HOMI JEHANGIR BHABHA
“Homi Jehangir Bhabha is mostly known as the chief architect of India’s nuclear programme. However, his contribution to India’s development goes far beyond the sphere of atomic energy. He had established two great research institutions namely the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay (which after Bhabha’s death was renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). He played a crucial role in the development of electronics in India. Bhabha was an outstanding scientist and a brilliant engineer.”
Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born on 30th October, 1909, in a well known (his family both on his father’s and mother’s side were related to the house of Tata) Parsi family. His father was a famous barrister and his family had a tradition of learning. His schooling took place mainly at the Cathedral High School in Bombay and after passing his Senior Cambridge, he eventually left for England in 1927. His parents had admitted him to Caius College, Cambridge in order to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. However, the famous Paul Dirac influenced Bhabha immensely and eventually lured the latter into the discipline of Physics. After obtaining his Mechanical Sciences Tripos in 1930, he went on to study theoretical Physics at Cambridge. By the time Bhabha received his Ph D in Physics in 1935, he had already made his presence felt in the international arena of Physics. Following this, Bhabha continued to make significant contributions in Physics and was awarded the prestigious Isaac Newton Fellowship. By now, he had blossomed into one of the great physicists of the 20th century and also mainly due to his attractive personality.
In the year 1939, he returned to his motherland India and was subsequently requested by Prof CV Raman to join the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. Initially, he was appointed as a Reader but was soon elevated to the position of Professor of Cosmic Ray Research. At a young age of 31, he was selected to the prestigious Fellowship of the Royal Society. In the year 1942, he also became the first Indian to be awarded the Adams Prize. Later on, Bhabha was also selected to the US National Academy of Sciences.
As soon as he stabilized himself in India, he started to organize and build the Indian scientific infrastructure. It transpired on him that India needed a fundamental research institute of a world class. For this venture he was able to obtain help from late JRD Tata. In his famous letter to the Tata Trust mentioned, “An embryo from which I hope to build up, in the course of time, a school of Physics comparable to the best anywhere”. Initially, this institute (TIFR) was established at Bengaluru in June 1945, but within six months Bhabha moved it to his own house in Bombay. Eventually, this institute outgrew its accommodation and was moved to the famous Royal Bombay Yacht Club.
Bhabha and Nehru were like brothers and under the persuasion of Bhabha; Nehru took action to pass the Atomic Energy Act, on 15th April, 1948. Thus Bhabha was granted permission to set up the Atomic Energy Commission. Following this on 3 January, 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission decided to set up an Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay where already some work was being carried out.
Bhabha not only understood the scientific-industrial needs of the nation but also international politics extremely well. While the main focus of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission was to generate electricity for the nation, nevertheless, the nuclear programme was tailored to be of dual utility. The aim was to produce weapons grade Plutonium-239 (while generating electricity). Bhabha’s vision again proved to be correct when the British demonstrated that Plutonium-239 from nuclear power plants could be utilized for the production of nuclear weapons. In such a manner the large scale manufacture of nuclear weapons could not only be convenient but also extremely cheap. Under the supervision of Bhabha, the first large scale Plutonium production facility in Asia became functional in 1964 in India. Bhabha also saw to it that reactors were built in India for the sole purpose of production of large quantities of Plutonium-239. Actually, Bhabha was also keen for some nuclear tests. The late T N Kaul, our veteran diplomat, has mentioned that Bhabha wanted to test a device way back in the late 1950s. In fact, the famous US nuclear weapons expert, General KD Nichols who played a key role in producing the first nuclear explosion mentions that he was convinced that in 1960, if given the go ahead by Nehru, India could have quite easily detonated a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, Nehru, though a great person was deadly against nuclear weapons hence, no such moves were undertaken.
During Bhabha’s lifetime, many great advances were made, such as the fabrication of the first atomic reactor namely, Apsara in Asia (if a part of the Soviet Union was not considered a part of Asia). Other reactors such as Cirus, Zerlina etc, followed. Bhabha realized that India had one of the largest reserves of Thorium-232 in the world and hence he pushed for fast breeder technology to convert this element to fissionable Uranium-233. Uranium-233 is a dual purpose element and can be used for power generation and also for the production of nuclear weapons. Today, India is one of the few countries in the world which operates (the others being Russia, France, Japan) a fast breeder reactor. Following this in the year 1996, the experimental 30 KW Kamini reactor went critical utilizing Uranium-233. The genius of Bhabha had clearly become evident in March 1944, when he mentioned, “When nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production, say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand”. It must be remembered that the first man initiated self-sustained controlled nuclear chain reaction was done on 2nd December, 1942, under the direction of none other than Enrico Fermi and this too was then a closely kept secret.
Unfortunately, Bhabha was killed in an air-crash near the famous Mont Blanc peak of the Alps on 24th January, 1966, while he was on his way to Vienna to attend a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At the time of his death, Bhabha was Director and Professor of Theoretical Physics of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Secretary to the Government of India in the Department of Atomic Energy, Ex-officio Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and Director of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay. We would like to conclude the sketchy and perhaps incoherent account of Bhabha’s life and work by quoting JRD Tata on Bhabha: “Scientist, engineer, master-builder and administrator, steeped in humanities, in art and music, Homi was a truly complete man”.