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'He believed that strength respects strength'

By S&T Secretary Dr V S Ramamurthy
February 02, 2006 19:51 IST
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Dr V S Ramamurthy began his career at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, Mumbai, in an era when Dr Homi J Bhabha was a father figure at the nuclear establishment.

Dr Ramamurthy has made substantial contributions in areas like nuclear fission, statistical and thermodynamic properties of nuclei and medium energy heavy ion reaction mechanisms.

Currently, the Union secretary, Department of Science and Technology -- a rare scientist at the helm of his ministry -- Dr Ramamurthy remembers Dr Bhabha in a tribute e-mailed to Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta on the 40th death anniversary of one of India's greatest scientists:

Homi J Bhabha's name is synonymous with the Indian nuclear energy programme.

To many of us who joined the Indian atomic energy programme in the early 1960s, Bhabha was already an icon with a bigger-than-life image. An internationally recognized scientist. The founder-director of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Mumbai). The architect of the Indian atomic energy programme. An artist with a refined taste. A good human being. Bhabha was all of this rolled into one.

'Bhabha wanted India to be a Nuclear Weapons State'

Forty years after his untimely death in an air crash, if India has emerged as a global player in the field of nuclear technology, it is the seed sowed by Dr Bhabha. His name has indeed become a legend in the history of post-colonial India.

While the story of Bhabha has been told and written several times in the past, a few facets of this story deserves to be to be retold again and again for the lessons they carry and their continuing relevance.

The first thing that strikes anyone going through a biography of Dr Bhabha was his capacity to see the future. It was true that during his early stay in Europe, Dr Bhabha rubbed shoulders with some of the top ranking scientists of those times and was fully familiar with the rapid scientific and technological developments taking place across the world. But he was one of the first few to recognise the full potential of the emerging nuclear science and technology.

Long before India became free from colonial rule, long before the first demonstration of the destructive power of the atom, long before commercial nuclear power made its appearance even in developed countries, Bhabha foresaw that when India attains freedom, its economic development will crucially depend on its access to science and technology.

'He visualised a powerful India'

He was also convinced that harnessing nuclear energy for the generation of electric power is a viable option for India's industrial development. To many of his detractors, his simple answer was that no power is more expensive than 'No power.'

Bhabha's prediction on the nearly inexhaustible nuclear fusion energy are still at an experimental stage. That India has considerable expertise in fusion research, and is a full-fledged member of the newly-formed International Consortium for Fusion Research, must be satisfying to many of the admirers of Bhabha.

Bhabha was also one of the few who realized the importance of electronics in the development of the country. He could foresee the big role it would play in industries and research laboratories. It is an irony of fate that Bhabha did not live long enough to see (the field of) electronics blossoming fully in this country. Perhaps that was the reason why we missed the hardware bus.

It is a divine coincidence that Dr Bhabha found in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru a political leader who shared his vision of a modern and industrially strong India and also the belief that science and technology are the primary engines of economic growth of the country. Bhabha was also a believer of the dictum: strength respects strength and foresaw a role for the nuclear bomb in the security of the country; a concept Pandit Nehru did not share with Bhabha.

Another outstanding facet of Bhabha's vision was his strong belief that scientists are central to any scientific enterprise. Given the proper environment, facilities and leadership, Indian scientists and technologists (he believed) would stand at par with anyone in the world.

His model of institution building was to identify the right scientists and enable them to perform at their best, free of administrative and financial hassles. To ensure a continuous pipeline of trained human resources for the (expanding) activities of the establishment, Bhabha conceived a training school that even today serves the needs of the Indian nuclear establishment.

Bhabha was also able to put in place unique service conditions for the scientists and technologists, to enable them to perform at their best. The outstanding achievements of our nuclear and space scientists at a global level today can be easily attributed to the unique and pathbreaking models introduced by Bhabha in the management of science and technology.

Another unique contribution by Bhabha to Indian science was his introduction of mega-science projects in India. The early decades of the 20th century, and the centuries prior to this period, belonged to an era of individual scientists carrying out cutting-edge research in their laboratories with modest investments. The rapid advances in scientific research, and the increasing role of sophisticated instruments for research, in recent decades, has brought into focus a new range of research investigations which require not only large investments but also large multidisciplinary teams of scientists from many institutions.

Bhabha's early experiments on cosmic rays by sending huge balloons, with suitable detectors, into the upper atmosphere from the heart of Bangalore not only involved major investments but also a team of scientists and technicians and closely networking with many operational departments. These experiments can easily be termed as India's entry into the mega-science league.

The dons of Indian science

The underground neutrino detector facility in the Kolar gold mines was another mega-science initiative of the cosmic ray group of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The TIFR scientists soon started participating in some international mega-science projects also such as CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest particle physics center) accelerator facility in Geneva, the Fermi National accelerator facility in the US. The Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope near Pune, the Chandra Telescope in Ladakh, the nuclear accelerators in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta are all examples of Indian efforts in mega-science.

Our contributions, involving more than 200 scientists, from a number of research and development institutions and university departments, to the Large Hadron Collider project (a particle accelerator and collider) in CERN has indeed earned us a unique observer status there.

These projects clearly give our scientific community an opportunity to participate in major scientific investigations at a global level and also provide a global benchmark for our scientists. More such projects are on the anvil. We owe this new trend to Dr Bhabha and his early initiatives.

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S&T Secretary Dr V S Ramamurthy