Borders in Science and Nation: The need for them and the need to have a healthy disrespect for them!

Tamil is an ancient language that has been around for several millennia. Several philosophers have written poetry, which are very old, but their content remains applicable for all the times. One such poem was written by Kanian Poongundranaar during the Tamil Sangam (which are perhaps comparable to Academic Societies today) period, which started around 300 BC (1). This poem starts as: யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் (Yaadhum Oorae, yaavarum kaelir), loosely translated as “All towns are the same and all people are our kin”. This is depicted in the United Nations Organization for the profound truth it conveys (2). The translation given in the Wikipedia page quoted says ‘all men are our kin’. This is incorrect and ‘all are our kin’ is the right translation. He did not envision any borders between towns!

I have written earlier about how I became a physical chemist, bordering physics and chemistry. I have been in the editorial advisory board of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP), a Journal published by the Owner societies. The title of the Journal implies that the border between physics and chemistry are thin and either can be the first or last name, for the sub-discipline. More importantly, this Journal showed how borders between the nation-states of Europe had become thin. This Journal combined several favorite Journals in physical chemistry published in various nations in the UK and Europe (among them were two Journals named after two of the greatest scientists of all time, Faraday and Bunsen, Faraday Discussion, published in UK and ‘Berichte der Bunsengesellschaft für physikalische Chemie‘ published in German). PCCP has established itself as one of the leading Journals in this area. Brexit may have happened but I am confident that PCCP will continue, at least, for my lifetime. It is published by the Owner Societies, which has many of the European Chemical Societies as its members. A few years ago, Chemistry, an Asian Journal came into existence as well.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I remember learning that chemistry is a study of matter and physics is a study of energy. Of course, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 was already known having energy on the left hand side and matter (it’s mass) on the right hand side. One can translate this equation as physics = chemistry. However, still physics and chemistry as individual and independent disciplines exist and it may continue to exist. One subtle difference, that would be lost in this generalization is that chemists worry more about how atoms combine to form molecules or liquids or solids. They worry about the interactions between them and how they transform from one to another. Study of making and breaking bonds between atoms is indeed chemistry. Though atomic physics exists, there is no atomic chemistry. Atoms have to join together for chemistry!

Science, as a pursuit of understanding nature really cannot have a border. However, it is important to have disciplines and sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines and for individual researchers, focus on one specific problem in a narrow sub-discipline is needed. Divide and conquer works. One soon realizes that even to solve a specific problem in Science, it is important to have contributions from many disciplines. Again, taking a personal example, we have established experimental laboratories in India, where we can make the weakest bond, even between inert gases such as argon and neon and study them with a pulsed nozzle Fourier transform microwave spectrometer. We can also break the strongest bond, the triple bond between two N atoms in N2, in a single pulse shock tube. In both laboratories, building the experimental facilities involved knowledge of mechanical engineering, electronics and communication engineering, vacuum techniques, physics, chemistry and, of course, maths. One lifetime is not enough to learn all these thoroughly but even to talk to experts in all these area one needs to understand these subjects to some extent. It is important to collaborate and that involves mutual trust and respect. Learning all these subjects is not trivial and may require different skills one person may not be able to acquire. None of this skills are more important than others.

We have had humans on this earth for 200,000 years or more.  Currently, we have more than 7 billion people on our earth and they are distributed in about 250+ countries. We started living in caves, feeling secure and hunting animals, migrated to plains, started farming, developed languages to communicate with each other and started developing codes  of conduct so that we can all coexist. We really had no choice about whether to exist, but having come in to this world, we had to find ways to coexist. Religion was found and religious texts prescribed rules for life. Eventually, over the last few hundred years, the nation-state model has started working well. Most nations are democratic and they have a constitution to guide them with elected representatives who have a fixed term.

Given the size of this world, it is not practical to be governed by one ruler or executive and so we have many countries, which are divided in to states, which are divided into districts, and so on. And we have the United Nations. Any conflict in smaller entities is resolved by discussion and arbitration, with mutually agreed rules. While these borders are needed for practical purposes, as the borders in Science, we need to realize that these are arbitrary and came in to existence rather recently. As much as a chemist has no reason to hate a physicist, I don’t see any reason for a person from one district or state or country to hate another one from a different district or state or country. One could add, language and religion as well, which are drawing borders between people. As it is true in the border areas of science, one can note that in the borders drawn based on language, religion, state, nations etc… there is really no big difference between the two sides.

Those from India now are worried about two things as a nation. Tension in the borders between India and Pakistan and the tension in the borders between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. When we realize that the senior leader of the ruling party BJP, Advani was born in what is Pakistan today, one can get a different perspective. Hosur, a small town in Tamil Nadu, bordering Karnataka, has it’s name in Kannada (Hosur in Kannada means new town). I have been to temples 60 km north of Bangalore (Yoganarasimha temple), where I saw the statues of 13 Aalwargal (Vaishnavite saints, following Vishnu as their God) who wrote poems in Tamil. Clearly the borders have been drawn recently. If we use them for any reason other than administrative simplicity. we will have problems.

Scientists know the importance of collaboration. Again, taking an example from a field that has excited me i.e. the hydrogen bond, one of the most important paper was published recently in Science, from China through a collaboration between physicists and chemists (3). They could see ‘the hydrogen bond’, when seeing atoms and molecules were thought to be impossible, not so long ago! Readers having no access to Science, may not be able to read it and anyone interested is welcome to read a commentary I wrote in Current Science, which is available online with free access (4). Naturally, when people from across the borders work together, they can achieve lot more than what is possible when they work independently. However, not only in Science, but also in human relations, mutual trust and respect are important. When that is lost, there will be tension,war, destruction …. Sooner or later, people realize that, it is better to develop mutual trust and respect and find ways to coexist.

