Mani Bhaumik says his life has spanned a thousand years of economic development. Raised in a mud-floor hut, the scientist led the U.S. team that developed the laser widely used in LASIK vision-correction surgery.
He grew up in a village near the ancient port of Tamluk in West Bengal. He recalls that as a child, famine claimed three million victims in the region. One was his grandmother. "And she actually gave her portion of her food that we got from a relief agency to me in her secret plan to make one life out of two. And to this day, it really boggles my mind how someone could give their best possession in life, their own life, to somebody else."
He made a vow never to be poor again. After earning a doctorate at the Indian Institute of Technology, he came to UCLA as a post-doctoral researcher, arriving with just $3 in his pocket.
Twenty years later, he owned six hilltop houses and was profiled on the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." He was dating the Hollywood actress Eva Gabor."
"But after a certain time, I realized that it was intoxicating almost to go from excitement to excitement to excitement, but I felt a hole inside me. Something was missing. There was a disturbing sense of somehow having lost my way."
He turned back to his Indian roots, while remaining firmly grounded in the world of modern science. He recalls that his father devoted much of his life to Mahatma Gandhi's movement for Indian independence.
"Through him [Mani's father), I was able to be a volunteer in Gandhi's camp when he came to our area. And that was something that most people don't get to achieve, and I was following him like a little duckling around, and was privileged to sit by his side when he was giving talks to almost a couple of million people (who) used to come each afternoon to hear him."
Mani Bhaumik says ancient Indian philosophy, put into action by Gandhi, has its counterpart in modern science. He says both try to explain the cosmos and improve the world. He has compiled his reflections in a book called "Code Name God," and says the wisdom of the Vedas, like that of Western mystics, confirms the unity of life.
"And if we really get that under our belt, let it take root into our consciousness, it has a profound impact because then all humanity loves each other, and there shouldn't be any difference whether we're white, black, yellow or brown, or you're Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jewish. We're all human beings. At some level, we're connected together."
Mr. Bhaumik is providing scholarships and support for 67 students in his native India. They are studying science, engineering and medicine. Today, he leads the life of a quiet man of science, and says he would rather sit and talk about physics, philosophy, or religion, than attend extravagant parties like the ones he held at his home a few years ago.