Saturday, September 25, 2010

Satish Dhawan

The Faculty Hall of our Institute was the venue of a nice little event this afternoon. The occasion was a celebration of the life and contributions of the late Prof. Satish Dhawan on what would have been his 90th birthday.

With his wife Mrs. Nalini Dhawan (and probably several other family members) in the audience, his colleagues Prof. Roddam Narasimha, Dr. Kasturi Rangan and Prof. M.G.K. Menon shared with us some of the most memorable moments from Dhawan's illustrious career. The event's highlight was reserved for the end, when we had some of the most heartwarming reminiscences from his daughter, Dr. Jyotsna Dhawan, on Dhawan's life as a son, husband, father, and uncle.

The overall portrait of Dhawan -- not just from the speeches we heard today, but also from conversations with some of the senior colleagues here -- is one of a people-oriented leader: warm, informal, democratic, socially conscious, and transformative.

[In the comments section, Prof. Ranganathan adds: "I was invited by him to join IISc in 1981- the year he retired. In the last week of July he went around to the office of every faculty mmber to thank them . I can even now remember his walking into my office."]

Here are some assorted links (and other pieces of info) on Dhawan:

  • Dhawan did a BA in mathematics and Physics, and an MA in English before getting a BE in Mechanical Engineering -- all from the Punjab University at Lahore. Before getting a PhD from Caltech in 1951, he would accumulate a couple more degrees -- MS (U Minnesota) and Aeronautical Engineer's degree (Caltech).

  • He joined IISc as a Senior Scientific Officer in 1951, rose to become the Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1955. At 42, he became the Director of IISc, and led our Institute (with a sabbatical break during 1971-72) right until he retired in 1981. He was the only engineer among the Institute's directors! [Correction: There's one other engineer. Prof. M.S. Thacker, an electrical engineer, held this position during 1949-55. I thank Prof. Ranganathan for correcting me; see his comment]

  • In this Current Science obituary, Prof. Roddam Narasimha says:

    In a very real sense I think Dhawan established, at IISc and – by example – elsewhere in the country, a tradition of scientific research on engineering problems.

  • His tenure as the Director of IISc is credited [and I'm paraphrasing stuff I found in B.V. Subbarayappa's In Pursuit of Excellence -- A History of the Indian Institute of Science] with solidifying the modern way of promoting faculty members based on their records (and not on the availability of professorial positions), introduction of a divisional structure with a chairman each (similar to colleges and deans in the US).

    Also, it was Dhawan who brought to IISc such established scientists as Prof. G.N. Ramachandran, Prof. C.N.R. Rao and Prof. E.C. George Sudarshan -- each established a new centre / unit: molecular biophysics, solid state and structural chemistry and theoretical sciences, respectively.

  • In his autobiography Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry (IISc Press - World Scientific, 2010), Prof. C.N.R. Rao talks about Dhawan's role in getting him back to IISc. (He was at IISc during 1959-63, when Dhawan and he became friends; he moved to IIT-Kanpur in 1963). By 1976, he was keen to leave IIT-K, and was weighing several options including an offer from a US university. This is what he says:

    When I returned from the US, I ran into Satish Dhawan. He first asked me if I would come to IISc and head the IPC [Inorganic and Physical Chemistry] department or the chemistry division. I told him that I was not interested in either position and was actually not looking for a job. Satish then asked me, "Why must you leave India? What will it take to get you back to IISc?". Such enquiries are rarely made by senior administrators. [Emphasis added]

  • Here's another initiative, as described by Subbarayappa:

    Towards the end of 1968 there was a new move. On the initiative of Satish Dhawan, the Council decided to inject new blood into the Institute by recruiting bright Indian scientists and technologists working abroad. It authorized R. Choksi, Chairman of the Council and the Director to visit specially the USA, UK and Europe and interview suitable candidates for selection for various positions in the Institute. Early 1969, prospective candidates were interviewed by them with the help of experts abroad. The result was that a large number of Indian scientists and technologists joined the Institute at different levels in the seventies.

