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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Alfred Nobel (1842—1919) was a Swedish chemist whose initial claim to fame was based on his invention of the explosives nitroglycerin and dynamite for use during wars. He amassed a large fortune and donated most of it to setting up the Nobel Foundation. The foundation was to reward outstanding work in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and for work in furthering peace.

The first award from the trust in 1901 was to the inventor of X rays (1895), William Roentgen of Germany in the field of physics. In 1903 the award went to Marie Curie for the discovery of radioactivity. This was controversial in France for two reasons: because she was a woman and she was an immigrant to France from Poland. Madame Curie was honored again in 1911 in the field of chemistry for the discovery of the elements Polonium and Radium. She was invited to England by the British Royal Society to give a lecture on her remarkable discovery. However, according to her biographer, Robert Reid, she was barred from addressing the audience on the basis that women were not allowed to speak to the society. The lecture was given instead by her husband, Pierre Curie, also a distinguished scientist.

In 1913 the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore, for his seminal work, Gitanjali. The British press referred to Tagore as an “old Anglo-Indian hack and reactionary” while the Nobel citation itself read by the chair of the Nobel committee at the ceremony referred to Tagore as an Anglo-Indian poet. Remember, that was just a hundred years ago and the Anglo-Indian connotation, refers to children of mixed British-Indian parentage.

C.V. Raman was the first Indian scientist to be honored in 1930 for his research in physics. The prize was awarded for his scientific analysis of the scattering of light from matter accompanied by energy transfer to or from the incident radiation. The effect is now known as the Raman Effect. A Russian team working with Leonid Mandelstam also arrived at the same result. However, Raman had fully complied with the requirements of peer review and publication ahead of Mandelstam. The Russians were irked by this slight and refused to recognize the tern Raman Effect for decades to come.

Bosons Are Still Bosons

With the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, the scientific community is agog with renewed interest in the mystery of mass. But it all started with Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) who was born in Dhaka and worked at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in Calcutta. A brilliant theoretician, Bose developed a statistical model, from first principles, namedBose Statistics, for integer spin particles. These were named Bosons. Bose also predicted that at extremely low temperatures, bosons could be precipitated. These, in turn, were called Bose condensates. Bose sent his findings to Albert Einstein in Germany. Energized by Bose’s scientific analysis, Einstein published it in a German journal in 1924, and thus Bose’s discovery became known as Bose-Einstein statistics.

In 2001, the team of Cornell, Ketterly and Wieman were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for validating Bose statistics and Bose condensates. The original predictor, S.N. Bose was quietly ignored. Stranger still is the story related by P.T. Narasimhan, a friend who attended a seminar on “Strange Particle Physics” at the University of Chicago and heard from a German professor that Bose’ (with an apostrophe) was a German physicist!

The Best Known Non-Nobelists

The Nobel committee does its work from nomination to selection and announcement in complete secrecy. Only once have they publicly expressed their regret at rejecting Mahatma Gandhi’s name five times in a row. In this particular case, we should ask ourselves the question: Who is honoring whom? Mahatmaji or the committee?

The Indian writer of essays and short stories in English from India, R. K. Narayan was well liked for his simplistic writing style and down to earth characterization of his heroes. Among his short stories was Swamy and Friends. The eponymous Swamy was as much of a favorite character to Indian readers as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were to American enthusiasts.

Indians and the media rated Narayan as a future Nobelist. In fact he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature  twice. In 2001, the Wall Street Journal sent one of its editorial writers to interview the author. Narayan, then 93 and in poor health, lived with his family who were protective of his privacy. However, Tunku Varadarajan, the editorial emissary, managed to procure an interview with the writer. It is alleged that  the interview lasted no more than half an hour in the presence of one of the author’s family members. Varadarajan wrote a scathing report later, disdainfully dismissing Narayan’s writing as characterized by “spare prose, simple tales, unvarying vocabulary and no obvious philosophy.” Among the many letters of protest to this report was one from Neetha Raman from the Times of India, who wrote that R.K. Narayan was probably bordering on dementia caused by his age, and was hence physically “unable to ‘dazzle’ him with his speech and wit.” She concluded her letter quoting an epitaph which suggested that Narayan was denied the Nobel distinction because of “epidermal pigmentation.”

Chandra Says So!

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, nicknamed Chandra at home and abroad, a nephew of the Nobelist C.V. Raman, was a brilliant mathematician known primarily for his work in astrophysics. During his early years, Chandra’s theoretical work was disputed by the renowned astrophysicist, Arthur Stanley Eddington, who dismissed Chandra’s notion that there is an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf star, which is the last stage in its evolution. Eddington’s reputation and status dictated scientific opinon at the time, and it was a good twenty years later that Chandra’s theory finally gained acceptance. He was vindicated when he was honored as a Nobel Scientist in 1983.

Chandra worked as a Professor at the University of Chicago at the Yerkes Observatory. One blustery winter night in Chicago, Chandra was advised by many to cancel his scheduled seminar class at the university because of inclement weather. Chandra refused and asserted that two of his students would be waiting for him, despite the climactic conditions. Indeed they were! T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang later received a Nobel prize jointly in 1957 for their research on particle properties.

I have heard the theoretical chemist, Joseph Mayer at the University of California, San Diego several years ago, during a plenary lecture on a mathematical model for chemical transformations, assert the phrase “Chandra says so” to validate his model. NASA, launched an X-ray observatory in orbit in 1999 and named it Chandra, in honor of the distinguished Chandrasekhar.

I would be remiss in not mentioning three more Nobelists of Indian origin. They are Harbind Khorana for medicine, Amartya Sen for economics and V. Ramakrishnan for chemistry. Another famous Indian citizen who was honored with a Nobel Prize was Mother Teresa. Winners who were born in India but remained foreign citizens are Ronald Ross for medicine and Rudyard Kipling for literature.

The Saga of Peace

The peace prize was one of the original five mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will. Over a hundred recipients have received the honor so far. The award is given from Norway instead of Sweden. For reasons unfathomable, the honorees in this category have been more harshly scrutinized by one group or another every time. Let me confine myself to the recent ones.

In 2010, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese recipient was not permitted to receive the prize by the Chinese government. Xiaobo is still in jail for activity against the government. The latter even set up a contrarian award “equal in value and prestige” to the Nobel prize.
The Burmese pacifist, Aung San Suu Kyi  received the Nobel Peace prize on June 16, 2012, 21 years after she was awarded the prize. For the better part of the last two decades she has been imprisoned. The recent developments in her country, Myanmar, with her release augur well for the future.

In America, three famous recipients have been honored: Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama and Vice President Al Gore. All the Laureates belong to the same political party. The rhetoric from the media and public has been harsh, touting reasons such as extreme party loyalty, ideological intolerance and bigotry. Maybe any or all of these apply.

In this era of quants, perhaps we should attempt to establish a quantifiable index, the “Global Bigotry Index” (GBI) to rank our vitriolic attacks quantitatively. An alternate approach could be to request the late night comedian, David Letterman, with his famous ten point scale to rank them for us.

I have no special skills or training to fathom the unfathomable; the erratic and irrational behavior, individually and collectively by large segments of the population However, I have an intuitive feeling that the viral entity “The First Person Singular Monster,” I, is the culprit.

P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense (India). He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.