses satellites in agriculture, mapping and analysis of soil types. India regards the building of a nuclear bomb as a scientific achievement. Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek, "India is a land bustling with...village technicians and homegrown science." Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India's space program said, "We may not be able to explore other planets but we must be second to none in applying technology to real problems.”

Indian scientific research and technological developments since independence in 1947 have received substantial political support and most of their funding from the government. Science and technology initiatives have been important aspects of the government's five-year plans and usually are based on fulfilling short-term needs, while aiming to provide the institutional base needed to achieve long-term goals. As India has striven to develop leading scientists and world-class research institutes, government-sponsored scientific and technical developments have aided diverse areas such as agriculture, biotechnology, cold regions research, communications, environment, industry, mining, nuclear power, space, and transportation. As a result, India has experts in such fields as astronomy and astrophysics, liquid crystals, condensed matter physics, molecular biology, virology, and crystallography. Observers have pointed out, however, that India's emphasis on basic and theoretical research rather than on applied research and technical applications has diminished the social and economic effects of the government's investments. In the mid-1990s, government funds supported nearly 80 percent of India's research and development activities, but, as elsewhere in the economic sector, emphasis increasingly was being put on independent, nongovernmental sources of support. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

In September 2003, a six-kilogram meteorite crashed in village in Orissa state, injuring 11 people and causing one man to die of a heart attack. Scientist pointed out that if the 21st century began at zero hours Greenwich mean time then the first sunrise occurred along a line that passes through eastern Russia, western China and eastern India and the Bay of Bengal.

India’s Math and Science Traditions and Discoveries

By A.D. 1000, Indian hade created a numerical system based on nine numbers followed by a symbol for "zero." "In the Hindu-Arabic notation, the position occupied by a digit in a number expression is critical. This is where zero fits in. The Indians introduced the symbol 0 to act as a placeholder, when there is no entry in a particular position. In the number 304, for example, 3 denotes three hundreds, the 0 denoted no tens, and the 4 denotes four units. A million in India is known as a 100 crore.

India has a long and proud scientific tradition. Nehru, in his Discovery of India published in 1946, praised the mathematical achievements of Indian scholars, who are said to have developed geometric theorems before Pythagoras did in the sixth century B.C. and were using advanced methods of determining the number of mathematical combinations by the second century B.C. By the fifth century A.D., Indian mathematicians were using ten numerals and by the seventh century were treating zero as a number. These breakthroughs, Nehru said, "liberated the human mind . . . and threw a flood of light on the behavior of numbers." [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The conceptualization of squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, fractions, the ability to express the number ten to the twelfth power, algebraic formulas, and astronomy had even more ancient origins in Vedic literature, some of which was compiled as early as 1500 B.C. The concepts of astronomy, metaphysics, and perennial movement are all embodied in the Rig Veda. Although such abstract concepts were further developed by the ancient Greeks and the Indian numeral system was popularized in the first millennium A.D. by the Arabs (the Arabic word for number, Nehru pointed out, is hindsah , meaning "from Hind (India)"), their Indian origins are a source of national pride. *

Technological discoveries have been made relating to pharmacology, brain surgery, medicine, artificial colors and glazes, metallurgy, recrystalization, chemistry, the decimal system, geometry, astronomy, and language and linguistics (systematic linguistic analysis having originated in India with Panini's fourth-century B.C. Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi ). These discoveries have led to practical applications in brick and pottery making, metal casting, distillation, surveying, town planning, hydraulics, the development of a lunar calendar, and the means of recording these discoveries as early as the era of Harappan culture. *

Early History of Math and Science in India

Written information on scientific developments from the Harrapan period to the eleventh century A.D. (when the first permanent Muslim settlements were established in India) is found in Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Malayalam, and other classical languages that were intimately connected to Indian religious and philosophical traditions. Archaeological evidence and written accounts from other cultures with which India has had contact have also been used to corroborate the evidence of Indian scientific and technological developments. The technology of textile production, hydraulic engineering, water-powered devices, medicine, and other innovations, as well as mathematics and other theoretical sciences, continued to develop and be influenced by techniques brought in from the Muslim world by the Mughals after the fifteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The practical applications of scientific and technical developments are witnessed, for example, by the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of water tanks for irrigation in South India by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although each tank was built through local efforts, together, in effect, they created a closely integrated network supplying water throughout the region. The science of metallurgy led to the construction of numerous small but sophisticated furnaces for producing iron and steel. By the late eighteenth century, it is estimated that production capability may have reached 200,000 tons per year. High levels of textile production--making India the world's leading producer and exporter of textiles before 1800--were the result of refinements in spinning technology. *

