Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel, Nationality and Venky Ramakrishnan

A very interesting news appeared in "The Hindu" http://beta.thehindu.com/sci-tech/article33379.ece?homepage=true . Given that Venky was born in Chidambaram every Tamilian now wants to say hello, in the internet age its easy and Venky's email id is listed too. Apparently Venky is not amused, "All sorts of people from India have been writing to me, clogging up my email box. It takes me an hour or two to just remove their mails. Do these people have no consideration? It is OK to take pride in the event, but why bother me....There are also people who have never bothered to be in touch with me for decades who suddenly feel the urge to connect. I find this strange..People I don’t know, for example a Mr. Govindrajan, claim that they were my teachers at Annamalai University which I never attended".

The cream goes to his remark, "I, personally, am not important. The fact that I am of Indian origin is even less important. We are all human beings, and our nationality is simply an accident of birth".

The enthusiasm of Indians is understandable given that only two Indians have won Nobel as Indian citizens for work done in India (Tagore and C.V.Raman). Amartya Sen got it as Indian citizen but his work was mainly outside India, Theresa's work was in Indian but she was only a naturalized citizen. In a nation starved for global achievers Venky, Rahman, Tendulkar etc are being loaded with expectations and good will.

Was Venky being churlish in his reaction? Not in the least bit. Other than his official biography listing where he studied or where he works we know little of the man, why he left India etc. For a scientist who forsook his adopted homeland, USA, to go to Cambridge for the sake of academic climate, that too with a pay cut, nationalities matter little. National pride, linguistic pride, chaunistic pride in ones own ethnic culture are all very important only for those who have little else to be proud about.

What does Venky owe India, intellectually? I guess nothing and thats the most important aspect. I've often been asked about my lack of pride in my mother-tongue and ethnicity. What can I say except that much of what I respect and love is not in Tamil or in Tamil Nadu. Like Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

I appreciate Venky's honesty. S.Chandrasekhar, nobel in astrophysics for defining the death of a star (Chandrasekhar limit), was hypocritical on this score. Chandra was sent to UK, to study under none other than Eddington, on Indian tax payer money. The scholarship stipulated that he return back and work in India. Chandra returned back and was asked to work in some lowly position in some government observatory. Chandra petitioned Nehru that he should be released from the obligation as India could not offer him anything commensurate to his abilities. Being Nehru he was obliged. Chandra, promptly left for US and did his research on the death of stars. Much later in an interview with his biographer he objected to brain drain.

Commenting on the rumor that he was offered the top most job in India's premier lab, Venky replied, "Nobody has approached me about an offer to work in India. However, I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately".

Contrary to India, USA recognizes that most Nobels this year, though awarded to Americans, went mostly to immigrants. While it is comforting that US is still a magnet for scientific talent America is deeply concerned at the disproportionate number of immigrants as PhD's and the fact that Americans themselves are not pursuing higher education seriously. In fact America has to do more on the green card and visa front to attract talent more vigorously. In a globalised world America cannot afford to "assume" that talent will flock here. Venky himself now works in Cambridge UK than here in US. He prefers Cambridge, for many academic reasons despite the fact that he had to take pay cut.

Einstein lived for many years with no nationality. The entire world is home to genius.Let us celebrate achievements, let us celebrate genius and not get into parochial claims of nationalities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Chandra was recruited by the Univ of Chicago in Cambridge, UK, 1937 fresh from his PhD, and left presently for Chicago. He never returned to India to meet Nehru or discuss any idea of working in India