The Grand Old Man of Science — Sir C V Raman

From the archives:  A tribute to Sir. C.V.Raman on National Science Day (28th February). 

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On the eve of the birth anniversary of one of the most illustrious sons of India — Sir.C.V.Raman., I thought I would share his short biography I had written for the Children’s World in  November ’98. It was more about the man behind the genius — his dedication, love for nature, music and a curious mind that didn’t rest till it found out the answers.

He won the Nobel Prize, not working in a posh lab but in a small office with the minimal equipment. No wonder he said, “The essence of science is independent thinking and hard work, and not equipment. When I got my Nobel Prize, I had spent Rs.200 on my equipment.”  Perhaps  if we were to imbibe his spirit of inquiry and paid heed to his words, we might have more laureates from India in the pure sciences. 

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 Venkataraman was poring over the history textbook. It was a completely new subject for him and he had to study hard to be able to take the written test to qualify for the Indian Audit and Accounts Service. Hard work was second nature to him and academic brilliance was part of him. So he wasn’t overly worried about taking the exam and the interview.

“What happened at the interview?” asked Venkataraman’s brother, as he entered the house and took off his shoes.

“I took one look at all the candidates who had assembled and knew I was going to stand first!” he replied with characteristic candour. There was no boastfulness in his statement, but a mere affirmation of facts.

True to his word, he stood first in the written examination and got a job in Calcutta, the then headquarters of the British government in India, at a salary of Rs.400, a substantial sum way back in 1907.

Academic brilliance came naturally to Venkataraman. He had inherited the intellectual attributes of his father, who taught maths and physics at college. Venkataraman was very interested in physics. Once when he was ill as a young boy, he wouldn’t rest till his father agreed to bring home a physics apparatus called Leyden’s Jar and demonstrated it to him! That was not all. Experimenting with stuff around him, he once made a dynamo, all by himself.

Intellect was not the only thing that he had inherited from his father. He learnt to appreciate music and fine arts too. He sat and listened to his father play the violin, intrigued by the sounds that emanated from the instrument. Being musically inclined himself, his father initiated his son into music too — Venkataraman played the mridangam, a percussion instrument of the South. These two instruments were part of the experiments in acoustics that he conducted later in life. He had a collection of several musical instruments in his house.

Nature was a favourite with him too, especially the sea. Living by the sea in Vishakapatnam and later studying in Presidency College in Madras, which overlooked the sea, he was fascinated by it. The colours of the sea fascinated the young boy — the blue of the water, the white of the spray and the brown of the sand — all left an indelible impression upon his young mind.

Being a dedicated government servant did not prevent him from pursuing his interest in physics. He worked at home after office hours, till one day, he stumbled upon the Indian Science Congress Association in Calcutta, a few streets from where he lived. This was to become his second home for several years, where he conducted his experiments.

The colour of the sea which had so fascinated him as a boy and young man remained with him and prompted him to conduct studies about it, which fetched him world fame and a Nobel Prize in Physics. His discovery was called the Raman Effect, after him. He was by then popularly known as C.V.Raman.

He worked for long hours, practically living in the laboratory when he was working on some experiment. Little wonder then, that he strongly advocated hard work for success in scientific quest. “The essence of science is independent thinking and hard work, and not equipment. When I got my Nobel Prize, I had spent Rs.200 on my equipment.” He also decried the craze to follow Western research methods. “A great deal of work done in India is a follow-up or amplification of what is being done elsewhere in the world. Get rid of these mental crutches!” he exhorted Indian scientists. He practised what he preached.

If there was one thing that equalled his passion for research into physics, it was his love for teaching. He accepted a professorship at the Calcutta University, although it paid him much less, than what he earned as a government servant. Although the terms of the appointment exempted him from teaching duties, he insisted on teaching the M.Sc. classes.

“The best way for me to master or revise any subject in Physics is indeed to lecture on it to the M.Sc. classes,” he said in defense of his passion. He got so engrossed in his lectures that he would often continue beyond the stipulated hour, while the professor who had to take the next class would wait for a while and then politely withdraw. His students didn’t mind the extra hours because he was a fine teacher. He never stuck to any textbook but brought to life the past history on the subject.

It was not that he was just a good teacher. He was a good student first and foremost. One of his students who had access to his personal library once said, “I have seen that he had gone through every problem in the books and marked them ‘excellent’, ‘elementary’ and even ‘silly’.”

If his students were proud of him, he was equally proud of their achievements. He was always available for his research students especially those who were entering a critical phase in their work. He exemplified the essence of Guru-Shishya parampara practically living with them while they worked under his supervision.

