Indian Institute of Science, Uncategorized

Faculty Recruitment in Institutions with Emphasis on Teaching and Research!

I have been planning to write on this topic for sometime and finally the Editorial published in Current Science dated 10 July 2018 triggered me (1). I wanted to write this as there had been a huge response to another editorial I wrote three months ago on conflict of interest in Indian Science (2). I had written some other editorials and several comments in Current Science (3) and these have attracted comments from a few with similar views, mostly from the Academia. However, the Editorial on Conflict of Interest elicited applaud from many and anger from some, in the academia. Many appreciated this for speaking the truth. What surprised me was that this Editorial was also covered by some news media, (4). Dinesh Sharma titled the news as ‘How conflict of interest is murdering Indian Science’.  I was worried about the news  coverage of academic matters, given that news has to be sensational. Indian Science is alive. Of course, it is not performing to its potential, which is perhaps true for many things in India. Conflict of interest is certainly a factor that is affecting it.

Another unusual comment I had for my editorial follows: “pl do not become a knight in shining armour. The matters are nuanced. You have a large following. They should not go tilting at all the wind mills”. Though, I had disagreed with this comment at that time, I do share some worries. In fact, Saibal Gupta has articulated my worries well in his editorial. (1) His editorial is about ranking Institutions and how all the various numerical indices may not be able to identify great faculty candidates. He goes on to say: “What might the solution be? This is a difficult one, as it involves the ability, confidence and wisdom of our faculty selectors to be able to look beyond ‘numbers’. For reasons not entirely academic, and we must admit, our own transgressions over time, academic decisions that do not conform to the ‘number’ game have become legally open to challenge, and can easily become fodder for a news-hungry media that is ‘looking’ for evidence of academic corruption. We need to convince ourselves that there is space for admitting people who we recognize as good in the fundamentals, and who we believe would be able to think ‘differently’.”

There has been some ‘transgressions’ as Gupta points out and there have been clear cases of conflict of interest as I pointed out. However, one should not forget the fact that many institutions, in particular, IITs and IISc, have sustained quality for many decades. This would not have been possible if the whole system was corrupt. I do believe that there is always room for improvement and perfection would remain a goal, that is never attained. On the other hand, I have also seen that the perception of corruption in India, in every field, may be far higher than the real corruption.  Anyone who is not selected may conclude, there is corruption everywhere. Obviously that number would be large. We do have honest people in every system and India has been surviving and growing thanks to the tireless work of many such people.

I wanted to share with everyone interested some information about how a faculty member is selected. I have been directly involved in this for about a decade now. A committee looks at all the applications and decide whether or not to consider the applicant further. There are many reasons why an application may not be considered further. Our Department does not like to inbreed i.e. none of our Ph. D. students are generally considered for faculty positions in our Department. There are other Departments in IISc and also other Institutions, that may not share our view. Another reason a candidate may not be considered is because the Department may not be looking at some research areas at that point in time. If for example, one theoretical chemist was hired recently, and the Department is not keen on hiring another theoretical chemist, applicants record would not matter. The number of publications, impact factor, number of citations and h-index, none of them may count.  If the research area of the candidate is considered to have significant overlap with that of an existing faculty  member, not just the recently hired ones, that applicant is unlikely to be hired as well.

At any point in time, we may like to hire faculty members in some areas. We do look at the candidate’s record in terms of past publications and future research plan. We do not necessarily go by the number of publications, impact factors of the Journals in which they are published and citations. Particularly, in my field, for example, the Journal of Chemical Physics, has a good reputation though it may have a lower impact factor than the Journal of American Chemical Society or Angewandte Chemie. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that only a small number of papers dealing with physical chemistry/chemical physics are published in these ‘general chemistry’ Journals. Even among the few papers appearing in these Journals (and also the ‘general science Journals like Science and Nature), most have dramatic conclusions about topics that have huge appeal to chemists/scientists. I can cite two examples that I am aware of. In 2013, Science published a paper on ‘visualizing hydrogen bonds’ and the authors were from Physics and Chemistry Departments (5). It was covered in all magazines and I wrote a ‘Research News’ in Current Science as well (6). Later on a more detailed study questioning this interpretation was published in Physical Review Journals. I can only guess Science refused to publish them. (7) That is only for the experts.

Somewhat coincidentally, in 2013 Science had published a paper on the first observation of the ‘Criegee intermediate’ which is very important in atmospheric chemistry (8). Science was not interested in publishing a more thorough work, which provided more accurate and thorough data and that was published in the Journal of Chemical Physics (9). This work was done by Y. P. Lee and coworkers from Taiwan. I was listening to him during the Asian Spectroscopy Conference in Taiwan in 2017. In his talk, he mentioned the following: “We have published several papers on this important intermediate and the significance of these papers is inversely related to the impact factor of the Journal in which these are published” Scientists know the difference and it is what we call a ‘peer evaluation’. This appears as ‘perception’ in World ranking . Peer evaluation, appearing as perception in these ranking should not be confused with what a commoner might think about perception. In judging Science, peer evaluation is not perfect, but there is nothing better.  I just heard from someone that UGC was planning to remove this ‘perception’ in national ranking, and I think it is a bad idea. Most from India may have heard about Vashishta, an ancient saint. To be certified as a ‘great saint’ by Vashishta was considered the greatest of honor a saint could get. In Tamil “வஷிஸ்டர் வாயாலே பிரம்மரிஷி’. Peer evaluation is just that.

