Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What a man!

There are few people who deserve the above exclamation, and Sir C.V. Raman is one among them. I just finished reading "Raman and his Effect" by Dr. G. Venkataraman, and it has left me dazzled by one of the most brilliant gems India has produced. I knew next to nothing about Sir C.V before I read this book. I knew that he was a great scientist, knew about his work on acoustics and a little about the Raman effect. What I did not know about the man was his ego, his passion for Science, his love for India, his admiration for roses and minerals and diamonds, and his ego...

Raman is most celebrated for the discovery of the Raman effect . The story of its discovery is interesting. On his way back from his first ever trip abroad, Raman saw the blueness of the Mediterranean sea and wondered why it was. At that time, it was thought that the sea reflected the sky, and the particles in the sea-water absorbed light themselves. The accepted theory was that together, they gave large water bodies their characteristic blue color. But now, Raman had his own doubts. He always carried useful instruments with him, and he made some experiments right there, on the steamer. He then concluded that the water molecules were scattering the light incident upon them. During scattering, the frequency of the light altered, giving rise to the blue colour of the ocean. Raman Effect was thus discovered, and now has its applications in optical communication and analysis of materials, among others.

Perhaps lesser known is the work Raman did on Acoustics. He discovered how the mridangam and the tabla could generate actual musical notes, unlike other drums. He poured fine sand on the instruments immediately after striking them, and by observing the patterns formed by the grains, made fascinating discoveries about the harmonic nature of sounds produced by these instruments.

As a scientist, Raman had to be content with the less-than-adequate amenities he was provided. He was a true engineer. When there were no electric lights in the institute, he used sunlight for his optical experiments. That was Raman, never daunted by mundane, practically un-solvable problems such as poor infrastructure. His solution was simple - supplement the lack of infrastructure with the brilliance of the mind!

Raman's ego was proportional to his brilliance as a scientist. This mammoth-sized-ego was probably justified, probably, because he really was one of the best physicists of the time... After successfully completing the interview for the Assistant Account General's position at Calcutta, Raman said -"I took one look at all the candidates there and knew that I was going to stand first", and indeed he did. And what can you say about the confidence, nay, ego of the man who reserved steamer tickets to Europe in July for the Nobel awarding ceremony, even though they were only going to be announced in November!

There are a few other interesting anecdotes in the book, a couple of which I would like to share. A small boy once asked Raman if he was not ashamed of his turban, while travelling abroad. Raman then related this experience of his. When in London, he attended a lecture of Ernest Rutherford's. He happened to reach the place a little late, and was looking for a seat in the benches at the back. Rutherford then addressed him by his name, and invited him to come and sit in the front. He had recognized Raman because of the Madrasi turban! How could he be ashamed of his turban when it had served as a mark of identification? Another anecdote goes thus. While at IISc, Raman gave a problem in Spectroscopy to his student. The next day, he found the student sitting dejected. When asked why, the student replied "Another person is working on the same problem at UK. He has a 100 kW light, whereas I have only a 10 kW light". To this, Raman retorted "It does not matter, put a 100 kW brain on it!". Simple, ain't it?

In addition to being a great scientist, Sir C.V was also appreciative of Nature's beauty and bounty. He loved to collect diamonds and other crystals (in keeping with his passion for
optics). He grew a variety of flowers both at home and at Raman Research Institute. He states "I regard as the greatest feature of the world Nature herself. She is the supreme artist; she creates forms of beauty, loveliness and color, unsurpassable..."

I hope I have given at least a snippet (however small it may be), of the man who was perhaps as wonderful a person as he was a scientist, inspiring respect and awe in millions of seekers of knowledge. As I am writing this, my head bows in reverence to his great intellect. Little wonder that we celebrate February 28th as the National Science day. That was the day when Raman announced his Raman Effect to the world.

A note about the book itself. This book is one of a series, 'Vignettes in Physics', written by Dr.G. Venkataraman. The author received the Padmashri for the popularization of Science. 'Vignettes in Physics' satiates the curiosity of the ordinary reader and arouses interest in those serious about Physics. The author fondly calls it the "Junior Feynman series". Though this is the first book in this series that I have read seriously, I feel that it is excellent for people like me - who really want to delve deeper into Physics but do not have the time to study the Feynman lectures. Other books in this series are about the Chandrasekhar limit (Note: Raman was Chandrasekhar's uncle), QED, Bhabha, Saha, Quantum theory, etc. I am quite sure that each and every one of them will be an interesting read.


