C. V. Raman: The Journey Of An Accountant To The Nobel Prize

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  •  Dec 12, 2013
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Great advances in knowledge came through questioning the orthodox view

In 1907, at the age of 18, Chandrasekharavenkata Raman joined the finance department in Calcutta as assistant accountant general. On the way to work one day, he noticed a signboard The Indian Association for Cultivation of Sciences. He had almost abandoned his love for physics when he had appeared for the Civil Services exam. But after a glance at the signboard, he resolved to start his experiments once again. He started using the facilities at the associations premises for conducting scientific experiments, while working full time as accountant. Word of his genius soon spread in academic circles. In 1917, Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, Asutosh Mukherjee invited Raman to join the University of Calcutta as Tarakanath Palit Professor of Physics, and leave his job as an accountant.

However, at that time there was a rule that required a candidate for professorship to be trained in a foreign country. Raman refused to comply. He declared that if his work in India could not be considered for professorship then he would not join the university. Mukherjee, who had discerned Ramans genius got permission to change the rule.

Raman joined the university and went on to do some of his most brilliant work during his tenure. The atmosphere at the university under the leadership of Asutosh Mukherjee was conducive to experimentation and innovation. Ramans research on the scattering of light in liquids eventually led him to the Nobel Prize. Had it not been for Mukherjee, Raman would have probably continued as an accountant. Without the appropriate atmosphere for research, his genius in science would have remained trapped in his role as an accountant.

Today, rules and regulations have made Indian higher education extremely rigid and compartmentalised. Someone who is an accountant cannot dream of becoming a professor of physics. To become a professor of physics, not only does he require a BSc in physics, but an MSc and a PhD as well. One may be conducting the most pathbreaking research as a hobby, but then that is where it will remaina hobby.

A recent Nobel Laureate, India born, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a BSc in physics, an MSc in integrated biology, and got the Nobel for his work in chemistry. True learning and innovation needs freedom and an opportunity to question orthodox views. Rules and regulations are important frameworks to help in the smooth functioning of academia, but there should always be scope for exceptions.

With inputs from Dr Rajasekharan Pillai, VC IGNOU. This section has been introduced in EDU as a result of our interaction with Dr Pillai who suggested that we highlight provocative stories from Indian higher education that can catalyse change and spur new thinking.

If you would like to share similar stories with readers of this publication, please write to the Editor, EDU at editor@edu-leaders.com

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