Laureation address: Professor C N R Rao

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor James Naismith, School of Chemistry

Friday 13 September 2013

Scientific research is a pursuit that has no borders, has no shibboleths, respects no pedigree and its insights can be replicated anywhere by anyone. By this I mean there is no such thing as the Scottish speed of light or the American collection of sub-atomic particles. If Indian scientists invent materials that harness sunlight to break water, the holy grail of clean energy; scientists in Chile will replicate it. This universality of science truths has attracted the world’s most curious minds and their study has given mankind fabulous fruits; longer healthier lives, computers and probes on Mars. Science is unusual, when was the last time you heard a politician say; “People in Country Y have found a clever solution to this problem, as it turns out my ideas were wrong, I will build on their solution.” I will take your nervous laugh as never. Science has this approach day-in and day-out; you push the rock up from the highest point reached by those who came before. Science is not a Sisyphean endeavour. Left to politicians we would have a Scottish speed of light (faster than the English one of course).

Today we add some lustre to the University by alloying (sic) ourselves with Professor C N R Rao, National Research & Pauling Professor at the Nehru Institute and past Director of the Indian Science Institute. CNR Rao was born in Bangalore in the south of India and in June celebrated his 69th birthday. CNR Rao took his first degree from Mysore University, although a youngster, founded in 1916, its motto ‘Nothing is worthier than knowledge’ is one we all would do well to follow.

At school we learn that metals conduct and metal oxides are insulators. Not for nothing has chemistry been described as a process of diminishing deception, metal oxides we now know conduct electricity. We know because CNR Rao did experiments that showed this and demolishing a shibboleth that had held true for nearly a century; in the solid state metals are not the only conductor. Not only did he show this, he told other people who repeated it and went on to perform totally new experiments. Along with others he explained the underlying reasons why some metal oxides act as metals. A whole field has advanced up the mountain towards new superconductors and semiconductors from the rock he carried up. Today metal oxides are used in fuel cells, novel batteries and solar panels. Rao was at the start of ceramic conductors, such materials are found in electronic displays, circuit boards and in the engines of spaceships. Some ceramics are stable and conduct electricity at 2000°C (sort of super heating elements), without these materials we could not make many of the novel components of electronics and medical equipment we rely on. Exemplifying the complete lack of sentimentality of science, having redefined the concept of what a metal is and publishing hundreds of studies, Rao spotted that carbon polymers including bucky balls, nanotubes and most recently graphene, could open the door to new more powerful batteries and better chips. He has published hundreds of studies dealing with the properties and applications of these materials. To put these numbers in perspective, Rao has published 1,500 papers and 45 books over his career; this is four to five years output from the whole School of Chemistry at St Andrews, with its nearly forty academics. This is a staggering level of output that speaks to an almost unique level of imagination, exertion and labour.

These contributions have been widely recognised. His awards are too numerous to list but I would highlight election to the UK’s Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and the Indian Academy of Science. He has been awarded a Royal Medal from the Royal Society, the Padma Vibhushan by the Indian Government, UNESCO’s Einstein Gold Medal, France’s Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, Nikkei Asia Prize and named by American chemists as a Pioneer. The attentive will note the international spread of these awards. Rao’s truly phenomenal accomplishments are not confined to solid state chemistry; he has driven scientific agenda in India acting as one of its leaders and he has been key to India’s arrival as a scientific superpower. Generous with his time he pioneered Chinese-Indian science partnerships and helped found the Third World Academy of Science.

I was careful to say that science knows no boundaries and scientists come from and work in every part of this world. The mixing of cultures makes the scientific life a uniquely diverse, stimulating and enriching endeavour, a fact which is too seldom proclaimed.

Rao’s life illustrates the truth of the Hindu saying which I will paraphrase: ‘Greatness is not the fruit of birth, but of effort: it can only be attained by exertion: insignificance requires no effort: to raise a stone to the top of a mountain requires great labour, but it will fall of its own accord at great speed.’