Sanjay M said...

(you may delete this comment after reading it if you like)

Small correction:

particles in the sea-water absorbed blue light

should be

particles in the sea-water reflected blue light

(because as we know only then something takes a color, when it reflects that color :) )

Sanjay M said...

This was a truly inspiring post. I only knew a bit about Sir C.V. Raman, but this was quite an eye opener.

One thing is I doubt whether the word ego is the right word to use, it is generally associated with conceit. There is a fine line between being self-assured and being conceited. Just wondering... maybe one can be externally ultimately confident, yet internally humble at the same time? :)

My wife is a physicist (MSc Physics, Lecturer), and I am a kind of physicist at heart, though I'm a computer engineer and I will definitely get this book in her name (and for me also ;) )

mouna said...

really, parijata, a very nice post...

a little insight into the life of a great personality... and yes, confidence and pride. something minisicule differentiates them..

on the positive side, the positive attitude by that man, overwhelming!!

ps:u are blogrolled

December Stud said...

Yep, an excellent post. I guess, like the bulk of junta, I just knew a little about "Raman effect" and his style. Most of the points in your post are quite new to me and it is indeed very informative.


Hmmm...ego doesn't necessarily have to be conceit, does it? I think egotic and self-confident have a "thick" line between them ;) Self confidence breeds ego, so ego and humility can really not go hand in hand. Well, in most cases.

parijata said...

Thanks for the comments.
It was a typo - should have written that the particles in the sea water absorbed red light more and blue light less (The color-absorption varies from one water body to another). I will go back to my books again, and update this post soon.
Being egoistic does not mean being conceited, imo. A person can be really egoistic without being conceited. I have seen some people whom I can categorize the above way.

Mouna, yep, positive attitude is what we should learn from Sir C.V. And thanks for blogrolling me.

Thanks. Agree with you on ego and self-confidence. I have seen some very, very confident people who are yet humble. And mostly, their humility feels like a facade.

bellur said...

loved reading those snippets.
thanks for shedding LIGHT on Sir CV!

parijata said...

Thanks :)

Aram said...

Don't know why I like to read and dwell on controversies and negatives. Perhaps, it is the URA effect.

Speaking of Sir CVR's ego ( fully justified, I would say), there was a good report somewhere about how his various recommendations were ignored and overruled by the governing council in IISc which was dominated at that time mostly by Britishers. This is what led him to establish his own Raman Research Institute next to IISc in location, but IISc even today is next to RRI in excellence. Students who finish their Masters at IISc go to RRI for their doctorates.

Bit Hawk said...

Very informative and interesting read!

Aram said...

A few more trivia - from Dilip M.Salwi.

After having been shabbily treated by the administrators of IISc, CVR had utmost bitter feelings against them. So when he set up his own Raman Research Institute some metres from IISc, he got poplar trees planted in the new campus in such a manner that they hide the old institute. "You see, I don't even want to see those buildings of that other institute from my place !" he is said to have remarked once.

The only examination that Raman ever failed in his life was the medical examination conducted by the Civil Surgeon of Madras in 1905 ! In those days, this medical examination was requisite for any Indian going to England for higher studies.

During his life-time, Raman was renowned for his arrogance. He would often comment bitterly on the way scientific research was handled in India. He once remarked, "Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to bury one of his favourite women. The National Laboratories were built to bury scientific instruments!" But looking at the progress of scientific research in the country today he did not appear to be wrong. It showed he could foresee the future of research in the country.

....Raman turned down this suggestion brusquely and did not go abroad! In fact, he went on to claim that he could train foreign scientists in India!

parijata said...

Thanks for the information.
I wonder what Sir C.V would have done if he saw the sad state of Science Education and research in India. Forget Pure Science, we do not see good research happening anywhere. I hope the tide turns.

turanga said...

One of Raman's grandnephews once told me that at a state dinner hosted by Stalin in his honor, he performed his usual parisinchane. He also apparently knew large numbers of lines from Shakespeare by heart.