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'My writings battle superstitions'
Not all scientists turn to popular science writing, and of those that do, not all are successful. But you have enjoyed considerable success in the field. What led you to popular science writing and also SF?
I was inspired by my research guide Fred Hoyle who successfully combined a distinguished research career with popular science writing/lecturing as well as science fiction. I began with a popular article in the UK magazine Discovery and found that my writing was favourably received. I then wrote for the New Scientist and those articles were also successful. When I returned to India, I began by regularly writing for Science Today. Gradually I began writing and lecturing in Marathi and later, in Hindi. These attempts also received good response from readers and listeners.
As for my writing SF, it started with an interesting incident. When I returned to India in 1972, I was contemplating writing an SF story as an entry for the annual competition of Marathi Vidnyan Parishad (MVP), a Mumbai-based science forum, but could not bring myself to do so. Once, while attending a seminar in Ahmedabad in 1974, I got so bored by the lecture that I began to write an SF story in Marathi to while away time. I completed it in a couple of days and decided to send it to an MVP SF competition. However, as my name was well known to the forum, I decided to use a different name and address. I also got my wife to copy out the story in case MVP officials were familiar with my handwriting. The story Krishnavivar (Black Hole) won the first prize and the writer "Narayan Vinayak Jagtap" (the reverse of the initials of my real name) was invited by the MVP to attend the ceremony at its annual meet. It was only then that I revealed my identity. Coincidentally, the annual meet of the Marathi litterateurs was held soon after and its president Durga Bhagwat referred to my book in glowing terms as having set a new trend in SF writing in Marathi. This unexpected testimonial encouraged me take up SF writing more seriously.
Compared to the West, consciousness or even awareness about science is very poor in India. How do you choose what to write? How do you pitch it?
Despite his/her superstitions, the layperson is generally interested in astronomy and can appreciate facts about the heavens. Among those who are educated, there is no significant difference in the understanding of science between India and the West. Sometimes in villages I may need to simplify my talks but the interest levels among the audience is quite high. My writing is broadly aimed against superstitions. I have discovered that despite the growing numbers of the educated, the typical Indian continues to be superstitious. What is alarming is that the new generation is more superstitious than the old.
Is science getting dumbed down, sensationalised by the media?
The media prefers to sensationalise or glorify pseudo-science and superstitions. There are astrology programmes on most channels but how many of those present programmes on science popularisation?
Just as opportunities for science writers have multiplied, so for those who are opposed to science, either ideologically or through belief in anti-scientific stuff (like Intelligent Design, for instance). How is this challenge being met? Who is winning the war?
The best that science can do is to present facts to debunk pseudo-science. Unfortunately this effort is grossly inadequate. I wish more scientists participated in communication programmes.
Do you consider science fiction part of science communication?
I do. I regard it as a tool for making the average reader aware of science, a little wiser about how it influences societal progress and how one should cope with the ill-effects of its indiscriminate use.
Who do you rate as the five best SF writers?
Jules Verne, H G Wells, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Hoyle.
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