When it comes to nuclear research in India, one name never fails to make it to the headlines. And that one name is that of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, who is often considered the father of the Indian nuclear program. A marvelous scientist and an innovative engineer, Homi Bhabha made some outstanding contributions to atomic and nuclear physics. However, his life extended way beyond that. So today, on his 112th birth anniversary, let’s have a look inside the legend’s life.

"Business Is Not For Me, Dad! Let Me Do Physics." The Inspiring Story of a Legendary Nuclear Physicist 1

Early life of Homi Bhabha

On October 30, 1909, Homi Bhabha was born into a prominent wealthy Parsi family. His father, Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, was a well-known Parsi lawyer and his mother was Meheren. Homi Bhabha received his early studies at Bombay’s Cathedral and John Connon School and entered Elphinstone College at age 15 after passing his Senior Cambridge Examination with Honours.

Homi’s father and uncles wanted Bhabha to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering from Cambridge and then return to India to join the Tata Steel or Tata Steel Mills in Jamshedpur as a metallurgist. Following this, he attended the Royal Institute of Science in 1927 before joining Caius College of Cambridge University.

Love for physics and mathematics

Although Bhabha was pursuing a degree in engineering, his heart soon inclined towards theoretical physics and mathematics at Cambridge. Following this, he described this passion to his father in 1928 via a letter which said:

“I seriously say to you that business or a job as an engineer is not the thing for me. It is totally foreign to my nature and radically opposed to my temperament and opinions. Physics is my line. I know I shall do great things here. For, each man can do best and excel in only that thing of which he is passionately fond, in which he believes, as I do, that he can do it, that he is born and destined to do it… Besides, India is not a land where science cannot be carried on.”

Bhabha wrote another letter to his father in which he quoted that:

“I am burning with a desire to do physics. I will and must do it sometime. It is my only ambition. I have no desire to be a ‘successful’ man or the head of a big firm. Some intelligent people like that and let them do it… It is no use saying to Beethoven, ‘You must be a scientist, for it is a great thing’ when he did not care two hoots for science; or to Socrates, ‘Be an engineer: it is the work of an intelligent man.’ It is not like things. I therefore earnestly implore you to let me do physics.”

Looking at his burning desire to pursue physics, his father agreed to let him pursue his passion by enrolling on the mathematical tripos, provided he devoted himself first to his mechanical tripos and got a first-class. Bhabha successfully achieved this goal in June 1930, which set him free to devote himself to his interest in theoretical physics. Eventually, Bhabha joined the Cavendish Laboratory, from where he obtained his Ph.D. with R.H. Fowler as his thesis supervisor in January 1933.

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"Business Is Not For Me, Dad! Let Me Do Physics." The Inspiring Story of a Legendary Nuclear Physicist 2

Major contributions to theoretical physics

When Homi Bhabha started his research work, his initial interests were mainly in positron theory and cosmic rays physics. And Bhabha went on to make some of the sparkling contributions in these areas, such that some of his works were also named after him.

These include his famous explanation of relativistic exchange scattering, where he performed the first-ever calculation to determine the cross-section of election on-positron scattering using Dirac’s theory. This process came to be known as Bhabha Scattering and is even used today as a luminosity monitor in electron-positron collider physics experiments.

Not only this, but Bhabha also came up with his theory of the production of an electron and positron showers in cosmic rays, which we often refer to as Bhabha-Heitler theory. Here, Bhabha and Heitler made numerical estimates of the number of electrons in the cascade process at different altitudes for different electron initiation energies. In return, their calculations agreed with the experimental observations of cosmic ray showers made by Bruno Rossi and Pierre Victor Auger a few years before. Later, Homi Bhabha even concluded that observations of the properties of such particles would lead to the straightforward experimental verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Contributions to atomic energy in India

In September 1939, Bhabha returned to India for a brief holiday. Meanwhile, he accepted an offer to serve as the Reader in the Physics Department of the Indian Institute of Science and eventually decided not to return to England. However, when Homi Bhabha was working at the India Institute of Science, he realized that no institute in India had the necessary facilities for original work in nuclear physics, cosmic rays, high energy physics, and other frontiers of knowledge in physics.

Homi Bhabha took this issue very seriously and decided to send a proposal to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust for some assistance to realize his vision. His proposal got accepted, and he received a special grant with which he founded the Cosmic Ray Research Institute. Later in 1945, he founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, where initial research began for India’s nuclear program.

"Business Is Not For Me, Dad! Let Me Do Physics." The Inspiring Story of a Legendary Nuclear Physicist 3
Portrait de Homi Jehangir Bhabha (1909-1966). Ingenieur indien. ©MP/Leemage

However,  Homi Bhabha didn’t stop here. Shortly after India’s independence in 1947, Bhabha realized the importance of atomic energy for India and wrote about it to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He argued that “within the next couple of decades, atomic energy would play an important part in the economy and the industry of countries and that, if India did not wish to fall even further behind industrially advanced countries of the world, it would be necessary to develop this branch of science.”

Bhabha’s continuous efforts bore fruits, and thereby in 1954, he founded a nuclear research center at Trombay, which was later renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Homi Bhabha was a strong proponent of nuclear energy. This motivated him to organize the first UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1955.

Homi Bhabha formulated a strategy for extracting power from India’s vast thorium reserves rather than its meager uranium reserves. This strategy was in contrast to all other countries in the world. It made Bhabha the architect of India’s three stages nuclear power program, which he headed until his death in a plane crash on the way to Geneva on January 24, 1966.

Homi Bhabha’s remarkable contributions to theoretical physics and atomic energy have opened up new avenues to be explored further. Undoubtedly, he will serve as one of the greatest sources of inspiration for generations to come!

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