MN Saha: A scientist who cared

Shobhit Mahajan | Updated on September 25, 2020

Why and how: The gallery at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

An academic wishes he’d met the world-class physicist Meghnad Saha to know more about his passion for not just pure science but also politics as a means to making a difference

Academics are supposed to be denizens of that rarefied place called the ivory tower — a place where they work on their intellectual pursuits disengaged and disconnected from the practical, quotidian concerns of ordinary folk. And nothing is a bigger anathema to academics than engagement with the dirty world of “politics”. Yet, there have been some who have not only excelled in their academic vocation but also been acutely concerned and actively engaged with the problems of everyday life. MN Saha exemplifies this for me. And that is what makes him such a fascinating personality.

A world-class scientist, a nationalist and socialist, a deep thinker as well as an institution builder who was not afraid to take on those in power, Meghnad Saha was born in an extremely poor family in rural Bengal in 1893. After his initial education in Dhaka, he moved to Presidency College, Calcutta. He taught in Calcutta, later moved to Allahabad University and then came back to Calcutta as the University of Calcutta's Palit Professor in 1938. Apart from his seminal work in astrophysics, which forms the bedrock of modern astrophysics, he also wrote a widely read textbook on thermodynamics and is credited with (along with his classmate SN Bose) producing the first English translation of Einstein’s papers on relativity from the German original.

Man on a mission: Saha also founded the Indian Science News Association for the dissemination of science and scientific ideas among the public   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


However, it is not his scientific brilliance which is unusual — there were many among his contemporaries who were also excellent scientists. It was Saha’s commitment and engagement with public life in all domains that, for me, is the most interesting aspect of his career.

In 1923, when Bengal was ravaged by massive floods, Saha was actively involved in organising relief for the victims. However, the scientist in him was not content with just distributing relief material; he wanted to know why floods were causing so much damage in recent years. Overflowing rivers had always been treated as a boon for agriculture but now they were causing devastation in terms of loss of property and lives to disease. Investigating the causes of this shift, he found that embankments for the railway lines had blocked natural drainage channels and hence water, which would ordinarily have drained away, now had nowhere to go.

This experience stayed with him and it was he who in 1943 proposed an integrated plan for the management of the Damodar River Valley project along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the US. I wonder how he would have reacted to some of the human suffering as well as ecological havoc wreaked by large multipurpose hydro projects such as those in the Damodar Valley in the last few decades.

In 1935, he founded the Indian Science News Association for the dissemination of science and scientific ideas among the public. The Association brought out a journal, Science and Culture, which is still going strong after six decades. He wrote for the journal more than 200 articles on diverse topics — including the use of science and technology for national development, industrialisation, nuclear energy, river management, centralised planning, the politics of the atomic bomb and the reform of the Calendar. In fact, in 1952, he chaired a committee which unified the tens of different calendars till then in use into the uniform Saka calendar, which has been the official calendar of the government since then.

Saha, like many of his contemporaries, was impressed by the success of Soviet planning in pulling up an incredibly backward country to a scientific and technological power in a few decades since the Russian revolution. He believed in large-scale, centrally-planned industrialisation and vociferously opposed the proponents of village industries during the debates in the Indian National Congress. Would he have approved of the final shape that State-led industrialisation took in the subsequent decades?

In the years leading up to Independence, the Congress was charting out plans for the development of various sectors including nuclear energy. Saha believed that India needed to first develop its industrial and human resource base before creating a centralised organisation for the development of nuclear energy. His plan was to strengthen the university system to produce the scientific manpower before undertaking the project of nuclear energy. This is what led to his now famous disagreement with Jawaharlal Nehru, who was more inclined to go along with the suave, Oxbridge educated Homi Bhabha than with the rustic, outspoken and down-to-earth Saha. Bhabha advocated an immediate foray into the development of nuclear energy. This decision to locate the site of scientific research away from the university system had many consequences, some of which we are still living with.

Saha’s disagreement with Nehru on this and many other issues led him to jump into active politics. He stood for elections in 1952 as an independent candidate and won from North-West Calcutta. Incidentally, he had to take a royalty advance of ₹5,000 from his publishers to fight the election. He participated actively in the debates in Parliament till his untimely death in 1956.

The rise of the poor boy from rural Bengal, who had to occasionally swim across flooded rivers to get to school, to the pinnacle of scientific glory is by itself fascinating. In Saha’s case, it went way beyond that— his deep-rooted concern for the ordinary person and his passion for a rational and scientific approach towards problems facing a newly independent nation were central to his personality. It was not that he thought of politics in the broadest sense as an addendum to his scientific work. For him finding the causes of flooding in rural Bengal was as important as finding the composition of the solar atmosphere. And he excelled in both.

(If Only is an occasional column on people — real or fictional — we wish we had met)

Shobhit Mahajan teaches physics at Delhi University

Published on September 25, 2020

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