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India's silent scientists

Author: Arun Ram
Publication:  The Times of India
Date: July 8, 2012
URL: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-07-08/special-report/32587911_1_god-particle-higgs-boson-particle-physics

Introduction: As the world celebrates the Higgs part of the God particle, the Bose part of the boson lies largely forgotten. S N Bose is not the only Indian to fade into obscurity. Sunday Times looks at three others, who made outstanding contributions to science, but never got their due.

 Last week's discovery of a particle which could most likely be Higgs boson may not change the way you play golf, but it may let you understand better the creation of the universe, its minuscule components and its all-pervading vastness. And, if you have an abiding interest in the interface of science and everyday life, it may as well tell you why you missed the 18th hole.

So, it wasn't surprising that some 8,000 scientists and students from 60 countries were peering at a maze of mathematical projections at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (Cern) near Geneva to catch a glimpse of what they hate to call the God particle. As millions of protons travelled almost at the speed of light through a 27 km circular tunnel 100 metres below the Franco-Swiss border last week, the world held its breath. But, the scientists wouldn't say if they have found it. Finally, on July 3, there was a give away: Peter Higgs, the English theoretical physicist who predicted the existence of such a particle in the early 1960s, was invited to a conference near Geneva where the announcement was to be made the next day.

 We know the Higgs part of the elusive particle, but the Bose part of it remains in relative obscurity . Boson, one of the two fundamental subatomic components of particle physics - the other being fermion - was named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974). Bose, who worked with Albert Einstein to come up with the Bose-Einstein statistics and the Bose-Einstein condensate theory, was never nominated for the Nobel. In fact, it was out of Einstein's personal interest in Bose's work that saw much of his work being noted, after Bose sent his papers to Einstein who translated them into German and got them published in scientific journals.

 Thanks to a few media reports on Bose in the wake of the Higgs boson discovery, the great man is being introduced to a vast number of Indians 38 years after his death. But, there are several Indian scientists, great in their own ways, who remain unknown to the layman and ignored by the scientific fraternity and the governments. Ask any scientist who acknowledges original research to give a list of Indians who should have got a Nobel Prize, and you will find the name G N Ramachandran (1922- 2001) there. Though trained as a physicist, Ramachandran's greatest contributions were to biology, where he formulated the 'Ramachandran plots' which every biophysicist uses while studying proteins. His triplehelix structure of collagen is a classic discovery worth a Nobel. 'History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization' says Ramachandran's lesser known contribution was to three-dimensional image reconstruction , which redefined the way we look inside the human body without cutting it open. Some, like P M Bhargava, founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, believe Ramachandran should be considered the father of NMR and CT scan, though some others took credit for it. "Ramachandran was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society after some of us worked hard for it. He never asked for it," says Bhargava . "He was neither elected as a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, nor nominated for a Nobel Prize which he richly deserved."

Ramachandran died in 2001 without much international recognition; several other silently continue to do path-breaking research, refusing to blow their own trumpets. E Premkumar Reddy, for one. Now the director of experimental cancer therapeutics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, Reddy has made seminal discoveries of oncogenes that gave a clear understanding of the molecular basis of cancer. Though he has lived and worked for more than 40 years in the US, he was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the hall of scientific fame in the US. Recognition may come to him as a cancer drug that took shape from his research goes into phase III trials.

 Reddy, like several other silent toilers of science, says he has no regrets, though he believes that some scientists get ahead through PR. "Becoming a member of National Academy not only requires a major contribution to science, but also a certain amount of lobbying. I did not care to spend my time lobbying since I felt I could use my time and energy for a better cause," he says.

Lobbyism prevails because there is a lack of objective assessment of scientific work in India, feels Lalji Singh, who developed a new technique of DNA fingerprinting which has applications in forensics, parent determination and even resurrection of extinct species. Singh, 65, who served as the director of CCMB, Hyderabad, is now the vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. One of Singh's works became the only research from an Indian lab to make it to the cover of 'Nature' magazine in October 2010. Singh was never nominated for the Fellowship of Royal Society . Bhargava feels the Padma Shri that Singh got was far too little for his genius.

So, what is wrong with the system? "The problem is," says Singh, "that the system doesn't work." C N R Rao, head of the scientific advisory council to the Prime Minister, feels it is better sometimes that the government does nothing. "Just keep quiet and let scientists do their work, that's enough," says Rao, who feels the government has no clear-cut policy to promote science and scientists in India.
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