Professor S R Govindarajan
Dr. (Sir) Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman was a curious combination—a precise thinker, an incisive speaker, a relentless worker, an obstinate genius and above all, a perfectly human patron whose generosity oftentimes overcame his physical capability and whose intense sympathy not infrequently made him forget his own exalted status.
His numerous achievements in the fields of optics and acoustics, are too well-known to come in for a detailed delineation here and any reference to these will be made purely to preserve historical cogency. The account is meant much more to focus attention on Raman the great man, who, during his life time, was quite often, if not as frequently, misunderstood even as he was adulated and honoured.
Brilliant academic career
Prof. Raman was born on November 7, 1888, at Tiruchirapalli in an orthodox Brahmin family. He took the Masters Degree in Physics from Presidency College, Madras, after an academic career which was uniformly brilliant and marked by unusual precioussness as evidenced by an original paper he got published in the prestigious Philosophical Magazine of London even while he was an under-graduate. Two years after graduation, when he was barely 19, he passed the competitive examination for the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, again taking the first rank.
Consuming passion for science
In 1907, he was appointed Assistant Accountant-General and posted to Calcutta. He took over his official assignment after considerable parental persuasion. But his consuming passion for science soon took him to the dingy rooms of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science at 210, Bow Bazaar, Calcutta and’ there, under the sympathetic protection of Dr. Amritlal Sircar, blossomed forth the thought processes which were later to take India on to the bouquet of World Science.
Early work in acoustics
Raman’s first years were spent in Calcutta as part-time researcher in the Association and later as Palit Professor of Physics of the Calcutta University, a place which he had accepted in 1917 at considerable personal sacrifice at the invitation of Sir Asutosh Mukherji. His pioneering researches on light scattering by molecules, later formulated as the famous “Raman Effect”, were conducted during this period along with such devoted co-workers as Dr. K. S. Krishnan, Dr. K. R. Ramanathan, Dr. A. S. Ganesan, Dr. L. A. Ramadas and Dr. S. Venkateswaran, to mention only a few. These researches are, of course, quite well known, but what is not so well known is the fact that Dr. Raman’s earlier work was in acoustics, on the quality of musical instruments, he himself being a devoted musician.
In fact, Lady Lokasundari Raman records with some amusement, that when Raman was at the Banquet held by Dr. Petterson, President of the Swedish Academy, to Nobel Laureates on 14th December 1930, they got him (Dr. Raman) to sing, following an earlier example set by Poet Rabindra Nath Tagore, the haunting memory of whose lilting voice was still fresh in the minds of the Academicians!
How came the discovery of ‘Raman Effect’
Raman’s discovery of his famous Effect itself reads like a fable. While returning from the Congress of Universities of the British Empire in England during the summer of 1921 Raman was impressed by the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea which had all along been attributed to the reflection of the blue sky. Somehow Raman could not accept this theory and thought that the blue was due to molecular scattering by the waters of the sea, a view which he almost immediately communicated to the Royal Society. His students also started an in-depth of molecular scattering and between 1921 and 1927 an enormous amount of information was collected.
In December, 1927, news reached Raman that Prof. A. H. Compton had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on X-ray scattering by electrons. Raman had always held that there ought to be an optical analogue of this Effect and now on receiving this news it is reported that he exclaimed; “We must pursue it and we are on right lines. It must and shall be found. The Nobel Prize must be won”. He did find this analogne within a few months and did win the Nobel Prize in 1930.
Crystal structure of precious stones
After the discovery of Raman Effect, an enormous amount of work was done all around the world but Raman himself shifted his interest to a variety of other fields, chief among them being the study of the crystal structure of precious and semi-precious stones.
Raman then left Calcutta and moved over to Bangalore where he became the Director of the Indian Institute of Sciences and established a very distinctive Raman School whose members have achieved worldwide renown. Honours were showered on Raman by way of awards, prizes, fellow-ships and honorary doctorates. Unfortunately, however, his relations with the Court of the Institute began to sour for some inexplicable reason and one fine day, he was reduced to the position of Professor of Physics and consigned to what one of his students bitterly described as a “cowshed”.
These were indeed years of agony for Raman but he regained all his glory and freedom of action when he founded the Raman Institute (a term which was often used to describe the Indian Institute in former days) and was named National Professor of Physics by the Government of India. The South African Government sent him a treasure of uncut diamonds for his work and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru officially visited his Institute and listened with interest and respect to the great man’s exposition of his theories. When Raman died on 21st November, 1970, the Karnataka Government permitted his mortal remains to be cremated in a corner of his Institute and this place has remained a sanctified spot for Indian Science since then.
The personality of Raman, the teacher, is even more fascinating than of Raman, the scientist. Never sparse in his compliments, Raman could not however, compromise on basic issues and would go hammer and tongs for a student who would not carry out his instructions meticulously. He himself liked “to speak and explain” in order that his own ideas could clear and crystallise properly. The quality or quantity of the audience never bothered him.
I remember an occasion (in 1948, I believe) when he telephoned to Fr. Lordu Yeddanapalli (of Loyola College) and asked for an audience since he had “a problem he had to explain”. We were then on Pongal Holidays and the Father was quite embarrassed. We somehow got together a motley audience of hostellers, most of whom had little interest in science, but we heard that day one of the finest speeches delivered by the great scientist.
Raman’s solicitude for his students was legendary; I have known him accepting unimportant engagements in non-descript institutions if he thought that these would give him an opportunity to drop a hint about his interest in a student to the head of that Institution.
A heart of gold inside a rough exterior
Science was the sustaining principle of Raman’s life. His attitude to people was never influenced by considerations of rank or riches. The story used to be told of an office boy of a Bangalore journal being mistaken by him for the Editor; and of his making a renowned religious head who had called on him, wait for two hours before he could give him a couple of minutes of his time! This sometimes embarrassed his friends.
There was a report circulating in those days of Dr. A. V. Hill, the then Secretary of the Royal Society (who was on a visit to India for the Jubilee Celebrations of the Indian Science Congress) having “confessed that Dr. Raman was a difficult person to understand”. But such remarks, if they did come, were made only by those who failed to see the heart of gold inside the rough exterior of this truly great and gentle scientist, the like of whom India has not produced in a long time.
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