As he dissects the varied and unusual themes of his first book ‘Space. Life. Matter.’, journalist-author Hari Pulakkat explains where India stands in the global space of science research
The science book genre is an extremely busy one, and after a point, it gets tough to distinguish one from the other. Isn’t everyone talking about space, health and technology? Journalist and author Hari Pulakkat had decided more than a decade ago that should he ever release a book of his own, it had to be different. This year, he finally released Space. Life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science.
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He claims, in a video call from his Bengaluru home with The Hindu MetroPlus, that “No one has ever written a comprehensive pre- or post-Independence book about science in India. There have been some biographies such as those of physicists CV Raman and G N Ramachandran. But that’s not unusual, since you don’t typically find books on British, Japanese or German science… and if there are, they haven’t been very popular. Science is a complete narrative around the world and you cannot separate by country easily.”
Space. Life. Matter. (Hachette India) is split into three distinct but closely-linked sections: ‘Space’ followed by ‘Matter’ and then ‘Life.’ Instead of what could have been a mind-numbing narrative of facts and figures, the central voice of the book comprises historical anecdotes of some of the country’s most remarkable turning points in science discovery such as Astrosat (India’s first space telescope), the country’s investments in pharmaceutical industries specifically anti-cancer drugs and vitamins, and more.
Advice for younger science journalists
- Hari says budding science journalists should have a deep love for the subject, adding, “Because you will want to know more yourself, you don’t have any other motivation. There will be nothing that will stop you except the typical industry barriers. The hardest part is getting space for science journalism, not science journalism itself.”
“All of these are independent developments,” he says, “but what links them is the situation in which everybody worked. Everybody was short of money, struggled with bureaucracy, struggled with culture and ambition. In terms of the science they did in the 50s and 60s, it was an era of isolation – no shared territories, resources or conversations. Now, the situation is so much more different; people work across spaces and disciplines.”
Sadly, the book — while highlighting the struggles scientists faced through the times — some readers will feel dismay at the lack of women in its pages which reflects the stigma of women in STEM at thie time. Luckily that is changing, but there is a long way to go to fill this glaring gender void.
Hari is keen on younger generations to, through the book, familiarise themselves with the struggles of previous times and to understand the industry at large in terms of what needs to evolve.
Of research and development
Despite the encouraging improvement of STEM industries in India, Hari points out we have not invested as much as we should in these fields. “India has a large population of scientists. The funding is especially not what it could be, and this is a very open fact but no one has been able to do anything about it.”
That said, he hopes Space. Life. Matter. gives some positive attention to the considerable progress of research in the coming years. “We have come a long way in the past 20 years and our investment in science has tripled and the number of researchers has increased. We also have to remember we are a medium income country and in that bracket, we are on the lower side. It’s tough to make a lucrative career out of writing science literature.”
Hari is looking forward to throwing readers for a loop with some unexpected chapters, such as the chapter ‘The Science of Leather’ and how the leather industry in Tamil Nadu was a major economic growth engine for India. The chapter delves into not just the monetary but also the ecological dialogues. “It was intentional to have a very unexpected topic,” laughs Hari. “I wanted the reader experience to not just be insightful but fun as well.”
Speaking of fun, Hari says interviewing people was the most fun part of collating Space. Life. Matter. – not a surprise given his 20-plus years as a science journalist. “It was so satisfying and most people met me without any hiccups. I spent a really long time with each of them to get the finest details. Govind Swarup and Uday Shankar are a couple of names,” he says. “Similarly, the huge Ooty Telescope has the appeal of the Grand Canyon; you have to see it in real life, pictures don’t do it justice. Science is so much more enjoyable when you actually see something, and that said, the ‘Space’ part of the book was the most fun for me. For some of the other topics in the book, old equipment mentioned are no longer around sadly. Wouldn’t it be great to see this equipment? There should be a museum or a few of them around the country dedicated to the older instruments.”