Interview With Professor K. R. Ramanathan
The Editor of the WMO Bulletin had to travel to Ahmedabad which is approximately one hour's flying time to the north of Bombay. The plane landed at about 8 p.m. on Sunday 28 February 1982 which happened to be Professor Ramanathan's 89th birthday. The next morning Professor Ramanathan came personally to the hotel to take the Editor to his office at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), where he is emeritus professor. To the Editor's great surprise, he found that Professor P. R. Pisharoty, also an emeritus professor, shared an office with Professor Ramanathan. Apparently these two great scientists have worked in the same office for the past sixteen years; Professor Pisharoty affirms that he had been experiencing the exhilarating presence of the grand old man. Their desks were joined together in the form of an L. Both desks carried a mountain of publications. Their occasional exchanges of conversation were cordial and full of respect. Apparently Professor Ramanathan still does a great deal of reading, both at the office and at home, and summarizes his findings for Professor Pisharoty every morning.
For those readers who do not know Professor Ramanathan in person, the following cursory notes may be of assistance.
Professor Kalapathi Ramakrishna Ramanathan was born on 28 February 1893. His father was a Sanskrit scholar of eminence, who lectured, started a Sanskrit press and applied innovative methods in teaching Sanskrit and vedantic and devotional literature. Ramanathan was greatly influenced by his father. He had his primary school education in Kalpathi and won a scholarship and also a prize for his handwriting, which remains beautiful even today. He obtained a B.A. (Hons.) in physics and mathematics in 1914 at the Presidency College in Madras. He started his career as a demonstrator in physics in the same year at the Maharaja's College at Trivandrum. His interest in meteorology and other activities at the observatory in Trivandrum made the authorities appoint him as an honorary director. His first paper, on thunderstorms over Kerala, was probably published in 1919 and so he has an unbroken record of scientific research work covering more than six decades. In November 1921, Ramanathan took leave from Trivandrum and joined Professor C. V. Raman in Calcutta as a research scholar. This was a major step in the young man's life. In one year he published about a dozen substantial papers on molecular scattering and X-ray diffraction, which won for him the first D.Sc. degree conferred by the University of Madras. For three years Ramanathan filled a post of assistant professor of physics at Rangoon University, but he maintained close contact with Raman. Then, in 1925 he was appointed a senior scientist in the India Meteorological Department and served there with distinction until he retired on 28 February 1948, having reached the age of 55.
The very next day Professor Ramanathan started a new life as director of the newly-formed Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad. He retired from that position in 1966 but, as we have seen, continues to work at the PRL as emeritus professor.
In his own country. Professor Ramanathan has served as president of the mathematics and physics section at the Indian Science Congress at Lahore in 1939; Founder Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences and of the National Institute of Sciences of India; chairman of the Central Board of Geophysics (now called the Geophysical Research Board) from 1957 to 1972; chairman of a number of committees of the Indian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; chairman of the Board of Nuclear Sciences of the Department of Atomic Energy from 1961 to 1968 and chairman of the Indian National Committee for the International Hydrological Decade and the IHP from 1965 to 1976.
Further afield, he was elected president of the IUGG International Association of Meteorology from 1951 to 1954; president of IUGG itself from 1954 to 1957 and president of the International Ozone Commission from 1960 to 1967 (of which he is now honorary member).
During the Second World War, Ramanathan gave of his best to the war effort in meteorology. In recognition of his outstanding service and scientific eminence, the Government of India awarded him the title Dewan Bahadur. He became a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1960 and the following year he was chosen winner of the IMO Prize by the WMO Executive Committee. Finally the Government of India conferred on him the Padma Bhushan award in 1965 and Padma Vibhusan in 1976.
Professor Ramanathan's contribution to scientific knowledge is unique and will be cherished by the present and future generations. India has its place in the world of science and should be proud of the dedicated services rendered by eminent scientists like Ramanathan.
He is a benevolent and understanding person, who has won the devotion of a wide circle of scientists in India and abroad. The great kindness he shows to those who seek his help is proverbial. His mature guidance is still in demand.
The Editor is extremely grateful both to Professor Ramanathan for having participated in this series of interviews and to Professor Pisharoty for his invaluable collaboration. May we wish these two eminent scientists continued success and constant good health.
H.T. — Professor Ramanathan, perhaps you could start by telling me something about your childhood and your parents.
