Krishnan Kariamanikkam Srinivasa


It is better –- much better — to have wisdom and knowledge than gold and silver.
Proverbs, xvi, 16

What is remarkable about Krishnan is not that he is a great scientist but something much more. He is a perfect citizen, a whole man with an integrated personality.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Sir K.S. Krishnan won his scientific spurs by opening peep-holes into the interiors of molecules. One such peep-hole was provided by his collaboration in the discovery of the Raman Effect (C.V. Raman was his mentor and guide at the time) Another was the invention of an ingenious experimental technique to establish correlations between the magnetic properties of crystals and their internal architecture. A third was the mapping of the energy distribution of electrons in graphite crystals. Lest one should imagine that all this was the pastime of a curious mind, with little or no practical consequence, I must hasten to add that the present flood of synthesis –- from dyes and drugs, paints and plastics to fuels and fabrics – is the outcome of a deeper knowledge of the solid state of matter acquired through these and allied techniques.
Jagjit Singh in Some Eminent Indian Scientists

Kariamanikkam Srinivasa Krishnan (KSK) is mostly known as co-discoverer of the famous Raman effect, a discovery which brought the first and till date the only Nobel Prize in Science to India. The Prize was awarded to Krishnan’s mentor and research guide C.V. Raman in 1930. A lot of unnecessary controversies were raised and still continue to be raised on the point that KSK was not given due credit for his part in the discovery. In fact some have even gone to the extent that it was KSK who had discovered the Raman Effect and Raman took the entire credit for it. But Krishnan himself had no grievance for it. KSK, in one conversation with S. Ramaseshan, had said : ”It is a blatant misrepresentation. The best I can say is that I participated actively in the discovery….” On being asked that Raman was being accused of taking away the lion’s share of the credit of the discovery KSK replied. “…that is another misrepresentation. Professor never tried to do this. If you read the Nobel lecture, which is a true and honest account of the progress and history of the subject, Professor names all his collaborators in order starting with K. R. Ramanathan giving everyone (and including me) his due credit. Again and again in public lectures he always mentioned that I collaborated with him in the discovery of the effect and that our collaboration was similar to that of Bowen and Millikan which was praise indeed”.

It was also pointed out by Krishnan that while recommending Krishnan for a professorship at the Andhra University Raman wrote to the Vice Chancellor . “If the Nobel Award for physics made in 1930 had been for the work done in the year 1928 alone instead of the entire work on the scattering of light done at Calcutta from 1921 onwards, Krishnan could justly have come in for the share of the prize.” The citation for the Nobel Prize also stated that the Prize was given to Raman for his work on the scattering of light and the discovery of the effect named after him. In reality there is no controversy. It was Raman who deserved the Prize. In this connection it is worthwhile to note from the preface by G. Baskaran of the Institute of Mathematical Science, Chennai. to the Special Section on K.S. Krishnan Birth Centenary in Current Science. Baskaran wrote : “It is my personal opinion, that Raman –Krishnan controversy is no controversy … Raman, a great scientist, was in a tireless pursuit of an important phenomenon and was fortunate to get a young and great student like KSK. A careful look at KSK’s diary as reported in G. Venkataraman’s book and a host of other factors clearly illustrate this – Raman deserved the Nobel Prize for the Raman effect. And the then young Krishnan grew into a great scientist on his own right.” This fact that Krishnan himself was a very distinguished scientist in his own right and not to be remembered only because he was co-discoverer of Raman effect needs to be highlighted.

KSK was an outstanding physicist of international repute. He made pioneering contributions in a number of fields of physics. He had the ability to recognize and exploit connection between phenomena in different fields of physics.

KSK played an important role in the development of science and technology in India. He was deeply associated with the premier scientific/educational organizations in the country like the Atomic Energy Commission, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the University Grants Commission. He was a great teacher, a real guru in the tradition of great ancient sages. Besides being a ‘complete physicist’ he was ‘a whole man with an integrated personality’. He was a staunch nationalist. He forcefully championed the cause of science writing in mother tongue. He himself ably performed the task in Tamil. He was a distinguished writer in Tamil. Thus G. Baskaran wrote : “Conveying the essence of science and its excitement in an understandable way to a layman or a non-expert is an art that few scientists have mastered. This has its very important role and value in society. It is also an important duty of the science community that is being neglected in modern times. KSK had this skill as it is clear from his many articles on science and related issues in Tamil and English as well as the talks that he has given in All India Radio. He was an ardent spokesman for science.

KSK strongly believed that one can convey even very complicated scientific facts in his mother tongue. His scholarship and appreciation of Tamil literature must have given the gift to perform this task with ease. In one of his articles he speaks of his school science teacher Thirumalai Kozhunthu Pillai, who enthused the students by teaching science in a understandable way in chaste Tamil. Listening to him he got the conviction that difficult scientific concepts could be conveyed in Tamil. “

He was an sports enthusiast and played tennis, bridge and football. He had mastery over Sanskrit and Tamil literature. Inspired by his father, KSK since his childhood developed an abiding love of religion and Indian philosophies. Many people have noted that it was a pleasure to listen him. He could always find an appropriate anecdote to drive home a moral or disarm a critic or just to entertain’.

