Sunday, February 26, 2017

Indian Inventions

A couple of days ago I had the misfortune of listening to a lady speaker, of a severe religious bent and I came to know, with an equally severe nationalist frame of mind; nothing wrong with that as I am open to hearing unadulterated froth. Yet, it was unfortunate.
She asked the audience to name an Indian invention. Someone put up his hand and said, quite diffidently, “zero”. The speaker was blasé about the response, and said so – “Just trot out this time after time; are you aware of anything else?” Then, she proceeded to name more than a few. Just one example – Indians invented the intricate patterns that ladies/girls draw on the floor with rice flour, which we call, “Kolam”. Yes, kolam is an Indian invention and she was proud of it. Yes, we Indians invented airplanes, ships and perhaps nuclear bombs (“Brahmastra”) and reactors too. The “Now, I am become Death, destroyer of worlds!” from Bhagavad Gita as brought into popular imagination by Robert Oppenheimer comes in handy.
Had I been in her position, I would have claimed, whether I had proof or not, infinity was invented by Indians. Just to recall, the book on Srinivasan Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel is titled, “Man Who Knew Infinity”. The implication is Ramanujan understood the importance of the concept(s) of infinity better than almost any other.
Now, do you recognize the wrong understanding, and further, misuse of the word “invention”. Zero, equally so, infinity, could not have been “invented” by anyone, much less Indians. It is an idea that was brought out, say, discovered, at best. It is in this way we can understand the contributions of Indian mathematicians of yore, in trying to conceptualize, understand and exploit zero and succeeding.
Switching horses in mid-stream, I am going to be a super-nationalist and add to the list of things invented by Indians – wheel, writing, cooking, language, speaking, beads, beads with holes, needles, threads, standing up, crawling, walking, singing, drawing, laughing, crying, warfare (between local chieftains) ...
You get my point. All the things mentioned above would have evolved indigenously and not imported from countries afar. Ergo, they are Indian inventions. The only trouble is they are not exclusive Indian inventions. India cannot claim proprietary rights on them as they are generic. Call each feature a matter of convergent evolution, if you will.
So, to conclude, it really was not that unfortunate that I got to hear this ranting super-nationalist. Without that experience, I would have been poorer by one blog post.
Raghuram Ekambaram  

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