Roddam Narasimha: The Complete Scientist

Prof. Narasimha had a full life and career, which transcended several apparent dichotomies. He was the embodiment of a complete scientist and intellectual

Remembering Prof. Roddam Narasimha. Credits: Bhavana

Prof. Roddam Narasimha, one of the country’s most renowned scientists, passed away on 14 December 2020 at the age of 87. Prof. Narasimha’s illustrious career, spread over more than six decades, spanned multiple dimensions. His accomplishments in any one of them would be the envy of most aspiring individuals.

His research in fluid dynamics and aerospace engineering covered an impressive and daunting mix of fundamental questions in fluid dynamics, atmospheric science and aerospace technology.

In addition to excelling in his research endeavours, Prof. Narasimha played prominent roles as an intellectual leader, institution builder, and scientific policy advisor to several governments.

Prof. Narasimha receiving the Padma Vibhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee in 2013.  Credits: Bhavana

His wide-ranging interests included a deep engagement with intellectual traditions in Indian culture and elsewhere, particularly in the realm of the pre-colonial history and epistemology of Indian science and technology. He was an outstanding communicator, extremely lucid and rigorous in formulating the essence of any subject he dwelt on in compelling ways. He was a cherished teacher and mentor to generations of students, and younger colleagues, and was generous with sharing his time and thoughts with those who sought them- of whom there was a large number. He wore the recognition and the accolades he received – which were numerous — lightly, unpretentiously, with grace and dignity.

Early Life

Prof. Narasimha grew up in the Basavanagudi area of Bengaluru, imbibing scientific and intellectual interests from his father, R. L. Narasimhayya, well-known for several works on science in Kannada, and his immediate environs, which included Sunday classes with the notable Kannada writer D V Gundappa. As a student in Acharya Pathashala, a visit and lecture by C. V. Raman, on the invitation of a dedicated and influential teacher, S. Venkataramaiah, was inspirational (as also recalled by a classmate at the time, Prof. C. N. R. Rao).

Driven by an early fascination with fluid flows, Prof. Narasimha joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) after college. He worked with Prof. Satish Dhawan, studying the transition from smooth, or laminar, flows to turbulent flows, a theme that is central in diverse contexts in fluid dynamics, to which he returned multiple times in his career. He went on to obtain a Ph. D. at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, during which he started theoretical and computational investigations of rarified gas flows. The subject had become topical with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, which Prof. Narasimha witnessed soon after his arrival at Caltech.

Credits: Bhavana.org

Upon his return to India, to the IISc, Prof. Narasimha continued his academic research in fluid dynamics. His investigations and expertise also led to his involvement in India’s aerospace programmes, in which he played several prominent roles over the years, including being a long-standing member of the Space Commission. He also became involved with the aeronautical programmes, both civilian and defence, through investigations of the Avro and later the HF24/25 aircrafts. These involvements eventually led him to take on the role of director of the National Aeronautics Laboratory, during 1984-93, even while continuing his academic role at the IISc.

As director of NAL, he was instrumental in several initiatives, prominent among them the design of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the civilian aircraft Saras, parallel computing efforts to study fluid flows and computational modelling of the monsoon. The last of these related to research interests developed earlier at IISc, which led to the establishment of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences with Prof. Narasimha as convenor and later to his playing an important role in the establishment of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The fluid dynamics and thermodynamics of the formation of tropical clouds, the cumulus clouds, which he dubbed the “queen of the tropical sky”, formed a long-standing interest that lasted till the end.

The Indian Way of Science and Mathematics

During 1997 – 2004, Prof. Narasimha served as the director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), conceived as a centre for wide-ranging interdisciplinary research and programmes. NIAS under Prof. Narasimha engaged with diverse themes, from nuclear policy, emerging concerns about the digital divide, history and philosophy, etc.