Several millennia of interest in astronomy in India eventually resulted in the invention and construction of a network of sophisticated, large-scale astronomical observatories--the Jantar Mantars (meaning "house of instruments")--in the early eighteenth century. Constructed of stone, brick, stucco, and marble, the Jantar Mantar complexes were used to determine the seasons, phases of the moon and sun, and locations of stars and planets from points in Delhi, Mathura, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Ujjain. The Jantar Mantars were designed and built by a renowned astronomer and city planner, Sawai Jai Singh II, the Hindu maharajah of Amber, between 1725 and 1734, after he been asked by Mohammad Shah, the tenth Mughal emperor, to reform the calendar. These complexes had the patronage of the Mughal emperors and have long attracted the attention of Western scholars and travelers, some of whom have found them anachronistic in light of the use of telescopes in Europe and China more than a century before Jai Singh's projects. As United States scientist William A. Blanpied has pointed out, Jai Singh, who subscribed to Hindu cosmology, was aware of Western developments but preferred to perfect his naked-eye observations rather than concentrate on precise calculational astronomy. *

Science in India in the Colonial Era

The arrival of the British in India in the early seventeenth century--the Portuguese, Dutch, and French also had a presence, although it was much less pervasive--led eventually to new scientific developments that added to the indigenous achievements of the previous millennia. Although colonization subverted much of Indian culture, turning the region into a source of raw materials for the factories of England and France and leaving only low-technology production to local entrepreneurs, a new organization was brought to science in the form of the British education system. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Science education under British rule (by the East India Company from 1757 to 1857 and by the British government from 1858 to 1947) initially involved only rudimentary mathematics, but as greater exploitation of India took place, there was more need for surveying and medical schools to train indigenous people to assist Europeans in their explorations and research. What new technologies were implemented were imported rather than developed indigenously, however, and it was only during the immediate preindependence period that Indian scientists came to enjoy political patronage and support for their work. *

Western education and techniques of scientific inquiry were added to the already established Indian base, making way for later developments. The major result of these developments was the establishment of a large and sophisticated educational infrastructure that placed India as the leader in science and technology in Asia at the time of independence in 1947. Thereafter, as other Asian nations emerged, India lost its primacy in science, a situation much lamented by India's leaders and scientists. However, the infrastructure was in place and has continued to produce generations of top scientists. *

Science and Technology in India Since Independence

At the onset of independence, Nehru called science "the very texture of life" and optimistically declared that "science alone . . . can solve problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening customs." Under his leadership, the government set out to cure numerous societal problems. The Green Revolution, educational improvement, establishment of hundreds of scientific laboratories, industrial and military research, massive hydraulic projects, and entry into the frontiers of space all evolved from this early decision to embrace high technology. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

One of the early planning documents was the Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958, which called for embracing "by all appropriate means, the cultivation of science and scientific research in all its aspects--pure, applied, and educational" and encouraged individual initiatives. In 1983 the government issued a similar statement, which, while stressing the importance of international cooperation and the diffusion of scientific knowledge, put considerable emphasis on self-reliance and the development of indigenous technology. This goal is still in place in the mid-1990s. *

Science and technology policy and research have largely been the domains of government since 1947 and are largely patterned after the structure left behind by the British. Within the central government, there are a top-down apparatus and a plethora of ministries, departments, lower-level agencies, and institutions involved in the science and technology infrastructure. *

Science and the Indian Government

Government-administered science and technology emanate from the Office of the Prime Minister, to which a chief science adviser and the Science Advisory Council, when they are appointed, have direct input. The prime minister de jure controls the science and technology sector through the National Council on Science and Technology, the minister of state for science and technology (who has control over day-to-day operations of the science and technology infrastructure), and ministers responsible for ocean development, atomic energy, electronics, and space. Other ministries and departments also have significant science and technology components and answer to the prime minister through their respective ministers. Among them are agriculture, chemicals and fertilizers, civil aviation and tourism, coal, defence, environment, food, civil supplies, forests and wildlife, health and family welfare, home affairs, human resource development, nonconventional energy sources, petrochemicals, and petroleum and natural gas, as well as other governmental entities. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The Ministry of Science and Technology was established in 1971 to formulate science and technology policies and implement, identify, and promote "frontline" research throughout the science and technology infrastructure. The ministry, through its subordinate Department of Science and Technology, also coordinates intragovernmental and international cooperation and provides funding for domestic institutions and research programs. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, a technology transfer organization, and the Department of Biotechnology, which runs a number of developmental laboratories, are the ministry's other administrative elements. Indicative of the level of importance placed on science and technology is the fact that Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao held the portfolio for this ministry in the early and mid-1990s. Some argued, however, that Rao could truly strengthen the sector by appointing, as his predecessors did, a chief science adviser and a committee of leading scientists to provide high-level advice and delegate the running of these ministries to others. *

