Scientific discoveries get accepted because they make life easier: Bedabrato Pain

When you innovate, it’s not about how brilliant or creative you or your device is but how it is going to make somebody's life easier. This is the art of science, says Bedabrato Pain, Indian scientist turned filmmaker. Patricia Mascarenhas gives you the gist

Bedabrato Pain, former senior research scientist, NASA was also a member of the team that invented the CMOS image sensor. In a recent lecture on the art of science and the science of art, he talks about the gap between literary intellectuals and scientists. “In 1996 there was a huge event that took place called science wars. What happened here is that literary critics, cultural critics and English department heads took strong exception to science and technology having importance over the world/ society,” says Pain, further explaining that people thought science and technology were subjects that came up with laws and theories that were an approximation of the truth and this upset the literature critics. “They felt science was taking over and eliminating the need for people who were doing literary criticism and so on, so they started a thing called philosophical relativism which was to say that it’s just a matter of opinion and this lead to the war between the science community and the philosophical postmodernists,” he adds.

This war and the further penetration of technology pushed science and art even far apart. “If you go to a village or a small town you see people who probably won't be able to read, their literacy level is so low but their mobile phone literacy level is probably higher than mine. They use mobile phones in ways which I wouldn't even think of doing,” said Pain.

In today's world we still see this separation even though there are people who are trying to bridge this gap. In order for science and tech to progress, it has to have a very broad view. “We need to learn to enjoy and have a broad view of life, learn what’s going on and not shy away from the cultural/political angles,” says Pain, warning that science is not about solving a few equations or moving the laws but is a tool to let one think in a different way, which often doesn't happen in India.

Scientific discoveries get accepted not because they are better than what existed before but because they make life easier. “For example, your desktop at home may be way more powerful but you would much rather use a tablet because you can carry it around,” he says. When one innovates its not how brilliant or innovative or creative one is but how his innovation is going to make somebody's life easier. This is the real art of science.

Visualisation is another aspect, which is making a very big difference in science today. For example, Kip Thorne, one of the theoretical physicists of the movie Interstellar, got two papers out of it. “He realised that Hollywood has a competing power which is far beyond what California Institute of Technology had and they fed new equations to black hole,” informs Pain explaining that in the black hole we get multiple images but they discovered that as the black hole rotates it distorts the space around it and the result of the distortion of space is that it creates brilliant patterns seen in interstellar.

However, while art is completely free to imagine anything and do anything, in science and technology too imagination is just as important but much more difficult. “Science needs a new kind of imagination where it stays true to existing facts and yet comes up with a new way of thinking. There is no formula on how you think but it is something you have got to practice,” he advises.

The real art of science lies in innovation but can innovation be taught? “Most schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators. We need to teach them what I call the 3P formula- Play, Passion and Perspective,” says Pain, explaining that with this approach students may find different ways of doing it. They will have the passion to do it and may get a perspective of the unsolved problems so they may work towards finding solutions.

Being hands on is another important aspect. You discover different ways of doing the same thing. “One of reasons Americans are good at innovating is because right from their childhood they start building. I think if you want to really know the art of technology, use your hands, learn, fail, learn again fail again,” Pain says. Failure is great. “When you fail you know what doesn't work. There are only few ways of getting things right but there are thousands of ways of getting things wrong. So the more you know of how to get it wrong, the better is the chance that you will succeed,” he concludes.  

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