Science and music

Science is fodder for the head and music for the soul. I am not sure if anyone said this – but it’s the way I felt on the day, recently,  that I was fortunate enough to listen to a Nobel laureate and one of the greats of Indian music one after the other.

Venkataraman Ramakrishnan (b 1952) won the Nobel for chemistry in 2009 for his work on the structure and function of ribosomes. As is always the case when any one of Indian origin wins the Nobel, we as a nation go quiet ga-ga, even when the person as in most cases has done all the science in some foreign land and often is a foreign national. In fact, the day that the only recent genuine Indian winner was announced, most people were scrambling to find out who Sathyarthi was. And like most Indian origin Nobel winners, Ramakrishnan visits every winter giving lectures.

Venky (as he is called, at least by the young British Council staffer who introduced him) was born in a middle class, academic family (both parents were scientists) and by his own admission,reached pure science because he failed to qualify for IITs or CMC, Vellore. He moved to USA for his post-graduation, moved from Physics to Biology, and suffered some early setbacks (again, his own admission) because he was not from the elite Ivy league schools. Scientific snobbery, of course, is universal. But, his single minded pursuit of his scientific goals and for excellence, led to the Nobel.

His forthright views on a variety of subjects have gathered much attention in the media. And this was what drew to his lecture – an Indian born achiever, who does not try to toe the politically correct line and sticks to his core belief in rationality in science! Of course, the other Nobel winner who speaks his mind is Amartya Sen, but his views have become too linked to various shades of the political spectrum – and I am not too keen on that!


Venky’s talk ‘On Nobody’s Word: Evidence and Modern Science’ addressed the young student community mainly, and emphasized the importance of rationality in science. He was clear regarding the lack of evidence for homeopathy, or for ancient Indian scientific achievements. I am presuming that those who do not want to know, will not listen; but, more people have to be outspoken on this issue. Otherwise, we will only slip and slide and fail to get out of the rut that we are in, in the field of scientific discover

Shujaat Khan is 8 years younger than Venky and at the peak of his performing career as a sitarist. Son of the legendary Ustad Vilayat Khan (who I have heard only once in live concert) he probably had no escape from music. But even with the advantages of lineage, there is no escaping the hard work that needs to be put in to reach the heights that he has. Shujaat Khan also has vocal talent and is a rarity among top performers in mixing two forms into the same concert. His Yaman was mesmerizing as was the thumri that he sang at the end.

What links these two people? Well, they are both achievers and have reached the pinnacle of their different fields, which they could not have without a strong desire to excel and a life time of dedication and hard work. But, they were also blessed with an enabling environment, that allowed them to pursue their goals. Few of the many talented young people in this country of 1.3 billion must have the enabling environment or the freedom to chart their own dreams.



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