Padma Vibhushan Prof. Roddam Narasimha, FRS (born July 20,1933) is an eminent aerospace scientist and renowned fluid dynamicist. He currently holds the DST year-of-science professorship at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) and the Pratt and Whitney Chair in Science and Engineering at the University of Hyderabad. He did his Associateship at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) with Prof. Satish Dhawan and his Ph.D. at California Institute of Technology with Prof, Hans Liepmann, and is a distinguished alumnus of both institutions. He has been the chairman of Aerospace Engineering, the founding chairman of the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (LAOS) at IISc and the Director of National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), where he played a significant role in the development of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). He has also served as the Director of National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS).
Over the years, Prof. Narasimha has made seminal contributions in the areas of intermittency in turbulent boundary layers, shock waves, transition and relaminarization, and more recently on the dynamics of cumulus clouds. He is the author of more than 250 research publications and fifteen books. He continues to be closely associated with Aerospace technology development in India at both technical and policy-making levels. He has served on the National Security Advisory Board and the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet.
Professor Narasimha has been widely honoured for his research work as well as his scientific leadership. In 2008 he was awarded the Trieste Science Prize by TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Foreign Associate of both the US National Academy
of Engineering and the US National Academy of Sciences. He is also an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In India his distinctions include the Bhatnagar Prize, the Gujarmal Modi Award and the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour accorded by the Government. He is a fellow of all the National Academies of Science and Engineering in the country, and an honorary fellow of the Aeronautical Society of India.
He also has deep interests in the history of science, as well as in the Indic philosophy.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEW
Sarjana family feels honoured to get an opportunity to interview such an esteemed personality for our institute magazine, Sarjana. The interview was fixed in a very short time as a member of Sarjana, Sanket Suman was visiting Bangalore and it was good opportunity to meet Prof. Roddam Narasimha. We contacted our alumnus Mr. Rajesh Ranjan (Chemical Engg., BIT Sindri, 2001-05; Dy. Editor-in-Chief, Sarjana, 26th edition) who is currently a PhD student with Prof. Narasimha, for the same. It was a dream come true , when Prof. Narasimha found time from his very busy schedule to have detailed interview with us.
In what we take pride as possibly his first interview to a college magazine, Prof. Narasimha candidly speaks on various issues ranging from his personal life, to science, research, history, his vision of India, to his expectations from this generation. We would like to thank Prof. Roddam Narasimha for this kind opportunity. We also acknowledge the help of Mr. Rajesh for facilitating this interview.
Sarjana : We feel privileged to get this opportunity to have an interview with you . First of all, we would like to know about your background and how had you been during your childhood days ?
Prof. Roddam Narasimha: I am a native of Bangalore. I grew up in Basavangudi which is in South Bangalore, sort of old Kannada cultural centre of Bangalore life. I went to what at that time was a very modest school right there. It was built up by a very remarkable educational entrepreneur and as I grew the school also grew. I think that the greatest thing about that school, looking back in retrospect, were some of the teachers. You must remember that this was all in the 1940s, just around the time of the end of British rule. Actually, we were very fortunate to have a couple of teachers who were very good, very committed. They were basically nationalist in outlook. I think they all wanted to do their best, even in education. They took interest in good students beyond the call of duty. They shaped my early views as a young boy about the nation and about independence. II went to college also in Bangalore and ended up during mechanical engineering. At the time it was called Government Engineering College, now known as University Vishvesvaraya College of Engineering. That college had some remarkable engineers as well as some very good teachers.
S: How did you come to know about aeronautical engineering and what tempted you to opt for it?
RN: During those days, there was an exhibition at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), what we call today an Open Day. I went there and the first thing I saw was an aeronautics department on our left, and the first thing that I saw there was an old Spitfire, a British aircraft which actually won for them the battle of Britain during Second World War. It was very famous aircraft at that time and Indian Air Force also had some. I saw one of those parked under a tree. So that was the first time I got close enough to an aircraft to touch it and see what was inside and so on . So I decided that if I had a chance, I would do aeronautics after my B.E. The Institute was the only place where you could get a degree in aeronautics at that time. So when I got my B.E. degree at the end of four years, I wanted to do aeronautics from the Institute and so went to ask my father. He said before you make up your mind, why don’t you go and talk to a friend of mine at the Institute. When I met him, he was actually very discouraging (RN smiling). He said, “Don’t be a fool, don’t study aeronautics.
