April 04, 2020
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The Amazicans

Many science frontierspeople in the Land of the Brave are, well, honest Injuns

The Amazicans
Photo-illustration by Manoj Bhramar
The Amazicans
The belief that India has the world’s largest (or second largest or third largest) scientific and technological manpower has become such a shopworn assertion that it has now assumed the overtones of an international urban legend. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever backed this statement with convincing numbers. My own guess is that the statement is true—so long as we count every mechanic, electrician and plumber from the bylanes of Bhatinda to the hovels of Howrah to the tarmacs at Tambaram.

Levity aside, we do produce a staggering number of science and technology graduates. Enough of them plod on to higher goals, and a few ascend stratospheric heights of success, to provide us some bragging rights, especially if word comes from the US that they have achieved something that has been recorded in Science or Nature. Yeah, for all our prickly patriotism, the truth remains that our scientists aren’t "international" without the American imprimatur.

From the time America opened the gates of immigration to Asians in the mid-’60s, thousands of Indian engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers have streamed into the US, gradually bypassing Old Blighty. The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, the umbrella organisation of doctors from India, has a membership of 40,000. Add to it an equal if not greater number of engineers who trooped in in the aftermath of the technological revolution of the ’80s and ’90s and settled there permanently. And top it off with an equal number of scientists, researchers and academics who spanned both the medical and engineering migrations. It is a safe bet that there are upward of 2,00,000 Indian "brains" in the US.

Certainly, in my reporting years from the US (1994 to date), the presence (and achievements) of Indians in the world of science and technology has risen perceptibly. Spectacularly even. These days, hardly a week goes by without some Indian (or Indian-American) scientist or researcher making news. The appointment of Vinod Dham, who engineered the first-generation Pentium chip, to the President’s Scientific Council or the bestowing of the President’s National Science Award to Arun Netravali for his contributions in the field of high-definition TV barely created a ripple. Nor did the appointment of Dr Arati Prabhakar as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or Bobby Jindal as the assistant secretary for health services. It was a long time coming.

The Indians have arrived. Driving down to the Carolinas last spring, I was tuned to the National Public Radio when I heard of an Indian scientist working in the nearby Research Triangle Foundation who had devised the smallest refrigeration device. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I tracked down Rama Venkatasubramanium on my cellphone even as I was driving and spoke to him for an hour between watching a Davis Cup tie between India and the US.

Some weeks later, I was researching for a story on voice recognition when I heard of a Gopalakrishan of IBM who was said to be a leading authority in the field. When I phoned IBM, they wanted to know which Gopalakrishan—the IBM directory listed 17 Gopalakrishnans. One of my journalistic rituals is to keep a tab on the annual Westinghouse Science Talent contest—a sort of junior Nobel Prize. Every year, there is an Indian kid or two in the top 10.

In my effort to keep track of Indian "brains" in the US, I often call on the research skills of Miriam Rider, the librarian at the US foreign press centre in Washington DC. Ms Rider is a Jewish-American whose keen sense of Jewish achievement and superiority is often frazzled by my enquiries about Indian breakthroughs. "Miriam, would you mind looking up some background on this guy named Rusi Taleyarkhan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory? He’s an Indian who..." I’ll begin. "...who invented zero?" Miriam will complete the sentence corrosively. "Yes, Miriam," I continue mirthfully. "We also discovered blood circulation, the solar system and learned to fly before the rest of the world."

The idea that science, if not the fruits of science, is a universal inheritance is a noble ideal. It is widely accepted in the scientific world but seldom allowed by the political masters. The American atom bomb, for example, is a mostly European product.

In his book Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, Robert Jungk refers to the period of 1923 through 1932 as "the beautiful years". This was the period when international collaboration among the scientific community, especially in the field of nuclear science, was at an all-time high. Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn, J. Robert Oppenheimer in Germany, Neils Bohr, Edward Teller, Otto Frisch in Denmark, Ernest Rutherford and James Franck in England, Frederic Joliot and Irene Curie-Joliot in France—all contributed to the corpus of nuclear science that led to the making of the bomb.

The rise of Hitler in the mid-’30s and the spread of his pernicious ideology threw this international consortium out of whack. In the spring of 1933, the University of Gottingen, the crucible of many breakthroughs, became the focal point of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies. Respected scholars were hounded out. Some of the world’s foremost physicists such as Max Born, James Franck, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and John von Neumann were forced to flee. Many of them headed to America, making the US the recipient of arguably the greatest scientific bounty in the history of mankind.

If the European migration to the US, including that of its scientists, dominated immigration history in the first half of the 20th century, Asians took over in the second half. Their emigration was not based on persecution but on perceived opportunity. The first Indian scientists and researchers began coming to the US even as Europe stabilised and began keeping its own best minds home. Often, the Indians came to the US after a "stopover" in Europe.

Two of the earliest Indians brains to arrive in the US were the physicist Subrahmanyan "Chandra" Chandrasekhar and the geneticist Hargobind Khorana, both of whom, remarkably, would go on to win Nobel Prizes in their respective fields. Chandra was trained as a physicist at Presidency College, Madras, and at Cambridge in England. He was one of the first scientists to combine the disciplines of physics and astronomy. Early in his career, he demonstrated that there is an upper limit—now called the Chandrasekhar limit—to the mass of a white dwarf star. He migrated to the US in the ’40s and joined the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death in 1995. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his theoretical studies of the physical processes involved in the structure and evolution of stars.

