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