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Remembering Predhiman Kaw

Professor P K Kaw

I met Predhiman Kaw for the first time in 1972 when I visited the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) to give a talk on my work on plasma mediated interaction between strong electromagnetic fields. When I joined PRL later in the same year, I had the task of setting up a plasma physics laboratory from scratch. Over the years, this activity grew and developed into the Plasma Physics Programme in 1982, funded by the Department of Science and Technology to initiate fusion research in India by building the Aditya tokamak. In 1984, this transformed into an autonomous Institute for Plasma Research which, in addition to the fusion experiment, blossomed into many activities in plasma physics, fusion technologies and applications. The Steady-State tokamak programme started in the mid-1990s, was another quantum jump in scope and extent. In 2008, we saw India joining the ITER and the Institute setting up a Domestic Agency for overseeing the Indian contributions to ITER.

My association with Predhiman continued through all these transitions. I have seen him in many roles; as a great plasma physicist, as a powerful motivator, as an interpreter with great clarity of thought, as a person with deep philosophical and spiritual moorings, as a clever and nuanced strategist, and above all as a person with a grand vision of the role of India in fusion and plasma physics.

Predhiman was an outstanding scientist with a broad range of research interests and a prodigious research output spanning over 389 papers in international journals. His early work at Princeton during 1967–71 resulted in seminal contributions to nonlinear problems connected with laser-plasma interactions. From 1971–75, while he was at PRL, Predhiman extended the theory of parametric instabilities to magnetized plasmas.

Prof. Kaw received many honours and awards during his illustrious career, starting with the Indian National Science Academy’s Young Scientists Award of 1974. In 1985, the Government of India honoured him with the Padma Shri award; in 1986, he received the SS Bhatnagar award. Recently, he was named the 2015 laureate of the Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar Prize for “outstanding contributions” in the field of plasma physics by the Association of Asia Pacific Plasma Physics Societies.

We collaborated on an experiment to study non-neutral plasma clouds. Together we thought up a novel toroidal device in which a central current-carrying conductor along the major axis of a fat cylinder would give us a very low aspect ratio system. Electrons were injected into this device as the toroidal magnetic field was ramped up. Except that the rising magnetic field would carry the electrons towards the minor axis, we had no prior knowledge of how the system would behave.

We analysed the resultant electron cloud using potential probes and found that we had formed a toroidal cloud of electrons hugging the central conductor and proved that an equilibrium does exist. The paper we wrote was published in the Physical Review Letters and was the first experimental plasma physics paper to appear in that journal from India. Predhiman’s perceptive understanding of the electron cloud dynamics played a crucial role in developing a coherent knowledge of the strong toroidal effects in the behaviour of electrons in such a system. Furthermore, we brought out the strong complementary aspects between current-carrying neutral plasmas and charged non-neutral plasmas, and this was substantially due to Predhiman’s deep knowledge of plasma physics.

Predhiman strongly believed that science should be pursued with complete freedom. When we started to plan the IPR buildings, we had endless discussions on how the buildings should reflect this. The buildings do give one a sense of liberation. The wide corridors, openness to the sky and the surroundings, and oneness with nature are all embodiments of this conviction. It also turned out that we were rather free with the budget, which indeed raised many beaurocratic eyebrows.

Predhiman’s unique capacity to absorb knowledge from all sources was evident when we built Aditya. Together we went on a grand tour of India to visit industries and assess how they could contribute to the engineering of the Aditya Tokamak, which was fairly ambitious as a first fusion device. He had a childlike curiosity to understand how large mechanical components would be machined, how high current copper windings would be made for a transformer, how precision welding was done etc. As a result, he acquired an engineering knowledge in a few months that every experimentalist learns over a lifetime. The fact that Aditya went into operation, despite many teething problems like the failure of the main power transformer etc., is a testimony to his skill in growing a team of experts and making them work together and systematically solving problems.

After Aditya got into routine operation, I became interested in exploring commercial applications of plasmas. Although there were criticisms that this was a deviation from the original charter of the institute, Predhiman was wholeheartedly in support of pursuing this path. This completely complies with his belief that any interesting idea should be pursued with full vigour. We soon established a Plasma Processing Programme, which evolved into the Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies. The programme had some unique aspects that one does not have to worry about in basic science research. Some examples are the necessity for it to be relevant to the industry, the fact that it can make or lose money in its commercial exploitation, the contractor-client relationship with industries, etc. So, the rules for running this programme had to be developed and learnt as the programme grew. The fact that it was the first time in India that a basic research institute ventured into a commercial application programme also meant that we could not learn the rules from prior experience. Predhiman again played a crucial role in ensuring that the learning process was sound and the practices conformed to good management principles.

In India, research institutions are well funded. Money is generally not a problem in pursuing research; the lack of ideas and human resources are. The situation in Indian universities is the converse. Predhiman has been very sensitive to this imbalance and has taken many initiatives to correct this. He convinced the Department of Science and Technology to establish a programme called Satellite Research Projects for funding universities in plasma sciences research. This and its later forms, such as the Cross-Disciplinary Projects in Plasma Sciences, have been instrumental in nucleating research in plasma physics ad applications in many universities, some of which have grown to large centres. These are the forerunners of our present and ambitious National Fusion Programme, where universities and educational institutions are funded rather well to take up fusion-related research and development work.

We pursued many ideas in discussions and sometimes in experimental exploration. The Thursday Circle was the result of one such discussion. The idea was to have meetings discussing issues relevant to society and life. This was put into practice at IPR for quite some time. Once while visiting BARC, we discussed converting physical movements like walking or random movements of our arms into electrical energy. We also set up small experiments to pursue this.

I would also like to say something about the important role played by Predhiman in ensuring that India became a member of the ITER project. This involved, in one part, a campaign within the Indian science establishment and concerned ministries to convince them of the importance of fusion technology from a long-term perspective of India’s energy security. There was an equally important aspect of convincing the existing ITER partners of India’s potential to be an essential contributor to the ITER programme. Predhiman was the de facto leader of the Indian team, which participated in the presentation of the formal proposal for Indian membership in ITER and the negotiations in Jeju. His persuasive skills were very evident in these meetings.

Predhiman’s critical role in giving clear direction to ITER in its early years is worth mentioning. He was the chairman of the STAC, the ITER’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee. I see STAC as the conscience keeper of ITER, making sure that there is no compromise in the final scientific and technical objectives of ITER. However, to ensure this in ITER, where the politics is even more convoluted than the technology, is a Herculean task. Nevertheless, there is a full realization within the ITER system that Predhiman did a fantastic job resolving many complex STAC issues and helping ITER finalize its technical specifications.

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A Miracle at Muvattupuzha

The DentCare Establishment at Muvattupuzha, Kerala

John Kuriakose is the Managing Director of DentCare Dental Lab, a company focusing on fabricating dental prostheses. DentCare has acquired global leadership by providing high-quality prostheses to its clients. It was founded in 1988 in Muvattupuzha, a small town in central Kerala, with six employees. It has grown into a world-class dental laboratory with 4000 workers spread over an area of 250,000 sq. ft.. DentCare has gone global by marking its footprints in the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East, with several National and International Certifications of quality.

John shared his ‘rags to riches story with the Senior Citizens’ Forum, Kottayam, in one of its fortnightly meetings. He believes that his life proves that miracles exist if one has steadfast faith in God. The story was so heart-touching that some of our members were moved to tears.

John was born in Aroor, a backward village near Muvattupuzha in the Ollickal family, who have been victims of mental illness for generations. His father was an itinerant labourer and a farmer tilling the small rocky piece of land his family possessed. John’s mother, who had lost her parents in childhood, also came from an impoverished family. His father dreamed of owning a piece of land with electricity, road and other facilities, for which he saved money through his labour. When he found a piece of land, a quarter of an acre, he paid his hard-earned money to the owner of the land. However, before the owner could be registered, the man got into a drunken brawl, was caught by the police, and sent to prison. The mental shock sent John’s father into a bout of mental illness.