K.R.R. — I was born on 28 February 1893 in a village called Kalpathi in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The village stands on the bank of a river, with hills on the farther side. I spent the first 16 years of my life in this equatorial monsoon area. My ancestors belonged to a family of Hindu Brahmins who migrated to Palghat from Singanallur on the eastern side of the Ghats. My father's grandmother lost her husband soon after she became pregnant, and she trekked in that condition from Singanallur through the jungles of the Western Ghats to Palghat, where her brother had settled as a Vedic priest. My father was also trained in the classical tradition of Vedic Sanskrit, but being of an enquiring turn of mind, became an eminent Sanskrit scholar as well as an expert in astronomy and astrology. He was equally at home in the Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam languages. I was the only boy in the family, but I had five sisters, one older than me, the others younger. Shortly before I was born my parents and grandparents went on a pilgrimage to Rameswaram, and there I experienced in utero a Bay of Bengal cyclone. I went to primary and lower secondary school in Kalpathi, where I managed to win a scholarship and also a prize for handwriting. Then I went to Victoria College, Palghat, for my high school and intermediate classes.
H.T. — Which subjects did you choose?
K.R.R. — I took mathematics, physics and chemistry as main subjects. However, we also had a certain amount of physiology to learn, including laboratory work. Because the physiology teacher was an orthodox Brahmin and would have nothing to do with dissecting animals, he had to get the assistance of a practising doctor to cut up frogs and rats to demonstrate anatomy. In 1911, I was lucky enough to get enrolled for a B.A. honours degree course in physics (there was no B.Sc. then) at the prestigious Presidency College in Madras. The professor of physics, a Professor Jones, was also in charge of the Madras Observatory. There we were shown the barometer and other instruments, and given some elementary instruction in meteorology, for instance the difference in the periods and quantities of rainfall between Madras on the east coast and our home town near the west coast of the Indian peninsula. When I took my degree finals in 1914, one of the examiners was Professor Stephenson from the Maharaja's College in Trivandrum. He must have liked my work, because immediately after the results were announced he offered me a job as demonstrator in physics at that college. I accepted and started immediately, I was happy to be in Trivandrum, and my father liked it too—the Maharajas of Travancore were patrons of Sanskrit scholarship. I enjoyed my work at the college.
H.T. — Did you do any research in Trivandrum?
K.R.R. — I had no research guide, but enough academic freedom to do as I wanted. I did a few research experiments and also gained expertise in laboratory skills such as glass-blowing. There was an observatory in Trivandrum for astronomy, meteorology and geomagnetism. A Scottish professor named John Allan Broun had come to southern India to study geomagnetism near the Equator, and also to make meteorological observations at different levels up to about 1800 m on the slopes of the Western Ghats. I became interested in his observations and those which had subsequently been made at the observatory, and found that the frequency of thunderstorms and heavy rain was greatest in May and October. My first published paper was on this subject. I was able to visit most of the raingauges in the state of Travancore (as it then was), many of which were located at European plantations, and I prepared quite a detailed rainfall map of the area. I was also able to point out an error that was being made in the humidity data released by the observatory for publication. The authorities appreciated my interest and made me honorary director of the Trivandrum observatory in 1918.
H.T. — I have been told that Professor C. V. Raman was your hero even in your early students days. Is that so?
K.R.R. — That is perfectly true. As you are no doubt aware, Sir Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman F. R. S. was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1930 for his work on the scattering of light, when he described what is now known as the 'Raman effect'. Whilst I was at Trivandrum I studied with great interest Professor Raman's articles in Nature and other scientific journals. Later I did some work myself on the scattering of light, and corresponded with Professor Raman. When he became professor of physics in 1921 he asked me whether I would not like to go and work with him at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Calcutta. I obtained leave from the authorities at Trivandrum, and the University of Madras was good enough to give me a research scholarship, and with this I went north to Calcutta.
H.T. — What happened then?
K.R.R. — Well, I arrived in Calcutta on a November afternoon and Professor Raman happened to be away. However, I met Mr L. A. Ramdas who was working for his M.Sc. at Calcutta University. He showed me around and invited me to stay at his home. His parents welcomed me very warmly; as it happened his father was a great admirer and friend of my father. After a few days Professor Raman returned to Calcutta and at once invited me to stay with him. I could not have chosen a better time to start my research in Calcutta. Professor Raman had just communicated his epoch-making paper Molecular scattering of light in water and the colour of the sea for publication in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and he was furiously working out an exciting research programme on the phenomenon since he was fully convinced that critical laboratory investigations of the scattering of light by various substances in solid, liquid or gaseous form was bound to lead to a deeper understanding of the structure of the molecules. He was also working on his famous book Molecular diffraction of light which was published during the early months of 1922. With prophetic vision, Raman outlined the many fields of work that were to keep him and his many disciples enthusiastically occupied for the next twelve years. Even the quantum aspects were foreshadowed, and the germs of the 'Raman effect', not actually postulated until 1928, could be traced back to this book.
