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Photo courtesy of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
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Interview of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya by David Zierler on July 14, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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In this interview, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Director of The Chatterjee Group - Centers of Research in Education, Science, and Technology, discusses his time working in the United States and India. He discusses his time at Northwestern University as an advisee of John Ketterson and his work with liquid crystals. He also speaks about the interplay between experiment and theory. Bhattacharya details his time as a James Franck Fellow at the University of Chicago and his collaboration with Sid Nagel on the glass transition of glycerol. He speaks about his experience working on charge density waves at Exxon, as well as his discovery of the pseudo-gap phase while there. He discusses working at NEC with vortex phases in type-II superconductors. Bhattacharya reflects on the joy he found teaching physics to undergraduate students. He details his time working at Ashoka University where he was allowed the opportunity to create an undergraduate education framework and build a physics department. Lastly, Bhattacharya discusses the importance of incorporating science into culture.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 14th, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. Shobo, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Ah, you're most welcome. Very glad to be part of this effort. I'm a great believer in the history of science and history of physics in particular among other things, like sociology of physics, philosophy of physics, all of these things, right, intertwined. So, I'm looking forward to tell you what I may have to tell you about my own career in physics and ventures in physics.
Oh, that's so nice to hear. First things first, your nickname that you go by universally, tell me the origins of Shobo.
Okay. So, it is a pronunciation problem. My mother tongue is Bengali, a phonetic language, which is derived from the original Sanskrit, the Indo-European mother language. My name, Savyasachi means ambidextrous in Sanskrit, one who can shoot an arrow equally well with both hands, Now Savyasachi is the original Sanskrit pronunciation. But in my mother tongue, we often convert the S sound to Sh sound. So, when I was at the University of Chicago as a post-doc, several of my classmates from India were students and post-docs there. In fact, there were like twenty people from my neighborhood in Kolkata, who were in Hyde Park then. They all called me Shobo because Sabyasachi is just too long. This confused everyone. So, I decided to phonetically write it in that way. So, if you really want to do it properly, a few people like Sid Nagel at Chicago, he calls me Shobbo, S-H-O-B-B-O, which is the proper one, but I just dropped the one B. So, this is the origin of the link. But ironically, I'm completely right-handed.
No chiral symmetry for you?
No symmetry of any kind.
Shobo, more formally, what is your current title and institutional affiliation?
My current title is I'm the Director of the institution called TCG CREST. TCG stands for The Chatterjee Group - Centers of Research in Education, Science, and Technology. That stands for CREST. So, it's a private organization. And the Chatterjee of the Chatterjee group is Dr. Purnendu Chatterjee, an old friend. He created this Chatterjee Group and they do many things, but this is their not-for-profit arm. It's a research institute. I started formally with them, appropriately, on 1st of April of 2020. Things have been very slow because of the pandemic. But this institution is unique. Nothing like this exists in India. The idea is that we give degrees, only Ph.D. and Masters, but the emphasis is not only just research but to translate into something that is of some use to society. The translation aspect is crucial. It's a bit of a university, and bit of a corporate research lab of the kind that used to exist in the US, Bell Labs being one of them.
Shobo, what are some of the funding sources for CREST, and what would you say is its overall mission?
The initial funding came from India's one of the largest petrochemical company called the Haldia Petrochemicals, the majority of which is owned by the TCG Group. And the board of Haldia decided to invest in research of the kind I just mentioned. Some examples will give you a better idea. Underneath everything else, is something like AI/ML, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning but the other areas are energy, neuroscience, and one highly aspirational one in quantum science and technology. But to that, we want to add law, new media, food, broadly policy, such as economic policy.
But it’s essentially research with an aim to deliver something. Unlike other places I worked in, like Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, where the mandate is to do high-class research. And here, the idea is, if you want to do great research, we are happy, but we'd like people to be alert to try to help mankind. The first source of support has come from this Haldia Petrochemicals. The people who are getting started, we are going to provide them with the startup funding. We expect them to apply for funds, which will be for their own research. The degree-granting status is now in collaboration with other degree-granting deemed universities. Hopefully, very soon, we'll have our own degree-granting status. We expect philanthropic money to build the corpus. We would like our IP to also generate money and other corporates to come forward to support this unique adventure and it's looking good. It's actually looking quite good.
Shobo, given the interdisciplinary nature of this endeavor, does that suggest a broadening out of your own research agenda?
No. My own research agenda is a little unusual now. I am the overall director. We have what we call in the corporate language, verticals. Each vertical has its own director, who looks after the research of that vertical. We have a Global Scientific Advisory Body advising each vertical in terms of what kind of research they're doing. We would evaluate them as to how they are doing, connecting us to the global community of research. Our biggest partner so far is Dr. Chatterjee’s alma mater U of C, Berkeley. But University of Chicago, which is not my real alma mater, but spiritually my alma mater, others are University of Tokyo, Princeton, Oxford, UCL, NUS and others in England. We are casting the net a little wider so that it eventually is a global institution. The standard we expect is to be a globally competitive one, but with this special emphasis on making that research count for something. Our logo has something called inventing a harmonious future that sort of tells you.
To give you another idea, take law for example, okay? Law, if you equate it to justice, for example, then, is law just? But more importantly, is the implementation of law just? How do you make it just? Using modern modes of research, modern modes of technology? What kind of policy would make this world a better place, for example, given the pandemic that we are going through? These are extremely relevant questions. And therefore, you cannot isolate law by itself. You need to have it connect to technology, ensure the technology does not do more harm than good. What are the legal constructs that make sure that bad things don't happen, yet ensure that one avoids a situation where good things cannot happen because of too many useless boxes that you have to check.
It is a “think & rethink-tank”, thinking and rethinking the processes that are in place in society, and how we can do research and use technology that comes out of it to help build a better kind of future for society? My own research has been a bit strange — because I was going to talk to you, I was thinking about what research have I done really. And it seemed like there is an underlying theme, which I wasn't quite aware of until maybe a month ago when we thought of talking. And roughly what I do is dynamics of disordered systems. How do disordered systems move? We know a lot about ordered systems. We don't know so much about disordered systems. And if I look back to my Ph.D. days, that theme sort of runs through. So now, if you say how does this affect my research, maybe we can take it a little bit later. But I'll give you an idea. We've been looking at problems of how systems which are driven, and frequently these things are away from equilibrium because you are driving them. What you find then is that the driving can lead the system into some kind of a dynamical steady state. It does not mean a dynamically time-independent state, but dynamically steady state. Things are moving but if you look at their movement, that movement over some other timescale will look like it's a steady state. Things rolling down the street; if you take a frozen picture now and later, things have rolled down the street, so it is not about the frozen picture but about the movie.
For example, we know that in bacteria, there is something called “run and tumble”. And this is what bacteria do to survive because they don't know where the food is. So, they run towards the food, but then stop, just in case the source of food has changed direction. Instead of running, it stops, it tumbles. It has these flagella which go out, sense the gradient of where the food is, then get more compact and run towards it, okay? So, we have something we call “roll and stumble”, just a play on words. But this is something I'm very interested in because we do things in the lab which tell us that we may have found an interesting mechanism, already.
What it tells us right now is why stampedes aren't more frequent. If you live in countries like India, in big cities like Bombay or in Tokyo, well, of course there are cultural differences. And if you see what happens in commuter train stations during the commuting hours, it's astonishing that stampedes don't happen. They happen occasionally, but they ought to happen every minute. They don’t. So why don't they? And my colleagues at TIFR and I now have some idea of why and we can create for you in the lab a situation which is analogous. And so, in terms of non-equilibrium dynamics, driven dynamics, it's a physics problem, but it is entirely translatable in my view for urban planners to ensure that if we are right, then they could make it even better so that stampedes happen even less frequently. What is it that people who are commuting every day know? What is it that they are doing that prevents stampedes from happening? They may not be aware of it, but instinctively, they must be doing the right thing. What is that? And it's not trivial to figure out what that is.
Just imagine this scenario, the people who are in the front, near the edge of the platform as the train pulls up, they want to get into the train when it arrives and not fall off before it arrives, okay? So, they must not be pushed from behind. The people in the back, they need to get to work in time. They have the urge to get on that train. So, they have a tendency of pushing forward. Therefore, it is the folks in between, who are doing something quite astonishing. They are withholding that force from behind and not transmitting it to the front. How are they doing this?
Obviously, it's an interesting question. If you can demonstrate in a lab clearly as to what it is, how this force is not transmitted, how it is being screened, then we have learned something. So, this is the current interest for me. But that has nothing to do with what's going on in CREST. It's just my own, the bee in my own bonnet, so I call it “roll and stumble” which is my buzzword.
Shobo, on the spectrum from basic science to applied research, where overall are your motivations for the things that you work on?
So now, you are asking me these deep questions, and I think that this business of basic research and applied research, the way we have thought about it, or the way we think about it, is probably not very helpful, okay? So, what I feel is that we do research because we want to answer some questions. Some answers may yield an immediate application. Some wait, in mathematics, they wait centuries before being applied, okay? So, you do not want to say that you better do something useful, otherwise, we won't allow you to do research, and we won't fund you. So that's the spirit of basic research.
On the other hand, in cultures such as in India, now - this is my opinion - there is a hierarchy. I call it the intellectual caste system. This is global too, but perhaps not so severe. If you do something that's useful, does not make it worse as basic research. Some basic research is extremely applicable and, at the same time, entirely high-class research in any way intellectually you think of it but happens to be useful too.
Give you an opposite answer; what I taught my undergraduate foundation courses when I was teaching at Ashoka, was thermodynamics. It's one of the foundational things of science, not just physics. Without thermodynamics, we would be nowhere. How did it come about? It came about because of the industrial revolution, pretty much. James Watt saw that kettle lid go up and down. Sadi Carnot came up with the Carnot engine. He was just trying to figure out how to make an engine that would be efficient. And out of this need to have a practical answer came one of the deepest foundations of science. So, my personal view is that the way we have categorized science as either basic or applied- maybe it served some purpose at some period of time- but to classify it very strictly is not a good idea.
For many years of my life, I spent at Exxon research, at NEC Research, at Tata Institute, these are research institutes, and they are not identical. Bell Labs, I think, had produced thirteen Nobel Prizes or so, but they've also produced unbelievably useful stuff. So, these are organizations where it is not true that they did not put emphasis on application and said just do blue-sky research and good stuff will fall out of it. We know history tells us that it does. For some, you have to wait till tomorrow. For some, you have to wait one hundred years. Good stuff does come out. So, if you say that, “Oh, it is not immediately useful, I won’t fund you,” that's not a very useful thing. But to categorize activities in a hierarchy of intellectual achievements, which tends to happen in many places, also in labs, also in universities, also in society. For example, I don't know what's happening in America, but in India, the first wave miraculously didn't happen here, but the second wave was unbelievable in the pandemic, right?
And as a scientist, I'm constantly being asked, “Oh, we are losing faith in science because science has not given us a solution to this problem.” So, yes science works, but it takes time. I mean, I just recently read an extraordinary account of the Spanish flu which came to be known as the Bombay flu because many millions in Bombay died of that flu one hundred years ago which is very much like the COVID-19. And if you read what happened there, I mean it was devastating. Given what we are facing now, that was unbelievable. But on the other hand, nobody dies of things like typhoid anymore. We have antibiotics. If you had diphtheria, you probably wouldn't have survived one hundred years ago. Today, you do. I was at Chicago in Hyde Park then; I still remember Peter Jennings came on ABC News and said, "Today, World Health Organization has said smallpox is eradicated from the planet." It's a fantastic achievement. But it came from this peculiar thing, a guy noticing that milkmaids don't get smallpox. So, it's kind of a serendipitous thing. It took more than one hundred years to be eradicated because the last carrier needed to go.