I recommend an autobiograpy written by Prof. Curt Wittig from the University of Southern California (5). It is long but worth reading. A part of this was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry A in a Festchrift in his honor a few years ago. He has done some beautiful experiments in physical chemistry that helped in understanding the microscopic details of how chemical reactions happen. From his autobiography, one can learn a few things about the nations and their borders in Europe. The city in which he was born kept changing hands to different countries. His experiences in the Chicago southern neighborhood is unbelievable. It also shows that where you started in life hardly matters. Given the right opportunities, you can excel in your career and life.

In closing, let me reiterate: One should not take any of the borders too seriously, if one is interested in real progress. In the references below, two are to Wikipedia pages and they have to be understood as unauthenticated information.

  1. Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  2. Accessed on 20 September 2016.
  3. J. Zhang, P. Chen, B. Yuan, W. Ji, Z. Cheng, X. Qiu, Science,Vol. 342, Issue 6158, pp. 611-614 2013. Link:
  4. E. Arunan, Curr. Sci. VOL. 105, NO. 7, pp 892-894.  Link:
  5. C. Wittig autobiography, longer version available at

RTE and NPS: Honesty/integrity doesn’t pay enough for many in India, yet!

Warren Buffet said: Honesty is a very expensive gift, don’t expect it from cheap people. One would think, honesty would become more common if one is from a wealthy nation. The reports I read about Donald Trump indicates that material wealth may not be enough to ensure honesty. One needs a wealth of character.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur campus has a Kendriya Vidyala Higher Secondary School to cater to the children of its faculty and staff. Around 1996, the school administration dropped a bomb on many students and their family. The students were informed that they had to be born before a certain date in order to appear for the higher secondary exam (+2) when they come to that level. This was a new rule introduced at that time and it was enforced retrospectively. Several students had been admitted in the past when they were younger and would not satisfy this new criterion when they enter their school final year. Many students were affected. The parents were given a choice. They could produce an affidavit that would show that their kids were older and so they could write the exam when they reach the final year. If not, the kids will have to stay back in the same class for one more year! Among the many faculty members facing this tough choice, only one chose honesty and integrity. Everyone else found a way to get an affidavit. That bright girl, unlucky daughter of an honest father, who had not learned that integrity doesn’t pay, stayed back in the same class with her juniors. It must have been a tough time to repeat the same courses because the rules were changed in between! She had done well eventually getting a Ph. D. from the USA. I have not known or followed the lives of the other kids who had smarter parents. I can only speculate that they had learned what is more important in life and continued to progress.

India enacted two laws recently. Right to Information (RTI) and Right to Education (RTE). As with any rules and laws, there are always two sides, may be more than two. Both laws have a holistic objective. RTI can ensure that every one has access to information. Political parties and the BCCI (Board of control of cricket in India) continue to claim that the RTI rules don’t apply to them. The RTE was enacted to give opportunities for poor kids to get education from the best of school. There have been so much written about both these and this blog is not about the pros and cons of these acts. It is about honesty and integrity.

Recently, the Central Board of School Education (CBSE) has canceled affiliation for one of the most reputed schools, the National Public School. Some are outraged by this and clearly hundreds of students would be affected. Why did the CBSE take this step? NPS is accused of forging documents to evade law! They are convinced that the RTE act is wrong. Hence, they seem to have decided that forging documents is acceptable for them.If a reputed school can choose to break the law, when it is convinced the law is wrong, what will the students do in life? What would the students of the Kendriya Vidyalaya who got ahead by submitting a false affidavit do in the future? Is it alright to forge a document or lie to get ahead in life? Where does it stop?

In a country or society in which the rich and powerful do not follow the rules, one cannot expect the poor and marginalized to follow the rules either. If NPS can do dishonest things because it is convinced that the law of the land is wrong, why should not a poor person who comes from a section that has been historically marginalized for long, break a law that (s)he does not approve?

This I find to be a serious problem in India. Everyone feels deprived and I have heard it from the leaders in science and politics. As they have been deprived in the past, it is alright to be a little dishonest. It is alright to cut corners, bend or break the rules, forge a signature, alter a document. Is it any wonder, corruption has become prevalent?

India is not unique in having a troubled past. Every country and society have gone through similar history. I remember reading an Italian scientist’s autobiographical review in which he points out that nepotism and favoritism ruled the institutions there in the 60s. I remember reading another such review by a Professor from the University of California, Berkeley, who mentions about his mother who was expected to be a house wife as that was what women were expected to do. As we develop in to a modern nation, we have a constitution and rule of law. If we do not like something, we need to convince our representatives, our people and bring in changes. If we choose not to obey the law of the land, what kind of an example are we setting for our citizens? If I can break a law that I don’t like, do I have any right to stop another person from breaking a law that (s)he doesn’t like!

When can we say, honesty and integrity are essential in life and if someone follows them, they can be assured of growth and a dignified life? If we can say that, we would have become a really developed nation!




Silence of the Lambs!

