Science Behind the Science Day

Every year on 28th February India celebrates National Science Day. Although, there is quite a bit of enthusiasm in this celebration, especially in academic environment including schools, universities and research institutes, the general public does not pay too much attention to it. Partly because symbolic days and symbolism are just that: symbols – superficial representation of something bigger. They do not encompass the complete picture, and they are too many in number.

Raman + Krishnan Effect : So, why does India celebrate National Science day on 28th February ? Well, on this day, way back in 1928, there was an experimental observation performed which turned out to be an important discovery in science. The main players in this discovery were two scientists from India: C.V. Raman and K.S. Krishnan. These men, after a long, sustained effort and with limited experimental resources, discovered a new type of secondary radiation, and the effect what is now known as Raman effect.

Stokes and anti-Stokes: The experiment that they were performing was to look at monochromatic (single colour) light scattering from molecules in a liquid. What Raman and Krishnan found was that scattered light had three components in terms of energy: the first and the dominant part of the scattered light had the same energy as the incident light, the second most dominant part of the scattered light had its energy lower than the incident light, and the third component, which was the weakest, had its energy greater than the incident light. These three components are called Rayleigh, Stokes and anti-Stokes light, respectively. The Stokes and the anti-Stokes components of the scattered light, together encompass the inelastic scattering in the process, and formally represent Raman scattering of light from molecules. What is remarkable on the part of Raman and Krishnan is that they experimentally observed these feeble, inelastic scattering components with ingenious experimental design. The story of this discovery is beautifully captured in the book The Raman and his effect by G. Venkatraman (who has also written a biography of C.V. Raman). In this book (page 46), we get a glimpse of the lab notes of K.S. Krishnan during this historical phase of experimental observation, which is reproduced below:

February 17, Friday
Prof, confirmed the polarisation of fluorescence in pentan vapour.
I am having some trouble with the left eye. Prof, has promised to
make all the observations himself for some time to come.
February 27, Monday
Religious ceremony in the house. Did not go to the Association.
February 28, Tuesday
Went to the Association only in the afternoon. Prof, was there and we
proceeded to examine the influence of the incident wavelength on the
phenomenon. Used the usual blue-violet filter coupled with uranium
glass, the range of wavelengths transmitted by the combination being
much narrower than that transmitted by the blue-violet filter alone.
On examining the track with a direct vision spectroscope, we found
to our great surprise that the modified scattering was separated from
the scattering corresponding to the incident light by a dark region

Note that it is this February 28, that we celebrate as National Science Day.

Mud + gold – I see an important lesson from this reading – that lab note books are an excellent window to the world of observations that a researcher experiences. Most of the time what is written in a lab notebook is routine stuff, but once in a while there is something important that pops out from it. The analogy is similar to digging  for gold in the soil. Most of the time it is mud what you get, but once in a while you extract the precious metal. But without the effort of digging, one will never be able to extract the gold, and a lab notebook is the place where you record your efforts. So, what comes out as “success” is a small part of this greater effort. It is a tiny bit of a greater whole, and worth every bit.

new type of
Title and a part of the abstract of the paper reporting Raman effect (reference: Nature volume121pages501–502 (31 March 1928))


Coming back to Raman and Krishnan, they published (see above) their experimental observation which caught the attention of scientific community around the world (‘western’ world to be more precise). And in 1930, Raman went on to win the Nobel prize in physics, and the rest is history. I need to emphasize that this discovery was made purely to address a quantum mechanical effect in optical regime. Specifically, the researchers were addressing an optical analog of the Compton effect, and they had no immediate applications in their mind. However, in the current age, Raman scattering spectroscopy, has bloomed into one of the most important scientific concepts, and a vital tool in science and technology, including applications in clinical bio-medicine and homeland security.

Prof. Wolfgang Kiefer showing his Raman scattering instrument which he has set-up in the basement of his house

The celebration: It has been 90 years since this important discovery, and to celebrate the discovery, there was a conference at IISc, Bangalore.  Some of my students and I were part of it. In there, various researchers across the world including many from India, discussed about Raman scattering and its implication over the past 90 years. One of the highlights of the conference was a lecture by Prof. Wolfgang Kiefer (given on 28th February, National Science Day), who is a legend in the community of Raman scattering. Prof. Kiefer has been working on Raman scattering for more than 50 years. Now, he is retired, but amazingly, maintains a lab in the basement of his house, in which he has set-up Raman scattering experiments (see picture above), and pursues his curiosity with child-like enthusiasm. He gave an overview of his work done with his illustrious students from the past, and beautifully blended science, humor and humanity in a single talk. To listen to him was a pleasure and inspiration, and I will remember this for ever. On a personal note, I was actually celebrating the science day without realizing it !




