After a long absence in the field of scientific researches, Bharat’s remarkable achievements in science started reappearing in the 19th century in Bengal, through the varied brilliant works of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Basu and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. These two legendary figures of awakening Bharateeya science triggered the evolution of a galaxy of Bharateeya scientists of which one illuminating star was Meghnad Saha. Coming out of a poverty-stricken rural Bengali family, Saha rose to a height at par with world class Physicists. In 1916, elite Bengal people found two young persons requesting Ashutosh Mookerjee, the then Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, to start MSc course in Physics in the newly established Science College. Sir Ashutosh agreed and appointed them as teachers for the course. They (Meghnad Saha and Satyendra Nath Basu) accepted the challenge of teaching and at the same time doing research work. In 1917, they started publishing their work in the prestigious foreign journal, Philosophical Magazine. In 1918, for his thesis on radiation, pressure and electromagnetic theory, Saha obtained DSc from the Calcutta University. In the same year, first English version of some papers on ‘Relativity’ by Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowosky in German language were published by Saha and Basu, which were published later by the Calcutta University. In the mean time, Debendra Mohan Bose gave them some foreign research papers. The articles regarding stellar spectra drew interest of Saha. He started thinking on the puzzling intensity distribution pattern in the solar spectrum. A series of four papers were published in Philosophical Magazine. Fourth paper was revised and published with the title On a Physical Theory of Stellar Spectra—as suggested by Prof Alfred Fowler. In his paper titled Ionisation in the Solar Chromospheres, he proposed a correct formula for ionisation which goes after his name as Saha Ionisation formula. In the fourth paper, Saha applied his ionisation formula giving proper importance to both temperature and pressure. In the meeting of the Royal Society, Prof Fowler spoke highly about the work and commented that it was the greatest contribution in Astrophysics. Since Kirchhoff’s discovery of spectrum analysis in 1859, it predicted a great number of simulatory works. Saha had significant contributions in other branches of physics including cosmic ray Physics and Nuclear Physics. In 1927, he was selected as a fellow of the Royal Society though delayed by the British India Intelligence Department. In spite of Compton’s recommendation for Nobel Prize, his name was not considered.
When on a fellowship of the Carnegie Trust, he toured Europe and USA, he realised the impact of developments in Nuclear Physics as a result of exchange of views in the Copenhagen conference on Nuclear Physics with a number of Nuclear Physicists and started dreaming of a Nuclear India. With the establishment of 38 inch cyclotron in the Institute of Nuclear Physics, he paved the way for realisation of the dream. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee laid the foundation stone of the Institute and Madam Curie Joliot formally inaugurated the Institute on Jan 11, 1950.
Bharat will remember Saha for his contribution to science but more than that he will be remembered as an organiser of science institutes to build up a modern Bharat. He was included in the national planning commission constituted by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in 1938 when Netaji was the president of AICC. In 1931, he founded the Uttar Pradesh Academy of Sciences at Allahabad, which was renamed as National Academy of Sciences. In 1933, he founded National Institute of Science at Calcutta, which was later promoted to Indian National Science Academy. In the same year, he established Indian Science News Association and edited its journal ‘Science and Culture’. In 1940, he introduced Nuclear Physics in the MSc course of the Calcutta University. On Saha’s initiative, Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha was appointed by the Calcutta University as the paper setter and examiner of the Nuclear Physics paper. In the later years Bhabha became the architect of a Nuclear Bharat.
Saha always thought for national development. Damodar River Planning was his most outstanding and significant contribution for regulating flood and providing irrigation thus giving great relief to the poverty-stricken countrymen. For large scale industrial development of Bharat, for creating a congenial atmosphere for the scientists, for the reshaping of Bharateeya economy, he found it necessary to participate in politics and thus he got elected as an MP in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Parliament). In 1953, he joined Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science as its Director. He extended the multiple research facilities in this organisation and thus fulfilled the dream of its founder—Dr Mahendralal Sarkar.
Today Astrophysics has developed tremendously both theoretically and experimentally. The gate of this world was opened by MN Saha. In 1982, Nobel Laureate S Chandrasekhar, the Astrophysicist wrote—“Meghnad Saha’s place in the history of Astrophysics and in the history of modern science in India is unique”. S Rosseland wrote in his famous book Theoretical Astrophysics– “The impetus given to Astrophysics by Saha’s work can scarcely be overestimated, as nearly all later progress in the field has been influenced by it and more of the subsequent work has the character of the refinement of Saha’s ideas”. For the study of ionisation in the high altitude space, he envisaged a laboratory in space. In the Harvard College Observatory Bulletin, he suggested photographing the ultraviolet spectrum of the sun.
With the help of German V2 rockets, the experiment was made possible and that agreed with the predictions of Saha; now a days such laboratories and observatories are possible in space. Once in 1937 during his visit, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, in reply to a civic reception, raised the question why an observatory for astronomical researches could not be founded in India when a personality like Saha was there!
Can we not expect now a Radio
Telescope Centre to be named
Reference: Indian Journal of History of Science 29 (1), 1994, pp. 99-11, Meghnad Saha – The Scientist and the Institution Builder, Santimoy Chatterjee
Prof D P Roy (The writer is Former Head of Physics Department, Bankura Christian College, West Bengal)