Superstitions of the space age

Pierre-Simon Laplace, a distinguished French mathematician of the 19th century, made very valuable contributions to the subject of Newtonian dynamics and gravitation. His work on the solar system involved solving the problem of motions of all the known members of the solar system, including planets, satellites and smaller bodies. And the success of the effort covering five thick volumes lay in the fact that the theoretical description matched observations. As a matter of courtesy Laplace called on Emperor Napoleon to present him with this work. As Napoleon turned over the pages, he realised that the mathematics would go well above his head. Still, after a brief perusal he asked the scientist what he considered a pertinent question: “M. Laplace, I do not see any mention of God in your description of the solar system.” To which, Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis (Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-lè).”
Indeed, science attempts to explain the complex phenomena in nature, without recourse to divine interventions, miracles, astrology, etc. Seen in that light, Laplace’s reply shows his rationalism. But how many scientists can claim to follow that route? Do they really subscribe to the scientific temper which lays stress on evidence to back any statement rather than a belief system subscribed to by the majority without any evidence? Indeed it appears that their mindset is compartmentalised with one part, of rational scientific enquiry, activated during their laboratory hours with the other, superstitious part, taking over the moment they step out of their labs. Otherwise, it is hard to understand events like these. The annual “worship” of scientific instruments, even reactors, on the Vishwakarma Puja day is held in the most prestigious of our laboratories.
A housing unit in the staff quarter of a national laboratory has remained unoccupied because it is believed to be haunted. A holy lady was invited by the director of a lab as chief guest for the annual day and that led to an overcrowded auditorium.
There are a minority of scientists who can keep their cool and react rationally in the presence of “miracle makers”. There is the story of a distinguished scientist who was presented with a watch by a distinguished holy man who apparently produced it out of nothing. Without touching the watch lying on the floor in front, the scientist said: “Sir, you have performed a miracle in generating this watch out of vacuum and summoning it from infinity. I will become your disciple, if you move it further towards me no more than six inches, by your power of remote control.” Needless to say, the holy man did not get a distinguished disciple that day.
If this is the state of rationalism in the scientific community, one can imagine the state of the common man. There are numerous superstitions that have taken charge of the common mindset. Most are of religious origin. Then there are those based on astrology. The common man would like to take astrology seriously. Even if scientists try to convince him that applying statistical techniques to large samples demonstrates that astrological predictions are no better than chance predictions, he wants to believe in it. This is because in the present high-pressure lifestyle he is forced to take decisions that matter. Or because he needs solace and reasoning if he fails in his enterprise. In such cases a successful astrologer fills the gap by offering mental solace and psychiatric analysis based on planetary influence. The analysis will be unscientific, but the client goes home satisfied.
An interesting sidelight on superstitions has been thrown by Jiri Grygar, a scientist and science communicator from the Czech Republic. He finds that during the Soviet-dominated era no superstitious ideas were publicly aired as these were feared to be against the beliefs subscribed to by the state. In the freethinking times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, all pent-up superstitions have come up.
There are, however, new superstitions that have their origin in the age of space technology. Towards the end of the last century I had gone on a visit to the radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Now Puerto Rico forms one of the vertices of a rather notorious triangle whose other vertices are at Bermuda and Florida. Known as the Bermuda Triangle, it has generated considerable excitement because of a claim that it formed a region within which mysterious (and possibly malicious) forces were present. A book on Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz describing disturbing and unfathomable events makes fascinating reading. If those accounts were true then the Bermuda Triangle indeed encompassed a sinister region. There were accounts of pilots losing their way and their lives, watches stopping for an appreciable time, …in short events that defied rational scientific explanation.
There followed, a few years later, scientific attempts to test the veracity of the Triangle events. Lawrence David Kusche, a librarian, did seminal work in debugging the Triangle stories. His investigations have shown that the stories were either inflated, or did not tell the whole truth or tinkered with the vital part of the evidence. Thus one can safely say that there is no tangible evidence to ascribe the alien character to the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless, whenever, as a scientist, I invite questions from an audience of school or college students, the question inevitably pops up: What is the mystery behind all that is going on in the Bermuda Triangle? The questioner is visibly disappointed to learn that there are no black holes or dark energy or powerful aliens hiding there. Indeed, when I asked my host in Arecibo how the locals react to such questions, he laughed and said that the Bermuda Triangle had long ceased to be a matter of concern.
But we Indians somehow feel that life needs to be peppered with superstitions. Whether it is the Bermuda Triangle or flying saucers, we need some unbelievable phenomenon to believe in. I call these space age superstitions, for the advent of space technology and the use of manmade satellites, spaceships and space stations have made it that much easier to imagine these extrapolations.

