Books

Not for him the second fiddle

KARIAMANIKKAM SRINIVASA KRISHNAN — His Life and Work: D. C. V. Mallik, S.Chatterjee; Universities Press (India) Pvt. Ltd., 3-6-747/1/A, Himayatnagar,Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 895.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chen _R.Gopalaratinam

The authors, who are both Physicists at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, have painstakingly assembled a voluminous body of information on the life & work of Dr. K. S. Krishnan, one of the eminent Physicists of pre-independent India, and one who was called upon by the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru soon after Independence, to set up from scratch the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) at New Delhi. I will however not dwell upon the NPL saga of Krishnan's biography wherein his organisational skills had opportunity to express itself, since that era is of comparatively more recent memory.

But it is the story of how one inquisitive young student of science whose passionate dream was to emulate the scientific discoveries of the likes of “Raleigh, Maxwell and Kelvin” that the authors have captured impressively. Their narrative captivatingly paints the India of the early years of the 20 century, even as a tumultuous scientific revolution was unfolding in Europe on the one hand and a nasty world war was being fought out on the other. Krishnan was enthralled by the landmark physics breakthroughs that were taking place.

Simple lifestyle

At the home he grew up in, in the village Watrap, the ambience was one of age old traditional ritualistic culture of an orthodox south Indian (Vaishnavite) Brahmin family. However soon after he left home and entered college firstly at the American College in Madurai (1914-16) and later at the Madras Christian College (1916-18) he was rapidly exposed to western values and traditions by his missionary teachers. It is noteworthy that throughout his life Krishnan retained a simple lifestyle and was able to strike a balance between the various cross cultural currents, which were moulding his persona, an aspect highlighted by many of his friends and colleagues.

Even during his school years Krishnan was meticulous in performing and recording experiments which clearly played a key role in his later successful scientific career. Krishnan was a class topper in Physics and Chemistry throughout. I was surprised to learn that he was not awarded B.A degree initially as he failed in English, which exam he had to take the next year to receive the degree! However this did not come in the way of his being appointed as a demonstrator in the Chemistry Department of Christian College, his first job!

The ‘golden twenties” of Physics had just dawned and the well-known Indian scientist C.V. Raman was making a name for himself in the scientific world. This made Krishnan proud and inspired him to have great dreams for himself. In 1920 he got the break he was hoping for when he got an opportunity to join Raman at Calcutta, simultaneously as a student in the M.Sc class and also as a research scholar. It gave Krishnan the chance of a lifetime to become part of the team who helped C.V. Raman carry out those path-breaking light scattering experiments which eventually led to the Nobel Prize in 1930.

It would not be appropriate in a short book review such as this to delve into the intricacies of the Physics issues involved in the discovery of the Raman Effect but the authors have done an excellent job of laying out the circumstances, particularly the details of the frontier research that was being carried out in Europe by the “giants” such as Compton, Debye and others at that time which goaded Raman and his team to carry out the “right experiments” here. The puzzle dubbed as “Feeble Fluorescence” observed first by his student Ramanathan had been put on the backburner for a few years; It appears that it was on hearing news of Compton being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in December 1927 that Raman decided to revive once again the “feeble fluorescence” study, with the goal of unearthing the “optical analogue” of what Compton had shown with X-rays.

Chapter seven of the book recounts the feverish activity at the light scattering laboratory of the Science Association in Calcutta which resulted in the publication of no less than 14 seminal papers by Raman and Krishnan during the short span of 12 months (February 1928 to January 1929) on what was to eventually become known as the “Raman Effect”. In India, February, 28 is now being celebrated as “Science day” in recognition of that discovery.

Raman effect

The book brings out the subtle impression doing the rounds that Krishnan was not given due credit for his contributions to the discovery of the “Raman Effect” which won for Raman the Nobel Prize. These events prompted Krishnan to look for greener pastures and he grabbed the first opportunity which came his way by applying for the post of Reader in Physics under Professor S.N. Bose at Dacca University. Krishnan was looking forward to changing his field of research where he could make a mark for himself and not be someone else's “second fiddle”. That is how he got into magnetism, an offshoot of his earlier interest in “magneto-optic phenomena”. Within a span of a dozen years Krishnan established himself as a world authority on “Crystal magnetism and magneto-chemistry”. In 1933 Krishnan was awarded D.Sc degree by the University of Madras for his important publications in the field of “Magnetic Susceptibilities of crystals”. Soon Krishnan moved back to Calcutta, as Raman had just moved to Bangalore on being appointed Director, Indian Institute of Science. In 1940 Krishnan was honoured with the prestigious Fellowship of the Royal Society (FRS). In 1942 Krishnan was appointed as Professor of Physics at Allahabad University where he continued research in Magnetism. The authors point out that Allahabad was also the home of the powerful Nehru family which probably helped in Krishnan being asked to head the newly established NPL at Delhi later on. The authors deserve to be complimented in presenting much more than just the scientific achievements of Krishnan; they have surveyed very interesting aspects of the prevalent social fabric of the country even as the freedom movement was rocking the political climate, reaching a climax in 1947 when India became independent.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 5:22:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/not-for-him-the-second-fiddle/article3491088.ece

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