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Raja Ramanna
India's Most Eminent Nuclear Physicist
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

“All history revolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“A towering and multi-faceted personality, Dr. Ramanna was always keen to contribute to national development with a sense of mission in any capacity, which was evident in his role as a Union Minister and Member of Parliament. For us in the science and technology community, Dr. Ramanna was always a source of inspiration and a guide.”

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, The President of India

“Out of the uncertain beginnings in the 1950s, if we have today achieved the status of a “developed country” in nuclear science and technology, it is in large measure a consequence of Dr. Ramanna’s ideals, policies and efforts. He certainly leaves behind the proud legacy of a magnificent edifice of scientific and technological achievements and attainments, particularly towards the country’s energy and national security.”

P. K. Iyengar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Govt. of India


Raja Ramanna was a multifaceted personality – an eminent nuclear physicist, a highly accomplished technologist, an able administrator, an inspiring leader, a gifted musician, a scholar of Sanskrit literature and philosophy, and above all a completed human being. He made important contributions, both theoretical and experimental, in various areas of nuclear physics. He was not a so-called ivory tower scientist. Following the ideals of his illustrious predecessors Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai in India’s nuclear energy programme, Ramanna played an important role in placing the country’s indigenous nuclear capabilities on a firm footing and in this process his contributions towards shaping India’s energy and security programmes are quite significant. In fact Ramanna is regarded as one of the most successful creators of Science and Technology in India. Ramanna’s contribution to India’s peaceful nuclear explosion experiment is well-known. India’s first peaceful nuclear experiment was carried out underground in the Rajasthan desert on May 18, 1974. As Ramanna later pointed out, “The Pokhran experiment was a landmark in the history of nuclear research in the country. It was an assertion of the technological advancement India had determined to perfect in the post-independence era.”

Ramanna was a staunch patriot. He could have easily settled abroad but he spurned the charm of living in a developed country and responded to the call of Homi Bhabha and joined India’s effort to develop a strong indigenous base of science and technology. He helped to create an efficient manpower in the country. Ramanna had a deep interest in music. He himself was an accomplished musician. He wrote a book on music, The structure of Music in Raga and Western Music. He was actively involved in setting up the Bangalore School of Music. Ramanna had interest in philosophy. He also took keen interest in yoga. He had a sense of humour, that was subtle and enjoyable. He was a very simple person and he was approachable to all.

Raja Ramanna was an able administrator. He occupied many prestigious positions. He was the Director of the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (1972-78 and 1981-83). He was Scientific Advisor to the Minister of Defence; Director-General, DRDO and Secretary for Defence Research, Government of India (1978-81). He was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (1984-87). He was first Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore established by J. R. D. Tata. Ramanna served as the Minister of State for Defence in the Union Cabinet (January to November 1990). Ramanna was a nominated Member of the Parliament, Rajya Sabha, (August 1997-August 2003). He was a member of the first National Security Advisory Board. In whichever capacity he worked, he worked with a missionary zeal.

Ramanna was born in Tumkur in Karnataka on January 28, 1925. Commenting on his parents, B. Ramanna and Rukminiamma, Ramanna wrote in his autobiography: “My mother was born into a family of considerable influence and wealth and was the youngest of a large family of eight children. Her father was a district judge, a position of no mean stature in those days…my mother was an intelligent woman. A voracious reader, she read much of Shakespeare and Dickens, though Sir Walter Scot was her favourite. Her deep forays into literature were possible because of her command over the English language and it seemed to me there wasn’t a word in the English dictionary she didn’t know. She was equally comfortable with Kannada and composed poems and speeches in the language but had a slight contempt for its lack of modernity. Considering all this, she wasn’t exactly avant-garde—she dressed in traditional attire, was religious and even though she exchanged views on sex with my older brothers these were thoroughly Victorian in their orientation. She was superstitious, which was absolutely contradictory to her character, but this could probably be explained as clinging to the old traditions because the new trends were still unfamiliar ground. Yet she was fascinated by and understood modern gadgets. She loved to repair electrical goods and was the first woman in Mysore to use electricity for domestic purposes. She also spent a lot of time in re-designing the house and making changes to the sewage system.”

