Tuesday, January 09, 2018

A Very Stable Genius

I almost fell off the chair when  the computer mouse hovered over the Google doodle:

Har Gobind Khorana.

My generation of people from the old country know that name well.  He was a Nobel Prize recipient.  We boasted about Tagore, and Raman, and criticized the exclusion of Gandhi from the Nobel.  And were always unsure if Khorana was our man because he had become a foreigner--an American citizen.  We counted him anyway.  We consoled ourselves that one of our people doing awesome things elsewhere is, well, awesome.

Google honors him today, on what would have been his 96th birthday.
Khorana was the fifth child born to a Hindu family in 1922 in Raipur, a 100-person village in the Punjab region of what is now Pakistan.
He started his education at a village school that met under a tree and quickly demonstrated an aptitude for science, tempered with humility. He received a scholarship to study chemistry at Punjab University in Lahore, but he was too shy to attend the mandatory admissions interview and considered majoring in English instead.
The admissions committee was still impressed enough with Khorana’s application that they enrolled him anyway.
Throughout his life, Khorana was apparently a humble man.  "Despite his accomplishments, Khorana’s friends described him as a modest man who avoided publicity."

The doodle on Khorana reminded me about an op-ed that I read in the paper in the old country, which asked:
what is still holding our nation back from achieving large-scale global academic excellence which is commensurate with our intellectual heritage and calibre?
A fair question to ask, right?

What I liked about that argument was how the author drew a straight line between that question on the scientific enterprise with excellence as an ethical issue that affects pretty much every aspect of life in India.
Why do we in India accept extraneous considerations that militate against excellence? Of course our political culture is deeply implicated, which makes it ironic when our politicians ask why Indian scientists do not win Nobel prizes. But a part of the responsibility and the power to change lies within the academic community itself. The problem is our collective failure to articulate the goal of excellence and to exert firm pressure on anyone, however important, who blocks the path.
We in the US, on the other hand, have clearly demonstrated  our commitment to excellence as an ethical issue by electing to the highest political office a very stable genius, whose humility and genius far exceeds Khorana's!


Ramesh said...

Nice Oped in The Hindu. Academic standards are actually declining rather than improving - in addition to the issues raised in the Op Ed, the abysmally low pay for people in academics discourages the brightest and the best taking to academics.

As for Khorana, I have a different view on his identity. He is a great academic and fully deserving of the Nobel Prize. But he is not an Indian. He voluntary gave up the Indian citizenship for an American one. That's absolutely fine and is his prerogative. That doesn't stop him from being any lesser an excellent academic or a a brilliant man. It doesn't change one bit my own respect. But, no, he is not an Indian.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

When reading about him I came across the astonishing fact that in December 1972, the Journal of Molecular Biology dedicated its entire issue of 300 pages to his work on tRNA and all the papers in that issue were authored or co-authored by him. What a giant!!!

Sriram Khé said...

"He voluntary gave up the Indian citizenship"

I suppose you are putting Ravi and me on notice ;)

I hadn't known about that 1972 issue of an academic journal ... I bet there are a lot more such aspects of his life, and those of other giants who have made our lives so awesome.

"Academic standards are actually declining rather than improving"
This is one of the many depressing aspects of India. Universities in the US are increasingly suspicious of the degrees handed out in India. What a shame!

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