Born and Wolf

Born google
Image courtesy: Google

BORN AGAIN: Today I opened the google webpage and to my surprise found the doodle (picture above) celebrating birthday of Max Born. He was not only a great physicist who contributed immensely to quantum mechanics and other branches of physics (including optics), but also a mentor to many great physicists including Fermi, Heisenberg, Pauli, Wigner, Teller, Emil Wolf and many more.

Every student who has studied physics, is aware of quantum mechanical wavefunction (ψ). Given a quantum system and its environment (electron in an atom, for example), wavefunction is a fundamental quantity that one can compute, and forms the basis to understand the system in greater detail. When quantum mechanics was evolving in early 1900s, the question of how to physically interpret the meaning of wavefunction was at the forefront. It was Max Born who gave the statistical interpretation for the wavefunction, which later fetched him a Nobel prize in 1954.

Born identified the importance of interpretation of the wavefunction, and its connect to the realistic, observable parameter. To quote Born from his Nobel lecture :

“The problem was this: an harmonic oscillation not only has a frequency,
but also an intensity. For each transition in the array there must be
a corresponding intensity. The question is how to find this through the
considerations of correspondence? “

This quest set-forth an intense programme in physics and motivated people like Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohr, and Einstein to search for an answer. Interesting, Born’s work was heavily inspired by Einstein’s work. To quote Born from his Nobel lecture:

“But the decisive step was again taken by Einstein who, by a fresh
derivation of Planck’s radiation formula, made it transparently clear that the
classical concept of intensity of radiation must be replaced by the statistical
concept of transition probability.”

Further, he adds

“Again an idea of Einstein’s gave me the lead. He had tried to make the duality of particles light quanta or photons – and waves comprehensible by interpreting the square of the optical wave amplitudes as probability density for the occurrence of photons. This concept could at once be carried over to the ψ-function: |ψ|^2 ought to represent the probability density for electrons (or other particles).”

Reading Born’s Nobel lecture, two things struck me : first was that science is never done in isolation. Every single idea is inspired by another idea. Second,  physical optics has a major influence on interpretation of quantum mechanics. Max Born was no stranger to optics. In fact, he was one of the pioneers of classical optics, and I am not surprised that he could make some vital connections between physical optics and quantum mechanics.


BW book
My personal copy…..standing tall and heavy 🙂

THE BOOK: This brings me to the most famous book written in optics(see picture above) by none other than Max Born and Emil Wolf  (Emil Wolf was the last research assistant of Max Born, and a well know optical physicist) The book is titled “Principles of Optics”, but in optics community we call it “Born and Wolf”. The first edition of this book appeared in 1959, and has never gone out of print. Currently, it is in its 7th edition and is 951 pages thick !

As described in the preface (first edition of Born and Wolf), several people urged Born to translate his 1933 book: “Optik” from german to english. By 1950s, optics had evolved and had made inroads into atomic physics, molecular spectroscopy, solid-state physics and various other branches of science and technology. So, they had to write the book from scratch taking new ideas into consideration.

“Born and Wolf” explains optical phenomenon through the eyes of Maxwell’s theory, and has become the foundation on which various aspects of classical optics can be studied in a mathematically rigorous fashion.  In fact, it also lays foundation to various quantum optical phenomenon including coherence and correlation functions, on which Emil Wolf’s contribution has been immense.

For me, chapter 13 on “Scattering from homogeneous media” is the highlight of this book. It starts with elements of scalar theory of scattering by expaining the first-order Born approximation followed by discussion on scattering from periodic potential. The best part is the discussion on multiple scattering, which in a sense lays the foundation to study various important optical phenomenon including diffraction tomography and optical cross-section theorem (or more famously known as Optical theorem). Also, the 13th chapter has a very interesting discussion on concept of far-field and its connection to scattering of electromagnetic waves.

Actually, the book is very well known for its treatment on diffraction theory and image formation. It gives a very strong footing to attack problems in imaging, aberration and inteferometry using Maxwell’s equation and related boundary condition. It also, highlights optics of metals, which has now transformed and evolved into a sub-field of optics and photonics – plasmonics.

Origins of the book: The writing of this book has a historical context. Emil Wolf was a research assistant (post-doc) of Max Born and joined him after his Ph.D. He recollects his experiences with Born and about writing this book in an interesting article.  Below is an interesting quote:

“Through Gabor I learned in 1950 that Born was thinking of preparing a
new book on optics, somewhat along the lines of his earlier German book
Optik, published in 1933, but modernized to include accounts of the more
important developments that had taken place in the nearly 20 years that
had gone by since then. At that time Born was the Tait Professor of Natural
Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, a post he had held since 1936,
and in 1950 he was 67 years old, close to his retirement. He wanted to find
some scientists who specialized in modern optics and who would be willing
to collaborate with him in this project. Born approached Gabor for advice,
and at first it was planned that the book would be written jointly by him,
Gabor, and H. H. Hopkins. The book was to include a few contributed
sections on some specialized topics, and Gabor invited me to write a section
on diffraction theory of aberrations, a topic I was particularly interested in
at that time. Later it turned out that Hopkins felt he could not devote
adequate time to the project, and in October of 1950, Gabor, with Born’s
agreement, wrote to Linfoot and me asking if either of us, or both, would
be willing to take Hopkins’ place. After some lengthy negotiations it was
agreed that Born, Gabor, and I would co-author the book.”

