While I was studying in Mumbai, an international oceanographic expedition to the Indian Ocean was in progress. I had gone ahead and applied to Harvard to work in biological oceanography. One of the Harvard oceanographers, Giles Mead, was in Mumbai on a cruise as a part of the ocean expedition and asked me to look him up at his hotel. He interviewed me at length in a most relaxed fashion and decided that I was the tiger’s whiskers, or, in marine terminology, the catfish’s barbels. So, I was accepted to Harvard. Sulochana was doing her MSc in mathematics at Pune University, and given her excellent grades and recommendations from her teachers, she was also readily accepted by Harvard as a graduate student under the Committee on Applied Mathematics. We were married after getting our respective master’s degrees, and in September 1965 proceeded to Cambridge, Massachusetts to do our PhDs.
Harvard University warmly welcomed both of us, not only with fellowships but also with a local host family – Albert and Kathy Ruesink – to help us get settled. Albert was doing a PhD in plant physiology and Kathy was a research assistant in the same laboratory. When we landed at Boston, Albert was at the airport with his car to take us to the “married student apartment” that had been assigned to us. The next day he took me to the campus, saying, let me introduce you to some scientists working in ecology and evolution. We walked over to the Museum of Comparative Zoology and past the animal collections stacked on wooden shelves. The first scientist we met was Howard Barraclough Fell, the curator of invertebrates. He was sitting with a tray of sea urchins before him and busily examining them as we knocked and went in. Albert introduced us and left. Fell asked me about my scientific interests, and we chatted for a while. He then said, “So, you are going to be Giles Mead’s student!” and conducted me to Mead’s office in the basement. Giles Mead welcomed me warmly; for the next four years I was to have a marvellous time as a part of his international gang of fish-loving and scuba-diving students.
30 students were accepted as graduate students in biology at Harvard that year. On the first day of the semester, we were given a training evaluation examination. I had been taught very little in our formal courses but had learnt a lot on my own and was pleasantly surprised not to be found deficient in any subject and to be given the freedom to choose the courses that I must take to fulfil the requirement of four courses per semester over the first two years.
For the first semester, I selected two laboratory courses – one on algal physiology and biochemistry and another on genetics – a lecture course on evolutionary biology, and an introductory course on calculus to start making up for the deficiency in my formal training in mathematics.
The very first course I attended, on algal physiology and biochemistry, was taught by a young assistant professor, Johann Hellebust. After the laboratory session he told us we were free to leave. As I was going out, I noticed that he himself was washing all the glassware we students had used in the experiment. I was astonished. This was obviously a vastly different culture from that at the Institute of Science in Mumbai. It was unthinkable for the Mumbai faculty to do any manual work; there were lots of peons hanging around for this. What was worse, the faculty members never thought of doing any scientific research themselves apart from the few classes they taught.
The director of the Institute – let us give him a pseudonym, CU Bachchu –was utterly lazy and would have his research assistant write up all his lecture notes on a set of blackboards, which he would then read out to us displaying few signs of understanding. His strength was that he came from a family of wealthy mango orchard owners from Konkan, so he had been able to go to England for a PhD from Plymouth University. On returning to India, he did no further research except to assign his PhD students various topics he had picked up from his fellow students at Plymouth and ask them to read the literature and to go ahead and write their theses with no further guidance from him.
This resulted in second-rate imitative research; nevertheless, it would be published, and he always had his name as a joint author on the publications of his PhD students. With high-quality alphonso mangoes from his family orchard sent as presents to the various ministers and secretaries in government, his steady rise in the hierarchy was ensured. My own experience with the dissertation I did at the Institute on Coilia dussumieri had been shocking. I was merely pointed to theses on other fish species, all in a set mould, and was expected to produce one more piece of imitative work. This was not to my taste, and I read up much other literature and did a dissertation which introduced many elements different from those in the theses of other students of our Institute. Despite all this, I was expected to publish the paper along with the faculty guide, which I flatly refused. All of this was so utterly different from the behaviour of the two genuine scholars I knew well, my father and Irawati Karve, that I found it revolting.
I not only wanted to learn biology but to understand how Harvard and other centres of first-rate research in North America and Europe stimulated advances in science coupled with their rapid application to develop advanced technologies, often as tools of domination of the rest of the world, whether through war or trade.
Perhaps the most notable example of this is the atom bomb, made possible by Albert Einstein’s deep insight that matter can be converted into energy. Einstein had to leave Germany for the United States and when the Second World War broke out in 1939, worried that Hitler’s Germany might create an atom bomb and come to dominate the world, Einstein along with other leading scientists convinced President Roosevelt that the USA should produce the atom bomb on its own. That led to the establishment of the top-secret Manhattan Project headquartered at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where leading physicists of the United States were brought together to develop the atom bomb. James B Conant, president of Harvard University, chaired the National Defense Research Committee and oversaw vital wartime research projects, including the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs. He was part of the interim committee that advised President Harry S Truman to use atomic bombs on Japan, a decision opposed by Einstein. The key computations for the development of the atomic bomb were carried out at the IBM Computer Center at Harvard University.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, the US authorities were confident of being the only superpower in the world with nuclear weapons capable of dominating all other countries. They were in for a rude shock when the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atomic weapon test at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949. The key Soviet informant was Klaus Fuchs, a theoretical physicist from Germany who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Fuchs was responsible for many significant theoretical calculations relating to the first nuclear weapons and, later, early models of the hydrogen bomb. American politicians then began to view all scientists with suspicion and even went to the extent of accusing Oppenheimer, the man responsible for the successful execution of the project to develop the atom bomb, of being a spy. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican US senator from the state of Wisconsin, became the most visible public face of this in which Cold War tensions fuelled fears of widespread communist subversion. McCarthy alleged that numerous communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers had infiltrated the United States federal government, universities and film industry. As a result, the scientific community in US universities had to face tremendous political pressures, but it proved itself capable of confronting and overcoming this challenge.
Excerpted with permission from A Walk Up the Hill: Living with People and Nature, Madhav Gadgil, Penguin India.