Abha Sur teaches in the MIT Program in Gender Studies. Trained as a research chemist, she combines a deep knowledge of the practice of science with a sensibility to social issues. Her new book is titled Dispersed Radiance is published by Navayana, and is on the contrasting lives of Meghnad Saha and C V Raman, both iconic figures of Indian science.
This book is a step toward writing a socially informed history of physics in India in the first half of the twentieth century. Through a series of micro histories of physics, Abha Sur analyzes the confluence of caste, nationalism, and gender in modern science in India, and unpacks the colonial context in which science was organized. She examines the constraints of material reality and ideologies on the production of scientific knowledge, and discusses the effect of the personalities of dominant scientists on the institutions and academies they created. The bulk of the book examines the science and scientific practice of India’s two preeminent physicists in the first half of the twentieth century, C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha. Raman and Saha were—in terms of their social station, political involvement, and cultural upbringing—diametric opposites. Raman came from an educated Tamil brahmin family steeped in classical art forms, and Saha from an uneducated rural family of modest means and underprivileged caste status in eastern Bengal. Sur also reconstructs a collective history of Raman’s women students—Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Sunanda Bai, and Anna Mani—each a scientist who did not get her due.
Dispersed Radiance makes an important contribution to the social history of science. It provides a nuanced and critical understanding of the role and location of science in the construction of Indian modernity and in the continuation of social stratification in colonial and postcolonial contexts.
In our Biography and History of Science sections, in hardcover, 286 pages Rs 495. ISBN 9788189059323