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  • Burdens of the Scientific RevolutionEuro/West-Centrism, Black Boxed Machines, and the (Post) Colonial Present
abstract

How is it possible that past technoscientific research in India does not serve as a sluice for circulations of technoscience even within India? Why do technoscientific artifacts and knowledge continue to flow largely through the West? The answer to these and related questions, I argue, lies in the entanglement of technoscientific practices in India with Orientalist historiography of the origin of modern science. Such an Orientalist construction forms the basis of the diffusion model and constitutes technologies and societies as black boxes, which, as I show in this article, is strikingly on display in the historical accounts of NMR and MRI machines at even the best institutions and laboratories in India. I thus propose a deconstructive-empirical approach to unravel the enduring implications of Orientalist construction of the origin of modern science.

"It was [19]82 or 83 [when] the very first slides were projected in India by a Britisher." This is how N. Lakshmipathy, former Director of the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) in Delhi, recounted his first encounter with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging (Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, was called NMR then).1 A few years later, in 1986, INMAS became the first Indian institution to import an MRI machine.

Nearly a decade before Lakshmipathy's encounter with NMR imaging through a British scientist, scientists in India were among the first to hear about the possibility of NMR imaging when Paul Lauterbur, who eventually [End Page 1059] received the Nobel Prize for the invention of MRI, presented a paper in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in 1974. Going back another two to three decades, the trajectory of technoscientific exchange seems no different. S. S.Dharmatti, who established the NMR research center at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1953, was initiated in the field of NMR while working as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. And G.Suryan, another prominent Indian NMR scientist, recalled how his research was inspired by the work of I. I. Rabiin the 1940s.2

The history of NMR and MRI, which coincides with the history of independent India, seems an ideal illustration of diffusion of ideas and machines from the West.3 How do we explain the absence and erasures of multi-directional exchanges of technoscience in postcolonial India? Such absences and erasures are in part historiographic and in part examples of technoscientific practices in India. The history of bricolage and tinkering with technologies and the experimental setup of NMR, which was the norm until the late 1950s and thereafter continued as local practices in some laboratories, has been rarely, if ever, recorded. However, it is also a fact that tinkering and bricolage are not highly regarded in the work of scientists.4 A senior NMR scientist told me, for example, how NMR and MRI research in the 1990s and thereafter became a lot easier because "work . . . [was] more routine . . . [because] the systems themselves were looked after." He added, "The machine is there to help you all the time." In short, [End Page 1060] technoscience—the messy, dirty, and unexpected elements of laboratory practice—is itself sidelined within scientific work.5 Consequently, as I show in the second section of this article, the NMR and MRI machines become black boxes (and this is not unique to NMR and MRI).

The history of NMR and MRI, nevertheless, cannot be simplistically read as yet another example of non-Western actors as passive recipients. As several historians of science and technology have suggested, we need to move beyond the "metropole-centered view" and map the "cultural borderlands," the "extraimperial connections," the "inter-cultural contact zones," and the "diversity and richness of multiple cultures."6 I situate my own work within this emerging subfield that seeks to uncover the history of diverse and hierarchical polycentric exchanges of technoscience.

However, one should not be too quick to dismiss the enduring and insidious impact of Orientalist and Euro/West-centric discourses that constitute our (post) colonial present. I therefore propose a deconstructiveempirical approach using Jacques Derrida's strategy of "double gesture": "overturn the traditional concept of history, but at the same time mark the interval, take care that by virtue of the overturning . . . the interval not be reappropriated"—for a discursive clearing to open new possibilities of historical and sociological investigations of hierarchical and polycentric circulations of technoscience.7

The aforementioned brief snippets of NMR and MRI history in India are over-determined by the role of "great initiators" (inventors and discoverers) in that they exemplify the diffusion model. For diffusionists, as Bruno Latour argues, the idea (that is seen to constitute an invention or a discovery) follows a dotted line that passive social groups either resist or adopt. Consequently, in a diffusion model "society is simply a medium of different resistances through which ideas and machines travel."8 The role of "great initiators" is, however, doubly reinforced—through the originary histories of particular discoveries and inventions and that of the origin of modern science in the West during the Scientific Revolution.9 This double reinforcing of originary histories forms the point de capiton of the diffusion model.

In this article, my concern is twofold. First, I argue that the vis inertia [End Page 1061] of facts, which forms the basis of the diffusion model and through which the actions of humans (other than initiators) and machines are erased, as Latour suggests, is crucially dependent upon the "othering" of the non-West. That is, the constitution of the non-West as the other is central to the framing of the origin and diffusion of modern science, and this is evident in the historiographic construction of the Scientific Revolution. Second, I explore the implications of such othering on bricolage and tinkering with technologies and their historiography in India. Specifically, I highlight the subservience of technology (artifacts) to science (ideas) and relegation of the messy and dirty everyday technoscientific practices to a secondary activity that is beneath scientific work in India.

Right from the time when the first national laboratories were established in postcolonial India, the above-mentioned dualist separation was a bone of contention. But soon "the hegemony of the paper-producing scientist became complete."10 In his historical sociology of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Shiv Visvanathan quotes T. V. Ramamurthy, who had led the radio components group at the NPL: "They [some of the scientists at NPL] were fascinated by the new theories and ideas floating around. . . . Any contribution to technology, they felt, would put them out of the science race."11 Several decades after Ramamurthy's claim, I often witnessed similar entrenchment in basic or pure science at the elite Indian laboratories. One striking consequence of such a dualist separation, as I show in this article, is the black boxing of technologies.

