When President Barack Obama received the Nobel Prize for Peace in a prestigious ceremony that was held at the beautiful Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 2009, India-born Venkatraman (“Venki”) Ramakrishnan was one of nine scientists who was honored with Nobel Prizes for their contributions to humanity.
Venki, an American citizen who works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England was born in Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu and graduated from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
He shares the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with fellow American Thomas Steitz and Israel’s Ada Yonath — the first woman to receive the prize since 1964. Together the three of them created detailed blueprints of ribosomes, the protein-making machinery within cells. Their research is being used to develop new antibiotics.
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was shared by three Americans: Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak. They discovered how chromosomes protect themselves as cells divide.
Their work has inspired experimental cancer therapies and may offer insights into aging.
The Nobel Prize in physics will also be given to three Americans: Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith. Kao discovered how to transmit light signals long distance through hair-thin glass fibers. Boyle and Smith opened the door to digital cameras by inventing a sensor that turns light into electrical signals.
The story of how the two of them worked together on this problem is illuminating, but this short article permits me to highlight only one lesson this year’s Nobel Prizes for science can teach us in India. Notice eight of the nine Nobel scientists this year are American citizens; like our own Venki, five of these eight were born in countries other than America; the prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics was shared by three scientists each.
These facts raise the question: Why do the Americans win most of the Nobel prizes?
One reason for their individual success is: the team-spirit fostered in American culture. Would Dr. Ramakrishnan have won the prize if he were working in India?
It is more than likely that several Indian scientists are more brilliant than him. No doubt, they lack the kind of laboratories that are available to him . . . but if you question them (especially if they have worked both in India and in America), they are likely to tell you that more important than material resources, what they miss in our universities is a spirit of cooperation.
A capable microbiologist explained the problem to me: “What wins a Nobel Prize is innovation. But innovation requires questioning existing assumptions, theories and beliefs. If you appear to be questioning the beliefs of your seniors in the field of their specialization, then you can forget about their support for your projects and grant requests.
Our professional culture is such that if your superiors suspect that you might outshine them in a field where they have worked for decades, they will go out of their way to create hurdles for you, just as some of our gods become inauspicious to you simply because you haven’t fed their insatiable appetite and ego.
Our gods are omnipresent: they don’t remain confined to their temples.
They shape the culture of our universities as much as they distort our Westminster democracy. The in-house rivalries that have turned into destructive animosities within BJP seem to have taught this bitter lesson to honorable Arun Shourie.
Therefore each one of the eight senior faculty in his pet project at IIT Kanpur – Biological Sciences and Bioengineering (BSBE) – were recruited abroad, even while Shourie was still proclaiming the nobility of the Hindutva culture. BSBE is hoping that the foreign-trained scientists will bring into our scientific institutions the professional culture of the West. Good and brilliant people like Mr. Shourie are yet to find a way to change the self-destructive culture of our political parties.”
The Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama reinforces this significant cultural difference between us and the West. The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to his untested nine month old Presidency has drawn much praise, abundant derision and plenty of puzzlement.
Right or wrong, the Nobel Prize has raised the bar so high for Obama’s presidency that judged in the light of the expectations his failures would be “spectacular.” And there can be no doubt that many of his ambitious efforts will fail just like his attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago.
Some plans will fail because no one can control all the outcomes of one’s efforts. Other endeavours will fail because of Obama’s own ignorance, poor judgment, personal shortcomings, erroneous ideas and beliefs.
It is possible that three years from now the Committee will regret its decision. Yet, the question remains: why did the Committee decide to honour President Obama just eleven days after he took the office of the President of the United States?
The Committee said that it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Even if some of the unexpressed motives behind the award were not so noble, there is certainly merit in the reason given: Many Muslims see America as their enemy: Iran has described America as the “Great Satan.”
But President Obama promised to make an effort to love those who hate America, just as he reached out to Hilary Clinton – his one-time arch rival – and offered her the most important job in his cabinet. Was it political pragmatism? It was . . . but seeking to destroy your opponents is also pragmatic politics. Which course you choose depends on the values you cherish.
The fact is that Obama is enough of a Christian to value cooperation and love as integral facets of American culture. The Bible says that love is supreme. God is love and He loves us even when we rebel against Him.
Obama believes that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, was right in going to war against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But Obama also knows that neither President Bush nor Americans hate Muslims.
Even though much of the world cannot comprehend it, the fact is that while many Muslim jihadists would love to come to America to kill Americans, any number of individual Americans would gladly spend their life-savings to go as volunteers to serve Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan knowing perfectly well that they might be kidnapped, raped or killed. Why would they do so?
Because, they follow a God who sacrificed his life for those who love darkness and hate divine light. I have understood America enough to know that even though President Bush would disagree with some of President Obama’s decisions, he would honour and support every effort his successor makes to befriend and serve Muslim nations.
If we Indians find it impossible to understand or believe this, then that simply shows how far we have to go in transforming our worldview and values.
We rarely win a Nobel Prize because supporting and serving our rivals is not a part of our culture. Our culture was constructed on the idea that some of our neighbours are lower than us and should be kept at a distance.
In contrast, the American culture was built on the command that people must love their neighbours as themselves and go beyond that to loving their enemies. Have Americans been consistent in obeying the Bible?
By no means! Many of them practiced slavery and many continue to practice racism. Capitalistic and academic competition which is meant to be a competition in excellence often degenerates into sinful envy, jealousy, meanness, hatred and destructive rivalries.
Nevertheless, their belief that all human beings are made in God’s image and therefore have unique dignity has had a powerful impact on their culture. The Bahujan of India remain backward because we find it very hard to cooperate even across jati let alone caste lines, to love and support our neighbours realize even noble dreams.
With permission from the author and FORWARD Press – the only fully English-Hindi magazine – by and for India’s aspiring millions. www.forwardmagazine.in.