The master conductor

Print edition : August 29, 2008

M.G.K. Menon has had a role in almost every facet of science and technology development in the country during the past three decades.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research celebrates M.G.K. Menon, one of Indias foremost scientists, on his turning 80.

The name M.G.K. Menon has, over the years, become inseparable from Indian science. And it will remain so for many years to come. He has had a role in almost every facet of science and technology development in the country during the past three decades, but the important one was in nurturing the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, which his mentor Homi J. Bhabha founded in 1945. On July 29, on the eve of his 80th birthday, the TIFR, in association with the TIFR Alumni Association (TAA), felicitated the man who strengthened and broad-based its academic foundations and thus fulfilled Bhabhas vision of making it an institution on a par with the best in the world.

Mambilakalathil Govind Kumar Menon, Goku to friends, was born on August 28, 1928, in Mangalore. But as TIFR Director Mustansir Barma said during the felicitation function, only the calendar, not his looks or physique, betrayed his age. He is currently the Vikram Sarabhai Distinguished Professor of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and continues to be engaged with affairs of science. The felicitation saw present and past scientists of the institute paying tributes to M.G. K. Menon and included a mini-symposium on astro-particle physics, the main area of his research in physics.

M.G.K. Menon was educated at Jaswant College, Jodhpur, and the (Royal) Institute of Science, Bombay, before he moved to the University of Bristol for his Ph.D in elementary particle physics under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Cecil F. Powell in 1953. He joined the TIFR in 1955 essentially because of Bhabha, as he remarked during the function, and the association lasted nearly five decades. He became the director of the institute in 1966, at the age of 38, following Bhabhas untimely death. In fact, M.G.K. Menon began handling the affairs of the institute ever since he was barely 33 because of Bhabhas increasing involvement with the countrys nascent atomic energy programme. As Virendra Singh, director of the TIFR from 1987-97, observed, it was only natural that M.G.K. Menon took over the mantle from Bhabha.

His able directorship of the TIFR lasted until 1975 when he moved to Delhi to assume important responsibilities in science administration. In fact, even as TIFR director, he concurrently held administrative positions of the government in Delhi for a few years. His going to Delhi, said Virendra Singh, was a loss to science though it was good for science in the country. M.G.K. Menon was Secretary to the Government of India in various scientific departments from 1971 to 1982, including electronics, science and technology, space, scientific and industrial research, defence R&D and environment. He was Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet (1982-85), Planning Commission member (1982-89) and Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister (1986-89).

Most importantly, he was key to the formulation of the governments Technology Policy Statement of 1983. During this period he also served as president of the three science academies of the country at various times. Between 1989 and 1990, he was a Union Minister of State, first for Science and Technology and then for Education. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1990 and was a member until 1996. He also served on a multitude of scientific committees and task forces that initiated important national programmes in the field of science and technology. All along he maintained his strong links with the TIFR by continuing to be a member of its council until 2004.

Notwithstanding his achievements as a scientocrat and a leader, and his multifaceted personality, he is, as Mustansir Barma observed, first and foremost a physicist. The mini-symposium was a fitting tribute to M.G.K. Menons contributions to physics as well as his vision for the institute as one that should be looking at all windows to the universe. His research achievements include the development of high-precision measurement techniques for cosmic rays, in particular the use of large stripped emulsion stacks, in the early 1950s. His most important contribution was the elucidation of the properties of particles with strangeness (a quantum attribute of certain elementary particles), in particular the decay modes of particles called K-mesons. The term associated production, which is still used to describe the peculiar property of these particles that are always produced in pairs, was coined by him.

The study of strange particles in cosmic rays was one where the TIFRs scientists were making important contributions through emulsion techniques (the famous paper of Devendra Lal, Yash Pal and Bernard Peters) at that time. M.G.K. Menon joined the group after his Bristol days and contributed significantly, along with Peters, to the discovery of certain rare decay modes of K-mesons.

He also initiated high-altitude cosmic ray studies near the geomagnetic equator using balloon flights. Virendra Singh recalled a remark that M.G.K. Menon once made to him at the institute: If you want to achieve something in science you have to begin with some naturally built-in advantages. It is the advantage of the near-equatorial geographic location of India that M.G.K. Menon and his associates exploited by locating balloon flights in Hyderabad. Beginning with rubber-braced balloons, they developed the technique of flying large-volume plastic balloons to very high altitudes.

This, by its ability to carry X-ray and gamma ray telescopes as payloads, marked the genesis of space-based astronomy in the country, said K.P. Singh, who is engaged in the development of the X-ray telescope for Astrosat, the first dedicated multi-wavelength astronomy satellite that ISRO is to launch next year.

