Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World

“Geek Nation” is a spellbinding account of how India is becoming a global hotbed for scientific innovation.
By Angela Saini
July 2012

A vivid and entertaining travelogue, “Geek Nation” traces the inventors, engineers and young scientists from across the country that are making India the world’s next scientific superpower.
COURTESY HODDER & STOUGHTON
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India is a country famous for delectable curries smelling of turmeric and cardamom, colorful saris, dazzling Hindu Temples peppering every corner and busy streets bustling with a mixture of rickshaws, motorcycles and wandering cows. It is also known for its “geeks,” according to Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World (Hodder & Stoughton, dist. by Trafalgar Square Publishing from IPG, 2012) by science journalist Angela Saini. This fascinating exploration delves inside the psyche of the nation’s science-hungry citizens, explaining how ancient science is giving way to new, and how the technology of the wealthy is being passed on to the poor. In the following passage from the book’s introduction, learn how the Indian space program helped India evolve into the world’s next scientific superpower. 

They say that history is cyclical.

That’s the thought in my mind when I travel from England to south India, catching a ride at the end on a bus going to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, the government’s biggest scientific facility researching the stratosphere and beyond. It’s in the fishing village of Thumba, at the end of a bumpy road lined with candy-colored shacks and surrounded by coconut groves.

A moustachioed minder eyes my bag suspiciously and reminds me what to expect. ‘It’s top secret, OK?’ he says. ‘Have you got your pass? No cameras allowed. And no other electronics, too.’ This is the fourth time he’s told me.

I reassure him, again, that I understand, clinging onto the sweat-stained plastic seat cover with my fingernails as we bounce into another pothole. As the bus rumbles along, I see a tailor on the left, working with a black iron sewing-machine in an otherwise empty blue room. And on the right, I spot a small building, improbably named the ‘National Typewriting and Computer Centre’.

From the outside, the Space Centre looks like a prison. At the front it’s surrounded by metal fencing and lookouts, while at the back is the Indian Ocean. The armed security guards, from the Central Industrial Security Force, speak dozens of Indian languages, from Urdu to Malayalam, so if you don’t understand the orders they’re barking at you, they just switch tongues until you do. Just as I had been warned, they empty my bag of its mobile phone, memory stick, voice recorder and iPod. They repeat this with a busload of excited scientists behind me, who have come here in a tour group from laboratories across India. It takes weeks to get permission but space officials occasionally allow visitors inside the centre for educational purposes, to give the public a peek at India’s scientific achievements. I’m singled out for a brief interrogation: who am I, and what am I doing here?

I’m here to learn about this rediscovered nation of geeks. My dad, who worked as a chemical engineer in India in the 1960s, used to tell me about the great potential of this land of hardworking scientists and engineers. Yet India never managed to live up to his dreams — until now. The success of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre is among the first signs that India may have what it takes to become a scientific superpower in the same league as the United States, Europe and Japan. It seems like India is being pulled out of poverty and transformed into a technological giant.

But right now, like the scientists behind me, I’m just silently wishing that I might see a rocket launch.

We tiptoe into the vast facility like children at the gates of Disneyland. Ahead of us is nothing but rows of palm trees and a long sandy beach. Then without warning, a thundering ‘whooooosh’ blasts out over the sky, followed by a thin, wiggly contrail that zips over the ocean. We abandon our dignity and run towards the coast, craning our necks to spot it, but it’s already gone. A visiting scientist from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh flicks her head around and puts her sunglasses back on. ‘I’ve seen bigger crackers at Diwali,’ she says wryly.

‘It’s only a climate rocket,’ an amused guard tells me in Hindi. ‘They use it to check the weather. It’s launched from over there,’ he adds, pointing a hundred meters to my left, behind a short stone building. The rocket was only slightly taller than me, around 30 centimeters in diameter and traveling 75 kilometers into the upper atmosphere.

