Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link:
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link:
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at