A Nobel journey that began in Madras

C.V. Raman derived inspiration to turn into a man of science at Madras University

Published - February 18, 2022 11:32 am IST - CHENNAI

C.V. Raman inaugurating a science symposium at University Buildings in Madras on February 2, 1957, to mark the centenary celebrations. File

C.V. Raman inaugurating a science symposium at University Buildings in Madras on February 2, 1957, to mark the centenary celebrations. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The November 1906 issue of the then famous The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science carried a scientific paper written by an 18-year-old student from The Presidency College, Madras, heralding the arrival of a luminary in the international scientific arena. 

He was Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, popularly known as C.V. Raman, who went on to become the first Asian 24 years later to win a Nobel Prize in a science field in 1930 “for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the effect named after him.” 

Until today, Raman is technically the only Indian citizen to have received a Nobel in science (excluding economics) as the other three — Har Gobind Khorana, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Venki Ramakrishnan — had become citizens of other countries when they received the prize. 

The Presidency College and the University of Madras, which produced many stalwarts in those years, have the distinction of being the alma mater of both Raman and his nephew Chandrasekhar.

Precocious child

Born in 1888 in Thiruvanaikaval in Tiruchi, Raman, a precocious child, finished his schooling in Visakhapatnam and enrolled in The Presidency College that was part of the University of Madras for a B.A. programme in 1903 when he had just turned 14. 

Reminiscing his student days during the centenary year of the college in 1940, he recalled how a professor looking at his diminutive figure in the first class he attended asked whether he really belonged to the class.

By 1907, Raman obtained his graduation and post-graduation from the University of Madras, securing top ranks. He then moved to Calcutta (Kolkata) to take up the job of Assistant Accountant-General after clearing the Indian Finance Services exam, which he topped.

While his subsequent research that led to his Nobel happened in Calcutta and he spent the rest of his life largely in Bangalore (Bengaluru) with the Indian Institute of Science and later at the Raman Research Institute, he never forgot the role played by the University of Madras and the Presidency College in his career. 

He recollected how his professors, recognising his potential, allowed him to pursue his interests and experiments by absolving him from the regular work demanded by the curriculum. “Professor Jones [his Physics Professor] believed in letting those who were capable of looking after themselves do so, with the result that during the four years I was at the Presidency College I enjoyed a measure of academic freedom which seems almost incredible,” Raman had said. 

He presided over the science symposium organised as part of the centenary year celebrations of the University of Madras in 1957. The account of the celebrations published two years later by the university recorded how Raman recollected sitting for his M.A examination 50 years ago in the same hall where the celebrations took place. 

He said he was proud that he was not an alumnus of any other university but the University of Madras and “whatever inspiration he had drawn to start as a man of science, he derived it within the portals of the Madras University,” the publication recorded. 

A plan that never took off

In a book on Raman, written by A. Jayaraman, who worked under him for many years, the author says Raman bought a parcel of land in Chennai and wanted to establish a branch of his research institute here. However, this never materialised. 

Eminent academic S.P. Thyagarajan, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Madras, said the university then had an excellent academic ecosystem and brain-teasing ambience that triggered the minds of students to pursue critical thinking and innovations. The university labs used to remain open 24/7 with interested students and faculty working there. 

Rita John, Professor and Head of Theoretical Physics at the university, highlighted how Raman’s expenditure on equipment for the experiments that fetched him the Nobel was just a couple of hundred rupees. She said Raman is an inspiration for students who want to achieve excellence despite limited resources. 

Lamenting the erosion of the university system in general and the University of Madras in particular, Mr. Thyagarajan said a number of issues needed to be addressed urgently, in terms of faculty quality, administrative ability and financial support, should the university regain its glory and become a breeding ground for producing many like Raman. 

Ms. John said it was indeed unfortunate that the university did not have anything concrete to honour Raman. “At least a plaque should be erected at the library where he worked,” she said. 

Mr. Thyagarajan said the government should create a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Raman’s name at the university. “The G.N. Ramachandran Instrumentation Centre was set up during my tenure as Vice-Chancellor. [Ramachandran was an alumnus of the university and a student of Raman]. We wanted to set up a CoE in Raman’s name, but it did not materialise,” he says.

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