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A master and his protege

Nobel winning physicist Walter Kohn remembers brilliant physicist Chanchal Majumdar and how communists haunted him, leading to his untimely demise

N Sundaresha Subramanian  |  Allahabad 

It’s been 13 years but 90-year-old Nobel physicist Walter Kohn still remembers his brilliant student, Chanchal Kumar Majumdar.

“I had two Indian students among the first three I took. Both had illustrious careers. Chanchal was one of them. I am sad he is not with us today,” Kohn told Business Standard.

Majumdar’s tale is a stark reminder of India’s step-motherly treatment to science and scientific research, even as it races into a technology-driven future.

Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1938 and inspired by ace physicists C V Raman and the Boses (Jagdish Chandra and Satyendra Nath), Majumdar took to physics early. He went on to become one of the finest condensed matter physicists India has ever produced. “Several in this conclave (the sixth Science Conclave organised by the Indian Institute of Information Technology-Allahabad) know him and remember him,” Kohn said, adding Majumdar could have got any position he wanted in the United States academia.

“But, he loved his country and wanted to contribute to it. So, he came back,” Kohn said. Majumdar worked with Kohn for his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, in 1965.

According to an obituary published in 2001 in Physics Today, flagship publication of the American Institute of Physics, Majumdar’s thesis was on the effect of interactions on positron annihilation in solids. “That same year, he made a significant contribution: The Kohn–Majumdar Theorem. The theorem proposes the continuity between bound and unbound states of a potential in a many-body continuum, a crucial clue to the orthogonality catastrophe that underlies the physics of the Kondo and Anderson impurity models.”

The obituary said Majumdar died on June 20, 2000, in Kolkata following a heart attack. “He died young. He was in the process of founding an institute for theoretical physics,” Kohn recalls. “He was very passionate about this institute. He put in all his resources into it and worked hard for it.”

The institute’s name is S N Bose Centre for Basic Sciences in Kolkata. The Physics Today article said, “From its beginning as an idea to buildings, facilities, people, and an ethos. The centre bears the mark of his perfectionism and phenomenal attention to detail, and is emerging as a major resource for physics.” Incidentally, the Bose centre is also run by the department of science and technology of the Union government, which runs the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad, which brought Kohn to India for its sixth Science Conclave.

Kohn said while Majumdar was in the process of setting up the centre, he ran into trouble with “some communist or socialist unions”. The Left Front government led by iconic chief minister Jyoti Basu was in power in West Bengal at that time.

According to the Nobel laureate, “They accused him wrongly — I say this with some authority because a subsequent government inquiry concluded so — of misappropriating funds.”

Kohn said Majumdar couldn’t take this. “He was a personality of enormous propriety. He left everything back in the US to help the country he was born. And, this was what he got. That was difficult for him.”

Recalling those final days, Kohn added, “I was in touch with him in those last days. It was shocking. The government probe has proved him innocent. But, he is no longer with us.”

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First Published: Mon, December 09 2013. 23:35 IST