My journey through the Geek Nation – I

Written by  //  April 16, 2011  //  Science & Technology  //  24 Comments

I am reading Angela Saini’s recently published book Geek Nation. The book description on Amazon reads:

India: it’s a nation of geeks, swots and nerds..[Skipped statistics of how Indians are taking over the world]..Geek Nation is a journey to meet the inventors, engineers and young scientists helping give birth to the world’s next scientific superpower.

As a sceptic, irrespective of the rave reviews that the book has got, I was going to read it. While I read it, I will share with you what I find to be the interesting bits about the book as well as give you a brief look at the story line.

=====Part – I=====

Saini starts the book by pointing out that India was once the most advanced scientific nation pointing to the likes of Aryabhatta. But the years since it has been ravaged by rulers and colonial powers, and has lost out on all that it once possessed. Yet, according to Saini, this century brings with it the hope that India will become a ‘scientific superpower’ to understand how and why she has decided to tour the country.

Her first stop is the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre where she chats with Prof. U R Rao. He tells her of the story of how the space research program in India began and how it always aimed towards the betterment of the society.

She then meets Dr. Vijay Singh who is the National Co-ordinator for Science Olympiads. Where he tells her about how sports is just not part of Indian culture but science is. He talks about a wunderkid named Nitin Jain and to understand the ‘prototypical Indian nerd’ she goes to meet him next. He has recently written a book called the ‘The story of my success’.

At his Faridabad home, she is unimpressed by the lack of excitement for science shown by Nitin.  But she even quotes him as ‘nothing much to do with the book, my parents wrote most of it’. He studies at IIT Delhi where she is headed next and describes it as ‘a real geek factory’.

At IIT Delhi she interviews a few current students who complain about the ‘filthy’ campus but praise the engineering classes. She compares how the annual budget of all of the IITs (15 in total) is equal to just 8% of MIT’s annual budget. But the most interesting bit of her experience was she attends a humanities course called ‘Macro perspectives on science and technology in humans’.

I’m the only person in the gloomy room at the top of a flight of grey steps for ten minutes. ‘I’m going to start anyways’, Professor Ambuj Sagar announces. Just a few late comers arrive.

The topic of the lecture is fascinating – the social reasons that automobiles went from small invention to mass-market marvel in the twentieth century – but almost all of the students stare at him blankly, uninterested. If it won’t help them pass their engineering exams, they don’t want to know. None of them are willing to ask questions, and even when he picks people to speak to the class, they look uncomfortable.

Returning the latest essay papers, he tells them, ‘I was a little bit disappointed that having harped on about innovation systems, the answers were not that impressive.’

By the end, he seems exasperated, ‘An innovation system is not an object, it’s what is in our minds,’ he implores.

Ambuj an IIT Delhi alumnus, returned after decades as a researcher at MIT and Harvard. ‘Students just don’t care anymore’, he complains. ‘What unfortunately globalisation has done is brought to India globalised opportunities and salaries and that is the incentive that students are looking at.’

Another student Nishant Ranka tells her that the only reason students come here is that when you leave you are likely to earn more than your father. When chatting to the dean of undergraduate studies, he tells her that coaching classes put students under tremendous pressure and their all-round development is affected.

The National Crime Records Bureau reports more than 2000 students committed suicide across India because they failed their exams.

At the end of her week at IIT Delhi she concludes, ‘I had hoped to find a geek’s paradise here but I haven’t. Instead of being the hothouses of intellectual curiosity and innovation that they promised to be when India created these grand institutions fifty years go, the IITs seem to have developed a culture of getting the grades and getting out.’

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