Dreaming of Sherlock Holmes: Srinivasan Chandrasekar

Srinivasan “Chandy” Chandrasekar, PhD, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, has a short video on YouTube about Prince Rupert’s drops that got 65 million views. The drops — small glass structures that look like tadpoles — were a gift to King Charles II of England in 1660 from a German prince named Rupert. Mysteriously, you can beat on the head of the “tadpole” with a hammer but it won’t break; however, when you apply just light pressure with your finger to the tail, the entire structure shatters instantly, with a sharp popping noise, into fine powder. Chandrasekar and his colleagues solved the puzzle, triggering the surge of YouTube viewers who love a mystery. He sat down with Purdue Engineering Review for a chat.

What was your youth like? What kindled your love of engineering?

I was born into a middle-class family in Madras (now Chennai), India’s fourth-largest city. My father taught physical chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, one of India’s premier engineering institutes. My parents strongly emphasized science and mathematics. This, together with what I had seen of my father’s academic endeavors, led to an interest in pursuing science or engineering. I also saw that this path offered the prospect of a great livelihood.

What got you interested in the mystery of Prince Rupert’s drops?

William Johnson, a visiting professor at Purdue from Cambridge University, brought to my attention their curious properties, and the open questions about their explosive disintegration. We started sleuthing, reviewing the study by Robert Hooke in his 1665 book Micrographia, and decided to examine the disintegration of the drops using high-speed photography. We worked with the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, one of the world’s leading centers for high-speed photography. This led to a 1992 study and subsequent 1994 paper in Philosophical Magazine, which resolved the question — using direct high-speed imaging methods — of how these drops disintegrated catastrophically. It also led to my long association with Dr. Munawar Chaudhri of the Cavendish, who taught me not only about high-speed photography but also about glass and other brittle solids. This work was the precursor to the more recent study that explained the other curious property — the high strength of these drops under impact and compression.

Srinivasan Chandrasekar displays a Prince Rupert’s drop. (Purdue University photo/Trevor Mahlmann)

What about your overall work in industrial and materials engineering and manufacturing?

I generally pursue topics with unique, intriguing features, such as the Prince Rupert’s drops problem. I like to investigate new dimensions of older, established technologies that raise interesting phenomenological questions. And I’m interested in subjects with commercialization opportunities and societal impact. As much as possible, I try to avoid letting strictly funding considerations drive the research. Currently, our research group is exploring how to exploit unusual chemical effects in metals processing, triggered by very thin organic (surface) films. We are investigating manufacturing of eco-friendly foodware (e.g., plates, bowls and cups) from plant leaf materials, which offers economic opportunities for traditionally underrepresented communities in emerging economies and the developing world. And we’re looking into new energy-efficient methods for manufacturing metal sheet, wire and powder.

What can you say about the intellectual environment at Purdue’s College of Engineering?

When I came to Purdue, I did not expect to stay too long, yet I have been here more than 35 years, with brief sojourns at other places. That is the best testimony to the positive research and educational culture at Purdue, especially the College of Engineering. I had the benefit of an extraordinary dean (Professor Henry Yang), who hired me and was generous with his mentoring (which continues to this day). I have had many superb colleagues and students, who have educated me more than I have educated them. And last but not least, the lab/group environment is quite freewheeling, enabling unrestrained scientific exploration and technological advances.

Any words of advice to young people with an interest in engineering?

Make sure you are well-grounded in the fundamental disciplines of science and mathematics, pursue your interests vigorously, and stay away from fleeting “fashionable” topics. Keep in mind that, in research, “simple and small is always beautiful.”

Any hobbies, interests in your “spare” time?

I am a bibliophile, and collect books on science and mathematics; history (science and military); travel; and certain genres of nonfiction/literature, such as Indian mythology, spirituality, religion and cricket. I enjoy reading and cooking, and exploring food as long as it is vegetarian! On mystery, my interest is nearly one-dimensional: Sherlock Holmes, and everything about this fictional character and his London haunts. In the distant past, Agatha Christie also figured in my reading. While not completely in the mystery category, I like Tintin comics. These are not so well-known in the USA, but certainly very popular in Europe and the India of my childhood days.

Would you be willing to share with readers a small window into your personality? A trait, “guilty” pleasure, little-known fact?

I sometimes dream of being transported to Sherlockian London and the Victorian era, with gaslit streets and the London fog concealing dangerous characters such as Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis. Other times, the dreams involve transportation into the very distant past, into the settings of the great Indian epics, and experiencing the stories in the garb of a common character.

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