A Traffic Jam of Nobel Laureates

Harvard is on top of the pile of institutions when it comes to Nobel Laureates, with 56 currently on the faculty and 160 being associated with the University at some stage of their careers, either as students or faculty. Cambridge University comes second, with 120 Laureates being associated with it; University of California at Berkeley third with 107, followed by University of Chicago at fourth place with a round 100.

I imagine that at any of these places, the probability of bumping into a Nobel would be quite finite.

However, such a possibility is pretty remote in any city or town of India. Until last week, at Bangalore ….

January 3 saw Prof Steven Hell address the Indian National Science Congress held in the city. Prof. Hell is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014 ‘for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. The next day saw Prof Ada Yonath address the same gathering. She is a protein crystallographer who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Both of them stressed the need for scientists to be open minded and for scientific research to be independent.

54E03126-F55D-4DF3-8810-88E1D954EA78January 4 was also the day when Profs Abhijit Banerji and Esther Duflo were in conversation with Manish Sabarwal at the Bangalore International Center, and demystified RCTs, or Randomized Control Trials, the body of work which got them their newly minted Nobels. RCTs are an experimental method to do research on developmental issues like education and poverty, to find what can really be effective to solve the problems, and hence can help policy making.

January 7 saw the 1998 Economics Nobel, Prof Amartya Sen in the city,  felicitating the winners of the prestigious Infosys Prize. Speaking at the event, Prof Sen said ‘There are deep links between friendship and knowledge. Our intellectual horizons expand when we learn from each other.’

January 15 will see Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Chemistry Nobel with Prof Ada Yonath (above) and Prof Thomas Steitz for research on the ‘structure and function of the ribosome’ speak on Science and Society, once again at the Bangalore International Center.

It doesn’t rain, it pours!

Lucky Bangalore, to hear all these messages. And what a great unity in the underlying messages…the importance of evidence-based research, of the need for research to be independent and unbiased, the crying need to base policy on research, and the importance of cooperation and a barrierless world.




A Gandhi for Every Poet

Among the thousands of events to mark Gandhiji’s 150th anniversary, the one I was privileged to attend was indeed special. A evening of ‘Gandhi music’ by the renowned Shubha Mudgal, at the Bangalore International  Center.

What made it special was that it was not the usual ‘Ashram bhajans’.  It was a bit disorienting to not have the performance begin with ‘Vaishnava Jan’ or ‘Raghupati Raghav’ or even ‘Ekla chalo’. But one was soon in the flow…not only of Shubhaji’s voice, but also the unknown…at least to me…songs.

This was a collection of poems on Gandhi and about his leadership of the freedom movement which the artist had researched, curated and set to music. Nothing else could have brought home more powerfully how wide and deep the Mahatma’ s influence was. There were pieces written by literary figures. A Bhojpuri folk song which talked about the charkha. A Holi song from Uttaranchal urging people to get immersed in Gandhi’s colours. A poem by someone who had lived in Gandhi’s ashram for 30 years and had written 500 poems reflecting on his experiences. A contemporary poem written a few years ago by an educational administrator from the Delhi government.

But the one that left a special mark was a song by a courtesan. In a characteristically out of the box move, Gandhiji had apparently addressed a ‘Tawaif Sabha’ in Benaras to urge them to do their bit for the freedom movement. His request was they should include  at least one protest song in their performances. In response, one well-known artist, Vidyadharibai, wrote and presumably performed a very powerful song castigating the British.

And the evening was limited to Hindi songs. It is mind-boggling to think what wealth of poetry there must be in all our languages! How did Gandhiji touch so many people, so many different kinds of people, people in so many places? How did he relate to all of them and all of them to him? Businessmen, farmers, rich, poor, professionals, weavers…..How did he inspire them and change them all?

The memory persists down generations. But the change?