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Scientists of Indian Origin and Their Contributions


SCIENTISTS OF INDIAN ORIGIN AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS Ever since Vedic times, science and scientific inquiry have been integral to Indian intellectual endeavors. It is widely known that Indian mathematicians invented the concept of zero and the decimal system of numbers. It is perhaps not as well known that the Pythagorean theorem was known in India many centuries before Pythagoras was born; or that the Rig Veda, thousands of years before Isaac Newton, asserted that gravity held the universe together; or that negative numbers, fractions, geometric progressions, simultaneous equations, and quadratic equations were all known to Indian mathematicians thousands of years ago. The Vedic civilization subscribed to a spherical earth, and ancient Indians determined the age of the solar system to be 4.6 billion years. The Indian medical system of Āyurveda reached great heights in Vedic India, its methods including surgery and plastic surgery as well as preventive health maintenance. The Āyurvedic texts of Charaka and Sushruta are still in use today, as are the works of the ancient Indian mathematicians Āyabhata and Bhāskara.

The educational and economic fabric of India was systematically destroyed during modern times by repeated invasions, beginning with the incursions of Mahmud of Ghazni (11th century a.d.), followed by those of the Mughals and the British. The British set up an educational system designed to produce Indians trained primarily for the civil and administrative services. Indian medicine suffered a great setback when the British closed Āyurvedic colleges in areas under their control in 1829. Despite such handicaps, modern India has produced a number of eminent scientists who have made major contributions to science. A significant number of these scientists owe their origins to Presidency College, Kolkata (Calcutta), which was founded by Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy in 1817. Among these are Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937), Satyendra Nath Bose (1894–1974), Sir P. C. Ray (1861–1944), Meghnad Saha (1893–1956), and P. C. Mahalanobis (1893–1972). Presidency College of Madras (Chennai) produced two Nobel laureates, Sir C. V. Raman (1888–1970) and his nephew Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910–1995). Several notable Indian scientists studied at Cambridge University, England, including Homi Bhabha (1909–1966), Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), Vikram Sarabhai (1919–1971), Hargobind Khorana (1922–), and Harish Chandra (1923–1983). Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), first prime minister of India, studied natural sciences at Cambridge and was largely responsible for the founding of modern scientific institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, after Indian independence. The institutes continue to spawn large numbers of Indian scientists and engineers, who help fuel modern India's economic expansion.

Jagadis Chandra Bose was a remarkable scientist whose research spanned the fields of microwave physics and botany. He was educated at Presidency College, Calcutta, and also at the University of Cambridge. By 1894, Bose developed the use of galena crystals for receiving short-wavelength radio waves. In 1895 Bose gave a public demonstration of electromagnetic waves, using them to ring a distant bell and to cause gunpowder to explode, predating Guglielmo Marconi's long-distance wireless demonstrations by a year. Indeed, Bose and Marconi knew each other, and Marconi's radio transmitter and receiver used a Bose "iron-mercury-iron coherer." After his work on radio and microwaves, Bose moved on to plant physiology, demonstrating that plants react to electrical stimuli and may feel pain. Honored with a knighthood in 1917 and named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, he founded Calcutta's Bose Institute in 1917 and has been acknowledged as one of the pioneers of radio.

One of Bose's students was Satyendra Nath Bose, who became renowned in the field of quantum physics. While a reader in physics at Dacca (Dhaka) University in the 1920s, he wrote a short article on the behavior of quanta of light, which he sent to Albert Einstein; Einstein had the article translated into German and published. Thus developed Bose-Einstein statistics, which describe the behavior of elementary particles of integer spin. Such particles are now called bosons, and Bose statistics, as they have come to be known, explain phenomena such as superconductivity.

Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray was a chemist who began the manufacture of pharmaceuticals in India. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh. On his return, he began manufacturing chemicals at his home, eventually founding the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works in 1902. That same year he published his celebrated History of Hindu Chemistry, which deals with the knowledge of chemistry in ancient India. He became the first Palit professor of chemistry in the newly founded College of Science of Calcutta University in 1916. He was knighted in 1919, and was the first president of the Indian Chemical Society, founded in 1924.

