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Home > 2021 > Those magnificent men with beautiful minds | L K Sharma

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 22, New Delhi, May 15, 2021

Those magnificent men with beautiful minds | L K Sharma

Friday 2 July 2021


Reviewed by L K Sharma

Space. life. Matter: The Coming of Age of Indian Science

by Hari Pulakkat

Publisher: Hachette India
Print ISBN: 9789389253801, 9389253802
Print ISBN: 9789389253801, 9389253802
eText ISBN: 9789389253801, 9389253802

Independent India’s scientific achievements fascinate the common man and impress the global community of scientists. Scientific endeavour in India has had a tremendous impact on industrialisation and nation-building. India’s core competence in S&T is well recognised. Scholars have written on science in relation to development and modernity in India. There are documents on major scientific projects executed successfully despite resource constraints.

So, what was done is known but little is known about how it was done. One needs to know the peculiar circumstances in which these scientists functioned. Such accounts can come from the memoirs of the participants in that grand adventure. We wonder why these scientists chose to function in the hard conditions that prevailed then. Many of them had worked in well-equipped laboratories and lived a comfortable life abroad. They knew of the conditions in India and yet they chose to return to empower their new nation.

Science and technology enjoyed political support at the highest level. But scientists faced bureaucratic irritants and an acute scarcity of resources including foreign exchange. Indian industries could not deliver sophisticated instruments and equipment. These scientists persevered, overcame difficulties and showed outstanding results.
A fascinating account of how science was done is now available, thanks to noted science journalist Hari Pulakkat who has captured that ethos in his book Space Life Matter. Stories of magnificent men have been gathered through extensive interviews with top scientists, their colleagues and students.

Pulakkat weaves his narrative using anecdotes recalled by these scientists. The resources Pulakkat tapped are vanishing because those who can give first-hand accounts of scientific work in those decades are in their eighties and nineties. Many are no more. Two noted scientists interviewed by Pulakkat did not live on to see his book published.

Pulakkat covers, radio astronomy, space research and its application, chemistry, chemical engineering, and branches of biology. There are profiles of Govind Swarup, U. R. Rao, C. N. R. Rao, M. M. Sharma, R. A. Mashelkar, A. V Rama Rao, T. Ramasami, J B Joshi, T. Pradeep, G. N Ramachandran, P. Balaram, M. Vijayan, Obaid Siddiqi and Samir Brahmachari. He covers TIFR, UDCT, BHU, IISc, IITs, and CSIR laboratories.

Having interacted with these scientists, one romanticises that era. The charismatic personalities created an aura that fascinated even those not studying science. One must strike a personal note in order to illustrate this point. I came to journalism from the stream of literature but a chance visit to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) made me report on the first radio telescope that Govind Swarup built in Kalyan. A Sunday magazine article on the project got me the newspaper’s reporting prize. I did not set out to cover science. It happened because of TIFR. It was a diversion from my normal assignments such as life in Asia’s biggest slum or the frog meat export business. My routine task of reporting from the coroner’s court used to get over by afternoon and visiting TIFR by climbing into its bus for the students at Azad Maidan became a habit.

TIFR’s atmosphere was electrifying. Meeting M G K Menon, Yash Pal, Obaid Siddiqi, B V Sreekantan and Govind Swarup was like meeting stars. Listening to a visitor such as J. V. Narlikar there was a treat. Foreign Nobel Laureates used to be mobbed by students. The elegant building, the sea-side café in which the director, faculty members and students queued up at lunchtime and the walls adorned with painting bought by Bhabha, all made one feel out of the world. Today, if allowed to be a bit hyperbolic, one would say: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.”

My interaction with senior scientists over the years made me marvel at their enthusiasm, grit, perseverance and pride in nation-building. Of course, some of them were not without human flaws such as rivalry and groupism. But they were all obsessed with ideas. They did not shut themselves up in ivory towers but saw science as a tool of development. While leading the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), Vikram Sarabhai kept emphasising the need to harness this powerful medium for developmental goals. He repeatedly alerted the nation that this medium would be captured by the “metropolitan interests”. SITE, developed and managed by scientists, for the first time took the moving picture to remote villages what the film industry failed to do in a hundred years. Long before the arrival of social media, SITE enabled villagers to record their experience on a kind of camcorder for transmission. The push for the introduction of satellite communications came from scientists.

These men and women were part of an ethos that is beyond imagination today. Many such scientists have passed away, but fortunately some are still with us, working, guiding and sharing their experience.