In this period, Prof. Narasimha became more actively involved with another abiding interest
of his- the course of Science and Mathematics in India, in comparison with other civilizations, and the differing epistemologies that have been at play. He edited the Encyclopaedia of Classical Indian Sciences (with Helaine Selin) during this
time.

One way of phrasing a large part of Prof. Narasimha’s engagement is to quote A K Ramanujan, who asked in a famous essay “Is there an Indian Way of Thinking?”. Prof. Narasimha engaged with the question of whether there has indeed been an Indian way of doing science and mathematics. He developed and articulated a somewhat surprising new perspective, through the prism of fundamental differences in epistemology that governed Indian approaches to describing nature and that of the West.

Passion for Research and Indian History

In his writings on Indian intellectual traditions, Prof. Narasimha strove to highlight the rational strands of thought running through them. In discussing the Yoga Vaasishta, he emphasized its emphatic rejection of fate, and was fond of quoting the Kerala mathematician Neelakantha who proclaimed that his results were “rooted in yukti and not in aagamas”. Yukti, which may loosely be translated as clever reasoning or approach – employing human intelligence, skill, to synthesize – in conjunction with observation, leading to validated conclusions – siddhanta — was discussed by Prof. Narasimha as playing the role of proof in Western mathematics.

Incidentally, the latest supercomputer at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research is named “Yukti” owing to Prof. Narasimha’s fondness for this notion!

Tipu Sultan and creation of the first war rockets. Credits: TheBetterIndia

Equally fascinating is Prof. Narasimha’s exploration of an episode of Indian technological superiority in relatively recent times, the use of rockets by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in his wars against the British.

Going beyond the mere narration of this episode, Prof. Narasimha analysed the dynamic that soon resulted in mastering and surpassing of this technology by the British. In discussing such matters of past accomplishment, Prof. Narasimha argued passionately for a middle ground between glorification and disdain, based on a thoughtful understanding and interrogation of what has been a long civilizational process. An editorial he wrote in the aftermath of controversies surrounding the 2015 National Science congress contains a noteworthy summary.

Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR). Credits: CongressChronicles

After his tenure at NIAS, Prof. Narasimha returned to academic research, this time at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, working on cumulus clouds, the design of aircraft wings, and much else. I had the privilege, in this phase, of interacting with him as a colleague and mentor, who was always there to offer advice and help on occasions when I sought them, generous with his time to participate and speak in several events I was involved with, and most importantly, to open new horizons by sharing his thoughts on whatever interested him at any given time.

Prof. Narasimha remained active in research till the end. He and his students were busy modelling cumulus cloud formation on the latest supercomputers until recent months. As of this summer, he was involved in discussions about the dispersal of aerosol droplets in the context of the spread of Covid-19, before illness curtailed his activities.

In his engagement with the Indian past and the present, Prof. Narasimha could be characterized as a patriot, in an old-fashioned and endearing way. He saw himself as a custodian of Indian civilizational heritage, with a duty to understand the past with clarity. Equally, he saw it as a duty to care for the present in pragmatic ways as he saw fit. He did not take overtly political positions but was engaged with matters of state and society as an advisor, planner, and on many occasions tasked with implementation.

Prof. Narasimha’s journey has been chronicled caringly by G S Bhat and K R Sreenivasan in an article in the Living Legends in Indian Science series published in Current Science and in the engaging and detailed interviews published in Bhavana.

Prof. Narasimha had a full life and career, which transcended several apparent dichotomies, that of a laboratory scientist and the technocrat, institution builder and scholar, someone engaged with advanced technology and with deep civilizational questions – he straddled these boundaries with ease and did not care for artificial boundaries between whatever he considered intellectually stimulating and worth pursuing. He was the embodiment of the image of a complete scientist and intellectual, but one of an exceedingly (and increasingly) rare kind. His presence will be deeply missed, but his example will live on, and undoubtedly inspire future generations.

Prof. Roddam Narasimha (1933-2020) Credit-TheNewsMinute

The writer is a Professor at the Theoretical Sciences Unit at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR)

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