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Once a physicist: B S Prakash

B S Prakash is India's ambassador to Brazil.

B S Prakash

Why did you originally decide to study physics?
When I was studying science at school, I was attracted to the "neatness" and "clarity" in physics as I perceived it at that stage. Compared with other science subjects – like, say, biology or chemistry – physics seemed precise and deterministic. I liked that, so when I went to Bangalore University I chose to do an honours degree in physics.

What led you to switch to philosophy?
Over a period of time, I became more and more interested in the ultimate "why" questions, as distinct from the "how" questions. I began to read philosophy as an amateur but very quickly I became deeply absorbed. One of the fascinating questions for me was the debate among philosophers about free will vis-à-vis determinism. At the same time, I also began to realize that having interests that were broader than just physics meant that I was perhaps not as good at physics as I ought to be. Pursuing a Master's degree in philosophy seemed like an exciting option, so that is what I did.

What did you do next?
Philosophy was – and continues to be – my first love, but it provided very few job opportunities. So in 1975, after I finished my Master's degree I joined the Indian Foreign Service. Since then, my diplomatic career has been unusually varied: I have dealt with oil politics in Saudi Arabia; terrorism in Sri Lanka; and India's nuclear policy in Vienna as a representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In 2005 I became India's consul general in San Francisco, which meant I was in charge of projecting the image of India as a potential hub for innovation, and research and development (R&D). This was a stimulating challenge, and I was there for just over three years before moving to my current post in Brazil in 2008.

Both India and Brazil are considered emerging powers in science and technology. What is your take on this trend?
Both countries have invested in education and have skills to offer the global marketplace: information technologies, pharmaceuticals and the services sector in India; agro-industry, ethanol and aviation in Brazil. So, it is not surprising that India and Brazil are not only attracting investments and partnerships from the world's leading corporations, but also developing world-class R&D capabilities. Given these common factors, the two countries should clearly be doing more together in R&D, and this is a priority area. Other areas for co-operation include nuclear energy, space and renewable energy.

What is the best part about your job?
The best thing about being a diplomat is that there is no routine. Instead, it is a job that offers an incredible amount of diversity – you are constantly dealing with politics, economics, communications, public relations, culture and so on. You meet interesting people from so many different areas, and no two days are alike.

How (if at all) does your training in physics help your current work?
It helps indirectly, I guess. I would like to believe that my early training in physics made me believe in rationality and also in the causal links in events. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily as true in the world of diplomacy as it is in science. In my world now, "uncertainty" is the guiding principle!

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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