Beginners of Indian nuclear programme


On the eve of 75th anniversary on 06.08.2020, world in general and Japan in particular remembered the loss of lives and property due the use of first atom bomb at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Though, the science and technology of energy release from fission was never developed with a sole aim to generate devastating devices to destroy lives and environment on the earth but technology when developed always has its pros and cons and it depends on its users how to use it for the benefit of mankind.

Later on, nuclear programme became a tool towards self dependency and protection and now is a national agenda very dear to every nation and an important part of national planning. India just like many top nuclear nations of the world: USA, Russia, China, UK, France, Spain, Australia, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and others is always trying to keep itself ahead in the national nuclear capabilities in order to defend its sovereignty and people.

People of India are always indebted to scientists, engineers and planners of independent India who tirelessly worked hard in difficult times to give wings to national nuclear programme which we have at its present level with a reckoning in the world. Three scientists in particular Dr.Homi Bhabha, Dr.Vikram Sarabhai and Dr.Raja Ramanna are credited as the beginners of Indian nuclear programme at its early stages. The man who is known as father of Indian nuclear programme is Homi Jehnagir Bhabha. Homi Jehangir Bhabha (30 October 1909 – 24 January 1966) was an Indian nuclear physicist, founding director, and professor of physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Bhabha was also the founding director of the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) which is now named the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honour. TIFR and AEET were the cornerstone of Indian development of nuclear weapons which Bhabha also supervised as director. Bhabha was awarded the Adams Prize (1942) and Padma Bhushan (1954). He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951 and 1953–1956.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha

Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born into a prominent wealthy Parsi family, through which he was related to businessmen Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, and Dorabji Tata. His father was Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, a well known Parsi lawyer and his mother was Meheren. He received his early studies at Bombay's Cathedral and John Connon School and entered Elphinstone College at age 15 after passing his Senior Cambridge Examination with Honours. He then attended the Royal Institute of Science in 1927 before joining Caius College of Cambridge University. This was due to the insistence of his father and his uncle Dorabji, who planned for Bhabha to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering from Cambridge and then return to India, where he would join the Tata Steel or Tata Steel Mills in Jamshedpur as a metallurgist.

Research environment: While working at the Cavendish Laboratory towards his doctorate in theoretical physics, at the time, the laboratory was the centre of a number of scientific breakthroughs. James Chadwick had discovered the neutron, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton transmuted lithium with high-energy protons, and Patrick Blackett and Giuseppe Occhialini used cloud chambers to demonstrate the production of electron pairs and showers by gamma radiation. During this time, nuclear physics was attracting the greatest minds and it was one of the most significantly emerging fields as compared to theoretical physics, the opposition towards theoretical physics attacked the field because it was lenient towards theories rather than proving natural phenomenon through experiments. Conducting experiments on particles which also released enormous amounts of radiation which was a lifelong passion of Bhabha and in January 1933, Bhabha received his doctorate in nuclear physics. His leading edge research and experiments brought great laurels to Indian physicists. The following year, he completed his doctoral studies in theoretical physics under Ralph H. Fowler. During his studentship, he split his time working at Cambridge and with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen.

With this fascinating world of great scientists all around him, he went against the wishes of his family to pursue physics. Homi Bhabha’s father and uncle wanted him to become an engineer, so he could eventually join the Tata Iron and Steel Company in Jamshedpur. However, at Cambridge, his interest shifted to theoretical physics. In a letter to his father, he wrote –“I seriously say to you that business or job as an engineer is not the thing for me. It is totally foreign to my nature and radically opposed to my temperament and opinions. Physics is my line. I know I shall do great things here. For, each man can do best and excel in only that thing of which he is passionately fond, in which he believes, as I do, that he has the ability to do it, that he is in fact born and destined to do it… I am burning with a desire to do physics. I will and must do it sometime. It is my only ambition.”

