Archive for September 30th, 2005

Listening to the Nobel Laureate Douglas Osheroff

September 30, 2005

Bangaloreans are fortunate to get a chance to listen to Professor Osheroff of Stanford University (Physics Nobel Prize winner, 1996) at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan on September 27, 2005. The learned professor talked on “Nature of discovery in Physics”.

Professor Osheroff obtained his Nobel prize for deep studies on super fluidity of helium isotope helium 3 at temperatures very close to absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). Interestingly, the Nobel-cited work was done as part of his PhD research at Cornell University (he shared the prize with his supervisor David Lee)

What was particularly interesting about the talk was the humility of the researcher, who gave credit to a whole range of people (many of them were Novel prize winners too). He talked of the influence of the legendary Physics teacher Feynman during his Caltech days (he did his Undergraduate studies at Caltech).

He talked of a strategy that lays emphasis on using the best instrument and instrumentation (not have complete blind faith in the instrument though), explore unexplored areas, look at failure as invitation for some deep insight and be sensitive to unexplained behavior and not dismissing it easily.

He also talked of the need to invest in basic research without looking for immediate economic and social benefits (that will come any way over a period of time). He illustrated his ideas with many Nobel prize winning works; he also illustrated an actual case (NMR), where even the very inventors could not predict the long-term impact of some award winning works. There was a personal touch including his family portrait and his meeting with his fiancé and the later marriage (his wife was accompanying him also). He talked of the “great days” of Bell Laboratories where he continued his research during 1972-1987.

It was interesting to note the positive influence Venki Narayanamurti (currently Dean of Science at Harvard University) and other Indian scientists had on him; Venki Narayanamurti had graduated from Cornell University; he was instrumental in Professor Osheroff’s moving into Bell Laboratories.

Professor Osheroff also answered many questions from students including the need of working for many hours productively during PhD days and course-work and its relevance to graduate studies; he mentioned candidly his unhappiness about diverting of funds away from basic research by NASA but was equally realistic to admit that he was NOT the President of the country!

He did lament the lack of emphasis on experimental work in India.

In all it was an enjoyable evening.