It is 25 years since the classic movie ‘Silence of the lambs’ was released on the Valentine’s day in 1991 (1). I was in the USA at that time but do not remember the release. I had not seen the movie until a few years ago. What a powerful movie. This blog is not about the movie, though. It is about the title. What can a lamb do other than silently putting up with the atrocities committed on it? I have seen in some temples where they sacrifice Lambs for the Gods. Of course, it is always for the devotees to consume and not really for the Gods. Some one will pour some water with turmeric on the Lamb’s head and when it shakes the head, people will shout to the man holding the scythe! ‘Lamb has accepted and you can chop of the head’

I did see The Revenant when it released recently in Bangalore. In the  movie, Fritzgerald (Hardy) kills Gloss’s son and tries to kill Gloss (Dicaprio). He lies to the young Bridger (Poulter) and forces him to leave Gloss to death and accompany him to safety. Bridger finds out the truth and is angry with Fritzgerald for lying to him but is forced to return. On reaching the settlement, Fritzgerald tells Captain Henry (Glessen) that Gloss died and he has been given a decent burial. Bridger is sitting next to him and is unable to speak the truth. I remembered the silence of the lambs.

I wonder if each one of us would have had this experience. Keeping silent when some one powerful lies blatantly. I have experienced. Typically, one does not expect the person who is a lot more powerful to lie blatantly. When the lie comes all of a sudden, the weaker person can not speak up for various reasons. It could be fear, politeness, avoiding open confrontation… Many holding power enjoy such silence and exploit it. I was listening to someone who was blatantly taking all the credit in public for the work I had done without blinking. I did not respond and felt sad. I could only pity the person who was confidently lying.

While growing up, one may have such experiences. It may be  prudent to ignore and continue ones work. Speaking up and resisting too soon could be counterproductive. Person holding power has a lot more voice. One can only hope the silence does not end up becoming fatal as in the case of the lambs. Apparently, if the lamb does not shake its head, it’s head cannot be chopped off! Lamb cannot but shake its head when water is poured on it and clearly the lamb does not have much choice. Perhaps humans are better off.

Today (13th March 2016), NDTV had She the People instead of We the People. Burkha Dutt was talking to prominent ladies including Melinda Gates and Kalki Koechlin. Sexual harassment was one of the topic and the show announced that 90 % of the women in India suffer. It is difficult for me to believe this number but certainly it is prevalent. I was reminded of the movie Highway, which I got to watch in a flight. A young girl who has been harassed is forced to be silent, not only by the perpetrator but also by the mother. Sshh, don’t say a word! It is not just women. Twelve years a slave was another powerful movie depicting the lives of African American slaves in the USA during the 19th century. During those days, the slaves had no voice. Their complaints won’t be registered. Courts will not listen to them. I was reminded of the murder of Mooka Nadar who dared to enter the Meenakshi Temple. Court acquitted the murderers (2). Those with power would like to keep everyone silent and exploit their power. Democracy has indeed given some voice to everyone. I am glad Indian democracy started with every adult having a vote. Your vote is your voice. It is important to speak up.


Equal rights for one and all: Some experiences from the USA and India.

In the year 2000, when I was on a short visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an American lady asked me suddenly. Why do Indians kill girl babies? I know there have been stray cases reported and didn’t like this generalization. My immediate response to her was that we were parents of two healthy daughters. A friend of mine, who was standing by came up with a better answer: In a country of 1 billion, one can find all kinds of people. However, the declining sex ratio led our Prime Minister Modi to announce a program to save girls and educate them as well, so that their dependence is not exploited (1).

American Chemical Society has instituted an award for encouraging women in to careers in Chemical Sciences (2). Department of Science and Technology, India, has some specific funds for encouraging women as well. I have heard about positions in the US Universities reserved for women. Some might wonder, should I take this position? Would it make me less deserved? It is not uncommon, even in the developed nations, to find men talking to working women in a patronizing tone. At times they offer unsolicited comments suggesting that a female colleague got the job mainly because of the gender. I think the women should reply to such comments with a straight face: Are you feeling insecure?

Oscar awards for 2016 were given recently.  Some black actors decided to boycott as there were no black nominees in all the four acting category for two years in a row. Of course, awards are to be given based on performance and not color, isn’t it? However, almost all the nominators are white and there was a perceived bias. Chris Rock, a black comedian, hosted the show. His opening act and comments won wide appreciation. It was funny mostly and touchy at times. I am copying from one part of his speech (3).

:”Why are we protesting this oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole ‘no black nominees’ thing has happened at least 71 other times.” He said black people didn’t protest before because they had “real things to protest at the time. They were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who wins best cinematographer.”:

Another thing Chris told in his monologue answers the doubt some women might have accepting jobs reserved for them. Some had suggested that he should boycott Oscar award ceremony and he responded: And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart

We, in India, are all supposed to be one race and so there cannot be any ‘racial’ discrimination. However, we have discrimination based on pretty much everything else: gender, color, caste, region, religion, language, you name it. There has been a plan to reserve 33 % of the Parliament seats to women for long. The ratio of women in academic positions in research institutes is still low. Recently, the Indian Academy of Sciences brought out a book titled “Leelavathi’s daughters” discussing about women in Science in India. My own Department had 3 women, out of 25, in its faculty two decades ago and since then none. We have recently appointed a woman after two decades. It was amusing to read a recent news about what a high school text book says in Chattissgarh, a State in india. Women are one of the causes for unemployment! (4). Notwithstanding such text book comments, the Government of India, funding organizations, various Institutions and Universities are coming up with various programmes to correct this anomaly.

