On 11th February 2016, the greatest scientific discovery of the century was announced – The first detection of gravitational waves – at the National Press Club, Washington DC. The observed gravitational waves from black hole collision is like a historic achievement of mankind which the future historians will mark it as a transition much like BC to AD in mankind’s understanding of the universe. And the first scientist’s name to emerge in the list should not surprise any Indian.
It was long time before this announcement an emerging young Indian physicist at Cambridge, who already marked his place in the international arena of Quantum Physics, decided to come back to his motherland, India. It was the time when India was struggling for independence. This man came to swadesh with a dream and aspiration of India having its own fundamental physics research centre. India owes big thanks to this man, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, for making that bold move, because of which India has been part of every historical scientific feat in past 50 years from the first independent test of the nuclear bomb to the first success on Mars. And now in the hands of LIGO India project relies the future of astrophysics. On 109th birth-anniversary of this Indian legend of science this article is a tribute to his legacy and how India is thankful to him for its scientific uplifting.
It won’t be wrong to say that Homi Bhabha was a classical rebel, belonging to an influential Parsi family closely related to the Tatas, he would have pursued his career in metallurgy and lead the Tata Steel Mills in Jamshedpur. Instead he went to study cosmic rays at the iconic Cavendish Laboratory in the University of Cambridge and computed the interaction between electron and its antimatter (positron), which in his honor is named as the Bhabha Scattering. Now let’s have a short introduction to who was Homi Jehangir Bhabha – born on 30th October 1909, he was an Indian nuclear physicist, founding director, and professor of physics at the Tata Institute of fundamental Research (TIFR). Colloquially known as father of Indian Nuclear Programme, he was also the founding director of the Atomic Energy Establishment (AEET) which is now named the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honor. At Cambridge, Bhabha interacted with emerging legends of physics like Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac and Enrico Fermi. It is said that he was well aware of the Manhattan Nuclear Bomb project by noticing sudden absence in the scientific publications of his fellow physics buddies.
Bhabha returned to India in year 1939 and unlike any other leader or scientist of the time, he had vision of technical skill development and an ambitious nuclear program that was necessary to preserve the sovereignty of independent India. It was year 1945, when Bhabha established his first research centre the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research . He wrote an aggressive letter to persuade Sir Dorabji Jamsetji Tata to fund this institute. He propose a dedicated institute where research in physics and fundamental sciences could lead a national movement of science and technology towards national security and industrial applications. In a mark of an ingenious visionary, he wrote in the letter:
“It is neither possible nor desirable to separate nuclear physics from cosmic rays since the two are closely connected theoretically.”
Bhabha served as founding director at TIFR and nurtured world-class researchers in the field of Einsteinian relativity. Also the director of Atomic Energy Commission of India, Bhabha formed the Atomic Research Centre (named in his honor as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre; BARC) for peaceful, use of nuclear technology. BARC channelized the formation the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT) at Indore in 1984. The advance lasers and quantum optics that are crucial to maintain sensitivity of the LIGO-India experiment will be led by scientists at RRCAT. In 1986, the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in Gandhinagar was set up by the governing council of BARC. The scientists at IPR will lead the ambitious effort of building 168sq km of vacuum chambers that will form the L-shaped interferometer path for the LIGO-India experiment.
Bhabha also led the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Government of India, initiating plans for space programme in 1962, which later evolved as the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the formation of Department of Space. These organizations along with Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Science & Technology, have remained central funding agencies for astrophysics and fundamental science research in India.
It is believed that Bhabha convinced Nehru and Ambedkar to add “scientific temper” as one of the fundamental duties [in the Constitution].
If we want to Make in India, and Discover in India, then without any dilution, we should work towards promoting a “Scientific temper” in India.
Among the most critical contributions of Bhabha to modern India and the new ear of gravitational-wave science in our country is the inclusion of the term “Scientific temper” in our constitution. India is only the country that places constitutional values in scientific logic and rationality.
The 21st century India is witness of Bhabha’s legacy and is well captured in the LIGO detection paper, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger”, which has over 30 Indian researchers. The LIGO scientific collaboration prodigiously acknowledges the role of these Indian funding agencies, which Bhabha charted within just 25 years of his active role in India.