There are too many people living nearby to safely launch big rockets from the beaches around Thumba, we’re told. The largest ones are taken to a remote island around 700 kilometers to the northeast, next to the Bay of Bengal. That was the launch site for India’s famous first mission to the moon in 2008. The small orbiter and probe, named Chandrayaan-1 after the Sanskrit words meaning ‘moon’ and ‘traveler’, studied the lunar surface for months. Nobody was sure whether the project would be a success or a waste of time, but the reputation of Indian science depended on it. Many in the scientific community had always assumed that India would never be able to afford a space mission.

In the end, their ambitious project was completed at a cost of just 90 million dollars, five times less than the United States’ most recent lunar orbiter. At first, people thought it had failed. It should have been on the moon for two years, but was forced to come back to earth after just ten months when it suddenly stopped sending back the radio signals that engineers on the ground needed to communicate with it.

Fortunately, its instruments had already done their job. Picking apart the data, researchers found scraps of evidence that there might be water on the moon, ending decades of speculation. According to the readings, there was ice in craters on the lunar north pole, dampish soils on its rocky surface and signs that still more water was being created. It brought closer the possibility that humans might eventually live on the moon, using the water for survival and to source the hydrogen fuel that might power spacecraft to travel to other planets. For the last few months, the scientists in Thumba have been celebrating.

And now the Indian space program has entered a new phase. According to newspaper reports, in around 2015 an Indian astronaut will be going into space for the first time in a rocket designed by Indian scientists.

Here on the ground, surrounded by palm trees and dirt roads, it must have seemed impossible a few decades ago, but then, things are changing fast. Not far away from the Space Centre, Indian chemists are producing lifesaving medicines that are being sold in Europe and Indian nerds are fixing computer software for Americans. This impoverished tea- and cotton-growing backwater is starting to reclaim the scientific legacy that it lost thousands of years ago. Staring into the clouds at the rocket, which has by now disappeared completely, I ask myself, how on earth did they do it?

 

The first clue lies in St Mary Magdalene Church, tucked away in the grounds of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, facing the ocean. Around a century ago local Christian fishermen, from a line dating back to when India received its first foreign missionaries, found a sandalwood statue of Mary Magdalene washed up on the shore and gave the church its name. It’s not a church any more, however. The only reminder of its religious history is a flowery inscription on a small plaque to the left of the entrance. ‘In 1962,’ it reads verbatim, ‘the church authorities and the parishioners decided in a gracious and exemplary manner to dedicate this place of worship on the altar of science.’

In the 1960s, when engineers were building India’s first space rocket, their budgets were so tight that they used this place as a makeshift laboratory, keeping spare parts elsewhere in tin-roofed sheds and launching small test rockets next to the empty sands nearby. Now, the church has been converted into a memorial to India’s history in space. The altar is preserved inside, painted white with an orange stained-glass window in the shape of the sun. Everything else has been replaced with posters and model satellites. Rockets are propped up in the gardens out front like giant white tombstones. The biggest, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, is the length of three buses.

Science has become a faith in its own right these days. I’m asked to take off my shoes before I enter the museum, as if it were a temple. In one corner, says the guide, I can see a replica of India’s first satellite, launched in 1975. It’s only a few meters across, octagonal and coated in blue solar panels. On the walls are black and white photographs of the people — prime ministers, presidents, engineers and physicists among them — who played a part in the early years of the space program, each holding the secrets of India’s meteoric rise.

But almost all of them died a long time ago, taking their stories with them. After weeks of phone calls, I finally track down one of the few people who worked at the space centre back then and who is still alive. Professor Udupi Ramachandra Rao is seventy-eight years old, making him one of the oldest rocket scientists in the world. But when I meet him, his face is as wrinkle-free as a toddler’s and he still has a meticulous memory for details.

In a faint voice he tells me how his career began. It’s the tale of how India, a country wracked for centuries by famine, poverty and illiteracy, managed to send a rocket to the moon.

