The Return of Vamana

The Return of Vamana

S Ranganathan
INAE Distinguished Professor
Indian Institute of Science
Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research
& National Institute of Advanced Studies

Even as the girl in Malgudi adjusts with one hand the Mysuru Mallige, the other hand is twirling the knob of the Ipod-nano. Nano is everywhere. The textile industry markets nanotech shirt. The cosmetics industry goes gaga over ancient Kajal and then wants to add that most beautiful of all molecules- the buckminsterfullerene- to the powder. In its more powerful form it allows in an inexorable fashion the implementation of Moore’s Law, formulated over forty years ago. The law states that the number of transistors doubles every eighteen months. It has a corollary that the cost of the fab needed for manufacturing these tiny miracles doubles at the same rate, giving nightmares to the Ministry for Information Technology in India. In its most dramatic form, Intel unveiled its teraflops chip, which packs a mean punch in its 65 nanometer dimensions. With 60 cores assembled together, a gargantuan machine of a decade vintage is replaced by a tiny tiled piece. It is a measure of some joy and minor regret that this amazing feat was accomplished by an Intel design team, which had a large number of Indians from Bangalore. The regret, of course, is that it is still Intel Inc and not India Inc.

The word Nano spells magic It is given the National Initiative status by two Presidents of the USA , written with a Jeffersonian idiom couched in words of great eloquence and promise. It was felt by President Clinton and President Bush that long after their escapades in the White House or the Middle East are forgotten, the opening of the nano-Kingdom will be seen as their legacy. Our own Rashtrapathi Bhavan was not immune to the charms of the very small. The corridors of the Departments of Science and Technology and Biotechnology are abuzz with nano.

What is Nano? Nano means ‘ dwarf ’ in Greek. It is one billionth of any unit. While this word itself was not used in 1959, Richard Feynman immortalized this tantalizing concept that we can see the very small and move atoms and assemble them by stating that there is plenty of room at the bottom.

As happens with such situations, this was not noticed by many. Then along came Herbert Gleiter, who devised a most amazing way of preparing small clusters of metals and gave life to nanostructured materials. Even then the science may have remained dormant but for two spectacular discoveries- namely Buckminsterfullerene by Robert Smalley and H W Kroto and the discovery of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope by Heinrich Rohrer and G Binning. Now suddenly the one billionth of a meter can be seen and touched. The images that the micrsoscopes revealed were bewitching, the most famous being the creation of the IBM Logo with Xenon atoms.

Where does Vamana come into this? He is the fifth avatar of Vishnu in the Hindu Mythology and is the first human form in the incarnations. Vamana means ‘dwarf ‘. As has been narrated many times, Vamana requests King Bali for as much space as could be covered by three of his footsteps. On being granted his wish he takes the Viswaroopa and occupies all space and earth and the head of the king. It may be fanciful but it appears that nanoscience and nanotechnolgy are following a similar path of taking all space in science.

Following the US initiative every nation and every region is formulating a nanoscience initiative. It includes tiny nations like Singapore and mighty regions like Europe. China and India, as they emerge as modern industrialized economies, are also investing heavily in this area. Thanks to the initiative of Prof C N R Rao, the Department of Science and Technology gave grants of Rs 200 crores during the Tenth Five Year Plan. It is expected that under the Nanotechnology Mission to be launched during the Eleventh Five Year Plan Rs 200 crores will be given as grants every year. New books and new journals appear every month. Books by Prof Rao and Prof T Pradeep are widely read. Conferences abound. We hosted the Eighth International Conference on Nanostructured Materials in August 2006.

My own affair with Nano began with my doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge in 1962. It was an awesome experience to look at atoms with the field-ion microscope and feel God-like in evaporating tungsten atoms at liquid nitrogen temperature. This microscope predates the Feynman lecture and not many may know that its invention is due to the collaboration between Erwin Mueller and Kanwar Bahadur, who were the first to see specimens with atomic resolution in 1956. Since my work was with atomic configuration at grain boundaries and at some level bulk nanostructured materials are full of grain boundaries I was invited to the Membership of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Nanostructured Materials and the International Committee on Nanostructured Materials. As a member of the PAC of DST in 1992 I helped organize the first coordinated programme on Nanomaterials with participation from IISc, IGCAR, University of Madras, IIT Kharagpur and the University of Pune. I was also drawn into the India-Brazil-South Africa programme on Nanotechnology.

As William Wordsworth heralded in his Prelude, it is bliss to be alive at the dawn of this New Age. It can be called as the Diamond Age in pursuit of the convention of naming ages of civilization after materials such as Stone, Bronze and Iron. Diamond stands for carbon which in its new nano-avatars as buckyball, nanotubes and graphene dazzles us more than diamond. Though somewhat farfetched the nanotube hopes to grow like Vamana and reach the heavens as a Space elevator. The young scientists of today have the most extraordinary challenges and opportunities in this New Age. Our dream is that many of them will be from India.

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One Response to The Return of Vamana

  1. Gayathri Ramasubramanian says:

    Hello sir,

    It was an absolute delight to read this article. Being a PhD student working on nanotechnology (polymer nanocomposites), I was smiling when I read the comparison of Vamana with nanotechnology. Thanks for the enlightening post with nice anecdotes about the history of nano field. It is humbling to read an article by a veteran professor who started with his hands-on experience in nano field back in the 60’s!

    I thank the founders of Materialia Indica for starting this informative blog. It connects students like me studying abroad with the current developments in the field of material science happening in India!

    Gayathri Ramasubramanian

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