China and India
  • Amidst all the depressing news about Sino-Indian diplomatic tiffs, it is a matter of no little satisfaction that the two neighbours will cooperate in setting up what will be the world’s largest telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. The two countries will share both the construction costs of $1 billion and observation time when it is ready later this decade. Known for the present as the Thirty Metre Telescope because of its length of 30 metres, it will be able to see at a distance of 13 billion light years. It will be of considerable help to astronomers who are engaged in studying the origin of planets outside the solar system, black holes, dark matter and dark energy.
    This collaboration will revive a tradition going back to more than 1,000 years when Chinese scholars studied in India, mainly in Nalanda, and Indian academics spent time in China as the overarching influence of Buddhism removed the barriers of distance, language and ethnicity. As Amartya Sen has noted in his The Argumentative Indian, “Indian mathematicians and astronomers held high positions in China’s scientific establishment, and an Indian scientist called Gautama Siddhartha (Qutan Xida, in Chinese) even became the president of the official Board of Astronomy in China in the eighth century”.
    The writings of Chinese visitors to India such as Faxian in the fifth century and of Xuanzang and Yi Xing in the seventh show that in addition to religious theory and practice, their interests extended to mathematics, literature, linguistics, architecture, medicine and music. Notable among them was Yi Xing, a tantrik monk, who has been described as the greatest Chinese astronomer and mathematician of his time.

    As the descendants of Gautama Siddhartha and Yi Xing study the data of black holes and dark matter atop Mauna Kea, they will be reliving a glorious past.

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