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Issue no 48, 26 February-04 March 2022

Some Eminent Indian Scientists (Book Excerpt)

In independent India, science and technology have been a driving force behind the pursuit of not only economic gains but also ethics, education, justice, aesthetics, and an overall improvement in the quality of life of Indian citizens. To celebrate the contribution of science and scientists to India's freedom and progress, the Illustrated Weekly published profiles of eminent scientists at various times between August 1960 and July 1965. In the book titled Some Eminent Indian Scientists published by the Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India author Jagjit Singh has sought to recreate some of the profiles with the intent of showing how Indians from various parts of the sub continent contributed to the stream of modern scientific thought and to show that the contributions made can bear comparison with those made anywhere else. Below are excerpts of the book.

C.V. RAMAN

          The importance of Raman effect springs from the fact that the associated colour shift in an incident beam of light is a measure of the energy lost by the incoming light photons. But as the loss of light photons is the gain of molecules with which they have had a close brush or collision, it also provides a measure of the increase of internal energy gained by the molecules. A study of the Raman effect thus makes it possible to map out the levels of possible energy gains of the molecules and atoms of the substance, from which it is but a step to infer the details of its molecular and atomic structure. In other words, here is a technique for exploring the interiors of molecules and atoms. Such an exploration was possible even before Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman's discovery but it required recourse to a process called infra-red spectroscopy whose employment presented great experimental difficulties and risks of error on account of its dependence on measurements of invisible infra-red rays by their heat effect. By substituting measurement of the colour modifications of visible rays, the alternative Raman spectroscopy provides a superbly easy experimental technique. This is why the Raman instruments are now extremely useful tools of the physico-chemical workshop and an essential equipment of the research laboratories of all progressive universities and industries. Because of their rapid spread the internal structures of tens of thousands of compounds have been investigated by their use.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha

Homi Jehangir Bhabha… hoped to set up his first atomic power station at Tarapur, some 60 miles north of Bombay, in 1968- within 13 years of the setting-up of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, of whose massive and multipurpose research effort the Tarapur plant is the first tangible fruit. To be sure, many more of its type as well as other kinds would follow. For Bhabha was busy carrying out the programme that he framed earlier, bearing in view the nature of India's fuel and power reserves, both conventional and atomic, as also the peculiar property of nuclear fuels to regenerate themselves, or to generate new fuels in fissile material.

Far-reaching as was Bhabha's dream of atomic power, it had in its upper fringe an as-yet-faintlyperceived visionary gleam which could, in due time, have illumined the way out of the impasses of atomic power. Bhabha had already foreseen two of them. First, he realised that even a superabundance of thorium deposits cannot make our power reserves inexhaustible, although they do increase them very considerably. Secondly, he also knew that, if all the power needs of our economy when in full industrial flight were to be derived from atomic energy, as it must, the problem of disposal of the radioactive wastes of the fission process might well be very expensive. For, the amount of such radio active fission products would equal the fallout from the explosion in our midst of some half a million atomic bombs per annum. The only way out of both these nightmares of ultimate exhaustion of fuel sources and disposal of wastes is the possibility of putting sunshine, as it were, on tap by making miniature suns here on earth in our midst. Such a miniaturisation programme is now by no means a mere fantasy.

Unfortunately, he did not live (he passed away in an air crash on January 24, 1966) to see the commissioning of even his fire atomic power plant at Tarapur he had laboured so hard to build. Though foiled by untimely death, he will still be remembered as the chief architect of our atomic energy pillar that bids fair to be, in increasing measure, the mainstay of world economy, including ours, in the future.

SATYENDRA NATH BOSE

S.N. Bose is the only physicist whose name is indissolubly linked with Einstein in all the textbooks of physics. This is because he hit on a brilliant artifice whose value Einstein immediately recognised and proclaimed to the scientific world with all the prestige of his great name. In retrospect, it is now clear that even Einstein could not foresee the full power and applicational range of Bose's idea. For Bose's work, along with its subsequent development by Fermi, provides the basis for dividing all the elementary particles of the newer nuclear physics into two neat categoriesthe bosons after Bose and the fermions after Fermi.