The only thing about caste system that no can deny is that it is real and it exists today. It is unlikely to have been a British conspiracy to keep India divided but they may have very well exploited all these differences.  India has a number of castes grouped under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and the name they  have, changes with every state/language. People from these castes have been historically marginalized and were considered ‘untouchables’ by the other caste Hindus, though their service was taken by force. Dalit, meaning ‘oppressed’ has become one word to group them all, though I have read some recent reports which point out that people belonging to similar castes in some states do not prefer this name. This term was perhaps popularized by the architect of the Indian Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, who himself belonged to this caste. Clearly, with the choice of Ambedkar as the Author of our Constitution, one can see that India has been trying hard to amend the differences. He was not chosen because of the background but because of his capability.

As an independent country, India decided that dalits should be given some reserved seats in academic institutions and Government jobs. Over two generations, this had helped many of them improve their social and financial status. In 2012, I found and pointed out in an article I wrote in Current Science(5) that the cutoff marks for admission to MBBS in Tamil Nadu for General quota and SC/ST were both above 190/200.  However, even now a large section of them remain socially and financially backwards. This is due to various factors including the reservation being exploited by the same families that have gained earlier. There have been reasonable requests for the criterion for reservation to include economic status.

Dalits had different way of lives compared to caste Hindus including their food preferences which includes beef. They constitute perhaps 1/4th of the ‘Hindu’ population in India. Of course, most Hindus had beef in ancient times and stopped consuming it in later periods. I know of many Hindu friends coming from various castes, who eat beef even today. Several, but not all, Indian states have banned Cow slaughter and consumption of Cow meat, also called beef. Some Hindus worship cow as it gives milk. Buffalo meat, also beef, was not banned. One might say this is the result of inherent color discrimination. Anything fair is lovely! Though, these laws have been there for long, eating beef has become a  major source of controversy recently attracting world wide attention on India. Some students organizations have protested this and they have been called anti-national time and again.

Let me point out a few incidents recently. In University of Hyderabad, a dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide. He was earlier suspended for anti-national activities. This is what his mother had to say: The day after, at the mortuary of Osmania Hospital, Rohith’s mother cried out: “I used to proudly tell everyone in my village that my son was doing PhD at Hyderabad University. Today, I have come to collect his dead body.’’(6) She lamented: What took me 26 years to rise has been destroyed in a few months.  Among the anti-national activities he committed were being part of the Ambedkar Students Association and organizing a beef festival and a function about hanging Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death for planning the attack on the Indian Parliament. He was accused of being a ‘casteist, extremist and (indulging in) anti-national politics’, quoting from a letter forwarded by a central minister to the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.

Recently, the vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University Mr. Tripathi, is reported to have said: Dr. Pandey was attempting to rake up “controversial and sensitive” issues at the university, such as beef and Kashmir’s ‘independence.’ (7) He had terminated Dr. Pandey for raking up these issues in BHU. I have been wondering how are these issues getting mingled? It is important for the Government and Society to understand how beef and Kashmir are getting connected. I have written a few blogs about Hinduism, religion and conversions and I do not want to repeat them here.

All over the world, it has been abundantly clear that some people holding on to power have abused it for personal benefit. They have managed to ensure that some are more equal than others. Democracy is one answer to such exploitation. What surprises, rather shocks me, is the attitude of some of the Indian elites, who accuse people who have been exploited for generations in the name of caste, as ‘casteist’. I have not heard any reports from the USA (I may be ignorant on this one), calling Chris Rock, anti-national and someone who brought shame on the Country because he spoke some truth when the world was watching. Even Donald Trump does not seem to have mentioned any such things!

In India, there are many, in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, accusing students who organized ‘beef festival’ as anti-national. I note a patronizing tone in their voice as someone who has given to others. ‘What are they still complaining about? They don’t have any sense of gratitude!’ Another aspect that is evident in their comments is insecurity. No one should speak anything about our past, which may look bad now. Unless we realize the fact that no one is giving to others and we are all equal owners of this nation and the world, this mindset will not go. A country cannot ignore the livelihood of a significant fraction of its people. Nor can it ignore the injustice of the past and make amends. It cannot be done by shutting down people who speak. It has never worked!

References (all websites accessed in early March 2016):

  5. E. Arunan, Current Science, 107, 555-556 (2014)

Early education and summer projects! Life is a marathon and not a 100 m race.

There has been so much written about our school/college education in India that there may not be much to add now. However, a recent incident in a college, where I was invited for a discussion among some parents and teachers, has motivated me to share some views. It has been further fueled by two advertisements I saw in The Hindu recently!

One of the parents in the meeting was visibly worried as her daughter was not selected for any summer research programme. She was under the impression that without such summer experience, the student would not be able to progress in life and all was doomed already! I was a student applying for a summer fellowship in 1983. I have been in a committee to select summer fellows for more than 6 years, 3 years as the Chairman. I had the privilege of seeing both sides.

When I was completing my I year MSc in IIT Madras (as it was called those days), we had an accelerated II semester as there was water scarcity. A far cry from the recent floods in Chennai. IIT Madras decided to complete the semester in 3 months instead of typical 4 months and send students home for 3 months instead of the typical two month vacation. I had a break of 100 days, never before and never after, since I started going to school. It would have been a good time to do a summer project. TIFR was one place that had summer research fellowship those days and it was not common anywhere including IIT Madras.