H.T. — I believe you undertook investigations on the scattering of light and submitted your D.Sc. thesis in record time?
H.T. — In 1922 you took up a post in the University of Rangoon. Was this for financial reasons or was it the challenge?
K.R.R. — My salary from Trivandrum was very small and I badly needed to increase my income for my family, so when a visiting professor asked me whether I could fill a post at Rangoon I put it to Professor Raman who agreed that in the circumstances I had better accept. Therefore I left before the end of the year to become assistant lecturer in physics at the University of Rangoon. I should add that at that time Burma was still a province of India. Fortunately I could keep up my connexion with Professor Raman and his group, and besides using my free time at Rangoon for continuing research on light-scattering, I spent my vacations at Calcutta. In fact, on the sea voyage between the two places I made observations of the reflected light from the sea and took samples of the water. I noted the transition from the pure blue of the deep part of the Bay of Bengal to light of a slightly longer wavelength (towards green) as we approached the coast. In September 1923 I published a paper on these observations in the Philosophical Magazine. I treasure the memories of these vacation visits since they provided me with the opportunity for interesting discussions of our research problem; we had the bond of a common quest and complete mutual understanding.
H.T. — It was at this time that you thought of studying the scattering of light by pure water?
K.R.R. — Yes, it was during my visit to Calcutta in the summer of 1923 that I concentrated on an intensive examination of the molecular diffraction of light by water. I found some unexpected polarization effects, and in an attempt to explain this I was led to suspect weak fluorescence being mixed up with the normal scattering. So I set myself the task of eliminating any possibility of effects due to fluorescent impurities. However, under the powerful mental concentration of Professor Raman, this phenomenon was explained by the scattered light undergoing modification in its wavelength as the consequence of the water molecules absorbing energy corresponding to their characteristic infra-red oscillations. In other words the 'Raman effect'. I thoroughly enjoyed my periodic visits to Calcutta. After a hard working day, we used to spend the evenings walking to the Calcutta Maidan1. Occasionally we went to the cinema. We were a happy and jolly group. I remember that one of us, Ashu Babu by name, had a weakness for second-hand articles because they were so much cheaper. On one occasion he made us eat second-hand, over-ripe bananas and lozenges, with disastrous results on the health of all of us. Another incident that I recall is when we were walking in town and I unwittingly put my left foot almost in the mouth of one of those powerful temple bulls that roam the streets of Calcutta. This one was lying quietly on the sidewalk, and as my foot came down uttered a very loud roar of protest. I was so surprised that I leapt six feet into the air, landing neatly on the other side of the offended creature. I was complimented on my agility.
H.T. — When did you join the India Meteorological Department?
K.R.R. — Sir Gilbert Walker, then Director-General of Observatories, came to Rangoon in 1923 with Dr (later Sir Charles) Normand, a senior meteorologist in the India Meteorological Department. They were anxious to recruit Indian scientists (up to that time practically all the senior posts were occupied by British people) and they offered me a Class I position in the Department. After consulting Professor Raman I accepted the offer, and moved to Simla in 1925, which in those days was where the headquarters of the India Meteorological Department was located. I could still carry on some work on light-scattering, and my paper Sky illumination of sunrise and sunset was published as a memoir of the Department. I would like to point out that in the 1920s and even later, the number of universities and research institutions in India was very small indeed, so that many young and accomplished physicists of the time had no option but to join the Meteorological Department. I am glad to say that the situation has now improved enormously in this respect. Anyway, it was not very long before I moved again, this time to Bombay to take charge of the Colaba and Alibag observatories.
H.T. — I believe that about this time you entered the field of upper-air meteorology?
This permitted charts showing mean upper winds to be published which were used by weather forecasters throughout India. Pune was a good educational centre and many physics graduates from local colleges came to us as voluntary postgraduate research scholars. We carried out some investigations in atmospheric physics and thermodynamics, radiative exchanges, solar and terrestrial radiation, and so forth. The outcome was a flow of publications by my collaborators and myself during the next two decades. You should remember that the Meteorological Department was then also responsible for activities in other disciplines, notably geomagnetism and solar physics. As well as being in charge of the Colaba and Alibag magnetic and seismological observatories I was also for a short time director of the Kodaikanal solar physics observatory. I hope I was to a certain extent instrumental in these two institutions having since become the autonomous Indian Institute of Geomagnetism and Indian Institute of Astrophysics.
H.T. — When did you do your work on tropical cyclones?
