Harsh Vardhan is wrong since Hawking’s journey from someone ambivalent about religion to completely establishing himself as an atheist is well documented.
Union science and technology minister Dr Harsh Vardhan made a perplexing statement at the Indian Science Congress Friday. I found out about this through science journalist Pallav Bagla’s tweet below:
Did #Stephen #Hawking say anything on Vedas and Einstein? AT Ind Sci Con @drharshvardhan asserts that 'Hawking on record said Vedas might have a theory superior to E =MC2'. Did #StephenHawking really say it, many are trying to confirm. Can someone point to an irrefutable source pic.twitter.com/pzAHxWAbTv
— Pallava Bagla (@pallavabagla) March 16, 2018
A lot of our ministers are no strangers to making statements that both conflate current scientific findings with mythology, say plastic surgery on Ganesha, and also refute current scientific findings with mythology, like disagreeing with Darwinian evolution. Dr Hash Vardhan has invoked the Vedas on several occasions previously as well. But this was quite blatant in its inaccuracy because physicist Stephen Hawking died only three days ago, and his journey from someone ambivalent about religion to completely establishing himself as an atheist is well documented.
So I googled “Stephen Hawking + Veda.”
One of the first few results was from the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas (I-SERVE), which claimed to give Hawking’s opinion on the Vedas. The website then led to the Facebook post which was used to validate the idea that Hawking himself made the statement. Naturally, as someone who understands Facebook (and despises it), I could tell it wasn’t really Hawking but a semi-anonymous Indian who was attempting to either run a fan page or impersonate him.
Wow, this is shameful. I dug around and I think I found the source of this. There were multiple articles saying he said it, and they all link to — wait for it — this page run by an Indian guy whose display name is Stephen Hawking. https://t.co/0QgS9te5sS pic.twitter.com/EumOpuNY7S
— Sandhya Ramesh (@sandygrains) March 16, 2018
The post referred to a paper published by one Dr Sivarambabu about the Vedas explaining a mishmash of theoretical physics concepts better than modern physics. Furthermore, I could see that I-SERVE tried to validate Hawking’s comments and also ask for his opinion on Sivarambabu’s newer paper titled “The world beyond Fermions (Vedic Model),” by emailing Hawking’s office for comment. They received a response from his technical assistant who simply stated that Hawking doesn’t have the time to answer mails.
Clearly, someone from the minister’s speechwriting team had performed a near-identical search to mine, and unfortunately was not able to identify a fake Facebook profile.
The minister responded to journalists later when asked for a source for his statement that they should dig it out themselves, and if they can’t, he’ll let them know. My personal opinion is that he had no idea what the source was and did not write his own speech.
Is there science in the Vedas?
However, I got wondering about what really I-SERVE was and who Sivarambabu was, whose work the minister unknowingly referred to. It wasn’t too difficult to track him down and speak to him.
Sivarambabu is a soft-spoken retired professor and research supervisor from Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. He doesn’t know how to use the internet well. His niece does it for him. He didn’t know about this Facebook post until a former student sent him a screenshot a couple of years ago. A chemist by training, his earlier passion lay in medicinal plants, before he moved on to studying the Vedas. “I went to the US to visit my kids and after a discussion there with them, I got very interested in learning about science in the Vedas,” he told me.
What science in the Vedas precisely? “Modern science has two famous theories and the world is divided between them,” he proceeded to explain. “One is String theory and the other is the Big Bang theory. Scientists say that the two cannot exist together because String theory is about energy and Big Bang is about particles.” This isn’t accurate, of course. String Theory attempts to explain the state of the universe immediately after the Big Bang.
“In our Vedas,” he continued kindly, “I found that both these theories can exist together. Initially, there is a string universe — nirakaara — that is invisible, and then a particle universe — sakaara — that is visible.” Nirakaara (formless) vs Sakara (with form) is a long-standing philosophical argument in spirituality. Does God have a form? He doesn’t; he is omnipresent, he’s nirakaara. But having an idol or a physical representation makes it easier to meditate upon him and centre him around a righteous way of life. So he is sakaara as well. But how can he be both? God was the original cat in the box millennia before Schrodinger came along.
Sivarambabu is writing a book about this, a project he’s worked on for a decade now. He further stated that he was convinced Hawking read his work because a screenshot of the Facebook post that was sent to him by his student used the word pilipila, his word he used to describe a transitionary period between his string theory universe and big bang universe. “Today it’s called the god particle and everyone is searching for it,” he asserts. Oh boy. I did not have the heart to tell him it was actually the goddamn particle.
He didn’t know that the Facebook post was fake. “See, Hawking’s response did not deny he said it. But I also never publicised anything about his statement.” I think he always knew. But does my confirmation that Hawking did not say it change anything? “No. The Vedas have changed my life. And there is so much knowledge in them, I want to bring the world’s attention to it. I just want to focus on my book.”
The problem here is that Sivarambabu is not 100 per cent wrong in his understanding. Yes, people speculate that string theory could back an existence of the universe before the big bang, yes the big bang talks about particles and string theory talks about energy. But no, he was wrong when he said that nirakaara universe was entirely made of dark energy. Or that pilipila is the transitionary state between a still universe and the big bang.
Promoting scientific temperament
Ill-informed knowledge is dangerous than complete ignorance. It is extremely easy to refute Genesis and tell a minister he’s outright wrong when he says evolution isn’t real, but it is more difficult to convince believers that the avatars of Vishnu do not necessarily depict evolution. Religion evolves and is updated constantly, and our confirmation bias always attempts to explain what we think is canon with what we learn as fact.
Both the development and lack of scientific temperament transcend politics. Indeed, the establishment of I-SERVE and its recognition as a SIRO (Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Outreach of the Govt. of India was done one month into the new leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh, and further registered under the FCRA, Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2008.
In fact, lack of scientific temperament in the face of religion transcends religions, cultures, and even science. The “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion,” now called “”Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities” is a prime example. Several religious figures and Nobel laureates are recipients of this award, whose prize money of Rs 10.85 crore is greater than that of the Nobel. Several of the eminent physicists who’ve received the award have made extremely controversial statements about religion that directly contradict their work. The prize itself has come under regular criticism, but money is a great tool of survival.
I didn’t attempt to convince Sivarambabu that his work most likely will be futile. He’s worked on this for 10 years, he’s convinced he knows the science, he’s given talks on Vedic science all over the world, and he finds solace in Yajur Veda. I get it, religion offers a sense of stability that my own retired relatives embrace. The problem arises when progress towards the future is stifled by glorification of the past. And a form of that is chest-thumping without credibility.
Our ministers need to wisen up. The Vedas or the scriptures or the Bible or the Quran are not ever-knowing and do not hold answers to all of today’s problems. Reflecting upon our ancestors and the current world, then attempting to change it for the better, without causing harm, is a personally fruitful exercise at best. Whether it be ‘Make America Great Again’ or the ‘Omniscient Vedas’, we cannot and should not strive to go back to the past in our quest to make the future a better and safer place.
But most important of all, our ministers need better fact checkers.