Barry Ramachandra Rao – Physicist, Scientist (b 1922 Vishakhapatnam)
Compiled By – Sri Ramakrishna Prasad – Chennai
Barry Ramachandra Rao, an eminent space scientist and a teacher who had inspired generations of physics students at Andhra University (AU), had a humble beginning, born on 21 November 1922 into a fisherman’s family in Yalamanchili, a remote village in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh. He had early schooling in his native village and high school and intermediate education in Visakhapatnam. That he was an immensely talented student was known quite early, but how extraordinarily gifted he was came to be realized only after he joined the BSc (Hons.) physics course at AU. It would not have been possible for him to pursue university education, but for the timely support and encouragement by his elder brother, B. S. Prakasa Rao, a junior employee in the postal department at that time. S. Bhagavantham, greatly impressed by the talented young Rao, had taken special interest in him and provided whatever support possible in the way of tuition and hostel-fee concessions. Rao secured the first rank among all students of BSc (Hons.), not just in physics but all disciplines combined, and was awarded the prestigious Sripathi Medal in 1944. In MSc too he stood first and was awarded the Metcalf Medal in 1945. That was the beginning of a brilliant research career.
Rao joined research in 1945 for his DSc under the supervision of Bhagavantham. During his doctoral programme, Rao was supported first through a laboratory demonstratorship and later by a senior research fellowship of CSIR. His doctoral work was on diffraction of light by high frequency ultrasonic waves for which he was awarded DSc in 1949. Rao continued this line of work which led to the discovery that in the high frequency region, the diffraction pattern follows Bragg’s law. He and his students developed new techniques for high precision measurement of ultrasonic velocities in liquids and solids. The above pioneering research in ultrasonics led to a series of seven papers, six of them in Nature.
In 1951, Rao was awarded a Commonwealth Senior Research Fellowship to work at CSIRO, Australia with D. F. Martyn, who was at that time beginning to formulate the ionospheric dynamo theory, now regarded as one of the most outstanding contributions in ionospheric physics. Martyn invited Rao to join him to work on this theory, but it would involve commitment to stay longer than what Rao intended to spend at CSIRO. Rao’s primary objective was to work on experimental techniques that would help him start a school of experimental space physics at AU. On returning from Australia, Rao and a dedicated group of his doctoral students started building an ionospheric research laboratory that over the years developed into one of the most advanced space science centres of international repute. There was tremendous diversity in the type of instruments that had been designed and developed, taking the laboratory to the forefront of radio and space research in the country in a short time.
The first multi-frequency HF pulse radar in spaced-receiver configuration was developed by Rao’s group and a comprehensive study was made of ionospheric plasma drifts over low latitude. The group was also the first to adopt advanced correlation techniques to derive the scale size and anisotropy characteristics of the irregularities along with their turbulent and steady drift velocities. These were the first measurements based on which the low-latitude upper atmospheric winds were derived. The winds so derived formed the reference against which the early theoretical models developed by the MIT group in USA were tested. The group led by Rao was also the first to make extensive measurements on radio-wave absorption and polarization, and the specialized instruments needed to perform these experiments had been realized through enormous development efforts. These measurements have been successfully interpreted in terms of the magnetoionic theory of Appleton–Hartree.
The AU space science group under Rao was also among the first to undertake the important area of satellite radio beacon studies of total electron content and scintillations, while the field was still in its initial stages, even at the international level. The radio beacon studies now assume great significance under the newly emerged discipline of ‘space weather–science and applications’. Contributions of the AU group in this area over the past three decades, with direct relevance to satellite-based navigation and communications, have made immense impact at the international level.
The outstanding academic contributions of Rao are reflected in the award of more than 40 DSc/PhD degrees under his guidance and in the publication of over 300 papers, mostly in highly reputed international journals. Considering the kind of academic record that Rao had, it did not take long for him to receive professional recognition that was due. He received the highly prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 1965 and had the distinction of being elected to all the three national academies (FNA–1969; FASc–1974 and FNASc–1978). He served as President of the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad during 1981–82 and President of the Indian Science Congress during 1982–83. He was conferred DSc (honoris causa) by Andhra University in 1970. The above are but a few among the numerous awards and honours he receivedfor his academic accomplishments.
In 1976, the UGC appointed Rao as its Vice-Chairman, in recognition of his administrative and organizational abilities and academic excellence. He served as UGC Vice-Chairman for two terms during 1976–82 and introduced some important reforms in the university system. These include semester system with internal assessment, major changes in the structure and course content at the Master’s degree level, closer linkages between academic institutions and national laboratories, establishment of centres of excellence in science, university service and instrumentation centres (USICs) and state-of-the-art computing facilities at some major universities.
Under the initiative of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Rao was elected as a member of Rajya Sabha for one term during 1982–88. He also had the distinction of serving as Chairman of the National Fisheries Advisory Board, Chairman of the Educational Consultants of India Limited and member of governing bodies of several R&D organizations, apart from serving on the top academic bodies of several universities. He was part of several foreign delegations of the Government of India, either as leader or member, under numerous exchange programmes of the Ministries of HRD and Science and Technology. Rao’s involvement in the progress of academic institutions and R&D organizations has been so extensive and his interests and contributions have been so varied, it is not easy to narrate all that he has done in his long and illustrious career without missing something important.
Finally, for all his outstanding academic accomplishments which came to an end on 24.09.2005, he remained all along a simple and unassuming person. Rao will be long remembered as much for the fine values of life that he lived by as for his academic brilliance.