Nobel laureate backs synchrotron

A high-energy synchrotron in Calcutta "would be very good for Indian science", feels Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.

"It will be very useful in structural biology and material science. The project will obviously involve a huge amount of investment and undertaking it is not just a scientific but also a political decision," said the India-born scientist, who was in the city to take part in the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress.

The structural biologist, who holds both American and British passports, spoke on "The road to Ribosome Structure: A Personal Journey" at the Bose Institute at Rajabazar on Thursday. He had shared the 2009 Nobel in chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath for their work on ribosomes.

In his lecture, Ramakrishnan said: "If one visited the ribosome labs (synchrotron centres), one would have travelled the world." The four synchrotron centres are APS Argonne near Chicago, US; ESR in Grenoble, France; DESY in Germany and SPring-8 in Japan.

The fifth high-energy synchrotron is due to come up in Calcutta but finding land for the project is proving problematic.

Ramakrishnan, however, added: "I could survive without a synchrotron."

The lanky backpack-carrying scientist, who did not want to be referred to as a Nobel laureate or Sir (he was knighted last year) preferred taking questions from students rather than interact with teachers.

In fact, the teachers were shooed out of the auditorium so that the students could ask Ramakrishnan questions without inhibitions. The posers spanned the structure of ribosome to the number of Nobel laureates at MRC laboratory in Cambridge, UK, where the scientist works.

"I find the questions asked by Calcutta students comparable with those asked by my students in the US or UK. Undoubtedly, you have good students here who are being trained well," said Ramakrishnan, who advised the young to spend a part of their student life in the US or Europe. "Come back and do something new, and not just short extensions of your post-doctoral studies," was the advice from the biologist who had first trained as a physicist.

On the abundance of Nobel laureates at MRC, Ramakrishnan said: "There is undoubtedly a Nobel culture in MRC. But there is none of this obsession with Nobel as there is in India." For the Nobel culture, "it takes constant building of infrastructure and doing good and high-level science."

About MRC, Venkatraman said: "People work in small groups... and like talking about their work even when they are relaxing in the cafeteria. Our cafeteria, where students and scientists mingle freely, is a marvel worldwide. There is a lack of hierarchy: my students often fight with me over a paper, in fact we come to blows. There is stable funding. Mentorship is also important. You cannot do good science unless you are surrounded by good scientists. It takes decades to build a scientific culture."