Posts Tagged ‘Indian science’

Pride and Peeve: India and the Nobel science prizes

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 12th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – 1 Comment

Rajesh Kochhar

So far four genetic Indians have won the Nobel science prize: Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman (awarded 1930), Hargobind Khorana (1968), Subramanya Chandrasekhar ( 1983), and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (2009). Of these only the first one, Raman, was an Indian citizen and the work done was in India. All others acquired US citizenship and worked in the West. While there is pride in the honour bestowed on them, there is also regret that our pleasure is vicarious.

India is still answering questions that were raised by the colonialists 150 years ago. When an Indian did well academically , he was declared to have overcome prejudices of his race and declared a scholar in “ our sense of the term. Times of India editorially saw Ramakrishnan’s Nobel prize as a proof , because proof is needed all the time, that “Indians are no less talented than people elsewhere in the world”.

Raman is the first non-White scientist to win the prize. It would have been better for Indian science if he had missed the prize. (He got it with the skin of his teeth.)This early honour has created such dazzle that India has been blinded to the reality of its pursuit of science.

Raman used to boast the prize winning equipment cost only 200 rupees. (There is some dispute on the exact figure he quoted.)Raman missed the point completely. The main point is not the equipment cost a paltry sum, but that it was easily available in the country. Modern science was still young and its infrastructural demands were modest which they could be met at the level of a college lab. This was true of Raman as well as of the physicist Jagadis Chunder Bose and the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray before him. Both were professors in Presidency College Calcutta which a century ago ranked among the best equipped academic institutions of the world. High quality original research was a continuation, or a short step ahead, of classroom teaching, as is exemplified by the work of Raman himself, Chandrasekahar, Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Bose.

Science has progressed very rapidly since the second world war. The academic threshold for entering research is much higher than before. In keeping with progress in science, our science teaching at school , college and university levels should have been upgraded. Contrarily it has deteriorated

Basic science has increasingly become a child of high technology. India’s economy and industrial development do not have the intrinsic strength to sustain cutting – edge science. Since the recent economic growth has been driven by property boom and service sectors which are science-less, there is much less interest in science than before.

Indian education system has precipitously been made a part of patronage system. As many as sixteen central universities were opened with the stroke a pen. There have been successful street level agitations for more of them. Their location has been guided by real estate considerations rather than even semblance of an assessment Eleven of them do not even have a building to operate from leave aside a campus. The appointment of all vice-chancellors has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Are these signs of a country aspiring for Nobel prizes for in situ work?

Take the case of a small state as Punjab. Its capital, Chandigarh, has a university and an engineering college of long standing. Punjab already has a functional central post-graduate pharmacy university (NIPER), and a central science university (IISER) . A technical university (IIT) has become operational. On top of it, an all-purpose central university has been sanctioned in a far-off place. Are we talking of institutions of excellence or of cyber cafes and beer bars?

Ramakrishnan published his path-breaking three-dimensional map of ribosome sub-unit in 2000. Western recognition followed immediately. He was made a member of European Molecular Biology Organization in 2002; fellow of the Royal Society of London in 2003; and fellow of National Academy of Sciences, USA, in 2004. Curiously it was not until 2008 that Indian National Science Academy could bring itself to electing Ramakrishnan as a foreign fellow.

We do not have the self-confidence to recognize talent pon our own. We recognize it only when it is certified by the West. And then we deify the certified celebrities. We place them at high pedestals so that we do not have to listen to them, learn from them or put them to any use. We make them into two-dimensional images so that they can be hung on the wall and saluted. (They have not yet reached the statue stage.)

Contrast this with China. Ramakrishnan’s counterpart in physics is Shanghai-born Charles Kuen Kao for whom the prize has come at the fag end of his life. It is however remarkable that he was asked in 1970 to set up electrical engineering department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of which he subsequently served as vice-chancellor (1987-1996).

Ramakrishnan and before him Amartya Sen while moving from US to UK took a cut in their pay. Quite obviously to them research facilities and ambience mattered more than the pay slip. Indian university faculty and national lab scientists may like to keep this in mind.

If India wishes to become a Nobel prize factory, it will have to see beyond the current fiscal year or the next general election. Lord Rutherford in the 1930s compared biology to stamp collecting. Biology has come a long way since then; it is now a full-fledged lab science. The present and the near future belong to it.

Ramakrishnan’s own career graph is worth studying. He spent four years, 1994-1999, at University of Utah before moving to the Nobel prize factory in Cambridge. Utah is not in competition with Cambridge. Rather it acts as a feeder. Utah’s vice-president for research has made a significant point: “ We do not have the money to hire the people who are already famous. We have to spot the talent and nurture it”.

