BUILDING A SCIENTIFIC TEMPER – MY EXPERIENCES

— Dr.N.Subrahmanyam

Let us first try to understand what scientific temper means. To put it in simple terms and list some of the main attributes, to me it means, understanding the relationship between cause and effect, being empirical in approach, trying to understand the reasons behind any physical phenomenon, logical thinking, not mixing up matters of mind and heart , being intellectually honest and finally, being open to constructive criticism (versus taking it emotionally). We will revisit this line of thought and the physical interpretation of this towards the end of this article.

Since the latter part of the suggested topic is,“my experiences”, I am limited to citing something that I have known closely or experienced in my own life, but not expound upon any theoretical or conceptual tenets. Citing from my observation of practice of a scientific temper in the individuals I have worked and interacted with is what I have chosen. This is the real life experience of an individual who has been a very close friend of mine for more than four decades.

After completing his undergraduate studies in Andhra Pradesh, he decided to pursue his Masters in Science (M.Sc) from Mumbai University in 1966. After obtaining his Masters in 1968, he decided to pursue his Ph.D too there. He took up an entry level teaching position in one of the post graduate colleges, for survival, but , as I could notice, his passion was to do a Ph.D. After some unsuccessful attempts to get a guide to accept him as a Ph.D student, with some fellowship to sustain himself, he decided to choose a topic himself, begin research and publish some papers. He continued with the teaching job in a postgraduate college affiliated to the Mumbai University. At that point of time, as he told me, his idea was to submit a wholesome collection of published research papers on one topic and submit them for a D.Sc. One did not have to have a guide for this was what he told me. He did choose a topic, start his research and published one paper, without a guide. As he acquired knowledge of the research methodology, good insights on research work and developed the spirit of enquiry, his ideas on the choice of a topic for a Ph.D seem to have crystallized, but yet he was not registered as a Ph.D student, as he had no guide. As he began working, he needed some laboratory equipment, some journals and resources for some other expenditure and one of them was a Polarizing Microscope which cost about Rs.60,000. The college in which he was working did not have specific funds for any research activity. The college could only support him for the very basic normal lab expenses.

He then applied for a UGC research grant and was given a grant of Rs.4,000 when his need was Rs.60,000! So, obviously, he could not buy the equipment since the money given was a small fraction of the cost of the Polarising Microscope. He was still undeterred, changed the line of his research and pursued it at his own expense in the very meager salary he was drawing. Some of the earlier research papers he had to study, as he told me, happened to be in German. While he did not know German, the back volumes of those journals I believe were also not available in the college he was working for. The Librarian of the college he was working for, as I remember from his conversations with me did/could not seem to offer much help. He then drew his attention to what is called the “inter library loan scheme”, design some forms for that and make him communicate with another library ( although his Librarian was reluctant) which was better funded and had a lot of current and back volumes of journals which are useful for researchers. Once he reached the point of accessing those journals through the scheme, he had to solve the problem of translating German papers into English. The extent of translation he needed was I believe about 180 pages. When he researched the market place for translators and located one, the translator told him that his charges will be Rs.60-80 per page depending on the type of content. My friend could not afford to pay anything at all from his salary . During his quest, he met with a faculty member in another leading institution of the Mumbai University (UDCT), from a different discipline, who just then returned from Germany, having researched and worked there for several years. During their conversation I understand that the UDCT faculty member said to my friend that he will be happy to translate the papers for my friend gratis, if my friend could take the dictation in English.

e-magazine

My friend’s pursuit was on some aspects of the anatomy of some Orchids and the UDCT faculty was a Pharmacognosist. I believe the UDCT faculty member needed some help in identifying some plants and my friend happily offered help to him, in return. To summarise, on holidays he would visit my friend’s lab, and my friend will project the German papers from the journal on the screen via an Epidiascope (the predecessor of a slide projector). The UDCT faculty would read and translate into English and my friend would write it down. The translation seems to have been completed over several sessions. Momentum then picked up with his research and steady progress was being made. As it progressed, he had to take photomicrographs of several slides for incorporation in his thesis. The equipment was very expensive and there was no way he could expect the college administration to buy it or was there any hope of a research grant to purchase it. He then decided to create a device which will take pictures via the light microscope available in his lab, through trial and error. Thanks to the help of an intelligent student of his, they seem to have put the contraption together after tinkering around with the shells of old cameras for a week.

Finally, they began taking photomicrographs in their lab. They used to take the pictures to a nearby studio for development of the negative. Some would come well. For others the individual in the studio would say that the exposure was too much or too less and so there will be no clarity in the photographs, if printed. The wasted negatives were turning out to be higher in number and it was becoming very hard for my friend to bear the expense. But, at the root of it, it was a boy at the studio who probably was at best a school drop out who was qualifying the negatives as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, based on the exposure. My friend found this unscientific and on the spur of it on one day, decided to do the development of the negatives in the lab so that he can learn and correct his mistakes in a methodical manner himself. He succeded. A similar iteration and combination process seems to have gone with printing the positives from the negatives. Over a short period, he decided to create a small dark room in the triangular empty space (which had no ventilation) under one of the stair cases near his lab and started printing the positives in that. Through this process he made about 450 photographs, a good number of which were photomicrographs that have gone into his thesis.

To cut short a long story, he completed his research, submitted his thesis and obtained his Ph.D in 1976. He had two referees, one from an Indian university and another from a university in the US. The US referee sent a request to Mumbai University requesting permission to retain the copy of my friend’s thesis, sent to him, for his reference, which, otherwise is expected to be returned. My friend of course felt utterly gleeful , for it was a recognition of all the hard work that went into his research both intellectually and physically.

The scientific temper thus nurtured and developed in him, as I could clearly see, through the years, gave him immense inner strength which in turn enabled him to change his job from teaching to the industry. He changed over to industry in mid 1976, after teaching for 8 years. He retired at the end of 2009, after attaining leadership positions for the country and South Asia in both the multinationals he worked for.

This experience of my friend, every minute detail of which he shared with me time to time , is a true demonstration of the depth in the age old English proverb “necessity is the mother of invention”. Secondly, having faced a severe resource crunch of every kind, in his first job, to chase his ambition, he had to overcome quite some adversity. This reminds me of what Duke Senior says in As You Like It (Shakespeare) “Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head”. To substantiate his internalized experience of this, and complete the story, he typed his thesis three times himself, without having learnt typing earlier and thereby what is called the “blind touch” of the key board. The latter two versions of the typing were on the department’s Remington typewriter which was more modern, had a larger carriage and bigger compared to the Underwood model which he took with him to Mumbai from his parental home.

After learning my friend’s experience, to me scientific temper is also, pursuing anything you wish to, with passion and objectivity, being on the path of continuous improvement to arrive at a ‘first time right’ state and learning not to be deterred by negativity of people around you or adversity or lack of infrastructure or environment. The power of passionate pursuit is so pure, intense and strong that it decimates everything that comes in its way as an obstacle and results in achievement of the objective.


About the Author
Dr.N.Subrahmanyam obtained Ph.D. from Bombay University. He was the Managing Director of Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New Delhi. Now he owns a consultancy practice specializing in Strategy, Marketing and Sales.

Rate Article

Rating: 5/5 (1 vote(s) cast)