Of Textbooks and More

Exactly 80 years ago this April, ‘Academies and Societies’ which I suppose was a catalogue of learned scientific publications, listed ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ (Tamil) by N. Ananthavaidyanathan, published by Annamalai University and priced modestly at Rs. 2-8.

The Reference!

A lot of family history behind this entry, as the afore-mentioned Ananthavaidyanathan was my grandfather. He was a Professor of Chemistry at Annamalai University having joined it in the mid-1920s, when it was still Sri Minakshi College, and he saw the growth of the College and its sister institutions into Annamalai University in 1929 .

The book was written in response to a competition organized by the University, to come out with the first Tamil under-graduate science textbooks in the country. My grandfather’s ‘Modern Inorganic Chemistry’ won the prize.

My grandmother told us tales of the days and nights and weeks and months of work that went into the book. With no precedents of modern scientific writing or references in regional languages, my grandfather had to coin several names for chemicals, for processes, for phenomena. Being the conscientious, old-school scholar he was, that involved a lot of research and consultation. With Tamil type-writing skills not easy to find, and moreover, the problems of typing chemical formulae in the typewriters of those days, it was a physical challenge as well as an intellectual one! My grandmother helped him proof-read draft after draft.

The hard work paid off, and his was the first college-level chemistry textbook in Tamil.

Annamalai University is an institution with a hoary past. Rajah Sir S. R. M. Annamalai Chettiar, In the early 1920s, set up three educational institutions– Sri Minakshi College, Sri Minakshi Tamil College and Sri Minakshi Sanskrit College—in the temple-town of Chidambaram, and these soon became intellectual centres. The purpose of setting up the educational institutions was to educate the poor, and to give a fillip to literature in Tamil. And I suppose it was in pursuit of the second aim that the competition was organized.

Sir Chettiar was an enlightened industrialist and banker with a deep interest in education. He contributed generously to philanthropic causes and set up institutions. He was one of the founders of Indian Bank. He counts Shri AC Muthaih (who served as the Chairman of SPIC and the President of Board of Cricket Control of India), and Shri PC Chidambaram (former Finance Minister of India) among his grandsons.

In 1928, Sir Annamalai agreed to hand over the group of educational institutions he had set up, to the local government to establish a University. On 1 Jan, 1929, Annamalai University was established under a State Act–India’s first private University.

In its time, the University has been the centre of Tamil, of intellectual debate, of students who questioned the status quo of their day, of strikes, of agitations and of academic excellence. Today it is one of the largest public residential universities in Asia

We are an ‘Annamalai University family’, with my grandfather having taught there for several decades. My father studied Physics there—he had to choose between studying Physics and Chemistry, but my grandfather would not let him join the Chemistry faculty because he was the Head of the Dept., and did not want any controversy about his son being a student in the same department. My brother studied Engineering there. My father and brother both served the Defence Research and Development Organization all their lives, and my brother was honoured with the Padma Shri for his contribution to Agni and Prithvi Missiles. So I suppose I have much to thank Annamalai University for!

–Meena

Mole of Memories, Table of Nostalgia

I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary. Mendeleev

An appropriate year and time of year to remind myself of my all-but-forgotten Chemistry roots! It takes quite an effort to remind myself of the time four decades ago, when I was a student of Chemistry at Delhi University.

But reading about the declaration by the UN, of 2019 as peridic table.jpgYear of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, did bring back some memories.

Why is 2019 so marked? Well, because 1869 is considered as the year of the discovery of the Periodic system by Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian physicist, and it commemorates 150 years of the Periodic Table.

The Periodic Table, if you can recall your school chemistry, is a table of the chemical elements arranged in the order of their atomic numbers, so that elements with similar atomic structure (and hence similar chemical properties) appear in vertical columns.

Chemistry is usually looked upon as a swot or ‘rattu’ subject. The introduction to the Periodic Table is the first time students get to understand the pattern and logic of chemistry. From being a random assortment of letters, elements and their properties being to make sense. It becomes possible to predict the types of chemical reactions that a particular element is likely to participate in. Without memorizing facts and figures about an element, students can, from looking at the position of an element in the table, understand about the reactivity of an element, whether it is likely to conduct electricity, whether it is hard or soft, and many other characteristics.

And hence a whole world opens up!

And coming to the Day. Oct 23 is Mole Day. Not MOLE as in the four-legged creature. But the MOLE that chemistry students struggle to understand. The definition of this mole, as the base unit of a substance having 6.02 x 1023 particles is really confusing to begin with. Exploring another definition– mass of a substance that contains 6.023 x 1023 particles of the substance—does not really help either. As a Masters’ student of Chemistry, I was expected to help younger kids in my colony with the subject. And how I struggled to explain this concept! (I shall not venture into such an attempt now, but I think those struggles helped me understand it better).

But at least Mole Day and Year of Periodic Table have reminded me of some claims I may make to be scientifically literate!

Happy double Chemistry Whammy!

–Meena