Whenever he gave lectures or talks, he proudly mentioned the achievements of his students, referring to them by name. He encouraged them to send their papers to scientific journals abroad and have their findings published as quickly as possible. In order to be available to them at all times of the day or night, he shifted to a premises adjoining the association building and had a connecting door built to facilitate his entry to it.

His students fondly talk of his attachment to them. Once, a student had gone to register himself and Raman not only attended to him personally, after setting aside pressing administrative work, but also helped him to move furniture to a convenient place to sit and work.

Even when he worked very late hours and sometimes barely snatched a few hours of sleep, slumped on his desk, he never missed a lecture. At the height of the Non-cooperation Movement when students were offering protests outside colleges and wouldn’t allow teachers and students to get in, he would somehow, cajole, plead and charm his way into the college and class!

His love of nature, just as his passion for Physics and music, remained with him all his life. The Raman Research Institute that he built in Bangalore in 1948, bore ample testimony to the fact. It had a profusion of trees and plants. “I get my ideas about crystals and solids by looking at trees,” he once said. At another time he said,  “I want to live long because I have not heard all the music I want to hear.”

He remained a workaholic, giving talks and publishing research papers till the end. When he became ill, he told his doctors, “I don’t want to survive my illness if it means anything less than a hundred percent active and productive life.” And when he couldn’t walk among his beloved trees nor could see the garden from his bed, to which he was confined towards the end, he fretted, “Had I known I was going to die here, I would have arranged for the windows to be a little lower.” His bed was raised to enable him to see his beloved trees.

He loved having children around him and spent a lot of time in their company. “Just look up. Look at the sky. You learn science by keeping your eyes and ears open…The moment you ask “Why is the sky blue?”, you go deeper and deeper into the problems of physics. He should know. He had asked a similar question: ‘Why is the sea blue?’

Raman was a practical man, who was often blunt to the point of being abrasive. This didn’t make him very popular among many of his contemporaries. But the country accepted him with all his weaknesses for he was a genius who did his country proud and was an exemplary human being. He was indeed the Grand Old Man of Science.

(First published in November 1998 in The Children’s World)

49 comments

  1. I wish I had studied when the time was to study.. repent that a lot .. hardly managed to pass my exams
    But then I was so baddddddddddddd in science , Mr. Sharma my physics teacher would always say “You are becoming a Idiot no. 1, I can bet my life you will not pass this year” 🙂

    but thankfully scraped through..

    ..
    How are you doing Mami…

    Like

  2. A beautiful little homage a great man. Right from my young age, he and Einstein were my most favorite scientists (Abdul Kalam got added to that short list later :)). I had always been fascinated by him and his contribution to science as a whole and Indian science in particular. You brought back memories to my college days when I was over the moon after publishing a research paper based on his works. 🙂

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    1. Oh, I am so glad that this post brought back some happy memories for you! I am proud of you for holding him as your ideal scientist along with Einstein. We need to keep refreshing our memories with such biographical notes and articles of great men and women of India.

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  3. This is such a beautiful narrative ! 🙂 How I wish all teachers had the keenness in teaching akin to the grand old man of science! There surely would have been more laureates from India.

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    1. Thank you Dashy. Teachers and students have both changed today. While teachers have become commercial, students have adopted irreverence to all kinds of authority. It is a chicken and egg story with no one knowing which happened first.

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  4. jaishvats · · Reply

    I remember reading about the color of the sea and his fascination with it…. Inspiring person

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    1. Oh, yes. He was that and more.

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  5. Nice to be reminded of the Great Old Man of Science, Zephyr. It is good to remember such Indian scientists, who, even in those times of limited equipment and funding, achieved so much!

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    1. There was commitment and dedication among eveyone those days, Manju. That is how they managed to achieve so much and the pride of being Indian also helped 🙂 Today we rush to disown our own country and its achievements 😦

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  6. Very very informative article. Though I have been reading about him in tidbits, this is good. Westerners might be more familiar with him than us. We, Indians are like that. We never praise our people.

    I watched the movie ‘Ramanujan’ recently. It was quite good, though many flaws were there. We must salute Ramanujan and Raman for bringing up our Indian name in the famous scientists’ list. Otherwise most of us are lethargic and just pull on with the meagre money we have.

    Thank you, for this post, Zephyr. We have got lot of information about Sir CV Raman.

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    1. We only appreciate what the west does, Sandhya. So we need them to say that a Raman or Ramanujam were geniuses. I had done tremendous research to write this series and had to make sure that the information was authentic especially since it was meant for children. It was well worth the effort 🙂

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  7. You are such a delightful storyteller when it comes to telling the life stories of some of the great men and women of India! I so loved reading it. A lot of information packed into a wonderful narration. Sharing it with the kids in my family.