On his father he wrote: “My father, B. Ramanna, was in the judicial service of the Mysore state and earned the reputation of being a kind-hearted judge. Although he was reticient, he was nevertheless a sociable person. A sports enthusiast, he loved playing tennis, played a good game of billiards and was especially fond of bridge–a game he played almost till the end of his life. My mother learnt to play bridge from him, but never quite captured the subtelities of the game and they would often launch into mutual criticisms after every rubber. In spite of the differences in their temperaments, my parents made the best of their lives and were a major influence in the growing up of all their children.”

Besides his parents Ramanna was greatly influenced by one of his aunts. His mother’s sister Ramanna wrote: “Another member of the family who was a quite influence on my life was my mother’s sister, Rajamma. Widowed at a young age, Rajamma was considered a beauty as a young woman. After she lost her husband, my grandparents, who were progressive, had her trained to become a schoolteacher. Rajamma finally rose to become the headmistress of a Government Middle School on a salary of fifty rupees a month…A fantastic story-teller, Rajamma would often tell me stories from the Puranas and the great epics. In retrospect that was the best education I ever received. I’m proud of the fact that Raja, the name by which I am referred to by all my friends, is taken from my aunt’s name—Rajamma.”

He had his early education in Mysore and Bangalore. When his family shifted to Bangalore, Ramanna joined the Bishop Cotton School. The school was part of an English public school system that had been originally established as an orphanages of Anglo-Indian children. However, by the time Ramanna joined the school its character had been totally changed. It had become an elitist school. Commenting his school education Ramanna wrote: “Although I managed to do well in school as far as studies were concerned, I still felt somehow a misfit as I couldn’t conform to a major activity in the curriculum set up by the British–sports. However, that did not pose a great problem because I’d another support system–music. Classical music during my school days, as evident today, was not particularly liked by many, but that did not kill my enthusiasm for it because the then warden of my school, Canon Elphick, was a music lover and I struck up a friendship with him…Yet another teacher whom I remember fondly at school was Maurice Lanyon. A missionary, he had come to India at a very young age, charged with the spirit of self-sacrifice. Lanyon was an excellent musician, a good pianist and a baritone with a fine voice and I used to wonder why, with his talent, he had come to India and buried himself in missionary service. I was drawn to him and recall several hours of playing the piano together and listening to lectures on musicology…The Bishop Cotton School, was known for its discipline and I benefited a lot from this. Despite facing problems of transition, my school kept up standards and remained a good institution within the definition of “good” of that period.” From Bishop Cotton School he went St Joseph’s School for his intermediate studies.

After completing his intermediate studies at St Joseph’s, Bangalore he joined the Madras Christian College in Tambaram. He did very well in his intermediate examination. He was among the six students who were selected for BSc (Honours) course majoring in physics. After obtaining his BSc (Honours) degree in physics from Madras Christian College in Tambaram, he went to England to work for his doctoral in the field of nuclear physics at the King’s College, London, as Tata Scholar. He obtained his PhD degree in 1948.

