Homi Bhabha: Biography, Research, Inventions, Inspiration
The architect of Nuclear Science in Modern India. His farsightedness, powers of organization, and the encouragement and guidance young scientists received from him, these built up an invaluable asset for scientific work in India.
He was a painter and worshipped the beauty of Nature. Science and art both enriched his mind and life. He was the ideal personality India needs today.
Homi Bhabha is one of the pioneers in the field of science in modern India. His role in the history of science in free India is of great significance. He is the architect of nuclear science in India.
Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born in Bombay on October 30, 1909. His father Jehangir Bhabha, once a student of Oxford University, was a reputed advocate and served the Tata Enterprises. Mehran, Bhabha’s mother, belonged to the petit family. His grandfather was an officer in the Education Department of Mysore State. (Now it is Karnataka).
In his childhood, Bhabha used to sleep very little. The worried parents took him to several qualified doctors. But for some time, the reason for his sleeplessness could not be found out. At last, doctors assured the parents that Bhabha was in excellent health. He did not sleep as long as other children of his age, because of his super-active brain and the continuous, rapid flow of thoughts.
His parents took interest in shaping Bhabha’s love of science. He was also provided with a small library. The library contained many science books. Bhabha made full use of his library. Books became his friends. Thus a good foundation was laid for his scientific career. Einstein (1879-1955) is one of the greatest scientists of this century. It is difficult to understand his Theory of Relativity.
But, at the age of 15, Bhabha was able to read Einstein’s book on Relativity. He could also digest the contents to some extent.
Even as a boy Bhabha was a lover of Nature.
He was deeply interested in painting, music, and literature. He took full advantage of his good collection of books and records. But he was not much interested in sports.
Education and Research
Bhabha was educated at the Cathedral and John Cannon High School. He was a merit student. He won many prizes at school.
At the age of 15, Bhabha passed the Senior Cambridge Examination. Later he entered Elphinstone College and the Royal Institute of Science, Bombay. He continued his studies here for two years.
Bhabha loved Physics. Mathematics was also his favorite subject. But his father wanted him to become an engineer. Bhabha respected the wishes of his father. He left India for Cambridge to study Engineering. Bhabha passed the Mechanical Engineering Tripos in the first class in 1930.
He then pursued his studies in Theoretical Physics as a Research Scholar.
Devotion to Fine-arts
Bhabha was not a mere bookworm. He had secured many scholarships. He had an inborn taste and a creative urge. During his stay in England and Europe, painting became his hobby.
He visited many art galleries, museums, palaces, and gardens. He never missed a good musical concert. Many of his paintings now grace the walls of art galleries in England. Devotion to art and the study of science went hand in hand in Bhabha’s life.
Bhabha was awarded the Rouse Bal Traveling Studentship for two years in 1932. He worked with W. Pauli in Zurich and Enrico Fermi in Rome.
During this period he was awarded the Isaac Newton Fellowship in 1934 and the 1851-Exhibition Studentship in 1936.
Bhabha was fortunate to come into close contact with famous scientists like Rutherford, Dirac, Niels Bohr, and Heitler. This association greatly influenced his research and way of life.
The Study of Cosmic Rays
Bhabha presented, with Heitler, the ‘Cascade Theory of Electron Showers’, in 1937. It is called the ‘Bhabha-Heitler Cascade Theory’. It is a unique contribution to the world of Physics. This research brought fame to Bhabha. This theory explains the process of electron showers in cosmic rays.
Cosmic rays are primary rays, which are fast-moving and sub-microscopic particles. They comprise protons, electrons, and gamma rays.
When some of them happen to approach the earth and enter its atmosphere, they collide with atoms in the air. They then breed new nuclear particles. Bhabha’s new theory explains clearly the processes and effects of the mutual reaction. It throws light on one of the most puzzling mysteries of cosmic rays.
Bhabha recognized heavy electron particles in cosmic rays and called them ‘Meson’. Bhabha’s mastery of mathematics can be seen in the ‘Classical Theory of Spinning Particles’. The importance of his work received wide recognition.
Bhabha’s original contributions to Physics lie in the fields of cosmic radiation, the theory of elementary particles and quantum theory.
Bhabha returned to India for a holiday in 1939.
That was the time of the Second World War.
Bhabha did not return to England and this was indeed fortunate for India.
Bhabha could have got lucrative posts in any developed country. But he did not think of them.
