Monday, October 11, 2010

Limitless Ladder: Prof. C.N.R. Rao's Autobiography

Starting today, I hope to have a bunch of posts built around Prof. C.N.R. Rao's autobiography, Climbing the Limitless Ladder: A Life in Chemistry (IISc Press - World Scientific, 2010). Let's see how far I'm able to go with this series.

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[A note about terminology: I believe Prof. Rao's close associates call him Ram. Those outside this charmed circle refer to him as CNR; I'll go with CNR in these posts.]

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I think it's important to say upfront what I think about the book.

Given Prof. Rao's scientific stature, his enormous influence in policy-making circles, the diversity of his interests and experiences, and his power over Indian science and scientists, the book is unusually slim -- all of 175 pages with some 30+ pages of (reprinted) essays tacked on at the end. Clearly, there's a lot more in Prof. Rao's life than he's willing to cover in his own telling of his life story.

This is disappointing.

Let me be frank: I read CNR's autobiography not only to learn about his scientific accomplishments, but also to learn about his journey to the very top of India's science policy-making machinery. From his perch, he exerts enormous influence on the direction of the country's scientific enterprise. I was naturally looking for for the forces that took him to the top, and the key milestones along his ascent. I found very little in the book that gave me a good sense of how this transformation happened.

I was also looking for CNR's take on all kinds of stuff related to his life in science and science policy: his formative years at IIT-K, the evolution of his research interests across decades, how he chooses his research problems, a sketch of the chemistry community in India (and the world), insights into institution building, comparison of funding patterns across countries, ideas on other ways of boosting science in India, &c, &c. On each one of these, Limitless Ladder offers precious little by way of description, argument or analysis.

This is disappointing and frustrating.

Even before reading Limitless Ladder, I had read fairly glowing reviews by D. Balasubramanian and P. Rama Rao [alternate link]. Reading the book after those reviews made me go, "OMG, this is surreal. Are we even talking about the same book?" I think I know the reason for this difference in our reactions: Balasubramanian and Rao have known CNR for a long time, and worked and interacted with him as colleagues on committees, delegations, and science academies (Balasubramanian was also CNR's colleague at IIT-K for many years). They probably know a lot about the kind of things I was looking for in the book, and therefore, didn't quite feel so strongly about the absence of a coherent discussion of any of them.

As I said, there's a lot more to CNR than there is in this book.

Having said that, I am sill glad that CNR chose to write this book, which has quite a bit to say about his life, his science, his public service, his heroes, his influences. More importantly, we get it all in CNR's own words.

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What I want to do in this series of posts is to excerpt some interesting stuff from Limitless Ladder and, where possible, offer my own comments.

If you are able to join in with additional details and perspectives, it'll be great. My only request to you is to stick to the issues, and refrain from getting personal. (Yes, I'll be keeping a watchful eye on the comments).