- Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India by Jahnavi Phalkey
Not one, but three. That is perhaps the main take-home message from Jahnavi Phalkey’s Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India. Many histories of India’s nuclear energy and weapons programs begin with the story of physicist Homi Bhabha and his letter in March 1944 to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust seeking to found a nuclear research institute, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and go on from there to recount the manifold triumphs of that institution. By constant repetition, and by virtue of being the eventual winner in various bureaucratic conflicts, Bhabha has emerged as the singular scientist associated with starting nuclear research in India.
Through a careful and methodical examination of the archives at many of India’s prominent science institutions, Phalkey reveals a much more complex history, involving multiple individuals as well as “the state.” Phalkey’s story begins in 1938, when two of India’s prominent scientists, C. V. Raman and Meghnad Saha, sent a student each to the West to be trained in nuclear physics (p. 28). Raman’s student, R. S. Krishnan, went to the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge in England, while Saha’s student, B. D. Nagchoudhuri, went to the Radiation Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. Both Krishnan and Nagchoudhuri returned to India and joined the efforts to set up nuclear physics research in their homeland, Krishnan with Raman at the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore, and Nagchoudhuri with Saha at University Science College, Calcutta. It is these two institutions, along with Bhabha’s TIFR, that vied for primacy in nuclear research in India. Note that Raman, Saha, and Bhabha all argued for the establishment of nuclear physics research before August 1945—i.e., before the world learned of the power of the nucleus through the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and before India became independent.
While the story of Saha and his efforts to enter the field of nuclear research has been studied by others (e.g., Robert Anderson), to my knowledge, Phalkey is the first person to have written about the efforts of the Bangalore group. Specific mention must be made of the March 1942 proposal by Krishnan, A Scheme for Power Production from Uranium Fission, that was submitted to the council of the IIS, but ultimately withdrawn after consultation with Raman and the director of the institute (p. 113). Through this submission, Krishnan became the first person to propose exploiting nuclear energy in India. He forwarded other proposals in the coming years, only to have them all rejected. Krishnan eventually abandoned the field altogether, becoming a solid-state physicist. Phalkey traces the [End Page 762] failure of the efforts by Krishnan and Raman to the bureaucratic machinations of a number of key players in the organization of scientific research in India as well as the state’s decision to centralize nuclear research and concentrate resources (p. 134).
The Calcutta effort, in contrast, did succeed in setting up a cyclotron and transforming “a universal laboratory into a research laboratory for fundamental research and advanced education in nuclear physics” (p. 162). Saha and Nagchoudhuri, however, found that they were marginalized relative to TIFR and their ambitions were quite circumscribed. For example, Saha’s attempts to procure a “pile” (i.e., a nuclear reactor) came to nought.
Two other points are worth highlighting. First is the discussion of the significant roles played by an assortment of British, French, and American scientists in shaping the contours of nuclear research in India. This implies that what is traditionally conceived of as a “nationalist” nuclear project also had a transnational character. Second is the role of the industrial powerhouse, the Tatas, whose funds proved vital to allowing for the transition from older, laboratory-level science into “big science” involving budgets that dwarfed previous scientific requirements.
The result of these multiple strands is a detailed, contingent history of nuclear science in India that is a welcome addition to the literature on...