Age of Autodidact

Tapan Misra

When I took charge of Director, PRL, one curious PhD student barged into my room and asked innocently, “Sir, there is a rumour that you are the least qualified among scientific staff. Is it true? How will you manage PRL?”

Though I was taken aback, I retorted, “Truth always masquerades as corridor-rumour. But education and qualification are not synonymous. As far as second part of your query is concerned, I will learn myself”

God has never been kind to me. I bunked RADAR classes in my college days. But I was forced to work in Radar as I was the least qualified among the new entrants in ISRO that year. Hence, I had the least elbow room for bargaining to get a more comfortable assignment. Ultimately, I acquired a semblance of expertise in radar by self study, to earn a somewhat decent living.

When I was Director, SAC, a file landed up on my table. It was for procurement of a costly CNC machine of 10 micron accuracy, at a whopping cost of around a couple of crores. Plus, it needs civil construction with vibration isolators at plinth level, air-conditioning with very narrow temperature range. The machine was urgently needed for fabricating Millimetre wave components.

Being a habitual practitioner of foolishness, I promptly closed the file and discussed with experts about the possibility building the machine in SAC itself. I understood that building a CNC machine needs expertise in mechanical design, electrical drive and control and CNC programming, having allegiance to three formidable branches of engineering, who are never in talking terms even in the best of the times. You can never build a good quality CNC machine until and unless all non linearity in drive system and minute errors in orientation and non linearity in guides, are suitably calibrated and inverse corrections are implemented in software. An excellent handholding among them is a prerequisite.

Three young mechanical engineers Bhavin, Kausal, Kaival came forward, learnt all that was necessary to build a CNC machine. Finally they built one with 6 micron accuracy, better than what we required. Icing on the cake was: the machine needs neither vibration isolators nor air-conditioning. This was just another confirmation of my belief that we need totality engineering, not separate expertise of electronics, electrical, mechanical, metallurgical , computer or any other esoteric subject. An engineer needs to learn what ever knowledge is required, to design and fabricate an appliance. Self taught engineering is the best taught one.

Soumya Misra and Urmi Bhambani Misra, IITK and VIT grads left MNC jobs, worked in a couple of start ups, were selected by GOI as among Top 50 mobile phone designers in the country. They established a News Info App Summachar. It is cloud based, with a get up of Desi Instagram, has a very catchy graphical presentation and an in depth information content, sans story part of standard news. But because of their shoestring budget, they did not hire costly IIT guys, not even engineering grads or media education grads. Instead they picked up college dropouts, school pass outs, college students from commerce, history, geography and many other subjects. These boys and girls are located in all different corners of India and globe. They all work from home or while travelling or in the college cafeteria. Long before Covid forced WFH on industries, the founder duo mastered the art of of managing employees working from home and connected by internet. But they built fantastic contents, graphics, videos, cloud based software, fantastic Apps. All of them had one thing in common. They are all self taught and self guided.

In SAC, Anirban Mal was an unconventional RF engineer, pursuing astrophysics as a hobby and working silently with like minded scientists. In the straight jacketed world of ISRO, he was a deviant. In my time I tried to protect likes of him from bosses who normally do not like people “who are not like them”. After I left, he suffered in promotion, was shuffled around. But with his hobby, pursued painstakingly, he statistically analysed huge volume of observatory data lying idle. He discovered that the observed data do support controversial theory of Prof Jayant Narlikar that, red shifts do exhibit non uniformity and periodicity. Again a self taught physicist.

Finally the “whodunit” riddle is getting solved, thanks to a motley group of amateur sleuths, mostly in their 20s, from diverse nationalities and diverse professions, who collaborated on Twitter. Their findings point to the conclusion that Covid 19 originated most probably in Wuhan Institute of Virology, compelling POTUS to reinitiate investigation of the orgin of Covid 19, which was thought as done and dusted by media, nationalities, intelligence agencies.

It is a matter of pride that this team of amateur sleuths were led by an anonymous Indian from West Bengal, with Twitter handle @TheSeeker268, in his late 20s. “His career has been a melange of architecture, painting, and filmmaking—a khichdi,….. a voracious autodidact, he’d become an expert at searching the back alleys of the web, far beyond the well-lit places patrolled by Google.”

Conventional teaching, academic processes and employment criteria need to be relooked. Internet has democratised knowledge. To get yourself educated with teachings from topmost universities, one need not even enroll in them. Degrees are no longer a guarantee for repository of knowledge and expertise. Our education system and academic institutions need to respond and adjust to this new reality. Welcome to the age of autodidact.


Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist. He has served as Advisor in the Department of Space and has also headed Space Application Centre

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