Ramanna was deeply influenced by Homi Jehangir Bhabha. He had met Bhabha for the first time in 1944. Ramanna was introduced to Bhabha by Dr. Alfred Mistowski, an examiner from the Trinity College of Music, who had to stay back in India due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Recalling his first meeting with Bhabha, Ramanna wrote: “One day, in 1944, Dr. Mistowski told me that there was a famous Indian scientist and his mother spending their vacation in the state guest house where he was staying and wondered whether, I, a science student, would like to meet them. He said the scientist was also interested in music, especially in Mozart. Apparently, they came down from their rooms every evening, formally dressed, in order to listen to music on the gramophone records. ‘But,’ Dr. Mistowski said ‘you must of course know him, his name his Homi Bhabha.’ My meeting with Bhabha would determine the course of the next several years of my life. But even as I looked forward to the future, I was aware that my youth and my childhood would now be in the past.” This was not to be the first and last interaction with Bhabha. During one of his trips to London in 1947, Bhabha offered Ramanna a job in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the cradle of India’s atomic energy programme. Bhabha allowed Ramanna to complete his PhD. Ramanna joined the TIFR on December 01, 1949. In those days TIFR was being developed. To quote B. V. Sreekantan, a colleague of Ramanna in TIFR: “When Ramanna joined TIFR, the institute had just been shifted from its first premises at Kenilworth, 54, Pedder Road, Cumbala Hills in Bombay to the Yatcht Club premises and alteration work of the building was in full swing. The so-called servants’ quarters of the Yacht Club were converted as the hostel for unmarried scientists of TIFR. Bhabha, who had known Ramanna’s interests and abilities in music, allotted him two adjacent rooms in the top-most fourth floor of the hostel, one for Ramanna and the other for his piano. The ground floor of the hostel became the nuclear physics laboratory of Ramanna, where he started his work on nuclear fission and scattering.” Recalling his own impression of TIFR at the time of his joining Ramanna wrote in autobiography: “I joined the TIFR when it was in its fifth year and the initial problems of administration and finances had been overcome. To begin with, it was essentially a laboratory confined to aspects of science in which Bhabha was primarily interested. However, by the time I arrived the institute had expanded and now even had a School of Mathematics which helped it gain a stronger foothold as a major centre of learning. Among others, the school boasted on its faculty, Dr. D. D. Kosambi, who was not only an expert in differential geometry but was a numismatist, historian, linguist, Sanskrit scholar and a pleasant man who was something of a gourmet. I would have never learnt to appreciate Chinese food, especially crabs, had he not taken me to the Nanking Restaurant, across the road”. Further he continues, “Although Bhabha’s contribution to cosmic ray physics was internationally known even before his return to India at the outbreak of the War, the TIFR had yet to make its mark as a centre for scientific learning. Its work in theoretical physics was known because of the work done by Bhabha and his students, but the other branches had a long way to go. The experimental group started by Bhabha deserves special mention because they became the forerunners of all indigenous technological activity in the country and heralded the beginnings of an extensive atomic energy programme in India. The initiation of these activities was partly due to A. S. Rao, head of the Department of Electronics, who started these programmes under the most difficult of circumstances.”

Ramanna made important contributions in several areas of neutron, nuclear and reactor physics. Ramanna played a leading role in organizing physics and rector physics programmes at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay. Ramanna was a young reactor physicist in the team under Bhabha, when India’s first research reactor, Apsara, was commissioned on August 04, 1956. M. R. Srinivasan, a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission wrote: “A team with varied skills took charge of different aspects of the reactor. Raja Ramanna, a physicist from the Imperial College of Science in London, drew up the requirements for neutronic experiments. K. S. Singhvi, a theoretical physicist, headed the team’s theoretical work on the physics of the reactor. A. S. Rao, an associate of Bhabha, was an electronics specialist in cosmic ray studies using balloons that were being sent up at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Rao was responsible for the control and instrumentation work. N. Bhanu Prasad was responsible for overall design of the reactor and auxiliary equipment. Homi Sethna, a chemical engineer, was manager of the India Rare Earths Plant; this plant extended logistic support to the construction of the swimming pool reactor. An important member of the team was V. T. Krishnan, an old school mechanical engineer who had been teaching in an engineering college in Maharashtra. He was put in charge of the construction of the reactor building and the reactor pool.”

