Rocket Boys — Let’s embrace scientific temper again

When I saw the advertisement for the web-series Rocket Boys on Facebook, it intrigued me and added to my mental watch list as I am always interested in science based stories. I kept putting it off since I do not subscribe to SonyLiv, but after a lot of rave reviews and spirited recommendations by colleagues and friends, I finally succumbed to pressure and gave in. I signed up for SonyLiv (in the USA, you can sign up for it from sling.com) and strapped myself on the couch for the ride. Rocket Boys is the fascinating story of science in India that starts from its pre-independence days and traces it all the way to India’s forays into space research. It follows the life of visionary scientists of India: Dr. Homi Bhaha, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and to some extent Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, who I think might play a more prominent role in season 2. Rocket Boys (not to be confused with Homer Hickam’s story that was made into a fine Hollywood film in its own right) follows the scientific beginnings of a nation that is emerging out of its shell after years of colonial rule and examines the lives of its key architects up close and personal. It not only extols their foresight and vision but gives us a glimpse into their family lives and what shaped them as people and how they shaped the young nation in turn. The story starts in the 1940s (in the middle of WWII) and season 1 ends in sort of a cliffhanger in the 60s. During this crucial period of the country’s development, we are utterly transfixed by the scientific endeavors, political machinations, and audacious nation building ideas on display. As the series takes us through the development of the Indian nuclear program to Indian aerospace industries, we get to travel with the prominent political, scientific figures of the day, their friendship, determination, sacrifice and more importantly grit as they lay foundations for modern India as we know it today. You can’t help but fall in love with the dignified Sarabhai with his quiet demeanor and the bon vivant, dapper Bhabha who exudes sophisticated air with his temperamental nature and European suits. Although it’s easy to take everything at its face value, while watching this series, the one thing that went on in my mind is: What makes innovation really possible?

We’ve all lapped up the stories of a lone inventor toiling away in a secret, solitary lab suddenly emerging with a eureka scream. In fact, if we read any of biographies of pioneers including Eastman (creator of Kodak camera), Carrier (pioneer of Air Conditioning) or even Steve Jobs et al, they do fill us with a sense of awe and admiration for these pioneers who thrived and achieved their dreams despite all odds. Even the media loves to report on individuals who made it big with their singular focus and pull themselves up by their bootstraps approach. When we zoom out to understand what really makes innovations possible, curious patterns emerge. Researchers like Eric von Hippel of MIT long talked about collaboration and democratizing innovation better than command-control organizations or even so-called “Free market capitalism”. If we leave aside the now-famous errors (Joseph Priestley’s discovery of oxygen) or serendipitous reveries (Kekule’s vision of Benzene’s molecular structure) that led to ground breaking innovations/discoveries, there are some deliberate phenomenon that can be observed in nature and also fostered by man.

One of the main engines of innovation is a network, more specifically a fluid network. Origin of life on earth itself can be traced back to not only the nature of carbon but to water that makes connections possible. The randomizing environment of the water is as much responsible for the connections as the capacity of carbon to make new connections. Computer scientist Christopher Langton talked about generative powers of this network in his seminal paper “Life at the Edge of Chaos”. It is an observable fact that humans thrived and innovation flourished when we built the first cities because of the flow of information and the spillover that occurs naturally when humans of varying intellect and expertise interact with each other. This occurred in northern Italy, the birthplace of renaissance and again the coffee houses of Victorian England and Vienna. The same repeated in MIT’s legendary building 20 and Microsoft’s building 99, two examples of contemporary innovation in various fields. We see this pattern repeat in Rocket Boys when all the great scientific minds of India converge in Indian Institute of Sciences(Bangalore) under the august leadership of Sir C.V. Raman, the only Nobel laureate who won his Nobel exclusively working in India. People like Homi Bhabha and Sarabhai gravitated towards IISc in the 40s and their collaboration fostered an environment that gave birth to research into Cosmic Rays, Nuclear Physics in those nascent days of scientific breakthrough just like MIT’s Building 20. In Rocket Boys, we see stalwarts like Raman, Bhabha, Sarabhai kibitzing with each other discussing world changing ideas. Bhabha’s Cosmic Ray Unit thrived amongst the denizens of IISc and laid the basis for Indian space research and nuclear program.