So, I'm giving you a kind of long-winded answer to a very simple question you have asked. I think that it is good to have a research culture that didn't worry about what I call a caste structure. In India, we are a very caste-oriented society, but even in the US or in Europe, this divide exists. And students very early on get a sense of basic versus applied, there is a dichotomy, but we have seen people who have aptitude for basic. There are people who have aptitude to utilize it. And if they could coexist harmoniously without creating this divide between basic and applied, we will be in a better place. And they talk to one another, and it happens like that. It does indeed happen in that way.
So, I prefer that we create a culture, at least the one where I'm engaged in, where we will avoid this notion of, are you doing basic? Are you doing applied? But are you alert that your research can contribute to society? So, you constantly talk to people. You collaborate with people who think complementarily. That's how good things happen. That's sort of my own personal take in this. I have spent time in very “pure” research place and places where if you didn't do something useful by tomorrow, “oh, would I have a job”? There is middle and that middle, I think, is where I'd like to be.
Shobo, I'll ask another question that implies a binary, and it'll be interesting to see if you reject the premise of that binary as well. So broadly, in the field of disordered systems, where do you see the interplay between experiment and theory, and currently, which is leading which?
Well, the short answer is neither theory nor experiment leads. To this we add the increasing role of simulations which can be thought of either theory or experiment, depending on your taste. However, a curious question is about disordered systems as an area of work and the milestones in this vast area. I am no expert on history but there are milestones and they kind of go with a philosophy. The philosophy of physics, the way I feel it, has always been to ask a sharp question and get a sharp answer. The extreme of that is mathematics. When a theorem is proved, that theorem is true, right? You can hang your hat on that. And physics has always tried to avoid complications, to give you an approximated ideal system where you can ask a very precise question and get a very reliable answer. Okay? If you look at the trajectory of physics, at least in modern times, I think an ideal system for which you have an extremely reliable answer has driven much of progress in physics.
Let me talk a bit about disordered systems for a contrast. Now, there was an idea that if you are doing disordered things, then the questions are not very well-posed, the answers are likely to be vague, and where are you going with that? So, this may have been a question till maybe even now—my knowledge of history is not that good. But I think one of perhaps the most seminal things in modern times, was Phil Anderson's work in the 1950s, where he pointed out that disorder isn't boring or isn't dull, isn’t dumb. There is a method in the madness. There is something you can learn out of it. Besides, most things around us aren't ordered, so what can you say about that?
Take, for example, something like the window glass. The window glass isn't a crystal. It's not a liquid. What is it? It's a disordered solid. There are stories that if you wait long enough, centuries, cathedral windows get a little thicker at the bottom because things have flown down and so on. In disordered systems, like glasses in general right now, I think the theory and experiment are kind of together, as I said before. It's not that one is leading the other. The scientific community is large compared to before. What was a question yesterday, if it is answered today, it will be taught tomorrow. The cycle is very rapid. But major breakthroughs are still very rare.
Here are some more flavors of disoriented systems that I have worked on. If you take something which is ordered, completely organized, take a crystal, but put it on a rough surface with which it interacts, does it still remain a crystal? The answer is no. There is a theoretical answer. There is also an experimental answer. It's not a crystal at least not at the interface. Okay? However, if you start driving it faster and faster, it begins to forget that it has this uneven interface, but their inter-particle interaction isn't changed. So, when driven very hard, out of a broken-up crystal, you get a much better crystal, so it's a moving and less broken-up crystal. Okay? I worked a lot on these kinds of problems. And how do things get stuck? How do they become unstuck? The business of getting stuck essentially disorders the object. Unless your underlying surface is entirely smooth, you put an ordered thing that interacts with it. If it doesn't interact, it doesn't matter, but if it interacts, then that unevenness inevitably creates unevenness on what you were putting it on. But if you can make that substrate invisible, then it recovers its order. So that is how you get things called moving but purer crystals.
So, again, I'm giving a roundabout answer to a broader question. I spent almost a decade working on vortices in type-II superconductors—and you might say why do you have to go to such an esoteric system? It's what we physicists do. We go to an esoteric system where a complex problem becomes tractable. The reason I go to a superconductor is because superconductor is a quantum object, and these vortices are quantized, precisely. Nature just gives it to me. Getting this uniformity otherwise is a very difficult task. You're already dealing with a messy problem, something else better be not messy. So, you go to this esoteric system to again try to precisely define a complicated problem in such a way that the answer you give will have some meaning, will have some robustness rather than saying, “Oh, it's some mess. I push it, it becomes messy, and so mess is mess." But that isn't the case.
So, these are the questions that I have worked all my life in one form or another. The basic questions are the same. So then, let me tell you the basic question: what is friction? We just don't know it. We know it from Isaac Newton’s time; we haven't quite figured it out because it's very complicated. And if I ask you a question—or if you ask me a question, the answer is likely to be, it depends. It depends on what? It depends on details. So, the reason we haven't understood it in a very compact way is because it depends. It's a complex problem. If you want to understand a complex problem, what you may need to do is separate it out into pieces that are understandable, and then say, “Okay, I understand this bit. Maybe then I can go to the next level and try and understand how that goes.”
This brings me back to Phil Anderson again. He has this very, very influential article called “More is Different.” It's like a Bible for many of us. He articulated this way ahead of, as far as I know, most people, and it's only now we understand how deeply he thought about hierarchy of knowledge, laws at every level of hierarchy, that it's pointless to say this is more fundamental than that. At every level, you have some principles, and he gives broken symmetry as the example that is again like a Bible to us, this idea that an aggregate of a whole bunch of things, are not the same as the sum of the individuals. So, perhaps his theory, or ideas, actually led for a long time.
I read a book the other day, I mean, you won’t believe, it says that a niobium atom is superconducting. Unthinkable, because a niobium atom isn't superconducting. It is when you put an Avogadro's number of niobium atoms, then superconductivity emerges. It's an emergent phenomenon. It's not in niobium itself. It is in the combination. So, I would say this other buzzword I like a lot more is this notion of emergence that you cannot add a whole bunch of basic things to get the behavior of the collective. In some sense, in every day we know this. You, as an individual, behave entirely differently from the way you behave in a crowd or in a concert hall or in a football match or wherever. I mean, that's just a silly analogy to make the point.
So, this concept of emergence is something I quite like because it basically gives you a different notion. When I was a graduate student, there was a hierarchy that if you went to smaller things, you got to better physics. So, there is this famous statement, I don't know, maybe it was Pauli who called solid state Physics, the “squalid-state physics.”
I believe that was called by Gell-Mann. Pauli called it “schmutz physics.”
I see. Okay. Yeah, either way. Again, we are now entering a very dangerous territory. So, I call it the fundamentalist position, knowing that it's an ambiguous statement, but again, more is different in some sense, caught the essence of this problem that we had thought about. By now, I had forgotten your question. You were saying—
About theory and experiment and which is leading which?
I think theory and experiment are together, but I'm an experimentalist, and I think this becomes more of a question of who I am, where I come from. For instance, why am I so interested in the history of science than many of my colleagues, and that is because of where they came from. I came from a place which was once a colony and the imperial powers not only exploited the country, but it also brought new knowledge to the country. That created a very peculiar schizophrenia that Newton is the great one, but he also happens to be an Englishman. Is this a problem? And however much you say, no, no, it's not a problem. There are others who think that it's a problem. And history tells us that we still haven't resolved these problems, that we have not gotten internationalized in thinking that Newton is everybody's legacy, instead of saying that, “Oh, Newton was in Cambridge.” A lot of money of Cambridge came from the British Empire or East India Company and those kinds of questions bother people in India. You should be aware of them, without a doubt, but it should not cloud your appreciation of what Newton has done for science in many ways. So, the way we do science, there is almost a guaranteed thing, that's also interesting.
If you want to get into how in the scheme of things, given how we are as human beings, members of human society, how have we made progress in science and protected the progress from being cannibalized by sectarianism? In many areas of human activity, you can see this problem. But science has built in it a protective mechanism where I think there is a consensus about how progress has been possible. The progress has been enormous, and philosophers thought about it. I will give you one example, take Popper. I quite liked the idea. He said, “Oh, your idea must be falsifiable,” okay? So, there is this tension between theory and experiment that if you tell me that you have a theory, derived by empirical evidence from experiment, you should be able to tell me that if my observation is X, then your theory is wrong. If your theory is not falsifiable, then it may be interesting, but it's probably not very scientific. So, if you don't tell me how I can fail, then I cannot fail. And if I cannot fail, then my success is fragile.
Scientists, despite all our human failings, have been able to protect our discipline by evolving a consensus about when we think something is right or to the extent we can define anything to be right, that it is so. Well, how should I say it? It's a philosophically interesting question: how have we done so? And is there something common that can be utilized in other areas of human endeavor, that I protect my knowledge, or we collectively protect our knowledge with a consensus even though our worldviews on many things may be different, but we believe that in the end, we will agree that this one is right and this one isn't or that we do not yet know what is right. So, I think, this has been a great, great philosophical strength of the scientific process that I wish we teach students a little early. And I wish that citizens get an understanding of this aspect of science. Scientists are not just nerds. They are thinking people, very careful people who work exceedingly hard to make a small amount of progress in what we consider we know now.
That’s okay. Shobo, one that inevitably is going to have also historical ramifications and that is a nomenclature question, where do you see the transition from solid-state to condensed-matter physics in so far as it relates to the development of disordered systems research?
Okay. So, I would say that condensed matter definition is fairly straightforward historically. Condensed matter, I think, means things that are not gaseous, okay? A liquid and a solid are both condensed matter. They are condensed in the sense that they are not gaseous. If I know my history right, I think that is roughly the definition of condensed matter. Because take pure gases. Pure gases are the best understood things that we know. On the other hand, they are not terribly interesting because we understand pretty much everything that there is to know. But there are Van der Waal gases, which are not ideal gases, okay? Are van der Waal gases condensed matter? By consensus, I think probably they are not.
So, I would say anything that's liquid and more ordered than liquid will be called condensed matter. And the definition of condensed matter sort of sits, encompasses both ordered solids, disordered solids, and liquids. So, one definition, if you like, is what is the difference between a glass and a liquid? You might take a position that a glass is a liquid with enormously high viscosity. Glass transition, for example, is still unknown, is an open question. How can the viscosity effectively change by seventeen orders of magnitude over a short temperature interval which can depend on how rapidly or how slowly you make that change? Yet, it is not organized. It's not a crystal. You do X-Ray diffraction; it tells you it's amorphous.
So condensed matter, I would say it encompasses—in my definition, both crystalline, organized solids and non-crystalline objects. There is other condensed matter, by the way. I mean, Bose-Einstein condensate, that's a very esoteric condensed matter, but nevertheless, it's condensed matter. That condensation is one of the great discoveries—I'm proud that its beginnings happened in my neck of the woods, but Bose-condensation is also an esoteric condensed matter. Superfluid helium, for the longest period, was considered not quite the Bose-condensation because the bosons were interacting. A Bose-condensate should happen even if they were not, just because of statistics, right? Because helium atoms, they did interact—the longest time we didn't call it BEC.
So, when BEC did happen, it was worth a Nobel Prize because till then, we didn't have a very pure BEC. A superconductor is also a condensed matter of an esoteric type because the electrons are now organized differently in units of pairs. So superfluid, superconductor, all of these things are also condensed matter, in the broad sense. They are organized, but they're organized differently from conventional crystalline solids that we think about.
Well, Shobo, let's take it all the way back to the beginning for your own history. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me about them.
Okay. My father was a doctor. My mother was primarily a musician and an artist, but both on a kind of a, how should I say, more amateurish level. She got married. She didn't perform outside. But by that time, she was quite an accomplished musician and a painter. She used to do mostly drawing, not paint, but sketch. My father's family, came from the orthodoxy and my mother's family came from the modernists, okay? And this is during the British days, of course. My father's ancestors were classical scholars. They were scholars in various disciplines of logic and so forth, in Sanskrit. That's the equivalent of, say, Latin or Greek if you like. My mother's side were modernists in the sense that my mother's father taught physics in the same college where I studied. His father was one of the most eminent mathematicians of India. There is a theorem named after him called The Four-Vertex Theorem, proved in 1909, they celebrated 100 years of that theorem, not so long ago. So, these are what I would call people who accepted modern education wholeheartedly.
