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).