Homi Bhabha – the World War’s gift to India

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Visionary: Bhabha dreamt of making India a scientifically powerful and admired nation.
Visionary: Bhabha dreamt of making India a scientifically powerful and admired nation.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was an exceptional man. Born in a rich-to-do and cultured family in Bombay, he grew into an outstanding physicist and a nation-builder. Even as his dream of making India a scientifically powerful and admired nation was coming to be realized, he was snatched away from this world in 1966 in a tragic airplane crash on the Alps.

Early this month, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research which he founded and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC, which too he founded as the Atomic Energy Commission) organized the Bhabha Centenary Symposium. His long-time associate, Professor MGK Menon, described the turning points in Bhabha’s life — many of which turned out to be the turning points in India’s own growth.

Bhabha’s life and scientific contributions have been lucidly chronicled by Dr. G. Venkataraman in the book “Bhabha and his Magnificent Obsessions” (University Press, 1994, reprinted 2009). Born on 30 October 1909 young Homi grew up in a family that absorbed and appreciated finer things in life. Music and literature were always in the air and Homi became a talented musician and painter.

His father wanted him to be an engineer and sent him to Cambridge. After he completed his Mechanical Tripos exam, he moved to study and work in physics. A Fellowship allowed him to visit universities in Europe, which helped him make friends with the ‘greats’ such as Pauli and Fermi.

Later, under the Newton studentship, he spent some time with Neils Bohr. After obtaining his PhD with Fowler, he continued on at Cambridge doing research in physics.

In 1939, Bhabha took at short holiday at home in Bombay but could not get back to England, thanks to World War II. While the war caused colossal damage and destruction, it had one redeeming feature — it kept Bhabha in India. Professor C.V. Raman at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore invited him there, and Bhabha joined as a Reader in Physics. While his work was getting on well, he felt the institute to be a bit small for his plans. It was then that he approached the Sir Dorab Tata Trust for help to start an institute for fundamental research. It was here that Bhabha bloomed into a nation-builder. Coming from an influential family and community, and being friends with Jawaharlal Nehru helped, of course, but it was thanks to his ‘magnificent obsessions’ – develop a world class research institute, initiate activities in atomic energy research, plan for growth and development of electronics and computers, and catapult India into space research – that he could bring forth into reality well by 1966 when we lost him.

It was not science alone that Bhabha promoted and enriched. A great aesthete, he had the eye for art – paintings, sculpture, architecture. As the TIFR was getting built, he invited and encouraged budding young painters – M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Gaitonde, and Jamini Roy to exhibit their works and bought many of them, which now adorn TIFR as priceless collections.

The story of Bhabha’s impress on India’s science and national development is contemporaneous with that of emerging India’s dream for its rightful place in the world. His return to India was at a period when India was in ferment, and effervescent – a period rich in ideas in science, arts, political thought. Who were his contemporaries? The scientists Raman, Bose, Saha, Bhatnagar, Birbal Sahni, Mahalanobis, Maheshwari, Sadasivan, Asima Chatterji. Contemporary intellectuals in other areas? Tagore, Radhakrishnan, VD Paluskar, Alauddin Khan, Ariyakkudi, Semmangudi, Rukminidevi Arundale , Agyeya, Maithilisharan Gupt, Rajaji, Kalki, Periyar, Tani Tamil Iyakkam…It was this Zeitgeist or the spirit of the times that Bhabha moved into, contributed and enriched.

What if he had not stayed in 1939? There is this famous comparison that some make between scientist and artists, both creative thinkers: say Newton and Shakespeare. Had Newton not discovered gravity, someone else would have, sooner or later. But had Shakespeare not written Hamlet, who would have? We would never have had Hamlet.

I tried asking: what if Bhabha had not returned to India? We would have lost a great deal. Such were his engagements with science, national policies for growth and development, dialog and confluence of science and arts- many important components that had to be put in at that time, in the 1940s , 50s and 60s — which have made India today a modern, self confident nation. The movement and the man were vital. We would have been poorer without him.

What if he were alive today?

When I asked this question, Professor Peter Littlewood of Cambridge said that Bhabha would be right now in Copenhagen for the climate meeting, offering a plan not just for India but for the whole planet.

And he would be pitching for nuclear energy as the alternative to fossil fuels. At the same time, he would have encouraged energy research in India in the areas of solar cells, storage of electricity, refrigeration and lighting.

Research in each of these areas, Littlewood argued belong to India because (a) they are of great value to India, (b) development and large scale use of these would not be opposed by the oil and coal industries here, as in elsewhere, since there are no such powerful lobbies, (c) there is scientific excellence in the related sciences of materials and condensed matter physics, and (d) they are adaptable as large scale and local efforts since the source materials (light sand and common minerals) are available every where, unlike monopolized, single-area sources as with coal or oil.




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