The Doctoral Dreams
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
I was 23, and my job as a lecturer with the Athanasius College, Kothamangalam, was beginning to be a drag. I could see myself growing older, taking tuitions, getting married, building a house, and becoming affluent, but unable to do what I wanted to do badly, which was to do research. This bug had bitten me when I was a student at Trivandrum. Post-graduate physics students, my neighbours at the university hostel, liked to show off to an impressionable youngster. I immensely enjoyed their discussions on modern physics though I did not understand half of what they said. Though I wanted to get into research intensely, I did not know precisely how to go about this. I started writing to the heads of departments of various universities seeking a position in research, which received no response. According to my friends, the next best thing was to go to these places and talk to them. So, I decided on an all-India tour, a Bharatdarshan. The journey saw me going through Madras to Calcutta and from there towards Delhi. Allahabad and Patna did not impress me. I stopped at Aligarh when I was heading to Delhi because of what a friend had told me 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 quite surprised when I introduced myself and said that I wanted to do 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, a sum of Rs. 250, which, among all scholarships, was the most irregular. Months would pass before this money arrived. The Physics department had lost its earlier glory as a seat of physics research. The work in cosmic rays led by Prof. P. S. Gill and spectroscopy by Prof. Putcha Venkateswara ended with their departure. Prof. Rais Ahmed, who had worked on speech recognition in England, was trying to rebuild the research base of the department. He was aware of the work at Harwell on thermonuclear fusion and Oxford on ionized gases and induced me to take a risk in starting experimental work in plasma physics. The department had no prior art or faculty members established in this area. Prof. D. C. Sarkar, assigned as my guide, had worked in the Varian Laboratories in the US in plasma physics. Looking back, I think that I had the ideal conditions to become an independent experimentalist since there was no one to tell me what to do. 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. Dr K. A. George from the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research helped me build the high-power Radio Frequency equipment necessary for the work. I designed and built a high-power RF oscillator, a simple push-pull circuit, using World War II vacuum tubes foraged from the Electrical Engineering department. The tubes had no datasheets, and I had to generate 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 scavenged from Prof. Venkateswarlu’s laboratory, who had left by this time to join the new IIT at Kanpur. My research scholar friends, Subhas Chandra, Yogendra Kumar and Rajeshwari Prasad Mathur, were very helpful in enabling me to chart the unfamiliar environment. Thesis work made me learn everything from glassblowing to machining, and I got a degree in 1969. I realized that the experiment would benefit from a theoretical model for estimating the modulation transfer. Prof Sodha, the great plasma physicist from IIT Delhi, was visiting the department for some time. He made me sit down and work out a rudimentary theory to estimate the transfer of modulation to the microwave signal. The viva voce took place at the office of Prof. Nagchowdhury, the former Director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Sciences, who was a member of the Planning Commission. Prof. Sodha was the other examiner. The year I got the degree, the Physics Department had created new posts. Prof. Rais Ahmed called me and asked me to apply for a position, and I became a lecturer. Prof. Rais Ahmed had modern ideas on education. He started a special accelerated B. Sc course for gifted students. He was a member of many advisory bodies and a panel advising the Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi. Prof. Rais Ahmed made me realize that science went far beyond the mere creation of knowledge. It could radically change societies. Under his mentorship, I started reading the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and other journals on science and society. The teaching was exciting, and I realized that I was good at it. It soon became clear to me that the department would not offer me many growth opportunities. This was due both to the factional politics in the department and the imminent departure of Prof. Rais Ahmed to join the UGC as its Vice-Chairman. The eternal lack of funds in the department was an added reason. My attempts to get a post-doctoral fellowship in the US was turning out to be unsuccessful, perhaps due to the strained Indo-US relations after the Bangladesh war. Prof. Bimla Buti happened to visit the department at that time. She asked me whether I would like to join Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, which planned to start an experimental programme in plasma physics. I jumped at the opportunity.