Tribute to a master alchemist

R. A. MASHELKAR | Updated on November 17, 2013 Published on November 17, 2013

C. N. R. Rao…An institution builder.

The Bharat Ratna to Prof. C. N. R. Rao recognises his tremendous contribution to science, particularly in solid state and materials chemistry.

The news of Prof. C. N. R. Rao being bestowed with the nation’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, has sent waves of excitement in the scientific community. In a way, the nation has given a signal — ‘science matters to India and India wants to matter more to science’. It is a recognition of the achievements of a living legend.

I have been very fortunate to have known Prof. Rao closely for over four decades now. He has been my guru, guide, friend and philosopher. When I was at the National Chemical Laboratory, he and made me a member of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM) set up by Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-eighties. At barely 42, I was the ‘baby’ of the team!

Prof Rao chaired such bodies set up by successive prime ministers, including the one set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And I continue to be a member of the current SAC-PM. During this time, I have watched Prof. Rao as a scientist, as a science leader, and indeed as a leader of leaders of science. What makes Prof. Rao so different?

Passion for science

The first is his passion for science. Prof. Rao loves science, lives science and lives for science, displaying the same passion today at the age of 80 as he did when he was in his 20s.

His passion for igniting the minds of children is seen in his devotion to writing books on science for school children and talking science to tens of thousands of students across the country practically every week.

The second is his bold vision. He has not only built institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, but has also created others on which India’s future scientific explorations will be built. But for his relentless persuasion with the political leadership, the five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) would not have come into being.

I particularly recall an instance when C. N. R. Rao had broken his hand and it was in plaster. We were at the airport. By the time I completed the check-in formalities for both, I found him immersed in correcting his latest manuscript with his famous green ball pen, balancing his hurt hand on his thigh.

The third is his courage in expressing his views. I remember a SAC-PM meeting where Rajiv Gandhi was present. He asked Rao and the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission to meet and take a decision on a critical issue that was discussed. The Deputy Chair asked Prof Rao to meet him the following morning. The latter shot back by saying that he was a working scientist and needed to go back to his lab — and that would let him know when he was free.

I have seen Prof. Rao agonise over our value systems and about scientists in India not being given their due by the society and the government. He once wrote: “I have noticed a tendency to give undue importance and much publicity to commercial successes, foreign investment, sensex, profits in the IT sector, new billionaires and such matters, like nowhere else in the world.” Born on June 30, 1934, Prof. Rao had stints ranging from a professorship of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (1963-76) to the directorship of the Indian Institute of Science (1984-94), to the founder presidentship of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (1994-2004).

Solid identity

Prof. Rao began his career working on spectra and the structure of molecules. Gradually, he laid the foundation of solid state chemistry and materials chemistry 50 years ago, giving these disciplines a distinct identity. He worked mainly on phenomena and properties exhibited by transition metal oxide systems, including high temperature superconductivity, colossal magneto-resistance and metal-insulation transitions.

He has made outstanding contributions to synthesis and characterisation of designer solids with novel structures and properties, synthesis of nano particles and nano particle assemblies, fullerenes and nano tube structures, grapheme-based electrochemical super capacitors, open framework structures and porous solids. He has published over 1,500 papers in international journals of repute having more than 30,000 citations with an H index exceeding 100. He has, to his credit, 45 books, including an autobiography which is synonymous with the path of progress in Indian science.

Prof. Rao is one of the most decorated scientists of India. His major international accolades include the Dan David Prize for Science in the Future Dimension in the field of Materials Science (2005); Chemical Pioneer (American Institute of Chemists, USA, 2005); Chevalier de la Legion D’honneur by the President of the French Republic (2005); Nikkei Asia Prize for Science, Technology and Innovation from Japan (2008); Order of Friendship by the President of Russia (2009); the Royal Medal (the Queen's Medal) by the Royal Society, London, UK (2009) and the August Wilhelm von Hofmann Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Chemistry by the German Chemical Society (2010).

He has received 60 doctorates from universities around the world. He is a fellow of 25 science academies and was President of the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Academy of Sciences and TWAS-The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. He has the unique honour of being a fellow/member of all the major academies of the world.

The future generations will find it hard to believe that all this could be achieved by a single individual. It is only appropriate that the nation has said ‘thank you’ to this living legend in science in the most befitting way.

(The author is a former Director-General, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.)

Published on November 17, 2013
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