India’s Atom man

Issue 01, 2021

India’s Atom man

Dheeraj Kumar Singh |author

Issue 01, 2021

Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha (October 30, 1909 - January 24, 1966) was a visionary scientist who not only worked relentlessly towards the advancement of science and technology in the country but was also instrumental in establishing many of the nation’s premier scientific institutions.

The history and evolution of the Indian atomic energy programme is synonymous with the life of Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha. Often referred to as the father of India’s atomic energy programme, Dr Bhabha had a prodigious persona and dominated the world of nuclear and particle science with his brilliance. Born on October 30, 1909, in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Dr Bhabha was a man of high adroit and intelligence, coupled with a creative mind. He was one of those rare geniuses whose insatiable urge for knowledge and unsurpassable contribution to India’s development in the sphere of atomic energy, led the nation to find a firm footing in the realm of science and technology globally.

Early Years and education

Dr Bhabha’s interest in science began at an early age. He hailed from a family of academicians – his father Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, a lawyer, was educated at Oxford, and his grandfather, also named Homi Jehangir Bhabha, was Inspector General of Education in the erstwhile state of Mysore. At the age of 15, Dr Bhabha passed the senior Cambridge examination and joined Elphinstone College, later moving on to the Royal Institute of Science (both in Bombay). Dr Bhabha was passionate about science but his father wanted him to pursue Mechanical Engineering in the hopes that the young man would join the Tata Iron and Steel Company at Jamshedpur (his paternal aunt was married to Dorab J Tata, the eldest son of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group). Even while pursuing Mechanical Engineering from Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, Dr Bhabha maintained his interest in Physics. He not only earned a first-class degree in Mechanical Engineering but also one in Mathematics.

An archival image of Dr Homi J Bhabha (extreme left), secretary of India’s Atomic Energy Commission with Lewis L Strauss (extreme right), former chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission

Such was his appetite for Physics that he received the Isaac Newton Studentship at Cambridge in 1934, which subsequently helped him obtain his PhD in theoretical physics from Cavendish Laboratory. During his time at the university, Dr Bhabha’s work centered around cosmic rays. He also worked with Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who is said to be one of the pioneers of quantum physics, in Zurich, and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who created the world’s first nuclear reactor, in Rome. These experiences not only enriched his scientific mind but also fuelled his desire to delve more into research. As per an article published by Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), the research Dr Bhabha conducted at Cambridge till 1939 “had a direct bearing on the resolution of several important issues of cosmic ray phenomena and the interaction of particles (electrons, protons and photons) in the context of the developments in the fields of quantum mechanics and relativity”.

India’s scientific revolution

Dr Bhabha returned to India for a brief holiday in 1939 before World War II began. Since he couldn’t go back to Cambridge, he took it as an opportunity to stay back and utilise his talent and experience for the advancement of science in India. In 1940, he joined the Physics Department of the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), which was then headed by noted Indian physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, in Bangalore (present-day Bengaluru). A readership in Theoretical Physics was especially created for Dr Bhabha, who went on to become a professor in 1944. During his time at IIS, Dr Bhabha guided research on cosmic rays but felt the need for India to have an institute that had the necessary facilities for conducting original work in nuclear and high energy physics, cosmic rays and associated areas of research. This prompted him to send a letter to the trustee of Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust in March 1944, showing his willingness to establish “a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics”. In it, he pitched the importance of research in nuclear science and predicted that nuclear energy (or atomic energy) would become a reality, which was proven by the nuclear bombings in 1945. This bears testimony to Dr Bhabha’s far-sightedness. To broaden the horizon, and bolster teamwork and cooperation, Dr Bhabha established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, which was renamed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), after his demise in January 1966.

An archival image of Dr Homi J Bhabha (extreme right) with Swedish economist and Nobel Peace Prize awardee Dag Hammarskjöld (standing) and other members at the Atoms for Peace Conference

Dr Bhabha always held that a scientist doesn’t belong to a particular nation, rather to the whole world. Research reactors like APSARA, CIRUS and ZERLINA were commissioned under his leadership at BARC. APSARA was a major milestone because it was the first nuclear research reactor to be designed and built in India. At a time when most scientists were concerned with the destructive potential of nuclear energy, Dr Bhabha was contemplating to harness the same energy for the welfare and upliftment of mankind. The three-stage nuclear programme, based on a closed nuclear fuel cycle to utilise India’s vast thorium reserve and fulfill the energy needs of the country, was first outlined by Dr Bhabha. Dr Bhabha didn’t stop with atomic energy. He recognised, quite early, the importance of space research as well. In 1957, when the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) was launched by the Soviet Union, and rockets and satellites added a new domain in space research, Dr Bhabha persuaded the Government of India to delve into the scientific study of space. For his noteworthy contributions to science and the advancements he brought to India’s nuclear programme, Dr Bhabha was honoured with numerous awards, including the Padma Bhushan in 1954. Universities like Lucknow, Allahabad, Cambridge and London awarded honorary doctoral degree in science. Dr Bhabha was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics five times by French mathematician Jacques Hadamard. Under Dr Bhabha’s 22-year leadership, India’s atomic energy programme made breakthrough achievements, and new possibilities of multidisciplinary research established roots and flourished. India will forever remain indebted to Dr Bhabha for his visionary approach and his relentless efforts to advance science and technology in the country.

Dheeraj Kumar Singh

Dheeraj Kumar Singh is a scientist working with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay.
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