Catalysts of change
Aditya Rishi

Icons from the World of Science
by S. Ananthanarayanan.
Puffin, New Delhi. Pages 138. Rs 175.

C. V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, J. C. Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan, S. Chandrashekhar, Hargobind Khorana, S. N. Bose, Jayant Narlikar and E. C. George Sudarshan
C. V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, J. C. Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan, S. Chandrashekhar, Hargobind Khorana, S. N. Bose, Jayant Narlikar and E. C. George Sudarshan 

All of us are like atomic particles—positively charged, negatively charged or neutral. However, scientists are different; they are like photons. Photons, or particles of light, can rise at will. Their number is not fixed.

Over the ages, the process of atoms getting squeezed close together resulted in the creation of heavier elements that have been detected in the stars. It means, if you crush a star, a bigger star is born. J. C. Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan, C. V. Raman, S. N. Bose, Meghnad Saha, S. Chandrashekhar, Homi Bhabha, Hargobind Khorana, E. C. George Sudarshan and Jayant Narlikar are stars in their own right.

Much of the advancement in the modern world has followed from their contributions. What set them on the quest to look for proofs was simply the lack of it.

The steps that are noticeable and important in the world of things subatomic merge and disappear in the world of larger objects. It is wonderful to note how very hot objects become red hot and start radiating in the visible region, and as the objects get even hotter, they get closer to white hot. Science progresses thus and so does a scientist.

S. Ananthanarayanan with his descriptive writing has brought you surprise and sense of loss all in one pack. Don't go by the size of the book: it's a power-packed atom. It's about how equations fell into place, a way of bringing fine works of science to the attention of the unscientific world. It leaves you questioning racism, politics, patents and tradition.

You get to meet formidable men of physics. They are formidable in spite of the system, not because of it. In the Indian tradition, there were clever results and also quick ways to work out problems in arithmetic, but abstract and analytical work that was systematic and gave importance to proving things was first discovered by the Greeks and then continued in Western mathematics.

India had attained, since ancient times, proficiency in architecture and metallurgy, but in the 19th century, Europe was the leader in a multitude of fields, including those of engineering, shipbuilding, chemical technology, spinning and weaving... and also the sciences. The purpose of education system that the British introduced in India was only to supply the British regime with literate and competent workers, not to create philosophers and thinkers. This was also the objective of the universities in India.

Yet, the Indian scientists astonished the world by what they achieved. Jagadish Chandra Bose once made the proprietor of a reputed telegraph company, who came himself with a patent in hand, return empty handed. "Once caught in that trap, there would have been no way out for me," he wrote to Rabindranath Tagore.

"I wonder what makes the sea blue?" Sun looks yellow when we look at it during the day. Late in the day, Sun looks orange or red. Most of us appreciate the Artist, but only a few care to study His brushstroke. C. V. Raman saw this on a ship and took out his prism, his telescope and his spectroscope, too. This got India its first Nobel Prize in 1930.

Hargobind Khorana, who was denied a menial job in India and ridiculed when he told everyone that genetics was going to be the next big thing, went on to win the Nobel Prize as a naturalised American citizen. Saved by the brain drain.

Mind space is always greater than time-space, and knowledge scatters the most. To understand scattering, look at the ripples it creates. Scientists are like mothers. They conceive before they discover. There is enormous pressure on them when they are at the bottom; as they get higher, pressure decreases.

Any fool can generate power from a big dam, but it takes a Bhabha to harness energy from an atom. You can identify the charge on the particles by seeing which way they curved. If not, there are powers within us that tell a kidney cell it was a kidney cell. Groups of stars form galaxies, groups of galaxies form clusters and groups of clusters form greater clusters. Science spreads.