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Homi Jehangir Bhabha: Maker of India’s N- program

This nuclear physicist who made vital contributions to quantum theory and cosmic radiation was the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India set up in 1948.

inspiring-lives Updated: Nov 04, 2019, 15:36 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Homi Bhabha’s family wanted him to graduate from Cambridge and join the Tata Steel Mills in India, but he realised that the pursuit of physics was his true calling.
Homi Bhabha’s family wanted him to graduate from Cambridge and join the Tata Steel Mills in India, but he realised that the pursuit of physics was his true calling.(ILLUSTRATION: Unnikrishnan)

Born in Mumbai on October 30, 1909 to influential Parsi parents — lawyer Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha and Meheren — Homi Jehangir Bhabha received primary education at Bombay’s Cathedral and John Connon School. It was followed by stints at the Elphinstone College and the Royal Institute of Science till 1927. Encouraged by his brilliance at studies, his parents and his uncle, Sir Dorabji Tata, a businessman and key figure in the history of the Tata Group, drew up a plan to send him to Cambridge to study mechanical engineering.

While his family wanted him to graduate from Cambridge and join the Tata Steel Mills in India, he realised that the pursuit of physics was his true calling. When he shared those views with his parents, his father promised to finance his further studies in physics if he would complete mechanical engineering with a first class. In 1930, he cleared the mechanical engineering examination. It was under Paul Dirac, Nobel laureate that Bhabha studied mathematics and pursued his doctorate in the subject of theoretical physics.

Career

He received the doctorate in nuclear physics in 1933 and won the Isaac Newton Studentship in 1934 which he held for three years. Bhabha also worked with famous physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and came up with calculation to determine the cross section of electron-positron scattering. In 1936, the duo described how primary cosmic rays from outer space interact with the upper atmosphere. For his research, Bhabha was awarded the Senior Studentship in 1937 which helped him continue work at Cambridge. He accepted a position as a Reader at the Department of Physics in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore which was then headed by the eminent physicist CV Raman. He realised way back in the 1940s, even before India achieved freedom from the chains of British colonial rule, that a nuclear programme would be vital to the making of a strong country. So after India became free, Bhabha played a crucial role in the formation of Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and of the Department of Atomic Energy six years later.

Achievements & Awards

As a true visionary who foresaw the need for high quality facilities in the country to conduct research on nuclear power, Bhabha envisioned a three-stage nuclear power programme focused on extracting power from thorium instead of uranium reserves, on the basis of its large reserves of the former as compared to those of the latter. He was awarded the Adams Prize in 1942 and the Padma Bhushan in 1954 for his contributions.

Personal Life

Bhabha passed away on January 24, 1966 as he was aboard the ill-fated Air India Flight 101 that crashed near Mont Blanc, Switzerland. A bachelor who devoted his life to the pursuit of science, Bhabha was a multifaceted personality who painted, was fond of classical music and operas. He lived in a Mehrangir, a sprawling bungalow in Malabar Hills that was later auctioned in 2014. Bhabha had declined a post in Union cabinet. He, later however, had served as the scientific advisor to the then Prime Ministers Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

INTERESTING FACTS

1. Bhabha highlighted need for laboratories and research facilities in nuclear science. With Dorabji Jamsetji Tata’s help and the Tata Trust, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was set up in Bombay in 1945.

2. Homi Bhabha was a skillful manager and it was due to his prominence, devotion, wealth and comradeship with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he could effectively voice the need to allocate adequate resources for the country’s scientific development. He also successfully led the first UN Conference which was held for the purpose of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, Switzerland in 1955.

3. One of his achievements in the field of scientific research was that he could shed light on the phenomenon of electron-positron scattering, which gained popularity and was eventually named Bhabha scattering.

4. Bhabha established the BARC Training School to cater to the manpower needs of the atomic energy research and development . He emphasised the need for self-reliance in nuclear science and engineering.

SOURCES: Wikipedia, thefamouspeople.com, Britannica.com

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