However, both sides of the family were not very openly, how should I say, anti-imperialist, okay? The orthodoxy certainly wasn’t because they were completely in line, "As long as you didn't touch my orthodoxy, I'm with you." In fact, these two groups quarreled among themselves a lot more than they quarreled with the Imperial masters. My father was a bit of a renegade. He didn't go to the college I went to because this college was, to him, a symbol of the Imperial masters... So, I suppose that's the reason my parents got married. My father finished his degree in 1942, during the Second World War, and then he had to wait till 1946 when ships were taking civilian passengers, and went to England, because those days if you wanted to do more, you went to England. So, he spent a couple of years there. Then, he came back and practiced medicine for the rest of his life.
My mother died young, when she was about forty, and I was about fifteen. She had a heart attack and just passed away. But her family, on one side was very artistically inclined. My mother's side had very eminent journalists and so on. My father's side has been in the city for nearly 300 years. So, if I were to be a little less respectful, I would say these are the entrenched elite, if you like, of two different kinds.
So, I grew up in an environment of two bubbles, constantly quarreling and at loggerheads, which made for an interesting childhood. That much is kind of certain, that was an unusual childhood. So, to give you an idea, I always liked puzzles. I read children's magazines, which every month there would have puzzles, two kinds, math kinds, and language kinds. I could always solve the math kinds in five seconds, but these language things I just couldn't do. I asked my mother and, she would smile and say, "Come back a few minutes later," and then she said, "You can't even figure this out?" So that got me very interested in grammar because she was very gifted linguistically—she understood language very well, how you put things together with words. So, unlike most kids, I loved grammar. Kids don't like grammar. I just loved grammar. Maybe because it was very logical, particularly the Sanskrit grammar is just an extraordinary thing. If you go to MIT, you can read the same grammar. They still teach it, it's so magnificent. The Newton of grammar was a Sanskrit scholar named Panini, like that sandwich panini.
What kind of schools did you go to while growing up?
I went to a kind of school that was built by the Bengali Intellectual Elite, okay? In fact, there are three important educational formats. One was of the local intellectual elite. The other two were Belgian Jesuits and the Scotts. These three groups have done incredible amount of work for education in India. So, there were schools belonging to these groups, but I went to an elite Bengali medium school that meant, other than English, everything else was taught in your mother tongue. Sanskrit was very important. The education was kind of a mixture of what is good in our old history plus what's good in the modern history, mix the two. So, that's the kind of school I went to. Most people can even place me in the neighborhood within the city because of my English accent. They say that I haven't lost my high school accent yet.
Shobo, growing up, what kinds of opportunities did you have to pursue your interest in science?
Okay. So here comes a strange answer. Growing up, I wasn't very interested in science. I was far more interested in literature, history, grammar, I told you. Grammar was a big thing for me. I loved grammar because Sanskrit grammar was just quite an extraordinary thing.
But to me, science came differently. Because I was lazy. I also wanted to do well academically. It was a kind of an ego thing and I found that science took less time, and physics took, even among them, the least amount of time. So, I could get that done and then do things I really love, but there were lots of other kids who were absolutely passionate about science. When I went to college, it was the best college in the country, the oldest college in the country. “The smartest kids went there”. And I must admit that extracurricular activities dominated my college days. I went to college between 1967 and 1971. These were extraordinary times. I'm sure you weren’t born then.
No. But globally—
Yes, this was an amazing time, globally too.
—these were times of protests, all of the force.
Unbelievable turmoil. And most things were—both good and bad. And things were so exciting all around that to just study science at that time, to me, was not using your time well. You just got it done and science was very good in that sense that if you understood physics, you didn't have to memorize anything. Chemistry was a little ugly because it was smelly and all kinds of terrible things in the lab. You had to memorize, at least the way we were taught. Mathematics was a little dry for me. I was good at it, but it was dry.
Physics was just right. You could see the point, you knew what good it did, and if you understood it, you didn't have to remember anything. So, I minimized my academic time by studying science so that I could do the other things, give it more time. I have to say that my education in the US changed that completely. And that I ended up in the US was also not a very careful decision. I was debating between joining a very eminent drama group and doing a Ph.D. So, my father was very annoyed. He said, “You can’t make a living by joining a drama group”. Most of my friends said, “Oh, we're going to America to do a Ph.D.” I kind of said, “Oh, well, I'll tag along.” So, I went there. But going there something changed, something profoundly changed.
Shobo, how did you navigate programs to apply to in the United States? What points of contact did you have? How did you know what would be a good fit for you?
Okay, so I had no choice in it. So, in my final year of Master's program—
This is at Delhi?
It was in Delhi.
Yeah. I fled Calcutta because of the political situation was just unbelievable, and I essentially fled for my life. I mean if you were my age, you could be shot one day, no questions asked.
And that’s because you were marching, you were visible of the security services—
No. It was almost random. I mean, that's a long story. You may want to look it up. There was a movement called Naxalbari movement. It was a pro-Maoist movement which began the year I joined college. This was also—you'd have to remember 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, and it mattered there. All kinds of stuff were going around. Bangladesh war happened in 1971. Millions of refugees moved in. It was chaotic, but it was also very, strange that the United States decided to support an obvious dictator who was committing genocide. And the US government was supplying arms to these people to kill people.
But anyway, so these were very complicated times. I went to Delhi. I had to do a dissertation. My dissertation advisor, for one reason or another, decided—those times, if your advisor decides it, that's it, it’s decided- that I should do a Ph.D. with the same professor that he did his Ph.D with. So, he sent me to Northwestern. His professor was on sabbatical, and my professor, John Ketterson, joined from Argonne to Northwestern. You are nodding, so you have done your homework?
Okay. So, John Ketterson joined Northwestern, and he gave me a summer job because he was setting up his lab. And I had no prior experience with anything, but I really, really admired this man. He was a virtuoso experimentalist. And by the time this other professor returned from his sabbatical, I had made up my mind. I wasn't going to leave Ketterson’s lab. So, I stayed with him, and he agreed to give me a chance.
So, that's how it happened. I didn't go to Northwestern by choice. This is pre-internet days. We didn't know very much. But senior students from the same university, from Delhi University had gone to Northwestern, and because of that professor, he was also Indian. And he had taken students who have done very well, so people from my university, Delhi University, were recognized to be good kids. We have had good kids in the past and there were two of us who went in my year, both worked for Ketterson. And that's how I ended up. I was in awe of him because he was just - even till today, I have not seen an experimental virtuoso like he was. So very intimidating, but nevertheless an extraordinary thing to watch him do stuff, and so I got hooked.
So, it sounds, Shobo, like not only was the program decided for you but even the specialty was decided for you. You didn't have much opportunity to think about what you might pursue on your own?
Okay. So what I knew I did not want to do is particle physics for whatever reason—it was very fashionable to do particle physics at the time, For reasons I cannot fully explain, because I had not read Anderson, I had not known anything, particle physics seemed to me to be kind of a religious activity. I can't explain this very well, but it was a finite number of things you could do. I did not like particle physics.
Condensed matter, I always liked. I think with this emergence, all the stuff that I'm talking about, were not there then, but my advisor was basically a superfluid helium person. He asked me to do liquid crystals because he had seen some similarities in these broken symmetry arguments that Paul Martin and his group at Harvard were proposing, and so he gave me this fat, thick, impenetrable paper and said, "Read it, and this is going to be what you will do." So liquid crystals, he gave that problem to me. There was only one student he took before me in liquid crystals because he saw some similarities between liquid crystals and superfluids. And you have to remember that de Gennes was a phenomenon at that time. He wrote an incredibly beautiful book. I don't mean his superconductivity book, but his first liquid crystal book, and he was just a master of analogies. And I mean it was a bewitching book in some sense, and that I would have something to do with what he has written was very exciting. The second edition of that book was much bigger and larger and had more things but lacked the magic of that first book. The first edition was a stunning book.
I loved doing liquid crystals because it was, again, neither a liquid nor a crystal. It had different levels of order, and then something accidentally, I just ran into some spectacular stuff, completely accidentally. There was a particular phase transition between these orientationally-ordered rods – nematics - which went into a layered structure called a smectic- A liquid crystal. And de Gennes using his mastery of analogies proved that this superconducting phase transition, normal metal to superconducting phase transition has a direct analogy with the nematic to smectic- A phase transition. And it was also related to the normal fluid to superfluid transition, and he showed these analogies. It's gorgeous. I mean, it's just gorgeous. I mean, you say “Oh, if I could come up with one idea like that, I'd be happy the rest of my life.”
And what happened was that people had done experiments with sound and my adviser was a specialist in ultrasound—it is no longer a fashionable subject, but then it was very good for detecting specialty of phase transitions. And so, nothing was found at that phase transition by sound propagation unlike for the superfluid transition. And so then, some eminent theorists came up with a theory as to why you shouldn't be seeing it. And then, I was looking at a lower temperature phase transition because I wasn't expecting to see anything, at a nematic smectic-A phase transition. I was going to go to another one that de Gennes came up with. It was A to C where the rods were all lined up in layers but were tilted. But in the process, I had to go through this transition and there is this gigantic anomaly. It's exactly like the superfluid transition. I'm just seeing the superfluid transition; exactly what superfluid transition is. And I take the data twice, thrice, four times, take it to my advisor, my advisor says, "What do you mean? People didn't see it before. And what's going on?" I said, "Look, this is it. I mean, this is the data—" of course, all data taken by hand, overnight, fourteen-hour experiment, and I ran into this completely accidentally, —and so it was a discovery, and it took us some period of time to understand why people didn't see it. We just got lucky. We looked at the right system and there were a time-scale problem and people were looking at too high a frequency—unfortunate for them, and we were just plain lucky. But there it was. So, do you mind if I tell you a story?
I got a post-doc job from someone, and I asked my advisor, "What should I do?" He said, “Well, you're not done yet.” He said, "You were going to have an ordinary thesis. Now, you will have an excellent thesis. So, what are you going to do? You better write this paper." And I said, "But I want to go home too. I haven't seen my dad in a very long time. If I now get into post-doc, I won't see him for years." He said, "You write this paper. I'll correct your thesis," okay? So, he made a deal. He made me do my thesis though, but he proof-read it fully, I wrote the paper he wanted. I went home and I came back. Then, he was going to give a talk at Bell Labs, okay?
Now, Bell Labs at that time was the place. And Pierre Hohenberg was a good friend of his. Hohenberg asked him to give a colloquium on superfluid helium. So, he calls me up and says, “Hohenberg asks me to give a talk, but I think your stuff is much nicer. Can I talk about this instead?” So, he went and he talked about this discovery. And he said, “Look, here are all your great theories and you say it shouldn't exist.” And Hohenberg says, "Give us two weeks. We'll have the answer," okay? And there was a young man named Mario Liu. So, my advisor connected me to Mario, and within a month, they had the theory and it was what I thought it was, but I didn't know theory well enough to work it all out. The old theories left out the most important term and it was just a miraculous thing. And then, I figured out why others didn't see it. If they lowered the frequency of their experiment, they would have seen it. They were just at too high a frequency to catch the critical phenomena that was associated with it.
And so, I went to the March meeting and I presented this work. Jack Swift was there, I think, he was at Texas in Austin at the time. He also promised that he will have a theory within a month. And Mario and he independently had exactly the right theory because they saw it and they understood that it had to be there. Why others didn't think it was not there, they figured that out too. I suppose that event changed me, my view of things, that it is possible. I'm doing physics because I don't know what else to do. And here it is, I have found something which people thought was very cool. And then, I was working at University of Rhode Island, but I was mostly working at a magnet lab. And one day I realized that now I'm committed. I must do physics. I mean, what else can I do at this stage of the game? I better work hard, and I better do something. So, again, there was also a very interesting lesson because the person, named Steve Letcher, I was doing post-doc with, was a complete anti-thesis of my advisor. His style of physics was totally different.
