A Life in Science: Review

Book: A Life in Science

Author: C. N. R. Rao

Publication: Penguin Random House India

Pages: 216

Price: Rs. 499

Life in science is the story of Prof. C. N. R. Rao, recipient of India’s then the civilian award—Bharatratna. Prof Rao is an internationally acclaimed chemist, who worked in solid state and structural chemistry.

His life in science begins when the world was round and as the book progresses, the reader discovers that the world is getting flat.

In 1945, he had a wonderful opportunity to meet Prof. C. V. Raman, the first Indian Nobel Laurette. Prof Raman had visited his school and gave a lecture on science and Madam Marie Curie. That electrifying lecture made a lasting impact on Prof. Rao. Later, he also got an opportunity to visit Prof. Raman’s laboratory, where the kids spent nearly half an hour with him. “I was completely enamoured with what I saw. I thought—My God, how wonderful it would be to be like C. V. Raman! It was probably then that the seeds of my becoming the scientist were sown.”

Prof. Rao comes from a middle class family and pursuing career in scientific research was a challenge then. He did his M.Sc. from Benaras Hindu University. There he got exposed to the severe heat of the northern planes for the first time. He had not seen cycle rickshaw then, neither had tasted Samosas, Rotis, Palak Paneer, Dal or Gulab Jamun. At Benaras Hindu Vidyapeeth he developed the liking of Hindustani Classical music, thanks to Onkarnath Thakur, the head of the music department. Later he moved to IIT, Kharagpur which was just coming up.There he learned about renaissance period of Bengal and the Bengali culture.

He had decided to pursue a career in research, i.e. chemistry and decided to go abroad—US, for further studies. Then there were no air services then and he boarded a passenger ship in Mumbai and crossed the Atlantic from London in another boat. After arriving in the US, he was much concerned about the finances since he used to get only $ 150 per month as scholarship. “A day after the exams (orientation examination for the Ph.D. students), the convener told me that I had done fairly well in organic, inorganic and analytical chemistry. The problem was with physical chemistry, which was supposed to be my major subject. They had given only problems to solve in the examination and I was not used to solving problems quickly. We wrote essays in Indian and never had solved problems. I was using logarithmic tables to do numerical calculations, when everybody else was using a slide rule, which I had never seen before.”

Prof. Rao excelled in his studies in the US and was looking for the suitable position in India to pursue research. Many of his colleagues and professors in the American Universities told him that in India there would not be facilities like well-equipped laboratories to carry out research in physical chemistry. But he was determined to return back to India. In those days, there were no ISD facilities available to common folks, forgot the skype and internet. He was badly missing his family. “I was anxious to join Indian Institute of Science as early as possible. I believed in Faraday’s famous statement that in science, we ‘work, finish and publish’.

At the age of 25 in 1959 he joined Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore as a lecturer in the inorganic and physical chemistry departmet on a basic salary of Rs. 500. This gave him monthly income of Rs. 700 per month. He did not have an office and the department did not have adequate funds and could give him around Rs. 5000 for research. There was no equipment worth mentioning. It was a cultural shock. But passion for science and research prevailed. Later, Prof. C. N. Rao established department of Chemistry in IIT, Kanpur, became the Director of Indian Institute of Science and also established Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore.

Prof. C. N. R. Rao’s story of A Life in Science is also the story of nation building. How, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru worked hard to give prominence to scientific research and successive Congress governments patronized the scientific research. There are many side stories in this book. The last phase of freedom struggle, the McCarthyism and Racism in the US, India’s transition from Socialism – Mixed Economy, to Globalization, etc. All these stories run parallel to the development of scientific research.

The whole project of building a modern Indian nation-state kick-started by Jawaharlal Nehru and subsequent Congress governments led by Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi carried this forward. Prof Rao has mentioned the encouragement and support he received from Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh.

I wonder as to why Indian film industry has not come up with the biopic of any Indian scientist– Jagdish Chandra Bose, Shrinivasa Ramanujan, C. V. Raman, Homi Bhabha, Meghnad Saha, etc. the scientists of repute that India has produced? Why we are not projecting the scientists as the heroes or the role model? C. N. R. Rao also deserves this place as he is standing on their shoulders. This book is Must Read for the budding scientists, i.e. science students.

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