This activity grew into rocket payloads, flown from Thumba in the 1970s and then from Sriharikota during the 1980s, and then into satellite missions that included the Anuradha experiment aboard the Spacelab. Today balloon-based study at the TIFR has grown multifold with a full-fledged production facility capable of manufacturing plastic balloons of nearly a million cubic metres in volume, which can carry one-tonne payloads to an altitude of 40 kilometres.

Sunil Gupta, a professor at the TIFR, spoke of the tradition that M.G.K. Menon and others established, of building detectors and the associated electronics in-house. M.G.K. Menons remark at a 2006 workshop in astro-particle physics at Udhagamandalam, which Gupta referred to, reflects this philosophy of self-reliance at the TIFR, which Bhabha had stressed: There is a tendency to not go into experimental science and we have to change that. Bhabha, whose greatest work was in theoretical physics, started [the] TIFR and called it the cradle of the Indian atomic energy programme, and all other great experimental programmes grew out of that.


M.G.K. Menon had been involved in all the large-scale experiments at the TIFR from its early days, in particular the cosmic ray studies initiated in 1964 in the mines at Kolar Gold Fields. In the nearly three-decade-long story of experiments at the KGF, relating to muons, neutrinos, weak interactions and proton decay, he played a major role. It was the KGF experiment that ruled out the hypothesis called Utah effect to describe the energy spectrum of muons reaching underground, pointed out Virendra Singh.

The more significant achievement of the KGF experiment was to demonstrate the feasibility of doing neutrino-induced interactions and related new phenomena deep underground. It was also the first experiment in the world, in 1965, to detect atmospheric neutrinos, which are formed at the top of the atmosphere due to cosmic ray interactions. The neutrino experiments also threw up a handful of rare events, called Kolar events, which are suggestive of massive (with more than 3 giga electron Volt mass) and long-lived (lifetimes of about a billionth of a second) particles. These have, however, remained unexplained till date and are perhaps suggestive of new physics.

In the 1980s, M.G.K. Menon led the proton decay experiment at the KGF, the first major dedicated experiment in the world to look for decays of the apparently stable proton, which set a limit on protons lifetime to be greater than 10{+3}{+0} years. The experiment also provided limits on the existence of the hypothetical magnetic monopoles.

However, with the closure of the KGF mines, these underground cosmic ray experiments came to an end in the early 1990s, much to the disappointment of many Indian particle physicists. It was the atmospheric neutrinos that later led to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery by Japanese scientists who, in fact, started later that neutrinos have mass and they exhibit the interesting phenomenon called neutrino oscillations, said G. Rajasekaran, formerly of the TIFR and currently at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai.

In spite of two early milestones, we missed the boat, Rajasekaran lamented. However, he added, the India-based Neutrino Observatory [proposed to be built in a tunnel under a kilometre high hill in the Nilgiris in the complex of Tamil Nadu Electricity Boards hydel power project at Singara] is the answer. We got M.G.K. Menons blessings when we started the plan six years ago and we are confident of obtaining his support throughout its execution.

Another important facet of cosmic ray research to which M.G.K. Menon contributed was in establishing the Extensive Air Shower studies at Udhagamandalam and ultra-high energy (UHE) gamma ray studies at Udhagamandalam and Pachmarhi using an array of particle detectors. The Udhagamandalam programme, called GRAPES, in which Japanese scientists are also involved, has expanded vastly and the third version of the experiment (GRAPES-3), steered by Gupta is now operational, producing interesting results. The Pachmarhi UHE gamma ray set-up and a similar one operated by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Mount Abu have been consolidated into a single experiment that was commissioned recently as the High Altitude Gamma Ray (HAGAR) Telescope at Leh in Ladakh.

M.G.K. Menons role in the growth of astronomy in India came in for praise from Govind Swarup, the former director of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) of the TIFR in Pune and the chief architect of the Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT) and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune. Swarup described how he and three other Indian radio astronomers (T. Krishnan, M.R. Kundu and T.K. Menon), all of whom were abroad, wrote to Bhabha in 1961 about the importance of India getting into radio astronomy and their desire to help in this effort.

[M.G.K.] Menon saw the letter and immediately sent a telex to Bhabha, who was then abroad, urging him to meet us during his visit to the U.S. The rest is history, said Swarup. He also described how his idea of a radio telescope that would be like a rotating power transmission line, and would track celestial objects continuously, found a responsive chord in M.G.K. Menon. He rang up Kamani Steels, a Mumbai-based industrial enterprise which had experience in putting up high transmission towers, immediately and once it was found feasible the project was approved immediately, said Swarup. The ORT was built during 1968-1971 at a cost of Rs.50 lakh from a Rs.2 crore grant that Bhabha got for an inter-university centre.

The GMRT, too, was born as a result of M.G.K. Menons initiative after Swarups proposal for an Equatorial Radio Telescope (ERT) as an international facility failed to get going, first in Kenya owing to President Jomo Kenyattas untimely death and then in Indonesia because of extraneous factors. Swarup said that was when he, at the suggestion of a colleague that he propose a national project, proposed a telescope in the 130-1,400 MHz frequency range with a large collecting area. This range had not been explored fully elsewhere because of interference from terrestrial radio sources, a worry largely absent in India.

