India-born American scientist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan may have bagged the chemstry Nobel, but the “East or West, West is the Best” policy of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has deprived India of another Nobel.
The prize for physics announced on Tuesday, October 6, recognises the work of Charles Kao for his contributions to fibre optic communications but leaves out Narinder Singh Kapany who laid the basis of Kao’s work a decade earlier by inventing fibre optics.
Kapany thus lands is in the illustrious company of Jagdish Chandra Bose, Satyendranath Bose, G.N. Ramachandran and E.C.G. Sudarshan among others who were also ignored or bypassed by the learned society of mysterious ways.
For a whiff of Kapany’s work, read excerpts from Shivanand Kanavi’s article ‘Beyond Valuations’ from Business India, September 17-30, 2001.
Through the fibre glass
By SHIVANAND KANAVI
With his hearty laughter and easygoing nature, the ebullient Dr Narinder Singh Kapany reminds you of a neighbourhood innkeeper. But his appearance misleads. Kapany, at 74, has launched a start-up, K20ptronics, which makes tunable lasers and other components for optical networking.
The firm hopes to commercialise products based on state-of-the-art Dense Wave Division Multiplexing technology, patented by Kapany. However, not many people know that Kapany also launched what was perhaps the first hi¬tech Indian start-up in the US in 1960–when Silicon Valley’s poster boy, Sabeer Bhatia, was not even born.
Kapany’s unassuming manner does not indicate that he had demonstrated, for the first time 50 years ago, that light could be sent through glass fibre. His path-breaking project, as a PhD student at Imperial College in London, led to his being called the “father of fibre optics”.
“From my high-school days, the idea of bending light around the corner was rattling in my brain,” he says. “When I was at Imperial College in 1951 to take an advanced course in technical optics, I discussed it with my professor, who added some ideas of his own and took it to the Royal Society, which gave me a scholarship to do a PhD.”
Why the fuss about bending the path of light? The reason is that light normally travels in a straight line. But when light moving through air enters another medium, such as water or glass, part of it bends and is transmitted, while the rest is reflected. When the angle of incidence is more than a certain critical angle, light gets totally reflected at the interface.
Thus, if light has entered a totally internally reflecting pipe, it will be transmitted along the pipe, even if the pipe is bent into various contortions. British scientist John Tyndall had shown in the 19th century that light can travel through a jet of water, even if it’s curved. This effect is used in fountains, in which a coloured light source at a fountainhead gives the impression that different coloured water is springing from the fountain.
However, nobody had succeeded in using glass fibre to transmit light and images. There was even the fear that even if it were possible to pass light through the medium, the signal might suffer a loss on the way and not come out at the other end of the fibre. But Kapany was bent on trying just that.
Born in 1927 in Moga, Punjab, Kapany was brought up in Dehradun where his father had settled after retiring from the Royal Air Force. Armed with a BSc in physics, Kapany joined the local ordnance factory. Here he gained experience in designing and making optical instruments. In 1951, Kapany got the chance to study optics at the University of London, and grabbed it.
Testing his ideas in a laboratory experiment, however, was not easy. He had to get glass fibre drawn. So he went to the then famous Pilkington Glass Company, where he learned how to draw glass fibre to make glass fabric such as fibreglass. The optical quality of the glass was not important to the firm at all.
“I took some optical glass (optical glass is pure glass with no bubbles or any kind of impurity) and requested the company to draw some fibre from it. I also told them what I was going to use it for, and they humoured me,” recalls Kapany. However, what Pilkington sent a few months later were spools of fibre, made of green glass meant for beer bottles, which was very fragile and almost opaque.
“I spent months making bundles of fibre and trying to shine light at one end to see if I could see it at the other end, but no light was coming out. That was because it was not optical glass. So, I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and use strong light from a carbon arc source and finally I was able to demonstrate it in 1952-53,” he recalls.
By 1955, Kapany completed his doctorate and was all set for a return to India. However, the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in the US drew him. He decided to go to the US for “one year”, and this eventually stretched to nearly 50 years. After Rochester, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology near Chicago to head the Optics Department. “I did a lot of exciting work there for four years, but did not want to live in Chicago, he says, “So, I came to California and started my first company in 1960 called Optics Technology.”
Lasers were hot technology at that time. Charles Townes had just demonstrated a Ruby Laser and Ali Javan was building the first helium-neon laser in Bell Labs. Kapany demonstrated that Ruby Lasers could be used for eye surgery. “I made lasers for eye surgery and optical filters and other instrumentation. I took it public in 1967. They were crazy times like we had here in the Valley last year. We were very successful,” recalls Kapany.
In 1973, Kapany started another company called Kaptron, built it up and sold it to AMP. This made optical connectors for FDDI (fibre distributed data interface) “I stayed there 10 years as an AMP fellow and developed a number of new technologies and products for them. I left them a year-and-a-half ago and started the present company, K2Optronics. Last year we got two rounds of funding, totalling $42 million. We are making DWDM components, tunable lasers and so on. We specify what we need and buy the chips and produce very high quality lasers for Metropolitan and Access networks. We have some cutting-edge special designs for lasers, which is patented technology. We have a fairly aggressive programme,” says Kapany about his latest venture.
