Saturday, October 24, 2009

Noble reflections on the Nobel

In the recent editorial titled Nobel reflections, Prof. Balaram, the director of IISc, says

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.

1 comment:

as said...

Error: The editorial is titled " Nobel reflections" not "Noble reflections"