“Isn’t he the one who has won a prize? Saw him on TV last evening,” the taxi driver said pointing to a photograph of Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in The Hindu printout I was carrying.
When told that the man in the photograph had won the world’s biggest prize in Chemistry and was born in India, he said: “Yeah, I know they were saying that on BBC. Indians are doing very well. I had one on the back of my taxi the other day. He said he taught in America. Some big cheese.”
At the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Britain’s most prestigious research lab and professional home to Dr. Ramakrishnan, the receptionist is telling a caller with a slight touch of impatience: “I’m afraid he’s not taking any calls today. Yes, this is the number for him but he’s not giving any more interviews today or in the foreseeable future.”
Barely does she put down the phone when it rings again and she repeats what she told the previous caller while keeping another call on hold.
Were all these calls from India? I asked.
“Yes, except a few from here… all from India. We have never had so many people calling from India,” she said, adding apologetically: “I wish I could be more helpful. But I have to do what I am told to do.”
The LMB, which sits amidst a warren of buildings in Addenbrooke’s Hospital is known locally as “the Titanic,” presumably because its base is shaped a bit like the bottom of a ship, but in science circles they refer to it as Britain’s “Nobel Prize factory,” having produced 13 Nobel Laureates. Dr Ramakrishnan, popularly known as “Venki,” is the 14th.
He attributed the lab’s success to its “collegiate” culture.
“The collegiate atmosphere here made it all possible. The idea of supporting long-term basic research like that at LMB does lead to breakthroughs,” he said.
For the Medical Research Council (MRC) which runs LMB, his triumph pushes its Nobel tally to 29.
“Venki’s award is the Medical Research Council’s 29th Nobel Prize and is a reflection of the excellent work that our scientists do,” its chief executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said.
Dr. Ramakrishnan’s colleagues were reported as saying that they were not surprised to learn that he had won. His own first reaction though when he got a call from the Swedish Academy was that someone was playing a prank.
Despite departmental rivalries, Cambridge academics don’t like to quibble about which department or discipline has got more Nobel Prizes and they say that ultimately the winner is Cambridge.
“It is a matter of pride for all of us at Cambridge no matter who gets the prize,” one academic said.
Cambridge University boasts of 85 Nobel Laureates, including Dr. Ramakrishnan, a testimony to its excellent research culture. The news of the latest Nobel Prize came as Cambridge University was ranked as the world’s second best university, after Harvard, in an international university league table while Oxford slipped to fifth.
Meanwhile, LMB is back to work after a champagne-soaked evening to celebrate the award though the phone at the front desk has not stopped ringing.
“Yes, this is the number but he’s not giving any interviews today or in the foreseeable future”