K.R.R. — At the same time that I was preparing the mean upper-wind charts, I was carrying out investigations into the structure of typical depressions. I was looking into the relationship between the upper-air field and disturbances on the synoptic scale. This led on to documenting case-studies of tropical cyclones and trying to fathom out their structure, movement and evolution. I remember that I organized a special investigation of the Bay of Bengal storm which crossed the coast of India on 13 November 1933. Ten meteorograph ascents were made from Madras on this occasion, and we subsequently had animated discussions on all the data we obtained.
H.T. — What led you to become interested in atmospheric ozone?
K.R.R. — We had realized that there was absorption of solar radiation in the upper atmosphere. Then I learnt with interest of the work of scientists such as Dobson in England and Vassy in France on atmospheric ozone, and at the beginning of the 1930s we started to make our own ozone observations at Kodaikanal, Pune and Delhi. By the mid-1940s we had devised ways of correcting observations for atmospheric scattering by aerosols and so could continue our observations even under conditions of turbidity.
H.T. — So this brings us to the time of the Second World War. How did this affect your work?
K.R.R. — During the war I was given the designation Superintending Meteorologist, and I assisted Sir Charles Normand during those difficult years. Sir Charles left in 1944 and I was then given the job of planning the reorganization of the Meteorological Department so as to improve weather services for the country. That went on until I retired from the India Meteorological Department on 28 February 1948, having reached the age of 55, which in those days was the age when one was superannuated.
H.T. — For you, however, it was no more than a milestone in your career since I understand that the following day, 1 March 1948, you were appointed director of the newly-formed Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad.
K.R.R. — Shortly before I retired from the Department I had met Dr Vikram A. Sarabhai, and it was through him that I was offered the post in Ahmedabad. The purpose was to build up a new centre to carry out research into unsolved problems of the Earth's atmosphere, the ionosphere, cosmic rays and so on. Just about the same time I received another invitation, this time from Dr M. S. Jayakar, vice-chancellor of the University of Pune, who wanted me to organize and direct a faculty of physics at the university. However I had already accepted the offer from Ahmedabad and so had to decline. With enthusiastic co-operation from Dr Sarabhai, and financial support by industrial enterprises wishing to see Ahmedabad develop as an intellectual centre, I was privileged to be director of the Physical Research Laboratory as it grew from modest beginnings to become one of the finest research laboratories in India where a great number of highly competent people carry out research work under conditions of complete intellectual freedom.
H.T. — Is it true that up to the time of your retirement from the Meteorological Department in 1948 you had never gone abroad?
K.R.R. — That is absolutely true, if you remember that Burma formed part of India between 1886 and 1937. Many of my colleagues find it difficult to believe that my first visit abroad was in 1948 when the PRL sent me on a study tour to Europe to see what developments were taking place in the subjects we wished to cover. During the trip I visited the National Physics Laboratory in England and saw that they were developing an automatic ionospheric recorder. I ordered one of these for the PRL, and with this as impetus the ionospheric group was formed at Ahmedabad. I was also able to attend the eighth General Assembly of IUGG at Oslo were I presented a paper written by Dr R. V. Karandikar and myself on the work done in India on atmospheric ozone. The International Association of Meteorology (as it then was) elected me its vice-president.
India was among the countries which readily agreed to participate, and a National IGY Committee was formed by the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The Committee had its headquarters in New Delhi, and I was designated president. It continued in existence until 1978.
H.T. — Could we now come back to what goes on at this Physical Research Laboratory; for the benefit of readers perhaps you could say something about the institution?
