A base for progress

Print edition : January 01, 2010

Homi J. Bhabha discusses the construction of Apsara, India`s first reactor, with colleagues at the TIFR in 1955.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

IN an article in The Hindu on November 13, 2009, (Securing Indias science future), N. R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of the global information technology major Infosys, bemoaned that India was lagging behind considerably in the quality and spread of basic science research despite its unique advantage to use technology for progress. This is a critical lacuna that could well determine the fate not just of our scientific and developmental future but, more importantly, of our progress as a nation, he said.

Three days later, the winners of the Infosys Prize, instituted by the Infosys Science Foundation to honour outstanding researchers who make a difference to Indias scientific future and to motivate youngsters to consider careers in research, were announced. While no suitable candidate was found for the prize in engineering, all three prizes in basic sciences went to names linked with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, one of the premier research institutions in the country. This is eloquent testimony to the continuing pre-eminence of the institute in the country even six decades and a half after its founding by the great visionary scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha when he was barely 36 years old.

His birth centenary is being celebrated this year. It is also a strong affirmation of Bhabhas ideas about the characteristics that are essential for a research institution to become world class, in its academic canvas, its ambience and its administration.

It all began with a letter that Bhabha wrote to his friend and industrialist J.R.D. Tata in August 1943. He was a reader at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, then. Bhabha had come to India from Cambridge on a brief holiday in 1939, but the Second World War forced him to stay back. Bhabha joined the IIScs physics department, which was headed by Sir C.V. Raman, and established a Cosmic Ray Research Unit (CRRU) there. He also began wondering about the development of science in India and in his letter to Tata expressed his ideas about setting up an institute for fundamental research.

Interestingly, it was under similar circumstances that Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the scientist-institution builder, also stayed back and established the Indian Statistical Institutes.

The lack of proper conditions and intelligent financial support, Bhabha said in his letter to Tata, hampers the development of science in India at the pace the talent in the country would warrant. In his reply, Tata said: If you and/or some of your colleagues in the scientific world put up concrete proposals backed by a sound case, I think there is a very good chance that the Sir Dorab Tata Trust will respond.

Encouraged by this, Bhabha wrote to Sir Dorab Saklatvala, the chairman of the trust, in March 1944. 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 in one place under proper direction. [I]n the last two years I have come more and more to the view that provided proper appreciation and financial support are forthcoming, it is ones duty to stay in ones own country and build up schools comparable with those that other countries are fortunate in possessing. I am convinced that within five years we could make Bombay the centre of fundamental physical research in India. The scheme that I am now submitting to you is but an embryo from which I hope to build up in the course of time a school of physics comparable with the best anywhere.

Tata backed Bhabhas proposal, and on the trusts approval, the institute was established on June 1, 1945, under a tripartite agreement between the trust, the Government of Bombay and the Government of India. Soon the TIFR emerged as a major research centre on the world map, a standing that it continues to enjoy to this day.

Though Bhabhas idea was to set up the institute in Bombay (now Mumbai), it began to function from the CRRU. In six months it moved to Kenilworth, a bungalow owned by Bhabhas aunt on Peddar Road in Bombay. As Bhabha recounted at the TIFRs inauguration on December 19, 1945, eight papers were published within those six months by the institute members. Setting high standards for research, the first paper was by Bhabha himself. The paper, Relativistic Wave Equations for the Elementary Particles, was published in the special volume of Reviews of Modern Physics issued to commemorate the 60th birthday of Niels Bohr, one of the architects of quantum theory.

Theoretical work, he said in his address, both the creation of new mathematics and the use of it in the description of nature is to form an important part of the work of this institute. Soon the institute earned a worldwide reputation for frontranking research in theoretical physics and mathematics. Being adept in theory and experiment and having been instrumental in initiating cosmic ray research in the country in the 1940s, Bhabha also laid the foundations for experimental work at the institute.

The Superconducting linear Accelerator (sLINAC) beam hall at the TIFR. The development of the sLINAC is a milestone in accelerator technology in India.-

Initially, research was confined to theoretical physics, mathematics, cosmic rays and high energy physics areas of direct interest to Bhabha. But in the years to come, research diversified to include areas such as nuclear physics, nuclear emulsion and electron magnetism, computer science and geophysics. Subsequently, molecular biology and radio astronomy were included and, later, science education as well.

The nuclear emulsion and the electron magnetism group started in 1953. Work in computer science and technology began in 1954, and the first pilot machine became operational in 1956. The institute pioneered research in the field and the full-scale machine, later named TIFRAC, was commissioned in February 1960. It was the first computer designed in the country.

Kenilworth was too small a place for such a rapidly expanding institute. In 1949, it was shifted to a location near the Gateway of India. Later it gradually moved to its present location, a 15-acre campus, on the sea-front in the cantonment area in Colaba. On January 15, 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru formally inaugurated the TIFR buildings. Its architecture, aesthetic surroundings and the seaside promenade were designed by the famous Chicago architect Helmuth Bartsch. Nuclear physics was central to Bhabhas scheme of things and he had emphasised its importance right from the beginning.

It is neither possible nor desirable, he had written to Sir Saklatvala, to separate nuclear physics from cosmic rays since the two are closely connected theoretically.

In the same letter he remarked: [W]hen nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power generation in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them readily at hand. It is these words that laid the seeds for the development of atomic energy programme in India, with the early research and development in the field being carried out at the institute.

In 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was set up in 1948 at the instance of Bhabha, declared the TIFR the only laboratory of the commission for fundamental research in atomic science. The tripartite agreement came into force in 1955-56 following which the TIFR was designated as the national centre of the Government of India for advanced study and fundamental research in nuclear science and mathematics.

The agreement envisaged extensive financial support from the government and correspondingly a greater and more permanent representative for it on the Council of Management. Today, over 99 per cent of the institutes expenditure is borne by the Indian government. The institute comes under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which was established in 1958, through which all grants are channelled.

The philosophy that had guided Bhabha in institution building was that all research in the beginning has to be built around a suitable person. In this he followed the example of Kaiser Wilhelm Society (now the Max Planck Society). He quoted its director in his inaugural address: In order that its ideals may be fulfilled, it is necessary that the society should keep an intelligent watch on newer currents in scientific investigations and try to further its ideals by creating facilities for the new lines of investigations and by getting the right man for them. He scrupulously stuck to this principle. His own stature attracted talented researchers from various fields to the TIFR and this increased the range and depth of activities at the institute.

For instance, in the early 1960s, both Bhabha and Mahalanobis identified Obaid Siddiqui as the right person to establish a school of biology at the TIFR and the ISI respectively. But Siddiqui joined the TIFR and built up a flourishing school of biological sciences. The school catalysed the growth of molecular biology research across the country.

Similarly, Bhabha attracted Govind Swarup from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in New Delhi to start radio astronomy research at the TIFR. Swarup built an innovatively designed large equatorially mounted cylindrical Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT) at Udhagamandalam in Tamil Nadu. The research that followed made the institute a major radio astronomy centre in the world.

The chemical dynamics laboratory at the TIFR. Studies on the structures of nucleic acids and proteins, the dynamics of protein folding and unfolding, the chemical basis of neuronal communication, and so on are carried out at the institute.-

Bhabha died in an air crash in 1966. In the 1970s, the institute included theoretical astrophysics and science education. Science education was not in its original mandate, but Bhabha was thinking about it as some of his letters to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggest. So, given its importance in society and with competent people at hand, the discipline became part of the institutes charter.

The next two decades saw further expansion of the range of research activities and the founding of TIFR centres in other cities. With radio astronomy research at the institute making great strides and the proposal to set up a Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) at Khodad near Pune taking shape, the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) was established in Pune. A major part of the NCRAs research involves observations with the GMRT, the largest telescope at metre wavelengths in the world, which attracts radio astronomers from different countries. In its grand design and objectives, it is a worthy successor to the ORT.

