For the love of science

Yash Pal’s (1926-2017) career spanned many decades and disciplines but his main commitment was to demystify science and instil in students a wonder for it.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

Prof. Yash Pal.

Prof. Yash Pal.

NOT many Indian scientists, living or dead, can claim that they breathed science every waking moment. Prof. Yash Pal, who passed away on the night of July 24 at the age of 90, however, was different. For him, science was not an abstract idea to be understood by researchers who lock themselves up in ivory towers. Instead, he wanted the man in the street to understand it and appreciate it.

“One of his main passions in life was to demystify science and make it simple and understandable,” said Kiran Karnik, former chairman of the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), who was Yash Pal’s long-time associate.

From doing original science for a good three decades to imparting an ethos to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that set it apart from other scientific agencies in the country to passionately promoting quality education to being a science communicator par excellence, Yash Pal did it all.

And all by a man whose education witnessed uncertainty, not just once but several times before he could actually complete his PhD from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States in 1958.

Yash Pal was born on November 26, 1926, in Jhang, a small town on the eastern banks of the Chenab river, now in Pakistan. Incidentally, the town was also the birthplace of the only Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani scientist, Abdus Salam. The early years of his life with his parents in the neighbouring Quetta were pleasant and peaceful until 1935, when a powerful earthquake, measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale, razed the picturesque town, killing an estimated 60,000 people. Young Yash Pal and his siblings—a brother and a sister—had to be dug out of a building razed by the tremors. His schooling got disrupted for one year as the town had to be rebuilt.

The next disruption in his education came when he was about to enter the final year of his BSc honours course in physics at Punjab University in Lahore in 1947. Yash Pal, who had come to Delhi because his father had been transferred there, could not go back to Lahore to resume his studies as riots broke out after Partition. Later on, Yash Pal, along with his classmates and teachers, who had moved in from Lahore, converted a disused Second World War army barracks in Delhi into classrooms with the help of Prof. D.S. Kothari, who taught physics at Delhi University, and others. While pursuing his MSc at Delhi University, he got an opportunity to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) even though he had not completed his master’s.

After the interview at TIFR, he was told that he had been admitted as a research student and that he could do the work for his master’s dissertation there. Yash Pal did not waste that golden opportunity. Using the fantastic research facilities that TIFR offered, Yash Pal completed his MSc dissertation in the emerging area of particle physics.

TIFR sent him to MIT to do his PhD under Bruno Rossi, an experimental physicist who specialised in cosmic rays. Yash Pal later recollected that he had only attempted half the questions in the test given to him for getting admission to the graduate programme at MIT. Surprised to have been selected, he told his guide about the incident. Rossi asked him to appear for another test, and he cleared that with flying colours.

Stint at TIFR

In 1958, Yash Pal returned to TIFR to begin his long association with the eminent cosmic ray scientist Bernard Peters, who had come from the U.S. to work in India at the invitation of Homi Bhabha. Shyam Narain Tandon, one of his graduate students and now professor emeritus at the Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), reminisced: “He was truly exceptional. He communicated gently, without any pressure on the student, the art of independent thinking and the confidence to solve problems with careful thinking.”

According to Tandon, Yash Pal’s most important contributions in science were the study of new elementary particles through interactions of cosmic rays, propagation and interactions of cosmic rays in our galaxy, interactions of cosmic rays (which have direct connections with high-energy/particle physics) in the atmosphere, and the search for anti-matter in cosmic rays.

Yash Pal was more enthusiastic about new ideas and their implications than about details. He could connect almost immediately with anyone, said Tandon.

Productive research career

After a richly productive research career lasting almost 25 years at TIFR, Yash Pal moved to Ahmedabad to be the founder-director of the newly established Space Applications Centre (SAC), where he directed the world’s first satellite television broadcast experiment, called the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). Later on, about his decision to take charge of SAC, he jocularly said: “Satish Dhawan [the then ISRO Chairman] ‘social blackmailed’ me.”

The renowned popular science writer Arthur C. Clarke was in awe of the SITE programme. In an article he wrote for Frontline in 2001 titled “Satellites and saris: 25 years later”, Clarke said: “During its twelve crowded months of operation, SITE proved beyond doubt that only comsats could provide India with all the variety of telecommunications required to administer such a large and diversified country. This led to the development and launch of India’s own communications satellites, beginning with INSAT-1.”

Kiran Karnik, who was then managing a studio which produced content that was beamed to 2,400 villages in States across the country as part of SITE, from the top floor of a rundown government school in Mumbai, was amazed at Yash Pal’s ability to get the best talents in Indian science then to work closely with the best film-makers and artists in the country. Yash Pal made sure that everything was sufficiently simplified so that schoolchildren understood and enjoyed these television programmes. “He often used rudimentary things like a bicycle to explain difficult concepts in science,” said Karnik.

“Yash Pal, during a short period at SAC, managed to create what can be called ‘Conscience of ISRO’. He put together a team which consisted of, apart from engineers, social scientists and management people. Each of the major ISRO projects was vetted by this group, which critically analysed how it was going to help India’s development. This subsequently became an integral part of the ISRO ethos,” said Karnik.

According to Karnik, one of the little known contributions of Yash Pal was in the field of global science diplomacy when he was the Secretary General of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 1982-83. “He was phenomenal in getting the Americans and the Russians to agree to using space for peaceful purposes. Imagine, this was at the height of the Cold War and the militarisation of space,” he said.

Another remarkable ability of Yash Pal, Karnik said, was to make interesting organisational structures. When he was the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) between 1986 and 1991, he wanted to create inter-university centres which were unique in concept. Institutions like the IUCAA and the Inter-University Accelerator Centre in New Delhi are shining examples.

Going beyond the classroom

Since he also wanted college education to go beyond the classroom, he encouraged universities to set up studios to produce audiovisual programmes. “He wanted audiovisual research centres and educational mass-media research centres created in universities to take higher education ‘outside the classroom and beyond the textbook’,” said Karnik, who headed the Consortium of Educational Communication, which coordinated these efforts, in its initial years. At present, these institutions are run down and suffer from lack of funds.

All through his career, which took him places and across disciplines, his love for popularising science was very much evident. Apart from anchoring programmes such as “Turning Point”, he used to painstakingly answer the hundreds of questions that he received from schoolchildren all over the country.

He always reviled the current system of education. He used to maintain that children were born scientists. “They are curious and always ready to experiment. Teaching is something that assures that this inherent quality of humans is not destroyed. When people go through our system of education, they come out through the other end as people of much lesser potential than they originally were,” he once said.

V. Siddhartha, a former scientist with ISRO and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, vividly remembers his first meeting with Yash Pal in the mid 1950s. “Yash Pal and Prof. Bernard Peters were flying met [metereological] balloons with a cosmic ray lead-plate array detector. Yash was persuaded by the school principal to allow me to watch a flight. I stayed overnight at the school to wake up at four in the morning and sat in a jeep that took me to the ‘launch’ site— the roof of one of the buildings at Delhi University. The balloons were tracked by an old Second World War British military radar mounted on a truck-trailer.”

Even in retirement, he served on many committees that looked at the problems in education. Apart from heading the committee set up in 2005 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development that prepared the National Curriculum Framework, he chaired a commission in 2008 to prepare a blueprint for higher education reforms.

“The common thread that runs through whatever Prof. Yash Pal has done in his long and productive life in science is the emphasis on innovation and independent thought, and the fact that often it is more important to invent a thing yourself than to procure it,” says the popular science writer Biman Basu in Yash Pal: A Life in Science, a biography of Yash Pal that he wrote.

Yash Pal, indeed, was the conscience keeper of Indian science.

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