Science should have the last word

A few years ago, I was at an international conference in Delhi which dealt with important issues arising from changes brought about by the rapid progress of science and technology. As the meeting progressed, with international experts highlighting the action needed in various fields, I began to feel uncomfortable, much like a diner at a sumptuous buffet searching desperately for that missing ingredient — a pinch of salt. The subject I wanted to hear about but which was being glossed over by the speakers was “scientific temper”. Ultimately, it was left to me to make a case for it, not only for the scientists but also for the common citizen, whatever his or her occupation.

What is scientific temper? Let me cite a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India: “The impact of science and the modern world have brought a greater appreciation of facts, a more critical faculty, a weighing of evidence, a refusal to accept tradition just because it is tradition…”

He then went on to say: “But even today, it is strange, how we suddenly become overwhelmed by tradition, and the critical faculties of even intelligent men cease to function…” Nehru concludes with the hope that, “Only when we are politically and economically free, will the mind function normally and critically.”

No difference

Alas, what has been the outcome? More than seven decades have elapsed since Nehru’s deadline of Indian independence but where are we vis-à-vis scientific temper? We continue to be hidebound with tradition and waste precious time and money in rituals which may have been relevant in earlier times but which have no relevance to modern living.

An interesting sidelight on superstitions has been thrown by Jiří Grygar, a scientist and science communicator from the Czech Republic. He finds that during the Soviet-dominated era, no superstitious ideas were publicly aired as these were feared to be against the beliefs subscribed to by the state. In the ‘free’ thinking times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, all pent-up superstitions have come up.

Superstitions thrive

Further, there are new superstitions that have their origin in the age of space technology. Towards the end of the last century, I had visited the radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico forms one of the vertices of a rather notorious triangle whose other vertices are at Bermuda and Florida. Known as the Bermuda Triangle, it has generated considerable excitement because of a claim that it formed a region within which mysterious (and possibly malicious) forces were present. A book on the Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz which describes disturbing and unfathomable events makes for fascinating reading. If those accounts were true then the Bermuda Triangle did encompass a sinister region. There have also been accounts of pilots losing their way and their lives, and watches stopping for an appreciable time, which, in short, were events that defied a rational scientific explanation.

A few years later, scientific attempts were made to test the veracity of the Triangle events. Lawrence David Kusche did seminal work in debugging the Triangle stories. His investigations have shown that the stories were either inflated, or did not tell the whole truth, or tinkered with the vital part of the evidence. Thus, one can safely say that there is no tangible evidence to ascribe an alien character to the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless as a scientist, whenever I invite questions from an audience of school or college students, the question inevitably pops up: What is the mystery behind all that is going on in the Bermuda Triangle? The questioner is visibly disappointed to learn that there are no black holes or dark energy or powerful aliens hiding there. When I asked my host in Arecibo how the locals react to such questions, he laughed and said that the Bermuda Triangle had long ceased to be a matter of concern. It of course serves the purpose of attracting tourists.

Harmful rays believed to be prevalent during a total solar eclipse keep many of our citizens behind closed doors. I once saw a total solar eclipse while in Zimbabwe. Recalling a previous eclipse in India, I was expecting to be greeted with the sight of empty roads and inhabitants behind closed doors in their houses, as is the case in India.

Nothing happened. Perhaps Zimbabweans were blissfully unaware of the evil rays. But in India, we are good at coming up with antidotes. As a housewife from a well-educated family once explained to me, the food in the fridge is supposed to be destroyed after an eclipse as evil rays will have contaminated it. However, the local priest had a solution which would avoid the food being wasted. His solution, the woman proudly told me, was to smear the fridge with cow dung, which would protect the food.

Here is another example. An executive of a firm had to catch a flight on a certain day but found out later that travelling on that particular day was inauspicious. He was told that the day prior to this was a “good” day. But he had other engagements that day. So what did he do? He stored his bag in his neighbour’s house on the earlier day and picked it up while on his way to the airport the following day. By leaving the bag in the neighbour’s house he was supposed to have begun his journey the previous “auspicious” day. This trick, known as “keeping prasthan”, is sufficient to deceive evil spirits.

