Oct 19, 2014
When spacecraft Mangalyaan successfully entered the Martian orbit in late September after a 10-month journey, India erupted in joy. Costing more than an F-16 but less than a Rafale, Mangalyaan’s meticulous planning and execution established India as a space-faring country. Although Indians had falsely celebrated their five nuclear tests of 1998 which were based upon well-known physics of the 1940s the Mars mission is a true accomplishment.
Pakistanis may well ask: can we do it too? What will it take? Seen in the proper spirit, India’s foray into the solar system could be Pakistan’s sputnik moment — an opportunity to reflect upon what’s important. Let’s see how India did it: First, space travel is all about science and India’s young ones are a huge reservoir of enthusiasm for science. Surveys show that 12-16 year olds practically worship Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, are fascinated by black holes and Schrödinger cats, and most want a career in science. They see more prestige in this than becoming doctors, lawyers, financial managers, or Army officers. Although most eventually settle for more conventional professions, this eagerness leads India’s very best students towards science.
Ten years ago, I had personally experienced this youthful enthusiasm during a four-week lecture tour across seven Indian cities that took me to all sorts of schools, colleges and universities. In places, hundreds turned up for my talks on scientific subjects. Every city had at least one much-visited science museum, and sometimes two or three. Student scientific societies, which appeared active, were everywhere.
Second, Indian universities have created the necessary backbone for advanced scientific projects. University quality goes from moderately bad to very good, with the median lying around fair. Many mediocre ones produce rotten science PhDs and publications prodigiously, suffocating growth. On the positive side, research in the theoretical sciences carried out in India’s very best universities as well as institutes such as TIFR and IMSC compares favourably with that in the world’s top universities.