I had to write a statement of purpose (SOP). I started with this sentence: “When I finished my pre-University, I had to join BSc in Chemistry”. I had my school education in Tamil and was not very fluent in English. I asked a friend of mine who was educated in Kendriya Vidyalaya in English medium to go through my SOP and let me know if it was reading well. He had one comment: ‘Do you want to say you loved Chemistry so much, you had to join BSc Chemistry? The way you have written, it could mean you had no other choice!”. I told him the second option was correct and I did mean what the sentence meant (See footnote 1)

Honesty doesn’t pay, does it! More importantly, I was somewhere in the middle in my class and TIFR had chosen the top 2 students for the summer project! I perhaps had the best 100 days in my life. I was roaming around freely, attended all the family functions, watched movies, traveled… It was fun. I didn’t get to do a summer project and it did not seem to have mattered in the end.

When I point this out, almost everyone would say ‘it is different today, there is more competition’. There is some truth in it. Often for summer fellowship, 10000 students may apply and 200 may be selected. What all the students should realize is that, the students who could not get selected are in no way inferior. They can still try to find some opportunities elsewhere or just read and discuss with resource persons available   I have always found time to discuss with any student who is interested to learn. I have sent many students to my colleagues and they have done the same too. If you don’t get a summer project, it is not the end. The students still have the best option of just exploring other activities and enjoying life.

Recently, I read about a school in Bangalore for 1 year old children along with the parents. I didn’t want to read what all the child would learn in this school! Then I found another advertisement which was worse. FIITJEE is introducing coaching classes for V standard students. Until recently, they used to start coaching when the students completed their VIII standard. The national entrance exam would happen four years later. Now they are starting at V standard. What is happening to us? Let the children play, observe and learn.

Parents and teachers should realize one thing. Life is not a 100 m race you run when you finish your high school. It is a marathon. While your performances in your high school and BSc do help, they are not enough to guarantee you a successful career. I see many successful scientists in India and the world who were not toppers in their high school. Sundar Pichai is a good example. His teachers could not recollect his days in school.

I did not write this to suggest that the students should not do well in high school or not attend coaching or not do summer projects. Try and do as well as you can. Learn to enjoy what you do so it doesn’t become a burden. Remember, you have to sustain for decades. Do not get burned out.

The first year I taught in IIT Kanpur, one student came to my office. He had very low marks. He asked me: “I was the topper in my school, you have given me low marks. Why?’ I told him that he should answer that question. You could be a state or all India topper in your +2 (higher secondary/pre-University) exams. That cannot give you marks when you write your exams in college or your admission to a graduate school or a job that you seek. You need to sustain for long. Even after 12 years in high school, you would have 10-12 years in College and it is important to sustain. There is not one formula for success. Your path to success could be different from the student who got to do a summer project this year. Never give up!


  1. As my father wanted me to become a real doctor (not a Ph.D.), I had chosen physics, chemistry, and biology in my PUC as only three subjects could be chosen those days. Students wanting to become engineers or scientists chose physics, chemistry and maths! I was really good in Maths during my high school but my father’s wish took me to the biology group. I was not very good in biology and to this day, I had not learned much in biology. Most every scientist has started working on biology irrespective of their back ground. I wanted to get into BSc Maths or physics but that was not allowed as I did not have Maths in my PUC. I had to choose BSc Chemistry and became a physical chemist/chemical physicist eventually.

Yes, you can change ACS, TWAS and IUPAC!

It was 21 years ago on this day, I had joined IIT Kanpur as an Assistant Professor. We returned to India from the USA towards the end of September 1994. I was advised by well wishers that I should report for duty first and then take leave if I wanted to visit my family. I had not  visited them for more than 4 years. I had visited India in June 1990 to get married and was returning back for good with my wife and a 7 month old daughter. We decided we would go home, spend some time with both our families, attend some family functions (there are always some) for about a month. I had to decide on a day to start my job. November 7th was close and it happened to be a Monday. It was C V Raman’s birthday anniversary too. I have never looked for an auspicious day or time to start anything. I thought 7th November 1994 would be a good day to start my independent career. Raman had won the Nobel prize working in India, when we were not an independent country. He accepted the Nobel Prize and there was no Indian flag!

I had a dream of building a microwave spectrometer in India. When I joined IIT Kanpur, I found out that one Physics Professor who was working in this area there, decided to go back to USA as it was not possible to sustain. I found another Professor in Kolkata who had spent a few years gaining experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the same spectrometer I worked with. He returned after 3 years and decided that it would not be possible to build such a spectrometer in India. I had used the spectrometer which was already built and had gone through the nuts and bolts in design. I had to rebuild a flow reactor during my Ph. D. as the Department moved to a new building at the Kansas State University. Though, this move delayed my Ph. D., I had some experience in building. I couldn’t count on it for building a  microwave spectrometer, which is totally different. As our people’s President Kalam said, when you  have a dream that doesn’t let you sleep, you can find ways. We built it in our laboratory.

American Chemical Society (ACS)

I became a member of the American Chemical Society during my Ph. D. (1986-91). I stayed in the USA till 1994 and have attended ACS meetings a few times. After returning to India in 1994, there was very little I would get by continuing my membership. There was only one benefit: I would continue to get their news magazine Chemical and Engineering News, which helps me keep track of what is happening in Chemistry. I found out that IIT Kanpur would reimburse 75 % of  membership fees and I had to pay only 25 %. The fees used to be about $100 and it was a significant amount that time. If this was all I had to pay, my share at that time would have been about Rs 1200 per annum and my monthly take home salary was perhaps Rs 7000. But, this was not all. To get my copy of the C&E News, I had to pay shipping charges. By ship, it was $15 per year and for airmail $50 per year. Airmail would take 2-3 weeks in 1995 and shipping would take a few months. IIT Kanpur would not reimburse this amount. I realized I had to pay 50 % of $150 per year to get C&E News. American members of ACS do not pay any shipping charges. I decided to pay and continue my membership.