It was because aeronautics was not a very popular subject at that time. People didn’t see many opportunities there. In-fact the batch before mine had zero students. I went back and told my father expecting that he would agree with his friend. But he said, “You have heard him, so what do you want to do?” I replied, “I still want to do aeronautics.” Then he said,”OK, You go ahead.” That’s how I joined aeronautics. In retrospect that was a good decision; I thoroughly enjoyed aeronautics, aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and so on.
S: How was your life at Indian Institute of Science?
RN : At that time, I’m talking about 1953, 6 years after independence, industries were picking up. The good jobs were in the Indian Railways (IRS), if you wanted a government appointment. It was equivalent to IAS for the engineers. Also there were jobs in the new petroleum refineries being set up in the country. Many did well in the IRS examination and joined the Railways. Some went to TATAs. Very few joined the Institute. So,I was from a small group of 12 that joined the aeronautics department that year. I spent two years there and that was my first opening to what I may call research (we had very little research at the engineering college). The one man who had a big impact on me was Prof. Satish Dhawan. He was a young man then. He had come back from
from Caltech, United States in 1951. So, when I went there in 1953, he had been there just for two years.He was remarkable, very different from the other faculty. Other faculty dressed in tie and suit but he came dressed in just a shirt and his pants. He was cheerful,very open and frank. At that time the head of the department was a distinguished but serious German scientist. I hardly saw him smiling. But Dhawan had a ready smile. He used to come in a small sports car, jump out and run up the stairs. On the whole, he was somebody whom you couldn’t miss on the campus. I spent two years there getting my diploma .Towards the end of those two years, Dhawan said, “I’m trying to do some research, would you want to help me?” I said, “I would be delighted.” So I actually worked with him on supersonic flows and shockwaves. At that time, these were still mysterious things, and Dhawan had made a small (5 mm x 5 mm) wind tunnel in which he could generate shockwaves and a small optical set up show you the shockwaves. He was an extraordinary experimentalist. He was very good with his hands, good with his designs and good in telling people what should be done. At that time, we had to do many things ourselves, we didn’t import much and the practice of getting money from outside sponsors was unknown. So we scrounged around for money all the time, but Dhawan taught us how to do most with least money.
At the end of my two years in the diploma course, I had 2-3 options before me. 1 could have easily got a job at HAL. The very first thing that I wanted to do was some research and the German professor was the first one to encourage me. He usually didn’t speak to students but one day he called me, just before he left for home, and asked me what my plans were .I said, “I would probably go to HAL or apply to the Meterological Department.” He said, “I think you should get into research. I would advise you to go to Goettingen or Caltech, if you need any help from me, let me know “I was quite surprised, but I saw going abroad was one option. Going abroad was not such a common thing then as it is now. One thing was that I had already made up my mind to do research with Dhawan, if possible. Dhawan met me and asked the same question. He said why don’t you do research here. So I stayed on to do research with him and spent two more years at IISc.
S : So, Was it Satish Dhawan who was the role model for you while growing up? Can you also highlight a little about the research you did with prof. Dhawan?
RN: In a way yes, because he had an extraordinary influence on me, but in another sense no, because he could do things which I would not (e,g. making beautiful little ‘gizmos’, as he called them). But I learnt from him that if you can think through and analyze problems, there are very interesting things one can do without spending too much money. Thus. I needed an electronic amplifier for hot-wire anemometry, but I knew nothing about electronics. So Dhawan hired a technical assistant who could help me, and we put together a very “crazy” amplifier. It was running on a battery, using cheap radio components. It worked! So, my first lesson from Dhawan was “We can do it! You can do it! If you have a clear enough goal, you can do it!”. We had a 5ftx5ft wind tunnel in which flow conditions were transitional, i.e. neither laminar nor turbulent. He said. ‘We don’t know much about transition, so let us do some research on transition.As we read the mails that carried news about transition research in the US I found that some beautiful measurements had been made there confirmed a physical picture but could not be connected to the theory. So, we made our own measurements and could repeat what they had done and they didn’t agree either. The question was about where what are called ‘turbulent spots’ are from on (say) a flat surface or wing. The theory assumed that they were born all over the surface. We found that theory and experiment agreed if we said that spots were born along a line across the surface. So I wrote it up my work and submitted my thesis.
