The politics of splitting the atom: An exclusive excerpt from Atomic State - Hindustan Times

The politics of splitting the atom: An exclusive excerpt from Atomic State

ByJahnavi Phalkey
Feb 02, 2024 06:36 PM IST

Science historian Jahnavi Phalkey’s book explores how imperialism, independence and war altered equations between science and politics, reactors and varsities.

Following the use of atomic bombs at the end of the Second World War, it was impossible not to connect nuclear research with global power and weaponry. Unlike the United Kingdom or the USSR, the realization for India of a nuclear programme was a remote possibility for the country’s interim political government. There was the atomic bomb and there was wishful thinking. Which is why what many have thought of as an outstanding technological and scientific accomplishment has cast a rather long shadow on the history of physics—especially the practice of nuclear physics—in India in the twentieth century: the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions have imposed a teleological metanarrative within which the history of nuclear physics in India is embedded and written. This discursive arrangement by which the PNEs are positioned as an inevitable endpoint has, more than anything else, proved an obstacle to understanding what was in fact tenuous and contingent—the emergence of an infrastructure, as well as of the various alternatives that were considered at the time: all of which, in the first instance, made the PNEs imaginable and then possible.


A coincidence underpins this historical narrative. India became independent in 1947, two years after the first terrific demonstration of the power of the atom, both taking place within a particularly volatile international order. A self-aware community of physicists and scientist-statesmen found in this conjuncture—the arrival of the nuclear age and the departure of the British—a unique opportunity to promote their physics, their careers, and their country. In this book I have teased out the possible paths available to and considered by physics practitioners in India between the late 1930s and the 1950s. The end of WWII coincided with accelerated plans for the transfer of power to India and the next three years saw contest, bitter struggle, disappointment, and perplexity. Neither the exact form of the new state, nor the shape of post-war nuclear research, was clear. It only seemed imperative that the scientific community in India find ways of continuing research and producing credible science amidst these shifting local and international political contexts. I have traced the gradual consolidation of these paths in contest and collaboration, and, within constraints, through the motivations and strategies of those desirous of establishing and extending nuclear physics as a research field. In doing so I have, like those I write about, crossed the boundary of 1947 which has tended to limit histories with a nationalist component. It also becomes increasingly clear in my history that the activities of physicists in India were not dominated by the desire to “build a bomb,” certainly not at the outset and only tenuously for at least a decade after 1945. Only a retrospective reading of their decisions can make them appear crucial to the political decision of conducting the nuclear tests in 1974…

I have chosen to write about nuclear education and research—the academic roots of India’s nuclear research—focusing on the role of universities, leadership, and laboratory activities pertaining to the building of particle accelerators, or “atom smashers” as they were then called. These projects were led by Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman and Rappal Sangameswara (RS) Krishnan at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; by Meghnad Saha and Basanti Dulal Nagchoudhuri at the (Saha) Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta; by Homi Jehangir Bhabha and D. Y. Phadke at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay; and by Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

It would be fair to ask if this is a history of particle accelerators alone, or whether their trajectories are also meant to tell another story. While this narrative manages to weave in and out of the laboratory to show the meaningful implications of labs in larger contexts, the special nature of the apparatus nevertheless warrants a history with a specific focus on the equipment that lies at its core. This aspect of science in modern India cannot be told through narratives about dams and steel plants; equally, it cannot be told through those of reactor building, thorium mining, and plutonium processing.

In the period of my study, and in relation to the facilities I examine, the scale of the particle accelerators has to be kept firmly in mind. The equipment was far larger than any procured by physics departments before—in India and elsewhere; and it was still possible to argue for particle accelerators to exist within a university setting on account of their instructional value. In the 1930s and early 1940s this machinery was the equipment for basic research in nuclear physics, its roots and connections being still with the university laboratory. The end

of the war saw many physicists, the world over, convinced that the apparatus would only get bigger, and so arguing the need to position particle accelerators in national laboratories instead. In fact, by the early 1950s the argument for state-of-the-art atom smashers to be located in university laboratories became increasingly impossible. This period is, therefore, a critical juncture in the history of experimental nuclear physics. It has specific implications for university laboratories, the nature of the discipline, and the changing relationship between science and politics.

(Excerpted with permission from Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India by Jahnavi Phalkey, published by Permanent Black; 2013)

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