The material pleasures of foreign countries did not attract him. Bhabha decided to devote his life to the service of his motherland.
In 1940 Bhabha joined the Indian Institute of Science as Reader in Theoretical Physics. He shouldered the responsibility of building a new department to undertake research on cosmic rays. In 1941 he was elected a member of the Royal Society. When this great distinction was conferred on Bhabha, he was just 31 years old.
Not many have been so honored at such a young age by the Royal Society.
Bhabha became a Professor at the Institute in 1942. The University of Cambridge also awarded the Adams Prize to him.
The young Bhabha dreamt of the ‘great adventure’ of building a modern India. In the salubrious climate of Bangalore, he studied the background of the great culture of India. He analyzed the socio-economic problems of the country. He was quite convinced that science was the only means for the progress of India.
Bhabha’s love of classical music, dance and sculpture deepened. This keen interest made him worship art throughout his life. It also influenced the pattern of his life.
Bhabha had just come to Bangalore. He was asked to deliver a lecture. C. V. Raman presided over the program. The subject of the lecture related to modern physics. The audience who heard the lecture was amazed at his scholarship. In his speech as the Chairman, Raman said:
“The lecture was a treat for three persons – the lecturer, the Chairman, and one other noted mathematician present here.”
In those days the equipment and facilities needed for research in Atomic Physics were not available in India. Realizing this, Bhabha formulated a plan to meet this need.
Bhabha was invited to join the staff of Oxford University. But he did not accept the invitation.
He expressed his desire to build an excellent institution of research in India. Bhabha wrote a letter to the Dorabji Tata Trust on March 13, 1944.
In the course of the letter he said:
‘When nuclear energy has been successfully applied to power production in, say, a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts, but will find them ready at hand.’
Bhabha wrote this letter almost a year before the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
This letter clearly illustrates his farsightedness and patriotism. Bhabha’s plan was an embryo from which a school of physics was born.
A New Climate Created
The Tata Trust founded the – ‘Tata Institute of Fundamental Research’ in 1945. The establishment of the Institute was mainly due to the initiative of Bhabha. The Bombay government and the Government of India gave financial support to the Institute. Bhabha was appointed its first Director, and he assumed there, the responsibility of shaping the Institute. India thus took the first step on the journey of nuclear science.
The Institute first commenced its work in the rented premises at Peddar Road. Later it moved to the extension at the Yacht Club. It is now situated in a beautifully proportioned building.
Research work in pure mathematics, theoretical and applied physics, computer technology and geophysics was undertaken at the Institute.
The study of the principles of an atomic explosion, the production of isotopes and the purification of uranium formed part of the work of the Institute. Thus Bhabha created an intellectual environment in India. He was successful in practicing what he had learned at Cambridge and Paris.
The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is an outcome of the discussion that Bhabha had with the industrialist J. R. D. Tata, and the farsighted decision of the Tata Trust to support Bhabha’s Project. The hills of Trombay have today blossomed into a fine research complex. The Institute is one of the world’s top research centers in nuclear research. It enjoys a great reputation and can be compared with any research institute in developed countries. Thanks to the guidance and tireless efforts of Homi Bhabha the Institute is indeed a symbol of scientific tradition in India. It is Bhabha’s contribution to the country’s advancement in science and technology.
Towards Deeper Study of Atomic Energy
India got independence on August 15, 1947.
Eleven days later, on August 26, 1947, Bhabha addressed the Atomic Energy Research Committee as follows:
“We meet today at the beginning of a new chapter in our history. We have great hopes that this new chapter will be a glorious one. The development and use of atomic energy is a question of national importance. We hope to establish soon an Atomic Research Center comparable with those in the most advanced countries.”
A year later, the Atomic Energy Commission was formed. Bhabha was appointed Chairman of the Commission.
The major responsibilities of the Commission were: a survey of Indian soil for the materials required for nuclear research, the construction of atomic reactors, the purification of atomic materials, conducting fundamental research and the formulation of the training program.
The Commission utilized the services of scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The scope of the work of the Commission was enlarged. The Atomic Energy programmed took a concrete shape. The Department of Atomic Energy thus came into existence as a separate department of the Government of India in 1954, under the direct control of Prime Minister Nehru. Bhabha became the Ex-officio Secretary of the Department.
Shortly after the formation of the Department of Atomic Energy, it was decided to create the Atomic Energy Establishment for the application of atomic energy to peaceful purposes. Bhabha became its first Director. The Establishment was formally inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru on January 20, 1957.
