When Was The Last Time You Met A Person With A Scientist As Their Role Model?

Posted on March 6, 2014

By Sukant Khurana:

In the process of emulating our role models, we become a bit like them. I say a bit, because not everyone succeeds in reaching the heights of Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, Ratan Tata or Azim Premji. I said Bachchan, Tendulkar, Tata or Premji but not Prof. C. N. R. Rao, because I am not sure, how many Indians recognize his name. I suspect the small fraction of readers who indeed recognized his name thought of the news of the scientist who alongside Sachin Tendulkar, got the recent Bharat Ratna; but not much more than that. I suspect only a small fraction of us know about the many accomplishments of Professor Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao. Some newspapers called Prof. C. N. R. Rao the Tendulkar of Indian science but sadly not the other way around; with Tendulkar being called the Prof. Rao of Indian cricket. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Sachin but Prof. C. N. R. Rao had a longer, much more impactful innings for the country and is still going strong.

CNR rao

Why is that most of us know so less about many real heroes of modern India? Are we missing a culture of science and innovation? Why is that the land, which once led the world in innovation for millennia, is now missing the culture of science? Are we planning to continue being a follower nation, only providing cheaper services and cheaper production facilities, due to lower labour costs or are we planning on becoming a first world nation that aces the world in knowledge and innovation? We all recognize India cannot be a global player without being a leader in science and technology but without Indians entering scientific endeavours in large numbers, how do we plan to accomplish it? By science and technology, I do not mean becoming a physician or an IT professional or a practitioner of a well-established technical profession. I mean how many Indians are choosing to be innovators in science and technology fields, including those of health care and information technology, amongst several others, equally if not more important ones, such as quantum physics, nano materials, epigenetics, cancer biology and neuroscience etc.? Practitioners are indeed needed but innovators are what India is direly lacking.

In addition to the lukewarmness to science in the national psyche, political apathy, due to lack of immediate votes tied to the improvement in science has also resulted in undermining scientific growth in our country. Unless science comes to the centre stage of Indian agenda, we can kiss goodbye to the dream that this century will belong to India. We can still dream on about it but without making science and technology front and centre, the dream would just be a fanciful one, akin to Bollywood stories of an abject poor guy winning the heart of a beautiful princess.

For those of you who managed to read till this bit, I will return to the exceptional national hero, I talked about in the beginning of the article: Professor C. N. R. Rao, as an example of what kind of individuals hold keys to Indian transformation. Despite its entire infrastructure, social and political problems, what still makes India an exciting and promising venue to do science, owes in a large part to the tenacity and exceptional leadership of Prof. C. N. R. Rao. He has been behind the scene orchestrator of establishing and improving several world-class science institutions and has been guiding Indian science policy as the chief scientific advisor to several prime ministers. His science accomplishments are equally as many as his institution building ones. A protégé of one of the greatest minds of the last century, Linus Pauling, Professor C. N. R. Rao is a structural and solid-state chemist, who manages to reinvent himself every few years and retains a ceaseless curiosity at the age of 79 years. He is most known for his work on materials with interesting electrical conduction properties. High-temperature superconductors are very low electrical resistance materials that achieve this property at less extreme cold temperatures. Colossal magneto resistors are materials that change electrical property in the presence of a magnetic field. Both these materials are finding increased application with every passing day in modern technology and the development of both these have benefitted from his immense contributions, just as has the field of compositionally controlled metal-insulator transition substances. Not satisfied with being a leader in these fields alone, since his late fifties, at an age when other scientists are getting ready to retire, he has been making India count at the word stage in nanomaterials. Somehow between all his scientific research and institution building, he and his equally enthusiastic family members, find time to devote to science education and outreach.

Maybe the long due award of Bharata Ratna to Prof. C. N. R. Rao, an honour that has been conferred previously on only two other scientists, reflects a change in the attitude of the Indian government towards science. If India has to rise, then emphasis on science needs to continue on and increase further, irrespective of the turnover of politicians in power. Also, equally if not more needed is the change from grassroots in the form of a culture of scientific curiosity, healthy scepticism, imagination and daring spirit that is a must in the recipe of making an ace scientist.

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