Famous Scientist: “Dr.” APJ Kalam

In yesterdays post on science and famous scientists, I had asked people to guess one famous Indian scientist’s name. In the comments so far, Praveen guessed Raja Ramanna. Nothing funny about that candidate. Sorry but no cigar. Sameer correctly guessed APJ Kalam but hedged his answer by adding Vikram Sarabhai. The latter would not have been so outlandish an example of famous scientists. Uday said it was very sad. Don’t know if he meant the choice of APJ Kalam or the books in general. Navin guessed APJ Kalam.

Sychophancy runs deep and broad in Indian society. Part of the feudal system. Even so called “educators” in the public sector are past-masters in brown-nosing. Indeed, when the government gets in the business of writing textbooks, those who get chosen to write them have to reach that point by kow-towing appropriately to the bureaucrats and politicans.

But only part of the inaccurate characterization of President APJ Kalam can be explained by sychophancy. The other bit is plain old-fashioned ignorance. Indeed, I am reasonably sure that the text book writers are not very clear about what precisely is the distinction between science and technology. That they did not even attempt to explain that in the book titled “Science and Technology” is an indication that they perhaps don’t know. So it is ignorance that clubs APJ Kalam with a bunch of scientists. APJ Kalam is perhaps best characterised as an administrator with a technical and scientific background. It is doubtful if he is a technologist, leave alone a scientist. Sure he knows some science and something about technology but by that definition even I can be characterized as a scientist and that would be equally wrong.

Nath in his comment wonders why even newspapers are inaccurate and sloppy with their facts. I guess the quality of the supply is dictated by the demand. If the market is satisfied with shoddy goods, that is what the market supplies. The Slimes Times of India is an obvious example of that phenomenon. They continue to sell crap because the crap sells.

Incidentally, the President is often called “Dr. APJ Kalam.” I have not been able to figure out exactly in which field is his doctoral work on. Any help in this regard would be much appreciated. I had written to the office of the President but they did not bother to reply.

Author: Atanu Dey


38 thoughts on “Famous Scientist: “Dr.” APJ Kalam”

  1. I think its only a Honorary Doctorate, the one which you get if you are a famous actor, politician…etc.But Kalam has a degree (bachelors) in Aeronautical Engg.


  2. ummm, it says on this website:


    Dr. Kalam is one of the most distinguished scientists of India with the unique honour of receiving honorary doctorates from 30 universities and institutions.

    So he’s not a real PhD. Get over it.

    Does he belong up there with the rest mentioned in that school textbook? No. Get over it.

    And I don’t know your credentials, but consdering he’s done Aeronautical Engineering, and worked on the space program and missile program, I think it likely that he IS a scientist of some sort, with a clue.

    And I wonder, what education system is worse? One which doesn’t have enough sense to understand the word Theory in the conect of science, and goes on to label all texts referring to Evolution, or some idiot printer’s attempt to kiss some back side? I wonder which causes greater damage?


  3. Abdul Kalam’s doctorate is an honorary one and was granted by IIT Mumbai.

    While it is true that Dr. Kalam was not a researcher, he was not just an administrator. He had an extremely good grasp of technologies ranging from rocket motors to neural networks and virtual reality. More importantly, he had vision, he had the ability to influence/motivate others to share in his vision and he had tremendous execution abilities. If we define a technologist as 20% vision+80 % execution, Dr. Kalam would more than fit the bill.

    More than anything else, Dr. Kalam truly loves India. One of my prized possessions is a book on “Isa-Upanishad” he gifted me in my first year as a DRDO scientist. This was a man who could converse with the rank and file in his organization on technology as well as philosophy. I would also like to point readers to a more detailed personal opinion of Kalam by Dr. Vidyasagar who was a distinguished scientist in DRDO and now heads TCS research in Hyderabad

    But coming back to the point of this post: Kalam is not a scientist and to club him with a Saha or a Chandrasekhar is a mistake. He surely deserves a mention in our textbooks but maybe at a different place.


  4. I’m puzzled by why someone would doubt claims about Dr Kalam being given the title of scientist of technologist. He may not have had the exact educational components to classify as a scientist or a technologist, but I do believe the fact that he has made significant technological contributions to the Indian missile program, sufficient to allow him to be confered with the above titles.

    As far as the TOI goes, I’ve come to believe that its more of a tabloid than a newspaper !!


  5. I wish this thread does not degenerate into a Kalam bashing session because I don’t believe anyone grudges his laudable contribution. He seems to have done far more good than bad and it is remarkable that he is holding the Presidency without demeaning himself by sucking up to debase politicians. Full credit to C.B. Naidu for the suggestion (Kalam is not an Andhra-ite)and the BJP for accepting it and putting him there. This will only be magnified by the joker Sonia nominates in July ’07 — in contrast it will make Harriet Miers’ nomination look meritorious.

