Our lives are being transformed by technology daily. We are keenly aware of new tools like smart phones and the Internet, but much more lies under the surface. Novel devices, materials and technologies have brought enormous benefits to our physical well-being in the context of medicine, housing, nutrition, security and sanitation, and to our mental well-being by transforming communication and socialisation. Though we are happy to purchase smart devices and use medical equipment, we are less curious about how those technologies came into existence. This is ironic because India played a remarkable role, even under colonial rule, in planting the seeds of basic research from which they grew. For example, a currently promising breakthrough in testing for cancer, diabetes, asthma and malaria arises from ‘resonant Raman scattering’ and has its roots in C.V. Raman’s research.
Curiosity drives social benefit
The simple fact is that transformational technologies arise from basic science. Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, observed that “throughout the whole history of science, most of the really great discoveries which have ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind have been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” Like us, Flexner lived in an era when new inventions were transforming society — in his case these were radio, television, telephones and telegraphy. He traced these transformations back to the path-breaking research on electromagnetism by James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, who sought to understand the fundamental laws of nature rather than work directly for the ‘public good’.
The process by which fundamental research results in practical applications cannot be mapped out in advance. It is well known that in the late 1890s, Wilhelm Roentgen, experimenting in his laboratory, accidentally discovered a type of ray that could penetrate the human body, the ‘X-ray’. At the time, several wars had created a stream of wounded soldiers in need of treatment. There was no easy way to locate bullets lodged in the body, so surgeons had to poke a probe into the soldier’s wound and wiggle it around to detect the bullet. This was excruciatingly painful and unsanitary. Medical researchers made incremental improvements, but these were suddenly rendered obsolete by Roentgen’s discovery that one could see through the human body. Thus, his research found immediate application, and saved more lives than all the people working on diagnostics for bullet wounds.
In the case of lasers, the path from discovery to invention was longer, but the applications today are more wide-ranging. In 1917, Albert Einstein discovered that when an atom is energised into an excited state it can radiate light in two ways: by spontaneous emission and by stimulated emission. This raised the possibility that photons (tiny quanta of light) could be emitted coherently, like soldiers marching in step. However, application of this concept had to wait until the late 1950s when physicists Arthur Schawlow and Charles Townes in the U.S. and Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov in the then Soviet Union suggested a mechanism to create coherent radiation — the laser, as it was eventually named. Two years later, Theodore Maiman constructed the first working prototype laser. Indian readers would be interested to know that soon thereafter, C. Kumar Naranbhai Patel, born in Baramati and educated at the College of Engineering in Pune, invented the carbon dioxide laser at Bell Laboratories. This variant has played a key role in cutting and welding and as a laser scalpel in surgery. Today, the impact of lasers is incredibly wide-ranging — from dentistry, cosmetic surgery, eye surgery and tumour removal, to cutting, welding and drilling, to optical communications, guidance systems and data retrieval. None of this would have been possible without understanding the interactions of photons and atoms via relativistic quantum theory and thermodynamics.
It is noteworthy that the work of Schawlow and Townes was sponsored by the industrial giant Bell Telephones, yet the publication nowhere mentions any practical application. Maiman worked for another major industry, the Hughes Aircraft Company. These corporations were enlightened enough to understand that the path from basic science to application must be nourished like a garden, not engineered like a bridge.
Impact on inventions
Pure research in mathematics has also led to socially beneficial inventions. Prime numbers, the building blocks of all numbers, play a key role in number theory — the ‘purest’ branch of mathematics and the field in which Srinivasa Ramanujan’s genius flowered. Mathematician G.H. Hardy (who brought Ramanujan to England) wrote: “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.” But Hardy was wrong. ‘Public Key Encryption’, on which today’s password-based security systems are built, relies on the difficulty of factorising a whole number into primes. Once encryption became vital in daily life, centuries of mathematical insight into prime numbers became socially relevant. India’s contribution did not end with Ramanujan. In 2002, Prof. Manindra Agrawal at IIT Kanpur and two undergraduates published a breakthrough result in ‘primality testing’, with likely implications for cyber security.
To secure our country’s long-term future we have to generously support fundamental research, which provides the foundation and pillars on which technological applications are built. Fortunately, India today has a strong intellectual base spanning all areas of fundamental science. But governmental involvement needs to increase substantially for us to be competitive. Basic science in India awaits sizeable initiatives from private industry too.
The Nobel Laureate, David Gross, recently observed that if India does not dramatically ramp up support for pure science, we will soon become “a user economy, service economy, buying goods made elsewhere, buying inventions invented elsewhere.” Fortunately, we are in a good position to avoid this fate, but we must act now.
Prof. Sunil Mukhi is Chair, Physics Programme, IISER, Pune.