Conquests of Indian science

One hundred years back on 2 June, a small beginning was made when the first session of Indian Science Congress was held. Inaugurated by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, vice chancellor of Calcutta University and a judge of Calcutta High Court, who, himself was a student of mathematics and a great educationist.

On Saturday last, the centenary celebrations of the Indian Science Congress was opened by the prime minister, quoting  Sir Ashutosh’s observations about the priority of science in public life and the need to nurture science. He also laid the foundation stone for the unified campus of Bose Institute in the city, named after one of India’s greatest scientists, Jagadish Chandra Bose, who had discovered the radio and contributed towards the understanding of plant life and who was immortalised in an essay of Sir Julian Huxley. The prime minister said that Calcutta nurtured modern science in India.

In fact, during his period of the vice chancellorship of Calcutta University, Sir Ashutosh had built it as a centre of science and higher learning. It was in Calcutta university that Sir Ashutosh invited Sir C V Raman to come and join the physics department. Raman worked out his Nobel Prize winning research into light in a small ramshackle laboratory on Bowbazar Street, not far from Calcutta university. Sir Ashutosh had also invited Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the legendary philosopher and later president of India, to teach in the university.

Sir Ashutosh’s legacy carried on for a long time and the famous trio of Indian science and mathematics, Meghnad Saha, P C Mahalanobis and Stayendranath Bose, were all contemporaries in Calcutta university. They went on to make seminal contributions to science.

Satyen Bose, who later was the only collaborator of Albert Einstein, developed what is know as Bose-Einstein statistics and Bose predicted the existence of what today has come to be called the Biggs-Boson particle, nicknamed, ‘God Particle’, which explains the mass of the universe. So important was this discovery that 90 years after its prediction, one of the most elaborate science laboratory in the world, the CERN Accelerator in Europe is all tuned to prove and materialise this particle currently. Another laboratory across the Atlantic in America is also trying to achieve the same result and it is said that whoever institution gets this breakthrough will bag the Nobel Prize.

Most of these great breakthroughs were achieved when India was still under colonial rule. In fact, Indian science had climbed to heights which have not been scaled even in Independent India. Two Nobel prizes for work in science, the Raman effect and Chandrasekhar’s work on astrophysics, were both done in India under British rule. Admittedly, many other works of great repute and significance, including the Nobel prize winning work in chemistry, were all done outside of the country.  The prime minister’s observation, in this respect, leaves something to be ruminated upon and pondered, ‘These founders of modern Indian science did not let the burdens of colonial subjugation come in the way of their pursuit of scientific excellence. They complemented their brilliant scientific abilities with imagination, drive and patriotic fervour to write a glorious chapter in the annals of Indian science.’

Nevertheless, the Indian Science Congress, which is a gathering of scientists from all over the country and eminent scientists from all over the world, has continued to remain a vibrant platform for scientists to discuss their work and for even the layman to partake of their excitement.

This correspondent had the good fortune to be present in a couple of these Congresses and remembers particularly one held in the Pune university campus years back. Many of those sessions were remarkable but two stand etched in memory.

The Pune session was being held when scientists all over the world were searching for super-conductivity at room temperatures. Super-conductivity is when energy, say, electricity, can flow without any resistance to its passage and hence no loss of energy. This can have immense importance for energy transmission as the world is seeing acute shortage in energy and rising demand. It is possible to achieve super-conductivity at extremely low temperatures, but well nigh impossible at room temperatures.

Professor C N R Rao, as far as I could remember, was explaining super-conductivity and the researches which were being conducted in his laboratory under his guidance. The trials and tribulations of scientific research and success and numerous failures in reaching the final milepost were recounted by professor Rao in his thrilling presentation in front of a spell-bound band of listeners overflowing a reasonably large auditorium. He made a passing remark, as I remember, that he had no weekends no holidays, no other relaxation as long as super-conductivity was on hand.

I recalled the admonition of the Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, after whom the concept ‘conditioned reflex’ or ‘Pavlov reflex’ is named, to a junior researcher in his laboratory. The junior researcher was late. The explanation given by him was that the dislocation  of  the Great Russian Revolution of 1917 caused the delay. To which, the great scientist replied that science cannot wait for the great revolution.

Another memorable session was that of the phenomenal neurologist- scientist of AIIMS, professor P Tandon. His lecture had followed one by an equally well-known British astrophysicist, who had explained discoveries in inter-galactic spaces. There he was comprehending the universe. Professor Tandon’s opening bait was – he would be talking about those tiny little things that comprehended the immense universe – the human brain.

Professor Tandon was talking about brain injuries and the efforts – or frustrations – in repairing these. A brain does not grow after birth – or that was the established idea. How does then one repair a damaged brain that will no longer grow. Trying many other options scientists were then trying whether implanting ‘foetal cells’ or cells from unborn fetuses could be made to grow and repair damages. Foetal transplantations had appeared to be the hope for future. Professor Tandon had aptly captured the entire effort of the scientist community in this small sphere, ‘If a rat is going round and round because of a brain injury and if we can make him take one single straight step, we will have achieved a lot’.

Attending the Indian Science Congress gives an insight in the excitement, failures, frustrations and occasional achievements of a small band of people who are looking for that small bit of extra knowledge. It is the eternal journey, like that of Ulysses, for that unknown shore after having conquered and mastered the known world.
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