India's love affair with chemistry

This week it was officially announced that India had indeed ousted the venerated Royal Society of Chemistry, the holder of the previous record.

India's love affair with chemistry

Pallava Bagla

​New Delhi: The chemistry is just right and Indian science is reaping rich dividends.

Almost unnoticed, India sealed its place into the valued Guinness Book of World Records when 2,000 students in New Delhi successfully completed the 'world's largest practical science lesson' under one roof.

They performed two chemistry experiments that earned the budding chemists a place in history. If the youngsters did remarkably it may come as surprise to many that even at the top of the ladder of research Indian chemists outshine all other scientific disciplines.

The world's leading journal Nature Index recently reinforced this fact by writing "in chemistry, India's top institutions are competitive with those in Europe, the USA and Asia and stand up to be counted among the world's top ranks".

Recently, the country paid due respect to Prof C N R Rao by honouring him with a Bharat Ratna. Not surprisingly, Rao also happens to be one of the world's leading chemists.

On a cold foggy Monday morning, torn jeans and T-shirts – the usual attire of brainy engineering students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi recently gave way to a profusion of gleaming white laboratory coats and orderly queues. Exactly 2,000 students congregated in a giant tent put
on the lawns of IIT-Delhi with the singular desire to mark a place for themselves and the country in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Each teenage chemist as she or he entered the mega-lab was given a wristband with a sequential number and then each was video-graphed to maintain a record of the count. Two hundred tables were neatly laid and the students took their place, most were very excited and a few were sleepy.

In this mega make-shift chemistry lab, three independent judges oversaw the proceedings, including Delhi's Special Police Commissioner Dharmendra Kumar who kept a hawks eye on the numbers. The students exuded confidence, even as a nervous mechanical engineer Prof Kshitij Gupta, director of IIT-Delhi strutted around in a business suit, a bit out of place amid the chemicals.

Once the pleasantries by the Human Resources Development minister Smriti Irani and science minister Harsh Vardhan were over, a chemistry teacher then gave the students a lesson on catalysis from Cochin.

Lesson imbibed, the students by then split into groups of five each on a table using glassware and gloves and dawning classic lab coats together performed the first wet chemistry experiment where in methylene blue a chemical was made to change its colour using hydrogen peroxide. All 200 tables performed the experiment, cleaned the glassware and then proceeded to make the 'elephants tooth paste', another chemistry experiment but with a nationalistic twist.

The students were divided into rows and as each table mixed the chemicals to create the foam in a measuring cylinder, some groups added green and orange food colours. As the potassium iodide and the hydrogen peroxide reacted to create copious amounts of coloured tooth paste like foam.

Since the students were segregated into rows within minutes, the colours of the Indian tricolour filed the giant chemistry lab. The school students then faithfully recorded their results on the log sheets. Once the 'world's largest practical science lesson' was over it was time to celebrate the new chemical bonding among them with 'selfies'.

The Ministry of Science and Technology that supported this mega exercise wanted to outdo the previous record when in Ireland earlier this year, 1,339 students had set the new global benchmark.

This week it was officially announced that India had indeed ousted the venerated Royal Society of Chemistry, the holder of the previous record. Some say this was only an exercise to prove numbers and little more than that, but for 2,000 participants this chemical reaction will remain etched forever since only a select few ever make a Guinness record.

Science minister Harsh Vardhan felt this mass experiment will catalyse students to take up a career in science.

Earlier this month, the valued British journal Nature Index brought out a special report 'Indian Science Ascending' where the country was ranked at the 13th position in the global output of quality science papers published during the last one year. The country spends just about USD 6 billion on science which constitutes less than one percent of the GDP.

Highlighting the findings Antoine Bocquet, ManagingDirector of Nature in Japan says, "A marked growth in the output of top-quality science and a particular strength in the broad discipline of chemistry is noteworthy".

Most recently, C N R Rao's 'a life in chemistry' is just one such shining example. Before him, one of the worlds's most celebrated Nobel laureates Professor Har Govind Khorana, the man who cracked the genetic code, was also a chemist. Even Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, the man credited for creating what is probably the world's single largest civilian R&D network at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was also a chemist.

In early years after independence, Indian chemists contributed immensely to what came to be called 'reverse engineering' and they perfected the market for manufacture of cheap generic drugs so much so that India has now come to be known as a 'pharmacy of the world'.

Cheap drugs for the treatment of AIDS revolutionised the fight against this global killer almost taming the giant disease. Undoubtedly, Indian chemists have been performing better than their peers.

Not surprising then that the Nature Index rightfully points out India's 'historic love affair with chemistry'.  

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