  • Here's an excerpt from the Frontline obituary by R. Ramachandran:

    After serving as IISc Director for nearly nine years, Dhawan went on a year's sabbatical to his alma mater, Caltech, during 1971-72. But one day his lecture was interrupted by a telephone call from the Indian embassy, which said that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted him to return to India and take charge of the Indian space programme following the death of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of the Indian space programme, on December 30, 1971. [...]

    The following incident speaks of Dhawan's commitment to work and his integrity. Dhawan told the caller to tell the Prime Minister that he was on a sabbatical and, moreover, teaching a course and that he would be able to return only after finishing that. As regards assuming charge of the space programme, he said that he was answerable to the IISc Council and, therefore, cannot give any reply without its assent. Dhawan was seen as the right replacement for the space programme and so the Prime Minister, in her known wisdom with regard to matters concerning science administration, decided to wait for his return.

    On his return, Choksi and J.R.D. Tata, president of the institute's court, made it known to Dhawan that he was free to do what he felt like. But Dhawan himself did not wish to take leave of absence from the institute, let alone resign. Dhawan met the Prime Minister and agreed to head the space programme but on two conditions - that he be allowed to continue as the Director of the IISc and that the headquarters of the space programme be in Bangalore. Indira Gandhi agreed to both.

  • This episode from Dhawan's leadership at ISRO is now a legend [Manoranjan Das also cites this episode in his essay published last year]:

    The first experimental launch of SLV-3 took place on August 10, 1979, but it was a failure. Kalam was called by Dhawan to attend a press conference. "Before the press conference, Professor Dhawan told me that he was going to handle the situation and I should be present with many of the senior scientists and technologists," Kalam has said.

    At the press conference Dhawan announced "Friends, today we had our first satellite launch vehicle to put a satellite in the orbit, we could not succeed. It is our first mission of proving multiple technologies in satellite and satellite launch vehicles. In many technologies we have succeeded and a few more we have to succeed. Above all, I realise my team members have to be given all the technological support. I am going to do that and the next mission will succeed." [...]

    The next developmental flight, of SLV-3,on July 18, 1980, was a remarkable success. "An important thing happened then," recounts Kalam. "Professor Dhawan asked me to handle the press conference with our team members. Dhawan's management philosophy was that when success comes in after hard work, the leader should give the credit of the success to the team members. When failure comes, the leader should absorb the failures and protect the team members."

  • The final quote is from this Caltech obituary by Dhawan's PhD thesis advisor:

    [After Satish joined my research group] it soon became evident that we had acquired an outstanding new member. From his previous scholastic records, we expected excellence in scholarship and class work, but there was so much more. Satish was immediately accepted and respected by this highly competent and proud group of young scientists. He showed an unusual maturity in judging both scientific and human problems, a characteristic that today is called “leadership quality.” I usually hate using terms like this to pigeonhole a person, but here it fits. Satish could be tough without having to get mad first —- a trait that I envy. He was a natural mentor for younger people. Finally, he had a very good sense of humor, a quality that I think is necessary, but not sufficient, to keep one from becoming pompous in old age. I still remember our Ping-Pong games in the lab. When Satish won, he would crack: “See, I am a crafty Asiatic!”


  1. Abi said...

    I'm posting this comment I received from my colleague and friend, Prof. Ranganathan, whose effort to post it here was (somehow) thwarted by Here it is:

    "A lovely account of a wonderful evening of reminescences about Satish , India's foremost Engineering - Scientist. I was invited by him to join IISc in 1981- the year he retired. In the last week of July he went around to the office of every faculty mmber to thank them . I can even now remember his walking into my office.

    "Even Abi nods! Prof. M.S. Thacker, an eminent electrical engineer, was a former director. Prof J C Ghosh, another former Director, was no doubt a chemist but he ushered in several Engineering disciplines, including metallurgy. He went on to be the Founder Director of IIT Kharagpur, allowing IISc historians to claim that IITs are the offspring of IISc."

  2. Shreya Anup Akkihal said...

    Thanks! It was informative and also a nice read!

  3. Mukta said...

    This was a lovely read. Thanks for all the info here :)

  4. Vishal said...

    Thanks ! Really a very informative article :)

  5. harsha said...

    Very informative and live post.
    Thanks for sharing it!.