Gems of Modern India

Gems of Modern India are those geniuses, who are mostly forgotten thanks to the colonial mindset in people who control the narrative.

Narinder Singh Kapani (92 years) is acknowledged as the Father of ‘Fiberoptics’- a term he coined. His work in 1953 ushered in a new era of High-speed Internet, endoscopy, and spectroscopy. An unsung hero, he never patented it. He never won a Nobel.

Venkatesh Bapuji Ketkar (1854-1930) The last great astronomer in the Siddhanta lineage of Aryabhata, Bhaskara & Madhava. He predicted with remarkable calculations the existence of the 9th planet in 1911 before Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. he predicted many orbital parameters of Pluto. Bapuji’s calculations were better than those of Percival Lowell & Henry Pickering who are still honored. He published in May 1911 issue of Bulletin of Astronomical Society of France Before Clyde announced the discovery of Pluto in Feb 1930, Bapuji died of a severe paralytic stroke. As a typical westerner, and it’s “independent discovery”, it will be said that Clyde did not know of Ketkar and that he used only the work of his western predecessors!

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Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was a biologist, physicist, botanist, and belatedly recognised as the father of radio science. He was born in India during British rule, invented the wireless telegraphy and made a demonstration of the same in 1895. During the public show at Calcutta’s Town Hall, he managed to send electromagnetic waves over a distance of 75 feet. The waves passed right through a wall and managed to ring a bell wirelessly. The Governor of Bengal was also present during his presentation.

Sadly, this invention’s credit is often given to Marconi – an Italian scientist, who made a demonstration in 1897 but filed a patent in 1896. What Marconi did was that he made use of Bose’s Mercury Coherer to come up with a two-way radio that is capable of communicating wirelessly. The problem was that Bose didn’t file for a patent and Marconi took the opportunity to patent it and became celebrated for something that he never invented.

Sir J C Bose deserved two Nobel prizes (one for radio and another for proving the existence of life in plants) but ironically got none as he was from a colonised nation. An English man got the Nobel prize on Bose’s thesis. Another case of western plagiarism and taking credit.

Bibha Chowdhuri was an outstanding physicist who works never got the recognition whereas people like CF Powel who reproduced her works got Nobel for it. She obtained her MSc in Physics from Calcutta University in 1936 — the only woman in that batch — and plunged headlong into research, mostly at the Bose Institute. Debendra Mohan (DM) Bose [nephew of Sir J.C. Bose] and Chowdhuri published three consecutive papers in Nature, but could not continue further investigation on account of “non-availability of more sensitive emulsion plates during the war years. Seven years after this discovery of mesons by DM Bose and Bibha Chowdhuri, C.F. Powell made the same discovery of pions and muons and further decay of muons to electrons… using the same technique” and won the Nobel Prize in 1950. Powell acknowledged Bose and Chowdhuri’s pioneering contribution in his work.

She was one of the young scientists — the first woman researcher — selected by Homi J. Bhabha to join the newly established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay, in 1949. Chowdhuri (1913-1991) served in renowned institutions of the country and was a tireless researcher till she died, unsung and unheralded, in Calcutta. No national award or fellowship of any major scientific society came her way. She does not figure among the 98 scientists of uneven quality in the 2008 book Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, edited by Rohini Godbole and Ram Ramaswamy and published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore.

In her introduction to the book Women and Science in India: A Reader,a collection of interesting essays, Neelam Kumar states that “science continues to be characterised by low number of females, clustered in disciplines considered feminine and confined to the ranks of invisible, poorly paid assistants, and other lower positions.” In the same volume, Namrata Gupta and A.K. Sharma write about the “triple burden” —- In addition to the double burden of career and home, the long hours in the laboratory demanded by scientific study and research constitutes the third burden — faced by women in science. The issue of “passive discrimination” and of invisible barriers are also no less important.

Originally known as star HD 86081 was renamed as Bibha in 2019 by International Astronomical Union in the honour of Indian physicist Bibha Chowdhuri (1913-1991).

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Sambhunath De (1 Feb 1915 – 15 April 1985) was a medical scientist and researcher, who discovered the choleratoxin, the animal model of cholera. He successfully demonstrated the method of transmission of cholera pathogen Vibrio cholerae.

De did his medical degree from Calcutta & finished his PhD from London. In 1959 De was the first to demonstrate that cholera bacteria secrete enterotoxin. This discovery eventually promoted research to find a treatment aimed directly at neutralising the cholera enterotoxin. De’s paper “Enterotoxicity of bacteria-free culture-filtrate of Vibrio cholera,” while initially unrecognised, today is considered a milestone in the history of cholera research. He also did extensive research against E.Coli & published many papers which are considered as the benchmark by academia.

In the words of Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, “De’s clinical observations led him to the bold thought that dehydration was a sufficient cause of pathology of cholera. The cholera toxin can kill ‘merely’ by stimulating the secretion of water into the bowel”. Thus, the oral rehydration therapy (ORT) for replenishing the massive fluid loss in cholera patients has saved innumerable lives should be considered as a direct outcome of De’s discovery of cholera toxin. His findings on exotoxins set the stage for the modern views of diseases caused by toxin producing bacteria, helped in the purification of cholera and heat-labile (LT) enterotoxins produced by V. cholerae and E. coli, respectively.

Nobel laureate Prof. Joshua Lederberg had nominated De for the Nobel Prize more than once. Said Lederberg, “Our appreciation of De must then extend beyond the humanitarian consequences of his discovery. He is also an examplar and inspiration for the boldness of challenge to the established wisdom, a style of thought that should be more aggressively taught by example as well as precept.” And yet De was never elected a fellow of any Indian academy and never received any major award.

As Professor Padmanabhan Balaram pointed out in an editorial in Current Science, “De died in 1985 unhonoured and unsung in India’s scientific circles. That De received no major award in India during his lifetime. Our Academies did not see it fit to elect him to their Fellowships must rank as one of the most glaring omissions of our time.

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