This article is divided into two sections and a conclusion. In the first section I present a deconstructive reading of Herbert Butterfield's The Origins of Modern Science.12 It is widely acknowledged that Butterfield's "'general historian's' view of a cultural change that he referred to as the Scientific Revolution . . . proved to be extraordinarily influential, deeply shaping the work of historians of science in the postwar years."13 There have been several reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution after Butterfield's intervention.14 My concern is limited to deconstructing the othering of the non-West in Butterfield's framing of the origin of modern science [End Page 1062] and to showing how this othering is central to his presentation of a diffusionist circulation of science—from the center (Europe/West) to the periphery (non-West).

I am neither suggesting that Butterfield's lectures/book marks the birth of such an Orientalist historiography, nor am I arguing that deconstruction of the Scientific Revolution has to necessarily accompany investigations of history of technology in the West and the non-West. Instead, I consider Butterfield's book, which emerged out of the lectures he delivered for the History of Science Committee in Cambridge in 1948—just a year after Britain had lost its prized colonial possession of India—an important (post) colonial moment in history of science and technology that effectively brought together the two underlying principles of the diffusion model: Euro/West-centrism and privileging of science (as ideas) over technology.15

A deconstructive reading of Butterfield's framing of the origin of modern science allows us, as I show in the second section, to better understand a strange aspect of historiography of technology and laboratory practices in India (and perhaps other postcolonial societies). On the one hand, there is almost no documentation of history of cutting edge technologies such as NMR and MRI. For example, as I have pointed out elsewhere, I found only a one-page note on the history of NMR/MRI in India prior to starting my study.16 There was not even any documented evidence of when the first MRI machine was installed in India. On the other hand, the elite institutions in India where NMR and MRI research were first started—institutions that are still on the forefront of research in the field of NMR and MRI in India and internationally—present their history by prominently, albeit briefly, highlighting the adoption and use of these technologies.

The prominent display of such cutting-edge machines in the historical accounts of these institutions serves to bear witness to the institution's and its scientists' (and through them, the Indian nation's) overcoming of lag and lack in relation to science produced in the West.17 Humans are mentioned in these historical accounts; however, that is done largely to highlight the role of Western scientists, high-ranking politicians, or other eminent persons in establishing the laboratory/institution. As such, these historical accounts exemplify the Euro/West-centric diffusion model of science that has [End Page 1063] commonly emphasized establishment of scientific institutions, and through them the spread of scientific values and culture, as central to technological research and innovation. What is missing in these historical accounts, which are displayed on the institutions' websites and in their pamphlets and reports, is almost any discussion of the history of emergent technoscientific practices in that laboratory/institution.18 In short, the technologies are black boxed, and as such they become further evidence of lag and lack in India. Finally, in the concluding section, I show why and how a deconstruction of Orientalist historiography of modern science is necessary to unravel a vibrant history of NMR/MRI research in India and its polycentric circulations.

The Origin of Modern Science, the Euro/West-Centric Divide, and the Diffusion Model

Herbert Butterfield's lectures on the Scientific Revolution, which were later published as a book titled The Origins of Modern Science, although contested, have been widely influential.19 The opening sentence of the book leaves little to doubt that Butterfield's concern is with "the part played by the sciences in the story of our Western civilization" (emphasis added).20 The history of the Scientific Revolution, for Butterfield, is history of Europe and the West.21 Other parts of the world, which rarely find any reference in most of the book (except in one chapter) are presented as sites of explorations and discoveries for the European/Western people such as Dante.22

Butterfield devotes one full chapter to Europe's relationship with other parts of the world, particularly Asia, through which he also explains the politico-economic reasons for Europe's emergence as the site of the Scientific Revolution. Interestingly, this chapter is titled "The Place of the Scientific Revolution in the History of Western Civilization."23 The title and [End Page 1064] the focus of the chapter highlight the central role of the non-Western Other in constituting the place of the Scientific Revolution in the history of Western civilization. This particular chapter of Butterfield's book was, until recently, according to Floris Cohen, "one of the very few specific, historically informed treatments" on the role of the "emergence of modern science" that explained "the differentiation of the West from the Rest."24

Butterfield starts the chapter by invoking "the passion of Ranke" "to seek to put . . . 'Universal History'" in place of "whatever period or episode in history he might be studying."25 He also aligns his concern with Ranke's goal of universal history. Such transference from particular to universal history, as Edward Said, citing Ranke, has pointed out, could be an Orientalist emplotment strategy whereby "an implicit social evaluation" is transferred to a grand cultural generalization. Said writes, "General cultural historians as respected as Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt assailed Islam as if they were dealing not so much with an anthropomorphic abstraction as with a religio-political culture about which deep generalizations were possible and warranted."26 Butterfield historicizes the East (and the West) similarly:

An important factor in the decline of the East and the rise of the Western leadership, however, was one which has been unduly overlooked in our historical teaching. . . . From the fourth to the twelfth century one of the most remarkable aspects of the story . . . is the conflict between Europe and Asia, a conflict in which down to the time of Newton's Principia it was the Asiatics who were on the aggressive (emphasis added).27

Butterfield continually presents historical generalizations about the "Asiatics" and the East to show how Western Europe was uniquely placed for the emergence of modern science:

These Asiatic invaders ["beginning with the Huns and continuing with Avars . . . these hordes – generally Turkish or Mongol in character"] had something to do with the downfall of Rome and the western empire. . . . Because of their activity over so many centuries it was the western half of Europe that emerged into modern History as the effective heir and legatee of the Graeco-Roman civilisation.28 [End Page 1065]

Intrinsic to Butterfield's historiographic emplotment of the Scientific Revolution is framing of Western Europe as the true heir of Greco-Roman thought. The "Asiatics" and the "Ancients," according to Butterfield, contribute little to further development of Greco-Roman thought. The role of Arab and other non-Western scholars in this regard, he states, was "purely literary transmission."29 On the one hand, he argues, "From the tenth century A.D. these Asiatics . . . were never able to break into the West again" leading to "restoration of stability" and, as a result, "Western civilization makes its remarkable advance."30 On the other hand, he writes, "There does not seem to be any sign that the ancient world . . . was moving towards anything like the scientific revolution." Butterfield thus goes on to conclude, "The scientific revolution we must regard, therefore, as a creative product of the West" (emphasis added).

