“The only way for a scientist to become famous is continue living long enough,” Dr Rangaswamy Srinivasan chortles over the phone. “You know they don’t award Nobel Prizes to dead people.” Not that “Doc Srini” isn’t already renowned for his work on excimer lasers that led to the now-common lasik eye surgery. This is not the Nobel, but it ranks high in the American researchers’ scroll of awards. The National Medal for Technology and Innovation, for which President Obama named him this week, is the icing on a cake laden with honors. The former IBM researcher, now in retirement in New York at 83, is the only scientist of Indian-origin celebrated in the US National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, alongside such legends as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Samuel Morse, and Wright brothers, to name a few.
Awards and recognition came thick and fast in the 1990s after Dr Srinivasan had toiled for half a century in the US, including three decades in the only job he ever held at IBM, the legendary company that had so many Indians scientists working at its facility that it was jokingly dubbed India-Born Migrants Co. It was here that Doc Srini discovered in the 1990s that an ultraviolet excimer laser could etch living tissue in a precise manner with no thermal damage to the surrounding area. He named the phenomenon Ablative Photodecomposition (APD), and in the years since, ophthalmic surgeons have refined it to arrive at the corrective eye surgery generically called Lasik (which stands for Laser Assisted In-Situ Keratomileusis) to the benefit of millions of short-sighted people worldwide. “The last decade has been quiet after the excitement of the 90s,” Dr Srinivasan said in a telephone interview on Sunday with TNN. “Then suddenly there was this call from the White House…”
In his citation that honored eleven researchers with the Technology and Innovation medals, including for Dr Srinivasan’s teammates Dr Samuel Blum and Dr James Wynne, President Obama said “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great – and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.” Indeed, that is pretty much how it happened, although not in a way that turned Dr Srinivasan into the normative American multi-millionaire inventor. In a 2003 interview with this correspondent, Doc Srini described a family pack full of geeks and gearheads (his grand-nephew Krishna Bharat is a principal scientist at Google and his brother R.Narasimhan is a distinguished scientist at TIFR) who worked for the joy of discovery not the pleasures of money.
After he hit on the idea of using an excimer laser on organic matter while dawdling over a turkey bone at Thanksgiving, Dr Srinivasan handed over the technology to IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, for an award he recalls was in the region of $ 10,000. IBM in turned sold the patents for $ 15 million. “That was pretty much how we worked those days,” he recalled. “Between money and recognition, it was always the recognition.”