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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This past couple of weeks, I have really been pondering about wars. I happened to read Ian McEwan's novel, "Atonement", and it put into perspective wars, big and small. Till now, I have felt sorry for most of the wars I have read about, in a sort of distant way - the world wars, the Civil war and their aftermaths. Even the Indian war of independence, for all the patriotic feelings it generated in me was - well, just a statistic. What mattered was who lost and who won, and how many people were killed. This book changed the statistics to something very personal. Each person who died in all these cataclysms was some body's husband or wife, lover, sibling or parent. To an extent, the movies "Life is Beautiful" and "Border" try to do it too, but "Atonement" is in a class by itself.

Atonement is the story of Briony, a thirteen-year old girl in 1935. How her precocious imagination brings about a crime, and how she atones for it, is the backbone of the novel. The story itself is simple. What makes the novel so very enjoyable is the lyrical words used by McEwan. He has a great gift for words, and is capable of painting pictures with his pen. Pictures so real that we are transported to a different time and place, and made to feel the characters' emotions as our own. Another great point about Atonement is its naturalness. All events happen one after the other in natural succession. We do not see McEwan thrusting his ideas upon any of the characters, though they are the products of his imagination. We always feel that the characters speak and act of their own accord, not because McEwan wills it.

Perhaps what impressed me most in the novel, was the description of WWII. Robbie Turner, one of the main characters in 'Atonement', is recruited by the English army and sent to fight for France. But the English army cannot match the German onslaught, and a retreat is ordered. While getting to Dunkirk from his station, he witnesses much destruction. He sees a child's leg, just a leg dangling from a tree, and it makes him sick. He tries to rescue a mother and her child from German bombing, but fails. There is hopelessness, death and distress everywhere. The soldiers smoke to keep hunger away, and water is scarce. The taunts and concern of his companions, the attitude of soldiers desperate for food, drink, rest and love make a deep impact on him, and us. The mind boggles when one thinks of the enormity of the carnage caused by the second world war. So many lives lost, so many hearts torn asunder because of the fancies of just one madman who happened to be ambitious and powerful! I used to consider the 'peace and no change' concept simplistic, but since reading this book, I have almost become a pacifist (contrary to my liking). Now, when I think about war, I see the dangling leg of a child in my mind's eye, and it really hurts.

'Atonement' was also in the news for wrong reasons. McEwan was accused of plagiarism . This accusation notwithstanding, I loved the chapter on the nurses' work. Service to the patients while not minding their own physical difficulties is what they learn during probation. They wear neck-biting uniforms, inhale disinfectants all day and their identity is reduced to just a badge...

McEwan uses the name 'Turner' for Robbie throughout the war-description. At the hospital, the nurses are not allowed to reveal their first names to the patients; it is an unwritten rule. That is how war and death are. First names and personal details, emotions, ideas and everything else that make one human life distinct from another are completely obliterated. One just becomes one of many, just a statistic.

There is one aspect of war, positive to some. That is economic revamping. Some businesses thrive during war and after war (I suppose that is why wars are made!). I started wondering about the ethics of manufacturing chocolate bars to distribute in the army (and actually wanting the war to happen, so this chocolate-bar-business may thrive), but I did not get anywhere. I go one way, and it is communism that I detest. And the other way does not look good either. My question is, where does the layperson stand, when it comes to issues like this? Is a person allowed to be selfish? If so, how selfish can (s)he be, without transgressing ethical and moral boundaries? This is a question that does not have an answer.

'Atonement' is a great novel. It is a serious book, definitely worth a serious read. I did not particularly like the ending, though. It leaves one with a calm but yet sinking sort of feeling, and my Indian mind would have been more at ease if the ending were a little more cheery. But perhaps it is just as well... When life itself ends in tragedy so many times, why shouldn't a novel?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Malnad Trip

It is amazing how something as common as a cool breeze (refreshing, but common nevertheless) can take one on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It happened to me when I was returning from work today evening. It was very cloudy, and considering the weather for the past few days, it was very cool. I was sitting in the car, looking at the trees passing us by on either side. And suddenly I realized how cool it was today, just like it was when I visited Malnad, a few years ago.

I have acknowledged elsewhere, I think, that I have this strange affinity towards malenaaDu. My trips were few and short, but when walking around there, I have felt at least as local as the locals themselves. I feel that every tree and every rock there speaks to me in a language that I understand. The rain (this trip, the one I enjoyed most, was in June and it was raining hard) could deter others from venturing out, but not me. A part of my mind has lived there, enjoying and worshipping the pristine beauty of the hills and the valleys of malenaaDu every day, before I even saw the place for the first time.

We went to Kukke Subramanya first and the same evening, we went to Dharmasthala. Thence we went to Beltangadi via the picturesque Charmudi ghats. We then went to Horanaadu and from there, to Sringeri. It was then back-to-Bangalore from there. The interesting thing about this trip was not so much about the deities and the temples in the places we visited. That was there, of course, but what is making me nostalgic is the route we took. We happened to take local buses everywhere. I did not want to hire a private vehicle, because then I would remain an outsider. This cost us some time, but it was worth it. A couple of the drivers of the buses stopped at some places, to let me take photographs.

The beautiful Malnad becomes greener and more beautiful during the rainy season. The already thick forests become thicker. The hills and the trees bathe, now in the pouring rain and then in the sunlight. When it rains, it is hard to even see one's hands. The roads are lined on either side with thick trees, a la wooden grills. Clouds rest languidly in the verdant valleys, unwilling to rise up. Here and there, one sees solitary houses. Every couple of kilometres, there is a small, often shy waterfall. Ah... if any place on Earth can be called Elysium, Malnad should be one of the contenders.

A couple of lines from a poem of Prof.Nissar Ahmed's, come to mind -
ಈ ಘಳಿಗೆಯೆ ಮೈ ತಾಳಿತು ಎನುವಂತಿದೆ ಲೋಕ
ಇಡಿ ಸೃಷ್ಟಿಯೆ ಸೊಗವಾಂತಿದೆ, ಸಮಯವೇ ನಸು ನಿಂತಂತಿದೆ
ಬಾ ಮಾಡಿಸು ಕಣ್ಮನಗಳಿಗಾನಂದದ ಅಭಿಷೇಕ
I do not know if I can make another trip like this ever again, in spite of my yearning. All I have now are the wonderful pictures, enshrined in my mind. I do not think that I can ever forget them.