One can point to a lack of historiographic rigor in Butterfield's claims.31 It can also be argued that Butterfield's historiography of the Scientific Revolution as a "clash of civilizations" is historically inaccurate and that social constructions of non-Western societies have shifted through history. Copernicus, whose heliocentric theory is often seen as a historical marker of the Scientific Revolution, for example, discussed transition of societies very differently.32 Nevertheless, I would like to focus on the inherent contradictions in the discursive structure of Butterfield's placing of the scientific revolution in history through the othering of the non-West.33

While the construction of the origin of modern science required framing [End Page 1066] the non-West as the aggressive and hermetically separated other, the construction of modern science as universal knowledge and Europe/West as its center necessitated framing of the non-West as the passive and malleable other. Butterfield writes,

And when we speak of Western civilization being carried to an oriental country like Japan in recent generations, we do not mean Graeco-Roman philosophy and humanist ideals, we do not mean the Christianising of Japan, we mean the science, the modes of thought and all the apparatus of civilization which were beginning to change the face of the West.34

"The result," Butterfield states, "was the emergence of a kind of Western civilization there as it operates on tradition here—dissolving it and having eyes for nothing save a future of brave new worlds."35 Such characterization of diffusion of modern science and "Western civilization" leaves us with an obvious question: Why can't what emerges in Japan be Japanese science as was argued to be the case with modern science in the context of Western Europe? That is, Western as well as non-Western sciences become provincial and local and we are left with no center. This contradiction cannot be resolved except by positing a supplement.

Technology and experiment are presented as supplements of scientific ideas and knowledge. Butterfield discusses the role of experiment in the Middle Ages and later, particularly those conducted by Galileo, to highlight the emergence of the experimental method in Europe in the seventeenth century:

Indeed, the modern law of inertia . . . was hardly a thing which the human mind would ever reach by an experiment, or by any attempt to make observation more photographic. . . . It depended on the trick of seeing a purely geometrical body sailing off into a kind of space which was empty and neutral utterly indifferent to what was happening.36

Technologies and technoscientific practice, thus, have value only when they are expressed through an idealized experimental method: "Other objects which might be unamenable to such mathematical treatment . . . might be translated or transposable into something else . . . at a later stage of the argument."37 Butterfield leaves little doubt that the history of technology [End Page 1067] is merely a predicate of history of science. He writes, "It is not until the seventeenth century that the resort to experiment comes to be tamed and harnessed . . . and is brought under direction, like a great machine getting into gear."38

Technology and machines, Latour suggests, are "made invisible by . . . [their] own success."39 However, opening the black box of technology shows that "nonhumans escape the strictures of objectivity twice; they are neither objects known by a subject nor objects manipulated by masters (nor, of course, are they master themselves)."40 Black boxing of technologies and laboratory practices thus becomes necessary to overcome the contradiction inherent in the centering of science in Western Europe. And this requires further supplementing through concepts such as the "maze of ingenuity" or, in Butterfield's terms, "philosophe movement."41

The chapter that precedes the one I have been deconstructing is titled, not surprisingly, "The Transition to the Philosophe Movement."42 In this chapter, Butterfield argues how the achievements of the Scientific Revolution led to "the modern outlook and the birth of the philosophe movement."43 In short, societies themselves are black boxed, lest they escape the strictures of Euro/West-centric construction of modern science.

Consequently, diffusion of science is made dependent upon a broader transition of society and has to be accompanied by Western "modes of thought and apparatus of civilization." The Indian government and many social reform organizations in postcolonial India have continually emphasized and worked toward such a broader transformation (e.g., spread of scientific temper is one of the fundamental duties enshrined in the Indian constitution). In the process technologies are black boxed, thereby obscuring multiplicity and open-endedness of technoscience and their polycentric histories that cut across West/non-West techno-cultural divides. And we are left with a (post) colonial present in which the efforts to transcend Euro/West-centrism continually pull these societies into that very structure. Such an exercise, however, is not simply reflective of the dominance of Euro/West-centric discourse. The power of the Euro/West-centric discourse [End Page 1068] lies in its appropriation by the elites in India to present the authority of science and that of the Indian nation.44 In the following, I show how black boxed technologies are deployed in this contradictory process.

Black Boxed MRI and NMR Machines and their Alienated Histories in India

The Department of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), arguably the most reputable medical institution in India, starts its introduction thus: "The Department of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) was created in February 1992 and formally inaugurated in March 1993 by Prof. Richard R. Ernst, Nobel Laureate."45 This statement is not unusual, except for the emphasis on formal inauguration. Such an emphasis highlights the importance given to, on the one hand, formal establishment of institutions and, on the other, association with a Nobel Laureate. Although association with a Nobel Prize winner would be valued at any laboratory across the world, it is worth noting that in this case it is limited to inauguration of the department and does not include collaboration in research.