Space Life Matter captures that electrifying atmosphere through the profiles of outstanding scientists. It traces their journeys, their living experience, ambience of the workplace, official policies and procedures, families, role models, mentors, teachers, colleagues and hard knocks and lucky breaks. Some recall the moments when a flash of intuition helped. Like Szilard getting an idea about nuclear chain reaction at a traffic light in London on September 12, 1933.

Pulakkat records the first-person accounts by these scientists of their aims, ideals and approach to problems. How did they overcome the irritants and transform the conditions in order to get results and inspire their younger colleagues and students? The book gives us a fair idea. Pulakkat’s narrative answers questions such as:

  • What motivated them to take up research?
  • Who were their role models?
  • What advantages did they enjoy? What drawbacks were related to that age?
  • How do they assess the present-day conditions for basic research as well as for science as business enterprise?
  • Examples of how they changed their research priority, factoring in the constraints specific to Indian conditions.
  • Some returned after working abroad where there was no shortage of facilities and life was comfortable. Why did they do it? What were their pleasant surprises and disappointments?

The path before that generation of scientists was not smooth. The Prime Minister, who offered full support at the highest level, could not micro-manage the projects to ensure that researchers in the government labs and universities faced no bureaucratic problems. Foreign exchange was scarce and import of expensive scientific instruments very difficult. Regulations imposed by auditors or vice-chancellors were laughable and tragic. Prof. M. M. Sharma of the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) found it easier to pay from his pocket to get his scientific papers typed by an expert typist in the market. A national laboratory researcher needed to get live samples examined by an instrument available in a lab in Delhi. The samples needed to be taken by air, but the researcher was not eligible for air fare. So, the director undertook that task.

India’s engineering industry was unable to deliver instruments. Scientists would piece together these in the lab, reliving the beer-can physics days. Even if a large unit had the capability, it had no interest in manufacturing equipment for scientific projects because the number of items ordered were one or two. Vikram Sarabhai faced this problem in the space programme and in many cases a small unit came to his help. The space scientists also resorted to jugad in the most high-tech area!

Scientists faced pressures from import lobbies out to scuttle indigenous R&D. The atomic energy, space and defence research projects were up against the restrictive export regime imposed by the developed countries determined to hamper such projects. This delayed the projects and estimates had to be revised and re-revised. Defence scientists had the user agencies adding new specifications, at times unnecessary frills, when the project reached halfway. So, R&D always made news for the wrong reason.

Some senior bureaucrats, envious of the eminent scientists enjoying direct access to the Prime Minister, did not value indigenous effort. This reporter had to maintain a poker face when a top IAS official made contemptuous remarks about two eminent scientists, describing their physical appearance. There were notable exceptions such as T. N. Sheshan IAS who came under the spell of the culture of the Space Department to which he was deputed. Ronen Sen IFS during his stint in the Atomic Energy Department shared the enthusiasm of the scientists there.

The auditors never counted the huge savings resulting from even the half-done work which made the foreign suppliers drastically slash their prices. The acquisition of skills was never taken into account. Some national problems arose due to management failure, but scientists got blamed!

Within the scientific community, the purists belonged to the “Saraswati Camp”. They were committed to basic research and shunned interaction with lucre-obsessed businesses. Noted chemical engineer M. M. Sharma was among those who brought about a cultural transformation by linking scientific research to business and industry in multiple ways.

His Ph.D. student R A. Mashelkar took this movement forward, first at the National Chemical Laboratory and then as the CSIR director-general. He revolutionised the largest chain of public sector laboratories, inspiring scientists with his call “Patent, Publish and Prosper”. The interaction with business and industry resulted in patents rolling out of the CSIR labs and their supplying techniques to Indian as well as international companies.

As a scientist, Mashelkar always looked for the commercial potential of research. This was the result of his initial training under M. M. Sharma, who never failed to spot such opportunities, says Pulakkat. Mashelkar’s call to the CSIR scientists to do patentable research made his marketing of technology easier. This burnished India’s image, and made the country a R&D hub of international companies. He had wanted to be the CEO of the CSIR and that is what he came to be known as. Palakkat says Mashelkar converted CSIR into a semi-corporate entity with a research culture. Mashelkar, with his communication skills, spread the message that Laxmi and Saraswati can unite to bless their devotees.

From the very start of the independent nation’s journey, Nehru sought to enhance India’s core competence in science and technology. India came to boast of the largest network of public sector laboratories, the IITs and scientific institutions of repute. Nehru popularised scientific temper through mass contact and became the spokesperson of the scientific community. Scientists hesitated to communicate with the people and the media took little interest in science and technology.

Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi took personal interest in S&T. At times, they initiated a new project without any paper coming from the scientific adviser. Prime Minister Nehru invited Homi Bhabha to launch the atomic energy programme. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called a meeting to start the Antarctica research project after reading about it in a foreign journal. She sent a CSIR director-general abroad to personally recruit Indian scientists in order to fight the problem of brain-drain.

