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Dreams and Destiny

Experiments with strips of films projected onto the wall using sunlight and a lens formed the earliest memory of dabbling in science. The hugely magnified faces had specks of dark spots all over them and I wondered where they came from. Chemistry taught in the school was fun, especially when accompanied by experiments conducted by T. M. Jacob sir. However, chemicals were relatively inaccessible compared to the lens, battery and magnets. I remember producing hydrogen through electrolysis and filling balloons.

Two incidents that happened in my high school days strengthened my growing affinity for science. Homi Bhabha established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay in January 1954 to intensify the efforts to exploit nuclear energy by pursuing a multidisciplinary research programme. The advertisements about a training programme for recruits opened up dramatic possibilities in the mind of an impressionable young boy.

The other incident was the USSR launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. The newspapers were full of stories of the coming of the space age. For an imaginative young person, this was indeed a demonstration of the power of science to beckon us to brave new worlds.

When I went to the University Intermediate College for my pre-degree course, I stayed in the University Hostel. I had many neighbours who were M. Sc students at the University. They talked about many things, like the concept of entropy and the possibility of the heat death of the universe. This and many such conversations on cosmology and astrophysics influenced my choice to pursue physics as a career.

In SB College Prof. S. L. Thomas with his grand mannerisms, initiated us into the mysteries of electricity and magnetism. Of all his classes, I still remember the last lecture he gave us: a general talk on what science means and how it impacts ordinary life. One of the reasons which firmed up my decision on a research career was this talk.

The experiments were fun. For the first time, I could do all those things with lenses, battery and magnets that I had dreamed about. I remember enjoying doing electricity and magnetism experiments. The certainty of science was convincingly demonstrated in the experiments when repeated measurements came up with the same results.

An incident I remember from my B.Sc days was the visit of Dr John Mathai, the Vice-Chancellor of Kerala University to the college. When he came to our class, he asked the students what they planned to do in life. The dread of attempting an answer in English made the students tongue-tied. I stood up and said that I wanted to pursue a career in research in a national laboratory. I became a ‘minor celebrity because of this answer.

I found a collection of old Scientific American in an inaccessible part of the College library. My fascination with science was further activated by the rich fare of articles. I was equally captivated by the job advertisements, which was a signpost to future possibilities in a career in science.

By this time, I had become a science fiction addict. Stories by Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur Clarke excited me and made me wonder about the impact of technology on our future. Heinlein’s Future History is a series of stories describing the speculated future of the human race from the middle of the 20th century through the early 23rd century. Clarke’s story, “Childhood’s End” about the end of the earth as a home for humans made a deep impact on me. His statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” made me wonder about the power of technology. Years later, I had the opportunity to interact with him during his visit to PRL.

My father still cherished the dream that I would pursue a career in engineering. However, I was insistent on continuing with basic science. I was finally able to convince my father of my plan to do a masters and follow it with a research career. Research, to my unformed mind, was an ideal. But I had only vague notions about how to do this.

Though I wanted intensely to get into research, I did not know exactly how to go about this. Letters to heads of departments of various universities seeking a position in the research were not replied to. The best thing, I thought was a Bharatdarshan; to go to these places and talk to them.

The journey saw me going through Madras to Calcutta and from there towards Delhi. Allahabad and Patna did not impress me. Heading to Delhi, I stopped at Aligarh and walked into the office of Prof. Rais Ahmed, who had recently returned from England and had taken over as the head of the physics department. He was quite surprised when I introduced myself and said that I wanted to do research. He asked me some general questions, which I answered well. He managed to get me a Ministry of Education scholarship, a sum of Rs. 250, which, among all scholarships was the most irregular. Months would pass before this was paid.

How I became a plasma physicist was an accident of fate. The Physics department had lost its glory as a seat of physics research.  The work in cosmic rays led by Prof. P. S. Gill and spectroscopy by Prof. Putcha Venkateswara had come to an end. Prof. Rais Ahmed was aware of the work at Harwell on fusion and Oxford on ionized gases and induced me to take a risk in starting experimental work in plasma physics. The department had no prior art nor faculty members established in this area. I had to think through the whole process of planning an experiment, assemble the various equipment scavenged from different laboratories and build and start the experiment.

Prof. Rais Ahmed made sure that I read journals like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which dealt with the socio-cultural impacts of science. I remember reading an article by Vikram Sarabhai on his dream of using satellites for advancing school education. I became aware of the link between science, development and social justice.

I finished my thesis in 1969 and continued in the department as a lecturer. My attempts to get a post-doctoral fellowship in the US was turning out to be unsuccessful, perhaps due to the strained Indo-US relations after the Bangladesh war. It soon became clear to me that the department would not offer me many growth opportunities. Prof. Bimla Buti happened to visit the department at that time, and she asked me whether I would like to join Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, which was planning to start an experimental programme in plasma physics. I jumped at the opportunity.

PRL was the ideal place for a young scientist to grow. Being the only person with some experience in experimental plasma physics, I had considerable independence to pursue my work defined within the framework of building an experimental programme to do basic plasma physics-oriented towards space phenomena. Theoretical plasma physicists who formed the majority of the group were friendly and explained the mysteries of plasma physics and gave advice whenever necessary. Adequate funds and administration support to scientists created a positive environment. Visits and lectures by famous physicists inspired and made us dream of great things.

Thoughts about my career lead to a recurring realization that I have been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time on many occasions. It was an accident of going to Aligarh that made me a Plasma Physicist. It was also an accident that PRL was planning to start work in Experimental Plasma Physics when I was beginning to be disillusioned with continuing at Aligarh. After a decade in PRL, the Plasma Physics Programme and Aditya happened through the collective efforts of many people. An understanding Director and a supporting Council made  FCIPT possible. An unexpected invitation to work at IAEA made me aware of the importance of ITER. The DAE dispensation supportive of Indian participation in ITER also happened at the right time. All these opportunities presented themselves and one needed only to have a reasonable competence and an honest commitment to fulfil the demands these opportunities made.

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