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Pioneers of Indian Science – Part 3

Sir K.S. Krishnan 

Everyone knows the story of Sir C.V. Raman which in many ways is the history of the beginning of organized science in India and also the emergence of revolutionary concepts like quantum theory and relativity in physics. But not many know that Raman had an outstanding collaborator in K.S. Krishnan; their studies on scattering of light by liquids led to the discovery of Raman Effect in 1928 and subsequent award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Raman. Krishnan played an important role in the development of science and technology in India. He was deeply associated with the premier scientific/educational organizations in the country like the Atomic Energy Commission, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the University Grants Commission. 

Early career and association with Raman

Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan generally referred to as K. S. Krishnan was born on 4 December 1898 in Watrap, Tamil Nadu. His father was a farmer-scholar deeply versed in Tamil literature. He had his early education in Hindu Higher Secondary school, in Watrap, after which he attended the American College in Madurai and the Madras Christian College for his  Master’s degree in Physics. Krishnan started his career as a research scholar with C.V. Raman in the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) during 1923 – 1928. Arnold Sommerfeld the noted German theoretical physicist visited Calcutta in October 1928 to give lectures on ‘Modern Developments in Wave Mechanics’. Krishnan assisted Sommerfeld to prepare a book based on the lectures for publication by the Calcutta University. It was not just simply reproduction of the lectures. He developed the lectures in an independent and original way, supplying new and elegant mathematical proofs. Sommerfeld deeply appreciated Krishnan’s originality and scholarship and offered to publish the book under joint authorship. However, Krishnan politely declined  the offer. 

Though Krishnan’s substantial contribution to Raman’s work was recognized by Raman himself and others at IACS, Krishnan realized that he had to come out of Raman’s orbit to establish his own reputation and therefore started looking for research positions elsewhere. He sought the post of Reader in Physics in University of Dacca. Krishnan received from Raman a recommendation that any scientist would cherish to have, that too coming from a Nobel laureate. Raman wrote “Krishnan is in the laboratory an experimenter of rare skill and judgement, and in the library and seminar room, a mathematical physicist with a penetrating insight who can present a topic to the listeners with the utmost lucidity and verve. His real place in life is that of a teacher and a researcher in a university and if he gets such a place, he will never stop climbing”.

Crucial contributions to Indian science

For five years Krishnan worked as Reader in the University of Dacca where S.N. Bose was the head of the Department of Physics. It is amazing the way Krishnan switched his area of studies from one to another. In this short of span of five years and with modest infrastructure, he produced twelve research papers and ten brief notes in reputed journals which formed part of his thesis for D.Sc. degree from University of Madras. Like many other eminent physicists Krishnan could make huge contributions to diverse fields such as light scattering in liquids, crystal magnetism, electrical resistivity in metals, lattice oscillations in ionic crystals, and thermionic properties of metals and semi conductors. He developed elegant and precise experimental technique to measures the magnetic anisotropy of dia – and paramagnetic crystals. The research papers published by him and his co-workers  are considered to be foundation stones of the modern fields of crystal magnetism and magneto chemistry. The quality of his research was such that giants like Pauling and William Bragg cited his works. He was equally strong in experimental and theoretical aspects. Speaking on his work on band-limited functions, Bhabha and Lonsdale have observed that “ Krishnan loved mathematical reasoning and his skill as a mathematician would have gained him international recognition even without his greater ability as an experimental physicist. He was deeply moved by a product of pure mathematical interest thrown up during a physical investigation”. He came back to IACS in 1933 and served as M.L. Sarkar Professor of Physics till 1942. Then he moved to the University of Allahabad to lead the Physics Department as a Professor. In 1947 he became the first director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), New Delhi.