S: That was your first paper? And how did it influence your career?
RN: Actually there were two papers: the first was a short note by me, and the second a larger paper by Dhawan and me. Dhawan then persuaded me to go to Caltech for a PhD: there was nothing much more I could learn in Bangalore, he said. I think the,papers and Dhawan helped me to get admission to
S: So, you met Hans Liepmann at Caltech. What were the most striking features about his personality?
RN : Liepmann was an excellent teacher. He taught without notes but I found later that he would make little cards containing tricky steps and carried them in his pocket, in case he got stuck. But during the classes I took from him, he never got stuck. He could make connections among many different subjects. He wanted students to do as much as
possible by themselves. He was very liberal: country, language didn’t matter to him. He was from Germany and was among those last few people who just escaped the war. So he went on to settle down in California and I learnt a great deal from him about research, how research problems are selected and so on. He had a great sense of humour. He led
a very lively group, who went on to become some very well known people in fluid dynamics.This includes the names of Anatol Roshko, Donald Coles etc. who contributed a great deal to fluid dynamical research. So, it was fortunate that 1 could work with people like Dhawan and Liepmann,
S: So, you Came back to India in 1962 after your PhD. What was the reason for your return when you had a more promising future in the United States?
RN: That depends how you define promising. The month I reached United States in 1957, a week before registration, a big event happened: the Russians launched Sputnik. This report was treated with scepticism. I still remember one occasion, very vivid in my memory, is that firstly The Russians then said. “If you don’t believe it, tune your radio to this frequency, you will hear the beep-beep from our Sputnik.” People said, “Yeah! That we can do but how can we know that that is from Sputnik?” Then there was a list of times at the big US cities where, if you went out and watched the western sky, you could seea bright little object crossing the sky. Everybody at Caltech went to the terrace or the top of the building, wondering whether the Sputnik would show up. It did on time. So, the debate was settled, every-body knew that they had done it. Sputnik changed everything. Suddenly the national interest shifted to space and they cut down programs in aeronautics .So, I was there at what many people would say, looking in retrospect, a golden age. If you had done anything remotely connected with space, you were in great demand. I had many job offers. I was actually hired as a consultant by a US company before, I actually got my PhD Although I liked the United States and Caltech was very dear to me, I wanted to come back to India; and there was Dhawan’s example. When I left Caltech, my American friends took bets that I will be back in the United States within six months because I won’t be able to do any research (in India), but I knew that was not right. So anyway, I came back and I continued at the Institute for the rest of my career till I retired in 1993.
S: You have been associated with a lot of prominent institutes like Caltech, llSc, then University of Brussels, Adelaide University, Cambridge University. What basic difference you personally felt between the pedagogy of Indian Institutes and Foreign Institutes?
RN : I think that there is one big difference between the usual undergraduate education In India and those in the better foreign universities. I think the weakest link in the Indian education system is those four undergraduate years, I think that the llTs, the NITs, and your institute or some of the better universities may be different, but in general our under-graduate system doesn’t match up with the great universities of the rest of the world, Caltech and
Cambridge are very different in their institutional personalities but both of them have great spirit, All great universities of the world, I found out, have one thing in common, Some are small, some are huge. Caltech has only 2000 students, Cambridge has 20,000. Caltech has many science and engineering departments, but also a humanities and social sciences department. But in Cambridge, you can study almost anything under the sun: science, engineering, Greek literature or Hindu philosophy. Cambridge has been there for 800 years and Caltech has been there for just 100 years. Caltech is not very much older than the engineering colleges here .But, they have one thing in common. Their programs are very strong on both undergraduate education and research. Research is done at the same place where those young people are taught. That is really what makes it a great institution. Many people in India think that if you copy the syllabus of Cambridge and Caltech, you can replicate the institution; they are totally mistaken. The syllabus is the product; it is not the driver, what drives it are the people teaching at those places. They know where the frontiers are because they are at the frontier themselves, they are pushing it. So, their view of knowledge is very different .In most of the Indian colleges the teachers are not doing research. So for them, knowledge is in the textbook, often the prescribed text book! Usually, even if there is an error in the text book, it’s the answer in the text book that will get you marks; no wonder therefore the students mug up the text book. What the great universities do, whether in the United States or Russia or Britain, is that knowledge is being created at the same place where it is being taught. Students grow up knowing that something which is in the book today may be proved wrong the next day. Some new techniques which we never thought of can be invented and change everything. They grow up in this atmosphere. So by the time they graduate, their view of science is far more mature and realistic in terms of how knowledge is generated that of an average Indian undergraduate student. I found out that at Caltech, the man who joined first year was generally a very bright student, but did not know as much as the Indian counterpart does. You see the same man four years later, there is no comparison between the two. The attitude of the American student is far more mature.