As a part of the studies relating to the design and construction of Apsara, India’s first reactor, Ramanna studied the process of neutron thermalisation in several moderating assemblies. Ramanna and his group determined the neutron diffusion and slowing down constants in water and beryllium oxide by using a pulsed neutron source. The neutron spectra emerging out of these moderating assemblies were also studied. Apsara, once commissioned, made intense thermal neutron beams available for basic research. This prompted Ramanna to undertake a programme of experimental investigations of secondary radiations emitted in thermal neutron-induced fission of U235. Ramanna and his coworkers measured the energy and angular distributions of prompt neutrons and gamma rays emitted by fission fragments. Such measurements provided important information on the times of these radiations, presence of scission neutrons, the average spin of the fission fragments and so on. The investigations carried out by Ramanna and his coworkers on light charged particle emission in fission induced by thermal and fast neutrons provided important insight on the mechanism of emission of these particles. The stochastic theory of fragment mass and charge distributions in fission is a unique contribution of Ramanna to fission theory. The theory, which was based on the model of a random exchange of nucleons between the two nascent fission fragments prior to scission, could explain most of the observed features of fragment mass and charge distribution in low energy fission and their dependence on the excitation energy of the fissioning nucleus. A geometrical interpretation of atomic and nuclear binding energies was another novel contribution of Ramanna and his group.

Ramanna’s most important contribution was the creation of a vast pool of trained scientific manpower. Thus M. R. Srinivasan, a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote: “The legacy of Ramanna is that over a half century of his association with atomic energy programme, he helped build up a large pool of scientists and technologists who could take on new and challenging problems in nuclear science and technology for national progress…” To develop the skilled manpower required for this task, the BARC (DAE) Training School was established in 1957 under the leadership of Ramanna. In his autobiography Ramanna wrote: “One aspect of the atomic energy programme that I had a lot to do with was the BARC Training Programme. It was imperative that well-trained scientists be involved in our programmes and as I’ve said earlier the universities had become rather ineffectual in imparting useful scientific education; again we did not want to deplete the universities of the few good teachers by recruiting directly. It seemed a somewhat obvious solution to utilize the services of the large number of trained instructors we already had to teach a small number of bright students. The interaction, it was felt, would not only benefit the students but also teachers who would be able to concentrate on a few, particularly when the handful had already proved their worth. It was these considerations that led to the creation of the BARC Training School in 1957. Apart from churning out scientists for the future, the school also helped greatly in stalling the emigration syndrome.” The training school has proved to be remarkably successful. B. V. Sreekantan wrote: “…the (training) school has produced more than 6000 scientists and engineers who are manning various divisions of the Atomic Energy Establishment in different parts of the country. It is indeed remarkable that some of the older alumni of this school have achieved such distinction as becoming Chairman of Atomic Energy and Space Commissions, Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Directors of several laboratories, Secretaries to Science Departments of Government of India, senior professors at institutions like TIFR; some have moved to industry and some have settled abroad in good positions…It would have made made a big difference if this successful model had been adopted in many other fields of scientific activity too.”

Ramanna encouraged creativity at every level. He particularly encouraged the young scientists to take up challenging tasks. In Ramanna’s schema of things there was no place for complacency or mediocrity. K. S. Parthasarathy, who had the opportunity to work with Ramanna, said: “During the Divisional Review Programme, he (Ramanna) started in BARC, the senior staff of every division presented their work. We attended them primarily to listen to Dr. Ramanna’s delightful and erudite concluding remarks. He would cut the pretentious to size, compliment the deserving and point out areas for further study. His incisive analysis was a treat; his acidic tongue lashed at the mediocre. He hated “slide rule” engineering! He craved for originality and creativity.”

Ramanna directly or indirectly helped to build up a number of institutions in the country. In the early 1980s he took the initiative for setting up a Centre for Advanced Technology at Indore, devoted to the development for advanced accelerators, lasers and other related technologies. He helped to establish the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VEC) at Kolkata. He was the founder-Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) at Bangalore established by JRD Tata. He was the Chairman, Board of Governors of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (1972-78); President of the Indian National Science Academy (1977-78); Member/Chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee to the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency; President, 30th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (1986).

Ramanna was associated with a number of science academies and learned bodies. He was Vice President, Indian Academy of Sciences (1977-79), President, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi (1977-78); President, General Conference of Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna (1986). Among the various awards that he received included: Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award (1963), Padma Vibhushan Award (1975), Meghnad Saha Medal of the Indian National Science Academy (1984), R. D. Memorial Award (1985-86), Asutosh Mookerjee Gold Medal (1996). He was awarded doctorate (honoris causa) by several universities.