John Kuriakose

John was a poor student. In the 10th class final examination, he could get only 250 marks out of 600, far below the 360 required for admission at the Nirmala College in Muvattupuzha. By this time, he had lost faith in God, believing that a just God would not have cursed him and his family into insanity and extreme poverty.

His mother was grieving, thinking that her children also would become mad. The marriage had brought only more suffering for her, whose parents had departed when she was a child. She attempted suicide three times. That was when she heard about a Christian Fellowship prayer meeting led by a preacher. She had to borrow decent clothes from her neighbour to attend the meeting. She went with a heavy heart to the meeting but returned smiling as she believed Jesus Christ had blessed her.

John’s mother inspired him to attend the prayer meeting. The preacher asked during the meeting whether there was anyone who had lost hope. He said such people must make a conscious decision not to commit any sin in their life. John thought he had led a pure life without thinking of sin. But when it was explained that even our thoughts should be pure, he was shocked since he had nurtured a deep hatred for his relatives who treated his family with contempt. So John decided to give up all thoughts of hate and anger, and he felt an enormous burden being lifted from him. He then started to take his father to the prayer meeting, and after a short while, he realised that his father was miraculously cured of his illness.

John started his working life as a rubber tapper. Within a short time. He got a job as an attendant in a dental clinic in Muvattupuzha at a monthly salary of Rs 250. He continued attending the prayer meetings, where he would be urged to dream of a promising future. John wondered what he could dream with his meagre salary. But he was a hard worker and would reach his place of work by 6 am and finish his job cleaning up the place by 8 am. His boss noticed John’s motivation and asked him to learn setting the dentures. John became an expert in this and started taking up extra denture setting work from clinics around Muvattupuzha. Each setting fetched him Rs 70, and he could make up to Rs 400 daily. He saved the money except for buying some clothes for his mother and a watch for his father. With incessant hard labour, he saved him close to Rs 4 lakhs.

He was dissatisfied with the quality of dental prostheses given at the clinic, particularly crowns and bridges. His work experience in setting dentures made him realise there was great scope in fabricating crowns and bridges with precision and perfection. He went to Shree Balaji Dental College in Chennai to train as a dental technician, where he passed out with the highest mark. After the training, he invested his savings in a venture called DentCare in 1988 in a 290 square feet office in collaboration with his brothers and six workers. At present, Mrs. Jessy John, his wife, is the company’s Executive Director, and she compliments her husband’s abilities as a capable leader. Joshua, Joel, Job, and Jonathan are their four sons. John’s brothers and their wives are also directors of the company.

To keep up with technological advances, John attended seminars and sessions worldwide to learn more about the dental scenario and trends. During the last 25 years, John has attended over 200 training sessions and participated in several National and International dental conferences, including the International Dental Show in Cologne, Germany. In addition, he has been honoured with many national and state-level awards.

The growth of DentCare is synonymous with the acquisition of advanced technologies. The BEGO induction casting machine from Germany was the first imported casting machine in India. In 1991, he paved the way to the metal-ceramic revolution in South India by importing bio-compatible layering materials Vita (Germany), Ivoclar Vivadent (Switzerland) and Shofu (Japan). The Ceramic Division of DentCare is the first in south India. 1993 saw the creation of an exclusive division to fabricate dentures using Cobalt-Chromium. Post-2007, he adopted computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing techniques to manufacture zirconia-based metal-free prostheses. The CAD/CAM technology enables the entire system with 30+ CNC milling machines employed in manufacturing. DentCare Introduced BPS (Biofunctional Prosthetic System), an injection moulding system, in 2009. Later in 2013, 3D dental model printing that allows the digital additive 3D printing of dental models from scanned intra-oral images was introduced. In 2017, Dentcare introduced the latest CAD/CAM Denture in India. There is an exclusive Division for ‘Research and Development on novel prostheses or renovating the existing ones. An export unit of DentCare has also been launched to cater to the varied needs of dentists and patients around the globe. The DentCare foundation introduced a training institute, DentCare Institute of Dental Technology (DIDT) in 2021 to enhance the knowledge level of technicians/Doctors across the nation.

DentCare is also an active partner in various social activities. The Swashraya Training and Rehabilitation Centre, Janaseva Shishubhavan etc., are witnesses to their generosity. Marriage of poor girls, rehabilitation of the destitutes, education of children, and helping the homeless build home; are among the innumerable philanthropic activities undertaken.

John Kuriakose has won numerous awards for his work. It started with the Award of Excellence by Indian Dental Association, Kerala, in 2013. He was declared the best Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 and 2015. Best Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year (Tieton Kerala) award came in 2017. He won the Excellence Award for outstanding and dedicated service to the dental field. In 2018, he won the KMA Excellence Award for Outstanding Manufacturing Innovation. The following year he became the TiE Kerala Entrepreneur of the Year.

The guiding light of DentCare is the management policy which John clearly states: “We never compromise on quality. Our aim is to provide best-quality service to our customers. Our strong faith in God and firm commitment to the safety of our patients who use our products are our greatest strength. Our employees are our valuable asset and they consider this lab as their second home and so we call the DentCare as ‘DentCare Family”.

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Oil Painting with Fingers

‘Old Fort’ in author’s collection

Prof. Devendra Lal, a brilliant scientist and my former boss at the Physical Research Laboratory, once told me of paintings he did with bare hands while he was at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. He persuaded me to try this technique to appreciate the sensuality and fluidity of the wet paint on canvas. I found this very productive since one could directly communicate to the canvas bypassing the intermediary of the brush. The ‘Old Fort’ shown at the top of this piece was a painting I had made in the early nineties.

I realized at that time that each technique creates its art. For example, the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, known for his murals, is considered one of the earliest painters to abolish the paintbrush. He set up a workshop in New York city in 1936 to experiment with varieties of painting techniques where radical painters converged to experiment with techniques and materials.

One of the celebrated painters who sought liberation from the tyranny of the brush was Jackson Pollock. He used a drip technique to create abstract expressionist paintings. He did this by poking a hole in a tin of paint and dripping paint on the canvas and earning the name ‘Jack the dripper’ in art circles. The randomness of this process and the non-reproducibility renders a freshness to his painting. He was inspired by ‘Existentialist’ thinking. Ukranian born Janet Sobel whose ​​1945 drip canvas Milky Way is an Abstract Expressionist. Sobel’s work has been exhibited as “Women in Abstraction” at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris last year.

As early as the 15th-century, Japanese painters who belonged to Zen Buddhist school investigated splashing ink. Members Dada and Surrealist movements also used this process with a high element of randomness. Splattering and dripping draws attention to how the painter and the body are connected (1).

Another painting technique termed pouring involves pouring paints of different colours directly onto a canvas to produce random patterns. This method is said to have originated with David Alfaro and became popular during Abstract Expressionism. This gave rise to compositions which celebrated pure colour as in the Post-Painterly Abstraction movement.

Pulling and scrapping techniques imply the dragging of the paint across the surface or the scrapping it with a palette knife. This method is attributed to the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning and the German painter Gerhard Richter. They created abstract expressionist portraits by depositing a thick layer of paint and spreading it using the pulling and scrapping method.

In the ancient process of using body casting, the human body became the replacement for the brush (2). Its entry into visual arts goes back to the 1960s. The French painter Yves Klein exploited the body as a painting tool in the process of artistic creation. During the 60s, Klein created the anthropometry paintings associated with him in a live programme with audience participation. He would roll his models in his celebrated blue art pigment; the models transferred their body imprints to large sheets of paper.

