Nature India | Indigenus

Science without borders: The Bhabha legacy

As young physicists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai circa 1981, Alak Ray and Prajval Shastri experienced an exciting era in the life of the institute, set up by visionary scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha in 1945.

In this guest post, Ray, now a Raja Ramanna Fellow at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (TIFR) and Shastri, a Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore peer into the institute’s history, armed with Indira Chowdhury’s book Growing the Tree of Science, Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

The campus of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research around the time of inauguration of its new buildings in January 1962 in south Bombay (now Mumbai).

TIFR archives

After seventy years of the government of independent India nurturing scientific enterprise, even in the face of criticism of its investment in the fundamental sciences, it is a good moment to review the story of what many regard as the prized jewel of them all – the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which was founded in 1945 by the physicist Homi Jehangir Bhabha with the help of the Dorabji Tata Trust.

Growing the Tree of Science (Oxford Univ Press, New Delhi 2016) by Indira Chowdhury treats us to a visit of this famous institute and its history. The reference to a growing tree in the title comes from an address by Bhabha in 1963 at the National Institute of Sciences of India: “A scientific institution… has to be grown with great care, like a tree.”

Chowdhury distills the history of the institute from years of effort she put in to set up the TIFR archives. She explores the early efforts of scientific institution building around the time of India’s independence in 1947, when science was envisaged as being serviceable to the nation and a tool of nation building, but the need to nurture institutional spaces without borders was also recognised.

Bhabha undertook this nurturing with enthusiasm, though juggling multiple responsibilities within a few years of founding the institute left him little time for research. He concentrated on creating the conditions for conducting good research, in enticing stellar scientists to visit, and to recruit established scientists to lead various programmes. A largely unknown initiative by Bhabha was his invitation in 1952 to Richard Feynman “to spend a couple of years or more here as a Professor of Theoretical Physics”, which Feynman declined.

A poignant story of Bhabha’s sense of science without borders concerns the Chinese mathematician S. S. Chern. During the intense civil war in China (1948), Bhabha wrote to Chern at the Mathematical Institute of the Academia Sinica at Nanking, which Chern himself had founded in 1946 after returning from Princeton. Bhabha wrote, “Although we know the patriotism which prompted you to prefer to work in your own country despite the many attractive offers from abroad, we realise that the present conditions must make work in your neighbourhood extremely difficult, if not impossible… I am therefore, writing to you to offer you the hospitality of this institute… to spend one year in the first instance as a Visiting Professor?” By this time Chern had already accepted J. R. Oppenheimer’s offer at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, but was deeply grateful “for the concern of my foreign friends, which has never failed me”.

Bhabha smoothly and successfully recruited the mathematician K. Chandrasekhar in 1948 and the physicist M. G. K. Menon in 1955, though he failed with astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar. In 1962, he offered George Sudarshan an Associate Professorship. Sudarshan had worked in TIFR’s emulsion group earlier (1952-1955) at the Old Yacht Club. Then, while on leave from TIFR at the University of Rochester, Sudarshan, with his thesis advisor Robert Marshak, worked out the universal V-A theory of weak interactions, for which they were nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times. But the effort to repatriate Sudarshan failed because Bhabha tried putting Sudarshan on par with others who stayed on in the institute and did their research in India.

Indeed, Chowdhury writes about Bhabha’s notion of “self-reliance which had instilled in him an unswerving faith in the scientists who had trained at his institute”. She elaborates, “It was this group that had been responsible for growing the roots of the tree of science and Bhabha the master gardener was unwilling to carry out any process of grafting a foreign branch which could potentially disturb the stability of the tree itself.”

Chowdhury asks, “The institutional model itself had an unresolved paradox at its core – was it national or international?” She opines that the “ambiguity at the heart of Bhabha’s grand vision presented a troublesome dilemma – how to be international and national at the same time”.

The idea of using modern science for social transformation has been debated among the Indian elite since social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s time in the 1820s. The debate has touched on questions such as: What are the priorities for development? What types of scientific activities are most appropriate for a developing country like India? How can a scientific community be best established within a traditional society? How can scientists working in such a society keep their loyalty to the internationalism of science and at the same time deal with the more local and immediate needs of their own countries? [see “India’s Scientific Development”, William Blanpied, Pacific Affairs, vol 50, 91,1977)].

In the first two decades after India’s independence the international network that Bhabha built worked together with India’s nationalism and was happy to contribute to the development of institutions for a newly independent India. (The most notable scientist in this network was Nobel prize-winning experimentalist P. M. S. Blackett – see “Empire’s Setting Sun?”, Robert Anderson, Econ. Pol. Weekly, vol 36 (39), 3703, 2001). Chowdhury points out, “The sense of national self-realisation and an awareness of international cooperation went hand in hand.”

Bhabha also successfully drew a strong connection between fundamental science and technology development. Bhabha in his letter to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust in 1944 wrote, “It is absolutely in the interest of India to have a vigorous school for research in fundamental physics, not only in the less advanced branches of physics, but also in the problems of immediate practical interest to industry. If much of the applied research done in India today is disappointing and of very inferior quality, it is due to the absence of sufficient numbers of outstanding pure research workers who could set the standards for good research.”

Growing the Tree of Science paints the picture of TIFR and its journey of undertaking science in a newly developing nation on a wide canvas. The story however is somewhat less richly textured for the period after Bhabha’s death. Chowdhury does discuss the beginnings of molecular biology, radio astronomy and other disciplines in TIFR with the recruitments of the geneticist Obaid Siddiqi in 1962 and the radio astronomer Govind Swarup in 1963. Her story is however mainly concentrated in the earlier phase of these groups. The hits and misses of the Bhabha era affected TIFR’s later development and the future it looks into. One wishes that a deeper appraisal of the era that followed could be put together in greater detail.

[This blog was originally posted on ‘On Your Wavelength’].

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