‘Arthur C Clarke, he was a great friend of mine, you know,’ says Professor Rao, catching me scanning the titles on his bookshelf. His office is like a trophy cabinet, lined with wall-to-wall glass cupboards stuffed with honors and awards. Some are shaped like rockets and satellites; another is a plate with his face printed on it. On the shelf behind him, alongside a three-volume collection of his own writings, are books by Clarke, the late futurist, science-fiction writer and author of the famous novel-turned-film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rao is past retirement age but he still comes to this office at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation in a city to the north of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, writing letters and cataloguing his memories.

He was a teenager in 1947 when India won independence from Great Britain, becoming the world’s largest democracy. This was an age of possibilities and Rao’s eyes were set on the stars. So he started by studying the particles that hit the earth’s atmosphere from outer space, known as cosmic rays. At the time nobody had physically conquered the cosmos, but fortunately for Rao’s career, the United States and the Soviet Union were about to begin the world’s first space race. A Soviet satellite blasted off in October 1957, closely chased by a cosmonaut in 1961. The Americans retaliated by planning the first manned mission to the moon. Rao realized that if the future was indeed in space, that future was going to be either Russia’s or America’s. So in 1961 he packed his bags and found himself a job as an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Dallas.

While he was there, he got a call from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, then only five years old. It was rare for foreign scientists to be allowed access to the secretive world of American space research. But the administration gave him funding to figure out how to make complicated space experiments work by testing them out using high-altitude balloons.

‘I was in room number 26-441,’ he recalls. He shared this office with an Australian scientist who would end up leaving to head up a space program in his home country. ‘And room 443 had two other characters,’ he adds. By a twist of fate, this single corridor contained what was probably the greatest concentration of global space-science talent in history. The two researchers in room 443 each went on to lead the European and Japanese space agencies.

A similar future lay in store for Rao. He decided to head back to India on a promise from the government that he could help start the country’s first space program. It was a dream come true, he tells me. In 1969, less than a month after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, the Indian government founded the Indian Space Research Organisation, known as ISRO. And Rao worked there for the rest of his life, becoming chairman of the organisation in 1984.

In the foyer earlier, I’d passed a gleaming white replica of one of India’s space rockets, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. Rao’s desk has its own mini rocket sitting next to a globe.

‘I gave a talk once called Space, Next 1000 Years,’ he says. He has a perfect memory but it comes with a habit of wandering off on tangents. ‘Now, I said, we’ll colonize Mars. And that is a difficult problem, but on other hand I think it will be done. Maybe another 500 years. Then, Arthur C Clarke may have said less. He was a visionary. For example, years ago he asked me, Rao, when do you think we’ll see a space elevator? And I said minimum fifteen years, and he said, no, seven.’

‘Really, seven?’ I ask incredulously. Engineers have explored the idea of building a giant space elevator — a wire stretching from the earth to satellites in space — but they haven’t come close to finding a material that can be made in large quantities that is also light and strong enough to withstand the stresses needed to stretch that far.

‘I know! You’re very crazy, I told him. But he was an extremely interesting person. Maybe we’ll do it,’ the professor says with a smile.

Rao obsesses about the future in a way that usually only science-fiction writers do. In the decades after he joined ISRO, both his experience at NASA and his friendship with Clarke helped him push the Indian space program beyond its original limits. When critics said that India could never launch satellites or rockets, he was the one to prove them wrong. Indian leaders didn’t believe they could send an orbiter to the moon, before he and his colleagues showed them they could. His heart still lies in that scientific golden age, when the apparently impossible came true; when man walked on the moon and scientists built a space station with shuttles taking astronauts back and forth.

Now Rao has his sights set on a new scientific age, in which India will be breaking barriers in research and developing the world’s most futuristic technologies. Next to the textbooks on his bookshelf are copies of The Complete Book of UFOs and Physics of Immortality. Rao tells me that within thirty years, after Earth’s raw materials start to run out, India will start mining resources on other planets.