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    1. Thank you, thank you 🙂 This had been a series over the year when I had recounted the stories of great people of the times. It had some unusual political leaders too. I am wondering if I can get an e-book out at least of this series.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you must do the e-book 🙂 Spread the good word about the greats!

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  8. 🙂 We are related to Sir C V Raman. Around this time last year when Vidur was doing a Science project, he was in shock to learn this. 🙂 So very nice to read this, Zephyr.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, Vidya! One friend who interacted with him as a student and another who is related to the great scientist! I am basking in reflected glory 🙂

      You must be knowing a lot more about his persona, I am sure. I can imagine Vidur’s surprise. But how come he had not been told about it earlier?

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  9. Nice to read a post from you- it’s been such a long time since you wrote here!

    Lovely post! Yes, we would do well to remember C V Raman who was, as you say, The Grand Old Man of Science. I’m sure reading about his life would inspire students of today- perhaps teachers too!

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    1. More importantly, it is good to see you here, Manju 🙂 Some of the great men who shaped the destiny of our country were teachers — Dr.Radhakrishnan, Dr.Zakir Husain…It says something for the teachers of yore, doesn’t it? Tod ay we have teachers who are doing a job — of teaching from the text books, intent on completing their syllabus. So, it would be great if it inspires teachers so that they can inspire their students! Your comment had also gone into moderation. Wonder what’s with WP.

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  10. Very good post, Zephyr. I have read a lot about him and I know that he loved music and our food too. But the human side is new to me. I am happy to know about his father’s interests. The atmosphere at home influences children on how and what they become when they grow up.

    Good to know that he appreciated his students and often mentioned about it outside. Not many teachers do it.

    I was very happy to read this and my son also was glad to read this. Let me see what my son who is abroad and is a research student feels about this article. Thank you, Zephyr.

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    1. I don’t know why your comment went into moderation. Thank you for liking the post, Sandhya. The biographies of great people should concentrate on their personalities as well as their achievements. But our curriculum bound text books sadly lack in this. And it is not very often that parents pick up books on these wonderful people. I always try to demystify the great men and women so that the children can feel inspired by their achievements. Do tell me if your research scholar son liked it too 🙂

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  11. This was well worth the wait Zephyr, and I wish you are always around to enlighten the lesser mortals like us with these fantastic real life tales!

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    1. Thank you for the words of praise, Rahul. If I can even do a fraction of what you think I am capable of, I will feel great 🙂

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  12. Very informative bio. Thanks for this enlightening post 🙂

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    1. You are welcome, Bhagya. Glad you found it useful.

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  13. Woohoo! Look who’s back! And how! 🙂

    A very informative post, Aunty. Learnt a lot about this great man today, thank you so much for putting this up. What I loved most are the little snippets, his love for nature and music and the simplicity with which he seemed to connect with all his pupils. No wonder, he did what he did and reached a pinnacle that only a few even dare dream. Here’s my salute to sir C.V. Raman, people like him are an institution in themselves.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Arti. He was indeed a giant as were so many others about whom we don’t hear much except their works.

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  14. Welcome back Zephyr. So you have become a Mumbai -wasi? No plans of coming back to Delhi?

    This was an informative post Zephyr. I remember reading about the Raman Effect in school but precious nuggets about his personal life make this post special.

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    1. Thank you Alka. True that we don’t get to read about the personal lives or characteristics of the scientists and discoverers as if their identity begins and ends with their work. we fail to realise that they became what they were and achieved what they did because of their personalities..

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  15. Nice post and a much needed one in today’s times. Shared the link with Sid too. Indeed, pure sciences are being pushed to the periphery.

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    1. Thanks Rachna, and I do hope Sid would enjoy reading it.

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  16. just so happy to see you back..now please keep posting…

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  17. Zephyr, nice to see you back again, with this lovely post on the 125th birth anniversary of Sir C. V. Raman.

    Took me back to 1966, when I was in my first year of college, and the awardees of the National Science Talent Schol (I think the scheme had just started then) were supposed to do a summer school in Bangalore, One of the highlights of our month long summer school in Physics was a visit to the Raman Research Institute, and meeting and being addressed by the great man himself. Totally amazing to be in the presence of such a great man, and how he made the visit so wonderful for a bunch of wide eyed 16-17 year old kids,,,,,

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    1. Wow, you actually met and interacted with C.V.Raman? It must have been an unforgettable experience, as I can see that you recall it so vividly nearly half a century later. Alas, my acquaintance was limited to the volumes in the libraries. Why don’t you share some memories of the meeting? It would be wonderful to read it, written in your inimitable style 🙂

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  18. Fitting tribute to a great man at a time when India is taking a great leap towards the Mars.

