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An Affinity for Science

Courtesy Pexels

Experiments with strips of films projected onto the wall using sunlight and a lens were the earliest memory of dabbling in science. The hugely magnified faces had specks of dark spots all over them, and I wondered about their origin.

Chemistry taught in the school was fun, especially when accompanied by experiments conducted by T. M. Jacob sir. I remember my happiness when I understood the principle of displacement reaction, where one element exchanges place with another element in the compound. However, chemicals were relatively inaccessible compared to lens, battery and magnets. I remember producing hydrogen through electrolysis and filling balloons. When I was in the high school, two incidents strengthened my growing affinity for science. First, Dr Homi Bhabha established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, in January 1954 to intensify exploiting nuclear energy by pursuing a multidisciplinary research programme. The advertisements about a training programme for recruits opened up dramatic possibilities in the mind of an impressionable young boy.

The other incident was the USSR launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. The newspapers were full of stories of the coming of the space age. Ayyappa Panicker’s poem ‘Hey Gagarin, Gaganacharin’ was a celebration of man’s arrival in space. For an imaginative young person, this was indeed a demonstration of the power of science to beckon us to brave new worlds.

When I went to the University Intermediate College in Trivandrum for my pre-degree course, I stayed in the University Hostel. I had many neighbours who were M. Sc students at the University. Their conversations were very colourful and included topics like the concept of entropy, expanding Universe and the possibility of the heat death of the Universe. It is a fact that these conversations on cosmology and astrophysics went far above my head. But it indeed created a heady excitement about the possibilities of science and strengthened my choice to pursue physics as a career. Quoting Russel (We are but a speck of Carbon crawling on the cosmic dust) and seeing my father’s shocked face was rewarding. He wanted me to join an engineering college. But I convinced him that a career in science is as good as one in engineering, and reluctantly, he agreed.

In St Berchman’s College, where I joined to study for a B.Sc degree in Physics, I found an institution with foundational solid values and high discipline. Prof. S. L. Thomas, with his grand mannerisms, initiated us into the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. Of all his classes, I still remember the last lecture he gave us: a general talk on what science means and how it impacts ordinary life. He talked about energy as the determining parameter controlling the quality of our lives. One of the reasons which firmed up my decision on a research career was this talk.

Mechanics taught by Prof. K. K. John was also fascinating. To be proven that anything thrown into space would travel along a parabolic path with predictable parameters gave great satisfaction. I began to realise, though in a vague, unformed way, the universality of the laws of Physics.

I also learned that I could be very analytical in thinking. The Malayalam drama we had to study was Antigone by Sophocles, taught by P. J. Thomas, a young teacher. He asked us to write an essay on Antigone as a heroine. I decided to depict Antigone with all mortal failings and argue that she transcended mortality through her steadfast loyalty to her father despite these failings. The teacher was very impressed and made complimentary comments about this radical view.

The experiments were fun. I could do all those things with lenses, batteries, and magnets that I had always dreamed about for the first time. I remember enjoying doing electricity and magnetism experiments. The certainty of science was convincingly demonstrated in the experiments when repeated measurements came up with the same answers. An incident I remember from my B.Sc days was the visit of Dr John Mathai, the Vice-Chancellor of Kerala University, to the college. When he came to our class, he asked the students what they planned to do in life. The dread of attempting an answer in English made the students tongue-tied. Finally, I stood up and said that I wanted to pursue a career in research in a national laboratory. I became a ‘minor celebrity’ because of this answer. I found a collection of old Scientific American magazine in an inaccessible part of the College library. The rich fare of articles and colourful images further activated my fascination with science. I was equally captivated by the job advertisements, which were a signpost to future possibilities in a career in science.

By this time, I had become a science fiction addict. Stories by Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur Clarke excited me and made me wonder about the impact of technology on our future. Heinlein’s Future History is a series of stories describing the speculated future of the human race from the middle of the 20th century through the early 23rd century. Clarke’s story, “Childhood’s End”, about the end of the earth as a home for humans, profoundly impacted me. His statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” made me wonder about the power of technology. Years later, I would have the opportunity to interact with him during his extended visit to the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, where I would become a faculty member, building the first Plasma Physics Laboratory in India.

My father still cherished the dream that I would pursue a career in engineering. My cousin was studying in the Engineering College in Trivandrum and for my father, this was reason enough to pursue the field. However, I was insistent on continuing with basic science. I finally convinced my father of my plan to do a master’s and follow it with a research career. I enrolled at the Union Christian College in Alwaye for my M.Sc degree classes. I do not remember any inspiring teacher there who could create a spark in physics. Experiments were still fun, now more advanced with electronic circuits, electromagnetism and spectroscopy. I could pass out with a first-class M. Sc degree.

Research, to my unformed mind, was an ideal. Though I wanted to get into research intensely, I did not know precisely how to go about this. Meanwhile, I got an offer for a teaching position at the Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam, and I joined to stay there for two years. I went to New Delhi during a bitter winter and got selected for a CSIR Scholarship in an interview but could not avail of it because I was not enrolled anywhere for research. Letters to heads of departments of various universities seeking a position in research were not replied to. I thought the best thing was a Bharatdarshan; a grand trip to the Universities of North India to talk to them directly. So, in the summer of 1964, I did just that.

The journey saw me going through Madras to Calcutta and towards Delhi. Allahabad and Patna did not impress me. I stopped at Aligarh when heading to Delhi because a friend had great stories about his alma mater. At Aligarh, I walked into the office of Prof. Rais Ahmed, who had recently returned from England and had taken over as the head of the physics department. He was surprised when I introduced myself and said that I wanted to research. He asked me some general questions, which I answered well. I also told him that I had saved some money from my teaching days and was willing to work without immediate financial support. He was indeed impressed by this offer. He managed to get me a Ministry of Education scholarship of Rs. 250 per month, which, among all scholarships, was the most irregular. Months would pass before this money arrived.

So finally, I was ready to start my research career. The topic of the thesis was an experiment to simulate the Luxembourg effect in which the powerful Radio Luxembourg modulated the ionospheric plasma such that weak European stations became gratuitous carriers of Radio Luxembourg. Under the advise of Dr K. A. George from the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research I designed and built a high-power RF oscillator, using World War II vacuum tubes foraged from the Electrical Engineering department. The tubes had no data sheets, and I generated the current-voltage characteristics. The modulated RF discharge plasma was the medium through which an X-band microwave signal propagated and picked up the modulation. The microwave source, transmission lines and power supply were scraped together from another laboratory. My research scholar friends, Subhas Chandra, Yogendra Kumar and Rajeshwari Prasad Mathur, helped me very much to chart the unfamiliar environment and in the process of acculturation.

A few years of profound happiness followed because I was finally doing research and hopefully would create new knowledge. At the end of that, I emerged with a Ph. D degree in Physics and a job as a faculty member in the Physics Department.

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