A lot has been said about India’s “glorious scientific contributions” in ancient times. From ancient airplanes as referenced by Ramayana to presenting of ancient rockets which could dispel fog and rain, Indians were allegedly scientific pioneers’ centuries before the West. At least, if the 102nd Indian Science Congress earlier this year was to be believed.
Homegrown decided to put together a list of credible scientific achievements by Indians. Extensive research shows that ancient Indians made significant discoveries, either groundbreaking or in par with the knowledge shared by the rest of the world. While we did not find any proof of Indian helmets on Mars, many of the achievements will make you proud to be an Indian, without meddling with history or rational facts--the building blocks of science, if you will. Rather than focus on ancient achievements alone however, we also presented a few modern Indian scientists who deserve a share in the spotlight, those who have cemented their legacy globally in fields such as astrophysics, biology and mathematics and inspired millions of kids to take up modern scientific research.
Scroll on to know more about the nation’s most inspiring scientific achievements:
A]. Ancient Indian Scientific Achievements
The Arabic Numerical System forms the basis of the modern numerical system used the world over. What we don’t realize is the immense contribution made by ancient Indians to the formation of the Numerical System, Trigonometry and Geometry. In fact, Albert Einstein was quoted saying, “We owe a lot to the (ancient) Indians, teaching us how to count. Without which most modern scientific discoveries would have been impossible.”
Baudhayana( 800 BC) is credited with making the first reference to the Pythagoras Theorem in SulvaSutra as well as the initial calculation of pi . Pingala (200 BC) is said to have invented the binary numbers first as well having made a reference to the Fibonacci Series. Aryabhatta( AD 476—550) is credited with numerous mathematical breakthroughs, with Aryabhattiya being a summary of the mathematics of his time, divided into three sections: Ganita (“Mathematics”), Kala-kriya (“Time Calculations”), and Gola (“Sphere”). In Ganita, he mentions the first 10 decimal places, linear and quadratic equations, sine tables and ratios. The most significant contribution by him however, was showing that zero as a symbol and a concept. He gave the rules to using zero which was then invented by Brahmagupta. Brahmagupta devised positive and negative numbers, the formula for the area of a cyclical quadrilateral and formulas for computing sines.
Many of Aryabhatta’s discoveries were used by other mathematicians in coming centuries such as Bhaskaracharya (AD 1114-1185) who is credited with creating the ‘cyclic method to solve algebraic equations’ and further building on the decimal system. The Ancient Times provided the first instance system of collaboration spread over centuries where initial discoveries were further improved upon by later research. The Arabs adopted the Indian Numerical System from their frequent trade with the country and this was later adopted by the West as well.
The top mathematicians of the period also made significant breakthroughs in astronomy. The most significant among them was Aryabhatta who applied his mathematical knowledge to make accurate astronomical predictions. Kala-kriya talks about many of his discoveries and theories. He correctly propounded that the Earth is round and rotates on its own axis. He gauged the luminosity of the Moon and other planets by the sun and made predictions about the solar and lunar eclipses, duration of the day as well as the distance between the Earth and Moon. Bhaskara I used Aryabhatta’s learning in mathematics and astronomy to further discuss the eclipses, phases of moon, and planetary longitudes. Varahamihira(AD 505-587) combined the various astronomical theories of Indians, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians in Pancha-siddhantika thereby establishing a confluence of existing astronomical knowledge.
Susrutasamhita is considered to be an important Sanskrit document on ancient medicine and surgery. Written by Sushruta in 6th Century BC, the text mentions various illnesses, plants, preparations and cures. It’s considered one of the most comprehensive textbooks on ancient surgery with Sushruta being credited for devising complex surgical techniques. He is said to have devised a safe cataract surgery method as well as plastic surgery. Charak is credited with being a principal contributor to Ayurveda. Charak Samhita includes details of various diseases and the possible cures for them.
IV. Miscellaneous fields
Among other notable scientists of the era is Kanad who is said to have devised the atomic theory as understood in the modern times. He speculated the existence of “kanas” or small indestructible articles, much like an atom.
In addition to the scientific achievements mentioned, great strides were made in engineering as well. The Indus and Harappa Civilization is said to have one of the most advanced engineering skills of the age. The drainage system designed was akin to those used in modern cities. Gujarat has the oldest dockyard in the world at Lothal which highlights the understanding the Harappans had of tides and navigation. Ancient Indians were experts in hydraulic engineering and water conservation has been an important tradition passed on for centuries. The local system of canals,dams and tanks designed from the time of the Harappa civilization have helped ancient Indians conserve the seasonal rainwater and survive the vividly different geographical conditions of the country. The Arthashastra also mentions the existence of dams and bridges and the rules for their management.
One of the striking achievements of the era was the construction of the Ashoka Pillar which is famed for its resistance to corrosion, highlighting the craftsmanship which existed in Ancient India. The Wootz Steel made in Southern India was one of the most sought after metals in the world for its toughness. Often mistaken as ‘Damascus Swords,’ they were sought after by the Arabs and Western world from as far back as 1st Century BC. The most famous surviving artifact made of Wootz Steel is the sword of Tipu Sultan which is on display in London. Sadly, the thriving British Steel industry lead to the demise of Wootz Steel making.
While the British Colonial rule exploited India’s cotton for the Industrial Revolution,ancient India is said to have made excellent cotton textiles with unmatched precision even before Christian textiles were developed. (Columbia Encycolpedia 6th Edition)
Jagdish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was a pioneering biologist, botanist and physicist. He has been named as one of the Fathers of Radio Science for his 1895 public demonstration of radio in front of the Lt Governor of Bengal. There have been strong protests and claims in his favor as the real inventor of radio before Guglielmo Marconi. He also correctly demonstrated that plants are living organisms who can feel pain like human beings, a discovery which only recently went viral again, even if only to induce vegetarian/ vegan guilt. Interestingly however, even while credited as being a prolific inventor and researcher, he often refused to patent his inventions, choosing to have them be open for further research by others.
CV Raman (1888-1970) was India’s first scientist to win the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the Raman Effect. While sailing through the Mediterranean Ocean, he was intrigued by the deep blue waters of the ocean and sky and undertook research to understand the scattering effect of sunlight. In 1928, he discovered the phenomenon of change in the wavelength of light that occurs when a light beam is deflected by molecules. This is dubbed as the “Raman Effect”.
S Ramanujan (1887-1920) is one the most famous examples of an autodidact (self-teaching) in the world. Born in a poor family in Erode, he quickly developed a love and intrigue for numbers after discovering George Shoobridge Carr’s Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 2 vol. (1880–86). He devoted his life to mathematics, often at the cost of personal health and even austerity. He successfully published a paper in the Journal Of Indian Mathematical Society, which drew him widespread attention. He was tutored under British Mathematician George H. Hardy and quickly learnt the progress that had been made by other mathematicians.
While much of his work done in India was found to be false or already discovered, the knowledge he possessed of mathematics was found to be astonishing. He is credited with creating several unconventional approaches and theories which are still being researched. A personal note from George Hardy states personal ratings of mathematician where he rated mathematicians on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, Hardy gave himself a score of 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80 and Ramanujan 100.
Homi Bhabha( 1909-1966) is considered the father of India’s Nuclear Programme. He had conducted breakthrough research in Nuclear Physics in Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. He put forth a paper with the first calculations of the electron-positron scattering which is now called the Bhabha Scattering. The Atomic Energy Establishment in Trombay was renamed the ‘Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’ in his honor.
While physicist Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri (1923-2005) failed to get any serious recognition in India for his work, his contribution to physics is considered to be indispensable. He was responsible for developing what is now called the “Raychaudhari Equation” by which further study and testing of Einstein’s General Relativity theory was conducted. His work acted as a key ingredient in the Penrose-Hawking singularity theorems of general relativity and the Raychaudhari equations are so popular that they have found permanent place in all respectable textbooks on general relativity and relativistic cosmology, for further research and analysis in fields the author himself never fathomed. Meghnad Saha ( 1893-1956), another Bengali physicist, is credited with the development of Saha Equations which are used to describe the chemical and physical conditions in stars.
Some of our most illustrious scientists were based outside of India as well. These include Indian-American Physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar(1910-1995) who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 for his work in the later evolutionary stages of massive stars. Chandrasekhar Limit states that a star having a mass more than 1.44 times that of the Sun does not form a white dwarf but instead continues to collapse, blows off its gaseous envelope in a supernova explosion, and becomes a neutron star while an even more massive star continues to collapse and becomes a black hole. Indian-American Har Gobind Khorana(1922-2011) shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine of 1968 for his work on genetic code and protein synthesis in cells while American-British Venkatraman Ramakrishnan shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for his study of the structure and function of ribosome.
More recently, Indian Scientists caught the attention of the the nation and the world in 2014 with the success of the Mangalyaan (or Mars Orbiter) project. The sad truth is that many of them have been capturing such adulation for decades, researching and experimenting to change our understanding of the world, without so much as a node to their achievements. But at a time when logic takes more and more of a backseat and history is seemingly being amended to suit political agendas, it’s more vital than ever that we break down our scientific history in a manner that’s respectful to all these incredible scientists and their contributions to the world. The pursuit of truth is what guided their genius and furthered the progress of our nation. One can only hope the future of Indian science follows the same path.