Model scientist

TO THE right of the traffic signal near the T-junction of the Kotturpuram, you can see a large auditorium inside the CLRI campus. This is the Triple Helix Auditorium, which was named in honour of perhaps one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs by an Indian, Professor G. N. Ramachandran, who breathed his last on April 7, 2001.

It was in 1953 that Prof. G. N. Ramachandran put Madras on the scientific map of the world when he discovered the triple helical structure of the collagen molecule. At that time, he was the Head of the Department of Physics at the AC College of Technology at the University of Madras. Using X-ray crystallography, Prof. GNR (as he was fondly called) and his student, Gopinath Kartha, succeeded in proposing their structure of collagen, using relatively modest equipment.

Nobel laureate Prof. Linus Pauling (of vitamin C & Alpha Helix fame) had proposed a structure for collagen while other Nobel Prize winners such as Sir Lawrence Bragg (X-ray diffraction) and Francis Crick and James Watson (DNA double helix) were trying to crack the collagen molecule.

However, it was the Indian who got to it first and the triple helical "coiled-coil" proposed by Prof. GNR and Kartha stunned the scientific world for its simplicity, and the model has stood for almost 50 years without contradiction!

Prof. G. N. Ramachandran was the moving force behind the Advanced Centre for Research in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Madras.

Though he was severely incapacitated by Parkinson's disease for the last ten years of his life, he remained a true scientist until his death at the age of 78. He could not speak coherently.

He could not write legibly due to the ravages to his motor functions but insisted on surrounding himself with his books and a computer in a cottage at the VHS Hospital, Adyar. He had lost his wife, Rajam, in 1998, and wished to spend the evening of his life in Chennai where his old scientist friends and admirers could drop by and keep him company and more importantly, in good scientific temper.

The "Ramachandran Plot", a diagram for conformation of polypeptides, polysaccharides and polynucleotides remains the standard description of protein structures all over the world to this day.

Prof. GNR's postulates of three-dimensional image reconstruction led to the fabrication of the CAT Scanner.

And his exploration of artificial intelligence, delving into ancient Syaad Nyaaya (doctrine of may be), led him into developing this into the mathematical form which he called "Boolean Vector Matrix Formulation", which has immense application in artificial intelligence and in writing software programmes.

The collagen structure proposed by GNR was disputed by Crick initially and in fact, the paper contributed by GNR and Kartha to the London-based Nature magazine was not published for five months while Crick's proposal for the collagen structure was published within a month of submission! However, GNR's structure was accepted subsequently, and he was one of the few Indians ever elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in England.

Prof. GNR was born in 1922, the eldest son of Prof. G. R. Narayana Iyer (the principal of Maharajah's College, Ernakulam).

He stood first in B.Sc. Hons. in the Presidency while at St. Joseph's College, Trichy. He then went to the Indian Institute of Science for a Masters in Physics where Nobel laureate Sir C. V. Raman took him under his wing.

GNR earned his first doctorate under Sir C. V. Raman and then joined Sir Lawrence Bragg at the Cavendish Labs, Cambridge, for his second doctorate.

Sir A. L. Mudaliar, the Vice-Chancellor of the Madras University wanted Sir C. V. Raman to head the Physics Department but the Nobel laureate preferred to recommend a much younger man to propel scientific activity in Madras.

And GNR became the youngest ever full-fledged professor and head of the department at the Madras University at the age of 30!

It was certainly fitting that Prof. GNR was able to spend the last two years of his life in the city where he made most of his epoch-making discoveries.

His eldest son, Ramesh Narayan is the chairman of the Centre for Astrophysics at Harvard while his daughter Vijaya is a professor at the department of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. His younger son, Harishankar is a senior scientist at the Plasma Physics Centre in Ahmedabad.

When Prof. G. N. Ramachandran passed away, his three children were by his side and poignantly, the VHS Hospital, where he passed away, was equidistant from his old Gandhinagar home, his treasured Dept of Molecular Biophysics, where he made monumental strides and the Triple Helix auditorium named in his honour.


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