Meghnad Saha made his name in astrophysics. A contemporary of Satyendra Nath Bose at Calcutta's Presidency College, Saha was taught by Jagadis Chandra Bose and P. C. Ray. In 1919 he published his paper "On Selective Radiation Pressure and Its Applications," about radiation in stars, in the American Astrophysical Journal. Saha's "ions theory" explained for the first time the unusual photon line spectra in starlight as being the result of the presence of ions in stellar matter, formed by the removal of various numbers of electrons from radiating atoms. This theory provided a way of estimating the temperatures of stars. In 1927 Saha was made a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1933 he founded the Indian Physical Society, and in 1947 he established the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta, later renamed the Saha Institute.

Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman was the first Indian scientist to be honored by a Nobel Prize. He won it in 1930, for his discovery (along with K. S. Krishnan) of the Raman effect, which showed that when visible light interacts with matter, the scattered light consists of wavelengths of the incident light as well as degraded wavelengths due to the interaction of the light with matter with molecular energy levels. The Raman effect became an important tool in the hands of chemists and material scientists and is still used to study the properties of materials. Raman was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1924 and knighted in 1929. He became director of the new Indian Institutes of Science in Bangalore in 1934, and in 1948 he established the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the nation's highest award.

Cambridge University proved influential in turning out scientists of Indian origin. Of these, the most unlikely and astonishing was Srinivasa Ramanujan, who, though unable to pass a school examination in India, had an uncanny and intuitive mathematical talent. Ramanujan sent some of his proofs to three mathematicians in England. Of these, only one, G. H. Hardy, along with his colleague J. E. Littlewood of Trinity College, Cambridge, took the trouble to read the proofs. After some time, they decided that Ramanujan was either a crackpot or a genius, finally agreeing that he was the latter and inviting him to Cambridge. Ramanujan came to Cambridge in 1913 and continued to work with Hardy and Littlewood. His mathematical technique was intuitive, not formal, since he had no formal mathematical training. Yet his work continues to be of importance. One remarkable paper that he wrote with Hardy works out the formula (proven asymptotically by Hardy and Ramanujan and later by Hans Rademacher) for the number of partitions "p(n)" that one can make of the integer number "n." He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1918 and later that year was elected the first Indian fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan's health suffered from his solitary existence in postwar England, and he died upon his return to India in 1920, at the age of thirty-two.

The second Indian to be elected a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, known simply as Chandra. He left India to study under R. H. Fowler at Cambridge at the age of twenty. While on the long sea voyage to England, he deduced that there is a limit to the masses of white dwarf stars (approximately 1.4 times the mass of the sun), now known as the "Chandrasekhar limit." Stars more massive than this will collapse into black holes once their fuel is exhausted. This was so surprising a result in the 1930s that astronomers such as Arthur Eddington refused to believe it, publicly ridiculing Chandrasekhar's theory. As a result, Chandra left Cambridge for the University of Chicago in 1937, where he remained until his death in 1995. Chandrasekhar was a master of mathematical astrophysics, acknowledged as the greatest of his generation. He would take on problems methodically over a span of several years, interspersed with seminal papers and culminating in a text on the subject, such as his Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure (1939), Principles of Stellar Dynamics (1942), Radiative Transfer (1950), Hydrodynamics and Hydromagnetic Stability (1961), Ellipsoidal Figures of Equilibrium (1968), and Mathematical Theory of Black Holes (1983). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 and received numerous medals and awards, including the Copley medal. After his death, the X-ray telescope launched by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration was named Chandra in his honor.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis completed the Tripos exam in mathematics and physics in 1913 from King's College, Cambridge, and was elected to a research fellowship. Returned to India for a short vacation, he was prevented from traveling to Britain by the outbreak of World War I and was thus unable to accept his fellowship. He became interested in statistics and subsequently engaged in a lifelong collaboration with the Cambridge statistician R. A. Fisher. His work on the "D-squared" statistics that he derived while working in Karl Pearson's laboratory in London and his work on large-scale sample surveys are among his most enduring contributions. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute in 1931, received the Weldon Medal in 1944, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1945, and was chairman of the United Nations Commission on Statistical Sampling in 1947.