KSK was born on 4 December 1898, in the village of Wartrap, in the Ramnad (then Tiruneveli) District of Tamilnadu (then a part of the Madras Presidency). His father was a school teacher. After schooling in his village school and at the Hindu High School at the neighbouring town Srivilliputtur he studied in the American College, Madurai and Christian College Chennai (then Madras). KSK’s interest for science grew in his school days. To quote Krishnan : “My first love for science came in my fourth form (class 9) in my high school in 1911. Even though my teacher was not a professional scientist, he was good at explaining science in a clear and captivating fashion. His lessons not only sunk deep into our mind but also made us crave for more science. Whether it is physics, geography or chemistry, his teaching style was unique. He did not simply reproduce the lessons from the book. He demonstrated many simple experiments for us and also encouraged us to do experiments ourselves. Very few teachers I know are of this type, and I feel fortunate to have had him as my first science teacher… My real involvement in science came after a year, when my physics teacher asked us to write an “essay” about an instrument that I constructed on my own, for measuring the density of solids. A few days later I learned that my instrument is nothing new and it was invented by Nicholas many years ago. “The Nicholas hydrometer” was by then text book material.”

After taking a master degree in physics KSK became a demonstrator in chemistry. Here, at the request of some of his students, KSK organized an informal lunch-hour discussion where the students were free to discuss any question in physics, mathematics or chemistry. It became so popular that students from nearby colleges started attending it. Often the big gallery of the lecture room used to be full to over flowing. G. Venkataraman in his book, Journey Into Light : Life and Science of Raman, a marvellous biography of Raman has written : “Krishnan took a master’s degree in physics but the only opening then available to him was a Demonstrator in chemistry in Madras Christian College. During this period, Krishnan ran an informal but highly successful lunch-hour discussion on diverse topics in physics and chemistry which soon began to attract participants from other colleges as well. One beneficiary later remarked that he had learned more physics from the lunch-break seminars than from regular class-room lectures.”

In 1920, Krishnan went to work with C.V. Raman at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata (then Calcutta). About his joining Raman’s research group, Krishnan later wrote : “I relinquished the small job I had and decided to do research in physics and went to Prof. C.V. Raman at Calcutta. But, he did not agree for my starting research immediately. Only after learning various aspects of physics properly at Calcutta University for two years was I able to join his research group. I had the good fortune of having a five year “Gurukula Vasam’ there. These five years turned out to be a festive season in my science life”. KSK worked very hard. It is said that his work in the laboratory began at 6 a.m., often after an early walk and an cold bath. But his interests were not confined to research alone. He also studied a lot of literature, religion and philosophy. One will get a glimpse of the breadth of Krishnan’s reading habit and his source of his inspiration from the following remarks made by Krishnan in a radio broadcast :

Thackeray, Stevenson, Cervantes, Dumas and Victor Hugo and Conan Doyle linger in my memory as my favourite authors at this time, Plato and Aristotle in translations, Shakespeare, Some of them naturally stand out much more prominently than others in my memories. I should specially mention Don Quixote, Pickwick Papers, Vanity Fair and Book(s) of Snobs, Essays of Elia, Essay and Discourses of Stuart Mill, some of the prose writings of Swift and Allice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, most of which I have re-read later.

Among the popular scientific books that made a great impression on me I should specially mention Tyndall’s Fragments, Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, Men of Mathematics by Eric Bell, A Mathematician’s Apology by Hardy and the biographies of Kelvin, Helmholtz, Lord Rayleigh, Maxwell and Tait.

Among the serious scientific writings, the collected papers of Lord Rayleigh have been my constant companion for nearly 38 years and I cannot think of a better model for a research worker. One of the research papers of Einstein I have read off and on during the same period, and every time by read it I get something new out of it. Some of the papers of Niels Bohr had over me even more profound influence.”

Besides his research work and general reading he also took active interest in sports. He was a good football player. And he was a frequent visitor to the Eden Gardens for watching a football match. He used to play bridge and also tennis. He used to take a very lively interest in political movement. But all this did not affect the quality or quantity of his scientific work. At the instance of Raman he engaged himself in experimental study of the scattering of light in a large number of liquids, and its theoretical interpretations. He played a significant role in the discovery of Raman Effect. It is important to note that though Krishnan played an important role in the discovery the Raman Effect he did not pursue this subject in later part of his career. He worked in fields like magnetism, thermal conductivity and thermionics.