S: You have also been at the helm of prestigious institutes like NAL, NIAS etc. Did you face any kind of difficulties there?
RN: Actually when I went to NAL, I was very doubtful. NAL is a huge place: 1500 or more employees at that time. I said, “Good God.” I had known NAL personally, many of the scientists were graduates from the institute.
Despite my reluctance I yielded to the persuasion of Dhawan, Dr. Valluri(then director of NAL) and others. The institute was generous and allowed me to remain on its faculty, and that helped a great deal.
NAL had many bright engineers, carefully recruited by Dr. Valluri; they had some very good facilities.
They could make things on a larger scale than at the Institute. However they were not very clever whether they should be like professors at the institute or engineers at ISRO. So I focused on what NAL could do that nobody else in the country was doing: what would make NAL special?
So we adopted the principle that if somebody else could do it, we would not do it NAL. So, let’s do things like that might be important 5-10 years later. There was also some time left for individual research. I was pleased with the response of staff at NAL. Carbon fibre composite technology, parallel computing, flight control systems, wind tunnel techniques, CFD etc. became NAL’s special strengths.
From experience at NAL and elsewhere. I concluded that we have a lot of talent in india but do not know how to use it!
S: We have heard that you have deep interest in history of science as well. You edited a book on Classic Indian Sciences. How do you see the contribution of ancient Indian Science viz-a-viz Modern science?
RN: The general western view about science is that “it all started in Greece”. Archemedes was the first physicist, Euclid was the first mathematician, and everything else then followed. Now, that view of History of science is in my opinion wrong. If you look at the history of science in the world before 300-400 BC, Babylonia, China and India had already some achievements in science and technology. For example in linguistics, grammar, till the 19th century there was nobody in the world who could even match Panini in terms of the science he brought to the grammar of languages. There were other areas like medical science (Susruta for example), metallurgy and mathematics (the Salva sutras). There are controversies about the so-called Pythagoras theorem, there is no evidence that Pythagoras stated or proved the theorem (as widely believed), whereas there is credible evidence that Baudhayana(500 to 800 BCE). Stated the General result explicitly before Pythagoras (who doesn’t seem to have done it in any case).
I believe different kinds of science started at different times in different places. We can say with confidence that between 200 AD and 1500 AD, there was little new science in Europe. India and china were well ahead in many ways: economically, scientifically, technologically and perhaps culturally too. All the great names of Indian mathematics, Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Brahmagupta were from that period. Algebra was developed in India and travelled to Europe through creative Islamic scholars and it changed the concept of what mathematics was. For nearly 1400 years, as the distinguished British scientist Joseph Needham pointed out, there was no new science in Europe whereas Indian and Chinese were prospering. But the “modern science” we know and pursue today largely arose from profound scientific revolution in Europe, triggered in part by earlier developments in the East, especially in mathematics and technology.
S: How do you think scientific researches that contain a lot of technicalities can be made accessible to general public especially in rural India?
RN: if you want to reach rural audiences, you should relate science to their life. If is true that their life is not surrounded by modern gadgets, though it’s changing. So one should communicate to them what is changing and what the potential of that change is. When they know it is going to help them, they take to it.
It is not that the people are not interested: I have talked to villagers about weather and found that their local knowledge and their keenness is very impressive. But you must use language they understand, don’t expect that they will understand or make an effort to understand the esoteric technical language that we learn to speak at school and college.