    Krishnan, I am amused that you mention Kalam is fluent with neural networks and virtual reality. Both have scant little to due with missile technology, and require a significantly different background to comprehend deeply and contribute to. I doubt if he has that, and simply being excited about it is no qualifier for half-decent quality work or research. On the previous post, I mentioned some of the Ph.D. topics that were debated with his student: they are all over the spectrum and it is misplaced for someone (a) without the requisite background and (b) with an honorary doctorate to be advising someone on a topic that he has no real clue about from a research perspective. BTW, the topic advisor and student chose was “Curing Mentally Retarted Children”, which only amplifies my point. I had hoped it was “How to transfer data from brain to brain” as suggested by Father George. Kalam rejected it because he asked “what use it will be to India?” Damn right 🙂 Also, here is the reference to what I am talking about: http://in.rediff.com/news/2002/jul/08spec.htm

    Kalam’s attitude has been “I will also learn about it”. While being a life long student is wonderful, the type of continuing education is best done in a university under the right guidance, not when you are an aeronautical engineer by training who has never defended a thesis in your life while guiding a Ph.D. student in a quality institution. There are exceptions to every rule, but here Kalam is far from one. Do you think anyone on the doctoral thesis committee will question the work and the thesis during its defence? In the end, what it achieves is diluting the Anna University engineering name brand by certifying an unworthy body of work. You can beat me up for jumping the gun and being presumptuous; time will tell.

    Once again, I admire Kalam especially because of the background he has come from, his genuine humility, and his work ethic in DRDO. It does India proud to have him as a president and he may well be the smartest among the lot so far. Yet, he should be restrained from guiding Ph.D. students and appointed as an adjunct faculty or administrator. I bet that he is heading that way and will move on to be an effective and well-liked Chancellor, which is great.


  6. Guys, please don’t write too much about Times of India since its one of the soft porn sites I could legally access from our corporate network 🙂


  7. AFAIK, Kalams thesis was on program management for the SLV rocket. He was the project director for the program that was the first succesful launch vehicle by India.

    It is not an honorary doctorate. This is mentioned in Raj Chengappas book, Weapons of Peace.


  8. He’s a great guy and his heart is in the right place (unlike other presidents like narayanan). He’s one of the handful scrupulous persons in public life. If every administrator or politician is 10% as scrupulous as Kalam, India would be like south korea.


  9. Sudeep,

    Hmmm I’m not sure at all about the credibility of that source. Check out the tailpiece here: http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/jul/25prez5.htm and the well deserved tribute to him here: http://www.aeroinfo.org.in/india/person.html Don’t miss the description in the latter of how we graduated from pencil to phallus in 8 years 🙂

    APJAK seems to have received 30 honorary doctorates according to the official site: http://presidentofindia.nic.in/scripts/presidentprofile.jsp which does not mention an earned Ph.D.

    Don’t get me started on the worth of many of our Indian honorary doctorates. They include Jayalalithaa and MGR so what prestige there could be in an honorary award is instantly frittered away.


  10. I think the purpose of the article was to highlight the low standards of NCERT text books. Does not have anything to do with the standards of APJ.

    The previous article was a comment on the double standards of the Government… it gives voting right – but doesnt trust people even in simple matters. It turned towards Gandhi. Hmm..People get carried away.

    “I guess the quality of the supply is dictated by the demand. If the market is satisfied with shoddy goods, that is what the market supplies.”

    Indian movies – another classical example for this.


  11. Hi Atanu,

    Seems like you have stirred an hornet’s nest here 🙂

    It is dangerous when ignoramuses who are unable to differentiate the philosophical gulf between engineers and scientists end up writing books that shape vulnerable minds. The tendency in India is to use the terms interchangeably. It is wrong to call an engineer a scientist, and even more wrong to blindly fawn over such a popular ‘scientist’, just because he also serves as a President and then go onto assume that he is the best option for the nation, just because of this ‘scientific’ outlook, even if it plays no role in the nation’s development.




  12. I believe the ” ignoramuses ” can be partly forgiven in thinking that Kalam is scientist.In Newspapers,Scientist “A,B….C” or Scientist “SB SC SD…” are the posts advertised by central government organisations in India.That means that they are looking for engineers.


  13. I guess the question raised was “whether the label scientist can truly be applied to Kalam or an engineer or technologist is more apt”. He definitely more qualified than the current president of USA.

    Speaking of textbooks and errors, here is a funny post by Kautilya on spelling mistakes in the CBSE textbooks.


  14. Atanu,
    my two cents :this post rouses kind of pro or anti Kalam debate among the bloggers ; he has been an engineer involved in the missile development in India,with probably the qualities the co workers attribute to him.
    As usual history and epistomology are the orphan disciplines in Indian universities.Not any professor is writing books to popularize discoveries and inventions.
    In my humble opinion, most of the PhD holders could be called as scientific workers rather than revolutionary scientists.
    Talking about the French research council,
    De Gaulle once punned >


  15. Uday said >>>> Sudeep, Hmmm I’m not sure at all about the credibility of that source.

    Raj Chengappa is a very reputable journalist and his book “Weapons of Peace” is recognized to be the best on Indian Nuclear Weapons and Missiles written from an Indian point of view. I dont know if there are any sources more credible than him.

