Monday, November 25, 2013

Bharat Ratnas of Sa-Chin-tamani: Going by their chins

This year's Bharat Ratna has been given to two people for whom the upper class of India --- irrespective of their politics, class and caste --- have no hesitation in declaring their greatest admiration. They richly deserve the award, even if I am nobody to authenticate this richness. 

IBoth Sachin Tendulkar and Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (CNR) are appreciated by a very large number of people if one normalizes by the intellectuality of their profession. It is another matter that the cricket of Tendulkar earned considerable amount of money for companies he advertised for and that catered to upwardly mobile IT crowd. It is also another matter that science in India is exclusive (elite, select, restricted, limited, private, fashionable, special) and rarely inclusive (comprehensive, wide-ranging, all encompassing, complete, broad, general). Both Sachin and CNR were after accumulation of records/honours amassing runs/publications at rates that are way beyond that of even extra-ordinary mortals. 

The question we may have to leave for the future is the real impact that they had on the aam aadmi.Tendulkar has stopped piling runs for official records. He has reached the top and he's gotta stop and that's not bothering him. CNR, by his own accord I suspect, has not reached the top he wanted --- the Nobel. That's why he will not stop. All the best to him. 

What makes them the Ratnas they are? I could not know. My aspirations have stopped at the level of sackcloth and ashes of a garib Brahmoner chele (the son of a poor Brahmin). Accordingly I am one of those who only stand and applaud. 

At a first level, when one looks for the first things. I have sometimes wondered whether the aspirations of Sachin Tendulkar  and Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao, match their first names. 

Sachin is supposed to mean 'chaste' or 'pure'. Every critique of Sachin's cricked has waxed eloquent about the style in his craft. His last innings. his 200th test innings at Wankhede was a testimonial to his perfection of technique.  This perfection is not obvious to Indian traditions nor will it be obvious to a major league baseball player. But it is obvious to the British House of Commons which passed, without discussion, a resolution honoring Sachin, introduced by an MP of Indian origin. A little complex, this world is!

The Chintamani of CNR's name is after his birth place. This place is said to have been named after its last Maratha chieftain, a Chintamani Rao. The name Chintamani is a more complex word. In my prejudice, it is probably of Buddhist origin. In Buddhismm itt is the jewel that helps one to understand the path of Buddha or the path of enlightenment or truth. It is a wish fulfilling jewel according to the internet. It also means a philosopher's stone transforming base metal into gold. The philosopher's stone is the basis of alchemy. The connection of Chintamani with CNR seems to be natural. Both are exceptional jewels! The name Chintamani is now, after the Bharat Ratna, well deserved. of course. 

We do not know how names influence careers. Nobody calls CNR by his first name, Chintamani, or even as Chin in an American way. Nagesa  is his father's name. His close friends know him as Ram from Ramachandra. That is royalty as is Rao.. CNR has lived upto his full name. 

There is also a vital difference between Sachin and CNR. Sachin had three half-siblings and it was his step-brother who nurtured his cricket career to curb (Wikipedia) his earlier aggressive tendencies. All that Sachin had to do after that was to play. Listening to interviews in rcent times, it now seems that it is Ajit that has looked after Sachin's philosophical and aspirational needs. CNR is an only child. He had to fend for himself, drive himself, achieve himself, and bask in his awardsl by himself, 

I have personally known Professor Rao rather well  for twenty years between 1970 and 1990. I do think that in its heydays the bond between him, his wife Indumathi Rao, and me and my wife Lalitha was very close even if we did not need to make a public display of it. The closeness may seem to be decreasing to zero  over the years even if it asymptotically. What remains for me in the asymptotic limit now is still an immense respect and affection for them. This respect and affection is for his intrinsic and giant joi de vivre or bonhomie (easy, good-humoured friendliness) that is epitomized in the aura emanating in the picture below. 

