‘Science and politics cannot be separate’: Tech historian Jahnavi Phalkey speaks to TNM

Jahnavi Phalkey, a science and technology historian, talks about running the Science Gallery in Bengaluru, the impracticality of keeping science and politics apart, and women in science.
Jahnavi Phalkey
Jahnavi Phalkey
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A minute later, Jahnavi Phalkey would have left the building to visit the site of exhibitions, thrown open in Thonnakkal, Thiruvananthapuram, for the Global Science Festival Kerala. But graciously, she agreed to a short interview, letting the organisers know that she would take “15 minutes more”. Keeping time should not be a problem for Jahnavi, the historian who not only wrapped up an entire presentation of the Science Gallery Bengaluru in five minutes, but also answered all the questions of the jury in the remaining seven, for the Falling Walls science summit in 2021. Little surprise that she came out as one of the winners of the Berlin summit. 

She assured us that she never tires of speaking about the Science Gallery Bengaluru, part of an international network of galleries meant to bring scholars and artists together to create public engagement around research. Jahnavi, with her Ph.D. in the history of science and technology, and years of lectureship experience at the King’s College London, became the founding directory of the gallery in January 2018. She has written a book called Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India on nuclear science research in the country as well as directed a documentary called Cyclotron about the world’s oldest functional particle accelerator.

“The idea [of the galleries] took shape at the Trinity College in Dublin about 16 years ago. Bengaluru is the second global location to sign up to the network. The other galleries are located on university campuses and are exhibition galleries, but Bengaluru is an outlier,” she added with a laugh. It is independent, and not located on any university campus.

Watch: Jahnavi at the Falling Walls summit Berlin in 2021

The main idea that sets apart the Bengaluru gallery from the others, she said, is their public lab complex. “People who will come there to spend a year to think about a particular idea or a theme will meet people who they normally don't meet in their professional lives. For example, if you are working on something related to carbon as a physicist, you will come there and meet an artist, historian, or anthropologist who is also interested in carbon. The conversation you have will be different from the one you have in a professional conference which is only about your discipline,” Jahnavi explained. 

They model their exhibitions on research festivals with master classes, workshops, film festivals, summer schools, and a range of other formats of engagement. The idea is to bring in people through media or formats they are familiar with. 

From a previous exhibition at Science Gallery Bengaluru
From a previous exhibition at Science Gallery Bengaluru

In her talks, including the session as part of the Global Science Festival Kerala, Jahnavi speaks about the impracticality of keeping the worlds of science and politics apart. For one, institutions conducting research will need [state] funding, and for another, researchers will need a reasonable amount of freedom to do what they want to. She quoted from history to say how research has often been interfered with under different kinds of regimes, under heavy political restrictions.

“Like in the Soviet Union, for example when Peter Kaptiza (Nobel award-winning physicist) was not allowed to return to Cambridge after he visited Russia to see his family. Or there was the controversy around (Soviet leader) Stalin and Lysenko (agronomist) and Vavilov (geneticist) about plant genetics. In Nazi Germany, some people believed that theoretical physics was Jewish physics and therefore it was not good physics,” Jahnavi the science historian rattles off example after example. 

In India, there have always been claims on the fringe [regardless of the regime], she said. “But so long as the bulk of the community holds on to intellectual autonomy or scientific freedom as we call it, there is still room to grow. One can be worried about changing [history in] textbooks but one has to be equally worried about why we haven't used the last several decades to grow a cadre of well-trained teachers. Don't only hold on to things you have lost or are problematic, but grasp things you can actually build. Like training teachers properly, public education, and so on,” she explained.

Her biggest concern, at the moment, is that there are not enough people to work with. There are open positions at the Science Gallery Bengaluru, but it is hard to find open-minded people from across disciplines, she said. That includes women. The number of women in science has gone up in classrooms, she added from informed observation. But when it comes to getting permanent positions or leadership roles, it is not the same story. “They suddenly disappear. Part of it is because some women take breaks to raise a family. Part of it is because they never get promoted. There are unarticulated assumptions about women’s capabilities, there is misogyny at workplaces. Yes, the numbers have increased, but have the lives of women [in science] got any better – it is far from satisfactory,” she said.

Jahnavi does not wish to offer her experiences as an inspiration for more women to join the field because everyone should chart out their own path. The only insight she would like to give is from how she walked away from things that depleted her or did not challenge her enough, including the tenured position in London. It has always worked out, she said, to leave something that did not work, to go to something that was more compelling or exciting. 

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