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Yash Pal, a Path-breaker

Mayank Vahia (vahia@tifr.res.in) teaches at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

Those who knew the groundbreaking scientist and eminent educationalist, Yash Pal will sorely miss him. He was loved not only for the work and ideas he could generate, but for the ideas and creativity he induced in others around him.

Yash Pal (26 November 1926–24 July 2017) is a personification of the legends of independent India. A child of the partition, he defined the best of the aristocracy of early Indian intellectuals and scientists. With colleagues such as Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, and driven by the ideology of Jawaharlal Nehru, Yash Pal, in many ways defined India’s quest to pursue scientific research and education to the fullest. He worked hard to bring about scientific temper in people around him.

Born in Jhang in present-day Pakistan, he was a product of partition, who left behind its bitter legacy and decided to devote himself to the scientific way of life. After his graduation from Punjab University, he was handpicked by Homi Bhabha to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in its early days. As was the norm then, Homi Bhabha decided that Yash Pal would go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and work on his PhD with the legendary Bruno Rossi. He not only completed his PhD, but also acquired a whole host of skills that would serve him well in TIFR where he returned in 1958.

Vision and Creativity

Working at TIFR, he was involved in a series of path-breaking studies in cosmic rays. Unlike rays of light that come straight to us from their source, cosmic rays (consisting of protons, electrons and nuclei of other elements) are affected by cosmic magnetic field and other material in its path. Hence, the cosmic rays that come to us are a mix of particles from all over. They also carry a lot of energy. Bruno Rossi, one of the most outstanding experimentalists of his time, made several highly sensitive instruments to understand these cosmic rays. Yash Pal participated in these activities and brought this expertise and way of doing things to India, when he returned to TIFR after his PhD in 1958. At TIFR he and his colleagues did some of the most pioneering work using high altitude balloon flights from Mumbai. This group at TIFR was one of the most outstanding groups in the field at that time with experiments from balloons and deep underground. Several path-breaking results came out of this vibrant group. More importantly, it laid out the work ethics that still make TIFR one of the most vibrant research institutions.

The nation soon called him for other duties. In 1972 as India’s space programme picked up pace, the Government of India decided to start a centre dedicated to working on instrumentation for space application. It was called Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and was set up in Ahmedabad with Yash Pal as its first director. He set up this centre with distinction and became the secretary general of the Second United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (1981–82). His vision of using space technology for nation-building and not for international competition have provided a rich resource for India’s development and prevented wasteful expenditure that would have been lost in competitive space technology.

Amongst his many creative activities were the programmes such as Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) under which he created a series of television programmes on agriculture, education health and hygiene. These path-breaking programmes were an eye-opener and validator of the ideas that poor and developing nations needed satellites to help uplift and educate their own poor. He could establish that poor nations can master the making and use satellites in creative and imaginative ways for their own benefit. India’s now famous student satellite programme from which students from all over the world have benefited is a fitting example of this kind of thinking.

His vision and creativity were far too great to be confined to one activity or one centre. In 1983, he took charge of the University Grants Commission (UGC) which again he served with distinction. He soon realised that setting up of research facilities individually in a few universities was problematic from the point of view of maintaining the facilities and running them and also making them widely available. Amongst his many achievements was the creation of inter-university centres for research. Two of his most outstanding initiatives were the Inter-University Accelerator Centre, New Delhi and the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. These centres have been remarkably successful in nurturing university talent and providing top of the line research facilities to the universities. Again his vision continues to drive these institutions of creating and nurturing excellence in university teachers.

Popularising Science

After this Yash Pal took upon himself the responsibility of popularising science through the emerging medium of television and started a science series called the Turning Point. It was a weekly science magazine programme broadcast by Doordarshan which caught the imagination of the nation. It provided a clear and imaginative presentation of science to Indian audience. It demonstrated the power of television for informal education to a large group of diverse population. No other programme of science education has been able to replicate its success. The strength of this programme was its interactive nature where students from all over the country sent their questions, and Yash Pal and his team meticulously responded to as many of these queries as possible. Like all his other work, this too was path-breaking.

He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan (1976) and the Padma Vibhushan (2013). He also received the Indira Gandhi Prize for Popularisation of Science (2000) and the Meghnad Saha Medal (2006) for his outstanding contribution to science.

Source of Inspiration

Yet all these biographical details do little justice to Yash Pal. A lover of life and a fond consumer of fine tobacco in his pipe, he lived life on own terms. Always flamboyant and visionary, he created new initiatives, and encouraged others to think and create new paths to address problems dear to his heart. He was loved not only for the work and ideas he could generate, but for the ideas and creativity he induced in others around him. Life around Yash Pal was always rich with humour and ideas and encouragement to the young to think up of new perspectives and to experiment with them. Any new idea would find a willing listener and supporter in Yash Pal. With an infectious smile and a warm friendliness of a Punjabi, Yash Pal was always a source of inspiration even when he was worrying about the most complex problems facing India’s attempt to educate itself in the new ways of science and to use it for the benefit of all. In times when there is a confusion being sown about the ways of science, his towering intellect will be sorely missed. It was an honour and a privilege to be associated with him.

It was one of the curiosities of Yash Pal’s life that he was so energetic and was called on to perform so many duties that he never completed 20 years of service in any institution, and hence, was not eligible for pension when he retired. It speaks volumes for the man who only dedicated himself to increasing the scientific temper and creating awareness of science all around. At a time when most people would worry about job security and retirement, it took the drive of Yash Pal to remain motivated only by ideas, ideals and zeal to be creative.

Those who knew him will sorely miss him and those who did not, have lost one of the most enriching experiences of life.

Updated On : 14th Sep, 2017

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