C V Raman: ‘Why Is The Sky Blue?’

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What makes the ocean dark blue? Is it because the water reflects the colour of the sky? And why is the sky blue at all? And right there, in the answer to that eternal riddle, lay the Nobel Prize that Indian physicist C V Raman would win in 1930.

Raman at the 1930 Nobel Prize Ceremony
Raman at the 1930 Nobel Prize Ceremony

These questions puzzled Raman on his maiden voyage at sea, as he returned from England, where he had gone to attend a science congress. As he pored over the conundrum, Raman realised that the sea and the sky both appear blue due to the ‘scattering of light’.

In other words, the particles of light scatter differently depending on their wavelength and the medium through which they pass. The smallest wavelengths scatter more easily and these are in the blue spectrum. This is why the sky and the sea appear blue.

Raman Explaining His Discovery To Other Scientists
Raman Explaining His Discovery To Other Scientists

This phenomenon is called the Raman Effect, and it is in his honour that 28th February is celebrated as National Science Day in India. It was the day he announced the discovery of the Raman Effect.

The discovery also won Raman the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930. But the prize meant more to Raman than just recognition for his genius. He received it with mixed emotions and would later write:

“When I sat in that crowded hall and I saw the sea of Western faces surrounding me, and I the only Indian, in my turban and closed coat, it dawned on me that I was really representing my people and my country...Then I turned around and saw the British Union Jack under which I had been sitting and it was then that I realized that my poor country, India, did not even have a flag of her own - and it was this triggered off my complete breakdown."

In his early research, Raman studied the vibrations of stringed instruments and the acoustics of drums. He also studied the whispering effects under the domes of Calcutta's Victoria Memorial, Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, the Granary in Patna and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Gol Gumbaz, Bijapur
Gol Gumbaz, Bijapur

After winning the Nobel Prize, Raman was offered the Directorship of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 1933. But he found his mind fettered by bureaucratic interference.

Thus, after retirement in 1948, founded the Raman Research Institute (RRI) and refused any funds and grants from the government. He wanted the research conducted by his institute to be free of bias. Interestingly, Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, was one of Raman’s PhD students.

Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru
Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru

Raman literally worked will the day he died, in 1970, and was cremated on the beautiful RRI campus.

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