Prof CNR Rao: A Conversation
Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao is among the most prolific scientists in the world with over 1700 research publications and having guided over 150 PhDs. He has been a pioneer in several areas of material science and is now doing cutting edge work and setting new trends in nanoscience. After having done outstanding work in spectroscopy, High Temperature Super Conductivity, Colossal magneto-resistance, graphenes, inorganic nano tubes and so on. The octogenarian continues to enthusiastically sally forth in photosynthesis and producing Hydrogen through novel routes. He has been the chairman of Scientific Advisory Committee to Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and later Dr Manmohan Singh and been responsible for a number of science initiatives of those regimes. Shivanand Kanavi conversed with him in the verdant campus of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, about his science and his experiences as science advisor to Prime Ministers.
(Excerpts of this appeared in Prajavani, Business India and Rediff.com)
What or who inspired you to go for science?
I was excited by Science even when I was very young. I met Prof. CV Raman while in school. I talked to him and visited his laboratory in 1944-45, almost 70 years ago. I was already in high school at that time since I started school very young. When I finished my BSc I wanted to go for research. The idea of research papers published with people’s names fascinated me. I had never seen such a thing. I asked many teachers but they were not doing anything exciting in the undergraduate college. They were not encouraging either and said “you are just a BSc student”. That is why I went to BHU.
What about your parents?
They allowed me to whatever I wanted to do. They never interfered with my plans for studies. There was no pressure to do IAS or engineering unlike today. My father was in the education dept and he trusted my choices.
When I said I want to go to BHU and not study in Bangalore he said fine.
Why did you choose BHU?
BHU had MSc with part course work and part research thesis. Bombay University has MSc by research only. I needed to do some course work along with research. At BHU, I read the book of Linus Pauling “Nature of the Chemical Bond” where he had talked about electronic structure of molecules. It made me really excited about chemistry.
Why did you choose Chemistry?
I was much better in Physics than in Chemistry as an undergraduate. I had 75% average in theory which was difficult in those days. Especially I liked Physical Chemistry. When I went to US I chose Chemical Physics with Physics as minor and Physical Chemistry as major. Pauling had written to me that he was not working on molecular structure anymore but one of his students at Purdue was doing it. I decided to go to Purdue. I got teaching assistantships from MIT and Columbia but I did not understand what it meant. There was no one to guide me. In 1954 there were very few Indians in the US. I thought what I needed was research assistantship or fellowship. Purdue gave me one a research assistantship. It turned out, however, that I had to work in the laboratory of a professor who was an organic chemist. The work had nothing to do with my Ph.D thesis. He was a good person and wanted me to do some spectroscopy and kinetics based on his compounds. This made me learn a lot of spectroscopy and kinetics. I published several papers with him.
Did you do any experimental work there?
Yes of course. I am an experimentalist. I have built a very good lab here now. Now we need not go to MIT or Harvard. It was not always like that. I did my PhD on electron diffraction in gases. I also did X Ray crystallography and all kinds of spectroscopy. It was a very busy period of three years during my PhD. I published around 20-22 papers by the time I had my PhD. About ten of these were in electron diffraction and about 8 are in spectroscopy. My Ph.D advisor was a nice man. He knew that I was publishing with other Professors as well, but did not mind it. I published with 5-6 other professors. My Ph.D thesis gave me only five papers.
Whenever I heard of a problem posed in a class or seminar, I would find out if it had been solved. I would do some work on it and publish it after showing it to persons concerned. I was helping other students of my PhD guide since he was busy with administration. If you see the third edition of Pauling’s Nature of the Chemical Bond, you will see two of the structures solved by me cited there. I went to Berkley for my Post-doctoral work and had a wonderful time. I was getting several offers as an Asst Prof in the US. I was just 25 I had three major offers in the US, but I thought it was my last chance to come back to India because, if I had accepted a faculty offer there, I would not have come back. In India I got offers from a CSIR laboratory, Indian Institute of Science and Punjab University.
