Wednesday, 5 March 2014

CNR Rao on Faraday, GN Lewis, Chemistry

Rao addressing students - IIT Madras
On January 22, 2014, I attended a lecture by CNR Rao, who recently received the Bharat Ratna. Here is a summary.

“Michael Faraday is my pick for the greatest scientist of all time,” Rao said. Faraday was working in a book-binder’s shop, when a customer with an interest in science entered. Faraday’s employer talked about the boy’s interest in science, at which point the customer, William Dance, gave Faraday tickets to three lectures by Humphry Davy. This act of generosity, inspired one of the greatest careers in history. Faraday became an employee of Humphry Davy – his first job was as a bottle washer, and first promotion was to Chief Bottle Washer. Faraday, said Rao, experiment with and explained
  • Electromagnetic induction
  • Electrolysis
  • Liquefaction of Gases
  • Benzene
  • Catalysis
  • Rao extolling Faraday
If he had lived in the twentieth century he would received several Nobel prizes, Rao said. A Nobel prize is one measure of excellence, but I wonder what the number of Nobels a person wins would indicate. In this context, Rao mentioned that Dmitri Mendeleev was considered several times for a Nobel in Chemistry, but was passed over for lesser lights.

Rao’s admiration for Faraday shone in his highlighting Faraday’s soap bubble experiment for measuring diagmagnetism of oxygen and nitrogen. A scientist today would have devised a very expensive experiment with very sophisticated tools, but Faraday brilliantly trapped these gases in soap bubbles and passed them near a magnet. {This theme of cheap, simple and brilliant science, is something that Freeman Dyson, beautifully describes in his book, Infinite in All Directions.}

Rao then turned to Chemistry, and called GN Lewis the greatest chemist of the 20th century. This expanded the sphere of my ignorance – I had never heard of GN Lewis, who apparently discovered the Chemical Bond and in Rao’s estimate, Modern Chemistry starts with this discovery. The chemical bond was explained by Linus Pauling. Lewis was considered 15 times for the Nobel, but never given it, said Rao. Either Rao was debunking the Nobel as a metric of excellence, and highlighting its political nature; or he was commending the virtue and delightof experiment and exploration as the true delights of science, not the recognition that comes way later in life. “If you want a Nobel, live very very long,” Rao said, and the audience of mostly school and college students roared with laughter.

He called the periodic table the greatest table ever made by man and explained the significance of the 18th century for chemistry. In the first century, only 7 elements were known and this situation stayed the same until the 18th century, the age of Anton Lavoisier, when 23 elements were discovered. In the 20th century, we knew 106. He also lauded the synthesis of urea in 1828, the first molecule made by man.

Rao broke down the major research agendas of Chemistry thus:
60s : Superconductivity
80s: New forms of Carbon – Nano materials
90s: Mesoporous solids
00s: Colossal magneto resistance

My personal delight on a lecture which included Faraday & Lavoisier, was matched by my delight in learning about new things & people I had never heard of before - GN Lewis, mesoporous materials, diamagnetism..

Post Script My lament for a Tamil Periodic table is the one blog article where most seekers come from Google, rather than Badri Seshadri’s link to my blog. Help me people….let us make one.

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