Thus India began to win new laurels for the study of atomic energy. Bhabha worked ceaselessly and enriched the sphere of science in the country. Throughout his directorship, he emphasized indigenous know-how to make the country self-reliant in the nuclear field.
J. R. D. Tata and Jawaharlal Nehru gave support and encouragement to Bhabha in his work.
Pandit Nehru very much appreciated the efficiency, farsightedness, and patriotism of Bhabha.
Bhabha was very close to Nehru and enjoyed his confidence. As a result, Bhabha got considerable freedom to carry on his work with ease and efficiency. Bhabha framed administrative rules to suit the tempo, of scientific activity. He helped to get rid of lethargy and red-tapism which were obstacles to the progress of science.
One of Bhabha’s achievements was that he persuaded the Government to take a greater interest in technology.
It is a meeting of men and circumstances that sometimes stimulates progress. It is there-fore providential that Nehru had Bhabha and Bhabha had Nehru. As a close personal friend and devoted follower of the Prime Minister.
Bhabha shared the great man’s dreams, ambitions, and points of view.
Bhabha was participating in a conference at Geneva in 1955. Canada came forward to build a Reactor in India. On August 29, 1955, Bhabha sent a cable from Geneva to Nehru and requested him to approve the acceptance of this offer. Within three days, Bhabha received the consent of the Prime Minister. The Canada-India Reactor ‘Cirus’ was born.
‘Apsara’, ‘Cirus’ and ‘Zerlina’ are the three reactors built by the Trombay scientists and engineers, with foreign assistance. The credit for establishing these reactors goes to Bhabha.
‘Apsara’, India’s first reactor was taken up in 1955 to fulfill the needs in the fields of neutron physics, radiation, chemistry and biology and also the production of radioisotopes. It became critical’ on August 4, 1956. The uranium fuel for the reactor was obtained from the United Kingdom. The erection of ‘Apsara’ gave self-confidence to the Indian scientists and engineers.
‘Cirus’ was built in 1960 and ‘Zerlina’ in 1961.
The construction of ‘Cirus’ took some four years, and 1200 engineers and skilled artisans worked for the completion of the reactor.
Having acquired these reactors, Bhabha planned to take up the actual construction of atomic power plants. The atomic power plant of Tarapur in Maharashtra is now producing electricity. The other two plants are situated at Rana Pratap Sagar in Rajasthan and Kalpakam in Tamil Nadu. These power plants will appreciably contribute to the production of electricity in India.
These achievements are the living symbols of Bhabha’s imagination and dynamism.
It has now been possible to produce plutonium, a valuable nuclear material, and other useful fuel at Tomboy. Work on thorium is also in progress. India has the largest reserves of thorium in the world. Thorium is a promising material for India’s nuclear power program. More than 250 radioisotopes used in agriculture, industry, medicine, and biology are now made available in large quantities. Today, over 350 radioisotopes and other radioisotope products are produced to meet a countrywide demand and also for export purposes. Radioisotopes play an important role in the study of the functions of a normal human body.
The Trombay Institute
Bhabha worked very hard for the development of the Trombay Institute. His time and energy were entirely devoted to the Institute. Reactors like Apsara, uranium and zirconium plants, the Van de Graff and cyclotron equipment – all are the gifts of Dr. Bhabha. Top priority is given to research relating to the application of radiation to preserve perishable food and protect it from the attacks of parasites. This work has made it possible to preserve fish, fruits, vegetables, and other edible products for a long time. The process of curing seeds for better yields is also being studied. A seismic array station has been set up at Gauribidnur, about 80 kilometers from Bangalore, to detect earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions.
Atomic Energy the Only Foundation
The consumption of energy in the world is on the increase. Naturally available resources of energy like coal and oil are on the decrease.
Added to this, there is a shortage of hydel energy in certain places. Realizing this, Bhabha declared that atomic energy is the only foundation for the progress of industries in India. He suggested that producing electricity could affect the economy by nuclear methods.
Electronic instrumentation is required in all spheres of atomic energy work. Bhabha prepared blueprints for various projects relating to electronic instruments. Nuclear instruments worth a few million are fabricated at Trombay every year. At present Trombay turns out over 2,000 electronic instruments annually. They include radiation survey meters, amplifiers, and spectrometers.
The Electronics Corporation of India also manufactures many electronic instruments. All this has been possible because of the farsightedness of Bhabha.