I moved to IISc towards the end of May 1997. When I had to renew my membership for 1998, I found out that IISc reimburses only 50 % of membership fees and no shipping charges. IISc was better than IIT Kanpur on some aspects but not in perks for a faculty. I had to pay more now but I decided to continue anyway. University of Illinois played a big role in the development of world wide web (the more famous www now) during the early 1990s but I had not followed it when I was there from 1992-94. My first MSc student Shamasundar (currently a faculty in IISER Mohali) came to me one day, excited after going through the web pages of a few Universities in the USA. I had not seen a webpage yet. When I applied for Ph. D. in 1985-86, Universities would send brochures by airmail. It was thrilling to be able to see what faculty members in the USA University were doing sitting in Kanpur.

Within a few years after that, I could read Chemical and Engineering News online, on the day of issue. The print copies that came two weeks later were getting dusted, except on occasions when I wanted to look at a specific article. I wrote to the ACS when I had to renew my membership. I would pay my membership fees but I do not want to receive the print copy. The first response was that a member does not have a choice of not receiving the print copy. I explained to them that the only reason I continued my membership after returning to India was to read C&E News and now I can do it online. I would not want to spend my personal funds of $55 a year for receiving the print issue 2-3 weeks after the issue date. ACS told me that I do not have that choice. I asked them why? The next response was that the advertisers pay charges assuming all the members receive a print copy. I replied to them: If your advertisers want to reach me, let them pay for it. Why should I pay?

The next response from ACS cited its’ Constitution and Bylaws which declare that ACS resolves to send a print copy of C&E News to every member. Hence, I do not have a choice. I asked them how does a member, initiate a change in the constitution? It took some time and I was told that I could propose a change and the council would decide. I suggested that the bylaws be changed to read: ACS resolves to send all its members a printed or online version of C&E News. It took me four years (2004-2008) to convince the ACS.  I was continuing to pay the membership fees plus shipping charges during this period. Finally, ACS yielded. When they did, they became smarter. The next year’s letter for subscription included an announcement: International Members can now choose to get C&E News print/online version and save money!

Third World Academy of Sciences

Prof. CNR Rao had become the President of the Third World Academy of Sciences perhaps in 2003. When I heard this news, as a Fellow Indian and Scientist from Bangalore I was happy. However, I didn’t like the name. I sent an email to Prof. Rao congratulating him on becoming the President of TWAS and asked him. Why is it called the Third World Academy of Sciences? Others can call you third world or third rate! Why do we have to call ourselves with such derogatory names? Prof. Rao met me next day by chance, behind my Department and told me: Arunan, I received your email, for what we have been doing, we should actually be 10th world! But, let me look into it. Of course, he was upset with the way we do things here. However, he did look into it. The name was changed to Academy of Developing Nations, TWAS after some time. They wanted to keep TWAS as it was widely known. More recently, the name was changed to The World Academy of Sciences. I was more happier than I was when Prof. Rao became the President.

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

In 2004, Prof. S. Chandrasekaran organized the IUPAC Council meeting in Bangalore. He invited all the Chemistry faculty members from IISc for a dinner. I have seen some Indian scientists who are very protective about the visitors they bring to India. They would not like others to meet with the visitors and discuss. Prof. SCN was different. I usually inform all my colleagues and arrange for them to meet with the visitor(s) if they choose to.

We had just published our first microwave spectrum recorded in our laboratory with the home-built spectrometer. It had unambiguously showed the structure of C2H4-H2S complex to be hydrogen bonded. The conventional wisdom is that water (H2O) can form hydrogen bond and H2S cannot, and that is why H2O is liquid and H2S is gas at room temperature. H2S has van der Waals interaction. When we submitted this paper, one referee had commented: The work is well motivated, experiments have been done with care, paper is written well, but do not call it a hydrogen bond. We agreed to change the title at that time to :Bridging hydrogen bonding and van der Waals interaction. This was the first paper we published after taking lots of funds from DST. It was five years already and we were publishing our first paper. I was in no mood to argue with the referee.

The referee comments are very useful most of the times. The peer review process is, in my view, one of the important reason Science has its dominance today. Referee has nothing personal against the authors or the manuscripts (in most of the cases) but raises questions. I was intrigued by the comment. I started reading the literature spreading over 100 years. I met with the Chairman of the Physical and Biophysical Chemistry Division in IUPAC when he visited Bangalore. I suggested to him that IUPAC should come up with a new definition of the hydrogen bond. He told me that IUPAC already had one. I had seen that earlier and did not like it at all. We met the next day and I showed him the existing definition and gave my reasons for disagreement. He suggested that I submit a project to IUPAC for redefining the hydrogen bond. I wasn’t expecting it. I asked him how do I do this? He said I should contact experts from all over the world. Form a task group. One should not include his/her friends and collaborators as IUPAC wouldn’t want to spend funds on friends getting together. I took these words seriously and contacted 13 other experts from all over the World. I had no prior interactions with any of them. They all agreed.

When we started the project, some had told me that the experts won’t agree to one definition. I had formed too large a task group. After two meetings (first in Pisa 2005 and next in Bangalore 2006) and many email discussions, we produced a definition in 2007. I sent it to IUPAC and the committee said they cannot accept it and we should write a big report justifying the definition. It took time and efforts. I was a co-author of another paper written by three groups and it appeared like stitching together three different style of writing. I decided I would write the complete report and first have it read by a core group of five. Take input from them and revise it. Then it was read by the 14 members and every one’s comments and suggestions were considered. I submitted a comprehensive report which included the definition to IUPAC in 2009. It was returned to me informing that the technical report should not include the definition!