If Bose preceded Einstein in his discovery of the 'new statistics', he has, in subsequent years, followed him in his researches on what is known as the unified field theory. This theory is the culmination of one of the two grand themes prominent in the history of science since antiquity. There are at bottom only two because matter, according to an ancient well-understood distinction, can exist in two forms-the continuous, like water in a stream, or the discrete, like the pebbles on its banks.

….this experimental ingenuity of Bose is not confined to physics alone. He could be equally at home in a chemical laboratory. In fact, in one of his inspired moments, he hit on an elegant chemical process of tampering with the internal structure of a sulphonamide molecule just to the precise extent of turning it into a useful pharmaceutical compound-now used widely as eye drops. If Bose could take in his stride all this manifold activity, it is because he is a close pack of perspicuity and intellectual power.

S. CHANDRASEKHAR

Henry James once remarked that but for the excessive intellectual vivacity of men like Democritus, Archimedes, Galileo, Newton and other eccentric genii whom the example of these men has inflamed, the common sense ideas derived from our daily life would have lasted us for ever. Dr. Chandrasekhar is certainly one of these 'inflamed' genii. He has shown, contrary to what commonsense may seem to suggest, that stars and atoms are linked by a close ideological bond, so that knowledge of the one is grist to the other.

A case in point is his forecast of the fates of stars, particularly in the last throes of their life, by a study of the behaviour of atoms crushed to smithereens.

One part of Chandrasekhar's vast output of work has been concerned with charting the course that these stellar and galactic flames, once ignited, are destined to follow. He has done so by constructing mathematical models based on modern quantum theory of the atom to simulate the behaviour patterns of real stars through the vicissitudes of their life. For example, he has shown that a star like our own sun cannot continue to shine forever in its present steady state. Sooner or later, a time must come when, with the exhaustion of the supply of nuclear fuel in its core, fundamental structural changes begin to occur deep down in its interior.

Chandrasekhar has shown that, when the core of star becomes degenerate with stripped atomic nuclei and electrons, all tightly packed together, new factors come into play. Their most important effect is that a star loses the power to balance the pressure and gravitational attraction at its periphery by simply adjusting its radius unless the core happens to remain below a certain limiting mass. Chandrasekhar has shown how such a massive star "can know in advance that it faces an eventual debacle long before it can reach the whitedwarf purgatory". As if 'aware' of the handicap that its great bulk entails in its relentless match towards the final purgatorial doom, it begins to strip itself of its excess mass.

Although research on the internal constitution of stars is a lifetime project, it is only one of the many complex astrophysical problems illumined by Chandrasekhar's scintillating intellect. After completing in 1939 his first major work on this subject, An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure-which, incidentally, became a bestseller-he took to another field-the distribution of matter and motion in stellar systems, such as the galaxies like our own Milky Way are.

Surveying the full gamut of Chandrasekhar's research output, one is awed by the depth of his physical acumen, the range of his mathematical vision, and the sweep of his astronomical knowledge, so that it is often difficult to decide whether he is a physicist, a mathematician or an astronomer.

A.N. KHOSLA

Whitehead once remarked that "religion is what one does in his solitude". If that be true, [Ajudhia Nath] Khosla's religion is applied hydraulics. It is a branch of engineering that is literally vital; because it is concerned with a basic problem of life, namely, conservation and utilisation of our exceedingly scarce water resources.