Brooklyn-based painter Iris Scott gave up brushes and palette knives in favour of using her fingers. Scott picked up her technique during a year spent travelling in Southern Taiwan. Her canvases of thick oil paint in saturated colours capture dreamy urban cityscapes. “There’s nothing between me and the paint, I feel all the tiny nuances,” claims Scott. “I can manipulate thick paint with my fingers in ways brushes never could” (3). The physicality of using her fingers brings a sense of flow to her painting. Each canvas becomes fascinating with more than 100 colours for a single composition. Her Facebook following is close to 350,000. Her “Finger Painting Weekend Workshop”, has resulted in an Amazon publication, A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Brush-Free Works of Art, in January 2016.

From digit to digital painting was an expected transition for Jorge Colombo. In his experiment, he threw out paints and canvas and replaced them with his iPhone and iPad to illustrate magazine covers and create incredible artwork (4). His work has appeared as cover picture for The New Yorker magazine in 2009. He is obsessed with New York City, but his repertoire extends to landscapes and portraits. His technique illustrates the enhancement of human creative potential by technology. His work is in worldwide galleries. Colombo’s publications include Fullerton, Of Big and Small Love, and Lisboa Revisited.

More than any other means of expression, painting has an emergent element. We do not always know where the picture is going. Conclusion: there is complex feedback from the image and our state of mind, which changes the outcome. The painter is subconsciously led a certain way determined by the painting. Finger painting firmly establishes this feedback-enhanced direct communication between the mind and the canvas. The satisfaction a picture gives a painter is in discovering its final form, which eludes him until the last dash makes a mark on the canvas.

References

1. https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/splattering-dripping
2. https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2016/03/vibrant-oil-finger-paintings-by-iris-scott/
3. https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/body-printing
3. https://www.bravethewoods.com/blog/jorge-colombo-finger-paintings

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A Viennese Interlude

A train carrying Hindu karsevaks returning from Ayodhya was set on fire in Godhra in Gujarat on the 27th of February 2002, leading to terrible communal riots. I felt the after-effects of the riots closely since a neighbour, a Catholic Healthcare person, would come and tell us the gruesome stories. I was very depressed by the whole situation, including rumours about Government collusion and the callousness of people towards the events.

Then, I received a call from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna inviting me to take up a position as the Head of its Physics Department to replace the person who had to leave the job suddenly. The assignment was for eight months from September 2002. So naturally, I accepted the offer with alacrity.

IAEA, a UN Organization, is the world’s foremost forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology. It contributes to the United Nations’ charter of Sustainable Development. It is the UN’s watchdog to ensure that the member states honour their international legal obligations to use nuclear material and technology for peaceful purposes only. Teams from IAEA had gone to Iraq to search for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”.

IAEA came into being in 1957. In the 1970s, the Austrian Government provided a permanent residence called the Vienna International Centre (VIC) on the left bank of the river Danube. The Austrian architect Johann Staber designed the iconic building of VIC on Wagrammerstrasse by the Danube.

I was familiar with IAEA as I had many occasions earlier to visit and work there on week-long assignments. The Director of the division under which my section came was Dr Sood, an expert on Radiation Chemistry whom I had known from his BARC days. My job was to oversee the established programmes and promote new programmes in Plasma Physics and Fusion Research. Coordination of the meetings sponsored by IAEA was part of the assignment. My charter also included liaison with agencies of similar interest, attending meetings and conferences and taking care of routine administrative matters.

Memorable meetings include the 19th Fusion Energy Conference held in October 2002 in Lyon, France, where I had to act as the Scientific Secretary. This is a biannual meeting of great heritage dating back to 1961, when the first meeting occurred in Salzburg, Austria. The meeting with more than 500 participants reported significant developments in the performance of large fusion experiments, advances in critical technologies and new and innovative concepts.

Another event I enjoyed was the Workshop on Plasma Physics jointly hosted by IAEA and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics. This was a place I had visited in the 80s for the Plasma Physics Summer School held in November 2002. I also enjoyed a trip to Washington to represent the Agency at the Fifth Symposium on Current Trends in International Fusion Research. This allowed me to visit my cousin Dr K. V. George (Thonipurackal, Puthupally), who worked with the US Department of Energy.

The major IAEA event is the General Conference, where representatives of the IAEA Member States meet in a regular annual session. The purpose is to consider and approve the IAEA’s budget and to decide on issues raised by the Board of Governors, the Director-General and the Member States. With the General Conference, IAEA regularly organizes a Scientific Forum on nuclear technology and science topics. During the General Conference, the Indian staff in IAEA had an opportunity to meet with Dr Anil Kakodkar, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Agency played the role of godfather to the ITER Project through its early design phases. The ITER negotiations happened under the auspices of the IAEA. I used my stay at IAEA to gather information on ITER as there were informal discussions in our institute in those days on the pros and cons of being part of the international project to build a thermonuclear fusion reactor. Prof. Kaw was the Chair of the International Fusion Research Council (IFRC), which provided guidelines to the IAEA Secretariat on the fusion R&D program matters.

High-profile visitors to VIC were commonplace. I got an opportunity to hear Hans Blix, a former DG, on not finding the weapons of mass destruction said to be possessed by Iraq. He was the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission from March 2000 to June 2003. In 2002, the commission began the search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction but found none.

Responding to the IAEA Director General’s request for ideas for new initiatives, I proposed the concept of ‘Virtual IAEA: a digital history resource base’. I argued that IAEA has no institutional memory as staff members come and go. I described how a retrievable collective institutional memory could be generated by compiling the memoirs of all the people who had an opportunity to work for the Agency. The idea was quite well-received.

After my wife Minnu joined me for a three-month stay, we decided that we should exploit our short stay to sample the many wares of the city. Austria’s capital offers a unique blend of imperial traditions and stunning modern architecture. In addition, it is renowned for its cultural events, imperial sights, coffee houses, confectionaries, wine taverns, and exceptional Viennese charm. So we used many random walks through the city using the Viennese facility of a single ticket valid for subways, trams and buses.

Vienna’s history dates back to the first century when the Romans established the military camp Vindobona. As a result, today’s cityscape is characterized by the abundance of Baroque buildings created mainly under the rule of Empress Maria Theresia (1740–1780) and Emperor Franz Joseph (1848–1916). They were primarily responsible for the monumental architecture around the Ringstrasse.

Sacher-Torte, the classic chocolate confectionery, is a Viennese invention. So are croissants, associated with the period of failed attempts by the Ottoman Empire to capture the city of Vienna. During the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks wanted to plant the Turkish crescent on Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A Viennese master baker named Peter Wendler created a crescent-shaped pastry to mock the Turkish crescent.

Belvedere Palace today houses the Österreichische Galerie displaying the most extensive collection of works by Klimt (The Kiss) and Schiele. Vienna’s prime landmarks are the gothic Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), the Giant Ferris Wheel in the Prater, Vienna’s old recreational park, and the Spanish Riding School with their world-famous Lipizzaner horses.

Vienna has many museums and galleries of international reputation: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna with the world’s most extensive collection of Bruegel paintings, MuseumsQuartier with the Leopold Museum, Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art), Architekturzentrum (Architectural Centre) and Kunsthalle rank among the city’s most important cultural venues. In addition, the Albertina is home to the world’s most extensive collection of graphic arts and prints (60,000 drawings, 1 million prints).

Inspired by all this art. around me, I revived my watercolour interest. Gordon Mackenzie’s classic “Water Colourist’s Essential Handbook”, acquired in Vienna, revealed the mystery of “Wash”. Wash is the technique of thoroughly wetting the paper so that paint would spread on its own, creating semi-abstract patterns. So, armed with thick, absorbent Acquarello paper and watercolour tubes, I went on an orgy of wash painting. I gave away most of the pictures to colleagues in the Agency.

