Atomic Energy in the Family but My father never tried to influence me

These were the words of the eminent scientist Prof. Srinivas Krishnagopal, Head of the Ion Accelerator Division of Accelerator  of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre ( BARC) and son of late  Dr. P K Iyengar, Chairman Atomic Energy Commission (1990-93) and Director BARC (1984-90).   He was speaking at the first session of the series “Scientific Research in the Family” which was conducted on the title “Atomic Energy in the Family” on February 13, 2021 at 11.00 am through online mode. The Society for Promotion of Science of Science & Technology in India (SPSTI), in association with Chandigarh Chapter of the National Academy of Sciences, India (NASI) with support from Haryana State Council for Science, Innovation and Technology has initiated this new series. The session was attended by more than 30 participants on the zoom and about 249 viewed the same on the Facebook page of SPSTI.

The session started with a welcome by Prof. Keya Dharamvir. Prof. Arun K. Grover gave the opening remarks and shared the thought behind the initiation of new series with the chosen title. Prof. Grover recalled an articulation by Prof. Jayant Narlikar that very often early influences of high achiever’s close proximity can serve as motivator for intellectual and creative brilliance of a given person.

While the high achievements of  Dr. P K Iyengar influenced his son and daughter who both studied physics, his own scientific pursuits were  promoted by Dr. Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s Atomic Energy Programme. Prof. Grover  quoted the biographer of  Dr. Bhabha, namely, Dr. G Venkatraman, who has written that  “Like movie directors discovering superstars, Homi Bhabha picked up scientists and engineers all over the place and with his magic transformed them into scintillating professionals. Dr. P. K Iyengar’s brilliance was noted by Homi Bhabha very early and he sent him to get trained under would be Nobel Laureate Prof. B N Brock house in Canada. At a young age of 34 years, Dr. Iyengar was given the responsibility of the Head of the Nuclear Physics Division of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay. Though Homi Bhabha had perished in the plane crash soon after in 1966, Dr. Iyengar validated his confidence on him by winning the  Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize in 1971, and getting accorded the  Padma Bhushan honour in 1975.

Prof. Devinder Mehta, the nuclear physicist  from Department of Physics, Panjab University, Chandigarh formally introduced the speaker Dr. Srinivas Krishnagopal, who is also Professor of Physics at Homi Bhabha National Institute, Mumbai. He was awarded N. S. Sathyamurthy Young Scientist Award of the Indian Physics Association (IPA) in 1996 and Outstanding Research Investigator Award of Science Research Council of  DAE in 2005.

Prof. Krinshnagopal shared how he proceeded to US for his PhD study after doing MSc. at IIT Bombay. After his doctorate from Cornell University, he did his post doctoral work at the famous Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, before returning to India.  He was motivated for returning back to India to follow the example set up by his father to build something on his own. He shared that Dr. Iyengar was not the kind of person who would tell people what to do but his actions spoke for him.

Dr. Srinivas shared a documentary on Dr. Iyengar and supplemented it with anecdotes from his life. Dr. Iyengar’s childhood was spent in pre-independent India and almost at 16 years of age in 1947, he  was highly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Pt. Nehru. The nationalism and self-reliance were the pillars on which his life and career were built. During 1956-58, his work with Brockhouse consolidated his belief in himself and kindled his innovative spirit. During the same period Dr. Bhabha visited US and Canada along with Dr. Ramanna who urged him to join them. Another incident which influenced him was during his stay at Canada with other scientists, they were visited by Dr. Bhabha and Prime Minister Pt. Nehru together and interaction with them boosted his sense of nationalism. The preparation for India’s first nuclear explosion was the most exhilarating experience of his life. Krishnagopal who was very young then recalled those times with some amusement. But when news of Pokharan test broke, Krishnagopal for the first time realised that there is nothing India cannot do as a country. He remained inspired later in his career to take up technological challenges. He also shared more incidents of Dr. P K Iyengar when Dhruva reactor was built. He was a person who thought out of box and was not afraid to try new ideas. This trait continued after he superannuated as Chairman AEC. Agastya International Foundation was one such example where he suggested Ramji Raghavan to spread science and scientific temper among unprivileged children living in rural areas and have mobile laboratories to explain them everything as a scientific phenomenon. He was an example himself, working hard, self-reliance and dedication to once job.

Only instance he felt his father actually influenced his choice was when he applied for post-doctoral in California as he believed free-electron lasers would be very useful in future. He also talked about energy frontier which has resulted in Higg’s particle. He talked about X-rays which may be used for ‘making movie with atoms’. He also shares the work done at BARC on accelerators for energy security and shared road map of building highly intense proton accelerators and LEHIPA. He shared how accelerators can be used in medicine. He also focused on how basic research is crucial to innovate as technology of today will create science of tomorrow. He focused that at present the research is not extrapolative but is just finding the gap and improvising it. Though it is equally important, research with innovative ideas are equally important.

The session was much appreciated by the audience and followed with questions about the reason why less young minds are attracted to research. Audience also had suggestions for having more such talks to be accessible to younger audiences to motivate them. The session ended with a vote of thanks the by President of SPSTI, Shri Dharam Vir

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