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics,
Pune University Campus


I really enjoyed reading the

I really enjoyed reading the article. I always wondered why the ISRO chief has to visit assorted temples in full media view prior to a launch. I understand it is his personal prerogative but I think he is doing lot of disservice to the impressionable minds who question their own scientific temperment.

Under the infamous Bermuda

Under the infamous Bermuda triangle is nothing but flat ocean bottom at some 12,000 feet. No methane gas to upset ships, no fumaroles to spew out magma to affect compasses, and certainly no crystal pyramids.

On Google, type Bermuda. Click on the map, change to satellite, and pull back to see the ocean south of Bermuda toward the Bahamas. If you look east some 1000 miles, you'll find the mid-Atlantic ridge which can emit methane gas, and magma, yet neither of which have any effect if over a couple of thousand feet deep. Here, it is well over two miles down.

The concept of the Bermuda triangle was created in 1950 with an article by Associated Press reporter Edward Van Winkle Jones. He had a map showing an airplane flying from Bermuda toward Puerto Rico, another plane flying from Puerto Rico to Miami, and finally, Flight 19 flying from Fort Lauderdale out in the direction of Bermuda.

It looks a triangle drawn over the Atlantic Ocean. Each year, ships and planes go missing off the eastern coastline of the United States, as planes have for a century, and ships literally for hundreds of years. Yet both the US Coast Guard and Lloyds of London state that no more ships or planes go missing here than off the Pacific coastline.

Much of the story however, begins with Flight 19, aka the Lost Patrol when supposedly they disappeared suddenly into the infamous Bermuda Triangle. Flight 19 disappeared in December of 1945 but it wasn’t into the Bermuda triangle and it wasn't sudden — it took five hours for each of the TMB avengers to drop out of the sky. The irony of Flight 19 is that none of the men died within the infamous Bermuda triangle.

Three crash sites have been located and one aircraft has been raised from the sea.
Taken from, Discovery of Flight 19
Douglas Westfall, historic publisher,

With due respect to the

With due respect to the scientific abilities of Mr. Narilkar, I would like to comment on his references to the dialogue between a 'distinguished scientist and a distinguished holy man'. A personal experience is subject to a purely personal interpretation. An unusual act, like producing a watch from thin air, may mean one thing to one man and quite another to another. Number two, just offering to become someone's disciple is not enough to be made one. Acceptance is a must. You may not be found fit to be one. Incidentally, if my reading of Mr. Narilkar's reference is correct, the number of eminent scientists and doctors who ended up as the holy man's devotees is legion and there is no dearth of literature recounting their experiences. Mr. Narilkar has every right to interpret these in his own rational way. Incidentally again, in your question it should be 'happen', and not happens.

Thanks,Prof.Narlikar! In

In Sociology, there is the practice of Participatory Research.It interferes to some extent with the quality of objectivity expected of an independent observer.But it opens more areas of the subject of observations than the external o9bserver can mange. I am grateful that you chose to discuss this aspect.Our Scientific Community , whether Indian or Western, is still a part of the General Society. Sadly, if we look to recruit young scientists with true scientific temperament, we will be missing some of the most brilliant ones and end up selecting a few smart alecs who will not measure up to challenges as they arise. So, traditionally we in India have been making a serious compromise on this front. Perhaps, a better option would be to take in young students at an earlier age l,level and then infuse them with the true scientific temperament at the school level and then absorb them into the Major Labs.
WE will also need to train them on how to reconcile the conflicts they will face at home, on the days of Ganapati pooja etc,when they don't participate in the family celebrations.

A very timely comment. The

A very timely comment. The number of stone-studded rings on the fingers of public figures give a lie to our rationality. Scientists are not always exceptions. More discussions of this type will help in sorting our ideas.

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