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.




Learning History

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it!” It was an interesting exercise to find out who said it first as there are various versions.  ( This and other web references accessed on 2 April 2015. It credits George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher). Learning from history is as important as it is difficult for many reasons.

One obvious reason is that learning by reading is much less efficient than learning by experience. Most every one ends up repeating history and (re)learning. May be it is better that way, as even as the 7th billion person in the current world, one has to live the life one had no choice of getting. There may really be nothing more to do other than repeating what someone has done and fail/succeed.

One often hears the quote ‘History is written by the victors’ attributed to Winston Churchill. According to the website “History is written by victors” may itself be an example of history written by the losers! While the quote is commonly mis-attributed to Winston Churchill, it’s origins are unknown!” I really do not know the history of these statements.

Let me tell you about two things that I know for sure. Indian Institute of Science was the result of a dream by J N Tata and this was influenced by the inspirational dialog he had with Swami Vivekananda on a ship. We celebrated the centenary over a whole year during 2008-09. In 2011, we started an undergraduate programme for the first time, 100 years after we started admitting students. The first batch was admitted in 1911. Clearly the students admitted in 2011 are the 101st batch and not the 100th batch!

While only some can create history, every one would like to have their name etched in history. I have been part of the Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department at the Indian Institute of Science from May 29, 1997. I learned that this was the first Department to be started by the founder Director Morris Travers who happened to be a Chemist as well.  Interested readers may go through an article I wrote in Resonance about Travers’ contribution to the discovery of Noble gases. ( Another Department on Electrical sciences also began and these were the only two Departments initially.

I recently found a discussion in Linkedin about the History of Indian Institute of Science started by Chief Engineer at TRIAD OMAN CONSULTANTS INTL.  I had not known him personally but somehow was in the circle. He claimed that “Soil Mechanics and Metallurgy were the First Departments to be Set-up.” I had put a comment pointing out the mistake but then there were 100s of comments applauding the authors for the interesting information and one is not clear if all the readers would go through all the comments to find out the truth. I get messages from Linkedin for more than two years about people still reading this piece.

There is a book about the History of Indian Institute of Science written by Subbarayappa titled ‘In pursuit of excellence’.  I have heard from our former Director Prof. P. Balaram that there are some inaccuracies in the book though it does give the first two Departments as chemical and electrical sciences accurately. I have witnessed some attempts in the recent years to take credit away from some and attribute credits wrongly to others in the campus.  One cannot take anything and everything that is written on paper or even on stone, on face value. One need not mention about the accuracy of what is found on the web, which is readily accessible anywhere and everywhere now.

Around 2000, I got a newly built laboratory to house the new spectrometer that we built. Almost a century old Department got four new laboratories built thanks to some funds that came from the Central Government. Of course, it was decided that the Director would inaugurate the new lab.  The estate office arranged for a stone with the name of the Director and the date of the Inauguration and most of us participated in the inauguration without taking it too seriously.  Around 1991, two other laboratories were inaugurated and the information was carved on stone. You can see the information written on stone:

238 239

According to these two stones, Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry was opened by Prof. C. N. R. Rao on 27th February 1991 and by Prof. Goverdhan Mehta on 8th March 2000. It did not occur to any one involved, including me, to suggest that the stone should mention ‘This laboratory for IPC Department was opened by’. What  more evidence does one need than what is carved on a stone! In another 100 years from now, two historians may be arguing with solid evidence that Chemistry Department was not the first one and Subbarayappa had his facts wrong. If the Linkein discussion would still be available that would establish soil mechanics and metallurgy as the first Departments and these two stones can give the date of Chemistry Department within two decades, but certainly not in 1911! May be some one changed 1991 to 1911 by mistake and that mistake was carried through 🙂

Somewhat coincidentally after witnessing the way politicians, scientists and of course every one else getting influenced by money, I was reminded of the beautiful song in Parasakthi, the first movie of Sivaji Ganesan who might be considered the best actor in 20th century Tamil Cinema by many. The song is ‘Desam gnanam kalvi easan poojai ellaam kasu mun sellathadi “தேசம் ஞானம் கல்வி ஈசன் பூஜை எல்லாம் காசு  முன் செல்லாதடி”. It means, ‘the nation, wisdom, education, God, praying rituals would all be secondary to money’ and it is a great song. I thought it was written by M. Karunanidhi who became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and popularly known as Kalaingnar Karunanidhi and Mu Ka. He also had written the story and dialogue for this movie and it became a cult classic. Mu Ka is still alive and active in politics and is close to his 90s.

I mentioned this song to some one when I heard about the central Governments decision to withdraw pictorial warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoking. A committee had concluded that ‘no study on Indians has found the correlation between cigarette and cancer’. One does not know if we should laugh or cry. The greatest book on cancer, “The emperor of all maladies” was written by Siddarth Mukherjee, a person of Indian origin. A real scholarly work and a must read for every one including our law makers. Of course, their main concern is the tobacco companies and money. How can one run a party without money. So, I was reminded of this beautiful song. And that brings me back to History. One of my friend contradicted me and said this song was written by Udumalai Naryana Kavi. I was almost convinced of my memory and I checked with my elder brother who is knowledgeable as well and he confirmed it.

I thought I would check on google as it is widely known to be aware of everything. I found the song in YouTube and it did not have the lyricist’s name. It had the names of the singer (C. S. Jayaraman)  and composer (R. Sudarshanam). Then I found the website, and it gives the Tamil lyrics in full but gives the singer’s name as Chandrababu! This is certainly wrong and appalling to me. It has the composer’s name correct but the lyricist’s name as Bharathidasan. It cannot be correct either.

And then I found another site, This has the song in Tamil, transliteration in English and also a good translation in English. While most of the information is correct, it also has the lyricist name wrong in my opinion. It gives the name as Kannadasan, perhaps the most popular lyricist in Tamil cinema during the 20th century.

So much for learning the history of recent events! Buddha seems to have mentioned: Three things cannot be hidden for long: The sun, the moon and the truth! ( While I am convinced about the sun and moon and would very much like it to be true for ‘truth’, how can we ever be sure. No wonder, Thiruvalluvar said this ‘எப்பொருள் யார்யார்  வாய்கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்  மெய்பொருள் காண்பது அறிவு ‘ Irrespective of what you hear, and irrespective of who you hear from, you need to use your intelligence to see the truth’.