A Beauty With Brains: Hedy Lamarr

From Hollywood to Bollywood, a beautiful face is what defines the world of cinema and glamour. And along with that, the clichéd belief that beauty and brains inhabit two different worlds, “and never the twain shall meet!”

I recently read about a movie superstar who combined a career in films with a lifelong passion for invention. This was Hedy Lamarr who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born on 9 November 1914 in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The First World War had just begun. Hedy was the only child of her Jewish parents. Her father was a Bank director, who adored his daughter and encouraged her curiosity. They often took long walks and he would discuss with her the working of different mechanical objects—from printing press to street cars. Hedy’s young mind was fascinated with the mysteries of machines. When she was five years old she took apart and reassembled her music box to find out how it worked. Her mother was a concert pianist who introduced her daughter to the arts; and she started ballet and piano lessons from a young age. Hedwig thus grew up in an environment that nurtured both her scientific as well as artistic temperament. She was also endowed with stunning looks.

Before the young girl could further explore her scientific interests, it was her beauty that attracted the attention of a film director Max Reinhardt who invited her to Berlin to study acting. She got her first small role in a German film when she was just 16 years old. In 1932, her role in a controversial film Ecstasy, drew wider attention to Hedy as an actress.

In 1933 she married Austrian munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. It was an unhappy alliance; Hedy felt trapped under her husband’s total control, and in her role as hostess to his circle of friends who included unscrupulous businessmen and members of the Nazi party. But even as she played the beautiful wife and hostess, Hedy’s sharp mind was following the dinner conversations and absorbing knowledge of arms and ammunitions.

Desperate to escape the stifling life, she managed to reach Paris, disguised as a maid, and then made her way to London in 1937. An introduction to Louis B Mayer of the famed MGM Studios was the stepping stone to Hollywood. Hedwig transformed into the European beauty Hedy Lamarr, who charmed American audiences with her accent, and mystical grace.

Hedy soon found herself in the famous Hollywood social circuit. Among the many illustrious people she met was Howard Hughes. Hughes was a high-flying American business magnate, investor, record-setting pilot, engineer, film director, and philanthropist. The two became good friends. Hedy’s attraction to Hughes was not so much for his wealth and name, but for his interest in innovation that appealed to her bottled-up inventive streak. Hughes took Hedy to see his airplane factories, showed her how the planes were built, and introduced her to the scientists behind process. He also recognised Hedy’s passion for the mechanical and encouraged her in this. He gifted her a set of equipment that she kept in her trailer on the film sets and tinkered with between takes. She continued to have her own ‘inventing table’ at home.  Hughes shared with Hedy his dream to make faster planes that he could sell to the US military. Hedy got deeply engaged in the project, researching fish fins and bird wings to understand how they were designed for maximum speed and efficiency, and she made engineering sketches for a new wing design for Hughes’ planes. Howard Hughes was very impressed with the designs, and called Hedy a “genius”.

Hedy Lamarr continued to live two parallel lives as it were. She was a celebrated Hollywood star in public, but was also a tinkerer and inventor who often spent evenings at home studying research texts and working at her drafting table to create inventions to improve current designs. She claimed that “improving things comes naturally to me”. Rather than star-studded parties she enjoyed being among a small group of friends discussing ideas.

It was at the start of the 1940s when the United States was on the brink of being pulled into World War II that Hedy felt the strong urge to put her innovative mind to work overtime. One story goes that her Jewish mother who had managed to escape from Austria to London was waiting to cross the Atlantic to the US, and at the time the American ships were in danger of being torpedoed by the enemy forces. Another version is that Hedy was deeply disturbed by the fact that children had perished in torpedo attacks while on board ships intended to take them to safety.

She knew that the Nazis were hacking the radio systems of the Allies ships so that they could track and attack them. Hedy drew upon her knowledge of war weapons to work on inventing a remote controlled torpedo, and develop a method to improve the United States’ weak torpedo guidance systems. She knew that radio frequencies were the key to the solution—but the single radio frequencies that were being employed for torpedo guidance at the time were ineffective in escaping Nazi surveillance. She worked to create ‘a secret communication system that could not be hacked’. The system utilized changing radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding messages. Multiple radio frequencies were used to broadcast a radio signal, which changed frequencies at split-second intervals in an apparently random manner. To anyone listening, it would just sound like noise. But the signal would be clear if both the sender and receiver hopped frequencies at the same time.

Hedy worked on this system with an unlikely partner. This was music composer George Antheil who was known for his experimental compositions. Antheil, like Hedy, was an inventor at heart. As the war loomed the two began sharing concerns, and once when playing the piano together, the idea of the extraordinary new communication system emerged. The torpedo and the guiding vessel would change radio frequencies very rapidly in an identical pattern, controlled by a device similar to a paper roll in a player piano. In this way, the vessels could communicate with each other in a secure manner that could not be intercepted by the enemy thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. And thus Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum Technology was born.

After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. They were awarded a Patent in August 1942, but the US Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The Patent remained  classified until 1981, and during that time was only used in military technology such as sonar or satellite communications. Lamarr was disappointed, but she continued to support the war efforts of her adopted country by using her celebrity status to sell war bonds. She became an American citizen in April 1953.

Hedy Lamarr continued with her passion for invention, and even till she passed away at the age of 85, she was inventing things: a fluorescent dog collar, modifications for the supersonic Concorde, and a new kind of traffic light, among many others.