I removed the definition and made it an independent Recommendation. Rest of the report became a Technical report. There was some discussion about the title and finally the titles I gave were accepted. These were refereed by 20 experts all over the world. IUPAC gave a 6 month period for any one interested to send comments.  A typical manuscript is refereed by 2 experts. I wrote down responses to all these comments and had all the Authors go through them. Finally in 2011 two manuscripts were published in Pure and Applied Chemistry. One was titled ‘Defining the Hydrogen Bond: An account” Another was titled ‘Definition of the Hydrogen Bond” Around the same time, IUPAC formed another task group to define a halogen bond. It closely followed our work. IUPAC finally accepted only a short paper on definition and the last I found a technical report was yet to be published. IUPAC must have learned something in the process and decided to publish the recommendation without insisting on a technical report which could delay the process.

When I started my career on 7th November 1994, I could not have imagined what was possible. Asking questions, having perseverance and not taking an immediate ‘No’ as the final answer were all important. As one says in India, it was possible to play ‘a squirrel’s role in Ramayana’ and make some changes in American Chemical Society, Third (The) World Academy of Sciences and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, sitting in some corner of Bangalore!


Hinduism is not A way of life: Hindus celebrate Deepavali on different days and yes some Hindus eat beef!

One Hindu festival that is celebrated all over India is called Deepavali in Tamil Nadu and Diwali in the North India and there may be more variations. Even when I was young, I knew that there was a difference of one day or perhaps morning/evening between Tamil Nadu and Delhi, for example. As kids, we have stayed awake the night before bursting crackers and chatting around. Around 4 am, we would take oil bath and start with an ‘atom bomb’ an apt name for one of the loudest cracker. We wear new dresses and have lots of food, snacks and sweets. We exchange sweets/snacks with all our neighbours friends and relatives.

One thing I fondly remember is having idli and mutton gravy, more like a stew. For some reason, only on Deepavali day, it was made like this and on other days, mutton ‘kulambu’ (gravy) was made differently, to be mixed with rice. On those evenings, I used to enjoy dosai with mutton kulambu. Other than Deepavali, we had mutton mostly on a Saturday. Deepavali used to be one day and the legend we had was that Narakasura was conquered and the day was called Narakachaturthasi (14th day of the declining moon). Some parts of India celebrate it on the new moon day, perhaps.

In North India, Diwali is a festival of light, as widely known in the world. Most families lit lamps all over the house but not in Tamil Nadu. Our light festival usually comes during the next or following full moon day known as Karthikai. Karthikai Deepam is a big festival in Thiruvannamalai and all over Tamil Nadu Hindu families celebrate it. Lighting lamps in front of the house for the whole month and all over the house on the full moon day is a common practice. I am not sure it is celebrated in other states. Some save a few crackers, especially the ones producing more light than sound for Karthikai. For us, Deepavali is a festival of sound! What is common everywhere is new clothes and lots of food, snacks and sweets.

Now I work in Bangalore. Mysore is the major tourist attraction in Karnataka, which is about 140 km from Bangalore. Both cities are closer to the southern border with Tamil Nadu. During my first Deepavali in Bangalore, I was surprised to find that it is celebrated for 2-3 days. Crackers would go on for three days unlike in Tamil Nadu when I was young. The day after Deepavali is called Bali padyami in Karnatka, named after the demon king Bali. I had not heard of this until moving to Bangalore. The nearest town in Tamil Nadu, which is just 40 km from Bangalore is called Hosur. I realized a few years ago that Hosur is basically the word in Kannada for ‘New Town’ and the Tamil word for the same is Pudur, which is found in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Hosur is part of Tamil Nadu though. Kannada is the language spoken in Karnataka.

Hindus in India have a large number of ‘local’ festivals many of them coinciding with the full moon day. To repeat myself Deepavali is celebrated in most parts of India. It was indeed surprising to see such a big difference in Deepavali days between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This year, IISc has a holiday on 11th November for Deepavali. Tamil Nadu has a holiday on 10th November for Deepavali,. This difference of one day has happened most of the years. What surprised me more is Mysore Medical College has holidays on 10th and 12th for Deepavali and Balipadyami but 11th is a working day!

If you have been reading newspapers or watching Television in/from India, you could not have missed ‘Hindutva’. Those who are fond of this ideology are eager to make India a ‘Hindustan’ as they seem convinced that is the right thing to do as Muslims got Pakistan. What they forget is the fact that the number of muslims who chose to stay in India was more than the population of Pakistan at the time of partition and independence. Our founding fathers decided that India will be a secular country and religion would be a personal choice. I am very happy and proud of that.

I would indeed be happy if some body in India could announce that Deepavali is on a particular day for all of India. Having lived in the USA for some time, I have seen how families got together for Christmas. Christians around the world have evolved and 25th December is celebrated as Christmas in most parts of the world now. I thought Australia was celebrating it on a different day as December is summer there.  I was there a few months ago and found out that Australia does celebrate it in December summer. No white Christmas but the same day. In India, some one working in Bangalore having parents in Madurai, finds it difficult to plan a family get together for the most celebrated of ‘Hindu’ festivals. We have different ways and different days to celebrate the most common festival, Deepavali/Diwali.

