Reactions – C. N. R. Rao

C.N.R. Rao is at the CSIR Centre for Excellence in Chemistry, New Chemistry Unit and International Centre for Materials Science, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research; and the Indian Institute of Science; Bangalore, India, and works in solid state and materials chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I got interested in chemistry when I was very young because of the wonderful teachers I had at school. In fact, the best teachers in chemistry I had were in high school rather than in college. I really enjoyed the demonstrations in the class room and also benefitted from the kindness that some of them showed me by allowing me to do experiments with them. Just after I finished my undergraduate studies in 1951, I read Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling for the first time. I found the book to be exciting. I felt that I must do research in chemistry of the kind described in the book. Linus Pauling has been my hero ever since. Another hero from my childhood has been Michael Faraday who continues to amaze me with the kind of science he did in the 19th century, publishing so many original papers single handedly. I felt that I must become a chemist like these great men when I was 17 years old.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

If I were not a chemist, I do not know what else I would have been. I would have probably been a medical doctor doing research on diseases of various kinds that afflict mankind in poor countries. When I was young, even the cattle population in the interior parts of my state had become static, because a majority of animals and humans died of cholera, malaria or smallpox.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I have been working in solid state and materials chemistry for more than 50 years. When I started working on the chemistry of solids in the 1950’s, there were very few practitioners of the subject. I wanted to work in an area where I could make meaningful contributions and one that was not too crowded. Furthermore, I had to pick an area in which I could do something reasonable with the very meager facilities available at that time in India. Solid state chemistry seemed best even though I did not have good X-ray or spectroscopic facilities. I have carried out research on various aspects of the chemistry of materials all these years. I am now working on multiferroics and various types of oxide materials as well as graphene, carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials. Some of the problems that I have got interested in the last two to three years relate to splitting of water, hydrogen storage and dealing with CO2.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

If I had the freedom of choice of having dinner with a historical figure, my first choice to be Faraday and my second choice would be G.N. Lewis, one from the 19th century and another from the 20th century.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I have not done many experiments myself in recent years, but whenever I get a chance, I do go to the laboratory and turn a knob here and there. When I have gone on academic leave to institutions outside India, I have carried out experiments.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

If I were to be lost in a desert island, I would like to have the great Indian epic Mahabharata (which includes the Gita) with me. For music, I would have a collection of Indian classical vocal music by Bhimsen Joshi; for western music, I would have Mozart.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I would pick two people, my friend from Israel, Joshua Jortner, and Paul Haggenmuller from France. Jortner is one of the first chemists to work on electron transfer. Hagenmuller is one of the early solid state chemists.