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CNR Rao | The right chemistry

CNR Rao | The right chemistry
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2008. 12 02 AM IST

No full stops: At 74, Rao still teaches abroad, and publishes a record number of papers. (Jayachandran / Mint)
No full stops: At 74, Rao still teaches abroad, and publishes a record number of papers. (Jayachandran / Mint)
Updated: Fri, Feb 15 2008. 12 02 AM IST
The lush campus, the neatly arranged potted plants in the courtyard of his home-office and the 90-year-old trees standing majestically in his backyard, make me wonder if all this greenery has anything to do with C.N.R. Rao’s fountain of energy. At 74, the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister and Linus Pauling Research Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) is as busy as he was almost 50 years ago, when he joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 1959, after returning from Purdue University.
“I am the only scientist here who has witnessed IISc’s golden jubilee and will now be part of the centenary celebrations next year,” he says. He makes a quintessential portrait of a scientist—glasses, frizzy hair, and an air of authority as well as nonchalance for all things mundane and profound.
One of India’s best-known scientists, Rao has always believed we should produce thousands of science professionals annually. He is well-known for his criticism of the bureaucracy, which he thinks stifles science.
No full stops: At 74, Rao still teaches abroad, and publishes a record number of papers. (Jayachandran / Mint)
The nanotechnology advocate recently did a significant about-turn when he said at a conference that scientists should get into business ventures to commercialize their research.
We chat about that surprising statement as he sifts through various slips of paper on which he has scribbled points for a meeting with the PM; the lecture he’s giving schoolchildren in Goa; corrections to one of his international papers going into print.
“We are living with an old-fashioned mentality where [science] establishments think one person can have only one job at a time…it’s as if you are forbidden from executing other ideas,” he says. “Look at me. I’d have developed 10-15 technologies in my lab if I had the infrastructure.”
He cites examples of students/colleagues across the world who have spawned companies, commercialized lab technologies and advanced their field of science. His personal favourite is the professor of biomedical engineering, Robert Langer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, with whom Rao shared the Israeli Dan David Science Prize in 2005.
“I am going to push for this reform now,” he says. He explains how “bureaucratic impediments” have stifled the entire country. “Our enemy is not external forces, but our own people. Sometimes it is so frustrating.”
But why doesn’t he begin with his own lab? Given his range of work in chemistry of advanced materials, and his stature, isn’t he ideally placed to spin off some research? “Not at my age,” he adds with some finality. Since it’s a fairly sophisticated field, with hardly any industry in India, he thinks the ideal situation would be to help the industry get started. “If I had been in the US, I would have minted money,” he says with a smile and, as if reading the expression on my face, adds: “Don’t worry, at this age, I don’t worry about it myself.”
But money has come and so have scores of awards and prizes, professorships, honorary doctorates and memberships to various science academies around the world. In December, he accepted a visiting professorship to Cambridge University in the UK, in addition to his long teaching stint at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which he thinks he should give up after this year. He isn’t talking about these things to “show off”, but to emphasize that even at this age, overseas universities are seeking his teaching expertise, whereas in India, scientists and teachers are made to hang up their boots at 60.
He isn’t hanging his, though. With 10 hours devoted to research every day, and 18 “major” papers being accepted for publication in 2008 in leading international journals, he thinks he’ll break his own record this year. “I really want to create something in my field beyond my capability,” he says. “Unless we have a finite set of people who stretch their limits, we can’t achieve anything.”
That’s what China is doing, and he doesn’t know why we don’t do it in India. “We are a bunch of lazy people; we don’t want to work,” he says. Of course Rao doesn’t suffer from the same malaise. When I ask how long he intends to continue research, he says: “till my last day”.
One of his friends and long-term research collaborators in Cambridge was physicist Sir Nevill Francis Mott, a student of Nobel laureate Lord Ernest Rutherford. Mott died in 1996 at the age of 90, publishing a paper in that year. Not only that, says Rao, after retiring at 65, Mott entered a completely new area of research and eventually won a Nobel for that in 1977.
I ask him when India can expect one, given that his name has been in circulation recently. “I don’t know, I am not waiting for it, but if I get, I won’t be shocked,” he says, as a matter of fact. There has not been a Nobel Prize in his area of work and the person driving it is George Whitesides of Harvard University. But Rao also is a front-runner for a new prize instituted this year for nanoscience by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and California-based Kavli Foundation—the $1 million (about Rs3.9 crore) Kavli Prize.
Rao is also passionate about music. And if you made the mistake of thinking it’s Carnatic music, you are in for a surprise. He doesn’t like south Indian music. His favourites are Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Rashid Khan, Ajay Chakravarti and Bhimsen Joshi. The fact that he studied at Banaras Hindu University and later taught at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, for 14 years, must have had something to do with his fondness for north Indian classical music. His opinions on singers are as strong as those on science: “Bhimsen Joshi is one of the greatest musicians, but he is dying and no one has thought of a Bharat Ratna for him. They can give it to Lata Mangeshkar and M.G. Ramachandran but not to Bhimsen Joshi.”
He’s also sore that no scientist after Sir C.V. Raman has received a Bharat Ratna and that New Delhi has not even given the award posthumously to Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear programme.
I divert his attention to his newly formed CNR Rao Education Foundation. Part of the “few crores” that he has got from his recent awards have been used to set up this Foundation, which gives away scholarships and awards to students at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, at IIT Kanpur, two best school teacher awards in the country and a best scientist award for the 43 least developed countries. This year, the award goes to Cameroon.
With Rs25 lakh from this Foundation, he is setting up a Hall of Science for children at the JNCASR. “Mukesh Ambani has promised Rs50 lakh for this. I’ll also raise some more money to leave behind a corpus of Rs1.5 crore for its maintenance,” says Rao, getting up from his chair to oblige the Mint photographer who insists on a shoot in the courtyard, a neat piece of design by architect Charles Correa.
Affectionately forcing us to have tea at the adjacent guesthouse, Rao takes our leave. It’s Sunday afternoon, and he looks forward to his weekly siesta.
We walk away inspired.
Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao
Born: 30 June 1934 (Bangalore)
Education: MSc (Banaras Hindu University), 1953, DSc (Mysore), 1960, PhD (Purdue), 1958; honorary doctorates from 46 universities (including 12 overseas)
Work Profile: Joined Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 1959. While serving as a two-term director of the IISc, he added several new wings. He set up the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore in 1989. As chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the PM for the present government, he got off the ground a set of new science institutions called the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER)
Favourite Gadget: None. Keeps a mobile phone to make, not receive, calls
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First Published: Fri, Feb 15 2008. 12 02 AM IST
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