5,000 years of Indian science history on display

India Illuminated
Copyright: Anita Makri

Speed read

  • First written zero on a 1700-year-old birch bark manuscript
  • Oldest artefact is set of weights that standardised mud brick production
  • Exhibition at UK’s Science Museum in London

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

A light scattering technique invented in the early 20th century and a fragile manuscript documenting the earliest known symbol for a numerical zero are among achievements of Indian science highlighted in an exhibition that opened this week at the Science Museum in London, UK.

Illuminating India, which runs until 31 March 2018, marks 70 years from the country’s independence by celebrating global contributions to scientific advancement, as well as photography, from 3000 BC to the present day.

Mainstream views of science and technology tend to be Eurocentric, curator Matt Kimberly told SciDev.Net, and the aim of the exhibition is to “redress that balance” by bringing India’s contribution to the centre.

He pointed to a set of standardised weights, the oldest artefact on display, as an example of how early scientific thought made it possible – through the production of mud bricks of standardized sizes – for the Indus Valley Civilisation to build large cities comparable to those later built by the Romans.

“India’s history and culture are built on a rich tradition of scientific thought and innovation”

Ian Blatchford

Fast-forward by some 5000 years, and Indian innovators are still making an impact, says Kimberly. “It’s Indian-born and educated engineers who are developing and leading teams behind some of the most important technologies we have today, including Intel Pentium processors and even the USB.”

And there is a nod to jugaad, a movement that recognises frugal innovations by ordinary people, which the Indian government honoured earlier this year and which has begun to influence how global institutions measure innovation. On display is a prosthetic limb made by craftsman Ram Chander Sharma with rubber, plastic and wood, and distributed for free; also a pouch that keeps prematurely born babies warm, which was co-designed by Indian students.

The scientific achievements on show range from space exploration – through early astronomy and India’s modern space programme – to the Great Trigonometrical Survey that mapped the subcontinent in the nineteenth century, and to the study of nature through technology such as Raman spectrometry, a light-scattering technique still used today to analyse the make-up of different materials.

It also includes the oldest written example of a zero, on the page of a mathematical text written on birch bark, known as the Bakhshali manuscript after the Pakistani village where it was discovered in 1881. Dated back to as early as AD 300, much earlier than previously thought, the manuscript shows a dot for a zero in calculations made by merchants. It eventually replaced “clunky” Roman numerals that used a new symbol every time a figure rose by a factor of ten.

The concept of zero would have been difficult to grasp because numbers were created to count things that existed. But it is perhaps not surprising that it emerged from a culture which could easily conceive of the void, according to the Museum.

“India’s history and culture are built on a rich tradition of scientific thought and innovation,” says Ian Blatchford, the museum’s director. “The stories we will be showcasing through this vibrant season not only shaped India but had global significance.”

A strong generic drugs industry and growing renewable energy technology sector suggest India is building on this tradition. But the country’s modern-day landscape in science and technology has not been without its challenges, including recent concerns over dwindling funding for research and debates over GM crops or environmental protection.