‘I am in a sense mad and a little madness is good,’ muttered Moscow-educated Madangarly Parameswaran (endearingly called MP), a Keralese nuclear reactor technologist. He had just returned from Moscow intensely inspired by the brave new brain wave of science popularisation.
The place was Bombay and the year was 1964.
Homi Bhabha F.R.S. was grooming talents for a vibrant nuclear India. A sizable number of youthful migration-friendly Keralese science and engineering toppers had gained entry into India’s Atomic Research Centre in Bombay. This presented MP with the critical mass for triggering a new social contract.
About one hundred of us resolved to develop our mother tongue, Malayalam, as a medium for science communication. MP, in Manhattan mode, initiated, planned and executed the project.
Coining scientific terms
Malayalam had a few scientific terms, so we had to generate more. I recall how I sat in the usually uneventful emergency centre of a research reactor on night shift and wrestled in solitude making new words. Two teams, one at Bombay and the other in Kerala, thought up about 35,000 words. We based them on Sanskrit roots. We needed, for example, a word for ‘switch’. In Sanskrit, that would be Vaidyuthi-Agamana- Nigaman -Niyanthrana-Dhandu: literally, electricity-arrival-departure-control-rod.
We selected the widely used word ‘switch’ instead of the puritanical Sanskritized coinage.
Another example is ‘green pigment’, which is Haritha Varnakam in Sanskrit and Pacha nirakkoottu in Pure Malayalam. The latter is more natural but the former finds place in ornate writings.
With vocabulary in place and a team of passionate writers in production mode, a stock of articles piled up. The media steadfastly refused to publish them.
We launched our own publications. One journal, for children aged 9-14, attracted 100,000 subscriptions with an estimated readership of two million! Besides using print media, we dovetailed storytelling and folk art forms into science communication campaigns.
In 1972, the paradigm shifted to science for social revolution. Wooing and winning people’s hearts was high on the agenda. A notable example was the re-engineering of the domestic fireplace with 40 per cent enhanced efficiency. Fuel bills came down. Smoke vanished from the kitchen. Women loved the smokeless fireplace. We became a welcome household name. We followed this with health surveys, literacy campaigns, assertive social interactions and aggressive environmental interventions.
Over the past four decades we have grown into a coherent movement, with a membership of 40,000 in Kerala. This amounts to one activist per 100 of population. Such is the present profile of KSSP-Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishat, meaning Kerala Forum for Science Literature.
What will be our lifecycle? Young career scientists are averse to the double burden of research and popularisation. Mainstream academics look askance at popularisation. Some scientists argue that using the mother tongue as a medium has been a disservice to science students. Yet others contend that environment-friendly responses have created a development-averse psyche in Kerala.
The proportion of working scientists at the initiation of the project was higher than it is today. Teaching professors are not necessarily scientists. Rigid managerial frameworks, sine qua non for political parties, are incompatible with the spirit of scientific enquiry. The diminishing proportion of working scientists may catalyse a right-wing counter reaction, raising nagging questions of credibility and competence.
A project by definition is a temporary endeavor undertaken to accomplish a unique service with a defined start and end point and specific objectives that, when attained, signify completion. Having achieved the specific objectives the defining moment appears to be the abominable end point signifying completion.
In 1996, the Right Livelihood Award was conferred on KSSP for its unique contribution as a people’s science movement.