Candidates who work on the same areas from Ph. D. to postdoc and have plans to continue in the same area are unlikely to be considered irrespective of the impact factors and citations. When we look at the postdoctoral work, we try to judge if there is any original contribution from the candidate. Candidates have to show and prove that they can think independently. That they can identify an important unsolved problem and know how to tackle it. Once a candidate is shortlisted, (s)he is invited to give a talk based on past work and also a talk on future research plan. All faculty members attend these talks and ask questions. Reference letters from referees suggested by the candidate and also some experts working in related area are sought. These letters play a crucial role. Often, faculty members who have supervised and/or worked with a candidate are the best judges and most provide an honest evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. When I returned to India, I have had requests from students with whom I had no interaction, asking for a reference letter. I have always refused. These letters are not to be confused with ‘recommendation’ as commonly known in appointments in India. I cannot recommend a son’s friend or a friend’s son for any job. I can recommend my students and anyone else with whom I have worked based on my observations.

Candidate gets to meet with all faculty members and discuss for about 30 minutes with each, in addition to giving a one hour seminar and 30 minute research plan presentation. There has to be a nearly unanimous view among the faculty members about whether a candidate can be hired. There is very little room for corruption or influence in this affair, if all the faculty members express their opinion. Over the last decade or so, when I have been closely involved in this process, no one has ever tried to influence the selection of Assistant Professors. Is there a possibility that the collective judgement of the faculty members can go wrong? That probability is certainly not zero. However, to repeat myself, no one has tried to influence the selection of candidates for faculty positions in my experience.

References (all the weblinks were accessed on 13 July 2018):

    1. Saibal Gupta “Balancing teaching, research and institutional rankings” Current Science, Volume 115, pages 7-8 (2018).
    2. E. Arunan “Is Indian Science Ready to Tackle Conflict of Interest Rationally?” Current Science, Volume 114, pages 1385-1386 (2018)
    5. Zhang, J., Chen, P., Yuan, B., Ji, W., Cheng, Z. and Qiu, X., Science, vol 342, issue 6158, pp 611-614, (2013). DOI:10.1126/science.1242603.
    6. E. Arunan “Hydrogen bond seen, halogen bond defined and carbon bond proposed: Intermolecular bonding, a field that is maturing” Current Science, vol 105, pp 892-894 (2013).
    8.  Su, Yu-Te; Huang, Yu-Hsuan; Witek, Henryk A.; et al. SCIENCE   Volume: 340   Issue: 6129   Pages: 174-176(2013).
    9. Ting, Wei-Lun; Chang, Chun-Hung; Lee, Yu-Fang; et al. JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL PHYSICS   Volume: 141   Issue: 10     Article Number: 104308 (201)
Indian Institute of Science, J N Tata, Uncategorized

J N Tata planned the Indian Institute of Science and Swami Vivekananda did not influence it!

It is 27th May again! In 1909 on this day, the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued. Last year on this day, I had written a blog about this great institute and the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science and argued that they defined India before independence (1). One of the reasons was the choice in naming these institutions as Indian. Calcutta in the state of Bengal and Bangalore in the Mysore Kingdom built educational institutions named as ‘Indian’, many decades before India got independence. In Uttar Pradesh, Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University were established in the following decades. One can still see this difference in the view points of the people of eastern and southern India in comparison to the northern states. Often I feel that there is a huge communication gap between the people of these regions in India for historic and geographic reasons.

This blog is not about the names though. It is about whose vision led to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). It is become a popular myth that IISc resulted from a stimulating discussion between J N Tata and Swami Vivekananda while on a ship from Yokohama to Vancouver. A recent post in TheBetterIndia mentions that they met on 31 May in 1893 (2). If one is not careful in reading this post, the myth will resonate as a fact. I have written a few blogs about learning history and pointed out how difficult it is to learn history (3-5). I also believed in this myth and have written about this in my first blog on ‘Learning History’ (3) and also a recent editorial in Current Science focusing on conflict of interest (6). I had email discussions with two experts: Dr. Subbarayappa who authored a book on the history of Indian Institute of Science (7) and Prof. P. Balaram, our former Director, who ensured that we will have an Archives and Publications Cell at IISc. I have also been helped by Mr. Sharath Ahuja, who was taking care of the Archives and Publications Cell in the initial years. I am pleased to share the images from Mr. Ahuja, of the Tata statue at IISc and the commemorative stamp issued by the Government of India during our Centenary. You can see the replica of our Main Building held by Tata in his hands! It is a fitting statue for the founder in front of the iconic building shown in the stamp.