Any write-up on Ramanna would not be complete without mentioning his love for music. He was not only an expert on music but he himself was an accomplished musician. He was drawn to music at an early age. To quote Ramanna: “My close association with Western music started with my changing schools when I was six years old. The old school, called the Dalvoy School, was an overcrowded cattle-shed and my parents realized that it would not sut me. I was shifted to the Good Shephered Convent which was located on the outskirts of Bangalore. The nuns of this convent had taught the members of the royal family and enjoyed a good reputation. Apart from that, the main advantage at this school was that they also taught European music. At home, there was now the general feeling that because there was enough appreciation of Carnatic music somebody should also study European music. It was decided eventually that I make the effort and so began my piano lessons at the new school at the ripe age of six. I guess the nuns at the convent must have been conscientious but I was not particularly attracted to any of them except for one outstanding lady, an Irish nun called Mother Maurice. She had been the music teacher to the Yuvaraja’s son, Jaya Chamaraja, and all the princess of Mysore court. Philomena Thumboo Chetty, a distinguished violinist of the thirties, had also been her student. Mother Maurice was a sensitive teacher and was particularly good with young children. It was she who made music an indispensable part of life.”

Krisnaraja Wadiyar, the then Maharaja of Mysore was a great admirer of young Ramanna’s abilities in music. Ramanna valued this appreciation with gratitude. He wrote: “….I had the good fortune of coming to the attention of the Mysore Maharaja. An ardent music-lover, the Maharaja appreciated both Western and Indian music. His court was supported by a good orchestra under the conductor Otto Schmidt, a German. The Maharaja also patronized a host of Carnatic and Hindustani musicians, as was the tradition of the time. Word reached him, through various sources, that I could play the piano well and an audition was fixed for me at the Jaganmohan Palace in 1937.

On the day of the audition, the Maharaja listened intently to a new set pieces that I played for him. Later, he came up for a chat and asked whether my teachers were guiding me properly and whether they discriminated between me and the European children. I was touched, the Maharaja was genuine in the care he showed towards a twelve-year-old.”

Ramanna died on 24th September, 2004 at Mumbai after a cardiac arrest.

Ramanna is no more. We Indians must honour his memory. But then as P. K. Iyengar has pointed out, Ramanna’s “more important legacy is his uncompromising belief in intellectual clarity and rational thinking in every facet of life, and his unwavering belief (which he inherited from Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha) that the nation could progress only by embracing science and scientific thinking. The best way to honour his memory is not through eulogies, but by rededicating ourselves to his policies and belief.”

References

1. Ramanna, Raja. Years of Pilgrimage: An Autobiography. New Delhi: Viking, 1991.
2. Srinivasan, M. R. From Fission to Fusion: The Story of India’s Atomic Energy Programme. New Delhi: Viking, 2002.
3. Singh, Jagjit. Some Eminent Indian Scientists. New Delhi: Publications Division, Govt. of India.
4. Sundaram, C.V., L. V. Krishnan, and T. S. Iyengar. Atomic Energy in India: 50 Years. Mumbai: Department of Atomic Energy, 1998.
5. Parthasarathy, K. S. Ramanna: a doyen among scientists, The Hindu, September 30, 2004.
6. Srinivasan, M. R. Ramanna & the nuclear programme, The Hindu, September 28, 2004.
7. Sreekantan, B.V. Raja Ramanna–Down the Memory Lane. Current Science, Vol. 87, No. 8, pp.1150-51, 2004.
8. Rao, K. R. Raja Ramanna-A Personal Tribute. Current Science, Vol. 87, No. 8, pp. 1152-54, 2004.
9. Profiles in Scientific Research: Contributions of the Fellows. Vol.1. pp. 460-62. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1995.
10. Iyengar, P.K. Remembering Ramanna. The Hindu, September 25, 2004.