NRN praises Western science, tells India to catch up

Co-founder of Infosys N. R. Narayana Murthy (Photo by AFP)

Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy on Thursday said the education system was stifling independent thinking and the propensity of Indians for scientific genius.

He was speaking at the announcement of the 11th Infosys Prize for significant scientific achievement. Stressing the need for young people to engage in fundamental research, Murthy dropped a battery of Germanic names: Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Godel and Schrodinger, as evidence that Western science has made great strides. 

However, he mentioned ancient Indian thinkers such as Bhaskaracharya of Bijapur, a first century mathematician whose work in calculus predates Newton, to note that while the scientific temperament of India was high, it has nevertheless been let down in the intervening years by the poor education system.

Today we have “transistors, nuclear energy, quantum computing and DVDs,” Murthy said, but added: “All of these things were invented outside India".

“Our youth deserve to invent some important stuff valuable to India and the world so that they are recognised and respected. Else, what is our contribution to this world as a nation of 1.25 billion,” he asked.

Murthy’s views were seconded by the senior Infosys officers at the event. “The daunting scale of India’s problems need holistic solutions by greater number of young scientists thinking out of the box,” said Kris Gopalkrishnan, former co-chairman of the company.

According to K Dinesh, co-founder of the company, the science prize, which rewards significant science achievement with respect to India, is part of the effort to spotlight Indian science. Among the six winners profiled during the ceremony, two were Indian-origin scientists working in international institutes. 

Two winners were women and another, Prof G Mugesh, from Bengaluru, was from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). 

At least one previous Infosys Prize awardee has gone on to win a Nobel Prize, Dinesh proudly pointed out. “This is evidence that the prize is getting things right,” he told DH.

Some of the audience-members expressed chagrin that the jury chair was wholly composed of men, whose profile photos projected on a screen behind the stage appeared to reflect the all-male senior leadership of Infosys sitting on the dais.

“When are we going to see women on the jury?” a young woman asked Murthy, a question which appeared to have taken him by surprise.

“Don’t forget we have two women winners this year,” he said.

The winners

Social sciences: Anand Pandian, professor, Department of Anthropology, John Hopkins University, for pushing the boundaries of how anthropologists render into words the worlds they encounter. 

Humanities: Manu V Devadevan, assistant professor, IIT, Mandi, for critically reinterpreting political-economic processes and literary practices in pre-modern South India.

Life sciences: Manjula Reddy, chief scientist, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), for revealing critical steps of cell wall growth, fundamental for understanding bacterial biology.

Mathematical sciences: Siddhartha Mishra, professor, ETH Zürich, for designing numerical tools to better predict waves in the solar atmosphere and tsunamis generated by rock slides.

Physical sciences: G Mugesh, professor, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), for chemical synthesis of small molecules and nanomaterials for biomedical applications.  

Engineering and Computer Science: Sunita Sarawagi, Institute Chair Professor, IIT Bombay, for developing information extraction techniques for unstructured data

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