Here then is a model for India. Set up a Cambridge-type national lab and surround it with Utah – type talent spotters and nurturers.//

Note added 13 october 2009. Also see R. Kochhar: “Some pride, some regret: From Raman to Venkatraman. Tribune , Chandigarh ( Op-ed) !3 Oct. 2009. URL is

The wrong Bose at Como

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on August 28th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Economic Times 31May 1994

Rajesh Kochhar

The 70th birthday celebration of the noted physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) in Calcutta was witness to an unusual event. One of the invited speakers in the function was Debendra Mohan Bose (1885-1975) the nephew of the famed Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937) and a well known physicist. He was the grand old man of Calcutta science. In the course of his speech he referred to the 1927 international conference at Como in Italy which he had attended when S N Bose interrupted him by pointing out that D M Bose had gone on an invitation that was actually meant for him. The interrupted by the mild-mannered and usually reticent Satyen Bose caused a flutter, especially because the reference was to a 37-year old incident.

In the year of S N Bose’s birth centenary it is of historical interest to recount what led to this confusion. At the time of the Como conference, S N Bose was a professor at Dacca University where he had moved in 1921. He wrote his famous paper on ‘Planck’s constant. ‘The Como conference, held during 11-20 September 1927, had been billed as a ‘meeting of exceptional interest’ in commemoration of the first centenary of the death of Volta. At this international congress of physics, 14 countries were represented by about 60 invited participant, including 11 Noble laureates. India was represented by two scientists: D M Bose and M N Saha. But, it turned out at the meeting that the organizers had intended to invite S N Bose, the co-founder of Bose-Einstein statistics.

When S N Bose wrote his paper providing statistical mechanical basis for Planck’s radiation law, he very boldly decided to send is to Albert Einstein. In the covering letter dated 4 June 1924, Bose requested Einstein to evaluate his paper, and if found worthy, arrange for its translation into German and publication in the Zeitschrift fuer Physik. Einstein promptly acknowledged Bose’s latter, translated the paper himself, and sent it to the journal with a laudatory note at the end. The paper was received by the journal on 2 July 1924 and published in the August issue.

Einstein remarked in his note that “The method used here gives also the quantum theory of an ideal gas, as I shall show else where” and Einstein’s paper ‘Quantum theory of monatomic ideal gas’ appeared in print on 20 September 1924. Bose’s epoch making work and Einstein’s prompt follow-up gave rise to Bose-Einstein statistics (now shortened to Bose statistics) which applies to elementary particles that are indistinguishable from each other and these, in turn, are termed bosons. Unwittingly, Einstein applied the ‘indistinguishability principle of bosons to the two Boses themselves: S N Bose who corresponded with him and D M Bose who spent time at Berlin.

Bose’s covering letter to Einstein had been signed as S N Bose. However, the paper sent to the Zeitschrift by Einstein is credited simply to Bose (without initials), Dacca University, India. Einstein compounds the mistake by his carelessness in his own follow-up paper. Here he refers to Bose’s epoch-making work but attributes it to Hrn (Mr) D Bose. So what must have happened is when the Como conference decided to invite S N Bose, they went by Einstein’s paper rather than S N Bose’s own. Accordingly the invitation went to D M Bose who made his appearance at Como.

It is not known in which archive the original invitation exists. It is, however, mildly amusing to note that truth was revealed not by the beneficiary D M Bose, but by the victim S N Bose whose next visit abroad was to occur only 27 years later, in July 1954.

Subramanya Chandrasekhar : A tribute (1999)

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 8th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – 3 Comments

The Tribune , Chandigarh, 27 July 1999

Chandra observatory: tribute to a legend
 Rajesh Kochhar

The recent X-ray observatory launched into space by the USA has been named Chandra after the India-born American astrophysicist. This is a befitting tribute by the USA to a man who did much to invigorate American astronomy.

Chandrasekhar, popularly called Chandra, came to the USA in 1937 as a scientific refugee from Europe, after spending his seven most creative years at Cambridge University. He was the first person to apply the theory of special relativity to astronomy. He showed that there is an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf. (This limit is now known as the Chandrasekhar Limit.) What happens if the white dwarf mass is higher than the Chandrasekhar Limit? In what must rank as the understatement of the century, Chandrasekhar declared: “One is left speculating on other possibilities.”

The other possibilities, of course, are the neutron star and the black hole, whose properties the Chandra observatory would study.

The course of astronomical history would have been different if Chandrasekhar’s work, mathematically rigorous as it was, had received immediate recognition. But at that time it met with ridicule at the hands of the most influential astronomer of the day, Sir Arthur Eddington, who declared with a haughtiness one associates with a viceroy rather than scientists: “I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.”

Sir Arthur was blinded by his self-righteousness, the rest of Europe by the glare of his personality. For four long frustrating years, Chandrasekhar tried to enlist support from among the physicists and astronomers but to no avail.

