Book readings

The Alladi Diary

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MMA presented a talk on the theme of the book, “The Alladi Diary: Unveiling Memoirs of Alladi Ramakrishnan,” by eminent Mathematician and author Prof Krishnaswami Alladi,onAugust 16, 2023 at the MMA Management Center.  Mr.Lakshminarayanan Duraiswamy, the Honorary Treasurer of MMA and the Managing Director of Sundaram Home Finance Ltd presided over the session as the Chairperson. 

At the outset, let me clarify that this is not my book. This is my father’s book, his autobiography. I’ll explain how I got involved in the book. In 1978, which was the year I got married, my father decided to write his memoirs. Initially, it was informal. He had it published and printed locally, and he would circulate it among friends and relatives, mainly to gather feedback. He talked about his early life in school, college, how the institute came into being, discussions about my illustrious grandfather Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, the Indian constitution, and so on. He gathered feedback from various people and also included some essays about my grandfather written by various other leading lawyers and judges.

East West Books approached my father and expressed interest in publishing his memoirs. He took the original manuscript, which I believe was about 700 pages long. He divided it into two parts and added important letters related to the creation of the Maths Science Institute, along with photographs and more. It was published in two volumes by East West Press. The first volume was released in 1999, and the second volume followed in 2002. Thus, it became a two-volume book titled “The Alladi Diary.”

After my father’s passing away in 2008, my cousin, the renowned neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, who is a couple of years older than me and based at the University of California, San Diego, contacted me. He praised my father’s autobiography published by East West Press, highlighting its excellent writing and its significance, particularly within the scientific community. He suggested that considering my experience in publishing, I should seek an international publisher for this book.

Interestingly, World Scientific, a Singapore-based publisher with a main office in London, came into the picture. Their North American editor came to my office and she expressed interest in publishing my work. I shared copies of the “Alladi Diary” published by East West Press with her. Two days later, she came back and said, ‘This is very interesting. We would like to publish it.” Thus, this publication by World Scientific came about.

We needed to cut down the two volumes into one volume of about 640 pages. Yet, I made sure to retain all the essential letters and content, but I wrote notes for each chapter. What do I mean by notes? For instance, if my father mentioned a scientist like Richard Feynman, the notes section of that chapter would include details about Richard Feynman, his accomplishments, and his connection to my father, in a brief paragraph. This would be useful for people in India who are not in academia or associated with Physics or Maths, and who might not directly relate to these personalities.

By the same token, my father also refers to various aspects of Indian culture and tradition. For instance, he describes the Navaratri celebrations and delves into stories involving my grandmother. In such instances, I’ve included relevant notes that provide context about Indian customs and personalities. If he mentions Rajaji, I’ve added a short para on Rajagopalachari, introducing who he was and his contributions. This would be useful to the western audience. My main contribution has been cutting down the narrative due to the need to merge the two volumes into one, while also augmenting it with notes to cater to both the Indian and international audience. I want to make it clear that my association with the book is not as an author but as an editor.

Three Themes

The book revolves around three main themes. The first theme portrays my father’s childhood days in Madras. He vividly describes the time of my grandfather, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, who was one of India’s greatest lawyers. He was not only invited to the constituent assembly but also served on the drafting committee of the Indian constitution. He had unrivalled knowledge of the American, British, French, and Australian constitutions, and so he was invited to be on the drafting committee as the legal mind.

He talks about his days with my grandfather and the prominent figures who frequented our home. Rajagopalachari would visit during his time as the Chief Minister of Madras on a daily basis and would engage in late-night discussions on various legal matters and points. He also talks about his observations on the Constituent Assembly in Delhi. This is one aspect of the book.

The second theme highlights his own career and the obstacles he encountered. He adeptly overcame these obstacles to establish the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, initially known as Math Science. Now it is referred to as IMSc. It is a multi-crore project, based out of Taramani. The next part of the book shifts focus to his extensive international travels. He traversed more than 200 institutions globally, delivering lectures and engaging in diverse programs. He also talks about how he facilitated the visits of foreign scholars and experts to the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Madras. The book was officially launched in Madras in May 2019 at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. This year marks my father’s 100th birthday—a centenary year.  

Charmed by Bhabha’s Persona

My father holds a law degree. He was a student at the Presidency College in Madras, where he pursued his BSc Honours in Physics there. An interesting highlight of his student days at the Madras Presidency College was the visit of a young British trained Indian scientist, Homi Bhabha, who had just finished his PhD. In 1943, he delivered a talk at the Madras Presidency College. He was already a Fellow of the Royal Society by then.

