16th November – Western bias in Science

Western bias in Science

Recently NASA released a news about the discovery of molecular water on the sunlit side of moon by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), piggybacked on a Boeing-747 aircraft at approximately 45,000 feet above the ground. The finding of 100-412 parts per million water (equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle) in a cubic metre soil from the Clavius Crater was published in Nature Astronomy, triggering speculation about extracting water from lunar rocks for future deep space programmes.

However, beneath this euphoria was the story of the painstaking efforts by a few Indian scientists, who discovered molecular water in the sunlit part of the moon in 2010, nearly 10 years ago, before the NASA discovery.

Indian contribution to Science (Water on the Moon) –

  • Lunar rock samples brought back by Apollo-11 astronauts in 1969 were dated almost immediately by Gerry Wasserburg of the California Institute of Technology and K Gopalan, an Indian scientist of the University of California, which provided the first information that the moon and the entire solar system are as old as 4.6 billion years. The moon is made up of anorthosites, a rock composed of dry mineral of calcium aluminium silicates, and terrestrial analogues to it have been found, for example, in Tamil Nadu.
  • Scientists detected trace quantities of water in lunar glass and a mineral apatite. But these were all indirect and often controversial evidence. For example, in apatite, it was not molecular H2O but hydroxyl (OH-).
  • The search for lunar water was, however, on until 2008, when a team of young spirited scientists from Space Physics Laboratory, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, embarked upon a challenging mission of direct probing of lunar surface. It was a suicidal mission when the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) plunged into the lunar south pole and crashed after the separation from the mother spacecraft of ISRO’s Chandrayaan-I mission.
  • The entire journey of the MIP lasted 22 minutes, descending to a distance of about 2,800 km above the lunar surface. When the team extracted the data, there came a beautiful, clean mass spectrum in the 1 – 100 amu (atomic mass unit) with an H2O peak of 18 amu flashing on the screen.

Denigrating Indian contribution –

  • Little did the VSSC team realise that the western world will refuse to acknowledge such pioneering results from the completely indigenous efforts of Indian scientists. Towards the end of 2008, a manuscript explaining every feature of the experiment and the unique results was submitted to Nature for rapid communication.
  • The journal reviewers were sceptical about the contamination from outgassing of the mass spectrometer surface and the fact that it was a one-time observation. The former was no issue since the VSSC team already performed a simulation experiment to exclude possibility of contamination. And yes, impact probes are always one-time events and a developing country like India could not afford multiple attempts.
  • These replies from the CHACE team and a revision of the manuscript, however, did not cut ice with the editors of Nature. The team lost a precious year and the results were eventually published in 2010 in Planetary and Space Science. Interestingly, Chandrayaan-I had six payloads from foreign countries, including two from NASA itself.

Recent observations –

  • The observations of SOFIA were unique in the sense that it observed 6-micron band data fundamental to molecular vibration of H2O and a definitive indicator of water in the sunlit side of the moon. In 2019, nearly 10 years later, Science published a chronological order of detection of water on the moon, a kind of reluctant acknowledgement of CHACE’s contribution.
  • Today, a second generation CHACE-2 is revolving around Chandrayaan-2 in its 100-km polar lunar orbit. Nevertheless, the truth is that none of the groups working in this area have recognised the results of the earliest detection of water in the sunlit side of moon by the CHACE-I, even today.

More examples –

  • In 1895, renowned polymath Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to demonstrate radio communication with millimetre wavelengths, which form the backbone of 5G technology today. But in 1909, Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics for wireless communication. The story of S N Bose – the rejection of his work on statistics of quanta of light photons, exchanges with Albert Einstein and eventual publication of his results in Zeitschrift der Physik in 1924 — is well-known.
  • Again, pioneering work in quantum optics and coherence by E C G Sudarshan did not get due recognition and the Nobel Prize was awarded to Roy Glauber in 2005.

Conclusion –

A global study on publications in medical research showed that there is a perceived editorial bias against the researches from the less-developed world. A 2019 review by Mayo clinic also indicated similar peer review bias.

SourceThe Indian Express

QUESTION – It is argued that there is a western bias in the field of scientific discoveries. Is it correct? Support your answer with some accurate examples.

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