India: it's a nation of geeks, swots and nerds. Almost one in five of all medical and dental staff in the UK is of Indian origin, and one in six employed scientists with science or engineering doctorates in the US is Asian. By the turn of the millennium, there were even claims that a third of all engineers in Silicon Valley were of Indian origin, with Indians running of its tech companies. At the dawn of this scientific revolution, Geek Nation is a journey to meet the inventors, engineers and young scientists helping to give birth to the world's next scientific superpower - a nation built not on conquest, oil or minerals, but on the scientific ingenuity of its people. Angela Saini explains how ancient science is giving way to new, and how the technology of the wealthy are passing on to the poor.
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The average Indian teenager of my time would have sold his grandmother with her enthusiastic consent for a place in the fabled Indian Institute of Technology or even a medical school — and then, more often than not, left for some worthy but intellectually undemanding job in the West.
Make up your own list of Indians who have had a global impact and there will be few scientists on it. Indian artists, writers and social scientists have achieved vastly more, and for a fraction of the state investment that has gone into science and technology. The situation, I had imagined, must have changed over the last couple of decades, but Angela Saini's revealing book suggests the contrary. A British science journalist of Indian parentage — her father, inevitably, is a scientist who left India for Britain — Saini has produced an eye-opening survey of scientists in today's India.
It shows in meticulous detail that, pockets of excellence notwithstanding, the overall state of Indian science and technology continues to be dispiriting. Visiting the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, she is horrified to discover that a student was "coached for three hours a day, as well as the nine hours a day he would study anyway" to get into the place.
To what purpose? Only a tiny proportion of them are interested in careers in a laboratory. As far as information technology is concerned, Saini is slightly more optimistic.
It is disconcerting to hear, though, that the rise of the Indian software industry began in the late s, when the threat of the Y2K bug could be removed only by programmers familiar with COBOL: a programming language long out of vogue in the West.
Characteristically, India was still swarming with programmers who used nothing else. Indian businesses exploited this advantage with alacrity and created a booming industry. What, however, of creativity? Saini is not very hopeful. India's information technology industry has become "a black hole for dronelike programmers, absorbing thousands of graduates who might otherwise have become laboratory researchers or inventors Europe, the US and Japan remain light years ahead of India.
The life sciences seem to be doing rather better. The efforts of Indian medical scientists to develop new medicines for tuberculosis — a task Western pharmaceutical companies are not interested in — seem genuinely innovative, if only because of the extraordinary ways in which they are using the internet to share and combine data. Even those who do not approve of genetically modified foods would be impressed by Indian attempts to develop hardier varieties of fruits and crops.
But the "mind-reading machine", increasingly used in police investigations and approved by courts, is another matter. That a nation justly proud of its liberal traditions can rely on such a hoky device to decide the fate of its citizens is profoundly disturbing. Engagingly written and remarkably objective, Geek Nation shatters many myths while not discouraging guarded optimism.
What the book does not deal with, however, are the historical, sociological and economic reasons for the dreadful state of Indian science and technology. The British-established universities in India did not produce scientific innovators but the clerks needed by the colonial economy; and the Nehru regime, for all its respect for science, never reformed those institutions.
Even more importantly, could scientific creativity ever flourish in the Soviet-style state socialism of India until the s? First-rate though it is as reportage, Geek Nation would have been a richer work had it pondered such complex questions. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists?
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Geek Nation : How Indian Science is Taking Over the World
Almost one in five of all medical and dental staff in the UK is of Indian origin, and one in six employed scientists with science or engineering doctorates in the US is Asian. By the turn of the millennium, there were even claims that a third of all engineers in Silicon Valley were of Indian origin, with Indians running of its tech companies, according to the author. Her father was an engineer from India and she grew up in the UK, thus giving her unique perspectives blending east and west. In the 21 st century, people have started asking whether Asian countries like India will become powerful economic giants once more, reclaiming the scientific and technological legacy they lost.
[Book Review] Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World
The average Indian teenager of my time would have sold his grandmother with her enthusiastic consent for a place in the fabled Indian Institute of Technology or even a medical school — and then, more often than not, left for some worthy but intellectually undemanding job in the West. Make up your own list of Indians who have had a global impact and there will be few scientists on it. Indian artists, writers and social scientists have achieved vastly more, and for a fraction of the state investment that has gone into science and technology. The situation, I had imagined, must have changed over the last couple of decades, but Angela Saini's revealing book suggests the contrary.
Geek Nation by Angela Saini - review
I n , Jawaharlal Nehru had a dream: "the future belongs to science. She even suggests India may be "the birthplace of the geek", as Indians were using decimal points and algebra centuries before the west. A self-confessed geek herself and the daughter of an Indian chemical engineer, Saini is well qualified to explain why Indians are "famous for being swots, nerds, dweebs, boffins and dorks" and whether India can become a scientific superpower. She travels across the country talking to assorted "nutty professors", from space scientists and biologists designing a GM banana with a longer shelf life, to "geek god" Narayana Murthy, the billionaire founder of Infosys. India's education system may tend to create "drones" rather than creative "geeks", but she sees the nation's strength lying in its toleration of the bizarre and "wacky": scientific progress, she argues, is about "nurturing that nutty, indefinable love of answering questions". Topics Paperbacks.