There is a genuine-ness in CNR that cannot be denied! Part of this sunshine  is due to the personality of his wife (extreme right in the Norman Rockwellin picture below, where every face tells its story), who really nurtured him to provide a warm security that only a full understanding can provide. I must honestly say that despite forty years having passed, the youthful glow has not diminished!  As somebody said "Age cannot wither ... nor custom stale..." this glow. If there is any change it may be in the number of pens he uses. He had four different-colored pens for editing manuscripts then. There is only one now in his pocket in this computer age.
We have since grown in different ways, I in my own little world striving for a little spontaneous recognition for my work; and he conferring his much-sought-after recognition to the whole world. I have often basked in this sunshine and I am thankful for the warmth of his personality. I have my own reasons for doing science. He has his dufferent reasons. I suspect that I enjoy my science as much as he does. Otherwise there is no comparison. By alll accounts he is a giant of a personality and deserves every bit of the honor that ranks him, say, with Vishweshariah or Nehru. If he had gone into music I wonder whether he would have matched Bhimsen Joshi or Bismillah Khan. I think he would not have been insane enough for that/

Sachin's career began near the time I parted with the CNR. I was close to fifty at this time. Despite my lack of affection for the public-time-wasting aspects of cricket, there was something iundefined but immediately liked in  the body-language  of the sixteen-year-old  young-John-Mcenroe-look-alike, playing David-and-Goliath-like against the pace of a hostile "arch-enemy" that drew attention.  He survived it with glory and the rest as they say is history. As far as I can deduce, Sachin's professional chart zoomed distinctly upwards after his marriage.

CNR's first medal was the Marlow Medal of Faraday Society Royal Society. The announcement of this award in front page of Indian newspapers influenced my decision to join his laboratory.

In a way the career chart of both these ratnas has a similarity that seems to reflect the character of Indian achievers who come from a poor scholarly Brahmin home. 

In the absence of an all-embracing pan-national standard we--- hindus, muslims, christians, parsees, brahmins, Kshariyas, Vysyas, Kayasthas, bengalis, Tamil, Assamese, Naga, Punjabis, Haryanavis, Marwadis, Gujarathis, Kannadigas, Marathis,faircomplexioned, whet complexioned, dark as Tagore's krishna kali, --- strive for recognitions of the alien kind. The vocal middle class that has become increasingly alienated from the desi type and dependent more and more on in-comiings of outsourcing-mulah. The scholarliness that seems to come naturally to "brahmin" families of whatever caste or nationality is distinctly on the wane.

There is something about middle-class India in accumulating marks and be first-in-class so that they go on to a good job. The early British Empire hired them to be clerks and serve the empire in distant bungalows, being served in turn by their maalis (gardeners), bawarchi (cooks) and peons. That was a style to be aspired for. It allowed them a lording over their own kind. It is this style of the Viceroy that is Rashtrapati Bhanvan. t is this that drives us towards doing ti things beneficial to extra-Indian  societies instead of for desis or adivasis instead.

When one is around CNR (I have alway addressed him as Professor Rao; he kept his distance from perceived juniors) one cannot but be overwhelmed by his many personalities for various occasions. When I first joined him there was a Winter school in Solid State Chemistry attended by Professor John Goodenough among others. CNR wowed me by naming every participant and  their affiliation without error. at the dinner for the school. Since that time I have been amazed at the way he tucks information of all kinds, social as well as scientific, and to pull them out at the most appropriate time, regaling audience with jokes, and convincing scientists with statistics. In his younger days, when I first joined him (around 35) at IIT Kanput through my good friend S. Ramdas, he was very informal... we had free access to his office room in the evenings... there were dinners almost every month in his home with delicious cooking of Mrs. Rao, there were dinners in restaurants, there was loud laughter at home by those few who saw no harm in laughing. Once at a picnic in Nandi Hills where chicken was brought to be cooked but the fire could not be lit, he crawled on all fours to light the fire finally, He smoked a heavy pipe and kept telling us how he would be the first to know if hydrogen cyanide was leaking in the laboratory.  