Wolf writes about Born and his working style:

“In spite of his advanced age Born was very active and, as throughout all
his adult life, a prolific writer. He had a definite work routine. After coming
to his office he would dictate to his secretary answers to the letters that
arrived in large numbers almost daily. Afterward he would go to the adjacent
room where all his collaborators were seated around a large U-shaped
table. He would start at one end of it, stop opposite each person in turn,
and ask the same question: “What have you done since yesterday?” After
listening to the answer he would discuss the particular research activity and
make suggestions. Not everyone, however, was happy with this procedure.
I remember a physicist in this group who became visibly nervous each day
as Born approached to ask his usual question, and one day he told me that
he found the strain too much and that he would leave as soon as he could
find another position. He indeed did 80 a few months later. At first I too
was not entirely comfortable with Born’s question, since obviously when one
is doing research and writing there are sometimes periods of low productivity.
One day when Born stood opposite me at the U-shaped table and asked,
“Wolf, what have you done since yesterday?” I said simply, “Nothing!” Born
seemed a bit startled, but he did not complain and just moved on to the next
person, asking the same kind of question again.”

Wolf also gives an account of why Gabor pulled-out, and how Wolf had to play an unexpected, but vital role in writing this book:

“…..Gabor soon found it difficult to devote the necessary time to the project, and it was mutually agreed that he would not be a co-author after all, but would just
contribute a section on electron optics. So in the end it became my task to
do most of the actual writing. Fortunately I was rather young then, and so
I had the energy needed for what turned out to be a very large project. I
was in fact 40 years younger than Born. This large age gap is undoubtedIy
responsible for a question I am sometimes asked, whether I am a son of the
Emil Wolf who co-authored Principles of Optics with Max Born!”

Wolf also praises Born’s open-mindness to various branch of physics:

“Optics in those days-remember we are talking about optics in pre-laser
days-was not a subject that most physicists would consider exciting; in fact,
relatively little advanced optics was taught at universities in those days. The fashion then was nuclear physics, particle physics, high energy physics, and
solid state physics. Born was quite different in this respect from most of his
colleagues. To him all physics was important, and rather than distinguish
between “fashionable” and “unfashionable” physics he would only distinguish
between good and bad physics research.”

Emil Wolf is now 95 years old, and is still a very active researcher. His recent paper was in 2016 on partially coherent sources and their scattering from a crystal. Wolf’s books are classics in optics, and continues to raise probing questions and important connections in sub-branches of optics.

In an essence, great science books are written with love and passion to communicate the excitement of science. Born and Wolf certainly does that, and continues to inspire us to learn optics from the masters themselves.

To conclude, let me quote Born himself from his Nobel banquet speech:

“The work for which the Nobel Prize has been awarded to me is of a kind which has no immediate effect on human life and activity, but rather on human thinking. But indirectly it had a considerable influence not only in physics but in other fields of human endeavour.

This transformation of thinking in which I have taken part is however a real child of science, not of philosophy: it was not the result of speculation, but forced upon us by the observed properties of Nature.”

Max Born and Emil Wolf, your work and your books have transformed our thinking, and the way we see light and matter. Thank You !

Colourful Sky in Leonardo’s Eye

There are very few people in human history who have combined arts and science like Leonardo da Vinici. He was a polymath: a great painter, inventor, sculptor, scientist and as you will see – a keen observer of nature, and many more. One of the great aspects of Leonardo is that he recorded his observation as texts, which gives us a deep and direct insight into his thinking.

All of us have been captured by the beauty of sun lit sky. It has made us gaze and wonder about its colour. Of course, it has inspired a countless number of artist and scientist to ask the question : what is the origin of colours of a sun-lit sky ? Leonardo himself was fascinated by this question, and led him to view this question both as a painter and as a scientist. Thanks to the great work of J.P. Richter, who has translated the Literary works of Lenardo da Vinici into english (available free online), we obtain a direct peek into the mind of Leonardo which is an everlasting treasure trove: more you dig more you get.



The title page of the translated book

In the collected works, what has caught the attention of scientists is a chapter titled “Aerial Perspective”. In there, Leonardo is trying to converse with his fellow painters on how to create perspective in paintings.  While doing so, he makes some vital observation and proposes hypotheses, and further discusses about some experiments to test them. Leonardo was a keen observer. His approach to art was heavily influenced by an analytical way of looking at the problem at hand. In his writings, he appeals to painters to pay close attention to angles and perspectives in the geometry. In order to attain precision he gives elaborate explanation based on his observation. Below is an example where he explains how to represent the atmosphere in paintings.

