Science is all about raising questions, exploring options and looking for multiple ways to arrive at solutions. No wonder then, that the greatest scientists the world has seen have some of the most-common traits – dream, explore and achieve. One of India’s greatest scientists too has been believing in exactly this philosophy for several years now. At 82, he still looks forward to a scientific day each morning at 4:30 A.M. Yes, we are talking about Professor CNR Rao, one of India’s most prominent yet humble scientists. In an exclusive conversation with ParentCircle, Prof. Rao talks about why science should be taught in a way that it encourages children to explore all the time and not just read from the textbook. Here are the excerpts:
PC: How important is science in everyday life?
Prof. Rao: Oh well, science is an integral part of life in every respect. It is a measure of the progress of mankind and society. Without science, there will not be improvement in the quality of life. Just imagine, one discovery can change the world. When I was doing my PhD in the US back in the 1950s, the transistor became a popular device. Look at the way the world of communication has changed since. Every discovery/invention in the world of communication after that revolved around the transistor. Today, you see lakhs of people working in the field of IT in Bengaluru. 20 years ago, would you have ever imagined this scenario? Material science too has come a long way. For example, look at Nano Tissue technology. In those days, serious burns would mean death, but today, you have artificial skin thanks to Nano engineering. In a nutshell, society depends heavily on science and in turn, science depends on society for progress.
PC: What’s your take on the way science is taught?
Prof. Rao: Young children should be exposed to science. They should not see science as a drab subject which they need to learn using rote memory for the sake of exams. But, that is the truth today. Unfortunately, we do not ‘teach science’ the way we ‘do science’. Memorisation is a wrong approach in science. Children should be allowed to explore. We should make the concept of learning science an exciting experience.
PC: Where do you think is the gap?
Prof. Rao: The problem in India is that teachers are not respected enough. In a country like Finland, which is much smaller than India, teaching is the most-respected profession. It is high time we in India did something about teachers and teaching as a profession. Only then will the future of India be assured. Right now, we are building India on a flimsy foundation; but, if we want a firm foundation and an enduring one, we must change. Over the years, our priorities have changed. Science is not a part of the value system these days. Scholarship is not respected, but money is. It is clearly an issue with the overall mind-set. India’s investment in education as a percentage of GDP is extremely small. To revive science, society needs to play a big role.
PC: Do kids explore enough today or are they confined to textbooks?
Prof. Rao: It is very important that children are allowed to think on their own. That is the most-important element of parenting. Every child should grow up to think, “I am a free person, I am a thinking person and I can choose what I want to do.” Very few professions give you 100% satisfaction the way science does. It allows you to explore. You are happy when you are enjoying science. You can see I am a very happy person. I am 82 and I look forward to tomorrow all the time. That’s what science does to you. Whatever you want to do, whether it is poetry, literature, theatre, economics or for that matter science, you should feel motivated all the time. You should be dedicated in your approach, dogged and with a never-give-up attitude. Be tenacious and you sure will succeed.
PC: Are role models important to love science?
Prof. Rao: When I was a child, I was studying at a school in Basavanagudi in Bengaluru. I was 11 years old and I still remember the day when the great CV Raman visited my school. I still remember every bit of the excitement that surrounded his visit. Maybe that visit of his sowed the seeds for my becoming a scientist. Merely listening to a scientist can change the life of a child.
PC: CV Raman became a fan of Prof CNR Rao too…
Prof. Rao: Like I just said, I first met CV Raman when I was 11 years old. Several years after that meeting, when I became a scientist, I wrote my second book that came out of New York, a 700-page book on spectroscopy, published by The Academic Press, New York.
CV Raman read that book and wrote to me stating, “Anyone who can write this book must be a member of the Indian Academy of Science and we have no objection in having you in the academy.” He was an extraordinary person in the way he looked at things in life.
PC: You have authored over 1600 research papers. You’ve won several awards and you’ve also been conferred the Bharat Ratna. What keeps you going?
Prof. Rao: There’s a thing about science. If you really love science, doing science itself is a reward; you don’t need anything else in life. Every day you keep discovering new things, creating new things and that is a bigger reward than anything else.
PC: Your day continues to start at 4:30 A.M. ...
Prof. Rao: I sleep early and for me, 6 hours of sleep is good enough. For me, value of time entirely depends on how you use it. You need to always have quality time at your hands when you can think and meditate.
PC: Is science an integral part of your family too?
Prof. Rao: You may say so. My wife is not a scientist, but she is very interested in science outreach programmes. She has been working with children all over India and we also produce interesting science books and learning materials for children. She enjoys doing this, especially considering we are doing something for the younger generation.
PC: Message to budding scientists...
Prof. Rao: Not just budding scientists, but to all young people out there. Decide on what you want to do at a very early age. In my case, I was lucky to do that. I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was just 14 years old. As children with aspirations, do whatever interests you the most, keep trying hard and never give up. You will succeed.