In what way?
He loved to do very simple things, but at the heart was a very clever idea. For example, he figured out that nobody had done liquid crystal experiments in extremely large magnetic fields. Now, this is before superconducting magnets. So, we had to go to the magnet lab, which had Bitter magnets, which were like 3 Tesla, 4Tesla, 20,000 amperes of current flowing through this coil and huge amount of water flowing from the Charles River. When our magnets would run, the river temperature would go up measurably, locally of course, but it was a huge field. And in that huge field, you could do certain things that you cannot do normally because magnetic field aligns liquid crystals. But for some phases, like again, smectic phase, etc., there were other things you could do; again, if you read de Gennes carefully, you would figure that out. But de Genne didn't think of anybody putting that kind of magnetic field. So, Steve thought of that. And in about a year, I had three Physical Review Letters. And again, luck, complete luck, this man just had an idea, and once I heard the idea, I realized, “Oh, I can then do A, B, C, and D.” And he said, “Yeah, all this sounds very good.” There was a big controversy going on. There was someone I knew very well, Patricia Cladis, she spent a year at Northwestern when I was a student. She was at Bell Labs. And she took a sabbatical. I think she had a professorship at Northwestern, and she taught me a lot of things. And she discovered a phase transition called the reentrant nematic, which meant that you go from ordinary liquid to a nematic, then a more ordered solid, then you went back to the more disordered nematic. And she said, “I have found a new nematic,” and she called it reentrant nematic, and she got into a lot of trouble. Nobody believed her. Again, I said to her, “Look, I can solve it. Either you're right or you're wrong, but I know how to solve it," and I solved it.
She was right. But the trouble was that these are field-closing works. The field just died. Once you prove it, nobody wants to do anything in it. It's done. But you get your Physical Review Letter out of it. So, I did a bunch of things which was possible because of this idea that you put very large magnetic field, you can do things that you cannot do without it. And putting electric fields is not a good idea. Magnetic field is very neutral. Electric field creates charges and ions move, creates circulations, all kinds of rotten stuff happens. I mean, a lot of good stuff also happens, by the way, but a lot of undesirable things happen.
So, that year was a very lucky year, but I also learned that this man had a completely different style of doing physics. Then, University of Chicago offered me a very prestigious fellowship. It was called James Franck fellowship. And James Franck is my academic great grandfather, my advisor’s advisor’s advisor. My advisor was also a Chicago graduate. And from then, once you get that, the world takes notice. And then I went to University of Chicago, and I loved that university. I just thought that was the best place I've ever seen as a university. But it was more luck, I would say, just being at the right place. Then, in Chicago, I worked with Sid Nagel.
What was Sid working on at the time you connected?
Sid was working on multiple things. He was working on glassy systems. So, he was doing metallic glasses. And other, I forget what—like arsenic As2S3 type of glasses. He was already working on glasses. So, I did some other stuff with him. But the main thing that I did with him that has stayed with me is that we looked at the glass transition of dense liquids like glycerol, and I built an ultrasonic spectrometer which was quite a nice thing to build. And then, that got Sid into glass transition of that kind.
So, after I left, we wrote the first paper, from Sid’s group. It was with his graduate student who has a Physical Review paper, it is a long paper, but then Sid continued to work on that. But we worked on another kind of glass, this is called (KBr) (KCN). It's a dipolar or quadrupolar glass. It's organized, but you replace bromine by cyanogen, CN, and bromine is spherical and cyanogen is like a dumbbell and they are in random places. So, it is ordered yet disordered in certain way, and it underwent a kind of a glass transition. Looked very much like a spin glass but wasn't exactly that. He had another student work on that later. So, Sid was doing glasses already, but not the viscous liquid to glass transition. But he had already started to move more and more into disordered systems. And many things that happened later had some early beginnings there, and it was very exciting in hindsight to realize that all of this was happening at that time. But this is what he and I did together. We looked at the glass transition of glycerol. I think maybe two or three students followed up with that problem with greater detail and so on. So that's what Sid was doing at the time.
You really enjoyed Chicago?
I love Chicago. I still own a flat there. I love Hyde Park, and I love that university. It's just my kind of place.
Shobo, at this point, were you thinking about making a life in the United States, that this was where you would spend a long portion of your career?
Pretty much, yes. I didn't think of it. I'm a passive person. I let things happen to me. What happened was I got a job at University of Southern Cal. and I got a job at Exxon. And one of my senior professors, Morrel Cohen, was leaving Chicago to join Exxon. Exxon was, at that time, hiring many physicists of different areas. It was a chemistry lab, basically.
I've heard it, like it too aspired of becoming the Bell Labs of Energy.
That is correct. But that was kind of obvious in hindsight. By the way, the person who hired me won a Nobel Prize, Stanley Whittingham. He was a chemist. He got his Nobel Prize last year for lithium-ion battery. But the Vice President was Pete Lucchesi and he coined this term “complex fluids’’. So today what is called soft matter, used to be called complex fluids because part of Exxon's business was petrochemical, and from petrochemical, there were all kinds of polymers and stuff. One of my seniors used to call it “sludge physics”.
There was energy for sure in the mix and there were people who were doing semiconductors and so on. And then, there were people doing polymer science. Then, there were people like me, who came from liquid crystal side, more complex fluid side. But there was a lot of blue-sky research. But it was well managed at the time. It was an interesting place. And I went there because I just thought it would be interesting and it indeed was. I knew universities, this I didn't know. And this professor kind of persuaded me that it would be an interesting experience. They gave me a job, so I went there.
That was a very good experience, except once I went to Exxon, my area of work changed completely. I started working on some esoteric electronic systems called charge density waves. And although the inherent physics was like a liquid flowing through a random potential or a solid, if you like, imperfect solid moving through random potential,—it was happening in a solid-state material, something like niobium tri-selenide and so on.
So, I worked on that for quite a while, and then High-Tc happened. Like everyone else, I wanted to shoot my bullet at the High-Tc. And then, something rather sad happened. Everybody was working on High-Tc and I did my ultrasonic experiment in High-Tc. And I found that there was a temperature quite a bit above Tc where something weird is going on, something very important is going on measurement-wise. Tc was boring, but this was not boring, okay?
So, I wrote a paper pointing this out and I didn't know what to call it. So, I called it TS. And I didn't know what else to call it. Tc is already taken. Antiferromagnetic transition was also taken, Tn or whatever it was called. So, I put in TS. So, my boss asks me, "What does S stand for? I said, “Look, I have no idea. It could be spin. It could be structural. It could be anything,” because ultrasonics tells you something is going on, but it doesn't specify exactly what it is. So, the joke in the lab was it stood for my name. So, it became known as T-Shobo, okay? And endless leg-pulling was going on that nobody is talking about T-Shobo. Only you are talking about this TS. So, I said, I'm slave to my data. I just can't fake it. I mean, it's there. Look at it, look at my data, and watch me take data.
So, this TShobo went on for a while, and then I moved to NEC. One day my boss at Exxon calls me up, and he said, "Shobo, I have a question. Is T* is the same thing as T-Shobo?" By that time, there were other people had found by photoemission methods that something very special was going on at a temperature they called T* and that is known as this pseudo-gap temperature. So, he tells me, "Is TShobo T*?" I said, "Obviously." But for reasons I don't know, this TShobo, which came out in Physical Review Letters and Physics Review Rapids were forgotten.
And until many years later, someone from Harvard, I ran into him in TIFR, and talked about pseudo-gap. I told him, "I discovered the pseudo-gap phase." And he said, “Oh, many people have discovered pseudo-gap phase.” I said, "But I did." He said, "Prove it." So, I sent him my papers. And he wrote back saying “Yes, you discovered it,” But it's gone! So, it's one of those sad things. Again, some very interesting thing came my way. It was reported, but the sociology of physics was such that I didn't push it further. I couldn't get hold of good materials. But that's the time when I think I understood the value of good chemistry, which was beyond me till then.
Shobo, did you feel like you were operating in an academic environment? At Exxon, you were publishing in the same journals, presenting at the same conferences, freedom to pursue your own intellectual interests?
Yes. It was an academic environment, but we also did useful stuff. I at least did. I found it interesting to do useful stuff because sometimes, they would have a problem and they would come to you. This is another weird story that the day I joined, a phone call came to Aaron Bloch, my then boss that we heard that you hired a guy who knows ultrasonics. And he said, “Yes, he's in my office now.” They said, “We are sending a car for him to be brought to our refinery in Bayway because we discovered a huge flaw in our refinery machinery, and we have stopped production. We're losing a million dollars an hour. We need it to be fixed." I was terrified.
Here on my first day at job they want me to fix such a big problem! I have no idea. So, over the telephone, I said, "Where do you see the flaw?" They said, “Oh, it's in the pipe.” I said, "Is the pipe made out of the same thing? I mean, is it one material?" They said, “No, it's stainless steel and copper," or something? I said, "Are you seeing this flaw at the joint?" And they said, "Yes." And I said, "It is not a flaw. It's just a reflection of sound from two dissimilar materials. There is no flaw." Then the man says on the other side, "But it's a flaw detector." I said, "But it works on a principle—the reason you see a flaw is because sound reflects back from flaw. But if you have two different materials, they have different sound properties and things reflect back, some things transmit, so you don't have a flaw, you just have a joint." And the other person says, "Thank you," and hangs up.
So, my advisor says, "What happened? I said, "This is what happened. Because it's a flaw detector and they saw this signal, they decided it's a flaw. It's not a flaw. It's a joint. It's a weld actually.” And he said, “Oh, you earned your salary on your first day.” And I said, “Does it mean that they will call me from time to time to go to the refinery?” He said, "You will never hear of it." And he was right. We never heard of it. So, this is just a story.
But anyway, the point is that I certainly did useful stuff because it was actually a lot of fun. People give you a problem which is not an academic problem. You just don't know and sometimes this problem is given from two different arms of the company and both arms say it's the other arm’s fault. And then, they ask, “Can anybody here help us?” So, I said, “Yeah, I can try," and I did that. And it worked in one's favor and not in the other's. But I could do that, and I took great pleasure in it. I mean, I always loved doing that kind of stuff.
It's like Sherlock Holmes. You're given a puzzle you don't know. It's not your normal academic puzzle. As a physicist, this is a snobbish statement physicists make that part of doing physics is solving problems. And I think our discipline trains us to solve problems. I always liked those problems. So many of us actually did publish, but also did useful things. Some people did more useful things than publish material. Then, there are others who published more. I liked that environment. I really, really liked that environment, and we've been mentored very well. And I was too young to recognize that I was being mentored.
So, I would say that my taste in physics developed in that environment, that you could do the blue-sky research, and Exxon did, before anybody else, figure out about this greenhouse gas problem. And I think they realized at that time, at least it seems to me now in hindsight, if you ask David Pine, he will probably tell you the same thing. They realized that they needed to do something about it. And they were large enough a company to try many things.
But as with most research labs of that kind, it depends a lot on the leadership. When the leadership changed, and somehow this greenhouse gas issue was not in public view those days, some of us began to see that we will have problem doing blue-sky things. So, at that time, NEC of Japan was building a lab in Princeton and there were enough people at Bell Labs and Exxon and other places who around the same time began to feel a little uncomfortable about how the mix between basic and applied were changing and so on. So, they offered me a job and I just moved there. That's how it happened.
What were your motivations in terms of the new research that you might have wanted to pursue?
Okay. I went there. And actually, the work I started at Exxon, charged density waves and vortices in superconductors, I continued that there and these were electronics companies and they didn't worry about this. In fact, the President of NEC was a man named Dawon Kahng, the inventor of CMOS, one of the most amazingly brilliant persons I've ever met. And I went and I gave a talk on charged density waves and he absolutely loved it. On the spot, he said, "How soon can you join?" And I was through the door very early.