 

Back in the 1960s, even building an Indian space rocket seemed impossible, let alone this fantastical prediction. Huge swathes of the country were living in poverty and two thirds of adults were illiterate. Both Indian politicians and the foreign countries on which India depended for food aid complained that space travel was an unnecessary extravagance.

Two men changed their minds. The first was Rao’s boss, Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of the Indian space program and the man after whom the space centre in Thumba is named. Born in 1919, Sarabhai had studied physics at Cambridge University and later married a famous Indian classical dancer. He was a good-looking geek with an electric personality.

Sarabhai urged Rao to come back to India from the US and work on the country’s fledgling space program. Even though he had never built a rocket, Sarabhai was such a towering force that the professor felt he couldn’t refuse. ‘When I came back to India, I didn’t know much, but I knew I had to work under Sarabhai. Even though I was paid a very paltry sum. Everybody loved him; everyone felt they were near to him. He had this special quality,’ says Rao.

But in the bigger scheme of things, Sarabhai was still just a physicist. And he needed cash. It was an old problem: Galileo Galilei would probably never have done his game-changing work in mathematics and astronomy without the help of the powerful Medici family of Rome, and an atom bomb would never have been built as quickly as it was if the US President Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t pumped millions of dollars into the Manhattan Project. The Indian space program needed this kind of political support. And it came in the shape of India’s other important geek, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister after the country gained independence from the British in 1947.

Like Sarabhai, Nehru was a charismatic Cambridge University science graduate. The two became friends. ‘Sarabhai’s family was politically connected. Not he himself involved in politics, but his sister was involved and his parents were involved. ‘It was a very illustrious family,’ explains Rao. And like Sarabhai, Nehru was convinced that science was the key to turning India’s fortunes around.

One of the first things he did after becoming prime minister was to draw up a science policy and make himself the president of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, India’s most productive research and development body. Invasion, colonization, famine and partition had all but stripped the nation of its scientific legacy. There were only a few individual exceptions, such as the world-famous mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, and the physicists Jagadish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose. But it had been Europeans, not Indians, who took advantage of centuries of progress in mathematics and engineering to build the first steam engines, aircraft, rockets and computers. As far as Nehru was concerned, it was India’s greatest tragedy to have been wiped off the world map; building up its scientific base again was one way to get it back.

His dream was to have Indians not just working more in science, but also thinking more rationally in their everyday lives. India was a deeply religious country with high illiteracy rates, and swathes of the population were as superstitious as they had been before the Middle Ages. It wasn’t unusual for people to show more faith in healing gurus than in doctors and dentists, or put their life decisions in the hands of an astrologer. This had to change, Nehru thought. He believed that India was due its own Enlightenment, like Europe’s, to sweep out this disease of superstition and replace it with logic.

Today there is even a plea in the Indian constitution, announcing, ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper.’

And this is what allowed Vikram Sarabhai to get his ambitious space program off the ground. Nehru had seen how the Soviet Union had made huge industrial strides by drawing up bold five-year plans for giant new factories, power stations and dams. He also knew that the US had made itself economically powerful on the back of innovative engineering. In a now-famous speech in 1960, Nehru announced that it was ‘science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition . . . The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.’ He took this literally. He kept scientists like Sarabhai close to the government and used them to create the country’s first physical research laboratory, nuclear power stations, hydroelectric dams and steel plants. Additionally he founded dozens of new universities and engineering colleges to train up the legions of graduates that would become the logical, rational, science-loving citizens that he had always wished for.

The change was slow. In the short term, Nehru’s plans failed to pull millions of Indians out of poverty and into employment. When he died in 1964, the country was still poor. My dad graduated as a chemical engineer not long afterwards, from a university in north India. He worked for a while, for a chemicals plant in the eastern city of Kolkata, but in the end he left for Britain. And the same happened with thousands of other ambitious Indian scientists and engineers who emigrated that decade, staffing the hospitals, laboratories and universities of the West.

Change must have seemed hopeless back then.

But it would come.

