The genius of making a little go a long way

Visiting Illuminating India at London’s Science Museum for New Scientist, 10 October 2017

One can taste the boosterism in the air at London’s Science Museum as it introduces its two-gallery exhibition, Illuminating India.

There is a cafe serving excellent Indian street food. Someone next to me used the word “Commonwealth” without irony. Would there have been such a spirit without Brexit? Probably not: this is a show about the genius of another country that very much wants to project Britain’s own global aspirations. Any historian of Anglo-British relations will give a sardonic smile at this.

When you visit (and you should), try to look around the smaller, artefacts-driven gallery first.

This room tells the stories of Indian science – stories plural because there can never be one, linear account of how such dissimilar and contesting cultures struggled and more or less succeeded in understanding and exploiting a space of such extraordinary complexity.

Naturally, since India has a past to boast of, pride of place goes to its indigenous cultures. It was the Indus valley civilisation, after all, whose peoples fashioned standardised weights around 4000 years ago: items that indicate high levels of arithmetical literacy, communication and trade.

And there are reconstructions of Ayurvedic surgical instruments described in records dating back to around 500 BC. Also on show is a 1800-year-old document containing the first example of the use of zero. Wonderfully, radiocarbon dating pushed the document’s age back by 500 years just before the exhibition opened.

It is a measure of the wisdom of the curators that such an illustrious past isn’t allowed to overshadow India’s more recent achievements. For example, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s early-20th-century crescograph, designed to observe plant growth at a magnification of 10,000 times, reminds us why he is often called the father of modern Indian science.

Another winning object is Chandrasekhara Raman’s spectrometer. Raman was the first Indian to win a Nobel prize, for physics, in 1930.

And what of that other great empire far to the north? Well, there is a map of George Everest’s career-defining Great Trigonometrical Survey of India – the teamwork of 70 years distilled on a single, meticulously drawn map. And nearby are details of a recent collaboration between Surrey Satellite Technology in the UK and the Indian Space Research Organisation on the Earth-surveying NovaSAR satellite.

Some of the deeper, darker questions about Anglo-Indian relations are posed in the second, photographic half of the exhibition.

There, the anthropometric photographs of Maurice Portman make a depressingly silly impression next to the respectful, revealing and entirely unlicentious photographs Ram Singh took of the women of his own harem: powerful political players all, who shaped the country through marriage and allied treaties.

It is hard to say why the split nature of Illuminating India works as well as it does. It has something to do with the way the rooms handle political power.

India’s science, from its ancient stepwells that gathered monsoon waters to the bureaucratic and algorithmic marvel that is today’s tiffin tin-based lunch delivery system, has been driven by the complex needs of a massive population making a living.

Similarly, its doing-more-with-less style of innovation is reflected in everything from the world’s cheapest artificial leg (the Jaipur leg, made of rubber, plastic and wood) to the world’s cheapest Mars-orbiting camera.

Visitors to Illuminating India will leave thinking that technology may, after all, be making the world a better place, and that what people do is ultimately more influential than who they are.

On Saturday 30 May, fantasy takes over the future

There’s an official webpage coming, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of mischief I’m planning with New Scientist and SCI FI LONDON in a corner of the British Film Institute on the afternoon of Saturday 30 May.

We’ll Eventbrite all this to get an idea of numbers but it’s free — drop in, heckle, throw peanuts, and above all buy me beer afterwards..

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The wildest and most outlandish stories are slipping through the screens, cabinets and wall-spaces of our most treasured institutions and into the streets and squares of the real world.

Kicked off with a keynote by multi-award winning science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds, this packed afternoon of short films and discussions explores how stories, games and falsehoods are guiding us towards an uncertain tomorrow.

Curators Robert Devcic and Doug Millard lead us through a bizarre world of unreal exhibits — objects and films and documents that purport to be from future times and unreal places. These mock-ups are meant to entertain, baffle and provoke us — but what happens when we can no longer tell the difference between them and the real thing?

In the company of Pat Kane, Meg Jayanth and Shrinking Space we explore the fun and games to be had in making up and playing the future. Can we ever ready ourselves for the unexpected? And might the games we play now lead us into making the wrong choices in the future?

And Georgina Voss, Paul Graham Raven and (via Skype) Regina Pedszus, will help us discover how mock-ups, simulations and rehearsals are bearing on the real world, and making science fiction real.

Interspersed with short films, video art and live readings, New Scientist‘s afternoon at Sci Fi London will take science fiction off the screen and jam it under your skin.

What colour is the moon?

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Thursday, 1 March at 4pm – my Science Museum debut!

We humans acquired the means, very late in our evolution, to perceive a world of colour – and every day we spend phenomenal amounts of energy making the world even more colourful than it would otherwise be, with face paints and aniline dyes, fabrics and photographs, paints, powders and moving images everywhere.

But the further we leave our terrestrial environments behind, the more we confront a relatively colourless universe. At best, the Martian sky is mauve. The rings of Saturn are dun brown. The Moon is black and white. Or is it? Today, with a decent telescope and a digital camera, any keen amateur astronomer can demonstrate that the Moon is full of colour – but can our unaided eyes, so spoiled by life on earth, ever appreciate its de-saturated motley?

Exposed to radiations from which they were normally shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere, the earliest astronauts – balloonists with the US Air Force’s Man High and Excelsior projects –saw colours they conspicuously failed to identify on a Pantone chart. There are, after all, new colours to be discovered in space – but to see them, we need new eyes…

What Colour is the Moon? is a journey in space and time. We will see how colours, colour words, and the demands of art and industry have altered and enriched our understanding of colour. On the way we’ll re-enact Edwin Land’s startling “retinex” experiments in colour vision, and enjoy some (literally) dazzling optical illusions.

And we’ll journey across the lunar surface, taking in a spectrum that stretches from the sky-blue cast of the Mare Tranquillitatis, through the mysterious mustards near the crater Aristarchus to the red-brick “lakes” west of Montes Haemus.

The talk will be in the Science Museum’s Lecture Theatre on the ground floor of the museum. It’s open to all. No booking is necessary and seats are available on a first come first serve basis.