Prof. MGK Menon was both a brilliant high energy particle physicist and an institution builder of Indian science who was a core part of the enterprise of building a world-class Indian scientific-industrial complex right from the early years after Independence till the present day. Among many other areas, his work, at the University of Bristol with Nobel laureate Cecil Powell and others, on subatomic particle decay was a key experimental finding underpinning the discovery of “parity nonconservation” in such processes – for which Lee and Yang received the Nobel prize in 1957. His directorship of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, following the untimely demise of its founder HJ Bhabha, was critical in broadening the research undertaken by this world-class institution into areas of direct national impact.
Menon was born in Mangalore, in the then Madras Presidency, in 1928, but did his matriculation from Punjab University (1942) and BSc from Jaswant College at Jodhpur (Agra University) (1946). Inspired to do research in physics by the legendary CV Raman, he obtained his MSc from the Royal Institute of Science (Bombay), after which he joined the group of Cecil Powell, at the University of Bristol, to do his PhD. Working in Powell’s group, Menon developed methods to use large photographic emulsion stacks for the measurement of cosmic rays at high atmospheric altitudes, and the processes of decay of high energy “strange” particles like K-mesons found in such rays.
Returning to India in 1955 to work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at the invitation of its founder, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Menon was part of the team which developed the capability for high altitude studies of cosmic rays using atmospheric balloons, and in experiments on particle physics and cosmic rays using detectors deep underground, such as in the famous Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) experiments. The KGF experiments, indeed, were internationally pioneering the study of neutrinos deep underground in the 1960s, as well as experiments to investigate proton decay in the 1980s. For his fundamental contributions to particle physics, Menon was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (London) in 1970.
A man of great drive, energy and attention to detail, Menon was truly a “high energy” physicist for much of his life. As a consequence, in parallel with his scientific research, from the mid-1960s Menon was asked to play increasingly important leadership roles in the Indian scientific community, starting with his directorship of the TIFR (1966-1975) following Bhabha’s tragic death in a plane crash, and continuing into several scientific advisory roles to the Indian government. These included membership of the Planning Commission (1982-89), chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (1972), Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister (1986-89), presidentships of the national science academies, Minister of State for Science and Technology and Education (1989-90) and many other positions. He played an important role in supporting the development of scientific facilities in the country, such as the Ooty radio telescope and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope. Throughout, he laid great stress on national self-reliance, indigenization of technology, and an uncompromising focus on excellence, as evidenced, for example, by his role in the preparation of the Technology Policy Statement of 1983. Being primarily an experimentalist himself, he was keen that the infrastructure for experimental science in India be developed to world-class standards, to attract the best and brightest young scientific minds.
Menon was a Rajya Sabha member from 1990-96, and Padma Vibhushan awardee (1985), Fellow of the Royal Society (1970), and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1981), among other awards too numerous to list here.
(The writer is MGK Menon’s grand-nephew and a senior lecturer of bio-materials, School of Engineering Materials Science, Queen Mary University of London)