It is a pity that India today has to depend on words given by observers from outside to describe itself. I am not a historian or a social scientist. As a scientist by training, I read, observe, question, think and analyze. The word ‘Hindu’ apparently appears first as a Persian geographical term for referring to the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sindhu). ‘Hinduism’ has become a religion today in the world. I was declared a Hindu in my school certificates and that is what I write when I choose to fill ‘religion’ in forms. Apparently, the Indian Supreme Court has declared that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’.

I wonder how a Supreme Court can answer this question! Are the Judges experts on religion? They are expected to be experts on our Constitution. I have not read the Constitution in full and so I wonder if our Constitution declares that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’. If that were to be the case, the Supreme Court could be well within its purview to make this statement. But then, as an evolving democratic nation, we go to Court with all kinds of questions. Judges in their own wisdom accept many such cases and declare a verdict.

If my memory serves me right, a High Court was approached to decide what kind of a ‘naamam’ (symbol on it’s forehead) should an elephant in Tirupati Temple have. But then, in India, we do not have one authority who can decide. If the Supreme Court had said Hinduism represents all ways of lives followed by Indians who are not Christians, Muslims, ….? Sikhism and Jainism are not Hinduism, are they? Budhism cannot be Hinduism as Buddha revolted against Hindu religious rituals.  However, Buddha has been accepted as a Hindu God. In some versions, Buddha replaces Balarama as one of the 10 Avatars of Vishnu. India had Shaivam and Vaishnavam as religions with the Supreme God being Shiva or Vishnu. I come from a Shaivite family and perhaps that is my religion.

It seems like the world has accepted that Hinduism is a way of life. I have been thinking about it and it did not make sense. I see that the way of life that most of us live have some things in common and many things that are not common. It appears to me that ‘caste’ defined a way of life in the India I was born and raised. I don’t know the origin of Caste. May be it gave one way of grouping people. Caste in the past defined a profession for the male. As a friend pointed out recently, it makes sense as much of the teaching and learning were happening at home. Father teaches the son the life skills he had learned. Today it should have no place in our society but it seems well grounded.

As many have pointed out, ‘caste’ has been a bane on Indian society and it has a hierarchy. It seems like some are trying to blame the west and moguls for the caste divisions in India. I know old poems in Tamil which mention ‘saathi’ a word used in Tamil for caste. One starts by proclaiming that there are only two castes: Those who give/share what they have and others. People who give are superior to those who don’t! In recent times, the revolutionary poet Bharathiyaar had thundered ‘there are no castes and claiming superiority by caste is a sin’.

A vocal and influential minority has managed to convince the world that ‘Indians are vegetarians and they don’t eat beef’. Every day some one is shouting now ‘Hindu feelings are affected’ when some one eats beef. I am astonished at their arrogance. A lot of Hindus do eat beef and when a chief minister mentions this fact, he is accused as being a traitor to the Nation! The Prime Minsiter condemns him of insulting Hindus. Is the Prime Minister not aware of Hindus who eat beef or he, his party and the Hindutva groups do not consider Hindus who eat beef as Hindus? This is a significant number and in 2015, nearly seven decades after Independence, they have no voice in our democracy?

All those who make such loud statements do not seem to consider the feelings of a significant number of Hindus who do eat beef. While beef eating Hindus can be from any caste, among the poor, beef is perhaps more commonly consumed as a cheap source of nutrition.  When I was young, there was always a suspicion when we order mutton in the Hotels. Are they selling beef in the name of mutton, which was more costly?

Recently, I was intrigued to read a poem by Digumarthi Suresh Kumar in Telugu which I first found in the movie made by the students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences titled ‘Caste on the Menu card’. Our Finance Minster who accuses others of being ‘intolerant to the views of Hindus’ appears to have banned this movie. ( A large number of Hindus don’t seem to matter for a few Hindus who speak louder. They just don’t care about the feelings of other Hindus. No wonder Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and some others converted to Christianity. If the Hindu organizations do not consider the feelings of all Hindus, we can’t blame the British and Moguls! I hope all Hindus realize this.

Some say our constitution bans cow slaughter. It appears that it is not true. It has been suggested and States are supposed to act as they feel. Many states have banned cow slaughter but buffalo meet has not been banned anywhere in India. India became the second largest exporter of beef this year. Kerala allows slaughter of cows beyond 10 or 12 years. We are living in a time, elderly parents are not taken care off by and left to mend for themselves. A small minority is violently emotional about protecting cows. They won’t raise a finger to protect cows and take care of them either. They beat the poor who own cow below their belt.

The two poems I have mentioned above are given below in Tamil for those who can read:

Avvayyaar (?), many centuries old

சாதி இரண்டொழிய வேறில்லை சாற்றுங்கால்
நீதி வழுவா நெறிமுறையில் இட்டார் பெரியோர்
இடாதோர் இழிகுலத்தோர் பட்டாங்கில் உள்ளபடி

Bharathiyaar in 20th century
சாதிகள் இல்லையடி பாப்பா
குலத்தாழ்ச்சிஉயர்ச்சி  சொல்லல் பாவம் பாப்பா
நீதி உயர்ந்த மதி கல்வி
அன்பு நிறைய உடையவர்கள்  மேலோர் பாப்பா

The movie star turned former chief minister of Tamil Nadu MGR in one of his film says. There are only two ‘saathis’, one is male saathi and another is female saathi.

I wish this meaningless debate about food habits and religion are suspended by the Supreme Court. Let all parties give their plans for development of India and let the people choose the party whose plan appeals to them most.