The Spirit of Science

Jawaharlal Nehru's speech at the opening of National Fuel Research Institute, Digwadih, Dhanbad, 22 April 1950. SWJN/S2/14B/188-91

In the course of less than four months, we have put up, and declared open or rather wished to declare open three national laboratories*, and I suppose, before this year is out, some more national laboratories will also be started. This is a great venture, testifying to the faith, which our scientists and our government, I hope, have in science. Of course, the putting up of fine and attractive buildings certainly does some service to science, I suppose, but nevertheless, buildings do not make science as Dr Raman [CV Raman] has often reminded us. It is human beings who make science, not brick and mortar, but buildings help the human beings to work efficiently and with proper equipment. Therefore, it is desirable to have these fine laboratories, so that trained persons may work there, and persons may be trained for future work.

Now, why do we put up these laboratories, these research institutes and the like? Of course, every one says, to advance the cause of science. Why so? You, Sir [President Shri Rajendra Prasad], referred to the spirit of science. I wonder exactly what that spirit is, or whether we have the same ideas about that spirit or whether many of us differ? Is science, as is often supposed, a handmaid to industry? Certainly, it wants to help industry. Why? Because it wants to create, help in creating greater wealth, for the nation, for the people. It wants to increase, to have better living conditions for the people, greater opportunities of growth and so on and so forth. That I suppose, will be agreed to. But there is something more about it, I think, than this. What ultimately does science represent? I suppose, the active principle of science is discovery. Discovery, I said. You Sir [President Shri Rajendra Prasad], just referred to scientists declaring war on nature. May I put it in a different way, that we seek the cooperation of nature, we seek to uncover the secrets of nature, to understand them and to utilize them, for the benefit of humanity. Anyway the active principle of science is discovery.

Now, what is, if I may say so, the active principle of any social framework of society? Normally it is conservatism, of remaining where we are, of not changing, of carrying on, no doubt with improvement, no doubt, adding to it something or other. But, nevertheless, it is the principle of continuity, rather than of change. So we come up against a certain inherent conflict, between that principle of society, which is one of continuity and of conservatism and the principle of science, which is of discovery, which brings about change, and which challenges that continuity. So, with the result, that the scientific worker, although he is praised and patted on the back, is nevertheless, not wholly approved of, because he comes and upsets the status quo.

And we see, that, normally speaking, science seldom really has the facilities that it deserves, except when some misfortune comes to a country in the shape of war. Then everything has to be set aside and science has its way for an evil purpose, nevertheless, it has its way. Now it is interesting to see this apparently inherent conflict between the normal conservatism of a static society and the normal revolutionary tendency of the scientists’ discoveries, which changes often enough the basis of that society, because it changes living conditions, changes conditions governing human life, human survival and the rest. Now, I take it that most people who talk glibly of science, including our great industrialists, think of science as a kind of handmaiden to make their work easier. Well, so it is of course, it does make their work easier. Something which adds to the wealth of the nation, something which betters conditions. All that science does do. But surely science is something more than that, and the history of science shows that it does not just merely better the old but it sometimes upsets the old. It not only merely adds new truths to old, but sometimes the new truth it discovers, disintegrates some part of the old truth, and thereby upsets not only the way of men’s thinking, but the way of their lives too. So it is not merely a question of repeating the old in better ways, adding to the old, but creating something that is new. That is new to human consciousness. 

Now, if we pursue this line of thought, then what exactly does the spirit of science mean? It means not only accepting the fresh truths that science may bring, not only improving the old but to be prepared to upset the old, if it goes against that spirit. To accept the new, to accept the disintegration of the old, not to be tied down to something that is old, because it is old, not to be tied down to a social fabric, or an industrial fabric, or an economic fabric, simply because you have carried on with it, although it goes contrary to the spirit of science, or to a new discovery of science. It means all that. Now most countries, whatever they may say, normally do not like to change. The human being is essentially a conservative animal. He dislikes change. He is used to certain ways of life, and any person trying to change them, meets with his disapproval. Nevertheless, change comes and people have to adapt themselves to it as they have, in the past. Now all countries, as I said, are normally conservative. But I imagine that our country, India, is more than normally conservative, and it is, therefore, that I have ventured to place these thoughts before you, because there is a curious hiatus, I find in people’s thinking, if I may say so, in even scientists’ thinking, who praise science and practise science in the laboratory, but who discard the ways of science and the methods of approach of science and the spirit of science in everything else that they might do in life, and they become completely unscientific about it.

Now, if you approach science in that way, it no doubt does some good, it will always do some good. It teaches us new ways of doing things. It improves, may be, our conditions of industry or life, but the basic thing that science should do is to teach us to think straight and to act straight, and not to be afraid of anything, of discarding anything or accepting anything provided we have sufficient reason to do so. I should like our country to understand that, to appreciate that idea more because our country in a sense, in the realms of thought, has been singularly free in the past and it has not hesitated to look down the deep well of truth whatever it might contain. Nevertheless, with a mind so free in social practice, it encumbered itself so much that it came in the way of its growth, and it comes in the way of its growth today, in a hundred ways; our customs, our ways of looking at things, the little things that govern our lives, which have no real importance. But nevertheless they come in our way, and now that we have attained independence, naturally, there is a resurgence of all kinds of new forces, good and bad. Good forces, of course, are let loose by a sense of freedom. But also a number of rather narrowing forces, which narrow our minds, narrow our outlooks, which under the guise of what people call culture, really mean a restriction of culture and a denial of any kind of real culture, because culture is a widening of the mind and of the spirit. Culture is never a narrowing of the mind or a restriction of the spirit of a man or of a country.

Therefore, if we look at science in the real way, and if we think of these research institutes and laboratories in a fundamental sense, then these are somethings more than just finding out little ways of improving things. How they should be done, of course, they have to do that. But they have to gradually affect our minds, the minds not only of those who work here, the young men and young women who might work here, but the minds of others too, and the minds of the rising generation more especially, so that the nation may grow up, imbibing the spirit of science and be prepared to accept a new truth, even though it has to discard something of the old in doing so. Only then, will this approach to science bear true fruit.

In order to attach importance, because we attach importance to these research institutes, we have ventured to ask you, Sir, Mr President, to take the trouble to come all the way here, to open this, the third of our great national laboratories, and we are very grateful to you that you have taken the trouble to do so, and I am sure that your visit here, and the visit of so many distinguished scientists and others will help in drawing people’s attention to the value of science, not only its external applications and implications, but to the real value of it, that is, widening the spirit of man and thereby bettering humanity at large.

*Nehru inaugurated the National Chemical Laboratory at Pune on 3 January 1950 and the National Physical Laboratory at New Delhi on 21 January 1950.

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