The Road Not Taken: An Historical Reckoning

Do I need to tell more about the first part of the title? May be not about Robert Frost, one of the most prolific poets of the last century; but may be about how that coincide with my career choices. The beauty of a great poet or singer is that s/he writes up something personal that reflects the feelings of many others. In our school choice, career decision, and personal matters, we often reflect on the roads not taken. Which one is better or worse? The poet didn’t comment, but that didn’t stop him from speculating about his choice. So, I am.

While studying in mechanical engineering department, my interest in physics was noticeable. I spent considerable time reading quantum computing, condensed matter physics and materials science in my free time besides mechanics, engine, mechatronics, and air-conditioning system. However, in my country – Bangladesh, like many others in the world, there was an issue of funding undergraduate research. So, in my sophomore year, I decided to do something outside the norm-work in the history of science.

That decision was not merely the product of the lack of scientific infrastructure. From our childhood, we are taught how British colonization brought havoc on the economy and social life. We were aware of how the scientific progress was challenged due to the economic adversity, racism, and lack of appreciation of the local scientists. At the same time, the presence of the British education system exposed the continent to the newly developed scientific methods of studies in a highly cultured Indian society filled with poets and thinkers. Therefore, I always wished to learn more about the contributions of Indian scientists, especially the Bengali ones who lived in my country, Bangladesh, during their childhood.

One of such significant figures in the modern Indian science history is Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858 – 1937). He made the world’s first wireless communication system, but did not get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime until some years ago. He was a pioneer of the early semiconductor technology. One of the most spectacular innovations was Crescograph, a mechanical device that could translate plant responses under different stimuli to almost one million times in the best case. That was a breakthrough technology by any standard in bio-engineering, developed at Presidency College, Kolkata (interestingly where my grandfather attended for the law program). But like many other Indian scientists, he was not appreciated, and history books are full of western scholars, partly because of ignorance, and partly because of racism. So, when I along with my co-author got the chance to start working on Crescograph, I did not waste any opportunity. I found a top conference on scientific instrument history at Harvard-MIT and we submitted our work, which was accepted in my early junior year. It was a professional conference full of professors and researchers, mostly coming from the very elite universities, not an undergraduate conference. So, I was overwhelmed and thrilled with my first study.

That success motivated me to go further into historical research. One of the reasons for which the British could reign India so long unchallenged was the fall of Tipu (Tipoo) Sultan, the ruler of Mysore (currently South India). Mysore was well known for its wealth, culture and progressive approach in adapting modern technologies. Tipu Sultan was named as the Tiger of Mysore for his fierce battle with the British. I was aware of him from my childhood, particularly because of a popular Indian TV serial on Tipu Sultan’s historical life. Later on, when reading Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of APJ Kalam, the ex-President of India (better known as the Missile Man of India), I came to know that the first successful use of war rockets by Tipu Sultan was centuries earlier than the west. British tried to adopt it against the Americans in the War of 1812, but failed to replicate the success horribly, which inspired Francis Scott Key to mention rocket in The Star-spangled Banner, the national anthem of the USA. Interestingly, highly trained British scientists tried to reverse engineer the rockets made by illiterate Indian artisans without any success. Afterwards, European countries also started using rockets in a large number. More interestingly, Dr. Kalam became aware of the historical background in 1963, from a painting depicting rockets flying in the battle of Guntar (an Indian region), while he was getting a training at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (where I currently work). So, as a junior college student, I got curious to know more about Mysore rockets. Unfortunately, there were only a few studies supported by APJ Kalam, and another famous American rocket historian, with whom I also share my Alma mater now. So, I worked on the use of war rocket technology, battlefield planning, the economics of the south India, and treaties of war with the help of my sister.

After one year of study, abstract was accepted in one of the most prestigious annual conferences of science history at History of Science Society (HSS). In 2008, the conference committee awarded me NSF Travel Award to present the study at Pittsburgh. It was an amazing experience! Most likely, I was the only undergraduate who was presenting at that conference. After my talk, one professor approached me who was also working in fireworks and was interested to know whether I would consider doing a PhD in this field with funding. Another very influential professor told me that he would be happy to write a recommendation for me to Yale if I want to continue work on Indian nuclear weapon history. But I was working based on my interest to present my culture and was planning to study physics in graduate school. So, I politely said ‘no’ to them. Coming back home, we made a more formal journey into the historical field by publishing one journal on weapon history. Later, Springer invited us to write an invited article on the Indian rocket history for their encyclopedia. I delightfully complied with their request. My footprint in history is now a part of history.

Moving to the USA in 2011 and completely immersing myself in science and engineering sometimes remind me of the path not taken. What if I would take the chances of admitting myself in the elite schools for studying history? Well, none know it, and ever will. But here are the few things I found amazing while working on different topics. I became well-aware of my hidden talents, and the past of our civilization which is often defined by the colonizers. The exploration made me critical in thinking about the entire academia, and more appreciative of our ancestors. If we don’t know our past, we can’t build our future. It taught me resilience, not to get cooped up under pressure, and to become bold to the authority who don’t follow the rules.

I was left with two choices – create a history or do historical research. I choose the first one actively through my work life, but still, I value history. Even these days, I spend significant time learning history and reflect on those. Just because I left active history work does not mean that I can’t be a part of it. In our limited lifespan, we can’t take every path we are interested in. The choices are difficult to make, and sometimes not without regret. At least, that is what I have learned in my short stint in professional history work. Formal careers should not stop us from pursuing our interests, especially, when it serves broader interest. My creation of this site and nighttime efforts in Universal Graduate Income, is just another step to help to others who are willing to take the road less traveled by.