“If you think you know it, then you do not know it, and if you know that you cannot know it, then you know it”. Ramachandran elaborated on this interesting paradox from the ancient Hindu philosophy used to describe the Divine force of the Universe in Kena Upanishads in one of his Mathematical Philosophy (MATPHIL) reports.
by Seema Pavgi Upadhye | October 17, 2021
Gopalasamudram Narayana Ramachandran (or simply GNR to those who knew him well) is one of those few scientists who have made India proud by their research. He had many lucrative assignments for doing research in the advanced western countries but like his mentor, C.V. Raman, he decided to work in India against all odds. He was one of the most brilliant Indian scientists of the 20th century. He made several important discoveries in molecular biophysics, especially in the study of protein structure. The discovery of triple helical structure of collagen was a fundamental advance in the understanding of peptide structure. “The Ramachandran phi-psi plot” or simply the “Ramachandran Plot” has become a standard description of protein structures in text books. When Ramachandran was doing research in biophysics in India the subject was just taking shape in the advanced countries and undoubtedly he was a pioneer in this field. He started two centres of molecular biophysics, first at the University of Madras, Chennai and second at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Both the centres became internationally recognised centres for research in biophysics. He inspired a large number of young people to take up science, who made significant contribution in various aspects of biophysics. He had a deep interest in philosophy and in classical Indian and western music. He interpreted the philosophical ideas of Syaad Nyaan, ‘the doctrine of may be’, an age-old system in Jain philosophy, in mathematical form which he called ‘Boolean Vector Matrix Formulation’. Besides being an accomplished great scientist he was a very good speaker. He could easily present highly complicated concepts in simple words which could be understood even by high school students. These days we hardly find such a scientist particularly in India. By any standards he was a superb teacher. He wrote poems on science, religion, philosophy and the Upanishads. He made exemplary donations to charitable institutions.
Ramachandran was born on October 8,1922 in Ernakulam near Cochin in Kerala. Ramachandran was the eldest son of G.R. Narayana lyer and Lakshmi Ammal. At the time of his birth, Cochin was ruled by a Maharajah, who had full autonomy under the British Government. The Maharajah of Cochin was an enlightened ruler, under whose aegis educational and cultural institutes thrived. For higher education Cochin had a college known as the Maharajah’s College . His father was a well-known professor of mathematics and he retired as the Principal of Maharajah’s College. To quote Ramachandran on his father : “Because of his ability and thoroughness he became the most senior and respected member of the department and retired as the Principal. He had a very sharp mind in mathematics and he used to teach me mathematics. I had been exposed to most of the theories in analytical geometry even before I went to college. When I was in high school, he would bring books on mathematics from the library and give me some challenging theorem to prove every day. He would write equations and ask me to solve them. He was a wizard in mathematics”. So no wonder that Ramachandran would develop a deep interest in mathematics since his childhood. We are told that as a school student he used to get a perfect score of 100 on all his mathematics examinations. After the Intermediate Examination, in which he stood first in the entire Madras State, Ramachandran joined the St. Joseph’s College in Trichy in 1939. Here he enrolled himself in the BSc (Honours) degree in physics. Among the teachers in St. Joseph’s College who stimulated Ramachandran’s interest in physics were P.E. Subramaniam and a Jesuit priest, Father Rajam. Ramachandran stood first among all the physics honours students in the entire Madras Presidency.
Prof. Raman requested the head of the Electrical Engineering Department to allow Ramachandran to join the Physics Department. However, when the request was persistently refused, Raman told the Head of the Electrical Engineering Department: “I am admitting Ramachandran into my department as he is a bit too bright to be in yours…” And in this way Ramachandran not only came to the physics department but he eventually became the most distinguished of Raman’s students. Ramachandran was deeply influenced by C.V. Raman. The other two scientists who influenced Ramachandran were William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1978) and Linus Carl Pauling (1901-). Ramachandran obtained his MSc degree in 1944 from the Madras University. In those days the Indian Institute of Science was not a degree granting institution. Ramachandran obtained his Doctor of Science (DSc) degree in 1947 and decided to go to Cambridge in England to work in the Cavendish Laboratory, where Sir William Lawrence Bragg was the Director. Ramachandran succeeded in getting a prestigious scholarship for higher studies in England provided by the Royal Commissioners of the 1851 Exhibition. As he had already studied X-ray diffraction for his doctoral work in the Indian Institute of Science he easily became a part of the Cavendish group of crystallographers. However, he could not get the opportunity to work directly under Lawrence Bragg. He was assigned to work with Dr. W. A. Wooster. In Cambridge, Ramachandran worked in three projects – instrumentation, electronics and the development of a mathematical theory to study diffuse X-ray diffraction, and use it in determining the elastic constants of crystals.