The letter written by J. N. Tata to Swami Vivekanada, on 23rd November 1898, offers the most important clue. This is reproduced in the book by Subbarayappa and also the TheBetterIndia portal. This is what Tata says at the beginning: “I trust, you remember me as a fellow- traveller on your voyage from Japan to Chicago. I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels.” Clearly, he does not mention about any discussion about the need for a research institution. On the other hand, Tata continues this sentence with: “I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read”  (emphasis added).

Prof. Balaram gave an excellent talk on the history of the Indian Institute of Science at the National Centre for Biological Sciences recently. Thankfully his talk is available on YouTube (8). I would encourage anyone interested in the history of Indian Science in 20th Century, not just IISc, to listen to this talk spending the 90+ minutes! Prof. Balaram quotes from primary sources about J. N. Tata’s plans for Science and a research Institution in India years before he met Swami Vivekananda during his voyage to Chicago. Why then, Prof. Balaram decided to include Swami Vivekananda in the commemorative stamp during the centenary of IISc? His talk has some clues as to how this happened. If you are keen, you may listen to the talk.

Tata in his letter went on to say the following: “I am of opinion that if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science, and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda.” Tata clearly wanted Swami Vivekananda to lead the Institute. In his book, Dr. Subbarayappa mentions that Swami Vivekananda’s reply to the letter by Tata could not be traced. However, an Editorial was published in April 1899 in Prabhuddha Bharata, a magazine started by Swami Vivekananda. The editorial is not signed and perhaps was written by the Swami. It starts with this sentence: “We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the post-graduate research University of Mr. Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift which is ushered to the public”. The scanned image of the editorial can be seen below:


Clearly, Swami Vivekananda recognizes IISc as an outcome of a project mooted by Tata and was very enthusiastic of this project. He was invited by Tata to be the first head of the Institution. However, it is clear that Indian Institute of Science was the result of J. N. Tata’s vision and this vision was not influenced by any discussion with Swami Vivekananda. J. N. Tata not only planned IISc, he also built steel and power plants to help India become what it is today. One cannot celebrate IISc or India, without celebrating the great J. N. Tata.

  6. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. (Weblink: )
  7. B. V. Subbarayappa “In Pursuit of Excellence: A History of The Indian Institute of Science” Tata-McGraw-Hill 1992.


Indian Institute of Science, Uncategorized

Jawaharlal Nehru and C. V. Raman: Nehru’s vision is more important for Science in India, not Raman’s!

Some of my friends had forwarded articles from the Swarajya online magazine now and then and it was clear to me that the articles that were sent to me by my friends had an agenda and truth would be left out if the agenda would be in danger. So far, I never thought I should respond to them. It is impossible to respond to everything written whether you agree with them or not. Once in a while, I have posted my views in Facebook and rarely in Twitter.  A recent article published in Swarajya titled “The Double Life of CV Raman” (1), which claims to show how Indian Science should be funded, finally triggered me enough to write this blog. At least for those who care to know, some facts must be given. This article mentions Raman’s great contributions to physics for long and at the end mentions two incidents to prove Raman had a better vision than Nehru. I am surprised  that the author thought Raman had a vision and quotes these incidents to prove this.

The first incident is from a biography of Raman written by Uma Paramaeswaran. Raman criticized Nehru’s plans to start CSIR laboratories and insisted that funds should only be given to individual scientists and not for national laboratories. This is wrong on many counts. Also, this clearly shows how blind one can become when they are committed to an ideology. National Laboratories are not some ‘socialists plan’. Every country in this world irrespective of their ideology have them from the USA, France, UK to Russia and India. Supporting individual scientists and national laboratories are not an ‘either or’ choice! This should be obvious to anyone! Of course, not for some one whose only aim is to discredit Nehru.

Nehru not only formed CSIR laboratories with an objective to promote technology in India, but also started IITs to promote individual excellence where faculty and students pursued their blue-sky research. Our founding fathers had vision for the country and Raman and the author of this article do not. Under Nehru’s leadership, India not only started CSIR and IITs, ITIs were started. Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) was established in 1958. Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was established in 1962 and Nehru’s close aide and scientist Vikram Sarabhai headed it. This became ISRO and the rest is history. After blaming 7 decades of misrule, among the first things Modi did as the PM was to come to ISRO and watch the successful launch of Mangalyaan. Physical Research Laboratories, established under Department of Space, in Ahmedabad has not perhaps shined as the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Los Angeles, but it has provided crucial support to ISRO. Several state Universities have done outstanding research before and after independence. especially in the first three decades. I personally know Scientists from the National Aerospace Laboratory in Bangalore who have worked towards ISRO’s needs. As I had pointed out in another article, a recent DG-CSIR, who was consumed by the number game, had told some of them to stop doing that and do something that can be published. That’s certainly not Nehru’s fault.

