The Swedish Nobel Prize is awarded for outstanding scientific achievements. But how many people really understand discoveries such as giant magnetoresistance, which won the 2007 physics prize? A couple in India are doing their share to enlighten people.
Sudhir and Nandini Thattey were so fascinated by the Swedish Nobel Prize that one day, they decided to make the ground-breaking science for which the honor is awarded more accessible. Photo: Chintan Thattey
Every year since 1996 Sudhir and Nandini Thattey have written three stories in the Marathi language about the research behind each year’s scientific Nobel prizes. Their stories are published in a book, together with colorful illustrations.
“The Nobel Prize is well known in India, and it’s considered to be a very important recognition of one’s research work,” Sudhir says. “It’s regarded as a great honor.”
The Thatteys’ books came to light when the couple, who were engaged in a program to bring science to rural parts of India, recognized a desire among the children to find out more about the Nobel-Prize-winning research.
“These research projects represent significant achievements on the expanding horizons of human knowledge, and many of these discoveries lead to new technologies in the future,” Sudhir says. “It struck us that although people may enjoy the fruits of these discoveries later on, they are quite unaware of the research work that lies behind this progress.”
Nandini adds that another driving force for writing the stories is the intellectual pleasure that she and her husband derive from them. “I don’t have a science background, yet even I experience a thrill from learning about and explaining the research.”
Science made simple
The Thatteys’ stories explain advanced research and complicated theories in an imaginative yet simple way, making them accessible to young people as well as adults. “Teachers also like our books because they help them to understand advancements in science,” says Nandini.
Take an important discovery, add a fairytale and some colorful illustrations and, hey presto, you’ve made children enjoy science.
Through magic and dream imagery, and sometimes featuring detectives, the books unravel the prize-winning scientific mysteries. The 2007 awards — for the discovery of giant magnetoresistance, for studies of chemical processes on solid surfaces, and for the discovery of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by using embryonic stem cells — were as challenging to write about as always. But the Thatteys say the winners have something in common: “All three discoveries have either already started impacting our everyday lives, or are likely to do so very soon.”
The couple generally use allegories from their daily lives to help readers visualize the abstract research work, something which proved to be extra challenging when writing about the 1998 physics prize for the fractional quantum Hall effect. Sudhir says: “It was very tough to relate this discovery to our day-to-day experiences.”
He and Nandini are reluctant to pick a favorite tale, but say they received a great deal of positive feedback for A tour to concept island, which describes the research work honored with the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions in physics. “A newspaper editor told us, ‘If somebody had taught me physics like this, I would have become a research physicist instead of a journalist,’ ” says Sudhir.
Writing the stories is a true family affair. Sudhir, who is a scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, discusses the prize-winning research with Nandini, who writes the stories. Once the stories have been checked for scientific accuracy, the couple hand them over to their two sons, Chintan and Chinmay, who provide feedback from a reader’s perspective. When everyone is satisfied, the stories are sent to the Mumbai-based publisher Granthall, a non-governmental organization.
Any family disputes have to be settled quickly so the books can be published by the December 25 deadline, which is Readers’ Day in Mumbai.
DNA may be complex, but the Thatteys make it seem simple.
Although the books have not yet reached an international audience, they hold wide appeal for children in India, a country with a long tradition of storytelling.
The tales not only entertain and inform, but also play a role in encouraging children and equipping them for a career in science. “Many children, even those from remote areas in the state of Maharashtra, call us to ask how they can become scientist,” say the Thatteys, who then suggest various alternatives and advise the callers to keep their curiosity alive.
One student who usually had little patience for scholarly pursuits actually asked his teacher for the latest copy of the Nobel Prize book. His teacher later told the Thatteys: “If your book is able to awaken an interest in science in the mind of a boy who doesn’t like his studies, then I think it’s a great success.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Freelance writer Cari Simmons has always had a preference for language and the arts rather than science, which made her nervous in school. She welcomes the Thatteys’ gentle initiative to help people crack the physics, chemistry and medical codes.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Published by the Swedish Institute on www.sweden.se. All content is protected by Swedish copyright law. The text may be reproduced, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast in any media for non-commercial use with reference to www.sweden.se. However, no photographs or illustrations may be used. For more information on general copyright and permission click here. If you have any questions please contact webmaster.