After finishing his doctoral work in Cambridge he returned to India in June of 1949. He was appointed as Assistant Professor of Physics, in the Department of Physics of the Indian Institute of Science. He was made in charge of the X-ray Diffraction Laboratory that he was instrumental in building as a student.
After about two years in the Indian Institute of Science he shifted to Madras University, one of the three universities that were first set up in India. The other two were Calcutta University and Bombay University. At that time Dr. A. Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar was the Vice Chancellor of the Madras University. It was Mudaliar, who being influenced by the legendary. Prof. C.V. Raman, planned to establish post- graduate department in experimental physics at the University of Madras. He requested Prof. Raman to head this newly established department and he offered him financial and administrative autonomy for the development of the proposed department. Raman expressed his inability to head the department; but at the same time he recommended the name of Ramachandran. And this is how Ramachandran joined the Madras University in October of 1952 as the first professor and head of the Department of Physics. At the time, Ramachandran was just 30 years old.
Ramachandran’s research work carried out at the Madras University brought an unprecedented level of recognition to the University. He organised two international conference in 1963 and 1968 and he was successful in bringing some of the most famous scientists in molecular biology and biophysics to Madras viz. Linus Pauling, Severe Ochoa, Mauris Wilkins, Paul Flory and others.
Ramachandran worked in a number of fields in physics, chemistry and biology. He contributed more than 250 publications and several reviews in well-known international journals. His first major research contribution was the discovery of the triple helical structure of collagen. Ramachandran was drawn to collagen by J.D. Bernal’s remarks that structural proposals for collagen were unsatisfactory. Bernal made these remarks in a casual conversation during his visit to Madras in 1952. Triple helical structure of collagen was first published in 1955. Ramachandran co-authored this paper with Gopinath Kartha. Their concept of coiled-coil structure proved to be a fundamental advance in the understanding of polypeptide structure. Coiled-Coil structure means each of its three polypeptide chains are arranged in the form of a helix, and then the three chains together form a second helix. However, his structure was criticised by none other than Francis H.C. Crick, who alongwith James D. Watson, unraveled the helical structure ofD.N.A, the double helix. Crick and Alexander Rich wrote in the November 1955 issue ofNature: “Very recently Ramachandran and Kartha have made an important contribution by proposing a coiled-coil structure of collagen. We believe this idea to be basically correct but the actual structure suggested by them to be wrong.”
The criticism of unacceptably short interatomic contact in the proposed structure of collagen led Ramachandran to devise a general method for describing stereochemical criterion for polypeptide structure and proteins. Ramachandran and his colleagues, V. Sasisekharan and C.Ramakrishnan laid the foundations for the conformational analysis of polypeptide chains. They introduced a two dimensional map what is today known in biochemical literature as the “Ramachandran phi -psi diagram” or simply “Ramachandran plot”, which provide a rational basis for describing all stereochemically possible structures of polypeptides. They reduced the ‘structure space’ of protein chains to two-dimensional with dihedral (torsion) angles serving as variables. This had a profound impact on stereo-chemistry and structural biology.
A write-up on Ramachandran may not be complete without mentioning about his mental make-up. It was an open secret that he used to receive psychiatric treatment. He used to believe that other people were trying to read his mind and disturb his thought process. However, this did not affect his productivity in scientific research. He was a very highly temperamental man. Nobody knew when he would flare up. But then he would not hesitate to apologise to the person whom he offended by his behavior. He was a great teacher, but his students were afraid of him. He would hardly come down to an equal level with either his colleagues or his students, which is necessary for frank academic discussion. He had to leave the departments which he himself established and that too under unpleasant circumstances. And after leaving the departments, he hardly kept any interaction with his former colleagues or students.
Notable awards that Ramachandran received include the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for Physics in India (1961) and the Fellowship of the Royal Society of London. In 1999, the International Union of Crystallography honoured him with the Ewald Prize for his ‘outstanding contributions to crystallography’. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize as well for his fundamental contributions in protein structure and function.