How does he view the multi-billion dollar industry his inventions have spawned? “In every place a number of friends come up and say accusingly, ‘see what you have done,” he guffaws. Kapany has taught in Stanford, Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and has published over 100 research papers, besides hold¬ing over 125 patents and four books.
Besides optics, Kapany is interested in promoting Sikh heritage and culture. His collection of Sikh art has done the rounds in several museums around the world. He is also a patron of the Sikh Foundation in the Silicon Valley, which he founded in 1967. He has generously donated to academia to create a chair in Sikh studies at the Univer¬sity of California at Santa Barbara and a chair for optoelectronics at UC Santa Cruz.
Besides playing with light, Kapany’s hobby is sculpture, and he has had several exhibitions of his work. Kapany visits India almost every year and is a keen observer of the fibre optics scene here.
A Proud Day for India and Indians all over!
This is just another piece of the jigsaw that’s fallen in its right place, before the big picture “India has Arrived” gets revealed to the world.
East or West, VRthebest.wordpress.com
The fact that he is in Cambridge and not in India.
Except G N Ramachandran, the others mentioned contributed to science well short of the Nobel Commitee’s expectations and it was It was a miss for Ramachandran and his group who made his contribution very respectable.
Nothing is more disappointing than the Nobel Prize awarded to three scientists which did not make the original contribution to the green fluorescent protein (GFP). The poor researcher who discovered has to gave the work away to a professor as he could not survive on his income.
Funny to see TOI celebrating as if someone in IISc got it. and now churumuri joins. Nobel to Aryabhata, 2-3 Boses, ECG someone. Western conspiracy to deprive India of everything.
There are lot of deserving people all over the world who did not get Nobel. There is no conspiracy, stop self pity.
Apologies for errors in the post. It should read:
Except G N Ramachandran, the others mentioned contributed to science well short of the Nobel Commitee’s expectation and it was a near miss for Ramachandran (and his group who made his contribution very respectable).
Nothing is more disappointing than the Nobel Prize awarded to three scientists last year who did not make the original contribution to the green fluorescent protein (GFP). The poor researcher who discovered it has to give the work away to a professor as he could not survive on his income. The researcher was not even mentioned.
This is really the policy by west to Nobel prize to western scientists
I thank the author for this information. Kapany’s work is something I was not aware of.
a fact of history is that tamil nadu under periyar/karunanidhi has been, systematically, unable to retain intellectuals such as dr. ramakrishnan.
i hope that before kalaignar karunanidhi deprives us of his august company for ever, he finds it in his heart to apologize to the people of tamil nadu for espousing a malicious, anti-brahmin ideology that led to many of t.n.’s beautiful minds leaving that state for america/europe. i hope thiru. karunanidhi particularly apologizes to the dalits, in whose name he has played his dirty politics.
india owes congratulations to dr. ramakrishnan, but indians should stake no claim in his success.
I cannot get the argument, that Kapany was denied because of his Indian-ness. Unlike JC Bose or SN Bose, He is as Indian as Venkat Ramakrishnan or Hargobind Khorana, i.e., Kapany is already a US citizen. So the argument that Kapany hasn’t got the nobel since he is an Indian and VR got since he has taken US citizenship becomes moot.
Do we have to take pride of Dr. Ramakrishnan’s achievments? now he belongs to the country which has promoted him… let that country take pride….
Do the mathematicians qualify for Nobel Awards? What about S Ramanujan?
The Chinese deserves the Nobel for optics as he took forward a rather limited concept to a stage where it can be scaled. As for others listed except G N Ramachandran (and his group) an alumnus of Cavendish Lab and a student of the great Bragg in Cambridge U, the contributions were not distinguished to demand a Nobel. I agree with “Manava”. Think of this professor still working in the U of Utah ( from where he migrated to Cambridge U), not a top university and the Nobel Committee. Was Nobel still possible? I doubt it as there are others who have similar contributions. It is the Molecular Biology Lab in Cambridge U which has made the final push His move to Cambridge U was timely and particularly to this Lab.
Rajesh R “let that country take pride….”. Which country? US where he is a citizen or Britain and Cambridge U which gave him the senior position in a famous lab, which enhanced his credibility? He was relatively junior in terms of reputation when he moved to Cambridge U.
The math equivalent of the nobel prize is the fields medal:
However this is not given every year as given in the article.
Ramanujan died in 1920, before the fields medal was instituted though.
As with all awards, anyone who has done path breaking work qualifies, who wins is another matter. e.g. many people still ask why Gandhi didnt win a nobel peace prize etc.