ISRO has shined from the beginning. Are the CSIR and DRDO laboratories and state Universities doing great today? Most of them are not doing that well. Nehru started all of them and some have succeeded and many have failed. Blaming Nehru’s policies for the failure of some is obviously motivated by a political agenda. Did Raman have a different policy, which India could have followed and succeeded better in Science? He is quoted as shouting ‘fund me and individuals and don’t start CSIR’? At best, it sounds childish to me. This article does not describe any other policies of Raman that India could have followed. I doubt if Raman ever had any such policy. For those who would like to have a complete picture of Raman, I would suggest a book titled ‘Dispersed Radiance’ written by Abha Sur, a Ph. D. in Physical Chemistry who became a social scientist later (2)

Raman has been a typical example of how scientists in India have behaved in independent India as he seems to have mentioned. “He (Raman) felt Nehru had allowed Indian science to be hijacked by self-serving people who were given control of policy making.” Now let us look at some facts. Meghnad Saha invited Raman to work with Congress before Independence and help form scientific policies for an independent India. Raman refused and felt his job was to just work on his science and not help the future Government. To his credit, Raman kept to himself from the Government before and after Independence.  When he did not get what he wanted, he shouted.

The second incident quoted, based on a personal conversation with Raman’s grandson, is difficult for me to believe. The article mentions about “Raman ‘picking up a bust of Nehru that stood on the shelf and hurling to the ground’, breaking it into pieces”. Was he that immature and consumed by anger? It seems like many Indian scientists have followed this ‘throwing tantrums’ to achieve their goals. In a matured democratic society, it should not work. However I see this working even today in my own Institute. Some professors think, they are so great and they can shout and abuse anyone from a Director to a clerk. . Raman probably did it in his house. Some scientists today do it in the work place. They are following the bad example set by Raman.  In a civilized society, such an act should be a punishable offense!

Raman was invited to become the Director of the Indian Institute of Science and he started in 1933. He could not survive as the Director for long and he was asked to step down within a few years. There is a book on the history of our Institute titled ‘In pursuit of excellence’ written by Subbarayappa (3) and those who want to know his side of this episode can read the book. Irrespective of whose fault it is, Raman had to resign as the Director of IISc, much before India became Independent and Nehru became the Prime Minister. Many others have served as the Director of IISc admirably, including his successor, Prof. Jan Chandra Ghosh who took over in 1939. He excelled as the Director of IISc and was asked to start the first Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. He did that and then he was invited to be the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University. When he was to leave IIT Kharagpur, the students went on strike asking him to stay. Raman did not have such quality as a leader of science. He was an individual who excelled in Science and I doubt if he ever had any policy for Science or Nation!

There was a controversy between Raman and Born as they had different views on lattice dynamics. This is almost typical and nothing unusual. What was unusual in this controversy is that Raman was unwilling to listen and discuss. He nearly became a believer and went to the extent of forcing his students to prove his theory right. At least during this episode, he did not seem to have promoted independent thinking which is essential in Science. He rejected papers having a different view when he was the Editor of Current Science. Eventually, his theory turned out to be incomplete if not incorrect. For Indians, hero worship is in the blood. For me, whether it is Nehru or Raman, learn about what all they did and come to your own conclusions. Be wary of authors like the ones who wrote in Swarajya claiming Raman’s plans are better than Nehru’s without even mentioning any such plans! It would be easy to spot them.


  1. (Accessed on 4 March 2018)
  2. Abha Sur, “Dispersed Radiance” Navayana Publishers (2011).
  3. B. V. Subbarayappa, “In pursuit of Excellence: History of the Indian Institute of Science” Tata McGraw-Hill Publications (1992)

Zero Tolerance, says Indian Judiciary!

Indian Judiciary has done well most of the time and this week has been outstanding. First came the verdict on instant triple talaq! Then came the verdict on privacy. And the final nail was the conviction of Ram Rahim as a rapist. Sentencing is expected on Monday. His followers have not just disagreed with the sentence, they have ravaged many parts of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi. They are clearly in contempt of court and all of them should be booked for violence, disturbing peace and contempt of court.

Sakshi Maharaj, a sitting MP has come up with a statement and this highlights why India is still unable to become a developed nation, despite seven decades of independence and more than two decades of economic growth. Sakshi Maharaj is alleging a “conspiracy to defame not only Ram Rahim and other saints, but also Indian culture.” [1] Sorry Mr. Maharaj! Convicting a rapist does not defame Indian culture. It enhances it and it is an important step to becoming a civilized and developed nation. I see this in every sphere of life in India, including in Indian Science and Academics.  We protect our beloved ones, even when they commit the most heinous crimes. In the process, we ensure that everything that is spoken in public is given a decent burial. We disregard merit, independence, performance, and talent and promote people who are our favorites for various reasons such as the person is from our group and/or (s)he is obedient! This has made India, casteist, communalist, nepotist, and corrupt. All of us have been asked to take a pledge against all these ‘isms’, including ‘terrorism’.  Evidently Sakshi Maharaj did not take the pledge.

