In November 2018, T.V. Ramakrishnan reviewed a book called Modern Atomism, edited by J. Pasupathy and published in 2017, for Current Science. To the uninitiated, TVR is a condensed matter physicist of considerable repute and currently works at the Indian Institute of Science. He won the S.S. Bhatnagar Prize in 1982, the Padma Shri in 2001 and the Trieste Science Prize in 2005. In his review, TVR describes Modern Atomism as accessible but in need of stronger editorial control. In the final third, he also evaluates the book based on Indian scientists it included or left out – mostly left out – and concludes:

… this book is not an appropriate representative of modern atomism in the Indian context, and as such does not sit comfortably in the array of volumes detailing science, philosophy and civilisation in the Indian context.

However, shortly before this sobering judgment, there are a few lines that mention two Indian scientists as famous for their scientific work as for missing out on lasting international recognition (you know which I’m prize I’m talking about): G.N. Ramachandran and E.C.G. Sudarshan. And as you move past them, you expect TVR to climb further up the “forgotten Indian giants” ladder – and why not. It’s useful to remind ourselves of these people, albeit with less self-pity, less jingoism and more unadulterated pride. However, the next rung in TVR’s diatribe is unexpected. He writes:

Much farther afield, two proponents of traditional Indian knowhow (Annie Besant and George Leadbetter) used a yogic siddhi called ‘anima’ acquired by them over decades of practice in India, and claimed that the proton consists of three quarks, nearly half a century before the experimental discovery of the quark constitution of the proton (this is not modern science, but could mark an intriguing connection between other ways of knowing, and modern atomism).

I had to pause for a few minutes when I first read this, buried as I was between a few layers of disbelief. The uppermost layer was of course motivated by the discovery that TVR of all people is spouting this nonsense. As one of the most respected physicists in India, he should have thought twice before writing this. TVR is of course entitled to his opinions – just the way I am to mine. As one of the country’s most respected scientists, his words carry greater import than he might care to acknowledge, and now endorse an idea that all of us can do without.

The second layer pertained to the disbelief that TVR is unable to distinguish between what is a scientific text – as he himself acknowledges as the reviewer – and text that chronicles various historical claims. He does write that Besant’s and Leadbetter’s “work” is “not modern science”, but then why try to shoehorn them in at all? By failing to maintain the distinction science and non-science, TVR has brought Besant/Leadbetter closer to the realm of scientific thinking – at least from the PoV of a non-scientist reader who either doesn’t know better or is looking to validate ill-founded beliefs of their own.

The third layer was that Current Science published this. Some might argue that it’s fair that they let Pasupathy respond at length but that wouldn’t spare what is fundamentally a journal of science and scientific research from the blame of unqualified claims – especially unqualified claims from a highly qualified scientist. (Amazingly, Current Science even failed to notice that the Leadbetter in question was a Charles, not a George.) It’s comforting that Pasupathy saw fit to rebut various other aspects of TVR’s review but to have him respond to the comments about Besant/Leadbetter is a waste of time, a pseudo-debate where there should’ve been none.

Excerpt from Pasupathy’s response:

The discovery of plethora of resonant states of the proton and strange particles was made possible by building high-energy accelerators which then forced physicists to reluctantly invent the quark model in 1964. But the quark model was not taken seriously by everyone till Feynman came up with his parton model in 1969, triggering intense research leading to the theory of gluons and quarks in 1973. … If one can believe that Besant and Leadbetter came up with the quark model using their yogic clairvoyant microscope, we can close all labs and get rid of the expendable theorists. …

Vivekananda attended the Paris Exposition 1900, held to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. To Vivekananda’s deep distress, he found that there was just one Indian scientist, J. C. Bose, among the large number of famous European scientists. During this Paris visit, Vivekananda sent a passionate appeal to Indian youth to shed their superstitions and take to the study of science. Vivekananda disliked theosophy and strongly disapproved closed minds.

The fourth layer was, of course, the lengthening shadow of hopelessness. I’ve no clue what Besant or Leadbetter really did – nor am I interested. But a Google search showed that the most detailed description of their “ESP experiment” was penned by one Stephen Phillips in 1995, and promptly derided by an independent peer-reviewer – also a pseudoscientist! – as speculative and resorting to strawmen. What dark comedy.

Featured image credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969/pixabay.