Bringing Indian science to the fore

| Updated on September 12, 2021

Title: Space Life Matter — The Coming Age of Indian ScienceAuthor: Hari PulakkatPublisher: Hachette IndiaPrice: ₹699

This book is an important attempt at giving Indian science a recognition it has long deserved, but never got

Journalist Hari Pulakkat, in this book, has attempted to narrate stories about a few scientists who have set up world class institutions and facilities and also carried outstanding research during the last 70 years.

The author has started with ‘Space’, which is appropriate. He has correctly highlighted the contributions of Homi Bhabha, who returned to India soon after India’s Independence and nurtured several scientists in the areas of radio astronomy, space physics and astrophysics and also laid the foundation for iconic institutions such as Department of Atomic Energy and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

The author has done well to dwell on the personal achievements and outstanding contributions in their areas of specialisation specifically of Govinda Swarup, BV Srikantan and UR Rao. Their contributions led to a number of breakthroughs that made India a dominant player in these disciplines, enthusing brilliant young minds to take to science.

Under ‘Matter’ Pulakkat talks about scientists in chemistry and chemical engineering, describing in detail their success stories in research, institution-building and training faculty and their students who later established their own research groups across the country. However, it needs to be recognised that a much larger number of outstanding scientists have contributed to India's successes in different areas of chemistry.

Under ‘Life’ the author has well described the scientific achievements from one of the leading departments, the ‘molecular biophysics unit’ started by Prof GN Ramachandran, popularly known as GNR, in 1971 at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) founded by Prof Obaid Siddiqui in 1992. Prof GNR attracted a large number of faculty on the experimental side along with his three associates on the theoretical side from Madras University.

Through the joint effort of all the young faculty working in different theoretical and experimental aspects of molecular biophysics and structural biology under GNR’s leadership, the unit went on to become a world class research department. The unit has one of the largest numbers of Bhatnagar awardees in a single department in India. The book could have also highlighted the achievements of many other distinguished scientists who made significant contributions to the growth of the unit.

Pulakkat has given a very good account of Prof GNR and his research group at Madras University. Prof GNR’s discovery of the triple helical structure of the connective tissue protein collagen and developing the famous Ramachandran phi-psi map for understanding peptide and protein structure are widely recognised internationally. Unfortunately, he narrowly missed the Nobel Prize for this work.

It is heartening to read the story of Prof Siddiqui who, after coming back to India, started the molecular biology unit at TIFR in 1962 and later on founded the NCBS at Bengaluru.

The ‘Life’ section in the book, unlike other sections, appears to be somewhat limited for an area where Indian science has achieved considerable renown. Outstanding contributions in areas of biological sciences continue from pioneering institutions such as the IISc, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, NCBS, National Institute of Immunology, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Institute of Microbial Technology and from many university departments. The author could have done well to mention the research work of a much larger number of scientists in these areas and highlighted their contribution to life science research in the country. An unfortunate omission is the success story of the renowned MS Swaminathan, father of India’s green revolution.

Pre-independence achievements

Despite the struggle to get funds and government support for science during the pre-Independence era, dedicated scientists such as Sir CV Raman, JC Bose, SN Bose, Meghnad Saha and S Ramanujam managed to spark the growth of science in the country. The notable institutions at that time were the IISc and the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS), Kolkata, apart from the various universities across the country.

Post-Independence India saw the emergence of genuine breakthroughs in science education and research due to the tireless efforts of Homi Bhabha, MS Swaminathan, KS Krishnan, TS Sadasivan, TR Govindachari, CNR Rao, GN Ramachandran, Jayant Narlikar, SS Bhatnagar and a large number of scientists who came from abroad in the seventies and eighties. They created several institutions and also strengthened scientific research in many universities.

Pulakkat’s book could have also highlighted how Indian scientists overcame the challenges of funds crunch to build good infrastructure and trained future scientists in a number of areas in physical, chemical and biological sciences. New interdisciplinary areas such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioengineering, biophysics, systems biology, genomics and proteomics, stem cell research among many others have emerged with the tremendous advancement of computational methods. These, together with the advancement in communication systems and the Internet, have helped in carrying out outstanding research. It is gratifying to see that there are today over 550 Bhatnagar awardees, a large number of research publications in high impact international journals and many recipients of international awards.

It will require several volumes to cover the tremendous progress that Indian science has made during the last seven decades and the achievements of scientists not only towards the advancement of science in India but also in institution building. Pulakkat’s book is an ambitious attempt to bring out the vast achievements of Indian scientists in establishing a large number of institutions for carrying out basic and applied research and producing a large number of distinguished scientists and research groups all over the country.

At a little over 300 pages, the book is an easy and interesting read. It represents an important attempt at giving Indian science a recognition it has long deserved but never got, and therefore is highly commendable. The book deserves to be read as much as it deserves a sequel covering several other distinguished scientists and areas of science it could not include in this volume.

The reviewer is a former Professor at the Molecular Biophysics Unit at IISc and a Bhatnagar awardee

Published on September 12, 2021

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