The Humanist – Dr Rajaramanna By Dr M H Srinarahari
It is generally observed that the men of science and business people who sit in ivory towers do not respond to the humanitarian situations. One such exception to the general rule is the Indian Nuclear Scientist, the minister of state for defense of the yesteryears at the center and the recipient of the Bhatnagar Award namely, Dr. Raja Ramanna. In this article, I propose to highlight his human stand.
First I had come face to face with him at Maharaja’s College, Mysore in the year 1969 when I was only an undergraduate student studying at the second year of Bachelor’s degree in Science at the neighboring Yuvaraja’s College. Perhaps, it was my love at first sight. During that impressionable age, I listened to his lecture syllable by syllable! The topic of the lecture was quite innovative. We knew only about the negative side of the use of the atom bomb. But he gave a lecture about the uses of Nuclear energy. He spoke about the positive effects of the atomic energy. The tone indicated that he had a human concern.
My obsession for such a great personality did not diminish even after three decades. Because I noticed his stand towards the growth of science and a love for humanity did not change at all. My observation is based on the interview that I had conducted on May 22, 1995 at Aghoreshwara Temple premises and the public speech he gave at Sagar, a town situated in the Malnad area which is 356 kilometers from the Karnataka capital city Bangalore in India.
It is noteworthy that Dr. Krishnaraja Ramanna’s great grand father B. Venkatacharya is one of the pioneer novelists in Kannada literature. Dr. Ramanna’s character is moulded by his grand father Krishnaiyengar, father B. Ramanna, mother Rukmini and sister Balamani.
In addition to the hereditary factors, his love of music might have had a great impact on his life and career. At the age of six, he got inspiration from listening to the western music band troop at the world famous Palace, Mysore. His love for music further blossomed when he was studying at Dalvoy School and Good Shepherd convent at Mysore City. In 1935, he received classical music training from Ms. Margaret Ferban Moghethar and Mother Agnes at Bishop Cotton School and St. Joseph College in Bangalore. As a child prodigy, at the age of eleven, he gave a performance of vocal music and playing on the piano at Jaganmohana Palace, Mysore in the presence of His Holiness the Maharaja of Mysore. More surprisingly, he received a prize amount of Rupees Two hundred during those days from the King of Mysore Empire. Later he excelled in the third form of creation of Beethoven music. These were symbolically the ‘years of pilgrimage’ for him.
By then developments were taking place in the area of technology in this part of the world. Way back in 1904, there was a move for establishing the hydro-electrical projects by building up the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam near Mysore. The Iron and Steel factory was coming up at Bhadravathi. Since, Holiness the Maharaja of Mysore was a technological expert he had encouraged for the development of Science and Technology in this province during those days. It means to say a congenial atmosphere was there for Dr. Raja Ramanna to shape his talents in his early life itself.
It may be recalled that it was the time when the world witnessed the devastating effects of the atom bomb, which had exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. It was a time that absolutely there was no respect for those who would undertake a study in Nuclear Physics. At that crucial time, that is in 1945, Raja Ramanna could pursue research at Kings College in Great Britain in Physics under the able guidance of Drs. F.C. Champion, Chapman, Tailor, G.T. Randal, Burke Bekh, George, James Chadwick, and others. In 1948, he was awarded Ph.D.
Just like the ascending levels of attainment in a musical note and the ion catching up higher energy as it jumps from one level to the other, he went up from one step to the other in life and career never turning back from the moment he returned to India on December 1, 1949.
He joined Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1949. He was the Director of the Institute between 1972 and 1983. He tried to build a strong Indian Nuclear society following the footsteps of Drs. Homi Baba, Vikram Sarabhai, Sethna, and others. He burnt the midnight oil to place India on the world map of nuclear producing countries.
It was the time when the scientific world was experimenting in solid state, laser, semi conductors, and super conductors. These inventions and their applications had been revolutionizing the life of man. There was a dearth of scientists who could work in the region of Particle Physics. The idea of Dr. Homi Baba was not only to make India a nuclear producing country but also to be self sufficient in every respect. Hence, the situation was very much challenging for Dr. Raja Ramanna to face. In this respect, the tests were to be conducted in producing energy making use of nuclear processes. Hence, the success came in the path of Phokran test conducted in a military area in Thar Desert in Rajasthan.
This kind of experimentation really proves his qualities of leadership, far sightedness and his way of approach. This is evident as he made India self sufficient in preparing herself Neutron trigger, Beryllium source, Alpha source, to make the trigger ready and to get the know how well at the appropriate time, and to reach perfection in a short span of time. The success of the mission was undoubtedly the co-operative efforts of a number of individuals and institutions of public and private sector companies. It is the place to acknowledge the efforts of Defense and the Research Development authorities.
When questioned about the burning issue whether India has to sign for the NPT (Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty), with uncluttered mind he answered that she should not sign for the treaty. As he says, “India should not sign for the NPT owing to the pressure of other developed countries over her. They may pressurize us by making certain economic sanctions as is seen in case of some of the developing countries. India should not subdue and succumb for such a kind of pressure.”
