The book “Homi J Bhabha: A Renaissance Man among Scientists” by Biman Nath is a compelling monograph that brings to light the life and times of Homi Jehangir Bhabha.
Homi Bhabha was a nuclear physicist who pioneered the Indian nuclear research programme. Often hailed as the father of India’s nuclear power project, his ambition, far sightedness and enterprise shaped the development of modern science in India. This book describes his foresights on setting up high-quality research facilities for nuclear energy in our country such as TIFR and BARC.
This book also speaks of his passionate interest in art and architecture, drawing and painting, and his love for classical music, which made him stand out as a renaissance man among scientists.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Homi Jehangir Bhabha was born in a Parsi family at the turn of the 20th century. His childhood was encased in a cultured environment that was unique to Parsis in Bombay and that helped him to blossom as a scientist and an artist.
The Parsi community in India was fairly westernized. They were the first Indian community to establish a close rapport with the British. There were several reasons for it. On one hand, the British found them more acceptable than the Hindus and Muslims. On the other hand, Parsis did not have the historical baggage of either being the ruler or the ruled. This led them to become the primary brokers and agents of the British, and learn the mechanisms of the stock market before any other community did. They also became active partners in trade with China and were potential investors. When economic activity grew in Bombay, they were the first community to set up industrial units. When the first savings bank was opened in Bombay in 1835, the Parsis were at the vanguard of the banking industry. They were also one of the first beneficiaries of modern education in India. Sociologists have compared them to the Japanese, who were the only other Asians that imbibed western culture at that time.
Homi Bhabha’s grandfather Hormusji Bhabha was educated in England and had been the Inspector of General Education in the princely state of Mysore. He was decorated with the Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) by the British. His son, Hormusji Jehangir Bhabha, had grown up in Bangalore and later studied in Oxford, after which he was trained as a lawyer before returning to Mysore to join the Judicial Service of the state. He had married Meherbai Panday, the daughter of Ruttonbai and Framji Dorabji Panday from Bombay. Her grandfather was Sir Dinshaw Petit, whose father had built the first composite mill in Bombay. Meherbai’s sister had married Sir Dorab Tata, the son of Jamshed Tata, the founder of the Tata group of industries.
The young couple moved to Bombay after the wedding. In Bombay, Hormusji Jehangir Bhabha became a legal advisor to the business interests of the Tatas, and served on the board of directors to many Tata companies.
Their first son Homi was born on 30 October 1909. Even as a child, he had shown signs of being unique. Apparently, as a young child, he hardly slept and this worried his parents. When they had gone on a trip abroad, his parents heard of a famous child specialist in Paris and took an appointment. The doctor had cancelled all other appointments because he wanted to attend to this unique case. He later told the parents that there was nothing to worry about young Homi, and that he had an extraordinarily active brain that kept him away from sleeping. The doctor told the parents that all they could do was to ensure a favourable environment at home and the child would surely grow up to be a genius.
The parents found that the child had a musical ear, and could be pacified with sounds of music that they played on their gramophone whenever he cried. His interest in music stayed with him as he grew older. He was close to his younger brother Jamshed, and a cousin, Dinshaw, with whom he spent hours listening to music. They listened to western classical compositions on the gramophone, turning each record over and over again, taking turns to wind the machine. He knew the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven and Mozart by heart already by the age of eight. He had also learnt how to play the violin.
During his boyhood years, he did not show much interest in sports. He spent most of his time reading, and playing with his meccano set, with which he built and re-built models of cars and cranes with wheels and gears. Perhaps his interest in the workings of machines was kindled in this phase, as well as the spirit of taking up practical challenges.
That he was an avid reader even at this age is clear from an early photograph, in which adolescent Bhabha is ‘dressed in a dark suit and tie, reclining in a formal post in an overstuffed armchair…in his lap is a book on El Greco’ (‘A Gentleman of the Old School’).
There is an anecdote about his dangerous attempt to make a parachute out of an umbrella, with one of his cousins, Rustom. Homi had heard about parachutes around the time of World War I, when he was about six or seven years old. They had stood on the ledge of a first-floor balcony and were ready to jump, each holding an umbrella. They were saved in the nick of time by another cousin, Dinshaw, who had pulled them back.
Homi was sent to the Cathedral Boys School. He learnt Latin and French, apart from other regular subjects. Besides science, he was also fascinated by poetry, especially of Shelley. He also learnt to draw and paint from the artist Jehangir Lalkaka. His love for art became evident later when he built the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, whose corridors and lounges are decorated with epitomes of modern Indian painting. He himself had sketched various scientific personalities, and often during conference talks, he would doodle while thinking about the content of the lectures.
Young Homi would also witness several personalities coming to their house for meetings with the Parsi business community. It was the time when Mahatma Gandhi had started his non-cooperation movement against the British government in earnest. Many national leaders, including Gandhi, would discuss the future of India with the Tatas and other Parsi businessmen. Homi’s father and the Tatas were nationalists, and political leaders realized that they had to take the business community along in order to plan for a sustainable India after independence. Young Homi Bhabha was exposed to the nationalist fervour from a young age and these experiences would in many ways shape his visions of science in independent India.
He passed the Senior Cambridge examination when he was 15. This was when he had started reading about Einstein’s theory of relativity on his own. The notions of space and time being relative and the idea that they are not absolute created a lasting impression on him. Slowly he was leaning towards the world of physics. His fascination with physics received further momentum when a famous physicist came to Bombay.
It was 1926. Homi Bhabha had joined Elphinstone College and then the Royal Institute of Science (RIS) in Bombay. It was at this institute that Arthur Holly Compton had come to give a public lecture. Compton had discovered something remarkable about the nature of X-rays, which is similar to ordinary light, except that X-rays were far more energetic than visible light. It was customary to think of light (and therefore X-rays) as waves in the preceding century, in the domain of classical physics, but new experiments were beginning to show that they also behaved like particles. Compton had shown that X-rays, when scattered by material, can lose energy. It was as if they were billiard balls, and had lost some energy after colliding with particles of matter. A year later after his visit to Bombay, Compton would be conferred the Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery.