Indian scientist Prof. Narasimha passes away, friends call him courteous philospher

Ritu Jha-

Eminent aerospace scientist, Professor Roddam Narasimha passed away on December 14, after suffering a brain hemorrhage in Bengaluru, India. He was 87.

Narasimha is known for his contributions to some of the major scientific programs of India, including the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Narasimha had a heart-related disease and had suffered a brain stroke in 2018. Narasimha’s family members said that his last rites would be performed on Tuesday. The scientist is survived by his wife and a daughter.

Narasimha was born on July 20, 1933, and had worked extensively in the field of aerospace and fluid dynamics. He was the director of the National Aerospace Laboratories from 1984 to 1993. He also served as the chairperson of the Engineering Mechanics unit at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru from 2000 to 2014.

Narasimha was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India, in 2013.

Tributes poured in after news of Narasimha’s demise broke.

President Ram Nath Kovind said the scientist’s demise was a “huge loss” to the world of science and technology. “An authority in fluid dynamics, he was honored with Padma Vibhushan and many other awards and recognitions,” the president tweeted. “My condolences to his family and his associates.”

Minister Narendra Modi offered his condolences to the scientist’s family and friends. “Shri Roddam Narasimha personified the best of India’s tradition of knowledge and enquiry,” he tweeted. “He was an outstanding scientist, passionate about leveraging the power of science and innovation for India’s progress. Pained by his demise.”

Shankar Sastry, who currently serves as the Thomas Siebel Professor of Computer Science, the director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and the co-Director of the C3 Digital Transformation Institute told indica News, he used to call Prof. Roddam as Roddam uncle.

“He was one of my favorite uncles,” Prof. Sastry said, “He was a classmate of my father, S.V. Sastry in the Government Engineering College in Bangalore, and later they were both graduate students at the Indian Institute of Science. My father introduced Roddam to his wife’s (my mother Anasuya Sastry) sister, Neelima, who was an internal medicine practitioner in Hyderabad. After a lengthy courtship Roddam and Neelima were married and had a long and happy marriage with two daughters, both scientists: Maithreyi Narasimha, an MD Ph.D., at TIFR, Bombay, and Aditi Narasimha, a Prof at IIT Madras, who died some two years ago.”

Prof. Sastry sharing some of his favorite memories of spending time with Prof.Roddam said and his family is in one of the lovely homes in the main quadrangle of the Indian Institute of Science with its collection of Gulmohur trees and an idyllic atmosphere.

“I also saw him often enough when he came to the US, especially to spend time at Caltech. He was an incredibly influential Aeronautical Engineer not only for his contributions to the Indian Space program at Sriharikota, but also for the development of lightweight combat aircraft (fighters)  for the Indian Air Force, and more recently for his simulation of atmospheric weather, ”

“For instance, he was one of the first people to establish the existence of an extremely cold band of upper atmospheric air close to the equator and its role in climate patterns,” said Prof. Sastry said, who had the privilege to interned for him at the Indian Institute of Science one summer when he was an undergrad at IIT Bombay and enjoyed his easy rapport with his students and colleagues. Both he and the long time IISc Director Satish Dhawan were students of a famous Caltech Professor Hans Liepmann, who would spend time in Bangalore.

Many years later when Prof. Sastry became the Dean of Engineering at Berkeley, he said had the good fortune of recruiting Dorian Liepmann (Hans’s son) as my Chair of Bioengineering!   And his(Sastry’s) wife Claire Tomlin began her career in an Aero Astro Department at Stanford University and felt fortunate to count on Prof. Roddam as a mentor and he gave her some excellent advice about life in Aero Departments.  Claire’s degrees had been in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and she really profited from the advice.

One important thing that Roddam did throughout his life was to develop the Indian origins of a lot of modern science, number theory and Aryabhatta for instance, and Tipu Sultan and rocketry for another. He used to regale me with stories about this. One story, in particular, was really memorable: it was about how Tipu had learned about the use of rockets from the Chinese. Since he did not know exactly how to use them in warfare, they were rather inaccurate and not particularly effective against the battles against John (later Lord) Clive’s East Indian Company army. He proceeded to explain how the terrified Clive sent the dud rockets back to England for perfecting and after having duly utilized them against the revolutionaries in the United States (“by the rocket’s red glare, with bombs bursting in air) they brought them back to India to duly pummel Indian armies into submission.

“Roddam was a humble man and believed in simple living and high thinking … he used to tell me that his advisor Hans Liepmann always told him that his legacy would be borne best by his students. This is indeed the case: his former students are in many influential leadership positions around the world,” said Prof. Sastry.

One of his contemporaries Prof.Arogayswami Paulraj is Professor Emeritus, Stanford University remembered the days of wring with Narasimha by quoting, “Just another side of Roddam. Courteous always.”

“In my interactions, I saw him more of a technologist than a philosopher on science / knowledge. I met him a few times at his RRI / Jakkur office, once for discussing China’s science and another on Antrik’s controversy on spectrum. He would been a happier person if India had made some strides in the commercial aircraft industry,” Prof. Paulraj told indica News.

Prof. Thomas Kailath, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, at Stanford University, who reminisced about his time with Narasimha, told indica News, “He was a remarkable scholar and a gentle and gracious person. A great loss to India and to the world. Roddam had very wide-ranging interests and our conversations were always enjoyable and stimulating. I just went through an interview where he spoke about ancient Indian science. I saw him at a variety of occasions at the IISc and the RRI. I was always flattered and honored by seeing him in the front row at my talks there. I was not at all surprised to read that he worked till the very end. I just went through an interview where he spoke about ancient Indian science.”

Remembering an interaction with Narasimha, Karnataka MP Jairam Ramesh said the scientist was “active till the very end”. He followed the footsteps of the great mathematician and aerospace engineer Satish Dhawan, Ramesh added.