A limitless life

Written by  //  October 28, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  3 Comments

The Indian chemist Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao (known as C N R Rao) is one of the foremost solid-state and materials chemists in the world. His output- more than a thousand papers and forty books- is phenomenal by most scientific standards. He has been one of the founding fathers of the field in the last fifty years. There are very few living chemists in any field who have worked in such diverse areas. Rao’s work has been recognized by several honors, including election to the Indian science academies, the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Very few scientists have influenced Indian science in the last half century to the extent that he has. In his native city of Bangalore he is virtually worshipped by some; I have seen a traffic intersection named after him.

Rao has now written an autobiography in which he catalogs his life and times in chemistry. It’s worth reading, especially if you want to get a glimpse of science in a developing country and the kind of efforts it takes to do research in such a place.

Rao grew up in post-independence India where the fledgling republic was striving to get its feet off the ground. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was probably the most scientifically literate and ambitious of all the country’s leaders and placed a premium on scientific and technological development. It was under his leadership that the Indian Institutes of Technology and many of the leading national laboratories were established. Rao grew up in the 1940s and did his undergraduate work at the Banaras Hindu University in the holy city of Banaras, situated along the banks of the Ganges River. As a 19-year old undergraduate he published his first paper in Science on electrical discharges. After graduation he applied to Linus Pauling for his PhD. However, Pauling was then vigorously engaged in deciphering the structure of proteins and was not involved with the kind of experimental physical chemistry that Rao was interested in. He referred Rao instead to John Livingston at Purdue University, who was a leader in electron diffraction.

After finishing his PhD at Purdue, Rao went to Berkeley for a postdoc where he was engrossed by the likes of Glenn Seaborg, Melvin Calvin and others who had made Berkeley a Mecca for chemistry and physics. His scientific output was already outstanding- about 30 papers in leading journals- and it would have been easy for him to get a top faculty position in the US. However, Rao wanted to return to India and got a faculty appointment at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). He also got married to a woman (Indu) who has been a great source of strength and wisdom for him since then. Apart from a productive stint at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Rao has spent his entire career at IISc and then at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advances Scientific Research (JNCASR) which he founded.

The next part of the book is the part that’s most interesting. By that point (late 50s), chemistry had been revolutionized by two great developments. One was the invention of key instrumental techniques like NMR spectroscopy and x-ray diffraction. The other development was the formulation of a theoretical framework for chemistry through quantum mechanics, pioneered by Pauling, Slater, Mulliken etc. These developments were virtually unknown in India and were almost non-existent in the university curriculum. Along with a small band of other chemists, Rao was instrumental in establishing these modern chemical concepts in India. He did this, firstly by being one of the first to teach courses in quantum chemistry, spectroscopy etc. and secondly by founding a vigorous program of modern chemical research. He was certainly one of the few pioneers of modern chemistry in post-independence India; one is reminded of the American school of modern physics which Robert Oppenheimer founded at Berkeley in the 30s. Rao’s perseverance in overcoming fundamental odds like the lack of equipment and the Indian bureaucracy is noteworthy. Rao also made solid-state chemistry respectable when work in that discipline was far from fashionable. His descriptions of the threadbare capabilities of Indian science and the efforts necessary to overcome these are intriguing and inspiring. It definitely took a lot of courage and was an enormous gamble for Rao to decide to establish his career in India during that time, especially when his career would certainly have flourished anywhere in Europe or the US. But it ultimately paid off and allowed Rao to make contributions that were far greater in terms of social and national impact compared to the contributions he would have been able to make elsewhere.

So how does one do high-quality research in a resources and cash-strapped developing country? Rao’s approach is worth noting. He knew that the accuracy of measurements he could do with the relatively primitive equipment in India could never compete with sophisticated measurements in Europe or the US. So instead of aiming for accuracy, Rao aimed at interesting problems. He would pick a novel problem or system where even crude measurements would reveal something new. Others may then perform more accurate measurements on the system, but his work would stand as the pioneering work in the area. This approach is worth emulating and should be especially emphasized by young scientists starting out in their careers: be problem-oriented rather than technique-oriented. Another key lesson from Rao’s life is to not work in crowded fields; Rao would often contribute the initial important observations in the field and then move on while it was taken over by other scientists. This also keeps one from getting bored. Embodying this philosophy allowed Rao to work in a vast number of areas. He started with spectroscopic investigations of liquids, moved to inorganic materials and further worked extensively on organic materials. Among other things, he has made significant contributions to unraveling the structures and properties of transition metal oxides, ceramic superconductors and materials displaying giant magneto-resistance. All these had special physical and chemical properties which were directly a result of their unique structures. Rao co-authored an internationally recognized book- “New Directions in Solid-State and Structural Chemistry”- which encapsulates the entire field.