My interest in waste-to-energy technology made me take the time to visit the Spittelau incinerator. The plant processes around 250,000 tonnes of household waste every year. Around 50 per cent of the energy produced yearly from waste incineration stems from biogenic or renewable sources. It contributes to Vienna’s waste management system. It produces an average of 60 GWh of electricity and 500 GWh of heating, producing energy for around 50,000 Viennese households (and heating and warm water for 60,000). It ranks as one of Vienna’s most striking landmarks, with the huge golden ball on its chimney an integral part of the cityscape. The Municipal incinerator plants rarely become architectural highlights. Friedensreich Hundertwasser redesigned it in his unique style in the 80s after a fire destroyed the original structure built in 1960.

Two Malayali names stand out in my memory of the Vienna days. James Pazhayadath, working in the administrative section, went to great lengths to make my stay in Vienna hassle-free. He was a veteran in Vienna, with his brother working in the Indian embassy. We found that we share a common interest — books in Malayalam. I was impressed by his perseverance and motivation, which helped him to build a beautiful home in the suburbs and convert the compound into a mini-Kerala. Another friend was Dr Alexander Verghese, an economist with UNIDO. I recall many pleasant weekends at his home, meeting many people, including the Indian Ambassador Sri Srinivasan.

My brief tenure at IAEA was great for educational and cultural reasons. I discovered closely how high-profile international organizations work. I learned how to resolve conflicts in meetings with participants from nations with conflicting ideological and political leanings. I knew at close hand how e-office functions. I had to meet and make friends with people from all nationalities. It was a great learning experience.

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Backwater Memories

My father’s elder brother lived in Cochin. We called him Achan. He worked with Volkart Brothers, a Swiss Company and used to live in Lilly Street in Fort Cochin in a house which my Great Grandfather had bought. This had a design developed by the Dutch, a two-storey building with stores, a kitchen etc., on the lower part and living quarters with a wooden floor on the upper floor. The house had walls at least 4 feet thick. We used to listen in horror to the stories told by the servants that the thick walls had ‘kappiris’, negroes buried in them.

My brothers and I would be packed off for a short stay in Cochin during the summer vacation. We accompanied Achan and his family on these trips. The boat trip through the backwaters (Kayal in Malayalam) was an experience out of this world!

Boat trips had a romance, which still has not faded. I have distinct memories of the mannerisms of the ‘serang’, the chug-chug of the boat, and the smell of kerosene mixed with the stench of the backwaters. The trip takes the whole night, leaving the Kottayam boat jetty late evening and reaching Cochin early morning. The boat stops at places with evocative names like Pathiramanal, the mid-night sands and Thanneermukkam, the place of water. Pathiramanal is reached at midnight and is a place for refreshments.

The Kayal stretches from Paravur in the north to Kainakary near Alleppy in the south. It connects to the Arabian sea in Cochin. The Vembanad Lake, located in the low-lying area in the Central Travancore region, was originally a part of the shallow coastal area of the Arabian Sea. The geological uplift had formed a shallow bay in the area, and the rivers were draining into it. The bay ultimately transformed into a brackish water lagoon. National Geographic Magazine declared Vembanadu Lake “one of the fifty destinations to be visited in one’s life time”. Kottayam, where I live, and the nearby Kumarakom are situated by the backwaters.

Vembanad is a victim of many human interventions. The earliest was the dredging of a natural harbour at Kochi and creating a new island for harbour port facilities. Thanneermukkam barrier was constructed in 1976 across Vembanad lake to prevent salinity intrusion to the south during dry seasons. Interventions in the river basins of the wetland system include three completed irrigation projects and nine hydel projects. All these have adversely affected the ecological health of the lake.

My earliest memory of the ‘kayal’ was a long trip in a ‘Kettuvallam’, a large boat made of planks tied together by ropes. The construction creates an ample belly for people to sit. The short platforms at both ends have men standing propelling the boat by pushing against the river’s floor with long bamboo poles. My family was travelling to Kumarakom to participate in a wedding in the family. The destination was a house in Kumarakom, not reachable easily by road.

Before the construction of the Thanneermukkam bund, the people who live by the ‘Kayal’ would face the problem of how to find drinking water in the summer. Their solution was to fill their canoes with pots and reach the landing in our compound, where there was a well with perennial sweet water. For us, the process of the people drawing up water and loading the canoes with the pots and their skilful manoeuvring of the canoes gave great excitement. Our hero was one of the water seekers who would land with a canoe and fill it with water up to the rim. Then, he would row away, crouching on the board in the canoe.

Much later, there were many trips through the backwaters to Kumarakom, Alleppy and Cochin by boats. The annual boat race in the Meenachil River also would give us opportunities to frolic in those waters. Through my father’s generosity, our ‘kara’ would be the proud sponsor of a boat. Occasionally, the children would be allowed to climb onto the boats.

In the seventies, when I worked at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, I had to host Prof Charles Wharton from Cornell University. We were collaborators on a National Science Foundation-funded project in Plasma Physics. I thought the best way to introduce him to the cultural uniqueness of Kerala was to take him there physically. Among the things we enjoyed was an exploration of the Kumarakom backwaters by renting a boat and meandering around the area, occasionally stopping at small shops by the water selling toddy, coffee and snacks.

The lunch at the Taj Kumarakom was memorable. This place region has a slice of history. The hotel used to be the home of an English missionary Henry Baker in the late 19th century. The hotel carries the traditional name of Baker’s house. The resort with 28 luxurious cottages was originally a family estate spread over 15 lush acres.

A poem I wrote about the boat trips in the night to Cochin is given below:

As a recurring summer rite, there was nothing to beat
the vacation trip to Cochin after the schools closed.
Young and old, we all gather together at the jetty
waiting for the journey and a night of sheer delight
The boat, we joked, belonged to the ancient mariner
showing off our English skills to the less endowed
who were, many, with their pots and sacks;
merchants, we were told, in the Mattancherry shops
The boat surges and sways in baby steps
as the serrang deftly manoeuvres it back and forth
to lie by the jetty, urchins jump down to tie it to the post
the boat shall leave in half an hour, someone said
A final siren and the serang climbs down
making his way to the toddy shop for a fix
an indefinable smell of kerosene fumes fills the air
and the stench of the backwaters through which it plies
unmindful of which, we jump in and look for the best seat
An hour is gone, and we finally start the journey
the boat now complete, pots and stacks dumped in a place
faces pushed against the railing, we stare into the water
the jetty lights dissolved in the waves move apart and rejoin
We are now in the river and entering the backwaters
black ink shimmering against the distant palms
The conversations around us wax and wane
The elders slowly nod off to a tired sleep
We speak in hushed tones about the denizens of the deep
And the Yakshis who dwell on the tall trees on the shore
Satiated in dread, we, too drop off to sleep
to dream of distant shores and the streets of Cochin

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From Roja to Rahmania

It was a rainy afternoon. But my friend Sanjay Zaveri insisted that I and my wife, should accompany him to see a film called Roja. He had seen it already but wanted to share its magic with me. The film played in the Advance Theatre in Ahmedabad. So we dutifully filed in to the theatre.

It was magic. The story wasn’t much, but the songs were enchanting and different. The music was composed by A R Rahman, an unknown name. But the songs remained in my memory.

‘Choti Si Asha’, a young girl’s aspirations; Minmini’s voice floating over mountains and rivers like a bird. The deft movements and the quick turns, eventually Rahman’s signatures, could be gently felt. Experts suggest that the song reflects a variant of the reggae form of music.

In ‘Ye Haseen Wadiyan’, the melodic whispering evoked the snows of Kashmir. Another Rahman signature was present in this song with sudden bursts in scale changes. ‘Rukmani’, according to the Outlook magazine, was superb, raunchy urban folk. Rahman achieved the unique feat of receiving the National Award and Tamil Filmfare Award on his debut. Time magazine rated Roja as one of the ten all-time best soundtracks.

In 1995, Rahman gave us Bombay. Its album became the largest selling Indian film album. If Roja was subdued and soft, Bombay soared in scale and tempo. In flute and violin, the Bombay theme was Rahman’s tribute to his mentor, Ilayaraja. ‘Hamma Hamma’ by Remo Fernandez was another irreverent number.

Rahman uses the flute in a sudden move to soften the interlude, a unique trait. The contrast is a respite from the heavy orchestration. ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ wraps a qawwali inside a song. The agile, animated chorus (always an integral part of Rahman’s compositions) plays a companion to the music. More than a song, Tu hi Re is a prayer. Hariharan is down on his knees; his voice saturated with despair.

Rangeela has two songs with the Rahman touch. The earthy ‘Mangta Hai Kya’ by Sweta Shetty and Rahman, and the seductive ‘Hai Rama’ by Swarnlatha and Hariharan. Rahman’s sensual songs are very understated.

In Dil Se, of 1988, Rahman exploits Lata’s high range in ‘Jiya Jale’. ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ has a robust rhythm and is exotic in the folksy voice of Sukhwinder Singh. In 1947: Earth, ‘Ruth A Gayi Re’ brings in the joy of the season, while ‘Raat Ki Dal Dal’, in the backdrop of the horror of Partition where the train carrying the dead stops at the station of death, has great pathos.

In 1999, Rahman scored the hugely popular Taal. In Lagan (2001), for which Rahman won the National Award, recurrent rendering of ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ evokes a sense of rain clouds and cloudbursts in you. In 2000, Rahman crafted another qawwali, ‘Haji Ali’. In Tere Bina from ‘Guru’ the magic is the tarana, ‘Dum dara, dum dara, mast mast’.

Rahman’s music stood out because of his musical transposition of western and classical elements. Despite being an amalgam, these elements are distinctly heard, making his sounds a multi-layered phenomenon. There is no better case in point than his rendition of Vande Mataram, which was a virile declaration of patriotism.

Rahman’s music is a point in the natural trajectory of the evolution of Indian film music. By the mid-1940s, Hindi film songs had started infusing styles from various genres, including jazz, waltz and other western and Latin American genres, with established ragas from Hindustani and Carnatic classical music and regional folk genres. In general, non-Indian elements include Western orchestral accompaniment like that used by Shankar and Jaikishan in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The next phase of evolution in Bollywood music happened in the 1960s and 1970s when composers initiated a paradigm of music-making emphasising rhythm rather than traditional melodies. Music composers during this time incorporated traditional folk and classical songs with upbeat rhythms in tune with the changing trends in Indian society towards dance and other forms of expression. R. D. Burman was untrained in classical music and drew inspiration from world music exposure.

In the 1990s, Rahman composed songs inspired by Sufism. For example, he collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to create the piece “Gurus of Peace” (1997) labelled as “Indipop” in the Indian media. Rahman’s composition, “Khwaja Mere Khwaja,” is dedicated to the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. Rahman’s Sufi music contains qawwali elements and is a unique blend of Bollywood and global pop music that sonically signifies modernity among transnational consumers of Sufi music.

A. R. Rahman’s adoption of technology was a strategic decision. With the ability to store and sample sounds using digital software systems, Rahman was able to control nearly all aspects of musical arrangements and sound production. In an interview with Apple Inc., Rahman shares how Logic, an Apple software, enables him to become a “programmer” who can manipulate sounds to produce a song. His on-the-spot compositional techniques promote creativity as musicians are encouraged to perform more freely during the recording process. Rahman prefers to record a single performer rather than an entire orchestral ensemble in a single go.

Due to a diverse musical background, Rahman appropriates numerous western and Indian styles and genres into his musical compositions that, in turn, appeal to Indian cosmopolitans, urban youth populations throughout the world and a wider global audience.

The first opening moments of “Jai Ho” give listeners a sense that this song is not a typical western pop song. “Jai Ho” incorporates a string orchestra (comprised of an entire string section with basses, cellos, violas and violins) at sporadic moments in the song to emphasise certain melodic lines. Sometimes the strings can be hard to hear and are often mixed well within the overall texture of various instruments and drums.

Rahman’s songs for the Slumdog Millionaire challenge current notions of genre in India. It has been suggested that (1) Rahman’s music has many similarities with Indipop, born in the 1980s. Indipop emerged to challenge the hegemony of popular film songs and has a “preference for guitars and drums. Experts point out that Rahman adds simulated Japanese taiko drums and the dholak to create an overall thunderous rhythmic quality in “Jai Ho”.

Rahman, unlike older film music directors, chooses to use musical aesthetics found in non-film based genres such as techno and rock, to create a highly synthesised, electronically grounded style for his film music and to attract younger, urban middle-class Indian audiences who are the vast majority of the “remix” dance music genre (and Indipop) fans of India. Rahman mixes sounds that include Indipop, techno, and melodic tunes from regional Indian traditions and a diverse array of traditional western and Indian instrumentation to produce desired effects.

As transnational listeners become increasingly familiar with Rahman’s music through Slumdog Millionaire, they join an expanding urban middle-class youth population in India and the diaspora, Rahman’s aficionados. Rahman was an unknown name in the American mainstream before the 2009 Academy Awards. British audiences were familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams of 2006. The Oscar success of Slumdog Millionaire made Rahman a star and gave him commercial traction in the US. iTunes and Amazon.com made Rahman’s music more accessible to western audiences. After the Oscar, Rahman’s older compositions were immediately redistributed on separate compilation albums.

Rahman’s expertise in digital technology and synthesising sounds in ways to produce music that appeals to a global pop music audience makes his music less recognisable as a distinct genre. One editorial review for MTV describes the music for Slumdog Millionaire as a “hip-hop fusion of a very up-to-date kind”. Rahman’s music is often described as a “fusion”, a term used to connote Asian-ness within American culture.

At the beginning of Jai Ho, a movie about Rahman, he says: ‘If music wakes you up, makes you think, heals you, I guess the music is working’. Listening to Rahman certainly makes you think that his music does more than work.

References

1. Master’s Thesis by Stephanie Lou Jackson, Submitted to the Bowling Green State University, August 2010

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An Affinity for Science

Courtesy Pexels

Experiments with strips of films projected onto the wall using sunlight and a lens were the earliest memory of dabbling in science. The hugely magnified faces had specks of dark spots all over them, and I wondered about their origin.

Chemistry taught in the school was fun, especially when accompanied by experiments conducted by T. M. Jacob sir. I remember my happiness when I understood the principle of displacement reaction, where one element exchanges place with another element in the compound. However, chemicals were relatively inaccessible compared to lens, battery and magnets. I remember producing hydrogen through electrolysis and filling balloons.

Two national incidents when I was in the high school, strengthened my growing affinity for science. First, Dr Homi Bhabha established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, in January 1954 to intensify exploiting nuclear energy by pursuing a multidisciplinary research programme. The advertisements about a training programme for recruits opened up dramatic possibilities in the mind of an impressionable young boy.

The other incident was the USSR launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. The newspapers were full of stories of the coming of the space age. Ayyappa Panicker’s poem ‘Hey Gagarin, Gaganacharin’ was a celebration of man’s arrival in space. For an imaginative young person, this was indeed a demonstration of the power of science to beckon us to brave new worlds.

When I went to the University Intermediate College in Trivandrum for my pre-degree course, I stayed in the University Hostel. I had many neighbours who were M. Sc students at the University. Their conversations were very colourful and included topics like the concept of entropy, expanding Universe and the possibility of the heat death of the Universe. It is a fact that these conversations on cosmology and astrophysics went far above my head. But it indeed created a heady excitement about the possibilities of science and strengthened my choice to pursue physics as a career. Quoting Russel (We are but a speck of Carbon crawling on the cosmic dust) and seeing my father’s shocked face was rewarding. He wanted me to join an engineering college. But I convinced him that a career in science is as good as one in engineering, and reluctantly, he agreed.