"There is no sense," Latour argues, "in which humans may be said to exist as humans without entering into commerce with what authorizes and enables them to exist (that is, to act)."46 In the Department of NMR's description of itself, the work of Indian scientists and administrators is erased—they are forsaken from their actions and networks.47 The Department of NMR, as P. Raghunathan, its first head, informed me during an interview, emerged as a result of concerted efforts of several Indian scientists and policy makers to create an institution in which multi-disciplinary collaboration in MRI and MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy) research could be fostered.48

The department from the start sought to move beyond only clinical applications of MRI and MRS. It was mandated that the head of this department had to be a research scholar with a Ph.D. rather than a doctor with an MD or MS. The department was also part of a collaborative group of six institutions that explored the possibility of manufacturing an indigenous limb-specific MRI in the 1990s. The efforts to build an indigenous MRI did not ultimately succeed. However, none of the details that highlight [End Page 1069] the work of scientists to un-black box the machines and create new trajectories in MRI research find mention in the department description. Instead there is a brief statement: "A joint meeting of the expert and management committees set the guidelines for 60% usage of machine time for clinical work, and 40% for development MRI/MRS research work."49

What about the machines? How are they presented in the department description? The first sentence, which highlighted the creation and formal inauguration of the department, is followed by a declaration: "The Department has two 3.0 Tesla and one 1.5 Tesla whole body MRI scanner which are used for patient care and research." Soon thereafter, a short paragraph briefly describes few other machines that are available at the department: "In addition, the Department has a 7.0 Tesla animal MR scanner for imaging and spectroscopy of small animals (rodents, mice, etc.) and vertical bore 16.4 Tesla FT NMR spectrometer with micro-imaging."50

The department description continues by further elaborating on the availability of the machines and when they were acquired:

The first phase (Phase-I) of the creation of the Department of NMR was accomplished with the procurements and installation of (i) a Bruker "BIOSPEC" 47/40 animal research MRI/MRS scanner (functional from March, 1993), and (ii) a Siemens "MAGNETOM" 63/84-SP whole body clinical MRI/MRS scanner (functional form October, 1993). Under phase-II, a vertical bore 9.4 T FT NMR spectrometer was installed in April 1996 for multidisciplinary "molecular level" NMR investigation of cells, tissues, etc. Under phase-III, the department procured and installed the second MR scanner (1.5 T Siemens MRI/MRS scanner, Sonata) and recently upgraded the old MAGNETOM MR scanner to a new 1.5 T Siemens MRI/MRS scanner (Avanto). Recently, the two MRI 1.5 Tesla systems have been upgraded to 3.0 Tesla MRI systems.51

There are no other details about the department except one sentence on the support of several Government of India agencies, namely the Department of Science & Technology, the Department of Biotechnology, and the Department of Health & Family Welfare, for the creation of the Department of NMR at AIIMS. The description of the machines—with their specificities, including the name of the manufacturers—is evidently the exclusive focus of the historical account about the department (no other historical account is publicly available).

These machines are presented as ideal black boxed objects. In contrast to "real artifacts [that] are always parts of institutions, trembling in their mixed status as mediators, mobilizing faraway lands and people . . . not [End Page 1070] knowing if they are composed of one or of many," the machines at the Department of NMR at AIIMS are presented as "detached from a collective life," and as such are "buried in the ground."52 In fact, it would be more appropriate to see these machines as monuments signifying the diffusion of modern science, rather than simply being buried in the ground.53

Such black boxing of machines forces us to rethink Latour's claim that "we live in collectives, not in societies."54 Evidently, based on descriptions of the department and its research, the machines and the scientists are living in a society in which opening of black boxed technologies are not valued. History and sociology of machines, people, and science at AIIMS, as well as at other laboratories and institutions, reflect impoverished and alienated lives within collectives. This is so because of their reification within the society. However, such reification does not mean that the history and sociality that I am unraveling is false. Black boxed machines in postcolonial India, in contrast to the Latourian claim, show that society can be socially constructed. This is made possible by "recruiting socialized nonhumans," which, rather than disturbing the social construction, further exemplify it.55

Ironically, in spite of prominent display of a number of cutting-edge machines, the Department of NMR's description of itself is an example of lag that has been commonly seen as characteristic of technoscientific practices in non-Western societies. The highlighting of inauguration by Richard Ernst and of machines imported from Western countries leaves little doubt in this regard. Ernst, as a Nobel Prize winner and a Western scientist, becomes an empty signifier that signals dependence on diffusion of knowledge from the West. The role of Indians and India that is considered worth presenting is limited to provision of funds to establish the institution and in deciding how these technologies can be adopted for research and diagnosis.

The Department of NMR at AIIMS has indeed very innovatively adopted imported technologies to conduct research on breast cancer detection, chemical lateralization of the brain, etc.56 But, as I have shown elsewhere, [End Page 1071] AIIMS's scientists have rarely opened the black boxed machines and, not surprisingly, their research has often involved disconnected trails.57 The case of the Department of NMR is not unique. Other laboratories in India also exemplify the Euro/West-centric techno-cultural divide, and they too black box the technologies even though, just like AIIMS, they are conducting research in frontier areas.

"The first ever MRI scanner in this country (and South East Asia) was acquired by INMAS in 1986 and from then onwards important contributions in neuroinfections, brain tumours and other neurological disorders have been made in the field of MR imaging."58 This web statement about the NMR Research Centre at INMAS on the occasion of a 2008 special symposium on advanced MR applications highlights the pioneering role of INMAS in initiating MRI and MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy) research. N. Lakshmipathy, who was the director of INMAS when the first MRI machine was installed, told me how it was acquired after he heard about it from a British scientist. He also recalled a much longer historical arc of the NMR Research Centre, but presented it exclusively through the role of political leaders, policy makers, and a few eminent scientists within the establishment of INMAS.59

Lakshmipathy remembered Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, telling a section of the armed forces (of which Lakshmipathy was a part before he joined INMAS) that "we should make use of this atom for the . . . benefit of humankind, not for destruction." Following up on Nehru's wishes, Homi Bhabha, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission at that time, organized an exhibition entitled "Atoms for Peace" that Nehru attended as well. This "exhibition was arranged by my institute—which was not born at that time," Lakshmipathy told me. So a "cell was created by the Defense Ministry—Atom for Medicine."