It is believed that Lamarr’s Frequency Hopping innovation was the forerunner of today’s wi-fi technology and other wireless communications like GPS and Bluetooth. Difficult as it is to relate a famous movie star and acclaimed musician with the same technology that now brings movies and music to our very fingertips.

Hedy Lamarr’s name will always be primarily associated with her beauty on the silver screen. But so much more interesting and inspiring is her other side that illustrates that beauty and brains can coexist productively. As her son said after her death, “She would love to be remembered as someone who contributed to the well-being of humankind.”


Weather Woman Anna Mani

When she turned eight, Anna Modayil Mani was to be gifted a pair of diamond earrings, as per her family tradition. Young Anna requested instead a gift of Encyclopaedia Britannica! This was a bit of a shock for the Mani family in Travancore in Kerala. Anna, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in a well-to-do but traditional family where sons were groomed for high level careers and daughters were trained to be mothers and housemakers in preparation for an early marriage. Anna however showed signs of breaking the mould from an early age when she spent her time devouring all the books in the house. Her lifelong love for nature was planted and nurtured by long walks in the forests around her father’s cardamom estates, and swimming in the backwaters and rivers. And her scientific mind was imprinted with her father’s teaching not to accept any statement unless it could be tested and verified.

Born in 1918, Anna was only seven years old when Mahatma Gandhi visited Travancore which was the epicentre of the Vaikom Satyagraha. Gandhi’s visit made such a deep impression on the young girl that she decided to wear only khadi. The spirit of nationalism that pervaded the period also instilled in young Anna the fierce spirit of freedom, including the freedom to make her own decisions. Thus, she chose to pursue higher education rather than marriage which her sisters had easily opted for.

Anna joined Presidency College in Madras from where she graduated with an honours degree in Physics in 1939. A year later she got a scholarship to undertake research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore where she was accepted as a research scholar in CV Raman’s laboratory to work on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. Thus Anna began to research the very stone that she had turned down in her childhood.

The experiments were challenging and laborious; Anna worked for long hours, often through the night. Between 1942 and 1945, she published five single-authored papers on luminescence of diamonds and ruby. In August 1945 she submitted her PhD dissertation to Madras University. The University, with a blend of bureaucracy and gender bias, denied granting her the degree on the basis that she did not have an MSc degree. This, despite the fact that she had won a scholarship for research at the Indian Institute of Science, and had worked with CV Raman.

Anna was not daunted by this. Around the same time, the Indian government had announced scholarships for internships abroad in various fields, and Anna applied. In 1945, just as WWII was ending, she boarded a troopship to England with the government scholarship to take up an internship in in meteorological instrumentation at the Imperial College in London. Although she had wanted to pursue further research in physics, this was the only internship available. And it is meteorology that was to become her life’s metier.

Anna Mani returned to an independent India in 1948, and joined the Indian Meteorological Department at Pune where a programme to design weather instruments was taking shape. Anna was put in charge of construction of radiation instrumentation. Despite a paucity of resources, she would not compromise on research or quality; she inspired the scientists under her to “Find a better way to do it!”

Anna Mani standardised the drawings for nearly 100 different weather instruments and started their production. She worked with members of the World Meteorological Organisation to rigorously compare measurements to verify the accuracy of Indian instruments, as she fiercely believed that “Wrong measurements are worse than no measurements at all.” She continued her link with academic research and published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone, to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation

During the International Geophysical Year (1957-58), she set up a network of stations in India to measure solar radiation. Her focus was on the instrumentation meant to measure solar radiation, taking into account its seasonal and regional variation across India.

By 1964, Anna Mani became involved in the ozone-monitoring efforts in India; this was well before the Ozone Hole became an international issue. India had stations to measure ozone since the 1940s, but it was Mani’s team that in 1967, developed the Indian ozonesonde, a balloon-borne instrument to measure ozone levels. They also updated ground-based equipment so that Indian scientists had a lot of data to work with. The scientist also published a number of papers on subjects ranging from atmospheric ozone to the need for international instrument comparisons and national standardisation. Anna Mani received a citation from the International Ozone Commission for her work on ozone-level measurements from 1960 to 1990.

In 1963, at the request of Vikram Sarabhai of she successfully set up a meteorological observatory and an instrumentation tower at the Thumba rocket launching facility.

Anna Mani’s work of three decades made a valuable contribution to Indian meteorological sciences, indigenously manufactured instruments, reliable data, scientific rigour and up-to-date methodology. It was Mani who spearheaded India’s efforts to manufacture its own weather observation equipment, such as barometers and wind gauges, dramatically bringing down their cost – at the same time, she ensured their reliability and precision.

Anna Mani retired as deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department in 1976. She returned to the Raman Research Institute as a visiting professor for three years. Later she set up a millimetre-wave telescope at Nandi Hills, Bangalore. She published two books, The Handbook for Solar Radiation Data for India (1980) and Solar Radiation over India (1981), which have become standard reference guides for solar tech engineers.

Mani did not marry, she spent her life in the pursuit of science, In 1994 she suffered a stroke which affected her mobility; and died in 2001.

Anna Mani was steeped in, and driven by her passion for work. As she once said “I should be most unhappy to wake up without the prospect of some work to do.” But she went on to say that when the work was done, she enjoyed listening to music, reading and enjoying nature, her childhood passions.

