Creating India’s Largest Celebration of Science

Creating India’s Largest Celebration of Science

September 6, 2019 | Author: Varun Aggarwal

We celebrate sports, Bollywood, religion, startups – but do we celebrate science? For most of us, science is a tool during schooltime to get into an engineering or medical college. After that, it is relegated to the sides and forgotten. The larger society doesn’t know how science happens, who the scientists are, who are PhD students and how their relentless work pushes innovation. 

This is at a time, when innovation is at an exponential speed, new inventions and discoveries are happening every day, and the impact of science on day-to-day life is at an all-time high. Be it artificial intelligence, biotechnology, neuroscience, quantum physics, medicine – the fields are exploding with new knowledge, methods and products based on them.

All developed economies have huge public engagement around science through festivals, outreach talks organized by universities, sophisticated exhibits and mass-media content and shows. In India, science remains siloed in government labs, universities and some old-school conferences and seminars, which sees little or no participation by the youth.

This needs to change. The whole society – the students, professionals, homemakers, entrepreneurs – need to come together to celebrate the festival of science. The celebration should be akin to that for a cricket match, a Bollywood star show or a Diwali Mela.

We are making this happen with the India Science Festival on 11th and 12th January, at IISER Pune. It is a lucky coincidence, that 12th January is National Youth Day in India, the birthday of Swami Vivekananda, a great votary of science, an admirer of the plant scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose and one who played a role in the founding of Indian Institute of Science.


Some of the India Science Festival speakers, including Priyamvada Natarajan, an Indiaspora Board of Directors member

The celebration will be spread over multiple outdoor and indoor spaces. As one walks through the front lawn, one would hear someone talking about the ethics of artificial intelligence, why some AI algorithms are biased against say, women, and what needs to be done to address this. It will tell you should you or not trust an AI system, say which is interpreting your medical scan. The speaker here would be Nisheeth Vishnoi from Yale University.

As one moves out after interacting with the speaker, you will find yourself levitating balls using brain waves! Yes indeed, a little band worn around one’s head could detect when you are concentrating and blow air to levitate a ball. And this is just Neuroscience 1.0 – giving one a flavour of the infinite possibilities that modern neuroscience opens up. 

From the future, the festival will transport one to the past – an interesting discussion awaits you in a Roman style amphitheatre – Elephant Head for Ganesh – Did ancient Indians know organ transplantation? What is India’s contribution to science, what constitutes evidence and why the scientific works of our ancestors is relevant today. All important questions worth much discussion.

At this point, you should treat yourself with some food – but be careful not to run into a driverless vehicle– which find its own way from one point into another avoiding all obstacles. The vehicle automatically veers around an interactive digital Rangoli which has been laid on the ground. A very different art form complements the Rangoli–an exhibition of artificial intelligence generated paintings by Harshit Agarwal.

Other than 40+ scientists from multiple countries giving super interesting talks, demoing exhibits, the festival will also see TED like talks by undergrads and PhD students. These are our scientists of tomorrow – they need to know the society’s questions/problems and the society needs to use their innovations. Finally, the much-needed policy roundtables – on say, how to create an MIT in India – will be an important part.

This is how we can bring science to everyone! In a simple, entertaining and immersive way. 

Indian science is a sleeping giant – we wish to wake it up through the celebratory music of the India Science Festival.s

I am glad that Aspiring Minds (a company I co-founded) is sponsoring the Festival with its CSR funds and Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University has come on board as the academic partner. We look forward to the support of the Indian Diaspora to make the festival a big success!

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Varun Aggarwal is the co-founder of Aspiring Minds, one of the world’s largest skill assessment companies. He is also the author of the book Leading Science and Technology: India Next?. He writes poems and stories for leisure.