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    1. Good to see you here after a long time, SRA. The post coincided with the Mars expedition but was not planned except as a tribute to C.V.Raman’s genius.

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  19. Thanks a lot for this beautiful post-interesting as well as so informative.I knew nothing of all this and knowing this i really admire the genius–achieving high laurels with such modest means.He ought to be a role model for our young scientists.Today all moan about the lack of facilities before flying abroad,they can take a lesson from him.

    He having been the perfect teacher,i wonder if any of his students excelled.

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    1. The series I had done was about such greats who are confined to text books and so have not been brought alive to the children. It took a lot of painstaking research to dig out these details of their lives, but it was an educating experience to me too. He is known to have encouraged his students and highlighted their achievements, but your question has made me curious too. I will try to find out.

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  20. What more can one add to this well written post on one of our illustrious scientists.He made the nation proud and inspired many young people into study of science and related research.A topical post on his 125th birth anniversary.Thank you

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    1. Thank you KP, for the kind words. I had wanted to highlight the human side of a scientist, since it is common perception that they can be eccentric, aloof and what not. C.V.Raman’s life proves that one can have varied interests and be involved with people even while pursuing science.

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  21. Glad to see you back Zephyr after a long hiatus. A needful post this when scientific achievements trigger off protests against ‘wasteful’ expenditure while expenditure on cricket is seen as normal. Yes – C.V.Raman researched without equipment – and scientific curiosity needs no equipment to develop but we are in the days when what remains to be explored and confirmed are either ultra-small or ultra-distant and cannot be explored without expensive equipment.

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    1. Oh, but I didn’t intend this post as a reaction to the Mars expedition at all! It was just my tribute to a great son of India who was such a genuine human being. I remember poring over tomes in the Teen Murti library collecting all the facts about him and others in the series I had done for the magazine. I had picked up that quote from the post but I should have stopped with his words on the dedication and sincerity part and not mentioned the amount he has referred to. That was a mistake as it seems to have triggered reactions to that one word 😦 A tribute gone awry, would you say?

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  22. Learnt new things or rather refreshed many things that are long forgotten. Remembered Sir C.V. Raman block in colleges or school science labs. What great people our country has given to this world. The other day, when I saw Dr.Shakuntala Devi too on Google, I felt really happy. I will have Rushi read this for sure. Last time, when you wrote about Eeshwar Chandra VidyaSagar, we both read together. This will be another good read for him. Now, you don’t disappear again, okay? 🙂

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    1. I am glad that you read the post for what it is — a profile of the great scientist. We need not only to tell our children about such great people, but also show them that they are simple people with likes and passions like any of us. As for disappearing….well… 😀

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  23. lovely post, Zephyr! and so good to see u back!!! i once applied for a course at the Raman Research institute, and was floored by the kind of thought that must have gone into making that place what it is!! am going to show this to samhith when he gets back!

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    1. Oh, you have visited the Raman Research Institute? Isn’t it wonderful to see beyond the facade of a person and discover such endearing qualities as, say, a love of trees for instance? I am glad you liked it enough to share it with Samhith 🙂

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  24. We seem to have institutionalized science, attached a (heavy) price-tag to acquire knowledge and made science education exclusive to an elite class only. They then graduate and join ITES/BPO sector. No wonder we’ve never had geniuses like Ramanujam, G.D.Naidu, C.V.Raman and others in the recent times, in India.

    One thing that startles me is: We are adamant that we will find solutions to all the world’s problems through science, but we keep discovering new problems faster than we device scientific solutions for the older ones. Only then, perhaps, scientists will continue receiving their funds.

    Destination Infinity

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    1. You are right about funding as ultimately it is money that decides the career of a person. Pure sciences need dedication and passion if they have to be mastered and that kind of dedication is fast vanishing. After all, discoveries are not made every day. It takes years and years before something can be found.

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  25. wow!!! So nice to see you back, Zephyr!!! Any connection to the meagre rs. 450 crores Mars mission? Those grand old days of science is gone–East or West. Who wins Nobel is more a product of cultural beliefs in what is good rather than if it did serve humankind–me thinks.

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    1. No connection, whatsoever, Bhavana. It was just as I said. I was told it was his birth anniversary and so dug out this feature from my docs and posted it 🙂 Things have indeed degenerated all round and science is also a casualty.

      Like

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