D. S. Kothari, the scientific adviser to the Government of India, selected S. K. Majumdar to head this cell. Soon thereafter, Lakshmipathy proudly recalled, Nehru declared that he wanted an institute of nuclear medicine started in India: "The very first [such] institution [in India] [similar to the [End Page 1072] one in] London. . . . The same name was given [to this institute], Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences. . . . Nuclear medicine . . . [was] a new specialty . . . [and INMAS was] at par with rest of the world." Lakshmipathy, a doctor by training, received a master's degree in nuclear medicine from INMAS and later became the director of the Institute.

Lakshmipathy's account of initiation of MRI and MRS at INMAS, similar to AIIMS, reflects innovative adaptations of technologies and the role of local leaders and scientists in the process. It also highlights, to draw on Itty Abraham, another episode of postcolonial modernity aimed at imagining and implementing the possibility of a postcolonial state.60 At the level of laboratory practice Lakshmipathy's historical account shows how black boxing of technologies remains entangled with the imagination of a postcolonial nation and imbricated within the Euro/West-centric diffusion model.

The issue here is not simply the hierarchy in the exchanges between scientists in India and those in some Western nations, for example Lakshmipathy learning about MRI from a British scientist. In the case of INMAS, as in the case of AIIMS, the collective and the society through which technoscientific practices are given value were located in the West. Cutting-edge NMR research had been going on in India since the 1940s, and as mentioned above, Indian scientists were among the first to learn about MRI through Lauterbur's 1974 paper presentation in Bombay—a decade before Lakshmipathy came to know about MRI. Nevertheless, for Lakshmipathy, the circulation of machines and knowledge occurred through the West.

In 1984, Lakshmipathy traveled to Los Angeles for a NMR conference and thereafter also visited Germany in order to import a machine. Nearly two decades later, he told me during an interview that "I found there were only three centers in the world that had knowledge of NMR. One was Britain, another was Germany, the third was United States." He exclaimed, "There were only five equipment in the world. Only five equipment!"61 He "wanted to compete with Japan—can I put my patient first, before they start their first patient? So in the whole of Asia, the first person will be Indian, not Japanese." He had no idea that several Japanese companies and laboratories had already developed and were using NMR imaging machines at this time.62 It is also relevant to note that this concern with being [End Page 1073] the "first" was in relation to adopting a technology developed in the West. Opening the black boxed machine for possible innovations did not even seem to be in his mind. Lakshmipathy proudly told me how Siemens, the multinational company that supplied the MRI machine to INMAS, was asked to even do the masonry to house the machine: "Hats off to the German people who did it" and that too as a "time-bound project," he added. Siemens, a multinational company based in Germany, thus came to stand for the German people in Lakshmipathy's observation about the Germans as disciplined and hardworking people.

The historical account that the NMR Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore presents on its website is yet another example of black boxed machines and the Euro/West-centric divide. Such a depiction of machines and research at IIS is particularly ironic. NMR research by G. Suryan, which was internationally recognized as the source of several innovative trajectories, was conducted at IIS in the 1940s and the 1950s, and this Centre has been home to several other fascinating lines of research.63 Nevertheless, none of this finds any mention on its website. The first section about the Centre declares: "The Centre was established in 1977 by the Department of Science and Technology."64 Following further background information on the establishment of the Centre, its broad objectives are listed. All of the objectives focus on application and maintenance of available technologies and training of students and technicians, except for the last one: "to promote projects aimed at the development of new techniques, sophisticated instruments or improvement of existing instruments."65 The rest of the description focuses on the instruments and further elaboration of the objectives.

Just below the Centre's description is a link to photographs depicting different events and machines. Moving the cursor on the screen shows the word "photos" written in English and with Greek letters.66 The photographs are classified into seven sections: NMR Centre, Inauguration, FM's (Finance Minister of India's) visit, Tata's (industrialist Ratan Tata's) visit, President's (President of India's) visit, Nobel Laureates' (Richard Ernst and Kurt Wuthrich) visit, and IISc (Indian Institute of Science) Centenary. The focus and categorization of photographs depicting the history of NMR at IIS speak for themselves. An examination of the photographs further illustrates my claim of black boxed machines and a focus on association with eminent people rather than on technoscientific practices at the laboratory.

The photographs under the "NMR Centre" category feature the building that houses the Centre and the machines available at the Centre. None of the photographs show the machines functioning (see figs. 1 and 2). In [End Page 1074]

Fig. 1. 800 MHz Bruker manufactured NMR spectrometer. The image has recently been slightly modified on the IIS website because a cryo-probe was added to the spectrometer. (Source: NMR Research Centre website. [accessed 2 June 2018].)
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Fig. 1.

800 MHz Bruker manufactured NMR spectrometer. The image has recently been slightly modified on the IIS website because a cryo-probe was added to the spectrometer. (Source: NMR Research Centre website. http://nrc.iisc.ernet.in/pho/ [accessed 2 June 2018].)

Fig. 2. 500 and 700 MHz Bruker manufactured NMR spectrometers. (Source: NMR Research Centre website. [accessed 2 June 2018].)
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Fig. 2.