Her advice to young meteorologists was, “We have only one life. First equip yourself for the job, make full use of your talents and then love and enjoy the work, making the most of being out of doors and in contact with nature.”

23 March is marked as World Meteorological Day. This is a good time to celebrate Anna Mani and her significant contributions that made independent India self-reliant in measuring aspects of the weather, and helped lay the ground for harnessing solar and wind power as alternative sources of energy.


Celebrating Slimy

You would have been exhorted to vote for Parliamentary and your State legislature. You would have been urged to vote at your college elections for your Union rep, or in your housing society for office bearers. . You are routinely encouraged to vote for your favourite participant in some reality show or other.

But have you ever voted for a mollusc?

Well, that is what researchers in Germany are asking you to do! Experts from Senckenberg Museum, Loewe-TBG and the worldwide society for mollusc research (Unitas Malacologica) have put together a shortlist of five molluscs, and the one that gets the most votes is crowned Mollusc of the Year!

And the prize? Well, a bit sad for one representative of the winning species, which will be euthanized, and its cells burst to extract its DNA, which will then be sequenced. But happy news for the rest of that species and molluscs in general, as hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

Why the song and dance? Why can’t the experts just decide which mollusc they want to study and go ahead? Well, essentially, the competition is a way to raise awareness about molluscs. And boy, do we need our awareness raised! The very title of this piece which is propositioned on the world ‘slimy’, is an indicator of the lack of awareness. Our perception of moullscs as slimy creatures comes from our encounters with snails and slugs. But these are just a few species of the over 1,00,000 known mollusc species. Slime is NOT one of the characteristics of that the phylum, unlike the common perception.

Molluscs are the largest family of invertebrates after arthropods, with fossil records going back over 550 million years. They span in size from the microscopic to 45 feet; can weigh up to 750 kgs; can live from hours to centuries—the longest-lived one is known to have survived over 500 years. There are species which live on land and water, both fresh and salt. They inhabit every continent and ocean.

Snails, octopuses, squid, clams, scallops, oysters, cuttlefish and chitons are all molluscs. All of them have soft bodies which typically have a “head” and a “foot” region, and often their bodies are covered by a hard exoskeleton.

These creatures have played a significant role in the lives of humans. At one level, they have been a source of protein down the ages; pearls are of course a coveted gem; mollusc shells have been used as money at many times and in many parts of the world. At the same time, some species are serious pests of crops, have destroyed ships at sea, and have led to economic devastation. 

Though there are so many species of molluscs and they are so wide-spread, very little is known about them, either to the general public, or even to scientists. And that is why the competition is important—to create a widespread awareness of this set of creatures which are such a large part of our living world; and to enthuse scientists in their work to study them.

Coming to the specifics of the competition, the five contenders this year are:

Painted Snail
Painted Snail

Tustiaria rubescens, the Barge-footer, also known as the tusk or tooth shell. They live in both the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic Ocean, inhabiting muddy bottoms, normally offshore.

Telescopium telescopium, the Telescope Snail lives in mangrove forests along the Indian Ocean including parts of the coasts of Pakistan, Goa (India), Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Singapore, Madagascar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Vietnam, and  Papua New Guinea.

Cymbulia peronii, the Sea Butterfly, is a species that has been reported from all oceans around the world. These 6 cm wide animals have a gelatinous shell which looks like a transparent slipper. They also have what looks like two wings which enable them to “fly” through water columns.

Polymita picta, the Painted Snail is an endangered snail. known for its colourful shell and the ‘love dart’, a device to stab partners during mating to transfer ‘sexual hormones’. It is found only in Eastern Cuba.

Teredo navalis , the Naval Shipworm is a clam which looks like a worm. They are also called shipworms, as they used to eat through the hulls of wooden ships. They are said to have eaten through Columbus’ ships and stranded him in Jamaica! They are found throughout the tropics and subtropics. 

The competition (this is the second edition) closes today, 15 March. So hurry to https://tbg.senckenberg.de/molluscoftheyear-2022/ and cast your vote to support research which will help us understand our living planet better.


Magnolia Lady Janaki Ammal

Whenever I write a piece about plants, one of the things that interests me is how the plant got its botanical name. In many cases the nomenclature includes the name of the scientist which was associated with the discovery or study of the plant. Most of the names are western. It was a pleasant surprise to learn about a plant that is named after an Indian botanist, and that too a lady! This plant is a variety of the magnolia and is named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal.

The story of Janaki Ammal herself is fascinating and inspiring. And her contribution to plant sciences covers a wide and impressive range of achievements.

Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal was born on 4 November 1897, in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala. Her father, Dewan Bahadur EK Krishnan, was a sub-judge at Tellicherry in what was then the Madras Presidency. He had a large family consisting of 19 children from two wives, and Janaki grew up amidst numerous siblings, in a home environment which had a well-stocked library, that included scientific and literary journals, and a well-tended garden. Her father had a keen interest in natural sciences and kept abreast with developments in the sciences. He also wrote two books on the birds of the North Malabar region. From an early age Janaki herself had an avid interest in the natural environment, and a scientific temperament.

