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Mapping An Intellectual Landscape

Shobhit Mahajan

By Dhruv Raina and S. Irfan Habib
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 233, Rs. 425.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 2 February 2005

‘Dar Bab Mirage’ (On Mirages), ‘Mirkh Sitare ke Bayan’ ( Description of Mars),and ‘Dar Bab Roshni Ke’ ( Description of Light). These were some of the articles written by an exceptional man in an Urdu newspaper in Delhi between 1845 and 1852. The author of these and many similar popular science articles was a teacher of mathematics at the Delhi College and a remarkable man by any standards. Ramchandra not only wrote seminal works in mathematics ( including a book on the method of finding maxima and minima of functions using algebra) but was also a passionate popularizer of science.   The mid and late nineteenth century was a time when the British Empire in India had been consolidated. This had brought about profound changes in the intellectual landscape especially in Delhi ( the seat of the ancient regime) and Calcutta, the emerging metropolitan capital of the empire in India. The ideology of the empire was by and large that of modernity. And science ( and its concomitant rationality) was among the primary weapons of this new intellectual offensive. Needless to say, the contact between tradition and this new-found modernity was extremely interesting.   The book under review is a collection of essays which seeks to examine various aspects of this cultural offensive during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first three essays focus on the work of Ramchandra at Delhi. Here was an exceptionally brilliant man whose life and work can throw some light on how the native intellectual elite grappled with the issue of science.   In 1843, a Vernacular Translation Society was set up at Delhi College with the purpose of translating books from English into the vernacular ( in this case mostly Urdu). It was under the society that Ramchandra started a newspaper in which he wrote a regular column on science. Later, he also started an Urdu weekly which carried articles on science and technology. In the field of mathematics, he wrote a treatise on the use of algebra to determine the extrema of functions. This work was appreciated by the leading British mathematician of that time, Augustus De Morgan and because of his efforts was published in England. From the times of Bhaskara, Algebra had always been a strong point of Indian mathematicians and it was interesting that Ramchandra sought to use algebra to tackle problems which were usually solved using the relatively recent methods of calculus.   The fourth essay, curiously titled ‘Copernicus, ...

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