Research in pure mathematics saw an expansion into more application-oriented areas in the 1970s, and this resulted in the Centre for Applicable Mathematics (CAM) in Bangalore. The Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) was an offshoot of the increasing activities relating to school- and college-level science education.

With biology assuming centre stage in basic research all over the world and with the growing breadth of biological research at the institute, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) was founded in Bangalore. It is a world-class centre today. And the latest in such efforts is the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), which was founded in 2007 for interdisciplinary research.

In addition, the TIFR has field stations and facilities across the country: the National Balloon Facility (NBF) in Hyderabad, the Cosmic Ray Laboratory at Udhagamandalam, the Gravitation Laboratory at Gauribidanur in Karnataka, the High Energy Gamma Ray Laboratories at Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh and Hanle in Ladakh.

The work at the institute is carried out in three schools: mathematics, natural sciences, and technology and computer sciences. From its inception, the School of Mathematics has been internationally regarded for the quality of its research. Over the years it has attracted the best scientists in the world of mathematics to come and spend sabbaticals. In recognition of this, from 1956, the International Mathematical Union (IMU) instituted an international colloquium that is held every four years at the TIFR.

The Department of Theoretical Physics is known worldwide for its activities in front-line research areas. Today it has a vibrant group of young string theorists whose work is at the forefront of string theory. Research in quark-gluon plasma in the department has contributed significantly to the development of the field globally. The institute acquired an advanced supercomputer a few years ago to carry out highly computation-intensive work in the field. Studies in recent years have spanned beyond the traditional areas to include self-organised criticality, dimer coverings on lattices, the phase diagram of DNA, rapidly driven systems and quantum wires.

Cosmic ray research, an activity that came with Bhabha himself, forms part of the general area of high energy physics research at the institute.

The institute has had a long-standing tradition of international collaborations. The first deep underground neutrino experiments in the Kolar Gold Fields were carried out in collaboration with Japanese scientists. In recent years, the institutes high energy physicists were part of major experiments at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, with Fermilab in the United States and with KEK in Japan. In fact, TIFR scientists made key contributions to the Large Electron-Positron collider experiments. They have a significant role in one of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments as well. The TIFR is one of the Tier-2 GRID computing centres for data handling from the LHC experiments.

Having pioneered underground neutrino research, TIFR scientists are involved in setting up an underground India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) following the closure of the Kolar mines. Balloon-based cosmic ray research is also conducted at an altitude of 40 km with the help of the NBF. Studies on the magnetic properties of solids that began in the 1950s using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and nuclear spectroscopy techniques led to the formation of the Department of Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science.

The discovery of borocarbides, a class of high-temperature superconductors, at the TIFR has had a significant international impact. The department has also been engaged in the design and development of novel optoelectronic devices based on semiconductors, and thin superconducting films have been developed using laser techniques. Recently, researchers have initiated activities in soft condensed matter, an emerging field, which has already resulted in some interesting findings.

Graduate students are an integral part of research at the TIFR. Currently, the institute`s graduate school has about 300 students.-

The Department of Nuclear and Atomic Physics is a leading centre in the country with a major thrust on molecular sciences. In the early 1990s, a heavy-ion accelerator, a 14 MV Pelletron, was built on the Mumbai campus. The tall structure, which is visible in photographs of the institute, has led to studies of nuclear matter at high excitation energies and angular momenta. An entirely indigenously built superconducting linear accelerator (sLINAC) helps boost the energies of particles from the Pelletron further, and the accelerator was declared a national facility in November 2007. The development of the sLINAC is a milestone in accelerator technology in India.

Another important development relates to the use of ultra-short (femtosecond) lasers, with very high peak powers to investigate ionised matter at extreme conditions. An offshoot of the early studies of magnetic properties of molecules, atoms and nuclei that began in the early 1950s is the Department of Chemical Sciences where life-sciences related studies on structures of nucleic acids and proteins, dynamics of protein folding and unfolding, chemical basis of neuronal communication, biological pathways in living cells, molecular self-assembly, and so on are carried out. A national facility for high field NMR, set up in 1983 with support from the Union Ministrys Department of Science and Technology, is extensively used by the drug industry and other laboratories. A number of sophisticated optical instruments, such as the time-correlated single photon counting instrument, a multiphoton microscope and a fluorescence correlation spectrometer, have also been built in the department.

