If you were to ask a stranger, or anyone for that matter, “Who were the prominent scientists of the 20th century?”, some of the usual suspects whose names are sure to be tossed around are “Einstein, Curie , Hawking, Planck, Bohr”. Now, tweak the question a little to “Who were the prominent Indian scientists of the 20th century?”, with a blind eye I can assure you that they’ll struggle to go past Raman, Ramanujan and Abdul Kalam. This begs the question “In the land whose very surface was graced by great scholars and saints, have we managed to produce only three famed personalities in science during the last century or so? The answer is a resounding “NO”. There have been a number of indian personalities who have spent their precious lives researching and finding solutions for many of humanity’s problems.
On September 23rd 2017, Google honored a personality who deserves honours from everyone of us. We collectively failed to pay homage to one of India’s finest. Born to a middle class family in Calcutta, Asima Chatterjee was one of the very few to be honoured with a Doctorate In Science by an Indian University during the British regime. It was nothing less than what she had deserved. Primarily an Organic chemist, she truly opened the doors for the next generation of budding chemists. She spent a large portion of her life researching “Vinca Alkaloids”, which is of utmost importance in slowing down the multiplication of cancer cells. She broke the barriers of being a chemist, which was a herculean task in those days. Though the medicinal properties of plants and their effects were studied for a long time, their actual mechanisms were studied by prime-chemists like Chatterjee. She successfully developed the anti-epileptic drug named AYUSH-56 and an antimalarial drug from ‘Alstonia scholaris’, ‘Swertia chirata’, ‘Picrorhiza kurroa’ and ‘Caesalpinia crista’. She was a “Premchand Roychand Scholar” of the University of Calcutta. From 1962–1982, she served as the “Khaira Professor of Chemistry”, one of the most coveted positions in University of Calcutta. She was the first female recipient of “Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize” (India’s most prestigious award for science), for her works in phytomedicine. She was made the Honorary Coordinator of the Special Assistance program which was sanctioned by the UGC to propel teaching and research in natural product chemistry. As the General President of the Indian Science Congress Association and Member of the Rajya Sabha, she did have a glittering career. Later in her life she was conferred with the Padma Bhushan. It is a grave injustice that a prominent scientist with such a decorated career has failed to seal a spot in our hearts. The story of her life makes one recall, “Deeds will not be less valiant just because they are unpraised”.
Next on the list would be someone who never had the limelight that he so rightly deserved, both in the minds of the Indians and the Nobel prize jury. Imagine a world without “fibre optics”. The Internet would be haywire, no high speed data transmission would be possible thus leaving military applications insure and surgeries would become hectic without endoscopic techniques. Automobiles too use them for lighting and safety purposes. An invention with such a multitude of applications was strategized by one of our own, yet he remains in the shadow. He is none other than Narinder Singh Kapany, often regarded as the “Founding father of Fiber optics”. He was the first to show that light can travel in bent glass fibres. He got his Doctorate from Imperial college, London.
His journals, titled “A Flexible Fiberscope, using Static Scanning” and “Transparent Fibres for the Transmission of Optical Images”, led to endoscopes and laser probes. He was adjudged as one of the unsung heros who greatly influenced the twentieth century by The Forbes magazine. He has over a 100 patents and is a member of the “National Inventors Council”. He has authored over 100 scientific papers and four books on opto-electronics, and served as a Visiting Scholar in the Physics department at Stanford and as a consulting professor in Electrical Engineering. He also served as a Regents professor at the University of California, Berkeley and also at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also an entrepreneur, and has founded two companies namely, “Optic Technology, Inc.” and “K2 optronics”. He was a recipient of “The Excellence 2000” from the USA PAN-ASIAN American Chamber of Commerce in 1998. However, the Nobel Prize for the year 2009 went to Charles.K Kao for Fiber Optics. Considering Kao’s works came much later in comparison to Kapany, who had already begun work on fiberoptics years earlier, one could argue that Kapany rightfully deserved the nobel. Regardless, one is still left clueless regarding the utterly daft decisions pertaining to the omission of his name from our Science books.
In my purely anecdotal opinion, the failure in recognition of such personalities boils down to the plain lack of students’ enthusiasm in learning our own history and knowing our scientists. We have always looked far and wide to find inspiration when they’ve been right here all this while. It is this attitude that has led the acknowledgement of these researchers to a nadir.
Here, I have barely scratched the surface of the plateau of our unsung Indian heroes. Asima Chatterjee and Narinder Singh Kapany are just the tip of a massive iceberg, that is our Indian Scientific Community. Sir J.C Bose, Dr.Vikram Sarabhai, Dr.Homi.J.Bhabha, Meghnad Saha, Sir Visvesvaraya and Dr.S.Chandrashekhar are some of those who rightfully deserve appreciation and most definitely have their fare share of the spotlight embarked in the minds of budding engineers and scientists all over India. They might not be the Einsteins or the Newtons who turned the world on its head, but their contributions are significantly noteworthy and deserve to be willfully commemorated by us, as young Indians and aspirers of tomorrow.