6th October 1893: Meghnad Saha, Indian Astrophysicist is born

Indian astrophysicist, institution builder and parliamentarian Meghnad Saha, who developed the ‘ionization theory’ and its application to the interpretation of stellar spectra, was born on 6 October 1893 in a village near Dhaka (now in Bangladesh).

The fifth child of Jagannath, a grocer, and Bhubneshwari Devi, Saha studied at a village school and then joined the Government Collegiate School in Dhaka after securing a scholarship. Around this time, Bengal was in turmoil because of the British move to partition the state. The young Saha was influenced by the prevailing atmosphere.

After a stint at a private school he cleared the entrance examination for Calcutta University and later joined Calcutta’s famous Presidency College. His fellow students and teachers here included great names in Indian science such as Satyendra Nath Bose, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Jagadish Chandra Bose. After Presidency, Saha became a lecturer in a newly-opened research institute. Here his fascination for physics deepened and he read works such as Planck’s writings on thermodynamics with great interest. As World War I drew to a close, new discoveries led to the confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and Saha was hooked on to Relativity. His first original paper ‘On Maxwell’s stresses’ was published in 1917. Other papers followed.

In June 1918, he married Radha Rani.

One of Saha’s most important papers came out in October 1920 in the Philosophical Magazine. Titled ‘On ionization in the solar chromosphere’, the paper for the first time provided a clear interpretation of different classes of stellar spectra in terms of physical conditions prevailing in stellar atmosphere. This and another paper titled ‘On a physical theory of stellar spectra’ are considered to be Saha’s major contributions.

As S. Rosseland later observed, “The impetus given to astrophysics by Saha’s work can scarcely be overestimated.”

A scholarship in 1919 allowed Saha to spend two years in Europe, which included  professor A. Fowler’s laboratory in London and W. Nernst’s laboratory in Berlin.

Returning to India, he joined the University of Calcutta as professor of physics and in 1923 took up the post of professor and head of department of physics at Allahabad University. He would end up staying here for 15 years. Under his stewardship, Allahabad became a prominent research centre in India. In 1938, his home state beckoned and Saha took up the offer of the Palit Chair in physics at the University of Calcutta, a position he held till 1953.

As India moved towards freedom, Saha’s interests broadened, and though he continued with research and teaching, he took an active role in issues like the refugee crisis during Partition. This was also the time when Saha became increasingly vocal about the role of science in Indian policy.

As general president of the 21st session of the Indian Science Congress held in Bombay in 1934, he drew attention to the issue of flooding in many Indian rivers and proposed a scientific study of the issue, becoming one of the first persons to do so.

He believed in a form of “controlled capitalism” in which social welfare trumps profit motive, and that science could be a force for the good. “The joy of life for the grown-up men will be provided not in designing means for the plunder or exploitation of their fellow men in various ways but in administering to their needs, and in free development and display of the finer faculties of the mind,” he said in a speech in 1932.

Saha founded the Indian Physical Society in 1933 and the Indian Science News Association in 1935. He also brought out the journal Science and Culture, an alternative political voice where state policies in science and technology were vigorously debated and suggestions offered.

After India’s independence, Saha opposed the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission, as he felt India did not have enough trained scientists and engineers for the purpose. He was also against what he saw as foreign scientists’ interference in India’s atomic energy development.

The members of the Atomic Energy Commission were: Homi Bhabha, its chairman and director of National Physical Laboratory in Delhi; K.S. Krishnan; and S.S. Bhatnagar, secretary to Department of Scientific Research. Saha found himself excluded.

In those early years after Independence, Saha was perhaps the only person with both the clout and scientific knowledge to confidently critique the policies of the scientific establishment. Plunging into politics, he contested as an Independent candidate in the 1952 Lok Sabha elections, defeating his Congress rival by a huge margin.

He became one of the biggest critics of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific advisors and the scientific establishment in New Delhi. Towards Nehru himself, Saha was always respectful. There are differing views on why Saha took such a strong stance, but the bitterness was not concealed. In his letters to Nehru, Saha slammed some of the big names in Indian science. “. . . In 1946, as soon as you [Nehru] got power, these very men who had so far kept a safe distance from you, began to buzz round like so many flies round a honey pot,” one such telling letter reads.

Saha died on 16 February 1956 after suffering a heart-attack.

Meghnad Saha is remembered not only for his contribution to physics, but the crucial role he played in building institutions and providing insights into the role of science and technology in a country investing heavily in industrialisation. The Institute of Nuclear Physics in Calcutta he helped establish was named the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics after his death. 

Also on this day:

1946 — Birth of Vinod Khanna, Bollywood actor and producer

2007 — Laxmi Mall Singhvi, jurist, Parliamentarian, scholar, diplomat, passes away

2012 — B. Satya Narayan Reddy, Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, passes away

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