Thursday, January 24, 2008

A passion for science

Our Institute will be celebrating its centenary during the year 2008-09. While the big bang inauguration will probably happen during the first major event (probably in May 2008), the IISc Centenary Lecture series had its kick off today, with the inaugural lecture by Prof. C.N.R. Rao titled Tall Oaks from Little Acorns: Birth and Growth of Solid State and Materials Chemistry. [I noticed that the lecture was being filmed; I hope the video will be made available online].

There was a technical core to Rao's talk, covering key contributions from his group to fields such as chemistry of oxides, high temperature superconductivity, colossal magnetoresistance, nanochemistry, chemistry of graphenes, etc. If the talk had only this stuff, it would have been pretty dry; but, thanks to Rao's flamboyance (and some caustic wit), his talk was lively, and kept the audience entertained. He mixed up the technical bits with lots of interesting anecdotes involving big names in science, personal experiences, quips, one liners, and yes, mild insults that he threw at neighboring sciences and their practitioners.

Rao started his work in India in an era when there was "no money, no grants, no travel support and no foreign exchange". Indian scientists had no access to fancy equipment; "If you needed a furnace that can go up to 1000 degrees Celsius, well, you built it yourself!"

The upshot of this poverty paradigm was that research problems had to be chosen carefully. They must be conceptually rich, and capable of attracting international acclaim, and yet doable with limited equipment that was available. Rao's positive spin on this rather grim state of affairs was to express his gratitude because it encouraged and rewarded clever thinking: "Poverty is great. It makes your brains work!"

Institutional poverty forced him to be resourceful in other ways too. At one point in his talk, he alluded to his ability to get expensive, high purity chemicals -- he mentioned pure titanium and benzoic acid -- from his associates and collaborators in other countries. At yet another point, he told the audience about hearing about the early work in mid 1980s on high temperature superconductors from Phil Anderson (a Nobel winner in Physics) who was on a visit to Bangalore.

His passion for science was in abundant display throughout the talk. It is this passion that's behind his phenomenal publication record. It is this passion that makes him talk excitedly about all the new areas that he would like to start working in. It is this passion that allows him to cite, in today's talk, a paper from the latest issue of Nature, and present the latest results from his lab. In short, it is this passion that keeps him going. This intense passion also gives him sleepless nights; he doesn't mind it, he says, as long as it's a scientific question that keeps him awake!

This passion also has a flip side: it makes him complain about the IT industry (he came very close to launching into a diatribe in today's talk, but backed off). It gives him a rough edge, which was evident in all the put-downs he directed at scientists in other fields (and against some in his own). At one moment, he makes a snide remark about a Japanese scientist publishing the same -- or at least very similar -- work in multiple papers, and at another, he bemoans a Nobel going to people who had cracked only a part of a problem (for example, he said, they didn't have the structure nor the composition of their material). At one moment he ridicules physicists for their reliance on Scotch tape for their graphene samples ("Chemists can do this far better!"), and at another, he disses organic chemists who aren't keen on synthesizing the kind of materials he's interested in. Fortunately for him, the audience was in a benevolent mood and chose to see some humor in these rather tacky remarks.

Rao devoted a section of his talk to his legendary publication record: over 1400 articles and papers, and 41 books! He said he learned the importance of publishing from his scientific heroes (Linus Pauling and Michael Faraday) and professional mentors and associates. He spoke with great admiration about Sir Neville Mott, who published four papers in the year he died -- at 93! Rao also took great pride in his own prodigious output of over 30 papers annually. [He used this opportunity to take a dig at some physicist friends of his who claimed they were working on revolutionary new ideas. Physics had to carry on without those revolutions, he said, because their ideas were never published!]

Towards the end of his talk, he turned to some of his current research interests. After describing graphene and its wonderful array of fabulous properties, he said, "This is such a wonderful time to be a chemist or physicist! I envy the young kids. They have a full life ahead of them to work on all these exciting problems!"


  1. as said...

    I too once heard a lecture given by Prof. Rao and was really surprised to see the enthusiasm in his voice , in his energetic presentation, and this man was touching 70! Professors half his age seem to walk around with a quarter of that passion , it was a very welcome change to hear some body fired up about his work.

  2. revathi said...

    thanks for the detailed account of CNR's speech. I see that he hasnt changed very much..

  3. renu said...

    I would like to the read the annual reports of the Dept. of Science and Technology, CSIR, and other sinecure havens in the government, published in the '60s and '70s when Dr. Rao worked alone, unfunded, and unappreciated. What yarns were the Babus spinning those days while Indian science languished? Dr. Rao is arguably the only chemist in the world who can hold his own against a condensed matter theorist anywhere, anytime, and certainly the only chemist who could have given the father of condensed matter theory - the peerless Lev Landau - a lesson or two in his time.

  4. Robin said...

    @ Renu

    Why restrict yourself to the Great Landau? Why not Feynman,Einstein, Witten,Dirac,Schwinger?

  5. manju said...

    shut up you sick!indian scientists is being discrimminated by swiss academy hence not getting noble prize. iisc is as good as oxford, cambridge and etc

  6. renu said...

    robin, why not? well simply because in approaching the study of matter as a chemist, bottom up, Rao discovered a very many insights on his own that knock on the doors of physics. as for the others, condensed matter wasn't their field right? After Pauling there has really been no chemist like CNR.

  7. Uthappa said...


    Cool;Nice to know we both feel so strongly about the great CNR Rao. He really is a legend and I feel that all JNcians must atleast come forth and forward a letter to the Prime minister urging the king of Sweden to give him a nobel prize finally.

  8. manju said...

    i think it is big injustice when pakistani abdus salam can get noble prize how come top indian scientist cant get? in iisc so many scientist are publishing in nature, science, cell and etc. even great mathematician like sri ramanjum was denied fields...even the revolution of prime numbers in iit was denied fields...our iits are the toughest institutes in the world and compared to mit and caltech also...our iit/iim/iisc community globally must take action...against nobel comittee...its not like we are not powerful...see how bcci got darrel hair banned and bhajji cleared...india is the most underrated country...we should make sure that we are not marginalised...