How is it that India has grown in the last seven decades, despite all this? We do have people of honesty and integrity in every sphere of life as much as we have people like Ram Rahim and Sakshi Maharaj and their followers. Two girls courageously wrote a letter describing the crime. One reporter who was brave enough to report this was killed. His murder case is still being investigated. And we have honest officials like Mr. Naryanan who refused to yield to pressure from his superiors in CBI, political leaders and the mob that followed Ram Rahim [2]. Some who claimed a new India is born after the triple talaq verdict just a couple of days ago have been very silent after Ram Rahim was convicted by the Court. Clearly, they are not looking for a modern India. They are keen on establishing a differently ‘backward’ India. The real liberals have welcomed the judgement on all three days.

Some days ago, I was in a meeting which discussed about promoting Science in India.  One of the points I mentioned was about having ‘zero tolerance’ about promoting Scientists who have been unethical in their practice of science. Other members in the committee were very supportive of this idea. From the response of some members, it appears that this has not been the general practice. I am personally aware of specific instances when this was not the case.

What do we do with anyone, whether it is Ram Rahim or a Scientist who has committed a crime. We don’t put everyone in a guilletine, like what was done after French Revolution. Somewhat coincidentally, I write this blog on 26th August 2017. In 1794, on this day, Antoine Lavoisier, the father of Chemistry was put on a guilletine as he was accused of selling adulterated tobacco! The Judge had apparently told that ‘the Republic needed neither scientists nor chemists and that justice could not be delayed’ [3,4]. Doesn’t India need Godmen and Scientists? We do need the honest ones, whether in Science or Religion.

We live in 21st century. I for one do not believe in capitol punishment. However, not giving any punishments to those who commit crimes, whether they are scientists or godmen, will only stop our progress towards a modern nation. I hope Ram Rahim is given the maximum punishment and the State and Central Governments do everything to enforce it.

Not so long ago, Tamil Nadu showed how to oppose court Judgements and Government orders in a democratic way when there was a genuine grouse and attack on our culture. Eventually, Supreme Court and both the Central and State Governments agreed to make amends and stop interfering with culture. What Sakshi Maharaj talks about is not this culture. It is interesting that there has been a continuous propaganda against Tamil Nadu by the same group of people claiming that Hindu culture is being suppressed and opposed. Their objective is not protecting Hindu or Tamil culture and it is political victory and dominance to take Tamil Nadu and India backwards. Hindu/Indian culture has been protected in Tamil Nadu for millennia and neither the mogul nor the british could do anything about it. I am sure no other force can do it either.

References (All weblinks accessed on 26 August 2017)

  2.   A note added on 27 August 2017. I got to see a Facebook posting of Mr. Yadvender Singh and shared it. He had given more details about all the brave men and women who fought a long battle. I hope this link works:

Ethics cannot solve the problem of superstition! Is Sarukkai’s claim that it can, devoid of ethics?

Since, our Independence seven decades ago, most everyone has pointed out that India is lagging behind in many fields by, perhaps, decades. Most of the world organized a ‘March for Science’ in April 2017 and Indian scientists caught up rather quickly by marching for Science in August 2017, within a few months. One Director of a CSIR lab used the pretext of potential violence to order (or was it an advice?) all his staff not to join the March.

Many scientists participated in this and it was covered in national and international news. Sundar Sarukkai, perhaps the only philosopher of Science in India, currently at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore wrote a commentary in The Hindu proclaiming that the March for Science was unscientific. (1) We need more philosophers of Science in India and perhaps we need more in many major fields of Science as well. Sarukkai’s reasons for calling the march unscientific did not appeal to some scientists from India and two of them wrote a long response. Rahul Siddharthan’s response came in Wire (2) and Felix Bast (3) put it in his blog. A social scientist also disagreed and pointed out that the March for Science was needed even for social science (4). Wire offered a chance for Sarukkai to respond to Siddharthan’s counter and published it too.  Sarukkai’s response was titled “To Stop Superstition, We Need Viable Ethical Perspectives, Not More Science” (5).

I contend that viable ethical perspectives cannot by itself counter superstition. Let us look at what ‘viable ethical perspective’ means and see if there is any hope for it to counter superstition. Let me use Google dictionary for ease of use. The first word ‘viable’ is simple enough and it means ‘workable, practicable, feasible’ and so on. I am convinced that most every reader of this article would know what ‘viable’ means. The third word ‘perspective’ means among other things ‘point of view’. It is surprising how a philosopher of science chose to put this as a viable alternative to Science to counter superstition. Obviously, points of view will differ. Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘perspective as a particular way of thinking’. Clearly, different people can have different perspectives! This will certainly not help in clearing ‘superstition’ and it can only help sustain superstition.