The National Council on Science and Technology is at the apex of the science and technology infrastructure and is chaired by the prime minister. The integration of science and technology planning with national socioeconomic planning is carried out by the Planning Commission. Scientific advisory committees in individual socioeconomic ministries formulate long-term programs and identify applicable technologies for their particular area of responsibility. The rest of the infrastructure has seven major components. The national-level component includes government organizations that provide hands-on research and development, such as the ministries of atomic energy and space, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR--a component of the Ministry of Science and Technology), and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. The second component, organizations that support research and development, includes the departments or ministries of biotechnology, nonconventional energy sources, ocean development, and science and technology. The third-echelon component includes state government research and development agencies, which are usually involved with agriculture, animal husbandry, irrigation, public health, and the like and that also are part of the national infrastructure. *

The four other major components are the university system, private research organizations, public-sector research and development establishments, and research and development centers within private industries. Almost all internationally recognized university-level research is carried out in government-controlled or government-supported institutions. The results of government-sponsored research are transferred to public- and private-sector industries through the National Research and Development Corporation. This corporation is part of the Ministry of Science and Technology and has as its purpose the commercialization of scientific and technical know-how, the promotion of research through grants and loans, promotion of government and industry joint projects, and the export of Indian technology. *

Funding for Science in India

Central government financial support of research and development--including subsidies to public-sector industries--was 75.7 percent of total financial support in FY 1992. State governments provided an additional 9.3 percent. However, even when combined with the private-sector contribution (15.0 percent), research and development expenditures were only just over 0.8 percent of the GDP in FY 1992. Although there was growth in research and development expenditures during the 1980s and early 1990s, the rate of growth was less than the GNP rate of growth during the same period and was a cause of concern for government planners. Moreover, the bulk of government research and development expenditures (80 percent in FY 1992) goes to only five agencies: the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Ministry of Space, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, and CSIR, and to their constituent organizations. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Despite long-term government commitment to research and development, India compares poorly with other major Asian countries. In Japan, for example, nearly 3 percent of GDP goes to research and development; in South Korea and Taiwan, the figure is nearly 2 percent. In India, research and development receives only 0.8 percent of GDP; only China among the major players spends less (0.7 percent). However, India's share of GDP expenditure on research and development has increased slightly: in 1975 it stood at 0.5 percent, in 1980 at 0.6 percent, and in 1985 at 0.8, where it has become static. *

Because of the allocation of financial inputs, India has been more successful at promoting security-oriented and large-scale scientific endeavors, such as space and nuclear science programs, than at promoting industrial technology. Part of the latter lack of achievement has been attributed to the limited role of universities in the research and development system. Instead, India has concentrated on government-sponsored specialized institutes and provided minimal funding to university research programs. The low funding level has encouraged university scientists to find jobs in the more liberally funded public-sector national laboratories. Moreover, private industry in India plays a relatively minor role in the science and technology system (15 percent of the total investment compared with Japan's 80 percent and slightly more than 50 percent in the United States). *

This low level of private-sector investment has been attributed to a number of factors, including the preponderance of trade-oriented rather than technology-oriented industries, protectionist tariffs, and rigid regulation of foreign investment. The largest private-sector research and development expenditures during the FY 1990-FY 1992 period were in the areas of engineering and technology, particularly in the industrial development, transportation, communications, and health services sectors. Nonetheless, they were relatively small expenditures when compared with government and public-sector inputs in the same fields. The key element for Indian industry to benefit from the greater government and public-sector efforts in the 1990s is the ability of the government and public-sector laboratories to develop technologies with broad applications and to transfer these technologies--as is done by the National Research and Development Corporation--to private-sector industries able to apply them with maximum efficiency. *