But I just don't know. I was so naive, I suppose, and I just didn't worry. It was near the university. I had lots of friends there. It's a new lab, an opportunity to build a lab. I was very young. I was about thirty-eight, and I was the fifth person through the door in physics. And we had some very well-known senior people already, one from MIT, one from Michigan State who used to be at University of Chicago. He hired me there, and then he hired me again at NEC. NEC, for a while, brought in people from Bell Labs and from Exxon, from nearby Bell Labs, both Murray Hill and Crawford Hill. It was a good fun place, and I got to build something from scratch, in a place which has just walls, nothing else. So, Stuart Solin and I just built the lab. It was new. It was uncertain.
I'm not so sure why the change of jobs didn't bother me. I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable at Exxon, to be quite honest, because my interest was moving—the basic physics hadn't changed, but the system looked like I'm doing solid-state physics. And even my soft-matter colleagues thought I was doing solid-state physics. Even they weren't very supportive of what I was doing. And if I invited someone to give a seminar, there will be three people in the room. That wasn't very good. I began to feel kind of out of place a little bit.
At NEC, we did some also applied stuff. We worked on ferroelectric memory, all kinds of other things. But we were allowed to publish just like Exxon. So, my official area of work was vortex phases in type-II superconductors and probably, my better-known stuff was from that period of time. If you go deep and ask what the physics is, it's not so different from what I did before, but it's just a different system. Like I said before, the vortices in superconductors, a piece of superconductor, the entire thing is a quantum object. There's a wave function. This chunk of niobium has a wave function. It's an amazing thing. And if you put a magnetic field on it, you will get exactly one flux quantum organized in a hexagonal lattice, and you can play some games. Think of these flux quanta as your particles which are interacting and they form solids, liquids, glasses. You can drive them and you can do dynamics in an extremely clean and controlled way which otherwise would be very difficult to do.
So, I, once again, got stuck on a problem that I thought was extremely interesting. And this is an old phenomenon called Peak Effect. For a while, my friends used to call me Mr. Peak Effect. So, some great people thought about this and kind of thought it wrong. Phil Anderson, I keep taking his name again and again, he wrote a book called Concepts in Solid State Physics. And he has a paragraph in it, and he describes Peak effect in superconductor as one of the most beautiful phenomena in all of solid-state physics. And the person who theoretically solved the basic problem was Brian Pippard in Cambridge. But I did a lot of work in it. So, people were looking at High-Tc superconductors, they were looking at melting of flux line lattice. What I found is that most of the time before it melts, it tears, okay? So the lattice, because it's being driven—a friend of mine called it a ‘’yogi on a bed of nails model’’ that if you pull the yogi over a bed of nails, it scratches him - if you pull this lattice of vortices above the random potential, it actually breaks up into pieces. The keyword is that soft things get stuck more.
To give you an idea, if I give you an ice cube and you put it on your table, and if I give you a piece of Jell-O, what is Jell-O? Jell-O is all water and some polymer, right? Which one will be stuck more? It's the Jell-O because it deforms to the contours of the rough potential that it sees, okay? The solid being a stiff solid ignores the potential, okay? So solid will just slip away, okay, and the Jell-O, you will have to put enormous force on it. So soft things get stuck more is at the heart of this problem. So, this is a slogan, but there is lot of very pretty physics in it. And I kind of got hooked on that problem. So again, what I did at Magnet lab and what I did here—I mean to be quite honest with you, I mean, it's because of this conversation that I am rethinking and finding that unknowingly, I'm drawn to certain kinds of problems. So yeah, at the time, I hadn't thought about where I would live. I was very happy working there, and I had not thought of returning to India. Occasionally, I'd come home to visit my dad and institutions.
Then, I took a sabbatical from NEC and I wanted to go to a place which was English-speaking. I knew four languages, but other than English, nothing was useful in any place else. So, the choice was Cambridge, England or Tata Institute in India. So, I said, "Ah, I'll try. I came from India. I'll go to Tata Institute." I visited them one time and people there were very interested in what I was doing. So, I spent a sabbatical there. And once again, I wish I went there for physics, and I did some physics with people there. But the city of Bombay is great for classical music. And so, I had a great time listening to classical music, concerts, and so on. I loved that here. And then, the notion of—India is a place to go for long periods of time came to my mind. They offered me a position. And I was married at the time, and we had a two-body issue, and the timing was not right. And I just didn't take the offer, but I became an adjunct faculty. I spent three months a year there. NEC allowed me to do that. So, I would spend three winter months in Bombay and maybe one month during the monsoon when the temperatures are better.
Was that meaningful for you to be able to go back even for shorter periods of time?
Yeah, it was interesting. But I grew up in Calcutta and this is Bombay. India is a diverse enough place that from the top to the bottom, it probably spans Norway to Spain, maybe more than that.
So, you weren't necessarily going home. It was sufficiently different.
It was sufficiently different, but it was also sufficiently the same. So, I wasn't exactly going home, but Tata Institute is a great institution. So, it is great fun, very good scientists were there. In mathematics, it was—it probably still is, I mean, at one time, it was probably one of the best places in mathematics in the whole world.
Yeah. Shobo, for our American readers, what institute would you liken it to in the United States? The Institute for Advanced Study, would that be a fair analogue?
For the theory part, yes, but not the rest of it. Because the School of mathematics is so famous, people normally make that connection, but most people are not mathematicians, although they had a very large group. They had forty faculty members in mathematics. It is a strange group because they took very few students. They only took geniuses as students. But it was a very good group. Theoretical physics is also very strong, but I would say that the Institute of Advanced Study does not have any experimental component there and Institute of Advanced Study also has other things. There are historians there from the humanities, social science people, that's absent in TIFR. But it's close. I mean, if you take a little bit of Princeton University and Institute of Advanced Study together, then you will get the full picture. But their reputation in the world is based on mathematics and theoretical physics largely. The biology was very good, but they have now mostly moved out to Bangalore. It is called the National Center for Biological Sciences because the place in Bombay was just too small to grow. So, they moved to Bangalore. There is a center on radio astronomy. So, they have centers all over the country, but the headquarters is in Bombay, right on the Arabian Sea. You get great sunsets. It's beautiful. It's gorgeous, yes.
Did that plant the seed that perhaps you would spend the next stage of your career back home in India?
No, this whole business of them offering me the directorship was not something I anticipated.
Shobo, what was your administrative experience up until this point? How much of a learning curve would you need stepping into this role?
Not just in terms of administrative. It's just administrative in a different culture. I mean, although TIFR is quite cosmopolitan, this is a joke, when I was joining TIFR, one of my colleagues said, “Oh, what they say about TIFR is, it's a nice place and it's within walking distance of India." And the joke meant that, once you walk into TIFR, you are not in India. You are somewhere else. So, it has its good sides and not so good sides. The good side is that it has phenomenal infrastructure by any standard. It had very good people, but it has this unreal feel that a couple of miles from there, you are in the city of Bombay, and all that exists in the city of Bombay.
But I didn't expect them to offer me the directorship. It's a very complicated story. But once they did, I was stuck because I felt that if I took it, it would be very difficult. But if I didn't, I will regret all my life, and this is one time it wasn't passivity. It was an active decision that I went there because if you grew up in India as a science student, TIFR is the dream location. It is the most eminent place. It's a very lovely place. It is shielded from the unpleasant realities in many ways. I tell my friends that it is a good place to thermalize with India that you want to be part of India when you want to or not part of India when you don't want to, you can retreat. I absolutely did not think they were serious when they asked me. So, there was a lot of background story in it.
Shobo, obviously, it was not your administrative experience that they were after. So, what was your sense of what might have been attractive about your research or your perspective or your scholarly contacts that might have made them serious about this offer?
Okay. So, I was interviewed by the Search Committee, and it was clear, they wanted to know how much of the running of NEC I knew. And at NEC, I knew a lot, because it was a small place, and we built it. So, I had the building experience. They also wanted somebody from the outside. And because I used to visit them three months a year, they had gotten enough response from people that I assume was positive. My interview with the group was very interesting. If the interview didn't go the way it went, I probably would not have taken the job, even if they offered it to me. I found the people who were the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a very senior scientist, and Mr. Tata, who was the chairman of the board, the industrialist, Mr. Tata. The questions were not, "Can you sign files?" The questions were more like, "What do you know of your place? What do you think is—how it runs?" This and that, and they made sure I understood how our place ran. Then they wanted fresh blood, fresh ideas, I think. It turned out to be much more difficult to get fresh ideas, but I had a very good idea of what TIFR needed, how TIFR needed to change. It was very good, but it hasn't kept up with the times. And many things were frozen in time which needed to change. I told them so.
So yeah, administration wasn't difficult. Socialization was. If you look at the raw bit of administration, it's not hard. It's a large organization. It has many parts. But it's well organized in the sense that the director doesn't have to do everything. But it needed new ideas. It needed new reorientation and so on. So, my feeling was that there was just no way for someone like me to say no to them. I felt they were wise people and if they felt in their wisdom, they're giving it to me, I'm willing to take a chance. Don't doubt it. It didn't quite work out the way I expected. I did one term, and I told them that it just isn't my cup of tea. If making the changes were easier, I would have stayed. But making the changes were difficult. It was resisted. It had inertia. Good places develop a kind of arrogance that nothing needs change, and I felt TIFR had developed a kind of self-satisfied view, and they were not keeping up with the times. A lot of things needed change. New academic initiative needed to happen. It's a physics and maths place, but how biology will become a very central thing was not appreciated. They had a very good biology group, it moved out. But they should have stayed because together, they could do amazing things. So, the biology group that moved out to Bangalore is beginning to look much more like the TIFR I would have liked to see. But they haven't gotten mathematics.
But again, TIFR had a notion of basic mathematics versus applied mathematics which I didn't see was useful. So, the applied mathematics people moved out again to Bangalore, and it was called Center for Applicable Mathematics. And someone asked me, "Why is it called applicable?" And I said, “Oh, because it is applicable, heaven forbid we should ever apply it.” Because there was this notion that applicable mathematics was like a tier below. These are things that didn't sit well with me, these kinds of difficulties. But I enjoyed my time afterwards. I went back to the bench, became a bench scientist. I recruited a very bright young man. We created a soft-matter group. By that time, I knew what I wanted to do. This young man was the driving force and I kind of mentored younger people that came in. So, I spent some more time, but I used to visit NYU often, and I spent a whole year in Cambridge. I made a deal with TIFR that when I'm tired of being the director, I want a long sabbatical, and they agreed to it. And I went to University of Cambridge, to Trinity College. One of my good buddies from Bell Labs, Peter Littlewood, he was the Director of Cavendish. When we met once, he said, "Shobo, what happened to us? Here, you are directing TIFR. Here, I am directing Cavendish. Did we ever think we'll do anything like this?" And I said, “Yeah, I mean, what can you say?” So, we made a deal. He said when you will need shelter, I'll give you one. When I need shelter, you'll give me one. I said, "Sure." So, when I needed a shelter, he said, “Come to Cambridge.” So, I went to Cambridge. That was very nice also, the whole year in Cambridge.
But then while leaving TIFR a very interesting thing came up which I ended up doing which I didn't think I would do. Again, there were plans made for me to move to IIT Bombay. It's one of these IIT’s in India, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, it's a very good place. But there was a new university called Ashoka, being set up near Delhi. It's a typical liberal arts place but it didn't have any science. So, they approached me. They said, "Would you mind trying? Would you come to us to build the sciences here?" And up until then, I never taught undergraduates. And someone who knows me well once said that, "You are ticking boxes. Everything that you haven't done, you now want to do." But I went to this university and I set up their sciences, and it was very nice. I loved teaching undergraduates.
