1. Trying to do everything by myself
Overcome language barriers
Prof. Ramanathan was born in November 1944 in Chennai, a coastal town in southern India facing the Bay of Bengal. He had a very happy childhood and used to play outside with his friends, running around, playing catch, climbing trees, and chasing after stray dogs. He was also an excellent student. When he was 10 years old, however, the family moved to Bangalore, an inland city located in southern India. His new life had a great impact on his way of thinking.
Bangalore was a former British colonial town that still retained strong British influence at the time. All education was conducted in English. Because Ramanathan spoke only Tamil, his school grades dropped to below average. Since he could not understand what his teachers were saying, he decided to learn everything by himself by reading books and trying to figure out the content. For example, when he learned about gravity, he used his knowledge and imagination to grasp the concept. Because his English wasn't proficient, he couldn't use rote learning; he first had to fully understand the topic in order to reach the answer.
He always had to struggle to figure out by himself why it worked that way and how it worked. Through these experiences, he realized that learning and understanding are two separate issues. He developed an approach, in which he always tried to think independently and do everything by himself without relying on others. It was an essential experience for Professor Ramanathan, who would later go on to be central to many scientific discoveries and achievements.
Expectations and Miscalculation
Professor Ramanathan graduated with a degree in engineering from Annamalai University in India in 1965 and worked in a refrigeration company. His job was to ensure that all the compressor components in the sealed refrigeration units were fitted correctly, so that the refrigerant did not leak from the sealed units. However, he did not have the knowledge to understand why refrigerants leaked and just had to follow instructions. He did not find the job inspiring, so he quit his job after a while. At that point, he never thought that the experience of working at that company would have a significant influence on his work ten years later.
After he quit the job, he entered the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, where he spent three years developing an optical instrument called interferometer to accurately measure temperature fluctuations in fluids. It was the first interferometer made solely in India. Looking back, he now says that it was an impossible project to do in India at that time.
Professor Ramanathan gained confidence with this achievement and realized his strengths in conducting independent research and taking on projects that everyone thought impossible. He then moved to the United States in 1970 to work on a new interferometer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
However, his advisor at the university, Professor Robert Cess, had lost interest in engineering at the time and had shifted the focus of his research to the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, leaving Professor Ramanathan to do research on the greenhouse effect on the two planets. It was a disaster for him, as his dreams of getting the Chevy Impala were dashed. He earned his PhD in planetary atmospheres, a completely different field from his original engineering major. However, this was a turning point that opened a new career path for him.