The scientist who does not want to retire

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.146 Published online 4 November 2016

Book Review

A Life in Science

C. N. R. Rao, Penguin/Viking (2016) 

ISBN: 9780670089093

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"Science has been an essential part of my life....there was no way I could plan my life without science. Whatever happens in future, I want to continue doing research" -- Chintamani Nagesa Ramachandra Rao
This resolve by the well-known Indian chemist does not come as a surprise to his friends who call him CNR (Chemist Not Retiring). His first research paper came at age 19. Now 83, Rao has authored nearly 1500 papers and 45 books, and is exploring new areas of research at Bengaluru's Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), which he founded in 1989.

The seeds of Rao's love for chemistry were sown early on — when as a schoolboy he helped his science teacher make chlorine or spent half an hour with Nobel laureate C. V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 1945. At the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) during his masters, he firmly decided to become a scientist.

Rao's new book dedicated to aspiring young scientists is a sequel to his 2010 autobiography “Climbing the Limitless ladder”1. It gives valuable insights into what it takes to become a great scientist, chronicling his time at BHU, Purdue University, University of California (Berkeley), IISc and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur.

Though he got many offers in the U.S., Rao's return to India in 1959 was because of his parents, "particularly my mother". His lecturer job at IISc got him Rs 720 a month, little lab space and no office. That did not deter him from writing his first book (Spectroscopy of Organic Molecules) and then another (Chemical Applications of Infra-red Spectroscopy) before joining the newly started IIT Kanpur in 1963. He came back to IISc in 1976 at the instance of its director Satish Dhawan, who encouraged Rao to set up a new structural chemistry unit at the institute.

18-year-old Rao at BHU
The book deals with the prospects and problems of doing science in India. Rao is "not too bothered" by the number of papers India produces but worries about the quality and the "undue importance" that big science like atomic energy and space get, while small yet significant sciences like health and energy are ignored. He rues the poor infrastructure and facilities, the bureaucracy and the decaying universities that "need to be regenerated on a war footing".

One quote from the book that sums up his never-ending hunger for science is: "Scientists (in India) are forced to retire at 60 unlike in the US where there is no age limit. I think it should be possible for good scientists to continue working as long as they can."

A primary responsibility of scientists is to bring up a new generation of scientists. "Those who treat science as a pastime or hobby may get some rewards but nothing else. For a real scientist, all days are working days, there are no working hours; and salaries and status are irrelevant." He cautions that selfishness and envy are inimical to creative work and feels that young people today want instant fame and administrative positions, an "evil that seems to poison young minds".

Rao (second from left) as chairman of SAC PM with former Prime Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (extreme left) and other eminent members of SAC
The biography is expectedly replete with interesting anecdotes from his days as chairman of the Science Advisory Council (SAC) to India's Prime Ministers – how he "cried like never before" on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a PM keen on increasing investment in science, and how Manmohan Singh never turned down a single SAC recommendation. Rao has high expectations of India's current PM Narendra Modi, who announced several major national missions after taking office.

Rao recounts with embarrassment the moment when he was compelled to be present at a function naming the traffic intersection near IISc as CNR Circle. He also mentions a couple of "unpleasant experiences" being accused of plagiarism for a mistake made by his student. "I have refused to yield to negative comments by people although they have hurt me deeply."

In his six decades of doing science in India, Rao has learnt that taking up a full-time administrative position comes in the way of outstanding research — he did not accept the directorship of IIT Kanpur and politely turned down late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's offer to become a government secretary. IISc's directorship for the second term, he says, was "thrust on him and he could not help". So his advice to young scientists — stay away from an administrative post, unless it is to manage your own small group.

Besides research, Rao now keeps busy with children's science education and outreach programmes run by a foundation he and his wife Indu set up in 2005, partially with money he earned in awards.

[Pictures courtesy CNR Rao's personal collection]


1. Jayaraman, K. S. Autobiography of an unusual chemist. Nature India (2010) doi: 10.1038/nindia.2010.184