Nehru had laid down the bones of a scientific infrastructure. There were powerful energy sources, well-stocked laboratories, efficient factories and a bespectacled army of trained researchers and engineers, many of whom would eventually return from their careers overseas. India was kitted out for battle in the coming technological age, even though Nehru never lived to see it.

 

‘And then he said, at that time, he said you make me a report,’ says Rao, absentmindedly shuffling through a stack of papers in a wooden box. In 1970 Vikram Sarabhai gave Rao the job of explaining exactly how the country’s first satellite would work, while he himself went to work convincing the world that it was necessary in the first place. Rao tells me about a moment in Vienna, not long after the Russians had started their space program, when Sarabhai was asked what a poor country like India thought it was doing by starting an expensive space program. Echoing Nehru’s speech, he famously replied, ‘We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.’ Making big scientific discoveries could be left to NASA, Sarabhai thought, the Indian space program would instead solve some of the country’s real problems — just as Nehru had wanted.

‘The Indian space program right from the very beginning was tuned to society. Without it we wouldn’t have got any support,’ says Rao. ‘By and large it was to stabilize education and communication. We had only seven or eight television stations in the country then. So we made the decision that satellites are extremely important for our country.’

Still rustling through the box on his desk, he finally lifts out an old magazine article by Arthur C Clarke, about satellites. There is something scrawled in ink at the bottom. ‘That is his signature there,’ says Rao. ‘He gave me this as a memento about four, five years ago.’ In 1945 Clarke had come up with the radical suggestion that just three satellites, placed high enough in fixed positions relative to the Earth (known as a geostationary orbit), would be able to send and receive signals from the planet’s entire surface. It meant that telephone connections could be made from one corner of the globe to any other place on Earth without the need for physical wires connecting the two.

For decades, Clarke’s idea languished in science fiction. Technology and the demand for better communications caught up only much later. It’s difficult to imagine it now, but in the sixties, explains Rao, ‘when my wife wanted to talk to her father in India from where we lived in a little district in Boston, we had to wait for a whole three days and nights to get a call from Boston to there, and finally at the end of the third night we got a call through. And she takes up the phone and say hello, and her father say hello, and they get cut off.’ The problem wasn’t just bad lines; in India, particularly, the land mass was so vast that telephone connections were almost as rare as gold dust. It was around this time that the US and the Soviet Union started sending up their first experimental satellites, edging a little closer to Clarke’s blueprint for a globe connected by three geostationary satellites.

India decided to follow suit, but it took many more years. In fact, Vikram Sarabhai died before the project was finished. Then in 1975 ISRO’s design was approved and India’s first satellite, named Aryabhata after the ancient mathematician, was built. Sent up in a Russian rocket, it wasn’t a very useful machine at all, with a paltry resolution of a kilometer — only forests and seas could be made out. But as a test to find out whether Indian scientists could actually build a satellite at all, it proved they could. The satellite even earned a place on an Indian postage stamp.

The same year, Indian researchers used an American satellite to run an ambitious project called SITE, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, bringing television programs in local languages to 2,400 villages across India. ‘It was all educational programming, for six hours a day and every day, so farmers could see,’ Rao reminisces with a broad smile. For farmers who had never used a phone, let alone seen television pictures, the programs on health and agriculture marked the start of a communications revolution. Both the Aryabhata satellite and the SITE experiment were a success.

And this was the moment India’s fortunes turned around.

Within a decade, ISRO launched its own Indian National Satellite System. It was a set of geostationary satellites exactly as Clarke had originally imagined, and it brought the same benefits to the rest of India as those first few villages had enjoyed back in 1975. More than just television, they brought communications, radio, mapping and weather prediction into the space age. It was an outcome beyond Rao’s dreams. Little did he imagine that Indian scientists would be sending almost 50 satellites into orbit in the next few decades, or that this satellite network would eventually become the backbone of the country’s huge telecoms industry.

