Thursday, 10 February 2011

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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