K.R.R. — The PRL was founded in November 1947, on the initiative of Dr Sarabhai whom I mentioned a moment ago. It stemmed from an agreement between the Karmakshetra Education Foundation and the Ahmedabad Education Society—both non-governmental bodies. Today it is maintained as a public trust under a quadripartite agreement, with grants from the Foundation and the Society as well as from the Government of Gujarat State, and the Government of India through its Department of Space. At present there are about 120 scientists, supported by nearly 400 scientific, technical and other staff. Being a meteorologist, I brought with me a considerable amount of meteorological equipment when I was appointed director in 1948, and we set up a micrometeorological field station on the campus. Meteorological parameters were very important in studying their effects on the cosmic ray measurements conducted by Dr Sarabhai. In addition to regular meteorological observations, we made special boundary-layer measurements using a tower and balloons. I also brought with me an ozone spectrometer, and after we had improved it we made regular observations at Ahmedabad. Then, when we realized that better observations could be obtained from a site with less atmospheric turbidity, we took the instrument to Mount Abu, about 200 km north of Ahmedabad and at a height of some 1200 metres. In 1955 a second ozone observation station was set up another 1000 km further north at Gulmarg (near Srinagar) at 2650 metres. Meanwhile, the India Meteorological Department maintained ozone stations at Delhi, Kodaikanal and Calcutta, and there was another run by the Hindu University at Varanasi (formerly Benares). I served as the principal co-ordinator for work on ozone in India. As for airglow studies, I made the first low-latitude airglow and spectrum analysis at Pune back in 1930, and these studies were continued by some of my students in Pune who determined variations of airglow by visual and photographic methods. Then Dandekar and Bhonshe constructed a modern type of photoelectric sensor, and systematic observations were taken during the period 1956-1959 which, of course, included the IGY. The ionospheric group at the PRL started its work in the early part of 1951. With Sitharam I analysed the available ionospheric data at low-latitude stations in India in order to find how the maximum density varied with latitude and season and so on. The total solar eclipse of 25 February 1952 gave a big impetus to this study, which was repeated during subsequent eclipses. In due course the rocket-launching station was set up at Thumba, near Trivandrum (also close to the magnetic equator), and at my suggestion an ionospheric research station was established nearby which has helped us greatly in understanding the dynamics of the low-latitude ionosphere. During the early period, the overall programme of the Laboratory was an integrated study of the different kinds of radiation—corpuscular and electromagnetic—received at the Earth's surface, and the effects of this radiation. This concept is nicely conveyed by the Laboratory's symbol representing the sun and the Earth and their interaction. The PRL has now developed its research programmes to cover a wide spectrum of disciplines such as aeronomy, archaeology, astronomy, astrophysics, atomic physics, climatology, cosmophysics, geomagnetism, hydrology, meteorology, molecular physics, nuclear geophysics and nuclear and plasma physics.
H.T. — I understand that the PRL is also involved in space research studies.
K.R.R. — That is true. Since 1962 the Laboratory has played an important role in the country's space research activities. That year Dr Sarabhai became chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and entrusted the planning, management and execution of space research activities to the Laboratory. In fact the PRL became the cradle for the ISRO, generating as it did a large number of qualified scientists through their participation in space research activities. The involvement of the PRL in the IGY, and my personal contacts with IUGG, contributed significantly to building up our pool of scientific personnel. In 1972 the Indian Government created a new Department of Space. In 1966, when I resigned the directorship of the PRL, handing it over to Dr Sarabhai, I remained as a member of the Council of Management and as emeritus professor. I do not know how long I am going to stay on the Council.3
H.T. — This is really a remarkable career. Some five years of various duties before joining the Indian Meteorological Service, 19 years in the Service, then 23 years in the PRL and this only brings us up to 1966. Yet you still come to the Laboratory every day?
The need to promote and render science universally accessible is at the core of the problem of education today, and this becomes more and more difficult with the population explosion. So the quest to make education relevant to the needs of a vast country like India led to the creation in Ahmedabad of a group for the Improvement of Science Education under Dr Sarabhai's leadership. It was felt that in order to try to make our educational system more effective, a faculty should be set up where new theories about teaching science and mathematics could be tried out. Thus was established the Community Science Centre. People come to the Centre with their children to learn something about science, and teachers and scientists put to the test their new ideas on teaching and learning. Students come to carry out experiments using the centre's facilities. We organize exhibitions, science film shows and popular lectures. There are laboratories, a workshop, hobby corners, a library and audio-visual equipment. Since the centre is quite close to the PRL I go there quite often to work, to teach children, use the library and participate in meetings.
H.T. — How many national awards and recognitions have you received?
K.R.R. — In India I received the Padma Bhushan in 1965, and the Padma Vibhusan in 1976. These awards are given by the President of India for distinguished work. I also received the Aryabhatta Medal in 1977. In the international arena, as you know, I received from WMO the IMO Prize in 1961.
H.T. — Now we come to my last question. What advice would you give to a young person who wants to study meteorology?
K.R.R. — I regard meteorology as being a cardinal element of nature, one which affects all living beings on Earth. But meteorology must not be studied in isolation of other elements. What happens in the atmosphere in the vicinity of human settlements is of the utmost importance to the inhabitants' way of life. Heat and moisture are critical parameters for the yield of agricultural produce on which the human race depends for its survival. It is essential to take an interest in sunlight, water and all forms of life.
H.T. — Professor Ramanathan, thank you very much for the opportunity to conduct an interview with you and for the great trouble you have gone to. I hope that the Indian nation and the world in general may continue to benefit from your rich experience and wisdom for many years to come.