The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics carries out experimental studies over a wide range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum optical, infrared, radio, X-rays and gamma rays. A major experimental activity relates to the designing and building of instruments for the first Indian multi-wavelength astronomy satellite, ASTROSAT. The fabrication of the specially designed X-ray mirror for the satellite marks a major development.

Theoretical work includes studies on black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, gravitational collapse, gravitational lensing, supernovae and the sun as well as the mathematical structure of Albert Einsteins general theory of relativity. At the NCRA, on the other hand, millisecond pulsars and the epoch of structure formation in the universe are studied using data from the GMRT.

Early work at the Department of Biological Sciences in the 1960s and 1970s focussed on molecular aspects of processes fundamental to the life sciences recombination, gene regulation and protein structure. In the 1980s and 1990s, research diversified to study the genetic basis of more complex cellular processes such as brain function and development. Study of parasitic infections, particularly malaria, has been an area of research in the department. At the NCBS, which was established in 1991 as a result of the rapid growth in the range of activities in Mumbai, researchers are engaged in the study of nanoscale interactions in cells and systems biology. Recently, the NCBS joined hands with the IISc to establish a centre for neurological sciences at the IISc campus.

Early work in computer science was largely related to various technology- and application-oriented activities of computer design and fabrication, software development and computer education and training, especially under the United Nations Development Programme-sponsored National Centre for Software Development and Computer Technology (NCSDCT). This later became the National Centre for Software Technology (NCST) under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

The rest of the activities were consolidated as a new School of Technology and Computer Sciences in the late 1990s. Research here includes applied probability, computational geometry, computational mathematics, computer security, signal processing, formal methods and stochastic modelling and learning.

In science education, the HBCSE conducts research in cognition in scientific learning and is involved in curriculum development, aspects of science and mathematics education and popularisation of science, including textbook writing. In recent years, the centre has become the training ground for youngsters selected to participate in international olympiads in various subjects, and this has produced very encouraging results. The centre has also a special programme focussing on the problems of the underprivileged.

Besides pioneering computer technology development, the TIFR has developed technologies for applications in accelerators, microwave communications, software and semiconductor technology. Some of these activities nucleated to create specialised centres such as the NCST and the Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering and Research (SAMEER) under the Ministry.

Computer scientists from the TIFR have played significant roles in defence projects such as the Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES) and the Army Radio Engineering Network (AREN) and in setting up technology organisations such as CMC Ltd and the Centre for the Development of Telematics (C-DoT).

The institute has about 240 members on the academic faculty; 160 of them are based in Mumbai. Key to the continuing excellence at the institute is the graduate school, which was established in the late 1960s. Students are selected from a nationwide open-to-all written examination. Nearly 10,000 students took the test last year. At present, there are about 300 students in the programme. These students become part of the research activities at the institute and work towards their doctoral degree after their course work, which is a licence to a challenging research career. Until 2002, students received their doctorates from the University of Bombay. Now the institute is a deemed university and grants degrees on its own.

The acquisition of a 200-acre plot at the periphery of the Central University campus in Hyderabad points to greater expansion and a wider range of activities at the TIFR. The new campus is expected to facilitate collaborative research with the university and other research and educational institutions in the region. The institutes authorities envisage that the number of students and postdoctoral fellows at the new campus will be about 1,200 and 300 respectively.

New initiatives at the Mumbai and Hyderabad centres are expected to include research laboratories for high field magnetic resonance, extremely high laser fields, novel imaging technologies, ultra-high resolution electron spectroscopy, matter under extreme conditions, soft matter, study of human biology and model organisms, quantum phenomena and mesoscopic science and optics and a broader range of theoretical research to complement these.

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