Assistance to Centers
Bhabha gave generous assistance to a number of centers of science. The Saha Atomic Research Center (Calcutta), the Physical Research Laboratory (Ahmedabad), and other laboratories got assistance from the Department of Atomic Energy. The Tumba Rocket Launching Station of Kerala, the High Altitude Research Center of Kashmir, the Uranium Mine of Bihar, and the Heavy Water Plant of Nungal are also the undertakings of the Atomic Energy Establishment. Bhabha gave necessary attention to the advancement of fundamental science. He had close contact with the universities and research laboratories in India and abroad. He offered facilities, like scholarships, grants, and equipment to institutions, which needed them. He thus promoted the cause of research in basic science.
Building Up A Team of Scientists
The early atomic age of India was a period of transition. At that time Bhabha gave a clarion call to all young scientists who were staying abroad;
“Return to Trombay; return to the motherland.” Many young scientists listened to his call and came to Trombay. They are today among the reputed scientists in the country. Bhabha took personal care to provide the necessary amenities to them.
Bhabha selected scientists with care. He placed them in positions of responsibility. He thus succeeded in building up a team of excellent workers around him. He created a suitable scientific atmosphere for his colleagues. Necessary materials and equipment were provided.
He inspired the staff and gave them the freedom they needed to pursue their work. He gave them every opportunity to grow. Spotting scientific talent was his passion.
Discipline in all walks of life and a challenging attitude to accomplish the targets were his special characteristics. He instilled a sense of confidence in his fellow-workers so that the project could be successfully completed.
On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes, at Pokhran in, Rajasthan and joined the galaxy of nations with atomic energy. It thus became the world’s sixth nuclear power. The other five countries with nuclear know-how are America, Russia, Britain, France, and China. India’s explosion of a nuclear device is a great milestone in the path of technological progress. This achievement was based entirely on Indian effort. The success of this achievement is due mainly to Bhabha who put India on the world map of nuclear science.
Bhabha was a recipient of many honors. He was awarded honorary doctorates by several Indian and foreign universities. Among these universities are London, Cambridge, Padova, Perth, Banaras, Agra, Patna, Lucknow, Allahabad, Andhra, and Aligarh. In 1948 he received the Hopkins Prize of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He was elected the President of the Indian Science Congress in 1951. In 1954 the President of India gave him the Padma Bhushan award for his outstanding contribution to nuclear science.
In 1963 he was elected as the President of the National Institute of Sciences of India. He was an honorary fellow of many earned institutions.
Laurels came to Bhabha from all corners of the world throughout his lifetime.
Bhabha was a member of many scientific advisory committees of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. He also served as the Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to advise the Government of India. In 1955 Bhabha was elected as the President of the First International Conference on the ‘Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy’, organized by the United Nations at Geneva. The conference was another step in international cooperation. Bhabha was the first to advocate, from international forums, the peaceful uses of atomic energy.
A Many-Faceted Personality Bhabha was not confined to the four walls of his laboratory. He was a lover of art and a good friend of his colleagues.
He made friends, he kept his friends and he made new friends. He was a tender-hearted man.
He helped many persons who were. In distress.
He commanded the loyalty of his colleagues. His was a voice, which never expressed bitterness.
The Road to Excellence
Two outstanding virtues of Bhabha’s work were his insistence on excellence and his faith in self-reliance. He showed to the world that Indian scientists could reach great heights. He was a practical person. He believed in planning and in executing the plans.
Bhabha liked persons who were active and dynamic. If anyone had made mistakes in the course of his work, he had the generosity to forgive the lapses. But he disliked carelessness, laziness, and indifference. He tolerated honest mistakes, but not stupidity. He had always a good words for good work. He was human to the tips of his fingers and always concerned to help in solving the personal problems of others.
Bhabha started a training center to train young scientists in different fields of nuclear science. He invited talented young men and women from all parts of the country and arranged for special instruction. He brought together many famous scientists on the same platform and arranged lectures. He toiled much to bring to light the latent talents of the young scientists in India.
Not only did Bhabha arouse in Indians, the awareness for the need to study and apply science, but he also inspired the young men to do their work with confidence. He encouraged them to be industrious. Thus, Bhabha was responsible for creating a band of efficient workers. This indeed is a great asset that Bhabha has left for us.
