Friday, October 29, 2010

Limitless Ladder: Part 5. Review by a Chemist

That chemist is Ashutosh Jogalekar (aka Wavefunction). An excerpt from his review:

So how does one do high-quality research in a resources and cash-strapped developing country? Rao’s approach is worth noting. He knew that the accuracy of measurements he could do with the relatively primitive equipment in India could never compete with sophisticated measurements in Europe or the US. So instead of aiming for accuracy, Rao aimed at interesting problems. He would pick a novel problem or system where even crude measurements would reveal something new. Others may then perform more accurate measurements on the system, but his work would stand as the pioneering work in the area. This approach is worth emulating and should be especially emphasized by young scientists starting out in their careers: be problem-oriented rather than technique-oriented. Another key lesson from Rao's life is to not work in crowded fields; Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists. This also keeps one from getting bored. Embodying this philosophy allowed Rao to work in a vast number of areas. He started with spectroscopic investigations of liquids, moved to inorganic materials and further worked extensively on organic materials. Among other things, he has made significant contributions to unraveling the structures and properties of transition metal oxides, ceramic superconductors and materials displaying giant magneto-resistance. All these had special physical and chemical properties which were directly a result of their unique structures. Rao co-authored an internationally recognized book- “New Directions in Solid-State and Structural Chemistry”- which encapsulates the entire field.

However, sometimes not having the right technique can prove significantly debilitating. In the 80s, the world of science was shaken by the discovery of ‘high-temperature’ superconductivity in a ceramic material. In fact Rao had synthesized the exact same material - an oxide of copper, lanthanum and barium - more than fifteen years ago. However, the compound became superconducting at 30 degrees Kelvin and could be studied only in liquid helium. Unfortunately Rao was unable to do measurements at this temperature because the only relevant material available in his laboratory was liquid nitrogen, which boils at 77 K. If liquid helium had been available, Rao might well have been the first person to observe superconductivity in this material. In 1987, two scientists at IBM who discovered the phenomenon were awarded the Nobel Prize.


  1. Mostly Rational said...

    I am curious to know if there is any evidence to suggest that CNR anticipated the possibility that the material he synthesized may be a High Tc superconductor. Its one thing to say the he synthesized a material which *later turned out* to be a high Tc superconductor. Its quite another to suggest that he was aware of or somehow suspected the high Tc promise of the material and just did not have the technology to probe those properties. Did CNR probe the conductivity of the material at 80 or 90K using the technology he had access to ?

  2. Ungrateful Alive said...

    "Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists." --- In Computer Science, this would be considered a shabby way to live! Interesting how fields differ in their culture...