I decided to become a scientist when I heard my grandmother tell me, “You were rescued from death by a religious healer who swayed his broom over you when even doctors couldn’t cure the pneumonia you were born with.” I was shocked. Growing up in a part of northwestern India where any logic was easily thrashed by irrational superstition, my family believed that the twig broom had swept the evil spirit away from my body. A day before, my science teacher had explained to our class how microorganisms cause disease. Everything I had learned about the tiny, “invisible” pneumonia-causing organisms needed to be un-learned. I was 10.
I decided to become a scientist when I felt trapped by a litany of rituals, completely irrational, I needed to perform in order to become “acceptable” in the family. No haircuts on Tuesdays, no cutting nails on Thursdays, no eggs or meat on Wednesdays—a laundry list of superstitions. I knew I wanted to discover the truth behind it. Not only the truth behind diseases or rituals, but society’s embrace of untruths to mislead the uninformed. I looked for answers that no one was willing to provide. I was 12.
My resolve to become a scientist was dashed when a scientist couple sacrificed a goat at a Hindu temple to show their appreciation to god when they were blessed with a baby girl after many failed attempts to conceive. Until then, I believed a society could redeem itself of most evils if it became scientifically literate. I was wrong. I turned 15. The baby girl died the next year.
I decided to become a scientist when my cousin got married to a guy based on their horoscope score. A horoscope is a celestial chart of planetary positions at the time of a person’s birth. A majority of Hindu marriages rely on the horoscope score as a first step before proceeding further. For a marriage to be successful, the horoscopes of a prospective couple are matched and a score is calculated using a complex formula. A score of at least 18 (out of 32) is needed to marry. Their score was 24. I was 18. My cousin got divorced two years later.
The unease inside me grew and I kept looking for answers. Confused, I entered college to study science. My quest for scientific reasoning became stronger when, for the first time, facts and theories were based on discoveries and the scientific method. For the first time, I found logic in the reasoning. For the first time, the people around me were hungry for a debate. We pursued a rational method to test a hypothesis and presented our findings at seminars and conferences. I was 22.
My desire to pursue science grew further. I was mesmerized by the scientific method—observation that led to hypothesis, which led to experimentation, which led to theory. I enrolled myself in a Ph.D. program where constant scientific questioning and learning became an everyday event. I shared knowledge based on evidence and my scientific curiosity was praised. My discoveries made a negligible dent in total human knowledge, but it was worth the effort. I was 28.
Now as a scientist, I have mustered the courage to speak up against the superstitious beliefs plaguing society. I question the rituals that do not treat women and men as equals. I question traditional customs that are unsupported by scientific evidence. I have encouraged and sometimes inspired people around me to take a scientific approach towards any superstitions, to discover the truth behind falsified facts, and to help build a more rational society.
Because of science, the desire to discover new things is always alive in me.
Gaurav Jain is a biomaterial scientist at New York University. He is also interested in a building a more fact-based society.