500 and 700 MHz Bruker manufactured NMR spectrometers. (Source: NMR Research Centre website. http://nrc.iisc.ernet.in/pho/ [accessed 2 June 2018].)

fact, all of the machines are photographed without any human beings in frame, and even the photograph of the NMR Research Centre's building does not include any people. Machines and scientists are both forsaken and removed from each other in this black boxed science, technology, and society. Indeed, technoscientific practice is itself excluded. The only practices deemed worthy of being photographed and archived are inaugurations and visits by eminent Indian politicians and industrialists and Nobel Prize winners from the West (see figs. 3 and 4). None of the innovative research that has been conducted at IIS finds any mention on the Centre's website. [End Page 1075]

Fig. 3. Visit of Richard Ernst (Nobel Prize winner, Chemistry, 1991). (Source: 20 October 2008 Prof. Ernst at the Centenary Symposium. NMR Research Centre website. [accessed 2 June 2018].)
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Fig. 3.

Visit of Richard Ernst (Nobel Prize winner, Chemistry, 1991). (Source: 20 October 2008 Prof. Ernst at the Centenary Symposium. NMR Research Centre website. http://nrc.iisc.ernet.in/pho/ [accessed 2 June 2018].)

Fig. 4. Inauguration of the NMR Research Centre in 2005. (Source: 9 March 2005 Inauguration of NMR Research Centre. NMR Research Centre website. [accessed 2 June 2018].)
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Fig. 4.

Inauguration of the NMR Research Centre in 2005. (Source: 9 March 2005 Inauguration of NMR Research Centre. NMR Research Centre website. http://nrc.iisc.ernet.in/pho/ [accessed 2 June 2018].)

[End Page 1076]

Conclusion

Historicization of the Scientific Revolution, and with it that of the origin of modern science, to draw on Derrida, "is nothing but the myth of addition, of supplementarity."67 Indeed, as Steven Shapin states at the start of his historical analysis: "There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution."68 Nevertheless, history of the Scientific Revolution has been widely influential. For example, in his 1986 presidential address to the Annual General Body Meeting of Indian Physics Association, Virendra Singh posed to his audience what has been called the Needham question: "Why did the scientific revolution not take place in one of the other high civilisations such as those of India, China or the Middle East? Could it be that some of the factors inhibiting the growth of modern science and technology are still operative in these areas?"69 The continued relevance of the Needham question and that of the Scientific Revolution is not simply a result of the Western dominance enacted through the location of centers of calculation. Rather, the hegemonic influence of a West-centric origin of modern science, which also constitutes modern science as a singular and ahistorical knowledge that can be abstracted from local practices, lies in the efforts of scientists and policy makers in postcolonial societies to create themselves in the image of Europe/West.

The issue for me is not whether the "history of science itself started off by asking if science was the specific product of Western civilization."70 In this article, I have analyzed how the discursive construction of the origin of modern science presents a center that functions "not only to orient, balance, and organize the [Euro/West-centric] structure . . . but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the play of structure."71 The discursive construction of the origin of modern science presents Western Europe as the center by historically and culturally situating the emergence of science in Western Europe. Nevertheless, the organizing principle of this construct seeks to undercut historically and culturally situated scientific knowledge and practices. This contradiction cannot be overcome but is perennially deferred through the (unrealizable) goal of diffusion of universal, Western science within and across societies.

Seen in this light, the issue is not whether and how "modern science" [End Page 1077] can or does diffuse to other cultures and societies. Rather, the premise of diffusion of universal, Western science to non-Western cultures is what gives credence to the claim of Western Europe as the exclusive point of origin for modern science. Such (assumed) diffusion of universal, Western science circumscribes not only history of science and technology, but also, as I have shown, technoscientific practices within Euro/West-centrism.72

I have deconstructed Butterfield's historicization of the Scientific Revolution in order to highlight how Euro/West-centrism undergirds the diffusion model. Instead of either dismissing or bypassing such historicization, I have presented the structruality of the Euro/West-centric structure. Such a deconstruction allowed me to situate a particular, widespread facet of technoscientific practice in India—black boxing of machines and the elision of histories of bricolage and tinkering. The diffusion model, as Latour has forcefully argued, black boxes machines and laboratory practices and constitutes society as passive recipients of the originary idea (that is seen as resulting in inventions and discoveries). Such black boxing is doubly reinforced through the historiographic framing of the origin of modern science in Europe/the West.

The historical accounts of the three premier institutions/laboratories discussed in this article ignore their own messy technoscientific practices and innovations. They also rarely recognize or mention the networks and influences on their work from within India (let alone other non-Western countries). The focus in that regard as well is the influence of Western scientists, particularly those who have won awards such as the Nobel Prize. Ironically, what is forgotten and erased from the memories of scientists and non-scientists alike are histories of vibrant, open-ended, and multi-directional circulations of technosciences. A striking example of such an erasure is Suryan, who presents the initiation of his research through the influence of Western scientists, even though the genealogy of his technoscientific work can be easily traced to the longstanding and successful spectroscopy research in India.73 Moreover, Suryan himself initiated several new lines of NMR research that were adopted and further developed in different parts of the world, including countries in the West, although this research often remained disconnected trails within India.74 Originary and Euro/West-centric histories that constitute the point de capiton of the diffusion model thus not only lead to black boxing of machines, they also result in erasures of vibrant and polycentric histories of technoscience. [End Page 1078]

Amit Prasad

Amit Prasad is associate professor of sociology and director of the South Asian studies program at University of Missouri-Columbia. His research focuses on transnational and postcolonial history and sociology of science, technology, and medicine. He is the author of Imperial Technoscience: Transnational Histories of MRI in the United States, Britain, and India (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

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Footnotes

1. N. Lakshmipathy interview.

2. For details of these aspects of NMR and MRI research, see Amit Prasad, Imperial Technoscience. I repeat these snippets of historical details only to reemphasize the profound and longue duree impact of diffusionist discourse.