His opinion was in lieu with the ideals of Mr. Morarji Desai the Prime Minister of India during that time. He used to say that if any country signs for such a treaty then it infers that those countries do uphold and in turn accept the moves made by the super powers, permanently.
Since then, a tradition was developed in making use of Plutonium in Nuclear Reactors and to create energy. In the process, India serves as a model for other countries, which have not signed for the NPT. Her stand is not to support the NPT and to be self-sufficient in the matter concerning nuclear issues. It also gives way for the establishment of a harmonious relationship among the countries, which do not support the NPT, and in consequence, they could produce the nuclear energy by making use of raw materials available in their countries adapting the indigenous methods.
In this direction, the successful attempt made in case of Phokran is an example for the exhibition of Dr. Raja Ramanna’s ideology and talents. When we were discussing about the Phokran test, he described an incident, which validates his belief in the animal world. He told that he liked cows and cattle right from his childhood. The Basava or Nandi (the stone carved bullock) in front of the entrance to the Aghoreshwara temple gave him sufficient impetus to remind him a rare incident which might not be documented anywhere.
Once while experimenting in Phokran, a number of wires ran all along the area. On the one side of the wires a lonely cow standing and on the other side, one could have found cattle. Immediately, the lonely cow began to run towards the wires in order to reach its tribe. The great scientist was tension bound, as the efforts done for many days would fail if the cow steps on the wires. The other one was his great concern for the life of the animal. Unexpectedly, the speechless creature jumped the wires and joined her family. The scientist was doubly happy for there was no interruption of the experiment and at the same time, he had witnessed that the cow was safe.
He has the credit of establishing the Nuclear Reactors like Kalpakam and Apsara. He was the advisor to a number of scientific establishments. In addition, he was the Minister of State for Defense at the center government. He is the recipient of the National Patnakar award, Padmabhushan, Jawaharlal Nehru award, Om Prakash award, R.D. Birla Prize, the Rajyothsava award and the privilege of the bagging the prestigious respect of the honor of Shanthinikethan award also.
At the time of this interview, he was the Director of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. He spoke mainly about the “Environment in the area of Science and Technology”. He viewed the matter from four different angles: Important effects, the misuse of Science, Modern Physics, and the process of creativity. He showed great concern towards the environmental pollution caused by the coalmines, chemicals, and the sound pollution. Then he proceeded to discuss regarding the importance of machines, the relationship between man and machine, the amount of dependence of man on machines and he drove home the absoluteness of the machines in the modern world. In addition, he spoke briefly about the history of Physics, the place of Nuclear Physics, and the latest theories in the world.
Dr. Raja Ramanna began his narration of the scientific outlook from the times of Galileo, later he highlighted the experiments in the concept of space, the concept of time in space, and the experiments pertaining to the mass of a substance. Thus, he focussed his lecture on Einstein’s concept of the theory of Relativity and particularly the relation of mass, acceleration and energy namely, E=mc2. Further, he explained the difficulties one faces in arriving at a formula, generalizing it, and to test the universal quality in the newly established hypothesis. Furthermore, he cited how the scientists in the past have devoted their lifetime for this Herculean task. He could also discuss about the behavior of light sometime as particle and sometimes as wave. It lead him explain how the entire world is after the ‘Reduction Principle’. He spoke about the chain reaction and the quantum mechanics. His simple way of expressing the great subject showed the ingrained qualities of a great teacher in him.
Highlighting the impact of science, he surprised us by stating that contrary to the belief that nuclear reactors do harm man’s intellectual power, he stated that it is established now that the people who live in the vicinity of the Kalpakam in Kerala where there is supposed to be Uranium radiation are found to be more intelligent than others. When a question was asked how safe is the Kaiga Nuclear project in North Kanara in Karnataka, he explained his future plans that he would live there with his family in the days to come forever.
Explaining the latest development in the area of nuclear Physics, he said that it is a great concern for every one of us to find where the energy is hidden. The future projects will focus on finding the source of energy. Concluding his discussion, he said that the term ‘truth’ is a relative one. The truth at one time may not be the same forever. Instead, it has given sufficient impetus for the scientists to arrive at different conclusions later.
In conclusion, in addition to his contribution in the field of nuclear Physics, it is noteworthy that leading a simple life, he used to give captivating lectures, He used to find pleasure in music, he used to lead a co-existential life with pet animals like his favorite dog. He preached and practiced ‘scientific humanism’.
Very recently, he has not only left us but also his wife Malathi, two daughters and a son. But I presume that this article will give further life to him. Let us suppose that he is with us. Though, not complete his autobiography- Years of Pilgrimage will throw some light upon his early childhood, some of his projects, and his days spent as a state minister for defense at the center. I must also thank the organizations like Rotary and Vikasana, LB and SBC Sagar for providing me an opportunity to conduct this interview with him. (I am happy to state that even after a lapse of 9 long years, I am preserving the audiocassette of the interview.)
Cover pic by Dr. Srinarahari: Dr. Raja Ramanna (Left) with Dr. Srinarahari (Right) at Aghoreshwara Temple, Ikkeri, which is 5kms from Sagar, Shimoga District, Karnataka State, India.