Eminent scientist urges colleagues to stay updated, choose relevant problems

“We have problems staring at us; instead [of looking at them] we have a tendency in India to do safe and easy work. In research, we must not want to do safe work,” said C.N.R. Rao, who is soon to receive the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour.

Speaking at IIT-Madras, he remarked that Indian scientists were prone to stick to certain ideas and keep on publishing in specific areas. They had to keep up with the times. “You must know how to pick a problem,” he said. Science keeps changing, and while molecular structure was an important topic in the 1950s, it is not so today. Major institutions like the IITs were not spending time on burning problems like water, energy and environment, he said.

Prof. Rao was addressing a gathering of faculty and students from IIT-Madras and neighbouring schools. He was in Chennai to deliver the inaugural talk in the “Institute lecture” series at the IIT.

He emphasised the importance of working without seeking benefits, money and grants, calling to mind exemplary scientists such as Newton and Faraday.

“If Faraday had lived in the 20th century, he would have got four Nobel prizes,” he stated, adding that this honour was sometimes not bestowed even on deserving candidates, notably, Dmitiri Mendeleyev, who created the periodic table, and G.N. Lewis, who first described the chemical bond. “If you want to get a Nobel prize, you must live very long, as long as you can,” he quipped.

Quoting from Jules Verne, “… water will be the coal of the future,” he pointed out that splitting water (artificial photosynthesis) to generate hydrogen, thermal water splitting and semiconductor nanostructures were topics to pursue.

He also emphasised the need to have students. “Science is done best when there is generosity,” he said.

The talk was preceded by a short film on his life as seen by his students, scripted and directed by T. Pradeep. Eighty-year-old Prof. Rao is now national research professor, Linus Pauling research professor and honorary president of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research.

Keywords: CNR RaoIIT-Madras