Eighty-year-old Nobel laureate Ada Yonath was the rockstar on the second day of the 107th Indian Science Congress being hosted in Bengaluru. “My advice to everyone is not to take any advice. Do what you want to do, what you are curious about,'' she said, shaking her mass of curly hair, which a cartoonist had once described as RNA strands, a tribute to her work.
The scientist, who won the Nobel in chemistry in 2009 along with Thomas Steitz and V Ramakrishnan for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome, charmed both senior scientists as well as school children as she addressed two different events. Yonath is one of the most frequent Nobel laureate guests to the Science Congress, this is her fifth visit to the event. She however, has a deeper connect with India, having first visited the country 40 years ago. She is also a big fan of the late Indian physicist G.N. Ramachandran, who she referred to as “my dream scientist, my intellectual mentor'' and praised him for his “scientific honesty''.
Yonath had something special for every audience she addressed. At the inaugural session of the Children's Science Congress, she regaled the students with stories of her first science experiments. She wanted to measure the distance from the floor to the roof, so she began stacking up furniture, with the idea of measuring the size of individual items to get the total length. “The furniture didn't reach the rood, however. But I crashed onto the floor,'' she recalled with a chuckle. Later, at a press interaction, Yonath said that education should be about encouraging curiosity and originality. “No student in school should ever be afraid to ask question to challenge the knowledge of the teacher. In fact, the mother shouldn't ask her child how school was, and what she'd learnt. Instead, she should ask the child what question she had asked the teacher.''
The scientist, who is still working, this time researching on developing antibiotics that are degradable, said that the low turnout of Nobel laureates at the Congress (only two this time) should not be taken seriously. “We are only guests here, this is an opportunity for Indian scientists to interact with Indian scientists.'' But as a veteran of many of these meets, Yonath had sharp observations to make on certain changes. “Earlier, the prime minister used to present the medals, this time he didn't. Once he had even had lunch with the laureates. And I am not talking about different prime ministers, I am referring to the same prime minister, Mr Modi,'' she said in response to a question.