Indira Gandhi saw to it that the Indian pharmaceutical industry moved forward and took advantage of the new patent regime that she established. It prohibited product patents on drugs and pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals. After amending the patent laws, she wrote to all national laboratory directors. India’s strength in manufacturing vaccines was one result.

Indira Gandhi wanted to know what projects could be undertaken to lessen India’s dependence on imported technology and promptly agreed to Sarabhai’s proposal for manufacturing a large satellite antenna for an earth station.

After Sarabhai’s death, Indira Gandhi invited Prof. Satish Dhawan to head the space programme agreeing to his research-related conditions! Some of these brilliant scientists sacrificed their own research and went on to nurture hundreds of scientists in the institutions they built. Their record in managing large programmes was impressive. India’s atomic bomb project did not need a Gen. Groves to head it.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gave a free hand to Sam Pitroda who came from the US to establish C-Dot and modernised telephony based on indigenous resources. Technology missions led by him increased supplies in some critical areas. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enabled the flow of additional resources for innovations and generation of fresh idea through the national innovations council.

The partnership between an enlightened political leader and a scientist yielded fruits as demonstrated by the Green Revolution (C. Subramaniam as agriculture minister and M S Swaminathan as scientist), and by the integrated missile project (R. Venkatraman as the defence minister and Abdul Kalam as rocketry expert).

India’s progress in S&T won the admiration of foreign scientists but was not highlighted by the western media because of the cold war politics, as pointed out by historian E. P. Thompson and scientist-turned science writer John Maddox.

The major programmes in the fields of atomic energy, space and defence research have been covered extensively by journalists, geostrategy and international affairs experts. These made news because these were subjected to export controls by America designed to scuttle Indian endeavour. That anti-India policy turned out to be a blessing because it promoted self-reliance. In the words of Vikram Sarabhai, “if imports are shut off, indigenous resources materialise.”

Indian scientists often turned a constraint into an opportunity. It is said that Indians excelled in mathematics and then in information technology because once all they had were paper and pencil or chalk and black board to work on. M. M. Sharma, noted chemical engineer, popularised the term “zero-budget research”. P. Balram of the Molecular Biophysics Unit of the IISc, Bangalore, is quoted in the book as saying that the intellectual climate during those years was far superior. “Maybe you think better when you don’t have money. You talk more, you analyse more, you read more.” Some laboratories worked day and night.

One realises the magnitude of the achievements of that generation of scientists. A feature that typified those scientists was their proficiency in two languages. Some of them were equally comfortable in their private temple at home and the laboratory in the office. They saw no contradiction between faith and science. They recited the Vedic mantras early in the morning at home before setting out to do frontier science. The bilingual intellectuals will not be around for long.

Pulakkat has dug out significant material for future historians. He begins with an account of Govind Swarup’s path-breaking work in radioastronomy that got international attention. This young man returned from Stanford with the belief that “developing science was a good way of tackling superstition and building a modern nation”. This writer was in touch with Govind Swarup till a few months before his death. He was greatly concerned about diminishing scientific temper.

An account of Govind Swarup’s student days in Allahabad University makes one understand what creates a knowledge society and the difference between then and now. Nobel Laureate C. V. Raman addressed students at Swarup’s college for three hours. The university had eminent scientists such as Meghnad Saha and K. S. Krishnan. The interest taken by science students in the poetry of Harivanshrai Bachchan and Firaq Gorakhpuri and history lessons by Ishwari Prasad speaks volumes about the university culture of those days. Swarup read Hindi novelist Premchand writing on how the poor lived. Two decades later, Swarup would say that “these ideas were useful while doing science in a poor country”.

Pulakkat describes the history of radio telescopy and the scientific papers that Swarup read and gives a chronological account of Swarup building the Ooty Radio Telescope, the largest steerable telescope. Swarup and the young scientists looked back in time at the universe in its early stages of evolution.

Govind Swarup got restless at Ooty and took the next step after Kalyan and Ooty. He built a more sophisticated instrument to get answers that Ooty could not provide. The Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), the costliest scientific project at that time, was cleared by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after getting from Govind Swarup answers to his questions. It turned out to be one of its kind in the world. The telescope was opened to the global astronomical community in 2001. GMRT was so unique that 35 countries were using it within a few years of its installation. The book captures flashes of imagination that turned Swarup’s dream into a reality.

Pulakkat quotes Govind Swarup saying in 2019: “People ask me this question, why are you building radio telescopes in a poor country? I ask them, why are you building temples? If temples are relevant, searching for the mysteries of the universe is also relevant.”

