The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai, is credited for pioneering research work in the fields of theoretical physics, mathematics, theoretical computer science and computational biology.
The origin of the institution dates back to 1962 and involves its founder and brilliant Indian physicist—Alladi Ramakrishnan, the then state minister C Subramanian, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Danish physicist Niels Bohr.
Alladi Ramakrishnan had completed his studies in Presidency College in Chennai and had accepted the offer to work with one of his role models—Homi Bhabha—at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).
In August 1949, he left for England to work under MS Bartlett, a renowned English statistician at the University of Manchester. Ramakrishnan continued to be a part of the international research scene at the time and was even invited by J Robert Oppenheimer to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
During this time he interacted with scientists on many occasions and was a part of several brainstorming sessions where ideas would be debated, and new ideas would take form.
As described in this report in Scroll.in, Ramakrishnan was particularly inspired by the seminars, which he described in his memoir as “the essence of intellectual activity, where there is as much desire to imbibe as there is to impart, where opportunities are provided for a clash of intellects which would produce creative ideas.”
These seminars, classes and lectures sparked an idea within Ramakrishna to provide students in India, with a similar experience. After returning to India, Ramakrishnan decided to approach the University of Madras with this idea, but unfortunately, he was turned down.
Undefeated by their refusal, Ramakrishnan started his lecture series, titled “The Theoretical Physics Seminar” for budding theoretical physicists, right in his home—Ekamra Nivas.
To include more brilliant minds in the seminars, Ramakrishnan decided to rope in both national and international scientists with whom he had built a solid professional relationship, over the years. Some of the luminaries included Maurice Shapiro, an American scientist and educator, and Niels Bohr, the scientist who came up with the atomic model.
Bohr visited India in 1960, as a guest of the Prime Minister. He visited Ekamra Nivas, ostensibly to dine with the students, and ended up staying well past midnight, discussing various ideas with them.
Speaking to The Times of India, Ramakrishnan’s son, Krishnaswami Alladi, said “When Bohr was asked about the most interesting things he found in India, he said one was the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and the other was the very informal seminar conducted at Ekamra Nivas.”
Before Bohr’s visit, Ramakrishnan had also delivered a speech to an international gathering of science students, where Congressman C Subramanian, known as CS, was also present. CS was so impressed by Ramakrishnan, that he had a private talk with the scientist, who took the opportunity to discuss the possibility of opening an institute similar to the IAS (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) in India.
Subramanian later proposed the idea to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who called a group of Ramakrishnan’s students to the Raj Bhawan for a meeting. There, they discussed the need to establish an institution for the development of theoretical physics and mathematics with the PM.
Impressed by Ramakrishnan’s students, PM Nehru granted the permission required to set up the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Matscience), thus making Ramakrishnan’s long-cherished dream, a reality.
The institute was finally set up in Chennai in the Adyar-Taramani area. Ramakrishnan passed away in 2008, but seeing the minds coming to IMSc today and the success it represents, Alladi Ramakrishnan has undoubtedly left behind an ever-present mark.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)