When he came down to the Indian Institute of Science from IIIT Kanpur, I had come along with him and so I know how he began at IISc. H literally started his life in a barn. I suspect that Satish Dhawan  indulged his desires and pushes. A kind soul lent him a part of his laboratory for wet work, a car shed somewehere else was converted to a laboratory for his photoelectron spectrometer, another lab for animal experiments was converted to a space for his spectroscopic work, Later he got money for his Mateirals Research Laboratory, Building where he had a decent-ish office space. He lived in a modest hired bungalow-like space in the Patankar layoutin Malleshwaram, walked a good two kilometers to his office every day, while Indumathi Rao would be going round one her moped. CNR would be crawling on all four in his garden first thing in the morning growing the biggest hibiscus  in his little garden. 

CNR is extremely patriotic and like many like us he must have been impressed by Nehruvian socialism. He was genuinely intersted in finding funding for his Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Science. One of the amazing tales of this unit is that the building of this large unit was kept so closely guarded, that we, supposedly in his nearness, knew about it only when it was to be inaugurated as a complete building. It mus be a fulfilment of his wishes that his first grandchild was born on Nehru's birthday (or so I have been told). The space behind the main building had a lining of trees that traced out the Union Jack.. CNR, as director, planted so many trees that the outline of the flag was disturbed completely --- I suspect, deliberately.

I have not known a more dynamic personality than CNR. He had so many of them that you always liked more than 90 percent of them. I think it was Wodehouse who described Oofy Prosser as so fat that when you saw his photograph you would have to read from left to right like a group photograph, or that he would have to disperse in section 144 was applied when public assembly of many persons were not allowed. CNR multifaceted character reminded me of Wodehouse's Prosser. "CNR are coming" I would joke. He could multitask infinitely, read diagonally without missing anything, pick up the smallest relevant whisper from any distant corner, pick holes in your science with a stroke of red-pen, pick up at once what looks scientifically promising and nurture it for maximum printage,  go through every word on publications he had his name on, trained his secretaries to unravel his scribblings and type them into pages for his many books and reviews,, he created his own filing systems and a disposal mechanism for his manuscripts, he always maintained an academic atmosphere of weekly seminars and regular in-house conferences. 

CNR had his calibration of research colleagues. There were some who acted like his foremen supervising his research. There were others, mainly theoreticians, whom he would allow to spread their wings independently.

I was not one of the latter. If ithere has been any lustre in my scientific life it is always attributed to this connection,. Getting credit for a work is sometimes the work of scavengers in this modern world where it is necessary to brand one-self with a * as a mark of hierarchy in an experimental group, Like it or not, it had to be done to survive in a crediting world. As a scholar of the true Brahmin kind, if there is anything like that now, there would be no need to scavenge.

CNR began his accrual of titles and honours from early. At 25 he had finished his Ph D., for his work in Purdue, and the left-overs of this work he used to get a D.Sc. degree from Mysore University. In his own words (The 1993 Distinguished  Materials Scientist Lecture, MRSI)
For my Ph.D thesis at Purdue, I took up the study of molecular structure by electron diffraction of gases (with Professor R L Livingston). During my first year, I carried out spectroscopic and other physico-chemical studies of organic molecules as a research assistant to Prof. Eugene Lieber. In my spare time, I worked with a few other Professors in the Purdue Chemistry Department on structural problems  of interest to them. I fully made use of the X-ray diffraction facilities of the Purdue Physics Department for which I had free access. Prof. Herbert Brown was a great source of inspiration and with his guidance, I published some papers relating spectroscopic properties of molecules with reactivity. At the end of three years, I obtained the Ph.D. degree (I was 23-5 years old by then). ... We had to fabricate a new instrument, ..  I collaborated with almost all the students in the laboratory in solving molecular structures and also continued my association with Prof. Lieber who had then moved to Chicago. It was around this time that my friend Al Czanderna, who was working on the surface properties of spectroscopically pure TiO2 with George Honig, asked me to determine the structure of his TiO2 sample by X-ray diffraction. I found that it had the anatase structure. Soon we thought that we should study the kinetics of transformation of pure anatase to the rutile form (one of his more cited early work).. ...  Before leaving Purdue, I was a post-doctoral fellow and instructor for a short period. I also submitted my thesis for the D.Sc. degree of the University of Mysore based on my papers (other than those covering my Ph.D. work) in 1958.

