C.V. Raman in 1930. Photo: Nobel Foundation.
India has been observing National Science Day (NSD) on February 28 since 1987. The day commemorates the Nobel-Prize-winning discovery of the Raman effect. It was on this day in 1928 that C.V. Raman decided to announce his discovery to the world.
NSD was the brainchild of Narender Kumar Sehgal, the founding head of the National Council of Science and Technology Communication, established in 1982. The idea was to use the occasion of Raman’s birth centenary year in 1988 to institute something long-lasting. A logical step would have been to choose Raman’s birthday – November 7 – as NSD. But Sehgal suggested February 28. The reason was that Sehgal was also born on November 7 and he didn’t want to be accused of rechristening his birthday as NSD. Sehgal, who passed away in September 2020, revealed this in a conversation with me in 2019.
February 28 is generally accepted as the date on which Raman made his path-breaking discovery at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Kolkata, but historians of science point out that the discovery was not made on that day. “The real significance of the discovery became clear to Raman that day and that’s why he decided to announce it in the press on February 28,” according to Rajinder Singh, a Germany-based historian of science who has published a series of books on the life and work of Raman. “Otherwise, he had already communicated observations regarding ‘a new kind of secondary radiation in transparent media’ to Nature which published the same on March 31, 1928.”
Singh’s latest three-book series, C.V. Raman and The Press: Science Reporting and Image Building (2020), discusses how Raman harnessed the power of the lay press and scientific journals to publicise his discovery. The series provides an insight into different controversies in Raman’s professional life in Kolkata and then Bangalore, besides his role as a science communicator.
S. Venkateswaran, a chemical assistant in the Government Test House who used to conduct experiments at IACS in his spare time, made a preliminary observation that “visible radiation which is excited in pure dry glycerine by ultraviolet radiation is strongly polarised”. This was in January 1928. Raman found the observations important and asked K.S. Krishnan, who was studying the intensity and polarisation of chemical compounds using the same method, to confirm them.
Krishnan did so and also conducted additional experiments. He found the same effect in other liquids and vapours. In their communication sent to the scientific journal Nature, Raman and Krishnan wrote that the new radiation differs from fluorescence because its intensity was stronger and it was polarised.
Raman decided to announce the results in the press on February 28, 1928. He made a sketch of the experimental setup for newspapers. The wire agency, Associated Press of India, released the story and it was picked by many newspapers. It said Raman had discovered “a new kind of radiation from atoms excited by light” and described it as “a discovery which promises to be of fundamental significance in physics.”
On March 16, 1928, Raman delivered a lecture at the South Indian Scientists’ Association, where he also shared the spectra of the radiation. The lecture was published in the March 31 issue of the Indian Journal of Physics, which Raman had founded in 1926 and was its first editor. He obtained 2,000 reprints of the talk as published in the journal to send to scientists around the world, including one with a handwritten note to Niels Bohr.
Before Raman’s paper appeared in Nature on March 31 and another one on April 21, the discovery had already become known through reports in newspapers and reprints from the Indian Journal of Physics circulated by Raman. “Raman and Krishnan had in their possession the spectra when they wrote the two papers for Nature. It remains a mystery why they chose not to publish the same. Instead, Raman presented the spectra in his lecture on March 16 which was then reproduced in the Indian journal and circulated across the world,” Singh said.
In other books, Singh has documented why the Raman effect is also known as the Landsberg-Mandelstam effect, combination scattering, the Raman- Landsberg-Mandelstam effect, the Smekal-Raman effect and the Cabannes-Daure effect. The first Indian to call it the ‘Raman effect’ was L.A. Ramdas, one of Raman’s students, in an article published in Nature on May 6, 1928.
In the months that followed the discovery, Raman kept feeding the press in Kolkata the reactions he was getting from the scientific community. For example, the Bengali newspaper Basumati wrote in May 1928 that leading European scientists had congratulated “our professor on his wonderful and fundamental discovery” and emphasised that “it opens out an entirely new territory of research.” Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote that Raman’s discovery was attracting worldwide attention. Another newspaper headlined a similar story thus: ‘Stir Caused by Raman Effect.’
Raman lectured at several scientific societies across India, and all of them were widely reported in the press. In 1929, he toured Europe to attend scientific conferences, which also attracted coverage in the European press. “Raman ‘sold’ his discovery perfectly well through scientific journals and newspapers,” Singh said.
Raman and his wife Lokasundari went to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 1930, and toured several countries in Europe after. As expected, the ceremony and tour got extensive coverage in local newspapers. The great interest in Raman was natural as he was the first Asian and non-white scientist, and at the time the citizen of a colony, to win the top prize.
His typical Indian attire, particularly the turban, and sari-clad Lady Raman became points of attraction for the press. Many newspapers wrote about Lokasundari’s lifestyle. Just as NASA scientist Swati Mohan’s bindi made headlines in India last week, European journalists were intrigued by Lokasundari’s bindi a century ago.
‘The Little Red Spot and the mystery of colours’ went one headline. “A very small, beautiful and black-haired woman, wandering around in her hotel room in her picturesque blue sari,” wrote another. “Raman was in his diplomat’s coat and a white turban.” Singh’s books on Raman provide great insights into the life of the scientist, often bringing out little-known facts and busting some popular myths.
Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author based in New Delhi. His book The Outsourcer: The Story of India’s IT Revolution was published by MIT Press in 2015.