In St Berchman’s College, where I joined to study for a B.Sc degree in Physics, I found an institution with foundational solid values and high discipline. Prof. S. L. Thomas, with his grand mannerisms, initiated us into the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. Of all his classes, I still remember the last lecture he gave us: a general talk on what science means and how it impacts ordinary life. He talked about energy as the determining parameter controlling the quality of our lives. One of the reasons which firmed up my decision on a research career was this talk.

Mechanics taught by Prof. K. K. John was also fascinating. To be proven that anything thrown into space would travel along a parabolic path with predictable parameters gave great satisfaction. I began to realise, though in a vague, unformed way, the universality of the laws of Physics.

I also learned that I could be very analytical in thinking. The Malayalam drama we had to study was Antigone by Sophocles, taught by P. J. Thomas, a young teacher. He asked us to write an essay on Antigone as a heroine. I decided to depict Antigone with all mortal failings and argue that she transcended mortality through her steadfast loyalty to her father despite these failings. The teacher was very impressed and made complimentary comments about this radical view.

The experiments were fun. I could do all those things with lenses, batteries, and magnets that I had always dreamed about for the first time. I remember enjoying doing electricity and magnetism experiments. The certainty of science was convincingly demonstrated in the experiments when repeated measurements came up with the same answers.

An incident I remember from my B.Sc days was the visit of Dr John Mathai, the Vice-Chancellor of Kerala University, to the college. When he came to our class, he asked the students what they planned to do in life. The dread of attempting an answer in English made the students tongue-tied. Finally, I stood up and said that I wanted to pursue a career in research in a national laboratory. I became a ‘minor celebrity’ because of this answer.

I found a collection of old Scientific American magazine in an inaccessible part of the College library. The rich fare of articles and colourful images further activated my fascination with science. I was equally captivated by the job advertisements, which were a signpost to future possibilities in a career in science.

By this time, I had become a science fiction addict. Stories by Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur Clarke excited me and made me wonder about the impact of technology on our future. Heinlein’s Future History is a series of stories describing the speculated future of the human race from the middle of the 20th century through the early 23rd century. Clarke’s story, “Childhood’s End”, about the end of the earth as a home for humans, profoundly impacted me. His statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” made me wonder about the power of technology. Years later, I would have the opportunity to interact with him during his extended visit to the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, where I would become a faculty member, building the first Plasma Physics Laboratory in India.

My father still cherished the dream that I would pursue a career in engineering. My cousin was studying in the Engineering College in Trivandrum and for my father, this was reason enough to pursue the field. However, I was insistent on continuing with basic science. I finally convinced my father of my plan to do a master’s and follow it with a research career. I enrolled at the Union Christian College in Alwaye for my M.Sc degree classes. I do not remember any inspiring teacher there who could create a spark in physics. Experiments were still fun, now more advanced with electronic circuits, electromagnetism and spectroscopy. I could pass out with a first-class M. Sc degree.

Research, to my unformed mind, was an ideal. Though I wanted to get into research intensely, I did not know precisely how to go about this. Meanwhile, I got an offer for a teaching position at the Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam, and I joined to stay there for two years. I went to New Delhi during a bitter winter and got selected for a CSIR Scholarship in an interview but could not avail of it because I was not enrolled anywhere for research. Letters to heads of departments of various universities seeking a position in research were not replied to. I thought the best thing was a Bharatdarshan; a grand trip to the Universities of North India to talk to them directly. So, in the summer of 1964, I did just that.

The journey saw me going through Madras to Calcutta and towards Delhi. Allahabad and Patna did not impress me. I stopped at Aligarh when heading to Delhi because a friend had great stories about his alma mater. At Aligarh, I walked into the office of Prof. Rais Ahmed, who had recently returned from England and had taken over as the head of the physics department. He was surprised when I introduced myself and said that I wanted to research. He asked me some general questions, which I answered well. I also told him that I had saved some money from my teaching days and was willing to work without immediate financial support. He was indeed impressed by this offer. He managed to get me a Ministry of Education scholarship of Rs. 250 per month, which, among all scholarships, was the most irregular. Months would pass before this money arrived.

So finally, I was ready to start my research career. The topic of the thesis was an experiment to simulate the Luxembourg effect in which the powerful Radio Luxembourg modulated the ionospheric plasma such that weak European stations became gratuitous carriers of Radio Luxembourg. Under the advise of Dr K. A. George from the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research I designed and built a high-power RF oscillator, using World War II vacuum tubes foraged from the Electrical Engineering department. The tubes had no data sheets, and I generated the current-voltage characteristics. The modulated RF discharge plasma was the medium through which an X-band microwave signal propagated and picked up the modulation. The microwave source, transmission lines and power supply were scraped together from another laboratory. My research scholar friends, Subhas Chandra, Yogendra Kumar and Rajeshwari Prasad Mathur, helped me very much to chart the unfamiliar environment and in the process of acculturation.

A few years of profound happiness followed because I was finally doing research and hopefully would create new knowledge. At the end of that, I emerged with a Ph. D degree in Physics and a job as a faculty member in the Physics Department.

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An Edupreneur’s Story

Baby John is in his forties. Above-average height, slightly dark-complexioned, regular features, he has a determined look. He founded the Kerala NEET Academy in Tamilnadu in 2016 and his friend, Sree Murugan Pillai, to prepare students for medical entrance eligibility. By 2019, the centre increased its trainee strength to 1200. During the COVID period, instead of shrinking operations, it expanded to seven centres in Tamilnadu with a total student intake of more than 2000.

In writing on Learning as an economic resource, Jeff Cobb defines the edupreneur as someone who creates a positive value shift with the specific economic resource of “learning.” Byju’s and many other names have blazed a tale of glory and achievement in this sphere. NEET Academy, though smaller in size, certainly illustrates the spirit of start-ups quite well.

Baby John comes from a middle-class Christian family in Kottarakara. Both his parents were government employees. Baby John’s connection with Tamilnadu goes back to when he went there for his college studies in 1999. After getting a Bachelor’s in engineering, he started his career as a lab instructor in an engineering college under the Younus group of Institutions. He took his Masters in engineering and continued in the college to become the Head of the Department. He joined the GISAT engineering college in Kottayam as a Head of the Department in 2015. Subsequently, he did his MBA and LLB. After his studies, he joined a college in Kollam as a teacher. His colleague was Sree Murugan Pillai, and they became close friends.

Even as a child, he dreamed of achieving success. He was inspired by reading Kalam’s Wings of Fire. In his Vision 2020, Kalam spoke of India becoming a developed country by 2020, which impacted Baby John, and he also decided that he would achieve something by that period. Another influence was Kochouseph Chittilapally, a self-made businessman from Trichur. His autobiography “Ormakkilivathil” was inspirational to Baby John.

I met Baby John in 2014 when his wife, Princy, sought a job as the Skyline Hillview Apartments manager, where I was the Secretary of the Owner’s Association, which managed the day-to-day affairs. Princy was brought up in Nagpur and spoke Malayalam with difficulty, and we were not sure whether she could handle the maintenance staff of the apartment. Baby John came with an offer that he, although employed in a nearby engineering college as a lecturer, would spend the mornings, evenings, and holidays at our apartment office, helping his wife manage the system. It was clear that he was a skilled and resourceful person. As a compromise, this arrangement worked perfectly.

In 2016 when the Government of India imposed NEET as mandatory for medical admission, it became apparent that the students would need teaching programmes to prepare them for the NEET examination. Baby John found the opportunity he was waiting for. He discussed this with Sree Murugan Pillai, and they agreed to become partners in the venture. They decided to start the Kerala NEET academy in a 2000 square Ft building near the New Bus Stand in Tirunelveli, TN. They had a capital of Rs. 5 lakhs raised between them. The rest of the investment was their resources and intellect. They brought a group of experienced teachers from Kerala. Tamilnadu had always admired the teaching skills of Kerala teachers.