Arnold Sommerfeld visited Calcutta in October 1928 to give lectures on ‘Modern Developments in Wave Mechanics’. KSK assisted Sommerfeld to prepare a book based on the lectures for publication by the Calcutta University. It was not just simply reproduction of the lectures. He developed the lectures in an independent and original way, supplying new and elegant mathematical proofs. Sommerfeld commended for KSK’s originality and scholarship. In fact it is said that Sommerfeld offered to publish the book under joint authorship. However, the offer was politely declined by KSK.

In December 1928 KSK moved to the Dacca University (now in Bangladesh) as the Reader of in the physics Department. At the time Satyendra Nath Bose was the Head of the Physics Department. In Dacca University he studied magnetic properties of crystals in relation to their structure. In the process KSK developed elegant and precise experimental technique to measures the magnetic anisotropy of dia – and paramagnetic crystals. The research papers published by KSK and his colleagues from Dacca University are considered to be foundation stones of the modern fields of crystal magnetism and magneto chemistry. In 1933 KSK came back to Kolkata to take up the post of Mahendralal Sircar Professor of Physics in the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. He continued to study of magnetic properties of crystals in relation to their structure.

In 1937, KSK was invited by Lord Rutherford to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and by Sir William Lawrence Bragg to the Royal Institution, London, to give lectures.

In 1942, KSK moved to Allahabad University as Professor and Head of the Department of Physics. Here he took up the physics of solids, in particular metals.

In 1948, KSK took over the directorship of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) set up by free India as one of the national laboratories under the aegis of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). In NPL, besides carrying out his administrative responsibilities, he continued his activities in his chosen fields of research. He also turned his attention to problem in the thermionics, a branch of electronics dealing with the emission of electrons from matter under the influence of heat.

KSK received a number of honours both in India and abroad. In 1948 he became the General President of Indian Science Congress. The title of Padma Bhusan was awarded to him by the Govt. of India in 1954. In 1955, the US National Academy of Science invited KSK to be the guest speaker at their Annual Dinner. He was specially flown over to America for the purpose. It was a rare privilege. Earlier this privilege was enjoyed by only the Presidents of the Royal Society of London, of the Royal Netherlands Academy and of the Swedish Academy. Here he delivered a lecture on cultural values in technical education. Hasbrouck van Vleck (1899-1980) pioneer in the development of modern quantum mechanical theory of magnetism and who got Nobel Prize in 1977 commented on this lecture. “He (Krishnan) quoted extensively from Whitehead and it was his speech that prompted me to read some of Whitehead’s writings.” Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the British mathematician, physicist and philosopher, pioneered (alongwith Bertrand Russel) in mathematical logic and foundations of mathematics.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1940. He was Knighted in 1946. In 1956, he was elected a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences. KSK was the first recipient of the Bhatnagar Memorial Award in 1961. The Govt. of India made him a National Professor. KSK was a founder member of the International Union of Crystallography. Among the other members were Max Theodor Felix Von Laue (1879-1960) and William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971). He was President of the National Academy of Sciences and also of its predecessor National Institute of Sciences of India. He was the Vice President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and International Council of Scientific Unions.

KSK died on June 13, 1961. We would like to end this write-up by quoting from an article on Krishnan by Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist of science and who has worked on Krishnan and his NPL days: “When NPL was being built there were two trees in front which were creating problems. The builders decided to cut them down. When the axe was about to fall, Krishnan was just driving in. He stopped, astonished and horrified and then came running up to the tree cutters jabbering in his not too articulate Hindi. Seeing Krishanan’s distress, Kanvinde, the architect, also rushed to the scene. Krishnan asked them `Why are you cutting down these trees ?’ The architect answered ‘Sir, we thought they looked asymmetrical in the landscape’. Krishnan fell silent and then replied, `You can still create symmetry. Not by cutting down a tree but by adding one more’. The aesthetics of the man who loved Whitehead and admired Pavlova is captured in this vignette.”


1 – Current Science (A monthly journal of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore) vol. 75, No. 11. 1988. This issue contains a special section on KS Krishnan brought out on the occasion of his birth centenary. The following articles in this section may be appropriate for general readers.

i. K.S. Krishnan : Birth Centenary by E.S. Raja Gopal.

ii. “K.S. Krishnan : A pioneer in condensed matter physics by T.V. Ramakrishnan

iii. K.S. Krishnan the complete physicist by R. Sundaram.

iv. A conversation with K.S. Krishnan on the story of the discovery of the Raman Effect by S. Ramascshan.

v. The tragedy of K.S. Krishnan : A sociological fable by Shiv Visvanathan

2 – Journey into light : Life and Science of Raman by G. Venkataraman. Indian Academy of Sciences. Bangalore, 1988.

3 – Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the National Institute of Sciences of India Vol. 2 National Institute of Sciences of India (presently known as Indian National Science Academy): New Delhi 1970 (The memoir of Krishnan published in this volume was written by Kathleean Lousdale and H.J. Bhabha).

4 – Some Eminent Indian Scientists (Fourth edition) by Jagjit Singh, Publication Division, Govt of India, New Delhi . 1991.