Harish Chandra was educated at the University of Allahabad and went to Cambridge to study under Paul Dirac. While there, he met Wolfgang Pauli and pointed out an error in Pauli's work. The two became friends as a result. Harish Chandra obtained his doctorate in 1947 and went to work in the United States at Columbia University and, after 1963, at Princeton. His field of work was in group theory of semisimple Lie algebras. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and of the National Academy of Sciences, winning the Cole Medal in 1954 and the Ramanujan Medal in 1974. The Mehta Research Institute in Allahabad has recently been renamed the Harish Chandra Institute.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was renowned as a scientist as well as the founder of scientific institutions. He also possessed a remarkable interest in the arts. In 1927 he joined Gonville and Caius College, where he studied engineering, then physics and mathematics. He joined the Cavendish Laboratory, completing his doctoral degree in theoretical physics. In a seminal paper in 1937, Bhabha, with Walter Heitler, explained the phenomenon of cosmic-ray shower formation. Bhabha also determined the cross sections for electron-positron elastic scattering; such scattered pairs are today known as Bhabhas in particle physics. He returned to India in 1939 to work at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. With the help of the Tata family, to whom he was related, he founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission in India in 1948 and the Atomic Research Center in 1954. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, Bhabha won many prizes and honors, including the Adams prize (1943) and the Padma Bhushan (1954). He died tragically in an air crash in 1966.

Vikram Sarabhai was born in Ahmedabad to an affluent industrial family. He was admitted into St. John's College, Cambridge in 1940, but had to return to India during World War II; he worked with C. V. Raman during this period. After the war Sarabhai earned his doctoral degree at Cambridge and later returned to India to establish the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. With the active support of Homi Bhabha, he set up a rocket-launching station at Thumba, near Trivandrum. Their first rocket was launched in 1963. He was instrumental in founding the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, designed to bring education to the masses, and he embarked on the task of fabricating an indigenous Indian satellite, Aryabhata I, which was launched in 1975 with a Soviet rocket. Sarabhai received many awards, including the Padma Bhushan and the Bhatnagar Medal, and can be credited as the architect of India's space program.

Hargobind Khorana was born in Punjab and educated at Punjab University in Lahore and the University of Liverpool. He spent his postdoctoral years at Zürich and Cambridge, where his interest in proteins and nucleic acids was aroused. He spent several years in Canada and the University of Wisconsin before being appointed professor of biology and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He shard the 1968 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for helping crack the genetic code of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

Jayant Narlikar is a distinguished theoretical astrophysicist who collaborated with Fred Hoyle at Cambridge. He was the first director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, established in Pune in 1988.

India has also produced scientific administrators who have been instrumental in the research and development institutions of independent India, including M. G. K. Menon, who was educated at the University of Bristol as a cosmic-ray physicist, succeeded Bhabha as the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and served as science adviser to the prime minister in the 1980s. P. K. Iyengar and Raja Ramanna played important roles in India's first nuclear test in 1974. They were heads of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Indian Atomic Energy Commission successively.

The United States has a considerable academic population of expatriate Indians. Over the years, several of them have distinguished themselves in their fields. George Sudarshan's name will always be associated with the V-A theory of weak interactions and quantum optics. Jogesh Pati and Robindra Mohapatra of the University of Maryland are highly respected theoretical particle physicists. Pran Nath of Northeastern University is one of the pioneers of the theory of supergravity. Kumar Patel has become widely known as the inventor of the carbon dioxide laser, and Praveen Chaudhury has recently been appointed director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Indian physicists played an important role in the discovery in 1995 of the "top quark," one of the fundamental particles that form what has come to be known as the standard model of particle interactions. The top quark was jointly discovered by two large teams of experimental physicists working in two separate and competing experiments, called CDF and D-Zero, at the Tevatron, the world's highest-energy particle accelerator, at Fermilab in the United States. Rajendran Raja (Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1973), the first Indian physicist hired at Fermilab, established collaborative efforts with Indian institutions and served as leader of the top quark search team in D-Zero for four years. The University of Chandigarh, the University of Delhi, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research became collaborators in the search. In addition, several Indian postdoctoral fellows and students from U.S. universities were involved in the effort. In 1995 both collaborations announced the discovery of this fundamental particle, making news worldwide.

Rajendran Raja

See alsoIndian Institutes of Technology (IITs) ; Nuclear Programs and Policies


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Teresi, Dick. Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Tharoor, Shashi. "Why Indian Science Scores." Hindu, 8 June 2003.

Wali, Kameshwar C. Chandra. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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