Why did you choose to come back to India?
Oh, I belonged to a small nationalist family. I used to wear a Khadar cap till my BSc. Even when I was 12-13, I had participated in independence movement. I decided to come back also to make my parents happy. I joined IISc and worked there for 4 years. Six students got Ph.Ds working with me.
How many PhDs have you produced so far?
Around 140-150. When I was 26, I wrote my first book on Ultra Violet and Visible Spectroscopy which has been translated into 5 or 6 languages. Then, another book of mine on Infrared Spectroscopy came out when I had just joined IIT Kanpur. This was published by Academic Press, New York. It was all about how to use spectroscopy in Chemistry. I became a Professor in IIT Kanpur when I was not yet 30. That is when Prof. C V Raman wrote to me and asked me to be a member of the science academy of which he was president. IISc did not have any spectrometers and he had allowed me to do some experiments in his laboratory. All the great names of Indian science, including people like Meghnad Saha and S. N Bose, stopped doing research at a relatively young age. Two of the persons who worked in science till the end were Jagdish Chandra Bose and C V Raman. I admire such people more than those who do one great thing and stop.
IIT Kanpur was wonderful. We perhaps had the best chemistry department in India as IIT Kanpur. In 1976, I left IITK. I almost left India at that time. The level at which I was doing research in Kanpur was not satisfying. There were one or two spectrometers which had to be shared by many people. I had done a lot of research at Oxford using (electron microscopy) and other sophisticated instruments in 1973-1974. I then decided to build a facility second to none in India. Then Satish Dhawan told me “why do you want to leave India, come back to IISc and build a new Chemistry department from scratch. I can’t give any money and you have to bring all the support”. I built a new solid state and structural chemistry and material research laboratory at IISc. I was able to build reasonable facilities. I got my first electron microscope then.
Eventually, I had the chance to build this centre at JNCASR, which has excellent facilities. Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) came to being in the following manner. A Nehru centenary committee with Mr. R. Venkataraman had been set up. Some of us suggested that we should have a small centre which would do interdisciplinary research in the name of Nehru. I was then chairman of Science Advisory Council to Rajiv Gandhi at that time. One day, I got a call that this idea had been accepted. People wanted to take it to Pune or UP. I suggested Bangalore. Today, it is one of the best in the India especially after the international centre for material science came up. I had to wait a long time in my life for good facilities for research. Young people cannot complain now that there is no facility in India which is world class in Material Science. We have raised money from various sources. For example a Shaikh from the Emirates gave Rs 15 crores as a grant to do whatever we want to do in science! Unfortunately no Indian industrialist has given like that.
In the evolution of your scientific interests you have mentioned spectroscopy
Even now I use a lot of spectroscopy but now I am not working mainly on the chemistry of advanced materials, I realized long ago that one could not compete with the rest of the world in high resolution spectroscopy etc. So, I chose a subject which would be of global quality but new, and hence, the chemistry of solids. It was a lonely road. Now, of course, I am called the grandfather of the subject. I have worked on various types of research problems in this area.
For a lay person how would you explain what is solid state and materials chemistry as opposed to solid state physics?
We make novel materials with interesting properties, like graphene for example which is a one atom thick sheet of carbon atoms. Molybdenum sulphide nanosheets have now become a bigger attraction than graphene. I have just written a frontiers article on it.
Why are they interesting?
They have novel electronic and magnetic properties. The topic is spreading like wild fire. I had been to Japan recently to deliver a lecture on this.
How did you get interested in transition metal oxides?
Oh that was long back because there are so many interesting things happening in the oxide area because of the d-electrons. I have written many papers and books on oxides. I still work on oxides.
Was High Temperature Super Conductivity (HTSC) a byproduct of this?