At that stage, I had a regret that instead of going to Exxon, I didn't go to a university because I had no idea, I would love teaching as much as I did, particularly undergraduates and particularly large classes, where people were mostly not physics majors, so that was great. Moreover, I went through a very bad lab experience as a student in India. Our undergraduate labs were very bad. Very bad. They were from the British times. Taught you nothing about experimental physics. So, I had a colleague who was a brilliant teacher. I mean, he had everything that I didn't. I probably had everything that he didn't. And two of us sat together and put together a curriculum, not like any place in India, not like any place in the US either, a completely different kind of curriculum, and we wanted to set up the labs. And what helped is- you know there is something called Academic Olympiad?
Yeah. So TIFR has an education arm in the city of Bombay. That's where I consolidated all our academic Olympiad activity. So, if you go to the Physics Olympiad, you have to answer questions, but you also have to do an experiment. And each country which hosts the Olympiad must provide that experiment. And every country that participates goes home with their copy of the experiment. And so, I knew about all of this. I had seen those. So, I asked them to help me, and they showed me a bunch of those Olympiad experiments. And once you see them, you get the idea of how to put together a really classy lab. So, then we put together a lab. For example, we called the first two courses Gateway Courses. One was called mathematical and computational toolkit and the other one was called physics in the laboratory.
Then, the usual undergraduate thing happened. But it's the first lab that I think caught everyone by surprise. The students could not believe that a lab could be so interesting. We as undergrads used to run away from the lab as soon as the lab hours were over, and these kids would beg us to let them stay till midnight to work in the lab because it was so much fun. And that was great. If you ask me, what was the most gratifying thing I had done? I would say putting that lab together.
Just the enjoyment of it, or are you thinking retrospectively and the kind of research that can result from this?
The pedagogic aspect, you mean?
I had not realized that I like pedagogy, that experiments are a way to introduce Physics—historically also, physics is very largely experimental. Just as there was Newton, there was also Galileo. Just as there was Maxwell, there was also Faraday, right? So, physics always had an experimental component which was the very key, and in India, that was missing. It is the experiment which you play with and you learn from it. There is no hard and fast rule you just do this, you do that, and so on. It's a fun experiment. I mean, many of them were—some of them, we got from the Olympiad, but they were modified so that the students could explore the experiment, rather than—they were given things to do. They were given an outline of what they were supposed to do, but they could play with it. And so, all our labs were very good. That Olympiad experiments were the key. The host country puts in an enormous amount of effort in creating that lab part of the Olympiad, but once you see it as a physicist, you just get the hang of what it is that they're trying to do and what is missing in the conventional lab at least in the Indian context, The Ashoka University is a liberal arts university, it's not MIT. MIT kids are an entirely different breed from people we get in Ashoka. So, MIT students can deal with a physics undergraduate lab, I think. I am not sure, but I think. They are far more advanced in their knowledge of things. But in the labs, I put together in Ashoka, I say I, it is mostly I, but with help from others, was very gratifying.
Again, it was a surprise. I would say that I had not understood how much I like teaching—my friends were surprised that I didn't know that. They thought that I paid attention to how I communicated things. But communicating physics to physics majors is one thing. Communicating physics to people who are literature major or philosophy major or history major is quite another thing. And getting it to them in a way that is more interesting was a challenge, and in the process, I learned a lot. I'll give you one example. Lots of people really liked esoteric stuff. So if you tell a class dark matter, their eyes will light up. They don't quite know what dark matter is. The fact they don't quite know makes them think it's really classy and this is true all over the world. I told them that do you how Neptune was discovered? And they said, "No." I said, "Well, here's what happened."
Two scientists, one in France, one in Germany, I'm not sure where, two different countries in Europe, astronomers realized that Uranus has some weird trajectory. It didn't quite work with Newton and Kepler, okay? Now, they could have thrown them out of the window. Instead, they worked out the reverse problem of what must be where in order for Uranus to follow Newton's laws, okay? And then, they asked their astronomer friends to look in the sky in that direction and there Neptune was sitting there, right mass, right place. And that's the first dark matter, I suppose, in history that was then no longer dark.
So, I see the smile on your face, right?
I've never thought about it that way. That's a very unique perspective.
It's curious, because the principle by which you know there is dark matter is exactly the same that it's this business that look, it's not working with Newton, with the visible matter. So, there must be missing matter somewhere, so in some sense. I mean, the principle is the same, but nobody tells you that Neptune is the first dark matter that ever really came to light. It was dark because nobody looked there or the telescopes were not good enough, whatever.
I mean, I don't know. But two guys in two different places said Newton had been so right, so long, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's just assume that we don't know there is something there. What would it be and where would it be? How massive has it got to be and approximately, where it should be? And there it was. So, stories like this, —I knew there was something about Neptune, but I never thought of it as dark matter. But why not? I mean, it was dark matter until it was not dark. I quite liked learning this stuff this way that you could take something esoteric and bring it to your perceptions, in a visceral level, you could see it.
Perhaps that's my personality, I don't know, but teaching that class was extremely interesting because many things I could see. I mean, some people have trouble with math, right? One of the great problems of teaching physics to many people is this fear of math, if you write down an equation, their faces just shut down, and that is a problem. So that happened in my class, but one wanted to try and get around it in such a way that you could still show them that science is part of culture.
Commonly, however, we do not think of science as part of culture. Arts are much more part of culture. Painting is, music is, literature is, history, philosophy, all of this is part of culture. Why is science not part of culture? Now, you might disagree with me. You might say, "No, no science is part of culture," but I think that by and large, science, because of its success, because of the fact that much of it requires some amount of comfort level with mathematics, some aspect of it is a little, the word may be objective, does not quite have the warmth of your own emotion getting involved, science in society somehow does not enjoy the same stature as culture does, okay?
On the other hand, it's thought to be very useful. It is thought to be so—I mean, today people are saying, "What are you guys scientists not doing? Why don't you have the vaccine ready in two weeks for the pandemic?" I mean, so that sort of thing happens. Everybody has a smartphone. So, they're using science every day. But somehow, it doesn't get into the soul of the majority of people who are not scientists or science enthusiasts. At least in India, this is very true. In America, I don't want to say anything about America because my America are bubbles, academic bubble, university bubble, research institute bubble. So, I cannot make any general statement. But I would say that the West perhaps has gotten more comfortable with science, but it still does not afford it that sense of culture. The scientific culture is somehow reserved only for people who practice it. Scientists are kind of nerds. They don't have a good sense of humor. They don't know any poetry, all kinds of stereotypes.
And I think at Ashoka University, I felt more strongly that if our curricula were different, if our teaching were different, science could become a part of culture. I do science not because somebody has put a gun to my head. I am unusual in the sense that I did not begin by being a science freak. But for mathematics, for example, lots of people agree that there is some deep connection between mathematics and music It's common all over the world that mathematicians love music, and there is this quality of mathematics whose beauty is sometimes given the stature of art, if you like. So, it is in The Two Cultures, the famous essay that C.P. Snow wrote. I did a program with two different people, a historian at University of Chicago and a physicist at the University of Chicago, Sid Nagel, in fact. We did the Chicago dialogues where I queried about what Sid does now and he talked about what he does now. And he's very interested in art, architecture, but his physics I think, is very strongly informed by aesthetics or his aesthetic sense of art, which he can combine effortlessly with his physics. He's one of the rare breeds in that sense.
But more generally, I think science and humanities and art, I think, more should be coupled through the notion of culture. There was an Indian astrophysicist named Saha who had done some very great work. Saha ionization equation is named after him. If he lived long enough, he would have been the first astrophysics Nobel Prize winner, without any doubt. He actually figured out how to do spectroscopy of stars to figure out what's in there. So, this is using quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics together to do something. What are the stars made out of? A great piece of work. He created a magazine called Science and Culture, which runs even today but very few people even bother to read it. I strongly feel science should be in our culture. I think it is, in parts, but it should be much more, and partly, we are responsible for not doing enough.
The conversation I'm having with you today, there should be many more, and you are obviously doing many more. But when Sid and I spoke, the people who were arranging it, they said, 12,000, people were listening to us. It's mind-blowing that 12,000 people could be listening to this. I guess they turned it on and then got interested enough looking at these great pictures of Sid’s experiments, and they liked the conversation, perhaps, 12,000 people did. So, I think more of that sort of thing should happen. And this is what I got from my Ashoka University experience, the only time I engaged with undergraduates, I engaged with people who are not physics majors only, people coming from different disciplines and I tried to communicate to them a sense of aesthetics. I give examples. One example, I thought went well, I'm just giving you things, examples that I thought went well.
Gravitation is my favorite thing. So, I told them that you know about tides. You also know that the most important thing for our planet is the sun. Everything happens because of the sun. So how is it that the moon which is such a small thing has such a disproportionately large effect on the tides, okay? So, what is it? And I don't tell them the answer. The next day, they can look it up in Google in less than fraction of a second, the tidal forces and so on so forth. Okay, sure, the sun is very far away, but it's also extremely massive, and moon is tiny, but it's nearby. So, the gradient of the effect of moon is larger than the gradient of the effect of the sun and basically, the water will follow the equipotential, and therefore, it will rise and fall much more not because of the actual potential, but because of its spatial gradient.
Now, if I use the word gradient, you will turn a huge number of people off. So, I have to tell them some story. I say, "Okay, if you meet an old friend, and you go have a beer together, okay, in India, that's not appropriate, you say something else, that you do that, you meet an old friend or had done something unusual, you remember that. But if I asked you what you had for breakfast yesterday, you can't tell me because the thing that does not change is not so important. What is important is what changes and it is memorable because it's happening on a much shorter period of time. Things that happened on a long period of time like the day, night is long, the seasons are long, all of that is happening because Earth rotates, it goes around the sun, those are long-term things, but something that happens over a short period of time and has a larger change is more important.
I don't exactly remember what I said. But this is the kind of rethink that I need to do as a physicist to try to get them to understand, basically fluctuations. But if I start by saying, “Oh, gradient forces, fluctuation, this, that, and the other," nothing goes through. Then you have to do all of this: what makes your day memorable, those kinds of things. I don't know that I communicated all of it to them, but they liked it a lot. They liked the idea that something that's nearby has a larger impact on how things change rather than something which has a much stronger force which doesn't change much. And fluctuations is just such an important part of physics that you would like them to get some sense of fluctuations, changes, and timescales over which these fluctuations happen, length scales over which these fluctuations happen. It's not so easy for those of us who have spent all our time dealing with Ph.D. students who know all that stuff. It's not so easy to tell young people who are already not predisposed to such things to get this. I taught it twice, and I think the second time was very much better than the first time.
Shobo, what was it like when you were named a distinguished university professor in honor of both? Was that meaningful for you?
Yes, very much so. Very much so.
In what way?
Because JC Bose, this is the other Bose, not the Bose-Einstein Bose.
Okay? I'm an experimenter, and JC Bose was an experimenter. We have some family connection with his, and I actually followed up on his work. By the way, if you enter the TIFR housing complex, which is across the street from TIFR, the first house, building you see on the right is named after that grammarian, Panini, okay, and the left side is named after this Bose, JC Bose. His name is Jagadish. So, to distinguish him from the SN Bose of Bose statistics, we are using first names. I have to say that somewhat emotionally, it meant a lot to me.
I felt that in India, the culture of experimental physics is not so well developed, and there is also this problem of head versus hands as if hands are controlled by something else other than your head. So, it's part of our caste system, that generationally people did the same thing. And people who taught, as opposed to people who did belong to different castes. You might say that it's a bee in my bonnet that this notion persists even though he was an incredible physicist. He was the first person to send millimeter wave from one place to another. Very soon thereafter, so did Nikola Tesla. They knew each other. He, J.C Bose was a student of Lord Rayleigh at Cambridge. Then, he came back to India. He taught in the same college where I studied, and he was a genius in measurement stuff. I think of him in the same vein as my thesis advisor. He was just a virtuoso.
