Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Review: Sand to Silicon, M V Kamath, Organiser

Veteran Journalist and former Chairman Prasar Bharti, Shri M V Kamath had these kind words to say in his review of my book Sand to Silicon in The Organiser

The miracle of digital tech
M.V. Kamath
Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology- Shivanand Kanavi, Rupa & Co. Delhi, pp 226, Rs. 395.00

On November 14, 2007 the media carried a story of the fourth fastest computer in the world, made in India. The super computer developed by the Tata Group's Pune-based Computational Research Laboratories (CRL), it was reported, was capable of a sustained speed of performance of 117.9 trillion floating operations per second (teraflops) and a peak speed of 170.9 teraflops and has been rated as the fourth fastest by the internationally recognised TOP 500 listing. This is the first time that an Indian High Performing Computer (HPC) has made it to the top, outdoing countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom and France. Now India joins the United States, Germany and Sweden to the Top Four.

According to a press release "the Super Computer built at the CRL facility marks a milestone in the Tata Group's effort at building an indigenous HPC solution". And Tata Group chairman, Shri Ratan Tata himself said that he is sure "this supercomputer and its successor systems will make a major contribution to India's ongoing scientific and technological initiatives". That was said modestly. May it be remembered that time was when the United States not only refused to provide India with a Supercomputer, but managed to persuade friendly countries not to help out India in its needs. Now India without any outside has triumphed. The Russians had been willing to sell the technology to India and had even signed an agreement with ISRO in 1992, but the US viciously invoked the Missile Technology Control Regime to bring pressure on Russia to deny India the technology. India should be grateful both to the US and Russia. It has learnt to stand on its own feet and thumb its nose at the Super Powers.

On January 21, 2008 India successfully placed an Israeli Spy Satellite in the polar orbit after what a news report said " a text-book launch" at Sriharikota Base. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C 10) lifted off flawlessly from its launch pad, to the delight of its scientific fraternity. Now comes a report from Kochi that after the success of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) produced by India, the country has decided to design and produce its own Light Observation Helicopter (LOH). Both the events are in many ways historic milestones in India's progress in the field of Science and Technology, but so little is know about the men who have made it to the top, Indians all, to their great pride.

It is not just in missilery that India is now to be counted. One has to read Shivanand Kanavi's fabulous book Sand to Silicon (Rupa and Co) to realise what fantastic contributions India has made in many other allied fields, but not necessarily within the Indian state boundaries. Think of Rajendra Singh, a wireless engineer and his wife Neera, a chemical engineer, now both living in the States. Singh hailed from a backward village, Kairoo, in Rajasthan which had neither electricity nor telephones. But he studied at Kanpur IIT, took a Ph.D in the States and he and his wife later became, according to Kanavi "the architects of most US cellular networks in the 1980s". In the 1990s, their consulting company spread its wings over 40 countries.
Who invented fibre optics? An Indian called Narindra Singh Kapanny. He was also the first to introduce lasers for eye surgery. Then there is C.K.N. Patel who won the prestigious National Medal of Science in the US in 1996 for his invention of the Carbon Dioxide Laser, the first Laser with high power applications, way back in 1964 at the Bell Laboratories. But how many in India know that? How many, for that matter, know that prototypes of personal computers were being made in India as far back as in the 1970s which were "as sophisticated as those being developed in the Silicon Valley"?

Apparently the Indian Government discouraged development of these PCs for some unknown reason. Kanavi mentions the name of Vinod Dham who led a project that created the Pentium, the most successful Intel Chip today. Then Kanavi mentions other names of Indians who played a pioneering role in developing design tools, names such as Raj Singh, Suhas Patel and Prabhu Goel.

The one dominant feature of Indians, according to educationists, is their grasp of mathematics. Kanavi remembers that on August 8, 2002, Manindra Agrawal, a faculty member at IIT Kanpur and two under-graduate students Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena, hit the headlines in, of all papers, The New York Times, a rare happening for any group of scientists, when they announced a research paper that they had solved the centuries-old problem of a test for the prime nature of numbers. So good are Indians at mathematics.

Actually, in the early 80s, a young electrical engineer at Bell Labs, Narendra Karmarkar was able to find a method, using highly complex mathematics to speed up many problems in linear programming. The Integrated Gate Bipolar Transistors or IGDT had, as a co-inventor, an Indian, Jayant Baliga. Then we have Sorab Gandhi who did pioneering work in Gallium Arsenide in 1960s and 1970s, making compound semi-conductors possible. Umesh Mishra of the University of California at the Santa Barbara is quoted as saying that tomorrow's lighting might come from semi-conductor like Gallium Nitride.

According to Mishra "a normal incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours and a tubelight lasts 10,000 hours but a Gallium Nitride Light-Emitting Diode display can last 100,000, hours while consuming little power. Though many in India have heard of Sam Pitroda, few know that he is the inventor of the digital diary, that handy gizmo which helps one store schedules, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. With models available at less than $ 100 each, the Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are fast proliferating among travellers and executives. These PDAs, according to Kanavi, not only store addresses and appointments, they also contain digital scratch pads and can access e-mail through wireless Internet!

One has to read Kanavi's fascinating account to realise what tremendous scientific progress Indians have achieved. His book is reader-friendly and is written in language that anyone unfamiliar with technical words can understand. That, indeed is its uniqueness. There hasn't been another work like this and it raises our pride in being Indians! It is no easy task to make complex scientific concepts understandable even to the technologically unsophisticated but this is where Kanavi has succeeded. Kudos to him.

(Rupa & Co., 7/16, Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi-110 002.)
Courtesy: http://www.organiser.org/, March 09, 2008

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