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Passion For Patterns
Until high school, I had no interest in science," says Prof Kaushik Bhattacharya, the Kannada-speaking Bengali scientist who is as fond of his sambar and rasam as his macher jhol. "S.R. Ramaswamy, my science teacher, kindled my interest. He ran a science club in school and got me interested in science," explains this Caltech professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department. Whenever Bhattacharya visits his parents in Mysore, he makes it a point to meet kaushoiRamaswamy, who continues to teach and inspire students at Mahajana High School.
That high school interest in science propelled Bhattacharya to join IIT, Madras, where he chose mechanical engineering. When he came to the US in 1991 to pursue his PhD at the University of Minnesota, a chance meeting with Prof Richard James led to his current research interest. "Prof James showed me this shape memory alloy and domain patterns, and I was instantly hooked," recalls Bhattacharya. His ground-breaking research work is in active materials. In this class fall shape memory alloys, so called because they tend to return to their original shape after being distorted.
These materials can be used for making sensors or actuators. "All machines contain a frame and a motor, what these materials promise is the merging of the two. There is huge potential for miniaturisation, micromachines and the new buzzword, nanotechnology," he says. "We are blurring the boundaries between mechanical and material science."
Bhattacharya describes his work this way: why does a material form a particular pattern? How does the pattern affect the property? What can I do to change these patterns? And the most vital one: how do I design a material with a pattern/property I want? "Much of my work’s been in theory and I’m engaged in building theoretical tools to answer these questions," he says.
Fond of Hindustani music—the "northie" part of him, he jokes—he also likes Carnatic music and used to play the tabla. "But I don’t anymore," he says with a tinge of regret. Both he and his wife Sohini Ray, an anthropologist lecturer at the University of California, Irvine, love to hike. An active couple, then, not unlike his materials.