Homi Jehangir Bhabha(/ˈbɑːbɑː/; 30 October 1909 – 24 January 1966) was an Indian nuclear physicist, founding director, and professor of physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.Colloquially known as “father of the Indian nuclear programme”, Bhabha was the founding director of two well-known research institutions, namely the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment (now named after him); both sites were the cornerstone of Indian development of nuclear weapons which Bhabha also supervised as its director.
Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born into a wealthy and prominent industrial Parsi family, through which he was related to Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, and Dorabji Tata. He was born on 30 October 1909, in an illustrious family with a long tradition of learning and service to the country. His father was Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, a well known lawyer and his mother was Meheren . He received his early education at Bombay’s Cathedral and John Connon School and entered Elphinstone College at age 15 after passing his Senior Cambridge Examination with Honors. His fathers name, Jehangir, is from Persian (جهانگیر), meaning “conqueror of the world.”
He then attended the Royal Institute of Science until 1927 before joining Caius College of Cambridge University. This was due to the insistence of his father and his uncle Dorab Tata, 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 Mills in Jamshedpur as a metallurgist.
Bhabha’s father understood his son’s predicament, and he agreed to finance his studies in mathematics provided that he obtain first class on his Mechanical Sciences Tripos exam. Bhabha took the Tripos exam in June 1930 and passed with first class. Afterwards, he embarked on his mathematical studies under Paul Dirac to complete the Mathematics Tripos. Meanwhile, he worked at the Cavendish Laboratory while working towards his doctorate in theoretical physics. At the time, the laboratory was the center 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 the 1931–1932 academic year, Bhabha was awarded the Salomons Studentship in Engineering. In 1932, he obtained first class on his Mathematical Tripos and was awarded the Rouse Ball traveling studentship in mathematics. During this time, the 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 fields as it was lenient towards theories rather than proving the natural phenomenon through experiments. Conducting experiments on particles which also released tremendous amount of radiation, was lifelong passion of Bhabha, and his leading edge research and experiments brought great laurels to Indian physicists who particularly switched their fields to nuclear physics, one of the most notable being Piara Singh Gill.
In January 1933, Bhabha received his doctorate in nuclear physics after publishing his first scientific paper, “The Absorption of Cosmic radiation”. In the publication, Bhabha offered an explanation of the absorption features and electron shower production in cosmic rays. The paper helped him win the Isaac Newton Studentship in 1934, which he held for the next three years. 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. In 1935, Bhabha published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A, in which performed the first calculation to determine the cross section of electron-positron scattering. Electron-positron scattering was later named Bhabha scattering, in honor of his contributions in the field.
In 1936, the two published a paper, “The Passage of Fast Electrons and the Theory of Cosmic Showers” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A, in which they used their theory to describe how primary cosmic rays from outer space interact with the upper atmosphere to produce particles observed at the ground level. Bhabha and Heitler then made numerical estimates of the number of electrons in the cascade process at different altitudes for different electron initiation energies. The calculations agreed with the experimental observations of cosmic ray showers made by Bruno Rossi and Pierre Victor Auger a few years before. Bhabha later concluded that observations of the properties of such particles would lead to the straightforward experimental verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In 1937, Bhabha was awarded the Senior Studentship of the 1851 exhibition, which helped him continue his work at Cambridge until the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
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 Bombay.
Starting his nuclear physics career in Great Britain, Bhabha had returned to India for his annual vacation before the start of World War II in September 1939. War prompted him to remain in India and accepted a post of reader in physics at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, headed by Nobel laureate C.V. Raman.During this time, 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.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. His major contribution included his work on Compton scattering, R-process, and furthermore the advancement of nuclear physics. He was awarded Padma Bhushan by Government of India in 1954. He 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. 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.
When Bhabha was working at the India Institute of Science, there was no institute in India which had the necessary facilities for original work in nuclear physics, cosmic rays, high energy physics, and other frontiers of knowledge in physics. This prompted him to send a proposal in March 1944 to the Sir Dorabji Jamsetji Tata. Tata Trust for establishing ‘a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics’. In his proposal he wrote :
“ There is at the moment in India no big school of research in the fundamental problems of physics, both theoretical and experimental. There are, however, scattered all over India competent workers who are not doing as good work as they would do if brought together in one place under proper direction. It is absolutely in the interest of India to have a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics, for such a school forms the spearhead of research not only in less advanced branches of physics but also in problems of immediate practical application in industry. If much of the applied research done in India today is disappointing or of very inferior quality it is entirely due to the absence of sufficient number of outstanding pure research workers who would set the standard of good research and act on the directing boards in an advisory capacity … Moreover, when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand. I do not think that anyone acquainted with scientific development in other countries would deny the need in India for such a school as I propose.
The subjects on which research and advanced teaching would be done would be theoretical physics, especially on fundamental problems and with special reference to cosmic rays and nuclear physics, and experimental research on cosmic rays. It is neither possible nor desirable to separate nuclear physics from cosmic rays since the two are closely connected theoretically.