Return to India: In September 1939, Bhabha was in India for a brief holiday when World War II started, and he decided not to return to England for the time being. He accepted an offer to serve as the Reader in the Physics Department of the Indian Institute of Science, then headed by renowned physicist C. V. Raman. He received a special research grant from the Sir Dorab Tata Trust, which he used to establish the Cosmic Ray Research Unit at the Institute. Bhabha selected a few students, including Harish-Chandra, to work with him. Later, on 20 March 1941, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. With the help of J. R. D. Tata, he played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

Starting of Indian nuclear programme

During his stay at IISc, Banglore, Bhabha played a key role in convincing the Congress Party's senior leaders, most notably Jawaharlal Nehru who later served as India's first Prime Minister, to start the ambitious nuclear programme. As part of this vision, Bhabha established the Cosmic Ray Research Unit at the Institute, began to work on the theory of point particles movement, while independently conducting research on nuclear weapons in 1944.  In 1945, he established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay, and the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948, serving as its first chairman. Bhabha also worked hard to convince Prime Minister Nehru of the need to establish India’s nuclear programme. In a letter to him in 1948, he wrote, “The development of atomic energy should be entrusted to a very small and high powered body composed of say, three people with executive power, and answerable directly to the Prime Minister without any intervening link. For brevity, this body may be referred to as the Atomic Energy Commission. Dr Bhabha had in his mind from the very beginning that India should become a Nuclear Weapons State. His emphasis on self-reliance is essentially due to the fact he wanted India to be a nuclear weapons country.

In 1948, Nehru led the appointment of Bhabha as the director of the nuclear program and tasked Bhabha to develop the nuclear weapons soon after. In the 1950s, Bhabha represented India in IAEA conferences, and served as President of the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, Switzerland in 1955. During this time, he intensified his lobbying for the development of nuclear weapons. Soon after the Sino-Indo war, Bhabha aggressively and publicly began to call for the nuclear weapons. Bhabha gained international prominence after deriving a correct expression for the probability of scattering positrons by electrons, a process now known as Bhabha scattering. In January 1966, Bhabha died in a plane crash near Mont Blanc, while heading to Vienna, Austria to attend a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Scientific Advisory Committee.

Here are few things at a glance about the man who enhanced the country with his impressive scientific ideas and outstanding administration.

  • He went against the wishes of his family to pursue physics
  • It was the second world war that kept him in India
  • It was Bhabha who convinced Nehru to establish the nuclear programme in India
  • He advocated for the peaceful use of atomic energy and was against manufacturing atomic bombs
  • He founded two world-class research institutions
  • In 1954, he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan for his invaluable contributions to science and engineering
  • It was Bhabha who suggested the name ‘meson’, used for a class of elementary particles.
  • He was much more than the father of India’s nuclear programme
  • He had a deep love for Art and Music
  • His death remains shrouded in mystery, sparking many conspiracy theories including one in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is involved in the crash to paralyze India’s nuclear program.

Vikram Sarabhai

Dr. Homi Bhabha later served as the member of the Indian Cabinet's Scientific Advisory Committee and provided the pivotal role to Vikram Sarabhai to set up the Indian National Committee for Space Research. Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai (12 August 1919 – 30 December 1971) was an Indian physicist and astronomer who initiated space research and helped develop nuclear power in India. He was honoured with Padma Bhushan in 1966 and the Padma Vibhushan (posthumously) in 1972. He is internationally regarded as the Father of the Indian Space Program.

Raja Ramanna 

Raja Ramanna (28 January 1925 – 24 September 2004) is another Indian physicist who is best known for his role in India's nuclear program during its early stages. Having joined the nuclear program in 1964, Ramanna worked under Homi Bhabha, and later became the director of this program in 1967. Ramanna expanded and supervised scientific research on nuclear weapons and was the first directing officer of the small team of scientists that supervised and carried out the test of the nuclear device, under the codename Smiling Buddha, in 1974. Ramanna was associated with and directed India's nuclear program for more than four decades, and also initiated industrial defence programmes for the Indian Armed Forces. He was a recipient of Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian decoration, in honour of his services to build India's nuclear programme.

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