June 26 2015
An eclectic gathering came to pay tribute to a scientist who will soon be leading one of the most revered organisations in history…
THEY are among the greatest names in science and some of the finest minds of their generation: Issac Newton, Christopher Wren, and Humphrey Davy.
Now to this illustrious list, you can add the venerable name of Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.
Earlier this year the Nobel Laureate (Chemistry, 2009), and made a Sir in 2012, became the first Indian-born president elect of the Royal Society.
He will formally assume his position in December and yesterday (June 25) at a special lunch held in his honour by the Indian Journalists Association (IJA), the almost certainly first non-white Royal Society (RS) president, spoke about the honour and privilege of leading such an august and respected organisation.
Created in 1660, it established itself as the premier body to discuss and evaluate “knowledge of the natural world through observation and experiment” (from its website) – an accumulation of reflections and theories we have come to now know as the subject of ‘science’.
As well as explaining the breakthroughs in the study of protein and its structure through the ribosome (the basic building
block of all cells) – and for which he was co-awarded his Nobel Prize alongside Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath – the learned professor, who likes to be known as ‘Venki’, also talked about women in science, superstition in India, and his commitment to the Royal Society and its aims.
He told the gathering of journalists and eminent scientists – Professor Sir Tejinder Virdee, (professor of Physics at Imperial College, London and co-architect of Cern Large Hadron Collider) and industrialists Lord Swraj Paul, (founder of multi-million pound steel giants, Caparo) and Dr Yusuf Hamied, (boss of Indian drugs giants and global AIDS-medicine innovators, Cipla) that women should not be deterred in any way from following a career in science, but recognised there were issues.
His own mother, a scientist had gone to complete a PH.D at McGill University in the US, when he was young.
“My Dad told her to go and he took care of me, considering it was 1950s India, I find that even more remarkable,” he said at the lunch held at the Bombay Brassiere, Kensington.
His sister had also pursued a very successful career in science and had now moved from a US university to Cambridge (UK), where he too is based as deputy director of the Medical Research Laboratory for molecular biology and a fellow of Trinity College there.
He said the number of women fellows who had joined the Royal Society had increased in recent times, and that was to be expected as more women took up science as a career.
However, he identified an “attrition”.
“After their post doctorates, they (women) seem to find alternative careers and it may be to do with raising a family,” he said in response to a question about the subject.
He said the Royal Society had a ‘diversity’ commitment and it was conscious of issues surrounding the number of women and ethnic minorities in science.
The Royal Society was not just an English society, he pointed out. Many of India’s leading scientists had been members and it was seen as something of an accolade to be a member. It accepted members from the Commonwealth and furthermore, it had always stood for important principles.
“One of the most attractive things is that it not like a Papacy and it works only on evidence – it doesn’t matter who says it,” he explained during his opening remarks.
The quality of the evidence and its particulars is what mattered to the RS, not where that scientist originated from or where s/he worked.
During questions, he was asked by Dr Raj Persuad how the scientific mind could be reconciled with the average Indian, who believed in astrology and certain superstitions.
Professor Sir Ramakrishnan lamented the widespread use of such practices in India and pointed out a much overlooked fact.
“India is the only country where the constitution encourages a scientific temper and despite the best efforts of figures such as (Jawaharlal) Nehru, the scientific temper has not improved.”
He said it was important that scientists and others committed to rational and intelligent enquiry should communicate to the masses in the vernacular languages of India.
Professor Sir Ramakrishan also said that when it was first suggested he became president, he pointed out that he had “drawbacks” and wondered whether was up to the job.
“The council (of the Royal Society) ignored my reservations and elected me. How could I decline such an honour?”
He said he felt he had done all his best work in the UK – he had studied and worked in the US (moving first to complete a PH.D from Ohio University) until 1999.
“I feel I have substantial debt to repay to society,” he said.
Humble, eminently approachable and friendly, he said he was looking forward to his forthcoming role.
Earlier, on a lighter note, Dr Hamied in a welcoming address, said that he hoped Professor Ramakrishnan could now afford a car as it had been reported in 2009 in Eastern Eye, that he did not have one and travelled around Cambridge on a bicycle.
The author of that report, Amit Roy, the former president of the IJA, helped to organise the lunch with current president Aditi Khanna and secretary, Rupanjana Dutta.
Main picture: (l-r): Amit Roy, Eastern Eye columnist; Sharmila Tagore, Indian screen legend and mother of Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan; and Professor Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan