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National Science Day: Why CV Raman is an inspiration for generations of scientists

First Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Raman is also remembered as as a mentor and an avid lover of nature.

india Updated: Mar 02, 2017 10:14 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
CV Raman

Indian Nobel Prize winning physicist CV Raman (1888-1970)

India celebrates National Science Day, in the memory of CV Raman (1888 – 1970), who discovered the Raman effect on Feb. 28, 1928. He is remembered by scholars not just as the first and only Indian scientist to win a Nobel Prize (Physics), but as a mentor and an avid lover of nature.

Raman believed that if you ask the right questions “nature will open the doors to her secrets,” said to Uma Parameswaran, the grandniece of Raman who also authored a biography on Raman.

Her father was a student of Raman’s when he made the Nobel-prize winning discovery that changed the way people “saw” light.

The experimental physicist was able to show that the wavelength of light changes as a beam passes through a medium and comes in contact with the molecules that make up the medium.

Only two years after he made the discovery he was selected for the prize, the first Indian at a time that India itself was under British rule. Many awardees are overcome by the enormity of their achievement when accepting the award but when Raman received his award in Stockholm, Sweden, the tears came when he saw that it was the British flag that was basking in the glory of his research.

CV Raman’s spectrograph.

According to most accounts, the impetus for his research on this phenomena came while he was on his way to England on ship in 1921 for a conference, his first voyage outside the country.

Raman was captivated by the blue colour of the sea. The prevailing theory at the times was that the sea reflected the blue of the sky. He wrote an exploratory piece about the question in the journal Nature called “The Colour of the Sea.”

Raman’s subsequent work was grounded in earlier findings that light behaved like it consisted of particles instead of as a wave. In 1927, Arthur Holly Compton was awarded the Nobel for demonstrating the light scattering effect in x-rays. Raman was convinced he could show the same in visible light, and he did.

“The new phenomenon exhibits features even more startling than those discovered by Prof Compton with X-rays,” an Associated Press of India report says of his discovery of the Raman effect.

“The Raman effect has opened new routes to our knowledge of the structure of matter and has already given most important results,” the Nobel committee noted in its speech.

India’s most prolific scientist could have ended up remaining a civil servant if he hadn’t been so determined to pursue his passions. In 1907 he joined the Financial Civil Services as the Assistant Accountant General in Calcutta but continued his research work on the side. He would later join Calcutta University when he was offered the Palit Chair for Physics in 1917.

When he was a doctoral student Rajinder Singh, now a professor in Germany, was troubled to see that his counterparts were all choosing European scientists to write their thesis on. So he decided that he would write on an Indian scientist: CV Raman. Singh revealed in an interview that Raman was not just a brilliant physicist but also an active mentor. He had a keen eye for good students and recommended them readily for scholarships and positions.

“He encouraged a whole generation of scientists,” Parameswaran said. “As a person he was a lively speaker, he knew how to talk to the common person in a non-scientific way,” she said.

He loved children, he used to take them from Bangalore schools into the lab and to open their eyes to the wonders of nature.

Raman went on to serve as the first Indian director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 1933. He retired 15 years later and established the Raman Research Institute, which he led till the end of his days.

His deep attachment and curiosity for his natural surroundings was evident throughout his life. Raman loved to walk in the eucalyptus grove and his rose garden at the Raman Research Institute campus, Parameswaran said. In his new home too, Raman, frequently visited Cubbon park in the heart of the city. He died in Bangalore at the age of 82.

For someone who was surrounded by students and peers at the peak of scientific life in his later years, the physicist mostly worked alone. “As he lay on his deathbed, he wished he had made the windows of his room even lower and bigger so he could see the sky and garden,” Parameswaran recalled.