Book Excerpt: Instrumental Lives – An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory (Part 2)

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DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

‘Instrumental Lives – an intimate biography of an Indian laboratory’ (Routledge, xxii+126, (HB), Rs 695, ISBN: 9780367856298). To buy this book, please write to psekhsaria@gmail.com.

Note: This is an excerpt from the book Instrumental Lives – An Intimate Biography of an Indian Laboratory (Routledge, 2019) by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Book Abstract

Instrumental Lives is an account of instrument making at the cutting edge of contemporary science and technology in a modern Indian scientific laboratory. For a period of roughly two-and-half decades, starting in the late 1980s, a research group headed by CV Dharmadhikari in the physics department at the Savitribai Phule University, Pune, fabricated a range of scanning tunnelling and scanning force microscopes including the earliest such microscopes made in the country. Not only were these instruments made entirely in-house, research done using them was published in the world’s leading peer reviewed journals, and students who made and trained on them went on to become top class scientists in premier institutions.

The book uses qualitative research methods such as open-ended interviews, historical analysis and laboratory ethnography that are standard in Science and Technology Studies (STS), to present the micro-details of this instrument making enterprise, the counter-intuitive methods employed, and the unexpected material, human and intellectual resources that were mobilised in the process. It locates scientific research and innovation within the social, political and cultural context of a laboratory’s physical location and asks important questions of the dominant narratives of innovation that remain fixated on quantitative metrics of publishing, patenting and generating commerce.

The book is a story as much of the lives of instruments and their deaths as it is of the instrumentalities that make those lives possible and allow them to live on, even if with a rather precarious existence.

Introduction to Extract 

Extract 2 takes us towards the end of the book and the questions and challenges that come up after the author has a more complete story of the lab, the researchers and the fate of the lab starts to become clear. This is the moment when the way forward is not clear because the key scientist, the person who set the lab has retired and moved on. What will happen to the lab, to the instruments, to the stories, and to the future? Does the policy framework for S&T have some space for places and for situations like this one?

EXTRACT from Chapter 8

Epilogue

8.1 A conversation with a student

It was late one evening that Sumati and myself chatted and shared cups of tea in the same canteen besides the badminton court where I had first met Dharmadhikari. It had been one of my longer days in her laboratory – I had first interviewed SB Iyyer who was one of Dharmadhikari’s earliest doctoral students and then conducted a detailed interview with Sumati. Part of that interview ended up being a monologue on what my doctoral research was all about. I told her about the nature of this research, the other work that I continued to do in parallel, what I saw as the potential of STS in India and what I had learnt from this experience. It was a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere and this contributed hugely to the conversation that flowed over the late evening tea. It is a conversation I would best call a ‘ruminatory’ one – full of questions, doubts and reflections on both sides – and one that made me realise the full import of the fact that I had entered the picture here at the cusp of a very important change.

I had arrived at a time that was not just a very crucial moment of Dharmadhikari’s professional life (he had reached the age of retirement), it also marked the beginning of the end of the labs he had created many years earlier. The sense I got was that the STMs and AFMs Dharmadhikari and his students had built and Patil was working with would meet a very inglorious end. Nobody, Patil said, knew what would happen to the lab space and instruments in due course – probably a couple of years – when the lab finally ‘closes down.’

“People are just waiting to get the space,” she said, illustrating her statement with the recent example of another professor. Instruments that he had fabricated or modified in his lab were all unceremoniously removed and left unattended in the department corridors once he retired and left. Financial and material resources, I realised suddenly, were not the only constraints that scientists and researchers have to contend with. Lab space – the real estate of the S&T world – was just as scarce and contested a commodity. There are many examples, and not just from this laboratory or university where labs and the instruments made therein have met such an end. This reality had obviously been on Dharmadhikari’s mind – there was no guarantee of what would happen to the instruments once he had moved on. This, for the want of a better term, was an unexpected turn of events for me. I had had an enjoyable experience piecing together the story of these instruments, and the jigsaw was falling into place quite nicely and productively. It had been a fascinating journey to say the least and one that had thrown up numerous unexpected challenges and insights. All of this, I realised suddenly, was only part of the story. The curtains would soon be raised on act two of a drama that was still unfolding. It was conjecture on my part then, and I imagined the situation playing out from an STSers point of view. An equally exciting chapter, many chapters perhaps, were still waiting to be written. Patil and myself hypothesised possibilities in many directions – these ‘historic’ pieces of equipment could move to some new place, or they could be taken out of the lab, be left to waste in the corridor, some godown or even be scrapped, or they could find a new lease of life under a new professor/researcher who would shepherd them into the future. We also discussed briefly the existence, possibility and the need of a space like a museum where equipment of this kind could be given a decent disposal/burial if I am allowed to use those terms in this context. Even if they are not actively used, they would/should at least be available for others, particularly the next generation, to see what happened in this lab and how things were done here. It had the potential of being a huge asset to the department and to the university to showcase its achievements and its history.

References: 

Baird, Davis. (2004). Navigating Nano through Society. University of South Carolina. 

Eigler, D. M. & Schweizer, E. K. (1990, April 5). Positioning single atoms with a scanning tunnelling microscope. Nature 344, 524–526 (1990) doi:10.1038/344524a0

Latour B. & Woolgar S (1986). Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press. 

Traweek, Sharon. (1988). Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Images: Pankaj Sekhsaria

Cover Image: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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