Now let us look at the second word ‘ethical’. This seems to be the most important word suggested by Sarukkai to counter superstition instead of ‘more science’. Perhaps he believes that the advances in Science are already enough to counter superstition and we do not need any more Science. I hope he did not mean ‘ethics’ instead of Science. Though most everyone would have heard about this word as well, let us look at what ‘ethics’ means. According to Google ‘ethics is a branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles’. Could this help in removing superstition? Let us first define ‘superstition’. According to Google, It is any belief or practice that is irrational. It is not obvious to me how ‘following any moral principles’ can stop ‘irrational belief’? Let me give you some examples.

One of the most widely held superstitious belief was that ‘earth was flat’. Aryabhatta, according to the Wikipedia page found today, has estimated the circumference of earth as 39,968 km, very close to the value accepted today, 40,075 km (5). Aristotle had also argued that earth was spherical.  I am not sure if we still have human beings who hold this belief. It agrees with what one can see in front of their eyes. If someone believes this, (s)he cannot be held immoral for propagating this view. (S)he is not deceiving or cheating anyone when claiming earth is flat. For others, (s)he is spreading a superstition as they know the fact that earth is not flat.

If this sounds like one of the tales from a distant past, I accidentally stumbled on a TV show recently, in which one Hindu scholar was comparing someone talking to the forefathers who have long been dead with someone using a mobile phone and talking to someone else living in America. He mentioned that in both cases we cannot see how our voice reaches them. I did not think his comparison was fair or scientific. He seemed pretty convinced with this analogy and offered it as a proof that we could communicate with our forefathers who are no longer alive. While I can understand, with Science, how a person from here can talk to another living person in America using a mobile phone, I do not know how to understand some one talking to his/her dead relative! I certainly would neither claim I understand everything nor would say if I don’t understand something it must be wrong. That scholar seems very convinced and clearly believed what he said. I do think it is a superstitious belief. If that scholar believes what he says, how can I say he is being immoral or unethical? If I find a way to prove or disprove his claim scientifically, it can convince many. If he believes what he says, ethics or moral would never stop him from doing this.

It so happens that a solar eclipse is expected today, on 21 August 2017! There have been a lot of superstitious believes about the solar eclipse (7). Science has dispelled many such superstitions. I am not sure if ethics could have ever done what Science did. I have been a Scientist by career and I do not claim Science will solve every problem humanity faces. That is not even the objective of Science. Science, in my view, is a pursuit to understand nature. Such understanding can be used or abused by scientists and other humans. When it is abused, those who abuse are lacking in moral/ethics. As far as superstitions are concerned, Science can dispel it with understanding. Could we have scientists who understand some things and do not reveal it to others? Yes, of course. However, by way of practice, Science encourages everyone to share what they have learned. As it is commonly known, Science encourages ‘publish or perish’ culture. Wouldn’t the Philosopher of Science, Sundar Sarukkai, be able to see the difference? I would think he can.

Sarukkai argues about scientists having different perceptions about how science is practiced. Let us look at ethics and morals. There is no common code of ethics or morals accepted by various societies now. Even within a same society, ethics and morals change with time. In the past, religion defined morality and we have had many of them. For example, Tamils think of Thirukkural as an important book prescribing ethics and morals for life. One of the Kural mentions that a wife who treats her husband as God will be powerful to demand and get rain from nature when she wants. It was perhaps written more than 2000 years ago. Today this Kural could be thought of us promoting patriarchy and suppressing women and dare I say, it is immoral and unethical. Bhagavad Gita talks about caste system, which I think is a very immoral system. It is indeed surprising to see that Sarukkai thinks ethics can fight superstition and not more science.

Today, most every nation has a constitution and rule of law. For the rule of law, ignorance is not a defense. Whether you are aware of it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. Whether you like it or not, if you do not follow the rules, you can be punished. For example, I think it is silly to play the National Anthem before every movie and I hope the Supreme Court applies its mind soon and reverses it. However, until it does, whether I like it or not, if I go to a movie theater and do not stand up when the National Anthem plays, I can be booked for violating the rules. What about ethics and morals? Where is one supposed to find them? While some one ignorant of a law may do something illegal and face punishment if caught, ignorance of knowledge is not illegal or immoral or unethical. Refusing to learn is not illegal or immoral or unethical. A believer can choose to say Darwin is missing the grand design and refuse to read his book or the major advances in Science since his book. It is not illegal, immoral or unethical.

Many years ago, when I was a faculty in IIT Kanpur, one Professor from an Engineering Department of IIT Delhi, gave a talk with the title ‘How to solve all the problems in the World?’ As I was curious, I went to the talk. His advice was that we all read Bhagavatam and accept what it says in resolving conflicts.  At the end of the lecture, I told the speaker: What you have given us today is a way to create problems, not solve problems.