I had already worked on 2-dimensional oxides. Some people had laughed at me then and one referee of an American journal wrote “why is Prof Rao so obsessed with 2-dimensional oxides”. It is a 2-dimentional copper oxide that showed high temperature superconductivity later. I worked on such oxides in Kanpur and later at Bangalore. I work on multiferroic oxides, which combine ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. Colossal magnetoresistance was found in one of the manganese oxides that I had worked long ago. I had done considerable work on these oxides. I also work on sulphides. I got into research on fullerenes in 1990. In 1991, within 2 months of discovery of carbon nanotubes, I had set up a lab here to study them. They can be metallic or semiconducting. Last year I took a US patent on the separation of semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes. Graphene and nanotubes have many applications in electronics and other areas. I also work on inorganic nanotubes (e.g. of Boron Nitride, Molybdenum Sulphide). Nanosheets have become a big area. I also work on nanowires and nanoparticles.
Do they exhibit different physics?
Size alone is enough to lead to different properties. For example, we made a major discovery 8 years ago here that all nanoparticles are ferromagnetic, no matter of which material! Nanoparticles of even zinc oxide and aluminum oxide with no d electrons exhibit ferromagnetism.
I heard that recently you got interested in photosynthesis.
Yes, I have a few young students doing wonderful work here on splitting water and to produce hydrogen by artificial photosynthesis. This is the best way to make hydrogen.
Can you explain it in simple terms?
Plants take water in the air and then using photo system 2 (where light is absorbed exciting an electron and creating a hole) decompose water to oxygen and photons. Eventually, in photosystem 1 the protons get reduced. Plants do not produce hydrogen but sugars. In our lab, we use the same mechanism to produce hydrogen and we are able to produce quite a lot of it at highly competitive rates, compared to what is going on globally in this field. We use ordinary sunlight (or a 100 W lamp) for this purpose. I use semiconductor nanostructures or nanosheets of simple inorganic materials for splitting water. For example in one experiment, we have used MoS2 nanosheets. Unlike electrolysis we do not use any electrical energy.
I heard that recently funds have been cut for research at various institutions.
This is not true. What happened last year was that all expenditure was cut by 10% by the government. This is the way governments operate. In a small institute like ours, they cut 10 cr in a total budget of 50 cr! Approved funding was cut suddenly and we had already ordered equipment etc. I hope it will be rectified this year. I keep telling the authorities that for a small institution like this which is producing good work, they should not cut funding even if they cannot increase it.
What has been your experience as chairman of PM’s scientific advisory council?
I have had good experience. No PM has said no to anything we have proposed. I am not a politician and I cannot give speeches about things, but a lot of good things have been done in science by the previous governments. 5 ISERs were started. How do you think that the Fast Breeder Reactor is going on line, or new rockets are going up with the cryogenic engine? We have obtained a Rs 5000 crore grant for building a Peta Flop supercomputer. Elections muddied the scene somewhat. Nobody wanted to hear anything positive. Look at Pune ISER. It is the best among the lot and with excellent undergraduate science education. I have met Mr. Modi, our new PM, for half an hour. It was a nice meeting. He asked me to give a note on science and education in the country. I prepared it and sent it to him. I got a nice note from him thanking me.
I have never wanted to work in the government and become a Secretary to Government or a Rajya Sabha MP. I was offered a Rajya Sabha seat two or three times and I declined. Way back in 1975 when I was in IIT Kanpur, Mrs. Indira Gandhi offered to make me a secretary. When I said ‘No’ she was surprised. I felt that I was too young to be a secretary to Government. I want to do good science, and not become an official.
How was it with VP Singh, P V NarasimhaRao or Vajpayee?
There was no SAC to PM under Mr. Narasimha Rao. Under Dr. Manmohan Singh, we could do a few important things. I used to meet him once in 6-8 weeks. He often said, “Prof Rao you assume that you have my approval and carry on”. He was shy and decent. He is a real gentleman. I expect great things to happen under our new PM, Mr. Modi.
What are your scientific interests now?
Artificial photosynthesis and physics and chemistry based on inorganic nanosheets are two areas. The nanosheets exhibit surprising properties. Then, there are some other new areas that I am working on. Science keeps me going at 80. I feel young.