The young lad all of 18 was ready to make his trip to Cambridge in June 1930. His parents had wanted him to study Engineering, and make a career in Tata Industries. He however rejected it saying
I am burning with a desire to physics. …. It is my only ambition. I have no desire to be a “successful” man or the head of a big firm.”
In those days when success was measured, by a steady job, and a comfortable life, it was the passion for physics that was pulling the young man. His parents gave in to his wishes and were sending him to Cambridge. The young lad, would soon become one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, the father of India’s nuclear program, Homi Jahangir Bhaba.
This young lad, who would head India’s nuclear program, and found iconic institutions like TIFR and Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, was born into a well to do family in Mumbai on October 30,1909 to Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, a prominent Parsi lawyer, and Meheren. He was related to prominent Parsi businessmen like Dinshaw Petit and Dorabji Tata. He attended Royal Institute of Science in 1927, and his uncle Dorabji wanted him to do engineering so that he could join Tata Group.
However Bhabha’s father understanding his son’s desires, agreed to fund his higher studies in Science, provided he passed the Tripos exam in Mechanical Sciences. Bhabha passed with first class in June 1930, and he later did his Mathematical Tripos under noted physicist Paul Dirac. Around the same time he also began to work at the Cavendish Laboratory, which was the center for a number of significant breakthroughs in science. Be it James Chadwick’s discovery of the Neutron or John Cockroft, Ernest Walton splitting the atomic nucleus. Around this time nuclear physics was gaining importance, attracting some of the best minds, primarily due to the fact that unlike conventional physics, there was much larger scope for experimentation here.
Bhabha had a lifelong passion for conducting experiments on radiation emitting particles and in 1933 he received the doctorate in nuclear physics, after publishing his first ever scientific paper “The Absorption of Cosmic radiation“. Dealing with electron shower production in cosmic rays, he won the Newton Studentship in 1934 for the paper. He balanced time between Cambridge and working with the noted physicist Niels Bohr. In 1935 he published another paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society where he performed the first calculation to determine the cross section of electron-positron scattering, which was later named as Bhabha scattering in his honor. He also co authored a paper “The Passage of Fast Electrons and the Theory of Cosmic Showers” along with Walter Heitler in 1936, which described how primary cosmic rays from outer space interact with the upper atmosphere to produce particles observed at the ground level.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Bhabha who was in India then decided to stay back, and accepted an offer to serve as reader in Physics Dept of then newly founded IISC. He set up a Cosmic Ray Research Institute there with the funding he got from Dorab’s trust, and he would later set set up the TIFR(Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) with ample support from JRD Tata. It initially operated from the IISc campus, in Bangalore, but was later shifted to Mumbai.
Bhabha was the first director of TIFR, and after independence he played a role in setting up the Atomic Energy Comission, in 1948, also served as it’s first chairman. Nehru also gave Bhabha the responsibility of heading India’s nuclear program. He literally built India’s nuclear program from scratch, considering there was no infra to do research in nuclear physics, cosmic rays when he started out. TIFR was the outcome of his dreams, as he raised the funds for it and then built it all the way with support from JRD.
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.
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.
More than anything he was the visionary behind India’s 3 point Nuclear Program. In sharp contrast to other nations that used uranium for nuclear energy, Bhabha focused more on India’s extensive thorium reserves, which made more sense, as importing uranium would have been costly.
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.
He envisaged a 3 stage program where
First Stage- First generation of Atomic power plants using natural uranium fueled pressurized Heavy Water Reactors to generate power, while generating Plutonium-239 as a by product. Most of the base of India’s existing nuclear power is first stage.
Second Stage-Plutonium 239 generated in Stage 1, would be used as fuel for Fast Breeder Reactors , which in turn would generate more fuel during fission process. The proposed Prototype FBR at Kalpakkam was in Stage 2, but delayed due to many reasons.
Third Stage – Would be using primarily self sustaining series of Thorium-232, Uranium-233 fueled thermal breeder reactors, however this can be expected to start only if a capacity of 50GW is generated by FBRs, and we still have a long way to go.
He was India’s representative at all IAEA conferences, in the 1950s and also served as President of UN Conference on Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, in Geneva. However after 1962 War, Bhabha began to lobby aggressively for India’s nuclear weapons program.
He gained fame deriving a correct expression for the probability of scattering positrons by electrons, which gave rise to the Bhabha Scattering in quantum electrodynamics. He also played a pivotal role in guiding Vikram Sarabhai in setting up ISRO.
January 24, 1966
The flight on which he was travelling to Vienna crashed on Mont Blanc, a terrible tragedy. The father of India’s nuclear program, Homi Jehangir Bhabha was no more. A brilliant career and life cut short.
There is speculation that Homi Bhabha could have been the victim of a CIA plot, with the US wary of India’s growing nuclear power, especially after the defeat of it’s ally Pakistan in the ’65 War. This was stated by ex CIA operative Bob Crowley in an interview.
Conversations with Crow, book on a series of telephonic talks and interviews between ex CIA operative Bob Crowley and journalist Gregory Douglas, has the former stating that the CIA had a hand in the plane crash that killed Bhabha, remains a mystery to date.
Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay has been named in honor of Bhabha as BARC, The famous radio telescope at Ooty was another of Bhabha’s initiative, that went operational after his death. His sprawling bungalow Mehrangir named after his mother, was given to NCPA, which unfortunately was demolished by the Godrej Family in 2016 who had bought it in 2014.