Vikram Sarabhai

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Ahmedabad, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi Science Institute.

Two students in a room, very pensive, and nervous at their head coming inside. An electric meter had just gone out of order, as they had passed too much current while doing an experiment. And they were wondering how to break the news to him, who was also the founder of the rather modest lab, that had begun a year back.  It was a time,when such electric meters were difficult to get, and important experiments could be suspended for a month or even more.  As the students nervously broke the news, the man displayed neither the slightest trace of irritation or anger. Instead in a rather comforting tone he told them.

“Is that all? Don’t mind it too much. Such things do happen when students are learning. If students don’t make mistakes, how can they learn? It is enough if you learn to be more careful in future.”

The man here was none other than Vikram Sarabhai,  the father of India’s space program, regarded as one of the greatest scientists of modern India. And who also made a signficant contribution to the nuclear program.

Vikram Sarabhai was born on August 12, 1919, to Ambalal Sarabhai, a well known textile industrialist in Ahmedabad, and Sarala Devi. It was an auspicious day of Garuda Panchami. When the Sarabhais wanted to educate their children, they were not satisfied with the existing schooling system.  And so they set up a school at home, hired some of the best teachers for both science and arts. Vikram as well as his 8 siblings were a big beneficiary of the home schooling, and up to matriculation they studied at home only. With his father being an influential man, many famous people would visit the Sarabhai’s house in Ahmedabad, among them were Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore , J. Krishna Murthi, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, C. F. Andrews, C. V. Raman. And Mahatma Gandhi stayed in their home for some time while recovering from an illness. This interaction with such great minds, influenced Vikram’s thought process and character too.  Like most other boys of his age, he loved to play, do tricks on the bicylce, was mischievous and used to go for boating.

He was absolutely brilliant at mathematics and science, and with his hard working nature, managed to be at the top of the class always. He went to Cambridge after completing his college education in India and in 1939, he passed the Tripos in Physics, considered to be one of the toughest exams then. On his return to India, he joined the Physics Department in IISc that was then headed by the renowned C.V.Raman. His counterpart was another renowned physicist Dr.Homi Bhaba who was doing research on Mesons and Cosmic Rays.

Cosmic Rays

Typically every substance on earth has 3 fundamental particles- the electrons( -ve charge), protons(+ve charge) and neutrons( neutral). However it has been discovered that there are other particles in space, beside these,  called as mesons.  And these mesons are formed by cosmic rays as per most scientific theories. Over 600 such cosmic rays pass through the human body every year, and they can penetrate the hardest rocks too.

Vikram’s first scientific paper was on periodical variation of cosmic rays intensity, in which he did extensive research. This research helped him to study further on interplanetary space, relation between sun and earth and the magnetic phenomena on earth. It was during this time he got the idea of establishing a cosmic ray research institution. When he went to the Himalayas in Kashmir, 1943 for study of cosmic rays at high altitudes, he got the idea of establishing a research center at such a height.

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After the end of the 2nd World War, Vikram once again went to Cambridge in 1945 to continue his study on cosmic rays, where he also got his PhD.  Vikram’s work on cosmic rays in Kashmir was at Apharwat, on the banks of  Alpathari lake, a regular family outing spot very summer. Located at 13,000 feet above sea level, this is where he decided to set up a future research institute.

Vikram set up the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad in 1948, with Dr. K.R.Ramanathan as it’s first director. Starting off with just few students and some lab assistants, it soon grew into one of India’s premier institutions. Even when he got busy in  his later years, Vikram still maintained close contact with the institution he founded.  Starting off as Professor, he later became the Director in 1965.  It sponsored a cosmic ray research institute at Gulmarg in 1955. And when DAE( Dept of Atomic Energy) established a full fledged high altitude research center in Gulmarg, Vikram’s long standing dream became a reality. Later on similiar such centers were opened in Kodaikanal and Thiruvananthapuram.

When Homi Jehangir Bhabha, died in an aircrash in 1966, many wondered who would take over AEC. It was a large void to be filled, however Vikram Sarabhai more than proved to be equal to the task, he did his work quitely to the best of ability and guided India’s fledgling nuclear program in the right direction.  One of his greatest achievements would be in the foundation of ISRO, when he convinced the PM, Jawaharlal Nehru of the need for India’s own space program.  Aware that India did not have the resources to undertake something like a manned mission to the moon or to planets, he felt that space technology could be used for multiple applications like earth mapping, satellite TV, which were more relevant to Indian needs. INCOSPAR( Indian National Committe for Space Research) was set up in 1962 by Nehru on his reccomendation,  and this eventually become ISRO in 1969.  This is what he had to say about India’s space program.

There are some who question the relevance of space activities in a developing nation. To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space-flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.

Vikram got good support from Homi Bhabha to set up India’s first ever space station at Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram. Being very close to the Earth’s magnetic equator, it made it the ideal location for scientists to conduct atmospheric research.

Nov 21, 1963- The first rocket launch took place from Thumba, the efforts of Vikram Sarabhai had borne fruit.  One of the members present at the launch was a certain APJ Abdul Kalam, who would go on to become an equally distinguished scientist himself. SITE or Satellite Instructional TV was once again the result of his interactions with NASA in 1966, to have such a program in India.  The project for the first Indian satellite was started during Sarabhai’s time, and Aryabhatta in 1975 was due to his efforts again.

His legacy was vast, IIM Ahmedabad was the result of his dream to have a world class management institute in India.  The first market research organization in India, ORG was again founded by him.  He also set up the AITRA, to provide support and guidance to Ahmedabad’s booming textile industry. Sarabhai Community Science Center in Ahmedabad was set up by him to popularize science education.  It was not just the sciences, along with his wife Mrinalini he founded Darpana Academy of Performing Arts to promote culture.  Some other institutions established by him include

  • Faster Breeder Test Reactor  in Kalpakam
  • Variable Energy Cyclotron Project in Kolkata
  • ECIL in Hyderabad
  • Uranium Corporation of India Ltd in Jharsuguda, Jharkhand.

He was pretty much a hands on person, could often be seen at late hours in the lab working on solutions. As a teacher, he believed in being a guide to the students, engaging in continous discussion with them on their research, encouraging them. As a human being he was a gem of a person, down to earth, humble. He believed in using science as a tool for India’s development and progress after independence, and his thoughts were always in that direction.  Inspite of his busy schedule, he devoted equal time to his family, and also his family’s industrial group.  He would often take time out to listen to every one, and people would often pour out their woes to him.  When some one asked why he is wasting time listening to all that, this was his reply

In our vast land people come from many backgrounds. Not every one is lucky enough to have the education we have. So, we have to listen to everything they say to understand what is in their mind.

 He treated every one as his equal without any class distinction, helped others in need. His belief was simple, every person in the world is worthy of respect irrespective of their class or status.  He was truly a man of simple living and high thinking.  On Dec 30, 1971 Vikram Sarabhai passed away at Kovalam,of a sudden heart attack, on one of his visits to Thumba. One of the greatest scientists of modern India was no more, and yet the legacy he left behind- ISRO, IIM, and the chain of institutions all over India, would ensure he would never be forgotten.
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About Ratnakar Sadasyula

I am a 40 year old Blogger with a passion in movies, music,books, Quizzing and politics. A techie by profession, and a writer at heart. Seeking to write my own book one day.
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