February 28 in India is celebrated as National Science Day because of the discovery of Raman Effect by Sir C V Raman on that day in 1928. He was the first Indian, Asian, and Non-White person to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930 for his pioneering work on scattering of light.
While a lot has been written about Sir C V Raman, the scientist, little is known about him as the man and the teacher.
Childlike curiosity – desire to understand things around him
Many people believe that Sir C V Raman was a born genius, which explains his many achievements. While this is true, it is not the only reason. In his biography published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, author S Ramaseshan, a fellow scientist, writes, “To Raman, scientific activity was the fulfilment of an inner need. His approach to science was one of passion, curiosity and simplicity. It was an attempt to understand. To him science was based on independent thought, combined with hard work. Science was a personal endeavour, an aesthetic pursuit and above all a joyous experience.” Many memoirs about Raman mention his childlike curiosity about run-of-the-mill spectacles. To him, the simplest observations that he could make by just looking around him were worthy of the deepest scientific investigation. With his many discoveries and achievements, he demonstrated over and over again that a deeper understanding of these everyday phenomena paved the way for the discovery of fundamental laws of science.
All of us have seen that the sea appears blue, but we know from routine life experiences that water has no colour at all. Have we ever thought why water appears to have this colour in rivers and seas? This was the line of thought that led to the discovery of the Raman effect.
Sir CV Raman is known for trusting and working on his intuitions. In fact Max Born, a german physicist once said “Raman’s quick mind leaps over mathematics. No man can compare with him in regard to vigour or intensity.” He was so famous for his infectious exuberance, that chatting with him for some time was like taking a tonic. Those who knew him well often spoke about his intense love for and preoccupation with nature — the colours of birds, the sheen of the beetles, the blue of the sky, the spectacular hues of the coronas, the glories that surround the Sun and the Moon, and the extraordinary beauty of minerals, crystals and gems. These not only thrilled him but formed the subject matter of his scientific studies. Ramaseshan too mentions one such episode, he writes ‘One evening, while pointing towards the sky, Raman said: “Have you seen anything so beautiful?” Above, one saw little wisps of multi-coloured clouds passing close to the Moon, which gleamed over the shimmering leaves of the trees. “This is happiness,” he said. “That we should be alive, and that we should be endowed by nature the faculty to perceive.’
Never say never attitude
The discovery of the Raman Effect is a story of a single-minded man pursuing his holy grail with stamina and persistence rarely seen in humanity. On his first voyage to Europe in 1921, the visual beauty of the Mediterranean bewitched him. Lord Rayleigh, a British scientist, was of the view that this blue was due to the reflection of the sky in the water. Raman disproved it by a simple experiment he did onboard the ship. He observed the sky’s reflection with a Nicol prism at the brewster angle and found that the blue colour “far from being impoverished by suppression of the sky reflection was wonderfully improved thereby”. He showed thus, that the blue is due to molecular scattering. One finds his life filled with similar episodes. Episodes of never giving up on his instincts, and putting in the hard work, time and thought to learn the truth.
An innovative teacher
It is believed that Sir CV Raman was perhaps the greatest salesman of science India ever had. Many gifted young men of his time took to science because of having listened to him once! As a teacher, he was known for giving gripping lectures. It was not just his mannerisms or his grasp on the topic— he made his audiences roar with laughter. In his lectures, he talked of only those things about which he felt intensely, of those things which he understood or wanted to understand. He saw things in their simplest and most basic elements. He made the audience feel that they could have seen it all by themselves (which of course they had not). When it comes to teaching, he led by example. His lectures paved the way for inculcating creative thinking in students by engaging in discussions with the students. Something that every good teacher abides till date.
There are not enough words that can be written to describe the legend that Sir CV Raman was. On peering a bit deeper into his life, it can be a bit overwhelming as to how inspiring every aspect of it is. Perhaps his most important life lesson could be – to never stop believing in self. Had he not pursued his instincts behind why the colour of the water is blue, the world would have never known about the Raman effect. To describe success and failures in his own words –
“I am the master of my failure. If I never fail, how will I ever learn.”
Charu, a feminist and an accidental writer, is yet to master the art of writing about herself. Always curious to learn new stuff, she ends up spending a lot of time unlearning the incorrect lessons. She enjoys all sorts of stories – real, fictional, new, old, hers and would love hearing yours too. Feel free to ping her at [email protected] to share anything that you think is worth sharing.
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