3. Several historians of science and technology have challenged diffusion models of science, and several others transcend the limitations of diffusion theories by providing contextual understanding of science in India. V. V. Krishna, "The Emergence of the Indian Scientific Community"; Krishna, "Reflections on the Changing Status"; Krishna, "Universities in India's National System"; E Haribabu, "A Large Community but Few Peers"; Haribabu, "Cognitive Empathy in Inter-Disciplinary Research"; Debasmita Patra, E. Haribabu, and Katherine McComas, "Perception of Nano Ethics"; Dhruv Raina and Ashok Jain, "Big Science and the University in India"; Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb; Abraham, "The Contradictory Spaces"; Jahnavi Phalkey, Atomic State; Dhirendra Sharma, "Science, Culture and Conflict in India"; Itty Abraham, "India's 'Strategic Enclave'; Vandana Shiva and Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, "The Large and Fragile Community"; Shiv Visvanathan, Organizing for Science; Visvanathan, Carnival for Science; Prakash Kumar, Indigo Plantations in Colonial India; Irfan Habib and Dhruv Raina, "Copernicus, Colombus, Colonialism"; Raina, "Reconfiguring the Centre"; Raina, "From West to Non-West?"; For a selection of articles on gender and science in postcolonial India, see Neelam Kumar, ed., Women and Science in India. The articles cited above constitute a small section of a vast body of work.

4. Understanding of scientific practice as bricolage has been central to interventions in sociology, anthropology, and history of science in the last three decades. See Karin Knorr Cetina, The Manufacture of Knowledge; Michael Lynch, Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action; Geoffrey Bowker, Science on the Run; Wiebe Bijker, "Good Fortune, Mirrors, and Kisses"; Pankaj Sekhsaria, "The Making of an Indigenous Scanning Tunneling Microscope."

5. The term "technoscience," which was first proposed by Bruno Latour, is commonly used within the field of science and technology studies to signify messy and open-ended characteristics of scientific practice. See Bruno Latour, Science in Action, 174.

6. Fa-ti Fan, "Science in Cultural Borderlands"; Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science; Neil Safier, "Global Knowledge on the Move"; Pablo Gomez, "The Circulation of Bodily Knowledge."

7. See Prasad, Imperial Technoscience; Jacques Derrida, Positions, 59.

8. Latour, Science in Action, 136.

9. It is not surprising that George Basalla starts his elaboration of the diffusion model with the claim: "A small circle of Western European nations provided the original home for modern science during the 16th. and 17th. centuries." Basalla, "The Spread of Western Science," 611.

10. Visvanathan, Organizing for Science, 153.

11. Ibid., 155.

12. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science.

13. Robert Westman and David Lindberg, "Introduction," xvii; See Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, particularly the "Bibliographic Essay" at the end of the book, for a comprehensive bibliography on different facets of the Scientific Revolution.

14. Shapin, for example, argues, "There is no essence of the Scientific Revolution, yet pragmatic criteria push me at times towards an artificially coherent account of distinctive changes in natural knowledge." Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, 12. Floris Cohen, highlighting the need to see the Scientific Revolution as one of several scientific revolutions, explores different historical accounts of the former and investigates it in the context of the role of modern science as "key motor of social transformation" and its power to "reveal, at least to some extent, the secrets of nature – its 'truth' aspect." H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution, 6.

15. Derrida writes, "One can assume that ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when a decentering had come about: at the moment when European culture . . . had been dislocated." Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, 282.

16. Prasad, Imperial Technoscience.

17. In fact, in a way it reflects implementation of phase three of Basalla's diffusion model—"a conscious struggle to reach an independent status." Basalla, "The Spread of Western Science," 617. Susantha Goonatilake argues that major paradigms of science are produced in the West and only minor variations of those paradigms emerge in India/South Asia. Susantha Goonatilake, Aborted Discovery; Goonatilake, Toward a Global Science. It needs to be investigated, if such a situation exists, how much of it is a result of postcolonial implementation of diffusion model of science.

18. An important consequence of historical and sociological focus on technoscientific practices (as opposed to the making of scientific knowledge) has been the unraveling of the temporally emergent character of science. See, e.g., Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice.

19. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science.

20. Ibid., 7.

21. Joseph Needham's thesis of ecumenism in science is often highlighted as a way to move beyond Euro/West-centric divide. See e.g. essays in Irfan Habib and Dhruv Raina, Situating the History of Science. Needham did not, however, negate the Eurocentric originary thesis: "I disagree with those who call modern science 'Western,' for though it began in Western Europe it has long ceased to be exclusively Western." Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, 7:201.

22. See e.g. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 31. Derrida, deconstructing Rousseau's The Essay and Emile, shows how these two writings present "a strange system within which the critique of ethnocentrism organically comes together with a Europeocentrism." Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 221. Butterfield, in contrast, is not concerned with ethnocentrism associated with Eurocentrism. It is almost as though the ethnocentrism of Eurocentrism is dissolved through the universalism of modern science.

23. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science.

24. Cohen, The Scientific Revolution, 4–5. "The Scientific Revolution," states Cohen, citing Richard Westfall, "was the most important 'event' in Western history," and had a formative role in his own shift of professional attention to history of science. Ibid., 5–6.

25. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 187. Butterfield states, "There will be no pretense of laying out four centuries of the history of science like a long piece of wallpaper. . . . It will be necessary rather to look for the lines of strategic change." Ibid., 8.

26. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 208.

27. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 189. The etymology of the term "Asia" shows that its origin was implicated in the concern with defining the European self by constituting Asia as the "Other." Naoki Sakai, "'You Asians.'"

28. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 189–90.

29. Butterfield does not completely ignore the role of Arab and other non-Western European scholars. However, according to him, "The process [of "resuscitation" of Greek texts "in Western Europe"] was not stopped by any reluctance of Catholic Europe to learn from infidel Arabians or the Byzantine schismatics or even the pagan Greeks." It stopped or remained "purely literary transmission," as opposed to something that could be called science or natural philosophy, because, among other reasons, scholars in middle ages "were infinitely more the slaves of that intellectual system than if they had actually invented it themselves." Ibid., 90. For a counter-history of emergence and further development of Greek knowledge, see Martin Bernal, Black Athena.

30. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 190.

31. Ibid., 191. It will be useful to explore how empirical freezing and generalization may be implicated, as Homi Bhabha suggests, in the circulation and biopolitics of stereotypes in relation to science and technology. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture.

32. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution. Copernicus wrote: "When the eccentricity reached the boundary and quadrant of mean value, the Mohammedan faith was established; another great empire came into being and increased very rapidly." Nicolaus Copernicus, Three Copernican Treatises, 122. I am not arguing that Copernicus was outside Orientalist imaginative history. It needs to be investigated how, for example, as Ibn Rashd became Averroes, the entangled histories of science and technology gave way to European and Christian centric historiography that we see in Butterfield.

33. The term "colonial," although very rarely deployed in the book, is used to refer to its role as a particular element of European economy and trade. See e.g. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 179–80. Such erasure of the role of colonialism is particularly striking because Butterfield delivered his lectures in 1948.

34. Ibid., 191.

35. Ibid., 202.

36. For a critical and non-idealized history of Galileo's technoscientific work, see Mario Biagioli, Galileo's Instruments of Credit; Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 96–97.

37. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 100. Experiments, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer convincingly show, are dynamic and contingent practices that are not subservient to existing knowledge or method. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump. See also Steven Shapin, "The House of Experiment"; Owen Hannaway, "Laboratory Design."

38. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 103.

39. Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope, 304.

40. Ibid., 185.

41. Arnold Pacey, for example, writes, "It can easily seem that many key inventions [during the Industrial Revolution] were made by craftsmen who knew nothing about 'science' in the accepted sense." He goes on to argue, "It was almost inevitable, then, that the people who met with most success . . . were those who could use some relevant scientific ideas to compensate for unavoidable lack of experience." Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity, 178.

42. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science.

43. Ibid., 182.

44. "The emergence and existence of India," Gyan Prakash argues, "is inseparable from the authority of science and its functioning as the name for freedom and enlightenment, power and progress." Prakash, Another Reason, 3. See also Itty Abraham, "Landscape and Postcolonial Science"; Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb.

45. Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, "Introduction."

46. Latour, Pandora's Hope, 192.

47. Latour writes, "A forsaken gun is a mere piece of matter, but what would an abandoned gunner be? A human, yes . . . but not a soldier." Ibid.

48. See Prasad, Imperial Technoscience.

49. Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, "Introduction."

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Latour, Pandora's Hope, 193.

53. The web description, titled "Research," presents a general statement on how magnetic resonance "has revolutionized the field of clinical medicine," and then lists three of the high-tech machines housed in the department. It is interesting to note that in this description of department's research, the machine is presented as a given—i.e. black boxed—artifact that simply performs certain functions. Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, "Research."

54. Latour, Pandora's Hope.

55. Latour writes: "Society is not stable enough to inscribe itself in anything. On the contrary, most of the features of what we mean by social order – scale, asymmetry, durability, power, hierarchy, the distribution of roles – are impossible even to define without recruiting socialized nonhumans." Then he goes on to add: "Yes, society is constructed, but not socially constructed." Ibid., 197–98.

56. "Prof. N. R. Jagannathan, Head of the Department of NMR and MRI Facility, AIIMS was honored recently by the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM), by electing him as Fellow of the Society that has over 6000 members around the globe with head quarters in USA. The award was presented to Dr. Jagannathan on May 3rd, 2010 at Stockholm, Sweden by the President of the Society in the presence of Queen of Sweden. Prof. Jagannathan is the first scientist from the Asia/ sub-continent to be elected as Fellow of ISMRM for his contribution to the magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopic studies on breast cancer and service to the ISMRM." Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, "Prof. N. R. Jagannathan."

57. For details, see Prasad, Imperial Technoscience.

58. http://nmrs2008.nic.in/nmr.htm, accessed 21 February 2015 (website is no longer online).

59. The quotes that follow are from Lakshmipathy interview.

60. Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb, 69.

61. By August 1984, according to the a case study conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress, 145 machines were installed worldwide. E. P. Steinberg and A. B. Cohen, "Health Technology Case Study 27."

62. The case study of the Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress listed five Japanese companies that were engaged in "NMR imaging Device Industry"—Hitachi Ltd., a subsidiary of JEOL, Sanyo Electric, Shimadzu, and Toshiba—as of October 1983. Ibid. NMR imaging and related research were going on in Japan very vigorously in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s. See Shizuo Fujiwara, "Early Development."

63. See Prasad, Imperial Technoscience; Prasad, "'Make in India.'"

64. NMR Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, "About."

65. Ibid.

66. NMR Research Centre, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, "Photos."

67. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 167.

68. Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, 1. Shapin's claim is in fact a part of a broader shift in philosophy, history, and sociology of technology and science that Hans-Jorg Rheinberger calls "historicization of epistemology." Rheinberger, On Historicizing Epistemology.

69. The presidential address was later published in the Indian Journal of History of Science. Virendra Singh, "Why Did the Scientific Revolution," 341.

70. Marwa Elshakry, "When Science Became Western," 99.

71. Derrida, Writing and Difference, 278.

72. It is not surprising that the Gadamer's quote, with which Dipesh Chakrabarty starts his book Provincializing Europe, even while lamenting provincializing of Europe, states that "only the natural sciences are able to call forth a quick international echo." Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 3.

73. Prasad, Imperial Technoscience.

74. Prasad, "'Make in India.'"

Additional Information

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Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
1059-1082
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-22
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