His duty was Bhabha’s first love. It was more pronounced in scientific research, planning, and direction. When Bhabha was invited to become the Minister of Atomic Energy in the Union Cabinet, he declined. Science was dearer to Bhabha than the charm of ministership.
Bhabha’s ambitions were sky-high but he also worked tirelessly to realize them. He was not a scientist who sat in an ivory tower. He was a man of action. He was a rare blending of idealism and realism.
The future is often misty but Bhabha, an untiring worker had a clear vision. He had always an open mind on every issue. He respected the views of others.
Life is for Living
Bhabha was a bachelor. When once asked about his marriage, he said: “I am married to creativity.”
In 1938 Bhabha wrote in one of his letters:
‘You can give a new direction to everything in life-except death.’
These words show clearly the degree of his self-confidence.
Bhabha believed that life was worth living and that one should get out of it that the entire one can. He sought to understand the true values of life. He thought that art, literature, and music enhanced the beauty of life.
Scientist-Artist-Leader Bhabha often said:
“A scientist does not belong to a particular nation. He belongs to the whole world. The doors of science should be kept open to all those who work for the welfare of humanity.”
Bhabha foresaw that a time might come when production of power may suffer because of the shortage of coal and oil. He firmly believed that the standard of living of our people could be improved only through fuller utilization of nuclear energy.
Bhabha possessed a rare combination of a brilliant mind, a tremendous capacity for organization and boundless energy. Indians will always remember him as a great scientist, a remarkable administrator, and an outstanding leader; He had a feel for creative work. He had the scientist’s precision with the artist’s exuberance.
Bhabha opened up new vistas of atomic glory.
Nuclear Physics attained a new dignity and a new status on account of his personality. India stepped right out of the bullock-cart age into the Atomic Age. This ‘Atom Man’ diverted the atom from the path of destruction to that of construction.
Bridging two Cultures
Bhabha was proud but charming; thought-full but light-hearted. He was soft-spoken and well dressed.
He believed in gracious living and loved things, which were beautiful and aesthetic. His interest spread beyond science to culture and art. He had an eye for detail; nothing escaped his penetrating eyes.
Bhabha did not want any friction between scientific culture and artistic Culture. He always tried to bridge the gap between these two cultures. He believed that both science and art should enrich human life. These thoughts made Bhabha a great humanist of his age.
Bhabha could have become a great musician or expert artist or a renowned writer, but he served the nation as a scientist. What is science for if not for research, truth, and beauty?
Bhabha was a great patron of art and music.
He once dreamt of a career as a composer. He gave encouragement to modern painters, purchased their works and displayed them on the walls of the buildings of Trombay Establishment.
He was a lover of South Indian music and never missed any good performance of leading artists.
A man of many talents, he had a wonderful collection of paintings. He was also a great collector of works of art. He could talk with authority on painting and music and on trees and plants and flowers, which he loved. He was a versatile genius.
He had a great love for trees and flowers. At his instance, a number of trees were transplanted to the new premises of the Tata Institute. He saved many a tree from the clutches of death.
He was indeed a ‘Friend of Trees.’
When the construction work at Trombay was in progress, Bhabha spent many sleepless nights and finalized the layout for the campus. Today it is a home of loveliness, with vast lawns, shady trees, and multi-colored flowers. The Trombay Center faces the sea on one side and a tall hill on the other. Nature is at her loveliest at Trombay.
Trombay is undoubtedly a living example of Bhadsha’s taste for good things and love of the beauty of Nature.
The Tragic End
Bhabha was going to attend an international conference. He was on a mission of peace. The Air India Boeing 707 ‘Kanchenjunga’, in which Bhabha was traveling, crashed in a snowstorm on January 24, 1966, at Mount Blanc. Bhabha thus met with a tragic end. He died comparatively young and at the height of his fame. It was a loss too deep for tears. In the death of Dr. Bhabha India lost an eminent scientist and one of her great sons.
Bhabha had disliked the practice of stopping work when someone passed away. He considered that the best homage was hard work. When the members of the staff at Trombay heard the news of Dr. Bhabha’s death, they worked as usual and thus paid their respect to their departed leader.
As a tribute to Dr. Bhabha, the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay, was renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, on January 12, 1967.
The progress of mankind is based on the talents and achievements of a few extraordinary individuals. Bhabha was one such a great man.
Birth and death are laws of Nature. But life finds new meaning in the great accomplishments and achievements of man. Bhabha was in many ways a complete man’.
“Here was a great man.
When comes such another?”