I read Amrita Shah’s biography of Vikram Sarabhai’s biography and learned about Homi Bhabha a few years ago, and I noticed the sheer number of initiatives and varied talents and interests of these two people. The ability to get inspired and borrow concepts from one field to another is well documented in history, for example Gutenberg borrowed a mature technology, “the press” from another field (wine making) and adapted to printing, because even before Gutenberg showed up, the moveable type, the ink and the paper were invented and developed independent of each other. Gutenberg’s genius was in combining these and putting them to work to solve a different problem. Stephen Jay Gould, the popular science author and researcher coined a term to describe this, he calls it “exaptation”. The concept of exaptation is crucial in rebutting the so-called Intelligent Design against Darwinian natural selection (natural selection doesn’t know it’s trying to build a wing but feathers that were originally adapted for warmth were then exapted for flight). Stanford researcher Martin Ruef discovered that diverse, horizontal social networks that extended outside a group or even an individual’s mind were crucial for innovation. Examining the lives of some of the greatest minds in history including Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, Joseph Priestly, the sheer number of projects and fields they were interested in is not only daunting but mind boggling. These people bounced between not only various scientific fields but philosophy, arts and literature as freely as one would interact with groups at a party. But these networks of enterprise certainly helped them in their primary projects in more ways than one. In Rocket Boys, we can see that both Bhabha and Sarabhai were ardent fans of arts, music, drama, opera, poetry and Bhabha was an avid violinist. These were truly renaissance men. Just going by Wiki, the number of initiatives and projects Sarabhai had was over 35 in his lifetime. They say chance favors the prepared mind, but author Steven Johnson posits that “Chance favors the connected mind” and I tend to believe he is right.

Though we want to give these Rocket Boys all the credit that is due for their vision, ingenuity, and accomplishments, we need to accept the influence of various innovations, inventions and discoveries around the world that guided their work. For example, without the pioneering work of American space program (the original seven, including Abdul Kalam who pioneered the Indian space program were trained at NASA in 1962), even the Manhattan project, Bhabha and Sarabhai wouldn’t have been able to launch their institutions and get their mission on track. If we take an example of modern day, without the Internet, GPS and iPhone, Uber wouldn’t have been possible. To open the door for Uber, other doors in the palace of innovation had to be opened first. Scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations, he calls them as “adjacent possible”. Without the ecosystems being present, if we bring an innovation or product to market, it would be “ahead of its time”, which usually means a failure (Apple’s Newton PDA comes to mind).

Both Bhabha and Sarabhai went to elite schools in India and studied and researched at famous labs (Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, IISc, University of Calcutta) in their lifetimes. When they returned to India, due to their access and the unlimited opportunities they saw in the developing nation, they proposed and built a number of research institutions. Their motivations seem almost prescient and were not carved out of hubris or avarice, but to serve the greater good of the nation, and without their austere approach, modern India would’ve been hard to imagine. They were instrumental in conceiving the Atomic Energy Commission, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, now ubiquitous Indian Institute of Management, and INCOSPAR the predecessor to Indian Space Research Organization to name a few. They understood and convinced people like the Tata family, Nehru, the importance of building platforms that serve as the ecosystem and promote the serendipitous and liquid nature of networking and collaboration to produce something tangible. In nature, as Darwin himself noted, the presence of coral reefs and the platform it provided served as the basis for many of the complex organisms he observed and documented. Similarly, some of the research institutions that were backed by Sarabhai and Bhabha served India and themselves well.

A fictional character named Dr Raza is introduced in Rocket Boys who serves as an occasional antagonist and a voice of dissent in the otherwise quaint and progressive environment. Though he is not actively truculent, he does serve as a wedge on Bhabha’s side. While Bhabha and Sarabhai are well connected (they were both affluent and friends with Nehru and powerful people of the day) and sophisticated, Raza comes from a poor background (almost a street urchin as per his account) and he laments in one of the scenes when he tries to supplant Homi Bhabha, ”when do people like me are even given access to these rooms where decisions are being made”, which resonates well with anyone. Bhabha‘s Parsi background, and Sarabhai’s money did make a difference in early Indian scientific policies and the fact that they both enjoyed a friendship with elites of the day didn’t hurt either. Malcolm Gladwell credits their “outsider” status to the apparent success of groups such as jews in Europe or Parsis in India and I think that makes a lot of sense when you think more about it. The only thing I couldn’t fathom was why they had to make that character a muslim because based on his credentials and background (depicted in the series), he is clearly a stand-in for another renowned scientist of the day Meghnath Saha whose claim to fame was the Saha Ionization Equation. They could’ve used Saha’s name but I don’t know what went in the minds of writers. Though Raza raises a few relevant anti-elite establishment points, he ends up hoisted by his own petard (at least in the series) but such is the fate of a non-protagonist :> To entice the story, the series does indulge in some conspiracy theories that include an agent provocateur in the guise of a journalist, the CIA who are trying to sabotage the Indian nuclear program, even if the details are sketchy, the principle does hold good given the meddling of CIA across the world’s political landscape.