Like Chandra, Khorana also moved from India to England in 1945 and then to America. By 1968, his work at MIT in demonstrating how the genetic components of the cell nucleus control the synthesis of proteins would fetch him a Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Chandra and Khorana are the most famous scientific sons of India who discovered the US and were discovered by the US (and were therefore the first famous "Indian Americans"), mainly on account of their "Nobel" endeavours. But there were scores more who toiled, and sometimes dazzled, with cutting-edge work.

Among their contemporaries was Narindar Singh Kapany, a scientist of such pioneering work that Forbes once ranked him among the most unrecognised scientists of our times. Like Chandra and Khorana, Kapany was born in and graduated from India (Agra University), went to England for higher studies and finally made his way to the US where his work on fibre-optics kick-started the whole business of shooting information over fibre.

By the ’60s, as immigration from Asia was eased, Indians began coming directly to the US without the mandatory pit stop in England. In 1960, C. Kumar N. Patel, a Baramati-born telecom engineer from Poona University, came to Stanford, earned a doctorate and joined the then AT&T Bell Labs, the legendary cornucopia of inventions and innovations. (In 2000, Kumar’s colleague Netravali would be appointed president of Bell Labs, the first non-American to preside over it in its 75-year history.)

At Bell, Patel conducted fundamental research in laser action in the pure rare gases that led him to invent, in 1964, the nitrogen carbon dioxide laser—the first gas laser to produce high-power radiation continuously. Even today, the CO2 laser is said to have more practical applications than any other type of lasers, including in the fields of hard sciences (improved high-resolution and saturation spectroscopy), industry (used in many forms of welding, cutting and drilling), environment (detecting pollutants in ultra-low concentration) and medicine (laser surgery). It also formed the basis for newer types of lasers such as far-infrared and X-ray.

Kapany, Patel and others recorded dozens of patents, a method that came to be advertised much later in India through the exploits of another patentwallah—Sam Pitroda. But by the ’80s, Indian scientists were pushy enough to fight big patent battles in the US. And few were more important in the world of biotechnology than the case of Diamond vs Chakrabarty.

Following Patel’s route, Ananda Chakrabarty had come from Calcutta University as a young scientist to General Electric, the other great fount of invention founded by Edison. At GE, Chakrabarty developed Burkholderia cepacia, a bacterium that could break down crude oil into simpler substances that can serve as food for aquatic life. The practical application of this to clean up toxic oil spills was obvious. But could life forms created in the lab be patented? It had never been tested before.

In 1980, the US Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, held 5 to 4 that living, man-made micro-organisms are patentable. The decision served as a precedent for the issuing of patents on mice, pigs and cows, some containing introduced human genes, as well as naturally-occurring human bone-marrow cells.

By the ’80s, Indian minds in the US were involved in a whole range of breakthrough scientific and technological work from astronomy to geology. They were devising all-terrain wheelchairs (University of Pennsylvania’s Dr Vijay Kumar) and putting men into space in reusable space shuttles on a commercial basis (MirCorp’s Dr Chiranjeev Kathuria). They worked in areas ranging from nuclear fusion to expansive browsers. Often, Indians in the US would take some home-grown solution they had heard from their grandmothers in India, improve on it and come up with "discoveries" and patents, leading to much heartburn and hand-wringing in India (remember neem, turmeric, basmati?).

One such moment of Indian inventiveness came when Kavita Shukla, a Maryland high school student, fabricated in 2000 what she called a Fenugreek Wrapper for food preservation. The story goes that Kavita, who was born in Germany to Indian parents who moved to the US when she was a child, was visiting her grandparents in India when she drank contaminated water and fell ill. Her grandmother whipped up a home-made concoction containing ground fenugreek seeds saying, "Drink this and you’ll be fine." She did and was fine within a day.

Back in the US, Kavita, building on her grandmother’s concoction for a school research project, found that fenugreek could not only remove toxic substances from aqueous solutions but could also inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. She wondered if this discovery could be applied to food preservation. It could. She found that food wrapped in fenugreek-treated paper lasts four to six weeks longer than food protected by traditional wrapping. It is also natural, non-toxic, biodegradable and easily produced in large quantities. Next thing, she obtained a patent for her "invention". Today, Kavita, on her way to Harvard, is also the co-founder and CEO of SAFEH2O, a non-profit, student-run water testing company that operates in partnership with W.R. Grace.

If the above narrative gives you the impression that Indians are taking over American science, time for a reality check. The truth is, Indian presence in the world of American science is still modest. As far as I am aware, no one has computed numbers on ethnic lines. But the Indian presence is growing all the time, even if many of them consider themselves "Indian American", much to the dismay and irritation of the nationalists. And if you accept the premise that knowledge has no human boundaries, and someday there will be a payback, there is much to look forward to.

Mother India herself has been as generous as she’s been fecund. I once asked a very high ranking Indian official if New Delhi had ever considered taxing or re-engaging the Indian minds for all the subsidising that went into making them what they are. "Whatever for?" he exclaimed. "Let’s say this is our contribution to the world of science. Someday, if there is a payback, we will be happy."

(Chidanand Rajghatta is foreign editor of The Times of India and is based in the US. He is the author of The Horse That Flew: How India’s Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings.)
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