My laboratory is situated in an isolated corner of the institute campus. Whenever I have to stay there in night time for some work, one or the other of the security guards turns up to check if everything is fine. That routine visit starts a scientific discussion and I find myself talking to him about lidar, sunphotometer, aerosols, dust, smoke and so on. The guard would then tell his part of story – about fog, asthma, crop failure and other issues. That first question – ‘what are you doing’ – makes way for a long conversation about weather, climate and earth’s atmosphere. Hopefully, he gets some information about the direction in which atmospheric research in our country and elsewhere is heading. Even if I am not able to pass the knowledge completely and properly, at least now he knows few technical terms and names. So, the next time when he would come across any news or discussion on air pollution or climate, the concept would not be entirely new for him. In this way he would be able to expand his knowledge from what he already knows. At least that is what I hope.
I have always felt that it is necessary to talk to common people about your research work – the person who brings tea for you, cleans your room, security guard, auto driver, hostel caretaker and others. Even if not to that extreme, then at least you should discuss your work with your spouse, your parents, your children, and friends. I have found that people are always curious and want to know what you are doing. This conversation might be a very small gesture, and may or may not have far-reaching consequences. But nearly in every field of human endeavour, progress is very slow, so your seemingly negligible contribution would go a long way in developing scientific temper in society. It is improper to say – “You won’t understand, why do you want to know?” The truth is, you do have a social obligation — you were educated so that others could learn through you. Spreading knowledge and education is part of your social responsibility.
Perhaps you are working on a very specialized topic — some radical that you are examining or some equation that you are trying to solve. This makes you think that your work is beyond the grasp of general public. Still, in most of the cases, your work would not be an isolated affair; instead it must be part of a big picture. Most of the time, this big picture is very simple to understand and appreciate, and this picture is the story that the general public wants to know. Believe me, once you successfully share your work and your knowledge with people who do not know about it, you would experience great excitement and happiness. The glow on their faces on having learned something new, the relaxing of their facial muscles on having deciphered the whole meaning of the technical jargon, a confidence igniting in them that they too are able to understand the scientific stuff — all that would bring immense satisfaction to you too. You would understand that you have made your contribution to society. In fact, it is not necessary to do it all the time at the sacrifice of your own work. On the other hand, it would be good if you never miss the opportunity whenever it presents itself.
Above I have given the ‘unselfish’ point of view. However, if you insist on ‘ismey mera kya faydaa’ (what is there in it for me?), then I would say ‘a lot’! By explaining your work to ‘outsiders’, you would come to know how clear the basics are to yourself and how strong your own foundations are. If all the time you are only talking to people from your own field — your colleagues, your professors, collaborators — you put yourself into a comfort zone where you are never challenged and never asked questions. People assume that you know the basics, you have read those books and papers, and you are clear about the how and why of your subject. Often it is not so, and quite often most of the people are fooling others and themselves. Only when a very basic question is asked to you for which you do not have the answer, do you come to realize your own ignorance. Then it becomes very easy to fill those gaps.
Unfortunately, people try to escape and hide their ignorance. I remember one incident where some students had just returned from a field trip. During the course of the experiment, they were asked by general public about the work they were doing, their instruments, measurements and so on. Let me tell you, their work was not on particle physics or quantum mechanics, which could have been very difficult to explain, though not entirely impossible. Their work was on air pollution, a topic which affects all of us and attracts general interest, thanks to the large media coverage. Yet these young researchers could not share their knowledge or information, of whatever level it might be. Not only that, they were in fact laughing over the stupidity of the whole affair later on, and questioning how could one translate technical terms into Hindi, or the local language. The whole affair was very disappointing and embarrassing. Friends, please understand that it is not a matter of simple translation of content into the local language. People these days are very open to other languages, and also to technical and scientific jargon and nomenclature. That means, words like ozone, carbon monoxide, global warming do not raise eyebrows anymore. A large credit for this increased scientific awareness in society goes to the print and electronic media. It is also important to understand the difference between being ignorant and being an idiot. People who do not know something are ignorant; however, if you explain the concept well, they would learn about it. They are not idiots. It is highly improper to boast of one’s specialized education when one is not even able to describe it to others. That simply means that one is just playing with words, and in fact does not understand oneself what does it all mean.
The task does not require any special investment of time or energy. You are only asked to look deeper into the subject that you are already studying, and to try to understand the significance of all that you are doing. That is what is essentially needed. If you don’t do it, someone else would. And the latter may not necessarily have authentic knowledge and understanding of the subject. This could result in passing wrong information, though unintentionally and unconsciously. Then why not accept your responsibility and take the position of the guide and the leader that you really are?