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Homi Jehangir Bhabha (30 October 1909 – 24 January 1966) was an Indian nuclear physicist, founding director, and professor of physics at the Tata Institute of FundamentaL Research (TIFR). Colloquially known as “father of the Indian nuclear programme” Bhabha was also the founding director of the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) which is now named the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honor. TIFR and AEET were the cornerstone of Indian development of nuclear weapons which Bhabha also supervised as director.
Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born into a wealthy and prominent industrial Parsi family, through which he was related to businessmen 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.
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 or 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 excelled in 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, 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 field because it was lenient towards theories rather than proving natural phenomenon through experiments. Conducting experiments on particles which also released enormous amounts of radiation, was a 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 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 Mumbai.
Starting his nuclear physics career in 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.
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.
Homi J. Bhabha died when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966. Misunderstanding between Geneva Airport and the pilot about the aircraft position near the mountain is the official reason of the crash… but very soon after, a team of journalists led by René Desmaison climbed – secretly – near the wreck and declared to have found debris of another aircraft other than the Boeing 707. (Crashs au mont Blanc, la fin des secrets. Glenat, 2015)