“Why the atmosphere must be represented as paler towards the lower portion? Because the atmosphere is dense near the earth, and the higher it is the rarer it becomes. When the sun is in the East if you look towards the West and a little way to the South and North, you will see that this dense atmosphere receives more light from the sun than the rarer; because the rays meet with greater resistance.”


It is remarkable how his efforts to create a painting inspired him to go deeper and hypothesize a physical phenomenon. Below sentences reveals a connection he makes between colour of the sky and the presence of “insensible atoms”.

“ I say that the blueness we see in the atmosphere is not intrinsic colour, but is caused by warm vapour evaporated in minute and insensible atoms on which the solar rays fall, rendering them luminous against the infinite darkness of the fiery sphere which lies beyond and includes it”

Although, now we know that light scattering from molecules (not atoms) as the reason for colourful sky, we need to really appreciate Leonardo’s quantum leap of thought. Remember, his texts are dated around late 1400s or early 1500 AD, where the presence of atoms and molecules were not yet verified. As a person with scientific aptitude, Leonardo not only hypothesized, but also tested them with experiments. Below he refers to a beautiful experiment with smoke and the perception of colour arising due to the background.

“Again as an illustration of the colour of the atmosphere I will mention the smoke of old and dry wood, which, as it comes out of chimney, appears to turn very blue, when seen between the eye and the dark distance. But as it rises, and comes between the eye and the bright atmosphere, it at once shows of an ashy grey colour; and this happens because it no longer has darkness beyond it, but this bright and luminous space.”

To me this is nothing but a first rate example of looking at nature through a scientific eye, and adapting this view as means to a certain end. It is a tribute to Leonardo who paid such meticulous attention to details, and attempted to explain an unexplained physical phenomenon – all in the name of getting a painting right !  This is also a wonderful example of how aesthetics and science combined in the mind of Leonardo, which further led to some breathtaking work. After all, science and arts are two aspects of human expression, and Leonardo combined them effectively.

There is another lesson we can learn from such endeavours: observations play a key role. Sometimes, when a student is working in a laboratory, she or he may wonder why one should keep records of ones observations. Well, to them I say – look at Leonardo, he took an important step to write down his observations and this served not only as a template for further exploration, but also clarified his thoughts about the phenomenon he was interested in. Writing this way serves two purposes: one is to record the observation at the moment of exploration and other is to seed new thoughts and questions that can be derived out of these recordings.  You can surely get a lot out of this approach – give it a try.

Coming back to the sky – what is the exact origin of its colour? It took almost 400 years after Leonardo’s observations for someone to come up with an ‘accurate’ answer. And that person was Lord Rayleigh (actual name: John William Strutt). In his remarkable research paper published in 1899, Rayleigh explained the blue of the sky as due to molecular scattering. The opening paragraph of this paper is historic and reproduced below- 

“This subject has been treated in papers published many years ago. I resume it in order to examine more closely than hitherto the attenuation undergone by the primary light on its passage through a medium containing small particles, as dependent upon the number and size of the particles. Closely connected with this is the interesting question whether the light from the sky can be explained by diffraction from the molecules of air themselves, or whether it is necessary to appeal to suspended particles composed of foreign matter, solid or liquid. It will appear, I think, that even in the absence of foreign particles we should still have a blue sky.”

The final statement is significant as it recognizes that light scattering can occur purely due to molecules in air, even after discounting the contribution of suspended particles. Rayleigh gave his famous formula in 1871, which drew an inverse relationship between the intensity of scattered light from a very small particle (compared to wavelength of light) and the fourth power of the wavelength of light. In other words, smaller the wavelength of light (violet-blue in case of visible light), more will it be scattered from the molecules in the sky, and hence the blue colour.

One may wonder why not a violet coloured sky. After all, if the inverse relationship between scattering intensity and wavelength holds good, then according to visible colour distribution (VIBGYOR), violet should be the dominant colour of the sky. The answer to this puzzle is a complex one. Mainly because what we perceive as blue is due to a combination of at least three concomitant effects: Rayleigh scattering, human perception and the background in which the scattered light from molecules are observed. Although the colour of the sky is beautiful to perceive from earth, the intricate understanding of the optical processes in atmosphere of planets, including earth, is still a work in progress.

The foundations laid by Leonardo opened a new line of thought, and Rayleigh put forth an important explanation that forms the basis for a majority of studies on light scattering since 1900s. We will revisit Rayleigh and his work many times in this blog; meanwhile enjoy watching the sky with your scientific eye – after all sky is no limit for science!