Skip to main content

Geek Nation – Angela Saini ****

We are always hearing how China and India are going to overtake the West in everything from GDP to scientific discovery, but it’s rare that there’s any substance behind this assertion – so it was wonderfully refreshing to read Angela Saini’s Geek Nation, which sets out to show just what is happening in science and technology in the thriving nation of India.
Picking up on the stereotype of the Indian as a rather serious, geeky individual, Saini (English-born but of Indian parentage) takes us on a very personal exploration of hi-tech India. I was reminded in some ways of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. So many books get compared to Bryson’s in an attempt to hitch a lift on the coattails of its success, but the similarities here are real – the very personal touch, a combination of travelogue and investigation through interview and a real sense of humour. I loved, for instance, the line ‘It’s the biggest thing to happen to the Western Ghats since the Cretaceous period.’
I had expected, if I’m honest, this to be a constant celebration of the achievements of Indian science (something that is placed in the mind by the subtitle of the book, ‘How Indian science is taking over the world’), but in fact it’s a much more balanced assessment. Saini is sometimes a little downbeat when faced with a lowest common denominator IT revolution. All too often, it seems, it’s an effort to do more of the same every cheaper, rather than a true sense of innovation. But she also finds many things to show positive developments and promise for the future.
Where I was a little disappointed was in the lack of actual science. This comes through in two ways. One is that the book is almost all about technology and engineering, rather than science. There is hardly any (for instance) physics, astronomy, cosmology, or even biology except in medical applications, which arguably are more technology than true science. Also, enjoyable though the descriptions of the people and places are, I would have liked to see a bit more depth in the explanatory sections, which tended to have the very summary approach of broadcast science, rather than a popular science book. The book seems to be addressed at people who don’t read popular science. Once this summary approach produced something rather worrying. ‘The challenge [in building a nuclear reactor]‘ we are told is controlling the reaction ‘so it doesn’t run away into an explosion.’ This suggests a runaway reactor would cause a nuclear explosion – but that just isn’t physically possible.
I’d also liked to have seen more analysis. Two examples. At one point India is compared with Japan in the early days of its move into technology, when it was making cheap knock-offs and did nothing original – but based on Japan’s subsequent success, Saini suggests that India could soon replace Microsoft or Google. Two problems here. Yes, today, Japan makes superb leading edge technology – but they tend to be really good versions of a product that originated elsewhere. And secondly Japanese software has never made the grade. You may have a Japanese laptop, but I doubt very much you are running a Japanese operating system or word processor.
Secondly, though there are some thoughtful words about the contrast of the poverty in parts of India and the high tech software HQs, there could be more analysis on this strange disparity. For instance, is it right to be spending many millions on a space programme when India is expected to receive over $1 billion in aid from the UK in the three years to 2011? I can absolutely see the argument for spending money on technology that will help people out of poverty, but not on manned spaceflight, which is always a political gesture rather than a pure scientific goal. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but I would have liked to have seen more analysis.
Don’t get me wrong, though, there is much to enjoy in this book. I found it fascinating the way that pseudo-science is tolerated alongside science much more than in the West with, for example, a government funded project dedicated to discover science, flying saucers and more in ancient writings. In some ways it’s rather sad, but at the same time reminds us that everywhere in the world is not the same. Two bits of technology that stood out as particularly fascinating were the speech-based internet concept (out of IBM’s Indian arm) and the use of thorium in nuclear reactors, not an original concept, but one that has been stupidly largely ignored in the West.
All in all this is an engaging and eye-opening exploration of a subject that traditionally we rely on clichés to understand, providing a much more informed and effective understanding of the progress of Indian technology. Recommended.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…