Punjab-born Indian-American Sikh scientist receives Padma Vibhushan posthumously

Punjab-born scientist Narinder Singh Kapany was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan in the field of science and eng...

Punjab-born scientist Narinder Singh Kapany was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan in the field of science and engineering in 2021. Kapany, known as the "Father of Fibre Optics," was born on October 31, 1926, in Moga, Punjab, and died on December 4 in California, USA. He was 94. He was born into a Punjabi Sikh household and later emigrated to the United States.

An overview of his achievements 

Kapany was one of the most well-known Indian-American scientists and a pioneer in the field of fibre optics. After earning his degree from Agra University in India and completing advanced optics coursework in London, he immigrated to the United States. He was a well-known Indian-American Sikh scientist who published more than 100 patents over the course of his career, including work on lasers, fibre optics, solar energy, and other topics. Also, he had a passion for philanthropic work and Sikh art.

Kapany founded Optics Technology Company, where he directed research activities in fibre optics for nearly 12 years, and he joined the National Inventors Council of the United States. Later, he managed research initiatives at institutions including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote four books and more than 100 articles for scientific journals.

His inspiration 

In Dehradun, an Indian city in the foothills of the Himalayas, where Narinder S. Kapany attended high school in the 1940s, his physics teacher told him that light can travel only in straight lines. Since he had been tinkering with a box camera for years by that point, he was aware that light could at least be bent through the use of lenses and prisms. He later said that the teacher's attitude inspired him to push himself farther and discover a way to truly bend light in order to disprove him.

When he started graduate school at Imperial College London in 1952 ,he understood he wasn't alone. Researchers have been looking for ways to transfer light through flexible glass fibres for decades. Yet they were hampered by a number of technological issues, not to mention World War Two. He persuaded Harold Hopkins, one of the scientists, to hire him as a research assistant, and the two got along well. Dr Kapany, who was more technically oriented, came up with the practical application. Professor Hopkins, a great theorist, gave the ideas. The two published a breakthrough in the journal Nature in 1954, describing how to join hundreds of incredibly thin glass fibres end to end.

Dr. Kapany relentlessly pushed fibre optics onto corporate and governmental research budgets while working as an academic researcher and later as the CEO of one of the first venture capital-backed businesses in Silicon Valley. This made sure that the advancements he and Professor Hopkins made in the 1950s would pay off in the 1960s.

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Dr Kapany was the primary author or co-author of 56 scientific articles between 1955, the year he obtained his PhD, and 1965, according to Mr Hecht's 1999 history of fibre optics, "City of Light," which represents an amazing 30% of all research published in the field during that decade. He also invented the phrase "fibre optics" in a 1960 Scientific American cover article. He wrote the first book on the subject.

Dr Kapany had never intended to work as an academic scientist, despite his passion for research. He had initially come to the UK to complete an internship at an optical company in Scotland in order to get the knowledge that would help him launch his own business when he returned to India. Yet, the chance to collaborate with Professor Hopkins, a titan in the field of optics, was too alluring to pass up.

They were both physically intimidating guys with oversized egos, and despite their productive collaboration, they split up soon after their groundbreaking piece appeared in Nature. Professor Hopkins charged Dr Kapany with exaggerating his role; Dr Kapany countered that it was only he who could make the professor's ideas from the chalkboard a reality.

Since Dr Kapany was becoming dissatisfied with academics, in 1960 he moved his family to California and founded a new business called Optics Technologies to help him turn his discoveries into a profit. He established it in Palo Alto, which was just starting to develop as a hub for technology, and funded it with assistance from Draper, Gaither & Anderson, one of the first venture capital firms on the West Coast.

Dr Kapany was the company's president and chief of research, so he concentrated on product development. The board hired Thomas J. Perkins, a young business executive who later rose to prominence in Silicon Valley as the co-founder of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, to handle the business side.

Dr Kapany collaborated closely with someone with a similarly assertive attitude once more, and once more there were explosions. The two men engaged in lengthy, occasionally intoxicated arguments over whether to prioritise government-funded research and development or quickly bring items to market, which was Mr Perkins's goal.

He took the company public in 1967, but it was already floundering due to weak sales and a tight budget. Dr Kapany left that year to start a new company, Kaptron, which developed fibre optics equipment. After eventually selling the company, he and his son formed K2 Optronics in 1999.

Even as a serial entrepreneur, Dr Kapany never completely left academia: he taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 1977 to 1983, and he later endowed chairs in optics and Sikh studies at the various University of California campuses.

Dr. Kapany was a devout Sikh who was extremely proud of his background. He acquired one of the world's largest collections of Sikh art and funded exhibits in institutions across the country. His daughter said, “My father became convinced that the world at large should know who the Sikhs are and that the Sikh people themselves should not forget who they are as they emigrate to other lands far from their original roots,”

Nonetheless, he was aware of how unusual he appeared to some as an Indian in early postwar America, before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the door to millions of Asian immigrants. When demonstrating fibre optics to tourists, he referred to it as his "Indian optical rope trick."

And he assumed an American accent, preserving just enough of his Indian and English intonation to distinguish himself — an ability for code-switching that, according to his son, contributed to his success in both the science lab and the boardroom. His son said, “He used that turban like a lethal weapon. When you see a guy who looked like that and who spoke like J.F.K., you’re not going to forget him.”

Keeping the legacy alive 

Kapany established the Sikh Foundation to continue his passion for promoting and conserving Sikh art, education, and other philanthropic endeavours. He also supported the preservation of several prized Sikh artworks. His foundation also produces original Sikh research works, books, literature, and art, as well as runs libraries to promote and conserve rare Sikh literature. In remembrance of his late mother, he also established the Chair of Sikh Studies at the University of California.


*Based on an article published in Indian Express on 26th January 2020, and in New York Times 


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