The trustees of Sir Dorabji Jamsetji. Tata Trust decided to accept Bhabha’s proposal and financial responsibility for starting the Institute in April 1944. Bombay was chosen as the location for the prosed Institute as the Government of Bombay showed interest in becoming a joint founder of the proposed institute. The institute, named Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was inaugurated in 1945 in 540 square meters of hired space in an existing building. In 1948 the Institute was moved into the old buildings of the Royal Yacht club. When Bhabha realized that technology development for the atomic energy programme could no longer be carried out within TIFR he proposed to the government to build a new laboratory entirely devoted to this purpose. For this purpose, 1200 acres of land was acquired at Trombay from the Bombay Government. Thus the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET) started functioning in 1954. The same year the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was also established.He represented India in International Atomic Energy Forums, and as President of the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, in Geneva, Switzerland in 1955. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.
Bhabha is generally acknowledged as the father of Indian nuclear power. Moreover, he is credited with formulating a strategy of focussing on extracting power from the country’s vast thorium reserves rather than its meagre uranium reserves.This thorium focused strategy was in marked contrast to all other countries in the world. The approach proposed by Bhabha to achieve this strategic objective became India’s three stage nuclear power programme.
Bhabha paraphrased the three-stage approach as follows:
“ The total reserves of thorium in India amount to over 500,000 tons in the readily extractable form, while the known reserves of uranium are less than a tenth of this. The aim of long range atomic power programme in India must therefore be to base the nuclear power generation as soon as possible on thorium rather than uranium… The first generation of atomic power stations based on natural uranium can only be used to start off an atomic power programme… The plutonium produced by the first generation power stations can be used in a second generation of power stations designed to produce electric power and convert thorium into U-233, or depleted uranium into more plutonium with breeding gain… The second generation of power stations may be regarded as an intermediate step for the breeder power stations of the third generation all of which would produce more U-233 than they burn in the course of producing power.
He died when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966.
Many possible theories have been advanced for the air crash, including a conspiracy theory in which Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is involved in order to paralyze India’s nuclear program.While an Indian diplomatic bag containing newspapers, calendars and a personal letter was recovered near the crash site in 2012, it was a “Type C” diplomatic bag containing no documents of importance.
Gregory Douglas, a journalist who taped his interviews with former CIA operative, Robert Crowley, over a period of 4 years, recorded their telephonic conversations and later published their transcribes in a book titled Conversations with the Crow. Crowley claimed that CIA was responsible for eliminating Dr. Homi Bhabha, Indian nuclear scientist whose plane crashed into Alps, when he was going to attend a Vienna conference and Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died at Tashkent summit in 1966. Crowley said that a bomb in the cargo section of the plane went off in mid-air, bringing down the commercial Boeing 707 airliner in Alps with little evidence left to be retrieved. Crowley claimed that U.S. was wary of Indian nuclear progress and the defeat of their ally Pakistan, in 1965 war. U.S. was worried that India could well be the chief in South Asian continent along with Russian think-tanks, if India develops nuclear capabilities, thus bringing instability to the region.
After his death, the Atomic Energy Establishment at Bombay was renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honour. In addition to being an able scientist and administrator, Bhabha was also a painter and a classical music and opera enthusiast, besides being an amateur botanist.He is one of the most prominent scientists that India has ever had. Bhabha also encouraged research in electronics, space science, radio astronomy and microbiology. The famed radio telescope at Ooty, India was his initiative, and it became a reality in 1970. The Homi Bhabha Fellowship Council has been giving the Homi Bhabha Fellowships since 1967 Other noted institutions in his name are the Homi Bhabha National Institute, an Indian deemed university and the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai, India.
On 13 March 2014, The Times of India reported that The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) had issued a public notice inviting developers and investors interested in purchasing Mehrangir, the sprawling colonial bungalow at Malabar Hill where Bhabha, spent most of his life. The bungalow has a builtup area of 13,953 sq feet and a plot measuring 17,150 sq feet.
After Bhabha died in 1966, his brother Jamshed became the custodian of the Bhabha estate. Being an avid patron of arts and culture, Jamshed Bhabha, who died in 2007, aged 93, had willed the property along with paintings, jewellery, artefacts and furniture to the NCPA, which he had established. Located at a stone’s throw from Hanging Gardens, the property is estimated to be valued at over Rs 257 crore (as of March 2014) and was sold to Godrej family for Rs 372 crore by the NCPA on 18 June 2014.
The employees and scientists working for Department of Atomic Energy and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which Bhabha founded, have protested against the sale of the bungalow to private developers as they believe that the bungalow should be preserved as a memorial.However NCPA chairman K N Suntook said that such sentiments “were misplaced”. He said that that Homi Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear power programme, was only a part owner of the property and after his demise, the property “devolved solely upon his brother Jamshed, who bequeathed it absolutely to the NCPA by his will, which has since been probated”.
Suntook said he was sad that eminent scientists were supporting this movement and that BARC has lot of funds and they could have used that to bid for the bungalow. While there were eight bidders originally, three turned up for the auction. Suntook added that Homi Bhabha was a great lover of culture himself and both brothers would have been disappointed with the opposition to the auction.