Aerospace rockstar WITH A VISION Roddam Narasimha, the man for all seasons

A recent news report – ‘Monsoon Covers the Entire Country 17 Days Ahead of Schedule’ – must have been music to Professor Roddam Narasimha’s ears. One can easily imagine the connoisseur of Indian classical music enjoying the monsoon showers, listening to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s sonorous voice: “Mile sur mera tumhara… Baadalon ka roop lekar, barse halke halke”. July is a special month for Prof Narasimha. Born on July 20, he will turn 85 in less than a fortnight. Besides, it was on July 27, 1994 that then director of Indian Institute of Science (IISc) CNR Rao inaugurated the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (CAOS) at IISc – a department that Prof Narasimha conceived of, way back in the 1980s. Prof Narasimha is ‘DST Year-of-Science Chair Professor’ at the Engineering Mechanics Unit of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Jakkur. CAOS While the monsoon has many chasers now, back in the 70s, Prof Narasimha once recalled, there were hardly any scientists studying the phenomenon. With his expertise in fluid dynamics and aerospace engineering and his interest in monsoon clouds – an offshoot of a childhood fascination – Prof Narasimha requested Satish Dhawan, the then director of IISc, and his mentor to allow him to bring together scientists within the country to work on this fascinating inter disciplinary area of atmospheric sciences. He thus sowed the seeds for the country’s first Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, later to be rechristened CAOS at IISc. Prof Narasimha scouted for talent and brought together Dr Sikka, Dr Sulochana Gadgil, Dr J Srinivasan and Dr Sankara Rao, the core working group, each scientist complementing the other in their areas of specialisation. More scientists from around the country would later join the team. With government funding coming in, Prof Narasimha proposed MONTBLEX (Monsoon Trough Boundary Layer Experiment), which involved extensive experiments in the IndoGangetic Plains, with stations in Balasore, Jodhpur, Delhi, Benares and Kharagpur. The experimental set-ups were all home-built; a majority of the components were sourced from the local electronics market. Prof Narasimha recalled that it was the first time that microprocessor chips were used in their electronic circuitry and to ensure that there were no glitches in the experiments, which were to be carried out in the harshest of environments – the extreme heat of the Jodhpur desert area and extreme humidity in the Balasore sea zones – they convinced the microprocessor supplier to send in a technician to handle emergencies. With these efforts, and the first satellite images beamed back by early ISRO satellites, the scientists were able to eventually predict several hitherto unknown aspects of the Indian monsoon. Their painstaking work resulted in the discovery of the northwards movement of the monsoon trough, christened the “30-40 days mode”, based on the number of days it took the monsoon trough to move from the southern to the northern parts of the country. Father of the LCA Among the many unknown facets of Prof Narasimha is that he is the father of the light combat aircraft (LCA), also known as TEJAS. It was he who suggested that the country needs an aircraft with short flying range but maximum performance. He made a presentation to this effect in 1979 to the Indian Air Force. His proposal was supported and taken forward by the defence ministry, thanks in many ways to Prof Raja Ramanna. Thus, the LCA project was born. But Prof Narasimha wanted the country to have capabilities, not just in fighter aircraft, the mainstay of our air force, but also civilian aircraft. With his experience and expertise in aerospace engineering, he advocated the use of Carbon Fiber Composites (CFC) for which he successfully put together a team of scientists which eventually mastered this new composite material technology. The Flosolver: It was under the stewardship of Prof Narasimha, when he was director of the National Aeronautical Laboratory (NAL), now National Aerospace Laboratories, in 1984-1993 that work began on the first-generation Flosolver. He suggested that it was necessary to “design, develop, fabricate and use a suitable parallel processing computer for application to fluid dynamics and aerodynamical problems”. Prof Narasimha groomed a brilliant young scientist, Dr UN Sinha, and his team and they came up with the Mark-1 Flosolver, the first high speed parallel processing computer built in the country. In a career spanning five decades, Prof Narasimha straddled many fields. His stint as director of National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, gave us insights into his deep commitment to the cause of India’s security vis-a-vis our nuclear programme. He also became interested in the ‘history of science’, in philosophy and in the task of enriching the leadership in industry, government and public affairs.


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