As argued in this article, reverence runs deep in our Indian culture.
The important distinction of ‘admiration’ and ‘reverence’ makes it clear that the making of a rebel and the hindrance of it, leading to absolute conformity, is an observable cultural phenomenon.
Admiration for classic scientists like Einstein and Feynman is an omniscient notion. We, as students of science, studied their theories in college, read them regularly and got inspired by them.
Admiration entails inspiration. An individual inspired by the work of an erudite figure in history may develop a desire to dig deeper into their lives to make sense of the world. On the other hand, reverence – in its extreme – tends to manifest a blind following in those who revere. Sometimes, people end up revering and being revered as a result of a herd mentality.
In the three years of my bachelor’s degree, my college had hosted several eminent scientists and Nobel laureates.
How it plays out
Interesting things happen when such figures are invited to institutions. Announcements of these personalities presenting a talk are made on every class WhatsApp group and college notices get issued, often calling for the ‘compulsory attendance’ of students for said talk.
The idea of eminence itself smells of reverence, and often presents itself as an ostentatious ‘celebration’.
The eminent personality is welcomed with ‘loud salutes’ from the National Cadet Corps students. They march beside him/her in impeccable form, until he/she reaches the auditorium. The auditorium is full of students who attend the talk fearing repercussions for not adhering to the ‘compulsory attendance’ remark mentioned in the notice. They welcome him by ‘standing up in respect’. Then, the personality is felicitated with a shawl and a trophy, perhaps acknowledging his/her scientific knowledge or their lack thereof. Photographs are clicked while a shower of clueless applause perpetuates the drama of recognition.
These seemingly simple gestures highlight the drama of recognition and the false reverence it entails. We practice it as a culture.
The same procedure is followed for any personality, regardless of their background, whether they are scientists or not – ranging from ministers to maharajas.
But what does this mean in the context of science? What is the role of a rebel in the face of fake reverence?
The individual rebel is a challenger of ideas and their originators. They are irreverent, and in that irreverence lies their ingenuity and potential for making new discoveries. As seen in the article I referred to:
“If  science must excel, it needs to promote free spirit at the basic level. This free spirit is also a rebel in some sense, as the physicist Freeman Dyson in his 2006 book, The Scientist as Rebel says. Dyson – a contemporary of Richard Feynman, the preeminent scientist-rebel – argues that science is an inherently subversive act, whether it upends a longstanding scientific idea or when it questions the received political wisdom, and that it is a threat to establishment of all kinds. He writes: Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children.’
If this rebel is to manifest in eminent scientists and Noble laureates, the idea of irreverence needs to be pushed further, and a reformation of the rebel itself is required.
If this rebel takes cognisance of a culture of blind reverence that doesn’t promote science but is only a façade of unquestioningly following science, then he/she would see that their irreverent tendencies – that purportedly led them to become an eminent personality – have only manifested in them due to the disavowal of exactly that culture of fake reverence which has thrived regardless of their existence.
The term ‘rebel’ is individualistic in the sense of a noun, but its implication is the reformation of the authority that is questioned and criticised, which leads to the reformation of others in the community.
In that sense, these scientific personalities might have gone to great lengths with their brilliant theories and earned massive recognition through their irreverence, but this same recognition feeds the culture of blind and fake reverence. They themselves are now revered and feed the same animal.
Taking note of what Dyson said, we need to reimagine the scientist-rebel as an observant, critical being who questions all forms of cultural impositions in his community.
In the context of this drama of recognition – an example of which is how personalities are ostentatiously celebrated in colleges and educational institutions (and perhaps everywhere) – the rebel will be critical of the implications their recognition has.
As recognition forms a herd of blindness that disguises itself as respect, the rebel will be sceptical about such a manifestation and will question himself. A true scientist-rebel is surely a scientist of brilliant ideas about the cosmos, a master of ‘doing science’, but is also critical of the ‘perception of science’ in society.
Kushal Choudhary is a student of science but he spends his time reading a lot of philosophy, in the context of education, science, and politics. He sometimes writes on medium.