On Sir C V Raman’s 125th birth anniversary

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Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, 7 November 1888—21 November 1970

It takes a special mind to grasp physics in all its glory and complexity. I do not possess that special mind no matter how I craftily I hide that shortcoming. What I do possess, however, is an unceasing interest in physics. It is a subject I have courted with the annoying persistence of the true seeker of unrequited love.

On the 125th birth anniversary of Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the 1930 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, today I may not be able to make sense for you of his eponymous Raman Effect. I can do something I do reasonably well—offer a readable sidelight to his life.

Nine years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the 33-year-old Raman was on a voyage to Europe. That was the time when voyage generally meant by ship. It was summertime and his ship is in the fabled Mediterranean waters. Rather than me describing it secondhand let me quote from Raman’s own description of his experience from his Nobel speech. It is particularly interesting because it tells us of what set him off to work on “the molecular scattering of light” that won him the prize.

In the history of science, we often find that the study of some natural phenomenon has been the starting-point in the development of a new branch of knowledge. We have an instance of this in the colour of skylight, which has inspired numerous optical investigations, and the explanation of which, proposed by the late Lord Rayleigh, and subsequently verified by observation, forms the beginning of our knowledge of the subject of this lecture.

Even more striking, though not so familiar to all, is the colour exhibited by oceanic waters. A voyage to Europe in the summer of 1921 gave me the first opportunity of observing the wonderful blue opalescence of the Mediterranean Sea. It seemed not unlikely that the phenomenon owed its origin to the scattering of sunlight by the molecules of the water.

To test this explanation, it appeared desirable to ascertain the laws governing the diffusion of light in liquids, and experiments with this object were started immediately on my return to Calcutta in September, 1921. It soon became evident, however, that the subject possessed a significance extending far beyond the special purpose for which the work was undertaken, and that it offered unlimited scope for research.

It seemed indeed that the study of light-scattering might carry one into the deepest problems of physics and chemistry, and it was this belief which led to the subject becoming the main theme of our activities at Calcutta from that time onwards.

When I speak of a special mind to grasp physics I also mean that those who study it come to nature  and its phenomena from a different vantage point. Most people would have been perfectly content being captivated by the brilliant “blue opalescence” of the Mediterranean and taking a few photographs. A physicist would instantly choose to go deeper to understand what gave the water its opalescence.

I have read and re-read what constitutes the Raman Effect. I understand broadly but I falter badly when it comes to specifics. People like me are at best equipped with a very standard definition view of the universe in contrast to pure scientists whom I suspect carry a trillion megapixel high definition view of everything.

Since I am on the subject of my standard definition view, here is a trivial fun fact. Only four people of Indian origin have so far won the Nobel Prize in sciences* (not counting economics here). Apart from Raman, the other three are Subramanyan Chandrasekhar (Physics, 1983), Har Gobind Khorana (Medicine, 1968) and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Chemistry, 2009). The fun part of this fact is that Chandrasekhar was Raman’s nephew and the two had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship. It was over nothing familial or personal but over which area of physics Chandra should pursue. Raman wanted his nephew to pursue nuclear physics while Chandra was keen on astrophysics. It was only much later when Chandra had emerged as one of the world’s foremost physicists that Raman changed his view of his nephew, 22 years his junior. It would have taken considerable self-assurance on Chandra’s part to go against the counsels of a Nobel laureate uncle in the India of 1930s and that too in the deeply traditional Tamil Nadu.

* Except Raman, the other three pursued their work outside India and all three in the United States. I draw no particular inference from the fact three out of the four trace their origins to Tamil Nadu.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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