Dispersed Radiance

This book is a step towards writing a socially informed history of physics in India in the first half of the twentieth century. Through a series of micro histories of physics, Abha Sur analyses the confluence of caste, nationalism, and gender in modern science in India, and unpacks the colonial context in which science was organised. She examines the constraints of material reality and ideologies on the production of scientific knowledge, and discusses the effect of the personalities of dominant scientists on the institutions and academies they created.


The bulk of the book examines the science and scientific practice of India’s two preeminent physicists in the first half of the twentieth century, C.V. Raman and Meghnad Saha. Raman and Saha were—in terms of their social station, political involvement, and cultural upbringing—diametric opposites. Raman came from an educated Tamil brahmin family steeped in classical art forms, and Saha from an uneducated rural family of modest means and underprivileged caste status in eastern Bengal. Sur also reconstructs a collective history of Raman’s women students—Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Sunanda Bai, and Anna Mani—each a scientist who did not get her due.


Dispersed Radiance makes an important contribution to the social history of science. It provides a nuanced and critical understanding of the role and location of science in the construction of Indian modernity and in the continuation of social stratification in colonial and postcolonial contexts.


Abha Sur teaches in the  Women’s & Gender Studies programme at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



‘Sur has woven a meticulous account of the subaltern history of physics in India during the first half of the 20th century’Science


‘This scholarly study of the social and political framework in which some leading scientists worked and interacted in India in the first half of the 20th century brings to the fore facts that outsiders would hardly suspect—a subtle dissertation on caste and gender hegemony in India’—Choice


‘A fascinating account of the play of caste and gender in science and in scientific institutions in India’—The Hindu