And too add to that – Ramanujan did a lot of his later important work in Cambridge too, and technically he has a British subject. As we know his ‘discovery’ by Hardy (who went out of his way to promote an unknown Indian mathematician and get him to Cambridge) is a story in itself.
In some chapter of his book, ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan’, Robert Kanigal speculates on some of these issues about how Ramanujan was able to eventually blossom (mathematically) in the circumstances (especially at Cambridge with the math establishment which eventually favored merit and genius over anything else) and how in the current Indian system, we may be losing other Ramanujans just because we havent built the resources or system to recognize and nurture our geniuses and path breakers.
The American wise old saying ‘Success has many parents but failure is an orphan’ has proved right once again in case of Indian born
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Where did the Nobel Laurate had his schooling and Pre-Uinversity education ? Was it at Tamil Nadu (precisely at Chindambaram)
or at Baroda (reamed Vododara) in Gujarat ?
Confusion is worst confounded as a Times of India report had two reports .While one quoting Venkataraman’s former teacher and octogenarian Govindarajan, claiming to have taught him said ‘even as a student, Venkatraman , had the spark in him to climb great heights, . Nobel laureate was a bright and sincere student who would reach
great heights like Sir C V Raman, who won the Nobel for physics in 1930. Govindarajan, who taught between 1948 and 1988, could not remember any specific incident involving the Nobel laureate during his pre-university days. ‘‘I vaguely remember him finishing second or third in academic activities. The 1968 PUC batch was the brightest among all batches. Ramakrishnan was an above average student.
The TOI report also said that “Venki moved to Vadodara from Chennai as a two-year old with his parents, who set up the biochemistry department of the University in 1955. (Venkatraman was born at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu in 1952.) He studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary and then as an undergraduate at the MS University.
When his schooling was at Vadodra, was the claim of N S Govindaraj, an octogenarian his former teacher that he was his student is correct ?. As a two year old child was he admitted to school in Chidambaram and was studying there under Govindarajan before moving to Vadodara ? Any one there to clarify my doubut please ?
However according to another report in the same paper quoting Deepak Thaker, who studied with him in class IV, saying that has a copy of a group photograph with Venki standing in the second row beside Thaker.When Venki came back from Australia and rejoined the school in class VI, he started hanging out with his classmates Joseph Lobo, Ranjit Mathew and Akhileshwar Chauhan. Was Govindarajan teaching at Vododara or Chidambaram ? “I had kept the group photo of the class, not knowing that I am standing beside a future Nobel Laureate. It was obvious that he was slated to do wonderful in his chosen field, but never knew that one day he would share a Nobel Prize,” said Thaker, who is a vice-president with Alembic Ltd. Thaker remembers Venki as a sincere, studious and downright honest person. He added, “He came from a family of academicians and he took to pure sciences as it is one area where one can make contributions through research. He never displayed arrogance despite being a star student of the class as well as the school.”
Did Venkataraman had his early schooling in Chidambaram or Baroda (now Vadodara).Pl clarify in which year and which school he studied as reports say that Venkataraman moved to Baroda when he was two years old. This would help in finding out the real claimant’s whose training helped Venkataraman to achieve Nobel Prize.
If one really goes by Chaanakya’s Neeti Shastra in sanskrit saying , “varna maatram Guru” (Even the man who has taught the spiritual significance of just one letter ought to be worshiped) then any one who taught Venkataraman, including his drill instructor, can claim their contribution in Venkataraman’s achievement.
Obama gets Nobel peace prize 2009. WTF! This is a joke or what?
It is amazing how this professor is feted as the son of India and how his
Indian education helped him to get this prize.
This professor was at the U of Utah. There were many groups working
on the Ribozome/Robozyme structure and hence his was one of them.
The Cambridge University has to be given credit in picking him to the prestigious position when he was not known then ( almost any other groups could have been picked as they were all doing the Ribosome structure research). He has been with the Molecular Biology Lab at Cambridge University for 10 years. It helped him to publish papers in the Nature journal,the #1in science, get the Fellowship of Royal Society and Cambridge University stage by stage built his reputation.
In a Lab well known for such Nobel Prizes for discovering DNA Helix,
Monoclonal Antibodies ( as the previous posters referred to), it was only a matter of time that his research also will attract one. If any Kudos are due give them to this University.
So, what is new about Nobel? Its appearance of Western bias makes me conlude that if a paper is not published in the Western journals in English or a European Language, it is termed illegible, or ignorable, or nonsense or gibrish. I read about Kapany many years ago. I suspect that he moved to technology too soon. Had he continued in academics, he probably would have gotten the prize. I am suspecting that Kapany papers must be mostly in technical trade journals, rather than in academic journals. That is another factor that could have gone against him. Still, Western bias is evident from the fact that Obama got prize and Munmohan Singh, who avoided war with Pakistan did not.
Manmohan Singh a prime minister with independent thinking? Without Sonia Gandhi where would he be? He is just a puppet and the strings are with Sonia and Rahul.