It is this that decided her further academic studies after she finished school in Tellicherry. At a time when women (including her sisters) were married off at a young age, Janaki chose to move away from home in pursuit of higher education. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Queen Mary’s College, Madras, and an honours degree in botany from the Presidency College. After graduating, she taught for three years at the Women’s Christian College in Madras. It was then that she was awarded the prestigious Barbour Scholarship for Asian women to study in the United States. She travelled to America to join the University of Michigan as a Barbour Scholar in 1924 and earned her Masters of Science degree in 1925. She continued her work which focussed on plant cytology and breeding of hybrid plants to earn her doctorate in 1931. She was the first Indian woman to receive this degree in botany in the US.

Returning with a doctorate from the US, Janaki returned to teaching as a professor of Botany at the Maharaja’s College of Science in Trivandrum, from 1932-1934. She then joined as a geneticist at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute in Coimbatore. At the time, India was importing sugarcane. Although India also produced a lot of sugarcane, it was not as sweet as the imported one. The Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore had been set up to carry out research to improve the quality of sugarcane grown in India. The work of two scientists there, CA Barber and TS Venkataraman, especially in cross-breeding different varieties was so successful that in just five years the production of sugarcane doubled in India.

Ammal joined these scientists at the research institute in 1934, and started her research in sugarcane. Her cytogenetic research of sugarcane, and her experiments with cross-breeding and hybrids led to a better understanding of sugarcane breeds, in turn leading to better cross-breeds of sweeter variety. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India. Janaki faced many professional and personal challenges as a highly educated unmarried female scientist in a male-dominated institute where, despite the “science”, a patriarchal and traditional mind set prevailed with respect to gender and caste. 

In 1935, she was selected as one of the first Research Fellows of the Indian Academy of Sciences set up by the Nobel laureate CV Raman.

In 1940 Janaki went to England and joined the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London as an assistant cytologist. England had just declared war on Germany; Janaki worked through the bombings and blackouts, often, it is reported, diving under her bed at night as London was bombed, and going to her lab in the morning to clear the broken glass and debris from the previous night’s bombing, while she continued to focus on her research.

Janaki worked closely with the geneticist Cyril Dean Darlington for five years. The two collaborated to write the Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants, which is a key text for plant scientists even today. Unlike other botanical atlases that focused on botanical classification, this atlas recorded the chromosome number of about 100,000 plants, providing knowledge about breeding and evolutionary patterns of botanical groups.

In 1946, she joined the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley in a paid position as a cytologist. Janaki became the Society’s first salaried woman staff member. There, she studied the botanical uses of colchicine, a medication that can double a plant’s chromosome number and result in larger and quicker-growing plants. One of the results of her investigations was a magnolia shrub with flowers of bright white petals and purple stamens. This was named Magnolia kobus Janaki Ammal in her honour, and continues to bloom in Wisely even today.

Janaki returned to India in the early 1950s at the request of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Her brief was to “improve the botanical base of Indian agriculture”.

She was appointed supervisor in charge of directing the Central Botanical Laboratory in Lucknow. In this capacity, she would reorganize the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), originally established in 1890 to collect and survey India’s flora, under the supervision of Britain’s Kew Gardens.

It was during this period that Janaki found herself looking beyond pure research and realising that in the race for increasing food grain production, the country was losing vast tracts of forests and valuable indigenous plant species. She was also distressed that despite Independence the system of plant collections and research remained colonial in mind set and practice. She was also keen to revitalize and indigenize botanical surveys.  After spending decades applying her research skills to improving the commercial use of plants, she began using her influence to preserve indigenous plants under threat. She began to speak of the value of indigenous cultures and the important role of women in preserving and cultivating local plants, which were being threatened by mass production of cereals. 

Janaki was among the pioneers that foresaw and warned of the threats to the fragile ecosystems in the race for ‘development’. She continued to speak out about this till the end of her life. At the age of 80 she vociferously opposed the proposed hydroelectric plant in Silent Valley in Kerala that would have threatened the unique biodiversity of a pristine evergreen tropical forest. Her voice as an eminent national scientist was respected, and was contributory to the scrapping of the proposal.

Janaki Ammal continued her distinguished public career in many important government postions: She headed the Central Botanical Laboratory at Allahabad. She worked as an officer on special duty at the regional research laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir and had a brief spell at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre at Trombay. In November 1970 Janaki decided to settle down in Madras where she worked as an Emeritus Scientist at the Centre for Advanced Study in Botany, University of Madras. Her research work continued unabated, with special attention on medicinal plants and ethnobotany. She continued her research at the Centre’s Field Laboratory at Maduravoyal near Madras and kept on publishing her work until her demise in February 1984.

A lifetime of pioneering work by a woman well ahead of her times. But whenever she was asked about her life, all she had to say was “my work is what will survive”. An unassuming woman who lived a simple Gandhian life, married to her work, and her first and life-long love for plants. A brilliant mind who made her own choices and forged her own path in her pursuit of knowledge. A trial blazer who “sweetened the nation and saved a valley”—Janaki Ammal.


Ada Lovelace: STEM Pioneer

Every Wednesday my newspaper carries a special page about Tech news which has stories about young techies, and especially about women who have made a mark in the field of computer technology. In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about encouraging girls to engage with STEM, and inspiring stories about women in the 20th and 21st century who have excelled in these fields.

Not many can imagine that one of the pioneers of computing science was born over two hundred years earlier, and that she was a woman! This was Ada Lovelace, a computing visionary who recognised the immense potential of computers. Augusta Ada Byron was born in London on 10 December1815. She was the only child of George Gordon or Lord Byron, the brilliant but eccentric English poet, and Annabella Milbanke, a highly intelligent and educated woman with a flair for mathematics. 

