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VOL. XXIV NO. 19, January 16-31, 2015
The birth of Matscience

Krishnaswami Alladi describes the story of the birth of MATSCIENCE, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the efforts of his father, Professor Alladi Ramakrishnan, and the role of his Theoretical Physics Seminar in the creation of this Institute in Madras on January 3, 1962.

(Continued from last fortnight)

Almost from the start of his tenure at the University of Madras, Prof. Alladi Ramakrishnan actively participated in several conferences throughout India. At one of the meetings of the Indian Academy of Sciences he presented a talk on his new work on Inverse Probability. Sir C.V. Raman, founder of the Academy, was impressed by the presentation, and so, in 1954, had him proposed for election as Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences. Within a few weeks Father received a letter from Sir Raman informing him of his election as Fellow.

To inspire his students, and to strengthen his own research programme, Ramakrishnan was keen to get eminent physicists from overseas to visit the University of Madras.

Author with Professor Neils Bohr.

In 1954-55, three world famous physicists who were visiting India came to Madras for lectures and spent time at his family home for leisurely and prolonged discussions on modern physics. They were Nobel Laureates P. A. M. Dirac and C. F. Powell, and Sir Mark Oliphant.

In December 1954, Professor Dirac, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, gave a lecture at Senate House of the University of Madras. The Senate House overflowed and many listeners heard the lecture on loudspeakers while in their cars on the parking lot! Dirac was the first international physicist to visit our family home.

A natural consequence of Father’s visit to Australia was Sir Mark Oliphant’s acceptance to deliver the Rutherford Memorial Lecture at the University of Madras in early 1955. Professor Oliphant stayed at Ekamra Nivas and, being a vegetarian himself, enjoyed the fare offered at our home. Then in December 1955, Nobel Laureate C. F. Powell visited and lectured at the University of Madras.

The visits of Dirac, Oliphant and Powell were the informal beginning of the Theoretical Physics Seminar, although the seminar formally began only in 1959.

* * *

In 1956 Father went on what was to be the first of many academic trips around the world and it was to prove the most significant and influential trip in his carreer.

The trip began in February 1956 with a six-week stay at the famous Yukawa Hall in Kyoto, which was the Institute headed by Nobel Laureate Hideki Yukawa. The atmosphere of Yukawa Hall with its steady stream of eminent visiting scientists, and the inspiration they provided to the many young Japanese scientists, greatly influenced Prof. Ramakrishnan. During the speech given by Ramakrishnan some years later at the inauguration of MATSCIENCE, he said: “In the ’domestic’ environment of the Yukawa Hall, young Japanese physicists, the hope and pride of their country, just resurrected from the second World War, gathered together in enlightened leisure to discuss the most abstruse problems of modern physics. That strange enchantment... (made me) play with the idea of creating something like the Yukawa Hall in my own home town.

From California, Ramakrishnan flew to Rochester to participate in the High Energy Physics Conference.

There he met Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He later wrote in his Diary: “It was during lunch time that a fortuitous incident occurred which altered the course of my scientific career. Since I was a stranger to the group of high energy physicists, I sat alone at a separate table in the cafeteria when Oppenheimer walked in, and with a politeness characteristic of true greatness, asked me whether he could join me for lunch at the table. When he asked me what my future plans were, I took the opportunity to express to him my desire to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study. Though I was a seasoned probabilist, I was only a novice in relativistic quantum mechanics. I wanted to learn from the high powered seminars (at Princeton) rather than go through the grinding mill of graduate courses. My ambition was to be realised a year later when I received from him a gracious invitation.”

From Rochester Father went to Boston and then to Chicago to meet the great astrophysicist Chandrasekhar. Although Father had corresponded with Chandrasekhar and had published papers in the Astrophysical Journal, it was his first meeting with Chandrasekhar. There, at the University, he heard Chandrasekhar’s lecture on radiation theory and was struck by his thoroughness in preparing even regular seminar lectures. Chandra, as he was popularly known, took Father to Yerkes Observatory where he worked with a team of observational astronomers to confirm his scientific theories.

This academic tour had a profound effect on Father’s career and research, as well as on his PhD students.

* * *

In February 1957, Prof. Ramakrishnan received a letter from Robert Oppenheimer, inviting him to visit the Institute for Advanced Study for the academic year 1957-58. He applied to the Asia Foundation for the travel grant to go to Princeton, and a grant-in-aid to defray his living expenses for the year.

The academic year 1957-58 that Ramakrishnan spent at Princeton was a turning point in his career. He heard over one hundred lectures at seminars at the Institute by the leaders of modern physics on the latest and most important developments. T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang were in residence at the Institute and everyone was excited about their recent sensational discovery of non-conservation of parity and wondered whether they would win the Nobel Prize, which they did that year.

Einstein, the most celebrated of the members of the Institute, had died in 1955, and so Father did not get an opportunity to meet him. Instead he got to meet Robert Oppenheimer whose presence dominated most of the seminars. In his Diary, Ramakrishnan describes his contact with Oppenheimer at the Institute: “My meeting with Oppenheimer fulfilled my expectations about this legendary figure who dominated not only American science, but influenced the destiny of the world as the architect of the atom bomb. Lean and of medium height, he had an oval head, prominent cheek bones and piercing eyes. He could pick his men while lighting his pipe, each for the appointed task according to his talent and inclination, from a Nobel prizeman to a truck driver. He was magnanimous in providing opportunities for young scientists, and enjoyed discussions at every seminar where his very presence invited impartial criticism...

“His intellectual interests ranged from theoretical physics to Hindu philosophy, and in Rabi’s estimate he understood the whole structure of physics with absolute clarity....It was said that he had two passions – physics and the desert! He found the one in the other when at the age of forty he was called upon to undertake at Los Alamos a task unprecedented in its objective, undefined in its scope, unpredictable in its consequences – the creation of the atom bomb. It was a leap into the unchartered future of mankind and he achieved it with the pragmatism of an American and the vision of a universalist. Tormented by moral ambiguities, he found his haven at the Institute for Advanced Study, the environment to which he belonged...”

The one year in Princeton exposed Ramakrishnan to the revolutionary developments in elementary particle physics, and the opportunity to hear about these developments in seminars delivered by the makers of modern physics. In addition, he had also the opportunity to visit other centres of learning and make further new contacts that helped his own research programme and the career of his students.

In April 1958 after having been infected with the seminar spirit at the Institute for Advanced Study, Father returned to India full of visions to create in Madras a centre for advanced learning that would have the spirit of Princeton. This dream that began in Fall 1958 and became a reality four years later through the Theoretical Physics Seminar that he conducted at Ekamra Nivas.

(To be continued)

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In this issue

Buckingham Canal highs and lows
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
The importance of being smart
A trail of hope
Why can't Tamil Nadu villages aim to be like these?
How the Buckingham Canal was born
The birth of Matscience

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Short 'N' Snappy
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