From mythology

All these are examples of pseudoscience that grow around superstitions. But there are apparently more serious aspects that have grown around our mythology. Did our Vedic forefathers possess a knowledge of science that was well beyond the level attained by modern science? While references in our Puranas to the Pushpak Viman, Vishwamitra’s counter heaven in mid air, and weapons such as the Brahmastra and Indra’s Shakti look persuasive, they do not have the details that would stand the test of scientific scrutiny. If such claims are to have standing, their supporters have to give us their technical details. For example, what was the basic mathematical principle that explains how a craft such as the Pushpak is lifted and which propelled it through air? And, if the Brahmastra was a nuclear device, which would indicate a knowledge of nuclear physics, why are there no references to the forces of electricity and magnetism, knowledge of which would be necessary to understanding nuclear physics? In today’s modern age, the facility of running tap water and electric lighting is considered the basic minimum for living and forms a part of the manifestos of all political parties. Yet, as the Mahabharata tells us, the Hastinapur palace of Duryodhana or the Indraprastha abode of the Pandavas did not possess this minimal facility.

Recently, there was a claim made in India that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incorrect and should not be taught in schools. In the field of science, the sole criterion for the survival of a theory is that it must explain all observed phenomena in its domain. For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. This is because the origin of life on earth is still unexplained by science. However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools. In the final analysis, scientific evidence is what should have the last say.


1) Sumptuous

Meaning: Splendid and expensive-looking.

Example: “The banquet was a sumptuous, luxurious meal”

Synonyms: Lavish, Luxurious

Antonyms: Humble, Plain, Cheap

2) Desperately

Meaning: Used to emphasize the extreme degree of something.

Example: “He desperately needed a drink”

Synonyms: Seriously, Gravely

Antonyms: Slightly

3) A pinch of salt

Meaning: To not completely believe something that you are told, because you think it is unlikely to be true:

Example:  You have to take everything she says with a pinch of salt, because she tends to exaggerate.

4) Glossed

Meaning: Try to conceal or disguise (something unfavourable) by treating it briefly or representing it misleadingly.

Example: “The social costs of this growth are glossed over”

Synonyms: Conceal, Cover up

Antonyms: Disclose, Exaggerate

5) Temper

Meaning: A tendency to become angry easily.

Example: “I know my temper gets the better of me at times”

Synonyms: Anger, Fury

Antonyms: Good humour

6) Overwhelmed

Meaning: Have a strong emotional effect on.

Example: “I was overwhelmed with guilt”

Synonyms: Overcome, Move

7) Elapsed

Meaning: (Of time) pass or go by.

Example: “Weeks elapsed before anyone was charged with the attack”

Synonyms: Pass, Go by/past, Proceed

8) Hidebound

Meaning: Unwilling or unable to change because of tradition or convention.

Example: “They are working to change hidebound corporate cultures”

Synonyms: Conservative, Reactionary

Antonyms: Liberal, Broad-minded

9) Relevance

Meaning: The quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.

Example: “This film has contemporary relevance”

10) Aired

Meaning: Express (an opinion or grievance) publicly.

Example: “A meeting in which long-standing grievances were aired”

Synonyms: Express, Voice, Make public

11) Pent-up

Meaning: (Of emotions, energy, etc.) unable to be expressed or released.

Example: “Pent-up frustrations”

12) Vertices

Meaning: The highest point; the top or apex.

Example: “A line was drawn from the vertex of the figure to the middle of the base”

Synonyms: Apex, Peak

13) Notorious

Meaning: Famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed.

Example: “Los Angeles is notorious for its smog”

Synonyms: Infamous, Of ill repute

Antonyms: Unknown, Anonymous, Faceless

14) Mysterious

Meaning: Difficult or impossible to understand, explain, or identify.

Example: “His colleague had vanished in mysterious circumstances”

Synonyms: Puzzling, Strange

Antonyms: Straightforward

15) Malicious

Meaning: Characterized by malice; intending or intended to do harm.

Example: “He was found guilty of malicious damage”

Synonyms: Spiteful, Malevolent

Antonyms: Benevolent

16) Unfathomable

Meaning: Incapable of being fully explored or understood.

