Homi Jehangir Bhabha, 1909-1966

Father of the nuclear program, he planned N-reactors at a time India wasn’t even making indigenously designed bicycles

by Dr R. Chidambaram

Arthur Koestler talks of two kinds of leaders, ‘The Yogi’ and ‘The Commissar’. The Yogi is the ‘contemplative thinker’ and Commissar the ‘man of action’. Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha was a unique mix of both. It was also a fortunate circumstance that Bhabha and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru shared an exceptional bond—Bhabha addressed Nehru as ‘Bhai’. Bhabha was a renowned theoretical high energy physicist at Cambridge before joining the faculty of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and had done pioneering work on electron-positron scattering—known as ‘Bhabha Scattering’—and cosmic ray showers.

With help from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Bhabha set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945, planning to make it the fountainhead of the nuclear establishment, now named after him as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. While doing my PhD at IISc, I was inspired by Bhabha’s vision and confidence (in himself and his countrymen) to build nuclear reactors in India at a time we weren’t even making indigenously designed bicycles.

Apart from setting up the Atomic Energy Commission, Bhabha also nucleated space activity at the Department of Atomic Energy. The UN nominated Bhabha as the president of the first Geneva Conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy in 1955. He was also a founder member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna; incidentally, he had argued for Vienna as the IAEA headquarters over Geneva because of his love for opera music! Bhabha created a leadership swarm around him, and that is why, even after the country lost this great scientific leader at the age of 56, in an air crash in 1966, the atomic energy programme has continued to flourish.

Dr R. Chidambaram is former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and currently DAE Homi Bhabha Chair Professor at BARC