When H.J. Bhabha came into India in 1939 for his annual holidays, he could not go back due to the out break of war in Europe. He delivered a series of lectures in the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in the beginning of 1940. At the invitation of Krishnan, Bhabha attended the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress Association at Chennai in 1940 where he could interact there with a large number of scientists. When Atomic Energy Commission was first constituted in 1948 with Bhabha as Chairman, Krishnan was a natural choice to serve the Commission as a member along with Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. It is well known that Bhabha and Meghnad Saha were having divergent views on the way the atomic energy programme was sought to be developed in the beginning. While Bhabha’s plans were centered around the creation of a government department of atomic energy and a high powered atomic energy commission, Saha opposed such a move and preferred a university centric growth of atomic energy in the country. It was in this context that a National Symposium on Atomic Energy was organised at the instance of the then Prime Minister Nehru on November 26-27, 1954 at NPL. The meeting was attended by more than hundred participants including Nehru, his cabinet colleagues, MPs, defence officials, representatives from industries, and a large number of eminent scientists and engineers. Bhabha made a detailed presentation of the blue print prepared by the department for harnessing the atomic energy for the benefit of the country. While Nehru was quite impressed by the presentation made by Bhabha and his colleagues, the proceedings were marked by some acrimonious debate. It was Krishnan, the host at the venue with his characteristic and charming style, who brought the curtain down on the proceedings with a fervent appeal to the scientists to embark on the research work instead of engaging in endless debates. India’s first reactor, a swimming-pool type, went critical on 4th August 1956 and was given the name ‘Apsara’ by Krishnan.

During the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of IISc (founded in 1909), public lectures were arranged in the evening. On one such evening two lectures had been arranged, one by Bhabha on the Economics of Atomic Power in India and, the other by Krishnan on the Physics at the Turn of the Century. The two lectures were delivered in their own characteristic styles and were heard with rapt attention. Krishnan’s View on Role of  Basic Science in Society

Krishnan chose the theme “The Place Of Fundamental Research In Industrial Progress” for the Sri Krishnarajendra Silver Jubilee Lecture ,1941 at Mysore. His thought provoking lecture was widely acclaimed and its  message was so relevant for the nation at that juncture. Here are some extracts : “In order that the results of fundamental research may reach industries, we naturally need a large group of scientific men, fully equipped with the available knowledge of fundamental sciences, who will apply them for  industrial purposes—that is ad hoc researchers, who will take up problems that are of importance to the industries and tackle them. These ad hoc researchers serve a very useful purpose,  and it is to them that we owe much of the gradual filtration of the results of fundamental research into the industries, and also the ultimate spreading of the fruits of science to the various spheres of human activity. Particularly in India, which is industrially so backward, we need many more of such ad hoc researchers… it is to science that most civilized countries owe their standards of living….”

Krishnan was an important member of the Indian delegation to 2nd International Conference on Peaceful uses of Atomic Energy held in Geneva in 1958. He and P.C. Mahalanobis were official delegates of India to the first Pugwash Conference held in Austria.

A multifaceted personality

Krishnan was an astonishingly multifaceted personality. In spite of his intense research, academic, and organizational activities, Krishnan devoted enough time to pursue his keen interests in philosophy, literature and classical music. He had read large number of works in English literature. He was well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil literature too. He wrote regularly scholarly articles in Tamil and gave often discourses on the Vishishtadvaita philosophy. He drew the admiration of eminent personalities like Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). He was an avid fan of several sports. He loved much to play tennis, football and bridge.

Nehru said on one occasion : “I don’t remember meeting Krishnan on any occasion when he did not tell me a new story…Krishnan a man of so many facets, was particularly blessed , not because he had great success, but because he has got something inside him for the possession of which we sometimes envy him”. 

Honours and Awards

Krishnan received a number of honours both in India and abroad. In 1937, Krishnan was invited by Lord Rutherford to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and by Sir William Lawrence Bragg to the Royal Institution, London, to give lectures.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1940. He was Knighted in 1946 by the British government. In 1948 he became the General President of Indian Science Congress. The title of Padma Bhusan was awarded to him by the Govt. of India in 1954. The US National Academy of Science invited Krishnan to be the guest of honour in 1955, at their annual meet. He was specially flown over to America for the purpose. It was a rare privilege. There he delivered a lecture on cultural values in technical education. Krishnan was the first recipient of the Bhatnagar Memorial Award in 1961. The Govt. of India made him a National Professor. Krishnan  was a founder member of the International Union of Crystallography. He was President of the Indian National Academy of Sciences. He was the Vice President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and International Council of Scientific Unions.

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