Science and mathematics are as much a triumph of human achievement and part of our culture as history, literature, art and music, and therefore all of us should enjoy them, Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan said…writes Saket Suman
“Even today, you can imagine the scene at a party, where I am asked what I do. ‘I’m a scientist’. I can already see the first sign of panic and disengagement. ‘What kind?’ they ask politely. ‘I’m a molecular biologist. I study how information in our genes is used to make proteins.’ ‘Oh, that sounds fascinating and terribly clever. I’m afraid I was never very good at science or maths. I know nothing at all about it!'”
“The conversation quickly moves on to the latest novel they’ve read or concert they’ve attended. Now imagine the reverse. Suppose I had said, ‘Oh I really know nothing about literature or arts or music’. The same people who proudly proclaim their ignorance about science and maths would consider me an uncivilised boor,” Ramakrishnan said in his inaugural address at the 2019 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath, for his research in the structure and function of the ribosome in 2009, said that the amount of information available to mankind today was perhaps unthinkable 200 years ago.
“…just imagine if you were able to travel 200 years back and explain to the smartest people of the time that we knew how hereditary information was coded in molecules, how species evolved… They would be in awe of us and think we were magicians,” he said, before urging the gathering of book lovers in the front lawns of Diggi Palace to enjoy science and mathematics just as art or literature.
Art, literature and science are all ways of capturing essential truths about the world, Ramakrishnan said but maintained that science has some distinctive aspects encapsulated in the Royal Society’s motto.
“‘Nullius in verba’, or ‘On nobody’s word’. In science, it does not matter who you are or where something is written, but an idea is accepted because it is testable by experiments that can be reproduced by anyone anywhere in the world with the required training and expertise,” he said.
Ramakrishnan, the current President of the Royal Society, said that science is more important today than ever.
“We live in a world in which science and technology are ubiquitous. Decisions are constantly made by governments, corporations, educators and others that affect us in profound ways. Can we use energy as we do in the modern world without risking destruction of the environment? Can we feed a growing global population? Should we change a person’s genetic make-up to prevent or cure disease? How do we keep our privacy and security in an increasingly digital world,” he asked the gathering.
He asked people to recognise when scientific language is used to “propagate nonsense” without “any proper evidence”.
“In an era of fake news, where even the existence of objective truth is questioned, there is much at stake. Science, with its insistence on evidence-based facts, offers a counter to some of the threats today. And we scientists must do better to help bridge the divide between the two cultures,” said the 67-year-old American and British structural biologist of Indian origin.
According to him, Science is simply the systematic accumulation of knowledge based on evidence.
“Much of what I have said may perhaps sound a little utilitarian but science and the pursuit of knowledge is also a thing of beauty. Poets and artists have often reflected on the beauty of the night sky but the images of space from the Hubble Telescope speak for themselves,” he shared.
At the same time, Ramakrishnan urged scientists to not forget the human, emotional and social side of our nature, and that there are always other ways of looking at the world.
“We need to be aware of history and its lessons. Art and music move us in deep and unpredictable ways. So we have much to learn from the humanities and the arts,” he maintained.
The Jaipur Literature Festival kicked-off on Thursday and will host over 350 sessions over the next five days, reaching its culmination on January 28.