Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Venki in India

The latest Nobel sensation of Indian origin, Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, gave a lecture yesterday at the Madras University to a 3000-strong audience [pic]. Here's the way different media outlets covered this event:

  1. Priscilla Jebaraj in The Hindu: Appreciate Science for What It Is:

    Asked how students could aim to emulate him and “win a Nobel for India,” Dr. Ramakrishnan answered emphatically: “That is the wrong question to ask…You can’t go into science thinking of a Nobel Prize. You can only go into science because you’re interested in it.”

  2. Sify: 'Red tape, politics dither scientists from returning home':

    Calling for "autonomy from red tape and local politics" in India, Nobel laureate Indian-American scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan on Tuesday said many scientists of Indian origin may return home if the government made "attractive offers" to undertake research in science.

  3. G.C. Shekhar's report in The Telegraph is a commentary on Madras university officials. The very opening paragraph -- which is not about what happened, but about what did not happen! -- is revealing:

    Thankfully, there were no welcoming arches or roadside banners for “Tamil Nadu’s third science Nobel laureate”, or Venkatraman Ramakrishnan might have turned back and returned to England.

    There's more such fluff before the business of reporting the main event even begins:

    After arriving at vice-chancellor G. Thiruvasagam’s office, Venki spurned a car ride to the nearby auditorium. He chose to walk down, striding past the waiting Toyota Innova with his backpack slung over his shoulders even as the varsity officials hurriedly fell in step.

    ... Venki arrived in khakis and a half-sleeve green shirt while the VC wore a suit.

See also: Venki's dad commenting on his son's work, and Venki's views on 'helping' Indian science. This bit of candor is touching:

Asked whether he would like to teach Indian students through EDUSAT facility, Ramakrishnan said, "You must realise that I have never taught in my life except for two years in Utah. Otherwise, I have been doing research in labs where there is no teaching."

"But, I have been able to lecture about my research. I am actually not a professor," he said.


  1. truti said...

    Dr.Ramakrishnan's must have chosen to wear boots of lead, maybe why his feet are so firmly planted on earth. There hasn't been such a graceful and modest Nobel Laureate in years with the exception of Prof.Yves Chauvin (Chemistry 2005 for metathesis)
    I am glad VR paid homage to the great GNR who first successfully battled the drama queens Watson and Crick over the structure of collagen and then fought a losing battle with the "rationalist" mavens of the DMK in the early 70s when they managed to shut down his lab and drive him out of Madras into the arms of the IISc

    VR isn't saying much Consider these facts He graduated with a three year BS in physics at 19 and was done with his PhD by 23! The highly pedigree obsessed science community in the US kept him out of tenure track positions for years and even now can't bring themselves to commend him High profile science bloggers like Larry Moran (; Princeton PhD and U.Toronto Professor) haven't written about VR yet although they unfailingly write about Nobel Laureates all the time VR is a class act and has always stood by the institutions that have supported him unlike some other notables who are given the ladder they have climbed up on VR has lectured regularly at Ohio University for a long time

  2. Yeti said...

    I like some of VR comments on "helping" Indian science. The best he can do (besides teaching and collaborative work) is to make an assessment of Indian facilities vis-a-vis the infrastructure that he used throughout his research career. No doubt instruments without creativity/hard-work doesn't lead anywhere but such as assessment will help in clarifying as to what needs to be done to on the non-human/mentoring/politics side to get the same specific results in that field.
    In particular would VR have been as productive without these large facilities -

  3. Yeti said...

    Btw I have an idea for how Venki can help. Some Indian student/researcher should be able to write up a joint proposal which if it clears the peer review comittee should lead to beam time access on those large light source facilities that VR uses for his research.

  4. Shastri JC Philip said...

    Every report about Venki amazes me. Also reminds me of my days with the University.

    Shastri Philip

  5. truti said...


    I am not sure many get VR's point. He says that science is hard, not necessarily for everyone, takes years, and is not about Nobels. All that a country can do is to support science in different ways at different times of a scientist's career and allow institutions to develop. He claims no expertise in managing scientific institutions and repeats every time, when asked, that there is some very good work being done in India by some very good scientists. He refuses to engage in any discussion of the management of science education and research in India merely on the grounds of having become a Nobel Laureate. If India had no time to ask him these questions as recently as a year ago, while he has been visiting India unfailingly for several years, there is no reason for him to discuss that now.

  6. Anonymous said...

    I loved the "drama queens Watson and Crick"! :)

  7. Hutom said...

    The Telegraph's G.C.Shekhar finds it worth noting that Dr. Ramakrishnan chose to walk to the auditorium -- some of us can't help rolling our eyes when the big bosses of Indian science require a car for such things. Or more generally expect people to be on attention for their littlest needs.