A Holly-Bolly-Wood Story of an Indian Physicist who Made His American Dream Happen

Morning beams are entering the living room of a typical wooden house some 50 miles north of New York. I am gazing at the snowy garden and listening to one of the most wonderful stories I have ever heard. I am speaking with a man of worth, a retired physicist Devendra Gupta, and meanwhile skimming through poems of Tagore, asking about Ambedkar, Gandhi and Feynman and discussing atomic diffusion. He is listed in the Marquis, Who is Who in the World and also as IBM Builders – Distinguished Alumni in IBM website. I am lucky to have met one of the most modest and amazing people. I have a feeling that people who give simple answers are the wisest.

You were born in the turbulent years in India.

That’s right. I was born in 1931 in Nagina – about 200 km north/east of Delhi. This was then, and continues to be a tiger country – The Jim Corbett Tiger preserve is only a few miles away. This was also a lawless territory – my own grandfather was shot dead in an armed robbery at his farmhouse by an infamous bandit named Sultana, some hundred years ago. There is so much folklore about him in the current literature, movies, shows and YouTube, Bonnie and Clyde stuff.  The Gandhi’s nonviolent movement which started already in 1912 was at the peak. In 1942, Gandhi tried to oust the British, but it did not work out due to the impeding World War II. Finally, in 1947, I saw the British leave from the Red Fort. Unfortunately, India got divided and a million people died and 10 million got displaced. My father used to have a small farm and we lived in a house with neither electricity nor water. During the WW2, we used kerosene lamps, but sometimes we could not buy any, so we studied with candlelight.

How did you become interested in science in these conditions?

When I was 5 years old, I used to walk from my home to school. On the way there was a street with a lot of blacksmiths. They made doorknobs, horse shoes and things like that. They worked with steel, put it into fire, heated it, bended it and I was standing there fascinated and watching. I wanted to find out how it works.

Thanks to your curiosity you made it from a small Indian town to the US. Can you explain how?

I was one out of nine children. We all went to college. One helped the other, our father had some money and we got scholarships. After school, I joined my brother in Delhi and studied physics at the Delhi University. After my B.A., I studied Engineering in the Banaras University in Vanarasi. After my graduation in 1954, I was hired in the newly formed Indian Institute of Technology to set up a laboratory. An American professor noticed my short paper “Theory of Martensitic Transformation in Metals” and recommended me to a professor in the New York University. The paper was concerned about the newly discovered phenomenon of Martensitic Transformation in steels at the turn of the 20th century and was a rage of research throughout the world. It explained the science he hind the secret art of making Damascus and Samurai swords of the medieval periods.

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So you went?

He helped me get a scholarship as a teaching assistant, but I did not have money to go to the US. I had to ask for financial help from a wife of a local industrialist. They were kind to give me money for the journey. I traveled for one month on a ship. It was really enjoyable. I was so young back then.

What an adventure!

Indeed. Well, after I came, I had to take courses in math’s, physics, and metallurgy and teach undergraduates in the laboratory. I did my Master’s degree at the NYU and my thesis was good, so they recommended me to the University of Illinois for a 3-year Ph.D. program. The Physics Dept. there was headed by Dr. Frederick Seitz. He had created the new discipline of Solid State Physics. It embraced the ancient art of metallurgy, materials and modern physics. He not only organized his own dept. to his vision, but attracted eminent people in other departments as well, notably in the Dept. of Mining and Metallurgy, the Ceramics and Electrical Engineering. I focused on atomic diffusion in the group where John Bardeen, a twice Nobel-prize winner physicist was the prominent figure among many others like my own thesis Advisor Dr. David Lazarus. Although, my enrolment was in the Dept. of Mining and Metallurgy, I was a very desirable graduate student doing thesis in the Physics Dept. according to my previous degrees in Physics and Metallurgy and I fit well in the vision of Dr. Frederick Seitz and the interdepartmental discipline he was fostering. This choice would later prove to be very valuable for the job at IBM and making a mark in the field. For computer chips, atomic diffusion of many species is the main stay.

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But after 5 years, you felt homesick and went back to India.

Yes, I got a job in the planning commission but I could not do any research. The US was so high and India so low. The group at Illinois kept on writing to me. Before Kennedy, the immigration from India was difficult but in 1965, the rules changed and that is when I came back. The IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center wanted me to work for them. Meanwhile I got married in India and our daughter was born there, while my two sons were born in the US.

In India arranged marriages are common. How does it work?

Well, my wife was found by my family. I had not known my wife at all. The families got together, checked and we were asked to meet. We had a cup of tea in a restaurant and we kind of liked each other (smiling). No dating or anything. We got married and got used to each other very quickly (chuckling). It was smooth. I was 30 and she was 28. She was a sociologist and was doing her Ph.D. in Sociology in Dehradun.

Wow. That is so interesting. And on top of that, she did her Ph.D. which I suppose was not very common for an Indian woman in the 1950’s?

It was unusual. Actually, most girls got married when they were 16-18 years old. She wanted to study but her father did not have money. The problem was dowry. A lot of qualified people want money and they did not have money to give. But I did not ask for any. I figured out I would make living with my education, so it was fine.

It sounds like a fairy tale. And then again you travelled to the US.

Yes, I went back to Illinois for two years and then worked at IBM for 45 years. I worked on diffusion. I wrote many papers and books. It was a very inspiring environment. There were many famous professors. We even did certain research projects at Harvard.

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Can you say more about research which you did? How did the science evolve?

When I started in the 1950’s, it used to be a dream that some day we would have a computer which could be carried on a truck. In those days computers were small in capacity, yet physically so big they needed air conditioning. Now, you have a much stronger computer in your pocket. Lots of changes have taken place and I may have a little input in that. When we started to work on the silicon chip of size of nail, we could put one with wires and we used to take pride that we have done it. Now in the same area it is possible to put 10 billion. We worked on that. This helped computers to develop.

I wish I could ask you more sophisticated questions about your research, but I am not so cognizant of this area. My last question would be, how did you get used to living in the US?

I loved it. For me it was not a problem at all. People are nice. Americans are very accepting to people from outside. And moreover I had many Indian and international friends at my workplace. I was lucky to be in Illinois and at IBM doing frontier research.

Thank you very much for sharing your story with me and for your hospitality.

Copyright: Devendra Gupta

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