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Pseudoscience a global problem: India born theoretical physicist Atish Dabholkar

Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

Indian-origin scientist Atish Dabholkar, who will take charge as director of the prestigious Italy-based Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in November, is gearing up for an uphill task -- countering misinformation in science.

The major hurdle to science globally is the spread of pseudoscience and the erosion of respect for facts, said the theoretical physicist who was born in a small village in Maharashtra's Kolhapur district.

For example, denial of climate change is often informed by a total disregard for facts, Dabholkar told PTI in an email interview in which he also discussed that India has an edge over China but is woefully behind in investment into basic research and education, and his plans to increase participation from Indian scientists at ICTP.

He cited the example of a research project in Tamil Nadu to emphasise his point of misinformation.

A particularly painful example of pseudoscience coming in the way of sensible decision-making is the experience of the Indian Neutrino Observatory (INO), Dabholkar, currently the head of ICTP's high energy, cosmology and astroparticle physics section, said

INO is a particle physics research project under construction to primarily study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300-metre deep cave under Ino Peak near Theni, Tamil Nadu.

This ambitious experiment, Dabholkar said, offered an important window of opportunity for discovery at the frontiers of fundamental physics.

Unfortunately, this project has been stalled now for many years not because of lack of resources but because of a completely unfounded propaganda about the harmful effects of neutrinos, said the 55-year-old.

In his view, promoting a broad culture of science and the spirit of evidence-based enquiry is the best way to counter pseudoscience and misinformation.

According to Dabholkar, the Trieste-based ICTP has spent close to USD 15 million over 20 years to support thousands of scientists from India at various stages of their career.

He said he plans to increase this further and has already held preliminary discussions with the Department of Science and Technology in New Delhi and other stakeholders.

Indian participation in major international activities at ICTP can be increased with some additional funding from India. A number of new ways can be explored to develop collaborations that can be mutually beneficial, said the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur and Princeton University alumnus.

In certain areas of theoretical physics and mathematics, India has a critical mass of world-class researchers and an edge over countries like China in terms of human resource, he said.

However, India is far behind in terms of investments in basic research and education, he added.

This was brought home to me during my visit to China around 2000. It was evident that the level of material resources that were available to research institutes in China were already considerably higher, said Dabholkar.

Even so, China at the time did not quite have the same level of human resources, at least in areas close to my field of research.

The scientist maintained that there will be negative consequences unless India makes a long-term commitment in this direction soon.

India spends less than 1 per cent of its GDP on research compared to more than 2 per cent in China and 3-4 per cent in Japan and Korea.

In actual terms, this amounts to something like USD 65 billion in India compared to USD 450 billion in China annually.

Science has to be viewed in this social and economic context. Even while keeping broad developmental goals in mind, there is no doubt in my mind that a strong commitment to science together with an investment in education and basic human development is essential for India's future, said Dabholkar.

India also needs to bridge the separation between universities and research institutes and fund existing universities and colleges in a more substantial way, he said.

Dabholkar is well-known for his research on string theory and quantum black holes, including investigations that build on ICTP founder Abdus Salam's Nobel-winning work on electroweak unification.

While string theory is a framework that can explain all of physical reality by positing that particles are actually one-dimensional, string-like entities whose vibrations determine the particles' properties, such as their mass and charge, quantum blackholes are hypothetical tiny blackholes smaller than stellar mass monsters that can swallow even stars.

Electroweak unification theory describes two of the four known fundamental interactions of nature: the electromagnetic force and the weak force.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, August 19 2019. 13:35 IST