On Friday, I got the opportunity to attend a talk by the 2004 Nobel laureate in Physics, Prof. David Gross who was visiting IISc Bangalore. The lecture was titled Frontiers of Fundamental Physics, but for most of the time, he spoke about science in India. Prof. Gross is an Israeli American who has visited India repeatedly over many years. On this trip, he and 8 other Nobel laureates spoke for an hour with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In Prof. Gross’s experience, when politicians speak of science, they usually refer to ‘Technology Driven Science’ which has direct applications. On the other hand, Prof. Gross and most of his fellow Noble laureates engage in what he refers to as ‘Curiosity Driven Science’. Most real scientific revolutions with long term world changing consequences stem from such curiosity driven research, often emerging decades after the fundamental research was done by people who didn’t have a clue what their work would lead to. Margret Thatcher once pointed out that the transistor had not been invented by the entertainment industry and nuclear power had not been conceived of by the oil industry. They were the result of the work of people like Einstein and Rutherford.
Why is curiosity driven science so much better at turning up truly great breakthroughs rather than directed science? Prof. Gross believed it was because Nature is far better at picking good questions than politicians or CEOs.
PM Modi on a panel in front of the Make in India logo
In India, the first slogan of Mr. Modi’s term as PM was Make in India, meant to fillip manufacturing. Prof. Gross pointed out that a lot of things produced in India are by subsidiaries of foreign owned multi-national companies (think of LG, Hyundai and even Bata). To break free from this, we must necessarily
Invent in India
But as another Nobel prize winner Dr. Abdus Salam pointed out, one cannot be good at technology unless one is good at science. So to begin with, we must
Discover in India
The Chinese understood this idea 10 years ago and shifted their investment from application driven to fundamental sciences. They are reaping the rewards today. Chinese scientists dream of making the successor to the Large Hadron Collider in China. They know they are going to lead the world and have ambitions to match.
What surprises Dr. Gross is that Indians while achieving comparable growth rates have such narrow and small ambitions and can rarely see beyond “catching up” with the rest of the world.