He cntinues at that pace

By the tme CNR joined IIT Kanpur in 1963 he had two books on Ultraviolet Spectroscopy and Chemical Applications of Infrared Spectroscopy. He drove his way to become the Deanof Science and provided  the road map for the kind of research that IITK would impress the rest of India with. CNR's status was helped by his getting the Marlow Medal for young scientists for work within 10 yars after Ph. D.. From this point on CNR's career has been on the up and seem to be growing exponentially. It seems that in the last five years the citation to his work has doubled over all that was available earlier.

CNR loved doing his science, and seeing his name in print in  journals. What is infectious to those working with him, especially new students, is his exuberance. He would always carry his latest publication  caressingly in his hand at that time. Once he came excitedly shouting down the corridors of IITK because he one of his papers got published in PRL (an acronym known to all physicists) which, at that time, would have seemed to an average Indian chemist like a ODI 200. Much later, when he was at IISc, he would repeat this excitement when he, surprisingly it would seem for a chemist of hist stature, had a paper published in the Journal of American Chemicl Society. There is no better exhibition of joy in achievements than the sight of CNR dancing down the corridors with his most recent publication in a prestigious journal. I imagine he still does it in recent years. It would be quite unlike him, if he didn't.

Once an item was published, CNR, like all shakers and movers, would move on to new pastures and new fields. His erstwhile coworkers in an area would rarely continue with him or keep pace with him as he changed fields and gave lectures on his latest research in completely different areas. 

This is where CNR may be different from Tendulkar. Tendulkar had to run all those 50,000 odd runs, do his fielding and bowl his overs  on his own. He could not have somebody batting for him according to his instructions. Most top theoretical physicists are like that. Experimental chemists cannot be like that. There are so many systems and so many time-consuming experiments to be done. A good chemist is like a good captain in a sport like cricket, mustering  resources for tackling/solving problems. CNR has been a great captain. His ambitions required it. 

Sachin dis not want to be a captain. His personal ambitions did not require it. On the other hand, Sachin by honing his personal skills over the years, perhaps (I have no experience of his dressing room) could have advised and guided several young cricketers, regular players and coaches for the greater contribution to Indian cricket first and then passing it on to Indian confience.

It is another matter to asjk whether Sachin Tendulkar would have matched CNR's achievements if he had taken up chemistry. If he had spent as much time on perfecting his chemistry as he did on his cricket and achieved equal sachin-ity as he did in his cricket, he would have certainly looked as David enough --- if lhis typically Saraswat Brahmin looks mattered --- to get the Ratna if he had done individual-based research as in mathematics or physics. But then he would not have faced or managed the tremendous hurdles and the amount of cajoling and bowing that one required in the early stages to get funding for experiments. CNR knows all about that. If he sounds angry about funding  it may be for the enormous amount of useless energy expended on it. Expending that energy, believe anybody, is exhausting. It could have been expended  on better things. 

Like the Nobel prize.

CNR has still to each his goal. We wish him all the best. His magnificent brain and his personality can do it. The requires no more funding for Ratnas. 

CNR's anger about the inadequacy of funding R&D in India might have come from the excessive funding given to sports like cricket from both private and governmental sources (see figure below for comparisons; ). Private investment into science R&D from Indian Industry is indeed disgracefully minimal. It is 20% in India compared to 92% in Japan and 70% in China and USA. If we take a recent (Nov 2013) report in Science Magazine (brought to my notice by Ramesh Sinha) private industry funds twice as much as government does in the USA (see figure below for comparisons). CNR's angry outburst after his Ratna must have been partly due to his failure to get private industry involved in funding Indian science. 

It is not as if only an individual requires to be funded. A whole society requires being funded so that competition and collaboration leads to a culture where excellence is bred and sustained.

There was a cartoon sometime back --- before Murray got his Wimbledon---depictingt an English Wimbledon champion as an extinct species being as dead as the Dodo. In the original Jantoo cartoon,  the man was holding a tennis racket. I have replaced it with a Nobel medal. The hope is that the Indian Nobel may not be dead as a dodo, at least as long as CNR is on the scene.