Homi Bhabha’s lecture deeply inspired him. He was not only charmed by the physics presented by Bhabha but also by his charismatic personality. The thought of collaborating with such a remarkable figure excited him. After completing his BSc Honours in physics, due to my grandfather’s influence, he took to law and joined a law school. My grandfather’s practice was thriving, and he felt it was time for the younger generation to step up. My father’s elder brother, the late Chief Justice of the Andhra High Court, Justice Alladi Kuppuswamy, had already enrolled in law. My grandfather had similar aspirations for my father.

Driven by his great respect for my grandfather, my father ventured into the field of law. He did quite well. He earned the gold medal for Hindu law and established a law practice. However, the truth remains that his heart was set on science, not law. While my grandfather was busy with his responsibilities on the drafting committee, my father frequently accompanied him to Delhi in the mid-1940s. This was a period before India’s independence, a time when the British had decided to grant India independence. A Constituent Assembly was formed, and my father would go to Delhi frequently, accompanying my grandfather.

A Proxy and a Twist

During one such visit, my grandfather was extended an invitation to a dinner honouring Homi Bhabha. This invitation came from P.L.Bhatnagar, a renowned scientist. My grandfather, however, confessed to my father that he felt ill-equipped to converse with Homi Bhabha about physics and said, “You have a profound interest in physics. Why don’t you attend the dinner in my place?” So my father attended the dinner.

At the dinner, my father found himself seated in the chair reserved for my grandfather. This placed him right next to Homi Bhabha. A conversation flowed, and Homi Bhabha inquired about my father’s pursuits. My father shared that he had completed his BSc Honours in physics but had since embarked on a journey through law. When Homi Bhabha asked about his future plans, my father frankly expressed his desire to do physics and become Homi Bhabha’s student. He recalled being deeply influenced by Homi Bhabha’s lecture during his days at the Presidency College in Madras.

Grandma Shapes the Future

Homi Bhabha’s response was encouraging. He revealed that he had initiated a cosmic ray unit at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and said, “Why don’t you join me at the cosmic ray unit in Bangalore?” My father immediately said ‘yes,’ but he had to get permission from my grandfather. To handle this delicate situation, he opted to have a conversation with his mother and shared his genuine passion for physics and his reluctance to pursue law, hoping his mother would understand and advocate for his preferred path.

So, my grandmother talked to my grandfather and said, “You’ve succeeded in law, and you have accumulated wealth. Let our son pursue his interest in physics and enjoy his life. Why insist on law?” Her words led my grandfather to relent. The dedication of this book to his mother, even though the story talks about his father’s role prominently is a testament to how his mother’s support paved the way for him to become a physicist.

Solving a Cosmic Problem

Now, comes an interesting story. My father worked with Homi Bhabha at the cosmic ray unit in Bangalore. The term “cosmic rays” pertains to meteoric showers and electron showers that permeate the atmosphere, bifurcating upon entry. Understanding this bifurcation process, its effects, and the broader terrestrial impact formed the crux of the study. Probability theory played a significant role in unravelling these phenomena, as it required assessing the likelihood of specific particle distributions within sections of interest.

Working alongside Homi Bhabha, my father embraced the challenge. Shortly thereafter, Homi Bhabha relocated to Bombay. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was first housed at Kenilworth, in the residence of Homi Bhabha’s aunt. While the structure might appear more modest in comparison to its contemporary appearance, its colonial architecture was similar to my own home. My father accompanied Homi Bhabha to Bombay, and together, they continued their research. A few months later, my father solved the problem by an elegant solution, which he called the “method of product densities.”

He documented his results and without putting his name, gave it to Bhabha. Homi Bhabha said that he had to get the opinion of a mathematician to check the correctness of the derivation. He gave it to Mr. DD Kosambi, a mathematician. Kosambi responded saying that the solution was elegant but there were gaps in the derivation that needed addressing. There the matter ended.

In the meanwhile, my father and Bhabha’s personal assistant Mr. N R Puthran, a south Indian, had become close friends. An unexpected twist emerged a couple of weeks later. One day, Mr. Puthran told my father, “Alladi. You must be very happy to know that Bhabha has given a nice reference to you in a paper he’s written.” My father was surprised and asked if he could see the paper. Mr. Puthran handed over the manuscript that was to be given to the typist. As my father reviewed the paper, he discovered something astounding. The same problem he had tackled was now presented in a much longer form, authored by Homi Bhabha, and employing the basic concepts my father had introduced.

This put my father in an embarrassing situation. Homi Bhabha, was the Head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and a leader in Indian physics, except perhaps for Sir CV Raman. The question of challenging such an authority was daunting. In the United States, you can fight the establishment. But in India, confronting the establishment is next to impossible. So he could do nothing and tendered his resignation, citing the unsuitability of Bombay’s climate and environment. He boarded a plane and returned to Madras.

