Movies and web series based on Indian historical figures is not uncommon. But, Rocket Boys — a SonyLIV series that traces the lives and times of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, progenitors of India's nuclear and space programmes respectively—is one of those rare shows that focusses on scientists.
Through Rocket Boys, Nikkhil Advani, producer of the eight-episode web series, hopes Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai get the recognition that history books perhaps didn't offer them.
Dr Bhabha, the father of India's nuclear programme, played an important role in the scientific community of a newly-independent India. Not only did he have the vision to establish India's nuclear programme soon after Independence but he also was a crucial in helping Dr Sarabhai set up the India space programme.
His death in a plane crash in 1966 robbed India not only of one of its greatest scientific thinkers, but also of a modern renaissance man.
The Start Of Homi Bhabha's Nuclear Programme Journey
In November 1954, Dr Bhabha presented his three-stage nuclear programme for India which would rely on India's abundant thorium deposits rather than the widely-used uranium.
Thorium is non-fissile which makes controlling the process easier. Thorium reactors also result in fewer highly radioactive waste products which only stays radioactive for 500 years, instead of 10,000 years.
"The total reserves of thorium in India amount to over 500,000 tons in the readily extractable form, while the known reserves of uranium are less than a tenth of this. The aim of long range atomic power programme in India must therefore be to base the nuclear power generation as soon as possible on thorium rather than uranium," Dr Bhabha wrote.
Thanks to Dr Bhabha's vision, India is one of the leaders in the commercial use of thorium.
The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, the world's first mainly thorium-based nuclear reactor was designed in India with the country looking to meet 30 per cent of its electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050.
India's indigenous nuclear programme has earned praise from Siegfried Hecker, former director of the US' Los Alamos National Laboratory. In Physics Today, Hecker wrote, "Constrained by sanctions, India developed most of its nuclear energy capabilities indigenously, especially its excellent nuclear R&D; the extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US."
"I believe India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy program in the world. Our government has been concerned about leakage of US nuclear technologies to India, when we should instead be trying to learn from that country," he wrote.
Homi Bhabha's Friendships With Nehru And Lewis
India's nuclear weapons programme owes a debt to two key friendships Dr Bhabha forged in his youth. One with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and another with the future chairman of the Canadian Energy Programme, WB Lewis at Cambridge.
Dr Bhabha's three-stage nuclear programme not only etched out India's path to using nuclear power to meets its vast energy requirements, but also mapped out a path to developing its own nuclear weapons.
He convinced senior Congress leaders and Nehru of India's need to have its own nuclear programme. His efforts paid dividends and the Indian Atomic Energy Commission was founded in 1948. Nehru appointed Dr Bhabha as the director of the nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons.
In a conversation with BOOM, Nikhil Advani, director of the show Rocket Boys, said that Nehru needs to be credited just as much as Dr Bhabha for India's nuclear programme.
"You can't tell the story of Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai without talking about Nehru and his cabinet's contributions. These were men who fought and won independence and they were not going to sit on their laurels. They knew they had to build a nation," he said.
Dr Bhabha's friendship with WB Lewis was instrumental in his plan to make India a nuclear power. At a time when the western countries were averse to sharing their nuclear technology freely, Dr Bhabha leveraged his good relationship with Lewis to get India a nuclear reactor.
Starting India's Space Journey
Even as Dr Bhabha lobbied Nehru and other leaders to kickstart India's atomic research programme, Dr Sarabhai started India's space programme in Ahmedabad. He set up the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in a couple of rooms at the MG Science Institute of the Ahmedabad Education Society, which was founded by his parents.
Under the directorship of Professor Kalpathi Ramakrishna Ramanathan, the PRL began research on cosmic rays and the properties of the upper atmosphere.
The PRL subsequently began receiving financial support from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Atomic Energy which was established by Dr Bhabha.
From its establishment, the TIFR spearheaded India's space research and took the lead in the study of cosmic rays with research facilities in Ooty and the Kolar gold mines.
After Russia launched the world's first satellite Sputnik into space, Dr Sarabhai began lobbying the Nehru government to establish a dedicated space programme.
Dr Bhabha, as the director of the DAE and member of the Indian Cabinet's Scientific Advisory Committee, backed Dr Sarabhai's cause and in 1962, the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was formed.
Dr Sarabhai set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station where India's journey into space research began. Among the first scientists to work at Thumba was the then future president, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
The Renaissance Men
When Air India Flight 101 crashed into Mont Blanc on January 24, 1996, India not just lost the father of its nuclear programme in Dr Homi Bhabha, but also a 'renaissance man'.
Advani said, "Forget the scientific achievements, forget whether we sent rockets into space, when he set up TIFR, Dr Bhabha decided that one percent of its annual budget will be set aside for the promotion of art. If you go to TIFR, the corridors are resplendent with Hussains, Souzas, Padamsees, Gaitondes and other progressive artists."
"There is no IIM-A without Dr Sarabhai. Without the IIM, the corporate giants of this country would not exist. It is a disservice to Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai to categorise them simply as scientists. They were renaissance men in the truest sense."
Apart from founding the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad — which also houses the Vikram Sarabhai Library, Dr Sarabhai also founded the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts with his wife and celebrated dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai in Ahmedabad in 1949.
Having been brought in a home full of books and art collected by his father, Dr Bhabha was a connoisseur of western classical music and art. So much so that his mentor and Nobel Prize laureate Dr CV Raman introduced Dr Bhabha at the Annual Meeting of the Indian Academy of Science in 1941 as the modern equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci.
As a teenager, Dr Bhabha spent many days listening to Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Verdi. He also had a talent for drawing and took lessons from the Parsi artists Jehangir A Lalkaka. At Cambridge, Dr Bhabha painted in earnest even designing the stage decor for plays and operas.
JRD Tata described Dr Bhaba as "Scientist, engineer, master-builder and administrator, steeped in humanities, in art and music, Homi was truly a complete man."
When designing the Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment, R. von Leyden wrote that Bhabha's office contained "an enormous drawing-board with huge printed plans of the trees and gardens of Trombay. By the side of the drawing-board were fine illustrated books of the gardens of Versailles, of the English gardens of the eighteenth century, and of Italian, Japanese and Persian gardens."
The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is awash with art pieces Dr Bhabha collected over the years. One can view a collection of the art at TIFR here.
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