From pure science, Pulakkat goes on to space research with applications for benefits to society. He gives us a portrait of U. R. Rao while describing how satellites were built. “When the space programme began, no one other than U. R. Rao had seen a satellite. And yet he asked engineers fresh out of college to build India’s first satellite in just two and a half years.” Pulakkat’s coverage of space programme including rockets and satellite has references to Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and K. Kasturirangan and several others.

In the field of chemistry, there is vivid portrait of C. N. R. Rao who at the age of 25 joined IISc. He returned to India after a Ph.D. from Purdue University and post-doctoral stint at the University of California in Berkley. He brought materials chemistry to the forefront of chemistry research and brought up generations of scientists. Prof. C. N. R. Rao went on to receive the Bharat Ratna.

From chemistry, Pulakkat goes to chemical engineering, picking up M. M. Sharma, lionised by his students and admired by the captains of industry. He established linkages between research and industry, changing the research culture of his institute and the business culture of the chemical industry. M. M. Sharma returned to Bombay from Cambridge. As a student there he sold a patent to Shell for 1000 pounds but spurned the job offers from Shell and Imperial Chemical Industries in the UK. He came back, not believing that his alma matter was ready to offer him full professorship at his young age.

At UDCT, he wondered why it had not produced a single Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Wanting to start in that direction, he found that private companies were not hiring Ph.Ds. So, why would a student join for this degree. He personally reached out to the chemical manufacturers and demonstrated how they would gain by hiring the Ph.Ds. Soon the demand exceeded supply. He advised more than 25 companies as technical consultant.

 His institution lacked some basic equipment the research budget was low. So, students were taught to make the chemicals and equipment necessary for research. Some companies were approached for supplies and for loaning equipment. Friends and former students running companies always obliged. M. M. Sharma kept talking of ideas-based research but knew that such pursuit had limits and made personal efforts to gather more resources for the institute.

Pulakkat’s book covers the rare case of a government laboratory director turned into a successful entrepreneur. A. V. Ramarao was moved by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s exhortation to exploit new patent laws and develop products in the country. The then director of the National Chemical Laboratory, B. D. Tilak, read out the Prime Minister’s letter and urged his colleagues to work on the problems facing the chemical industry. Some senior scientists murmured but young researcher A. V. Rama Rao took it in the right spirit.

Rama Rao had seen poverty as a child. His stint in UDCT made him appreciate the economic value of science. He believed national goals were no less important than pure scientific knowledge. Later, Rama Rao, as director, converted a sleepy laboratory into a performing laboratory. AZT, an antiviral drug used to combat HIV, was made from a scratch, using a process that was slightly different from that of the innovator. It was this affordable Indian drug that largely controlled the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

After his retirement, Rao ignored offers of jobs in the private sector and established Avra Laboratories that became a Rs. 200 crore company engaged in synthesizing complex molecules.

One major scientific project that served society was undertaken by T. Ramasami of the Central Leather Research Institute. His work saved the leather industry, a major growth engine in Tamil Nadu, that faced closure because tanneries polluted water bodies and tannery waste had made 35,000 hectares of agricultural land unfit for cultivation. More than 40,000 jobs were directly at stake. The laboratory had earlier developed novel tanning chemicals and improved the process and quality of leather from the tanneries. Its research-based environmental plan saved the leather industry.

Hari Pulakkat concludes the book with exciting stories from the fields of molecular biophysics and genomics. The book is about the coming of age of Indian science. The material collected painstakingly by the author is not found in the annual reports of the departments involved in science and technology.

The glimpses of the past highlight the contrast between then and now. Today, research institutions are flush with funds and foreign exchange is available. Most sophisticated equipment is made by industry and is imported easily. But popular enthusiasm for science is missing. Scientific temper is diminished. In the sixties, when news appeared that a man in Bhavnagar was turning iron into gold, noted meteorologist, K. R. Ramanathan, issued a statement exposing the charlatan. Today, the science academies watch in silence the upsurge of pseudo-science and laughable “scientific” statements being made by political leaders.

Mathematics has lost the glamour it had in those years. It is used to be the favourite of brilliant students. Teaching and research have become less attractive. A teacher asked his former students in America about the scientific papers they were reading. They said they read the balance sheets of companies! Given a chance, today a Ph.D. in science joins an international investment bank. Contrast this with M. M. Sharma remaining a teacher all his life, spurning the offers of top positions as science administrator in New Delhi.

Space Life Matter will interest those with nostalgic memories of the past. It must be read by the admirers of India’s scientific endeavour as well as its critics who see the glass half-empty.

(Review Author: L K Sharma is a veteran Indian Journalist)

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