Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | World

March 4, 2005

NASA's Prodigy Takes India for a Ride

A poorly conceived hoax takes advantage of the country's academic pride.

David Goldenberg

A few weeks ago, a 17-year-old boy from a small, rural town in the Uttar Pradesh province of India made national headlines. Saurabh Singh claimed he beat 200,000 other students from around the world in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s prestigious International Scientist Discovery examination, becoming the first Indian ever to accomplish that feat.

Singh was proclaimed a champion—he was invited to visit the prime minister and the president, and the Uttar Pradesh state government’s upper house awarded him 500,000 rupees ($11,457) and a day’s salary from each of the 100 members.

It turns out that Singh’s entire story was a lie. The test does not exist, and it is unlikely that Singh ever left the country. The one piece of evidence he has produced to prove the legitimacy of his feat is a tattered certificate that looks suspiciously like a doctored school ID. The certificate proclaims, among other things, that “You are the member of NASA” and misspells “permanent” as “parmenent” and former NASA Chief Sean O’Keefe as “Cin K. Kif.”

Saurabh Singh
Certainly, part of the blame for this fiasco rests with India’s media, which printed well over 100 articles about the boy’s feat without calling NASA for comment. A front page article in the Indian Express relates intricate anecdotes from Singh’s supposed test, including the following:

No wonder that when NASA chief Sean O’Keefe asked Saurabh a question on English grammar, he gave the right answer—even though he replied in Hindi. “The NASA chief applauded,” says Saurabh.

When an enterprising reporter, Suman Guha Mozumder from Rediff.com, finally called NASA for comment, he learned that no one there had ever heard of such a test. One NASA engineer told him, "NASA is not an examining body, as you know. It is not a university. It is a department of the government. Obviously there is no question of its conducting tests.” (Well before the hoax was outed, bloggers and message-board posters—mainly Indians and Indian-Americans—were suspicious, noting that a Google search of the International Scientists Discovery exam only revealed links to articles in Indian newspapers about Singh.)

But even international news organizations fell for the story. The BBC (which has a history of being hoaxed—check out this article by Carl) also reported the story first-hand and printed an article about the boy. (The official link to the story has since been taken down by the BBC and replaced with a follow-up. The BBC press department didn't respond to Gelf's emails asking about article-removal policy.)

There are a few reasons why it may have taken journalists so long to discover the hoax. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the amount of detail Singh gave to them about his feats. Singh claimed that, while he was the first Indian to top the exam, several Indian luminaries before him had taken it, including President Abdul Kalam (who placed 7th) and the late Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla (who placed 21st). In another article, Singh told reporters he beat out a Chinese student for the top spot, and gave the surnames and regions for the other three Indian students he claimed took the exam with him. He also claimed he was going to Pennsylvania to be taught by NASA officials, and gave details about the specific marks he received on his test.

Another complicating factor that may have faked-out journalists: After Singh "won," a famous tutoring school started taking out advertisements in daily papers stating that the NASA winner was a product of its coaching (IANS). Since the hoax has been exposed, the school, Vision 2000, has tried to distance itself from Singh, stating that it was relying on media reports for its information and that Singh was only an “average” student (Rediff.com).

But another coaching school is currently under investigation for its links to the hoax. Local authorities are probing Bansal Classes, a Vision 2000 rival, as the facilitator of the scam; the school was referred to by an official as a “coaching mafia” that lies to students who are seeking acceptance into India’s top professional institutes. V.K. Bansal, who runs the institute, is widely admired for his prowess in getting his students into India’s top technical institutes. Singh claims that Bansal paid for and accompanied him on the trip to England to take the NASA test. “I don’t even know the boy,” Bansal told NDTV. Bansal also pointed out that he hasn’t ever left the country, and would have had a hard time accompanying Singh as he is now in a wheelchair. Bansal didn't return many requests for comments from Gelf.

Intense competition between coaching institutes comes with the academics-obsessed terrain in India. While national athletic teams receive little attention and find little success (ESPN the Magazine pointed this out in an article with the harsh title of “None in a Billion”), academic competitions are an important source of pride for the country. Prodigies, like 12-year old quiz master Subham Prakhar and 17-year old computer hacker Ankit Fadia, have become national heroes by exhibiting their smarts on a grand stage.

Singh continues to hang onto the shreds of his quickly disintegrating story, now claiming that Bansal Classes took advantage of him and lied about the circumstances of the testing. And while the coaching institute may well deserve blame, it will be hard to rally the public now that Singh has spoiled what was a shining moment for India.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Comments

- World
- posted on Oct 01, 08
SUNIL KUMAR PANWAR

i m now doing B.Tech from electronics & communication branch. what i do for enterning in the NASA.i m an Indian and now i live in jaipur(rajasthan),India

- World
- posted on Nov 17, 08
anup kumar

hello,sir iam anup I want to gave the nasa exam,plz give details

- World
- posted on Nov 21, 08
SAGAR GUPTA

please tell me ,from where i can fill the form of NASA exam conducted in INDIA.

- World
- posted on Feb 17, 09
Prasant

Sir i m a b-tech student and i desparatly want to join nasa.would u plz tell me how i can join through any entrance exams.

- World
- posted on Mar 26, 09
Fakeer

it's not yet over! bungholes are still asking more. indian males, before you post any more comments here, there is no fucking exam to get into NASA. this is not a movie and you are an embarrassment to your country.

- World
- posted on Jul 11, 09
manish jha

I am a12th class student and i want to join NASA in future.suggest me

- World
- posted on Jul 11, 09
manish jha

iwant know the types of question asked in nasa examination.

- World
- posted on Sep 13, 09
MOHIT

I WANT TO INVENT SPECIAL


- World
- posted on Jul 07, 11
Sandeep Upadhyay

Respected Sir,

With due apologies, please send me details of NASA award test. I want to write for it. I am now dueing Telecomm engineer.

Please help,
Sandeep

- World
- posted on Sep 10, 11
aman

i really feel shame to see that my own fckin country men want to work for foriegn countries . while there own country needs there knowledge.... shame on u basterds.. u guyz really burden on my country.. help ur own country first idiots ...


Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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