Yash Pal (1926-2017): Scientist With a Cause

Yash Pal (1926-2017)
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Yash Pal made science exciting for an entire generation of Indians

SOME 40-ODD years into India’s independence, just as winds of change began to sweep across the country in 1991, a science programme, Turning Point, appeared on Doordarshan. It was hosted by the actor-playwright Girish Karnad and explained scientific concepts to viewers. And whose real job, as revealed at the end of the show, was to help this deeply God-fearing nation ‘develop a scientific temper’.

One of the most engaging aspects of the show was the section that came at the end. A scientist, Professor Yash Pal, would pick up a postcard and read out a question sent by a viewer. And then he would demystify some scientific phenomenon in a simple, lucid and engaging style. What Pal was doing was not just making science comprehensible, he was introducing science to many for the first time. The show went on to win several awards.

Pal, who was one of the main architects of Turning Point, has passed away at the age of 90. The show made him an iconic figure, certainly the most-known scientist in India then. But Pal’s achievements were long and stellar, much before then. He was among the first generation of scientists who shaped India’s science and education policies. He was many things in his lifetime—scientist, administrator, educator, policymaker, and perhaps above all, a philosopher of science.

Pal was born in Jhang, now in Pakistan, in 1926. As non-believers in the caste system, his family had given up their surname (Bhutani). He had to take on one (he chose Arya) when he changed school at the age of 13, as Pal revealed to his biographer Biman Basu in the book Yash Pal: A Life in Science. When he joined college, he took on another surname, that of Bharati. Some years later, he had dropped that too. But for a non-conformist who was going to play an important role in science and its administration in India, there was no escaping a surname. ‘He acquired one after he started publishing scientific papers because people started calling him ‘Pal’,’ Basu writes.

After completing his PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pal began his career as a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai where he worked with Homi Bhabha. He made significant contributions here in the study of cosmic rays, astrophysics and high- energy physics and was awarded both the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. He also went on to become the first director of the Space Applications Centre, now one of the most important research and development wings of ISRO.

As a scientist and administrator, Pal insisted on self reliance and pushed the envelope. Among other things, he helped develop technology for satellite-earth station communications. This laid the foundation, it is said, for the satellite television and telecom revolution that came later.

Once when Pal put together a team of young scientists from TIFR in Mumbai to develop remote- sensing technologies, disregarding suggestions that they should be sent to the US for training, Pal is said to have told them, according to a newspaper report, “Where did the Americans [who had launched their remote sensing satellite a year back] send their people for training?”

On his radar of concern were several things. He once observed in a report to the Government, ‘So far as physical load of the school bag is concerned, the situation has become worse over the past few years. However, the weight of the school bag represents only one dimension of the problem; the more pernicious burden is that of non-comprehension.’