The marriage between the poet Bryon and the “princess of parallelograms” as he called his wife, was tempestuous and short. A month after Ada’s birth, Annabella Byron moved their daughter out of their London house, and away from Lord Byron’s influence. Annabella was afraid that Ada would inherit her father’s ‘poetic’ temperament and erratic traits, and kept her daughter away from the “imaginative” arts, bringing her up in a strict regimen of science, logic and mathematics, as well as music.

Ada’s father Lord Byron himself left Britain forever when Ada was a baby, and he died in Greece when Ada was eight years old. Ada never knew him. Ada herself was largely brought up by her maternal grandmother and servants, and educated by private tutors. She suffered long spells of bad health right from childhood, and through her life.

Ada was fascinated with machines from an early age and devoured the scientific magazines of that time. But she was equally imbued with her father’s imagination. When she was twelve years old, Ada wanted to fly. But she did not stop at dreaming; she methodically studied birds and feathers and experimented with different materials that could serve as wings, and even wrote an illustrated guide recording her research, called ‘Flyology’. She was reprimanded by her mother who saw this as a fanciful project.

In 1833 Ada, as a debutante to London’s high society, attended a party where she was introduced to Charles Babbage who was a renowned mathematician. Babbage spoke to her about his new invention–a tower of numbered wheels that could make reliable calculations with the turn of a handle. He called this the “Difference Machine”. A few days later, Lady Byron took Ada to his home to see him demonstrate the device in his drawing room. Ada was very intrigued by the incomplete prototype. She initiated a correspondence with Babbage about its potential, and her own mathematical studies. This was the beginning of a close and lifelong friendship. Babbage was then a 40-year-old widower and Ada a young debutante, both with very divergent personalities, but the two corresponded and exchanged ideas for many years. Babbage recognised, and encouraged, her potential; in 1839 he wrote to her “I think your taste for mathematics is so decided that it ought not to be checked”.

Babbage spoke highly of Ada’s mathematical powers, and of her peculiar capability, which he described as being higher than that of any one he knew. On one occasion he called her “The Enchantress of Numbers”.

At the age of 19 Ada was married to an aristocrat, William King; and they had three children. In 1838 William King was made Earl of Lovelace, and his wife Ada became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. But she became generally known as Ada Lovelace.

Along with being a wife and mother Ada continued her independent pursuit of mathematical knowledge. She became friends with one of the finest female mathematicians of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics with her, set her higher-level mathematics problems, and talked in detail about Charles Babbage’s difference engine. In 1841 she was given advanced work by Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London. She also continued to learn advanced mathematics through correspondence with Mary Somerville. All the time, she kept Babbage’s difference engine in mind.

Babbage began a new project that he called the “Analytical Engine’. He envisaged this as large heavy machine with thousands of cogwheels that could perform more functions with greater accuracy. Ada Lovelace served as the key interpreter of the project. On a trip to Turin to promote his work, which required considerable financial support, Babbage met a mathematician named Luigi Federico Menabrea, who agreed to write a paper on the machine. It was published in a Swiss academic journal in October, 1842. Ada translated the paper from the French, but also added her own copious and detailed notes, addressing difficult and abstract questions that the paper threw up. While the original paper was about 8000 words, Ada’s annotated English version came to twenty thousand words.

In her paper she clearly described how Babbage’s device would work, with references and illustrations from the silk-weaving Jacquard loom which wove patterns using a set of punched cards which issued instructions to the machine. As she wrote “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

She explained how Babbage’s machine could perform a similar function using as sequence of punched cards, or what could be called “machine code”. In her paper, she included the world’s first published computer program, or algorithm – this was the Bernoulli number algorithm, and thereby became what may be considered as the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could go beyond the field of mathematics and contribute to other areas of human endeavour, for example composing music.

Ada’s translation, along with her notes, was published in 1843 with the title “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”.

Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, in 1852. It was more than a hundred years before her notes were discovered, The “Analytical Engine” remained a vision, until Lovelace’s notes became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” in her honour.

Today as many more young women enter the field of computer science and technology, it is time to remember Ada Lovelace, a pioneer and path breaker of her time. And to celebrate the power of Imagination. In 1841 she wrote: Imagination is two things: The Combining Faculty which seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection and The Discovering Faculty which penetrates into unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.


Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.  


Valuing Toilets

As the World Toilet Day site says: ‘Life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous and undignified. Public health depends on toilets. Toilets also drive improvements in gender equality, education, economics and the environment. There will be no sustainable future without toilets.’

3.6 billion people across the world still lack access to safe sanitation.

World Toilet Day is observed on 19 Nov every year as a way to remind ourselves of this situation. This year, the theme as declared by the UN is Valuing Toilets. World Toilet Day is an occasion to remind ourselves of a goal the world is committed to, viz, Sustainable Development Goal  6, which is about Clean Water and Sanitation. Specifically under this Goal, the sub-goals related to sanitation are:

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.A By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

6.B Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management

India has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go. Creating infrastructure is the easier part. Bringing about behaviour change to get people to use toilets; to ensure water supply; to ensure maintenance and functionality—these are the bigger challenges that we still have to tackle.

