This year’s awards had a special significance in India. Venki Ramakrishnan’s Indian origins, catalysed a remarkable outpouring of public interest, after the Nobel announcement; even the reflected glory of a Nobel prize can be dazzling, at times. The adulation suddenly dissolved into controversy; the rapid transformation demonstrated the power of the media to influence opinion. Ramakrishnan’s understandable discomfort at the deluge of e-mails and phone calls from India and his characterization of his Indian origins as an ‘accident of history’ have been widely reported and discussed.
But even as I write, an extraordinary piece of invective has appeared. While such pieces normally deserve to be ignored, the fact that the author happens to be an articulate Member of Parliament and a ‘spokesman of the Congress party’ suggest that a comment may be merited. Abhishek Singhvi writing in the Times of India (20 October 2009) argues that Ramakrishnan’s somewhat plaintive request to be spared the excessive adulation, suggests that he is in some way insensitive to the ‘patriotic’ urges that come to the fore, when an Indian (or one of Indian origin) gets a major international award. Curiously, Singhvi is aware, as he should undoubtedly be, that patriotism can be ‘the refuge of the scoundrel’. He notes that patriotism ‘has an intersection of noble values which in this case, appear to have completely escaped the mind of a brilliant Nobel laureate’. Singhvi adds that ‘success has many fathers while failure is an orphan’, a phenomenon that is also widely observed in the West. Singhvi’s diatribe is both distasteful and inappropriate, coming as it does from one who is distinguished in public life. He would do well to remember that scientific success can sometimes be an orphan in India.
Ironically, one of the founders of the field of structural biology, an area recognized by this year’s Chemistry prize, was an Indian; G. N. Ramachandran who determined the structure of collagen in the 1950s and developed the conformational analysis of protein chains in the 1960s, at Madras University. Ramachandran died in 2001, unhonoured by the Government of India even in the annual Republic Day awards, which are given by the dozen every year. Cholera researchers also celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sambhu Nath De’s famous work on cholera toxin this month. De died in 1985 unhonoured even by the Indian scientific community. The fact that Ramachandran and De did not get the call from Stockholm may only be an ‘accident of history’. Patriotism can often be misplaced. Our reactions to this year’s Nobel prize in chemistry are undoubtedly an example.