Science and Scientific Research in India

India ranks eleventh in the world in its number of active scientific and technical personnel. Including medical personnel, they were estimated at around 188,000 in 1950, 450,000 in 1960, 1.2 million in 1970, 1.8 million in 1980, and 3.8 million in 1990. India's universities, university-level institutions, and colleges have produced more than 200,000 science and technology graduates per year since 1985. Doctorates are awarded each year to about 3,000 people in science, between 500 and 600 in engineering, around 800 in agricultural sciences, and close to 6,000 in medicine. However, in 1990 India had the lowest number of scientific and engineering personnel (3.3) per 10,000 persons in the national labor force of the major Asian nations. For example, Japan, had nearly seventy-five per 10,000, South Korea had more than thirty-seven per 10,000, and China had 5.6 per 10,000. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The quality of higher education in the sciences has not improved as quickly as desired since independence because of the flight of many top scientists from academia to higher-paying jobs in government-funded research laboratories. Foreign aid, aimed at counteracting university faculty shortages, has produced top-rate graduates as intended. However, because of limited job prospects at home, many of the brightest physicians, scientists, and engineers have been attracted by opportunities abroad, particularly in Western nations. Since the early 1990s, this trend has appeared to be changing as more high-technology jobs, especially in fields requiring computer science skills, have begun to open in India as a result of economic liberalization. The "brain bank" network of Indian scientists abroad that was seen as a potential source of talent by some observers in the 1980s has proven to be a valuable resource in the 1990s. *

Using imported technology, scientists made major advances in microprocessors during the 1980s that brought the country to only one generation (three to four years) behind international leaders. A sign of how much microcomputer use has developed could be seen in sales: from US$93 million in FY 1983 to US$488 million in FY 1988. Facilitating the use of automation has been a counterpart to the expansion of the data communication field. The development of the "Param 9000" supercomputer prototype, reportedly capable of billions of floating point operations per second, was completed in December 1994 and was announced by the state-owned Centre for Development of Advanced Computing as ready for sale to operational users in March 1995. Earlier Param models, using parallel processing technologies to achieve near-supercomputer performance, were produced in sufficient quantity for export in the early 1990s. *

DRDO developed its own parallel processing computer, which was unveiled by Prime Minister Rao in April 1995. Developed by DRDO's Advanced Numerical Research and Analysis Group in Hyderabad, the supercomputer is capable of 1 billion points per second speed and can be used for geophysics, image processing, and molecular modeling. *

Famous Indian Scientists

India is famous for its physicists and scientist. Several Indian and even more Indian ex-patriots have won the Nobel Prize. Dr. Har Gobind Khorana shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1968 with Marshall Nirenberg and Robert Holley for cracking the genetic code. Chandrashekar Venkata Raman won the Nobel Prize in 1930. Raman had found that diffused light contained rays of other wave lengths what is now popularly known as Raman Effect. Prof. Subramanyan Chandrasekhar won Nobel Prize in 1983. Chandrashekhar estimated limit (Chandrashekhar limit) on size of highly dense variety of star known as 'White Dwarf'.

Another leading scientist was Homi Jehangir Bhabha, an eminent physicist internationally recognized for his contributions to the fields of positron theory, cosmic rays, and muon physics at the University of Cambridge in Britain. In 1945, with financial assistance from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Bhabha established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Other eminent preindependence scientists include Sir Jagadish Chandra (J.C.) Bose, a Cambridge-educated Bengali physicist who discovered the application of electromagnetic waves to wireless telegraphy in 1895 and then went on to a second notable career in biophysical research. Meghnad Saha, also from Bengal, was trained in India, Britain, and Germany and became an internationally recognized nuclear physicist whose mathematical equations and ionization theory gave new insight into the functions of stellar spectra. In the late 1930s, Saha began promoting the importance of science to national economic modernization, a concept fully embraced by Nehru and several generations of government planners. *

The Bose-Einstein Statistics, used in quantum physics, and Boson particles are named after another leading scientist, mathematician Satyendranath (S.N.) Bose. S.N. Bose was trained in India, and his research discoveries gave him international fame and an opportunity for advanced studies in France and Germany. In 1924 he sent the results of his research on radiation as a form of gas to Albert Einstein. Einstein extended Bose's statistical methods to ordinary atoms, which led him to predict a new state of matter--called the Bose-Einstein Condensation--that was scientifically proved in United States laboratory experiments in 1995. Prafulla Chandra Ray, another Bengali, earned a doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the University of Edinburgh in 1887 and went on to a devoted career of teaching and research. His work was instrumental in establishing the chemical industry in Bengal in the early twentieth century.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Shakuntala Dvi multiplied two randomly selected 13-digit numbers (7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779) in her head in 28 second in London in June 1980 and came up with the right answer (18,947,668,177,995,426,773,730). This achievement was listed as the world record for mathematical computations.

