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`We don't know what the future is going to be like'

Eminent scientist Dr. Raja Ramanna hopes there won't be a war as it will prove destructive. He shares his thoughts on the developments on the nuclear weapon front.



EMINENCE PERSONIFIED: Dr. Raja Ramanna

Dr. RAJA RAMANNA entered Nuclear Physics in the mid 1940s after his graduation. The aftermath of World War II left a deep impact on everyone. Hiroshima was entrenched in people's minds. In India Dr. Homi Bhabha was playing an important role. And above all, for Dr. Raja Ramanna nuclear science was a closed field. "There was a lot of secrecy in it. And because there was a lot of secrecy, there is always a challenge." So he took it up and the rest is history. He is one of the country's foremost scientists who tirelessly carries on even after his retirement from the government. People know the scientist and his impressive achievements but not many know that he also plays the piano with the same dexterity as he perhaps speaks of atomic energy. Dr. Ramanna is now associated with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. In the city for a seminar organised by the P.M. Bhargava Foundation, Dr. Raja Ramanna touched on certain aspects of nuclear science. Excerpts:

What is India's signal contribution in nuclear science especially in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy?

India has a whole spectrum of activities which deal with the peaceful uses of atomic energy. It has made important contributions in agriculture. . We have done a lot of work with regards to medical sterilisation. Because a small quantity of irradiation is necessary to clean up the needles and other things without the use of water which can be contaminated. Another is production of new chemicals by means of irradiation. These are just examples. There are many more.

How self-sufficient is India's nuclear programme?

Hundred per cent.

Is nuclear power really safe? Is Chernobyl only an aberration?

Nuclear power is safe as already eight reactors are already functioning for many years in the country. I don't know who starts all this fear about the fact that it is not safe. If it is properly maintained and precautions are undertaken in its design, there is no fear of damage being caused. Whether nuclear science has proved more beneficial or more harmful to humanity depends on how it is used.

Disposal of nuclear wastes is going to pose serious problems for the coming generations. Any comments?

It is one of the problems arising out of the use of nuclear power. Don't forget that it is possible to reduce the amount of radioactive substances to small quantities and then they can be buried until such time new methods are found of sending it to the sun or any other far-off place.

Do scientists worry about the `finger on the nuclear button' or about nuclear warheads?

Nuclear warheads are always a dangerous thing and should not be developed. Unfortunately in recent times too much concentration has been put on the nuclear button. The world was going one way to avoid nuclear war and nuclear weapons. But in recent times the American view of keeping nuclear weapons on is causing more alarm. So we don't know what the future's going to be like.

Will the position of the Iraqi scientists be different from the scientists of other countries like India?

I don't know what the views of the Iraqi scientists are. But most likely they will all be similar. Nobody wants nuclear weapons in a condition which can be switched on. I think they will all try to avoid the use. The whole new principle of developing nuclear weapons is for defence purposes. If it can't be used for defence it's all wasted. So it is a big dilemma for small countries. I thought the large countries would get rid of nuclear weapons so that they would be in a state where nuclear weapons are an unnecessary evil. It looks as though they have all come back.

Any comments on the Iraq situation?

I hope there won't be a war. War will be very destructive - materially and economically and above all to human lives. Economic damage to the world will be very high.

You hope that the crisis does not escalate into a war?

People are always on the verge of wanting to use nuclear weapons. When better sense will prevail, we don't know. Even the threatening postures are bad, leave alone the actual use.

Any thoughts on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

It's dead almost. If the big countries which were sponsoring it are almost withdrawing from it, it is dead .

How are you keeping busy after retirement?

I have not quite retired and therefore keeping busy (laughs). I have just written a paper on `Elementary particles' which has gone for publication and which has been privately commented on by various people. It will be published in Physics Letters. There are other things besides Physics. We are always thinking of new methods of how to protect ourselves from nuclear disaster - on safer methods for the future.

You are connected with the National Institute of Advanced Studies?

Yes. We discuss a lot on the philosophy of various things - of the use of nuclear materials and we discuss a lot of problems of philosophy and science. We get many learned people from other parts of the world to discuss with us.

Did your stint in politics leave you wiser?

I don't think it left me wiser but it made me more experienced.

Art and science find a fusion in you. Do you feel a better person?

Oh definitely. Playing the piano and classical music always spurs you to a region of rejuvenation.

Do you still have the time to play the piano?

I have to, otherwise I miss it too much. It is yoga for me.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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