When I was referred to a documentary film on India’s scientific greats by its maker Raja Choudhury this week, I was wondering if there’d be anything beyond what I already know about them in the hour-long film. To find this out, it also meant dedicating an hour to watch the film on YouTube with its infamous buffering time. But I was ready to endure that, partly because the title of the film was inviting — The Quantum Indians — and partly because I had not been able to take up Raja’s earlier offer to feature in this film as an ‘expert’ on India’s science. After watching the film today, I am happy I declined that offer — it would have been audacious for me to talk about Indian science’s legendary trio — Satyendra Nath Bose, Chandrashekar Venkat Raman and Meghnad Saha — whose life and times Raja has so aesthetically weaved on celluloid.
First up, things that you might or might not have heard about these greats — Raman was a supreme egotist, Saha loved mathematics as much as he dug history, Bose tore off a scientific paper of significance and threw it in the bin when he heard of Einstein’s death. And similar anecdotes, which lend the film a human touch.
‘The Quantum Indians’ traces the scientific legacy of India through the lives of these scientists, all of whom “fought colonialism, British rule, racism, inadequate funding and limited resources to place India at the cutting edge of world science more than 20 years before Independence.” And it does so by going back in time to see what life was like for Bose, Raman and Saha — all starting their careers at the Calcutta University in 1917 and going on to become Fellows of the Royal Society. Raman also won India her sole science Nobel till date.
Contemporary scientists and India’s science establishment who, quite often, face the embarrassing question “Why hasn’t India got a Nobel in science after Raman?” have lessons to learn from him. Not just from his immense dedication and scientific genius. But also from the way Raman ‘pushed’ what he thought was a Nobel winning discovery and made sure he had the attention of people who mattered in the Western world. In short, creating a buzz about his work. The film talks at some length about Raman’s concerted quest for the Nobel — how he wrote to industrialist G D Birla asking him to fund a spectrograph in return for a promise to win a Nobel for India, how he sent a paper to Nature via telegram to beat anyone else with a similar idea, how he sought out Nobel Laureates such as Ernest Rutherford and Neils Bohr asking them to nominate him for the Nobel. And how he called a press conference to claim that he had made a significant discovery — a candidate for a Nobel — eventually getting the attention of acclaimed physicists such as Albert Einstein and Arnold Sommerfeld, who backed him.
Raman is the only one of whom we see some significant live footage, presumably from his post-Nobel television interviews to the Western press. He is introduced as a man of many contradictions — “a great teacher but an intolerant perfectionist, a simple man at heart but a supreme egotist, a recluse who loved children and teaching. But without doubt a genius.”
Through interviews with leading contemporary scientists — Partha Ghose (also Bose’s last PhD student), Milan Sanyal, G. Srinivasan, Kankan Bhattacharya, N. Kumar and Sandip Chakrabarti — Raja has tried to bring out the scientific and social sides of the trio. Also featuring in the documentary is Bose’s grandson Falguni Sarkar taking viewers around Bose’s ancestral home in Calcutta. The city — epicentre of the Bengal Renaissance — has an interesting scientific legacy but has seen some reversals in recent times. The film could serve as a tool to inspire young scientists to get their act together.
Bose, who lends ‘bosons’ his name, (and there has been significant debate in India about why he shouldn’t be nominated for a Nobel too) is called a ‘forgotten hero’ in a BBC footage in the film. I like the way Partha Ghose describes the last paper written by Bose — the one he tore off on hearing of Einstein’s death. Ghose calls it the ‘unfinished symphony’, much in line with Bose’s other passions — the Esraj and the flute.
Of the three, Saha seems to be the one most comfortable with administration and science policy making. He is credited with bolstering India’s scientific infrastructure, forming the backbone of its atomic energy policies and even joining politics with the ambition of strengthening India’s scientific prowess. It is befitting then that the scientist who loved history as much as mathematics died of a heart attack on the stairs of the Planning Commission. Just like the Rajput warriors who happily die on battleground, the narrative notes.
Barring the western pronunciation of Indian names, which sticks out like a sore thumb in most Western productions, I relished the film, primarily for its intense research and scientific clarity. It was previewed at The Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science to celebrate their Foundation Day on July 29, 2013. You can watch it free on YouTube here.