Svrinivasa Ramanujan, the Great Mathematician

Svrinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), one of the most famous and remarkable mathematical geniuses of all time, was from Madras. Described as the "man who knew infinity", his greatest achievement was founding the field of probabilistic number theory. Ramanujan was born into Brahmin family. He impressed his teachers with his ability to solve complex problems with a single glance and his love of discussing metaphysics. He flunked out of two colleges and, with his mother's support, he began studying math on his own with out-date textbooks.

Ramanujan began churning out theorems in his early 20s that caught of the attention of professors at Cambridge's Trinity College, regarded at that time as the home of some of the world' most engaging minds. There he created more theorems that mathematicians to this day are still trying to unravel and understand. Unfortunately Ramanujan was a troubled soul. He once threw himself in front of train but survived. The early 20th century mathematician G.H. Hardy, Ramunjan’s mentor and the father of modern analytic number theory, tried to kill himself twice. Ramanujan returned to India during World War II and died when he was only 32.

Exactly how Ramanujan's mind worked remains a mystery. Hardy wrote that Ramanujan's "ideas, as to what constituted a mathematical proof were of the most shadowy description. All his results, new or old, right or wrong, had been arrived at by a process of mingled argument, intuition and induction, of which he was unable entirely to give any coherent account." Ramanujan himself once said, "Immediately I heard the problem it was clear that the solution should obviously be a continued fraction. I then thought, Which continued fraction? And the answer came to my mind."

C.V. Raman Chandrashekhar

One of the most famous scientists of the pre- and postindependence era was Indian-trained Chandrasekhara Venkata (C.V.) Raman, an ardent nationalist, prolific researcher, and writer of scientific treatises on the molecular scattering of light and other subjects of quantum mechanics. In 1930 Raman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his 1928 discovery of the Raman Effect, which demonstrates that the energy of a photon can undergo partial transformation within matter. In 1934-36, with his colleague Nagendra Nath, Raman propounded the Raman-Nath Theory on the diffraction of light by ultrasonic waves. He was a director of the Indian Institute of Science and founded the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1934 and the Raman Research Institute in 1948. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

C.V. Raman Chandrashekhar (1888-1970) was born into a wealthy landowning family in Bengal. A true prodigy, he graduated from university at the age of 16 and earned his masters degree and published his first major paper when he was 18. Later he worked in finance and experimented in his free time in a makeshift laboratory. Chandrashekhar work received attention and he ultimately received job as a physics professor at the University of Calcutta. There he did research in optics, acoustics and crystallography.

The Raman effect is the tendency of diffused light to change wavelength and color. This discovery is important for many thing, including figuring out the make up of materials. According to one story, Chandrashekhar used his $40,000 Nobel Prize money to buy diamonds for his crystallographic research.

C.V. Raman Chandrasekhara's nephew, astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrashekhar won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on star formation and collapses and black holes. Born in Lahore in 1910, Chandrashekhar finished university in India at the age of 19 and left for Britain to do post-graduate work at Cambridge. On the boat ride to Britain in 1930s he devised his theory on collapsed stars know as white dwarfs.

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen, an Indian, won the Nobel prize in economics in 1998. Dubbed the "Mother Teresa of Economics," he examined the economics of poverty and according to one colleague "he brought the element of ethics into mainstream economics...His basic thesis is that an economic system must be sensitive to society as a whole, especially the poor." Sen was the first Asian to win the Nobel prize in economics. After winning it he was treated like a celebrity. Even though he spent most of his working life in Britain and the United States he was awarded free lifetime passes with Air India and Indian Railways.

Sen was born in Shantiniketan, near Calcutta, in 1933. He said he became interested in economics when he was nine. He lived through a catastrophic famine in Bengal and was educated in Britain and was the first foreigner to become a Master at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Sen has wrote extensively about how famines could occur even when there is enough food because distribution was inadequate and unfair. He studied the relationship between democracy, economics and food supply and argued that an important aspect of economics was the sense of satisfaction through social sacrifice and empathy towards others. He praised Kerala, an India state in southeast India, which has a low average income but has a high quality of life as measured by high literacy, long life span and low infant mortality rate.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.