It’s his first week back in India since he won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but Venkatraman Ramakrishnan already sounds exasperated with the demands of a newfound fame.
“It’s a distraction,” he said, minutes after being mobbed by schoolchildren and science professors, autograph-seekers and television cameras at the University of Madras, where he inaugurated the A.L. Mudaliar Centre for Basic Science Development and interacted with students.
Dr. Ramakrishnan, a molecular biophysicist based in the UK, is in Chennai with his father for the music season. Since he has lectured here a couple of times on the invitation of the University’s Department of Crystallography, he offered to do so again during his current visit to the city.
“Last year, the lecture was held in [an auditorium] with a capacity for just 300 people, and half the seats were empty,” said a bemused Dr. Ramakrishnan, facing a jam-packed audience of 3,000 at the university’s Centenary Auditorium. “What has changed? I am still the same person doing the same science. Why are people so impressed when some academy in Sweden gives an award?,” he asked.
He pointed to the hundreds of fine scientists doing hard work in laboratories across the country, especially naming the late G.N. Ramachandran, a stalwart in molecular biophysics who was once a professor at the University of Madras. “He was brilliant, but he never won a Nobel, so he got few honours in India,” he said. “I don’t consider myself any smarter.”
He feels that Indian students and academicians must “appreciate science for what it is,” rather than worry about the prestige of a prize.
Asked how students could aim to emulate him and “win a Nobel for India,” Dr. Ramakrishnan answered emphatically: “That is the wrong question to ask…You can’t go into science thinking of a Nobel Prize. You can only go into science because you’re interested in it.”
He lectured students on the history of antibiotics and the science of exploring the ribosome – essentially, a compact, simplified account of his life work. While the talk went over the heads of many of the younger students, several high-schoolers and college students were impressed. “We learnt this in our undergraduate course, but he makes it so clear and simple,” said a biotechnology student from Vel Tech.
As a Physics student who moved into the field of Biology, Dr. Ramakrishnan is wry about winning the prize for chemistry. “If I were to take an undergraduate chemistry exam, I would probably fail,” he said. “The ribosome does amazing chemistry, but I’m not a chemist…I’ve just learnt enough to work on my problem.”
Right now, he would just like to go back to working on his scientific problems in peace. “I’m hoping this will all die down in a few months,” he said. “I think sudden fame is a bad thing. People expect you to have words of wisdom on subjects outside your own expertise.” He declined to answer too many questions or offer advice on the Indian scientific education system, saying he simply didn’t know enough about it.
Dr. Ramakrishnan also refused the responsibility of being a role model for Tamil Nadu’s students simply because he lived here till the age of three. “It’s not about where you were born, or where you come from that makes you a good scientist. What you need are good teachers, co-students, facilities,” he said. “I honestly don’t think my roots have much to do with it. I’m sure this won’t make me popular, but this is what I think.”