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K.S. Krishnan, scientist and citizen, a Renaissance man in 20th century India

May 12th, 2012 · 2 Comments · Book Review, Talents, Innovators

Krishnan is his native dress_- copyOn June 1946, at Buckingham Palace, a little kid born in Vizhupanoor in 1898 and who spent his early childhood in Watrap (both places now part of the Virudhunagar district in Southern India) became Sir Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan for his scientific contributions. Just one honor among multiple other national and international recognitions: the first was the Liège University Medal in 1937 and the second was his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1941 (thus joining an exclusive group of only three other living Indian scientists, C.V. Raman, M.N. Saha and Birbal Sahni). His election to the Royal Society of Arts in 1951 was yet another huge honor — no greater, though, for the son of an orthodox Brahmin, who mastered Sanskrit, Tamil and the art of story-telling as well as his father, than being awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1954 and becoming the first recipient of the Bhatnagar Award in 1958. The book, Kariamanikam Srinivasa Krishnan, his life and career by D.C.V. Mallik and Sabyasachi Chatterjee, both physicists, is a fantastic and thorough tribute to one of the fathers of modern India (and whose grandson, T.M. Ravi, is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur).

Missing the Nobel Prize with no grievance… Historians will wonder for ever  if Krishnan should have been given credit for his part in the discovery of the Raman effect that gave India its first Nobel Prize in Science in 1930 (Rabindranath Tagore had received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913). If it’s obvious that C.V. Raman, Krishnan’s mentor and research guide at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta (now Kolkata) largely benefited from the experiments on the scattering of the light in liquids of his student, KS Krishnan turned out to be a distinguished scientist in his own right. When he left for Dacca (Dhaka – now in Bangladesh), he also left the field of Raman scattering. Over the course of his various tenures (in Dacca, again Calcutta, Allahabad and in Delhi), Krishnan focused on magnetism (especially crystal magnetism), pioneered work on electrical resistivity in metals, ventured in pure math (on what is now known as band-limited functions), and took up lattice oscillations in ionic crystals and thermionic properties of metals and semiconductors. This amazing corpus of work (that also required the ability to create the labs enabling such extensive research) won K.S. Krishnan the admiration of his fellow scientists both in India and internationally, the absolute devotion of his students, and the admiration of his countrymen, Jawaharlal Nehru being one of them. This book being written by two scientists, Krishnan’s scientific work is analyzed extremely carefully. A few pages here and there may not be easy to understand for laypeople. No big deal. Skip these pages — yet realize how much the first generation of Indian scientists went through challenges of sometimes epic proportions and yet, through their amazing leadership, were able to play at an international level with extremely limited means.

Krishnan-PANDIT JI copyParticipating in the birth of a modern country with a deep sense of traditional values: When K.S. Krishnan told his mother and in bride 1916 that he would never live in rural Watrap, and instead would become a scientist, and study at the Christian College of Madras (now Chennai), he was following the spell of the first successful generation of Indian scientists. When he moved to Calcutta in July 1920 to study under Raman, he was also stepping into the intellectual and political awakening of India. Understandably, he was drawn into the political intensity of the time: he attended every part of the special session of the Indian National Congress held in Calcutta in September 1920 (when Gandhi won by a narrow margin and was followed by Motilal Nehru accompanied by his son, Jawaharlal). His fervent involvement led to his selection as one of the student representatives to the All India Students’ Convention, which was to be held in Nagpur. However, Bidhu Bhushan Ray, K.S. Krishnan’s friend and teacher, persuaded him to stay focused on science — which was by itself a nationalist mission too as the young generation intended to show the British rulers that they would be their equal in science too. His various trips to Europe starting in the late thirties also sharpened his awareness of the role of science in the industrial development of the country. By accepting the role of Physics Chair in Allahabad in 1942, he ended up moving close to the national center of activity and became part of the core group of scientists selected by Jawaharlal Nehru to shape India as a modern industrialized nation. After opening the thirty seventh annual session of the Indian Science Congress in Dehli, Nehru, now Vice-President of the interim National Gouvernment, made it clear to K.S. Krishnan that he wanted him to not only work for science, but also for the country. K.S. Krishnan moved to Dehli and took over the directorship of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) set up by free India. From then on K.S. Krishnan played a critical role was associated with the most important scientific and educational organizations in the country (including the Atomic Energy Commission), and became an influential figure in multiple international science organizations.

K.S. Krishnan died of a heart attack in July 1961. He remained a researcher until the end (his last paper had just come out). He traveled the world and his country for science, yet his heart never left the Sathuragiri Hills, the abode of deities: K.S. Krishnan was also a legendary scholar in the Vaishnava philosophy, theology, and culture!

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 V Devanath // May 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I must confess that the review of the book titled ‘Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan: His Life and Work’ written by DCV Mallik and S Chatterjee gives an clear insight into the life and work of a legend in science. This book is a ‘Must Read’ book for those not only interested in science but also by any Indian who values science and wishes to pay his/her respects to Sir Krishnan.

    In an present age where we lack mentors/role models to whom we could look up to, I reckon this book will provide enough inspiration to those who read it.

  • 2 Dr. Rajinder Singh // Aug 29, 2012 at 3:43 am

    DCV Mallik et al. have written an excellent biography of KS Krishnan. So far I can judge this is the only biography.
    So far the discovery of the Raman effect and the Nobel prize for the year 1930 for CV Raman is concerned, Krishnan was ignored. It was not Raman’s fault. For more detail see “CV Raman and the story of the Nobel Prize” in Current Science Bangalore. For detail reference see my webpage.

    Dr. Rajinder Singh

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