Einstein’s quote on science and religion is quoted often: ”Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. Following Sarukkai’s suggestion of ethics as an alternative to fight superstition, let me rephrase it: Science without Ethics is lame, Ethics without Science is blind! You cannot fight superstition without Science. By suggesting that ethics can solve the problem of superstition, is Sarukkai being unethical? He would be if he is spreading this message without believing it and misleading the reader. Lying would be considered immoral in every society or country, I assume. If he believes it, I cannot call him unethical! He is certainly being unscientific!

References (All links were accessed on 21 August 2017 and found to be working):


Indian Institute of Science on 12th of July! Mahatma Gandhi and Morris Travers!

My last blog was around 27th May, which happens to be the day in 1909 the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was issued. It wasn’t well known until Prof. Balaram, the then Director, started planning the centenary celebrations of the Institute in 2007! It wasn’t easy to find out when IISc started. Given this history, one cannot expect to know much about what happened in IISc over the 11 decades that have passed. May be with some efforts, we can have a ‘On this day in IISc’ booklet detailing the important things that have happened in IISc.

Ninety years ago on this day, 12 July 1927, Mahatma Gandhi visited the IISc and spoke to the faculty and students. A picture taken on that day is shown below and the famous quote by Albert Einstein on Gandhi follows!

What did Gandhi tell the IISc people? He says: “There is no place for a rustic like me who has to stand speechless in awe and wonderment”. It is interesting to note that, in 1927 Gandhi was awed by the ‘huge laboratories and electrical apparatus’ present in IISc. He reminds the IIScians that these have been established due to the labour of millions, often unwilling and forced. (1) He pointed out that the 30 Lakhs donated by Tata and also the generous contributions from the Mysore King, both originated from the same labour of the poor millions! He wanted all the research efforts to have the welfare of the poor as the main objective. It is interesting that we have had very similar views expressed by many and the Governments. I personally do not agree that all research efforts should have direct benefit to humanity. There have been a lot of discussion on basic vs applied research and my view is that every society and Government should support both, as long as it is done with competence. However, I would agree with one statement made by Gandhi: “no taxation without representation”. He accuses the elites of taking the poor for granted and acting as if ‘they knew what is good for everyone’.

Gandhi recollected a discussion with a Professor who had informed him: “…that the properties of some of the chemicals will take years of experiments to explore”. As a physical chemist, I might make a very similar statement on chemicals today! He was also talking about the ‘wireless instruments’ being made in 1927!

What else happened on 12th July of relevance to IISc? Morris Travers and William Ramsey discovered  Xenon on 12th July 1898 (2). William Ramsay was contacted to help with the establishment of the research institute planned by the Tata. Ramsay sent in his student Morris Travers as the first Director of the Indian Institute of Science. Travers also was the Chairman of the Chemistry Department, and established the building which houses our Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department today. He also built the iconic Faculty Hall, mentioned in my previous blog.

I have personally been keen on rare gases including xenon. They are unique in the periodic table and remain as monoatomic gases at ambient conditions and no other element in the periodic table remains as monoatomic gas. Still, they can condense to become liquids or solids at high pressure/low temperature. The attractive forces between the rare gas atoms leading to their freezing was derived by London in 1930s. van der Waals had pointed out that attractive forces exist between all gaseous molecules and hence the ideal gas law ignoring this must be corrected. He introduced the equation named after him ‘van der Waals equation’. This is now taught to high school students all over the world. I had written a series of articles in Resonance, Journal of Education on these intermolecular forces, named after London and van der Waals (3). Clearly, London forces are similar to those acting between inert gases and ‘van der Waals forces’ imply forces acting between all molecules that condense. These have been considered equal by many scientists incorrectly.

July 12th, then becomes an important day in the history of the Indian Institute of Science. It’s first Director Morris Travers had discovered xenon on this day in 1898 and in 1927, Mahatma Gandhi addressed the IIScians asking them to think about the poor when they do research. After nearly a century, this view is gaining strength now.



  1. The Hindu, 13-07-1927 and the Young India 21-07-1927. If you want to read this, I have a pdf version sent to me by Sharath Ahuja.
  2. (Accessed on 11 July 2017).



Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Association for Cultivation of Science (IACS) defined India before Independence!

On 27th May 2017, all students, faculty and staff of the Indian Institute of Science received an email from the Director that started with the following message: “Today is the 27th of  May,  on which day in 1909 the vesting order for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science was issued.”(1)  On 27th May 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India passed away! Between 1951 and 1961, India established the five Indian Institutes of Technology. Nehru as the Prime Minister is credited with founding these institutes and they are governed by the Institutes of Technology act 1961. India had become an independent nation in 1947 and these five institutions of national importance were named Indian Institute of Technology.