M.G.K. Menon, then in the Planning Commission, organised a meeting of about 50 astronomers from all over India, said Swarup. Their endorsement of the proposal paved the way for the realisation, in 1995, of the worlds largest telescope in this frequency region, which is used by astronomers from all over the world.

M.G.K. Menons support was also crucial in establishing the 2.3-m Vainu Bappu optical telescope at Kavalur for the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore. Bappu, a 1952 Harvard Ph.D, returned to India in 1954 and joined the Kodaikanal Observatory, then under the India Meteorological Department (IMD). He became its director in 1960. The conservative IMD did not provide the right support to Bappus plans. Thanks to M.G.K. Menons initiative, the observatory was made an autonomous institution under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 1971 despite the IMDs opposition. The IIA moved to Bangalore in 1975. This enabled Bappu to realise his plans, in 1985, for a medium-size aperture optical telescope built indigenously. M.G.K. Menon also supported the initiation of radio astronomy activities at the Raman Research Institute (RRI) in Bangalore, after V. Radhakrishnan, a radio astronomer, became its director.

An interesting new proposal, mooted by Swarup and others, to use the ORT and the GMRT to search for ultra-high energy cosmic rays and neutrinos (above 10{+2}{+1} eV) by looking for radio waves that are emitted when these strike the lunar surface has found enthusiastic support from M.G.K. Menon. That the proponents of this idea should look towards him for its realisation is testimony to his continuing influence in the growth of science in the country. Said Swarup: Many players have contributed to the growth of experimental facilities in astronomy in the country in the past 50 years. But, for a symphony one requires a conductor. I salute the master-conductor Prof. M.G.K. Menon.

In his felicitation address, Yash Pal, who had joined the TIFR a few years before M.G.K. Menon, spoke of his amazing ability to remember vividly the various things that happened around him at the institute or things he had witnessed. It is amazing how he can keep cool amidst all kinds of difficult things and yet give sensible guidance and advice, Yash Pal said of M.G.K. Menons leadership qualities.

"IT IS AMAZING how he can keep cool amidst all kinds of difficult things and yet give sensible guidance and advice," says Prof. Yash Pal, M.G.K. Menon's colleague at the TIFR.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Going to faculty meetings [during his time] was an education in itself, said Virendra Singh. In some sense he was training all the faculty members in the culture of the TIFR. His notings in files were very detailed and they guided me in matters of administration when I took over as the director.

Obaid Siddiqui, who founded the School of Biological Sciences at the TIFR, recalled how, as the only biologist amongst physicists and mathematicians, he was asked frequently how he came to be there. But after I met [M.G.K.] Menon I was put at ease. The feeling of being an outsider disappeared and he gave me the confidence that I am actually wanted here, Siddiqui said. The thing about [M.G.K.] Menon, he added, is that he helps. He spoke about how M.G.K. Menon, during the 1970s, talked to him about the need to grow out of the TIFR and seed other institutions, which led to the establishment of the now highly recognised National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore. It was not smooth sailing, Siddiqui recounted. At every point there was difficulty, but whenever there was a real impediment Menon would tell me how to go about it.

Similar was the experience of B.M. Udgaonkar, a reactor physicist who became a theoretical particle physicist and later turned to education. He recounted how even though the institutes mandate did not include education, M.G.K. Menon found ways to fund his proposal through a grant from the Sir Dorab Tata Trust. The creation of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) was an offshoot of this activity initiated by Udgaonkar and V.G. Kulkarni.

M.G.K. Menons proactive involvement was also responsible for getting the training programme for postgraduate teachers at Bombay University going, he said. [M.G.K.] Menon only wanted that what one was doing was at the same intellectual level as it would be in any area of physics, Udgaonkar said. R. Vijayaraghavan, a former TIFR professor who was instrumental in initiating the felicitation, described M.G.K. Menon as a gentle and sophisticated person. He led us to do things on our own in the early days by cannibalising war surplus equipment, he said. He recounted how in later years, too, M.G.K. Menon insisted on self-reliance when he approached Vijayaraghavan to make sonars with PZT materials (lead-zirconium titanate ceramic compounds with piezoelectric effect) in the institute for defence purposes. This was, indeed, the first nanotechnology experiments in the country though it was not called by that name at that time.

Acknowledging the gesture shown by the TIFR and its past and present members, M.G.K. Menon urged the institutes members to keep up the long tradition of the TIFR. When I started research it was relatively small science. One could do science differently. The TIFR was more than a scientific institution; it was a family, a joint family. The felicitation was more like a celebration in honour of one of the familys foremost elders.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor