Biography of Vikram Sarabhai: Father of Indian Space Program
One of the greatest scientists of India. As Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he guided research of the greatest importance to the country. A born scientist and a beloved teacher.
When a great man dies, the first question people ask is: “After him, who?” Generally, this question is soon answered. But, sometimes, it remains without an answer for a long time because it may be difficult to find another person of such abilities as the dead man. This shows how great the dead man was.
Homi Jahangir Bhabha was one such man.
He was a world-famous physicist. He was the Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. Several countries in the world were making atomic bombs. Should India also do so? When this question came up, some people said, “It costs a lot of money to make an atom bomb. India is a poor country and if she spends such huge amounts, she will be in great trouble for money.”
At such a time Bhabha calculated the cost of making an atom bomb and showed it would not be too expensive and India could produce it. This great scientist died an untimely death in an airplane crash in 1966. Then “Who, after him?”, this became a big question. Who could replace such a great physicist?
Four months later, everyone’s answer was:
“Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai.”
Thus, in 1966, Vikram Sarabhai succeeded Dr. Bhabha as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
What a Guru!
“He’s coming; tell him.”
“I didn’t damage it. You tell him yourself.”
“No, I can’t. You tell him. I am afraid. “ Two persons were engaged in this conversation. Just then Vikram Sarabhai came to them.
“What is the matter?” he asked.
“The Electric Meter has gone out of order, Sir.
We allowed too heavy a current to pass through it.”
“Is that all? Don’t mind it too much. Such things do happen when students are learning.
If students don’t commit mistakes, how can they learn? It is enough if you learn to be more careful in future.”
The above dialogue took place in a small research laboratory in Ahmedabad in 1948. R. P. Kane and another student were conducting some experiments in the Mahatma Gandhi Science Institute, in the physics laboratory. ‘During an experiment, because of the heavy current, the meter was burnt. At that time, it was very difficult to get such meters in the market.
For want of one meter, many important experiments had to be suspended for months. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai had started this laboratory in very recent times. So the students were afraid of what Vikram Sarabhai would say when he would come to know of what had happened. That is why the two were discussing the matter. But, when Sarabhai was told about it, let alone becoming angry, he did not even show a trace of irritation or annoyance in his face. Instead, he spoke to them comfortingly.
Praful D. Bhavsar had taken his B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science) Degree. In 1948, he went to Poona to study for the Master of Science Degree. He could not secure admission to any college there. Then, Dr. L. A. Ramdas (of the India Meteorological Department at Poona) told him of the Physical Research Laboratory that Vikram Sarabhai had recently started at Ahmedabad. He told Bhavsar that if he met Vikram Sarabhai his problem would be solved. Bhavsar went to see Sarabhai.
By that time Sarabhai was in a small room, engaged in, blowing a piece of a glass tube. He was wearing white Khaddar trousers and a bright green coat. Vikram welcomed Bhavsar with a smile and requested him to wait till his work to be completed. He appeared very simple and free from vanity.
Bhavsar had his mental picture of a great experimental physicist. That picture seemed to have come to life in Sarabhai. Therefore, Bhavsar was ready at that very moment to accept Sarabhai as his Guru (teacher). Sarabhai put him many questions. After finding out why he wanted to study physics, how keen his interest in the subject was and such other details, he admitted him to the Laboratory.
These incidents show how powerfully Vikram Sarabhai influenced his students.
After India became free, Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai was among the few scientists who devoted their entire life to the progress of science in this country.
Ahmedabad is the capital of Gujarat. It has a large number of textile mills. The Sarabhais are famous industrialists and social workers of that city. They are also very rich. In this family was born Vikram on 12th August 1919. It was the Garuda Panchami Day, auspicious for sisters and brothers. His father was Ambalal and his mother, Sarala Devi. They had eight children.
When their first daughter, Mridulaben, was just three years old, they considered how and where she should be educated. No existing school was found suitable. Just at that time, the Montessori System of Education was gaining fame. But there was still no school, which had adopted this system. So the Sarabhais started such a school in their own house. As the children grew up, the needs of the school also increased.
In this school, there were separate teachers to teach languages, the sciences, the arts, gardening, technology, etc… There were laboratories and workshops also. At one time, there were thirteen teachers in the school for the eight children of the Sarabhai family. Of these, three were Ph.Ds, trained in Europe and three ordinary graduates, two teachers from Andhra and Bengal were teaching the arts. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore himself selected an artist to teach dancing. The children studied in this school up to matriculation and went to government schools for their Matriculation Examination.
Vikram was influenced not only by the school but also by many great men of the land who were well-known to the Sarabhai family. Gurudev Rabindranath, J. Krishna Murthi, Motilal Nehru, V. S. Shrinivasa Shastri, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, C. F. Andrews, C. V. Raman, and such great men used to stay with the Sarabhai family when they visited Ahmedabad.
The greatest of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, stayed in their house while recovering from an illness. There is no doubt that this close contact with such great men deeply influenced young Vikram. His intelligence developed, and he gained an interest in spiritual matters. His teacher, Shri Badami, has said, I never saw Vikram lose his temper and shout at people.” When Vikram was five or six years old, the entire family went to Simla for the summer.
There, the little boy noticed that his father was getting many letters every day. He wished he, too, could get letters. So he took some envelopes from his father’s office, affixed stamps wrote his address and posted them in the box. When his father found that Vikram was receiving letters every day, he asked the boy about the letters.
Vikram laughingly replied I am writing letters to myself!”
From his childhood, Vikram loved adventure.
When he was eight, he learned to ride a bicycle.
He would astonish his people with many tricks with the bicycle. As the bicycle shot forward, he would raise his hands, stretch his legs forward, close his eyes and pedal. He would not listen to anyone who pleaded him not to perform such dangerous acrobatics.
There was a pool in their compound; there was also a boat. Vikram would take a servant and one or two children for boating. On one occasion, the boat capsized and everyone fell into the water and began to shout for help. The gardeners working nearby heard their cries for help, jumped into the water and saved them.
Vikram showed greater earnestness and interest in his studies than the others. He was very enthusiastic about mathematics and science. His teachers have said he would work hard without leisure in the holidays and, when the school reopened, he would be far ahead of other students.
When Vikram was two years old, the poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the family. It appears that when he saw this little child, he predicted that he would become a famous man.
After completing his college education Vikram Sarabhai went to England to continue his studies at Cambridge University.
For centuries two universities in England have been very famous: Oxford University and Cambridge University. To get a degree from one of these universities is considered an honor. In 1939, when Vikram was only twenty, he passed the Tripos Examination in Physical Sciences with C. V. Raman and H. J. Bhabha.
The Second World War broke out in 1939.
Soon after, Vikram returned to India. Right from his boyhood, Vikram had a great love for physics. During the forties, the most famous center for scientific research in India was the Indian Institute of Science (the Tata Institute) at Bangalore. Its Physics Department was headed by the world-famous scientist, Dr. C. V. Raman. The highest award in science is the Nobel Prize.
Dr. C. V. Raman was awarded this prize as early as in 1930. When Sarabhai returned to India, he came down to Bangalore to carry on research under Dr. C. V. Raman. The famous Dr. Homi Jahangir Bhabha was also at the institute by that time; he was engaged in research on Mesons and Cosmic Rays.
The Study of Cosmic Rays
What are mesons and cosmic rays? If we split any substance on the Earth we get only three fundamental particles – electrically charged negative particles (electrons), positive particles (protons) and neutral particles (neutrons). If the weight of the electron is taken as 1, then the weight of protons and neutrons is 1836. But it has been discovered that there are other types of particles besides these three in space.
The weight of particles not belonging to these classes is different from the weights of electrons, protons or neutrons. These other particles are called mesons. Scientists who have researched mesons thought that they are produced by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are very fine and very powerful and come from somewhere outside the Earth. They race to the earth from all directions.
Every minute, day and night, about 600 such cosmic rays pass through the human body. They can pass through rocks hundreds of meters thick.
Vikram Sarabhai researched the changes in the intensity of cosmic rays. His very first scientific paper was on the periodical variation of the intensity of cosmic rays. It was published (1942) in Bangalore in a scientific journal.
This research helped him later to take up the studies of interplanetary space (between planets), the relationship between the sun and the earth and earth magnetism.
During this period, he researched for some time at the Poona Central Meteorological Station.
Here he got the idea of establishing a cosmic ray research institute. In 1943, he went to the Himalayan peaks in Kashmir to study the intensity of cosmic rays at such high places. There he conceived a brilliant idea. This was to establish a research center at a great height above the surface of the earth.
In 1945, the Second World War ended. Sarabhai again went to Cambridge to continue his study of cosmic rays. In 1947 he got his Ph.D. for this work.
A student does not get a Ph.D. degree by passing an examination. He has to choose a professor to guide him. The professor suggests a subject for deep study and research. The student has to study the subject by himself under the professor’s guidance; he has to organize the information he gets from his experiments; he has to draw his conclusions, and gather all these into a large scientific article or ‘thesis’.
This thesis is then sent to four specialists in the subject. Only if they agree that the work and the thesis deserve a doctorate will the Ph.D. Degree be conferred on the student. It is, therefore, no easy task to secure a Ph.D. Degree.
Although Sarabhai went to Cambridge in 1945, he had started his work for the Ph.D. degree in 1942. His family used to go to Kashmir every summer. Vikram would carry his cosmic ray research equipment to Kashmir. Apharwat, on the banks of Lake Alpathari, is about 13,000 feet above sea level. It was here, that Sarabhai continued his research. In his Ph.D. thesis, he included photographs of the equipment he used there.
Shortly after he returned from Cambridge, he established the Physical Research Laboratory (mentioned earlier) at Ahmedabad. A scientist by the name Dr. K. R. Ram Nathan was appointed as its first Director in 1948. The Institute was started with only a few Students and Laboratory Assistants. In a few years, this group developed into a dedicated team of scientists and research workers.
Despite his many duties in later years, Sarabhai maintained close contact with this Institute till his end. At first, he was a Professor of cosmic ray research; from 1965 he worked as the Director. This Institute sponsored a cosmic ray research center established in 1955 at Gulmarg, in Kashmir. The work done at this center attracted the notice of the Atomic Energy Department of the Government of India and won its appreciation.
This Department established a full-fledged High Altitude Research Center at the same place – the only research center in the world to be set up at such a high altitude. At last, Sarabhai’s long dream became a reality. Later on, similar centers were opened at Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu and Trivandrum in Kerala.
One thousand and two hundred years ago Adi Shankaracharya established four religious centers or Mutts at Shringeri, Puri, Dwaraka, and Badrinath for the revival of Hindu Dharma and left his footprints there. Vikram Sarabhai established centers for scientific research in several places from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and has left his footprints there.
Successor to Bhabha
Dr. Homi Bhabha, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, died in 1966. He was a very capable man. Many thought no one in India could replace him. In this depressing atmosphere, they found in Vikram Sarabhai the man to continue Bhabha’s work at the Atomic Energy Commission. He did his work quite ably and showed his capacity to direct and continue successfully the work of the Commission.
On 29th December 1971, Sarabhai was in Trivandrum to guide the work at the Rocket Launching Station, Thumba. He was staying in a hotel there. He talked with everyone as usual and went to bed. He never got up again. The man who at birth was blessed by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, but who worshipped Saraswathi, the Goddess of Learning, died when he was busy with his research. He was then 52.
Vikram Sarabhai had married the famous dancer Mrinalini Swaminathan in 1942. They had a son, Karthikeya and a daughter, Mallika.
For a long time, only some individuals were interested in science and devoted themselves to it. That science is important for the development of the country and that the entire nation should take an interest in it and help in its progress of modern ideas. In the olden days, some people got interested in science, and then they did not think of food or water; they forgot their families and the whole world and dedicated themselves to scientific research.
Archimedes, Newton and Faraday are examples of such dedication. It was only a hundred years ago that nations began to realize the importance of science and scientists, and began to help them. After atomic science developed, it became difficult for any one individual to carry on research, without help from others. So teams of scientists undertook research. Besides, atomic research had to be carried on by several scientific institutes as no one institute could have all the facilities. So scientific research, which was only of individual interest, gained national importance.
Science has now crossed even national boundaries and has attained international status.
That is, scientists of several countries share their knowledge and results, and work in cooperation. Space research which began in 1957 is responsible for this international cooperation.
Even though one country may be engaged in such research, it cannot progress without the cooperation of other countries. Americans may launch an artificial satellite that revolves around the Earth.
But its movement has to be studied at different points of the world. Only then all the necessary information about the experiment can be put together. So other countries have to put up tracking or observation centers. If it is a communication satellite – one, which receives and sends radio messages and television pictures from one country to another, thousands of miles away – such communication, will not be possible without the cooperation of other countries.
Vikram Sarabhai was one of the leading scientists engaged in space research. During his studies on cosmic rays, he discovered that the intensity of the cosmic rays changes twice a day.
This discovery helped to understand the nature of interplanetary space and its electromagnetic properties.
(If a small wire is wound around a piece of iron and electricity is passed through the wire, the iron becomes a magnet. If the magnet is moved about a wire, an electric current is produced in the wire. This production of magnetism by electricity and of electricity by magnetism is known as Electro-magnetic property.)
As stated before, space research was started in 1957. Sarabhai made use of this research to find out if the results of his cosmic ray experiments were correct. America and Japan had set up a joint High Altitude Research Station at Chakaltaya in Bolivia. There they had set up equipment to discover mesons.
Sarabhai sent a post-graduate student of his, to yielded good results. Sarabhai conducted experiments in Trivandrum, Allbaugh, Honolulu, and Gulmarg; he showed that the reasons for the changes in the Earth’s magnetism which was accepted by scientists till then were wrong; the changes were due to other reasons. (The Earth behaves as a magnet. The Earth’s magnetic power is known as the Earth’s Magnetism.)
Sarabhai was a genius. His fame had spread to many countries. We have to remember him forever for his work on cosmic rays and atomic power. There is also another important reason to remember this great man. He tried to secure for our country an honored place in the scientific world. He was always earnestly thinking about how our lives can be improved and our objects achieved through science.
Vikram Sarabhai was a very modest and simple man. He always spoke gently. He was very polite.
He was a great scientist and an efficient administrator; moreover, he treated others with friendliness and sympathy. He had very heavy work; his responsibilities, too, were great. He had no leisure at all. But yet, to the last, he remained a lover of beauty. He was not the kind of scientist who sits alone on a mountain peak far from all, living beings and society.
For twenty years he looked after the group of the industrial concerns of his family. He had the unique fortune to combine extraordinary learning-rich industrial experience and great wealth. Those who have even one of these are usually not modest and friendly. But Sarabhai, who held learning, power, and money in the palm of his hand, was very modest and friendly. Sometimes, people who did not know how busy he was would waste his time with their long tales of difficulties and misfortunes.
Sarabhai would listen to them patiently and comfort them. If someone asked, “Aren’t they wasting your precious time?”, he would reply,
“In our vast land, people come from many backgrounds. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the education we have. So, we have to listen to everything they say to understand what is in their mind.”
To be in the company of Sarabhai was itself a pleasure. Even if he did not speak a word, his very smile would encourage his fellow workers.
Even if a man carried several problems to him the moment they saw Sarabhai’s bright and hopeful eyes and smile, they would feel that they could themselves solve their problems. He inspired such confidence in his men. He was always ready to help anyone who was in trouble or difficulties. One day, a coolie was drawing a handcart loaded with heavy boxes. He was finding it difficult to draw it inside the Institute.
When Sarabhai saw this, he ran to his help and pushed the cart. In the early days of the Institute, he would not seek anybody’s help to move heavy equipment from room to room. He would do it himself.
He looked on all men as equals. Even a servant could approach him freely, without feeling inferior. He would offer him a seat and let him speak frankly and without hesitation. Sarabhai believed that all men, whatever their status, should be treated with respect. He would not ignore any man just because the man was poor or ignorant or illiterate.
He firmly believed that a man should be judged not by his salary but by his work and responsibility. He wanted everyone to work hard for the good of the organization of which he was a part.
His clothes were always simple. In the beginning, he was fond of loud colored shirts; on one day he wore bright green, on the next day dark blue, on another day red and so on, changing the color every day. Later on, he changed over to pajamas, ordinary kurta, and sandals.
With the Students
One of the objects of the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad was to train young scientists. Although Sarabhai had various duties and was very busy, he never neglected this training. He encouraged about 20 students to conduct advanced research and get their Ph.D. Degrees.
Sarabhai working in his laboratory even at midnight was a common sight. Even at that hour, his uppermost thought was the research work of his students. Even when he was waiting to board a plane he would be seen in a corner of the airport discussing with his students their problems.
In Baroda, there was a big pharmaceutical factory (a factory to produce medicines) of the Sarabhai’s. Every Friday he would go to Baroda to supervise the work of the factory and give instructions. He did not wish to waste his time during the railway journey from Ahmedabad to Baroda. He would take one or two students with him and discuss with them their problems.
He went abroad several times. However busy he was with his work, he would spare some time to meet Indian students in foreign countries; he would encourage them to return to India and continue their research in their motherland.
But he also encouraged students to go abroad for higher studies, to get acquainted with the latest developments in science and technology and to return to our country to serve the motherland. He was sure that if a proper atmosphere was created in India for the young scientists to pursue their chosen line of research, they would gladly return. He had such great confidence in our young scientists.
Sarabhai’s Hopes and Views
Even when the study of atomic energy was still in its early stages, Dr. Homi Bhabha dreamt a dream. He dreamt of an India, which did not depend on foreign countries for experts. He wanted India to have her specialists in every field. For this purpose, he established several organizations and research institutes.
Vikram Sarabhai also had his dream. That was to use atomic energy for a variety of purposes – for the development of agriculture and industry, for communication of satellites, for national integration and the promotion of literacy, for weather forecast and exploration of mineral wealth, etc… To his last breath, he worked for the realization of this dream.
It is possible to produce atomic energy independently with our knowledge, machines, equipment, and men. To do so we must have our heavy water factory and nuclear fuel manufacturing plant. That was his great desire and he took the first steps to establish these factories.
But he did not live to see their completion.
A nation’s progress and prosperity depend on how well people use science and technical knowledge for development purposes.
Only by the planned use of the fundamental sciences, technical knowledge, and industrial experience can there be rapid economic development. Before harnessing our natural wealth and resources, we should gather enough capital, give good training to our young men and women and produce great scientists.
We should find out the needs of the country and prepare a technical plan to produce them. This planning should not take too much time. We should learn the most advanced and new research techniques from all parts of the world. At the same time, we should encourage the growth of such research techniques in our own country. This was Sarabhai’s approach to the progress of India.
Usually, the President of the All India Textile Research Association would not be a mill owner.
Sarabhai belonged to a mill owner’s family. But yet, in 1955 the members of the Association requested Sarabhai to be their President.
In 1956, the Productivity Congress met in Japan. The Indian Government selected him as the leader of the Indian delegation. He was only 37, and he was the first Indian to attend this Congress.
The only institution which reviews the progress of science in this country is the Indian Science Congress. Sarabhai presided over the Physics Section of the Conference in 1962. Very few have achieved such a distinction at the age of 40.
The Government of India awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Medal in Physics to Sarabhai in 1962. In 1966 he received the Padma Bhushan Award. In the same year, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
When he was the Chairman, he prepared a master plan for the development of Atomic Energy and Space Research for the decade 1970-80. In 1968, the United Nations organized a Conference on Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
Sarabhai was the Chairman. After his death, the Government conferred on him, in 1972, the title of Padma Vibhushan.
The Creator of Organizations
Sarabhai was immersed in scientific research.
He wanted that science and technology should grow together, that intelligent young men should be trained in science and technology and that the right atmosphere for their work should be created in the country. For this purpose, he established several organizations. The very first one was his own Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad. In this, he formed the ‘Group for the Improvement of Science Education’, in 1963.
In 1947, when he was only 28 years old, he was entrusted with the organization of the Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association. He had then no experience of textile mills or textile technology. Yet, with great confidence, he built up the institution.
In 1963, he established the Nehru Foundation for Development, for the study of social and educational problems. In 1966, under its auspices, he established the Community Science Center, whose object was to spread scientific knowledge, to create interest in science and to promote experimentation among students, teachers and the general public. To train efficient managers of factories, he started the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad.
Of all the institutions he established the most important was the Indian Space Research Organization with Centers at Thumba (near Trivandrum), Ahmedabad, Shriharikota (north of Madras) and Arvi (near Bombay). At Thumba and Shriharikota he established Rocket Launching Stations.
There is an organization called Pug Wash Continuing Committee whose aim is to establish peace on earth and promote disarmament, particularly of dangerous weapons, all over the world. Sarabhai founded the Indian Branch of this Committee.
Amid all this work, he had set apart some time for the pharmaceutical industry. He was one of those who wanted to preserve the highest standards in the manufacture of drugs.
Capsules of Wisdom
Vikram Sarabhai used to repeat constantly two sentences. They are capsules of wisdom.
Everyone should ponder over these sentences:
‘No great importance is to be given to mere experience.’
‘He who can listen to music in the midst of noise can achieve great things.’