Remembering CV Raman’s Wit and the Time he Tricked Nehru into Believing Copper is Gold

Sir CV Raman is known as the first Asian to ever win the Nobel Prize for his pathbreaking contributions to science. He is credited with discovering the eponymous ‘Raman effect’, the phenomenon of inelastic scattering of a photon by molecules when they are excited by high levels of energy, along with his student KS Krishnan. Though he started his career in commerce and the finances, Raman who always had a bent for science, started his formal career as a scientist in 1917 after he became the first Palit Professor of Physics in Calcutta University. He quickly reached the top of the pyramid in India and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics by 1930.

Today, many in India are commemorating his 48th death anniversary. Tributes have been pouring n on social media, with a large number of students and politicians tweeting their messages.

However, in his life, Raman often displayed a sharp disdain for politicians and governments. His career was marked by severe competition and Raman was often accused by his contemporaries of favouritism and arrogance. After winning the Nobel, Raman was made the Director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. However, his tenure as chief was cut short after he was removed following intense internal rivalries. Raman’s biographers have often mentioned that Raman was a man of many words and sharp wit. One of the times he exhibited it was when he tricked then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, cited by some as Raman’s lifelong nemesis. Raman had been against wearing the tag of ‘nationalism’ on his sleeve and post-independence, had refused to serve on the Congress Party’s National Planning Committee. He was also critical of Nehru’s scientific vision and policies which were focussed on channelling research resources to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories and other institutionalised groups. He was against government control of scientists and scientific enquiry and remained against it till the end of his life.
This dislike perhaps came to fore on a particular instance when Raman practically pranked Nehru when he visited the Raman Research Institute set up by its namesake in Bengaluru in 1948. According to a report in Scroll, Raman allegedly met Nehru warmly and proceeded to turn off all but the UV lights in the laboratory. He then placed a piece of copper and piece of gold in front of Nehru and asked him to identify which was gold. As the copper glowed more under the UV lights, Nehru was mistaken and answered the question incorrectly, following which Raman reportedly laughed and said, “Mr Prime Minister, everything that glitters is not gold.”

The incident has been documented in Uma Parameswaran’s biography of the Nobel laureate titled CV Raman: a Biography in which she wrote the reason for Raman’s dislike for Nehru was because “Nehru had chosen the copper piece (thinking it was gold) again and again, fooled by light that did not emerge from the natural light of wisdom.”

There have been other reported instances of Raman showing his anger toward Nehru. According to a Feb 2018 report in Swarajya magazine, the scientist allegedly smashed the Barat Ratna medallion conferred on him by the Indian government in 1954. out of his anger toward government control over scientific research.

Raman was wary of all things government and especially hated project reports wherein he would be required to send monthly or yearly reports to his institutional funders about the workings of the institute. A firm believer of ‘no strings attached science’, he even rejected government funding in order to maintain the autonomy of his institution. Before his death, Raman chartered a framework for running his Institute independent of the Indian Academy of Sciences. The framework was adopted immediately after his death in 1971 and from 1972, the Raman Research Institute started functioning as a government-approved statutory body. It continues to receive funding from the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), ensuring that not just Raman’s contributions and legacy but also his temperament live on long after him.

Updated: November 21, 2018 — 10:53 am