Baby John believes that his friendship with Sree Murugan Pillai, hard-working, trustworthy and sharing enabled them to work as a close team. Another alliance that helped him in his efforts is that of his wife, Princy. With a management degree, Princy took over the administrative responsibilities of the Academy with ease. Princy joined the Thirunelveli activities in the second year of the starting of the centre when they moved into a 30,000 sq. ft place.

Tirunelveli, alias Nellai in Tamilnadu, is a 2000-year-old city located on the West bank of Thamirabarani. This is the sixth-largest city in Tamilnadu, which became prominent during the Pandya Regime and served as their capital for some time. Tirunelveli, along with its twin town Palayamkottai is also one of the oldest Christian centres in Tamilnadu. It is now an industrial city specialising in the manufacture of textiles, cigars and jewellery. The city is also known as the Oxford of South India.

NEET Academy started in May 2016 in the NGO Colony near the New Bus Stand in Tirunelveli in a 2000 square feet area building with seven students. By the end of the course, they had 32 students: two classrooms, an office and restrooms. Baby John remained in Kottayam and would travel to Tirunelveli weekly to monitor the activities. He and Sree Murugan Pillai would chauffeur the cars to carry the teachers from Kerala to Tirunelveli. They would campaign in 6 southern districts of TN for students.

Tamilnadu had always opposed NEET, relying on the final 12th Standard marks to measure medical college eligibility. To start the Academy in a state radically opposed to NEET caused unique problems. There are also irritants in the relationship between Tamilnadu and Kerala, such as the issue of the Mullaperiar dam. Local flare-ups due to Jellikattu and the passing of the Chief Minister Miss Jayalalitha, affected the work at the centre.

They faced many problems but approached each situation as an opportunity. Take the case of the expansion of the Academy. This causes so many issues related to the requirement for more space and facilities. Getting the right staff for the right job has remained a persistent problem. Competition from 35 new centres which sprang up in Tirunelveli alone was another problem, although the Kerala NEET Academy had always surpassed them in terms of performance. But fortunately for Baby John, very few survived. The good first-year results of the Kerala academy turned people in their favour.

After setting up the NEET centre at Tirunelveli and moving there, Baby John would frequently meet me. I became a member of the advisory committee for the Kerala NEET Academy and used to attend the annual review meetings held in exotic locations in Kerala. When he visited me recently in Kottayam, we spoke about how he fared during the COVID times, and I thought his story was inspiring enough to be written up.

The NEET Academy uniquely faced the COVID-imposed crisis. Instead of closing down the activities, the Academy responded with renewed vigour. Two online platforms were adapted for continuing the classes. It was also decided to start new centres outside Thirunelveli. Nagercoil and Madurai centres began in the first wave of covid. Theni, Sivakasi, Thenkasi and Thoothukudi started in June 2022. A good outcome of covid was the availability of qualified staff because of layoff from other centres. The decision to expand was also based on the thought that it should become a source of strength for others by providing employment. A major problem they faced was the stopping of interstate transport as bringing faculty from Kerala was severely affected by this. Nevertheless, by the end of the COVID period, the strength had risen to 2000.

I was curious to know what drives him. He says: “Even as a child, with elder sisters, I had to be a leader. In whatever I do, I have always strived to find simplified ways of getting things done. I have applied this principle to work as well as to life. I have tried to learn lessons from everyone and everything I have been involved with. I also realised that many fail because of a lack decision-making capacity.”

What next? Baby John’s busy brain is planning the future. But one thing is sure. He is seeking ways to improve the prospects of people who are working with them. A businessman has the freedom and resources to do things for others. He intends to exploit this fully.

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Ambient Pressure Cold Plasma Jets

Courtesy FCIPT IPR Gandhinagar

The great American scientist Irving Langmuir was the first to use the term plasma in 1927 to describe the glowing, ionised state of matter, which hugged the contour of a glass vessel in which it was produced. Plasma is a fluid of electrons and ions and can take a variety of forms and be created using many methods. Most of the matter in the Universe is found in this form. The Sun, stars, nebulas, auroras and flashes of lightning are plasma manifestations. Neon signs which make our cities come alive at night and fluorescent lamps which light up our homes are artificial plasmas.

When plasma is produced by ionising a gas by an electrical discharge, like in a welding arc, the electrons absorb energy from the electric field and, being highly mobile, collide among themselves frequently and randomise their energy. Their temperature can reach many thousands of degrees Kelvin. When they collide with ions and neutral molecules, they transfer a small fraction (proportional to the electron-ion mass ratio) of their energy. Collisions being frequent at atmospheric pressure, the electrons and heavy particles reach a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, despite the low energy transfer fraction. As a result, all the species in the plasma remain at almost the same temperature. Such plasmas produced in arcs or lightning can reach temperatures over 10,000 degrees and are called the equilibrium of hot plasmas.

When the pressure is low, as in the Neon tube or fluorescent lamps, the collisions between electrons and heavier particles occur less frequently. The electrons remain hot while the heavier particles remain cold; there is no thermodynamic equilibrium. The electrons have a very high temperature (up to a few eV, 1 eV ≈ 11,600 K), whereas the temperature of heavy particles is relatively low. For this reason, they are called non-equilibrium or cold plasma. The presence of highly energetic electrons facilitates electron impact excitation, ionisation and dissociation of molecules at low gas temperatures. The presence of all these species makes cold plasmas chemically very active.

Can we make cold plasma in ambient atmospheric pressure? The trick is to realise that inelastic collisions with molecules drain the electron energy very efficiently. So if we switch off the electric field after the plasma is formed, the transfer of energy from electrons to neutrals can be switched off. This is called pulsed plasma. A repetitive train of pulses will create fresh bursts of short-lived plasma with energetic electrons and cold neutrals. This is one of the schemes invented by Plasma physicists for producing atmospheric pressure cold plasmas.

Cold plasma generated at atmospheric pressure contains reactive species like electrons, ions, free radicals, excited atoms, UV photons etc. These species drive gas-phase chemistry at a low gas temperature very efficiently. This has led to their finding use in fields that require low temperatures, such as biomedical applications and material processing. In recent years, many devices have been invented to produce cold plasma in ambient pressure and nearly room temperature (less than 40°C) at the contact zone.

One of the most versatile manifestations of the CAP plasma is the non-thermal ambient pressure plasma jets, not confined within electrodes or discharge tubes. As a result, objects, irrespective of their shape and size, can be directly exposed to the jet and receive active radicals and charged particles. Koinuma and colleagues first developed the CAP plasma jet in 1992 (1). They used an RF source for excitation.

Despite appearing homogenous to the naked eye, CAP plasma jet is discrete in nature when observed using fast imaging. This is because the plasma volume consists of discrete structures, which propagate at speeds of more than a few km/sec.

Another widely used technique for generating CAP plasma is the dielectric barrier discharge (DBD), excited by alternating or pulsed voltages with at least one of the two electrodes covered with a dielectric layer. The function of this layer is to limit the discharge current and thus suppress the transition of the glow discharge into a high current spark or arc discharge. The typical electrode gap in a DBD ranges from 0.1 mm to several centimetres. The dielectric materials used are glass, quartz, ceramics and polymers etc. They are powered by high voltage sources, which operate in frequencies in the kHz range. The geometries may be parallel plates or coaxial cylinders with a dielectric between them.

Fridman and co-workers (2) have developed a floating electrode DBD (FE-DBD). It consists of two electrodes: an insulated high voltage electrode and an active electrode. The difference between FE-DBD and DBD is that the second electrode is active, capacitively coupled to the ground. The second electrode can be the human body or any other target.