An Invite to the UK

Now, he was faced with the task of speaking to my grandfather. This predicament was complicated by my grandfather’s initial desire for my father to pursue law. The next step my father did was to reach out to Professor M S Bartlett of the University of Manchester, a researcher who had worked on similar problems. Within a month, a reply arrived from Bartlett, expressing keen interest in my father’s work. He suggested, “Why not come to the University of Manchester for a PhD?”

With this invitation in hand, my father left on a journey to England, with my mother. During the sea voyage, he substantially expanded upon his method. When he arrived in England, he presented this improved version to Professor Bartlett. Bartlett suggested, “Let me consult a colleague, Professor DG Kendall at Oxford University. His endorsement will seal the deal.” After a week or two, the verdict came: Kendall validated the work’s correctness.  Bartlett declared, “This is your Ph.D. thesis. But you’ll need to be here for two years to meet the residency requirements for a PhD. In the meantime, you can explore other problems.” With this, the path forward became clear.

One Theme, Two Papers

The next step was the publication of the thesis. Bartlett communicated the paper to the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Now what happened to Homi Bhabha’s paper? As a fellow of the Royal Society, Homi Bhabha enjoyed a privilege: direct communication to the Proceedings of the Royal Society. However, it turned out that there were some mistakes in the long paper—not serious though—that needed to be corrected. By the time Bhabha corrected these, several months had lapsed.

Consequently, both papers emerged independently, nearly simultaneously. My father’s work appeared in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, while Homi Bhabha’s findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The set of equations they jointly derived is now known as the “Bhabha Ramakrishnan equations.” The method, named the “method of product densities,” remains attributed to my father. Luckily, my father’s paper didn’t trail behind Homi Bhabha’s paper. So, all is well that ends well.

The Madras University Stint

My father returned to Madras, joining the newly established Theoretical Physics department at Madras University. The university was overseen by Vice Chancellor Sir Arcot Lakshmana Swamy Mudaliyar, who managed the institution for 27 years with an iron hand.

My father became the first to develop the theory of probability in Madras. His intellectual aspirations continued, and he nurtured his ties with the international physics community, keen on expanding the frontiers of knowledge. He went to the United States in 1956, as part of an international conference at the University of Rochester. Renowned physicist Robert Marshak organized the event, where my father, despite his focus on probability and stochastic processes, was allowed to take part in the realm of theoretical and high-energy physics.

Meeting Nobel Laureate Chandrasekhar

On the way, he met the eminent astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar’s ground-breaking work centered on the timing of a star’s collapse once it has depleted its hydrogen reserves or rather when a star reaches its end in an expanded state. According to Chandrasekhar’s findings, a star exceeding 1.4 times the mass of the Sun will inevitably contract until the electron-proton combination ushers in an era of pure neutrons—giving birth to a neutron star, a heavy entity.

However, Chandrasekhar’s early theory, which decades later won him the Nobel Prize, when first proposed in England, was met with scepticism. Sir Arthur Eddington remarked, “Chandra, any star that behaves the way you predict must be crazy.” Thus, the theory did not find immediate recognition in England. So, Chandrasekhar relocated to the United States, where the University of Chicago recognized him and he became a Distinguished Service Professor.

My father’s time in England was spent publishing papers applying probability to astrophysics. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar communicated eight of these papers to the Astrophysical Journal, of which he was the editor. So Chandrasekhar had already known about my father’s works.

Oppenheimer Springs a Surprise

Returning to the conference he attended, one can imagine the feeling of awe that a young researcher, not yet an expert in the field, might experience in the presence of renowned scholars. One day, during lunchtime, my father was seated alone in a corner, holding his tray. The great Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, who was at the conference, approached him with his own tray and asked my father, “May I join you?”

My father was flabbergasted. Here was a director of extraordinary stature, interacting with a relatively unknown person from the University of Madras. The conversation began, and my father explained his work in astrophysics. Oppenheimer was impressed and inquired about his future aspirations. My father expressed a desire to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a place where Oppenheimer was the Director. With a small notebook in hand, Oppenheimer requested my father’s name and contact information, promising to be in touch. The year was the summer of 1956. By the close of that year, my father received an invitation from Robert Oppenheimer himself to visit the Institute for Advanced Study. This was an unbelievable event. My father went to the Princeton Institute in 1957-58, accompanied by my mother.

I was two years old at that time. As the Princeton winter was too harsh, they left me with my uncle, Justice Alladi Kuppuswamy in Hyderabad, and my parents went to Princeton. My uncle, of course, took very good care of me. Now, in Princeton, my father listened to more than 100 seminars. The way he writes his English is absolutely top class.

