Towards the second half of the 19th century, the world began to take note of Indian scholars. From particle physics to human rights, their work began to be seen as world class.
One of the incredible stories of modern Indian scholarship is also one the most tragic. Born to a poor family in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam in 1887, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant mathematician with almost no formal training, made enormous contributions to number theory and the study of infinite numbers before he died of illness and malnutrition at the age of 32. English mathematician G H Hardy recognised the prodigy and invited him to work with him at Cambridge. Ramanujan’s brief, brilliant and tragic story was immortalised in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, a book by Robert Kanigel.
Meanwhile, through his demonstrations of remote wireless signalling, earlier than the much more famous Italian inventor Marconi, and his research into plant physiology through which he argued that plants could feel pain, Jagadish Chandra Bose drew the attention of Western scientists in the late 1800s.
Around the same time as Ramanujan, C V Raman was born near Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. He taught physics in Kolkata and, later, Bangalore. He was awarded the physics Nobel in 1930 for discovering changes in the wavelength of light that occur because of scattering by chemical molecules when it passes through a transparent object. The phenomenon is called the Raman effect. India celebrates National Science Day on February 28, the day he discovered the ‘Raman effect’. Raman was the first non-white to win a Nobel in the sciences.
Raman’s nephew, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, won the Nobel in physics (with William Fowler) in 1983 for discovering the ‘Chandrasekhar limit’, an upper limit to the mass of a star in its last stages of evolution. In 1930, he was awarded a scholarship by the Indian government to study at Cambridge, after which he joined the University of Chicago. He later became a naturalised US citizen. NASA’s premier X-Ray observatory was named the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
Physics has been the standout field for modern Indian scholarship. Satyendra Nath Bose, a quantum mechanics physicist whose contributions were rediscovered following the recent detection of the possible Higgs-Boson particle (bosons are named after him), was taught by J C Bose at Kolkata’s Presidency College. Bose-Einstein statistics and the Bose-Einstein condensate are named jointly after him and Albert Einstein, who he corresponded and collaborated with. Bose held many positions in the Indian scientific establishment.
At the turn of the century, Hargobind Khorana was born in what is now Pakistan and moved to the US, where he became a citizen. He shared the 1968 Nobel for Physiology or Medicine with Marshall W Nirenberg and Robert W Holley for research on nucleic acids and the cell’s synthesis of proteins. The Khorana Programme, named after the scientist who died in 2011, aims to build a shared community of Indian and American scientists and entrepreneurs.
With Independence came a new breed of scientists whose work was allied with nation-building. Homi Bhabha, ‘father of the Indian nuclear programme’, founded the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Bhabha convinced Jawaharlal Nehru of the need for India to have a nuclear programme. Vikram Sarabhai, who did research under Raman, worked with Bhabha to establish India’s space programme.
Another Indian Nobel laureate is Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, a Chidambaram-born biochemist and biophysicist who shared the Chemistry Nobel in 2009 with Thomas A Steitz and Ada E Yonath for his study of ribosomes, the large complex molecules found in all living organisms that help form protein. Ramakrishnan did his BSc in Physics from Baroda on a scholarship after which he moved to the US.
The great Bengali poet, artist and freedom fighter, Rabindranath Tagore, was the first Indian Nobel laureate for literature, the first non-European to win the award. Tagore revolutionized Bengali literature, freeing it from classical shackles, and his humanist principles as well as his criticism of imperialism illuminated his work. The national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are Tagore songs. Tagore was the architect of Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan.
Contemporary Indian historians like Bipin Chandra, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib have revolutionised the telling of Indian history. Sociologists Andre Beteille and M N Srinivas contributed the most important studies of caste in India which became central to policy-making.
Most illustrious among today’s social scientists would be Amartya Sen, winner of the economics Nobel, and a pioneer of development economics. Sen has made his work on human development accessible to millions through his speeches and writings. One of the creators of the human development index, Sen advises governments, including the Indian government, on welfare economics. His ‘capability approach’ has revolutionized the dialogue on rights and services. Sen was one of the first to draw attention to India’s skewed sex ratio. He teaches at Harvard and Cambridge. (Times of India)