Khosla became so obsessed with this calamitous waste of water some forty years ago that its prevention became the leitmotif of all his subsequent technical work. …he was able to produce by a remarkable blend of deduction and empiricism a far more rational basis for designing weirs and dams than was available even two decades after his graduation from Roorkee University where he first learnt his engineering. Having created his new theory, Khosla himself led the movement for its adoption in designing weirs and dams. To this end he produced a wide variety of standard forms which could be used by field engineers to suit the particular problem they faced by merely referring to tables, charts and nomograms. The whole research, including the preparation of prefabricated formulae and tables for instant use, took him nine years to complete. The results of his prodigious labours are embodied in his classic book entitled Design of Weirs on Permeable Foundations first published in 1936. This work is all the more remarkable as it was done at a time when computers were unknown and other purely numerical methods of solving complicated differential equations such as Southwell's relaxation techniques had not yet been heard of or even invented.

D.S. KOTHARI

It may surprise some that an astrophysicist like [Daulat Singh] Kothari should have taken to defence science research even in peacetime. For, astronomers and astrophysicists are notoriously pacifist and easily frustrated when required to carry grist to the mill of Mars. If Kothari seems to be the exception that breaks the rule, it is because he understood the need of a newly independent nation to sheetanchor its defence on the latest knowledge of science and technology. He was further fortified by the knowledge that, in our case at any rate, 'defence' would by no semantic confusion of which Orwell spoke, be allowed to become a camouflage for the conquest and colonisation of weaker neighbours. Lest an unsympathetic critic be inclined to dub such a belief as a naive post-facto rationalisation of a patriotic jingo, I (the author) hasten to remind him that, paradoxical as it may seem, Kothari's own personal masterpiece in defence science research is a work dedicated to the cause of peace.

This work-Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects-which more than any other contribution of the Defence Science Organisation is Kothari's own handiwork-was undertaken at the instance of [Jawaharlal] Nehru, who made the suggestion in the hope that such a study would be of "some use in directing people's mind to the dreadful prospect in the nuclear age and to the dangers of continuing nuclear test explosions". In his book, Kothari takes us beyond the invisible barrier where man's immense journey from remote preCambrian beginnings may come to an abrupt end. By a careful, though naked, direct and unadorned organisation of the objective facts, but without the emotional tone or tint of moral indignation, Kothari conjures vistas of a possible apocalypse so morosely violent and luridly tragic that we are, as if by a traumatic recoil, jerked into sense and sanity. Rarely has anyone made such an effective practical use of so unpractical a discipline as astrophysics as has Kothari in his Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects.

P. C. MAHALANOBIS

If a great scientific movement of the size of putting a country on the statistical world map could be attributed to a single individual, he is unquestionably Mahalanobis. He took to statistics as a sideline some forty five years ago when he was a professor of physics at the Presidency College, Calcutta, and when statistics as a separate discipline was not known anywhere, let alone in India.

Mahalanobis, who had gone to Cambridge in 1913 to study physics and mathematics, returned to India two years later with copies of Karl Pearson's journal Biometrica and Biometric Tables. These publications gave him his first glimpse of the new vistas in statistics that were just beginning to appear. He since opened many of his own. One may perhaps be permitted to hoist him with a well-aimed sampling petard devised according to his own prescription. If we take as our sampling frame any of the internationally recognised modern monographs or textbooks on advanced statistics, we will find in their author index Mahalanobis name linked with at least three major developments. They are: Mahalanobis 'distance', his contributions to the design of experiments, and his theory and practice of large-scale sample surveys.

S. RAMANUJAN

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a pure mathematician of the highest order, who worked on the theory of numbers, a theory which is the queen of mathematics even as mathematics is the queen of the sciences. Ramanujan's game of pure mathematics secured for us prestige in the intellectual circles of England and Europe even before that stormy petrel of Indian politics, Tilak, claimed Swaraj as his birthright. And long before Gandhiji and Nehru stormed the imperialist citadel to win us our independence, Ramanujan, by dint of his mathematical prowess, had captured that intellectual fortress of England, the Royal Society.

(Excerpts from Publications Division's Some Eminent Indian Scientists authored by Jagjit Singh. The book, priced at Rs. 120, is available at www.publicationsdivision.nic. in. The e-version of the same is available at Rs. 40)