This is where innovations are needed. And are happening. A very interesting publication ‘ 10 Innovative Approaches To Improve The Urban Wa-S-H Sector In India’ brought out by the  USAID and the National Institute of Urban Affairs documents some of these. Here are some of the most interesting:

Creation Of A Urine Bank and Collection by A Special Vehicle and Its Utilization as Fertilizer: Society for Community Organization and People’s Education (SCOPE), a Trichy based NGO, has tried this experiment in Musiri, Tamilnadu. Basically, they separated urine and faeces at the household/institution level through the use of ECOSAN toilets. About 400 litres of urine, which is good fertilizer, were collected with the help of a special van, suitably treated, diluted and put into use in agriculture. The application increased yields and was found to be cost-effective.

Waterless Urinals to Conserve Fresh Water, Save Energy and Reduce Maintenance Costs: This IIT-Delhi incubated innovation is for urinals in public spaces. It avoids the use of water for flushing. This is a considerable amount of water saved, for each flush uses from 4 to as much as 15 litres of water. The odour control mechanism like the sealant liquid, membrane trap and biological blocks are used to substitute for flushing.

I have personally had some experience of this innovation, having installed it in one of the public toilets we built and maintained in Hyderabad, and it worked pretty well.

Vandal Proof, Easy to Maintain and Durable Toilets: Anyone, like me, who has experience of managing public toilets, knows that vandalism, breakage, and irresponsible usage of the facilities are an inevitable and unpleasant part of a difficult job. This is one reason why the recurring costs of running such toilets is high. GARV toilets, an innovation tried in Faridabad, use stainless steel for the superstructure of the toilet pan and wash basin, rather than the less durable china clay or porcelain. This not only increases the life of various utilities in, but also reduces maintenance cost and water needed for cleaning. This innovation was apparently born out of the desire of a manufacturer who wanted to use the steel lying around in his factory. If you think through it, it is the approach used by the Indian Railways for maybe over a century now, and if it can work in our trains, it can work anywhere!

The publication is over five years old, and the innovations discussed go back even a decade. Some, like waterless urinals, have found wide application. Hopefully, the others have been also diffused far and wide, picked up and improved further.

The need to scale up and innovate in the sanitation sector is urgent. There is no better way to put it than to sum it up than in Gandhiji’s words: ‘A lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room ‘.


VASCSC: Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s Vision for Science Education

As we approach Dr. Sarabhai’s birth anniversary (12 August), time to pay tribute to a great visionary, scientist and institution-builder.

His role in the nation’s space and atomic energy programmes, in creating institutions like ISRO, PRL, IIM-A, ATIRA is well known, as was his zeal for the planned use of science and technology in the development of a newly-independent India are known. His passion for science education however, needs to be more widely discussed.

Dr. Sarabhai was keenly aware that creating a scientific temper and promoting scientific thinking among the population was fundamental in our progress as a nation. He felt that science teaching needed to be innovative to achieve this, and also that the best scientists should engage with young minds, and inspire them towards science. His own background of being home-schooled in a very open learning environment, where exploring and innovating were the key, may have been the foundation of his conception of science education.  

Vikram Sarabhai as a boy, with his model train

It was in this background that in 1963, Vikrambhai got scientists of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) involved in a project called ‘Experiment for Improvement of Science Education’, to take science to citizens. These early efforts were institutionalized in 1966, with the creation of an institution called the Community Science Centre (CSC), whose foundation stone was laid by Dr. Sarabhai’s guru, the Nobel Laureate, Sir CV Raman.  The famous lecture ‘Why the Sky is Blue’ was delivered by Sir Raman at the Centre on this occasion.

CSC was the trailblazer in the country, and the country’s active Science Centre/ Science Museum movement owes a lot to the pioneering work of this institution. CSC was re-named Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre (VASCSC) after the passing away of Dr. Sarabhai.

To quote VASCSC’s website, ‘The core of the Centre’s philosophy is to take school and college students out of the rigid framework of textbooks and encourage them to think, explore and create. Over the years, the Centre has combined formal and non-formal techniques to formulate many innovative methods to give students a better understanding of Science and Mathematics, which not only make the process of learning enjoyable but also sustained and long-lasting.’  It aims to bring teachers, students, research workers, administrators and the community together for a better appreciation and understanding of science.

VASCSC has been the pioneer of several innovative science education programmes, including interactive science exhibitions, open laboratories, math-lab, science playgrounds. These are today the backbone of many a science education programme in the country.  The educational kits and materials developed by it are of a very high quality.

A landmark initiative of VASCSC was the Science Express, done for the Department of Science (DST), which ran for several years. This was an innovative science exhibition mounted on a 16-bogey train, specially designed by the Indian Railways. Launched in October 2007 by DST, Science Express covered over 1,22,000 km across the country, receiving more than 1.33 crore visitors at its 391 halts, over 1,404 days. It has thus become the largest, longest running and most visited mobile science exhibition, probably in the world and has created several records in its wake’ (DST). The exhibition has six entries in the Limca Book of Records.

Mrs. Mrinalini Sarabhai wrote of Dr. Sarabhai: ‘‘He often said that on retirement he would like to spend time with young children talking to them about science.’ Sadly Dr. Sarabhai died young, so he could not fulfill this dream. But the initiative he started at the CSC has indeed contributed to the vision of transforming science-education in India


I am privileged to be a member of the Governing Council of VASCSC.