Twin Passions

About Oppenheimer, he writes thus: “My first visit with Oppenheimer fulfilled my expectations about this legendary figure who dominated not only American science but influenced the destiny of the world as the architect of the atom bomb. Lean and of medium height, he had an oval head with prominent cheekbones, and piercing eyes. He could pick his men while lighting his pipe, each for the appointed task, according to his talent and inclination, from a Nobel Prize man to a truck driver. He was magnanimous in providing opportunities for young scientists and enjoyed discussions at every seminar where his very presence stimulated creative thought and invited impartial criticism. The Oppenheimer legend is just a record of incredible facts. Born to prosperity in 1904, he was educated at Harvard under Whitehead and Bridgman and took his PhD at 23 in Göttingen, after a preliminary stay at the Cavendish in England. His intellectual interests range from theoretical physics to Hindu philosophy… He understood the whole structure of physics with absolute clarity that one wonders why his creative work was not at the same seminal quality as Paul Dirac or Werner Heisenberg, both Nobel laureates. It is said that he had two passions, physics and the desert. And he got one in the other when he was to undertake at Los Alamos, a task unprecedented in its subject, undefined in scope, unpredictable in its consequences, namely, the creation of the atom bomb.”

An Unwelcome Suggestion

My father came back to Madras, went and told both Mr. Mudaliar as well as the registrar and others, “This syllabus in physics is outdated. We should at least change the syllabus, introduce high energy and modern physics to the M.Sc class.” The resistance to the suggestion was so high that my father was transferred to the then upcoming Madurai University, to start the physics department there instead of being in Madras. He rued that rather than appreciating the knowledge that he brought back from Princeton after listening to 100 seminars, the gift that he got was that he was banished to Madurai University to work there in isolation.

He came back and in the upstairs of our house where there was a big hall, he conducted a theoretical physics seminar. He gave lectures on modern physics to students in that seminar. Many eager students gathered at the seminar. He also invited eminent physicists to his seminar. One such physicist is Professor Abdul Salam of Imperial College, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize.

Niels Bohr’s Legendary Visit  

The next big visitor was Professor Niels Bohr, the father of the theory of the Bohr atom. The whole theory of the atom is based upon Niels Bohr’s structure of the atom. He was a Nobel Laureate. He was visiting India as the guest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. My father invited Niels Bohr and he agreed. Niels Bohr came to Madras in January 1960. My dad was so proud of his Indian upbringing, that even when he had foreign visitors, he would receive them in a dhoti.

Niels Bohr was a guest of Prime Minister Nehru and was accompanied by a representative of the government. He spent so much time of his talking to my father and his students, much to the discomfort of his accompanying government representative. He finished his tour of India and went back to Delhi to take leave of the Prime Minister.

A Press Conference leads to the PM

At that time, there was a press conference. When asked what impressed him the most about his visit to India, Niels Bohr said, “Two things. The massive setup of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay and a small band of students trained by Aladdi Ramakrishnan in Madras.” That was splashed in the newspapers. So a call came from PM Nehru’s secretary to enquire about what my father was doing. The then education minister Mr C Subramanyam was close to Nehru and he acted as a catalyst and arranged a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru, when Nehru visited Chennai. 

Nehru met the students of the theoretical physics seminar and a memorable dinner took place. Nehru turned towards my father and asked, “What is it that you really need?” My father said, “I would like to have a new institute in Madras, modelled along the lines of the Institute for Advanced Study for Science.” Nehru asked my dad to send a detailed proposal, which my father had already kept ready. He handed it to Mr C Subramaniam (CS), who passed it on to Nehru.” 

Birth of a Centre of Excellence

Nehru said that he had to consult the leading person on the Indian scientific scene—Homi Bhabha! He referred the matter to Homi Bhabha, and Bhabha’s response was, “Yes, it’s an interesting proposal, but the limited funds of India must not be diluted. Right now we have a Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and we should focus on it.”

So the proposal was doomed. But C Subramaniam fought for it, argued with Nehru and also spoke to Bhabha inviting him to serve on the Board of Governors of the institute. Within two months, the proposal was approved and on 3 January 1962, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences was inaugurated in Madras, at The Presidency College. It was just a miracle that so many things happened. My father gave a famous speech during the inauguration.  

Now, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences is a multi crore project. It is recognized as one of the Homi Bhabha centers. The story of the creation of a leading center of scientific research in India, due to the persistence and pure determination of someone who was proud of his Indian upbringing and of Madras, is a great one, indeed.