Remembering an Indian Prometheus: Homi J. Bhabha

Homi-Jehangir-Bhabha-wiki Homi Jehangir Bhabha | via Commons

On 12 March 1944, a proposal was despatched from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore to the Sir Dorab Tata Trust in Bombay. The letter read ‘I have for some time past nurtured the idea of founding a first class school of research in the most advanced branches of physics in Bombay... when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for 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’. The letter would set in motion events of great historical consequence.

The author of these momentous tidings, whose birth anniversary is on Tuesday, was a dashing, young Indian physicist who whilst in his 30’s enjoyed a European reputation. Professor Homi Jehangir Bhabha, then head of the cosmic ray research unit at IISc, was a most unusual man. He was a brilliant experimental physicist, with a keen mathematical mind and a taste for music and arts. In the firmament of world physics, he was one of the brightest stars.

We now hail him as 'the father of Indian nuclear programme'. That he was able to orchestrate the creation of a world-class nuclear enterprise in a third world country itself is a tribute to his genius. His visionary enterprise was born of a composite vision. There was the influence of the scientific west, Indian nationalism, the birth of ‘big science’, decolonisation and the marriage of science with state building.

Homi Bhabha was born into an affluent Parsi family in Bombay in 1909. His parents, Jehangir and Meheren Bhabha were a very enlightened and remarkable couple and young Homi and his younger brother Jamshed grew up in a charming home with books and music as their companions. He blossomed into youth breathing in a rarefied air that created in him a sense of the sublime and absolute. At school, he mastered French, Latin and had read Einstein’s theory of relativity even before he sat for his Senior Cambridge exams.

In 1927, he arrived at the famous Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge for a BA degree in mechanical engineering. Cambridge at that point of time drew the most gifted sons of the world’s elite. There were aspiring prime ministers, spies, scientists, aesthetes, avante garde artists and writers droning in and around this cathedral of genius. The famed Cavendish laboratory was then the Mecca of physics and attracted eager young minds from across the globe. Rutherford, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Yuli Khariton, Cockcroft, Blackett had all passed through its hallowed portals.

It was all too dazzling for the impressionable young Indian, who now proceeded to junk the mechanics of engineering for the metaphysics of frontier science. Exciting new discoveries had been made in atomic physics in recent years and with sufficient hard work and talent, a young researcher could do path breaking and original research in the field. Bhabha proceeded to study cosmic rays and electron showers, a field in which he made his name during much of the 1930’s. He also travelled to other temples of science in continental Europe and struck friendships with its high priests like the legendary Neils Bohr.

Though he continued to entrench himself in his field, he had developed a panoramic vision that saw emergent forces beyond the immediate horizon and was able to appreciate their significance. Nuclear physics came into its own in 1932 when James Chadwick discovered the elusive neutron. It opened up a fertile field of discovery for scientists often working independently in Russia, Germany, the United States and France.

In the same decade, another paradigm change came up in science. Hitherto, scientific research had been conducted through table top experiments by small groups of gentlemen scientists with a puritanical thirst of truth and knowledge. As the nature of research evolved, this format began to change. As particle accelerators and atom smashing became critical, it also became necessary to marshal large and diverse talent pools. ‘Big science’ started to take shape in the form of large budgets, industry support and multi-disciplinary research teams, all working under government or industry administration. Bhabha’s field of vision encompassed these developments, and later on, he would lay greater and greater emphasis on the correct and most rational form of organisation for research and development.

He returned to India in 1939 and found congenial employment at IISc, then headed by the formidable Sir C.V. Raman. Here his ardent spirit melded with the nationalistic and anti-imperialistic politics of the times. Though anglicised by his upbringing and education, he constantly looked for avenues to promote scientific research in India. Indeed much later, while he was helming the nascent nuclear programme, though he promoted foreign collaboration, he always laid emphasis on building indigenous capability. ‘If Indian industry is to take off and be capable of independent flight it must be powered by science and technology based in the country’.

Bhabha’s famous letter of 1944, got a favourable response and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) was born. As its director, he was a keen and assiduous administrator who paid attention to the tiniest details while maintaining a far sighted view of the future of his institution. Several generations of Indian researchers would hone their talents at this institute.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who had first met Bhabha in 1937, embraced this vision of a vanguard nuclear enterprise to propel a backward nation into modernity and an independent future. The world over, governments were scrambling to harness the energy and destructive potential of nuclear fission.

With Nehru’s support, the Atomic Energy Commission was set up in 1948 with Bhabha as its head. His vision entailed an autonomous body answerable to the prime minister of India and exercising a broad mandate in its domain. He was wise enough to insist on cutting out the generalist civil service and as well as the new body being run by technocrats and manned by specialists. Secrecy was also embraced as a paramount virtue as any such state activity will attract hostile foreign interests determined to wreck it.

In the early 1950’s, Bhabha looked for innovative ways to create indigenous capability in a high-tech field in a country which did not possess a substantial industrial base. The Americans had by 1954, adopted a derivative of their submarine reactor for power production. This, however, was dependent on enriching uranium and the Americans were not forthcoming with this technology.

It is then that Homi Bhabha looked to the Canadian heavy water moderated experimental reactor. Using this model reactor as the linchpin of the Indian atomic powered effort, he visualised a three-stage programme for power production. India was poorly endowed with uranium, but generously blessed with thorium. Bhabha envisioned a programme that would utilise its vast thorium reserves to produce the energy that a developing country would need.

Like others in the field, Bhabha understood the duality of his programme. While it was advertised as a peaceful nuclear programme, he understood the latent military potential of the programme. The plutonium industry which he created in the atomic energy establishment would later become the bedrock of India’s strategic programme.

Bhabha’s death in a freak airplane accident, robbed India of his services prematurely. Today, in India we must celebrate his spirit and continue with the mission he bequeathed to us.

—The author is an independent journalist