Example: “Her grey eyes were dark with some unfathomable emotion”

Synonyms: Inscrutable, Incomprehensible

Antonyms: Comprehensible, Penetrable

17) Fascinating

Meaning: Extremely interesting.

Example: “A fascinating book”

Synonyms: Engrossing, Captivating

Antonyms: Boring, Dull

18) Encompass

Meaning: Surround and have or hold within.

Example: “This area of London encompasses Piccadilly to the north and St James’s Park to the south”

Synonyms:  Surround, Enclose

19) Sinister

Meaning: Giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen.

Example: “There was something sinister about that murmuring voice”

Synonyms: Menacing, Threatening

20) Defied

Meaning: Openly resist or refuse to obey.

Example: “A woman who defies convention”

Synonyms: Disobey, Refuse to obey

Antonyms: Obey, Surrender

21) Veracity

Meaning: Conformity to facts; accuracy.

Example: “Officials expressed doubts concerning the veracity of the story”

Synonyms: Truthfulness, Truth

Antonyms: Falsity

22) Debugging

Meaning: Identify and remove errors from (computer hardware or software).

Example: “Games are the worst to debug”

23) Inflated

Meaning: Excessively or unreasonably high.

Example: “Inflated salaries”

24) Tinkered

Meaning: Attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way.

Example: “He spent hours tinkering with the car”

Synonyms: Try to mend/improve, work amateurishly on

25) Tangible

Meaning: Clear and definite; real.

Example: “The emphasis is now on tangible results”

Synonyms: Real, Actual

Antonyms: Abstract, Theoretical

26) Ascribe

Meaning: Regard something as being due to (a cause).

Example: “He ascribed Jane’s short temper to her upset stomach”

Synonyms: Attribute, Assign

27) Pops up

Meaning: Appear or occur suddenly.

Example: “These memories can pop up from time to time”

Synonyms: Appear, Appear suddenly/unexpectedly/abruptly

28) Concern

Meaning: Be relevant or important to; affect or involve.

Example: “She was prying into that which did not concern her”

Synonyms: Affect, Involve

29) Blissfully

Meaning: In a manner characterized by extreme happiness or joy.

Example: “They are blissfully in love”

30) Antidotes

Meaning: A medicine taken or given to counteract a particular poison.

Example: “There is no known antidote to the poison of the pufferfish”

Synonyms: Antitoxin, Antiserum

31) Priest

Meaning: An ordained minister of the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican Church, authorized to perform certain rites and administer certain sacraments.

Example: “The priest celebrated mass at a small altar off the north transept”

Synonyms: Clergyman, Clergywoman

32) Smear

Meaning: Spread (a greasy or sticky substance) over something.

Example: “She smeared sunblock on her skin”

Synonyms: Cover, Coat

33) Inauspicious

Meaning: Not conducive to success; unpromising.

Example: “Following this inauspicious start the British, outnumbered, withdrew”

Synonyms: Unpromising, Unpropitious

Antonyms: Promising, Auspicious

34) Deceive

Meaning: Deliberately cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, especially for personal gain.

Example:”I didn’t intend to deceive people into thinking it was French champagne”

Synonyms: Swindle, Defraud

35) Pseudoscience

Meaning: A collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.

Example: “The new pseudoscience of ‘counselling’”

36) Forefathers

Meaning: A member of the past generations of one’s family or people; an ancestor.

Example: “The duchy which her forefathers had ruled since the tenth century”

Synonyms: Forebear, Ancestor

Antonyms: Descendant

37) Persuasive

Meaning: Good at persuading someone to do or believe something through reasoning or the use of temptation.

Example: “An informative and persuasive speech”

Synonyms: Convincing, Effective

Antonyms: Unconvincing, Weak

38) Scrutiny

Meaning: Critical observation or examination.

Example: “Every aspect of local government was placed under scrutiny”

Synonyms: Inspection, Survey

39) Propelled

Meaning: Spur or drive into a particular situation.

Example: “Fear propelled her out of her stillness”

Synonyms: Spur, Drive

40) Manifestos

Meaning:  A public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate.

Example: “He may fudge key issues in the Labour manifesto”

Synonyms: Policy statement, Platform, programme

Check the previous edition of THE HINDU Editorial to learn more words and to ace the English section in the forthcoming exams.



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