Book Review: Indica by Pranay Lal


Balancing the nuanced and involved intricacies of the scientific method versus proselytizing the fantastic “factoids” of popular science is a tough act. Having to straddle this line to focus on the geology and geobiological history of the Indian subcontinent, an ambitiously multidisciplinary topic, on which there are scant accessible texts (popular science or not), is an even tougher act to follow. Fortunately, Pranay Lal manages to achieve such a balance and convey his infectious enthusiasm about the subject matter rather effectively for the most part of Indica’s ~400 pages.

It was refreshing and enjoyable to learn about new geological and paleontological information of the Indian subcontinent - a topic dear to my heart. The detailed place-markers and the McPhee-esque narratives of sites where geological features are found scattered throughout India was highly interesting. The accompanying photographs and schematics are also very nicely done. You can quickly see that Lal put in hours and hours of (non-book-based) research into Indica — it shows. It felt as if Indica was an attempt to channel Sagan)’ or Bryson or Winchester but with a focus on the history of the Indian subcontinent — a fantastic idea, and frankly, it’s puzzling that it took someone so long to do so. However, it becomes apparent through Lal’s reporting that it is quite challenging to piece together and chronicle information on such a vastly “big-picture” topic, especially, when construction, urban expansion, and apathy are on their path to eroding many of India’s geological marvels.

Lal is a geneticist by training and his disposition towards anthropology, biology, and paleontology becomes discernible as his writing on these topics shines. For example, his narrative on the evolutionary history of the recently discovered Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahayadrensis), its evolutionary ties to another frog found in Seychelles, and its parallels to the tuatara or kiwi was a treat to read. Moreover, the lengthy descriptions of India’s Phanerozoic paleoenvironment and the medley of dinosaurs that walked on the subcontinent were entertaining. The closing chapters on hominid evolution and India’s potential contribution to this story were thought-provoking.

As a downside to Indica, there are many small inaccuracies conveyed with certainty that are really more uncertain than presented. My friend Suvrat Kher has an excellent blog post on many problematic sections that dealing with sedimentology, tectonics, and mantle dynamics. I can echo Suvrat’s concerns in the paleomonsoon and paleoclimate domain where, amongst other things, Lal makes it seem as if we have a more concrete picture of the vagaries of the monsoon, its initiation, and its intensification than we actually do. Many of these points amount to more than sheer nitpicking. Ultimately, these inaccuracies are a significant downside to Indica, and I wonder about errors revolving around geobiology and other realms removed from my own field. Nevertheless, these inaccuracies did not prevent me from puzzling about them for a few minutes and moving on, driven by Lal’s ardor (one day, on my second read, I might find the time to write down my concerns as well and as thoroughly as Suvrat did).

As a closing statement, Indica is for anyone and everyone interested in the geological natural history of the Indian subcontinent. It should be mandatory reading for anyone working on the topic, and more importantly, for students/workers who do read it, I recommend trying to spot the inaccuracies and perhaps making a list.

In Memoriam: Devendra Lal (1929-2012)

Image Credit: UCSD Library

Image Credit: UCSD Library

On December 1st, 2012, Devendra Lal, a pivotal geoscientist of the 20th century, passed away after eighty-three long journeys around the sun. Born in Varanasi in 1929, Lal obtained his BSc (1947) and MSc (1949) at Banaras Hindu University. In late 1949 (bear in mind, two years after India gained independence), he joined the cosmic ray research group at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), a part of Bombay University to pursue his doctoral studies.

Initially, the cosmic radiation research group was headed by H. J. Taylor, a physicist at Wilson College whose primary research area was in the detection of cosmic rays. In 1949, as it happened, Bernard Peters, an eminent physicist, was visiting TIFR on invitation from Homi Bhabha (another eminent physicist in his own right). Peters, a professor at the University of Rochester had met Bhabha in New York. They were both interested in understanding the particles that make-up incoming cosmic radiation. Peters knew of the hypothesis that low-latitude equatorial locations had a potential bias in the incoming cosmic particle composition and readily took up Bhabha's invitation to TIFR, where they were conducting detection experiments.

Curiously enough, Peters, who was born as Bernhard Pietrkowski of Jewish heritage, was held at a concentration camp shortly after he joined the Technical University in Munich as a student. After three months in the camp at Dachau, somehow, he escaped by bicycling through the Alps! Ultimately, he made his way to the US and worked odd jobs (including a stint at an import firm in New York and as a stevedore in San Francisco) until he met Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer convinced Peters to do his doctoral studies with him on theoretical physics (in a bizarre twist, in his later years, Oppenheimer would testify that Peters was a member of the Communist Party in Cold War America). After completing his Ph.D., Peters switched to a more experimental outlook and landed a faculty job at the University of Rochester, where he would run into Bhabha. Peters was enthralled enough by Bombay and TIFR and chose to stay there from 1951-1958. Thus, Peters became Lal's supervisors and the father of the atomic bomb became Lal's 'academic grandfather'.

