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C. V. Raman: First Indian Nobel Prize in Physics


By Ushi Patel



The battle between science and religion has been raging for millennia. Often we think about how to separate the two, removing discovery from dogma. But what happens when the scientist himself is spiritual, from a culture with spirituality engrained in its history and traditions? So it would seem with many Indian scientists and mathematicians – men and women of great empirical achievement who also believe in an unseen immeasurable power.

It is through these questions that I came across a chapter about C. V. Raman, the first Indian (and non-westerner) to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 100 Great Names from India’s Past. Varadaraja V. Raman (nephew of C. V.) discusses not only his amazing breakthroughs in physics but also his perseverance and personality.



C. V. Raman: From 100 Great Names from India’s Past by Varadaraja V. Raman


Perhaps the most widely recognized Indian name among physicists and chemists throughout the world is that of C. V. Raman. This is not only because his fundamental discovery is of enormous significance in both physics and chemistry, but also because he was the first Indian, indeed the first non-western scientist to win the coveted Nobel Prize.
C.V. Raman’s interest in science and music began to develop from a very early age. His father Chandrasekhar Iyer taught physics and mathematics. Raman distinguished himself as a brilliant student, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees before he was nineteen.
In the first part of this century Indians had to go abroad for more advanced studies. As Raman was not physically well enough to undertake a long voyage, he competed for and successfully passed a government service exam. Then he joined the Indian Audit and Accounts Service where he worked for a decade of his life. During this time, however, Raman did not ignore his first love, namely physics. While he was posted in Calcutta, he did research in his spare time, working primarily at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science.1
His researches were significant enough to be published in international scientific journals. Soon these won him some recognition. In 1917 he was offered a teaching position at the University of Calcutta. He not only taught ably, but continued with his researches in acoustics and in optics.

In 1921 Raman visited England on behalf of the University of Calcutta for a scientific congress held at Oxford. During that visit he was invited to lecture at the prestigious Royal Society on the theory of stringed instruments. On his way to Europe on ship, he had been struck by the blueness of the Mediterranean Sea. Raman was not satisfied with the then current interpretation for this, as given by Lord Rayleigh. He decided to investigate the matter further. This was the inspiration for his extensive researches in light scattering.

For five intensive years Raman and his collaborators in Calcutta relentlessly explored light scattering and related optical phenomena. Their investigation culminated in the famous effect that bears his name. The Raman effect refers to the scattering of certain wavelengths when an incident bean strikes specific targets. Its importance lies as much in that it further confirmed the then emerging field of quantum physics, as in that through it the molecular structure of many substances could be explored.
Another eminent physicist, K.S. Krishnan, also collaborated in this discovery which was reported in a series of papers, notably in the international scientific journal Nature in 1928. The British government knighted Raman the following year, thus making him Sir. C. V. And in 1930, Raman won the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Raman went to Bangalore in 1933 as President of the Indian Institute of Science where he founded the Indian Academy of Science. In 1948 the Raman Research Institute was established.

He was in many ways an English-educated South Indian intellectual: wearing a tie and turban; majestic in appearance and with a keen sense of humor; absorbing whatever is the best in Western culture but avoiding its superficialities; never forgetting the roots of his own culture and tradition; eager for science yet sensitive to and deeply affected by Hindu cosmic world views; physicist in the thinking but poetic in expression; authoritarian and outspoken, yet gentile and humane at heart; a robust lover of life, yet a strict vegetarian and teetotaler.2

1. Founded by Dr. Mahendra Lal Sircar who had served as personal physician to Ramakrishna Paramahasa.
2. A French physicist told me that once when Raman was offered a glass of wine he said, “Since you know the Raman effect on alcohol, are you trying to find out now the alcohol effect on Raman?”
Varadaraja V. Raman, 100 Great Names from India’s Past, 1989, p. 152-153

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