PTI, celebrating scientists, and class/caste

SpaceX announced a day or two ago that the crew of its upcoming Polaris Dawn mission will include a space operations engineer at the company named Anna Menon. As if on cue, PTI published a report on February 15 under the headline: “SpaceX engineer Anna Menon to be among crew of new space mission”. I’ve been a science journalist for almost a decade now and I’ve always seen PTI publish reports pegged on the fact that a scientist in the news for some reason has an Indian last name.

In my view, it’s always tricky to celebrate scientists for whatever they’ve done by starting from their nationality. Consider the case of Har Gobind Khorana, whose birth centenary we marked recently. Khorana was born in Multan in pre-independence India in 1922, and studied up to his master’s degree in the country until 1945. Around 1950, he returned to India for a brief period in search of a job. He didn’t succeed, but fortunately received a scholarship to return to the UK, where he had completed his PhD. After that Khorana was never based in India, and continued his work in the UK, Canada and the US.

He won a Nobel Prize in 1968, and India conferred him with the Padma Vibhushan in 1969, and India’s Department of Biotechnology floated a scholarship in his name in 2007 (together with the University of Wisconsin and the India-US S&T Forum). I’m glad to celebrate Khorana for his scientific work, or his reputation as a teacher, but how do I celebrate Khorana because he was born in India? Where is the celebration-worthy thing in that?

To compare, it’s easy for me to celebrate Satyendra Nath Bose for his science as well as his nationality because Bose studied and worked in India throughout his life (including at the University of Dhaka in the early 1920s), so his work is a reflection of his education in India and his struggles to succeed, such as they were, in India. An even better example here would be that of Meghnad Saha, who struggled professionally and financially to make his mark on stellar astrophysics. But Khorana completed a part of his studies in India and a part abroad and worked entirely abroad. When I celebrate his work because he was Indian, I’m participating in an exercise that has no meaning – or does in the limited, pernicious sense of one’s privileges.

The same goes for Anna Menon, and her partner Anil Menon, a flight surgeon whom NASA selected to be a part of its astronaut crew earlier this year. According to Anil’s Wikipedia page, he was in India for a year in 2000; other than that, he studied and worked in the US from start to today. I couldn’t find much about Anna’s background online, except that her last name before she got married to Anil in 2016 was Wilhelm, that she studied her fourth grade and completed her bachelor’s and master’s studies in the US, and that there is nothing other than her partner’s part Indian heritage (the other part is Ukrainian) to suggest she has a significant India connection.

So celebrating Anna Menon by sticking her name in a headline makes little sense. It’s not like PTI has been reporting on her work over time for it to single her out in the headline now. The agency should just have said “SpaceX announces astronaut crew for pioneering Polaris Dawn mission” or “With SpaceX draft, Anna Menon could beat her partner Anil to space”. There’s so much worth celebrating here, but gravitating towards the ‘Menon’ will lead you astray.

This in turn gives rise to a question about one’s means, and in turn one’s class/caste (historically as well as today, both the chance to leave the country to study, work and live abroad and the chance to conduct good work and have it noticed has typically accrued and accrues to upper-caste, upper-class peoples – Saha’s example again comes to mind; such chances have also been stacked against people of genders other than cis-male).

When we talk about a scientist who did good work in India, we automatically talk about the outcomes of privileges that they enjoy. Similarly, when we talk of a scientist doing good work in a different country, we also talk about implicit caste/class advantage in India, the country of origin, that allowed them to depart and advantages they subsequently came into at their destination.

But when we place people who are doing something noteworthy in the spotlight for no reason other than because they have Indian last names, we are celebrating nothing except this lopsided availability of paths to success (broadly defined) – without critiquing the implied barriers to finding similar success within India itself.

We need to think more critically about who we are celebrating and why: if there is no greater reason than that they have had a parent or a family rooted in India, the story must be dropped. If there is a greater reason, that should define the headline, the peg, etc. And if possible the author should also accommodate a comment or two about specific privileges not available to most scientists and which might have made the difference in this case.

This post benefited from valuable feedback from Jahnavi Sen.