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai

Vikram Sarabhai Centenary

A Life Too Short: A Tribute to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai


It is butterfly season again. After a few hot, dry months, it is a treat to see so many different kinds of butterflies fluttering and flitting among the flowers and leaves. Butterflies have inspired art and poetry; and they have also been the subject of the scientific study by lepidopterists. The distance between the art and the science has always been distinct, starting from primary school where children learn about the life cycle of butterflies in Science class and draw and paint these colourful creatures in the Art class.

It is amazing to know that nearly four centuries before there was a woman who successfully and brilliantly combined the art and the science to produce some of the most groundbreaking work on butterflies and other insects. This is her inspiring story.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt at a time when scientific study of life was still in its infancy. Her father was an engraver and publisher, who died when Maria was a baby. When she was three years old, Maria’s mother married Jacob Marrel who was a renowned still-life painter. He encouraged young Maria’s interest in collecting live insects and also taught her the art of flower painting. As she grew, so did her passion for both these hobbies—which became lifelong commitments.

Women of Maria’s class and era collected butterflies as a hobby. Their catches were displayed as pinned specimens. Maria was driven by a different approach. She was not interested in dead specimens. She was fascinated by live insects and wanted to understand not just the insects and their life stages; but also their habits and habitats, the plants that they associated with and fed on, and their interactions with other species.

From the age of 13 she started collecting caterpillars and raising silkworms. She observed how they changed form at different stages, until they developed into butterflies or moths. She not only kept meticulous records and notes of her observations, but also detailed drawings of the process. She often painted by candlelight as she awaited the moment when the caterpillar made its cocoon, or a butterfly emerged from one. She painted caterpillars feeding on their host plants and being fed upon by their predators.

The metamorphosis of the garden tiger moth, its plant host, and parasitic wasp by Maria Merian. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

She publishing her first book of illustrations at age 28; this was followed by a two-volume set on caterpillars (published in 1679 and 1683) that showed the metamorphosis and host plants of 186 species.

Maria Merian was the first person to document the life cycle of butterflies. At that time it was widely believed that life originated spontaneously from inanimate matter. For example, that flies arose from rotting meat; other insects, including butterflies formed from mud, and that raindrops produced frogs. Maria’s observations and documentation opened up a new dimension.

This was also an era when most women did not have the opportunity of going to university. Maria was far from a being an academic scientist, nor did she have the freedom to devote all her time and energy to this pursuit. At the age of 18 she married her stepfather’s apprentice, and had two daughters. The marriage was not a happy one, and she left her husband, taking both her daughters, to live in a religious community; eventually getting a divorce. For many years she brought up her daughters as a single mother, supporting the family by teaching paining to daughters of wealthy families; and still making time for her art and scientific studies. By then she had moved to the Netherlands, where she spent the rest of her life.

For the first fifty years of her life, Maria observed and documented hundreds of  European insects, from caterpillars to spiders. She became well known for her work; collectors and art dealers would frequently come to her and show her insect dead specimens for her to observe.

But in 1699, at the age of 52, she embarked on one of the first purely scientific expeditions in history. She sold 255 of her paintings to finance the trip. Her goal was to illustrate new species of insects in Surinam, a South American country which had been recently colonised by the Dutch. After two months of dangerous travel, accompanied by her 20-year-old younger daughter, she reached Surinam.

For Maria Merian this was an entomologist’s paradise. She was itching to collect and paint everything she saw. But the Dutch planters of the island were not willing to accompany the two women into the forests to collect insects. So she forged relationships with enslaved Africans and indigenous people who agreed to bring her specimens and who shared with her the medicinal and culinary uses of many plants. Merian and daughter spent two years in Surinam before Maria’s failing health from frequent bouts of malaria, forced then to return to the Netherlands.

But the compilation of all her work in documenting and illustrating flora and fauna in Surinam resulted in a book titled Metamorphosis insectorum Surnamensium. It was written in Latin, the international language of science, with 60 stunning copperplate engravings that brought the exotic world of the rainforest to the damp drawing rooms of Europe. The book became well known in scientific and artistic circles.

Merian’s eldest daughter, Joanna, subsequently made the journey to Surinam and would send her mother new specimens and paintings until Merian’s death, at the age of almost 70, in 1717.

For a woman of her time, with no university education, Maria Merian’s meticulous scientific and artistic work earned her respect. Karl Linnaeus, famous for developing a system for classifying life, referred heavily to her illustrations in his species descriptions. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin, cited Merian’s work in his book The Botanic Garden. 

Merian also published works in German and Dutch, which allowed lay readers unprecedented access to scientific discoveries, arguably making her one of the earliest science communicators.

Merian was also proved to be a successful businesswoman. She sold her drawings and engravings to finance the printing of her own books, which she would later sell. This financial security also allowed her the freedom her to pursue her interests and ideas.

In the 1800’s, by which time university-trained academics laid stake to “biological knowledge” there was a trend to discredit Maria Merian and her work. As she had no formal scientific training she was written off as a woman with a hobby who painted beautiful – but entirely unscientific – pictures of butterflies. Although her work continued to inspire and influence generations of artists, her contributions as a scientist were largely forgotten. It is only in more recent years that her scientific work has been revisited and revived.

