Popularising science, the vernacular way

Popularising science, the vernacular way

August 22, 2014

Science is fascinating. But it also induces fear in many, including many school students, who become overwhelmed by the theories, hypotheses, complex explanations and other aspects of the subject. However, this fear can be done away with, and things can be made comfortable, if explanations are set forth in a lucid way. This is where popular science writings come in.

Popularising science in India

Popular science is interpretation of science for a general audience. The general audience could be laymen as well as school students, that is, those people for whom science is not a specialisation. Through popular science writings, science can be made easier to understand, and thus, enable a scientific temper among the people. 

For young people, demystifying science leads to them taking up scientific pursuits in the future. After all, for a nation to progress, it needs a continuous flow of people who specialise in science and technology. For this reason, the Constitution of India has a special provision to ‘develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry.’ Taking this cue from the Constitution, the government has set up organisations to promote science popularisation. Many NGOs and private organisations have also pitched in in this effort. There are various magazines which serve this purpose. Many of these organisations hold regular sessions to explain science to students in an easy way, and thus create a sustainable interest. 

Organisations like National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), Vigyan Prasar, National Council of Science Museums (NCSM), National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) and others, and their affiliate organisations play a vital part. NCSTC also awards a series of prizes to people who have played a big role in this effort through audio-visual, print and electronic mediums, as well as in other ways.

A number of television channels have also been broadcasting science programmes for many years. For example, a 13-part serial on the history of science and technology in the Indian subcontinent and its impact on the world, titled Bharat Ki Chaap, was broadcast on Doordarshan in 1989. Another such superb programme, again on Doordarshan, was Turning Point.

Where print and electronic media have limits rooted in literacy levels and accessibility, folk media can play a crucial role. Puppet shows, street plays, stage performances, and folk songs and dances successfully reach segments of society where other forms of media have limited reach.

(L to R) Jagjit Singh, NK Sehgal, JV Narlikar, D Balasubramanian, Yash Pal – Indian winners of the coveted Kalinga Prize, awarded by UNESCO for popularising science

In October 2002, UNESCO launched a quarterly journal, A World of Science, to popularise issues relevant to the organisation’s work and draw attention to the themes of its international years. Stories cover the full spectrum of UNESCO’s science programmes, including biodiversity and land management, earth sciences, freshwater, oceans, research for health, natural disasters, astronomy, physics and chemistry.

Popularising science in Bengal

In India, popularisation of science has seen a lot of contributions in the vernacular too, India being a land of myriad tongues. And Bengali is no exception. Many well-known Bengali scientists have contributed through writing books and by contributing popular science articles to general as well as children’s magazines.

The first science book published in Bengali was May Ganit (May’s Arithmetic). It was first published in 1817. Soon after, in April 1818, came Digdarshan, the first science magazine in Bengali. Since then, there has been no looking back. Pashyavali (The Animals) was started in 1822. In fact, during the 19th century, about 65 Bengali science magazines were published in undivided Bengal. Many books were also published. The literary great, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote a very popular book on science for the layman, Vigyan Rahasya, which was published in 1835. Physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose’s Palatak Tufan (The Runaway Storm) is a marvellous story that used the rationality of scientific theory to tell a tale of a storm at sea. Sukumar Ray’s stories, like the translations of the ‘Alice’ stories of Lewis Carroll, are full of puzzles and wordplay (just like the original novel by Lewis Carrol). Rabindranath Tagore wrote a marvellous book, Visva-Parichay, in 1937 in which he explored biology, physics and astronomy. Prafulla Chandra Roy, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha wrote about science in Bengali to create awareness among people during the pre-independence era.

Gyan O Vigyan, started by SN Bose and published by Bangiya Vigyan Parishad, has been in print without any break since 1948. Eminent naturalist and popular science writer, Gopal Chandra Bhattacharya, edited it for many years. Including popular science magazines like Utso Manush, Kishore Manush, Prokriti, Gyan O Vigyan, Gyan Bichitra and Kishore Gyan Vigyan, around 35 popular science magazines are now published in Bengali.

(L to R) JC Bose, PC Roy, PC Mahalanobis, SN Bose, MN Saha – famous science writers of Bengal


The latest to join in this effort is an online popular science magazine in Bengali called Bigyan (bigyan.org.in). This web magazine was started on National Science Day, last February 28, by four young Bengalis, all from West Bengal, but now doing research in different institutes in India and USA. The four are Kunal Chakraborty from Dankuni, a researcher at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, Kazi Rajibul Islam from Midnapore (who stood first in Madhyamik in 2000), a researcher at Harvard University, Dibyajyoti Ghosh, a computer engineer working at the San Francisco-based cloud and mobile commerce company, Deem Inc, and Anirban Gangopadhyay, a technical writer at the Massachusetts-based developer of mathematical computing software for engineers and scientists, MathWorks.  

The one common passion between them is popularising science, having been inspired by, among other things, the entomologist Gopal Chandra Battacharya's articles, the radio programme Bigyan Rasiker Darbare and the popular magazine for school students, Science Reporter.

According to Rajibul in an earlier interview, “The main objective is to write popular science articles in Bengali. The articles are aimed at a general audience, more specifically a high school student, and written by people who know the subject well.” He further said that “the core policy of our magazine is to avoid making wrong, vague and metaphysical statements for the sake of simplicity, and that is a hard task.” According to Kunal, “There is a huge number of students from Bengali medium who are excited about science but are stumped by the language barrier.” Hence they thought that such a venture would be a great help to many students who are less comfortable in English, as well as general readers. 

With such noble aims, it is not a surprise that this venture has received a lot of support from its intended audience of students and general readers. The articles are written in lucid Bengali, and concepts and issues are clearly but scientifically accurately described. According to one of their mentors, VijayRaghavan, a Fellow of Royal Society, London, “Like art, culture and music, science too must reach people especially those in rural areas in a language that they understand. I feel this model should be followed in every regional language in India.”

Aware that many students, especially in far-flung areas, do not have access to computers, the founders request schools to do things like taking printouts of the articles and pasting them on to notice boards, so that the writings become accessible to all.   

Parting thought

There is no doubt that scientific information is becoming an essential and integral part of people’s daily lives. Earnest efforts like Bigyan should inspire many others to take up similar ventures to popularise science, and more in vernacular languages of India. After all, everybody should be encouraged to partake of the joys of science.  Science communication efforts have great potential in shaping the lives of the people and making their decisions more informative and rational.

Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv

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Comments (1)
Bijoy Reply
August 22, 2014
Bigyan is a wonderful initiative. Read some of the articles. They are top quality. This article about popular science writing is also well-written.
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