In celebration of science and Bhutan-1
Science as a universal language
Science is a universal language without borders. In science, what is being discovered and contributed to the scientific literature and the scientific community is more important than who has done it.
In a society where education was traditionally given in monastic institutions with a heavy inclination towards Buddhism, science in its modern subject form has been a part of school curriculum for a long time in Bhutan. Over a century of modern education (2013), the science curriculum, as well as science itself, has undergone evolution. Many of us are second or third generation Bhutanese who have studied science in school.
With the force of globalisation, science and technology such as the use of smartphones and social media apps, have become ubiquitous in Bhutan. The reverse wave of this technology has found ardent users from even the older generation, many who did not receive any formal education. This speaks of the universality of the use of science in the aid of daily lives in a country that is still deeply rooted in its culture and tradition.
In the academic pursuit of science and technology, Bhutan now has university centres that pursue both fundamental and applied sciences. Many of the government and private centres perform technical functions with the application of science. These ranges from bioscience in health, agriculture and forestry; physical sciences in geology and mining; technological sciences in hydropower and natural resources; engineering and architecture in structures and construction, and many more. While the benefits of applications of science should be made available, we should equally put effort in sustaining the scientific appetite among citizens.
Science and national identity
Science and technology are used not only to make lives better, cure diseases and grow more food, but are also used as a display of military strength. Scientific prowess is now used as a national power, with physical boundary, and is sufficiently clear from the following examples.
In 1957, when the erstwhile Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite Sputnik into orbit, more than exploring space, it served as a national pride of being one step ahead of the United States. This influenced the United States government to spend so much out of the national exchequer on space programme primarily to make leaps ahead of the Soviets. This led to many important discoveries but was also an aggressive competition with the temperament of the Cold War.
Since then, the temperament of space competition has cooled down but its use as a show of national power and interests is still relevant. One recent event is the launch of Mangalyaan, India’s mission to the Mars in 2014. Though India was criticised for spending on space programme where it has so many other areas to prioritise spending, this stellar success by the Indian Space Research Organisation has proved the importance of using modern technology not only for its intended applications but also as a tool of national identity. It put India ahead of China and Japan in successfully launching a Mars mission on its first try. And after this India went on to launch the South Asia Satellite in 2017 that has prowess and geostrategic advantage over the entire South Asian subcontinent.
Science, despite its universality as a language, has always taken the colour of national identities in the spirit of transnational collaboration and cooperation. The names of elements in the Periodic Table in Chemistry have honoured many countries and scientists. Such honours are Gallium named after France (Latin name for France is Gallia), Germanium after Germany, Polonium after Poland and Scandium after Scandinavia, Moscovium after Moscow. All these elements that make up the matter in the universe were discovered in Europe and America. However, when Japan was credited to the discovery of one new element, the other Asian countries celebrated in jubilation. The element was named Nihonium (Nihon is a common Japanese name for Japan) in 2016 and this is one contribution from Japan to the scientific literature and knowledge of humankind, apart from the many Nobel laureates it produced in the recent times.
A facet of national identity in modern times
Bhutan is at a period of transition from a traditional society to a modern one. The symbols of national identity in Bhutan – its Drukpa culture and Buddhism, the language, the national dress and traditions – are relevant and efforts are needed to preserve them. These themes are becoming more important for Bhutan than ever in the face of globalisation and integration of external influences in the lives of our people.
In addition, science and technology have taken a significant position in the national identity of modern Bhutan. The golden langur, an endangered species found only in Bhutan has in its name the word Bhutan – Trachypithecus geei bhutanensis. Rhododendron kesangiae is named in honour of Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck; Rhododendron zhidey has the Dzongkha term zhidey for peace for which His Holiness the Je Khenpho conducts many prayers. In 2017, our national flower was found to be a new species of blue poppy called Meconopsis gakyidiana, a befitting tribute to the pursuit of Gross National Happiness (gakyid) as a national priority. Another decoration to the national identity is Spathoglottis jetsuniae, an orchid to honour Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck.
Bhutan’s space programme
With the farsighted vision of His Majesty The King, Bhutan is ready to launch its first satellite Bhutan-1, into space in 2018. Built with the technical help from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, with Bhutan-1, Bhutan will join its two neighbouring countries, China and India, as a space-faring country though ours is at a scale far smaller than the China National Space Administration or the Indian Space Research Organisation. This is a historic moment the dragon, Druk, returns to space from whence it came to bless this tiny Himalayan Kingdom.
With His Majesty’s vision and Bhutan-1, it has shown that no dream is too big for a country as small as Bhutan. Bhutan-1 marks one small step in science and a giant leap in Bhutan’s identity, the dragon orbiting in space.
In the times of Pema Lingpa, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and Desi Jigme Namgyal national identity was constructed from the opportunities of their times. In the 21st century, Bhutan must act upon the opportunities found in contemporary times. In addition to our age old tradition and cultures, Bhutan should also walk the frontiers of science and technology.
The importance of taking Bhutan at the frontiers of science and technology is not only for its role in the benefit of mankind but also as one of the Principles of State Policy (Article 9.23) in our Constitution: The State shall encourage free participation in the cultural life of the community, promote arts and sciences and foster technological innovation. Juxtaposed against spiritual heritage (Article 3) and culture (Article 4), the makers of our Constitution have given us ample space and freedom to pursue science and technology.
Dr Thinley Dorji
(medical doctor), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal and do not represent that of any institution.