Dr. K. S. Krishnan is one of the foremost scientists that modern India has produced. He was born on 4th December 1898 into a Vaishnava family in Watrap village of Ramnad district in south Tamil Nadu.
He had his early education at Hindu High School in Watrap. He was proficient in Tamil, Samskrt and English. He not only read the palm leaf manuscripts, but also wrote on palm leaves daily in his childhood days. He graduated in Physics from Madras Christian College Tambaram, Chennai, in 1918.
First Observer of Raman Effect
From there he moved on to Kolkata which was the centre of science in India in those days. There he came under the tutelage of Dr. C V Raman. He worked along with Dr. C V Raman and was infact the person who first observed the ‘Phenomenon of the Scattering of Light’ on February 28th, 1928. This came to be called the Raman Effect. It was for this discovery that Dr. C.V. Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1930.
Later Dr C V Raman wrote to Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the then Vice Chancellor of Waltair University in Vishakapatnam,
“If the noble award for physics made in 1930, had been based on the record of the year, 1928 alone, instead of on the entire work, on the scattering of light, done at Kolkata from 1921 onwards, Krishnan would in justice have come in for a share of the prize.”
This written testimonial of Dr C V Raman shows how important the contribution of Dr Krishnan was in getting the Noble Laureate.
Working with Dr Bose
In Kolkata, Dr. Krishnan had the opportunity of working shoulder to shoulder with the greats of his time like professor S N Bose of Bose Einstein Condensate statistics.
S. N. Bose was later recognized with the attribution of the scientific term, ‘Boson’ for the Higgs-Boson or what has come to be popularly called God Particle in recent times.
Three Awards in Science
After this in December 1928, he moved to Dhaka University for a few years. When he left the university, he bequeathed his gratuity benefits for three awards in science – Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry.
The award to the students then was a princely Rs 50 per year. These awards are still being continued to students in Dhaka, even after the place passed on from India to East Pakistan and from East Pakistan to Bangladesh.
Friend of Jawahar Lal Nehru
Dr. Krishnan was a close friend of Jawahar lal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. Nehru described him as,
“He is a great scientist, but something much more. He is a perfect citizen, a whole man with an integrated personality.”
Nehru used to often invite Dr. Krishnan for personal breakfasts and state dinners, whenever visiting dignitaries came to India. Indira Gandhi used to personally send these invites to him, respectfully addressing him as uncle. Such was the high esteem he was held in the formative years of India.
Head of NPL
When he moved to Allahabad University post independence, Jawahar lal Nehru handpicked him to lead the newly established National Physical Laboratories out of Delhi.
When Nehru offered him the role, the first two times he refused as he did not want the administrative role, but wanted to do research. But the third time, he could not refuse Nehru and became the first head of NPL.
He continued in the position from 1948, when the institution was founded until his death due to a sudden heart attack on 14th June, 1961.
Awards and Recognition
He was honoured with knighthood in 1946, by the British government and with the Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 1955. He was a visiting faculty at over 30 international universities. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1940. In 1957, he was the first recipient of the Bhatnagar award for science in India.
UNESCO appointed him as the chairman of the scientific advisory committee.
He was the vice-president of International Union of Pure and Applied Physics from 1951 to 1957.
A simple man
His achievements are far and wide. For all this, he remained a simple man. To whichever city he went, be it Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai or Dhaka, he used to regularly visit the local temple in the evenings and give pravachan, discourse on the convergence, overlap of science and spirituality. This was unique for a modern scientist who strode at the very pinnacle of modern science.