S: You have been awarded with the second highest civilian award “Padma Vibhusan” in 2013. How did you feel when you first heard this news? How do you take this achievement?
RN: I actually felt greatly honoured. To know that the nation appreciates that one has done something for it is privilege. Well, I have tried to combine what I like to do with what the country needs, and enjoyed doing it.
S : Where do you see India in decades to come in the field of science and research?
RN: In my view, there is now no limit to what India can do if we have the will to do it. Why do I say that? I say that because India has a huge population and has a lot of dormant talent; we have about the youngest large population in the world. At a time when the more developed countries in the world are struggling to get enough people for science, we have enough or more here in our country. If we learn to make use of this talent, give them a good education and offer them opportunities after their education, India’s human potential is huge. India has many young people, people like you, and you hold the future in your hand, and I really mean it. The future depends on the choices you make in your life. If somehow somebody can inspire Indians that there is great opportunity here and we can all help to make that happen, I think Indians will do it.
The ability is there, I have no doubt, but ‘will’ may or may not be there, I am not sure about it. After all, You must remember, India and China were among the leaders of science in world from 200 A.D. to 1600 A.D. Can’t we be there again?
Did you know India and China contributed to some 60% of the world’s GDP till almost a few centuries ago?
The last 250 years have been a bad time for India but it is only ten generations in our long history. It is true that in the last 250 years, the West has made tremendous progress and left its mark on the whole world (otherwise we would not be speaking in English to each other! ). If we want to plot our future, we must have a critical view of our past. That’s why I consider history important, not because you want to find out when somebody became a king, when he was killed in battle and so on.
There is a history of ideas and a history of civilizations that is more fascinating and more important.
S: Recently there had been many space missions of India with France and U. S., I think India appears to lag in the field of technical advancements as compared to those of U.S. and France. What are the prime reasons of this lag in the technologies?
RN: In the first place there is no comparison between the money India is spending and the other countries you mention. If you take Chandrayaan or Mangalyaan, what surprises the West is how little money we have spent on a project like that, while a certain kind of ‘intellectual’ in India criticizes the program as a waste of money. Mangalyaan’s cost was Rs. 450 crores over 3 years or so. That comes out to be little more than Rs. 3 for each person; that is less than a cup of tea once in 3 years for every indian. You tell me, how many Govt. Projects are there where you put 450 crores into each and get the equivalent of mangalyaan? Whenever and wherever the country has shown the will, we have done that here with our own resources. We often think that it has to do with the ability of the people. I think it is more a matter of national will.
S: You must have some spare time from your engagement and commitment. So, what kind of hobbies do you possess?
RN: Well, when I was your age, I spent time learning to play the veena but it was hard to keep it up. Later on, I used to read a lot of literature in English: novels, poetry. Then I came under the influence of the Kannada scholar-poet-philosopher-wise man, the late Sri D. V. Gundappa. He was my guru. Every Sunday morning he used to take classes, where we studied one English book and one Indian book could be either in Kannada or in Sanskrit. Subjects varied from political science, philosophy, economics, science, literature etc. It was very broad. Now that was something which I liked very much. I used to watch movies at one time but these days I do very little of it. Presently my hobbies are history and philosophy, which I pursue as much for enjoyment as for understanding. I am fascinated by them .India is a big country with diverse people, all kinds of language, still most of us feel that there is something that unites all of us. India seems unique, and I love to try and find out way.
S: What message would you like to give to young generation?
RN: We are at a stage where if we make up our minds,we can be a major influence in the world for peace. Here is a vision statement I drafted some years ago when a diverse group of distinguished people were debating the future of India ( they agreed with the statement):
We visualize here an India that, by the year 2025, will be and will be seen to be a proud, confident, democratic, multi-cultural nation; strong militarily,economically and culturally; among the front rank of the powers of the world in science and technology; pragmatic and hard-headed in its international relations; and without being dominationist, a force to reckon with on the side of peace and multipolar order in an uncertain world.”
Whether this vision survives or is replaced by something else, I think your generation has a unique opportunity. It can make India ‘strong’ in our sense of the world. It is entirely possible if we believe in it. Believe in it, and in yourself.
S: Thank you very much for your time and for this interview. It was a privilege.
RN: I enjoyed talking to you . Thank you!