Growing the Tree of Science: An Excerpt 

Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, whose utopian vision for science this book invoked at the outset, played a significant role in the establishment of Bhabha’s institute. Bhabha’s friendship with Bhatnagar is less talked about than his friendship with Nehru, however, it was no less important. Their friendship dated back to the years Bhabha spent in Bangalore; in fact, both Bhatnagar and Bhabha were awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society by Sir A.V. Hill during his visit to India in 1944. Bhatnagar’s presence in the council of the institute from April 1947 predated Indian independence. Soon after independence in August 1947, the affairs of Bhabha’s institute demonstrated a quick rise in tempo. The institute had had the support of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) from its inception but with Bhatnagar, the director-general of CSIR entering the council, government investment in the institute increased dramatically. This was an expected outcome. Welcoming Bhatnagar into the council, the chairman, Sir Sohrab, had anticipated benefiting from Bhatnagar’s ‘great experience in matters of administration and research problems’. Bhabha’s institute had started functioning with an annual budget of Rs 80,000 in 1945. Demonstrating the convergence of private and public funding, the CSIR had also offered the institute an annual block grant of Rs 75,000. By 1946–7, the CSIR offered an additional grant of Rs 32,400 for training a team of scientists in accelerators. The following year this had increased to Rs 50,840. Government funding to the institute increased at an accelerated pace from 1948 onwards. By then Bhatnagar and Bhabha had been friends for almost a decade. Bhabha’s friendship with Bhatnagar cannot be defined merely as instrumentalist. Bhatnagar, the older scientist, was respected within the colonial scientific establishment and he saw in Bhabha a worthy collaborator who was already groomed for leadership in science. Together they forged a relationship of admiration, trust, and a sense of participation in building science for a new nation. Having identified the younger scientist as a leader, Bhatnagar did his utmost to reserve for Bhabha’s institute the pre-eminent position of becoming the only institute for nuclear research. In a confidential letter written to Bhabha just before Indian independence, Bhatnagar informed him that the IISc, Bangalore, was about to start a branch of nuclear physics and create a chair for R.S. Krishnan, who headed the Department of Physics. This, Bhatnagar felt, would interfere with Bhabha’s plans for nuclear research. For one, their plans to recruit R.S. Krishnan would not materialize if the scientist already had a chair at IISc—a proposal backed by the Tatas and Meghnad Saha. Highlighting the single source of funding— the government—with which he was involved, Bhatnagar justified his apprehensions about competition between research institutions. This also really is in conflict with our programme of developing your Institute as the centre for nuclear research, While I am not against more chairs being created in universities, I am against the IISc, the CSIR and the TIFR competing amongst themselves in the progress of development of nuclear research as the funds come practically from one source.

The two scientists essentially agreed on this issue. But Bhabha perhaps misrecognized the urgency and felt he himself could sway the decision in a direction that agreed with his own aims as he had been a member of the Bangalore physics department and asked Bhatnagar to talk to Saha. Bhatnagar, however, believed that this evil matter has to be nipped in the bug [ sic ]’ right away and accordingly sent Bhabha a letter for Professor Rustum Choksi who represented the Tatas on the Council of the Indian Institute of Science. 134 In his letter to Choksi, Bhatnagar got directly to the point, this time taking care to include the funds that the House of Tatas made available: The Government, the CSIR and the Education Department have recognized the TIFR as the place for development of nuclear research particularly as large sums of money are involved. As the monies come from the Tatas and the Government to all these organizations concerned, I suggest that we uphold the decision of the CSIR to first properly develop the TIFR. I am not against the creation of new Chairs in Physics but I am particularly interested in Bangalore developing other branches because nuclear physics has been taken up at Bombay and unnecessary rivalry in Tatas own organization is not good. There are other centres in Calcutta and I think they are in an advance over Bangalore in this particular branch. Dr R.S. Krishnan’s talents for this kind of work are undoubted but he should go to a place where there is some atmosphere for this particular field of research.

Bhatnagar’s intervention did bring about the desired results and Bhabha’s institute became the national centre for nuclear physics. But the creation of a central facility for nuclear research was a story of dispossession of competing facilities, as Jahnavi Phalkey has argued; it was also a move that came at the cost of the underdevelopment of the Indian universities. Bhatnagar, of course, paid the price for such manoeuvring. Two years later he expressed to Bhabha his sense of disappointment at the lack of acknowledgement from the Indian scientific community. Bhatnagar’s personal concern for Bhabha’s welfare echoes frequently through the correspondence. On 1 January 1954, at the foundation stone–laying ceremony of TIFR, Bhatnagar reiterated his faith in Bhabha’s ability to become the driving force behind nuclear research in India. Indeed, he saw himself playing a subordinate and enabling role: ‘I am the conductor and Dr Bhabha is my driver.’ More importantly, he emphasized the organic nature of the enterprise that he had undertaken. In his understanding, TIFR was an enterprise that would outlive him. Yet he felt it was important that the institute be nurtured so that the generation that followed could reap its benefits. For him the institute was like a mango tree whose fruits more often than not are never enjoyed by those who plant it but by future generations. This tree of science, as Bhatnagar put it, was planted in the present and would bear fruit only in the future: I am like an old gardener planting a mango tree. You ask me whether I expect to eat mangoes from this tree. At my age I know I perhaps go [ sic ] but all my life I have enjoyed mangoes not from a tree planted by myself. I would not have had mangoes if other men had not done what I am doing now.

Bhatnagar’s organic metaphor resonated with Bhabha’s idea of growing the tree of science. But Bhatnagar’s speech at the foundation stone–laying ceremony would turn out to be prophetic, for indeed he never lived to see the institute grow in its permanent premises—as he died of a sudden heart attack exactly a year later on 1 January 1955. At the institute, Bhabha mourned his passing away recording for posterity his friend’s service to science. Bhabha had lost an ally within the government machinery. But by then Bhabha’s own position was secure and indisputable. But most institutions, as we know, ‘depend for their effectiveness on other institutions’. In the case of Bhabha’s institute, the external links to other institutions, particularly government institutions, were strong and well established through the Department of Atomic Energy. Bhatnagar had referred to himself as an enabler—literally, the gardener who nurtured a mango tree whose fruit another generation would enjoy. This metaphor resonated well with Bhabha. Less than a decade after Bhatnagar’s death, Bhabha would choose the same organic metaphor when speaking about ways of growing scientific institutions. In 1963, at his presidential address to the National Institute of Sciences of India, Bhabha said: A scientific institution, be it a laboratory or an academy, has to be grown with great care, like a tree. Its growth in terms of quality and achievement can only be accelerated to a very limited extent. This is a field in which a large number of mediocre or second-rate workers cannot make up for a few outstanding ones. And a few outstanding ones always take at least 10 to 15 years to grow. Bhabha’s use of the gardening metaphor, as we shall see, was one quite close to his heart. But the idea of nurture and the focus on a ‘few outstanding’ institutions evoked the institutional model that he had envisioned for TIFR. Bhabha’s initial institutional design that concentrated on individuals and relied on them to build scientific groups had a lasting influence on TIFR as an institution and impacted its institutional culture.


Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press, from Growing the Tree of Science: Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research by NIF Fellow Dr Indira Chowdhury. 

In a critical departure from books that focus on Homi Bhabha as the architect of India’s atomic energy programme, Growing the Tree of Science concentrates instead on his efforts towards the creation of a scientific culture at his institute. 

 The book is available on Amazon.

The New India Foundation