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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

"Modern equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci": Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha

Words of Nobel Laureate Sir C.V. Raman of the man widely recognised as the 'Architect of India's Atomic Energy programme'.

I find writing a book or movie review to be quite a challenge. The challenge for me lies, not necessarily in comprehending what I've read or watched, but in figuring out how to go about reviewing it without turning the final product into a spoiler-fest. Faced with this conundrum, I have taken to what, IMO, is the most fail-safe route - I tweet it out. There is only some much spoiler you can fit in 140 characters.

This works quite well in most cases, leaves me feeling sufficiently satisfied. However, there are a few instances, such as this, where even Twitter, ephemeral a platform that it is, does not make the cut. You feel your message has to be etched permanently and "prominently"2 in the hallways of the Internet, visible to passers-by, getting them come around to your ways. Thus, this post. Will try to keep it brief. You must read the book, a foregone conclusion of my effort to write this post, I state beforehand itself.

The book is titled 'A Masterful Spirit: Homi J Bhabha 1909-1966' and has been most wonderfully written by its two authors, Indira Chowdhury & Ananya Dasgupta. Dr. Bhabha is, arguably, one of the most widely recognised Scientists in India1. It was his  initiative that lead to the setting up of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research [T.I.F.R.] in 1945, within whose classrooms & laboratories were sown the seeds of India's Nuclear programme, genesis of which could be traced, in some ways, even before the country became independent. Later, it was through his untiring efforts, and far-sighted vision, that he jumped right into the task of setting up the vast R&D & industrial infrastructure needed to do the job, recruiting & training the very best in the country. It is to his credit, that India in the 50s, with an amoebic Nuclear energy programme, bravely envisioned achieving complete energy security through a three-stage nuclear power programme where, in the third stage, India would be in a position to convert its vast reserves of fertile Thorium into fissile Uranium to fuel India's Nuclear reactors for generating electricity.

It certainly helped that he was a contemporary of Scientific luminaries like Wolfgang Pauli, Niels Bohr, John Cockroft, among many other who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize, with whom he had extensively interacted while studying & researching abroad, and could tap into this Old Boys' Club if the need arose. But most importantly he had the ears and unrestricted access to then Prime Minister of India Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, whose word, very few could countermand, if at all, in those days, in India. Thus, unhindered by the shackles imposed by hierarchy & bureaucracy, he could go about his job, as he deemed fit, much to the benefit of the nation.

The authors of this book have beautifully captured the essence of his persona, making effective use of rare photographs, interviews, letters & paintings, seamlessly weaving them into their engaging writing, helping create a vivid & arresting imagery, as one reads through its pages. Paintings, did I write? Yes, and therein lies the relevance of the comparison to Leonardo da Vinci, made by Sir C.V. Raman while speaking of Dr. Bhabha in 1941 at the Nagpur session of the Indian Academy of Science's Annual meeting. Not only was he a world-renowned Physicist with theories & phenomena named after him - Bhabha-Heitler Cascade theory & Bhabha scattering, he was also a violinist, who played at philharmonic concerts. While at Cambridge, he was the coxswain of its rowing team. He was also an acclaimed painter whose work had been exhibited at prestigious art shows worldwide.  A polymath, just like da Vinci. We learn, that these multiple facets to his personality & ability, was something he had consciously cultivated and nurtured. In one of his letters reproduced in the book he writes,

"I know clearly what I want out of life. Life and my emotions are the only things I am concerned of. I love the consciousness of life and I want as much of it as I can get. But the span of one’s life is limited. Since, I cannot increase the content of life by increasing its duration, I will increase it by increasing its intensity. Art, music, poetry and everything else that I do have this one purpose - increasing the intensity of my consciousness of life."

While the book helps reiterate & reinforce admiration for the person, at no point does it transgress into deifying him. It is candid enough to throw light on conducts & intentions, one can genuinely attribute as "human". For example, the book argues that the real intention behind Dr. Bhabha conceiving T.I.F.R. was because, with World War II raging through Europe, he was unable to go back A-Masterful-Spirit-Homi-J-Bhabha-1909-1966to Cambridge. Although his association with the Indian Institute of Science [IISc] is well-chronicled, again because Sir CV Raman had taken a liking for Dr. Bhabha, he had a vision for a research institute that could not be put into practise at IISc, since it was, for all practical purposes Sir CV Raman's baby. Moreover, with the World War ending, the vast legion of European & American scientists, who were earlier working on military programmes would be returning back to Academic research and, hence, Indian Dr. Bhabha would have found it difficult to find a suitable position there. Therefore, he decided to setup an institute that would be built to his vision. He approached the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust to help finance it. However, arguing he needed their money to build an institute that would "reflect his vision" would not have passed muster with a business house, whose philanthropy marks the pinnacles of Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] to this very day. Moreover, the Tata Trust, during those days of colonialism, had a policy of funding only those project that had either direct social or industrial benefits. Physics, a branch of pure Science, fails on both counts. Thus Dr. Bhabha, in consultation with his uncle, Sir Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, presented his idea in a manner that convinced the Trust that setting up T.I.F.R. would indeed serve a 'National Cause'. Whatever may have been his original intentions, as stated earlier, T.I.F.R. played a vital role in kick-starting serious research in the field of Nuclear-everything in India. Even today, it remains one of the leading institutes in the country in the field of pure Science.

In a way, on learning about these aspects of him, it reinforces the case for Dr. Bhabha as a role model. While one can not emulate God, considering him as a role-model would, therefore, amount to wrestling with intangibles & improbabilities, Dr. Bhabha, OTOH, is a symbol of how high a human can rise & achieve, provided one has conviction of belief and the will to persevere through the strongest of oppositions. A Karmayogi, par excellence.

His untimely death, in a plane crash in 1966, created a momentary vacuum in India's leadership for stewarding its Scientific & Strategic programmes, of which he was the helmsman. On his death, Professor Rustum Choksi, another individual who had great influence on Dr. Bhabha, said,

"On a sudden there is a gaping void, and men are left masterless, their sense of direction lost, their purposes reduced to nothingness; for in that whole world of atomic energy and fundamental research “presiding everywhere upon event was one man’s character”. The mood must change. To indulge in lamentation or feel that everything is over were poor tribute to his strong, confident, masterful spirit."

It is to his credit for institution building and nurturing talent, as opposed to developing a cult of personality, that he could have easily succumbed to, that capable replacements were found to play the roles that had earlier been his, though no single person was entrusted all the job, earlier carried out by him alone. The growth & development in India, especially in the field of Nuclear Energy, that we see today, owe its debt to the visionary Scientific mind, called Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha.

Must read - 'A Masterful Spirit: Homi J Bhabha 1909-1966'


Related: [Answered] Can you identify these 2 individuals? - India's Space programme [Pop Quiz]

1 = Perhaps, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, could also be said to enjoy similar popularity, perhaps ever a little more, owing to his approachable, people-friendly demeanour & messages that find resonance with the young in India. Means of communication were limited in the days of Dr. Bhabha.

2 = As prominently as this blog's prominence, allows it to be, of course.