Going back to the series, the series opens in media res, amidst the turmoil of war with China and the story is told in flashbacks and flash forwards that serves the narrative well. Though it’s set in the 40s, the Indian Independence movement is just a bulge in the hieroglyphics of the show’s narrative. One only has to look at Matthew Weiner and Shonda Rhimes to understand how important the role of a show-runner/creator is to a series and it’s new to Indian TV. We have to appreciate the creator Nikhil Advani for bringing this story to life in a fitting format, that is a web series. I don’t think even a 3 hour film would’ve done justice. Jim Sarbh plays Homi Bhabha with aplomb. The series also showcases the mentor/critic relationship between Bhabha and Sarabhai and later between Sarabhai and Kalam. Their very nature of firm-guidance combined with squabbling gives birth to many of the seminal ideas. At one point, when Bhabha convinces the Indian AEC to pursue the atomic bomb, Sarabhai walks away warning Bhabha that he is courting disaster with that kind of talk and we will have to wait till season 2 to see how it all turns out, though if you are familiar with the history, you don’t have to wait with a bated breath. I liked Jim Sarbh’s performance in Made in Heaven before and I like him here as well. Ishwak Singh fits the role of Vikram Sarabhai to a T. His features, body language, and speech are utterly transformed compared to what he did in Patal Lok. We can almost hear the yearning when these characters speak of scientific pursuit and not giving up on their dreams at various points. Regina Cassandra emotes well with her eyes and fewer dialogs. The production design, music, writing are all top notch, not to mention the performances of Jim Sarbh, Ishwak Singh and Regina Cassandra. Though Abdul Kalam’s character is only peripheral to the proceedings, the actor who plays him does make an impact, and I hope we see more of him as the new seasons unfold. The attention to detail in production design, the costumes, the locales is very evident as the story takes shape but sticking to the sepia tone seems to be a copout to me.

Make no mistake, Rocket Boys is an endearing biographical account and doesn’t overtly emphasize these ideas I outlined but it’s not very hard not to see them. Most important lesson of all, the importance of science and scientific pursuit for the nation. Indian constitution framers understood the importance of this and the Fundamental duty Article 51 A (h) states, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reform”. India as an independent nation started well on prioritizing science and needs to continue to do so. Based on the research of Yochai Benkler, it becomes clear that capitalism is not the only driver of innovation; rather the decentralized and non-market environments drove most growth in the last 200 years. These are not top-down government programs or even large corporate R&D labs, rather driven by open architecture of networks like the Internet. While the rate of venture capital in India is skyrocketing, most of the successful startups so far we see are either poor facsimiles of western startups or scaled-down, Indianized innovations adapted to local markets. Now that we have Indian versions of each of the successful startups out there, hopefully the new innovations rise beyond commoditization and break new frontiers.

Fun fact: Can you guess how many times God or religion is invoked in this brilliant series? Zero (if you discount the one time exasperated invective uttered by Bhabha). I felt it’s important to mention this given what’s happening on fake spiritual channels on YouTube and WhatsApp university where pseudoscience peddlers are trying to mix up religion, spirituality and science and even going as far as vedas to say our ancient Rishis have figured out everything. It is a corrosive environment out there where educated individuals are falling prey to this nonsense and dregs of their stupidity will spill over into education and public policy, as evidenced in other countries. We still have to continue our pursuit of science and technology, not rely on mythology or conjecture or post hoc analysis, rather on solid foundations based on evidence lest our commitment to scientific temper wither away. We can be proud of Indian achievements by taking inspiration from the likes of Aryabhatta, Susruta, CV Raman, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Abdul Kalam who pursued real science not just some archaic apparitions. Am I saying sci-fi or imagination doesn’t have any value? Absolutely not as long as we recognize them as fiction and start from there. I think this series does this very well not with some garrulous speeches, rather by showcasing the roots of Indian scientific glory.

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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