Colonial Science

Given that many colonial powers were in India at a time when they were also investing in science, having realized just how important the pursuit of knowledge could be to the pursuit of well-being, its not surprising that many important scientific discoveries were made in India in the past few centuries.

Famously, the discovery of the cause of malaria, the motion of sunspots, and less famously, the theory of punctuated equilibrium

Pratik Chakrabarti wrote about this in his book, Western Science in Modern India which was his Ph D thesis in history (as it happens, from JNU) and which was published a few years ago by Permanent Black.

This book is about Western science in a colonial world. It asks: how do we understand the transfer and absorption of scientific knowledge across diverse cultures, from one society to another'

Pratik Chakrabarti approaches this question from the assumption that knowledge is fundamentally linked with experience. He analyses what was 'Western' about that scientific knowledge, and what constituted the 'colonialness' of Indian experience. He shows that the expansion of a European discipline into strange and distant lands meant experiencing new phenomena, examining new facts, developing new hypotheses. This journey of science from Europe to colonial India, he argues, was also one from metropolis to periphery. The book explores whether the periphery can alter the terms of the metropolis.

Starting in the eighteenth century, Chakrabarti reveals a process of knowledge-transfer that involved not only Indian nationalist scientists but also Europeans (East India Company surgeons and surveyors)-the initial practitioners of modern science in India. In doing so he highlights the fact that the marginality of colonial scientific experience, like the battles to overcome it, could be located at diverse cultural sites.

This book spans a period of about 170 years, from 1780 to 1950, and traverses several institutions. These include the Asiatic Society, the Geological Survey of India, the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, the Bose Institute. It also looks acutely at the work of individuals such as Henry Piddington, Thomas Holland, Frederick Corbyn, Hugh Falconer, Mahendralal Sircar, J. C. Bose, P. C. Ray, and M. N. Saha.

The book is difficult to find in an Indian edition, but is listed in our History of Science section, 340 pages paperback, Rs 695. ISBN: 9788178240787