How did Indian Institute of Science get it’s name in 1909, nearly four decades before India become an Independent nation? This was established in Bangalore which was part of the Mysore Presidency, ruled by the Mysore Royal Family. This question came to my mind following a comment by a friend in Facebook below my post on 27th May 2017 announcing the birth anniversary of IISc, as we call the Institute. He felt the Institute could have been named Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science as it was the Mysore Maharaja H.H. Sir Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, who gave 371 acres of land to establish the Institute. He also gave additional financial support. This friend is perhaps from Mysore and he was emphasizing the Mysore King’s contributions to the Institute.

The Institute owes it’s existence to J N Tata, who was born in Gujarat. Once he was traveling in a ship from Japan to Chicago with Swami Vivekananda, originally from West Bengal. Both these eminent personalities were discussing what Tata as an entrepreneur could do to help the country, India, which was yet to become independent. One of their plans, that materialized a few years after the demise of Tata, was Indian Institute of Science. The locals call it Tata Institute even today. In front of the iconic building housing all the administrators today, there is a statue of J N Tata, which was installed in the early days.  Somehow, the contribution of the Mysore King was not adequately recognized for more than a century. Just a few years ago, the bust of the Mysore King was unveiled inside this building.  With some effort, the King and Tata could say hello to each other right in front of the iconic building:-)


Even as I was wondering how they decided to name the new institute as ‘Indian Institute of Science’ in 1909, another comment on my post reminded me of the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science,Calcutta, which was established in 1876 itself! Somewhat interestingly, the first Indian Director for the Indian Institute of Science, C. V. Raman came from IACS to IISc in the 1930s. The first Director of the very first Indian Institute of Technology, in Kharagpur, J. C. Ghosh, went from IISc to West Bengal. He was a Professor in the Department where I work and we have a best Thesis award for physical chemistry students from our Department named after J C Ghosh.

I learn that IISc started with the grant from Tata and the Governments of both Mysore King and the British gave some support. It seems to me that the name was chosen appropriately. IACS received no such support from any one! C V Raman worked there and got the Nobel prize before coming to IISc. Mysore king gave Raman a land too to start the Indian Academy of Sciences. Raman built a research institute named after himself and the Indian Academy of Sciences in this land, in the same road, now called C V Raman avenue across from IISc.

IACS was established by Mahendra Lal Sarkar (2) to carry out basic research. It generated funds by arranging public lectures on Science for which the audience had to buy tickets. Sarkar still named the institution as Indian Association for Cultivation of Science, though no Government or benevolent donors gave any support. Those were the days! Now the trend is to name a lecture hall, building, and institutions after the founder or a donor. When I learn about the name of IACS starting with Indian, IISc starting with Indian seems more justified. Still, why do we have such thoughts occurring on some people’s mind?

One of the reason is that the contribution of the Mysore king has not been recognized at all. If you search Google for images with ‘Tata statue at IISc’, you will see perhaps 1000s of images. I tried ‘Mysore king bust at IISc’, I could not find a single one. I could still see many images of Tata statue and others related to IISc. The diversity India has naturally leads to regional/local feelings based on State, Language, Religion, and Caste. There are some who try to identify a person of their back ground who may have played a minor role and attribute undue importance. On the other hand, some who have made enormous contributions do not get their dues!

It turns out the Mysore king was indeed a minor when the decision to give the land was made by the Maharani. However, he not only honored it as he became a major, he continued to support the Institute. I was indeed inspired to read from one of his speeches the following: “I cannot help feeling that the Council will be well advised to keep an open mind on the scholarship question until they are satisfied by actual experience that scholarships are not actually needed.” (3) Apparently, the Council decided that there would be no need to provide any financial assistance to students as the poor may not gain much by learning Science! May be the Mysore Royal Family should have insisted that the Institute be named after the King 🙂 Some of you may have read my last blog on naming things (4). It is indeed important!

Somewhat coincidentally, 27th May 1997 was the last day of my job at IIT Kanpur. I resigned my job effective that day and traveled to Bangalore on 28th May 1997 and joined IISc on 29th May 1997! This blog is published on my 20th anniversary at the Indian Institute of Science. I am glad it is the Indian Institute of Science and not Mysore Institute of Science or Maharaja Institute of Science. I do think Indians should avoid such regional feelings as borders between state/nations are arbitrary. My views on this could be seen in an Editorial published in Current Science recently (5). However, I do hope the contributions of the Mysore King is much widely recognized!


    1. (Accessed on 28 May 2017).
    3. (Page 128


I thank Dr. Sharath Ahuja who provided the image of the Institue’s Tower building, which was taken from a drone by Dr. Omkar of Aerospace Engineering Department at IISc. Dr. Ahuja in fact reminded me of this anniversary. I could not get the picture of the Mysore King’s bust before posting it, though I had personally clicked some pictures. What is shown in this blog is an image from Google search and the original page is

Added the picture of the Mysore King’s bust on 29th May 2017, courtesy Sharath Ahuja and removed the picture from the website quoted above.