Sir Arthur’s hostility delayed the development of the subject by a generation. The discovery of quasars in 1963 and of radio pulsars in 1967 proved that relativistic astrophysics was not merely a mathematical artifact but also had the sanction of direct observation. Chandrasekhar could have got the Nobel Prize anytime after 1967 but not before this. (He got it 16 years later, in 1983). It was, however, not till 1974 that a medal awarded to Chandrasekhar referred to his white dwarf work.

Sir Arthur’s academic hostility robbed Chandrasekhar of his innocence. He moved to the USA (“Out there we don’t believe in Eddington”), resolving not to hanker after recognition but to let his work speak for itself. Henceforth mathematics would be his ally and time his judge.

As if to provide a physical basis to his resolve, Chandrasekhar bade goodbye to his first love, stellar structure. He would take on a new subject, write a definitive treatise on it and move on. Significantly, while his first work was the first word on the subject, his subsequent works have tended to be the last word. Even without the white dwarf work, Chandrasekhar would have been an outstanding astrophysicist, but he would not have won the Nobel Prize.

A few years ago, during one of his visits to Bangalore, I asked Chandrasekhar what was more satisfying, saying the first word or the last. His answer was rather long and involved. He first educated me who had first used the terms “first word” and “last word”. He then analysed the works of French and other painters. Regrettably, his efforts to raise my aesthetic sensibilities failed. All I learnt was that I was not getting a reply to my question.

It was indeed a bold step for Chicago University and the Yerkes Observatory to hire Chandrasekhar, who was the first non-white member of the faculty. He more than repaid the consideration shown to him. His outsidedness was put to good use when he edited the Astrophysical Journal for 19 strenuous years, “and turned it into a world-class publication.” He was, however, never offered the presidentship of the American Astronomical Society.

In 1966, he was given the National Medal of Science by the American President. It was the first time that the medal went to an astronomer. The citation made specific reference to Chandrasekhar’s contribution to the training of manpower.

He had an extraordinarily retentive memory. In August, 1949, he wrote to a friend: “I recall replying to your letter of June 6, 1937.” In 1992, I had an occasion to discuss with him an incident that had taken place in 1927: how at an international conference in Cuomo, Italy, D.M. Bose turned up much to the chagrin of the organisers who had wished to see S.N. Bose instead. Chandrasekhar heard the story from his friend, K.S. Kushnan, who in turn had heard it from the aggrieved Bose. Chandrasekhar recalled the details in his 1992 letter, closing it with a finality: “My recollection of the story is quite distinct and I am sure it reproduces exactly what Krishnan told me.”

Chandrasekhar began his white dwarf work when he was still a student at Presidency College, Chennai. Could India have retained him?

Chandrasekhar’s tiff with Eddington had its effect on his fortunes in British India. From 1935 till 1944, Chandrasekhar remained in the doghouse. His rehabilitation came in 1944 with his election as a fellow of the Royal Society (where Eddington was one of his sponsors). After that he received a number of offers. First, there was this invitation from his overbearing uncle, C.V. Raman, to join the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, an offer Chandrasekhar could not have accepted. He could have joined Banaras Hindu University, where the Vice-Chancellor, S. Radhakrishnan, was keen to appoint him.

Why is it that any of these initiatives failed to produce results? Two years ago. I had the opportunity, with Mrs Lalita Chandrasekhar’s permission, to go through some (but not all) of the Chandrasekhar Papers deposited at the Chicago university. (The visit to Chicago, in turn, was made possible by a Fulbright grant). My own impressionistic answer is as follows.

There was a difference of perception between Chandrasekhar on the one hand and his family and advisers back home on the other. Left to himself, he would have accepted Homi Bhabha’s offer to come to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. His father and advisers, however, wished to see him as the Director of the Kodaikanal Observatory, a well-known astronomical centre in South India. Chandrasekhar, however, did not have any intention of accepting an administrative post, and wanted a university-like setting.

In his authorised biography by K.C. Wali, Chandrasekhar confirms this: “Left to myself I would have been tempted by Bhabha’s offer to a greater extent than I was. But I was advised against it by several people.”

His acceptance of American citizenship in 1953 put paid to all questions of returning. He would gladly have accepted a part-of-year professorship, but none came his way. Finally, on his retirement, there was again this possibility of returning home, but efforts remained half-hearted and ceased after a while.

What course would Indian science and education have taken if Chandrasekhar had returned? No doubt, he would have trained a large number of researchers, who in course of time would have occupied important positions in the Indian academy. Would Chandrasekhar’s total commitment to science have become the guiding principle for his students also? Would his conscientious negation of administrative and executive powers been emulated? In his own words, one is left speculating on the possibilities. As it turned out, in his native land, Chandrasekhar became an icon, a showboy, even a tool, but never a teacher or guide or a role model.

Chandrasekhar was a citizen of the world. He was an American by residence, European by training, but an Indian not only by birth but also by affiliations. In probably an unguarded moment, he wrote in a personal letter (1979): “You say that it never rains — it pours. “For me it seems to be always barren”.

(The author is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore.)