Wireless transmission is not a trivial thing. After Hertz, lots of people were thinking about it. And he, sitting in Calcutta, where there isn't a single other physicist, he was able to do this. Then, he did some other stuff and he made instruments to measure responses of plants if you prick them that the sensation goes through the leaf. He had made instruments which could measure that. I think on the one hand he was probably one of the finest experimentalists who lived during his time.
On the other hand, had he not come back to India and stayed in Cambridge, he today would have had the stature of a Rutherford or a Thompson or a Faraday. When he came back, he didn't have anyone to talk to. When he wrote, he did not have the language, the terminology. You were talking about terminology and how important they are. He did not have the terminology to explain his observations. So he said, “Oh, plants have feelings. They become happy or sad.” Those were not the right terminology at that time. Whether the signal went up or down didn't mean it's happy or sad. It just meant it sensed it. Sitting in Cavendish, he wouldn't have said that. His community would have prevented him from doing that. They would have instructed him. He had nobody to talk to. So, he's one of my heroes. I think what he produced is unbelievable stuff. His instruments are just marvel.
When I joined Presidency College, my alma mater, the head of the department was an astronomer, astrophysicist. He said, "Although you are the JC Bose professor, I'm not going to give you JC Bose’s office. That's mine." So, he gave me Mahalanobis's office who founded the Indian Statistical Institute, a great statistician. He gave me his office, but he didn't give me JC Bose’s office. But there are plaques of JC Bose. IEEE recognized after many years, because Marconi, who won the Nobel Prize came in later because JC Bose didn't believe in patenting anything, so he didn't patent his stuff and neither did Tesla, but—I think Tesla had lots of patents. How Tesla failed to make a patent, I don't know. But Tesla and Bose knew each other, and Bose visited Tesla and so on. Marconi patented it, and he got the Nobel Prize.
Whether you believe it or not, one doesn't know, but Jagadish Bose was a quite bit of an anti-imperialist. And some historians think that at that time, the British Empire could prevent a Nobel Prize. Maybe that was the reason, but that's just idle speculation. One doesn't know. But that he didn't get it, doesn't diminish him. His work is just an outstanding class of work as an experimentalist. So, yeah, so when I got the JC Bose chair, I felt very good. My dad would have been very happy.
Yeah, I was thinking that.
My dad would have been very, very happy.
Shobo, what were your next considerations, looking to 2015, 2016? What opportunities were available to you at that point?
I could have moved to—instead of going to Ashoka University to start this, I could have moved to one of the IITs and Bombay IIT is nearby. It's one of the finest IITs. So let me just say that around 2008 when I was stepping down from the directorship, the word got around. And several places offered me a position including a very eminent US university, but a couple of new things were happening in the Middle East, okay? They asked me to be president of one of those places, for example, the ones in Middle East. The US thing was a professorship. Maybe that too was a chair. I'm not really sure. I think it was a chair.
Middle East offers were intriguing. I said that I wasn't interested. They were headhunters from Washington DC, and they didn't really understand the politics or relationships between people in the subcontinent versus Middle East and how with India is a democracy, take all its flaws, but it still is a democracy. And they said you didn't even want to find out what the salary is. I said, "I don't want to find out the salaries." They were very surprised. Then, the man calls back and says, "Women will not have to wear burqas within the campus. Is that your problem?" I said, "That they don't have to wear burqas in the campus is a fine thing, but that they have to wear them outside is a problem."
But again, it didn't attract me quite honestly. So, there were choices. What happens is once you get marked as director of a major institution, and everybody is looking for someone in that position because there are many such positions available. And so in fact, choices become large. But I had felt at that time that I had missed out on lab benchwork for a couple of years, and I needed to prove to myself that I could still do some physics in some sense, that I could go back. It was very difficult to be the director and engage really in physics. Your brain space just wasn't there. It just didn't have the bandwidth, and I was not disciplined enough to manage. So, I had many options after I stepped down from the TIFR, and when I retired from TIFR, there were many options. Ashoka seemed like a unique thing. It's like a box I had not ticked. I could have done a similar thing, but I felt like—like what I'm doing now.
It's a unique thing.
What was new about it for you, Shobo?
For what I'm doing now?
No. For Ashoka.
Oh, Ashoka because the people seemed very, very serious. They were building a serious liberal arts university. They were trying to get great faculty. It's an expensive place. It's more like a US model. Because it's private, it doesn't get money from the government to run itself. And the fact that I was getting an opportunity to create an undergraduate education framework with a fair bit of freedom and autonomy, and so that appealed to me, to be quite honest because I had never done anything like that.
Shobo, did you see this current opportunity at TCG CREST as a unique place to continue with your pedagogical interests at this point?
Okay, so what happened is this that for health reasons, I was finding it very difficult to manage there because Ashoka, the campus is very nice, but it is in the middle of nowhere. They say it's near Delhi, but it's not in Delhi. It's quite a bit far from Delhi, and there is nothing to do besides.
And you're a city boy. You've always been in a city.
I'm a city boy. I found it very hard. So, every weekend, I would go to Delhi. I have a favorite hotel I like to stay in. So, I used to stay there, or the other weekend, I'll come to Calcutta to spend a couple of days. But Delhi, as a city, I never found it culturally attractive compared to—Bombay and Calcutta. Delhi didn't appeal to me. The campus is fine, but there is some more unreality about the campus. You are going from rural Haryana into a place which is more like America.
Again, a bit like TIFR, but much more so that the walls are more than just brick-and-mortar walls. The walls are very deep walls that can hardly be crossed. The undergraduate college I went to, it's in the heart of the city. It flows out into the city and the city flows into the college. If you go to places—think of Harvard Square, okay? Harvard falls out into Harvard Square and Harvard Square falls into Harvard. So does Columbia in its way—and I'm a city person. Completely, So the part about Ashoka that I found difficult is my health problem. I'm diabetic, and I had one very bad case of hypoglycemia. And although I survived, but it could have been fatal. So, I needed to have more medical infrastructure very close by. But also, I was having—teaching classes, great. Kids, wonderful, all of that was very good.
And you're also named after a very special person there, Raman.
That's correct. That is correct. Yeah. And I think they knew that that would be an added bonus. So, Raman and Bose were the two great experimentalists of India, without a doubt. Again, in Raman’s case, he got lucky. He got the prize, Raman too gave us a phenomenal experiment. In fact, if you read the discovery, it reads like a thriller.
How they actually managed to figure out and this is so great because I know he did it in Calcutta. He was in Calcutta at the time and I know where it was and I know that street. Across from where he did this work, they sell cottage cheese. That entire area is selling cottage cheese. In 1928, I can imagine that street. And he'd sit there, and he would do something that gets you a Nobel Prize two years before Heisenberg and he was so sure that he bought his ticket for Stockholm just so he would be able to get there in time. He was so sure that he was getting it. The final nail in the coffin that, if you like, that classical mechanics has nothing to do with what he was seeing, and impossible without quantum mechanics.
I mean, his assistant who perhaps should have also gotten the prize, Krishnan, who also became a great physicist, he kept diaries. And if you read the diary, day by day, they're making progress. On the final day of the discovery, Krishnan stays home because of some religious thing and Raman is there and he makes the discovery. So, there is some controversy about it. And he telegraphs his paper to Nature. Nature, yes, to Nature. The way you get there is fantastic and under those circumstances. There is nothing around. This is British India. Where he worked, nobody ever entered before. 1876 is when this place was founded. Until he walked in around 1910 or 1914, nobody worked there. He worked in the accounting service of Government of British India and he saw this plaque and he said, "Ah, can I work here?" They said, “Oh, yes, please.” So before work and after work, he would go there and work. He was always interested in spectroscopy, but he did many other things. But he was also a quirky person. We often think great physicists also have to be a wonderful, charming person. He wasn't. He was a bit of a quirky person. But yeah, these are the great heroes of experimental physics.
Shobo, did you build up a group at Ashoka?
I didn't build a group. I built a physics department. Also helped build the biology department. We also did something which I think in hindsight, was a good thing to do. But this, I did. I told the trustees that this is how we are going to do it, and they were a little surprised that I said to them that I will do the physics and biology first. And depending on how that grows, then I'll recruit in chemistry. Because again, I mean this is another thing that I feel is that we say these words, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, all of this. The implication is that disciplines have been defined once and for all, and what we are doing is combining these disciplines.
But another way of thinking about it is that the disciplines are now porous walls or moveable walls, moving walls and especially what you call chemistry. A colleague of mine at TIFR pointed this out to me that a sizeable fraction of chemistry Nobel Prize winners over the last 30, 40 years do not work in the chemistry department. They're either in biology department or they're in physics department, mostly in the biology department. But chemistry is kind of the central thing.
So okay, here is another imagery. The imagery is that one way you can think of it is what I call the fundamentalist’s imagery and that you'll start from quarks and gluons and you build it up, okay? So that's one way. That's the vertical imagery. But you can also think of a horizontal imagery. And the horizontal imagery is, there is a center. Now, I'm saying 2D. You think of a center, okay? And from the center, there are things which go radially outwards.
So, I kind of feel that chemistry is this very mushy center. And this is my Exxon experience, I have to tell you, that I had no appreciation till then about how central chemistry is to science. I mean, you can do it well. You can do it poorly. Imaginative chemists think differently from physicists. Really, they think differently. I came to completely believe that, and physicists don't know that way of thinking. Again, Anderson's “More is Different” kind of captures a bit of these ideas, he also thought horizontally, and I quite like that. So, what I said at that time is that I will try and build physics. I'll try and build biology. Although I'm not a biologist, I know enough biologists to know whom to ask. I will also help you get some good mathematicians. And once that beginning takes shape, and then I will start with getting the chemistry people whom you will call because you still have to give degrees. You have to obey certain university Grants Commission in India, other entities which say that you can give a degree that you have to satisfy their requirement, not necessarily the intellectual requirement of the curriculum.
So, in that sense, if I went to IIT, they have everything set. My being there and not being there wouldn't have made much difference to them, but Ashoka, I could have tried a new model. If the model worked, perhaps it could be special. One way to think about this is that India is an extremely diverse country. It's much more diverse than all of Europe by a long shot, okay? People have different histories; they have different politics. The state of Kerala, I don't think, were part of any empire before the British came.
If you think of the state of Assam in the northeast, they historically belong more to Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, their history is very different from the central part of India, okay? Yet, when India was under an empire, the empire as a colony, it was run for the benefit of the empire administratively. But you might ask that if it is an independent country, should it also run for the benefit of a central authority which may look Indian, but in spirit, also colonial? And there is good reason to worry that a central federalist system should be imposed on a country quite that diverse, okay? And that is true also with education, so we have a monolithic structure imposed. And by and large, one institution is stronger than another, that I know, but structurally, they're the same. I sometimes feel, again, I'm just giving you my thought is that in Ashoka, we tried a different model. I only had to build the sciences, but I also tried, and to some extent, perhaps succeeded, in getting my humanities and social science colleagues to realize that we are not just some departments that the university requires, that we are organically connected to the milieu. So, this was an experiment—and time is the only judge of how we did.
But I think—what I tried to do is not a group, but I had kind of a strong feeling about research-wise when I'm recruiting a person, it's very important that the person takes teaching seriously. In India, there is this problem that if I'm a researcher, then don't ask me if I teach well and even within Ivy League, I think there's a difference. Harvard and Princeton are quite different in that way. Harvard and Yale are quite different that way. So you have to be interested in teaching. But if you do not do any research at all, then you better be a spectacular teacher. And if you don't want to teach at all, then you better be Einstein. You know what I mean? It's like that.
But we would like to create a harmonious middle where people will think of bringing new knowledge into classroom and have the classroom—it is something there is about teaching, this I realized, that young people do something to you. Just because they don't know enough not to ask strange questions, and I think that ingredient has to be there. And that’s why I'm saying that I'm a little regretful that I did not engage with undergraduates when I was younger.
Although you certainly made up for and you did the best you could.