Primarily, Lal and Peters were interested in the terrestrial record of cosmic rays or the chemical trail that these rays coming into Earth from outer space would leave as they interacted with rocks and other earthly material (such as marine sediments) - particularly Lal chose to work on looking for the third long-lived terrestrial cosmonucleus (after 14C and 3H) - 10Be (or Beryllium-10). Many scientists were skeptical of their pursuit to find 10Be in the terrestrial record because of its low production rate. However, Peters and his group were determined to set the scientific record straight. In late May 1955, a week after Lal got married, Peters, his students P. S. Goel, B. S. Amin and Lal (with his new bride Aruna) collected snow for cosmic ray detection while camping in Gulmarg, Kashmir! Peters left early so as to get back to Bombay and collect rainfall at the onset of the monsoon while the others continued the experiment at Khilanmarg. The group had also obtained Eastern Pacific sediments from the Swedish Oceanographic Institute at Goteborg and performed 10Be detection experiments on these samples as well. Ultimately, Peters and his group published their discoveries of  10Be (and 7Be) in the terrestrial record (see [1] and [2]), and Lal went on to complete his thesis: Investigations of nuclear interactions produced by cosmic rays. Lal cherished his early collaboration with Peters and would call him 'teacher supreme'. He also spoke highly of Taylor ('worked hard and inspired us').

The nature of science is such that from time to time, separate groups arrive at the same result or discovery despite being geographically isolated. This was to be the case for the discovery of 10Be in marine sediments. In 1956, another group at Princeton headed by James R. Arnold (another crucial Manhattan Project scientist) published their results in Science [3] on 10Be from a core (coincidentally enough) from the Eastern Pacific! While visiting the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in '57, Roger Revelle, offered Arnold a faculty position in chemistry to help build the department (which he took because Harold Urey was moving there too!) Meanwhile, Lal had just finished his PhD while Peters' group was exchanging mails with Arnold's group and was offered a chance to work at Scripps (which he accepted because of Arnold). This was Lal's first time at Scripps and he would collaborate with Arnold well into the future to produce many seminal papers on meteorites and planetary chemistry (see [4], [5] and [6]). Arnold made six more journeys around the sun than Lal before passing away earlier this year.

Lal came back to India in 1959 and accepted a professor position at TIFR. In 1968 he became a permanent visiting scientist at Scripps, shuttling from Bombay to La Jolla. Lal remained at TIFR until 1971 where he set up radiocarbon and tritium laboratories. In 1972, Lal became the director at Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad. He held this position (while still visiting at Scripps) for twelve years. Under Lal, physics (and especially geophysics) flourished. I first heard of Lal at PRL while I was still a fledgling geoscience research assistant at PRL (now I am a fledgling geoscience grad. student). Intrigued by the history of geoscience in India, I would often ask senior scientists about how they got into the field. Most of them (including my advisor R. Ramesh who worked closely with Lal) spoke very fondly of Lal's time as the director and how he was an encouraging influence. Lal oversaw several PhD students at TIFR and PRL (and later, at Scripps) who went on to become successful practitioners of various branches of geophysics/geochemistry. To name a few: Jitendra N. Goswami, current director of PRL and chief scientist of India's moon mission; B. L. K. Somayajulu, a chemical oceanographer who has worked extensively with sediments from the Indian ocean,  Narendra Bhandari, another key player in the Chandrayan mission and S. Krishnaswamy, a well-known Indian geochemist - not to mention that all of these scientists (including R. Ramesh) were recipients of India's highest scientific honor, the S. S. Bhatnagar Award (which Lal himself received in 1967). Lal and his wife Aruna, were both very interested and engaged in science outreach and set up several fellowships and scholarships for students/young scientists at PRL.

In 1989, Lal permanently moved to Scripps as full-time faculty and this is where he would stay until he passed. Lal won numerous awards and accolades throughout his career - too many for me to detail. His ideas were far-reaching and he had many collaborators. Gerry Wasserburg, in his memoirs entitled Isotopic Adventures [7], wrote:

Chasing some particular idea and some observations of nature make up the real present and govern my immediate future. In the chase, I met Devendra and Aruna Lal. He was fascinated with Indian puzzles and natural puzzles, particularly those cosmic-ray induced. Our mutual interest in natural puzzles has been a continuous source of entertainment and mutual support.

Web of Science pegs Devendra Lal's h-index at 41 (i.e. he has written at least 41 articles that have been cited 41 times). His first peer-reviewed article On the production of radioisotopes in the atmosphere by cosmic radiation and their application to meteorology [8] was published in July 1958 in the Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics and has been cited 101 times. His last article was in Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) published in August 2010, Nuclear, chemical and biological characterization of formation histories of ironstones from several sites in Southern California: Dominant role of bacterial activity [9] indicating the diverse nature of problems that Lal sought to tackle. His most cited article (over 1000 citations) was also published in EPSL - Cosmic ray labeling of erosion surfaces: in situ nuclide production rates and erosion models [10] in 1991. All in all, Devendra Lal's academic legacy will live far into the future. He was a tremendously gifted geophysicist and contributed greatly to the breadth of Indian science. It was unfortunate that I never had the opportunity to meet the man but I have certainly met him vicariously through the scientists and friends that I have collaborated/worked with. He will be deeply missed by the Indian scientific community (and otherwise). On that note, here is what my friend, Arvind Singh had to say:

I don’t know how to describe him. He was such a diverse personality. He would come to PRL and talk to almost everyone, not only students but everyone who worked in the canteen as well! I have not found a single person in PRL who does not respect him. When I travel abroad, people ask me, "Where did you work in India?" I would say PRL, Ahmedabad, which they would not know. But when I told them our lab was established by Prof. Devendra Lal, they immediately knew. So, in a way he was bigger than the institute. 



Physical Research Laboratory's Obituary Notice

Scripps Institute of Oceanography's Obituary Notice

Article in the Hindu