Sunday, December 2, 2012

Science: a family business?

1. As I was reading S Chandrasekhar's collection of essays and family reminiscences*, I couldn't help but notice the intellectual heavyweights in his family. Many of us know that his uncle, Sir C V Raman, was another eminent physicist and Nobel laureate. But how many of us know that his mother translated Henrik Ibsen's plays to Tamil, his sister Vidya Shankar was a notable veena artist, and his brother Purasu Balakrishnan, a notable physician, writer and Sanskrit scholar?

2. Likewise, on a previous trip to Madras, I met someone who was related to the Alladi Ramakrishnan family, and he informed me later on that V S Ramachandran, the eminent neurologist, is from the same lineage.

3. Yet again, as I was reading about microsaccades, a type eye movement that remains poorly understood even today, I was amused to learn that Robert Darwin, the father of Charles Darwin, was the first to describe them. Likewise, the wealthy Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, although remembered more for promoting eugenics, described synesthesia, and promoted and financed the Biometrika journal, a watershed in 20th century statistical thinking.

These examples led me to ponder the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that one's environment is a much stronger determinant of success (however you choose to define it) than any individual traits. Incidentally, as I was researching the Alladi family, I encountered a note about a neighborhood called Palathope in Mylapore, Chennai, which produced an extraordinary number of lawyers during pre-independence India. This neighborhood reminded me of the Italian village Roseto Valfortore, which produced extraordinarily healthy immigrants.

While the idea of environment breeding success is by no means new, the above examples provoked a journalistic curiosity in me, to learn more about the inner workings of elite intellectual families throughout history.

Among other notable examples of intellectual families, I can recall Mary and Pierre Curie, Niels and Aage Bohr, and although not a family, Ernst Rutherford and his academic descendants. Anybody has any lesser known examples?


*As I might never get around to writing a gushing review, I would like to note that Man of Science was a moving book, which gracefully captures the exalted thoughts of the great, and somewhat under-celebrated man that was Prof. Chandrasekhar. I would go so far as to confess that, reading the lectures of Chandra, his thoughts on great scientists and artists in history, his ideas about classical literature, private letters to his siblings, and the reminiscences of his family members, I felt the same emotions that Stephen Fry might have felt when he discovered Oscar Wilde, a private, incommunicable joy of having encountered a rare and kindred spirit from a bygone era.

Let me give you just one of at least a dozen examples from the book that helped me make the connection to Fry and Wilde. S Balakrishnan writes in a reminiscence after Chanrasekhar's death, about an incident shortly after Chandrasekhar returned from Cambridge with his PhD, and shortly prior to his departure for Chicago:

I recall on two evenings, we walked on the Marina of Madras. He was a recognized scientist. He had shot into the Indian sky like a meteor, or shall I say like Professor Heisenberg in the German sky. But I saw walking beside me an earnest, eager student, thinking only in terms of the pursuit of knowledge, warmed immediately by the mention of high endeavour in any sphere, persuading me, without being patronizing, to think highly of myself. Truly, here is the seed of greatness, I thought.

I was compelled to buy all of merely three copies from bookshelves in all of Chennai's bookstores, and distribute it to friends. One day in the near future, I hope to make the trip down to University of Chicago, where he did his life's work, and get access to his other books, Truth and Beauty, and Newton's Principia for the common reader.


Mainak said...

I wouldn't call it a lesser known example.

Geoffrey Hinton is great-great-grandson of George Boole, who in turn made his way into the Sherlock Holmes series in a pretty dramatic way. Both are of course, as you know pioneers in the field of modern computer science :-)

Pavan said...

Nice! In fact, I recall now that when Hinton was in Helsinki last summer, he seemed very chatty and volunteered this information himself. Speaking of contemporary scientists, David Heeger, a famous vision scientist at NYU is the son of Alan Heeger, a chemistry Nobel laureate.