Yeah, I did what I could when the opportunity came. That's one of the reasons I felt like I wanted to go to a place which was starting out as an undergraduate mostly. Now, there is, of course, a Ph.D. program in physics and so forth, but I didn't build a group. I picked individuals, if you'd like, keeping in mind their interest also. So, for example, in India, again, you try to create an environment where people can sustain one another, although increasingly it is less and less needed with internet and with other things. But having coffee together, discussing stuff is very nice. So, you would like to have people who are interactive, not just with students, but with each other, and not so completely deep into their little world that they are not willing to talk.
Shobo, did you take this position at TCG CREST having the sense that it would be the capstone position for your career?
I didn't think of that, honestly. See, Dr. Purnendu Chatterjee, of the Chatterjee group, who gave me this opportunity, he and I have been friends for twenty years. He is academically one year ahead of me, but he lived in Bombay, part of the time, and we were neighbors in Bombay for a long period of time. When I was in TIFR, I had a place in New York where I lived in Manhattan, he was a neighbor there. So, I've known him for a very long time, and we've been thinking about it. This has been very much in his mind to create a research institute which will be different, which will be both a research institute and connected very closely to society at large
So, if you like, I don't think when I look back, I don't know what would be or—if there would ever be, a capstone, I kind of feel more like a drifter. I went from one thing to another, but this one is a new model. I saw the usefulness of a university or a research center like Tata Institute. I also saw the usefulness of corporate research, like at Exxon or NEC or Bell Labs or DuPont, or all these great labs that existed. I mean, some of them are still great, but perhaps not as great as they once used to be, but yeah, changes have happened. So are the two groups so different that you cannot create a hybrid?
I'm trying to express thoughts that I had. I'm basically just thinking aloud with you here what I felt. He is a businessman, a very successful one. He has many profit-making enterprises which are also research-driven, technology-driven, and so on. So could we take the best of an academic environment and build it with the technology-based for-profit, if you like, embed it in it so that it never goes off reality. It stays connected to what matters. This translational part of this current project is as important as the quality of research we do. We have no undergraduates yet, okay? We just don't have the bandwidth to create an undergraduate program. Maybe in ten, fifteen years, it will evolve into a full-fledged university. Right now, it's more like TIFR as the academic structure. It is not for-profit, but it is linked to where corporate—if you like, business actually is where people are using technology to make products or bring service or do stuff that's good for mankind, which is a big word.
So, I think this is a hybrid model and nothing like that exists here. So to give you an example, AT&T Bell Labs, right, it's probably true that AT&T sacrificed its transistor patent in order to remain unbroken. There were anti-trust problems. AT&T was a regulated monopoly. And many times, the government felt that the regulated monopoly was not good, okay? And AT&T was going to be broken up many times and myth has it that at one time they bargained by saying, “We will not patent the transistor.” So, transistor was not patented. I don't think CMOS was patented. And every time they did something, which is of unbelievable impact on society, on technology, and so on, they gave the patent up in order to remain intact. But eventually, it had to break up into Lucent and AT&T , and then other things happened and so on. But this academic environment, at least in the sciences and the industrial corporate research environment together, if you could somehow bring them together—if for example, Bell Labs was also getting PhDs, although lots of people got their Ph.D. at Bell Labs, but their official advisors were at Princeton or Harvard or whatever.
Tom Rosenbaum would be a classic example of it.
Yeah. Oh, you know Tom? Okay, great. He is a good friend. Okay. I didn't even know who Tom's thesis advisor was. Gordon Thomas was his real advisor.
How do you know Tom?
Well, I interviewed him and I actually—
Oh, oh, okay, of course. Okay. Tom joined Chicago the year I left for Exxon. So, Tom joined University of Chicago, maybe six months after I went to Exxon. Yeah, so I know him from that time. So, Tom is now a great example of what I was saying I mean, that's another strength of the United States which I think is lacking in many other places is the circulation of people.
So, when I was thinking about what to tell you about my career, I would say that I'm one who cannot keep a job. I mean, I had like 6, 7 jobs. It's not common. But if you move it's also true that every move gives you an opportunity to have a new birth, start something new. So mobility, too quickly, from one place to another is probably, it's a rolling stone, it gathers no moss, but too long in one place in general, probably isn't good. I mean, there are plenty of counterexamples, people who have stayed in one place and have done spectacularly well.
But moving physically, getting from one institution to another, I'll borrow something from our great hero, Feynman. So, he calls it the restoring force, and I love this in one of the Nova Programs where he was describing it. He was talking about science versus religion debate, and he said he didn't want to get into that debate. And being Feynman, he couldn't resist, right? So, he had to say something. So, he was talking about restoring force. So, he says, science is like being in the bottom of a well and what happens is that you come to some conclusion. But it's only a speculation. You don't know if this is true. So, the first thing you want to do is prove yourself wrong. So, you try to move away from the bottom of the well. But there is a restoring force and it brings you back. Then, you try another way to prove it wrong. Again, it brings you back to the bottom. And when you are completely exhausted trying to get away from it, then you have a feeling that you have found something new.
So, it's like this for me that when I moved from one place to another, I asked myself, "Do I wish I was there?" And the answer in almost every case has been no. So maybe my system does not have a restoring force built into it. But in terms of work or a location, it was like, "Okay, I'm now in another well." I don't have to climb a barrier to get into that well. So yeah, in that sense, I would say that I have not regretted being somewhere else. Everything that has happened—something else could have happened. I have one life to live. But yeah, so things have kind of worked out, not many regrets, except this one, that I wish I taught undergraduates when I was younger because I would have learned better.
Well, Shobo, we started at the beginning of our talk, talking about your current work and so now that we've worked right up to the present, I'd like to ask one broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. And so, because your interests are so broad, not just within science, but beyond science, what has been your greatest intellectual satisfaction in working at the crossroads of science and culture? Overall of your collaboration, overall of the scholars that you've interacted with, what have you been a part of, or what have you created that demonstrates this desire on your part to make these connections across all the scholarship?
Generally, maybe I will start with a general and see if I can think of something specific. I think what I really enjoy the most is connecting dots which were thought to be separate, okay? It is probably true of many people in our profession who go very deep into something, sometimes it requires you to be also extremely narrow, okay? Then, you get deep and there is space for that, but there is also space for something else. —A friend of mine says that two kinds of points of view, a worm's view, and a bird's view.
And I think that, psychologically, perhaps because of my upbringing, because of where I have been, I prefer the bird's eye view to the worm's eye view. If you ask my friends, I don't know what they will say. But I would say that connecting previously thought to be disconnected stuff is psychologically the most appealing to me in some sense. Because I did not start with being a scientist, because from day one, science is not what I liked most, I came to love science much later, not in the very beginning. So, it's very difficult to know, but perhaps what I enjoy the most, I enjoyed the articulation of a problem, as much as—
Achieving a result.
—Yes, describing a problem or its results, that in the articulation of a problem, you can connect things. Maybe it's not an original problem that I'm stating. But if I'm stating it differently, then you are exploring some space that has remained unexplored. I'm not sure that I'm being very clear here.
But basically, what I'm trying to say is there is some space, for what I like doing. And if I define the space, go deep inside the well and say, "Well, this is the well and its diameter is this, and this and that, and so on so forth, I know everything about it, okay," that has a very important place, because those are the places where you can hang your hat. Mine is more of a—kind of a little less hanging hat thing. It is more of an explorer. So, you thought this was different from that? Maybe it is, but if I think this way, then maybe I'll find something where nobody had ever gone because one has always been in this hole.
So, if I were to take these two extremes, I would prefer to be maybe a superficial explorer. Nobody asked me this question before, David. You're the first one to ask. So, therefore, I'm answering a question which I've not been asked myself. I think that is roughly right. I'm thinking on my feet here. I think that's roughly right. I think that what I do best is generate ideas. Some of it is just nonsense. But occasionally, it gives you an insight into interconnections among things. But in science, it's a dangerous thing. That's why I think I need my music, I need my art, my literature, my Tolstoy, and my Eliot, all of this. But it is more of this spreading not very deeply but trying to find territory where others can go deep and put their name, but my job probably isn't that.
Finally, Shobo, last question, looking to the future, in light of the fact that you're a nomad, in light of the fact that you're the bird's eye view and not the worm's eye view, simply, what else do you want to accomplish? What's most important to you for the remainder of your career?
I'm writing a book, okay? So, I want to be able to write that book. And this book is my central interest is. It is partly India-centric, but it's also partly global. And it asks this question that STEM, which is a common word these days, I learned quite some time back, that just like STEM is everywhere and people are adding more letters to STEM and trying to figure out how to deliver it better, to give people skills so that they can earn a living and so on. Similarly, there has been an opposite reaction to this STEM. And the reaction is that is it our job to become skilled robots in STEM? And this comes from people who are not practicing scientists or technologists or engineers or medical people. These are philosophers, poets, who are historians, in humanities and social studies. And they look at STEM also as a danger to humanity. And it's just because we do not communicate, okay? So, I was not aware of this anti-STEM sense that exists. And I think to dismiss it as, “Oh, they just don't know,” is not going to be a good thing for civilization.
And so, therefore, the book I'm trying to do is take a very specific context. I'm trying to focus on one history and that history is that of British Empire in India and the development of modern education. So, the basic idea, I'll tell you what the basic idea is, and I think it is a similar idea to something I began with, so let's end where I began. Perhaps, it is this that modern education, by modern education, I don't mean modern science, but modern education, which is the offshoot of-and here I make it into a lot of politically incorrect statements,.-but so be it, is European Renaissance, European Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, French Revolution, American War of Independence, American Revolution, these are momentous events in human history, okay? And such events have taken place in other cultures at other times.
To just give you an idea, this number I have checked for my class. Between Archimedes and Copernicus, there is something like 1,700 years of dark Europe, okay? 1700 years, okay? But during all that time , Alexandria is not dark. China is not dark. India is not dark. Moorish Spain is not dark. Baghdad of today and Baghdad of the ninth century—you cannot imagine the continuity between the two. So, you see that this special thing that happened in Europe from Renaissance onwards is truly special. I sometimes think and say that Newton is the point that you cannot go back from. Once Newton happens, that's the end. I mean, now, you can only go forward. But well, Aristotle onwards, people did go backward. Had it not been for the Arabs, all the Greeks would have been lost, and Europe didn't keep the Greek philosophers. And nobody knew of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. It's the Arabs, who knew all that.
What the book tries to do, if I succeed, will be the capstone. If I can take an example that I know, just my city of birth, and I look at the intellectual development of this city and the stresses and strains that conservatism, orthodoxy, and what I call, modernism, or cosmopolitanism, how that played out, what were the high points? What were the low points? India had produced greater stuff in science as a colony than it did so far as an independent nation, okay? And that I think—and many people will agree that it's the result of the British or the European enlightenment coming in. But there is a crisis there, and the crisis is that this is the same group of people who build their successes with your blood. So, Bengal Cotton, I'm in the state of Bengal, Bengal Cotton died because of Manchester Cotton, but does that mean that you reject everything that Manchester had produced and say, "It's built on our blood?" Yes, it's built on your blood, and that's history, and learn to live with it and still move forward.
So, what I would like to do is take something that I know, because I'm not a historian, so I need a lot of help and I'm trying to get help from historians. My historian friend said, "Go for it. And if you make a mess, we will correct you," so this is what I'd like to do is, I'd like to take this specific history, analyze it, and see if culture, if you like, human culture, human civilization, is it robust or where were the pitfalls? I mean, I don't have to repeat history. You may think this is not possible, but it's possible. It happens, right? So, this is what I'm trying to do. One chapter of this book has been written. I wrote it as a piece, but this is what I would like to do going forward.
Shobo, I'm excited and I can't wait to read it. So, I hope progress continues apace.
Well, I hope it's worth reading.
Shobo, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I am so glad that we connected through a mutual friend, Dave Pine, and it's just been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you so much.