12 July 2011

Geek nation by Angela Saini

Rich source material, shabby output
This book sets out to investigate the Indian characteristic of geekiness. To write it, Angela Saini explored situations and people engaged in many different and fascinating aspects of science and technology in India: the international science and maths Olympiads; electronic waste dumps; software companies and associations - from the giants to technology startups; advanced technology universities; biotech institutes; Vedic science; forensic laboratories; tuberculosis clinics; nuclear reactors and even the Lavasa Corporation.
There’s a lot of information here, and much of it is interesting.
However, I found the reporting was superficial and strewn with howlers. Here are a few.
Reliance is a mobile phone company. Really?
Once upon a time the shop buildings of Jaipur were painted red, but they have now faded to a "peaceful" pink. Really?
Angela Saini drove down the streets of Mumbai in “a crumpled black Ambassador taxi”. Really? An Ambassador?
India was under British rule for eighty-nine years. Really? And the Great Indian Mutiny (or First War of Indian Independence if you prefer) which happened in 1857, was a mutiny (or war) against whom?
Though these are circumstantial details unrelated to the science information, it left a bad taste and tainted the authenticity of this project.
From this book, I learnt that:
  • the Indian system of education encourages dependence and rote learning, and there is little effort to provoke original thought;
  • young people in India sacrifice their leisure time, their sanity, and sometimes even their lives, to examination results;
  • infrastructure in even our best academic institutions is weak and outdated;
  • Indian IT guys have poor general knowledge;
  • we have no adequate system of checks in research, and with our tradition of superstition and ignorance, we provide a lush setting for pseudoscience and crackpot ideas to flourish;
  • more people in India will one day own mobile phones than can write their own names;
  • the emerging environment of awareness and opportunities is likely to enable Indians to contribute new scientific ideas in the future even if they never did before …
Basically, nothing any of us didn’t know before.

The other thing I found distasteful was the way the author mocks her sources. Do we really need to know that Professor Vijay Singh, a former teacher who now runs the country’s International Science Olympiad training centre has a slight lisp and likes to be dramatic? That Ananth Krishnan, the “person in charge of innovation” at Tata Consultancy Services, has a balding crown and enormous head, and a voice “that reminds me of Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show”? That Yusuf Motiwala, promoter of a technology startup, has a laptop that Angela Saini heard “squealing like a banshee” and that he “presses the computer between his palms and gives it a hard thud” to stop the sound?

With a smashing cover like this, and an author who has a Masters in Engineering from Oxford University, and is an award-winning science journalist – I assumed this was going to be a great book. I was disappointed.