Maria Sibylla Merian was a pioneering naturalist, who also managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, and entomologist. Merian studied the behaviour and interactions of living things at a time when taxonomy and systematics (naming and cataloguing) were still at a nascent stage. She laid the groundwork for the fields of entomology, animal behaviour and ecology. She was the first ever to show the interaction between species, food chains, and the struggle for survival in nature. And how environment affects development and behaviour. She captured the ecology of species, centuries before the term even existed.   

At a time when other scientists were trying to make sense of the natural world by classifying plants and animals into narrow categories, Merian looked at their place within the wider natural world. She searched for connections where others were looking for separation.

Today when there is so much talk of encouraging women in STEM, it is more than worthwhile to remind ourselves of this inspiring woman who not only successfully combined her artistic and scientific work, but also pioneered fields of study that we erroneously believe to have more recent origins.


Defence Science: Remembering Dr. DS Kothari on his Birth Anniversary, 6 July

‘Dr Daulat Singh Kothari, a theoretical physicist and Dean of the Faculty of Science of Delhi University, was appointed the first Scientific Adviser in July 1948, at the age of 42. He formed Defence Science Organisation by hand-picking scientists from the various universities in India who were proficient in aeronautics, electronics, chemistry, mathematics, nutrition, physics, psychology to start research work in ballistics, electronics, chemistry related to explosives, paints and corrosion, food preservation and nutrition, psychological fitness profile for selection of Service personnel, battlefield stress and physical fatigue. He made the Services conscious of the role a scientist could play in the solution of defence problems. Dr Kothari aimed to build a boundaryless learning organisation stripped of hierarchical trappings and with two-way communication between him and his scientists. The basic science laboratory raised by Dr Kothari provided the nucleus for the formation of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.’

–DRDO Website

The first Boss is the most formative influence on one’s career, work ethics and leadership style. And if he/she is a good boss, then they are almost Gods to impressionable young minds.

Dr. DS Kothari was my father’s first Boss. And was God to him.

Each line in the DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization) write-up resonates with what I have heard about Dr. Kothari from my father.

DRDO was officialy established in 1958, but many constituent labs came into being before that. My father applied and was interviewed for the junior-most position in the Defence Science hierarchy around 1953. And who should be the head of the panel but Dr. DS! He sat through days and days of interviews in the midst of all his responsibilities as Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri. He saw this as his most important responsibility—hand-picking young scientists of promise from across the country to build a unique institution and an ambitious one for a newly independent India.   

The first problem he set my father and a few of that cohort was to work out the ideal thickness of rotis for high-altitude troops. The parameters to be optimized for a given weight of atta were time for the cook to roll out the roti, cooking time, and fuel consumption. And of course the rotis had to be edible! I think the realization that science could be brought to bear on such everyday problems was a lesson that scientists of that generation imbibed and made a way of life.

In 1955, PM Pandit Nehru set the scientists the task of studying the consequences of nuclear, thermonuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Dr. DS had the major responsibility of bringing out the report, along with Dr. Homi Bhabha and Dr. Khanolkar. A small group of young Defence scientists—my father among them–was tasked to assist these stalwarts. Due to various reasons, it was Dr. Kothari who took up most of the burden of the work.

The 10-12 months were among the most hectic and most memorable ones of my father’s career. There was very little information on this subject in the public domain at that time, and India did not belong to any elite clubs which could get access to any classified information. Yet, in less than a year, the group brought out a data-rich 212-page report ‘Nuclear Explosions and Their Effects’ (subsequently published by the Publications Division). The book had a foreword by Pandit Nehru and was a seminal report at the time, not only in India but internationally.

The powers that be were also gracious in acknowledging the contribution not only of the leaders but also the young scientists.

But what is part of family history is something that captures Dr. Kothari’s essence. Apparently, at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door of my parents’ house. When they opened the door, there was Dr. DS himself! He had wanted to urgently discuss a point related to the book. In the days before home-telephones, he got his office to dig out my parents’ address, and rather than send someone to fetch my father, decided to come himself and save time.

My mother, till her last days, recalled this incident with not only awe, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed. A young girl newly arrived from Tamilnadu, with a very cranky baby on her hip. and no Hindi and only a smattering of English, she was confronted with having to entertain God himself! I think the sum total of furniture in the tiny house consisted of a few Godrej chairs, a study table and a cot. I don’t know if Dr. DS partook of anything, but I surely hope he asked for coffee rather than tea, because there would have been no tea leaves in a good South Indian household of that time. Nor would my mother have known how to brew a cup of tea. And steel tumblers and dawaras were the only serving utensils.

But Dr. DS, by family accounts was completely oblivious of all this. He came, made himself completely at home on the Godrej chair, stayed for almost an hour discussing what he had come to discuss, and then with blessings to my brother and a warm smile to my mother, was off.

All in a day’s work for him. But for us, family history for generations!

Dr DS Kothari: Scientist of international renown who worked with Dr. P Blackett in Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, under the guidance of Lord Ernst Rutherford, the Father of Nuclear physics, and contributed immensely to the fields of statistical thermodynamics and Theory of White Dwarf Stars. Steering-hand of DRDO and the founder of many of the labs in the system. Played a key role in setting up UGC and NCERT, and was Chair of India’s first Education Commission.


In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, a physicist, who worked with DRDO for almost half a century. And my brother, Dr. N. Prabhakar, an aeronautical engineer, who also spent his entire career with the same organization, and was awarded a Padma Shri. They knew no other life, and were immensely proud to be a part of DRDO.