Homi Jehangir Bhabha
Homi J. Bhabha, considered the father of India's atomic energy program.
30 October 1909
|Died||24 January 1966
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
Atomic Energy Commission of India
|Academic advisor||Paul Dirac|
Homi Jehangir Bhabha (October 30, 1909 – January 24, 1966) was an Indian nuclear physicist of Parsi-Zoroastrian heritage. He was a gifted scientist, who contributed to the understanding of cosmic rays. In addition, he was a gifted administrator who played a key role in the establishment and development of India's atomic energy program and is considered the father of India's nuclear power program. At a time when atomic power programs were still in their infancy around the world, he had the foresight and courage to begin such a program in newly independent India, with faith that the scientific talent as well as the material resources would be available. Moreover, he steered the program toward peaceful uses, and in 1955, he served as President of the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, held in Geneva. After his death, India's Atomic Energy Establishment was renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honor. He also encouraged research in electronics, space science, radio astronomy, and microbiology. The famous radio telescope at Ooty, India, was constructed at his initiation, and it became a reality in 1970.
Homi Bhabha was born in a rich Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1909. He was one of two sons. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was the granddaughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit, a well-known philanthropist who founded the Dinshaw Petit library in Bombay. His grandfather, Dr. Hormusji Bhabha, was the Inspector General of Education in the feudal state of Mysore, around 1900. Given this aristocratic background, young Homi was constantly surrounded by works of high culture, including books, music, and paintings.
Starting in 1916, Bhabha attended Cathedral School (later Cathedral and John Connon School) in Bombay. At that time, this school was attended mainly by children of Europeans and Indians acclimated to western culture. Across from the school lived Homi’s paternal aunt, who was married to Sir Dorab Tata (son of the industrialist Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata). Her house was the ancestral home of the Tata dynasty. As part of a highly influential and reputed family, she often invited prominent individuals, including Mohandas Gandhi and other nationalist politicians of the day.
In the words of Robert S. Anderson (1975), "Homi’s grandfather had a fine library, to which his father added books on art during his days as a student at Oxford and London. Homi took painting lessons while a boy, and continued to paint all his life—his mature style developed into a dark-colored melancholy around European symbolism." Given his taste for beauty, Bhabha felt it was important to beautify his places of work. Anderson adds, "His father and maternal aunt both had classical record collections (Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner), and his lifelong appreciation of symphonic and operatic music was firmly founded by age 16 (1925). He was a frequent attendant at concerts whenever he was in Vienna, Boston, or wherever music was performed."
At age 15, Bhabha passed the Senior Cambridge examination and enrolled at Elphinstone College in Bombay. Later, he studied at the Royal Institute of Science (located near Elphinstone College), which allowed for a little bit of research effectively mixed in with teaching.
Homi’s father and uncle, Sir Dorab Tata, wanted him to study for an engineering degree. They expected that after the proper training, he could take over ownership of the Tata Iron and Steel Company at Jamshedpur. So in 1927, he went to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Bhabha was influenced by physicist Paul Dirac, and his interests were drawn toward the study of theoretical physics and mathematics. Yet, in deference to his father's wishes, he agreed to complete his engineering course first. In 1930, he passed the Mechanical Engineering Tripos with first class. He then joined the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge and entered studies in theoretical physics. Two years later, he passed the Mathematics Tripos, again with first class. He received his doctorate from Cambridge in 1934.
The 1930s was a critical period filled with major discoveries in physics. At Cavendish lab, Cockcroft, Walton, Blackett, Occhialini, and Chadwick were doing important work on the structure of the atomic nucleus. In addition, based on scholarships he received, Bhabha was able to visit other groups doing exciting research on the European continent. In particular, he visited Wolfgang Pauli in Zurich, Enrico Fermi in Rome, and Kramers in Utrecht. He also worked briefly with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. In this early period, he actively published papers in theoretical physics, particularly the physics of cosmic rays, and secured himself a permanent reputation in the field.
While Bhabha was on a vacation in India in 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. This forced him to remain in India, after having spent nearly 12 years among the hottest physics centers abroad.
Bhabha took the post of a Reader in Theoretical Physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, under Sir C. V. Raman. In 1941, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. In the following year, he was promoted to Professor of Cosmic Ray Research. In addition, he was offered the Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Allahabad and the Chair of Physics at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), but he declined both offers. In 1943, he was elected President of the Physics section of the Indian Science Congress.
In March 1944, Bhabha sent a proposal to the Sir Dorab J. Tata Trust, outlining the importance of establishing "a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics." The trustees decided in favor of the proposal, and in 1945, they established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay. The institute expanded considerably over the next few years.
In April 1948, a mere eight months after India gained independence from British rule, Bhabha sent a note to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, proposing the formation of an Atomic Energy Commission that would direct the development of India's nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes. The proposal received Nehru's blessings, and the commission was established by an act of parliament in August of the same year. Bhabha was made Chairman of the commission. In 1951, he became President of the Indian Science Congress, and in 1954, he became Secretary to the Government of India.
During October 1958, Bhabha visited the United Kingdom to review progress in nuclear power construction. He had to face several conflicts with atomic energy leaders of other nations, especially the United States. In addition, there was a shortage of foreign exchange due to devaluation of the Rupee.
The construction of India's first atomic power plant began at Tarapur, Maharashtra, in 1963. Two years later, a plutonium plant was installed. The climax came on May 18, 1974, when Indian scientists exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran in Rajasthan. India became the sixth country to join the nuclear club.
Bhabha died in an air crash involving an Air India Boeing 707 near Mont Blanc in 1966. Conspiracy theories suggest sabotage intended to impede India's nuclear program, but his death remains a mystery.
"I know quite clearly what I want out of my life. Life and my emotions are the only things I am conscious of. I love the consciousness of life and I want as much of it as I can get. But the span of one's life is limited. What comes after death no one knows. Nor do I care. Since, therefore, I cannot increase the content of life by increasing its duration, I will increase it by increasing its intensity. Art, music, poetry and everything else that consciousness I do have this one purpose - increasing the intensity of my consciousness of life." 
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