'Venki' makes light of India link - Winner says not to treat science like cricket; league of misses grows

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By AMIT ROY in Cambridge
  • Published 16.10.09

Cambridge, Oct. 16: The receptionist smiles and says: “He’s our top man.”

That is not immediately obvious for anyone meeting Venkatraman Ramakrishnan for the first time. He is not one of those Indians constantly checking their BlackBerries. He is not even sure he has a mobile.

“I don’t own a car so I come on my bicycle,” he says.

He does not have a secretary and his office in the Medical Research Council’s laboratory of molecular research, which is situated in the sprawling Addenbrooke’s Hospital site in Cambridge, is tiny.

The only giveaway is an empty bottle of champagne his colleagues opened last week when “Venki”, as he is generally known, got the Nobel prize for chemistry which he is sharing with a scientist in America and another in Israel.

Ramakrishnan understands why Indians the world over are bathing in his reflected glory but he is keen to use the occasion of an interview with The Telegraph to urge them not to get too jingoistic.

“I don’t think they should make too much of it,” he says. “Fundamentally, it is not important that it was an Indian who did this.”

Now 57, he left India at 19 and lived in the US until he moved to Cambridge in 1999 so it is understandable his accent is soft American, the kind that people might imagine Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s hero in The Da Vinci Code, might possess.

Ramakrishnan comes across as modest and charming. He really hopes the Nobel will not change life too much for him and his wife, Vera Rosenberry, an American from Ohio and distinguished in her own right as the author and illustrator of 30 books for children.

There is plenty of talent in the family. “I have a step-daughter, Tania Kapka, who is a doctor in Oregon, and a son, Raman Ramakrishnan, who is a cellist in New York. My son has a physics undergraduate degree. He does understand science and has come to several of my talks when I have spoken in New York or Boston.”

Chemist, author, doctor, cellist?

“They are all risky fields,” Ramakrishnan laughs.

He focuses on his science but he does have a life outside the lab. “I have lots of personal interests. I love music, I love bicycling and hiking and my wife and I went on a cycling trip in Norfolk last month. ”

He is vegetarian and tries out Gujarati and South Indian dishes when he has friends to dinner. “I like cooking occasionally.”

Will Ramakrishnan’s life now change beyond recognition? “I hope not. I wrote to a Swedish friend of mine, a major figure in the field of science, (and joked) ‘What have you guys done to me?’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, you will be bothered for a little while and then life will be back to normal’.”

His computer has been clogged by unsolicited emails from Indians.

“I sometimes get the feeling that people in India think of it as some kind of sporting event that their man won but science isn’t like that,” he smiles.

He doesn’t want the Nobel to be seen in narrow, nationalistic terms. “It’s very bad. Science is done for the pursuit of knowledge. It is not done to represent your national team. It has no national boundaries whatsoever. This is the thing that people need to realise.”

He gives the example of his own lab in Cambridge, where he is the 29th Nobel Prize winner in an elite list that includes Crick & Watson, the pair that unlocked the double helix of the DNA. “My own lab has two Chinese, a Malaysian, a Canadian, an American, a German, it has had all sorts of people. And it’s actually fun because people from different countries come together, they have cultural exchanges, they learn more about each others’ countries and way of life. Science is a great international mixer, so the idea that it is a sort of cricket match where our team won — that simply is a wrong way of looking at scientific discovery.”

To be sure, he hopes the cause of science has received a boost. “It’s an absolutely good thing. I can think of one even better thing for young people, especially in India. It shows them you can study in India, get your basic education in India and you can (then) do whatever you want after that. That’s a very important message.”

He says: “Indians tend to be a little insecure and they should stop being insecure — I have visited India many times and I can tell you questions I get after my talks are as perceptive as anywhere else in the world, including places like Harvard or MIT. It’s perfectly fine to take pride that someone from their region has used their background and succeeded. That gives them a positive message that they can do anything that they want.”

He argues that “if India had 50 Nobel Prizes, they wouldn’t bother. For instance, in the US I was interviewed on the day of the Nobel Prize, it went into the major papers, news media and then they said, ‘Fine, another year when a few Americans have won Nobel prizes’, that was it. They did not have this almost exaggerated reaction. That comes from a sort of feeling of insecurity about their (India’s) standing in the world. But India is not the same as it was 50 years ago.”

He stresses: “Now many excellent scientists in India are doing really first rate work and it should not matter when the next Indian Nobel Prize is because they are doing very good work — that is what matters and the more you have this infrastructure, with good scientists within India, eventually someone will get a Nobel Prize for work done within India.”

He gives examples. “There are already people who are world class in India, for example C.N.R. Rao (who has worked mainly in solid-state and structural chemistry). He is an example of how you can do first rate international work within India. So I would say to Indians — you have it within you to do this (in India).”

Incidentally, although he has not met Amartya Sen, the Economics Nobel winner from Trinity College, Cambridge, where Ramakrishnan was elected a Fellow last year, he has had effectively a “welcome to the club” message.

“He sent me a very nice email saying he was looking forward to meeting me the next time he comes to Trinity.”

Tomorrow: Ramakrishnan on his forthcoming trip to India