Climbing the limitless ladder

Eminent Scientist C.N.R. Rao. Photo:V Sreenivasa Murthy   | Photo Credit: V Sreenivasa Murthy

It was in 1945, fresh after World War II that Mr. Vannevar Bush advised President Harry Truman to invest heavily in science, with a document titled ‘Science — the Endless Frontier.' Science, indeed any creative endeavour, has an ever expanding frontier.

It is with the apt title “climbing the limitless ladder” that Professor Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (CNR Rao, or CNR as we all know him) has written his life story (IISc Press-WSPC, 2010). Just as Bush advised Truman, CNR has been advising five Prime Ministers of India.

He was a member of the Science Advisory Council (SAC) to Indira Gandhi, and has been chairing the SAC to Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, IK Gujral, and Manmohan Singh.

With this rich experience, he trod through the corridors of South Block into the Prime Minister's Office with advice of direct value to Indian science.

Some of these are worth mentioning: starting Funds for Infrastructure in Science & Technology (FIST) to support universities, creation of the Departments of Earth Sciences, and of Health Research, creation of five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs, some call them the IITs of Science), increasing the S & T budget from less than 0.5 per cent to over 1.1 per cent of GDP, establishing the JC Bose and Ramanujan Fellowships for accomplished mid-career scientists, and the India Science Prize.

Quite apart from these, it is his prodigious research output in areas of solid state chemistry, spectroscopy and material science that have won him recognition, riches and rewards from the world over.

Reading his autobiography, what come out clear as the message is: “doing science is a way of life.” During these 60 years of scientific career (his first research paper came out of his M.Sc. work at the Banaras Hindu University or BHU, in 1954), he has published over 1400 papers, written and edited 43 books.

Just about every science prize in the world has been awarded to him.

How has he done this? It is here that the family, the culture of the time, and the social milieu he grew up in as a child, which he so nostalgically describes, that give the clue.

The canvas he draws of early Bangalore and Karnataka life is R.K. Narayanesque. Nothing was more important than education, knowledge, etiquette, and respect for accomplishment.

After schooling and college in Bangalore, CNR went to BHU for his M. Sc. in 1951. The educational and spiritual experiences he had there are described with warmth, if wistfully.

Role of BHU

BHU turned him into a full-fledged scientist, and from there he went over to Purdue and Berkeley, where he honed himself fully. He writes with great admiration about his mentors and role models — G.N. Lewis, Linus Pauling, H.C. Brown.

It is when he returns to India in 1959, and starts his job with meagre facilities at IISc Bangalore that we see CNR of today in the making.

He wrote his first book on ultraviolet and visible spectroscopy here, making use of his time, and also filling a gap. This was one of the most popular books of the period.

Reading his narration, one wonders what drives a man like him. The answer comes from what chemists call as catalysis; it is both autocatalysis and hetero-catalysis — lead by example and lend a hand in collaboration. IISc was still ‘classical' at heart. It was in the move to the American-aided IIT at Kanpur, with the legendary Professor Kelkar at the helm that we see CNR in full bloom.

Through books, lectures and personal example, he helped replace the ‘classical' chemical research that others in India had been practicing (polarography, chemical kinetics, colloids..), with the new trend of ‘structure, energetics and dynamics,” and solid state chemistry.

While he was at it, his other two partners in the act in the department, M.V. George and P.T. Narasimhan, were revamping similarly in their areas. Brand new areas such as quantum chemistry, physical organic chemistry, nuclear quadrupole resonance, magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and biophysical and bioorganic chemistry came to be practised.

A pity this vital aspect of modernisation, which he led, is not given enough pages in his book.

It is when he is given a free hand to start and lead new things that we see CNR in full steam and spirit.

If IITK is an example, the Solid State and Structural Chemistry unit at IISc, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) stand testimony. Mentoring students and dozens of youngsters — each one a star in his own right — does so as well.

It is through his ability to interact with others, to win them over with jokes and persuasion that he finds his way.

Not every chapter in the book reads positive. His comments on bureaucrats and supplicants read depressing; equally so in science, when he loses priority on discoveries. A compound his lab made over two years ago was suddenly found by someone else to be a superconductor at 90K.

An autobiography imposes constraints. And a biography is too early for one who is still in the prime of his career.

At the end of each year, when you meet him, you hear him say: “this has been my best year.”

To one who cheerfully advises youngsters: “don't be shy of publishing,” here's wishing him that let every year continue to be his best!


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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 10:46:27 AM |

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