Home / Specials / Science /  C.N.R. Rao | A relentless scientist and institution builder

New Delhi: C.N.R. Rao, the world-renowned chemical scientist who has been named for the 2014 Bharat Ratna award, combines formidable institution-building talents with a child-like zeal for the pursuit of science, colleagues and scientific collaborators said.

The 79-year-old scientist, whose colleagues marvel at his mind-boggling scientific productivity, has been honoured globally for his pioneering work in structural chemistry and material science.

Equally, he is a passionate teacher who gave up a lucrative scientific career in the US to return to India in his 20s to pursue a field of science that had no takers.

Rao, who has published over 1,400 research papers and 45 books and has been cited in 44,000 papers, was named on Saturday along with cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar to receive the nation’s highest civilian honour on 26 January.

The announcement signals a national tipping of the hat to not only Rao personally, but also the nation’s scientific community, scientists said.

“He was a collaborator par excellence, with more than 1,000 research papers, which is a formidable number. He is known to have collaborated or worked on every pathbreaking research paper in the field of chemistry in India, and outside," said Goverdhan Mehta, who was a fellow faculty member with Rao at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, and succeeded him as director at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore.

“I believe I’m one of the few who got left out of his list of collaborators," he joked. Mehta said Rao has an infectious dynamism that is reflected in his incredible scientific productivity. With citations of around 44,000, Rao is on the editorial boards of several leading journals dealing with chemistry, chemical physics, materials science and solid state chemistry.

For over half a century, Rao has been publishing research on the chemistry of materials, which has evolved from the discovery of new materials, fabrication of materials with desired properties, and nanomaterials.

The development of new technologies has always been dependent on the discovery or development of new materials. Scientists believe humans are living in an age of advanced materials, which are among top 10 “disruptive technologies" that are set to transform the global economy by 2025, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

Due to its importance to manufacturing and innovation processes, materials science and technology is a core area of research for many economies, said a report released by Thomson Reuters in 2011. It named India as among the top 10 countries in the world for the impact of its research output in materials sciences.

Born in Bangalore in 1934, Rao was inspired to pursue science after a visit to his school by Nobel laureate and physicist C.V. Raman. But his epiphany came to him a few years later while pursuing his masters in science at Banaras Hindu University at the age of 16. “When I read The Nature of the Chemical Bond, a book written by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, my life changed, and I realized that this is the kind of work that I should do," Rao told Cambridge professor Tony Cheetham in an interview in 2003.

After writing a letter to Pauling, one of the founders of molecular biology and quantum chemistry, Rao ended up working with Pauling’s PhD (post-doctoral degree) students in Purdue University in the US. By the age of 23, he had published more than 20 papers on structures of molecules and other subjects, before completing his PhD.

After researching in Berkeley University under leading scientists of the time, he decided to return to India, even though he had felt at home in the US, both academically and culturally. Back home in 1959, Rao faced many obstacles in his research due to the lack of laboratory facilities and funds. In particular, solid state chemistry—his field of interest—was a little-researched field in India.

Rao joined IIT Kanpur in 1963 as faculty member at its chemistry department where he began work on setting up dedicated experimental labs for solid state and materials chemistry. He later joined IISc, of which he eventually became the director for 10 years.

Upadrasta Ramamurty, professor at the department of materials engineering at IISc, who has worked with Rao on several papers and has known him closely, said that for scientists, it is easy to get into a comfort zone because to pick up a new field of specialization, one has start from scratch. But “Rao continuously worked on newer fields of science and reached the forefront of research in several areas", he said.

A trained physical chemist, Rao worked on fields that were closely associated with both physics and chemistry. He started out as a scientist who was interested in spectroscopy, the study of the interaction between matter and radiated energy, but in the 1970s Rao became interested in solid states and materials sciences. He turned his attention to probing metal oxide compounds, the largest family of materials with the widest range of properties, and discovered that one of them had superconductivity, said Ramamurty.

Rao became known for his research into superconductivity and the chemical properties of superconductive materials. “More recently, he has now fashioned himself as a synthetic chemist, and is concentrating heavily on nanoscience," he added.

“After he came back to India, he has been epic in his pursuit of science with a child-like enthusiasm, but he has also been an institutional builder," Ramamurty said. “Even with his additional responsibilities of being scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, he built and nurtured world-class institutions in India."

According to his colleagues, during his 10-year stint at IISc, Rao ran the nation’s premier scientific institution with such enthusiasm that he transformed the once sleepy institute—he “shook it, and took it to another level", he said.

After retiring from IISc, he founded the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, a centre for pioneering scientists. The institute has a bust of Rao’s guru, Linus Pauling, in the middle of the campus. Rao often publicly criticized the high levels of bureaucracy in Indian administration—in several interviews, for instance—while trying to minimize its effects through his work.

“He also brought a lot of visibility to science in India and has been an inspirational figure for aspiring scientists. He has built some of the country’s best science departments, or transformed them under his leadership," said Mehta. Described as a passionate teacher, over 150 students have received their PhD working under him.

His work has been recognized and honoured by several academies. The UK’s Royal Society awarded him its highest honour, the Royal Medal, in 2009 and its Hughes Medal for physical sciences in 2000. Many countries, including China and Brazil, have conferred upon him some of their highest scientific honours. He is also a founding member of the Third World Academy of Sciences.

Rao, who likes cooking and has an avid interest in Indian classical music, has headed the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister for the past decade.

“In this role and in several such roles, through the past half century and his career, Professor Rao has led the transformation of Indian Science," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Saturday in his announcement on the Bharat Ratna. “Many of our country’s science policies and new institutions owe much to his insight and leadership."

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