“But it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then”

Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

It is almost 35 years since I spent two memorable years at IIT Madras (1977-79). The best and worst times were spent in three Chemistry labs per week which started at 10 AM and ended always after 4PM. For three semesters, we probably sweat and wept more during viva-voice. However, all the learning took place in these labs and the one semester project work. The teachers might have appeared rude and crude with all the sarcasm but at the end they taught us how to be independent; the hostel life@iitm showed us how to do things differently.ramanan001

I recall an unusual incident that still has a strong bearing in the growth of my academic life. In one of the labs, we were preparing a compound using Sandmeyer’s reaction. We toiled for about six hrs and at the end none of us succeeded to obtain the desired product. During that day, a German chemist was visiting the department. Our professor brought him to the lab and highlighted the quality of experiments carried out in the Masters program; at the end he lamented that the experiment did not go as expected. The German professor requested the lab staff to bring him the copper salt catalyst which was kept in a brown color bottle. He took a small sample with a spatula and immediately commented, “Oh! Here lies the problem”. None of us paid any attention to the green color of the salt kept in the bottle. We were all quite embarrassed but it was an important lesson to be learnt.

Seminar by the second year MSc student (one in each semester) was an important ritual during those days and almost every faculty attended probably to harass the helpless students in public! Most of us found it difficult to choose an appropriate topic for the seminar. Remember, there were no Google, no Scopus, no Web of science – only heavy volumes of chemical abstracts, limited journals and generous advice from senior students.

IITs in general have a different way of teaching –

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Hostel life@IITM was a great leveler. Tapti was an ideal place to lighten oneself from all the incidents and accidents happened in the Chemistry department during 8AM to 6PM between Mondays and Fridays. Like others, somehow many of us found a way to negotiate periodicals, assignments, viva-voce etc and still managed to be part of several extra-curricular activities happened around us. Intra hostel competitions, cultural activities that include Mardi Gras, limitless tea/coffee at Velachery and Taramani outlets in the pretext of group discussion, Tamil ‘oliyum, oliyum’ on every Friday before dinner, some great movies at OAT, carnatic music club, late night TT and chess games …you can go on. Art room was the first and last place where I even attempted to sketch or paint! The library was great – treasure to trash. The hostel life presented a completely different world outside Chemistry!

I vaguely remember the seminar topic to be something related to organic solid state reaction. I can’t recollect why I opted for this. Till then there was no exposure to solid state science except for a couple of lectures on structural chemistry. As expected there were several bombarding questions at the seminar – thank GOD, I did not faint! I did manage to publish a paper from my MSc project work and probably was the driving force towards my travel to IISc to pursue research work at the Mecca of solid state chemistry. From here, life almost rolled in a linear fashion with PhD followed by a couple of post docs abroad and finally landing at IITD as a faculty.

The identity between engineering and science students are still an issue at IITs. As I observe, the divide is more now than it was three or four decades before. No campus placement exist then or now for the science graduates. They either look for a career in research or any other job. Some go abroad and the rest move around the country. I don’t think the department in our times was known for any significant research activity; but the teachers were definitely passionate about teaching. Of course, they were worldly wise like ‘The Cheschire Cat”. But for this, most of us won’t be where we are now.

Crystals fascinated me almost from the beginning of my research career. Can’t say why? May be it has something to do with symmetry – right from childhood I have been attracted to kolams (rangoli), ancient monuments, rocks etc. In some sense, minerals or naturally occurring crystals are the time capsules of the Earth. They have been a witness to several changes occurring in our life cycle. They offer molecular insights into ancient landscapes and early life to the changes in modern times – diamonds to mobile phones. As a chemist, I still wonder how the molecules weave such a colorful world around us in a process called crystallization. Crystal is a holy-grail. It is still a puzzle why is that all molecules don’t seem to crystallize equally well or equally quickly. The gazing will continue.

I am reminded of a beautiful poem for different reasons.

“Diamonds are crystallized at very high,

pressures,

So many kilometers down, too many to measure!

…To get to earth’s surface, magma is their

transportation,

But only after they have undergone

crystallization.”

(from Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend by Nora Armenta Alonso)

[taken from the article: AC Rule, LA Carnicelli & SS Kane Journal of Geoscience Education, vol. 52, January, 2004, p. 10-14]

Professor A Ramanan graduated from IIT Madras with an M.Sc in Chemistry in the year 1979. He is currently a faculty at IIT Delhi.