However, sometimes not having the right technique can prove significantly debilitating. In the 80s, the world of science was shaken by the discovery of ‘high-temperature’ superconductivity in a ceramic material. In fact Rao had synthesized the exact same material – an oxide of copper, lanthanum and barium – more than fifteen years before. However, the compound became superconducting at 30 degrees Kelvin and could be studied only in liquid helium. Unfortunately Rao was unable to do measurements at this temperature because the only relevant material available in his laboratory was liquid nitrogen, which boils at 77 K. If liquid helium had been available, Rao might well have been the first person to observe superconductivity in this material. In 1987, two scientists at IBM who discovered the phenomenon were awarded the Nobel Prize.

The later parts of the book deal with Rao’s experiences as a top government advisor and his relationships with several leading scientists including Nobel laureates like Nevill Mott and Philip Anderson. He also laments the current state of science education in India where most bright students prefer to study financially lucrative disciplines like information technology, business and medicine. The Indian middle class is still stuck in a peculiar frame of mind in which intelligence and achievement is necessarily measured by the amount of money you make. Understandably, many Indian middle class parents who themselves grew up in relative poverty want their children to be financially successful. But as Rao says, this attitude is adversely affecting the scientific future of the country and is siphoning off talent from science and technology research. For now, about the only solution to this problem is the infusion of funds in science education and research with a view to making these fields financially sustainable. Some steps in this direction have been taken with the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), but much more needs to be done. Unfortunately, Rao has relatively few thoughts on practical policies which could bring about such a change. This is probably the most disappointing part of the book since Rao, with his enormous experience in Indian science and government, enjoys a unique vantage point and would have been the idea guide to offer solutions and policy recommendations. But apart from stressing the importance of science education and science, he has few deep thoughts on the problem.

The book ends with some interesting appendices and reflections. One is a “Letter to a Young Chemist” in which Rao succinctly catalogs the excitement of solid-state and materials chemistry. Another essay on science and spirituality is again disappointing; while Rao clearly sees no conflict between the two, the essay is only two pages long and superficial. The last essay titled “Science as a Way of Life” is a masterful exposition on the kind of attitude one needs to be a scientist, and the role of science in our society. Here Rao teaches by example. As attested by his colleagues and friends, he has been completely dedicated to science throughout his life and demands the same kind of unflinching commitment from his students and co-workers. He still spends almost every free minute in the lab and intends to follow the example of some of his scientific heroes in working till the last day of his life. While this intensity has often made him a demanding teacher and taskmaster, no one can accuse him of not walking the talk. Rao talks about the international community of scientists and how it has helped him. He also talks about prejudices still standing in the way of international cooperation, including the occasional racism he encountered at Purdue in the 50s, which can be rapidly dissolved by the bonds of scientific kinship.

The great thing about science is that like music and art it is truly without boundaries and constitutes an international community. As Rao himself has demonstrated, excellence in science does not ask for one’s nationality, religion, gender, sexual inclination or political views. All it asks for are an open mind, healthy skepticism, honest dedication and respect for knowledge and inquiry. As Rao’s life exemplifies, cultivating these qualities can lead to a life that is extraordinarily rewarding and enriching.

Link: An extended video interview of Rao on the Vega Science Trust website conducted by his friend, chemist Anthony Cheetham of UCSB and Cambridge. The interview is worth watching and covers Rao’s life, science, public service and home life.

3 Comments on "A limitless life"

  1. Arghya October 29, 2010 at 9:04 am · Reply

    Lovey post Ashutosh. Seems like a must read!

  2. mk49 November 8, 2010 at 10:02 pm · Reply

    Far from being heroes who deserve such hagiography people like CNR Rao are in fact the bane of Indian science. Unlike in the West where decisions about future directions of Science and funding are made collectively, in India the a few well-known scientists like Rao are powerful in the system and become de-facto feudal lords deciding on directions of the future of Indian science and scientists. Much of what they do is self-serving and stifles innovation and keeps young smart scientists away and sycophancy rules.

  3. Akshat Rathi November 25, 2010 at 10:47 pm · Reply

    Thanks for the review Ashutosh. I was hoping the read the book but I think I will delay it for some time now that I have read this. ;)

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