Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mahalanobis Distance between 'Pure' and 'Applied' Science

Summation [pH]n1 to [pH]n2
Dimensions: Variable
Media: Single Channel Projection, 4 Monitors, Sound
Acknowledgment: Dr. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy (JNU, New Delhi) and Dr. M. K. Panigrahi (I.I.T Kharagpur)
Year: 2007

This work is part of my ongoing project on the social history of science research in colonial India. This particular work was initiated during the KHOJ Arts and Science Residency in 2007.
Through short narrative video pieces and an animation that ‘explains’ an ironic scientific experiment around Raman Spectroscopy, this work attempted to trace the longer history of the apparent dichotomy between pure and applied science. The specific historical context it addresses centres broadly around these two markers: the foundation of one of the first independently managed science research institutes in colonial India - Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta in 1876 - and C.V Raman’s research on light scattering in the same institute in the early decades of the 20th century function. However, the work is not conceptualised as an authentic narration of factual, documentary material but rather a continuous play between ‘real’ history and fictional constructs.

When Dr. Mahendralal Sircar wanted to set up a pure science research institute in the 1860s in Calcutta, it met with stiff opposition from a prominent section of the Indian bourgeoisie and landed gentry. They felt that given India’s ‘backwardness’ a pure science research institute would be a waste of money. Many of them supported the Institute of Technical Training that was proposed by the India League. Dr. Sircar was eventually successful in setting up his institute and in the 1920s C.V Raman did his Nobel (1930) winning work there. The Raman Effect was seen as incontrovertible proof of the still relatively new Quantum Theory. However even then the practical implications of the work in molecular spectroscopy was immediately recognized.

And now, in our present times, there are questionable - and therefore always couched in the language of efficiency and practicality - suggestions of installing portable Raman spectrometers at airports for a quick detection of dissolved explosives in fluid substances. The ‘pure’/’applied’ or the theoretical/experimental dichotomy gets another interesting facet from Raman’s own aversion to theoretical physics that made extended use of abstract mathematical formulations. In one of his public lectures we therefore hear him speak about the physiological basis of the light quanta and how in appropriate conditions the human eye can be trained to perceive the light quanta. This embodied and ‘empirical’ introduction of the quanta is interesting, given that the early popular expositions of quantum theory generally highlighted its abstract and counter-intuitive nature.