DBD plasma has a filamentary structure. However, DBDs can also produce homogeneous diffuse plasma. To make a glow DBD, a Townsend breakdown must be initiated instead of a streamer breakdown. The residual species from an earlier pulse of the applied voltage provide the seed electrons or enhance the initial field for the next discharge cycle. DBDs can be converted into plasma jets, powered by KHz ac, RF or pulsed dc sources.

A corona discharge is a crown-like glow around a sharp metallic object, like a pin. The sharp edge enhances the electric field near the electrode edge, with the field falling off with distance. The electric field strength is high enough to form a conductive region but insufficient to cause a full electrical breakdown of the gas. Instead, the gas breaks down near the sharp electrode and includes a non-equilibrium plasma.

A corona discharge can be powered by DC, AC, or pulsed voltage. It is ubiquitous in such applications as ozone synthesis, material processing, water purification, electro-photography, copier machine etc. This type of plasma provides substantial flexibility in treating various products and materials used in the medical industry; for example, syringe barrels, pill bottles, catheter tubing, IV tubes and surgical gowns etc. Cold plasma from corona discharge finds extensive use in a broad range of plasma processing applications.

Liberating cold plasmas from the confines of a vacuum chamber has dramatically impacted their industrial, environmental, agricultural and biological applications. They find extensive use in material processing, environmental remediation, nano-material synthesis, textile industry, food processing and biomedical applications etc. With the realisation of cold plasma at atmospheric pressure, high-speed processing of fibres, wovens and powders incompatible with vacuum processing becomes possible. Cold plasmas are permeating into newer and newer application areas, limited only by the innovator’s imagination.

References

“Cold Atmospheric Pressure Plasma Technology for Biomedical Application by Rakesh Ruchel Khanikar and Heremba Bailung” in https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/77718A is a detailed report on this topic.

1. Koinuma H, Ohkubo H, Hashimoto T, Inomata K, Shiraishi T, Miyanaga A and Ihayashi S (1992) Development and application of a microbeam plasma generator Appl. Phys. Lett. 60 816–817
2. Fridman G, Peddinghaus M, Ayan H, Fridman A, Balasubramanian M, Gutsol A, Brooks A and Friedman G (2006) Blood coagulation and living tissue sterilisation by floating-electrode dielectric barrier discharge in air Plasma Chem. Plasma Process. 26 425–442

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Voices From Behind the Glass Wall

Photo Courtesy IStock

The child sits in a corner, aloof and not looking at anything. It is as if he perceives the world from behind a glass wall. It becomes quite impossible for them to connect to anything on the other side of the wall. Even the closest relatives are a riddle to them. They see them, they hear them, but from a distance.

We were at the Jewel Autism Centre in Kottayam (1), run by Dr Jameson Samuel and his wife, Dr Jency Blesson. Jewel Autism Centre is a clinic founded in 2008 to fill in the gaps in a child’s developmental history. Jewel Autism Centre is a unique interdisciplinary child developmental therapy clinic in India specially meant for children with autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities.

Dr Jameson Samuel has close to two decades of experience as an Occupational Therapist & Child Psychologist with the World Health Organization. He voluntarily left his job to dedicate his time and efforts to ensuring a normal life for kids with autism. He is a consultant and advisor for various organisations in Europe and Asia in autism. In addition, he works as a resource person for various child development and educational centres in India.

Dr Jency Blesson, a PhD in Molecular Biology, was the Head of R&D of a leading drug company in Kerala. She has several papers in peer-reviewed international journals and has a gene to her credit in American Gene Bank. She looks after the Administration department, Research and Development team, Recruitments, International and National collaborations of this Centre.

We spoke to Jency for a long time, trying to understand the disorder and what is being done in the Centre to bring in changes in the patients enabling them to overcome their condition. I summarise below what I learned.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of neurodevelopmental disorders that typically appears during early childhood. It is characterised by difficulties in social interaction, communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviour, and sensory sensitivities. It is called a ‘spectrum’ disorder because it is influenced by different combinations of genetic and environmental factors and affects people differently and to varying degrees. ASD occurs across all ethnic, racial, and economic groups(2). The characteristic behaviour pattern includes avoiding eye contact, problems with emotional control, inability to empathise with others and a dampened range of activities and interests. ASD occurs in about 1–2% of the population.

A set of genes and genetic pathways contributing to the formation, stabilisation, and maintenance of functional synapses are associated with ASD (2). This linkage potentially promises possibilities for new therapeutic interventions. Risk is enhanced by having genetic conditions like Down Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome or Rett Syndrome. Persons with ASD generally have difficulties in Communication and Social Interactions. They also show restricted interests and sensitivities to sensory inputs. A person with autism may show some of these signs to varying degrees.

An autistic individual may have trouble conversing and interacting with others. Recurrently repeat words or phrases, they may be obsessed with specific topics, such as numbers, details, or facts. They may also be fascinated with moving objects and are easily disturbed by changes in their routine. Autistic people may be both hyper-sensitive and hypo-sensitive to a broad class of stimuli. ASD may also be onnected to intellectual disability, epilepsy, gastro-intestinal issues, ADHD, dyspraxia, anxiety or depression.

Autism has been treated either in a focused manner concentrating on specific aspects or comprehensively (2). The first approach includes prompting, reinforcement, discrete trial teaching, social stories, or peer-mediated interventions. These are designed to produce improvements in specific aspects and used for a limited period to demonstrate a change in the targeted behaviours. On the other hand, the comprehensive treatment models are a set of practices performed over an extended period, intense application, and usually have multiple components.

However, research has shown that treatment for children who have had an early diagnosis (by ages 2 or 3) is more likely to succeed than those who receive the treatment later. In the immediate context of a child, therapy is successful if the child can fulfil the therapist’s goals after a detailed diagnosis. On a broader outlook, the child’s improved functioning over a defined period in the areas diagnosed to be of concern may be a measure of success.

I wanted to know why she left an excellent career in molecular biology to become the Joint Director of the Centre, essentially acting as its public face. She says: “Even when I was busy in my earlier career, I used to come to the Centre run by my husband on week ends and try to help. Those days we had no administrative support. I became a voluntary administrator. Then as the Centre began growing and the number of patients started increasing, I realised that my real calling was to take care of the autistic children. So I gave up my regular job, got some specialised training and joined the Centre in a full time capacity.”

She says that the source of her altruism comes from her mother and grandfather. Her grandfather would give away his pension to needy people without any hesitation.

To my question about her most memorable patient, she says: “I remember a child and his mother. He would never ask for food. The mother insisted that that she would change this. One day she told him that she would not feed him unless he asked for food. After a long time , late in the night, the child demanded food. That was a change!”

She believes that her work does not affect her family life because the entire family is involved in running the Centre. Her daughter, Jewel, chose to become an intern at the Centre, spending time after school. She helps with administration and documentation. The documentation is impressive since CDs on each of the 280 odd patients are routinely prepared for review.

In the book “Through the Glass Wall: Journeys Into the Closed-Off Worlds of the Autistic,” Howard Buten writes (3) “The psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who named the condition in 1943, probably had the simplest, most telling point of view. His distinguishing descriptive criterion was the “air of aloneness” that he observed in these children-the quality they had of behaving as if they were absolutely alone when they were not alone: not noticing others, not reacting to others. To me, it is the presence of this invisible wall that most distinguishes autism from other handicaps and pathologies, and the reason for which autism has often been classified as a communication disorder.”

References

  1. https://www.jewelautismcentre.com/about-us/
  2. Hye Ran Park et. al A Short Review on the Current Understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders, Exp Neurobiol. 2016 Feb; 25(1): 1–13.Published online 2016 Jan 28. DOI: 10.5607/en.2016.25.1.1
  3. Through the Glass Wall: Journeys Into the Closed-Off Worlds of the Autistic” Howard Buten (2004) Bantam

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