Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kolachala Seetaramayya

The Unsung Indian Hero in Russia Book Review by DR P K MukerjeeLecturer, Department of Physics, Deshbandhu College, Delhi University
A WREATH FOR DOCTOR RAMAYYABy Ghen Shangin - Berezevosky.Translated from Russian by Achala Jain and edited by S P K GuptaEvelyn Publishers in collaboration with Tribology Society of India;Pages 293 .

Fuels play an important role in the modern industrialised world. Without them, machines will not more, To move the `wheels of the world’ smoothly, lubricants are needed. With appropriate additives, the performance of lubricants can be significantly improved for better fuel performance and longer life. The chemistry of fuels and lubricants is studied under a new branch of science known as chemmotology in the erstwhile Soviet Union and it is recognised in the West as tribochemistry.
One of the initial pioneeering workers in this field was Kolachala Seeta Ramayya now rightly called the Father of Chemmotology. He hailed from Vuyyuru, a small Andhra village, on what was then the boundary between the Madras province and the Nizam state of Hyderabad. His father, who was a village priest, inculcated high values in him right from his childhood. He told him to ``do everything the best possible way’’ because it was ``the only way to become human’’.
Guided by these words of wisdom of his father, Ramayya set off from his native village for America. During his voyage to America, Ramayya was introduced not only to the fuel without which the engine would not move but also to the lubricant without which it would break down in no time. However, he had no inkling whatsoever at that time that a thin film of oil would arrest his attention all his life and that he would ``see the whole world through the processes that take place between the axle and the wheel’’. In this respect, Ramayya’s voyage was different from the voyage to Europe during which the celebrated physicist C V Raman was attracted to the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, an attraction that ultimately culminated in the discovery of the Effect that won hiim the Nobel prize.
While in America, Ramayya had to live in extreme poverty. However, support came from Ceylonese Ponnamabalam who became his friend and also from Cindy who offered him a room to stay in. Ramayya later marrried Cindy, but soon a crack developed in their relationship. After receiving Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Chicago, Ramayya could manage to get a decent job in L. Sonneborn Sons Inc, a privately owned corporation of the New York State. This firm was in the petrochemical business and was executing contracts for the U.S. Defence Department. Working in this firm, Ramayya developed various compositions of additives for improving the performance of motor oils. He prepared various patent applications. However, Ramayya’s firm filed only three applications in 1930. The first of these patents obtained in 1933 was titled `Art of purifying petroleum sulphonic acids derived from the treatment of mineral oils with sulphuric acid’.
As fate would have it, Ramayya decided to move to the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1930s. Here, he was made head of two laboratories, one at the oil Institute and the other at the tractor Institute. Showing continued zeal and perseverance, Ramayya could develop kerosene type fuels and high quality lubricants with special additives for facilitating battle tanks maneuverable even under fast changing weather conditions in the USSR. This proved to be a key factor for the Soviet victory over the Germans World War-II. Ramayya was also instrumental in developing some of the instruments that saved a great number of machines from premature wear and tear. They were not only put to use in the Soviet Union but found their way to other socialist countries from China to Czechoslovakia.
A couple of years after having shifted to Russia, Ramayya married a simple Russia woman of German extraction and raised a Soviet family. He later took Soviet citizenship in 1936. Although he was proud of his Soviet citizenship, he never forgot his original roots in India.
While remaining content as a family man, Ramayya also carried out research on the quality improvement of lubricants, publishing a total of seventy research papers. He put together some of his research works in 1949 in the form of a monograph titled `Viscosity anomaly in oil and its effect on friction in machines’. This monograph Ramayya submitted in 1951 as his thesis for a Master’s degree.
However, the USSR Academy of Science considered the monograph superb piece of research and, therefore, conferred on him the degrees of both Master and Doctor of Technical Sciences.
As a human being, Ramayya was extremely modest. He occasionally received visitors from his native of Andhra. Chasing wealth was alien to him. He was simple in his living too. The only items that filled his modest apartment were gifts from his Indian visitors. These included calendars and innumerable books in Telugu.
During his last years, Ramayya was collating his ideas and concepts of a fourth state of matter now known as the plasma state. Worldwide efforts now are going on to create thermonuclear power by harnessing this state. However, Ramayya died unhappy, as he could not concretise his ideas regarding this bizarre state. He was a patient of bronchial asthma and died of double pneumonia on September 29, 1977 in Moscow.
Indeed the story of Ramayya is the romantic story of an unsung hero. Ramayya has told this fascinating story in first person in the book under review. However, it is not an autobiography in the strict sense of the term as it was originally written in Russian by Ramayya’s son-in-law Ghen Shangin-Berezovsky. The author has used several literary devices to tell the story and has disguised names except those of Soviet personalities figuring in the narrative. However, as remarked by the editor, neither the events nor the central characters are imaginary.
The book has been translated by Achala Jain and edited by S P K Gupta. The editor has done a wonderful job of writing a chronological profile based on interviews with the Ramayya family in Russia and India. In a separate section, the editor has also compiled a list of Ramayya’s scientific work including his two dissertations and a host of research papers.
Incidentally, Ramayya’s contributions to science are not known in India for he worked first in the US and then in the erstwhile Soviet Union. The vivid account of Ramayya’s life and his scientific discoveries is both interesting and useful, more so to the Indian readers who would certainly love to read about a scientist of Indian origin whom they do not know well. The book on the whole is well written, meticulously translated and edited. One can enjoy reading the book even at one single stretch.

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