    AFAIK, His thesis was submitted to one of the two IISc’s. I may be wrong about this since I dont have the book at hand to verify it, perhaps someone else commenting on the article can look it up.


  16. I am not a big fan of APJ. I read his India 2020 book and talks a lot of possibilities, some feasible, some not feasible written without “economic sense”.
    I would say APJ is not fit enough to write such a book. Even economic nobel laureates will shudder to write about an economy extrapolating 20 years into future.

    There is no action from him after becoming president. I feel, Its not enough if he visits schools and tells them to dream big when politicians on the other hand are doing all sorts of unimaginable things to the society. I expected him to make the political scenario a bit more likeable. I dont see any difference in that front.

    One has to agree that media makes a lot of him by putting his photo with the kids everyother day in the newspapers.

    I am not a big fan of the nuclear program either. (another topic with evenly divided opinions)

    SV – Agreed he is scruplous, comparatively better than his predecessors but is that good enough to be called the BEST ? What he is doing, is it enough ? Is this your wishlist when he became the president ? 🙂

    Pardesi – Interesting quote of De Gualle.


  17. Going to schools and trying to inspire them is not bad after all.Todays children are tommorows heros .Economic “Nobel” laureates” may shudder to think beyond 5 years, but a visionary can think beyond a hundred years!As Kalam says it is important to dream.If you try to be over pragmatic and live in reality for 24 hours ,you will get no where.


  18. Prqaveen –

    I agree its good to encourage the children to dream big. I am all for it.

    I was mentioning about the India 2020 book. Its tells about all the possibilities but what about the “feasibility” keeping in mind the current situation ?

    I can also dream and compile them into a book. Its not going to change anything. Where is teh action ?
    He is in a prime position to press upon reforms in many areas.

    In one of pages, he mentions “by 2020 % below poverty will be brought from present 25 to 10”. The book was written 3 years ago (??) and little has changed on that front. How is it going to become a possibility in next 15 years ?

    There is no point in simply dreaming uselessly.. it has to be 1. Viable 2. Backed by action.

    A dream will always be a dream unless there is an action plan / milestones attached to it.


  19. hi atanu,
    commenting for the first time here….
    he is not a real phd holder agreed he has only honorary doctorate…. agreed he has more than his share of sycophants! think about it man as an indian what would u want to see? sycophants for ms sonia gandhi ? simply because she wed into THE family? or would u want to see sycophants for a man with a vision?

    i know my answer


  20. Uday, just to clarify. I am not stating that Kalam was not an expert in neural networks and virtual reality. Far from it. However, he had a good feel for what is possible to do with a particular technology. At a program management level, one needs to have that feel to make investment choices. BTW, neural networks have a lot to do with missiles; missile guidance in particular.



  21. Who is worthy of the title of a “scientist”? Wikipedia defines scientist as:

    A scientist is a person who is expert in an area of science and who uses scientific methodology in researching that area.

    Was Dr. Kalam an expert in his area. I would say yes. Did Dr. Kalam conduct research? I don’t know for sure, but from what little I know, he did not.


  22. Hi,
    If the question is of calling Kalam a “Scientist” then i must add one fact that all engineers in DRDO are graded as scientists (A,B…).I agree with Srijin’s comment but I agree with your point too irrespective of what we call our honorary president. There is need of more exposure about science and technology in India. I remember when I met one friend of mine who did BSc. in Electronics and Communication and couldn’t find even a single difference in their curriculum and my B.Tech Electronics and Communication curriculum.


  23. Dear Dr. Kalam,
    I not only admire you as President but as a role model & mentor also. Keeping this in view as a educationalist & Group Director of Bhabha Institutes, Bhopal,M.P.,I have set up my mission 2010 pertaining to your noble vision India in 2020. For that purpose I want to organise a mege event in my institute that will churn the society & will contribute to the nation’s development.I wish that my role model like you to inaugurate that event .I will be highly obliged if get any date in the monthof February 2006 or March 2006.






  26. hello sir i want to meet u i have a lot of queries pls sir if u have time or seconds for me pls respond me

    i hope u will not disappoint me



  27. hello sir,
    i am fr. silvie antony, vice-principal of infant jesus anglo-indian higher

    secondary school, tangasseri, quilon, kerala.
    our school is hosting the XI All India ICSE/ISC Sports Meet at Kerala in

    Kollam. on: 9th november 2007.
    It is the greatest desire of the staff and students of all Kerala ICSE/ISC Schools

    to have the Hon. Ex. President Mr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam to Inaugurate the

    opening ceremony of the meet.
    So kindly guide us how to approach him for inviting for the function and

    forward his email and contact address.


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