Even a starry-eyed futurist like him could never have guessed that the early seeds of scientific effort planted by Prime Minister Nehru would bloom at exactly the same time. The laboratories created in the 1950s multiplied and the universities spawned entire armies of computer-savvy engineers. Today Indian engineers are designing software code for companies on the other side of the planet, connected to them only by satellite links. By 2015 these software companies are expected to be making as much as twelve billion dollars a year.

Nehru’s sixty-year-old vision of a nation made stronger and wealthier by science may finally be coming true. ‘The whole world is different,’ Rao marvels. ‘Now my son is there in Santa Barbara in California and in two minutes we get through to speak to each other. See, that’s what I’m saying. The whole world has changed. Today we have more than hundreds of channels and communications is absolutely fantastic. All this came from those first satellites. Now we have something like almost half a billion phone connections in the country.’ He pauses, and then concludes:

‘With that first satellite, from then onwards we had created history.’

 

It’s time for me to leave for the first part of my journey through India. I’m traveling north to the capital, New Delhi. But before I go, Rao wants to know the title of my book.

Geek Nation,’ I tell him.

‘What nation?’ he asks, squinting in confusion.

‘Geek. G. E. E. K.’

He has never heard the word before. The problem is, I often have trouble explaining it. Internet definitions range from ‘a person with an unusual or odd personality’ to someone ‘more comfortable with computers than with other persons’. Sometimes people think of a geek as the introvert in the corner of the party, or the comic-book collector who goes to Star Trek conventions, or the professor in thick glasses holed up in her laboratory. But to me, at least, geekiness is all about passion. It’s about choosing science and technology or another intellectual pursuit, I tell Rao, and devoting your life to it. History’s ultimate geeks are the men and women who sacrificed their lives on the altar of science, risking failure to pursue an obsession.

The sun streams in through the office window while his secretary brings us our final cups of tea. Rao looks frail. His friend Arthur C Clarke died about two years ago, many of his former colleagues have passed away too, and he himself should have retired more than a decade ago. In fact the kind of research that he used to do has long since been taken over by younger scientists and engineers. After all the change he has witnessed in the last sixty years, I can’t imagine how Rao must feel to be missing out on the future, on space elevators, human settlements on Mars and extraterrestrial journeys of the kind he could only have dreamed about as a 20-year-old scientist, studying cosmic rays in a makeshift laboratory. India is only at the start, he muses, staring into the distance.

Walking outside, past the geometric flowerbeds in front of the Indian Space Research Organisation, I think about the geeky expedition that I’m about to embark on. About a year ago India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, announced that he would double investment in scientific research from less than one percent of national income, as it stands now, to more than two percent. It’s a landmark move, because this two percent milestone is what generally separates the world’s industrialized countries from the developing ones. The Japanese government, for example, spends more than three percent of its income on research and development, in the US, the level stands at about 2.6 percent, and in China, it’s roughly two percent. South Africa and Brazil, by contrast, spend about a percent each. And so this may be the biggest sign yet that India is ready to join the big league. It was after this announcement that I decided to take a journey into India’s future, to discover whether this nation can become a scientific superpower to rival the rest of the world. Or whether it is just hype.

In the coming year, I plan to meet young students at engineering colleges in the north, cutting-edge physicists in nuclear facilities in the south, geneticists in futuristic laboratories in the east and technology titans in the west. But, here in the Indian Space Research Organisation, I realize that my route also carries the footprints of the past, of countless scientists, engineers and leaders, like Rao, Sarabhai and Nehru, who helped turn this into a nation of geeks.

And perhaps it’s also something from my past that has brought me here from London, to a country I first discovered as a child visiting my distant family and then after I left university, when I did a stint as a reporter in New Delhi. Since I was a kid, I’ve never understood why my dad is such a geek. Nor, in fact, why I turned out to be a geek too — as have many of my cousins. And it’s not just us. Wherever in the world we live, Indians and people of Indian origin are famous for being swots, nerds, dweebs, boffins and dorks.

I want to know why.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World by Angela Saini, published by Hodder & Stoughton, dist. by Trafalgar Square Publishing from IPG, 2012. 


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