Remembering Homi Bhabha

knowAmong the many renowned scientists of India was Homi Bhabha, a man who dedicated his entire life to the cause of science, and whose birth centenary was celebrated in 2009. Dr. Homi J. Bhabha was a physicist and a pioneer of the country’s atomic energy and nuclear programs. He initated India’s nuclear sustainability programs and propelled the country, at an early stage, to become one of the few self-reliant nuclear powers in the world today.

As a child, Dr. Bhabha was considered hyperactive, with equal interests in science and arts. Son of Jehangir Horamji Bhabha, a barrister and Meherbai Framji, Homi Jehangir Bhabha was schooled at Bombay’s Cathedral Grammar School, and went to Elphinston College before moving to the Royal Institute of Science at Cambridge in 1927. While his father wanted him to take up engineering and join the family business, the young Homi’s interests lay in physics. However, he did not disappoint his father and went on to get a first class in his Mechanical Tripos exam. Only then was he allowed to do Mathematics under Paul Dirac, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician.

Dr. Bhabha continued his education in Mathematics and Physics under several renowned scientists like Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi and James Frank. Under the guidance of Ralph H Fowler, Dr. Bhabha completed his doctoral studies in theoretical physics in 1935.

On a holiday to India during the Second World War, Dr. Bhabha decided not to return to England and began his efforts to establish India’s atomic energy and nuclear energy programs. He began his work as a reader at the Indian Institute of Science where he set up the Cosmic Ray Research Institute.

The early associations that Dr. Bhabha made at Cambridge and other places helped him build the country’s nuclear capabilities. One such was his friendship with fellow scientist W.B.Lewis of Canada who was also at Cambridge with him. Together they built Cirus, India’s first heavy water reactor. Dr. Bhabha was a close friend of the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and both regarded science education and research a key to developing the new independent India. Nehru entrusted complete responsibility of nuclear energy related affairs to Dr. Bhabha. He played a key role in formulating the Atomic Energy Act of 1948 and was instrumental in setting the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1941, Dr. Bhabha set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Bombay. He also represented India in many forums on atomic and nuclear energy across the globe. He retained a deep interest in the arts, and in many ways is regarded as one of India’s “Rennaissance men”, who combined an understanding of the humanistic and scientific realms.

Dr. Bhabha died when his flight crashed near Mont Blanc in France in 1966.

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