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Science and the Nation-state


Shiju Sam Varughese

ATOMIC STATE: BIG SCIENCE IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY INDIA
By Jahnavi Phalkey
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2013, pp. xvii 335, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 9 September 2014

The ‘contract’ between science and the nation-state has been at the core of the explorations of the social historians of science in India and nuclear energy/weapon pro-gramme of the country offered the greenest pasture for such an endeavour. This has produced multiple volumes on nuclear technology and the authors often developed their arguments around the aspirations of the infantile nation-state to travel to brighter future with science and technology as the bandwagon. Jawaharlal Nehru and his coterie of scientist-administrators like Homi J. Bhabha and S.S. Bhatnagar appear at the centre of this story line of the country’s tryst with its developmentalist future. Jahnavi Phalke’s book attempts to depart from this prominent line of enquiry by turning the search lights to another important site overshadowed by an academic enthusiasm on the nuclear energy/weapon programme of the nation-state—the state of nuclear physics in India from 1930s to 1950s. This is made possible by focusing on three different efforts to build low-energy particle accelerators for advanced research and training in nuclear physics during the period—C.V. Raman’s and R.S. Krishnan’s unaccomplished mission at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, M.N. Saha and his student Basanti Dulal Nagchoudhuri’s highly successful but marginalized endeavour at the (Saha) Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta, and finally the triumphant emergence of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay, under the leadership of Homi Jahangir Bhabha as the centre of nuclear physics research in India. TIFR had its three particle accelerator building groups organized under D.Y. Phalke, but these projects were scrapped by Bhabha in 1955 as his focus shifted to the construction of a nuclear reactor. The book weaves the story of nuclear physics in the country around these three sites with the aid of meticulous archival research, reconstructing the period in its colourful hues.   From the modest beginnings of nuclear physics in university locations in the country in the late 1930s until the end of the Second World War in 1945, the book points out that research and education in nuclear physics was not organized around the ‘desire to build a bomb’. The activities of this period were imbued with a spirit of internationalism, and Indian physicists participating in cutting-edge research, in collaboration with reputed laboratories and great researchers abroad. Many of the Indian physicists like M.N. Saha endeavoured to link science with ...


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