This is unlike any other book on popular science by an Indian author. It is racy, engaging and full of little-known or forgotten facts on the beginnings of modern Indian science and technology. It also weaves in complex concepts of science and places them in the relevant Indian and global context. In my opinion, it has no parallel in India.
The author, Hari Pulakkat, currently editor of a monthly magazine, Shaastra, has been a science journalist for over three decades. Pulakkat takes you from the depths of the Kolar gold fields, where India conducted underground experiments to study cosmic rays, to the making of the first satellite and recounts the travails of the pioneer of Indian satellites, Prof U.R. Rao.
Each of the 15 chapters has a central character who rose against odds and created scientific institutions or instruments which made India proud. Like Govind Swarup, who struggled to make the massive radio telescope near Pune called the Giant Meter Wave Telescope. Or scientists in the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai developing technologies that gave Indian leather industry a new life.
The many struggles faced by Bharat Ratna C.N.R. Rao, in creating a world-class laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is recounted in full, from the days when IISc was in decline. Also ably told are tales of how lack of equipment and foreign exchange did not deter curious minds like Prof Rao. The tale of T. Pradeep—a pioneer of India’s clean water nano-technology—from his early career as union activist in Trichur, Kerala, that got him banned from applying to colleges, also make for fascinating reading. Pradeep is now enabling millions to have access to clean water technology.
Perhaps the most poignant story is the one about a doyen of the university department of chemical technology in Mumbai, M.M. Sharma, and how he helped the nascent chemical industry of India get affordable solutions. “Prof Sharma advised more than 25 companies during his life-time. Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Petrochemicals, relied on his advice for setting up plants,” writes Pulakkat. Giants like Prof Sharma nurtured young scientists like Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, a stalwart chemical engineer who went on to be christened as the “CEO of CSIR”. Mashelkar’s tale is particularly touching—his father was a small grocery shop owner and his mother did odd jobs. “Things had become difficult at home when Mashelkar reached high school. His mother did not have money to pay the fee of Rs 21 required for admission to secondary school, but a friend—a maid who worked in prosperous households in Chowpatty—offered the money,” writes Pulakkat. From this humble beginning, Mashelkar went on to become director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and was possibly the only scientist who was simultaneously on the boards of both Tata and Reliance! Today’s start-up entrepreneurs need to know the virtues of patience to have lasting careers and not burn up like shooting stars.
This book is about Indians who laid the sound foundations of modern Indian science. It’s because of those foundations that Indian scientists and engineers did marvellously during the Covid-19 pandemic to give India affordable diagnostic kits. In early 2020, an RT-PCR test cost Rs 4,500. Today, thanks to Indian laboratories, it has come down to Rs 500. Two home-grown Covid vaccines are already being deployed. None of this could have happened had the many stalwarts featured here not burnt the midnight oil to make India an innovation hub. This is a must-read book for all readers across generations, not just aficionados of science.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Servitors of Science")
(Pallava Bagla has been a science communicator for three decades)